Book Review: Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg

Did You Ever Have a FamilyDid You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg
Publisher: Gallery/Scout Press
Paperback Release Date: May 17, 2016
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Publisher’s Description:

On the eve of her daughter’s wedding, June Reid’s life is upended when a shocking disaster takes the lives of her daughter, her daughter’s fiancé, her ex-husband, and her boyfriend, Luke—her entire family, all gone in a moment. June is the only survivor.

Alone and directionless, June drives across the country, away from her small Connecticut town. In her wake, a community emerges, weaving a beautiful and surprising web of connections through shared heartbreak.

From the couple running a motel on the Pacific Ocean where June eventually settles into a quiet half-life, to the wedding’s caterer whose bill has been forgotten, to Luke’s mother, the shattered outcast of the town—everyone touched by the tragedy is changed as truths about their near and far histories finally come to light.

June has lost everyone important to her in a house fire – her daughter, her daughter’s finance, her ex-husband and her boyfriend Luke. She is left stunned and numb. Her way of dealing with her grief is to get out of town and away from everyone she knows.

June is not the only person dealing with grief and loss. Luke’s mother, Lydia, is dealing with the loss of her son in her own way. She’s a pariah in her own town for the fact that Luke is the product of her affair with a black man while she was married to a white man. She’s white too so it was obvious when Luke was born that Lydia’s husband was not the father. To everyone in town, this is evidence that she is a loose woman. Feeling alone, she strikes up a friendship with Winton, the con-artist who keeps calling wanting her to send him a $745 processing fee so he can send her the three million dollar lottery payout she has supposedly won.

The narrative alternates between several characters whose lives all intersect in some way. All of the characters are well-developed. In addition to exploring how different people deal with grief, there is the mystery of what caused the house to explode. Did Luke cause the explosion like everyone assumes or was it something else?

This book was a selection for my book club [side note – I joined a book club at my church that has been meeting for FORTY years] and it turned out to be a great choice. We talked a lot about how both June and Lydia processed their grief. And why did they make the choices they made in life, both before and after the fire? We also all agreed that there were so many characters that it was hard to keep them all straight at first. Some people made notes to keep track of who was who. Not a bad idea!

This is definitely not a feel-good novel but it is a wonderful exploration of grief and family. Recommended.

Book Review: Long Black Veil by Jennifer Finney Boylan

Long Black VeilLong Black Veil by Jennifer Finney Boylan
Publisher: Crown
Release Date: April 17, 2017
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Publisher’s Description:

On a warm August night in 1980, six college students sneak into the dilapidated ruins of Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary, looking for a thrill. With a pianist, a painter and a teacher among them, the friends are full of potential. But it’s not long before they realize they are locked in—and not alone. When the friends get lost and separated, the terrifying night ends in tragedy, and the unexpected, far-reaching consequences reverberate through the survivors’ lives. As they go their separate ways, trying to move on, it becomes clear that their dark night in the prison has changed them all. Decades later, new evidence is found, and the dogged detective investigating the cold case charges one of them—celebrity chef Jon Casey— with murder. Only Casey’s old friend Judith Carrigan can testify to his innocence.

But Judith is protecting long-held secrets of her own – secrets that, if brought to light, could destroy her career as a travel writer and tear her away from her fireman husband and teenage son. If she chooses to help Casey, she risks losing the life she has fought to build and the woman she has struggled to become. In any life that contains a “before” and an “after,” how is it possible to live one life, not two?

Long Black Veil starts off in 1980 with six friends sneaking into a closed, run-down prison. They get locked in and one of them goes missing. Thirty-five years later, her remains are found and her husband Jon Casey is the prime suspect of her murder. His old friend Judith can attest to his innocence. We meet Judith in 2015, after the remains are found. What her connection to Casey is actually more of a mystery than who the murderer is.

