Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Book Review: Shopaholic to the Rescue

When my mother first suggested this series, I was skeptical because I'm really not one for shopping. I thought a character who was all about shopping simply wouldn't appeal to me. Then, I opened the first book and met Becky Bloomwood. What a hoot! This character jumps off the page and into your heart with her wild imaginings, her rationalizations, and her inability to tamp down her desire for things.

Still, I opened this book, Shopaholic to the Rescue, with about the same trepidation as I felt opening the first cover, because I haven't really enjoyed the last two bites of Becky (nee Bloomwood) Brandon's adventures. I attempted a short story the author offered for free on her website and felt dissatisfied. Then, I read the seventh installment of the series, Shopaholic to the Stars, and didn't care for it at all. I thought perhaps the trouble was that Becky moved out of her natural environs of England and transplanted to the United States. But, this book was due to continue the American adventure and I wasn't sure I would be pulled in.

This eighth book in the series, Shopaholic to the Rescue, was a bit better than the last but nowhere near as endearing as the first few books in the series. Perhaps I simply prefer Becky when she is in her own country. She also lost a bit of her flair in this book as she was struggling with being out of sorts and her joy in shopping had abandoned her. But, bits of Becky's natural spunk do shine through and I didn't feel the time was wasted in reading this (even though I would consider the whole series to be fluff reading).

Picking up where the last book left off, Becky is on a quest, crossing the United States in an RV with her husband, her daughter, her estranged best friend (Suze), her archenemy, her mother and her mother's best friend. They are searching for her father, who has disappeared with Suze's husband. Nobody seems to know why the men left or where they are going, but the whole lot of them feel a determination to find the men. Becky feels responsible for their departure. Suze feels conflicted about her marriage. The archenemy seems to be trying to steal Suze's friendship from Becky. Moreover, her mother is questioning why her father would have left without explaining where he was going.

I still agree with the praises of top periodicals who rave about the series. USA Today wrote "Hilarious ... hijinks worthy of classic I Love Lucy episodes ... too good to pass up." People declared "Kinsella's Bloomwood is plucky and funny .... You won't have to shop around to find a more winning protagonist." And The Washington Post enticed with "Faster than a swiping Visa, more powerful than a two-for-one coupon, able to buy complete wardrobes in a single sprint through the mall - it's Shopaholic!" I was worried I might be tiring of the series, but I'm fairly sure I would give another episode a try. Along with others, I simply find Becky Bloomwood to be irresistible and fun, but I would caution readers not to begin with the seventh or eighth installments. Start at the beginning, so you can fall in love with this feisty character first.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Book Review: Leon and the Spitting Image

Once again I snagged an audio book from the tween section to fill my treadmill time. This time I was drawn in by the enticing cover. I love the eyeball peering out from the "o" in Leon's name and I love the witch-like leg and boot almost kicking the eyeball. This was a delightfully fun read.

I cannot improve upon the description on the back cover:

"Leon and the Spitting Image is about a hotel full of animals. It's about an evil ice maker. It's about glass eyeballs and human catapults. It's about really old panty hose and Possibly Fake Hair.

"But mostly it's about Leon Zeisel and his epic quest to survive the fourth grade. What's stopping him? Two things. First, there's Miss Hagmeyer. She's a supernaturally strict teacher with ears that resemble giant rotting mushrooms. And then there is Leon's archenemy, Lumpkin the Pumpkin, a human tank with a deadly dodgeball throw known to all as the sidewinder.

"Luckily, Leon has two friends, Lily-Matisse and P.W., who will stand by him no matter what - even if his magical, mysterious plans for rescue and revenge involve ... SPIT!"

What did I love about this book? I loved that it intertwined information about medieval times and sewing in the background of the story. I loved the characters, who were plucky (Leon, P.W., and Lily-Matisse) and wicked (the Hag and Henry Lumpkin). But, I especially loved the ending, where the reader comes to see things in a different light and finds a whole new possibility opening up before them.

It sounded like the book was ripe for a sequel. Indeed, there is another book called Leon and the Champion Chip. I have already discovered that my library owns a copy of the book. I will be curious to see if Leon achieves his revenge or not. Besides the book looks to be about potato chips, so how can you go wrong? I'm thinking my boys would love both of these books and they would make excellent read-alouds for the classroom.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

I've been meaning to read this book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, for quite some time. I remember having a discussion about it with my mother three or four years ago. Then, a few years back, my book club read the book. It was a month I couldn't attend (I think it fell in June and I was going to be gone at music camp), so I opted not to read it at that time (probably had a whole stack of other books going, as usual). Then, I bumped into the title again a few weeks ago and decided to seek it out at the library. It was a very interesting read, as expected.

