Monday, August 15, 2011

Your Grandma Wears Army Boots...

Mare’s War by Tanita S. Davis:

Meet Mare, a World War II veteran and a grandmother like no other. She was once a willful teenager who escaped her less than perfect life in the deep South and lied about her age to join the African American Battalion of the Women's Army Corps. Now she is driving her granddaughters—two willful teenagers in their own rite—on a cross-country road trip. The girls are initially skeptical of Mare's flippy wigs and stilettos, but they soon find themselves entranced by the story she has to tell, and readers will be too.

Told in alternating chapters, half of which follow Mare through her experiences as a WAC and half of which follow Mare and her granddaughters on the road in the present day, this novel introduces readers to a larger-than-life character and a fascinating chapter in African American history.

Summary from GoodReads.

Octavia (Tavia) and her older sister Talitha (Tali) have had their summer hijacked by their parents. Instead of wiling away those hot summer days babysitting and ogling hot lifeguards, they are stuck in a car, driving across the country with their grandmother, Mare, to go to a family reunion.

Mare’s not like other grandmothers. Despite being in her 80s, she favors high heels, outrageous wigs and drives her little red sports car like a maniac.

Trapped in the confines of a small car, Tavia and Talia are a captive audience to Mare’s stories of growing up poor and joining the African-American battalion of the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) when she was just 17 years old. Though reluctant to listen at first, soon they are asking questions and learning about a part of history really covered in class. Through crazy pit stops, poor road conditions and hot weather, the girls slowly come to understand why Mare is the way she is, and learn what it means to embrace a life lived in spite of the fear of the unknown.

I picked up Mare’s War because I read a moving blog post by Tanita Davis in the wake of the horror in Oslo. This woman’s a writer, I thought to myself, and quick review of her website proved my theory to be true. Mare’s War was available at the library, so I picked it up.

Not only did I end falling in love with Mare (she can be my grandmother any day), but I got to learn something without ever feeling like someone was trying to teach me a lesson. Mare’s War may be narrated by Tavia in the present, but – as the title suggests – this is Mare’s story.

And what a story it is.

Mare’s journey to protect her little sister, and become something beyond being the house girl for the local society maven is captivating. Davis captures her journey during this time period and the politics of WWII (not to mention the irony of fighting freedom for others when you are not complete free yourself) without ever feeling heavy-handed, and the resulting story is a captivating read.

Mare’s personality and journey are so strong however, that her story overshadows that of her Tavia and Tali and their relationship with one another. The periods of time spend in the present while Tavia tries to understand her strained bond with Tali and learn her own strength of character does not have the same impact of the chapters that take place in the past. Mare is just too big of a character. While I enjoyed the present day interludes (and Tavia and Tali’s personalities), I was glued to the couch by what would happen in Mare’s life next.

Mare’s War is highly recommended for readers who are interested in a fictional account of historical events, flamboyant characters, strong women and anyone who enjoys a road trip story.

You can purchase Mare's War from these fine retailers: Powell’s, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Your Local Indie, or you can pick it up at your local library.

Book Source: the library.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Mapping out your relationship highway style...

Don’t Stop Now by Julie Halpern:

On the first day of Lillian’s summer-before-college, she gets a message on her cell from her sort-of friend, Penny. Not only has Penny faked her own kidnapping, but Lil is the only one who figures it out. She knows that Penny’s home life has been rough, and that her boyfriend may be abusive. Soon, Penny’s family, the local police, and even the FBI are grilling Lil, and she decides to head out to Oregon, where Penny has mentioned an acquaintance. And who better to road-trip across the country with than Lil’s BFF, Josh. But here’s the thing: Lil loves Josh. And Josh doesn’t want to “ruin” their amazing friendship.

Josh has a car and his dad’s credit card. Lil has her cell phone and a hunch about where Penny is hiding. There’s something else she needs to find: Are she and Josh meant to be together?

Summary from GoodReads.

Lillian wakes up the morning after her last day of high school (ever!) to a mysterious voice mail from her default friend, Penny. Although it’s just three words long – “I did it.” – the message is enough to trigger a foggy memory of Penny planning her own kidnapping. Fake kidnappings are just too much trouble to handle alone – which basically sums up Lil & Penny’s entire relationship – so Lil calls in reinforcements: her real best friend, Josh. Aka the boy who is the definition of unrequited love interest.

