Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The Japanese Lover - My 1st Isabel Allende

My good friend, Diane, highly recommended The Japanese Lover, by Isabel Allende.  I decided to read it for 2 reasons:  1)  Because Diane recommended it; and 2) Because Isabel lives in Northern California (Marin County), and I always shamelessly hope to convince a local author to come to an RBC meeting.  It's unlikely, but it did work with Vanessa Diffenbaugh.  I'm just sayin'...  And in one sentence, I will tell you what the book is about:  The 70-year love affair of a man and woman who could not, for societal and cultural reasons, ever publicly be together.

So now that I've given you the reasons why I read it, what did I think about my 1st Allende?  The short answer is that I liked it.  I gave it a 3/4. I would have rated it a little higher except there were a couple of things that bothered me a bit.  Let me first list the stuff that I liked.

1.  It's extremely well-written.  It's literary, but still very readable.
2.  I like that much of the story takes place in a retirement community, and that one of the main protagonists is in her early 80s.  I will concede that this could have something to do with my advancing age!
3.  Piggybacking onto #2, there is an 8-page explanation (60-67) of what it's like to grow old.  I really appreciated how this particular character described it.  In fact, I would even say that this is a takeaway for me.
4.  I like how the author gives a detailed explanation of the Japanese internment camps during WWII.  Of course I've seen it before in literature (Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet comes 1st to mind), but this is in greater detail.  As heinous as it actually was, and as much head-shaking as I did while reading it, I still appreciated learning more about this significant piece of American history.
5.  I definitely had my share of chills and tears, with a little laughter thrown in.  I did make the emotional connection to the characters.
6.  I always like books where there are personal letters from the past involved (e.g. Goodnight June and Letters from Paris).

What did I have an issue with?
1.  Those personal letters jump around in timeframe.  It was a little confusing for me (could it be me?  Nah.  Maybe?)
2.  There is a character that is referred to several times throughout the book.  But he gets a big part near the end, from 45 years earlier, that was distracting for me.
3.  I thought there were quite a few paragraphs that ran on too long. Don't get me wrong; they were well-written, and I wasn't bored.  But I have a hard time maintaining focus when I see a long paragraph.  I have to admit that this one is on me.

My objections to the book probably only accounted for maybe a 1/4 point in the rating.  Not a big deal.  It's still very worthwhile reading.   And for you literati, you will probably appreciate it a tad more than I did.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Top Books of 2016

So why am I listing my top books of 2016 in early December?  Good question.  It turns out that the Los Gatos Library Evening Book Club is meeting this month on December 20 and will be talking about their favorite books of the year.  But I have to miss the meeting!  Rats.  So I figured I would go ahead and make my list.  Maybe Melissa will share this with the group...and maybe she won't.  Either way it's an end-of-year list I'm going to put together.

This year I've got 24 out of 75 books at 3.5/4 or higher.  That's almost a 1/3!  It's obviously been a very good year.  And heeeeeeeere they are:

Rachael Herron - Splinters of Light

Barry Eisler - The God's Eye View
Harlan Coben - Fool Me Once
Fredrik Backman - A Man Called Ove
Jeffrey Archer - Cometh The Hour (#6, The Clifton Chronicles)

John Hart - Redemption Road
Rachael Herron - The Ones Who Matter Most
Daniel Silva - The Black Widow
Karma Brown - The Choices We Make
Jeffrey Archer - This Was A Man (#7, The Clifton Chronicles)

Allen Eskins - The Life We Bury

Paulette Boudreaux - Mulberry
Ruta Sepetys - Salt to the Sea
Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney - The Nest
Jennifer Skully/Bella Andre - Fearless in Love (#3, The Maverick Billionaires)
Yaa Gyasi - Homegoing
Harlan Coben - Home
David McCullough - The Wright Brothers (non-fiction)
Sarah Jio - Blackberry Winter
Juliet Blackwell - Letters from Paris
Jodi Picoult - Small Great Things
Barry Eisler - Livia Lone
JoJo Moyes - Paris for One (short stories)
Kelly Corrigan - Glitter and Glue (memoir)

P.S.  There are another 22 books that are either 3.0 or 3.25.  That's 46 out of 75 - over 60%!  As I said up top, it's been a very good year for reading.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

New Authors (for me) in 2016 - Yes, I know that it's only early December

To avoid having all of my end-of-year lists at the end of the year, I'm going to space them out over the course of December.  The 1st one is all of the authors that I have read this year for the 1st time.  I have tried to genre-ize them as best I can.

