Sunday, March 29, 2015

At the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen

Sometimes you feel like a romance, sometimes you don’t.  If you’re looking for a light period piece, At the Water’s Edge should give you a few hours of pleasure. If you love Downton Abbey primarily for its setting and romantic entanglements, this may be the book for you. If, however, you prefer highly developed characters and a complex plot alongside your highlands, scullery maids, and love triangles, At the Water’s Edge won’t be your cup of Earl Gray.

It’s hard to conceive that the same writer who wrote Water for Elephants also penned At the Water’s Edge. The word water seems to be their only similarity.  At the Water’s Edge is a frothy World War II romance featuring a gruff war hero, caricatured hardworking Scots, and two American wastrels hiding from their lack of gumption and honesty while accompanied by a naive American girl in Scotland in search of the Loch Ness Monster.

Maddie and Ellis are newlywed American socialites. Maddie travels with Ellis and his best friend Hank to Scotland where they hope to redeem themselves and their fortunes.  After a harrowing, wartime sea journey, they arrive in the tiny town of Drumnadrochit in January, 1945, so Ellis and Hank can search for the monster that Ellis’s father had once chased. Upon arriving, Maddie opines:
“To say that I wished I wasn’t there would be a ludicrous understatement, but I’d only ever had the illusion of choice.  We have to do this, Hank had said. It’s for Ellis.
To refuse would have been tantamount to betrayal, an act of calculated cruelty. And so, because of my husband’s war with his father and their insane obsession with a mythical monster, we’d crossed the Atlantic at the very same time a real madman, a real monster, was attempting to take over the world for his own reasons of ego and pride.”

Thus begins Gruen’s quest to show that the sins of selfishness and arrogance don't just belong to classical madmen like Hitler. Meanwhile Maddie makes friends among the villagers, abandons her own pride, and learns that everything isn’t as she’d believed. Gruen pens word pictures like that of Maddie watching Ellis lecture her:
“I stared in fascination, watching his tongue undulate behind his teeth. Once, a string of saliva attached itself to his lips and survived the length of a few words before snapping. His nostrils flared beneath his pinched bridge. Deep lines appeared above his eyes, and when he tilted his chin so he could look down his nose at me, I could have sworn I was looking at his mother’s head spiced onto his body, a living, breathing cockentrice that had climbed off its platter and spat the apple out of its mouth so it could yammer at me about how surely even I could see that blurred boundaries not only encouraged the lower classes to be lazy, but threatened the very social structures our lives were built upon.”

Gruen’s language is carefully constructed yet it doesn't seem supported by the predictable storyline and the one-dimensional characters whose actions rarely surprise. Still, if you're looking for a Mother's Day or birthday gift for your mother, aunt, sister, or friend and she loves historical romances with a touch of sex and a guaranteed happy ending, At the Water's Edge will make her day.

Summing it Up: If I were on a long flight to Scotland, this might help me pass the time while filling me with visions of crofts, air raids, love scenes, and happy endings. If, however, you’re looking for historical fiction with more heft, this isn’t it. Just as the tea Maddie sips tastes like boiled twigs, this novel reads like a watered-down version of life during wartime.

Rating: 2 stars   

Category: Chinese Carryout, Fiction, Historical Fiction (Pigeon Pie)
Publication date: March 31, 2015

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Thursday, March 26, 2015

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

The stories we tell define us. What we enjoy reading typifies us as well. Some of us want books with lots of action.  Others prefer subtle mirrors into their own lives. Pulitzer Prize winner Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread is the latter, a novel about life as most people live it, a book in which going for a walk is an event. Critics are divided on Tyler’s twentieth novel. The Chicago Tribune says it’s “probably the best novel you will read all year.” The New York Times published two reviews – one glowing and one by the irascible Michiko Kakutani who found it predictable. I love it because of its predictability. Tyler’s third person narration that drops me into the Whitshank family while standing back and allowing me to settle into the rhythm of their lives is the kind of predictability I want from a favorite author.  In A Spool of Blue Thread, Tyler gives me a new story and new characters while continually allowing me the comfort of knowing she’ll safely guide me through their journey.

