Posted by: Jeanie F | May 18, 2016

The Year of the Runaways: A Novel by Sunjeev Sahota

Year of the Runaways


They move among us, largely unseen, but this year’s politically-charged invective against illegal immigrants has brought those uninvited guests to the forefront. Living here in California, we drive past them as they labor in our fields. Across the country, they work behind the scenes in restaurants, toil in sweatshops for low wages, do the jobs that most of us might offer up a prayer of thanks that  we have never had to do.

Much as T.C. Boyle did in The Tortilla Curtain, Sunjeev Sahota forces us to take a closer look.

This is the story of a group of young people who, due to various circumstances, leave their homes in India and immigrate to England hoping to improve their lot in life. There’s Tochi, who leaves his home in Bihar following a riot that destroys his life and family. Randeep uses his connections to secure an illegal “visa-wife”, a sham marriage that keeps them both on the edge of the law. Avtar hopes to improve his parents’ lives of poverty by sending money back to India. All come to London with high hopes.

It isn’t as easy as they expect. In fact, this novel is essentially the story that is playing out for desperate people around the world – Syrians, Libyans, Central Americans to name a few – trying to improve their lives in a world that is becoming less and less welcoming. For the young men in The Year of Runaways, it becomes a constant search for work that is impossible to find. When they do find it, they live in fear of their job site being raided by immigration inspectors. At the mercy of unscrupulous employers, they are forced to tolerate dangerous working conditions. When ill, they don’t dare seek out medical care. When borrowing money, if they can’t make installment payments on time not only are they threatened, but so are their families in India.

Shortlisted for last year’s prestigious Man Booker Prize, The Year of the Runaways is a compelling, if disturbing, read. Ron Charles, in his Washington Post review, calls it “The Grapes of Wrath for the 21st century”.

It is also a challenging read in that Sahota has interspersed Panjabi words throughout the book without providing translations or a glossary. (An interesting aside: a reviewer on Goodreads named Paul Bryant tallied “facts” about the book and included “Untranslated Panjabi words: 24,677). In an interview for Bookpage, Sahota explains this decision:

It’s the background orchestra of the novel. This is an insider’s view, so it felt natural to include Punjabi in the book to give a flavor, to show this different world that exists inside England. If a reader doesn’t understand some of it, then ironically it puts the reader in the position of someone coming to England who can’t make much sense of this new world.

This is a challenging, yet compelling, book. It covers a wide range of issues with honesty and purpose. It forces us to look at and consider uncomfortable issues, making it more difficult to look away.

Grade: A


Posted by: Jeanie F | April 16, 2016

Vacation Reading

Summer Reading

The days are getting longer, the temperature is beginning to rise, a gentle breeze replaces the cold blasts of winter – and, if you’re like me, you’re beginning to think about summer vacations. Whether you’re taking a break from sightseeing for some wine and cheese at a Paris bistro, relaxing in your camp chair beside a river after a vigorous hike, or lying on a sun-drenched beach in Maui, vacation reading is going to be part of that picture. If you’re reading this blog, you’re hoping you will find the perfect book to keep you entertained during those moments of relaxation.

When my friend, Dennis, goes on vacation, he likes to bring along challenging books that he doesn’t have time to read during the work year. He’s brought “Anna Karenina,” “Bleak House,” one year he brought “War and Peace.” And during every trip he tries to read over the shoulders of the rest of us, who bring less lofty, but more entertaining, books. As soon as one of us finishes a book, he snatches it away.

I’m far more realistic about my vacation reading. I know I don’t want to be enlightened or educated – I want to have as good a time while I’m reading as I do when I’m sightseeing.  I’m always keeping my eye out for books that might be good to take on vacation so, when the time comes, I’m not settling for something that turns out to be a disappointment.


The books I’ve selected to recommend to you as great summer reads are tried and true favorites that meet this criteria:

  • Not too mentally challenging
  • A great story that keeps you entertained
  • Something you can pick up or put down easily, depending on the day’s activities
  • Something I’ve reviewed on this blog

Because each of us has our own definition of what a good vacation book might be, I’ve divided my selections by genre. And I’ve linked each title to my review, so you can get more information than you might find on a book jacket. Be aware that many of these books fall into more than one genre, but I’ve chosen the one I think highlights the most distinguishing characteristic of each.

Humorous Books  These aren’t necessarily “laugh out loud” books, but they are books that I thought were light reading and had an element of the ridiculous or eccentric.

And Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt

The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evision

Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple

Action/Mystery These books are heavy on plot, lots going on.

City of Thieves by David Benioff

The Reversal by Michael Connelly

The Dinner by Herman Koch

Let Him Go by Larry Watson

The Painter by Peter Heller

Drama Human interest, serious but, for summer reading, engrossing and hard to put down.

Heroic Measures by Jill Ciment

Room by Emma Donoghue

Defending Jacob by William Landa

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

Short Story Collections Because sometimes you just want something you can finish.

In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenudin

Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson

Your turn – what books would you add to this list? Please share with the rest of us!

Reading in Paris



Posted by: Jeanie F | April 10, 2016

Introducing . . . 

If you have or work with pre-teen or teenage readers, you might send them over to check out a new blog written by high schooler, Hooprgirl, at

Hooprgirl seems to have a handle on adolescent fiction – high action and energy titles that appeal to this age group.

Posted by: Jeanie F | April 8, 2016

Do You Re-Read Books?


Lately I have been having trouble settling on a book. I’ve purchased several that seemed promising, but found myself unable to sustain interest in them. I spent some time reverting to short story anthologies – always a great fall-back option for me – and some non-fiction. But I continued to hunger for a novel that I loved. I tried isolating the qualities of some of my favorites, hoping that would lead me to similar selections, when it occurred to me that maybe what I should do was reread some of my favorites.

