What’s available from the free e-book library? Billy Bathgate, by E.L. Doctorow

Billy Bathgate

I’m really happy that our local library has improved its way to search for e-books. Now I can sort in all kinds of ways, including finding books that are immediately ready to borrow! Sometimes I just want a book right away, don’t you?

So for my next read, I’m shifting from current popular fiction and picking up some older popular historical fiction, Billy Bathgate, by E. L. Doctorow. In 1990, Billy Bathgate won both the National Book Critics Circle award for fiction and the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. It’s the story of Billy “Bathgate” Behan, a fifteen-year-old protégé of the real-life New York mobster, Dutch Schultz. Billy Bathgate was made into a film in 1991, with Loren Dean, Dustin Hoffman, Steven Hill, Nicole Kidman and Bruce Willis. The movie was directed by Robert Benton and the screenplay was written by Tom Stoppard.

I remember this movie, but I haven't seen it.  I have a free pass for a movie rental at the library so I think this will be my choice!

I remember this movie, but I haven’t seen it. I have a free pass for a movie rental at the library so I think this will be my choice!


E. L. Doctorow

E. L. Doctorow

E. L. Doctorow is an award-winning American author of fiction, short stories, plays and essays. Some of his other novels include Welcome to Hard Times, Ragtime, Loon Lake, City of God, The March, and his newest novel, Andrew’s Brain.  You can check out Doctorow’s website at:


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Teen drama in If I Stay, by Gayle Forman

if i stay

If I Stay
by Gayle Forman
Rating: ***

If you’re on the brink of death, do you get to decide which way to go? Is it up to you? Which world pulls you harder? Your life on earth or what awaits beyond? Mia, seventeen, finds herself in this very situation in If I Stay. As the only survivor of a car accident in which her parents and younger brother are killed, Mia is clinging to life in the hospital. A nurse whispers that it’s up to her to decide.

If I Stay is a Young Adult teen drama that takes a look at the possibility of making powerful decisions at a person’s weakest mortal moment. Something resembling the spirit of the gravely injured Mia watches over as her grandparents, friends, and boyfriend Adam wait and worry. Gayle Forman uses this spirit-like version of Mia to tell the backstory of Mia and her family and of her teen romance with Adam.

I enjoyed reading If I Stay because of this interesting suggestion, of being able to control your destiny. It’s a fast read that focuses on family, friendship and love. Despite the semi-spiritual theme, this is not a deep-thinking book, but I think you have to make a conscious decision, early on, to go with the roll of the book and its plot. The whole story has an exaggerated looseness about it which may irritate some readers.

Mia is a gifted cello player, a senior in high school, hoping to be accepted at Julliard. Dad’s an ex-punk rocker and Mom’s a former punk rock groupie. Adam is a modern punk rocker whose band Shooting Star is about to make it big. Teddy’s the little brother. Music holds this group together and there are many references to songs, bands and the punk rock era. This may seem a little unlikely, but you have to commit to all this if you want to finish the book.

Certain parts of the book strike me as unrealistic, specifically the characterization of Mia’s parents, who are extremely liberal and loose with rules and don’t act at all like parents. They immediately embrace Mia’s romance with Adam, with no reservations and enthusiastically encourage their daughter to jump right in, giving her all kinds of freedom. I wonder how many parents would allow their teen daughter to have sleepovers with her boyfriend or to stay out all night. In addition, the hospital scene is a little wild, with attempts to sneak into the ICU, including using a singer from the fictitious band Bikini as a decoy. Also unlikely is a family friend who happens to be a nurse at a different hospital and is somehow able to take charge of the entire ICU, allowing unauthorized visits, in the name of love.

Smaller details that don’t fit take away from the story. The author makes references to several classic reads, including To Kill a Mockingbird, one of my favorites. This is a book I never would have read or understood as an eleven-year-old, but in this story it marks the beginning of Mia’s friendship with Kim in sixth grade. The two girls argue about whether to focus on racism or people’s goodness for their school project on the book.  Mia admits in her narration that she was not a particularly good student so it surprises me that this is the book Forman chooses to use. It seems a little contrived. A later reference to Lord of the Flies also seems forced and unnecessary.

Although it’s not exactly clear when the story takes place, references to cell phones and the internet make it a modern read. So it doesn’t make sense when one of the cousins sits in the waiting area playing on a Gameboy. It’s a good example of how risky it is to use technology references. That handheld game system was popular in the 80s and 90s and is a dinosaur compared to the game apps kids play now!

