Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Review: Dinner With the Smileys by Sarah Smiley

Just about every expert out there talks about the importance of family dinners. But what do you do when your family is apart, not by choice, but because the husband and father is military and deployed for a year? If you are Sarah Smiley and her three boys, you invite guests to fill the empty seat at the table.

When the Smiley family found out that Dustin would be deployed to Afghanistan for a year, they knew that it would not be easy. The three boys were old enough to miss their father and Sarah Smiley was faced with trying to hold her house together while finishing up her degree without her biggest supporter to help her. In order to help the boys adjust to life without their dad for the year, they came up with the idea to share their Sunday dinners with others for the next 52 weeks. Smiley wanted the boys to have local role models, to show them about community, and to be just a little bit distracted from Dustin's absence. The guests they invited ranged the gamut from politicians to local celebrities, from beloved teachers to special neighbors. Most of the dinners took place at the Smiley's home but a few of them involved being at someone else's home or doing things that pushed their boundaries.

The book is not just about the dinners though. It is also about parenting alone while a spouse is on deployment. It's about the way in which the boys reacted to their father's absence. And neither of these latter two things were easy. Smiley details the crying and the despair that overwhelmed her at times. She writes about the boys' frequent misbehavior. In other words, she shows her family warts and all.

Dinner With the Smileys is certainly homey, heartwarming, and honest. But it suffers a bit from the mélange of agendas: the dinners and guests themselves, the life and sacrifices of a military family, or the lessons she and the boys learned from their guests. The beginning of the book spends a lot of time on the guests and the experiences of the Smiley family as they embark on this project but by the end, the guests and the dinners are glossed over too speedily, sometimes dealt with in the span of a single sentence. This imbalance between beginning and end made the experiment feel a bit forced by the time the reader reaches the last page. This was indeed a wonderful premise and a feel-good read but in the end, while I enjoyed reading it, it seemed just a little cursory and ultimately a little less insightful than I would have expected.

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

Monday, September 29, 2014

It Can't Possibly Have Been 25 Years...

I went back to my 25th high school reunion two weekends ago. I hadn't even been back to the state since graduation; the moving van pulled out of our driveway about 6 nanoseconds after I was handed my diploma. But I thought that 25 years was a good time to go back if I ever planned to do it. Never mind that I do not look anywhere close to what I'd have liked to look like when seeing people I haven't seen in so long. (I'd settle for looking like my 18 year old self, not that that would be hard, right? HA!) I realized about three years too late that I hadn't prepared my best self for the reunion. You know, the self that has lost a ton of weight, looks fit and gorgeous, and is completely stylish. Then again, if *that* person had shown up for the reunion, no one would have recognized me since my nerdy 18 year old self didn't exactly qualify either. I'm willing to concede that I was fit, because, well, I was. The rest...not so much. So took a stab at lowering people's expectations just a bit by posting this on Facebook: "My high school reunion is next weekend. And I'm going. I haven't been back since I graduated. Do you think if I bleach my teeth into a blinding whiteness, it will distract everyone from noticing that I have a much more enduring love affair with food than I do with exercise? Or that I can't be arsed to dye the greys that are pushing me dangerously close to what I like to call Mother Nature aided blonde? Pretty sure my personality hasn't gotten any better since high school and that I am more socially awkward than ever. This could be a hot mess. But it could be a hot mess with great, blazingly white teeth. So there's that." See? It's not all about physical appearance? OK, so in this status update I forgot to mention that I briefly considered Botox until my longstanding needle phobia ruled that right out and then I thought that an eyebrow waxing would be subtle but helpful until I recognized that my luck meant that I'd find someone who completely removed one of my eyebrows entirely, a look I'm quite sure I am incapable of rocking. If you are keeping track, that's 5 out of 7 things that are appearance driven. And that discounts the fact that I had to go shopping for new clothes so I'd be marginally less frumpy mummy than I usually am. Apparently I am ridiculously vain. Who knew? But I'd committed and hoped for the best. (Side note here: the high school I went to was quite small so I knew every last person in my graduating class. Anonymity was never going to be an option. So I convinced my husband, who did not go to school there, to go with me to run interference if my chubby, insecure, introverted self needed bailing out.)

Being the neurotic, regimented sort of Type A personality I am, the night before I left for the reunion (post shopping and tooth whitening--they never did get the fluorescent white color I thought would be the perfect distraction), I printed out a blow by blow of what the weekend would have to look like for everyone to get everywhere he or she needed to be. I taped it to the door leading into the garage so that each kid (and my husband, since he was following me a day later) would see it each time they left the house. I pointed it out to everyone. Then I packed and went to bed. Thursday morning I ran some last minute errands and then headed to the airport. Direct flights from here to there are few and far between and since I had waited fairly last minute, were obnoxiously expensive to boot. So I was forced to endure two flights on commuter aircraft, and I don't much like flying. For the first flight, my seat was the ever-coveted last row before the bathroom. I sat down, pulled out my book, and started reading. The plane was mostly full when an old dude (and you know he was an old dude if my middle aged self thinks so) took one look at the seat next to me and told the flight attendant that he'd rather sit in the bathroom. If I'd have been her, I would have allowed it, FAA be damned. The second flight was on the same plane but I still had to deplane and then get back on again, thankfully in a seat further up the way.  However, I got to sit next to a mom who held a grizzling 3 month old baby while getting to listen to his older sister sing Take Me Out to the Ballgame quite loudly across the aisle. I may not find baseball any more interesting than watching the grass grow but even I know there are only three strikes, not five, as our little songstress seemed to think. Have I mentioned I'm not very fond of flying?  I might have opted for a seat in the bathroom on that one.  So I finally arrived, collected my rental car, and headed out to find J.'s house since she graciously offered to let us stay with her. I recognized absolutely nothing about the city.  Seriously!  Nothing.  Not long after I got to the house, R. called me in tears to tell me that there was no one to drive her to dance. W. had gone off to his tennis lesson and my husband, who had one job Thursday evening (getting the kid to dance), had also disappeared because he hadn't read the schedule. I had to call all of my friends and neighbors to get the poor child to where she needed to be. Home crisis handled, I tried to relax for the rest of the evening.

