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**


Friday First Lines (volume 1)

One thing we like to do in my book club is to take an annual quiz at our year-end party.  I list the first and last sentence of each book we’ve read over the year, mix them up and see who is able to match them with the correct books.  (Oh, I know what you’re thinking – “Whoa! They are so crazy!”  I know, I know, we really know how to party!)  ANYway, for some this challenge is simple, but for others, not so much.  Either way, it’s fun looking back over the list and sharing our thoughts on why authors chose to open (and conclude) their books the way they did.

I asked a few authors to comment on the first sentence of their book, and I got such a great response.   So good, in fact, that I’m turning this into a little series here at Books on the Brain called Friday First Lines.  Each Friday I’ll share First Line thoughts by two or three authors.

Will these first sentences be enough to entice you to add them to your TBR list? They were for me!

DownloadedFileAuthor Kevin Lynn Helmick writes:

And then there was the heat.  Driving Alone, Kevin Lynn Helmick, 2012

It’s been over a year now since I wrote that line so I’ll do my best to remember how it got there. I’m pretty sure I added it sooner rather than later, but once I did I really didn’t have any doubts about it. It just worked, for me anyway. It could have even worked as a title or last line. It’s simple, yet suggestive enough to be complex, and I’m a big fan of sentences like that. I don’t think I changed it at all once it was down. I think it just came up without too much thought,  but looking at it now, And there was, is probably from the Bible, not that I’m all into the Bible, but It looks Biblical to me now, in foreboding sort of way.

First lines, are they important? I suppose if you come to the page with any kind of idea that what you’re doing is important, then that’s a good place to start, followed by the second line, and third, and so on.  I can only speak for myself, and I see the first line as an invitation, a promise, it’s me saying, ‘come with me, I wanna tell ya something. It’s fun in here, interesting at least, and worth your time. I Promise.”

I think your first line should raise an eyebrow. It should be memorable, but not flashy or show-offy. I usually spend quite a bit of time writing and re-writing that opening, first act, scene one, and I probably did on this book too, but not the first line. That was set in stone, and everything else kind of hung from it. I’ve written worse sentences, I’m sure, and I don’t have any writer’s remorse over that one.

DownloadedFileAuthor Erika Marks writes:

The first sentence of my novel, THE MERMAID COLLECTOR (NAL/Penguin), is as follows:

The little girl was breathless with excitement as she pushed through the fence of hedges toward the water’s edge, skinny freckled legs and lopsided red pigtails spinning in opposition as they disappeared into the fog

First sentences are such tricky things! I know as a reader, I always “taste” a novel by reading that first sentence or that first paragraph, so there’s no question to me that it has to draw a reader in. That said, I will often change my first sentence all the way up until the final draft (or maybe even later), simply because it may take me writing (and rewriting) the whole novel to really know what I want that first “taste” to be, what flavor I want that first sentence to have. In the case of THE MERMAID COLLECTOR, which centers around a town celebrating its annual Mermaid Festival and the relationships that blossom because of it, I wanted to establish the setting right away, to let the reader know that they too were about to be swept up in the excitement and magic and romance of the impending festival, just like the little red-haired girl.

Next week we’ll hear from authors Jennie Shortridge (Love Water Memory) and Cari Kamm (For Internal Use Only).

Waiting by Ha Jin

200px-Waiting_a_Novel_Book_CoverTitle:  Waiting by Ha Jin

Publisher:  Pantheon, 1999

Pages:  308

Genre:  literary fiction

Setting: Communist China during the Cultural Revolution

Where did you get it? It was a Christmas gift when it first came out in hardcover.  It won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1999.

Why did you read it? My book club chose it for our March discussion. I’ve had it on my shelves for years, and this was my second reading.

What’s it about?  Based on a true story the author heard from his wife on a visit to China, Waiting is about a doctor who waited 18 years to divorce his wife so that he could marry a co-worker at the army hospital where they both worked.

