Friday, May 26, 2017

Book Review: Underground Fugue

A member of my book club recommended this title because it was written by a friend of hers. Underground Fugue really got me thinking about how writing books can be akin to writing music. Divided into seven chapters, the story sings out from multiple voices shedding light on relationships, identity, and loss. The author, Margot Singer, skillfully weaves the perspectives of her tale like passages of music in a fugue, quite an artistic endeavor.

Moreover, I loved how the title played out in the story on so many levels. "Underground" can refer to several ideas: 1) beneath the surface of the earth; 2) secret or hidden; and 3) a subway system. It also comes through in the myriad of emotions plunged beneath the surface by individuals unwilling to face them head on. In the same way, fugue can mean "a musical form or composition designed for a definite number of instruments or voices in which a subject is announced in one voice and then developed contrapuntally in strict order by each of the other voices" or it can follow the psychiatric meaning of "a state of psychological amnesia during which the subject seems to behave in a conscious and rational way, although upon return to normal consciousness he cannot remember the period of time nor what he did during it; temporary flight from reality." (Webster's)

Fleeing the tragic death of her young son and the concomitant dissolution of her marriage, Esther arrives in London to care for her dying mother. Unable to sleep on the first night, she takes to the porch for a smoke and is intrigued to notice a college-aged boy slipping into the neighbor's house in the middle of the night, covered in mud. She is immediately curious and suspicious, but doesn't let on when she first meets the boy's father, Javad, an Iranian neuroscientist. Javad seems to know as little about his son as Esther does. Javad and Esther's developing relationship is threatened when a terrorist attack occurs and the boy goes missing.

Woven among the stories of the main characters is a subtext of a factual story about a man who washed up on a beach in England in early 2005 wearing a suit and tie. This man, dubbed "The Piano Man," was an outstanding pianist, yet would not, or could not, say a word about his identity (see this NPR article). The inner workings of the brain have always fascinated me, so I was especially drawn to the neuroscientist character. Javad is called in to consult on the case of "The Piano Man." He cannot tell if the amnesia and aphasia (language impairment) are due to brain injury or voluntarily affected. The mystery surrounding this man serves as a counterpoint to the mystery festering among the main characters.

My heart also ached for Esther and the onslaught of loss she weathers. As she reflects on the structure of the fugue performed by a pianist in a recital, she observes, "Its variations make connections between seemingly unlike things and reveal the ways in which the new is recreated out of the material of the old. It shows us how the present is always in conversation with - in counterpoint with - the past." Thus, Esther deals with the reverberations of fallout from her own troubled past.

Truly, the writing sings. In a passage told from the perspective of Esther's dying mother, the author writes, "Time has a different rhythm now. Days and nights bleed together as she drifts in and out of sleep.... Time dilates and contracts. In the stillness of the afternoons, or late at night, the sound of the piano rises through the floorboards.... The notes like fractals, a filigree of counterpoint.... Music for the beginning and the end of time."

The author reveals, in the acknowledgments, the germ of her idea (that NPR piece on the "Piano Man") and the painstaking effort to create a worthy manuscript ("many drafts and many years"). I was blown away when she admitted to having discarded the project's earliest draft. I cannot even imagine! But, I am thrilled that she persisted because her work paid off to produce a beautiful, lyrical novel. A deep sense of grief stuck with me long after I put the book down. My mind continues to lick over ideas of identity and relational friction. Just as music evokes emotion, this melodious novel stirs the heart to feel and the mind to think.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Book Review: Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty

This novel, Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty, by Ramona Ausubel, is one I probably would not have chosen on my own. It was my book club's May selection. Although I didn't attend the group discussion (exhausted from our recent vacation to Cedar Point), I know that at least one other group member had a similar response to my own. I just didn't connect with the book on any level. I didn't care for the characters, feel drawn in by the plot, or relate to the theme. Indeed, I felt a bit annoyed with the characters as they responded in childish ways to their reversal of fortune.

Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty is probably meant to be some sort of statement about privilege and class identification. The characters supposedly despise money, yet when it dries up, they are thrown into such a tailspin that the father, Edgar, pursues an adulterous relationship and heads off with his new lover for Bermuda, while the mother, Fern, embarks on a road trip with a stranger to find that man's son. Both assume that the other is home with the children. Alas, no one is caring for the children. Instead, nine-year-old Cricket attempts to pick up the slack, getting herself and her younger brothers off to school each day. Fearful of the orphanage, Cricket keeps their plight a secret and buoys the spirits of her brothers with tales of early American courage and stamina.

I was perplexed by much of the novel. As the family unravels in the face of their newfound poverty, the story weaves back and forth from past to present, providing commentary on individual roles in a family (Fern's twin brother, Ben, is fully fractured by the separation brought on by Fern's marriage and his military enlistment), the burden and weight of privilege, and the idea of one's place in history. Yet, as I said, I never really felt any affection for the characters or cared even slightly about their plight (they seemed self-absorbed, immature, and unstable). Even Cricket confused me. At one point in the novel, she goes off alone to the restroom and seems to be molested in some way (hard to tell what really occurred). On another occasion, while they are camping out in a teepee, they discover a dead fawn (abandoned, like them) and Cricket attempts to skin it (to mimic the self-sufficiency of American Indians??).

Edgar loses his glasses while on his jaunt with the other woman and his sightless state seems to finally bring him to his senses and call him home. Fern pursues her own infidelity in retaliation to Edgar's, and the guilt and remorse remind her of her lost perspective on the needs of her children (how do you lose sight of the needs of your children, seriously?). Moreover, Fern seems more concerned with helping her companion locate his lost son than she is with the fate of her own children. I just couldn't seem to get behind these characters or understand their motivations.

So, while the novel wasn't really difficult to read, I can't agree with any of the endorsements claiming it is a "gorgeous and moving must-read," and "a book brimming with life." It was fairly well-written, but simply not my cup of tea. I didn't come away with any meaningful new thought or perspective on life and am none-the-richer for having read it.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Book Review: Think Like a Five-Year-Old

I'm always struck by how easily I grow discouraged in my creative endeavors. Writing is a lonely occupation. Success in writing is often elusive. I too frequently find myself praying, "God, do you just want me to give up on my writing dreams, since they seem so unproductive?" It is in moments like these that I rely on books like Think Like a Five-Year-Old: Reclaim Your Wonder and Create Great Things. Thank goodness for writers like Len Wilson, who understand my dilemmas and speak encouragement to my doubt.

The focus of this book emphasizes the budding creativity found in young children. As I read the passage about the fourth-grade slump, and how creativity begins to taper off, my own fourth-grader was reading next to me and I had to share some of the insights. He agreed wholeheartedly with the theory and gave his own perspective on why kids begin to pull back, squelch their own ideas, and lose the freedom to express their creativity. It is, apparently, a universal trend and one every writer/artist, indeed, every individual should fight.

As Wilson observes in the preface, "We're made to be creative. When we, as an image of God, exercise our heavenly impulse, the result of our expression, regardless of our field of endeavor, is art.... The problem is that while we have this supernatural power, this creative wellspring, within us, we've lost it." Wilson prescribes a method for countering the lies we tell ourselves that steal our creativity out from under us. As he quotes Madeleine L'Engle, "God is constantly creating, in us, through us, with us, and to co-create with God is our human calling." He encourages creatives to approach our process with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength (Mark 12:29-30) and he offers up stories of individuals who have done just that.

I loved how his insights always lead the creative individual back to the source of creativity, God. Wilson comments, "The counterintuitive trick is to surrender our passion, which come from God anyway, back to God and then wait." We cannot gaze at our navels and worry about the productivity of our endeavors. He goes on to say, "The paradox of creativity is that, to the Christ follower, personal fulfillment is a misnomer. A focus on fulfillment belies the truth that when we focus on ourselves, we'll never find ourselves. Our passions exist for a greater purpose than our own fulfillment."

