Saturday, September 13, 2014

All We Had

In All We Had artist and sculptor Annie Weatherwax has delivered a stunning debut novel in which she’s beautifully demonstrated her incredible talent and gifts by painting with words a portrait on the page of a simple life filled with love and struggle that was poignant, funny and equal parts heartwarming and heartbreaking. Weatherwax delivered each stroke using the original, brutally honest and memorable voice of our 13-year old narrator, Ruthie Carmichael. Ruthie has at times been both parent and child in her relationship with mom Rita, who gave birth to Ruthie at 16 and was now only 29. Ruthie and Rita have always known struggles, frequently sitting on the precipice of homelessness, yet thankfully “with her movie star looks and Oscar-worthy acting, voila!” out of nowhere Rita would miraculously produce an instant boyfriend and a new place for them to live.

It was June 2005 and Rita had just lost her Walgreens job when she produced Phil, a 1-800 wall-to-wall carpet installer whose apartment smelled like carpet glue. Ruthie adored her mom regardless of her track record with men (most of who were jerks; Phil, quite possibly brain damaged). Rita was fierce and smart and according to Ruthie “she could spot an asshole from a thousand miles away and her favorite word by far was fuck.” Truth was that when life was just Ruthie and Rita, it felt like magic. After getting tired of Phil and his crappy TV with coat hanger antenna, Ruthie and Rita decide to skip town in a beat up 1993 Ford Escort with Phil’s DVD player and old laptop in tow to pawn for some much needed getaway cash.

It takes little thought for Rita to come up with their destination, Boston, since despite having been in and out of shelters, boyfriends houses and places of their own which never lasted, Rita always made sure Ruthie never missed school and as such, she just knew one day Harvard would come knocking with scholarship in hand. Of course, as the saying goes, the best laid plans often go awry, so after sponge baths in gas station bathrooms, sleeping in the car, and spending nearly all their cash, their Escort actually lands them in Fat River instead of Boston at Tiny’s Grub ‘n’ Go!, where they intended to only fuel up and steal a couple diet cokes and powdered Donettes for the road, but after their Escort craps out and the two are left stranded, a tearful confession to Mel, Tiny’s owner, lands them a gig as waitress and dishwasher and before long maybe enough money to pay the bills.

For Ruthie, Fat River becomes the first place she can truly call home and her co-workers, Peter Pam, the transgender waitress with broad shoulders, blonde wig with perfect flip curl and handlebar mustache; and Arlene, the head waitress with hot flashes so bad she has to run into the walk-in freezer to cool off, her beloved extended family. Soon Ruthie and Rita move out of the back room of the gas station into a place of their own, that soon enough sweet-talking mortgage broker Vick entices Rita to buy and which thanks to our now infamous subprime mortgage crisis places them once again on the brink of disaster and fighting for survival, though this time the price of survival might change their lives forever.

I loved All We Had! I know, I know, it seems like I love everything I read, but what can I say, I’m just darn good with my reading choices. Anyway, this novel was infused with so much honesty, warmth and love, that you truly can’t help but fall in love with it and all of the characters that comprise this small perfect world of Fat River and Tiny’s Grub ‘n’ Go which Weatherwax has created. It truly is a story of love, if not a love story; depicting the kind of deep, abiding, palpable love that can exist not only between two lovers, but also between a mother and child.

Ruthie was so beautifully written and as our narrator so powerful in the depths of her honesty. In its every line, the reader can feel the depths of Ruthie’s love for Rita; the kind of love that sees you through your darkest hours, because while love might not always conquer all (despite popular belief), it makes the “all” that much more bearable because you’re sharing it with that one person that truly matters. As for Rita…poor, poor Rita, my heart broke for her heartbreak, and I felt the weariness she carried at just 29 from a lifetime of disappointments and tribulations (from foster care to pregnant at 16, to being a single parent fighting the good fight with everything at her disposal, even if it was just her beauty and sexuality). Say what you will about Rita’s morals or decisions, she was a good mother, who tried her very best.

Do yourself a huge favor and read this wonderful novel from this amazing new author. All We Had is a gritty, witty, and haunting story that will touch your heart (and stay there) as you read every line and every page long into the night in this unforgettable page-turner.

Friday, September 5, 2014

One Kick

Oh my gosh, this was such a great book! One Kick is 306 pages of pure adrenaline; a true pedal to the metal non-stop action thrill ride. Cain’s latest is a page turning thriller which, no lie, reads like the screenplay for a new Hollywood blockbuster, featuring edge of your seat excitement and a roller coaster ride for your emotions, fraying your nerves and playing havoc with your heart. One Kick is the first installment in the new “Kick Lannigan” trilogy from best-selling author Chelsea Cain and if this is how we start, well then I’m just giddy with anticipation for books 2 and 3.

