Saturday, February 28, 2015

Review: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Lizzie Borden, Grace Marks, Agnes Magnusdottir. Three women, three horrendous murders that capture the public's imagination. Lizzie Borden is probably best known here in the US. Grace Marks's crime was fictionalized in Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace. And now Hannah Kent has introduced us to Agnes Magnusdottir, convicted of killing her employer and another man, and in 1830, the last woman to be executed in Iceland. Using the historical information about Agnes to fashion this fictional recounting of Agnes' last months, Kent has crafted a cold and bleak tour de force in her novel, Burial Rites.

Already convicted of murder when the novel opens, Agnes Magnusdottir is sent to live and work for the district officer and his family while awaiting her execution. District Officer Jon has no choice but to take the woman into his remote home despite wife Margret and daughters Steina and Lauga's horror. Agnes proves to be a silent woman, quietly doing the tasks she's asked to do, knowing that she is unwelcome and fervently unwanted in the Jonsson home.  Just as they have no choice but to take her in, she has no choice but to be there, laboring on their farm and in their home in exchange for food and shelter in these last months of her life.  As a convicted murderer waiting to be executed, Agnes is given a personal priest, the young man Toti. His stated mission is to get her to repent her evil deed but instead he gives her the gift of silence and a listening ear when she is ready to speak of her life and the crime. In her quiet and emotionless recounting, she presents her own story, what led up to the murders, and how she ended up the subject of this harsh and unforgiving ruling.

That this is based on a true story means the ending is never in doubt but Kent has done a beautiful job with the surrounding tale. Agnes, as imagined here, is quiet and hardworking with an understated dignity to her that makes her revelations to Toti the priest that much more believable. She has lived a grim life and faces a terrible death with stoicism and quietude. The Jonsson family's reaction to having to house this terrifying woman is well wrought and the evolution of their feelings about Agnes is slow and infinitesimal and full of truth. Toti's own insecurities and judgments as Agnes' confessor make him altogether sympathetic. The landscape of the stark and lonely Icelandic winter sets the tone for the novel as a whole. The Jonsson farm is remote and lonely and the winter is long, very long when facing a death sentence. The pacing is even and the timing of small revelations is very well executed.

This dark and chilly feeling novel was truly beautifully written. It is a testament to the power of story telling not only as Agnes unburdens herself to Toti but as the stories and rumors about Natan, one of the dead men, come to light and in the narrative the District Commissioner himself creates in prosecuting the crime. The book is fairly unrelentingly grim (which matches the other books I've read set in Iceland) but lovers of literary fiction should still consider tackling the brooding and deeply haunting tale.

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

Friday, February 27, 2015

Review: The Sunlit Night by Rebecca Dinerstein

Artists have always chased the light and a certain quality they see in it. Some choose to go to the South of France, some prefer the golden fields of middle America, and some surely prefer the 24 hour glow of a far north summer. We spend as much of the summer as we can in northern Michigan and there certainly is something special about days that seem to stretch on into infinity. I can only imagine it in a place where the sun never sets in the summer. Rebecca Dinerstein's debut novel, The Sunlit Night, takes place in this perpetual light of a Norwegian summer.

Frances has just graduated from college and broken up with her boyfriend when she decides to take an internship she'd previously declined, working as an apprentice with an artist on The Yellow Room Project on a Norwegian island inside the Arctic Circle. Nils paints only with yellow and he's trying to have his installation added to a national map so that others will come and look at his yellow room. Frances will live in the artist's colony and paint with him for the summer, escaping the unhappy drama of her parents' impending divorce and their disapproval of her sister's upcoming marriage to a non-Jew. She will not have to witness the separation of belongings as her parents prepare to move out of their tiny apartment nor will she have to continue to witness her father's unhappiness with his chosen career as a medical illustrator.

Yasha Gregoriov is finishing up high school. He has lived with his father above their bakery in New York for 10 years, ever since they came to the US, leaving Yasha's mother behind in Russia. His father, who has a dangerous heart condition, has never once stopped missing his wife and he is determined to go back, find her, and convince her to join them in the US. But Yasha finds out what his father does not know, that his mother is already in New York City, living with her lover, and intending to divorce his father. When his father dies suddenly on the trip back to Russia, the only thing that Yasha can concentrate on doing is to fulfill his father's final wish, to be buried in peace at the top of the world. It is this honoring of his father's last request that takes him to Lofoten.

Frances and Yasha come into each others' orbit in this land of perpetual sun. Each of them is dealing with grief, Frances for her idea of family and Yasha for his father, the center of his whole world for the past ten years. They find each other in the closing stages of one part of life and the very beginning of another, recognizing need and love and potential in the other. The secondary characters are fleeting but important and the whole of the novel exudes a surreal feel. The prose is unadorned and dreamlike, detailing the spare isolation and suffused landscape of the Arctic night. The character development of Frances and Yasha is a little thin and the odd quirks of some of the secondary characters don't make it easier to relate to them or to the color-bleached main characters for that matter. The writing is poetic and full of precise observations and Dinerstein has really captured the warm, golden barrenness of this small island at the edge of the world. This is a readable novel of family dysfunction, overcoming grief, and finding and valuing love that will surely appeal to readers of literary fiction.

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

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Review: Peace Like a River by Leif Enger

I don't usually reread books and I probably wouldn't have reread this one except for the fact that it came to me in my Postal Mailbox Book Club. I remembered the general shape of the novel but not the particulars this many years out from my first reading so I thought it necessary to do a complete reread to be able to discuss it intelligently rather than just vaguely. I have searched for my review from so many years ago, hoping to compare my first reading with this one but it is apparently lost in the mists of the internet. What I do remember of that first reading, is that the book was fine and that I was odd man out in not being wowed by it. This second reading crystalized that feeling for me. It is still just fine.

It is the early 1960s in Roofing, Minnesota. Reuben Land lives there with his father Jeremiah, older brother Davy, and younger sister Swede.  Their mother has long since abandoned them.  Reuben is an asthmatic who owes his very life to his father's ability to work miracles; it is only through Jeremiah's command and laying on of hands that Reuben started to breathe many long minutes after his birth. When the story opens, Reuben is eleven and his father, a janitor at the school, has stepped in in the girls' locker room to protect Davy's girlfriend from an assault by two hoodlums in town. The boys fight back, first by vandalizing the Land's home, and then by  Swede from and then returning her to her own home. The escalation of hostilities, in which Jeremiah Land refuses to participate, reaches a head when the boys break into the Land's home one night and Davy shoots and kills them in cold blood. When Davy is put on trial for murder, he breaks out of jail and escapes. Reuben, Swede, and their father try to track him down before the Feds do, trailing him into the surreal landscape of the Badlands.

Reuben is presented as idolizing his older brother and his father both so he doesn't know whether he should root for Davy's complete disappearance or for Jeremiah, who appears to be being led by God, to find Davy. He is trying to figure his way in the world amid all of his conflicting feelings and the knowledge that even his highly moral father is wrestling with what is right. Younger sister Swede is barely nine and she has the convictions of a young child in terms of right and wrong. But even she starts to have her notions of black and white challenged, as reflected in the epic Western poem she writes throughout the action of the story. Her poem is a problem though, too precocious by far for a child her age, even one who is incredibly smart and well read and her understanding of events is too quick for a child with as few life experiences as she has had. Davy as a character is harder to know. Not only is he missing from a large chunk of the narrative but even when he is present, he is inscrutable to the reader.  Whether he is intentionally drawn this way is the question.