Author Rebecca Skloot shares the story of Henrietta Lacks, a poor black woman who ended up at Johns Hopkins with cervical cancer back in the early 1950s. Her cancer was very aggressive and when they were studying it, the doctors took a segment of the tumor for study, without asking for permission (something that wasn't necessary back in those days). One of the doctors had been trying for ages to keep cells living, but all of the cells seemed to die off in time. Until, he came across the cells from Henrietta Lacks' cancer. Those cells continued to divide and grow. Eventually, that doctor provided samples of the cells to any doctor who was interested in using the cells for research purposes. The research done on the cells led to many advancements in medical circles (polio vaccines, cancer research, etc.), but the family never knew that the cells had been harvested and used.

When cells are used, they are named after the source by using the first two letters of the first and last names. Thus, these cells were labelled HeLa cells. For years, they were attributed incorrectly to various other names like Helen Lane and Helen Larsen. Once the name issue was cleared up, years later, the family finally discovered the contribution their mother's cells had made to medical research. There were, of course, a wide array of feelings associated with this revelation. They were outraged that parts of her had been taken without permission. They were angry that millions of people were benefiting from the cells use and yet the family couldn't even afford health insurance themselves. They were equally confused about what it meant when the doctors explained that her cells were still living, years and years after her death.

Skloot does an excellent job of telling the story with compassion and unbiased presentation. She portrays the family in their actual state (by using their ways of speech and their full descriptions). Moreover, she addresses the ethical issues involved at the end of the book, after telling the family's story completely, and allows the reader to form his or her own opinions about the issues. This is an outstanding book combining scientific information with a deeply personal story about a poor black family.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Book Review: The Lily Pond

Often when I'm pressed for time and need to pick up an audio book for my exercise accompaniment, I head straight for the MG and YA section of the audio book shelves. I know I'll find something clean and appropriate and most of the time, I strike gold. Sadly, this wasn't true with one MG book I attempted before this one, Confessions of an Imaginary Friend. It turned out to be an uninteresting book (despite getting all four and five star reviews on Amazon) and I set it aside and picked up this one, Annika Thor's The Lily Pond. It was a much better choice.

Stephie Steiner is a thirteen-year-old Jew from Vienna who has been sent to Sweden, for safety sake, to live with relatives. While she is there she is offered an academic scholarship to attend grammar school in Goteborg. She is boarding with a wealthy doctor's family, the Soderbergs, but feels beholden to them for taking her in so that she can attend school. She bristles at the expectations for gratitude when her own parents are doctors who are being unfairly treated. Moreover, she is struggling with a love interest in the Soderberg's son, Sven, who is five years older but very attentive and kind to her.

The book paints a very realistic picture of what it must have been like for Jewish children who were separated from their parents during the war and sent as refugees to live elsewhere, while filled with concern and worry for the outcome for their parents. It is a touching story of young love, of coming-of-age, and of friendship. I discovered, after listening for a bit, that this is actually a follow-up book, to a first book called A Faraway Island. I have found that book at the library and intend to read it as well, even though I prefer to read books in the order they were written. I believe I'll still enjoy the experience.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Book Review: Where She Went

Where She Went is the follow-up novel to Gayle Forman's bestseller, If I Stay. There are several things that are different about this one. For starters, the story is narrated from a male perspective. The boyfriend tells his side of the story and Mia is presented in a pretty bad light for dumping him after he saw her through the horrible accident that claimed the lives of her entire family. The focus is primarily on his rise to fame, something he's not terribly comfortable with, and his confusion over Mia's severed ties.

Mia is at Julliard, the school of her dreams and Adam's band has risen to phenomenal heights. Yet, the past continues to haunt Adam and he pines for what once was. On a random weekend in New York City, Adam sees that Mia is performing at Carnegie Hall and so he buys a ticket and ends up being called backstage afterward. Mia then leads him on a bit of a wild goose chase as they avoid talking about the elephant in the room, her sudden silence and disconnection from Adam's life.

