Monday, September 15, 2014

Review: House of Wonder by Sarah Healy

Most of us like to think that our family is normal. Even when we are in the midst of one of those familial train wrecks that happen to the best of us, we still want to believe that everyone faces the same sorts of crazy we are facing. But what if you know for a fact that your family is different, quirky, decidedly not normal? The family in Sarah Healy's new novel, House of Wonder, is not like the other families on the street, never has been, and is less so now.

Jenna is in her late thirties and a single mother. When she left home, she left behind her twin Warren, the boy who was always considered just a little weird, a little off, not quite normal, and her mother, a one time beauty queen whose husband left her for a neighbor, and who is letting their once stately looking home fall into disrepair as she accumulates unnecessary possessions. Jenna has maintained a distant relationship with both Warren and her mother but she has no desire to actually return to her childhood home. However, when her mother calls her and tells her that Warren is missing, she has no choice but to go back and face the unhappiness and secrets held in those four walls. Warren is probably the one person for whom she would willingly return home. And when he finally shows up badly beaten and as uncommunicative as ever, she can't help but be drawn back into the home life she thought she'd left behind for good.

When Jenna sees the state of the house and the way that the once friendly neighbors shun her mother and brother, she can't turn her back on her family. The neighborhood is suffering a rash of thefts and antisocial, model airplane obsessed Warren, who almost certainly is on the autism spectrum, is the de facto suspect in most of the neighbors' minds. That the house desperately needs a new coat of paint and has strange lawn ornaments dotting the front yard, looking completely out of place in an otherwise well-groomed neighborhood, doesn't help build any neighborly goodwill either. But some of the neighbors do still remember when things were better for the Parsons family, like Bobby, the doctor down the street who, with his young daughter, has moved back in with his parents while he finishes up his residency. His belief in Jenna, his non-judgmental attitude toward Warren and Silla, and his desire to help go a long way.

The novel tells its story in three distinct time periods. The bulk of it is set in modern day but there are flashbacks to Jenna and Warren's childhood and teen years in the 70s and 80s, detailing the people they once were and how they became the people they are now. Short chapters interspersed with the larger tale also tell the reader about Silla's dysfunctional upbringing, her own mentally ill mother, her emotionally abusive step-mother, and the father who saw her beauty as just about the only thing worth noticing about her. And it is Silla's familial history of mental illness that potentially explains Warren, the boy child who was never the son his father wanted and who was overprotected by his mother. Jenna, who is typical in all the ways that Warren is not, is the center of the story, understanding her brother and learning about the past from her mother. And she is learning to embrace the differences that make her family unique. There are long hidden secrets here and as Jenna discovers them, she learns to not allow her own past to steal happiness from her future. The mystery of the thefts is not a surprise but the way that Healy writes it makes its predictability less important than it would likely otherwise be. The characters are all sympathetic and their relationships and struggles are real and emotionally complex and Healy has written an affecting novel of family ties, fitting in, and sticking out.

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

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

This meme is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.

Books I completed this past week are:

House of Wonder by Sarah Healy
Ballroom by Alice Simpson

Bookmarks are still living in the middle of:

The Geometry of Love by Jessica Levine
Gemini by Carol Cassella
Ruby by Cynthia Bond
Marching to Zion by Mary Glickman
Mr. Tall by Tony Earley
The Imaginary Life by Mara Torres

Reviews posted this week:

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
GI Brides by Duncan Barrett and Nuala Calvi
Bergdorf Blondes by Plum Sykes

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

Mimi Malloy, At Last by Julia MacDonnell
The Innocent Sleep by Karen Perry
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
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
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
Going Somewhere by Brian Benson
Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger
House of Wonder by Sarah Healy
Ballroom by Alice Simpson

Monday Mailbox

This past week's mailbox arrival:

While the Gods Were Sleeping by Elizabeth Enslin came from Seal and FSB Media.

I am completely fascinated by books about people who marry someone from another culture and go off to live in that very foreign culture so this one about an American anthropologist who marries for love and ends up in a remote village in Nepal with her Brahman in-laws is right up my alley.