For any reader who is stymied by discouragement or ennui in their creative ventures, Wilson will spur you on to reclaim the innocent wonder of childhood and pursue your talents and gifts without the baggage of lowered expectations, self-glory, or control. He provides an excellent source of renewed encouragement. He turns the focus on God's purposes and reminds the reader of who is truly in control. As my son informed me, "a fourth-grader begins to realize how stupid their enthusiasm has looked and they pull back in fear." Don't let that process rob you of your gifts! Respond with the enthusiasm of an uninhibited child and give your gift back to God to bless Him and others.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Book Review: Talking as Fast as I Can

Meeting the actor or actress behind a famous character can be a bit like pulling the curtain away from the glorious wizard in The Wizard of Oz. In other words, it can be a let-down when you discover the magic was created by someone altogether different from what you imagined. This was my experience encountering Mel Gibson. I loved him in such movies as Forever Young, The Man Without a Face (one of my all time favorites), Braveheart, The Patriot, and What Women Want. Then, I saw him on a talk show, shortly after Braveheart. In real life, he seemed crass, rude, and brash. All my happy images of the characters he portrayed beautifully suddenly shifted. Granted, I will still watch those movies and relish his performance, but my respect for the man behind the mask has been stripped away. He is only human, after all, not the wizard he pretends to be.

Thus, when I saw advertisements for Lauren Graham's memoir, Talking as Fast as I Can, I was hesitant to pick it up. What if she turned out to be crass, rude, and brash? What if, in attempting to be as humorous as her beloved character on The Gilmore Girls, she tried too hard and impressed too little.

I'm a big Gilmore Girls fan. In my previous life, back when I worked full time and had a young child who dictated the channel setting (oh, yeah, I still have that), I occasionally caught an episode here or there. I loved the characters, the witty banter, the clever come-backs, and the sweet relationship between Lorelai and Rory. It was only months ago, when I discovered all seven seasons of the show available on Netflix that I became literally obsessed. I loved that I could watch it in snatches on my phone in the quiet of my room after washing up the dinner dishes or while waiting to transport my middle-schooler home from his post-school work-out sessions.

It became a bit of a running gag in our house. Where's Mom? Oh, she's in her room watching yet another episode of The Gilmore Girls. When I realized that my boys didn't mind the interruption and actually relished watching with me (imagine, if you will, us belting along to the theme song - truly happened on more than one occasion), I began to watch some of the episodes on our television in the living room. It was a cozy something we shared (although I don't approve of everything on the show and thus had to provide them with some parental commentary).

Thankfully, meeting Lauren Graham through this memoir was painless and fun. It turned out, she is down-to-earth, real, and delightful. I liked her just as much as the character she portrayed. I breathed a sigh of relief because she wasn't crude and didn't try too hard to make a favorable impression. By listening to the audio version (read by Lauren), it did indeed feel like "catching up with your best friend, laughing and swapping stories" - a back-cover teaser - but I put my name on the hold list for the hard cover book, nonetheless, because I missed out on the photos accompanying the text.

I also appreciated her humility. Instead of focusing on herself (a key player in the popularity of the show), she highlights the many quality actors and actresses who played their parts so skillfully that they seemed perfectly cast (here I think aloud of Rory, Lorelei's mother, Luke Danes, Michele, Suki, and the hilariously ubiquitous Kirk). Moreover, she recognizes the finesse of the writing team behind the dialogue that won the hearts of the American people. The witty banter I so love in the show lends the title to this book. The scripts apparently became longer and longer because Lorelei's character was so well-known for her quick responses and her fast talking.

As a writer, I was pleased to find advice on tackling daunting writing tasks (since Lauren wears the writer hat on occasion, as well). It reaffirmed my belief in the power of getting it down without worrying about the quality or quantity. She reiterates someone else's advice to set a timer for a do-able increment (say, an hour, or less if your schedule doesn't even allow for a solid hour) and refuse to give in to any other distraction. I loved the idea of pulling up two documents: your work-in-progress and a personal journal. How freeing it must be to know that when you set out to put in your allotted time, if the work-in-progress is stuck, you simply pass over to journaling. This sounds reminiscent to Ray Bradbury's advice to begin by randomly writing down a list of words. The very act of coming up with those words tends to trigger a path into reasonably productive territory. But then again, you're free of the worry associated with productivity at the outset. The key, as always, is to silence the inner editor, the task-master, and the naysayer, and simply focus on pushing out the words.

Pull me off to the side in a room full of people and I will happily talk your arm off about what I liked and didn't like about both The Gilmore Girls and the Netflix series of A Year in the Life of the Gilmore Girls. Dare I admit that I was so frustrated in my efforts to find another engaging series to watch on Netflix that I have begun season one all over again? My fascination is cemented. My relief is immense. I like Lauren Graham just as much after encountering her behind the screen as I did before she stepped out from behind the curtain. And if my book reviews taper off, you can bet I'm either hunkered down with another episode of The Gilmore Girls or I'm setting a timer for another hour of focused writing of my own.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Book Review: Hallelujah Anyway

I like Anne Lamott. I really do. Yet, once again, I felt less than satisfied with her newest book, Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy. I think, in order to fully grasp mercy, one has to fully grasp mercy's need. To that end, Lamott spends quite a bit of time portraying the faults and failings of our humanity. Still, the true extent of our need for God's mercy is never tapped. In the end, the reader comes away with ruminations on personal need to show one's self and others mercy.

Just as in Help, Thanks, Wow, I bristled at the political infusion in categorical denunciations. And, once again, I found it hard to stomach the familiarity and crassness used in speaking of both Paul and Jesus. At one point, she declares (when Jesus wept for Mary and Martha's sorrow) that Jesus was "pissed" and she responds to this sentiment with her own declaration "Oy vey!" Hmm. Not my take on that whole scenario. She calls Paul "cranky, judgemental, and self-righteous," although does admit that she sees these very attributes within herself. For me, it feels like a lack of respect. I want to step back and recognize holy ground when I see it. I don't want to sully things beyond me with my own limited perspectives.

Moreover, I didn't really feel a strong sense of connection with what was being said. Many times in reading previous books by Lamott, I have felt moments of kinship. This time, I couldn't get inside her pain or her acts of mercy. I wanted to feel more deeply, to be convicted more intensely.

So, while there is some value in reading Lamott's observations - we all could certainly stand to treat one another with more mercy and forgiveness - I came away wishing for more depth, more respect, and more conviction. We need mercy from God far more than we need mercy from ourselves. We cannot hope to show mercy to others without recognizing the depth of our need for mercy from the One who atones for our death-infused sins.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Book Review: Carrot Cake Murder

As I said in my review of the ninth installment of this series, I probably wouldn't continue with the books if I couldn't find them in audio form (I'm always requiring a book to listen to while I walk on the treadmill each morning). Indeed, I was rather disgruntled with this tenth book, Carrot Cake Murder. So many of my complaints played out in this episode.

For starters, the reader is dragged along with the numerous love interests of the main character, a woman who has admitted to herself that she can't hold a candle to the raving beauty of either of her sisters. Yet, somehow three men are willing to dangle on a thread in hopes that she will cast her lot in their direction. Really? Moreover, ten books and Hannah still hasn't made up her mind? Come on.

The formula is simply growing tiresome. Thankfully, we didn't have to hear too much about the cat in this book. Hannah's detective boyfriend allows her to sleuth away, sharing evidence. Yet another Lake Eden citizen has cooked up murder over a trivial reason. Hannah, of course, finds the dead body and dishes up recipe after recipe throughout the process of determining the killer.

