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Last Minute Mother’s Day Delights

Fri, 05/08/2015 - 10:59am
It’s only two days until Mother’s Day and you may still need an idea or two for that Mom in your life. Of course, your mother is smart; she reads. Here are a few suggestions of books I haven’t yet found time to review that a woman in your life will enjoy.

Bettyville by George Hodgman is Mother’s Day personified in the wryly poignant memoir of Hodgman’s life and his return to his small, Missouri hometown to care for his elderly mother Betty. Hodgman, a gay man, whose parents never discussed his sexuality, shows the complicated love a son has for his willful mother. The book also portrays the landscape of disappearing small towns and their churches, diners, and connections.
It isn’t a Hallmark-card-type Mother’s Day book as greeting cards rarely highlight Mother’s Day with a 90-year-old Mother with dementia. Instead, it’s the truth of being the child of someone who needs you. When Hodgman opines that his mother needs more help than he can offer and that he needs to return to New York and his work, his words resonate. “But I cannot leave. I will step up. In the morning, before the fog burns off, I will water the roses. I will get them through this summer. They will not wither on my watch.” GPR/SF/S, BC
The Children Act by Ian McEwan depicts British family court judge Fiona Maye as she wrestles with the case of a bright 17-year-old boy whose refusal to accept a blood transfusion due to his Jehovah’s Witness beliefs will most likely lead to his painful death unless the court intervenes. The troubles in Maye’s marriage and her sadness at being childless along with McEwen’s brilliant writing lift this above the usual such cases. It’s rare when a novel you want to read in one sitting is so powerful. G/SN, BC
Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill is an inventive universe, a new way of exploring life. It’s a story told through non-linear fragments, bits of poetry, jokes, scientific facts, and quotations. It’s about a wife, a husband, new motherhood, and many random, seemingly unrelated speculations that form a whole. It illuminates the absolutely scattered existence women often experience when first becoming a mother. The fragmented way the story reveals itself is exactly how I remember my inability to complete any thought or action of more than a few moments duration as I first adjusted to motherhood.
You can read this in two hours, but you’ll want to set it down, take a walk, ponder, then return to Offil’s intricate world of desire, fear, connection, disintegration, and life’s rhythmic pace. Offill is a talented author whose works include another novel and titles for young children including 17 Things I’m Not Allowed to Do Anymore which is among my very favorites. G/T, BC
Some Luck by Jane Smiley is the first installment in Smiley’s “hundred years” trilogy. It tells one family’s distinctly American story from 1920 through 1953. Each short chapter covers one year and those years show the birth of children and grandchildren, the depression’s effect on farm families, losses in war, and the different manifestations of love. The title is stated on Walter and Rosanna’s first child Frank’s birthday when his Granny replies to his father’s remarks about his birth.  “That was a piece of luck Walter,” said Granny. “But what would we do without some luck after all.” And there is some luck involved as family members die or survive incidents that could have ended either way. I love the distinct personalities of the children and enjoy Rosanna’s take on them. I’ve heard readers bemoan the absence of the great “linear” novel, one that tells a fine story without convoluted lapses into other realms. Here it is friends and it’s a winner. The second installment, Early Warning, just came out and while I haven’t yet read it, I expect it to be wonderful. G/GPR, BC

Stella Rose by Tammy Flanders Hetrick shows the consequences of making a promise that you may not be able to keep. Abby’s best friend Stella Rose is dying and she asks Abby to assume custody of her daughter, Olivia. Abby says yes because what else can she say and when Stella dies, Abby moves to rural Vermont to rear Olivia, a grieving, willful teenager. The book is partly an epistolary novel in that its narrative thread is sewn with the letters and gifts that Stella leaves for Abby and Olivia to open in each of the twelve months following her death. These letters and carefully selected gifts share what a mother wants to impart to her child and to her beloved friend. Complications arise though as grief can’t be manipulated no matter how carefully one plans. Romance and unexpected twists make this much more than an easily predictable romp. GPR, BC 

Orhan's Inheritance by Aline Ohanesian

Fri, 04/24/2015 - 11:35am
Today is the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. On this night in 1915, Armenian leaders and professionals were captured and most of them were executed by the Ottoman Turks. In the next few years approximately 75% of Armenians, 1.5 million people, living in the Ottoman Empire were dead. Most Armenians living today descend from the 25% who survived that genocide. Aline Ohanesian’s timely novel Orhan’s Inheritance shares this relatively unknown history through the lives of a survivor and a Turk. Author Chris Bohjalian’s 2012 novel, The Sandcastle Girls, made many readers aware of the genocide which he called “the Slaughter You Know Nothing About.” Ohanesian continues his legacy by taking readers into the history that Turkey still refuses to acknowledge. Ohanesian told Lynn Neary on NPR’s Weekend Edition “There’s only about 6 to 8 inches between an open book and a human being’s heart.”  Orhan’s Inheritance bridges those inches with a compelling tale of Orhan Turkuglu who finds that he’s inherited his family business after his grandfather’s death in a small Turkish Village. He also learns that his grandfather has left their family home and its cherished mulberry tree to an 87-year-old Armenian woman who lives in a retirement home in California. Orhan takes his grandfather’s sketchbook to Los Angeles where he meets Seda who slowly shares the painful story of her connection to his family and their lives in 1915. Orhan wants to learn her story yet, he’s fearful as it could mean that his family would lose their home and all they’ve believed. As Orhan sits before Seda he realizes “This woman before him is like an ancient tapestry whose tightly woven threads could tell quite a tale, if only he knew how to unravel them. One loose thread and the whole thing could come tumbling out of her pursed lips.” Seda’s story untangles the carefully constructed history that Orhan grew up believing but in its place comes a realization that acknowledging reality was one purpose of his grandfather’s bequest.  The book’s settings: Orhan’s village that seems so unchanged over the years, the Armenian retirement home with its muted colors and expectations, and the 1915 world of the Ottoman Empire infuse the novel with color and a brightness that contrasts with the horrific scenes of war and atrocities. As the novel wends its way between the annihilation of the Armenians and the fears of the Turks today, Orhan learns of family secrets and of a history he never knew existed. Ohanesian recounts the war through the eyes of both Seda and Orhan’s grandfather, Kemal. In a flashback to the war, Kemal tells his fellow soldier Hüsnü, “You know what’s nice? What’s nice is shooting blindly into the dusty unknown, with your comrades flanked on both sides, so no one need take responsibility for ending a life. That’s what’s nice.” Hüsnü is brave and jaded yet later when a fellow soldier dies “Kemal feels as if he’s swallowed a piece of shrapnel. His tears so often shed for paltry birds and strangers, are no longer at the ready.  It is Hüsnü who breaks down, hiding his face in his sleeve." Ohanesian’s ability to show both the Turks who were killing and the Armenians who were dying as real people makes this novel palatable and engaging.When the novel returns to the present, it shares the concerns of today’s younger Armenians who beg for recognition alongside women like Seda for whom revisiting the past is so painful. Using art as a metaphor allows both the survivors and the descendants of the perpetrators to understand “betrayals and resurrections." Seda talks of the need for both empathy and action and Ohanesian’s words provide a glimpse into a long forgotten world where readers respect the past and honor those who were lost.Summing it Up: Orhan’s Inheritance is a powerful novel of love, loss, war, and denial. Ohanesian makes unpalatable subjects captivating by sharing the lives of caring, compassionate people who did what needed to be done in untenable times. This is a perfect novel for book discussion groups.
Rating: 4 stars    Category: Fiction, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Historical Fiction, Super Nutrition, Book Club Publication date: April 14, 2015Read an Excerpt: http://algonquin.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Ohanesian-excerpt.pdfAuthor Website: http://www.alineohanesian.com/Interview with the Author: Library Journal: http://reviews.libraryjournal.com/2015/04/books/fiction/writing-to-remember-a-20th-century-tragedy-inspires-a-debut-novel/Reading Group Guide: https://www.bookbrowse.com/reading_guides/detail/index.cfm/book_number/3210/orhans-inheritance#reading_guideWhat Others are Saying:Christian Science Monitor: http://www.csmonitor.com/Books/Book-Reviews/2015/0408/Orhan-s-Inheritance-cleverly-intertwines-first-love-ancient-betrayal-secrets-and-war-crimesKirkus Reviews: https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/aline-ohanesian/orhans-inheritance/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: http://www.jsonline.com/entertainment/books/orhans-inheritance-digs-through-history-to-reveal-family-secrets-b99469762z1-298593251.htmlMinneapolis Star Tribune:  http://www.startribune.com/entertainment/books/298919881.htmlNational Public Radio: http://www.npr.org/2015/04/18/400424865/orhans-inheritance-is-the-weight-of-history?utmPublishers Weekly: http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/print/20150316/65877-galley-talk-orhan-s-inheritance-by-aline-ohanesian.html

Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving and Finding the Church by Rachael Held Evans

Tue, 04/14/2015 - 7:38am
Reading Searching for Sunday is a like being the honored guest at a banquet where the finest chefs have prepared your favorite foods. This memoir of a young woman’s journey to discover what church means and whether there’s a place for her in it will make you contemplate your own faith journey. If you’ve never set foot in a church, read Searching for Sunday to learn what it means to be a part of a church community and why it feels like a family – with all the baggage and the joy a family entails. If you love your church, read it to imagine what you can do to bring more people to the banquet.  If you’re searching for a meaningful church experience, Evans is telling your story. And if you've given up on the church, there are stories here for you. I’m an avid reader of Rachel Held Evans’ blog, I loved hearing her speak, and I’ve read her other books so I expected Searching for Sunday to be special, but it exceeded my expectations because of its honesty, insight, humor, and tenderness.
Evans, the 33-year-old author of A Year of Biblical Womanhood and Faith Unraveled, grew up in the small Tennessee town where the Scopes trial took place and where her father taught theology at a Christian liberal arts college. She grew up evangelical with a capital “E,” but she began to doubt everything she believed about God saying “For me, the trouble started when I began to suspect God was less concerned with saving people from hell than I was.” She had been “intoxicated with certainty.” Once she began questioning, she “became a stranger to the busy, avuncular God who arranged parking spaces for my friends and took prayer requests for weather and election outcomes while leaving thirty thousand children to die each day from preventable disease.” She stopped going to church and started searching. She gave up and started over again. The more she searched, the more she began to believe that “the church is called to the slow and difficult work of healing. We are called to enter into one another’s pain, anoint it as holy, and stick around no matter the outcome. . . The thing about healing, as opposed to curing, is that it’s relational. It takes time. It’s inefficient, like a meandering river. Rarely does it follow a straight or well-lit path. Rarely does it conform to our expectations or resolve in a timely manner. Walking with someone through grief, or through the process of reconciliation, requires patience, presence, and a willingness to wander, to take the scenic route.”
Searching for Sunday is enhanced by wonderfully appropriate quotes from Barbara Brown Taylor, Nadia Bolz-Weber, William Willimon, and many others including Evans' friend Ed who said “When you join a church, you’re just picking which hot mess is your favorite.”
Organized around seven sacraments with stories and wisdom about baptism, water, confession, communion, confirmation, the anointing of the sick, marriage, and death the book crescendos as Evan’s takes the reader through her experiences. She shows the reader how “God surprises us by showing up in ordinary things, in bread, in wine, in water, in words, in sickness, in healing, in death, in a manger of hay, in a mother’s womb, in an empty tomb.”
Summing it Up: When Publishers Weekly awards its coveted star and writes Honest and moving, this memoir is both theologically astute and beautifully written” you can expect a book that will appeal to more than just the usual suspects who purchase religious tomes. Buy this book because it’s beautifully written, funny, wise, and genuine. Get your friends and neighbors to read it too. If you belong to a church, gather a group to read and discuss it together.

Note: If I were in charge of the world, our political leaders would be required to read Searching for Sunday to see that their work should be relational. Well-meaning Christian politicians should agree to disagree with each other amicably and this book could help them see a way to do just that.
Rating: 5 stars    Category: Nonfiction, Soul Food, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Book ClubPublication date: April 14, 2015
Author Website: http://rachelheldevans.com/Interview with the Author: Religion News Service: http://jonathanmerritt.religionnews.com/2015/03/09/rachel-held-evans-defends-exit-evangelicalism-calls-christians-celebrate-sacraments/What Others are Saying:Patheos: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/2015/04/searching-for-sunday.html
Publishers Weekly: http://www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-7180-2212-9

Inside the O’Briens by Lisa Genova

Mon, 04/06/2015 - 4:03pm
When Joe O’Brien, a 44-year-old Boston cop, starts falling, fidgeting, dropping objects, having muscle spasms, experiencing memory loss, and throwing things during his increasing bouts of temper, his wife Rosie insists that he see a doctor and his diagnosis is devastating.  He has Huntington’s disease, a fatal disease with no cure. Far worse than the diagnosis is the knowledge that each of their children has a 50-50 chance of having the disease that could lie dormant in them.
The O’Briens live in Charlestown, a Boston Irish Catholic enclave. They own and share a three-story apartment building with their grown children.  J.J., a firefighter, and his wife live on the second floor. Daughter Meghan, a dancer with the Boston Ballet, lives with her sister Katie, a yoga instructor, on the top floor and Joe and Rosie share the first floor apartment with their bartender son Patrick.  Nothing has ever mattered to Rosie other than her faith and keeping her family close to her in Charlestown.
Once their children know of Joe’s diagnosis, they have to decide if they should take the test and find out if they will or won’t get the disease. As these young adults ponder the lives ahead of them, the novel kicks into high gear as it explores what it means to live in doubt, fear, and uncertainty. As Joe states, “Once you can imagine these things, you can’t unimagine them.”
As the practicalities of the disease's ravages begin and Joe and Rosie must face his probable early retirement and the costs of his inevitable care, each of the six family members react differently and it’s their personalities and reactions that make this book so powerful. When one of the children is found to carry the gene, Katie can’t decide whether to take the test. She contemplates whether it’s worse to be positive and face an incurable disease or to be negative while knowing that your beloved sibling is positive. She’s in love and the possibility of the disease hovers over all her decisions about her relationship. Katie is so different from the dreams her parents have for her. Her mindfulness as a yoga instructor has been her core belief, but that was before her father’s diagnosis. Seeing the dynamics of their decisions primarily through the lenses of Katie and her very different parents, makes this book ring true.
Surprisingly, this is a joyful book, a novel that makes you think about living that one life you’ve been given to the fullest. Humor, love, and honesty make this book both a page-turner and an upbeat read.
As Joe’s illness progresses, and he begins to contemplate the worst, Katie tells him “You’re avoiding a future that hasn’t happened yet.” She and the rest of the family have to learn how not to use the disease as an excuse to limit their lives.
Summing it Up: Lisa Genova is a neuroscientist and author who is best known for her novel Still Alice about a woman with Alzheimer’s disease. I didn’t like Still Alice as I found the characters unrealistic and the novel too reliant on emotional appeal so I was pleasantly surprised with Inside the O’Briens. The well-developed, genuine characters, the keen insight into the working of the brain, and an emotional resonance that rings true made Inside the O’Briens a winner. I particularly applaud O’Brien for her development of exceptional minor characters including great medical personnel.  Eric, the genetic counselor, is such a compelling character. I want to read a sequel featuring his life and how he handles his vocation.
This novel will, as one of Katie’s aphorisms states, make you realize that “Every breath is a risk.  Love is why we breathe.”  Read this novel for an emotional roller coaster of a ride alongside a family that learns to live life and love each other. My only quibble with the book is with Genova’s heavy hand as a cheerleader in the fight against Huntington’s.  It’s hard to argue against Genova’s compassionate search for a cure, but the book suffers slightly because of it.
Rating: 4 stars    Category: Fiction, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Book ClubPublication date: April 7, 2015Author’s Website: http://lisagenova.com/ Read an Excerpt: http://books.simonandschuster.com/Inside-the-OBriens/Lisa-Genova/9781476717777/browse_insideInterview with the Author: http://www.star-telegram.com/entertainment/books/article17099747.htmlWhat Others are Saying:Kirkus Reviews: https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/lisa-genova/inside-the-obriens/Library Journal: http://reviews.libraryjournal.com/2015/02/books/editors-spring-picks-2015/

