Wednesday, November 13, 2013

When You Reach Me

Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me was definitely not what I expected. After reading a few descriptions of the book, and the “mysterious letters” main character Miranda receives, I was expecting a mystery.

Miranda, a sixth grader living in New York City with her single mom, does indeed receive mysterious letters, but this book is not a mystery or thriller. It is the kind of book that makes references to Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time.

If you are a fan of L’Engle, you will likely be a fan of When You Reach Me. If you did not enjoy A Wrinkle in Time, you may not connect with this book. I am not a fan of L’Engle, or science fiction in general, so I was left feeling a bit disappointed by this Newbery Medal winner.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Elliot Holt’s You Are One of Them has an intriguing premise. Sarah’s best friend, Jenny Jones, died in a plane crash not long after visiting Soviet Russia. Ten years later, Sarah receives an email from Moscow, claiming Jenny is still alive.

The delivery, unfortunately, is not nearly as intriguing. Much of the book focuses on the failed relationships in Sarah’s life: with her older sister, with her father, with various lovers. Part of the book flashes back to Sarah and Jenny’s friendship. The latter half covers Sarah’s experiences in Moscow.

Anyone expecting a mystery will be disappointed by the final revelation. This book is not genre fiction and fails to follow any generic formula. However, One of Them is a nice example of literary fiction. Sarah moves to Moscow during the mid-90s. Having lived in Ukraine during the late 90s, the descriptions of the post-Soviet era ring true for me. Holt’s descriptions of places, people, and attitudes feel accurate.

 Read this book for the writing and setting and not for the mystery.

Monday, July 15, 2013

The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle

Charlotte Doyle is a proper early 19th-century 13-year-old girl. When her family moves from England to the United States, she plans to join them after her school term. However, she soon discovers that the plan has gone awry when she boards the Seahawk, one of her father’s ships. The families she was supposed to travel with have suddenly canceled, and the crew gives her several cryptic warnings to stay away.

Thus begins The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle. I wanted to root for Charlotte and her adventures. I wanted to embrace True Confessions as a treatise for female empowerment (and racial equality), but I just could not suspend my disbelief long enough to do so.

I know this Newbery Honor Book is written for children, but I could not get beyond the fact that Charlotte, a female, is alone with a crew of men for months at a time. Charlotte abandons her traditional role as an upper-class female, and is a fine example of a girl throwing off gender restrictions, but it is impossible for me to believe that the crew, particularly in the early 1800s, would ever really accept and view her in a non-sexual manner. The anachronisms of the plot left me so disbelieving that I could not enjoy or recommend the book.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Daughter of War

The last time Kevork and Marta saw each other was in an Armenian orphanage in Marash, Turkey. Before they are separated, Kevork and Marta promise they will one day be reunited and marry.

Both Kevork and Marta survive, yet they are also sure the other is dead. They have experienced unspeakable acts, but the promise they made each other keeps them going when life feels unlivable. They hope for the unbelievable—that the other still lives—but also worry they themselves are too severely damaged for the other to still love.

Kevork and Marta are compelling characters, and the reader roots for their reunification. They are also surrounded by supporting characters that show humanity exists even in the most inhumane situations: German nuns, international aid workers, diplomats, and young children.  

Daughter of War is written for a young audience and though it doesn’t shy from hard topics, it also doesn’t delve deeply into them either. However, it is a good introductory read into an often overlooked historical period.

The Sandcastle Girls



Chris Bohjalian’s The Sandcastle Girls is the story of Elizabeth Endicott, an American who travels to Aleppo, Syria with her diplomat father in 1915 to aid Armenian refugees driven from Ottoman Turkey.  She meets and falls in love with Armen, an Armenian engineer who is suffering from the loss of his wife and child.

Unfortunately, Bohjalian couches Armen and Elizabeth’s story within that of their American granddaughter, Laura, who is learning about her grandparents’ history.  Not only is Laura not an interesting character, but her story is jarring and distracting from the heart of the narrative.  In addition, her existence takes away from the book’s dramatic tension since it is clear from the beginning that not only do both Elizabeth and Armen survive but they also marry and reproduce.

