Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Literary Gods Continue to Smile Down On Me!

This time, we go all the way back to 2008 for a book that was very popular at the time.  But one that I just never read and, more to the point, didn't care about reading.  Shows you how much I (don't) know. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is an absolute gas. The book was written by Annie Barrows and her aunt, Mary Ann Shaffer (who, unfortunately, passed away the year the book was published). Why was it beneath my literary station in life to read Pie before, but not now?  Well, I have a good answer for that.  Annie is a Northern California resident.  And you all know how I love local authors.  Plus, oh by the by, I'm always looking for new RBC authors!

Here's the thing about Pie:  The authors make every character feel like someone we know.  It's truly amazing.  The backdrop is the Occupation of The Channel Islands during WWII.  (The Channel Islands are an archipelago between England and France, near Normandy.  Guernsey is 1 of 8 islands in this group.)  So, it's not exactly a fun time in Guernsey.  And, yet, the authors choose to focus on the human side of the war - the relationships, the fortitude, the caring, and, yes, even the humor.  You would think that a book with this subject matter should not have humor.  But you would think wrong.  Humor is what helps the reader (and the characters) deal with the bad stuff.  And there is certainly some of that.  But in the midst of all this bad stuff is a whole bunch of good stuff.  

Instead of reciting a blurb, let me quote Elizabeth Gilbert (of Eat, Pray, Love fame):  I can't remember the last time I discovered a novel as smart and delightful as this one, a world so vivid that I kept forgetting this was a work of fiction populated with characters so utterly wonderful that I kept forgetting they weren't my actual friends and neighbors. Treat yourself to this book, please - I can't recommend it highly enough.  Well said, Elizabeth.

I often tell you about my tears and chills and more tears.  But this book actually amped up my reactions.  Look at some of these:  Big smile, "Wow," "OMG," "Ah," head shaking/nodding, and a large "Whew!"  Not to mention a literary event late in the book that legitimately had me nervous.

As I look back at my notes, I see the word "love" being used a lot:
I loved Juliet using Bella Taunton, who didn't even like Juliet, as a character reference.
I loved how excited the island was to have Juliet come visit.
I loved when Juliet actually got to the island.
I loved Kit...period.
And there might even be a little romance that maybe I loved!

All in all, this is a heckuva good book.  Goodreads has a score of 4.12/5. And Amazon is 4.6/5.  Tens of thousands of people can't be wrong...can they?  Maybe...but not this time.  If you read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, I know you will feel the same way about it that I do.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Does the Atomic Weight of Love finally break the streak? That would be a resounding NO!

And the streak continues.  The Atomic Weight of Love, a debut novel by Elizabeth J. Church, is really good.  This one came to me through the Books, Inc. 4th Tuesday Night Book Club.  In fact, we meet this coming Tuesday night to discuss it.  And I will definitely be on the plus side of the discussion.  I gave it a 3.25/4.  What could the author have done to raise my rating?  Probably nothing.  I liked it from beginning to end.  And I even had some chills, tears, smiles, head shakes, "unhs," and raised eyebrows.  You know, there's not that much difference between a 3 and a 4.  Do I use certain criteria for coming up with the final number? Nothing formal. Basically, I finish a book and the number hits me.  It's no more organized than that.  I have been taken to task for the arbitrariness of my ratings.  But, hey, how many times in your life can you be arbitrary (putting aside parenting, for the moment)?   Blogging is definitely one of those times.

The premise has a backdrop of WWII and Los Alamos.  Here's a quick summary:

Driven, spirited Meridian Wallace is seventeen years old in the fall of 1941 when she begins her ornithology studies at the University of Chicago.  Once there, however, she becomes captivated by a brilliant, complicated physicist and eventually follows him when he is asked to work on a secret wartime project in Los Alamos.  As the years go by, Meridian - adrift in a traditional marriage, her own sense of purpose and passion lost - channels her scientific ambition into the study of a family of crows, birds whose free life and companionship are the very things beyond her reach.  But when she meets a young geologist, a veteran of the Vietnam War, she is awakened to changes and choices that she never thought possible.

