The Garden of Happy Endings by Barbara O’Neal

The Garden of Happy Endings 
Barbara O’Neal
2012, 416 pgs                         
Purchased                               

Book Summary from Goodreads

After tragedy shatters her small community in Seattle, the Reverend Elsa Montgomery has a crisis of faith. Returning to her hometown of Pueblo, Colorado, she seeks work in a local soup kitchen. Preparing nourishing meals for folks in need, she keeps her hands busy while her heart searches for understanding.
 
Meanwhile, her sister, Tamsin, as pretty and colorful as Elsa is unadorned and steadfast, finds her perfect life shattered when she learns that her financier husband is a criminal. Enduring shock and humiliation as her beautiful house and possessions are seized, the woman who had everything now has nothing but the clothes on her back.
 
But when the going gets tough, the tough get growing. A community garden in the poorest, roughest part of town becomes a lifeline. Creating a place of hope and sustenance opens Elsa and Tamsin to the renewing power of rich earth, sunshine, and the warm cleansing rain of tears. While Elsa finds her heart blooming in the care of a rugged landscaper, Tamsin discovers the joy of losing herself in the act of giving—and both women discover that with time and care, happy endings flourish.

My Summary

All of the things that usually make me love Barbara O’Neal books were present in this one too: a strong, self aware, female protagonist, loyal canine companions, comfort food and an appreciation for everyday, outdoor exercise like hiking and gardening.

I think one of my favorite things about Elsa (and all of O’Neal’s protagonists) is that she owns her own sexuality.  She’s not promiscuous; she just doesn’t judge herself over sex or second guess her decisions. It wasn’t until reading this book that I realized how much I appreciated this characteristic.  It’s refreshing because male characters don’t do that.

Anyway the overall crux of this book is Elsa’s crisis of faith – it’s the third time she’s had one.  The first two times she recovered her faith and moved forward.  This time it’s really left her shaken and since she’s a Reverend it interferes with her life.

The struggle with faith hit home for me.  I think every member of my immediate family has struggled to varying degrees over the last decade.  Almost every question she’s had I recognized.  Elsa grew up Catholic, but wanted to be a priest.  As that option was not available to her (her first crisis), she changed denominations and became a Reverend.  I’m not Catholic – one step removed – but I could recognize several the things she missed about Catholism.  She missed the ritual; it’s peaceful and balancing.

The other characters are diverse and interesting.  I liked Tamsin (Elsa’s sister) quite a bit at the beginning and felt really bad for her situation well into the book, but she did something that kinda ticked me off towards the end.  Elsa kind of has two romantic interests; a former fiancé who is now a close friend and confidant and a new man who has entered her life recently.  Seeing the contrast between these two relationships is enlightening (there are a few flashbacks though her life a critical junctures).  But the romantic aspect of the book takes a backseat to self discovery and stewardship.  

8 out of 10 stars

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“Looking for Alaska” and “Paper Towns” by John Green

Paper Towns                           Looking for Alaska
John Green                             John Green
2008, 305 pgs                         2006, 221 pgs
Library                                   Purchase Kindle

“Looking for Alaska” Book Summary from Goodreads

Miles Halter is fascinated by famous last words and tired of his safe life at home. He leaves for boarding school to seek what the dying poet Francois Rabelais called the “Great Perhaps.” Much awaits Miles at Culver Creek, including Alaska Young. Clever, funny, screwed-up, and dead sexy, Alaska will pull Miles into her labyrinth and catapult him into the Great Perhaps.

Looking for Alaska brilliantly chronicles the indelible impact one life can have on another. A stunning debut, it marks John Green’s arrival as an important new voice in contemporary fiction

“Paper Towns” Book Summary from Goodreads

When Margo Roth Spiegelman beckons Quentin Jacobsen in the middle of the night – dressed like a ninja and plotting an ingenious campaign of revenge – he follows her. Margo’s always planned extravagantly, and, until now, she’s always planned solo. After a lifetime of loving Margo from afar, things are finally looking up for Q . . . until day breaks and she has vanished. Always an enigma, Margo has now become a mystery. But there are clues. And they’re for Q. Printz Medalist John Green returns with the trademark brilliant wit and heart-stopping emotional honesty that have inspired a new generation of readers.