Kathleen Lannigan (aka Beth, aka Kick) was only six years old when she was kidnapped by Mel and Linda and used as the star in the “Beth movies,” touted as the most successful series of child pornography films on the net. Five years later (where the book starts), Beth only has memories of her beloved dog Monster to serve as the key to her true identity when the FBI rescues her, making her a news sensation and cash cow for her media hungry mother. Now 21 and going by the name Kick, she lives on her own terms and refuses to be a victim ever again, training herself to pick locks, shoot guns, do martial arts, and so much more.

Haunted by her past and obsessing over two recent cases of local missing children, Kick has a disturbing visit from John Bishop, a mysterious former weapons dealer intent on recruiting her to help in trying to bring the children safely home. Suspicious of his motivations and coping with some initial friction between the two (they mix like oil and water), Kick nonetheless agrees to help, driven by her own dark memories and sense of guilt. Relying on Bishop’s unprecedented access to information not even available to law enforcement and seemingly unlimited personal wealth, Kick starts to dig for the truth, soon uncovering one or two skeletons in Bishop’s own closet, and as they come ever closer to the truth and rescuing the missing children, Kick will find that all roads lead back to her own troubled past and mind.

One Kick was easily one of the best action thrillers I’ve read in a very long time. It is a book you will not want to put down once you start. While it’s a thriller in the truest sense of the word with barely a chance to catch your breath throughout each riveting page, it also offers a great story and most importantly an unforgettable protagonist. One Kick is filled with twists, turns and some startling revelations which perfectly lay the groundwork for what will undoubtedly make this both a best-selling series and Hollywood movie.

It goes without saying that the key to a successful series based on one central character is of course to have a fully developed, real and believable character with whom readers can both relate and sympathize; in this regard, Cain has a sure-fire hit in Kick Lannigan. Kick is genuine, real and basically a kick-ass heroine. While scarred by the horrors of her childhood, she is not broken and refuses to be defined by her experiences. I wish I could have one-tenth of her resilient courage, grit and determination, and though some readers might questions some of her character’s decisions, personally I thought they felt true to Kick and the experiences that shaped her. Bishop was as expected a heady mix of sexy, dangerous, and mysterious but I also found him uncomfortably unethical and sketchy at times, which is why I’m going to reserve final judgment on him for later in the series.

I will offer kudos to Ms. Cain on her tactful handling of such a dark and sensitive subject as pedophilia, pornography and child trafficking. There were passages that were difficult to read just because of the subject matter, but honestly Cain never offered lurid or sordid details for sensational purposes so the story never felt exploitative. Even with Kick, though parts of the narrative offer flashbacks to her (Beth’s) time with Mel, the reader is thankfully never made privy to the exact nature of the abuse.

One Kick is a definite must read if you’re looking for a book that offers a helluva of a plot, plenty action and at times heart-wrenching emotion. It is a tale of revenge and redemption with a few Glocks, throwing stars, and nunchucks thrown in for good measure.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Necessary Lies

Necessary Lies by best-selling author Diane Chamberlain is a historical fiction novel fraught with the charged emotions of the 1960s; a story of hope, courage and redemption that exposes some frightening truths about our collective American history. Set in 1960 North Carolina, Necessary Lies focuses on Jane Forrester and Ivy Hart; two young women worlds apart whose lives are on a collision course with destiny.

Fifteen year old Ivy lives, along with her sister Mary Ella, nephew William, and grandmother Nonnie, as tenants in a small dilapidated home on the small tobacco farm where they toil for barely any income from sunup to sundown. Poverty and need help introduce them to young Jane, the new social worker in charge of their welfare case. Even with welfare the small family barely has enough to eat, relying on the kindness and generosity of the Gardiner family (the farm owners) for scraps and leftovers to make ends meet. Ivy is overwhelmed not only by their financial struggles but also the responsibility of caring for her ailing grandmother, mentally unstable sister, developmentally delayed nephew and her own epilepsy. Ivy’s sole escape comes from those treasured moments when she sneaks away from home at night and meets up with Henry Allen, the Gardiner’s son, and the two can share in their love’s joy and dream of the day when they can run away together to California, get married and raise a family.

By comparison, twenty-two year old Jane is a small town girl who made good by marrying a successful young doctor. Despite society’s expectations for her to just stay home and take care of her home and husband, Jane is an idealist yearning to make a difference in the world. Determined to succeed in her new social worker role, Jane is quickly warned to keep her ideals in her mind and heart, and to learn to put sentimentality and feelings aside, yet she can’t help but to connect on a human level with her client’s fears and sorrows –both with Lita Jordan and her kids, a black family on the same Gardiner farm and the Hart women. Drawn in by both families, but especially by Ivy’s wistful hopes, Jane uncovers some shocking facts not only about their plight, but also about the power she holds in her hands to change their lives forever. As tragic events unfold and secrets are revealed, Jane will struggle between right and wrong and make a decision that will change all their lives forever.

