Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Review: Dead End Gene Pool by Wendy Burden

When I was small (and angry at my parents) I would fantasize about my "real" parents. They were undoubtedly rich and royal. Well, Wendy Burden never needed to fantasize. Her family may not have been royal, but they were undoubtedly rich. You see, she is a descendant of Cornelius Vanderbilt and she grew up surrounded by rather obscene amounts of money, a child of privilege, apathy, and neglect. Dead End Gene Pool is her memoir of a childhood lived mainly in the company of servants and in the rarified air of the super rich. And having read this book, I am quite certain I'm glad that no royal, rich parents came to claim me from my perfectly happy suburban existence.

Opening with a quick run through of her moneyed family tree, Burden starts with Vanderbilt and hops through the branches down to her own paternal grandparents. Once she settles on the family members she actually knew, she starts in on the crazy, sometimes funny, sometimes terrible life that made up her early life. Her father, suffering from depression, committed suicide when she was just six. Her alcoholic mother, written out of the will for her serial adultery, became a completely absent and neglectful parent. And Burden and her brothers ping-ponged between their mother's empty of supervision home and their wealthy grandparents' servant-filled homes. In neither place did they find the nurturing and love that children need.

Burden chronicles not only the eccentricities of the very rich (when money is no object you can order cars from Europe to be delivered to you that same day or find game that is in season somewhere in the world in order to have it for dinner the following evening or pad your entire bathroom in foam so that when you stumble and fall in your alcoholic and aged haze, you won't bruise yourself), she also lays bare the odd child that she was, obsessed with the Addams family, collecting dead animals to watch the various stages of decomposition, begging for a pony and then creating elaborate and murderous fantasies about Will's demise when it was gifted to her older brother instead of her. She writes about many of her family members as if they were fictional characters, mocking their faults (an overly flatulent grandmother and a misogynistic grandfather), exposing their immorality (Uncle Ham-Uncle Ham's Nazi fetish), and generally skewering all and sundry. In one instance she appears to think that her uncle's obsession with tracts warning against the evils of inherited wealth, which he distributed to the whole family, is laughable but really, it seems that while he may have been a buffoon, at least as Burden represents the family, his tracts weren't off base.

While there were funny anecdotes sprinkled throughout the book, this was ultimately a sad story. The absenteeism, the drug use and abuse, the mental illness, acknowledged or not, and the general lack of love and attention displayed here make it hard to call this a funny book or even one rife with dark humor. I was left with the feeling that the people in Burden's family were unpleasant and distasteful and I wouldn't have wanted to know them myself. She does have a neat turn of phrase here and there and some amount of self-awareness comes through but the narrative itself is often choppy and repetitive. This brief visit into the skeletal closets of the highest of society makes me grateful that I don't live there and it was with an unseemly sense of relief that I closed the book at the last. Although I didn't love the book myself, it is a fascinating peep into a world in which very few people live and those who enjoy the lifestyles of the rich and famous and want to know more about the grit under the facade of the houses and the cars and the possessions will undoubtedly enjoy this book for its insight into the troubled highest echelons of WASP society.

An interesting interview/article about the author in the New York Times can be found here. As a bonus, there's a slide show of rooms in her home, decorated with Vanderbilt and Burden heirlooms.

Also, Ms. Burden will be talking about the book with readers at Books on the Brain, "live" in the comment section for one hour on May 18th, 5 pm PST. Please stop by and say hi if you're able to! More information about this chat session can be found here.

If you'd like more info about Wendy, check out her website.

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

Tuesday, April 27, 2010


I love being in a carpool. For starters, I don't have to drive every week, which is, of course, the major point of it all. But the other benefit to carpooling is that the girls chatter away about all sorts of stuff as if I can't hear a darn thing because there's always a different mother driving them. I learn some fascinating information eavesdropping on their conversations. Last night the dancing girls started off talking about school. R. is in middle school and the others are in 5th grade so moving to middle school next year. They were curious about it. Apparently R. told them to beware of social studies (why? it's actually one of her best subjects). One of the other girls said she hated social studies because it was all history. Then she said she wanted to be a lawyer when she grew up. I interrupted at that point and said that the law required a lot of knowledge of history. So I was duly informed that she likes science and math. Fair enough. This same child then announced that she wanted to be a millionaire when she was grown. R. asked drily from the back seat, "Are you going to marry it or earn it?" I nearly swerved off the road trying to hold back giggles. Never did hear what the choice was nor did I hear my daughter elaborate on which she thought was a better plan.

Review: A Rather Lovely Inheritance by C.A. Belmond

American Penny Nichols works as an historical consultant on low budget movies when she gets a call telling her that her great aunt Penelope has died and left behind an inheritance. Thinking it wouldn't amount to much, Penny leaves her current movie and heads to London for the reading of the will. Her good looking cousin Jeremy meets her there and helps her through the surprise of a rather sizeable inheritance as well as helping her to navigate the tricky waters of the British side of the family. It isn't until Penny and Jeremy find their other cousin Rollo trying to steal the car left to Penny (she was gifted with the garage and its contents at great aunt Penelope's French home) that the madcap adventures of the novel really begin. Racing all over Europe to untangle the family tree and to prevent Rollo and his mother from succeeding in getting Jeremy disinherited, Penny and Jeremy uncover all sorts of mysteries about great aunt Penelope, her life, and the sometimes small ways in which World War II affected even those who didn't fight.

