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.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Hunger Games Fandom...

This is what a day is like when you have book loving friends.  Check out this email string.


I do work, I swear. (BABB#2) just told me about the amazon shop for hunger games though.

Peeta pillowcase anyone??
 The Hunger Games Movie Pillowcase "Peeta"
I might prefer to drool on Gale’s face. 

I think Adam might have a problem if I brought Peeta or Gale into our bed… 

What if you had this shirt….i want this.
(okay-so the images are disappearing on me, so just imagine a t-shirt that says "I love the boy with the bread.") 

Me:  Me too.  Do they have any Katniss shirts so I can buy one for Adam and then we’re all even?

BABB2:  This is all I am seeing. It is very B.A.
(Imagine a shirt that says "Team Katniss") 

Anyone going to the movies this weekend??  I'm trying to convince Adam that we need to see the Hunger Games on Friday night.  Now we just need a babysitter...

Review of Shanghai Girls by Lisa See


If you have a sister, that word probably brings a few emotions to mind.  Sister relationships are fascinating and multi-faceted.  They can be supportive and loving or antagonistic and critical.  And they can be all at once. 

I’m thankful that I have a fabulous relationship with my sister.  I can call my sister and talk for hours.  Back when we were both stay-at-home moms, we often called each other 3-4 times a day, for all kinds of reasons, from mundane to profound.  I trust her completely.  I know she’s there for me, no matter what.  It’s a comfort to really understand the depth of your relationships, in your heart, in your mind, in your gut. 

But every relationship has its boundaries.  They all have places where you don’t go.   My two closest girlfriends each have sisters with whom they are extremely close and yet, there are some things they just don’t talk about with each other.  Even my sister and I, for all the closeness and supportiveness in our relationship, have boundaries, too.  I imagine all relationships have them, no matter how close or significant. 


Shanghai Girls by Lisa See is a story about the Chin sisters, Pearl and May.  Their relationship is as complex as any sister relationship, with love and support and betrayal and heartbreak, and quite a lot of antagonism.    It begins in 1937 Shanghai.  We follow their lives through the Japanese invasion and their escape to America, to find them begrudgingly settled in San Francisco during WWII and afterwards.  It spans several decades in the characters’ lives, and through many life stages.  Even with a rich historical and cultural backdrop, the sister and family dynamics are what I found most interesting throughout this book. 

The Chin sisters’ relationship is strewn with jealousy.  Each felt that the other one had it better than she did, or one was the parents’ favorite, or had the better husband or the better job, or one sacrificed more than the other…it got a little annoying a few times because I just couldn’t relate.  I don’t see my own sister the way Pearl and May see theirs—with as much resentment as love.  This did however, give the BABBs much to discuss---as we all have family and everyone can identify with a family story.  Mostly I pitied the Chin sisters because all that hurt and resentment held them back.

Shanghai Girls is a thoroughly enjoyable read and very good historical fiction, even though the subject material and setting are often disturbing and depressing. 

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

Crack Factor – 8.0. 

Tears Shed Factor –  N/A. There’s plenty of drama in this book but I didn’t find it emotional, although I imagine many people would.

Distraction Factor – 9.25.  Shanghai Girls is a haunting tale.  Just like in See’s Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, (one of my favorite books) there are images from this story that I’ll never forget. 

Enrichment Factor – 9.0.  Immigrant stories are frequently stories of hardship and discrimination.  I really wonder if there was every any group that came here without it.  The Chinese immigrants in this story had it pretty bad; they maneuvered through the anti-Japanese sentiments during WWII and then the anti-communist rampage right afterwards.  I love fiction that gives me new knowledge and understanding of history and culture.  This time and place was something I’d never studied before.

PeopleFactor – 8.5. See wrote the book in the first person.  All the characters and events are narrated by Pearl, which definitely adds some limitation as you can’t always get inside the heads of the other characters.  I don’t see that as a problem here, because through Pearl’s eyes, the reader gets a very good sense of all the characters and See crafts them like onions, with layers that Pearl peels away over time to reveal just how complex each one is.  As soon as you think you’ve got them all figured out, See gives us a little more insight and…You’ll change your mind about everybody over and over again.  It made for a more interesting read because the characters and their relationships evolve so much over time. 

