Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Review: The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls by Anton DiSclafani

This was one of the big buzz books of 2013 and I kept hearing it mentioned, saw it on lists, and spotted it not only on the front tables at bookstores but also on the shelves of places that typically only have a couple of shelves of books like Target and Walmart. Clearly there was a big push behind this book. And yet there was something about it that kept me from picking it up and adding it to my embarrassingly large collection until my book club chose it. I will say that I found it both better and worse than I expected. Perhaps a better description would be unsettling and curious.

Thea Atwell is 15 when the novel opens and her father is taking her to the Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina from her home in Florida. The year is 1930 and the Great Depression is ever present, if only directly confronted when another girl or two can no longer afford tuition at this school for the rich is sent home. Thea does not want to go to school, does not want to be separated from her twin brother Sam, but she is essentially being banished for an as yet unstated and unforgivable transgression. Thea assumes that she is only spending the summer at the camp but in actual fact, she's been exiled for the school year, the truth of which comes to her slowly as she settles into Yonahlossee. The school is an equestrian boarding school, a sort of finishing school for the horsy set and Thea should fit in reasonably well, being a fearless and intense rider already. Despite her secluded upbringing, having had only her twin and her older cousin Georgie as companions throughout her childhood, she is quickly attuned to the school hierarchy, shunning the girl everyone else does, respecting the remote Leona, and becoming friends with the all-around popular Sissy.

As Thea navigates the terrain of this all girl's world, the narrative flashs back to the lead up to the incident that got her sent away in the first place. It sets out her personality and the way in which she knowingly pursues that which she wants, regardless of its rightness. The scandal is not much of a surprise really, its revelation more like a slow motion car accident the reader is powerless to stop. And it is also not a surprise when the scandal from home is replicated on a grander scale at school given Thea's competitive and headstrong personality.

Thea comes across as coldly emotionless, predatory, and calculating, making it difficult to sympathize with her as a character. DiSclafani sets her main character up to recognize her lack of value as a girl in her time period, given her acknowledgement that her brother Sam was the wanted, expected, and valued boy but then doesn't really examine this or the way in which it might have formed Thea in any sort of real depth. There is also a question of whether the reader is meant to find Thea to be a reliable narrator or not. Although the story is told by Thea at a remove of many years, she seems to have no insights into her motives or actions from the time and still seems surprised by the fact that other characters view her very differently than she viewed herself: pointing out that she was always staring and aloof, calling her sneaky or sly and so forth. In fact, her interactions with some of the help at camp, including Docey, the young woman who cleans her cabin, also point to the fact that the Thea our narrator presents is a bit of a shimmering mirage.

The writing here is beautifully done but the pacing is glacially slow. If this is intentional in order to increase the tension before the reveal of Thea's sins, both at home and at camp, it is unnecessary as the what of her misdeeds is never in doubt, nor, frankly, is the extent of them; it is only how soon they will occur. This is certainly a coming of age, and meant to be a passionate one but Thea is less passionate than greedy and even Machiavellian. DiSclafani has done a good job depicting the social strata that cuts through the camp and the shifting loyalties of and competitions between girls on the cusp of womanhood. She stumbles a bit in suggesting that Thea's own mother would confide a scandal of such a huge magnitude in a former schoolmate, Yonahlossess's headmistress, a woman she was only friends with as a way for the powers that be at her own school to tamp down her wild ways and who still maintains a connection to so many of their mutual acquaintances. But this unlikely confidence has to drive the novel and fuel Thea's misbehavior even more and so it stands. The majority of the novel is slow and languid with very little sense of time passing and yet the ending comes across as abrupt and unsatisfactory, perhaps in part because the much older Thea narrating the story still seems unable to accept any culpability for the events that changed the trajectory of so many lives. Despite these flaws, the novel kept us talking about incest, reputation, power, and sexuality for quite a while.

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.

Madame Picasso by Anne Girard. The book is being released by Harlequin MIRA on August 26, 2014.

Amazon says this about the book: Novelist Anne Girard brings to life the mesmerizing and untold story of Eva Gouel, the unforgettable woman who stole the heart of the greatest artist of our time

When Eva Gouel moves to Paris from the countryside, she is full of ambition and dreams of stardom. Though young and inexperienced, she manages to find work as a costumer at the famous Moulin Rouge, and it is here that she first catches the attention of Pablo Picasso, a rising star in the art world.

A brilliant but eccentric artist, Picasso sets his sights on Eva, and Eva can't help but be drawn into his web. But what starts as a torrid affair soon evolves into what will become the first great love of Picasso's life.

With sparkling insight and passion, Madame Picasso introduces us to a dazzling heroine, taking us from the salon of Gertrude Stein to the glamorous Moulin Rouge and inside the studio and heart of one of the most enigmatic and iconic artists of the twentieth century.

Monday, August 18, 2014

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Reviews are still piling up. I guess I'll just go with the idea that I'll get to them someday. :-) This meme is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.

