Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Language of Flowers written by Vanessa Diffenbach

I read The Language of Flowers for my book club and it is a great example of why I love being in a book club. Once again, I probably would not have picked up this one to read on my own but I really enjoyed this unusual story about a baby girl (Victoria) who is abondoned by her birth mother when she is 3 weeks old The plot centers on Victoria's sad life growing up in the child welfare system. Young Victoria finds herself in and out of foster/group homes as her social worker (Meredith) tries very hard to find a family to adopt her.

As the story unfolds, we learn that if Victoria is not adopted by the time she turns 10 she will be classified as unadoptable by the state and will be placed in a group home until her 18th birthday. One of the pivotal points in this poignant story occurs when Meredith makes a final attempt to find the 9 year old Victoria a permanent family to adopt her. and places her with Elizabeth, who also had a difficult childhood and a "distant" mother. Elizabeth teaches Victoria about the "language of flowers", a method of communication used in the Victorian age in which every flower was assigned to a specific meaning. Eventually Victoria learns to communicate her feelings through the language of flowers. The plot is revealed as Diffenbach alternates between the present day (Victoria's 18th birthday) and flashbacks of Victoria's incredibly difficult life in the child welfare system. This technique entices the reader with just enough information to keep you engaged.

I was deeply vested in the characters and genuinely wanted to know what happened to them. Overall, The Language of Flowers is a well-written story that combines an unusual topic with interesting characters and a compelling plot that explores universal themes such as the complexities of mother-daughter relationships, and the human need for love, communication and connection.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Still Alice written by Lisa Genova

Although it's been a while since I've posted a new review it's not because I haven't read any worthwhile books - more a factor of my day job and just not having enough time to the things I love to do. That said, I'd like to share my thoughts on this recent read.

Still Alice was recommended to me a while ago but I didn't think I would be able to get through the story. It is about a young (50 year-old) Harvard professor who is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's disease. My mom passed away from Alzheimer's and I thought it would be a bit too close to home for me. Eventually I picked it up and decided to try a few pages, and am very happy I did. Lisa Genova followed one of the most important "rules" of writing good fiction by writing about what you know - which contributes heavily to the success of her novel. Her insights into the diagnosis, treatment and symptoms of Alzheimer's make Still Alice a compelling book that truly helps provide the reader with a glimmer into the bell-jar world of people afflicted with the disease. It is compassionately written and very well done. Alzheimer's may have stolen Alice's short term memory and pieces of her mind, but it can't steal her essential self - she is "still Alice" despite the symptoms of her disease - a lesson that those of us who care for and love someone diagnosed with Alzheimer's need to remember.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Hello Readers & Happy New Year!

Because I read so many more books than I have time to write about, I've decided that in addition to more detailed reviews I would periodically offer you a quick thumbs up or down for several books at once. Based on my regular reviews you can get a feeling for why I rate books as I do and if you like how I judge book, these quickie lists will give you some more great reading suggestions.

Keep reading!

The Bookenthusiast

Amersterdam by Ian McEwan. Literary Fiction - 4 Stars
I am a huge McEwan fan and found this shorter novel of his fascinating and well-written.

Cutting for Stone
by Abraham Verghese - Literary Fiction -3 Stars
I read this one twice and definitely appreciated the fairy-tale-esq story much more the second time around. There are a lot of layers to this complex novel that I didn't see the first time.

Little Bee by Chris Cleave - Literary Fiction - 3.5 Stars
Don't let the name fool you - this is a serious story about serious thought-provoking themes and I really enjoyed it.

In The Land of Invisible Women by Qanta Ahmed, MD - Memoir - 3 Stars
Interesting subject matter that does help provide some insight into current world-wide issues but I'm not a huge fan of her writing style. Large sections of the book read to me as if the author's native language was not English. I did manage to get past that issue and enjoyed the content of her experiences which is why I gave it 3 stars - not for it's literary merit.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

"A Reliable Wife" written by Robert Goolrick

If you like Gothic novels, you will love this book! There is no mistaking this dark story for what it is, right from the opening page. The bleak, frozen landscape of winter in a small Wisconsin town, where inexplicable madness is rampant among the townspeople, sets the tone for a classic Gothic novel. Living in his castle-like estate, Ralph Truitt our tragic protagonist, places an ad in a Chicago newspaper for a "...reliable wife. Compelled by practical, not romantic reasons..." which is precisely what he gets (albeit not in the way he intended!). Catherine Land, a not so virtuous woman with a sordid past answers the ad and becomes Truitt's bride. Add to that mix, Truitt's relentless search for his estranged ne'er-do-well son Antonio, (from his first marriage) and an intricate plot peppered with plenty of Gothic twists and turns, including Catherine's plan to slowly poison her new husband, unravels.

