Thursday, August 28, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Review: The People in the Photo by Helene Gestern

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

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

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

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

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

Waiting on Wednesday

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

For more information about Katy Simpson Smith and the book, check out her website. Follow the rest of the blog tour or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

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

Monday, August 25, 2014

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Reviews are still piling up even though I wrote a few this week. This meme is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.

Books I completed this past week are:

The Story Hour by Thrity Umrigar
The People in the Photo by Helene Gestern
The House We Grew Up In by Lisa Jewell
2 a.m. at the Cat's Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino
A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
Going Somewhere by Brian Benson

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
Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger

Reviews posted this week:

The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls by Anton DiSclafani
Jane Austen's First Love by Syrie James
Wild Within by Melissa Hart
The Story Hour by Thrity Umrigar

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

Mimi Malloy, At Last by Julia MacDonnell
The Innocent Sleep by Karen Perry
Strings Attached by Joanne Lipman and Melanie Kupchynsky
Palmerino by Melissa Pritchard
If Not For This by Pete Fromm
The Lady From Tel Aviv by Raba'i al-Madhoun
Angels Make Their Hope Here by Breena Clarke
Ishmael's Oranges by Claire Hajaj
Neverhome by Laird Hunt
Burial Rights by Hannah Kent
Euphoria by Lily King
The Blessings by Elise Juska
The Traitor's Wife by Allison Pataki
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
Painted Horses by Malcolm Brooks
All Fall Down by Jennifer Weiner
Juliet's Nurse by Lois Leveen
We Are Called to Rise by Laura McBride
Bellman and Black by Diane Setterfield
The Orphans of Race Point by Patry Francis
The Story of Land and Sea by Katy Simpson Smith
The People in the Photo by Helene Gestern
The House We Grew Up In by Lisa Jewell
2 a.m. at the Cat's Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino
A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
Going Somewhere by Brian Benson

Monday Mailbox

A very different pairing this week in the mailbox, both look good for different reasons. This past week's mailbox arrivals:

The Wednesday Daughters by Meg Waite Clayton came from Ballantine Books and LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

I do have a weakness for books about mothers and daughters so this one about the daughters of the women from Clayton's earlier novel, The Wednesday Sisters, should be wonderful.

Certainty by Victor Bevine came from Lake Union Publishing and TLC Book Tours for a blog tour.

World War II books typically focus on the war overseas but not on the affect of such a huge mobilization at home. This novel about thousands of recruits training in Newport, changing the tenor of the town, and ultimately accusing a beloved minister of sexual impropriety should be completely different.

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, August 22, 2014

Review: The Story Hour by Thrity Umrigar

Thrity Umrigar seems to just instinctively understand people, how they tick, and the misunderstandings and mistakes that can happen when people with very different cultures, classes, or pasts come together. She proved it in The Space Between Us and The Weight of Heaven and she's back with her astute insights into very different women in her latest novel, The Story Hour.

Lakshmi is an Indian woman who works for her husband in his restaurant and grocery store in a Midwestern city. Her husband denigrates her at every turn and has cut her off from the family she loves in India. When a regular customer who has always treated Lakshmi with kindness and respect confides that he is moving to California, Lakshmi is devastated. Feeling as if his leaving takes the only good thing from her life, she decides to commit suicide by taking a bunch of her husband's pills. She is unsuccessful and when she wakes up in the hospital, she is no less broken than before her attempt, unwilling to cooperate or even speak with doctors.

Maggie is the psychologist assigned to Lakshmi. She's always been adept at the hard cases but she suspects that it isn't her undeniable skill but rather her color (she's African American) and her marriage (she's married to an Indian man) that made her boss so sure that Maggie can help Lakshmi. Whatever the ultimate reason, Maggie can indeed help Lakshmi and Lakshmi is willing to let her. After releasing her from the hospital, Maggie takes to treating Lakshmi pro bono from her office at her home. Their therapy sessions quickly become hours where Lakshmi tells Maggie about her past in India and the woman she was before she came to America. In treating Lakshmi in this unconventional way, Maggie is blurring the lines between therapist and friend, a necessary distinction in her profession and therefore an unforgivable lapse.