This is an extremely well-written book.  It's so well-written that even the Author's Note at the end of the book reads beautifully.  But it's always readable.  I've got just a couple of observations for you:

1.  The author started writing this book at the age of 56 and got it published when she was 60.  You don't have too many debut authors that are Baby Boomers!
2.  When the book starts, the protagonist is 87.  That reminded me of Water for Elephants and The Storyteller.  I like when authors do that.
3.  There's a scene where the Vietnam War veteran that Meridian meets has a reaction that today we would call PTSD.  Although I didn't go to Vietnam, I certainly knew about it.  I actually joined the Army Reserve back in 1969 so that I could avoid Vietnam.  The scene was a little too close to home.
4.  There's a scene where Meridian's husband has his badge right below his pocket protector.  I immediately flashed on a Don Rickles show that I was at.  We were sitting close, and he noticed that I had a piece of paper sticking out of my shirt.  He commented on the guy with the pocket protector.  Fortunately, I escaped any further harassment, unlike others in the crowd.  Boy, I'm really going to miss him.
5.  There is a 1971 reference to Tab, the 1st diet drink by Coke.  I was a huge fan of Tab and am still a Diet Coke drinker, much to the chagrin of my wife, Joni.

I'm pretty sure that this will come as no surprise to you.  But I want to quote several passages to show you what a good writer Church is:

"...burrowing insects have engraved the wood with trails of hieroglyphic language."
"We were like children - wholly cared for, our needs met, but with minimal choices."
"Then I felt him kiss the tip of my nose like the single raindrop the comes sometimes minutes before the rest of the raindrops in a thunderstorm - the first raindrop that is an explorer."
"And then, in the softest whisper possible he wove these words into the strands of my hair, tattooed my scalp with them:  'Bless you baby.'"

Friday, May 19, 2017

A Whole Bunch of Stuff

Here is that mish-mash of announcements that I accumulate over some period of time.  I've got a combo of events and books-to-movies-and-TV and paperbacks and giveaways.  Let's begin, shall we?

1.  This coming Wednesday, May 24, is our next RBC meeting.  Margaret Zhao will be talking about her memoir, Really Enough: A True Story of Tyranny, Courage and Comedy.  It chronicles her life as a child in China during the 1950s, shortly after the Communists took over.  Crazy interesting story.  She will be at Recycle Books at 7:00.

2.  I saw the 1st trailer for The Glass Castle that is being made into a movie, starring Brie Larson.  You certainly all know that TGC is one of my top 12 books all-time.  That makes me nervous about the movie version. I didn't see Me Before You because I liked the book so much.  I don't know if I will adopt the same attitude this time.

3.  I just found out yesterday that Daniel Silva's Gabriel Allon is coming to the small screen.  Daniel didn't tell us when that's happening.  And I'm hoping it's not on Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, et al.  I don't have any of those premium stations.

4.  That very good novel, Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi, is now out in paperback.

5.  Ellen Kirschman will be launching, The Fifth Reflection, her 3rd book in the Dot Meyerhof series, on July 11 at Books, Inc. in Palo Alto.  Her background as a police psychologist is fascinating.  And she applies what she's learned to her protagonist.

6.  On June 29, another launch will be taking place.  This one is at Kepler's, and it stars Barry Eisler, who has launched all of his books at this one bookstore.  He is coming out with Zero Sum, another book in the excellent John Rain series.

7.  I mentioned this in my last post.  But I've got a very clean hardcover copy of Sally Hepworth's the mother's promise, thanks to Melissa A.  It's available to anybody who wants it.  You don't even have to give up your first-born.

8.  Here's an interesting article from the Women's National Book Association, San Francisco Chapter, regarding free libraries:  Little Free Libraries of the Bay Area.  If you can't click on the link, then just go to their website and find this article.  It's super cool.

9.  On April 26, I attended a going-away party for Melissa Maglio.  As I'm sure you all know, Melissa ran the Los Gatos Library Tuesday Evening Book Club for about 7 years.  I've only been going for the last 3 or so. But she did an excellent job and had a big following.  Well, she had an opportunity to move over to the San Jose Library and work at a branch that is within bike-riding distance to her home.  She just couldn't pass it up.  I know that I speak for many book club members when I say that we will all miss her terribly.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Does the streak continue? You bet it does. A mother's promise by Sally Hepworth is outstanding.

