It’s that time of year

Okay, first of all, I finished a review about 18 months in the making AND I wrote a brief review of a book I’ve read this year. I can officially say I’ve meet my review blogging quota of the year. Haha.

Now that that’s out of the way, I would just like to say how EXCITED I am to finally, finally be participating fully in the Dewey 24-Hour Readathon. I don’t know when I first heard about his, but it’s been literally years since I have longingly tried to participate. But various things came up or there were already events I’d committed to before I knew the date.

Well. This year I pencilled April 26 in my calendar right away and have continued to keep that day sacred to me. Because I would rather wake up at 4:45 in the morning to start my 24-hour readathon at 5:00 am with people all over the world. In fact, just today a friend sense me a text saying, “Do you wanna do drinks next weekend to celebrate you and Becca’s birthdays?” I said yes, and then it hit me that realistically, the only day we’d be able to meet would be Saturday. I contemplated going out with them, and then I remembered how hard I’ve worked to make this day free to myself… and so I wrote back and said “But Saturday is not going to work. I have all day plans.”

What am I doing to prepare? Well, to be honest I haven’t done a ton of stuff yet! Life has been so busy and since I work at a church and this weekend is Easter, all things Easter have been my real priority. After I go home tomorrow I plan on taking stock of what I will need for that day. Here are some of my tentative plans:

Books
Well, this is obviously a given for a readathon! But I need to make a pile of books I’ll be reading. I am not a quick reader but I anticipate being able to finish a book I’m in the middle of and maybe get good headway into another book. Here’s my book to-do list:
- charge my nook (gotta have options!)
- look over my unread books and narrow down my selections
- finish two of the books I’m reading right now (totally doable!) before Saturday

Food & drink
I am really going to make a valiant effort to make in through all 24 hours without a nap. If that is going to happen, I will need energy. I’ve got to get some yummy snacks and drinks to supercharge me.
- milk (for coffee at home)
- coffee
- flavored water (I am in LOVE with the Ice Lemonades!)
- pretzels
- carrots
- chips & dip
- hummus
- a little candy!
- make some easy food to reheat, like bacon and scrambled eggs and pasta with sauce

Media
I am planning on being active on this blog and twitter with minimal  Facebook activity and moderate instragram activity. I need to post a graphic and a message mid-week to tell people that I will be unavailable!

Location
I don’t have internet at home, aside from my phone, which is fine for twitter and instagram. But even though I can use the WordPress app, it’s kind of hard to blog consistently throughout the day using it. So I plan on starting the day at home, working my way  to the library at 10, when it opens, until 5, when it closes (snacks packed in my bag!). This will I will have internet access and a comfy place to read (there are tables and places to curl up with a good book). Another option I’m thinking of is spending Friday night at my parents’ house and staying there all day, which will be an easier and far more comfortable option – I’ll just have to make it clear that I’m unavailable. Thankfully they have a spare bedroom I can hole up in, or I can sit outside in the California sunshine!

I think that’s it for now! If you have stumbled across this blog and are participating in the readathon, tell me how you are preparing for it! Can’t wait to read “together” at this time next week!

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Book Review: Until I Say Goodbye: A Book about Living by Susan Spencer-Wendel

goodbye17553448Imagine your body healthy, your life active. Then imagine your body slowly shutting down, one piece at a time, until the only movement you have left is in your right thumb. ALS has taken your body captive but not your joy and not the remaining time you have left. Susan Spencer-Wendel didn’t have to imagine this happening to her because it did happen, and Until I Say Good-Bye is a memoir chronicling her battle with ALS and her plan to live life to its fullest while she still had the ability.

I saw this book in Oprah Magazine last year and put it immediately on my Christmas wish list. I was so very happy to receive it. Spencer-Wendel, a former reporter, uses that right thumb and her iPhone to tap out an entire book, letter by letter, that gives readers an insight into what’s happening in her mind. It is a somewhat painful read because you are acutely aware that Spencer-Wendel is dying. There is no cure for ALS, and the ultimate result of the disease is death. I held my breath during the last few chapters, waiting for an epilogue from Spencer-Wendel’s husband. (To the best of my internet researching ability, I am fairly confident that Spencer-Wendel is still alive.) Thankfully that epilogue never comes, and readers get to enjoy hearing about Spencer-Wendel’s family, how she made the best of her last year of real mobility, and how is coping in the prison that has become her body.

