Book Review: A Big Mooncake for Little Star

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As part of my Post-K Summer Reading Boot Camp: https://sarahleastories.com/2019/06/08/post-k-summer-reading-boot-camp-2019/

A Big Mooncake for Little Star by Grace Lin isn’t great writing but is charming nevertheless. My daughter loved this book from the beginning. The illustrations are stunning–I loved the black background with the white writing and the “not-busy” illustrations, the latter of which was an excellent use of negative space.

Though the language could have been richer with more use of metaphor, Mooncake was reminiscent of a Greek myth (i.e. an origin legend), which I enjoyed. However, I feel like this story could have been meatier (or should I say cakier?), for it would’ve been interesting had the craters on the moon been explained–like too much soda water in the batter or something.

Little Star’s an adorable but mischievous little girl who should not be excused for repeatedly disobeying her mother, who seems to not only know her daughter will disobey but expect it. I think this was a major flaw and something I have to address every time I read the story to my daughter (for whom listening can be an issue).

Though tying this tale into the phases of the moon was clever (as was the “twinkling crumbs” for the stars), there was a problem, which another reviewer on Goodreads pointed out: Where is the waxing phase?

There wasn’t any wasted space with this book, though I think the author should have used a different illustration on the inside front cover (as the illustration is the same on the inside back cover). Perhaps that was by design, showing that Little Star and her mama, like the moon, are in a continuous lunar cycle.

I do think the author including the note about the Chinese Mooncake Festival made me appreciate Mooncake more.

Though the story isn’t a compelling one, it’s okay because there isn’t a lot to read, and the illustrations and the idea behind the story make up for it. I recommend reading this story with a bit of ad-libbing to get your child interested in astronomy and/or another culture.

Recommended coordinating activity: Make a mooncake. This is the recipe I am going to try: https://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/swans-down-1-2-3-4-pound-cake.

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Book Review: The Other Woman

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This book sucked me in–only because I wanted to see Emily finally stand up for herself.

For me, this book wasn’t just about the antagonist (Pammie) getting her comeuppance but the protagonist’s (Emily’s) transformation.  If a character doesn’t change (at least temporarily), they’re static–not necessarily the best choice for a main character.

The only character trait of Emily’s I can remember (and I finished this just last night) was that she liked a little wine or champagne to unwind.  I never figured out what she liked to do for fun, what her work life was like, her hopes, dreams, et cetera. She was like a piece of flypaper that crap stuck to; the book wasn’t about her but about the things that happened to her (or allowed to happen to her).  Whenever she did show a little moxie, she backed out at the last minute or past it. She was as dull as dishwater.

Now I like chick lit as much as anyone, but this was like the cliched formula for a chick-lit novel, with the obligatory gay male friend who was perfect in every way (and who the protagonist would marry if he wasn’t gay) and the spunky and fiercely loyal female roommate who is alluded to as being funny, yet she doesn’t say or do anything that makes us laugh.  

As for the love story, it was nonexistent.  Emily is always telling us she loves Adam, but I could never figure out why.  He was attractive (who cares?), had a professional job (whatever that was), and whatever charm (or personality) he was supposed to have was lost on me.  Anyone who would ALWAYS take their mother’s side without question is bad news. I will never understand why women want to force someone to marry them, but if you’re already living together, and it’s working, why not get married?  And if he doesn’t want to marry you when it is working, it might be a good idea to reexamine your relationship. Emily came across as desperate, holding on to Adam at all costs to her, just because his mother didn’t want her to have him.  I’m not even sure why Adam chose her except that he knew she’d put up with his crap indefinitely.

Emily continuously exhibiting extremely poor judgment, which I think stemmed from her lack of experience with men, made me not only lose patience with her but get angry with her.  Her convoluted way of thinking was to get married first and then fix all the problems (which made me think of Congress passing a bill to see what was in it).

The best part of this book–the only part that had any real depth–was when Emily was talking about weddings (p. 257-258):  “We all rush to support this outpouring of love and commitment, yet scratch the surface and you’ll find we feel more obliged than genuinely willing.  There is always something better we could be doing with ourselves on a sunny Saturday afternoon…we’ve spent money that we don’t have, on an outfit we’ll wear only once, and on the cheapest present we could find.”