I wanted to like this book more than I did.  Part of my discontent is because I did not find Elizabeth an attractive or appealing character.  I couldn’t imagine what about her character was compelling enough to bring Armen out of his emotional comma.  Part of it is because Bohjalian does not just let the horror of history provide the book’s painful drama.  Instead, he concludes with a dramatic, and unnecessary, scene that detracts from the historical context and left me with a deep feeling of unease. 

American Dervish

This past weekend, I attended the groundbreaking for a new mosque to be built in a predominantly Christian community. In his opening remarks, the imam talked about his hope that the local community would see the mosque and its worshipers and know there is more to Islam than the media portrays.

Ayad Akhtar’s American Dervish is a perfect example of the complexity of the American Muslim identity. Hayat Shah and his parents socialize within a Pakistani expat community that ranges from the seemingly devout to the authentically devout to the secular. Hayat explores what religion means to him both spiritually and culturally and moves from memorizing the Quran to becoming a disbeliever.

Religion permeates American Dervish but its story is universal as Hayat faces the milestones of growing up: falling in love, seeing the imperfections of one’s parents, developing one’s own belief system. Akhtar is a poetic writer and raises many questions about religion, relationships, and identity.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Expats

I made the mistake of starting The Expats on audiobook. Some people are great fans of the format, but at the best of times my mind tends to wander away from the story. The Expats is a particularly difficult book for the format as it jumps from past to present, so I just couldn't follow—even when I was paying attention. I finally checked out a paper copy to read the last half of the book, so I don’t feel very qualified to write a review.

But I’ll still try.

I’ve never read spy novels before, but I think The Expats tries to fit into the genre. As I read, I could feel its desire to be turned into a summer film in the vein of the Bourne saga. I picked up this book because of the reviews and was definitely disappointed that it was neither a fast, exciting beach read nor an especially well-written piece of literary fiction. I was particularly disappointed with Kate, the main character. She didn’t feel authentic, and I always wonder about writers who try to write from the perspective of the opposite sex because so often it doesn’t ring true.

The book was an adequate read, but certainly not a summer blockbuster to tell all your friends about.

Moonlight in Odessa

Daria is a well-educated Odessan who takes a job as a secretary for an international company and discovers there is more in her job description than she bargained for. In the evenings she works at a “mail-order bride” agency, interpreting for men looking for a “traditional” wife and women wanting to escape poverty through marriage. On top of that, she has to deal with the advances of a local mafia boss.

Moonlight in Odessa paints what I consider to be a fairly accurate picture of post-Soviet Ukraine: an educated population faced with few job prospects; amazing women with a less-than-stellar crop of males to choose from; and the uncomfortable choices some women feel forced to make to escape poverty.

That said, Moonlight is not a dreary drudge of a read. The writing is fast-paced, smart, and often humorous. Daria is a likable main character with a lot of spunk that the reader can’t help but root for.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

We Are All Made of Glue

I am a big fan of Marina Lewycka. She has a vibrant writing style and tackles difficult and uncomfortable subjects with both respect and humor.

Georgie Sinclair is experiencing a true midlife crisis. Her husband leaves her, and she feels distant from her teenage children. The emptiness in her life is suddenly filled by an elderly woman, Mrs. Shapiro, who drops into Georgie’s life and starts to consume it. Georgie is left to deal with Mrs. Shapiro’s medical issues, her unsanitary house, unsavory real estate agents, and a crew of Palestinian repairmen.

We Are All Made of Glue seems like an unlikely forum and Georgie an unlikely character to addresses sensitive issues like the British healthcare system and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but Lewycka pulls it off with aplomb.

Paris, My Sweet: A Year in the City of Light (and Dark Chocolate)

I am truly, madly, and deeply in love with Paris. I spent one magical semester there and can honestly say I was completely happy and content the entire time. The only thing I love more than Paris is chocolate, so I was drawn to Amy Thomas’s memoir Paris, My Sweet: A Year in the City of Light (and Dark Chocolate).