Thanks to my best source for new (to me) authors, Melissa Amster, at chicklitcentral.com, I just read the mother's promise by Sally Hepworth. I've already got one of Hepworth's books sitting in my TBR pile.  But I couldn't resist reading tmp since Melissa sent me a hardcover copy of it. This book reminds me somewhat of A Man Called Ove (and you all know what I thought of that one - 4/4).  I was definitely enjoying it.  But it just got better and better until I was a crying mess.  Man did it get to me. But let's begin at the beginning:

All their lives, Alice Stanhope and her daughter, Zoe, have been a family of two, living quietly in Northern California.  Zoe has always struggled with crippling social anxiety and her mother has been her constant and fierce protector.  with no family to speak of, and the identity of Zoe's father shrouded in mystery, their team of two works - until it doesn't.  Until Alice gets sick and needs to fight for her life.
Desperate to find stability for Zoe, Alice reaches out to two women who are practically strangers but who are her only hope:  Kate, a nurse, and Sonja, a social worker.  As the four of them come together, a chain of events is set into motion and all four of them must confront their darkest fears and secrets - secrets about abandonment, abuse, estrangement, and the deepest longing for family.

Probably the most important message I got from this book is how difficult it must be to live with social anxiety disorder.  Having never really been exposed to anyone who obviously has it, I'm betting that Sally did her research and depicts Zoe accurately.  We can chalk up Zoe's actions to being a fictional character.  Except that Sally makes us feel what Zoe is feeling.  That actually is true of all the characters in the book.  Nice going, Sally.  You made me feel so connected to Zoe that I thought it was raining indoors!

Let me give you a few of my other observations:
1.  The book alternates chapters between the voices of Alice and Zoe.  As you probably know, ad nauseum, I like that approach in a book.  I think it's very effective here.
2.  There are 4 main characters in tmp, with a few supporting cast members thrown in.  The more they interconnected, the more I liked it. And there is plenty of interconnecting.
3.  Besides crying profusely (I should have been embarrassed...but I wasn't), I also had some "Uh oh's," "Oh boy's," and even an "Oh (expletive)."
4.  As predictable as a book like this might seem to be, there is a huge surprise toward the end that left me agape and aghast (bet you don't see those words together very often!).
5.  Did I mention I did a little crying?  Here is what my note said:  "Are you kidding me?  How much crying can 1 person do?"  And that, my friends, is verbatim.
6.  It's funny that the book takes place in Northern California when Sally lives and writes in Australia.
7.  On top of it all, Sally can write.  Here are just a couple of passages that I particularly enjoyed:
- "The silence in the room was loud.  So loud."
- "It was agony, waiting for someone to make the most important decision of your life."
- "All around her people paired up with the ease of magnet and metal."

Nice, yes?

Since Melissa sent me this copy of the mother's promise, I am happy to send it to someone else.  If you would like to have it, go ahead and let me know.  If there are more than one of you, then we'll set up a chain of reads/sends.  But whether or not you are interested in receiving this copy, make sure you find a way to read it.  the mother's promise is just a really good book.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

I'm on a Roll! Lucy Sanna continues the streak with The Cherry Harvest

I am not unhappy (confusing?) to say that I've read a number of very good books lately.  You all saw my review of The Marriage Lie from a few days ago.  Well now comes The Cherry Harvest by Lucy Sanna, a part-time Bay Area resident (trying to get her to come to the RBC early next year).  What's it about, you ask?  I will let the back page of the book tell us:

It's the summer of 1944 in Door County, Wisconsin, where even the lush cherry orchards and green lakeside farms can't escape the ravages of war.  With food rationed and money scarce, the Christiansen family struggles to hold on.  The family's teenage daughter, Kate, raises rabbits to save money for college, while her mother, Charlotte, barters what she can to make ends meet.  Charlotte's husband, Thomas, strives to keep the orchard going while their son - along with most of the other able-bodied men - is fighting overseas.  With the upcoming harvest threatened by the labor shortage, strong-willed Charlotte helps persuade local authorities to allow German prisoners from a nearby POW camp to pick the fruit.
But when Thomas befriends one of the prisoners, a math teacher named Karl, and invites him to tutor Kate, both Charlotte and Kate are swept into a world where love, duty, and honor are not as clear-cut as they might have believed. Charlotte and Thomas fail to see that Kate is becoming a young woman, with dreams and temptations of her own.  And when their beloved son, Ben, returns from the battlefield, wounded and bitter, the secrets they've all been keeping threaten to explode their world.