While I struggled with If I Stay, because the main character seems to imply that the decision for whether she will remain alive or not lies solely in her hands, this book made me equally disgruntled. Mia now holds a great deal of anger towards Adam because in her eyes, he made her stay. So, after a whole book devoted to the self-absorbed concept that we are the masters of our own fate, now there is a turn-around and someone else is to blame for Mia's continued existence when she would have rather died along with her family. Really? I couldn't get behind that. Moreover, I had a hard time with the happy ending. With all the angst presented at the outset, it seemed to gloss over the difficulties quickly and then everything was resolved and the conflicts were behind them.

I thought the author did a good job of capturing a male voice. I had no trouble staying absorbed in the story, even when it wandered aimlessly. The writing was good. But, in my final analysis, it isn't a YA novel I feel I can rave about as really outstanding, despite the accolades both books have received. Moreover, I'm pretty sure they won't make a follow-up film of Where She Went because it would fall short of the tear-jerker first movie.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Book Review: Before I Forget

In May of last year, my mother suffered some heart trouble and ended up having a stent inserted. During that time she suffered a mini-stroke and they believe this triggered vascular dementia, although I have also heard my father toss out the diagnosis of Alzheimer's. Thus, I've been more interested in reading about the subject and when this book came available at my local library, I put my name on the hold list.

Before I Forget: Love, Hope, Help, and Acceptance in Our Fight Against Alzheimer's is the story of B. Smith and Dan Gasby and their experience with B.'s early-onset Alzheimer's. It is part-memoir, part-awareness-boosting information. I think the scariest thing for me was the realization of how expensive Alzheimer's will be for our family. A minimal amount of home health care runs about $1000 a week. When round-the-clock care comes in, the number is closer to $100,000 a year for care expenses. That was startling.

The stories of B.'s decline were interesting. I felt sorry for them when she wandered off a bus and was missing for a period of time. I know something like that could happen for my parents and it makes me feel so helpless to be so far away from them. Still, moving them closer opens up a whole different set of challenges.

If you have a loved one who is facing an Alzheimer's diagnosis, this would be an interesting book to peruse. The book also referred to two other interesting books (ones my book club read), Still Alice by Lisa Genova and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (a book I intended to read for book club, but somehow missed). Sadly, I don't feel terribly hopeful after reading this book. I wish it had more positive news to share about breakthroughs in research. She's a beautiful woman with a sad story.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Book Review: Rose Harbor in Bloom

Jo Marie Rose is grieving the loss of her husband, Paul, and plows herself into her bed and breakfast establishment for comfort and healing. Her guests also seem to find healing when they come to stay at the Rose Harbor Inn. This second installment continues a similar path of bringing hurting people to the inn, where they find restoration, reconciliation, and love.

Annie Newton arrives at the inn for the scheduled 50th anniversary celebration she has planned for her grandparents. The grandparents seem like anything but a loving, devoted couple as they squabble and bicker at every moment. But, planning the celebration gives Annie hope as she has just cut off her own engagement to a man who was unfaithful. Will she find the kind of love her grandparents have exemplified for years? Are they not the loving couple she thought they were? Will she make peace with Oliver, her grandparents next door neighbor?

Mary Smith has come to the inn with her own struggles and secrets. Cedar Cove has a special place in her heart and she comes to the inn with hopes of rekindling contact with her former love interest, George Hudson. Because of her battle with cancer, she is fearful of coming back into his life, but will George allow her to slip away again? Will Mary find healing for the biggest ache her heart has carried for the past nineteen years?

I enjoyed the simple tales of lives changed and loves restored. Debbie Macomber weaves a beautiful environment and colorful characters together to bring great resolutions. I will happily look for the third installment for my listening pleasure while I work out.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Book Review: The Martian

I went into this book, The Martian, quite excited about the idea of the story - an astronaut who is accidentally left behind on Mars by his teammates. Then, I got a few pages in and thought, "This could be a really boring book if it simply outlines all the things the guy does in order to attempt to stay alive, alone on Mars." Thankfully, the whole book isn't a giant log book detailing his efforts at survival (as it appeared from the outset).

The technical jargon of things did threaten to overwhelm me (I'm not much into figuring out how things work), but I was interested enough to hang in there and ride out the fascinating story. Some have compared it to a MacGyver meets Mysterious Island . It is certainly a tale of an ingenious individual who survives against the odds. Even with so many minds working together to try to get him home, it seemed like there was one obstacle after the next. The obstacles made sense and his tactics to subvert them were effective.