Following parental and societal expectations, Lin Kong enters into an arranged and loveless marriage with the traditional Shuyu, an older woman who was willing to care for his ailing mother.  Lin works in an army hospital in the city, where he forms a bond with a nurse named Manna.  They are forbidden to be together and their every move is watched and dictated by the army.

Each year on his annual visit to the countryside to visit his wife and daughter, he asks Shuyu for a divorce so that he might marry Manna, and each year something happens to prevent it.

This is a tragic story, not a love story.  Bound by custom and duty to both the loyal Shuyu and the more modern Manna, Lin feels trapped.  He is indecisive, emotionally immature, repressed and unfulfilled.  His guilty feelings over stringing Manna along and watching her become an “old maid” in the eyes of others had him trying to set her up with his cousin and promoting a relationship with a high ranking military official, both of which failed to materialize.   Manna resigns herself to waiting for Lin.  Finally, after 18 years, the law says he can divorce his wife without her consent, so he does.

Conforming to expectations like good Comrades and following the rules, Lin, Shuyu and Manna are all waiting for a love that never really comes, and while they’re waiting, their lives pass them by.

What did you like?  The story was interesting.  I noted some symbolism, which I generally like, even though some of it was a bit heavy handed.  The writing was spare and straightforward, even blunt.  I learned a lot about Chinese culture and the political climate of the time.

What didn’t work for you?  The author basically tells the entire story in the prologue.  I would have preferred to discover it in the reading of the book, rather than have it handed to me in the first few pages.  Some of the language is clunky in the way it might be if it was a translation, but it’s not.  In fact, the author’s first language is Chinese, not English, and while it is all technically correct, sometimes his word usage is odd.  The writing is quite restrained, which I suppose is reflective of the political climate, so perfectly appropriate.  The plot is somewhat repetitive.  And finally, Lin is such a passive character, I wanted to shake him.  I’m not sure why any one woman would wait for him, let alone two.

Share a quote or two:  

“You strive to have a good heart. But what is a heart? Just a chunk of flesh that a dog can eat.”

“Life is a journey, and you can’t carry everything with you. Only the usable baggage.”

Who would enjoy this book?  Anyone interested in Chinese culture and communism.

Who else has reviewed it?  I couldn’t find too many reviews, but Lu’s is excellent:

Regular Rumination

Anything else to add?  I liked this book a lot better the first time I read it, and I’m not sure why, but it was definitely a good choice for our book club, giving us a lot to talk about.  Click HERE for discussion questions from Book Browse.

My Antonia by Willa Cather

DownloadedFileTitle:  My Antonia by Willa Cather

Publisher:  Houghton Mifflin, 1918

Pages:  249

Genre:  American Classic Fiction

Setting: Early 20th century Nebraska

Where did you get it? Stolen from my 15 year old daughter’s bedroom

Why did you read it? It’s a classic I’d never read, and it was referenced in a book (I can’t remember which one, sorry!)

What’s it about?  It’s a coming of age story set against the backdrop of the brutal and beautiful Nebraska plains. The hardships of immigrant families is a major theme.  Jim Burden’s parents have died and he is being shipped off to his grandparents’ farm in Black Hawk, Nebraska.   He meets Antonia Schimerda on a wagon taking them to the train station.  The Schimerdas, recent immigrants from Bohemia, become their nearest neighbors.  Jim develops strong feelings for Antonia, and the book, narrated by Jim, follows Antonia throughout her life.

What did you like?  Everything.  The descriptions of the landscape and the frontier life were vivid and captivating.  I was swept up into the story from page 1.

What didn’t work for you?  If you need a fast moving plot, this book wouldn’t be for you.  It’s all about setting and characters.  It’s almost dream-like.  Teenagers might have a difficult time with the lack of action.