(I’ve never met anyone who is excited to go to a wedding unless it’s the bride and groom and their parents.  Have you?)

The twist ending was decent, but the title could have used a little more punch as “the other woman” is a cliche.

Is all this to say that I did not enjoy the book?  Not at all. The Other Woman is one of those nail-biters where you just want to see what happens, and then once you read it, you’ll never pick it up again.  

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/36212848-the-other-woman

Post-K Summer Reading Boot Camp 2019

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Many moons ago, I read a blog post that we only have 18 summers with our children, and then they are gone.

So I wanted to do something different with my daughter this season–something besides spending lots of time in the pool, making (and helping her meet) educational and life skill goals, and taking weekenderly (just feeling Shakespearish here) field trips to various places (e.g. museums, the beach, free family events, et cetera).

I searched for a list of books to start my own post-kindergarten summer reading program and found this list of “notable” children’s books of 2019: http://www.ala.org/alsc/awardsgrants/notalists/ncb

Being a fan of goal and to-do lists, this was it for me.  There are 37 books on the list, and because I will be reading them multiple times (in addition to her favorites), this is plenty.  I had originally planned on coming up with an activity pertaining to each book, but that was just a bit too ambitious for me.  I’ll save that for next year.

After every reading, I will post a review of the book.  If I can pry any thoughts out my daughter, I will include those as well.

My daughter’s at the age where she is just starting to learn to read; I want to make reading and the love of doing so a tradition that will become a legacy.

Book Review: The Husband’s Secret

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Is it possible to enjoy a book even if you don’t like (or relate to) any of the (main) characters?

Yes, for such was the case with The Husband’s Secret.

Because the plot was compelling (e.g. The DaVinci Code), I couldn’t put it down.  Compelling characters, however, give a book “re-readability,” so this story was a one-time read.

One of the most frustrating things about this book was the hook; it hooked, but it took a helluva long time for Cecilia to get around to opening that letter.  But, this nasty little trick kept me reading when I should’ve been sleeping. Another reviewer pointed out that this letter over which there’s all this brouhaha, we don’t even get to read in its entirety.

This book would’ve been improved if all that business about the Berlin Wall had been scrapped.  I didn’t need a boring history lesson that had little to do with the book. I get it: If a kid has a hobby, like collecting rocks, mention a few interesting factoids to “make it real,” but don’t include a lengthy geology lesson.  

Now I’m going to say something about women authors, many of whom are guilty of this:  They portray a fat woman (never a fat man) as never being able to attract a man; even the heavy ones (authors) do this.  Truth: A lot of fatties have sexual relationships and even get married (and not even always to other fatties).

On Rachel:  She was a total jerk to her daughter-in-law (who seemed like a decent person); rather, Rachel lavished all her love on her grandson but didn’t bother trying to love his mother; all the love she gave her grandson, she withheld from her son.  She wasn’t just a mom who made mistakes; she was a bad mother.

When we go back to Janie’s (Rachel’s daughter’s) time in 1984, and she mentions she wishes she could text or email, it’s so false, as there was no way this teenage girl was thinking about how she wished she could do something that didn’t exist yet, unless her character was the type to dream stuff like this up.

On Cecelia:  Extremely self-absorbed.  Her husband’s (John-Paul’s) self-flagellation was obnoxious.  I could not bear either one of them. She was a terrible person, too.

On Tess:  The least interesting of the three protagonists but the least whacked.  

The premise of her story didn’t seem real but rather, a random plot device thrown in, and her revelation about something she’s been suffering but never had a name for wasn’t that earth-quaking.  

I do think her description of her relationship with her “best friend”–with whom she snickered at the other players of life on the sidelines–was a great one, but it went beyond that:  Even if I didn’t feel my friend was a threat (in this case, because she was fat), I still wouldn’t want another woman living in my home with me and my husband.

That’s just weird.  Wouldn’t you want privacy?

I didn’t like Tess’s husband (what a ninny!), but she should have told him what transpired after she left; he started it but did she ever finish it.  Talk about taking advantage of a bad situation!