Sudhir, Maggie's steady and dependable mathematics professor husband, also comes to like Lakshmi, helping to encourage her to become empowered, to start a catering business, and to clean for their friends.  Lakshmi, in turn, appreciates Sudhir for all the ways in which he is so different from her own husband. Maggie remains torn about whether to call her relationship with Lakshmi a friendship or not, never sharing the realities of her own life with her patient, but she is so entwined into Lakshmi's life that it is more than just a patient doctor relationship; it is in fact a fledgling friendship no matter what reservations Maggie has. But this fragile friendship, built on the flimsiest of commonalities cannot sustain itself in the face of judgment and betrayal.

Umrigar has written an incandescent tale of secrets and expectations, the way in which we cannot bury our past, the long reaching scars of abuse, the power of stories and of finding a voice, and the small everyday gestures that show our love more than any flash and excitement can. Her characters are multi-layered and complex and the reader's feelings about each of them changes over time and with the revelations and choices they make. Maggie's secrets are always visible to the reader while Lakshmi's are slowly revealed through her story hours with Maggie. This keeps taut what would otherwise be a quiet story. The narration alternates between Maggie and Lakshmi, the latter of whom's sections are written in the dialect of an immigrant whose English is imperfect. This makes Lakshmi sound authentic but can be a little difficult to read in the beginning. It is not a dramatic story but a gorgeously rendered tale of truth and its cost, words and their value, actions and their result. The ending is left only partially resolved but it is fitting within the larger framework of the rest of the novel. Umrigar has written another incisive and beautiful cross-cultural tale here, one which fans of literary fiction will certainly appreciate.

For more information about Thrity Umrigar and the book, check out her website, her Facebook page, or check out 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.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Review: Wild Within by Melissa Hart


We have a hawk of some sort who sometimes spends time in the trees in our backyard. He (somehow I assume it's a he) looks majestic sitting on a bare branch surveying the yard. And after his visits, I have noticed there's a definite reduction in the squirrel population. Sometimes I see him soaring above the trees too. There's something beautiful and impressive in his effortless looking flight and I keep meaning to make a visit to the local raptor center here north of town to see one of his relatives closer. Perhaps Melissa Hart's newly released memoir, Wild Within, will help push me to finally do it.

Hart is newly separated and lonely in her new town of Eugene, Oregon. In order to get out and interact with people, she takes her dogs to the dog park as often as possible. It is here among the animals that she starts to make friends and where she meets Jonathan, the tall, handsome, quiet man she will eventually marry, who takes her on a road trip to collect 600 lbs. of frozen rats on their first date. This cargo might seem odd but Jonathan volunteers at the local raptor center, handling birds in the education program and the rats are meals for the center's birds. Wanting to spend more time with this unusual man, Hart decides to volunteer there herself despite the fact that she is scared of the birds, their curved beaks, and their sharp, powerful talons.

Initially, Hart is willing to clean the aviary cages but not to turn her back on the birds and certainly not to consider handling any of them. But she slowly falls in love with some of the permanent resident birds at the center, feeling for those human imprinted birds and the birds who are too physically damaged to ever be rehabilitated and released back into the wild. And she eventually changes her mind, agreeing to learn to handle the birds and even to train them. As she and Jonathan begin to build their life together, a life that includes all sorts of varieties of birds of prey and any number of abandoned furry creatures who find their way to the Hart/Smith home, they change their minds about remaining childless and try to start adoption proceedings to give an orphan a home.

But there is nothing easy about their adoption quest and frustration, stress, and changes of plan are the order of the day. As a counterbalance to the uncertainty and waiting for an adoption placement, Hart starts working to acclimate Archimedes, a skittish snowy owl at the center, to a handler's glove. It is in watching the struggle of the birds she works with that she learns to handle her own struggles and disappointments with grace and determination.

