Tag Archives: netgalley

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

 

 

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

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

Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

Pages:  320

Expected Publication Date:  August 1, 2017

Format:  E-book from netgalley

 

 

 

 

An intense collection of stories, each one told from the perspective of a young girl living in NYC in the 1990s with parents who had immigrated from Shanghai.  The stories demonstrate the manifestations and aftermath of the trauma experienced by the parents in Mao era China and the varying coping mechanisms they utilize.  Some parents drink excessively, others work such long hours such that they almost never see their children, while others cannot get enough of their children and are by their sides at all times.  One father is physically abusive to his wife while another has an endless string of girlfriends.  There is a grandmother who feels the only worthy thing in life is being a mother, so attempts to become the mother to her grandchildren, confabulating about the days when she breastfed them.  She demands that they love her to an extreme.  These are stories that show how the horrors of a generation (the Chinese in 1960’s China) affect future generations of children (American-Chinese growing up in NYC in the 1990s.)

It is about the children of immigrants in a country where English is not their primary language.  It is about the interaction of these girls with both their families and the outside world.  One girl is made to go back to ESL classes with each move and new school district, even though she has placed out them them repeatedly.  There is an intensity to childhood friendships, a pushing and pulling, a competition that feels far more negative than positive.  The stories delve into the girls’ exploration of their bodies and developing understanding of sex.  It is often vulgar and disturbing.  The emotional aspect of keeping up with peers about sex and foul language is a weight on some of these girls.  The language the children use, both in conversation with each other and with their parents,  is often angry and vulgar.  There is desperation and depression felt through these characters.  These girls are coming of age, learning about themselves and their bodies, learning about their place in the world.  It is all at once confusing, disastrous and exciting for them.

In addition to portraying 1990’s NYC, the author offers glimpses of the year 1966 in China, when schools were out and children ran wild.  The children were given the freedom and power to turn on any adult, accuse them of being counterrevolutionary, and proceed to torture and even kill them.  One disturbing scene had a teacher tortured while tied to a tree by her students out of revenge for shaming one of the students in school.   Anyone could be named counterrevolutionary.  Particularly, anyone who wore their hair long and loose, anyone thought to be an intellectual, a member of the bourgeois class… or simply as a personal vendetta.

The writing is marvelous.  Jenny Zhang is a masterful storyteller.  However, the content is graphic.  It is often horrifying, disturbing and seemingly distasteful. There is no sugar coating on these stories.  These stories are full of grit, grime and dirt.  There is anger, depression, sadness and sometimes joy.  For me, Zhang was a unique original voice.   I am glad I read these stories, but I caution others who might be sensitive to foul language or graphic subject matter.  Sour Heart is the first book to be published with the LENNY imprint, a new imprint, in partnership with Random House, led by Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner.

 

Jenny Zhang, the author, her twitter image

Discussion Guide:

  1.  Do the characters in this book face discrimination?  In what forms did it manifest?  Who feels self hatred because of race  and why?
  2. Explain the title of the novel.  Which character is referred to as sour?  Why do you think she is this way?
  3. Many of the characters in this novel are searching for ways to be love or people to love them.  Why is this such a strong theme within this book?
  4. How do you think most of the characters felt? What was their emotional state of mind?
  5. These stories are all told from the female perspective.  Would you describe the writing as feminist?  Why or why not?
  6. Zhang does an excellent job illustrating various experiences of Chinese American families in NYC in the 1990s.  How does she portray/sterotype other races (Dominican, Caucasian, Taiwanese, Hispanics, Blacks) within her stories?
  7. Did you feel that the vulgarity within this book was over the top or genuine to the experience?
  8. What is the motivation for Lucy’s mother to take Frangie in?  How does Lucy retaliate?
  9. In many of these stories there is a competition to be loved most.  Why do you think Annie’s mother needs to be the center of attention and feel the most loved?  Why is this also true for Stacy’s grandmother?
  10. Discuss the evolution of Jenny’s relationship with her brother and how this changes with age.
  11. Mande’s parents have a physically abusive relationship.  Mande and Fanpin become friends because of their mothers.  Why do you think Fanpin becomes domineering over Mande?
  12. What do you suppose happens after Mande’s mother gets pushed out of the car?  Do they go back for her?  Does she survive?
  13. Discuss some of the self destructive behaviors exhibited by the characters in these stories.  Why are these characters becoming self destructive?
  14. We know that the author was born in Shanghai and grew up in Queens.  In one story the protagonist is Jenny.  In another, the family name is Zhang.  How autobiographical do you think these stories or any one story might be for the author?

