Friday, September 19, 2014

The Sixteen



by Ali B.
Dewey Larson Publishing     2014
194 pages     Middle Grade Science Fiction
The Shortlist

The Sixteen is the second book in a science fiction series for young readers called Soul Jumpers. It is essential to read the first book in the series, Iris Brave, before attempting to read this one. I had a hard time soul jumping into the concept and identifying with the characters.

Iris Brave is a soul jumper as is her father. She takes on the mission of finding her father, who is being held captive. She is slightly uncertain who her father is, exactly, because he is a soul jumper, and Iris is finding out that she is a soul jumper, too. What is a soul jumper, you ask? Well, luckily for the reader, an explanation is given early in The Sixteen.

Here's what we know:

  a soul jumper is a person whose soul leaves its body and enters the body of a dead person.
  a soul jumps because it still has something it needs to do on earth.
The soul jumper's family doesn't know they're still alive.
The Council makes all the decisions for the soul jumpers.
 The council is evil.
There is a group called the Sixteen who rebelled against the Council.
The Sixteen want to tell the world about soul jumpers.

The Sixteen is an appealing science fiction book for middle grade readers—my guess would be fifth graders. I received it from the publicist. The author is a teacher and has a good sense of what children like to read. It is self-published and available online at Amazon.

Ali B. Facebook Page and her blog.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Lucky Us



by Amy Bloom
Random House    2014
256 pages     Fiction

Last month, my granddaughters and I watched the charming and quirky movie Paper Moon starring Ryan and Tatum O'Neal as father and (perhaps) daughter con artists. The thirteen-year-olds loved it, and the image of Tatum O'Neal in the role of Addie Loggins stayed with me as I began Lucky Us by Amy Bloom. 

Eva Acton narrates the years in her life before until shortly after World War II. She doesn't appear to be lucky in the opening pages of Lucky Us. She is about ten when the book begins with the best first line I have read this year, "My father's wife died. My mother said we should drive down to his place and see what might be in it for us."  So her mother borrows a car, and they travel to Chicago to find her father. Her mother abruptly leaves Eva and her suitcase on her father's doorstep and disappears forever (well, not quite forever, but that's another story.) 

Eva finds that the father she only knew from occasional visits has another daughter, Iris, who is 16 as the book opens, and Iris charmingly adds Eva into their family. Father is a college professor, a bit of a schemer and fairly dishonest. Iris has been saving up for a trip to Hollywood to begin a career as an actress. When she sees their father trying to steal her money, the girls gather up what they have and make their way to California.

Thus begins Eva's life adventures, which include what the New York Times reviewer calls "abrupt painful changes." I took them to be part of an event-filled, character-filled journey into adulthood for Eva. Yes, there is pain. Yes, there is enormous change. You would not know that from Eva's narration which is full of charm and vitality and positivity. The Boston Globe reviewer says that "Lucky Us's resilient cast of characters and Bloom's witty, expansive tone lend the novel a buoyancy and joyfulness."

The most remarkable experiences are climaxed with tragedy, but the tragedy is narrated in such a matter-of-fact way that the reader thinks "Oh, My!" and then sucks it up and goes on—just like the bevy of characters that surround Eva and her family. The characters are remarkably crafted and charmingly offbeat. and our understanding of them is guided by Eva's observations. For example "I never saw my father as foolish. When I was a little girl, I saw him as a god, generous with the Hershey bars, and now I saw him as clever and shallow. Thin silverplate over nickel is what I thought." 

It is not that Eva isn't warned that life is hard. Early in the narration, the landlady Mrs. Gruber tells the girls that "happiness was not something she aspired to, that when we had seen as much of the world as she had, we would know that what lies right behind the horseshit is not a prize pony. . .it's more horseshit." (My father had a phrase for characters like Eva—they "roll with the punches," and he always felt that was a great asset in life.)

Bloom's writing is stellar. The plot never flags and each character is created with such finesse that you envision and love each one. For instance, there is a makeup artist named Francisco—an Hispanic, middle-aged gay man—who becomes extremely influential in Eva's life. I could see him so clearly, that I felt like I knew him. 

