Monday, March 30, 2015

Book Review: The Westing Game

I had heard of this book prior to its selection as our March read for my young adult book club, but not a lot. I think, since it is supposed to be a classic, I was expecting it to be better than it turned out to be. It was simply a bit weird.

When Samuel Westing (founder of the Westing Paper Products empire) dies, he calls together sixteen would-be heirs and, in his will, explains that they will be paired up in teams to attempt to ferret out his murderer and thus win the whole of his estate. His will even anticipates who will retort and what they will say. Most of the heirs have recently taken up residence in the Sunset Towers apartment complex on Lake Shore Drive, across from Westing's mansion at the express invitation of one Barney Northrup. They are an odd assortment of individuals including a restaurateur, a dressmaker, a secretary, an inventor, a doctor, a judge, a handicapped boy and a track star teen. They are thrown together and each pair given four one word clues to go on. It is intimated that some of them are not who they say they are.

At first, the clues make no sense, but eventually the puzzle pieces come together and you understand all of the bits and pieces included in the will. It is like a peevish game of cat and mouse. Although the wrap-up was clever and the whodunit fairly interesting, it was also just weird. I don't know. I didn't really care for the development of the mystery or for the conclusion either. I don't want to give away bits of the mystery by explaining what bothered me about the end, but it turns out we've all (characters and reader alike) been hoodwinked. The feisty youngest character, Turtle, (who is constantly kicking people in the shins) is the one who figures the whole thing out and goes to her grave with the secret. Why? I don't know.

I think the story would probably appeal to young kids because of the mysterious clues and the drive to find the murderer and determine who will end up with all the money. It must have appealed to someone because it was a winner of the Newbery Medal, the Boston Globe-Horn Book award, and was designated as one of the School Library Journal's One Hundred Books That Shaped the Century. Really now? Perhaps if I were younger (several group members said they enjoyed it far more when they read it as kids) or liked chess more, I would have enjoyed it more. I'm not sure. It just wasn't for me. On the spine of my particular copy there was a label indicating it is a parent-child book club book. It would be interesting to know what my boys would think of this novel ... if it would intrigue them or if they would find it as weird and annoying as I did. Who knows? I'm not willing to suggest reading it to them.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Book Review: The Hangman's Daughter

It was kind of funny. When I went to the book club meeting where we selected our eleven books for the year, I brought my list, which included markings for books I'd already read, books I would probably go ahead and read even if they didn't end up being selected by the group, and only one book marked as something I was not interested in at all. Two of our selections were ones I've already read, but would indeed be willing to read again. Three selections were ones I had marked to be read regardless. And, the one book I didn't want to read at all, well  ... that made this month's selection: The Hangman's Daughter.

I wasn't excited about reading a book about an executioner. Nor was I thrilled that the book promised to explore cries of witchcraft  in seventeenth century Bavaria and to include the appearance of a character known by the people as the devil, who boasts a hand of visible bones. None of that appealed to me in the slightest. I really thought about not reading the book at all and just skipping March's club meeting. I declared to my husband that I was only giving the book 50 pages to make my decision. Somehow, at the end of 50 pages, I wanted to read on to find out what was going to happen and who was responsible for the crimes being committed in the small town of Shongau.

From the beginning, the reader learns that the executioner is not thrilled about his job, but feels resigned to follow in the footsteps of his ancestors. Then, dead children begin to show up. The first is pulled from the icy waters of a raging river, with multiple stab wounds and a strange mark etched into his skin. The mark is taken for a symbol of witchcraft and immediately the town suspects the midwife (who deals in many natural remedies or brews for childbirth and its complications). I was sucked in. I wanted to know who was killing the children (three were murdered) and to what purpose. I wanted to find out if the town would indeed employ the executioner to torture the midwife into a confession so they could tidy things up by burning her at the stake.

Potzsch certainly manages to keep the suspense alive and to up the ante over and over again. Just when you think the hangman and the young town doctor (who is disgracing his father by falling for the hangman's daughter) will come to harm in their quest for the truth, they manage to escape and a further development is revealed. The remaining children hold the key to the mystery, but in fear they are hiding out in an undisclosed place.

