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Name : Michelle M.

My Reviews

Book Club Recommended
Adventurous, Dramatic, Interesting
Water for Elephants

Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants tells a great story. I loved the story, and I loved the characters. I loved Rosie the elephant. I did not love the explicit scenes, particularly when I had to hear it on an audio CD. But, I wanted to continue hearing the story because other than those parts, it was very compelling.

Jacob Jankowski is the vet (with an asterix) for a second-rate circus. His services and presence aren’t always wanted by the circus regulars. The book is told in flashbacks to great effect. I really enjoyed that format for this particular story. The readers for the audio CD were David LeDoux and John Randolph Jones. They both were good, but whoever did Jacob Jankowski as an old man was brilliant. I thoroughly loved those sections.

Water for Elephants is not only a love story; it’s also about finding ‘family’ with those around you. I just wish I could have ‘redlighted’ a few parts.

Book Club Recommended
Dramatic, Interesting, Adventurous
Men Who Hated Women (3.5 stars)

The original Swedish title of this book means Men Who Hated Women, and that title is an excellent forewarning about what the book is about. If you like gritty crime novels or shows like CSI, you’ll probably love the book. My eyes and stomach prefer much milder fare, but I’ll still probably read the second installment.

The girl who has the dragon tattoo is Lisbeth Salander, a girl in her mid-twenties who is a PI and can find out just about everything about anyone. I liked her. A lot. Her character was fascinating and Larsson ends the book in such a way that leaves you wanting to hear more of her story and background.

Mikael Blomqvist is a journalist who has just lost a court case for libel, which then puts his reputation and his magazine Millennium at risk. He decides to temporarily leave the paper in the hands of his partner to save face. Enter Henrik Vanger. Vanger is the former CEO of his family business, the Vanger Corporation. He hires Blomqvist to write a family history of the Vangers as a pretext to dig into the disappearance of his niece, Harriet Vanger. The case has been cold for decades and though Mikael believes he won’t be able to find any new evidence, he accepts. This is where the book really grabbed me and kept me reading until 1 am to learn the outcome.

The book really has three storylines to it, the Harriet Vanger story is in the middle, with Lisbeth Salander’s story on the outside of that, and with Mikael Blomqvist’s story on the very outer edges. Consequently, the climax occurs with quite a few pages still left in the book. So at first it felt like the book should be over, but then after awhile I was able to get into the secondary and tertiary stories as well.

As I stated in the beginning, it really is about men who hate women, so if you read it be prepared for what that involves. I didn’t care for the more graphic scenes in the book, but I do know that not everyone is as sensitive to that as I am

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
Book Club Recommended
Dramatic, Insightful, Beautiful
Beautiful, beautiful book

I normally do not like reading “war” novels — especially those about World War II. My heart breaks when I think of the evil that mankind can do. I did, however, love The Diary of Anne Frank, and I also loved The Book Thief.

The Book Thief tells the story of a German orphan girl named Liesel. Her brother has just died, and her mother gave her up because she couldn’t care for her after “something happened” to her father, a suspected Communist. She goes to live with Hans and Rosa Hubermann, who also have two grown children. Their son is a solid Hitler supporter. Hans is a gentle man who tenderly takes care of Liesel. Rosa is a gruff German woman, yet we also see gentleness and compassion from her throughout the story.

Each character in the book is so perfectly portrayed and so lovingly depicted. I fell in love with each one and cared deeply about what happened to them. This book is a treasure to read and to ponder over long after the final page is turned. It is a story that will stay with me for many, many years to come.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Book Club Recommended
Adventurous, Dramatic, Interesting
Good but not great

This book was quite a page turner, and while I did enjoy it, I didn’t quite love the book.

The plot was, in my view, the best part of the book. Although I didn’t think the writing was bad per se, I didn’t feel it was up to par with The Giver by Lois Lowry or The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer. The romance angle in the book irritated me a bit. I understand to a degree why it was necessary to the plot, but I thought it could have been a little more well done. Another minor irritation was the naming of the characters in the book. I suppose it was done on purpose, but I felt it distracted me from the story every time I came upon a strange name. I’ve never really noticed it in books like Lord of the Rings, etc., but in this book the names just seemed a bit silly.

Even with all that said, I did like the book quite a bit.

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
Book Club Recommended
Insightful, Interesting, Gloomy
Pulitzer winner

I loved Olive and the interlinked stories in this book. Well deserving of the Pulitzer Prize.

Book Club Recommended
Boring, Inspiring, Slow
3.5 stars

Elizabeth Gilbert’s book about “finding herself” after a divorce is, well, interesting to say the least. She is frank, candid, brutally honest, and bares all in this travel memoir. I do give her this: she is a brilliant writer and narrator (I listened to the audio CD). The problem was, though, that after finishing the book, I found I really didn’t like it much. It is an easy read/listen, with a little ‘too much information’ sometimes, if you know what I mean. I also didn’t agree with almost any of her decisions or with her conclusions about God and spirituality, though I’m sure she’s not asking me to, either!

She goes through a messy divorce and travels through the three “I” countries listed above. She learns Italian and eats a lot of pasta in Italy (the Eat in the title), she “finds God” in India (the Pray), and she finds love (the Love in the title) in Indonesia. She makes it all very interesting, that’s for sure. I do recommend this book because it is always fascinating to take a peak at other women’s lives and their viewpoints, and as I said, the writing is excellent. In some ways, though, books like these always reinforce my own beliefs and viewspoints as well.

Book Club Recommended
Interesting, Dramatic, Epic

The writing itself deserves a 5. Some parts of the story are disturbing, though.

Book Club Recommended
Interesting, Insightful, Confusing
The Imperfectionists

Interconnected stories about a struggling newspaper and its employees. I thought it was very well-written. There's not much to like about the characters, but they were interesting.

