Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Being Mortal

Benjamin Franklin astutely said "In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes." Thankfully modern science has altered the course of human life, helping us all to live longer, delaying the inevitable. In Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande, the surgeon and author asserts “We’ve been wrong about what our job is in medicine…We think it is to ensure health and survival. But really it is to enable well-being. And well-being is about the reasons one wishes to be alive.” Being Mortal is a book about the experience of mortality in today's society. Relying on anecdotal evidence from doctors, patients, health care providers and families, as well as his own personal experience with the death of his father, Gawande highlights how people experience the end of their lives – from the elderly in nursing homes forced to give up their privacy and autonomy, to seriously ill patients who face their waning days living through painful treatments that drain both their body and soul.

In Being Mortal’s critique of the nursing home system, which comprises the largest part of the book, Gawande examines how the old have to yield all control over their lives in accepting the rigidity of nursing home life; ceding their privacy in shared rooms and all control thanks to set schedules for every activity and hour of their day. While the official aim of an institution is caring and safety, for many of its residents it isn't always what some would call living. Gawande asserts that there are possibly better approaches out there today, and offers compelling success stories of caring innovators that have come up with groundbreaking solutions by thinking outside the box. One such example is a retirement community in the Boston suburbs called NewBridge. While still a nursing home, it’s so different from what we’ve come to expect; instead of housing 60 people to a floor in shared rooms along hospital corridors, NewBridge is divided into smaller pods with no more than 16 people. Each pod is called a household. Rooms are private and built around a common living area with dining room, kitchen and activity room like a home; namely, like the homes many elderly have been forced to give up.

The latter part of the book focuses on terminal patients, end of life care, and how many times medicine fails those it is supposed to help. Gawande discusses how many times doctors, including himself, and patients avoid talking honestly about the choices faced by ill patients near the end. While there is always something more which can be done, the question doctors and patients avoid is whether it should be done. “People with serious illness have priorities besides simply prolonging their lives,” he writes. “If your problem is fixable, we know just what to do. But if it’s not? The fact that we have had no adequate answers to this question is troubling and has caused callousness, inhumanity and extraordinary suffering.” Though Gawande doesn’t offer easy answers on this subject, his wholehearted advocacy of hospice care is readily apparent. In speaking of his own father’s experience with hospice care he states “Here is what a different kind of care — a different kind of medicine — makes possible.”

Being Mortal is a fascinating and eye-opening read. A book that compassionately sheds a light on truths that realistically will impact us all one day, whether directly or indirectly. More importantly it offers a lesson in empathy, for every story shared comes with a name that is or was a living, breathing human being that was sad, lonely, sick, or scared and fighting for their due respect from life and those around them.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Redemption Road

At over 400 pages, Redemption Road by John Hart is a literary thriller that reads like a much smaller book as the pages fly by in the reader’s need to embrace a wide cast of vivid and compelling characters and unlock the tale's multiple mysteries. It is an utterly riveting and gripping multi-layered story, beautifully written, where nothing on the page is filler but instead every word serves a purpose.

From the publisher: "Imagine: A boy with a gun waits for the man who killed his mother. A troubled detective confronts her past in the aftermath of a brutal shooting. After thirteen years in prison, a good cop walks free as deep in the forest, on the altar of an abandoned church, a body cools in pale lining. This is a town on the brink. This is Redemption Road."

I loved Redemption Road. This is my first John Hart novel, but it definitely won't be my last. A crime thriller with an emotionally charged plot perfectly paced, dealing with a murder mystery and the always volatile subjects of police corruption and prison abuse. The story is so well-constructed and characters so fleshed out that you feel an incredible sense of familiarity with each; the more you learned about each, the more you wanted to know. Relying on multiple points of view, the plot and parallel subplot develop at a relentless, yet very deliberate pace. With tension, suspense, and intricately woven truths and secrets that are slowly and meticulously revealed, Hart has constructed with the precision of a surgeon with a scalpel and the prose and beauty of a poet, a moving tale about real people who are nuanced, complex and unforgettable.

While the mysteries were relatively predictable, it was the characters that kept me joyfully reading for they were truly memorable in their depth. Like the real world, the good and bad guys aren't easily identified, no white and black hats. Flawed, conflicted, with a history; saved yet lost, loyal yet treacherous, innocent yet corrupted. Using light and shade, Hart has created characters that feel incredibly authentic. Central to the story are Elizabeth, feisty yet emotionally wounded, she’s a good cop accused of the excessive force shooting (18 bullets) of two men caught raping and torturing a young girl, who is left fighting for both her future and her freedom; Adrian, an ex-cop and ex-con struggling for his soul and very sanity; and Channing, a girl trying to piece herself back together after the most soul-altering of experiences. Each is on their own path to redemption, without even knowing it. The amazing thing is that in each wildly different character the reader can find a palpable piece of humanity with which to connect and empathize - one's desperation, the other's fear, love, hate, and/or bravery.

