Monday, September 1, 2014

Review: The House We Grew Up In by Lisa Jewell

I have gotten to a point in my life where I am going through my things and getting rid of stuff. I feel weighed down by it and realize that most of it doesn't need to be in my house and my life. This does not apply to my books, of course, although I am getting more discerning about what I keep on my permanent shelves there too. This desire to pare down and divest is the exact opposite of someone who hoards, who feels the need to anchor themselves in things, to continually acquire and squirrel away possessions. But hoarders are more than just people who want stuff. They have something in them, some deep hurt, some mental illness that compels them to compulsive collecting. Seeing the genesis and the result of such a hard thing is at the center of Lisa Jewell's newest novel, The House We Grew Up In.

Opening with an email from Lorelei Bird to an internet love interest named Jim, the email introduces the matriarch of the Bird family in her own words and through her own eyes. Just as quickly, then comes the contrast of what Megan Bird thinks of her mother and what she and her teenaged daughter expect to see when they open the door to the once charming but now dilapidated Cotswold cottage of her childhood.  It is so much worse than they ever expected, a solid wall of stuff with only narrow and winding paths through it to the rest of the house, equally packed from floor to ceiling and wall to wall. Lorelei Bird was a hoarder, unable and unwilling to pare anything out of her life and now the crumbling house stuffed to the brim mirrors the cracks and secretly nurtured layers of guilt in this dysfunctional family.

But how did the present happen? The Birds used to be a fun and appealing family with planned Easter egg hunts every year, a kitchen full of children's drawings, and a cozy feeling of love in the golden time before. Colin supported Lorelei's whimsy and their four children, Megan, Bethan, and twins Rory and Rhys benefitted from her childlike enthusiasms. But even then, Lorelei's quirky eccentricities carried the seed of something more. And in the aftermath of the terrible tragedy of the Easter of 1981, what was whimsical became sad, eccentricity edged into mental illness, and not one person in this now dysfunctional family was left unchanged and untouched. Each member of the family carries a load of guilt and each of them manifests that guilt in their own way, all of them ending up mostly estranged from the others.

The narrative alternates between past and present, slowly exposing the cracks and rifts of the present and terrible truth of the past. In between the two different narratives are Lorelei's emails to Jim, allowing her to tell her side of things, giving her uniquely positive spin, a spin that grows cautiously more honest, opening Lorelei up to face her own demons as time goes on. As the Birds gather to unload Lorelei's house, they excavate not only their own shared past but also the hurts they've long carried. And while Lorelei might have spent much of her adult life buried in things, the rest of them have also been buried, just in guilt and jealousy and anger rather than possessions. Some of the things that happen in the Bird family belong on a sensational talk show, a woman leaving her husband for another woman, a father having a relationship with his son's ex, and a sister having an affair with her brother-in-law and if they are unbelievable on a trashy talk show, they are strangely believable here in this sad and destroyed family.

Jewell has written an insightful and engrossing tale of a family slowly sinking under the weight of Lorelei's possessions and  under all of each person's sadness and secrets. They are changed forever by adultery, mental illness, suicide, and the messiness of relationships. The pacing is consistent and the narrative tension is steady, with both the mystery of the tragedy that changed the family tantalizingly kept under wraps as long as possible and the question of what happened to Lorelei and how the house got into such a state also revealed slowly and deliberately. The characters are realistic and well rounded, neither all good nor all bad, even if the reader does side with some over others.  This is an engrossing tale, well delivered and I defy you to want to hold onto more things once you've closed the cover.

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

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

This meme is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.

Books I completed this past week are:

Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger
Accidents of Marriage by Randy Susan Meyers

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
To See the Moon Again by Jamie Langston Turner

Reviews posted this week:

The Story of Land and Sea by Katy Simpson Smith
The People in the Photo by Helene Gestern
2 a. m. at the Cat's Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino

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
The House We Grew Up In by Lisa Jewell
A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
Going Somewhere by Brian Benson
Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger
Accidents of Marriage by Randy Susan Meyers

Monday Mailbox

This past week's mailbox arrivals:

The Moonlight Palace by Liz Rosenberg came from Lake Union Publishing and TLC Book Tours for a blog tour.

A coming of age tale in 1920s Singapore about a girl who has grown up in the palace of her ancestor, the last sultan of Singapore? This sounds completely intriguing.

Ballroom by Alice Simpson came from Harper and TLC Book Tours for a blog tour.

The story of the small group of people who gather together at the Ballroom to dance together, look for love, and put the reality of hum drum existences away for a time, this looks like it will be a lovely novel.

