December 30, 2013

Room by Emma Donoghue

Ok, so I had heard bits about this book before actually reading it.  That, combined with the title, made me have a fair guess as to what it was about.  What I didn't expect though, was for it to be narrated through the child's eyes.

Jack knows about Room.  His mother is there, they eat there, they sleep there and they do everything in Room.  Sometimes a man brings them things, Jack is not to be around when this happens.  And  he knows that sometimes his mom goes away in her head and doesn't enjoy Room as much as he does.  In fact, he is quite disturbed when she mentions leaving Room as there shouldn't be anything Outside that isn't already in Room or TV. 

Obviously Jack is pretty oblivious to his surroundings and how limited they are.  That's how his mom chose to raise him and keep him safe.  So watching him discover the Outside is like seeing a child grow up from the beginning, only with more intelligence than an infant normally has.  And it is disturbing.  And his mother, well she's definitely a sympathetic character.  In fact, I sympathized with her more than she probably even needed as I just wanted her to be able to take a break from her kid and his incessant questions.  It's commendable that she stayed sane with everything that was going on. 

I found the story to be too slow in the beginning and too fast in the end.  It just didn't seem very realistic on its timeline, especially in the second half.  And some of the things that the characters did, well I would have thought there'd be a lot more security and restrictions than there was.  But then again I have never personally been through an ordeal like the one in Room so it's hard to say what actually happens aside from the clips one hears on the news.  I wasn't very fond of Jack being the narrator.  I know it's a "novel" way of writing the book and understanding what's going on.  But like a child, Jack rambles quite a bit about details I just don't care about.  And after several chapters of it I found those details to be tiring.   There was so much that wasn't included in the book because it was from a child's point of view as well.  At the very least I would have liked to have seen it bounce between Jack's point of view and his mothers.  To fill in those gaps.

But it is what it is and while Room is unique, I don't think that it's fantastic.  It takes a sad topic, puts a different spin on it, and makes for a quick read on a subject that is more serious in nature.

Copyright 2010
321 pages

The Sisters by Nancy Jensen

Deeply moving and deeply sad, this is a book that packs a lot of emotion.   When you see the title "The Sisters" you know it's going to be about family, but you don't really realize how those people will interact until reading the book.

Mabel and Bertie are sisters.  Bertie is just getting ready to graduate the eighth grade and her biggest dream is to marry Wallace, a local boy, who is older than her, but who she still adores.  Mabel, having quit school when their mother died to care for her sister and their step-father approves of Bertie's choice.  So when Mabel and Wallace run away together, and the step-father dies, it spins the whole family's world for a loop and even has an impact on future generations.

I did like Mabel much better than Bertie.  I think it was because she seemed to remain so positive while Bertie chose to dwell in the past and be miserable at times.  I understand there was a lot of heartache all around, and that the lesson of this book seemed to be that one person could dampen things throughout the whole family line, but it just seemed to me that Bertie's side of the family tree was much more depressing than Mabel's.  In fact, I was sad to see that much more of the book was dedicated to Bertie and her family than Mabel and her family.  Mabel was the much more interesting of the two.  Even so though, Bertie had quite a few characters and personalities and my favorite on her's was Grace, a granddaughter who was a bit of a free spirit.

Since this is about a family and their lives you would expect the book to move quite slowly at times.  But it doesn't.  There is always enough drama and strife going on that someone is doing something at all times.  And just the grief the characters expressed was enough to tug you in to see what happens.  And the book also deals with some hard topics such as incest, abuse, and homosexuality in the early part of the 20th century.  It's not a book to take lightly or consider afternoon pleasure reading.  There's some serious stuff going on in here.

I'm very glad I took the librarian's recommendation on this book.  While it wasn't a pleasant read, it was a good one.

The Sisters
Copyright 2011
322 pages

December 20, 2013

A Thousand Days in Tuscany by Marlena De Blasi

This is a book about food.  Really.  Ok, well maybe it's a book about Italian culture too.  But there's a lot of food in it.

Three years after marrying her husband in Venice, Marlena is apprehensive when they sell everything and move to Tuscany.  Here they have no job, are renting a house, but they quickly become adapted to village life and make a few friends.  One of these is a man who used to live in their house long ago and is a great source of help on projects from making a bread oven to harvesting grapes.  And of course, the entire time that they're living there, there is a lot of food and cooking going on.