Despite having only read one other book by Diane Chamberlain, I’d stake my money on the statement that this novel has got to be one of her best. A moving story with vividly drawn characters, Necessary Lies was a compelling, poignant and unforgettable book that opened my eyes to an injustice which lives in our past, namely the government’s use of the Eugenics Sterilization Program during the time of our tale.

Wiki defines eugenics as “the belief and practice of improving the genetic quality of the human population.” From 1929 to 1975 North Carolina sterilized over 7,000 of its citizens. The eugenics program targeted the “mentally defective” or “feebleminded” in mental institutions and was considered “for the public good;” but in the 1950s the program shifted to focus on women on welfare. The program permitted social workers to petition a Board on behalf of their clients to have them sterilized – men and women; boys and girls alike. While many social workers used the program to petition in consideration of a client’s best interest, there were still too many egregious and tragic abuses that permitted countless unnecessary and unwanted sterilizations making this program a dark stain on our nation's conscience.

As the story's narrators, both Ivy and Jane were wonderfully written to offer the reader an evocative insight into the hardships that each woman faced; Ivy’s struggles with poverty and lack of education, and for Jane, the courage it took to face the strictures of society at that time. I was irate and heartbroken at the countless injustices depicted in the tale, while thoroughly enmeshed in our two protagonists story and their struggles as I rooted for each – for Jane to do what was right, not necessarily expected or expedient and for Ivy to reach her dreams.

Necessary Lies is an emotionally-gripping and riveting story that informs and enlightens. A fictional moral tale that haunts with the real truths shared.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Hounded

David Rosenfelt’s Hounded is the latest installment in the Andy Carpenter series. Despite the fact that this is the twelfth book in this seemingly popular series, this was actually my first book by this writer. While someone more familiar with the impressive list of characters (and there are many) would probably enjoy the book a little more given their familiarity with character histories and quirks, I nonetheless found the book offered a compelling, entertaining and enjoyable read that could easily stand on its own merit without having read the entire series.

In Hounded, Andy Carpenter is a multi-millionaire defense attorney, who along with his girlfriend, Laurie Collins, an ex-cop and investigator is tasked with coming to his good friend’s, policeman Pete Stanton, rescue. While attending a crossword championship with his secretary Edna, Andy and Laurie get a mysterious phone call from Pete asking that they go to a nearby address, which turns out to be the site of a murder. Pete calls in a favor and asks if they would take care of the murder victim’s, Danny Diaz, orphaned eight year old son and basset hound in order to avoid them getting thrown in to the system. Soon Pete needs a much bigger favor from Andy when he’s accused of Danny’s murder. Turning to his unorthodox group of friends and allies, including his accountant and computer hacker Sam Willis, his former client Willie Miller and his mobster friends, and scary bodyguard Marcus, Andy starts to dig for the truth and finds that truth is stranger than fiction in this engaging and fun mystery.

I really enjoyed Hounded. It was a funny, fast-paced and relatively suspenseful mystery and legal thriller. Andy’s character offers the perfect mixture of sarcasm, wit and genuineness that makes you easily relate and fall in love with him. What seemed early on like a straightforward whodunnit actually proved to be an intriguing and original conspiracy that kept me guessing throughout (though I did figure it out three-quarters of the way through). A great measure of how much I enjoyed the book is the fact that upon finishing it, I went to the library and took out the first book in the series Open and Shut, which proved equally gripping with just as much humor and heart.

Author David Rosenfelt proves an interesting character in his own right. Having read two of his books, I went to his website and noted that actually all his books feature a dog in some aspect or another of the tale and as with his main character, dog lover Andy Carpenter, Rosenfelt himself created the Tara Foundation (the name of Andy’s beloved golden retriever), which has rescued almost 4,000 dogs many of them Goldens.

Hounded was a charming, witty and stimulating story featuring a wisecracking and lovable protagonist that will win over old and new (like me) fans alike.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Television's Biggest Night

The countdown is on folks. Yes indeed, today are the Primetime Emmy Awards when we’ll be basking in the luminescent splendor of Hollywood’s A-list celebrities (or as Amy Poehler would have you believe, “the rat-faced people of television”) as they walk down the red carpet to receive their well-earned pats on the back for a riveting season of television. As most of you may know (or maybe not), Emmy nominations were announced a few weeks ago to really no fanfare because it was way too early in the morning, nonetheless, for those of you remotely interested, I’ve provided below a partial list of nominees.

