Posts Tagged ‘Pam W.’s Picks’

The Storied Life of AJ Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

October 1, 2014

The Storied Life of AJ FikryAJ Fikry owns the only bookstore on Alice Island, off the coast of Maine. He knows what he likes to read, and he knows what everyone else should like too. No genre fiction, no vampire novels, and definitely no children’s books. AJ is all too happy to let everyone he meets know his views in no uncertain terms. When Amelia, a rep for Knightley books, comes to the island to show him Knightley’s latest books, AJ shares all of this with her in his typical fashion. Understandably, she ends up leaving the island in tears.

AJ’s personal life is a mess. He drinks too much, he is depressed about the loss of his wife, and he is in danger of losing his bookstore. Then one evening someone leaves something behind in the store that will change his life and attitude forever. As AJ changes, so does his bookstore. The bookstore becomes successful again and a center of the community. Eventually, children’s books become some of his best- selling items. And the next time Amelia comes to show AJ some books, his feelings for her are completely different.

This book is a charming tale about how people are affected by the things they read, and how reading can change people’s relationships. Book lovers everywhere will fall in love with AJ and will want to hang out at his store on Alice Island.

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The Flight of the Sparrow : A Novel of Early America by Amy Belding Brown

September 4, 2014

Flight of the SparrowBrown’s fictional account of a real life settler in Massachusetts is a perfect example of what historical fiction should do: open a window into a life you cannot begin to understand. Mary Rowlandson is a married woman living the good Puritan life in a small frontier settlement in 1676. Her husband, the minister, is very strict with his wife and children, living according to the rules of the church. For example, children should not be coddled or fussed over, and adults are not meant to get too attached to them. If a child dies, it is as God ordained and one should not grieve. Also, you cannot give sympathy or care to another member of the congregation who has sinned unless they have been forgiven by the congregation. Mary is a believer, yet finds the strictness difficult at times, especially in relation to children. She goes against her husband’s wishes to bring food to a young, unwed mother and her baby.

As the threat of Indian attacks grows greater, Mary’s husband and her brother-in-law go to Boston to ask the Governor for protection for their town. Sadly, the expected attack comes while they are gone. Mary witnesses the brutal murder of her sister, her nephews, and several neighbors before being kidnapped. The prisoners are then forced to march to the Indian camp. Mary carries her injured youngest daughter for days until her daughter dies from her wounds. When they arrive, Mary is separated from her older children and given to the warrior woman who is the leader of these Indians. It takes her a while to realize the horrible truth: she has now become a slave. Mary survives, though, and even begins to find some of the Indian ways appealing during her eleven weeks of captivity.

The real Mary Rowlandson was ransomed by the settlers and returned to her old life. She wrote a book about her experiences, which was one of the first accounts of captivity written by an American settler. Amy Belding Brown used that book as the basis for her story, but has gone beyond to imagine what Mary might have felt about her experience, and how she might have been changed by it. This was a wonderful novel that I would highly recommend to fans of historical fiction, or anyone who wants to learn a little more about American History.

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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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Mambo in Chinatown by Jean Kwok

July 10, 2014

Mambo in ChinatownCharlie Wong is stuck in a dead end job as a dishwasher at the restaurant where her father also works as a noodle maker. She’s tried other jobs, but they never last long because she is a disorganized klutz who makes a lot of mistakes. She has gotten up her nerve, though, and applied for a new job as a receptionist at a dance studio. Charlie would love to get this job because the studio reminds her of her mother, who died when Charlie was only 11. She was a dancer, and Charlie remembers a little of what her Mom taught her about dancing.

Poor Charlie. She gets the job, but she is not any better at being a receptionist than anything else she’s tried. She messes up the class schedules and irritates all the dancers. Just before she is going to be fired, though, she finds a hidden talent that is valuable to the studio: she is a good teacher. She may not be the best dancer, but she is really good with new students. The studio decides it would be worth keeping her on and training her to teach more classes.

Charlie becomes immersed in the life of the dance studio when she starts teaching. The more time she spends at the studio, the less time she has to worry about the other problems in her life. Her father is very traditional so she is not allowed to date and she even has to hide her dancing clothes from him. When her little sister gets sick, her father insists on trying ancient Chinese medicine instead of modern techniques. However, she keeps getting sicker and no one can figure out the cause of her illness.

Jean Kwok’s novel is an enjoyable tale of finding your true calling, and how every “ugly duckling” has a swan inside them. Charlie’s life begins anew because of a new job, but also because she finds her confidence. As her life away from home improves, Charlie finds the strength to face her personal problems.

If you like this novel, try Kwok’s first book: Girl in Translation.

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Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

June 23, 2014

AmericanahIfemelu is a teenager in Nigeria when she first meets Obinze.  Immediately, sparks fly, and from that moment forward they are inseparable.  However, the political reality in Nigeria works against them.  While at university, teacher strikes keep interrupting their education for long stretches.  Finally, Ifemelu is convinced by her family to try and finish her education abroad.  She is accepted at a school in Pennsylvania and travels to America to live with her Aunt.

