The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli

This is the first book that has moved me in a while.  There are times when you come across a book that you become completely buried in…it is hard to break away even for a moment without finding out what will happen next.  I felt this way about The Lotus Eaters yet in some ways the story was so intense I had to make myself put it down at times.  This is a story about Vietnam and it captures so many different aspects of the war, the country and the people who were part of it.

Helen Adams comes to Vietnam as a photojournalist after her brother is killed in the war.  She is a fairly inexperienced photographer and comes as a “tourist of war.”  She meets other journalists and begins to learn from them, particularly Sam Darrow who she also becomes involved with.  During this time she goes from doing human interest stories to combat missions and capturing the death, destruction, and meaningful moments for people involved.  With her camera she feels that she can capture the truth of the war.

The third person who plays an important role is Linh, who works with both Helen and Darrow.  He is Vietnamese and has been part of both the NVA and SVA at different times and then is a photographer with the Americans.  He helps Helen and Darrow navigate his country, his war.

While the characters are beautifully written and I am interested in their relationships and what happens between them, the real story for me was Vietnam.  There are descriptions of the country that just bring you right in, and then there is the war, the battles, the soldiers.  This book took me through so many different emotions from fear, anxiety, grief and hope.  I can’t imagine the bravery of those who were actually there.

I would highly recommend this book.  I did feel that it ended kind of quickly, but otherwise felt it was perfect.

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The False Friend by Myla Goldberg

This is the story of  Celia Durst and a childhood friendship.  Celia was best friends with a girl named Djuna when they were 11-years-old.  They were confidant and so into their friendship with each other that they did not need anyone else.  That kind of friendship developed followers and three girls began to follow them around and do whatever they could to become part of their clique.  This all went on until a day when they were all walking home from school on a forbidden road.  Celia and Djuna were arguing and the next thing that happened was Djuna disappeared.  Celia had told people that she had gotten into a car with a stranger and neither the car or Djuna had ever been found.  However twenty years later Celia is flooded by a memory of Djuna falling into a hole in the woods and Celia walking away and spreading a lie about the abduction.

Celia returns home to confess her new truth and to talk with the other girls who were there that day.  As she talks with them she learns that they all remember seeing the car and that no one believes what she remembers about Djuna falling into a hole.  She does learn more about her friendship with Djuna and some of the bullying that they had done to one of the girls who wanted to be their friend.  Celia’s family and her boyfriend are able to open up with her about things that have been under the surface and unsaid for a long time.  The book ends without knowing if Celia is able to move forward in her life after addressing these issues in her past.

This was a very interesting book and a fast read.  I found myself liking Celia even after learning about some of the horrible bullying that she took part in as a young girl.  It brought back memories of how mean children can be to each other and how serious small things seem.  I wanted to know what the real version of the truth was, and I was thankful that the author included a short page at the end telling what happened.

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Backseat Saints by Joshilyn Jackson

Backseat Saints is the story of Rose Lolley otherwise known as Ro Grandee.  Rose grew up in a home where her  mother abandoned her at a young age and her father beat her.  Rose is full of sass and spunk and ends up marrying Thom Grandee.  She moves to Texas and puts on the face of a happy marriage even though Thom regularly beats her for the smallest error.  Rose hides her spunk under the persona of “Ro” and does what she can to be a compliant, quiet and supportive wife.

Rose meets a fortune teller who tells her that she needs to choose either herself or her husband, that one of them must die for the other to live.  Rose heeds this to some extent and works up the courage to leave, going on a cross country journey to find her mother and discover more of her history.  Her husband is following behind trying to find her.

I liked this book.  I thought that it was a quick entertaining read and that it also addressed a serious issue.  Rose gave a real glimpse of what it might be like to be in an abusive marriage and the process that a person would have to go through before deciding to leave.  I will definitely look for more by this author.

