Category Archives: Book Reviews

The Child Finder by Rene Denfeld ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

Pages:  256

Published:  September 5, 2017

Format:  Audiobook

 

 

 

 

This is hands down one of the best thrillers I’ve ever read.  Rene Denfeld is a child of a difficult upbringing who has worked as a private investor helping sex trafficking victims and innocents in prisons.   Rene Denfeld talks about her childhood and family life eloquently in The Other Side of Loss.   She, like the character Naomi, has lived a life trying to help others that have suffered like herself.  With this background and incredible talent, she is able to create such complete characters that make sense to the reader.  So much of the time when I read thrillers, I don’t fully believe in the characters.  Here, the author, invests energy into explaining why the “bad guys” became this way, so there is a degree of empathy the reader feels as they begin to understand why characters might be behaving the way they do.  She also invests energy into explaining various actions that may seem incongruous on the part of the victims.

In this thriller of kidnapping and missing children, there are multiple mysteries to be solved.  “The Child Finder, ”  Naomi Cuttle, works as a private investigator finding missing children, dead or alive. It is her life’s work and passion, even though she has not yet faced the mystery of her own childhood kidnapping.  Naomi has been raised by a foster mother since the age of 9, along with her foster brother, Jerome.   She has few friends, devotes her life to her work and wakes up in the middle of the night with nightmares from her forgotten past.  The novel is sometimes from Naomi’s point of view and sometimes from the perspective of Madison Culver, a missing child taken at the age of 5 three years ago.  Madison’s family had travelled to get a Christmas tree deep into the Skookum National Forest and Madison had gone missing, presumed dead by the local police.  She had in fact been taken prisoner on the brink of death by cold exposure by a man who had been taken prisoner himself many years before, the cycle of abuse continuing.  Madison is able to protect herself by hiding her identity inside a fairy tale, creating a story for herself to feel love and make peace with her situation.  She becomes “Snowgirl,”  a character from a favorite Russian fairy tale of a girl brought to life by the man who creates her.

There is a secondary missing child case that Naomi is trying to solve, one that brings up many issues of the justice system and of inequality.  The second case demonstrates the unfortunate culmination of many of these missing children cases.

Rene Denfeld is a masterful story teller.  She describes the Oregon scenery with such beauty and attention to detail.  She creates characters that come alive for the reader, that feel real and true.   The mysteries unravel at a steady pace, leaving the reader with hope for a good outcome in the end.  Although the subject matter is heavy and gruesome, Rene Denfeld finds beauty in darkness and gives hope to the bleakest of situations.  In this lovely novel, the human spirit triumphs over dark and evil.

 

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Why do you think Naomi has repressed her childhood prior to living with Mrs. Cottle?
  2. What strategies do victims of kidnapping and abuse use to help them survive terror,  mentally, physically and emotionally?
  3. Discuss how abuse cycles in subsequent generations.
  4. The autistic mother of the missing daughter is charged with a crime against her daughter.  How much of a role does race play in the delay of her autism diagnosis as well as the decision to prosecute her?
  5. What factors contribute to victims’ of abuse/kidnapping/sexual assault having intimate relationships in the future?
  6. Why do you think Naomi encourages Madison’s family to move away once Madison is found?
  7. Discuss the two cases that Naomi takes on.  What outcomes do you think are more typically experienced by PIs working these types of cases?
  8. What effect does a missing child often have on the marriage of the parents of that child?  What can parents do to offset the chances of divorce?
  9. What similarities exist between Naomi’s and Madison’s captivity?
  10. Why does Mr. B become afraid of being found and discovering another world?

 

 

Rene Denfeld’s website

Rene Denfeld discusses The Child Finder on Omnivoracious

Kirkus Review of The Child Finder

The Changeling by Victor LaValle ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

Pages:  448

Publication Date:  June 13, 2017

Format:  E-book from Netgalley

 

 

 

 

This intelligent, intriguing modern day fairy tale starts out in what seems to be a normal world.   It begins with the birth of the protagonist, Apollo, a child of mixed race to Lillian Kagwa (a Ugandan immigrant) and Brian West (a white parole officer.)  His father had held him as a baby telling him he was Apollo, the God.  This becomes a mantra for Apollo later in life.  Brian West disappears by the time Apollo is four years old, but Apollo continues to have dreams, or maybe nightmares, about his father returning.  In a box of items left behind by Brian is a well-read copy of Maurice Sendak’s Outside Over There.  The Changeling becomes a retelling of this award winning children’s book.  Apollo is an avid reader and at a young age becomes a buyer and seller of used books.

Even before the witches and trolls appear in this novel, there are hints of the monsters in the ordinary.   In childhood, “Apollo would find himself wondering if he actually was frightening, a monster, the kind that would drive his own father away.”  Then later, Emma’s friend, Nichelle, explains to Apollo, about the nude photo of Emma hanging in Amsterdam.  Nichelle says of Emma, “She looks like a fucking sorceress, Apollo.  It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.”

