Monday, November 25, 2013

Survival Lessons by Alice Hoffman

One of America's most beloved writers shares her suggestions for finding beauty in the world even during the toughest times.

Survival Lessons provides a road map of how to reclaim your life from this day forward, with ways to re-envision everything—from relationships with friends and family to the way you see yourself. As Alice Hoffman says, “In many ways I wrote Survival Lessons to remind myself of the beauty of life, something that’s all too easy to overlook during the crisis of illness or loss. I forgot that our lives are made up of equal parts of sorrow and joy, and that it is impossible to have one without the other. I wrote to remind myself that despite everything that was happening to me, there were still choices I could make.”

Wise, gentle, and wry, Alice Hoffman teaches all of us how to choose what matters most.

Read an excerpt here.

My thoughts: I love Alice Hoffman's work. I've read two historical novels by her, both vastly different and both incredibly well written; The Dovekeeper and Museum of Extraordinary Things. She exhibits her craft by enchanting me. Completely.

Apparently, Hoffman is also the author of Young Adult books, along with her women's fiction and historical fiction. Survival Lessons is a short, easy-to-read book that begins with her own breast cancer diagnosis. There are no how-to books on surviving breast cancer treatments. Or maybe there are but not what she was looking for. So she wrote a series of essays that encompass a way of thinking and looking at life. The overall theme is choose the way you spend your life, live in the moment, and enjoy. There are also underlying lessons, barely concealed and symbolic.

"I know why my grandmother always told me to bring along a sweater on cold nights. She was telling me I had to take care of myself, to watch out for chills and pneumonia. But she was also telling me that life if worth fighting for. I have every blanket she ever made for me even though they are heavy as armor. My grandmother's spirit is in every stitch, and her love for me is there as well."
She provides a brief history of her friend, Maclin, then Macklin's perfect brownie recipe. An epilogue on the recipe says,  "Maclin's brownies will not appear to be perfect. They will sink in the middle. The top will crack. You'll want to throw them out. Don't. They will be everything they should be and more." Isn't that the way we should look at ourselves? At others? At our life? It doesn't look perfect but it is everything it should be and more.

I love Alice Hoffman's writing. I love essays. I couldn't be more happy with Survival Lessons.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Songs of Willow Frost by Jamie Ford

Songs of Willow FrostSongs of Willow Frost by Jamie Ford
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Twelve-year-old William Eng, a Chinese-American boy, has lived at Seattle’s Sacred Heart Orphanage ever since his mother’s listless body was carried away from their small apartment five years ago. On his birthday—or rather, the day the nuns designate as his birthday—William and the other orphans are taken to the historical Moore Theatre, where William glimpses an actress on the silver screen who goes by the name of Willow Frost. Struck by her features, William is convinced that the movie star is his mother, Liu Song.

Determined to find Willow, and prove his mother is still alive, William escapes from Sacred Heart with his friend Charlotte. The pair navigates the streets of Seattle, where they must not only survive, but confront the mysteries of William’s past and his connection to the exotic film star. The story of Willow Frost, however, is far more complicated than the Hollywood fantasy William sees onscreen.

Shifting between the Great Depression and the 1920s, Songs of Willow Frost takes readers on an emotional journey of discovery. Jamie Ford’s sweeping book will resonate with anyone who has ever longed for the comforts of family and a place to call home.

My thoughts: Jamie Ford writes an engaging historical novel on engaging and less known aspects about history. His first novel detailed the Japanese Internment camps. His protagonist was a Chinese American boy. This has worked for him since one of the protagonists is again a Chinese American boy.

This book is set in the Great Depression with the supporting story set in the same place but before the Crash. The pivotal point occurs right after the Crash. The premise is that William is now 12 years old and living in an orphanage when he recognizes that a beautiful actress is his mother. He runs away with his best friend, Charlotte, and tracks her down to find out why she abandoned him.

The story is a tragic one that encompasses the realities of women and children at this time period. Although William is at an orphanage, his life is not horrible, just not pleasant except for his friends, Sunny and Charlotte. There is also a contrast story with Charlotte and Liu Song. Both are heart breaking.