My Summary

Parallels abound in these two books.  I wish I had read them at least a few months apart – I still would have noticed but I don’t think it would have been quite as distracting.  I read “Looking forAlaska” a few weeks ago on a Saturday and really enjoyed it. I read “Paper Towns” a few days later and it felt like I was reading the same characters.  Miles=Quentin, Alaska=Margo,  Colonel=Ben, etc. 

I also wish I had written my review for “Looking for Alaska” before reading “Paper Towns” because now it’s impossible to separate them in my mind.  So here are just a few bullet points of what I liked

  • John Green’s characters have dimension – hobbies that are interesting and not typical, real conversations, and annoying habits. 
    • Miles in “Looking for Alaska” memorized famous people’s last words.
    • Alaska/Margo/Colonel planned elaborate pranks that required planning and were really funny.
  • Both books made me laugh out loud.  I want to put quotes in here, but I don’t want to ruin the reading experience for anyone else.
  • The boys (not the main character) fixation with Prom in “Paper Towns”.  It was funny to think guys really cared.
  • “Paper Towns” made me think about how much of what I see in other people is just a reflection of myself.  “Looking for Alaska” make me think about life/death – which seems cliché to write that in print, but didn’t feel that way to read it
  • The chants/cheers the Colonel led at the Basketball games in “Looking for Alaska”.  AWESOME!
  • Both books have moments that point out where girls are being objectified. 

So how to rate these books?  I think I would have given “Looking forAlaska” a 7 or 8 on Saturday.  But I think if I had read “Paper Towns” first I’d have given it an 8 or 9, but since I read it second and it was SO similar to “Looking for Alaska” my enjoyment was probably closer to a 6-7. 

First of these two that you read – 8.5 out of 10 stars
Second that you read               – 7 out of 10 stars

Everneath by Brodi Ashton

Everneath
Brodi Ashton
2012, 370 pgs
Library

Book Summary from Goodreads

Last spring, Nikki Beckett vanished, sucked into an underworld known as the Everneath, where immortals Feed on the emotions of despairing humans. Now she’s returned- to her old life, her family, her friends- before being banished back to the underworld… this time forever.

She has six months before the Everneath comes to claim her, six months for good-byes she can’t find the words for, six months to find redemption, if it exists.

Nikki longs to spend these months reconnecting with her boyfriend, Jack, the one person she loves more than anything. But there’s a problem: Cole, the smoldering immortal who first enticed her to the Everneath, has followed Nikki to the mortal world. And he’ll do whatever it takes to bring her back- this time as his queen.

As Nikki’s time grows short and her relationships begin slipping from her grasp, she’s forced to make the hardest decision of her life: find a way to cheat fate and remain on the Surface with Jack or return to the Everneath and become Cole’s…

My Summary

The book starts with Nikki already in the Everneath and as the story goes on there are flashbacks that unravel how Nikki ended up there.  I was immediately immersed in this story wanted to know how and why, and felt like I didn’t come up for air until I was done reading.

I like both Nikki’s – the typical teenage girl who loves her boyfriend, but never feels completely secure (even though he’s awesome) and the one who returns from the Everneath and wants to do as much as she can in six months to make amends to those who her absence has hurt.  Yes, the requisite teen angst exists, but without any accompanying whining.

Ah the boyfriend, Jack.  That perfect teen boyfriend who is equally friend.   You find out fairly early that Nikki voluntarily went to the Underworld with Cole because of something to do with Jack.  And the writer perfectly balances understanding why Nikki didn’t trust him, I don’t think the reader ever thinks it was anything other than a misunderstanding.  Jack is supportive, forgiving, and heroic.

The last main character is Cole the “bad boy” who took Nikki to the Everneath and fed on her for thousands of years (while only 6 months passed in her normal life).  I didn’t hate Cole and I’m extremely interested to get more of his story in the sequels because he’s very mysterious at this point.  He does seem to care for Nikki just not in a way that’s healthy.

The truly amazing thing about this book is that the love triangle didn’t bother me at all. I’m so sick of them in general that some good books lose stars just for having one.  I think it’s because this book is a retelling of Hades and Persephone / Orpheus and Eurydice – the triangle is so ancient that it had to be there.  Plus, it doesn’t really feel like a true triangle, Nikki feels physically drawn to Cole because she was literally attached to him for a thousand years – emotionally she wants Jack.