Share a quote or two: “Do you know, Àntonia, since I’ve been away, I think of you more often than of any one else in this part of the world. I’d have liked to have you for a sweetheart, or a wife, or my mother or my sister- anything that a woman can be to a man. The idea of you is a part of my mind; you influence my likes and my dislikes, all my tastes, hundreds of time when I don’t realize it. You really are a part of me.” 

“The new country lay open before me: there were no fences in those days, and I could choose my own way over the grass uplands, trusting the pony to get me home again. Sometimes I followed the sunflower-bordered roads. Fuchs told me that the sunflowers were introduced into that country by the Mormons; that at the time of the persecution when they left Missouri and struck out into the wilderness to find a place where they could worship God in their own way, the members of the first exploring party, crossing the plains to Utah, scattered sunflower seeds as they went. The next summer, when the long trains of wagons came through with all the women and children, they had a sunflower trail to follow. I believe that botanists do not confirm Jake’s story but, insist that the sunflower was native to those plains. Nevertheless, that legend has stuck in my mind, and sunflower-bordered roads always seem to me the roads to freedom.” 

Who would enjoy this book?  Fans of Laura Ingalls Wilder would probably love it.  Anyone with an affinity for beautiful prose or an interest in the pioneer days would enjoy My Antonia.

Who else has reviewed it?

Joyfully Retired

The Blue Bookcase

The Blog of Litwits

Anything else to add?  This is a book to treasure.  It’s so beautiful and evocative, and so American, like a grown up version of Little House on the Prairie.  I loved it!  Not to be missed.  But you’ll appreciate it more as an adult than as a teen.  If you have to read it for school and you hate it, hang onto it and read it again in 20 years.  Trust me on this.

The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin

DownloadedFile-1I picked up The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin last month while trolling a bookstore with my 14 year old daughter and her friend.  They had babysitting money to burn and were there looking for a toy (a Dr. Who tardis sold at Barnes and Noble), which gave me 30 minutes or so to browse.  They found their tardis, and let me tell you, it made them EXTREMELY HAPPY to find it.  No happiness project needed for those two.

I don’t read a lot of non fiction and almost zero self help, so I’m not sure what attracted me to this particular book.  Maybe it’s the notion that anybody can be happier if they go about it the right way.  Trying to be happy, though, seems counterproductive.  Should you really have to try?  Is that like trying to be in love?  Shouldn’t it be something that just happens, something that just IS, when things are good and the planets align?

And is it kind of obnoxious and maybe even a little selfish for a person with a comfortable life to wish for more?  I live in the land of plenty, I have clean water, access to excellent health care, resources, education.  I have a nice house, nice husband, great kids.  While I’m truly grateful for all that, I often have the feeling (sometimes fleeting, other times for long periods) that I should be happier than I am.  I should not have this vague sense of discontent.

Can a person really be happier if they work at it?  (work=happy?  see what I mean? does that even make sense?)

So with all those conflicting thoughts, I opened up the book right there in the store and started reading.  Right away Rubin tells the reader that her Happiness Project would look different than theirs.  Happiness is individual, like a fingerprint or a snowflake.  But why would reading about someone else’s happiness help a person to be happier?   Well, I don’t have the answer to that, but it did.  It really did.

Basically, Rubin researched the heck out of her subject.  Her reading included The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living by the Dalai Lama, Walden by Henry David Thoreau and The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, among many others.  She looked at works by Plato, Tolstoy, even Oprah.  She read about the history of happiness, the science of happiness, novels about happiness, and memoirs of catastrophe (because it puts everything into perspective).  She spent months preparing for her project.  She asked herself if it was possible to make herself be happier, and decided it was.  She had to define happiness, then figure out how to make herself happier.

She set about identifying areas of her life to work on, then came up with happiness-boosting resolutions in each area.  She divided up the 12 months of the year into categories such as Energy, Parenthood, Work, Friends, Attitude, Play and created resolutions for each, making a chart.  It was all very systematic. She made Twelve Commandments which included “Be Gretchen” and “Do it now” and “Lighten Up.”  She came up with some Secrets of Adulthood to help guide her (my favorite- “What you do every day matters more than what you do once in a while.”)  She hoped that working on her own happiness would boost the happiness of the people around her.