Informative, Graphic, Confusing
Didn't like it

I just didn’t like this book. At all. This book was just not my cup of tea. Plainly put, it was quite vulgar and crass and just not at all what I want in my reading. I’m not necessarily sorry that I read it, though, as I do have a commitment to reading all of the Pulitzers. I just wish the committee had chosen a different book.

There was a section in the middle that was quite interesting about the brutal reign of Trujillo in the Dominican Republic. If not for that section, the book would have only received a 1 star rating. It did have quite a few literary references that were somewhat enjoyable as well, but no, that does not make up for the rest of it I did not enjoy. I am just glad that I can now mark this one off my tbr list.

Book Club Recommended
Informative, Dramatic, Interesting
Incredible book

Wow!! This is an amazing book. It is a story about women in China and their relationships to their families, husbands, and each other. They must first obey their father, then their husband, and then even their son. Their feet are bound to become more “marriageable” – the smaller the foot, the better the marriage prospects. We’re talking about 7 cm here! The lives of these women were very harsh, and some were unbearable. Their hardships, work, pain, and desire for love came through very vividly in this novel.

I recommend this book be read by all women.

Book Club Recommended
Fun, Adventurous, Interesting
Flavia was fantastic

Loved this one. Flavia was quite a character.

Book Club Recommended
Insightful, Epic, Brilliant
A must-read classic.

Excellent read. I loved it.

Book Club Recommended
Dramatic, Interesting, Insightful
Good southern mystery

I love southern fiction, and I was especially interested in reading this book as the setting is in southeastern Mississippi, which is close to where I live now in Mobile, Alabama. I use to read a lot more mysteries than I read now, particularly in the early 1990s, but I’m not a fan of gritty content, so I’ve drifted more into literary fiction over the years. I was pleasantly relieved, when, for the most part, this book turned out to be more character driven and written in a literary style without the typical gory descriptions of many modern novels. It’s a page turner and I read it pretty much straight through.

The two main characters are Larry (white), called ‘Scary Larry’ by the locals, and Silas (black), the local policeman. Growing up, the two were friends for a time when they lived in close proximity to each other. Then when Larry was in high school, he was accused by the community of killing a girl after a date, although the body was never found and Larry was never formally charged. Due to all this, Larry lives a lonely life in almost total isolation, with only his books (mostly horror) to keep him company.

Fast forward about 20 years and now another girl is missing. Naturally, the police consider Larry ‘a person of interest’ in the case, and Silas, his old boyhood friend, must get involved in trying to solve the girl’s disappearance.

This book is about a lot more than just the mysteries of the two girls’ disappearances. It’s about race, class, friendship, and family. I enjoyed it and would definitely read another book by this author, especially if Silas were one of the characters.

Crooked Letter Crooked Letter is on the shortlist for the 2011 Edgar Awards.

Book Club Recommended
Inspiring, Optimistic, Beautiful
Heaven is for real, but... (3.5 stars)

Heaven Is for Real is about a small town, Christian, 4 year old boy’s near death experience as told by his father. It is an amazing story, but I do have questions about it. That doesn’t really mean I believe or disbelieve the story as I’m not sure how I feel about it and probably never will be sure. First, the background. Colton gets very very ill (I don’t want to spoil the reason why) and nearly dies. Several months after his recovery, Colton begins saying things about his time in the hospital that make his family believe that he has, in fact, been in heaven. The details don’t come all at once but over a course of months and even years. Colton not only gives descriptions of heaven, but also of family members he should know nothing about. The tale is inspiring and amazing if true, but the questions I have about the story are these: This is a minor mistake, but in the book Mr. Burpo stated that North Platte was 3 hours from Denver and 8 hours from Omaha. Not true — I’ve driven I-80 and I-76 along this route many many times. It’s more like 3.5 hours from Denver and 4 from Omaha. This mis-statement was the first that raised a tiny red flag in my mind. If he was wrong about this, could he be wrong about other facts? Colton said that in heaven Jesus still had the holes in his hands, feet, and side. I don’t dispute that that may well be the case. However, there is some debate in Christian circles whether the nails were actually in Jesus’ hands or his wrists. I don’t know the correct answer to this, but Colton pointed to his palms when describing them. I’m just saying that some Christians would have a problem with this. Colton said he remembered clearly what Jesus looked like. He would always say that all the pictures he saw of Jesus were wrong, until he saw one painted by Akiane Kramarik, another child who states she has seen visions of heaven. However, the painting is of a ‘Western’ Jesus, where in reality, Jesus was Jewish and should have Jewish/Middle Eastern features. (There is more to this review on my website.)

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Book Club Recommended
Adventurous, Dramatic, Brilliant
Shadow of the Wind (3.5 stars)

Liked the book except felt that the male characters were misogynists.

Life of Pi by Yann Martel
Book Club Recommended
Adventurous, Interesting, Brilliant
2002 Booker Prize

This is the story of Pi Patel from his childhood to his time on a lifeboat after the ship carrying his family and his father’s zoo animals sinks. Richard Parker, a Bengal tiger, shares Pi’s fate on the raft. Due to the tiger, he must constantly be on guard during his 227 day ordeal.

I really didn’t get all that much into the story until the ship sunk — it really gets going at that point. And then, just when I was getting tired of all the desperate tactics for survival in the lifeboat, another interesting development occurs. I was surprised by the twist ending as well, but it was a good one. I was impressed by the symbolism in the book. Recommended.

Book Club Recommended
Insightful, Informative, Interesting
4.5 stars

This is a very fun, unique book to read -- especially if you are interested in mathematics and logic. Christopher is 15, has a form of autism, loves math, and hates the colors yellow and brown. He sees the world through logic and those around him can only reach him through logic. One night he discovers his neighbor’s dog has been murdered and sets out to find the killer. This leads him not only to the perpetrator but also to a personal adventure as well.

