A lookery at Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s “We Never Asked for Wings”

We Never Asked for Wings

We Never Asked for Wings

Vanessa Diffenbaugh

Ballantine Books

August 18, 2015

320 pages

$27.00

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From Vanessa Diffenbaugh, the best-selling author of The Language of Flowers comes a new novel, We Never Asked for Wings. It is a marvelous story in which Diffenbaugh takes on the challenges of today’s society. While weaving an absorbing tale of a family at risk, the author grapples with parenthood as well as the multi-generational connection between children, their parents and grandparents. She explores various styles of family units, young love and young love revisited, complicated adult relationships, the struggles of undocumented immigrants and the daily fight for a better future.

As the story opens, Letty is in a panic. Her mother has followed Letty’s father to the family home in Mexico. Letty has no idea how to care for her own children, Alex, nearly fifteen, and Luna, six. Grandmother Maria Elena raised the children while Letty held down several jobs to support the entire family. She is desperate for help.

So what choice does Letty have but to sneak out after the kids are asleep in their San Francisco Bay area apartment in the neglected Bayshore wetlands and drive to her father’s home deep in Mexico?

Alex awakens to find his mother and grandmother gone and determines that he and Luna should be okay on their own for a week until the women return. But the week stretches on, and it is getting harder for Alex to manage headstrong Luna and feed the both of them. He is much more interested in his blossoming relationship with his pretty neighbor Yesenia than playing babysitter. The young teen also has questions about his absent father.

When Letty returns home without her mother, she takes bold steps to improve her family’s position and future. Alex also takes a chance on bettering life for Yesenia. Trouble brews for the teens, and it is at this point that the support of family and friends becomes essential.

We Never Asked for Wings by Vanessa Diffenbaugh is an extraordinary novel of relationships, love, hope and personal discovery. It is poignant, delving deep into the hearts, souls and minds of each of the individuals in the story. The author guides her characters with grace through their struggles, creating a realistic and strong story line that is believable and touches the reader. We Never Asked for Wings is destined for best-seller lists everywhere (and if you haven’t already done so, read her novel The Language of Flowers for further proof of Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s talent as a writer and storyteller).

Thank you to NetGalley and Ballantine Books for an advance copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.

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A lookery at “My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry” by Fredrik Backman

my-grandmother-asked-me-to-tell-you-shes-sorry-9781501115066_lg

My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrick Backman

Atria Books

June 16, 2015

384 pages

$25.00

Precocious seven-year-old Elsa, and her seventy-seven year old Granny, who is quite possibly bonkers, are inseparable. Elsa is very different from other children her age, but Granny says that it’s okay to be unique. Granny is a retired surgeon, Elsa’s greatest champion and a superhero with a wicked sense of the absurd. The pair have their own secret language, which Granny uses to entertain Elsa with fairy tales about the Land of Almost-Awake and the Kingdom of Miamas.

Elsa and Granny live in a large house with several flats. Among the residents of these apartments are oddball characters with quirky personalities such as a rigid rule enforcer, a taxi driver, a drunkard, a woman who bakes dream cookies, a boy with a syndrome, and perhaps most frightening of all, The Monster and Our Friend the Wurse. Granny delights in teasing some of their neighbors while giving preferential treatment to others.

But when Granny dies, she sends Elsa on a hunt through each of the lands, delivering letters apologizing for her ways. It is the adventure of a lifetime, and one full of peril and danger to Elsa. Still, Granny has provided protection for Elsa as she goes about her journey. With each letter, Elsa meets the natives of each of the seven lands in the fairy tales, and learns more about herself, her mother and others in her real life. The journey transforms not only Elsa, but reveals much about her grandmother’s secret life as a superhero.

My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by Swedish writer Fredrik Backman, author of the best-selling novel A Man Called Ove, is both humorous and heartbreaking. The characters are intricately drawn, the plot is engaging and moves at a rapid pace as Elsa makes good on Granny’s last wishes. Beautifully translated and impeccably developed, the charming novel My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry is not to be left on the shelf unread.

