The Bird Sisters by Rebecca Rasmussen

 Summary ~ The Bird Sisters~ Love is timeless. So too is heartbreak.

Whenever a bird flies into a window in Spring Green, Wisconsin, sisters Milly and Twiss get a visit. Twiss listens to the birds’ heartbeats, assessing what she can fix and what she can’t, while Milly listens to the heartaches of the people who’ve brought them. The two sisters have spent their lives nursing people and birds back to health. 

But back in the summer of 1947, Milly was known as a great beauty with emerald eyes and Twiss was a brazen wild child who never wore a dress or did what she was told. That was the summer their golf pro father got into an accident that cost him both his swing and his charm, and their mother, the daughter of a wealthy jeweler, finally admitted their hardscrabble lives wouldn’t change. It was the summer their priest, Father Rice, announced that God didn’t exist and ran off to Mexico, and a boy named Asa finally caught Milly’s eye. And most unforgettably, it was the summer their cousin Bett came down from a town called Deadwater and changed the course of their lives forever.
Character analysis, atmosphere and subtlety are the name of the game in Rebecca Rasmussen’s lovely debut novel The Bird Sisters.  Twiss & Milly are sisters in every sense of the word.  Blood sisters, best friends, supporters, criticizers and playmates.  Life in rural Wisconsin is slow, quiet and calm for the most part.  That is until the church pastor walks away from his faith and his church community, the sisters father suffers unknowing damage from a freak accident and their cousin Bett arrives for the summer.  The Bird Sisters was a slow start for me but once I found my rhythm and became familiar with the characters and their lives I became wrapped up in their stories. 
 
I was disappointed to find myself unwillingly figuring out the secrets way too early that showed themselves later in the book.  I don’t try to do that but my brain just sees things between the lines.  The Bird Sisters surprised me when I found myself welling up due to the heartbreaking sadness that plagued the sisters and their family.  It takes a lot for me to cry when reading and I didn’t realize how invested I was in this book until the first tear fell.  Like the subtle story telling that Rebecca writes so beautifully the emotions crept up on me and took me over like the scent of flowers in a field as you drive by.  Taboo topics are hinted at and then quietly brought to the forefront by Rebecca’s gentle hand. 
 
 
Like The Bird Sisters, its author is sweet, lovely and full of layers.  I had the sincere pleasure of not only meeting Rebecca Rasmussen last night at One More Page Books in Arlington, VA but because of the strange turn of events I had the opportunity to really talk with Rebecca and get to know her quickly but truthfully.  This crazy weather we’ve been having here on the east coast played its tricks about fifteen minutes before Rebecca’s book event was to begin.  Lightning and thunder struck just above the building that One More Page Books is in and that tripped the circuits.  The fire alarms in the building block went off and weren’t reset for two hours.  We all had to stand outside for forty minutes where I proceeded to melt and wither a bit.  Eileen, the store owner and host took matters into her own hands and went across the street to La Cote D’Or Cafe, a quaint restaurant that graciously allowed One More Page Books to hold the book event in their dining room. 
 
 
Once settled the evening proceeded smoothly and quite nicely.  Instead of reading from The Bird Sisters Rebecca took questions from the audience.  I really loved the way she could elaborate on a question and in a way tell a story to get her answer across.  She made me feel better when she discussed the fact that some readers were finding it difficult to get settled into the book.  I had felt the same way and though I love literary fiction and prefer it to “commercial fiction” I still found it challenging at first to find my groove with The Bird Sisters.  Rebecca also answered questions about her publishing experience and sang her editor’s praises.  All in all Rebecca Rasmussen was a joy to meet, talk with and listen to.  If you get the chance to attend one of her upcoming events I highly recommend it.  She will be on the east coast for a little while and you can check out her website for tour dates and locations HERE.
 
If you are looking for a beautifully written book to add to your TBR list pick up The Bird Sisters.  The beautiful cover is just the icing on the cake with this book!
 
Rebecca Rasmussen & Me with The Bird Sisters
 {Rating ~ 4 out of 5}

What A Fabulous Day For A Book Festival!

Saturday I attended the 2nd Annual Gaithersburg Book Festival in Gaithersburg, MD.  The weather was picture perfect and excitement was in the air.  Stories were everywhere you looked but the stories I was there to hear were being told by Paula McLain, Rachel Machacek, Meg Waite Clayton, Caroline Leavitt, Eleanor Brown (for the second time in three days!) and Katharine Weber.  What a well run, smooth and seamless event!

I had a whole personal schedule put together of authors I wanted to see and you know what?  I listened to all of them speak and read plus one that was unplanned and received their signatures while enjoying short conversations with each lovely lady in the signature tents!  This was truly and bookish event. 