Race and casual racism is discussed throughout this book.  When Apollo is young and trying to sell his books in the higher end spots in Manhattan, the author writes “Every kid with excess melanin becomes a super predator, even a black boy with glasses and a backpack full of books.  He might be standing at the entrance for fifteen minutes while the clerks pretended not to notice him.”  Later in the novel, Apollo is stopped by a cop in a white section in Queens and says, “that was fast.”

This book also speaks to the new age of parenthood, of more involved dads, and of social media.  Apollo Kagwa is one of these new age dads who is very much involved in the parenting of his child.  He enjoys taking him to the playground and bragging with the other dads about new milestones.  He posts countless photographs of his son, Brian, on Facebook.  Apollo’s wife, Emma, meanwhile, begins showing signs of postpartum depression.   She tells Apollo that she has received strange texts of pictures of the baby that have disappeared shortly after receiving them, which Apollo dismisses.  “You’re what’s wrong with our family, Emma. You. Are. The. Problem. Go take another pill.”   The horror in this novel is the experience of parenthood itself, the no-win situation regarding the expectations facing parents, the feeling of needing to protect your child, and ultimately the loss of a child.

Apollo finds a signed first edition of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird with the inscription to Truman Capote, “Here’s to the Daddy of our dreams.”  He knows that this book could have a great payday, however, it does not pay in the way he expects.  After barely surviving the wrath and rage of his wife, he realizes that perhaps his wife was right.  He ends up on a journey with many twists and turns through mystical realms of witches, trolls and even some human monsters.

This novel warns of the dangers of social media and putting your life out there for all to see, judge, and possibly take advantage of.  William tells Apollo, “Vampires can’t come into your house unless you invite them.  Posting online is like leaving your front door open and telling any creature of the night it can come right in.”  It seems that Emma Valentine and Brian Kagwa were the perfect target for trolls with the publicized birth of their son, followed by continuous Facebook posts by Brian.

This book speaks to deeper truths about the monsters within each of us.  The glamer we are able to superimpose over our own misbehaviors to make us feel better about ourselves.  It warns of trolls lurking in everyday places and people.  This book is not simply a retelling or a fairy tale, there are many layers and depths to it.  The social commentary is sharp, but easily consumed within the context of this fantastical setting.  It is about the stories we tell ourselves as well as our children and the effect these stories have on us.  There is some pretty graphic violence though, so consider yourself forewarned.

 

Discussion Questions:

  1.  In the words of Cal, one of the witches, “A bad fairy tale has some simple goddamn moral.  A great fairy tale tells the truth.”  According to Cal’s guidelines, is this a bad or great fairy tale, or somewhere in between?  Explain.
  2. Why did Brian Kagwa become a changeling.  Who was responsible?  Why was he chosen?
  3. How is Scottish glamer or “glamour” used in this fairy tale?
  4. Why do you think Apollo’s father read Outside Over There to Apollo when he was little?  Discuss the similarities and differences between these two books.
  5. What is the meaning of the inscription in Harper Lee’s book in the context of this book?
  6. What is this book’s message about social media?
  7. What is a changeling?  Where else in literature and film do we see changelings?
  8. Discuss the social commentary of this novel on parenthood and expectations of mothers and fathers from this novel.
  9. What genre do you think best characterizes this novel?

 

Utube reading of Maurice Sendak’s Outside Over There

New York Times Review by Jennifer Senior

New York Times Review by Terrence Rafferty

Interview with Victor LaValle published in the Los Angeles Times

Victor LaValle’s website

 

 

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

Pages:  231

Published:  March 7, 2017

Format:  Audiobook read by the author

Awards:  Man Booker Prize Nominee (2017), Andrew Carnegie Medal Nominee for Fiction (2018)

 

 

“The news in those days was full of war and migrants and nativists. And it was full of fracturing too, of regions pulling away from nations and cities pulling away from hinterlands. And it seemed that as everyone was coming together, everyone was also moving apart.”

This novel is a riveting, brilliantly written masterpiece that is about the relationship between a young couple that begins just prior to the eruption of a Civil War in their country.  I was amazed by how attuned to the nuances of relationships this author is.  He describes the falling in, the developing closeness, the emerging separateness and consequent break so eloquently and with such tenderness.

There is a cinematic quality to this novel.  As it focus on these two main characters, Saeed and Nadia, and their struggles during these uncertain times, it also flashes to other parts of the world and small moments in the lives of others.  The writing is razor sharp, profound, full of insight.  There are no wasted words.  I listened to this audiobook in my car, and the number of times I skipped backwards to listen to something again or just in case I may have missed something exceeded that of any other book I’ve listened to.  If I had been reading an ebook or physical book, I would have easily found something to highlight on every page.