Long Black Veil is categorized as a thriller but I don’t think it is. It’s more character than plot driven. And not very suspenseful. It gets off to a slow start. I was a little confused at the beginning about what was happening in the prison in 1980. Once I got past that part, it got much better. Most of the focus is on Judith and what’s going on with her in the present day. Not a lot is actually about the murder or the friends who were in the prison together. I can’t say too much more without revealing Judith’s secret.

This book has LGBT characters and Boylan herself is transgender so this book may be of special interest if you are trying to read more books with LGBT characters or written by LBGT authors. I know it can be hard to find them sometimes. But I would recommend this book to anyone as long as you remember that it’s not a thriller and adjust your expectations accordingly.

(I received a complimentary copy of this book for review.)

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Book Review: The President’s Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African Americans Who Have Fed Our First Families, from Washington to the Obamas

The President's Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African Americans Who Have Fed Our First Families, from the Washingtons to the ObamasThe President’s Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African Americans Who Have Fed Our First Families, from the Washingtons to the Obamas by Adrian Miller
Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press
Release Date: February 20, 2017
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Publisher’s Description:

James Beard award–winning author Adrian Miller vividly tells the stories of the African Americans who worked in the presidential food service as chefs, personal cooks, butlers, stewards, and servers for every First Family since George and Martha Washington. Miller brings together the names and words of more than 150 black men and women who played remarkable roles in unforgettable events in the nation’s history. Daisy McAfee Bonner, for example, FDR’s cook at his Warm Springs retreat, described the president’s final day on earth in 1945, when he was struck down just as his lunchtime cheese soufflé emerged from the oven. Sorrowfully, but with a cook’s pride, she recalled, “He never ate that soufflé, but it never fell until the minute he died.”

A treasury of information about cooking techniques and equipment, the book includes twenty recipes for which black chefs were celebrated. From Samuel Fraunces’s “onions done in the Brazilian way” for George Washington to Zephyr Wright’s popovers, beloved by LBJ’s family, Miller highlights African Americans’ contributions to our shared American foodways. Surveying the labor of enslaved people during the antebellum period and the gradual opening of employment after Emancipation, Miller highlights how food-related work slowly became professionalized and the important part African Americans played in that process. His chronicle of the daily table in the White House proclaims a fascinating new American story.

The President’s Kitchen Cabinet is a history of African Americans who have worked in the White House kitchen from the time of George Washington through Barak Obama. Rather than being organized chronologically or by cook (the author uses cook and chef interchangeably), it’s organized by topic, like food, drink, etc. It seemed somewhat scattered and disorganized.

This book was not what I was expecting based on the title. I thought it would delve more deeply into the personal lives of the cooks and how being a cook in the White House affected it. It seemed like most of the information was either about the food itself or the president the cook worked for. While I enjoyed the book, I wanted more. Some of the people included in this book were also in The Residence: In the Private World of the White House. I wish I had a copy of that book to cross-reference with this one but unfortunately, I checked that book out of the library when I read it way back when.

Miller included recipes that were either directly from or inspired by the cooks in the book. It was interesting to read about the different cooking techniques that were used. Some were pretty complicated!

I did learn a few things from this book and if you are really interested in African American or presidential history, then it’s worth a read.

(I received a complimentary copy of this book for review.)

Book Review: How to be a Supervillain by Michael Fry

How to Be a SupervillainHow to Be a Supervillain by Michael Fry
Publisher: jimmy patterson
Release Date: May 2, 2017 (That’s today!)
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Publisher’s Description:

Victor Spoil comes from a long line of famous supervillains and he’s fully expected to join their ranks one day. But to his family’s utter disappointment, Victor doesn’t have a single bad-guy bone in his body. He won’t run with scissors, he always finishes his peas, and he can’t stand to be messy. Hopeless!