At the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen

Sun, 03/29/2015 - 8:31am
Sometimes you feel like a romance, sometimes you don’t.  If you’re looking for a light period piece, At the Water’s Edge should give you a few hours of pleasure. If you love Downton Abbey primarily for its setting and romantic entanglements, this may be the book for you. If, however, you prefer highly developed characters and a complex plot alongside your highlands, scullery maids, and love triangles, At the Water’s Edge won’t be your cup of Earl Gray.
It’s hard to conceive that the same writer who wrote Water for Elephants also penned At the Water’s Edge. The word water seems to be their only similarity.  At the Water’s Edge is a frothy World War II romance featuring a gruff war hero, caricatured hardworking Scots, and two American wastrels hiding from their lack of gumption and honesty while accompanied by a naive American girl in Scotland in search of the Loch Ness Monster.
Maddie and Ellis are newlywed American socialites. Maddie travels with Ellis and his best friend Hank to Scotland where they hope to redeem themselves and their fortunes.  After a harrowing, wartime sea journey, they arrive in the tiny town of Drumnadrochit in January, 1945, so Ellis and Hank can search for the monster that Ellis’s father had once chased. Upon arriving, Maddie opines:“To say that I wished I wasn’t there would be a ludicrous understatement, but I’d only ever had the illusion of choice.  We have to do this, Hank had said. It’s for Ellis.To refuse would have been tantamount to betrayal, an act of calculated cruelty. And so, because of my husband’s war with his father and their insane obsession with a mythical monster, we’d crossed the Atlantic at the very same time a real madman, a real monster, was attempting to take over the world for his own reasons of ego and pride.”
Thus begins Gruen’s quest to show that the sins of selfishness and arrogance don't just belong to classical madmen like Hitler. Meanwhile Maddie makes friends among the villagers, abandons her own pride, and learns that everything isn’t as she’d believed. Gruen pens word pictures like that of Maddie watching Ellis lecture her: “I stared in fascination, watching his tongue undulate behind his teeth. Once, a string of saliva attached itself to his lips and survived the length of a few words before snapping. His nostrils flared beneath his pinched bridge. Deep lines appeared above his eyes, and when he tilted his chin so he could look down his nose at me, I could have sworn I was looking at his mother’s head spiced onto his body, a living, breathing cockentrice that had climbed off its platter and spat the apple out of its mouth so it could yammer at me about how surely even I could see that blurred boundaries not only encouraged the lower classes to be lazy, but threatened the very social structures our lives were built upon.”
Gruen’s language is carefully constructed yet it doesn't seem supported by the predictable storyline and the one-dimensional characters whose actions rarely surprise. Still, if you're looking for a Mother's Day or birthday gift for your mother, aunt, sister, or friend and she loves historical romances with a touch of sex and a guaranteed happy ending, At the Water's Edge will make her day.
Summing it Up: If I were on a long flight to Scotland, this might help me pass the time while filling me with visions of crofts, air raids, love scenes, and happy endings. If, however, you’re looking for historical fiction with more heft, this isn’t it. Just as the tea Maddie sips tastes like boiled twigs, this novel reads like a watered-down version of life during wartime.
Rating: 2 stars   
Category: Chinese Carryout, Fiction, Historical Fiction (Pigeon Pie)Publication date: March 31, 2015Author Website: http://saragruen.com/author/books/at-the-waters-edge/
Read an Excerpt: http://www.randomhouse.com/book/72543/at-the-waters-edge-by-sara-gruen#excerptInterview with the Author: http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/authors/interviews/article/65573-from-water-for-elephants-to-the-water-s-edge-pw-talks-with-sara-gruen.htmlReading Group Guide: http://saragruen.com/author/books/at-the-waters-edge/guide/What Others are Saying:Booklist: http://www.booklistonline.com/At-the-Water-s-Edge-Sara-Gruen/pid=7281200
Kirkus Reviews: https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/sara-gruen/at-the-waters-edge-gruen/

USA Today: http://www.usatoday.com/story/life/books/2015/03/28/the-waters-edge-sarah-gruen-book-review/25050021/