I did enjoy the book, however, and I think the author raises an interesting question and ties this central theme together with a nice story about teen love. I think the strongest part of the story is near the end, when Mia’s grandparents visit her bedside. With her grandparents and later with Adam, Forman does a nice job imagining how someone who is unconscious may still be able to hear and understand.

So if you’re in the mood for a bit of a tear-jerker, and some good emotional bonding scenes, pick this up before you see the movie. The movie looks pretty good to me!

Have you read If I Stay? What did you think? Have you seen the movie?

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I’m reading If I Stay, by Gayle Forman

if i stay

A horrible car accident has left seventeen-year-old Mia on the brink of death and with an impossible choice. Mia knows it’s up to her to decide if she will stay and face the changes to her and her broken family…or go.

I’m just about to start reading this young adult novel, which is also a movie starring Chloё Grace Moretz, Mireille Enos and Jamie Blackley. I’ve watched the trailer and it looks like a tear-jerker and that’s just what I’m in the mood for!

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Dear Readers: I feel bad about my review.

sad face

I’m a conflicted book reviewer!

Have you ever gone on Amazon or Goodreads and read the negative book reviews? I think most of these rants are unhelpful and I wonder if they serve a valid purpose. But have you also read the five-star reviews? I think most of these are equally unhelpful because, while the negative reviews rant too much, these overly positive reviews gush too much. I think the two- and three-star reviews are the most helpful because readers often cite specific reasons for their likes and dislikes.

When you choose a book because its reviews are overwhelmingly positive, how do you feel when it fails to grab you? Do you feel betrayed? Do you feel the need to rant?

Here I am, caught in the amateur book reviewers’ trap. I’m one person with a blog, with one set of opinions. I’m also a naturally upbeat person and I am drawn to the positive side of things. I struggle when I read something I don’t like. I ask myself why I don’t like it. Is it the genre? Does my lack of interest in a certain genre mean the book is bad? I think of the authors who have accomplished something major, getting a book published. That alone impresses me. And when I don’t like something, I feel bad.

But if I don’t like a book, should I say so or should I just not talk about it? What would that accomplish?

Some of my book club’s best discussions have come from books half the group disliked. How boring we would be if we all liked the same books!

So tell me. What do you think?


Before I Go to Sleep – interesting idea, disappointing read

before i go to sleep pic

Before I Go to Sleep
by S. J. Watson
Rating: **

I was looking forward to reading Before I Go to Sleep. It’s S. J. Watson’s debut novel and it’s billed as a psychological thriller. A movie starring Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman and Mark Strong is due to be released in the UK this week. It’s always dangerous to compare, but I really enjoyed reading Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn and The Silent Wife, by A. S. A. Harrison, and I was ready for more of this genre about creepy relationships.

The opening chapter presents a promising story. Christine Lucas, after a mysterious accident, wakes each morning with no memory of the past. She’s living a life she doesn’t know with a husband she doesn’t recognize. Short term memories last a mere twenty-four hours or less, lost each night when she goes to sleep. A call from Dr. Nash directs her to a journal. At his urging, for the last month, she has recorded her actions and thoughts. Her doctor hopes this journal will help restore her memory and he also thinks it will be a good subject for a paper he’s writing. But Dr. Nash is a secret and so is the journal, kept hidden from her loving husband. Its first page warns her, in capital letters: DON’T TRUST BEN.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? But very quickly, Christine’s journal entries become a curious combination of repetitive tedium (waking, not knowing where she is, who the man next to her is…) and an incredible recall of detailed descriptions and full conversations. The entire story depends on the reader’s acceptance of this cumbersome construct, which must be explained again and again: How she even knows she has a journal each morning (Dr. Nash calls to remind her on a special cell phone); the sequence of her entries (is she writing this as it happens, or just before bed or when she feigns a headache?; where she hides the book, etc. Sometimes the journal reads like a teenage diary, with lots of recaps of Ben telling her he loves her. And every morning, Christine needs to read the entire journal to catch up to where she is on that day. There are some mysterious plot developments revolving around her injury, her previous career, her treatment. Did they have children? Where is the rest of her family? What about friends?

