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Posts made in November, 2016

Book Reviews: General Fiction

Posted by on Nov 28, 2016 |

Underground Railroad

♥♥♥♥♥

General Fiction

underground“A plantation was a plantation; one might think one’s misfortunes distinct, but the true horror lay in their universality.”

“Most planters couldn’t tell one slave from another, even after taking them to bed. No wonder they lost track of their property.”

I was surprised by how gripping and fast-paced this story was. There are too many horrors to spend too much time on any one.

Cora was born into slavery in Georgia. She lost her father to fever before she was born and her mother escaped one night when Cora was young.

It was thought that the underground railroad didn’t reach as far south as Georgia, but a slave named Caesar knows otherwise (he was born free in Virginia before being made a slave). He sees in Cora someone with the strength to survive. At first, she doesn’t know whether his proposal to run away into the night is a trick—everyone tattles on everyone else, and the stakes aren’t merely death but a horrible, slow, painful death. Ultimately, Cora decides she believes him and they make it to South Carolina.

Compared to where they came from, South Carolina seems wonderful. Cora learns how to read, but she also learns about how white doctors are either enforcing sterilization on women or encouraging it, and instead of helping black men, they are studying the impact of syphilis. “Was it any wonder that the best medical talents in the country were flocking to South Carolina?”

At every stage, she is hunted by the slave hunter Ridgeway, who is still embittered about not being able to find her mother. Cora’s story leads her through several states and horrors await around every corner—branding, rape, beatings, chains.

Even slightly more well-intentioned whites use the Bible to explain why white people are superior.

Some of the things are still true today—today we have food deserts in inner cities where fruits and vegetables in particular are marked up considerably in places where people rely on public transportation and their feet: “From shopping for Mrs. Anderson, (Cora) was horrified that things in their establishment cost three times as much as those in white stores.”

This is a beautifully written story about a gruesome time in history and the brave souls who fought against an appalling system.


A Man Called Ove by Fredrick Backman

♥♥♥♥♥

General Fiction

amancalledoveI really enjoyed this quirky, unique story about a curmudgeonly man of 59 with mild OCD ticks. His cantankerous view of the world made me chuckle out loud several times. He lost his job to computers. He hates technology and longs to live in a world where people can fix their own cars and know how to repair things around the house. “He had begun more and more to differentiate between people who did what they should, and those who didn’t. People who did and people who just talked. Ove talked less and less and did more and more.”

He bemoans: “An entire county standing up and applauding the fact that no one was capable of doing anything properly anymore. The unreserved celebration of mediocrity. No one could change tires. Install a dimmer switch. Lay some tiles. Plaster a while. File their own taxes. These were all forms of lost knowledge.”

Without his wife or a job, he tries numerous times to commit suicide, but his plans are thwarted every time by a neighbor who needs help, sometimes against a white shirt—some bureaucrat who wants to impose their rules.

Ove has battled the white shirts all his life, so when a neighbor needs help to do battle against a white shirt, he can’t help but get involved.

I won’t say more to not give anything away, but between Ove and his neighbors, this book is filled with a memorably cast of characters. Recommended.


The Impossible Fortress by Jason Rekulak

♥♥♥♥♥

General Fiction > Humor

impossiblefortressI had so much fun reading this book about three misfit freshman boys. The year is 1987, and Vanessa White graces the cover of Playboy magazine. In their small corner of the world, there is only one place in town that sells the magazine, and the protagonist Billy and his friends Alf and Clark devise a multitude of ways to obtain that magazine, despite the fact they are only fourteen years old (they’d need to be eighteen to buy it straight out).

One of their plots is to go to the store pretending to be older guys buying office supplies for Billy’s fledgling business—he programs video games on his Commodore 64 (meanwhile, he is failing his classes, causing no end of angst to his single mother, who works nights at the Food World struggling to make ends meet). During this failed attempt to procure the magazine, Billy meets Mary, who is a whiz at programming. She tells him about a contest to program video games. With her help, Billy starts hanging out at the store under the watchful eye of her father, the proprietor. His friends mock her for being fat, but Billy is dazzled by her computer skills. Plus, he’s found something that keeps his interest, unlike his classes, which bore him senseless.

