Hotel On the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford

August 1, 2014

Hotel On the Corner of Bitter and SweetSet in World War II Seattle, author Jamie Ford explores the United States’ internment of Japanese Americans through this well-written historical fiction novel. Henry is a Chinese boy assigned to an all-white middle school on scholarship (meaning he gets to serve the kids in the cafeteria while they disparage his heritage). His parents are proud, his friends call him the white devil and his classmates taunt him. His only friends are Sheldon, an African American saxophone player, and Keiko, a new girl at his school who is Japanese. Henry is confused about who he should be at a time when identity is important to the American public and government. He is expected to be Chinese, an identity treasured by his father, a nationalist who sends money home to fight the Japanese attack on his homeland. His parents want him to speak English at home even though they do not understand the language. His parents force him to wear a button proclaiming “I am Chinese” as protection from anti-Japanese backlash. Like Henry, Keiko was born in the United States. When Keiko sees his button, she tells him “I am American”. Henry has truly found a friend in Keiko. They share a love of jazz and she shows him her beautiful sketches of Seattle life. He likes her so much, he rejects his father’s low opinion of Japanese and is horrified at the government mandated internment of Japanese Americans.

As an adult, Henry is mourning the loss of his wife after a long illness and stubbornly longs for a closer relationship with his son, Marty. When he hears that the belongings of Japanese Americans have been discovered in the basement of the Panama Hotel his mind immediately turns to memories of his friend Keiko. He knows that her family stored their more treasured belongings there meaning to retrieve them after the war. Henry lost track of Keiko and her family. Marty and his new fiance (a surprise to Henry, less so that she is not Chinese) help Henry search for a valuable jazz record in the pile of assorted and very dusty personal items. When they uncover Keiko’s sketchbook, Marty and his fiance sense that there is more to the story.

This is an enduring story of love and friendship despite prejudices, obstacles and the passing of time.

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Everything Leads to You by Nina LaCour

July 31, 2014

Everything Leads to YouIn Los Angeles, California, where modern legends and myths are created, and where everyday life is lived moment by moment, Emi is trying to become an established part of the movie industry. Her goal is to work as a set designer, and as an intern on a movie set she gets to visit the estate sale of a recently deceased Hollywood legend. When Emi and her best friend Charlotte find a letter hidden in the jacket of an LP, the two of them – without knowing the content of the letter – begin searching for the intended recipient.

Meanwhile, Emi is offered work for a low-budget movie that has the potential to launch her career. The screenplay shows Emi that it will be a realistic film, and the challenge is to create sets that give an impression of actual everyday life. At the same time, Emi views her personal life through the lenses of the Hollywood movie industry, which offers romance, mystery, and redemption. And as the mysterious letter leads her to the alluring Ava, life does take on film-like qualities. Perhaps the border between film and real life isn’t all that rigid; perhaps the two co-exist in a symbiosis.

“We love films,” Emi says, “because they make us feel something. They speak to our desires, which are never small. They allow us to escape and to dream and to gaze into the eyes that are impossibly beautiful and huge. They fill us with longing. But also, they tell us to remember; they remind us of life.”

John Green said that he was “SO PSYCHED to read” this piece of realistic fiction. John Green lovers may feel the same way.

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The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier

July 30, 2014

The Night GardenerMolly and Kip are a brother and sister who have had a hard go of it in life. Ireland in the 1850s is a difficult place for children – famine and hard work are all they’ve ever known. In search of a better life, they’ve come to work for the Windsors in rural England, but nearly everyone in the surrounding village is telling them to turn away from the family’s decaying home on a secluded island whose centerpiece is an enormous, gnarling tree. But what else are two youngsters without a penny or a caring adult in the world to do? There are whispers that the Windsor home and family are cursed, which Molly dismisses as hogwash. Surely curses are the stuff of stories – as an amateur storyteller, she ought to know. But then she notices that the Windsors, from nervous patriarch Bertram to little Penny, grow paler and weaker with each passing day. There are the muddy bootprints that appear every single morning, the bad dreams that torment Molly night after night. And then there’s the tall, skinny man in the top hat that Kip says he’s seen outside…

I love children’s horror because it’s less about grisly details and more about haunting atmospheres and moral themes. If that’s your bag, then The Night Gardener is as fine an example as you’ll ever find. Themes of human greed and discontent permeate the story, and it’s just as engaging a read for adults as it is for children. Kip and Molly are brave and feisty in distinct ways, and the Windsor family is easy to sympathize with even as their problems are mainly their own fault. I loved the slow burn and the dramatic reveal of each element of the story, and Auxier‘s pacing couldn’t be better – I was on the edge of my seat during the action scenes. Are you ready to be creeped out, or to creep out your children? The Night Gardener is worth a look.