The novel is narrated by Reuben from the vantage point of adulthood but it still manages to capture most of the scene through the eyes of a child giving the narrative a slightly jarring back and forth feeling. Although the action is in mainly trying to find Davy, the story is also a Gospel of Jeremiah, the recounting of his miracles and his Job-like trials at the hands of God. There is a definite heaven and hell dichotomy and a strong core of religious belief here despite the fact that Enger never preaches to the reader, tapping into a deep vein of faith and morality. The writing about place is beautiful, evocative, and powerful and there is a controlled stillness to the narrative. In plot terms, there is a big conundrum in trying to find Davy. While Jeremiah is certainly being led by a Higher Being to his son, there is no indication that Davy is being led to find his family in the same way or through the same catalyst so his sudden ability to turn up feels too convenient. The general pace of the narrative is slow; sometimes this hinders the story and at other times it highlights it so on balance it works out okay. The ending of the story comes full circle to the beginning and as such is too frustratingly predictable and an obvious set-up. Over all though, this is a decent coming of age tale, one of sacrifice and heroism, right and wrong, good and evil, and mixed with a folksy Americana version of morality.

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 Wednesday Group by Sylvia True. The book is being released by St. Martin's Griffin on March 24, 2015.

Amazon says this about the book: Gail. Hannah. Bridget. Lizzy. Flavia. Each of them has a shameful secret, and each is about to find out that she is not alone… Gail, a prominent Boston judge, keeps receiving letters from her husband’s latest girlfriend, while her husband, a theology professor, claims he’s nine-months sober from sex with grad students. Hannah, a homemaker, catches her husband having sex with a male prostitute in a public restroom. Bridget, a psychiatric nurse at a state hospital, is sure she has a loving, doting spouse, until she learns that he is addicted to chat rooms and match-making websites. Lizzy, a high school teacher, is married to a porn addict, who is withdrawn and uninterested in sex with her. Flavia was working at the Boston Public library when someone brought her an article that stated her husband had been arrested for groping a teenage girl on the subway. He must face court, and Flavia must decide if she wants to stay with him. Finally, Kathryn, the young psychologist running the group, has as much at stake as all of the others.

As the women share never-before-uttered secrets and bond over painful truths, they work on coming to terms with their husbands’ addictions and developing healthy boundaries for themselves. Meanwhile, their outside lives become more and more intertwined, until, finally, a series of events forces each woman to face her own denial, betrayal and uncertain future head-on.

From author Sylvia True comes The Wednesday Group, a captivating, moving novel about friendship, marriage, and the bonds that connect us all.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Review: I Regret Everything by Seth Greenland

We are all just struggling through life. We face disappointments and loss and regrets. We do things that don't feed out souls, things that feed our bodies instead. But sometimes, in life, we find people who are our anchors. People who give our lives meaning, who contribute to our well being, and who face us undaunted by or unafraid of our meager, and ultimately unimportant, failings. These are the people we love. What if that person turned out to be the teenaged daughter of your boss or was the thirty year old employee of your father? What then? In Seth Greenland's smart new novel, I Regret Everything: A Love Story, this is who his characters are: characters who make us a little uncomfortable, characters who show us how to live life despite the disappointments, losses, and regrets.

Jeremy Best is a thirty year old lawyer specializing in trusts and estates.  When he was younger and more idealistic, he didn't want to be a lawyer; he wanted to be a poet.  And he is still a poet, having published several critically acclaimed poems as Jinx Bell, but even poets have to eat and lawyers certainly eat better than poets. Jeremy is alone in the world and has never managed to sustain a relationship in his life but he's a really decent, nice guy. Spaulding Simonson walks into his office one morning, having discovered his poet persona. She is the nineteen year old, troubled daughter of his boss. She is a child of privilege but missing a solid person in her life on whom she can depend. She has literary aspirations of her own and there's a touch of disguised hero worship in her initial actions with Jeremy. Telling any more would ruin the book.

Jeremy and Spaulding's interactions are tightly and beautifully written. Their growing relationship (and make no mistake, this is no romance novel) is complex and organic. The novel alternates between Jeremy and Spaulding's first person narration so that each stage of their slowly unfolding knowledge of the other is tempered by their own wry self-awareness, adding not only to the reader's understanding of the other character but also to the fullness of the narrating character. The novel is subtly funny and even when it could degenerate into the realm of the maudlin, it deftly avoids that trap. It is tender and poetic and inevitable and it captures so well the dichotomy of guilt and desire. This is a love story, a mortality play, and an intelligent examination of life. We all have regrets; it is a function of living, but reading this is not one of them.

For more information about Seth Greenland and the book, take a look at his website, follow him at Twitter, or check out 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.

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

This meme is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.

Books I completed this past week are:

The Martian by Andy Weir
Girl Before a Mirror by Liza Palmer
The Snow Globe by Judith Kinghorn
Peace Like a River by Leif Enger
Heartbreak Hotel by Deborah Moggach

Bookmarks are still living in the middle of:

Sacre Bleu by Christopher Moore
The Sunlit Night by Rebecca Dinerstein

Reviews posted this week:

The Evening Chorus by Helen Humphreys

The Awakening of Miss Prim by Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera
The Martian by Andy Weir
Not Without My Father by Andra Watkins
Girl Before a Mirror by Liza Palmer

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

I Regret Everything by Seth Greenland
The Snow Globe by Judith Kinghorn
Peace Like a River by Leif Enger
Heartbreak Hotel by Deborah Moggach

Monday Mailbox

This past week's mailbox arrivals:

The Precious One by Marisa de los Santos came from William Morrow and TLC Book Tours for a blog tour.

The story of a daughter from a first marriage who gave her heart to the disappeared father who is now calling her to repair their relationship and let her into his second family and the daughter of that second marriage, who views her older half-sister with suspicion and jealousy, this sounds like a fantastic read.

The Lovers Set Down Their Spoons by Heather A. Slomski came from a fellow member of the Postal Mailbox Book Club.

This collection of stories about loss and relationship is one I hadn't heard of before and I am curious to see if I love it as much as Laura does.

Dear Thing by Julie Cohen came from me for me just in advance of the news that she will actually be published here next year and I didn't need to send to England for the book after all (typical me!).

One friend who agrees to have a baby for two other friends and the repercussions of that decision when the biological mother finds herself feeling a lot more than she bargained for, this sounds like a tough and heart rending read.

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, February 22, 2015

Sunday Salon: Random Musings

It's Oscar night tonight. I will watch it with a couple of friends while we snack on yummies and critique the red carpet fashion. I'm not a huge movie watcher so I haven't seen many of the nominated films but I predict that Birdman wins Best Picture. I have seen that one. And I will never get that 2+ hours of my life back. It is nothing more than The Emperor's New Clothes as far as I'm concerned. It was a self-referential, post-modern piece of shite. I don't like magical realism much in novels but apparently I hate it on the big screen. And for that reason alone, Hollywood will fall all over itself to reward it. They seem to love nothing more than celebrating themselves. Blergh. This will not be the first time that movie critics and I have disagreed so violently on a movie. I have often disagreed with book critics too but I am on firmer footing in my disagreement here since my education was all about good literature (although I still maintain that I am right about the movies too).

Speaking of literature (or not), Jonathan Franzen fired back at Jennifer Weiner. Not only has he not read her books so he has no leg to stand on in terms of quality, but he failed to see the irony in saying that he hasn't read her because people haven't told him he should. Ummm... What's she arguing? That books by women don't get the critical reviews (good or bad) that men's do. If no one that he respects (have to qualify that because I'm pretty sure that she gets a fair few reviews from book bloggers) is reviewing books by women, he sure isn't going to find voices telling him to read her. Duh. Hope he doesn't try to use irony successfully in his own works as it sure seems like he doesn't understand the concept. Basically this latest interview with him just made him sound like a bigger tool than he has already sounded like in the past. I buy books pretty damn indiscriminantly but I've never bought one of his. I know that my one person book boycott doesn't faze him in the slightest (although a couple of my friends have jumped on my bandwagon too so we're about 4 people strong now--look out successful grassroots organizers, I'm joining your ranks) but I am not interested in allowing even one penny of my money to support such egotism and snobbery. Do you find that an author's personality or beliefs will turn you away from their works or can you block out such unpleasantness and take the works on their own merit (or lack thereof)?

