Wednesday, April 30, 2014

A Place at the Table - Book Review

From the cover :

Three outcasts longing for home come together at Manhattan’s Café Andres, a chic gathering place for New York’s cultural illuminati. 

Alice Stone is famous for the homemade southern cuisine she serves at Café Andres and her groundbreaking cookbook, but her past is a mystery to all who know her. Upon Alice’s retirement, Bobby Banks, a young gay man ostracized by his family in Georgia, sets out to revive the aging café with his new brand of southern cooking while he struggles with heartbreak like he’s never known. Seeking respite from the breakup of her marriage, wealthy divorcée Amelia Brighton finds solace in the company and food at Café Andres, until a family secret comes to light in the pages of Alice’s cookbook and threatens to upend her life. 

In her most accomplished novel yet, Susan Rebecca White braids together the stories of these three unforgettable characters who must learn that when you embrace the thing that makes you different, you become whole.

My thoughts :

The language and superb story-telling in A Place at the Table by Susan Rebecca White immediately drew me into the lives of her rich and very-human characters. I devoured the novel in an evening. This is actually a very appropriate description since the details of the Southern cuisine cooked up by Alice and Bobby literally made my mouth water. 

White tells a moving story of hope and redemption. Her gracious way of telling Bobby's story as a gay man living in New York City during the AIDS scare of the 80's reminds me of Three Junes by Julia Glass. Her prose is at times delicate, at times tactful but always moving the story towards the lovely conclusion. It's a story of unlikely friendships; healing and most amazing food.

Disclosure : A Place at the Table includes a few sex scenes and some language.

A Place at the Table by Susan Rebecca White was published by Touchstone in June 2013. It was released in paperback in March 2014. Also, congratulations to Susan for the birth of her new baby boy and check out her recipe for Winter Squash Soup. It sounds incredible!

**I received a complimentary copy of A Place at the Table in exchange for my honest review. All opinions are my own. No compensation was received.**

Monday, April 28, 2014

Dewey's 24-hour Read-a-thon Aftermath

I signed up to participate in Dewey's 24 hour Read-a-thon as a spur-of-the-moment whim. I've never participated before in the semi-annual event, though I've often followed along and enjoyed the tweets regarding the event. I love the idea of reading for 24 hours straight. I know. I'm a wild girl. However, I'm also a mother of five and a wife and it's not usually in the cards to devote an entire weekend day to books.

This year Utah Dad and Neal were going on an overnight scout camp. I could stay up as late as I wanted reading. Even though the read-a-thon didn't officially begin until 8am Saturday morning, I decided to sign-up and start early.

I began reading just after the other kids settled down for bed on Friday evening, around 7 pm. I started with A Place at the Table by Susan Rebecca White and I finished reading it around midnight. Beautifully written, I'll give it a full review later this week.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn has been sitting on my shelf for months. After all the hype of the book and the coming movie, I've really been wanting to read it. I read until I just could not keep my eyes open for another second. I ended up turning off the light around 3 am.

I woke up right at 8 am Saturday morning to the sound of steady rain on the roof. For a minute, I felt bad for the campers out in the cold and then I started reading. But the kids started getting out of bed around 8:30 so I took a break to get them breakfast. Then I spent some time cleaning the bathrooms. 

I got back to reading and was interrupted by a phone call from my brother. He was going to come over to pick some things up. I decided to take a shower. Then the campers got home with all their wet, stinky, muddy gear and a flat tire. I helped them clean up. I visited with my brother for awhile. I made the kids lunch. I sent the men back out to get a new tire and some new shoes. 

Between the interruptions, I did get some reading in. I went to bed Saturday night at 11pm with 75 pages left to read in Gone Girl. I finished the shocking and fabulous ending Sunday afternoon.

So, while I really didn't get to read for 24 hours straight during the read-a-thon, I did get in more reading than I normally do on a weekend. I finished 2 books (about 722 pages). I will definitely participate in another read-a-thon though next time I might plan to go away for the day. 

Friday, April 25, 2014

The Living Planet Aquarium - Out and About in Utah

Like many of you, (A LOT of you, judging by the lines) we spent one day during Spring Break at 
that recently opened it's new doors in Draper, Utah.

