Mini-reviews of Recent NetGalley finds: Glitter and Glue, Above, and The Haven

Glitter and GlueGlitter and Glue by Kelly Corrigan
Published by Ballantine Books
Review copy received from NetGalley

This quote, from the publisher’s summary, I think sums up the book extremely well.

This is a book about the difference between travel and life experience, stepping out and stepping up, fathers and mothers. But mostly it’s about who you admire and why, and how that changes over time.

While this memoir is sort of about Corrigan’s relationship with her mother (the “glue” to her father’s “glitter”), it’s about so much more than that. Corrigan details a summer she spent as a nanny for an Australian family who had just lost their mother to cancer, and how this experience brought her so much closer to her own mother than she had ever thought possible – as she was basically a stand-in mother to these two children. It’s about how having her own children enriched her life in ways beyond her wildest dreams and how the experience of raising her girls put into perspective just how important her own mother had been for her entire life. Glitter and Glue is a short book but was so emotionally affecting for me. I absolutely loved this one and cannot possibly more highly recommend it. It’s beautifully written and so unflinchingly honest, a must-read for anyone who has a mother or is a mother – whether these relationships are fantastic or horrific, I think you will find something of value in this gorgeous book.

AboveAbove by Isla Morley
Published by Gallery Books
Review copy provided by NetGalley

At sixteen years old, Blythe is kidnapped from a community event in her hometown of Eudora, Kansas, by Dobbs, who’d been watching her for years. Dobbs is a survivalist and takes Blythe to an abandoned missile silo, where he believes the two of them will wait out the apocalypse and repopulate the earth afterwords. Years pass, she becomes a mother, and yet she never gives up on her dream of going above the missile silo and home to her family.

Let me just tell you that this novel turned out to be a lot different from I was expecting – and that’s a good thing. The first half of the book is exactly what the summary describes – Blythe and Dobbs together in this missile silo, him going up every few weeks for supplies and such, her trapped in this awful place, all the while trying to make a life for her son despite their total lack of anything resembling freedom. It even dragged on a bit for me in the middle, because I couldn’t possibly imagine what ELSE could happen to them – I got it, she was bored, she was taking care of her son, now what? Well, that “now what” piece is what is so amazing about this novel. The middle completely changes the game and what follows is an entirely different novel. Above is truly an incredible piece of fiction and while it wasn’t exactly the PERFECT book for me, it blew me away and so surprised me that I must recommend it.

The HavenThe Haven by Carol Lynch Williams
Published by St. Martin’s Giffin
Review copy provided by NetGalley

Put simply, The Haven is about teens living at this hospital, where everything about their lives is closely monitored – their sleep, food intake, exercise, education, everything. They also take a Tonic several times a day that eliminates, or at least protects against, the Disease that they are in danger of getting. Shiloh is different from the rest of the kids there, as she has memories she’s not supposed to have. These memories lead her down a path of trying to understand why they are there, and if there’s a possibility to escape.

Here’s the issue I have with this book: it feels like a total copycat of a VERY popular and extremely well-written adult book I love. If I tell you which book, it will spoil the entire premise of The Haven, so email me if you want to know. Even though this novel is well-written, the characters are unique and I liked them a lot, I couldn’t get past the fact that it felt like a watered-down version of a book I’d already read and loved. So maybe this would be better for teens, or for those adults who haven’t already seen this story play out in another novel, but for me that too-obvious connection sort of ruined the whole thing.

Once Upon a Quinceanera: Coming of Age in the USA by Julia Alvarez

Once Upon a Quinceanera: Coming of Age in the USAOnce Upon a Quinceanera: Coming of Age in the USA by Julia Alvarez
Published by Viking Adult

From the publisher:

The quinceañera, the fifteenth birthday celebration for a Latina girl, is quickly becoming an American event. This legendary party is a sight to behold: lavish ball gowns, extravagant catered meals, DJs, limousines, and multi-tiered cakes. The must haves for a quince are becoming as numerous and costly as a prom or wedding. And yet, this elaborate ritual also hearkens back to traditions from native countries and communities, offering young Latinas a chance to connect with their heritage.