A Reliable Wife is definitely a page-turner and will provide enough fodder for a solid book group discussion, and is a great example of the Gothic novel. I personally found myself growing weary of the sense of fatalism that typically defines the Gothic genre. The fatalistic tone is exemplified in this passage "Catherine Land.........set out to poison - slowly, with arsenic - the husband who loved her, whom she herself loved, to her surprise, the man who had saved her from a life of destruction and despair. Such things happened".

All in all, if you are interested in a chilling, dark, Gothic page-turner, go ahead and give A Reliable Wife a try!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

"Peace Like A River" written by Leif Enger

I must confess that I've had a copy of this book for several years now where it's been sitting on the shelf of my "to read" books. Several times over the last four years I have picked it up, looked at it and put it down but I finally read it this week. I know that a book can't be judged by its cover, but this one (although it came highly recommended to me) just wasn't looking very appealing. However, once I actually began reading it I was sorry it took me so long to get to it! It's an unusual story of a family, set in the midwest with a wonderful cast of characters and an intriguing plot, but what I really loved about "Peace Like A River" was Leif Enger's prose. He is clearly a master storyteller, but he also has a wonderful poetic style of writing that is simple yet evocative.

When I find myself thinking about a book days after finishing it, I know I have read something worthwhile. Together the characters, plot and setting create a powerful story of faith, love and family that raises as many questions as it seeks to answer. The Land family (interesting choice for their name) consists of Jeremiah (the dad), Davy (oldest son), Reuben (11 year old son) and Swede (their sister/daughter). They are poor in material wealth but rich in love and spirit. When faced with a terrible string of events that end with Davy running from the law, their faith - both in God and each other - keeps them strong. Despite the tragic events the family suffers, this is a well-written and uplifting story that has more than enough complexity to make it an excellent book club choice.

Friday, October 1, 2010

"Mudbound" written by Hillary Jordan

Life in the Mississippi delta circa the late 1940s was not an easy one - especially for the McAllan and Jackson families. The Jacksons are sharecroppers on farm property recently purchased by the McAllans. There is a symbiotic relationship between the families - they need each other to survive. Farming in the delta is a harsh life for Laura McAllan who is college educated and used to more genteel surroundings. World War II has just ended and prejudice (between the races, between the sexes, between the classes) is abundant in the delta. The Jackson's oldest son, Ronsel, returns home after fighting on the German front only to find the war of prejudice he left behind still raging. Ronsel and his family come to realize that sometimes we simply have to fight against injustice and that sometimes, we have to do something "wrong" to make things right.

Hillary Jordan creates memorable characters that are very believable and transforms their individual stories into something larger than themselves. It is a bittersweet tale about the human condition and our capacity to love and to hate. It is about the transforming power of love and as Laura tells us in the second chapter, "The truth isn't so simple. Death may be inevitable, but love is not. Love, you have to choose". We have the power of free will to choose how to live our lives - whether to hate or to love, to fight or walk away, to cheat or be faithful. Part of the human condition is making those choices and living (or dying) with them.

I personally enjoy hearing the same story told from different viewpoints and thought that Hillary Jordan used this convention very successfully. Each of the characters has a distinct and interesting voice- I looked forward to hearing from every one of them. I found Mudbound to be a compelling read and highly recommend it for a great book club discussion.

Monday, August 30, 2010

"The Wednesday Sisters" written by Meg Waite Clayton

The Wednesday Sisters is the story of four young women/mothers who meet at the playground and form a lifelong friendship. Set in Palo Alto, circa 1968, Frankie, Brett, Kath and Linda navigate together the fast moving and often turbulent changes in the world around them. The women form a unique friendship when they begin to meet on Wednesdays and grow into a sort of writer's support group. How the "wednesday sisters" react to and explore changes in social mores, the roles of men and women, technology, civil rights & politics while dealing with their individual lives and issues, makes for a somewhat entertaining read but not meaty enough for a great book club discussion.

Overall, I found it a bit tedious and was not very attached to the characters - they just weren't fleshed out enough and at times I found myself confusing them.
In fact, I couldn't even remember their names when I sat down to write this review shortly after I finished reading the book. The plot was too contrived and while the book touches on many possible themes, I am hard-pressed to find one that unified all the elements of the novel. I think perhaps The Wednesday Sisters tried hard to be a grand, sweeping epic but didn't quite succeed. Save this one for a beach read - not great book club material.