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, September 11, 2014

Review: Bergdorf Blondes by Plum Sykes

I don't exactly get the whole celebutante thing. I don't watch the reality tv shows about their lives and families. I don't click through on the internet to read about anything they are doing. I don't wish them ill but I truly don't see why anyone cares about their lives. Sure, they live what looks to be an impossibly different life from the rest of us but I can't imagine it's really all that fascinating in truth. And I certainly wouldn't want to live it. But a light and frothy book about a fictional young Bergdorf blonde and the life she leads among the celebutantes and glitterati of New York like in the re-released Bergdorf Blondes by Plum Sykes, well, that I can stomach, especially when it's presented as the funny and light weight entertainment that this fluffy chick lit is.

Our unnamed, brunette narrator, who calls herself Moi and has been described in a society column as a champagne bubble of a girl, is a fashion magazine writer but her nominal job doesn't often interfere with the privileged life of luxury she is leading. She's best friends with the original Bergdorf blonde, Julie Bergdorf, and inhabits a world of high class parties, drivers, private jets, wealth, and competitive shopping. When she and Julie notice how being engaged brings a new glow, unachievable through make-up and Botox, to their friends' faces, they set out to snag their own fianc├ęs. But the course of true love never does run smooth and it's no different for Moi. She makes terrible choices in men, all the while fending off her mother's insistence that she meet the "little Earl" who owns the manor home in Moi's small British hometown. Meanwhile she gets engaged to an emotional wacko and proceeds to date married man after married man. Much to her chagrin, each time she gets herself into a relationship pickle, Charlie, one of Julie's more charming boyfriends, comes to Moi's rescue.

The life that these pampered princesses lead is an unbelievable one although I suspect that Sykes has, in fact, captured the Park Avenue Princesses fairly true to life. Even with Moi, who is not of the same class as her friends wealth-wise, there is little focus on actual, real workaday jobs. Moi has a job, of course, but she can blithely skip work to go to Europe on a whim with a handsome man with seemingly no repercussions and the rest of her twenty-something friends can afford to "work" as fashion muses. Moi is supposed to be an Ivy League graduate but she is shockingly dumb if that's the case, as is spectacularly evident in the Advil incident.  The novel comes across as alternately satirical and straight so that the reader is never quite certain if Sykes is poking fun at this over the top lifestyle or not. Many of the characters are vacuous but still somehow come off as somehow not entirely unendearing. And because it is a ten year old re-issue, the pop culture references are decidedly dated, placing it firmly in its time. The end is completely predictable but as it's the way the reader wants the book to end, even if it is a tad unearned, that's okay. If you are looking for a guilty pleasure or are already a fan of celebutante "it" girls, this is the read for you.

For more information about Plum Sykes and the book, check out her Facebook page, or 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 Trish from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Review: GI Brides by Duncan Barrett and Nuala Calvi

When you think of the quick marriages that happen in wartime, you probably think of the marriages that took place before a soldier shipped out, marriages between people who already had a relationship and speeded it up to suit the short time frame they had. But in actual fact, there were many WWII marriages that were slightly different than this, if no less quick. Those very different wartime marriages were the ones between American soldiers and young British women they met when they were sent to England for training before heading to the European theater. Duncan Barrett and Nuala Calvi follow four of these GI brides into their marriages and their lives afterwards in their new book, GI Brides: The Wartime Girls Who Crossed the Atlantic for Love.

Alternating chapters between Sylvia, Gwendolyn (Lyn), Rae, and Margaret, the book follows the four women more or less chronologically as they each join the war effort in their own way, as they meet and are courted by American soldiers, as they make the decision to marry, and then as they leave Britain after the war to follow their husbands to their new homes across an ocean. Each of the women marries for reasons as unique as she is, from falling in love to an accidental pregnancy. What they all have in common though, is how little they actually know the men whom they marry and the loneliness of moving thousands of miles from friends and family.

Barrett and Calvi do a good job showing the road blocks the women faced from just getting permission to marry, to finding transport to America, to the suspicions they faced once in the US, to the hardships of adjusting to marriage with a relative stranger. And they contrast the idea of America as a land of prosperity and plenty with the hard and unhappy adjustment these very young women have to make when expectations hit a wall of not always pleasant reality. One of the brides endures abuse, one is viewed with suspicion and unkindness by her husband's family members, one discovers that her husband is an alcoholic, one contracts polio, one's husband is an unrepentant womanizer. What had looked like happier pairings in the days of war when everyone was grabbing at whatever happiness they could find turned into rocky marriages and generally difficult and lonely lives as expats for the four women.

