Reading for Me

The Books I Have Read…..Just for Me

#21: Inside Out and Back Again (Thanhha Lai)

I love visiting Half-Price Books whenever there is a store nearby. I head directly for the clearance stash to see what unknown treasures await me there for less than $3. This time, I visited a store in Oklahoma City and stumbled upon Inside Out and Back Again. The description grabbed my attention and the price sealed the deal that I would give this short novel a shot. I’m so glad I did!

Inside Out and Back Again tells the story of Hà, a 10-year-old girl living in war-torn Saigon in February, 1975 — the height of the Veitnam War. She lives with her three brothers and mother in a small house not far from the docks. Her father was a naval officer who went to fight for his land and has not returned. As things become more and more dangerous in South Vietnam, Hà and her family are forced to flee Saigon near the end of April aboard dilapidated boats hoping to reach Thailand. Hà and her family are among the boat people.

Their boat is met by U.S. sailors who take the refugees to Guam. As the family struggles to find stability in their temporary setting, they are forced to decide where they will immigrate. Hà and her family settle on the United States and ultimately land in Alabama.

In the American South, Hà is no longer seen as the intelligent student she has always been. Rather she spends much of her time feeling stupid. School becomes a place of ridicule and bullying. In order to gain acceptance in their new community, the family feels as though they must abandon their Buddhist faith and accept Christianity. What was promised as a land of opportunity and hope presents Hà with unimaginable challenges as she navigates a foreign land with very few friends and less understanding of the world around her.

Beautifully written in poetic form, Inside Out and Back Again is largely based on the experiences of the book’s author. Its gripping accounts of the feelings of a child in a war-ravaged land as well as the frustration of learning a new language are some of the hallmarks of this delightfully written novel. One of my favorite passages comes near the end of the book. Hà has begun after-school tutoring with a retired teacher, Miss Washington. In the poem entitled “Start Over,” Hà recounts a valuable lesson she has learned from her tutor.

MiSSSisss WaSShington says/ if every learner waits/ to speak perfectly,/ no one would learn/ a new language.

Being stubborn/ won’t make you fluent./ Practicing will!/ The more mistakes you make,/ the more you’ll learn not to.

They laugh.

Shame on them!/ Challenge them to say/ something in Vietnamese/ and laugh right back.

Inside Out and Back Again, 253-254

Inside Out and Back Again was published in 2011 by HarperCollins Children’s Books. The following year, Thanhha Lai’s work was listed as a Newberry Honor Book by the American Library Association.

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#18: Best Kept Secret (Jeffrey Archer)

It has taken just over a month, but I finally finished the third volume of the Clifton Chronicles. Why such a long read? I experienced severe headaches this summer that made reading impossible. Once the headaches began to subside, the plotline based in on a local election simply could not hold my attention.

Best Kept Secret opened with the settlement of the Barrington estate after Elizabeth’s will was challenged. That was riveting! Much of the book was devoted to Giles’ jilted wife, Virginia, and the introduction of his political opponent, Major Fisher. While both Virginia and Fisher appear to be vital to the direction of the series as a whole, I found their introduction an unwelcome interruption into the narratives of the Clifton and Barrington families.

However, a new generation of Cliftons has been introduced as well — and that story line was much more exciting and interesting. Harry and Emma’s son, Sebastian, has become unknowingly involved with a Nazi sympathizer. Even though the Great War has ended, there are still enemies that must be dealt with. Harry’s adventures in Argentina in an effort to protect and warn Seb were highly entertaining and saved the merit of this third volume in the series.

Although I ultimately was pleased with the cliffhanger that came at the conclusion of the book and I am very anxious to learn who survived the car accident, I plan to take a respite from Archer’s series. I need to find a new spark for my reading life. No worries, I’ll return to the Clifton Chronicles later this year.