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The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street by Susan Jane Gilman

July 29, 2014

The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard StreetMalka is a young child when her Russian Jewish family flees the pogroms to begin a new life in America. Like most Eastern Europeans who came in the early 20th Century, they find themselves crammed into the tenements of New York and working for pennies. Unlike other families, Malka’s family does not succeed in climbing their way out of poverty. Malka finds herself orphaned and crippled at age eight. She is taken in by an Italian family who makes Italian Ices and Ice Cream. Despite all this, Malka is determined to succeed on her own, even when she suffers setback after setback.

Mr. Dinallo, who adopts Malka, is kind but tough. He feels responsible for her since it was his ice cream cart that hit Malka and caused her disability. He takes her in, changes her name to Lilian, and teaches her about the ice cream trade. Lilian even adopts the Catholic religion to fit in. Yet she is never really considered to be one of the family. She sleeps in the store instead of in their apartment, and has to do the menial labor that none of his real children want to do. After Mr. Dinallo dies, Lilian believes her life will remain intertwined with the family forever, but fate conspires against her once more.

Lilian does find happiness when she falls in love with Albert Dunkle, a poor but handsome man. They begin an ice cream business of their own, starting with just one machine and a truck. Their rise to fortune mirrors the struggles of the United States; barely getting by during the depression in the 1930’s, being separated as Albert goes off to war, and prosperity finally coming after World War Two ends. By the early 1960’s, Malka Treynovsky has transformed into Lilian Dunkle the Ice Cream Queen, the fabulously rich and popular host of a children’s television show. Privately, though, she is still the caustic, tough girl from the tenements.

I loved the feisty voice of the narrator, and the fact that she was not perfect. She had a lot of bad things happen to her, but she fought back with vengeance, not sweet acceptance. This was a pleasant change from novels with a long suffering hero or heroine who triumphs by being perfect and righteous.

The Ice Cream Queen is Gilman’s first novel, but if you enjoy her wonderful sense of humor, try her memoir Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress.

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All Joy and No Fun by Jennifer Senior

July 28, 2014

All Joy and No FunI have to admit that reading is such an escape for me that I rarely read anything directly applicable to my life. This includes books about: work, parenting, self-help, spirituality, politics, and global issues. All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood is the exception for me.

Ever since I became a parent around 4 years ago many questions have plagued me. I have questions beyond:
“How do I make her stop crying?”
“When was the last time I took a shower?”
“Did I just tell my co-worker I had to go potty?”
I often wonder why parenting seems so hard when I do not remember my mother and her generation having the same struggles being a parent.

This book answers a lot of those questions; however, it is not about how to be a better parent. The writer clearly states that this book is about the effect of children on parents . Author Jennifer Senior explicitly outlines all the things that are different today. She cites real studies, observes real parents in action, and even throws in some humorous parenting anecdotes from the likes of Erma Bombeck and Louis C.K.

Senior posits that even though parents experience moments of rapturous joy more frequently than our childless peers (like hearing my daughter laugh hysterically), we also don’t have a lot of fun the rest of the time and childcare is low on the list of fulfilling day-to-day activities. I know that sounds alarming and you think, “But I love spending time with my child!”. Look, children have never been on the top of the list to parents EVER. Senior points out (with physiological evidence) that you are dealing with an illogical being who may insist that she does not know how to put her shoes on —even though we know she does know how to put her shoes on, or screams over and over from her bedroom that she “forgot how to take a nap” (Step 1: stop screaming). So please, admit to yourself that it is not always fun, and that’s ok. But we have to put up with all the no fun to get to the joy. That’s the same with toddlers and teenagers.

