Boy’s Life by Robert McCammon

Boy’s Life by Robert McCammon

boyslifeBoy’s Life is about Cory Mackenson, the southern town of Zephyr and the magic of every day life.

We had a monster in the river, and a secret in the lake. We had a ghost that haunted the road behind the wheel of a black dragster with flames on the hood. We had a Gabriel and a Lucifer, and a rebel that rose from the dead. We had an alien invader, a boy with a perfect arm, and we had a dinosaur loose on Merchants Street. It was a magic place.” pg 10, ebook.

The story begins with a death and a mystery. “On that morning before the sun, as I sat eating my breakfast with my dad and mom in our house on Hilltop Street, the year was 1964. There were great changes in the winds of earth, things of which I was unaware.” pg 15.

After witnessing something terrible sinking into the lake, Cory sets about discovering what or who put it there.

The trauma is almost too much for Cory’s father to bear. “Whoever did it had to be a local. Had to be. … It might be somebody who sits on our pew at church. Somebody we buy groceries or clothes from. Somebody we’ve known all our lives… or thought we knew. That scares me like I’ve never been scared before.” pg 35, ebook.

But this book is about more than just the central mystery. It is also about the community of Zephyr and the relationships between the people who live there.

There is a racial divide in the town. When the river overflows its banks, the white and black communities come together to prevent disaster. “There is something about nature out of control that touches a primal terror. We are used to believing that we’re the masters of our domain, and that God has given us this earth to rule over. … The truth is more fearsome: we are as frail as young trees in tornadoes, and our beloved homes are one flood away from driftwood.” pg 97, ebook.

Boy’s Life also examines coming-of-age issues like bullies, over-bearing parents, and accepting the realities of old age and death. “But I’ll tell you a secret, Cory. Want to hear it?” I nodded. “No one,” Mrs. Neville whispered, “ever grows up. … They may look grown-up but it’s a disguise. It’s just the clay of time. Men and women are still children deep in their hearts.” pg 221, ebook.

I loved this book. It is a far-reaching tale made for winter nights, to be read with a hot drink in your hand and a warm blanket on your lap.

It vaguely reminded me of The Help because of its southern location, the racial issues and some of the mystery elements. But really, Boy’s Life stands on its own.

Recommended for readers who enjoy historical fiction with a touch of magic and mystery.

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Room by Emma Donoghue

Room by Emma Donoghue

roomTold from a 5-year-old’s point of view, Room is the story of Jack, his mother and the room that they never leave. To Jack’s mother, it is a prison. To Jack, it’s just the world.

“…it was a garden shed to begin with. Just a basic twelve-by-twelve, vinyl-coated steel. But he added a sound-proofed skylight, and lots of insulating foam inside the walls, plus a layer of sheet lead, because lead kills all sound. Oh, and a security door with a code. He boasts about what a neat job he made of it.” pg 85.

Jack and his mother have no contact with the outside world, except for ‘Old Nick’ who only comes at night, brings food and the occasional ‘Sunday treat.’

They are his prisoners.

“…we mustn’t try and hurt him again. When he came back the next night, he said, number one, nothing would ever make him tell me the code. And number two, if I ever tried a stunt like that again, he’d go away and I’d get hungrier and hungrier till I died.” pg 97.

Though this book covers some seriously dark subject matter, it is told through the point-of-view and voice of a child.

At first, I didn’t like it, but then I realized- hearing the story from Jack made it bearable. I think if we had heard it from his mother’s point of view, it would have been too bleak.

Jack confuses television and reality because he’s never been outside ‘room’: “Women aren’t real like Ma is, and girls and boys not either. Men aren’t real except Old Nick, I’m not actually sure if he’s real for real. Maybe half? He brings groceries and Sunday treat and disappears the trash, but he’s not human like us. He only happens in the night, like bats. Maybe Door makes him up with a beep beep and the air changes. I think Ma doesn’t like to talk about him in case he gets realer.” pg 18.

The beauty of this story is in the resiliency of Jack and the love he and his mother have for each other. They keep each other going when life becomes unbearable.

There are also some surprising twists to the story too.

I loved it.

I took the time to watch the movie after I read the book and it is a great adaptation. Not, of course, as stellar as the book, but well worth the time.

Highly recommended, but keep your tissue box close.

Thanks for reading!

Leaving Tinkertown by Tanya Ward Goodman

Leaving Tinkertown by Tanya Ward Goodman

tinkertownThis is Tanya Ward Goodman’s memoir about how she loses her father and grandmother- first through Alzheimer’s and then to death. Leaving Tinkertown is a powerful look at end-of-life issues and family love.

It is an incredibly raw and straight forward account of a period of unimaginable change in the author’s life.

Tanya handles the deterioration of her father very well. I suspect that this ability to quickly and seamlessly accustom herself to change probably evolved from her childhood experiences with her father at carnivals and on road trips. With the background changing continuously, she had to change too but hold on to some essential part of herself. This characteristic served her well during her adult years.