I really admire this book. Haddon made Christopher a completely convincing character, and I would love there to be a sequel.

Book Club Recommended
Informative, Insightful, Dramatic
Must-read classic

Everyone should read this book.

Book Club Recommended
Brilliant, Insightful, Inspiring
A definite must-read

Wow! What a fantastic book. I don’t know why I’ve never read this before. I really thought I already knew what it was about–a girl’s father defending a black man for r*ping a white woman. It is about so much more than that, although of course that plays an important part.

Scout and her family live in Maycomb, Alabama. In the beginning of the book, Scout is going into the 1st grade and her brother Jem is going into 5th. Her father is an attorney, her mother died when she was 2, and her caregiver is a sweet, smart black woman named Calpurnia. The family relationship among all members is strong–very strong. Scout and Jem play together at home (but not in school–Jem insists). Scout and her father always read together in the evenings. This is a point of contention with Scout’s teacher Miss Caroline. “Now you tell your father not to teach you any more. It’s best to begin reading with a fresh mind. You tell him I’ll take over from here and try to undo the damage–”

Scout, Jem, and their friend Dill (said to have been inspired by Lee’s childhood friend Truman Capote) spend a lot of time together in the summer trying to see Boo Radley, a neighbor who is a recluse. In fact, they are obsessed with this endeavor. Atticus Finch, Scout’s father, takes on the r*pe case. The fallout from the case is felt by the Finches from the community as well as from their extended family. The book ends well, though, with a very satisfying conclusion.

To Kill a Mockingbird won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1961 and was made into an Academy Award winning film starring Gregory Peck. It is the only novel Harper Lee ever published.

Book Club Recommended
Informative, Dramatic, Insightful
Excellent book

A must-read for women especially.

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky
Book Club Recommended
Dark, Confusing, Difficult
Incredible book (4.5 stars)

Suite Française is the incredible incomplete set of novels by Irene Nemirovsky, a Russian Jew who had been living in Paris for 10 years before ultimately dying in Auschwitz. The preface to the French edition states that:

She dreamed of a book of a thousand pages, constructed like a symphony, but in five sections, according to rhythm and tone. She took Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony as a model.

Sadly, only two of the planned five were completed. In these stories, she creates such vivid characters and situations that it is a shame we never get to find out what happened to them. She was a fine writer. Her characters were so well-defined; I cared about the worthy ones and loathed the loathsome ones. Even in her description of the latter, there was humor to be found. Both good and bad die, and of course the question is always, “Why?” The accounts of the flight from Paris as the Germans descended on them during 1940 were chilling and frighteningly relevant to what could happen today. Then, during the section depicting the occupation of France, I was most surprised at her portrayal of the German soldiers, in which some could be seen as sympathetic.

Her two daughters had kept these stories in a suitcase for years, not even looking at them as it was too painful. When one of her daughters did finally take out the papers to type them, she found this wonderful, incomplete novel and it was published in France in 2004, sixty-two years after her death in 1942.

Highly recommended.

Book Club Recommended
Incredible book

“Now I realized that the least deluded of all women was the prostitute. That marriage was the system built on the most cruel suffering of women.”

Woman at Point Zero was written by Nawal El Saadawi in 1975. This feminist Egyptian author has quite a resume. She became a doctor in her early twenties in 1955. She campaigned against female circumcision in Egypt for over 50 years, with the practice not becoming illegal until 2008. Early in her career she lost her job as Director of Public Health because of her campaign. Later, she was even imprisoned by the Sadat regime over a political matter. And, not only that, she has written at least 16 books on women’s issues.

This book was written as a result of her visiting a woman in prison. While she was studying neurosis in women, another doctor told her about a prisoner who refused to ask for a pardon from the President for the crime of killing her pimp. After the author heard the woman’s story, she couldn’t sleep for days until she started writing this book. (Source: BBC World Book Club interview)

Firdaus tells her life story from the beginning, from being touched by her uncle inappropriately, to being married off and beaten by her 60+ year old husband, to being raped and then finally becoming a prostitute. It is a harrowing story and one I won’t easily forget. The book is short and it is structured to repeat in a few places, but this was intentionally done by the author to good effect. Highly recommended for those interested in women’s issues and feminist fiction.

“Everybody has to die. I prefer to die for a crime I have committed rather than to die for one of the crimes which you have committed.”

Book Club Recommended
Slow, Insightful, Pointless
Pulitzer winner

Breathing Lessons has been on my tbr list for ages not only because it won the Pulitzer Prize, but also because I’m an Anne Tyler fan. While I enjoyed it, I’m always of the mindset that a prize-winning book should be in the 4 1/2 to 5 star range for me, and this one was slightly under that with a 4 star rating. An interesting note is that The Accidental Tourist and Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant were both finalists for the Pulitzer Prize as well.

The story takes place in a single day and doesn’t have much of a plot, but the characters are so believable that that didn’t really bother me. Maggie and Ira Moran seemed like a very real couple to me. The novel centers on their marriage but also branches out into Maggie’s relationship with her friend Serena and the couple’s relationships with their children and grandchild. In the novel Maggie is portrayed as a flighty woman who just wants everyone to get along and quite frequently tries to encourage reconciliation between injured parties. Ira is somewhat aloof but has a habit of whistling tunes that betray his inner mindset. He can be blunt at times and doesn’t appreciate Maggie’s well-intentioned meddling. However, in the end we are left wondering which of the two has really done the most damage by his or her actions.

I could identify with Maggie’s wish to be more involved in her children’s and granchild’s lives. I also identified with some of Ira’s issues and their issues as a married couple. I think almost everyone would know a couple like Maggie and Ira Moran. Perhaps that is what Tyler does so well, though. She brings those ‘typical’ characters to life in a way that makes us wish we could continue the relationship with them even after the story is finished.