My biggest beef was that the storyline with Tess and Connor just didn’t tie in that strongly with the other ones.  (I think Moriarty was just trying to follow the “rule of three.”) It was also the weakest and the least interesting of the three stories.

I found it hard to swallow that when Rachel finds out who the murderer is, she was okay with letting him/her go–even though she JUST tried offing the wrong person?!  I guess she felt she’d already gotten her vengeance sans the justice.

This book lacked all the charm and humor of Big Little Lies (I’m already sucked into the TV-series) and characters I could care about.  There may have been a few stereotypes in Lies, but at least they were grounded in reality.  The only characters I liked in this book were the minor ones, but maybe I just didn’t get to know them well enough (except for Connor, who was just an all-around nice guy).  

I thought the epilogue was interesting, though I do wish the truth about Janie had been revealed to the characters and not just the readers.  The alternate histories were rather fun–made me think a little bit about all that can happen when you zig rather than zag–even though I’m not sure they were necessary.

Though Secret was an interesting read, I prefer Moriarty’s light touch to her maudlin one.

Book Review: Big Little Lies

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This has been my favorite Liane Moriarty book thus far, though it is peppered with what another reviewer referred to as a “Greek chorus”–little asides where minor characters or characters we never get to meet have lines like in a stage play, talking about a death (without mentioning whose) that occurred at a school-sponsored Audrey and Elvis-themed Trivia Night.

The “chorus” was simply the author’s way of hooking us from the beginning.  I’ve learned to distinguish when I should try to remember a name and when to drop it (pardon the pun).

Plot, for me, has always come secondary to characters; this book had incredible characterization.  In Big Little Lies, people aren’t just that way they are, but they have reasons for being the way they are and for doing the things they do.  You also learn about them as you would in real life–a little bit at a time.

I found myself wishing I could live where the Blue Blues coffee shop was (I wanted Tom’s coffee and Jane’s muffins), where I could tap away at my laptop next to a view of the beach while my daughter was in school (and my hubby was at work).  None of the three main mothers in this book had to work full-time jobs (the one that came close could work remotely)–so, in this way, Big Little Lies was pure escapism (or fantasy) for me.

Overall, Big Little Lies was about well-educated white women (who could support themselves if they had to) and their little and not-so-little problems.  The lack of diversity was a problem for some, but I’m glad the author chose realism over political correctness. Not every place is like New York City, and there is nothing wrong with that.  We don’t have to all be the same, any more than we all have to be different. What’s more, just because the women were all “color-coordinated” didn’t mean they were all the same; I work with 10 other white women, and we are all vastly different individuals.

The only problem I had with this book was that g-d was used a few times.  That is always a sour note.

As for the characters:   The White’s marital relationship was so deftly done, so not cliche of every Lifetime movie I’ve ever seen, that I knew the author must have done her homework.  When I skimmed the back of the book, I saw that she had read up on the subject. I think having Celeste White’s full speech might have been nice (being a fan of monologues and the Toastmasters organization), but the fade-out effect worked, too.

Some reviewers thought this book was shallow, but only Madeline came across that way and that was because that was her character.  However, I found her loyalty to her friends a rare and admirable trait. A book doesn’t have to be all “mean streets of New York” like a Law and Order episode with lots of gray walls and black dresses to be about a serious subject.  Life is absurd in the best of ways and the worst of ways, and Moriarty captured all that.

That said, Bonnie did come across as a cliche, being very “socially conscious,” a vegetarian, and someone who doesn’t watch television.  (Not even PBS.) However, stereotypes are hard to avoid completely because so many of them fit someone we know in the real world, just like when Madeline was describing one of the career moms who was always coming from or going to a board meeting.  I am guessing that the author is a whimsical woman in real life–not the buttoned-down, corporate type.

Being a mother herself, she presented a very realistic view of motherhood and even those who choose to go into the teaching profession.  (That was a rather comical moment.)

I will say that these are the most involved parents I’ve ever read about.  Maybe it’s a small town thing, an Australian thing, or an ethnically homogenous community thing, or all of the above.  It was like Peyton Place, except Australian and modern.