So, I have to admit that I enjoyed the novel more than I anticipated. Still, it wasn't without fault. I was jarred by the constant use of phrases which seemed far too modern for the time frame established. It was translated, so perhaps the translator is responsible for the modern terminology. While the book held my interest, it felt like the author was trying hard to maintain a frantic pace of action. It seemed more thriller than historical fiction (or perhaps it was just that the historical bits didn't seem to ring true always). Even though I discovered that this is merely the first book in a series, I can say with certainty that I won't be seeking out the rest of the books. Just not my thing (although better than I expected).

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Book Review: A Step of Faith

I am continuing to listen to Richard Paul Evans' The Walk series. This book, A Step of Faith, is the fourth installment in the tale of Alan Christoffersen's journey from Seattle, Washington, to Key West, Florida. These books are part travelogue, part story. The food aspects of the travelogue get a bit tiresome, but the tidbits about the geography and towns are usually interesting enough. The characters Alan met in this book were a bit more eccentric and the story not quite as riveting, but it was still an enjoyable experience to listen to as he reflects on loss and life and the necessity of faith.

This installment of the journey begins with Alan going to surgery to have his brain tumor removed. In the midst of this trial, he seems to alienate everyone who loves him - his father, who wants him to remain in California with him after the surgery instead of resuming his intense walk, Falene, who loves him and recognizes that he doesn't return the sentiment, and Nicole, who is also in love with Alan. Must be tough to have two women clamoring for attention, right?

Alan meets some real winners in this book. He stumbles upon a divorced and remarried pastor who offers him shelter and a satisfying meal (of course, a meal). He encounters a savior-figure of a wild religious cult. Finally, when his energy is failing him and he is stuck in the Okefenokee swamp, he is picked up by a man who is preparing for the end of the world by securing an arsenal of protection for himself. With only one more book in the series, I hope the situation with his conflicted love life resolves and he ends his walk with an affirming feeling for his magnificent accomplishment.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Book Review: As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust

Once again, in As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust, Alan Bradley has created a mystery titled with a nod to fine literature (taken from Shakespeare) and featuring the inimitable Flavia de Luce. Flavia is a super-sleuth extraordinaire! I love her character and her mysteries are always delightful. That said, this was still my least favorite of the Flavia series. It meandered a bit too much and was full of secret societies and code words, but less substance. Plus, I just missed the town of Bishop's Lacey and her jaunts on her beloved bike, Gladys.

For this episode, Flavia has crossed the ocean and taken up residence in a boarding school in Canada. Despite not enjoying this book as much as I have the others (perhaps it is simply due to the fact that she is away from her beloved English country estate, Buckshaw), it was still an enjoyable read. Flavia is sent to her mother's school, Miss Bodycote's Female Academy, with the hopes of studying with a chemistry teacher once accused of murder (Flavia's favorite subjects ... chemistry and murder). Within the hours of the first night, a body turns up, wrapped in a Union Jack and stuffed up the chimney of Flavia's room. She is quickly sucked into a maelstrom of curious characters and urged to "trust no one." Are the other boarding students members of the Nide, mentioned in the previous book? Why are students vanishing? Will Flavia be able to deduce the identity of the remains? Why does the skull not match the body?

Not surprisingly, Flavia is homesick (even for her horrid sisters who treat her abominably). I was a bit surprised that the only person to write to her was her beloved butler, Dogger (with a small note from the pesky Undine). Moreover, I could have done without the excess vomiting which takes place throughout the novel. Still, there are several nods to Dickens (always love a Dickens reference) and Shakespeare. I was happy to see that Flavia will return to her normal turf for the next book. Hopefully, the she will resume her feisty activities and the next mystery will be more appealing.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Book Review: The Road to Grace

This is the third journal of Richard Paul Evans' The Walk series. Once again, I tackled it in audio form so that I could walk alongside throughout the journey. Although I'm still peeved with the constant mentions of the food consumed, this was another fairly enjoyable, light-hearted excerpt of the story (not my favorite series, but inspirational nonetheless).

The last episode concluded with an unknown woman approaching Alan Christoffersen on his long walk from Seattle, Washington, to Key West, Florida. We discover that the woman, who stalks him for many miles, is the mother of his deceased wife and he wants nothing to do with her because she abandoned her daughter at a young age. He softens his position once he is forced to hear her out and comes to forgive her for the damage she has caused. Other characters he meets along the way include an old Polish man who survived a concentration camp, an elderly man searching for the ghost of his wife, and a woman trapped in a small town by her deceased husband's family.