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, August 28, 2014

Review: 2 a.m. at the Cat's Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino

Composed like a song with a central melody and harmonies weaving in and out plus solo spotlight moments for each of the members in the band, 2 a. m. at the Cat's Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino mimics the jazz that is so central to its story. Nine year old Madeleine Altimari is the central melody. Her jazz singer mother recently died of cancer, leaving her father so wrapped in his own grief that he not only completely retreats to his room and withdraws from life as entirely as possible while still living but he needs Madeleine to take care of him rather than the other way around. So Madeleine is left to her own devices with only the help of the extensive cast of neighborhood friends who promised her mother to look out for her. Madeleine is a smart and precocious child with a passion for jazz. She wants nothing more than to sing and she works every day to perfect her voice. But being only 9, she must also go to school, in her case the local Catholic school where she's not well liked. Madeleine is not a perfect and innocent lamb though. She's as intolerant of those around her as they are of her. She curses like a sailor and she is busily smoking through the cigarettes her mother left behind. When Madeleine is abruptly expelled from school, she turns her attention to finding out where in Philadelphia the once renowned jazz bar The Cat's Pajamas is located and how she'll get herself there.

Madeleine's teacher, Sarina Green, is one of the harmonies weaving in and out of Madeleine's story. Sarina is newly returned to Philly after her divorce. She feels great sympathy for Madeleine and offers her kindness not out of a loyalty to Madeleine's mother but because Madeleine is an underdog, a child who needs someone in her corner. Sarina is floundering in her own life, reeling in the aftermath of the divorce, and when she meets an old acquaintance from school who invites her to a dinner party, she finds herself saying yes despite misgivings. And when she hears that her old high school crush is also going to be at the party, she must face her long-held feelings for him and her secret hope for the future.

Then there's Jack Francis Lorca. He's the owner of The Cat's Pajamas and this Christmas Eve Eve day is not turning out at all the way he'd want. He wakes to a police officer knocking on the club's door and handing him a ticket for city ordinance violations to the tune of $30,000, a sum of money there's little chance he can find in the 30 days given to him. His girlfriend, an exotic dancer, has left him and he can't seem to connect with his sixteen year old son, getting it wrong every time and missing the signs that his son is on the verge of choosing the wrong life.

The novel is broken down in time increments, seguing through Madeleine's, Sarina's, and Lorca's day and on into the night, ticking slowly down to 2 a. m. at the Cat's Pajamas and beyond. There are occasional other narrators as well when they are needed to flesh out happenings that the main three wouldn't otherwise be able to share with the reader. And as disparate as the three plot threads seem to be, as with any good melody and harmonies, they weave in and out of each other, making connections throughout the novel instead of just coming together in the end. Each character in this tightly knit story is completely believable, from independent and prickly Madeleine's childlike grading of her own singing practice to Sarina's insecurities to Lorca's tough exterior. With the novel occurring over a span of 24 hours, it is much like a song or the daily life cycle of a bar: a slow introduction or lull before bursting into hopping action. There are not entirely necessary flashes of magical realism, like what happens to people when Madeleine sings and a character literally drifting away. The pacing is a little slow before the convergence at The Cat's Pajamas and the multiple narrators and the rapidity with which their point of view ends and another narrator takes the reins can be a bit tricky. But it's an interesting novel and the individual riffs do ultimately come together to make a satisfying whole.

For more information about Marie-Helene Bertino and the book, check out her website, her Facebook page, her Twitter feed, or the book's Goodreads page. 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.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Review: The People in the Photo by Helene Gestern

Have you ever gone through piles of old photographs and wondered who the people in them are or why the person who kept them did so? When we take a photograph, it tells a story, but that story is lost if no one continues to tell it or to know it. Just as the images themselves fade, so too do the histories behind the photos, if their stories aren't passed along. In Helene Gestern's lovely epistolary novel, The People in the Photo, the important story of a woman's mother is in danger of being lost to time and memory until she finds a photograph and embarks on a quest to uncover her mother's history and that of her own.

Helene was raised by her father and stepmother, who never spoke at all about the mother who died when she was just four years old. When she, as an adult, finds a photograph of her mother and two unknown men in an old newspaper clipping, she advertises to see if she can find out any information about the woman who has long been nothing more than a cypher in her life. Helene's father is dead and her stepmother no longer has memories to share so Helene, an archivist by trade, is determined to find out what information she can. A man named Stephane writes back to her identifying not only his father but his godfather as the other two people in the photo. Between Helene and Stephane then, they start to construct a tale that stretches far beyond the photo. As their letters and emails show, they have a flourishing correspondence and a matching keenness to uncover personal history.

Their letters show a remarkable gradual opening up and sharing of their current lives as well as their speculations, sometimes confirmed and sometimes refuted, about the past. They start off carefully and guardedly but eventually feel free to divulge the hurts of their pasts, perhaps because of the initial facelessness of their correspondence. The letters also show a growing affinity for each other even as they grapple with apprehensiveness about what they might uncover. In their explorations they flesh out Natasha, called Nathalie, and Peter beyond the flat confines of the original photo and all those photos that follow. The story, written as it is, is a slow unveiling of the truth, beautifully paced, even incorporating realistic gaps of time due to either Helene and Stephane's discomfort with the findings.

