Wednesday, May 29, 2013

My take on: The Butternut Tree

Children have the gift of youth, innocence, and naivete. They see the world a lot differently than adults. For some, the world will be OK if people just learn to love one another. For some, the world will be OK if they can just keep their family together. For some, playing all day with their friends is their whole world. For some, you learn to appreciate the important things in life.

Growing up poor in Avon, Ohio in the 1940s, author Maureen Ann Richards Kostalnick learned to value her family. Her book, The Butternut Tree, is a semi-fictional take on her childhood. I don't know what was fact and what was fiction, but it felt very true to life.

A lot of the people in town looked down on Maureen's family. She was too young to realize that the town's contempt for her family had nothing to do with their lack of wealth. Her mother was the reason for their scorn. Maureen's mother was the victim of a sexual assault, but somehow that's her fault. If she had done a better job of protecting herself, then everyone wouldn't have to hate her or look down upon her. Such backward thinking. She's in the wrong for not being a better woman. She's in the wrong because her husband is an alcoholic. She's in the wrong because her husband beats her. She's in the wrong because her husband rarely stays in town to support his family. She's in the wrong because her daughter Maureen has a potty mouth. Maureen's mother didn't always have the emotional fortitude to raise her children, but you know there is love there.

Growing up, Maureen always knew there was something off about her mother, but she just didn't know what. She wouldn't learn the truth until her mother was on her deathbed. I got the impression that Maureen wanted to do anything and everything to make her mother feel better. In her mind, all her mother needs is love and a big hug to make her feel better. That seemed like such a genuine reaction. As a child, you think you can conquer the world. Maureen seemed like a sassy, no-nonsense child. She wasn't afraid to stand up to bullies or to call them out to their parents. She wasn't afraid to say a few choice words to adults, and I had to laugh at everyone of those moments.

I loved most of this book. I say "most" because I had some problems with the conclusion. Part of the prologue is about Maureen's mother and takes place in 1928, and the other part takes place in 1986. Chapters 1-8 span from 1945 until 1955. I have no problem with any of this. What I do have a problem is Chapters nine and 10, which takes place in 1986. To jump from 1955 to 1986 with only minimal information about the time in between, didn't add up for me. We get a summary of Maureen's life in that 31-year jump in time. I don't think that's enough. This book is less than 250 pages, and I felt a little cheated. I wanted to know more. How did her mother evolve as a person in those 31 years? How did Maureen grow into the woman that she is? I don't think she had to detail everything that happened in those 31 years. I do think that this book would have benefited from an additional 100 pages. Overall, I think the book was pretty good but the ending was just too abrupt for my taste.

Rating: Give it a try

Note: I received a copy of the book from Meryl L. Moss Media Relations, Inc. in exchange for an honest review

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

A little something from The Corpse Reader!!

Happy book birthday to The Corpse Reader by Antonio Garrido. A spooky and mysterious book set in medieval China. Here is a little bit about the book:

After his grandfather dies, avid scholar and budding forensic investigator Cí Song begrudgingly gives up his studies to help his family. But when another tragedy strikes, he’s forced to run and is also deemed a fugitive.

Dishonored, he has no choice but to accept work as a lowly gravedigger, a position that allows him to sharpen his corpse-reading skills. Soon, he can deduce whether a person killed himself—or was murdered.

His prowess earns him notoriety, and Cí receives orders to unearth the perpetrator of a horrific series of mutilations and deaths at the Imperial Court.   Cí’s gruesome investigation quickly grows complicated thanks to old loyalties and the presence of an alluring, enigmatic woman. But he remains driven by his passion for truth—especially once the killings threaten to take down the Emperor himself.

Inspired by Song Cí, considered to be the founding father of CSI-style forensic science, this harrowing novel set during the thirteenth-century Song Dynasty draws readers into a multilayered, ingenious plot as disturbing as it is fascinating.

Here is an excerpt from the book. Enjoy!!

     Judge Feng was needed to help interrogate some of the village residents, so he and Cí agreed to meet again after lunch. Cí wanted to visit Cherry, but he needed his father’s permission if he was going to miss work.