I started the morning with the long drive from my home in Northern Virginia to Gaithersburg, MD.  Actually it didn’t take that long because of the light, swiftly moving traffic (47 miles in 50 minutes) but my excitement for what the day had in store for me kept me anxious the whole way.  I drove past the pink Marriott Hotel where Hubby and I got married and felt a sense of happiness and excitement.  I didn’t know what to expect since this was only the second book festival the city of Gaithersburg had held but I did have faith because the organizers had been communicating so well on the social networks and in the local news media as well as through their website http://www.gaithersburgbookfestival.org/.  The date was May 21st, the supposed end of the world and Rapture.  So, I took it as a good sign that things weren’t as serious as some were trying to lead others to believe when I parked at a church a block from the event and asked a priest who was passing by if I could park there for the book festival.  He said, “Sure!” and continued leisurely on his way.  LOL!
 
I was meeting a couple of friends, Diane & Beastmomma, but as usual was the first to arrive.  Nothing on my friends!  I’m just always early or on time and can count on one hand when I have been late.  I made my way onto the festival grounds and looked around.  I checked out the tent where most of the authors I wanted to see were going to present later that day.  After getting a water and scone from a vendor I ran into Eleanor Brown, the author of The Weird Sisters.  We had met two days prior at her event at One More Page Books and had hit it off.  We caught up, compared schedules and began walking.  Eleanor was looking for the VIP tent since she was one of the featured authors of the festival.  We parted ways but continued to bump into each other throughout the day.  What a lovely and fun woman she is!  I found the signing tents and the B&N book sales tent which I entered to check things out.  I was pleased with how nicely all the books by the featured authors were displayed.  Tables and tables of books, some familiar and most not.   I had already brought some books I bought especially to be signed at the event but I discovered some by authors I was seeing that I ended up buying.  Let’s just say my bag was very heavy.  I know you know what I’m talking about!
  
Time was moving so I made my way towards the F. Scott Fiztgerald tent for the first event I was attending.  Paula McLain would be discussing her debut novel The Paris Wife.  Ms. McLain was just darling!  She was passionate in discussing the background of her main character Hadley Richardson, Ernest Hemingway’s first wife.  She told us how Hadley and Hemingway had met and then a bit of their lives together, their adventures and misadventures in Paris and she set the scene for her book.  Then she read, really I should say recited passages, from her book.  During the reading my friends arrived.  After her presentation we met Paula McLain in the signing tents where I chatted quickly with her while she graciously signed my copy of The Paris Wife.  One down, five books to go!
 
 
The day continued without a hitch under picturesque blue skies and light breezes.  I had to make a choice about which author to see in one time slot so I missed listening to Katharine Weber, author of The Music Lesson, True Confections, Triangle, The Little Women and Objects In Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear but I did get to meet her in the signing tents where she signed my copy of The Music Lesson
 
Next was my unexpected addition to my schedule.  Per Eleanor Brown’s recommendation my friends and I went to the H.L. Mencken Pavillion to listen to Rachel Machecek talk about her book The Science of Single: One Woman’s Grand Experiment in Modern Dating, Creating Chemistry, and Finding Love.  What a good idea that turned out to be seeing her!  Rachel was HILARIOUS and gave a great talk!  She was self-depreciating enough and very likeable.  Funny and thoughtful and critical but not mean.  My friends and I were cracking up and as soon as the event was over we bought her book and met her over at the signing tents.  Rachel asked me if I was single and I told her that I had been out of the dating scene for a decade now.  I shared with her my story of meeting Hubby in D.C. and I told her that I was proof that dating in D.C. isn’t hopeless by any means.  She was very interested in the details and was kind and signed my book. 
 
After grabbing a quick bite one of my friends and I headed back to the F. Scott Fitzgerald tent and listened to Caroline Leavitt and Meg Waite Clayton.  Caroline’s book Pictures of You has been heating up the book blogs this year so I was very curious about her.  Also Meg Waite Clayton has some very popular books under her belt.  The Wednesday Sisters, The Language Of Light and her newest novel, The Four Ms. Bradwells.  I felt that pairing the two authors together on stage was a bit awkward but the let us know that they were happiest not being alone on stage.  Authors aren’t performers.  They’re creativity flows from solitude and quietness so sometimes the stage is not the most comfortable place authors.  Caroline talked about her book Pictures of You and gave us some background on where she was coming from when writing it.  Having not read it yet I had to go on the things bloggers have been saying about the book to follow but she made me even more excited to read it.  Meg Waite Clayton was a force to be reckoned with in her presentation.  She used to be a lawyer and it showed!  She talked about living in Maryland’s horse country and the time there raising her young children and really starting to write.  After their event my friend and I met them in the signing tents.  I enjoyed the conversations I had with both and even got a hug from Meg because I had bought two of her books.  She was very grateful and it was very sweet.
 
