Book Review: Lips Touch, Three Times by Laini Taylor and Jim Di Bartolo

February 26, 2010

The kisses in Lips Touch, Three Times are not the absent-minded pecks on the cheek, expressions of friendship kinds of kisses. The kisses in these stories are sometimes shy, but also passionate, desperate, and full of longing and expectation. They celebrate life, and they herald death. They are not for the weak of spirit.

Lips Touch, Three Times is written and illustrated by the husband and wife team, Laini Taylor and Jim Di Bartolo. Each of the three stories creates a rich fantasy world that pulls you in so completely you may have difficulty re-entering reality when you put it down.

The stories build in length and complexity. The first, “Goblin Fruit,” is a short piece about Kizzy, a girl who so longs to be kissed, she becomes prey for the goblins. Can the spirit of her grandmother and stories of girls lost before her save Kizzy from the goblin’s kiss?

“Spicy Little Curses Such as These” takes the reader to India, where Estella, an Englishwoman, enters the realm of the dead every day to bargain with a demon for the souls of dead children. The deals she strikes promises an exchange of one soul of a corrupted adult for each child’s soul returned to the land of the living. When an earthquake claims the lives of many children, Estella is able to strike a deal that brings them all back. The price she must pay is to put a curse on a newborn baby girl named Anamique, a curse that will keep her silent or condemn those around her to death. When Anamique grows up, the love of a soldier tests her ability to maintain her silence and protect the life of her love as well as that of her family.

“Hatchling” is the most elaborate and inventive tale of all, creating a world of immortals, the Druj, who long for something they can almost remember having in their now forgotten past. To while away their time they keep girls as pets, casting them off when they grow to be women. Esme and her mother Mab have escaped from Mab’s cage and lived in hiding for fourteen years when Esme’s brown eye turns blue and their entire world turns upside down. With the help of Mihai, a Druj outcast, they hope to rid themselves of the Druj queen forever.

In each story, Di Bartolo’s color illustrations beautifully enhance Taylor’s evocative words to help the tales come alive. Even non-fantasy lovers should find the stories compelling. Topics to discuss include the nature of longing, maintaining self-respect while falling in love, and having the courage to create the life you want to live. Lips Touch is a 2009 National Book Award Finalist for Young People’s Literature. I highly recommend it for mother-daughter book clubs with girls in high school and all readers over 14.

Book Review: Flash Burnout by L. K. Madigan

February 25, 2010

Blake has a pretty good life for a high school sophomore. He’s got a girlfriend who loves him and makes him happy, he’s got good friends, and for the most part he likes his classes in school. And he lives in a loving home with two parents and his older brother Garrett. He doesn’t give his situation much thought until he’s showing a photo assignment to his friend Marissa in class one day. When he uncovers a photo of a homeless woman passed out on the sidewalk, Marissa gasps and says, “That’s my mom.” Suddenly he’s compelled into Marissa’s life in unexpected ways and finding out that not everyone leads mundane, uneventful lives away from school.

As he’s drawn to help Marissa more and more, Blake’s relationship with his girlfriend, Shannon, becomes strained. Can he be the friend Marissa needs and the boyfriend Shannon expects at the same time?

Flash Burnout by L. K. Madigan juxtaposes suburban middle-class life against the lives of the homeless and addicted. It shows the toll addiction and neglect can take not only on family members, but also on friends and others in the community around them. The book covers issues of sexual abstinence, safe sex, underage drinking, using alcohol to escape, honesty in relationships and more. It also introduces complex supporting characters that add interest to the story: Blake’s mother is a hospital chaplain, and his father is a coroner. Garrett interns at the morgue with his dad. (Their work discussions make Blake queasy and may do the same for some readers.) Marissa’s brother Gus is a thrill-seeking bike messenger who takes responsibility for his family.