     Before he went into the house, Cí commended himself to the gods and then entered without knocking. Startled by Cí’s return, his father dropped some documents, which he quickly gathered from the fl oor and put in a red lacquer chest.

     “Shouldn’t you be out plowing?” he asked angrily, shoving the chest under a bed.

     Cí said he wanted to visit Cherry, but his father wouldn’t hear of it.

     “You’re always putting pleasure before duty.”


     “She’ll be fi ne. I have no idea why I let your mother talk me into letting you two get engaged. That girl’s worse than a wasp.”

     Cí cleared his throat. “Please, father. I’ll be quick. Afterward, I’ll finish the plowing and help Lu with the reaping.”

     “Afterward? Perhaps you think Lu goes out in the fields for a nice stroll. Even the buffalo is a more willing worker than you. When is afterward, exactly?”

     What’s going on? Why is he being so tough on me?

     Cí didn’t want to argue. Everyone, including his father, knew full well that Cí had worked tirelessly the last few months sowing rice and tending to the saplings; that his hands had become callused reaping, threshing, and panning; that he had plowed from sunup to sundown, leveled the soil, transported and spread the fertilizer, pedaled the pumps, and hauled the sacks of produce to the river barges. While Lu was off getting drunk with his prostitutes, Cí was killing himself in the fields.

     In a way he hated having a conscience; it meant he had to accept his father’s decisions. He went to find his sickle and his bundle, but the sickle wasn’t there.

     “Use mine,” said his father. “Lu took yours.”

     Cí gathered up the tools and headed to the fields.
     Cí hurt his hand whipping the buffalo. The animal roared at the treatment but then pulled as though possessed in a desperate attempt to evade Cí’s blows. Cí clung to the plow, trying to push it into the sodden earth as the rain poured down. He whipped the beast and cursed, furrow after furrow. Then a thunderclap stopped him in his tracks. The sky was as dark as mud, but the suffocating heat was unrelenting.

     Suddenly there was a flash of lightning and an earth-shuddering boom. The buffalo cowered and tried to leap away again, but the plow held fast in the ground, making the animal fall on its hindquarters.

     The buffalo was flailing in the water now, trying to get to its feet. Cí heaved but failed to help it up. He loosened the harness and hit the beast a couple of times, but it only raised its forehead out of the water as it tried to escape the punishment. Then Cí saw the terrible open fracture in its hindquarters.

     Dear gods, what have I done to offend you?

     Cí approached the buffalo with an apple, but it tried to gore him with its horns. It tired itself out writhing and bellowing, and rested its head to one side for a moment, dipping a horn in the mud. Looking in its panic-stricken eyes, Cí sensed it was trying to convey that it wanted to escape its crippled body. Snot streamed from its huffing nostrils. It was as good as meat for the slaughterhouse.

     Cí was stroking its muzzle when he was grabbed from behind and pushed into the water. Lu, brandishing a staff, stood over him in a rage.

     “Wretch! This is how you repay me?”

     Cí tried to protect himself as the stick came down on his face.

     “Get up.” Lu hit him again. “Time for a lesson.”

     Cí tried to get up, but again Lu struck him, then grabbed him by the hair.

     “Know how much a buffalo costs? No? Time for you to learn.”

     Lu thrust Cí’s head underwater. Once Cí had flailed for a bit, Lu yanked him up and pushed him under the harness.

     “No!” cried Cí.

     “Don’t like working in the fields, eh?” He was trying to tie Cí into the harness. “You hate that Father loves me best.”

     “Hardly! Even though you’re a bootlicker!”

     “What?” roared Lu. “You’ll be the one licking boots when I finish with you.”

     Wiping away blood from his cheek, Cí looked hatefully at his brother. Custom dictated that he not fight back. But it was time to show Lu he wasn’t his slave. Cí got up and punched Lu in the gut as hard as he could. Lu, not expecting the blow, was winded for a moment, but his return punch knocked Cí to the ground. Cí had years of pent-up hate, but Lu was bigger and a much better fighter. When Cí got up, Lu knocked him down again. Cí felt something crack in his chest, but he wasn’t in pain. Then another blow, this time in the gut. Still on the ground, he took another blow. He couldn’t get up. He felt the rain on his face. He thought he heard Lu shouting at him, but then he lost consciousness.

