Book Review: The Accidental Beauty Queen by Teri Wilson

Every once in a while I really need to escape to the fun and fluff of what might be called chick lit.. But sadly, a majority of these books leave me less than sated. The plots are wafer thin and characters are one dimensional.

So thank the twinkly stars above for Teri Wilson’s gem of a novel The Accidental Beauty Queen.

Charlotte Gorman is a bookish lass who adores her job as a elementary school librarian. Her identical twin sister, Ginny, is a stunning beauty and Instagram star.

As The Accidental Beauty Queen begins, Ginny is hell bent on winning the Miss American Treasure pageant. However, her hopes are nearly dashed when she has an allergic reaction and her looks are severely compromised. She convinces Charlotte to go as her replacement, which Charlotte begrudgingly agrees to do even though it compromises her sense of right and wrong. In The Accidental Beauty Queen the Gorman sisters travel a twist and turn journey that opens both their minds and their hearts about the very different worlds they live in.

The premise interested me and thank goodness the novel did not  disappoint. Both Charlotte and Ginny, along with the stable of supporting characters, are multi-dimensional and Gorman girls convey the complexities of sisterhood in a way that is very relatable. They are more than they seem.

Speaking of sisterhood, the contestants are not bimbos or bitches, but funny, bright, accomplished and fully supportive of each other.

And then there is a certain mystery gentleman, Gray, who enters Charlotte’s life. Is he a Prince Charming who will sweep Charlotte off her platform stilletoed feet or a callow playboy who will break her heart into a million little shards? Like I mentioned, I really adored The Accidental Beauty Queen. Wilson can actually write and she keeps you guessing as a reader. She doesn’t rely on tired old clichés that lazy writers often do. She has a clever way with dialogue that is contemporary but wouldn’t seem out of place in a 1930s’ screwball motion picture.

The plot is funny and vibrant, but at times heartbreaking and profound. And her sexscenes are actually sexy, not sleazy.

In other words, Wilson writes chick lit for those who aren’t into chick lit. I can’t recommend The Accidental Beauty Queen enough.

 

Book Review: The Little Red Book of Poe-ee-tree-Words from the Heart edited by Mrs. Fields


Note: Over 10 years ago I reviewed this book for a U2 fansite. In honor of Poetry month, I decided to dust it off, make a few revisions, and publish it here at The Book Self.

U2 fans are not your typical rock and roll fans. Sure, they buy the CDs, download their music, and go to the concerts, but being a U2 fan is so much more than that. U2 fans are motivated. They are inspired to open their minds, learn new things, and get involved in causes bigger than themselves. However, they are also inspired to use own creativity. This is evident in a slim, yet powerful book of poetry and short stories called The Little Red Book of Poet-ee-tree: Words from the Heart.

The Little Red Book of Poe-ee-tree is a volume containing heartfelt prose by a collection of U2 fans throughout the globe. Their love of U2’s music and the written word lead these fans to The Heart. The Heart was an Internet poetry forum where writers cultivated their writing skills, shared their work with others, and got their creative juices flowing. Sadly, it shut down in 2003, but fortunately for the Heart community, U2 fans, and lovers of good writing, the works created for the Heart are not lost forever. They are compiled into The Little Red Book of Poe-ee-tree.

All the royalties of The Little Red Book of Poe-ee-tree went to the African Well Fund, a charity founded in 2002 by a group of U2 fans to provide a clean water sources to many African communities. The African Well Fund has built and supplied clean water and sanitation projects in Uganda, Angola and Zimbabwe. The Little Red Book of Poe-ee-tree was just one part of the African Well Fund’s comprehensive vision to help others.

The poets published in The Little Red Book of Poe-ee-tree write about love and loss, heartbreak and joy. They write with clear-eyed optimism and downcast despair. These poems take us on a journey of both the writers’ hearts and souls, and our individual interpretations to their work. Some poems a mere few lines, whereas others nearly tell a story.

Jennifer’s startling “Modern Day Warfare” uses the frightening images of mustard-gas lies and biological-warfare thoughts, along with rat-ta-tat fists to chillingly describe abuse both emotional and physical.

