Sunday, October 29, 2017

Book Review: The Fiction Class

At some point, I subscribed to the Gotham Writers Workshop site. In a recent newletter, they mentioned this book by one of their instructors, Susan Breen. The Fiction Class is billed as a book perfect for anyone who loves books or has a difficult mother. I love books and writing, but thankfully don't have a difficult mother at all.

Arabella Hicks, aged 38, is a single woman teaching a fiction class for a New York adult education program. Her class meets every Wednesday and contains a number of interesting characters and would-be writers. After every class, Arabella heads off to the nursing home for her weekly visit with her mother. Since the relationship is strained, their times together are often filled with tension and anxiety. The mother is dying and the daughter is desperate to make peace before that happens. Arabella is also somewhat interested in one of the older male students, adding a bit of romance to the tale.

For writers, the novel is full of tidbits of writing advice. Each chapter ends with a writing exercise to practice the tips communicated. Since I read this during a three day trip to visit my mother-in-law, I couldn't really take the time to attempt the exercises, but they were intriguing enough that I might have explored them had there been more time. For the general reader, it is a tale of relational struggle. Some of the conflict revolves around the years of the father's illness and paralysis. Arabella ends up encouraging her mother to attempt the writing exercises and the mother writes her own fiction account of a character hoping for a miracle for her incapacitated husband. Through the writing, Arabella learns more about her mother's perspective and comes to forgive her for some of their struggle.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Book Review: This Was a Man - Highly Recommend

Several months ago, my library experienced a disruption of their services due to some sort of breach in their information system. For many days, the catalog was down. In addition, once the information was once more available, all of my held titles had been wiped clear and I had no idea what I had been waiting on. Thankfully, in a mad dash to find another audio title, I happened upon this final installment of the long-awaited Clifton Chronicles conclusion and remembered I had been waiting on it. I knew I was in for a treat and I was certainly not disappointed.

The previous book had ended, as usual, with a stirring cliffhanger. Giles Barrington's wife Karin had come to a crossroads and was in the midst of being confronted by her spying co-hort, when shots were fired and the reader left to wonder which individual succumbed to the bullets. This Was a Man picks up the battalion and carries the story forward into further deep waters. Full of political intrigue, literary and artistic aspirations, and a fair dose of pure wickedness (from Lady Virginia), this book provides a satisfying conclusion to a brilliant over-arching family tale.

I took great pleasure in the final moments of the Clifton-Barrington union. The funeral scene was especially fun since it included the mention of The Salvation Army (the church I was raised in) and the song, "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat," from Guys and Dolls (a song we rehearsed with the faculty choir at music camp this past summer - challenging, but such fun). I loved every minute of the seven-book saga.

Indeed, I cannot recommend this series highly enough. You will be entranced by the masterful storytelling and will come to consider the characters as long-held friends. Jeffrey Archer always manages to carry his readers along on a current of steadily-moving plot developments and to end his books with a twist in the tale. I further recommend listening to the series in audio form because it is so stirring to hear it read with the fine British accent and expert narration of Alex Jennings. I will miss Harry and Emma Clifton, along with their extended family of interesting characters, and may have to return to this series all over again if I run out of suitable audio selections available at my library.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Book Review: Death by Toilet Paper

While I have a great passion for reading, my sons do not all share my inclination. Both Bryce and Trevor are reluctant readers, at best. Imagine the outright terror Trevor experienced, at the start of the school year, when he learned that every seventh grader would be expected to read and review five books for each of the nine week grading periods. For him, that is certainly an uphill climb. I was able to recommend a few highly engaging titles (Lost in the Sun and Ghost Dog Secrets) and he took me up on my suggestions. I snagged Donna Gephart's Death by Toilet Paper at the library, thinking it would be right up his alley because it is the story of a young boy intent upon making money.

