Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Jesus Land by Julia Scheeres

Book:  Jesus Land 

Author:  Julia Scheeres 

Grade:  B-

Recommended To:  The Religious Right (not!) 

Jesus Land is the memoir story of a girl and her adopted black brother and their story of survival throughout their  teenage years.  Julia and David have a terrible home life, get into trouble (which mostly sounds like normal teenage behavior), and then are shipped off to reform school in the Dominican Republic. 

Some of the stories in this book are very difficult to read.  There is a lot of child and sexual abuse in this book.  Although I don't think these children were necessarily abused because of their religious upbringing; perhaps their parents' very strict view of the Bible accounted for some of the harsh punishments the kids received.

The story begins when the family moves to Lafayette, Indiana and there aren't any other black kids at school in 1974.   This leads to tension for the kids at school and between the kids because as a white student, Julia ultimately has an easier time assimilating.   This part of the story is interesting enough, but the real juicy bits happen when both kids are shipped off to a reform school in the Dominican Republic.  There, they are systematically beaten down, physically and psychologically, and have witness punishments that are severe.

This book was an enthralling story, but sometimes I am doubtful of memoirs.  I don't think Julia is making it up, but everyone remembers things in a different way.  I would have loved to know about her current relationship with her wretched parents who sent her to the reform school, about how she has gotten past all of this abuse and what her life is like today.  Those details were not included in the book.  I would also have liked to read about the reform school's response to her book - because it is clearly an expose. 

Overall this book is an 80% or B-.  If you like this type of shocking memoir, then you should read it.  I got it on PBS without an issue and I'll probably stick my copy back up.

Happy Reading!!

Sunday, April 24, 2011

A Secret Kept by Tatiana de Rosney

Book:  A Secret Kept 

Author:  Tatiana de Rosney

Grade:  C+ 

Recommended To:  Divorcees, People who didn't read her first book. 

I didn't have very high expectations for this book because it is a second novel by a successful-first-novel author.  Usually the second novel isn't great.  I think this is because really good books don't happen overnight.  These first time authors get super successful and they want to capitalize on that success with a second book immediately when really they should engage in the editing process a bit.

That's what happened with this book.  I mostly liked Sarah's Key, the author's first book, but was not a part of the group of readers who thought this book was astronomically good.

The real issue with A Secret Kept is the characters.  The narrator is a middle aged man who can't communicate with anyone, his dying father, his grandmother, his sister, his children.  This is so far outside my family experience, I found myself getting frustrated with the narrator.  I just wanted him to man up already and ask his kid why he was getting in trouble with the law.

The other problem is that the secret builds and builds but then is only a little shocking.   You find out that narrator's mother died early, in her mid thirties, and then you find out that she was having an affair, also early on.  So, you aren't sure what the secret could be and generally it is disappointing for the amount of buildup. 

To this book's credit, I was wrapped up in it while I was reading.  It was a compelling story even though I was annoyed occasionally at the characters and the plot.  A lot of stuff happened that was out of the blue and kept the story moving.  de Rosney also has a gift for describing scenes and experiences that makes the story quick and light.  She doesn't drag the story down with a lot of pretentiousness and poor writing. 

So, If you read de Rosney's first book and loved it - I can imagine that your hopes might be dashed reading this one.  But, if you had low expectations to begin with, this book is a solid fast read.  I finished it in about a day.  This has been a hell of a week for reading.  My new job starts tomorrow, so I can only imagine how many hours I'll be working and how little time I will have to read and update this blog.  

Happy Reading!!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Insider by Reece Hirsch

Book:  The Insider 

Author:  Reece Hirsch 

Grade: B-/C+  (maybe I should start giving % ratings out of 100)  This would be 72%

Recommended To:  Legal Thriller and action fans.  Outsiders. 

I tried to win this book on Goodreads, failed and waited forrrevaaaa to get it on  Finally it comes, and I read it in a day.  It is the fastest I've read a book this year that is of any substantial length.  It seems that the font used for this book was especially huge; I might have gotten the "large print" version.

