Spring-Time Reading

spring time reads

This spring has brought with it a new batch of reading material — and they are all quite different (sort of):

War Bonds– Love Stories of the Greatest Generation by Cindy Hval is a collection of beautiful and loving memories of couples who met during World War II. She recounts how these men and women met and stayed together for decades despite many obstacles. Who doesn’t love a good story? Well, what about 36 of them?

“Everything’s built on friendship. He’s been my best friend for 77 years.” – Betty Schott

The Heroes’ Welcome by Lauisa Young is about a group of friends returning from the first World War — (I guess I was on a bit of a thematic reading kick after all). As with any war, they are battered and broken, both inside and out. For some, their scars are worn on their face, for others, the traumatic memories of watching friends die has left lasting, yet unseen, wounds deep within their souls.

And lastly, The Dragon of Handale by Cassandra Clark is a mystery about a former nun who goes to spend some quiet time at the Handale Priory while she thinks deeply about whether or not she wants to resume her service. However, quiet time is not what she finds! There are all kinds of shenanigans going on deep within the cold, dark woods… including gruesome murders, poisonings, abductions, and disturbing punishments inflicted upon the sinning nuns.

My reviews should be in the San Francisco Book Review in the month of June. Until then: happy reading!

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Filed under Book Review, Historical Fiction, Memoirs, Mystery

I Was Here

LIfe can be hard - Gayle Forman

I Was Here is quite a departure from Gayle Forman’s usual novels — it’s rather dark and morbid, yet there is hope and strength in its message.

Cody discovers that her best friend has committed suicide. It was planned perfectly: she packed her things within her dorm, she rented a motel and left a hefty tip for the maid, she bought some super-strength poison that was guaranteed to work, and she sent her family a time-delayed email letting them know what she did. After looking at the message with Meg’s little brother, Cody realizes that letter is worded strangely, and wonders if Meg was actually covering up for someone else… someone who may have pushed her over the edge.

In her efforts to discover why her best friend would do such a thing without her having the slightest clue, Cody rehashes the months Meg was away at college — she had so much going for her: charisma, intelligence, a way with people, and knowing what buttons to push to make things happen… Meg was a tour de force to be reckoned with… so why would she think it was all hopeless? Why she do such a thing without confiding in her best friend? As Cody digs through Meg’s emails, she enlists the help of her distant roommate to hack and track down all kinds in information in not-exactly-legal ways, questions other people in Meg’s life, and meets the Tragic Guitar Hero: Ben McAllister.

For Cody this is quite a change: heading out of her small town, talking to people she normally wouldn’t, questioning people’s motives in the search for truth, confronting her own weaknesses and fears, and coming to terms with her own insecurities about life and where she’s headed. Since they met in Kindergarten and became two peas in a pod, the idea was: Meg and Cody forever. But now it’s just Cody… asking the questions, confronting strangers, making new friends, learning to rely on others for help. Her search into Meg’s death is truly what defines Cody’s strength and will to live.

“Life can be hard and beautiful and messy, but hopefully, it will be long. If it is, you will see that it’s unpredictable, and that the dark periods come, but they abate — sometimes with a lot of support — and the tunnel widens, allowing the sun back in. If you’re in the dark, it might feel like you will always be in there. Fumbling. Alone. But you won’t — and you’re not. There are people out there to help you find the light.”

Cody’s all-consuming obsession with Meg’s death might seem morbid, but what else would be expected from a person who loved her friend? She needs answers… and in her own way, finds them.

Gayle Forman touches upon something not too many people talk about: depression, suicide, loss… but the story is mostly about hope, and resilience, and reaching out. Though there are dark moments, life’s unpredictability means there’s also a chance for light at the end of the tunnel… and that in confiding in others, we may find the understanding and support we all need to keep going.

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Just One Day… Just One Year… Just One Night… Just Perfect!

Life - Just One Day

“We are born in one day. We die in one day. We can change in one day. And we can fall in love in one day. Anything can happen in just one day.”

I love Gayle Forman. She is exactly what I need to read from time to time. She knows how to craft a story that makes you think… then pulls you in and takes you on a crazy ride…. only to stop abruptly and leave you thinking, WHY?! Fortunately, in those instances, there’s a second book you can quickly turn to so you don’t go absolutely insane.

I read Forman’s If I Stay — and immediately had to read, Where She Went…. because well, I needed to know where she went after she decided to stay. You know!

Most recently, I read Just One Day. It’s about Allyson Healey, who graduates High School and will soon be going to college. She’s your typical over-achiever — her parents adore how perfect their only child is. She is responsible, and predictable, and would never ever do anything wild or unexpected… until of course, she does. She meets a guy… she runs off to Paris for a day with this guy… her heart is completely and irreparably broken by said guy.