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Catch Up: Books 14-16

It has been on my to-do list for nearly a month to write posts about my last two reads. Now that I finished a third book last night, I came to the realization that I simply had to put something down — no matter how short it is — and give the books some attention. I also want to make sure that I have a record of my thoughts before the reading experience is too far separated. I regret that these tremendous books are being grouped together in a single post, but I feel it is the only way to make sure that they are covered here on Reading for Me.

#14: Grit by Angela Duckworth

I think it was this outstanding book that was causing me the greatest difficulty in reviewing. It is a remarkable work that explores the importance of persistence, patience, and perseverance in the pursuit of success. Duckworth’s writing is very detailed and thorough, but she maintains a manner that is approachable by the careful reader. I especially enjoyed her application of concepts as they were found in the lives of athletes, businessmen, and musicians. There is nothing that I can say here that will adequately express my admiration for Grit other than this — I plan to review the book again in a future reading and strongly recommend that it be read by every student, parent, professor, and professional. I promise that you will be challenged and encouraged by each page.

#15: Naturally Tan by Tan France

While driving back to my native Arkansas a few weeks ago, I decided to devote my time to enjoying the audio book of Tan France’s memoir. What a delightful and insightful way to spend several hours in the car! As most of my followers will already be aware, Mr. France is one of the hosts of the current iteration of Netflix’s Queer Eye. (I have also read the memoirs of Karamo Brown and Jonathan Van Ness.  I look forward to reading similar books by Bobby Berk and Antoni Porowski when they *hopefully* appear.) I enjoyed Tan’s stories from the fashion industry and his journey to stardom. What I found most profound were his candid discussions about race, prejudice, and discrimination. Little did I know that Tan’s openness would resound so clearly in my ears as I watched the upheaval that our nation is currently facing. Simply an exquisite read.

#16: The Sins of the Father by Jeffrey Archer

This second volume of the Clifton Chronicles was just as riveting and well-written as its predecessor. Set against the backdrop of the Second World War, the novel focuses largely on Harry Clifton’s time in the United States as a convict, serving time for a crime he did not commit. Emma, Harry’s jilted love, travels to America in hopes of finding out what happened to the man she adored when he left British soil. Many of the characters we came to enjoy during Only Time Will Tell reappear and continue their story line. In typical Archer fashion, the second novel of the series ends with a tremendous cliff hanger that leaves the reader wondering what will happen and longing to know how the circumstances will impact Harry, Emma, and Giles. Thankfully, the entire series is published and the next volume sits on my night stand, waiting to be read. The Clifton Chronicles are proving to be enthralling yet do not demand so much brain power that I feel as though I must labor through them. Perfect material for a summer vacation as we all try to recover from the recent pandemic’s strain upon our minds and emotions.

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#11:Only Time Will Tell (Jeffrey Archer)

I was first introduced to Jeffrey Archer and his Clifton Chronicles series way back in 2013. That’s when I first read Only Time Will Tell as an audio book. One of the exciting things about keeping this blog of all the books that I read for my own pleasure is that I can always return to previous reviews to see what I thought of a book from my past. I remembered enjoying the audio book and knew that I hoped to read the entire series, but so many things always seemed to get in the way.

As 2019 was coming to an end, I began to look for something to gift myself for the Christmas holidays. As luck would have it, I found the complete Clifton Chronicles in paperback edition bundled as a set. I had found my gift! Once they arrived, I decided not to tear the set open right away since I wanted to have plenty of uninterrupted time to make my way through the saga of Harry Clifton and his family. I planned to work my way through the books this summer.

Plans changed for everyone in so many ways when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the US. Suddenly, I found myself spending more time at home with lots of time to read. I finished the novel I was reading at the moment and then tore open the wrapping of the Archer series and began on the first page. That was six days ago and I finished the novel this afternoon. Truthfully, I finished last night….but made myself wait for the last few chapters until this afternoon. I knew I just needed to get some sleep.