Story Telling Factor – 8.5. The majority of the BABBs had a couple of complaints about this book: 1) It ends very abruptly, and 2) they didn’t always like how See turned the plot. On a whole, however, I found See’s plot twists quite pivotal and necessary to keep the pace of the story going and bring certain characters to their destinies and certain plot lines to their climaxes.  But I do have to admit the ending did tick me off.  Apparently See had to set it up for the sequel:  Finding Joy.  Why write one book, when you can sell two at twice the price?

Writing Skills Factor – 8.5.  See’s writing is raw.  It’s very simple and clear and to the point.  That rawness adds to the distraction factor as well.  She doesn’t leave out the nasty and upsetting details.

Bad Ass Babe Factor –  I’m abstaining from this rating.  I didn’t really like Pearl or May that much as people, even though they were well developed characters.  In the Bad Ass Babe arena, however, Pearl gets points for sheer endurance and their mother gets Mama Bear points. 

Total Rating: 8.625

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Review of The Grace of Silence: A Memoir, by Michele Norris

I’ve been an NPR listener for almost 20 years.  It’s almost always what I’ve got playing in the car, and it’s often my background sound when I’m at home.  I’ve probably heard Michele Norris on the radio a thousand times or more.  Like most television and radio journalists, you hear them all the time, recognize their voices as much as those of your friends and family and yet you almost never know anything personal about them.  That’s not usually part of journalism, whose goal is to remain as objective as possible.  Journalists don’t usually put themselves in piece; they just try to tell the story for what it is. 

The Grace of Silence

I was intrigued with this book club pick because it takes one of my most familiar voices and it put a whole context of life behind it.  As Norris explains, the idea for this memoir came to her as she was trying to capture the racial dialogue in the aftermath of Barack Obama’s inauguration.  As she was encouraging this conversation to come to the surface and she listened to the stories of many American families, she uncovered her own family’s stories that had been deliberately kept from her. 

Hence the title---The Grace of Silence---Her parents’ silence was their grace.  By not giving new voice to these stories, they believed they gave Michele and her sisters an advantage.  They withheld that which could have embittered or prejudiced their children; they chose not to burden them with that information so that their children could rise above it.  The question Michele asks all these years later is was that silence necessary?  Should it always have been part of the story?  Could they all have achieved what they achieved with this knowledge?  Would they have the same attitudes?

True to her journalist form, once Michele learns her family’s unspoken stories, she uncovers every detail possible.  The first part is about her maternal grandmother’s story, who had been a traveling aunt Jemima selling pancake mix throughout the Midwest.  The second is her father’s story of being shot by a white police officer in Birmingham, Alabama.  As she researches these stories, she gives the reader the historical and racial context, and a true understanding of what life was like in those times and places for people of color.
At times this story is difficult to read.  Racial issues are sensitive and the treatment of minorities throughout history is shameful.  More than once I felt angry and sad, at times even horrified and ashamed that one human being would treat another with so little respect.  And yet, Norris’s gift is that despite the heavy content of the book, in just as many places, I smiled, because she shared so many personal family stories that are familiar—stories of parents and children, siblings and neighbors and people.

I really enjoyed this book; it’s a quick read, well written, thought provoking and even entertaining.  Norris’ style is down to earth and frank.  The book comes off as a journey:  She uncovers these stories from her family, frames them in historical context and then pieces them back into the memories she has of her parents and grandparents.  The characters she meets along the way play crucial roles in the racial dialogue and she paints vivid pictures of them, too. 

Crack Factor – 9.5.  This book goes fast.

Tears Shed Factor 9.0.  You can’t read this book and not feel.  It evokes many emotions throughout.