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

Thu, 03/26/2015 - 2:55pm
The stories we tell define us. What we enjoy reading typifies us as well. Some of us want books with lots of action.  Others prefer subtle mirrors into their own lives. Pulitzer Prize winner Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread is the latter, a novel about life as most people live it, a book in which going for a walk is an event. Critics are divided on Tyler’s twentieth novel. The Chicago Tribune says it’s “probably the best novel you will read all year.” The New York Times published two reviews – one glowing and one by the irascible Michiko Kakutani who found it predictable. I love it because of its predictability. Tyler’s third person narration that drops me into the Whitshank family while standing back and allowing me to settle into the rhythm of their lives is the kind of predictability I want from a favorite author.  In A Spool of Blue Thread, Tyler gives me a new story and new characters while continually allowing me the comfort of knowing she’ll safely guide me through their journey.
This particular journey begins in 1994 with a phone call from Denny, the prodigal son. 
“A nineteen-year-old boy and we have no idea what part of the planet he’s on. You’ve got to wonder what’s wrong there” says Red, Denny’s perfectionist father. Abby, his mother, is a fixer who notes, “We have to find him. We should have that whatsit – caller ID.” . . . “What for? So you could phone him back and he could just let it ring.”  “He wouldn’t do that. He would know it was me. He would answer, if he knew it was me.”
Skipping ahead to 2012, Red’s had a heart attack and Abby is forgetting things. “She began to go away, somehow, even when she was present. . . . She actually seemed unhappy, which wasn’t like her in the least. She took on a fretful expression, and her hair – gray now and chopped level with her jaw, as thick and bushy as the wig on an old china doll – developed a frazzled look, as if she had just emerged from some distressing misadventure.” 
Abby had emerged from a distressing misadventure. When everyone in her family wasn’t happy and present, Abby was distressed and her “mind skips” were making her wonder if she’d be able to fix everything. Each of the four Whitshank children wants to make everything okay too, but in different ways fitting their unique personalities. When Denny returns and, as the prodigal always does, upsets the precarious balance, things shift. As Tyler navigates the Whitshank’s struggles with how to deal with aging parents, she inhabits a place most of us have been or know we’ll soon visit. She hands us a mirror into an ordinary family who “like most families .  .  . imagined they were special.”  The novel delves into Red and Abby’s past and shows us how Red’s deceased father, who built their home, still influences their lives. Tyler uses the house as a metaphor for the constancy of their story and for the impossibility of keeping life from changing.
Anne Tyler is the Dowager Queen of the Ordinary, she’s the quintessence of the quotidian which is ironic because Tyler isn’t one to use words like quintessence and quotidian. Instead, she shows what a slice of normal life feels like.  She embeds us in the conventional and the comfortable and once she has us safely sitting on the living room couch, she shows us real life.  Most of us won’t ever walk the red carpet, score the winning touchdown, or murder anyone. Anne Tyler writes about us and our lives. 
Summing it Up: Read A Spool of Blue Thread to read about your own family, your own life. Read it to understand the people who inhabit your world – the ones who make it easy and the ones who make it tough. Absolutely read it for the sweet, sweet ending that proves that you can go home again.
Rating 5 stars    Category: Fiction, Five Stars, Gourmet, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Book Club Publication date: February 10, 2015Read an Excerpt: http://knopfdoubleday.com/book/246387/a-spool-of-blue-thread/Reading Group Guide: (Spoiler Alert: Don’t read this until after you read the novel.) http://knopfdoubleday.com/book/246387/a-spool-of-blue-thread/What Others are Saying:Chicago Tribune: http://www.chicagotribune.com/lifestyles/books/ct-prj-spool-of-blue-thread-anne-tyler-20150212-story.html
The Financial Times: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/8367233e-b36a-11e4-9449-00144feab7de.html
Kirkus Reviews: https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/anne-tyler/a-spool-of-blue-thread/
New York Times (two reviews because one loves it and one doesn’t): http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/06/books/anne-tylers-20th-novel-a-spool-of-blue-thread.htmlhttp://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/15/books/review/a-spool-of-blue-thread-by-anne-tyler.html
Publishers Weekly: http://www.publishersweekly.com/978-1-101-87427-1

All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

Mon, 03/16/2015 - 5:30pm
All My Puny Sorrows is witty, wise, ironic, unsettling, dark, and original. Sisters Elf and Yoli grew up in a small Mennonite community in Manitoba. Elf has become a world-renowned concert pianist and Yoli seems like a screw-up but it’s Elf who wants to kill herself and her latest attempt is destroying Yoli. You’ll fall under the spell of Yoli’s journey to love and support her sister while trying to figure out just what that means. That spell is cast more by voice than by plot. Every character in this novel is a unique personality seen through Yoli’s crisp first person narrative. Yoli and Elf’s family members are quirky, real, and achingly funny. Only a writer like Toews could make a novel with a plot centered on suicide so very, very humorous. It’s droll and clever because the sharply drawn characters like Elf and Yoli and their indomitable mother never stop surprising you.
The novel also illuminates the Mennonite community and the elders who challenge this strange family that refuses to stay inside their proscribed box. When Elf was fifteen Mennonite men entered their house having “heard from a local snitch that Elf had ‘expressed an indiscreet longing to leave the community’ and they were apoplectically suspicious of higher learning – especially for girls.  Public enemy number one for these men was a girl with a book.
She’ll get ideas, said one of them to my father in our living room, to which he had no response but to nod in agreement and look longingly toward the kitchen where my mother was staked out snapping her dish towel at houseflies and pounding baby veal into schnitzel.  I sat silently beside my father on the itchy davenport absorbing their “perfume of contempt” as my mother described it.”
Even when Toews tosses in a character who only appears briefly her writing soars with sharp descriptions like that of the man who “smashed his head on the dash of his car when it hit a cement truck on black ice and now he stands alone outside the 7-Eleven on Corydon asking people really politely for change. He’s still handsome. He seems sort of hollowed out but his eyes are really bright, the whites really white and the blues really blue, like Greek islands. He mumbles words and sometimes it seems like he’s laughing at everything like he’s just been thrown a surprise party.”
My appreciation for this novel was heightened when I learned that Toews’ father committed suicide and her sister, her only sibling, also killed herself five years ago after several attempts. AMPS, as the sisters shorten Coleridge’s poetic reference to All My Puny Sorrows, is rich and true with insights Toews has gained from living through such difficulties. The book is a scorching portrayal of the mental health system because it makes us care about the characters enough to want them to get the attention they need.
Hockey fans probably know how to pronounce Toews name because of Chicago Blackhawks star Jonathan Toews. (It’s Tāves .) Perhaps All My Puny Sorrows will make Miriam Toews as well known in the U.S. so no one will wonder how to say her name. Reading Giller Prize finalist and winner of the Writer’s Trust of Canada prize All My Puny Sorrows is the perfect introduction to an author who’s revered in Canada and Britain and who deserves much more attention from U.S. readers.  
Summing it Up: This searing, autobiographical novel is more fulfilling than anything that ever came out of The Mennonite Treasury Cookbook. Literary readers looking for a distinctive voice with a plaintive, yet wry, tone will carefully digest this tragicomedy. Thankfully, Toews backlist includes five previous novels and a work of nonfiction to sate the hunger that will surely come after digesting the last page of All My Puny Sorrows.
Rating:  5 stars    Category: Fiction, Five Stars, Gourmet, Sushi, Book ClubPublication date: November 6, 2014Read an Excerpt: http://www.mcsweeneys.net/articles/a-mcsweeneys-books-preview-of-miriam-toews-new-novel-all-my-puny-sorrowsInterviews with the Author: http://www.powells.com/blog/interviews/miriam-toews-the-powells-com-interview-by-jill/http://penguinrandomhouse.ca/hazlitt/feature/no-wonder-people-are-reluctant-talk-about-mental-health-interview-miriam-toewsWhat Others are Saying:Chicago Tribune: http://www.chicagotribune.com/lifestyles/books/ct-prj-all-my-puny-sorrows-miriam-toews-20141224-story.htmlThe Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/jul/09/all-my-puny-sorrows-miriam-toews-review-darkly-fizzing-tragicomedyKirkus Reviews: https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/miriam-toews/all-my-puny-sorrows/Los Angeles Times: http://www.latimes.com/books/jacketcopy/la-ca-jc-miriam-toews-20141207-story.htmlNew York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/23/books/review/all-my-puny-sorrows-by-miriam-toews.htmlPublishers Weekly: http://www.publishersweekly.com/9781940450278
Washington Post: http://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/book-review-all-my-puny-sorrows-by-miriam-toews/2014/11/10/7085b100-669d-11e4-836c-83bc4f26eb67_story.html