Another pet peeve I have with this series is the author's insistence upon teaching the reader tid-bits of information. Often it comes in the form of grammar lessons, Regency dialect information, or detective procedure.  It's not that I don't enjoy learning something from what I read, but rather the grating tone the author uses while instructing on trivial bits of information. As another reader expressed in an Amazon review, why does the reader need to be informed what "slate blue" means?

Finally, I am weary of the main character's slow mental processes when it comes to technology. This is a woman who is supposedly smarter than the average detective, yet she stumbles through instructions on how to use a cell phone? Really? I'm not the brightest when it comes to these devices myself, but I find her cluelessness less than endearing.

So, why am I still listening? Good question. Is it that old conundrum of wanting to finish what I started? I do still enjoy hearing the recipes read off (and will probably attempt one or two of them someday). It is definitely easy listening because it is not hard to follow, even when my mind wanders during the walk. And finally, my library just doesn't have enough fairly clean audio books to keep me going (I have three on the back burner right now, but I'm wondering if I will be able to listen to them on weekends, when my boys are around). So, I plug on in this seemingly endless series where the formula never alters a bit: the main character drags several love interests along behind her while she stumbles upon countless dead bodies and outwits any other individuals attempting to solve the troublesome cases. Please tell me this author isn't as committed to her formula as R.L. Stine was (whose 62 book Goosebumps series is still read voraciously by young kids in schools across the country).

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Book Review: The Writing Life

I first encountered Annie Dillard in a course at Wheaton College. I remember marveling at the poetry of her wisdom in words. It is like she holds a reader's eye up to a microscope and describes every detail with such precision and eloquence that you sense the beauty in all the parts that make up the whole.

In The Writing Life, Dillard turns her lens from nature and onto the creative act of writing. I found so many gems of wisdom in this little volume. In explaining the writer's need to forcibly pursue the work, she writes: “Get to work. Your work is to keep cranking the flywheel that turns the gears that spin the belt in the engine of belief that keeps you and your desk in midair." As to attitude toward your work, she says of the writer: "He must be sufficiently excited to rouse himself to the task at hand, and not so excited he cannot sit down to it. He must have faith sufficient to impel and renew the work, yet not so much faith he fancies he is writing well when he is not."

Dillard's words reminded me of the importance of keeping up the momentum (something I only did once I discovered the Nanowrimo challenge). She says: "I do not so much write a book as sit up with it, as with a dying friend.... If you skip a visit or two, a work in progress will turn on you.... You must visit it every day and assert your mastery over it." Writing is sheer pursuit. "It is handed to you, but only if you look for it. You search, you break your heart, your back, your brain, and then - and only then - it is handed to you." She writes further: "It feels like alligator wrestling, at the level of the sentence."

And finally, of the responsibility to fill our hearts and minds with what is good for the soul and good for our writing, she says: "The writer ... is careful of what he reads, for that is what he will write. He is careful of what he learns, because that is what he will know." Dillard's words are inspiring. I could turn to them again and again for motivation in my writing tasks.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Book Review: The Acid Watcher Diet

Sometimes, in the medical world, determining the cause of particular ailments leads to a wild goose chase. I have experienced this before, am experiencing it now, and will probably go down this road again in the future. While I don't want such experiences to color my view of physicians or infuse me with a general distrust, it seems inevitable. I grow weary of floundering around in the dark.

For the past seven months, I have been battling a chronic cough and a constant need to clear my throat. About a month ago, I was attempting to take a vitamin when the pill became lodged in my throat. As I reached up to feel if it was actually still lodged there, my husband noticed a distinct lump in my throat. Weary of my constant coughing and throat-clearing, and alarmed at what might be a growth of some sort, he insisted that I see my primary care physician (a task I vehemently avoid because of my general squeamishness in medical procedures and my flagging confidence in medical personnel).

And so, the run-around began. Blood tests revealed that my thyroid levels were within the normal range, but an ANA test came back positive. The doctor ordered a thyroid ultrasound to examine the lump, but that came back normal. Because of the ANA test, and noticing the pervasive redness of my cheeks (which the doctor considered might be the butterfly rash of lupus, rather than the hereditary rosacea I had always thought it to be), the doctor referred me to a rheumatologist. Thankfully, the rheumatologist, after posing diagnostic questions, doubted a lupus diagnosis and merely found a UTI.

Yet, the chronic cough continues and the doctor doesn't seem to pay it much mind beyond associating it with asthma. Then, I happened upon the questions on the back cover of this book, The Acid Watcher Diet. "Do you suffer from abdominal bloating?" Check. "a chronic, nagging cough?" Check. "postnasal drip?" Check. "a feeling of a lump in the back of your throat?" Check. My interest was peaked. My parents both suffer from acid reflux and I had noticed, recently, a few occasions of bile coming up when I was lying down (the most classic symptom).

In The Acid Watcher Diet: A 28-Day Reflux Prevention and Healing Program, Dr. Jonathan Aviv highlights the lesser-known symptoms of acid reflux and acid damage and brings awareness to dietary solutions for the problem. He identifies the links between inflammation, weight gain (another troubling problem for me), and acid reflux. I never before really thought about the acidity of so many of the processed foods we are tempted to eat. It was eye-opening to learn the pH factor in different foods.

The book is broken down into three parts: A Diagnostic Tool for Assessing Acid Damage (including what you should know when you see your doctor); Food and Lifestyle Prescriptions (including the importance of fiber and an especially helpful chapter titled "Breaking Acid-Generating Habits and Establishing Acid-Reduction Practices"); and a 28-Day Healing Phase meal plan, Follow-up Maintenance Plan, and coordinating recipes. In the first section, I became convinced that my problems might be associated with some acid damage to my system from eating foods with high acidity. The second section reinforced some information I had already read about the microbiome, importance of fiber, etc. And, the final section, made me question whether I have what it takes to attempt this 28-day cleanse.

The most difficult challenges for me would be giving up coffee and chocolate, increasing my intake of raw vegetables (not my favorite way to eat them, but prescribed at a 1/2 cooked, 1/2 raw ratio), and consistently eating my evening meal a full three hours before heading to bed (since I'm an early-to-bed-early-to-rise person, this would mean eating before 5:30 and my husband tends to schedule our evening meal more toward 6 or 7). Still, I am intrigued and fairly eager to attempt this diet to see if it will eliminate the chronic cough, especially so when I read about the undetected acid damage leading to esophageal cancer. Many of the recipes (including easy-to-prepare smoothies, omelets, and fish/chicken dishes) sounded like something I could manage, and that's saying something since I'm fairly hopeless in the kitchen. The photo of elimination diet foods is appealing (from the Acid Watcher Diet website).

I'm all for using food as medicine. While I'm not ready to commit to the diet yet, I will certainly keep it on my radar and will probably check out the book again when I am more in a position to attempt it. I definitely plan on copying the list of safe foods. Even if I never implement the diet fully, I think that I gained quite a bit of knowledge about ways to be on the alert for acid damage and that could go a long way. The key is awareness or as the book likes to type it AWareness (emphasizing the acid-watching factor).

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Book Review: Key Lime Pie Murder

I think if I weren't always on the lookout for further books to listen to while treadmill walking, I probably wouldn't go on with this series. It has begun to feel same-old, same-old. Moreover, despite wanting to know who the main character will end up marrying, I don't particularly enjoy being strung along for episode after episode without much satisfaction in that department. Alas, Hannah Swensen remains torn between the two loves of her life: Norman and Mike.

