Thursday, March 31, 2011

Review: The Puzzle King by Betsy Carter

I can't begin to imagine leaving my country and immigrating to another as an unaccompanied child. My own children would forget their heads if they weren't firmly attached to their bodies. And yet countless numbers of children were hugged and kissed by their mothers and fathers and put on a boat to America in search of a better life and more opportunity than they could ever hope to have staying where they were. Betsy Carter has taken family lore and woven a story for two such children who grew up to live the immigrant's dream and to help countless others escape the gathering clouds of WWII.

The novel opens with the beautiful Flora Phelps standing in line at the American consulate in Stuttgart, Germany determined to get her family out of Hitler's Germany and setting the stage for the tale of Flora and husband Simon's lives as immigrants from Lithuania and Germany respectively. The story then immediately drops back in time to just before he turn of the century and switches focus to introduce little Simon Phelps. His widowed mother worked for months to be able to send 9 year old Simon to America, a place full of the opportunities that his native Vilna didn't hold. When she kissed him goodbye, she told him that she and all of his siblings would join him when he was grown and had a house. And so this artistic young boy travelled across an ocean and stumbled upon a boarding house of good people and set about making his way in this new world, working and going to school both.

Meanwhile, Flora Grossman also emigrated to America, sent as a girl from Germany to live with her older sister in the home of her mother's relatives. She is raised in relative comfort and easily assimilates into her new country, although unlike her older sister she does not try to hide or deny her Jewish heritage. Going to a dance with her sister one night, she meets the sweet and shy Simon Phelps and ultimately marries the talented and innovative man.

Simon's phenomenal success in the advertising business doesn't entirely hide the sorrow he feels at being unable to locate any of his family back in Vilna and so Simon embraces Flora's family wholeheartedly. As they are unable to have their own children, they dote on Flora's niece Edith, inviting her to come to them from Germany to recover well from a serious illness. Through Edith's eyes, the austerity of Germany post-WWI and the hardships faced, especially by the Jews, are terribly evident and in complete contrast to the life that Simon and Flora live in America. All is not perfect for them either as anti-Semitism continues to rear its ugly head. But it is what is not said in younger sister Margot's letters from Germany that is most alarming. As the news becomes more and more troubling, the narrative picks up speed racing to the conclusion foreshadowed in the prologue.

As a story of immigrants, this is a familiar one: person comes to America and through hard work becomes a phenomenal success. What is unusual is the mournful looking backward towards the family left behind or lost. The desire to be reunited drives the plot through decades, even before liberating their Jewish families becomes a matter of life and death. The beginning and middle of the book are evenly paced and solidly written. The ending is much more rushed and scantily written, leaving it feeling slightly imcomplete. Perhaps Carter felt more able to elaborate and flesh out the tale when there was no family history available to her and was more constrained once she reached the point where history takes up again. Flora and Simon were both lovely characters complete with the small personality quirks that made them fully realized and realistic. And Carter has captured beautifully the desire for assimilation felt so strongly by many immigrants in the enticing and ultimately sad character of Flora's glamorous sister Seema. The importance of family, the forces that shape us, and what drives us to rise above the ordinary are all here between these pages offering book clubs a wealth of discussion topics. Those interested in the immigrant experience, in the air in America prior to WWII, and Jewish life from the turn of the century until the eve of Hitler's ultimate dominance will also enjoy this read.

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

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Wendy Wax's Kindle giveaway

Wendy Wax wants to give you a Kindle. Well, I hope she wants to give it to me actually. But she's giving one away to one lucky person on Facebook. And because I'm nice enough to share how to win (in hopes that you'll already have one and want to give your winning entry to me) let me pass along this press release: There’s just one more day left! Wendy Wax, author of MAGNOLIA WEDNESDAYS and the new novel TEN BEACH ROAD , out in May, is getting ready to give away an Amazon Kindle Wi-Fi. It comes loaded with one of her most popular books, THE ACCIDENTAL BESTSELLER. Just “like” Wendy by going to and clicking on the Kindle or go directly to Wendy’s Facebook page. The promotion ends on Thursday, 3/31/11.