The initial setting is in an unnamed Middle Eastern country where Nadia and Said meet in an evening class studying corporate identity and product branding.  Their seemingly normal lives and beginning romance are upturned rapidly as insurgents try to take over the city.  There is a sense of impending doom.  War is raging,  militants are flooding into their city, and people are dying or disappearing.  There are extreme rules in place regarding dress and social conduct with the opposite sex.  Certain religious sects are being persecuted.  People are being hung in the streets.  However, there are “doors,” which even the most reputable journalists are acknowledging the existence of.

Without knowing where these doors may lead, Sayeed and Nadia decide to flee through one of these doors and so begins their journey, first to Mikonos, then London, then Marin.  In these other lands, they are refugees who are kept separate from the nativists.  It’s an uncertain world, but eventually they are working at a camp to building a home for themselves which they accomplish together.  However, the chaos and tumult of the times in the early phase of their relationship has taken a toll.  They see each other differently as their roles change and their location changes.  The excited young lovers from the beginning of the novel have changed as their world has changed.  They have been through so much together, have been codependent by necessity.  They begin to see each other through different lenses.  The chaos of the times and world of being migrants brought their romance along more quickly, but also threatens it.

More broadly, this novel is about people, migrants, immigrants, natives.  The message is loud and clear.  We are all people and should treat each other as such.  There are always people fleeing wars, political unrest, religious persecution, and so on.  We need to be more tolerant.  In this era of Brexit and Trump’s travel bans, with countries fearing incoming people flooding into their homelands, this book offers a radical, beautiful challenge.   Mohsin Hamid has said that he used doors (the only fantastical element in this novel) as the route to other countries, because he wanted to focus on the actual immigrant experience, not the journey between countries.  In this novel, Hamid deftly explores the pain of leaving behind a grieving recently widowed father in hopes of a better life, of escaping premature death.  A quote from the book regarding this: “when we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind.”  He also explores the plight of the immigrant in a foreign land, pushed to the outskirts by natives.  He describes how these situations affect people in different ways and how migrants change through these experiences.  He ends the novel with this final quote: “We are all migrants through time.”   I highly recommend this timely book to everyone!  It is intelligent, insightful and tender altogether.

 

 

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Why do you think the author used “doors” rather than actual travel between countries?
  2. What do you believe is the author’s message regarding immigration and immigration laws?
  3. In Mohsin Hamid’s essay in the Guardian, he says that the future cannot be left to politicians.  It calls on “radical politically engaged fiction” to muster up wisdom and insight into where we as individuals, families, societies, cultures… must go.  What wisdom is the author imparting in this novel?  Where is he directing us in the future?
  4. What role does technology and social media play in this novel?
  5. Define migrant.   Are we all migrants?
  6. In this book, it says that in this new world, some people felt their lives were better.  Why and how so?
  7. Saeed in this novel is fiercely attached to his family while Nadia is fiercely independent.  How do these character traits affect their relationship?
  8. In the book a passage through a door is equated to dying and being reborn.  Explain.
  9. The old woman in Palo Alto says that when she goes out now, she feels like a migrant, “a migrant through time.”  What does she mean by this?
  10. Some people have compared this book to Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad for employing a virtual form of transportation.  Do you see these as a similar narrative styles?
  11. Why did Saeed pray?

 

Review and interview Mohsin Hamid with Terry Gross

Steve Inskeep’s interview with Mohsin Hamid on NPR

Michiko Kakutani’s review in The New York Times

Discussion Questions by Penguin Random House

 

 

Tales of a Severed Head by Rachida Madani ~ Book Review

Pages:  176

American Publication:  October 9, 2012

Original Publication:  2005 in French

Format:  Paperback book

 

 

 

 

“She speaks of all nights
and all women
she speaks of the sea
of waves which carry everything away
as if everything could be carried away
of waves which begin the sea again
there where the sea stopped.
She goes through the city
she walks with death
hand in hand
and her hand does not tremble…”

This slim volume of poetry is a modern-day One Thousand and One Nights set in Morocco describing the position of women within that country.  It tells of the repression of people, not just women, who are poor, hungry, have little recourse as freedom of expression has been taken from them.  It is about history repeating itself time and time again.  Madani argues that not much has changed since the days when One Thousand and One Nights was written.  In One Thousand and One Nights, the profoundly distrustful King Shehriyar vows to marry a new virginal bride each day only to behead her come morning.  This continues until Scheherazade volunteers to be a bride.  Her trick, however, is to start to tell the King a story and not finish.  He wants to know the ending so does not behead her in the morning.  The next night she finishes the story, but begins another… so this continues saving many maidens in the process.

The author, Rachida Madani, wrote this in French and it was translated to English by Marilyn Hacker.   Hacker’s introduction to the poem is incredibly helpful in framing a reference for it.  Rachida Madani, an activist, began writing poetry during Morocco’s leaden years.  During this time, under King Hassan II’s rule, there was much political unrest and the government was brutal in it’s response to criticism and opposition.   Madani’s writing, though strongly feminist evaluating the role of women in the hierarchy, is more powerfully about the corruption in the society as a whole and the repression and abuses of the government towards it’s people.  Within this poem of three parts, Madani encourages a palace rebellion.  She is encouraging people to protest, speak out, share their voices.

