Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Book Review: 'Remembering the Music, Forgetting the Words' by Kate Whouley

✰✰✰✰ Learning that a loved one has dementia is dreaded by many of us. It can be a difficult and confusing time. Author Kate Whouley takes the reader on a heartfelt journey as she comes to terms with her own mother's diagnosis. Upon finding her mother's house littered with crumpled tissues, magazines, newspapers, cigarette wrappers, and smelly cat food cans, Whouley realizes something is wrong. Is her mother drinking again? No, it is perhaps worse, and nothing could have prepared the author for her mother's downward spiral into the disease that is Alzheimer's. 

Whouley shares her struggles to learn as much as she can about the disease and to find a way keep her mother safe. She must find a balance between work and caring for her mother, but in a way she has always cared for her. Growing up as an only child, Whouley shouldered a lot of responsibility when her mother divorced, remarried, and became an alcoholic. However, this is a new challenge that Whouley can't face alone. Along the way she is fortunate to find Suzanne, an elder-care consultant, to guide her through the stages of her mother's illness. Whouley also learns to rely on friends for support as she works her way through feelings of worry, guilt, and doubt. Additionally, Whouley takes solace in her music and incorporates her love of music into the book as it relates to her relationship with her mother.

The author wants to be the good daughter, but she discovers that it is not always easy to make the right decisions for her mother. Anne, her mother, has always been a little bit difficult, and now Anne resists the changes forced upon her. While Whouley struggles with the process of placing her mother in assisted living and finding the resources to pay all the bills, Anne resists losing her freedom little by little. By sharing their story, Whouley reminds readers that even the aged and the infirm are deserving of our love and respect.

The Bottom Line: Author Kate Whouley takes a very candid and open approach in her memoir as she gently reflects on her feelings of doubt, guilt, anger, and acceptance of her mother's illness. Reading the book is like talking to an old friend who understands about the struggles one faces when caring for aged parents. This quick read explores the complex relationship between mothers and daughters. It also highlights the importance of family relationships and finding a strong support system in your friends. Kate's touching reflections are told compassionately and will leave readers with a bittersweet sense of inspiration. Highly recommended for anyone struggling with caring for an aging parent diagnosed with dementia.

This book reminded me of Making Rounds with Oscar: The Extraordinary Gift of an Ordinary Cat by David Dosa (which I reviewed in 2011). While Dosa's book features anecdotes about several patients, Whouley goes into much more personal detail. This would be a good choice for a nonfiction book discussion club. For those groups considering it, you can find the Reader's Guide (including discussion questions) here.

Details: Remembering the Music, Forgetting the Words: Travels with Mom in the Land of Dementia by Kate Whouley. Hardcover published by Beacon Press in 2011. 240 p. ISBN: 978-0-8070-0319-0

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Book Review: 'Breaking Night' by Liz Murray

✰✰✰✰ Growing up in poverty as the daughter of drug addicted parents, Liz Murray was destined to fail. Her family history included mental illness and homelessness; the odds were stacked against her. With little support and few resources as a child, she began bagging groceries for tips, pumping gas, and shoplifting just to get food. What she could not steal, she had to rely on the generosity of friends and neighbors for basic necessities like food and a place to sleep. Amazingly, even though she rarely attended school, Murray managed to squeak by until her truancy caught up with her.

Child welfare took her into custody at the age of thirteen. Vowing to never to be part of the system again, at the age of fifteen Murray took to the streets as her mother lay dying in the hospital from AIDS.  Dropping out of school completely, Murray focused on building her own family, her tribe. With friends from the neighborhood, school, and the streets including her sidekick, Sam, and drug dealing boyfriend, Carlos, Murray struggled to survive. Throughout it all, Murray did not pity herself, nor did she blame others for her situation.

After making many wrong choices and a few good ones, Liz’s determination to move forward finally began to pay off. She enrolled in an alternative high school, and completed four years of coursework in only two. Her struggles became hurdles to jump over one by one, again and again. Her next goal was to pursue a college degree, and not just anywhere but at Harvard University no less.

The Bottom Line: Author Liz Murray holds nothing back in this gritty memoir about the first nineteen years of her life. Her remarkable journey from the streets of the Bronx to the Ivy League will inspire readers to pursue their own dreams. By realizing that education was her way out, Murray overcame countless hurdles. Her story is one of desperation and survival; yet, it is also a story of determination, hope, and resiliency. She bravely and unabashedly shares her challenge to overcome the barriers of poverty and the stereotype of being homeless.

Highly recommended reading for everyone. This heartbreaking memoir inspires readers to take a second look at how we view both the homeless and ourselves. Once you have finished reading this deeply moving memoir, you’ll think about this book days, weeks, and even months later.

Note: While some readers may shy away from intense topics like sexual molestation and the graphic scenes where her parents shoot up, this book is appropriate for both college students and mature high school students in 11th or 12th grade. Nevertheless, it may be too graphic for sensitive readers.