The characters are lovely and the plot clips along at a good rate after the reading of the will is over. Belmond does a nice job setting the scene and describing the family dynamics. While nothing tears families apart faster than money, and Rollo and his mother are actively working to have Jeremy disinherited, there is very little of the nastiness that usually surrounds these sorts of fights. And that is quite refreshing! This is a fun and frothy adventure full of light mystery and romance. There is a whiff of times gone by throughout the narrative and a gentility to the characters, even in the midst of heists and swindles. It is the first in a trilogy (at least so far), an amusing read that is delightful entertainment. I will happily be reading books two and three when I want a charming diversion.

Monday, April 26, 2010

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

This meme is hosted by Sheila at One Person's Journey Through a World of Books.

Books I completed this week are:

The Sweet By and By by Todd Johnson
Nana by Emile Zola
Dead End Gene Pool by Wendy Burden

Bookmarks are still living in the middle of:

The Far Pavilions by M.M. Kaye
Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens
Great Lakes Nature by Mary Blocksma (this is going to take me all year as I read her year's entries on the corresponding days of this year)
Venetia Kelly's Traveling Show by Frank Delaney
The Girl Next Door by Elizabeth Noble

Reviews posted this week:

The Sweet By and By by Todd Johnson
How High the Moon by Sandra Kring
Charming the Highlander by Janet Chapman
The Gravedigger's Cottage by Chris Lynch
Nana by Emile Zola

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

A Rather Lovely Inheritance by C.A. Belmond
Dancing in Red Shoes Will Kill You by Dorrian Cirrone
The Gin Closet by Leslie Jamison
The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff
Dead End Gene Pool by Wendy Burden

Giveaway on the blog this week:
The Ocean Between Us by Susan Wiggs ends May 3rd.

Monday Mailbox

I have been incredibly spoiled this past week by the absolute April shower of books arriving practically daily around here. That's a sure sign that one of my annual commitments reading-wis is ramping up again. Here's hoping I can keep up with the stream of books! Or at least have them read by the time they should be read. This past week's mailbox arrivals:

The Last River Child by Lori Ann Bloomfield came from the author via the publisher.
About a girl whose appearance causes her to have to fight superstitions her whole life until WWI alters the people in her small town forever, this one sounds really cool.

Secret Daughter by Shilpi Somaya Gowda came from the publisher.
An adoption story across two countries, America and India, I can't wait to dive into this one.

The Cradle by Patrick Somerville came from Valerie at Hachette.
I have my own cradle story from when I was pregnant with my first child so the story of a woman who wants her husband to find her baby cradle resonates quite deeply with me.

Take Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs by Heather Lende came from the publisher.
I have her first memoir about living in Alaska and this follow-up looks delightful as well.

Easy as Pi by Jamie Buchan came from Julie at FSB Associates.
I was all set to run screaming from this one but I have been assured that it is fascinating even to the number averse because it explains the sources of numerical phrases.

A Certain "Je Ne Sais Quoi" by Chloe Rhodes came from Julie at FSB Associates.
I love word and phrase origins so I am looking forward to this one a lot.

As always, if you'd like to see the marvelous goodies in other people's mailboxes, make sure to visit Marcia at The Printed Page and enjoy seeing how we are all doing our part to keep the USPS and delivery services viable.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Review: Nana by Emile Zola

After I finished school, diploma clutched tightly in my hot little hand, I realized that degree notwithstanding, I had some holes in my education through which a careful driver could manuever a truck. Reading snob that I was at the time, I decided that I needed to remedy the situation and live up to my newly minted certification as well read. So I popped out to the local bookstore and snatched up some of the classics we never covered in school. Zola was one of those authors and Nana was the title of his that most appealed to me so home it followed me, whereupon it languished on my shelves unread for something approaching (exceeding?--I don't have record of the date I bought it and my records start in 2002) ten years. Was it because I thought it would be inaccesible? Was it because I shelve alphabetically and so it was at the bottom in a corner? Perhaps it was because subconsciously I knew that it wasn't going to be a very happy reading experience for me. If the last reason is true, sadly, it was prophetic. Before I pulled the book off the shelf and paid for it, I should have read the back cover copy and remembered how very desperately I loathed the Naturalist writers I had read. I could have saved myself a lot of reading anguish this past week.

Nana is the story of an actress who rises up from the gutters of Paris and takes the town by storm, collecting men and their money as she ascends. She is an avaricious creature, not only demanding money from her protectors but also prostituting herself whenever she cannot extort enough money from the seriously ridiculous rich men with whom she surrounds herself. But she doesn't start out quite so greedy. At the start of the story, she is just coming into her own and she is naive in the ways of manipulation. Through her clever maid's offices and the advice of certain hangers-on, she learns to exploit not only her sexuality but the strange magnetism she exudes over men. She is an Eve of the worst sort, shallow and selfish, unconcerned with the destruction of others.