This particular journey begins in 1994 with a phone call from Denny, the prodigal son. 
“A nineteen-year-old boy and we have no idea what part of the planet he’s on. You’ve got to wonder what’s wrong there” says Red, Denny’s perfectionist father. Abby, his mother, is a fixer who notes,
“We have to find him. We should have that whatsit – caller ID.” . . .
“What for? So you could phone him back and he could just let it ring.”  
“He wouldn’t do that. He would know it was me. He would answer, if he knew it was me.”

Skipping ahead to 2012, Red’s had a heart attack and Abby is forgetting things.
“She began to go away, somehow, even when she was present. . . . She actually seemed unhappy, which wasn’t like her in the least. She took on a fretful expression, and her hair – gray now and chopped level with her jaw, as thick and bushy as the wig on an old china doll – developed a frazzled look, as if she had just emerged from some distressing misadventure.” 

Abby had emerged from a distressing misadventure. When everyone in her family wasn’t happy and present, Abby was distressed and her “mind skips” were making her wonder if she’d be able to fix everything. Each of the four Whitshank children wants to make everything okay too, but in different ways fitting their unique personalities. When Denny returns and, as the prodigal always does, upsets the precarious balance, things shift. As Tyler navigates the Whitshank’s struggles with how to deal with aging parents, she inhabits a place most of us have been or know we’ll soon visit. She hands us a mirror into an ordinary family who “like most families .  .  . imagined they were special.”  The novel delves into Red and Abby’s past and shows us how Red’s deceased father, who built their home, still influences their lives. Tyler uses the house as a metaphor for the constancy of their story and for the impossibility of keeping life from changing.

Anne Tyler is the Dowager Queen of the Ordinary, she’s the quintessence of the quotidian which is ironic because Tyler isn’t one to use words like quintessence and quotidian. Instead, she shows what a slice of normal life feels like.  She embeds us in the conventional and the comfortable and once she has us safely sitting on the living room couch, she shows us real life.  Most of us won’t ever walk the red carpet, score the winning touchdown, or murder anyone. Anne Tyler writes about us and our lives. 

Summing it Up: Read A Spool of Blue Thread to read about your own family, your own life. Read it to understand the people who inhabit your world – the ones who make it easy and the ones who make it tough. Absolutely read it for the sweet, sweet ending that proves that you can go home again.

Rating 5 stars   
Category: Fiction, Five Stars, Gourmet, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Book Club
Publication date: February 10, 2015
Reading Group Guide: (Spoiler Alert: Don’t read this until after you read the novel.)
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New York Times (two reviews because one loves it and one doesn’t):

Publishers Weekly:

Monday, March 16, 2015

All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

All My Puny Sorrows is witty, wise, ironic, unsettling, dark, and original. Sisters Elf and Yoli grew up in a small Mennonite community in Manitoba. Elf has become a world-renowned concert pianist and Yoli seems like a screw-up but it’s Elf who wants to kill herself and her latest attempt is destroying Yoli. You’ll fall under the spell of Yoli’s journey to love and support her sister while trying to figure out just what that means. That spell is cast more by voice than by plot. Every character in this novel is a unique personality seen through Yoli’s crisp first person narrative. Yoli and Elf’s family members are quirky, real, and achingly funny. Only a writer like Toews could make a novel with a plot centered on suicide so very, very humorous. It’s droll and clever because the sharply drawn characters like Elf and Yoli and their indomitable mother never stop surprising you.

The novel also illuminates the Mennonite community and the elders who challenge this strange family that refuses to stay inside their proscribed box. When Elf was fifteen Mennonite men entered their house having “heard from a local snitch that Elf had ‘expressed an indiscreet longing to leave the community’ and they were apoplectically suspicious of higher learning – especially for girls.  Public enemy number one for these men was a girl with a book.

She’ll get ideas, said one of them to my father in our living room, to which he had no response but to nod in agreement and look longingly toward the kitchen where my mother was staked out snapping her dish towel at houseflies and pounding baby veal into schnitzel.  I sat silently beside my father on the itchy davenport absorbing their “perfume of contempt” as my mother described it.”

Even when Toews tosses in a character who only appears briefly her writing soars with sharp descriptions like that of the man who “smashed his head on the dash of his car when it hit a cement truck on black ice and now he stands alone outside the 7-Eleven on Corydon asking people really politely for change. He’s still handsome. He seems sort of hollowed out but his eyes are really bright, the whites really white and the blues really blue, like Greek islands. He mumbles words and sometimes it seems like he’s laughing at everything like he’s just been thrown a surprise party.”

