Sunday, March 5, 2017

THE GARDEN OF SMALL BEGINNINGS BY ABBI WAXMAN

Image: Courtesy of Goodreads.com
Rating: 3 of 5 stars

I received an advance copy of The Garden of Small Beginnings by Abbi Waxman from Net Galley. I have not been compensated for this review.

Who says grief can't be funny? In this novel, we meet 34-year old Lilian Girvan (Lili), widowed mother of two daughters - Annabel and Clare, sister to her polar opposite Rachel, and daughter to her brutally honest mother.

Her husband's untimely death, right in front of her on their neighborhood street, understandably emotionally wrecked her life. The book opens after Lilian has a stint in a mental health facility and is back at work as an illustrator for a small publishing company. In an effort to save the business, she's tasked by her boss to attend a six-week gardening class for a related book the company hopes to publish.

Throughout the course of the book, we learn that even though it's been several years since her husband's death Lilian is still grieving. Much of this grieving is self-focused, setting the stage for opportunities of re-evaluation and reconciliation with her family. All the while, she's attending this gardening class where she makes unlikely friends.

I really enjoyed the self-exploration part of this book. I liked how the author developed the main character through the secondary characters. Most of all, I like that the focus was on healing and friendships and not so much about getting a guy to make your life complete. However, there are some romantic elements, but they are not over done. Additionally, there are various "excerpts" about gardening throughout the book, which made it a fun read for this gardening hobbyist. I would have enjoyed the book more if there was a spiritual element to the healing process, but to each his (or her) own!

Recommendation: There are tidbits of goodness in this book with an overall realistic perspective on grief and and healing; however, I felt like some parts were contrived in an effort to create more humor than was necessary. At times the Lilian character was inconsistent and the happily ever after ending tied the story up a little too perfectly for my taste.

Until next time ... Read on!

Friday, February 17, 2017

THE SUN IS ALSO A STAR BY NICOLA YOON

Image Credit: goodreads.com
Rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Sun is Also a Star is a young adult novel by Nicola Yoon in which the bulk of the story takes place over the course of one day. Jamaican-born, straight-laced, facts-and-figures Natasha, her parents, and brother are on the verge of deportation from the United States. On her last day in New York, she meets Korean-American, dreamer, and poet, Daniel.

Whether fate, chance, or something more, the two high schoolers who were once strangers end up spending the day together learning more about themselves, each other, and the (sometimes, harsh) realities that result from their interactions.

This was a quick read that garnered a varied emotional response from me. Each chapter is told from a different character's perspective. Intermixed with the narratives are some well-researched topics about Jamaican, Korean, and North American cultures. The author did a splendid job of taking a fairly deep topic and making it easily digestable for the intended audience. For most people, the teen years are often wrought with emotions and uncertainties of who we are and who we will become. I think Yoon did an excellent job of illustrating those feelings in her book.

Sometimes a book finds us at just the right time, and this was an uplifting book that I needed to read. It didn't hurt that I'm a sucker for romance! While this is my first read by this author, it is her second novel. Her first, Everything, Everything, is set to debut on the big screen in May of this year, starring Amandla Stenberg.

Recommendation: If you're looking for a fun read that will make you think, smile, and maybe even cry a little, this is a good selection.

Until next time ... Read on!

Thursday, February 9, 2017

MY GRANDMOTHER ASKED ME TO TELL YOU SHE'S SORRY BY FREDRIK BACKMAN

Image credit: goodreads.com
Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry by Fredrik Backman (A Man Called Ove, And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer) is about an almost eight-year-old girl, Elsa, who is coming to terms with several very adult things in her life including her parents' divorce, being bullied at school, and most recently, her grandmother's death and the letters she left for the girl to deliver.

Told through fairytales that her grandmother taught her throughout the years, the author let's us explore the mind of a young child and see her perspective on some pretty weighty issues. Because of this it is sometimes difficult to understand what is going on, what is reality, and what is fantasy. I think the author wrote it this way to simulate how a young child might synthesize issues of this magnitude.