I enjoyed the ride. It was not my normal fare, but I'm certainly glad it was my book club's choice for the month of March. Hopefully, we'll have an interesting discussion about the book. Not sure there's much in the way of theme to hash out, but the logistics of things will be something to contemplate. Now, I'm on the hold list at my library waiting for my turn to watch the movie made from the book.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Book Review: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

Even though I'm a clutter-ridden person by nature and could certainly use a book to help curb those tendencies, I probably wouldn't have read this best-seller if it hadn't been selected for my book club. Then, the book didn't come available at the library in time and I opted to skip the meeting. Even though I no longer needed to read it for discussion, when it did come in, I decided to go ahead and read it after all.

The premise of the book is fairly simple. The author urges readers to sort through all of their belongings, in order, asking the key question of "does it spark joy?" She recommends starting with clothes, then books, then papers, then odds and ends, then mementos. As evidence of my own problem with too many belongings, I had to laugh at the idea of piling all my books on the floor in one spot to evaluate each of them in turn. There is not a spot big enough to contain all the books we own. Of course, I could simply start with my own books, as she suggests and that might be more doable. Still, of all the things I own, parting with books would be my most difficult chore. I understand that I probably won't read them again, but I still prefer to keep them and yes, they do spark joy (well, maybe not all of them - so I guess there is always room for some tidying - ha).

She sounds quite ruthless when it comes to papers - another downfall of mine. She would simply toss them all. But, I am a writer. Many of those papers are drafts and revisions and the like. I would do well to organize them, but even that seems like a monumental project.

Still, I came away from the book with a desire to tackle my stuff. I know there is a good deal of purging that could be done and I agree that it would benefit more than just the relieving of space. Clearing clutter would free my mind and emotions. I agree.

What I couldn't agree with was the author's continual conversation with the things she encountered. She thanks clothes and bags for their assistance after her day is done. She writes as if socks have feelings about how they are stored.

It would require a great deal of effort to put the advice gleaned from this book into practice. She suggests it might even take six months to accomplish. Do I have the energy and motivation to stick with that kind of goal for six months? I don't know. But, I'm game to give it a go. When the boys go away to visit Grandma next weekend, I might just tackle my clothes and see if I can keep the momentum going into books, papers, and mementos. Although my husband would wish me to change up her order of attack to papers, books, clothing, and mementos. He really doesn't care how many clothes I keep. He is more concerned with ridding our house of the endless papers and books (he has his own hoard of numerous books, so he acknowledges it as a mutual problem).

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Book Review: Story Trumps Structure

This book is the antithesis of the writing books by Larry Brooks. While Brooks advocates starting out with a detailed structure in mind, Steven James believes you cannot force story. His book, Story Trumps Structure: How to Write Unforgettable Fiction by Breaking the Rules, argues for focus that remains on the story itself rather than on rules about its structure.

I believe the author is right. Story is far more important than whether a book follows a particular structure for sound storytelling. If the story is good, the reader won't care whether it fits with the particular plot points and pinch points at suggested intervals. However, I didn't feel a strong pull to keep reading this book about the craft of writing. Granted, my apathy may have been the result of a bout with the respiratory flu, but then again, it could have been that I simply wasn't interested enough in what was presented.

The book is broken down into six parts: 1) The Essence of Story; 2) Secrets to Organic Writing; 3) Story Progression; 4) The Narrative Forces That Shape Our Stories; 5) Subtleties of Characterization; and 6) Plot Flaws and How to Fix Them. My favorite chapter was titled "Meaning: Telling the Truth About the World." It highlighted my own pet peeve with many Christian fiction works (when the message is deemed more important than the story).

He writes: "The impact is lost as soon as your agenda interrupts the story and becomes evident to readers. Propaganda is when a viewpoint is promoted regardless of truth. Art is when truth is rendered regardless of agenda."

I also enjoyed the introduction of the word, "Agathokakological." The word means "consisting of both good and evil." The author provided an interesting discussion around the word and why our writing should reflect both good and evil.