The book's jacket touts John Hart as the one and only author to win back-to-back Edgars (the most prestigious awards in the mystery genre) for best novel. If Redemption Road is any indication of his talent, then it's no surprise why. Redemption Road is quite apropos a story of redemption (duh) that speaks to the strength and resilience of the human spirit to face its demons and overcome, emerging battered and scarred but triumphant.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Laughter is...

I’m so easy, a real floozy, quite free and indiscriminate with my…laughs. Where did you think I was going with that? Get your mind out of the gutter people! Yup, I’m an easy laugher. It doesn’t take much to tickle my funny bone. If the joke is even in the remote vicinity of being funny – general ballpark and/or neighborhood works for me, it’s sure to illicit a giggle, chuckle, guffaw or full out belly-laugh. I'm a comedians wet dream.

The joy is that it's a win-win for all involved; the joke teller gets a much needed boost of self-esteem and I enjoy a boost to my immune system. Wait, what? Oh yeah, a chuckle a day, might actually keep the doctor away folks, as research seems to support some truth to the old adage that 'laughter is the best medicine'. In fact, the Mayo Clinic's website asserts that laughing does more than just lift your spirits - it actually causes physical changes in your body, including increasing the release of endorphins by your brain, increasing your intake of oxygen, improving your immune system, and relieving pain. Another article I found from Psychology Today reported that at a meeting of the American College of Cardiology, “a study of 20 healthy people, provoking laughter did as much good for their arteries as aerobic activity.”

Now that doesn’t mean we can sit on the couch, watch funny YouTube videos, eat Big Macs and live to be a 100. We could try to beat the odds, anything is possible, but a safer bet is that if we add a dash of exercise, a dollop of healthy foods, and a sprinkling of laughs to each day, we'll have the perfect recipe for a healthier, happier and longer life. No guarantees of course, but it’s worth a shot, right? With that thought in mind, I thought I’d share some links to recent funnies that made me laugh. I'm about to add at least five minutes to your life. You're welcome! Here they are in no particular order.

1. Nacho Libre. This is recent only in so far as the date of its last viewing, because in fact it's an oldie but goodie. I’ve watched this movie with my knuckleheads more times than I can recall, including just last weekend. Irregardless of the number of viewings, it makes me laugh like the first time every time. I can actually quote more lines than I’m willing to admit.

2. Oprah Loves Bread. Maya Rudolph’s parody of Oprah’s Weight Watcher’s commercial is pure comedy genius. Priceless!

3. Comedian Sebastian Maniscalco’s “What’s Wrong With People” stand-up routine bit on uninvited guests, including this equally funny segment on jury duty.

4. Ozzy Man Videos - Cat vs. Rat and/or Goat vs. Town. Foul-mouthed hilarity at its best.

5. Bob’s Burger – Jericho. Paul Rudd as a horse. What more do I need to say? Gallop, gallop, gallop.

Edited to include #6. Come at me bro!! OMG.
Update #2 to include #7. Oh no you didn't! LOL. Cats can be such jerks.

Find the funny in life and keep on laughing!

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

A Grief Observed

Grief is personal and its experience unique to each person. It’s not something that you can guide someone through, no magic pill or words to miraculously erase someone’s pain. So while A Grief Observed, published under a pseudonym in 1961 and republished under C.S. Lewis’ own name after his death, can’t be used as an instructional guidebook to see you through grief’s morass, its comfort comes in the human connection found in seeing your own similar anger, sorrow, and fears upon the loss of a loved one either wholly or in part mirrored in its pages.

A Grief Observed is a tiny book (76 pages) written by C.S. Lewis on the heartbreaking death of his wife, American novelist and poet, Helen Joy Gresham (nee Davidman), referred to as “H.” in the book. A world renowned author and scholar, C.S. Lewis had led a relatively simple life until he found love and passion late in life with Joy. The unlikeliest of couples; he a stoic British academic, author, and Oxford professor, and H. an American divorcĂ©e, mother of two, and converted Christian born into a Jewish family in New York. Yet somehow they found each other and their love and faith persevered in the face of illness, suffering and death.

In the book, Lewis reflects on his grief; it feels like fear he says, like being mildly drunk, struggling to take in what anyone says, needing space yet wanting others about out of dread of when the house is empty. In his pain, he beseeches God for answers, "Oh God, God, why did you take such trouble to force this creature out of his shell if it is now doomed to crawl back - to be sucked back - into it?" and at other instances strikes back at God for not answering his pleas, “Where is God?...Go to him when your need is desperate, when all other help is in vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside.”