My appreciation for this novel was heightened when I learned that Toews’ father committed suicide and her sister, her only sibling, also killed herself five years ago after several attempts. AMPS, as the sisters shorten Coleridge’s poetic reference to All My Puny Sorrows, is rich and true with insights Toews has gained from living through such difficulties. The book is a scorching portrayal of the mental health system because it makes us care about the characters enough to want them to get the attention they need.

Hockey fans probably know how to pronounce Toews name because of Chicago Blackhawks star Jonathan Toews. (It’s Tāves .) Perhaps All My Puny Sorrows will make Miriam Toews as well known in the U.S. so no one will wonder how to say her name. Reading Giller Prize finalist and winner of the Writer’s Trust of Canada prize All My Puny Sorrows is the perfect introduction to an author who’s revered in Canada and Britain and who deserves much more attention from U.S. readers.  

Summing it Up: This searing, autobiographical novel is more fulfilling than anything that ever came out of The Mennonite Treasury Cookbook. Literary readers looking for a distinctive voice with a plaintive, yet wry, tone will carefully digest this tragicomedy. Thankfully, Toews backlist includes five previous novels and a work of nonfiction to sate the hunger that will surely come after digesting the last page of All My Puny Sorrows.

Rating:  5 stars   
Category: Fiction, Five Stars, Gourmet, Sushi, Book Club
Publication date: November 6, 2014
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Thursday, March 12, 2015

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

It’s tough to review a book when you really, really like the author. There’s always a worry that you’ll write about the person instead of the book. Alison DeCamp is a bookseller/conversationalist at one of the independent bookstores I love to visit.  She has the dry-like-a-martini-with-no-vermouth sense of humor I love, she detests the same grammatical errors that make me wince, and her reading choices usually mirror mine. My hope upon opening her acclaimed debut, My Near-Death Adventures (99% True), was that it would be just like her and I could write a love letter to the book and to Alison. Thankfully, I didn’t get my wish because DeCamp, a former teacher, has instead written a slapstick comedy for 9-to-12-year-olds that will make even the most reluctant male readers want to devour it just as Stan, the protagonist, devours bacon. And wonder of wonders - since the story’s set in an 1895 lumber camp, it will also allow teachers to assign it or use it as a read-aloud to meet Common Core standards while engaging their classrooms in uproarious laughter.

The book opens with Stan’s nemesis, his Granny Cora, getting his mother to solve their money problems by cooking at a remote Michigan Upper Peninsula lumber camp. Stan soon learns that his “dearly departed” father may have departed but is still alive. Thus, Stan starts writing himself imaginary letters he can receive from said deserter dad.  Add in Stan’s scrapbook filled with advertisements and clippings from the 1890s and Stan’s inability to discern whether he keeps his wry comments to himself or inadvertently voices them aloud. Toss in a dash of Stan’s cousin Geri, the girl in the camp who calls Stan out on his antics, and add lots and lots of bacon to nourish the lumberjacks so they can fell immense logs and you have a winner of a story.

I found myself pretending that I was back in the school library where I read to third through fifth graders every week. The boys there loved having me read “something funny” like the classic Ida Early books because her tall tales made them laugh (surely it was my accent) while her stories reminded them of their own families. Stan’s adventures and his own problems as an unreliable narrator are exactly what those boys would love to hear or even to read on their own.

Historical fiction for the middle grades can be a hard sell but the humor and pictures in My Near-Death Adventures will have kids lined up to borrow it in school libraries and then have them guffawing and breaking the silence during silent reading time as they enjoy Stan’s antics. This author’s portrait that young readers attending the book’s launch were encouraged to deface may say more about why kids will enjoy this book more than any of my words.

Even the ever serious Kirkus Reviews calls it: “A knee-slapper of a debut featuring a narrator who is rather less than 99 percent reliable but 100 percent engaging.

Summing it Up: Read this excerpt to see for yourself why third through fifth graders will eat up Stan and his antics. Put on a flannel shirt, cozy up to the fire, grab a slab of bacon, and imagine yourself in the north woods as you devour this comedic tale.

FYI: You can buy the book from Between the Covers, the bookstore where the author is a part-time employee and have it signed or personalized by calling 231-526-6658. You’ll also find autographed copies at many independent Michigan bookstores that De Camp is visiting this year. She’s also visiting a raft of schools and if you’re a teacher or librarian, you may want to visit her website to arrange a visit too.