Ifemelu tries everything to find a job to help pay her way in America, both legally and illegally.  No one is hiring, though, and out of desperation she answers a shady ad that is not what it seems.  Shame fills Ifemelu about what happens, so she cuts off contact with Obinze.  If she cannot forgive herself, she assumes that he will not forgive her either.  For 13 years she lives in America.  She finishes her degree and finds a job that will pay her way.  However, it’s just a job and she doesn’t really find her passion until she starts a blog.  The blog discusses issues of race from the perspective of a Non-American Black person.  The popularity of the blog astonishes her. She is able to live off her advertisers and speaking fees.  Yet something still seems to be missing in her life.

Meanwhile, back in Nigeria,  Obinze finishes his schooling and attempts to immigrate to England.  His life does not go quite as smoothly, and he is deported for working illegally.  Disillusioned and depressed, he returns to Nigeria an unemployed man. His luck changes finally, when through contacts of a friend, he is given an investment opportunity set up by a powerful man.  By the time Ifemelu returns to Nigeria, Obinze is wealthy, married, and a father.

The story of these two people is interesting, but where the book really shines is its witty commentary on people, immigrants, race, politics, and everything in between.  Not just American society, but also English and Nigerian. Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche is funny and insightful, moving from scenes of a dinner party with wealthy academics, to a poor immigrant hair salon with ease.  I enjoyed this story very much.  I liked the characters, and was fascinated by the look into Nigerian society, as well as the experience of a foreigner here in America.  I definitely want to read another of her books!

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The House Girl by Tara Conklin

June 10, 2014

The House GirlJosephine is a slave in Virginia during the 1850’s at a failing plantation. She is the only slave left who works in the house and her main job is to take care of the Mistress, Lu Anne Bell. Lu Anne is in ill health, having lost 17 children in childbirth or shortly after. Her only solace is painting. She took Josephine under her wing when Josephine was a small girl, teaching her to read and allowing her some access to her paints and charcoals. Yet Josephine is still a slave, and still subject to the whims of her owners. The master has abused her and most of her friends have been sold away to raise funds. One day, when the master slaps her for no apparent reason, she decides it is finally time for her to run away.

Lina is a first year associate of a large corporate law firm in New York when she is asked to work on what her boss calls a history making case. They have been asked to take up the case of Slave Reparations, and Lina’s job is to find a descendant of slaves who would like to become a plaintiff. Lina’s father is a painter, and he suggests she look at a controversy that is brewing in the art world. A well respected critic is claiming that a series of paintings long attributed to a southern painter named Lu Anne Bell may actually have been painted by her slave, Josephine. Lina thinks this is the perfect case to add a human face to their financial claims. But she needs to find out not only if Josephine was the true artist, but whether she had any surviving family members.

Tara Conklin’s novel alternates between the story of slave Josephine’s final day when she decides to run, and lawyer Lina’s investigation of what may have happened to her after that. Lina is struggling to define herself and dealing with the effects of having lost her mother when she was young. As Josephine’s tale draws Lina in, she will learn more about herself and what she wants to do with her life. Josephine’s tale was the more riveting one, though, and I found myself racing through the book to find out what happens to her. My only criticism of the book is that Lina’s search was surprisingly too easy. As someone who has done some family research, I know that rarely do you find clues or answers in the first place you look. Despite this, I really enjoyed this book and look forward to more from this author!


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Little Girl Lost by Brian McGilloway

May 20, 2014

little girlcover.phpLooking for a new mystery? Look no further! Brian McGilloway’s Little Girl Lost is a page turner that I devoured in one day.  Detective Sargent Lucy Black of the Police Service of Northern Ireland is first to respond to a call reporting a girl wandering the woods in the middle of a snowstorm. Black and her colleagues hope this girl is the missing teenage daughter of a wealthy and influential man. The teen was apparently abducted from a busy city street and the police have no clues. Instead, Lucy finds a much younger girl who has blood all over her hands; blood which belongs to someone else. The girl is traumatized and refuses to speak to or acknowledge anyone. She will only respond to Lucy.

Lucy is reassigned to the Public Protection Unit, which deals with cases relating to children at risk, in order to work on the young girl’s case. Lucy is upset over the transfer out of CID to a unit whose focus is not criminal, but more social work. She convinces her new boss she can find out who the girl is and still work on the kidnapping case. On top of this extra work, she is also caring for her aging father, a former policeman who now suffers from Alzheimer’s.

Then nasty secrets from the past begin to surface about events from Northern Ireland’s troubles in the 1990’s, when Lucy’s father’s was still on the force. By week’s end Lucy suspects the two cases could be related in more ways than one.
Weaving in the politics of the past with the heartbreaking work of caring for children at risk and an aging parent, the book is a mystery with a good heart. Lucy’s world is very complicated, and her mixed feelings about returning to the area she grew up in are very believable. What happens will make her doubt all of her memories from childhood.