At first I wasn’t sure why Allyson was so heartbroken — after all, she seemed so… reasonable and mature. Her constant moping, failing all of her classes, and refusing to socialize made me wonder about her mental stability… until I got it: it wasn’t about Willem… it was about her own self-discovery. She wasn’t so much heartbroken about his disappearance (although that was clearly the catalyst), as she was about no longer being able to recapture who she became when she decided to spend the day with him. She had taken control of her own life, she had dared to follow her heart to Paris, and as soon as she discovers how happy taking charge could make her… well, everything went horribly wrong, and she had to head back with her tail between her legs, utterly humiliated. It made sense…

“He showed me how to get lost, and then I showed myself how to get found.”

So Allyson changes gears, works hard, and gets herself back to Paris for the search of a lifetime — which ends abruptly just as I was hoping for some closure. But that’s not the Gayle Forman way… so I instantly had to start reading Just One Year — from Willem’s point of view. His side of the story, his (very good reasons) for disappearing, his explanations for being a roaming traveler, his own search for the girl who got away… whose real name he didn’t even know.

Willem’s story goes much deeper than anything Allyson (or a reader looking at things from her point of view) could’ve foreseen. There’s so little he’s willing to give away– so little he lets slip– when he is with her. But there are clues. And with the minuscule bits of information he gathered about his “Lulu,” he searches for her…

“I’m not sure it’s possible to simultaneously love something and keep it safe. Loving is such an inherently dangerous act. And yet, love, that’s where safety lives.”

Oh! And there’s a lot of Shakespeare, too! It’s what brings them together… over and over again, in different ways, but the connections are there… and they are quite romantic (in the awesome young-adult fiction sort of way).

Lastly, once I inhaled both novels I was rewarded with the additional (and separate) chapter, Just One Night. I doubt that needs any further explanations….

In short: this is a wonderfully entertaining love story about accidents, coincidences, serendipity, and timing!

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The Wrong Boy and his Words

Magic words The Witch’s Boy by Kelly Barnhill is essentially a fairy tale that combines multiple story lines, while tugging at your heart strings from the very first page.

The mischievous and happy twins, Ned and Tam build a make-shift raft that will take them from the Great River to the sea. “The sea, Tam…. the sea!”

Unfortunately, a raft built by 7 year-old boys can hardly be deemed sea-worthy…

“The current separated the boys. The father couldn’t save them both. He kicked and swore, but as he reached one boy — the closer boy — his twin had been swept far down the length of the river and out of sight. […]
‘We should have known he’d bungle it,’ they said.
‘He saved the wrong one.'”

And so Ned, the wrong boy, lived — while Tam, the smart one, was carried away by the current and drowned. But his mother, Sister Witch, could not bear that one of her sons had died, while the other lay struggling for his life… so she did something she shouldn’t have: she used the magic kept under her care to keep her child alive.

Saving Ned’s life came at a cost to him — he barely grew, he was small and quiet, he stuttered:

“Words were his enemies. They rattled in his mouth like broken teeth, or tumbled off the page like scattered dust after a sneeze.”

… he also forgot how to read:

“There was a time when he could read. Both he and his brother could. Before. But then everything changed. Now, whenever Ned looked at the sign (or any writing for that matter), the letters seemed to wobble, shift, and scramble themselves. They wriggled like snakes and swarmed like locusts.”

The townspeople think him dim-witted… they are unkind. However, larger events come into play as the Queen comes to this little village while visiting different towns throughout her realm. Her family — the Queen’s nephew in particular — would love to see her dead. Fortunately, Sister Witch is able to save the Queen’s life… and is then invited to visit the castle. Using magic is exhausting for Sister Witch, and so she leaves the magic at home, safe within its little jar, and asks Ned to look after it. Unfortunately, the Bandit King comes along with his band of ruffians to take the magic — he is consumed by greed and power, and even threatens to kill Ned’s father to force Ned out of his home along with the jar of magic. But Ned discovers he can be brave… he cannot let his father die… he opens the jar, and the magic melds within his skin, burning, and itching, and causing so much pain. But it does not kill him. The real adventure begins!

The magic within Ned is volatile — constantly causing him to war within himself: Will he do what is right? Will he do what is selfish? Will he do what is best? Will he be merciful? Will he give into the power within him? Ned’s family has been keeping the magic good for generations… can he do the same? The magic requires a strong will to be kept in its place — it requires strong commanding words:

“A word, after all, is a kind of magic. It locks the substance of a thing in sound or symbol, and affixes it to the ear, or paper, or stone. Words call the world into being. That’s power indeed. And Ned was not a powerful boy.”