Review: More and More by Stella Cameron

I feel badly about this. I've heard really good things about Stella Cameron. I even think I've read her books before. But I really disliked this book. A lot. There was almost nothing that made me happy to have read it. Honestly, I'm only happy to have read it so I can clear it off the shelf to make room for a book I'll like. I hate reading experiences that leave me feeling this way.

The historical-set romance opens with an unnamed narrator addressing the reader and telling of his (the narrator's) horror of the fact that his family has allowed boarders into 7 Mayfair Place and of his intention to rid the house of these undeserving, paying folk. Then the tale bumps into gear as Finch More is introduced. She is a 29 year old spinster who lives with her head in the clouds brother as they try to make their way as owners of a small import company. Their biggest client is also their next door neighbor, Ross, Viscount Kilrood. He is an antiquities afficianado but is also involved in some serious foreign intrigue that endangers both the Mores and himself and holds the fate of a small South East Asian country in the balance.

At the start of the story, Finch is accosted and given a strange message that chills Ross down to the bone, knowing that he is the intended recipient of the message. And so begins his vigil to get close to Finch, who is not only in danger but also attracts him like no other woman ever has. While he and Finch alternately argue heatedly and tease and titillate each other, Finch's brother is kidnapped by the baddies. Not content to be waiting at home to hear that he has been saved, Finch insists on helping to rescue him. Ross is dismissive of her skills as a woman but Finch is ridiculously headstrong and thoughtless as a bull in a china shop. The tension of where her brother is is broken up by incredibly steamy sex scenes. And the whole tale is this way. Ross and Finch have only known each other briefly and not well at all before they are panting and lapping at each other only to be interrupted by the pesky detail that they still don't know where Finch's brother is.

The novel as a whole only spans a few desperate days so everything about the relationship is rushed and lust-spiked. Love? Well, the narration tells us it is true love but there's no evidence of that that I read. And our initial narrator? Well, it turns out he's the ghostly ancestor of the owners of 7 Mayfair Place. He interjects himself into the narrative with regularity, making the tale choppy and just generally causing the reader annoyance. Really, this was just not the book for me and I shudder to think there might be more in the series lurking on my shelves for me to read.

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.

For me, I can't wait to read: Say Her Name by Francisco Goldman. The book is being released by Grove Press on April 5, 2011.

Amazon says this about the book: In 2005, celebrated novelist Francisco Goldman married a beautiful young writer named Aura Estrada in a romantic Mexican hacienda. The month before their second anniversary, during a long-awaited holiday, Aura broke her neck while body surfing. Francisco, blamed for Aura’s death by her family and blaming himself, wanted to die, too. Instead, he wrote Say Her Name, a novel chronicling his great love and unspeakable loss, tracking the stages of grief when pure love gives way to bottomless pain.

Suddenly a widower, Goldman collects everything he can about his wife, hungry to keep Aura alive with every memory. From her childhood and university days in Mexico City with her fiercely devoted mother to her studies at Columbia University, through their newlywed years in New York City and travels to Mexico and Europe—and always through the prism of her gifted writings—Goldman seeks her essence and grieves her loss. Humor leavens the pain as he lives through the madness of grief and creates a living portrait of a love as joyous as it is deep and profound.

Say Her Name is a love story, a bold inquiry into destiny and accountability, and a tribute to Aura, who she was and who she would've been.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Review: Open Water Diver Manual by PADI

On my birthday trip, we got certified to scuba dive. One of the things you have to do to get fully certified is to read this manual. And yes, there are quizzes and even a final test on it so even though we knew that the chapter end questions were the most important, I read every last word of the thing. It's that "good girl" personality coming to the fore again.

In terms of an educational manual, this was rather interesting. Obviously there was much important information, stuff that would hopefully keep us safe and alive underwater but that's not all there was. There was also an extended sales pitch about the equipment parts to buy. I think it was unintentionally hilarious when the text kept mentioning that you could be a stylish diver, offering the fact that scuba wet suits, masks, and fins all come in a variety of colors. In other words, you don't have to be boring and wear all black. The sales pitch (vague and generalized as they weren't advocating a certain brand though) ran through most sections of the book. Of course, there was a lot of repetition in all areas so I guess that was to be expected. I know that repetition is a time honored teaching technique but boy howdy did it get boring. Then again, I suspect that if there's ever a difficulty underwater, I'll be glad to have a constant refrain running through my head so it serves a purpose. I am grateful that the book opened up the possibility of spending so much time in the underwater world for me but I wish it hadn't eaten up quite so much of my reading time to do it.