So has All Joy and No Fun made me a better parent? Yes. Although Senior says she does not want to make the reader into a better parent, just more relaxed and aware of the process. That to me is a vast improvement in my state of mind and outlook on day-to-day life with my tiny caveman dictator (and bundle of joy). Now that I am taking fewer anxiety-laden guilt trips (you know, those trips that go absolutely nowhere), I may actually have the mental energy to read a book about being a better parent!

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Sycamore Row by John Grisham

July 25, 2014

Sycamore RowJohn Grisham is in familiar territory back home in Mississippi with a fascinating legal battle. Eccentric and wealthy, Seth Hubbard despises most of his family and is estranged from everyone except his brother, Ancil… who has disappeared. No one knows if Ancil is still alive. However, Seth is dying of lung cancer and he decides to commit suicide. Before dying he creates a new handwritten will and sends it to Jake Brigance asking Jake to be his lawyer and execute his wishes.

Jake is famous in Clanton for defending a black man and getting him acquitted with an all-white jury. He is just bored enough to be fascinated by his new assignment. But the will is about to open ‘ a can of worms’. Seth has left nothing to his two children, Ramona and Herschel, but instead has left 95% to his housekeeper, Lettie Lang. Since a more formal will was filed several years before, this new will opens a huge court battle. Jake hopes he is ready for this adventure.

Ramona and Herschel’s lawyers are prepared to do anything to make the handwritten will ‘null & void’, and I mean anything! Jake will need all his skills to have Lettie inherit Hubbard’s fortune.

I can promise you one thing–if you hated lawyers before reading this book, you will detest them even more afterwards. John Grisham is one of my favorite authors and this is one of his best books!

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Murder on Astor Place by Victoria Thompson

July 24, 2014

Murder on Astor PlaceFans of Anne Perry’s Charlotte and Thomas Pitt series should also enjoy this mystery series, called the Gaslight Mysteries. Author Victoria Thompson places her historical mysteries in New York City in the early 1900s, when Theodore Roosevelt had just become the chief of police.

The main character, Sarah Brandt, is a woman who was raised among the social elite. But Sarah is estranged from her wealthy family. As a young woman she had fallen in love with a doctor who was very far below her social status. She had a major break with her family when she married this doctor and became a midwife. Now a widow, she is still practicing the trade of midwife and it is while visiting a patient that she sees a young woman who looks very familiar, and who is found murdered the next day. It turns out that this woman is a member of a high-society family that Sarah used to know. Besides wondering why the victim was staying in a boardinghouse in a cheap neighborhood, Sarah also wants to see the killer brought to justice, and so she gets involved.

As with many mystery series of this type, the amateur detective has a partner of sorts who is a professional. In this case the professional is Detective Sergeant Frank Malloy. He is a man of his time and certainly does not appreciate Sarah’s efforts to help him. Only gradually does he come to value her assistance as she is able to talk to people in high society in ways that he cannot.

Thompson has certainly done her research on the place and time. For example, Malloy is saving up money for the bribe he will need to become a captain. Roosevelt has vowed to clean up this kind of corruption, but Malloy has no faith in that just yet. In fact, he considers giving up on this case early on because he can see that there will be no money in it for him. But his deep desire for justice keeps him searching for the killer.
If you’re looking for a new mystery series to try, the Gaslight Mystery series already has 16 titles. Begin at the beginning with this one.
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The Secret Life of Sleep by Kat Duff

July 23, 2014

The Secret Life of SleepEver have a difficult time falling asleep? Wake up in the night and fret over hours of lost rest? Millions and millions of Americans struggle with sleep issues every night, adding one of the most basic human functions to an ever-growing list of things that perpetuate anxiety in our frantic modern world. It’s no wonder that the sleep aid industry grows exponentially every year. But are we looking at sleep (and sleep problems) through the wrong lens? Kat Duff approaches the subject in a particularly interesting manner. Through an equal mixture of memoir, anecdotes, history, and scientific research, she explains the importance of sleep in our daily lives for both our physical well-being and our societal norms.

Our sleep patterns have changed quite drastically since the beginning of humanity, when our long ago ancestors slept in short shifts of light sleep, one long deep sleep, and intermittent periods of wakefulness. Even during Medieval times, people cherished this long tradition of midnight waking, using the time for quiet contemplation, visiting with family, or practicing various creative outlets. This sleep schedule changed the most dramatically only as recently as the Industrial Revolution, when sleep became condensed into one long stretch to increase productivity for Western workers. Before this time, no other animal –including humans- tried to regulate their sleep so meticulously, and we have had an immense amount of difficulty as a species in this practice.