Larry's Party by Carol Shields
Book Club Recommended
Orange Prize winner

Over the course of his life, Larry Weller goes from flower arranger at a flower store to a master designer of landscape mazes. I’m not that into botany, so that part was only marginally interesting to me; however, I would definitely like to visit some of the mazes described in the book, particularly in Europe. More interesting to me was the progression in Larry’s thought life and love life over the course of the book. He starts out not knowing much about himself or what he wants in his twenties and of course knowing himself infinitely better by the time he’s in his late forties.

Some of the aspects I didn’t like about the book are that it was a little boring in places, i.e. the botany and the fact that Larry is just a regular Joe with not much in the way of personality. I think that was supposed to be the point, though. There is even a chapter dedicated to his name and what the stereotypes of “Larrys” are. Another aspect is that in quite a few places she repeats details that we already know about characters or events. I know that was by design, but I’m not sure I liked it. Also, it is a bit raunchy in places. There’s a chapter called “Larry’s P#n*s” that goes on and on in very descriptive detail about that specific body part and all the different names for it that people use. Some people would find that extremely funny, I’m sure, but I could have done without the more graphic parts of that chapter.

The last chapter is called “Larry’s Party,” and that chapter and the dinner party itself wrapped up everything in Larry’s life to that point very nicely. I really liked the metaphor that our lives are mazes. Sometimes there’s only one way in and one way out. Sometimes there are four exits. But always, there is the ‘goal’ in the center. Honestly, the last chapter made me lift my rating from 3 1/2 stars to 4. It was very cleverly done. And although this book was my least favorite of Shields’ books so far, I still plan on reading many more if not all of her works. I really do think she was an amazing writer.

Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool
Book Club Recommended
Inspiring, Insightful, Beautiful
2011 Newbery winner (4.5 stars)

Reading this book made me yearn a bit for my childhood. In the very first chapter, Abilene jumps from the train that is taking her to her new town. She wants to see it ‘before it sees her.’ I’ve never jumped from a train, but back in the old days in the 70’s there were only 4 TV channels and kids were made to play outside and find adventure on their own. I was blessed to have such a childhood, and Abilene’s childhood summer made me remember that.

While Abilene’s story is set in the 1930’s, part of her adventure takes her into the past of 1917 and 1918 as well. Abilene is shipped off by train by her father to the town of Manifest, Kansas to live with Shady, one of the town’s ministers. She attends the last day of school, makes a couple of friends, and discovers some letters and artifacts in her new home. She takes these discoveries to the town diviner, Miss Sadie, who tells her stories of the town’s past, with two boys in particular being the stars.

This started out just to be an average read for me, but I liked it more and more as I read on. With old newspaper clippings from the ‘Reporter About Town’ interspersed throughout the book, and stories of drought, immigration, World War I, bootlegging, and the Spanish Flu, I could clearly imagine this book being turned into film. I can just see the dusty old town now. Recommended for MG and YA historical fiction fans.

Small Island: A Novel by Andrea Levy
Book Club Recommended
Dramatic, Beautiful, Epic
Orange Prize 2004; Whitbread Book of the Year 2004; Commonwealth Writers’ Prize 2005

Andrea Levy wrote Small Island as a way to research her Jamaican parents’ immigrant experience. The title, Small Island, is apt as it refers to both Jamaica and Britain. The book takes place both before and after World War II and is comprised of 4 main characters, with each character speaking in his or her own voice throughout the novel. Gilbert and Hortense are a couple from Jamaica who rent a room from Queenie in England. Queenie is renting rooms out because her husband Bernhard has not yet returned from the war.

The novel covers several issues: war, immigration, prejudice, and class. I love historical fiction because history is so much more interesting when it’s portrayed in the personal experiences of the men and women who lived it. I’ve always wondered why England didn’t have as much of a racial problem as the U.S., but in this book we discover that there were, in fact, prejudices that needed to be overcome. While Gilbert was so proud to be a part of Mother England as a Jamaican citizen, enough so that he went to war for her, his ‘Mother’ not only didn’t appreciate his efforts, she didn’t even recognize him as her child.

Each character in the book is so well defined. I got a kick out of Hortense and her ‘white-gloved,’ prudish ways. I appreciated that Queenie was ahead of her time in terms of racism, and even though Bernhard was quite the opposite, I felt sorry for him. Gilbert was perhaps the star of the novel as just an overall good-hearted person and patriot.

Book Club Recommended
Insightful, Inspiring, Dramatic
"Even before I emerged from my mother’s womb in 1953, people began warning my mother that the infant she carried was going to be huge."

I really enjoyed this debut novel — particularly the first 3/4 of it. Tiffany Baker has created a very extraordinary character in Truly Plaice. First called a ‘little giant’ by her teacher Miss Sparrow, Truly is the exact opposite of her very petite, pretty, and perfect sister Serena Jane. Teased and humiliated by her classmates and community, Truly actually copes fairly well with her large size. Her genetics have treated Truly unfairly, but there are some positives in her life as well. She has the love of three very special people in her life, and she is thus able to tune out the mean-spirited ones who torment her. Not afraid of hard work either, Truly only sometimes feels sorry for herself and tries to make the best of every situation she’s in. (I always think it’s best not to know too many plot points before reading a book so I’ll stop there to avoid spoilers.)

The book covers the first 35-40 or so years of Truly’s life, and as said previously, I very much enjoyed the first 3/4 of the book. I actually read through the first part very quickly, but I did feel that the last 1/4 of the novel dragged a bit. There are also some ethical decisions made by the characters that are quite controversial, and I’m not quite sure how I stand on those issues myself so my thoughts about the ending are mixed. However, I’ll definitely be looking out for Tiffany Baker’s next book. She is a promising new novelist who knows how to craft unique characters and a unique story.