Review: Dangerous by Millie Criswell

Ethan Bodine is a Texas Ranger who has the hardest assignment of his career: he has to track and bring in his brother Rafe on a murder charge. Wilhelmina Granville, called Willy, a horticulturist turned bounty hunter, is also after Rafe, desperate for the reward money so she can save her aunts' home from foreclosure. A professional lawman and tracker and a green, innocent newly returned west after years in Boston would of course be destined to meet this way, right? Well, in this book they are and so not only do they meet up but Willy saves Ethan's life with the judicious use of a parasol poke to the eye. After that, Ethan's sense of justice and fair play keeps the two of them together as lust ratchets up and eventually blossoms forth as fully-fledged love, complete with misunderstandings and groveling.

Just about everything in this book is so completely unbelievable to the point that it becomes hard to read with a straight face. The sexual tension is pretty palpable almost from the get go. Willy's attitude about sex and specifically premarital sex is not typical of the era. Her blase acceptance of pregnancy outside of marriage is positively modern. She is certainly drawn as an early feminist but the characterization goes too far, making it impossible to believe her as a character of her time. It was also rather unbelievable that Willy, with no experience of tracking, would be able to be as quick and effective (and sometimes more so) than Ethan with his years of experience. Sometimes I can go with the flow on things like this but I couldn't do it with this book. Each additional farfetched moment served to rankle and irritate like a burr under a saddle blanket. Other people have really loved it but I was relieved to turn the last page and move on to the next read.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Review: When Summer's In the Meadow by Niall Williams and Christine Breen

I have heard it said that American tourists to Ireland are invariably tracing their relatives and that the Irish think we are an interesting lot given this geneological mania and subsequent identification as Irish ourselves thanks to our ancestors. I do indeed have Irish blood in my veins (my great-grandmother even had the requisite red hair and fair skin and I suspect she's the source of the freckles that were the bane of my existence as a child) but I don't know that that accounts for my attraction to all things Irish. I think rather that I've romanticized the vibrantly green hills and fields dotted with white sheep that dominate postcards of the country. And given that a British friend mentioned the sheer amount of rain necessary to keep those hills so beautifully green, I might just keep reading about the Emerald Isle rather than visiting it. Thankfully, visiting it in the pages of one of the books in this series is perfectly delightful.

The second book in the series, this is a charming continuation of Williams' and Breen's life in rural Ireland. In their first book, they chronicle their first year living on the small farm in Ireland that was once Christine's grandfather's, shedding their New York existence, and learning the rhythms of the land and farm in their tiny Irish hamlet. This second book then is a more settled account of this quietly fulfilling life they've chosen. Despite the overall feeling of contentment that blankets the writing, there are moments of unhappiness too because such is life. Christine is perhaps not as wedded to staying in Ireland forever as Niall seems to be and both of them are devastated by the news that they are unable to have children. Their decision to pursue adoption is considered, dreaded and anticipated, and becomes a strong thread running through their everyday narrative. There are still moments of learning as one year on the farm has not unveiled all the surprises of rural life and husbandry.

Written mostly by Williams with occasional entries and art work from Breen's diary, the book is a gentle and lovely read. Williams invites the reader not only into their lives but also into their hearts, sharing their deepest hopes and fears as they go through the adoption process. The descriptions of the farm, the animals, and daily life are well-drawn and easily pictured. The contrast of their life now with life in New York, highlighted by a return trip to the city when the first book is being published, serves to reconfirm their choice reminding them of the oftentimes harried, dazzling life they relinquished for their small patch of green Ireland. There is a calmness and a settled happiness to the writing here, offering the reader a quiet, peaceful read. I am quite looking forward to reading the next one.

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

This is actually more than a week's worth of stuff as I couldn't motivate myself to write up one of these last week for the day after we got home from vacation. I was too busy wishing we were still there! And now I am playing catch-up with my reading and reviewing and laundry. This meme is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.