The book was compiled from four notebooks used as an emotional outlet during his period of bereavement. From Chapter 1 to 4, the reader can see the slow progression of healing; as his initial anger dissipates, as the fears of forgetting H. diminish, as acceptance and remembering start to take root. Whereas he initially fears that his own impressions and memory will alter the real shape of her, he later confesses to surprisingly realizing that his dissipating sorrow has helped to lift some kind of barrier and that when he mourns H. least, he remembers her best. “Such was the fact. And I believe I can make sense out of it. You can’t see anything properly while your eyes are blurred with tears.”

Lewis concedes that when you least expect it grief returns because nothing stays put. “One keeps on emerging from a phase, but it always recurs. Round and round. Everything repeats. Am I going in circles, or dare I hope I am on a spiral?” He compares grief to a long valley, where you go around the bend and see new landscapes, but sometimes you run across the same scenery you left behind miles ago. Ultimately, Lewis makes his peace with God; slowly realizing the door was not shut and bolted as initially thought, asserting that “perhaps your own reiterated cries deafen you to the voice you hoped to hear,” and accepts that in loving H. the pain was part of the happiness. When you open yourself up to life and love, it all becomes a package deal.

While I see glimpses in Lewis' book of the grief I suffered after the loss of my mom, who was my mother, best friend, fan, confidant and general zen master of my life, I confess that my faith was in fact what saw me through my sorrow, giving me strength and succor. Unlike Lewis, I felt a great sense of gratitude to God for ending my mother’s suffering. But like I said above, grief is unique to each of us. In fact, in the book’s introduction, Lewis’ stepson stresses the use of the indefinite article (the “A”) in the title; making it clear that the book is merely one person’s perspective. Not a right or wrong way to experience grief. Just one person’s journey through the gradual healing process.

I found A Grief Observed a beautiful and insightful book that holds in its pages the wisdom normally found in much larger and consequential tomes. Deeply moving and unforgettable.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Sleeping Giants

I've never been a sci-fi kind of gal, whether books or movies. Don't hold it against me, but I’ve never found great appeal in aliens, space travel, or robots. Star Wars, I'll pass. Star Trek, no thanks. For the most part, I’d rather keep my feet and head firmly planted in reality. Yet Sleeping Giants, the amazing debut novel by Sylvain Neuvel just made me a freaking convert. Holy moly, I absolutely loved it. An original and gripping thriller in the truest sense of the word for it thrills, excites and inspires with an unforgettable story.

From the publisher: “A girl named Rose is riding her new bike near her home in Deadwood, South Dakota, when she falls through the earth. She wakes up at the bottom of a square hole, its walls glowing with intricate carvings. But the firemen who come to save her peer down upon something even stranger: a little girl in the palm of a giant metal hand. Seventeen years later, the mystery of the bizarre artifact remains unsolved—its origins, architects, and purpose unknown. Its carbon dating defies belief; military reports are redacted; theories are floated, then rejected. But some can never stop searching for answers. Rose Franklin is now a highly trained physicist leading a top secret team to crack the hand’s code. And along with her colleagues, she is being interviewed by a nameless interrogator whose power and purview are as enigmatic as the provenance of the relic. What’s clear is that Rose and her compatriots are on the edge of unraveling history’s most perplexing discovery—and figuring out what it portends for humanity. But once the pieces of the puzzle are in place, will the result prove to be an instrument of lasting peace or a weapon of mass destruction?”

Sleeping Giants is easily one of the best books I’ve read so far this year (or really any year). The plot is fully fleshed out with vivid characters, suspenseful drama, and a page-turning story that is relentlessly captivating. The story is told through interviews, journal entries, transcripts and news articles. You’d think this narrative format would somehow diminish the quality of character development, but instead we’re gifted with three-dimensional characters that capture both your heart and imagination; strengths, flaws, endearing idiosyncrasies and even acerbic wit is laid out like a feast for the readers enjoyment. A physicist, an army helicopter pilot, a linguist and a mysterious interrogator; the unlikeliest bunch of heroes you’ll ever meet.

Now for the good stuff, the robot. Oh yeah, there’s a robot. A giant robot. The hand from wrist to fingertip is nearly 23 feet and the torso is the height of a six-story building. Cool, huh? Here’s a little tidbit to leave you lightsaber fans salivating – our robot has weapons, our heroes haven’t discovered all of them yet, but one is a sword and shield; a focused-energy weapon, like a lightsaber, only wider, double-edged more like a medieval sword, kinda like Star Wars meets Lord of the Rings. Some of you are already running to Barnes & Noble or Amazon to buy your copy right? Believe me, there’s so much more.

What makes this new author’s achievement even more compelling is the fact that the book wasn’t published in the typical manner. Much like Andy Weir did with The Martian, Neuvel self-published and thankfully when the book garnered praise (well deserved), Hollywood and the publishing world came knocking.