In Once Upon a Quinceañera, Julia Alvarez explores this celebration that brings a Latina girl into womanhood. She attends the quince of a young woman named Monica who lives in Queens, and witnesses the commotion, confusion, and potential for disaster that comes with planning this important event. Alvarez also weaves in interviews with other quince girls, her own memories of coming of age as an immigrant, and the history of the custom itself -how it originated and what has changed as Latinas become accustomed to a supersize American culture. Once Upon a Quinceañera is an enlightening, accessible, and entertaining portrait of contemporary Latino culture as well as a critical look at the rituals of coming of age and the economic and social consequences of the quince parties. Julia Alvarez’s dedicated fans will be eager to hear her thoughts on this topic. It is a great book for anyone interested in American youth today - parents, teachers, and teenagers themselves.

A few years back, Eva read and reviewed this book and inspired me to buy it. And it’s been sitting on my shelf ever since. I am not sure what finally pushed me to read it but I finally did, and I was rewarded by that decision by an excellent look at a cultural ritual that is quickly becoming as mainstream as weddings and funerals.

What I really liked about this book was how it was a mixture of journalism, cultural analysis, and it had a memoir feel at times as well. Alvarez digs deep into the historical significance and modern execution of quinceaneras while at the same time reflecting on her own childhood and experiences growing up Latina in the US.

She tries really hard not to get too judgmental about Latino parents who give their daughters elaborate, expensive parties they clearly can’t afford, although she doesn’t quite get there. It’s obvious to any reader just how silly Alvarez thinks it is to spend fifteen thousand dollars on a party when there is no money saved for that child’s college education (and I happen to agree). But besides that, she really gets involved with these families and gets to know these girls, way beyond just learning about their fifteenth birthday parties. Her analysis and feelings about these celebrations are clearly influenced by how close she got with some of the families, and she put significant effort into not showing any one person or family in a negative light.

While Alvarez shares her own thoughts and opinions about the quinceanera, she leaves things really open for the reader to make his/her own interpretations and conclusions. The book is mainly a look at how the quinceanera celebration is just one manifestation of Latino culture meeting American culture and the many different Latino cultures influencing and changing each other (Mexican, Puerto Rican, Colombian, etc.).

I really liked this one and I mostly appreciate the fact that it’s about a topic I wouldn’t have chosen to read on my own, without the subtle influence of a more cultured and well-read friend. (Thanks Eva!) I think it’s important to open oneself up to reading about and experiencing cultures other than your own, and I’m glad I did that with Once Upon a Quinceanera. Highly recommended!

My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor

My Beloved WorldMy Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor
Published by Knopf

Summary from the publisher:

With startling candor and intimacy, Sonia Sotomayor recounts her life from a Bronx housing project to the federal bench, progress that is testament to her extraordinary determination and the power of believing in oneself.  She writes of her precarious childhood and the refuge she took with her passionately spirited paternal grandmother. She describes her resolve as a young girl to become a lawyer, and how she made this dream become reality: valedictorian of her high school class, summa cum laude at Princeton, Yale Law, prosecutor in the Manhattan D.A.’s office, private practice, federal district judge before the age of forty. She writes about her deeply valued mentors, about her failed marriage, about her cherished family of friends. Through her still-astonished eyes, America’s infinite possibilities are envisioned anew in this warm and honest book, destined to become a classic of self-discovery and self-invention, alongside Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father.

This was an impulse listen for me, an audiobook I spotted at the library that I’d heard good things about and that I felt I might enjoy because I like these kinds of reads. I was not disappointed here. Sonia Sotomayor has led an interesting and inspiring life and I loved hearing about what has helped her become so successful over the course of her life.

SO much of what Sotomayor has to say is both important and quotable. I almost wish I read the paper book so I could have highlighted and took notes instead of just listening to what was said; however the audio was really good so there’s that too. I just loved everything she had to say about growing up with not a lot of money, being a minority and a woman, with few examples around her about what success in the traditional sense looks like, yet still being so driven and hardworking that to succeed was the only choice she gave herself. One thing she stressed, which I think is important for anyone trying to nurture and help children, is that the ONE thing that matters in a disenfranchised kids’ life is having one adult who roots for the child, boosts him or her up, and has the child’s back in all things, no matter what. For Sotomayor that person was her grandmother, when I was a child I had one or two people in my life who did that for me, and I have to say that I can’t agree more with this statement. Not all kids have perfect parents or perfect lives, but if you are able to be there for a child who might not be in a great situation, to really show how important that child is, how special and smart and unique and creative and all of those things, it could make a huge difference in that child’s life.

