Thursday, September 27, 2012

Review: The After Wife by Gigi Levangie Grazer

When David Lee Roth sang, "Well East coast girls are hip
I really dig those styles they wear
And the Southern girls with the way they talk
They knock me out when I'm down there
The Mid-West farmer's daughters really make you feel alright
And the Northern girls with the way they kiss
They keep their boyfriends warm at night
I wish they all could be California
I wish they all could be California
I wish they all could be California girls," the implication, of course, was that California girls are the cream of the crop, close to perfection.  But what if you aren't perfection in California and specifically in LA?  What if the person who loved you, imperfections and all, died, leaving not only you but your life less than perfect?  Hannah Bernal, the main character in Gigi Levangie Grazer's newest novel, has to face that very reality after her beloved husband John dies after being hit by a car. 

Hannah's a young widow in a place that doesn't accept death well.  Her finances are in a shambles and when she's fired from her latest producing gig, she might just have to sell her house.  She's slowly going off the rails.  And it's not just Hannah living this new unwanted life, she's got a sassy, fashionista, daddy's girl of a three year old daughter Ellie who misses the dad who was always her primary caregiver.  Luckily Hannah also has a cast of loving, if off-beat, friends, Chloe, Aimee, and Jay, who rally around her to bail her out and to try and help her face her grief and the new normal of widowed life.  That they cannot keep Hannah from seeing and speaking to the dead is not a mark of how ineffective they are or of how nutty they think Hannah is getting, but is an unexpected but factual reflection of Hannah's new life.  Apparently with John's death, Hannah has become more sensitive to the spirits around her and she can in fact talk to dead people.  She can pass messages on from them to their loved ones.  But telling work colleagues or perfect strangers things from the deceased is a sure way to make people look at you askance.  As if Hannah's very widowhood hadn't already made her a bit of a pariah, her messages from the beyond positively freak people out and make her kooky friends wonder if she's not going completely insane.

Grazer has written a light, entertaining, and even playful novel about life after death, both the living going on after losing a loved one as well as the idea of an after life for the dead and the ways in which they remain with us.  Hannah's grief is palpable and her floundering in the wake of John's death is very realistic.  That she cannot even remember to care for her own child, leaving her at school long past pick-up time and avoiding the difficulty of telling her that her beloved daddy is gone forever, is completely believable given her own withdrawal from the world.  She's a mess, that Hannah, but a mess with whom the reader feels a connection.  The idea of a person suddenly being able to talk to the dead is handled interestingly and makes for a humorous plot twist given the situations in which Hannah's new gift and her inability to keep quiet about it lands her.  The secondary characters here are fairly stereotypical and the book on the whole doesn't delve deeply into the issues it touches on, staying firmly on the light and playful surface.  An entertaining read, this is a sitcom of a novel about death and grieving, light on the depressing sadness and heavier on the simple enjoyment factor.
 
Thanks to LibraryThing Early Reviewers and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Review: Hemingway's Girl by Erika Robuck

I read The Old Man and the Sea many, many years ago in junior high.  As my first introduction to Hemingway, it vaulted him onto my authors to search out list and I promptly scoured my parents' bookshelves for more of his works.  I found The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms from my mother's school years (I still have them on my shelves to this day) and devoured them as well.  I even taught the latter book to my classes when I was in grad school.  But as much as I liked his fiction, I knew that his life had not been a particularly happy one, failed marriages, depression, writer's block, and ultimately suicide.  Still, there's just something magnetic about the Hemingway legacy.  And so the opportunity to read about a fictionalized bit of his time in Key West was terrifically appealing.  Erika Robuck's novel Hemingway's Girl offers just that chance: to peek inside Hemingway's life in 1930's Key West through the eyes of a young Cuban-American woman who captures Papa's attention and comes to work as a maid for Hemingway and second wife Pauline.
 
Opening in 1961 when, after a day of fishing with her son, Mariella Bennet learns of Ernest Hemingway's death, this novel moves from her deep seated sorrow at the news back in time to her reflections of the year when she was so close to the man.  In 1935, Mariella is a young woman struggling to hold her family together after the unexpected death of her fisherman father.  Her mother is suffering from extreme depression and grief and so it is up to Mariella to find the odd jobs that will help her mother and two younger sisters survive.  The Depression is in full swing and Key West has been hit hard, making it difficult for Mariella to find enough work to not only feed her sisters but to pay for the doctor's visits her youngest sister, prone to fevers, needs so frequently.  In addition to the small jobs she finds, Mariella occasionally finds her way to the local boxing matches, betting her tiny pay on the bouts in the hopes of increasing the amount.  It is here that she first sees both Hemingway and boxer and WWI veteran Gavin Murray who is helping to supervise the building of the Overseas Highway nearby.

Drawn to both men, Mariella accepts Hemingway's suggestion that she apply for work at his home.  She meets Pauline and the rest of Hemingway's family, becoming intimately acquainted with the wealth and extravagance, the tension amongst their set of friends, and the just beneath the surface turmoil of the Hemingway family's life.  Mariella acts as a sort of muse for Hemingway, who is both paternal towards her at the same time he's sending out a dangerous undercurrent of sexual attraction as well.  And Mariella is attracted to Papa, despite knowing better and recognizing how foolhardy it is to invite Pauline's jealousy.  At the same time, she is also pulled to the care and kindness she finds in Gavin and she embarks on the beginnings of a relationship with him.  The two men don't like each other much, competing as they are for Mariella.  As the year progresses, Mariella finds herself in the heart of the Hemingway family and witnessing the cracks in their marriage while she grows ever closer to Gavin, letting him into her own small family.

Robuck has done a fantastic job evoking the Key West of the 1930's, the depressed economy; the clashes between the locals and the poor, damaged vets brought in the build the highway through the swamps and fetid conditions; and the male-dominated fishing, boxing, drinking culture of the time.  Mariella as a main character is complex and realistic as she wrestles with which man is going to play the largest part in her life.  And the way that the narrative tension coils tighter as the historically accurate Labor Day hurricane barrels directly towards the exposed Keys and the hundreds of vets working on the highway is well done.  The beginning of the novel is rather slow though and it takes a bit of time to feel fully invested in the story and Mariella's life.  The plot thread of her ill younger sister isn't quite developed enough to make its inclusion in the story completely understandable and the revelations about Mariella's father and her mother's relatives in Cuba aren't all that surprising.  Overall though, Robuck has written an engaging tale about a young woman searching for a way to move closer to her dream.  It's a tale of love, inspiration, kindness, and despair.  And it offers the larger than life Hemingway in a way not seen before.  Those who have appreciated his works or other fictionalizations about his life should take note because they'll certainly enjoy reading this one as well.
 
Thanks to 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.

The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe. The book is being released by Knopf on Oct. 2, 2012.

Amazon says this about the book: Mary Anne Schwalbe is waiting for her chemotherapy treatments when Will casually asks her what she’s reading. The conversation they have grows into tradition: soon they are reading the same books so they can have something to talk about in the hospital waiting room. The ones they choose range from classic to popular, from fantastic to spiritual, and we hear their passion for reading and their love for each other in their intimate and searching discussions.

A profoundly moving testament to the power of love between a child and parent, and the power of reading in our lives.