Packed with twists and turns like any good thriller, giant robot or not, and capped off with a jaw-dropping cliffhanger that leaves fans panting for the next book in the series – yes, it’s a series (I don’t know how I’ll be able to wait until next year), Sleeping Giants is a tour de force from a brilliant new author.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Me Before You

After much waiting and eager anticipation, last weekend Me-day finally arrived; I packed my Kleenex and dark sunglasses to soak up my tears and hide my puffy eyes, respectively, then hit my local theater with bucket of popcorn, soda and chocolate bar in hand. Chocolate is a must in this type of situation, along with antioxidants, it has magical tear-fighting properties. It works wonders at sad movies, after crappy work days, and though I can't personally attest to it, I do believe its restorative powers work after arguments with boyfriends, husbands and/or bratty kids.

For those of you unfamiliar with the movie or book of the same name, Me Before You centers around young and quirky Louisa "Lou" Clark (Emilia Clarke) who moves from one job to the next to help her family make ends meet. Her cheerful attitude is put to the test when she becomes a caregiver for Will Traynor (Sam Claflin), a wealthy young banker left paralyzed from an accident two years earlier. Will's cynical outlook starts to change when Louisa shows him that life is worth living. As their bond deepens, their lives and hearts change in ways neither one could have imagined.

I really loved the movie, though I’m gonna go all book snob on you and say – say it with me now – the book is better. Nonetheless, it is a movie well worth the ticket price and the two hours of your life. It goes without saying that it was romantic, sweet, charming, funny and at times heartbreaking. Between the beautiful actors, great acting, emotional dialogue, and wonderful soundtrack, your heartstrings are expertly plucked – played like a harp – from start to finish.

The screenplay was adapted by the book’s author herself, Jojo Moyes, so as you can imagine the film was very true to its source material. The casting was spot on; Emilia Clarke perfectly captured Lou’s joie de vivre, as well as the innocent wonder of someone exposed to new experiences and shown the possibility of a future rich with limitless potential. Claflin was brilliant, especially given that his performance is restrained to facial expressions given Will’s physical limitations as a paraplegic. Whether stealing Lou’s heart (and ours in the process) with his toothy boyish smile or conveying the depths of Will’s sorrow and disillusionment with a solemn look of heartache, Claflin did both with apparent ease. While each actor firmly stood on their own two feet, it was the chemistry between the two where the magic happened; utterly enchanting.

Me Before You is an unabashed chick-flick; a charming romance, light on laughter and heavy on both sap (the more the better) and tears. I stayed away from any spoilers in this post, but I will offer a word of warning, bring Kleenex!

Sunday, June 12, 2016

The Farewell Party

As I mentioned in my previous post, I watched The Farewell Party, a Hebrew film with English subtitles, last weekend. The film deals with the serious issue of assisted suicide and an individual's right to die by striking a perfect balance between the kind of gravity due this solemn subject, as well as a healthy dose of humor and heart. It's a rare film that can both educate and entertain, rarer still one that can manage to do it through both laughter and tears combined, and The Farewell Party does it brilliantly. The film centers around a group of friends living at a senior citizen's retirement community that build a machine for self-euthanasia in order to help their terminally ill friend end his suffering. Despite all attempts at secrecy, as word spreads, the motley group of friends get additional requests for help, and are forced to face some serious moral dilemmas.

I absolutely loved this film. It was a bittersweet story of love and friendship that makes no qualms on its stance on its controversial subject, but regardless of where you personally stand, whether you agree or disagree, it's a film that will touch your heart, tickle your funny bone, and make you seriously ponder this important subject. A hospital visit by Yehezkel and his wife Levana, to their friend Max, suffering with terminal cancer and in agony from bed sores and the disease, sets this tale in motion when Max begs them to end his suffering. Yehezkel, an inventor of sorts with tons of gadgets of his own creation scattered throughout his home, decides to go against his wife's wishes and help Max and his wife Yana by building a Kevorkian-like machine which Max can use to self-administer a lethal cocktail of meds to painlessly end his life. After having little success with recruiting the help of a doctor also living at the retirement facility, the secret duo end up with Dr. Daniel, a veterinarian, who initially mistakenly assumes Max is a dog. The device is finally used by Max, at which time he movingly attests 'if I use this I will die, if I don't I will suffer and then I will die', leaving the group grief-stricken but at peace with their role, though that soon changes when Yehezkel is tasked with the choice of helping someone he loves.