This is a breezy, quick, fun read. I chuckled outloud several times, and it has all the stuff you want in a book—good writing, character development and change, and a satisfying ending. Recommended.

Thanks to Netgalley for the opportunity to review this book.

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Book Review: Born a Crime

Posted by on Nov 26, 2016 |

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

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Nonfiction > Memoir

bornacrimeThis book blew me away. It should be required reading for every high school student, and if you’re not a high school student, it should be required reading for you and on your to-buy list as a gift for all the readers in your life.

I knew nothing about this book before I read it except it was by Trevor Noah, a man whose stand-up I’ve enjoyed and am now a fan of on The Daily Show, so I was expecting your typical humorous my-road-to-becoming-a-successful comedian memoir. That was not this at all. There is virtually no humor in this book. This is a history of apartheid and the technical end of apartheid, told from the point of view of a child who had a black mother and white father, which made his mere existence a crime.

The stories he told were so eye opening. Parts of it sound familiar to stories (in fiction and nonfiction books, fictionalized films and documentaries) of the American experience of the history of slavery and race relations and policing, but parts were jaw-droppingly eye-opening. For example, I never thought about the fact that not everyone is educated about Hitler the way we are today in the U.S. If your only options are to go work in a mine or as a maid or some other form of slavery, you have no reason to be taught history. However, your Dutch and British oppressors do deem it necessary to inflict their religious beliefs on you, and they want your children to have anglicized first names. Many of the kids were thus named after characters in the Bible, but other kids were given names of people that sounded powerful, thus, you might name your kid Hitler. (!)

His insights about the difference between committing crime and being a criminal, domestic violence—this guy can really write, and a lot more than just jokes.

There are dozens of passages that are quote-worthy—far too many to recount here (which is why you should read his book).

He mentions that he started touring as a comedian, and that’s it. Not how he got his start, not how he went from being an outsider bootlegging CDs to becoming a headlining comedian. His insights on race are truly illuminating. An outstanding work.

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Book Reviews: Women’s Fiction

Posted by on Nov 7, 2016 |

The Forever Summer by Jamie Brenner

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Women’s Fiction

foreversummerWhat a wonderful read. Twenty-two-year-old Rachel lives in LA and has always known her father was a sperm donor, but working as a research assistant on a show that helps celebrities discover their family history, she’s inspired to track down him. Thirty-year-old Marin, a New Yorker from Philadelphia has just broken off her engagement because she’s in love with a man at the law firm she works at. Unfortunately, everything in her life gets ruined one after the other.

DNA testing connects Rachel and Mirin—and their paternal grandmother who runs a B&B in Provincetown. Rachel convinces Mirin to spend a few days meeting their grandmother. Since Marin’s life has been destroyed in a variety of ways, she agrees.

What follows is beautifully written story about family and secrets and lies. The secrets unfold naturally—I never felt manipulated by the author. The Forever Summer is truly a feel-good book with a happy ending you don’t see coming. Highly recommended.

Thanks to Negalley and Little Brown for the opportunity to review this book.


The Most Dangerous Place on Earth by Lindsey Lee Johnson

♥♥♥♥♥

General Fiction

dangerousplaceI enjoyed this book. Told from multiple points of view, beginning in eighth grade and returning to the same characters as junior and seniors in high school, the author manages to make even the drug dealers and bullies empathetic. They are either ignored by their wealthy parents, who spend all their time making money; smothered by their parents who think their child is more gifted academically, athletically, and socially than they actually are; or bullied by their parents. It’s also told from different teachers’ points of view. I never thought teaching was an easy profession, but I can’t imagine doing it in an age where kids are surgically attached to their cell phones, especially in a wealthy town where the parents treat them like “babysitters or maids.”

Reading this made me extremely grateful I made it through junior high, high school, and college before the invention of Facebook and Twitter. In two different tragic episodes, these social mediums cause tremendous distress to the students who are made fun of and horribly teased and bullied, but sometimes also cause a rippling and lasting effect on the other students in this privileged small town in Marin County, not far from San Francisco.