Kel, in the poem “Africa” describes the continent as a living, breathing human female, inhaling her warm earthy air. This poem puts a very personal face on one’s personal journey throughout the African landscape.

Mrs. F. conveys the love a mother has for her children in the poem “Earth and Angels.” Phrases like “He darts in dizzy zig zags…Listens wide-eyed, hoots at the owl” and “Head filled with fairies and music…She skips and sings” give us an intimate look at the special qualities that make our sons and daughters so special to us.

All the poems, whether short or lengthy, are very strong, and open to many interpretations. I don’t know how these poets came to their words. Sometimes a poem just comes to someone and easily flows out onto paper. Sometimes constructing a poem is like throwing a bunch of words into the air, and then constructing a poem using the scattered words. However the poems came to be in this book, they came through what Allen Ginsberg once called, “ordinary magic.”

Several short stories are also collected in The Little Red Book of Poe-ee-tree. When writing a short story, writers also face challenges. Writers need to grab the reader and tell a complete story in a short amount of words. And these stories have to be engaging, draw the reader in, and achieve a believable conclusion without seeming to be tacked on in haste.

This is expertly done in Laurie CK’s “Pennycake.” In this story, carefree memories of a 1970’s childhood are recalled with its birthday rituals and lazy summer days. The brief mentions of Noxzema, Keith Partridge, and 8-Track tapes give the reader a strong idea of a certain place in time. This story also evokes what it is like to be a child facing real life unexpected grief and a subsequent loss of faith.

The one quibble I do have with this book (and it is a minor one) is the limited amount of writers. I don’t know if this is because only a few writers were accepted or only a few writers chose to submit their work. This could also be because the Heart was a small group to begin with. If anything this book begs for a sequel.

 

Book Review: Becoming Michelle Obama by Michelle Obama

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Even my cat, Pokey Jones, liked this book!

Once upon a time, in land called the south side of Chicago, lived a girl named Michelle Robinson. Instead of living in a huge castle, she lived in a modest house on a street called Euclid Avenue. And instead of having to deal with an evil stepmother, she had two loving parents and a protective older brother. Like a lot of girls, Michelle Robinson dreamed of adventures that would take her beyond her humble roots and finding her own Prince Charming. She did that and so much more, thus becoming the history-making first lady Michelle Obama, not only the first black first lady (not to mention one of the most educated and admired, and if I may dip my toes into the shallow end of the pool, one of the most stylish first ladies, in the history of the United States).

Unless you’ve been living under a rock or are so “unwoke” you might as well be in a coma, you are fully aware of Michelle Obama’s years of living in the White House – her “Let’s Move” campaign to alleviate childhood obesity, her work with second lady Dr. Jill Biden on veterans’ issues, her loving marriage to President Barack Obama, and her challenges of raising two children in the White House under the glare of the media. This is a very compelling part of Becoming, and Mrs. Obama is fully honest about the good, the bad, and the ugly she dealt with during the White House years.

However, most of Becoming focuses on Mrs. Obama’s life before her time as First Lady, and it is both extraordinary and ordinary, which I’m sure a lot of readers with relate to.

Mrs. Obama describes these years in rich detail that had me riveted. Her family was firm and loving, inspiring her to be a striver and excel in whatever she pursued. She writes about teachers who supported her from grade school through law school. She lovingly mentions the girlfriends who inspired her, and are still with her today (even if one standout friend is only with her in spirit). Mrs. Obama discusses the various mentors she was blessed with while navigating the difficulties in the workplace. And she’s brutally honest about these privileges and her gratitude seems truly sincere.

However, she also had to deal with the thorny issues of both racism and sexism, and plenty of naysayers who claimed she’d never make it. For instance, one person tried to convince Mrs. Obama that she wasn’t Ivy League material. Ha, she showed this person, didn’t she?

And yes, Mrs. Obama also dishes on a certain fellow named Barack Obama, from her initial meeting when she was his mentor to her twenty-five plus years of their marriage.

