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Wilderness: A Novel by Lance Weller
Book Club Recommended
Dark, Interesting, Dramatic

Civil war veteran Abel Truman lives in a shack by the Pacific Ocean in Washington's Olympic Mountain range. Stern, anti-social, and living the life of a hermit, he knows life is winding down for him, and as it does so, he finds himself on an unexpected quest. He endures tremendous trials, as his memories and past hardships are slowly revealed to us.

I loved this book! And it's a bit surprising how much I loved it, considering it is strongly narrative, and I am more of a dialogue-driven reader. But I used to live in this area, and I have hiked the Olympic Mountains (well, that's a bit of an exaggeration. I have hiked for a few hours at a time in those mountains). I used to look out at these mountains every day, and they are my favorite place on earth.

Combine that with a character like Abel Truman, a gritty old war veteran, a widower, a loner, and you've got me hooked! But Abel isn't completely alone. He shares his little shack and quiet life with a dog that found him years before. This is the second story I've read in the last few months that is about a loner man and his bond with his dog. The last one, The Dog Stars by Peter Heller, became one of my favorite books of 2012, and this book surpasses that one.

Abel seems pretty miserable. He is just enduring life rather than living it. And as you get glimpses into his past, you begin to understand why. You come to realize he has a bit of a death wish, and does not fear death at all; that he would, in fact, find death to be a relief.

But then circumstances change, and he finds a mission to drive him, which then leads to another mission, and what will then become the defining moment in his life. Moments of the story can get quite emotional. Modest and restrained, this story is told in beautiful prose and descriptive text, and that is quite something said coming from someone who is not a fan of descriptive text!

This provocative story starts out being narrated by an elderly woman in a nursing home, looking back on her life and that of her "second father" Abel. But soon after the story becomes solely Abel's story.

I would give warning that there is a bit of offensive language and subject matter in this book. Abel was a civil war soldier, and he was a confederate soldier, fighting against freeing the slaves, and he speaks like a racist through much of the story. The "N word" is thrown around a fair bit, along with some other offensive terms. And there is death and rape and other violence. But that isn't the bulk of the story, and you wind up loving this man despite his shortcomings.

My final word: This was story of real substance; a series of complex stories interwoven into poetic beauty and tragedy. Abel becomes a very human, flawed and reluctant hero, and you can't help but admire him. A truly beautiful story!

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline
Book Club Recommended
Informative, Interesting, Insightful

Molly is a troubled teen. She's been in and out of foster homes for years, and has learned if you don't depend on anyone, then you won't be let down. After getting herself in a little trouble, she is ordered to perform community service, and finds herself helping an elderly woman sort through boxes of memories in her attic.

Molly is troubled, but likable. And there is something special there. It's just that no one has taken the time to see her for who she really is. When she is given the opportunity to perform her community service assisting an elderly woman clean out her attic, she figures she'll just bide her time and get it over with as quickly and painlessly as possible. What she doesn't expect is to find a friend.

91-year-old Vivian knows that she has reached the end of her life, and it is the perfect time to sort through old boxes that hold old memories. As she sorts through boxes, we are led through Vivian's troubled past as an orphan, shipped cross-country by train from New York to Minnesota in hopes of finding her a home.

I was more fond of the scenes from the 30s than the current moments between Vivian and Molly. I often found the present-day scenes to be somehow unrealistic-- particularly the scenes between Molly and her foster parents.

The moments between Vivian and Dutchy were touching. The heartbreaks that this little girl endured were devastating and hard to read. You keep hoping she will catch a break and find some happiness and security.

You can see the parallels between Vivian and Molly, and as you hoped for the best for the young and vulnerable Vivian, you also find yourself hoping that Molly will find happiness and a place to call home.

My final word: I thought the scenes from Vivian's youth were fabulous! The scenes from Molly's interactions with her foster family seemed to lack...credibility. I liked the relationship that develops between Molly and Vivian, even though near the end some of their interactions seem a little hokey and overdone. Overall I really enjoyed this story, but mostly for the glimpses of the young hapless Vivian. The jumps to present day actually continually pulled me out of the story that I was immersed in, and the move felt somewhat awkward. They felt too much like two different stories. An "A" for the flashback scenes, a "C" for the present day scenes, giving it a "B" overall.

