Book Review: Kindred Spirits by Sarah Strohmeyer

I absolutely loved Kindred Spirits by Sarah Strohmeyer. I’ve been a Strohmeyer fan since 2001 and this book, published in 2011, did not disappoint. In fact, it’s my favorite non-Bubbles Strohmeyer book so far.

Kindred Spirits is about four friends, Lynne, Carol, Mary Kay, and Beth, who met during a school board meeting and formed the Ladies Society for the Conservation of Martinis. These four friends become each other’s family as they raise their children together and endure the hardships, as well as the joys, of life together. When Lynne dies suddenly, she leaves behind a huge secret and tasks her friends to fulfill a mission for her she could never accomplish in life.

Lynne’s secret is something that hits particularly close to home for me because of my profession. There were so many truths in this book regarding the secret Lynne’s keeps I can’t help but think that Strohmeyer really did her homework.

Every chapter is interspersed with martini recipes and it made this teetotaler almost wish she was a drinker. If you are a drinker and like martini’s I suggest trying out some of these recipes to see if they really are as good as they sound.

The friendships between these four very different women was so heartwarming. Especially how much they demonstrated their love and loyalty to each other, even in wrong choices, and in this case, Lynne’s death. I think every woman wishes she had a core group of girlfriends who are her soft place to fall and friends she can go to for marriage and parenting advice; friends who never judge you and love you unconditionally.

This book is well-written and heartwarming. I had a hard time putting it down and only did so when I couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer. I found myself crying several times as I had grown quite attached to these characters. I liked it so much I think I’ll recommend it to my book club for a pick for next year.

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Book Review: Smart Girls Get What They Want by Sarah Strohmeyer

 

Sarah Strohmeyer’s first novel for teens, Smart Girls Get What They Want, is jolly good fun. I’ve been a fan of Strohmeyer’s ever since I read her first Bubbles novel over a decade ago. It’s been my goal to get my hands on every novel she’s written since. Strohmeyer has an easy writing style that makes all her books just a darn good time. (And on a personal note, she’s an exceptionally nice person).

 

Smart Girls is about Gigi and her two best friends, Bea and Neerja, who are three of the honors students in their high school. These three best friends are so dedicated and focused on good grades and getting into the Ivy League, they forget to have the carefree time that high school is all about. Determined to not let just their academic achievements define their high school years, the three set out to step out of their comfort zones and try something new. Neerja auditions for the school play to get closer to her crush; Bea joins the skiing team despite her attorney parents fear of her getting hurt; and Gigi puts aside her fear of public speaking to run for Student Representative for the School Board. Along the way, Gigi attracts the attention of the cute new boy and a jock she’s known since kindergarten.

 

I found myself identifying with Strohmeyer’s heroine more than I thought I would. I was an AP/honors nerd in high school and so were most of my friends. Only I never dreamed of the Ivy League (too out of reach for a Utah girl) and instead just dreamed of getting a scholarship to a state university. I identified with Gigi feeling invisible to the rest of her classmates who weren’t in her classes and how she was surprised that two popular girls would feel snubbed by Gigi as well.

 

I liked the book’s message of how a girl should never stop being who she is to find someone to like her. Gigi firmly believes that she should never dumb herself down for a boy even when everyone is telling her that boys don’t like smart girls. I’m glad that Gigi stays true to herself while also expanding upon her strengths to improve who she is at her core.

 

I really enjoyed this book and what a good role model for smart girls Gigi and her friends are. This is definitely a book I’ll have my daughter read once she reaches those teen years.

Book Review: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Wow.

This was my reaction after putting down Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. I felt like Flynn just took me on the wildest roller coaster ride I have ever been on. This book is a psychological thriller that keeps you guessing at every turn. A huge fan of true-crime and fictional crime novels/stories, I thought I had this book figured out. Every time I did, I was punched in the face with a new twist. I read this 415 page book over the course of probably only 12 hours, if that. I could not put it down. I didn’t want to sleep because I didn’t want to stop reading it. It was that thoroughly engrossing.