I’ve read a lot of criticism about this book because Spencer-Wendel is relatively well-to-do and has access to the best treatments and had connections to the publishing industry that ultimately helped her get this book published. But I think those criticisms are totally unfair. Are they factual? Well, yes. She had a very successful career as a reporter and during that time, she networked and made a lot of connections that ultimately helped her know the right people in the right places. She has access to doctors that many – most, I would venture to say – people suffering from ALS don’t have access to.

But does that mean her story isn’t worth telling?

Absolutely not. Because at the end of the day, she is a real person and she is dying. We are all one day closer to death, but the reality is that Spencer-Wendel has much fewer days than the rest of us. She is a mother. A sister. A wife. A friend. She is young – she turned 48 at the end of 2013. And she is dying of a disease that has taken her body from her, but not her mind. It has not taken her joy and her will to be present while she is alive, and that is a story that so beautifully and graciously tells in the pages of Until I Say Good-Bye.

I love this excerpt from the book. I’ll end with this because it so perfectly sums up this book, what you can learn from a dying woman, and why you should read it:

“I cannot lift my arms to feed myself or hug my children. My muscles are dying, and they cannot return. I will never again be able to move my tongue enough to clearly say, ‘I love you.’

Swiftly, surely, I am dying. 

But I am alive today.”

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Book Review: The Persimmon Tree, Byrce Courtenay

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As a high school senior, I was a very troubled kid. Not “doing drugs/breaking the law/wild and crazy” troubled — but I was living in a deep world of pain and hurt that stemmed from a lot of things and it was really hard for me. It made me feel isolated from my friends, who lives were much more average than mine. When I met this new, excited, young teacher from South Africa who had recently gotten married and was finally allowed to teach in the US, I knew my life would be forever changed.

During the spring semester of my senior year, she had an extra credit book club that met during lunch. While she was looking for a set of books in the library, she came across a novel that takes place in South Africa called The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay. We read that book and discussed it, and although I didn’t need the extra credit, I went anyway because it was the one day each week where that dark, painful place I was in ceased to exist.

Over the years, that teacher (who I now call Mom) and I read more of Courtenay’s books: Whitethorn and April Fool’s Day and Tandia and the list goes on. Here’s the thing, though. Americans are kind of stupid about which books of foreign authors they let into this country. Despite the fact that Barnes and Noble consistently sells copies of The Power of One, they don’t stock Courtenay’s other novels, so my mom and I have been left to the mercy of her every-other-year trips home to stock up.

I recently discovered that Audible carries most of Courtenay’s titles in its library so I bought and listened to The Persimmon Tree. I was so happy to have it, but I have tell you, this review is incredibly hard for me to write. The man whose words helped change my life died of stomach cancer on November 22, 2012. I was at Thanksgiving with a friend and my mom as at a different house when she sent me a text: “Bryce Courtenay died today.” In the middle of a warm, happy room, I very nearly started crying. No one else seemed to understand the importance of losing an author whose words have inspired you, but when I told my mom later that night while we were at Black Friday, she got it — because she very nearly cried when she found out, too.

So it’s with a heavy, heavy heart I write this review.

The Persimmon Tree is Courtenay’s usual affair — it’s an epic story of love and loss that has you both cheering and yelling. In many ways, it reminds me so much of the first of Courtney’s books that I ever read, The Power of One. This book begins in 1942, in the middle of WWII, in the Dutch East Indies. Nick Duncan is a butterfly collector in search of one specific, exotic butterfly when he meets beautiful, young Ann van Heerden. The two both must escape as the Japanese come to capture the island, and although they plan to unite in Australia, things don’t go as planned and it is many, many years before they meet again.

Courtenay’s characters in The Persimmon Tree are beautiful created. I think it helped tremendously that I listened to the audiobook version of this book and the reader, Humphrey Bower, is an incredible reader. Every character came to life before me and I felt myself finding reasons to keep listening. Had I been reading this book, the story would have kept me up during the dark hours of the night. Although certain parts of it were formulaic – as I mentioned, it reminds me a lot of The Power of Oneright down to the underdog named Til who Nick befriends (the equivalent of Geel Piet in The Power of One) – it still captivated me. Coutenary’s characters feel like old friends and his settings feel like places I know intimately.

If you are a fan of books that take you around the world, I highly recommend The Persimmon Tree. Its intriguing characters (including a teenage butterfly collector!), strong sense of place, and constant “will they reunite or won’t they?” make it a book that will not leave your mind for a long time. (And if you enjoy in, which I hope you do, there is a sequel called Fishing for Stars).

Most of Courtenary’s books that aren’t available in the United States (at the time I’m posting this, the only one that is readily available at any US bookstore is The Power of One) but are easily obtained using The Book Depository, which has free worldwide shipping.