Recommended.


A Portrait of Emily Price by Katherine Reay

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Women’s Fiction > Romantic Elements

portraitThis book had a lot of promise. Emily has an interesting career with an insurance agency to restore artwork. A job in Atlanta takes her from her Chicago home for two weeks. Her firm set her up to stay in Joseph’s studio. Joseph is a gorgeous Italian man. Emily has tried to teach herself Italian, though she’s far from fluent. He’s not the most welcoming man, but he takes her to the restaurant of his aunt and uncle, where she meets his younger brother, Ben, who is also tall, dark, gorgeous, and of course, Italian.

While Emily works on restoring the works of art in the Atlanta home damaged by fire, she gets a call from her sister Amy, who tells her she got laid off from the accounting job that Emily pulled strings to get her. Amy insists it wasn’t just her—although she was not good at her job because she never wanted that kind of work in the first place—there are layoffs happening all over the company.

Emily discovers it’s true—she gets an email telling her that when she finishes the two-week job here, she has no job to go back to. It’s not a field where there are tons of positions to fill. She feels obligated to look for a job for both her and her sister, since she’s the responsible one and Amy is the flake. Meanwhile, she’s falling for Ben, and might have an opportunity to stay on working for Joseph, who has been estranged from Ben and his family for seventeen years.

Ben is trying to turn his aunt and uncle’s restaurant around by updating the menu. Emily helps by freshening up the décor.

Here’s what doesn’t work for me: Emily and Ben fall in love way too fast. There are no barriers they must overcome, which is what makes romance novels fun. You want two people to be perfect for each other, but they must overcome huge obstacles so they can be together. In just two weeks, Bam! Ben and Emily are in love and believe they should get married. I want to believe in love in first sight, but I don’t feel their love. I don’t believe that they are so madly in love they should get married right away.

Then, while I love Italy and art, it wasn’t enough to get me quickly turning pages to find out what happens next, because very little happens next. When Ben and Emily move home to his parent’s place, the entire rest of the book is filled with tiny moments of small conflicts, but no major conflicts. Yes, Ben’s father is dying and his mother, Donata, is obviously unhappy about that and about the fact that Ben got married so quickly, so she doesn’t warm up to Emily, nor do the other women in his family except for his sister Francesca. Emily finds projects around the house and at their church to keep herself busy and out of Donata’s way. Ben is busy with the family restaurant his father started. Ben’s absence in Atlanta through the restaurant into a chaotic mess Ben must work overtime to straighten out and get back on track.

I would have liked Emily to have been a more complex, layered character. I wanted a deeper, more complex relationship with her sister. I wanted Emily’s problems to be bigger, but mostly, I just never believed the love between Ben and her was so powerful they had to get married so quickly and once they were married, that it was strong enough to overcome any major problems. Even the things that were supposed to feel like dramatic dark moments got resolved too easily.


When I’m Gone by Emily Bleeker

♥♥♥

Women’s Fiction

whenimgoneI listened to this book, and I might have enjoyed it more if I’d just read it because I can get through a book by reading it in a couple days. This took me a while to get through, and while the initial mystery was intriguing, toward the end, it seemed like the author was piling on mystery after mystery and dark moments piled on top of each other that are resolved much too easily.

The initial mystery is who is sending Luke letters from his wife of sixteen years, a woman he just buried, leaving him to raise their three kids alone. She began journaling letters to him when her cancer returned a year earlier, a battle she obviously didn’t win, since the book opens with them coming home from the funeral.

In the letters, Natalie writes what you might expect from a cancer patient who may or may not survive. The usual “I love you and the kids so much. I want you to be happy” stuff, as well as little complaints about her treatments and her illness. She also slowly reveals a huge secret that she’s kept from him for years.

I like Luke and Natalie’s best friend, Annie, who lives close by and helps out a lot with the kids and around the house in the days following Natalie’s death. She’s married to a cop, someone Luke has known for ten years but isn’t close to. There is also the tutor, Jessie, and of course the children.