Book Club Recommended
Beautiful, Insightful, Pointless
‘Math has proven the existence of God, because it is absolute and without contradiction; but the devil must exist as well, because we cannot prove it.’

Absolutely wonderful — I loved this book!!

Have you seen the movie 50 First Dates? It’s one of my favorite movies, and a very similar situation occurs in this book. A mathematics professor has only 80 minutes of short term memory due to a car accident, but he remembers everything clear as a bell that happened before his head injury. He continues to solve mathematical proofs and has an uncanny ability to know exactly where the North Star is in the sky, even when there’s no visibility. He is kind and has a great love for children. But, he remembers only 80 minutes at a time in the here and now. His sister-in-law lets him live in a cottage next to her main house, and she has hired a ninth housekeeper to cook and clean for the professor.

The housekeeper does her best to please the professor and works around his disability. She tells him about her 10 year old son, and he insists on letting the son come to his cottage after school, even though it’s against the cleaning agency’s rules. The professor writes notes to himself to help remind him of the housekeeper and her son. The boy and the professor both have a love of baseball, and the professor uses this to teach the boy mathematics. Soon a strong bond is formed among the three of them.

There is quite a bit of math in this book, and of course I enjoyed those references tremendously. I have an engineering degree, and mathematics has always been a love of mine. I don’t think you have to know math like I do to enjoy this book, but you will certainly appreciate the beauty of it a bit more if you do.

‘Eternal truths are ultimately invisible, and you won’t find them in material things or natural phenomena, or even in human emotions. Mathematics, however, can illuminate them, can give them expression — in fact, nothing can prevent it from doing so.’

Very highly recommended!!

Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto
Book Club Recommended
“The place I like best in this world is the kitchen.”

Food and kitchens play a central role in the book, but it’s essentially about two people finding their way through the grief process. Mikage has recently lost her grandmother, whom she lived with, and her friend Yoichi and his mother Eriko take her in. Yoichi ends up losing someone close to him as well, and the bond between the two of them becomes even closer.

The Reader by Bernhard Schlink
Book Club Recommended
Dramatic, Interesting, Insightful
The Reader

I liked The Reader more than I thought I would considering one of the themes. I didn’t know about the p*doph*lia aspect of it until the movie came out. I’ve wanted to read this book for awhile because it’s German, and I’ve also looked forward to the movie because I love Kate Winslet. I saw an online interview with Winslet in which she questioned whether or not the age of 15 was really still p*doph*lia. And while I agree that the age of 10 is in a different category than the age of 15 when it comes to s*x*ality, I still believe what Hanna did with Michael was wrong, and I believe that both the author and the narrator of the book do as well.

Of course, Hanna’s wrongs and shortcomings go far beyond her relationship with Michael, and those themes are of extreme interest as well. This would be a great discussion book, and I can definitely see why it would be great for book clubs.

Book Club Recommended
Quite a few differences in the book and the movie

I really like how this book was structured. In the opening chapter, we find Ram Mohammed Thomas in jail for cheating on a quiz show. Did he cheat or was he just lucky? How could an orphan from the slums answer every question correctly? Then, the following chapters go through each question and tell us a story of how Ram Mohammed Thomas might know the answer.

What kind of name is Ram Mohammed Thomas anyway? He was actually named that to represent the three main religions of India. I thought it was funny how he used only one of his three names depending on the situation he was in. I enjoyed each story, but there were some horrific ones. Children should not have to go through such horrible acts. There were many differences in the book from the movie, which I also really enjoyed. The sights and sounds of India were just absolutely fantastic. Unfortunately, the slum scenes were also particularly effective.

One of the biggest changes from the book is that in the movie, Salim and Jamal (they changed his name) are brothers instead of just friends. I could see why that might make things easier, but I wasn’t sure how I felt about the character difference in Salim. I do think I prefer the relationship the two boys had in the book rather than the movie, but it didn’t stop my enjoyment of the film at all.

In the book, the quiz show winnings are $1 billion rupees, and in the movie, it’s only 20 million rupees. I’m not sure why they felt the need to change the prize and the title of the quiz show, but whatever. In addition, some of the quiz questions were changed to fit the plot of the movie rather than the book. I did miss the Australian chapter and the story about his lifeline call, but I do realize there was absolutely no way to fit everything into the movie. I enjoyed the movie for ‘the movie experience’ and seeing the sights and sounds of India, but I do think I preferred the plot of the book.

Book Club Recommended
Dramatic, Gloomy, Interesting
Well-written but depressing

Some have said that Richard Yates’ books is an indictment of marriage, suburbia, or both. Yates himself said in an interview that it is actually more about aborted dreams.

Frank and April are young and successful suburbanites with two children. Well, successful to others, but not to themselves. Frank hates his job and finds it excruciatingly boring. April hates the suburbs and finds her life as a wife and mother excruciatingly boring. When the couple (mostly April) devise a plan to get out of their present circumstances, they seem to relax and enjoy each other again — until a few glitches come their way.

My sisters and I read this together for our bookclub, and I have also seen the movie so it was interesting to compare the two. While the book was mostly from Frank’s and their neighbor Shep’s points of view, the movie had more of April and Mrs. Givings’ perspective. Also the endings were a bit different.

I found the book to be well-written but depressing. It’s definitely thought-provoking.

Petropolis by Anya Ulinich
Book Club Recommended
4.5 stars

Sasha Goldberg has a hard life in Asbestos 2, a dying town in Siberia. Her father has either disappeared or left his family, her mother is very high-strung and a bit crazy, and her community is almost completely in shambles. After securing a coveted position in a prestigious art school, Sasha, too, leaves it all to become a mail order bride to an American. In America, she learns English, lives in Arizona, Chicago, and New York, and tries to find her father. In doing all this, she is also trying to find herself and come to terms with her past and her homeland.