As a last-ditch effort before they give up and let him be a–gasp!–civilian, Victor’s exasperated parents send him to apprentice under a disgraced supervillain called The Smear. This matchup starts off as a complete disaster, but Victor and The Smear eventually find that they have a lot to learn from each other. When the stakes get high as Victor is forced to choose between his mentor and his family morals (or lack thereof)…what will the world’s nicest bad guy do?

Victor is a disappointment to his supervillain parents. He’s polite. He eats his peas. He’s tidy. His parents arrange for him to be the apprentice of the supervillain The Smear, hoping that he’ll learn to be bad because even though superhero vs. supervillain fights are scripted now, you still have to be a convincing bad guy. That’s right – the battles are fake, as fake as the WWE! The real fights were causing too much damage to civilians and their property so The Authority took over and starting regulating the supers’ world. And of course the superhero ALWAYS wins. Always. There’s just one problem – The Smear is tired of losing. Will he defy The Authority and become a winner?

How to be a Supervillain is the kind of book that most middle-graders love. It has text interspersed with a lot of illustrations, similar to the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books. It also has plenty of gross humor and silliness that kids will love. My 10 year-old saw it on my nightstand and can’t wait to get his hands on it. I think middle-grade fans of Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Captain Underpants, or I Funny books will enjoy it.

(I received a complimentary copy of this book for review.)

For more reviews of books for children and teens, check out Booking Mama’s feature, Kid Konnection, posted on Saturdays. If you’d like to participate in Kid Konnection and share a post about anything related to children’s books (picture, middle grade, or young adult) from the past week, you can go to her site to leave a comment and your link .

 

Book Review: The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill

The Lonely Hearts HotelThe Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Release Date: February 7, 2017
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Publisher’s Description:

The Lonely Hearts Hotel is a love story with the power of legend. An unparalleled tale of charismatic pianos, invisible dance partners, radicalized chorus girls, drug-addicted musicians, brooding clowns, and an underworld whose economy hinges on the price of a kiss. In a landscape like this, it takes great creative gifts to thwart one’s origins. It might also take true love.

Two babies are abandoned in a Montreal orphanage in the winter of 1914. Before long, their talents emerge: Pierrot is a piano prodigy; Rose lights up even the dreariest room with her dancing and comedy. As they travel around the city performing clown routines, the children fall in love with each other and dream up a plan for the most extraordinary and seductive circus show the world has ever seen. 

Separated as teenagers, sent off to work as servants during the Great Depression, both descend into the city’s underworld, dabbling in sex, drugs and theft in order to survive. But when Rose and Pierrot finally reunite beneath the snowflakes – after years of searching and desperate poverty – the possibilities of their childhood dreams are renewed, and they’ll go to extreme lengths to make them come true. Soon, Rose, Pierrot and their troupe of clowns and chorus girls have hit New York, commanding the stage as well as the alleys, and neither the theater nor the underworld will ever look the same.

This is going to be one of those reviews where I gush nonsensically because I don’t want to give away too much of the plot. The Lonely Hearts Hotel is a cross between a film noir and a fairy tale. It’s an odd combination but it works beautifully in this case.

Rose and Pierrot grew up in an orphanage together where life was miserable and they were both abused. It became somewhat better when the nuns discovered that they were each child prodigies in their own way. Pierrot was a master pianist and Rose a gifted performer and dancer. They started performing together for patrons of the orphanage to wild success. However, when they started to get too close to each other, they were shipped out to separate benefactors and lost touch.

More than once, when I thought the characters were going down a particular path, they chose a different one – sometimes for the good and sometimes not. But I never stopped rooting for them. Rose and Pierrot were both complex and utterly likeable even though they were deeply flawed. O’Neill’s light tone and beautiful prose kept what could have been a very depressing story from getting too heavy. I hope the author’s previous books are this good. I want to read them all now. I highly recommend The Lonely Hearts Hotel and thank my friend Kelly for recommending it to me.