Because this is a novel in the naturalist tradition, it uses very detailed realism and suggests that heredity and social origins determine a person's personality. This tips the reader off to the fact that Nana is not a heroine to strive to emulate. Rather she is a product of the lower classes and must needs be a lesser person as a result, most likely one who will come to a likely end no matter how high she manages to rise as a courtesan. As annoying as this prefiguring based on literary convention made reading, the novel was tiresome for more than just that. Zola takes fully half the novel to develop his character of Nana, drawing her as both stupid (she is a woman, after all) and cunning (ditto). He spends many pages throughout the novel in overly detailed descriptions of rooms, people, clothing, plays, etc. Despite his florid descriptions of the physical settings, Zola manages to make the male characters who flock to Nana like moths to a flame almost entirely interchangeable and indistinct. And so very few of the characters besides Nana achieve any sort of clarity in the mind of the reader. It's hard to read a novel where there is an unpleasant main character and few, if any, distractions from them.

Wasteful, bored, and dissolute characters abound in this ultimately pessimistic, doom-laden offering. It is a classic of French literature, and I suppose that I can be content with myself that another hole in the education has been plugged, but it was a dismal, dreary, and dull reading experience that I can't recommend. Others have offered accolades though so check out differing opinions on the novel before you dismiss it. But if you do choose to ignore my warnings and read it, don't blame me (unless you are an insomniac looking for a sleep aid). Not surprisingly, this will be my only experience with Zola.

I read Nana for the Classics Circuit's tour of Zola although I struggled so much that I missed my official tour date and am only squeaking this review in under the wire in order to be considered a participant at all.


Because we are not a normal family, tonight at dinner the conversation turned to arm pits. T. announced that his are bald and waved his arms in the air so we could all see. (Did I mention that dinner tonight was at a restaurant?) R. checked hers to make certain she was clean shaven and then made a comment about T. being stinky despite his having had a shower earlier after his tennis match. I suggested that perhaps a more liberal use of soap was needed. W. looked at me quizzically and said, "You use soap on your pits? I always use shampoo because they're hairy." Poor D. now knows why his shampoo gets run through so quickly!

(comic from hedrondude's Another Reality 6 series)

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Saturday Shout-Out

On my travels through the blogging world, I find many books that pique my interest. I always add them to my wish list immediately but I tend to forget who deserves the blame credit for inspiring me to add them to my list (and to whom my husband would like to send the bill when I get around to actually buying them). So each Saturday I'm going to try and keep better track, link to my fellow book ferreter-outers (I know, not a word but useful nonetheless), and hopefully add to some of your wish lists too.

The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman was mentioned on Breaking the Spine.

Writing Jane Austen by Elizabeth Aston was mentioned on Austenprose.

A Lost Wife's Tale by Marion McGilvary was mentioned on Book End Babes.

Cool Water by Dianne Warren was mentioned on Caribousmom.

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elizabeth Tova Bailey was mentioned on Algonquin Books Blog.

What goodies have you added to your wish lists recently? Make your own list and leave a comment here so we can all see who has been a terrible influence inspiring you lately.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Spring Break Travelogue

We are very lucky to have family living in a place that is very appealing to visit for spring break and so once again, we packed ourselves up and headed to Savannah. Living in the south as we do now also means that there's not an entire day's worth of driving ahead of us and so we can take our time packing and starting out. That bit us in the butt this year though. The kids had no decent shoes to wear for church on Easter and so I hung around long enough to hit the only store in town that carries shoes the width of shoe boxes themselves for my Fred Flintstone-like, wide-footed children. And we managed to choose pretty quickly (not a hard task when your appropriate size choices are A or B and sometimes only A).

No matter how quickly you do the last minute errands, though, my newest travel advice is to never try to leave town when the President is visiting. It's a guarantee that every road in the city will be beyond bollocksed up. And if you're really lucky like we were, the highway will come to a complete and total stop a mere mile from the exit you need. 45 minutes stuck on the highway is never any fun. On the other hand, it was sort of entertaining to see the cops picking up and ticketing folks crossing the median to turn around and escape the highway closure. That's one way to increase the city's badly needed revenues, I guess. God bless government. :-P

Once we finally escaped the long, circular parking lot so incapacitated by the POTUS's visit, we ran headlong into 3 fairly impressive accidents on 95. I swear that particular highway is an accident magnet. Despite the fact that my GPS promised me a 3:03pm arrival in Savannah, we rolled in at 4:45 as I was starting to come down with something nasty. Normally being late wouldn't be an issue but we had a music festival concert to go to that night with my parents. D. was unaffected by my late arrival because he had driven down earlier on his own (he also didn't experience the seventh circle of traffic hell, the lucky b@stard), but I had to pull off a presentable quick change in 10 minutes after 5+ hours in the car. By the time we left my parents' house, I could barely breathe and my throat was impossibly sore but I was dressed pretty, dad gum it.

