Sunday, April 22, 2018

World Book Day

If you’d like to broaden your horizons and read more books by international authors, the next two days are the perfect time to pursue your goal. One of my favorite of all the web-based newsletters and organizations is Words Without Borders It was there that I learned about a free promotion honoring World Book Day which is tomorrow (April 23).
In honor of World Book Day, Amazon Crossings is offering nine free international books to download on a Kindle or via a Kindle app to your tablet or other device. You may download as many of the free titles as you wish as long as you do so by Tuesday night, April 24.
While I’m an advocate of shopping at independent book stores, I also believe that stretching your reading choices and getting something free from Amazon isn’t a terrible idea. Reading some of the titles might even make you stop at a real brick and mortar store to look for more.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah

The Great Alone is either going to be one of your favorite novels or it won't be your cup of tea in any way. Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews loved it and gave it starred reviews. The New York Times and Washington Post panned it. I’m with the Times and the Post as I found little to like.

The Great Alone features thirteen-year-old Leni who narrates the story of her life, her parents' lives, and of her love for Alaska. The tale begins in 1974 when Leni’s father Ernt, a damaged former POW, returns from Viet Nam. Ernt is unpredictable and when he loses his job, he decides to move the family to a small village off the grid in the Alaskan wilderness. Cora, Leni’s mother, will do anything to make life work for Ernt including acting as his punching bag. Despite lacking indoor plumbing, electricity, or any way to make a living, Ernt seems to improve in their first Alaska summer. Then winter comes and his moods mirror the darkness.

Leni starts school and falls in love with the only other person her age in the town but Ernt detests the boy’s father and the book begins to resemble Romeo and Juliet. As Leni tells of her romance and details her father’s downward spiral, the novel seems more of a teen romance/young adult novel than adult fiction. The lack of detail and showing of the teens falling in love made it difficult for this reader to feel their relationship. Hannah presents picture-perfect descriptions of the Alaskan landscape informed by her own family history, but they aren’t enough for this reviewer to overcome the lack of nuanced characters, the melodramatic intrigue, and the hyperbolic and (for this reviewer) unbelievable plot twists.

When the darkness makes Ernt’s anger worsen, Cora continues to make excuses: “It’s the weather,” Mama said, lighting a cigarette, watching him drive away. Her beautiful skin looked sallow in the headlights’ glow, almost waxen.
“It’s going to get worse,” Leni said. “Every day is darker and colder.”
“Yeah,” Mama said, looking as scared as Leni suddenly felt. “I know.”

Leni is right, it does get worse; it drifts into a nightmare for Leni and Cora. If you enjoy romance, an exotic locale, and a “happily-ever-after” ending, The Great Alone may please you as it has so many readers in the last few weeks. Washington Post critic Ron Charles wrote a wry review attacking the book’s many deficiencies but ended it by noting that he understood the book’s appeal: “By the end, I was surrounded by snow drifts of tissues damp with my tears, which may be as close as I’ll ever get to the last frontier.” That surprised me as the telegraphed ending didn’t touch me in any way. Your reaction will depend on what you want at the time. If you’re looking for a romantic escape and are willing to accept an adolescent outlook, you may love the novel. If you want more, look elsewhere. I enjoyed Hannah’s The Nightingale and it was a romance, but it was more believable and the characters had dimension. I expected more from The Great Alone. 

Summing it Up: The Great Alone is a book for those looking for a romantic interlude in the frontiers of Alaska. If you want a more literary, nuanced book, keep looking. Read the first chapter, then decide.

Rating: 2 stars   
Category: Fiction, Overcooked
Publication date: February 6, 2018
Author Website:
What Others are Saying:

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

The House of Broken Angels by Luis Alberto Urrea

“Big Angel was late to his own mother’s funeral.” Yes, readers, that’s the opening sentence of Luis Alberto Urrea’s latest novel. He follows it a few sentences later with another gem: “Mexicans don’t make these kinds of mistakes, he told himself.” Urrea, who was born in Tijuana to a Mexican father and an American mother, pens a poignant, often-times humorous, and always evocative book whose genesis came when he shared the story of the death of his older brother with writer Jim Harrison when he found himself seated next to him at a dinner. In a recent interview with “Time” magazine, Urrea remembered, “Harrison said, “Sometimes God hands you a novel. You have to write it.” Urrea thought to himself, “Marching orders from Jim Harrison–this is good stuff. A kid from Tijuana doesn’t get that very often.” Thankfully, for readers, the kid from Tijuana listened as this over-the-top, wonder of a novel is a love poem to the Mexican-American family that transcends ethnic boundaries to become the universal story of all family relationships.