Once again, in this ninth installment, Key Lime Pie Murder, Hannah happens upon a dead body. The formula is intact. She introduces a few glitches in her personal life (this time around, her cat is seemingly sick without cause, her mother is working on some secret writing project, and her sisters are both competing in competitions in the Lake Eden Fair). The official detective, Mike, begs her not to investigate. She does anyway, with the help of Norman and her sisters. She ends up in a pickle as things grow to a climax in the story, and Norman and Mike manage to swoop in to save the day and save her hide.

I did consider jotting down a few of the recipes offered in this installment, but frankly, couldn't be bothered to take the time. I will keep my eye out for the compiled recipe book that is supposed to go along with the series and perhaps I will secure some of the recipes in that way. The one recipe from this book that I especially hope to find is the one for Mango Quick Bread (yum). It sounded moist and sweet.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Book Review: Wolf Hollow - Highly Recommend

While the last Newbery book I read didn't appeal to me, this one was a completely different experience. Wolf Hollow, by Lauren Wolk, was outstanding from start to finish, fully deserving of its numerous accolades and awards. It opened with a bang up first sentence: "The year I turned twelve, I learned how to lie." Indeed, the whole prologue was absolutely breathtaking. I knew I was in for a treat and I wasn't disappointed. The writing sings and it is a song well worth hearing.

Wolf Hollow takes it's name from a hollow where they trapped and buried wolves in holes to reduce the threatening population. How appropriate as we meet a true threat to our young protagonist. Annabelle is a sweet, sincere girl who has no idea what is in store when she first encounters Betty Glengarry, an "incorrigible" youngster sent to live with her grandparents. At first, Annabelle is determined to handle Bettty's bullying on her own, but over time, realizes that she is in over her head. Still, Annabelle is plucky, intelligent, and compassionate. She figures quite a bit out on her own, without the help of grown-ups, something sure to appeal to young readers.

This book will stun and enthrall readers of all ages as they watch Annabelle lose her innocence and learn about the more difficult challenges of life. It takes on subjects of prejudice, justice, and mercy. Somehow the author manages to make readers feel empathy for both the bullied and the bully.

As Annabelle thinks on her plight, and the plight of Toby (another of Betty's targets), she wisely observes, "There might be things I would never understand, no matter how hard I tried... there would be people who would never hear my one small voice, no matter what I had to say. But then a better thought occurred, and this was the one I carried with me that day: If my life was to be just a single note in an endless symphony, how could I not sound it out for as long and as loudly as I could?"

The story ends just as eloquently. Annabelle declares, "The wind always swept my words away like cloud shadows, as if it mattered more that I said them, than who heard them." Thus, readers are challenged to live lives that speak into the darkness of this world, even if their voices go unheard. I am a better person for having read this book, and I think other readers will be, as well.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Book Review: The Girl Who Drank the Moon

I wanted to love this book. I really did. The cover is gorgeous, the idea is intriguing. and the endorsements are full of powerfully positive words ("spellbinding," "captivating," and "imaginative"). It is a New York Times bestseller and a Newbery winner. The Amazon page is full to the brim with accolades. I just can't bring myself to join the throngs.

I know there are friends of mine who would rave about The Girl Who Drank the Moon. People who love fairy tales, readers who enjoy fantastical stories, and lovers of magic will all be enthralled with it. I could imagine myself reading the book to an eager little girl (granddaughter perhaps, because I'm done in that department). But, the story never fully engaged me or pulled me in. Despite liking the portrayal of the little girl, I really struggled to care what happened to her because the story rambled and drifted aimlessly.

Living in the Protectorate sounds like it would be safe and cozy, doesn't it? But the whole idea of the Protectorate is held up by an annual sacrifice to the Witch in the dangerous forest around them. They hope that by offering up the youngest member, they will appease the thirst of the Witch. Thus, the story begins with a baby placed on a tree stump in the forest and left to its fate. The Witch does indeed come to take the baby, but falls in love with her and allows her to drink from the moon, thereby filling her with magic. That baby's mother is driven to madness and locked away in a tower. A young boy, training for a position as Elder, watches it all, convinced that something should be done to do away with this barbaric practice. So far, so good.

But, after that, the story begins to weave so poetic and allegorical that it began to bore me. Everything seems to be leading up to a climax, but it takes so long to get there and when things do finally come to a head (and I feared the girl would be mistaken for the witch and her throat slit - surely it couldn't end that way, I thought), it just sort of unravels and resolves quietly.

I felt hesitant about the undertones of the story. Was it poking fun at people who believe in a higher power, a God figure who works in mysterious ways? Was it mocking the idea of sacrifice? Why does the religious figure end up being the supreme evil entity? It felt like New Age philosophy triumphing over Christianity. Despite beautiful writing, I hesitantly read on, hoping for some form of redemption or some value to the story. Alas, I never found it. Am still confused by it, to be honest. Great potential, but sadly not a story to my tastes.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Book Review: Dark Matter

I occasionally join in on the festivities of The Deliberate Reader's on-line book club. When I read the description for April's selection, Blake Crouch's Dark Matter, I was drawn in. Then, when I discovered it was a book I could listen to in audio form, my participation was clinched. The only thing that could have been better would have been for me to discover this a bit sooner (since I had to avoid viewing the questions for this whole first week and a half of April).

What a thought-provoking book! Jason Dessen lives a mediocre life with his lovely wife, Daniella, and his teen son, Charlie. He is a physics professor at a small Chicago college. Where would life have taken him if Daniella hadn't gotten pregnant and they hadn't chosen to get married? On a quiet night, heading home from a celebration for a colleague's recent achievement, Jason is kidnapped and drugged. He awakens to another world. A world where he supposedly went on to pursue the great scientific discovery of dark matter (innumerable alternate realities bent by individual human choices). In this world, his wife is not his wife and his child, never born. He is faced with a host of scenarios that might have happened if his choices had been different. But once trapped in this other world, he must find a way back to his truest self and the most important choices of his existence.

Who doesn't wonder what their life would have been like if they had simply taken a different path at any number of cross-roads? I've previously mentioned my own fascination with the "what ifs" of life. I loved the movie "Sliding Doors," for its treatment of just such a question. I enjoyed this book even more than that movie. I hated the villain, even though the villain was part-and-parcel of the hero. I desperately wanted Jason to end up in the life of his choosing, where love and happiness both rule supreme over success. I loved second-guessing how Jason could triumph over his dilemma. The twists in the tale were cleverly executed.

As for personal application, I thought long and hard about whether I would trade my current existence for something other, if that alternate life provided more success or a more satisfying path. Would I trade my time with my sons, if it meant more fulfillment in a career? Would I so long for the elusive grail of publication that I would be willing to trade personal happiness for it? Hmm. I think I should focus more energy on gratitude and less on wishful thinking.

There is some on-line talk of a movie production. I would welcome the experience. Moreover, it would be a movie my husband might even enjoy seeing with me (something we seldom do) - he's always game for philosophical rumination.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Book Review: By Your Side

It seems harder and harder to find clean reads in YA fiction these days. As I have conducted agent searches for my own books, it amazes me how many are looking for story lines that I would consider morally bankrupt. As that discouraging article mentioned in my August 2015 post suggested, "if you want to publish YA in this day and age, you should sex it up." Sadly, much of what is currently popular contains language, sex, opposition to religion and traditional family structures, and graphic violence. I know there are young adult readers out there who crave a good clean read. This author, and this book in particular, offers an interesting story line without caving to the modern thirst for smut and filth.

From everything I have read recently in my search for more wholesome literature, Kasie West is a name you can trust. In By Your Side, we meet Autumn Collins, a girl who suffers from an anxiety disorder. I'm sure numerous teen readers can relate to this character. When Autumn is accidentally locked in a library over a snowy holiday weekend, her panic emerges. It is ratcheted up a notch, when she discovers she is not alone. Dax Miller, a mysterious and notorious troublemaker, is hiding out in the library, as well. She is confused and dismayed when her prospective boyfriend, Jeff, doesn't immediately appear to rescue her. Why is nobody coming? Can she get along with Dax for the whole weekend? Will Autumn still want Jeff after getting to know Dax more?