This fictional novel begins on Nick and Amy’s five year wedding anniversary. Nick is from Missouri and moves to New York City to become a magazine writer. It is there he meets, falls in love with, and marries Amy. She is a born and bred New York City girl who does not have to work, but does as a writer of magazine quizzes, because her parents are famous children book authors who have made a fortune chronically Amy’s childhood. After two years of marriage, both Nick and Amy lose their writing jobs and move to Nick’s hometown in Missouri to take care of Nick’s dying mother, Alzheimer’s ridden father, and rebuild their lives. The morning of their five year anniversary Amy goes missing and Nick is the number one suspect in her disappearance. This is not your ordinary wife-goes-missing-husband-did-it stories, a la Scott Peterson and Mark Hacking. To say more would be ruining it.

If you can’t stand harsh language, this isn’t the book for you because some parts are very brutal. If you can stand dicey language and are looking for a thrill-ride, this is your book. Flynn is a genius story teller and I’m putting the rest of her novels on hold at the library.

I say again…

Wow.

Book Review: The Murderer’s Daughters by Randy Susan Meyers

The Murderer’s Daughters by Randy Susan Meyers follows two sisters over four decades of their lives after their father murders their mother. Lulu and Merry are two young girls living in Brooklyn, New York, suffering through their childhood with neglectful and self-involved parents. After their mother kicks their father out of the house, he shows up drunks, kills his wife and attempts to kill Merry and himself. The girls’ father is then sent to prison and they are essentially orphans.

At first Lulu and Merry’s maternal grandmother takes them in and cares for them. After her death, their paternal grandmother is too old and frail to care for them and their Aunt refuses to take them in because they are the daughters of her sister’s murderer and the girls are sent to a home for girls (read: orphanage). After a few years the girls are taken in by a foster family and the book follows them through their angsty teenage years through their adulthood.

Lulu and Merry have very different reactions to their mother’s murder and their father’s incarceration. Lulu is wracked with guilt and believes she could have somehow prevented her mother’s death if she had not let her father in their apartment that day. Lulu wants nothing to do with their father and instructs her younger sister to lie and say their parents were killed in a car accident. Merry dutifully visits her father in prison every other week with her paternal grandmother for years until their grandmother’s death. This difference in how they individually deal with their situation causes friction between Lulu and Merry despite their deep devotion to each other. A wrench is really thrown into their lives when it looks like their father will be able to make parole after 30 years in prison.

I thought this book was exceptionally well written. Neither Lulu nor Merry was perfect and they each had distinct characters and voices. They are individuals who are deeply flawed and deeply affected by their past. Lulu and Merry are relatable and likable, even when you want to shake them for their bad choices or the ways they react to each other. The book was a page turner and thoroughly engrossing. I didn’t want it to end and wanted it to continue to follow Lulu and Merry into their later adulthood and watch their relationship grow and change.

Despite the shocking premise of the book, two girls who are orphaned by a vicious act of domestic violence, it is a gentle book about two girls growing into women with a huge tragedy hanging over their heads. It makes the reader empathize with all those real-life children who are abandoned, orphaned, or stigmatized by the sins of their parents. Meyers’ fiction novel is haunting while being aggressively honest. I highly recommend this book.

Book Review: Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man by Bill Clegg

Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man is a memoir written by Bill Clegg about his struggle with crack addiction. It is Clegg’s first novel and is a short, quick read and immediately engaging.

In flashbacks, Clegg chronicles his childhood struggles and his over-bearing father. He addresses his casual drug use in high school and college, which leads to a full-blown crack addiction in adulthood.

Clegg is a literary agent who lives in New York City. This memoir is about his last crack binge that cost him his savings, his relationship, his apartment, and his job. His family tries to stage an intervention and he runs away, eventually becoming so sick and so weak that he has no choice but to seek treatment.