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Book Review: Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt

Tuck Everlasting 40th Anniversary EditionTuck Everlasting 40th Anniversary Edition by Natalie Babbitt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Publisher: Square Fish
First Published in 1975

Publisher’s Description:

Doomed to―or blessed with―eternal life after drinking from a magic spring, the Tuck family wanders about trying to live as inconspicuously and comfortably as they can. When ten-year-old Winnie Foster stumbles on their secret, the Tucks take her home and explain why living forever at one age is less a blessing that it might seem. Complications arise when Winnie is followed by a stranger who wants to market the spring water for a fortune.

This book asks a question, “Would you want to live forever?” but does not have an answer. It makes for a great book to read and discuss with your kids. It will challenge them to think critically. And it’s short so it’s easy for busy grown-ups to find time to read.

I liked that this book does not dumb down the language just because it’s a kid’s book. The prose is beautifully descriptive and there were some great vocabulary words. I read it with my son and we looked up the words he didn’t know as we went. It averaged one or two per chapter – not too burdensome. As Ms. Babbitt says in the interview in the back of the book,

“Some time during the last forty years, people have decided that children can’t understand any words that have more than four or five letters. That’s just plain crazy…There’s no other way to enlarge our vocabularies. The more words you have at your disposal, the easier it is to say what you want to say, specifically.”

This is a great book for middle graders when you’re looking for something a little more sophisticated than the Wimpy Kid books and that ilk for a change of pace.

For more reviews of books for children and teens, check out Booking Mama’s feature, Kid Konnection, posted on Saturdays. If you’d like to participate in Kid Konnection and share a post about anything related to children’s books (picture, middle grade, or young adult) from the past week, you can go to her site to leave a comment and your link .

 

DNF Book Review: We Are Not Such Things: The Murder of a Young American, a South African Township, and the Search for Truth and Reconciliation by Justine van der Leun

We Are Not Such Things: The Murder of a Young American, a South African Township, and the Search for Truth and ReconciliationWe Are Not Such Things: The Murder of a Young American, a South African Township, and the Search for Truth and Reconciliation by Justine van der Leun
Publisher: Spiegel & Grau
Release Date: June 28, 2016

Publisher’s Description:

The story of Amy Biehl is well known in South Africa: The twenty-six-year-old white American Fulbright scholar was brutally murdered on August 25, 1993, during the final, fiery days of apartheid by a mob of young black men in a township outside Cape Town. Her parents’ forgiveness of two of her killers became a symbol of the Truth and Reconciliation process in South Africa. Justine van der Leun decided to introduce the story to an American audience. But as she delved into the case, the prevailing narrative started to unravel. Why didn’t the eyewitness reports agree on who killed Amy Biehl? Were the men convicted of the murder actually responsible for her death? And then van der Leun stumbled upon another brutal crime committed on the same day, in the very same area. The true story of Amy Biehl’s death, it turned out, was not only a story of forgiveness but a reflection of the complicated history of a troubled country.

We Are Not Such Things is the result of van der Leun’s four-year investigation into this strange, knotted tale of injustice, violence, and compassion. The bizarre twists and turns of this case and its aftermath—and the story that emerges of what happened on that fateful day in 1993 and in the decades that followed—come together in an unsparing account of life in South Africa today. Van der Leun immerses herself in the lives of her subjects and paints a stark, moving portrait of a township and its residents. We come to understand that the issues at the heart of her investigation are universal in scope and powerful in resonance. We Are Not Such Things reveals how reconciliation is impossible without an acknowledgment of the past, a lesson as relevant to America today as to a South Africa still struggling with the long shadow of its history.

It’s not often that I give up on a book but I just couldn’t make it through this one. I threw in the towel at page 140 so feel like I gave it the old college try. I chose it because 1) I wanted to learn more about South Africa and 2) The description said that it was in the vain of the podcast Serial. I believe that if I would have slogged through it, I would have ended up learning more about South Africa. However, I don’t think it was like Serial. If it was, I wouldn’t have been able to put it down.