Monday, May 27, 2013

My take on: Black Venus

Before reading Black Venus by James MacManus I had never heard of poet Charles Baudelaire. His most famous work Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil) was inspired by his Haitian mistress Jeanne Duval. As a white man living in Paris during the mid-1800s, it was quite scandalous for someone like Baudelaire to associate with such a woman. She was the product of a former slave and her owner, who made a life for herself as a nightclub singer. They were never married, but in a decade-plus of companionship they sure acted like it.

Jeanne Duval was nicknamed "Black Venus," hence the title of this book. The book is a fictional take on their life together.

In life, Baudelaire seemed like a spoiled rich kid. His mother held the purse strings to the family money. He was no good at managing his own finances, yet Baudelaire wanted a life independent of his mother. When he met Jeanne Duval, he was captivated by her beauty. But he only wanted her around when it was convenient for him. In his mind, she should have been content to be a "kept" woman. A luxurious apartment, fancy clothes, jewelry, and Baudelaire himself "should" have been enough for her right? No. Anytime she wanted something for herself, Baudelaire was upset. He balked at the thought of Jeanne becoming an independent woman, yet he was a grown man who couldn't stand up to his mother.

There was certainly love between them, but society and Baudelaire and Jeanne's own oddball personalities kept them from truly expressing it. He wants her as a muse, but won't tell his mother how much he loves her. Jeanne wants a life away from him, but every time she tries Baudelaire literally pulls her back in. When he goes on trial for obscenity, it's Jeanne who saves the day. All of the good they do for each other is almost always sabotaged. Both of them are eventually in failing health, but I felt like they were killing each other -- in a figurative sense of course. They both want to be better than what society expects of them. Baudelaire wants to be an accomplished writer and poet, but everyone in Paris knows him for his "dirty" and often "pornographic" writing. Jeanne wants to be respected, but all anyone sees is a slut. Rather than lifting each other up, they seemed to be tearing each other down resulting in poor health. They want to be happy, but they just don't know how. Perhaps it was just a reflection of the times, interracial couples still get looks in 2013 and I'm sure it was worse in the 1800s.

As much as this was about Baudelaire and Jeanne, I also read this as a social commentary of 19th century Paris. Because of what other people thought Baudelaire had to lead a double life. Because of what other people thought Jeanne had work hard to prove she was worthy of being loved and respected. People just weren't ready for their "taboo" relationship, and perhaps Baudelaire and Jeanne weren't ready either. There were times when the book felt a little slow, but overall it was a worthy read.

Rating: Superb

Note: I received a copy of the book from Meryl L. Moss Media Relations, Inc. in exchange for an honest review

Friday, May 24, 2013

Tips for attending BEA....with a hint of sarcasm

 It's that time of year again!! I will be attending BEA Bloggers Conference and BookExpo America. Last year's blogger conference wasn't the greatest, but I think it will be better. Last year, was the first time Reed Exhibitions was handling it. I felt they were using us as marketing tools. It seemed to me that a conference for book bloggers should be about BLOGGING!! This year's program looks 10x better. The keynote speaker is Will Schwalbe, author of The End of Your Life Book Club. He was a guest speaker for one of my classes last semester, and he was very engaging. I can't wait to hear his speech next Wednesday.

But on to the point of this post. Every year I attend BookExpo America something happens. And by something I mean the rather rude attendees who push, shove, and cut long lines just to get a book. I love books too, but there is a nice and orderly way to do things. I could post a nice list of tip, but not everyone will pay attention. Instead, I decided to take a different approach with my list of tips. Here's what you should do when attending BEA...with a little hint of sarcasm.

1. Don't plan ahead: It's more fun to walk around a place the size of a football stadium without a plan/

2. Bring plenty of money with you: There's no need to bring snacks with you it's much more fun to spend money on overpriced food!

3. Hit the gym: After BEA is over you will have soooooooooo many books, it's best to start working on your upper body strength now.

4. Take, take, take: Don't worry take as much as you want. You won't hurt anybody when you reach for those books.

5. Go to the front of the line: Go ahead and skip me. Don't worry, some of us have only been waiting on line for 45 minutes or more.