At times, this book can be quite inaccessible. Thomas moved from New York City to Paris. She had a good job in New York. She has a good job in Paris. She spends good chunks of her life eating dessert! Yet she is openly dissatisfied with her life in both cities. Most readers will never have the opportunity to work in an advertising agency and eat chocolate in either city and don’t really want her to complain about her lifestyle.

On the other hand, she is very honest. I wondered how her New York friends felt reading about how distant she felt from them when she visited the city and how desperately she wanted to return to Paris, only to discover Paris was equally dissatisfying. I appreciate her honesty. And the truth is that even people who seem to have a charmed life and get to eat cakes and cookies for a living have the right to emotions and disappointments like the rest of us.

Gone Girl

The first part of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl is an engrossing mystery. I have watched too many 48 Hours mysteries not to be fascinated by the story of a missing wife, an unhappy husband, and a bizarre crime scene. Flynn does a good job of describing and capturing the emotions of disappointments in marriage, and I think many readers can relate at some level to those feelings. I recommend this book because of the first half only.

The second half of the book goes awry. I was initially drawn to the mystery because I could relate. I understood the struggles of marriage. I could see the main characters as people I might actually know. All those feelings—all that sympathy with the characters—was blown away in the second half of the book and I only finished reading out of horrible curiosity about horrible people and not because I cared a jot about the story or characters.

Paris in Love

I am in love with Paris. I spent one magical fall there as an intern and have visited the city multiple times. Just thinking about Paris makes my heart flutter with excitement. So how could I resist picking up Eloisa James’s memoir Paris in Love?

James describes the Paris I love. Her book lacks the pretension that seems to ooze from other Paris memoirs I have recently read. She shares facebook status updates and ordinary experiences from her daily life. She brings to life the sites, the sounds, the smells, the tastes of Paris but also talks about her children’s struggles to adapt and even the ups and downs of their dog, Milo. James reveals herself as a real person and makes Paris accessible to real people, yet still maintains the city’s charm.

Just writing about this book makes me miss Paris. Now I just have to figure out a way to get back.

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America

One of my sisters suggested we read Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America so we could discuss the book together.

I dutifully read, and even enjoyed, the book, but I could never shake the feeling that I was not reading one book but at least two. Larson interweaves the story of Chicago’s World's Columbian Exposition with that of H.H. Holmes, a serial killer active during that time. I kept waiting for Larson to make a connection between the stories. What does a history about architecture, building, and the economy have to do with a serial killer?

Turns out, not a whole lot.

Larson is an incredible researcher and the book is full of vivid details (and he takes quite a few liberties imagining those details). I found both stories (architecture and murder) to be quite interesting but an ill-fitting pair. At almost 400 pages, Larson would have better served his readers by writing two separate books.

Yes, I Would Love Another Glass of Tea: An American Woman’s Letters to Turkey

As an American woman who spent several years living in and traveling to Turkey, I was intrigued by the title of Katharine Branning’s memoir: Yes, I Would Love Another Glass of Tea: An American Woman’s Letters to Turkey. Branning, a fellow librarian, has traveled and researched in Turkey since 1978 and has a clear love for and affinity with the country. However, the book does not do a good job of showing that love. She tells about her love, she gives lists and details about different topics relating to the country, culture, and people, but she does not paint a clear picture of her Turkey. I wanted less telling and more stories. I wanted concrete examples to support her claims. I wanted to feel Turkey and enjoy her personality, but she failed to bring color to her essays. In addition, the book is framed around letters to Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who is known for her letters written from Turkey in the 18th century. However, this device was more distracting and clunky than helpful.

Overall, I was quite disappointed with the book . . . until I read the last essay. In her final chapter, Branning describes her journey from Istanbul to New York City on September 11, 2001. For the first time, she shows her story, she reveals her feelings and emotions, and she finally connects with the reader. Even a dozen years after the event, I found myself overwhelmed by emotions: my own, Branning’s, and the Turks that embraced her at the time. If only she had been willing to expose herself in a similar fashion throughout the book.