First thing we learned : buy your tickets online. 
You can avoid waiting in the lines. The line wasn't terribly long when we arrived and moved quickly.
However, by the time we finished our visit the line stretched outside the building 
and around to the parking lot.

Second thing we learned : Thomas has a fear of heights.
The Journey to South America exhibit features
a really cool and very safe rope bridge.
Even though there was absolutely no chance of falling, Thomas was not the greatest fan of crossing so high.
I was glad he conquered his fear and participated with his sisters.

Third Thing we Learned : Penguins' poop looks just like bird poop
(penguins are birds, after all).

The kids loved the Penguin Exhibit. We could have stood and watched the penguins waddle on the rocks and swim gracefully through the water for hours. If it hadn't been so crowded, we might have. The design of the exhibit allows the penguins to be observed both above and below the water. It's really very cool and the kids were absolutely fascinated by the penguins who genuinely seemed to enjoy the attention.

Fourth thing we learned : Molly has a longer attention span
 than her siblings.

While the other kids ran from exhibit to exhibit to look at the various fish, jelly fish and other aquatic life, Molly was content to sit and stare at one species for awhile. The other kids were constantly leaving her behind. There was a lot to see at the aquarium and Molly was determined to see it all, at her own pace.

Fifth Thing we Learned : The Living Planet Aquarium is
 not yet complete.

There are many empty tanks bearing a sign letting the visitor know that the animal has not yet moved in.
However, there is already a lot to see and more creatures are moving in all the time and some say it should be finished by early summer.

As a mother, I do not love that to exit the Aquarium you must go through the gift shop. 

Sixth Thing we Learned : We Will Go Back to Visit Soon

Hopefully, we can visit the Living Planet Aquarium again on a day when it is not so crowded. The kids had a great time seeing the sharks, trying to touch the manta rays in the Touch Pool, and laughing at the antics of the penguins. They're anxious to do it again.

We didn't get to fully enjoy the river otters or anything else in The Discover Utah area because of the crowds. We will definitely check that out again.

**This is not a sponsored review. All opinions are my own. No compensation was received.**

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Ruin Falls - Book Review

Liz's husband Paul has planned a family vacation to visit his parents. It's been years since they've seen them and even longer since they've taken a vacation together. During the long road trip, Liz just can't shake the unsettled feeling but she chalks it up to paranoia. However, the next morning she wakes up in her hotel room to find that her two children have disappeared. Liz is shocked, surprised and devastated. Liz will fight for her children. Through twists and turns and dangerous encounters, Liz searches for her missing children with determination and perseverance.

A missing child is a mother's worst nightmare. Liz isn't sure who to trust and who, if anyone, supports her in finding her children. In Ruin Falls, the newest mystery from Jenny Milchman, Liz's fears and heartache speak to every  mother. The novel is well paced and keeps the reader turning the pages. I was intrigued enough to finish the story even though the plot has holes and ended up seeming a bit far fetched.

While Liz was obviously under serious duress, her interactions with people seemed strange. She wasn't communicating well with anyone, even her best friend and the love interest was forced and so sudden that I couldn't fully wrap my head around it.

Overall, I raced through the quick-paced story so I could rest assured that Liz recovered her children. It ended up not being much of a mystery as I was able to figure out much of the plot early on. There are a few minor twists but nothing very shocking and sort of left me flat.

Ruin Falls by Jenny Milchman was published by Ballantine Books on April 22, 2014. 

**I received a complimentary copy of Ruin Falls in exchange for my honest review. All opinions are my own. No other compensation was received.**

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Gemini - Book Review

One night while Dr. Charlotte Reese is working in the intensive care unit, a Jane Doe is transferred to her unit. The victim of an apparent hit-and-run, Jane is unconscious and unidentified. As Charlotte works to get her patient medically stable, she can't help but feel a deeper connection with the woman. Charlotte is plagued by the ethical questions surrounding this deeply ill woman. Who will make the decisions of whether or not Jane lives or dies? Surely someone cares about this woman.

As Charlotte struggles for more time before confronting these questions, her life becomes more entangled with Jane's when Charlotte's boyfriend Eric identifies Jane from an unusual scar on her arm. Together, Charlotte and Eric find themselves on a mission to answer the questions and find solutions for Jane and for their own conflicted relationship.

"A stranger’s life hangs in the balance. What if you had the power to decide if she lives or dies?"