Books I completed this week are:

Dangerous by Millie Criswell
Open Water Diver Manual by PADI
More and More by Stella Cameron
The Puzzle King by Betsy Carter
The Whistling Season by Ivan Doig
Playdate by Thelma Adams
Reading Lips by Claudia Sternbach
The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady by Elizabeth Stuckey-French

Bookmarks are still living in the middle of:

Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens
The Vagabond by Colette

Reviews posted this week:

The Beauty of Humanity Movement by Camilla Gibb
Letters From Home by Kristina McMorris
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
The Perfect Wife by Lynsay Sands

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

The Puzzle King by Betsy Carter
The Whistling Season by Ivan Doig
Playdate by Thelma Adams
Reading Lips by Claudia Sternbach
The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady by Elizabeth Stuckey-French

Monday Mailbox

Rather more than a week's goodies, all but the last four listed were waiting for me in a teetering pile when I got home from my wonderful birthday trip. I have a lot of fantastic reading ahead of me (as if I didn't already!). This past week's mailbox arrival:

The Sandalwood Tree by Elle Newmark came from Atria.
Set in the final year of the British Raj, this story of a crippled marriage and a Victorian love affair was wonderful. I've already reviewed it here.

Mothers and Daughters by Rae Meadows came from Henry Holt.
A mother, daughter generational story, I can't wait to wallow in this one.

Catfish Alley by Lynne Bryant came from NAL Trade.
Southern fiction is always on my radar and this one about an African-American historical tour through a small Mississippi town looks fascinating.

Quiet Chaos by Sandro Veronesi came from Ecco.
I am a sucker for water on the cover of a book. That the main character saves a woman from drowning just amps up my interest level.

Heart of Deception by M.L. Malcolm came from Harper Paperbacks thanks to Trish at TLC Book Tours.
A father's search for the daughter he sent to safety during WWII forms the basis for this novel. And since I have been reading a fair number of books that have WWII either in the foreground or background lately, this fits nicely with my current reading choices.

The Violets of March by Sarah Jio came from Plume thanks to the author.
The cover alone would have grabbed me with this one. A plot about a woman rebuilding her once glittering life and discovering an anonymous diary with connections to her own life made it impossible to refuse a book so perfectly tailored to my tastes.

Reading Lips by Claudia Sternbach came from Unbridled Books for a blog tour.
A memoir of short essays all tied thematically by the concept of a kiss, this sounds like an interesting and unique way to write a book. Besides, I enjoy "regular people" memoirs, especially when they are well-written.

The Coffins of Little Hope by Timothy Schaffert came from Unbridled Books for a blog tour.
I do like stories set in small towns. Throw in characters described as off-beat and you've landed me without any struggle at all. This one has both as well as a publishing plot and a possible kidnapping. Could it be more intriguing?!

Tales of an African Vet by Roy Aronson came from the author.
A vet who works in Africa with wild animals? Lions and tigers and bears, oh my! Okay probably not any bears, but the concept of this book has me totally hooked.

The First Husband by Laura Dave came from the author.
I am always attracted to stories about the choices we do and don't make. And this one about a woman who thinks she's happy with one man but marries another when the first decides to take a break from their relationship has all the hallmarks of my favorites kinds of books.

Until Tuesday by Luis Carlos Montalvan came from Hyperion.
I'm quite certain I've mentioned before what an obsession I have with dog books. This one about a service dog who helps a war vet looks to be the kind of wonderful that I have come to expect when I see man's best friend on the cover of a book.

The Paperbark Shoe by Goldie Goldbloom came from Picador.
Italian prisoners of war during WWII sent to Australia who go to work on a remote farm and the family for whom they labor, this novel makes use of a bit of history I had no knowledge of and about which I am incredibly curious.

The Summer Without Men by Siri Hustvedt came from Picador.
Hustvedt usually has an interestingly different, cerebral take on love and I expect this novel about a women who is left by her husband, goes home to her hometown, and ends up teaching poetry at the local arts guild to live up to this.