 

Jenny Zhang’s website

Interview with Jenny Zhang by Charlotte Shane in Medium

Kirkus Review of Jenny Zhang’s Sour Heart

The Drive: Searching for Lost Memories on the Pan-American Highway by Teresa Bruce ~ Book Review

Pages:  320

Published:  June 13, 2017

Format:  E-book care of Netgalley

 

 

 

 

“It isn’t practical, my quest to find my rolling childhood home and say a thirty-years-too-late goodbye to a four-year-old-boy.”

This is a memoir of Teresa Bruce who travels the Pan-American Highway in an avion camper with her husband Gary shortly after marriage.  This trip mirrors the trip that Teresa went on as a young girl in 1974 with her parents and her sister 2 years after the death of her younger brother.  The ultimate goal of the trip is to find the camper that her family had travelled in and eventually sold before heading home.   Ulterior motives include recollecting memories, exploring South America, reconnecting with people whose paths they crossed 30 years prior, understanding her parents better, and coming to terms with her brother’s death.  She seems particularly interested in learning about her parents’ motives and grieving process during this journey.  She does not recollect her parents talking about the death of her brother or even mentioning his name.  It is obvious when meeting people along this journey that her mother spoke to others very much about her dead brother, a realization that surprises the author.

To me, this journey felt very foolish.  Both trips contained near death experiences.  The travelers were pitted against corrupt police demanding bribes.  The travelers made poor choices.  For instance, Teresa brings a gun along, which haunts her the entire trip. They are continuously embarrassed by their apparent flaunting of wealth in their Avion with American plates as they drive through poverty stricken regions.  The writing is disjointed, the characters are coming undone…  So, for me, it was a tedious unenjoyable read.

The journey begins after a visit to Teresa’s home and parents.  What I couldn’t understand was why Teresa never engaged her parents in conversation about the past rather than decide to relive this journey, that for her, didn’t seem enjoyable the first time.  I took a chance on this book from netgalley knowing that I needed to read a travel memoir as part of the BookRiot 2017 reading challenge.  I almost gave up so many times.  I’m surprised that I actually read to the end.  The writing felt disjointed.  It read like diary entries that had been slightly reworked with some facts and tidbits thrown in about the history & geography of the area that didn’t necessary fit with the driving themes of the book.


Map of the Pan-American Highway from Brilliant Maps

 

 

 

 

 

Photo of Teresa Bruce, her husband Gary, and her dog, Wipeout, who accompanies them on the trip until her death in front of the Avion.  Picture taken from the Facebook page for “The Drive.”

 

We Shall Not All Sleep by Estep Nagy ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

Pages:  288

Expected Publication Date:  July 4, 2017

Format:  E-book from netgalley

 

 

 

 

I thought this book was quite brilliant, very literary, and highly intriguing.  It takes place over a few days, however, there are flashbacks to earlier times such that the reader gets a much longer and larger view into the lives of the characters.

The setting is July 1964 during the era of McCarthyism on Seven Island in northern Maine.  Seven is a fictional island home to two very wealthy families whose history is interconnected dating back to  the 1700s.  In present day, each family owns a beautiful house on the island, one yellow and one white.  There is a barn for the animals and outbuildings for the staff, all in bright red.  The Hillsingers are in one house and the Quicks are in the other.  Interestingly, although their histories are connected and the men of these houses married two sisters, their lives have been very separate until these 3 days spent on the island where past and present collide.  There is a huge cast of characters which includes  Billy Quick, Jim Hillsinger, their immediate families, their guests, and the staff.  Within each chapter past and present are described  and the narration jumps from one situation to another.  At first I found this confusing and difficult to track, but fairly quickly on, I had figured out who was who and reading this book was like watching a movie unfold.  It really had a cinematic quality of switching from one scene to another as in a movie.  I can’t compare this quality of the book to another like it, it seemed quite unique.  The effect was tantalizing and compelling, making this a very quick read.  The storyline builds and compounds as the novel progresses reaching the crescendo point by the end.

