Saturday, October 24, 2015

Serafina and the Black Cloak by Robert Beatty

image from LibrayThing
Serafina hides and scurries and watches from the dark recesses of Biltmore house.  As the C.R.C (Chief Rat Catcher) of the estate she she stalks and destroys the mangy beasts from the deepest corners of the basement that she calls home.

It was on one of those evening rat chases that she comes across something completely different -something evil lurking in her domain.  A man wearing a black cloak attacking a young girl in a yellow dress. Serafina tries to save this girl, fighting desperately to help her escape - when the girl simply disappears in the folds of the cloak and the dark, putrid smelling cloaked man turns his attentions on Serafina.  She narrowly escapes with her life.

This encounter changes Serafina and her connections to her Pa and to the only home she has known.  She begins to question her Pa's wisdom of staying hidden in the darkness.  She longs to figure things out and that draws her upstairs into the edges and shadows of the rooms where the beautiful people live.  Here a chance encounter with Braeden Vanderbilt changes her entire future.

This book follows a girl's self-discovery journey.  There were things I really liked about this book and things I didn't.  I thought Serafina's inner dialogue was a bit stilted - not really the words of a young frightened girl.  And there were moments bogged down with description of the behind the scenes workings of a huge estate.  I felt at times that this Disney published book was trying to jump on the Downton Abby craze with American's own aristocracy.  But - it's an interesting story with twists that I didn't quite expect.  That makes it fun to read. I did care about Serafina and her quest to figure out who or what she is and what is happening to the disappearing children.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler

image from LibraryThing
This is the story of 4 friends, 4 weddings, one divorce, one shooting and one carefully guarded secret.

Friendships - are the centerpiece of this book.
Male friendships in a small midwestern town.
Male friendships that span decades - and that fray and tatter and rebuild.

I liked this book.

I liked Henry and Beth - the down-to-earth, live on the farm, stalwart couple with their own secrets - Henry paints landscapes and burns them before anyone can see and Beth was not always the mild-mannered house wife!

I liked Lee the rock star who made it big - yet carried a part of Little Wing with him in his lonesome songs.

I liked Kip the stock broker who came home to show the town how important he was by trying to restore the long defunct feed mill. Kip who was all 'bluster and strut' to hide his real longing to just watch the sun come up over the mill each day and belong.

And I really liked Ronny the washed up rodeo rider.  Ronny with a heart of gold and a brain sloshed around too often from booze and bulls.  Ronny who loves deeply and openly and isn't afraid to share that. Ronny who is sort of the butt of all jokes - but the real glue.

This is a melancholy look at what happens when you have to grow up - and leave behind what you thought you knew for what really is.

I liked this book!

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

image from LibraryThing
This was my book club's October book. I am not sure I would have read it on my own. I really loved To Kill a Mockingbird and after hearing the reviews and uproar about this book I probably would have passed it up.

After reading it - I don't know. It wasn't my favorite book - but not for the reason's I would have expected.  I usually like books where very little happens and much of the story is interior dialogue.  That pretty much describes this book - Scout telling the story all inside her head.  But - it just didn't work for me.  Scout reminded me of a an old movie with a young Katherine Hepburn talking so fast that none of the other characters could keep up with her and it felt like she was talking only to hear herself.  Scout is mad at the world of her home town and yet drawn home in a deep way.  And when home isn't what she had maintained in her mind she doesn't know what to do.

And what an awful world she comes back to - Calpurnia wants nothing to do with the family and her beloved father is hosting a racist town meeting and thinks all is well.  That is awful! And I want to be outraged and I am. But, I am also put off by Scout.

It is one of those books that I am glad I read.  But, I can't really recommend.  It is one that you want to discuss though.  I want to hash it over with others and see what I missed or misunderstood!

Monday, September 14, 2015

The Firebird by Susanna Kearsley

image by LibraryThing
Now this one I liked - a lot!