The women's stories are told in third person omniscient, an odd choice for a non-fiction work as it reads more like fiction. And although the stories are the result of interviews and oral histories, that narrative perspective causes the reader to wonder how much of it is straight truth and how much embellished. The narrative structure flipping from one woman to another each chapter does make it difficult to keep each woman's life separate and her experiences firmly within her story. Just as the brides blur together, so do the husbands. And although these are just four of the thousands of women who came over to this country as war brides, they are a sad cross-sampling given how most of their marriages turned out. Over all, the book is an interesting one and it showed another side of the results of WWII but it doesn't feel as representative of all GI Brides as it might have had there been a bit more variation.

For more information about Duncan Barrett and Nuala Calvi and the book, check out their website, or 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 Trish from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Review: A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

Who doesn't love grumpy old men? OK, maybe not in real life, but they are ever so appealing in novels, right? Fredrik Backman's delightful novel, A Man Called Ove, has a wonderful curmudgeon of a main character that you just can't help but adore and a quirky cast of characters around him that restores your faith in humanity.

Ove is only in his fifties but he comes across as much older. He is intolerant of ineptitude and has a deep reverence for rules. He patrols his neighborhood, making sure that any and all signs, injunctions, and home owner rules are followed. He is a crusty bugger of a loner. And then he gets new neighbors. Patrick inadvertently flattens Ove's mailbox when he moves his family into the neighborhood, not the most auspicious way to meet a man who is already annoyed that they've driven a vehicle down a street clearly marked for no cars. Yet Parvaneh, Patrick's pregnant wife, sees past the gruff exterior, finds him humorous, and starts to make inroads with Ove.

Having Parvaneh, Patrick, and their two young daughters living beside Ove engages him in the life of the neighborhood again and foils his careful plan to commit suicide. He has come up with his plan because not only has he been forced to retire from his lifelong job, but he is also desperately grieving his wife Sonja, the only other woman who ever looked into his heart and saw the strong moral code of right and wrong and the sheer goodness and kindness that he is so careful to hide. But this family next door to him and then an increasing number of people in his community need him and so he must put off his plans to die day after day. As Ove becomes more and more engaged in living and in connecting with the people around him, he talks to Sonja, telling her about his days and reliving the past that made him the way he is.

This is a moving and emotionally satisfying book. Ove will make the reader laugh and cry in equal measure. He is a character who can fall out with a long time friend over the make of his car (Ove only drives Saabs) but he's also the man who can take in a ratty looking stray cat, despite disliking cats, because he knows it would have pleased his wife. Ove is such an appealing character that the reader can't help but root for him to find happiness and life sustaining friendship. Each time Ove is called on to postpone his suicide and help someone, his grumbling and muttering are completely entertaining. The book is absolutely delightful, touching, and brimming with a beautiful dignity. Everyone should read lovely book. Really, everyone.

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

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

This meme is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.

Books I completed this past week are:

To See the Moon Again by Jamie Langston Turner
A Hundred Pieces of Me by Lucy Dillon
GI Brides by Duncan Barrett and Nuala Calvi
Bergdorf Blondes by Plum Sykes

Bookmarks are still living in the middle of:

The Geometry of Love by Jessica Levine
Gemini by Carol Cassella
Ruby by Cynthia Bond
Marching to Zion by Mary Glickman
Mr. Tall by Tony Earley
House of Wonder by Sarah Healy

Reviews posted this week:

The House We Grew Up In by Lisa Jewell
Accidents of Marriage by Randy Susan Meyers
To See the Moon Again by Jamie Langston Turner
A Hundred Pieces of Me by Lucy Dillon

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

Mimi Malloy, At Last by Julia MacDonnell
The Innocent Sleep by Karen Perry
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
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
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
A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
Going Somewhere by Brian Benson
Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger
GI Brides by Duncan Barrett and Nuala Calvi
Bergdorf Blondes by Plum Sykes

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