There are countless moments of irreverent humor and heartbreaking sadness in this film. It's really such a contradiction, but it honestly, effortlessly it seems, manages to make you laugh out loud only to poignantly touch your heart and make you cry in the next moment. It's the little moments in the film that touched me the deepest, such as when Yehezkel first visits Max in the hospital and changes his diaper because the nurse refused. A profoundly humbling moment seeing a man gently caring for his old friend; with no pride or embarrassment between them, just love. Equally memorable is when Yehezkel, with a digitally masked voice, calls his friend Zelda as "God" and tries to convince her to continue with her medications, saying there's no vacancies in heaven right now. Each moment serves as a simple, yet perfect example of love and friendship in their purest form.

The moral dilemma of someone's right to die is not one likely to be decided or resolved by this film, but one nonetheless that merits serious discussion and debate. There are countless factors that can alter the equation and people's sentiments on the issue - is the person terminally ill and facing imminent death, is the person's quality of life severely diminished by a degenerative disease, such as those existing but not truly living, as the case with countless souls facing the 'long goodbye' of Alzheimer's. While I'm not 100% sure what I'd do faced with such a decision, I know that I respect someone else's choice to say enough is enough and believe with both fervor and conviction that God in his infinite wisdom and mercy would neither condemn nor forsake those who saw this as their only recourse.

Albeit a film dealing with death, The Farewell Party, equally conveys the beauty of life, love and friendship. A must-see film.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Let's Schmooze!

For those first time visitors, no I'm not Jewish despite the Yiddish in the post title, it's just a lame attempt at wit. I must admit I like the word, though not as much as verklempt, a favorite, or meshugener. Yes, though there are undoubtedly millions of Hispanic Jews, with a name like Maria Magdalena aka Mary Magdalene, you'd be right in guessing it a pretty sure bet that a) I'm Catholic, b) a Catholic was involved in my procreation and/or naming, or c) both of the above. Ding, ding, ding, if you guessed c).

I've gotten completely sidetracked. Anyway, I just wanted to catch up and commiserate on life. As you've probably guessed from the countless book reviews I've posted, I've been reading a lot. I've managed it by trading in one addiction, television, for another, reading. It seems I can't do anything in moderation, which probably explains the 20 pounds I'm trying to lose. Prior to the summer hiatus, the only show I was watching was The Voice; now it's America's Got Talent. Thanks to NBC though, I think I know what I’ll be doing on Tuesday nights for the foreseeable future after watching this emotional trailer for their new dramedy, This Is Us, starring Mandy Moore and Milo Ventimiglia. It’s hard to gauge from just a two minute clip, but it looks like a winner. Like holding a mirror up to life; in that brief snapshot it offers a reflection of the happiness, sadness, anger, fear, and joy that can be found in one simple life.

I'll wait while you watch. Looks great doesn't it? As further proof of my total lack of moderation skills or a slight case of masochism, this weekend I went to see Me Before You, and as if one movie about untimely death wasn't enough, I followed it up with an On Demand order of The Farewell Party, a Hebrew film with English subtitles that deals with euthanasia. I loved both, but surprisingly would give a slight edge to the latter. I'll be posting a review of each shortly.

What else? Well, summer is almost here. Nooooooo! In case you were unaware, I hate summer. During this season I avoid the outdoors like the plague, fully aware of the consequences otherwise, namely my armpit sweat rings spread like creeping fungus, the humidity makes my hair look like the afro I sported in middle school or like I’m freaking Mufasa from the Lion King, and my cheeks normally rosy due to either a mild case of rosacea or all the years of excessive blushing, turn a violent red like I’m ready to explode. Not my best look, for sure. Nonetheless, it’ll be nice to have some time off. While I won’t be traveling anywhere, I do plan on one or two short staycations. Maybe take a trip into the city, see a show.

Thanks for the schmooze and for those family and friends that still indulge my flights of fancy and actually read this blog, if we don’t see each other soon, have a great summer! For some reason completely unbeknownst to me, I’ve really been enjoying writing lately, so I’ll keep posting about all my recent books, movies, adventures and thoughts. Don’t be a stranger, stop by and visit.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Don't Worry Be Grumpy

Don’t Worry Be Grumpy: Inspiring Stories for Making the Most of Each Moment is an insightful little book offering funny stories or parables that both educate and inspire. Written by Ajahn Brahm, a Cambridge physics graduate ordained as a Buddhist monk more than thirty years ago and currently the Abbot of Bodhinyana Forest Monastery in Serpentine, Western Australia. Each story’s purpose is to offer timeless wisdom that hopefully help us face life’s many obstacles with resilience and more insightful perspective.

Often funny, but always optimistic, the stories cover a variety of topics. On anxiety, he notes that “anxiety is looking at the future and considering all the things that could go wrong. The antidote is to look at the future and consider all the things that could go right. It's adding hoping rather than negativity to your future. So don't worry. Be hopey.”