Best Drama Series: “Breaking Bad”; “Downton Abbey”; “Game of Thrones”; “House of Cards”; “Mad Men”; “True Detective”

Best Comedy Series: “The Big Bang Theory”; “Louie”; “Modern Family”; “Orange is the New Black”; “Silicon Valley”; “Veep”

Lead Actor in a Drama Series: Bryan Cranston, “Breaking Bad”; Jeff Daniels, “The Newsroom”; Jon Hamm, “Mad Men”; Woody Harrelson, “True Detective”; Matthew McConaughey, “True Detective”; Kevin Spacey, “House of Cards”

Lead Actress in a Drama Series: Lizzy Caplan, “Masters of Sex”; Claire Danes, “Homeland”; Michelle Dockery, “Downton Abbey”; Julianna Margulies, “The Good Wife”; Kerry Washington, “Scandal”; Robin Wright, “House of Cards”

Lead Actor, Comedy: Jim Parsons, “The Big Bang Theory”; Ricky Gervais, “Derek”; Matt LeBlanc, “Episodes”; Don Cheadle, “House of Lies”; Louis C.K., “Louie”; William H. Macy, “Shameless”

Lead Actress, Comedy: Lena Dunham, “Girls”; Edie Falco, “Nurse Jackie”; Julia Louis Dreyfus, “Veep”; Melissa McCarthy, “Mike & Molly”; Amy Poehler, “Parks & Recreation”; Taylor Schilling, “Orange Is the New Black”

Kudos to all the nominees, but I have a small bone to pick with the Academy so bear with me while I go on a brief albeit pointless rant. Look, I fully grasp that there are so many good shows on TV that it’s hard to nominate everyone worthy, but I refuse to believe that quality television can only be found on cable channels, which is the impression you’d get from the snobs over at the Academy after a cursory review of the above list of nominees, especially in all of the drama categories.

The Best Actor in a Drama category for example is composed strictly of actors on cable shows; not a one, nada, zip, from the broadcast network channels. Really? Really? How about James Spader from The Blacklist, Mads Mikkelsen from Hannibal, or James Spader from The Blacklist? Umm, have I made my bias a little too obvious? Well, now that it’s out there, let me say in my defense that Spader was sheer genius as Raymond Reddington and his scene-stealing performances definitely merited at least a nomination.

Alas, tomorrow is another day (which is pretty obvious), but anyway thanks for letting me vent. Tune in to NBC tonight to watch Seth Meyers crack a few jokes and hand out some shiny trophies to some deserving winners.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Colour of Milk

The Colour of Milk by British author Nell Leyshon is a heartbreakingly haunting novel; a beautiful, gut-wrenching and unforgettable read that touches your heart with the simplicity of its words and its heroine. Mary begins her story with the words “this is my book and I am writing it by my own hand,” of significant importance since the previously illiterate farm girl has only recently learned to read and write. With her newfound knowledge and brutal honesty, Mary shares the truth of her tale of woe over the past year.

Beginning in 1830, spirited 14-year old Mary, born with a limp and hair the color of milk, and her three sisters – Beatrice, Violet and Hope – toil from sun up to sun down performing backbreaking work on their brutal father’s farm; bearing his anger and punishment whenever he’s dissatisfied. Determined to make the most of his useless daughter, her father hires Mary out to the local vicar to help with his ailing wife. Forced to leave the only world she’s known and her beloved grandfather, Mary finds her new surroundings foreign and unsettling, yet with her plain spoken ways and unguarded innocence she wins over the affection of her new employers, and goes on to realize her greatest dream, to learn to read and write, though that knowledge comes at a tragic price.

The Colour of Milk is a small book with all the weight and power of an epic saga. Tiny in both size and length, I read this mini-masterpiece in one sitting and cried for longer than it took me to read it. Written in the simple words of a child, each word shared without guile or artifice bears the truth of a life of hardship and struggle, where even dreams are a luxury you can’t afford. In its pages, we are charmed and enchanted by the most winsome of spirits; a child with fire, heart and wisdom beyond her years, whose hopeful spirit and optimism makes our journey with her that much more agonizing.

As gripping, emotional and riveting as Celie’s story from The Color Purple or Precious’ struggles in Push by Sapphire, Mary’s voice will resonate in your heart. You will love her, root for her and even at book’s end, with your broken heart at your feet, smile for this beautiful soul who’s lived her life by no one else’s rules and who finally finds triumph and freedom.

Like I said, the book is tiny, so there isn’t much more to add, other than to say read it. The Colour of Milk is a book whose name deserves to be shouted from the rafters. Yes, it is sad. You will cry. But its beauty is so worth the price of a few measly tears.

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Fever

The Fever by Megan Abbott sends us careening on an angst-filled trip back to high school as we're introduced to the Nash family in this disturbing drama. Deenie Nash is your typical teenage girl coping with divorced parents, boys, and the social dynamics of high school – the cliques, the caste system of popularity, and the stress of not knowing where you fall in that system on any given day. Eli Nash is a good looking hockey player and the proverbial girl magnet. While dad, Tom Nash is a chemistry teacher, still struggling to wrap his head around his wife leaving him, trying to raise two great kids on his own, as well as adjusting to lonely nights and being single.

