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.

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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.

#bookclubproblems

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!

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand


DownloadedFile-4My husband, the non-reader, was given an iPod Touch for Christmas and has embraced audio books, hooray!  His first book on the iPod was Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand.  I read Unbroken with my book club last fall, so I was excited to be able to discuss it with him and get his impressions of it.

For those who don’t know, Unbroken is an amazing true account of the life of Louis Zamparini, a man in his 90s who was, among other things, a scrappy kid from Torrance, CA,  a student at USC, an Olympic runner, a WWII bombardier, a plane crash survivor who spent more than 40 days floating in the Pacific Ocean on a tiny raft, a POW in Japan, an alcoholic, a born again Christian, and a motivational speaker.  He met Hitler during the 1936 Olympics and met Billy Graham after the war.  I liken him to Forrest Gump.

Let’s just say I enjoyed the book much more than my husband did.  I was so surprised!  I mean, it’s a war book and a survivor book, guys like that stuff, right?!  But he felt it was too long and that there were just way waaaaay too many details about everything.  Details about planes, about weather, about the ocean, about the sky, about maggots in the food, about starvation and bodily functions.  Details about running and training and school.  Most of his annoyance, though, had to do with the abuse Louis Zamparini endured in the Japanese POW camps.  He felt that, if it were accurate, nobody could possibly survive it and live to tell about it.  He wondered if perhaps it was exaggerated, and we talked about memory and how a man in his 90s could recall in such great detail what had happened to him decades before.  I admit I wondered if there was some exaggeration in the book, too, but by all accounts the author did flawless research.  And, the old dude is sharp, even now!!  We watched an interview with him on youtube and he’s got to be the most with-it *nonagenarian ever (*that’s an old dude in his 90s, in case you don’t know that word).

The old dude

The old dude

Anyway, I’m just giddy that I was able to have an actual book discussion with my actual husband.  Friends, this has NEVER HAPPENED BEFORE!  Hopefully it’s the start of a trend.

Does anyone have any good recommendations for my husband’s next audio book?  He hates accents of any kind, so the narrator must speak American English.  No Brits.  Leave me a comment if you know of a good one.  I don’t listen to audio books so I’m not sure what’s good to listen to.  He likes history, action, adventure, and anything that would be motivational/positive thinking (you can perhaps see why I thought Unbroken would be perfect for him?!)  Thanks for any suggestions you can offer!

6 Years of Book Club

Six years.  11 regular members (although we’ve had as many as 13).  70 different books (we skipped two months).  Math is not my strong suit but even I can see that 11 x 70=770 individual books.  Some were borrowed from the library, but the vast majority were purchased in paperback, on Kindles, on Nooks, and on iPads.   That’s a whole lot of purchasing!

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We talk and talk and talk about the books we read.  We dissect them.  We dog-ear them and mark them up.  Some of us go crazy with highlighters, others prefer post-it notes.

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We share recommendations with each other.  We pass books around from member to member and have side conversations about those books.  Gone Girl is currently making the rounds, and before that it was The Help and before that, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  Most of us have read those books now even though they were never actually selected for book club discussion.

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When one of us falls in love with an author, we fall hard.  We’ll read their next book and we’ll read all their previous books.  We’ve discussed Lisa See’s books 3 times.

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We tell our friends about the books we’ve discussed.  We blab about them at hair salons, grocery stores, offices, our kids’ schools.  We talk books at parties and backyard BBQs and family dinners.  We encourage people to read the books we love when we’re in a bookstore or staring at the stacks of books in Costco.  We gush about them on Facebook.

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browniesI understand now why publishers court book clubs.  Book club members love books, book clubs buy books and book clubs sell books.  If any publishers would like to court us and donate a set of 11 books to help us celebrate our 6th anniversary in March, we would gladly accept, wink wink 😉  You would not have to twist our arms.

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Six years.  770 books for our little club, plus countless more that were purchased by others on the pure enthusiasm of our 11 members.  Book clubs really are a powerful force!  And we also like to eat.  Pass the brownies.

CLICK HERE to see which 70 titles we’ve read in our first 6 years!