Only Time Will Tell completely lived up to my expectations. It is the story of Harry Clifton, a young English boy who is being raised by his single mother. There is a question about his paternity that propels the plot of this entire novel. Was the man who died in a freak boating accident his biological father or is Harry the bastard son of the wealthy man who is the father of his best friend?

Harry escapes his humble home and the limited possibilities of living in that community by pursuing an education. The only way that he is able to fund his education is by scholarships that are awarded to him because of his musical abilities. (Hmmm…..I wonder why that resonates with me so much!) While at school, Harry meets his friends Giles and Deakins who will remain close companions throughout the years of his schooling. During his earliest training, Harry also meets the mysterious Old Jack who takes a profound interest in the lad and consistently acts in the boy’s best interest without seeking any credit for the child’s successes.

Historically, the novel covers the years just after the end of World War I through the earliest fighting of World War II. In the novel’s closing scenes, the reader learns that Britain has declared war on Germany because of the Nazi invasion of Poland. The act of war that follows on the waters of the Atlantic Ocean forever changes the course of young Harry’s life. While readers may not find the concluding section of the novel as fulfilling as most of what has preceded it, Archer does manage to leave the audience with a tremendous cliffhanger that will make certain that the reader returns for book 2 of the series!

As I reflect upon Only Time Will Tell, I notice a similarity in style between it and John Jakes’ The Bastard that opens the author’s Kent Family Chronicles. (For reasons that I still cannot comprehend, John Jakes’ novel was assigned to me as a 7th grader as part of an independent history assignment. Inappropriate teaching? Yeah, I was not emotionally ready to handle the material that was presented there. But I do want to go back and read that series of the American experience as well someday.) Archer’s novel focuses on the war experience from the British perspective. I’m anxious to see if Harry will remain an American now that he has found his way to New York Harbor or if he will return to Britain as he longs to do at the end of Only Time Will Tell. I suppose I’ll just have to crack open the next volume to find out what new adventures await in the Clifton saga.

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#10: In the Beginning (Chaim Potok)

I was first introduced to the writing of the Jewish author, Chaim Potok, while taking a course in minority literature at Pepperdine University. I discovered many interesting authors in the class and it forever changed the landscape of my personal reading. I remember fondly my first experience with Potok’s classic novel My Name is Asher Lev. I decided to revisit the book earlier this year and was thrilled with its power upon a second reading. This began my continuing voyage through the works of Potok and I continue to be amazed at his skill and command of the written word.

In the Beginning is set in Brooklyn in the first few decades of the 20th century. The stock market has crashed, people have survived the Great Depression, and America has found itself fighting absolute evil in the Great War. Against this background, Potok introduces us to David Lurie, a brilliant young Jewish boy who excels in his study of Torah. As he matures and encounters more evil in the world, David begins to have questions regarding Truth and faith. The young student begins to search for answers from scholars of all ages and religions – even exploring the writings of Anti-Semites. David’s quest for Truth causes great distress for his observant Jewish family. As he looks for answers, David also learns more about his family’s past, their journey to America, the losses they have suffered, and the often personal cost of questioning faith and traditional values. Along the way, David also learns what it means to become a man who stands on his own against opposition.

I was absolutely floored by In the Beginning. I personally identify with the challenges that often come at the intersection of inquiry and faith traditions within a conservative community. I loved watching a young man’s journey of discovery as he asked tough questions while those around him were frightened by the student’s audacity to even ask the questions. Throughout my life, I have been told repeatedly a maxim that is heralded throughout Potok’s novel — absolute Truth has nothing to fear from doubt, inquiry, and investigation.

This was the perfect novel for me to read in our nation’s current time of crisis related to the COVID-19 epidemic. As I find myself asking questions such as “How can God allow this to happen?” and “Does God even love us anymore?” the words of In the Beginning bring me comfort in the assurance that God knows my questions and fears before I even ask them. He is not frightened by the questions I ask. Instead, He repeatedly reveals Truth to me in various ways at various times through various means because He loves me that deeply.