Tanya’s father was a prolific artist. Because of his extreme creativity, I think that she was exposed to his mercurial moods long before he began losing his battle with Alzheimer’s. Artistic types seem to walk a fine line between logical thinking and madness. Their families get to walk that journey with them. That doesn’t mean that his descent into darkness didn’t hurt Tanya, but that she was more able to cope with his moment to moment shifts in behavior because she had experienced them before.

Through this adversity, she grows closer to her brother, step-mom, and mother as they work together to care for her dad.

Tanya doesn’t gloss over her family’s shortcomings but comes to accept everything that each person brings to the table: “… I am starting to understand that doing all you can do, even if it doesn’t seem like very much, is enough.” pg 193.

When a strong, vital person in your life is no longer able to care for themselves, it’s heartbreaking.

My own grandfather, a force of nature, lost some of his heart when the family had to take the keys to the car away because he didn’t have the strength to drive safely anymore. This book was hard for me to read because Tanya knows what it feels like to cause that type of pain too.

It brought back so many small moments when I was in a care-taking position for him. You want to provide the best quality of life that you can, but when the person can no longer clean, feed, or clothe themselves, then the really difficult decision making begins. Tanya and her relatives seem to make the process relatively simple even though I know that it is anything but that.

We all know that we’re not going to live forever but when you’re dealing with loss of physical strength or mental capacity in your own life or the lives of those you love, you get very close to that idea. It’s like the difference between looking through a window and having your face smashed up against the glass. When it’s right there, you can’t look away.

I’d recommend this for anyone who is caring for an aging or ill family member and needs a reminder that it’s all going to turn out alright. As Tanya reminds us, we just need to do all that we can do even if it doesn’t seem like it is very much.

I received a free copy of this book through Goodreads First Reads program. Thanks for reading!

Pigs Can’t Swim: A Memoir by Helen Peppe

Pigs Can’t Swim: A Memoir by Helen Peppe

pigscantswimPigs Can’t Swim is a collection of essays based on Helen Peppe’s childhood memories. Frankly, it is amazing that she managed to live to adulthood.

The youngest of nine children, she was by turns ignored or over-directed. Her family lived on a farm in Maine on a dead end road in the middle of nowhere.

Helen tells her tale, all of it, without flinching from what she perceives the truth to be: her family’s wild behavior, prejudices, poverty, dysfunction, and an episode with a child predator that was truly horrific.

I had to keep reminding myself that she made it out alive and, at least, managed to write a book because this memoir had some truly terrifying bits in it.

I think Pigs Can’t Swim is an amazing piece of non-fiction writing not only for its content but also for its execution.

Helen’s parents weren’t perfect but she doesn’t seem to blame or justify their behavior. In Pigs Can’t Swim, she just tells what happened and leaves a majority of the interpretation in the hands of the reader.

I couldn’t put this book down.

Its flowing narration reminded me of a much grittier version of Life Among the Savages.

Its personal and tell-all style reminded me of She Got Up Off the Couch: And Other Heroic Acts from Mooreland, Indiana. Similar to She Got Up Off the Couch, this book talks about overcoming poverty and adversity to become something more.

If you enjoyed either of these books, you’ll probably love Pigs Can’t Swim.

I received a free copy of this book through Goodreads First Reads program. Thanks for reading!

Stalking God: From Laughing Yoga to Burning Man, My Unorthodox Search for Something to Believe In by Anjali Kumar

Stalking God: From Laughing Yoga to Burning Man, My Unorthodox Search for Something to Believe In by Anjali Kumar

stalkinggodAnjali Kumar is a lawyer who is used to having all the answers. After she had a daughter, Anjali realized she knew very little about the big questions: why are we here? What is it all about? Is there a God?

“In 2010, when my daughter Zia was born, I decided that I needed to find God.” loc 24, ebook.

Anjali went on a quest to find out the answers, not only for the sake of her daughter, but also herself. She touches all the bases – from meditation to faith healing to Burning Man to yoni worship – Anjali leaves no stone unturned in her search to find what is real.

“Along the way, I learned to chant, to meditate, and to marvel. I wrestled with my own identity, from my ethnic and cultural roots in India, to my femininity, to my role as a woman, daughter, mother, and wife. … I fancied myself an explorer, no different really than Magellan or Columbus. I was looking for a new world.” locs 148-163.

It’s a fascinating memoir.

Before each experience, Anjali puts in her research in an effort to find the science behind the beliefs. It’s not always as concrete as she would like it to be, but Anjali tries to engage her brain and her heart in her quest.

This is before she goes to her first “para-tan sounding”: “According to string theory, the entire universe is basically humming – all of it and all of us. Add that to the fact that the chanting of mantras has a long, compelling spiritual history, that cancer researchers are using sound- high-intensity focused ultrasound- to successfully destroy prostate cancer cells … and this whole Paramji thing starts to look like it might be grounded in a bit of hard science…” loc 500

Anjali tries to keep an open mind, even when things sound very strange: “One thing I had to be cognizant of… was how difficult it is as an outsider to come to terms with what are easy to perceive as the odd behaviors and strange beliefs of ‘other people.’ … as outsiders we have no idea what those behaviors and traditions stand for or mean.” loc 904.