This book follows big law firm associate/partner Will Connelly in his short journey through the world of insider trading, the Russian mafia, and a potential murder charge.

Here's what I liked:  This was a quick book and what I classify as a "train read."  Super fast, easy, doesn't require a lot of thought.   This is the first book by Reece Hirsch and it was a solid first effort.  He probably has a promising future as an author as long as he sticks to what he knows, cuts down some of the character dialogue, and doesn't try to cram too much stuff in one book.

The plot was okay.  It often seemed like a HUGE stretch that a partner at a big firm would be knocked for insider trading, possible terrorism, murder, and connections to the Russian mob and all because he was set up to take the fall.  This could probably have been four books instead of one.  With all of the plot lines and twists it was hard to keep track of what was going on.

Here's what I didn't like:  The main character!  He was so dumb sometimes.  If the Russian Mob tells you that they are going to extort you, then you DO NOT under any circumstances leave your busy law office with them.  What is wrong with this guy.  He's so smart sometimes because he figures out all of the tenuous connections between terrorists, mobsters, partners, etc.  but he does some mega dumb things, like go to the Russian restaurant that serves as the headquarters of the mafia.  Alone.  As in -  by himself.  Foolish.

Connelly was also a very flat character.  Hirsch tried to give him dimension, but sometimes in these action based novels it is better not to pretend that the characters are substantive. The effort at substance highlighted that Connelly was flatter than ever.  Jack Bauer - not very substantive.  Excellent show?  Yes. 

I also didn't like the fight scene at the end.  Without giving too much away at one point the main dude and some other guy are circling each other with a hammer and a screwdriver respectively.  What?  The mental image I got from this was so funny I had to laugh out loud. 

I get that this is a first novel - and it was a solid first effort by Hirsch, but I think there were some serious plot fails that took away the story as a whole.  I enjoyed reading this book overall and if you are looking for something fast from a new and promising author - then you should check out this book.

Happy Reading!!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Predators by Anna Salter, Ph.D

Book:  Predators:  Pedophiles, Rapists, & Other Sex Offenders 

Author:  Anna Salter, Ph.D 

Grade:  B 

Recommended To:  Parents, Potential Parents, Grandparents.  Not recommended for actual children. 

My sister is a social worker and has spent the second half of her short life working with victims of sexual assault.  She read this book as a part of a class in college, owns two copies, and has been talking about this book non-stop for the last 7 years or so.

I finally, finally, decided to read it and I am seriously glad that I did.  I feel so much better prepared to have kids and to keep them safe after reading this book.  Which is why this book is recommended to every single person who has kids and every single person who wants to have kids.This book might become a staple in every baby shower gift that I give from now on.  Just so parents have the opportunity to be aware of the dangers facing their children.

The incidence of child molestation and rape is far too prevalent not to be prepared for this horrifying situation that could happen to anyone.  Salter breaks the book up into chapters about each type of predator and ends the book with chapters about how to detect deception and how to deflect predators from yourself and your children.  Those chapters were my favorite because Salter gives practical advice on what predators look for when they groom child victims and how to deflect that attention away from your kids.

Salter is admittedly a bit dry.  This is a sociological work and she goes into lots of detail about a lot of different studies.  This can drag, but she generally does an excellent job of explaining the studies in a way that is very easy for a lay person to understand.  She also includes a lot of anecdotes that move the book along very well.

A word of warning about this book.  It is absolutely terrifying.  Especially the chapter on psychopaths.  Those are the predators that don't feel even a bit of remorse or guilt when they lie, deceive, or commit heinous crimes.  I can't speak about the chapter on Sadists because I skipped it.  Salter includes a warning at the beginning of the chapter and says that if you don't think you can handle it, then you should skip it.  I opted to heed her warning.  I think I can be aware of predators without knowing the exact details of the crimes they commit in their own words.  That's too much.

