Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

What I’ve Been Reading Lately

Monday, July 8th, 2013

I’m completely into post-apocalyptic right now, which is unfortunate because everyone I look at these days falls into one of three categories: 1) Action hero 2) Crazy maniac probably going to eat my kids and 3) Most likely to die. On a recent camping trip, I even imagined who would steal all our food if a meteor hit (it was everyone). I also have an escape plan all worked out if the “virus” takes over, aliens invade, or a supervolcano explodes: get to the woods, and in the event you can’t, dig a hole under the hall closet and hide there with 10,000 canned goods and a porto-potty when all the crazy maniacs knock. I mean dig a hole behind the pantry. Or the guest room. Perhaps the yard. You’ll never know, crazy maniacs probably reading this!


Then The Rock and I saw World War Z last weekend and I engaged him in a serious conversation about how we’d get to the woods when all the cars on the freeway are stopped due to rabid human attacks. Answer: stay off the main roads and get on the zip line to Julian I’m constructing.


Then it occurred to me that I should probably share what I’m reading with all of you so you can begin preventive zombie arrangements of your own. I’ll start with the dystopian stuff and then segue non-logically into the other genres with subsequent “What I’ve Been Reading” posts. So, ready? (Wait! Was that just a global power outage orchestrated by amorphous alien intelligence?) (HA HA!) (Just a little WE’REALLGONNADIE humor!)


First up, is:



The Fifth Wave

The thing about a lot of dystopian these days is that it’s young adult fiction. Which is fine with me because I happen to think the young adult genre is exceptionally plot- and character-driven. I enjoyed this take on the end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it because it was imaginative and thought provoking. The action revolved around what happens on earth after aliens invade our air space, and it’s not what you think: there isn’t War of the Worlds-type fighting going on, rather the aliens turn our own environments and friends against us. The Fifth Wave refers to the final attack (some of the others include flu and power outages) designed to completely wipe out the human race. Most of the book focuses on the main character, Cassie, who upon surviving the previous waves, takes to the “road” to gather the resources she needs to survive and also to find her little brother. About halfway through, the point of view changes to another character, which is initially jarring, but eventually illuminates the theme of you never know who is going to help you when you need it most.


The thing I find especially compelling about these genres is the survival instinct and the strategy the main characters must develop to make it in a world where it seems everyone is out to get you.


If I were a star-rewarding reader, I’d give this four stars out of five.


Bringing us to:



The Dog Stars

This book falls in the adult fiction category because it’s a little more complex than others in its genre. It’s also beautifully written and almost poetic even.  The Dog Stars came across as largely stream of consciousness for me, due to the unconventional writing style and spare prose, but after I adjusted to the writer’s convention, I became hooked because I felt like I WAS the main character and experiencing this horrible, post-apocalyptic world with him. The story picks up after a flu pandemic kills most of the world’s inhabitants and the narrator, Hig, is left alone with an unpredictable neighbor to live in an old airport hangar in the middle of a cleared field they both try to protect from interlopers.


Desperate to find something to hold onto after being solitary for so long Hig takes his Cessna and begins exploring what – and who – is left to live in a world that’s violent and lonely.


I loves this book because it so clearly captured the isolation one might feel upon realizing there’s nothing around to hold onto and love, leaving you with just yourself.


If I were going to star-rate this, I’d give it a 4.5 out of 5.


And finally, we have:



Into the Forest

This book simultaneously thrilled and repulsed me. It tells the tale of two teenage sisters who live “off-the-grid” in the Northern California woods. After a series of non-apocalyptic-y events, it’s clear the world is nevertheless in a tailspin and its resources, including gas and electricity, are dwindling. The sisters live together on their remote homestead and grow what they can to survive and wait for news of power returning to set the world right again.


What interested me about this novel was that the girls’ journey into adulthood was arrested and literally suspended in the house in which they lived. The relationship between the two sisters is also interesting because they are so different, yet must rely on each other’s strengths to make it through literally dark days.


The action – if you want to call it that because the book’s prose mirrored the waiting, waiting, waiting, the girls were doing, even if in a compelling way – thrilled me because it played to my fascination with “what would I do in this situation?” and evoked most of my “what-if” scenarios (get seeds! dig a well! live in the woods away from the crazy maniacs!). The author also included several references to people “starting over” in the world or being thrust out of it, including the Native Americans. I found that history fascinating and frankly, sometimes revolting.


I would really have loved this book without reserve if not for one scene. In fact, I hated this scene so much and it was so out of left field that I can’t even recommend this novel without mentioning it – because you might dig 97% of this book, but that 3% as represented by the most out-of-character, unbelievable plot point I’ve ever read, might blow it for you like it did for me.


That ridiculous scene? Means Into the Forest gets 3.5 stars out of five.


I’ve got more reading to share, but this should be a good digestive amount for now. Some of the non-we’re-all-gonna-die books I’ve loved include Wild and Unbroken, not to mention The Distant Hours, which was pure epic/gothic perfection. I loved them so much, all three of those are totally going in my hidden-hallway-panic-room library.