Joy For Beginners by Erica Bauermeister came from Putnam.
I thoroughly enjoyed Bauermeister's previous book, The School of Essential Ingredients, so I'm curious to see how she handles this tale of women allowing an old friend who has survived cancer to challenge them to adventures and to choose those adventures for them.

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

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Sunday Salon: Reflections on another decade

My birthday was Tuesday. It was a big one. 40. A new decade. Obviously my life is a lot different than it was 40 years ago. But aside from the obvious things (really, what baby has wrinkles and grey hair?), there's an awful lot about me that hasn't changed significantly. By the time I was three years old, I was a reader. I never destroyed books like so many of the other little troglodytes in preschool. Crayons never came near my books. I didn't tear them. I was the only kid in elementary school to consistently practice the proper way to hold and carry a book, not because it was taught but because it was intuitive. Maybe I was a librarian in a former lifetime?

I mourned when the very first book I learned to read went missing. My mom still claims that she didn't sell it or throw it out and I still don't believe her. When I was in high school, I paid a local bookstore to search for another copy of the book for me since it was long out of print. I spent my hard earned babysitting money to find The B Book by Stan and Jan Berenstain. I didn't like babysitting and I really didn't like kids so it took me a long time to afford to pay for the search (this was before the advent of the internet and how easy it all is now). But books were that important to me even then. Of course, if I had had a bit of patience, I could have waited until my own children were little (see how I've changed?--now I only don't like other people's children--mine are generally okay) and we joined the Berenstain Bears Monthly Book Club or some such thing and snagged the copy that came for them one month (it's back in print again).

When I called home from college to say that I'd declared my major, no one had to ask what it was; dad just wanted to know what on earth I planned to do with an English degree post-schooling. He probably would have been unimpressed if I admitted I just wanted to read a lot and had no idea what I would really do with it. Actually, I suspect he knew but he also knew that I was a reader and always would be and to argue otherwise would just make all of us unhappy.

Every stage of my life has been defined by books. I can look at many of the books on my shelves and tell you how old I was when I bought them. You can track the evolution of my reading taste, from the love struck pre-teen to the literature major to the almost anything goes of my current life, scattered and crazy as it is. I still pull books off the shelf from other ages and stages of my life and quickly, easily, I slip back into the person I was when that book first intrigued me. It's much easier to find my younger self in books than it is in the mirror these days. And I have to say that oftentimes I find I'm not really that far removed from the girl I was, at least as long as I'm between the pages of some captivating read.

No matter what else changes in my life, books have been such a fundamental part of me forever that I think I must have a Dewey decimal number birthmark somewhere as yet undiscovered. It would only be fitting. Maybe I'll find it by the time I hit the next decade. In the meantime, share some book cake with me?

Review: The Perfect Wife by Lynsay Sands

Normally medieval-set historical romances are not my romances of choice. There's just altogether too much dirt and battle. But this particular book had enough humor, slapstick and otherwise, to leaven the difficult realities of life in the eleventh century.

Lady Avelyn is not a slight girl; she is a fully grown woman, rounded, comfortable and eminently skilled to be mistress of her own home, just the sort of woman her soon to be husband Paen wants to marry. However, she has spent so many years being bullied by her nasty cousins that she can only see faults, fretting that Paen will reject her upon first sight despite their long-standing betrothal. And so Avelyn, who had intended to lose weight for her wedding but hasn't managed to do so, allows her mother to bind her tightly and sew her into her wedding dress, which will, of course lead to disaster. It is stunts like this and others that lead Paen to decide that his new wife is sickly, frail, and completely accident-prone, something that worries him unduly.

Refreshingly, the misunderstandings between Paen and Avelyn do not lead to arguments but they continue to keep the newly married pair apart regardless as neither addresses the issues. And so these two, tentatively attracted to each other, fumble along getting to know one another even as Avelyn evades attempts on her life from an undiscovered source. This particular plot line is the one that provides the major plot climax and enables Avelyn and Paen to finally see each other. The scenes between Avelyn and Paen are a bit more humorous than sexy but they are likable characters overall and it is rather nice to be able to laugh at the stress of getting to know your spouse only after the wedding. A light read, fans who like a little less seriousness in their historical romances will find this quite appealing.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Review: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

I am probably the last person on earth to have read this novel. The buzz surrounding it has been massive and sustained ever since it was released. It's one of those books that has been responsible for so many adults turning to YA books as recent reading trends would indicate. Everyone I know who has read it absolutely raves about it. And perhaps all of this combined to raise my expectations to insupportable levels but I just didn't love this book. I found it simplistic and didn't find myself wowed to my great disappointment.