Hart's story is one of overcoming fear and the healing power of love and acceptance, not only in her own life but also for the birds that human carelessness has unthinkingly injured. She celebrates the joys of volunteerism and the ways that it enriches the people who offer of themselves. Her detailed descriptions of the individual birds and what characterizes their species are lovingly written and easily accessible to the layman. The hard, often disappointing, and long journey to adopt and the multitude of feelings that their journey inspired are honest and open. The melding of the two topics, the birds and conservation and Hart's personal journey toward parenthood, is well done. Hart's passion for the raptors comes through the page easily and makes the reader want to see these impressive birds themselves. The timeline is sometimes compressed and other times extended, making it a little difficult to really appreciate how long the adoption quest was taking though. And in the end, when Hart mentions that it has been years since she's worked at the raptor center, there is no reason why given; although it would be fairly easy to guess given the changes in her life, a confirmation of the reason would not have been amiss. Over all, this was an engaging read that offered not only insights into the different ways in which we build family and come together but also a glimpse into the untethered life of some of nature's most magnificent birds.

For more information about Melissa Hart and the book, check out her website, her Facebook page, her Twitter feed or connect with him on GoodReads. Take a look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Janay from Book Sparks PR and the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.

Review: Jane Austen's First Love by Syrie James

From the first time I read one of Jane Austen's novels, I was captivated. First I read them for the romance; later I came to appreciate them for the nuanced characters and subtle social commentary. I mainly focused on her works, not as interested in her real life until I realized that there must have been happenings in her own life that gave her all that wonderful fodder for her works. Now I am fascinated by the speculations about the things she herself experienced that allowed her to write so well about the society in which she lived and to create characters who are so realistic and complete. Syrie James must also share this fascination with Austen's life and inspirations as she has written several books about Austen, the latest of which is the charming Jane Austen's First Love.

Opening with a letter from Cassandra triggering memories for an older Austen, the novel travels back in time to tell the story of the young man who might very well have been Austen's first love. When the Austen family hears of son Edward's betrothal to a young woman of good family and large fortune, they are pleased and excited for him. Even more exciting is that they have been invited out to meet the young lady in question and participate in all the celebrations surrounding the formal engagement announcement. So it happens that Mrs. Austen, Cassandra, 15 year old Jane and younger brother Charles undertake the arduous journey to Kent to see their son and brother. They spend some time in the grand Godmersham Manor that Edward will one day inherit before heading to Goodnestone Park, the home of Edward's beloved. On their way to this second destination, there is a carriage accident and the Austen girls must be rescued by the handsome and worldly Edward Taylor of Bifrons. Jane is immediately drawn to the daring and engaging young man and she is pleased to know that he will be present at most of the merry making leading up to Edward and Elizabeth's betrothal announcement.

The Jane of the novel is still a young woman, not yet out in society but desperately wishing to be so. She is already on her way to becoming an astute observer but being so young and inexperienced, she is also prone to mistaken impressions and to impetuosity. She is fascinated by Edward Taylor, the tales of his peripatetic childhood in Europe, his self-confidence, and his dashing devil may care attitude. He, in turn, is captivated by her sharp intellect and forthrightness. But like in Austen's own novels, simple attraction is never quite so simple. There is another lady, with perhaps the better claim, who also fancies Edward.  And there are several other pairings that engage young Jane's interest as well. When many of the planned festivities must be cancelled for extenuating circumstances, Jane suggests that the company put on Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream with the goal of correcting what she sees as these unlikely and unfortunate pairings as well as to give her more time to spend with Edward.