 
The last event on my list was Eleanor Brown being interviewed by The Washington Post’s Ron Charles.  What an energy filled, funny and enjoyable event that was!  Eleanor was star struck by the famed Post fiction critic and he was in awe of Eleanor and her creation, The Weird Sisters.  Eleanor had told me earlier that she was going to have the same stories and jokes as the other day but this event was made even better because of Ron Charles’ questions and interest in getting to the heart of Eleanor’s writing. 
 
What an inspirational and wonderful day!  I think what made it even better was the fact that it wasn’t over attended.  The Annual National Book Festival that is held on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. is so massive, crowded and manic at times that in comparison the Gaithersburg Book Festival was a joy in every moment.  I know that will change as the festival grows in popularity over the coming years but I’m glad to have attended this year when calm and order was the name of the game.  I was happy to learn that for the first time this year the National Book Festival will be expanded to two days from the one day it’s been for the last decade.  Hopefully that will alleviate some of the crowd problems it faces. 
 
I hope that if your local area hosts a book festival in the future that you will take advantage and attend.  The authors I saw were so happy to talk about their pride and joys.  They lit up when fans presented them with blank title pages of their books to be signed.  Happy reading!

Bookish Fun In Arlington

Earlier this year I received a phone call from my mother-in-law telling me about this book she was reading on her Kindle.  It was called The Weird Sisters and she thought I might like to read it too.  She gave me a little summary about the book and explained that though the father was a professor of Shakespeare and not a physicist like mine and though there were three sisters instead of the two in my family, there were some similarities between the fictional family and mine.  So I put it on my ever-growing TBR list over on Goodreads.com. 

In April I discovered that the author, Eleanor Brown, would be doing a reading/signing event with one of my favs Sarah Pekkanen here in Northern Virginia at One More Page Books in May.  I ordered the book immediately, started reading it a few days before the event and just in time (four hours shy of the start of the event) I finished reading it.  When I walked into the wonderfully cozy and friendly independant bookstore One More Page Books in Arlington,VA I went over to say hi to Sarah who then introduced me to Eleanor Brown.  Damn do I love that woman!  She is AWESOME!  We hit it off immediately.  I told her that I had finished the book in time (I had typed on her Facebook wall earlier that day that I had twenty pages left to read before that night) and she recognized me from Facebook.  I then shared with Eleanor and Sarah the similarities between my family and the fictional Andreas family.  My mother is a breast cancer survivor, I have a father who is obsessed with physics and grew up surrounded by books and creative thinking and I have a strained relationship with my sister.  Eleanor’s response was, “Well that’s because I was following your family around as I wrote this book!”

Sarah Pekkanen & Eleanor Brown @ One More Page Books in Arlington, VA

 

The discussion was great and the chemistry between Sarah and Eleanor was sensational.  The space is small but adaquate and it was great to see so many people who turned out for these hometown girls.  As you can see it was a very animated and funny event.  Afterwords each author was set up on opposite sides of the store.  I finally got a signature from Sarah for her latest novel Skipping A Beat.  I had read it on my Kindle the week it came out but wanted to get the physical book version for my collection.  With that done I popped over to the other end of the store and hat a nice chat with Eleanor.  I told her how funny I thought she was and that I was looking forward to seeing her again in two days at the Gaithersburg Book Festival in Maryland.  A fellow fan took our picture too which turned out nicely.  

Eleanor Brown & me, Karen @ Planet Books

 

I was so glad to have this opportunity to meat Eleanor and see Sarah again!  Also, for maybe the first time I had the books read before the event.  That made a world of difference because then the conversation is about the book.  It seemed like most of the attendees had read The Weird Sisters too which made for a great Q&A.  I hope that they also take the time to read Sarah Pekkanen’s wonderful second novel Skipping A Beat.  If you can I highly recommend visiting One More Page Books!  It’s the newest indepenant book shop in the DC Metro area but what makes it even better is they sell wine and chocolate and serve both as well as pastries for their events.

The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown

Summary ~ The Weird Sisters ~ The Andreas family is one of readers. Their father, a renowned Shakespeare professor who speaks almost entirely in verse, has named his three daughters after famous Shakespearean women. When the sisters return to their childhood home, ostensibly to care for their ailing mother, but really to lick their wounds and bury their secrets, they are horrified to find the others there. See, we love each other. We just don’t happen to like each other very much. But the sisters soon discover that everything they’ve been running from-one another, their small hometown, and themselves-might offer more than they ever expected.

