Wednesday, November 28, 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.

Vanity Fare by Megan Caldwell. The book is being released by William Morrow on Dec. 26, 2012.

Amazon says this about the book:  Molly Hagan is overwhelmed.

Her husband left her for a younger, blonder woman; her six-year-old son is questioning her authority, and now so is she. In order to pay her Brooklyn rent and keep her son supplied with Pok√©mon and Legos, not to mention food and clothing, she has to get a job—fast.

So when an old friend offers Molly a freelance position copywriting for a new bakery, finding romance is just about the last thing on her mind. But the sexy British pastry chef who's heading up the bakery has other thoughts. And then so does Molly, when she meets the chef's intimidating business partner—who also happens to have a secret that might prevent Molly from getting her own happily ever after.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Review: Because You Have To by Joan Frank

My family likes to ask me when I'm going to write my bestselling novel.  My husband tells me he'd be perfectly happy to have me support him in the lap of luxury through my writing.  The loveliest thing about these questions is that they are in earnest.  They really believe that I not only have a book in me but that my writing is fantastic and that of course the whole world would buy whatever I wrote.  The reality of it though is that no matter what my writing is like good, bad, or indifferent, I know and understand the publishing world too well to think that anything about the process as they see it is likely (nevermind the discipline I currently lack in terms of actually writing an entire book).  If I had any ideas left about the glamour of a writing life, and having been the intern in charge of wading through the slush pile at a small publisher many, many years ago, I really don't, this collection of essays by Joan Frank, musings on various different aspects of being a writer, reviewer, and reader, would certainly bring me back to reality.

Written over many years and previously published elsewhere, these essays pulled together here represent the good and the bad, the sublime and the frustrating, the victories and the disappointments inherent in choosing, nay, in being compelled to live the life of a writer.  Frank is a published author of five novels, essays, and short stories so she knows from whence she writes.  She has spent years eking out a living as an administrative assistant in order to be able to afford to pursue her passion, even if only in the margins of her life.  Despite her relative success, she is not a household name; she is not offered million dollar contracts; she still has to scramble to find a publisher for the next book; she still has to deliberately carve out writing time from the rest of her life.  In short, Joan Frank is a literary fiction author who writes because she must, despite the numerous downsides to such a need, drive, compulsion.

Frank not only writes about the ways in which so many writers' actual writing must compete for time with everything else but also about rejection, the loneliness of writing as an occupation, the lack of money available to those lucky enough to see their work through to book form, the lack of effective concrete advice on how to put words worth reading down on paper, the work and disappointment involved in trying to find a publisher or agent, the way literary writers must always play the odds but still most often come up one number short, writing reviews and in turn facing reviews of her own works, and how writers are readers and lovers of books.  She is honest and clear about the disadvantages of being a writer but just by the simple act of writing this book, she is also clear that writers write regardless of the myriad negatives.  Her love for her craft and for books as a whole, even in the midst of struggle or envy or dejection, shines through as well. 

This is not a writing how-to manual nor is it intended to be such.  It is instead a collection of contemplative essays about the reality of Frank's writing and reading life and the way that her particular experiences mirror those of so many other authors out there currently writing.  There is a bit of repetition in some of the essays, even extremely similar wording that brought me up short once or twice, as I read through this in essentially a single sitting, which would not be my recommendation.  The essays would probably have more impact if allowed to settle and be considered one by one, read at a leisurely pace over many days.  As Frank squeaks her writing in around the rest of life, I squeak my reading in and that was a disservice to this particular book.  Those interested in the realities of life as a writer or who must write no matter what will thrill to this honest look at the big sacrifices and small soul-refreshing rewards of a writing life.  And those who think that writing is easy and anyone can write a book, well, they should avoid this book at all costs unless they are ready to shatter the rose-colored glasses and embrace writing with every bit of their being as Frank has done, as real writers must.

For more information about Joan Frank and the book visit her 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?

Well, I was correct last week about not being able to keep up my pace.  Thanksgiving at my house followed by my husband's birthday and finally our annual post-Thanksgiving party open to everyone needing a break from so much family togetherness really stymied my reviewing roll.  The three non-stop days of constant cooking definitely cut into my reading time.  Basically, my week with books was incredibly sparse.  Maybe next week will prove to be back to some sort of normal!  This meme is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.

Books I completed this past week are:

The Roots of My Obsession edited by Thomas Cooper
Happily Ever Madder by Stephanie McAfee
Because You Have To by Joan Frank

Bookmarks are still living in the middle of:

My Bookstore edited by Ronald Rich
The Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

Reviews posted this week:

In the Sanctuary of the Outcasts by Neil White
The Roots of My Obsession edited by Thomas Cooper

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

Losing My Sister by Judy Goldman
Jana Bibi's Excellent Fortunes by Betsy Woodman
Just Kids by Patti Smith
Forgotten by Catherine McKenzie
Heading Out to Wonderful by Robert Goolrick
The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap by Wendy Welch
Moranthology by Caitlin Moran
The Blue Notebook by James Levine
Turning Pages by Tristi Pinkston
Let the Great World Spin by Colm McCann
Sad Desk Salad by Jessica Grose
You Tell Your Dog First by Alison Pace
Charlotte Street by Danny Wallace
Seducing Ingrid Bergman by Chris Greenhalgh
Buddy by Brian McGrory
His Mistress by Christmas by Victoria Alexander
The Lighthouse Road by Peter Geye
Happily Ever Madder by Stephanie McAfee
Because You Have To by Joan Frank

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Sunday Salon: Reading around the holidays, refuge in books

Sometimes life overtakes reading, especially once we head into the holiday season.  There's all that cooking to do and then all that eating to do.  And next month there's all that present stuff, which isn't limited to the day (or days) of course as those presents all have to be purchased first.  But if the holidays present a challenge and a distraction (and heaven knows I am easily distracted) to me in terms of reading or reviewing, I still manage to be around books and to seek refuge in books.  It goes without saying that many of my presents are books.  And also self-evident: many of the presents I give are books.  But even before we get to the present giving portion of the holidays, I always live in and around books.

We had our annual after-Thanksgiving Escape the Family party (for when family togetherness has worn a little thin) last night and even in the midst of the busy chaos, I had the perfect excuse to sneak away and commune with my bookshelves.  See, I am known in the neighborhood as the one to go to when you need to know about a book.  So last night one of our guests asked if she could possibly borrow Life of Pi before she sees the movie.  Normally I don't lend books except to a privileged few but Life of Pi is a book I'm not terribly attached to in the spirit of the season, I agreed to lend it to her.  This necessitated a trip to my shelves right that very moment.  As we stood in front of them, disorganized and chaotic as they currently are, I felt a real sense of peace.  I know that sounds ridiculous and corny but when an introvert like me agrees to host a party open to any and all of our friends, neighbors, and acquaintances, it is not just cheesy but completely true all the way to my very soul.  The kids were in the next room watching a movie and being generally loud and boisterous but I stood in front of my shelves quietly, contentedly, and happily for a moment or two.  It's a feeling I wish I could bottle.  Eventually I dove in and pulled Martel's book out so I could return to the noise and cheer and entertaining upstairs.  Everyone should have an oasis in this busy season, a place to find absolute quiet contentment.  I'm just lucky mine is in the presence of books and so easy to find.