Lil and Josh go together like peanut butter and jelly, complete with a general “screw those people with nut allergies” attitude, so (unsurprisingly) upon learning of the adventures of one bad Penny, Josh hits upon the perfect solution.

Can we say road trip?

Armed with vague memories of Penny’s destination and a strong desire to avoid FBI interrogation, Josh and Lil leave Chicago for the open road, destination: Portland, Oregon. Along the way they’ll stop to see the more absurd of the road side attractions and explore that spark that always makes them seem more than friends. By the time they reach Portland, will they have reached a new stage in their relationship as well?

Lil and Josh are very, very clearly teenagers and entitled ones at that. With few familial or economic responsibilities , they can just take off. Armed with Josh’s Dad’s credit card and the semi-reliability of his A/C-less van, they are beholden to nothing other than their own questions. Will this road trip help them find Penny? And more importantly will it answer the questions Lil has always had regarding the possibility of upgrading Josh from best friend to boyfriend?

By sending Josh and Lil on a road trip, Halpern is able to intensely focus on their actions, interaction and reactions. Whether or not Lil will forever be stuck in the friend zone (or even if it is better for her there) is what drives the plot and our understanding of Lil and Josh together. The only outside perspective she supplies comes from Penny’s diary entries.

These diary entries both help and hurt Lil and Josh as characters. We get to experience how Penny perceives them – the ultimate couple whose coupling she doesn’t quite understand the dynamics of, but whose support of one another goes unquestioned.  This is in clear contrast to Penny’s own abusive romantic relationship and her broken family ties. Thanks to these diary entries, I as the reader could see why Penny had gone to such extremes, whereas Josh and Lil have only their impressions of Penny to go on. Still their ignorance in light of her behavior is hard to witness. Even at the very end when Lil confronts Penny about the kidnapping, she cut’s off the other girl’s explanation of why.

While I know – and the story takes great pains to point out – that Lil viewed Penny as a pity friend, I had a hard time accepting this part of Lil’s character. And the reason has to do with the fact that outside of Josh we never really hear about anyone else in Lil’s life. The reader never gets to see Lil interact with another female character (real friend-wise) because she is so wrapped up in Josh that no one else appears to matter.

Very teenager-y? Yes. And maybe Lil is just one of those girls that enjoy the company of men over women. But there was a certain level of insularity to both her and Josh’s character to kept me from loving them whole-heartedly despite the great rapid dialog, crazy landmarks, and the will they or won’t they romantic tension.

Without the Penny drama, Don’t Stop Now is a light road trip tale of best friends trying to define their relationship – whatever that is – before they pass on into full adulthood and all the requirements and restrictions that come with the title. When viewed through a teen viewfinder, we get to explore the friendship zone with two people full of charm and adventure. Whether these things will transition with them to the next stage of life is what Lil and Josh are trying to discover. In fact, had Penny not been part of this, I think I would have been unfazed by Lil and Josh’s flakier moments. Sadly, I’ve known too many Penny’s this affects my judgment of their reactions to her situation.

Despite this, I did enjoy learning about their different stops along the way. I even learned something new about Portland (I’d never been to/or heard of the Rimsky-Korsakoffee House) that I will have to check out. This does lead me to one correction in the text though. While in the Church of Elvis, Lil observes someone giving them the devil sign for talking to loud:

“Can we get out of here?” I ask Penny. “That woman is giving us the evil eye,” which she is, literally, by staring at us and pointing the devil hand sign in our direction.
-page 213 of Don’t Stop Now.

Guys, that’s not the devil sign! It’s the quiet coyote, the hand symbol used by teachers in classrooms and school assemblies to bring order and silence…as well as the occasional smart-ass howl.* (I’m told by high school teachers it doesn’t work so well for them. )

Even zoos have heard of it:

The inclusion of the quiet coyote, although it was unknowing, made my day. For that scene alone I have told three people about this book.

I picked up Don’t Stop Now because it sounded like a fun “will they or won’t they” novel with the added bonus of some Portland landmarks. In the end, I found that my reservations regarding Penny’s situation and Lil and Josh’s attitude toward that situation dimmed my overall enjoyment slightly. Maybe it’s a sign of my age that I wanted a little more from these characters. Still, this won’t keep me from picking up Halpern’s other titles if my mood and the library’s hold system are in alignment.