Book Club Notes: Overall, Liz Murray's memoir was an engaging, inspirational book that was a very quick read for most. There are many turning points in this book that make it a great pick for book clubs. Incidents like pumping gas with Kevin, her decision to leave Carlos, and going to the interview at Prep instead of having pizza provided ample discussion opportunities. Also interesting were her relationships with her parents, sister, and friends. Although some of the scenes were too graphic for a few members, most approached this book with sincerity and an appreciation for what this young woman has both survived and achieved. We agreed that Murray's beautiful writing style was honest and authentic.
The average rating in the group was 4.5 stars. Some felt the book could have ended sooner while others longed for more information about the author's present life. Perhaps there will be another book in the future; there is certainly plenty of interest. Highly recommended for book clubs and college classrooms. Check out the following resources for your book club meeting: Hyperion Book Group Extra, Discussion Questions, and Liz Murray's FaceBook Page.

Details: Breaking Night: A Memoir of Forgiveness, Survival, and My Journey from Homeless to Harvard by Liz Murray. Paperback published by Hyperion in 2010. 352 p. ISBN: 978-1-4013-1059-2

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Book Review: 'The Clockwork Scarab' by Colleen Gleason

✰✰✰ In this first installment of a new series, young, wealthy women are being mysteriously killed in a steampunk version of London in 1889. Each victim happened to have an unusual Egyptian styled clockwork scarab in her possession. In order to uncover the murderer, Miss Irene Adler, under the request of Princess Alexandra, calls upon the unique talents of two young women. One just happens to be the niece of Sherlock Holmes, and the other is the much younger sister of Bram Stoker. However, these aren’t your ordinary teenaged girls. Miss Mina Holmes is logical and composed, while Miss Evaline Stoker is a fast-acting vampire hunter. While each is gifted in her own way, each struggles with a secret as well. Mina doubts herself, and Evaline gets queasy at the sight of blood.

Out of necessity the two young women form an uneasy alliance to try to solve the mystery before more of London’s finest young ladies are murdered. Add a pickpocket, a police inspector, and a time traveler into the mix, and things start to get interesting. Together Mina and Evaline discover a dark side of London filled with interesting characters, danger, and even a little romance.

The Bottom Line: This story is told from the differing viewpoints of Mina and Evaline with more emphasis given to Mina. While the two characters are unique, their viewpoints can be confused at times as the two often sound quite similar. The two young women fall into obvious stereotypes. As their relationship evolves they begin to discover that their strengths and weaknesses complement each other. Unfortunately, both are easily wooed and distracted by potential romantic involvements.

I was originally drawn to this book because of the combined elements of mystery, historical fiction, steampunk, and time travel with a twist of paranormal. Additionally, there is an interesting focus on the Egyptian obsession of the Victorian Era. Also, the detailed descriptions of the clothing and outfits will appeal to young women. Thus, the intended audience, girls in grades 8 - 10, may find this novel amusing. Nevertheless, while a few questions were answered, too many loose ends were left hanging. Without spoiling the ending, I was left somewhat annoyed by the lack of resolution. The unsatisfying conclusion was obviously meant to string the reader along to the next installment. While I’m not sure that I’ll pick up the next one set to publish in 2014, I hope it does have a more complete ending.

Note: There is a discussion guide available for book groups or classes.

Details: The Clockwork Scarab: A Stoker & Holmes Novel by Colleen Gleason.  Paperback ARC published by Chronicle Books in 2013. 356 p. ISBN: 978-1-4521-1070-7 Note: I received a review copy from Chronicle Books in exchange for an honest review. This was made possible by the Early Reviewer program at LibraryThing.

Friday, November 1, 2013

7 Reasons to Participate in NaNoWriMo 2013

There are many words to describe November including drab, dreary, and dull. However, November can also be lots of fun too. It’s that time of year when writers from all over the world sit down at their computers or pull out their favorite pen and yellow legal tablet to begin writing a new novel.

Writing 50,000+ words is no easy task. Now add a time limit of a mere 30 days, and what do you have? It’s National Novel Writing Month or NaNoWriMo for short. Maybe you’ve heard of it. Maybe you’ve always wanted to try it. Why wait? Now is the perfect time to dive in.  Anyone can join, and sign up is free.

Whether it’s your first time or your tenth, here are 7 great reasons to participate:
  1. The Idea: You have a great idea (or maybe even several) for a book.
  2. The Challenge: Let’s face it, this won’t be easy. Nevertheless, you like challenges and trying new things.
  3. Networking: NaNoWriMo is a great way to join a global community and meet new people locally or worldwide.
  4. Try a Different Writing Style: This is your chance to try something new. So instead of writing a romance, try a thriller. Or if you always write in third person, try writing in first person.
  5. Overcome Writer’s Block: With the limited time frame, there just isn't any time for internal editing. There's only time to write, even if it's "bad." Writing this way opens up your creativity.
  6. Learn Time Management: Writing every day for 30 days in a row makes writing a habit. It’s a commitment that requires self-discipline. Check out the Word Count Widgets to help you meet your deadline.
  7. The Novel: At the end you will have (hopefully) completed a very rough draft, and with it comes a sense of accomplishment.
Who knows? Maybe 30 days from now you will have written the next bestseller. After all, how many people can actually say they have even written a novel? Not that many. At the very least you’ll have made a few new friends and had some fun. So make plans today to set your novel free and join thousands of other writers in the quest to meet the 50,000+ word goal.