Mind of Winter by Laura Kasischke (1 out of 5)

•April 14, 2014 • Leave a Comment

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This was nowhere near what I thought it was going to be. I had read The Raising by the author, and loved that book. This did not endear itself to me at all, sadly. It’s billed as a psychological thriller, I would have to call it more of a patience tester. The cover will scare the crap out of you if you pull it off the bookshelf and aren’t expecting the cover. It’s creepy. It’s effective in making you pick up the book and read it. It’s about where the thrill ended for me, sadly. 

Holly Lodge (what a name) wakes up on Christmas morning, with this creepy chill crawling its way through her bones. She mentally relives some weird shit that’s gone down quite recently, and comes to the conclusion that something has followed her back from Russia, where her adopted daughter Tatty (Tatty? As in Ratty Tatty? Short for Tatiana, but again, the nickname is odd.) is from. Holly’s hungover from rum and eggnog the prior evening, but she gets up, because hey, it’s Christmas morning! Her and Tatiana end up being stranded in the house because quite the blizzard is raging outside, and no one in their right mind is out and about. As the day and the novel progress, Holly revisits the time and circumstances leading up to Tatiana’s adoption, and now that they’ve returned, something- something- something is with them. (continuous usage of that phrase in the book gets real tiring, real fast). There is real palpable fear in the book as you read it, but underneath that feeling of inevitable menace, is the slight annoyance of repetition in the sentences and dialogue coming from Holly. Not only does the story constantly change, but you feel like you never know the full story. Perhaps that’s the intent as a plot device, but it’s only intent is to drive this reader nuts, and in that, the author succeeds. Tatiana’s character is developed, but you feel as if her true nature is overshadowed by the fear that is emanating from Holly every other sentence. What’s going on in this house? What evil entity is there? Is it lying within Tatiana; is she the vessel? Holly is suddenly viewing her beloved daughter with steampunk goggles, and it’s unclear why. It’s hard to sympathize with Holly at all; you kind of want to shake her and tell her if she’s that fucking scared, well, leave. Or call someone. Instead she continues to argue with her inner dialogues and the tension builds to the absolutely stunning end. In fact, the end completely threw me. Didn’t see it coming at all, but I almost welcome how it ended, because it saved the book from being a zero star for me. Not sure others may agree with my assessment, but hey, it’s my blog, and I’ll review how I want to. 

A book like this? Parents are full of unconditional love for their children; adopted or not. This book? Not so. Holly makes you feel like her daughter is a hindrance, an evil person, someone who is out to cause harm. I read enough of that before deciding in my own mind that anyone who can view their kid like that instead of being concerned for their well being, has no chance of redemption in my hall of characters read. I did not like the character of Holly at all, and I believe that ruined a lot of the novel for me. Tatiana was hard to get a grip on, character-wise, because you feel as if Holly’s thoughts have already ruined whatever opinion the reader may have of her. She’s more of a shadowy menace, without the actual menace. (Phantom Menace? Eek).Tatiana comes off as a bitchy child, rude to her mother- hello, people, she’s 15 years old in a new country–what do you expect??  The husband is barely a blip on the screen. There was a lot of inconsistency in the writing. No flow to the words. A lot of clunk. Ultimately, a lot of junk. I would advise to avoid. 

Jennifer’s Way by Jennifer Esposito (5 out of 5)

•April 13, 2014 • Leave a Comment

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It seems like every year I read another amazing book about the evils of gluten. Last year it was Gluten Is My Bitch by April Peveteaux. This year it’s Jennifer Esposito’s book Jennifer’s Way: My Journey With Celiac Disease. I knew Jennifer’s work from her time on Spin City, one of my former favorite TV shows. I hadn’t heard from her much since, and this book chronicles her attempts at acting on a normal basis while going through internal hell with her body.