Madigan lives in Portland, and I really enjoyed picking up on some of the local references in Flash Burnout. I would have liked to know more about Blake’s conflicted thoughts between his feelings for his girlfriend and his friend, particularly after a particular event near the end, and I would have preferred less description of Blake’s ordinary life. Even so, I really liked following his story, and I liked that Flash Burnout doesn’t tidy up all the answers into a nice package at the end; instead it asks the reader to consider what will happen next. I believe the issues and the characters should provide great discussions for mother-daughter book clubs with girls aged 14 and up. Flash Burnout is Madigan’s debut novel, and I eagerly anticipate her next book.

Read My Review at Writer’s Roundabout of Gringa: A Contradictory Girlhood by Melissa Hart

February 23, 2010

Today I’ve posted a review at Writer’s Roundabout for Gringa: A Contradictory Girlhood by Melissa Hart.

Here’s the beginning paragraph. Click here to read the whole review on Writer’s Roundabout:

When Melissa Hart’s mother left her father to live with another woman in the 1970s, the custody decision was no surprise for the times—lesbians would not be allowed to raise three young children. Gringa: A Contradictory Girlhood is Hart’s account of her life after her forced separation from her mother and through her formative years into college.

Book Review: The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

February 10, 2010

A diamond is stolen from the English country estate of Lady Verinder and the renowned Sergeant Cuff is brought in from London to help solve the case. The diamond, said to bring bad luck to its owner because it was stolen from a temple in India, was given to Lady Verinder’s daughter, Rachel, on her 18th birthday. It was bequeathed to Rachel from her uncle (who stole it when he was a young soldier) on his death. The story unfolds through several narrators, all of whom know a piece of what happened. As each of them writes his or her side of the story, the reader gets just a little more information that helps to solve the mystery.

Considered to be the first detective mystery, The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins offers a glimpse into the times it was written—the 1860s.  It was published serially, with new pieces of the story unfolding one section at a time for around six months. It reveals the understandings held about English ladies and gentleman, especially the thought that no well brought up young man or woman could ever commit a crime. It touches on a common occurrence at the time, the looting of jewels by English soldiers from temples in India. And, it’s fun to read once you get into the rhythm of Collins’s writing style (writers at the time were paid by the word, so you won’t find sparse descriptions and conversations here).

Each narrator brought a different perspective and style that was refreshing, and each break kept the story moving in unexpected ways. My daughter and I both found it fun to guess what had happened the night of the theft and in the days following it. My guesses were invariably wrong, but that didn’t stop me from developing new theories as the story progressed. My daughter’s guess about the culprit was right, although neither of us anticipated some of the twists and turns The Moonstone took before the mystery was actually resolved.

The Moonstone makes for longer reading in mother-daughter book clubs, but it is easily divided into two separate sections that can be discussed at two different meetings. Groups could read The Loss of the Diamond, then gather to discuss their theories about what happened. They could also write predictions down and compare them to what actually happened during the rest of the book when they meet again. I recommend The Moonstone for reading groups with girls aged 14 and up.

Book Review: Forever Lily by Beth Nonte Russell

January 7, 2010

When Beth Nonte Russell was asked to accompany a friend to pick up the baby girl she was adopting from China, she expected it to be an adventure. An avid traveler, Russell had never been to China, and she welcomed this chance to help a friend while discovering a new country.

But when the friend is presented with a frail baby who seems developmentally far behind her age, she balks at going through with the adoption. Russell finds herself responding in a way that will change her life forever: she agrees to take the girl herself once back in the U.S. Forever Lily: An Unexpected Mother’s Journey to Adoption in China is the memoir Russell has written about her experience.

Russell masterfully tells the story of her journey, which included other soon-to-be adoptive parents who had all planned for a long time to bring a new baby into their lives. Russell weaves tales of the groups’ sightseeing excursions to famous landmarks along with heartbreaking images of the babies’ orphanage when the group visits. She shares her conflicting thoughts of China, whose society is vibrant and modern, but also ancient and repressed.

An undercurrent of the story is Russell’s vivid dreams, some of which started before her trip began and lead her to believe she may have a stronger connection to China than she ever would have imagined.

While Russell’s decision to take the baby is clearly heroic, she doesn’t make herself out to be an unblemished hero, which makes her seem more human. She freely shares that her relationship with her stepchildren was reserved, and that she didn’t open herself up to love and the possibility of being hurt in the past. As she struggles emotionally to accept what she knows she must do, she shares with the reader her personal spiritual beliefs and her journey to get to those beliefs.