Dramatic moments occur in which vivid, but disturbing images return to Christine and she rushes to record them. We slog through the progress with a minimum of momentum, until we reach a dramatic ending filled with unlikely coincidences. I was disappointed.

The disappointing plot is the main problem of Before I Go to Sleep, but despite my assumption that in this genre, plot rules over characterization, Watson’s characters offer little to redeem this story. In particular, I don’t think he has good insight into a woman’s point of view or of what women in their mid-to-late forties are really like. Christine has a lot of wrinkles, her body is sagging and unrecognizable and her face is blotchy with age spots. Seriously?

And while I strive to write reviews with a PG rating, I must mention the author’s overuse of a certain four-letter word. I won’t go into details, but this word, plus other descriptions are ridiculous, adolescent, and they add nothing. I hope I never read another sex scene like the ones in this book!

I’m usually a positive person. I can find something to like in almost everything I read. So to remain true to this attitude, I will tell you that the premise of the story is good, though not necessarily original. This could have been a much better book if its storyline did not depend so much on Christine’s journal. It’s a quick, light read, despite the repetition, appropriate for the beach, if you can still get there in September!

Have you read Before I Go to Sleep? What did you think? Am I totally off-base? All comments welcome and thanks for visiting!

I’m reading Before I Go to Sleep, by S. J. Watson

before i go to sleep pic

I just started reading this psychological thriller and I know I won’t be able to stop until I’m finished! This is S. J. Watson’s debut novel and it’s already been made into a movie. The film is written and directed by Rowan Joffe and stars Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman and Mark Strong. It will be in theaters in the UK on September 5.

S. J. Watson

S. J. Watson

Here’s what I know so far:  An accident twenty years earlier has erased Christine’s memory and each morning she wakes to a husband and a life she doesn’t know. Everything she recalls during the day is lost when she goes to sleep. Can she trust her husband? Why does her doctor want to keep their appointments secret? And what is written in the secret journal she has kept?

Here's the movie poster!

Here’s the movie poster!

Review coming soon!

Meantime check out S. J. Watson’s website:


Who will believe you when your mind goes?

Elizabeth is Missing pic

Elizabeth is Missing
by Emma Healey
Rating: *** ½

Maud Horsham is falling into a confused world of memories and suspicions and these thoughts are further muddled into her present day surroundings. Her grip on reality is loose, but she’s certain that her friend Elizabeth is missing.

And so begins a tender look into the meandering mind of an eighty-two-year-old woman who has trouble remembering a recent thought and has pockets full of scribbled and crumpled reminders. While she can’t remember where she’s going or what someone’s just said, she never forgets about Elizabeth.

Written through Maud’s perspective, this story is both a sensitive view of the confusing descent into dementia and a somewhat suspenseful mystery surrounding Elizabeth’s whereabouts and, more importantly, the mystery of Maud’s older sister Sukey, who disappeared in 1946.

Maud’s memories are eventually tied into Sukey’s disappearance as the parallel story of Maud’s family in post-war England and her newly-married sister unfolds. Sukey’s husband, Frank is a smooth-talking business-man with lots of questionable contacts. Maud’s mother likes the extra rations Frank brings the family, but her father senses trouble. Douglas is the family border. He’s a sensitive young man with a crush on Sukey and has lost his mother after their house was bombed. There’s a crazy mad woman who wanders through town, adding to the mystery.

We learn about Sukey in bits and pieces, as these memories come and go in Maud’s mind. Maud’s family continuously puts off her concern about Elizabeth and you’re not completely sure if there’s a mystery here or if Maud simply can’t remember what she’s been told.

I enjoyed reading Elizabeth is Missing. It’s the kind of story you want to read straight through for two reasons. Right away, I became invested in Maud’s character and empathized with her plight. The author shows how frustrating it is to not be taken seriously or understood, just because some of the words are wrong. This perspective shows a sensitive look into the puzzle of dementia and makes you understand that Maud’s thoughts are not completely without logic. The mystery element of the story also carries the reader to the story’s resolution, and although some of the tie-ins were not as satisfying as I would have liked, they do explain the characters’ motives and actions.

I agree with The Perfectionist Pen that this story is more about Maud and her struggle with dementia than it is a mystery. You can read her review at: http://theperfectionistpen.wordpress.com/2014/08/26/review-elizabeth-is-missing-emma-healey/

I enjoyed this original story structure and look forward to more from Emma Healey.

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