Sotomayor is unflinchingly honest in this memoir and I appreciated her so much for that. She has been through a lot in her life – deaths of loved ones, a failed marriage, education at America’s top schools, many different levels of her career – and she was so open about it all. I found myself really admiring the way she makes decisions and thinks through things – I hate to admit it but I’m not as caught up in politics as I once was so I really didn’t pay attention to her confirmation hearings when she became a Supreme Court Justice and I knew almost nothing about her political beliefs and leanings. She truly is a fair and thoughtful judge – thinking very carefully through every single possible repercussion and consequence before making even the smallest decision. I liked her quite a bit and enjoyed getting to know her and understand her throughout the book.

If you’re looking to get to know Sonia Sotomayor better – the real person behind the media image of her – this is a fantastic choice. Or if you, like me, enjoy these kinds of autobiographies in general, also a fantastic choice. Sotomayor has led a very inspiring life and I have no doubt that she will continue to inspire and interest me throughout the rest of her career. I’m so glad to have read this book. Highly recommended!

In the Land of Believers: An Outsider’s Extraordinary Journey into the Heart of the Evangelical Church by Gina Welch

In the Land of Believers: An Outsider's Extraordinary Journey into the Heart of the Evangelical ChurchIn the Land of Believers: An Outsider’s Extraordinary Journey into the Heart of the Evangelical Church by Gina Welch
Published by Metropolitan Books

Gina Welch, who grew up without serious religion of any kind but technically considered herself Jewish, decided to spend two years immersing herself in Evangelical Christianity. She chose to spend that time at Thomas Road Baptist Church (Jerry Falwell’s church) and did everything from regular Sunday service to joining the singles groups to going on a mission trip and everything in between. What she found was both surprising and enlightening.

Before I talk about my thoughts on this book, let me explain my own personal beliefs and where I was coming from when I decided to read it. You all know I’m Christian, right? But I’m not Baptist, nor am I a huge fan (or any kind of fan actually) of Jerry Falwell and his hateful ways. I think Christianity – and religion in general – should be a way to bring people together and show love, not tear people apart and preach hate at anyone who doesn’t agree or share the same “lifestyle”. I’ve been interested in this book for quite some time, mostly because I so fundamentally disagree with the kind of Christianity that Falwell represented that I was interested in seeing what his church was truly like, from an outsider coming into it.

Overall I found almost exactly what I expected in this book. Welch surprises herself by learning that most of the Christians she met and became quite close friends with are actually incredibly wonderful, kind, caring people. This was probably the aspect of the book I enjoyed the most – the fact that she was going into this expecting the people of this church to be some “other” that she couldn’t understand or relate to, but in fact she mostly found the opposite. She found evangelicals to be fun, interesting, basically normal people who also happened to have a relationship with God – which is of course what I hoped she would find! But I found it so refreshing that she was able to sit back and examine how her expectations of what these people would be like turned out to be wrong (in most cases).

What made me sad was when she found some things that weren’t so good about the people of the church – judgment of those different from themselves, older men insinuating that the only way Welch could be happy was to land a husband, evangelicals shoving Christianity down strangers’ throats in rude and hateful ways, Falwell using his sermons as opportunities to be political and say that those who disagree with him will go to hell, etc. This stuff made me sad, although it seemed to be more of a generational thing than anything else – the younger crowd almost never fell into any of these patterns, but the older members of the church almost always did. So that made me hopeful that as time goes on, some of this negative stuff will change. Either way, it was somewhat eye-opening to see how some of the craziest things that have been said about this church and its leader were actually true!