While the reader still wants to know who is mailing these letters, Luke begins to hunt down answers that the letters and other discoveries have brought to light. Those, too, are initially intriguing, but overall, at the end, it just felt like a little too much, although we do get some satisfying answers to questions Natalie’s letters brought up.


The Good Daughter by Alexandra Burt

Women’s Fiction > Suspense

thegooddaughterI’m afraid this book just didn’t work for me. Dahlia returns home to Aurora, TX, after fifteen years to get answers to why she and her mother, Memphis, spent the first twelve years on the run. Her mother never enrolled her in school until they returned to Aurora. Before that, her mother took jobs working as a maid in hotels so they could get housing and get paid under the table. The excuse her mother always gave for why Dahlia couldn’t enroll in school was they lacked “paperwork.”

Dahlia leaves Aurora at the age of eighteen, but she doesn’t apply to college because she still has no identity. Instead, she does exactly what her mother did—she flits from one low-paying job after the other as long as it pays under the table. At the age of eighteen, she should have figured out some way to claim an identity. It’s very hard to believe she’d wait fifteen years to return home to get answers.

When she comes back to Aurora, she meets up with Bobby, her childhood friend, who became a cop just like his father.

Early on, Dahlia finds the body of woman who has been beaten into a coma. The discovery in the woods so surprises Dahlia, she slips into the creek and hits her head.

While the Jane Doe remains hospitalized in a coma, Dahlia now tries to figure out her own past as well as the identity of Jane Doe. Memphis seems to be going crazy, so it’s not easy to get the truth out of her.

Also, in addition to alternating points of view of Dahlia and Memphis, we get chapters from the point of view of Aella, who knows how to help people with solves and potions and chants, Tain, and Quinn, a woman who was brutally gang raped as a teenager, and we have to read the gruesome details of this rape over and over again, which is simply not my idea of an enjoyable read.

The link between all these characters with weird names does come together eventually, but it’s confusing at first.

Also, Dahlia and Bobby stumble on a huge clue that is obvious to the reader (not the details, but what the clue indicates) and they don’t investigate at all. Really? A police officer and a woman obsessed with discovering the identity of a woman she doesn’t know can’t be bothered to dig into this (literally, dig into the clue).

None of these characters are likeable in any way.


Evelyn, After by Victoria Helen Stone

♥♥♥♥♥

Women’s Fiction > Suspense

evelynafterAfter a twenty-year marriage, when Evelyn discovers her husband is having an affair, plus another secret that wouldn’t just destroy their marriage, but her husband’s practice and their seventeen-year-old son’s life, Evelyn is obviously distraught.

She calls in sick from her part-time job and the high school her son attends and stops all her volunteer work. She also stops eating. All she can do is find out more about this woman her husband confessed to have been sleeping to for six months.

Juliette is only five years younger—at least not a generation younger like some middle-aged men might have gone for—and is a blond, petite size four whereas Evelyn, even with her recent weight loss, is a size ten. She’s tall and dark and unlike Juliette, does not run for fun—or work out at all.

Evelyn does have an interest in art, however. She used to be a painter before she put all her energy into supporting her husband’s career as a doctor of psychiatry and raising her son. So when she learns Juliette’s husband owns an art gallery by trolling Facebook, she decides to go to the gallery, just to see the other person who is unknowingly being hurt because of her husband and Juliette’s affair.

Because of the weight loss and her attraction to Noah, she buys new clothes and pays more attention to what she wears. She realizes that for too long, she’s happily faded into the background, someone who cooks and cleans in her yoga pants and baggy tops.

When Noah realizes she knows about art, he asks to help pick out new works for the front window. As she goes through the work of an artist she likes, she comes upon the artist’s works in watercolors. “That had never been Evelyn’s favorite (medium). It was too pale and formless. Like her.”

In some ways, learning of her husband’s deceit empowers her. This is a tautly plotted, fast-paced book. It doesn’t read like your typical suspense novel, but I felt the tension on two separate story lines the whole way through.

