Posts Tagged ‘Coming of Age’

Best ‘New to Us’ Books in 2014: Clare B’s Picks

December 22, 2014

I read both fiction and non-fiction.  I prefer books that have rich characters, who feel like people I know by the time I finish the book.  Here are the best books I read in 2014.

Ten Things I've Learnt About LoveTen Things I’ve Learnt About Love by Sarah Butler
Alice is a wanderer, unable to decide on a career.  She has a strained relationship with her family, but has returned to England to be with her father during his final days.  Daniel is a middle aged homeless man on the streets of London, who uses found items to make small, transient art pieces.  He is also searching for the daughter he has never met.  The chapters in this amazing debut novel, alternate between Alice’s and Daniel’s voice, as events lead them inexorably towards each other.

The Death of SantiniThe Death of Santini: The Story of a Father and His Son by Pat Conroy
Pat Conroy returns to his troubled relationship with his father in this excellent biography, where he also explores the dynamics between he and his siblings, particularly his sister Carol.  In the prologue, Conroy says that he has been “writing the story of my own life for over forty years…but I must examine the wreckage one last time”.  He does, using soaring language, and descriptions that are both tragic and hilarious.  The picture Conroy paints is not always pretty, and at times he is especially brutal in describing his own actions.  However, Pat Conroy is the ultimate storyteller, and that amazing talent shines in this retelling of his life.

March, Book OneMarch, Book One by John Lewis
I am not generally a fan of graphic novels.  However, this is perhaps the most powerful book I have read this year, and I think the format is an excellent way to describe the Civil Rights struggles.  Congressman Lewis recounts his early meeting with Martin Luther King, which led to his commitment to the non-violence movement.  Illustrator Nate Powell’s images help bring to life the incredible bravery and determination of the young men and women who risked their lives to right the horrible wrong of segregation.

The Other TypistThe Other Typist  by Suzanne Rindell
New York City in the 1920s:  women’s roles are changing, Prohibition is in full swing, and crime is hidden right in front of you.  Odalie Lazare is the new member of the typing pool at a police precinct.  Beautiful, mysterious, sometimes charming, sometimes cold, she fascinates the staid, reliable typist, Rose Baker.  Odalie pulls Rose into her world of intrigue with the promise of friendship and excitement.  Told in Rose’s voice, this satisfying tale will leave you asking, “what just happened?”

Guests on EarthGuests on Earth by Lee Smith
Evalina Toussaint, an orphan, arrives at Asheville, NC’s famed Highland Hospital, in 1936. Her mother has died, her father is unknown. she is alone, abandoned and has virtually shut down.  Dr. Carroll, the hospital administrator, and his wife, a concert pianist, take Evalina under their wings.  Part patient, part ward of the Carrolls, Evalina lives at Highland on and off over the next several decades, as she struggles to find a life for herself.  Smith has not only written a well-crafted novel, but she has also explored the changing attitudes about mental illness, and its treatment, using the factual story of Highland Hospital and the tragic fire that killed its most famous patient, Zelda Fitzgerald.  Zelda has a cameo role in the novel, providing a fleeting, but enduring influence on Evalina.

Best ‘New to Us’ Books in 2014: Heidi B’s Picks

December 17, 2014

I am an eclectic reader, and 2014 saw my reading choices all over the map. I love grown-up chick lit (sometimes known as the more serious Women’s Fiction, or even domestic fiction), coming of age stories, and anything related to how the human body works. Below are my five choices for books I read in 2014 that made an impact on me; most are not new, but new to me. Happy reading!

The Perks of Being a WallflowerThe Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
This is a terrific book that often is unfortunately labeled as a “teen novel.” Chboksy’s debut novel is a cult classic as well as being critically acclaimed; no easy feat. Anyone who navigated adolescence (uh, all of us) can relate to some aspect of Charlie, an awkward wallflower and high school freshman that no one seems to notice. Well-drawn characters, realistic dialogue, and a plot twist at the end all make for a classic.  See my full review.