I could say so much more about the basic plot of the book, but I always hesitate to give away too many spoilers. Sasha was a very unique character, and I enjoyed reading about her and seeing her development from a young girl to a young woman. The imagery in the book was also done very well. The descriptions of the poverty in Asbestos 2 were especially convincing, and there is a scene at the end of the book that I found particularly chilling (but fascinating). In fact, the last few pages of the book impressed me enough to raise my rating from a 4 to a 4.5. I highly recommend this book to those who are interested in Russian history and/or the immigrant experience.

Book Club Recommended
Fun, Adventurous, Romantic
Most of all, though, I was tired of Jane Austen ruining my life.

Emma Douglas has just found her husband cheating on her, and she blames Jane Austen’s novels (as well as her parents’ own happy marriage) for leading her to believe that there are always happy endings. Devastated by her personal and professional life, she travels to England in search of Jane Austen’s missing letters, where, coincidentally, she also bumps into her old college friend Adam.

I really enjoyed Beth Pattillo’s ‘what-if’s’ concerning Austen’s personal life and letters, particularly her take on which of Austen’s books most closely mirrored the author’s (imagined) life. I was also fascinated by Emma’s treks around Austen’s old haunts and the real personal history of the author. Mixing fact and fiction, this book is a fun and quick read that most Austen fans will appreciate.

"Now the only friendship I still had, however unexpected, had been upended. I was tired of being adrift. Tired of romance and attraction and all the complications and ruination it entailed. Tired of trying to find some pattern, divine or not, in what had happened, what was happening to me. Most of all, though, I was tired of Jane Austen ruining my life." – p.146

Book Club Recommended
Commonwealth Writers’ Prize Best First Book

Ambrose Zephryr and Zappora “Zipper’ Ashkenazi are a married couple with very little time remaining. After hearing the news of his impending death, Ambrose decides he wants to travel. The couple begin their journey with place names starting with the letter ‘A,’ then ‘B,’ and so on.

This very small book (only 119 pages) was meant to be little. It is indeed indicative of the fleeting amount of time the couple have left to spend together.

I appreciated this novella for its poignancy and tenderness, and its sad portrait of the utter helplessness of its characters. It is a book that can be read in one sitting and/or re-read again and again.

The Angel's Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Book Club Recommended
Dark, Confusing, Adventurous
Enjoyed The Angel’s Game more than The Shadow of the Wind.

This book is sort of a prequel to Shadow in that the story occurs directly before it. However, The Angel’s Game can be read on its own. You’ll just enjoy it a bit more if you’ve already read Shadow. Conversely, you will also enjoy The Shadow of the Wind more if choose to read The Angel’s Game first. There is a place that is enjoyed in both books:

"My favourite place in the whole city was the Sempere & Sons bookshop on Calle Santa Ana. It smelt of old paper and dust and it was my sanctuary, my refuge. The bookseller would let me sit on a chair in a corner and read any book I liked to my heart’s content." – Chapter 5

This story is a bit gothic in mood, with books, religion, and violence thrown in for good measure. I enjoyed it and I also enjoyed some of the characters, particularly Isabella. After finishing the book, though, I was left wondering about the reliability of the main character’s (Daniel Martin’s) narration. The ending will definitely have you scratching your head as to what really happened in the story. That’s not necessarily a bad thing as far as I’m concerned. I don’t always have to have things neat and tidy at the end of the book, but I would have liked to read this one in a group to try and get a consensus on some of the plot details. Whether I ever make sense of this one or not, I’ll look forward to Zafon’s next release.

The Tricking of Freya by Christina Sunley
Book Club Recommended
Interesting, Dramatic, Adventurous
The Tricking of Freya

The Tricking of Freya is a wonderful debut novel by Christina Sunley. Taking place in Canada and Iceland, the book is a love letter of sorts to her Icelandic ancestors and heritage.

Freya is the granddaughter of Olafur, one of Iceland’s greatest poets but who had, much to the chagrin of Icelanders, emigrated to Canada. Though she spends her first 7 years in America, Freya learns first hand about her Icelandic heritage when she and her mother travel to Gimli, just outside of Winnipeg. There she meets her grandmother for the first time and her aunt, nicknamed Birdie. Birdie discovers that Freya’s mother has not been teaching her Icelandic, and she immediately begins that task. Freya takes to Birdie and her Icelandic heritage very well, but also slowly learns that Birdie can be unstable.

When Freya gets the opportunity to go to Iceland, she becomes even more aware of her heritage. One of the most interesting facets of Icelandic life is their love of books.

This book’s themes include history, mythology, psychology, and the significance of one’s family roots and heritage. I enjoyed it very much and will look forward to Christina Sunley’s next book.

Book Club Recommended
If you haven’t been in a war and are wondering how long it takes to get used to losing everything you think you need or love, I can tell you the answer is No time at all.

(3.5 stars) How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff won the Printz Award and was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for New Writers. I really enjoy ‘end of the world as we know it’ books and this was no exception. However, I did take exception with Daisy’s relationship with her cousin Edmond. Although relationships between cousins used to be acceptable, it just isn’t today. At least by my standards.

Daisy’s father has remarried and she is shipped off to England to stay with her cousins. When her Aunt Penn is away on business, war breaks out and the children are left to fend for themselves, and they survive for awhile admirably. As the war goes on, though, it becomes increasingly difficult for the family to stay together and find the supplies they need. The goal of survival begins to take its toll.

I did enjoy this story, except for the situation noted above. I normally don’t like books written in a run-on, free-form style as this one was, but as it was narrated by a teenager, it didn’t bother me as much as it usually does. I really empathized with Daisy and her situation, and I admired how she was able to see one of her problems in a new light toward the end of the book.

But why did they have to be cousins? The answer isn’t ‘because of the war’ as they began their relationship before it started. I just wish it could have been a friend of the cousins instead.