Without giving away the ending, I will say it was tied up a little too neatly for my taste. It wrapped up more simply than I’d anticipated.

Still, I enjoyed this book. I didn’t hate any characters, despite their flaws. I thought it was a satisfying read. I’d be interested to know your thoughts.

Thanks to Netgalley for the opportunity to review this book.

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Book Reviews: Nonfiction

Posted by on Nov 6, 2016 |

This is Where I Am by Zeke Caligiuri

♥♥

Nonfiction > Memoir

thisiswhereiamI found this book frustrating. The author has talent as a writer—some of his sentences are poetic and eloquent—but as a whole, this is a meandering mess of random thoughts without structure.

One of the reasons we read books is to understand worlds we never get to live—in this case, we all hope we don’t get thirty-year prison sentences. But this book didn’t give me much of an idea what prison life is like day to day.

We know from the start he is surviving a long prison sentence, but the entire first half of the book is him jumping around with memories of his youth—presumably to explain how a white kid with decent parents (no abuse) ended up getting a thirty-year sentence, of which, he’ll likely serve twenty-three years. He never specifically says what he did to get such a long sentence, which is also frustrating. He never describes his trial—he says he feels bad about screwing up in his youth, but that is vague. Besides hurting his parents and grandmother, did he hurt others with that gun he got caught with when he was selling crack at eighteen? That time he got out on probation and turned his life around for a time managing to hold down a job as a stock boy at a shoe store. Does he feel any guilt about whatever crime he committed to actual get him a thirty-year sentence? He waxes philosophical about all the wasted lives in prison and how much of his life has been squandered, but because we don’t know anything about what he did to get his sentence, we have no idea if his sentence completely disproportionally long to what he actually did to get it.

We do know that he battled clinical depression that came like clockwork in the fall when winter was descending on Minneapolis (some t-shirts were made calling it Murderapolis). In the mid-90s, the part of town he lived in was overwhelmed by a crack epidemic, which naturally led to other crimes, particularly when the criminals had easy access to guns.

As a teenager, Caligiuri self-medicated his anxiety disorder with smoking weed daily. That may have contributed to what he describes as his incredible laziness in high school (he ultimately got his GED, disappointing his mother terribly—she had no idea how much more disappointment she was in store for). He sold crack to support his weed habit, but he was a terrible businessman, admitting that he never made much money in his criminal pursuits.

When he first spent a night or two in lockup at the age of 18 before getting bailed out, he weighed 120 pounds and was six feet tall. Once he gets his thirty-year sentence, he puts on fifty pounds and none of it is muscle. Did he somehow magically get through all the time before he put this book out (if I understand it right, he’s served seventeen years and thus has seven to go) without being involved in any violence whatsoever? If so, how did he manage that?

He talks a little about how the food is rotten and about how cuts in education opportunities behind bars limit any possibility these cons have of becoming productive citizens when they get out, but mostly, he whines about how the depression he suffered as a youth (all through his life) meant he was always vaguely suicidal—if you don’t care about your life, it’s easy to make stupid decisions. Somehow, even after he essentially got a get-out-of-jail-free card the first time he got busted carrying a gun and selling a rock, it didn’t occur to him that he might not die but get a long prison sentence.

He thanks his editor in the acknowledgements, but the whole time I read this book—and it was not easy to get through since it wasn’t a story it was disconnected ramblings—I thought, Where is the editor? Why didn’t he read several books on how to write a memoir?

I think the prison system in America needs a serious overhaul, particularly when it comes to nonviolent drug crimes. If you seek enlightenment on how as a country we can reform our prison system, this is not the book to shed any light on that.


Marley and Me by John Grogan

♥♥♥♥♥

Nonfiction > Memoir > Humor

marleyandmeThis is just the kind of hilarious, fun book I like to read, but because I saw the movie, I almost never read books AFTER I’ve seen the movie. For me it’s the other way around: I read the book and see the movie, usually to see how much better the book was.