As for the plot, there were a few surprises, and the twist at the end was a “whoa” moment.

I loved that this book was just as focused on female friendships and motherhood as it was on marriage and romance.

Not every character gets a lot of “screen time,” but they all added something to the story.

I didn’t even know there was a TV-series until I read some of the reviews, so I will give it a try.

The book did raise a few questions:  If someone is kind in so many ways, but cruel in so many others, which is the real person?  Is it the bad, or both? Can the good even be real in the presence of the bad, or does the bad cancel it out?

And does doing unsavory things, if it’s for the greater good, ever make it okay?  Is it okay to sacrifice oneself to sin in order to save others from being sinned against?

And is it always worth it to go through something terrible if such was the only way to get something wonderful–something that couldn’t have been gotten any other way?  When is it just not worth it?

I can’t wait to read another Moriarty book because unlike a lot of the other “chick lit” out there, these are all different (I like a style writer rather than a formula writer) with characters you’d love to know in a place you’d love to visit (and maybe even live).

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/19486412-big-little-lies

 

Book Review: Death by Chocolate

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These books are as guilty a pleasure as a box of Russell Stover’s (especially if they’re full of Roman nougats).  Death by Chocolate was the first book I’d read in this series (I’ve since read three), and they’ve all been entertaining.

Being a lover of Southern fiction, I was a bit disappointed these were set on the West Coast.  However, I think if the author added a few extra details besides the types of flowers that grow in San Carmelita, California, and what the buildings look like (such as naming some actual haunts, fictional or otherwise), that might endear me more to that side of the country.

The way these books are “teased,” I was led to believe that food (especially the sweet kind) would play more of a central role, but sweets just happen to be what the main character likes to make and eat.

I love that the Savannah Reid character is a plus-sized woman who is comfortable in her own body (and is still attractive to other men); what’s more, I love that she happens to be single and not worried about old maidenhood or her biological clock ticking (even though the latter I could relate to).  Her “partner-in-law,” Dirk Coulter, is a loveable curmudgeon without coming across as a stereotype. These two characters are well-developed, even though Savannah’s calling people “boy,” “girl,” and “sugar” and such can be a bit much sometimes (a la Paula Deen).

Savannah’s assistant, Tammy, is like a carbon copy of Nancy Drew; she’s rather bland and uninteresting, not to mention a bit of a broken record, calling everything Savannah eats “crap” because it isn’t healthy like her crap.  But, people who are really into clean eating tend to be annoyingly vocal about it, so that’s realistic. Of all the five main characters, she adds the least but just enough.

Ryan and John are loveable–who wouldn’t want them for friends?  Even though they’re almost too perfect, they are way more believable than Savannah’s siblings, who are more caricatures than characters; I think the author tries too hard to show that Savannah comes from a dysfunctional Southern family because damn, are her siblings over the top (a la Peg Bundy).

I do enjoy the references to Granny Reid (though she needs more unique adages).  I hope I will read a book where Savannah goes back home to McGill, Georgia, and gets some “sage wisdom” (pardon the cliche) or unravels some interesting yarns.

As for Savannah’s cats, Diamante and Cleopatra (why do all single women have to have “fur babies,” though thank God, that phrase isn’t used in these books, though Savannah does refer to herself as their mother), they’re about as interesting as most cats (which is not very).

The author’s ideas of The Deep South seem to come from books and movies and her imagination rather from actually living there.  I’ve read up on Sonja Massie/G.A. McKevett, and, according to several bios, she has never lived anywhere near the South. I think it takes an exceptionally skilled writer to be able to capture Southern culture without having lived in it (visiting doesn’t count), but maybe that’s why the books aren’t actually set in the South, so that was a good call.

If the author would keep Savannah’s relatives in Georgia (with the exception of Gran), the books would be better because those storylines add absolutely nothing.  The real fun is in the relationships that Savannah has with her friends and the mysteries themselves, which are pretty good, even though they lack that “twist” element we Americans have almost come to expect (thanks a lot, O’Henry).

What I like about these books is that the quality of each one has been consistent.  Maybe that’s because this is a series, but still, that’s important.