Memories make up the fabric of our lives and are inseparably linked with emotion, which is why we remember the happiest and saddest moments in our life the most clearly, but we can’t let our negative memories anchor us down. Ajahn Brahm states that unlike photo albums in which we only record the happiest moments of our life, we have another photo album of sorts – our memory – in which we store countless negative photos. Here we keep snapshots of arguments, when a loved one let us down, or treated us cruelly. We have to learn to let go and discard the negative. Keeping only the happy ones so that in spare or dark moments, we can flip through its pages and smile.

Coping with the grief and loss of a loved one is an emotional hurdle in everyone’s life. In this regard, Ajahn Brahm reminds us that lost loved ones are “like loved ones which we see off on an ocean voyage, whom we lose sight of as they go beyond the horizon. We know they're not gone totally, they're just passed the line that separates them from our view. The same can be said for loved ones that have died. While they have passed beyond our view they have not totally disappeared and we will see them again.”

Lastly, as the goal of each story is to help us lead a more enlightened life, towards that end we’re reminded that there are two ways to be happy; improve your reality or lower your expectations. Follow the 70% rule and lead a happier life. Don’t know what that is? Well, never expect 100% from life and/or people, and you won't be disappointed. If you expect to fail 30% of the time, you'll lead a richer life. If you aim for perfection, you'll be stressed and afraid. Lower your expectations and you’ll lower your disappointments. As Shakespeare wisely said “Expectation is the root of all heartache.”

Although some stories were better than others and some advice is easier said than done, Don't Worry, Be Grumpy as a whole was well worth the read. It’s small in size and most of the stories span only a couple pages, so it can easily be read and absorbed at your leisure so that a more insightful you, can make for a happier more peaceful you.

The Lifeboat Clique

The Lifeboat Clique is a YA dark comedy, perfectly described as Mean Girls meets Life of Pi. While high school can be a dog-eat-dog world, where the meek definitely don’t inherit the earth, and everything feels like it’s life and death, the situation isn't quite so literal as in this at times laugh out loud teen novel.

From the publisher: “Some people might say that Denver has a death wish. Why else would she dare to sneak into a Malibu beach party where she’d be surrounded by enemies? Oh yeah. Croix. Denver never thought in a million years he’d ask her out, but who is she to question this miracle of fate? Well, that isn’t the only surprise fate has in store. During the party a tsunami hits the coast of California, and Denver and a handful of others escape death and are swept out to sea. Of course, one of her fellow castaways is none other than her ex-BFF, Abigail, who can barely stand the sight of her. Trapped on a small boat with the most popular kids in school and waiting to be rescued, Denver wonders what might kill her first—dehydration, sunstroke, or the girl she used to think of as a sister?”

High school wasn’t my finest hour, or maybe it was, but no one knew about it. I pretty much donned my cape of invisibility all four years. As for this 'irreverent yet insightful' novel, it was pretty great. A bright, smart and witty story that perfectly captures teen angst, cliques, and the caste system or social hierarchy found in most high schools. Humor abounds on its pages, but also moments of depth, compassion and sadness, when that ugly thing called loss rears its ugly head.

In The Lifeboat Clique, not only has the author delivered an original premise, unique in its satirical tone, but she's done so with Denver, a charmingly sweet, funny and at times self-deprecating protagonist that you can't help but like. Through Denver's acerbic wit and youthful honesty she shares some universal truths on this common experience; "You are certain when you walk thru those doors, who will talk to you and who will not…you know if you are the hunter or the prey. You know if people think you’re smart or funny or pretty or geeky or annoying or cool or - worst of all – if they don’t think anything about you.” Everyone's experience is different, but in those few sentences, Parks reminds us (or at least did me) of one simple truth - high school was hard, it was so much more than classes, pop quizzes, free periods and gym. If it was only that, it would’ve been easy. It was about fitting in, finding your place, and striving towards belonging in this small community you were inhabiting for four long years.

The Lifeboat Clique is much more though than a teen novel about high school, I'd be doing it a disservice if I characterized it merely as such, because it is equally and most importantly a story about friendship; about navigating those waters that can be fraught with peril, with loyalty, patience, kindness, and understanding. An enjoyable and engaging novel about two friends finding their own way and once again finding each other.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Only Ever You

Only Ever You is an incredibly engrossing, yet keenly harrowing book, totally unputdownable. I started it with all the best intentions of doing the responsible thing; read for a while and then get to bed in order to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for the start of the work week, but all that went out the window once I read the first couple chapters. In its pages, author Rebecca Drake delivers an emotional roller coaster of a novel that eloquently speaks to a parent’s worst nightmare, the abduction of a child.