As is evident by Jane's own Emma-like match-making, James infuses many of the characters here with echoes of Austen's own major and minor characters. They do not correspond exactly but show flashes of the people Austen would one day write. The story itself is inspired by an actual line in a letter between Jane and Cassandra and Edward Taylor was in fact a real person. James' speculation about the relationship and the possibility that this trip to her brother's engagement was the first blossoming of love for Austen is beautifully done. The story is delightful and historically accurate. She captures the insecurities of a young woman on the verge as well as the events that shaped her into the keen social observer that she grew to be. Although the reader might wish for Jane and Edward to have a different ending, James must stay true to the facts of Austen's life and she manages to do so without allowing for any hint of the maudlin, infusing the older Jane's memories to come to an end with only a slight air of resigned melancholy. Fans of all things Austen will indeed get great pleasure out of this novel, both for its originality and for its hints of the masterful works Austen will, in fact, one day pen for us all to enjoy.

For more information about Syrie James and the book, check out her website, Facebook page, Twitter feed or check out her GoodReads author page. Take a look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Nita at Penguin for sending me a copy of the book to review.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Review: The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls by Anton DiSclafani

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

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

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

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

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

Waiting on Wednesday

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 18, 2014

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

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

Books I completed this past week are:

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

Bookmarks are still living in the middle of:

The Geometry of Love by Jessica Levine
Gemini by Carol Cassella
Ruby by Cynthia Bond
Marching to Zion by Mary Glickman
The Story Hour by Thrity Umrigar

Reviews posted this week:

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

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

Mimi Malloy, At Last by Julia MacDonnell
The Innocent Sleep by Karen Perry
Strings Attached by Joanne Lipman and Melanie Kupchynsky
Palmerino by Melissa Pritchard
If Not For This by Pete Fromm
The Lady From Tel Aviv by Raba'i al-Madhoun
Angels Make Their Hope Here by Breena Clarke
Ishmael's Oranges by Claire Hajaj
Neverhome by Laird Hunt
Burial Rights by Hannah Kent
Euphoria by Lily King
The Blessings by Elise Juska
The Traitor's Wife by Allison Pataki
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
Painted Horses by Malcolm Brooks
All Fall Down by Jennifer Weiner
Juliet's Nurse by Lois Leveen
We Are Called to Rise by Laura McBride
Bellman and Black by Diane Setterfield
The Orphans of Race Point by Patry Francis
Jane Austen's First Love by Syrie James
The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls by Anton DiSclafani
Wild Within by Melissa Hart
The Story of Land and Sea by Katy Simpson Smith

Monday Mailbox

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Sunday Salon: Books, movies, and food

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Review: Chasing Perfect by Susan Mallery

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

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

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

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

Waiting on Wednesday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Review: The Virtues of Oxygen by Susan Schoenberger

Breathing is natural, easy, unconscious. We say we need to catch our breath when we want to slow down. We tell someone to save their breath when we don't want to hear it. We say that a person has breathed life into something when we want to say that they improved or saved that thing. Someone can be a breath of fresh air. Someone else can wait with bated breath. And these are just a few of the idioms we use that center around this vitally important but mostly unnoticed act. It's only when we are struggling to breathe with a cold, croup, or asthma or focus on it specifically in certain exercises like yoga that we pay attention to our breathing because most of the time we take it for granted. But what if breathing was a struggle? Literally or metaphorically? In Susan Schoenberger's newest novel, The Virtues of Oxygen, there are two women, Holly and Vivian, who are both struggling to breathe.

Holly is a widow in her early forties. Her husband died very unexpectedly when their now teenaged sons were small and Holly has been doing her best to make ends meet ever since. She is the editor of a small local paper in her upstate New York town, living paycheck to paycheck as the fixer upper she bought with her husband gets ever more ramshackle and her financial reserves disappear. When her mother, who has been floating Holly money to meet her mortgage every month, suffers a debilitating stroke and the newspaper, no longer profitable enough thanks to the recession, threatens to lay off everyone and close, Holly finds herself floundering under the pressure and struggling to breath.

