fiction

Review: The Yoga of Max’s Discontent

yogaofmax I was given an e-copy of The Yoga of Max’s Discontent by the author in exchange for an honest review. I am so happy to have had this opportunity, because The Yoga of Max’s Discontent is a gem of a story.

Max Pzoras has achieved what many believe to be the American Dream: he has surpassed his impoverished upbringing and lives a life of luxury in New York City. He works a high-paying office job where many people consider him skilled at what he does. He lives in a beautiful apartment and wears fine clothes. He wants for nothing.

Except something in Max’s life is missing. After his mother passes away, Max has a chance encounter with a street cart vendor who, although barely dressed, does not so much as shiver in the cold. Through this man, Max learns about the yogis in India who have achieved Nirvana, and stories of one yogi in particular have Max withdrawing from the obligations of his New York City life and setting out on a quest to understand mortality and the depths of the human spirit.

Only knowing about yoga through some beginner classes and what popular culture has lead me to believe, I was fascinated by Max’s journey. There is an interesting foil between the “real” yogis in India and the “fad” yogis who lure tourists looking for enlightenment into their traps. Max encounters both on his journey. However, his dedication to Yoga leads him away from civilization into extreme conditions: the frigid Himalayas and a draught-struck ashram. It is in these settings that Max’s yoga practice begins to transform and – in turn – transforms Max.

The Yoga of Max’s Discontent is a beautiful book. Do not be deterred if you know nothing about yoga or spirituality; you can learn right alongside the protagonist. Bajaj’s book left me longing to reflect and study myself, and that is a wonderful thing.

What have you been reading lately? Has it given you cause to reflect?

Danielle Villano is the editor of BiblioSmiles, and she is really glad you’re here. Learn more on the About page.  Tweet @daniellevillano.

Review: In the Unlikely Event by Judy Blume

unlikelyevent After attending the Judy Blume panel at BookCon and getting my copy of In The Unlikely Event signed by Ms. Blume herself, I was eager to dive into this hefty novel by the author of Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret.

(I wrote about the BookCon panel here. I loved hearing the author’s thoughts on her own work!)

I read In the Unlikely Event slowly, struggling to keep the characters straight as I went along, as the perspective switches frequently between a cast of children and adults. Despite this trouble, I persevered, knowing it would be worth it in the end. And it was.

I fell for Judy Blume’s newest novel not so much for the characters, who were complex but not necessarily interesting, but for the time they lived through. Blume’s descriptions of the 1950s in Elizabeth, New Jersey, a town not too far from my own, had me feeling nostalgic for a time period I wasn’t around for.

I wanted the giggly thrill of visiting a lingerie store to pick out stockings or nightgowns. I wanted to attend a party in someone’s dining room where I could purchase compacts or cosmetics. I wanted to be escorted to a dance at the Y, and maybe even get asked to go steady by someone’s football-playing brother. I wanted to wear a sweater set! The 1950s may have been a time of fear, of communists and conspiracies, but it is also a time that begs for wholesome nostalgia, in my opinion. Blume had me feeling this nostalgia most acutely.

In the Unlikely Event begins in 1987, when Miri Ammerman returns to her hometown of Elizabeth for a commemoration ceremony of the tragedies that struck her town. Thirty-five years earlier (when Miri was fifteen), three airplanes had crashed in her town in a matter of months, sending the community into a spiral of grief and despair.

These plane crashes really happened, and they were a huge part of Blume’s own childhood (the author is from Elizabeth). Knowing that these crashes really happened had me scrambling to research, which I think is a mark of a compelling read.

All of the characters in Blume’s novel react to these tragedies differently. Miri becomes fearful, but also conscious of the conspiracies at play. Her uncle is a newspaper reporter who receives quite a bit of attention thanks to his articles on the crashes, and Miri latches onto his inquisitive nature, questioning everything about the crashes as she in turn has questions about growing up and becoming an indvidual.

