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Book Review: Little Bee by Chris Cleave

30 Jun

Little BeeMy Rating:  3 out of 5 stars

A quick, semi-cleverly written book that sheds light on the plight of young girls in Africa.

I’m not sure why it’s been so hard for me to quench my literary thirst lately.  As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I wonder if I constantly expect too much from the novels I read, leading me to feel constantly disappointed.   Am I becoming a book snob?  Perhaps. Just wait for my scathing 50 Shades of Gray post.

I was only slightly disappointed in reading Little Bee, and I think that’s mainly because I had heard so many good things about this book over the last several years.  It was a NYT bestseller for a long time and big on the book club circuit.   Additionally, look at the book jacket summary:

WE DON’T WANT TO TELL YOU TOO MUCH ABOUT THIS BOOK.  It is a truly special story and we don’t want to spoil it.  Nevertheless, you need to know something, so we will just say this: It is extremely funny, but the African beach scene is horrific.   The story starts there, but the book doesn’t.  And it’s what happens afterward that is most important.  Once you have read it, you’ll want to tell everyone about it. When you do, please don’t tell them what happens either. The magic is in how it unfolds.

See?  Can you blame me for setting my expectations so high?  That description is making a pretty serious commitment about what I will experience when I read this book.  It sounds life altering, right?

I won’t talk too much about the plot just to be fair to the elusiveness the author and publisher are obviously going for.

While my life wasn’t altered from reading this book, it did teach me about a topic I knew very little about which I thought was the best thing about the book, really.  I had trouble identifying with any of the characters – I found myself constantly asking questions of them “Why do you feel this way?” or “Why are you doing that? That’s so stupid!” or “What do you see in him?”.  Obviously I wasn’t on the same wavelength.
If I don’t identify or believe the characters in the book I’m reading,  I won’t like the book much.  I find myself unable to move past that and enjoy anything else happening.  Maybe everyone’s like that and I’m just the last to make that obvious connection.  I don’t know.  What I do know is that while the plot was original, the writing decent, and the pacing on par, the novel for me was relatively forgettable.  I give it 3 stars because it is sound from a technical perspective, so it wasn’t grueling to read (again, just wait until my 50 Shades of Gray post).

Book Review: How to be an American Housewife by Margaret Dilloway

18 Sep

How to Be an American HousewifeMy Rating:  3 out of 5 stars

This book is about an elderly and ill Japanese woman, Shoko, who had a falling out with her brother many years ago and wants her daughter to go to Japan and make peace with him on her behalf.   The book describes this falling out in Shoko’s youth and what her life was like from that point until the present, spanning some 60 years.  Intermingled in the story are excerpts from a fictionalized book entitled “How to be an American Housewife”, written for Japanese woman marrying American men and moving to the United States. 

I liked the premise of this story a lot and therefore my expectations were set pretty high.  All of the elements of the characters and the relationships between them had such potential, but in the end it just didn’t go as deep as I think it could have.  I was left wanting a bit more. 

What the book did deliver was good overall.  I thought the parts of the book describing Shoko’s time in Japan and assimilation was very interesting and ‘new’ to me.  Using the excerpts from  “How to Be an American Housewife”  was creative and added some additional interest.  When it came to Sue going to Japan on her mother’s mission, I liked how it highlighted her relationship with her daughter, but then I thought the ending to the book was rather rushed and unrealistic. 

And let’s not overlook the fact that I made it to the end of the book (again: more on that later) which means it was concise enough to keep my attention but literal enough to make me feel (at least a little) enlightened.

Book Review: Firefly Lane by Kristin Hannah

26 May

Firefly Lane by Kristin Hannah: CD Audiobook CoverMy Rating:  3.5 out of 5 stars

An entertaining epic a lot like Beaches.  Serious nostalgia if you were a teenage girl in the 1970s.