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Book Review: The Storyteller, by Jodi Picoult

Oh man. It’s been almost a year since I’ve reviewed a book, but man… I’m missing out on it! So, without further adieu, here I am – reviewing with no strings attached!

The StorytellerJodi Picoult has been one of my favorite authors since I first read My Sister’s Keeper years ago. Her last few books, however, have been too predictable for me. Last year, when I reviewed Lone Wolf, I wrote “This is a pretty average novel… the relationships between everyone didn’t stand out to me in any special way… this book tends to fall into Picoult’s usual plot formula.” Likewise, when I reviewed Sing You Home in 2011, I noted something similar: “[H]er books are becoming somewhat predictable. The plots are certainly still intriguing, but the execution is pretty mundane and predictable. Sadly, Sing You Home, the story of a couple broken up by Zoe’s desire to have a baby, and Max’s heartbreak at tying again, falls into this disappointing “predictable” category.” When I preordered The Storyteller, I was expecting the same predictability but…

I could not have been MORE surprised.

The plot of The Storyteller is one of Picoult’s classic hot-topic, controversial nail-biters. Goodreads describes the plot:

Sage Singer befriends an old man who’s particularly beloved in her community. Josef Weber is everyone’s favorite retired teacher and Little League coach. They strike up a friendship at the bakery where Sage works. One day he asks Sage for a favor: to kill him. Shocked, Sage refuses…and then he confesses his darkest secret – he deserves to die, because he was a Nazi SS guard. Complicating the matter? Sage’s grandmother is a Holocaust survivor.

What do you do when evil lives next door? Can someone who’s committed a truly heinous act ever atone for it with subsequent good behavior? Should you offer forgiveness to someone if you aren’t the party who was wronged? And most of all – if Sage even considers his request – is it murder, or justice?

It’s not a well-known fact, but in middle school and early in high school I was obsessed with books about the Holocaust. I think it’s because I was deeply interested in knowing the roots of my maternal great-grandparents, both of whom came from Germany or whose parents came to the US from Germany. Less than 100 years ago, part of my ancestors lived in a country so torn by genocide. I believe this is why such a deeply ugly time in human history has fascinated me – because it’s my family’s history. That said, I knew right away that this Picoult book had a plot that would intrigue me, and it absolutely did. I quite literally could not put The Storyteller down.

The structure, while similar to most of Picoult’s book in that it alternates between the points of view of several characters, is unique in its middle portion. For a large period of time, the POV shifts to Sage’s grandmother and her story of living in the ghetto simply because she was born into a Jewish family. I stayed up late into the night reading this section, weeping as I turned the pages. I think it’s easy to cry over stories that detail the horrors of the Holocaust, but because of how realistically Minka (Sage’s grandmother) is depicted, the pain on these pages takes on new life and meaning. Woven in with her story was the allegorical tale of a vampire, which takes on new meaning in light of Minka’s story (and Joseph’s story).

Minka is not the only character who seems very real and alive. Picoult creates characters who are human and flawed, yet compelling and likeable – even the former Nazi Joseph. You find his acts deplorable, but you see a man who is seeking absolution and you can’t help but be drawn toward him. Even Sage, with her scarred face and sullen spirit, grows on you and you root for her. I felt like the characters in The Storyteller were real and my friends, which I don’t always feel as I read. Having characters this strong helps when writing a book about such a difficult subject, and in this case aids in having a compelling plot.

One last comment: twisty plots and surprise endings are Picoult’s calling card, and the plot twist at the end of this novel… OH BOY. I did not see it coming, and my jaw literally dropped. I had to reread to make sure I read right the first time. That, plus Minka’s story, were totally worth the read!

I absolutely loved this book. It’s Picoult at her best, and I would recommend it to anyone, even those who don’t normally read her work.

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Here I am!

You guys. I have missed writing about books – a lot. I don’t mean  writing the kinds of papers I wrote as an English student during my undergrad degree (let’s be real, I didn’t read all of those, let alone enjoy writing about them, as evidenced by my meager B in Major British & European Authors my last semester of college). But I do meant writing a thoughtful book review of a book that I’ve loved or hated or just generally felt indifferent about.

I miss writing about the books that have impacted my life, for better or for worse. Tonight as I was driving home, I was eating pretzels and I couldn’t help but think about how Rachel Robinson in Just As Long As We’re Together eats the same kind of pretzels – one stick at a time, in her mouth until she’s licked all of the salt off.

I want to write about the books whose content changes me or sticks with me through the ages.