Rating: 5 stars   
Category: Peanut Butter and Jelly, Historical Fiction, Super Nutrition Five Stars
Publication date: February 24, 2015
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School Library Journal:

Sunday, March 1, 2015

When Books Went to War by Molly Guptill Manning

When Books Went to War: The Stories that Helped Us Win World War II is for book lovers. At the beginning of the war, a Victory Book Campaign committee began soliciting donated books for soldiers. It soon became clear that lightweight, portable books were needed instead of donated hardcover titles and a new idea was launched. The logistical and political problems of providing small, paperback books to troops all over the world were daunting and some opposed the plan, but a consortium of librarians, military personnel, authors, publishers, and printers worked together to make sure men in combat had books to read. The unanticipated results included the resurrection of The Great Gatsby from obscurity, the beginning of the paperback becoming a reading staple, and the creation of a generation of men who loved to read.

The way Manning describes the popularity of Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn makes me want to read that wonder of a novel again (for the third or fourth time) just to see it as Manning shows it through servicemen's eyes. Soldiers and sailors wrote Smith to tell her how her words transported them to life back home. One wrote Smith comparing the book to “a good letter from home.” Another wrote: “books are one of our rare pleasures.” Smith estimated that she received about four letters a day from servicemen and she responded to almost all of them. One wrote that “he and his wife planned to have a child when he returned home, and if it was a girl, they would name her Betty Smith.” When Books Went to War is at its best when sharing such vibrant stories of men finding joy in reading.

My favorite part of the book is the thirty-page Appendix B: Armed Service Editions, a chronological listing of all 1200 printed titles. Seeing books like Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, The Yearling, Lloyd C. Douglas’s The Robe, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Voltaire’s Candide, Ernie Pyle’s Here is Your War, and William Saroyan’s The Human Comedy alongside bodice rippers, poetry, history, science, sports, mysteries, classics, and humor spoke to the care with which the titles were selected. It also made me realize the education these men received while riding on troop ships, sitting in foxholes, and recovering in hospitals.

One thing that sets this book apart from other World War II histories is that it concisely tells the story thus it’s always fresh and engaging. That uncensored titles were being read by men fighting against a regime that burned books is something that everyone should want to know. In the end over 123 million special Armed Service Edition books were distributed and an additional 18 million books were donated to the cause via the Victory Book Campaign thus many more books were given to the men fighting than Hitler had destroyed.

Summing it Up: Read this moving history of getting books to soldiers who needed and cherished them to appreciate the power of words to win the war and to create a peacetime world of value. This is a fast-paced, yet inspiring portrait of a little-known U.S. program that made a difference in so many lives and it's the rare book about war that has a happy ending.

Rating:  4 stars   
Category: Nonfiction, Grandma's Pot Roast, Super Nutrition, Book Club
Publication date: December 2, 2014
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Monday, February 23, 2015

Echo by Pam Muñoz Ryan

Echo is your grandmother’s lemon bars captured in a chapter book – separate layers that when eaten together form a luscious composite of sweet sugar, tart lemons, and crunch all topped with powdered sugar that together surprise your tongue. In Echo, the layers are the three separate stories of Friedrich, a German prodigy, Mike, a Pennsylvania orphan, and Ivy, a bright, worried California girl. Their tales blend via a magical harmonica and a fable from the past that involves a promise and a prophecy. 

Author Pam Muñoz Ryan’s award-winning children’s books, including Esperanza Rising, The Dreamer, Paint the Wind, and Becoming Naomi León, are all narrative treasures but Echo is surely her magnum opus. Echo combines a fairy tale, the three narratives, and music to form a wonder of a classic, yet fresh, novel that will enchant children ages ten to fourteen and their parents and teachers.

The story begins, as so many great fables do, in a dark forest where a boy is reading a book with a title containing his given name: The Thirteenth Harmonica of Otto Messenger. When Otto gets lost in the forest, he meets three mysterious sisters who are under a witch’s curse, receives a special harmonica, makes a promise, hears a prophecy, and returns home to become the messenger and break the curse.