It's been pretty appallingly cold here this week so my usual schedule has been out the window. I got a lot of reading and reviewing done. I cleaned and tidied some of the disaster areas no one ever sees like the master bath drawers and cupboards, inside my oven, and the back storage area in the basement.  I didn't want to clean those things that are more visible because when the weather improves and I go back to my usual lackadaisical cleaning schedule, those would be obvious to everyone.  This way I can feel a sense of accomplishment and no pressure to maintain it.  I did not get outside to run because I no longer have the winter running gear I used to own and, well, any excuse to avoid exercise is gratefully latched onto here. My daughter had her dance debut show last weekend, kicking off the start of competition season for her. I will now spend many weekends traveling to fantastic, warm, beachy sounding places only to see the inside of auditoriums and hotel rooms and to eat at mediocre chain restaurants. I will accomplish no reading either because it is too dark to read with the house lights turned down. Tennis season was supposed to start but tryouts were postponed for my oldest son because of the extreme cold and my own league tennis has a delayed start for the same reason.  Hitting a tennis ball in the cold is like smacking a brick and having it reverberate all the way up your arm and shoulder.  You may not look like a cartoon, quivering all over, but you sure do feel like it.  So the divot on my couch just grows and grows. But my dogs are happy to have company while they nap the day away, even if Gatsby in particular resents the small amount of space on my lap that a book takes.

My reading travels this week have taken me all over. I started out stranded on Mars without enough supplies to last me until the next mission was due to arrive in 4 years. Then  I went to a Romance Convention with a woman in advertising who needed to learn to value her own gender. I spent several months in 1920s England watching as society started to change and one young woman learned about the fallibility of people she once revered. I revisited the Badlands looking for an outlaw brother and witnessing miracles. I went to a shabby B and B in Wales run by a retired actor and visited by a large cast of eccentric characters. I am currently in Paris just after Vincent Van Gogh's death and am heading to an island inside the Arctic Circle with a young artist. Where have your reading travels taken you this week?

Friday, February 20, 2015

Review: Girl Before a Mirror by Liza Palmer

You'd think in this day and age that women and their contributions would no longer be undervalued. But this is not the case. Just look at the Sony leak that disclosed salary gaps between female and male executives, female and male actors. Closer to home (for me), look at the imbalance in publishing. Jonathan Franzen accused Jennifer Weiner of "freeloading on the legitimate problem of gender bias." Even in female targeted publications and sites, Franzen is always characterized as a serious, literary novelist while Weiner is inevitably described as a popular (read lesser and certainly not to be taken seriously) novelist who writes chick lit in this ongoing exchange. Look at the demeaning obituary for Colleen McCullough as compared to any recently deceased male authors. Look at the numbers collected by VIDA Count every year about the gender imbalance of reviews in major literary publications. This undervaluing still happens and it happens across the board, not just in the industries currently in the news. Liza Palmer's newest novel, Girl Before a Mirror not only tackles this reality but it does it ironically enough, in a book with the girliest of covers and from firmly within the chick lit/women's fiction category, perhaps in hopes of inspiring its very audience to recognize and rise above the marginalization and to force change.

Anna Wyatt is 40, divorced, and works in advertising. Leaving her birthday party, she heads over the a strip club to ambush her boss into letting her make a pitch for a shower gel. Lumineux shower gel was the product that originally launched Quincy Pharmaceuticals and Anna sees winning the bid for it as her shoe in the door to the rest of Quincy, an account her current company does not own. What her boss doesn't know is that Lumineux is not asking for pitches, that Anna has just brazened her way into a meeting. But it works and she just might win the campaign, which she and her art director, Sasha, have created around a best-selling book and the romance industry. Before the people in charge make a final decision though, they want Anna and Sasha to attend RomanceCon to help get the Romance Cover Model of the Year on board with Anna and Sasha's vision.

It is while Anna is at the convention that she realizes the true value and power of women and what they want. She has to deal with Sasha's insecurity because although amazingly talented and intelligent, Sasha is gorgeous and has no confidence in anything but her universally acknowledged sex appeal. Anna's younger brother Ferdie, the only person to show her unconditional love, is arrested at home and she is too far away to bail him out. Audrey, the daughter of the ad agency's boss, is all of a sudden horning in on a campaign she hasn't designed and doesn't know, stepping on Anna and Sasha in the process. Anna has met the most incredible man ever and can't think what's going to happen when she heads home. And all of this swirls around as Anna tries to land the biggest, most important account of her life. RomanceCon is just about the most confusing week ever for Anna.

Palmer has taken the bones of a traditional chick lit and used them to full advantage to write a story that really celebrates women. Anna as a character comes to understand that her dismissal of a women's product because it is seen as less than hurts her, devalues her own strengths, and has larger repercussions for all women. Palmer has more than one type of business woman present in the novel, the kind who will step on others in order to advance and the kind who appreciates the idea of mentoring other women to empower an entire gender, and it is always clear which is the type to which successful women should aspire. Lincoln Mallory, Anna's love interest is perhaps a bit too perfect and understanding but the idea that Anna must focus on finding her own happiness without regard to Lincoln, helps ease this unrealistic characterization some. The additional story lines of Ferdie's addiction, Anna's childhood striving for love she was never granted, and the look into the world of romance novels and their fans combine to round out Anna's life, making her realistic and sympathetic. An enjoyable book about a woman finding love for herself, and finding the strength and confidence to realize her own self-worth, this was incredibly topical and I hope it inspires other women to stop worrying about marginalization but to make the formerly marginalized products, books, and so forth a force to be reckoned with.

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

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Review: Not Without My Father by Andra Watkins

Sometimes two people are so different from each other they have trouble connecting to each other. They find themselves aggravated and annoyed with each other instead of loving each other. They don't communicate and have no confidence in being cared for by the other. They hold onto resentments and let that cloud their feelings. They embrace their hurts, nurturing them instead of understanding and forgiveness. Andra Watkins was in this very situation with her father when she invited him to go with her and be her support as she publicized her new book by walking the Natchez Trace. She didn't particularly want him to be her safety net but no one else in her life could afford the time off as she walked the 444 miles of the Trace.

In 2014, Andra Watkins published her first book, To Live Forever: An Afterlife Journey of Meriwether Lewis, about Lewis' ghost's attempt to redeem his soul. In order to publicize her book, Watkins decides to make the the journey Lewis' ghost takes in the book, mirroring the actual final journey Lewis made before his still debated death on the Natchez Trace. The Natchez Trace Parkway is a paved drive through history and beautiful scenery stretching from Natchez, Mississippi to Nashville, Tennessee. The Trace is a part of the United States National Park Service and walking it was the perfect tie-in to Watkins' book. Since it is roughly 444 miles long, she decided to walk it in 15 mile increments and she needed someone who could take off the month or so it would take her to complete this personal journey. Striking out with everyone she would have liked to have accompany her, she was left, rather reluctantly, with her 80 year old father, Roy, his noisy sleep apnea machine, his garrulous story telling, his intestinal upsets, and their fraught relationship.

