Category Archives: Books

I Am Princess X

The fiction collection in the library where I work is organized by genre, a situation which sometimes vexes me. I mean, it can be really challenging to decide where a book should be shelved from merely reading the subject tags or the inside of the jacket. Sometimes, a title seems as if it could be assigned to more than a single genre and I’m forced to just make a choice, hoping the book lands on a shelf where it will be discovered and appreciated.

The new young adult book, I Am Princess X by Cherie Priestly, provided me with a dilemma when it came to slapping a genre sticker on its spine. Was it a graphic novel? Realistic fiction? Mystery? Truthfully, it’s all of the above – a contemporary story complete with suspense and graphic novel components.

The plot tells the story of best friends Libby and May. Together they created Princess X, a cartoon heroine who befriends ghosts and fights monster while wearing red Chuck Taylor’s and a golden crown. Their adventures together seem limitless until tragedy strikes and Libby and her mother are both killed in a horrible accident…

But, perhaps it wasn’t really an accident and maybe Libby isn’t really dead. May and a new acquaintance, Trick, use technology, smarts and bravery to get to the bottom of the mysterious reappearance of Princess X and learn what really happened to Libby.

Set in Seattle, this novel crosses genres and genders to provide a compelling story which will appeal to a wide range of readers. In a plot rife with modern technologies, this may be my very favorite line:

“Sometimes the easiest answer was the analog one.”

Two thumbs up for a fast, fun read.

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Echo – Pam Munoz Ryan

One of the benefits of my job is the opportunity to purchase new materials for students and faculty. Even after nearly two decades, the thrill of unpacking and handling a box of new books remains a highlight of my professional day. A recent shipment included Pam Munoz Ryan’s latest novel, Echo.

My first impression was “This is a really long book. How am I going to get kids to read this nearly 600 pages long historical fiction novel?” After reading Echo myself in less than 4 days, I know my bigger problem is going to be maintaining the waiting list of students who want to read this absolutely enchanting book.

Echo is a little hard to explain without giving too much away. Essentially, there are three narratives which ultimately combine into a heartwarming and satisfying ending. The thread which waves the story together is music and its power to inspire, comfort and convey emotion via a special harmonica which almost magically lands in the hands of each of the three essential characters.

The first is Friedrich, a 12-year-old in the Black Forest of Germany during the Nazi buildup in the years leading to World War II. His love of music, nurtured by his father and uncle, provides him with an escape from the harsh realities he contends with as an often bullied young boy living during an increasingly scary time.

The story then shifts to Mike, an 11-year-old orphan in Pennsylvania committed to remaining with his younger brother despite challenged beyond what any child should have to endure. His innate ability to play the piano, previously fostered by his now deceased grandmother, provides him with the means to communicate emotions and wishes he often does not have any other way to express.

And finally, we meet Ivy, an American girl of Mexican descent living in California with her family as they struggle to improve their circumstances during the early days of America’s involvement in World War II. The harsh realities of gender roles, racism and the consequences of war are daily insults in Ivy’s world, abated only by her ability to make and appreciate music.

Each of these three young people come to be in possession of a very special instrument, a harmonica which provides them with opportunity and hope during their time of need. The selflessness with which Friedrich, Mike and Ivy eventually, in turn, part with the instrument is one of the most striking and beautiful parts of this very special book. I can’t wait to reread this book over the summer with my boys. Wonderful!

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Unforgettable lessons

There are books that I read which are impossible to put down, a recent example being The Girl on the Train. I was so eager to find out what really happened that I refused to stop reading until I finished the book. I was neither disappointed, nor regretful of my decision to push on until I reached that final page and felt a welcome sense of resolution. It was a really good read.

The book I’m reading now though, is, if you’ll pardon the pun, a whole different story. Unforgettable: A Son, a Mother, and the Lessons of a Lifetime by NPR newsman, Scott Simon, is a work that I don’t want to finish. You see, if I finish it, the story will end and I so want the story (and Scott’s mother’s life) to continue.  Simon’s book, a memoir of his mother, and their life together, originated as a series of Tweets during his mother’s time in the intensive care unit at the end of her life. The time Simon and his mother shared together in the hospital was a quilt of memories, thoughts, laughter and songs that provided comfort and solace to them both as they faced their final days together.

Below are some my favorite nuggets of wisdom. Simon’s Tweets appear, as in the book, in bold text. Quotes are the words of his mother, Patricia.

  • I just realized: she once had to let me go into the big wide world. Now I have to let her go the same way.
  • “You tell your children something a hundred times…You’re lucky if they remember one or two. Dos, don’ts, count for almost nothing. All they remember is what you do. Whether you want them to or not.”
  • I love holding my mother’s hand. Haven’t held it like this since I was 9. Why did I stop? I thought it unmanly? What crap.
  • “Show children the best people and places. Let them know they belong.”
  • She will make the face of heaven shine so fine that all the world will be in love with night.

There’s so much wisdom in this book, so much love and laughter that I wish it went beyond the mere 244 print pages, that Patricia’s life went beyond only 84 years. As a mom to three sons, I can’t help but read this and hope that at the end of my life my “boys” will honor me with an iota of the respect and appreciation that Scott shows his mother. I don’t need one of them to write a book or anything, but I love the picture I’ve drawn in my head of my children sharing the memories and moments that have woven us together forever.

Mother’s Day is coming. Buy this book.

