Saturday, November 22, 2008

Fiction Review: The State of Me

I loved this first novel by Nasim Marie Jafry, but I suppose I should begin with a bit of disclosure. Jafry, like me, has a chronic illness, an immune system disorder known in the U.S. by the embarrassing name Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) and in Jafry’s Scotland and other countries as Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME). She and I both write blogs about living with CFS/ME, and I have followed her blog for several years. So, it is as if an old friend (a virtual friend) has published her first novel.

The main character, Helen, is in college as the novel opens. She is smart and vibrant, living a typical college life, filled with classes, friends, parties, and boyfriends. Helen and her roommate, Jana, head off to France for a semester abroad, leaving Helen’s boyfriend Ivan behind. While in France, Helen suddenly becomes ill – so severely ill that she has to return home to her parents’ house in Scotland. As you might have guessed from my introduction, Helen is eventually diagnosed with ME. The novel follows the next fifteen years of Helen’s life, as she struggles with learning to live with her illness and find romance.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from The State of Me. After all, I live with the challenges of this illness myself every day. Why would I want to read about it in my fiction as well? I wondered whether the book would be depressing – 500 pages of living with ME.

I was pleasantly surprised, though. For starters, the novel is very well written, with realistic dialogue, characters that you come to care about, and an engaging and fast-paced plot. A fast-paced book about being bed-ridden? Yes! Jafry is a wonderful writer, and she brings her characters alive so that you can’t wait to turn the page and see what happens next. In fact, I read this hefty novel in only a few days because once I started, I had trouble putting it down. And it wasn’t at all depressing. Funny, sexy, uplifting, sometimes a bit sad, but never depressing.

Although Jafry does address issues related to ME/CFS in the novel, she does it in a way that doesn’t detract from the fact that this book is, first and foremost, a novel. It’s about so much more than living with chronic illness. It’s a book about friendship, family, love, and life. I came to care about Helen and wanted things to turn out well for her. I laughed out loud, cheered her on, and yelled at her. After all, isn’t that what fiction is supposed to do – make us feel something? By the time I finished The State of Me, I felt as if its characters were a part of my own life, and I was sorry to say good-bye.

(P.S. Besides enjoying the characters and plot, I had fun with the language of this novel, since it was written by a Scot. I enjoyed trying to figure out what the Scottish words and phrases meant from context and was mostly successful. I had no trouble translating brolly to umbrella by the way it was used, for instance, although I am still wondering what kind of holiday Hogmanay is?)

You can visit the author's blog here.

NOTE: The book was published in the UK, so US readers probably won't find it in bookstores, but it can be ordered from amazon's U.S. site (used copies only now) and is only $0.99 for the Kindle version. You can use the link below to get to the correct listing at amazon.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Young Adult Fiction: The Book Thief

Although The Book Thief by Markus Zusak was published as a Young Adult book, one of my grown-up book groups recently read it for our September selection. The response was unanimous - everyone loved it! As soon as I finished it, I lent it to my neighbor, who was similarly impressed and then recommended it to her friends. That's the way it goes with a unique and well-written book.

And The Book Thief is certainly unique. The story is narrated by Death. Yes, you read that correctly, and Death is a surprisingly sympathetic and endearing character who tells this story from a unique perspective. While this choice of narrator seems strange at first, it works quite well.

The book thief of the title is a young girl named Liesel who lives in Nazi Germany at the time of World War II. Death first encounters Liesel when she is just 9 years old and her brother dies. He sees Liesel take her first book, The Grave Digger's Handbook, even though she can not yet read. Liesel goes to live with foster parents in a very poor section of a small town and encounters all sorts of characters, some friendly and some more sinister. While going to school, taking part in Junior Nazi activities, and helping her family harbor a hidden Jew, she continues to encounter both Death and stolen books, and both have a significant impact on her life.

Anyone who loves to read will appreciate the positive role of books in Liesel's life and in the lives of those she cares about. In fact, it is a book - her own hand-written life story - that ultimately saves her life. This is one of those books that takes you through every emotion imaginable. And after all, isn't that the point of a really good book: to make you feel something? The Book Thief does that and more.

Due to its subject matter and setting during the Holocaust, The Book Thief is most appropriate for older teens or adults.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Author Interviews Online

My new favorite website is Titlepage which features author interviews on an hour-long show, posted once a week. The show is very well done. Each week, the host interviews a group of four authors whose recent books are somehow linked. For instance, one week the four guests had all recently published nonfiction books; another week, the show featured four first-time published novelists.

It's a great show if you love books, and the best part is that you can watch it whenever it is convenient for you. I look forward each week to spending a lunch hour with my laptop next to me.

Take a look, and tell me what you think!

Monday, March 03, 2008

Funny Column About Book Tours

Just had to share this hilarious column from the Philadelphia Inquirer, written by Lisa Scottoline about her experiences on book tours.