I won’t say much more as I don’t want to give too much away.  I would definitely recommend this book.  It would make a great beach read as well as a great book club choice.  It contains many historical elements without feeling like it is beating you over the head with them.  They simply exist in the book only because they are important to explaining the characters and their situation.    There are no wasted words in this novel.  It is written succinctly, beautifully and intentionally.   However, the reader, needs to pay close attention, or will miss something.  In short, well written, well researched and well worth the read!

Discussion Questions:

  1.  John Wilkie says “Seven Island is impossible.”  What does he mean by this?  Why does lila enjoy this comment?
  2. In the ARC version, lila’s name is not capitalized while the other characters names are.  Why do you think this is?  What effect does it have on the reader?
  3. “We shall not all sleep” is part of 1 Corinthians “Behold, I tell you a mystery: we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed.”  which is also part of the dedication of this novel.  Explain the title and it’s meaning in the context of this novel.
  4. Jim Hillsinger’s father is referred to only as “Old Man.”  Why do you think this is?  Does this have the effect of building him up or diminishing him?
  5. Catta dreams of an eagle dropping out of the sky hunting a rabbit.  Why do you think this it?
  6. Why was it important to Catta to know whether or not the eagles’ nest was a lie or not?
  7. Why was it important for the Old Man to have Catta spend the night on Baffin?
  8. Why does lila find herself now in love with Billy Quick when previously she had merely tolerated him?   What has changed?
  9. In the final conversation between Jim and Billy, Billy is left with the impression that Jim had traded his wife for a list of names.  What do you think the future holds for Billy, Jim and Lila?  Where will there relationships go from here?
  10. Describe the character of James.  Why does he get away with his violent schemes?

Practicing Normal by Cara Sue Achterberg ~ Book Review

Pages:  336

Expected Publication:  June 6, 2017

Format: E-book from Netgalley

 

 

 

 

As with most ‘women’s literature’ I found things to love and things to hate within this novel.  I think the title is brilliant.  What family isn’t practicing normal?  Every family has it’s own struggles and issues that it is dealing with.  Society expects certain behaviors from people and many families struggle to live up to expectations, both expectations they hold for themselves and those they perceive others to hold of them.

This novel is told from three perspectives:  that of the Dad, Everett;  that of the mother, Kate; and that of the daughter, Jenna.  Within this family unit, there is also an autistic brother, who does not serve as a narrator.

One of my biggest struggles with “women’s literature” is this theme of putting up with an awful male partner for the sake of the family.  This book is a prime example of this.  Kate, the mother, has given up a nursing career she very much enjoyed in order to be there for her family and care for her mother who lives down the street.  She has no friends or outside interests that she pursues.  Her whole life revolves around her family.  However, her husband is absent and deceitful.   One of her his mistresses has already shown up on the doorstep introducing herself and she’s very suspicious he’s cheating again.  He is “working” all hours and constantly checking his phone.  Kate’s mother thinks he’s a louse, but Kate would rather continue putting up with it all, denying the obvious.  Maybe this is to keep up appearances, maybe to prove something to herself, maybe to prove something to her mother.. maybe she is practicing some kind of normal she had hoped for.  The thing that made me most angry about the relationship between Kate and Everett is when she relates a story where Everett raped her.  Since then she is more submissive  to his sexual advances, not wanting a repeat incident.  Kate’s son requires a lot of attention due to Asperger’s and only she and her daughter Jenna seem to know how to relate to him.  Kate’s mother also is increasingly relying on her, refusing to leave her home down the street and refusing to cook for herself.

Everett is an egomaniacal child in an adult’s body.  He is always putting himself first.  He has no real relationship with his children.  He has been caught in one affair and is currently in the midst of another.  He is constantly exchanging text messages while at home with the other woman, Veronica.  He is continually visiting his mistress under the guise of woking late or needing to run out of the house at all hours for something that just came up at work.  He is also attempting to understand Kate and her sister’s blood relationship to their parents through DNA evidence, without first consulting Kate in this matter.