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Filed under aging, Books, Boys, family, favorites, holidays, ideas, love, moms, Recommendations

My Paris reading list

As I considered what reading material to bring along prior to my recent trip, I reflected on books I had read in the past which related to Paris. The first title that came to mind was Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, which has been a favorite for more than twenty years. The romanticism of that era (the 1920s) never fails to grab me and I was really happy to have reread that particular book just last year.

On a related note, The Paris Wife tells the same tale that Hemingway shares albeit from the perspective of his first wife, Hadley. The feminine point of view, expressed in a historical fiction narrative, is heartbreakingly enlightening and well worth reading.

Going way back in years, the Jim Morrison biography, No One Here Gets Out Alive, provided the perfect inspiration for a visit to the cemetery where Mr. Mojo is spending his eternity. The fulfillment of a teenage promise to myself was well realized on Easter morning as my son and I tramped around the beautiful Cimetière du Père Lachaise, map in hand, searching for the Lizard King.

For this trip, however, I wanted something I had not yet read. Doing a quick keyword search in the library catalog (using Paris and fiction) I came up with a number of options including Cathy Marie Buchanan’s The Painted Girls. Published in 2013, this historical fiction novel was the perfect choice for my trip and I really enjoyed the author’s blend of fact and fiction.

Edgar Degas – Little Dancer Aged Fourteen

Set in the later part of the 19th century, this story tells the tale of three impoverished sisters living with their widowed mother, a neglectful absinthe addict. With limited prospects, the eldest daughter, an outspoken and fierce protector of her younger siblings, attempts to keep her family together through any means possible. She becomes involved with Emile, a young man recognized by all others but herself as a thug. The middle daughter, a hardworking and literate 14 year-old, pursues an opportunity to dance in the Paris Opera where she catches the eye of Edgar Degas who hires her to pose for him in his studio. The youngest daughter, who possesses a true calling to dance, eventually achieves success in the dance world, but her path has been paved by the efforts and exertions of both of her sisters providing her with the least difficult life of the three.

All of the characters are based upon real people and the author has cleverly woven together two different stories into one rich tapestry of life in Paris during the 1870s. Buchanan paints a rich picture of poverty, society, justice and family and I completely enjoyed this novel. C’est bon!

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Love in Ernest

As an undergraduate, I fell in love with Ernest Hemingway. My major in English trumped my minor in Women’s Studies when it came to his mysogynistic ways. After reading a number of biographical works about him I forgave him. He was damaged goods.

imageHis writing impressed me and I have repeatedly heard his voice in my head when I struggle to express myself. “All you have to do is write one true sentence,” he said. Seems simple enough in theory, right? In practice it can be more challenging than you’d expect, but it is a good place to start.

Last year, I reread A Moveable Feast for the first time in many years. I was so taken by his voice and the stories he told of his time in Paris, and other parts of Europe, during the years between the two wars. His love for life – his Hadley, his child, his adopted home, his friends and his writing, radiated from the pages.

There was something else present though, a current of sadness and dissatisfaction. All that he loved was not enough and he took risks and sought out new experiences and stimulations. He was not content.

In many ways Ernest and I are alike. He and I each needed to write. We both loved to be in Europe, to sit in a cafe with a bottle of wine and observe all around us. Perhaps if I had written a book such as A Moveable Feast during my marriage, I would have revealed a discontent similar to Ernest’s.

I picked up a new copy of my favorite Hemingway book the other afternoon from the store where he would go for a drink and a few francs when he was in need.  The book of my life I’m writing right now has a much happier ending than Ernest ever could have imagined for himself.

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Filed under Books, Europe, favorites, France, travel, vacation

Are you ready to take a ride? Read The Girl on the Train!

I’m a little off my pace this year in terms of how many books I’ve read – I’ve only got 14 titles on my list so far for 2015. Along the way, there were a couple that I slogged through and there was even one that I abandoned as unreadable (Chuck Pahulniak’s Damned). The Girl on the Train, though, got me right back on track (ha!) with its I-can’t-put-it-down appeal. It was the perfect “beach read” on a late winter’s weekend and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Like the book it has been repeatedly compared to, Gone Girl, it is fast paced with plenty of twists and turns along the way.  The narration alternates between three female characters, including one who spends most of the time either drunk or hungover, providing a less than reliable perspective  on the events related.  There is infidelity, misdirected suspicions and character pasts which are not quite what they may want you to believe leading ultimately to a satisfying ending.  Riding along with The Girl on the Train is a trip worth taking.




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Ugly Girls – a(n ugly) novel

Ever start reading a book and get a sense pretty early on that you’re not going to enjoy it? What do you do? Push through or bail? For much of my reading life, I’ve opted to push through and have, on occasion, been pleasantly surprised when something shifts or clicks and the book becomes enjoyable. Well, that was not the case with Lindsay Hunter’s Ugly Girls.

If you can imagine a social issue, it’s in this book – alcoholism, poverty, prison conditions, stalking, social network deception, violence, prostitution, vandalism, theft, promiscuity and hypersexuality, adultery, incest…yep, all in this 229 page novel.

When I initially began the book, I was put off by the somewhat confusing narrative – the characters’ names were not indicative of gender (Perry, Jamey) and the alternating voices took a while to become distinct. I stuck with it and was somewhat rewarded by the quality of the writing, which really wasn’t bad. Unfortunately, there wasn’t an equally redemptive moment in terms of plot – this story just became increasingly more bleak and dark. I don’t think there was a single happy scene or genuine laugh in the entire book.

If you’re into sad stories, complete with boatloads of wasted opportunities and stomach turning interactions, read this book. Just be sure to keep some hand sanitizer nearby.

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