In the Land of Believers is an extremely well-written novel and I really admired Welch for doing what she did in order to bring the reader this piece of investigative literature. While I really enjoyed the book overall, I couldn’t help but question what Welch’s point really was. I was left, in the end, feeling a bit disappointed that she draws no real conclusions or ties things together in any kind of way. I get that she’s basically reporting to the reader what she witnessed and learned while spending two years in this church, but I am left asking “why?” Why did she spend two years of her life doing this, what did she get out of it, what does it really mean? I guess there’s no real answers to these questions but I think I’m just looking for some way for her to pull all of her experiences together and show the reader something new.

Again, I really liked this book. For a thorough examination of this particular church, it’s a fantastic choice (perhaps the only choice). And for those of you who enjoy books about different religions and these investigative memoir type reads, this is a great choice.

Click: When We Knew We Were Feminists edited by Courtney E. Martin and J. Courtney Sullivan

Click: When We Knew We Were FeministsClick: When We Knew We Were Feminists edited by Courtney E. Martin and J. Courtney Sullivan
Published by Seal Press

This collection of essays features many prominent young feminists explaining that “click” moment – that moment when the light bulb turned on, when they understood with absolute clarity that they were feminists.

Most people identify with some kind of ideology – a religion, a political belief, a specific stance on something – and there is almost always a pivotal moment in a person’s life that makes that belief cement itself, that brings it to the forefront of one’s mind with perfect clarify. I personally have several things that I believe that are absolutely critical to my identity and sense of who I am, feminism being just one of them. So I appreciated this book, a book about women (and one man) who, just like me, at some point in their lives, came to the realization that feminism is where it’s at.

I liked how varied these essays are – the many contributors come from different backgrounds, educationally, racially, socially, in pretty much every way. So many of these authors came to feminism in nontraditional ways. I personally had my “click” moment in a college women’s studies class – so predictable – but many of these writers had theirs in such interesting and unique situations.

And everyone who contributed to this collection is a GOOD writer! I was engaged and interested in every single one of these essays.

I highly recommend Click for those who enjoy thoughtful essays and/or get why feminism is still important and relevant (hint: it is). This is a great collection edited by two smart and talented women.

Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison by Piper Kerman

Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women's PrisonOrange is the New Black: My Year in a Woman’s Prison by Piper Kerman
Published by Spiegel & Grau

Piper Kerman, a successful woman with a boyfriend, loving family, and a great career, is forced to give all of that up for fifteen months when she’s sentenced to federal prison for a ten-year-old drug crime – a crime that was completely out of character for her, even at the time she did it. Orange is the New Black is her story of everything that happened to her in those fifteen months – it’s revealing, entertaining, eye-opening, heartbreaking, and at times even lightheartedly funny.

I truly regret the fact that it took me so long to get to this book. I was entranced with Piper’s story from the start and wanted to learn everything I could about her experience as quickly as possible. So much of this book surprised me but also so much about it made me smile. It’s shocking how the world inside the prison is so different from the one on the outside, but at the same time so much of it is the same. It’s something that’s difficult to explain but Kerman did such an amazing job illustrating that for the reader, of showing us exactly what was so awful and lovely about her experience.

It sounds crazy to say that even a minute of her experience in a federal prison could be lovely, but those of us on the outside can’t quite comprehend how deep the friendships developed inside the prison’s walls can be. In Kerman’s case, she truly loved many of the women she lived with in the course of that year. I was blown away by the stories of some of the women she befriended, women who seemed to be such incredible people, mothers and wives and super intelligent women who made bad decisions and ended up in prison for really long sentences. It baffled me that so many of these women (most, in fact) were in there for drug crimes, most of whom were accomplices to the men in their lives, and the government spent incredible amounts of money and resources keeping them behind bars while their children grew up without them and many of the men who helped land them in prison ran free. It was just … I don’t know. Eye-opening, I guess is the right word.

Something else that I found really valuable about this book was the insider’s look at prison politics and just how little power prisoners have in this environment. Truly, the things that male guards can get away with are astounding. The women literally have zero power and the guards can do absolutely anything they want with almost zero repercussions. Kerman never goes too far with her observations and commentary on prison politics, but she does make it clear that she didn’t enjoy learning about it first-hand.

I experienced Orange is the New Black as an audiobook, and with Cassandra Campbell narrating, this audio is a fantastic choice. I absolutely loved the listening experience and highly recommend it.