As he runs through the woods to escape the bandits, the Bandit King plots with the over-indulgent and power-hungry King Ott of a nearby kingdom against the Ned’s small village. He convinces King Ott to attack — now Ned has an even greater task ahead: he needs to save himself, and warn his people.

While lost in the woods, he meets a wolf… and Áine – the Bandit King’s daughter. Upon her death bed, Áine’s mother told her, “The wrong boy will save your life, and you will save his. And the wolf –” Well, she’d have to guess about the wolf.

Together, this trio runs through the woods, escaping bandits, making some difficult decisions, and taking care of one another. They learn to trust, they learn to care, and most of all, they learn about true friendship and sacrifices.

It is difficult to choose only one theme within this lovely tale of good versus evil. It is about friendship, it is about greed, it is about making the difficult choices, it is about forgiveness, and it is about accepting loss…

The Witch’s Boy is poetic in it’s repetition, melodic in it’s tone, and deep in it’s message. Ned undergoes many different transformations throughout the story: a mischievous boy, a mourning twin, a scared kidnapping victim, a commanding magician, a caring friend, a self-sacrificing person, an imposing kidnapper, a normal villager, and an adventurous wanderer….

After all, how else could the story end? “The sea, Tam… the sea!”

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Stranded and Tortured… But Never Broken

dignity - hillenbrandUnbroken by Laura Hillenbrand tells the story of Louie Zamperini — it is the beautifully recounted and well-researched biography of a very brave man, who not only survived unimaginable ordeals, but learned to live beyond survival, and truly carved a meaningful life for himself afterwards.

Louis Zamperini grew up as a poor Italian boy who stole, misbehaved, and got into way too much trouble… until his older brother decided he needed to channel his little brother’s talent for running away into something a bit more worthwhile: he trained him to run track. Louie was a natural, and his desire to take on challenges made him push himself until he achieved something he never would’ve thought possible: to race in the Olympics.

Unfortunately, World War II came along to draft most (if not quite all) young men in the country, Louie included. Hillenbrand recounts the statistics of men who lost their lives, not only in combat, but also due to all kinds of accidents, technical failures, and training errors — they are a sobering number. Sadly, Louie and his crew were part of these men who became victims of their own plane: a faulty B-24 — The Green Hornet. The plane malfunctioned, and they crashed into the Pacific. Out of the eleven men on board, only 3 survived the crash — they spent 47 days adrift at sea, living off rain water, fish, and birds… mostly starving, dehydrating, fighting off sharks, and talking to each other to keep themselves from going insane. One of them didn’t quite make it (he lasted only 33 days) — what was to follow, would probably make the other two wish they hadn’t made it either.

After surviving their ordeal at sea, the men were captured by the Japanese. Louie and his friend, Phil, were mistreated, to say the least: they were separated, beaten, practically starved, denied proper medical attention, psychologically tormented, and worked half to death at prisoner-of-war camps. They endured this torture for over 2 years until the war ended in August of 1945.

“On Kwajalein, the guards sought to deprive [the men] of something that had sustained them even as all else had been lost: dignity. This self-respect and sense of self-worth, the innermost armament of the soul, lies at the heart of humanness; to be deprived of it is to be dehumanized, to be cleaved from, and cast below, mankind. Men subjected to dehumanizing treatment experience profound wretchedness and loneliness and find that hope is almost impossible to retain. Without dignity, identity is erased. In its absence, men are defined by their captors and the circumstances in which they are forced to live.

[…] Dignity is as essential to human life as water, food, and oxygen. The stubborn retention of it, even in the face of extreme physical hardship, can hold a man’s soul in his body long past the point at which the body should have surrendered it. The loss of it can carry a man off as surely as thirst, hunger, exposure, and asphyxiation, and with greater cruelty.”

Surviving on the life rafts while out in the open ocean was quite a challenge — yet when Phil and Louie lacked water, they waited for rain; when they were hungry, they ate whatever they could get their hands on: fish, bird, or shark; when they were too weak to do anything else, they would talk to anchor their minds to their bodies so that they could live to see another day as lucidly as possible. But once they were prisoners of war, the Japanese soldiers sought to degrade them, deprive them of every basic human right imaginable, and to crush their spirit. Yet the POW’s found ways to keep their hope and will to live alight within these camps through small acts of defiance, by finding even the slightest bit of joy in whatever was around them: a funny duck, stealing sugar, putting on a silly play… even in the worst imaginable circumstances, a person can find a reason to keep going.