I was drawn into Gemini by Carol Cassella from the first page. Her style and ability to describe situations, settings and characters so they become animate compelled me from page to page in this carefully plotted medical mystery. The medical details are intelligent, well-researched (Cassella is an anesthesiologist) and yet are clear enough for an untrained reader to understand and grasp. Cassella includes small particulars about her characters or shows them participating in moments of life that add to the reality of the situation without becoming mundane or tedious. The characters come alive within her words. Dr. Charlotte Reese, in particular, is a highly capable, brilliant physician who is also very vulnerable in her personal relationships. Her hopes and dreams for the future are in conflict with the love in her heart for another. As a reader it is easy to relate to and sympathize with Charlotte's appealing character.

The story is well paced and engaging. There are glimmers of truth and then unseen plot twists and a fascinating ending. It's a unique story yet wholly believable. There are no real villains though there are people who make bad decisions. There are consequences. There is regret, heartache, forgiveness and healing--all real human themes in a decidedly enjoyable novel.

Gemini by Carol Cassella was published by Simon & Schuster in March 2014.

**I received a complimentary copy of Gemini in exchange for my honest review. All opinions are my own. No compensation was received.**

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Salt Lake City Cemetery - Out and About in Utah

Last week was Spring Break and we decided to stay home and spend our time off doing some of the local fun things. Some of our friends had the same idea. They were sharing about one of their field trips to the Salt Lake Cemetery and we were reminded just how much we enjoyed visiting the cemetery too.

It sounds strange. I know. 
To spend a day in a cemetery with a bunch of kids.

Years ago my grandmother gave me a map of Salt Lake City Cemetery. On the map it shared the locations of the grave sites of prominent leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. At the time, I was serving in a Primary Presidency and in charge of planning Primary activities. We decided to hold our Primary Activity at the cemetery and it was a big hit.

We hadn't been back with our kids in years so Utah Dad and I decided that we would spend our day together finding the grave sites, sharing memories with the kids and spending quality time together.

I was able to find a printable map of the prominent leaders grave sites at Salt Lake City Cemetery at this link :

The map includes all but four of the deceased Latter-day prophets (the others are buried elsewhere), many of the apostles, their wives and other notables such as Porter Rockwell and W.W. Phelps. I especially love to explore in the "pioneer" area.

We were all excited to find Elder Neal A. Maxwell's grave site since Utah Dad regularly (as in every day) quotes his perfect nuggets of wisdom. 

Utah Dad brought along his copy of the 2013 Church Almanac so that he could share little tidbits about the lives of the prophets. We even lucked upon the grave site of Truman Madsen who was our stake president when we got married and interviewed us before our wedding. He shared advice and insights that I will never forget.

We spent several memorable hours traipsing about the cemetery discovering the grave sites and stones for those who have been influential and revered leaders in our church.

It is part of our heritage and we honor them. We believe that because of Jesus Christ, we can all live again, therefore spending time in a cemetery reminds us that death is only temporary and we will all meet again.

Afterward, we went to nearby Memory Grove for a picnic. We couldn't have asked for a more perfect day. It was absolutely stunning and we appreciated the gorgeous "signs of spring" that the kids love to point out. So, you know we couldn't resist taking some more pictures.

The Other Story - Book Review

I really liked Tatiana de Rosnay's first novel Sarah's Key. My book club read it several years ago and I loved the story. It was filled with powerful images and I found it interesting to learn about how the French rounded up Jews during World War II to aid the German Nazis. I found the connections between the Holocaust and the murder of children combined with the present day story line involving the thoughtful decision of whether or not to have an abortion haunting and meaningful. I also enjoyed the movie. While I haven't read some of Tatiana de Rosnay's other novels, I was looking forward to reading The Other Story, her newest.

The plot appealed to me. Nicolas Duhamel a young author finds immediate and amazing success with his debut novel. The novel, titled The Envelope, was loosely based on his own family secret. It appealed to a worldwide crowd and sold millions of copies. He has thousands of adoring fans who follow his every post and tweet. His publisher gave him a huge advance for the his next work. But there is no next work. Nicolas is seized by severe writer's block while he becomes obsessed with his own fame. He takes his girlfriend on vacation to a remote island hoping for inspiration and escape.