Book Club Recommended
Fun, Interesting, Adventurous

Bernadette was once a brilliant architect, but some mysterious event caused her to buy an old rundown private school in Seattle and move there with her husband and daughter. With grand plans of restoring the old place into a beautiful home for her family, she has instead become mired in bitterness and weighted with regret and found herself living in a broken and crumbling building. However she is proud of her husband Elgie, although he may not always be clear on just how much he means to his wife, and Bernadette absolutely adores her daughter Bee, who is a truly bright child and charms everyone who knows her. Bernadette just seems to have lost her way a bit.

Elgie is a trailblazer working at Microsoft, but may be best known for a brilliant TED talk that he did. He's reached a point in his life when he begins to doubt his wife and her competency, thinking perhaps she's gone over the edge. Then there is Soo-Lin, his assistant at work, who has begun to express an interest in him and made him feel special, and made him question his wife and his life with her.

At the request of Bee, the family plans a trip to Antarctica, but just as things come to a boil-- just as Bernadette finds herself betrayed by her husband and as it seems that all the world has turned against her-- Bernadette disappears without a trace.

This book is an organized collection of letters, emails and recitations of conversations. It isn't clear until the end just where all of this documentation originated, but it was a very clever way to develop the story. It allows you to build one perspective, and then read an email from someone else, and later get yet a different perspective.

My final word: This was a book club selection, and I did enjoy it. It wasn't a real thrilling or gripping story, but it was clever and fresh and original. It is easy to read, has a cast of colorful characters, and I enjoyed the snippets that came from letters, newspaper articles, emails, etc. The dynamics between Bernadette and the other mothers from school, as well as the emails from “Emily” (the woman in charge of organizing the school functions that the parents are involved in), all made me very happy to not have kids! This is definitely a worthwhile read.

Book Club Recommended
Interesting, Insightful, Dramatic

This book was the November selection for my book club, and I really loved it! The characters were so well fleshed out, and there were layers to each of them. There were a lot of characters, yet all of them were invaluable to the story.

There were many little tidbits that I felt showed brilliant insight into the human condition.

My final word: I loved this book! The characters were so full and rich, that I mentioned at our book club that I could read additional books based on each of the other characters. Brilliant, sweeping, intriguing, fast moving. This is one grand tale!

Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones
Book Club Recommended
Interesting, Dark, Boring

NOTE: While I don't think this review has any major spoilers, it does have more revelations than I normally include.

This story begins through the eyes of Dana Lynn, a young girl of color being raised in relatively poor circumstances. She and her mother don't live in poverty, but they are surviving on a single mother's nursing salary. As the first line in the book states quite bluntly, Dana's father is a bigamist, already married to another woman and yet married to her mother as well.

The book reveals Dana's life with her mother Gwen, and what she knows of the life of her father's other family with his wife Laverne and other daughter Chaurisse. It was fascinating to see the story through Dana’s eyes, and to build your impression of Chaurisse and her mother and everything else through Dana, and then to suddenly have that shift a little over halfway through the story, and see things from Chaurisse’s perspective. I loved that about this story.

Dana's mother Gwen married young, a boy she knew from middle school. She married him after graduation, and they divorced a couple of years later. Working a store counter, she met James Witherspoon one day while he was looking for a gift for his wife. Within a year after her divorce, she was living in a rooming house and pregnant with a married man's child.

So Gwen has her baby and puts herself through school to become a nurse. Shortly after Dana's birth, James and Gwen marry in a neighboring state. Dana is raised knowing from a young age about her father's other family, and getting the sense that she must spend her life playing second fiddle to sister Chaurisse.

However sister Chaurisse and the family know nothing of Dana and her mother. It isn't until grandmother Bunny is on her deathbed that her grandmother is finally told of Dana, and Dana is brought to meet her.

Bunny was my favorite character, as brief as she was in the story. She wished her boys would have told her sooner of Dana's existence, and that she'd had time to get to know her.

I read this one for my book club, and the consensus was that the characters weren't very likable. In fact, one woman in the group really disliked this book! It's one of those books that can just leave a bad taste in your mouth, because you are so frustrated with the characters and the way they handle the events in their lives.