But just as Mrs. Obama is grateful for her blessings, she is also honest about the trials and tribulations she faced personally. Prince Charming was sometimes a bit of a challenge and often their marriage was less than ideal. Mrs. Obama also faced issues with having children, finally reverting to using fertility treatments and later giving birth to her cherished daughters Malia and Sasha. In other words, her life is at turn both typical and atypical, one that inspires and one that a lot of us can relate to.

Now, it’s no secret I’m a huge fan of Michelle Obama. However, as a book reviewer I realize I must be truthful of my assessment of Becoming. Not to be gross, but you can’t crap on a cone and expect me to call it ice cream. Thank goodness, Becoming is a sundae of a read and truly exceeded my expectation. It’s both down to earth and out of this world, one that takes a treasured place on my book shelf. I can’t recommend it enough.

Book Report

Here is a quick book report on Daniel Torday’s novel Boomer1.

IMG_20181211_205509This novel explores the battle between boomers and millennials from the perspective of three people, Mark Brumfeld, his mother Julia, and Mark’s ex Cassie. In the beginning Mark has it all-a great career in media, a stellar education (he’s getting his PhD), a place in a bluegrass band, and Cassie. And then Mark loses it all and moves back in with his parents. Bitter, Mark dons a disguise, calls himself Boomer1 and uploads videos to YouTube solely blaming baby boomers for his lot in life. His videos go viral setting off a revolution and Cassie’s attention. Meanwhile Julia is dealing with her own issues.

Boomer1 seemed so promising, but Torday’s writing is pretentious and moves at a snail’s pace. Mark and Cassie are unlikable. And Julia is just meh.

Grade D

Book Review: Half the Child by William J. McGee

Portrayals of single fathers seem to fall into only a few tired and clichéd tropes-the fun-loving, weekend dad, the deadbeat dad behind on his child support payments, the “my ex is a bitch so all women are bitches” bitter single dad and the completely absent dad who disappears from his children’s lives.

Fortunately, Mike Mullen from William J. McGee’s novel Half the Child is none of those things when it comes to being a single dad.

On the surface Mike seems like a regular guy. He’s a loving and devoted father to his little boy Ben. He works as an air traffic controller at LaGuardia while working on his master’s degree in psychology. He comes from a loving, yet at times, testing Irish Catholic family.

But Mike is also going through a contentious divorce that will turn his world upside down, especially when it comes to both his personal and professional life.

Divided into four distinct chapters called books, Half the Child follows four consecutive summers in the lives of Mike and Ben.

In the beginning, Mike is separated from Ben’s mother and they are on the verge of getting a divorce. It isn’t long before the divorce turns sour and Mike’s ex abducts Ben and leaves the country.

This sets off Mike into a nightmarish tailspin as he fights for his parental rights, which affects his personal life, including a budding romance. It affects him physically, emotionally, and mentally. Professionally, Mike is a mess. Mike begins to suffer a deep depression and often contemplates suicide. How will he cope with every obstacle that comes his way? What will happen to his relationship with Ben? Is it beyond repair? How will survive Mike survive this nightmare? All I know is I read this book with bated breath, turning page after page, hoping there would be some light at the end of the tunnel entrapping Mike.

Written by someone of lesser talent, Half the Child would come across as way too over the top to be believed. But McGee is a thoughtful and gifted writer whose “voice” rings true. Every character is rich in detail, no matter how major or minor. And the various scenarios in Half the Child are shown, not merely told.

At turns, Half the Child is heartbreaking and hopeful. It is filled with suspense, humor, anger, and intimacy, truly a grand achievement in story-telling. McGee is a writer to watch for, and I can’t wait to read more of his work.

Book Review: Shrill-Notes From a Loud Woman by Lindy West

I’ve been a fan of writer Lindy West since her Jezebel.com days. Whether she was writing about pop culture or social issues, I found her writing voice to witty and wise,  a welcome relief from tiresome clickbait and lazy listicles.

So it was a thrill to read West’s memoir Shrill: Notes From a Loud woman.

Growing up,  West was nerdy, shy and fat, not exactly a recipe for success. Yet, she was able to find success, both professionally and personally, once she became an adult and found her voice.