Friday morning dawned clear and lovely and I trailed J. to the middle school for Breakfast at Blake where one of our classmates was being honored as an Alum of the Year. When I first saw R., I love that he complimented me on my lovely teeth (yes, he had read the Facebook post). It made me feel just that little bit better about looking the way I look right now. R. and his brother gave an interesting talk about their lives and successes as entrepreneurs and I intend to force my husband to watch the whole thing on YouTube once it's posted since he missed it, still flying in. I did have to sneak out early in order to head back to the airport to pick up my husband so I didn't get to do any mingling afterwards, which turned out to be okay since I have to ease into that much social stuff. I drove my husband all over the city, including out to my old house (which I had forgotten you can't see from the road as it sits over the crown of a hill and behind a bunch of trees). He was mightily impressed when I pointed out one small triangle of roof and about three bricks and told him that's where I lived for four years. ::snort:: Then we drove around to the high school (20 minutes with no traffic at midday) and I tried to drive from the upper school to the middle school, a drive I did daily for four years, on memory alone. I got about half way there but then my memory conked out. In another twenty-five years, I probably won't even be able to find the front door of the school. We headed back to J.'s house and as is fitting for our status as old buggers, took a nap.

Friday evening we headed to the Homecoming football game. There was a nice alumni reception on the loggia at the school. I don't think this is a new thing but I have to be honest and say that in the four years I went to school there and was at the Homecoming game, I had no idea they were having this old folks party on the loggia. Amazing how oblivious ages 14-18 can be! I chatted with people I hadn't seen in forever and my husband, extrovert that he is, met not only my classmates but spent time talking to other alums I had never before laid eyes on. After the game, which I did not watch and which we lost badly (apparently not much has really changed in 25 years, for me or for the football team), the class party moved to a bar and bowling alley. I did not bowl as no one offered bumpers. (Actually, very few people bowled; it was mostly more talking.) I did recognize almost everyone there. Turns out the only person I didn't recognize was a guy who left after eighth grade. I didn't arrive until ninth grade so that earlier cheating by looking at the yearbook paid off in spades. ;-) There were a few people who didn't recognize me (they should have looked at the yearbook and then added weight and grey hair to my picture and it would have been immediately obvious who I was!). I told my husband that it was giving me a complex when people had to squint at my nametag to figure me out. Always wanting to help, he suggested that they just wanted a closer look at my boobs and pretending to not recognize me was just a ruse. What would I ever do without his thoughtful support?!

Our morning Saturday started much earlier than planned when my mother called us at 5 am. We'd left the kids home alone (several states away, mind you). Well, at that insanely early hour, the alarm company had called her to tell her that they were sending a police officer out to our house. No, not a party, but an alarm going off and no one answering the phone. Talk about wide awake and in a panic quickly! We called everyone we knew to try and rouse them to meet the police at the house and made the youngest wake the oldest (who had slept through the alarm) so we didn't have a 12 year old telling the police that he was home alone. Turns out that the kids forgot they'd set the alarm so when R. went to let the dogs out, she just opened the door. And none of them saw any reason to answer the phone to reassure the alarm company. While we were panicking trying to get everything handled from afar, the kids were completely sanguine and unruffled by all of it. Of course, they hadn't been awakened from a dead sleep to deal with it either. But it all worked out fine, a neighbor showed up to make us look like more upstanding parents than we actually are, and we managed to drift back off to sleep. Once we had start number two to our day, it was absolutely gorgeous, sunny and 75 and it looked like a day straight out of a tourism brochure. There was a class picnic at Lake Harriet and a few people brought their kids to play on the playground. We did not bring our kids but they are so much older than most of my classmates' kids that every time I had to admit to having a senior, a junior, and a seventh grader, it made me feel irrationally older than whoever I was talking to.

Later on Saturday, there was a another party at the Upper School and J. wanted to paint the rock in the courtyard for it. We took all the stuff to get set up and as the rock was being painted, I got yet another phone call from home. This one was from a neighbor telling me that T. had been playing football and had hurt his arm. I talked to him and suggested that he take some Advil and call me back in an hour. I know, I know. Not exactly the most concerned and empathetic response ever but he's a very dramatic child. Anyway, my suggestion suited him and later in the evening I got a text from him saying that they were going to go to the local amusement park's haunted weekend. I patted myself on the back for appropriate mom intuition. We raced home, got dressed for the party, and headed back to the school in a monsoon of vast proportions. On the plus side, the spray paint had managed to dry before the skies opened up so the rock looked good to greet people, if they could see it through the driving rain. I took the opportunity to walk around the school and see how it had changed in the past twenty-five years. Much of it was the same but there were some gorgeous additions too. Comparing it to my kids' school really drove home how lucky I had been to go to school there. There were some different people at this party so there was more chatting and catching up. One classmate even asked me if I was this funny in high school (meaning my Facebook posts). She looked a little skeptical when I told her I wasn't actually this funny now either. We opened the time capsule that we'd put together 25 years prior and although I have no memory of contributing to it, the first thing pulled out of the box was from me. Turns out it was a pair of shoes. I must have worn them every day for four years. The sole was split through on one, the inside leather was curled and gross, and there was a rime of mud on them. Most of the other things in the time capsule were historically significant newspaper articles or letters about what people thought their lives would look like twenty-five years on. I was one of the few to put in a cultural artifact (this is my fancy justification for the weird way my eighteen year old brain worked). My husband sent a picture of me holding the shoes to my mother who promptly texted back wondering where my wedding ring was and warning him that I might be "trolling for guys." She also wanted to know if my high school boyfriend had come back. Honestly! I clearly inherited the crazy fair and square. For the record, I am too fat for my wedding ring and between my husband and my sons, I have more than enough guys in my life, thank you very much. But it was a lovely time and I did enjoy catching up with people in person.