Lucky Us is not typical in any way. It isn't a family drama; it isn't a coming-of-age drama, it isn't a comedy; and it most definitely isn't a tragedy. It is all of those things and much, much more. I can't wait for you to read Lucky Us by Amy Bloom. I know you will love it as much as I do.

The Boston Globe review
 The New York Times review.





Sunday, September 7, 2014

Harbor Island



by Carla Neggers
Harlequin            2014
283 pages     Mystery

Carla Neggers is a prolific writer. She writes installments for six different series of books and has written several stand alone novels as well. Harbor Island is number 4 in the Sharpe and Donovan series. This series features two FBI agents, Emma Sharpe and Colin Donovan, who are part of an elite FBI unit uncovering art fraud and thefts. In Harbor Island, they have just become engaged.

Emma comes from a family of art detectives, who work in Ireland and the United States. As part of the FBI team, she and Colin are investigating a series of thefts going back ten years. The thefts all seem to be connected to a murder (from a previous book) in Declan's Cross, Ireland. They included paintings by Jack B. Yeats, ancient Celtic crosses, and an early painting of Aoife O'Byrne, one of the characters in the novel. Early in Harbor Island, another murder occurs on one of the outer islands in Boston Harbor. Sharpe and Donovan travel from Boston, to Ireland, to London, to Maine and back to Boston as they uncover the thefts and the murderer.

There is mystery, romance, murder, attempted murder, and two villains. It is pretty predictable. It was obvious from the beginning that the books in the Sharpe and Donovan series should be read in order, although Neggers tries to bring the reader up to date. However, a lot of characters, settings, and plots that occurred in previous books need to be reintroduced, and it is easy for the reader to get bogged down in these backward looks. It takes a dedicated reader to wade through all the characters and plot devices from previous novels. 

This is my first novel by Carla Neggers, and it came to me from the publicist. I was curious because I couldn't imagine how one author could successfully navigate so many series. Additionally, I was curious about the islands in the Boston Harbor and the village of Declan's Cross in Ireland. I also was able to look up the painter Jack B. Yeats, who was the brother of W.B. Yeats, the writer. 

Frankly, I started and stopped this book several times. I  don't really know why I finished it. I wasn't sure what the author intended this book to be—a romance, a mystery, a cozy, or a travelogue, so I kept reading. None of the characters, including the two main characters, Sharpe and Donovan, are particularly appealing, and it seemed to me that there was so much character development that could have happened. Perhaps if I had read the series from the beginning, I would have had a greater sense of who these characters were and why I should be compelled to relate to them.

There was a time that I read nothing but murder mysteries, and at that point of my life, Harbor Island would have been a satisfying read, but since my reading journey has become richer and deeper, romance/mysteries are not very fulfilling. I realize that I am no longer a good judge of this style of novel. So, take this blog posting with a grain of salt, because who am I to quibble with Carla Negger's success. 

Carla Negger's website: http://www.carlaneggers.com/

Saturday, September 6, 2014

The influential book challenge

A few days ago, my daughter-in-law challenged me to make a list of the books that have had the biggest influence on my life. It's a challenge going around Facebook. After engaging in a debate with a friend regarding the difference between best books, influential books, favorite books, and important books, I settled for influential books. One thing that surprised me about making my list was that not very many of the books I have read in the four years I have been doing this blog made it on the list. I may have to change my approach to reading in 2015.

 I'd be interested in seeing lists from my reader friends. What books have you read that were influential in your lives? Here's my list! If I have written a blog post about the book, it will be highlighted so that you can look at my thoughts on the book.



The most influential books in Miriam's life.

1. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett . This was my mother's favorite book. She read it aloud to me, and I read it several times myself. Probably my first "chapter book" and the beginning of a lifelong reading obsession.

2. The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James. The first time I understood that spiritual experience was different for each person.

3. The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer's life experience and his theology had a profound effect on how I have tried to live my life.

4. The Pelican Brief by John Grisham. Not a great book, but the first time I realized that when we elect a president, we are also electing a Supreme Court. A stunning revelation to me.

5. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Religion and Politics by Jonathan Haidt. Read aloud with my husband. Some mornings we couldn't get up from the breakfast table.

6. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Read several times. The most memorable was listening to it in the car with my early teenage daughter and hearing her reaction.

7. The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank. Read many times as a young woman.

8. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. When I was a teenager, every summer I would try to read all the young adult books in the library, but I would always get stuck in the A's. Never got past Alcott.

9. The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Listened to this in the car with my husband. Magnificently written. It has stayed with me for a very long time. 

10. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. The best novel I have read in the years that I have been reviewing books.


OK! NOW IT'S YOUR TURN!

Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Thing Witn Feathers: The surprising lives of birds and what they reveal about being human



by Noah Strycker
Riverhead Books     2014
304 pages     Nonfiction

My father had a word for retired people—"birdwatchers." How would he have felt if he had met young Noah Strycker, birdwatcher extraordinaire. He really would have scratched his head. When I read Strycker's bio, which you can read here, I scratch my head as well. Strycker is not even 30 years old. The Wall Street Journal review says: "Although Mr. Strycker is only in his late 20s, he writes like a man who's ripened into advanced eccentricity." The Thing With Feathers is an incredible look at the bird kingdom, but more importantly, it tells how the characteristics of birds reveal things about humans that we wouldn't have expected. 

The Thing With Feathers is divided into three parts: body, mind, and spirit. In each of these sections, Strycker talks about how specific birds exemplify these three characteristics. He discusses pigeons, starlings, turkey vultures, snowy owls, hummingbirds, penguins, parrots, chickens, nutcrackers, magpies, bowerbirds, fairy wrens, and albatross. Strycker has observed all these birds in their natural habitats, and he then relates what he has learned about each species and how those characteristics relate to human characteristics.

For example, he discusses art and the bowerbird. This, by the way, was a new bird to me. The male bowerbird builds elaborate huts to attract females, gathering bits and pieces of human waste, like bits of plastic and other colorful objects, to make a truly artistic and romantic site. When the hut gets altered, such as if a human moves one or two of the pieces, the bowerbird doesn't rest until his "artistic" endeavor is restored to its full glory. Strycker then explores the idea of art and human expression. 

He does the same with the concepts of music and love. My favorite chapter concerns the albatross and monogamy.
I don't ever expect that I will see an albatross in my lifetime, but I was fascinated by their journey through life. They spend their adolescence alone on the high seas and don't mate until they are several years old, and then they mate for life, even though they spend a great deal of time away from their spouse. Albatrosses live to be very old, sometimes tending nests until they are in their 60s, but they stay with the same mate until one or the other of them dies. Strycker compares them with flamingos: "Flamingos, for instance, are terrible at keeping commitments, with a chart-topping divorce rate of 99 percent."

My family has had a bird feeder nearly all of my adult life, and birds have always been a fascination with me, although I cannot be considered a birder. I simply love to look out the window and see "my" birds. I have tried to keep track of the species that appear at our feeder, but frankly, I don't always remember their names. My husband, on the other hand, is always trying to figure out bird behavior, and he obsesses over trying to modify that behavior. For instance, he won't fill the feeder until the birds have eaten all the birdseed on the ground under the feeder. Never mind that most of the birds will never pick up seed on the ground. 

Sometimes, we are surprised by what we see. The other day, for instance, we saw a male cardinal feeding a female Brewer's blackbird. We have never seen a male Brewer's blackbird feeding a female, but we have seen lots of male cardinals feeding female cardinals. This was a wonderful observation. 

Quite frankly, my husband and I loved The Thing With Feathers.
We read it aloud to each other every morning, as we sat gazing out the window at our birds. Which characteristics were we watching? Were we seeing the same birds day in and day out? Would those blue jays ever eat the seeds on the ground? (The answer, of course, is no.) We can highly recommend this look at a world we knew very little about.

You might also enjoy Red Tails in Love by Marie Winn, about the Red Tail Hawks that nest in a high rise across the street from Central Park, New York. My sister texted me all excited because she saw those Red Tails about a month ago. Following that book review, there is a short item about my most amazing bird encounter. 

The Wall Street Journal Review.
Noah Strycker's website.