I read this as part of Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge and am happy I did.  It satisfied the following requirement:  read a collection of poetry in translation on a theme other than love.  I’m glad I read it and feel that I learned more about Morocco and this time period as a result.

 

Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

Pages:  307

Published:  January 31, 2017

Format:  Audio Book

 

 

 

 

This thriller alternates between the perspectives of two women, Adele and Louise.  It also alternates between Adele’s past and present.  Louise is a divorcee and single mother who begins an affair with her married boss, David.  Soon after, she literally bumps into Adele, David’s wife, and they start a friendship.  From Adele’s perspective, we know the the meeting was not mere coincidence.  However, the reader is unsure what secrets lurk beneath the surface nor the reasons behind the forced meeting.  Louise is charmed and won over by both Adele and David.  Adele pleads with Louise to keep their friendship secret because David prefers to “compartmentalize” and Louise gladly agrees, as this allows her to spend time with both members of this couple whom she views as such wonderful creatures.

Despite the fact that Louise finds Adele and David to be so wonderfully charming, the reader (or at least me) found all three of the characters to be unlikeable.  David appeared to be a shell of a person, making poor choices, hiding away secrets and drinking constantly.  Adele appeared to be manipulative, two-faced, self-absorbed, and mentally unstable.  Louise was perhaps the craziest of them all, having only accidentally stumbled into this couple and immediately getting wrapped up in their drama.  She was an easy target, dishonest, easily manipulated, and having an affair with her so called best friend.  She dropped Sophie, her best friend of years, after befriending Adelle and not liking the advice Sophie had given her regarding Louise’s relationships with this couple.

The story line and writing were ok, but not great. I was intrigued in the beginning, but found the story lacking in depth.  Louise and Adele were so enraptured with David, however, I did not feel his character was developed enough to understand why.  Yes, David felt trapped by Adele, but why feel it is his obligation to stay with her?  I found it difficult to see how and why he felt he could control her, as repeatedly Adele proved he couldn’t.  Then, when the thriller took a trip into the paranormal with it’s twists at the end, I really felt cheated of a normal ending.  It felt like the author was writing this as if we should believe that type of thing is entirely possible.  Many parts of this book, with both the coincidences and the choices the characters made required a leap of faith to accept.  Then, to add a paranormal ending, for me, required  tremendous suspension of reality.  I know many people loved this book and the ending and it is one of the best selling books this year, but for me it was not great.

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Which of the three main characters did you like best?  Did you find Adele or David more believable?  Did this change as the novel progressed?
  2. How did you feel about the choices that Louise made?  Could you justify to yourself why she was keeping up the charade and getting closer to both Adele and David?
  3. What were your suspicions about what the ending might be?  Would you ever have imagined the ending that came?  How did you feel about the ending?
  4. When Adele seems to know what is happening between David and Louise, what are your suspicions on how she is spying?
  5. There is a side story of Louise’s son Adam, Louise’s ex-husband and his pregnant girlfriend.  What does this side story add to the novel?
  6. Adele is fixated on improving Louise.  She gets her a gym membership and has her switch to e-cigarettes.  Why did you imagine Adele was so invested in Louise?
  7. Adele teaches Louise how to use lucid dreaming to control her night terrors.  This evolved into out of body experiences.  How did you feel about this paranormal evolution on lucid dreaming within the context of the novel?
  8. The meaning of the title does not become apparent until the end of this novel.  What did you think the meaning of the title was prior to getting to the end of the book?
  9. Would you recommend this novel to a friend?  Why or why not?

 

Negative Review by Zoe at The Sporadic Reviews of a Beginner Blogger

Positive Review by Luccia Gray at Rereading Jane Eyre

 

 

The Resurrection of Joan Ashby by Cherise Wolas ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

Pages:  544

Publication Date:  August 29, 2017

Format:  E-book from netgalley

 

 

 

 

Joan Ashby, a talented writer, who at a young age vows not to let a husband or children get in the way of her art, ends up married, then pregnant.  Joan falls in love with her first baby, not so much with second.  Her first son has the gift of writing, but stops when he discovers at age 11 his mother is a brilliant writer and he compares himself to her and feels like a failure.  He feels she has crushed his dreams.  His father is a brilliant neuro-ocular surgeon traveling the world restoring people’s vision.  His younger brother drops out of school at age 14 to design his own software program used throughout the world in hotels and is worth billions.  The family dynamics and sibling rivalry conspire against him to make him feel small.