Coughing and hacking and sneezing during all silent portions of the evening added to everyone's enjoyment of the music, I'm sure. The evening was a jazz thing that showcased the top three high school bands from the morning's competition and many of the professionals who had judged the groups. Kids behind us had played that morning but were not playing that evening and clearly knew their stuff. One kid was amazed during a sax solo. The saxophonist was playing something multi-tonal. Apparently this should be incredibly impressive. Quite honestly, it sounded like crap to me. Then again, I was listening as if underwater I was so stuffed up and I'm completely non-musical at the best of times so... Although I may have been congested from my eyeballs to my toes, I still heard the reedy whifflings by that same saxophonist and I know that those can't be good no matter that he can pull of the discordant to me multi-tonal thing. Lest you think I can only be grouchy and snarky when I am sick (99% true, incidentally), I will say that Amazing Grace played by Wycliffe Gordon, Marcus Printup, and Marcus Roberts was absolutely the most awe inspiring piece of music I've ever heard in my life. The minute they finished, the whole audience was on its feet. And the concert should really have ended on that note. Unfortunately for my highly contagious and plague-y self, it didn't.

The next night, rather than being smart and babying my sick self, D. and I went to more music from the festival. This time it was bluegrass. We parked the car and as we headed out of the parking garage, I walked right off edge of sidewalk and fell flat. Good thing I refuse to be ladylike and wear nylons because I scraped the snot out of my knees. More importantly, I looked like an idiot. Lesson learned: nevermind operating heavy machinery when under the influence of heavy duty drugs, don't even try to walk unaided. (And I'll pretend I wasn't the one who drove us downtown that night too.) Sitting in the chairs in the auditorum made the plague hit again full force so I once again accompanied the musicians with my very own nose trumpet. Catering to my misery, we left at half time (or intermission for those of you who are not my sports-minded husband or father).

The major reason we had pushed to get to Savannah when we did was to celebrate my grandmother's 90th birthday (and my nephew's 1st). Not wanting to cause E. a heart attack, we told her we were having a surprise party for her. The beauty of some memory loss: by the time people started walking in, it was a pleasant surprise to her again. My sister S. and I got a kick out of the birthday cake as my mother had asked for chocolate roses. They looked just like cow patties on the cake. Good thing the kids don't care how appetizing cake looks as long as it is chock full of sugar and butter. After food, we trooped downstairs for a puppet show that my mom had won in a charity auction. Normally the puppet show travels to schools and presents to kids about music (see the theme from the weekend?). They didn't alter the show at all and so it was one of those mind numbingly dull educational shows that kids welcome at school if only to get out of class for a few precious minutes (and I was one of the kids in school with a *good* attitude!). I think the old folks enjoyed it though. Mom had discovered that the retirement home wouldn't charge her for the room if she opened the show to all residents so we had the whole gamut of oldsters there. We are nothing if not cheap and resourceful in our family. ;-) Personally I think borrowing somebody's cane and thwacking the puppets over the heads would have livened the whole thing up, but no one else seemed to have the attention span of a gnat during the show. Maybe I was still just sick and crabby (entirely possible) or maybe I'm correct about the mind-numbing (I prefer this option).

After all the birthday festivities and Easter egg hunting and whatnot was all through, we settled down to stay for another week, especially since my dad was having an operation. You'd think this would mean that we would be nice to him. Au contraire. I told a few people he was having cosmetic surgery (you're welcome dad) and chewed him out for being a lousy patient. I think I'm probably officially out of the will now. Maybe my sister had the right idea, leaving before he went under the knife! My kids are likely out of the will too as they had one of their favorite conversations about who in the family has hair. (Why this fascinates them, even at their advanced ages, I don't know but the boys should watch out because they too will sport chrome domes one day unless the hospital switched them at birth with some less follically challenged family's kids.) Anyway, T. said my dad didn't have hair. My mom protested that he did. W. agreed: "On his back." Yup. You're welcome S., you and your kids will be inheriting everything!

Since dad was out of commission, I went to a fancy party with my mom. We toured the house in which the party was held and I spent most of my time looking at the bookshelves instead of the artwork that was supposed to be being highlighted. The folks that owned the house had kids about 10 years younger than I am. How do I know this? The kids' book originals they had saved for their grandchildren were just past my time. My mother who is used to my weirdness about books and bookshelf snooping, laughingly reported this to the lady of the house, who appeared to think I was mildly boring as a result. She got us back later by making us look at her daughter's high school graduation album though so we were officially even as that made me think she was also mildly boring. No wonder the bookishly socially backward (me) don't get invited to these kinds of shindigs very often--not to mention that we (also me) are most likely to dress in black pants and a white blouse, making us (still me) virtually indistinguishable from the wait-staff.

Most of the rest of the spring break we just hung around the house making sure someone was around to harass daddy into getting out of bed and walking around like he was supposed to be doing. The kids said he looked like an oompa-loompa with his goofy post-op bonnet on. I think he looked like he'd lost a fist fight with a shovel. When not endearing myself to the cantankerous patient, I sat around and read. The kids finally begged to do something so we drove out to Tybee Island the day before we left. In all the years we've been visiting my parents, we've gone out to Tybee a grand total of twice. The traffic has something to do with it (it's ugly) but my dislike of sand is also a factor. We circled looking for parking for quite some time and finally found a spot for less than $20. There was even time left on the meter. (Remember the resourceful and cheap thing in my DNA?) So I added my few quarters and told the kids we had an hour with which to play. It was windy and chilly on the beach. The kids went in the water while I sat wishing for a down blanket. Does this make me a real southerner now? Shaking my head at the crazy Yankees who were apparently unaware it was too cold to be sitting there in a bathing suit? Actually shivering occasionally? OK, probably not, but I think I'm getting there. The current kept pulling the kids way down the beach so I was very grateful when our hour was up and we headed back to the car, sandy and with a stinky shell collection.