Jennifer grew up in an Italian family, and you know that means food is a way of life. She describes eating her way through everything ever put in front of her. Then she describes a litany of ailments, mysterious joint pains, unexplained rashes, panic attacks, thousands of prescriptions written for her by doctors over a period of over ten years, chest pain, headaches- I mean, you name it, this poor girl has had it. She continues to try to find a doctor who will help her and diagnose her. The thousands of prescriptions written for her by these doctors trying to figure out what the fuck is wrong with her. I mean, I was in tears reading what this poor girl went through. (And it also echoes what several of my good friends have gone through with doctors and mystery ailments through the years). There are a number of stories here that border on nightmarish. The doctor’s lackadaisical attitudes toward what Jennifer describes as unbearable pain and related ailments and symptoms, will make you retch. The story about Jennifer and her father trying to get in to see her primary when she has mysterious joint pain after being gluten free for a month, and she ends up being locked up in a psych ward instead? Unbelievable. And very, very scary.

Jennifer eventually does get her diagnosis of full-blown celiac disease, and the doctor tells her it’s one of the worst cases they have seen. What follows is her journey of diagnosis, having to completely re-adjust her lifelong eating habits, and how despite being gluten-free, her many years of undiagnosed celiac disease has done its damage on her body. Her struggle to completely cut gluten out of her life, her frustrations at people having no idea what celiac disease (the nurse who has worked in healthcare over twenty years and has no idea what celiac disease is!) is or just making comments about it without recourse. The prescription carousel they have her on is head spinning, to say the least. I can’t tell you how speechless I was reading this book. And alternately horrified.

Celiac disease is a real thing. It’s an autoimmune disease that unfortunately more times than not, opens the door to other illnesses. Jennifer painstakingly takes the time to point out all of the pitfalls, how to spot hidden gluten ingredients, how eating out is a secret danger if the restaurant does not use a separate cooking space for the gluten-free diner, the medications, the indifference much of the healthcare profession has for it, how hard it is to accept that people have little or no concern for those who need to be gluten-free, as well as the numerous resources that there are out there for those who are new to this way of living.

Throughout Jennifer’s ordeal, you get a very real idea of how celiac disease can unravel your life. Jennifer finally gets ahold of the reins, and starts to slowly get a foothold on this. She also feels powerless to help those who are afflicted and like her, can’t seem to get a diagnosis, a decent doctor who will test for celiac (the number of doctors who do not test for it? Frightening), or answers. She finally decides to take a huge life risk and open a gluten-free bakery. With the help of  her boyfriend Louis, she learns just how hard that undertaking is, but yes, she does it. And discovers that she has another niche in this life, next to acting. Jennifer’s story is scary, eye-opening, and inspiring. You learn a hell of a lot. I learned a hell of a lot, and I’ve been gluten-free for a little over a year now. There were things in this book that I never realized (gluten in ibuprofen? Bye, bye ibuprofen), and things in this book that made me more determined to not slip up, no matter how tempting those bread baskets are. So I am grateful that Jennifer has come out of the darkness that was gluten, and found a new purpose in her struggle. I’m also grateful that she wrote this book to let people, who are in similar situations to hers, know that there is an answer and sometimes although it often takes a long ass while, you will find yours. There is an alarming ring of reality throughout the book. I’m glad she writes about the unpleasantness of trying to go out and live a normal life when you have this disease. And ultimately, despite the indifference of many healthcare professionals, celiac disease is a disease and a very serious one. If you suspect it, get into your doctor and get tested. Go online and research the three tests, and insist your doctor test you. If they resist, tell them to suck it and find a different doctor who will. It’s serious as hell and nothing to mess around with. Jennifer’s aim to bring awareness to this is precisely the sort of book that needs to get out there and be noticed, and maybe some more lives will be saved.  I cannot recommend this book enough.