Did you know that German prisoners were shipped across the Atlantic during WWII to work in canneries and farms?  No?  I didn't think so.  I mean, c'mon, we were never told that in school.  But, in fact, there were 39 camps in Wisconsin that housed the Germans from 1942-1946.  And that leads me to my 1st major observation.  Which is that most of the WWII stories we read take place in Europe.  Some of my favorites include The Nightingale and The Race for Paris, in France, The Orphan's Tale and Salt to the Sea, in Germany,  Between Shades of Gray, in Siberia, and City of Thieves, in Leningrad.  Of course there are tons more.  But those are the ones that come to (an ever-forgetful) mind.  But a slice of WWII history that happens right here in the states?  Under the unsuspecting eyes of the entire country?  Now that is interesting.

Other observations:
1.  This would be a great movie.  Hollywood, are you paying attention?
2.  Lucy does a very good job of showing us the differences between the haves and the have-nots during the war.
3.  There is a detailed description of how Charlotte makes a cherry pie. My question to the author is:  Lucy, have you used this recipe?  Is it as good as it sounds?
4.  Being a city slicker, I didn't realize how big an orchard can be.  5400 trees?  And with all of the usual pickers going to the cities to aid in the war effort, you can easily see why the German prisoners were brought over and in.
5.  The story jumps back and forth between Charlotte and Kate.  It's a literary strategy that I typically like.  And Lucy does it very well here.
6.  There is a scene pretty late in the book that reminded me of a particularly poignant scene in An Officer and a Gentleman.  I won't say any more.  But when you read TCH, let me know if you thought of the same scene I did.
7.  I'm never opposed to historical fiction that ties family dynamics to a little bit of romance.  Good combo.
8.  There were definitely moments of suspense and chills, with a big "Wow" thrown in for fun.
9.  Love the ending.

I enjoyed the heck out of this for all of the above reasons...and probably a couple that I have forgotten (highly likely!).  If you want a really good story, pick up The Cherry Harvest.  I know you will appreciate it like I do.


Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Your Perfect Life, by Liz Fenton & Lisa Steinke - "Perfect" Can Be Relative

Your Perfect Life is another recommendation from my personal recommender Melissa Amster, at chicklitcentral.com.  Let's not forget that she is responsible for me finding out about Sarah Jio (Goodnight June) and Karma Brown (Come Away with Me) among several others.  In fact, if I don't stop reading all of her recs, I'm going to turn into a women's fiction groupie.  And what would my macho man buddies say about that?  Oh, wait.  I don't really have any of those. Regardless, I'm very happy I read YPL.  Here's the blurb:

Best friends since childhood, Casey and Rachel couldn't lead more different lives.  While workaholic Casey rubs elbows with celebrities daily as the host of Gossip TV and comes home nightly to an empty high-rise apartment, stay-at-home mom Rachel juggles an oops baby, two fiery teenagers, and a husband who only physically resembles the man she fell in love with two decades before.  After an argument at their twentieth high school reunion, they each throw back a shot to try and save the evening.  Instead, they get a life-changing hangover.
Waking up in each other's bodies the next morning, they must figure out how to navigate their altered realities.  Rachel is forced to face the broadcasting dreams she gave up when she got pregnant in college and Casey finally steps out of the spotlight to confront the real reason why she's alone.  Each woman will soon discover she doesn't know herself - or her best friend - nearly as well as she thought she did.

You all know what I think of 11/22/63 by Stephen King.  It's a time travel book that I absolutely loved.  But I had to accept the premise before I could take on the rest of the book.  The same thing is true of YPL.  Since I almost never read a blurb before I start a book, I had no idea their switch was going to happen.  And I have to admit that when I first read about it, on page 30, I was not happy.  I simply wasn't prepared for such a seemingly unrealistic development.  But I will tell you that I got over it VERY quickly.  And once I accepted the premise, just like for 11/22/63, the rest of the book flowed very plausibly.

Some other observations:
1.  I can definitely see how this book was written by 2 long-time friends.
2.  It is never a bad thing to be in someone else's shoes - a good takeaway (and you know how I like a good takeaway).
3.  Here's another valuable lesson - "If only I could've known then that you don't have to agree with your friends' choices to still be there for them."  Another good takeaway.  Kinda similar to #2.
4.  There are several other takeaways, but I just don't want to give them all away.  Trust me when I
tell you that there are plenty more.
5.  Small Spoiler Alert - as a reader, I could sure feel the transformation that took place with both women being in the other's body.
6.  I don't want you to think that I had no emotional connection. BECAUSE I DID!  At one point, I had tears rolling down my cheeks.  
7.  I also had a few personal connections:
a.  Casey and Rachel had their switch at a high school reunion.  I've got a really big one coming up this August.  Really big.
b.  At one point, Rachel's husband comes in for a "side hug."  My granddaughter, Haley, who is 12, only gives side hugs.
c.  Rachel has a 14-year old daughter who does a lot of eye-rolling.  I have another granddaughter who is 4(!) who already does some eye-rolling and will be doing a lot more of it in the years to come.