Monday, September 24, 2012

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

I think I've officially entered the difficult teen years.  It's not that my oldest two are actually difficult in temperament (at least not yet) but they all of a sudden have social lives and that means I either have to stay awake to pick them up at some hour well past my bedtime or I have to trust someone else to get them home before curfew.  Zoiks!  So far this has meant the former and it has added a lot of reading time to my life.  Not so much reviewing time though as my brain isn't terribly competent after about 9pm.  You can definitely see this reflected in my week this past week!  This meme is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.

Books I completed this past week are:

The Forgetting Tree by Tatjana Soli
The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman
In Need of a Good Wife by Kelly O'Connor McNees
All Gone by Alex Witchel
Abdication by Juliet Nicolson

Bookmarks are still living in the middle of:

Let the Great World Spin by Colm McCann
Triangles by Ellen Hopkins

Reviews posted this week:

The Mirrored World by Debra Dean
Goodbye for Now by Laurie Frankel
The Forgetting Tree by Tatjana Soli

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

The Care and Handling of Roses with Thorns by Margaret Dilloway
The Receptionist by Janet Groth
More Baths Less Talking by Nick Hornby
Hemingway's Girl by Erika Robuck
Enriched Air Nitrox Manual by Scuba Schools International
The After Wife by Gigi Levangie Grazer
The Fine Color of Rust by P.A. O'Reilly
Lost Antarctica by James McClintock
I Will Not Leave You Comfortless by Jeremy Jackson
The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman
In Need of a Good Wife by Kelly O'Connor McNees
All Gone by Alex Witchel
Abdication by Juliet Nicolson

Review: The Forgetting Tree by Tatjana Soli

When Claire gives up her dreams of a literary degree and life spent in books to marry Forster Baumsarg and live with him on his family's citrus farm, she knows that she is choosing a life of physical labor and financial uncertainty.  What she doesn't know is how tied to the land she will become both physically and emotionally, invested in the success of the farm and desperately attached to it even in the face of terrible tragedy.  When Claire and Forster's young son Josh is kidnapped and murdered, his body buried at the foot of the original root stock tree, Claire and Forster start their long slide away from each other, differing on whether to leave the farm and start anew or to dig into the soil that has supported the Baumsarg's for so long, the rich soil at the root of Josh's death which became his final resting place.  Gwen and Lucy, Claire and Forster's daughters, are also indelibly marked by their younger brother's senseless death and they cannot get away from the farm fast enough and side with their father when he urges Claire to let him sell out to developers as so many of their neighbors have done.
 
Years after the tragedy, Claire is alone on the farm with the girls grown and gone, divorced from Forster although maintaining an amicable relationship with him, tied forever by their shared loss.  But when Claire is disagnosed with breast cancer, she needs someone to care for her as she undergoes treatments and neither of the girls wants to come back to the farm to oversee their mother.  So when free-spirit daughter Lucy finds the appealing and mesmerizing Minna, the professed great-granddaughter of novelist Jean Rhys, everyone jumps at this simple solution to a live-in caretaker.  And yet everything is not as it seems with Minna.  Her story slips and slides, rife with small, almost unnoticed inconsistencies.  But she winnows her way into the beleagured and weary heart of Claire.  Although she drives away the very people upon whom Claire has depended for years, farm foreman and family friend Octavio and his daughter Paz, widowed neighbor Mrs. Girbaldi, and the local Hollywood leading man Don Richards, and isolates her at the farm, Minna becomes Claire's lifeline, the only person she sees for days at a time as she descends into the hell of treatment for her cancer.  And despite the fact that there are disturbing occurances surrounding Minna, Claire defends her and depends on her, trusting her with her very life.
 
Told in several sections, including one that details Minna's life in Haiti and how she ended up in California on Claire's farm, the writing in this novel is gorgeous and lushly descriptive, cinematic in scope.  Throughout it all, there are threads of sinister, almost gothic undertones.  The characters are multi-dimensional and complex.  Claire's stubbornness, entrenched sadness, and regret resonate through her interactions with others.  The brief snatches where Claire (and the reader) see through the veil of caring to Minna's core are alarming.  And the tension spirals ever tighter as the novel progresses.  In the end, this is a masterful, deeply symbolic story of loss and connection and belonging.
 
For more information about Tatjana Soli and the book visit her web 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 this book to review.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Monday Mailbox

Welcome to this month's Monday Mailbox, the meme started by Marcia and currently on tour around the internet. This month is my month to host this wonderful green-eyed monster inspiring meme. Yay! This past week's mailbox arrival:

Buddy by Brian McGrory came from Crown.
I have a serious weakness for roosters despite the fact that my uncle's old rooster had to be beaten away from you with a stick if you went into the chicken coop. So this book about a territorial rooster who helped the author discover what it means to be a family man really picqued my interest.
The Reluctant Matchmaker by Shobhan Bantwal came from the author after a contest win at Thoughts in Progress blog.
I do adore stories about Indian-American life and this one about a woman who at thirty-one is still unmarried, much to her mother's and aunties' dismay; is attracted to her boss, who only wants her to act as a marriage consultant for him (and his imagined ideal is not her); and who is plunged into the family turmoil of her brother's relationship with a Muslim woman sounds like a fast and appealing read.
Comet's Tale by Steven Wolf came from Algonquin.
I have to admit to being a very soft touch for dog books so any book that tells the story of a rescue and his human is sure to find a way to my bedside table. I do love heartwarming, cold noses tales and I'm sure this one will charm me too.
Crossing on the Paris by Dana Gynther came from Gallery Books for a blog tour.
Crossing the Atlantic by ship has a sort of romance to it, doesn't it? This novel about three women making that crossing in three different classes of accomodation sounds fantastic to me.

What sorts of goodies did you get in your mailbox this week? Click below to add yourself to the linky so we can all share in your good fortune. And I hope you'll leave me a comment as well. Happy reading this week and next week be sure to go to Parchment Girl as she's hosting Monday Mailbox for October.


Review: Goodbye for Now by Laurie Frankel

When you lose a loved one, you don't just lose their physical presence, you lose the knowledge that they are alive somewhere in the world, accessible by phone or computer. You lose the fact that they are there for you in large and small ways. And although they are always in your heart, it's not the same thing. How many times have you heard (or said yourself) that you wished you could just talk to your loved one just one more time? What if you could do just that, not in reality but in a virtual reality sort of way that would mimic your relationship before their died? Would you do it? Would it be too macabre or would you welcome the chance? Laurie Frankel's novel Goodbye for Now offers up this very question and the unsettling implications of such a possibility.

Sam is a computer programmer who works for an online dating service. When he creates an agorithm that actually works, pairing people with their perfect match, he uses himself as a test case and meets Meredith, the woman who is in fact his soul mate. But his discovery would lose the dating service business so they bury his program and fire Sam. Meanwhile, Meredith's beloved grandmother dies and this woman who quickly became the center of Sam's world is sunk in her grieving, wanting nothing more than to be able to talk to Livvie one more time. Sam, with nothing but time on his hands, decides to try and create a program that will allow Meredith the illusion of doing just that. He collects all of Livvie's e-mails, video chats, and online life together and fashions a program that uses her own words and images to simulate the sort of conversation she and Meredith used to have over the internet when she was still alive. Meredith is delighted with the program and she helps to convince Sam that others will benefit from this same service. So their own business, named RePose, is born.