Having experienced empty chairs at a book signing myself (well, except for my immediate family and a couple of close friends), I found this especially funny. I loved her column, so I guess I'll have to try one of her books. From what I read on her website, it seems that she writes "sexy legal thrillers" and her books have won awards and been very popular.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Memoir: Three Little Words

Ashley Rhodes-Courter lived in fourteen different foster homes in nine years. Her memoir chronicles her childhood spent as a victim of a badly broken foster care system, yet she sees herself as more of a survivor and advocate rather than a victim.

Ashley’s story begins with her earliest memories (based in part on stories told to her by her family). Her mother was only seventeen when Ashley was born. They lived for awhile with her mother’s sister, then with a boyfriend and a new baby brother. When Ashley was just three years old, and her brother Luke still a baby, police removed them from their house, and the progression of foster parents began.

Ashley and Luke were bounced from one foster home to another, sometimes together, sometimes apart. She stayed in some homes for years and in others for just a day or two. For years, no one explained to her why this had happened, where her mother was, or what she could expect in the future. Some of her foster parents were caring, kind people; others were indifferent, crowding too many children into small homes. One foster mother was as evil as any fairytale stepmother, mentally and physically abusing Ashley and the other fourteen children in her care.

Fortunately, Ashley was an intelligent and resilient child and eventually escaped the foster care system that was responsible for so much pain in her life. She is now a college-educated twenty-two year old who is a vocal advocate for adoption and foster care reform. Simon & Schuster published Three Little Words within their teen division, but the memoir is fascinating and compelling for readers of any age. From the adorable picture of Ashley dressed as an angel on the cover to the acknowledgements, notes, and photos at the end of the book, I could scarcely put it down.

P.S. The three little words aren't the ones you're thinking of!


Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Young Adult Fiction: Click

I just read the recently released young adult novel, Click, by David Almond, Eoin Colfer, Roddy Doyle, Deborah Ellis, Nick Hornby, Margo Lanagan, Gregory Maguire, Ruth Ozeki, Linda Sue Park, and Tim Wynne-Jones. Yes, you read that correctly; this novel has 10 authors!

The concept behind Click was to start with ten bestselling, award-winning writers. Each one wrote a single chapter in the novel. As you can imagine, each chapter has its own unique style, but it works. The end result is a novel that tells a story, but with many surprising twists and turns. It’s part character-study, part mystery, part teen angst, part comedy, with a bit of science fiction thrown in.

The novel opens with two siblings, Maggie, middle school-age, and Jason, a high school senior, struggling in their own ways with the recent death of their Grandpa “Gee”. Gee was a famous photographer who traveled all over the world, and he left each of his grandchildren with a puzzling gift: an old camera and a box of photos for Jason and a handmade box of seashells for Maggie.

The story unfolds as Maggie and Jason each come to terms with Gee’s death and their own changing lives, while they try to make sense of what Gee has left them. Within the format of the book’s changing authors, some chapters deal with one child or the other, some address Gee’s past, and some are actually about the subjects of certain photos that Gee left to Jason. The threads are all gradually woven together, as Maggie and Jason each find their own path to the adults they will become.

More character driven than action-oriented, this book will probably appeal to teens and young adults (and grown-ups, too!). Though the changing authors and various story threads might be distracting to some readers, I thought the editing process was effective, producing a book that tells a full story from different perspectives.

Click was a quick and pleasant read for me, and I enjoyed sampling the writings of ten different authors (I had only read one of them before). In fact, the book has inspired me to check out other offerings from some of these writers. As an added bonus, all proceeds from Click are being donated to Amnesty International.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Fiction: China Run

I just finished reading my book group’s latest selection, China Run by David Ball, and my initial reaction is, “What an amazing book.” With its unique plot, likeable characters, and intense suspense, this book gripped me in a way that I haven’t experienced in a long time. I struggled to put the book down each night at bedtime and often ended up dreaming of it during the night!

Six American families are in China for the final stage of their adoption of Chinese baby girls. As they await their babies’ visas, each family has bonded with its baby for several days when they receive word from the orphanage director that a mistake has been made. They are told they received the wrong babies and must return them immediately. Distressed and confused, three of the families comply with the request, but the other three parents feel they can’t give up their new family members and instead take off on their own for the nearest American embassy, hoping to resolve the mix-up.

That hasty decision turns into a nightmare as the three families flee from Chinese authorities and end up in a dangerous and complicated journey across the cities and countryside of China. The main character, Allison, is one of the parents who chose to run, along with her new Chinese baby and her nine-year old stepson. A massive manhunt ensues, with the whole world watching, as Allison tries desperately to keep her children safe and ensure that her baby won’t be taken away.

Along the way, they meet many Chinese citizens – some helpful and some sinister – as they try to thwart the enormous web of authorities that are after them. Meanwhile, one of the police investigators begins to uncover a terrible secret behind the orphanage and the error that initiated this situation.

Ball describes the sights, sounds, and smells of China so that you feel you are right there with Allison, on the run in an unfamiliar land and surrounded by a language and culture you don’t understand. We see the beauty of China’s landscapes and the qualities of its people and feel the terror of being alone in a foreign place.

At turns thought-provoking, terrifying, and touching, this intriguing and suspenseful novel will keep you reading late into the night.