I haven't mentioned the writing itself.  It's terrific.  I will just give you one passage.  It's something that anybody who has ever taken care of a baby will relate to.  And for those of us with 3 children and 4 grandchildren, we can REALLY relate to it:  "I look over at Charlotte, who has a very serious look on her face.  Like she's trying to come up with the answer to something really complicated, like how to solve global warming or understand why Paris Hilton is still considered a celebrity." See what I mean?

Read Your Perfect Life, people.  You will not only enjoy it.  But you will also be reminded of what matters in our lives.  What else could you ask for?

Thursday, May 4, 2017

The Marriage Lie, by Kimberly Belle - Thank You Marina Adair and Elisabeth Barrett!

A few weeks back I was having lunch with 2 of my favorite local authors, Marina Adair and Elisabeth Barrett, after they so graciously appeared at my corporate book club meeting in Pleasanton.  And we got on the discussion of books that we like (yes, even authors read other authors). They both very enthusiastically recommended The Marriage Lie, by Kimberly Belle.  Now, I know that you have heard me complain about the size of my TBR pile...ad nauseum, even.  But, for some reason, I not only went right out and bought TML.  But I even started reading it only 10 days after my lunch.  Boy am I glad I did.  It is a totally terrific book.

Here is what it's about:

Iris and Will have been married for seven years, and life is as close to perfect as it can be.  But on the morning Will flies out for a business trip to Florida, Iris's happy world comes to an abrupt halt: another plane headed for Seattle has crashed into a field, killing everyone on board and, according to the airline, Will was one of the passengers.
Grief stricken and confused, Iris is convinced it all must be a huge misunderstanding.  Why did Will lie about where he was going?  And what else has he lied about?  As Iris sets off on a desperate quest to uncover what her husband was keeping from her, the answers she finds shock her to her very core.

Why did I like this so much?  As Liz Browning said:  "Let me count the ways:"

1.  I don't know if I have ever been so surprised so often.  I loved that about this book.
2.  This is a mystery, plain and simple, couched in a women's contemporary fiction or similarly named genre.
3.  In case you're trying to figure out how to spot a lie, or even trying to lie more effectively, here are the "tells" - "You see it in the fidgets and sudden head movements or sometimes, when a person is overcompensating, through no movements at all.  In how their breathing changes, or how they provide too much information, repeating phrases and offering up irrelevant details.  In the way they shuffle their feet or touch their mouths or put a hand to their throats. It's basic psychology, physical signals that the body doesn't agree with the words coming out of its mouth."  Hopefully, this does NOT sound familiar to you.
4.  On page 247 of 334 I realized that I couldn't figure out anything that was going on...and I loved it!
5.  I had my usual array of tears, chills, raised eyebrows, and OMGs.
6.  The book is very well-written.  Here's what Kimberly says about death in the voice of Iris:  "It forces intimacy at the same time it snatches it away."
7.  I've mentioned this before.  I feel very strongly that you can't judge something that you haven't experienced.  Kimberly says it very eloquently through Evan, a friend who also lost family in the plane crash:  "...nobody understands what you and I are going through. People think that they do, and a lot of them want to understand, but they don't. Not really.  Unless they've lost someone like you and I have, they can't."
8.  How about this for a visual?  "Corban's smile drops like a guillotine."
9.  I've got one more passage for you.  This one does a pretty darn good job, I think, of explaining grief:  "Why do they call it grief, when really it's a whole gamut of awful emotions, confusion and regret and anger and guilt and loneliness, wrapped up into one little word?"
10. Final thought?  THE ENDING IS CRAZY!

The Marriage Lie has been compared to Gone Girl.  And that was I good book (3.5/4).  But this is better - much better.  Please read it.

SIDE NOTE (aren't they all?):  Have I ever told you about Cards Against Humanity?  It's mentioned in the book.  If you haven't played it, get a bunch of people together and do it.  I probably have never laughed as much as I did when I played this for the 1st time.