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Faithful Place by Tana French

I was ridiculously excited to finally get my hands on this book.  I had a hold placed on it at my local library for so long that I had forgotten that I was waiting for it.  Tana French is an Irish author and her first two books were wonderful.  Faithful Place is the story of Frank Mackey, a detective from the Undercover department of the police.  Frank had left home as a young boy and had not returned for over twenty years until he got a phone call from his sister, the one person from his past that he had kept in touch with.

Frank is drawn back to his home by the discovery of a suitcase belonging to a girl named Rosie.  Rosie was Frank’s childhood sweetheart and on the night he left Faithful Place his plan had been to meet Rosie and go with her to London where they were going to get married and build a better life for themselves.  However Rosie never showed and Frank left on his own after finding a note from Rosie that made him think that she had backed out.

Frank is drawn into the mystery of revisiting his past and trying to figure out what really happened to Rosie that night.  He also is drawn back into the drama of his family.  He has two brothers and sisters who welcome him home with mixed reactions as well as an alcoholic father to deal with.  Frank learns how his past and present are not as far removed from each other as he had imagined.

I enjoyed this book and read it fast.  The family dynamics were interesting and I wanted to know what had happened to Rosie.  Frank was actually introduced in The Likeness (Tana French’s second book) and I liked that there was a little connection with her earlier books. I definitely recommend any of her books, however I would start with In the Woods and work my way from there.

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Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven by Susan Jane Gilman

I try not to put a lot of stock into covers or titles when looking for a book to read, however in this case I feel like I should have taken heed that this might not be my favorite book in the world after seeing the cover.  Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven had been recommended to me and got pretty good reviews when I looked it up on Amazon.  I checked it out of the local library and read it.  Quickly. It is a travel memoir and I usually love travel memoirs.  This one is a little different because it deals with the psychiatric breakdown of Susan Gilman’s travel companion and so a lot of names and descriptions of the characters are changed to protect their identities.

Susan and her traveling partner “Claire” decide to spend a year traveling the world after they graduate from Brown University.  Neither have done any exotic travel.  Susan comes from a middle class family and Claire comes from a wealthy one.  They are what sounds like casual friends prior to the trip but they decide to go and decide to start their travel in China.  It is 1986 and China has just opened it’s borders to tourists, although it is heavily monitored.

Susan and Claire travel to China.  They immediately are disoriented by the language, the temperature, the food, the smells and just about everything.  They take turns having moments of weakness and homesickness while the other pushes to carry on with the trip.  During this time Claire writes diligently in her journal and talks of people watching her and spying on her.  After a dramatic incident Susan realizes that she is having a psychiatric breakdown and works to get her out of the country as fast as she can.

The story wasn’t really what I expected.  There were parts of it that I liked, such as the author talking about the Americans and expatriates traveling in Asia trying to prove how authentic they were by how little they paid for things and how much they roughed it.  She points out that you have to be a wealthy person to have the privilege to travel internationally and “rough it.”  It was also interesting to hear about China during this time and it definitely took some bravery as well as naivety in order to travel there without any preparation.  It is hard for me to identify what I didn’t like about this book but there was just something missing that kept it from meeting my expectations.

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Imperfect Birds by Ann Lamott

Imperfect Birds revisits the character for Rosie Ferguson from earlier books by Ann Lamott.  I enjoyed this because I was already familiar with the characters and their backgrounds and was eager to know what would happen next.  Unfortunately, in this story, Rosie is a seventeen-year-old dealing with a lot of issues that teenagers face.  She is questioning her parents at every turn and experimenting with drugs, sex and other dangerous behavior.

Elizabeth and James, her mother and step-father, try to figure out what Rosie is truly doing and how best to parent her.  Rosie is an expert liar, or at least is full of half-truths about where she is going and what she is doing.  She has two good friends who she does everything with and always feels not quite good enough when she compares herself to them.  Rosie uses both prescription and hard drugs and is very good at disguising it.  She justifies it to herself that she gets good grades and works part time so she can’t really have a problem.  Elizabeth is a recovering alcoholic and she is working hard at taking care of herself as well as taking care of Rosie.

