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review 2017-07-10 02:17
Magic Carpet Ride
Pashmina - Nidhi Chanani

 

Pashmina is the story of an artistic high school girl, Priyanka, whose mother immigrated to America from India before she was born. Priyanka wants to know more about the Indian culture, and about her father, but her mother refuses to discuss either one. To make matters worse, Priyanka’s favorite uncle is having a child of his own and she feels left out. Then Priyanka finds a magical pashmina in an old suitcase, which transports her to the colorful, fascinating India of her dreams. Luckily, her aunt, who still lives in India, calls and invites Priyanka to visit. This visit answers Priyanka’s questions, shows her what her mother’s life was like before she left, and helps her continue her own artistic journey upon her return.

 

The strengths of this graphic novel are in the simple but endearing illustrations, the bursts of color that signal the pashmina’s magical escapades, and in the characterization of the teen lead, whose angsty behavior is just edgy enough without being off-putting. This would be a great companion to American Born Chinese or Persepolis, and could be enjoyed by students in middle or high school.

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review 2017-04-01 19:56
A great book about the games families play and what love really is.
Practicing Normal - Cara Sue Achterberg

I was given a copy of this book as a gift and I freely chose to review it.

Tolstoi’s probably best-known quote: All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way fits perfectly this novel. As a psychiatrist, ‘normal’ is one of those terms that we always seem to come back to, even if it is impossible to define. It seems that normal is always what other people are, never us. Perhaps, as it is discussed in the novel in reference to Autism and Asperger’s, which are conditions that fall within a spectrum, the same is true for normality. It is not an on or off thing. Perhaps we all belong to some point within the spectrum, but we’d be hard pushed to find many people whom we’d all agree were ‘normal’, at least if we got to know them well.

The novel introduces us to the Turners, who live a reasonably comfortable life within a theoretically idyllic neighbourhood. Once we scratch a bit under the surface, we find: Jenna, the sixteen year old daughter, who is not a goth but likes to shave her hair, dye it in interesting colours, collects piercings and is an ace at breaking into neighbours’ houses (courtesy of her father’s job in a security company). Kate, her mother, is forever busy caring for everybody but herself. She has to look after her mother, Mildred, who might be dementing, or perhaps not, and who lives alone, never leaves the house and talks to her birds. She also has to look after JT, her son, with an Asperger’s diagnosis, who cycles through periods of obsession with different topics (ER Medicine, Fire-fighting…), has tantrums if his routine is disturbed, cannot read people’s expressions or understand their feelings, but is a genius at Maths and has an incredible memory. She also runs around the rest of the household and is always worried about her husband, Everett, who cheated on her once (that she knows of). The chapters alternate the first-person narrations of Jenna (who somehow becomes friendly with the rich, handsome and all-around nice neighbour, Wells, who isn’t, after all, the stereotypical jock), and Kate (whose sister, Evelyn, has made contact with their father, Frank, who left them when they were young children, and believes their mother has been lying to them) allowing the reader to better grasp, not only the secrets they all keep from each other, but also the different ways the same events can be interpreted and seen. Everett’s narration (also in the first person) joins later, giving us hints of more secrets to come,  allowing us a more rounded picture and offering us a male perspective.

I found the first person narrations served well the topic, and the voices of the three narrators were very distinct and fitted in well with their characters. Although personally, I can’t say I liked Everett very much, no characters are despicable and all of them love their family and each other, even if they might go about it the wrong way. Jenna’s strong hostility towards her father is easy to understand, not only because he cheated on her mother (and is still doing it after promising not to) but because she had idealised him when she was a child and he’s shattered that illusion. She is clever, challenging and reckless but with a great heart (she doesn’t care for rules or conventions but has no bad intentions) and her romance will bring warm memories to all readers who are still young at heart. Kate is a woman who is always at the service of others and makes big efforts to ignore what she feels she can’t cope with, even if it means living a lie. But she learns that she is stronger than she thinks and grows during the novel. She also gets to understand that her dreams of romantic love are unrealistic, and we feel optimistic for her at the end. Everett is a man who lost his way (it seems) when he left his job as a policeman. Now, to feel better about himself he’ll do almost anything, not caring what the consequences for himself and others might be, and he always puts his needs before those of the rest of his family. He does not understand his children but he loves them and tries to do what he thinks is best, within limits. JT is a wonderful character, well-drawn and realistic in terms of the behaviours he exhibits and his relationship with Kate, Jenna and the rest of the family is heart-warming and has the ring of truth.

There are many secrets, some that come from a long time back and some much more recent, and the narrative is good at revealing them slowly, even if we might strongly suspect some of them, partly because we have access to the thoughts of several the characters (as they don’t communicate with each other that well). There are also many love stories and many different kinds of love that are explored. Ultimately, love must be about more than just saying the words and looking into each other’s eyes. It isn’t something we should feel automatically entitled to; it has to be proven and worked on, as Cassey, a friend of Jenna and later Kate, explains.