I’ve obviously had some reading time on my hands!   This was a book I really ‘tucked in’ to, the term I use to describe me being drawn in and wrapped up in a (usually epic) novel.  I love that!   This book it spans 30 years of a friendship between two girls who meet as young teenagers.   They meet in 1974, so it was just a teensy bit before my time, but if you were a teen in this era, you will get a bonus because this book is filled with nostalgic references (ABBA, anyone?) as they grow up.  Music references are a huge part of this story. 

Here’s what I didn’t like:  I’ve already heard this story!  I’ve seen Beaches like a billion times and I  watched Lifetime movies every Saturday and Sunday through 2002 and 2003 (don’t you dare judge me!).  There was really nothing in this storyline or characters I hadn’t seen already somewhere.  And honestly, that is pretty okay with me for the most part – it was just a bit disappointing.

Book Review: Room by Emma Donoghue

4 May

Rating:  4.5 out of 5 stars

About the Book*

Told entirely in the language of the energetic, pragmatic five-year-old Jack, “Room” is a celebration of resilience and the limitless bond between parent and child, a brilliantly executed novel about what it means to journey from one world to another.To five-year-old Jack, Room is the entire world. It is where he was born and grew up; it’s where he lives with his Ma as they learn and read and eat and sleep and play. At night, his Ma shuts him safely in the wardrobe, where he is meant to be asleep when Old Nick visits.

Room is home to Jack, but to Ma, it is the prison where Old Nick has held her captive for seven years. Through determination, ingenuity, and fierce motherly love, Ma has created a life for Jack. But she knows it’s not enough…not for her or for him. She devises a bold escape plan, one that relies on her young son’s bravery and a lot of luck. What she does not realize is just how unprepared she is for the plan to actually work.

Told entirely in the language of the energetic, pragmatic five-year-old Jack, ROOM is a celebration of resilience and the limitless bond between parent and child, a brilliantly executed novel about what it means to journey from one world to another.

* Taken from


My Review

This book is another one that’s been on the circuit for a while.  I’ve had it on my TBR list for about 6 months.  It was published in September 2010, and still sits on the New York Times Bestseller list (#30 this week).  It’s also my book club’s selection this month.

I found this book hard to put down, very emotional, well paced and extremely well written.  Yet I didn’t find it particularly fun or entertaining – in fact, I’d put it in the category of downright depressing.  The subject matter is heavy and remains so throughout the whole book.

Here’s what I did like:  the pacing.  It was just right.  When I picked up the book I was thinking to myself, “How could a story about a kid and his mom in a 7×7 room be 336 pages?  Grrr Boring!”  But it wasn’t at all.  I nearly read the whole thing in one sitting! 

The author captured the perspective of a 5-year old boy so completely.  I have an almost 5-year-old boy, and I could see traces of his thought process in Jack’s and vice-versa, which is what I would expect.  I loved Jack so much – perhaps it is because of my son that it made him so loveable to me.  I though Ma was written very well too.

I asked myself several times throughout this book if I would have the strength to be like Ma, or would I just give up instead?  I’d like to believe I’d find the strength from somewhere, but it seems like what she did for Jack in that room almost unbelievable. 

This book doesn’t have a ‘happy’ ending.  I found that extremely refreshing and very realistic.  Most situations we deal with end with something a bit more complex than ‘happy’ or ‘sad’. 

I’m glad I read this book, I admire it and the author, and I would recommend it.  But probably not to every reader  – you have to be prepared to appreciate the story for what it is, and expect the strong emotions that will go along with it.  It will make a great discussion book!

Book Review: Cutting For Stone by Abraham Verghese

17 Jan

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese: Book CoverRating:  4.5 out of 5 stars

About the Book

An epic novel that spans continents and generations, Cutting for Stone is an unforgettable story of love and betrayal, compassion and redemption, exile and home that unfolds across five decades in India, Ethiopia, and America.