I hope Savannah will eventually stop being a doormat when it comes to her family (like kicking her sister out of her house for ordering porn and making her pay for it).  This might be the reason why I don’t like her family in the books. Are they all as screwed up as Savannah isn’t? I guess I’ll find out when I catch up.

When it comes to Savannah’s parents, I’m finding it hard to believe that the same woman and the same man bred nine children, only to have them taken away by the State as being unfit.  Usually, women like that have a ton of kids by different dads, so that’s one redeeming quality her parents had.

The profanity in these books is pretty mild, which I appreciate.  These are stories I’d feel comfortable with my teenage daughter reading–when that time comes.  

Book Review: The Last Anniversary

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The Last Anniversary had it all, and I loved it all.

This is the fourth Moriarity book I’ve read, and my favorite by far thus far (and it wasn’t just because the protagonist, Sophie Honeywell, reminded me of an even more scatterbrained version of myself and a modern-day Mary Richards).

I liked that Sophie’s manhunt to have a baby before forty was more in the background than the foreground, so this was definitely not a formulaic chick lit romance.  Sophie’s love life being in the air was actually okay with me, as I think she is still trying to figure herself out. However, I did think one of her final prospects was quite weird.

I have to say, though, that when I arrived on page 13, where the story reverts back to 1932, I had my doubts; I don’t mind switching points-of-view (that seems to be the thing now), I just mind switching time periods, as one time (almost always the one set in the contemporary) is almost always more interesting than the other.  I like characters I can relate to, as well as time periods I am familiar with (or enjoy being in, which is the present time). Even though this small portion of the book was shown rather than told, I preferred the secondhand account of this time from one of the characters (a story within a story, if you will).

The “fake news” angle was intriguing; if a reporter’s first story is based on a lie (unbeknownst to him/her), does that make their career a lie?  And is a mystery, once solved, still intriguing? Is a solved crossword puzzle still fun? This is why conspiracy theories about JFK and Marilyn Monroe still exist.  Imagine what a boring world it would be if we knew everything about everything. Intellectual curiosity and the process of discovery are the herbs and spices of life.

The only thing that didn’t ring true was one of names:  Enigma. That moniker just never fit her character (she was more of a Hazel or Flossie), though I understand why she was named that–it was all to add to “the mystery” (which was really quite something in how it was pulled off).

I also struggled here and there differentiating between Rose and Enigma–their voices seemed so similar–like they were around the same age (when there were about fifteen or so years separating them).  I guess by the time you hit seventy, you sound the same as if you were eighty-five.

The coolest thing about The Last Anniversary is that something that was referenced early on (I won’t say what because then it won’t be as much fun) was referenced again in an unexpected way.  This, for me, was like finding an old photograph I’d forgotten all about but suddenly remembered upon seeing it again.

The description of the alleged crime scene and the anniversary’s festivities were so richly detailed, I felt like I was right there.  

Moriarty’s characters are multi-layered and real.  The residents of this island were like one giant, dysfunctional family.  I didn’t fall in love with them all (nor are we supposed to), but I found myself wishing I was amongst them on Scribbly Gum Island.  I even looked the island up to see if it was real.

I wish it was.

A few notes:  I thought Grace’s resolution was wrapped up too neatly, but maybe motherhood does happen that way in real life for some women (even without extra help).  However, I thought using Grace’s storybook character as a reflection for how she was feeling added a little something to the story.

The book is fairly lighthearted throughout, but one of the funniest scenes is when Veronika is trying to tell everyone her big news and nobody cares.

As for Margie, female authors really need to stop using the cliche of the self-loathing fat woman.  I doubt most fat women are happy with their bodies, but it seems like anytime a female character is fat, their weight is the biggest (pardon the pun) definer of them.  Then, when they lose weight, they magically start “coming into their own.” And it’s always about how much better they look (usually in a bikini), not how much better they feel.

In the case of The Last Anniversary, there were just enough characters and points-of-view without there being too many.  This is the first of Moriarty’s books (that I’ve read) in which I felt bereft after finishing it, for I was left not wanting the story to end.