Forever Lily is a fascinating story that engrosses to the end, and it will have readers asking themselves, “What would I do if something extraordinary was asked of me?” While it’s most appropriate for moms, who will more easily relate to Russell’s story, older girls will find something of interest here too. Russell also makes book club discussion easy with a list of discussion questions and an interview featured in the back of the book along with a list of activities the group can consider.

Also a testament to the profound way Russell’s life was changed by her experience is the fact that she has started a new non-profit organization called The Golden Phoenix Foundation. Here’s a description of the foundation from the website:

“Motivated by the plight of orphaned children in China and elsewhere, Beth and Randy Russell founded the Golden Phoenix Foundation in 2006.

The mission of the Golden Phoenix Foundation is to end child abandonment worldwide. The Foundation supports existing initiatives, helps develop research projects and plans for future direct initiatives to help better the quality of life of children without families throughout the world.”

Russell hopes to raise funds for her foundation through product sales on the website, Good True Beautiful, which sells her book, an eau de parfum called Forever Lily, t-shirts and a tote baag.

Book Review: In the Sanctuary of Outcasts by Neil White

January 4, 2010

In the mid-1990s Neil White defrauded creditors out of their money and was sentenced to spend time in a federal minimum-security prison. He recounts his time spent in that prison in his memoir, In The Sanctuary of Outcasts, which gives the reader a glimpse into two societies shut off from the mainstream: prisoners and leprosy patients. The story fascinates from the start, when White tells of his wife dropping him off at the prison gatehouse. He is early, and he has to wait to be checked in. Everything about his check-in procedure is designed to let him know the rules from outside no longer apply, and he is not in charge of his daily activities. White is strip searched, assigned a room, and given a job. He has no door on his room, no privacy, and he learns not to offer to shake hands with the guards. He also soon finds out that the prisoners are housed alongside Hansen’s Disease patients, more commonly known at lepers, and he must work serving them in the cafeteria.

Through White’s account we learn the history of the leprosarium in Carville, Louisiana, a facility that started in the late 1800s as a place to isolate those with the disease. While Hansen’s Disease can now be treated in a physician’s office and patients are no longer isolated, those living at Carville predated treatment, and many remained at the facility even after it was no longer necessary for them to stay. Most had been there for half a century or more, and they had no other place to go.

At first White reacts as much of society has always reacted to these patients: he doesn’t want to breathe the air they breathe, touch them, or eat food they have been around. He is afraid he will catch leprosy, turning his short prison sentence into one with consequences for the rest of his life. Gradually, he learns he has nothing to fear. He begins to seek their company whenever possible, and the lessons he learns from them help him find redemption for his own crimes and misdeeds.

Through White’s eyes we also see the other prisoners serving time with him, a hodge podge of criminals who include doctors, lawyers and accountants as well as drug dealers and robbers. This bizarre co-existing of prisoners and patients came about as the federal government tried to decide what to do with the facility at Carville.

Only White can answer whether he truly found redemption and learned to change his self-destructing habits for good. But his story of others who have learned to find grace and lead happy, productive lives despite being cut off from families and ostracized from the rest of society is inspiring as well as informative.

I had the chance to glimpse the inside of Carville myself when I was in college in 1980 and interviewed a patient who was editor of the newspaper the colony produced. I’ll never forget the feeling I had of a place that had been both sanctuary and prison for the patients. White captures the place well, and in writing about it, sheds a bit more light on this little known piece of American history that should not be forgotten. I highly recommend it.

Mother-Daughter Book Club Meeting and Book Review: The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff

December 8, 2009

Last night Catherine and I went to our mother-daughter book club meeting. We often don’t meet in December, when everyone is pulled in so many different directions, but this year we all wanted to share a little bit of holiday cheer. Show-Ling put us all in a festive mood with an amazing feast of shrimp, spinach pie, meatballs, and lots of yummy sides. Karen brought cookies so we had something sweet to share. A fire in the fireplace made us all feel nice and toasty, especially since it was so cold outside. It was a perfect atmosphere to talk about the Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff.