This long walk was not just a way to publicize Watkins' book, it also became a way for her to repair her long damaged relationship with her father. She tells not only of her experiences walking the Trace, her battered and bloodied feet, the dangerous traffic whizzing past her unseeing and unhampered by the presence of rangers (she walked during the government shut-down), the nature she encountered, and the moments of grace she experienced, but she also tells of two strong personalities in conflict with each other learning once again to listen to the other and to show love. As her dad picks her up every day after her 15 miles, she comes to understand what drives him a little better and to forgive him for things large and small. She wearily signs copies of the books he sells to almost everyone he meets along the way. She endures his gregarious tale telling, for the umpteenth time. And she faces all the difficulties and conflicts she has ever had with her father, finding the grace to set them aside and to love him for the man he is while he is still around for her to appreciate.

The book is mainly Andra's tale but there are occasional chapters of anecdotes from Roy's imagined point of view or in his voice. These worked less well than the main narrative, in some cases because snippets of the tale contained within had already been partially shared in Andra's portion and in other cases because they revealed more of what Andra wanted from her father than anything and that would have been better served in her portions of the narration. The gradual shift in Andra's thinking about her dad, from being maddened by him and wanting to quit walking so she doesn't have to stay with him to accepting his foibles, recognizing his mortality, and seeing the undercover way he does truly care and worry for her (and she for him) is lovely. This book and the experience that spawned it is a gift to both her father and to herself.

For more information about Andra Watkins and the book, take a look at her website, find her on Facebook, follow her at Twitter, or check out her author page on Goodreads. Take a look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Dorothy from Pump Up Your Book and the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

Science fiction has never been my thing. I will occasionally read a book that comes highly recommended but in general, I steer away from it.  One of my book clubs tries to get all of us to read out of our ruts (and almost none of us regularly read sci-fi) and so every year we choose one to try. This year we chose the biggest sci-fi buzz book of the past year, Andy Weir's The Martian. And I have to say that all of the accolades it has accumulated since it debuted were well earned. It easily makes a very short list of science fiction for which I will happily proselytize.

Astronaut Mark Watney is on the surface of Mars with his fellow astronauts, part of only the third Mars mission ever, when a storm blows up, hitting Mark with an antenna that punctures his space suit, and blowing him away from the group. They have no choice but to leave him for dead as they evacuate the planet and start their long journey back to Earth. Despite the fact that Mark's suit stopped relaying vital signs and he is presumed dead, he's alive. But now he's trapped on Mars with no way to communicate with Earth, no hope of rescue for four years, and a food supply that will last him only a few months. Now the struggle to survive starts.

Mark was his mission's botanist and engineer so he has some skills that will enable him to solve some of the problems he faces on this inhospitable planet. Told in journal form, written to preserve his experiences for posterity, the novel is completely gripping. Mark encounters catastrophe after catastrophe but faces each one with ingenuity and resourcefulness. He jury rigs things in ways that would make MacGyver proud and NASA sweat. He details the math and science behind his fixes and his calculations and reasoning are definitely convincing. While the math and science are a fairly big portion of the story, they are very definitely necessary to the plot. And really, they aren't that difficult to understand so don't let them scare you away from reading this.

Mark as a character is delightful. He's irreverent and funny. His side comments about the music and 70s tv shows left behind by his fellow astronauts add some levity to a really dire situation. There are some honest to goodness laugh out loud moments here as well as funny little asides on things as mundane as how well duct tape works on Mars (spoiler: it's amazing stuff and cannot be improved upon). There are brief chapter interludes detailing the reactions and scramble of those at Mission Control when they realize that Mark is alive and these changes of perspective help to keep the pacing taut and further impress on the reader the desperate precariousness of Mark's situation even as it has become commonplace for him. This is like no book I've read before and I stayed up to all hours to finish is, completely incapable of putting it down, even for sleep. Even if you don't read science fiction, take a chance on this one. You won't be disappointed.

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.

H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald. The book is being released by Grove Press on March 3, 2015.

Amazon says this about the book: When Helen Macdonald’s father died suddenly on a London street, she was devastated. An experienced falconer—Helen had been captivated by hawks since childhood—she’d never before been tempted to train one of the most vicious predators, the goshawk. But in her grief, she saw that the goshawk’s fierce and feral anger mirrored her own. Resolving to purchase and raise the deadly creature as a means to cope with her loss, she adopted Mabel, and turned to the guidance of The Sword and the Stone author T.H. White's chronicle The Goshawk to begin her journey into Mabel’s world. Projecting herself "in the hawk's wild mind to tame her" tested the limits of Macdonald’s humanity.

By turns heartbreaking and hilarious, this book is an unflinching account of bereavement; a unique look at the magnetism of an extraordinary beast; and the story of an eccentric falconer and legendary writer. Weaving together obsession, madness, memory, myth, and history, H is for Hawk is a distinctive, surprising blend of nature writing and memoir from a very gifted writer.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Review: The Awakening of Miss Prim by Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera

I love books about books and libraries and bibliophiles. I love clever books that make allusions to famous works and that have echoes of the classics weaving through the plot. So The Awakening of Miss Prim by Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera should have been an easy book for me to love. But it wasn't. It somehow completely missed the mark for me.

Prudencia Prim is a smart young woman with many degrees to her name. She decides to apply for a position she's certain she's perfect for as a private librarian in a small French village, never mind that the ad for the job specifically asks for someone without any degrees. It turns out the position is for an eccentric gentleman she calls The Man in the Wing Chair, who has firm and unconventional ideas about the education of his nieces and nephews and enjoys intellectual sparring with his new librarian. Miss Prim quickly discovers that the quirky folk who live in San Ireneo de Arnois have consciously chosen to create a tightly knit village based on old-fashioned courtly manners, having all escaped from the noise and congestion and hurry of cities all over. They are a community of intellectuals who appear to be wholly happy with the village they've created entirely from their shared mores and philosophies.

Miss Prim does not believe quite the same thing that they all do and so she must come to understand the superiority of their ideas and way of life, hence the awakening of the title. She and The Man in the Wing Chair banter back and forth constantly, arguing theory of education and philosophy and conventional ideas. And somehow, Miss Prim always loses their discussions, causing her to start to question what she understands of the world. Their discussions can verge on arguments and The Man in the Wing Chair is always the one dispensing wisdom to the misguided Miss Prim. He challenges her long and closely-held beliefs on just about every topic she raises. This could come across as flirtatious challenging but instead the Man in the Wing Chair comes across as unbending and set in his beliefs and Miss Prim lives up to her name being rather prickly and a tad insufferable.

The secondary characters in the novel are not very well fleshed out, indistinct from each other, making it difficult for the reader to remember which is which. Each is courteous and welcoming and interested in Miss Prim's business but they themselves stay remote for the reader. The eventual love story is unconvincing, feeling as if it was tacked on simply because it was a plot element important in the books to which Fenollera seems to be trying to pay homage. The writing was well done but the biggest problem was the fact that it was difficult to care about the characters, the plot, or really anything in the story. It could have been pretentious with all of the classical references and philosophy but it escaped that for the most part. Instead, it was a bit boring. And that, given the very promising premise, was incredibly disappointing.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Review: The Evening Chorus by Helen Humphreys

You know how sometimes you pick up and read a book that is something special? How sometimes you find a book that is so stunningly gorgeous that you want everyone you know to read it? Sometimes the most unexpected books turn out to be this sort of book. Helen Humphreys' The Evening Chorus is one of these books.

It's 1940. James Hunter crashes over the English Channel, is picked up by the Germans, and taken to a POW camp. There he stays mostly aloof from camp life, neither participating in escape attempts nor developing close relationships with his fellow prisoners. Instead he spends his time close to the perimeter of the camp observing birds. He watches and makes notes on his redstarts every day, intending to write a book about them after the war. His observations are solitary but he has an ally in his study: the camp Kommandant, a former university professor. Thinking to spare his wife the monotony and occasional horror of life in a POW camp, all of James' letters home center on the impersonal: the birds which so consume him even as he holds his memory of her and their short life together unwritten but close to his heart.