And though her voice brought her admirers it also brought her haters,  mostly obnoxious trolls.

You see West is a woman with an opinion. She’s also fat. How dare she!

Through her feature articles and opinion pieces, West expressed her disdain for rape jokes and the struggles with body shaming. In response, she often faced horrific comments telling her she should be raped and ripped her apart for not being a tiny size two.

West fully describes in Shrill what it was like to be caught up in hail storm of hatred. It was a time of loneliness and tears,  vulnerability and anger, but it was also a time where West found support, decency, empathy and a the will to go on as a writer and just person trying to live her life

But in the end West triumphed. She triumphed so much a troll even reached out to her to apologize.

Today, West is having the last laugh. Shrill is gaining lots of praise, including praise from two of my faves, Caitlin Moran and Samantha Irby. Now based in Seattle West now writes for GQ,  The Guardian,, and other assorted highly respected publications. She founded the advice blog for teenagers called I Believe You/It’s Not Your Fault. West is also blessed with a loving family and a happy marriage. Hmm, maybe being shrill isn’t such a bad thing.

Though Shrill is West’s story, it’s also the story of every woman with an opinion and  one who doesn’t fit into our society’s slender notion on how to behave…and look like. I highly recommend it.

Retro Review: The Child Who Never Grew by Pearl S. Buck

For the longest time I only knew multi-award winning author Pearl S. Buck through her classic The Good Earth, among other notable works of both fiction and non-fiction.

But Buck was also a mother of daughter with special needs, a daughter named Carol, which I was made aware of this when I came across Buck’s slim memoir about raising Carol called The Child Who Never Grew. And it at turns, bittersweet, wise and very touching.

When Carol was born she seemed perfectly normal and healthy. Buck and her husband felt truly blessed. But it wasn’t long before they realized Carol wasn’t developing at the same rate as other babies. In fact, Carol’s cognitive abilities would never surpass that of a four year old child.

Devastated, yet determined to do right by Carol, Buck and her husband arose to the challenge of raising a child with “mental retardation,” finally sending Carol to a facility most suitable to address her needs in Vineland, New Jersey.

The Child Who Never Grew is brutally honest on the “stigma” of raising a child like Carol but also the compassion that was so needed and desired by Buck and her husband, and most a beneficial to a person like Carol. I was also impressed on how Carol was looked at in the western culture of the United States and the culture of the far east. This book is also interesting on how we’ve come in our society when it comes to the lives of children and adults with special needs.

A book filled with heartache and triumph, The Child Who Never Grew isn’t just a memoir of mothering a child who is “different,” it is an amazing look at motherhood itself.

Book Review: Summoning Grace by Samsara Saj

Late last year, thanks to my presence on the website BookBloggerList, several authors have reached out to me to read and review their books. Many of these authors are fledgling writers and these books (some of them self-published) are their “babies” and as with any baby, I want to handle them with thoughtfulness and care. So I have to keep this in mind in my review of Samasara Saj’s novel Summoning Grace.

The back jacket of Summoning Grace is as follows:

“Bridget McKenna, a lawyer practicing for more than twenty-five years, has disturbing recollections from her childhood after a family birthday party. As she tries to handle the impact of these revelations, she turns to Jack Cassidy, the only man she ever loved, with whom she has not been in touch for three years. Being with Jack helps her connect the dots regarding the work she does as an attorney, where the corruption of politics and the ugliness of domestic violence reveal to Bridget the sexual shoals a woman must navigate. By contacting Jack, she starts the process of reaching into her soul for the reckoning that awaits her.

Once she reconciles herself to the darkness of her painful past, through the grace of God, she finds the strength to summon all the faith, courage, and grace that she can, to deal with professional obstacles, family loss, and her greatest challenge, rescuing her only brother, Joe.

Told in eighteen chapters, Summoning Grace explores the deepest self-examination a woman can undertake, providing her the wisdom and understanding to help those she loves with kindness and dignity.”

This summary is a bit of a bait and switch. Little of this book focuses on Cassidy and domestic violence. Nor does Summoning Grace focus on Bridget’s past. Also the book jacket classifies this novel as a romance, but it is more of a family story. Therefore the second and third paragraphs are a better description of this novel over-all.

