The Gap Year by Sarah Bird

DownloadedFileTitle:  The Gap Year by Sarah Bird

Publisher: Gallery Books; Reprint edition (July 17, 2012)

Pages:  320 pages

Genre:  contemporary women’s fiction

Where did you get it? Purchased in-store at Barnes & Noble.

Why did you read it? My book club chose it for discussion.

What’s it about?  This is a mother/daughter story.  Cam is a single mom raising teenaged Aubrey on her own since her husband left to join a cult.  She has Aubrey’s life pretty well figured out; Aubrey will attend a fantastic liberal arts college in the Pacific Northwest, right after her 18th birthday, when she claims the trust fund arranged for her by her father.  But Aubrey has seemingly lost her mind in her senior year of high school.  Once a college bound straight A student and band geek, she’s met a boy and suddenly quit band.    She doesn’t  have any interest in her mother’s plans; the same plans she’s been going along with for years up until now.  Mother and daughter are no longer close and fail to see the other’s point of view.

What did you like?  There was a lot to like!  The book is witty and fun, insightful and smart.   Having two moody teenaged daughters of my own, I could really relate to Cam.  Cam had so many hopes and dreams for Aubrey and just wanted what was best for her.  And that feeling of your child becoming a stranger to you was sadly all too familiar… the feeling of, “Where did I go wrong?”  And how everything you say somehow gets misunderstood.  Yeah, that’s my life.  But having been a teenaged girl once, I could also relate to Aubrey’s feelings of wanting to please her mom, but also wanting her mom to butt out and let her live her life.  I read a lot of lines out loud to my daughter and we laughed a lot.

The story is told in alternating chapters by Cam and Aubrey.  I loved being able to “hear” their distinct voices and really understand where they were coming from.  Cam’s chapters are all in the present, but Aubrey’s reach into the past to give us the backstory.  It wasn’t typical and I liked this approach.

What didn’t work for you?   This is a small thing but at times there was an overabundance of adjectives.  Whenever I would find a particularly adjective-filled line, I’d email it to my friend so we could share a laugh.  There was a point in the book, maybe 2/3rds in, where I became much more interested in Aubrey’s story, and less interested in Cam’s.  Aubrey, like a lot of teenagers, had this whole secret life going on and I wanted to see what she’d do.  Cam’s ex, Aubrey’s dad, made a reappearance, and I found that storyline much less interesting.  I started skipping over the Cam chapters so that I could read Aubrey’s chapters all in a row.  But I did go back and read Cam’s chapters.  And I don’t think my reading of the book suffered by doing it that way.

Share a quote or two:  

“”When did he take over Aubrey’s life so completely?” I ask, even as I try to figure out when my daughter turned into a stranger.  Six months ago?  No, it’s been longer than that.  In that time, she’s become like a guest forced against her will to live in my house.  A guest who would happily pack up and leave and move in with said boyfriend if I pushed her even the tiniest bit.”

“Forget anthrax.  The greatest chemical threat facing our country today is the hormones delivered to our daughters at puberty.  Hormones that, in Aubrey’s case, were not fully ignited until Tyler appeared.”

Who would enjoy this book?  People who enjoy humorous contemporary fiction, those who like mother/daughter stories, those with older teens who are getting ready to lift their wings and leave the nest.

Who else has reviewed it?  Many bloggers have reviewed this book!  Here are a couple of standouts:

Suko’s Notebook

Raging Bibliomania

Anything else to add?  I really enjoyed this book.  The Gap Year was a good choice for my book club as a lot of us have teen daughters, and mother/daughter struggles are somewhat universal.  We had a lot to talk about.  Highly recommended.

Before I Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson

DownloadedFileBefore I Go To Sleep is an impressive debut by S. J. Watson.  It begins with a young woman waking up in bed and not knowing who or where she is, or who the older man next to her might be.  Racing to the bathroom, she looks in the mirror and finds a person looking back at her that she doesn’t recognize, an older version of herself.  She sees pictures on the mirror of this older self with the man in the bed. That terrifying beginning is the set up for a book that deals with memory and identity.