Vivian literally can't breath on her own. At 63, she lives in an iron lung that has kept her lungs going since she contracted polio at the age of 6. She is fiercely intelligent, having earned her college degree despite the physical confines within which she lives, and has invested shrewdly in the stock market. Now she's getting into business as a partner in one of the new cash for gold stores that have sprung up all over and which highlight the state of the economy in the otherwise almost vacant downtown. Vivian has an army of volunteers from the town who come and watch over her, make sure her lung is functional, and to help her manage the other banal business of life like eating, drinking, reading, and so on. Holly is one of Vivian's volunteers, having been on the rotation for years, enjoying her time with Vivian, questioning her, sharing with her, and gradually becoming a cherished friend. Since she cannot personally oversee this new business of hers, she hires Holly to be her eyes on the ground in her new venture.

Told in alternating chapters focused on Vivian and then Holly, the reader feels Holly's financial squeeze getting tighter and sees Vivian's mood cycle up and down. Looking at each woman in the presence of the other also lets the reader appreciate just how much they rely on each other emotionally, how they buoy each other, and the ways in which they worry about each other. It is easy to see the interrelationship between dependency and independence and the ways in which dependence is not always negative but instead forges important emotional connections between people. Both women learn much from each other, taking nothing for granted given the hands that life has dealt them so far. The novel is mostly told in the present day but there are also chapters of Vivian's unpublished podcasts, ultimately intended for Holly, that tell the story of Vivian's past, from the onset of her own illness and the death of her beloved older sister to the ways in which she carved out an intellectual life for herself while completely physically incapacitated. Schoenberger also uses Holly's mother's stroke and her remaining physical strength coupled with acute mental loss to contrast with Vivian's keen mental capacities trapped in a non-functional body. The end of the story is a little bit predictable and wrapped up quickly but over all this is an insightful look at the perseverance of the human spirit, the value of human connection, and the importance of keeping breathing no matter what.

For more information about Susan Schoenberger and the book, check out her website, Facebook page, Twitter feed or check out the GoodReads page for the book. 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.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Review: The Curse of Van Gogh by Paul Hoppe


Thrillers are not my usual read. But I have to admit a strange fondness for books about art heists. Maybe it's the idea of people wanting to own (by stealing) the product of someone else's creativity. After all, I love owning books, which is a similar concept, although I don't have a first edition or manuscript craving. Or maybe it's the idea I have that art thieves are not only amazingly intelligent but also gentlemanly. Whatever the case, Paul Hoppe's novel, The Curse of Van Gogh does indeed have a gentlemanly art thief reluctantly planning to execute the heist of the century.

Tyler Sears is a master art thief who has just been released from prison early for good behavior. He's decided that he really needs to keep his nose clean and give up his life of crime until Mr. Imasu, a sinister and threatening Japanese businessman makes him an offer he can't refuse. And Tyler can't refuse because Mr. Imasu is threatening to hurt both Tyler's slightly flaky mother and his adored older brother, who has been destroyed by his experiences covering foreign wars for the New York Times and is now institutionalized. Initially Mr. Imasu wants Tyler to steal Van Gogh's Starry Night for him but Tyler, hoping to call Imasu's bluff suggests that he should lift 12 major Impressionist works from an upcoming special exhibition at the National Gallery of Art instead. Unfortunately for Tyler, Imasu agrees so he now has to pull off an impossible heist without getting caught and try to stay alive afterwards as well, a feat no one else in Imasu's orbit seems able to accomplish.

Tyler is a fascinating character. He cares deeply for his family and values his friends and connections. He's falling in love with Lucy, a woman he met just before he was caught and sent to jail three years ago, and he wants to protect her. And as much as he doesn't want to do this job for the ruthless Imasu, more importantly, he wants to stay alive, and to keep those he cares about alive. Tyler is meticulous in his planning and preparation and his connections to the underworld of art forgery and hit men are impressive. The sheer intelligence and the stunning amount of technology needed to circumvent security is impressive and detailed. But the heist isn't all cerebral.  It is action packed too.  There are car chases and grisly warnings about insubordination, Interpol operatives with a grudge and dealings with much intrigue. There's enough adrenaline and thrill here to easily make this a blockbuster movie. The book itself opens with a young Nazi trying to smuggle a Van Gogh out of Germany for Goering and dying in the process, setting the tone for the well-known curse that accompanies the tortured painter's works. Although the short piece works to establish the curse, it is a little disconnected from the rest of the book. But that's a small issue in an otherwise fast-paced and engrossing novel that kept even this non-thriller reader reading.