Recommended for fans of road trips and the best friends turned lovers trope (or at least an exploration of some of its aspects). Like movie theater popcorn Don’t Stop Now will either be the perfect accompaniment to a summer day or leave you with a hangover from the butter high.

You can purchase Don’t Stop Now from these fine retailers: Powell’s, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Your Local Indie, or you can pick it up at your local library.

*This in itself is amusing because anyone who lives in a rural area with a coyote population will tell you that they are often anything but quiet. It took me many years after I moved out of my parent’s house to get used to going to sleep without their howling.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Links for tea drinkers and introverts and whinos (or tea drinking introvert whinos)

In my searches I came across this very old article from the Atlantic regarding “Caring for Your Introvert.” In 2003 (March) Jonathan Rauch wrote about Introverts or “people who find other people tiring.”

Extroverts are energized by people, and wilt or fade when alone. They often seem bored by themselves, in both senses of the expression. Leave an extrovert alone for two minutes and he will reach for his cell phone. In contrast, after an hour or two of being socially "on," we introverts need to turn off and recharge. My own formula is roughly two hours alone for every hour of socializing. This isn't antisocial. It isn't a sign of depression. It does not call for medication. For introverts, to be alone with our thoughts is as restorative as sleeping, as nourishing as eating. Our motto: "I'm okay, you're okay—in small doses."

Now, I’ll be the first one to tell you that I’m an introvert, but I do think everyone needs a little alone time sometimes, especially with a book…and perhaps with a cup of tea. Although you had better watch out because apparently tea makers have been lying to us! A recent i09 article states: “High school scientists discover "undisclosed ingredients" in tea.”

What did they find? A kettle full of deception! Although the teas that were not flavored mostly kept honest, with only about four percent having extra plants mixed in, over a third of the herbal teas had unlisted ingredients. The main additives were bluegrass, which grows on lawns, and white goosefoot, which is a relative of spinach. There was also parsley, and a lot of extra chamomile.

That’s right, there might be newspaper lurking in your green tea and undisclosed bluegrass in your chamomile! The article prompted the following conversation with my roommate:

Roommate: …all the more reason to avoid herbal teas
Me: yep. I'm sure some of the paper could be from the tea back itself. I expect a little paper dust because of the bags
 Roommate: yeah. I would want to read their paper and evaluate their methods
 Me: but damn it, would have totally done that for a high school science class
 Roommate: did they choose high quality tea or blah tea? did the herbals declare themselves a blend, or claim to be pure
 Me: J, those teas were ladies. of course they were pure. whatever are you implying?
 Roommate: and if they examined 33 companies, how many were black teas, so the 4% that had contaminants is probably only one company
Me: yeah, I would like to read the paper, but good on them for doing something different
 Roommate: no kidding. I'm impressed at the idea and follow-through, even if I might want to critique their actual methods*
Me: god, we don't have degrees in science or anything

Oh, science nerds…Without them I wouldn’t be able to justify my wine drinking habit. That’s right, according to a new Spanish study, a glass or two of Sauvignon blanc might help fight sunburns and protect your skin.**  A license to drink more? Of course! I have to have something to protect me from the evils of tea.

And while I’m having that drink, I’ll take the Daily Beast’s quiz and see if I can tell the difference between lines from Taylor Swift’s songs and Jane Austen’s books. At least I won’t be operating a motor vehicle right?

*Seriously though, if someone could get me a copy of this paper I would love to read it. I want to see how they went about attaining their data and what their margin of error was. 
**Thanks to Nate for the link.

Monday, August 01, 2011

But, Mama, he’s a magic man...

The Peach Keeper by Sarah Addison Allen:

It’s the dubious distinction of thirty-year-old Willa Jackson to hail from a fine old Southern family of means that met with financial ruin generations ago. The Blue Ridge Madam—built by Willa’s great-great-grandfather during Walls of Water’s heyday, and once the town’s grandest home—has stood for years as a lonely monument to misfortune and scandal. And Willa herself has long strived to build a life beyond the brooding Jackson family shadow. No easy task in a town shaped by years of tradition and the well-marked boundaries of the haves and have-nots.

But Willa has lately learned that an old classmate—socialite do-gooder Paxton Osgood—of the very prominent Osgood family, has restored the Blue Ridge Madam to her former glory, with plans to open a top-flight inn. Maybe, at last, the troubled past can be laid to rest while something new and wonderful rises from its ashes. But what rises instead is a skeleton, found buried beneath the property’s lone peach tree, and certain to drag up dire consequences along with it.

