Category Archives: Book Reviews

Traveling with Pomegranates by Sue Monk Kidd and Ann Kidd Taylor

Having read The Mermaid Chair and  The Secret Life of Bees, both by Sue Monk Kidd,  I was excited when this was chosen as one of our book club selections. That was in November. I just finished reading the book now. What does that tell you?

Traveling with Pomegranates should have been a better book than it actually is. This is a mother(Sue)/daughter(Ann) memoir about travel, faith, love, creativity and writing. At the beginning, as I settled in, I thought that it was going to be quite compelling. I felt a kinship with Sue:

“I didn’t understand why I was responding to the prospect of aging with such shallowness and dread, only that there had to be more to it than the etchings on my skin” (4).

In Sue’s capable hands, this journey is – if not always engaging – at least well written and thoughtful. Sadly, I can’t say the same for Ann’s part. I found her whiney and entitled. I never warmed up to her.

Mother and daughter visit Greece together in 1998. Ann is 22 and Sue mourns the loss of the little girl she was. She is also acutely aware that something troubling is going on with her daughter. At first glance it might seem that Ann’s disappointment has to do with the fact that she didn’t get into graduate school, but as the mother/daughter writers unspool the story it turns out that they are both looking for something more complicated. And they spend the rest of the book kneeling at the feet of Madonnas (and other powerful female icons) in Greece and Crete and France…trying to find it.

Ultimately, it turns out that graduate school was never what Ann truly wanted; she wants to be a writer. And how wonderful for her that her mother is and that they could do this book together.

Lesa’s Book Critiques

Washington Examiner Review

Although the women in my book club were wishy-washy about the book, we unanimously LOVED this Pomegranate Salsa. It’s delicious!

Pomegranate Salsa

seeds of 1 pomegranate
1/2 bunch cilantro
1/2 bunch parsley (equal to cilantro)
1/2 sprig mint
1 small red onion
2t lime zest
2 T lime juice
2 t oil
1 jalapeno pepper
salt/pepper to taste

I use the seeds of 2 pomegranates and adjust the quantities of everything else to taste. This keeps well; I made a big batch for Christmas Eve and I am still eating it.

The Bright Forever by Lee Martin

Lee Martin’s novel The Bright Forever has restored my faith in fiction. After a long drought, The Bright Forever accomplished what all good novels should: it held me spellbound. It is beautifully written, has a cast of damaged and damned characters and is almost impossible to put down.

Nine-year-old Katie Mackey goes missing one hot July night in small-town Indiana. She’s the youngest child of Patsy and Junior Mackey. Junior is a man about town; he owns the glass factory. Katie and her older brother, Gilley, are not spoiled rich kids, though – they are smart and kind.

The Bright Forever is told from the viewpoints of Gilley, Mr. Dees (the bachelor math teacher who is helping Katie improve her math skills that hot summer) and Raymond and Clare, a couple of misfits who live on the other side of town, close to Mr. Dees. Occasionally, the story drops into 3rd person omniscient, allowing us to see how the town is reacting to Katie’s disappearance. These transitions are handled effortlessly and the various voicesare distinct and original. Each perspective adds to the story’s central mystery – what happened to Katie – but also allows us to see how fragile and broken these people are.

It’s clearly early on that Mr. Dees and Ray are the prime suspects in this case, but what the reader isn’t suspecting is their complicated complicity and the way their story unfolds. Suffice to say – there is more than one victim in this story.

The Bright Forever is remarkable – it moves at a suspenseful clip and yet, ultimately, it’s a tragedy.  A worthy read, indeed.

Blogcritics Review

The Evening Reader shares her personal recollections of author Lee Martin.

The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier

I first read Ian Serraillier’s novel The Silver Sword when I was 12. All these years later I had vague memories of what the story was about, but  very vivid memories of having loved it. We read it in school and so it wasn’t a book that I’d actually come across elsewhere. One day, while perusing the selection at Book Closeouts I came across the book and decided to order it. I wondered, after all these years, if it would stand up. Some childhood books do and some don’t.

The Silver Sword is the story of Polish siblings Ruth, Edek and Bronia. When the Nazis invade Warsaw in 1940 their father, Joseph, and mother, Margrit, are taken away leaving the children, then aged 13, 11 and 3, to fend for themselves. We hear a little bit about the father who manages to escape a couple years later and make his way back to Warsaw. There he encounters a young ruffian named Jan. It’s part luck and part contrivance that the children should meet up with Jan and together they set off for Switzerland in search of their parents.