Because of Thanksgiving, my husband's birthday, the party on Saturday, and everything I had to do to prepare for all three, my weekly travels in books were rather abbreviated.  I tried to adjust to life away from my small Mississippi town and my very best friends so I could be with my work obsessed fiance.  I contemplated the varied joys and obsessions with gardens.  I still have bookmarks moving slowly through three other books, two of which can be dipped into and enjoyed in small moments, perfect for the season.  Where did your book travels take you this week?

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Review: The Roots of My Obsession edited by Thomas Cooper

Do you love to get down in the dirt, amending soil, pulling out weeds, patting compost lovingly around the base of new plantings, dividing hardy specimens, designing or enhancing the lay of the land?  Do flowers call to you?  Does nothing please your palate more than plucking a ripe fruit or vegetable you've grown yourself for your dinner plate?  Do you, in a word, just love to garden?  In The Roots of My Obsession, the collection of essays edited by Thomas Cooper, thirty of gardening literature's most respected writers have contributed short pieces about what compels them to garden, the obsession, the drive, the desire.  And each of the writers finds a different reason to garden, a different way of gardening, a different gardening ethos, and a different gardening aesthetic.  In fact, there are probably as many reasons to garden as there are gardeners in the world.  But this slight collection is instructive and hits the general themes that most people would touch on.  Some like to plan their gardens, some to let nature play a serendipitous role.  Some of the writers find great peace and solice in gardening, a way of escaping the more mundane aspects of their lives.  Others appreciate the riotous aspects of their patch of earth.  Some came to gardening as children at the knee of a relative; some came to gardening as adults almost by accident.  But all keenly feel and willingly surrender to its pull.  Most of the essays are interesting and charming and expose a green and fertile little corner of each writers' soul.  This is a delightful book for those who enjoy gardening or even those who love to wander among plants even if their own attempts at formally gardening, like mine, are less than picturesque.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Review: In the Sanctuary of the Outcasts by Neil White

On the surface, Neil White had it all: charming himself with a beauty queen wife, two adorable children, enviable material possessions, owning a successful magazine.  But underneath the perfect, wealthy veneer, White was borrowing from Peter to pay Paul.  In fact, he was living well beyond his means and was loathe to change his habits so he started kiting checks, courting investors for infusions into the magazine, all while continuing to present an unruffled and untroubled facade to the outside world.  But eventually he was caught, convicted of bank fraud, and sentenced to 18 months in a low security prison.

The prison he was sent to was not just any prison though, it was the Federal Medical Center in Carville, Louisiana, an isolated federal prison that also functioned as our national leprosarium and housed some of the last leprosy patients in this country to be isolated and confined because of their disease.  The 130 patients lived on one side and the several hundred inmates lived on the other.  Their close proximity allowed for one of the most unique prison situations in the country.  Patients and prisoners, an ancient order of nuns, health care workers, and prison guards and officials all lived, ate, slept, worshipped and worked cheek by jowl, if a bit uneasily, in this beautiful, serene looking setting.

White was a superficial man, concerned with the appearance of things rather than what was right.  He was more worried that people would know that his business was struggling than he was about asking people, including his mother, to pour their life savings into his crumbling enterprise.  The first time that he was caught kiting checks, his public persona allowed him to bury the incident and relocate to another city where his misdeeds were unknown and where he would, without guilt, engage in exactly the same behaviour as previously.  He seemed to believe that he was a shining star and as such was owed success.  Getting caught a second time didn't change his entitlement attitude at all or his overwhelming concern for his image, personally or publically.  And this same concern and belief that he was above everyone around him carried with him into prison.  Initially horrified that he was going to come into close proximity with the patients (what if he was to contract Hansen's disease too?), he decided that his stay in prison would provide fodder for a book.  And obviously it has, if not entirely the way he initially thought.

As White put in his time at Carville, he had to start facing who he was under the skin, learning that appearances mean very little, a truth driven home in this place of refuge and sanctuary for the victims of such a disfiguring disease as Hansen's can be.  He meets and becomes friends with an assortment of people from patients to other inmates and he learns from each them as he goes through his sentence.  The patients are represented as wise and thoughtful, especially one elderly woman in particular, perhaps because of their long isolation from the greater population.  The inmates are a more varied lot, ranging from diabolically genius to narrow-minded and prejudiced.  White's focus is more on his personal journey and evolution than on anything else though so the reader follows along as he faces the disintegration of his marriage, his unabating ache to see and hold his children, and the dawning realization that the actions that landed him in prison were not in fact victimless as he had blithely convinced himself in his miasma of selfishness.

The stories of the inmates and the patients were interesting but they weren't nearly as in depth as could have been hoped.  And the history of Carville itself was very superficially handled.  This is primarily White's story and ostensibly the story of his redemption and change from selfish and self-important to aware and grappling with his own weaknesses.  It's a very readable book but as an inspirational memoir, it falls a bit short as there is no real indication of White's evolution into a better, less image conscious, more thoughtful himan being.  Not quite as comprehensive about the place and the people who populated it in its final years of operation as billed, this is still a quick and interesting book and an inside look at all we can learn from those we first dismiss.

Wednesday, November 21, 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.

Margaret From Maine by Joseph Monninger. The book is being released by Plume on Dec. 24, 2012.

Amazon says this about the book:  Brought together by war, separated by duty, a love story for the ages

Margaret Kennedy lives on a dairy farm in rural Maine. Her husband Thomas—injured in a war overseas—will never be the man he was. When the President signs a bill in support of wounded veterans, Margaret is invited to the nation’s capital. Charlie King, a handsome Foreign Service officer, volunteers to escort her. As the rhododendron blossoms along the Blue Ridge Highway, the unlikely pair fall in love—but Margaret cannot ignore the tug of her marriage vows.

Joseph Monninger’s Margaret from Maine is a page-turning romance that poignantly explores the dilemmas faced by those who serve our country—and the men and women who love them.

Monday, November 19, 2012

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Busy week this week gettng my ducks all in a row for Thanksgiving this coming week.  I spent my weekend at the Miss Dance Convention for my daughter and although I didn't get much reading done, I did get to visit a neat bookstore in Greenville, SC and acquire a few more books.  Always doing my part to keep bookstores viable.  :-)  My reviewing was phenomenal this week but with the holidays coming, I'm sure I won't be able to keep up the pace.  If I can just keep the review stack from growing any larger, I'll consider it a win!  This meme is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.