The next morning we headed home. Although my husband had made both our reservations, making them a couple of days apart was a mistake because he forgot which flight he put me on and booked a different one for himself. At least he claims it was an accident! Maybe he went to my reunion trolling for women. ;-) In any case, he had a four hour layover at O'Hare and I spent my long layover in Dulles. Although I had no less than appealing seatmates, I recognized my discomfort with sitting as an incipient pilonoidal cyst (look this up only at your own peril as the pictures are horrifying and the description might even be worse). Suffice it to say it's a cyst on your tailbone and it makes sitting very unpleasant so two plane rides were great fun. I immediately made plans to spend Monday at the doctor's office getting good drugs. Other than that though, the trip home was uneventful.

Re-entry into regular life was not destined to be quite so easy. Monday morning, the kid with the injured arm that I had dismissed as likely to be fine still could not move his arm. After many hours at the ER and then the orthopedic doctor, I have been permanently struck off the list of nominees for mother of the year. Yes. Broken. And I encouraged him to take Advil and just walk around with a broken arm for two days. So much for mom's intuition. Back at home I found dog vomit in the front room and damp mildew-smelling clothes in the dryer after R. told me that she'd gone to get her pants out on Friday but they were wet. When I asked her if she'd run the dryer, she looked at me in surprise and said that no, she'd just tossed the wet jeans back in there and closed the door. Argh! Obviously I can never leave home again. And no, I didn't get to the doctor to handle my own issues until two days later at which point I could no longer sit or walk normally. Reunions are clearly a pain in my ass. Literally.  Can't wait to see you all in another twenty-five years!

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

This meme is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.

Books I completed this past week are:

The Bride Insists by Jane Ashford
Gutenberg's Apprentice by Alix Christie

Bookmarks are still living in the middle of:

The Geometry of Love by Jessica Levine
Ruby by Cynthia Bond
Marching to Zion by Mary Glickman
A Farm Dies Once a Year by Arlo Crawford

Reviews posted this week:

Going Somewhere by Brian Benson
Gutenberg's Apprentice by Alix Christie
Where Somebody Waits by Margaret Kaufman

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

Mimi Malloy, At Last by Julia MacDonnell
The Innocent Sleep by Karen Perry
Strings Attached by Joanne Lipman and Melanie Kupchynsky
Palmerino by Melissa Pritchard
If Not For This by Pete Fromm
The Lady From Tel Aviv by Raba'i al-Madhoun
Angels Make Their Hope Here by Breena Clarke
Ishmael's Oranges by Claire Hajaj
Neverhome by Laird Hunt
Burial Rights by Hannah Kent
Euphoria by Lily King
The Blessings by Elise Juska
The Traitor's Wife by Allison Pataki
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
Painted Horses by Malcolm Brooks
All Fall Down by Jennifer Weiner
Juliet's Nurse by Lois Leveen
We Are Called to Rise by Laura McBride
Bellman and Black by Diane Setterfield
The Orphans of Race Point by Patry Francis
Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger
Mr. Tall by Tony Earley
Cinnamon and Gunpowder by Eli Brown
Gemini by Carol Cassella
The Bride Insists by Jane Ashford

Monday Mailbox

This past week's mailbox arrivals:

The Spanish Queen by Carolly Erickson came from St. Martin's Griffin.

The Tudors are always a fascinating subject to me and while Catherine of Aragon was Henry VIII's first queen, she is not often a focus, merely a speed bump on the way to Anne Boleyn, mother of Elizabeth I. I am interested to see this take on this first of Henry's wives.

Flirting With French by William Alexander came from Algonquin Paperbacks and Library Thing Early Reviewers.

Learning a language as an adult is a booger and I can't wait to see Alexander tackle French.

Last Train to Babylon by Charlee Fam came from William Morrow and TLC Book Tours for a blog tour.

Somehow this book about a young woman who keeps suicide notes ready just in case, and the former friend who actually does kill herself brings to mind the black humor of the movie Heathers to me. I'm hoping the flavor comparison holds when I actually read it.

If you'd like to see the marvelous goodies in other people's mailboxes, make sure to visit Mailbox Monday and have fun seeing how we are all doing our part to keep the USPS and delivery services viable.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Review: Where Somebody Waits by Margaret Kaufman

There's something very charming about this physically slight novel that's not really a novel, more a collection of connected short stories. And while the dimensions of the book have nothing whatsoever to do with the content, it somehow seems to fit that it is a quirky-sized book.

Ruby Davidson is the character around whom all the stories revolve. Starting during WWII and then spanning sixty years, Ruby surprises her small Arkansas town by marrying Bubba Davidson, the decade older Jewish owner of the town's clothing store rather than waiting for her soldier boyfriend, John Clay, to come home from the war. Ruby adores her husband but she's also still in love with John Clay and this two part love will lead Ruby to decisions and down paths she never expected. She is a free-spirited, generous and loving woman, good to her husband and worshipped by her young nieces. She is unconventional and socially conscious living, as she does, through historic times. As the years pass and Ruby lives her life from her 20s to her 80s, there is a real sense of sultry, Southern days tinged with melancholy here. Ruby makes mistakes and hurts people but she is also fierce in her love and tolerance.

The point of view shifts from story to story and many of them have been previously published on their own so they stand alone and complete within themselves. But they also make a united and special whole. Some chapters are narrated by Ruby, some by her nieces, some by John Clay, and others. The different perspectives on Ruby were not always equally strong but they did offer extra insight into her impact on the lives of those loved ones around her. Sometimes Ruby's choices in life were simply stated without offering a motivation, which would have been nice to know and added to the depth. The writing is extremely poetic and lovely. Kaufman draws her characters and their small town beautifully. There are some wonderful colloquialisms here and Ruby's character makes this an uncommon and unique read.