Joan ever intuitive when it comes to her children is able to sense when things are well and when things are awry.  She understands her children far better than her husband.  She understands their strengths and weaknesses.  She gets swept up in motherhood and in helping her children build on their strengths and supporting them through difficult times.

Joan hides her writing.  She keeps it a secret, not wanting to have to share what she is writing about with her husband.  She feels like a prisoner in motherhood, only able to eek out stolen hours to write her newest novel that gets hidden in a box for two years before she is ready to have it published, because life (her family and their needs) get in the way.  In the meantime, her book is published in its entirety, except for a gender change by her son, under a pseudonym and in two parts.

There are three parts to this novel.  The first and third are told by a third person narrator, but the focus is mostly on Joan.  The second section is recordings made by Joan’s son, Daniel, that he will eventually send to Joan as explanation for his actions.  Interspersed within these pages are short stories written by Joan as well as the beginnings of another novel Joan is working on during part three.  In addition, there are writing samples from Joan’s writing students.

Joan is so hurt by Daniel’s actions, publishing her novel without her knowing about it, that she flees to India, a country she has always wanted to visit and the place where Eric had retreated after sobering up and selling his company.  In India, Joan is able to rediscover herself, realize her present day wants and needs, as well as forge a closer relationship with her younger son.

The writing is amazing.  Each short story seems publishable on it’s own.  The story of Paloma that Joan is writing in the third part was particularly intriguing to me.    However, I felt like all of these stories within the actual novel detracted from what constituted this novel.  It seemed like I was constantly readjusting to new stories within the original and back out again.  For me, it was too much bulk.  The writing is great though, and I never wanted to skim.  I just wish the author had constructed this novel differently.  I felt way too happy to be finished reading this book.

Discussion Questions:

  1.  How is Joan’s genius evident?
  2. Why does Joan hide her previous literary success from her children?
  3. Why does Joan feel she must keep her art a secret?
  4. Discuss how the short stories within the novel add/detract from the novel as a whole?
  5. What were your feelings about Joan’s trip to India?  Do you feel that she did this to escape or to rebuild herself?  Did you see strength or cowardice in this?
  6. Do you feel that Joan’s plight of giving up her career for so many years is something experienced broadly by women?  Do you think Joan sees positives and negatives in her choices?
  7. Why do you think Joan was so annoyed by Martin’s line of questioning about what she was writing?
  8. Discuss the title and possible religious connotations of it.
  9. Why do you think Daniel feels justified in his actions?
  10. Discuss the character of Kumar.  Could this be the same Kumar interacting with both Joan and Daniel?
  11. What are your thoughts about Joan’s marriage with Martin?  Is Martin a good husband?

 

Kirkus Starred Review

Review by The Bookstalker Blog

Swing Time by Zadie Smith ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

Pages:  453

Publication Date:  November 15, 2016

Format:  Audiobook

Awards:  Man Booker Prize Nominee for Longlist (2017), National Book Critics Circle Award Nominee for Fiction (2016), Europese Literatuurprijs Nominee (2017)

 

A sweeping multi-layered novel that reads like a dance through childhood into adulthood, across cultures, exploring race, class and gender issues.  At the heart of this novel is the friendship between two “brown girls” growing up in public housing estates but in school with a largely white community in London.   They see each other at dance class and are immediately drawn to each other, to the same tone of skin, similar but opposites.  They are opposites in that one has a white obese doting mother that lathers her daughter with praise and attention while the other has a black mother subsumed with leftist politics and educating herself seemingly hardly noticing her daughter.  The narrator feels like an accessory to her mother.  She feels barely noticed and out of place until her friendship with Tracey begins.

The narrator is unnamed throughout the novel and her childhood friend is Tracey, who is  boisterous, adventurous, fun loving and narcissistic.  The narrator seems to float through the novel on the energy of others.  First and foremost, there is Tracey’s energy that dictates their play and social lives.  Tracey is a brilliantly talented dancer and though the narrator loves dancing, she lacks Tracey’s talent.  They spend countless hours watching videos of Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Michael Jackson to name a few.

The narrator’s Jamaican mother, a modern day Nefertiti, is a left wing feminist and activist studying politics and philosophy.  The father lacks motivation, but is loving and doting towards his family.  This is in sharp contrast to Tracey’s family, where there is an absent father.  Tracey creates stories to explain where he is and what he is doing, but it seems he left them and has a new family.  Though the narrator’s mother criticizes Tracey’s mother and her habits, the narrator enjoys the quiet of Tracey’s home compared to the anger in her own home where her mother no longer wishes to be married to her father.

Jealousies arise and tensions result.  The girls in childhood had written stories of “ballet dancers in peril.”  Tracey would create and dictate these stories while the narrator transcribed.  Always, just as it seemed the happy ending would arrive, disaster would result.  Thus, Tracey’s stories foreshadow the end of the beautiful friendship of Tracey and the narrator.  Tracey tells the narrator a story about her father, which may be fact or fiction, that causes them to cease speaking to each other for over a decade.