Books I completed this past week are:

Crossing on the Paris by Dana Gynther
His Mistress by Christmas by Victoria Alexander
The Lighthouse Road by Peter Geye

Bookmarks are still living in the middle of:

Because You Have To by Joan Frank

Reviews posted this week:

And Now We Shall Do Manly Things by Craig Heimbuch
A Rural Affair by Catherine Alliott
Jane's Fame by Claire Harman
Crossing on the Paris by Dana Gynther
What You Wish For by Kerry Reichs
The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling
The Wilder Life by Wendy McClure

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

In the Sanctuary of Outcasts by Neil White
Losing My Sister by Judy Goldman
Jana Bibi's Excellent Fortunes by Betsy Woodman
Just Kids by Patti Smith
Forgotten by Catherine McKenzie
Heading Out to Wonderful by Robert Goolrick
The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap by Wendy Welch
Moranthology by Caitlin Moran
The Blue Notebook by James Levine
Turning Pages by Tristi Pinkston
Let the Great World Spin by Colm McCann
Sad Desk Salad by Jessica Grose
You Tell Your Dog First by Alison Pace
Charlotte Street by Danny Wallace
Seducing Ingrid Bergman by Chris Greenhalgh
Buddy by Brian McGrory
His Mistress by Christmas by Victoria Alexander
The Lighthouse Road by Peter Geye

Monday Mailbox

Another delightful looking trio of books came into my house this week.  Well, plus the book I intend to give to my MIL for Christmas but have to pre-read on the sly before I wrap it.  ;-)  This past week's mailbox arrival:

Married Love by Tessa Hadley came from Harper Perennial and TLC Book Tours for a blog tour.

Short stories about relationships and the truths within them, this could be very close to home.

On the Map by Simon Garfield came from Gotham.

Maps are cool. A book about maps and our relationship to them should be endlessly fascinating for someone like me who used to pore over atlases as if they contained the answer to every question in the world.

An Extraordinary Theory of Objects by Stephanie LaCava came from Harper and TLC Book Tours for a blog tour.

Illustrated essays written by an expat in Paris as a way to combat her anxiety and depression, this looks like a completely fascinating read..

As always, if you'd like to see the marvelous goodies in other people's mailboxes, make sure to visit BermudaOnion as Kathy is hosting this month's Mailbox Monday and have fun seeing how we are all doing our part to keep the USPS and delivery services viable.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Review: The Wilder Life by Wendy McClure

II first read the Little House books when I was in elementary school. I even vividly remember our beloved librarian directing me to Rose Wilder Lane's Young Pioneers after I finished all of the original books. I watched only a few episodes of the tv show based on the books. I even re-read Little House in the Big Woods when I was in college for a kiddie lit class (although in the interest of full disclosure I found it boring then). But I have never been as devoted a fan as so many others seem to be. I was more of a casual take it or leave it fan. And I certainly am nothing on Wendy McClure who sets out to live in the footsteps of Laura Ingalls Wilder for a year, visiting the Ingalls homesites, learning to churn butter and grind grain and whatnot, and just generally immersing herself in the potent mystique surrounding this much revered series still devoured by little girls the country over.

McClure finds her old Little House books after her mother passes away and she embarks on a nostalgia-filled re-read, looking for the magic she found in "Laura World." She remembers her obsession with everything Ingalls, how she was Laura, living out the adventures in each successive homestead and having calico dreams. When she decides to make the pilgrimage to the Ingalls homesites, now museums, and to learn to do some of the chores and tasks that the books make sound so appealling, she is looking for something elusive, not just in the books but from her own childhood. And she is willing to go beyond the generally accepted sites that are connected with the books and actively search out the experience itself by overnighting in a covered wagon, visiting a sod house, and staying on a working farm run as if back in the day.

The narrative is both a travelogue of her physical journey and a reflective look at her emotional journey as she finds the places that played such a huge part of her imagination growing up. McClure seems disillusioned by much of what she encounters in her quest for Laura World. She discusses the usual visitor, at least on the days she's there, to the sites, ruminating on what it is about the book that appeals to a certain subset of people. She includes some biographical information about the Ingalls', especially where it varies from the family of the books, but more than about Laura Ingalls Wilder, the book is about her own personal impressions of the places and the people and the time and about what she thinks and hopes she'll get out of her year-long quest. Unfortunately, McClure is more often than not disappointed with what she finds at most of the sites and the people are far from her own kindred spirits. As obsessed as she is with reliving her immersion in Laura World, she ultimately finds that the terrain of childhood once lost is in fact gone forever.

The book itself is a quick and easy read although it starts to feel like more of the same since her feelings and impressions don't change much at all from experience to experience. Her love for all things Laura is still there but definitely tempered. This is not a book about Laura Ingalls Wilder; this is a book about Wendy McClure and her own personal search so readers expecting a biography or history lesson will be disappointed although there is some of each included. Occasionally there is a bit of a mean-spirited tone to some of McClure's observations, specifically when she is discussing her fellow travelers in Laura World; she can be rather condescending about them. That, coupled with her growing disappointment, although based on a fun and interesting premise, makes this fall just slightly short of completely satisfying.

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

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Review: The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

There was never any way that a book written for adults by J.K. Rowling wasn't going to be one of the most hyped books of the year.  Those who grew up reading Harry Potter couldn't wait to see what Rowling could do when she turned her hand to realistic, adult fiction.  And I must admit that, having been charmed by Harry myself, I was among those who were eminently curious although I certainly didn't expect there to be anything remotely "Harry-like" about it.  A tale set in an eminently English village, focused on the people who live there and their central beliefs, how could it not be good?  Only it wasn't great.  It was merely okay.  And not because it wasn't magical (it wasn't) but because it tried too hard to stay grounded in the mud and mire of reality and ended up being turgidly written and over-the-top in its depiction of that nastiness lurking in the already transparently unkind hearts of our fellow man.

The unexpected and untimely death of benign Pagford village councillor Barry Fairbrother leaves a casual vacancy on the parish council.  Not only will his seat be hotly contested but his death will re-energize contentious issues and highlight the stark lines dividing the inhabitants of the parish.  The two most divisive issues are whether the Fields, a council estate (the equivalent of the projects for American readers), should remain under the purview of tiny and otherwise seemingly idyllic Pagford or be remanded to the nearby, impersonal city of Yarvil and the fate of the drug addiction clinic housed in a village-owned building.  One faction finds the Fields and the clinic a blot on their fair village and an unnecessary drain on public resources and funds.  The other faction believes that keeping the council estate and the clinic in the otherwise well-off village with its good education and decent social services gives the inhabitants the chance to break free of the cycle of poverty.  And it is over this combustible political and moral question that life in Pagford will be exposed as it really is rather than as the picture postcard it appears to be.

There is an enormous cast of characters in the novel, from the councillors on either side of the issue to their extended families to a family living in the Fields to social services professionals.  And the major characters range from teenagers to adults.  Interestingly, not a one of the characters is particularly appealing as a human being.  Their faults are made glaringly obvious, held up to view, and shown in all their grossly unpleasant glory, making it hard to feel much sympathy for any side of the political battle.  And while they are each fighting for their own visions of the future of some idealized Pagford, the plot shows that the village is anything but an ideal.  Rowling includes almost every one of society's ills in this state of humankind drama: casual sex, racism, domestic abuse, bullying, classism, heroin abuse, rape, neglect, and suicide.  The Pagford of The Casual Vacancy is fully realized as a completely hateful and smugly complacent place and the characters of both political stripes are exposed as self-centered, small people.  The problem with the book is not that Rowling can't write decent realistic fiction.  She can.  The writing itself is generally fine if overdone.  The problem with the book is the complete lack of even the smallest glimmer of hope.  The Casual Vacancy is an awful lot of pages of unrelenting dismalness and hatred.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Review: What You Wish For by Kerry Reichs

What happens when the urge to have a baby doesn't line up nicely with being in the right place in life to become pregnant or with a person's fertility or so many of the other reasons that might keep a person from having a baby?  And what about a person who truly doesn't want to have a child?  There's much written about the insistant tick-tock of the biological clock but what happens when people cannot or choose not to heed that pull?  Kerry Reichs' newest novel What You Wish For takes three women and one man who are all at a crossroads in their lives with regards to having children and follows them down the path of their deepest desire.