This was a light-hearted, quick, and easy read. I was immediately drawn into the story. I loved the idea of being trapped in the library with a mysterious guy and was intrigued by the developing relationship between Autumn and Dax. The conflict is resolved in a satisfying manner and Autumn grows and changes as a result of the events she experiences. Kudos to Kasie West, her agent Michelle Wolfson, and Harper Teen for pushing this satisfying and safe read to publication.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Book Review: A Separation

At the outset of every new year, I tend to peruse lists of books recommended for book clubs. Katie Kitamura's A Separation landed on one of those lists this year as a recently released title worth group discussion. If it hadn't been so short, I might not have stuck with it. I guess I kept hoping it would improve, but it never seemed to change course and pick up speed. It is a very cerebral novel and thus, I understand why some might consider it a good book for discussion, but for me, the discussion possibilities were fairly slim.

Basically, the plot (if you can say there is any plot) revolves around a young woman who has secretly separated from her husband. When that husband, Christopher, goes missing in Greece, his mother sends the wife (the couple had made a pact not to inform his parents of the separation) to find her husband. The young woman, whose name we never learn, intends to find him and demand a divorce. However, before she can find him, she learns more about his infidelities and what has transpired since they agreed to separate.

The novel had a very stream-of-consciousness feel to it. The reader is trapped inside the thoughts of the narrator as she ruminates on the deeper subjects of marriage, commitment, infidelity, responsibility, and relationships. The narrator talks about the ritualistic words "I do" paired with "the archaic and unreasonable phrase until death do us part." As far as the author and narrator are concerned, marriage is a temporary commitment, unrealistically expected to endure over time. Infidelities are to be expected. The eventual demise of relationships a foregone conclusion.

For me, this perspective rings shallow and untrue. I recognize the sacred covenant of marriage and aspire to uphold it. Thus, I could not stomach much of the thought processes elaborated in this novel. Moreover, I could not, in good conscience, recommend this as a book to foster realistic conversations about relationships and marriage, distance and divorce. I did not consider it "profound," "gripping," or "mesmerizing," as the accolades on the back cover profess. It was superficial, boring, and disturbing.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Book Review: Vicious Cycle

The author blurb on the back of Vicious Cycle proclaims the success of Christian author Terri Blackstock. She had sold over six million books at the time of this book's publication (2011). I'm sure the numbers would be even more astounding now, in 2017. She certainly has the skill to present a riveting story with a fast-moving plot and interesting conflicted characters.

In Vicious Cycle, the reader is sucked into the world of meth addiction. Just as an addict is desperate for another hit, I voraciously read chapter after chapter. In fact, when I sat down to finish the book, I ended up being late to pick Trevor up from his weightlifting session after school. Time began to blur and I forgot to keep my eye on the clock. It was also good for distracting my thoughts on the plane ride home from our spring break trip.

Although this is a second novel in a series, the author quickly brings the reader up to speed on details from the first book and plunges you into the action of the tale immediately. Lance Covington just wants to help his sister's friend, Jordan. Pregnant and recently released from a rehabilitation center for a meth addiction, Jordan needs clean friends to pull her away from the pressure of her thoroughly addicted family. When her mother and brother decide to sell Jordan's baby to gain money for drugs, Jordan hides the baby in Lance's car. Lance only wants to do the right thing, but is soon arrested for kidnapping.

The pacing was excellent. I felt so incredibly sorry for the characters whose lives were destroyed by drug addiction (I'm pretty sure it was an accurately painted picture). I wanted Lance to be cleared and Jordan to find a way to save her tiny baby. This was an engrossing tale of addiction and the desire for freedom. If you're looking for a good, clean read with a great deal of suspense, Terri Blackstock delivers in this novel.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Book Review: The Light in the Ruins

The only other Chris Bojhalian book I attempted was The Double Bind and I had a rather "meh" response to that one. I think this one was far more appealing. At least, it sucked me in quite quickly, held me on the edge of my seat waiting to determine the identity of the killer, and ended with a satisfying conclusion.

The Light in the Ruins jumps back and forth between the war time of 1943 and a later time of 1955. A killer has targeted the Rosati family, cutting out the hearts of both Franscesca Rosati and her mother-in-law, and investigator Serafina Bettini must pursue the killer to call him or her to justice. During the war, eighteen-year-old Cristina Rosati lives with her parents, her sister-in-law, and her niece and nephew in the family's ornate villa. When German officers visit the estate to view the Etruscan ruins, Cristina falls in love with a German lieutenant. Her peaceful bucolic existence is threatened by this relationship and the actions of the Germans on her property.

Serafina holds her own secrets and her own history of involvement in the war. She must battle the demons of the past to unveil a path through the present and face difficult memories to free the Rosati family of the threat of immanent murder. Both Serafina and Cristina provide interesting character studies for the reader.

Although the book won't make my top list at the end of the year, it was fairly enjoyable and a far better experience than his other novel, The Double Bind. I believe his writing skills are commendable, and his story-telling techniques quite polished. While I never fell in love with any of the characters, I did hope for a redemptive end to the story. I was glad to have listened to the book in audio form, as it preoccupied my thoughts on my daily treadmill time.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Spring Break 2017 El Paso Style

This year, we were invited to visit my husband's older sister and her husband in El Paso, Texas. We left on the Monday of the boys' spring break. Thankfully, I happened upon a coupon for a parking facility near the airport called Fast Park. This made our parking experience quite stress-free. We simply showed up, received our identification ticket and were led to a parking space, where a shuttle bus driver loaded our luggage and drove us immediately to the airport. Within minutes, my husband's larger bag was checked and we were checked in and waiting in the appropriate terminal.

I must say, the first flight experience was a bit shaky for me. To begin with, we were on one of United's smaller airplanes (the man in front of me had to walk hunched over just to board the plane) and overhead storage was minimal. Thus, they required all roller bags be tagged and checked at the entrance to the plane. I really don't like to be separated from my luggage at all (that is why I almost always choose to fly with a minimal amount so it can fit in carry-on baggage). Then, once we sat down, we were informed that a maintenance issue had arisen. Yikes! It is always disconcerting to me to hear any news of possible difficulty with a plane. If that wasn't enough, it began to storm.

After a full 45 minutes or more on the tarmac, we finally lifted off (with me gripping the arm-rests of my seat and praying through the bumpy launch until we were above the clouds). Even then, I found it difficult to avert my attention to the book I brought to bide the time. Thankfully, Sean was undeterred and began reading right off the bat.

We easily made our connecting flight and I was relieved to find that we were on a bit larger plane. As we approached El Paso, it was obvious that this part of the country didn't resemble our own at all. It seemed like a barren wasteland of rocks and ridges, with very little green. The boys were fascinated and thoroughly excited. Phil and Martha met us at the baggage check area and we headed off for a quick bite to eat at a restaurant serving soups and sandwiches (not Sean's first choice of selection  - I was a bit perturbed with his refusal to eat the bread bowl of delicious cheddar broccoli soup his dad had ordered for him, but at least he did eat once I went back up and ordered him a BLT with chips).

If Trevor had had his way, they would have jumped right into Phil and Martha's pool the minute we arrived at their house. We convinced him that the water would be quite chilly and forced him to wait until morning. When Tuesday morning dawned, it became quite clear that we would not be experiencing typical El Paso weather. It was downright frigid (about 50-some degrees). Nonetheless, the boys were intent upon trying out the pool.