With thanks to NetGalley and Atria Books for a preview copy of the novel, in exchange for an honest review. 

A lookery at “Inside the O’Briens” by Lisa Genova

Inside the O'Briens

Inside the O’Briens by Lisa Genova

Gallery Books

April 7, 2015

352 pages

$26.00

A preview copy of this novel was provided by NetGalley and Gallery Books in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.

Prepare yourself for an emotional wild ride when reading Lisa Genova’s novel about a family coping with the devastating affects of Huntington’s Disease in Inside the O’Briens.

Joe O’Brien is an officer on the Boston PD, a third generation Irish “Townie” of the Charlestown neighborhood in Boston, and a die-hard Boston Red Sox fan. Fearing that he will end up like his mother Ruth, who was rumored to have driven herself to drink and the nuthouse, and who died when Joe was only twelve years old, Joe never allows himself more than two beers. Except, of course, on St. Patrick’s Day.

Joe and his wife Rosie have four children in their twenties. All of the children live in the family home — a “triple decker” — with three separate units. Katie and Meghan occupy the top floor as roommates, JJ and his wife Colleen live in the middle, and Patrick still has a room in his parents’ home on the first floor. The close-knit Catholic family gathers in Joe and Rosie’s kitchen each week for Sunday night dinners.

As a police officer, Joe is always “on”; aware of his surroundings, activity in the home and Charlestown, and always in control of his emotions. Very slowly, Joe seems to be losing some of that control. He begins to misplace items, including his service firearm, finds it difficult to write reports at work, becomes confused and clumsy, and experiences involuntary body movements that he doesn’t notice. He begins to make mistakes at work, and loses his temper at home.

Finally, he agrees to see a doctor about his symptoms, and is referred to a specialist in movement disorders. Joe’s diagnosis is devastating. Joe O’Brien has Huntington’s Disease. Inherited from a parent, Huntington’s Disease is a rare illness that usually starts in the prime of life, slowly killing a person by their mid-fifties. The worst news — each of Joe and Rosie’s children have a fifty percent chance of already having the disease.

Genova’s novel delves into each of the family members’ reactions to the diagnosis of their father, and their individual struggles whether or not to be tested for the presence of the disease in themselves.

JJ is a firefighter and his wife is expecting their first baby. Is he affected, and if so, what about his unborn child? Patrick is a bartender, and still trying to find his way in life. A positive diagnosis for Meghan, a dancer with the Boston Ballet, could end her dream career, and yoga instructor Katie has just fallen in love.

Even the most hardened of readers will have a difficult time not tearing up or outright sobbing at the challenges and decisions the family members face. Genova’s ability to evoke such strong emotions in her readers is masterful. Inside the O’Briens not only tells the story of a family, but deftly and simply educates the reader about Huntington’s Disease. Lisa Genova’s novel is a fantastic book and is exceptional on all levels. She has definitely hit a grand slam with this book.

A Lookery at: Laura Moriarty’s “The Chaperone”

The Chaperone

Laura Moriarty

Penguin Books (2012)

$26.95

The Chaperone, written by Laura Moriarty, is billed by many sources as one of this summer’s “must-reads”. This title was high on my reading list, so when it was featured as a Kindle Daily Deal at a fraction of the price of a hardback, I snatched it up and downloaded it immediately.

Setting off on an adventure of a lifetime, Cora Carlisle agrees to chaperone teenager Louise Brooks on a six week visit to New York City, where Louise intends to study dance with the famed Denishawn Dance Company. Thirty-six-year-old Cora is a well-regarded woman in her hometown of Wichita, Kansas. She is married, the mother of twin boys bound for college in the fall.

Louise Brooks is fifteen, beautiful, arrogant and sexually precocious, and is anxious to leave the cultural confines of the Midwest. Louise sees no need for a chaperone, and defies convention from the moment she and Cora step foot in the Wichita train station. Her seductive nature and actions become even more pronounced as the women travel further east.