Woke Up Lonely by Fiona Maazel (2 out of 5)

•April 10, 2014 • Leave a Comment

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This is a book I just picked up at work when doing returns one day recently. It’s a new release in paperback, I just happened to find it while straightening out the shelf from sending half of it back. (It’s a process, these publisher returns, let me tell you). I hadn’t heard of Fiona Maazel before this, and the plot of the book, well, to say it’s right up my alley is pretty on the money. And it was, a little bit of humor, a lot of dry wit, some wild darkness, and some loneliness. And we’ve all been there, so let’s read more about it! I wish I could have gotten into it and more out of it than i did. I had a hard time getting through this one, in parts. There were parts of it that are absolutely hilarious, parts that are darker than the soul of a plastic pygmy, and parts that completely confuse. It was a hard read, only because the darkness overtook what should have been more humor, lurking under the surface. I think Maazel needed to bring more lightness into this. Instead it’s very, very bleak. Almost too much to be redeemed. 

Thurlow Dan (I already have a problem here, the character’s first and last names appear to be in reverse) is the leader of a group known as The Helix. Those of us who read the description given in the first couple of chapters will think of two words: Cult and Scientology. (Free of charge- same thing, different words). Thurlow is exploiting loneliness in people who will do just about anything to feel loved and connect with another human being(s) who are feeling the same. The cult, for the record, is the tie that binds those lonely souls to one another. Of course, there isn’t much dignity in how Thurlow and his people go about their business. His ex wife, Esme, whom he appears to either be still in love with or obsessed over (think “Every Breath You Take”), is working for the Feds in trying to take him and the cult down. I like the character of Esme. She has spunk, she’s realistic, and she’s not being fooled by any of this. Things accelerate to a hostage situation and what happens. The book goes through Thurlow and Esme’s courtship, marriage, divorce, and how the Helix came to be. The hostage situation? Parts funny and parts heartbreaking. Does Thurlow get his ex back? Does Esme get her ex sent down the river? Is the Helix brought down? What happens to the hostages? What happens to her and Thurlow’s daughter? So many questions, so few answers. 

I wanted so badly for this novel to work its magic on me. Instead, I felt gutted. Absolutely gutted. It’s one of those books where you feel like so many opportunities are missed, and those that are taken advantage of are the ones that the Dark Arts are responsible for. And not the cool Dark Arts as represented in Harry Potter. More like the ones that destroy people systematically. Truthfully? I had no idea what to make of this novel. It is a brilliant idea to examine this dark side of American reality, but this empties you out and hangs you out on the clothesline to dry in the middle of a driving rainstorm. I tried to find more humor here, and it is billed as a dark comic novel, and it is but there has to be some light here. I didn’t find much, so I can’t give it much. 

The Astor Orphan by Alexandra Aldrich (2 out of 5)

•April 8, 2014 • Leave a Comment

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This little memoir got my attention right away when we got it Monday. I told my coworkers, “I’ll get this done in a hour.” One hour, 15 minutes to be exact. It is a quick read, although it frustrated me in parts. The author is a direct descendant of John Jacob Astor, he of the infamous Astor clan, famous for being the first multi-millionaire in the United States. He was a fur trader, businessman, and yes, mentally not with the program and more than a bit of a pompous ass. (His nickname was “Jack Ass”). Most of the Astor family tree is littered with nuts, and not the type that make up your garden variety trail mix. Their family name is well known in the United States, although it has waned greatly in the last fifty years. The cover promises “a cross between Jane Eyre and Running with Scissors.” Running With Scissors? Sold. One of my favorite memoirs of all time. (yes, memoir, not book. the publisher can suck it on that, the judge ruled in Burrough’s favor. Not sure what I’m talking about? If you care, Google Running With Scissors lawsuit.), so if you threw that in with a classic strange thoroughfare like Jane Eyre, it’s got to be great, right? Uh…not as much as I would have hoped for.

Aldrich tells about her childhood from the age of 10-14, in a family of blue bloods that are in financial straits, not to mention mental decline. There are several problems with this. You know going in, from reading the book jacket, that the financial dynasty of the Astors has long fallen by the wayside. However, Aldrich speaks quite a bit of whining about money, chasing her grandma for money, having her grandma pay for music lessons, etc. There’s almost a tone of entitlement to that money throughout the book. Given that a lot of the selling point of the memoir is about the family downfall in the status cloud, it’s ironic that she seems to be taking on a tone of expecting money to be handed out to her simply because she is a family member. That could be a result of her immaturity at that young age, but she spends half of the book implying that she is more mature than your usual 10-14 year old. So you have a mixed message right there. And I’ll be totally honest with you. Reading those parts of the book, she came off to me like a spoiled rich kid. Not appealing in the ways of reading. 