Dimple is an actress who is weighing her options.  She's getting older and knows her time to have a baby is running out.  What she doesn't know is whether or not her career is more important to her than her deferred dream of being a mother.  Eva is single and a very successful LA agent who knows that she never wants to have children.  She feels that she and her siblings turned her mother from an exciting and carefree woman into a depressed and wrung-out, colorless soul.  But whenever she meets men, they assume that she will eventually change her mind about children.  Maryn beat breast cancer but lost her fertility in the battle.  That she and her husband frozen some viable embryos before her treatments should mean that she has a chance at motherhood except for the fact that she and Andy are no longer married and he is unwilling to let her use the embryos.  And Wyatt, the high school principal wants a baby so badly he's willing to pay a surrogate since there's no one else on his romantic horizon.  He'll have to face prejudice and suspicion about his desire simply because he's an unattached straight man.

Set in the high stakes world of tv, movies, politics, and Hollywood, the novel is narrated in third person focused on each member of the ensemble cast in short, staccato chapters.  Initially, the characters are completely unconnected, linked only by their desires regarding babies but eventually all of the various story lines do converge.  Maryn waffles on whether or not she should go ahead and have a baby but when she meets a hot shot director who may or may not want her to star in his latest movie, she puts her desire on the back burner, especially once they pair up as more than simply director and actress.  Eva's nasty bubble-headed client Daisy is the other actress up for the role and her job depends on Daisy getting the job so she starts keeping close tabs on the competition, namely Dimple.  Meanwhile Maryn, whose company transports horses across the country for very wealthy clients, is locked in a legal battle with her ex, Andy, over the frozen embryos.  His new wife, the very ambitious Summer, pushes him to run for elected office, at which point the fate of the embryos becomes a political hot button and rising scandal.  Wyatt, Eva's cousin and who has been disappointed at almost every turn in his quest for a child, meets Maryn and helps her when one of the horses she's transported has an emergency and the two of them end up becoming friends.

The drama of relationships, careers, and the pressure of wanting or not wanting a baby is at the forefront of each of the characters' stories.  Although this sounds like chick lit about having babies, it is much more serious than that would imply, taking on moral and political implications, the ethics of medical intervention, and the choice of whether or not to ever bear children.  The ways in which each character's life plays out, against the backdrop of Hollywood and the unreality of LA, are unusual but realistic.  The novel is packed with wanting and feeling and deep emotion.  Reichs has done a good job of explaining each characters' motivation and not tarring anyone as completely good or bad, even when their decisions hurt others around them.  She's captured the complexity of longing and the hesitation to be found even in certainty.  The struggle between reality and what you wish for weaves through all of the characters' lives, even after they've individually settled on their course, deciding what their families might look like in the future.  Initially the short chapters made the book hard to follow, especially as the characters' connections to each other were not yet explained but eventually they worked in its favor, moving each story ahead quickly and decisively.  And in the end, the various plot lines are all resolved, some better than expected, some worse, as is the way of the real world.

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

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Review: Crossing on the Paris by Dana Gynther

There's just something about the glamour, elegance, and excess of the 1920's.  Put it all on an ocean liner plying the waters between Paris and New York and it becomes totally delectable.  Of course, not everyone lived the way that the upper classes did.  There had to be hard-working servants to maintain the facade of the leisure classes.  Underneath the waterline among the masses was a hard place to be.  Dana Gynther's new novel Crossing on the Paris takes readers into the lives of three different women on three different levels of one such ship as the newly launched Paris makes its maiden voyage from Le Havre to New York.

Covering the five days of the trans-Atlantic journey, the novel follows Vera Sinclair, Constance Stone, and Julie Vernet.  Vera, traveling in first class, is a wealthy, elderly woman who is dying of breast cancer.  She's an American who has lived in Paris for the past 30 years but she's decided to return to New York to die.  Constance Stone, a married mother of three young children traveling in second class, is a headed home after a solitary and unsuccessful trip to Paris to try and convince her free-spirited younger sister to go home and perhaps jar their mother out of the disturbing psychotic episode she has been sunk in for the past six months.  Julie Vernet is a young French woman working her first job as a waitress in steerage.  After losing all of her older brothers in the first World War, she is remorseful at leaving her grieving and silent parents but eager for her own life to start, especially when a handsome engine room worker seems to find her attractive despite the obvious dark birthmark above her lip.

Although each of the women is staying in a different part of the ship and having what one character comes to recognize as a very individual crossing shared only tangentially by the other thousands of passengers and crew on board, they keep crossing paths with each other throughout the 5 day journey.  Each of the women weaves the tale of her life before boarding into the narrative of her days on board ship so that they each have a fully rounded history.  Most of the days are quite uneventful, although Julie has to work long and hard on each of them as the other two do not, and so each of the women has time for much self-reflection.  Vera thinks back on her past and her extremely limited future, wondering how and if she should offer her tale of a life lived on her own terms for posterity.  Constance, finding herself falling for the debonair and charming ship's doctor, reflects on her marriage, the ways in which she has always done what was expected of her, and what shape she wants her life to take from here on out.  Julie, innocent and naive, allows the excitement of the promise of a relationship and the momentary escape from the drudgery of her position to lead her into a dangerous situation she cannot control.

Vera, Constance, and Julie all ruminate on love and relationship in their lives.  They each consider familial and romantic love, what is truly real and what only passes for real for a fleeting moment.  And they also think on the future and how the promise of one future or another drives so many decisions in life.  The characters, despite their economic disparity, are ultimately more similar than different.  Gynther has created likable and well-rounded characters whose stories intertwine believably.  She's drawn the differences in station well through the use of the different amenities on the ship and the outward appearance of each level of the boat.  Each chapter of the book focuses only on one contained day of the short crossing but sometimes it feels as if it covers a greater time period given the depth of feeling and the dramatic happening, especially with regards to Julie.  And although there would seem to be little scope for much to happen, the crossing fundamentally changes each of the three women and how they think about themselves.  A quick and engaging read, this will certainly please historical fiction fans looking for their next book.

For more about Dana Gynther and the book, visit her website, her Facebook page, or her author page at the publisher.

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

Wednesday, November 14, 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 Day My Brain Exploded by Ashok Rajamani. The book is being released by Algonquin on Jan. 22, 2013.

Amazon says this about the book: After a full-throttle brain bleed at the age of twenty-five, Ashok Rajamani, a first-generation Indian American, had to relearn everything: how to eat, how to walk and to speak, even things as basic as his sexual orientation. With humor and insight, he describes the events of that day (his brain exploded just before his brother’s wedding!), as well as the long, difficult recovery period. In the process, he introduces readers to his family—his principal support group, as well as a constant source of frustration and amazement. Irreverent, coruscating, angry, at times shocking, but always revelatory, his memoir takes the reader into unfamiliar territory, much like the experience Alice had when she fell down the rabbit hole. That he lived to tell the story is miraculous; that he tells it with such aplomb is simply remarkable.