We had expressed a desire to go into Mexico, so the boys could say they visited another country. They decided rather than driving just over the border, where it might be unsafe, we would drive to Columbus, New Mexico and cross over the border to a place called Puerto Palomas. We visited what's known as The Pink Store and had a fantastic authentic Mexican lunch. Trevor got the most tantalizing serving of nachos (chock full of beef - his favorite). John, thinking ahead to our planned evening cookout, went meat-less and ordered a quesadilla. I was thrilled with my Tostada Trio (one avocado, one beef, one bean) and a side of refried beans. Sean wimped out with an American order for a cheeseburger and fries. The food was fantastic.

Trevor decided to purchase a souvenir and selected a cow skull. This led to a funny moment when we had to declare what we were departing with. I said "It's a skull ... but not a human one ... just a decorative cow one." We were ushered out rather quickly, as they were arresting a young man for who knows what (drug or weapon smuggling??).

The boys spent most of the afternoon in the pool, despite the chilly temperatures. Then, that evening Martha graced us with a cookout. We had hoped to eat by the pool, but I'm just as glad we ended up around the table. John's niece Sarah, and her husband, Saul, joined us and we had a delightful time talking together.

The next day, our plan of attack included a hike up the nearby Franklin mountain. We got quite a workout and everyone but John took a tumble in the rocks on the way down (it was quite steep and the rocks just give out beneath your feet even when careful). The view was amazing. Knowing I couldn't trust my own photography skills, I didn't even bring my phone along, but I managed to get a few photos from Sean and John and then Martha took a few shots of all of us together.

This led to the most disturbing part of our spring break jaunt. When we returned from the hike, I was determined to wash our dusty clothes. Trevor and Sean had jumped in the pool again and I grabbed up Trevor's discarded shorts and t-shirt off the floor. I tossed everything in and about five minutes later, Trevor came dashing inside to ask where his shorts were. He had left his I-phone in the pocket and I had failed to check pockets thoroughly. We were devastated, to say the least. John was furious, in fact. Talk about a downer!

That evening, we drove over to Sarah and Saul's townhouse to see their place and meet their cat (a feisty young thing called Sasha). Then, we all headed together to another authentic Mexican restaurant, Barrigas. Saul ordered an appetizer called queso fundido (a melted cheese with green chiles, mushrooms, and chorizo) and taught us how to fork off the stringy cheese and slap it onto a tortilla. It was quite yummy. John ordered a beef soup, I ordered chicken breast campesina (filled with cream cheese and spinach - ah, my love of spinach), Trevor ordered beefy tacos, and Sean ordered another cheeseburger plate. Again, another fabulous meal!

Thursday, temperatures returned to normal, just as we were ready to depart and head for home. Martha made a pit stop at a Barnes and Noble so we could buy the fifth book of the Percy Jackson series for Sean to read on the trip home (he devoured the library's copy of the fourth on the trip there). Our flights back (El Paso to Denver to Indy) were uneventful and we made the close connection. Once we secured our luggage and had a quick bite at the over-priced airport Chik-fil-A, the Fast Park shuttle bus awaited us and transported us quickly back to our car (I'd definitely recommend this business to anyone flying out of Indy and needing to leave a car parked nearby - they provide a free newspaper and water bottle, in addition to covered parking, immediate shuttle transport, and reasonable rates). All-in-all, it was a splendid spring break adventure.

------- (And, thanks to putting the phone immediately in rice, and taking it to a phone repair place, we only had to pay $90 to replace the screen and the battery to get it working normally again. He didn't lose a single photo. Shwew!)

Friday, March 31, 2017

Book Review: Chaperones

I believe I discovered this self-published book by googling "young adult books anxiety." I suppose, since the main character is twenty-six, it would really be considered a new adult book (for that category of reader just beyond their teens). I expected to thoroughly enjoy Chaperones. After all, the book takes place in England, one of my favorite places to visit, Instead, I couldn't quite get behind the main character and her unreasonable phobias and anxieties. Indeed, I wasn't drawn to a single character in the book.

Andrea Lieberman is a thoroughly neurotic individual, afraid of the slightest possible danger (walking the streets, visiting churches, using the underground railway system, etc.). When her boyfriend pops the question, Andrea hesitates to accept his proposal because she has taken on a six-month photography position with a travel magazine, in the hopes of conquering some of her fears and proving her independence. The assignment will take her overseas to England.

Andrea doesn't simply feel anxious about new experiences, she displays over-the-top anxiety about almost every basic life experience. She attributes her level of anxiety to her over-protective upbringing claiming "being the only child of a teacher and a pediatrician meant I would forever be suffocated with attention." I couldn't quite accept that such individuals would nurture the extreme anxieties Andrea experiences. She claims she was "taught to fear everything that could be considered risky even by Sesame Street standards." Indeed, the main character is paralyzed with a myriad of phobias that seem unbelievable. Yet, at the same time, she imbibes like a madwoman. How could an individual, afraid of her own shadow, allow herself to be out-of-control in drunkenness so frequently?

Usually, I enjoy tid-bits of British quirks and traits, but in this book, it felt forced ... like the author sat down with a list of every uniquely British encounter she had ever had and attempted to fit them into the manuscript (typical British expressions, different pronunciations, common touristy experiences, etc.) I suppose, a young reader who has never experienced travel in Britain might enjoy these details, but for me, it was tiresome and over-emphasized. I guess I just wish the travelogue details had been conveyed more seamlessly, with the story-line superseding the colloquialisms.

Moreover, the writing was clumsy and pretentious. Here is an example of two especially grating sentences describing yet another beer-fest:

"After a short while, however, the tables ranneth over with empty glasses, the ratio of cups to people reaching ten to one, and the noise level in the room, which had intensified in direct proportion to the sampling, had reached an intolerable level. Once we were so buzzed that lifting a cup to our lips was as laborious as highway ditch-digging and the smell of the room was that of a frat house the morning after a kegger, we wandered several feet to a hideous pub, the Whispering Billy Goat, which I thought would be more aptly named The Flagellating Skunk."

The point-of-view shifted back and forth from first-person to omniscient. No doubt, the author wished to wrangle both the intimacy of the use of "I" with the ability to convey the thoughts and motivations of all the characters simultaneously. Thus, one minute the reader is inside the protagonist's head and the next minute they are learning things the protagonist could not possibly be privy to (like the actions and thoughts of the parents and chaperones).

I'm guessing the extremes kept me from appreciating the novel fully. The protagonist is not anxious, she is neurotic. The photo shoots don't simply go wrong, they explode into constant mayhem. The chaperones are stereotypical and the progress of their relationship fully anticipated. So, despite my desire to embrace this novel, I ended with a sour taste in my mouth. The cover was enticing; the story less so. At least it stirred fond memories of my own travels in Britain.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Book Review: The Boyfriend List

I discovered E. Lockhart's The Boyfriend List while searching for young adult novels dealing with social anxiety. Although the main character does suffer from some anxiety (she's had five panic attacks), she never really struck me as a thoroughly anxious individual. I guess I expected more social angst. Apart from hiding her true feelings about things, she was fairly spunky and didn't shrink back from the opinions or responses of others.

Ruby Oliver writes a list of 15 boys who might be considered boyfriends, some fully deserving the title and others just peripheral to that role. The list is an assignment from her psychiatrist to help her discuss some of the problems that might be causing her panic attacks. As she discusses each boy on the list, she opens a window to her world. Her life is full of the chaos of unrequited love, muddled misunderstandings, and fractured friendships.

While the voice and dialogue did, indeed, ring true, I never really felt drawn to Ruby. There was a sense of detachment there. I'm not sure why. I wanted to like her and wanted to care about her world, but for some reason, I didn't connect. This isn't my first E. Lockhart book (We Were Liars), so I can't say that I wouldn't read another by this author, but I certainly didn't finish the book wanting to continue with the Ruby Oliver series.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Book Review: Saving Grace

The cover proclaims that Saving Grace is written by New York Times bestselling author, Jane Green. I had never heard the name before. Nor was I aware that this audio book, read by the author, would delight with a British accent and story (well, the setting is split between New England in the States and Dorset in Britain). I always enjoy a well-told story narrated with a British accent.

Grace Chapman has it all. Married to the fierce and successful writer, Ted Chapman, she is a well-known cook in her own right. Their only current difficulty is their need of an assistant/household manager. When their daughter, Clemmie, introduces them to Beth, Grace believes her prayers have been answered. Beth, with her take-charge personality, begins to whip things in shape and both Grace and Ted are impressed. But, slowly, things begin to unravel for Grace and she can't quite shake the feeling that Beth is at the root of it all. Running from her own personal demons, Grace must face things from the past and iron out things in the present.

If it weren't for the delightful narration, I would have preferred a hard-cover version of the book, since each chapter ended with a recipe. As it was, I did pause the audio to jot down the recipe for Pavlova (a dessert our Australian matron used to make when I worked at The Salvation Army's International College for Officers). Of course, not being much of a cook, I didn't hold out enough hope to write down any of the other recipes (and I might even bomb the Pavlova, but I do intend to take a stab at it). Although parts were a bit unbelievable (Grace can cook up intricate recipes for the masses, yet cannot keep her own checkbook and hands it over to Beth without thoroughly double-checking references?), I'd be willing to try another book from this author.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Book Review: When We Collided

I was enticed by the inside blurb: "In an unflinching story about new love, old wounds, and forces beyond our control, two teens find that when you collide with the right person at just the right time, it will change you forever." Romantic and alluring, no? Then there were the endorsements on the back: "This is more than a love story. When We Collided carefully yet effortlessly puts mental illness in conversation with the beauty and struggle of adolescence." - Julie Murphy (author of Dumplin') "Searingly honest, gut-wrenchingly authentic, and deeply romantic, When We Collided ... tackles tough topics with nuance and will make readers both laugh and cry." - Jasmine Warga

I loved that the story was told again, like in my last YA read dealing with a character with mental illness, in alternating chapters from two different character perspectives. Vivian, who is running from a past littered with the fall-out of her diagnosis, tells the female perspective of the budding romance. Jonah, who is dealing with stages of grief after the loss of his father and the subsequent abandonment of a mother dealing with her own grief, tells the story from an achingly raw perspective. Jonah needs Vivi as much as Vivi needs Jonah and the fact that they enter each other's lives at the just the right time is icing on the cake. Vivi is not afraid of darkness and Jonah desperately needs someone to brighten his world.

And just like my reaction from the last YA book, I keep wondering why YA authors find it necessary to paint the picture that all teenagers are having sex. These two characters have plenty on their plates already without adding the emotional baggage and intensity of a sexual relationship. Yet the author paints the picture that their sexual involvement is merely a side-note and no big deal, even though they end up going their separate ways at the end of the tale. For once I would like a YA book to honestly express the fall-out of such casual intercourse and the damage done by engaging in intimacy at that level with the flippancy of handing out a business card. Instead, readers are led to believe that such intimacy heals the wounds of the present and allows individuals to move on into other spheres more whole, instead of less. So, while there were, indeed, "raw, descriptive truths" (SLJ starred review) in the book, some of the truths rang questionable to my ears.

Moreover, I was troubled by the absence of reliable, supportive adults. While it is entirely realistic that a mother might drown in the grief of the loss of her spouse and might truly leave her children to fend for themselves, there could have been other adults playing a responsible role and intervening into Jonah's chaotic world or even Vivian's (absent self-involved mother and father). Yet, even the upstanding town sheriff offers shallow support ("deal with the cards life has dealt"). It would have been refreshing to see adults stepping up to the plate to assist these fragile adolescents.

Still, we do need novels like this one - novels that portray the reality of life with mental illness because plenty of young people are out there struggling with these illnesses. Moreover, we need to learn to handle such individuals with gentleness and kindness. We need to eliminate the social stigma. Having personal familiarity with the depth of clinical depression, I'm all for stories that highlight the medical challenges presented by such illnesses. I certainly hope teen readers who can relate to the personal battles of either Vivian or Jonah will not close the book without utilizing the resources the author has listed at the end.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Book Review: Highly Illogical Behavior

I read loads of young adult fiction because I attempt to write young adult fiction. But my book club only rarely selects a young adult title (once a year or less). John Corey Whaley's Highly Illogical Behavior was a good choice because it is an easy read (brief, with a compelling story and believable characters) and offers much to discuss (mental health, general attitudes toward individuals with mental health problems, ethical dilemmas connected to the characters' actions, and the universal longing for connection). I enjoyed it and I'm hoping the other members found some good in it as well.

Seventeen-year-old Lisa Praytor wants nothing more than to escape her hum-drum existence in Upland, California. She has set her heart on the second-best psychology program in the country and hopes to get in on a full scholarship through an essay contest offered by the program. But can she write a stellar essay that will put her head-and-shoulders above the competition? She thinks she can if she connects with and assists an individual with a mental health problem. Enter Solomon Reed.

Suffering from an intense panic disorder, Solomon had flipped out one day in middle school and submerged himself in the school's fountain in front of the on-lookers (including Lisa). Nobody ever heard about him again. The incident triggered a severe case of agoraphobia and his parents simply agreed to home-school him and alleviate his anxieties as best they could.

Lisa, together with her boyfriend, Clark, attempts to befriend Solomon and "fix" him so that he can feel safe in the world again. She doesn't expect what happens next: a genuine friendship between the three of them. At Solomon's house, Clark finally lets down his guard and feels comfortable and known in a way his athletic buddies, and even Lisa, can't provide. The closeness between Solomon and Clark threatens to undo his relationship with Lisa. Will their secret come out? Will Clark "come out"?

Things I liked: very endearing characters, intriguing plot-line, prominent contemporary issue, excellent writing, and plenty of discussion fodder. I did, indeed, fall in love with Lisa, Clark, and Solomon. I loved Solomon's parents and their approach to their son's issues. I loved Solomon's wise and spunky grandmother. I wondered whether Solomon would win them over or feel used at any point. I felt the portrayal of Solomon's illness was written with precision and handled with compassion. I appreciated the format of the novel, alternating between chapters from Solomon's perspective and chapters from Lisa's perspective. I even reveled in the name choices: Solomon (man going it alone), Praytor (preying on someone else), and Clark (Superman connotations). I enjoyed this read.

Things I struggled with: why, oh why, does society immediately jump to the conclusion that if a guy is unwilling to enter into a sexual relationship with a girl, he must be either a religious freak or gay? Are young men so devoid of true character that those are the only contingencies that would cause a teenage boy to stand firm in sexual boundaries? Thankfully, I think the author, while wanting to present these as options, did an okay job of portraying a character who is simply careful with his physical expressions of love. Still, it rankles that the premise of the story relies on society's current views of sexuality among teens: that everyone is doing it, that anyone remotely interested in another individual should be pursuing it, and that someone who doesn't must have a hang-up of some sort. I, for one, applaud Clark for being a character who senses the immanent distance between the two of them and decides not to engage in an activity that is meant to bond two individuals together for life.