This book surprised me!  I was a slightly afraid to read it because my mother-in-law had suggested it to me because of the similarities she was finding between the fictional family in The Weird Sisters and my family.  Getting started on book proved to be a bit challenging.  I had just finished reading Tatjana Soli’s The Lotus Eaters which is a thoroughly developed piece of historical fiction set in the tumultuous Vietnam War and the pace of The Weird Sisters took some getting used to.  Once I found the flow of the book I began to enjoy the characters and appreciate the plots.  There is a unique quality about this book that confused me initially.  It is told in plural first person.  I had never read a book in this style before and I kept wondering who was telling the story.  I was so distracting that I found myself Googling that question and was relieved to discover the answer.  Once I understood that there were three narrators, the sisters, I was good to go.  Turns out I wasn’t the only one with that problem.  My mother-in-law had the same confusion as have several people who shared about it on the Internet.

I think the most important thing about The Weird Sisters was what it taught me about Shakespeare.  Throughout the book Brown has the family communicate in difficult moments through the lines and quotes of Shakespeare plays.  She would also provide backdrop of the line and where and why it was said in the original play.  Putting Shakespeare into the context of an American story was brilliant and breathed new life and meaning into the old hum-drum words that I never could thoroughly understand on their own.  I think that incorporating The Weird Sisters into the Shakespeare curriculum in our schools and using it as a reference tool after reading it while reading the plays would help put things in perspective for the high school student of today.  At least I believe it would have for me and maybe I would have done much better than the C’s and D’s I got that semester in high school.

When I first started this book I also had the thought, “Not another character with cancer!”  I have started sharing this opinion with a dear friend of mine with terminal cancer.  She won’t read a book if cancer plays a part in it.  She doesn’t want to read about what she is living through.  Having said that I think that the way Brown wrote the mother’s story, her illness, treatments, horrible side effects and how everything effected her family around her was brilliant.  I learned that Brown’s mother is a twenty-two year survivor of breast cancer.  It showed that Brown had personal experience with the disease in some way because of the care and tenderness with which she wrote those scenes. 

With all that said, I truly took a lot away from reading this book.  I found the sisters, Rose (Rosalind), Bean (Bianca), and Cordy (Cordelia) to be all frustratingly relatable and foreign.  Rose is written like other eldest sisters are written in other books I’ve read but she learns her lesson with grace and quite unexpectedly which was nice.  I do have to say though that not all eldest siblings are the uptight, frumpy, and not as pretty as the rest.  Wink! Wink!  Bean was wicked fun to read and I felt that her problem was by far the most serious of the three sisters.  Cordy was enjoyable and I enjoyed seeing her grow up on the page and discover that she was valuable.  I enjoyed the men opposite each sister.  Rose’s fiance Jonathan was level-headed with a sense of adventure that nicely offset Rose.  Bean’s interactions with the handsome and engaging Father Aiden were a treat to read.  I was really rooting for Cordy when she started to work at the local coffee shop and was reconnected with its owner, Dan, the funny, thoughtful and concerned friend who helped her grow into adulthood without holding her hand too much. 

All in all The Weird Sisters and Eleanor Brown deserve the praises bloggers, newspapers (specifically The Washington Post), and the stints on bestseller lists have given.  A beautifully written book about family facing epic and miniscule problems and trying to make it out the other side with love, friendship and support. 

{Rating ~ 4 out of 5} 

The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli

 Summary ~ The Lotus Eaters

In the final days of a falling Saigon, The Lotus Eaters unfolds the story of three remarkable photographers brought together under the impossible umbrella of war: Helen Adams, a once-naïve ingénue whose ambition conflicts with her desire over the course of the fighting; Linh, the mysterious Vietnamese man who loves her, but is torn between conflicting loyalties to his homeland and his heart; and Sam Darrow, a man addicted to the narcotic of violence, to his intoxicating affair with Helen and to the ever-increasing danger of his job. All three become transformed by the conflict they have risked everything to record.

In this much-heralded debut, Tatjana Soli creates a searing portrait of three souls trapped by their impossible passions, contrasting the wrenching horror of combat and the treachery of obsession with the redemptive power of love.

I had wanted to read The Lotus Eaters ever since it first came out and so I jumped at the opportunity to win it for my book club when TLC Book Tours offered it in their book club giveaway in December.  While relaxing on my birthday, New Year’s Day, I received an e-mail from Lisa at TLC and was super thrilled to read that I had won copies of The Lotus Eaters for my book club.  Thing about that was it wasn’t my turn to present my pick for the club until May 1st.  I had such fun presenting everyone with their very own copy of the book and I dived in that afternoon when I got home.  Now a week and a half later I have reluctantly finished the adventure that was The Lotus Eaters.

Where to start?!  Well, like the heroine Helen who did not want the war in Vietnam to end so she wouldn’t have to leave her life there I did not want this book to end.  I found myself carrying the book around the house just to hold it and feel the cover.  I would take breaks from reading so I could reflect on the story that continued to blow me away.  It was difficult to believe that I hadn’t read one hundred pages, when in actuality I had only read a measly thirty, because there was so much description, emotion and action within each sentence, paragraph and page.  Now I am done.  Now I’m reading entries on Wikipedia about The Vietnam War and trying to give this book justice with my review.