Who are we if we don’t have our memories? Ben, the man in the bed, patiently explains, as he does each day, who he is, who she is, what their lives are like.  Ben goes off to work, leaving her to fend for herself until she receives a phone call from Dr. Nash. “You have amnesia,” Dr. Nash explains. “You’ve had amnesia for a long time. You can’t retain new memories, so you’ve forgotten much of what’s happened to you for your entire adult life. Every day you wake up as if you are a young woman. Some days you wake as if you are a child.”

A blank slate every day.  A mind wiped clean.  How did this happen? She meets with Dr. Nash and he has her start a journal, which helps her put her life into context and gives her some continuity from one day to the next.  She begins to remember things; her name (Christine), her husband, Ben.  But nothing is as it seems, and she has the sense that they are hiding things from her.  Nash suggests the journal be kept hidden from Ben, who doesn’t want her seeing a doctor.  Ben is patient with Christine, but also deliberately vague and evasive.  Who can she trust?

Before I Go To Sleep is a well crafted page turner.  I thought I had it figured out a couple of times but it wasn’t until near the end that all the twists and turns came together for me, and because that was great fun, I don’t want to give too much away.  Even though the amnesia concept is a frequent plot device in fiction, I found this book compelling.  We, as readers, experience everything and discover things at the same dreadful and ominous pace as Christine. It is a dark and delicious read. **purchased on the Nook for a book club discussion**

Review: Left Neglected by Lisa Genova

Left Neglected is the latest from Still Alice author, Lisa Genova.  Still Alice (reviewed HERE) was one of my favorite books of 2009, and was discussed and well-loved by my book club.  I bought Left Neglected on the Nook the minute I heard it was out.

Here’s the blurb from the publisher:

In an instant, life can change forever.

Sarah Nickerson is a high-powered working mom with too much on her plate and too little time. One day, racing to work and trying to make a phone call, she looks away from the road for one second too long. In the blink of an eye, all the rapidly moving parts of her over-scheduled life come to a screeching halt. A traumatic brain injury completely erases the left side of her world. As she struggles to recover, she discovers she must embrace a simpler life, and in so doing begins to heal the things she’s left neglected in herself, her family, and the world around her.

My review:

Sarah is busy.  She and her husband and their nanny juggle parenting responsibilities for their 3 kids, and 80 hour work weeks are common.  They live in an affluent neighborhood, own a vacation home in Vermont, and race through their days at a breakneck pace until the minute everything changes in a horrible crash.

Sarah’s accident leaves her with a traumatic brain injury called Left Neglect Syndrome, a fascinating condition in which there is damage to the right hemisphere of the brain that causes the patient to experience a deficit in attention and failure to recognize the left side of their body or space.  They are unaware of the left of things.  Left is no longer there.  It is non-existent.

While reading about Sarah’s disregard for all things ‘left’ I tried to imagine that.  It’s not a visual problem and that’s the only way I could picture it.  Not seeing the left is one thing, but not realizing you have a left hand, or not being able to fathom where it might be, is quite another.  Only noticing things on the right (for instance, only your right leg) makes it difficult to walk.  So many things we take for granted, like getting dressed, become huge, time-consuming hurdles.

Sarah’s mother comes to help with the kids during Sarah’s months-long rehabilitation, which is a blessing and a curse.  Their relationship is complicated and distant initially due to a childhood tragedy and maternal neglect, but one of the blessings (yes, blessings) of Sarah’s brain injury is the time it affords her to grow closer to her mother and repair that relationship.  Another blessing of the brain injury:  she comes to know and appreciate the special challenges of her young son Charlie, recently diagnosed with ADD.

Sarah gets used to her new normal and learns to adapt to her special needs, but it’s a bumpy road.  She needs to come to terms with who she was and how things have changed.  It’s a painful process but not without it’s joys.