Bridget’s family, the McKennas, are a loving and close-knit family who join forces when only son Joe gets seriously ill. The McKennas decide to work together to help Joe and his family in a very trying time. I liked the idea of a family being functional and totally messed up. It comforted me like a bowl of chicken soup.

However, when dealing with Joe’s illness Bridget is convinced she is the only one who can handle his care, even more so than the hospital staff. Not only did I find this to be a slap in the face to the people who work in the medical field, I also thought it gave short shrift to Joe’s wife, children and the other McKenna siblings.

Bridget is also a rather off-putting in her law career. Only she can handle the profession and everyone from her colleagues to her clients are incompetent losers.

To add to Bridget’s “Mary Sue” perfection, she is a diva in the kitchen, a true Julia Child reincarnated. And when it comes to family get togethers and holidays, she always brings masterful dishes. Considering she’s busy with Joe and her career, I found this element a bit implausible.

Ultimately by making Bridget an ideal person—loving sister, top notch attorney and fabulous chef—Saj has given us a character who is really insufferable and without complex layers. I like characters who have their share of flaws and who are multi-dimensional. These characters are more relatable and interesting to read.

Still I must commend Saj for at least writing a book. She’s technically proficient and I respect her deep faith. I believe she has the ability to write a better book and I believe she wants to express herself with love and hope in her heart. These are noble ideas and much needed in our challenging world.

So though I can’t recommend Summoning Grace, I can encourage Samsara Saj to keep on writing. Don’t let my review deter you.

Book Review: Practice Makes Purpose-Six Spiritual Practices That Will Change Your Life and Transform Your Community

I’ve long had a love/hate relationship with self-help books, whether it comes to the personal, professional, romantic, and so on. I’ve read my share of self-help books in my life time and I’ve acquired quite a list of the good, bad, and downright ugly.

I can happily proclaim C. Paul Schroeder’s Practice Makes Purpose-Six Spiritual Practices That Will Change Your Life and Transform Your Community belongs in the good category.

In Practice Makes Purpose, Schroeder takes six ancient ideas and updates for our modern age, which let’s face it, my readers, is often confusing, frightening and downright overwhelming.

What are the six practices you ask? Quite simply they break down to the following:

  1. Compassionate Seeing
  2. Heartfelt Listening
  3. Intentional Welcoming
  4. Joyful Sharing
  5. Grateful Receiving
  6. Cooperative Building

Each of these six spiritual practices starts with a singular issue and ends with an actual practice. Between these two points includes steps Schroeder lays out at as the fix, the deep dive, the mantra, and the challenge, which are fully described in all six of these practices.

For instance, in compassionate seeing, Schroeder asks the reader to view ourselves and others with complete and unconditional acceptance. Now, this does not mean you condone someone’s behavior. Some people are just awful but get the “story behind the story” to find out why they are awful before you completely write them off. Compassionate seeing helps us connect with others and realize how we are all interconnected in various ways. Without compassionate seeing we are in danger of unraveling, which depletes us as individuals and depletes our communities.

As Practice Makes Purpose goes through all its parts, Schroeder describes in full the barriers we may face as well as the triumphs we can achieve. He does this with a clear and concise writing style that is practical, empathetic and audience-friendly. Once a Greek Orthodox Priest, Schroeder is wise enough to realize not every reader is a Christian, so he refrains from strict religious terms that may be off-putting. Nor is this book some odd bit of new age fluff that may turn off readers of more traditional religious orders.

While reading Practice Makes Purpose, I was struck how practical and easy I could use this advice in my own life when dealing with challenging people and predicaments. His advice is healthy in it respects our need to be open to others (his advice when it comes to heartfelt listening, “Tell me more” appeals to the writer in me and I also appreciate how he discusses the boundaries we may need to use in other situations. Yes, be open but don’t get steamrolled by others. I also deserve compassion.

