Monday, February 21, 2011

Little Princes

Full disclosure:  I haven’t read Three Cups of Tea and I’m not a fan of Eat, Pray, Love.  That being said, I know how outrageously popular they are and how many people have been moved by Mortenson and Gilbert’s journeys, especially the spiritual aspects.  Conor Grennan’s Little Princes certainly fills this niche for the 2011 publishing calendar.

Grennan recounts the story of what begins as a self-indulgent trip around the world after working and saving for a few years.  He decides to justify the frivolity of the trip by planning to volunteer at an orphanage in Nepal for three months before jetting off to Thailand to travel and party with friends.  But the children of the Little Princes orphanages and their stories get under his skin and open his eyes.  Grennan learns that the children were taken from their homes after promises were made to their parents offering education and safety from the civil war raging around them.  In reality, the children were taken to Kathmandu and either used to beg for money, which they then turned over to their captors or abandoned all together.  Families left behind believed their children were dead after years of silence.  Many of the children believed they would never see their families again.  

Grennan himself helps rescue seven orphans only to find out the child trafficker who brought them to Kathmandu originally got wind of his plan and took them from their safe house.  Their loss haunts him and brings him back to Nepal and Little Princes after his world travels.  Grennan’s life is forever changed and he commits to not only living in Nepal, but to finding the seven lost orphans and creating a truly safe place for them and others like them and, ultimately, reuniting them with their families.  

I was inspired by Grennan’s clear-eyed recounting of his transformation from a guy with some money in the bank who wanted to experience adventures around the world into a man committed to helping the children of Nepal while recognizing the intricacies and limitations of the country’s culture, traditions, and abject poverty.  His personal journey is compelling and his physical journey through far-flung Nepalese villages to find the families of many of “his” orphans was a tense, but inspiring read.  Little Princes is a satisfying and (here's that word again!) inspiring book that will make you want to get out your wallet and make a donation to New Generation Nepal, Grennan's organization.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Girl in the Garden

The Girl in the Garden is a sweet, exotic coming-of-age story set in Minnesota and India.  Rakhee is 11 years old and watching her parent’s marriage fall apart.  The speed of its demise is accelerated when letters from their native India begin arriving for her mother.  Rakhee witnesses her mother’s increasing isolation and ennui as her father continues to bury himself in his scientific research.  Rakhee’s mother begins to openly pine for India and her eventual suggestion that she and Rakhee spend the summer there set off alarm bells for both daughter and father.

Rakhee’s journey to her mother’s rural hometown is both disconcerting and strangely comforting - she feels distinctly American and is bowled over by the heat and dirt, but she also looks like everyone around her for the very first time.  While Rakhee gets to know her young cousins for the very first time, enjoying their games and teaching them American games, she cannot help but pick-up on the adult talk in the background.  Her aunts, uncles, mother, and their family friends are overheard talking about money, the family legacy, and her mother’s abrupt departure from home many years ago.  What are they hiding?  Rakhee’s anguish and confusion increases as her mother’s “old friend”, Prem begins to visit the family house, sometimes secretly at night to visit her mother.  Again, Rakhee overhears intimate conversations that hint at her mother’s life before coming to the United States.  

Secrets run through life in India like a river and Rakhee is desperate to understand how she can bring her parents back together and get over her increasing anger at her mother for taking them so far away from home.  Part of her rebellion is venturing into the forbidden jungle behind the family compound. Rakhee ventures out to find some solitude and instead finds a hidden, walled garden inhabited by, at first glance, a monster of some kind.  After running in fear on her initial encounter, Rakhee returns again to see what’s on the other side of the locked door.  She eventually finds and befriends “the girl in the garden”, which only leads to more family secrets and the discovery of how complicated and painful family loyalty can be.

