Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Angel of Bastogne by Gilbert Morris

Chicago newspaper reporter Ben Raines is a full-fledged cynic trying to bypass what he feels is the least wonderful time of the year. But his plan to escape Christmas on an overseas vacation is foiled when he’s assigned to write the big front-page holiday story.

In a humbug twist, Ben decides to sour the sugar coatings of December 25th with a piece that will debunk a World War II legend involving his father.

Willy Raines fought in the Battle of the Bulge at Bastogne on Christmas Day in 1944, and, to Ben’s embarrassment, openly believe a real angel saved the lives of his men in the 101st Airborne unit.
Along with a new friend, Ben makes a cross-country journey to find other veterans who witnessed the angel of Bastogne, sure to return empty-handed.  Instead, he comes home with a heart that is overflowing.

Not very well written but a lovely Christmas story with a Christian influence.  I loved it.

4 stars (Rated G – for everyone)

The First Day of the Rest of My Life by Cathy Lamb

Madeline O’Shea tells people what to do with their lives.  A renowned life coach, she inspires thousands of women through her thriving practice—exuding enviable confidence along with stylish suits and sleek hair.  But her confidence, just like her fashionable demeanor, is all a front.

For decades, Madeline has lived in fear of her traumatic past becoming public.  Now a reporter is reinvestigating the notorious crime that put Madeline’s mother behind bars, threatening to destroy her elaborate fa├žade. Only Madeline’s sister, Annie, and her frail grandparents know about her childhood—but lately Madeline has reason to wonder if her grandparents also have a history they’ve been keeping from her.

As the demons from the past swirl around her, a childhood friend with a gentle heart is urging Madeline to have faith in him—and in herself.  As she allows her resistance to thaw, the pain she expects pales in comparison to the surprises headed straight to her door. With one bold, unprecedented move, Madeline O’Shea may just wake up out of the sadness and guilt that have kept her sleepwalking through life for so long—and discover that the worst thing that can happen is sometimes the very thing we desperately need.

Cathy Lamb is a master storyteller, with the ability to craft characters that go right to the edge of insane and then pull back.  I have know read all of her books and I have loved every one of them.  This book is no exception.  You will laugh out loud and cry all on the same page.  This is a book where lavender fields, a violin and the color pink are all characters right along with the people that occupy its pages.  Treat will not be disappointed.

5 stars (PG-13 for abuse situations and randy talk by a dementia-driven grandmother)

The Book of Awesome by Neil Pasricha

I think this was a case of over-anticipation.  I was eager to read this for so long that when I finally did, it didn’t live up to what I’d hyped it up to be.  It is a cute book.  The author lists things that are AWESOME and then give a little vignette about how they come to be, or why they are so awesome.  It does make you appreciate the small things in your every day life. A few of my favorites (that are small enough to share) were:
Solving the Wheel of Fortune puzzle before the people on the show. Sure, most of the time they beat you to the punch.  But once in a while you manage to get in there and shout it out before they’re done buying a vowel. Screaming out the right answer is great because it means you’re smarter than three random people on TV.  And since at the time you’re gorging on a plate of cookies on the couch with your eyeballs hal-drooped, this is a pretty good feeling.  We’ll take it. AWESOME!
Waking up and realizing it’s Saturday. CRAP WHAT TIME IS IT I GOTTA GET TO WORK. Wait a minute. AWESOME!
Finally remembering a word that’s been on the tip of your tongue for so long. It’s like throwing a pail of cold water on all your smoking inner head parts. Gears unjam, lines start rolling and you settle back in the restaurant booth with a satisfied smile on your face and just blurt it out.  “Parcheesi, that’s what it was called.” AWESOME!
3 stars (Rated G – for everyone.)

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Paper Bag Christmas by Kevin Alan Milne

This is a sweet Christmas story to read as a family.  Give the final chapters to Dad to read though, Mom won’t make it through without some Kleenex.

Nine year-old Mo and his 11 year-old brother, Aaron find themselves acting as elves in a Children’s Hospital along side a jolly wheelchair-bound doctor/Mall Santa who promised them the “best gift they never wanted” for Christmas.  What happens at the hospital and the things Mo and Aaron learn that year are a lesson for all of us and a wonderful story.