Narrated by Marion Stone, the story begins even before Marion and his twin brother, Shiva, are born in Addis Ababa’s Missing Hospital (a mispronunciation of “Mission Hospital”), with the illicit, years-in-the-making romance between their parents, Sister Mary Joseph Praise, a beautiful Indian nun, and Thomas Stone, a brash, brilliant British surgeon. Mary and Thomas meet on a boat out of Madras in 1947; she follows him to Ethiopia and to Missing, where they work side by side for seven years as nurse and doctor. After Mary dies while giving birth to the twins — a harrowing, traumatic scene on the operating table — Thomas vanishes, and Marion and Shiva grow up with only a dim sense of who he was, and with a deep hostility toward him for what they see as an act of betrayal and cowardice.

 The twins are raised by Hema and Ghosh, two Indian doctors who also work at Missing, and who shower Marion and Shiva with love and nurture their interest in medicine — part of the deep, almost preternatural connection the brothers share. They are so close that Marion, as a boy, thinks of them as a single entity: ShivaMarion.

 Marion and Shiva come of age as Ethiopia hovers on the brink of revolution, and their lives become intertwined with the nation’s politics. Addis Ababa is a colorful, cosmopolitan city: the Italians have left behind cappuccino machines, Campari umbrellas, and a vibrant expat community. But they’ve also left a nation crippled by poverty, hunger, and authoritarian rule: Ethiopia in the 1960s and 1970s is both bolstered and trapped by its notorious emperor, Haile Selassie, and rocked by violence and civil war.

 Yet it is not politics but love that tears the brothers apart: Shiva sleeps with Genet — the daughter of their housekeeper and the girl Marion has always loved. This second betrayal, now by the two people this sensitive young man loves most, sends Marion into a deep depression. And when Genet joins a radical political group fighting for the independence of Eritrea, Marion’s connection to her forces him into exile: he sneaks out of Ethiopia and makes his way to America.

 Marion interns at a hospital in the Bronx, an underfunded, chaotic place where the patients are nearly as poor and desperate as those he had seen at Missing. It is here that Marion comes to maturity as a doctor and as a man. It is here, too, that he meets his father and takes his first steps toward reconciling with him. But when the past catches up to Marion — nearly destroying him — he must entrust his life to the two men he thought he trusted least in the world: the father who abandoned him and the brother who betrayed him. The surprising, stunning denouement both arises from and reenacts the major themes of Cutting for Stone: love and betrayal, forgiveness and self-sacrifice, and the inextricable union of life and death.

My Review

This book has been on the New York Times Paperback Fiction Bestseller list for 50 weeks. If you’ve read my take on this list and why I use it for book recommendations, you’ll understand why I was so looking forward to diving into this book.

I really liked the characters of this book – I saw them as flawed and deep and ‘true’ in many ways.  I liked the themes of compassion – for those we know, for those we don’t,  as doctors, parents, children.  I really enjoyed the different place and time – Africa in the 1970s – it is such a departure from what I know and understand.

The first word that comes to mind to describe this novel is ‘meandering’.  At first I was using that term negatively, because I really struggled with how slow it was in the beginning.  It wasn’t getting to anything!  I actually stopped reading it and polled my online reader friends – my exact question was, ” Cutting for Stone – Is this book going somewhere?  I’m on page 179 – should I stick with it?”  The response was “Yes, it’s worth it” and so I kept going.  And the book continued to meander, but what I realized by the end of this novel is that I knew the main character in a way I couldn’t have without truly walking with him through his life’s journey.  And that’s the point of the pacing I think – life is about roaming through the years and circumstances and experiences.  The saying “Life is about the journey, not the destination” completely applies to this novel.  It’s long (594 pages) and truly an epic, covering the main character’s 50 year life to date as well as portions of the lives of his closest friends and relatives.  I fell in love with the characters making the story more and more meaningful as it unfolded.  By the end, I was completely emotionally attached! 

I also got a great geography lesson out of this novel.  If you know me, you will know this is an extremely valuable side-benefit!  I now know most of Africa way better than ever.  Much of the novel takes place in Ethiopia, but there are portions that happen in various other countries in that region:  Eritrea, Sudan, Yemen. There is a portion in the United States as well.  I looked up the cities and countries being referenced and doing so enhanced my overall reading experience.  Also,  this explanation of the policital climate of Ethiopia during the time period of much of this novel helped me understand the tone of the country at the time. 