At home alone in their small cottage on the edge of Ashdown Forest, James' young, new wife, Rose, is finding that her recollections of her husband, their brief courtship, and even briefer marriage are fading. What is more current for her in this war is what is closer to home. She makes rounds to ensure that everyone in the neighborhood is following proper blackout procedure. She takes rambles with Harris, the dog she got after James left to fight. She visits her parents across the forest despite her mother's constant ill-temper. Her life is generally uneventful and predictable, even if it's not the one she envisioned when she and James married. And then there's Toby, the RAF pilot with whom she's fallen in love.

When James' older sister Enid's London apartment is destroyed in a bombing raid, she loses everything, home, job, and lover, all in one random instant. There's nothing for it but for her to join Rose in the countryside while she tries to sort out what to do with her life. The two women know each other very little and despite the fact that they share the worry of husband and brother being imprisoned, they are each hiding their deeper, more intense suffering from the other.

Split into two sections ten years apart, the story of these three people and the lives they live is completely compelling and utterly engrossing. Humphreys is a masterful writer; her prose is quiet and simple yet devastating and perfect. The tone of the novel is meditative and understated and a haunting melancholy pervades much of the tale. She has captured the poetry of nature, detailing the exquisiteness of the creatures and plants that exist so often unnoticed and undisturbed around us, the things that only become obvious given the unhurried time and silence in which to observe them.  Humphreys' language flows over readers, immersing them in the gentle, subtle and nuanced world of the novel. It is one of those rare books that you only wish you could have read slower to give yourself longer to savor it.  It is about what it means to be constrained, to be a prisoner, and to be free, in ways that are often unexpected and unsuspected. But most of all it is an elegant novel about what it means to be human, to embrace life.  All I can really say is read it.

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

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

This meme is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.

Books I completed this past week are:

New Uses For Old Boyfriends by Beth Kendrick
The Awakening of Miss Prim by Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera
I Regret Everything by Seth Greenland
Men With Balls by Drew Magary

Bookmarks are still living in the middle of:

The Martian by Andy Weir

Reviews posted this week:

The Last Good Paradise by Tatjana Soli
New Uses For Old Boyfriends by Beth Kendrick
My Kitchen Wars by Betty Fussell
Men With Balls by Drew Magary

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

Not Without My Father by Andra Watkins
The Awakening of Miss Prim by Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera
I Regret Everything by Seth Greenland

Monday Mailbox

I actually had the mailman and the UPS man arrive at my door simultaneously one day this past week. Given how many books arrived here this week, this should have come as no surprise. It was a pure delight though. :-) This past week's mailbox arrivals:

A Reunion of Ghosts by Judith Claire Mitchell came from Harper and TLC Book Tours for a blog tour.

Centered on three sisters who are plagued with bad luck and who decide that their personal ends will also come at the end of the 20th century, this sounds like a real treat.

Wide Open World by John Marshall came from LibraryThing Early Reviewers and Ballantine Books.

The experiences of a family who spent six months as voluntourists, I think the idea of doing this is fascinating.

I Regret Everything by Seth Greenland came from Europa Editions and TLC Book Tours for a blog tour.

The story of a thirty something lawyer who has a secret identity as a poet and his boss' nineteen year old daughter who discovers his secret, this is being called a modern love story. Color me intrigued.

Bettyville by George Hodgman was a contest win from Bookreporter.

A memoir of Hodgman's time taking care of the aging but strong, funny woman who was his mother, this sounds touching, wonderful, and like it will be ripe for humor.

The Snow Globe by Judith Kinghorn came from New American Library for a blog tour.

I completely love books set in the 1920s and this one set at Christmas time in an English country house with all the complications of family and staff looks delectable.

Splinters of Light by Rachael Herron came from New American Library for a blog tour.

A story about sisters, one of whom is a mother with a teenaged daughter and who has just been diagnosed with a terrible disease, this will likely be a heartbreaker.

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, February 15, 2015

Review: Men With Balls by Drew Magary

I am probably going to be accused of having no sense of humor. Or being a prude. Or not getting it. Or even of not being a guy. But that's okay (and no, I am not a guy). I know that I giggled like a teenaged boy sunk deep in hormone stew over the cover of the book and that I chose, tongue-in-cheek, to read it because of the Super Bowl ball deflating brouhaha. I actually had high hopes that this "Professional Athlete's Handbook" would fulfill its promise of hilarity and entertainment. I had no illusions that it would be anything other than low brow humor but honestly, that is the sort of humor that generally tickles my immature funny bone. Unfortunately, Drew Magary's Men With Balls lost all vestiges of humor within the first few pages. It plain old wasn't funny and that was a terrible disappointment.

The book is presented as a "how-to" manual for pro athletes while in actual fact attempting to be a humorous indictment of the excesses of sports and the people who are paid to play those sports. Addressing the reader as the putative professional athlete, the book has chapters covering playing as a job, coaches and management, the media, women, fame and fans, how to handle scandals, money, and more. Magary clearly has a knowledge of how the sports world works but while he riffs sarcastically on all of these topics, he offers nothing special or new. Instead, he perpetuates every negative stereotype out there about professional athletes and manages to be incredibly demeaning to women, gays, and the mentally disabled. While some people will laugh at his commentary, I just can't find much to giggle about in obnoxious and offensive sexism or homophobia. And as if that wasn't enough, the format of the book, with occasional line drawings, asides, and sidebars, was distracting. There are completely fake inset comments from others (athletes, coaches, media figures, etc.) that were annoying and tedious to read through.  Over all, the whole thing was not a pleasant reading experience. Satire well done is fantastic and professional athletes are ripe for satire for certain. This book is not only not satire done well, this is not satire at all; it is just juvenile, repetitious, and unfunny.

Sunday Salon: Not Another Valentine's Day Post (Kinda)

Yesterday was Valentine's Day so I've seen a million and a half cute heart shaped things, including some adorable bookish ones, and I had thought about posting about my favorite romances or my favorite literary couples or some such. But, without having gone around the internet and looked (I was busy--more on that in a moment), I decided that I would probably only be one voice among many if I did that. So I'm not going to. (If you've been reading long enough, you already know I am a stubborn contrarian on so many levels.) I mean, I didn't even get my husband or children Valentine's cards so why would I write the expected Valentine's post?  Actually, I spent my Valentine's Day with my daughter at her dance debut show working backstage. Then I took her to her post show rehearsal. We came home; I made dinner, finished a book I had been struggling with, and was in bed asleep by 8:30. Yeah, I'm bringing sexy back. Before I zonked out from exhaustion, I did take a moment to advise my oldest son, who was feeling uncharitable about this lovey couples holiday, that he and his other single friends should meet up today (the 15th), buy all of the half price Valentine's candy they could find, and then gorge themselves silly. He officially thinks I'm a genius. That, my friends, will give you the warm glow that no manufactured holiday can provide. ;-)

Maybe next year I'll do the expected love and romance post since by then you won't expect it of me. Then again, since this sentiment to the left is generally true, maybe not. Although, just to be somewhat on topic, I will say that in the teetering stacks on my kitchen table right now (my current office space since I've relinquished my desk to my husband now that he's working from home and I haven't gotten around to getting another desk for myself), there are two books with appropriate Valentine's words in the titles: Rodin's Lover by Heather Webb and Love By the Book by Melissa Pimentel. Haven't read them so no opinion on them but there's your obligatory love related commentary. Tell me, which books should I have read in honor of this holiday that would have left me gushing?