Helen, Sam and Linh are so great!  These characters, war photographers for LIFE Magazine, live through horrors on the page that real life war photojournalists continue to face everyday.  War unfortunately is an endless cycle.  Different place, different time, different reason, same old war.  The first chapter had me a little worried because I felt that it was disjointed but looking back on it now it makes sense.  The Lotus Eaters starts at the end of the story.  The reader is plunged into a historic day in Vietnam, The Fall of Saigon.  Helen and her Vietnamese husband Linh are two of the very few journalists and foreigners still in Saigon when the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) take over the city.  Helen gets the wounded Linh onto a U.S. military helicopter and then goes back to the chaos for that last picture.  Then the reader is taken back to Saigon before the war becomes what it became. 

Passion, battle, death, injury, friendship and love.  These words make up The Lotus Eaters.  Sam Darrow and Linh have been a team for a time when Helen, green and full of desire, arrives in Saigon.  The three are eventually pulled together as partners and lovers.  I especially enjoyed Helen and her sense of self that she gained through the years.  I  loved her passion for getting that photo that could tell the world what was happening in one shot.  Unfortunately that passion required her to follow the danger of war. 

Soli’s description of combat missions out into the jungles of Vietnam where death was hiding under rocks, in rice paddies and in the eyes of the people, children included was heart stopping!  I found myself holding my breath constantly.  I was amazed to learn in an online interview that Soli has never been to Vietnam.  I read Born on the Fourth of July and The Things They Carried, both memoirs written by Vietnam Vets and felt the same depth, description and raw emotion in the pages of Soli’s novel.  Relationships that Helen has with U.S. troops create the human connection to war that made the book even more rich and powerful. 

The heaviness of the horrors of war and seeing it all through the lens of a female war photographer makes for a thrilling and fresh read.  This book is not for the faint of heart but it is a very memorable story that I hope you will take the time to read. 

{Rating ~ 5 out of 5}

Check out Tatjana Soli’s website for more information on her and her debut novel, The Lotus Eaters

Sing You Home: A Novel by Jodi Picoult

 Summary ~ Sing You Home:

In the aftermath of a series of personal tragedies, Zoe throws herself into her career as a music therapist. When an unexpected friendship slowly blossoms into love, she makes plans for a new life, but to her shock and inevitable rage, some people—even those she loves and trusts most—don’t want that to happen.

Sing You Home is about identity, love, marriage, and parenthood. It’s about people wanting to do the right thing for the greater good, even as they work to fulfill their own personal desires and dreams. And it’s about what happens when the outside world brutally calls into question the very thing closest to our hearts: family.

Where to start?  Throughout the reading of this book I felt that I would not be able to review it because a lot of the time it made me so mad.  Sing You Home is full of heated topics plucked from the society we live in today.  Gay Marriage, divorce, the Christian Right, IVF and legal rights.  I don’t know if Picoult tries to write from a neutral place but in this book I felt that her writing was on my side of the coin.  Let’s just say I was very happy with the ending and if you have read or are planning to read Sing You Home then you will know where I stand.  Some characters seem to be written with a heavy hand and others came across as gently written with an authors love.  Let me just add that while reading parts of the book where certain characters where spewing words I felt physically ill.

Picoult’s writing is strong in this book.  Her character development progresses beautifully, especially with the character named Max.  As a reader I felt frustrated, pissed off and amazed at what I was reading.  The story is constructed perfectly in my opinion.  Zoe, Vanessa, Liddy, Reid, Mama Dara and the legal teams they hire to do battle for them are all so strong and vivid that I forgot at times that I was reading a work of fiction.  In my opinion though Max was the deepest, most thoroughly written of all the characters.  Max is full of flaws that make him the most believable character but also at times the weakest character I’ve ever read.  The care that was taken when developing Max was obvious and appreciated by me.  Picoult could have written him completely different and that would have changed things for the story and the characters that live in it.  Thank goodness she wrote him just the way she did. 

If you like to read a book that makes your blood boil no matter where you stand morally, spiritually and ethically than pick up Sing You Home and read it.  If you shy away from hot topics in the media then I think you should read this book.  It will make you uncomfortable but remember it’s fiction.  If you like to learn things and come away from a reading experience feeling more knowledgeable about topics than pick up this book.  I don’t think you’ll regret it!

*Update ~ I don’t know why I was in such a rush to write/post my review as soon as I finished reading SING YOU HOME but in my haste I forgot to include my rating.  I didn’t realize I had forgotten to rate the book until I updated my reading status on Goodreads a moment ago!  I gave it four stars.