Still, I don't think I gleaned a whole lot of new information about the writing process. I don't understand why pantsing works better for some writers than others. The key to a good story is to provide something at stake that the reader wants to explore or solve. I suppose this author is right when he asserts that the story is king and structure simply supports the story.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Book Review: If I Stay

I know I looked at the front fly leaf of this book back when it first came out. I heard all the hub-bub. I knew it was supposedly YA gold. Yet, I didn't choose to read it. Then, a few weeks back, I saw the movie available and decided to watch it. Oh my! Had I known what a tear-jerker If I Stay would be, I might not have started watching. I sobbed. I loved the movie.

So, I decided to give the book a shot, even though I generally hate to see a movie first and then approach the book. In the final analysis, I liked the movie more than the book. The premise goes against what I believe to be true about life and death. The main character argues several times that it is her choice to decide to stay or not. "It's not up to the doctors. It's not up to the absentee angels. It's not even up to God who, if He exists is nowhere around right now. It's up to me." This cutting God out of the equation is what doesn't sit well with me. I found myself thinking about children with terminal cancer and what this type of message does to them. Things are not within our control. It is a damaging illusion to paint for young people, this idea that they are masters of their universe.

Moreover, I felt annoyed with the portrayal of the hip parents who take their daughter to Planned Parenthood because they're perfectly okay with her having under-age sex. The parents who were too cool and had to tone things down once they had children and felt a sense of responsibility. It just didn't sit well with me.

So, while I liked the story line and loved the main character's voice, I felt once again this was YA literature meant to glorify rebellion and self-absorption. The story was executed well. The writing was emotionally resonant. I just didn't fall for the main theme. Thankfully, it was a quick and easy read. I did check out the sequel, too. Haven't decided yet whether to give it a shot or not.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Book Review: Keep Quiet - Highly Recommend

While the last Lisa Scottoline book I read wasn't necessarily a big hit with me, this one certainly was. Keep Quiet was the best Scottoline thriller I've read yet! The book was captivating from the very first sentence. The premise hooked the reader. Moreover, if you are a parent of a driving teenager, you cannot help but put yourself in the shoes of the dad in this story. Scottoline nailed this one and I have been raving about it to anyone who will listen (I've already persuaded my sister, mother, and Bryce's girlfriend - a reluctant reader - to give it a try)!

Jake Buckman hopes that by picking his son, Ryan, up from the movies, he will be able to spend some quality time in the car working on their struggling relationship. The sixteen year old begs to drive the last bit home, on a deserted road, and even though Jake knows that it violates his son's learner's permit restrictions, he agrees anyway. That decision propels the two of them into a nightmare of unbelievable proportions when Ryan looks away for a moment on a blind curve and hits something in the road. The next split-second decision seals their fate and binds them together in a horrifying secret that threatens to implode the entire family, including the life of Jake's wife, Pam, an upstanding judge.

Scottoline is a master at plotting. She increases the emotional tension in the book by steady increments, throwing barb after barb into the pot of trouble. What results is a roller-coaster ride of emotional resonance and an inability to put the book down. Although I listened to the book in audio form, I felt a strong desire to check out the hard copy of the book as well, so that I could analyze exactly how well the plot was executed. If I had been simply reading the hard copy, I have no doubt that I would have completed the book in one or two sittings. It is just that riveting.

Scottoline also wowed me with her outstanding skill for providing not only entrancing first lines for each chapter but also alluring concluding lines. Every chapter began with a bang and ended on a note of pure enticement. I could only hope to emulate that fine skill in my own writing. Each chapter propels the story along in a steady stream of character and plot development.

While I did figure out the ending in advance, it was still enjoyable getting to the point of revelation. Scottoline expertly played a game of cat and mouse throughout the entire book. Just as the reader catches up to the clues, new clues are laid down to alter the understanding of what is fully going on. I almost want to go back through the book and outline the plot progression because the book is such an excellent example of a well-plotted story.

Even if you aren't a big fan of thrillers, this book will grab you by the throat and refuse to let you go. Your heart will ache for the characters in the story. Moreover, you will be torn between a desire for justice and mercy. And if you are a parent, well ... the story will resonate with your obvious longings to protect your child.

I was surprised to see one star reviews on Amazon. Apparently, there are readers who felt the characters and their actions were unbelievable. Just goes to show you that every individual approaches a book with personal preferences and expectations. I still highly recommend the book, but thought I should mention that it did garner some negative reviews on Amazon. You be the judge - I doubt you'll be disappointed if you pick up this book (even if you agree with those naysayers that the characters behave in unbelievable ways).