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

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Review: Gutenberg's Apprentice by Alix Christie

The greatest thing since sliced bread? There's no contest; it's obviously the printing press. Without the genius of Johann Gutenberg, the world as we know it would be so fundamentally different I can't even begin to imagine what it would look like. And for me personally, well, I would have had to disguise myself as a boy so I could be a monk because I don't think I could survive without books. But Gutenberg didn't change the world from scribes to printing presses singlehandedly as Alix Christie's debut novel, Gutenberg's Apprentice, suggests. Gutenberg's Bible was not the work of one man but a miracle of many. He had a financial backer, a devoted apprentice, and a whole workshop of people dedicated to his vision.

Peter Schoeffer is a scribe in Paris, good at his work and starting to become known in his field, when his adoptive father, Johann Fust, calls him back to Mainz, Germany. Fust is a wealthy merchant who sees the promise in Gutenberg's latest invention and he wants his foster son to not only apprentice in the new art but also to serve as his eyes and ears in the workshop. Peter is bitter at first and worried that what they are doing is the devil's work but as he comes to understand the process and its implications for the city of Mainz, each church, and indeed, people all over, he grows as invested in the art of printing as he ever was in being a scribe. But the path to the Bible was not a straight one. The expenses for starting up this newfangled press were staggering and threatened to mushroom out of control before anything was ever printed. The Bible itself was not originally the work intended to be printed but the church's internal wrangling over reform and unchecked greed made it impossible for anything but God's Own Word. The time consuming nature of the work, although significantly faster than scribing, was also against them. The secrecy in which the workshop had to toil was precarious but vital. And the growing enmity and lack of trust between the partners, Fust and Gutenberg, pulled at Peter and caused him stress.

Christie has done a beautiful job laying out the political climate of the time and the struggle between religious and secular interests. She has captured the corruption and greed that defined the late medieval church and which would, in a few short years, result in the Reformation. She shows the guilds growing in power to challenge the established church and the price that the common man paid in this struggle. Gutenberg is shown as visionary but crafty, self-serving, and eager for fame and fortune. Fust starts off lenient and willing to invest greatly in the venture but grows increasingly impatient and mercenary when he tots up his probable losses. And Peter, who owes much to both men, is torn, his loyalty divided and tested. The frame device, whereby Peter tells the tale of the Bibles to a curious monk some twenty or thirty years after the events and after the deaths of both Fust and Gutenberg, allows him to reflect on the way that they each contributed to history and to finally see the good and ill of each decision from the vantage of a more impartial time, reflecting on the miracle that it lasted only the span of time that it required.

Mainz and the surrounding areas were well described and the details of how the press worked and the technique involved in making all aspects of the book perfect were fascinating. The tightrope they all walked in keeping the rapacious archbishop ignorant enough of their work to continue on without interference lends tension to a plot, the outcome of which all of history records. Peter is a wonderful narrator, having a foot in both camps, truly understanding the monumental achievement towards which they strove, and having to learn everything just as the reader does. Historical fiction readers will appreciate the bringing to life of the major players in the birth of the printing press, the intriguing and fraught tale of Gutenberg's famous Bible, and the beginning of the publishing industry and readily accessible books. Then they'll want to lay eyes on one of the remaining Gutenberg Bibles themselves. I know I do!

For more information about Alix Christie and the book, check out her website, her Facebook page, follow her on Twitter or take a look at the book's page on GoodReads. Follow the rest of the blog tour or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Review: Going Somewhere by Brian Benson

Brian Benson was directionless, traveling in Guatemala, when he met Rachel. He was immediately drawn to her voice and to her as a person, becoming first her friend and then her boyfriend. Their bike trip was originally Rachel's idea but Brian was more than willing to make her dream of a cross-country bike ride his too. Once they were both back in the States, they worked towards making that dream a reality. Starting in Benson's small Wisconsin hometown, the two of them prepared for their long ride and ignored people who questioned the intelligence of their vision.

Feeling like they wanted to go where serendipity took them, they didn't plan a route; they just took off, headed somewhere as yet undefined out on the West Coast. And this lack of a plan for a unified future was the first problem that Brian and Rachel faced but it certainly wasn't the last one. Benson's bike broke down several times; they endured noisy, exhaust filled highways; Benson felt irrational resentment towards Rachel for not being able to keep up with him, especially on hills; they faced physical fatigue and discomfort; fought mental battles with themselves; experienced disagreements and relationship hardships; and battled the physical elements, driving wind, heat, and rain.

As the two of them rode through everything they encountered, they learned a lot about themselves, had amazing adventures, experienced the kindness of strangers, and had at least one adrenaline-racing scary encounter. Benson captures well the frustration and sheer stubborn doggedness as well as the exhilaration and joy that is always a part of any trip like this. Unfortunately, the former seemed to form a disproportionate piece of the journey. Perhaps it was this imbalance that led the book to feel a bit repetitive. Benson was at his best, however, when writing about the countryside they biked through. His descriptions and observations were wonderful and the reader could, at every turn, clearly see the country laid out in front of them. Much of the ride seems to be a journey to try and find himself, to better understand his relationship and his place in it, and to locate the path to the future.  Because Benson is the one telling of his experiences, Rachel remains shallowly drawn and it feels like he often glosses over points where her opinions would matter and even potentially color the narrative differently. The premise was fascinating for sure but as meditative as this was, it probably won't inspire me to go on any long bike rides any time soon.

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

Waiting on Wednesday

This meme is hosted by Breaking the Spine and is meant to highlight some great pre-publication books we all can't wait to get our grubby little mitts on.

I Stand Corrected by Eden Collinsworth. The book is being released by Nan A. Talese on October 7, 2014.

Amazon says this about the book: A fascinating fusion of memoir, manners, and cultural history from a successful businesswoman well versed in the unique challenges of working in contemporary China.