I loved most of this book. It got repetitive after a while as Clegg checks in and out of endless hotels, smokes crack, drinks vodka, calls his dealers, becomes paranoid, and never eats. During his last crack binge he lost 40 pounds and marks his weight loss by how many more holes he has to put in his belt to hold his pants up. The last few chapters are very tedious, and yet it makes me wonder if that is a tool to show how tedious drug addiction can be.  The final chapter was amazingly brilliant.

This book perfectly illustrates to me just how much drug addiction makes you lose your soul, your values, and your sense of self-preservation. Nothing matters to Clegg except getting high. He doesn’t care what he loses, he only cares about gaining crack. I think this book would help anyone who is dealing with a loved one with an addiction issue and can’t understand how this person is willing to give up everything for the next high.

Book Review – Belong to Me by Marisa de los Santos

Belong to MeBelong to Me by Marisa de los Santos
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Belong to Me by Marisa de los Santos is a charming book about friendship, secrets, and what it means to be family.  It is narrated by three characters: Cornelia, a former city-girl settling down in the suburbs with her doctor husband; Piper, the Queen Bee of the suburbs and Cornelia’s across the street neighbor; and Dev, a 13 year old boy who is the son of Cornelia’s first friend in town, Lake.

Cornelia moves to a suburb of Philadelphia after a decade or so in New York City ready to settle down and have a family.  Her husband, Teo, is a doctor who she has known since childhood.  Piper is a materialistic, judgmental, status-driven, keeping up appearances at all costs, housewife in Cornelia’s new middle upper-class neighborhood.  At first Piper is icy toward Cornelia – criticizing her dead Mums on the front porch, suggesting ways to landscape, and telling Cornelia she can’t sit in the front seat of her car because she is so small the airbag would hurt her were it to deploy.  Cornelia takes this amazingly in stride and begins to build a friendship with Piper.

I wanted to dislike Piper until I saw her relationship with her best friend Elizabeth. They’ve raised their children together, go on vacations together, and Elizabeth is the only who can see through Piper’s icy facade.  Elizabeth is dying of cancer and the news that it’s terminal hits Piper hard.  She neglects her marriage to take care of Elizabeth, her children, and Elizabeth’s husband, Tom.  It’s by observing Piper’s friendship with Elizabeth that the reader, and Cornelia, gets to see the human side of Piper.

Cornelia’s first friend in town is also a newcomer herself, Lake, and a waitress at a local Italian restaurant.  Lake moved her and her son, Deveraux (“Dev”), to Pennsylvania from California after testing proved how truly exceptional Dev is.  Lake is unusually guarded and Cornelia can’t figure out why.

I really, really enjoyed this book.  It was one that took me a week to read (I usually read a book in 3 days or so) because I wanted to savor every last bit. de los Santos’ writing is beautiful.  I knew exactly who was narrating each chapter without looking because Cornelia, Piper, and Dev all had very distinct voices.  I surprised myself by ending up like Piper’s chapters a lot more than Cornelia’s, when she is the protagonist of the story.  I felt like Cornelia’s life and marriage was almost “too perfect.”  Teo is a doctor, he’s incredibly good looking, and he is very nice.  The only flaw in Cornelia’s life was that she was desperate to become a mother and that hadn’t happened yet for her.  She was also incredibly gracious to keep giving Piper chance after chance when she didn’t deserve it.

Piper’s character was the most developed.  We learn she is ashamed of her past and where she came from which fuels her incessant need to keep up appearances and be at the top of her social circle.  I loved the chapters with her and Elizabeth.  Every woman wants a real female friendship that is honest and tender.  By the end Piper isn’t the “Queen Bee” anymore, but is a person who is more true to herself.

Dev’s chapters were very intellectual and thinky and it took me a while to figure out where he belonged in the book.  His and Lake’s relationships are fraught with secrets that are revealed toward the end.  Dev is a very smart kid and knows that Lake is up to something and he figures it out before anyone else does.  I don’t know how Dev comes to forgive Lake because I’m still angry with her a month after reading the book (which proves I become too emotionally involved with fictional characters). de los Santos does a great way of tying up and tying together all the characters’ stories by the end.