I was thrilled that the story line remained wholesome when Alan rejected the advances of the widowed woman. Moreover, the final chapter's exposition on grace was a beautiful passage, especially poignant, given that Alan has just learned that he has a brain tumor. The book is full of thoughts on forgiveness, grace, and hope. I'm pretty sure I'll stick with it through the final two installments.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Book Review: Harmless

Once again, I was knee-deep in attempts to find a novel similar to the one I am trying to pitch to agents, when I discovered this young adult novel by Dana Reinhardt. Harmless is in a similar vein to the book I have written. I think I have nailed an acceptable comparison title to offer up to prospective agents.

A lie is such an easy thing to produce. Yet, the consequences can be so far-reaching. Three girls learn this lesson quite effectively in Harmless. Emma, Anna, and Mariah are freshmen at a local private school. One night they tell their parents they will be seeing a movie at the campus cinema. Instead, Mariah leads them to her older boyfriend's house to hang out. When one set of parents decide at the last minute to see the movie, too, they are shocked when the girls are nowhere in sight. Fearing they will be grounded for life, the girls plot a story to tell to shift suspicion off themselves. They tell of a foiled rape attempt, not realizing their parents will insist they go to the police. This story alters their lives and the lives of everyone in the community.

Although it took a while to get to the inciting incident, the lie, I loved how the author got to the root of the problem and illustrated so clearly how the lie affected each of the girls in different ways. The characters were well-drawn. The story is told from three different perspectives, which can sometimes prove cumbersome, but in this case worked in the author's favor to tease out the differences between the girls. This story is sure to appeal to teen readers who may have found themselves in similar circumstances and been tempted to lie in order to escape inevitable punishment. Really anyone could put themselves in the shoes of these normally upstanding young girls and see how one stupid mistake can lead to devastating consequences.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Book Review: Seven Letters from Paris

I was up for a love story. Thus, when I noticed this book on the recent acquisition shelf, I took the bait. Besides that, it is a memoir and I've been on a bit of a memoir kick. I did notice that the author doesn't mention an agent and says that the editor picked the manuscript from the slush piles. So thankful that things like that still happen (since the evidence leans more to the contrary, that you have to have an agent in order for your manuscript to see the light of day in the piles and piles of manuscripts which come across publishers' desks these days).

As far as love stories go, this was indeed a sweet love story. When Samantha was nineteen, she and her travelling companion met two Frenchmen in Paris and spent a wonderful evening and day with the two. The men begged the girls to stay in Paris for a few more days, but their itinerary required moving on to another city. Thus, Jean-Luc, the man with whom Samantha was temporarily smitten, waved good-bye on the train platform. Jean-Luc proceeded to write seven love letters. Although she always kept the letters, she failed to respond to a single one.

Twenty years later, as Samantha sat bemoaning a failing marriage with her friend (the same travelling companion), the friend mentioned the love letters and the sad truth that not many men write such extravagant love letters. This prompted Samantha to google Jean-Luc's full name in the hopes of finding him and apologizing for never responding to his letters. She admits that the abandonment of her biological father played havoc with her ability to trust men or allow herself to grow close to another individual. End result? The two end up happily married and now live together, with Jean-Luc's two children in France.

While I enjoyed the sweet tale, I did have a hard time with the details of the experience. The seven love letters were not, in my opinion, love letters to rival all others. Plus, she is still married when she initiates the re-intertwining of their lives. After reconnecting and dispatching several hundred e-mails, as well as numerous phone conversations, when he pays for her to visit, she jumps into bed with him the minute she gets to a room in France. They both pursue divorces in order to pursue their rekindled romance. I guess I am skeptical that momentary passion is a sound basis for relationship. For her sake, I hope that she is indeed happily settled in this romantic love affair. But, my inner critic tends to think they jumped quite quickly and without much forethought (especially, on the rebound).