In short, this book is B material.  I liked it.  I'm passing it around to all of the women in my book club so that we are prepared to keep our kids safe and I recommend it to everyone who has the same goal. 

Happy Reading! 

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Three Cups of Tea - Retraction

Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortensen 
Retraction based on 60 Minutes  

I feel it is necessary to issue a retraction for any statements I made endorsing the charity Central Asia Institute that was begun by Greg Mortensen, the author of Three Cups of Tea. 

60 Minutes aired a piece about the CAI today and exposed several aspects of Mortensen's charity as poorly run and several portions of his book as fictional, even though the book is written as a non-fiction account of Mortensen's work with the charity.  

I'm especially upset about this because I used the Central Asia Institute as my yearly Christmas charity this year.  My mother donates to a charity of our choice in our name each year for Christmas as a part of our gift and I loved Three Cups of Tea  so much that I chose the CAI as my charity.  Unfortunately, their records are rarely audited and the charitable organization funds Mortensen's book tours and travel expenses to the tune of millions of dollars a year  - instead of sending donations to the schools in Pakistan. 

60 Minutes also investigated some of the schools and found that some of the schools are underfunded and that Mortensen exaggerated the number of schools that were actually built in a particular area of Afghanistan. 

Bummer.  A total stinking bummer.  I don't think it is that bad that Mortensen is making money from his books, or that he uses the books to promote education for women and girls.  But, I do have an issue with a charity that is poorly run and a book that might have serious exaggerations for the sake of selling books.

I apologize for my un-researched support of Three Cups of Tea and for the CAI.   Greg Mortensen still wrote a compelling book, regarless of the fabrications and the problems with his charity, but I will think twice about donating after watching that 60 Minutes episode. 

Happy Reading! 

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Book: The Help

Author:  Kathryn Stockett

Grade: A 

Recommended To:  Everyone.  Literally everyone should read this book.  

I was skeptical when The Help was chosen for my book club for this month, but oh. my. gosh. was it one of the best books that I've read this year.

I thought this book was a self help book - and I was surprised to learn that it is actually about the relationship between black maids and white employees during the civil rights movement.  I could not have been more wrong.   I think I would have passed this book by, if I hadn't been encouraged to read it by my friends - AND we are going to watch the author speak right here in Chicago.  How exciting.

This book was written in three voices:  Miss Skeeter, the white woman who wrote the expose book about how black maids were treated by their white employees; Minny, the loud-mouthed maid who finally found an excellent place to work; and Aibileen, the woman who has raised 17 children - 16 of whom are white.   Their stories are woven together to create a passionate and extraordinarily well written novel about the relationships between women, children, and racism in the deep south.  

This book has deeply touching moments - like when Aibileen starts telling her white charge about "Martian Luther King" the green alien from outer space and how he came to Earth to teach everyone that they are the same.  Or, when the reader finds out about some of the wonderful things the white women do for their help. 

But, the book has deeply unsatisfying moments, most of which involve Miss Hilly, the evil woman who holds the town in her powerful League grip.  It is unclear in the book why everyone bows to her commands - but she is a powerful voice for segregation and at times seemed a bit extreme.  Unfortunately, I didn't grow up in the south during the civil rights movement (though I've said often that if I could go back in time to any era, I would want it to be the 1960s) so I'm not sure how accurate Miss Hilly is, but she was an excellent protagonist against the other characters.

I can picture this book being read in classrooms all over the United States.  It is as good as some of the classics that are taught in high school English class and far less daunting.  If I ever decide to teach, this will certainly be on my students' reading list.

My one real wish is that Kathryn Stockett does not waste her second book.  Too often new authors with an extremely successful first book are rushed into printing a second and the second is far worse than the first.  Stockett is obviously talented, but writing too fast will waste that talent and her readership.