Rakhee is a likable 11 year-old and her experiences at home and in India ring true - she loves getting to know her cousins and is mystified by the actions of the adults that surround her.  Where The Girl in the Garden fails is the manner is which Nair structured the novel - she begins with an adult Rakhee leaving her unnamed fiancĂ© to fly to India.  The book itself is written as though it is a letter to her fiancĂ© - a character the reader never knows or cares about.  Rakhee’s story stands alone well enough and this lame plot device just isn’t necessary and takes the reader out of young Rakhee’s story.  I read an Advance Readers Copy (ARC) that I received at a conference, so perhaps this will change, but I doubt it. Unfortunately, it transforms the whole tenor of the book from a coming-of-age story into more of an adult, quasi-romance story. While I liked “The Girl in the Garden” and would even recommend it to an adult book club for its luscious descriptions of Indian food, customs, and dress, it wasn’t structured and conceived well enough to endorse wholeheartedly.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Holiday Gift Guide: It's the End of the World As We Know It

For People Who Are Totally Into Dystopian Fiction

The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins
For my money, the gold-standard series of dystopian novels.  Sure, it’s supposed to be for your twelve year-old niece, but readers of all ages will be enthralled with heroine Katniss Everdeen and the mash-up Collins creates between Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery and reality television show, Survivor.

The Reapers are the Angels by Alden Bell
Temple is alone in a new world.  It used to be the United States, but that doesn’t matter now.  People used to live in houses, ride bicycles, and go to school.  No one does anymore.  Not really.  Not the way it used to be.  Temple’s world is full of zombies, or meatskins, and survivors like her.  Like Katniss of The Hunger Games, Temple kicks so much ass that you can’t stop turning the page to find out what in God’s name this terrible new world is going to throw at her next.

The Passage by Justin Cronin
The most dystopian wasteland populated by zombies for your buck.  At almost 800 pages, Cronin’s wild ride starts in a secret military complex where they are creating awful, human weapons and heads to the California wasteland created in the aftermath of these humans playing God.  Fans of Stephen King’s The Stand will devour The Passage like a half-starved vampire.

World War Z by Max Brooks
The perfect Studs Terkel-style dystopian novel.  This one is for fans of zombie, werewolf, vampire novels, and fans of This American Life or StoryCorp.  Brooks creates a whole new appreciation for oral histories in this fascinating treatment of a zombie apocalypse.   

Holiday Gift Guide: Book Club Readers

For Your Friend or Relative Who Loves a Good Book Club

Room by Emma Donoghue
I know I’m not the first to recommend this novel, which was truly the best book I read in 2010, but I’m surely the most relentless at putting it in people’s hot little hands.  Narrated by 5 year-old Jack, Room is the story of Jack and his mother and the single room in which they dwell.  Despite Ma’s best effort, the horror that keeps them in the room is always looming and readers will be literally clutching their throats at an escape attempt and its aftermath.  

The Girl Who Fell From the Sky by Heidi Durrow
Rachel’s life is coated with a strange patina of violence and fate.  Rachel, her mother, and her siblings fall from the roof of their Chicago apartment building. Rachel is too young to fully remember the circumstances that led them to the roof, leaving her and those who witnessed the aftermath of the tragedy a lifetime to wonder if Rachel’s family jumped or were pushed.

White is For Witching by Helen Oyeyemi
This is one strange, magical book.  The narrator is a malicious house (you read that correctly) who has possibly driven three generations of Silver women mad.  Miranda Silver is the female half of fraternal twins and the heir apparent to madness.  Oyeyemi has crafted a book of malevolent magical realism that is also masterfully political.    

One Amazing Thing by Chitra Banerjee Divajaruni
A massive earthquake traps a groups of strangers in the Indian consulate of an unnamed American city.  As they struggle to physically survive the ordeal and pray for rescue, they also try to keep their minds sharp and prevent despair from overtaking them.  To that end, they each share “one amazing thing”.  Each story is a revelation about the characters and the human spirit.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Holiday Gift Guide: Music

For Music Lovers
Life: Keith Richards by Keith Richards and James Fox
It’s Keith F-ing Richards!  This is the ultimate, no-holds-barred story of rock-and-roll, The Rolling Stones, and Richards himself.  The opening chapter includes Richards riding in a car stuffed with illicit drugs too numerous to remember and it only gets crazier from there.  Despite the rock-and-roll lifestyle, it’s clear Keith Richards loves music and music lovers will love to read what he has to say about it.

The House of Tomorrow by Peter Bognanni
Punk rock changes another life!  Sebastian lives in a geodesic dome in Iowa with his grandmother, a devotee of Buckminster Fuller.  An encounter with a family from a nearby town finds Sebastian with his first friend, first crush, and first exposure to punk rock music.  It’s all a revelation!  Remember when you first discovered the music that shaped the person you became?  