As Repose takes off, Sam works through the bugs and Meredith and their friend Dash handle the publicity and the moral implications of giving hurt and grieving people the chance to talk to their deceased loved ones again and again and again. And the moral implications are many and varied. But they make friends with quite a few of the program users, coming to know them, their particular heartbreak, and the gaping hole that exists in each of their lives and that RePose hopes to help fill. But then the unthinkable happens and despite the fact that Sam and Meredith are soul mates who have only just found each other, terrible, senseless tragedy strikes. And RePose becomes more important and all-consuming than ever. RePose was never marketed or meant to be reality for the grief-stricken users, just to offer an approximation, but it becomes absolutely everything, an addiction and a crutch, a way to avoid facing unbearable loss.

This novel is an intriguing look at the unpredictability of loss and the differing ways in which people work through grief. It is also a lovely examination of love and letting go, the ways in which those who touch our lives have enriched us and continue to do so even after they are gone. As might be expected of a novel centered around death and triumphing over it, even in just a small way, there are numerous extremely emotional scenes and passages that will leave readers reaching for tissues. Sam and Meredith as main characters are sweet and as Sam's original dating algorithm promises, perfect for each other. Their love and care of each other is well described and the reader roots for them to make a go of RePose. By allowing the reader to see the secondary characters' relationships with their deceased loved ones, they are remarkably well defined and provided with just enough back story to be interesting to read about. The novel as a whole is heartbreaking but beautiful and will certainly make you think about how far you'd go to "see" and "talk" to your loved ones after their death, whether the ability to recreate a virtual reality loved one with characteristics almost indistinguishable from the living person is a positive or a negative, the path that grief sends us all down at one time or another, and how, in the end, to go on living after a terrible loss

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

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

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 Beach at Galle Road by Joanna Luloff. The book is being released by Algonquin on Oct. 2, 2012.

Amazon says this about the book: When rumors of civil war between the ruling Sinhalese and the Tamils in the northern sector of Sri Lanka reach those who live in the south, somehow it seems not to be happening in their own country. At least not until Janaki's sister, Lakshmi--now a refugee whose husband has disappeared--comes back to live with her family. And when Sam, an American Peace Corps worker who boards with Janaki's family, falls in love with one of his students, a young girl from the north, he, too, becomes acutely aware of the dangers that exist for any- one who gets drawn into the conflict, however marginally.

Skillfully weaving together the stories of these and other intersecting lives, The Beach at Galle Road explores themes of memory and identity amid the consequences of the Sri Lankan civil war. From different points of view, across generations and geographies, it pits the destructive power of war against the resilient power of family, individual will, and the act of storytelling itself.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

2012 WNBA Great Group Reads Choices

It's that time of year again where the WNBA (of which I am a member of the Charlotte chapter) releases its list of "Great Group Reads" in preparation for October's National Reading Group Month. The list always contains some fantastic books. This year's list with links to any I've reviewed:

The Absolutist, John Boyne

An Age of Madness, David Maine

Art of Hearing Heartbeats, Jan-Philipp Sendker

The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach

Blue Asylum, Kathy Hepinstall

Boleto, Alyson Hagy

The Dovekeepers, Alice Hoffman

Equal of the Sun, Anita Amirrezvani

Faith, Jennifer Haigh

I Married You for Happiness, Lily Tuck

In the Shadow of the Banyan, Vaddey Ratner

A Land More Kind Than Home, Wiley Cash

The O’Briens, Peter Behrens

The Orchardist, Amanda Coplin

The Right-Hand Shore, Christopher Tilghman

Running the Rift, Naomi Benaron

Salvage the Bones, Jesmyn Ward

Snow Child, Eowyn Ivey

What Alice Forgot, Liane Moriarty

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, Jeannette Winterson

Monday, September 17, 2012

Review: The Mirrored World by Debra Dean

St. Xenia is a Russian saint who lived in the time of the Empresses Anna Ioannova, Elizabeth, and Catherine the Great. She was called a "fool for Christ" and lived on the streets and the cemeteries of St. Petersburg for more than forty years, giving all of her possessions and any alms offered to her to the poor around her. But her life started out far from the streets as a member of a family of the minor aristocracy, among those on the outer fringes of the Tsarina's court. Debra Dean's new novel The Mirrored World fills out Xenia's early life and what led her to the life of poverty, want, and denial to which she felt called.

Told through the eyes of Dasha, Xenia's beloved cousin, the novel is related by Dasha as an old woman looking back on her life. She takes us first to when the girls are young and Dasha looks up to her older, dreamy, and distracted, arts-loving cousin, to when the two girls become close. Despite Xenia's social gaffes, she makes a love match in her marriage unlike her poised and elegant sister and she is nurtured by her husband Andrei's great love for her. Dasha seems unlikely to ever marry and Xenia invites her to live with she and her soldier/chorister husband. Although Andrei and Xenia struggle to have a child, when they are finally blessed with a baby, it seems as if the sun shines on their small family and all will be good in their world. But this is Russia, the land of winter, and after two crushing tragedies, Xenia is a husk of herself, grieving and frozen, locked inside her own head and going mad. When she finally comes back to life, she starts giving all of her possessions away to the poor while Dasha tries to stem the tide and save something, anything for themselves. But Xenia can no longer be contained and she disappears into the streets of St. Petersburg only to eventually resurface wearing the ragged remains of Andrei's military uniform and continuing to survive on handouts, sharing her meager finds and alms with all those in need around her.

When Xenia disappears, Dasha becomes the focus and the path of her own life takes precedence in the story. She marries an Italian eunuch from the Russian court and lives with her Gaspari in harmony if not love for several years, continuing to minister to the needy when she can, in her cousin's honor, and continuing always to look for her beloved Xenia. Dasha's odd marriage is never accepted and Gaspari's outsider status at the court allows him to hear much of the labyrinthine inner workings and accurate gossip that the more connected might have been protected or excluded from. And so the reader is treated to a spectacularly exposed view of the royal court.

As in her previous, marvelous novel The Madonnas of Leningrad, Dean has written a gorgeous tale. She has evoked the Russia of the time with the petty cruelties of the court, the uncertainties of the time, the wide gap between the wealthy and the poor, the social structure, especially as it pertained to women and their status, and the turmoil from the streets on up through the ranks. There is a mystical, almost elegaic feel to the narration and the mood is icy and foreboding throughout much of the novel. It is smooth and ethereal but completely engrossing. Xenia remains a hard to know character as she succumbs to her God-inspired madness but her passion for the intangibles that have touched her life shines. Dasha is a less interesting character but is necessary to the narrative, especially once Xenia would have been unable to narrate her own tale. And Dasha herself adds to the wealth that is Xenia's narrative with her love, respect, and care for this otherwordly cousin. The missing time in Xenia's life, that when she is absent from the novel, feeds into the mystery of where she has gone and although her absence is a hole in the novel, Dasha as narrator has no idea where Xenia is so the reader cannot either. Truly if there is any complaint to make about the novel it is that it is too short pushing the reader back out into the light of real world before he or she has finished with the forbidding coldness of St. Petersburg.

For more information about Debra Dean and the book visit her Facebook page. 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 this book to review.