During the course of a career that has, quite literarily, moved her around the world, no country has fascinated Eden Collinsworth more than China, where she has borne witness to its profound transformation. After numerous experiences there that might best be called "unusual" by Western standards, she concluded that despite China's growing status as a world economy, businessmen in mainland China were fundamentally uncomfortable in the company of their Western counterparts. This realization spawned an idea to work collaboratively with a major Chinese publisher on a Western etiquette guide, which went on to became a bestseller and prompted a branch of China's Ministry of Education to suggest that she create a curriculum for the school system. In I Stand Corrected, Collinsworth tells the entertaining and insightful story of the year she spent living among the Chinese while writing a book featuring advice on such topics as the non-negotiable issue of personal hygiene, the rules of the handshake, and making sense of foreigners. Scrutinizing the kind of etiquette that has guided her own business career, one which has unfolded in predominately male company, Collinsworth creates a counterpart that explains Chinese practices and reveals much about our own Western culture. At the same time, I Stand Corrected is a wry but self-effacing reflection on the peripatetic career she led while single-handedly raising her son, and here she details the often madcap attempts to strike a balance that was right for them both.

Monday, September 22, 2014

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

This meme is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.

Books I completed this past week are:

The Imaginary Life by Mara Torres
Mr. Tall by Tony Earley
Cinnamon and Gunpowder by Eli Brown
Gemini by Carol Cassella

Bookmarks are still living in the middle of:

The Geometry of Love by Jessica Levine
Ruby by Cynthia Bond
Marching to Zion by Mary Glickman
Gutenberg's Apprentice by Alix Christie

Reviews posted this week:

House of Wonder by Sarah Healy
Ballroom by Alice Simpson
The Imaginary Life by Mara Torres

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

Mimi Malloy, At Last by Julia MacDonnell
The Innocent Sleep by Karen Perry
Strings Attached by Joanne Lipman and Melanie Kupchynsky
Palmerino by Melissa Pritchard
If Not For This by Pete Fromm
The Lady From Tel Aviv by Raba'i al-Madhoun
Angels Make Their Hope Here by Breena Clarke
Ishmael's Oranges by Claire Hajaj
Neverhome by Laird Hunt
Burial Rights by Hannah Kent
Euphoria by Lily King
The Blessings by Elise Juska
The Traitor's Wife by Allison Pataki
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
Painted Horses by Malcolm Brooks
All Fall Down by Jennifer Weiner
Juliet's Nurse by Lois Leveen
We Are Called to Rise by Laura McBride
Bellman and Black by Diane Setterfield
The Orphans of Race Point by Patry Francis
Going Somewhere by Brian Benson
Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger
Mr. Tall by Tony Earley
Cinnamon and Gunpowder by Eli Brown
Gemini by Carol Cassella

Monday Mailbox

This past week's mailbox arrival:

Us by David Nicholls came from Harper and TLC Book Tours for a blog tour.

A man and woman who have been married for almost thirty years are on the verge of divorce but are still going to take the month long European trip they've planned with their moody teenager and maybe it can rekindle their marriage and forge a relationship with their son. Doesn't this sound fantastic?!

If you'd like to see the marvelous goodies in other people's mailboxes, make sure to visit Mailbox Monday and have fun seeing how we are all doing our part to keep the USPS and delivery services viable.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Review: The Imaginary Life by Mara Torres

Who doesn't spend a lot of time rehashing past occurrences or wondering how a situation could have been different? I revisit conversations and decisions in my head all the time. In fact, I am never so witty or biting or astute as when the voice is only in my head long after the actual fact. In Mara Torres' novel, newly translated from the Spanish, this is how the main character goes about her life, living very much in her own head, dwelling on her lost relationship, and wishing very much to change the past.

Nata Fortuno's boyfriend Beto has dumped her and she's finding it impossible to move on with her life. She is convinced that he will come back to her because he once told her that it would be impossible for him not to love her. But everyone else in her life knows that they are truly over and so she has few people to talk to about her longing for this dead relationship. In lieu of friends willing to discuss her feelings with her, she commits her thoughts to paper, runs them through her head over and over again, and imagines visiting Beto and being visited by him in turn as she goes about her days. Even as she does all of this, she does her job, goes out with friends, daydreams about another man, and generally tries to get on with her life the way everyone tells her she should.

The novel is completely interior and because Nata has a very active imagination, the reader never quite knows what is real and what she's created to suit herself. Even in her created conversations, she doesn't let herself off the hook, having an imaginary Beto tell her that she doesn't really understand love, that she's too busy searching for excitement to realize that love exists in the quiet, boring moments of life. But Nata has no impetus to actually learn this until she starts to think about Mauro, the new guy she meets at work. As much a problem as her desire for flash over substance is, her fear of being hurt again is equally as crippling.  It's a fear that drives her to look backwards at the past relationship she knows rather than the unpredictability of the one she could choose to start.

Nata's narration is alternately self-aware and completely clueless. Some of the situations she makes up, such as moving to Argentina and bartending, are pretty wild but they also feel a bit out of place and unnecessary to the narrative. The plot tension is fairly low all the way through as most of the novel focuses on Nata's obsessing about Beto and their lost relationship. And whether it was because the novel was translated or because it was just written this way, there were more than a few moments I had to go back and read pages again, checking to see if I had missed a page or several. So the narrative, despite taking place almost completely inside Nata's head, felt choppy and a little confusing. As we all replay things in our heads, it was an interesting premise for sure but it just didn't quite pull it off.

For more information about Mara Torres and the book, take a look at the book's page on GoodReads. Follow the rest of the blog tour or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Lisa from TLC Book Tours and 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.

Reunion by Hannah Pittard. The book is being released by Grand Central Publishing on October 7, 2014.

Amazon says this about the book: The author of the highly acclaimed The Fates Will Find Their Way returns with a novel about a far-flung family reunited for one weekend by their father's death.

Five minutes before her flight is set to take off, Kate Pulaski, failed screenwriter and newly failed wife with scarcely a hundred dollars to her name, learns that her estranged father has killed himself. More shocked than saddened by the news, she gives in to her siblings' request that she join them, along with her many half-siblings and most of her father's five former wives, in Atlanta, their birthplace, for a final farewell.