5 stars (Rated G for everyone)

On Folly Beach by Karen White

To most people, Folly Beach is simply the last barrier island before reaching the great Atlantic. To some, it's a sanctuary for lost souls, which is why Emmy Hamilton's mother encourages her to buy the local book store, Folly's Finds, hoping it will distract Emmy from the loss of her husband.

Emmy is at first resistant. So much has already changed. But after finding love letters and an image of a beautiful bottle tree in a box of used books from Folly's Finds, she decides to take the plunge. But the seller insists on one condition: Emmy must allow Lulu, the late owner's difficult sister, to continue selling her bottle trees from its back yard.

For the most part Emmy ignores Lulu as she sifts through the love letters, wanting to learn more. But the more she discovers about the letters, the more she understands Lulu. As details of a possible murder and a mysterious disappearance during WWII are revealed, the two women discover that circumstances beyond their control, sixty years apart, have brought them together, here on Folly Beach. And it is here that their war-ravaged hearts can find hope for a second chance...

I loved the way the story went back and forth in time.  The mystery builds beautifully.  I had figured some of it out, but not all, there were some surprises.  Ms. White builds the characters well.  You find you have become involved in their lives and care about the outcome of the story.

4 stars (Rated PG for adult themes)

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Heaven is for Real by Todd Burpo

This is the astounding story of almost 4 year-old Colton Burpo’s trip to heaven during a life saving surgery.

Colton had a brush with death in March and then in July he starts to tell his parents matter-of-factly about his experience during the surgery. Pieces of the story come out little by little over the coming months. Colton tells his father that he saw him praying for him and Jesus told Colton he had to go back because of his father’s prayers. Colton describes Jesus and God, how they were dressed, but more importantly he always end with, “But Jesus loves us a lot, I mean A LOT!”

He visits with Pop, his father’s grandfather. When they show him a picture of Pop that had been taken just before he passed away, Colton responds, “Nobody is old in heaven.” They later show him a picture of Pop at 29 and he responds, “Where did you get the picture of Pop!”

The book is filled with many fascinating insights by this precious little boy. Amazing story!

4 stars (Rated G – for everyone)

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Look Me In the Eye: My Life With Asperger's by John Elder Robison

This book is Robison’s account of growing up undiagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome.  He was not diagnosed until he was in his 40’s.  His writing is compelling and surprisingly emotional.  He himself says that he learned emotion.  That if the book had been written in his 20’s instead of in his 50’s it would have been colder.

His story tells of not getting along with other children in elementary school, failing classes in high school even though his IQ was extremely high.  He was very good with electronics and machinery:
“Many people with Asperger’s have an affinity for machines.  Sometimes I think I can relate better to a good machine than any type of person.  I’ve thought about why that is, and I’ve come up with a few ideas.  One is that I control the machines.  We don’t interact as equals.  No matter how big the machine, I am in charge.  Machines don’t talk back.  They are predictable.  They don’t trick me and they are never mean.”

He built special effect guitars for KISS in the late 70’s and was on tour with them.  He then got a job building electronic toys.  Then later, he started a high-end Auto Repair business.  He was very successful in business. 

He talks a lot about his relationships and how he learned to respond as was expected. From his insane parents, to his brother (Augusten Burroughs author of Running With Scissors), his first and second wife and his son. 

Overall, a very interesting insight into Asperger’s Syndrome. (Interesting note at the end of the paperback edition he tells of schools wanting to use his book to teach about Asperger’s and diversity, so he toned down the profanity in the paperback edition.  If you read the hardback edition, it remains as it was originally written.)

4 stars (Rated PG for theme)

Saturday, October 15, 2011

This Is Us: The New All-American Family by David Marin

“It was no mystery why California had 98,000 children stuck in foster care. There were not 98,003 because I was stubborn.”

This is David Marin’s own account of adopting three Hispanic children from out of the California foster system.  Marin is a white, red-headed man in his 40’s who wants children.  He has not found a woman yet so decides to find the children on his own.  He falls in love with these three ‘chocolate’ children at first sight and then fights fiercely to have them in his life.  The problems he faces with a system that is there to help these children find permanent homes is unbelievable.  The problems he faces in taking three small children into his life are laugh-out-loud funny and endearing. 