It’s been a long time since I saw the movie, so I gave the book a chance, and I’m glad I did—the humor and endless comedy was a blast. Marley destroyed countless pieces of furniture and screen doors. He routinely ate things like parts of their stereo equipment and once, a gold necklace that was a gift from author John Grogen to his wife, Jenny. Grogen then reports in hilarious detail being on poop patrol in his attempt to rescue the expensive necklace from Marley’s prodigious defecation offerings to their backyard.

Everything about the book is funny or touching. Even the birth of their first child was told in hysterical detail.

Marley got kicked out of obedience school the first time for being too incorrigible. When they went back many months later, he did manage to pass—and he quickly snatched his diploma from John’s hands and ate it.

If you’ve ever shared your life with a dog (even cats like to destroy plants, especially if they’re hanging and they can pounce on them from any surface and yank them out of the wall so you come home to dirt and plant shreddings spattered across your carpeting. They also like to topple books from shelves and sit on your keyboard while you’re on deadline for work), you’ll identify with the funny stories of how much work animal companions can be, and how much we miss them when they’re gone. If you live in a place that doesn’t allow animals, you’ll also feel a little better about how simple and unencumbered your life is, but you’ll feel a wistful sense of loss, too.

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Writing: How Comedy Can Punch Up Your Prose Regardless of Genre-Part 3

Posted by on Nov 4, 2016 |

PART THREE – GENERAL COMEDY TIPS AND THE DANGERS AND STRENGTHS OF USING HUMOR IN SOCIAL MEDIA

CHARACTER & DIALOGUE

Strong Choices

  1. We are drawn to distinct characters whether they’re likeable or unlikeable. So what makes your characters unique?
  2. To differentiate characters, you have to be adept at noticing and then capturing human mannerisms.
  • Example: On the show Friends, Monica was obsessed with cleanliness, Phoebe and Joey were ditzy—once the writers knew the characters, their reactions to situations fueled humorous punchlines. On show The Big Bang Theory Sheldon doesn’t understand social cues. The main four friends are all nerds and some of the humor comes from their neighbor Penny not being as smart as they are but being pretty and a regular person, not a smart geek. When you know your characters’ weaknesses, you’ll find what makes them interesting and amusing.

GENERAL COMEDY WRITING TIPS

A writer should keep a pen and paper with him/her at all times. When you say something that gets a laugh, write it down. When you see something that makes you laugh, same deal.

  1. The best comedy seems natural and spontaneous, so free form writing is especially good for this:
  2. Don’t judge yourself (yet).
  3. Don’t try to be funny – 80 percent of the time you won’t be funny, but humor can emerge from dark places, so even when you don’t feel like it, write.
  4. Pretend you are just emailing a friend.
  5. Make fun of yourself – everyone screws up and we feel more comfortable around people who can joke about their imperfections. That goes for our characters as well.
  6. Let it sit for a while – a month – and if it makes you laugh then, someone else will likely find it funny, too. (See above – humor is unexpected and surprising, so you need to come at it with fresh eyes)

vii. Read funny writers of all genres, particularly genres you write in

Nonfiction: Bill Bryson, Laurie Notaro, Augusten Boroughs, David Sedaris, Dave Berry, Erma Bombeck

Fiction: Marian Keyes, Jennifer Weiner, Kristan Higgins, Rachel Gibson, Katie Macallister, Jennifer Crusie

USING COMEDY IN SOCIAL MEDIA

Downsides

  1. What you intend as comedic may be misunderstood.
  2. Remember the woman who sent tweet as she got on plane to visit her father, who lived in South Africa? She wrote: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDs. Just kidding. I’m white!” by the time she landed, she’d been devoured on social media and lost her job.

Upsides

Because people like to laugh, if you use humor effectively on Facebook and Twitter, people are more likely to “Like” and forward your efforts. Most viral campaigns are humorous—One of the most effective ways to market is to evoke emotion and people feel good when they are laughing.

Writing Prompts:

  1. Your day job
  2. Being a parent
  3. Dating / Marriage / Divorce / Sex
  4. Things that anger you or you find frustrating
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