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#2: At the Wolf’s Table (Rosella Postorino)

Some books catch your eye because of their cover and you immediately think, “I don’t think I want to read that one.” That was the case with At the Wolf’s Table from the very beginning. It was on My Library Shelf at Unger Library though. Now I had a choice. I decided to put aside my initial impressions and follow through with my challenge and began to read the novel.

What was it about the cover? Really, the problem was on the spine. A small, but prominent swastika — the symbol of the Nazi party. I have always had a fascination with World War II and enjoy reading historical fiction from that era. At the Wolf’s Table was going to be different. It was going to take place deep within the Third Reich. Did I really want to read something that portrayed evil? I wasn’t sure.

Postorino’ s novel tells the story of a small group of women who find themselves as a gog in the wheel that was Hitler’s Wolfsschanze — the Wolf’s Lair. The central character is Rosa, a young Berliner who returns to the remote area of eastern Germany while her husband serves in the war. She moves in with her in-laws, but is quickly selected to work as a food taster for the dictator. Rosa is given a seat At the Wolf’s Table to make sure that food prepared for Hitler has not been poisoned.

Throughout the novel, Rosa shows the danger and challenges wrought on the Germany people under Hitler’s regime. She watches helplessly as those she loves struggle with hunger. Loved ones lose their lives in bombing campaigns. One of her favorite collegiate teachers is dragged away before her eyes because he is a Jew. While acknowledging her on hatred of the Third Reich, Rosa also deals with her growing love (or is it just lust?) for a young SS Officer who supervises her activity in the dining hall.

At the Wolf’s Table was a powerful read that I am very glad I picked up despite my initial hesitation. The final part of the novel seemed poorly written in contrast to the earlier sections. While I appreciate Postorino’s desire to bring Rosa’s story to a close, I found the ending to be pedantic and unsatisfying. Truthfully, if the story had simply ended with Rosa’s train ride back to the Berlin after Hitler’s demise, I would have been a very satisfied reader.

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#4: The Nightingale (Kristin Hannah)

Although my reading has been much slower than I had hoped in the first 3 months of the year, I am THRILLED that I took the time to read this amazing novel. It has quickly become one of my most highly recommended books for anyone that is fascinated by stories of World War II and historical fiction in general.

The Nightingale traces the lives of two sisters, Isabelle and Vianne, in occupied France at the height of the Great War. Isabelle is determined to do something to fight the atrocities that she sees around her, even if it means risking her own life. Vianne decides to remain neutral as she watches Nazis move into her small hometown because she must do whatever is necessary to protect her home and her young daughter. When Nazi officers billet in her home, Vianne finds herself facing a moral dilemma that will forever impact her friends, her community, her children, and herself. 

Kristin Hannah’s novel provides an insightful look into the plight of the Jews in France as well as the heroic and terrifying roles women played in the War. If you dare to read this novel, you are guaranteed an adventure as you accompany downed fighter pilots through the mountains and provide false papers to Jews attempting to escape. Readers will get a first-hand look at the horrors of work camps and will observe the fear and hopelessness found there. Quite simply, I don’t think it is possible to experience The Nightingale and not be significantly changed. It is one of my top 10 novels of all time. I highly recommend it to book lovers everywhere!

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#1: The Alice Network (Kate Quinn)

Earlier this week, I completed my first book of 2018. What took me so long? I am trying to read multiple books at the same time, so my pace of reading is slower. (I’m not sure if I like this approach or not, but I’m continuing this way for a bit longer.) January has been an extremely busy month for me, so reading was not always a priority. Thankfully, what I DID manage to read was quite enjoyable and a great way to start the new year.

The Alice Network is actually two stories woven together. Eve was a British spy in World War I near the German front. As a member of a network for female spies — the Alice Network — she gathered information while waiting tables in a lavish restaurant….and in the bed of the establishment’s proprietor.  After the end of World War II, Charlie St. Clair returns to France in search of her beloved cousin, Rose. Through the course of this enthralling novel, Eve and Charlie learn that their stories share a common enemy and the unlikely pair join forces to overcome the evil that continues to permeate western Europe after the War, personified in the life of a single man.