I didn’t necessarily think that the plot was exceptional in this book.  However the language that Ann Lamott uses is just beautiful.  She has a quick wit and says things that just feel so true that it helps to make the book a good one.  At one point Elizabeth describes Rosie as her “outside heart” which I just loved.  Overall I thought it was good book and I was happy that I read it.  It made me want to go back and re-read Rosie and Crooked Little Heart.

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The Help by Kathryn Stockett

I have heard some murmurs about this book and was excited when my sister-in law sent it my way.  It is the best book I have read in a long long time.  This is the first novel by Kathryn Stockett and I am excited about whatever she decides to write next.

The Help takes place in the early 1960s in Jackson Mississippi.  The story is told through three different narrators with three very distinct voices and perspectives.  Skeeter is a young white woman who has just graduated from college and is hoping to pursue a career in writing or journalism.  She did not get married during college as many of her friends did and is looking to find a way to start her career.  Skeeter is part of the Women’s League and plays bridge with her best friends, Elizabeth and Hilly, yet she yearns to do something more real.  Elizabeth and Hilly both are young married women with young children and are learning how to manage a home.

Aibileen is Miss Elizabeth’s maid.  She takes care of the home and takes care of Mae Mobley, Elizabeth’s child.  She is in her late 40s, early 50s and says that she has raised a total of 17 children in her different jobs.  Her own son was killed about two years before and she is still grieving this loss.  Aibileen mentions to Skeeter at one point that her son had started writing about what it was like working for a white man and this gives Skeeter an idea to interview the maids in Jackson about what it is like to be in their shoes.  The good and the bad.  This is a daring and dangerous idea and every maid who participates risks their jobs, their lives, their homes.

Minny is the third narrator, and Aibileen’s best friend.  She has been fired from numerous jobs as a maid because she is a woman who speaks her mind and this does not agree with many of her employers.  After her last job, with Hilly’s mother, Hilly has spread rumors that she stole which made it almost impossible to find a new job.  Aibileen helps her find one with a white woman who is an outcast from the rest of the women in town and who seems unaware of how maids are usually treated.

Skeeter writes the stories of many of the maids in town and works to publish their side in an anonymous way to protect their safety.  While doing this she explores her own history, thoughts and life in relation to how she grew up and what she was taught to believe.  I feel like this summary I am writing does not even begin to give the book justice.  The relationships were so strong and the characters so real.  I couldn’t wait to find out what was going to happen next and my heart went out to many of the people in the book.  I can’t recommend this book enough.

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The Summer of My Greek Taverna by Tom Stone

I have probably mentioned already that I love to read travel memoirs.  I did some international travel back in college but since entering the real world have not been able to go to the many places that I would love to see, and have to enjoy other people’s experiences through books.  I was interested in this one primarily because I spent a semester in Greece during college and love reading anything that brings that back.

The Summer of My Greek Taverna is about an American who went to Greece as a break from real life in order to try to write a book.  He fell in love, both with the country and with a girl who became his wife, and made a life for himself in Greece.  Patmos is the small island where they met and that is where most of the story took place.  I did not visit it during my few months there, but the descriptions in the book brought to mind some of the beautiful places that I did see.

Tom and his wife are both struggling in work that they are not passionate about in order to support their two children.  She had been an artist and he was a writer but these careers were difficult for them to maintain after having children.  When a Greek friend offers Tom to rent his Taverna for the summer on a 50/50 split, Tom looks at this as a chance to make a large sum of money that will help them to be secure for the rest of the year.

This story is about that partnership, the hard work that is put into managing a restaurant, and the many relationships that formed and grew during this period.  There are insights into Greek culture (the love of negotiating), Greek food (including recipes at the end), and the life of expatriates living in a home away from home.  I thought it was a quick enjoyable read.

