Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Good Morning Mr. Mandela: A Memoir by Zelda la Grange

Date Read – July, 30 2014
Date Published – June 24, 2014 – Viking Adult
Source – NetGalley

Zelda grew up in apartheid era South Africa, which her family believed and supported the racist government. When Nelson Mandela was released from prison, Zelda was hired as a secretary for the president’s office. Little would she realize that she go from being a lowly secretary to being President Mandela’s loyal confidant, traveling the world with him and destroying her life-long beliefs of segregation and racism.
 The book was technical with the narrative of “He said this”, “I did this”, “I went here” which sometimes made for a tedious read. What lacks with writing style, it made up with the deep love and passion she had for her job and for Madiba, who she became extremely close to, up until the end. At times, I shed a few tears as she told stories of his love for her and the raw grief she experienced after his death last year.

 This memoir is a wonderful tribute to Madiba, his life and his work to bring a nation together and changing the world for the better. You will be moved to tears, feeling the love and loyalty radiating from the book. You will be left in awe of both Madiba and of Zelda who opened her heart to the world and sharing the love she will always have for him. 

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Review: Melt by Selene Castrovilla

Date read-May 16, 2014
Date published-November 6, 2014 

Dorothy is a new comer to Highland Park, where all the cool kids congregate Muchkinland (a.k.a. Dunkin Donuts). There, she meets Joey, the resident ‘bad boy’ who everyone fears and stays away from. But Dorothy is not deterred by his bad rep, for she sees a wounded person, from the pain of abuse and battling his own demons. Both have an instant connection and their love is not just tested by peer pressure, but of Joey’s home life and a devastating encounter threatens to tear them apart.
 The story is told through a dual perspective, with Joey’s voice as gritty and heartbreaking as anything I’ve ever read. There is a slight variation to “The Wizard of Oz”, but I hardly found any of it in the book. Dorothy’s sweetness balances out Joey’s sharp prose. Some of you might have heard about Selene’s other novels, including “Saved by the Music” and “The Girl Next Door”, a novel that is also heartbreaking. However, you take that novel and ratchet up a billion volts, and that’s enough to not only break hearts but haunt them as well. I re-read the novel twice, which I was not able to put down. The writing is a sucker punch to the very heart and maybe some readers might not have the heart to continue. That will serve as a challenge since the story itself will grip the reader until the last page.

 Selene Castrovilla is indeed a writer worth watching for (the blurb from Jacqueline Woodson on the cover). And “Melt” is a story that is worthy of comparison to Ellen Hopkins. I cannot highly recommend this novel enough.

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Review: "Rumble" by Ellen Hopkins
Date read-April 8, 2014
Date published-August, 26 2014-Simon and Schuster

Eighteen year old Matthew Turner has no belief in anything. Not of his brother's suicide, his parent's crumbling marriage, his former friends who turned their backs on him. But his strongest belief, and one that he feels strongly about, is of the non-existence of God or any higher being, despite the fact that his girlfriend Hayden's deep religious faith. Matt chooses to live it up, without the intention of being responsible. That is before a horrific accident that will question everything he has doubted.
 I have always been a fan of Ellen's books, from her debut "Crank" to finally re-reading "Identical" (my favorite). In this latest one, she uses her talents of raw story-telling and organizing the prose, as she always does. Despite Matt's flaws, I liked him right away, who is someone who tries to hide the pain and abandonment, behind the facade of bad-ass. The story moved fast, and by the end, I was breathless, in awe of the story.
 It doesn't surprise me, or anyone, why Ellen Hopkins's novel are so well-liked and has a huge fan-base. I had the pleasure of meeting her twice. This latest novel will shock and awe the reader. A book I recommend.  

"What I've Done" perfectly describes Matt's struggles with the mistakes and the past that has haunted him.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Book Review: "Inside the Hotel Rwanda" By Edouard Kayihura and Kerry Zukus

Date Read – March 31st 2014
Date Published – April 1st, 2014 – BenBella Books
Source: Publisher