Their relatively ordinary life is tossed into chaos though when Lise, one of Deenie’s friends, suffers a violent, terrifying and unexplained seizure in class that leaves her fighting for her life. Before long panic starts to spread among the Nash family, school, and community as the cause remains a mystery and more girls start to suffer attacks. With rumors swirling, the list of probable causes grows, everything from a virulent STD, to the HPV vaccine, to the effects of exposure to an eerie toxic lake with a lore all of its own, and as the paranoia grows secrets are revealed which threaten to destroy the families and friendships they touch.

Definitely not one of my favorite reads to date, The Fever was nonetheless an interesting and at times unsettling read. Narrated by the three main protagonists (Tom, Eli and Deenie), this short novel lags in the middle and falls short of delivering the promised chills and suspense central to the plot’s main mystery, yet through its characters the author does deliver a gripping and insightful look at teenage girls and their psyche– the flashes of anger and petty jealousies surrounding newfound passions and unrequited love, the power struggles on par with that of a small nation that take place in school halls, the frightening grip of those quintessential mean girls that rule over boys and girls alike, and the gut-wrenching insecurities which make the high school experience a nightmare for so many.

As for the tale’s mystery, Abbott throws countless red herrings in the reader’s path that unfortunately go nowhere and serve only to undermine the tale’s resolution with a final reveal that turns out to be rather watered-down, anti-climactic, and ho-hum. Though the kind of slow building or ratcheting up suspense that keeps you on the edge-of-your-seat never quite materializes, I will concede The Fever is infused with a dark, almost sinister tone throughout which sets the mood and piqued my interest enough to keep me reading. In addition to one or two compelling characters, Abbott also smartly conveys the ground swell of hysteria which seems to feed off itself during these type of events as parent’s let misinformation and panic prey on their fears and erase all rational thinking as more and more girls became ill.

I’d seen The Fever on so many summer must-read lists that I thought this would be a sure-fire hit; unfortunately for me, it didn’t live up to the hype. It never quite makes up its mind on what it wants to be - mystery or character-driven tale - and in so doing, doesn’t fully deliver on either front.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Like Father, Like Son

If you have a child, you know that you've loved him/her since the moment they were placed in your arms. Loved them so deeply and irrevocably, that you can't imagine life without them or life before them. You changed poopy diapers, caressed fevered brows, worried and stressed over the first day of school. Now imagine you're told that this child fully entrenched in your heart is not your child; there was a mix-up at the hospital and you've been caring for and loving a stranger's child. What would you do? Such is the agonizing dilemma facing two very different families in Like Father, Like Son, a Japanese film with English subtitles, winner of the Jury Prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival.

Ryota is a cold and distant businessman, an architect whose ambitions keep him long days and nights in the office and away from his family, while Midori is the stereotypical dutiful wife who cares and dotes on their only son, 6-year old Keita. After the couple is informed of the accidental baby switch six years earlier, the hospital representatives arrange a meeting with their biological child, Ryusei, and the parents that raised him. Unlike Ryota, Yudai (Ryusei's dad) is an appliance store shopkeeper, a big kid constantly tinkering with broken goods and his kid's toys, while mom Yukari is a waitress. Though lacking the fancy home, private schools and piano lessons to which Keita has been privileged, Ryusei has grown up loved, living in a warm and rambunctious home with two younger siblings.

As the families spend more time together, the fact hangs over their head that a swap must be made. Haunted and shaped by his own icy father-son relationship, Ryota struggles to make a decision; torn between the child he's loved for six years or the child, that like his father bitingly reminds him, carries his blood and will one day grow up to look like him. A compelling nature vs. nurture debate which keeps you on the edge of your seat as each family faces the heart-wrenching decision of chosing love or logic.

This was a beautiful, evocative and poignant film. Like Father, Like Son both tugs at your heartstrings and gives you chills as you reluctantly try to put yourself in the protagonist's shoes. A wonderful exploration of what it really means to be a father (or mother), which through the highlighted contrast between each family's means and wealth, also clearly and resoundingly reminds us of the fact that what matters most to a child's happiness is love; to be loved completely and unconditionally, not the trappings of wealth or lack thereof.

The performance by the actress portraying Midori was a standout for me; she's the only one whose heartbreak is palpably conveyed in the way she gazes at this child not of her womb that she's come to love. All three of the other adult protagonists portrayals, especially Ryota as the central character, were almost stoic in the face of this tragic course of events, at times coming across as cold and unfeeling, but I didn't let it color my view of the movie, because in truth their bearing seemed in keeping with my impression of a more reserved Asian society where emotions are kept tightly in check.