The secondary characters are also interesting, mostly sympathetic (with the exception of Wells’s family, and Evelyn, who comes across as self-centered and domineering) but not drawn in as much psychological detail as the members of the family, but they are far from unidimensional. I really liked Cassey, the hospice nurse who understands all the females of the family and helps them without asking anything in return, and Phil, a good man who, like Wells, disproves Mildred’s generalisations about men. Mildred, the grandmother, can be at once annoying and endearing, but eventually, we get to understand her a bit better, even if we might not necessarily agree with her actions. I also loved the animals, especially Marco.

This is a well-written book, where plot and characterisation go hand in hand, that offers good psychological insights into the nature of family relationships and the games members of a family play with each other. It also will make readers think about what love means and will remind them of the risks of keeping secrets, not only from others but also from ourselves. The narration flows well and once you get to know the characters it’s difficult to stop reading and you feel bereft when you come to the end as they’ve become part of the family. A great read.

I couldn’t leave you without sharing a few of the sentences I highlighted.

Never break more than one law at a time.

Kate talking about JT, her son, with Asperger’s: but I focus on what JT can do, not what he can’t.

Kate again, wondering about her son’s inability to read other people’s expressions and know what they’re feeling or thinking:

Maybe it would be easier to sail through life unaware of the emotions of the people around you.

And Jenna, on one of her typical (and oh, so accurate, sorry gentlemen) pearls of wisdom (although this one she keeps to herself):

If men didn’t have penises, they’d probably be a lot smarter.

 

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review 2016-07-05 06:20
Grounds to Kill by Wendy Roberts
Grounds to Kill - Wendy Roberts

Jen is a barista with two big secrets. First, the homeless guy who keeps coming by the cafe where she works and who she keeps giving day-old baked goods to is really her paranoid schizophrenic father. And second, she has an ability known as automatic writing – someone or something writes messages to her via her left hand. Her latest message: “Dear Jen, Arthur is screwing Misty.” Arthur is Jen's cop boyfriend, and Misty is Jen's half-sister and nemesis.

Jen dumps Arthur after confirming that he did, in fact, sleep with Misty. Then she decides to get back at Misty with some dog poop. It's a spur of the moment thing, and it isn't until after she lobs the poop into Misty's apartment that she realizes that Misty is lying dead on the floor, her throat slashed.

As my description indicates, Jen isn't the most mature person ever. I really, really didn't like her. It was more than just the dog poop incident – it was nearly everything about her and the way she interacted with the world.

After she read the message to herself about Arthur cheating on her with Misty, she went to Arthur, took his loaded gun, and pointed it at his crotch while she interrogated him. I get that she was angry, but what sane person does that? Later on, they both demonstrated their incredible grossness and stupidity by sleeping with each other after Jen, in a bout of fear and worry that her dad might have been involved in Misty's death, called Arthur. Who sleeps with a person who recently pointed a loaded gun at your crotch? Who sleeps with a person who made you so angry that you pointed a loaded gun at them? Why did these characters have to be so awful?

I also didn't like the way Jen bashed the cafe's part-timers for being skinny. Her comment to one of them: “Grab a muffin or three. Put some meat on your bones before you cut someone.” (51) And no, she didn't mean it in a snarky friendly way – she didn't even consider the part-timers worth the effort of remembering their names. Even Mitch, her coworker, thought her treatment of the part-timers was a bit much.

Speaking of Mitch, I spent a good chunk of the book wondering if he was going to be Jen's obligatory love interest. On the one hand, books like this often have a love interest, and he seemed like the most likely one. He was good-looking and willing to let Jen cry on his shoulder if she needed to. On the other hand, I disliked Jen enough that I couldn't help but think that Mitch was too good for her. He was even a better barista than she was. His only failings were that he teased her for taking baked goods to the homeless guy near the cafe (he didn't know the man was Jen's father, but that still didn't excuse the teasing) and that learning about Jen's automatic writing freaked him out. The relationship between him and Jen petered out before it even began. I'm not sure why the author bothered, unless there are plans to turn this into a series.

The most appealing thing about this book was the mystery. I genuinely had trouble figuring out who the killer might be, although I had suspicions that turned out to be correct. The killer's efforts to cover their tracks were very messy and unfocused. The aspects that initially caught my attention, the coffee shop stuff and the automatic writing, were so-so at best. Like I said, Mitch was a better barista than Jen was. Also, Jen's automatic writing only cropped up a few times. It was briefly mentioned that the spirit that spoke through Jen was probably someone close to her, but nothing ever came of that – another indication that this might become the first book in a series.