This week my bookish travels took me to England and Germany with a prisoner of war and the young, new bride he left at home. I went to an old fashioned town in France with a woman who took a job as a private librarian. I watched in New York and Connecticut as a lawyer/poet fell in love with the daughter of his boss. And I finally finished the handbook on how to be a professional athlete. I am currently stranded on Mars and looking for the means to survive long enough to have another Mars mission come and rescue me. Where have your bookish travels taken you this past week?

Friday, February 13, 2015

Review: My Kitchen Wars by Betty Fussell

The kitchen is the heart of the home. It's the place where everyone ends up during a party. It's where the family gathers together. But the kitchen can be a battleground too, reflecting the state of the family. In Betty Fussell's memoir, My Kitchen Wars, the noted food writer and cookbook author takes on her early life and long marriage through the lens of food, kitchen tools, and cooking.

Fussell was born in the late 1920s. Her life and the food coming out of the kitchens of her homes, from childhood with a depressed mother and later an unpleasant stepmother, to her marriage to noted historian and author Paul Fussell, mirror the seismic changes that took place in society. From uninspired, rather tasteless meals meant only to provide sustenance to elaborately conceived and executed parties overflowing with gourmet offerings and loosened sexual mores to a more simple and satisfying fare, Fussell uses kitchen utensils to chart a personal and social history. She cooks up a memoir of her own sensual awakening after a puritanical childhood and a marriage fraught with strife.

After escaping her stepmother's strict and priggish household, she marries Paul Fussell, despite early intimations that there will be problems in their marriage. Initially, she behaves just as a good faculty wife is expected to act, hewing to accepted gender roles, performing as the good little woman, throwing parties and entering into the kitchen competitions that seem to be the sole outlet of the women of the time. She and Paul spar even then though, as Betty's desire to be more, to engage herself intellectually like he is doing, something so long denied to her, makes him feel threatened. Through her food writing, she starts to achieve a feminist awakening, desiring to be more than just Paul's support or secretary for his celebrated books. Eventually earning her PhD in English and finding her own writing voice, she does break out of the prison of the kitchen while still celebrating the essence, skill, and importance of the place, its contents, and food.

Fussell is clearly passionate about food, demonstrating a true foodie transformation over the years. Her narrative voice is distinctive but a bit distant as she shares savory tidbits from her life. She doesn't flinch from telling the unsavory bits either, straightforwardly discussing her own long affair, the heavy drinking and shifting mores of the time, unveiling the pettiness of the private academic life, discussing the sexual politics and the frustrating restrictions on women in the 50s and 60s, taking (perhaps deserved) potshots at Paul, and exposing his sexual predilections. Some of this could come off as salacious but it is so matter-of-factly presented that it doesn't. There are some hints of depressing pretentiousness in the writing but mostly what comes across is the awakening of a smart, resilient woman who fights her kitchen wars and ultimately gains her independence through the surprising power of words and food.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Review: New Uses For Old Boyfriends by Beth Kendrick

Black Dog Bay, Delaware is a town where women can go to recover from their breakups and heartaches. Catering to well-heeled tourists as well as the lovelorn, this quirky, small, oceanfront town is a good place to find sympathy, to heal, and to reinvent your life and start over. Beth Kendrick created the tightly connected town full of eccentric characters in her novel, Cure for the Common Breakup, and she returns to it with New Uses For Old Boyfriends.

Lila Alders had made it. She moved out of tiny Black Dog Bay. She was on tv as the host of a home shopping show, moderately famous enough to be recognized, occasionally. She and her husband had money. Yep, she'd made it, right up until she hadn't. Her contract not renewed and unable to get auditions for other tv jobs, her cheating husband has divorced her and left her destitute, so she has nowhere to go but home to her recently widowed mother so she can lick her wounds in Black Dog Bay while she considers what to do with her life. All of her possessions in the back of her FUV (the name she calls the enormous SUV she bought just before her ex-husband cancelled her credit card and cleared out their joint account--say it out loud if you're still not getting it), she breaks down on the way into town, running into her ex-boyfriend from high school, Ben.

The plan is to move back in with her recently widowed mom, Daphne, and help with all the things that Lila's dad used to do for his wife while also renewing her acquaintance with Ben. But things don't run as smoothly as all that. Lila quickly discovers that her father hid the extent of his debts from her mother, her mother has continued living as if her income was unlimited.  There's nothing for it but to sell the gorgeous home she grew up in no matter how much it hurts her and how much her mother protests. Daphne is a former model who feels trapped in Black Dog Bay and is missing her late husband so much that she can't bear to think about selling the home he built for her and that she has spent decades decorating and perfecting.  So when Lila finds trunks full of her mother's old couture clothing in the attic, she determines to open a vintage clothing store, and hopefully make enough to save the house. As all of this is coming together, she tries to rekindle a relationship with Ben, who is, no doubt about it, a really good guy. Ben isn't the only guy in town though; there's also Malcolm, the quiet guy she doesn't remember from high school, a former Marine who, having learned to sew from his mother and grandmother, makes covert repairs to the delicate clothing Lila brings to him.

As Lila tries desperately to save her mother, the house, and herself, through setback after setback, she starts to realize that she has been so busy being who everyone else expects her to be that she doesn't even know who she actually is, and she may not have ever known. She is learning strength and confidence. She is making friends with other women who like her and support her. And she is getting to know the Lila that can make things happen, not just for herself but for those she cares about. The book is fun and flirty but it also has a strong undercurrent of empowerment weaving through the lively and entertaining chick lit plot. Kendrick revisits characters from the first Black Dog Bay book and a knowledge of the first book does give some additional insight into the town, the speed at which gossip spreads in it, and the eccentric characters who inhabit the place, but even without it, this is still an amusing and enjoyable read that easily stands on its own. The romance is mostly predictable but the real focus is on Lila, her growth, and her newfound ability to find happiness and joy in the people and place around her and as such, is a delight to read.

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

Thanks to Kayleigh from Berkley/NAL for sending me a copy of the book for review.

Waiting on Wednesday

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

The Bookseller by Cynthia Swanson. The book is being released by Harper on March 3, 2015.

Amazon says this about the book: A provocative and hauntingly powerful debut novel reminiscent of Sliding Doors, The Bookseller follows a woman in the 1960s who must reconcile her reality with the tantalizing alternate world of her dreams.

Nothing is as permanent as it appears . . .

Denver, 1962: Kitty Miller has come to terms with her unconventional single life. She loves the bookshop she runs with her best friend, Frieda, and enjoys complete control over her day-to-day existence. She can come and go as she pleases, answering to no one. There was a man once, a doctor named Kevin, but it didn’t quite work out the way Kitty had hoped.

Then the dreams begin.

Denver, 1963: Katharyn Andersson is married to Lars, the love of her life. They have beautiful children, an elegant home, and good friends. It’s everything Kitty Miller once believed she wanted—but it only exists when she sleeps.

Convinced that these dreams are simply due to her overactive imagination, Kitty enjoys her nighttime forays into this alternate world. But with each visit, the more irresistibly real Katharyn’s life becomes. Can she choose which life she wants? If so, what is the cost of staying Kitty, or becoming Katharyn?

As the lines between her worlds begin to blur, Kitty must figure out what is real and what is imagined. And how do we know where that boundary lies in our own lives?

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Thoughts From a Comically Slow Runner

I ran almost 5 miles today. Alone. This is a big deal. The friend I've been running with twice a week let me know she couldn't make it and while I had more than 24 hours to work through it, I am not very good about running by myself. She was sweet enough to text me to say that she figured I'd go farther without her along to hold me back. She's too nice for her own good. I know well enough that she was running farther (and probably faster) before I totally imposed myself into her solitary runs. So if anyone's holding anyone back, it wouldn't be her. Just sayin'. At any rate, since she challenged me (ok, so she didn't, but I had to take it that way or my bed would have won this morning), I did run farther than we had been running, almost 2 miles longer. I also forgot how long the new route I chose to take was, so that's a bit to blame for the extra distance too. Being challenged and being incapable of remembering simple distances.  Makes you really want to run with me sometime, doesn't it?  Poky slow airhead who is oddly competitive.