Word is Hoff wrote this little gem of a book while he was working in Portland’s Japanese Garden in the early 1980s. It’s an interesting introduction to Taoism illustrated through the actions of Winnie the Pooh and his friends. Most of us knew nothing about Taoism or its principles, but the Tao of Pooh gives simple explanations that are easy to grasp. It also gives a brief description of the differences Hoff sees between Confusionism, Buddhism and Taoism. Since most of us in the group haven’t had much exposure to Eastern religions, it was interesting to read his point of view.

Hoff uses excerpts from A. A. Milne’s Pooh stories to talk about Tao Te Ching and its creator, Lao Tse. As Hoff assigned each Pooh character a defining characteristic—Owl is wise, Rabbit is clever, Eeyore complains and Piglet frets while Pooh just is—each of us was asked to say which character we are most like and if we would like to change that. We all wanted to be more like Pooh. A little more accepting, a little less stressed, a little more able to sit back, eat some honey and enjoy life. All in all, it was an interesting disucssion.

Next up, we’re headed in a totally different direction. In early February we’ll be talking about The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins. It’s been called “the first and greatest English detective novel,” and it should be an interesting change from our norm. Alannah likes mysteries, and this was her choice, so we’re all excited to dive into it.

Book Review and Giveaway: The Last Will of Moira Leahy, Interview with Author Therese Walsh

November 4, 2009

Today I’m excited to feature Therese Walsh and her new book The Last Will of Moira Leahy. This was such an interesting book to read, and I’m eager to share more about it with you. First up is my review, followed by an interview with Therese. Then look for details so you can win a copy of her book.

Review: The Last Will of Moira Leahy

Moira Leahy

Twenty-five-year-old Maeve Leahy likes her life orderly with limited surprises. But she’s feeling restless one November night as she thinks about her twin, Moira, whom she lost to a night in November nine years before. As a distraction, she attends an antiques auction where she places the winning bid on a special dagger, a Javanese keris, very much like one she accidentally dropped into a bay years ago while playing a pirate queen with Moira.

Soon mysterious things begin to happen. A book on weaponry is nailed to the door of her office at the small college in New York State where she teaches. She feels she’s being watched. Then she receives a note asking her to travel to Rome where she can learn more about her knife from a man who uses an age-old tradition to make blades just like it.

In Rome she’s joined by Noel, the only man Maeve has let into her inner world while still keeping him at a distance. Noel has been in Europe searching for answers from his own past and escaping from the uncertainties of his relationship with Maeve. Together they start to unravel their feelings for each other, the mystery of the keris, the man behind the blade, and the voices in Maeve’s mind that refuse to go away. Maeve also finally confronts her own feelings for her twin and the shocking event that separated them as teenagers.

The Last Will of Moira Leahy by Therese Walsh is a richly conceived tale that weaves mystery, romance, adventure and self-discovery into one beautiful package. Moira’s story from years before appears tucked in between Maeve’s narrative in the present. The twins’ inseparable bond is both a comfort and a burden to them as they learn to find their own talents. Topics to discuss include the special bond that exists between twins, learning to be true to your own personality without taking away from family members, honesty in relationships, deciding to have sex with a boyfriend, learning to deal with family tragedy and more. The Last Will of Moira Leahy is billed as women’s fiction, but it is appropriate for book clubs with girls aged 15 and over. Highly recommended.

Interview: Author Therese Walsh

Therese Walsh

Most people recognize the special bond that exists between twins. What prompted you to write about twins?

TW: Believe it or not, I didn’t intend to write about twins. When I first began writing, I meant to create a simple love story between Maeve Leahy and her friend, Noel. Moira kind of appeared on the page one day and changed the dynamic of the book. I rewrote the story to center it around the relationship between the twins when I realized the emotional power of their story.

The book is mostly told in Maeve’s voice, with small glimpses of Moira’s point of view. What do you want the reader to learn about Moira when we hear her voice?