Distraction Factor/Enrichment Factor 9.0.  Even if you’ve studied racial issues and civil rights, this story is fresh.  It’s rich with new material, new ideas, new perspective and it will keep the wheels turning in your mind for a long time.

Writing Skills Factor 9.875.  I hope I’m not gushing too much.  I’m just really awed by Michele Norris.  I’ve respected her as a journalist for so many years and top of all of that, she can turn out a book as impressive as this.  It’s amazing and humbling.  I’m a forever fan now.
Story Telling Factor.  9.5.  98% of this book is fabulous.  It moves quickly and is informative and well constructed.  I do have to say at one point I got bogged down with some of the historical details and I had to skim through it.  It was probably just me at the time---a quick glance back through the book and I couldn’t even find what I’d missed, so it wasn’t like it was 20 pages, probably only 3 or 4.  I can’t mark her down for that, when it was probably just me being a lazy reader…

Total Rating:  9.375

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Review of Blackout by Connie Willis

There is nothing like an incredibly long business trip to help you catch up on your reading.  I just recently returned from a trip to the UK and while I was there I was able to finish three books.  In fairness, I was mostly done with two of them, but it still felt good to cross three off the list.  I found it incredibly interesting, however, to be finishing Blackout by Connie Willis while I was in London, because much of it is set in London, so that made it fun to be walking the streets in which part of the story takes place.

Big Ben & The Houses of Parliament, Feb 2012-JJWBaker
Connie Willis is an award winning Sci-fi author that I first learned about from Grigg, the sci-fi loving character in The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler.  I trust his recommendations, having read two Ursula LeGuin books because of him, and Connie Willis was one of his favorite authors.  Turns out, she’s also won the Hugo award a few times, among other awards.  Blackout is the first volume of a two volume novel, All Clear is the second volume and together they won the Hugo for best novel in 2011, so I figured they were worth a look.

Westminster Abbey, Feb 2012 - JJWBAKER

Blackout is the story of three historians from Oxford, England in 2060.  In Willis’ world, time travel is possible and historians regularly travel back in time to observe history as it is happening.  They have quite a complex theory about this, and genuinely believe that they cannot affect history as long as they stay clear of “divergence points,” which are critical times in history when a small change could have a big outcome.  These three historians are studying what seem to be mundane aspects of the war.  One is working as a shop girl in London during the Blitz, to study how Londoners cope during the air raids.  One is a maid in the countryside studying the evacuated children.  And the third is posing as an American reporter, studying the evacuation of Allied soldiers from Dunkirk, France.  One by one these historians encounter unforeseen problems and slowly come to the realization that despite the time travel theory, they may have altered the course of the war and their way back to the future may no longer exist. 
Fountain in Trafalgar Square, Feb 2012-JJWBaker

It seems I’ve read a good many World War II books recently.  I hadn’t realized it until one of the BABBs was complaining that we’d picked too many WWII books and she hates that time period.  Consequently I’ve added it as a label for the blog because I do have quite a few WWII stories in here.   What I found particularly interesting about this novel, however, is that all 3 of these time travelers are studying areas of history that you don’t normally hear about.  I’d never thought much before about quotidian life for Londoners during the Blitz, sleeping in Tube stations and the camaraderie that would engender.  Same thing for the life of a maid taking care of evacuated children.  They were unique perspectives on the war, and it was a nice change to get a new perspective.    
The London Eye, Feb 2012-JJWBAKER