Like Father, Like Son is an affecting film straight out of any parent's nightmares. A film that will leave you thinking long after the credits roll.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Landline

In Rainbow Rowell's latest novel, Landline, Georgie McCool adores her husband Neal and he her, but still their marriage has seen better days. "Things didn't go bad between Georgie and Neal. Things were always bad- and always good. Their marriage was like a set of scales constantly balancing itself. And then, at some point, when neither of them was paying attention, they'd tipped so far over into bad, they'd settled there." With Christmas just around the corner and plans set for Georgie, Neal and their two little ones, Alice and Noomi, to fly home to Omaha for the holidays, Georgie drops the bomb that she can't go. Georgie and her best friend and writing partner, Seth, have finally had their big break - a TV pilot and deal with their dream network - which requires a writing marathon of epic proportions. Sure that Neal will be upset, Georgie's a little disconcerted when he calmly agrees that she has to stay, but, he and the girls are going to Omaha anyway.

Georgie knows in her heart that he's got reason to be upset; Neal is the glue that holds the family together and as a stay-at-home dad he cooks, cleans, does laundry, and takes care of the girls. Not only that, but he's also accepted every one of her late nights at work and every time she's chosen work and her show over her family; so now with a silent house and her family thousands of miles away, Georgie's afraid she's finally done it and totally wrecked her marriage. Georgie's mom Liz seems pretty certain she's done just that and is determined to offer her support with home-cooked meals and sage advice; while her sister Heather is less than reassuring, quickly reminding Georgie that "Neal would totally get custody" if he did leave her - and Georgie knows "He totally would."

When Georgie keeps missing Neal at his mom's house, she starts to feel more than a little panic, but then while staying in her childhood room, which her mom has converted into a pug trophy room (more on Porky and Petunia later), Georgie decides to try him again, and with her cell phone dead as usual, she plugs in her old yellow rotary phone and dials to resounding success, only problem is it's Neal back in 1998, before they were even married. More than a little freaked out by the experience, Georgie considers a number of possible explanations for this interdimensional portal; "1. Persistent hallucination. 2. Really long dream. 3. Schizophrenic episode." or "10. Magical fucking phone." Having settled on number 10 as the most logical explanation, the options on what to do next were limited really; she could call a doctor and possibly end up institutionalized which could help in earning present day Neal's pity, pretend this never happened or maybe, just maybe, keep playing along. After all, this could all be some weird cosmic opportunity to actually save her marriage.

This was such a great book! Hilarious, touching, and insightful, Landline is filled from the first page to the last with great characters and great dialogue. Much like Rowell brilliantly delivered a beautiful and haunting story of first love in her best-selling novel Eleanor & Park, she's once again showcased her talent and witty humor in this honest, real and moving take on love and marriage, capturing all its joys and imperfections. A romantic caper that for all of our protagonists struggles and doubts is dotted throughout with their undeniable love.

The one thing you'll find as soon as you read a Rainbow Rowell novel, this being my second, is that she writes such amazing characters - they are real, human (aka flawed), and so relatable. Every character that's a part of Georgie's life adds a new dimension and texture to the story; from her pug-loving mom, currently on her third marriage to an African American man nearly 20 years her junior, to four-year old Noomi who thinks of herself as green kitty and meows through every conversation, to her sister Heather, who at 18 was a change-of-life-baby "meaning Georgie's mom had decided to change her life by sleeping with the chiropractor she worked for;" to Seth, her sarcastic and fashionable best-friend. Every character jumps off the page, even the ones in passing like the pizza delivery person or the non-human variety like Porky and Petunia, and make you wish you could call them friends.

Alternating between past and present, through flashbacks, we get to see the full span of Georgie and Neal's love and marriage; the ups - before life, work and kids got in the way - and the downs when every day seemed like a struggle, making us love them all the more. Rowell intersperses the countless chuckles and guffaws with simple reminders of the truth of marriage, "You don’t know when you’re twenty-three...You don't know what it really means to crawl into someone else's life and stay there. You can't see all the ways you're going to get tangled, how you're going to bond skin to skin. How the idea of separating will feel in five years, in ten - in fifteen. When Georgie thought about divorce now, she imagined lying side by side with Neal on two operating tables while a team of doctors tried to unthread their vascular systems." Absorbing the depths of feeling in that passage, a reader (especially one not married) can come a little closer to understanding what it really means to share someones life.

Landline offers loads of humor but also an almost poetic wisdom on love and marriage which belies the genre. With depth, heart, and a new cast of quirky and unforgettable characters, Landline reminds us that we have to earn our fairy tale love stories; we have to give a little more, try a little harder, and never take someone's love for granted.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Language of Flowers

During the Victorian era, there was a language of flowers which allowed suitors to send message-laden bouquets conveying their heart’s sentiments to their beloveds merely by the flowers selected; red roses for love, rosemary for remembrance, dahlias for dignity, and honeysuckle for devotion, to name a few. In Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s debut novel, The Language of Flowers, 18-year old Victoria Jones, newly emancipated from the foster care system where she'd found nothing but sorrow and solitude, uses her gift with flowers to change the lives of others while struggling to overcome the demons of her own past.