Overall excellent book – I was highly anticipating this one and it didn’t disappoint!

8 out of 10 stars

“The Language of Flowers” by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

The Language of Flowers
Vanessa Diffenbaugh
Random House Publishing Group
2011, 322 pgs
Purchased Kindle

Book Summary from Goodreads

A mesmerizing, moving, and elegantly written debut novel, The Language of Flowers beautifully weaves past and present, creating a vivid portrait of an unforgettable woman whose gift for flowers helps her change the lives of others even as she struggles to overcome her own troubled past.

The Victorian language of flowers was used to convey romantic expressions: honeysuckle for devotion, asters for patience, and red roses for love. But for Victoria Jones, it’s been more useful in communicating grief, mistrust, and solitude. After a childhood spent in the foster-care system, she is unable to get close to anybody, and her only connection to the world is through flowers and their meanings.

Now eighteen and emancipated from the system, Victoria has nowhere to go and sleeps in a public park, where she plants a small garden of her own. Soon a local florist discovers her talents, and Victoria realizes she has a gift for helping others through the flowers she chooses for them. But a mysterious vendor at the flower market has her questioning what’s been missing in her life, and when she’s forced to confront a painful secret from her past, she must decide whether it’s worth risking everything for a second chance at happiness.

My Summary

After 11 years of being shuffled around the foster care system and another 7 years in the group home after she’s determined to be unplaceable, at 18 Victoria Jones is on her own.  Without a support system, she is given 12 weeks of room and board at a sort of half way house for foster kids.  In those twelve weeks she must find a job and start paying rent or be homeless.

Victoria doesn’t trust anyone.   The only thing she trusts is the Language of Flowers which was taught to her by one of her foster mothers.   She uses flowers to communicate and they help her get a job with Renata, who owns a flower shop and does arrangements for weddings.  Victoria discovers she can help other through the flowers she chooses for them – it’s the only piece of herself she shares.

The book flips back and forth betweenVictoria’s life in the present and her at age 10 in her last chance to be placed for adoption with a woman named Elizabeth.  The flashback segments are the perfect mix of hopeful and heartbreaking because you know that somehow it doesn’t work or Victoria’s present situation wouldn’t be what it is. 

I loved this book.  The romantic in me loves the language of flowers uncovered in this novel and a complete dictionary/translation is included at the end of the book.   All of the characters felt authentic to me. Victoria’s actions are based in two emotions – survival selfishness and feeling unworthy of other people.  There were times were I found her frustrating, but the way she responded to situations and people fit her background. 

8 out of 10 stars

Stay Close by Harlan Coben

Stay Close
Harlan Coben
Dutton Adult
2012, 400 pgs
Purchased Hardcover

Book Summary from Goodreads

Megan is a suburban soccer mom who once upon a time walked on the wild side. Now she’s got two kids, a perfect husband, a picket fence, and a growing sense of dissatisfaction. Ray used to be a talented documentary photographer, but at age forty he finds himself in a dead-end job posing as a paparazzo pandering to celebrity-obsessed rich kids. Jack is a detective who can’t let go of a cold case—a local husband and father disappeared seventeen years ago, and Jack spends the anniversary every year visiting a house frozen in time, the missing man’s family still waiting, his slippers left by the recliner as if he might show up any moment to step into them. Three people living lives they never wanted, hiding secrets that even those closest to them would never suspect, will find that the past doesn’t recede. Even as the terrible consequences of long-ago events crash together in the present and threaten to ruin lives, they will come to the startling realization that they may not want to forget the past at all. And as each confronts the dark side of the American Dream—the boredom of a nice suburban life, the excitement of temptation, the desperation and hunger that can lurk behind even the prettiest facades—they will discover the hard truth that the line between one kind of life and another can be as whisper-thin as a heartbeat. With his trademark combination of page-turning thrills and unrivaled insight into the dark shadows that creep into even the happiest communities, Harlan Coben delivers a thriller that cements his status as the master of domestic suspense.