The next day we packed everything up and braved the journey home. 95 proved to have several delays again as we rubber-necked past some more impressive accidents. But at least the President was off tying up traffic in some other city by the time we got back. Since we've been home so long, the laundry is finished and put away and one of these days I'll work up the motivation to take down the Easter decorations too. It may take until the Fourth of July decorations have to go up, but I'm workin' on it. Oh, and as for my dad and his recovery, he had to have the surgery again on one eye since only one healed like it should have. Bet he was spectacularly pleasant after cosmetic surgery take two. ;-) (OK, it wasn't really cosmetic, it was necessary but he got the equivalent of a face lift out of it so I can give him grief--plus he bequeathed me the same condition so watching him is just watching my future and if I can't laugh at myself...).

Review: The Gravedigger's Cottage by Chris Lynch

The McLuckies, dad, Sylvia, and Walter, have moved to a new town for a new start hoping to leave their bad luck and overarching sadness behind them. But they've moved into the locally known Gravedigger's Cottage, ironic given their frequent losses to death: Sylvia's mother, half brother Walter's mother, and a veritable plethora of pets. The McLuckies are mostly self-contained, sheltering with each other away from the rest of the world, until Walter welcomes an odd local child into their midst as his friend. It is the advent of the outside into thier home that highlights just how thin the thread that holds them is. The story is told by fourteen year old Sylvia and is fairly unrelentingly dark. The chapters alternate between the disintegrating psychological state of Mr. McLuckie accompanied by the distress of the kids and brief vignettes about each pet they've had and how it eventually, generally accidentally, met its death. There is a creepiness and morbidity to the book that is unrelieved by the easy and redemptive ending because it is too abrupt to banish the feel of the book up to that point.

Although this is a young adult book so I am not the target audience anyway, I found it very difficult to immerse myself in the story and more bothered than anything else by the characterizations. It was hard to be sympathetic towards any of the characters. It just felt off-kilter most of the time. Perhaps the middle school audience for whom I was pre-screening it will be more receptive to it than I was.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Review: Charming the Highlander by Janet Chapman

Grace Sutter's unmarried sister was returning to her boyfriend from Grace's house when she was in a terrible car accident. After the accident and giving birth prematurely to her tiny son, she succumbs to her injuries but not before extracting Grace's promise to return the baby to his father, the man Mary had fled before he knew she was pregnant. Grace puts her career as a rocket scientist in jeopardy to do just that despite her misgivings. And then the plane taking her back to the tiny and remote Maine village where she and her siblings grew up crashes on a mountainside. Grace and Baby survive because of the help of Greylen MacKeage.

Unbeknownst to Grace, or anyone else in the village, Greylen and his brothers are medieval Scottish warriors who have been tossed unceremoniously into the twenty-first century by a wizard eager to find and train his heir. Since Greylen is to father the babe with a modern woman, he has been brought foward in time although Greylen himself remains in ignorance of the reason. He feels an immediate connection to Grace and she to him, even before the crash. But the baby Grace claims is hers (what's a lie or two amongst destined lovers?) and with whom she is traveling will test their destined love. Baby is Mary Sutton's son by Greylen's sworn enemy Michael MacBain and she had initally fled Michael when he told her of the storm that transported him from the 1100's to present day. This fact is something that Greylen had never intended to share with anyone and that Grace thinks Michael is possibly insane because of his tale doesn't help matters. And while Greylen might admire Grace's spunk, intelligence, and drive, when she asks him to put aside his enmity to help out MacBain in return for her helping him, he is torn.

The tension between the main characters is pretty electric and although it is of the immediate, at first sight variety, the hardships that Grace and Greylen suffer together, bonding them closely, help to alleviate some of the skepticism that normally accompanies the love at first sight thing for me. I'm not a huge fan of time travel but it isn't overplayed here. I was disappointed in the dramatic, and somewhat nonsensical denouement as a result of Grace's highly charged job and the corporate secrets with which she and she alone seems to understand. That bit strained credulity even more than the time travel plot line. But overall, most romance readers who like a good Scottish warrior and fantasize about one living in the present day will appreciate this light and quick read.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Review: How High the Moon by Sandra Kring

It's small town America in the 1950's and Isabella, nicknamed Teaspoon, is in danger of failing fifth grade. She is imaginative and endearing, naive and plainly outspoken, outrageously talkative and fiercely loving. Living with Teddy, her mother's ex-boyfriend, the man her mother left her with five years ago when she went off to Hollywood to follow her dreams without regard to her daughter's welfare, Teaspoon may be a figure that should be pitied, but she's got charm and spunk to spare. Teddy turns out to be a good man and wonderful father to Teaspoon, even if he struggles to find the money to keep going, and Teaspoon wants to honor his goodness to her by becoming a better person herself, becoming a lady. Her only frame of reference for doing so though, is her elderly next door neighbor who has recently been landed with the care of her great-grandson, a seemingly insipid child just younger than Teaspoon, and the Taxi Cab Ladies, prostitutes whom Teaspoon has befriended (without quite knowing what they are, only understanding that they have a soft spot for her chatterbug self).