Victoria describes herself as “more of a thistle-peony-basil kind of girl” (misanthropy-anger-hate). After a childhood spent going from home to home, at the tender age of 10 following a tragic chain of events that separated her from the only person that had ever truly loved her, she was declared “unadoptable” by the County and shipped off to a group home where she resided until her 18th birthday when she was finally on her own; with her future and its success or failure now laying solely on her shoulders. With nowhere to go, no job, friends or education, Victoria ends up on the street, sleeping in a public park, where she plants a small garden of her own.

Scared and hungry, Victoria’s saving grace proves to be Renata, a local florist willing to overlook the dirty clothes and leaves in the young girl’s hair and instead see her talent. Renata asks for only part-time help at first, including assistance at the wholesale flower market, where Victoria meets Grant, a mysterious flower farmer with a stall at the market. Angry and mistrusting, Victoria rebuffs Grant’s simple overtures of friendship, but he scales her defenses by speaking to her in a language she understands, flowers. Grant’s first gift is mistletoe, meaning I surmount all obstacles, and the next, a sketch of white poplar meaning time.

Soon Victoria has a roof over her head and a place to rest her head at night, even if it is only a closet; a job at Renata’s shop, Bloom, where she helps old Earl woo his forgetful wife and Bethany find love, and (pardon the flower-related pun) a blooming relationship with Grant, whose connection to her past and its painful secrets, forces her to question herself and the lengths to which she’ll go to grasp a chance at happiness.

The Language of Flowers is a stunning debut that awes with the palpable emotion the author has managed to bring to the page; effortlessly exposing the raw wounds found in a broken heart, as it journeys towards healing. In its pages you’ll find a story of heartbreak, forgiveness and redemption; featuring an unforgettable heroine whose voice poignantly touches your heart with the depths of her fear, anger, suffering, and ultimately hope. An honest to goodness page-turner which I loved.

With chapters alternating between past and present, Diffenbaugh slowly reveals the source of Victoria’s pain; the 9-year old's desolation at being unwanted, the feeling of guilt and shame that somehow it’s all her fault, and the desperate need to be loved which drove her to commit an act for which she can’t forgive herself and that haunts her dreams 'til this day. I wept for both Victoria’s past, but also for her present; a present guided by lessons ingrained in her fragile heart and psyche over a lifetime, and eagerly read each new page with both hope and trepidation, anxiously awaiting the truth of her future and for her to find the love and joy so long denied.

The Language of Flowers is a gift to its readers; offering a red rose of love and a starwort of welcome, it is a testament to the healing power of love and forgiveness.

Monday, August 11, 2014

One Plus One

One Plus One, the latest novel from Jojo Moyes, the best-selling author of Me Before You was everything I expected; equal parts funny and touching, featuring an engaging tale and likable and relatable characters so finely drawn that I felt like I’d known them a lifetime.

In spite of the fact that life hasn’t been especially kind to her of late, Jess Thomas believes in karma and that “good things happen to good people.” After her husband’s vanishing act, Jess was left to pick up the pieces financially and emotionally. Working two jobs as a house cleaner and bartender to help make ends meet, Jess is a single parent to Nicky, her 16-year old stepson who copes with endless bullying by losing himself in video games, and her quirky math genius 10-year old daughter Tanzie. Oh, and lest I forget, she’s also responsible for Norman, a drooling mammoth of a dog who’s basically an “enormous eating and crapping machine” with a slight flatulence problem that makes him a lethal weapon.

When Tanzie gets a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to attend St. Anne’s, a school for gifted children, Jess is thrilled and disheartened at once, since even with a partial scholarship the expense is outside her limited means. Though forced to do the wrong thing for the right reasons, renewed hope comes to Jess in the form of a Math Olympiad offering a cash prize that would make their dreams a reality; and so she packs up the kids and Norman in her ex’s beat up old junker and embarks on what will turn out to be a life-changing odyssey. Murphy’s Law being what it is, they’re stopped by police and their car is impounded only miles from home, but that’s where Ed Nicholls, the unlikeliest of knights in shining armor comes to the rescue.

Tech millionaire Ed Nicholls’ life is currently falling apart after being accused of insider trading. With a possible prison sentence hanging over his head, a best friend and partner who refuses to speak with him, and a sick father he’s too ashamed to visit, the last thing Ed needs is to deal with his cleaning lady and her menagerie of problems. Yet when he comes across the small family stranded on the side of the road, in a moment of madness or a rare bout of pure unselfishness, Ed offers to drive the desperate ragtag bunch to the Olympiad, including Norman and his wide array of evil odors, thereby ensuring a road trip to end all road trips; one which just might change all of their lives.