The main reason that Backman is becoming one of my favorite authors is because of his beautifully constructed prose. In this review, I take a slightly different approach as I'd like to share a couple of passages that moved me and why.
Because if you have a granny, your whole life is all-inclusive (p. 45). 
This particular quote spoke to me. If you have a child (or perhaps a niece or nephew) in your life, you probably can relate. Parents give their child life and support, but grandparents give children the world. Watching the relationship between my niece and my mother blossom over the 10 years she's been in the world is pure joy. The relationship that some children are granted with their grandparents is so special, and as Backman states, all-inclusive.
Because nothing scares idiots more than a smart girl (p. 47).  
As a smart girl, myself, I know this all too well. Often times people are intimidated by the girl who is cerebral, thinking beyond what is right in front of her. No matter how far we've come as a society, the cold, hard truth is that women and girls are expected to be pretty then intellectual. When we buck the trend, it's scary. But it's, also, oh so satisfying!
"You must have done something to provoke them." As if that's how oppression works (p. 80). 
How relevant this statement is in the U.S. Many critics of the #BlackLivesMatter movement tend to place blame in the wrong places. The country is currently being led by an administration that thinks it is OK to oppress people based on religious affiliation because they might do something to harm the U.S. That's not how any of this works. I'm hopeful that, as a society, we can rise above these useless, inefficient stereotypes and see people for who they are and not what they look like.
Because all seven-year-olds deserve superheroes (p. 11). 
Absolutely, they do! All children deserve to be children. I'm thankful I was granted a full childhood where I was allowed to be exactly the age I was at any given moment. By gifting this to our own children and/or children upon who we influence, we, too, can be superheroes.

Recommendation: Thanks for indulging me in this departure from how I normally review books I read on this site. While I appreciated the overall theme of Backman's work, this was not one of my favorite books of his. The story is emotion-filled. It will make you laugh, it will make you think, and it just might make you cry. Like a steak, I found the book's topic heavy, and I had to let it rest for a little bit before fully appreciating the story. So, if you take it on, give it a few days to settle upon completion.

Until next time ... Read on!

Monday, January 23, 2017

HAPPY NATIONAL READING DAY!

I hope you are reading something good for National Reading Day! I'm in the middle of My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry by Fredrik Backman. Reviews soon to come for my first three reads of the year.

Read on!

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

A MONSTER CALLS BY PATRICK NESS AND SIOBHAN DOWD (CONCEPTION)

Image Credit: goodreads.com
Rating: 4 of 5 stars

Patrick Ness took Siobhan Dowd's idea and completed what would have been her fifth book - In A Monster Calls. Sadly, Dowd lost her own battle with cancer before she could realize her idea.

In this fantasy book, we meet 13-year old, Conor O'Malley who is grappling with the imminent death of his mother who is stricken with cancer. Through his dreams, he meets a monster who helps him come to terms with what is happening in reality.

This is a children's novel, so it is told in such a way that a young reader could relate. However, there are beautiful nuggets of wisdom sprinkled throughout this ~200-page book. The way in which Ness conveys the confused emotions of a youngster having to cope with such an adult problem makes this story a masterpiece.

A Monster Calls was also made into a movie starring Lewis MacDougall as Conor and Liam Neeson as the Monster, and it was released Christmas 2016. It seems as though the film did not have wide range appeal as it was only widely released for a few weeks. I haven't seen the film, but I highly recommend the book. And as I'm sure my fellow readers know, the book is always better!

To sum up my review of this book, I will close with one of the more poignant quotes from the story. I hope it offers comfort to those who might need it:
Belief is half of all healing. Belief in the cure, belief in the future that awaits. 
Recommendation: I think Ness did Dowd justice in telling a story of grief in such a creative way. This is a gift for children (and people, in general) who have taken on the challenge of dealing with such a difficult situation. May you believe and be healed.

Until next time ... Read on!

Saturday, January 14, 2017

THE SECRET PLACE BY TANA FRENCH

Rating: 3 of 5 stars

Tana French's fifth novel in the Dublin Murder Squad Series is The Secret Place. Just like the previous four books, French wastes no time in setting up the murder. However, in this particular book, the murder is about a year-old cold case surrounding teenagers.

Set on the grounds of a posh boarding school for girls and using elements from a popular website/blog (PostSecret), we are introduced again to Detective Stephan Moran, who made an appearance in Faithful Place (book) #3. We meet new character to the reader, Detective Antoinette Conway. And Detective Frank Mackey [The Likeness (book #2), Faithful Place (book #3)] and his daughter Holly Mackey reappear.