The narrator goes off to college and leaves behind Tracey and their friendship.   After a few gigs as a dancer, Tracey’s dancing career fades and she is a single mother to three children all by different fathers and is still living in the public housing estates, a fate the narrator’s mother warned against.  The narrator begins working for a big name singer/dancer named Aimee.  Aimee’s life is large.  She has many people who work for her, numerous boyfriends, children by various men, she travels widely, and becomes interested in opening a girls’ school in an un-named country West Africa, which by geographical description can be identified as Gambia.  The narrator again is living in the shadow of another large personality, not living a life of her own, running on the energy of another.  The narrator travels back and forth getting to know the inhabitants this West African country, watching the fall out of diaspora that occurs there as people (especially men) begin to leave.

The narrator is eventually drawn back to Tracey through her mother who has been working for Parliament.  The narrator’s mother reaches out to the narrator pleading with her to ask Tracey to stop harassing her with countless letters that initially ask for help, but then begin to criticize the government, and her mother, and the inability of anybody to help with her situation.  Her mother becomes consumed and tortured by these letters, unable to think of anything else.  She is guilt ridden and seemingly identifying Tracey rather than the narrator as her daughter as she is dying,

When the narrator confronts Tracey, Tracey asks her who she is trying to be.  The narrator’s voice has changed, her life has changed.  After leaking the childhood video, Tracey sends it to the narrator with a note saying, “now everyone knows who you really are.”  Are we our childhood selves?  Is who we are defined by who we connect and interact with?  Is that identity forever changing?  How much of that identity is tied to gender, class and race?  How much of our childhood identity, our moral core, do we keep with us?

This novel is beautifully written, incredibly expansive and brings up awesome philosophical questions.  There are so many layers to this novel, that one could go on dissecting this for a very long time.  I highly recommend this book to everyone.  It would make a superb book club book.  My one wish for this novel is that the narrator had more presence, but I think that is part of the point of this book.  She floats on the energy of others, she is visible in the shadows of her relationship with others.  Class, race and gender issues are often seen in reaction to the narrator.

Quotes from the Book:

“A truth was being revealed to me: that I had always tried to attach myself to the light of other people, that I had never had any light of my own. I experienced myself as a kind of shadow.”

“No one is more ingenious than the poor, wherever you find them. When you are poor every stage has to be thought through. Wealth is the opposite. With wealth you get to be thoughtless.”

“And I became fixated, too, upon Katharine Hepburn’s famous Fred and Ginger theory: He gives her class, she gives him sex. Was this a general rule? Did all friendships—all relations—involve this discreet and mysterious exchange of qualities, this exchange of power?”

“People aren’t poor because they make bad choices. They make bad choices because they’re poor.”

“I remember there was always a girl with a secret, with something furtive and broken in her, and walking through the village with Aimee, entering people’s homes, shaking their hands, accepting their food and drink, being hugged by their children, I often thought I saw her again, this girl who lives everywhere and at all times in history, who is sweeping the yard or pouring out tea or carrying somebody else’s baby on her hip and looking over at you with a secret she can’t tell.”

 

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Why do you think the narrator remains un-named for the duration of this novel?  What effect does this have on the reader?
  2. Compare and contrast the fathers of Tracey and the narrator.   Discuss how Tracey’s story about the narrator’s  father drew a wedge in their friendship.  Do you believe Tracey’s story?
  3. Compare and contrast Tracey and the narrator’s mothers.
  4. The narrator’s mother compares the narrator’s life to slavery.  She is working for Amy and not living a life of her own.  What do you think the narrator really wants from life?
  5. Tracey’s father talks about how there is distinct separation of races inside prison, where on the outside there is mixing.  How much mixing do Tracey and the narrator experience?  Are they fundamentally drawn to like as well?
  6. Discuss the experience of being of mixed race, not being fully white or black as experienced by the narrator and Tracey.
  7. Discuss the complexities of girlhood friendships and how this might change as girls mature into adults?
  8. The narrator’s mother tells the narrator that she is nothing if she uses her body for work rather than her mind.  The narrator tells her mother that she is nothing.  How is this a coming of age moment?
  9. Discuss the relationship the narrator has and the warmth she feels from her father as compared to her mother.
  10. Why does our obsession with celebrities allow for a certain amount of chaos?
  11. Discuss the video made of Tracey and the narrator dancing.  What effect does it have at the time and how does this come back to haunt the narrator?
  12. When the narrator goes to West Africa she is told repeatedly “things are difficult here,” when she tries to go somewhere or do something on her own.  Why?  Why do they treat her with “kid gloves”?
  13. Compare the fates of the women in the West African village to Tracey’s fate.
  14. Discuss the culture and community that the narrator experiences in West Africa.  How does Amy’s presence and the wealth that flows in change things?  Discuss the diaspora that is happening.
  15. The narrator’s mother becomes part of Parliament, but is beaten down and tormented by the letters that Tracey sends.  Why do you think these letters affect her so deeply?
  16. Why does the narrator go to visit Tracey and her children as the novel ends?  What is her intent?