TW: I wanted readers to get to know Moira and realize she wasn’t a bad person, and I felt that hearing only from Maeve’s point of view might have meant people didn’t give Moira the benefit of the doubt. I think that both girls were good people, and I wanted them each to be understood.

Maeve and Moira’s mother plays a crucial role in their lives through her decisions on how to direct their talents. But she also seems insignificant in some ways. Do you think the twins didn’t need her as much because they had each other?

TW: That was definitely Abby’s perception—that they didn’t need her. The truth was that the twins needed her in ways that felt unsatisfying to Abby, because they were drawing so much emotional support from one another and they understood one another exceedingly well. But Abby was their mother, and so they did need her in a million little ways. There’s a hole in Maeve’s life after she loses her twin but there’s another beside that one because she’s lost her mother in a sense, too. That hole wouldn’t be there if Abby was truly insignificant to her.

How did you become aware of and interested in the keris?

TW: I found the keris almost by fluke. As I said, I’d first planned to write a simple love story. Well, Noel was an antiques dealer, and I spent many happy hours going through eBay listings, looking for antiques that I planned later to describe in his shop. One of the items I found was an antique Javanese keris—a dagger with a wavy blade. It looked interesting, so I made a record of it. I wanted my first scene to take place in an auction house and wasn’t sure which item should draw my characters’ attention. I chose the keris from my list without much thought.

I gave my scene to a friend, who read it with interest and then asked if the keris would be important to the rest of the book. It sounded like a good idea. I dug in, did some research, and realized the keris was so much more than a pretty blade. Maeve Leahy, the main character, realizes the same throughout the course of the novel.

What kind of research did your conduct for your book and how long did you spend on research?

TW: I traveled to Castine, Maine; I read books (on twins, on Rome, on strange phenomena), I spoke with people (about Castine and Rome and the Javanese keris); and I did more online research than I can name (on twins and post traumatic stress disorder and antiques and airlines and sailing and pirates and more!).

I love research, and I spend far more time on it than I’ll admit in a public forum that may be visited by my editor. But seriously, I do love it and I let it divert me and inform the direction of the story if it’s juicy enough.

Your book takes place in Maine, New York and Rome. Are any of these places special to you in some way?

TW: When I first began writing this story, I chose to center the book in upstate because it was what I knew; I live in upstate New York. I ventured out of “safe” territory shortly thereafter by sending my characters to Rome, Italy. When I rewrote the book to focus on the twin sisters, I decided to add scenes from Castine, Maine, as well. I don’t have a special connection to Rome or Castine, but I did visit Castine and learned much about the town on that trip.

Tell us a little bit about your background and how you came to be a novelist.

TW: I was hired as a features researcher for Prevention Magazine out of graduate school. I’d long loved to write, though I hadn’t considered it as a career until my stint with Prevention. Opportunities were born, and I took them. And when my daughter was born, I left my in-house job to become a freelance health researcher and writer.

Fiction became a part of the everyday at that point—reading to my daughter, then my son. And because I liked to write, one thing led to another; I started writing children’s stories. None were published, but that didn’t matter; Pandora’s Box had been opened. One thing I learned while writing children’s stories was that I loved a good juicy sentence, so I thought I should try my hand at adult fiction. And I did.

Can you tell us about your next book and when we can expect to see it in print?

TW: Yes, I’m writing about a blind woman who travels across West Virginia in search of her dead mother’s unfinished story and along the way teaches others how to see the world. It’s another novel with cross-genre elements—some mystery and psychological suspense, a little romance, and some mythical realism. But this book also has a whole lot of Quirk, and I love that. My deadline for the book is 12/10, so it should be on the shelves sometime in 2011. That may seem like a long time, but I’ll use every minute wisely.

Anything else you’d like to say to members of mother-daughter book clubs?

TW: Just that I’m flattered to be featured here, and I hope that The Last Will of Moira Leahy inspires some interesting conversations between mothers and daughters. Please send me a note when you’ve finished the book to let me know your thoughts. I welcome the feedback. Happy reading!