His writing is wonderful.  He keeps the story moving along.  A few times he switches back and forth in chronology but it isn’t too hard to follow.  A definite “feel-good” read.

4 Stars (Rate PG – for theme)

The Shipping News by Annie Proulx

After reading this book I had to process it, mull it over, and I must admit, watch the movie!  I also discussed it with the women at my book club before writing this.  At face value this is an interesting story with a bunch of weird characters. But dig a little deeper and there is a story of a misfit, neer-do-well man who comes to his own in the cold, austere Newfoundland.  (As I just wrote Newfoundland, I realized the significance of its name New – found – land).

Quoyle is a large, “a great damp loaf of a body”, man with a very prominent chin, of which he keeps his hand over most of his life.  He never quite fits in anywhere.  He falls into a job in newspapers through his only friend.  He meets his wife Petal in a bar.  She wants him only for sex.  While married she frequently brings home other men and he listens to them in living room.  They do manage to have two daughters, Bunny and Sunshine. 

Then all at once, Quoyle’s life changes;  his parents commit suicide, he loses his job and Petal takes the children and leaves.  She has left many times, but not with the children.  An Aunt shows up to help him through.    The police call, Petal is dead from a car accident, but the children are fine because she sold them.  Once the children are home the Aunt suggests they all move to Newfoundland ‘where their people are from.” 

In Newfoundland things slowly change.  He gets a job at the small newspaper there and through a cast of many wonderfully odd characters he finds is way again. 
“Quolye was not going back to New York.  If life was an arc of light that begins in darkness, ended in darkness, the first part of his life had happened in ordinary glare.  Here it was as though he had found a polarized lens that deepened and intensified all seen through it.”

Ms. Proulx’s writing was a little difficult at first.  Incomplete sentences.  But you get used to it.  Her descriptiveness was beautiful.
“Suddenly he could see his father, see the trail of ground cherry husks leading from the garden around the edge of the lawn where he walked while he ate them. The man had a passion for fruit. Quoyle remembered purple-brown seckle pears the size and shape of figs, his father taking the meat off with pecking bites, the smell of fruit in their house, litter of cores and peels in the ashtrays, the grape cluster skeletons, peach stones like hens' brains on the windowsill, the glove of banana peel on the car dashboard. In the sawdust on the basement workbench galaxies of seeds and pits, cherry stones, long white date pits like spaceships. . . . The hollowed grapefruit skullcaps, cracked globes of tangerine peel.”

Overall, it was well worth the trip!

4 Stars (Rated R – crude language and brief sex scenes)

Monday, October 3, 2011

84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

What an absolute treasure!  I can’t remember how long it has been that I was just ‘tickled’ by a book, probably since the first time I read Pride and Prejudice. 

Helene Hanff is a writer living in New York City and is disappointed in the physical quality of the books she can purchase there so she writes to a bookstore in London at
84 Charing Cross Road
to request a few books.  Thus begins a correspondence that spans over twenty years between the writer and the bookstore. The copy I read also had the sequel The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street which covers the authors visit to London.

Side note: I have to tell you a bit about myself so you will understand the next thing I am going to say about the book.  I was raised by a mother who loved literature and felt very strongly about giving credit to the author.  When she read books to us as children she would always read the Title and Author together.  I’m not sure how old I was before I realized the name of the book was not, “Go, Dog, Do by P.D. Eastman” or “Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey”.  When we moved from Maine to Arizona when I was 16 my mother and I played the “Books and Authors” game most of the way.  This is a game of our making which consists of one player saying to the other, “G.W.T.W by M.M.” and the other replying, “Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell” or “P.A.P by J.A” (Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen).  You get it!  This also the reason the authors name is included in the title here on my blog.  Okay, so back to the book.  I was reading along, about halfway through and I realized I didn’t know who wrote the book, I quickly turned to the cover to see the author’s name.  When I saw Helene Hanff, I thought to myself, “Wait that is the main character’s name?  Is this real?” Imagine my delight when I read on the back cover that it was non-fiction.  This really happened!!  That’s make this book even better.

I wanted to add a few excerpts but all of them are too long.  Let me just say this, if you delight in books and reading, do not miss this book.

5 stars (Rated PG – very brief, very mild profanity)