For the bones—those of charismatic traveling salesman Tucker Devlin, who worked his dark charms on Walls of Water seventy-five years ago—are not all that lay hidden out of sight and mind. Long-kept secrets surrounding the troubling remains have also come to light, seemingly heralded by a spate of sudden strange occurrences throughout the town.

Now, thrust together in an unlikely friendship, united by a full-blooded mystery, Willa and Paxton must confront the dangerous passions and tragic betrayals that once bound their families—and uncover truths of the long-dead that have transcended time and defied the grave to touch the hearts and souls of the living.

Summary from GoodReads.

In Walls of Water, North Carolina, the Blue Ridge Madam was just one more decrepit Southern mansion before Paxton Osgood’s family and the Women’s Society Club decided to resurrect it to its former glory. Despite being a descendent of the former owners, Willa Jackson isn’t too thrilled by the Osgoods or any of the Walls of Water society mavens, but she is happy the Madam is getting her due.

"Whenever I would get too nosy as a child, my grandmother would say, "When you learn someone else's secret, your own secrets aren't safe. Dig up one, release them all." – The Peach Keeper

The Madam’s restoration takes a dark turn, however, when the body of Tucker Devlin is uncovered. A door-to-door salesman and con artist, Devlin blew into town in the 30s and captivated its inhabitants with his face, golden promises and an odd ability to command the elements. Now seventy-five years later the man who claimed to have peach juice in his veins is discovered buried under the estate’s lone peach tree, right next to a cast iron skillet – the possible murder weapon. And the most likely suspect? Willa’s grandmother, now trapped mostly in her mind by Alzheimer’s and living in a nursing home.

Devlin’s death was the birth of the Women’s Society Club, and it will take Willa and Paxton – granddaughters of its founding members – working together to discover what happened in Walls of Water so long ago. Along the way they will have to come to terms with their lost dreams, town roles and the true meaning of friendship.

The Peach Keeper by Sarah Addison Allen has been making the rounds as the perfect summer novel for book club set, which normally would make me walk in the other direction. Maybe it’s too many years in the business or too many years just hearing the phrase “book club pick” associated with what publishers consider women’s fiction, but the whole marketing process has been done so often that it strips the books of their uniqueness. Not the book’s fault, but with so many other choices out there, it makes it easy for me to pass on by. Sell me on why I would like it, not why it won’t anger the eight other ladies in the group.

And this is what Katy the Pages Worth Remembering tumblr did by posting several passages from the novel:

"Throughout marriages and children, Willa and Paxton would still call each other almost every night, sometimes just to say goodnight. Sometimes Willa would know it was Paxton without her ever having to say a word. She would be in bed, Colin asleep beside her, and the phone would ring and she would pick it up and say, ‘Good night, Paxton. I’m here if you need me.’

That, they knew, was true friendship.

And they knew, if you’re lucky enough to find it, you hold on to it.

Hold on, and never let it go."

A little sweet and sappy? Yes, but that was the mood I was in when I added The Peach Keeper to my library list. I’d had enough books with mean girls and infighting, and I wanted something soothing.

The Peach Keeper is a gentle novel whose magical realism followed in the same vein as Hoffman’s Practical Magic. Despite the magical elements, this is a novel about two women understanding who they are and how important the connections they have with others are to their wellbeing. As Paxton’s grandmother explains her current and enduring friendship with the Alzheimer ridden Georgie:

“We are friends,” Agatha snapped. “She’s still here. I’m still here. And as long as we are we’ll always be friends.”

Connections to last a life time.

This is the heart of the book: friends are there for each other, they stand up for each other and they support one another in times of need. Sweat and idealistic at times, but comforting to read none the less.

The Peach Keeper didn’t break new ground or blow me away, but it did make me smile while I sat on my porch swing enjoying the summer that just finally got here. I don’t necessarily agree with everywhere the story wandered, but its slow Southern drawl pulled me in.

Recommended for readers looking for a long drink of sweet tea on a hot afternoon and book clubs (of course) who want something less edgy, more heartwarming and not Nicholas Sparks.

You can purchase The Peach Keeper from these fine retailers: Powells, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Borders, Your Local Indie, or you can pick it up at your local library.

Book Source: The library.