For most people who know about the Rwandan genocide in 1994, they first learned about it by the Academy Award nominated 2004 film Hotel Rwanda staring Don Cheadle—who was nominated for Best Actor—portrays Paul Rusesabagina, the manager of the Hotel Milles Collines who single handily saved over 1500 people who sought refuge inside the luxury hotel. He was named the Oskar Schindler of Africa and dubbed a hero by the world. But as the cliché goes, you can’t believe everything you see, especially a Hollywood film. Edouard Kayihura escaped the Hutu extremists and made his way to the hotel. What he saw and experienced was the complete opposite from the film with Rusesabagina threatening to kick out anyone who didn’t pay and drinking with the men responsible for orchestrating the genocide. The hundreds of people, both Hutu and Tutsis alike, have to survive the killings and terror from both the outside and within.
 When I began reading Inside the Hotel Rwanda, I wasn’t able to put it down. The harrowing stories of survival from within the hotel were heart wrenching as survivors struggled day after day for food and drinking the chlorine pool water while Rusesabagina drank the day away with the money he extorted from the people themselves. It was confusing at times while I read and sometimes, I had to go back and re-read the passages. That being said, it not only made me furious, but it was also deeply moving to read about the real heroes of the story, from the UN peacekeepers keeping guard, to the ordinary individuals who risked their lives in bringing people to the hotel, and the camaraderie built regardless of ethnicity. Right after I read Shake Hands with the Devil, written by Romeo Dallaire, commander of the UN mission during the genocide in Rwanda, (A book I highly recommend) I saw the film and was able to point out the inaccuracies of the events and misrepresentation of characters. I do owe some credit to the film in first learning about Rwanda, but still.  
  Inside the Hotel Rwanda is a riveting expose of a so-called hero that Hollywood created and an examination of how it came to be. It is also a deeply moving tribute for the million or so Rwandans killed, the survivors who endured the horror of the genocide, and the brave individuals who risked their lives for the very sake of humanity and who are finally getting their own long-overdue recognition.

To learn more about the book, go to their website

A film I recommend watching, and a great counter-piece to "Hotel Rwanda" is "Shake Hands with the Devil" a Canadian film from 2007, based on the book. It stars Roy Dupuis as Gen. Dallaire and it's a powerful and soul-stirring performance. Not to mention, filmed entirely in Rwanda and in the actual locations where the events took place. Watch the trailer.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Book Review: "The Pieces We Keep" by Kristina McMorris

Date Read-February 27th, 2014
Date Published - November 26th 2013-Kensington

Two years ago, Audra Hughes lost her husband and is left to take care of their seven year old son, Jack. Just when they both are about to move to Philadelphia, Jack is plagued by horrible anxiety and nightmares.  Audra desperately follows the snippets of clues for Jack’s nightmares and led her to Sean Malloy, a wounded US Army Veteran who served in Afghanistan. Together, they unearth a mystery that leads back to WWII. Within a love story are secrets that threaten to destroy that love and will eventually lead the lovers to commit unthinkable acts in the name of love.
I’m a total sucker for historical love stories, especially from WWII. The story opens up and it’s somewhat slow. But of course, the author quickly picks up the pace and it’s not long before I race through it and anticipating of what might happen. The author does an extraordinary job with incorporating plot twists that will leave your head spinning and totally breathless.

In the similar tradition of Tatiana De Rosnay’s “Sarah’s Key” and Pam Jenoff’s “The Kommandant’s Girl”, and “The Diplomat’s Wife”, “The Pieces We Keep”, is a thrilling story of intrigue, betrayal, a mother’s love, and the echoes of love that can be felt throughout the generations. 

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Interview with...Laura Wiess

Laura Wiess has been commended by critics and readers for giving the world extraordinary heroines, including Meredith (Such A Pretty Girl), Sayre (Ordinary Beauty) and now Rowan (Me Since You).

1. When did you first realize that you wanted to become an author?

Actually, the Big Moment of Clarity was the moment I began to wonder if I actually could ever become a published author. That was not only thrilling but also hugely terrifying.

I grew up with a mom who loved reading, and who read to me right from the beginning. We had library cards for multiple libraries and we checked out bags full of novels to read every week. So I grew up loving the adventures I got to go on with the fictional heroines. And, of course, when you read a lot, it follows that you begin to write, if only to enjoy weaving language and creating characters and adventures of your own.

I wrote fiction in grade school and throughout high school, sharing it with family and friends. Creative Writing was my one easy A. Still, I never even thought about trying to take it any further. Writing was something I did everyday because I loved it, because it was necessary. It was never anything I thought about putting out there for a professional to judge, and perhaps find lacking. Yikes. Beyond that, I believed that authors were brilliant, magical, mysterious people who lived an exalted existence, one far beyond anything I could ever attain, or even imagine.