Set at some unspecified time in the future, in the place where the US (and possibly Canada and Mexico) used to exist, this teenaged dystopian novel weds the current fascination with reality tv and brutal, to-the-death competition. Every year The Capitol chooses by lottery a boy and a girl to represent each of the remaining 12 Districts (District 13 is apparently a wasteland after their unadvisable rebellion against The Capitol) in the Hunger Games. The idea is that these kids will fight to the death, leaving only one standing and reminding the Districts of the futility and high cost of further rebellion. To the winner and to the District from which the contestant comes will accrue many accolades and perks. Katniss is from District 12, one of the poorest districts, a place that has known famine and desperation almost its entire existence. Her father was killed in a mine explosion when she was small and she has turned to hunting illegally to help her mother and sweet-natured younger sister survive. When her sister Prim's name is during the reaping as the female tribute to the Games, Katniss volunteers to take her place. The male tribute from District 12 is Peeta, the baker's son who once upon a time saved Katniss from starving and who has long had feelings for her.

And so the two presumed sacrificial teens (District 12 almost never produces a winner) head to The Capitol to take part in the pomp and gore of the pre-Games and Game themselves. Their handlers present them spectacularly and market them as a love story, hopefully earning them sponsors who will help them during the Games with potentially lifesaving gifts. And then Katniss and Peeta must face the murderous intent of the other competitors, all of whom are in the fight of their lives, killing or being killed. As they hunt each other down, alliances are formed and broken, survival skills are tested, and inner strength is made manifest.

The characters, aside from Katniss and Peeta, are mere sketches and very few of the other tributes are ever even mentioned by name or distinguished in any way. The handlers and previous District 12 winner are all given a few tantalizing comments but those hints of interest are never elaborated on (and a friend said that they are not followed up on in the following two books either) and so their motivations remain in shadow. Although the premise is that the tributes have to fight to the death, Katniss is saved from having to kill anyone she cares about and in fact, is given a mercy killing to perform, exempting her from most of the moral quandry that she seems to suffer anyway. I didn't find her a particularly likable character and her connection with Peeta seems almost entirely selfish. The political situation which has given rise to the Hunger Games remains a question as if it is enough to know that the situation exists without knowing anything else. However, that makes is rather hard to know what exactly it is that Katniss and Peeta are fighting against besides generalized inequality. Although this is but the first of a trilogy, I don't have any great burning desire to find out what happens to Katniss and Peeta as they continue to battle The Capitol as they surely must. I thoroughly liked Collin's younger reader series starting with Gregor the Overlander and found it far more original and intriguing than this one although countless numbers of folks disagree (including my entire bookclub).

Friday, March 25, 2011

Review: Letters From Home by Kristina McMorris

In this world of electronic communications, our correspondence with each other is very often fleeting, off the cuff, and once we hit the send button, despite archiving, generally lost to others. Before the advent of e-mail, people took the time to write letters, thoughtful and considered and very often saved and cherished. Kristina McMorris found just such a bundle of letters between her grandparents during WWII and her discovery planted the seed that would become her first novel.

Opening in the summer of 1944, this novel is a WWII-era Cyrano de Bergerac tale. Betty, Julia, and Liz are best friends and roommates. So when Betty has a gig singing at a USO dance, both Julia and Liz go to support her. Julia is engaged to Christian, who is fighting the war in the Navy and Liz is seriously dating Dalton, who is busy running his father's Senate campaign. Somehow Liz ends up meeting and dancing with Morgan McClain, who is on the eve of shipping out with his cut-up younger brother Charlie. They each feel an immediate connection but after Liz spies Morgan dancing with Betty later in the evening, she disappears home. What Liz doesn't know is that Betty has promised to write Morgan overseas and now she needs Liz's help with the first letter. Julia receives loving and wonderful letters from Christian and Betty decides that writing to Morgan is the way for her to receive letters like this too. But she isn't a writer like Liz and she essentially snookers Liz into the correspondence on her behalf.