Marlena describes her husband in favorable terms most of the time.  But does share that he has a quicksilver aspect of his personality which gets him gloomy.  In fact, most of the Italian men Marlena encounters (and one Russian) seem to have this trait.  She herself, while the narrator, doesn't go beyond describing herself in terms of clothes and the food she's eating.  She is very focused on clothes.  In fact, the person who gets the most description is probably Barlozzo, the man who used to live in their house.  He is kind of a funny character but seems to have a good heart.

I'm not sure where the thousand days part of this book came into play.  It seems to span only a year.  I'm guessing it was just a naming convention passed on from one of her other books.  I loved all the descriptions of the food (and the recipes included are mouth watering as well).  It was really that part of the book that shined.  She had good material to work with though with all the local produce and markets.  The actual renovation of the house and grounds I wasn't as interested in.  But her stories of the people in the village were good and you really cared about what happened to the people and how their lives were going.

A nice book about travel/living in Italy in the Tuscany region.  I'm sure most who enjoy other such books will take to this one with no problem.  It seems to fit that whole genre of woman moves to Tuscany and finds love and food.

A Thousand Days in Tuscany
Copyright 2004
325 pages

December 19, 2013

The Beauty of Humanity Movement by Camilla Gibb

Modern Vietnam.  There are plenty of books about the war, but you don't often see as many about what's going on in the country in this time.  Not that this book is a non-fiction by any means.  This is definitely fiction, but it still has a unique setting.

Hung is the local pho seller who makes the best pho.  He has a loyal customer base even though he only has a cart that he pulls along to different areas and not a store.  His store was shut down back when most people were being corralled for re-education.  His connection to some of the patrons that were taken was deep, especially to a poet called Dao.  Now, in the present time, Dao's son and grandson are some of the people who look after Hung and there's a new woman from America who is the daughter of yet another of Dao's friends.  They all want answers in regards to the past, but sometimes those are painful memories to bring up.

Hung is just a good person.  He wants to feed people and make them happy and despite the hardship in his life he still does the best for his community.  It's rather heart-warming actually.  Even Tu, Dao's grandson is a generally good guy.  He's a little naive and is embarrassed easily like most young men, but he goes out of his way for Hung and for his family.  Maggie I wasn't as fond of but I think it's just because she was presented as more sophisticated than everyone else in the book.  She was nice, but I don't think she was any more worldly than the other characters.

This story meanders along between the present and the past.  Flashbacks provide us with Hung's life and why he ended up the way he did.  But there are also teasers that only show half the story and which keep you moving until everything is resolved at the end.  There is no action or adventure, not really, but that's ok because this is a book about people.  I enjoyed reading about Hung and especially liked the descriptions of the pho.  Gibb is very good at describing food.  There is also that element of history and the re-education that happened in Vietnam that was informative.  I wasn't aware of that part of Vietnam's history and was glad the book included the information.

It may not be for people who like faster paced books but if you're looking for a story that combines a little bit of history and centers on people, this is a good one to read!

The Beauty of Humanity Movement
Copyright 2011
308 pages

December 17, 2013

Voices from Iran by Mahnaz Kousha

Anymore it seems there are a lot of books about Iran, and especially about the women of Iran. Because for a lot of us, it's an intriguing topic. The women's lives there we can't even fathom sometimes as it's completely different from what we're used to in a culture. That being said, some of the books out there are better than the others.

Kousha interviews fifteen Iranian women from different walks of life (although the majority are educated) and how being a woman in Iran has played out for them. She explores their relationships with their mothers, fathers, husbands and their role in the workplace. She also asks whether or not they'd rather be born again as women or men and why.

To me a lot of the women she interviewed seemed to be from the same walks of life. A good many of them were able to work, some had pursued higher education, and all were at least given the autonomy to talk to an interviewer. And it's this last thing that I think shows that this book may not be reflective of the society as a whole (the author does say this is not a representational book of women in Iran). It's interesting to hear their stories and how they felt about their stations in life. Generally, most of them weren't happy with some aspects of their life but actually quite content in others.

The format of this book actually made it duller than it really was. Kousha spent a lot of time telling us what she was going to do in the book and after awhile I just wanted to get on to the interviews. But even those were broken up between speculations by Kousha about the women and their relationships. There also seemed to be a lot of repetition. We'd see a quote from one of the women and then just a few paragraphs later that same quote would be part of a larger chunk from the interview. The book was split into sections such as "Mothers and Daughters" and "Fathers and Daughters" and the conversations followed those lines.