Jenna seems to be the most self-honest and most relatable character to me.  As she is capable of taking care of herself, she is largely left to her own devices.  She is fully aware of her father’s infidelity.  She avoids him and refers to him by first name.  She is angry, dresses in black, has short spiky hair, multiple piercings and spends her days breaking into neighbor’s houses.  She doesn’t break in to steal per se, but to check things out, spend time with cats, experience someone else’s domain.   She gets caught breaking into the neighbor’s house across the street around the same time that their son, the high school football star, is taking a break from football because of his grades.  She begins spending time with this unlikely friend, Wells. The woman with the cats, Cassie, also aware of Jenna’s presence in her home, begins paying Jenna for her time spent playing and feeding her cats.  Wells and Jenna spend time with each other in Cassie’s home, which becomes a refuge for them and their developing closeness.  Jenna, who had seemed such a misfit starts to come of age, grow and become happy with herself.

In the end, Kate does finally awake from her self-delusion.  It is interesting how Kate’s life and her mother’s were similar in their solitary confinement as they tried to practice normal and hide from the glaring problems their family was built on.  If you enjoy “women’s literature,” you will probably love this book.  It is well written and there is a nice metamorphosis of the characters as they are developed within the novel.

 

Cara Sue Achterberg’s Blog

Review by Olga, author, translator, forensic psychiatrist

Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

Pages:  272

Published: April 25, 2017

Format: E-book from Netgalley

 

 

 

 

5 HUGE STARS!  AMAZING!  INCREDIBLE!  FULL OF KINDNESS, COMPASSION AND HUMANITY!

I have been looking forward to this book ever since I heard it was coming out.  It is a companion book to ‘My Name is Lucy Barton which was published last year.  ‘My Name is Lucy Barton’ largely involves conversation between Lucy Barton and her mother in the hospital where Lucy remains hospitalized with complications of appendicitis. It is what is unsaid that is so powerful in that book. The reader becomes aware of extreme poverty and abuse in Lucy’s childhood. Lucy and her siblings were mostly shunned by the other children of their town. However, Lucy has made it out of Amgash, Illinois. She is married though that marriage is failing. She is a writer. She is looking forward, but during this time with her mother, she is also looking back. ‘My Name is Lucy Barton’ is so intriguing, but it leaves the reader with so many questions. So, I could not have been any happier upon hearing that this book was being published.

Anything is Possible, published about one year after My Name is Lucy Barton is told in short stories focusing on different people’s lives in adulthood who had lived in the town Lucy had grown up in. It reminds me so much of Olive Kitteridge in the manner in which it is written. Each short story could be published in it’s own right, however, the flow of these stories and their connections to each other make for an incredible read.

It is heartrendingly beautiful, so full of life and heartache. It is so full of humanity.. of the human experience. It describes feelings, emotions, nuances of relationships so well. You experience the pushes and pulls of family, town and the world on the individuals in these stories. Amgash is a small poor town in rural Illinois. There are not many opportunities for upward mobility if one ends up living in town. Those who escape lead vastly different lives, but their pasts continue to haunt them.

Each story is intense in it’s own right. Each tells of a realization of self or family that is immensely important and a turning point in that person or family’s life. Some of these stories had me sobbing, they were that emotional and real. They are all deeply affecting stories, each and every one. They were so compelling that I would not want to stop reading at night. Despite wanting to keep moving ahead, I could have read the same sentence over and over and extracted more meaning from it each time. Each sentence was so loaded and powerful.

But, really what is most special about the book is the message or maybe the many messages. This book tells us that loving imperfectly is ok. Loving imperfectly can be lovely. It tells us that no one is alone, there are always others with shared similar experiences. It demonstrates how a simple small act of compassion can have such a huge impact and effect on the lives of others. It teaches us that feeling pain is actually a gift, for were we not to feel pain, that would be the real tragedy. This novel is about reconnecting with the past and making amends before death. It is about recognizing heroes and heroines, masked in normal everyday clothing. And of course, Elizabeth Strout does all this so eloquently and lovingly. This is a must read.. definitely my favorite book this year!