From the publisher: “Jill Lassiter’s three-year-old daughter disappears from a playground only to return after 40 frantic minutes, but her mother’s relief is short-lived–there’s a tiny puncture mark on Sophia’s arm. When doctors can find no trace of drugs in her system, Jill accepts she’ll never know what happened, but at least her child is safe. Except Sophia isn’t. Someone is watching the Lassiter home in an affluent Pennsylvania suburb, infiltrating the family’s personal and professional lives…Three months after the incident at the park, Sophia disappears again, but this time Jill and David become the focus of police and media scrutiny and suspicion. Facing every parent’s worst nightmare a second time, Jill discovers that someone doesn’t just want Sophia for her own, she wants to destroy the entire family.”

Only Ever You makes for appointment reading at its best. The type of book which you can’t start and put down so budget some time in your day. The bond between mother (parent) and child is one of unbreakable strength, enduring tenderness, of limitless and unconditional love, transcending time and distance; so when that connection is threatened or broken, the pain is as immeasurable as is that love's beauty. Ugh, this book is heart-wrenching, heart-pounding, and in our protagonist’s fear, loss, grief and love, her every word palpably heartbreaking.

Told through the dual points of view of Jill and an unknown antagonist whose sinister presence inspires real fear with her mere presence on the page, the author skillfully builds the tension by incrementally raising the stakes in this mother’s race against time and the unknown to save her child, marriage and future. In addition to a great plot filled with twists and turns, as well as well-placed clues and foreshadowing, the author has delivered a great female protagonist with whom the reader feels emotionally invested; both fragile and haunted by previous loss, her love proves her strength and ultimate salvation. In her unrelenting and desperate search for the truth and her child, whose absence is a physical ache, Jill proves that “a mother’s love for her child is like nothing else in the world. It knows no law, no pity, it dares all things and crushes down remorselessly all that stands in its path.”

Only Ever You keeps you on the edge of your seat for an adrenaline-fueled, gripping read filled with white-knuckle suspense that will leave you holding your kids (if you have them) a little tighter. Whether or not a parent though, the novel’s message of love and loss is one which applies to everyone, and serves as a simple reminder to hold those we hold dear a little closer each and every day.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

The Girl I Used to Be

Mark Twain said “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; truth isn't.” The Girl I Used to Be, an engrossing YA mystery from April Henry proves the adage true, as the novel is based on an unlikely real-life mystery from the 1980s.

From the publisher: “Fourteen years ago, Ariel's parents took her to the forest to cut down a Christmas tree—and never come back. When a three-year-old is found at a Walmart, it takes time for authorities to connect her with a missing family over a hundred miles away. Then Ariel's mother's body is found in the woods. She's been stabbed 19 times. Since she had a rocky relationship with Ariel's father, everyone figures he just snapped. Ariel ends up in foster care, and eventually a failed adoption leaves her with a new name: Olivia. Now a human body found in the woods has changed what everyone thought was true about that day. DNA results prove that her dad was killed along with her mother, and it was the killer who took the girl to the Walmart. Now Ariel/Olivia is determined to uncover the truth. But can she do that before the killer tracks her down first?”

While this isn't the next Murder on the Orient Express, it is nonetheless a page-turning, fast moving small book which you can easily plow through in one sitting. The pace is basically break-neck speed from start to finish. The author jumps straight into the tale without really any character development or build up in tension because it's already ratcheted up to the nth degree. The fictional part of the story pickups from the real mystery when Olivia discovers that her father wasn't in fact a psychopathic killer but a victim like her mother; no longer someone to fear, but to mourn. Now 17 and an emancipated minor, Olivia decides to travel to her old hometown, attend her father's memorial service and relying on her new name to hide her true identity, just maybe, catch a killer.

There are a few, oh c'mon, kind of moments which you have to overlook or put the book down and stop reading. For example, the fact that a 17 year old with a minimum wage job could go into a real estate office and just rent a house for the month, or that the same 17 year old could go around asking strangers questions about a 14 year old murder but nobody would be suspicious. In spite of all of this, I have to say it was entertaining. It had a cute little romance in it, nothing serious - they're 17 after all, Olivia was a likable and sympathetic character, and it offered just enough suspense and raised enough questions that you wanted to know more.

The Girl I Used to Be is a light yet enjoyable YA mystery; perfect for a young teen in your life or for a quick poolside read while sipping a fruity summer concoction, alcohol optional.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Missing Pieces

It’s said that three things cannot long stay hidden: the sun, the moon and the truth. Credence is given to that statement in Heather Gudenkauf’s latest thriller, Missing Pieces, in which betrayal starts not in big lies but in small secrets that threaten to undermine and possibly destroy a marriage.

From the publisher: “Sarah Quinlan's husband, Jack, has been haunted for decades by the untimely death of his mother when he was just a teenager, her body found in the cellar of their family farm, the circumstances a mystery. The case rocked the small farm town of Penny Gate, Iowa, where Jack was raised, and for years Jack avoided returning home. But when his beloved aunt Julia is in an accident, hospitalized in a coma, Jack and Sarah are forced to confront the past that they have long evaded…But as facts about Julia's accident begin to surface, Sarah realizes that nothing about the Quinlans is what it seems. Caught in a flurry of unanswered questions, Sarah dives deep into the puzzling rabbit hole of Jack's past. But the farther in she climbs, the harder it is for her to get out. And soon she is faced with a deadly truth she may not be prepared for.”