My Near-Death Adventures (99% True) by Alison DeCamp

Thu, 03/12/2015 - 1:46pm
It’s tough to review a book when you really, really like the author. There’s always a worry that you’ll write about the person instead of the book. Alison DeCamp is a bookseller/conversationalist at one of the independent bookstores I love to visit.  She has the dry-like-a-martini-with-no-vermouth sense of humor I love, she detests the same grammatical errors that make me wince, and her reading choices usually mirror mine. My hope upon opening her acclaimed debut, My Near-Death Adventures (99% True), was that it would be just like her and I could write a love letter to the book and to Alison. Thankfully, I didn’t get my wish because DeCamp, a former teacher, has instead written a slapstick comedy for 9-to-12-year-olds that will make even the most reluctant male readers want to devour it just as Stan, the protagonist, devours bacon. And wonder of wonders - since the story’s set in an 1895 lumber camp, it will also allow teachers to assign it or use it as a read-aloud to meet Common Core standards while engaging their classrooms in uproarious laughter.
The book opens with Stan’s nemesis, his Granny Cora, getting his mother to solve their money problems by cooking at a remote Michigan Upper Peninsula lumber camp. Stan soon learns that his “dearly departed” father may have departed but is still alive. Thus, Stan starts writing himself imaginary letters he can receive from said deserter dad.  Add in Stan’s scrapbook filled with advertisements and clippings from the 1890s and Stan’s inability to discern whether he keeps his wry comments to himself or inadvertently voices them aloud. Toss in a dash of Stan’s cousin Geri, the girl in the camp who calls Stan out on his antics, and add lots and lots of bacon to nourish the lumberjacks so they can fell immense logs and you have a winner of a story.
I found myself pretending that I was back in the school library where I read to third through fifth graders every week. The boys there loved having me read “something funny” like the classic Ida Early books because her tall tales made them laugh (surely it was my accent) while her stories reminded them of their own families. Stan’s adventures and his own problems as an unreliable narrator are exactly what those boys would love to hear or even to read on their own.
Historical fiction for the middle grades can be a hard sell but the humor and pictures in My Near-Death Adventures will have kids lined up to borrow it in school libraries and then have them guffawing and breaking the silence during silent reading time as they enjoy Stan’s antics. This author’s portrait that young readers attending the book’s launch were encouraged to deface may say more about why kids will enjoy this book more than any of my words.

Even the ever serious Kirkus Reviews calls it: “A knee-slapper of a debut featuring a narrator who is rather less than 99 percent reliable but 100 percent engaging.”
Summing it Up: Read this excerpt to see for yourself why third through fifth graders will eat up Stan and his antics. Put on a flannel shirt, cozy up to the fire, grab a slab of bacon, and imagine yourself in the north woods as you devour this comedic tale.
FYI: You can buy the book from Between the Covers, the bookstore where the author is a part-time employee and have it signed or personalized by calling 231-526-6658. You’ll also find autographed copies at many independent Michigan bookstores that De Camp is visiting this year. She’s also visiting a raft of schools and if you’re a teacher or librarian, you may want to visit her website to arrange a visit too.
Rating: 5 stars    Category: Peanut Butter and Jelly, Historical Fiction, Super Nutrition Five StarsPublication date: February 24, 2015Read an Excerpt: http://www.alisondecamp.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/Near-Death-Adventures_Excerpt_Chapters-16-and-17.pdfInterview with the Author: http://harborlightnews.com/FormLayout.asp?formcall=30&dest=%2Fmain%2Easp%3FSectionID%3D11%26SubSectionID%3D57%26ArticleID%3D17788Teacher’s Guide: http://www.alisondecamp.com/resources/What Others are Saying:Kirkus Reviews: https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/alison-decamp/my-near-death-adventures-99-true/

Publishers Weekly: http://publishersweekly.com/978-0-385-39044-6

School Library Journal: http://blogs.slj.com/afuse8production/2015/02/25/review-of-the-day-my-near-death-adventures-by-alison-decamp/#_

When Books Went to War by Molly Guptill Manning

Sun, 03/01/2015 - 9:42am
When Books Went to War: The Stories that Helped Us Win World War II is for book lovers. At the beginning of the war, a Victory Book Campaign committee began soliciting donated books for soldiers. It soon became clear that lightweight, portable books were needed instead of donated hardcover titles and a new idea was launched. The logistical and political problems of providing small, paperback books to troops all over the world were daunting and some opposed the plan, but a consortium of librarians, military personnel, authors, publishers, and printers worked together to make sure men in combat had books to read. The unanticipated results included the resurrection of The Great Gatsby from obscurity, the beginning of the paperback becoming a reading staple, and the creation of a generation of men who loved to read.
The way Manning describes the popularity of Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn makes me want to read that wonder of a novel again (for the third or fourth time) just to see it as Manning shows it through servicemen's eyes. Soldiers and sailors wrote Smith to tell her how her words transported them to life back home. One wrote Smith comparing the book to “a good letter from home.” Another wrote: “books are one of our rare pleasures.” Smith estimated that she received about four letters a day from servicemen and she responded to almost all of them. One wrote that “he and his wife planned to have a child when he returned home, and if it was a girl, they would name her Betty Smith.” When Books Went to War is at its best when sharing such vibrant stories of men finding joy in reading.
My favorite part of the book is the thirty-page Appendix B: Armed Service Editions, a chronological listing of all 1200 printed titles. Seeing books like Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, The Yearling, Lloyd C. Douglas’s The Robe, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Voltaire’s Candide, Ernie Pyle’s Here is Your War, and William Saroyan’s The Human Comedy alongside bodice rippers, poetry, history, science, sports, mysteries, classics, and humor spoke to the care with which the titles were selected. It also made me realize the education these men received while riding on troop ships, sitting in foxholes, and recovering in hospitals.
One thing that sets this book apart from other World War II histories is that it concisely tells the story thus it’s always fresh and engaging. That uncensored titles were being read by men fighting against a regime that burned books is something that everyone should want to know. In the end over 123 million special Armed Service Edition books were distributed and an additional 18 million books were donated to the cause via the Victory Book Campaign thus many more books were given to the men fighting than Hitler had destroyed.
Summing it Up: Read this moving history of getting books to soldiers who needed and cherished them to appreciate the power of words to win the war and to create a peacetime world of value. This is a fast-paced, yet inspiring portrait of a little-known U.S. program that made a difference in so many lives and it's the rare book about war that has a happy ending.
Rating:  4 stars    Category: Nonfiction, Grandma's Pot Roast, Super Nutrition, Book ClubPublication date: December 2, 2014Author Website: http://www.mollymanning.com/author/Read an Excerpt: http://www.mollymanning.com/author/books/when-books-went-to-war/excerpt/#Interview with the Author: http://www.npr.org/2014/12/10/369616513/wwii-by-the-books-the-pocket-size-editions-that-kept-soldiers-readingWhat Others are Saying:Boston Globe: http://www.bostonglobe.com/arts/books/2014/12/22/book-review-when-books-went-war-the-stories-that-helped-win-world-war-molly-guptill-manning/YdKQOruD5atjXC4pSRHzyH/story.html
Christian Science Monitor: http://www.csmonitor.com/Books/Book-Reviews/2014/1224/When-Books-Went-to-War-tells-how-paperback-books-helped-to-win-World-War-II
Kirkus Reviews: https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/molly-guptill-manning/when-books-went-to-war/
New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/25/books/when-books-went-to-war-by-molly-guptill-manning.html?_r=0
Publishers Weekly: http://www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-544-53502-2
Smithsonian Magazine (with interview): http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/how-books-became-critical-part-fight-win-world-war-ii-180953689/?no-ist