Benjamin Epstein misses the old toilet paper his mother used to buy, the cushy stuff they could afford before his father passed away and medical bills and rent payments cut away at their discretionary funds. Laced with bathroom trivia, the story follows Benjamin as he enters a variety of contests and embarks on a number of money-making schemes in an effort to help his mother stave off the threat of eviction. Their perilous state intensifies when his grandfather shows up hoping to stay. Benjamin's zeyde (Yiddish for "grandfather") is experiencing memory issues. Despite the tension of their daily lives and the threat of a powerful bully, Benjamin and his mother continue to pursue "The Grand Plan," set in place by his deceased father.

There are several things I know Trevor will enjoy: the toileting trivia blurbs, a few vomit scenes, Benjamin's entrepreneurial spirit, and his best friend's make-up artist techniques fascination. It will still be a struggle for him to get through, but I'm hoping he chooses it as one of his five books for the second quarter. For me, it was a tender tale about a realistic crisis, full of humor and heart.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Book Review: P.S. from Paris

With a lovely cover and a clear topic in preparation for my trip, I gratefully snapped up this novel, P.S. from Paris, by Marc Levy. It was a delightful light-hearted romance. I may have to reread it after visiting Paris, when perhaps the place names will stand out for me more. As it was, the only thing I recognized in the novel was Sacre Coeur.

Mia, otherwise known as the famous British actress Melissa Barlow, is fed up with her cheating co-star husband. Knowing that she faces many upcoming press events to promote their film, Mia runs away to Paris to visit her oldest friend, Daisy. Daisy is a respectable chef with her own restaurant near Sacre Coeur. Determined to linger there incognito for a while, Mia has her hair dyed and takes on another persona. While logging onto Daisy's computer to check her email, Mia happens upon a dating website and decides to skim the profiles of several men and create her own profile, as well.

Paul Barton is an American author living in Paris. His books are most popular in Korea and his agent is encouraging him to go there to make a television appearance and several book-signings. While his oldest friends are visiting him, they attempt to encourage him to go despite his great fear of flying. They also stumble upon the dating website and trick him into a blind date with one of the women. When Mia and Paul meet, they realize that they have met under less than ideal circumstances and hold no desire for romantic involvement. Thus, they agree to part as friends, with no commitment to any further contact. Yet, the heavens conspire against them and they find their friendship blossoming as they continue to make allowances for repeated contact, saying it "doesn't really count" as anything romantic.

Romance seems inevitable in the "City of Love." If you are looking for a breezy romance set in Paris, this would be the perfect prescription. Since my upcoming trip is partially research for my November novel attempt, I have to decide whether my main character is looking for love in Paris on her trip there. I'll have to walk the streets with an open mind to such possibilities. Too bad it won't be possible to replicate the roof-top view Mia enjoys atop the Paris Opera House. Now that would be a great follow-up experience to reading this book!

Monday, October 9, 2017

Book Review: See You in the Cosmos - Highly Recommend

What a magical, touching book! I think Allie Condie's endorsement of See You in the Cosmos sums up my sentiments the best: "Alex Petroski has a big mind, big dreams, and a big heart. His story is full of the real kind of magic - friends well-met, surprising journeys, and heartbreak and hope. This is a beautiful book." I concur enthusiastically! I was swept away so thoroughly that I lost track of time and forgot to pick my son up from football practice. My heart was tugged and I pondered anew the gift of relationships.

Eleven-year-old Alex Petroski has one goal on his mind. He wants to communicate with whatever other life forms are out there. He intends to accomplish this feat by launching a golden i-pod into space on a rocket. The i-pod contains 52 separate recordings filled with the sounds he has collected to represent life on earth and the accompanying narrations of his own daily life. Alex even has the perfect occasion in mind - a rocket-launching festival, where he can meet his on-line friends from He's prepared enough meals to care for his widowed, emotionally-troubled mother in his absence and has purchased a train ticket, but the train officials insist he must be accompanied by a grown-up in order to travel. Thankfully, an older boy steps in and claims to be his brother (Alex does have an older brother, but he lives in Los Angeles and works as a sports agent). Once Alex and his dog are safely on the train bound for the festival, he meets other rocket enthusiasts and his true journey really begins, a journey of self-discovery, full of new information, obstacles, and long-held secrets. Alex must reach deep within to find the courage to face the answers to his questions about his role in his family and his place in the universe.