I think the premise of the book was a good idea. It’s about Amy Biehl a white woman who was murdered by a mob in South Africa and how her mother was able to forgive her daughter’s murderers. This book suffered from being in need of some serious editing. It’s repetitive and disjointed. I had trouble following the timeline and the repetition made me bored. This book has a lot of positive reviews out there, both on Amazon and in magazines so I am in the minority in my opinion. I would say proceed with caution before picking this book up.

(I received a complimentary copy of this book for review.)

Week-End Wrap Up – Happy Easter!

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Book Review: Bird Box by Josh Malerman

Bird BoxBird Box by Josh Malerman
Publisher: Ecco
Paperback Release Date: February 10, 2015
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

Publisher’s Description:

Something is out there…

Something terrifying that must not be seen. One glimpse and a person is driven to deadly violence. No one knows what it is or where it came from.

Five years after it began, a handful of scattered survivors remain, including Malorie and her two young children. Living in an abandoned house near the river, she has dreamed of fleeing to a place where they might be safe. Now, that the boy and girl are four, it is time to go. But the journey ahead will be terrifying: twenty miles downriver in a rowboat—blindfolded—with nothing to rely on but her wits and the children’s trained ears. One wrong choice and they will die. And something is following them. But is it man, animal, or monster?

Engulfed in darkness, surrounded by sounds both familiar and frightening, Malorie embarks on a harrowing odyssey—a trip that takes her into an unseen world and back into the past, to the companions who once saved her. Under the guidance of the stalwart Tom, a motely group of strangers banded together against the unseen terror, creating order from the chaos. But when supplies ran low, they were forced to venture outside—and confront the ultimate question: in a world gone mad, who can really be trusted?

A strange phenomenon has taken over the world. It started with just a few people in Russia and quickly spread to the rest of the world. People are looking at something – we don’t know what – and then after they see it they go crazy and savagely murder whoever they’re with before gruesomely killing themselves.

Malorie is pregnant, which somewhat complicates living in this new world where one must keep their eyes closed at all times when outside to avoid becoming a victim of the mysterious, unknown thing. Luckily, she finds refuge with a group of strangers who live in a house where they have meticulously covered all the windows with blankets or cardboard. They close their eyes or wear a blindfold whenever they need to go outside.

Bird Box alternates between the time period in which the phenomenon started and four years later, when Malorie is rowing blindfolded down a river with two children that she calls only Girl and Boy. Where is she going and why?

This book was so scary! At one point, I was so engrossed in the story and so worried about these people that when my husband walked in the room and tried to talk to me, I just about jumped out of my skin.

I thought about Malorie and her friends’ predicament for days. I can’t imagine keeping my eyes shut for long trips outside without even reflexively peeking a little. Clearly, I would not last very long!

I rarely read horror but my bestie, Nerdy Apple, recommended it to me and we have pretty much the same taste in books. She said that if I liked The Girl with All the Gifts, then I would like Bird Box. And she was right! I thought it was a unique twist on a zombie apocalypse type scenario. I only have two complaints. One – the author, described labor pains as occurring at the waist. I think he should have asked a woman about the location of contractions to write about them more realistically. Secondly, the ending was not neatly wrapped up and I like resolution. I can see why Malerman wrote it that way though. It made it creepier and left room for a sequel, which I would definitely read. Highly recommend to horror fans or anyone who enjoys the thrill of being scared.

 

Week-End Ramblings – April 1-7, 2017

Cash had his spring piano recital last Saturday afternoon. He played Scarborough Fair. He has such a natural talent for music – I love listening to him play. I wish his hair was off his face though! I guess it kind of makes him look like Beethoven.

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Saturday night Travis and I went to our church’s Trivia Night where our team came in dead last. In our defense, the theme was the 1960s and we didn’t have anyone old enough to have been an adult in that era on our team. We should have studied up!

How was your week?

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