So I’m coming back. Not out of obligation (which is what I’ve done for the last two years!), but out of love and passion. Here we go!

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Book Review: The Persimmon Tree by Bryce Courtenay

Cannonball Read IV Review #74

I have never has as difficult a time reviewing The Persimmon Tree by Bryce Courtenay as I have any other book. It’s not because I hated it. In fact, I really, really enjoyed it (and let me just say that the many who reads all of Courtenay’s novels, Humphrey Bower, is a phenomenal reader – the best audiobook reader I’ve ever heard!), but just before I finished it, I got a text from my mom that was simple and to the point: “Bryce Courtenay died today.”

I first read The Power of One, his only book easily accessible in the United States, as a high school senior. During lunch time once a week, I’d spend an hour discussing the book for extra credit with my classmates and my fantastic South African English teacher, who is now the woman I call mom. She instilled in me a love for foreign authors, including Bryce Courtenay.

His books are impossibly hard to get in the US, however – or at least they were until I discovered the Book Depository. However, Audible carries most of his titles so I used one of my credits to get The Persimmon Tree, the story of lovers Nick and Anna, torn apart by WWII in the South Pacific. It’s a story of unending loving and of the strength of human emotions and Courtenay captured beautifully the terror of battle and the heartbreak of loving two women at the same time.

I don’t really have anything bad to say, probably because I have such fond memories of my time spend reading and listening to Courtenay novels. It had a lively, engaging, exciting plot, and it was especially great hearing it read because the characters were so unique and distinct. I enjoyed that it jumped around and the perspective of different characters came to light.

It is a classic Courtenay novel, in that there is a character (in this book Nick, in The Power of One Peekay) who is the underdog, yet still someone we love. These characters have fine morals and are really upstanding men. There is also someone who is discriminated against (here Til, in The Power of One Giel Peet) who meets with a shocking demise. Seriously. When Til had this terrible thing happen to him, I actually gasped out loud. And later on, I clapped when Anna and Nick are finally reunited.

It was a beautiful love story, and I’m sure its sequel, Fishing for Stars, will be just as good.

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Book Review: Look Again by Lisa Scottoline

A few reviews back (well… like 40!), I reviewed Save Me by Lisa Scottoline and this is how I felt about it:

Not ImpressedBut I decided to give her another try, because there are plenty of authors who have books that are misses — even the ones I love dearly. There were two books of Scottoline’s that sounded fascinating to me so I bought those in trade paperback and just finished one of them, Look Again. I really wanted to like the next Scottoline book I read because she actually took the time to respond to the negative review of Save Me that I posted on my blog (well… I assume and hope it was really her who did it. It could be an assistant or just an adoring fan.).

So I have to be upfront and admit right away that I hated Look Again even more than I disliked Save Me. Some of the problems in the book are the same but to a greater extent. But first, let me start with the good, and that is the premise of the book. Ellen Gleeson, human interest reporter extraordinaire, returns home from work on snowy winter night and sees a “Have You See This Child?” card in her mail. It takes her breath away because the child on the card looks exactly like her three-year-old son Will. But Ellen thinks — knows — it’s not Will because she adopted Will after he was abandoned by his birth parents at the hospital after a terrible heart defect is fixed. Still, the reporter in Ellen can’t help but wonder: Is this her child? The journey she takes is a legal and ethical and moral one, and it gets a whole lot of dicey and scary for Ellen and all of the people involved.

So let’s be upfront here. This entire review is a spoiler for the book because I hated it so much I can’t censor myself and the things I didn’t like without spoiling them. You have been warned. That said, let me move on. I think it’s pretty clear that Will is the child on the card, and spoiler alert: he is the kidnapped child whose parents put his face on the card.

Fact.

Doesn’t that sound like a great premise? It’s got the element of motherhood (and I think 30- and 40-something women are propbably Scottoline’s target demographic) mixed in with a crime murder mystery/thriller. I was expecting this book to be great but to be honest, I hated it from the first page. The biggest reason wasn’t plot. It was partially character and it was almost totally editing. I want to find out who Lisa Scottoline’s editor is and slap her upside the head and ask, “Did you actually read this book?” There are so many poorly edited places and parts of the story that it makes your head spin.

Wondering what a few of those things are? Here, let me share them with you (for the record, I tried to bulletpoint this but WordPress just could not handle the way I wanted it to look so I apologize that this looks like I can’t write a paragraph/don’t know how to format:

Scottoline relies to heavily on telling and not showing. This happens almost immediately. For instance, on page three (yes! 3!), Ellen has the following conversation with her nanny:

[Connie] asked, “How was your day?”