Uniquely and wonderfully effective in terms of the presentation of the story, each set of letters and emails is interleaved with descriptions of photographs that both illuminate and present more secrets for Helene and Stephane to tease out. Gestern has written an elegant and considered novel, a melancholy and aching tale of one love that cannot be and one that can. In the end, the connection between Helene and Stephane is not surprising although the details are simple and affecting. The novel is moody and atmospheric as they search for their parents' truths and bravely dig past the long silence. This is an incredibly quick read, a fascinating look at love and memory, and the part the past, even the unknown past, plays in our present and our very identity.

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

The Moment of Everything by Shelly King. The book is being released by Grand Central Publishing on September 2, 2014.

Amazon says this about the book: In the tradition of The Cookbook Collector comes a funny, romantic novel about a young woman finding her calling while saving a used bookstore.

Maggie Dupr├Ęs, recently "involuntarily separated from payroll" at a Silicon Valley startup, is whiling away her days in The Dragonfly's Used Books, a Mountain View institution, waiting for the Next Big Thing to come along.

When the opportunity arises for her to network at a Bay Area book club, she jumps at the chance-even if it means having to read Lady Chatterley's Lover, a book she hasn't encountered since college, in an evening. But the edition she finds at the bookstore is no Penguin Classics Chatterley-it's an ancient hardcover with notes in the margins between two besotted lovers of long ago. What Maggie finds in her search for the lovers and their fate, and what she learns about herself in the process, will surprise and move readers.

Witty and sharp-eyed in its treatment of tech world excesses, but with real warmth at its core, The Moment of Everything is a wonderful read.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Review: The Story of Land and Sea by Katy Simpson Smith

There are some books that are difficult to describe. They are notable for the feeling or impression they inspire in the reader. Katy Simpson Smith's The Story of Land and Sea is one of these books. When a bookstore owner and fellow reader friend of mine pressed the advanced copy of this book into my hands, she simply said, "This is set in North Carolina and you should read it." Normally she can discuss the heck out of why but this one seemed to stymie her. She just knew there was something about it that begged to be read even if she couldn't articulate that something. And she was right. And I find myself struggling to explain why I agree with her, but I certainly do.

The novel opens in 1793 with ten year old motherless Tabitha (Tab) living in a coastal Carolina town with her father John, not too far from her grandfather, her mother's father, Asa. Tab has been allowed to run fairly wild without a mother to guide her. She is drawn to the sea and the ships that bob in the harbor. She explores tidal pools, swims out to a sandbar, and lazes in the sun. She asks her father for tales of his life with her mother, Helen, before she died in childbirth bringing forth Tab. That they eloped on a pirate ship and lived simply and happily until they had to come back to land and make a life for their coming child fascinates her no end.  And these tales, hard as they are for John to articulate, are the only piece of her mother than Tab has.  Although Tab is often unsupervised, she is precious to her father and she is the last of her grandfather's blood. When she's stricken with yellow fever, John and Asa disagree with how to save her.  One trusting in God and the other a non-believer.  In the end, John takes her onto a ship, the same way he took Helen so many years ago, desperate for the sea to work its magic on his small daughter.

And then the novel jumps back in time to when Helen, a motherless young woman herself, lived alone with her father, Asa. She was certain of her faith, quite devout, and strove to teach the word of God to the local slaves, presiding over Sunday services for them. She had her own slave, Moll, gifted to her by her father when she was a small child herself, but with whom she had a rather strange and complicated relationship, by turns distant or intensely close, uncaring or needy. In the final year of the Revolutionary War, she meets John, a soldier posted in Beaufort and prefers him to the more acceptable suitor whom her father has chosen. And so begins the tale that Tab so loved to hear.

The third part of the story returns to 1793, to John and Asa and to the slave Moll and her much adored son Davy. Moll has always loved Davy beyond the daughters who followed him and yet she has even less control over his destiny than John or Asa had over their daughters. Moll's love for Davy is desperate and deep despite the fact that she cannot keep him with her when John and Asa decide otherwise.  And she is willing to risk all for love of him.

Each of the three sections of the novel focuses on a parent and child, the connection between them, the overwhelming love, and the ways in which a parent does not, perhaps cannot, know his or her child's heart. In all three cases there is an trace, sometimes faint and others times not so faint, of a possessiveness about that love, a feeling that the child belongs to the parent. And yet life proves this possessiveness to be ephemeral in all cases. The characters here are almost all adrift in life without a real course. They seem solitary even in their connections with each other. The writing is rich, beautiful, and fluid and the general feel of the novel is elegant, dreamy, and haunting right from the start. It is an overwhelmingly sad story of loss after loss and melancholy threads through all three parts of the tale. The three parts are not arranged chronologically, allowing Smith to use the middle portion of her triptych as a respite from the unexpected plot trajectory of the first part, allowing the reader to process that deliberate authorial choice before moving forward with the tale. An elegiac, lyrical story, it will hover in your consciousness a long time after you close the cover.

For more information about Katy Simpson Smith and the book, check out her website. 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.

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