Ivan Doig - Last Bus to Wisdom (literary fiction)
Hilary Mandel - Station Eleven (lit. fiction)
Emmi Itaranta - Memory of Water (lit. fiction)
Julia Park Tracey - Veronika Layne Gets the Scoop (lit. fiction)
Kate Larson - Rosemary:  The Hidden Kennedy Daughter (biography)
Paulette Boudreaux - Mulberry (lit. fiction)
Ruchi Rai - A Conscious Peace (memoir)
Walter Mosley - Devil in a Blue Dress (mystery)
Kate Walter - Looking for a Kiss (memoir)
Ashley Warlick - The Arrangement (lit. fiction)
Joyce Maynard - Under the Influence (lit. fiction)
Caroline Kepnes - You (psychological thriller)
Ruta Sepetis - Salt to the Sea (historical YA)
T.J. Reilly - Ladies Invited (mystery)
Fredrik Backman - A Man Called Ove (lit. fiction)
Jean Sasson - Princess (biography/memoir)
Marty Brownstein - Two among the Righteous Few (history)
Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney - The Nest (lit. fiction)
Toni Pacini - Alabama Blue (memoir)
Anne Enright - The Green Road (lit. fiction)
Philip Michaels - Love Me Two Times (lit. fiction)
Sylvain Neuvel - Sleeping Giants (scifi)
Elena Ferrante - My Brilliant Friend (lit. fiction)
AriaGlazki - Mending Heartstrings (romance)
Yaa Gyasi - Homegoing (historical fiction)
Alessandra Harris - Blaming the Wind (lit. fiction)
Allen Eskens - The Life We Bury (lit. fiction)
Constance Leisure - Amour Provence (lit./historical fiction)
Donald Trump/Tony Schwartz - The Art of the Deal (memoir/ghostwriter)
M.P. Cooley - Ice Shear (mystery)
Rae Meadows - I Will Send Rain (lit./historical fiction)
Hassan El-Tayyab - Composing Temple Sunrise (memoir)
Patrick Ness - A Monster Calls (YA)
Angela Wallace - Elemental Magic #1 (urban fantasy)
Kelly Corrigan - Glitter and Glue (memoir)
Melody Johnson Howe - Hold A Scorpion (mystery)
Paul Kalanithi - When Breath Becomes Air (memoir)
Elizabeth Hunter - The Scribe #1 Irin Chronicles (urban fantasy)
Isabel Allende - The Japanese Lover (lit. fiction)

Thursday, December 1, 2016

A Review of The Scribe, Book 1 in the Irin Chronicles, AND an Upcoming RBC Author!

Next February the RBC will be welcoming Elizabeth Hunter, author of the Irin Chronicles.  We will be reading book 1, The Scribe.  In our 3 years of being a book club, we have only had 1 other urban fantasy/paranormal romance author.  And that was Hannah Jayne, who wrote the Underworld Detection Agency books.  We all liked book 1 in that series. And I feel very confident that our members will like The Scribe.  I sure did.  This is what our own RBC member, author Killian McRae (who recommended Elizabeth), had to say about Elizabeth's book:  The Scribe is a perfect marriage of urban fantasy with tinges of romance." Intrigued?  Here's the blurb:

Hidden at the crossroads of the world, an ancient race battles to protect humanity, even as it dies from within.
Ava Matheson came to Istanbul looking for answers, but others came looking for her.  A reckless warrior guards her steps, but will Malachi's own past blind him to the truth of who Ava might be?  While ancient forces gather around them, both Ava and Malachi search for answers.
Whispering voices.  Deadly touch.  Their passion should be impossible...or it could be the only thing that will keep them alive. 