More than a decade later he has finally reestablished a productive artistic life for himself, still dealing with the effects of his injury—life-long half-blindness and epilepsy— but forging ahead as a survivor dedicated to helping others who have suffered a similar catastrophe.

Review: Jane's Fame by Claire Harman

Jane Austen is my favorite author.  She and Charlotte Bronte remain the two authors whose works I have read and re-read the most.  (And if you know anything at all about English literature, you'll know just how entertaining it is that I regularly lump these two authors together in my head on my own personal "best of" lists.)  And I am certainly not alone in my love for Jane Austen by any means as the plethora of movies based on her books, sequels, and adaptations these days show.  A quick skimming search of websites like etsy or ebay will yield scads of products marketed by their connection to Austen and her world.  But how did Austen, who, after all, only wrote 6 novels and about whose life little is truly known become so universally beloved?  Claire Harman's Jane's Fame seeks to answer that question.

As most Austen fans know, it took many years for any of Austen's works to be published and they were not the instant sort of success that one might expect of works that have been so enduring.  Starting with the little known of Austen's life and her road to publication, Harman traces not Austen's life but the life of her novels as they grew into the cultural phenomenon that they are today.  From the initial public reception of the novels to the publication of Austen's biography by her nephew which established her as a saintly hobbyist writer to the current craze for all things Austen, Harman has researched the changing feeling about Austen's works and in fact the re-writing of who she was as an author through numerous sources which back up her conclusions.  Occasionally the tone of the book veers toward the academic but for the most part it stays less ponderous so that a more casual reader can appreciate the evolution of Austen's reputation and the critical reception of her works.  It's a worthwhile read for Austen fans and an intriguing look at the way in which books can take on a life of their own but perhaps a bit too detailed for all but the most ardent admirers.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Review: A Rural Affair by Catherine Alliott

I have long been a fan of Catherine Alliott.  I don't remember exactly how I discovered her books but I do know that I have been reading them so long that I used to have to buy them online from overseas and have them shipped here.  And they were and are the kind of delightful Brit chick lit that made the extra effort well worth it.  Alliott's latest, A Rural Affair, is the same kind of entertainment that her previous books were and as such was a fun and frothy way for me to spend a day.

Poppy Schilling is a married mother of two and if her marriage isn't perfect and her husband is demanding and distant, well whose life is everything she's ever dreamed?  But Poppy isn't one to walk away from her less than fulfilling life.  She just fantasizes sometimes about Phil the paragon's untimely death.  So when she finds two men at her door telling her that Phil has in fact been killed while out on one of his incessant cycles, crushed by a chunk of frozen pee that detached itself from the underside of an overhead jet, well, she is understandably gobsmacked and maybe just a little bit relieved.

Poppy mourns more for the loss of a father for her children than she does for her husband, despite the fact that Phil was never much of a father for their kids anyway.  As Poppy is trying to adjust to her new life, she starts getting more involved in the life of her bucolic little village, mainly at the behest of her worried friends, joining the local church choir, helping start a book club, and going out with the local hunt (each of these to generally hilarious effect).  But when her doorbell rings and the woman standing there tells her that she was Phil's long-time mistress, it causes her to examine everything she thought she knew about herself, her marriage, and Phil himself.

As a character, Poppy is kooky and often times off-balance.  She is a complete klutz and gets herself into entertaining and giggle-worthy situations.  The death of Phil and his stifling influence allows Poppy to spread her wings and be herself.  As if she's not got enough on her own plate coming to terms with widowhood and the revelation of Phil's other life, she is a supportive and devoted friend and gets embroiled in her friends' complicated lives as well.  Add to that a bit of a burgeoning crush on the solicitor handling Phil's will and you have the makings of a first-rate romantic comedy.  The pacing is even and the pricking tension of what will happen with Phil's mistress contesting his will keeps the reader turning the pages as much as Poppy's embarrassing and crazy situations and the slight whiff of a potential romance do.  Good fun all the way around and if the ending is a bit rushed and more than a little predictable, it is exactly the sort of ending the happy reader wants to see so it is entirely forgivable.

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

Monday, November 12, 2012

Review: And Now We Shall Do Manly Things by Craig Heimbuch

Guns and hunting can be rather polarizing issues these days. When I admit to people (and I carefully weigh which people I admit this to before I say anything) that my entire family, children included, goes shooting sporting clays together in the summer, the reaction I get is often very telling. Somehow, the fact that I cheerfully hand my 10 year old a shotgun and let him blast away at clay disks brands us as rednecks. (That his grandfather, father, aunt, uncle, mother, older brother, and older sister also trot off to the range of a Sunday probably just compounds most listeners' opinions.) We're actually far from what I would define as a redneck but I guess if you base it solely on gun use, we can be lumped into that less than appealing class. Although we all shoot recreationally, not a one of us has ever been hunting. For me personally, I'm squeamish so hunting will forever be out for me. As a matter of fact, when I was a very successful pint-sized fisherman, my dad declared that whoever caught the fish would get to eat it. That pretty much ended my stellar fishing career. I liked the sitting with a line in the water thing but not the cleaning and gore portion of fishing. I haven't eaten fish since. I imagine that hunting would affect me similarly and I like meat too much to want to forego it because I am uncomfortable with the gutting and the dressing of the critter.  I don't mind knowing it was once a living, breathing animal, I just don't want to make the personal acquaintance of its innards before cooking and eating it.  Craig Heimbuch, in his memoir And Now We Shall Do Manly Things: Discovering My Manhood Through the Great (and Not-So-Great) American Hunt looks at hunting and his year learning to hunt in a far different way than my blood averse self does though.  He looks at it as a way to connect with the other men in his family, to give him a sense of belonging, to make him stronger, and to help him define himself as a man, a husband, and a father.
 
Heimbuch is a writer, and specifically a journalist, in a family of outdoorsmen.  He's more comfortable behind a desk looking at a computer screen than tramping a field with a gun slung over his shoulder.  So he's a bit surprised when in his early thirties his father gives him the gift of a shotgun.  Even more surprisingly, Heimbuch takes the gun and decides that perhaps he will use it to learn to hunt like the rest of the men in his extended family.  He'll close the divide, the disconnect between himself and them.  He'll use this gift to spur him to be more active and less passive in his life, to face life head on, to change himself just enough that he feels like a man.  And so he sets out on a year long journey to become a hunter and to learn about the hunting culture in the US.
 
From his childhood and the fear he felt the first time he fired a gun to his lifelong obsession with L.L. Bean clothing and gear, from his hunter's education class and the other shooting classes he takes to a pheasant hunt on the family farm, Heimbuch shares his past, his personal life, his marriage and children, his financial worries, his successes and failures and all the things that made him into the man whose his father unexpectedly handed him his favorite 12-gauge over-under Winchester shotgun one afternoon.  As much as this memoir is the tale of learning to hunt and viewing the gun culture from the inside, it is also rife with Heimbuch's self-reflection and a true desire to change and define himself as a man.  He looks at hunters and gun owners as individuals, acknowledging the scary, fringe element but also giving equal time to the average, everyday people who just happen to hunt or shoot.  There's humor here but there's also seriousness.  It's very definitely a personal journey of discovery but is a fascinating, well-researched, and very balanced glimpse into the world of the recreational hunter as well.