And father James, while you give him credit for trying to be a part of his "illegitimate" daughter's life, you see the unfairness of it all. Dana is always given second best. She gets her father one day a week while here sister gets him every day. Throughout her life she has to sacrifice her wants for that of her sister (when her sister wants a summer job at the same place as Dana or wants to attend the same program, it is Dana that must forfeit her desire). And while her father and his wife Laverne make a good living and are able to provide their daughter Chaurisse with a comfortable life that include debutante balls, Dana lives in the projects, being raised on her mother's salary and whatever scraps her father tosses their way.

James' brother Raleigh is sort of likable, but his general inaction and silence in the face of what his brother is doing to Dana and her mother is infuriating at times. He is his brother's accomplice in his duplicity, and James could not have pulled off the dual lives (one public and one secret) without Raleigh, who is even named as Dana's father on her birth certificate.

Aside from the story content or writing style, I was surprised at the poor formatting of the ebook. There were a lot of typos and I could swear there were missing passages. There were strange stilted endings to chapters. Others in my book club agreed that some of the chapters ended rather abruptly.

My final word: This book was "okay". I enjoyed the unique dual perspective, I was intrigued by the concept. But when it came down to it, I just didn't like the characters very much. Bunny was the only one I really cared for, and the daughter Chaurisse and uncle Raleigh I liked a bit. The writing style was okay, but not thoroughly engaging. It gets an "eh" from me. Kind of intriguing, but the characters are ultimately unlikable.

Die for You by Lisa Unger
Unconvincing, Confusing

We read this book for my book club, and it was my first exposure to author Lisa Unger. One of my issues with this book is the constantly changing perspective. This person to that person to this person to that person. I always have trouble with shifting perspectives. There is always a moment of disorientation as I realize that someone else is now speaking, and have to figure out who it is. Add to that the fact that it would shift from past to present, and I found myself often left confused.

I began the book enjoying the first half. It was gripping, keeping me turning the pages, wondering what would happen next.

At moments I loved the turn of a phrase and where the author was taking me, but then the last half of the book took over, and the story just wound up sort of preposterous.

This book wound up just being sort of "okay" for me.

The Aviator's Wife: A Novel by Melanie Benjamin
Book Club Recommended
Informative, Interesting, Insightful

This is the fictional account of aviator Charles Lindbergh and his wife Anne Morrow. Anne was the shy sister-- socially awkward and quiet-- when she meet Charles Lindbergh at a family party. In the story, she is shocked to discover that Lindbergh is interested in her, rather than her sister Elizabeth (the sickly yet pretty one that was socially in demand). After a rather sedate courtship, Lindbergh and Anne were married in May 1929.

Soon she is Lindbergh's partner, learning everything she can about flying and soon sharing the workload on the worldwide flights together. Yet this was the 30s, and Anne was simply seen as the wife of Charles Lindbergh, despite her personal accomplishments.

In 1930, their first son Charles Jr. was born. And, of course, that little baby was quite famously kidnapped for ransom at 20 months of age. Probably the most famous kidnapping in history. (His body was found months later about 4 miles from his home. It is speculated that the kidnapper dropped him when the ladder broke as he carried Charles Jr. down, and the infant died.)

The author outlined her goal in a note at the end of the book:

"...I wanted to make Anne the heroine of her own story, finally-- as in memory (both her written accounts and the public's perception), she is far too often overshadowed by the dominant personality that is Charles Lindbergh. (p. 336)"

I think this book succeeded on that point. You find yourself frustrated with the lack of acknowledgement of her accomplishments, since she did some pretty amazing things.

My final word: The book isn't poorly written, isn't horribly boring or filled with drivel. It simply wasn't very exciting, nor did I find it very interesting. I didn't find myself hanging on the book's every word, wondering what would happen next. In fact, it was so forgettable that I didn't think I had finished it, since I couldn't remember anything about the ending. So I picked it up to finish it, and found I recognized everything I was reading, and realized I'd finished this book a month or so ago, and totally forgot it. I thought Lindbergh was really unlikable. I just don't get the public's love affair with him. He was sympathetic to Hitler, and yet they loved him. He could do no wrong. I found some of the dialogue to be unrealistic. This is one of those books that I would have been happy to have never read, even though I like Melanie Benjamin's writing well enough.

Gone Girl: A Novel by Gillian Flynn
Book Club Recommended
Dramatic, Dark, Interesting

Amy and Nick have been having marital problems, and when Amy disappears amid suspicion, Nick is the prime suspect of what is a suspected murder.