There were many great insights and nuggets of inspiration gained from reading this book, including small things like “Don’t Expect Praise or Appreciation” (I admit I want my family to notice that I cleaned the bathroom, did the laundry, made dinner, etc.  I want my gold stars!),  “Be a Treasure House of Happy Memories” (my takeaway- take more pictures, share them with family members), “Acknowledge the Reality of People’s Feelings” (I have a tendency to want to whisk away the negative, and downplay my daughters’ real emotions), “Cut People Slack” (recognize that the “jerk” who just cut ahead of you might have a very good reason for being in such a hurry), and many more.

More takeaways:

It is easy to be heavy, hard to be light.

The days are long, but the years are short.

Goals and resolutions are not the same thing.  You hit a goal, but you keep a resolution.  You work on them every day.  You strive to live up to resolutions.

This little book has inspired groups all over the world to take up a quest for more happiness.  Countless blogs have been launched as a direct result, with people chronicling their own happiness project.

Gretchen is a big proponent of social media and The Happiness Project blog is fantastic, with all kinds of great ideas and inspiration.  She’s also really active on Twitter and Facebook.

My own return to blogging was a direct result of this book.  While I won’t be blogging about my happiness project, blogging makes me happy and I’ve truly missed it.

Could you be happier?  What makes you happy?

Here we go…

DownloadedFile-5So I updated my About Page recently and whoosh, three books arrived in my mailbox last week.  I’m excited to start reviewing again and hope to share one review a week.  I’m not the fastest reader ever, and not the fastest reviewer either.  But hey, a goal of once a week is better than going a whole year without a new post, right?

The books that found me this past week include ARCs of Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight (Harper Collins), Maya’s Notebook by Isabel Allende (Harper Collins), and TransAtlantic by Colum McCann (Random House).  All of them look fantastic, however I might pass TransAtlantic to my mom.  I didn’t request it and I have so much reading material that I fear it will languish on my shelves for years.  But I think my mom will love it, and I want it to be loved by someone rather than be neglected and collect dust, so off it will go.  If she loves it, I might give it a try.

I started Reconstructing Amelia last night and quickly breezed through the first 50 pages.  Already, teenage Amelia has jumped off the roof of her private school, or did she?  There’s a mystery and it’s just ramping up.  I’m nervous for the main character, Amelia’s mom, Kate.

Also last week, I purchased The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch on the Nook for my daughter, who needs to read it for her sophomore English class.  I haven’t read it myself but would like to at some point.  My 8th grade daughter borrowed Dead is the New Black by Marlene Perez from the library for her required RC reading.  It’s below her reading level, but her teacher doesn’t care what level they read at so long as they read 20 minutes a day.  She claims not to like reading, but I caught her giggling over this one.

I also used some credits to get a couple more audio books for my husband, the non-reader.  Based on recommendations from both Sandy and Kathy, I got 11/22/63 by Steven King and Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson.  Thanks for the recommendations, ladies!

What are you reading this week?


1.  Not enough wine.  #wine #nowine #fail #pleasebringmorewine

2. When the conversation gets hijacked by the “smart one.” #boring #knowitall #shutup #idgafaboutyourmastersdegree

3. When there are too many side conversations going on.  #rude #annoying #RUDE #putasockinit

4.  When someone treats book club like a therapy session.  #whiner #personalproblems #stopit #canwepleasetalkaboutthebook  #passthetissues

5.  When someone RSVPs to bring a dessert then doesn’t show up for the meeting.  #flake #wheresmychocolate

6.  When someone doesn’t want you to ruin the ending for them because they haven’t finished the book.  #ohwell #sucksforyou #nexttimereadit

7.  When someone stays later than everyone else every month.  #goodnite #imtired #gohome

Please feel free to add your own hashtags in the comments!