I am sad to say that The Silver Sword wasn’t a magical experience the second time around. The story is simplistic, the characters are one-dimensional and the happy-ending is unrealistic. That said, it in no way diminishes my memories of what I loved about the book 30-odd years ago. Then the trials of these children: their hunt for safe places to sleep, finding food, trying to stay out of the way of the Nazis, searching for their parents, was both thrilling and heart-wrenching. I can only attribute my disappointment to the fact that I am older and jaded.

I think my children will love it as much as I did then.

The Trade Mission by Andrew Pyper

I hate it when a book flummoxes me. I hate it when I feel outsmarted by a book, too. Andrew Pyper’s novel The Trade Mission is probably one of those books which deserves to be read twice: once for the story and once for the deeper philosophical issues that I knew were there, but which somehow eluded me. Mostly, anyway.

Jonathan Bates and Marcus Wallace are childhood friends who have become dot com millionaires for their invention of something called Hypothesys.

“We feel that Hypothesys is something that is truly going to change the way we conduct our lives,” explains Wallace to investors gathered in Brazil. “It’s not another Internet site…Hypothesys helps you make the best decisions of your life.”

Ironically, when it comes to making moral decisions with real consequences, Wallace and Bates are left to their own devices. While playing tourist on the Rio Negro, deep in the Amazonian jungle, they (and their companions Elizabeth Crossman, their interpreter; Barry, their managing partner and Lydia, their European counsel) are kidnapped by pirates. What follows is a strange combination of violence and soul searching.

The Trade Mission is narrated by Crossman and she’s in a unique position; as the only one of the party able to speak the language she can embellish or omit.  She also seems to love and hate Wallace in equal measure.  Truthfully, he isn’t particularly sympathetic. His relationship with Bates is eerily sexual and he often seems smug about his intellectual prowess. As for Crossman herself, she isn’t the most accessible of characters and I have to admit that her role, when the story finally starts to unravel, seems a bit of a cheat. The novel’s section After was too sentimental for me, especially coming after the horrors the characters experienced.

Pyper’s a terrific writer. I’m a fan. I liked his novel Lost Girls, which I read several years ago. But I remember feeling somehow unsatisfied after reading that novel, too.  The Trade Mission is billed as a ‘novel of psychological terror.’ Sure, some of it was squirm inducing, but it wasn’t a page-turner in that ‘oh my God, what’s gonna happen next’ way.

Thus the flummox. And the am I missing something. Still worth a read, though.

Author’s Site

Quill and Quire Review

Canadian Literature Review

The Art of Meaningful Living by Christopher F. Brown

meaningful

When I worked at Indigo there was an entire section of the store devoted to Well Being. People looking for help with their relationships, sex lives, food addictions, spirituality, and just about everything else related to their personal lives could be found in this section. Perhaps by some weird fluke though, Christopher F. Brown’s new book The Art of Meaningful Living could have been found over in the Art section and, strangely, it would have been equally at home there, too.

The Art of Meaningful Living is a clever hybrid which marries self-help with art.  Brown offers practical advice on how to live a meaningful life and John Palmer contributes abstract art to the book which makes The Art of Meaningful Living a rare bird indeed: it’s the kind of book you’d actually leave on your coffee people for your friends to see.

Many of us reach a certain age and  start to wonder about our place in the world. I don’t mean to be morose, but let’s face it –  we don’t have infinite time on the planet.  More often than not we push that thought away, planning for an unforeseeable future. Eventually, though, life catches up and many of us need help reorienting our ‘ship’, so to speak. Brown offers thoughtful and meaningful advice on how to chart your course and he does it without psychobabble. The book is divided into four sections: Wisdom, Action, Resilience and The Art of Meaningful Lives.  Brown asks us, first of all, to consider our lives and  acknowledge our cast –  that is the people who had a hand in bringing you to the place you are right now. He also encourages us to commit to change and assures us that the book will help the reader “learn to build wisdom, take action, develop resilience… manage your mind, cope with the world around you, define what is valuable to you, and move forward with the life you want.”

Palmer considers Brown’s advice and each page offers his colourful,  (and although I can’t claim to have any expertise in art at all) often very beautiful interpretations of the ideas.

Brown and Palmer began their collaboration after they had each lost a parent. They believe The Art of Meaningful Living “provide[s] hope to move past those dark moments.”