This was a tough one to review. While it was well-written, clever, and engaging (keeping me reading, wondering what was going to happen next), there was something ultimately unlikable about it.

This book is written in the perspective of Nick, who is reeling from the disappearance of his wife on their anniversary, and the diary entries of Amy. Amy's diary entries take you through the years leading up to their anniversary, both the good and the bad, and it becomes clear that there was a lot of bad. Things don't look good for Nick, who seems to be a self-serving, self-centered worthless husband, and the evidence mounts against him, making it appear that he did indeed kill his wife and dump her body. But did he? You're never quite sure. And at other times you aren't even sure he is really such a bad guy. At times he seems genuinely confused and grieving.

This is one of those stories that has you going this way and then that, like a Dateline murder mystery. Yes, he did it! Wait, no, I don't think he did do it. Yes, he did! No, he didn't. Back and forth.

The characters were very well developed slowly throughout the story, the storyline was a winding road looping around on itself. There were a few plot points that were kind of preposterous, but overall it was a pretty enjoyable story.

My final word: When I asked myself what it was I didn't like about this story, I found the answer was simple: the characters. I couldn't stand them. By the end of the story, I was sick of them both and glad to be rid of them! But the story itself was pretty well-crafted and very clever. Overall I would recommend this story if you like to be kept guessing.

The Language of Flowers: A Novel by Vanessa Diffenbaugh
Book Club Recommended
Insightful, Beautiful, Interesting

Victoria has struggled with life. Given up at birth, she has been tossed from home to home, never finding a family. Now aging out of the system at eighteen, it is time to make life her own and do with it as she please. She is lucky enough to have a few very important people enter life (Renata gives her a job, and Grant gives her his heart), and instead of following a traditional path, she creates a new one of her own.

The title of this book comes from Victoria's love for what flowers have to say to those that can hear them. Back in Victorian times, people would use flowers to send secret messages. Lovers would use them to communicate love and passion, or the desire to meet. People would use flowers to express grief and joy. The aptly-named Victoria understands their language and speaks it fluently. She can bring people's deepest desires to light through the use of flowers.

Victoria is damaged by her tragic childhood, and this has left her with a detachment disorder that doesn't permit her to connect with people. But she can speak to them through flowers.

I loved this story. Some aspects were a little far-fetched, such as the fact that a baby girl in the system would not have been adopted in a flash, and would instead spend her life in foster care, given up over and over again. But it was sweet and touching, Victoria was just quirky enough (I love quirky characters!), and I really loved the language of the flowers. My favorite moments in the book were the ones where Victoria and Grant debate the meanings of the flowers, when there is more than one documented meaning. Fascinating!

My final word: Delightful! That's it. Just "delightful"!

Book Club Recommended
Fun, Interesting, Inspiring

This is the story of five women who form a book club, following the women over decades of friendship.

This story is character-driven, with full, well-fleshed out characters. But that is not to say that the plot plays second-fiddle. This story is equally plot and character driven, and it covers the gamut. Childhood heartbreak, unhappy marriages, domestic abuse, substance abuse, the horrors of war, the pain and joys of parenthood. It has it all.

My final word: I enjoyed this book. I enjoyed the writing, and some of the stories the characters would tell. It had both serious moments and humorous moments, allowing you to watch the development of the character's lives over decades. I would recommend this one.

State of Wonder: A Novel by Ann Patchett
Book Club Recommended
Adventurous, Interesting, Dramatic

Dr. Anders Eckman is reported dead in the Amazon after being sent there to get a status update from Dr. Swenson, who has been working in the Amazon jungle on a fertility miracle drug. Dr. Eckman's office co-worker Dr. Marina Singh is sent down to the Amazon to find out what she can about his death, and to pick up Dr. Eckman's mission where he left off.

This book was an odd one for me. I didn’t want to put it down, wanting to turn the page and discover what would happen next, and yet I was left feeling a little...melancholy. That’s the best way I can describe it. This was a good story, well-written, but it wasn’t a rip-roaring fun ride. It was emotional and thought-provoking, but a little sad- always a little sad. There were never really any “giddy” moments.