Cora has her own secrets and motives for visiting New York in the summer of 1922, known only to her husband. She explores both the vibrant city and her past – hidden from the conservative citizens of Kansas – while Louise practices with the dance company. But while Cora tries to keep Louise’s wild and artistic personality in check fearing that the young girl might sully her reputation, Cora’s eyes are opened to new possibilities for leading a more liberating life when she returns home.

After training for several weeks, Louise earns a spot in the Denishawn Dance Company before eventually heading to Hollywood. There she becomes a film star known for her beauty, her modern bobbed hair and her sex appeal.

Although it is Louise who moves on to great fame as a screen actress, it is Cora’s life that the reader explores in greater depth. Firm beliefs about hemlines, hairstyles, birth control (believe it or not, a well-known household disinfectant advertised itself as a prophylactic in the twenties), and racism are all tested while in NYC. Before returning to the Midwest, Cora makes a life-changing decision. She alters her outlook on the myriad of cultural possibilities taking place in American society. Louise is a flash-in-the-pan success in the film industry, while Cora seizes new opportunities. A respected woman in Wichita, Cora works to influence her community to embrace the progressive transformations emerging in more metropolitan areas such as New York and Los Angeles.

Laura Moriarty has meticulously researched the material used in her novel The Chaperone. A bibliography illustrates how the author incorporates the tiniest of details into the fictional life of Cora, while staying true to the story of real-life film actress Louise Brooks. But rather than create a biography of Louise and her crash and burn career, Professor Moriarty shows how an average woman in the guise of Cora Carlisle – a mere chaperone – can change her life and that of others by an experience which exposes her to a life she might have never known as a privileged homemaker in America’s breadbasket.

An interesting look at the changes in society during the 20th century (particularly those concerning women), The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty has earned four eyes from thebooklookery. The bohemian life led by Louise seems more believable than the duplicitous life that Cora creates after her visit to the Big Apple, however; the overview of women’s history during the 20th century is excellent.

A Lookery at: “Saving CeeCee Honeycutt” by Beth Hoffman

Saving CeeCee Honeycutt

Beth Hoffman

Pamela Dorman Books, publisher (2010)

$25.95

This month’s selection for the book club I belong to is Beth Hoffman’s first novel, Saving CeeCee Honeycutt. Some of what we discussed about the book will be shared today, but bear in mind that personal information about my fellow readers will not be given. Also, any ratings are mine, and not necessarily those of the club members. In order to put the review into the right context, it is beneficial to know that the book club is made up of women of a “certain age”. Most of us did not know each other prior to forming the group about a year ago, and new readers are joining each month. This tiny glimpse into the composition of the club serves as a reference point for some of the thoughts shared about Saving CeeCee Honeycutt.

Cecelia Rose Honeycutt (CeeCee) is a young preteen who has lived all of her life in a small Ohio town. Her story takes place during the 1960s. Although CeeCee has some magical memories of her mother from her very young childhood, as CeeCee matures, she realizes that her mother, Camille, is not “normal”. By the time she is twelve, Cecelia recognizes that there is something wrong with her mother’s mental health, and that other people can see this as well.

Camille Sugarbaker Honeycutt is a transplanted Southern belle, whose greatest claim to fame was winning the title of Vidalia Onion Queen of 1951. Although watching beauty pageants is a guilty pleasure for millions, in some parts of the country, a woman’s entire identity often becomes determined by her success at achieving a beauty queen title. Mrs. Honeycutt finds it odd that “Yankees” do not place much importance on such achievements.

In fact, Camille feels that the Yankees of Ohio are cold people who live in cold weather, and feels terribly out of place away from her friends and family in Savannah, Georgia. Even when Camille is still somewhat sane, she is a free spirit in a land of conservative residents.

As her illness progresses, she spends more and more time and money purchasing used prom dresses (with dyed to match shoes, if possible) from Goodwill, and parades around town in her pageantry finery. In turn, her husband Carl, spends less and less time at home as a travelling salesman. It falls to young CeeCee to take on the role of parent to Camille, keeping her safe and bringing her home when she creates scenes in town. In time, CeeCee begins to resent her mother, and when tragedy occurs, harbors great guilt and remorse for her feelings.