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Green City in the Sun by Barbara Wood

I have had a hard time finding a book that has kept me interested through the end.  I was a little bit surprised to find that it was this book that did, as it is 600+ pages.  Green City in the Sun is the story of two families during the birth and growth of Kenya.

The Treverton family comes to British East Africa with different dreams.  Val Treverton buys 5000 acres to establish a great coffee farm.  He builds a beautiful estate and tries to capture the wealth and luxury that he experienced in England in an even greater scale in Kenya.  While he is primarily interested in himself, he is a likable character.  His wife Rose fades into the background for the majority of the story.  She likes to be fairly isolated and keeps to herself in a eucalyptus glade.  Val’s sister Dr. Grace Treverton comes to develop a medical mission to bring medicine and healing to Africans.

Mama Wachera is a medicine woman who lived on the Trevertons land.  After Val shows complete disregard for her traditions and the beliefs of her people she puts a curse on his family until the white people are gone from the land and it falls back to those who originally owned it.  After a time of prosperity, this curse seems to play itself out as tragedy falls upon the Treverton family.

The Trevertons remain as Dr. Grace expands her mission and works hard to build relationships with the Kenyan people.  She works to educate and provide health care and bravely challenges traditions that cause harm.  Dr. Grace ends up raising the next two generations of Trevertons and shows strength and wisdom through it all.  Mama Wachera also raises generations of children and in a parallel way shows strength.  I appreciated that this book very much celebrated strong women.

These two families interact time and again.  Throughout these interactions it is clear that they both have a love for Kenya and have different ideas about what is best for the country.  Kenya changes during the Mau Mau uprising and the fight for independence.  However the images and descriptions of the spirit of Kenya seem the same.  Part of my enjoyment of this book were the images of a place that I would love to see.  I also liked that it contained history, romance and strong characters.  There were parts that I read quickly through but for the most part I enjoyed the story and was interested in what would happen next.  I will need to look for more books by Barbara Wood.

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Five Quarters of an Orange by Joanne Harris

This is one of those books that you know right away something traumatic happened but it takes a long time to find out what.  The narrator of the story is Framboise Dartigan.  As an adult she has moved back to the same small French town that she had grown up in as a child.  Her childhood was during the time of the war and her memories are filled with German soldiers who had been in and around the town.  Framboise moves back to her old home and tries to revitalize the farm she had grown up on.  She keeps to herself and does her best to keep other villagers from knowing who she is because of something terrible that had happened involving her mother.

The story goes back in forth between the present time as Framboise starts a popular restaurant out of her farm using recipes and techniques taught to her by her mother.  Her mother had left her a book filled with recipes and her thoughts and journal entries mixed in.  As Framboise starts to read through her mothers thoughts she too begins to remember what took place when she was nine years old.

Framboise had an older brother and sister.  She found out that they were trading information to the Germans in order to receive treats such as chocolate and magazines.  Framboise becomes charmed with one of the German soldiers and she also begins to share knowledge of other villagers.  The children reassure each other that nothing really comes of this information that they give because they are, after all, children and who really believes children.  However even in their conversation with each other you can sense the concern that they do not truly understand what they are doing and they know that they don’t understand it.  Their father has been killed in the war and all three of them form a special attachment to Tomas who is their main contact for trading information for goods.  Their mother is a hard worker who is very strict and stern.  She suffers terrible migraines, particularly if she smells any oranges, and Framboise uses this against her in order for the children to have hours of freedom.

Eventually something happens to a soldier and in retaliation the Germans kill ten civilians from the village.  The blame of the villagers dying is put on Framboise mother and her household.  They leave and Framboise tries to hide who she is to pretty much anyone that she knows.  This works until family members find out about her mother’s journal and begin to do what they can to find out what they can about their history.

This was a fast moving book that was beautifully written.  I loved the images of fruit and food and how that was tied in with the story.

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