A BOOK BY A FRIEND: BRITTNEY McWILLIAMS

Recently a friend asked me to edit her neice’s book.  Without asking the title or any other details, I agreed; after all she is a friend, and what are friends for?  This second experience in editing turned out to be a really positive experience.

Brittany’s book, Not That Girl , turned out to be a real  page turner, a memoir that every young woman of any ethnic background needs to read and heed.  Brittany, who is now a single mom, a sometimes- reality-TV actress, holder of two “day jobs” is currently struggling to get ahead and “be somebody” in Atlanta, Georgia. This book, quite frankly was an effort to earn some money, but it turned out to have a real message and to be a whole lot more.

Brittney’s voice is a young voice, a black voice that hopefully will prevent other young women from devaluing themselves because they are in love and want to keep their man.  This is a story of perseverance, self-improvement, and courage. The book cover has a gorgeous picture of Brittany and describes the book as a “tell-all memoir” of a “small- town girl who conquered her past of abuse, heartache, and fear on her journey to stardom.”

The book is a quick, engaging read and will leave you thinking, “This girl can be a star, and so can I.”

THE SWANS OF FIFTH AVENUE by Melanie Benjamin: A Review

This is an engrossing novel based on a true relationship, that of Truman Capote and the matrons of New York society during the 50s and 60s.  It deals with Capote’s greatest scandal among the “beautiful people” who adopted him as their “pet”, protege, and latest fad. Capote brought glitz and glamor wherever he went, as did the fifth avenue circle, his “Swans.”  When Truman courted these glamorous women, specifically Babe Paley, a unique fashionista and trend setter ,the wife of CBS magnate, Bill Paley, he was the talk of the town. He was constantly found among this group of friends, inspiring them to confide their most private secrets to him. Although their relationship was purely platonic, Babe considered Truman her “True Heart” and Truman received the unconditional love and praise he had been refused by his mother and had never found from another person.

It was said about Capote, however, “…once a storyteller, always a storyteller–even when the stories aren’t his to tell,” and since the fame and praise from writing In Cold Blood dried up and the well of sources for stories ran dry,  he wrote a scandalous “tell all” story which betrayed all his “Swans” had confided in him. Truman’s fall from “sought after” to “shunned” is chronicled in this novel, and his life’s end was as sordid and sad as it had been beautiful and happy when he was the favorite of his “Swans.”

This book, a 2016 publication was a New York Times bestseller and was not only popular in New York where the names were known and the settings familiar, but with all of us readers who wanted a peek at the lives of the rich and famous.

COMMONWEALTH by Ann Patchett: A Review

This 2016 bestseller ties for second place on my list of ” Favorite Books Published in 2016″ (ties with The Swans of Fifth Avenue), after Gentleman in Moscow (reviewed in an earlier post), which still claims first place.  It was so good that I made time to read it and finished in two days.  The book begins in California and is also set in the Commonwealth of Virginia, the states where I was born and raised in, respectively.  Maybe it was because of this “personal connection”, or more likely the denseness of characters and plot  that I became hooked by the end of the first few chapters.

We meet Beverly and “Fix” as the novel opens with the “…dissolution of their marriage and the joining of two families.” This connecting of families through marriage and caused by divorce creates a “tribe” of children, four girls, two boys, the Cousinses and the Keatings, and the book carries these characters through the next fifty years. There is much intertwining of plot and relationships, and this intrigues the reader as he/she progresses through the novel. All of the characters are memorable; I couldn’t choose a favorite because the author makes me feel attached to and care about every one of them.

Perhaps I enjoyed Commonwealth so much because I am especially fond of character-driven novels, but I suspect the main reason was because of Patchett’s great writing abilities.  I highly recommend this novel.

ANOTHER COZY MYSTERY: A Review

A cozy mystery, defined, is: someone gets killed, but it’s a really bad person anyway, and there’s minimum graphic and gore, and is the perfect read to cozy up to on a cold day.  Cozies are pure escape reading, and some of them are quite good–entertaining anyway. I have just finished the third of a mail package sent by my husbands cousin who lives in California.  I can’t wait to tell her that the author lives in Friendswood, Texas, not ten miles away from where I live.  According to a stamp in the front of the book, the cousin purchased it at a used paperback shop in Grover Beach, CA.  Lends a whole new meaning to the phrase, “small world” hmmmmm?”

The Cat, The Quilt, and the Corpse by Leann Sweeney, an award winning mystery writer, is in her “Cats in Trouble Series”. She has a line on the cover which says, “When cats are in trouble, their nine lives come in handy.”  The corpse in question is the lowest of the low, a catnapper! And the quilts?  Quilts made for cats, of course.

Widowed ten months ago, and  having moved to a small (really small) town in South Carolina from Texas, Jillian returns from an overnight quilt show to find her house broken into and one of her three cats (Katrina rescues, pure bloods) missing. How she tracks down her missing cat, discovers the corpse of the catnapper (making her and several prospective cat-loving friends ,suspects) is the gist of this story. Small town characters abound and if Jillian learns nothing else, it’s not to rely on first impressions.

This is an interesting story of making friends, being the outsider and the speculation of much gossip, and the important relationships we can forge with our pet-friends.  It is worth a read.  It is cozy.

NOAH WEBSTER AND HIS WORDS: Instructional and Delightful Children’s Book

This interesting biography of Noah Webster, of dictionary fame, was written by Jeri Chase Ferris and illustrated masterfully by Vincent X. Kirsch. It was published by Houghton Mifflin Books in 2012.