This was an interesting book but there are plenty out there that are a little more engaging and show more of the women's stories.

Voices From Iran
Copyright 2002
244 pages

December 15, 2013

The Arrow Catcher by Jim Mather

The Arrow Catcher is a coming of age/karate book. And as such I think it would really appeal to teenage boys. The main character, Jonathan, goes through some pretty traumatic stuff, yet still endures.

Jonathan is unfortunate enough to witness the death of both of his parents. Then, he is shipped off to Japan to live with his grandfather and his new Japanese wife. But instead of being taken into their home he is dropped at the gates of a local school of karate where he must gain admittance and do his best against hostile classmates.

Jonathan is strong. There's no denying that. Almost too strong actually. Considering the life events he has been through I would expect a character not quite as balanced. He seems too good to be true. The rest of the characters were a little more believable. They had flaws, and managed to combine good and bad aspects of their personalities. And everyone in this book is very intense.

I liked the concept of the book. An American boy struggling to gain a place in an esteemed school in Japan and endure physical difficulties. I wasn't as fond of the pacing. It was actually hard to keep up with how old Jonathan was because of the abrupt changes in the book. The pace moved pretty fast as well and I'd be reading about a conversation when I was suddenly thrust into a battle within the space of a page. It was disorienting. But I imagine those that enjoy reading action novels will truly enjoy this book. Because it does have a lot of action and adventure.

This is definitely for people who like karate. As said before, I'm sure this would be a book that's very popular with teenaged boys or those who like the martial arts.

**This book was received in a Goodreads Giveaway**

The Arrow Catcher
Copyright 2013
266 pages

December 14, 2013

The Art of Purring by David Michie

**This review is part of the Amazon Vine Program**

I've read "The Dalai Lama's Cat" and absolutely loved it. So I was very eager to read this book. And it was good. Not as good as the first, but still informative and a positive read.

Rinpoche is the Dalai Lama's cat. She has a considerable amount of freedom as she rules his household and goes to a local coffee shop to hang out with her friends there. But being his cat has some responsibilities too. She has to work at improving herself and in this book he gave her the task to study the art of purring. Just why she purrs and what happiness means in general.

Rinpoche is a cat. She narrates as a cat. But she has a pretty deep sense of the world around her. And even herself at times. So even though you know that she's a cat, she does read as a human being talking. But that's ok, this is fiction. I like the way she as a cat describes the people around her and the good and bad of them. She may not be peaceful all the time, but she has a goal of peace and happiness and that really gets to the heart of what this book is about. There wasn't much of the Dalai Lama in this one though, he was mostly just someone she referred to when musing about different things.

Most will probably immediately associate this as a book about Buddhism. And it kind of is. But not in the sense that it's crammed down your throat. It's just not that type of style. It's more life lessons, things we can do to be happier, all without being overt about saying "Hey meditate and do yoga and life will be peachy!" So I appreciated it for that. And like in the first book, there always seems to be some kind of lesson that really hits home for me and what I'm currently doing in my life. I suspect it would be the same for others because it really does cover a wide variety of topics. My only compliant would be that there was more about the side characters in this book and I thought that it took a bit of the focus away from Rinpoche and the lessons she was learning. But it's a very, very small complaint.

Such a nice book and I would continue to read more the author wrote about Rinpoche and her life with the Dalai Lama. The first two will definitely have a permanent position on my bookshelf.

The Art of Purring
Copyright 2013
208 pages

December 12, 2013

Sideways on a Scooter by Miranda Kennedy

This book reads more as fiction than non-fiction to me.  I don't know why.  Maybe it's just the tone.  But Kennedy's experiences in India are interesting, but not life like.  Even though it is real life.  Maybe it's just me.

Having parents who had done some traveling and were unconventional in their own right, Kennedy moves to India in her twenties where she hopes to make a living as a journalist.  While there, she experiences the culture of her city, sees the struggles that women still have in a not-quite-modern-yet India, and makes a few friends of her own that come from very different backgrounds.

This isn't really a book about Alexander.  Sure she tells you about her life in India and the apartment she has and a few personal details, but the majority of the book are about the ladies that she makes acquaintances with.  There's Geeta, the somewhat modern but longing for a traditional marriage, friend of Alexander's.  In complete contrast is Parvati, who dresses traditional but holds very non-traditional views and practices.  There's her maid Radha who may do the cleaning but has a lot of pride in her family.  And several others who all have different experiences as women living in India.