Heather Gudenkauf is one of my go-to authors. whose books always deliver gripping stories with the twist and turns you expect from this genre. In addition to intriguing plots, she also has a great facility to convey small town life and the close-knit bonds found there. In Missing Pieces, Gudenkauf has once again delivered a suspenseful tale set in an idyllic rural American town. For years, Jack Quinlan’s fears and shame put him on a path of lies to those closest to him, namely his wife Sarah. Returning to the scene of the crime as they say, Sarah begins to uncover simple truths about her husband, and quickly comes to fear that one lie is enough to question all truths. Who is this man she thought she knew so well, and what else is he hiding?

Overall, I enjoyed Missing Pieces, though I didn't love it. The pacing was smooth, albeit slower than the relentless pedal to the metal speed found in some thrillers; nonetheless, enough to keep you curious and turning pages. Unfortunately, the characters could have been better fleshed out and while Sarah made for a good narrator with an outsider's perspective, dubious of one and all, I would have loved to have the benefit of Jack’s point of view; to be inside his head, especially during the key past moments that were integral to his own tale.

As for our narrator, Sarah, while I sympathized with her sense of betrayal, I also felt she was way too quick to believe the worst of a man with whom she’d spent the whole of her adult life. Sure a lie here and there can (and probably would) mar the image you have of someone you’ve idealized in your own heart and mind, but after being married for 20 years with two adult children together, you can’t tell me that there wouldn’t be a thousand and one other moments that could have been given equal weight to a few lies in shedding light on someone’s character and goodness. Ballsy at times, too hand-wringing in others, she was a contradiction I found annoying at times.

In short, though not a stellar example of Gudenkauf’s usual quality writing, Missing Pieces, was a relatively suspenseful read that captured the human frailties of sin and evil which can hide behind a friendly small town smile.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Crazy Love You

Crazy Love You by Lisa Unger is a psychological thriller notable for its less than reliable narrator, and boy is he a doozy. The joy and headache, doled out in equal measure, of a novel relying on this literary device is that as a reader you have to work for your happy ending. What can you believe? Who do you believe? Each moment or memory has to be taken with a grain of salt, parsed and dissected. Each question raised and truth revealed through secondary characters only serves as a page-turning force keeping you on the edge of your seat wondering what comes next.

From the publisher: “Darkness has a way of creeping up when Ian is with Priss. Even when they were kids, playing in the woods of their small upstate New York town, he could feel it. Still, Priss was his best friend, his salvation from the bullies who called him "loser" and "fatboy"... and from his family's deadly secrets. Now that they've both escaped to New York City, Ian no longer inhabits the tortured shell of his childhood. He is a talented and successful graphic novelist, and Priss...Priss is still trouble. The booze, the drugs, the sex--Ian is growing tired of late nights together trying to keep the past at bay. Especially now that he's met sweet, beautiful Megan, whose love makes him want to change for the better. But Priss doesn't like change. Change makes her angry. And when Priss is angry, terrible things begin to happen...”

I so enjoyed this book. It was so much more than I expected, including twists, surprises, and different elements to the story that I couldn’t foresee just from reading the summary. I’ll caveat my limited comments by stating that it’s kind of difficult to discuss Ian’s varying truths without spoiling the story, which I obviously don’t want to do. Nonetheless, I can honestly say that the story and characters had depth and while some, most notably our two main protagonists, were less likeable than others, they all intrigued and captured your imagination. Though far from a saint, Ian was in large part the reason why I loved the book as much as I did. Even while doubting his every word, at times questioning if he was being purposely deceptive or just unable to face his own truth at that given moment, I felt a large measure of compassion for the child who cruelly suffered at the hands of others, for as he said, ‘sticks and stones may break your bones, but words will break your heart’, and for the ‘man-baby’ as Priss would say, who still seemed a boy lost in the big bad world, desperately searching for love and acceptance.

I’ll close by saying that, though I’m not usually one to toot my own horn, TOOT TOOT suckers (sorry about that, the excitement got the best of me), because despite Ian’s drug and booze-addled evasions, I actually figured out this tale’s riddle. I honestly had my doubts until the end, and in actuality, the ending doesn’t offer a conclusive or concrete answer or resolution, as it’s open to interpretation, but I will toot nonetheless.

Crazy Love You was engrossing and compelling from start to finish and maintained a relentless pace throughout, so you better stay on top of your game and pay attention or else you might miss something.