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Still with the ear and the pain killers are gone so I may be hallucinating instead of actually reading but no, I'm pretty sure it's me reading and not making up my own stories. At least there's some good to come of not being able to sleep most nights. :-P This meme is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.

Books I completed this past week are:

The Unfinished Garden by Barbara Claypole White
I Will Not Leave You Comfortless by Jeremy Jackson

Bookmarks are still living in the middle of:

Let the Great World Spin by Colm McCann
Triangles by Ellen Hopkins
The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman
The Forgetting Tree by Tatjana Soli

Reviews posted this week:

Keepsake by Kristina Riggle
The Right-Hand Shore by Christopher Tilghman
The Unfinished Garden by Barbara Claypole White
Imperfect Bliss by Susan Fales-Hill

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

Goodbye for Now by Laurie Frankel
The Care and Handling of Roses with Thorns by Margaret Dilloway
The Receptionist by Janet Groth
More Baths Less Talking by Nick Hornby
Hemingway's Girl by Erika Robuck
Enriched Air Nitrox Manual by Scuba Schools International
The After Wife by Gigi Levangie Grazer
The Mirrored World by Debra Dean
The Fine Color of Rust by P.A. O'Reilly
Lost Antarctica by James McClintock
I Will Not Leave You Comfortless by Jeremy Jackson

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Monday Mailbox

Welcome to this month's Monday Mailbox, the meme started by Marcia and currently on tour around the internet. This month is my month to host this wonderful green-eyed monster inspiring meme. Yay! This past week's mailbox arrival:

All Gone by Alex Witchel came from Riverhead Books and LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
The memoir of a daughter coming to terms with her mother's dementia through cooking old family recipes, I am really looking forward to this despite knowing that it will be heart wrenching.

A Private History of Happiness by George Myerson came from Meryl Zegarek PR.
How could a book containing brief writings about everyday happiness not be appealing?! Perhaps it will prove instructive as well on those days I don't feel particularly cheery.

What the Zhang Boys Know by Clifford Garstang came from the author and TLC Book Tours for a blog tour.
A novel in stories about widower Zhang Feng-qui and his sons as well as the people who live in their apartment building, I am looking forward to this different way of telling a story.

What sorts of goodies did you get in your mailbox this week? Click below to add yourself to the linky so we can all share in your good fortune. And I hope you'll leave me a comment as well. Happy reading this week!

Sunday Salon: Back to School poetry

One of the first things that my 5th grader brought home from school is a delightful poem they wrote in his literacy class. It is his version of Judith Viorst's If I Were in Charge of the World and I thought I'd share it with all of you literate folk.

T.'s version:

If I were in charge of the world
I'd cancel school,
Weekdays,
Eggplant, and also Justin Bieber.

If I were in charge of the world
There'd be darker night lights
Cuter chihuahuas and
Soccer goals 100 feet wider

If I were in charge of the world
You wouldn't have tired
You wouldn't have sleepy
You wouldn't have exhausted
Or "Don't kick your brother"
You wouldn't even have brothers.

If I were in charge of the world
Whipped cream on anything
Would be a vegetable
All Bourne movies would be G
And a person who sometimes forgot to move
And sometimes forgot to groove
Would still be allowed to be in charge of the world.

Don't you just love this? Obviously his older brother hasn't ben particularly nice to him lately and he's chafing over bedtime and my arguments for an early one. I love seeing what's important to him and how tough it obviously is being the youngest. But the best part for me is the final stanza's last three lines. I have no idea where he came up with that but I think it's hilarious. Do you remember having to write poems inspired by other poems? I sure do but I'm pretty sure none of mine were this entertaining.

My reading adventures this week weren't very extensive. I went along for the ride as two damaged people opened up to each other and the possibility of love through gardening and I visited the seminal year of 1984 in one young boy's life. I am still visiting a desert fortess in the middle east long ago and a California citrus farm after a horrific family tragedy. Where have your book travels taken you this week?

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Review: Imperfect Bliss by Susan Fales-Hill

The world we live in is certainly far removed from the world that Jane Austen lived in. So much is different it's hard to know what Miss Austen would think of the way we live now and what she might choose to satirize or highlight about our society and the mores under which we live now. What, for instance, would she think of reality television? And what would she think it says about us as a society that we are so consumed by it? Susan Fales-Hill has taken Pride and Prejudice and reality television and twisted them together to create a different, modern spin on Austen's classic novel of manners in her newest novel Imperfect Bliss.

Bliss (Elizabeth) is a single mother of a disabled toddler who is working towards her PhD and back living with her parents after she discovered her up-and-coming politician husband having an office affair. Her parents are very different from each other, in fact quite mismatched. Mother Forsythia is Jamaican and obsessed with her daughters, all four of whom she named after princesses, marrying up socially. Father Harold is a British ex-pat professor who largely ignores his wife's intentions for their girls. Oldest sister the beautiful and serene Victoria cannot commit to her boyfriend or any boyfriend for that matter, frustrating her mother. Diana, the second youngest daughter, is beautiful, seductively chaste, and coldly calculating about her marital prospects, especially as the new star of the reality tv show "The Virgin" which purports to find her a wealthy husband. Charlotte, only sixteen, is the bad girl of the family, a budding exhibitionist and desperate for the fame and attention that Diana always seems to garner so effortlessly.

Bliss is completely against the concept of the reality show from the beginning and she doesn't appreciate the fact that it will invade every aspect of her family's life. In fact, she refuses to participate or to allow her young daughter, Bella, to be a part of it either, disgusted at the exploitation aspect of the entire thing. That she dislikes the show's very attractive producer, Dario, almost on sight, finding him abrasive, arrogant, and entirely too similar in appearance to her cheating ex-husband, doesn't help her accept the show's presence in her world either. She does, however, have a bit of a soft spot for the host of the show, thinking that she might, in fact, be able to finally move forward in a relationship with him when he evinces an interest in her. As time moves forward, Bliss is forced to take a look at her own prejudices about the people in her life from those in the tv business to her own family and begins to change her feelings once she realizes life is less black and white than shades of grey and to appreciate the nuances all around her. The ending will not come as too great a surprise to anyone familiar with the general plot outline of Pride and Prejudice but there are one or two wrinkles getting there that will keep the reader turning the pages.

Make no mistake in thinking that this is Austen. Fales-Hill takes the basic framework of Pride and Prejudice and builds on it in her own way. It is less preceptive social satire than Austen although her send-up of our scripted-reality obsessed culture is accurate and very tongue in cheek. The characters are ultimately rather different from and definitely more superficial than their corresponding characters in Austen's novel. Like many reality shows today, on many levels the novel is like a train wreck from which you cannot look away. But it's entertaining in its own way, light, frothy, and fun if you're not an Austen purist.

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

Friday, September 14, 2012

Review: The Unfinished Garden by Barbara Claypole White

Tilly is a widow with a young son named Isaac. In the three years since her beloved husband's unexpected death, she has carved a wholesale nursery business out of the North Carolina forest she calls home. A British ex-pat who moved to the US for her American husband, she used her love of plants and gardening to help her work through her grief at her loss. But she still hasn't managed to work through her overwhelming guilt at invoking David's living will and thereby, in her mind, allowing him to die.