(Would it really be a Judy Blume book without this questioning? This maturing? Reading about Miri’s personal journey made me nostalgic for Blume’s young adult books.)

Miri’s best friend, Natalie, becomes strange and terrified, believing her body is being used as a host by a young woman who perished in the first plane crash. Miri’s mother, Rusty, clings to others for comfort, while trying to protect her own daughter.

There is romance in this story, and there is heartbreak, too. There is growth and death. There are life lessons you don’t mind taking because they’re administered by Judy Blume, who has always made growing up seem a little less scary.

“Life is a series of unlikely events, isn’t it? Hers certainly is. One unlikely event after another, adding up to a rich, complicated whole. And who knows what’s still to come?”

Have you read In the Unlikely Event yet?

Danielle Villano is the editor of BiblioSmiles, and she is really glad you’re here. Learn more on the About page.  Tweet @daniellevillano.

Review: Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal

Oh my god. This book. This book. I was glued to it. Reading this book, I was like Belle from the opening of Beauty and the Beast, my nose in the book as I navigated the subways and streets of New York City, to read about people in the often forgotten middle states of the country.

So what is Kitchens of the Great Midwest about? To be honest, I expected some sort of sappy chick-lit or some sort of food-study. Instead, we have a story that leads us through decades of life in the midwest, with many characters that are familiar tropes without being stereotypical, and all connecting back to Eva, a young woman whose unique palate leads her to becoming the star chef of the country.

It begins when Eva is a baby, and her father Lars is trying to figure out how to feed her braised pork shoulder, you know, to get her taste for good food going. Her mother Cynthia decides to decides to run off with a wine sommelier and Lars is left on his own to raise their daughter. Eva grows up, learning about food, and each recipe plays a formative chapter in her life.

Each chapter is told by a different character, with a focus on a different dish. Eva’s culinary journey is told in vivid snapshots into these character’s lives—her first boyfriend, her father, her cousin—and the characters are as delectable as the dishes. Not that they’re all good people, but they’re all very real. Which is like the food; not all of it sounds appealing, but it certainly is very Midwest, from the Scandinavian lutefisk to the belt-popping dessert bars.

There is a beautiful convergence of characters in the final chapter, and an especially funny coincidence. The characters who narrate the first and final chapters make for oddly appropriate bookends of the story. Food and how it brings people together, creates memories, identities, and communities within people. It’s a quirky, evocative, and often funny story, that weaves a journey through life and the coincidental connections that happen, and the near-misses too. Without being saccharine, it manages to tell a story of what normal people will do for one another, with some good food along the way.

I was lucky enough to read this book before it came out, and it’s easily one of the best books I’ve read this year. It’s one of those books that is sad to finish, because I missed the characters immediately after. This is J. Ryan Stradal’s debut novel and I’m excited to see what he writes next. (And he’s a native Minnesotan so there’s that note of authenticity!). Do yourself a favor and read this one. It’ll surprise you.

Kitchens of the Great Midwest was published on July 28th by Pamela Dornan Books.

Gabriele Boland is an aspiring grown-up. She enjoys pretending she’s in a Disney movie, letting her dork flag fly, and writing stories that will never see the light of day. The other ramblings of her mind can be found at her website.

Review: The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

(Editor’s Note: Please welcome Amanda to BiblioSmiles! I’m so thrilled she’s decided to contribute a book review.  Please be sure to visit her blog or follow her on Twitter!)

interestings I recently finished reading The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer.

I bought this book at The Strand in Union Square back in December, mainly because I’d read about Meg Wolitzer online, including reviews of her previous works, and how she is a creative writing teacher at SUNY Stonybrook (and also because the cover was colorful and eye catching).

I’d heard good things about her writing– Wolitzer is known for her long term character development, modern style, and topics concerning the relationship between men and women, as well as sexuality and gender. After finishing the book, I recognized that all of these were definitely used in her 2013 novel The Interestings.