Lisa Genova is Harvard-educated with a degree in Biopsychology and a Ph.D. in Nueroscience.  She creatively pours all that scientific knowledge of the brain into her writing.  In Left Neglected she makes you understand and really feel what it means to be brain injured, just as she did in her wonderful debut novel, Still Alice, about a woman with early onset Alzheimer’s.

Left Neglected is terrific and compelling.  And if there is a moral to the story, I’d say it’s:

Slow down, people!  Pay attention.  The journey is the destination.

Note to self:

Sometimes I am truly busy.  I have a lot to do and not a lot of time to do it.

Other times I am just busy being busy.  I tell myself I thrive on multi-tasking and I think I do it well, but does anyone really need to do 14 things at once?  Must we make good use (or, rather, multiple use) of every second of every day?

I used to make phone calls while driving because I felt that driving was sort of forced down-time and what a perfect way to make it productive.  I looked around me and saw other drivers doing the very same thing.  I did it all the time until they enacted a law here in California forbidding it.  My rational brain agreed with the law and believed that distracted drivers are a true danger to themselves and others.  But even so I didn’t think it applied to me, so I kept doing it for awhile even after the law took effect.  It was a hard habit to break.

But I am now reformed.  Not because of a horrible accident or a close call or even a ticket, but because of a book.  Thank you, Lisa Genova.  I know it’s dangerous and realize I am not so special that it can’t happen to me.

Guest Book Review & Giveaway: Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal

Do you or  your children spend a lot of time playing video games?  Do you worry about all that time wasted?  Maybe it wasn’t wasted after all..

Please welcome guest reviewer Alan Smith to Books on the Brain!  He’s reviewing Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal as part of its TLC Book Tour.  Alan, take it away!

First, I would like to thank Lisa for the opportunity to guest post on her blog, it is a great honor to do so.

According to a rough estimate by Jane McGonigal in her new book Reality is Broken, if you were to take the sum of the total hours that humans have spent playing World of Warcraft, it would be approximately 50 billion collective hours or 5.93 million years (which also happens to be approximately the same amount of time that humans have been walking upright).

So why do many people play video games so often?  What can we learn from video games to make reality a better place? Are there ways that we could put the real world skills that the millions of game have obtained by playing games players to good use?  All three of these topics are addressed in the book.

I have been a gamer for most of my life.  One of my earliest memories was sitting at my parent’s Apple II computer with a green monochromatic screen playing Conan: Hall of Volta as a kindergartener.  More recently, I have currently logged over 2400 hours playing Guild Wars (please note that many of these hours have been logged while I was still logged into the game, but not actually playing). Despite enjoying my time spent playing video games, I have always had a nagging sense that my video game playing has been largely a waste of time.

In addition to a long time gamer I have recently been trying to look at my life to see how I can use my talents and skills to benefit other people. I was very interested in the notion that the skills I have acquired by playing video games may be used to help others.  Because of this, I had a very optimistic outlook on what this book might hold.

Games seem to fulfill some basic need that we are not obtaining in reality, whether it be the elation of overcoming a difficult and otherwise unnecessary obstacle, permitting a gamer to accomplish more satisfying work, immersing oneself on an epic scale, or a list of other such basic needs.  Games in general help us to fulfill those needs in our lives and as such, may help us to enjoy reality more.

The author then discusses that we have millions of people playing video games throughout the world.  This is possibly a huge and relatively untapped resource that the world has.  What if we were able to tap into a gamer’s desire to play games to help the common good of society?  Many people are already doing this.  The author mentions http://www.freerice.com as one such website.  Through the collective efforts of gamers and the sponsors, http://www.freerice.com has donated almost 80 billion grains of rice to the UN World Food Programme. I would urge you to play http://www.freerice.com next time you would otherwise play solitaire or some other game pre-installed on the computer to pass a few minutes.