Rather grudgingly, Teaspoon allows her teacher to sign her up for a mentoring program called the Sunshine Sisters, which pairs young girls with older role models in the town. Teaspoon is claimed by town sweetheart Brenda Bloom after an unconventional meeting in the town's movie theater, a place beloved by Teaspoon and owned by Brenda's mother. The summer and their mentoring meetings are taken up by preparations for a revue to re-open the renovated and expanded theater. Teaspoon and Brenda are central to these plans and the events that happen in the lead up. Through it all Teaspoon doesn't stop wishing for her mom to come home and take up with Teddy again, she befriends Charlie, the neighbor's great-grandson whom she earlier disdained, and she dreams of her own big singing break.

Teaspoon narrates the entire novel so the reader is treated to her misunderstanding of people and events and charmed by her naivete even when certain things are perfectly clear to the adult reader. Certainly there are times that Teaspoon can be irritating and persistent and the other characters acknowledge this but it just makes her voice as a 10 year old girl that much more authentic. Sometimes she is world weary as only young who have seen more than their far share can be. And it is these variations in her character that make her such a delight to read. The storyline isn't precisely filled with surprises but that's easy to forgive in such a hopeful and endearing novel. I enjoyed every page of this adventure with Teaspoon and found myself smiling at the smallest of things as I read: her fierce crush on the older neighbor, learning to consider and honor Charlie's feelings about her mother's piano, her proprietary air toward Brenda when sparring with Brenda's mother, and her solution to the scuffed up new shoes she's supposed to wear for the revue. I could go on and on mentioning these little instances that create her character out of lovely whole cloth but I'll refrain. Instead, I will say that this is a wonderful book and I'm infinitely happy to have had the chance to read it.

My thanks to the author for providing me with a review copy of the novel.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Review: The Sweet By and By by Todd Johnson

Todd Johnson has written a moving tale of what it means to grow older, facing not only the end of a life, but also of the physical and mental infirmities that often times accompany and dehumanize the elderly in so many small ways. In drawing his portraits of the five main characters, compassionate nursing home LPN Lorraine, demanding Margaret whose body has become a traitor to her will, Bernice who has retreated most of the time into dementia in order to escape her overwhelming grief, Rhonda who intends for her hairdressing job at the retirement home to be a fleeting occasion but who learns about love and caring from her ladies there, and Lorraine's daghter April who not only dares to dream but works to make her dreams a reality, Johnson has created a gentle and bittersweet novel.

Narrated in the voices of four of the five women, Johnson has not only managed to write one believable female character but to write five of them. He weaves humor and pathos in equal measure and quietly focuses on the indignities of aging that come for all of us lucky enough to accumulate many years on this planet of ours. There is no shying away from the ways in which aging isn't pretty or comfortable or easy. And there is a definite ackowledgment of the rage against the inevitable. But as the narrative runs throughout the years of these women's lives, their attitudes, their kindnesses, and the love that they show each other highlight the ways in which we can all maintain dignity and spunk to the very end no matter how bowed the bodies and how forgetful the minds.

Anyone who has cared for an aging parent or grandparent will see the sharp reflections of truth in the everyday existences of these characters. While there might be no grand denouement, just the business of waking up every day and moving forward for these characters makes this a wonderful and poignant read. Often narrated in a bit of Southern dialect, the five women are quite different representations of Southern womenhood but they gell despite their differences and the result is a thoroughly Southern novel which will appeal to anyone who likes their novels with a bit of that trademarked Southern sass and verve. The book chronicles the quiet march of time and brings the reader to care deeply for all the women as they age and especially as the elders leave the stage to the increasingly stooped middle generation. Johnson has truly created a quiet gem of a novel.

Todd Johnson's website

Todd Johnson's blog


Todd Johnson has a wonderful new video that was just released.

Also, he’s currently on a Southern tour right now. If you are anywhere near Raleigh, NC today, Fairhope, AL on Apr. 22, or Litchfield, CT on May 13, you can meet the author himself. A link to the full tour is here.

Todd Johnson will be on Blog Talk Radio with Book Club Girl on April 26, 2010 at 4pm EST. Be sure to tune in and listen.

Thanks to Trish at TLC Book Tours for sending me a review copy of this book.

And although Mr. Johnson now lives in Connecticut, he was born, raised, and attended college in North Carolina so I am claiming him for the Literary Road Trip. It doesn't hurt that the book is also set in NC as well.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Giveaway: The Ocean Between Us by Susan Wiggs

Book Synopsis:

Steve Bennett is a perfect navy officer with a perfect navy family and he's confident that his world is just the way it should be. But his son wants to be an artist instead of attending the U.S. Naval Academy , and his stalwart and capable wife of 20 years, Grace, is tired of being the perfect navy wife. She wants her own home, and she wants her own career. She's feeling altogether unsettled, but nothing is more unsettling than the secret her husband has hidden from her their entire marriage. Nothing, that is, until the accident on the carrier.