Echo by Pam Muñoz Ryan

Mon, 02/23/2015 - 3:53pm
Echo is your grandmother’s lemon bars captured in a chapter book – separate layers that when eaten together form a luscious composite of sweet sugar, tart lemons, and crunch all topped with powdered sugar that together surprise your tongue. In Echo, the layers are the three separate stories of Friedrich, a German prodigy, Mike, a Pennsylvania orphan, and Ivy, a bright, worried California girl. Their tales blend via a magical harmonica and a fable from the past that involves a promise and a prophecy. 
Author Pam Muñoz Ryan’s award-winning children’s books, including Esperanza Rising, The Dreamer, Paint the Wind, and Becoming Naomi León, are all narrative treasures but Echo is surely her magnum opus. Echo combines a fairy tale, the three narratives, and music to form a wonder of a classic, yet fresh, novel that will enchant children ages ten to fourteen and their parents and teachers.
The story begins, as so many great fables do, in a dark forest where a boy is reading a book with a title containing his given name: The Thirteenth Harmonica of Otto Messenger. When Otto gets lost in the forest, he meets three mysterious sisters who are under a witch’s curse, receives a special harmonica, makes a promise, hears a prophecy, and returns home to become the messenger and break the curse.
Many, many years later in 1933 in a German town near the Black Forest, Friedrich, the musical prodigy with an unusual birthmark, works alongside his father in a harmonica factory where he discovers an older version of the Marine Band model the company exports to America. It contains a tiny red letter M. The harmonica has a “rich, ethereal quality . . . the more he played, the more the air around him seemed to pulse with energy.  He felt protected by the cloak of the music as if nothing could stand in his way.” Protection may be what Friedrich needs when his beloved sister comes home from nursing school saying that she believes in Hitler and what he stands for and others in his town want to remove him and his imperfection.
Meanwhile in Pennsylvania in 1935, Mike Flannery and his younger brother are starving and fearful in an orphanage.  They have nothing except the love of music passed down from their Granny when they land in what seems like a great opportunity. The brothers soon receive harmonicas and Mike’s seems different.  It has a small, red, hand painted M on one edge and when Mike plays it “the world seems brighter, with more possibilities.”
Later in 1942 in Fresno County, California, Ivy Maria Lopez receives a new harmonica with a tiny red M on one edge. When she plays it her teacher asks her to perform a solo of “America the Beautiful” on the radio with her class, but her family must move to a farm near Los Angeles. Her new school segregates the Latino children in a separate school with no orchestra, but Ivy has high hopes even when she learns of another injustice.
How will the magical harmonica link these stories and will Friedrich, Mike, and Ivy ever achieve their dreams?  Children and adults will savor the delicious blending of these tales into a superb conclusion.
In an interview with Publishers Weekly, Muñoz Ryan said, “Echo is about how music illuminated my characters’ lives during a very bleak time. I think most of my books are about these journeys where the characters have to grow and change drastically, whether the journey is an emotional one or a physical one. And if you look back to Esperanza Rising, even during the darkest time in her journey, there was always something inside her giving her the determination to carry on. I hope that the reader will enjoy the book for the story’s sake, but also that something will remind them that even during the darkest times, something pure and beautiful exists. Like music. "
Summing it Up: The magic of this fairy tale combined with carefully told twentieth-century history will captivate chapter book readers as well as their parents and teachers. The triumphant crescendo of an ending ties the story together in a most satisfying and glorious way. Children’s historical fiction is sometimes bland and saccharine, but Echo is a John Philip Sousa, brass band, cymbal-clapping winner that everyone over the age of ten will love.
Rating: 5 stars    Ages 10 - 14Category: Fiction, Five Stars, Peanut Butter and Jelly, Pigeon Pie, Super Nutrition, Book ClubPublication date: February 24, 2015What Others are Saying:Booklist: http://www.booklistonline.com/Echo-Pam-Munoz-Ryan/pid=7173933
Kirkus Reviews: https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/pam-munoz-ryan/echo-Ryan/
Publishers Weekly: http://www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-439-87402-1

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

Tue, 02/17/2015 - 5:21pm
The Nightingale opens in 1995 as an unnamed woman packs her belongings to move into a nursing home at the urging of her son. She ponders, “If I have learned anything in this long life of mine it is this. In love we find out who we want to be; in war we find out who we are. . . . I find myself thinking about the war and my past, about the people I lost.”  Her receipt of an invitation to a ceremony for the passeurs, the courageous men and women who helped many escape during WWII, leads to more memories. A few pages later, it’s 1939 in a small Loire Valley town where Viann, a young mother, adjusts to life under the German occupation while her husband is away fighting. Meanwhile Viann’s father has sent her impetuous younger sister, Isabelle, away from Paris to live with her. The two sisters haven’t gotten along for years and Isabelle’s defiance that led to her dismissal from school doesn’t bode well for life under the occupation especially when a German captain comes to live with them.

Soon Isabelle is secretly delivering papers for the resistance when a chance encounter with a downed British Airman leads her back to Paris where she joins others in planning ways to get men out of the country. She risks her life to save numerous downed paratroopers and scenes depicting her courage, grit, and strength set this novel apart from other tales of the resistance.
While Isabelle travels the country, the Nazi attitude toward the Jews in the Loire Valley grows more hostile, and Viann finds herself risking her own life and that of her daughter to save the lives of other children. Viann’s growth as a character and her decisions to do what she must to survive strengthen the narrative. The suspense behind which sister’s memories recount the tale and the uncertainty as to whether one or both survived the war makes this more than a simple recounting of their heroics.
Kristin Hannah’s previous novels have primarily been light, domestic dramas – more beach reads than anything serious; The Nightingale is different. While researching her earlier novel The Winter Garden, a book partly set in WWII Russia, Hannah read about Andrée de Jongh, a 19-year-old Belgian woman, who, along with her father, started an escape route through the Pyrenees Mountains to get downed airmen out of Nazi-occupied areas. That story led Hannah to research what ordinary French women had done to help the resistance and The Nightingale emerged.
Author Hannah says that the book became the story of “women in war, period. Our stories and our bravery are not acknowledged and talked about as much when it's over. Perhaps that's because women just come home and go back to their families and their ordinary lives and don't talk about it too much. 

I don't want people to forget the heroism of ordinary people and the prices they were paying. The question of the novel that kept coming back to me was, "When would I do this? When would you be willing to risk your child's life as well as your own?”