The reader quickly understands Liu Song's cage and her choices. The bright hope is only Colin who sweeps her off her feet and will someday offer to save her. I applaud that scene with a standing ovation. I won't say anything more about this but you will know it when you read it.

The book offers a snapshot of the times and the birth of the silver screen. The book is not as striking as his first novel but it is not a sophomore slump. It is a much darker reality and the reading is heavier. The ending is full of hope yet the story will continue. Not a second book but like life.

*I was provided a copy of this book by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

My Name Used to Be Muhammad by Tito Momen

My Name Used to Be Muhammad: A True Story of a Muslim Who Became a ChristianMy Name Used to Be Muhammad: A True Story of a Muslim Who Became a Christian by Tito Momen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a frank and honest description of a very intriguing yet incredibly difficult paradigm shift; Islam to Christianity. Momen had an interesting and unique upbringing in Nigeria which is an integral part of his story. He was raised to be far more observant than the rest of Muslims his age, not only within the religion but also in his village. He was curious and intelligent which put him on the path for a colorful ride.

What I appreciated about the book was that Momen does not belabor his own sins, faults, or experiences yet he does not hide them. He goes from nearly militant Muslim who has simple questions, to rebellious and acting out, to Christian to imprisoned. He shares his experience factually including his darkest moments of discouragement and the turning of tides when the miracles occur that strengthen his resolve and testimony.

I like the way he tells his story as it does not feel forced or contrived. He is honest, sincere and open. He clearly explains how Jesus is the literal Son of God and how the atonement makes sense in his understanding of sacrifice. It's so simple and beautiful as he explains it. It is also one of the most difficult accounts to read due to the politics of Nigeria and Cairo. Also a very touching relationship shift at the end.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Somewhere in France by Jennifer Robson

Somewhere in France: A Novel of the Great WarSomewhere in France: A Novel of the Great War by Jennifer Robson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Lady Elizabeth Neville-Ashford wants to travel the world, pursue a career, and marry for love. But in 1914, the stifling restrictions of aristocratic British society and her mother’s rigid expectations forbid Lily from following her heart. When war breaks out, the spirited young woman seizes her chance for independence. Defying her parents, she moves to London and eventually becomes an ambulance driver in the newly formed Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps—an exciting and treacherous job that takes her close to the Western Front.

Assigned to a field hospital in France, Lily is reunited with Robert Fraser, her dear brother Edward’s best friend. The handsome Scottish surgeon has always encouraged Lily’s dreams. She doesn’t care that Robbie grew up in poverty—she yearns for their friendly affection to become something more. Lily is the most beautiful—and forbidden—woman Robbie has ever known. Fearful for her life, he’s determined to keep her safe, even if it means breaking her heart.

In a world divided by class, filled with uncertainty and death, can their hope for love survive. . . or will it become another casualty of this tragic war?

If you like romance novels, this will be an appealing book. I like historical fiction and non-fiction so I read the book. I have no real complaints about the book except that it is a romance novel. Of course I like a good romance woven between the pages of a good book with a strong primary story. The Great War and making something of oneself regardless of social and economic origin is a good primary story. I've read other books on this war with a little romance sprinkled in that I liked better. This book gives a good description of the horrors of war and working in a triage hospital. It also provides plenty of description of a romance that leaves very little to the imagination.

I'm not criticizing, I'm just saying that I don't purposely pursue romance novels. If you like romance novels, the historical fiction aspect will add interest. That's all I'm saying.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Rent Collector by Camron Wright

The Rent CollectorThe Rent Collector by Camron Wright
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Survival for Ki Lim and Sang Ly is a daily battle at Stung Meanchey, the largest municipal waste dump in all of Cambodia. They make their living scavenging recyclables from the trash. Life would be hard enough without the worry for their chronically ill child, Nisay, and the added expense of medicines that are not working. Just when things seem worst, Sang Ly learns a secret about the bad-tempered rent collector who comes demanding money--a secret that sets in motion a tide that will change the life of everyone it sweeps past. The Rent Collector is a story of hope, of one woman's journey to save her son and another woman's chance at redemption.