The last section of the book looks into how we can use the brains of gamers and the abilities that they have gained from playing games, to try and solve the world’s problems.  Not surprising, there are people already doing this too.  A few games have set out to try and see how gamers would react to certain world catastrophes and other such events, in order to collaborate and figure out possible strategies for either averting or solving these worldwide problems.

My one critique of the book would be that many of the world changing games that are mentioned in this book have long since ended and while you can still read about these games online, it is not the same as actually playing them.  However, with that said I am still interested in researching any future games which may come up in order that I may participate in them.

Author Jane McGonigal

Personally, the big take away from this portion of the book was that I do not look at my real world daily achievements the way that I look at the achievements I have in my games.  Since starting to read this book, I have tried to look at each assignment I finish at work, or the dinner I make or the myriad of other daily accomplishments as an achievement in and of itself.  While that may not be the main thrust of the book, it has brought a lot more happiness into my life and I am grateful for that.

In summary, your video game playing has not been a waste of time, maybe an untapped resource, but not a waste of time.  It would be better to think of the time you’ve spent playing the video games as training you for games which have the potential to change the world.  Now is an exciting time as we may be able to collectively put our gaming skills to good use.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone who has played video games at all, or to anyone who is looking at trying to change the world (I think almost everyone probably falls into either one or both of these categories).

Alan Smith is married to the brilliantly talented Danielle aka The1stdaughter at There’s A Book and has two crazy kiddos, Turkeybird and Littlebug. When he’s not chasing them around or curtailing his wife’s incessant need to “be involved” in everything possible, he loves playing basketball, serving at his church, and playing online games. Oh and the rest of the time, he’s an attorney for a small banking law firm on the Central Coast of California.

To enter the giveaway for Reality is Broken, simply leave a comment on this post by Wednesday, Feb. 2nd.  The giveaway is limited to US/Canada only (sorry).

For more information on Jane McGonigal and Reality is Broken, visit www.realityisbroken.com.

For more thoughts on Reality is Broken, check out the other blogs on the tour:

Tuesday, January 18th:  GeekMom
Wednesday, January 19th:  Boarding in My Forties
Friday, January 21st:  Shezcrafti
Tuesday, January 25th:  Nerds in Babeland
Wednesday, January 26th:  Books on the Brain
Thursday, January 27th:  Belle Renee
Monday, January 31st:  Reading Through Life
Tuesday, February 1st:  In the Next Room
Wednesday, February 2nd:  Total Fan Girl
Wednesday, February 2nd:  Juggling Life
Thursday, February 3rd:  Po(sey) Sessions
Friday, February 4th:  GeekDad
Monday, February 7th:  Mind of Mr. X
Wednesday, February 9th:  Book Dads
Date TBD:  Gaming Angels

Review & Giveaway: Dear Mrs. Kennedy: The World Shares Its Grief, Letters November 1963

Dear Mrs. Kennedy: The World Shares Its Grief, Letters November 1963 by Jay Mulvany and Paul De Angelis

Hardcover: 240 pages

Publisher: St. Martin’s Press; First Edition edition (October 12, 2010)

Forty-seven years ago this month, Americans as well as people around the world were brought together by a senseless act of violence against our youthful and much-loved President, John F. Kennedy.  The outpouring of grief from around the globe directed at Jacqueline Kennedy, the beautiful and elegant new widow, was massive and immediate.  She received more than one million letters in the weeks and months that followed the tragedy.  Although Mrs. Kennedy vowed to display the letters in the Kennedy Library one day, the letters remained filed away in a warehouse for decades waiting for the library to open.

Volunteers reading and sorting the letters

From grade school children to dignitaries, nuns, moviestars, and royalty to politicians and famous names like Martin Luther King, Jr and Winston Churchill, the expressions of sorrow and sympathy came from everywhere.  I truly appreciated the authors’ decision to do more than just catalog the letters.  They introduced each one by telling who the letter writer was in relation to the president, giving the reader a much more complete snapshot of the history of the time.  This was so helpful to someone like me, who had heard of Anwar Sadat, for instance, but wasn’t quite sure why I knew the name.