Books I completed this past week are:

The Virtues of Oxygen by Susan Schoenberger
The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls by Anton DiSclafani
Wild Within by Melissa Hart
The Story of Land and Sea by Katy Simpson Smith

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
The Story Hour by Thrity Umrigar

Reviews posted this week:

The Curse of Van Gogh by Paul Hoppe
The Virtues of Oxygen by Susan Schoenberger
Chasing Perfect by Susan Mallery

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
Jane Austen's First Love by Syrie James
The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls by Anton DiSclafani
Wild Within by Melissa Hart
The Story of Land and Sea by Katy Simpson Smith

Monday Mailbox

I received an interesting and unusual trio this week. And my husband discovered that the UPS man is in love with me. OK, not really, but he loves delivering to our house; I'm one of his best customers. As he said, he needs packages to deliver to stay employed and book packages are the best because they are light. Given the frequency with which he drops one of these off at my house, he is obviously in love with me, right? I thought so too. This past week's mailbox arrivals:

Queen of Hearts: The Wonder by Colleen Oakes came from Spark Press for a blog tour.

Fairy tell retellings can be amazing. This one where a princess becomes a villain rather than having good triumph sounds incredibly interesting.

The Story Hour by Thrity Umrigar came from Harper and TLC Book Tours for a blog tour.

I have loved Umrigar's other works and this one about an Indian woman who tried to commit suicide, her psychiatrist, and the conversations they have should be phenomenal.

Gutenberg's Apprentice by Alix Christie came from Harper and TLC Book Tours for a blog tour.

A novel about the birth of the printing press and the forces pitted against it in the medieval world from the perspective of Gutenberg's apprentice? Oh my! Yes, please! This looks amazing.

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.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Sunday Salon: Books, movies, and food

So I've had a busy week this week, as is usual in the run-up to school starting again. Every time I cross something off my to do list, three more things seem to get added to the end. So what do I do when I am feeling overwhelmed? Why ignore the list and sit down and read, of course. And I have been a reading fanatic this week (more on that later) but I have also been obsessed with cooking as well. "How is this related to books?" I can hear you asking. Here's a hint I have become obsessed with finding and cooking Scottish desserts.

Yes, I am watching Outlander on Starz. A good friend and neighbor has been hosting a viewing party so I get to pop down to her place and watch the dramatization of the first book in a series that caused me to completely ignore my infant son and husband for an entire weekend seventeen years ago. (Yes, I read all four of the books that were then published in one very bleary-eyed marathon weekend.) I even listened to the audio version of the first book this summer on our long drive to the cottage despite the fact that my children were in the car. If you've read the books, you know why this might have been a dodgy decision. Listening to steamy sex scenes with your teenagers and preteen can be a bit embarrassing. But I decided to go with it anyway. Because that's what I do. You know, scar my children permanently and give them more to discuss when they need therapy as adults. And I did mortify the no longer infant son, now 17, who said it was uncomfortable listening to 50 Shades of Scotland with his mom. But I've seen his chats with his friends and I'm pretty sure it was only my presence that made him squirm, not the actual content of the scenes. The other teenager and the preteen both really enjoyed the book and are eager for the second one so I'll need to find a different way to scar them like I have their brother. Wouldn't want to treat them unequally after all.

So back to the food thing. Since J. is hosting several of us every week (fingers crossed she doesn't get tired of us before the season is over--or until after the newly announced second season), I feel like I should contribute something sinful to snack on while watching. And I'm nothing if not weird about trying to match my food offerings to the situation. J. knows me well and told me that there was to be no haggis, although sourcing a sheep's stomach in Charlotte could be exceptionally difficult, hence the dessert/sweets option. Last week I made iced cherry loaf, which the internet assures me is a staple of Scottish tea houses all over. And we all know that the internet is infallible, right? It turned out okay but not spectacular, perhaps because I had to make my own glace cherries, what with them only being locally available at Christmas time for use in fruit cakes. It always makes me cranky when I have decided to try a recipe and I cannot find a key ingredient. I mean, seriously! So this week (we watch on Sundays rather than Saturdays because it suits our schedules better), I am trying to make something that calls for more common ingredients. It'll be either cranachan or Scottish tablet. I'd also toyed with the idea of making bannock because that's mentioned in the books but it doesn't sound so very appealing. Dry and crumbly, more like. There are 16 episodes in this first series though so I need additional ideas (and yes, I make a mean shortbread thanks to a friend's mom's recipe so that may make an appearance at some point) or to find something we all can't get enough of that I can make on a weekly basis.

As for the adaptation itself, so far it is really good. I have some quibbles but I am a raging purist and should probably be ignored on the subject! Let's just say that it's good enough that I will happily search out and make Scottish desserts to cart along with me as I give up a couple of reading hours to socialize and watch the movie each week. And I'm likely to get the rest of the books on audio as well to refresh my memory of them as I drive around the city on my interminable rounds taking kids places just in case Starz decides they want to dramatize all of the books. :-) Are you watching Outlander? If so, what do you think of it so far? And do you have any recipes for me to spring on my fellow watchers?