You Won’t Regret It

Thursday, October 29th, 2009

Have you read The Book Thief yet? I really want you to.


First of all, it’s epic. Second of all, it’s told from Death’s point of view. Third of all, it’s historical fiction set during the Holocaust. Fourthly, the writing is unique and raw. Also charming, just not in the expected places. Fifth and foremost, the characters are so endearing and richly drawn and three-dimensional and multi-layered and become better people (or worse people) and you, the reader, are lucky to be along for the ride.


I’ve often found WWII narratives fascinating, especially as told through the eyes of the people who lived in the villages in the midst of all the chaos. I wonder how they felt as their towns were under seige, or when the Jews were marched through the streets on the way to their deaths, and why, why, why, did no one help? And then I think of all the times we don’t help now, when people are still being terrorized and ostracized and killed all over the world. Some in our villages.


I’m one to talk.


But Death talks in this book, and while he is dispassionate, he is also intrigued by the war and its casualties, and “haunted by humans.” His perspective is intriguing and beguiling, and the book reminds of own own mortality, and what kind of soul do we want to be? Then, there’s Liesel, the book thief, and she’s one of the very best reasons to read this novel.


I wish you would.


Let me know if you do.


Loving Frank: A Book Review

Wednesday, April 1st, 2009



I don’t normally do book reviews — and with good reason as you may come to find — but when Barrie Summy asks me to do something, I cannot refuse. So it is in good faith and crossed fingers that I embark upon my very first book review, the format of which I will lift from Barrie’s website as a crutch.


So I’ve just finished Loving Frank by Nancy Horan and count it as one of my favorites in the historical fiction genre.




From the back cover:

“I have been standing on the side of life, watching it float by. I want to feel the current.”

So writes Mamah Borthwick Cheney in her diary as she struggles to justify her clandestine love affair with Frank Lloyd Wright. Four years earlier, in 1903, Mamah and her husband, Edwin, had commissioned the renowned architect to design a new home for them. During the construction of the house, a powerful attraction developed between Mamah and Frank, and in time the lovers, each married with children. embarked on a course that would shock Chicago society and forever change their lives.


Indeed this book tells the story of Mamah and her illicit affair with Frank Lloyd Wright. And yes, complicating matters was that both Mamah and Frank were married with nine children between them, so when the two took off to Europe together in 1909, public outrage and scandal followed them.


But this isn’t so much the story of that.


This book is about a driven, intellectual feminist who found her soulmate in a man other than her husband. It’s about how far one might go to pursue self actualization and what one must give up in the process — and whether it’s ethical and right to do so. The backdrop of the early 20th century, a setting firmly grounded in the story, also gives stark contrast to what society at that time expected of women and how it sometimes repressed them as well.


Having lived in Chicago, I often heard of Frank Lloyd Wright and knew the broad strokes of his life and work, but never knew a thing about his affair with Mamah. In fact, this detail is all but ignored by some scholars at worst, and brushed over at best. The affair, which turned tragic, was considered an abomination and immoral and thus glossed over in the history books.


But Nancy Horan manages to bring the relationship back to life and in her book, keeps the facts, but fleshes them out with imagined private conversations, motivations and letters, which illuminates both personalities. As Horan writes in the afterword, “I came to see Mamah’s time with Frank as a journey marked by a series of dilemmas and choices along the way. In the absence of letters, I made educated guesses about why she chose to do certain things, and the possible emotional consequences of those decisions. Her character began to come alive.”


And that’s what I loved so about this book. Horan’s research was exhaustive and through her “educated guesses,” the reader gains rich insight into what led Mamah to Frank and how she could have abandoned her family for the relationship. Also, through ingenious third-person perspectives given through included newspaper articles and some found authentic letters, the reader assembles a 3D view of these characters, learning that Wright had money and ego problems, and that Mamah might have hitched herself to someone else’s star rather than pursue her own dreams.


Or maybe not. What remains is that in reality, we will never know what drove Mamah and Frank, but this book gives the satisfaction of thinking we do.


Written in a literary, absorbing, storyteller style, Horan’s novel (her first) unfolds like an epic tale starting with Mamah’s first meeting with Frank to the house (Taliesen) he designed for them to grow old together in Spring Green, Wisconsin. For writers, the characters’ musings on creative genius and following inner truths flesh out a truly prosetastic read.


If you enjoy historical fiction with a huge wedge of fact, or are just looking for a wonderful story that gives you an eavesdropper’s glimpse “behind closed doors,” Loving Frank is your book.


To read all the reviews for this month’s Book Review Club, go to Barrie’s site here.


Books Saved My Life

Saturday, April 19th, 2008

I don’t know where I’d be without books.


I moved a lot as a kid, and books quite literally were my best friends when I didn’t have any others. I cried myself to sleep many, many nights, comforted only by my friends Ginnie, Trixie, and Nancy.