About the Author

Therese is the co-founder of Writer Unboxed, a blog for writers about the craft and business of genre fiction. Before turning to fiction, she was a researcher and writer for Prevention magazine, and then a freelance writer. She’s had hundreds of articles on nutrition and fitness published in consumer magazines and online.

She has a master’s degree in psychology.

Aside from writing, Therese’s favorite things include music, art, crab legs, Whose Line is it Anyway?, dark chocolate, photography, unique movies and novels, people watching, strong Irish tea, and spending time with her husband, two kids and their bouncy Jack Russell.

Win:  One Copy of The Last Will of Moira Leahy to be Given Away

If you’re intrigued by this review, interview and Therese’s background, you’ll definitely want to read her book. You can win a copy right here by commenting on this post. Tell us which element of Therese’s story intrigues you the most, or make a comment on one of her interview answers. One winner will be chosen from all who comment before midnight, Pacific Daylight Time on Thursday, November 5.

Book Review: Saving Ben: A Father’s Story of Autism by Dan Burns

October 15, 2009

Saving Ben

More and more autism and treatments for the condition are in the public eye, but when Dan Burns’ son Ben was born in the 1980s, little was known about autism or what to do for children who had it. Parents who had skills and resources acted as the best advocates for their children, but even then, much of what they were able to accomplish came through trial and error.

Parents now have more resources to help their children, including the personal stories of parents who have come before them. One of those is Burns’ book, Saving Ben: A Father’s Story of Autism. Ben’s diagnosis when it came was doubly crippling: severe autism and mental retardation. The level of personal care he needed from others to function would tax the ability of most any parent, but for Dan and his wife Sue, who were struggling with issues of their own even before Ben was born, it was particularly difficult.

While I’m not qualified to say whether the treatments Burns tried with Ben over the years are recommended for those with autism, I can say that Saving Ben is foremost a love story of what lengths a father is willing to go to help his son. Burns had two other children when Ben was born, one who had already left home and one who had nearly finished high school. His professional career was well established, and by all outside views he had a good life.

But under the surface he was struggling with his own sexual orientation and his wife was struggling with past abuse. Caring for Ben added more stress to their household. Ultimately, they would divorce and Burns would downplay his own career to care for his son. He was fortunate to be highly educated, which meant he felt confident enough to question and challenge the medical and teaching professionals who recommended courses of action for his son. He was also fortunate to receive financial support from his mother, which meant that as a single father employed part-time he could still pay for extraordinary levels of treatment for Ben.

If members of a mother-daughter book club have been touched by autism, Saving Ben can definitely help other members see how severely this condition can affect every aspect of the whole family. I would have liked to know more about how Ben’s siblings dealt with his condition and the disintegration of their parents’ marriage, but ultimately, this is an honest portrayal of how profoundly parents’ lives can change when they care for a child with disabilities.

Burns’ frank discussion of his own personal struggles and mature language make this appropriate for mother-daughter book clubs with girls in high school.

Book Review: Surviving High Society by Elizabeth Mulholland

August 3, 2009

Surviving Society

From the outside anyone would have thought Elizabeth Marvin had the perfect life: a wealthy family, an expensive education, extravagant vacations, and more. But hiding behind the perfect façade was a deeply troubled childhood for Elizabeth and her brother, both of whom were adopted. Elizabeth’s memoir, Surviving High Society tells of her life growing up around the world of New England monied families, her difficult relationship with her controlling mother, and the refuge she found with her father, and eventually, with her husband.

Born in 1940, Elizabeth’s memoir takes us through the 1940s, 50s and 60s, and touches on the life of Katharine Hepburn, whose niece was a friend. While the situations she describes offer a fascinating glimpse into society life of the times, there is not enough detail about her family situation to really help the reader understand the bad experiences she talks about. It’s almost as though the training Elizabeth must have had in holding back her emotions is still at work even as she cracks open the door to let us know a little bit about what went on inside her home.

While I don’t believe this is a perfect choice for mother-daughter book clubs, I found it an interesting book to read for it’s historical context and to learn about one woman’s struggle to become her own, independent person in a time that was difficult for women to assert themselves.