This builds on The Winter Sea and moves the story along. This is the story of Anna, Sophia's daughter.  Anna's life could have been a tragedy - given up at birth by her mother and raised by a neighbor and later sent to live with nuns and finally landing with a new family in Russia.  But it isn't a tragedy - instead it is the story of strength and poise and love.  Anna accepts each stage of her life for what it is and what she can learn from it. That sounds a little ridiculous, I know. But, I really liked her plucky attitude and stamina for a 1720 girl!

This story is told in pieces by Nikola - an English girl with a gift for 'seeing.'  Her connection to Anna is not through written words like Carrie's was - but by touching an object and 'seeing' the history and the events that the object was involved with.  Nikola is a Russian art dealer who was asked to appraise a small carved bird - the firebird. She sees the Tsarina of Russia handing this bird to Anna - but doesn't know who Anna is or how she can prove the object was actually important.

Nikola enlists her friend Rob to help with the process - Rob has a stronger inner eye and together they embark to Russia to discover Anna's story. In the same way that Winter Sea told a double story  - so does The Firebird. As the story of Anna is being told - Nikola and Rob's story is also unfolding.

I liked this book much more. I was very vested in the characters!  There were a couple twists that I didn't quite anticipate that made the end very engaging.  The history was important - but somehow it was easier for me to follow along without really knowing all the details.  Maybe that happened because I cared for Anna more.

I would recommend this one!  It was a fun and quick read.

Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley

image from LibraryThing
I had high hopes for this book. I wanted something to remind me of Jamie and Claire in the Outlander Series.  But this didn't quite make it.  Had I read this first - I think it would have been fine. But my hopes were set a bit too high!!

This is the story of a writer (Carrie) researching the Slains Castle in Scotland for a book on the reinstatement of King James. She is mysteriously drawn to the castle as she works on the book - and discovers that her attention is taken by a young girl named Sophia.  A girl she 'sees' at the castle. No - not as a ghost.

Instead, Carrie is somehow channeling Sophia and watching the story unfold in front of her as the words flow from her fingers in her writing. That is interesting and all - but becomes a bit more unsettling when further research shows her that Sophia was a real person and actually was at the castle in the time frame she was writing about. It seems that Carrie has discovered a window into the past.  Add to that a love story unfolding both in the past at Slains and in Carrie's current life and this makes a pretty good story!

The book is a strong piece of history.  The people are real as are the events.  It does assume the reader has a rough understanding of Scottish history in the 1700s that I did not have. That made it a bit tricky to really appreciate the history.

Kearsley does a great job of creating scenes that draw the reader in and invite us to understand history through the characters' eyes.  But, I was just looking for a bit more I guess.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

image from LibraryThing
A mystery first spun in the mind of an alcoholic divorcee and then spilling into her reality.  Rachel imagines and wonders and stews and buries her loneliness and despair in a bottle.  She just can't let go of Tom, her ex, or the fantasy of the couple she glimpses through the flickering windows of her train car.  This story comes out in flicks and sputters just like those images. 

As a reader it took me a while to get into the book - the chapters alternate between voices and dates. And the story is mostly told by Rachel in various states of drunkenness - which adds to the confusion, and adds to the story, to the unreality, to the despair and regret.  

The story is also told by Anna and Megan. Anna is the current wife of Tom, Rachel's ex and Megan is the mystery woman Rachel sees from her train window.  

Very early in the book Megan disappears - completely and totally.  And Rachel decides that she may know what has happened - because she was in town the night of her disappearance.  The problem is that she can't remember anything, really, because she was black out drunk.  How do you make others believe that you know something that you can't really figure out yourself.  How do you face the demons that are there and everywhere?

Our most recent book club book.

Friday, July 3, 2015

STiLL ALiCE by Lisa Genova

I have read many books, some that are forgettable, some that I can't put down, and some that I know I will haunt me.  This is one that will stay with me for a long time, a very long time.

Alice, a brilliant professor, loses her place on a jog- suddenly the streets surrounding her home shift to an unknown terrain.  And when they shift back to the familiar she realizes that her life has also shifted.  This book walks with Alice to the first doctorĘ»s visit, to the first neurological test and to get the moment that her terror is named- Alzheimer's. At each of these moments Alice is both her old self and this unknown new apparition that Alzheimer's is creating.  