Learn more on Susan Wigg's website.

Doesn't this sound wonderful? Thanks to the very generous folks at Big Honcho Media you could win this book and a $25 Visa gift card! That's right. One person will win the book and the giftcard both. Two other readers will win copies of the book. Pretty spectacular, I'd say!

To enter, leave a comment below with a way to contact you if you win. Contest is open through May 3rd.

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Computer is still messing with my life and kiddie activities took over all my reading time this week. Pah! So I got about nothing finished on the reading and very little on the reviewing front. Better luck next week. This meme is hosted by Sheila at One Person's Journey Through a World of Books.

Books I completed this week are:

The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff

Bookmarks are still living in the middle of:

The Far Pavilions by M.M. Kaye
Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens
Great Lakes Nature by Mary Blocksma (this is going to take me all year as I read her year's entries on the corresponding days of this year)
Venetia Kelly's Traveling Show by Frank Delaney
Nana by Emile Zola
The Sweet By and By by Todd Johnson

Reviews posted this week:

Alexandra, Gone by Anna McPartlin
How Clarissa Burden Learned to Fly by Connie May Fowler
Sweater Quest by Adrienne Martini
Into the Tangle of Friendship by Beth Kephart
The Blue Yonder by Alex Shearer

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

The Gravedigger's Cottage by Chris Lynch
A Rather Lovely Inheritance by C.A. Belmond
Dancing in Red Shoes Will Kill You by Dorrian Cirrone
The Gin Closet by Leslie Jamison
The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff

Giveaway on the blog this week:
Check out my next post for a giveaway of Susan Wiggs' The Ocean Between Us!

Monday Mailbox

I have been incredibly spoiled this past week by the absolute April shower of books arriving practically daily around here. That's a sure sign that one of my annual commitments reading-wis is ramping up again. Here's hoping I can keep up with the stream of books! Or at least have them read by the time they should be read. This past week's mailbox arrivals:

Molly Fox's Birthday by Deirdre Madden came from the publisher.
A novel of friendship and the ways that we remain unknown even to those close to us, this sounds like it could be very thoughtful.

Blame by Michelle Huneven came from the publisher.
I have heard great things about this novel of a college professor who awakens from a bender to find she's run down and killed a woman and her daughter.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell came from the publisher.
I have read and been impressed with other Mitchell books so this historical fiction set in Japan really piqued my interest.

Juliet by Anne Fortier came from the publisher.
Invoke Shakespeare and you've likely got me good. Have a modern day woman inherit a key to a safey-deposit box, leading her to information about her famous relative, the woman who inspired *that* Juliet and actually loved *that* Romeo, and I'm probably yours for life.

College in a Nutskull by Anders Henriksson came from the publisher.
My teenager grabbed this when he saw it and scarpered off with it. I just hope he realizes that this is a parody of a study guide with loads of hilarious misinformation in it and he doesn't think that he's learning anything for school from it!

Between Friends by Kristy Kiernan came from Kathryn at Berkley/NAL.
Mothers, daughters, friends, and the way that a genetic illness can change the baby plans and the lifes of everyone. This sounds just up my aley.

On Folly Beach by Karen White came from Joy at Joan Schulhafer Publishing and Media.
A bookstore, a beach, and love letters, how could this be anything but wonderful? I will add that a nasty postal machine chewed up this package and book. But when I flipped through it, I was delighted to see that the damage is all confined to the gutters so I can read it without fear of having a large chunk of text missing. :-)

Just Like Me, Only Better by Carol Snow came from Joy at Joan Schulhafer Publishing and Media.
A romantic comedy where a newly single mom, the doppelganger of a famous actress, ends up posing as the actress for publicity outings set up by the actress' manager. A different look into celebrity life, this one sounds like a lot of fun.

The Hundred Foot-Journey by Richard Morais came from the Rose Marie at Inkwell Management.
An Indian family opens a restaurant in France an subsequently ends up in a feud with another local restauranteur. I just want to eat up the description of this one because it sounds absolutey marvelous!

Eternal on the Water by Joseph Monninger came from the publisher.
I've already reviewed this one at here.

Little Bee by Chris Cleave came from the publisher.
The utter lack of information and shroud of secrecy surrounding this one, even in reviews, is enticing.

Honolulu by Alan Brennert came from the publisher.
I've read Brennert's work before and enjoyed it. Add to that the whole picture bride idea, which has always held some fascination for me, and of course I would be interested in this book.

A Mountain of Crumbs by Elena Gorokhova came from the publisher.
A memoir written by a woman who grew up in the Societ Union yet was fascinated by the English language, this will be very different than many of the memoirs I have read over the years.

Spaceheadz by Jon Scieszka and Francesco Sedita came from the publisher.
The first in a new series about a boy who goes off to his first day in a new school, in a new town and meets up with aliens, this one has all the hallmarks of high entertainment for my 8 year old.

Lunatic Express by Carl Hoffman came from Michael at Regal Literary.
I really do love travel books and how fantastic is one that has the author traveling around the world by the most dangerous transports he can find? I'm glad I can armchair travel with this one rather than boarding an over-crowded ferry somewhere!