James Nealy is perhaps even more damaged than Tilly. He is a very wealthy software developer who decided to retire and sell his homes to move to North Carolina in order to participate in some trials designed to control or cure his extreme OCD. He's also hatched a plan to overcome it on his own and that plan involves Tilly. James, despite being phobic about dirt, has decided to create a garden and he fully intends to have Tilly design it for him. The fact that she does not design gardens and has turned him down doesn't deter him either. He even follows Tilly to England when she returns there to take care of her mother after an accident.

Being in England complicates things for Tilly. Her old boyfriend Sebastian, the one she loved for so long and with whom she has years of history, is back in the village and available. Her mother wants to sell the home she grew up in. Isaac is afraid Tilly will want to move back to England but he wants to stay in North Carolina, the place that has always been his home. And Tilly's best friend Rowena is around to support and encourage Tilly to be happy through humor and the love of a lifelong friend. Through all of this, James continues to urge her to take his garden design commission. In lieu of this and while she noodles through all the decisions and conflicting emotions swirling through her brain, Tilly tells James that she'll teach him how to design his own garden through bringing a walled garden on Rowena's estate back to life.

As Tilly and James work together, they have many meaningful conversations, sharing things about themselves that they've not shared with anyone else, exposing the very hearts of their damage, their reason for Tilly's guilt and the probable catalysts for James' OCD. They come to know and trust each other as they can no one else and yet they are still confused and reluctant to take a chance on each other. James believes that Tilly can do so much better than someone with his baggage and Tilly isn't sure she's ready to open her heart again. Both of these main characters are well drawn and true to life. James' OCD and the demons that eat at him are carefully and realistically portrayed. Their attraction to each other is very gradual and occasionally hard to understand, especially James' initial determination to pursue Tilly for reasons beyond just the garden commission, and the ultimate resolution in the story between Tilly, James, and Sebastian is too rushed and a little too deus ex machina to be satisfying. The narrative focus flips between Tilly and James so that the reader has the opportunity to live inside each of their heads in turn which helps to humanize them and their particular challenges. And the writing about place, both in North Carolina and in England is very visual and descriptive. This is a nice romantic, women's fiction novel with unusual characters who have some very different hurdles to overcome in order to change their lives and allow themselves happiness again.

For more information about Barbara Claypole White and the book visit her webpage. 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 this book to review.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Review: The Right-Hand Shore by Christopher Tilghman

Mary Bayly is dying. She is dying quickly and painfully. And she has no close family to whom to leave her ancestral plantation, Mason's Retreat. She's determined that this land, which may or may not carry a curse, needs to go to a Mason (Mary's own mother was a Mason) and so she has searched out the descendants closest to the original immigrant owner and intends to interview them to determine which should be left the gift and burden that is Mason's Retreat. Edward Mason is one of the two relatives and he has come down to the plantation on the banks of the Chester River in Maryland intending to meet and charm Miss Mary, have the land assured him, and be back in his office in a few hours. What he doesn't count on is an extended tour of the property, the teasing out of the ghosts that still inhabit the land, and the whole truth of the Mason and Bayly clans as they struggled with their own visions of what Mason's Retreat is, a dairy being only the latest incarnation per Miss Mary's ideas. Although the novel takes place in one day, overseer Mr. French tells Edward Mason, who has already been recognized as morally small by Mary, the tale of Mason's Retreat over many years, starting on the eve of the Civil War and ending in 1923, the present day of the novel.

Mary's grandfather, Duke Mason, seeing what the stirrings of war were blowing his way, chose to sell his slaves further down south rather than lose their value to the war, tearing families apart and it is perhaps this act that scarred the land, imbuing it with a curse. It certainly scarred Mary's mother, Ophelia, who spent her adult life running from her heritage. But it was her luck to marry a man, Wyatt Bayly, who had a passion for the land and who strove mightily to turn Mason's Retreat into acres upon acres of peaches, carefully tending trees and learning all the science behind their cultivation. As his vision of orchards stretching down the banks of the river blossomed into reality, his family shattered and broke into pieces that only ever maintained a polite distance from then on out. Ophelia took Mary to Baltimore to live and left her young son Thomas in Wyatt's care.

Thomas and his best friend, a young black boy named Randall, ran around the plantation almost like feral creatures. They were so close as children that they were never referred to individually. And trailing them, sneaking behind them always was Randall's younger sister Beal, a simply striking child who would grow into a beautiful young woman. When Wyatt Bayly stopped to notice that his oft forgotten son needed some structure and schooling, he hired a tutor to educate Thomas offering to include Randall in this school for two to make the loss of freedom more palatable to Thomas as his intended heir. But Randall turned out to be the smarter, more intuitive, and better student of the two. This, coupled with Thomas' growing interest in Beal (a mutual interest actually) drove a wedge between the boys as they grew into men. And as the peach trees and the land of Mason's Retreat itself came ever closer to disaster, so too did the lives of these three so intimately entwined since childhood. Meanwhile Mary led her own life between France and Baltimore, although always hewing back towards Mason's Retreat. She participated in her mother's search for a husband for herself until forced by circumstances to sacrifice all she is supposed to desire and to take up the reins of her ultimately inescapable heritage.

The writing here is lush and descriptive but sometimes there's altogether too much of this normally good thing. The land overtakes the story, standing out far beyond the frankly rather colorless characters. The story is told very distantly, making it hard to get engaged in it as it unfolds, perhaps because it is being recounted to a disinterested outsider. Although I really wanted to like it, the slow pace and lengthy exposition made this one a trudge for me. The themes of racism, love, religion, and the challenge of the land seemed as if they deserved a more powerful vehicle. Neither the slight mystery of the boy's body found on the farm and mentioned in passing several times before the narrative caught up to the actual tale nor the draw of forbidden interracial love could keep my attention from wandering as I set this down repeatedly throughout my reading of it. Lyrical and yet flat, this one just wasn't for me.

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

All Gone by Alex Witchel. The book is being released by Riverhead Hardcover on Sept. 27, 2012.

Amazon says this about the book: Just past seventy, Alex Witchel’s smart, adoring, ultracapable mother began to exhibit undeniable signs of dementia. Her smart, adoring, ultracapable daughter reacted as she’d been raised: If something was broken, they would fix it. But as medical reality undid that hope, and her mother continued the torturous process of disappearing in plain sight, Witchel retreated to the kitchen, trying to reclaim her mother at the stove by cooking the comforting foods of her childhood: “Is there any contract tighter than a family recipe?”


Reproducing the perfect meat loaf was no panacea, but it helped Witchel come to terms with her predicament, the growing phenomenon of “ambiguous loss ”— loss of a beloved one who lives on. Gradually she developed a deeper appreciation for all the ways the parent she was losing lived on in her, starting with the daily commandment “Tell me everything that happened today” that started a future reporter and writer on her way. And she was inspired to turn her experience into this frank, bittersweet, and surprisingly funny account that offers true balm for an increasingly familiar form of heartbreak.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Review: Keepsake by Kristina Riggle

We tend to move every couple of years. There are all sorts of pros and cons to this fact but one of the big pros is that it tends to keep the household accumulation to a minimum, or at least down to a dull roar. What I mean by this is that every couple of years as we're getting ready to pack up the entire house and schlep ourselves to another state, we take a good look at our possessions and weed them out. There's nothing like knowing you're going to have to unpack and put away all that stuff to make you less sentimental. And yet, each time we move, both before and after the move, we have an enormous amount to haul off to the donation center so obviously we're accumulating each and every day. I can only imagine the sheer volume of things for someone who has never moved and has only tucked everything into their home. But there's another level entirely, that of people who hoard. They acquire and acquire and acquire and are actually incapable of letting go of any of it no matter that their physical possessions can literally be crowding them out of their homes. The main character of Kristina Riggle's newest novel, Keepsake, is just such a person.