The family? Oh, they’re a lot of nut bags, but it’s nothing that you wouldn’t expect of a filthy rich bunch of elitists in that time period- when I speak of the Astors, I mean the golden days of the clan, as in the grandfather, not the cast of characters here. The mother doesn’t care about Alexandra, the dad has a mistress, her grandmother is an alcoholic who tries to play parent to Alexandra. Sounds like a lot of families in the late 1800′s/early 1900′s? At least in all of the history that I’m familiar with and have read about, none of these are dissimilar family traits. It sounds like they’re a bunch of petulant whiny windbags. I get the general feeling reading this that Alexandra perhaps wrote of the version of the Astors to try to come to peace with the loathsome human beings they were. Or, maybe her therapist suggested a memoir to work through some things. Or, she just picked a time period and decided to write and publish it. Maybe she’ll make some dinero on this and not have to relive doing it as a 14-year old Alexandra once had to. 

The question I had when I set this book down was “Why did she write this?” It’s such a quick read. The pictures, for the record, are wonderful. I’m also biased because I love vintage, black and white photographs from any time period. I didn’t come away from this with a sense of accomplishment for having read it, nor do I feel like I learned any history about one of the great American families of the early 1900′s. She lives in poverty on the grounds of the estate. Not surprised, it happened to a lot of super-rich American families. Where am I supposed to feel a kinship with Alexandra? I do at moments, but it’s fleeting. Much like the moments in the book where I wholeheartedly fell into it. It felt like I was falling into an endless bag of Pop Chips at times. Satisfying for a bit, but cardboard texture and not a lot of substance in the end. 

A Constellation Of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra (5 out of 5)

•April 6, 2014 • Leave a Comment

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The book starts out with eight year old Havaa hiding in the woods in the middle of the night in the cold Russian winter. Her father was taken away by Russian soldiers and their house set afire. All Havaa has is her little blue suitcase, which she had packed ahead of time, per her father’s orders. Akhmed, their neighbor of many years, finds her and attempts to console the shocked stoic child. He ends up bringing her to the abandoned hospital where Sonja, the only doctor, treats the wounded. This seemingly simple solution sets about a domino effect that effects all of their lives. Sonja is a hard-as-brittle, tough as nails doctor who doesn’t have time to watch this eight year old girl who seems to be suffering ill effects of grief. She’s no nicer to Akhmed, who’s trying very hard to prove his worth in the medical field, if nothing else, to help Sonja treat the overwhelming number of patients she has. A child thrown into this situation? Hardly ideal for saving lives, at least in Sonja’s view. It’s only for five earth shattering days, and the narratives take place over a ten year span, but Havaa’s backstory is stunning, and it ends up tilting Sonja’s world upside down. Sonja has been grieving and kicking herself quietly for her sister Natasha’s disappearance. Sonja and Havaa form a tentative truce and friendship, and the stories begin to be told and the answers to what happened to Havaa’s father to lead her to this turn in the road, as well as what happened to Sonja’s wild child sister Natasha, begin to become crystal clear. When it begins to wind together, you are stunned. The entire arc of the story and the telling of the entire story took my breath away.

The characters are fantastic. Intricately drawn, realistically troubled, tortured by the perils and powers of love, in a time of incredible loss, poverty, death, and daily dangers of war in Chechnya, Marra writes them so vividly that you find yourself turning page after page, despite the hard lives being led by the characters during the time of the novel taking place. I’ve read books like this before (hello James Joyce, you wordy, torturesmith motherfucker) and got so winded from the wordiness of the character that I tuned out intellectually and never invest enough emotionally to give a flying fuck through the rest of the book. That is definitely not the case here. There is plenty of darkness, but there is also light shining through the trying events that do take place in this book. I hated to see the book end, yet I wanted it to, so I could see what happened and how everyone and everything got to this point. I was not disappointed. Definitely a wonderful, inspiring book about the power of love. It’s a curious thing. Makes one man weak, another man insane (sorry, I had to). This is definitely the case with Akhmed and the other male characters, all of whom are brought into the web of romantic love by wartime and dire circumstances. The thing that stands out is that none of the male characters appear to be just going with the flow as far as the pursuit of romantic love. They’re all 100% fully in on this game, and that devotion brings another whole layer to the literary onion.