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The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

April 24, 2014

The Lowland by Jhumpa LahiriThe two brothers in The Lowland are so close that people often mistake them for twins. They do everything together and they are similar in appearance, yet they have always had different temperaments. Subhash, the elder brother, is the more serious one, and Udayan is more bold and idealistic. When they reach college age, these differences become more apparent. Subhash works hard and jumps at the chance to further his education in America. Udayan is less focused on academics and becomes involved in the radical leftist movement at the university in Calcutta. The movement begins with students who want to eliminate poverty in India, but eventually becomes outlawed when it is infiltrated by guerrilla communist groups.

While Subhash is in Boston, Udayan falls in love and marries young, moving with his bride back to their parent’s home. Everyone believes Udayan has left his radical days behind, but one day Subhash receives an urgent request to come back to India because of a tragedy in the family.

What happens next will change the course of Subhash’s life, as well as the lives his parents and Udayan’s bride. Lahiri’s lyrical writing gives a wonderful picture of family life in Calcutta and of the student movement of the 1960s. The book then follows the family through the rest of their lives to show what happened to them after Udayan’s death. I enjoyed this approach because I am often left wondering what happened to characters I become so involved with after the book ends. Fans of Lahiri’s other book, The Namesake, will not be disappointed.

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Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver

April 8, 2014

Flight Behavior by Barbara KingsolverDellarobia is a young housewife living on a struggling family farm in the mountains of Tennessee. She is sneaking away for an illicit affair when she stumbles across an incredible sight. Millions of Monarch butterflies have set down in a field on their land. Dellarobia is so moved by the sight she convinces her husband and father-in-law to put on hold their plan to sell logging rights to raise cash.

When word spreads, the butterflies become a worldwide sensation and focus for controversy. Visitors from all over arrive to see the wonder. Environmentalists mount campaigns to save the butterflies. The local church believes it is a sign from God. Scientists argue over climate change. News crews keep showing up on Dellarobia’s doorstep.

For Dellarobia, it means a glimpse of life outside her small world. In high school she was considered bright and had planned for college when she discovered she was pregnant. Since then she has grown stagnant living in her home town. Now, she goes to work for the scientists who have arrived to study the butterflies and she becomes wrapped up in their work. When they tell her that they will only be there for a few short months she is devastated.

Kingsolver’s novel is wonderfully written and is an insightful study of different worlds colliding. One of my favorite scenes is when an environmental activist tries to get Dellarobia to join the fight “to save the planet”. His list of things people can do to help aren’t remotely relevant to her life. Save electricity by turning off the computer? She doesn’t have one. Bring your own cup to Starbucks? There isn’t one, and they couldn’t afford it anyway. Recycle? Her husband’s truck is on its third engine and they never buy new clothes. The man becomes discouraged and leaves without talking to anyone else in the town. It is hard to reconcile that there are so many in this country living such different lives than what we think of as normal, but Kingsolver does a good job of making everyone in the book realistic and sympathetic. And by the end you are really hoping for a new life for both Dellarobia and the butterflies.

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The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

March 4, 2014

If you wanted to meet the perfect mate, would you leave it to chance, or would you create a 16 page (double- sided) questionnaire that will eliminate all those who have habits you don’t like? If you were a highly logical person, like genetics Professor Don Tillman, a questionnaire would seem like the only solution. To implement his plan, Don takes his questionnaire to places he might meet single women, such as a singles party, where he passes it out at the door.

As you might expect, Don’s Wife Project does not go according to plan. He never seems to meet anyone who would pass the test and few women seem interested in filling out the questionnaire. On top of this, he finds himself spending more and more time with Rosie, someone who is the complete opposite of his ideal woman. Rosie smokes, does not exercise, and is never punctual. When she first arrived at his office, Don mistakenly thought she was there because of the Wife Project so he asked her to dinner. But Rosie just wanted help in tracking down her real father and was referred to Don because of his expertise in genetics. Despite her unsuitability, Don’s Wife Project keeps getting delayed because of the work he’s doing on Rosie’s Father Project.

Don’s lack of social skills makes for some very funny incidents, sometimes predictable, but most often not. I have read reviews that compared the character of Don to Sheldon from the TV show, “The Big Bang Theory.” I do see similarities, but Simsion‘s Don seems much more real to me and the situations in the book seem more natural than a sitcom could ever be. In fact, none of the characters in the book are stereotypical or perfect. More importantly, Don is an adult who continues to learn and grow. He frequently stops to analyze his behavior and see how he can better himself.

The Rosie Project is more than a comedy or a love story, it is about how we make connections with other people and how we overcome our preconceived notions of everyone, including ourselves. I found it to be utterly charming. It could possibly be the feel good book of the year.

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