Soon afterwards, Cecelia’s Aunt Tootie arrives from Savannah to take the young girl back to her mother’s hometown. CeeCee meets Tootie’s friends and relatives, and is drawn into a world dominated by unique, strong women characters. She is cared for by Tootie and her housekeeper, Olette.

Several of Tootie’s eccentric friends and family members show up to meet CeeCee, and introduce her to the warm and hospitable society of the South. Men are incidental to the story, and tend to be relatively weak characters.

Some of the points brought up by club members included a discussion about Cecelia being raised in a highly dysfunctional environment. Also, race relations are an important part of the story. Some incidents are fairly difficult to believe looking at the 1960s from the perspective of the 21st century. It was also mentioned that there are aspects of the movie Steel Magnolias and Kathryn Stockett’s novel, The Help in the book. Saving CeeCee Honeycutt by Beth Hoffman is described by some readers as “sugar coated” or too saccharin. However, most members felt that was part of the charm of the book. Hoffman’s novel is definitely a feel good tale, in spite of the terrible life that CeeCee experienced in Ohio.

thebooklookery’s rating for Saving CeeCee Honeycutt is four eyes, for the depiction of family life with untreated mentally ill members, and yes, also because it is a “feel good” novel. thebooklookery looks forward to future novels by author Beth Hoffman.

A Lookery at: “The Book of Lost Fragrances” by M. J. Rose

The Book of Lost Fragrances        

M.J. Rose

Atria Books (2012)

$24.00

Founded before the French Revolution by the family of the same name, The House of L’Etoile is an exclusive perfumery. L’Etoile has developed some of the world’s most famous and beloved scents for centuries. But now, the future of the company is threatened because of the mental deterioration of its current director, Louis L’Etoile. It is up to Louis’ children, daughter Jac and son Robbie, to sort through the mess left in the company office by their father.

Jac is convinced that the only way to save the company is to sell off the formulas and rights to two of The House of L’Etoile’s signature scents. Robbie feels the business has a future if the storied and elusive family treasure – Cleopatra’s “Book of Fragrances” – can be recovered. Central to this ancient document is a formula for a fragrance that can induce memories of past lives using exotic ingredients that may be extinct. Neither sibling has ever seen the mysterious book, but in his Alzheimer’s confusion, Louis has torn apart his workshop looking for it.

Jac, who has the most highly developed “nose” in the family, has rejected the perfume industry in favor of becoming a mythologist. She studies and researches the origins of myths and presents her findings on her American television program and in books she’s authored. For much of her life she has experienced psychotic episodes. Most of these visions reveal stories of Egypt and France’s pasts. Several specialists have tried to treat her for schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses. Jac finally consults with psychologist Dr. Malachai Samuels, who believes in the possibility of discovering past lives through hallucinations like Jac’s. Malachai teaches Jac to analyze her trances and eventually, her episodes decrease.

Robbie lacks Jac’s gift of a finely developed nose for fragrances, but is still talented enough as a perfumer to develop niche scents for The House of L’Etoile. He is dedicated to saving the business without compromising it in any way. Robbie is also a follower of the Dalai Lama and is a believer in reincarnation. He discovers pieces of an ancient Egyptian fragrance pot amongst his father’s possessions that he feels may have contained Cleopatra’s famous “Fragrance of Lost Memories”. Jac’s brother is determined to analyze the remnants of the pot’s contents and the symbols on it to prove that such a scent existed, thereby making it possible for The House of L’Etoile to recreate the perfume, thus rescuing the business.

The search for the Egyptian document wanders through the epochs of Cleopatra’s reign, pre-revolutionary France, modern Tibet and the People’s Republic of China, and even the centuries-old underground tunnels beneath Paris.  M. J. Rose’s The Book of Lost Fragrances explores the possibilities of reincarnation and the effect of scent on memories and emotions. In scenes set throughout history and the world, myths, legends, politics, belief systems and of course, the perfume industry are explored within this novel of suspense. A very intriguing read, The Book of Lost Fragrances rates three eyes from thebooklookery.