One word of caution – this book does have detailed descriptions of medical procedures – it’s a bit graphic at times. Medicine is a primary theme of this novel, as is the title itself.   “I will not cut for stone,” says an early version of the Hippocratic oath, “even for patients in whom the disease is manifest; I will leave this operation to be performed by practitioners, specialists in this art.”  At the time this version was used, cutting a patient to get out a gallbladder stone was a very precarious operation and could only be performed by a skilled surgeon. 

Bottom Line:  When you’re ready to transport yourself and have the time and patience to depart, this novel will not disappoint on any front.  Don’t look for the explosions, or dramatic plot twists – make friends with the characters and share their life’s experiences – the setting and time period will seem fascinating and unknown, yet the human reaction will be familiar.

Book Review: Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver

8 Jan

Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver: Book CoverRating:  4 out of 5 stars

Wow.  The concept for this book was very unique and I thought it was really well executed.  

Here’s the gist:  Samantha Kingston is a popular senior in high school.  She goes to a party on a cold, rainy Friday night and it turns out to be her last – she gets into a car accident on they way home.  Then she wakes up to  her alarm and it’s the same day all over again.  And again and again. 

This book is young adult – in some ways it was a teensy bit predictable for a reader like me (so old, so wise).  Samantha is 18 and in high school and she has what my mom calls the “insulation of youth”.   But at the same time, while I knew what to expect, reading about Samantha experiencing being given a second chance to relive her last day was still very emotional and interesting to me.  I see reviews for this book that say things like “This book changed my life” and “A whole new outlook” and I don’t think I’d go that far, but it did make me do a gut check on how I’m living my life, treating people and myself.   And I found myself surprised at how many things can be altered in one short day just by what seems to be an innocuous change in a timeline or circumstance.

I think what I admire most about this novel though is that the author is around my age, yet she captured the essence of the high school girl spirit to a tee.  The importance of silly things, the selfishness, the shallow relationships – these are all vaguely familiar to me, yet so far removed from my personality at this point that I would never be able to develop a character like she did.  I may have to pull this book out again when my daughter’s  a teenager to refresh my memory about what it’s like to be a teenage girl.  Which in the case of this book includes drinking, smoking and sex.  Greeeeaaattt.    

Read it.  It’s an easy read and you won’t be bored.  And you might smile a little more or look harder for opportunities to be a good human being which makes it worth it.

Book Review: The Help by Kathryn Stockett

11 Aug

 Rating:  4 out of 5 stars

Who will like it best:  Women 20+

Words to describe it:   Satisfying, Enlightening, Touching

Will I add it to my personal library?  Yes, for lending

Will I read it again someday? No

The Help has been on the Hardcover Fiction Bestseller list for 70 weeks and will be available in paperback in January 2011.  Filming of the movie version of this book began this summer and it is scheduled for release in summer 2011.

I read this book several months ago but given its popularity I thought it would be good to add it to my reviews. Because it has been a while I’m going to keep this short and sweet since I have forgotten some details. 


This book focuses on the lives of 3 women living in Mississippi in 1962.  One is Skeeter, a recent college graduate back home on her parents’ plantation, Aibileen, a black maid working for a wealthy white family, and Minny, who is Aibileen’s best friend and also a maid.  The story is about how the three of them work together to shine a light on racism in a very risky way.

 My Review

This book is fun to read and it gives the reader an intimate view into these women’s lives (both black and white) during the 1960’s in the South, which is a distinctive and interesting topic.  There are funny parts and sad parts, but the book is overall very uplifting even though the subject matter is somewhat sensitive.  Upon reflecting on this book I thought things got a little carried away at the end, but while I was reading it I was caught up in the story and believed in these women and the conclusion.  I think women in particular will  identify with the risky and line-crossing situations these characters find themselves in.