The Interestings is about a group of teens who meet at a summer camp called Spirit-in-the-Woods in the 1970s. The summer camp is old-school but meant for diverse teens of many talents, and helps encourage their growth and development as adolescents. The book revolves around the lives of Ethan Figman, an aspiring cartoonist; Goodman Wolf, the charismatic and handsome but misguided brother of Ash Wolf, a beautiful feminist actress and dreamer; Jonah Bay, a quiet but talented musician; Cathy Kiplinger, a curvy and gifted dancer; and most importantly, Jules Jacobson.

Jules comes to the camp on scholarship, not really fitting in at first but finding a place within the group, who name themselves The Interestings. She tries her hand at acting, and finds that she enjoys it. But as she gets older, she finds that it’s not really what she was meant to do in life. While her friends grow creatively, artistically, and financially, Jules becomes a social worker and constantly struggles with feeling ordinary.
The book tells the stories of these teenagers’ lives– as they intertwine and mesh, as they fall apart and fall together. The group of talented teens learn about growing up in different worlds, and growing up to live in different worlds.

Ethan falls in love with Jules, but she spurns his advances. Jules and Ash become best friends, but Jules puts Ash on a sort of jealous pedestal. Jonah stays an unassuming member of the group, but struggles with his identity and his sexuality. Goodman and Cathy’s lives crumble, and then they slowly fall away.

Jules especially struggles with how she grew and ended up in comparison to Ash and Ethan. She spends much of her life (and much of the book) bitter and wistfully dwelling on what could have been, which affects her relationship with her husband Dennis. This can get tiresome to read, but I think it’s because it’s incredibly realistic.

What I didn’t like about this book so much was its length. I’m a fan of long books; however, the plot wasn’t all that stimulating or exciting and it took me longer to read than usual. I feel as if it was meant for an older audience than myself, because I didn’t grow up in the 70’s and didn’t understand all of the cultural/political references. However, it was still relevant because I understand what it is like to be an adolescent and grow up.

What I loved about this book was the extensive character development of each member of The Interestings. The book literally told the story of their lives growing up, specifically from the lens of this group of kids who went to camp together in the 1970s. I loved how realistic each character was– how they each had flaws that made me, as the reader, dislike them, and also qualities that redeemed them. Their story was told with a breathtaking honesty, as well as an admirable patience. It left me with a great sense of sad nostalgia, and was an extremely satisfying read.

I would recommend this book to readers who enjoy realistic fiction, and who enjoy a strong but flawed female protagonist.

Amanda Livingston is currently a student at Ithaca College majoring in Writing, a teaching/editorial intern at Writopia Lab, and Vice President of Ithaca College Women in Communications. She is also a copy editor for The Ithacan and a contributing writer to Buzzsaw Magazine. She has previously held internships at Random House, The MissInformation, the Hudson Valley Writers’ Center, and Westchester Magazine. She is an aspiring children’s book editor, an avid reader, a writer, and a superfan of The Office. You can find her on Twitter: @amandarliving and at amandaunderconstruction.com.

Review: The Circle by Dave Eggers

thecircle Released in 2013, The Circle by Dave Eggers made quite a splash for its fictional portrayal of a big tech company with a monopoly on the industry and designs to – well – complete “The Circle” and take over the world. Some reviewers questioned if The Circle was modeled after Google or Apple, but Eggers said he refused to do research on any real companies. So, The Circle of Eggers’s novel is entirely dreamed up.

If you refuse to believe that: maybe it’s time to come to terms with the monopoly technology has on our own lives, which is something the characters of The Circle each struggle with or accept in their own ways. Exciting and frightening, The Circle presents readers with a world that seems not too-far-off from the present. Companies are making strides with technology every day. What’s keeping us from wearing cameras on ourselves at all times in an act of total transparency?