Book Club Recommended
Informative, Dramatic, Interesting
Shanghai Girls

Snowflower and the Secret Fan tied (along with The Book Thief by Markus Zusak) for my top book of 2007, so I was very anxious to read the latest book by Lisa See. It did not disappoint. In fact, I am now fairly certain I will want to read most, if not all, of Lisa See’s works. Though I didn’t feel it was as good as Snowflower, I still thought it was excellent and will definitely be reading the sequel.

The novel takes place mostly in the 1940’s and 50’s, and I just love the sense of history in See’s novels. It was so fascinating to learn about the Chinese immigration process and the discrimination they endured, the dynamic of Chinatown, and the workings of the new Hollywood. Not to mention the intense relationship between Pearl and May, two sisters who are thrust into a completely new life with only each other as a reminder of the old. I also appreciate the female perspective on all their difficult situations.

Though I thought the ending of Shanghai Girls was a bit abrupt until I realized a sequel was in the works, I thoroughly enjoyed this story of sisters and the almost unbreakable bond they share.

Property by Valerie Martin
Book Club Recommended
Winner of the 2003 Orange Prize

Property by Valerie Martin is an extremely readable story set in the South and is, obviously, about slavery and what it means to be free.

Manon is the wife of a cruel slaveowner and is miserable in her marriage. She idealizes her father, who was kind (relatively speaking) to his slaves, and hates her husband, but really, she is not that kind to her slaves herself. Manon is not a likable character at all, though we do feel a little sympathetic toward her situation. Her attitudes toward slavery were probably typical of the time — in other words, deplorable.

It is ironic that Manon really is ‘property’ to her husband as well. I believe that is the thrust of the novel. There is a parallel story between her and her slave Sarah. Both desperately want freedom, but Manon cannot understand why Sarah won’t accept her position as slave. There is a certain scene between Manon and Sarah that I *did not* care for, but it illustrated Manon’s attitudes perfectly. She was enforcing her ‘ownership’ of Sarah just as her husband did.

I thought the story was leading up to a certain conclusion in the end, but it didn’t happen, and the book ends a bit abruptly. Though I wanted more, the book definitely is thought-provoking. It is a quick read — I read it in a single day, and I do recommend it if you’re interested in the time period or Orange Prize winners.

Unless: A Novel by Carol Shields
Book Club Recommended
Unless is the worry word of the English language. It flies like a moth around the ear, you hardly hear it, and yet everything depends on its breathy presence.

I love Carol Shields’ writing. This is only my second novel by Shields, but I have also read about 1/3 of her short story collection (with plans to read the rest). The first was the Pulitzer-winning The Stone Diaries, which I also loved. Something about Shields’ writing just speaks to me. I can’t really pinpoint it exactly — I just know that I would very much like to read all of her works at some point.

Shortlisted for both the Booker Prize and the Orange Prize, Unless is a story about a mother’s grief and pain over her daughter, who is not dead, or on drugs, but IS, by choice, a street beggar. Norah just suddenly dropped out of college and is now on the streets. Reta, the mother, is an author and a naturally happy person. Up until this point she hasn’t really had any difficulty in her life.

Though Reta has been with her children’s father Tom since they met, they have never married. Their relationship is a good one, but Reta has strong feelings about feminism and the role of women in society. She suspects that perhaps part of Norah’s problem lies in this area. Reta writes (but never sends) letters to editors and the like when she perceives an injustice has been done to women.

Unless is a book I will definitely be keeping. If you haven’t read any of Carol Shields yet, I strongly recommend her as an author.

Book Club Recommended
Brilliant, Confusing, Insightful
Pulitzer winner (4.5 stars)

I loved this book. I loved the writing. It isn’t a heartwarming book, but it is a thoughtful one. These “diaries” chronicle Daisy Goodwill’s life from her birth in 1905 to her death in 199? (we aren’t told the exact year). Each chapter of her life is told from her point of view, although in the book (and sometimes even in a single sentence) she switches back and forth between 1st and 3rd person. We learn of her childhood, her marriages and children, loves and losses, work and leisure, and finally her old age and death. The “chapters” made me think of my own life stages so far and the ones that are to come. All of us have a similar beginning and ending, but it’s the middle that makes life interesting.

There were many, many beautiful passages in this book. I’ll leave you with one as an example of the excellence of Shields’ writing:

"Something has occurred to her–something transparently simple, something she’s always known, it seems, but never articulated. Which is that the moment of death occurs while we’re still alive. Life marches right up to the wall of that final darkness, one extreme state of being butting against the other. Not even a breath separates them. Not even a blink of the eye. A person can go on and on tuned in to the daily music of food and work and weather and speech right up to the last minute, so that not a single thing gets lost."

Carol Shields died of cancer in 2003. She was a gifted writer, and I definitely plan on reading more of her works.

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
Book Club Recommended
Dark, Interesting, Dramatic
Intense (4.5 stars)

What a thought-provoking book!

Offred (Of Fred) is a woman who had her child and all her money taken away from her by the government. Her money was taken away just because she was female. Her daughter was taken away because her marriage was declared invalid. Why? Because it was the second marriage for her husband. The government has “religious” motivations for these acts. (Something I was a little uncomfortable with because I am a Christian, yet I realize there are always extremists. I took this as a cautionary tale.)

Spoiler alert! (Don’t read if you like to be in suspense during a book.)
Things only get worse from there. She is forced to become a handmaid, or surrogate mother, for a man of high position in the government. However, the conception is to occur in the normal way–with the wife present! This was a little shocking to me! Somehow Atwood pulls this off without offending my prudish sensibilities. The life of Offred is certainly not enviable.

I found this book to be a jolt to my system. Atwood is a gifted writer, and I definitely plan on reading more of her works.