For more information about Paul Hoppe and the book, check out his website, his Facebook page, his Twitter feed or connect with him on GoodReads. Take a look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Janay from Book Sparks PR and the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

The scrubbed clean computer finally came home yesterday evening so now I can concentrate on the appalling number of review I have to catch up on! This meme is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.

Books I completed this past week are:

Lighthouse Island by Paulette Jiles
Jane Austen's First Love by Syrie James
The Villa by Rosanna Ley
The Curse of Van Gogh by Paul Hoppe

Bookmarks are still living in the middle of:

The Geometry of Love by Jessica Levine
Gemini by Carol Cassella
Ruby by Cynthia Bond
Marching to Zion by Mary Glickman
The Virtues of Oxygen by Susan Schoenberger

Reviews posted this week:

Lighthouse Island by Paulette Jiles
The Villa by Rosanna Ley

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
Chasing Perfect by Susan Mallery
Jane Austen's First Love by Syrie James
The Curse of Van Gogh by Paul Hoppe

Monday Mailbox

This past week's mailbox arrivals:

Bergdorf Blondes by Plum Sykes came from Harper.

Sometimes you just want a fun read and this one about the young, rich, and beautiful in New York City looks like it will certainly fit that bill.

Accidents of Marriage by Randy Susan Meyers came from Atria and TLC Book Tours for a blog tour.

I read and enjoyed Meyers' last novel and this one about a woman whose husband is getting more abusive as the years go on, culminating in her being in the hospital fighting for her life looks completely riveting.

House of Wonder by Sarah Healy came from New American Library for a blog tour.

About a family gone down hill and the daughter who distanced herself from them who must go back and stand by them now as an adult, this looks like it will be wonderful. (Plus, don't you just love that cover?)

To See the Moon Again by Jamie Langston Turner came from Berkley for a blog tour.

I do like reading about people overcoming their past and finding hope in the future, especially when they have something large and traumatic in it like in this appealing looking novel.

A Hundred Pieces of Me by Lucy Dillion came from Berkley for a blog tour.

Don't you just love dogs? I do. So this novel about a woman, her rescue greyhound, and the one hundred things she allows herself to keep after her divorce looks 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.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Review: The Villa by Rosanna Ley

As parents we all want our children to be healthy and happy in their lives and most of us have a sneaking suspicion that we know the route, or at least part of the route, to get there. But their lives are not our lives and we have to allow them to make their own decisions, mistakes, and triumphs. This is surprisingly hard to do, tied as it is to our own expectations as well as societal and cultural expectations. In Rosanna Ley's novel, The Villa, this is a strong theme throughout the story.

Tess Angel is a single mother whose daughter, Ginny, is eighteen and about to fly the nest if she can ever figure out what she wants to do with her life. Tess works in an unfulfilling job where she is unappreciated and her lover is a married man but her life isn't all the stuff of cliche; she has the love and close support of her parents and a dear friend who lives next door. Her mother is Sicilian but Flavia never speaks of her past before coming to England so the only real connection Tess has to this half of her heritage is through food. When the novel opens, Tess has just received a letter informing her that she's inherited a villa in Sicily from a man she's met named Edward Westerman, the Englishman her mother's family worked for for so many years back home in Sicily. According to the terms of his will, she cannot dispose of the villa without first visiting it and when she tells her mother, Flavia is certain Tess should not go, certainly not to Cetaria to claim Villa Sirena, the place where Flavia grew up. But Tess cannot resist the pull and so she goes despite her mother's misgivings.