This isn't a melodrama or a feels-good-happy-ending kind of story where the family lines up and cheers for this poor mom.  Instead, John, her husband, is sort of an ass - avoiding conversations and pretending that HIS life needs to not change.  Lydia, the youngest daughter, on the other hand, connects with her mom in a way she never could with the old Alice.  I liked the reality of the mixed reactions and emotions- because it allowed me to confront my own avoidance and patronizing habits.

Although this is a deeply sad story it is more than that.  Walking hand and hand with the loss of her memory Alice speaks out for those with Alzheimer's in a refreshing way.  She advocates for herself and others even speaking at a conference.  This is not the story of a battle but of a rugged path that absolutely no one would choose!

Through it all Alice is herself with an Alzheimer's coat wrapping her more and more tightly.  

Read it!

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

This is one of those books I thought I should read.  I wasn't especially enamored with the cover or the concept of the book - people who are part of an ancient text.  But, the story caught me and has held me.  I have found myself talking about this book to several different people.

So - what was it that changed my attitude?

The story is about Hanna, a book restorer (my title, not hers).  She is a rather non-descript woman who has grown up in the very tall and dark shadow of her brain surgeon mother who sort of sucks all the air out of any room she enters.  Hanna has made quite a name for herself in the world of book conservators, but will never measure up to her mom's ideal.  That is the back story.

The real story is of the Haggadah - an ancient Hebrew text used at holy Seder meals.  This book is rediscovered in Sarajevo following the Bosnian war and Hanna has been invited to check it out and rebind it for the next millennia.

Hanna discovers three minute artifacts in the binding - an insect wing, a hair and a blood stain.  This is where the book really launches, because it tells the story of each of those artifacts in real time. So it is really a story inside a story.

What I found the most intriguing was the story of the book itself.  I am not a historian - so the generations of anti-Judiasm woven into this story really took me by surprise.  I know about WWII and how the Jews were treated - I just didn't really understand that this hatred had been part of their lives forever.  So as the Jews are admired for their wisdom and their abilities they are also scorned for their wisdom and their abilities.  AND woven throughout this entire book are stories of Muslims and Christians who have been able to look at the person and not the religion to help save this ancient text.  It really struck me!  We live in a world where we think we have evolved yet we are muddling through the very same problems that existed thousands of years ago!  That doesn't say very much for progress.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would recommend it to anyone interested in history and in the secret life of a book!

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Loving Frank by Nancy Horan

I knew who Frank Lloyd Wright was - but just barely.  My mom took me on a birthday adventure to Cedar Rock house in Quasqueton, Iowa a few years back.  It was an interesting place - full of straight lines and dark corners and very beautiful.  And I remember reading a young adult book, The Wright 3,  a mystery in a Wright house in Chicago

So it was with that little bit of knowledge that I read this book.   The story is fictionish.  I mean it is built on the actual story - you can research the events.  I think this famous story makes it a bit tricky to create a believable ficitionalized story -straying from the known facts would be so obvious. Especially when the truth of this story reads like fiction!  But, I sort of wish the story had moved a long a bit faster. Some parts drug a bit.

Loving Frank tells the love story of Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Borthwick.  Both are married with numerous children between them.  Frank had been the architet for the house that Mamah and her husband built. After the house was built and it was time to make plans to add the garage - Frank and Mamah gave in to their attraction.

This was a long time ago  - and although Mamah's husband, Edwin, eventually grants her a divorce. Frank's wife, Cathrine refuses to release him from their marriage and their eight children.  So they live a tough life of never fitting in to the society that Frank creates in his houses.  Living in both Europe and the US.  Withstanding the scandal that rocks Frank's career and his poor management style.

Eventually Frank convinces his mother to give him land in Wisconsin and he builds Taliesin for Mamah.  And it is there,  in the Wisconsin countryside that the real tragedy in this story happens.

 I found myself not wanting to fall for Frank.  He was an intense man - maybe manic depressive.  Watching Mamah Borthwick give in to her better instincts was actually a bit difficult.  Edwin seemed to be a simple man who loved her deeply - Frank provided her intellect with the sparring and stimulation she longed for, and giving in to that longing caused her to destroy her family - loosing children.  Eventually she found peace - but it took a LONG time!