Many, many years later in 1933 in a German town near the Black Forest, Friedrich, the musical prodigy with an unusual birthmark, works alongside his father in a harmonica factory where he discovers an older version of the Marine Band model the company exports to America. It contains a tiny red letter M. The harmonica has a “rich, ethereal quality . . . the more he played, the more the air around him seemed to pulse with energy.  He felt protected by the cloak of the music as if nothing could stand in his way.” Protection may be what Friedrich needs when his beloved sister comes home from nursing school saying that she believes in Hitler and what he stands for and others in his town want to remove him and his imperfection.

Meanwhile in Pennsylvania in 1935, Mike Flannery and his younger brother are starving and fearful in an orphanage.  They have nothing except the love of music passed down from their Granny when they land in what seems like a great opportunity. The brothers soon receive harmonicas and Mike’s seems different.  It has a small, red, hand painted M on one edge and when Mike plays it “the world seems brighter, with more possibilities.”

Later in 1942 in Fresno County, California, Ivy Maria Lopez receives a new harmonica with a tiny red M on one edge. When she plays it her teacher asks her to perform a solo of “America the Beautiful” on the radio with her class, but her family must move to a farm near Los Angeles. Her new school segregates the Latino children in a separate school with no orchestra, but Ivy has high hopes even when she learns of another injustice.

How will the magical harmonica link these stories and will Friedrich, Mike, and Ivy ever achieve their dreams?  Children and adults will savor the delicious blending of these tales into a superb conclusion.

In an interview with Publishers Weekly, Muñoz Ryan said, “Echo is about how music illuminated my characters’ lives during a very bleak time. I think most of my books are about these journeys where the characters have to grow and change drastically, whether the journey is an emotional one or a physical one. And if you look back to Esperanza Rising, even during the darkest time in her journey, there was always something inside her giving her the determination to carry on. I hope that the reader will enjoy the book for the story’s sake, but also that something will remind them that even during the darkest times, something pure and beautiful exists. Like music. "

Summing it Up: The magic of this fairy tale combined with carefully told twentieth-century history will captivate chapter book readers as well as their parents and teachers. The triumphant crescendo of an ending ties the story together in a most satisfying and glorious way. Children’s historical fiction is sometimes bland and saccharine, but Echo is a John Philip Sousa, brass band, cymbal-clapping winner that everyone over the age of ten will love.

Rating: 5 stars    
Ages 10 - 14
Category: Fiction, Five Stars, Peanut Butter and Jelly, Pigeon Pie, Super Nutrition, Book Club
Publication date: February 24, 2015
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Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

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

Soon Isabelle is secretly delivering papers for the resistance when a chance encounter with a downed British Airman leads her back to Paris where she joins others in planning ways to get men out of the country. She risks her life to save numerous downed paratroopers and scenes depicting her courage, grit, and strength set this novel apart from other tales of the resistance.

While Isabelle travels the country, the Nazi attitude toward the Jews in the Loire Valley grows more hostile, and Viann finds herself risking her own life and that of her daughter to save the lives of other children. Viann’s growth as a character and her decisions to do what she must to survive strengthen the narrative. The suspense behind which sister’s memories recount the tale and the uncertainty as to whether one or both survived the war makes this more than a simple recounting of their heroics.

Kristin Hannah’s previous novels have primarily been light, domestic dramas – more beach reads than anything serious; The Nightingale is different. While researching her earlier novel The Winter Garden, a book partly set in WWII Russia, Hannah read about Andrée de Jongh, a 19-year-old Belgian woman, who, along with her father, started an escape route through the Pyrenees Mountains to get downed airmen out of Nazi-occupied areas. That story led Hannah to research what ordinary French women had done to help the resistance and The Nightingale emerged.

Author Hannah says that the book became the story of “women in war, period. Our stories and our bravery are not acknowledged and talked about as much when it's over. Perhaps that's because women just come home and go back to their families and their ordinary lives and don't talk about it too much. 

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

Summing it Up: Historical fiction fans will relish reading of the actions of the brave French resistance fighters coupled with both terrible deeds and unselfish love that lead to a fresh new take on World War II in France with a page-turner of an ending that may keep you awake long into the night. If you don’t shed a tear or two at the end, you might just be in need of a new heart

Rating: 4 stars   
Category: Fiction, Pigeon Pie, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Super Nutrition, Book Club
Publication date: February 3, 2015
Read an Excerpt:
Reading Group Guide: (Spoiler Alert: Don’t read the questions until you finish the book.)
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