 

Elizabeth Strout’s website

Review by Heller McAlpin for NPR

Review by Anthony Domestico in the Boston Globe

Discussion Questions:

  1.  What is the meaning of the title?
  2. Discuss the relationship of this book to ‘My Name is Lucy Barton.’ Do you think this book was a necessary counterpart?  Is this book worthy of standing alone, aside from reading ‘My Name is Lucy Barton’?
  3. Was there a particular character in these stories you most enjoyed or related to?  Who and why?
  4. Discuss the effects of extreme poverty and abuse on various characters in this novel?  How was Pete affected? Lucy?
  5. Discuss Lucy Barton’s father?  How did his past affect the way he treated his children?  How are Pet and his father similar?
  6. Discuss the secret Tommy keeps from his wife after the fire.  What happens when Tommy shares this secret with his wife?
  7. Discuss the theme of sexual inability or lack of sexual desire as relates to childhood experiences.  (Pete, Patty, Siggy)
  8. Discuss the pain that Charlie and Siggy share.  Do you think this is what attracts Patty to each of them?
  9. Discuss Linda Nicely’s complicity in Jay’s escapades.  Why is she complicit?  Why does she stay with him?
  10. Discuss the effect of compassion on someone who is not expecting it:  Patty towards Lila Lane and Karen-Lucie towards Linda Nicely.
  11. Discuss the “Hit-Thumb Theory” (the spaciousness of calm before the crash and crush of real pain) and how it relates to this novel.
  12. Compare and contrast Mary Mumford’s life in Italy as and aging woman to what it would have been in Amgash.  What is it that causes Angelina to finally recognize the heroine in her mother?
  13. Dotty owns a B&B and gets to know the guests in different ways.  Why does she feel used by Shelby and her husband yet endeared to Charlie?
  14. Annie feels a closeness with and upon understanding her father better.  Explain this.

Woman No. 17 by Edan Lepucki ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

Pages:  320

Expected Publication Date:  May 9, 2017

Format:  E-book

 

 

 

 

This book had me cringing, yet I was intrigued and felt compelled to read to the end. The setting is Los Angeles and a great many themes are explored throughout this novel. The two main characters, are at such transitional points in their life, making rash irresponsible decisions. These two women grew up with “bad mothers,” however end up becoming their mothers, either inadvertently or purposely in the pursuit of art. They are brought together in this novel as Lady has separated from her husband and is looking for a nanny. “S,” as Esther is calling herself in her play-act of being her mother, responds to nanny position and is hired on the spot, without even a reference check.

It is about mothering, the different ways a woman may parent different children.  It is about bonds between mother and child and boundaries.  It is about identity, as a mother, as a daughter, as an individual.

It is about relationships between women and how quickly they can change.  The characters in this novel and their relationships with each other are incredibly well developed.  The reader experiences the shifts in the relationship as life changes or new facts come to light.

It is about bad choices in relationships with men that seem exciting, yet leave the women with emptiness.  It is about the possibility of good relationships with good men, that seem boring and easy to throw away.  These women, Lady and Esther, through whose alternating voices the novel is rendered, seem destined to self-sabatoge.  Esther, in becoming her mother, takes the color out of her hair, dresses in frumpy clothing, drinks herself into oblivion, and makes poor rash choices on many fronts. Lady plays with fire on several fronts.  Most shockingly, she revisits the father of her oldest son (whose identity she is hiding from her son) not just once but repeatedly.

It is about art and the subtle shifts that can change the entire tone of the piece.  The title of the book refers to a photograph taken by Lady’s sister-in-law, Kit Daniels.  It was part of a series of photographs taken of ‘regular’ women caught off guard, with clutter in the backgrounds.  Lady’s original photo had been altered for the publication, and the slight alteration made a tremendous difference in the way she presented.  Certain other details were hidden as well.

In the end, this novel is about learning to accept yourself and the life given you, your strengths and weaknesses, not trying to copy or imitate others’, but to work with what life has handed to you.