This is an intriguing story - but slow moving and a bit to 'worshipful' of Wright for my taste.  May book club book.

Ashfall series by Mike Mulin

 I read these three books following the Iowa School Librarians Association Conference in Des Moines.  Mike Mullin, an Indiana author, was a featured speaker on Sunday afternoon and evening.  I was so intrigued by both his encouragement to us to write and the process he used to write these stories.  I am disappointed in myself for not reading these before the conference - because I have questions I would love to chat with him about!

The catalyst of these books is the eruption of the super volcano under Yellowstone National Park. There really is a volcano there and the prediction is that the eastern edge of the ashfall would be the Mississippi river.  It was with that bit of information that Mullin created his story.  Alex is a 16 year old boy left alone for the weekend at his Cedar Falls, Iowa home while his parents and sister travel to Apple River near Galena, Illinois.  It was that Saturday afternoon that the eruption occured.  Alex's house is destroyed and he barely escapes to his neighbors' across the street.  This house is not safe either as civilized society quickly unravels and they are attacked by a group of youth.  Alex barely escapes and decided that his only option is to travel east and find his parents.

That is the beginning. Ashfall is the story of that trek east.  Everything we take for granted - water, sunlight, warmth, food, transportation - have all disappeared under the weight of the ash.  And with an earthquake opening the local prison - you never know who you will find when you stop at a farm house.  Alex's one amazing piece of goodluck was stopping at the home of Darla and her mom.  Against Darla's better judgement she and Alex become friends and eventually they are the key to keeping one another alive.

Ashen Winter and Sunrise continue the story - and I don't really want to give too much away in my summary.  Instead, I want to comment a little about how these books have affected me...I am not a doomsday person. I tend to believe that human nature will move ahead and life will remain mildly pleasant. It is almost impossible to believe that as you read these books. Life is impossible.  Really impossible!  Laws don't make sense anymore and so people in each enclave create their own law - at the cost of the next village down the road.  It is a dark time - both literally since the sun is gone for more than a year and figuratively!  These books are not fluffy reads - there is death and violence and cannabilism and general sadness - as well as love and sacrifice and hope.

The presentation by Mullin really brought the story to life as he shared about choosing the house and the road that Alex would follow.  He pictured these places as he wrote each part of the book. I found that fascinating!  As a reader I set the books in a known place - so to think of this for the writer also is really interesting!  Mullin was very approachable and welcomed questions from the librarians and the students he talks to.

I would love to chat with someone after reading these books. I would like to trade stories and thoughts and preparedness!!  Highly recommend these!

Thursday, March 26, 2015

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

image from LibraryThing
This is a story of incredible beauty and unfathomable darkness.  It is WWII France and Germany.  It is children growing up in a world where childhood was not allowed and nightmares are real.  But, so is beauty.

This is the story of Marie-Laure, a French girl whose father is a locksmith at a Paris museum - a locksmith tasked with hiding a priceless treasure as he flees Paris with his blind daughter.

At the same time we follow Werner, the white haired radio whiz who escapes the overpowering poverty of a mining town for the education brainwashing of the Third Reich.

Their paths cross in radio waves in the most unexpected way.

This is a beautifully crafted book.  Descriptions are detailed and inviting and unexpected.  The beauty of birds on the wing juxtaposed with incredible cruelty toward prisoners.

This book took me a bit to jump in to.  The characters are introduced and then the book folds back to an earlier time and slowly moves forward.  But - even more was the image of Marie-Laure alone in a house with the fires of a bomb raid creeping toward her.  I was afraid for could a blind girl be alone in a burning house.

I cared for her from the very beginning - and so did Doerr!

I loved this one!! Our April book club book

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

I really enjoyed this book.  I liked the characters and the situation and the surprise twists and turns.  Moriarty has a way of making the reader expect one thing and then gently twist the story to a different place.

The premise is a school parent event - a trivia night for parents to raise money for equipment.  This takes place Australia - so the event also included alcohol - something that wouldn't happen in the schools where I have worked.