What else? Plot development, character development, and oh yes, location, location, location. If you want to write a stunning novel that rips up your paper hearts and sets your confetti streams on fire, set the novel in Russia. Russia has to be the bleakest place, next to maybe Antartica and Greenland, in the geographical dice, to set a novel. The author does a grand job of describing the bleakness and paints it in well with the events taking place in the story. The cover? Spectacular. I was definitely pulled in by the cover of this book. You know I’m a sucker for a great cover. Not only is it a great cover, but it’s a great book. Read it.

The Cell by Robin Cook (2 out of 5)

•April 6, 2014 • Leave a Comment

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I won the new Robin Cook book on a Shelf Awareness giveaway. I hadn’t read him in a long time, and the last one I read six years ago was enough to swear him off. This book, however, sounded like quite a premise so I just had to give it a shot. Until 45 pages before the end, it was a 4 star book. The ending made it lose two stars. I won’t go more into it, because I am not a fan of spoiler alerts, but you feel like you’ve been taken on a wild hayride through Clown Canyon. Meaning- avoid if you can. Such a shame, because he had me all the way until the last 40 pages. And then, well, Bozo fought Darth Vader, SkippyJon Jones ate rancid Jiff peanut butter, and Sharika turned into a frozen banana. All hell broke loose, and there was no recovery, at least for this reader.

George Wilson is a doctor living in Los Angeles when the breakthrough the medical world has been waiting for finally happens. Smartphones are now able to not only do their regular everyday functions, as well as apps, but they’re now able to fully function as a doctor. The diagnosis, the treatment, the whole psychedelic umbrella. It’s called IDoc. (I was hoping for something more ingenious, but since Apple dominates the market and it IS a Smartphone, it can’t be called something else like Jack Quack or Med Shark. I’m normally anti I-anything, so I had to swallow that annoyance and everytime it was referred to in the story as IDoc, I let my imagination do the walking and called it something else instead. This might also help for you. George gets to know the IDoc up close and personal, when his fiancee drops dead after being part of the IDoc beta test. Patients of his kick off after having tests done in conjunction with the IDoc testing process.  Is the IDoc a cover for government testing gone amok? Are hackers tapping into the system and killing innocent test subjects? What the hell is going on here? More importantly, can Dr George Wilson stop it, if he can figure out what is going down?

I’ll say this. I was pretty riveted through most of the book. Perhaps because I haven’t read any medical science thrillers in a while. Usually with me, it’s Michael Palmer. Robin Cook, however, did write the excellent COMA, so I’m not against reading a new book by him. This one had great premise, great promise, not fully developed characters, and a whole hell of a lot of lameness at the end. I hate it when authors take the easiest road imaginable, instead of finding some weird sidewalk to walk naked down (while wearing a pink tutu and nothing else). Robin Cook has written a shit ton of books, and I hope this doesn’t signal his newfound lost parade. You really wanted answers out of this book. Instead you are delivered to an ending that feels half-assed and not well delivered, in how the ending is delivered. There are a lot of medical ethical questions in here, and I am hearing from my neighbors who read Robin Cook that he tends to get on the soapbox with medical ethics in most of his books, so that got a little tiresome as the book went on. There were moments after I finished it where I thought maybe he was so busy doing the ruminating on the medical field and health care that he forgot how he was going to end the book, and thus ended it like he did. I realize that is highly unlikely and the ending, well, it’s straight up bunk. I had hoped for better.