Summing it Up: Historical fiction fans will relish reading of the actions of the brave French resistance fighters coupled with both terrible deeds and unselfish love that lead to a fresh new take on World War II in France with a page-turner of an ending that may keep you awake long into the night. If you don’t shed a tear or two at the end, you might just be in need of a new heart
Rating: 4 stars    Category: Fiction, Pigeon Pie, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Super Nutrition, Book ClubPublication date: February 3, 2015Author/Book Website: http://kristinhannah.com/content/books_nightingale.phpRead an Excerpt: http://kristinhannah.com/content/books_nightingale.php?id=ExcerptInterview with the Author: https://www.goodreads.com/interviews/show/1009.Kristin_HannahReading Group Guide: (Spoiler Alert: Don’t read the questions until you finish the book.) http://kristinhannah.com/content/books_nightingale.php?id=Discussion%20Guide What Others are Saying:Kirkus Reviews: https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/kristin-hannah/the-nightingale-hannah/USA Today: http://www.usatoday.com/story/life/books/2015/02/08/the-nightingale/22922333/

Principles of Navigation by Lynn Sloan

Sun, 02/15/2015 - 4:35pm
Principles of Navigation is Lynn Sloan’s first novel and the influence of her training as a fine art photographer surfaces on each page. She offers a developing portrait of a marriage that evolves as would a print in a darkroom water bath. This particular marriage between Alice, a small town reporter, and Rolly, an art professor at an undistinguished Indiana college, is seen in separate shots of each character that together form an image of their changing lives.
The book opens with Rolly commenting on their wedding picture:
“We are perfect here, aren’t we?” That’s what Rolly had said not so long ago.
In the picture, they’re standing close, she and Rolly, facing the photographer, grinning at each other, giddy with happiness. She has her arm around his waist, and he towers over her, with his hand draped over her shoulder.  Sun slices through the glass wall behind them, lighting the top of her silly curls and glowing in the space between their tilted faces. The inclination of his head says he can’t imagine loving anyone else, and she shines back. Yes.”
When Alice achieves her goal of becoming pregnant, Rolly seems indifferent and they begin to drift apart and she starts questioning their planned sabbatical year in Norway. Rolly would have his art but she’d have no work and would be isolated.  When Alice miscarries, Rolly realizes that the baby meant more to him than he’d realized but Alice can’t bear to think about the happier times reflected in their wedding picture so she hides it away not even remembering where.
Later when she sees that Rolly has been using the baby’s intended nursery, she loses control:
“You have no right,” she said, over her shoulder, then turned to face him. He didn’t get it. His uncomprehending eyes searched hers.
“I’ve had it,” she said, stepping away from him onto something sharp. “You’ve got your damn studio out back.  You’ve got one at the college.  Isn’t that enough?  How much goddamn space do you need?  I can’t breathe in my own house, and now this.”
She pushed her hands at him, to make sure he didn’t come closer. “You spoiled this. This wasn’t supposed to be touched. Why did you set your crap up in here?  Just get out. Get the hell out.”  . . .
“I didn’t know. . .”
He knew. He didn’t care. His teary eyes were a pretense of caring. He tried to put his arms around her.
“Don’t touch me.” She slid down, pressing her back against the wall. “Get away from me.”
“I didn’t know.”  He knelt beside her.  “I was trying to keep the construction chaos contained.  It wasn’t a secret.” He spoke softly, murmuring that they’d try again, when her body was back to normal, when they were away from all this. “You’ll see.  In Norway, you’ll sleep late, drink lots of milk, and become a hausfrau.  We’ll make love all the time.  You’ll get pregnant.”
She hated him.
His fingers touched her cheek.  She raised her eyes to meet his. “I don’t know you anymore.”
“Alice, I’m sorry.  Come on now, come lie down.”
He had really never wanted the baby at all. This fact held her steady as she allowed him to guide her to their bedroom and lift her legs between the sheets and fold the blankets under her chin. Beneath his tenderness, she recognized treachery.”
As these two broken people make damaging decisions while struggling to find a way to either fix or abandon their marriage, Sloan’s evocative pictures of them and their lives, offer a new way of seeing ordinary people.  And then comes the unexpected twist and it’s a twist that makes this a novel that book clubs will find irresistible. Long after you read the last joyful paragraph, you’ll be talking about the ways these two unlikely characters found to navigate their lives.
Summing it Up: Step into Principles of Navigation, a stunning photograph of a marriage that debut novelist Sloan develops before your eyes.  Fall into the lives of two broken, imperfect individuals and stick with them as they find new ways to navigate the lives they’ve created so they can become whole. Select this for your book club and enjoy discussing the unexpected twists and turns that lead to the evolving image of an unconventional family.
(Note: this is a paperback original with a correspondingly low price making it an easy choice for book clubs.)
Rating: 4 stars   
Category: Fiction, Gourmet, Book Club
Publication date: February 15, 2015
Author’s Website: http://www.lynnsloan.com/principles-of-navigation
Publisher’s Website: http://www.fomitepress.com/FOMITE/Navigation.html
What Others are Saying:
Centered on Books: https://centeredonbooks.wordpress.com/tag/lynn-sloan/

Windy City Reviews: http://windycityreviews.org/book-reviews/2015/1/10/book-review-principles-of-navigation.html

Mind of Winter by Laura Kasischke

Wed, 02/11/2015 - 9:32am
Mind of Winter chronicles a single Christmas day in a Detroit suburban home. Holly’s sleep is interrupted by a strange sensation that “Something had followed them home from Russia.” When Holly and her husband Eric oversleep, Eric must race to the airport to pick up his parents while Holly finds that their 15-year-old daughter, Tatiana, hasn’t gotten out of bed either. Holly ruminates on her unsettled feelings throughout the day while remembering the Christmas when she and Eric had gone to Siberia to adopt Tatiana. As the day’s snowstorm turns into a blizzard, none of their family or friends are able to come for the planned feast and Eric has to detour to a hospital when his mother’s confusion needs attention. Left alone with Tatiana all day, Holly ruminates on her daughter’s shortcomings – she hasn’t even set the table – as well as her rare Russian beauty and her kindness toward everyone but Holly.
As the day wanes and the blizzard gains strength, the house appears to be haunted with a strange aura or could it be that Holly is imagining it?  Author Kasischke is an accomplished poet and the rhythmic language she weaves to highlight Holly’s repetitive cogitations gives the novel an eerie feeling that escalates as evening approaches.The reader begins to wonder if Holly is truly disturbed or just neurotic and anxious because of the unforeseen changes in the day. Holly’s bizarre behavior continues and ultimately leads to an unexpected and chillingly horrifying ending.
Kasischke sets each word as if she were a mosaic artist placing intricately shaped and colored tiles to form a mural that won’t reveal its subject until the viewer steps back and views it in its entirety.The disturbing conclusion will appeal to Gone Girl and Stephen King fans as well as to readers looking for a smart, fast-paced, disconcerting tale. 
Summing it Up: If you’re looking for a searing psychological thriller that will leave you shaking with its shocking conclusion, read this book. You’ll want to devour it in one sitting and if you’re anything like this reader, you’ll immediately turn back to page one and start again to appreciate the craft and to examine the way the puzzle pieces fit together.
Rating: 4 stars    Category: Fiction, Mysteries and Thrillers, Book ClubPublication date: March 25, 2014Read an Excerpt: http://www.harpercollins.com/9780062284396/mind-of-winter/web-sampler What Others are Saying:The Boston Globe: http://www.bostonglobe.com/arts/books/2014/03/30/book-review-mind-winter-laura-kasischke/LZbyV0ASYCxgQ4V5Nj57nL/story.htmlKirkus Reviews: https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/laura-kasischke/mind-of-winter/Publishers Weekly: http://www.publishersweekly.com/9780062284396

