Posts Tagged ‘Heidi B.’s Picks’

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.

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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Fire and Rain by Diane Chamberlain

November 3, 2014

Valle Rosa is a small southern California town that is turning to dust: ravaged by wildfires, the town is desperate for rain. Mysterious stranger Jeff Cabrio arrives in Valle Rosa and approaches the town mayor Christopher Garrett with a tantalizing promise: I can make it rain. Cabrio doesn’t seek money, or fame; as a matter of fact, he wants to remain low-key and behind the scenes. He promises he’ll make it rain for room, board, and peace and quiet. Somewhat conveniently, the place he ends up boarding is in the cottage of an estate owned by Garrett’s ex-wife, investigative TV reporter Carmen Perez. If Perez can make a story out of Cabrio, she can invigorate her flagging career, and despite his wish for anonymity, Cabrio finds himself under the journalistic microscope. Valle Rosa is a town of secrets and Cabrios’ secret is explosive.

Fire and Rain is one of Chamberlain’s older novels and in it she shows her strength for creating intriguing characters with depth. I didn’t care that the science was implausible (a rain-making machine?), because I was entranced by the story line and the personas. I loved the juxtaposition of how the author used the metaphoric rain and fire to create a story that tugs the heart strings. Cabrio’s soul is as dry as tinder due to his secret past, ready to ignite when he meets Mia Tanner, a woman who has been hurt in her relationships in the past. Chris Garrett is a former baseball professional still in love with Carmen, despite Carmen’s many issues. Carmen is the somewhat stereotypical driven career woman, who ruthlessly seeks to unearth Cabrio’s past to boost to her waning career. The characters are all damaged, and all have been burned, figuratively by life and love.

Diane Chamberlain will be visiting the North Regional Library on Saturday, November 22 @ 2:30 p.m. She is a delightful, engaging author who loves her readers. Click here to register.

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Bittersweet by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore

October 29, 2014

Bittersweet by Miranda Beverly-WhittemoreThose who have read The Secret History by Donna Tartt always seem to be looking for a read-alike. That’s no easy feat, as Tartt’s blockbuster debut novel is not easily recreated due to its amazing storyline, rich prose, and creepy plot.

Along comes Miranda Beverly-Whittemore, whose explicit goal was to attract readers of The Secret History (we are a weird little cult who love this book). The author says, “I wrote Bittersweet for people like me, who love The Secret History and The Emperor’s Children; it’s a literary beach read.” Whoo hoo – get me a copy of this book!

A reviewer said Bittersweet, “evokes Gone Girl with its exploration of dark secrets and edge-of-your-seat twists.” I’m not sure I would go that far, but it is a very good suspenseful psychological thriller that keeps you wondering where it is going, and how you will get there.

Meet Mabel Dagmar, a bit of a socially awkward but bright student at an unnamed East Coast private college. Mabel, who is from Oregon, has a roommate straight from a WASP manual: Genevra Winslow, a beautiful woman from a prestigious New England family. Mabel is fascinated with Genevra, a fascination that borders on obsession. When she is invited to summer with the Winslows at their Vermont family compound (like a forested Kennedy Compound in Hyannis Port), she jumps at the chance to ingratiate herself with the family. But she gets more than she bargains for when the Winslows prove to have secrets of their own, and that under their blue blood-tinged skin, they are anything but aristocratic.

Is this novel anything like The Secret History? Not really. It lacks Tartt’s rich dialogue. The setting with wealthy East Coast college students is the same, and both novels examine the lives of the New England elite. Other than that, I didn’t see many similarities. Bittersweet is literary, and dark, and gothic. I think any readers of The Thirteenth Tale would appreciate this novel. I recommend this novel if you like your stories dark and medium in complexity, and somewhat literary.

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The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez

October 2, 2014

The Book of Unknown AmericansThis is a passionate novel about what it means to become “American,” from a new immigrant perspective.

Meet the Riveras, Arturo, Alma and Maribel. The opening scene of the novel has the Riveras confused after being dropped off at a Newark, Delaware, convenience store fresh from 3 day cross-border journey from their small town in Mexico. Thinking that the convenience store/gas station is where Americans shop, the Riveras are baffled by the microwave hot dogs, slushy drinks and high prices of food in plastic. Into this confusing landscape Arturo and Alma have brought their 15-year old daughter Maribel from Mexico; she suffers from a traumatic brain injury that dramatically altered her personality and ability to reason, but with the right education, she has a chance at regaining function. In search of a better life for his daughter, Arturo forgoes his own construction company in Mexico, and gets a job toiling in the dark in a mushroom factory in the hopes that the US education system they have dreamed about can help Maribel.