{Rating ~ 4 out of 5}

Water for Elephants ~ Sara Gruen

Summary ~Water for Elephants: A great, glorious, big-hearted novel set in a traveling circus touring the back blocks of America during the great depression of the early 1930s. It’s a story of love and hate, trains and circuses, dwarfs and fat ladies, horses and elephants – or, to be specific, one elephant, Rosie, star of the Benzini Bros Most Spectacular Show on Earth . . .

A second chance.  That’s what I gave this book years after buying it and unable to get into it.  With the film adaptation due out in theaters a couple of weeks from now I thought I should give it another try.  I am SOOOOO GLAD I DID!!!!  I don’t know what I wasn’t connecting with when I first cracked the spine in 2006 but I didn’t even remember the first quarter of the book I had read.  At least that was where the cover of the book was placed in the pages when I pulled it off the shelf on Monday.  This week went so unbelievably quickly because I was reading this book and enjoying every word. 

Water for Elephants took me into a world that I had never read about.  The old train-touring circus’ of the early 1900’s.  Also, I wasn’t too well-read in the topic of The Great Depression.  Gruen laid out these two worlds for me and combined them so beautifully.  Reading along I found myself imagining a very brown and tan America.  Colors seemed muted through the words and the occassional pop of color came from the circus preformers, whom the townsfolk across the land paid to see just for an escape from their lives.  Gruen’s characters were rich and vibrant thoughout.  Walter and Queenie became favorites of mine as well as Rosie, Jacob and Marlena.  August was written so perfectly that I am fearful of what the magnificent Christoph Waltz will do with him in the upcoming film.  Waltz may just top his performance in Inglourious Basterds (sp is correct!) as the cunning Col. Hans Landa which he won the Oscar for last year.  In the assisted living facility where 90 or 93 year old Jacob feels he’s wasting away, Nurse Rosemary was a beam of light not only for Jacob but for me.  Kindness towards Jacob was all I wished for him in that horrible place.

Jacob!  What a fabulous character to read.  90 (or is it 93?) year old Jacob was heartwrenching to read and wonderful at the same time.  Gruen’s feel for the geriatric character, and a man no less, was so great and breathtaking.  Young Jacob who’s feelings were so raw had my heart from the moment he walked out of the morge and into a world that took him farther than I believe he would have gone had his folks survived the car crash that took their lives.  His passion and sensitivity for animals of every size was touching.  His sense of responsibility for them all was crushing at times too.  In three short months he became a hero and caregiver for Boo Boo the orangutang, Rex the toothless lion, Rosie the fabulous elephant and all the animals in between. 

Reading was not always fun with this book.  I got extremely upset with the animal cruelty portrayed in this book and I wonder how the director of the film will manage these scenes.  I can’t imagine them not making it into the film so I am concerned.

Water for Elephants has such a simple yet extremely complicated plot that kept me flipping pages ever more quickly as it progressed.  I was so moved by some parts that I found myself reading them aloud to Hubby (not his favorite thing to do just before bed) and thinking about them much later.  Can I say “Coochie Tent” and you know what I’m referncing?  Whoa!

I am sure that most of you out there in the book blogging universe have read this book already.  I believe that books find you when you are ready and I guess I wasn’t ready in 2006.  I sure was ready this week!  Water for Elephants will be on my top 10 list for 2011 (at least) because the art of storytelling is alive and well within the books pages. 

{Rating ~ 5 out of 5}

The Sandalwood Tree by Elle Newmark

Summary ~ The Sandalwood Tree: A sweeping novel that brings to life two love stories, ninety years apart, set against the rich backdrop of war-torn India. 

In 1947, American historian and veteran of WWII, Martin Mitchell, wins a Fulbright Fellowship to document the end of British rule in India. His wife, Evie, convinces him to take her and their young son along, hoping a shared adventure will mend their marriage, which has been strained by war.

But other places, other wars. Martin and Evie find themselves stranded in a colonial bungalow in the Himalayas due to violence surrounding the partition of India between Hindus and Muslims. In that house, hidden behind a brick wall, Evie discovers a packet of old letters, which tell a strange and compelling story of love and war involving two young Englishwomen who lived in the same house in 1857. 

Drawn to their story, Evie embarks on a mission to piece together her Victorian mystery. Her search leads her through the bazaars and temples of India as well as the dying society of the British Raj. Along the way, Martin’s dark secret is exposed, unleashing a new wedge between Evie and him. As India struggles toward Independence, Evie struggles to save her marriage, pursuing her Victorian ghosts for answers.

Bursting with lavish detail and vivid imagery of Calcutta and beyond, The Sandalwood Tree is a powerful story about betrayal, forgiveness, fate, and love.

Where in the world do I start?  Well I guess first off I should say that I LOVED THIS BOOK!!!  The Sandalwood Tree is one of those (in my experience) rare novels that pull you in immediately and doesn’t let you go even after the last word is read.  Seriously!  I haven’t read a book as engrossing, epic, tender, scary, educating and magical since I read Ellen Baker’s Keeping the House in July 2008Elle Newmark’s novel, The Sandalwood Tree, provided all of those things for me to enjoy. 