Mae Holland is a young woman who has just been saved from a mediocre job in public utilities by her dear friend, Annie. Annie works at The Circle, a tech company on a sprawling campus in California, and gives Mae a job with lots of promise for growth and development. The Circle, founded by the “Three Wise Men,” links users’ personal accounts (which must be registered under real names!) with bank accounts, email accounts, social media profiles, and purchasing history. Remember Facebook and Twitter? The Circle gobbled those up. Now users can send “Zings” and share all kinds of things with people all over the world. Companies can track purchasing histories. Users’ interests can be searched and cataloged. And with the lack of anonymity on forums and in comment threads? The internet has become a much more civil place. Trolls, begone!

As Mae moves up the ranks at The Circle, new developments are made in technology. Some help save lives: when children are embedded with microchips, child abduction becomes nonexistent. Some help people understand the world around them: small cameras placed around the world allow people to tune into live feeds of places they may never visit in real life. Politicians become more accessible to the people when they consent to wearing cameras around their necks at all times.

While the majority of the characters in The Circle eagerly welcome these advances in technology, there are some glimpses into the thoughts of those who are opposed to so much change. Mae’s parents get caught in the crossfire when The Circle offers to pay for Mae’s father’s medical treatments. Mae’s ex-boyfriend, Mercer, would prefer to live “off the grid,” a concept that stuns the social media-obsessed public.

I hungrily read this 508-page book, envying the beautiful campus life at The Circle, and all of the cool inventions that The Circle made possible. The nagging fear that this future was closer than I thought? That followed me throughout the book. And while I’d generally gripe about a book that had characters that were not-so-accessible, or hard to envision, I think that sort of style worked for The Circle. In a world where all users are united under The Circle, we may be totally transparent – but we lose our individuality. You’ll question your own social media presence by the end of this book; I guarantee it.

Danielle Villano is the editor of BiblioSmiles, and she is really glad you’re here. Learn more on the About page.  Tweet @daniellevillano.

Books to Take Home to Mom

Mother’s Day is this Sunday. While you could certainly go the traditional route and get your mother flowers, or candles, or a manicure (all very much appreciated, I’m sure!), here on BiblioSmiles I felt I had to make some gift suggestions of a more literary sort. I’m fortunate to be very close with my mother, and we love swapping books and giving each other recommendations. Here are some picks that I think could make for great coffee and cake conversation with mother dearest. Let me know what you’d add to the list!

thechildrenscrusade For a sprawling family saga full of drama and great characters, try The Children’s Crusade by Ann Packer. Released in April 2015, The Children’s Crusade follows a California family through five decades of heartache, grief, and grace. Following the Blair family through 1954 onward, the narrative is split between various characters at crucial moments in the family’s history. A man with a vision, an unhappy housewife, a problem child… this book has all the good stuff! Packer’s writing is beautiful, and the book is being touted as a great book club pick. So why not start a little club with mom?

thecolorpurple If you want to revisit a classic, try The Color Purple by Alice Walker. I admit, I haven’t read this one just yet – but I thought of it right away! It’s one of my mom’s favorite books. This Pulitzer Prize-winning novel follows the lives of women of color in 1930s Georgia. The powerful story was later adapted into a movie (as well as a musical), so I suggest reading the book and then having a movie viewing with your mother.

“I think us here to wonder, myself. To wonder. To ask. And that in wondering bout the big things and asking bout the big things, you learn about the little ones, almost by accident. But you never know nothing more about the big things than you start out with. The more I wonder, the more I love.”  

lauralamont If you’re looking for lovely writing and a bit of classic glamour, try Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures by Emma Straub. Straub’s debut novel follows the life of plucky Elsa Emerson, a country girl with big dreams of becoming a star. An eventual move to Los Angeles and a meeting with Hollywood producer Irving Green means bye-bye to Elsa and hello to Laura Lamont, the beautiful brunette starlet. A novel about ambition, beauty, and personal happiness. If this doesn’t make you want to go all weepy with a Turner Classic Movie marathon and a box of bonbons, I don’t know what will.

eveninparadise Finally, if your mom is okay with embracing YA, try Even in Paradise by Chelsey Philpot. We’ve all been through our own coming-of-age phases, growing up and getting our heart broken and dealing with issues – why not reminisce and read about those nostalgic, golden days? I’m choosing Even in Paradise for the list because my mom and I both loved We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, and Even in Paradise is being touted as a mixture of Lockhart’s book and The Great Gatsby. While some of the themes here may not be for everyone, I think it could open up the line for some great conversation while you sip coffee and chat.

