Welcome to my blog. If you're addicted to books, like I am, then you've come to the right place. I mostly write about books and my experiences reading them. These are very personal book reviews. (If you can even call them book reviews...) I’m a true believer that none of us lives in a vacuum. When you read a book, watch a movie, listen to a song, etc., you absorb that art form into your life experience, and it changes you. But you also change it, because no two people see anything the same way. The way I interpret a novel may be totally different from the way you will. It’s still the same novel, but the meaning for each of us is unique. Once you express that meaning, it changes the art. So these posts are about how these books fit into my life. I’d love to hear how they fit into yours. Please make comment and share your experience.

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Review of Same Kind of Different as Me by Ron Hall & Denver Moore with Lynn Vincent

A friend of mine said this was the best book she’d read all year.  I love recommendations like that because chances are, I’ll think it’s pretty awesome, too.  Ever practical, I suggested it for one of my book clubs and they picked it for November.  It’s amazing the sense of responsibility you feel when a half a dozen other people are reading the book you picked out.  I only knew a little bit about this book—just the little back-of-the book publisher’s description.  I should really learn to do more research than that before I leap into a book suggestion…

When I first started reading Same Kind of Different as Me, I freaked out a bit.  It began with a whole bunch of famous people recommending the book.  Normally, in a printed, bound book, I would skip right over these, but I was reading this on my iPod, and it’s not quite so easy to skip over stuff, so I read through them.  I was slightly horrified, because all the recommendations were by famous preachers and Christian leaders.  I thought I’d picked a religious (Christian/proselytizing) book for a group that tries to stay away from religion and politics!  Yikes.    But my concerns were assuaged as I continued, because even though the characters in the book are very Christian, and born-again, the heart of the story isn’t really about Christianity.  It’s about friendship.

This is a story about an unlikely friendship.  It’s one of the most amazing friendship stories I’ve ever encountered.  I felt this way partly because even though the friendship between Ron, a wealthy art dealer, and Denver, a homeless man, is unlikely, it became a genuine friendship, despite the skepticism of both men.  And it was a friendship that helped both men in unexpected ways.  This story also challenged me, because of the unbelievable kindness of some of the characters---their willingness to help others, even when those very same people had not been kind or helpful to them.
Ratings  (For an explanation of my rating factors, please visit the Rating System Key page.)

Crack Factor – 8.0.  This book will hold your attention.

Tears Shed Factor – !?!  I’m purposely not giving a rating here, because even though I did cry several times during this book, I tend to agree with my friend, Christine, who thought that some tear-jerking parts were too intense and didn’t necessarily need to go into the depth of detail that was provided.

Distraction Factor – 9.5.  This book gave me a vision of poverty and homelessness that I’d never contemplated before.  And it challenged my concept and understanding of friendship and kindness.
Writing Skills Factor – 8.0.  Hmm…it’s not that this book is poorly written.  It’s very well written.  But, having read several books recently that choose to use Black English Vernacular, I didn’t think this book executed this device particularly well.  Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, does this the best way imaginable, by explaining in the beginning why she was writing that way, at the preference of the characters themselves, who want the story told as accurately as possible.  This book is written from the perspective of two characters.  One of them is illiterate.  His chapters are written in his voice, grammar mistakes and all, but despite this, they are extremely well written and well organized for someone who never went to a day of school in his life.  So it’s obvious the writer monkeyed around a lot with his words, but she still wrote them in dialect.  It seemed forced to me.  Perhaps it should have been 3rd person narrative...I don’t know, maybe I’m just being picky.  You can’t tell me that the other narrator, Ron Hall, a life long Texan doesn’t have an accent either---why didn’t she folksy up his chapters? 