Pick up this book - I don't give A's often, but this book is well worth it.  I'll update again after we've heard the author speak!

Happy Reading! 

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Room by Emma Donoghue

Book: Room

Author:  Emma Donoghue

Grade:  B

Recommended To:   Book Clubs, Fans of Children's Artwork 

Audio book, unabridged. 

I have been doing some super boring work and thought that instead of podcasts, I should "read" an audio book to pass the time.  This turned out to be the best idea of my entire life and I chose Room as my first audio book because it got excellent reviews and is the June book for my book club.

Let me start by saying that some of my review might be colored by the fact that I "read" this as an audio book.  This book was read by four different people that did the various voices for the characters, which made it super excellent, but also ran the risk of being annoying if you don't like the voice of one of the readers. 

If you haven't heard of  Room it is about a woman who was kidnapped and held as a sex slave by a man that is only known as "Old Nick."  She has a baby with this man and she creates an entire world for she and her son, Jack in one room.  They finally escape (this isn't a spoiler because the back of the book says it) and the last half of the book is about Jack and his mother's readjustment to the outside world.

This is a really fantastic book about the love between a mother and her son and her incredibly ability to keep him alive and happy in an 11 x 11 room.   Once they get out, Jack is shocked to learn that other people exist, that there are many copies of books and toys, and that he might occasionally be separated from his mother. 

There are a few parts of the book that just seem callous.  For example, Jack's uncle wants to take Jack to the museum, a mere week after he has been in the "outside."  They stop at a mall and are shocked when Jack flips out from being in such a huge place.  It was surprising that his family members would not immediately put the child first and consider how he might react to all of these new things.  Even the mother had a few shocking bits after the escape, but as a reader, I had to remember that she had been trapped in the same room for the last 7 years.

This book was absolutely intense, riveting and comes highly recommended by this blog.  I enjoyed that this was an audio book because it was easy to keep track of the characters, was extremely easy to listen to (and do some work) and seemed well done because of the various voices.  You should check this out if you haven't.  It made a ton of book lists in 2010 and for good reason!

I have a couple of other audio books to listen to, including Michael Connelly's newest; The Fifth Witness.  Look forward to that review and to a review of The Help, April's book club pick!

Happy Reading!!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Escape by Carolyn Jessop

Book:  Escape 

Author:  Carolyn Jessop 

Grade:  B - 

Recommended To:  Houdini, Monogamists, Women

I was so excited when I picked up this book for $1.70 at the closing Borders by my apartment.  This book was one of 6 that I got last weekend on the final day of the sale.  I couldn't believe they had a copy left! 

Escape is the true story of Carolyn Jessop who was placed in an arranged marriage to Merril Jessop, one of the most powerful men in the FLDS, at the age of 18.  She had 8 children with him in 15 years and she finally escaped his abuse and did it with ALL of her children.   Evidently her story really took off when she was asked to be a commentator on several news channels after the raid on Warren Jeffs' fundamentalist morman sect.

This book was in some ways excellent and in others reeked of the choppy sort of life story that it was. I liked this book because I am incredibly interested in the FLDS and in plural marriage.  Sister Wives, anyone?  Jessop has a really fascinating life, and it was very interesting to read about the FLDS in a first person account.  Several of the other books I've read, Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer being one, tell about the FLDS from a outsiders point of view.   I have no doubt that those books are true, but they are not first-person narratives from a writer that actually lived that experience.

It was shocking to read about the abuse that Jessop and her children suffered in their polygamist family.  This ranged from serious emotional abuse to physical and sometimes sexual abuse to her children.  Plus, it was surprising that there was such a lack of support of Carolyn in the family.  Probably from watching too much Big Love, I was under the impression that wives worked together but this was not the case in Jessop's family at all.  She was often on her own to care for her disabled son and her premature baby even while she was sick herself. 