Book Review: Heart of the Matter by Emily Giffin

3 Aug

Rating:  2.5 out of 5 stars

Who will like it best: Women 20+, especially wives and mothers, casual readers

Words to describe it: Tame, flimsy, depressing

Will I add it to my personal library? No

Will I read it again someday? No

I requested this book from the library when it was still on the New York Times Top 10 bestseller list – it came out in May and I think I requested it sometime in June.  It is still on the bestseller list as of today in slot #25 on Hardcover Fiction.   I have read a few of Emily Giffin’s other novels, liking one (Something Blue) and disliking one (Love the One You’re With).  I was interested to see how this one sat with me.

I picked this book up at the library over 2 weeks ago and finally talked myself into reading it yesterday. I was dragging my feet for some reason – not sure if it is because of the gaping departure from what I’ve been digging recently (serious drama, sci-fi, thriller) or the way Giffin’s novels tend to depress me but either way, I was simply not in the mood.  But since I would hate to send it back to the library without even trying, I decided to crack it open. And, luckily, it was over before I could really even decide to abandon it!  I finished the book in a little over 5 hours.


There are 2 main characters in this novel, Tess and Valerie.  Tess is a mother of 2 small children and married to a hard-working plastic surgeon.  She’s recently made the decision to stay home with her kids and is struggling to find her ‘sea legs’ with this new adventure as a stay-at-home mom. From the outside looking in, Tess appears to have the life women dream of.  Valerie is a single-mother lawyer who has a 6-year-old son named Charlie.  She has had to work hard for what she has and has closed herself off from love and friendship in an effort to protect herself and her son from having either of their hearts broken (again).  Tess and Valerie live in the same community but are not friends.  Tragedy strikes and both women are tied together in a way they never imagined.  Both have to face some somber realizations about themselves and the people they love the most.

My Review

This story was, for the most part, predictable. I’ll admit I did not know how exactly things were going to end and that did keep me hooked, but everything up to that point was really unsurprising.  And, ultimately, I really didn’t care that much in the end anyways.  The storyline was very tame.

At the beginning I found it funny that each chapter alternated between the 2 women, but Tess’s was told in the first person and Valerie’s was told in the 3rd.  This does get somewhat interesting in the 2nd to last chapter, but not enough to justify the choice to write it like this.

I did like some aspects of the characters.  I identified with both women as mothers of young children. And Giffin does a really good job at making her characters act and think realistically.  Here’s a great example (This is Tess, on the phone and fixing breakfast for Ruby, her preschooler):

As I start to reply to Cate, Ruby unleashes a bloodcurdling scream: “Noooo! Mommy!  I saaa-iiiid whole!”

I freeze with the knife in midair, realizing that I’ve just made the fatal mistake of four horizontal cuts.  Shit, I think as Ruby demands that I glue the bread back together, even making a melodramatic run for the cabinet where our art supplies are housed.  She retrieves a bottle of Elmer’s, defiantly shoving it my way as I consider calling her bluff and drizzling the glue all over her toast – “in a cursive R like daddy does.”

And this excerpt really tugged at my heartstrings, especially because Charlie is 6 and I have a young son as well.

She will remember the first horrifying glimpse of Charlie’s small, motionless body as he is sedated and intubated.  She will remember his blue lips, his cut pajamas, and the stark white bandages obscuring his right hand and the left side of his face.  She will remember the beeping monitors, the hum of the ventilator, and the bustling stone-faced nurses.  She will remember her raw appeal to the God she has all but forgotten as she holds her sons good hand and waits.

And while the main characters as mothers was well portrayed, I felt their relationships with their mothers and the entire ‘mother/daughter issues’ theme was seriously over done:  Tess and her mother (although this is less in the end when her mother is a source of strength), Tess and her mother-in-law, Tess and her stepmother, Valerie and her mother, even Tess and her 4-year-old daughter…every relationship listed here seemed to be a bit off or strained in some way.

Because this novel is mainly about the difficulty of marriage, it was natural to think of my own marriage while reading this and pose some ‘what if’ questions myself.  I spent some time asking how would I handle the gut-wrenching situations posed in the book.  Doing this is NOT FUN AT ALL!  Yes, it does remind me to be grateful but I’m a little annoyed at this book for forcing me to think of terrible things that could happen to my pretty stable and happy life!