Total rating: 8.5

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Not Beginning Sci-Fi: Review of Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge

I had high expectations for this book.  It won the Hugo award for best novel, which is a big deal in the Sci-fi world.  In retrospect, I can understand this distinction, but it did take me a while to appreciate why it may have won this honor.  Most sci-fi books take a good 30-50 pages to establish the futuristic universe and time frame setting.  This book took more like 150 pages to get there.  The beginning was agonizing for me.   If you’ve never read sci-fi before—don’t start with this book, it is more complex than most sci-fi and the casual reader will get fed-up with it.  With that warning out of the way, once I got invested in this book, I did enjoy it. 

The universe Vinge creates in Fire Upon the Deep has multiple layers of civilization and intelligence that depend on where you are located in the universe—a very interesting concept.  The story begins as a human ship escapes from a terrible power to crash land on a planet inhabited by wolf-like creatures that must live in packs to transcend beyond the intelligence level of an animal.  The larger the pack, the more intelligent the being—but a pack of 4 or 5 of these creatures is still considered one individual.  In that sense, they can also be nearly immortal as they can add new members as previous ones die.  A rescue mission ensues across the galaxy to help the stranded humans who may hold the keys to stopping the blight/power that is consuming the known universe. 

I have really simplified the story here, but you get the idea.  This is fringe—totally out there, which makes it both frustrating and enjoyable.  With books like this, I find I have to let go of my need to understand everything in order to enjoy the story—there are some things in this made up world that will never make sense, never be explained and I’ll never understand them—once I made peace with that, I enjoyed the characters and the details of the story much more.  

Review of Atonement by Ian McEwan

When my co-workers’ kids were going off to college, I watched them struggle with empty nest syndrome.  As a parent, I can only imagine this inevitability when I look at my grade-school age kids.  But I know it’s out there and I know how hard it will be for me when the time comes.   My own memories of going off to college, however, had no recollection of my parents’ struggles with this.  So I asked my mom—was it hard for you?  She told me she cried the whole way home after they dropped me off.  Of course it was hard, but she said nothing of it to me at the time.  And I was too self-absorbed at the time to notice what my actions were doing to everyone around me.   

If you love a good love story, Atonement by Ian McEwan will piss you off.  There is a love story in here—but it gets destroyed and trampled on almost before it begins by powers out of its control—the imagination, selfishness and malice of a 13 year old girl.  This is the story of a self-absorbed adolescent who misinterprets what she sees between her sister and a family friend.  Seeking attention and drama—she fabricates a story accusing him of a crime he didn’t commit.   The lie takes on a life of its own and alters the lives of all characters forever.  It’s an upsetting, disturbing and sad story, but not a bad book.  The writing style and perspectives of different characters are unique and beautiful and I loved the way some passages were written deliberately vague, forcing me to re-read them over again to fully appreciate their beauty.  And McEwan writes a love scene that is one of the best I’ve ever read by a male author.  The novel does have some rather odd structure, however, and that, along with the sad premise, got a lot of criticism from the other BABBs. 

The offending character does offer “atonement” for her crimes, however, in her own way.  That brings the story full-circle and offers the reader, as well as her sister and her sister’s lover a better ending than real life provided. 

Parting note—Robbie—a solid 9.25 on the HTAF scale.  And that one scene could maybe even push him to a 10.01—but don’t tell Adam.  Well, maybe somebody should tell Adam…  Any volunteers?  I am so going to get in trouble for this…

Review of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

I have a really great soup recipe.  It’s called “Garlicky Mango Soup” and was the first place soup contest winner in Vegetarian Times magazine around 15 years ago.  When I made this soup for my parents the first time, my dad said “Wow!  This is the BEST soup I’ve ever had!”  My mom took a little offense to this (not really) because she’d been cooking soup for him for years and her soups are pretty awesome.  I took Dad’s compliment as genuine, because I know that in that moment, it really WAS the best soup he’d ever had.  I also took it with a realistic grain of salt, because I know that next week, he’d think the same thing about the Split Pea with Ham that my mom would make for him.  And he’d be telling the truth both times.  A comment like this is par for the course with both my parents.  They are incredibly enthusiastic when they appreciate something.  According to my dad I also make the BEST blueberry pie he’s ever had.  My mom is the same way.  She enjoys food, books, movies, friends, a well stocked grocery store, drives in the country and so many other things with simple joy.   I happen to think this is one of the best gifts my parents could have given me---the ability to get really excited about something you love---appreciation with enthusiasm.   When you can REALLY enjoy a simple thing in life, it makes your life so much nicer.  You may occasionally get teased for golden retriever excitement by the negative nellies of the world, but in general, you’ll be a happier person for it.      
Book cover