While the writing is solid and drew me in, I found myself constantly wanting more. Nicolas is a terribly unlikable character. He is so vain and into himself that it was difficult at times to read about his preening and whining self. He is so selfish that he would rather hide in the restroom with his Blackberry reading sexts (the details of which may make some readers blush) than spend time with his beautiful girlfriend.

The "family secret" that is dangled as a carrot occasionally throughout the novel is delivered so slowly that when I finally got to it, I barely cared.

But here's the thing. While in the middle I described the novel as "horrible" to a friend. It was nothing like Sarah's Key and nothing like what I was expecting. However, The Other Story kept me enraptured and constantly wanting more throughout. In reality, I could hardly put it down and I haven't been able to stop thinking about it since I finished. Nicolas is an unpleasant character so wrapped up in his own desires that he fails to see those taking advantage of him or what might even become his next story. While he has a brief moment of clarity and selflessness at the end, the reader sees the danger of being catapulted to the top. Of being an idol. An icon. Adored. Nicolas stopped caring about those who were close to him and spent his life Googling himself.

When the story is seen less as one of the discovery of family secrets and more as the study of the conceited celebrity, the reader realizes it's power and thoughtfulness. And once again Tatiana de Rosnay delivers a novel that consumes my thoughts, my prejudices and my time.

The Other Story by Tatiana de Rosnay is published by St. Martin's Press on April 15, 2014.

**I received a complimentary copy of The Other Story in exchange for my review. All opinions are my own. No compensation was received.**

Monday, April 14, 2014

Road to Reckoning - Book Review

From the coverOne does not travel the path to vengeance alone

Twelve-year-old Thomas Walker has never left New York City. His father, a traveling salesman hoping to earn money by selling Samuel Colt’s recent invention, the “Improved Revolving Gun,” takes young Thomas with him on the road. But even the world’s first true revolver cannot save them from danger, and what starts as an adventure soon turns into a nightmare.

Thomas soon finds himself alone, and must rely on his own wits, courage, and determination, as well as a wooden replica of the Colt revolver, to protect himself. Luckily, an encounter with a surly ex-ranger, Henry Stands, leads to an improbable partnership, and the two set out in perilous pursuit of vengeance. That is, if they can escape the thieves who lurk around each trail, river, and road—and who have already stolen so much from Thomas.
In the spirit of The Sisters Brothers and True Grit, this spare, elegant, and emotionally resonant story conveys, through a boy’s eyes, a beautiful father-son story, as well as the fascinating history of how the birth of the revolver changed the course of violence in America. Road to Reckoning offers a window into the history of the American West and the heart of a boy yearning for love.

My thoughts :

Road to Reckoning by Robert Lautner is a fine novel. Thomas is a young and likable main character. He is thoughtful and plucky and has a desire to live in spite of being very much alone and very frightened. It's easy to root for him as he journeys home and away from the dangers that met him on the trail.

I especially appreciated Lautner's use of language. It's beautiful while also being sparse and brief. He can describe the rocky hillside, or Thomas's fear, or the very men that strike terror in the young boy's heart so that the reader can see and feel and imagine but with just the right amount of words. Brevity is a remarkable gift and Lautner possesses it.

The story is well paced and full of danger and suspense. I was compelled to continue turning the pages and see Thomas through his adventure to the safety of home.

The problem is that at times the novel doesn't feel truly authentic. Perhaps I was thrown off by the cover's announcement that the novel is "a window into this history of the American West..." In one sense, this is accurate. The Colt Revolver definitely had a major influence on the American West. However, this novel takes place primarily in New York and Pennsylvania. Even in 1837 this area wasn't considered the American West. It wasn't even the frontier at this period of time.

If you can get past that and the occasional anti-gun preaching, Road to Reckoning by Robert Lautner is a quick and exciting adventure of survival.

Road to Reckoning by Robert Lautner was published by Touchstone in February 2014.

**I received a complimentary copy of Road to Reckoning in exchange for my honest review. All opinions are my own. No other compensation was received.**

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry - Book Review

A book for book lovers.