While there is a lot of action in this story, it didn’t leave much room for serious character development.  Honestly I didn’t really miss it until I started writing the review…  The secondary characters I found more interesting than the three main time travelers, which make sense in retrospect as the time travelers are forced to blend into their surroundings, so aside from their inner monologues, you don’t see them doing many unique things to set themselves apart from their subjects.  The WWII contemporaries, however, are quite interesting:  The elderly boat captain with delusions of grandeur, determined to do his part in the Dunkirk evacuation, the mischievous Ralph & Binnie, evacuee children wreaking havoc on their country safe house, and the eccentric Londoners trapped in the Tube station during air raids with their attempt to put on a stage play underground to pass the time. 
Liberty Department Store, London, Feb 2012-JJWBAKER
This is a pretty good page turner, but at some point, I did feel like the story was dragging a bit.  About ¾ of the way through the novel, I thought—all of these characters know something is wrong, but they didn’t seem to be moving on to the next part—I felt like, let’s get on with them finding each other and fixing it already and it seemed like it took forever to get to that point.
Westminster Abbey, Feb 2012, JJWBAKER
One thing I really enjoyed about the time travel perspective was how these historians are constantly trying to blend in and fit the WWII roll they are playing.  Imagine if part of your job entailed pretending to be someone else and do her job.  It’s like these historians are doing triple duty:  1-the historical roll, 2-the historical job and 3-the historian, and they have to do it in a war zone... of course the stress catches up to each of them at different points.   They have to call on their historical and cultural knowledge and sometimes common sense or modern ideas trip them up because they forget that something hasn’t been invented in the 1940s, or they have to recall historical dates or bombing data and then worry that their actions look suspicious and they might be hauled in for suspicion of being a German spy.  And in many ways they are spies, just from the future.  It made for added complexity in the story.    

I think this is Whitehall, but I really don't remember. London Feb 2012 - JJWBAKER
Overall, this was an enjoyable, entertaining read, I’d even go so far as to categorize it as historical fiction as well as sci-fi. 

Friday, March 2, 2012

Why edit an old post, when you can write a new one...

I was going to go back to my Eat Your Heart Out Pillars of the Earth Fans post and put in a few of my own pictures from Salisbury Cathedral, but I changed my mind, and figured it was better to make a new post.  Here you are...enjoy...
Salisbury Cathedral, February 2012-JJWBAKER

Can't you just see Jack Jackson Builder carving this statue--look closely, she's got a mini cathedral in her hand.

More statues, Salisbury Cathedral, Feb 2012-JJWBAKER

Interior Courtyard, Salisbury Cathedral, Feb 2012-JJWBAKER

Restoration efforts.  It costs the UK Government GBP12,000/day to maintain this cathedral.  Check out the flying buttresses, I know what their purpose is thanks to Ken Follett.  Feb 2012-JJWBAKER

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Out of the Mouths of Book Babes

Today one of the BABBs missed our final book discussion because she had to take care of some important personal business.  Her sweet husband apologized to her that she had to miss work to accompany him and she replied..."I don't care about work---but I missed Book Lunch!"  Out of the mouths of babes...well, book babes anyway...

As a fellow book addict, I get it completely. I hate missing book discussions.  The BABBs have it pretty good because we see each other every day and meet once a week for lunch, so we have a continual book dialog going, and even then, we still manage to fill the last meeting for each book with tons of discussion.  It's a good thing.

Here are a couple of other random tidbits I've been meaning to post, so I'll just compile them all together.

The first is a link to a review of the Diana Gabaldon "Outlander" series written by a man.  This is pretty unique, because most of her fans are women. It's a good review and totally something you should print out if you want your husband to read these books so he can pick up some Jamie tips.  It's called "My Outlander thing: How a brainy guy like me wound up reading historical romance novels" by Gavin McNett.  (If you haven't read the blog long enough to know why I think all men should be more like Jamie Fraser, you need to read The Hotter Than Adam Factor post.)

The second is a link was forwarded to me by another BABB.  It's several maps of Panem from The Hunger Games.  It is really cool and here are a few things you should know:  The book babe that wrote this map is a bigger book nerd than I am (and I mean that as the highest compliment.)  She paid way better attention to the Hunger Games books than I did because I don't remember any of this stuff.  I'd even go so far as to say she put more thought into Panem than Suzanne Collins did.  It's super cool, very intelligent, well researched and worth a look.  It's called Suzanne Collins' Map of Panem, created by AimMyArrowsHigh.livejournal.com and BadGuys.livejournal.com  The final map is below, but follow the link, because they go into super detail describing how they came to this final map version.