The ShiftThe Shift by Tory Johnson
The subtitle of this book is, “How I Finally Lost Weight and Discovered a Happier Life,” but this is not a “diet” book. This is one woman’s narrative on how she shifted her entire life, her way of eating, and her place in the world, all in one year. Oh, and by the way, lost the 70 pounds that had dogged her for 40 years. Everyone I know who has read this book has read this in one sitting; a couple of people I know and love have made major changes to their health due to this book. Hat’s off to Johnson for an inspirational read.  See my full review.

Wishin' and Hopin'Wishin’ and Hopin’: A Christmas Story by Wally Lamb
Who doesn’t feel even a tiny bit nostalgic when seeing the endless running of “A Christmas Story” on cable TV? Come on, admit it: you do. Wishin’ and Hopin’ is a delightful Christmas tale by veteran storyteller Wally Lamb; a racier, edgier, more irreverent 1960’s version of the classic Red Rider BB Gun tale A Christmas Story. Set in 1960’s Connecticut and told through the eyes of 10-year-old Felix Funnicello (cousin to Annette), this is a delightful, coming of age story with a nostalgic twist.  See my full review.

The Story of the Human BodyThe Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, Disease by Daniel Lieberman
The history of our bodies, in terms of evolution, is a complex and fascinating subject. Lieberman is a Harvard professor of human evolutionary biology, as well as being a gifted writer. He tells the story of human evolution in a manner that is readable like a biography, and as compelling at times as any thriller. What made humans become bipedal? (hint: to see over tall grasses!) Why did we move from hunting and gathering our food, to farming it? What aspects of our development contributed (and continue to contribute) to diseases that plague us? Lieberman is a talented and popular science writer. What could have easily have become mired in jargon is explained for the layperson. A fascinating read.  See my full review.

The Husband's SecretThe Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty
The premise in The Husband’s Secret is: what would do if your husband had a deep, dark secret that might shatter your life, and like ripples in a pool, the lives of others? This is grown up chick lit with stories of lives that intersect told in alternating chapters. A sharper reader may pick up on how these women’s lives intersect, but I never saw it coming. The ending was a blockbuster.

Best New Books of 2014: Amy W’s Picks

December 1, 2014

I enjoy a well-balanced diet…of books. Here we have something for EVERYONE from light and fun page-turners to thought-provoking non-fiction. Don’t let 2014 end without checking out any (or all) of these awesome books!

This Dark Road to MercyThis Dark Road to Mercy by Wiley Cash
Easter and Ruby are two young girls placed in foster care after the sudden death of their junkie mother. The girls are used to watching out for themselves. They hope to be adopted, but do not want to live with their maternal grandparents in Alaska, total strangers, living in a strange land. Their estranged father, a washed up amateur league baseball player, appears suddenly and confuses the already precarious situation. In the backdrop of the novel and adding to the tension, is the home run rivalry between Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire. The scores go back and forth and the competition is of interest to everyone. This Dark Road to Mercy is a well-constructed, page-turner that artfully tells a moving story in which children are once again thrust into an adult world.  See my full review.

Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast
Roz Chast, a longtime New Yorker cartoonist, documents the slow decline of her aging parents. Not only does this impact her life at the time, but spending time with them at their most vulnerable brings up old anxieties. No surprise, Chast tackles this subject with great humor and candor. I found this book to be comforting and thought provoking. The graphic memoir format really lends itself to exploring a topic I would ordinarily shy away from reading.

LandlineLandline by Rainbow Rowell
Remember back in the 80’s when you would talk on the phone for an eternity until your ear actually hurt? I do. I loved talking on the phone, not so much cell phones— and texting has its moments if you can get past all the auto-correct errors. Nothing will ever surpass the old school telephone when it comes to connecting with another person. Georgie McCool is in crisis mode. She is a writer for a sitcom that just may get a pilot. Her marriage, family, mental health and personal hygiene suffer from the effort. She needs to reconnect. Her old yellow phone becomes her lifeline to the past and the present. Told with great humor and tenderness, Landline is a delight!