I think of the Kennedy assassination as the 9/11 of that generation.  Both events shattered our collective innocence.  People en masse remember where they were and what they were doing the minute they heard the shocking news.  Both events brought everyday life to a standstill and kept us riveted to our televisions.

My reaction to this book surprised me.  I was a baby at the time so have no firsthand memory of the assasination, yet I was greatly moved by the expressions of sympathy.  I had to put the book down more than once as the tears just flowed out of me.  It also made me realize more acutely than ever before the value of the written word; the art and sensory pleasure of beautiful stationary and handwriting as opposed to emails and text messages.

This is a book every American who cares about history should read as it is a fascinating portrait of the time; an intimate portrayal of the hope personified in one young man and the shock as that hope was extinguished so violently.

Highly recommended.

I thought it would be interesting to ask a few bloggers about their Kennedy memories.  This is what they wrote:

From Suzanne at Preternatura:

I was in preschool in a small town in Northwest Alabama, and we were on the playground when the news came in. I remember the teacher herding us back in our classroom and telling us the president had been shot. We were really too young to get it but others in my class I’ve stayed in touch with over the years remember it the same way. They closed school early.

More than that, I remember watching the funeral on our black-and-white TV (God, does that make me feel old), not understanding it but mostly watching Caroline and John-John, as everyone called him, since they were about my age. I remember sitting and watching it with my brother and my parents, and my parents being upset, but not much else. I was too young, and over the years my memories have gotten mixed up with all the iconic images we’ve seen from the media.

From Debra at Bookishly Attentive:

My parents, my twin sister, my grandmother and I were in a lighting store in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, probably shopping for a dining room fixture. I was three. I actually remember the store (I was fascinated by the lights, evidently) and I remember the owner (an older, heavyset woman) coming up to my parents and asking if they heard what happened, and if they had, why are they still shopping in the store?  She was crying, wringing a white handkerchief. I then remember my parents hustling us out to the car. She closed the shop behind us.

I asked my mother about this memory years later, after watching some kind of JFK documentary, and she said I had remembered the events almost perfectly.

I was too young to really process what had happened, but I do remember my parents being subdued.  I distinctly remember sitting on the floor of the living room of our old apartment on Ocean Parkway, Brooklyn. My mother, my sister and I were watching the funeral on the old black and white in the corner. The thing that made the biggest impression on me and what I actually remember to this day is the horse (Black Jack?) with the boots backward in the stirrups. I remember that scared the heck out of me.

I just think how totally different this world would have been if that day in November, 1963 had never happened. And it makes me immeasurably sad. Always.

From Terri at Reading, ‘Riting, and Retirement:

I was 13; I was in a junior high class (English I think); the news came over the loudspeaker, our principal announced it. I don’t recall precisely what we were doing in class; when the news came over the loudspeaker, I was confused at first. It didn’t sink in until later when I saw my friends in the cafeteria. There was lots of crying and hugging. I think they let us out of school early.

We watched TV non-stop for days. It was quite surreal, especially when Oswald was shot. I hate to admit it, but I was taking my cues from my parents, so I can’t really recall what I was feeling, other than scared and sad.

I remember watching Jackie Kennedy and being fascinated by her and by the Catholic rituals. I don’t think I’d ever seen them before (kneeling, crossing herself, etc). In my naïve adolescence, I decided I wanted to be a Catholic, so for a few nights I knelt by my bed and crossed myself. That was as far as I went though.

It was the beginning of a very volatile time in our country – many assassinations, the Vietnam war and its protests, etc. The age of innocence ended in those years, I think.

I have one copy of DEAR MRS. KENNEDY to give away (US/Canada only).  To enter, just leave a comment and let me know where you were and what you were doing when you heard the news of either the Kennedy assassination (if you’re old enough) or the terrorist attacks on 9/11/01.  The contest ends Sunday, 11/14, at midnight.