She finds layers of meaning, even when particular experiences weren’t all that she hoped they would be. Anjali also experiences a few surprises along the way.

“I was looking for a theory of everything spiritual for Anjali and Zia. And yet, so far, just like those physicists had failed to find a theory of everything in the entire universe, I had failed to find a theory of everything for my own spirituality.” loc 1343.

And she never gives up because: “A spiritual home is something that we all have to find for ourselves.” loc 2853.

Recommended for seekers everywhere. Anjali’s discoveries may not be earth-shattering, but they’re real and worth the read.

Thank you to NetGalley and Seal Press for a free advance reader copy of this book. Reminder: the short quotations in this review may change or be omitted in the final printed version.

Thanks for reading!

The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb by Melanie Benjamin

The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb by Melanie Benjamin

tomthumbThe Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb is a historical fiction based on the real life of Lavinia Bump Warren, an extraordinarily small person.

Lavinia participated in P.T. Barnum’s museum, traveling acts and circus, becoming one of the most popular acts of her era. Her wedding to Charles Stratton, another little person, was such a huge story that it bumped the Civil War from the front pages for a time.

Melanie Benjamin speculates at the end of the book that Lavinia had a pituitary gland problem and today would receive appropriate treatment. But, in the 1800s, no such treatment existed.

As a journalist, I appreciated the actual stories and newspaper headlines from the time period. It shows just how far we’ve come and how the public appetite for sensational stories has never changed.

Benjamin writes a heroine that is so easy to love. Lavinia is different but determined, small and brave. She doesn’t let her size define her and always seeks to be a proper lady, even when those around her aren’t minding their manners.

This book was sad in that, because of her deformity, Lavinia had very few options. Early in her life, she felt as if she either had to display herself as a freak or depend upon her family in a backwater town where nothing ever happened.

In some ways, she never fit in to a world that was simply too big for her. I can’t imagine how difficult that must have been.

But in other ways, Lavinia traveled more than any woman of her era would be expected to. She experienced a world beyond the reach of all but the ultra-rich and privileged. There was a high price to be paid for it, but I don’t think Lavinia would have had it any other way.

Benjamin wrote in an unlikely twist in the story that I thought was unnecessary and it soured the ending of the book for me. I understand why she did it but it felt like a bridge too far, especially when the author admits at the end that there was nothing in the historical record to support her creative decision.

The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb becomes repetitive in Lavinia’s traveling years. I felt as if I was reading the same thing over and over again.

But I did learn a great deal about Lavinia Warren, Charles Stratton and P.T. Barnum. How extraordinary that these people even existed. It seems like a piece of American history that has been all but forgotten.

Recommended for readers who enjoy historical fiction novels about people overcoming adversity and about heroines who won’t give up, no matter the odds or size of the problem.

Thanks for reading!

Dear Girls Above Me: Inspired by a True Story by Charlie McDowell

Dear Girls Above Me: Inspired by a True Story by Charlie McDowell

dear girlsDear Girls Above Me is about Charlie McDowell’s time living beneath a loud group of gossiping young women (names have been changed to protect the innocent). He claims to have learned much about love, life and himself through his eavesdropping.

From the description, I thought this book was going to be cute. Instead, I found it very creepy.

“I most definitely did not expect to be the unwilling audience of a twenty-four-hour slumber party between the Winston Churchill and Benjamin Franklin of the 90210 generation.” pg 6, ebook.

But, shortly after professing his irritation for the girls, he spends an inordinate amount of time wandering around his apartment, looking for the location with the best “reception” of their voices.

“…I’m living underneath a couple of Kardashian wannabes who spend their time gossiping, starving themselves, and throwing noisy parties.” pg 21, ebook.

Instead of ignoring them or moving to a new apartment, Charlie creates a Twitter account where he mercilessly mocks the snippets of conversation he overhears. It seemed very passive-aggressive to me.

“As my Dear Girls Above Me Twitter following grew, so did my guilt and anxiety. Each day, more and more people were discovering my ‘letters’ to the girls, and I felt as if it was only a matter of time before they stumbled across it.” pg 113, ebook.

But not guilty enough to stop tweeting about it.

Charlie does try to build reader sympathy by sharing some fairly embarrassing stories about his own personal life, but it didn’t really work. I found myself feeling embarrassed for everyone in this book rather than amused.

The low point of this tale was this: Dear Girls Above Me, ‘The psychic said I have a serious stalker in my life!’ I much prefer ‘a friend who always listens,’ thank you very much. pg 194, ebook.

No, stalker is more appropriate. Sorry.

I don’t recommend this book.

Thanks for reading!