All Joy and No FunAll Joy and No Fun by Jennifer Senior
Why, why, why is parenting so hard today? This thought has crossed my mind a lot, well, more accurately, this thought lives in my mind and it ain’t goin’ nowhere. Parenting seemed easy for my mom (it also did not hurt that I was a perfect child, am I right?). This is really the only parenting book I have ever read and boy, do I love it! It is not a book about how to parent , but a look at what parenting is about these days from a sociological and psychological perspective. So, I was right — it is hard–but now I spend a lot less time focusing on the no fun aspects of parenting. See my full review.

Thousand Dollar Tan LineThe Thousand Dollar Tan Line by Rob Thomas
I loved the Veronica Mars television series! This book takes place a few years after the series ends when Veronica gets really close to joining the FBI but decides to live and work in her small, California beach-side hometown, Neptune. Written by the series creator, writer and producer, Rob Thomas, stylistically the book is true to the spirit of the show and the 2014 movie. I know you are thinking, “that sounds kind of low-brow for you, a well-read librarian”. Well, it’s not. This book is not great literature, but it is perfectly entertaining and it was great to be reunited with old friends (this is the part where you remember the catchy theme song…A long time ago, we used to be friends….).

Wishin’ and Hopin’: a Christmas Story by Wally Lamb

November 26, 2014

Who doesn’t feel even a tiny bit nostalgic when seeing the endless running of “The Christmas Story” on cable TV? Come on, admit it: you do. Wishin’ and Hopin’ is a delightful Christmas tale by veteran storyteller Wally Lamb (and resident of my hometown in Connecticut!); a racier, edgier, more irreverent 1960’s version of the classic Red Rider BB Gun tale, The Christmas Story (which by the way was based on a book by Jean Shepherd.) Wishin’ and Hopin’ is a short novel sure to get you in the holiday spirit.

It’s 1964 in fictional Three Rivers, Connecticut, and 10-year-old Felix Funicello (yes, related to ANNETTE) is in the fifth grade at St. Aloysius Gonzaga Parochial School, in love with his teacher and the new mysterious Russian transfer student Zhenya Kabakova. Lamb describes the novel; “It’s 1964 and ten-year-old Felix is sure of a few things: the birds and the bees are puzzling, television is magical, and this is one Christmas he’ll never forget.” That about sums it up, with the addition of a Christmas pageant at school that spins off into crazy land. This is a hilarious coming of age story set at Christmas; baby boomers especially will find this a romp of a read, full of cultural references from the 60’s that are sure to strike pangs of nostalgia for an earlier time.

The movie will air on the Lifetime Network, on December 6.  It is narrated by Chevy Chase, and stars Molly Ringwald, Annabella Sciorra, Cheri Oteri, and Meat Loaf (as the Monsignor!).

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Ghost Hawk by Susan Cooper

November 25, 2014

One thing that helps make my long commute bearable is a great audio book, and Ghost Hawk by Susan Cooper certainly qualifies! I know the author best as the writer of the fantasy series, The Dark is Rising, but I think this historical fiction title is her best yet.

Ghost Hawk starts with the story of Little Hawk, an 11-year-old Pokanoket Indian boy being sent off to spend three months in the winter wilderness with only a knife, a tomahawk, and a bow and arrows. If he survives and returns to his tribe, he will be a man. Little Hawk battles starvation, bitter weather, and wild animals in his struggles to survive on his own. But when he finally returns home to find his village decimated by disease, Little Hawk faces his greatest trial yet.

In an attempt to ensure their survival, the diminished tribal villages negotiate a troubled relationship with the Pilgrim settlers. During a chance meeting between Little Hawk and John Wakeley, a Pilgrim boy from Plymouth, tragedy strikes, and the boys are bound together in a mysterious way. Through this connection, John begins to understand the pain of the Native Americans’ plight and assumes the guilt of their cruel treatment by European settlers.

As tensions between the settlers and the natives escalate, John’s sympathies put him in increasing danger, and he must decide whether to do what is safe, or to do what is right.

Ghost Hawk is filled with adventure, mystery, danger, and even has a little romance. The book is wholly engrossing– I could not wait to get back in my car to continue listening to it! Cooper’s writing is exquisite and her historical facts are accurate. Many of the major historical figures of the time appear in the story, helping create an air of authenticity.