I also struggled with Lisa's lack of conscience in the story. She only vaguely questioned her decision to use another individual for her own advantage. It was only the possibility of Clark's interest in Solomon that forced her to face her own selfish behavior in regard to Solomon. I guess I wanted to see her struggle more internally with her own behavior of treating someone as a means to an end. Still, at least her friends attempted to point out this lack of insight. In the end, I appreciated what remorse Lisa did express for her actions. I also appreciated the author's leaving the results of the essay contest up in the air. I was satisfied with the ending and glad to have read the book.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Book Review: Three Weeks in Paris

A couple of weeks ago, I finally stepped out to fulfill a writing goal and personal ambition. One of my young adult novels ends with two individuals leaving on a trip to London, Paris, and Rome. Because the novel ends with the possibility for a sequel, I've been skimming advertisements for such a trip whenever they come my way. I'm primarily a fan of London (and have always been an intense Anglophile), and have been to Paris, but I've never explored Rome.

When I chanced upon a Groupon for a London/Paris/Rome trip, I hesitantly called to see how much it would cost to fly out of Indianapolis instead of the New York departure plan. With the assurance that it would only be $17 more (but that this rate might, indeed, go up if I lingered over the decision), I jumped and purchased the deal. I am bound for London/Paris/Rome in November. Of course, on the spur of the moment, I didn't have time (or really any possible contenders) to convince someone else to join me (my husband loathes travel, so that simply wasn't an option).

I've never read anything by Barbara Taylor Bradford before, despite knowing of her rank as a bestselling author. When I stumbled upon this title, Three Weeks in Paris, I thought it would be a great way to begin to soak myself in the locations I will soon visit. Bradford earns the accolades. Her writing is full of interesting and believable characters, with plenty of intrigue and excellent plot development. I appreciated how this novel slowly show-cased each of the four main characters and drew out the details that, at first, nurtured their intense friendship and then managed to separate them. Each character has plenty of backstory and an element of suspense.

The four women return to Paris for a party celebrating the 85th birthday of their esteemed teacher, Anya. Alexa, recently engaged, wonders whether she should renew a relationship with a past love in Paris. Kay is struggling with infertility and a secretive past. She worries that her husband is so intent upon an heir that he will cast her aside. Jessica has long pined for her own love, a man who disappeared shortly before her graduation from Anya's school. Maria is tied to her family's business and eats to console herself. She is at the heart of the incident that sabotaged the friendship between the girls.

While I was swept quickly into the tales of these diverse lives, and did thoroughly enjoy the story, I was disappointed with a plethora of my own personal bookish cryptonite (as Sheila, from The Deliberate Reader, calls it). Call me a prude, but I cannot abide intensely descriptive love-making scenes in books. I don't need help conjuring up images and I would prefer those details to remain in my private imagination.

Moreover, I was distressed by the modern moral vacuum portrayed. Characters are in bed with one man one minute and within a short time, jump into bed with another. The final lines of the book demonstrate this shallow mindset of relationships. It proclaims, "Love - it's the only thing that really matters in the end." I fail to see the depth of love when characters so casually engage in intercourse. So, despite enjoying the Paris descriptions, the varied tales of each character, the resolution of many conflicts, and the engaging storytelling skill of the author, I could not recommend this to many of my friends (especially those who share my sentiments about the sanctity of marriage, the reverence for the private sacredness of the act of marriage, or the dislike of the bookish cryptonite of sexual voyeurism).

I listened to this book in audio form and was thankful that my young sons never entered the room during the seven or eight love scenes. I will say that the narrator, Barbara Rosenblat, did an outstanding job with the narration. She displayed superb skill in bringing these characters to life with separate accents and excellent interpretations. I would happily listen to her narration in another audio book, just probably not another one by this author.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Book Review: On the Edge of Gone

As I read the tagline to On the Edge of Gone, I knew it would be a suitable comparison title for my recent novel. It reads: "When the future of the human race is at stake, whose lives matter most?" The similarities are striking.

Denise, her mother, and her trans-gender sister Iris, have all been assigned to a temporary shelter to wait out the impact of an anticipated comet collision. This will provide meager comfort and security, at best. Their wildest dream is to be allowed to board one of the generation ships, bound for another planet to save mankind. But, there's a hitch. Everyone on board the ship must prove their usefulness. Denise is autistic. Her mother is a drug addict. Her sister's primary skill is planning and executing festivals, not much use on a ship looking for engineers and scientists.

The day the comet is due, Denise can't find her sister and her mother seems strung out and unwilling to move. Their luck picks up when they assist two women headed for one of the generation ships. Denise and her mother are offered temporary shelter in exchange for their assistance in transporting the women. Now, Denise must struggle to find her sister and secure permanent spots for them on the ship's manifest.

I am most impressed by the author's skillful rendering of the narrator. When your main character faces intense challenges, it can be quite difficult to sway the reader's affection. While I never came to love Denise, I certainly sympathized with her in her dilemmas. She has a tenacity that carries her through, despite her constant need to self-stimulate (frequent tapping on her legs) and disengage. It must have been quite tricky for the author to convey the challenges along with the strengths.

In the end, the reader is left thinking long and hard about the intrinsic value of each and every individual on the planet, whether they are autistic, addicted, or unproductive. The end doesn't wrap up with a rosy, neatly packaged resolution. It is realistic and yet hopeful.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Book Review: The Nature of Jade

I've been searching for comparison titles to use in my query letters to agents concerning my most recently written young adult novel. I hoped to find a novel highlighting an individual who struggles with some sort of anxiety disorder. Thus, I discovered The Nature of Jade by Deb Caletti.

Jade DeLuna suffers from panic attacks, but she doesn't want her issue to define her. So, she takes on a job working with the elephants at the zoo. Despite their enormous size, they serve as a calming influence in her life. That is how she ends up meeting the boy in the red jacket, a boy who brings his infant son to see the elephants. The boy looks too young to have a son and Jade is intrigued and desperate to meet him. As she secretly weaves her life into his (afraid others will warn her off of him because of his adult responsibilities), she discovers the truth of his own story and must confront a painful decision of whether to follow love on a complicated path or seek safety.

I'm not sure it is an adequate comparison title, so I will continue seeking similar ones, but it was a good read. The characters were believable and conflicted. The plot moved at an adequate pace. Moreover, I enjoyed the snippets about animal behavior that prefaced each chapter. While the novel was definitely different from my own, it shared some similarities in highlighting anxiety. For teens seeking a novel about individuals with panic disorder or teens interested in learning about elephant behavior, this would be a good fit.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Book Review: The Lose Your Belly Diet

If I had only seen the main title to this, without the subtitle, I may not have checked it out, but I'm fascinated with the idea of health stemming from the status of your gut. This book, The Lose Your Belly Diet: Change Your Gut, Change Your Life, provides all the arguments for improving your gut health found in the wonderful book, The Brain Maker, but also includes prescribed recipes. Like Dr. David Perlmutter's book, Dr. Travis Stork's book points to the importance of the microbiome for all aspects of health, mental as well as gastrointestinal. Moreover, Dr. Stork breaks it all down into easy analogies and accessible language.

As the inside cover proclaims, "This plan is built around a very clear, research-based concept: Eating food that nourishes and protects the microbiome in your gut paves the way for weight loss, a slimmer middle, and better overall health." Stork begins by explaining current research into the gut environment known as the "microbiome." He goes on to outline many things you can do to improve your gastrointestinal health (things like eating fruits, vegetables, and pre-and-probiotics, while avoiding c-sections, formula-feeding, unnecessary antibiotics, and hyper-sensitivity to germs and bacteria).

While none of this information was new to me (having read Perlmutter's excellent book), I was impressed with how accessible Stork managed to make it all. Moreover, he does provide actual weekly menu suggestions and recipes (although I wasn't enticed by many of them). If you are looking for a plan to improve your diet, you couldn't go wrong in turning to this book. And if you are interested in learning more about how your gut influences the rest of your bodily functions, this is a good place to start. I still enjoyed Perlmutter's book more, but this book certainly offers up practical steps and tangible guidance.