 

 

New York Times Review by Holly Bass

Review in The Atlantic by Dayna Tortorici

Review by Annalisa Quinn for NPR

Interview with Zadie Smith on NPR

 

 

 

The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go so their Children can Succeed by Jessica Lahey ~ Book Review

Pages:  243

Publication Date:  August  5, 2014

Format:  Softcover book

 

 

 

 

“Children whose parents don’t allow them to fail are less engaged, less enthusiastic about their education, less motivated and ultimately less successful than children whose parents support their autonomy.”

The bottom line of this book written by parent and educator, Jessica Lahey, is don’t bail your children out.  They need to learn from their mistakes.  They need to learn how to organize themselves, regulate themselves and deal with mishaps in the world they live in now so that they can become high functioning adults.  Jessica Lahey, being an educator talks at length about maintaining good relationships with teachers.  She incorporates much history of parenting and various theories and research from many other sources.  Anyone reading this will come come away with their own take-away points depending on their children’s ages, family dynamics and unique family stressors.  Below I am outlining ten take-away points that I felt were important as regards my own family and parenting philosophy.

  1.  Grit = ability to attend to a task and stick to long-term goals –> greatest predictor of success.
  2. If parents back off pressure and anxiety over grades and achievement & focus on the bigger picture –> grades will improve and test scores will go up.
  3. Intrinsic motivation happens when kids feel autonomous, competent, and connected to the people and world around them.
  4.  People can be divided into 2 mindsets:  fixed & growth.  A fixed mindset believes that intelligence, talent and ability are innate and remain the same through life, no matter what one does.  A person with a growth mindset believes that these qualities are simply a starting point, and that more is always possible through effort and personal development.  These people thrive on challenge and understand that failure and trying again is part of becoming smarter, better or faster.
  5. Parents should praise for effort, not inherent qualities to foster the growth mindset.
  6. The more independent you allow your children to be the more independent they will become.  However, children also need rules, behavioral guidelines and structure.  Limits make kids feel safe and cared for.
  7. Communicate family participation (rather than chores) and avoid nagging or pestering.
  8. Free play is undervalued in our children’s social and emotional growth.  Peer play is significantly more predictive of academic success than standardized achievement tests, by 40%.  Avoid intervening in conflict resolution between children’s friends and siblings.
  9. As kids get older, we need to trust them more, and when they live up to our trust, catch them doing things right and praise them.  Keep an eye out for good judgement, character and resilience, and let them know that’s what you value above all else.
  10. Practical guidelines can help your child manage transitions: create predictability in the household, keep a family calendar, kids should keep their own schedule as soon as they are able, a regular sleep schedule and model calm.

 

 

Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

Pages:  320

Expected Publication Date:  August 22, 2017

Format:  E-book from netgalley

 

 

 

 

This book felt like just what I needed!  Funny, warm, and engaging, Young Jane Young captures what it’s like to be a woman at various stages of life.  It highlights the stereotypes and cultural biases that we have not moved much beyond since the days of the Puritans and the writing of The Scarlet Letter.  It characterizes several generations of women within the same family and their varied responses and attitudes toward similar situations.   It is told from multiple perspectives and there is even a section from Jane Young’s perspective that puts the reader in the driver seat in a choose your own adventure format.

Young Jane Young is a twenty-something female who was born Aviva Grossman.  Aviva Grossman works as a summer intern for Congressman Levin, who also happened to be a neighbor of hers when she was a child.  They begin an affair despite the fact that he is much older, married and her employer.  When they are found out, there is huge backlash against Aviva, but very little towards the Congressman.  Aviva is unable to even get a job, which is incredibly disheartening as she was hoping to go into politics and had been doing an excellent job during the internship.  The internet serves as her “scarlet letter” ruining her social life and any chances for a career.  She feels there is nothing left to do except change her name and move out of state.

I don’t want to give too much away, but this book comes full circle with redemption, fulfillment, forgiveness and understanding all coming into play towards the end after a bit of a rollercoaster ride.  Aviva is able to triumph over her past, first by escaping it, and later, by facing it head on at a time when she is much stronger and more self assured.   This book is a huge slap in the face to the slut shaming that goes on in situations like these!  This writing is powerfully feminist exposing gender inequalities and casual misogyny in today’s society.  The women have their flaws, no doubt, however, they feel incredibly real and relatable.  Even if the reader may not have made the same choices as these women, I think the reader can empathize with their choices through the context of the writing.  The writing is wonderful, fun and enjoyable.  This is a book out to prove a bit point, but does so with much humor and warmth along the way.  I highly recommend this book to all women, young and old.  It would make an excellent book club book, as there is so much to discuss as well as cheer for!