What else do I like Practice Makes Purpose? This book is less than two hundred pages. It can be read in day during a binge read. It can be read piecemeal if you are dealing with a situation or person that requires reflection on only one or two of the six practices. You can easily carry this book in a handbag or knapsack, and its practices can be interwoven in one’s home and workplace. I would love to see all six practices used in our children’s schooling (especially in the wake of the horrific shooting in Parkland, Florida).

As for my life? I am now using Practice Makes Purpose when it comes to my self-care, especially when it comes to my mental health issues. I recently took up meditation and six one-sentence mantras Schroeder provide within this book is now part of my meditation practice.

At this point, Practice Makes Purpose-Six Spiritual Practices That Will Change Your Life and Transform Your Community are thee right words, in the right book, at the right time.

 

 

 

Book Review: Dante’s Garden-Magic and Mystery in Bomarzo by Teressa Cutler-Broyles

Frank Farnese is a collector of antique books when he chances upon a first edition of Dante’s classic novel The Divine Comedy. Inside the ancient tome is an inscription. Frank finds this inscription intriguing noting it mentions a mysterious garden located in Bomarzo, Italy. Frank wants to visit this garden to learn more about Dante and The Divine Comedy. Frank decides to visit Bomarzo where he finds himself exploring and falling through Hell’s Mouth, a particularly gruesome and odd sculpture.

When he awakes, Frank no longer finds himself living in the 21st century. He has somehow, through the works of time travel, in the year 1570. To greet him, is Pyrrho Ligorio, a legendary antiquarian of literature and his lady companion, the lovely Lurcrezia Romano. Both Pyrrho and Lucrezia find Frank to be a kindred spirit and invite him on what is about to be an incredible journey.

Thus, begins Teresa Cutler-Broyles novel Dante’s Garden-Magic and Mystery in Bomarzo.

Just as in the modern age of 2017, things aren’t quite right in the world back in 1570 and the three of them know they should make things better.

Frank and his newfound companions find themselves wrapped up in a multitude of adventures, some exciting, some dangerous, some educational and for Frank and Lucrezia quite romantic. Among their adventures is the infamous Inquisition and an astonishing retreat to the iconic Venice. On their journey they meet people (some who actually existed and others fictional). As this unique tale unfolds, Frank and his traveling companions must learn if these people are true allies or those they should avoid for they are truly perilous (and then there are some characters shrouded in mystery).

Did I mention romance? Frank can’t help but fall in love with Lucrezia. Though she is a woman of her time, she is also one with a keen mind and a desire to learn and grow even though educational and vocational opportunities are limited for women. Lucrezia is also a woman with fleshly desires and fully gives herself to Frank despite 16th century sexual mores.

Frank so wants to stay in 1570 but also misses his life in the 21st century, not just the modern conveniences, but his relationship with longtime girlfriend Matilda, who he lovingly calls Tilly.

Or maybe Frank could find his way back to the modern day and bring Lucrezia with him. But how would she live in a world of modern conveniences that we take for granted? How would she adjust? And would she miss her old life back in 1570? And how would Frank explain his absence? Would Tilly and his friends and colleagues buy his tale of time travel? Hmm, he might as well tell them he was in a coma or kidnapped by aliens.

And of course, there is the issue of what brought Frank to this adventure and him questioning his stake in both worlds-his acquisition of an original copy of Dante’s The Divine Comedy.

Dante’s Garden is richly written and wonderfully descriptive. Cutler-Broyles has a gift for showing not telling. In my mind’s eye I could see the people, places and things she writes about in glowing detail. In one passage, Cutler-Broyles describes a beautiful gown in shades of green, blue and purple, which filled me with pure joy!

If I have any regret, it is my grasp on European history is way too limited, and I must expand my knowledge gained through PBS documentaries, classic movies and vintage fashion. Cutler-Broyles has a vivid imagination and she clearly has a full grasp on Italian history, which isn’t surprising considering she is a visiting professor at the Umbra Institute in Perugia, Italy and has spent the past ten years leading travels throughout Italy.

Now I’m left wondering if Cutler-Broyles has a sequel in mind. I would love to know how Frank and Lucrezia are affected by their remarkable expedition in the long run, long after their initial story plays out in Dante’s Garden-Magic and Mystery in Bomarzo.