This book has it all - drama, suspense, physical battles, tears, chills, emotion (happiness and sadness), sarcasm and humor (the one inevitably leading to the other), and, most importantly, great chemistry between the 2 main protagonists.  I have said it many times, but it bears repeating:  If the author can make you feel for the characters, which Elizabeth certainly does here, then it doesn't matter what the genre is. In The Scribe, there is a scene in which I felt Ava's grief.  Did I say "But it's only an urban fantasy?"  Of course not.  Remember when I reviewed Wally Lamb's latest, I'll Take You There (11/20)?  I said that the book felt like non-fiction to me, even though the central character is visited by ghosts.  Fantastical?  Yes.  Believable?  Also, yes.  And in The Scribe, Ava and Malachi, along with several other supporting cast members, are very believable.

Don't forget that in order to appreciate all of the elements of a book, it also has to be well-written.  Listen to this:  "Most people's inner voices were like tiny orchestras in the moments before a concert.  An odd cacophony of emotion and tone only occasionally smoothing out into a discernible voice."  Doesn't that paint a vivid picture in your mind?  It sure did mine.  And am I the only person who liked this book?  I don't think so.  On Goodreads the rating is 4.19/5.  And on Amazon it's 4.6/5. I firmly believe that you, RBC members, and other readers too, will like it as well as I did.

ONE MORE NOTE ABOUT THE SCRIBE:  Elizabeth spells out a word/sound that I have never seen in print.  And it was perfect.  The word is "Mmhmm."  Haven't you always wondered what that looks like?  Well, here it is.

ONE MORE NOTE not ABOUT THE SCRIBE:  I have just come across a very cool website that is geared for mysteries.  It's called stopyourekillingme. If you like mysteries (who doesn't, really?), then you will want to take a look at this website.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

When Breath Becomes Air - kinda like Being Mortal...but not

My buddy Phil recommended I read When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, with a forward by Abraham Verghese.  This is a true story unlike most true stories.  To wit:

At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade's worth of training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer.  One day he was a doctor treating the dying, and the next he was a patient struggling to live.  And just like that, the future he and his wife had imagined evaporated.  When Breath Becomes Air chronicles Kalanithi's transformation from a naive medical student "possessed," as he wrote, "by the question of what, given that all organisms die, makes a virtuous and meaningful life" into a neurosurgeon at Stanford working in the brain, the most critical place for human identity, and finally into a patient and new father confronting his own mortality.

This is a mesmerizing account of Paul's journey to become a doctor and the unfortunate tailspin to a patient.  He died in March of 2015, after receiving his initial diagnosis 22 months earlier.  He didn't finish his book.  But we see most of what happened before and after he got his news.  And, fortunately for us, his widow, Lucy, wrote a beautiful epilogue to let us know what transpired at the end of Paul's life and how Lucy and their daughter, Elizabeth Acadia ("Cady"), are doing now.

I can write a lot about When Breath Becomes Air.  But, for the sake of readability, I think I'm going to list the elements of the book that stood out for me:

1.  The whole story of how he becomes a neuro-surgeon/scientist is fascinating.
2.  The book reminds me a lot of Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande, and you know what I thought about that book (you can see my 2-part review on 12/9/15 and 12/13/15).
3.  The book made me realize what a great loss to the medical community and, by extension, to the general public that his early death is.
4.  The explanation of brain function is done in such a way that even somebody outside the medical community (i.e. me) could understand and appreciate.
5.  Paul's emphasis on identity humanizes the medical approach to brain disfunction.
6.  I really like how he compares brain surgery with the tortoise and hare fable.
7.  Paul flat-out writes beautifully.