6. Keep to yourself: It's so much more fun at a networking event to keep quiet. No need to make new contacts or make new friends.

7. You know I'm kidding about everything I just wrote? Hope so, if not click on the link !! Seriously, I was only kidding!!

Sunday, May 19, 2013

My take on: Remember Me

Growing up in Bosnia, Selma was a typical teenager. She got good grades. For the most part, she was a dutiful daughter. She had a close-knit group of friends. Selma even had a boyfriend named Johnny, whom she tried to hide from her parents. But Selma's adolescence took a horrific turn in 1992 -- the start of the Bosnian War.

Remember Me by Sanela Ramic Jurich paints a horrific portrait of the war. People were raped, murdered, and tortured for no reason other than their religious beliefs or that they dared to talk back. I was 10 years old at the start of this war, old enough to remember this time period but honestly I don't. There were some passages in this book that I stared at in shock and with wide eyes. Why? I just couldn't believe how cruel some people could be. This is a fictional story, but I'm sure plenty of people who survived the war can see themselves in Selma.

Selma should have been worried about teenage things, but slowly her way of life gets stripped away. The child of a Muslim-Catholic couple, Selma begins to worry that she and her family could lose their lives because of their beliefs. Friends you see on Monday could be gone on Tuesday. People have to leave their homes. People don't know who they can trust. Your friend can quickly become the enemy. If you're living in fear, are you really living at all? Selma can't be normal anymore. One by one members of her extended family are murdered, her father is arrested, and Selma herself is forced into a concentration camp. This is where the book became hard to read. Each day spent at the camp strips away at Selma's soul. She is raped and tortured. She begins to see herself as damaged goods. If she survives, will Johnny still love her? Will her parents and family still love her? Will people know what happened just by looking at her? How can life ever go back to normal?

I'm not going to give too much away, but Selma's time in the concentration camp changed her life in many, many ways. If you want to know what I'm talking about, read the book!! Selma does survive. She reunites with her mother, and begins a new life in America. Their transition to America is where I have a problem with this book. The parts in America felt a little rushed. Entire years are glossed over with just a few paragraphs to sum them up. I felt there was more emotional depth to the story before Selma came to America. Once in Chicago, Selma seems to shut down emotionally and is focused on achieving the "American dream." There's nothing wrong with that, but Selma wasn't dealing with the emotional trauma she suffered in the past. I know some people do that as a means to cope, but this part of the story felt a little uneven. I might not have liked everything in this book, but overall it was very good and worth reading.

Rating: Give it a try

Note: I received an e-book from the author in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, May 13, 2013

My take on: Orphan Train

The cover of Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline lets you know that this girl has a story to tell. What a sad looking girl on the cover. What or who could make her so sad? Before reading this book, I didn't know that orphan trains were a part of history. It's really sad to know that they existed.

From the late 1850s to the 1920s, orphaned children in overcrowded cities were put on trains to be "adopted" in cities throughout the U.S. I say "adopted" because it really seemed like this was a form of indentured servitude. I'm sure some children were placed with loving families, but some were not. Some were put to work. Some worked until they collapsed. Some went hungry. Some were abused. Some were made to feel like they were a burden. In this book (which is fiction), Irish immigrant Vivian Daly was one of those children. At 91 years old, the painful memories of the past still haunt her.

Troubled teenager Molly Ayer knows what it's like to feel alone and unwanted. The 17-year-old has bounced around several foster homes, and is about to age out of the system. A stupid mistake could force her out of her latest placement. But 50 hours of community service could save her butt. Enter Vivian Daly, who needs to clean out her massive attic. It's not the most conventional of community service projects, but in the process Vivian and Molly learn not just about each other but themselves. There is a huge generational gap, but they can relate to each other more than people their own age.

Vivian was born Niamh Power in Ireland. Niamh, her parents, and siblings came to New York in search of a better life. But tragedy ruined all of that. A fire wiped out most of her family. Niamh's sister Maisie might have survived the fire, but no one will tell her the truth. Instead she is forced into an orphanage and eventually an "orphan train." All of the children on these trains are forced to stifle their personalities. They can no longer be themselves. They have to impress potential adoptive families. Children who speak up are perceived to be bad. You can't have an opinion. You can only speak when spoken to. You can only do what you're told. Niamh does as she is told. In the process she is no longer Niamh, her new employer...I mean "family" renames her Dorothy. Any ties to her former life have to be pushed deep down.