Moreover, the tale seemed a bit too sunny (surely there were some relational conflicts between the two of them, as such conflicts are inevitable). She does mention in the acknowledgements that her new husband would have preferred a fictional account of their story, instead of a memoir, but that is the tricky thing with memoir ... when you write truthfully about your life, you have to include the details of other people's lives in the process and oftentimes, others don't wish their details made public. It is, therefore, difficult to assess whether the value of the telling overshadows the sacrifice of privacy. And in opening herself up to share her story, she runs the risk of finding readers whose ethics cause them to criticize her actions (sorry). Hopefully, her story succeeds in its goal and inspires others to seize a second chance at love.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Book Review: Seraphina

I don't really seek out fantasy literature, but I'm not opposed to it either. Thus, when I saw the cover of this tween novel about dragons (a beautiful illustration of spires, a clock tower, a distant castle, and a flying dragon) on Sheila's blog at The Deliberate Reader, I decided to give it a go. While it wasn't one of my favorite reads this year, it was still a fairly delightful little tale about a girl who is caught in a world of dragons and humans and the tenuous peace of this supposed world.

In the kingdom of Goredd, dragons and humans live side by side because of a treaty drawn up years before. The anniversary of this treaty is drawing near, but the peace it accords is threatened. A member of the royal family has just been murdered in a way consistent with dragon behavior (his head has been bitten off), but no one knows who is to blame. Seraphina is a court appointed musician with a secret of her own, but drawn into the intrigue by her curiosity and precocious knowledge of dragon-kind. Together with Prince Lucian Kiggs, she seeks to ferret out the truth while hiding her own truth.

I think the author did a grand job of creating a world of humans and dragons co-existing (not quite as funny or delightful as we see in the How to Train Your Dragon movies, but equally plausible). Anyone with a fascination for dragons would probably really enjoy this tale. The dragons are not treated as sub-human (indeed, many of the dragons serve as teachers and scholars), but the distrust remains and provides an undercurrent of suspicion and conflict.

Seraphina's secret is divulged to the reader early on, so the reader is caught up in the whole question of whether or not she will be outed. I enjoyed the characters and the conflicted love story which develops between Seraphina and Prince Lucian (a man who is already betrothed and thus, out of reach for Seraphina). While the story was somewhat drawn out (perhaps longer than it needed to be), it still kept the reader engaged. I enjoyed it reasonably enough and would probably give it three stars.

It appears that a sequel, Shadow Scale, has just been released recently. I liked the first book enough that I would be willing to venture into a second book. I would be most interested to find out whether Seraphina and Prince Lucian ever have the future of their dreams.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Going to the Dogs

A month ago, John and I seized a rare opportunity to get away for some down time, just the two of us. While we didn't go far, we enjoyed a full afternoon of shopping (purchasing a new couch and love seat set, our primary goal), dinner out at a Chicago-style pizza place (sadly not Giordano's, although I'm thrilled that Indianapolis has finally secured one of those), and a night alone (sans kids, hallelujah). We had a wonderful time.

When we visited a furniture re-sale shop, we failed to find a couch, but stumbled upon a whimsical pair of dogs. They are candle holders and the light disperses out of the small holes in their bodies:

Discovering that they were anatomically correct, we knew our boys would have a grand laugh.

Sadly, not all the boys were caught up in the amusement we expected. Of course, we probably shouldn't have declared, "We bought you guys two dogs!" Sean was devastated and angry. His hopes had been raised and then dashed to bits by two metal pretenders.

John has now declared that we will, indeed, be getting a dog and will begin the search over spring break. This is just a few weeks away. I would happily settle for the minimal maintenance of the two pretenders (simply replacing the tea lights - ha), but the rest of the family is determined to add to our numbers with a real dog. While I firmly believe that every boy should grow up with a dog, it is the reality of the dog that I dread.

Even though we are not interested in a big dog, like Harley, our last failed venture into pet territory, I can't say I'm thrilled about a little dog either. But, it feels inevitable. Harley was an out-of-control, boundlessly energetic, beast of a dog.