However, even if a second book gets published, I'm not planning on reading it. Grounds to Kill already gave me more of Jen than I really wanted. I'd rather not subject myself to more.

 

(Original review, including read-alikes, posted on A Library Girl's Familiar Diversions.)

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review 2016-01-29 19:57
The Lost Mother
The Lost Mother - Mary McGarry Morris

This is the heartbreaking account told by 13 year old Thomas during the Depression era.  He lives in Vermont in a tent in the woods with his dad and his younger sister Margaret after his mother leaves to "seek a better job elsewhere." 

 

A perfect example of how children interpret the mysteries of adults.  With what little information his dad has told him as to why his mother left his innocence paints a different story than the truth and he is determined to find his mother, either to bring her home or to go live with her.  Life for Thomas and his sister have not been easy while in their father's care who seems to be on a streak of bad luck.  When they are informed their dad had to leave for temporary out-of-town job they are passed from house to house.  At first they are happy at each place once they are warm and fed but each household reveals their skeleton and ultimately making it impossible for the children to stay.

 

Mary McGarry Morris does a superb job in depicting Thomas's emotional, frustrating and painful experience as he finds his way to the truth.  Definitely my favorite to date that I've read by this author.  I would recommend this book for those who appreciate thoughtful reading.

 

How I acquired this book:  Barnes & Noble clearance shelf

Shelf Life:  Approximately 3 years.

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text 2016-01-23 16:02
The Queen of Unconventional Extended Families
The Astonishing Return of Norah Wells - Virginia Macgregor,Clare Corbett
Atonement, Tennessee - Teagan Riordain Geneviene

Thanks to Net Galley and to the publishers for providing me a copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.

I read Virginia Macgregor’s first novel What Milo Saw a few months back and loved it. I loved the warmth of it, the wonderful characters, the sense of community, the quirky story, and the wonderful boy at the centre of it, Milo. When I published the review in my blog, it was very well received, and in fact one of my followers not only loved the novel too, but discovered a personal connection to the author. Of course I could not resist getting this book when I saw it in Net Galley.

And boy, am I pleased I got it. I’ve loved it possibly even more than the first one. Willa, the little girl who is the heart and soul of this story, is wonderful. She is not as prescient as Milo was, but she is all heart. She loves animals, Louie, the dog, the foxes only she seems to see (she’s obsessed with Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox and the movie of the same title), her parents (although she later discovers that Mummy Fay is not her real mother), her sister Ella, the twin ladies who live opposite, with their Chihuahuas, and everybody else. Her birthday is coming up and she knows Mrs Fox is due to have baby foxes and she’s excited. What nobody is prepared for is the return of Norah, her biological mother who up and went six years ago, and the maelstrom this causes. Norah’s best friend, Fay, and her complete opposite, stepped in when she left and took care of her family, becoming the mother (although Ella always resented her and started a campaign to find her mother, believing she’d been abducted). Norah’s return upsets the new family the ones left behind had created in her absence, and the secrets and lies threaten to break the hearts of all involved.

The novel made me think of an author I’ve read a few books by, Hans Hirschi, who wears with pride the accolade one of his reviewers gave him of ‘the queen of unconventional happy endings’. After reading this novel, I feel Virginia Macgregor deserves to be known as the queen of unconventional extended families. This novel is more insular than the previous one, and although the outside world intrudes (sometimes very forcefully) into the story, this is mostly incidental, and the action takes place around the family, and those adopted into it, like the neighbours, Ella’s Twitter followers, Fay, the members of the family Norah unveils, Sai (Ella’s boyfriend) and his wonderful mother. Willa wants everybody to be happy and live in the same house, and eventually, tolerance, understanding and love spreads to all who come into contact with her and her family.

Macgregor writes beautifully, perfectly capturing the thoughts and voices (the story is told in third person but from the point of view of the different characters) of younger and older characters, and even the dog (that Willa feels a particular connection to). [Although Louie is completely different, the use of the pet as one of the consciousness and narrators of the story reminded me of another great novel, Atonement, Tennessee by Teagan Geneviene, where Lilith, the cat, observes and sees things the rest of the characters don’t.] We might agree or not with the actions and reactions of the people in the novel, but they all feel real, and we come to care deeply for all of them. The plot deals with themes such as abandonment, family relationships, prejudice, creativity, spirituality, cancer, grief and death, subjectively and sensitively. Yes, I did cry at times and laughed at times. And I thoroughly enjoyed it.

If the roof of the house is in need of repair throughout the novel and storms keep threatening the house (illustrating in a very plastic and visual way the emotions of those living inside) the ending is heart-warming and hopeful.

This is a novel that will pull at your heartstrings and will make you fall in love with stories and reading. Although it’s very early in the year, I suspect this will remain one of my favourite novels of 2016. Go and read it!

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