The Sandalwood Tree is truly an epic journey for two “families” at opposite ends of a century and opposite ends of an era in India’s history;  The British Raj (rule).  The history lessons alone in this book made for an interesting and eye-opening experience.  I was constantly Googling words and events as I cam across them.  I wanted to learn the English meaning for Indian words and to research the history of India from 1856 to post WWII and the Partition.  Partition of British India was based on religious differences in the population.  The characters set among these tumultuous and dangerous times in India range from two women choosing to live as they please away from the rule of English society and the restrictions and expectations put on young women in the mid-1800’s to marry, have children and be silent, obedient housewives; to an American family sent to live in India during the passive protesting of Ghandi and Partition. 

First we meet Evie and her family who have relocated to Masoorla, India in the Himalayas from Chicago.  Her husband Martin fought for the U.S. in war-torn Europe and was deeply scarred by the sights he saw while liberating concentration camps.   These scars haunt him and create a deep divide in his and Evie’s marriage.  She hopes that by moving to India and standing behind her historian husband and his work that the mending and healing can finally begin.  Their son Billy is written so beautifully and makes a wonderful sidekick to his adventurous mother that I loved reading their story.  The heartbreaking relationship that is Evie and Martin was gripping and full of wonderful twists. 

After Evie discovers hidden letters from the mid-1800’s in the wall of her rented home in Masoorla we flash back almost one hundred years to the same house and meet Felicity and Adela.  They are best friends and become the only family they have through decisions and choices that leave them in a sense abandoned by disapproving family.  Their story is also a love story of sorts and also brings great things to the book.  Their India is so different yet so similar to Evie’s and Evie soon becomes obsessed by their story that unravels through the pages of Adele’s journal that she finds in the most unusual places. 

I truly LOVE this book! What a wonderful piece of historical fiction with strong female characters full of ambition and dreams. Elle Newmark’s writing is delicious and had me quickly turning pages to see what amazing description of India she had written next.

“But the morning tide took us away & eventually we came to Calcutta.  On the wharf, a rainbow-coloured crowd greeted us, a few staid Europeans in their pith helmets scattered here & there like common mushrooms in a field of exotic flowers.  The vibrancy of India makes England look like a faded watercolor, & my first glimpse of it made my heart leap, it’s gorgeousness & its great seething masses.”

Reading this book I could hear the sounds of the market place, smell the delicious and not so appealing smells of the land and its people and imagine a world so far from what I know that if it hadn’t been for Newmark’s sensational prose would still be a mystery to me. 

This book was simply, intricately and entirely fantastic!! It comes out in stores this Tuesday, April 5th.  If you are looking to be swept away and engulfed in a beautifully layered story that will hold your attention so intensely that you won’t want to put it down, then you should read The Sandalwood Tree!  Thank you so much to Grace and Atria Books for inviting me to participate in the release event of The Sandalwood Tree.  I enjoyed it immensely and can’t thank you enough for bringing this book into my life.

{Rating 5 out of 5}

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakthrough by Ruth Pennebaker

Summary ~ Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakthrough: Joanie’s ex-husband is having a baby with his new girlfriend. Joanie won’t be having more babies, since she’s decided never to have sex again.

But she still has her teenaged daughter Caroline to care for. And thanks to the recession, her elderly mother Ivy as well. Her daughter can’t seem to exist without texting, and her mother brags about “goggling,”-while Joanie, back in the workforce, is still trying to figure out her office computer. And how to fend off the advances of her coworker Bruce.

Joanie, Caroline, and Ivy are stuck under the same roof, and it isn’t easy. But sometimes they surprise each other-and themselves. And through their differences they learn that it is possible to undo the mistakes of the past.

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakthrough by Ruth Pennebaker is a novel that is relevant in ways to the world we are living in today.  There are three generations of women living under one roof.  Daughter, Mother/Daughter, Grandmother/Mother.  That is not always a good combination and in this book that proves true.  Ivy, the grandmother, looses half her and her deceased husband’s savings in the market crash of ’08 and finds herself in a situation she never dreamed of.  Having to move in with her forty-nine year old daughter Joanie and her fifteen year old granddaughter Caroline.  Ivy is a challenging new roommate for both of them and eventually is diagnosed with depression.  Joanie is trying to make ends meet as she takes a job that she ends up resenting and tries to mother a bratty, disrespectful teenager and take care of her aging mother.  The book is laden with dark clouds of emotion, anger, disrespect and all-together unlikable characters in my opinion.  I prefer a book to entertain me and/or provide something new to learn about.  This did neither for me.  The character development was good enough but the story lines and how these characters conducted themselves with each other did not make for a worthwhile read in my opinion. 