This was pure genius! It was a smart and hilarious page-turner in which I couldn’t wait to see what hijinks this lovable bunch got into next. A love story filled with heart, compassion and hope, between two people from different worlds that proved good guys and girls, don’t always finish last. You will absolutely fall in love with each member of the Thomas family, Ed and of course, Norman, and at book’s end hate having to say goodbye.

The novel is narrated by all four of the major protagonists in the tale, namely Jess, Ed, Tanzie and Nicky, giving readers an insightful look into the heart and mind of each throughout their journey. The character development and story arc for each was so brilliantly and movingly written that each one – even the darn dog – came across as real, struggling and flawed, but endearing and someone for whom to root for their ultimate happiness. In particular, I loved Jess’ positivity and the tenacity with which she faced life; she might fall, but she plastered on a smile, dusted herself off and got back up again. I think anyone (everyone) will empathize with her struggles and admire her determination to offer her children a happier life.

One Plus One is a heart-warming and at times laugh out loud novel with characters that jump off the page (Hollywood movie? Yes, please). A beautiful, albeit slightly predictable story, that reminds us that love can conquer all.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

The Lunchbox

Summer is definitely not my movie-going season. Whether it’s the idea of being cooped up in a movie theater on a beautiful day or the fact that the movie industry has relegated summer as the dumping ground for every superhero, blow em up/shoot em up action, or raunchy comedy film, I haven’t stepped foot inside a theater since I think May (when I went to see Edge of Tomorrow, which by the way was great). I know I sound like a total movie snob, but the truth is movies aren’t cheap – by the time you add in parking, popcorn and drinks you’re looking at $30 down the drain– and films make it onto OnDemand so quickly nowadays, so unless I’m dying to see something, I exercise restraint and a modicum of patience and wait to pay $5.95 and watch them in the comfort of my living room. With that said, all bets are off during the Fall when I madly scramble from weekend to weekend to stay on top of the great movies I know will pop up on award show ballots.

TV isn’t much better when it comes to quality fare during Summer, so I’ve been gobbling up books lately, but last night I took the time to check out my OnDemand menu and came across The Lunchbox, an Indian film in Hindi with English subtitles that I’d wanted to see and missed at the theater. I am so, so happy that I watched this film. The best word to describe this film is lovely. It was beautiful, poignant, sad and hopeful...and as I said, lovely.

Set in Mumbai, India The Lunchbox uses as the foundation for its tale the city’s century-old dabba wallah service. A fact which I didn’t know, but looked up after viewing the film, is that supposedly some 5,000 delivery men called dabba wallahs hand deliver 200,000 home-cooked hot meals to doorsteps across the city. The Indian-style stackable metal canisters or tiffin boxes travel miles on bicycles and trains, sometimes transferred three or four times, before they make it onto a worker’s desk, and then the empty-boxes are later returned safely back to the home where they originated their journey.

The Lunchbox tells the story of Sajaan (portrayed beautifully by Irrfan Khan, whom you probably know from Slumdog Millionaire and Life of Pi), a lonely widower who works as an account and is planning an early retirement. Sajaan was used to getting the lousy cooking from a local restaurant near his home, but one day there’s a glitch in this century old system and he mistakenly receives a scrumptious meal from Ila, an equally lonely beautiful young woman who had been hoping to win back through his stomach the heart of her cheating and neglectful husband.

Realizing the mistake, the next day Ila sends a note thanking the unknown recipient for sending back the tins empty and for the few brief moments when she’d thought she had actually touched her husband’s heart. The response from Sajaan, a grumpy old curmudgeon who grumbles at the kids playing ball outside his home, is initially short and brusque, but soon the two are corresponding, opening up their hearts and sharing their memories, fears and hopes; making a heartwarming connection of love and friendship that could quite possibly save them both.

I loved this movie. It was perfect in so many ways. The two lead stars never share a scene together during the film, yet like Sleepless in Seattle, the emotions and connection of our star-crossed lovers is no less palpable and like that aforementioned film, as Sajaan and Ila read each note, it’s like magic. You feel their joy and excitement with each new revelation, their heartbreak and fear as they face their own vulnerabilities, and their hope as they dream of a better tomorrow.

The acting was phenomenal. Khan was pitch perfect in his portrayal of Sajaan, convincingly conveying his melancholy and loneliness with a simple pensive gaze or his newfound feelings with a small, almost bashful smile. Nimrat Kaur as Ila is striking, not only in her beauty but the understated way in which she portrayed her character. I didn’t remember to write down the name of the supporting actor who played Sajaan’s replacement and later friend, Shaikh, but he did a wonderful job as well and managed to stand out even amongst the two engaging and talented leads.

Offering a veritable smorgasbord of romance and charm, The Lunchbox is a true gem that enchanted me with its beautiful yet unconventional love story.