Moriarty starts the story with parents fleeing the trivia event - and then builds the tale by backing up to a morning months earlier when a few future kindergarten moms gathering for a roundup sort of day.  The pecking order appears quickly with a one new mom nervously trying to figure out her place. She is sort of swept up with Madelaine - one of the more flashy moms and it all feels good until...There is an event that very first morning - a little girl is bullied and her mom goes ballistic.  And that sets this group of parents on an unexpected path.

Now my favorite part. Each of the chapters ends with a snippet of a police or reporter interview with a few of the parents. Clearly there is a death. But that is all you really know...who and why and where.

My only complaint is the title for this book and the picture. I felt like the broken candy cheapened the seriousness of the topics in the pages.  Although this was an easy read - brings forward darknesses that are ususally hidden.  This is only my opinion  - and I would strongly recommend this to others.

I loved this March book club read!

Friday, February 27, 2015

These Things Hidden by Heather Gudenkauf

Image from LibraryThing

Two sisters, perfect from the outside until...

Allison, the perfect, is just released from jail - for a death.  Her younger sister, Brynn is avoiding Allison at all costs because seeing her would bring it all back.

And in the midst of all this sibling turmoil readers are introduced to Claire and her bookstore.  Claire, the adopted mom of Joshua who kindly offered Allison a job in her bookstore.  And then there is Charm, the girl who hangs out in the self-help section at the bookstore and wants to be a nurse.

These four women cross paths - and of course things are changed forever - this wouldn't be a great book if things like that didn't happen!

This is a book written by the sister of one of my coworkers.  :)
I've been slow to read any of Gudenkauf's books. It's sort of like my hesitancy to watch a movie everyone else is recommending - what happens if it doesn't live up to others' recommendations?
Well - this lived up to the recommendations!  Read it!

Ahab's Wife: Or the Star-Gazer by Sena Jester Naslund

image from LibraryThing
This book was recommended to me by a seed corn dealer convention!  He told me it was his favorite book.  I was in need of a new one - so I started reading.  It is odd to read a book about characters you sort of know...I have never read Moby Dick, have actually had no desire to attempt it, but even I know who Ahab is and how his life goes.  But, I really liked this book and was drawn in very quickly!

That's because of Una! With a name like Una, you have to be something special.  And she certainly was!

Her life was anything but ordinary - especially for a woman the early 1800s!  She was born in Kentucky, the daughter of a fanatic, bible-thumping father and open -minded mother.  Her first contact with the ocean was living with her aunt, uncle and cousin on the shores of a beautiful lighthouse island in the Atlantic.

And then she was drawn to the sea.

This is one of those big fat books that draw you in.  Una sees the world differently and her descriptions about life and faith and nature are beautiful and thought provoking.  This has made me want to spend more time at the ocean - not on a whaler, but along the shore!

I can't say this was my favorite book - but it was one that I am glad that I read!

Department of Speculation by Jenny Offill

image from LibraryThing
The story of a marriage in bits and pieces.

Reading this felt like I was watching through a window at someone else's life or secretly finding pieces of notes found in the bottom of a purse.

This is the story of a marriage  - from beginning to middle to not quite the end.

It was haunting and beautiful and confusing and incredibly honest and depressing and hopeful and ridiculous and lingering.

It was a poem to the reality of marriage.

The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman

Coralie is a sheltered girl.  Hidden away from the world by her over-protective father on Coney Island in her fathers museum. Coralie is one of the specimans in the museum because of a webbing between her fingers. Her father has her don a mermaid contraption and swim in the tank with a small clear tube for air.  Coralie's mother died when he was young and she completely depends on her father.

At the same time there is another story unfolding.  Eddie grew up has a good little Jewish boy escaped from Russia and slaving by his father's side in the garment district.  But, then things changed.  Eddie's father was afraid of life and what the world handed them - and Eddie couldn't take it anymore.  He left and found his true passion - photography.  He came across an old man in the woods around NYC taking pictures of trees in the darkness.  And everything changed.  Eddie changed his name and embraced a new life as an apprentice.  And then the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire happened.