Written with huge heart and bracing wit, REUNION takes place over the following four days, as family secrets are revealed, personal foibles are exposed, and Kate-an inveterate liar looking for a way to come clean-slowly begins to acknowledge the overwhelming similarities between herself and the man she never thought she'd claim as an influence, much less a father. Hannah Pittard's "engaging and vigorous"* prose masterfully illuminates the problems that can divide modern families--and the ties that prove impossible to break.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Review: Ballroom by Alice Simpson

My husband dances like he's a teenager at a junior high dance: hands planted firmly on a girl's tush, rocking back and forth on his feet, sometimes to the beat and other times not so much. Before we got married, wanting to ensure that our first dance at the reception wasn't quite so lacking in class, I roped him into attending a dance class or two and I went to more than that myself. In all honesty, it didn't make much of a difference (for either of us) as he still stepped on my feet and I promptly fled to dance with my dad.  But  I've always been impressed with people who do dance beautifully, even if I didn't marry someone who could. So I was intrigued by Alice Simpson's debut novel, Ballroom, about a group of people who all dance at the Ballroom and whose lives cross each other in this very rarified place.

Told through the eyes of six different dancers, this novel tells of their hopes and dreams and the way in which the Ballroom seems, for so many of them, to be the means to achieving their hearts' desires. Harry Korn is a man in his late sixties. He lives alone and occasionally takes on dance students. He has watched Maria grow up just outside his window and when she was small he taught her to dance. Now that she's a young adult, he has plans to marry her and take her to Argentina to compete after she finishes college. Maria doesn't really believe Harry, not that he shares his desire to marry her with her. Despite the fact that she dances competitively and wins with her partner Angel, she still sneaks off to Harry's apartment every Friday for a lesson with the older man and she humors him when he asks her to tell him that she loves him. Sarah Dreyfuss is almost forty, thrice divorced, and she is looking for love at the Ballroom. She's asked Harry to teach her privately so that she can attract the attention of the debonair Gabriel, who only dances with the smoothest dancers. Gabriel dances to escape from his own unhappy marriage but he doesn't share this information with any of the women he dances with. Since he is already married, Sarah has no chance. Joseph, however, wants to get married and have a family even if he's put it off rather late. He thinks that Sarah would be ideal except that when he dances and talks with her, he doesn't really want her; he wants his own idealized version of her.

Each of these people come together at the Ballroom as a place out of time to escape their otherwise circumscribed and small lives. They are, for the most part, sad and lonely people who only have superficial relationships with the other regulars at the Ballroom. Their connections to each other remain on the dance floor where their movements are stylized and prescribed. When they leave the dance and come away from the rush and excitement, they return to their banal wallflower lives, lived on the periphery of everyone else's story. They start the novel as strangers and even though they might learn a bit about the others, they end the novel as strangers too, never having made the connections they so wanted or realized any of the dreams they had. Simpson's descriptive passages are gorgeously visual and paint a vivid picture for the reader but if the physical is very well described, the characters themselves are a bit flat and quite a few of them are unlikable. The chapters are brief and each is narrated by one of the major characters, but because of the characters' superficial relationships to each other, this narrational merry-go-round leads to a lack of cohesion in the overall story itself. The glamorous fantasy of the Ballroom is an illusion, the reality is actually fairly decrepit and tired and this seemed true of the majority of the characters as well. I wanted to love this novel, to have it capture the magic of dance and of life, but it didn't quite get there for me.

For more information about Alice Simpson and the book, check out her website, her Facebook page, or take a look at the book's page on GoodReads. Follow the rest of the blog tour or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Review: House of Wonder by Sarah Healy

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

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

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

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

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

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

This meme is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.

Books I completed this past week are:

House of Wonder by Sarah Healy
Ballroom by Alice Simpson

Bookmarks are still living in the middle of:

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

Reviews posted this week:

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

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

Mimi Malloy, At Last by Julia MacDonnell
The Innocent Sleep by Karen Perry
Strings Attached by Joanne Lipman and Melanie Kupchynsky
Palmerino by Melissa Pritchard
If Not For This by Pete Fromm
The Lady From Tel Aviv by Raba'i al-Madhoun
Angels Make Their Hope Here by Breena Clarke
Ishmael's Oranges by Claire Hajaj
Neverhome by Laird Hunt
Burial Rights by Hannah Kent
Euphoria by Lily King
The Blessings by Elise Juska
The Traitor's Wife by Allison Pataki
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
Painted Horses by Malcolm Brooks
All Fall Down by Jennifer Weiner
Juliet's Nurse by Lois Leveen
We Are Called to Rise by Laura McBride
Bellman and Black by Diane Setterfield
The Orphans of Race Point by Patry Francis
Going Somewhere by Brian Benson
Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger
House of Wonder by Sarah Healy
Ballroom by Alice Simpson

Monday Mailbox

This past week's mailbox arrival:

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

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

If you'd like to see the marvelous goodies in other people's mailboxes, make sure to visit Mailbox Monday and have fun seeing how we are all doing our part to keep the USPS and delivery services viable.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Review: Bergdorf Blondes by Plum Sykes

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

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

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

For more information about Plum Sykes and the book, check out her Facebook page, or take a look at the book's page on GoodReads. Follow the rest of the blog tour or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Review: GI Brides by Duncan Barrett and Nuala Calvi

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

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

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

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

For more information about Duncan Barrett and Nuala Calvi and the book, check out their website, or take a look at the book's page on GoodReads. Follow the rest of the blog tour or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Review: A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

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

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

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

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

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

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

This meme is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.