 

Friends of Mine: Thirty Years In The Life of a Duran Duran Fan by Elisa Lorello (5 out of 5)

•March 30, 2014 • Leave a Comment

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Of course, I had to have this book. The minute I read about it on the Facebook feed of one of my Duranie friends. I loved the cover immediately. It is, to be cliched in this instance, “totally 80′s”. Or to be later 80′s, “totally rad”. I had not heard of the book before Facebook, and that shames me to the depth of my being. I am a Duranie. I am obsessed. I love to read even the smallest, most innocent pop culture references to them in other avenues of life that I roam. So for this to have gotten by me, well, it shows that I have not been up on my Duran Duran. So thank you, Elisa, for not friending me on Facebook, but sending me an autographed copy. I had tried to order this through the bookstore, my regular gig, but it is not available through our distributor. I had a hard time getting over my loyalty issues to buy it off Amazon. I exchanged emails with Elisa and explained that not only am I incredibly loyal to my independent bookstore and what they stand for against corporate bookstores, but that I genuinely just can’t do it. She is incredibly understanding and sent me a copy through the mail. In a circumstance that can only happen to me, shortly after that, we had our Secret Santa party at work, and Andrew, my coworker, got me. That little rascal found the book on Amazon and purchased it for me as one of my gifts. So funny. And it’s a book that you should purchase multiple copies of and gift your Duranie friends with, because it’s a great read. Do it, Duranies, you won’t be sorry! And if you aren’t a Duranie, well, firstly, I’m sorry and secondly, here’s a great place to start!

Elisa’s life starts out as a twin and the youngest of seven children and proceeds relatively smooth until adolescence. Her parents’ divorce makes adolescence a rocky road for her family, but she has a beacon- the music of Duran Duran. You read about her childhood friendship with her best friend fading away as they get to the end of the long and winding road known as high school. Come on, we’ve all had a friendship like that, and her painful acceptance of the reality of the situation rings so true, that you again sympathize with her story and feel as if you are there while it’s happening. That’s one of the reasons I love this book. Elisa’s writing is so easily able to slip into and stay for a nice long, visit that you don’t want to come out- or the book to end.

Obviously, the Duran Duran factor was a huge reason that I was angling to read this memoir. As I said before, I’m ridiculous with the smallest, most inconsequential Duran Duran anything that hops into my little corner of the world. A book, my other true passion, full of Duran Duran, one of my all-consuming passions, is a plus times a thousand. However, this isn’t just a memoir about being a Duran super fan. It’s about life and the tough shit that gets handed to you in that life. It’s about survival, finding your place, finding your way, and going with the flow. Elisa does a tremendous job of sending that message to the reader. Duran Duran is a huge part of her survival through the trials and tribulations of young adulthood, friendship, relationships, and life as a whole. You feel through the book that as long as there is something that you have that is a cornerstone, a light that never goes out, a constant, that no matter how rough those seas become, you will find a place to land and calmer beaches ahead (If we’re lucky, they’re frequented by the “Save A Prayer” Duran Duran!). “Ordinary World” was always a song that cut through me. It was a song that I heard after finding out that my friend Marina had passed away. I bawled my eyes out, but hey, all was better with the world somehow when Q101 premiered “Ordinary World” that day. I felt peaceful, and believe me, that’s not an easy feat with me. Reading that it resonated so greatly with Elisa, I felt, again, that odd kinship (Duranship?) that exists among the fandom. For the record, Elisa also wrote a book with Ordinary World as the title. Check it out:

Shameless plug aside, it is one of the quickest, heartwarming, and fun memoirs I have read in a while. By fun, I mean that there is such a recognition of certain traits that Duranies all share, and seeing that in print and reading Elisa’s thoughts on the Fab Five and thinking, “I thought that same thing all those years ago.” was a fantastic reality to see in print. It’s good to know that I’m not the only weirdo who likened everything back to Duran Duran back in the day (and I still tend to, honestly). Elisa’s got such an easy way of making you feel not only as if you were there while she was growing up, but that you were all kindred spirits in the Church of Duran. Her style of writing is infectious in its joy and a pleasure to read. So go out and get it, read it, and buy it for others. It is truly a book of pure joy.

 

 

 
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