I can just imagine the intensely captivated response youngsters would give to this book as a classroom read-aloud. I remember the enthusiasm of the third graders in Ms. McKee's classroom, whenever she would announce that it was time for more of Kate DiCamillo's The Tale of Despereaux. Filled with such intense emotional truth, readers could not help but be similarly enthralled with See You in the Cosmos. Alex's innocence and curiosity shine through as he navigates a difficult world and attempts to leave his mark.

Author Jack Cheng has struck gold with his first book for young readers. It was interesting to note, in his acknowledgments, that he started out his journey to publication by seeking funds for his first novel through Kickstarter (for more on his journey to publication, you can go here to listen to a number of podcasts describing the process). I, too, am grateful for the individuals who backed this talented young writer and the agent who discovered his Kickstarter campaign. The world needs more books like this, books that not only affirm life, but - like a rocket - sweep you up and gently drop you down in wonder at the privilege of human existence and the power of human love.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Book Review: The Rejected Writers' Book Club

I can't remember where I saw this book mentioned, but I made a mental note of the intriguing title, The Rejected Writers' Book Club. I suppose you could say I could relate, having received my fair share of rejection letters, from outright "this is just not for me" to "we wish we could publish your book, but we only publish two YA books per year and our quota is already full." It sounded like a book sure to appeal to would-be-writers.

Despite the awesome title and splendid cover, I didn't really enjoy it. I thought it was ridiculous and far-fetched, a sort of comedy of errors based on a highly unlikely premise. The Rejected Writers' Book Club members are thrown into a tizzy when one member receives, horror of horrors, an acceptance letter, thus ruining their lengthy streak of some 475 rejections in a row. Instead of elation, the would-be-author is horrified and goes to great lengths to retrieve the manuscript and secure the highly-sought-after rejection letter she believes her manuscript deserves. The ensuing adventure, despite moments of levity, pushed the envelope into the outlandish category.

The writing was sound enough, but the characters were caricatures. The club enlists the assistance of a local librarian, who looks on in amusement at their antics and eccentricities. Their road trip includes the predictable elements of young love, haunted houses, obstacles, and crazy encounters. The women manage to win over every stranger through the blessings of their cooking skills. In the end, the librarian joins their ranks, won over by the thrill of receiving her own rejection - really? Although it was a light-hearted, easy read, it was simply too absurd for my tastes. For those in the market for a ridiculous romp of a read, the author has written two more in the series (all available on Kindle for less than two bucks). I'm afraid, I'm not up for the ride.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Book Review: Black Rabbit Hall - Highly Recommend

After abandoning my previous audio book (Wired by Julie Garwood - sadly, I was already half-way through before I simply gave up because of the trashiness of it), I was absolutely thrilled with the fare of Black Rabbit Hall by Eve Chase. This was an outstanding audio experience. I was riveted and entranced throughout the telling. As Book Page proclaimed, "For fans of Kate Morton and Daphne du Maurier, Black Rabbit Hall, is an obvious must-read, but it is sure to please any reader who delights in devilishly thrilling dramas...."

Lorna Dunaway cannot help but be pulled back to the Cornish countryside when searching for a venue for her upcoming wedding. She has fond memories of exploring a particular old country estate, called Black Rabbit Hall, with her mother in her younger days. Sadly, the house has decayed quite a bit over the years and may not be a suitable choice, in the eyes of her fiance John. Still, when the owner invites her to spend a few days there, she gives into the magnetic force.

As she explores the grounds, she comes across markings on a tree indicating the untimely death of a young boy. Curious to know more, she probes the owner for more background history, unaware that she is unearthing personal truths she may not be ready to face. As Caroline Alton outlines the history of the house and the family, Lorna is both undone and reborn.

While I guessed the ending long before it played out, it was still a delicious journey. I loved the narrator's accent, the English environment, the mystery and intrigue, and the characterization. I enjoyed it enough to want to listen to it all over again, and just might, if I cannot find another suitable audio book to listen to while I walk.