First, I looked at the weather when we normally run and burrowed back into my warm bed with the dogs. It was chilly and windy. No need to run in that. It would surely be warmer and less blowy later. Nope. By 11:00 I had lost all hope so I pushed myself out the door anyway. Less than 5 minutes into my run I passed a neighbor. And lest you think I actually run faster than anyone on earth, let me reassure you that when I say passed, I mean I was running one direction and she was running the other. I had on a long sleeved t-shirt (non-wicking) and shorts. She had on a knitted toboggan, a down vest, long sleeved shirt, gloves, and pants. She probably thought I was crazy. I thought she was crazy. If I tried to run in all of that with temps even 1 degree above freezing, I'd probably spontaneously combust or have the most curious case of heat stroke ever. As it was, I was soaking wet with sweat and had discovered entirely new orifices out of which to leak water by the end of my run. Fat girl obviously has her own personal internal combustion engine.

As I neared the one mile mark, I was still debating with myself which route I intended to run. It was at that point that some really inspirational music came on the iPod and I decided I could in fact run more than 3 miles. Wondering what sort of music might possibly make someone decide to run longer? Well, country music, then acoustic stuff, and then the Disney star stuff from 7 or 8 years ago that my daughter once loved. Clearly I was in an hallucinatory state when I decided this. Plus I need better music to run to. I haven't run this other route in a good seven years. Lots of things had changed since then. Not least of which is that the road somehow lengthened considerably while I was busy making a permanent indent in my couch cushions.

But I could do it, right? Nope. I hit the turn around point and my brain won the battle. Actually my stomach won the battle. It threatened to cast up the protein bar I had for breakfast. Nothing pretty about belching up protein bar while you run. It's also not pretty to belch up protein bar while you walk but at least the rest of you doesn't hurt so much. So I walked a couple of minutes. When I thought it would be safe to speed up again, I trotted off, rewarding myself with the promise of another short walk once I hit the busy road I had to cross. Yes, mind games are us, at least they are for me whenever I run. As I made my way home, I did notice that the leaves were blowing across the road much faster than I was running. That was a bit depressing at the time, if you must know. Although since the computer says the wind was blowing at 15 mph, I guess I can live with it. At my speed, I'm probably just lucky to have laid eyes on the leaves at all before they zoomed away.

Despite the two small walk breaks dictated by my head rather than my legs, the run actually felt pretty decent. I was my usual disgusting, sweaty mess at the end of it and my fingers did start tingling twice despite making sure I wasn't clenched up tight at all. I even turned around and went on a couple mile trail walk with a friend to walk her dogs after I was finished. I didn't much want to get out of the shower after I was finished with all of it and our water bill is going to look like we're watering the lawn during a drought summer but I'm feeling pretty good about myself right now. Ask me tomorrow if I can still walk though. ;-)

Monday, February 9, 2015

Review: The Last Good Paradise by Tatjana Soli

Tatjana Soli has written three very different novels, The Lotus Eaters, The Forgetting Tree, and now The Last Good Paradise. As disparate as they are in setting and plot, they share a depth of story and an intense examination of the ways people, even very different people, connect to one another.

Who hasn't wanted to get away from it all? To chuck job and responsibilities and escape to paradise? Ann and Richard are completely consumed by the stress of their lives. Ann is a cutthroat junior attorney in the midst of fertility problems. Her husband Richard is a chef in the final stages of opening the decades-long wished for restaurant of his own with his best friend and fellow chef, Javi.  In the midst that is, until it comes out that Javi owes money to loan sharks and his ex is going after his assets, including the restaurant, claiming he hid money from her. The problem is that the money is actually all Ann and Richard's but that won't change anything. So Ann does something shockingly unethical. She withdraws all the money in their account and she and Richard run away to a remote coral atoll in French Polynesia. They land at an exclusive and wildly expensive resort that is unplugged from technology and seemingly outside the rest of the world's reach. But they are not alone there. Also at the resort is Dex Cooper, an aging rock star; Wende, his nubile and scantily clad young muse; Loren, the French resort owner who is hiding from his own failures; Titi, the cook and caretaker; and Cooked, her fiancĂ©, a would-be environmental activist and eco-terrorist and the resort's boatman.

Each of the people on the island has his or her own agenda, many of them running away from unpleasant realities. They are all their own personal islands when Ann and Richard first arrive but they slowly develop connections to each other, fueled first by raging undercurrents of lust and sexual awareness but eventually by understanding and caring. As each character works through the death of long held dreams, they face the uncertainty and difficulty of making changes and finding new directions, even when those changes will make them happier than their dreams once did. It is through the solitude and introspection of weeks at the resort that the characters really learn what they want from life, how to live it to their best ability, how to make a difference in the world, and how to move forward with their new, more fulfilling hopes and dreams.

Soli is very good at drawing complex and complete characters, doing a wonderful job with her large cast here. All of them are floundering, trying to find their ways, which they will only find in concert with each other. Their coming together as a united group is slow and organic in the first half of the novel, but still shows and celebrates their personal growth within the collective. The plot picks up speed in the second half of the story and the twists and turns to the end are both unexpected and perfectly true to the book. The narration shifts from each of the ensemble characters in turn, spinning through all of them, sometimes from paragraph to paragraph, giving necessary perspective into the growth of the whole. Like the secret webcam trained on a piece of deserted beach on the backside of the island that Loren has hooked up and Ann finds by accident, the story exudes peace and allure for the untouched tranquility of a hidden paradise, hidden from the world, hidden from one's personal view, hidden deep in the heart.  None of us can ever truly unplug from the world and our fellow human beings no matter how far afield we go.  The writing is smooth and as stunning as the paradise Soli has created. This novel will make you think about regrets, what truly makes a person happy, and what obligations we have to others as members of the same tribe and to the world as our collective home.

For more information about Tatjana Soli and the book, take a look at her website, find her on Facebook, follow her at Twitter, or check out 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.

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

This meme is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.

Books I completed this past week are:

The Last Good Paradise by Tatjana Soli
Not Without My Father by Andra Watkins
The Evening Chorus by Helen Humphreys

Bookmarks are still living in the middle of:

Men With Balls by Drew Magary
New Uses For Old Boyfriends by Beth Kendrick

Reviews posted this week:

The Tell-Tale Heart by Jill Dawson
Girl Runner by Carrie Snyder
Admission by Jean Hanff Korelitz
Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House by Eric Hodgins

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

My Kitchen Wars by Betty Fussell
The Last Good Paradise by Tatjana Soli
Not Without My Father by Andra Watkins
The Evening Chorus by Helen Humphreys

Monday Mailbox

  I love seeing what odd couple combinations arrive at my house in the same week.  This week shows why. This past week's mailbox arrivals:

The Tusk That Did the Damage by Tania James came from Knopf and TLC Book Tours for a blog tour.

Elephants are fascinating creatures and this book that tells the story of poachers, a documentary filmmaker, and an escaped elephant who kills and then buries people looks fantastically good.

The Awakening of Miss Prim by Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera came from me for myself.

A book about an educated young woman who decides to become a private librarian in a French village and the eccentric people she meets there, this looks completely and utterly charming.