This week has been a busy book week for me. I went to a small town where a older woman in an iron lung and a young widow, one struggling to breathe literally and one metaphorically, gave each other the gift of friendship and support. I went off to a girls' school in the North Carolina mountains with a teenager being sent away from home for her unforgivable transgressions during the heart of the depression. I watched as a woman learned to love and work with raptors while she and her husband grappled with what their family should look like. I embarked on a ship with a father and his very ill daughter in the late 1700s and then moved backwards in time to see another father daughter relationship and then forward to see a mother son relationship. And now I am listening in as a desperately lonely Indian woman shares her story with her doctor after trying to kill herself. Where have your book travels taken you this past week?

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Review: Chasing Perfect by Susan Mallery

I went to the Romantic Times Convention this year with a couple of friends. As we perused the schedule of events, one of them was thrilled to see that there were several sessions with Susan Mallery and focused on her small town romances set in Fool's Gold, California. The other two of us had never read any of the books but we were happy enough to tag along and listen. As I'd been looking for a few more contemporary romances to balance out my not so secret historical Regency obsession, I decided that I'd give these romances by the funny and charming Ms. Mallery a try. And of course, true to form, I had to start at the beginning of the ever increasing series with the first book, Chasing Perfect.

Charity Jones is new to Fool's Gold. She's just been hired as the new city planner for the small town and she's been tasked with bringing new business to the area, especially businesses run by men. Because Fool's Gold has a serious lack of young, single men and a preponderance of single women. But somehow, Charity manages to interest the two bachelors that the town does have, Robert, the town treasurer, and local retired cycling celebrity Josh Golden. The former is a solid guy but he just doesn't make sparks fly for Charity the way that Josh does. However, Charity is reluctant to get involved with Josh because he's too famous, too perfect. She has a deep desire for the family she's been missing her whole life, having lived with just her mother, moving from pillar to post as she grew up, never setting down roots so a boyfriend who chases fame around the world is not ideal for her.

Josh might be a famous cyclist and the town's golden child but he has his own issues. He gave up cycling after an accident left a young rider, to whom he was a mentor, dead. He hasn't spoken to his best friend Ethan in years even though he desperately misses him. And he harbors abandonment issues stemming from his mother leaving him in Fool's Gold when he was just a young child. Rather than admit his fears and face his demons, he rides his bike only at night and prefers to let the town think that he's a playboy. He never counted on the complication that is Charity, his lightning hot attraction to her, and his growing feelings for the lovely new town planner. The fact that she is very much behind a push to hold a bike race in town to elevate Fool's Gold's profile doesn't help matters at all either.

As Charity and Josh get to know each other and end up hot and heavy, there is a lot more going on in the town as well. A hospital is considering building a branch in the town, a massive amount of money given to the town by the state has gone missing and must be tracked down, and Charity discovers that her expertise is not the only reason that she was considered for her job. The chemistry between Charity and Josh is immediate and steamy. Fool's Gold as a location is charming; it's the ideal small town, welcoming and friendly. As this is the first in a long running series, there are lots of unfinished plot lines left to tease out in future books but none of them are left in a frustrating or unsatisfying way. The fact that Charity is unable to see Josh's point of view when he presents it but accepts it almost immediately when Mayor Marsha lays it out at the end of the book is a bit too convenient in resolving their difference of opinion but aside from that hiccup, this is a warm and satisfying story.

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 Miniaturist by Jessie Burton. The book is being released by Ecco on August 26, 2014.

Amazon says this about the book: Set in seventeenth century Amsterdam—a city ruled by glittering wealth and oppressive religion—a masterful debut steeped in atmosphere and shimmering with mystery, in the tradition of Emma Donoghue, Sarah Waters, and Sarah Dunant.

”There is nothing hidden that will not be revealed . . .“

On a brisk autumn day in 1686, eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman arrives in Amsterdam to begin a new life as the wife of illustrious merchant trader Johannes Brandt. But her new home, while splendorous, is not welcoming. Johannes is kind yet distant, always locked in his study or at his warehouse office—leaving Nella alone with his sister, the sharp-tongued and forbidding Marin.

But Nella’s world changes when Johannes presents her with an extraordinary wedding gift: a cabinet-sized replica of their home. To furnish her gift, Nella engages the services of a miniaturist—an elusive and enigmatic artist whose tiny creations mirror their real-life counterparts in eerie and unexpected ways . . .

Johannes’ gift helps Nella to pierce the closed world of the Brandt household. But as she uncovers its unusual secrets, she begins to understand—and fear—the escalating dangers that await them all. In this repressively pious society where gold is worshipped second only to God, to be different is a threat to the moral fabric of society, and not even a man as rich as Johannes is safe. Only one person seems to see the fate that awaits them. Is the miniaturist the key to their salvation . . . or the architect of their destruction?

Enchanting, beautiful, and exquisitely suspenseful, The Miniaturist is a magnificent story of love and obsession, betrayal and retribution, appearance and truth.

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