This book is not for someone who insists on an ending all tied up with a neat little bow. It leaves the ending much to your interpretation, and I actually found that I enjoyed the first 3/4 of the book much more than the ending. So the first half of the book I loved, and the last half I just liked. But I liked it enough to want to try Ann Patchett again, as this is my first book written by her.

I'd give this one about 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Same Kind Of Different As Me by Ron Hall, Denver Moore
Book Club Recommended
Inspiring, Insightful, Life Changing

Denver was raised a black youth in abject poverty in the heart of Louisiana's sharecropping community, growing himself into a sharecropper as a young man, as he knew nothing else, before one day escaping into homelessness and what he surprisingly views as a better life than what he's previously known, because at least he is free and no longer a "modern day slave".

Ron is a successful art dealer living the American dream with a beautiful wife who has a heart of gold. While Ron and his wife Debbie are volunteering at a homeless shelter, Debbie determines that Ron needs to befriend the irascible and anti-social Denver. It takes some time, but eventually a friendship is born, shortly before heartbreak befalls them all.

Debbie is portrayed in the book nothing short of a saint. She is selfless, God-fearing (and God-loving), patient, compassionate and kind. Based on a dream she had (and which she views as a vision from God), she pushes Ron to befriend Denver. Once Ron begins to build a relationship with Denver, he finally broaches the idea of he and Denver becoming "friends", to which follows a lovely moment when Denver shares his concerns over how white people practice "catch and release" when they go fishing, and he doesn't wish to be "caught and released" like one of those fish. Ron commits to keep Denver if he can catch him, and over the years their friendship grows into brotherhood.

As their friendship builds, Ron is repeatedly struck by the small town wisdom of this illiterate sharecropper/homeless man.

This book is 235 pages and 67 short chapters, which is how I prefer it. I only get to read is bursts, and I always appreciate having a good stopping point every few to a dozen pages. It also includes a Readers Guide, an Interview with the Authors, and a few pages of pictures.

My final word: This book was moving and inspiring. It goes beyond the trappings of life to the heart of the matter, and is proof that two people can move beyond societal lines to forge a lasting friendship that can weather any storm. And behind it all is a humble woman small of frame and great of spirit.

A Dual Inheritance: A Novel by Joanna Hershon
Book Club Recommended
Persuasive, Brilliant, Epic

This book spans nearly five decades, traverses several countries and follows two generations. The first two-thirds follow Hugh, Ed and Helen-- their years through college, and the years following graduation as they learn to navigate adulthood and marriage and family. The last third mostly follows their daughters' as they begin their own lives.

Two young men meet while attending Harvard. Hugh Shipley comes from money, which really means nothing to him, and he's driven by a need to change the world somehow-- to make a difference. Ed Cantowitz was raised Jewish by a father who was an ex-boxer and a tough character. Ed covets what he doesn't have, and he desires money. On the surface, these two men couldn't seem more different. And yet they develop a relationship as close as brothers.

I think this is probably one of my favorite books ever! The characters were so richly drawn, you truly felt you knew them, understanding their motives and the baggage they carry through life. The story was realistic, and I don't think there was a single moment when I had to suspend disbelief, thinking "Yeah, right."

This story starts in 1962, and runs through 2010. It was fascinating to watch their lives progress over the years, to see how they changed, and yet how they remained the same. To see them through the eyes of their daughters. To view their parallel and yet opposing lives.

Wonderful writing, straight-forward content, rich characters. A simply brilliant novel!

My final word: This book was a full, rich story. Unadorned and engrossing, it gives a realistic portrayal of the lives of two men. I was constantly amazed at the details thrown in for the character development. Little twists and turns. Even things left out that leave you filling the blanks with little bits that you imagine happened-- things alluded to but never clarified. (There's a nice twist that my mind has decided to fill in, even though it was never even really alluded to.) What can I say? I just loved this book!

The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara
Book Club Recommended
Dramatic, Epic, Adventurous
For fans of State of Wonder

This is the fictional story of scientist Norton Perina's adventures in the fictional islands of U'ivu, the research that developed from his time there, his ethical breaches, awkward social relationships, and unsettling personal life. This book begs the question...

"If a great man does unspeakable things, is he still a great man?"

This book is loosely drawn fromt he life of Nobel laureate Daniel Carleton Gajdusek, who won a Nobel prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1976 for his work on the infectious brain disease kuru, which was prevalent among the South Fore people of New Guinea, and who was later convicted of child molestation in 1996.