I know that it's tough to squeeze in books that you are not expecting to read.  But let me say that this is a small book physically and only 225 pages.  It won't take you long to get through it.  And, believe me, it's worth it.

1.  Barnes & Noble, on Stevens Creek in San Jose, has a 3-day author event coming up starting this Saturday, December 3.  Here is the schedule along with the list of authors and genres:

2.  Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is being turned into a movie on HBO sometime next year.  And Oprah herself will be one of the stars.  (If I already told you about this, which is a distinct possibility, I apologize!)  If you are interested, you can read my January 19, 2016 review of the book.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Christine Z. Mason's latest - Weighing the Truth

Boundaries, A Love Story, by Christine Z. Mason, was an RBC selection last year.  And now she's got a new one, called Weighing the Truth.  This is a whole bunch different than Boundaries, I can tell you that!  Here's what it's about:

Natalya Drummond is an idealistic 32-year old attorney and the widowed mother of a small child. After visiting her death row client, Jared Hegner, at San Quentin, her life begins to unravel, as bizarre, frightening, and traumatic incidents occur.  Nat becomes convinced the client and his gang members are after her.  At the same time she embarks on an investigation of the suspicious circumstances surrounding her husband's death - a mystery she must solve before she can move on in her personal and professional life.  Has her fear clouded her perception of the truth and undermined her passionate belief in the presumption of innocence?

First of all, the thing that stood out right away for me is that Nat could easily have her own series of books (or even a TV show).  I have no idea if Christine is considering that.  But I would certainly enjoy "seeing" more of Natalya Drummond.

There was a lot I liked about this book:

1.  There were quite a few storylines running through the book.  I liked the variety and the need to pay attention.
2.  I liked seeing the difference between an attorney in her professional role and an attorney as a victim.
3.  I liked getting the clear explanation, without being lectured to, of the rules surrounding a witness in a jury trial.
4.  I liked the twists and turns and the fact that it was not predictable.
5.  I liked that I could relate to a number of different parts of the book. The most notable was Nat's visit to the prison and being told she had to take off her bra because it had underwire.  A friend of mine had a son in prison who actually had to undergo that same requirement.  In her case, she drove to a local drugstore and purchased a different bra.  There are obviously so many things that we just don't know about unless we experience them.

Weighing the Truth is an entertaining book about a very relatable character.  Maybe we'll see more of her.  Eh, Christine?

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Archer's 7th, and Last, Clifton Chronicle Novel Is a Worthy End

You all know how much I like the Jeffrey Archer series, The Clifton Chronicles.  #7, This Was A Man, does the others justice.  It's a fitting end to an outstanding series.  I realized, as I was reading it, how invested in the characters I was.  Remember, this series started when Harry was only a boy.  And  book 7 ends about 60 years, and a total of 4 generations, later.  A lot has happened, and all of it flows smoothly from one scene, and book, to the next.

I had a lot of chills, tears, and smiles, plus a fair amount of OMG's. There are always twists in Archer's books.  And this one is no exception.  Just when you think one thing is going to happen, or one person is going to have a medical issue...BOOM, Archer throws us for a loop.  That's what makes us immediately get our hands (or ears) on Archer's novels. He's really an outstanding author.

I have recommended this series to a whole bunch of people.  And those that have listened to me have all agreed that The Clifton Chronicles is a great set of books.  Do yourself a favor and pick up book 1, Only Time Will Tell.  I feel very confident (notice I didn't say that I "guarantee") that you will quickly move on to books 2-7.  It's just that good.

P.S.  Late in the book, a crowd is gathered and is listening to Sit Down You're Rockin' the Boat, from Guys and Dolls.  I have to tell you that back on December 31, 1999, some friends and I actually put on a production of Guys and Dolls in honor of the Millennium.  And guess what part I played?  Yep,  Nicely Nicely Johnson.  I actually got to sing Sit Down You're Rockin' the Boat to a live audience!  Was I good?  Nope.  Did I have a great time?  Yep.