With that disclaimer out of the way, let me get on with the book review.  I LOVED this book.  It is easily one of my FAVORITE books of all time.  This is the kind of book I will tell everyone about ad nauseam for the next umpteen months.  The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Schaffer & Annie Barrows had me laughing, crying, excited, hopeful, fearful, and surprised.  It is the story of Juliet, an English writer, searching for her next story.  She finds it quite by accident when she receives a letter from a resident of Guernsey Island.  He and his neighbors share with her their stories of German occupation during WWII.  Juliet gets incredibly close to her subjects and even ends up with a place for herself in their story.  Almost the entire narrative is written as correspondence between the characters.  This approach makes for a story that moves quickly and gives you multiple characters’ perspectives. 

Readers will love the characters in this book.  I also loved the community that these people created.  Even in the midst of war, occupation, poverty and starvation, they brought out the best in each other.  We should all be so lucky to have friends and neighbors that care so much about each other.  They did what they have to do to protect each other and provide for each other.  I found it profound, humbling and inspiring.  It’s the kind of story that will make you believe in the goodness of people and want to be a better person yourself. 

Ratings  (For an explanation of my rating factors, please visit the Rating System Key page.)

Crack Factor – 9.9.  I might list this book as part of my definition of a crack book.  Seriously—I was that hooked on it. 

Tears Shed Factor – 9.9.  This book is an emotional workout.  I laughed out loud.  Some parts made me angry.  Others made me sad.   And I wept.  Several times.  (Many times.)  
Distraction Factor – 9.5.  If you had less than 24 hours to decide whether or not to send your children to live with strangers, in order to protect them from an invading army that is headed for your home, what would you do?  What if you were in a prison camp and your fellow prisoner was being threatened by a guard?  Or what would you do with the 2-year old little girl, left behind when her mother, your neighbor and friend, is taken--arrested and deported by enemy soldiers?  These are just some of the questions the characters in this novel face and they haunted me.  And still do. 

Enrichment Factor –  9.0.  I have above average geographical knowledge and I actually knew that the island of Guernsey existed, but I didn’t know how close it was to the French coastline and I knew nothing about its occupation by the German army.  This book described the hardships of wartime and occupation with excruciating detail. 

PeopleFactor – 9.75.  These characters will work their way into your heart and they’ll stay there for a long time.

Story Telling Factor – 9.5.  The authors have a great knack for weaving multiple plot lines into one book—this was a war story, a community story, a romance, a tragedy, and at times, even a comedy. 

Writing Skills Factor – 9.5. The correspondence style was a unique twist—but a great way to give you a sense of each character in his or her own words.  The authors did this very well.  They also were profoundly good at writing emotion and provoking emotional response. 

Bad Ass Babe Factor –  Elizabeth 9.9.  This character is the only one you never know first hand, you only hear about her from other characters.  She is strong, brave and loyal.  She is fearless and a fierce friend, the kind of heroine you want in your corner.  Kat, 9.5 – I don’t know if it’s appropriate to give a 4 year old a BAB rating, but I thought this kid was cool.  Juliet 9.0 – The protagonist is pretty cool, too.  Very smart, sassy and caring.  And she’s a writer, so she gets extra points for that.    

Hotter than Adam Factor – Dawsey, 9.  You gotta love a middle aged bachelor who is helping to raise his missing neighbor’s 4 year old daughter. 

Total Rating: 9.495