Louie wrote to his greatest tormentor, Watanabe in letter (after the war):

“It was not so much due to the pain and suffering as it was the tension of stress and humiliation that caused me to hate with a vengeance.

Under your discipline, my rights, not only as a prisoner of war but also as a human being, were stripped from me. It was a struggle to maintain enough dignity and hope to live until the war’s end.”

And yet, he held on… he did indeed live to war’s end.

Louis Zamperini’s story is impressive not only because he survived, but because his perseverance allowed him to continue living after his survival. Once the POW’s were rescued at the end of the war, they came home as heroes… but broken in every way: physically, mentally, emotionally… and Louie was no exception. Fortunately, after a long time, he found a way to heal… to forgive… and to give back to his community: he founded a camp for troubled youths, the Victory Boys Camp.

Although this life-defining tragedy lasted over 2 years of Louis’ life, he lived to the age 97. He passed away on July 2, 2014.

He lived quite a full, inspiring, and resilient life.

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March Madness… but not the one you think.

March Reviews

March has been very hectic for me. It is simply an insane month — maybe it’s because the winter refuses to go away (seriously, it snowed on the first day of spring)… or maybe it’s because it’s pre-State Test time (which induces crying, sleeplessness, nausea… and the students’ fare no better than the teachers!) … or perhaps it just feels so much longer compared to February.

In any case, I was only able to squeeze a little reading in:

The Meteorite Chronicles: EarthUnder by Edwin Thompson — a science fiction story about a meteorite hunter who must enlighten the world about what they are doing to our planet and save humanity in the process. I think it’s pretty cool the author’s initials are E.T.

The Red Notebook by Antoine Laurain — a romantic tale about two strangers. One is mugged and ends up in a coma. The other finds a bag in a trashcan and decides to solve the mystery of this purse, which holds within a red notebook full of personal thoughts, fears, ideas, and random musings. It’s also set in Paris… enough said!

Lastly, The Winter Sea by Di Morrissey — a story of wanderlust and starting over (two of my favorite topics). It’s about a woman who goes off to a sleepy seaside town in Australia to rethink her life, and in the process decides to open up a new business, meet wonderful people, and then receives an inheritance that throws everything off kilter and opens up a whole can of worms about her father’s past. It’s told in alternating perspectives of past and present… and it’s fantastic.

I am now trying to make my way through Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. (More on that later!)

But the above reviews will be in the San Francisco Book Review in April!

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“Embrace the Wonder”

embrace the wonder

Akarnae by Lynette Noni is truly a wonderful young adult fantasy novel! I loved reading every minute it — especially since I was really in the mood for a story where I could lose myself and follow the characters’ journey wherever it happened to lead.

Alexandra Jennings is meant to go to a boring old boarding school while her parents are away for the school year to study with some famous archeologist — and Alex is not happy about it. But as she walks into the International Exchange Academy to hand in her paperwork, she opens a door that leads into a whole new world! And although the first person she meets in Medora is a complete creep, the next two turn out to be her best buds and the perfect Akarnae Academy tour guides. Alex, Jordan, and Bear become fast friends and mischievous adventure seekers.

As she soon discovers, Akarnae is a special school for gifted students — other than being from another world (Freya), Alex isn’t quite sure what her gift is yet… but considering all of the extremely difficult and advanced classes she’s signed up for, we can be sure it’s bound to be a good one. In the meantime, there’s the sentient library with secret levels, hidden rooms, and a million doorways to keep Alex busy enough and provide her with more adventures than she bargains for.

Akarnae is a wonderfully enjoyable read not only because it takes place in an amazing world with highly advanced technology — which Alex aptly describes as something very close to magic — but also because the characters are the kind of people you definitely want to be around. Alex adapts impressively well to being stuck in a different world, trying to learn things she’s never heard of, and surviving her combat class (with some very hot guys who could pretty much crush her), all while maintaining her sense of humor and sarcastic wit. Meanwhile, Jordan and Bear are her hilarious and caring sidekicks — they know when it’s time to look for trouble, make inappropriate comments, or regale us with their charming banter.

I am really looking forward to reading the next installment of The Medoran Chronicles, since I have a lot more questions about Jordan’s strange parentage, Bear’s lovely family, the whereabouts of creepy Aven, and Lady Mystique… oh, and I’d like to know more about Kaiden and his beautiful smile!

You just can’t go wrong with a library that literally tells you to “embrace the wonder.” I can hardly wait to see what awaits Alex and her friends next!

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Kane Chronicles & Percy Jackson: WIN!

son of sobek

So I finally had some time to sit down and read The Son of Sobek and The Staff of Serapis. I just can’t get enough mythology… or Percy… or Annabeth…. or Kanes! These short stories are an excellent way to get a quick Rick Riordan fix while he writes… the millions books he seems to be working on simultaneously.