For more information about Craig Heimbuch and the book visit the publisher's page, his blog or follow him on Twitter. 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?

This meme is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.

Books I completed this past week are:

Sad Desk Salad by Jessica Grose
You Tell Your Dog First by Alison Pace
Charlotte Street by Danny Wallace
Seducing Ingrid Bergman by Chris Greenhalgh
Buddy by Brian McGrory

Bookmarks are still living in the middle of:

Crossing on the Paris by Dana Gynther

Reviews posted this week:

Triangles by Ellen Hopkins
The Summer Before the Storm by Gabriele Wills
How to Capture a Countess by Karen Hawkins
Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? by Mindy Kaling

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

A Rural Affair by Catherine Alliott
Jane's Fame by Claire Harman
What You Wish For by Kerry Reichs
The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling
The Wilder Life by Wendy McClure
In the Sanctuary of Outcasts by Neil White
Losing My Sister by Judy Goldman
Jana Bibi's Excellent Fortunes by Betsy Woodman
Just Kids by Patti Smith
Forgotten by Catherine McKenzie
Heading Out to Wonderful by Robert Goolrick
The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap by Wendy Welch
Moranthology by Caitlin Moran
The Blue Notebook by James Levine
Turning Pages by Tristi Pinkston
And Now We Shall Do Manly Things by Craig Heimbuch
Let the Great World Spin by Colm McCann
Sad Desk Salad by Jessica Grose
You Tell Your Dog First by Alison Pace
Charlotte Street by Danny Wallace
Seducing Ingrid Bergman by Chris Greenhalgh
Buddy by Brian McGrory

Monday Mailbox

A pair of wonderful looking books, one from the beginning of the week and one from the end.  This past week's mailbox arrivals:

Never Hug a Nun by Kevin Killeen came from Blank Slate Press and TLC Book Tours for a blog tour.
A novel about a young boy growing up in the quiet innocence of 1960's suburban St. Louis, this sounds lovely and humorous and nostalgic.

Fresh Off the Boat by Eddie Huang came from Spiegel and Grau through LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
A memoir by one of the hottest chefs today, this tale of growing up as the child of immigrants and only staying grounded through food sounds amazing.

As always, if you'd like to see the marvelous goodies in other people's mailboxes, make sure to visit BermudaOnion as Kathy is hosting this month's Mailbox Monday and have fun seeing how we are all doing our part to keep the USPS and delivery services viable.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Review: Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? by Mindy Kaling

Is it weird to have picked up a book by a comedien I've never heard of but the rest of the planet has?  Probably.  I'm not much of a tv watcher (really I watch so little of it as to practically qualify as never watching) so I was unaware of Mindy Kaling or The Office (which I admit I've never once seen) but the book has some great cover blurbs and reviews that made it sound incredibly appealing.  And I do, after all, keep a shelf of unread books that I've had recommended to me as truly laugh out loud funny for when I need something like that (happens most often in the dreary winter).  So I picked this collection of essays up anticipating a funny, easy read.  In fact, at one point in the book, Kaling says that the worst thing someone could say to her was that she wasn't funny.  Unfortunately I can one up that for her; not only was the book not funny, it was boring.  And a disappointment.

The book is a collection of essays and lists and complete randomness that could have worked if the material was actually funny but in the absence of humor just pointed out the shallowness of what was in fact included.  Organized roughly chronologically, this starts with Kaling's childhood, moves through her college years, and eventually into her adult working life and the amazing breaks she got when breaking into writing for show business.  There are a few bits that are timely and pertinent to the state of our world right now socially and politically and there are a few bits that are relatable for many women but for the most part it's full of rather pedestrian riffs on growing up, being chubby (as a size eight no less!), friends, relationships, and the luck of being a part of a very successful tv show.  The book has a lack of cohesiveness and fullness to it that would have made it more satisfying.  It is superficial and oddly self-indulgent while still being fairly tepid and tedious reading.  Her success as a writer for The Office should not give her a pass for uninspired and superficial writing here.  Does Kaling have the material for a truly funny memoir?  Perhaps.  But if so, this wasn't it.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Review: How to Capture a Countess by Karen Hawkins

Sometimes you just want a book where the ending is never in doubt.  You need sweet, frothy, banter-filled plot and dialogue headed exactly where you expect.  When I find myself looking for something like this, one of the places I turn is to Regency-set historical romances, the ones without a kidnapping or spies and lurking danger.  And Karen Hawkins has provided just such a novel in this latest of the The Duchess Diaries series, How to Capture a Countess.

When Rose Balfour was just sixteen, she managed to get Lord Alton Sinclair alone in a garden.  He kissed her, she panicked, and pushed him into a fountain before fleeing.  This incident, one that Lord Sin is certain was calculated and intentional, leaves Lord Sin a laughingstock and he vows revenge.  But he loses track of the enticing Rose who has been whisked away to forestall the rumors.  Six years later, though, still smarting from the mockery and as determined as ever to make Rose pay, he finds her again and discovers to his delight that his aunt is her godmother.  When the Duchess of Roxburghe decides to throw a house party, she has ulterior motives that are more than suited by her rapscallion nephew's request that she invite her goddaughter to the party.

Alternately narrated through pages from the Duchess of Roxburghe's diary and an omniscient third person narrator, the motivations and machinations behind so many of the characters' actions are neatly revealed to the reader while remaining cyphers to the other characters.  Rose never intended to humiliate Sin.  She was simply young and ultimately scared herself with the intensity of her feelings when he kissed her.  Sin mistook Rose not for an innocent young girl but an experienced tease and reacted accordingly.  Now at Her Grace's house party, they have the opportunity to redress the past even as their awareness of each other grows and blossoms into something far beyond what a mere kiss might spawn.

The tension and banter between Rose and Sin is balanced and pleasing, especially in light of the Duchess' sly behind the scenes manuevering to protect both of them and yet to enable them to recognize their true feelings as they come together to scotch another scandal.  Their constant contests and one-upsmanship has an ultimate prize and it's appealing to watch as they come to realize the end prize is the same regardless of who wins each encounter.  The cock-ups and misadventures that take place in the course of the house party are good entertainment and go a long way towards establishing Rose and Sin's characters.  It is a little incongruous that a man so esteemed by society, wealthy and good looking would in fact harbor such a long-standing grudge over an incident that happened so long ago especially since any resulting gossip would hurt Rose far more than it would hurt Sin given the mores of the time.  But the book was fun and delivered exactly what it promised, some steamy sexual tension without recourse to forced danger or improbable plotting, well developed characters whose actions fit their time period, and a charming happily ever after.

Wednesday, November 7, 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.

Hikikomori and the Rental Sister by Jeff Backhaus. The book is being released by Algonquin on Jan. 8, 2013.

Amazon says this about the book: Thomas Tessler, devastated by a tragedy, has cloistered himself in his bedroom and shut out the world for the past three years. His wife, Silke, lives in the next room, but Thomas no longer shares his life with her, leaving his hideout only occasionally, in the wee hours of the night, to pick up food at the grocery store around the corner from their Manhattan apartment. Isolated, withdrawn, damaged, Thomas is hikikomori.