Trish is a single mom struggling along as best as she can and doing an okay job at it as far as she can tell when Child Protective Services shows up at her door. It turns out that her seven year old son broke his collarbone when things in his room fell over on him. Living conditions have to change in order for the social worker assigned to the case to recommend that Jack remain at home with Trish, a fact that terrifies Trish even while she is outraged that a perfect stranger can mandate this and threaten to take her beloved child from her. While Trish concedes that her home might be a little messy, she maintains that no one is perfect, unable to see her obsession for what it is. Her older son Drew, a teenager who has moved out to live with his girlfriend's family because of his mother's out of control hoarding, enlists the help of his Aunt Mary, the immaculately neat sister who has drifted out of touch with Trish. Mary has just been laid off from her long-time job at an independent bookstore due to its closing and has had to face the reality that her boss, on whom she had harboured a crush for years only bantered with her as one would with a valued employee rather than flirting as Mary had hoped. But this means that Mary has the time to help Trish tackle the disaster of her home and to try and help her face the emotions that pushed her into hoarding in the first place.

Although the sisters seem like complete opposites, one a hoarder and one an obsessively tidy neat-freak, they both come from the same place. Their mother was a hoarder as well. And after their parents divorced, in large part because of their mother's disorder, their respective choices of which parent to live with and how to care for their mother drove a wedge between them. Trish sees nothing similar to her mother in her own situation while Mary can only see Trish heading down the same path and taking her beloved boys with her. Banding together to make the house habitable again, Mary enlists the help of their father as well as her long-time friend, a psychiatrist who is taking a break from his job. But clearing out the house is painful and Trish is resistant, vassilating between wanting to kick everyone out and protect her domain and reluctantly allowing them to help her so she doesn't lose Jack. As they slowly work through the house, Trish's psyche and her painful secrets are uncovered as surely and inexorably as the carpet in each room reappears from under the stacks.

A sensitive look at the effect of hoarding on families and the underlying causes of such behaviour, this novel goes beyond the surface of the reality shows on the subject and exposes the hurt and pain behind all of it. Trish as a character is likable even as the reader recognizes that she is in complete denial. Her desperate love for and fear of losing little Jack is touching and you'll root for her to overcome the little hobgoblins in her mind, sweep her house out, face her emotions, and rebuild healthy relationships with all those in her life whom she has kept at arm's length in order to hide her hoarding. Mary has her own compulsions in direct contrast to Trish's and although she is initially a colder character than Trish, you can't help but feel sorry for her and the damage she also carries in her heart and mind. Narrated alternately by each of the sisters, the reader is given insight into not only their longstanding family dysfunction and what formed each of them but also the way they each view the world and even each other. Their struggles to overcome the demons that haunt them are valiant and keep the reader invested even when their actions are frustrating. The secrets that are uncovered in the course of the novel are truly surprises but fit the story well. This is a quick and interesting read about compulsions, secrets, relationships, love, and family and will appeal to readers of women's fiction who want a bit heavier theme in their novels.

Thanks to LibraryThing Early Reviewers for sending me a copy of this book to review.

Monday, September 10, 2012

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Still with the ear and the pain killers are gone so I may be hallucinating instead of actually reading but no, I'm pretty sure it's me reading and not making up my own stories. At least there's some good to come of not being able to sleep most nights. :-P This meme is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.

Books I completed this past week are:

The Mirrored World by Debra Dean
The Fine Color of Rust by P.A. O'Reilly
Lost Antarctica by James McClintock

Bookmarks are still living in the middle of:

Let the Great World Spin by Colm McCann
Triangles by Ellen Hopkins
The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman
The Unfinished Garden by Barbara CLaypole White

Reviews posted this week:

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward
The Underwater Window by Dan Stephenson
The Absolutist by John Boyne
The Mercury Fountain by Eliza Factor

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

The Right-Hand Shore by Christopher Tilghman
Imperfect Bliss by Susan Fales-Hill
Goodbye for Now by Laurie Frankel
The Care and Handling of Roses with Thorns by Margaret Dilloway
The Receptionist by Janet Groth
Keepsake by Kristina Riggle
More Baths Less Talking by Nick Hornby
The Good Woman by Jane Porter
Hemingway's Girl by Erika Robuck
Enriched Air Nitrox Manual by Scuba Schools International
The After Wife by Gigi Levangie Grazer
The Mirrored World by Debra Dean
The Fine Color of Rust by P.A. O'Reilly
Lost Antarctica by James McClintock

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Monday Mailbox

Welcome to this month's Monday Mailbox, the meme started by Marcia and currently on tour around the internet. This month is my month to host this wonderful green-eyed monster inspiring meme. Yay!

As expected, I did in fact have books waiting for me when I got back from my less than successful vacation last week. They look so appealing that it almost makes up for the pain and suffering (busted eardrum anyone?!) I endured. This past week's mailbox arrivals:

In Need of a Good Wife by Kelly O'Connor McNees came from Berkley.
Tales about mail order brides have always fascinated me so this one about a broker and two of the women she's recruited and the way in which all three look to change their lives for the better definitely interests me.

The Unfinished Garden by Barbara Claypole White came from Mira.
I wish I didn't have a black thumb and was able to create a beautiful garden but since I can't, reading about two people brought together over the creation of one will be the second best thing.

The Book of Neil by Frank Turner Hollon came from Meryl Zegarek PR.
When Jesus comes again, will he rob a bank to get the attention of the media obsessed culture we've become? He does in this novel and I'm curious to see how this all plays out.

The Headmaster's Wager by Vincent Lam came from Hogarth.
A novel about a headmaster whose loyalty to family and his lover are tested as the fighting in Vietnam draw ever closer to Saigon, this promises to have elements of so many things I enjoy reading about.

Jana Bibi's Excellent Fortunes by Betsy Woodman came from Holt.
Eccentric, fun characters, an Indian hill town setting, and a Scottish woman determined to save the small town from the government's plan to drown it under a dam, this one sounds like a highly entertaining read.

All Gone by Alex Witchel came from Riverhead Books and LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
The memoir of a daughter coming to terms with her mother's dementia through cooking old family recipes, I am really looking forward to this despite knowing that it will be heart wrenching.

Forgotten by Catherine McKenzie came from William Morrow.
A woman presumed dead has to decide whether she wants to reclaim her life, doesn't the premise of this novel by McKenzie sounds intriguing? And I liked the last of her novels I read so this one should be good too.

What sorts of goodies did you get in your mailbox this week? Click below to add yourself to the linky so we can all share in your good fortune. And I hope you'll leave me a comment as well. Happy reading this week!

Review: The Mercury Fountain by Eliza Factor

Texas has long has the reputation of being its own place, not entirely subject to the rules that govern other states. Consider that many of its inhabitants still consider it the Republic of Texas and that it was once its own sovereign state. This mindset coupled with its mountainous and desert landscape make it the perfect place to set Eliza Factor's debut novel about a turn of the 20th century utopia centered around mercury mining.