Please Lord, if we have to go this route, pair us with a better match ... something manageable, cuddly, affectionate, obedient, non-shedding, and potty-trained. All of my siblings have dogs and their dogs are perfect matches (my older brother's dog, Prestwick, has even been trained to go in a litter box, so they can leave it home alone while they are at work). The only questionable match is my sister's chihuahua, whom she affectionately sometimes calls "Satan" (the dog snarls and bares teeth for nearly everyone). If anyone has suggestions for breeds which fit my requirements, I'd happily take them. Sean has his heart set on a pug (too expensive and not terribly cuddly), John wants a poodle or a cockapoo, and Trevor wants a bichon frise (require constant companionship - I'm not taking the dog everywhere in a dog purse, no sir) or a shih-tzu. I just want someone else to be responsible for the dog. Sadly, I know it will fall to me and I'll be no match for the task.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Book Review: Paper Covers Rock

I recently read Noah Lukeman's e-book (realizing now,  I never reviewed it), How to Write a Great Query, in preparation for querying an agent who is specifically interested in receiving YA novels set in the 1980's. I am feeling like this might be a good fit for one of my YA novels since it is set in 1980. Lukeman suggests that it is wise to research what other novels are out there which are similar to the novel you are attempting to pitch and then include a sentence in your query which states the comparison. If you ask me, this is tricky ground because if an inexperienced writer compares themselves to an established writer, it could appear arrogant or rather reaching. But, I decided to follow Lukeman's suggestion and googled YA novels set in the 80's. I jotted down a list of about 20 books set in either the 80's or 90s, then checked their Amazon listings to see if they were at all similar in scope to my novel. The one which seemed to be most similar was this book, Paper Covers Rock, because it is written in first person from a male protagonist telling of a lie which must be covered up. And there is where the similarities end.

My novel is more linear in narration and my main character holds higher morals, which intensifies the internal conflict over his lie. While I will admit my novel has a few risque comments (it is the only novel I've written which isn't directed at Christian young people and the only manuscript which might appeal to a secular marketplace), for the most part it is a far more wholesome novel than Paper Covers Rock. This novel, written by Jenny Hubbard, is chock full of male adolescent fantasies and sexual commentary. I can see how it might appeal to teen boys, who no doubt think such thoughts, but is it really necessary to present it so blatantly in a novel for young adults? Are young adults really so shallow that this sexual appeal needs to be hammered so intensely? Perhaps I'm too puritanical. I just tired of all the description of what the young man wanted to do to his attractive, young English teacher.

Indeed, the fixation on the English teacher almost overshadowed the moral dilemma about the lie. In the grand scheme of things, the boy's lie didn't really impact his life much except for the fear that its revelation might get him thrown out of the boarding school he is attending. The book was far more focused on the boy's interactions with this nurturing English teacher. But let me back up and provide the teaser from the inside cover:

"Sixteen-year-old Alex has just begun his junior year at a boys' boarding school when he fails to save a friend from drowning in a river on campus. Fearing the consequences if they reveal the whole truth about what happened, Alex and his friend Glenn, who also witnessed the accident, decide to lie. Plagued by guilt, Alex takes refuge in the library, telling his tale in a journal he hides behind a copy of Moby Dick."

The novel does not simply provide the transcript of Alex's journal. Rather, it jumps around with information (sometimes third person, sometimes first person) about the event and the following days. The English teacher recognizes Alex's gift for writing and begins to draw him out, but Glenn is convinced that the teacher knows more about what happened than she is letting on. Thus, Glenn embarks upon a plan to flush out the teacher. Alex is more conflicted about his internal feelings for the teacher than he really is about the lie he has told.

I was thoroughly disappointed with the ending (CAUTION: spoilers ahead). The two boys successfully trap the teacher in a compromising situation and get her thrown out of the school. Amazingly she never reveals what she saw and the lie is maintained, thus allowing both of them to remain at their boarding school (Alex doesn't even appear to want to be there, so why he is so concerned about being kicked out is a mystery).

I don't think I want to compare my novel to this novel, even if the agent I am querying is familiar with this novel set in the 80s. Despite common ground (the male perspective, the lie, and the fatal consequences associated with the lie), my novel seems to be Scholastic fare or at least far more tame and wholesome. My character repents of his lie and mans up to the consequences. Thus, I'm not really thrilled to have read this novel, even for simple research purposes.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Book Review: Small Victories

I love Anne Lamott's writing. I love Anne Lamott's books on writing. I like Anne Lamott's other books.