The author reads a timeline of Native American history and talks a little about her sources at the end of the audio book. So, if, like me, you hate for a great book to end, Cooper gives you some great ideas for where to look next.

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All These Things I’ve Done by Gabrielle Zevin

November 24, 2014

In the year 2083, Anya Balanchine is unlike most of her peers. She is heiress to the Balanchine Chocolate Company. Sounds awesome, right? Unfortunately for Anya, it makes her a mafya Princess, a criminal. Chocolate and caffeine are illegal substances in the United States, much like alcohol was in early 20th Century America. As hard as that is, her life is complicated even more by the fact that she is the primary caregiver in the family. On paper it’s her bedridden grandmother, but in reality Anya takes care of her grandmother, her younger sister Natty, and older brother Leo who suffered a traumatic brain injury after the assassination that killed her mother. Her father was murdered later while Anya and Natty watched from under a desk.

Anya still has all the typical teenage stuff to worry about. She has a boyfriend Gable who turns out to be a frog rather than a prince, and just wants to use Anya for her connection to the illicit chocolate. Things come to a tipping point when Anya meets the new boy Win, and he also seems to like her. The catch: Win is the son of the assistant District Attorney for NYC and, well, Anya is the daughter of a crime boss. Neither Anya’s family nor Win’s parents approve of the two of them dating.
As Anya’s life takes unexpected twists and turns, she must decide who she wants to be when she becomes a legal adult. Can Anya live her life on her own terms, or will familial pressure draw her down a path she cannot foresee?

This compelling read is the first in the Anya Balanchine trilogy. Zevin writes a coming of age trilogy where there are no easy solutions.

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Gone Fishin’ by Walter Mosley

September 22, 2014

Gone Fishin'Walter Mosley is perhaps best known for his Easy Rawlins mysteries (Devil in a Blue Dress, et al), but the man has written a lot and tackled many different genres. Therefore, it would be unfair to say that Gone Fishin’ is an unusual Walter Mosley book. But it is not a mystery. Instead, it is a Bildungsroman that contains some faces familiar to readers of the Easy Rawlins series.
The main characters are said Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins and his friend Raymond “Mouse” Alexander, and the year is 1939 – nine years before the events of Devil in a Blue Dress; the novel that launched the Rawlins’ series.

Late one night, a racket breaks out on Easy’s apartment door: “I knew it couldn’t be the police,” Rawlins says, “they just broke down the door in that neighborhood”. Instead, Mouse is the one who interrupts his rest. Mouse is about to marry EttaMae, a hugely popular woman, and thus he needs some money. To overcome his shortage of currency Mouse wants Easy to drive him from their home in Houston’s Fifth Ward to a Texas town called Pariah (!), where Mouse hopes to access to his “Momma’s dowry.” The problem is that his stepfather Reese Corn stands between Mouse and the dowry, and Mouse – who isn’t easily scared – is afraid of Reese.

Easy is offered 15 dollars and agrees, although he is mad because he is about to lose his friend. He’d help Mouse out without the “threats and the IOU,” but to make sure that Mouse doesn’t realize this, Easy says, “I want my fifteen dollars, man. You know I ain’t doin’ this fo’my health.”

And in a three year old car that Mouse has “borrowed,” they leave Houston for Pariah.

As they reach the bayou, Mouse suggests that they should visit his friend, Momma Jo. On a ledge over her fireplace, Easy sees thirteen skulls, one of them clearly human.

“’Domaque,’ Momma Jo said, and I turned to see her looking at me.

‘What?’

‘My husband.’”

Yes. They have entered the land of voodoo, and soon enough, sex, revenge, and death keep them company, too.
It has been pointed out elsewhere that Mosley’s books have strong existentialist traits. This is true for Gone Fishin’ which portraits a morally ambiguous world. And it is a novel filled with all kinds of tensions and questions: “Who knows?” Easy says, “Maybe I would’ve died out there in Pariah if Mouse hadn’t held me to his black heart.”