The Son on Sobek focuses on Percy and Carter as they battle this huge monster that’s been trampling a neighborhood on Long Island. The monstrous crocodile has been enchanted by an Egyptian amulet, but it’s on Percy’s turf — thus Greek and Egyptian mythology collide. Carter does his battle armor thing… Percy does his water thing… they’re both suspicious about each other, but they work so well together. It’s good fun!

The Staff of Serapis is about Annabeth and Sadie, who meet on the subway as a three-headed staff is in the midst of putting itself together and wreaking havoc during rush hour. This wolf/lion-plus-dog-monster, which is also stuck in some kind of cone, is making its way to its master: a god created by Alexander the Great– part Egyptian, part Greek… and completely insane. Annabeth and Sadie work really well together and become fast friends. Girls just work better!

I like that these stories seem like part of a greater mystery — someone is messing with Egyptian and Greek magic and is simply experimenting to see what happens when these characters come together. And I’m loving it!

Keep them coming, Mr. Riordan!!

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Filed under Book Review, Middle Grade Fiction, Mythology

Reviews, Reviews, Reviews!

March Books

I’m really enjoying book reviewing — it does mean that more often than not, my head is stuck in a book… which is wonderful. It also means that I’m reading all kinds of different books. This month I’m reading everything from historical fiction, to mysteries, to alternate worlds and dreams within dreams.

The Anatomy Lesson by Nina Siegal is a historical fiction novel about Rembrandt’s painting by the same name, but it focuses on everything that goes on behind the painting… mainly the criminal who was used for this public dissection.

In the Shadow of Lies by M.A. Adler could also fall under historical fiction (it takes place during World War II) — but the most interesting part is the mystery surrounding the town of Richmond, California, and detective Oliver Wright, who needs to set things straight even though everything around him is falling apart. There are so many things going on — it kept me on my toes!

Lastly, The Bookseller by Cynthia Swanson takes place during the 1960s, in a series of alternate dream sequences. In one instance, Kitty Miller is happily single and owns and bookstore… but in another instance, she’s Katharyn Anderson and is married to lovely man with children. It gets all mixed up, and she doesn’t know what’s real and what’s her dream-world. I liked her character!

And so now I have some time to catch up on some other books I’ve been meaning to read. However, these reviews should be in March’s San Francisco Book Review.

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Live! (to tell the tale…)

vivir para contarla

Gabriel Garcia Marquez was born in Columbia in 1927 and passed away just last year, on the 17th of April (2014). He was one of the most significant and inspiring Latin American authors of the 20th century, and was even awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982. I finally got around to reading his autobiography Vivir Para Contarla (or in English, Living to Tell the Tale). It goes without saying, the man had a way with words…

His autobiography tells a lot not only about his upbringing, his family, and his friends… but also a lot about his way of looking at life — admitting that there is a fine line between fact and fiction, as “life is not what you live, but what you remember and how you remember it.” In other words, life is just a story we tell ourselves, and our memories are often altered by figments of our imagination.

Nonetheless, what strikes me most about his life as a writer is how deeply he was influenced by his thirst for books, and his well-read friends. They discussed authors, they discussed literature, they lived to talk about story-telling, and they were constantly striving to acquire more books they could share amongst themselves. Mr. Garcia Marquez indeed kept excellent company, in this sense. He even read the dictionary! … a gift from his grandfather — a man who loved words and loved learning about them — Garcia Marquez admits he read this dictionary as one reads a novel: in alphabetical order and barely understanding any of it. The man was a lover of words and stories in any shape or form: novels, news articles, tales among friends, movies … life. He claimed he knew he would be a writer even before learning how to write! He knew because of this irresistible urge to write so as not to die.

Garcia Marquez did not live a life of privilege. He was often destitute and broke, barely getting by with his ease for making new acquaintances despite his shyness (such as police officers who once found him sleeping on a park bench), or simply due to his friends’ kindness. Even when he was making some money, he was so immersed in his work that his only concern with it was making sure to send financial aid to his large family so as ensure they could make ends meet. He lived to party, to sing, to write, to read, to soak up as much of his surroundings as possible… the good, the bad, the painful, the beautiful, the ugly, and the devastating.

I was struck by his words, “The terror of writing can be as unbearable as that of not writing.” The need to write is strong… the fear of it being worthless is strong, too. Yet every story that demands to be told will take whatever form it may need… but in the end, it must make its way into the light. Fortunately, Garcia Marquez’s works live on despite his passing… and through his memoirs, he encourages us to live, so that one day we too can tell our tales.

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