Ginny, meanwhile, is floundering in her life. She doesn't want to go to uni but she has no other direction either.  She is a sullen and deeply unhappy young woman.  She is battling something internal that she calls "The Ball," a manifestation of her anxiety or fear or angst or unhappiness. Ginny sort of drifts in her life, hurt that her best friend has chosen to spend all her time with a boyfriend, only marginally interested in her own lackluster relationship, and at odds with her mother, wanting to reclaim their earlier ease with each other but driven, in the manner of teenagers, to lash out and push against Tess.

As Tess spends first a week exploring her somewhat dilapidated home on a cliff overlooking the sea, and then a longer stretch of time trying to uncover her mother's past and the reason for her intentional reticence about Sicily, Flavia realizes that she must in fact tell Tess the story of why she left Sicily in the first place and why she refuses to go back or to discuss it at all, even if the remembering brings her pain. Choosing to write the story in small increments in a journal and to intersperse the narrative with the instructions for her beloved Sicilian cuisine, Flavia takes the reader back into the past to WWII Italy and into the long held family loyalties and feuds of Sicily.

The narratives of all three women wind together although those of Tess and Flavia take center stage. As Tess tries of uncover her mother's past, Flavia pours out her closely guarded secrets to the journal she intends to give to Tess. Flavia's tale explains things that Tess, hundreds of miles away in Sicily, is experiencing but cannot possibly understand. She is drawn to mosaicist Tonino and a little leery of slick businessman Giovanni but she doesn't understand how they are connected to her through their families and how the accusations and fall out of simmering anger from so long ago survive to this day and wrap to include her, a woman who has never before stepped foot in Cetaria.

The Sicilian setting is seductive and enticing. Ley captures the overwhelming beauty and intense passion of the place and also the undercurrents of darkness and danger running just below the surface of the sun drenched isle. Tess and Flavia are interesting and complete characters while Ginny is less so and their stories reflect that fact. There is never any doubt as to who the bad guy and who the good guy are in Tess' present day story and the other supporting characters and their relationships to the main characters are underdeveloped. Ley throws in a couple unearned convenient coincidences like Ginny's absentee father giving Tess money just when she most needs it, Lenny's last name being Angel after Peter called Flavia his angel, and a well-timed earthquake that allows Tess to finally put to rest all of the accusations and speculation of the past sixty or so years. Despite these easy plot choices, this was a nice summer read, chock full of issues of love, loyalty, and secrets. And in the end, both Flavia and Tess realized that while their daughters might make different life choices than they would, wanting the best for your child means allowing her to be the mistress of her own destiny. You just never know where that destiny might lead.

For more information about Rosanna Ley and the book, check out her website, Facebook page, her Twitter feed, or check out the GoodReads page for the book. Follow the rest of the blog tour or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.





Thanks to Steffi from Rock Star PR and Literary Consultants and the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.

Wednesday, August 6, 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.

Three Story House by Courtney Miller Santo. The book is being released by William Morrow Paperbacks on August 19, 2014.

Amazon says this about the book: Renovating an historic Memphis house together, three cousins discover that their spectacular failures in love, career, and family provide the foundation for their future happiness in this warm and poignant novel from the author of The Roots of the Olive Tree that is reminiscent of The Postmistress, The Secret Life of Bees, and Kristin Hannah’s novels.

Nearing thirty and trying to avoid the inescapable fact that they have failed to live up to everyone’s expectations and their own aspirations, cousins and childhood best friends Lizzie, Elyse, and Isobel seek respite in an oddly-shaped, three-story house that sits on a bluff sixty feet above the Mississippi.

As they work to restore the almost condemned house, each woman faces uncomfortable truths about their own failings. Lizzie seeks answers to a long-held family secret about her father in her grandmother’s jumble of mementos and the home’s hidden spaces. Elyse’s obsession with an old flame leads her to a harrowing mistake that threatens to destroy her sister’s wedding, and Isobel’s quest for celebrity tempts her to betray confidences in ways that would irreparably damage her two cousins.

Told in three parts from the perspective of each of the women, this sharply observed account of the restoration of a house built out of spite, but filled with memories of love is also an account of friendship and how relying on each other’s insights and strengths provides the women a way to get what they need instead of what they want.

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