A Lookery at: “Day After Night” by Anita Diamant

Day After Night

By Anita Diamant

Scribner Paperback Edition 2010

$15.00

You will find, dearreader, that I am particularly interested in both fiction and non-fiction about WWll. Not the battles or military side of it, but the social and psychological aspects of the era and the war, both here and abroad. Oftentimes, these books can be somewhat depressing. Today’s novel, Day After Night by Anita Diamant, based on historical facts and events that occurred in Palestine after the end of the war, is somewhat different from most WWll themed books that I have read.

To put the story and events into historical context for thereader, a brief history lesson is in order. Israel did not become a nation until 1948. From 1922 until then, Palestine (as the area was called), was under the administrative jurisdiction of Great Britain. Initially, Britain supported an independent Jewish nation. However, by 1939, the government of the UK reneged on its previous mandate allowing the immigration of Jews into Palestine. Only 10,000 people of Jewish heritage were allowed to immigrate to Palestine each year from 1939 to 1944. After that, legal immigration to Palestine for Jews was down to a mere trickle. WWll lasted from 1939 until 1945. Moving from Europe to Palestine could have saved millions of Jewish lives.

After the war was over, many of the remaining European and Middle Eastern Jews were homeless, or had no desire to live in countries that had turned their backs on them. In decrepit, dilapidated boats, and by some overland routes, Jews began arriving in Palestine with the help of the Haganah resistance movement. Most of them were “illegal” immigrants, without permission to settle in the country. These “illegals” were herded into detention centers by the British and languished there until decisions about their individual settlement rights were made.

Day After Night takes place in the Atlit detention center near Haifa between August and October 1945.  The four main characters are all Jewish women who have survived the war in Europe. Shayndel is a Polish Zionist who spent most of the war fighting Nazis along with the partisans in Poland’s forests. Tedi, the tall, blonde Dutch woman is the only survivor of her entire family. A French beauty, Leonie spent the war enduring her own indignities and horrors. The only concentration camp survivor is Zorah, an angry, bitter Polish woman who refuses to forget her wartime experiences. In the camp, “there was an unwritten rule… against asking survivors about their experiences” (p. 112). Although the reader learns each woman’s backstory, very rarely do the detainees share their stories with others.

The wartime encounters of each character are revealed in the novel, but not dwelled upon. The primary story is about life in Atlit – the arrival of new immigrants, the boredom, the anxiety, the waiting are all detailed. Palestine is so entirely different from Europe, that many find simple things, such as a cucumber and tomato salad for breakfast, the heat, real cigarettes and learning Hebrew to be amazing as well as confusing.

All of the women and camp residents are anxious to be released. Starting a new life free of barbed wire and foreign administrators is of paramount importance. Atlit is no picnic and is still confinement for each person. There is significant distrust among the detainees. Secrets abound. Spying becomes critical to the Jewish wish for freedom. Tedi, Leonie, Zorah, Shayndel and many others are possessed by the desire to break free of camp life.

While the women portrayed by the author are fictional, organizations, events and the incredible resolution of the story are not. Anita Diamant’s Day After Night is not your typical story of the Holocaust. It is a story about hope, new beginnings and the will to build the new, independent, Jewish nation of Israel. It is a very enlightening look into what life was like for the survivors of Hitler’s insane vision who arrive in Palestine. All the more so because the story is based on fact.

Another 3+ eye rating for a relatively unknown look into post WWll history.

A Lookery at: “Girl in Translation” by Jean Kwok

Girl in Translation

Jean Kwok

Riverhead Books (2010)

$25.95

It has been a long time since a novel has captivated me so completely that I have read it in one day. Jean Kwok’s Girl in Translation did just that. Author Kwok’s debut novel draws on her own experiences to bring thereader the story of ah-Kim Chang and her mother, Ma.

ah-Kim and Ma are emigrants from Hong Kong who come to New York, desperate to leave Hong Kong before it reverts to Chinese rule in 1997. Sponsored by Ma’s sister Aunt Paula and brother-in-law Uncle Bob, mother and daughter begin their new life in a miniscule and squalid condemned apartment in a Brooklyn slum. Ma is employed at Uncle Bob’s piece-work sweatshop in Chinatown’s garment district, finishing clothing for one and a half cents per skirt. At the same time, Aunt Paula unwittingly provides ah-Kim with her first step toward a better future by giving her a false address that allows her to attend a better public school than the one nearest her home.