But circumstances during wartime change rapidly, even on the homefront and soon Betty, searching for a sense of purpose, has enlisted as a WAC herself and been shipped out to New Guinea missing the arrival of Morgan's first reply. Liz tells herself that she can't quit writing to Morgan when he's defending the country and so she continues to write to him as Betty and feeling a growing emotion, perhaps even love, through their exchange even while she and Dalton get engaged. Interspersed with Liz's story and growing quandry are Morgan's, Julia's, and Betty's stories. Morgan's wartime experiences with his brother Charlie and the other guys in their unit tell of interminable waiting, unimaginable horror, and heartbreaking grief. Betty's story shows yet another side to the war, that of the women and nurses out in the field hospitals enduring terrible conditions and still offering comfort as best they can. Julia's story is perhaps is the most conventional, the sweetheart left at home, who can only hope, as she declines a fantastic professional opportunity and plans her wedding, that her love will come home to her safely.

All of the plot lines weave together nicely, rounding out the picture of life during the war from many different perspectives. Liz and Morgan's correspondence takes center stage as it not only enlarges their characters and advances the plot but it is also the catalyst for change and introspection that each of their characters would not have had the courage to undertake without the truth of the letters. Each of the three young women are delightfully different and well-constructed characters, as is Morgan. Dalton and Christian remain cyphers, despite their presence in the narrative, Dalton's presence more frequent than Christian's. Each of the characters is irretrievably changed by the end of the book, true not only because only because of their wartime experiences but because of the growth of their hearts over this same period.

Alternating the focus on different characters in succeeding chapters helped to keep the narrative tension even and all the plots unspooling at about the same pace. The letters between Liz and Morgan were lovely, filled with yearning, for a simpler, more innocent time and for the future. There were occasional moments of clunkiness in the writing ("No doubt, her father would be far from delighted if he knew what she was considering. As would her mother, if she were around to intone her disapproval.") but generally the simple, relaxed tone made for easy and pleasing reading. A lovely update on the Cyrano story, bookclub members and other readers who favor historical fiction will find this an enjoyable selection.

For more information about Kristina McMorris and the book, b sure to check out her web page.

Thanks to the author and Dorothy at Pump Up Your Book Book Tours for sending me a copy of this book to review.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Radio Shangri-La giveaway winners

All tanned and rested, I am back from my vacation so I decided it was time to pick the winners for my Radio Shangri-La giveaway. Any complaints about the choices, please direct to ;-) So, drum roll please... the winners of the copies from the publisher are: Debbie Rodgers and Ally W. Pam Keener wins the autographed copy. Congratulations ladies!

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.

For me, I can't wait to read: Married to Bhutan by Linda Leaming. The book is being released by Hay House on April 1, 2011.

Amazon says this about the book: Tucked away in the eastern end of the Himalayas lies Bhutan—a tiny, landlocked country bordering China and India. Impossibly remote and nearly inaccessible, Bhutan is rich in natural beauty, exotic plants and animals, and crazy wisdom. It is a place where people are genuinely content with very few material possessions and the government embraces “Gross National Happiness” instead of Gross National Product.

In this funny, magical memoir, we accompany Linda Leaming on her travels through South Asia, sharing her experiences as she learns the language, customs, and religion; her surprising romance with a Buddhist artist; and her realizations about the unexpected path to happiness and accidental enlightenment.

As one of the few Americans to have lived in Bhutan, Leaming offers a rare glimpse into the quirky mountain kingdom so many have only dreamed of. For over ten years, Leaming has lived and worked in the town of Thimphu, where there are no traffic lights and fewer than 100,000 people. “If enlightenment is possible anywhere,” she writes, “I think it is particularly possible here.”