Even though, I was annoyed with the characters and their alacrity for self-sabatoge, from which they all seemed saved at the end, I do think the novel was incredibly well executed.  It is not a feel good beach read.  It is much deeper and more complicated.   The writing is excellent.  The author develops many themes and there is significant complexity to the novel.  It is intriguing and unique.  It would make a great book club book!  

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Discuss the significance of the title.  Would you have given the novel a different title?
  2. What scene resonated with you most in a positive or negative way?
  3. How do the “roles” of the various characters influence their various interactions?
  4. Were there moments you disagreed with the choices of the characters?  What would you have done differently?
  5. What past influences are shaping the actions of the characters?
  6. Do you think the ending was appropriate?  How would you like to see the ending go?
  7. What is the importance of art and perception in the novel?
  8. Did you relate to either of the main characters?  If so, which one and why?
  9. Discuss the significance of Lady and S each going by alternative names.  What is the meaning of their given names and what are the meanings attached to the names they are going by in this novel?

Edan Lepucki’s website

Review by Kaleigh Maeby at Book Stalker Blog

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

Pages: 480

Expected Publication Date:  March 28, 2017

Format: E-book from netgalley

 

 

 

 

This was a beautiful story of a father – daughter relationship.  It tells of a past pertaining to the father, Samuel Hawley, from which he is trying to protect his daughter at all costs.  His past is Herculean, it is a time of it’s own, yet it cannot be separated from the present.  He has scars from  twelve bullets.  Twelve bullets are the equivalent of the twelve tasks of Hercules, the twelve hours on a clock.  Hawley’s past is shady, but he is a good man and wants the best for his daughter.  His job now is taking care of his daughter.  The chapters describing the circumstances leading up to each bullet striking him alternate with chapters about his daughter coming of age.  It is a unique intersecting of two lives, one in the past and one in the present.

The setting is Gloucester, Massachusetts, a fishing town that has a renowned greasy pole competition in the summer.  However, the author has renamed Gloucester, Olympus, giving it heroic proportions, suitable for the Hercules of this novel to tackle.  He tackles it with humility and for his daughter.  He does not enter the competition to win glory for himself.  The town is well developed in the novel.  The reader gets a sense of the determination and culture of the fishermen.  This is set against the environmentalists, embodied by Mary Titus and her ex-husband, who are fighting to protect against overfishing.

Hawley’s past is tainted.  It is rough and difficult, full of narrow escapes.  The daughter, Loo, is youthful, more innocent.  Their relationship is full of respect and love.  She doesn’t fully understand who he is and what his past is made of, but she is starting too.  She may be innocent, but even she carries pieces of his past within her without even knowing it.  She often feels that sour taste rising in the back of her throat driving her to violence.  In returning to her mother’s hometown, she is subject to bullying, but learns to fight for herself.  She falls for a boy.  She starts a waitressing job.  She is coming of age, understanding her father better and the world at large.

This is a beautiful book which I highly recommend!  I loved the intersection of an exciting shoot ’em up novel combined with a  coming-of-age story and the subtle shift in the relationship between father and daughter.  It was beautifully executed and seemingly timeless.  It was  tender and sweet plus keep-you-on-your-toes, exciting.   

 

Photo from obs-us.com

 

 

 

 

 

Photo from Boston.com

 

 

 

 

 

Discussion Questions:

  1.  The author states in the afterward that the 3 themes she is trying to develop are time, death and love.  How are these developed throughout the novel?  Which theme do you think is most important?
  2. In exploring the theme of time, how does the past influence the present and the future in this novel?
  3. Discuss the comparison between Samuel Hawley and Hercules.  How are they similar?  How are they different?
  4. Who are the heroes in this novel?
  5. What were your feelings toward Samuel Hawley?
  6. How does the grandmother feel about Samuel?  Why do you think she does not confront him with her suspicions?
  7. Why does Principal Gunderson become Loo’s ally?
  8. How is the backdrop of the fishing town important to the story?
  9. What elements do each bullet story all have in common?

Interview with Hannah Tinti conducted by NPR

Review by Ron Charles in the Washington Post

Review by Jo’s Book Blog