“Crazy busy. How about you?”

“Just fine,” Connie answered, which was only one of the reasons that Ellen counted her as a blessing. She’d had her share of babysitter drama, and there was no feeling worse than leaving your child with a sitter who wasn’t speaking to you.

Color me crazy, Ellen Gleeson, but if your sitter’s response to you is “fine” after you ask her how her day with your son was, that’s not “speaking to you.” You’re too busy telling us that your nanny is exceptional that hey! You don’t show us it. Not to mention this is just weird and awkward dialogue, and that is a pet peeve of mine. Unfortunately there is a lot of weird and awkward dialogue throughout the entire book.

See the last sentence above re: dialogue. I can’t stand it when authors write terrible dialogue. I think there is no excuse for it. We all speak, and we all speak to countless different people in different capacities every day. So there’s no excuse. Read your freaking dialogue out loud and most of the problems will disappear. Listen to the natural rhythms in everyday conversation and convey those in words.

Hello non-sequiters. I mean, this conversation actually takes place between Ellen and her boss:

Marcelo lifted an eyebrow. “Back home, many people have two names, like my brother, Carlos Alberto. But I didn’t think that was common in the States.”

“It’s not. He’s Brazillian.”

Marcelo laughed. He popped the soda and poured it fizzing into the class. “I live in town.”

The first time I read this, I had go back and read it again, and I actually laughed because “I live in town” makes zero sense. I mean, it makes sense because it’s a real, complete sentence, but it doesn’t make sense in the context of their conversation about a cat and a brother with two names.

The relationships in this book are terrible and so petty, forced, and fake. For instance, Ellen and Sarah (who totally is a see-you-next-Tuesday) fight like ridiculous school children, and Ellen and her nanny Connie just have the most jagged, forced conversations. Further, Connie (in what I am supposed to believe is deep love for Will) totally tells Will what to do when he asks his mom something. Dear nanny, when mom is around, mom is he boss. Even her relationship with Marcelo is really weird, and seriously? They get down and dirty when Ellen is convinced that Will is in dire danger? Yeah. I totally do the same thing.

I know many novels ask you to suspend your disbelief, but there were a lot of places where I had to take it one step too far. One example of this is the sex scene I referenced above. Another scene is when Ellen randomly faints, with no build up, and then is, literally one freaking page later, going sledding with her son. What! If I fainted at work, and I had a boss as invested in me as Marcelo is in Ellen, there is no way that I’d just get to leave. Another one: at Amy’s funeral, Amy’s friend Melanie from rehab has apparently forgotten to check her text messages from dead Amy, who she has called “the queen of texting,” until Ellen reminds her. Melanie says, “Whoa, weird. I didn’t. I totally forgot.” Dude. If my friend Megan doesn’t text me every few days, I worry she’s dead. I wouldn’t forget for a few days simply because we text a lot. It’s something you’d remember to do from the queen of text.

There’s just some things that slip under the radar, too, that point to shoddy editing. For instance, at the end of the novel when Ellen discovers that Bill isn’t Will’s real dad, she concludes that the real dad is Rob Moore, the killer, and she says she never noticed that they had the same crooked smile. BUT I CALL BANANAS on that crap because in the first part of the book she looks at a picture of Amy and the Beach Man, wondering if the Beach Man could be the baby daddy (this is back when she thought Amy was the bio mom) and she specifically points out that the two share the crooked smile. Ugh! Really, editor?

And the last thing that I’ll rant about, because this is getting really long and angsty, is that Ellen reminded me so much of the mom in Save Me. In fact, there is a particular scene that was almost lifted exactly from Save Me: Ellen is raging mad at Sarah for doing something she didn’t like. (Rose is mad at Kristen for doing something she didn’t like.) Ellen storms over to Sarah’s apartment in a fit of rage and bullies her way inside. (Rose storms over to Sarah’s apartment in a fit of rage and bullies her way inside.) Ellen yells and berates Sarah. (Rose yells and berates Kristen.) Sarah is defensive and stoic. (Kristen is defensive and stoic.) Sarah’s disabled husband comes out in a wheelchair and Ellen feels like a douche. (Kristen does a bad job of hiding her prenatal books and Rose sees them and feels like a total douche.) Ellen cries and apologies. (Rose gets upset and apologizes.) Seriously, it was actually kind of weird how similar these two scenes were to each other.

And thus ends my rant. I will probably read the other Scottoline book because it’s too late to return it, thanks to Barnes and Noble’s dumb two-week return policy, but I will read it with low expectations. Maybe I will be surprised (but I probably won’t).

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