If I hadn’t read that other people feel lonely too, are disenfranchised, geeky, and sad, I don’t know what I’d have done. I may have turned to drugs, beating people up, recreational murder (but given that my family eventually settled in a Chicago town named “Buffalo Grove,” with a crime rate of below O (kids actually gave back the Cadbury Cream Eggs they stole from the White Hen), this theory is thankfully, unproven.


Anyhow, I credit any imagination I might have to the books I read as a child. I created whole worlds to entertain myself, born from the pages of the books I’d read. I often still live in those worlds, and believe in the magic conjured from the pages of a good novel. When I’m done with a particularly absorbing read, I stay awhile in its glow, loathe to let its music escape me, hate the moment its melody fades and I return to a world a little less lyrical.


To me, there’s absolutely nothing like the comfort of a good book, a bed/couch/back of car and a blanket. To prove my love, I sacrificed my eyesight to the book gods, since in the fourth grade, my eye doctor told me I had to get glasses most probably due to my habit of reading in bed well past the lights had been turned out. (Another fond memory: walking home from the Foster City Public Library with 15-16 wobbly books lovingly cradled under my chin.)


And finally, I decided to become a children’s book writer because I longed to create for myself a story like the ones I loved as a kid. When I was 8, I wrote a letter to Catherine Wooley, the author of the aforementioned Ginnie books, and she WROTE BACK and encouraged me and inspired me and made me feel like children’s book writers were the coolest people in the world.


And I wanted to be one.


Anyway, this was a meme. And I mucked it all up with the blithering and the blathering. I’m sorry MP.


So to recap: Mommy Pie tagged me, and asked that I honor the below rules:
With that, here are the rules:


1. List three books you’ve always meant to read, but haven’t gotten around to reading.


2. Share the two books that changed your life.


3. Recommend the one book you’ve been talking about since the very first day you’ve read it.


But first, some photos of our family book case (i.e. more blithering):


Red Coral Sea of Books


He Want to Read Them Too


I Want To See Clearly


Dim Sum Books


Now, my answers:


1. My husband’s favorite book is Pillars of the Earth, and he has tried in vain to get me to read it since the day we met (June 27, 1997) and for some reason, I just haven’t. I opened it a few times, but the type is so small and my eyes suck and that’s the only reason I can conjure.


I know, I know, I should read Water for Elephants. And it was great, and what’s wrong with me? I call myself a reader and I haven’t read it and blar de blar blar. It’s on the list, OK?


This one has intrigued me since it came out last year. It’s called A Good and Happy Child and its premise is provocative (young child haunted by demon others can’t see — and is the demon literal or metaphorical?). My kind of novel.


2. Yes, I’m one of those people who read Ayn Rand and quite non-poseurly, I can tell you that The Fountainhead changed my life perspective. I read it in 1991 (I’d just moved to Los Angeles, had no friends, no family close by and loads of time) and I loved it. I became enamored with independent thinking at this time, with staying true to yourself, with flying in the face of convention. And yes, I get it, Ayn Rand, you believe in objectivism and rationalism and individualism and sometimes you shoved it down my throat in The Fountainhead, but overall, thanks for writing this book.


The other life-changing book? Ismael by Daniel Quinn. Here’s what I wrote about it in 2002, when I’d first read it:


If you’ve ever wondered why our culture associates success with material growth, why we all seem to need someone to tell us how to live, or why we so often treat the planet as our possession, when we know that treatment creates consequences we can’t control (i.e. that our planet can’t in the longterm sustain what we take from it (and do to it)), then I suggest you read “Ishmael” by Daniel Quinn.


This book is fiction, but it can change your world view (or even your life, dare I say), if you let it. It completely reframes our reasons for existing and our origins. It explains where we’re headed if we don’t start living more responsibly and respectfully.


I really don’t think everyone will respond to it or are ready to read it. Maybe you have to be older, more disillusioned, or more sensitive than you are now, though I don’t think that’s it. I think you have to strongly feel as though something needs changing in your life or in the world. I think you have to feel that politicians and those who run the world don’t really get it. Or, feel as those there is a larger “something” at play in our culture that we’re all not getting…


Either way, read a chapter or two and see if it’s for you.


Oh, and it helps if you like gorillas….


3. Maybe you’ve seen this in my Kitchen Sink section, but I’ve been recommending The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield since I first read it two years ago. I first heard about it from a New York Times book review, and meant to get it, but then my friend, Michelle, took it to a writer’s conference we attended together, and I absconded with it. From there, I kept it for almost a year, because my husband wanted to know what I was all adither about and he kiped it and took a long time to read it. Michelle finally got it back about a month ago. The Thirteenth Tale is gothic, epic (kinda like this post), ghosty (but not…or is it???) and poetic (kinda NOT like this post). Please get it.


And bonus track: Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning. I’ll assume you read this already.


But if not, please do. For me?


And now, I tag a few people because I really, really want to know what they’re reading. Jenn at Juggling Life (if you haven’t done this already) — I’d like to remember some of the great books you recommended at our last Bloggy Bonanza, so I’m tagging you. Same with Jamie (you said you were reading again!) and Cheri. This is my shout-out to San Diego book meme. Holla!