“I wish for the same thing I’ve hoped for since the beginning. I wish for a life so brave, so unpredictable, so full of unexpected joys and unforgettable love that no box could possibly contain all my memories. Such a life won’t be perfect. It’ll be something better. It’ll be my own paradise.”

So bring your mom a copy of that book you’ve been wanting to read – and read it together! Books are incredible things, best when shared with others. Spread that literary love this Mother’s Day!

What will you be reading, bookworms?

Danielle Villano is the editor of BiblioSmiles, and she is really glad you’re here. Learn more on the About page.  Tweet @daniellevillano.

Review: The Boy Next Door by Katie Van Ark

boynextdoorI was thrilled to receive an ARC of The Boy Next Door by Katie Van Ark, courtesy of Swoon Reads. The idea of Swoon Reads is so cool to me as a writer and a reader. This Macmillan imprint focusing on young adult romances allows writers to upload manuscripts to their site, and readers can vote on which ones they’d like to see published.  How cool is that?

The Boy Next Door is one of the lucky stories that was chosen, and it was released in January 2015 as a real-live book. The premise caught my attention right away:

Maddy Spier has been in love with the boy next door forever. As his figure skating partner she spends time in his arms every day. But she’s also seen his arms around other girls—lots of other girls.

Gabe can’t imagine skating with anyone but Maddy, and together they have a real chance at winning some serious gold medals. So, he’s determined to keep thinking of her like a sister. After all, he’s never had a romantic relationship that lasted for more than two weeks.

But when their coach assigns a new romantic skating program, everything changes. Will this be the big break that Maddy’s been hoping for or the big breakup that Gabe has always feared?

I’m a huge figure skating fan, and I fell in love with the sport when I saw 2014’s Olympic gold medalists, Meryl Davis and Charlie White, perform on television during the Sochi Olympics. They’ve been partnered together since 1997, and their trust in each other – and their on-ice chemistry! – is undeniable.

Katie Van Ark, please dish: Meryl and Charlie had to be the inspiration for your Maddy and Gabe, right? Maddy is determined, with dark hair and a small frame. Gabe has great golden hair and a swoon-worthy smile. They’ve been partnered together for years, their families are very close…

Okay, okay. Enough about my theories. I found The Boy Next Door to be an addictive, delightful read. I liked the alternating chapters, switching back-and-forth from Maddy’s POV to Gabe’s. Their narrative voices were distinct. I read some reviews who saw Gabe as “annoying,” although I feel like that’s a very shallow way to think about a character. I think his actions and thoughts were entirely plausible, based on his past experiences and insecurities. Sure, I may have wanted to throttle him at some point, but I can ensure you it was because he deserved it. Maddy agrees with me!

The figure skating portions of the story were really well done. I may not know a lot of the technical terms, but Van Ark executed these passages in such a way that I was able to get the gist of what the moves meant, and I was able to conjure up the routines in my head.

While I loved the blossoming romance between Maddy and Gabe, I felt that it was the only thing the story was focused on. There were other problems thrown into the plot, but they were all brushed aside very quickly in order to get back to the romance. The secondary characters fell to the wayside as everything cycled back to Maddy and Gabe and their preoccupation with each other. While I found myself turning pages, desperate to find out the “will they or won’t they,” I think some readers may be turned off by this being the only significant issue in The Boy Next Door. But hey – Swoon Reads is looking for romances, and the ending of The Boy Next Door is about as romantic as you can get.

Will you be reading The Boy Next Door? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Danielle Villano is the editor of BiblioSmiles, and she is really glad you’re here. Learn more on the About page.  Tweet @daniellevillano.