Coralie and Eddie cross paths briefly once, twice - and then their worlds became completely entwined.

I really liked this book.  There were times that were rather preachy - like we were in a history class listening to what Coney Island used to be like.  But there were also so many quirky personalities - including the main characters.

One other thing - the cover image - WOW! I kept imagining Coralie looking out of her tank with those eyes!  completely admit it was the cover that pulled me in to this story!

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Revenge of Seven by Pittacus Lore

image from LibraryThing

So I am sucked into this ongoing series. Each time a new installment  of this series comes out I feel obligated to read it. And it takes me a while to remember what is going on and what has already happened. It is my ongoing complaint against series books! 

 That being said, I really do enjoy these. I like the quirky characters and the story told in multiple voices. This books brings the horrible Morgadorian aliens to earth and the war begins... Sort of

Friday, January 9, 2015

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

image from LibraryThing
What a story! There were times when I felt I was wandering along Jacko's labyrinth totally blind and simply trusting that I remembered the path.  I think that is just what David Mitchell wanted for his take us to a part of our world we could barely fathom and could really only briefly grasp.  And at the center of all that unknown is Holly Sykes the girl/woman/old lady whose heart is filled with a no-nonsense love that gathers people towards her.  

That doesn't sound as enticing as this book actually is.  This story spans Holly's life- from her running away from her pub home as a 15 yr old to the final moment on the shores of Sheep's Head island watching her cherished family float away on a small boat,  Through a series of 'chance' meetings Holly has brushed against an ancient evil built on a blind shaman's desire for immorality. This immortality is taken from the bone clocks (humans) they brush against. Holly becomes an integral key to an opposing force.
I truly loved this book! I loved the impossible symmetry of this story...a world spinning along beside Nd underneath and all around without us even knowing!

One of my very favorites!'

Saturday, January 3, 2015

The Bane Chronicles by Cassandra Clare, Sarah Rees Brennan, and Maureen Johnson

I LOVED the first books in this series - the Mortal Instruments.
I liked the Infernal Devices series.
I am just tired of them now.

Here is my pet peeve.

I read the books years ago - they have very detailed and intricate story lines. Magnus is an important character - but honestly I have forgotten most of the details of his part.

Now this book comes up and it makes me feel like I am on the outside of the cool kids inside jokes.  I wish there would more background - or more connections or something.

So - I did enjoy most of the later stories - the first few really fell flat. But the very last story was by far the most frustrating for me. I can't remember anything of the events.
I didn't like this book nearly as much as I did the others.
Shucks - I really wanted to because I liked Magnus!

Some Luck by Jane Smiley

image from LibraryThing
Life on a farm has never been easy.  This book proves the proverb once again.  Life on a farm in southern Iowa for Walter Langdon was not easy.  But, ease would not have been Walter's goal!  Instead, he wanted to raise a family on the land - and that is just what he did!

Smiley follows Walter's family and life from 1920 until his death in 1953 chapter by chapter, season by season, year after year.  Walter marries Rosanna and together they weather the fat years of the 20s and the con-summing drought of the 30s.  They raise their children on the acres of the farm - working long hours and feeling incredible pride for their accomplishments.  At least most of them.

I liked the format of this story. Each chapter was a new year.  The chapters didn't necessarily follow the same character throughout - but they did follow the time chronologically.  So we are able to watch as a family gets electricity or the first car. We experience the Depression in a very Iowa way - they didn't starve, but that is because they worked for every bite they got!

One of my pet peeves with farming books is the ridiculous rose-colored glasses that some writers use when they  speak of farming. Smiley doesn't do that.  It can be incredibly lonely and beyond difficult - like when Rosanna delivers her own baby by herself because she is not able to get to the field for any help.

It took me a while to get in to this book.  I kept waiting for some big moment when luck would come in to play.  The reality is that all farming is luck.  All farmers know that - you have no control over the weather or the markets.  You live on faith and luck and lots of work!

It was interesting to read about Iowa towns that I know...and the comparison between Iowa State and University of Iowa certainly rang true for will have to read it to find out what I mean!