Perhaps it is fate, then, that this book came across my desk when it did. My father died of esophageal cancer as I was about half way through it. As a person who has always struggled to balance my creative instincts with the day-to-day slog, The Art of Meaningful Living gives me the tools to move past the grief I feel and on towards attaining a life worth living.

The Art of Meaningful Living

Facebook Page

Podcast Interview with Brown

Still Alice by Lisa Genova

stillalice

My mother was a geriatric nurse for most of her career. When I was in my late teens I had a summer job working at the nursing home where she was head nurse. Many of the patients had dementia and I remember one lady in particular, Annie. She was sweet and over the summer we became friends…except she never remembered who I was from one day to the next.

Lisa Genova’s novel Still Alice is the story of Alice Howland, renowned Harvard professor, mother of three, happily married to John, also a Harvard prof. After seeing her doctor because she’s suffering from strange lapses in her memory, Alice is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s. She is 50.

The novel traces Alice’s diagnosis and subsequent decline. At first she merely struggles to find words (and I don’t do this, but sometimes I start a story and totally forget what I was going to say!) but then her lapses in memory become more pronounced: she gets lost walking a familiar route, she forgets people who were introduced to her only moments before, she mistakes a mat on the floor for a black hole.

Still Alice isn’t literature. Okay, yes, it tells a story, but often times I felt like the author was trying to convey information. Alice says to her neurologist:

“You should also tell them about DASNI. It’s the Dementia Advocacy and Support Network International (247).”

There are several other instances of this sort of writing, places where I felt Genova had an agenda and she was writing to fulfill it. Somehow it lessens the emotional impact of the story because as a reader I was more interested in Alice and her life than I was in hearing about clinical trials.

I can only imagine that being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s is the worst torture imaginable. The disconnect between your life and the lives of the people you love would be beyond horrific. The thought of losing the ability to read (I can’t even imagine my life without books!), to watch a movie, to do simple tasks, to recognize the faces of my children and husband fills me with dread. Yet near the end of the novel, Alice still has the wherewithal to stand up in front of the delegates of a Dementia Care Conference and give an impassioned lecture about how, despite her symptoms, she is still a person worthy of note.

“Please don’t look at our scarlet A’s and write us off. Look us in the eye, talk directly to us. Don’t panic or take it personally if we make mistakes, because we will” (253).

The whole lecture seemed like  authorial commentary…and it didn’t work for me. Strangely, the part that I found most moving in the novel was when Alice attends the graduation of her last grad student, Dan. Even though we’ve seen very little of their relationship and hardly anything of Dan in the novel, his post-graduation moment with Alice is very touching.

People will love Still Alice. My feeling about it is that it’s a timely topic written without artifice.

Read a Review

Another Review

Talking to the Dead by Helen Dunmore

talkingdead

The events of Helen Dunmore’s beautifully written novel Talking to the Dead take place during a blazing summer on the Cornwall coast. Nina has come to spend time with her sister, Isabelle, who has just given birth to Antony. It is a difficult labour and delivery and Isabelle is having a slow recovery.

You don’t look very alike, Susan said yesterday. I wouldn’t have guessed you were sisters. (29)

Susan has been hired to care for Antony while Isabelle recovers from the complications of Antony’s birth. Although the sisters are, as Susan notes,  unalike physically, they share the bond of family: an emotionally distant mother who worked as a potter, a drunkard father and the crib-death of their little brother, Colin.

They also share knowledge, perhaps suppressed, about the death of their little brother. It is during the hot days that follow that a family secret is revealed and Nina begins an illicit affair that sends shrapnel through the house Isabelle and her husband, Richard, have leased for the summer.

I’m a Dunmore fan. She’s a beautiful writer and much of the prose in this slim volume is breathtaking. So I am going to attribute the fact that I didn’t tear through this  novel (only 214 pages!) to the fact that I’ve had a serious case of book lethargy over the last few weeks. After all, like all of the Dunmore novels I’ve read – as literary as they are – this one has an element of psychological suspense. The pace isn’t fast though; information is revealed slowly, like veils pulled back one at a time. Under normal circumstances, this wouldn’t be a problem for me…like I say, I was in a bit of a slump.

If you haven’t yet read Dunmore, you really should.  She’s quite remarkable.

Helen Dunmore’s Site

Reading Guide

Q and A with Dunmore about the novel