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, February 8, 2015

Review: Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House by Eric Hodgins

If you've ever built a house, you are probably familiar with the myriad frustrations that plague such an endeavor. There's the dazzling array of choices you have to make, many of which you never once considered before signing on the dotted line with a builder. There are the inevitable slowdowns of work due to late deliveries, ornery inspectors, bad weather, and so forth. There are the unexpected problems and their resulting ballooning price tags, because the initial bottom line cost has never once in the history of building turned out to be the actual cost. But even with everything that can cause stress, it's worth it to be able to design exactly what you want in a home, right? The hilarious novel Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream Home by Eric Hodgins might argue that.

Set in the 1940s, the novel is definitely dated, but it still manages to earn the reader's giggles. The Blandings, who have never before thought of living out of the City, have decided to build a country home. Mr. Blandings works in advertising and has been very successful with an important laxative account. His newly secure position makes him think that he should, like others of his level, build a home in the country, and his wife concurs. They traipse around the countryside, falling in love with a neglected, ramshackle, historic home and property on Bald Mountain just outside a small Connecticut town. And this is where their trouble starts. First they must deal with a slick real estate agent and the local owner, who is up-charging these city folk for the land by about 1000%. Then they hire an architect, and then another architect. Then they actually have to build their new home, deal with the tradesmen who come in to work on the place, and experience all of the pitfalls that every first time homebuilder experiences.

These experiences are completely and totally entertaining. Mr. Blandings can't decide whether it is better to lose face and be cheated or if it's better to confront people. His bumbling attempts to right wrongs and to make his dream home live up to billing are good fun. His constant totting up of the amount he's spending on this home, revised almost daily as his wallet takes hit after hit after hit, really strikes a cord. Everything that can go wrong for the Blandings does and Hodgins mines the deep humor in Mr. Blandings' resigned blusterings. Mrs. Blandings' inability to rein herself in and her complete lack of understanding how each decision she makes, especially once construction has started, snowballs into costing massive amounts of money is both pretty true to life and helps the reader understand Mr. Blandings' exasperation with her. The humor here can be over the top and Hodgins skewers his "act in haste, repent at leisure" characters pretty neatly. For all the Blandings' naivety and infuriating requests, the building trade doesn't get off scot free either. The numbers quoted for each bill are laughably low given today's costs but since the original budgeted cost is mentioned frequently, the reader will still get a sense of how far over budget the Blandings have gone. The book is a witty and entertaining comedy of errors filled with one liner gems, buried in the dry, sometimes biting presentation and it definitely makes me want to see the Cary Grant, Myrna Loy movie of the same name.

Sunday Salon: Books That Bring a Smile To Your Face

There are some books that just make you smile when you read them. They make you feel happy, even if they tackle tough subjects. Calling them heartwarming is probably the kiss of death in literary terms but that's not really fair. Sure, the most celebrated literary books seem to celebrate dysfunction but there are some really lovely, well written books out there that are very much worth the read. The one I've been recommending most recently is A Man Called Ove by Fredrick Backman. And after I recommended it to a friend, she asked for more recommendations in the same vein. Because you can't read this without smiling. So I thought about others that made me feel the same way and came up with this list from the past however many years:

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson
A Guide to the Birds of East Africa by Nicholas Drayson
Jana Bibi's Excellent Fortunes by Betsy Woodman
The House at the End of Hope Street by Menna van Praag
a non fiction option: Merry Hall by Beverley Nichols
and one that made me giggle recently (review coming soon): Mr. Blandings Builds His Dreamhouse by Eric Hodgins

Do you have any books that just make you smile when you read them, books that you just wanted to hug to your heart when you were finished with them? Let me know in the comments because these sorts of books are too infrequent in my life and I'd love to change that.

This week I didn't get a lot of reading in but my bookish travels took me to a remote Polynesian island where seven people trying to hide from life come together and to the Natchez Trace where a woman walking the Trace and her elderly father providing support try to repair their relationship. I am still stuck in the supposedly humorous world of professional athletes and I am also moving between a POW camp in WWII Germany and the rural English home of the prisoner and his wife. Where did your reading travels take you this week?

Friday, February 6, 2015

Review: Admission by Jean Hanff Korelitz

Many of us have been on one side of the college admissions process, the prospective student's side. But far fewer people have witnessed the process from the other side, the admissions counselor's side. When we were applying ourselves, we just knew there was some sort of insider information that if only we knew it, we'd be accepted to the school of our dreams. Those of us with children going through the process now still want that elusive, top secret information. And yet we are told over and over, then and now, that there's no magic guarantee. While Jean Hanff Korelitz's novel, Admission, reiterates this, it does feel a little bit like a peek behind closed doors into the life and decisions of an admission officer.

Portia Nathan is an admission officer at Princeton. She lives with her long time boyfriend, Mark, an English professor, and she's just been given the plum New England recruiting territory for the University. As the application season starts, Portia visits schools, including a new experimental school in New Hampshire where she finds a group of students, and one in particular, who challenge and interest her more than any others through the years. John, the head teacher at the school causes her pangs too; he's a former classmate from Dartmouth who remembers her but whom she does not remember. Really what she's most frightened about is how his appearance reminds her of her college boyfriend and the past she thought she'd buried from all conscious thought. When she returns home and immerses herself back in her regular life with Mark and the mountains of applications to which she must give thoughtful consideration, suddenly everything in her life seems to start slowly imploding, forcing her to face the past and her decisions.

The novel is balanced between the story of admitting students, and how that process works, and the admission she must make to herself, about the lingering effect of the past on all the decisions she has made ever since. Portia is given ample opportunities to explain the way that an admissions committee works and thinks, during her school visits, at a dinner party with a hostile colleague of Mark's, and in describing her own actions behind closed doors. She feels some intellectual inferiority because of the lack of a degree aimed specifically at her job and qualifications. She describes the unavoidable, and unfortunately common, occurrence of rejecting well-qualified prospective students. She gets personally involved in certain kids' applications, fighting for their admittance in committee. And she makes the overwhelming stress of reading through so many heartfelt applications in such a short amount of time as well as ignoring or denying the very cracks in her own personal life because she is so consumed by applications very understandable and immediate to the reader.

Each chapter starts with an application excerpt as an epigraph. These are clever and sound very much as if they could have been culled from actual applications. Shifting between the here and now of her present and her past, Portia is just treading water, feeling completely unmoored, for most of the story. Her counterculture childhood and unusual mother formed her in ways that were perhaps expected: her rebellion had no choice but to turn towards the conventional and away from the unconventionality of her mother. The big revelation from her past is rather predictable and the huge coincidence that stems from it is a little tough to buy. But I had already gotten aggravated by a plot point that was beyond incorrect so I might have been a tad judgmental by then.

What chapped my hide so much, you ask? Portia ends up with a monogrammed shirt from a boy who accidentally hit her in the head with a lacrosse ball. She wants to find him but she can't because she didn't know that the larger middle letter in a monogram is actually the last initial. Well, yes. This would be true if the boy was a girl. The larger middle letter makes this a woman's monogram. Given that the boy is the offspring of a Boston Brahmin family, he would certainly not have had a girl's monogram on his oxford cloth shirt (and his family would certainly have known the difference). And men's monograms are done in name order with all letters the same size. This might seem petty but since it is given a full paragraph in the book as she searches for this boy based on the wrong last initial and it is the major reason for Portia not finding this knight in shining armor sooner than she does, it becomes too pivotal to be so badly incorrect. Little things matter, especially when they really aren't that little in the grand scheme of things. Despite my pique, I did appreciate Portia's growth and change as a character. The story was generally well paced although sometimes Portia's defense of her job went on a bit long.  But as a mother going through the college application process two years in a row, I definitely appreciated her silent exhortation "Don't...make some terrible connection between who you are as a human being and whether or not you get in." (p. 219) Sound advice we could all stand to remember in so many areas of our lives.

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

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