As always, if you'd like to see the marvelous goodies in other people's mailboxes, make sure to visit Marcia at The Printed Page and enjoy seeing how we are all doing our part to keep the USPS and delivery services viable.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Sunday Salon: Books in busy weekends

This was a dance competition weekend for my daughter, R. I don't know if you've ever been to a dance competition before so I'll draw you a bit of a picture. First, you find out when your child needs to be at the host venue. This means when she (or he, if you have a boy so inclined) not only needs to be there but needs to be ready to go on stage. Typically this runs anywhere from an hour to two ahead of when the venue itself has said your child will go on stage. This weekend that meant that we drove several hours, checked into a hotel and endured the most miserable night of sleep I think I've ever had. Sharing a bed with my tossing, turning, tooth-grinding, hair flipping, bed hog of a child is never fun. Paper-thin hotel walls, outside road traffic, an impossibly loud air conditioner, and some sort of intermittent drilling noise just outside the window (maybe someone else's air conditioner?) didn't improve my sleeplessness. The alarm went off at 6:30 so we could make a 7am call time although I'd been awake since 4:30. We sleepwalked our way to the dressing room and I proceded to plaster my beautiful daughter with more make-up than you find at the local cosmetics counter. Since it was so early, when I went to put her fake eyelashes on, I managed to glue her eyes shut. Not my best show. But finally she was costumed and painted and ready to go so we sat around for more than an hour.

You'd think during this "sitting around waiting time" I would have been able to read, right? Well, not really. The waiting is usually done in the auditorium so that you can show support for the other dancers by watching their solos as well. And it's dark in there. Plus I am still getting to know many of the other parents and I'm not eager to be known as the anti-social mom. Once they know me, I won't care. ;-) So the solo finally rolled around and it wasn't great. R.'s teacher had changed a portion of it just two days prior and so R. forgot the changes, pausing while looking like a deer in headlights on stage. She pulled it together and continued onwards and finished it without a breakdown though so she's clearly more emotionally advanced than her mother is. At her age, I would have been in tears.

After the solo there was a barge-load more waiting time interrupted by lunch and the awards ceremony for the solos. Still no reading accomplished during this time because it was too loud (think nightclub with twee music choices) and dark in the auditorium, too weird to sit in the dressing room amongst half undressed pre-pubescent (and some not so pre) girls with a book in my lap, and too windy to sit outside in the chill sun. Color me enormously bored. So I did what any self respecting book loving mother would do, I dumped my kid on another parent and walked off to search out the famous, local independent bookstore for a good browse. Score! Four books richer, I ambled back to the auditorium feeling at least partially refreshed.

Three costume changes for R.'s group numbers later, it was time to leave. I hadn't read one thing besides a menu all day long and I was exhausted but at least I'd managed to sink into a bookish atmosphere for a brief moment or two. Today isn't looking promising for reading either given the two tennis matches the boys have scheduled, but maybe I can take a book to stroke lovingly or something so I don't suffer complete and total book withdrawal.

I only managed one book journey this past week, eavesdropping on the fight to outlaw polygamy in historic Utah and the search for the truth about a murder in a modern day polygamist sect. All other bookmarks stayed sadly abandonned and stagnant.

Review: The Great Blue Yonder by Alex Shearer

I don't generally read a load of YA books but when the middle school librarian asked me to read and review some for her, I was more than happy to oblige so I picked out a whole stack of goodies and promptly ignored them. Now that the school year is starting to wind down, I thought I should get the book read, reviewed and returned in time for some of the kids to have a crack at them before summer comes and they have to wait for the fall for these particular books.

Narrated by 12 year old Harry after he is hit by a truck and dies, this is an interesting and ultimately upbeat book. Harry wanders around the Other Side, roaming through the adults who have died and meeting another young boy who has been dead for 150 years. The two pair up as Harry learns his way around the afterlife, even as he wonders about the Great Blue Yonder marked on the map he was given the day he arrived. Instinctively he knows that he cannot move on until he finishes his business on earth, notably forgiving his sister for her harsh words before he died and in turn forgiving hers back to him. Just before he raced off on his bike and was hit, his sister Eggy had told him she wished he would die and he said she'd be sorry when he was dead. Certainly not the last words you want to ever say to a loved one on either side. And so as he and his buddy Arthur zip around the Other Side trying to find Arthur's mother, Harry ponders how he can indeed apologize and free Eggy and himself. When Harry and Arthur go back to Earth, they look in on Harry's old school, his best friend, his enemy, and his family and Harry learns some truths about who he was in life and how his absence has affected everyone and it's not exactly as he's imagined it.

Shearer keeps the tone of the story light and Harry's active imagination, even post-death, is entertaining. Harry is very definitely a 12 year old boy with all that that entails and so middle schoolers will definitely relate to him and his anxieties. The other characters are really incidental to Harry's quest to make things right and we only ever see them through his immature eyes but his dawning understanding of life and his earthly relationships makes this dead character experience believable growth. The moral of the story is well handled and doesn't overwhelm the charming character of Harry or of his experiences after death on the Other Side and back on Earth. A quick read about an unusual situation, this will offer a pleasant variety to most middle school libraries.

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