Norton was something of a scientific misfit, not respected among his peers, young and inexperienced. Then one day he is sent to the remote Micronesian country of U'ivu, for what reason he does not know. He soon discovers that he is to assist anthropologist Paul Tallent, who is searching for a mysterious tribe that lives on Ivu'ivu, the most remote of the islands of U'ivu.

While on the island, they discover this "forgotten" tribe of U'ivuans on the island of Ivu'ivu who appear to have abnormally long lifespans that are triple the norm or longer, living 200 or 300 years or more. And Norton theorizes that their long life is connected to their ingestion of a certain turtle. However the same individuals who live extraordinarily long lives are also lost to a serious mental degradation that leaves them stumbling around with severe cases of a condition resembling Alzheimer's.

This book follows Norton over the decades, shifting from his childhood to his professional life, and then ending on a more personal note.

Considering that this novel is written in the form of a memoir, you have to give the fictional character of Norton Perina credit for his honesty. He is unabashed, as a child, in his frank exposure of himself, his thoughts and motivations. He is unapologetic. Well, occasionally he makes excuses, blaming everyone but himself. Other times he accepts responsibility for events, but doesn't really apologize for them. He is simply stating the way it was.

Later on Norton begins adopting children from the islands of U'ivu, as things there begin to degrade. Eventually he adopts a total of something like 40 children, offering them a chance at a better life.

My final word: I found this story to be intriguing, and it kept me wondering how it would all play out. However I found it did read something like the scientific memoir it was presented as. None of the characters are especially likable, but the story keeps pulling you along, dying to know how this will all play out. By the end of the story, as you are welcomed into Norton's personal life, you find yourself squirming in your seat, sort of uncomfortable in your own skin, almost physically cringing. Was it a fun read? No. At moments it could be touching or beautiful, but often it was awkward, uncomfortable, disturbing and a little stiff. But it was also fascinating, peculiar, and felt almost "profound". I really enjoyed it, despite being left with a bad aftertaste. It's an unsettling story, but read it anyway.

Book Club Recommended
Fantastic, Addictive, Dramatic

Catherine Bailey, like all of us, has a past. However her past has drastically scarred her, leaving her crippled with obsessions and compulsions and avoidance issues. The doctors call it by simple little acronyms like "OCD" and "PTSD". I think Catherine would simply call it "life shattering". Several years ago, she had a violent and obsessive boyfriend, leaving her paranoid and always looking over her shoulder, never trusting her surroundings.

Stuart is the upstairs neighbor. Being a therapist, he seems to see beyond all of the compulsions to the woman that lies beneath, and he is drawn to the woman she was and he knows she can be again.

I found this gritty and emotional story quite fascinating. When looking at Catherine "today", you see a broken woman, weak, out-of-control, totally irrational in her behavior. Yet the way that the book is written, shifting quickly from the past to the present and back again, you get to slowly walk through her past relationship, watching it build little-by-little. As you do, you find that the present-day actions and behaviors that previously seemed irrational begin to make total sense. She isn't crazy at all. Her obsessive behaviors seem almost "right" in light of the past.

A note of warning: This book can be quite graphic, violent and vulgar. But it is real, believable, and not exploitative.

My final word: Guttural, this story reaches deep within, leaving you a little uneasy as you think perhaps "There but by the grace of God go I." How a person can enter your life so innocuously and damage it so irreparably. How you could be taken from a strong and powerful woman, and left shattered and fearful. And mixed in amidst the twisted fears and terror is a touching romantic story. Frightening but intriguing and, in the end, utterly fascinating.

Book Club Recommended
Persuasive, Dramatic, Difficult

This book follows a young Japanese girl Yoshi, and various characters that either directly or indirectly impact her life, which is shattered by the US napalm attack on Tokyo in 1945.

The bombing was truly tragic and barbaric. However I do know that the Japanese government/army was out of control. They'd become greedy bullies, trying to get more and more land and resources, by any means necessary. I've read about what they did in Nanking, and it was hideous.