This is a fantastic memoir that I highly recommend. I can see why it became such a hugely popular TV show when it was released on Netflix (a show I have yet to watch, unfortunately). This is an important book and you will be riveted to the pages, it’s incredibly difficult to put down. Piper Kerman is a great writer and I personally appreciate that she took the time to document and discuss her experience for our benefit. Read it!

Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed

Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear SugarTiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed
Published by Vintage

You guys, I loved this book so, so much. If you are unfamiliar with the book, basically it is a collection of advice columns Strayed has written for The RumpusYou typically expect to see advice columns that are silly and contain watered-down advice that sounds the same no matter the situation. But this is not your ordinary advice column – Strayed writes hauntingly about her own life, gives honest, in-your-face answers to these desperate questions, and connects to her audience on an intensely deep level. Also her writing is GORGEOUS.

There were so many times that I connected to the person requesting advice and to the words Sugar poured into that person’s heart. I cried several times while reading this book.

I don’t even know what else to say, just that this book is so full of love and light and everything we all need in our lives to feel happy and okay and at peace. I truly loved it and highly recommend it for just about anyone.

Mini-reviews – wrapping up 2013 reading part 1

Since my blogging pretty much slowed to a trickle these past few months, there are several books I never got around to reviewing. So here are some brief thoughts on four books I haven’t told you about yet. I’ll be back tomorrow with four more.

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of BeliefGoing Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright – This is nonfiction but it might as well be horror because it scared the pants off of me! Not that it’s “scary” in a traditional sense – it’s a book about a religion after all – but the way that this religion developed and grew and got so many people to follow it is terrifying to me. It’s brainwashing, pure and simple, and it’s mind-boggling to me that there are so many Scientologists in the world who actually believe everything L. Ron Hubbard taught. This book is incredibly thorough, the research Wright did is very in-depth, and the writing is excellent. For those interested in learning more about Scientology this is a book not to be missed.

The Sister SeasonThe Sister Season by Jennifer Scott (review copy from the publisher) – I decided to read this one because Jennifer Scott also writes excellent YA fiction under the name Jennifer Brown and I was hopeful that her talent for YA would carry over into women’s fiction. It did, to a degree, as I liked this book about three adult sisters who are forced to spend Christmas week together at their childhood home because their father has just passed away. I thought Scott did a great job with these characters and illustrating the way sister dynamics can be so complicated – these women have true love-hate relationships with one another, and I know that’s the way it is for a lot of sisters. But I didn’t love some elements of the story (to say what would be to spoil things) so overall I didn’t end up loving the book. It was like just not love.

The Space Between UsThe Space Between Us by Jessica Martinez (review copy from SIBA 2012) – another book about sisters, this time it’s YA about Amelia (older, more responsible sister) and Carly (younger, wild sister) and a mistake Carly makes that have huge repercussions for both girls. I liked this one a lot and I think that Martinez can really write teenage girls. She truly gets them, the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that are unique to that period in a girl’s life. The dynamics between these girls were realistic and definitely accurate to real life – I connected with Amelia because as a kid, I was her, and I had a Carly as a sister too (different name, same personality). But there was a big reveal towards the end that I saw coming from miles away, which annoyed me. Overall I’m excited to read more from Martinez even though this book wasn’t perfect.

Fire in the Ashes: Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in AmericaFire In the Ashes: Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in America by Jonathan Kozol – This book absolutely broke my heart, and gave me hope at the same time. I can’t recall ever having read another book by Kozol but I really need to start, as his approach to writing about poverty and education definitely speaks to me. It’s so alarming to realize that so many children in America have to live in atrocious conditions and then can’t even get the education they need and deserve in order to make a better life for themselves. I liked how Kozol showed readers both children who were able to get out of poverty and those who weren’t, and some who tragically died way too young. There is so much sadness in this book but also tiny slivers of hope that left me wanting to read more of Kozol’s work. I listened to the audio of this one and it was excellent.