All in all, this was a lovely book.  One I would recommend and read again.  It made me want to read all of de los Santos’ books.  I definitely like her style.

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Book Review – Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

ZeitounZeitoun by Dave Eggers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Zeitoun by Dave Eggers is a true story account of one family’s experience and devastating aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Abdulrahman and Kathy Zeitoun lived and worked in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit.  Abdulrahman (known as Zeitoun) is a Syrian immigrant and the Zeitouns are practicing Muslims.  The Zeitouns have weathered many hurricanes during their time in New Orleans and at first the family is not concerned about the storm.  After repeated warnings, Kathy evacuates to Baton Rouge with their four children while Zeitoun insists on staying behind to take care of their painting/contracting business and rental properties.  Zeitoun weathers the storm and the eventual breaching of levees and flooding of the city.  Zeitoun bought a used canoe years ago and is now able to put it to good use by helping some of his neighbors and abandoned dogs.  After a few days with fewer people to help and the city becoming increasingly polluted and dangerous, Zeitoun beings to plan to leave and join Kathy and the kids in Phoenix (where she eventually ended up).  That is, until Zeitoun is arrested in his own home for looting and is put in prison for 23 days without being given access to his Constitutional right of one phone call.  They won’t even tell him what the charges are against him, but he does have a few guards tell him that he’s Taliban, or a terrorist.

For the most part I very much enjoyed this book.  It is a fast read and I read it within three days.  I read the first 100 pages within a couple of hours.  I enjoyed reading about Zeitoun’s early life in Syria and how he came to live in America.  I also enjoyed reading about Kathy’s history of growing up in a large Christian family and eventually converting to Islam.  Kathy’s journey to conversion helped me understand the Muslim religion in a ways I had not thought about before.

I liked how this novel focused both on Zeitoun’s experience in the city and also in jail juxtaposed against Kathy’s experience fleeing the storm, keeping connected with and worrying about her husband, and the absolute torment she went through when she hadn’t heard from him in two weeks and feared that he was dead.

Mostly I was outraged reading this book.  Knowing that a jail was built within a couple of days of the storm when all of that man power and resources could have been used to rescue people trapped in their attics, under freeway passes, and at the Superdome made me sick.  The jailees had access to toilets and food but not those trapped in the Superdome?  Where were the priorities of those in charge?  I was also outraged that a man could be arrested for and jailed for 23 days without any proof of a crime being committed (he was on his own property when he was arrested!) and denied a phone call or medical attention.  And he was lucky because others who were falsely accused were jailed for months by FEMA.  Heck of a job, Brownie?  I think not.  You think that can’t happen to you as a citizen of the United States, but oh yes, it can.  Reading this book brought me back to the outrage I experienced seven years ago watching all these tragedies, travesties, and injustices happening in the United States of America in the 21st Century because of incompetent government officials and agencies.

The only thing I disliked about the book was all of the descriptions in chapters of Zeitoun’s hero brother that really had nothing to do with the story.  I kept skipping over them because they were boring. I wanted to get back to the action of the book.

Eggers wrote about the Zeitoun family in a book called Voices from the Storm, but felt that their story was so compelling that it deserved an entire book.  The book ends in 2008 with an update on how the family is doing now, but a lot can change in four years.  Once lauded as a Katrina hero, Zeitoun is now anything but.  He is currently in jail for domestic assault against is now ex-wife Kathy and just recently he has been accused of trying to solicit someone to kill Kathy, her new boyfriend, and her son from her first marriage.  Finding this out just a few days after finishing this book really put a damper on the hope I held for the Zeitoun family and their future.  At the end of Zeitoun Kathy talks about Zeitoun becoming increasingly more religious and fanatic and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.  What he went through in those 23 days of jail after Katrina has irreparably harmed his mental state and his family forever.

The story of the Zeitoun family is about one of the country’s greatest tragedy’s and failings, which in my opinion, lead to a very tragic end to a once stable and happy family.

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