A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
Music is at the heart of Egan’s clever novel.  Overlapping stories start with an aging punk rocker, Bennie Salazar, and his assistant, Sasha and spiral out through time and space to tell a profound story of life, love, survival, and music.

Talking to Girls About Duran Duran: One Young Man’s Quest for True Love and a Cooler Haircut by Rob Sheffield
It’s Rob Sheffield.  He wrote Love is a Mix Tape.  He’s a contributing editor at Rolling Stone.  His coming-of-age story is a reminder of how music helps define us as it provides a soundtrack to some of the defining moments in our young lives.

Neil Young’s Greendale by Josh Dysart and Cliff Chiang (illustrator)
This is a graphic novel for either the Neil Young fan in your life or the teen who is starting to explore classic rock.  Based on Young’s 2003 album and 2004 film, the graphic novel tells the story of Sun Green.  Sun is a beautiful, politically active teenager in Northern California whose convictions are also paired with supernatural powers that she is only beginning to tap.  

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Holiday Gift Guide: Food and Drink

For the Foodie

Encyclopedia of Pasta by Oretta Zanini De Vita
From the rich red cover to the amazing recipes and culinary insights inside, this book is something a true foodie will want to hand down to future generations.

The Flavor Bible: The Essential Guide to Culinary Creativity, Based on the Wisdom of America's Most Imaginative Chefs by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenberg
The ultimate book for the foodie nerd in your life.  This isn’t about cooking; it’s about tasting and experimenting.

Chewy Gooey Crispy Crunchy Melt-in-Your-Mouth Cookies by Alice Medrich
All other cookie books will seem superfluous after using this one.  The recipes are sophisticated without being needlessly complex.  Medrich also provides useful guidance when it comes to ingredients, measurements, tools, and recipe modifications.

For the Booze Hound

How to Booze: Exquisite Cocktails and Unsound Advice by Jordan Kaye and Marshall Altier
As the appreciation for a good bartender and a great cocktail grows, How to Booze is the perfect companion.  This one is full of both cocktail recipes and sage, irreverent advice from a couple of bartenders who have seen it all.

Boozehound: On the Trail of the Rare, the Obscure, and the Overrated in Spirits by Jason Wilson
From Wilson’s Boozhound column comes a book packed with stories of travel and tippling.  His passion for booze can be seen in the distances he travels in order to learn and taste, as well as the collection of recipes he includes.

Speakeasy: The Employees Only Guide to Classic Cocktails Reimagined by Jason Kosmas and Dushan Zaric
This is the book for the amateur home mixologist who wants to take it to the next level.  Advice and recipes come from New York City bartending royalty – the owners of Employees Only, who helped start the mixology craze.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is a beautifully written powerhouse thriller. From the first page Franklin introduces two incredibly compelling characters whose lives intersect in shocking and heartbreaking ways. 

Larry is a loner, the designated freak of his rural Mississippi town of Chabot.  Why Larry?  Twenty years prior, his neighbor and high school crush disappeared after Larry took her on a date.  Although Larry was never charged, everyone assumed he was guilty and treated him as such.  Now that another teen girl is missing, people are beginning to suspect the town freak might be up to no good once again.  How else can you explain a man who lives alone on his parent’s farm and reads Stephen King voraciously?  A freak.  Why would a man go to work each day when he knows no one would ever set foot in his establishment?  Something must be wrong with him. Franklin does a great job in creating Larry the boy and teenager who turns into Larry, Chabot’s own town freak.  The twists of fate that take an innocent, only child with a great imagination and turn him into a possible murderer are riveting.

Twists of fate take Silas “32” Jones from a fatherless African American boy to a high-school football star and, later, Chabot’s town constable.  After a football injury halts his plans for a football career, 32 drifts back to his normally sleepy hometown and ends up in the middle of a real, live crime wave.  As Larry is targeted as the main suspect, 32 recalls their friendship as children and the reasons behind their teen estrangement.  There is an incredible twist or two, which is sure to keep readers hooked until the last page. 

Tom Franklin creates sheer atmosphere in every page - the slow pace of small town Southern life and the unknown menace that may have caused two pretty teen girls to go missing.  He captures the darkness and weakness, as well as the goodness and frailty found in both Larry and 32, as well as everyone in Chabot. This thriller will both move you and keep you on the edge of your seat.