After two horrible foster homes, Niamh is slowly disappearing. When she is finally in a good home, Niamh has to change again. Now she is Vivian, a replacement for a couple who lost their child. But can she finally be herself? What if she says or does the wrong thing? What if she is sent away again? She can't relax. She always has to have her guard up, something Molly can relate to. Molly has bounced around several foster homes. Everyone assumes she's a problem kid. Few people take the time to get to know Molly. Even Molly's boyfriend, Jack, doesn't truly know what it's like to be her. Vivian and Molly both know what it's like to be judged based on their appearances and their family history. They would rather be judged by their actions and their character.

Vivian and Molly form an unlikely friendship, but in this book it works. They can be honest with each other. They can let their guards down. It's ok to be vulnerable in front of each other. Their friendship makes the world a little less lonely. As much as I loved this book, I felt like the ending was a little abrupt. There is certainly hope for the future, but it felt like this book could have benefited from one or two additional chapters.

I've never read a book by Christina Baker Kline, but I will in the future. With Orphan Train she turned a turbulent piece of history into an emotional, inspiring, and engaging piece of fiction.

Rating: Superb

Note: Orphan Train is the May selection for She Reads. I received a copy of the book from the publisher (HarperCollins)

Sunday, May 12, 2013

A different view of motherhood

I'm not a mother. I don't when or if I will be a mother, but I do like to read books about the family dynamic. I say this because I'm currently reading She's Not There: A Life in Two Genders by Jennifer Finney Boylan.

Jennifer Boylan used to be James Boylan. Yes, take that in. After years of denial, marriage, and children, Jennifer had to be Jennifer. But how do you parent and navigate the world after of decades of living as a man? You've changed on the outside physically, but are you still the same person on the inside?

"I was born in 1958, on June 22, the second day of summer. It was also the birthday of Kris Kristofferson and Meryl Streep, both of whom I later resembled, although not at the same time. One day when I was about three, I was sitting in a pool of sunlight cast onto the wooden floor beneath my mother's ironing board. She was watching Art Linkletter's House Party on TV. I saw her ironing my father's white shirt -- a sprinkle of water from her blue plastic bottle, a short spurt of steam as it sizzled beneath the iron. 'Someday you'll wear shirts like this,' said Mom. 

I just listened to her strange words, as if they were a language other than English. I didn't understand what she was getting at. She never wore shirts like that. Why would I ever be wearing shirts like my father's?

Since then, the awareness that I was in the wrong body, living the wrong life, was never out of my conscious mind -- never, although my understanding of what it meant to be a boy, or a girl, was something that changed over time." --- pgs. 19-20

Being born in the wrong body? I can't really fathom what that must feel like. But I'm curious to read Jennifer's perspective on parenting and the world at large after making such a big change.

I will also be reading her latest book, Stuck in the Middle With You: A Memoir of Parenting in Three Genders. Stay tuned!!

Friday, May 10, 2013

A book for Mom!!

As Mother's Day approaches, I'm sure we're all scrambling to come up with ideas of what to give mom. Here's a little something to add to the list... Journey Across the Four Seas by Veronica Li.. She's stopping by my blog to tell us a little bit about her book..
             She was one of the first Chinese women to go to college.  But wars and   She eventually brought the family to the U.S.  It's an inspirational story of the human will to survive and improve the lives of the next generation.  Writing the book was my way of thanking my mom for what she’d done for me.
revolutions upended her life and turned her into a refugee in search of a home.
JOURNEY ACROSS THE FOUR SEAS is a true story of my mother's life in China.
            Let me explain how I got to write this book.  About twelve years ago, my parents came from California to live with me in the DC area.  California had been the place we immigrated to in 1967.  I was the only one who came to the East Coast.  My four siblings were still in California, and they’d all taken turns in caring for my parents.  I felt that my turn had come.  I used to work for the World Bank, but I had quit my job to stay home and write.  As a writer, my schedule was the most flexible.  We held a family conference and we all agreed that I was in the best position to take care of my parents.
            Now, my mother was a fantastic storyteller, and she loved to tell stories about her life.  I’d listened to them many times when I was a child, and never gave them much thought.  But my friends heard them for the first time and were fascinated.  Somebody suggested that I write the stories down.  I also thought it was a good idea.  So I sat down with her and taped her stories.     
            Then came the question of whether to write it as a biography or a memoir.  My first inclination was to write it as a biography.  It would be from a third person point of view, and I would be free to put in my own interpretation.  However, after a few chapters, I decided to make it a memoir in my mother’s voice.  Her voice was so beautiful, so lyrical, that I knew I had to let it sing. 