Maybe I would have enjoyed this book at another point in my life but right now it just wasn’t for me.  I would like to thank Tolly & Penguin Books for inviting me to read and review Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakthrough.  It never hurts to say yes!

{Rating 2 out of 5}

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua

Summary ~ Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother: An awe-inspiring, often hilarious, and unerringly honest story of one mother’s exercise in extreme parenting, revealing the rewards-and the costs-of raising her children the Chinese way.

 

After reading The Glass Castle for my book club’s March selection I felt the intense need to read a book from the opposite end of the parenting spectrum.  I found what I needed ten fold in Amy Chua’s memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.  The following quote is what I wrote in my Goodreads.com status update about half way through the book. 

  “I’m liking this book so far. Some of it parallels my upbringing and makes me think that not all Western parents are as easy going as she thinks. At least mine weren’t when it came to some things. Piano lessons, practicing, voice lessons, grades and strict parenting were all a way of life in the Brandt house. Though we were “spoiled” on some levels rules were always enforced and fights ensued as in this book.”

For the most part I related to aspects of daughters Sophia and Lulu as well as Amy and her husband Jed.  Amy comes from Chinese immigrant parents (I do not) who raised their daughters with iron fists and did not give in to their Western surroundings and ideas.  Amy strived to do the same for her and Jed’s daughters but soon discovered that it wasn’t going to go as smoothly as things seemed to have gone for her parents.  (I have to say that I find it curious that a woman who aimed to be the quintessential “Tiger Mother” and raise her daughters in the “Chinese-way” married a white, Jewish American.  Just sayin’.)

I did not find myself gasping as I read about the rules, punishments and screaming Amy parented her daughters with.  This book came out in late January 2011 and I found it amusing that Amy Chua got so much negative press in the news for her book.  I was raised in a strict household and remember many times where I “hated” my parents because they prohibited me from doing what I wanted but in hindsight I was spoiled rotten and the things they did not allow me to do were in my best interest.  Due to my observations as a non-parent of parents I think that I probably had it better than those parents children because of the rules upheld in my home that I don’t see followed or even placed in theirs.  Now I’m sounding a bit like Amy.  Sorry.

I felt that the writing in Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother was good.  It wasn’t as narrative as The Glass Castle which read so smoothly and unbelievably that I felt I was reading fiction most of the time.  It was however very much a memoir and made me feel like I was watching home movies of this family.  The fighting described by Amy to get her youngest and most rebellious daughter to practice her violin were very uncomfortable to read yet brought me back to my youth as a piano student.  I took piano lessons for six years starting in first grade.  I had a natural ear when it came to singing and the piano and at age four I plucked out the tune of “Follow The Yellow Brick Road”.  As soon as I did my mom announced to my dad that she would be starting me in piano lessons in first grade.  I did well and progressed quickly but soon it wasn’t fun anymore.  I remember my mom yelling from the kitchen, “That’s not your lesson piece!  You have to practice your lessons before you can play for fun.”  She knew the difference in songs because she sat in the waiting room outside my classroom every week and listened to my teacher instruct me on the pieces I was working on at the time.  Mom even went so far as to turn off the grandfather clock in the living room where our piano was so I couldn’t tell who long I had been practicing.  I’m pretty sure I only had to practice for thirty minutes a night where Sophia and Lulu practiced three hours a day including weekends and even on vacation but to me those were a long and torturous thirty minutes as the years went on.  (Amy would call ahead to the hotels the family would be staying in around the world and request time with the hotel piano for Sophia and they would bring Lulu’s violin with them as carry-on baggage.)  Eventually I chose to quit piano in junior high and my parents let me.  My sister continued on with her lessons for a few more years and to this day play much better than I do.  We both have pianos in our homes now, which I admittedly don’t play much at all but I do turn on the auto-play and enjoy that.  It’s a digital upright piano that my parents bought for me.  I don’t know how often my sister plays hers but I do know that our parent’s piano continues to be played often by my dad.  He loves piano and has always strived to master specific pieces throughout his life.  When I was little he had a big black book of classical pieces and as he learned a piece and got fairly good at it he would check it off in the table of contents.  There were a lot of checks!

For the most part I didn’t have a problem with Amy’s parenting tactics because of the level of success she and the girls were trying to achieve in piano and violin.  I did wish for more peace and quiet for the family as the girls got older though.  Like I said, having a peep-hole view of their lives during tumultuous times was uncomfortable.  Amy’s writing drew me in and held my attention throughout though and that doesn’t always happen for me in non-fiction/memoirs.  I think that from a social study view this is a great book to read if you are a parent or a child of a parent.  I think that it will open up discussions in book clubs, on social networks and around the water cooler. 

{Rating ~ 4 out of 5}

Below is a pic of my little sister, our Cocker Spaniel Maxwell and me.