Small Victories: Spotting Improbably Moments of Grace is a collection of essays. If I had read the cover with more care, I would have noticed the words "New and Selected Essays." Thus, I wouldn't have had the confusion over why so many of the essays seemed to jump around in time frame. I guess I was anticipating this to be a new work of Lamott's, written from her perspective today, in the now. Many of the essays were old, written from the perspective of fifteen or twenty years ago. In some, her son is two, in others he is the father of her grandson. I don't know why, but I found that to be a little unsettling. I wanted the here and now, not a diatribe against George W. Bush in every other essay. We don't ever really hear anything about her opinions of politics today. But, we hear loads about her political leanings in these essays which are supposed to be focused on "hope, joy, and grace." I don't know why politics falls into the subjects of hope, joy, and grace, really.

I didn't dislike the book. I found plenty of things to think about ... like forgiveness and our response to suffering. I loved her quotes from Rumi, especially the one which says, "Where there is ruin, there is hope for a treasure." This is a truth I love to think about. Even in our darkest hours, there is the capacity for finding real meaning and great value. And Lamott knows how to tease out meaning and value from the sucky things in life like cancer and the loss of best friends and parents. While she approaches forgiveness with more hesitancy than I do, she captures the struggle quite well with her eloquently crafted words.

Some of the moments are tense and anxious. Some are funny and ridiculous (like the turbulent flight or her jump from the ski lift). Despite the underlying sense of anger, all the moments lend some small nugget of truth. And, like I said, I love the way she writes. It is beautiful. The words are perfect. I would read her books for the delicious use of words alone.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Book Review: The Language of Hoofbeats

It was the cover and the reputation of the author which caused me to pick up this book by Catherine Ryan Hyde, called The Language of Hoofbeats. Hyde is also the author of the famous book/movie Pay it Forward. With that endearing story behind her, I felt sure this would be a heart-warming tale and I was not disappointed. It was a beautiful story, full of tension and angst leading to redemption.

Jackie and Paula, a young lesbian couple, have just moved to a new isolated village in California with their adopted son and two foster children. As soon as their foster daughter, fifteen-year-old Star, heads across the road to see a horse on the neighbor's property, sparks begin to fly. The neighbor, Clementine, flies out in a rage telling the girl off for trespassing. She is not only worried about the legal ramifications of the girl approaching her high-strung horse, but also miffed that the horse seems to respond so favorably to the girl. When the mothers approach to apologize for Star's curiosity, Clementine clearly disapproves of their lifestyle and is quite rude (although, as another character points out, Clementine isn't really prejudiced ... she's an equal-opportunity hater). All is not well in Clementine's world, and it is about to get a whole lot worse when Star steals the horse and runs away. The two families are thrown together during this tense trial and because of Clementine's caustic nature, friction is inevitable.

The story is told from the alternating perspectives of Clementine and Jackie. The reader begins to see how past tragedy has devastated and soured Clementine. Life in the present is none too pleasant either. I felt intense empathy for many of the characters. This author knows how to suck you into the story, develop the characters so you really care what happens to them, and deliver a message without preaching. It was a beautiful story illustrating what motivates people to behave the way they do. Moreover, the positive changes in the lives of Clementine and Star are inspiring. I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Book Review: Station Eleven

I've heard lots of people buzzing about Station Eleven. My blogging friend, Amy, listed it as one of her favorite books from last year (and does a fantastic job of articulating the premise of the novel and why she enjoyed it). My book club selected this for one of our month's meetings (not until November, but I was already on the hold list, so when it came available I jumped at the chance to read it). I've been anxiously awaiting my turn. Perhaps I built up to it a bit too much. I just didn't love it as much as I had anticipated. It was good, but just good.

It is hard to even describe what it was about because it jumped around so much in time frames and character emphasis. When an ultra-potent virus wipes out 99.99 percent of the world's population, life as we know it is no longer. The story traces the lives of several individuals during, before, and after the pandemic strikes. A famous actor, Arthur, dies on the stage the night the pandemic hits. He has three wives and a son, whose life stories interweave with his. Then, there's the young actress, Kirsten, who watches him die and later is woven into his story, as well.