The Rent Collector belongs to many genres. The story gives the reader a basic history of Cambodia and life under the dictatorship of Pol Pot. What the reader needs to know is that Cambodia has been a country void of hope and joy for a very long time. When the Khmer Rouge declared victory, the country welcomed the end of civil war, not understanding the cost of peace. Although the book does not mention it, Pol Pot is viewed by many to be the Cambodian equivalent of Hitler. His reign lasted four years. Estimates vary, but at least 2.2 million people died in Cambodia, including intellectuals, teachers, and anyone that could be found to be literate.

It is not common to find a literate adult Cambodia today. Living conditions are often dangerous and disease and malnutrition rampant. Even knowing these things about Cambodia, I still struggled with the idea of living in a dump. I think the story is in the strength of the people who live day to day in Cambodia. I struggled with the literature part of the story. It was an interesting concept to add but it felt contrived. The last story didn't pack the punch to end it.

The real story was how to find happiness and joy wherever you are. The secondary story of literacy, although relevant, didn't do much for me. The other secondary story of the book - redemption, forgiveness, and survival carried me through to the end. I am deeply interested in viewing the author's son's documentary on living in a Cambodia Dump.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Whole Golden World by Kristina Riggle Review

The Whole Golden WorldThe Whole Golden World by Kristina Riggle
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Goodreads: An astonlshing novel from the acclaimed author of Keepsake that pushes the boundaries of storytelling. At turns shocking, provocative, and heart-wrenching, and inspired by a true story The Whole Golden World forces us to ask the question "How well do we really know our children?"

To the outside Diana and Joe have a perfect family-three lovely children, a beautiful home, and a café that's finally taking off. But their world is rocked when it's discovered that their oldest daughter, 17-year-old Morgan is having an affair with her married teacher, TJ Hill.

Their town rocks with the scandal. When the case goes to trial, the family is torn further apart when Morgan sides not with her parents-as a manipulated teenage girl; but with TJ himself-as a woman who loves a 30-year-old man.

Told from the perspectives of Morgan, Diana, and TJ's wife, Rain, this is an unforgettable story that fully explores the surprising, even shocking, events that change the lives of two families.

My thoughts: This is not a comfortable book to read but I found it relevant and intriguing. The story centers around Morgan, an honor student who feels stifled by the responsibilities of being a back-up mother to her 14 year old brothers who were born premature and fraternal twins. Morgan's mother has never recovered from the scare of almost losing them and may be a little on the hovering side. She expects Morgan to do the same when she (Dinah) can not be around at school.

Meanwhile, Dinah's husband, Joe, is an assistant principal at the high school. He is the eyes and ears at the school. Imagine his chagrin when his children get in trouble. But not Morgan. She's the one people forget about because she has so much good sense. She is wise beyond her years.

You can see where this is going, can't you?

TJ is a young teacher carrying his own baggage. He lives in the shadow of his successful brother who married a beautiful Italian woman, went to medical school, became a doctor, and lives in a beautiful house. He's bitter and obsessed with his lack. TJ is married to Rain, a woman who is his educational and intellectual inferior. She came from a trashy home but she was loved. She feels lucky to have TJ. TJ feels lucky to have her. But Rain wants a baby. It eats away at their relationship.

Morgan and TJ become friends at school. And then more. The opening scene is a court room. TJ has allegedly had a sexual relationship with a student, Morgan. Morgan's parents support the prosecution. Morgan is on the side of the defendant. She is livid at her parents. The story then flashes back to the beginning of the school year and how the situation evolved.

The author does an extraordinary job developing the relationships between the characters. The reader is not force fed the dynamics but left with enough detail to understand how each character might have the interpretations he or she has. It also underlines the culpability of all of the players in the story with the bolded context that the age difference is not as much the issue as the covert exploitation of power. Make no mistake that you will feel empathy for TJ. He feels greatly victimized and in some ways he is. But the bottom line is that he is held to a higher standard because of his position as a teacher and Morgan as a student.

The author explores all of the feelings of the characters as they are conflicting and understandable. It is a well written book with an ending that is natural yet somewhat heartbreaking. I liked the ending, just to clarify. It's a good book. Just not comfortable to consider.