Halfway through the novel, I turned to my husband with a sigh. "I want to own a bookstore in New England." And he knew exactly what I meant. Because in our early marriage while we were living in New Hampshire we often explored the possibilities of someday owning a bookstore. We had fallen in love with a bookstore in Center Harbor, NH near the lakes where we loved to explore on our then child-free Saturdays. We spent money we didn't have on thick hardback books that caught our attention and imagination and still grace our shelves. We visited with the friendly owner who shared beloved books and we even learned of her political leanings (it was in the middle of the 2000 NH Primaries, after all). Then our first baby was born; we moved back to Utah to be near family and found sensible employment. Yet, the dream has never really left.

A.J. Fikry and his wife Nicole had a similar dream. Alice Island where she grew up didn't have a bookstore, so they abandon their frustrating dissertations to build their own bookstore on the island where they can fully appreciate their love of literature.

The dream has turned into a nightmare for A.J. Fikry. His wife was killed in a tragic car accident and he is left alone to run the bookstore--alone. Sales are down and his only possession of value, a collection of Edgar Allen Poe's poetry is stolen. His cranky personality nearly scares off everyone except the cop that responds to the burglary and his sister-in-law. Then, a mysterious delivery left in his store with just a brief note gives him the will to live and to love again.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin is an emotional and cathartic journey of love for literature. A.J. Fikry is an unforgettable character. He's lovable and witty even when he's being surly and sarcastic. It is enjoyable to watch his transformation as he falls in love. His life is also populated with a cast of eccentric and amusing characters who become so familiar, it's hard to believe I haven't actually attended a book club meeting with the other moms at Island Books.

A.J. Fikry may be the book seller by profession, but author Gabrielle Zevin knows how to sell a book. Her words become love letters to various works of literature, inspiring her readers to get lost in their words once again. However, story remains key to this novel. The story of A.J. Fikry is unforgettable. For the first time in a long time, I could not put this book down. I read the majority of the novel in a single day and only saved the ending for the morning because I knew I couldn't handle the emotions that would engulf me at it's conclusion.

With The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry Gabrielle Zevin has sung the ultimate love song to beloved books while weaving her own poignant story with her own unforgettable characters.

Surely, I'll see you at Island Books this summer.

Disclosure : there are a number of f-words scattered throughout the novel and an odd misplaced mention of Mormons on the last page.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin is published by Algonquin Books in April 2014. It is the She Reads book choice for April. You can read reviews from the other members of She Reads *here*.

**I received a complimentary copy of The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry in exchange for my honest review. All opinions are my own. No compensation was received.**

Thursday, April 3, 2014

No Book But the World - Book Review

A young boy is found dead in the woods near his home and Fred Robbins has been arrested for the crime. When his sister Ava learns of Fred's arrest, she quickly plans a trip to the small town where he is being held. In shock, she wonders how Fred even got from Cape Cod, where he was supposed to be working for and living with an old family friend, to this small town in the north where he is being accused of murder. Fred has always been "different" but his free-thinking parents allowed him a blissful childhood, exploring in the woods near the now-closed alternative school where the family lived.

As Ava reminisces about their past and seeks to help Fred, a window is opened into their seemingly idealized childhood and the early clues that may help in Fred's defense but ultimately help Ava understand her role as sister and improve her own relationships with her husband and family.

While my siblings and I did attend school, as I read No Book But the World by Leah Hager Cohen I couldn't help remembering our childhood days running somewhat-wild on our farm and the stretching "woods" across the street. In the overgrown willows and cottonwoods that grew along the canal, we built tree houses and huts and swung on the "Tarzan swing", returning home only when we heard the ringing of the cow bell that hung by the back door of our house.

In her novel Cohen's beautiful words capture the freedom and joy of childhood while reminding  us that as adults we reflect our  upbringings for good and bad. Our childhoods are an essential part of our story. Cohen examines how our familial ties effect our lives and how much responsibility we have for our siblings and their choices.

The characters and setting are so believable, the novel read like a memoir. Surely, Batter Hollow and the defunct school campus really exists. Ava is unlike most protagonists with her quiet, unassuming ways. Even though she would have shrunk from the attempt, I wanted to give her a hug. While it is at it's heart, a tragedy, the novel had moments of beauty and hope.

I thoroughly enjoyed No Book But the World. Cohen, at once, weaves a tender and haunting story while making the reader think about relationships and responsibilities.

No Book But the World by Leah Hager Cohen is published by Riverhead Books and released on April 3, 2014.

**I received a complimentary copy of No Book But the World in exchange for my honest review. My opinions are my own. No additional compensation was received.**