Desperate for one last chance to salvage their life together, Silke hires Megumi, a young Japanese woman attuned to the hikikomori phenomenon, to lure Thomas back into the world. Back in Japan Megumi is called a “rental sister,” though her job may involve much more than familial comforts. At first Thomas remains steadfast and sequestered, but as he grows to trust Megumi, a deepening and sensual relationship unfolds.

In this revelatory and provocative debut, Jeff Backhaus asks, what are the risks of intimacy? And what must these three broken people surrender in order to find hope again? Hikikomori and the Rental Sister celebrates the human capacity to find beauty and meaning in life, even after great sorrow. It tears through the emotional walls of grief and delves into the power of human connection to break through to the world waiting outside.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Review: The Summer Before the Storm by Gabriele Wills

When I saw the gorgeous boat on the cover of this book and found out that it was mostly set amongst summer cottages on a lake, I knew that it was a book that I had to read.  Several generations of my family spend the summer together at a remote lake cottage on an island and although our area is not quite like Muskoka, I could vividly picture the life they led, the dramas that played out, and the feeling of belonging that the area and cottage inspired.  Set during the Age of Elegance in Canada in the easy lull just before the world erupted into the horrible and deadly World War I, Gabriele Wills' The Summer Before the Storm is an engrossing look at lives of privilege and entitlement and the ways in which their world is already changing irreparably.

Focused primarily on the extended Wyndham family, the novel opens with a handsome and audacious waiter bending down and whispering something into the ear of the proper and wholey class conscious matriarch of the very wealthy family, something that makes grandmother Augusta Wyndham blanch.  The waiter, it seems, is a Wyndham, the eldest child of the disowned but still much mourned and beloved youngest son Alex.  With Jack's bold introduction to the family, tensions between the Wyndhams will tighten and strain.  His advent foreshadows the coming conflict acoss the ocean and marks the start of the last "normal" summer at the cottage and Muskoka.  Although Augusta is willing to accept the advent of this son of her rogue son, she is a canny and observant woman and she keeps a close eye on the goings on around her.  Jack is a schemer and having spent his entire life thus far in poverty, he is determined to not only get into his fabulously wealthy family's good graces but to stay in their monied bosom forever more.  And to that end, he chooses his cousin Victoria, a young woman testing the boundaries of propriety and taste, a new breed of freer woman, and clearly the apple of her grandmother's eye despite her outspokeness and forward thinking, modern choices.

The summer passes slowly and lazily as the Wyndhams and their social set, including those not entirely acceptable to them except in the more relaxed atmosphere of Muskoka, embark on their usual summer amusements: a regatta, a swimming contest, tennis matches, canoeing, parties, swimming, and endless visiting amongst the myriad of privately owned islands in the lake.  New adult relationships are formed, unwelcome news is uncovered and brushed firmly back under the rug; the Wyndham grandchildren are growing older and becoming adults; the long-standing tensions between the remaining Wyndham sons and their wives escalates with sharp words and frequent spats.  New neighbors are met and folded into the social fabric of the lake society.  And the myriad of servants face their own belowstairs dramas.  In short, aside from the advent of Jack's coming, which has supercharged the atmosphere, the summer of 1914 is little different from previous summers until the July announcement of war, when reality intrudes on this shangri-la.

The book is sweeping and epic in scale and feel with a marvelous grandeur of times past.  It is hard to get into in the beginning because the cast of characters is altogether overwhelming.  There are a full four and a half pages for the character list before the novel even begins and although many of them don't enter the book until later, it is a challenge to keep the early characters straight until they are well and fully introduced.  But once the story focuses on fewer members of the family, really those whose lives will carry the story (and ostensibly the further two books in the trilogy), the confusion settles down and the reader can settle into an engrossing and addictive read. 

The languor and indolence of the monied class and their complete insularity is brilliantly captured here as is the strict insistence on maintaining the illusion of elitism.  The young generation is striving to break the tighter propriety bonds that stifle them and there is certainly a rising awareness of social inequity and a desire to make the world a better place.  As the war blows into the lives of this community, everything shifts and changes with the young men joining up and leaving for England and the young women left at home, at least initially, to carry on in a world changed forever.  The historical detail here is marvelous and complete.  The beginning of the book is slow and fluid feeling but the end pelts along at an increased clip and time feels compressed as indeed it must have with the war raging.  The ending felt more like a cliffhanger before book two than a completion but that's a minor quibble and I look forward to revisiting the altered lives of the Wyndhams, Victoria in particular.  Historical fiction readers will sink into this tale, happily immersed in the end of an era that is marching relentlessly into a terrible and costly war.

For more about Gabriele Wills or the book, check out her Facebook page, follow her on Twitter, or view the book trailer.  You can follow the rest of the book tour or see what others have had to say about the book here and you can purchase the entire trilogy at Mindshadows.

Thanks to Teddy Rose and Premier Virtual Tours for sending me a copy of the book for review.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Review: Triangles by Ellen Hopkins


Have you ever heard about high school kids moan about having to read poetry?  I'm about one step up from that.  And by that, I mean I don't moan about it out loud but it's rarely something I have rarely chosen to do since graduating from school.  About the only poetry reading I do voluntarily these days is reading through the elementary school kid's poetry packet when he brings it home after the unit is finished every year.  For my money, he writes some highly entertaining poetry (not that that was his intention, mind you).  So it was almost completely out of character for me to choose to read a novel in verse.  **I only qualified the above statement because Sharon Creech's Love That Dog for the elementary school set is written in verse and is bloody brilliant.  In any case, had I been paying close enough attention, I'd have known up front that Ellen Hopkins' Triangles was a novel in verse and it would likely not have hit my plate thanks to my long time avoidance of most poetry.
 
Narrated in verse and in turn by all three of the main characters, this is a novel of mid-life crises, dissatisfaction, unhappiness, and infidelity.  It calls into question what we can legitimately expect from our lives, the meaning of loyalty, love, and friendship, and how marriages can wither away or crumble from lack of effort.  Holly is newly thin and looking for excitement which she finds in multiple affairs.  Andrea is a single mom who tries to shepherd friend Holly away from temptation but when Holly succumbs, she has few compunctions about trying Holly's settled and comfortable life, including Holly's husband, on for size.  Andrea's sister Marissa is stultifyingly trapped.  Her daughter has a terminal disease and she has subsumed her whole being into caring for Shelby for as long as Shelby has to live.  That her son Shane is newly out of the closet and constantly sparring with his dad, Marissa's distant and work-absorbed husband, doesn't ease her burden any.  As the stories twine together, each of the women is brought to the crisis point, forced to examine her life, and to determine what she wants from it and who she ultimately wants to be.
 
While the poetry is an innovative way to tell the story, it was confusing with three narrators.  Holly, Andrea, and Marissa all sounded exactly alike in their sections because of the spareness of the verse, making it difficult to retain which woman's story the plot thread was following at any given moment.  They came to seem rather interchangeable.  And somehow the poetry was less evocative and more devoid of detail and symbol than it should have been, leaving the tale feeling thin and underdeveloped.  Each of the women's self-realization does in fact include her sexuality but there was an awful lot of very descriptive scenes that really did nothing in the service of the plot or in building the characters.  None of the characters was all that sympathetic or likeable over all and they didn't seem to grow or change in any perceptible way either.  The about face at the end of the book on some characters' parts was too easy and unearned to be believable.  Although this is a book written for adults with middle aged characters, the feel is still very emotionally puerile and teenaged immature.  Telling the tale in poetic form was interesting and could have worked but it needed to plumb deeper than it did and to be used for a reason.  Ultimately I found the book unsatisfying and grateful that it was a quick read.
 
Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of the book to review.

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

A much better reviewing week this week, reading has been good too.  And life hasn't gotten any less busy, I've just found a better groove I guess!  But the biggest news is that I finally sat down and powered my way through a book that has been on my bedside table unfinished since the dawn of time for two years.  Yay me!  This meme is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.

Books I completed this past week are:

Moranthology by Caitlin Moran
The Blue Notebook by James Levine
Turning Pages by Tristi Pinkston
And Now We Shall Do Manly Things by Craig Heimbuch
Let the Great World Spin by Colm McCann

Bookmarks are still living in the middle of:

nothing!
Reviews posted this week:

All Gone by Alex Witchel
My Scandalous Viscount by Gaelen Foley
Comet's Tale by Steven Wolf with Lynette Padwa
Valeria's Last Stand by Marc Fitten
Abdication by Juliet Nicolson

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

Triangles by Ellen Hopkins
How to Capture a Countess by Karen Hawkins
Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? by Mindy Kaling
A Rural Affair by Catherine Alliott
Jane's Fame by Claire Harman
What You Wish For by Kerry Reichs
The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling
The Wilder Life by Wendy McClure
In the Sanctuary of Outcasts by Neil White
Losing My Sister by Judy Goldman
Jana Bibi's Excellent Fortunes by Betsy Woodman
Just Kids by Patti Smith
Forgotten by Catherine McKenzie
Heading Out to Wonderful by Robert Goolrick
The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap by Wendy Welch
The Summer Before the Storm by Gabriele Wills
Moranthology by Caitlin Moran
The Blue Notebook by James Levine
Turning Pages by Tristi Pinkston
And Now We Shall Do Manly Things by Craig Heimbuch
Let the Great World Spin by Colm McCann

Monday Mailbox

Just one book in the mailbox this past week but sometimes one is enough.  This past week's mailbox arrivals:

Because You Have To by Joan Frank came from University of Notre Dame Press and TLC Book Tours for a blog tour.
Essays about a writing life, this should be a wonderful, enriching wallow of a read.

As always, if you'd like to see the marvelous goodies in other people's mailboxes, make sure to visit BermudaOnion as Kathy is hosting this month's Mailbox Monday and have fun seeing how we are all doing our part to keep the USPS and delivery services viable.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Review: Abdication by Juliet Nicolson

London, 1936.  Edward VIII is on the throne.  The Nazis were gathering strength in Europe.  And the world was on the cusp of WWII.  A year full of change and unrest, uncertainty and brewing scandal.  Juliet Nicolson has captured the time and the place beautifully in this novel rife with complicated undercurrents swirling around and ultimately forming historical fact.

May Thomas is a young woman from the Barbados who is newly arrived in Britain following the death of her mother.  She's come to the UK with her brother, moving in with her cousin, his wife, and in-laws.  She soon finds work as a secretary/chauffeur to Lady Joan and Sir Philip Blunt and gains entre into the inner workings of the aristocracy and the British government.  May is a discreet driver and she has a front row seat watching new King's thus far secret devotion to Wallis Simpson thanks to the arrival of one of Lady Joan's goddaughters, Evangeline Nettleson, a school friend of Mrs. Simpson's from America.

When Evangeline comes from America to spend time with her godmother, May drives her around, including to Fort Belvedere to see her old school chum Wallis.  Because of May's position in the household, she is privy to the inner world of both the upstairs and the downstairs.  And because of Sir Philip's place in the government, she hears much about politics and the state of the nation that is sensitive and privileged.  Her job is a strange mix of business and pleasure for the Blunts and those in their sphere.  Julian Richardson, a school mate of the Blunt's son, who spends a lot of time with the Blunts in order to avoid his own ailing mother and his less illustrious origins, finds himself attracted to May and manufacturing reasons to spend time with her despite his own confusion about what he most desires out of life.

There are many different story lines going on through this novel, often seemingly insignificant but all tied to the major events of the time period.  May's cousin has married into a Jewish family so the rising anti-Semitism of the times hovers menacingly and very real in the background of May's inside look at the King and Wallis Simpson's affair and the political implications around it.  The focus here, though is not so much the high profile relationship that the British government was trying hard to keep under wraps but instead the effect of the time and each little thing on the common man in England.  It is a look at relationships, love, misunderstandings, and sacrifice.  From illicit relationships to friendships, depth of feeling is explored and examined as a driver for action.  The characters are well drawn, interesting, and intricately human.  The history is authentic and more boradly focused than the title would imply but the story is all the better for its wider lens and awareness of the world outside the royal cocoon.  Anglophiles of all stripes will certainly appreciate this broad picture of England during the short reign of Edward VIII.

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

Friday, November 2, 2012

Review: Valeria's Last Stand by Marc Fitten

Some people don't like change.  Some are so averse to it that it infects their characters, making them crochety, bitter, and unpleasant.  We use the names of these sorts of people as insults: troglodytes, Luddites, and more.  But even when we are resistant to change, it comes into all of our lives whether we invite it in and embrace it or not.  In Marc Fitten's novel Valeria's Last Stand, there is an entire Hungarian village being modernized at seemingly warp speed but there's also a grumpy, grouchy older woman, the eponymous Valeria, who, because life has not gone the way she wanted, refuses to concede anything to progress until she finds herself falling in love late in life and having to bend and adapt if she wants to have a chance of finally living the life she has long desired.

Set in a small town in Hungary post-Communism, this novel captures provincial life and the assorted characters who populate this place forgotten by progress and innovation.  Now that the people and the town have access to modern conveniences, the mayor is determined haul their little corner of the world into the twenty-first century.  No one is a bigger symbol of the insularity and aversion to change than curmudgeonly Valeria who has been taking her own bad mood out on the other villagers for 40 years.  She is a thoroughly grumpy woman, contemptuous of everyone around her.  But when she spies the village potter making a purchase at the market, she falls for him and has to revamp herself as appealing and desirable, especially since the potter is already involved with the rather buxom, Ibolya, the local bar keep.  The love triangle is comical, and made even more so by the arrival of the itinerant chimney sweep to make it a love square.  But there are very serious issues in play in the novel as well: progress simply for progress' sake, xenophobia, insularity, love, change and adaptation.  It's a unique and unusual comedy of manners really, although threaded with some appalling violence and mob mentality.

The novel is well written and deadpan.  The characters are not entirely likable but they are all the more human for their faults and weaknesses.  Positing a dumpy, cranky sexagenarian as a love-struck muse for the potter is pure genius and the convoluted relationships between the main characters are reminiscent of the theater.  This could definitely be successfully staged.  Valeria as a symbol of the closed and resistant village is well conceived and executed and her slow growth and change, a willingness to open herself up and expose herself to both the positive and the negative, renders this a readable and delightful allegory.

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

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