My Summary

I’ve been trying to summarize this book for over a week and have come to the conclusion  that I can’t beat the Goodreads description without giving too much away.  So here are the things I liked in bullet points:

  • Stay Close is perfectly paced.  It’s suspenseful and moves quickly without being scattered (the previous Harlan Coben felt a little ADD to me).
  • I didn’t figure out “who done it” until I was told, but the clues were totally available to figure it out.  Masterful misdirection.
  • I cared about all of the main characters, even though they had flaws.  Megan, Ray, and Jack each had their own issues, but wanted to do the right thing.
  • These books are the equivalent of a horror movie for me where in my head I’m yelling at the characters “Don’t go in there” and they do anyway.  I don’t like it in movies, but Coben makes it work in his books.
  • Fascinating secondary characters (Ken and Barbie).  Coben is consistent in giving the reader interesting characters on every level of the narrative.
  • Good contrast on the different value placed on privacy depending on the perspective of the person.  On the one hand you have Megan/Ray/Jack trying desperately to keep her secrets private contrasted with Ray working as a paparazzo for hire (people pay him to follow them around so they can pretend they are famous).

8 out of 10 stars

The Purity Myth by Jessica Valenti

Title – The Purity Myth
Author – Jessica Valenti
Publisher – Seal Press, 2009, 272 pgs
Purchased (Kindle)

Book Summary (from Amazon)

The United States is obsessed with virginity — from the media to schools to government agencies.  In The Purity Myth, Jessica Valenti argues that the country’s intense focus on chastity is damaging to young women.  Through in-depth cultural and social analysis, Valenti reveals that powerful messaging on both extremes — ranging from abstinence-only curriculum to “Girls Gone Wild” infomercials — place a young woman’s worth entirely on her sexuality.  Morals are therefore linked purely to sexual behavior, rather than values like honesty, kindness, and altruism.  Valenti sheds light on the value — and hypocrisy — around the notion that girls remain virgins until they’re married by putting into context the historical question of purity, modern abstinence-only education, pornography, and public punishments for those who dare to have sex.  The Purity Myth presents a revolutionary argument that girls and women are overly valued for their sexuality, as well as solutions for a future without a damaging emphasis on virginity.

My Thoughts

I think the above summary is pretty good.  Over the last few years I’ve really started to question how much of a woman’s value is based on her sexuality, but this book brought it all home for me.  What is virginity really?  Why is it so much of a focus for women (but not for men)?  Why are girls defined as good or bad based on whether they’ve had sex rather than how they treat others and what they accomplish?

 Valenti lays out how the abstinence only education/purity movement and the porn industry are really just 2 sides of the same coin.  Both assign value to women based on their sexuality.  She also ties this into our culture/media’s tendency to blame the victim in rapes cases.  The way the book is structured makes it read quickly (except for the parts where I was so mad/grossed out I wanted to throw the book across the room – not a good idea on Kindle).   Here are two such sections:

And, of course, there are purity balls – the federally funded father/daughter dances where girls as young as age six pledge their virginity to their dads, who in turn pledge to hang on to said virginity until an appropriate husband comes along, to whom the fathers can transfer ownership of their daughters.

I personally don’t think six years olds should be making any sexual decisions.

Take Cassandra Hernandez, a female Air Force air person who was raped by three of her colleagues at a party – where, yes, she was drinking.  After she went to the hospital and filed a report, the Air Force treated her to a harsh interrogation – so harsh, in fact, that Hernandez decided not to testify against her attackers.  Instead of giving her the treatment she deserved, the Air Force charged Hernandez with underage drinking and “indecent acts”.  To make matters worse, Hernandez’s three attackers were offered immunity from sexual assault if they testified against her on the indecent-acts charge.  So, in effect, she was charged with her own rape.

This was when I almost threw my Kindle. 

I had two issues as I read the book.  I love numbers.  Don’t just generally tell me something is the fastest-growing form of plastic surgery in the US.  Tell me how many happened five years ago and how many happened last year.   Also, as I was reading Valenti did such a good job of convincing me that abstinence only education and the chastity movement were such a problem that I wanted to know what I could do to fix it.    The second concern was completely resolved at the end of the book.  An entire chapter is dedicated to steps the reader can take to affect change.  The numbers concern wasn’t entirely resolved, but did improve as the book went on. 

 The Purity Myth reads very quickly for non-fiction.  If one of my biggest concerns is that I want to know what to do to fix the problem the author has obviously accomplished what she set out to.

Rating

8 out of 10 stars