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

Mon, 02/09/2015 - 4:18pm
Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption is a book EVERYONE needs to read. Desmond Tutu calls Stevenson “America’s young Nelson Mandela” and John Grisham compares him to a living Atticus Finch. Yesterday I co-led a discussion of Just Mercy at my church. Twenty-eight people showed up (in the Chicago suburbs in February) and our spirited discussion of the disparities in our justice system led to many comments and questions about the book, about Stevenson, and about what ordinary people can do to help.
Bryan Stevenson is a crusader but he’s also a fine storyteller who personalizes the lives of the incarcerated and those on death row to make the reader care deeply about them and him. The story of Walter McMillan, a man wrongly sentenced to die for a crime he clearly didn’t commit, is the tale that ties the book together. Everything about his wrongful conviction from the fact that he was put on death row BEFORE his trial, to the intimidation of witnesses and Stevenson himself, depict a story so very wrong that it seemed almost over the top. It took Walter’s appearance on “60 Minutes” to set the wheels of justice moving in his case. Other stories portray injustice in many forms. Those of children sentenced to life in prison, of a mistreated veteran suffering from PTSD and a head injury, of the mentally ill put in solitary confinement, and of a woman charged with killing her stillborn baby - will make you cheer for Stevenson’s resolve. This book is a memoir as well as the telling of what happens to the powerless and the glimpses into Stevenson’s personal life enhance the story and its message.
Stevenson presents facts that make all of us, regardless of politics, see that this is a problem that affects our economy as well as our desire to do what’s right. 
“Today we have the highest rate of incarceration in the world. The prison population has increased from 300,000 people in the early 1970s to 2.3 million people today. . . . We’ve created laws that make writing a bad check or committing a petty theft or minor property crime an offense that can result in life imprisonment.  . . . There are more than a half-million people in state or federal prisons for drug offenses today, up from just 41,000 in 1980. . . . We make terrible mistakes. . . . we spend lots of money.”
Bryan Stevenson believes that “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” He points out bad people in the system who are protecting their own power by ruining the lives of the powerless, but he also presents hope.
“The power of just mercy is that it belongs to the undeserving. It’s when mercy is least expected that it’s most potent – strong enough to break the cycle of victimization and victimhood, retribution and suffering. It has the power to heal the psychic harm and injuries that lead to aggression and violence, abuse of power, mass incarceration.”
Stevenson founded the Equal Justice Initiative, an advocacy group, and this book touched me so deeply that I wrote a check to fund their work. (FYI: I never make donations without checking Charity Navigator and the Equal Justice Initiative is the highest ranked charity in its category.)
I encourage you to get your book club, your neighbors, or your faith community to read this book with you.  Our group began by watching Jon Stewart’s six-minute interview with Stevenson on the Daily Show, but you could also ask your fellow readers to watch Stevenson’s TED Talk on Injustice before reading the book.  It’s one of the best twenty minutes I’ve ever seen on the internet as supported by its 2,059,213 views. Exactly six months after Michael Brown died in Ferguson, Missouri, this is a book that can help all of us talk without rancor about what can happen if any part of our population sees itself as marginalized. This is a book that can help us do better.  
Summing it Up: Just Mercy is the powerful memoir of one man’s quest to work for the poor, the oppressed, the mentally ill, and the powerless. It will make you mad and it will make you cheer. As a citizen of the world, you must read it.Rating: 5 stars   
Category: Five Stars, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Nonfiction, Soul Food, Super Nutrition, Book Club
Publication date: October 21, 2014
Read an Excerpt: http://www.npr.org/books/titles/356964333/just-mercy-a-story-of-justice-and-redemption#excerpt
Interviews with the Author: http://www.npr.org/2014/10/20/356964925/one-lawyers-fight-for-young-blacks-and-just-mercy
http://www.c-span.org/video/?322794-6/interview-bryan-stevenson
Reading Group Guide: http://www.randomhouse.com/book/224792/just-mercy-by-bryan-stevenson#reader'sguide
What Others are Saying:Kirkus Reviews: https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/bryan-stevenson/just-mercy/
Minneapolis Star Tribune: http://www.startribune.com/entertainment/books/285133231.html
New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/19/books/review/just-mercy-by-bryan-stevenson.html
Washington Post: http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/book-review-just-mercy-a-story-of-justice-and-redemption-by-bryan-stevenson/2014/10/23/5d590580-3f67-11e4-9587-5dafd96295f0_story.html

Descent by Tim Johnston

Sat, 02/07/2015 - 3:34pm
Descent is a compelling literary thriller that illuminates the lives of a family falling apart after their daughter disappears on what should have been a happy vacation.
“Her name was Caitlin, she was eighteen, and her own heart would sometimes wake her – flying away in that dream-race where finish lines grew farther away, not nearer, where knees turned to taffy, or feet to stones.” 
Caitlin’s fifteen-year-old brother, Sean, follows her on a rented mountain bike as she runs through the Rocky Mountains on her pre-college trip.  He crashes and breaks his leg and since there’s no cell service, Caitlin accepts a stranger’s offer to drive her into town to get help.
Soon their parents receive a call that Sean is in the local hospital and they realize that Caitlin is missing. As Sean recuperates from his physical wounds, the search continues and the family disintegrates. Angela, the mother, returns to their Wisconsin home while Grant, the father, and Sean remain to search for Caitlin. During the following two years, when there doesn’t seem to be any hope of finding Caitlin, Angela attempts suicide, Sean wanders through the west getting into skirmishes, and Grant stays in the resort town where Caitlin disappeared and builds a life of odd jobs, drinking, and monitoring the search for Caitlin.

The climax builds when a minor character acts recklessly to set the thrilling denouement into motion. As I held my breath, wiped my tears, and thanked the stars for an author like Johnston, the book put me on a roller coaster ride that held a twist I could never have imagined. The minute I finished this book, I wanted to find someone, somewhere, who’d read it so we could talk about hope, courage, and determination.  
We’ve all read tales with similar plots, but we rarely read books with both the exquisitely evocative language of this novel and with a hold-your-breath, take-no-prisoners ending.  Descent has the gothic feel of something by Dennis Lehane, Ron Rash, or Russell Banks coupled with the immediacy and psychological drama of Emma Donoghue’s searing novel Room. At times this novel is painful; I set it down and walked away twice needing to do something ordinary. After I folded laundry and looked outside my window to convince myself that I wasn’t being held captive in a mountain cabin, I returned to Descent anxiously awaiting Caitlin’s fate. Despite my forays into the quotidian, I finished the book in just over a day and predict a similar fate for most readers.
Summing it Up: Descent is a rare mixture of poetic words, heart-rending action, courageous exploits, superhuman survival tactics, fear, and hope. Don’t start this novel if you have any pending commitments as you won’t be able to walk away from the last hundred pages.
Rating:  5 stars    Category: Mysteries and Thrillers, Fiction, Gourmet, Book Club Publication date: January 6, 2015Read an Excerpt: https://aerbook.com/books/Descent_Excerpt-9258.htmlInterview with the Author: https://www.bookbrowse.com/author_interviews/full/index.cfm/author_number/2579/tim-johnstonWhat Others are Saying:Kirkus Reviews: https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/tim-johnston/descent-johnston/Minneapolis Star Tribune: http://www.startribune.com/entertainment/books/287988991.htmlPublishers Weekly: http://www.publishersweekly.com/978-1-61620-304-7Washington Post: http://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/book-review-descent-by-tim-johnston/2015/01/04/7919d716-8f69-11e4-ba53-a477d66580ed_story.html