 

Monica Lewinsky & Bill Clinton, the couple who seemed to be the inspiration for this novel

 

 

Monica Lewinsky, from NBC, where she discusses “the culture of humiliation”

 

 

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Compare and contrast Aviva Grossman to Hester from The Scarlet Letter.  In what ways has society and gender bias changed since the writing of that book in 1850  to present day?  How, in effect, does the internet become Aviva’s scarlet letter?
  2. Discuss the fallout of the affair between Aviva and Congressman Levin.    What consequences do each face?
  3. Why do you think Embeth stays by her husband?  Why do you think so many wives in politics stand by their husbands after public outing of affairs?
  4. Compare and contrast the situation of Aviva Grossman and Monica Lewinsky.
  5. Rachel’s husband was cheating on her throughout her marriage.  Why did she put up with it for so long?  Do you think this had an effect on Aviva in her decision to carry on with an affair with the Congressman?
  6. Embeth appears ready to die and even hopeful for it.  She compares her predicament to being a victim of human trafficking at one point.  Do you feel that this is a fair comparison?  Why or why not?
  7. Why do you think that Embeth was never interested in becoming friends with Rachel, when clearly Rachel felt that she had tried?
  8. Why do you think Roz puts her husband’s version of the story (that Rachel kissed him) above Rachel’s version?  Do you think their friendship is mendable?
  9. Do you think Jorge is the father of Jane’s daughter?  Do you think they will ever tell him?
  10. What do you think Wes West’s wife’s secret is?  Why do you think Wes West is such a bully?
  11. Discuss the figure and beliefs of Mrs. Morgan.  How is she pivotal in turning Jane’s life around?
  12. Discuss the meaning of the title.  By the end of the novel, when Jane Young is running for mayor, do you think that Mrs. Morgan would still refer to her as Young Jane Young?  How has she changed or matured?
  13. Did you enjoy the choose your own adventure component to this book?  What do you think it added?
  14. There are so many examples of casual misogyny within this book, such as “douchebag,” and “old wives tales.”  Which other ones can you name from this book and from life?
  15. Aviva and her professor discuss the meaning of feminism.  What is your definition of feminism?

 

Kirkus Review of Young Jane Young

Monica Lewinsky’s TED talk

Gabrielle Zevin’s website

Review by Bookspoils, a fellow book blogger

The Legend of Wonder Woman Vol.1: Origins by Renae DeLiz and Ray Dillon~ Graphic Novel Review

Pages:  288

Published: December 16, 2016

Format:  Hardcover book

 

 

 

 

If I had ever known the origin story for Wonder Woman as a child, I had completely forgotten it in adulthood.  It is a marvelous story and one that is well told in this beautiful rendering by Renae DeLiz and Ray Dillon.  I love that Diana (Wonder Woman) is the daughter of the immortal god, Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, given life out of clay by Gaea.  She is born on Themyscira, a planet for the immortals, where her mother hopes she can live an immortal peaceful life.  However, Diana senses she has another purpose in life and begins warrior training in secret with Alcippe.  A mortal, a fighter pilot named Steve Trevor, lands on Themyscira as part of a plot by Ares to overthrow Hippolyta.  His plan is foiled when Diana wins the tournament and is named champion.  Diana accompanies Steve Trevor by boat to the boundary between Themyscira and Earth, but ends up being pushed out of Themyscira to Earth herself by Poseiden.

On Earth, Diana is befriended by singer, Etta Candy, who takes Diana under her wing acclimating her to life on Earth.   Etta follows Diana to France to aid in the war effort during WW2, where Etta will sing and Diana will work as a nurse.  Diana goes there in pursuit of an evildoer that is raising the dead Axis forces that are told to destroy the remaining Allied forces.  The man in command of the destruction wears the baetylus, which Diana immediately recognizes as a sacred item of her mother’s.

Diana becomes a WW2 heroine as both a civilian and Wonder Woman.  She is a fighter for truth, more often than not, impairing her enemies by showing them the truth with her lasso than actual physical harm.  She is willing to give up a normal life to protect life on Earth.  This is a coming of age story for the young Diana Prince, who must discover who she is, where she came from, and what her purpose must be.

This is not my usual genre, so I thank Book Riot Read Harder 2017 Challenge for pushing me outside of my usual comfort zone.  This was a stunning book, one I had a hard time putting down.  I have renewed respect and love for the heroine, Wonder Woman, and am so glad I was able to get to know her better through this graphic novel.  I highly recommend this everyone!  The combination of Greek God background and WW2 hero made this entirely compelling.

The movie Wonder Woman was released in the United States on June 2, 2017.  Did you see it?  I have not yet seen the movie, but I plan to watch it and write a follow-up post in reaction to it.  An interesting fun fact is that, in October 2016, the United Nations named Wonder Woman a “UN Honorary Ambassador for the Empowerment of Women and Girls.”  Two months later she was dropped from her role, following a petition.