Big Angel is about to celebrate his seventieth birthday and because he knows he’s dying, he’s planned a massive celebration. His 100-year-old mother, América, dies the week prior so Big Angel sets her funeral for the day before his scheduled celebration as the family already will be in San Diego for the party. Thus, the novel takes place over the two days of the funeral and the birthday party with most of the large de la Cruz clan gathering to mourn the matriarch and celebrate what promises to be Big Angel’s last birthday. Flashbacks reveal Big Angel’s life in Mexico in the 1960s, his love of his wife Perla, the quirks, foibles, and joys of his siblings, children, and extended family while making this reader feel that she, too, was a member of the jubilant clan. Much of the tale is seen through the eyes of Little Angel, Big Angel’s much younger, half-American, half-brother who seems removed from the family in more than just distance. Urrea’s own brother’s death shortly after their mother died inspired the tale and infuses it with realistic, emotional gravitas that transcends pure imagination.

Urrea’s unmatched ability to weave laugh-out-loud humor with universal truth makes the novel soar as in the description of the party.

“Food was appearing all around them. People came through bearing aluminum tubs of grub. La Gloriosa and Lupita and Minnie and Perla had arranged for platoons of barrio ladies and their husbands to appear with party supplies. Little Angel was thwarted in his hopeless search for homemade Mexican food. In his mind, chicken mole and pots of simmering frijoles and chiles rellenos were to be displayed in pornographic lushness. But the reality of the day was folding tables groaning with pizzas, Chinese food, hot dogs, potato salad, and a huge industrial party pan of spaghetti. Somebody was allegedly on the way with a hundred pieces of KFC. He noted Uncle Jimbo at his table with a paper plate heaped with noodles and buffalo wings. Somehow he had acquired bottles of mead.
Jimbo raised his bottle at him and hollered, “Skoal!””

Urrea’s sentences also allow the characters to reveal themselves without his telling us who they are: “Perla sat at a table on the patio and rubbed her aching knees. Her small flock of doggies was scuttling around like animated empanadas on meth. “Ay, qué perritos,” she said. They were Chiweenies. Chihuahua/wiener-dog mixes. La Minnie called them “naked mole rats” since she took her kids to the zoo often and knew these things. Minnie had even been to the art museum.
Perla had only lived in the United States for forty-one years – she couldn’t be expected to learn English overnight.”

Overall, it is Urrea’s celebration of love: love of life and love of family that makes this novel one that will leave the reader satisfied even through the tears.
“Big Angel sighed. Rubbed his face. Thought about how much he’d miss rubbing his face. Everything was precious to him suddenly. Sighing. What a wonderful thing it was to sigh. Geraniums. Why did he have to leave geraniums behind.”. . .
“Angel also loved the rainy days when shadows made their mysterious ways around corners and across alleys. And everyone loved sunsets. The light lost its sanity as it fell over the hills and into the Pacific – it went red and deeper red, orange, and even green. The skies seemed to melt, like lava eating black rock into great bite marks of burning. Sometimes all the town stopped and stared west. Shopkeepers came from their rooms to stand in the street. Families brought out their invalids on pallets and in wheelbarrows to wave their bent wrists at the madness consuming their sky. Swirls of gulls and pelicans like God’s own confetti snowed across those sky riots.”

Big Angel speaks for us all despite which side of the border we call home. “All we do, mija,” he said, “is love. Love is the answer. Nothing stops it. Not borders. Not death.”
I’ve discarded over a dozen quotes that I wanted to include in this review so dear readers, please buy this book so you can inhale and savor them yourself.

Summing it Up: The House of Broken Angels is an exuberant, joy-filled family saga that celebrates what it means to love, to grieve, and to be a family in today’s USA. It’s also a love letter to the Mexican-American family that makes the reader feel -- if only for just a few hours – that they too belong.

Note: Urrea is on a long book tour throughout the US. If you are anywhere near one of his stops, take the time to hear him read and speak. I’ve heard hundreds of authors and he’s one of the best, if not the very best, reader there is. That said, you may want to listen to the audio version of the novel as Urrea reads it himself. I read the novel in print as I wanted to savor his words on the page, but I may still listen to him read it as I know it will be a magnificent rendition.

Rating: 5 stars   
Category: Fiction, Five Stars, Gourmet, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Soul Food, Book Club
Publication date: March 6, 2018
Author Website:
What Others are Saying: