Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Review: The Moonlight Palace by Liz Rosenberg

In the 1920s, Singapore was under British colonial rule and was surprisingly cosmopolitan. It experienced a financial boom between the two world wars, just as the Western world did. It had vibrant communities made up of various different nationalities: Indians, Straits Chinese, and British.  Some of the unrest in neighboring China found its way into the equatorial island country. It is at this time and in this period of relative calm that Liz Rosenberg's short novel, The Moonlight Palace, is set.

Agnes Hussein is 17. She is one of the last descendants of the last sultan of Singapore and she lives with her elderly extended family in the crumbling Kampong Glam Palace. Her parents and older brother died in the flu epidemic many years ago and she is left with her grandmother, Nei-Nei Down; British Grandfather; her Uncle Chachi, who is actually her great uncle and the heir to the palace; an aged servant; and a trio of odd young male boarders. It is only the rent that these students pay combined with British Grandfather's pension from the army that keeps the Hussein family in the slowly disintegrating palace at all. As the youngest, most able-bodied member of the family, Aggie feels as if she must take on responsibility for the old people, coming up with the idea of a retail job to help keep them afloat. Even as Aggie is trying to find a way to help bring in some money to patch the palace, one of the boarders is concocting his own dangerous plot that will change the lives of all the residents of Kampong Glam Palace but especially of the naïve and sweet Aggie who will experience love and betrayal for the first time as a result.

The Singapore setting is well done and carefully drawn. The time of the book is less well depicted with little devoted to ensuring that the reader always feels immersed in the 1920s instead of the present. The history of the time was so rich, especially in Asia, and yet the novel really just offers a glancing nod towards the way in which the world around them was changing and the growing tensions in the British held colony. The characters themselves are generally appealing and entertaining but a little thin and the pacing is slow without much narrative tension. Some of this lack of tension is because the story is told from Aggie's point of view and her understanding of her family's tenuous position is not only incomplete but it is almost non-existent. She knows that their financial straits mirror the ruin of the palace but has no concept of what that really means for the future, leaving her open and susceptible to outside forces. The ending of the novel introduces a new character entirely and then wraps up abruptly after a cursory couple of pages. A quick read, this coming of age novel is not quite as fully rounded as might be hoped but it is, despite that, a nice and easy read.

For more information about the book, take a look at the book's page on GoodReads. Follow the rest of the blog tour or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Lisa from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.

Waiting on Wednesday

This meme is hosted by Breaking the Spine and is meant to highlight some great pre-publication books we all can't wait to get our grubby little mitts on.

Christmas at Tiffany's by Karen Swan. The book is being released by William Morrow Paperbacks on October 28, 2014.

Amazon says this about the book: In the wake of a heartbreaking betrayal, a young woman leaves the Scottish countryside to find her destiny in three of the most exciting cities in the world—New York, Paris, and London—in this funny and triumphant tale of fulfillment, friendship, and love.

Ten years ago, a young and naïve Cassie married her first serious boyfriend, believing he would be with her forever. Now, her marriage is in tatters and Cassie has no career or home of her own. Though she feels betrayed and confused, Cassie isn’t giving up. She’s going to take control of her life. But first she has to find out where she belongs . . . and who she wants to be.

Over the course of one year, Cassie leaves her sheltered life in rural Scotland to stay with her best friends living in the most glamorous cities in the world: New York, Paris, and London. Exchanging comfort food and mousy hair for a low-carb diet and a gorgeous new look, Cassie tries each city on for size as she searches for the life she’s meant to have . . . and the man she’s meant to love.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Review: Strings Attached by Joanne Lipman and Melanie Kupchynsky

All of us have many teachers over our lifetime. Some of them teach us in school, some coach us in sports, and some just teach us about life. Among those many teachers are those couple who leave a lasting impression, who push us to be better than we ever imagined we could be. We all have at least that one teacher in our lives. The lucky among us have several. For me, over the years, I can point to a couple of swim coaches, a geometry teacher, and a Russian teacher who all took the time to not only teach me about what their field was but to develop me as a person and to teach me about what I could and should expect from myself. Joanne Lipman and Melanie Kupchynsky have written a tribute to the teacher, and in Melanie's case, father, who had that same sort of dramatic impact on their lives in their non-fiction book, Strings Attached.

Opening with Melanie dreaming of losing her sister and Joanne answering the phone to hear a voice she hadn't thought of in years, this is the story of Mr. Kupchysky, or Mr. K, the school orchestra director in East Brunswick, New Jersey, his life, the terrible sorrows and hardships he had to overcome, and the impact he had on countless children's lives. Told in alternating chapters by Joanne and Melanie, they each describe Mr. K and his methods as a music teacher. Melanie, being his daughter, saw the impact his hard life had on him, not only his escape from WWII Ukraine but his wife's debilitating illness, their tough marriage, and then the disappearance of their youngest daughter, Stephanie. As they describe Mr. K. though, each of them also tells of her own life and growth as a musician and as a person.

Each of them details the incredibly high standards to which Mr. K. held his musicians and the heights to which those expectations led them. Both Lipman and Kupchynsky excelled at their instruments, earning honors and accolades, learning invaluable lessons from their hard but proud taskmaster. Mr. K.'s methods as a teacher are not ones that are often seen or embraced, especially in today's educational environment. He did not praise where no praise was earned. He intimidated. He didn't couch his honesty in easy to swallow platitudes or soften the blow of his disappointment. He didn't subscribe to the school of only positive reinforcement. In fact, he was the sort of teacher who ruled through discipline and determined repetition. His lofty expectations for anyone lucky and talented enough to study under him shaped them all. And it clearly worked.

While this aspect of the story was mildly interesting for a reader with no musical knowledge and no interest in teaching, the story really drew me much more into it when Stephanie went missing and the focus was on the impact of her disappearance and the way that Mr. K.'s former students rallied around as he faced yet one more tragedy in a life rife with them. It is Stephanie's disappearance that is even the catalyst for Lipman's reconnection with the Kupchynskys and the driving force behind looking back at what defined and drove Mr. K., and what made him the inspiration for so many young musicians. I have to admit I didn't love this as much as I had hoped to, perhaps because the pacing of the narration in the 60s and 70s was much slower than that of the 90s, or perhaps because music and teaching are not particular interests of mine. But as a book, it did get me to reflect on the people who have been so very important, and not always adequately acknowledged as such, in my own life, a worthy outcome to reading it, I think.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.

Monday, October 20, 2014

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

I didn't get any closer to getting caught up on reviews this week either. As a matter of fact, per usual, I got further away from being caught up. ::sigh:: This meme is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.

Books I completed this past week are:

Falling For Max by Shannon Stacey
The Moonlight Palace by Liz Rosenberg
Christmas Brides by Suzanne Enoch, Alexandra Hawkins, Elizabeth Essex, and Valerie Bowman
'Til the Well Runs Dry by Lauren Francis-Sharma

Bookmarks are still living in the middle of:

Ruby by Cynthia Bond
The Way North edited by Ron Riekki
The Banks of Certain Rivers by Jon Harrison

Reviews posted this week:

Us by David Nicholls
The Innocent Sleep by Karen Perry

Books still needing to have reviews written (as opposed to the ones that are simply awaiting posting):

Strings Attached by Joanne Lipman and Melanie Kupchynsky
Palmerino by Melissa Pritchard
If Not For This by Pete Fromm
The Lady From Tel Aviv by Raba'i al-Madhoun
Angels Make Their Hope Here by Breena Clarke
Ishmael's Oranges by Claire Hajaj
Neverhome by Laird Hunt
Burial Rights by Hannah Kent
Euphoria by Lily King
The Blessings by Elise Juska
The Traitor's Wife by Allison Pataki
Painted Horses by Malcolm Brooks
All Fall Down by Jennifer Weiner
Juliet's Nurse by Lois Leveen
We Are Called to Rise by Laura McBride
Bellman and Black by Diane Setterfield
The Orphans of Race Point by Patry Francis
Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger
Mr. Tall by Tony Earley
Cinnamon and Gunpowder by Eli Brown
Gemini by Carol Cassella
The Bride Insists by Jane Ashford
A Farm Dies Once a Year by Arlo Crawford
A Fork in the Road edited by James Oseland
Marching to Zion by Mary Glickman
Flirting with French by William Alexander
Reluctantly Royal by Nichole Chase
The Geometry of Love by Jessica Levine
The Wednesday Daughters by Meg Waite Clayton
Highland Scandal by Julia London
Since You've Been Gone by Anouska Knight
Starting Over by Sue Moorcroft
Falling For Max by Shannon Stacey
The Moonlight Palace by Liz Rosenberg
Christmas Brides by Suzanne Enoch, Alexandra Hawkins, Elizabeth Essex, and Valerie Bowman
'Til the Well Runs Dry by Lauren Francis-Sharma

Monday Mailbox

This past week's mailbox arrivals:

Certainty by Victor Bevine came from Lake Union Publishing and TLC Book Tours for a blog tour.

World War II books typically focus on the war overseas but not on the affect of such a huge mobilization at home. This novel about thousands of recruits training in Newport, changing the tenor of the town, and ultimately accusing a beloved minister of sexual impropriety should be completely different.

The Banks of Certain Rivers by Jon Harrison came from me because sometimes you just want to treat yourself.

An author on Facebook is running a discussion about this book and I was intrigued by the premise: a teacher with an incredibly complicated personal life, breaks up a fight but whose actions, on video look entirely different. Now I have to catch up with the group so I can comment too.