Noah Webster wanted most of all for Americans to speak, write, and spell like Americans, not Englishmen, so the standardizing of American English was his life’s work. At the time he began to work on his “blue back speller,” the first AMERICAN textbook, words had no conformity of spelling from region to region.  For example, “mosquito” was spelled “mosquito”, miscitoe”, “mosquitor”, “musketeer”, or as Webster bemoaned, “…spelled 10 different ways in 10 different parts of the country.” Webster also included such American Indian words as “tomahawk”, native to America.  Finally in 1828 after a trip to the continent to discover etymologies of words, Webster published his “DIC-TION-AR-Y [noun: a book listing words in ABC order, telling what they mean and how to spell them].”

This delightful technique is used for all “big” words a youngster may be unfamiliar with. For example: “U-NITE [verb: make one]” and “The books SOARED [verb: flew off] the shelves.” is instructional, but fun too!

The book briefly notes the influence Noah Webster had on the United States, presented on a child’s level, and includes a wonderfully illustrated timeline in the back, “Noah Webster and the New United States”.

This was a delightful read for me, especially thanks to the illustrations, and I just wish I had a grandchild to share it with!

The Thoughtful Dresser: A Review

This is a 2009 publication by Linda Grant that, like classic clothes, will never go out of style.  It is a history of clothes, as well as “…a thinking woman’s guide on what to wear.” It deals with such concepts as “how we dress defines who we are…” in a sometimes humorous, sometimes serious manner.

The first chapter, “In Which a Woman Buys a Pair of Shoes” immediately draws the reader’s interest (What woman isn’t interested in shoes?), and the fifth chapter which struggles and attempts to define “sexy” when it comes to clothes continues to keep us turning pages.  Ms. Grant, who writes for Vogue, among other things (such as being a prize winning novelist and journalist) deals with “The art of adornment, the pleasures of shopping, and why clothes matter” in a most engaging way.

Catherine Hill appears three times in the book as a holocaust survivor whose hat saves her from the gas chamber, a fashion designer in Canada, and an ageless fashionista who is interviewed several times by the author.  She, according to the author, “IS fashion” and is “great reading” for this reviewer.

Linda Grant views clothes as “the most intimate but public expression of our identity,” a topic I’ve never considered,and in doing so has become an author I want to read more of.

THE IMPROBABLE THEORY OF ANA AND ZAK by Brian Katcher: A Review (YA)

A book I started during the PWR Reading Marathon was The Improbable Theory of Ana and Zak.  I read it in one day, picking it up off and on during a major housecleaning. (Well, yes, it was a YA novel, and a very fast read–all the more reason for choosing (AND REALLY ENJOYING) this book.)

The back cover covers it all (pun intended)  with an pictogram that includes Ana plus Zak, plus 24 hours, plus a wild SCI FI Convention, plus an impossible manhunt, plus thousands of costumed nerds, plus an angry viking, times lots of trouble, divided by first impressions, is unequal to anything they ever expected!   The quote next to the pictogram says, “Perfect comic timing and outrageous twists.” And the book delivers!  It is very, very funny, sweet, outrageous and just a darned good read.  Some subtler ideas are introduced than just the madcap 24 hour chase, but the book is never preachy. Young adults are respected and even admired, SOME adults are “almost ok”, and surprises in ALL the relationships abound.

I would recommend it to a friend of any age.

Review:BEHOLD THE DREAMERS by Imbolo Mbue

Many good novels have been written about immigrants in America who came to this country seeking a better life. Many are based on personal experience, so when we see the author’s glamor-shot photo (typical book jacket photograph), we expect her novel to end “…and they lived happily ever after in America.”  Spoiler alert:  You may not want to read the next three sentences. This novel does not end that way. And, a life lesson we learn from Jede and Neni, our protagonists, is that living happily ever after may not require living in the United States. Let me add one qualifier, the individuals of the happy couple are not equally happy with the ending decision they make.

I am an aficionado of debut novels, and this one is outstanding.  Jende and Neni, our protagonists, are  immigrants to the United States from Cameroon.  They have big plans, hopes, and dreams for their infant daughter, born in America, and therefore an American citizen, and their son, young enough to begin school in America.  Liomi , their son seems more American than some of his “real” American classmates, comes to love living in the States, but he was raised on joyous tales of his father’s boyhood in Cameroon. Therefore,he would probably be able to live happily in either country.

As the book jacket states, it is a”… dazzling, fast-paced, and exquisitely written” novel. And indeed, Mbue is an excellent storyteller. I grew to love the characters and their family and friends, suffered when they suffered, and rejoiced when they rejoiced.  I can hardly wait to read this outstanding author’s next effort.

DARING GREATLY by Brene’ Brown: A Review

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause;who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly…” Theodore Roosevelt

This is the quote which inspires twelve years of research on Brown’s part into vulnerability, trying, and daring greatly.  Brown, who is one of Houston’s own, holding a PhD and LMSW from University of Houston, and often teaching as well as researching there, hit number one on the NY Times Bestseller list when this book was published in 2012. It “hit a spot”/resonated with everyone who read it. Its anecdotes (often from the author’s own life) read easily and fast and leave an impression.

I first “met” Brown in a Ted Talk and was impressed at how the speaker was so open–so vulnerable.  My thoughts were, “I could never do that,” but perhaps the author’s message is that we should. One blurb says Bene Brown, “Transforms the way we live, love, parent and lead,” and indeed, this book is helpful in all these aspects of our lives.  It is and it isn’t a self-help book; it is one as far as the reader will let it be.  If nothing else its Manifesto for Parents and Manifesto for Leaders are memes we want to pass along and hang on our wall.