There were some ways that this book just didn't measure up.  One of the downfalls of reading someone's life story is that it is just a collection of what they believe to be the most important parts of their life.  Things are always omitted, and this can make the story seem very choppy.  That is my biggest complaint about this book, Jessop devoted large chunks of book to what she believed were the most important parts (and I'm sure they were) but that gave the book an extremely choppy feel. 

Overall, I liked this book.  It was a bit repetitive and choppy, but it was certainly one of the more entertaining books that I've read in a long time. 

Happy Reading!!  And, I hope you get to read outside today!  It is absolutely gorgeous in Chicago and I've never been happier to be writing a blog post on my porch.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Crash Into Me by Liz Seccuro

Book:  Crash Into Me 

Author:  Liz Seccuro 

Grade:  B 

Recommended To: Sexual Assault Survivors, Women. 

This book is the true story of Liz Seccuro who survived a very violent sexual assault in college and who, 22 years later brought charges against the man that raped her.

This book was really good, but it was very sad and described a very violent sexual assault scene and the ramifications of that event in Seccuro's life.  

This book was educational in a number of ways.  First, I learned that the Commonwealth of Virginia  does not have a statute of limitations for rape.  This was fairly shocking because it wasn't at all what I expected from any state, let alone Virginia.  This was why Seccuro was allowed to press criminal charges against her assailant over twenty years after the assault took place. 

Second, I learned quite a bit about the 12 steps of recover in Alcoholics Anonymous.  Seccuro had, for the most part, put the assault behind her; she was married with a brand new daughter, and suddenly she received a letter from her assailant that was very unapologetic, but "attempted to make amends" for the assault.  This brought the horror roaring back and resulted in the criminal charges. 

This book was powerful, and it wasn't just because of the horrifying rape scene.  It was powerful because of Seccuro's incredible strength to relive the experience and testify against her assailant.  It was also incredibly powerful of her to write this book and give other survivors some hope that they can move past an assault. 

I recommend this book to everyone.  I said before that it was recommended to women, but I don't at all believe that sexual assault is only a female problem.  Everyone should be educated about the ramifications of sexual assault and this book is a riveting first person account of those consequences. 

Happy Reading!!

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Confession by John Grisham

Book:  The Confession 

Author:  John Grisham 

Grade: B 

Recommended To:  Law fans, John Grisham Fans, Confessors. 

The Confession is John Grisham's latest book.  I waited forever for it on paperbackswap and it took me an entire week to finish it because my commute is extremely short, which means I get through about 8 pages and then have to quit.  Taking the fast train is not boding well for my blog. 

This book follows the fictional story of Donte Drumm a high school football hero who is convicted of murder and sent to death row.  The story opens with the real killer contacting a Keith, a Lutheran Minister and confessing to the crime.  That confession spurs a frantic dash to Texas to stop the Drumm execution before it takes place 

This story is very well done.  It is Grisham's first about the death penalty, I believe, and he captures some incredible detail about an inmate's struggle in solitary confinement, the tortuous last days and hours leading up to an execution, the appeals process, and the racial tension surrounding the death penalty. 

I love how Grisham writes.  He wraps up every single story line at the end of the book and his writing is fact based.  He includes some emotion, but for the most part, he writes like a lawyer.  His books are one fact after another.  This is quite a bit different from some of the other books I've been reading lately and it was refreshing to know exactly what was going on at all times.  

This story was reminiscent of Dead Man Walking by Helen Prejean, the nun who befriended a death row inmate and watched him die.   Dead Man Walking launched me firmly into the anti-death penalty camp, (if I wasn't there already), and as a fictional novel, The Confession has the ability to do much of the same.  Grisham casts an evil glow over the proponents of the death penalty and ends up writing a fairly believable and well-written novel.  This story is also resonant because of the recent abolition of the death penalty in Illinois by Governor Pat Quinn. 

I gave this book a B, it should have been a fast read for me and probably will be for someone with a little more time, it was well -written and it was about a great subject.  You should check out this book!

Happy Reading!!