As the novel opens, charismatic mine owner Owen Scraperton is summoned from the bowels of the mercury mine to attend his wife as she gives birth to their first child. Scraperton chooses not to wash off the mine residue as he prepares to greet his son (who turns out to be a daughter) because the mine and the utopia he's founded around it, Pristina, define who he is as a man. Over the next two decades of the story, the Principles on which Pristina was founded change and warp as Owen continues to make his utopia an organic thing to suit his own needs. All the while he continues extolling the value of the mercury that flows beneath the surface and that provides a dangerous and unhealthy livelihood to so many of the impoverished in the town and the surrounding mountains.

In addition to Owen, the novel is peopled by strange and broken people. There is Owen's wife Dolores, a much younger Mexican woman who might never have loved her husband and who only finds freedom galloping on horseback, pounding through the barren land around the town. Scraperton daughter Victoria, whose birth opens the novel, is fork-tongued and enamoured of snakes. Her ultimate belief in the original Principles will come into direct conflict with her father's compromised dream and bring about its downfall. Dr. Badinoe, the alcoholic doctor whose scientific knowledge of the poisonous effects of mercury causes him to question his own moral center in remaining in this town, appears through the novel as an imperfect moral compass. And then there's Ysidro, an insignificant peon who becomes a folk hero and a rallying point for the mountain and cave dwelling miners and their families outside the town who, with Victoria, will inadvertantly bring tensions in this dystopia to a head.

This allegorical novel about the dangers of strict, blind adherence to ideology is well written but not terribly engaging. The characters were almost entirely one dimensional and dry. The lead-up to the showdown between Owen and Victoria is long and slow and the pacing is glacial. The family interactions were meant to humanize the characters but dragged instead. The cardinal sin here for me was that ultimately I was bored by the story. Others around the internet disagree so readers interested in western-set utopian novels or in novels dealing with general ideologies should give this their own try.

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

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Review: The Absolutist by John Boyne

Ask anyone and they can tell you all sorts of facts about World War II. But ask those same people about World War I and you'll get far fewer bits of information. For some reason World War I is not high in our collective consciousness here in the US. Maybe because it was overshadowed so quickly by the Second World War. Maybe because it didn't have anything so perfectly evil like the Holocaust towards which to point. Maybe because the generation that fought in it has been gone for so long now. For whatever reason, it seems to be one of those wars that don't enter into our thoughts despite the gruesomeness and appallingly high casualty count of its combination of modern weapons and trench warfare. Although set after the end of the war, once you've read this affecting novel by John Boyne, World War I and its cost will be forever etched in your consciousness in ways you'd never predict.

Tristan Sadler survived the war. He lied about his age in order to join up and he spent months training and then living the horrors of trench warfare. His first day at training, he met Will Bancroft and the two of them became closest friends. Will did not live. As the novel opens a number of years after the war, Tristan is traveling from his home to deliver a bundle of letters to Marian, Will's sister. But this task, which could easily have been delegated to the postal service, is just an excuse. In truth Tristan is taking the letters to Marian in order to expunge himself of guilt, to detail the truth of Will's final days, and perhaps to seek Marian's absolution.

Tristan's narration takes the reader into his wartime experiences and the agonizing friendship he maintained with Will from their earliest days in training up to the very end. He details his attraction to the outgoing and appealing Will and his jealousy when Will starts to listen to and internalize the reasoned arguments of another man in their unit about his concientious objector status. Tristan doesn't spare Marian, and by extension the reader, the knowledge of his own terrible falling out with his family and its causes which add depth to his growing attachment to Will. He quietly admits to his own worst and basest feelings. He describes the horrors of war graphically and unsentimentally. And he confronts both the moral ambiguities and absolutisms that abound in times of war and the ways in which men justify adherence to either.

With themes of courage and cowardice, honor, friendship, social norms and prejudices, and sexual identity, Boyne has crafted a skillfully written, thought provoking novel. The narrative is non-linear, with Tristan revealing snippets of his training experiences, the war, his several years post-war admissions to Marian, and his current day old age each at precisely the right moment to complicate and add depth to his tale. The tension builds steadily and perceptibly as more comes to light during the telling and while the climax is, by the time it is revealed, not surprising, it remains powerful, tolling the death of so many high minded-values we claim to hold dear. Powerful and affecting, The Absolutist is a novel not to be missed.

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

Friday, September 7, 2012

Review: The Underwater Window by Dan Stephenson

I spent 15 years as a competitive swimmer. I can't even begin to calculate how many hours I logged in the pool, how many miles I swam over that time period. Swimming was a major part of my life. I woke up to it and I went to sleep to it. I spent countless weekends Friday through Sunday at swim meets, cheering for teammates until my throat was raw, and pushing my body to its physical limit in hopes of a personal best time. I even married my husband because of it, meeting him in the pool in college. My coaches and my teammates throughout the years made me who I am today. Make no mistake though, I was not an elite swimmer. The only thing I have in common with Michael Phelps is that my best event was the 200 fly. In terms of the general population, I was a great swimmer. In the swimming world, I was a decent little workhorse of a swimmer but no standout. But the wonderful thing about swimming is that no matter what your achievement level, there are some things that are universal for all swimmers. And it was those wonderful, nostalgic universalities that grabbed me from the beginning in Dan Stephenson's novel about two Olympic caliber swimmers, teammates, best friends, and fierce competitors. The Underwater Window gave me a chance to relive the best of my swimming days in a story I never could have lived.

Doyle Wilson is 24 years old and he's an elite caliber swimmer. He's put in his time in the pool, analysed his stroke, pushed himself to go ever faster. But he's never made the Olympics and this year could be his last chance. His best friend, teammate, and arch rival Archie Hayes is at the height of his career. The two of them push each other in the pool and Doyle, as the elder statesman, watches Archie's back outside of the pool as well. Doyle and Archie have competed against each other for years and know each other in and out but they couldn't be more different as swimmers. Archie competes without thought and Doyle analyses every aspect of his race. As a matter of fact, Doyle is starting to wonder if his swimming career is finished. He's deferred his medical school acceptance for a year and he's wondering just how much longer he can compete at this level. But can he give up before he has one last shot at making his Olympic dream?

Surrounding Doyle are a collection of supportive, loving secondary characters who help him ease through his thought process about the sport and life post-swimming. There's Molly, his dearest friend, the girl who is there for him through everything despite there being no romantic relationship in the offing unless Doyle stops swimming. Doyle's old college coach, who took a chance on Doyle and loves him as a son, is a reliable sounding board whenever Doyle needs to talk through his decisions. His current coach, Curtains, pushes him in the pool and like all the best coaches coaxes the best from him, both in the pool and out of it. And then there's Archie, who, despite their rivalry, is steadfast and loyal when needed but also able to help Doyle let go, let off steam, and have some fun.