Books I completed this past week are:

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

Bookmarks are still living in the middle of:

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

Reviews posted this week:

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

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

Mimi Malloy, At Last by Julia MacDonnell
The Innocent Sleep by Karen Perry
Strings Attached by Joanne Lipman and Melanie Kupchynsky
Palmerino by Melissa Pritchard
If Not For This by Pete Fromm
The Lady From Tel Aviv by Raba'i al-Madhoun
Angels Make Their Hope Here by Breena Clarke
Ishmael's Oranges by Claire Hajaj
Neverhome by Laird Hunt
Burial Rights by Hannah Kent
Euphoria by Lily King
The Blessings by Elise Juska
The Traitor's Wife by Allison Pataki
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
Painted Horses by Malcolm Brooks
All Fall Down by Jennifer Weiner
Juliet's Nurse by Lois Leveen
We Are Called to Rise by Laura McBride
Bellman and Black by Diane Setterfield
The Orphans of Race Point by Patry Francis
A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
Going Somewhere by Brian Benson
Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger
GI Brides by Duncan Barrett and Nuala Calvi
Bergdorf Blondes by Plum Sykes

Monday Mailbox

This past week's mailbox arrival:

GI Brides by Duncan Barrett and Nuala Calvi came from William Morrow and TLC Book Tours for a blog tour.

How fascinating to read about real British women who married American GIs and the lives they lived after WWII, right?

If you'd like to see the marvelous goodies in other people's mailboxes, make sure to visit Mailbox Monday and have fun seeing how we are all doing our part to keep the USPS and delivery services viable.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Review: A Hundred Pieces of Me by Lucy Dillon

When my grandmother started moving into progressively smaller places, she had to decide what was most important for her to keep. She chose the things that mattered the most to her, that said something about who she was and the life she'd lived. As I look around my own house, I wonder what I'd let go first, what second, and what I would hold onto as forever meaningful to me, even if it looked insignificant to someone else.  This letting go and moving on with only that which is meaningful is the premise of Lucy Dillon's newest novel, A Hundred Pieces of Me.

Gina finished treatment for her breast cancer with her stalwart husband beside her. Then the two of them renovated a beautiful historic home and Gina started her own preservation business helping others to jump through all of the many and confusing hoops that the conservation folks require. Somewhere in there though, something in their marriage went sadly awry and Gina discovers that her heretofore steady husband Stuart has been having an affair. In divorcing, Stuart leaves almost all of their possessions with Gina, who is moving into a small, modern flat that is her clean slate. Taking a page out of a book her best friend Naomi gave her, Gina determines to weed things out of her life, keeping only the one hundred most important things, starting over unburdened.

Initially Gina is overwhelmed by all of her possessions and as she unpacks certain pieces conjure up memories for her. But she must purge and she even starts to take great joy in lightening herself up. The things she chooses to keep are varied and interesting in their very pedestrian nature. It is in the midst of letting go of so many of her things that she comes to acquire Buzz, an abandoned greyhound who is as fragile and in need of a new life as Gina herself is. While Gina is building that new life, she also takes on a large, time-consuming project, shepherding a dilapidated but once gracious listed home through renovations for a gorgeous and kind photographer and his high powered wife to use as a weekend getaway from London.

The novel's narrative moves back and forth in time, slowly revealing Gina's past and the tragedy in it for which she still blames herself and then unspooling her present and the ways in which she is growing and coming to embrace life and goodness. Chapters are headed with the description of an object from Gina's boxes.  Each thing she uncovers adds to her past story, that of a young Gina newly in love with first boyfriend Kit, of the Gina who wanted to know more about her father, of the Gina who lived with her difficult mother and her low-key but loving step-father, and of the Gina who married Stuart, before returning to the present and moving forward in the new life she's slowly building for herself.

The story is a charming one, thought-provoking, and full of emotion. As Gina lets go of the past, the reader too must think about how you determine what to hold onto and what to let go. The overarching theme of focusing on what is important in life, in possessions, people, and moments, is well-illustrated and threads throughout Gina's story. Gina learns, with help, to live in the moment rather than collecting it through things and to search out and find those moments that bring her joy. The characters are generally appealing, especially Gina, Nick, and Naomi, the major characters. Even Stuart is not a complete villain although Gina does come to forgive him rather easily. Some of the plot twists are a bit predictable and the ending is fairly unresolved. The conceit of Gina keeping only one hundred things is dropped fairly early on. And although Gina acknowledges that she has stopped keeping this up, it is still a shame that it wasn't carried through. The idea of a wall of Polaroid photos of the things that bring her joy, which replaces the one hundred things she's keeping, is a nice one but, on the whole, not quite as intriguing. Over all though, this is a lovely women's fiction novel, one that reminds us of the way life can change on a dime and that we are not defined by our things but by the way we live our lives and our memories and moments instead.

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

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Review: To See the Moon Again by Jamie Langston Turner

We carry our past with us every day of our lives. It has made us who were are, shaping us for better and for worse. Sometimes we barely notice what we bring forward with us and other times it weighs us down and reminds us every moment of who we were and what we did, forcing us to continually confront the ever present past. But there is a reason for the idea of forgiving and forgetting the things that continue to haunt us as the characters in Jamie Langston Turner's latest novel, To See the Moon Again, need to learn.

Julia Rich is an English professor at a small southern college. Her unassuming husband passed away last year and she's facing a sabbatical year she's not sure she wants to take. Her sister Pamela is a bit of a pest, calling and checking in all the time, whittering on about things going on in her life, and giving Julia advice for which she has no use. Julia is not terribly social and she's a bit aloof at the best of times. Her world is generally orderly and planned. So when she gets a phone message from Carmen, her late brother Jeremiah's only child, the niece she's never met, telling her that Carmen is planning to visit her, Julia immediately tries to figure out a way to stop this unknown teenager from appearing on her doorstep. But Carmen has left no way to reach her so all Julia can do is hope against hope that she doesn't turn up in the end. Of course, Carmen does show though.

When Carmen finally arrives to meet her Aunt Julia, Julia finds her heart cracking open just a little bit to let this charming girl in despite her desire not to allow this. As she gets to know her brother's child, she regrets the distance and the wrong assumptions that kept her from knowing the girl sooner, and sparing Carmen some of the heartache and sorrow she's already faced in her nineteen years. The two women slowly open up about their lives but even as they do so, Julia has to fight the urge to retreat emotionally at every turn. Carmen, on the other hand, is mostly open and sunny, engaging everyone around her and caring about their lives. Julia reflects on her family growing up and specifically her relationship with her mother as she and Carmen delve into the past And she finally faces the tragedy of so long ago and starts to allow herself to be forgiven. It takes Carmen far longer to admit to the devastation she carries with her and when she finally does on a road trip she and Julia are taking, she struggles with forgiving herself even when Julia turns Carmen's advice to her around on her.