Thursday, May 9, 2013

My take on: Manuscript Found in Accra

I've never read a book by Paulo Coelho before, but sometimes it's hard to pass up a book by author of his caliber. I wasn't quite sure what to expect from his latest book, Manuscript Found in Accra. The title makes me wonder what exactly was found in Accra. I wasn't sure if I should be taking that title literally or figuratively. I was intrigued and had to find out which was true.

As Jerusalem awaits the invasion in 1099, a mysterious man, known as the Copt, reads words of wisdom to the people. I found myself thinking, do words really work in situations like this? Wouldn't some sort of action be a better way to go? I was expecting a fictional narrative, but it feels more like a self-help or advice book. In this story, everyone is frightened. Everyone is worried about the future. Will they survive the impending invasion? Will there be anything left for them after the invasion? I thought maybe there would be some kind of action taken, and the words of would be a small piece of the book. But each chapter is a lesson for life, lessons that are very relevant even in 2013.

There are a lot of gems in this book, but there was one that stood out the most to me. I can't quote it directly, because I have advanced copy. The gist of my favorite passage is that young people are big dreamers and they also dream of solving the problems of the world. It sounds so true. When you're young you think you can do anything, but once you go out in the real world you start to think differently. You develop a more cynical view of life, and you struggle to find your place in life. It's a great insight, but I'm not so sure people awaiting an invasion would want to hear it!

Stay away from people who think they are stronger than you because they are hiding their own problems or insecurities. A good lesson for everyone.

I got the impression that this is supposed to be fiction. I read fiction differently and I have different expectations. Most of the time when I'm reading fiction, I'm expecting to be transported into a different world and to be entertained. When I'm reading non-fiction, biographies, memoirs, or self-help, I'm expecting to learn something new or to be inspired. I felt a mix of everything with this book. I think this is one of those books that has to be read twice. I think I would have an even greater appreciation for this book if I read it twice. In my experience, I think the words sink in deeper with a second read. It's a short book, so it's definitely worth the time. I think there is something for everyone in this book, so give it a try.

Rating: Give it a try

Notes: I received a copy of the book from the publisher (Knopf) in exchange for an honest review.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

It's time for a giveaway!!!

I don't do this often, but I was given the opportunity to host a giveaway for A Curious Man by  Neal Thompson. Here's a little info on the book....

"Howard Hughes crossed with P.T. Barnum, Robert “Believe It or Not” Ripley was a lonely, buck-toothed cartoonist turned eccentric millionaire and renowned world-traveler who in the 1930’s and 1940’s earned international fame by journeying to the farthest corners of the earth in search of the world’s most exotic curiosities. But for all his success in uncovering oddities, no piece of Ripley’s collection was as remarkable as the man himself. From his youth as an awkward young artist with an innate empathy for “freaks,” to his golden years spent on a private island stocked with rare artifacts and strange pets, Ripley lived life on the kind of grand scale normally confined to fiction. Now with A Curious Man: The Strange and Brilliant Life of Robert “Believe It or Not!” Ripley (Crown Archetype; May 7, 2013) acclaimed biographer Neal Thompson has delivered a marvelously compelling account of this great American story, told for the first time ever—a thrilling tale of the underdog who taught us to believe in the unbelievable."

Hopefully, the Rafflecopter giveaway posted below works. Let me know if it doesn't!! The giveaway is for U.S. and Canada residents only, and ends in one week. Just enter your e-mail and leave a comment. Extra entries if you follow my blog or on Twitter. Good luck!!

a Rafflecopter giveaway