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd
Book Club Recommended
Insightful, Dramatic, Inspiring
4.5 stars

I loved everything about this book. The setting, the characters, the story. I didn’t know anything about it before I started reading, and I think it’s best that way. All I’ll say is that it is about a girl named Lily and that bees play an important part of the story. If you’re one of the few who haven’t read it yet, you’ll be in for a treat when you do.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
Book Club Recommended
Interesting, Dramatic, Gloomy
Brilliant but depressing

This quasi-autobiographical novel by Sylvia Plath certainly gives insight about her mental illness. It’s a fascinating peek into the author’s troubled mind.

Esther Greenwood (a thinly veiled Sylvia) is bright and appears to have it all, but why and where did her life go wrong? It seemingly begins when she is rejected for a writing class at the same time she is having relationship problems. Her downward spiral is swift. Esther demands much of herself and of others, and when perfection is not attainable, she cannot accept it.

This book was a quick read, and I know I will be reading it again at some point as it is very compelling. I’ve twice seen the movie Sylvia starring Gwyneth Paltrow, and I definitely believe it added to my appreciation of the book.
I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story.

From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was EeGee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out.

I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.

The Giver by Lois Lowry
Book Club Recommended
Interesting, Fantastic, Insightful
Excellent book

I really, really liked this book. It is another “Big Brother” story similar to Fahrenheit 451 or 1984. Scary, scary.

Jonas is eleven years old. When he is twelve, he will receive his “assignment” or job from the Elders of his community. Everything is decided by the Elders. Who marries whom. Which occupation you will have. Which children you will raise. And even who has to be “released” from the community. When Jonas is selected for a special position that only one other person in the community has, it is considered a very high honor. What Jonas discovers about this “honor” changes his life completely.

I read this for the Banned Book Challenge. I’m not sure why it would be contested. Perhaps because there is some talk about the “stirrings” of beginning s* x u ality in Jonas. I didn’t have a problem with this, but I’m really glad I read it before I gave it to my 13 and 12 year old sons to read. This book will make for a great discussion.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Book Club Recommended
Brilliant, Gloomy, Interesting

I cannot believe I haven’t read this book before. It deserves its “classic” status and should be read by all. This book is scary. Really. Scary. It is similar to 1984 -– a picture of what society could become if we let it.

Montag is a fireman who doesn’t put out fires, he starts them. He burns books and the houses that contain them. His wife Mildred watches and listens to “the wall” all day, basically a huge screen TV. Almost all of the city dwellers are TV zombies, and then when they’re not watching “the wall”, to make themselves feel better they go out and ride their cars at dangerously high speeds. Most are on any number of pills.

Montag doesn’t notice anything is wrong with his life until he meets 17 year-old Clarisse, his next door neighbor. She is different. She notices things he doesn’t notice. Her family actually talks to each other. She is happy and asks him if he is. He says he is, but later at home admits to himself he isn’t. He starts to question himself why, and from there he changes his life completely.

A quote that stood out because of its resemblance to today:

“I’m afraid of children my own age. they kill each other. Did it always use to be that way? My uncle says no. Six of my friends have been shot in the last year alone. Ten of them died in car wrecks. I’m afraid of them and they don’t like me because I’m afraid. My uncle says his grandfather remembered when children didn’t kill each other. But that was a long time ago when they had things different. They believed in responsibility, my uncle says. Do you know, I’m responsible. I was spanked when I needed it, years ago. And I do all the shopping and housecleaning by hand."

A world where all people do is watch TV and become progressively more violent. A world where books and ideas are “dangerous”. A world where “happiness” is supreme, but no one is happy. A very scary world indeed.

Book Club Recommended
Interesting, Insightful
4.5 stars

This is my second book by Paulo Coelho, the first being The Alchemist, which I loved. I love Coelho’s writing, and I’ll definitely be reading even more of his works.

I really loved this book. Very similar to The Alchemist, it’s about finding out who you are, what you want to do, and then doing it. Veronika is a 24 year-old Slovenian who has decided to commit suicide, but she fails and is sent to a mental institution. While there, along with her fellow “crazies,” she discovers that maybe she isn’t so crazy after all.

"Look at me; I was beginning to enjoy the sun again, the mountains, even life’s problems, I was beginning to accept that the meaninglessness of life was no one’s fault but mine. I wanted to see the main square in Ljubljana again, to feel hatred and love, despair and tedium–all those simple, foolish things that make up everyday life, but that give pleasure to your existence. If one day I could get out of here, I would allow myself to be crazy. Everyone is indeed crazy, but the craziest are the ones who don’t know they’re crazy; they just keep repeating what others tell them to."

Apparently Coelho wrote this in part as a reflection upon his own experience in his youth when his parents sent him to a mental institution. All because he wanted to be an artist. Whoa. He does say that later they very much regretted what they had done, and I believe he wrote this book only after they had both died.

Caution: I could have done without the e*plicit *ex situation. I would have rated this a ‘5′ otherwise.

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Book Club Recommended
Brilliant, Confusing, Unconvincing
4.5 stars

A beautifully told story of a savage civil war, Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun definitely deserved the 2007 Orange Prize.

'They sat on wooden planks and the weak morning sun streamed into the roofless class as she unfurled Odenigbo’s cloth flag and told them what the symbols meant. Red was the blood of the siblings massacred in the North, black was for mourning them, green was for the prosperity Biafra would have, and finally, the half of a yellow sun stood for the glorious future.'

I resisted reading this book because I really just don’t like war stories at all. I wanted to give it a chance, though, because so many bloggers had said they appreciated it. They were right; it’s a very special book. Based on the conflict in Nigeria in the late 1960’s, it not only depicts the horrors of war, it also hauntingly and lovingly depicts the lives of the participants. Apparently many of the characters were based on real people in Adichie’s family history, and this authenticity very much shines through.There were some content issues for me in the book, but I’m very glad I read this story. I look forward to reading Purple Hibiscus and other books of hers to come.

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