It is soon obvious that Kimberly (her new American name) is going to struggle academically in the US in spite of her scholastic success back home in Hong Kong. Likewise, Ma has an impossible quota to fill each day at the clothing factory. Kimberly must join her mother on the job after school every afternoon so that Ma can make her daily allotment of finished skirts.

Aunt Paula and Uncle Bob effectively become the jailers of their relatives and the other workers by paying them for each item shipped rather than a regular minimum hourly wage. In addition, each payday Uncle Bob deducts from Ma’s income, cash to cover her debt to him for medical treatment in Hong Kong, the plane tickets to America, the visas (plus interest on the debt) and utilities for their apartment. Not much cash is left over for food, rent and clothing.

There are others who treat Ma and Kim with kindness. And, once Kim’s talent at school is noticed, both she and her mother realize that Kimberly’s academic aptitude is the key to improving their lives. There will be no help coming from their own relatives.

The struggles of balancing school, work, finances and social situations become staggering for the two women. Both Kim and Ma are forced to make decisions along the way that will have an immense impact on their future together.

The challenges the Changs are faced with and the consequences of their decisions — particularly Kim’s — will have to be explored by you, dearreader. Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok is an excellent novel, great for personal enjoyment or even a book club selection. Easily a 4+ eye rating.

An Updated Lookery at: “Spring Fever” by Mary Kay Andrews

dearreader,

Please take a lookery at my previous post “A Lookery at: ‘Spring Fever’ by Mary Kay Andrews to listen to an audio clip from the audiobook edition of the novel. You can also link to it here:

http://media.us.macmillan.com/video/olmk/macmillanaudio/springfeverch1.mp3

Many thanks to MacMillan Publishing for providing thebooklookery with this bonus!

Enjoy!

A Lookery at: “Spring Fever” by Mary Kay Andrews

An Audio Clip from “Spring Fever” by Mary Kay Andrews

Spring Fever

Mary Kay Andrews

St. Martin’s Press (2012)

$25.99

In Mary Kay Andrews’ latest “escapist novel”, Spring Fever, Annajane Hudgens is about to say good-bye to the only life she’s known in the quaint lakeside town of Passcoe, North Carolina and move on to a better future in Atlanta. She’s sold her loft, quit her job at the Quixie soda pop company, and is engaged to bluegrass musician, Shane. Proving that she is over her short-lived marriage to Mason Bayless, Annajane attends his wedding to the perfect-in-every-way Celia shortly before leaving town.

But the wedding doesn’t go off quite as planned, and Annajane finds herself and Mason Bayless coping with a family crisis instead. For years following their acrimonious break-up and divorce, Annajane and Mason continued to work together at the Bayless family’s specialty cherry soda soft drink corporation, the largest employer in the small town of Passcoe. They have managed to keep their working relationship professional even after the arrival of wunderkind Celia. Now, the formerly married couple are trying to manage a situation that Celia’s stellar business skills cannot control.

Annajane’s departure date arrives sooner than expected. She packs in a hurry and leaves her hometown for her fiance’ Shane, and the big city of Atlanta.

What follows is a fairly predictable “girl meets boy; girl loses boy; does girl want boy back?” story, set against a backdrop of corporate and familial backstabbing, deceit, betrayals, and eventually, an outpouring of closely held secrets. Much of the plot is easy to foresee; however, there are enough twists and turns at the end to forgive the novel’s somewhat unexceptional plotline.

Definitely not highbrow literature, Spring Fever is a fluffy, fun summer frolic that is easy-to-read and entertaining. It has an element of romance to it, but enough intrigue to keep the book from becoming overly sappy. Mary Kay Andrews has served up a novel as refreshing and as bubbly as an ice-cold bottle of Quixie cherry soda, and for that, I give it a rating of 3+ eyes.