The entire novel is focused on and set in a concrete block, low-income apartment building whose residents are new immigrants from all over Central and South America. The residents’ stories are told in alternating chapters. Equally compelling is the story of the Toros, a Panamanian family whose son Mayor falls for the gorgeous Maribel. Rather than seeing Maribel as damaged and needing fixing as the rest of the world (and her parents) see her, Mayor accepts her for what she is, although their ill-fated puppy love will have disastrous consequences for all.

The novel mirrors life, insanely and hysterically funny (the passage where the Toros finally buy a car and attempt to drive) to tragic. The overriding story of puppy love, cross cultural assimilation and the struggle to survive within The American Dream is masterfully told, while the inherent politics concerning immigration are gracefully but somewhat unrealistically sidestepped (Arturo got a work visa to be pack mushrooms?) Henriquez is a master storyteller, and her characters offer insight into the immigrant experience that is a good reminder of who we are as a culture. In the words of one reviewer, in case we’ve forgotten, it all started this way. One of the characters, in a particularly insightful passage, says, “We’re the unknown Americans, the ones no one even wants to know, because they’ve been told they’re supposed to be scared of us and because maybe if they did take the time to get to know us, they might realize that we’re not all that bad, maybe even that we’re a lot like them. And who would they hate then?”

Recommended novel, a great book club discussion choice. I’m a pretty hard-nosed, jaded reader, and this book touched me.

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The Nazi Officer’s Wife by Edith Hahn Beer

September 23, 2014

I have been looking for a read alike to Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand for a while, and I finally found it in the compelling memoir, The Nazi Officer’s Wife by Edith H. Beer.

Edith was a young woman, Jewish by birth but without any real knowledge of the religion. She was a bright, studious, feisty, and on the verge of finishing her training to be a judge in 1940’s Vienna. Flush in her first romance, she decides to not flee Vienna when the Nazis take over Austria so she can stay near her boyfriend. Her sisters fled (to London, and Palestine), and Edith’s decision to stay put in Vienna lands her in a forced labor camp, picking asparagus in back-breaking conditions. In a poignant passage, despite being forced into farm work because she is a Jew, when Edith and her fellow laborers decide to celebrate Yom Kipper, they realize not one of them knew the Kol Nidrei, the prayer which ushers in the holy day. She is released from the camp months later, but her mother had already been shipped to Poland for “re-education.”

Edith ends up becoming a “U Boat,” a Jew who goes underground to live as a non-Jew, with forged paperwork. She became Grete Denner, a German friend who lent her papers. Edith/Grete ditches her mama’s-boy boyfriend (who is half Christian and a spineless character) and falls in love with a German, Werner Vetter.

She confided in Werner that she is indeed a Jew, in a terrifying passage in the memoir. Werner kept her secret, and they married and had a daughter in the midst of the war. Edith/Grete hides in plain sight, working for the Red Cross, all the while living as a Christian woman (a religion about which she knows nothing), and as the wife of a Nazi.

While Unbroken is a testament to physical strength in the face of incredible conditions, The Nazi Officer’s Wife is the story of a strong woman’s mental and physical fortitude while having to hide her very identity, her history, her language/accent, her education, her name, and her ancestral background from the Gestapo.

This is a survival story, beautifully told. The author’s papers are now part of the collection at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

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Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel

July 18, 2014

Like Water for ChocolateWelcome to post-revolution northern Mexico, at the turn of the 20th century, the dry, violent land of Pancho Villa, on the border with the United States. Tita is the last-born daughter of a wealthy hacienda owner/widow; as the last-born daughter, her role is to remain unmarried to care for her mother, a nasty control freak who is destined to make Tita’s life as miserable as possible. Stifled in the kitchen and in her role as unmarried daughter, Tita manages to communicate through the food she creates. Any emotions she feels – anger, love, sadness–are conveyed in the traditional Mexican cuisine she prepares for her family. Tita is in love with Pedro. They wish to marry, but Tita’s mother squelches that idea and marries Tita’s sister Rosaura to Pedro. Tita is crushed, and the story chronicles Tita’s lifetime love for Pedro, most unrequited.