And then came the day I made what has turned out to be the most magical, nerve-wracking, exhilarating and satisfying decision of my life. I was reading through this YA romance story I’d been writing just for fun, and I distinctly remember stopping and thinking, You know, Laura, you can write for friends and family forever and that’ll be it… OR… (and here’s where my heart started pounding and I broke out in a cold sweat) You can see if you have what it takes to write something good enough to maybe get published.

Gasp. Wait: Take my tender little pieces of prose away from the family and friends who always applauded them (Of course they did. They loved me, and would have applauded anything I created) and send them out into the cold, cruel world to an anonymous editor with a stack of a thousand other anonymous pieces on his/her desk, and who would judge my stories on their merit alone? Are you KIDDING?

It was a terrifying thought because…well, what if my writing actually stunk, and my whole life had been spent skipping around in blissful ignorance, thinking I could write good stories when in reality, my family and friends had just been jollying me along? What if I was not only bad, but truly awful? Could I ever write again, even for myself, knowing I sucked?

Happily, the more stubborn part of me surfaced fast and shoved the fear away long enough for me to make a plan of action. (I love plans of action.)

First, I went to the library and took out every book I could find on how to craft fiction. Books on characterization, themes, creating tension, formatting, language, story rhythm and structure, how to submit, where to submit to, etc.. The best (and most astonishing) part of that was finding out how much I didn’t know about writing fiction. (I mean, I was a beginner and just because I could catch a football didn’t mean I’d automatically get to play in the Superbowl, right? Right. It was a humbling and very useful realization, and came in handy when the rejections started pouring in later.)

So, I started writing constantly and trying to dig deeper each time, learning to set the work aside for a while so I could go back and reread it with fresh eyes to see what didn’t work. Learning there was such a thing as a first draft, and that a first draft is where you get to pour it all out, unedited, and that it should never reach the public. That draft is yours to go back and work with, to mine and restructure, rewrite and strengthen. That it could take a year or two or seven to write one book, whatever your process is, and it could still stink in the end and never be published. That this was the chance you had to be willing to take. Writing came with no guarantees.

When I started, I had no clue as to how much you have to love writing to spend all of your free time for weeks, months and years searching for the right words to express the scenes you see and hear and feel inside of you, how much you have to love your main characters to make them real, and to want to spend so much time with them. How you have to let them fall and hurt themselves, so you can rise beside them when they pick themselves up again, wipe their eyes and take another step forward.

I didn’t know that to write ‘real’ I would have to find a way to feel what my characters felt, see what they saw. I had to learn to trust them and not turn away, or try and sweeten things up when the story or the emotions got painful or ugly.

Finally, after months and months (and months) of racking up dozens of rejections, I had my first short story accepted for publication in a literary magazine. Oh, the pure gold of that moment. I was paid in contributor’s copies, but it felt like a million dollars.  

I didn’t care that my ratio of acceptances to rejections was maybe one in thirty. That was good enough for me. Who cared about those other twenty-nine carefully written but rejected stories, when one had actually made it? That acceptance meant everything.

I had done it.

I had become a published author.

2. What inspires you to write? How do you come up with story ideas?

Well, I really love that no one is ever only what we see, or even what they show or tell us of themselves. There is always more. I want to know why we do what we do. The choices we make. What we defend, what we surrender. Motivation intrigues me. I like shining a light into dark places, seeing who is huddled there and discovering what they’re dealing with. I want explore that small, burning ember of hope that keeps each of us going…and what happens when it goes out. I love when my characters make me cry. That’s when I know their struggle is real enough to go straight into my heart and change the way I look at life.

I guess I write to try and understand different life experiences and points of view, and for me it all starts with a character. Once the main character becomes a real person in my head, with a voice and a life of her own, it’s her story and I’m just running along behind her, typing like crazy.    

3. In some of your novels, like "Ordinary Beauty" animals play a huge role in your stories. What are some of your favorite animals and/or pets?

I’m an animal lover and try hard to practice it without prejudice, so yes, I’ve been known to catch field mice bare-handed to move them before my cats get them (field mice are very sweet and when they’re in your cupped hands, safe, you can feel their little hearts beating with fear. They came inside because they were hungry, and why would I ever want to hurt someone who is only trying to live, just like me?) I’ve caught flying squirrels and bats in the house and released them outside, petted opossums – nature’s most wonderful vacuum cleaners and cute as buttons – shared my patio with a very tolerant skunk and my garden with shy, insect-eating snakes. (And my woods with rattlesnakes, who do their best to warn you away with a polite rattle, which I very much appreciate.) I try to do no harm, and so the deer are welcome to their portion of my flower beds and the bears to basically whatever they want, lol. They’re hungry. I’m not. I don’t mind sharing.