I have loved this book from page one. I love the ease with which the author writes, making it an easy yet captivating read. And perhaps part of the reason that I love this book is that so much of it takes place in Japan-- a place that I grew up hearing about, given that my family lived there for three years before I was born. I grew up speaking common Japanese phrases and eating with chopsticks, and surrounded by Japanese decorations and dolls and books. So this book was a very comfortable fit for me.

I loved so many of the characters. Yoshi was a treasure-- smart, beautiful and hopeful. Cam was a charmer. Billy Reynolds and Cam's brother Mike were all likable. There's also some difficult characters-- those who have good and bad sides to them. Hana, Kenji, Anton and his wife. This book is full of complicated characters that can't be easily characterized as "good" or "bad" or "likable"-- although some do seem to turn "bad" over time.

Yoshi's mother Hana doted on her when she was a girl, thinking she was absolutely perfect. But time and perhaps mental illness began to wear her down, and Yoshi found herself alone, even when her mother was there.

My final word: The author has won me over with her writing. Her description of Japan, the people and the culture is beautiful! Yoshi is a strong character, not giving in and losing herself to all that life has dealt her. A number of wonderful, positive male characters as well (sometimes books with strong female characters portray men as villains or dolts). This book brings the tragedy of the Tokyo bombing (as well as other areas of Japan) to light-- a revelation for those unfamiliar with this time period. I think this whole period in history has been downplayed in our schools, to make the US appear to be victims of the Pearl Harbor bombing without really recognizing the hideousness of our own deeds perpetrated on civilians following that event.

A powerful story beautifully told.

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
Book Club Recommended
Dark, Beautiful, Brilliant

The year is 1828 and Agnes Magnusdottir, along with two others, has been condemned to die by beheading for the murders of two men. But the government has spent too much money on the axe to be used for the beheadings, and they can't afford the upkeep of the prisoners until their execution. So Agnes is sent from the prison to the home of Jon Jonsson of Kornsa, the District Officer of Vatnsdalur, and his wife Margret. They are ordered, as part of his duty as District Officer, to take charge of Agnes until the date of her execution. The family is not happy about these orders, but feel they have no choice but to perform their duty.

This novel is a fictional story based on actual events. As the author explains in her Author's Notes: "Agnes Magnusdottir was the last person to be executed in Iceland, convicted for her role in the murders of Natan Ketilsson and Petur Jonsson on the night between the 13th and 14th of March 1828, at Illugastadir, on the Vatnsnes Peninsula, North Iceland." Many of the events int he book are drawn from local history and lore.

Little by little, the life of Agnes is laid bare to the reader, and as heartbreaking as it is, you realize that it is nothing uncommon. This is the life of orphans and paupers.

However this novel is uncommon. It's a modest story, slowly pulling you in, absorbing you bit by bit. It is heart-wrenching at moments, and you yearn for Agnes to find some relief from her fear, and to find love and affection.

Agnes is returned to Kornsa, where she had a family for awhile in her childhood, and gains a family again before her death. She was fostered as a young girl by Inga and Bjorn until Inga died.

Agnes requests as her spiritual attendant Assistant Reverend Thorvardur Jonsson, otherwise known as Toti. He is unclear why Agnes has requested him, and is uncomfortable with the assignment. He is still in training, and nervous about attending to a murderess. But he, like the Kornsa family, performs his duty as ordered.

Toti and Agnes form a bond as he permits her to pour out her soul and rehash her past.

One of my few complaints is that I would have liked to have seen more development in the relationships between Agnes and the family members. I would have liked to have felt warmth between them growing, and her opening up to them. Her relationship with them remained rather stilted.

My final word: This was one of those gentle reads, at times so entrancing it is almost hypnotic, like being rocked to sleep. Affective and sensitive, it moved me and it is beautifully lyrical. I would consider this novel to be rare and extraordinary, and it will carry you along to the bitter end, if you allow it, with tears streaming down your face as you take those final steps. But you aren't alone. Agnes is with you.

Leaving Haven: A Novel by Kathleen McCleary
Book Club Recommended
Insightful, Inspiring, Beautiful

Alice, a school teacher, is always so put together, in control, and health conscious. She didn't have a very good role model for motherhood growing up, so she feels inadequate as a mother, and is happy with her one daughter and desires no more children. Her husband, Duncan, is reliable, dependable, calm, patient. He's a good man, but has perhaps become a little too predictable.