Esquivel is one of the best magical realism authors around, and she melds a captivating story that is rich in dialogue, character, and setting. Mexico City-native Esquivel worked in television programming before writing Like Water for Chocolate, her first novel. Her settings are especially evocative, and it is no surprise that the novel was made into a movie in the 1990’s. Esquivel is an effective observer of social roles of women, vis a vis the role of women in the Mexican home. The translation is full and one need not know anything about Mexican history or society to enjoy this novel, as the themes of family tension, love, and jealousy are universal, and the novel is not chock full of regional references; any references are fully explained, as in the history of the recipes that Tita prepares. This is an older novel, but one that I re-read every now and then because, like Tita’s cooking, it is rich and evocative.

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The Story of the Human Body by Daniel Lieberman

July 9, 2014

The Story of the Human BodyThe history of our bodies in terms of evolution, is a complex and fascinating subject. I have been intrigued since childhood, walking The Hall of Man at any natural history museum worth its salt that I could visit.

Daniel Lieberman is a Harvard professor of human evolutionary biology, as well as a gifted storyteller.  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?

Booklist, in its review, summed it up best as, “Like it or not, we are slightly fat, furless, bipedal primates who crave sugar, salt, fat, and starch.” We have large brains that require a lot of energy, and that drove most of our evolutionary process – the need to feed the brain glucose. Lieberman argues that humans are not meant to be farmers, nor to eat grains as a main sustenance. And that farming may be the worst thing that could have happened in our evolution.

I found the chapters on nutrition to be the most interesting and salient to our present day world. How our bodies have not really changed much since the Stone Age, but the world has become one of abundance and obesogens. Our bodies, which were designed for feast and mostly famine, are now living in a world of fast food. Lieberman addresses this and more.

Lieberman is a talented popular science writer. What could have easily become mired in jargon is explained for the layperson. He unfurls a story of our ancestors that compels the reader to want to explore more.

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Heading Out to Wonderful by Robert Goolrick

May 13, 2014

bookcover.phpIt’s 1949 in the sleepy town of Brownsburg, Virginia, a town with no stoplights, no crime and only 500 souls, “where most people lived a simple life without yearning for things they couldn’t have.” Stranger Charlie Beale blows into town with two suitcases: one filled with butcher knives, and the other with money. Charlie is a butcher whose background is nebulous, and he’s decided to apprentice to the town’s meat cutter, and to buy up as much real estate as possible. He’s a nice guy, well-liked by the men and women, and a hero figure to a boy named Sam (who is also the narrator of the tale). Charlie falls head over heels in lust with the one woman he should not tangle with: Sylvan Glass, the coveted wife of the cunning and corpulent Boaty Glass, who bought his bride from a poor family down in a holler. Their torpid love affair can come to no good, but the fiery (and faintly Gatsby-esque) way in which it consumes itself is still surprising.

Author of “The Reliable Wife,” Robert Goolrick claims that this novel is based on a true story he was told years earlier while visiting a Greek island; he simply transplanted the characters to a small southern town and have them post-war fears, mores, and sensibilities. The novel is a terrific one for a book club, as there are many themes and discussable characters. The vulnerability of children, sin and forgiveness, secrets and lies, roots and drifting, and identities created an abandoned are all fodder for this rich novel.

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Dedication by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus

May 7, 2014

bookcover.phpdedicationFrom the author of The Nanny Diaries and other chick let bestsellers,  Dedication  is for chick lit readers who have dreamed about what it would be like to get public and social revenge on an ex-boyfriend for breaking your heart.

Jake Sharpe is a mega recording star – think: John Mayer. He was also Kate Hollis’s first boyfriend/lover who jilted her only hours before their senior prom in the 1980’s. Jake split from their small Vermont town and never looked back. His first hit single was “Losing,” about his romantic experiences with Kate. The single vaults Jake to stardom and for 10 years Kate has to listen to Jake’s hit parade of music everywhere she goes, all songs that are based on very personal aspects of their physical relationship. 10-years older and wiser, but none the less still smarting from his jilting, when Jake announces he is headed back to Vermont for a music TV special, Kate jumps on a plane with a plan to finally confront Jake with how he has plundered her past, her life, her love – for his career.

With a cast of funny, well-drawn supporting characters, Kate sets out to embarrass Jake in a very public setting. Will she go through with it? Does she get sucked back into Jake’s charismatic (almost sociopathic) orbit? Fall in love all over again, either with the nostalgia or the man? Hmm, I’m not telling. Read “Dedication” to find out. Expect lots of 80’s references and double entendres related to romance and music. Readers who hail from New England will enjoy and relate to the setting.  This was enjoyable, funny chick lit.

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