Kirsten manages to survive the pandemic and joins a travelling symphony. This symphony presents music and Shakespearean plays as it travels from town to town. Unfortunately, they pass through a town where a prophet rules with tyranny. This prophet is convinced that the end occurred for a reason and he and his followers, in their survival, are the chosen ones.

While the book presents some interesting things to think about, I felt somewhat dissatisfied with the way the whole premise was handled. The chapters were confusing and non-linear (not as confusing as the last YA book I read, however). The symphony is presented as both a salvation amid the devastation of the world's demise and also as a ridiculous frivolous thing to cling to in the midst of society's break down. I found it hard to nail down what exactly the author was trying to communicate. The inside cover promises "a story about the relationships that sustain us, the ephemeral nature of fame, and the beauty of the world as we know it."

Yes, I found myself wondering what it would be like to be in the world created in Station Eleven. I wondered how I would fare and what I would cling to. But, it was difficult to really get behind this vision of the world. It seemed so extreme and harsh. It seemed unreasonable that no sense of rebuilding took place for so many years. Characters were living in the same state of disarray twenty years after the apocalypse occurred. Yet, it also didn't seem as violent as I would imagine things could get.

As far as the relationships, they didn't really seem to be sustaining in any sense of the term. Arthur flits from relationship to relationship without ever really considering the other individuals. His best friend isn't much of a best friend. Kirsten never really allows herself to get close to anyone. The prophet is such a distortion of religious zeal that it felt like all religion was taking a hit as a result of his portrayal. Many characters didn't even warrant names, but were merely referred to by the instrument they played. I'm not sure where the relationships saved any of the characters from the horrible nature of this imagined world.

Moreover, I never felt invested in any of the characters. Out of all of them, the only one I felt drawn to was Miranda, Arthur's first wife, who is the author of the comic strip from which the novel gets its name. She had ups and downs. She invested herself in her calling to work on the graphic novel despite a total lack of support or encouragement. But, even with her character, I wasn't exactly sad when she met her demise.

I don't know if I can even adequately express why I didn't care for the book very much. Now, I'll have to wait three quarters of a year before I can hear what the rest of my book club thought of this book. It will be interesting to see if they fall in the camp of adoration or puzzlement at its many accolades.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Book Review: Looking Back

I'm so thankful that I joined the local chapter of Nanowrimo on Facebook (something I originally didn't think was worthwhile since I never really attend any of the get-togethers in Indianapolis - I write better in my own space with peace and quiet instead of companionship). A few weeks back, one of the members of the group posted information about a talk Lois Lowry will be giving at Butler University tonight. I'm thrilled that I was able to secure a ticket.

I've read the entire Giver series, A Summer to Die, Gossamer, and The Silent Boy. I checked our library's resources and discovered a memoir shelved in the Children's Biography section (although it would be equally interesting to adults interested in knowing more about the writer's life) called Looking Back: A Book of Memories. Each chapter is paired with a quote from one of her books and contains a few photos from her past with explanatory stories to accompany the photos. It is sort of like reading someone else's old-school scrapbook (none of the fancy decorative touches, but photos and their background stories).

The book explains her background and offers some reflections on what influenced her as an individual and a writer. For example, her older sister died of cancer at the tender age of twenty-eight, thus she was able to write knowledgeably about such sibling reactions in Number the Stars and A Summer to Die. She also discusses the loss of her son in 1995 to an airplane crash. The photos are adorable (both she and her father were trained photographers) and the stories are touching. I especially laughed at the story of the time she brought home a dead rodent, thinking it was merely cold, and placed it in the oven to warm it up. Yikes!

I'm glad I'll go into this lecture tonight knowing a bit more of her background and history. I'm not sure what the focus of her talk will be, but I'm excited to have the chance to hear her speak. When I went to look up parking information, I discovered another author scheduled for Friday - Khaled Hosseini (author of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns). Sadly, all the tickets for that event have already been distributed. I'm kicking myself for not going to the Butler website and discovering information about that lecture sooner. A whole world of opportunities out there and I was unaware.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Book Review: Jellicoe Road

This was our selection for my February meeting with my young at heart young adult book club. I was so worried it was going to be a bust. While the prologue sucked me in immediately (it begins with a car crash - how's that for action), the first hundred and fifty pages left me scratching my head (yes - I still plowed ahead despite one hundred and fifty pages of total confusion).