When I was a child it was standard procedure to reread a beloved book, often many, many times. I couldn’t guess how many times I went through HeidiBlack Beauty, Little Women. All of the Black Stallion books had to be replaced when the covers finally came off and, for  a number of years I could actually quote passages of Lad, a Dog. Happiness on a desert island would have been a single copy of The Witch of Blackbird Pond. I decided if rereading was something that had once been immensely satisfying, there was no reason not to see if that still held true today.

I started with what those of you who read this blog regularly could probably guess – Plainsong by Kent Haruf. Although I read the Holt Trilogy several years ago on my Kindle, after Haruf’s death last November I asked for new copies of all three titles for Christmas. I really wanted the physical objects in my hands. It was such a joy to reread this wonderful book, to revisit the McPheron brothers and Victoria Roubideaux, to admire Maggie Jones strength and Tom Guthrie’s strong character. I almost literally devoured the book, so happy to be reading great writing about characters I loved treating each other with kindness and respect, coping with problems in human ways, trying again and again to get it right.


A Fine Balance

The hours that it took me to reread Plainsong were the happiest I’ve spent reading in a long time, so I’ve decided to give rereading one more try. This is a little more of commitment since my favorite non-Haruf novel is A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. Unlike the Holt Trilogy, with each novel coming in at about three hundred pages, A Fine Balance is larger and more dense, 603 pages and filled with characters and subplots. It is a novel of India and, as the book cover relates, “captures all the cruelty and corruption, dignity and heroism, of India.”

It’s been a number of years since I first read this book, but I’ve never forgotten it. I’m curious to see if, like Plainsong, it still resonates in the same way it. I’m almost afraid to reread it, lest I find myself disappointed, but I’m going to give it a try.

Do you reread books? How and when do you make the decision to do so? What books have you reread, and are there any that you go back to over and over? I’d love to hear how others balance returning to beloved books with taking the time to read something new.

A Mother's Reckoning


Perhaps, like me, you have pondered the massacre committed at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999, murdering students, killing a teacher, and injuring twenty-one more innocent people. Undoubtedly you were shocked, frightened, confused about what kind of children – because really, the murderers were no more adult than were most of their victims – could commit such a heinous act. And maybe, like so many of us, you’ve wondered about the life they lived that would bring them to do such a deed. If you are a parent – and maybe even if you aren’t – you’ve thought about the role the boys’ parents played in this terrible tragedy and how they’ve survived the aftermath.

Sue Klebold, the mother of shooter Dylan Klebold, has written a book to relate her experience and explain the lessons she’s learned in the seventeen years since that day. Before you read any farther I want to make it clear that, in my opinion, she is one of the bravest women I’ve ever known of. This book is not an attempt to excuse or justify the inexcusable. This is a forthright and honest attempt to take us through one of the most horrifying journeys a parent could ever travel.

I debated whether or not I could even read A Mother’s Reckoning because, as a mother, I can’t – don’t want to – imagine the pain, the horror, the grief that these boys left behind. I couldn’t imagine how one reconciles the child she loved with the perpetrator of such horror. Ms. Klebold has done a masterful job of baring her soul, of taking us into a place that we can only pray we will never be. She’s done so honestly, making no excuses for herself, her family, her son or the acts he committed.

In this book she recounts the day of the shooting, the immediate aftermath, her attempts to fashion a post-Columbine life, and her ideas concerning how, as a compassionate society, we can work toward preventing what is becoming a more and more frequent occurrence. It’s well worth reading her thoughts on this – the only hint I will give is that it doesn’t have anything to do with gun control. This is not an easy book to read but it is, I believe, an important book.

I have tremendous respect for Ms. Klebold, for her truthfulness, her courage, her compassion for her son’s victims and their families. And I believe that in recounting her thoughts on that terrible day, as she listened to the newscasters pronounce that twenty-five people were dead, she has written the most heartbreaking words I’ve ever read:

If Dylan was involved in hurting or killing other people, he had to be stopped. As a mother, this was the most difficult prayer I had ever spoken in the silence of my thoughts, but in that instant I knew the greatest mercy I could pray for was not my son’s safety, but for his death.

Grade: A


Posted by: Jeanie F | March 15, 2016

The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende

The Japanese Lover


The Japanese Lover is the latest novel by the powerhouse Chilean novelist, Isabel Allende – but there’s a catch. Credit is given to two separate translators –  Nick Caistor and Amanda Hopkinson – and, if I choose to be as generous as possible, a great deal may be lost in the translation. This is certainly not a book that in any way resembles the writing of Island Beneath the Sea or The House of the Spirits.

This book is an amalgam of all the historic events of the 20th Century, placed against the backdrop of a relationship that develops between an elderly woman and her young Romanian caregiver. It purports to be a love story, but wait – it purports to be a historical novel, but wait – it purports to be a family saga . . . Frankly, I don’t know what the heck it is supposed to be but it includes, among other things:

  • the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, followed by the internment of Japanese Americans
  • the Nazi invasion of Poland, followed by the internment of Jews into concentration camps
  • the difficulties of interracial love
  • spunky old people and young refugees
  • the sex trade/sex trafficking
  • homeless pets

And that is just the first half of the book.

The writing is flat, the dialogue (what there is of it) is stilted, the characters and situations stereotypical.

Having said this, 51% of the readers on gave it four or five stars; 8,000 readers on GoodReads gave it four or five stars, so maybe it’s just me. I say save your $12.99 ($8.44 in paperback) for infinitely more satisfying cappuccinos at Starbucks.

Grade: D- (seriously, if I could stand to give Isabel Allende a lower grade, I would)



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