Beyond wildlife, it’s dogs and most splendidly, cats. I’ve spent a lot of time feeding, catching, spaying, neutering and gentling feral cats, and it’s one of the most satisfying things I’ve ever done. Being consistent enough to earn their trust, starting out as a potential threat (in their eyes) who is only there to curse or chase or hurt them, and over the months demonstrating your reliability and intentions by speaking soft and low, by not challenging them or expecting too much, too fast, by extending a hand and holding still for as long as it takes for that first tentative sniff -- a huge gesture for a frightened, wild animal – by showing them, slowly but surely, that the hard world they exist in can be softer, that there is kindness and food and warmth and…

Ha, there it is again.

I can’t help it.

I’m a huge fan of hope.

4. Which authors and/or books have inspired you?

Inspiration comes in so many different forms. I’ve read books so moving and beautiful that they’ve left me not only in awe but also frustrated because I knew I’d never be able to write like those authors, and books that actually cheered me to think I could do better, and got me writing with a determined eye to keep improving. So happily, inspiration runs the gamut.

I do have a short list of books I reread every so often that remind me of the necessary story components and somehow provide the structure my brain needs to start writing again. They’re all comfort reads; some make me laugh, some I very much admire the skilled characterization, some keep the stories moving fast and reinforce the importance of pacing. Things like that. I love each one of them and their characters, and it’s kind of a bonus prize that they serve a dual purpose.

5. Is there any advice you would like to give to any aspiring authors?

Keep reading. Keep learning. Find a character or an issue you’re passionate about, one that seizes you and just won’t let go, and explore it. Study the craft of writing. Be willing to rewrite, over and over again to make the story the best and most compelling it can be. Don’t be afraid to go deep, to excavate layer after layer to get to the truth of your character, your story, your work. Trust the process. Get used to spending lots of time alone, mulling, what iffing, creating. Sometimes you’ll tear your hair out because the scene isn’t working, sometimes you’ll shiver with pure exultation because it is. Make us laugh, make us cry, make us FEEL. Give us the best that you’ve got, so we can laugh and cry with you. And most of all, if you love to write, keep going because in the end, it’s all about the story.

Thank you so much, Ruth, for your kindness and for being such a wonderful host. It’s been a pleasure talking with you!

Thank you, Laura for this privilege to interview you and your amazing stories! 

Laura's new novel "Me Since You" will be released on February 18 
For more info on her and her other novels visit her website. 
Here is my review for Me Since You

Friday, January 17, 2014

Review: "Me Since You" by Laura Wiess

Date Read – January 17th, 2014
Date Publish – Feburary 18th, 2014 – MTV Books
Source – Edelwiess

For sixteen-year-old Rowan Areno, her life is separated by Before and After. The before was of her growing up way too sheltered by her police officer father and mother. The after was of skipping school on the last Friday in March, with her friend. Then a devastating crime that her father had to witness and the video of it was leaked, going viral, and Rowan, along with her family having to deal with the fallout. Just when things couldn’t get any worse, a horrific tragedy shatters Rowan’s world all the more. During all of this, Rowan befriends Eli, a witness of the crime who also has to deal with heartache of his own. With his help, Rowan will have to navigate through the world of sorrow, wondering if she will ever feel happiness again.
 When I read “Ordinary Beauty”, I knew Laura Wiess was a writer to be reckoned with. As A.M. Jenkins says “Laura Wiess boldly goes where writers fear to tread.” If I thought “Ordinary Beauty” was a powerful novel, she takes it up to an extreme notch with “Me Since You.” In a few instances, I had to put down my kindle and cry, feeling for Rowan and her ordeal. I was also reminded of my relationship with my dad and how much I love him. I am still haunted by Rowan and her struggles that I still cry. Laura Wiess should be commended with both her stories and her heroines, like Meredith from “Such a Pretty Girl” and Sayre from “Ordinary Beauty” that are as real to me as any person I know.
 As heart wrenching it is to read “Me Since You”, it is a novel that has to be read. There aren’t enough spoken words or written letters that can ever express the rawness of Rowan’s story. This is a beautiful novel that examines regret, sorrow, forgiveness, and ultimately hope.

Coldplay's "Fix You" is a perfect song to describe Rowan and Eli's relationship and how they are both trying to fix each other.