The first four sentences in Jellicoe Road are magnificent: "My father took one hundred and thirty-two minutes to die. I counted. It happened on the Jellicoe Road. The prettiest road I'd ever seen, where trees made breezy canopies like a tunnel to Shangri-la."

The problem came with the first chapter which fast-forwards twenty-two years and begins with a different narrator. It takes a while to discover that the italics portions (in the prologue and following chapters) are written from the adult Hannah's perspective as a book she is writing about five young people who come together after the crash, and the rest is from seventeen-year-old Taylor's perspective. Hannah (who saved Taylor when she was abandoned by her mother at the age of eleven) is Taylor's guardian at a boarding school, where Taylor has just been named house leader. There's something going on called "the territory wars," between the boarding school students, the Townies, and the Cadets. Then, Hannah mysteriously disappears and Taylor is left to fend for herself while trying to assert her tenuous leadership. It is just a muddle of confusion, with the parts making no sense to draw everything into a whole piece.

I was frustrated out of my gourd. As page followed page with no better understanding of what was going on, I began to despair and think it was going to be a horrible read. But still, I plowed on (only because I wanted to contribute to discussion at our meeting). If not for the book club, I would have tossed it aside at page 50. Alas, I would have never come to the tears at the end.

The second half of the book finally comes together to bring some sense of order to the disjointed tale. As the pieces begin to gel, the reader comes to an understanding of who Taylor is and why the accident plays a part in her story. The five young people from the past catch up with the young people from the present and the two tales merge to create a deep sense of sadness and tragedy.

If only I could have felt as positive about the book as a whole. The second half did indeed redeem it, but as another reviewer wrote on Amazon, "the execution of Jellicoe Road was horrible and it’s not okay. I don’t forgive the author for the beginning. It should have done what beginnings of stories are supposed to do and explain, build, and draw me in. Not confuse the hell out of everyone. It’s not brilliant that it all 'comes to together in the end' and makes sense. It’s crap."

So, while I'm not disappointed that I read it, I could have done without the confusing entrance to the story and the convoluted extreme nature of some of the plot (with a serial killer on the loose, a boy who killed his father, a mother who abandoned her daughter, a teen who accidentally killed another teen, and several arsonists, it's far more than lions, and tigers, and bears, oh my!).

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Book Review: Songs of Willow Frost - Highly Recommend

The list my book club came up with for consideration for our 2015 reading was amazing. There were so many wonderful, interesting titles that it was hard to narrow it down to only 11 books. I made note of the ones I would read regardless of the final selections and Jamie Ford's Songs of Willow Frost was among the ten or so I intended to read despite its failure to be a group selection. It was an extraordinary experience, full of cultural exposure, historical significance, and enchanting characters. I highly recommend this book and have heard numerous accolades for Ford's other popular title, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet (which will probably make my personal 2015 list as well).

The writing in this book is lyrical and sonorous. It sweeps you into the trials and triumphs of Willow Frost's life. I listened to the audio version of this book and hung on every word pronounced by the excellent narrator, Ryan Gesell. It was a world foreign to me, yet I could relate to the longing and hopes and dreams expressed.

When twelve-year-old William Eng goes on a field trip with his orphanage to the movie theater, he is entranced by the photo of a singer due to grace the stage soon. He clearly recognizes her as his mother, whom he hasn't seen since he was seven-years-old. After running away from the orphanage with his best friend, Charlotte, to find her, he is heartbroken when the authorities seize him and return him to the orphanage. The orphanage director provides him with limited information about his mother's relinquishment of parental authority. That information is just too insufficient. He is determined to find her again and learn the whole truth of his past and confront whatever future might lie before him, with or without his mother.

The setting shifts back and forth in Seattle, Washington, between the 1920s and the 1930s, but is never hard to follow in terms of the time line presented. Willow's story is full of relational difficulties, financial woes, and moral dilemmas, but at its heart it is a story of the longing for family and the power of the gift of love. It is a tale of the advancements of the big screen and the trials of life in the cultural constrictions of Chinatown. Although, several people have given this only a one star review, because it is so sad, I thought the tale of abandonment was worth exploring despite the sadness the book evokes. There is just so much emotional pull to this story that you would be hard pressed to come away unaffected.