Richly developed characters combine with the beautifully described scenery in a compelling story that makes The Alice Network a must-read for those who enjoy historical fiction. Eve and Charlie will quickly become literary friends whose tales will urge the reader to constantly return to their story in order to find out what happens next while enjoying the wit, sarcasm and banter between these two fierce ladies. I highly recommend Kate Quinn’s The Alice Network.

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#6: When Books Went to War (Molly Guptill Manning)

I decided it was time to read a little non-fiction in this year’s reading adventure. The book’s cover immediately grabbed my attention. A World War II soldier sits in a dirt bunker among heavy vegetation with a moss-covered helmet designed to hide him from the enemy. What is that in his hand? It’s not a rifle or a grenade; the soldier is clearly engrossed in a tiny paperback book.

When Books Went to War: The Stories that Helped Us Win World War II is a fascinating exploration of the U.S. response to Nazi Germany’s book burnings. Beginning with book donations collected by American librarians, the impact of reading on soldier morale was quickly identified. The only problem was the size and weight of the books. In an unexpected turn of events, the Federal Government stepped in and produced thousands of American Service Editions (ASEs), tiny paperback editions that easily fit in a soldier’s pocket.

ASEs appeared throughout the war’s various theaters….in hospitals, bases, and the front line. Soldiers applauded the representative authors for providing insightful stories that connected them to the home they had left behind. The reader will be surprised by the vast library created by the ASEs and the genres represented in the pocket editions. You will chuckle as you read about the politics that hampered the project throughout its existence. You will be amazed as you visualize men and women escaping into the words of a novel as they face mortal danger.

When Books Went to War is not a typical read for me. Still, it was an enjoyable book that was both entertaining and informative.

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#11: Lord John and the Private Matter (Diana Gabaldon)

If you’ve visited a bookstore or library in the past few years, I’m certain you have seen the name Diana Gabaldon. The covers of her books have always made me shy away from reading her works. While I enjoy historical fiction, the images of ships that I always seemed to encounter convinced me that I would not like her writing. This week, I decided to put my preconceived notions aside and actually read one of her novels.

Gabaldon is probably best known for her Outlander novels. When I went to the Memphis Public Library, this more common series was no where to be found. What I discovered was a related series, the Lord John Grey novels. Based on my reading of the jacket panel, John Grey is a character in the Outlander series; his story has become the basis for this group of novels.

Set in London in 1757, Lord John and the Private Matter opens with John Grey making an unfortunate discovery about the man who is soon to marry Grey’s cousin. The groom-to-be appears to have syphillis. How does Grey know this? He answers this for us better than I ever can near the end of the book:  “Saw your prick, over the piss-pots at the Beefstead.” (Lord John and the Private Matter, 267)  As Grey begins to investigate the truth of his observations, he is led into the strange London underworld of whore houses. Things become very strange as Grey becomes convinced that his future in-law may be involved in the mysterious and savage death of the woman in the green dress.

Lord John and the Private Matter is filled with interesting, memorable characters that are wonderfully developed by the author. While the story involves a strong presence of sexuality, promiscuity, and perversion, Gabaldon carefully walks the line between intrigue and vulgarity. (Just so there is no question, I do not recommend this novel for young adults or those who are easily offended by sexual commentary. At the same time, this is not 50 Shades.)  What I found more uncomfortable than the content was the constantly shifting scenes. Written more like a mystery, the novel demands that the reader move seamlessly around the city of London with Lord John. Without a clear visual of the city, the geography can become challenging.

I no longer question Gabaldon’s skill as an author. I liked the book. I just don’t know that I will venture into the world of Lord John again. There are so many books to read that promise (and deliver) greater returns for me.

If you’ve had a different experience with Gabaldon’s works, I welcome your comments below as well as recommendations of another of her books to check out.

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