This book meanders with no clear path except time.  It spans a couple of years and jumps around in detail.  Conversations are done in full detail while months can drift by in just a few sentences.  And I think that's what made it feel like fiction to me.  I enjoyed reading about the women Kennedy met but I do wish more detail would have been given to the part of India that she stayed in as far as scenery and more vivid food descriptions.  But it was still a good read.  It has a nice pace and a lovely way of describing the people in it.

I wouldn't call this a book on India.  Or even a travel book.  But it is a book about a bunch of different women and their lives and happens to be set in India.

Sideways on a Scooter
Copyright 2011
342 pages

December 08, 2013

Chasing Chaos by Jessica Alexander

**This review is part of the Amazon Vine Program**

It's easy to glamorize Aid work.  I mean, you're out there helping people, pretty selfless work right?  Well, yes and no.  As Alexander describes it, Aid work is like any other, you get paid for doing a job, the setting is just a little different and the stresses are different.

Originally in advertizing, Alexander goes back to school after the death of her mother and begins work in the Aid field.  During her decade of working she goes to places like Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and Darfur.  While there her jobs range from managing a camp, researching demobilized child soldiers, and taking interviews.  She also takes time to describe the personal lives of Aid workers and what they do in their off hours.  The frustrations that they have and the good that they do find in their work.

Alexander is a straight forward narrator.  She doesn't pull punches and she doesn't sugar coat things.  In fact, she almost makes the life of an Aid worker sound downright dreary.  A job that no one but the insane would want to do.  Or at least, that's how her descriptions come across to me.  The people she work with all seem stressed out and eager for vacation, and don't seem to find much joy in their work.  There are a few that do, but honestly, it was hard to tell what drew these people to the field in the first place.

I actually enjoyed most of the stories that she had that were about the work itself.  There were a lot of varied things and I learned way more than I ever knew before about Humanitarian Aid.  But the tone was certainly not upbeat or approachable.  I'm not saying it should have been, after all, some horrible things are discussed in this book.  But the amount of disdain Alexander and other Aid Workers have for the other relief groups out there (the non-professional ones) is kind of disheartening.  You'd think if they were doing such a bad job or making things worse it would be better to organize something to share that kind of information with them rather than being disgusted with them.  I don't know, it just sort of put me off the book.  Luckily though the pace of the book is relatively fast and you don't have time to dwell on any one topic.

This was interesting but not what I expected.  I'm not sure who I'd recommend it to other than people who are interested in Humanitarian Aid.

Chasing Chaos
Copyright 2013
377 pages


December 07, 2013

The Museum of Abandoned Secrets by Oksana Zabuzkho

**This review is part of the Amazon Vine program**

I have a feeling this book was a lot better in its original language. In fact, it took over half the book for me to really start getting into it. Which at six hundred pages is a tall order.

This book spans a couple of different time periods. The modern time, in which Daryna, a journalist lives with Aidy and they have strange reoccurring dreams about the past. In their real lives though, Daryna deals with the canceling of her show and what to do with her life. She also copes with a friends death that has unanswered questions. Aidy runs an antique business and has untrustworthy souls in his life too. The people in the past are a part of the war and have many connections to each other and many secrets that they are covering up.

It was hard to really get to know any of the people in this book aside for Daryna and Aidy. Mainly because it was hard to follow who was who. So many connections and so many nicknames are used that if you aren't from a culture where this is commonplace it is almost incomprehensible. I did actually like Daryna and Aidy. They were flawed but had a lot of passion. The rest of the characters I didn't really like. I just couldn't connect to them and they all had some pretty horrible character traits.

This was very much a stream of consciousness type book and was brutal to read. Mainly because stream of consciousness for six hundred pages is overwhelming since it isn't my favorite style to begin with. And it bounced around quite a bit. Because of that it was hard to tell where you were in time in certain parts of the book. The overall theme was interesting. A lot of passion in the writing and Daryna and Aidy had interesting stories. I couldn't care about the parts in the past though so it made it hard to connect to the book as a whole.

If you like stream of consciousness you'll like this book. It does have several good parts and very descriptive language. For me though, it was only 2 1/2 stars.

The Museum of Abandoned Secrets
Copyright 2012
678 pages