Georgia is Alice's best friend. A cake maker, she is more easy-going and creative and free-spirited. She had a wonderful mother that she lost at a young age, and then became a substitute mother herself to her younger sisters. So she is confident in her role as a parent. However she yearns for another child and has been struggling to have one for years. Her husband John is a chef and restaurateur. He is passionate and unkempt, and seems perhaps a little uninvolved in the life of his daughter. (You later realize it isn't that he is uninvolved, but that Georgia is such a good mother and so in control that there really isn't anything left for John to do for his daughter but love her).

Alice and Georgia met when their daughters were babies, and they have been best friends ever since. After years of Georgia attempting to have another child, and failing, Alice offers up her eggs to help her friend achieve her dream. But shortly before the birth of the child, a shocking revelation rocks Georgia's very foundation, and everyone is left trying to navigate the confusion and pain in the aftermath.

This story is really character-driven. From the slow building of Georgia and Alice’s lives, and the dynamics between them and their husbands and with each other, to additional characters like Georgia’s sisters. The characters are what really make this story.

The story is psychological in nature, delving into the complexities of friendship, of lines crossed, of families fracturing. It really shines a light on a fascinating concept, which I don't want to divulge, for fear of giving too much away. But this story actually had twists that took me by surprise, and that is rare.

Told through alternating points of view, switching back and forth between Alice and Georgia, as well as through alternating times, from present to months before and back to a year before, you do need to pay attention to keep track of what is going on.

The book is divided into three parts. First the Prologue, which is present day.Then Part One, which flips around from present day to past, building up the storyline and characters a bit at a time. Then Part 3, which moves on from the present day.

My final word: This story was fresh and original. Like a bread crumb trail, it shares little tidbits, allowing the story to slowly build incrementally. Absorbing and emotional, I loved this one! It was able to reach deep within me on occasion and touch someplace precious, but perhaps more importantly, it was able to surprise me. That is something even more special. This is one of those books bound to be a favorite of 2013!

Book Club Recommended
Insightful, Beautiful, Difficult
Difficult, but worth it

Wow. This is a tough one. Not because I didn't like this book-- I loved this book-- but because it was so gut-wrenching at times that I question: Did I enjoy it?

But the verdict is "yes", for the most part, I did enjoy it. Even though there were moments in the book when I would sit with the book held in my hands, still closed, and take a deep breath and prepare myself to read on. Because I knew. I knew what was about to come was going to be hard to read. And I dreaded reading the words, even though I already knew what they would say.

This is the story of two families. Well, one family really. It is the story of a brother and sister, and their separate yet devastatingly entwined lives. It is about hardship and decisions-- the choices that we make in our lives. How those choices affect those around us.

Siblings Anna and Teodor fall on hard times in the Ukraine, and escape to Canada in the 1930s. Life there is harsh. Anna was once a jewel in a poverty-stricken family. She was unhappy with her position in life and dreamed of something more. Along came Stefan, a charming soldier who swept her off her feet. Anna marries Stefan, with hopes of escaping her life, and finds herself doomed with a cruel and heartless man.

Flash forward and we now find Anna a despondent and hopeless woman raising two children and abandoned by her worthless husband. She is living on land in brutal Canada, with her brother Teodor's wife and children living in a shack out back since Teodor was sent to prison a year before for the single crime of withholding some of his grain for himself and his starving family.

Teodor now returns, and the rollercoaster of ups and downs begin. You get to see the polarization of two different families. Anna's family is a shambles, living life with no direction, depending on Teodor for their survival. Teodor's family, on the other hand, works like a well-oiled machine. Hard-working and enduring, nothing stops them. They face life head-on, while Anna's family lies defeated.

I loved the writing style of this book. I loved the characters, which I really got to know through all of the little details that the author Shandi Mitchell includes. You really get to know these people, and like or dislike them. That is why it was so hard for me to read on when I knew that something terrible was about to happen-- I knew these people; I liked these people. I didn't want to see anything more happen to them. I wanted to shake Anna and tell her to wake up from her self-pitying stupor and take care of her family! I wanted to befriend Maria and be awed by her strength and selflessness. I wanted to take pride in Maria and Teodor's children. I wanted to save Anna's children.

This is a beautifully-written, heart-wrenching story that I highly recommend. I'm left feeling as if my sister and her family has moved away, and I miss them.

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