Review: Nefertiti by Michelle Moran

TitleNefertiti by Michelle Moran

Pages:  480

Genre:  historical fiction

Where did you get it? Purchased at Target

Why did you read it? My book club voted it in

What’s it about? Greed and power and immortality.  Told from the point of view of Nefertiti’s younger sister Mutnodjmet, this is the story of the rise and fall of the ambitious and beautiful teenage queen and her Pharoah, Akhenaten.  They decide the people should worship a minor god, Aten, changing the Egyption religion and taking control of the riches away from the powerful priests.  They build an entire city, Amarna, with giant monuments to Aten and to themselves in the desert.  Tensions run high as the priests and people rebel.  Meanwhile Nefertiti, Akhenaten’s chief wife, is unable to give him a son, while a lesser wife, Kiya, produces several, including Tutankhamun.

What did you like? It was a well-researched and super-quick read, exciting and fast paced, with lots of period detail and political intrigue.

What didn’t work for you? It was a bit repetitive and the dialog was simplistic- a very easy read and what I might call “hist-fict lite.”  I got frequently annoyed with Mutnodjmet for falling for her sister’s BS over and over again and being repeatedly surprised by her betrayals.  The repetitiveness of situations and conversations seemed like filler to me and caused the book to be longer than necessary.

Who would enjoy this book? Anyone with an interest in ancient Egypt or anyone looking for a light and easy read.

Who else has reviewed it? Many others including Caribousmom,  Diary of an EccentricPeeking Between the Pages, and Violet Crush.

Anything else to add? I enjoyed the book but did not love it, and most of our book club members expressed similar feelings.  We found there wasn’t that much to talk about, although we did have fun perusing a book on Ancient Egypt (with photos) that one of our members brought to share at the meeting.

Discussion questions can be found here.

Review: The Girls by Amy Goldman Koss

Title: The Girls by Amy Goldman Koss

Pages: 128

Genre:  YA/Middle Grade fiction

Where did you get it? Purchased on The Nook

Why did you read it? I wanted to pre-read it before giving it to my 12 year old daughter

What’s it about? It’s about a clique of middle school girls lead by a very popular “Queen Bee” type named Candace.  Maya is part of the ‘in’ crowd until one day Candace decides that she is “out.”  The group turns on Maya simply because Ms. Popular decides she is boring and doesn’t like her any more, and the other girls in the clique do whatever Candace wants because they feel lucky to have her as a friend.  Whatever Candace decides is right, because if you disagree, she might turn on you too.  Although some of the girls are conflicted, they all turn on Maya.  One of the girls asks another girl in the group why they don’t like her anymore, and she acts like it’s personal and if Candace wanted her to know, she’d tell her.  The truth is, she doesn’t know either and is just going along.

What did you like? Well, it was very realistic.  School is a warzone, and lunch (with no teachers to watch over) is a minefield.  The author has clearly spent time around this age group.  I could feel Maya’s pain at being excluded, and boy did I ever want Candace to get her comeuppance.  Girls can be unbelievably mean to each other.  I felt like cheering when a couple girls in the group started to think for themselves and realized that they actually did like Maya and didn’t want to be told who they should hang around with.  Yay for brave, independent actions!!  My hope is that reading this kind of book will empower my own daughter to be independent and not go along with the herd mentality of the crowd.

What didn’t work for you? I can’t think of a thing- it was excellent with so many great lessons for kids.

Share a quote: “Everyone in the cafeteria could see me sitting with Candace Newman.  I could feel all their eyes on me, and it felt fantastic!  But I kept cool.  At least I tried to.”

Who would enjoy this book? Educators, middle school readers, parents, and anyone who remembers the horrors and cruelty of middle school girls, and the fear of rejection by the popular crowd.  It would be a fabulous book for a mother/daughter book club or a classroom discussion.

Who else has reviewed it? I couldn’t find any blog reviews!

Anything else to add? This one will mentally put you right back into the halls of middle school- the scariest place on earth.

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