Chris Harper, a boy from a nearby boarding school for boys was murdered a year ago, and Holly (because of her previous experience) reaches out to Detective Moran with a clue that offers to re-open the case. Wanting to transfer from the Cold Case Squad to the Murder Squad, Moran uses this tip from Holly to persuade Detective Conway, the original detective on the Harper murder case, to let him tag along. From there, we spend several hours on campus with the detectives questioning two groups of girls who all had motive to kill the boy from the neighboring school.

As always, French uses a familiar who done it premise, to pull us into this Dublin, Ireland community. The book alternates between Detective Moran and Holly, each chapter giving us clues and positing a viable solution. By the end of the novel, you do find out who did it and why. It is one of French's more tidy endings. It just takes an awful long time to get there. I found the book to include too many characters, and trying to remember which girl had which personality and was part of which group and what the pecking order was in that particular group made the book a little heavy to sift through.

On the other hand, I did enjoy watching the relationship between Detective Mackey (as a father and a professional) evolve as well as the relationship between Detective Moran and Detective Conway grow. (Prior to this book, Moran and Conway were relatively unknown to one another.) I think that is the gift of reading Tana French. It's not necessarily about the murder, although that is what keeps the story moving, it's more about the character development between the detectives. They are all a little broken (aren't we all?), and the author captures their complexities in an engaging way.

I enjoyed this book, not as much as the others (books #1-#4), but it was a satisfying read. I think this is one of the novels where having read the other books might help create more of an understanding and a clearer backdrop. But as I said in my Broken Harbor review, it's not necessary to read all of French's books or read them in order to appreciate her craft.

If you enjoy murder mysteries and take guilty pleasure in the mean-girl cliques, you will probably devour this book. As I understand it, Detective Conway and Detective Moran will reprise their roles in French's sixth book, The Trespasser, which is on my to-be-read list. If French maintains her writing trend, we'll see book #7 some time in 2018

Recommendation: French is an excellent storyteller, painting vivid pictures of empathetic characters.

Until next time ... Read on!

Sunday, January 1, 2017

BEST BOOK OF 2016: A MAN CALLED OVE BY FREDRIK BACKMAN

Image credit: goodreads.com
Rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I started this blog, I wasn't sure what direction it would take, but I knew I wanted to memorialize each book I read by drafting a review that included an overview of each book as well as my opinion on its worth. I also knew that would serve as the general framework or structure of the blog. I was certain of that and one other thing - I wanted to review the best book I read each year.

Earlier this year, I had an inkling it was going to be A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman, but I started this blog in late summer of 2016. So, I wanted to keep my mind open in the event I read something that eclipsed Ove. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead got close, but Backman's heart-wrenching prose kept it in the lead until I finished my year in books. So, let me tell you about the best book of 2016 according to me - A Man Called Ove.

Ove is a bit of a curmudgeon. He's set in his ways. He's a creature of habit. He's cantankerous. He sounds pretty unlikable, huh? And truth be told, when I first started this book I didn't like Ove. But like a lifetime friendship, a classic song, or a persistent suitor, Ove grows on you. We get a peak into his life of solitude, that against his will changes, in the present day, but we also learn what made the man through flashbacks of his life from children through marriage.

Ove is a simple story that is beautifully told. It may seem impossible, but I believe that men, women, and young adults - people of all walks of life, can fall in love with a grumpy old man. I've mentioned before I have become a fast fan of Backman's writing style, and as a result, I will continue to seek out his work.

Recommendation: It should really go without saying that my best book of the year receives a resounding recommendation in the affirmative. If you haven't picked up a copy of this book, do yourself a favor and get to your closest bookstore or local library today!

I'm excited to see what books will gift me for 2017. Until next time ... Read on!

Saturday, December 31, 2016

WAIT AND SEE: FINDING PEACE IN GOD'S PAUSES AND PLANS BY WENDY POPE

Image Credit: goodreads.com
Rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've participated in three Online Bible Studies facilitated the Proverbs 31 Ministry. In the latest installment, I read Wendy Pope's new book, Wait and See: Finding Peace in God's Pauses and Plans. I do believe that sometimes books find us at the right time, and this was certainly a great book at the right time for me. Proverbs 31 Ministries is based on Proverbs chapter 31 in the Bible. As such, much of the educational and spiritual material is targeted toward women.