Mini-reviews: The Preservationist and How to Be a Woman

I’m not reading a ton these days but I’m blogging even less, so if I ever plan to get through my backlog of unreviewed books I realized I need to start doing some more mini-reviews. So here are minis of a couple of the books I read in September! Stay tuned for more of these coming soon. :)

The Preservationist by Justin Kramon
Published by Pegasus
Review copy provided by the author

I absolutely loved Kramon’s first novel, Finny, so when he contacted me asking if I’d be interested in The Preservationist, I jumped at the opportunity, even though I’ve been accepting very few review copies lately. Kramon’s second novel is completely different from his first, and in a way that’s a good thing – it shows he has talent writing more than one kind of book, in fact this one is in a whole new genre (thriller). To be honest, though, this departure from what I loved about Kramon’s work was a slight disappointment for me – I adored his first book so much that I was looking forward to getting my brain back in that space. This novel did have some stuff going for it, though, as I found the atmosphere to be deliciously creepy, especially towards the end when things start getting crazy for our main character, Julia. Also, while I had a good idea about what was really going on with these two men in her life, Sam and Marcus, I was impressed by how Kramon handled working out all the details and how he brought the two together in a shocking, although not altogether surprising, conclusion. The very end was a bit of a surprise, and one that I quite liked in fact. Overall, while The Preservationist wasn’t exactly what I wanted to read from this beloved author, I still enjoyed it and will continue to be interested in his work.

How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran
Published by Harper Perennial

This book is more a personal feminist manifesto than anything else. Moran’s wit and sarcasm add just the right amount of humor and snark to what are, in most cases, incredibly serious subjects she’s discussing. I particularly appreciated the chapters on sexism and abortion. The book is packed with insightful observations on everything related to being female and being a feminist in today’s world. I listened to the audio of How to Be a Woman and it was fantastic. Moran narrates herself, so it’s as if she’s telling her thoughts and feelings directly to the reader. I highly recommend this unique feminist memoir and especially would recommend listening to the audio for a fabulous listening experience.

Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex by Mary Roach

book coverBonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex by Mary Roach
Published by W. W. Norton and Company

From the publisher:

The study of sexual physiology—what happens, and why, and how to make it happen better—has been a paying career or a diverting sideline for scientists as far-ranging as Leonardo da Vinci and James Watson. The research has taken place behind the closed doors of laboratories, brothels, MRI centers, pig farms, sex-toy R&D labs, and Alfred Kinsey’s attic. Mary Roach, “the funniest science writer in the country” (Burkhard Bilger of The New Yorker), devoted the past two years to stepping behind those doors. Can a person think herself to orgasm? Can a dead man get an erection? Is vaginal orgasm a myth? Why doesn’t Viagra help women—or, for that matter, pandas? In Bonk, Roach shows us how and why sexual arousal and orgasm, two of the most complex, delightful, and amazing scientific phenomena on earth, can be so hard to achieve and what science is doing to slowly make the bedroom a more satisfying place.

This is my second experience with Mary Roach’s work (the first being the book she wrote about space, can’t recall the title) and I got exactly what I expected with this book. By that I mean an interesting, sometimes comical, but incredibly well-researched book about a relatively obscure subject … in this case, the science of studying sex and what sex researchers have learned over the years.

Rocah’s style is pretty unique and I think her books lend themselves to a lot of different kinds of readers. You definitely have to be okay with nonfiction, but at the same time her style is very witty and at times conversational – she brings her own personality to the book at every chance she gets.

In this case, it’s a book about sex, which is a subject of interest for just about every human being I know, making this appeal to a pretty wide audience. What is revealed about the research that has been done over the years into various aspects of sex is extremely interesting and definitely held my attention. It’s funny, for a book about sex, there is nothing arousing in the book whatsoever – it’s completely focused on the science, research aspect of it, which held my attention and definitely gave me some knowledge I didn’t have before!

I listened to the audio of Bonk, which is narrated by Sandra Burr, a voice I didn’t really love. She has this sort of flat, emotionless quality to her voice that you would expect to be quite appropriate for the material she’s reading, but in all truthfulness would cause me to get bored and zone out from time to time. I think I actually would have liked this one in print better, which is a shame because nonfiction usually works really well for me in audio.

Anyway, Bonk is really good! I found it interesting and packed full of facts about sex I never thought to explore or even think about!