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Canada by Richard Ford

September 5, 2014

Canad The beginning of this distinctly American novel is shocking and that shock started a low level of dread inside that did not leave me until days after I finished reading it. Our hero is 14 year old Dell Parsons, son of Bev and Neeva, brother of Berner. The family is living in Great Falls, a large town in 1960’s Montana as the story begins. They seem to be a happy, if slightly odd family. We know early on that major upheavals are in store for all four of them, and the subtle writing style keeps us on edge. We don’t know if it will be hilarious or crushing.

This is a large and sometimes slow story, but skipping ahead or skimming is not recommended. The beauty and complexities of the design need to be appreciated. The novel presents some large questions about family, love, and one’s relationship to the land.Terrible and unbelievable things happen to all the Parsons while in Montana, in spite of the normalcy all around them. The second half of the book is set in Saskatchewan, Canada, in a town truly out of time and place, another planet in many ways. The writing is always beautiful and stark, with a streak of dark humor.

Dell tells his tale as a flashback right up until the end of the book, so he is not quite a reliable narrator. This gives the reader plenty to think about, as Dell struggles to come of age and to regain a sense of connection with the world and grieve over the tragic dissolution of his family.

Richard Ford is the author of several other books, including The Sportswriter and the Pulitzer Prizewinning Independence Day.

 

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The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

August 27, 2014

The Elegance of the HedgehogElegance of the Hedgehog was a selection for my book club. I never wanted to read this book. I felt it would be too anecdotal and not enough plot for my taste. This is what I love about book club (aside from my friends and the food)—it gets me reading books I would not normally choose to read. I decided to listen to the audio book so this review is based on that version of the book. The audiobook is delightful.

The novel takes place in a high end Paris apartment building with the narrative alternating between precociously intelligent 12-year old Paloma and Renée the grumpy concierge. We learn very quickly that these narrators are not who they seem to be. Both have an appreciation of the finer things in life. This not only includes tangible pieces of fine art but also philosophy and Japanese culture. Paloma, tired of living amongst those who will never understand her, decides to commit suicide on her 13th birthday.

Renée takes pleasure in deceiving her witless employers who believe her to be a simple, pedestrian concierge. All of this changes when a mysterious Japanese gentleman, Ozu, moves in the building. He befriends Paloma whose admiration of Japanese culture breaks down any of the usual barriers she so deftly constructs. He sees through Renée’s guise and becomes determined to spend more time with her since they have so much in common. Through Ozu, Renée and Paloma discover each other and these kindred spirits existing under the same roof for years, become fast friends and allies against the gauche residents.

What I thought was to be an artsy, disjointed book is really very heartwarming and humorous. For the audio book two readers give life to Renée and Paloma which to me, makes the characters real. So if you are on the fence about reading this book, or appreciate a really well done audio book, give this a listen!

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The End of the World As We Know It by Robert Goolrick

August 5, 2014

The End of the World As We Know ItThis is a heart wrenching book, but well worth reading. It is well written, and I am glad to know Robert Goolrick’s story since I’m a fan of his two novels, A Reliable Wife, and Heading Out to Wonderful.

This is a disturbing boy to man story that starts in the 1960’s in a small college town in Virginia. The story includes Robert’s older brother, younger sister, father (a professor), mother (a homemaker), and thankfully, his maternal grandmother Miss Nell, who was a strong and kind influence in his life. This true story – at times horrific, and at times, very funny – tells of a family living under a thin veneer of perfection that, in time, cracks and crumbles.

He tells of endless cocktail parties where his parents, preoccupied with appearances, strived to look like the perfect couple, wanting to be envied by their friends. In the meantime, the three children experience varying degrees of collateral damage and straight up abuse. Robert, hands down, gets the worst of it: cruelty from most of the adults in his life, and most tragically, sexual abuse by his father.

As an adult, Robert attempts suicide and ends up in “the loony bin”. He also starts cutting himself and gives pages of painful crimson red descriptions that show how his despair and emotional pain manifest themselves.

“How did they go on?” he asks as he lists memories that fill up eleven pages. “How did he do this?” I wondered while reading this book. How was he able to bare his soul about such painful memories? In a final section at the end of the book, “A Conversation with the Author”, Robert talks of writing this for past and current sexual abuse victims to help expose the reality of this epidemic.

Obviously, this is not an easy read, but it’s very well told, and is a hugely important story.

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