This book reminds me of a 1 hour crime drama rerun I watch right before I go to bed.  It’s meant only meant to pass the time, the subject matter is grim, and while I am engaged while watching it,  I can’t really remember the story afterwards.

I cannot really recommend this book.  I didn’t hate it, but I cannot encourage someone to read it either.  Maybe someone who likes stories that are very tame and not too dramatic?

The Scent of Rain and Lightning by Nancy Pickard

25 Jul

Rating 4 out of 5 stars

Who will like it best: Women 20+

Words to describe it: Realistic, Touching, Mysterious

Will I add it to my personal library? No

Will I read it again someday? No

This is a good, solidly written book!  It is a relatively easy read (I finished it in 4 nights) and would make a good airplane selection.  It would also work well after reading something with a very serious or heavy subject matter.

This novel takes place in a small farming town in Kansas where a shocking double-murder rocks the town and leaves a little 3 year old girl, Jodi, parentless.  All during the years as Jodi grows up the questions surrounding her parents death continue to plague her. When the man accused of their murder is released from prison, she undersands why everyone tells her to stay away but is still somehow drawn to seeing him.

The characters in this story are very realistic – I say that because they are all written to show strengths and weaknesses.  My favorite character in this book is the matriarch, Annabelle, because while she is well loved and respected in her family and in the community, she has weaknesses as a mother and wife too.  For example, she has trouble communicating with her daughter, Belle, and when they talk she tries desperately to come up with ways to appease her and bridge the gap so her daughter will let her in.  This is common aspect to many mother/daughter relationships so I appreciated that this aspect was added in the story too.

I also like how the details of the story were revealed to the reader – it leaves the reader guessing about the whole story.  The only aspect of this novel I question is the ending – it seemed a little rushed.  I cannot think of a better way to have written it, but I would have preferred something a little more complex that was unwoven a little more slowly. I should note that although this is filed by B & N as dramatic fiction I am also classifying it as a mystery.

I plan to add another of this author’s books to my reading list.  She is very descriptive but not overly so – I would describe her writing as ‘clean’, which is what makes this novel so perfect for light reading.

Book Review: Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld

23 Jul

Rating:  5 out of 5 stars

I’m getting this right out of the way: this novel is one of my favorites of all time.  I’ve read it twice of the past 3 years and I plan to read it again soon.  My primary reason for feeling so strongly about this book is because I truly identified with the main character Lee.  I cannot say if everyone will feel that connection but if you 1) are a girl and 2) went to high school and 3) felt mental as a teenager trying to figure out how to act in certain situations (and possibly still do) then there’s a good chance you will!

From the outside looking in, this book might not seem like it would be anything special.   Girl gets scholarship, girl goes to preppy boarding school, girl doesn’t feel like she fits in.   But girl is sort of weird and seems to overthink everything to the point of paralysis.  And then she criticizes herself.  And then she says something awkward, and it’s hilarious.  It’s this perspective that makes this novel so special . 

Lee Fiora is from a middle-class family in Indiana and she goes to a private boarding school on the East Coast on a scholarship.  She feels very out of place and awkward and is working hard in her own way to deal with the pressures of being all alone and not fitting in with her classmates.  She observes her classmates behavior and uses that to try and bridge the gap between her and them – this does not always go well.  Over the course of her 4 years at Ault, Lee does get to a comfortable place within the social ranks, but nearly destroys it at the end of her tenure there.  Along the way she has issues with teachers, she has trouble with girlfriends, she has her heart broken, she has fights with her parents.  Humiliation, happiness, tears, love – all of it wrapped up in this one character’s high school career.  We are given full access to her innermost thoughts and feelings and we follow along as she makes sense of the world, which is a hilarious, heartbreaking journey.   Evidence of Lee evolving as each year passes is written realistically and it is funny, sad, totally normal and downright familiar.  

I recommend this book everyone – girls and women in particular.  This is a perfect read if you are looking to feel  warm, touching and slightly nostalgic way.  There’s a little Lee in all of us.