Julia and Carmen are a study in contrasts as characters. Carmen has a certain faith in God no matter what hardships she's faced while Julia is resolutely skeptical and very frustrated by Carmen's simple acceptance. Carmen alternates from sweet and naively innocent to infuriatingly submissive, both to Julia and to the reader. The story is a quiet one packed with emotion. It explores the concept of sin, forgiveness, love, motherhood, and God's grace. The plot is not paramount, the connection between the characters is, which is a good thing because both Julia and Carmen's secrets are easily sussed out and just as easily explored or uncovered. The ending is hopeful and accepting, which suits the tone of the novel over all. Even so, it leaves the characters without real closure because, as Carmen says, "life goes on." Turner's novel is a nice, open book that will appeal to Christian fiction readers.

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

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

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.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty. The book is being released by W.W. Norton and Company on September 15, 2014.

Amazon says this about the book: A young mortician goes behind the scenes, unafraid of the gruesome (and fascinating) details of her curious profession.

Most people want to avoid thinking about death, but Caitlin Doughty—a twenty-something with a degree in medieval history and a flair for the macabre—took a job at a crematory, turning morbid curiosity into her life’s work. Thrown into a profession of gallows humor and vivid characters (both living and very dead), Caitlin learned to navigate the secretive culture of those who care for the deceased.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes tells an unusual coming-of-age story full of bizarre encounters and unforgettable scenes. Caring for dead bodies of every color, shape, and affliction, Caitlin soon becomes an intrepid explorer in the world of the dead. She describes how she swept ashes from the machines (and sometimes onto her clothes) and reveals the strange history of cremation and undertaking, marveling at bizarre and wonderful funeral practices from different cultures.

Her eye-opening, candid, and often hilarious story is like going on a journey with your bravest friend to the cemetery at midnight. She demystifies death, leading us behind the black curtain of her unique profession. And she answers questions you didn’t know you had: Can you catch a disease from a corpse? How many dead bodies can you fit in a Dodge van? What exactly does a flaming skull look like?

Honest and heartfelt, self-deprecating and ironic, Caitlin's engaging style makes this otherwise taboo topic both approachable and engrossing. Now a licensed mortician with an alternative funeral practice, Caitlin argues that our fear of dying warps our culture and society, and she calls for better ways of dealing with death (and our dead).

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Review: Accidents of Marriage by Randy Susan Meyers

I am a yeller. When I get mad, and I can really get mad, I tend to shout, rant, and rave. I recognize this about myself and have tried very hard over the years to release my anger more productively. I don't know if it's worked entirely but I certainly hope I have a better handle on my anger than Ben in Randy Susan Meyers' newest novel, Accidents of Marriage does on his.

Ben, a public defense lawyer, has an explosive temper and his family tiptoes around him, never knowing what is going to set him off. His wife Maddy, a social worker, takes prescription pills every day to take the edge off, to keep her own emotions under wraps for fear of triggering his, and to blunt the effect of his irrational eruptions. All three of the Illica children, Emma, Gracie, and Caleb, know that their father is extremely volatile and try not to provoke him either. Even when Ben isn't home, incidents like breaking a glass are weighed in light of his probable reaction. Theirs is not a terribly happy home. And it's about to get even worse.

On a day when both Ben and Maddy have work commitments and things are already fraught between them because of the kids' schedules, Maddy gets pulled over and her car is towed for an expired registration. She calls Ben to rescue her from a rough part of town, which he grudgingly does. Then, because he is late, rushing, and angry, he gets caught in a driving contest with another driver on the wet Boston roads, losing control of the car in the pouring rain and crashing. Maddy is thrown from the car and ends up in a coma with a traumatic brain injury. If the days of waiting to see if Maddy would come out of the coma were tough, life afterwards is even tougher. Fourteen year old Emma has to take charge of her younger siblings, shouldering more responsibility than a young teenager should have to do, and feeling the injustice of every moment of it. Ben has to adjust to the wife who needs so much more than he's ever given her before and to his own slowly dawning understanding of his own culpability in the whole situation. Maddy is frustrated with her own slow progress and furious with blame as she tries to understand the kind of life that she wants to lead going forward.

Ben, Maddy, and Emma all narrate sections of the novel, giving the reader insight into their personal understandings of the situation. Ben is likely to flare up at anything and he is definitely emotionally abusive but it is also made clear by the time we spend in his head that he does in fact love Maddy even if he doesn't acknowledge his own anger management issues. Maddy has so deadened herself in dealing with Ben's rages that she is teaching her children the wrong thing and when she finds out the truth about the accident that changed her life forever, she has some big decisions to make. Each of the three main characters is quite complex, neither entirely good nor entirely bad, allowing the reader to want this family to improve, for Ben's desire to change to be real, and for them to heal the gaping cracks. The pacing is generally slow and measured, much like Maddy's own recovery, sometimes slower and sometimes more accelerated.  The end of the novel seems a bit abrupt and unfinished, again much like Maddy's recovery. But the portions about Maddy's injury and how she is healing, what her particular traumatic brain injury means in terms of now and the future is rather fascinating, and that it gives her the chance to remember, see, and own her past reality without a chemical veil obscuring everything brings the story to its climax. This is a thought-provoking family drama about injuries, physical and emotional, and whether or not a wreck is worth salvaging even if that wreck is your marriage and family.

For more information about Randy Susan Meyers and the book, check out her website, her Facebook page, her Twitter feed, her Pinterest page or the book's Goodreads page. Follow the rest of the blog tour or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Review: The House We Grew Up In by Lisa Jewell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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