Wait and See is not only a motivational and inspirational book. This study takes a different approach from the previous two (5 Habits of a Woman Who Doesn't Quit by Nicki Koziarz and Unglued by Lysa Terkeurst) in that this book includes a Bible study portion that focuses on many of the Psalms King David penned in the Bible. Additionally, the book becomes a personal journal, allowing the reader to write her own chapter through writing prompts in chapter 10.

Pope clearly is knowledgeable about the Bible, she has a strong faith, and her conversational tone helps to inspire the reader to have patience during the period (or periods) of wait that she may be in. There is so much to be taken from this study, but the biggest gift Pope gave me was one of hope. Whenever I get down, I try to remember to reflect back on the author's guiding principle - Focus on the Person of my faith rather than the object of my wait.

Recommendation: If you're waiting for something important, like a job, healing, or mate, this book will help you. If you are not a believer, it can show you how some believers approach patience (read: waiting well) as a tenet of life.

Until next time ... Read on!

Monday, December 26, 2016

BROKEN HARBOR BY TANA FRENCH

Image Credit: goodreads.com
Rating: 3 of 5 stars

Broken Harbor by Tana French is the fourth in her Dublin Murder Squad Series. I was first introduced to French by a co-worker who recommended In the Woods, which is the first book in the series. We read that book in book club, and I was hooked!

Broken Harbor is narrated by detective Michael "Scorcher" Kennedy. The book wastes no time. We learn early on that a family of four has been attacked - the father and two children dead and the mother clinging to life. Kennedy is the lead detective on the case and is also training a rookie detective, Richie Curran. Scorcher prefers working alone and has an excellent solve rate, while Curran is working his first major case and takes a more empathetic approach to investigating. As the novel goes on, we see Curran and Scorcher's personalities and tactics complementing one another quite nicely. French sets up some hope for a clean solve and a career partnership.

However, French's novels are not happily ever afters. Her stories are very real to life, and the characters are greatly flawed but also have redeeming qualities. The relationship between Curran and Scorcher becomes the primary story with the mystery as the backdrop. As for the mystery, that's my only negative about this book, it seems to drag out a little bit and some of the activities surrounding and leading up to the murder are not very realistic. That being said, as with French's other novels, I did enjoy this one. The themes and conflict she addresses leave you pondering for days. Her writing is simply exceptional.

If you enjoy an expertly-crafted murder mystery, this series is for you. I normally do not like to read series because I feel obligated to read the whole series. The good thing about French's series is you don't necessarily have to read them in succession. The books are written independently of one another. The author usually takes a secondary character from a previous story and he or she becomes the primary character of the next. While other characters may be referenced across books, it's not vital to understand each individual story. There are two more novels in the series. I'm in the middle of The Secret Place (book #5). The sixth book, The Trespasser, was released in the fall of 2016, which I will be tackling soon so that I can finish the series as it stands.

Recommendation: French definitely has a way with words and can tell a good story. As a reader, you become invested in these flawed yet relatable characters.

Until next time ... Read on!

Friday, December 23, 2016

BEAUTIFUL WORD BIBLE (NIV) BY ZONDERVAN PUBLISHING

Rating: 5 of 5 stars

About this time last year, Pastor Robert White of Freedom Church (@myfreedomdfw on SoMe) in Bedford, Texas challenged our congregation with reading the Bible in a Year. He provided us with the Tyndale House Publishers reading plan, which can also be found (for free) at Bible.com. And you might have guessed, there's an app for that!

All my life I have wanted to read the Bible in its entirety, but I always fell short of my goal and gave up. Taking on the task with my church family made me accountable. Staying focused and making a habit to read every day was challenging at times. The whole experience was life changing. Just because I've completed the task given to me by God through Freedom doesn't mean I'm done reading it. The Bible is God's love letter to us, and there's always something new in it. As with most reads, it's your personal experience that enhances the content of the book. As you grow and develop, the text is amplified accordingly.

I don't really have a formal review for this book. It is, after all, the greatest story ever told. There's nothing I can add to it to make it any more than it already is. Reading and meditating each day has given me a great gift ... new perspective and answers to life's struggles. I encourage all to read this book, believers and non-believers. It's beautifully written. It includes all kinds of stories - dramas, mysteries, romance, and even a comedy, to name a few. The best thing about the Bible is that every time I sit down and dig deep, I am rewarded.

Recommendation: If you're a believer, you should already be reading this. If you're a reader, read this. If you're breathing, read this!

Until next time ... Read on!

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