If you'd like to see the marvelous goodies in other people's mailboxes, make sure to visit Mailbox Monday and have fun seeing how we are all doing our part to keep the USPS and delivery services viable.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Review: The Lady From Tel Aviv by Raba'i al-Madhoun

Although we are far from Israel and Palestine here in the US, the ongoing problems between the two are never far from the nightly news. But what we see on tv very often feels removed. How can we possibly understand the root of the conflict from these nightly dispatches? How much of the hatred and violence finds its way into everyday life of people in Israel and Gaza? Only by peering into the lives of those who live with the violence and suspicion and low (and sometimes very high) level fear, can we hope to reach some sort of authentic understanding, even if it is still the understanding of an outsider. So it was with great interest that I picked up Raba'i al-Madhoun's novel, The Lady From Tel Aviv, thinking that it would give me a window into not only the heart and mind of a Palestinian returning to his family and homeland after an exile of almost 40 years but also into the heart and mind of a regular Israeli, the titular lady from Tel Aviv, as well.

Unfortunately, the novel is misnamed and there's relatively little time spent with Dana Ahova, the Israeli actress that main character Walid Dahman meets on his plane ride from London to Tel Aviv. Instead the bulk of the novel focuses on Walid's experiences both as a young man when he could no longer come home from school in Egypt, exiled because of the Occupation, to all that he experiences as he arrives home and spends time with the family he hasn't seen for decades. The reality of being a Palestinian coming into Israel and trying to get into Gaza is dehumanizing, even with Walid's British passport, and the situation in which his family finds itself living is cramped and oftentimes scary. Walid's visit back certainly highlights some of the horrifying treatment of regular Palestinian citizens in Gaza but in terms of a plot, the novel meandered without much focus besides presenting everyday life, much of which is fairly miserable.

As is to be expected, the tale is fairly one-sided, which doesn't make it an untruthful depiction, rather it just feels unbalanced although it is far less politicized than it could be. There is a lack of an intriguing cohesive story here despite the hope that it would chronicle the meeting of two people who find the ability to see each other as individuals beyond their nationality. And while they do see each other as human beings, the whole of it didn't have enough impact or meat to make it engrossing reading. In fact, I found the novel to be rather underwhelming over all, which makes me wonder if I missed something in the translation that made it worthy of shortlisting for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2010.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book for review.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Review: The Innocent Sleep by Karen Perry

We all take risks every day. When we do it consciously, we weigh up the chances that something will go horribly wrong and having determined the odds are with us that nothing bad will happen, we do whatever it is we've been considering. But what about that slim percentage of times that the unthinkable does in fact happen? How do we live with ourselves, knowing that we chose the risk that led to terrible loss or tragedy or regret? And what happens if we can't accept it? These questions and more swirl through the tense plot of Karen Perry's (the pen name for authors Paul Perry and Karen Gillece) novel, The Innocent Sleep.

Harry and Robin are artists who have settled in Tangiers because of the quality of light. They have settled into their chosen community there and have a three year old son Dillon. He's not the easiest of toddlers,incredibly difficult to settle into sleep and so when, on the eve of Robin's birthday, Harry realizes that he hasn't picked up her present, just a five minute walk away, he leaves the sleeping child in their flat and goes to collect it.  It was at that moment that the world cracked open. An earthquake ravages Tangiers and the building where they had lived is leveled. Dillon's body is never found.

Living in Dublin five years on, Harry and Robin are trying to carve a new life out of the rubble of the old. Robin is newly pregnant and working as an architect while Harry is giving up his stand alone studio and moving his work back into the garage thanks to the economic stresses of the time. But on his final day at the studio, he has to make his way through a rally where he spots a young boy he is convinced is Dillon.  Harry had searched and searched for his son after the earthquake, always certain that no body meant that the boy had survived and now that he's seen him on the street, he cannot rest until he tracks this child down. He is completely obsessed. While Robin doesn't believe him, the cursory reappearance of a child who could be Dillon unravels their carefully constructed new life. Secrets and lies emerge, guilt rears its head again, and innocence has to be redefined. The tale of their life in Tangiers changes from one of artistic fulfillment and familial happiness ending in enormous grief to one of furtiveness, illicitness, and infidelity. And the unwritten story of their future metamorphoses right before the reader's eyes as both Harry an Robin's secrets are revealed.

The story is told in an alternating first person narrative so that both Harry and Robin can tell the story directly and neither of them are entirely truthful with the reader until they have to be. The pacing of the novel is uneven, very slow in the beginning but building tension quickly towards the end and the plot itself felt drawn out. The surprising ending comes after a hysterical, frantic crescendo. And while it would seem as if parents who have lost a child and are devastated by their loss should be sympathetic characters, they weren't really.  In fact, there are really no good guys here.  Not even relatable guys.  The story does raise issues of the bounds of creativity, all-consuming grief and obsession, mental illness, the limits of forgiveness, and horrifying regret over wrong choices but it couches it all in choices that are hard, if not impossible, to overlook.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book for review.

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