Although the book is very definitely centered around Doyle's swimming and his driving desire to make the Olympic team, to win gold, it is also a coming of age novel with Doyle reflecting on his life so far, where he ultimately wants to be, and a story about friendship and commitment and the people who stand behind each of us as we reach for our dreams. Swimming, as many sports do, teaches the athlete much about him or herself and offers skills that translate surprisingly well to the non-swimming world. And Doyle is in the midst of his last push at internalizing these skills. Each chapter starts with an italicized portion that explains an aspect of swimming or the swimmer's life. These bits help the non-swimming reader to understand what drives a person back and forth in a pool for so many hours, days, months, and years. They cover swimming history, techniques, the drudgery of practice, the importance of teammates and rivals, and so much more. And they offer a nice segueway into the meat of the story in each chapter.

Doyle is very definitely a thoughtful and philosophical character and you can feel his real angst and sadness at the thought of retiring. But he's also occasionally so single-mindedly focused that he abuses or discounts the care and friendship so long offered him without recompense. As frustrating as his blindness can be, he is an eminently sympathetic character and the reader wants very much for him to succeed. I had to put the book down and let my heart rate recover and my swirling thoughts untangle before I could pick the book up and finish it after reading about his final race. Stephenson has definitely nailed the swimming world aspect of the novel 100% and his explanations geared toward making that world accessible to the non-swimmer are well done. The characters are occasionally a little stiff and their conversations, especially in the beginning of the book, are somewhat stilted but the flow does get more natural as the story takes over. It goes without saying that swimmers and coaches will find much to relate to in these pages but for anyone, swimmer or no, who enjoyed the adreneline-filled swimming events of the recent Olympics, this book will let you hear the cheers again and will give you a little insight into what comes next when the lane-lines are put away, pool is still, and the lights are extinguished.

Cover copyright 2012 Ginny Glass and Untreed Reads Publishing. Thanks to the publisher and Caitlin Hamilton Marketing & Publicity for sending me a copy of this book to review.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Review: Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

Seven years after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and the Mississippi coast, the area, especially those parts sunk in grinding poverty before the storm's advent, is still recovering. Ward's novel Salvage the Bones, which takes place in Bois Sauvage, Mississippi in the days just before the storm hit, tells the story of one rural hardscrabble family of motherless children as the hurricane bears down on them.

Fifteen year old Esch is the only girl to three brothers. She keeps an occasional eye on baby brother Junior, whose difficult birth killed their mother, she watches older brother Randall play basketball knowing that all his hopes ride on his lovingly honed skill, and she helps her brother Skeetah as he loves and cares for his pure white pit bull China and the valuable litter she's borne. But the careless love that Esch finds amongst her brothers and from her alcoholic father isn't enough and she grasps for a deeper love through casual sex with anyone who asks. When she finds herself pregnant by Manny, her brother's friend, she dares to dream that this boy was not just using her and that she will be important and loved.

The novel takes place over the week leading up to Katrina with each chapter encompassing one day. The feel of the novel is atmospheric and the heavy, foreboding heat pushing ahead of the storm pulses through the narrative, smothering any directed action. Each of the characters acts as if in slow motion, blanketed by the muted concern of the rising, oppressive weather. They are all used to living in grim poverty and quiet desperation is a daily reality in their lives. The disappointments visited on the family serve only to grind them down: Randall isn't given a scholarship spot at the expensive basketball camp, Skeetah must watch helplessly as China's pups die slowly, and Esch realizes her worth in Manny's eyes. The writing is raw and resigned. It is graphic, especially during the pit bull fight scenes. And yet, there is an undercurrent of caring and solidarity too that defies the brooding, hopelessness of their lives. The narrative tension is masterfully controlled, rising as Katrina herself builds and hurls towards the coast and to her date with this already disadvantaged family. Not an easy read, sometimes rife with nightmarish quality, Salvage the Bones doesn't herald the end but a new beginning clawed out of the wreckage and smothering red clay coating everything in the wake of the hurricane.

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

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

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 Casual Vacancy by J. K. Rowling. The book is being released by Little, Brown and Company on Sept. 27, 2012.

Amazon says this about the book: When Barry Fairweather dies unexpectedly in his early forties, the little town of Pagford is left in shock. Pagford is, seemingly, an English idyll, with a cobbled market square and an ancient abbey, but what lies behind the pretty fa├žade is a town at war. Rich at war with poor, teenagers at war with their parents, wives at war with their husbands, teachers at war with their pupils…. Pagford is not what it first seems. And the empty seat left by Barry on the town’s council soon becomes the catalyst for the biggest war the town has yet seen. Who will triumph in an election fraught with passion, duplicity and unexpected revelations? Blackly comic, thought-provoking and constantly surprising, The Casual Vacancy is J.K. Rowling’s first novel for adults.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Review: The Good Woman by Jane Porter

How much of our personality is innate and how much of it develops because of familial expectations? If a child is always considered the "good child" or the "reliable child" what would it take finally, as an adult, to rebel against this image? How many people will be hurt in the testing of boundaries? And is it ever possible to go back to being the person you were before? Meg Brennan Roberts, the oldest of four sisters, is a very successful publicist for a California vineyard, a reliable, steadfast wife and mother, and a loving daughter. Her life appears to be idyllic and yet she is feeling a nagging sense of unhappiness, making her open to the possibility of an affair, becoming the "bad woman," and altering her life forever in Jane Porter's first novel in the new Brennan Sisters series.

Meg is the family caretaker, the one everyone else relies on in every aspect of life. She makes the parties and publicity at her job run smoothly. She manages her childrens' lives so that there are no bumps in their roads as they go from school to activities and home. She is the unacknowledged and under-appreciated rock who allows her husband to continue his absent-minded, job-obsessed existence. She is the sounding board for two of her three sisters' concerns. And she's tired of it. She's vaguely dissatisfied, wanting more from those she loves. It doesn't help that she feels rebuffed sexually by her husband on those occasions she reaches for him. The only aspect of her life that is feeling completely fulfilling is her work life. So when her gorgeous boss asks her to fly to London with him for a trade show, despite reservations, she ultimately agrees to go. And when boss Chad admits to his attraction to her, she gets a glimpse of herself as a whole different person than the one she feels she's settled into being. Heady stuff.

Once they return, Meg cannot keep from thinking about the possibilities. She's always been the "good girl." The sister with whom she is most antagonistic calls her Sister Mary Margaret. But she's drawn to Chad and to the life he represents. The rest of the Brennan sisters and her parents are all immersed in their own life altering dramas so no one notices that the family Snow White is drifting. And when she makes her decision, feeling unable to do anything but what she's chosen, her choice will reverberate through her life, that of her husband and children, and through her siblings and parents' lives as well.

Meg is an amiable enough character and her feelings of being taken for granted and ignored in her own life will be more than familiar to many women. Her inability to find the acknowledgement and appreciation she craves will definitely strike a cord. But she has some flaws of her own, chief among them her lack of communication with her husband and her family. As the go-to sister, she has no one to turn to herself when she is floundering. This effect is exacerbated by the fact that each of the women in the family is facing her own crisis. And in some ways, this crisis overload is a problem in the narrative. Too many issues intrude on Meg's story: one sister's long term relationship ending, one sister's inability to trust her cheating sports star husband, and her mother's terminal cancer diagnosis. Because this is the book that sets up the rest of the series, the issues need to be raised but they threaten to overwhelm the major storyline here. And although Meg has faced infidelity, understanding that it isn't as black and white as she always thought, as a character in the end she hasn't changed nearly as much as might have been expected given the path she walked.

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

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