Sleep issues are not limited to adult workers, however. Duff also addresses similar societal changes in how parents approach the act of sleeping in raising their children, how teenagers and college students binge-sleep on the weekends, and how all kinds of factors of sleeping habits during youth can result in different traits and manifestations in later life.

The next time you have difficulty falling asleep, consider picking up this book and take comfort in feeling that you are not alone. In addition to knowing a little more about the history, culture, and science of sleep, you might walk away with some insights into handling your own sleepless nights, both emotionally and physically.

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Invisible City by Julia Dahl

July 22, 2014

Invisible CityRebekah Roberts never knows how to answer the question, “Are you Jewish?” It’s true that her mother was Hasidic, so by Jewish law, the answer is yes. But her mother also left her baby (and her Christian boyfriend) when Rebekah was just 6 months old. So now, at 22, Rebekah knows nothing of her heritage, her mother, or the faith that claims her; until, that is, she finds herself embroiled in a murder case involving a Jewish woman from her mother’s old neighborhood.

These days, Rebekah is a “stringer”, an on-call reporter for an NYC tabloid. Her job – show up at crime scenes and try to get the scoop on whatever the case of the minute is. This morning it’s the discovery of a naked woman on a scrap heap in Brooklyn.

When the police release the body to her family with very little investigation and no autopsy, Rebekah knows that something is up. Who has the power and pulled strings to get the NYPD to ignore the obvious murder of a young wife and mother? Why won’t anyone talk to either the press or the police? And who is Saul Katz, the (most of the time) Orthodox cop who says he knows who she is and that he knew her mother?

Pressing for answers, Rebekah finds herself struggling to understand the customs and faith behind an ultra-conservative and very insulated community that would rather bury the ugliness than trust outsiders with their business. And not all of Rebekah’s questions are about murder. Who are these people – her people – who recognize her, but are as good as foreigners to her?

Julia Dahl’s debut novel will keep the reader turning pages even as she lifts the veil for a peek at a society that few “goyim” (non-Jews) will ever glimpse much less understand.

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Half a King by Joe Abercrombie

July 21, 2014

Half a KingMove over George R.R. Martin, there’s a new author of grim, dark, and bloody Fantasy in town. Well, actually, Joe Abercrombie (Twitter handle: @LordGrimdark) lives in Bath, England, and he’s been publishing his brand of “grimdark” Fantasy since 2006,  so he is neither “new” nor “in town.” But, I still maintain that Martin better watch his back and keep pecking away at his DOS based word processor as Abercrombie gains in popularity – and readers. Half a King is the first in the new Shattered Sea Trilogy and is a gripping yarn and page-turningly good read.

Prince Yarvi features as the titular “half king” due to his deformed and crippled left arm, with which he can hold neither sword nor shield. That’s fine with Yarvi, as he never wanted to be a warrior or a king. He’s content to continue his studies with Mother Gundring to enter the Ministry (think adviser / lore master, not priest). However, Yarvi’s plans are greatly changed when his father the king and his older brother are both murdered by a rival king from across the sea. Yarvi must take up the circlet and cloak of the King’s of the Gettlanders and strike back against the treacherous Grom-gil-Gorm, king of Vansterland. Yarvi swears an oath by the six tall gods to avenge his father and kill those who mudered him. King Yarvi, his uncle Odem, and an army of Gettland warriors set across the Shattered Sea for vengeance. One of the best lines in the book is “I may be half a king, but I swore a whole oath!”

Those are just the beginning of Yarvi’s adventures as the young man who wanted to be nothing more than a Brother in the Ministry and one day advise his father and brother becomes a reluctant king. Soon, betrayal leads to desperate circumstances and unlikely alliances. Abercrombie does a wonderful job with his world building, especially considering that this is a fantasy novel that’s less than 300 pages long. There’s tons of action, much of it as bloody as in Game of Thrones, and some great characters that I hope return for the second book in the trilogy. So, if you’re bummed that we’re in between seasons of GOT on HBO, and that we still don’t know when Martin will finish writing the next volume in his epic Song of Ice and Fire series, then give Joe Abercrombie a try this summer.

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