The Bhutanese way of life can seem daunting to most Westerners, whose lives are consumed with time, efficiency, and acquiring things. But Leaming shows us that we don’t necessarily have to travel around the world to appreciate a little Bhutan in our own lives, and that following our dreams is the way to be truly happy.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Review: The Beauty of Humanity Movement by Camilla Gibb

Asia has long fascinated me, Vietnam in particular. I can't really account for the appeal other than acknowledging that there is one. And modern Vietnam, the Vietnam to emerge from the devastation of the war and then the restrictive and punitive Communist measures, intrigues me most of all. It is this Vietnam then, that Gibb evokes in her newest novel, a novel about art and truth and conviction.

Opening with itinerent pho maker Old Man Hung finding the latest in a never-ending series of places to sell his fragrant broth, the reader is introduced to this man who had once been the center around whom an arts movement once flourished and the two men amongst his regulars, father Binh and son Tu, who have become the closest thing he has to a family. Into Hung's regular existence comes art curator Maggie Ly, a Viet Kieu, born in Vietnam but raised overseas (America in Maggie's case). Maggie is searching for any sign of her father's past but she has only hit dead ends until she finds Old Man Hung and a faint glimmer of hope. Maggie's presence and her inquiry about her father, an artist who escaped a reeducation camp with his hands permanently crippled, jolts Hung back into his past.

Hung's pho shop had, in the years immediately following the war, been a meeting place, an anchor, for the Beauty of Humanity Movement group of artists who daringly questioned the path the country was taking. Dao, Binh's father and Tu's grandfather, had been at the forefront of the movement, insisting on using artwork and poetry revolutionarily. But the group went too far and they were betrayed, Hung lost his shop, and Binh lost his father. With the opening up of Vietnam, Maggie has come in hopes of finding a trace of her father, most likely in this group of determined artists and poets who stood by their convictions even in the face of harassment and arrest.

The narrative is triple-stranded, focused on Hung's memories of the past and of all those who died, Maggie's history and search for proof of her father's life before her, and Tu's sanitized or narrowly focused history of Vietnam offered in the course of his job as a tour guide for Westerners. All three of these threads are important to the tale although Hung's have perhaps the most weight as they tie everything together; the past informs the future. The writing is patient, unfolding slowly, revealing the smallest of historical information carefully and almost secretively. Descriptions are vivid and full although occasionally a bit much. Like Hung's pho, Gibb's novel is simple, well-balanced, and satisfying as well as saving room for the unexpected to pull all the flavors together into a seamless whole. Book clubs looking for a very different perspective on the Vietnam War and its long-term effect on the Vietnamese people will find much to discuss and enjoy here.

For more information about Camilla Gibb and the book visit her webpage and her facebook page.

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

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Surprises. Who loves surprises?

Some people love surprises. Some people hate them. As long as they don't cause loss of bladder control, I don't mind them at all. I'm all for them. Or at least I like to think so. I was never the child who opened my Christmas presents ahead of time so I knew what to expect under the tree. I save birthday cards and presents that arrive ahead of time for the actual day with nary a sideways look at them. When I was pregnant with my third child, I was perfectly content to wait until the little bugger arrived to find out what flavor baby we were getting. In short, I can happily anticipate surprises without ruining them. Not everyone is as virtuous as I am, I know. ;-)

And yet, I have a rather big birthday coming up and with all the subtlety of a freight train, I hinted openly and often how little I wanted a surprise party. Part of it is that fear of loss of bladder control (I did birth three babies after all) but a part of it is that I really think I appreciate anticipation more than I like surprises. After all, with presents and cards, I know they are coming (and even when I was small, I knew Santa was likely to overlook all but the most egregious sins) so it's really only the contents that were a surprise. And with the pregnancy, well, it would have been a surprise to give birth to a platypus but I was reasonably assured that I was indeed going to end up with a human baby so again it was just the pertinent bits that were going to be a surprise and since I already had one of each variety, the third wasn't going to throw me for any loops (at least not in terms of sex, little did I know how many other loops he was destined to create!).

With this birthday, until I took over, I had no idea whether there was even going to be a party. (Well, okay, I did know as my husband is quite lousy at keeping secrets but I didn't want the pressure of pretending to be surprised or to sound like an ungrateful brat when I admitted I was not in the slightest caught unawares. It sounds so insufferably smug to say, "Well, I didn't know which day he was planning on having the party," and heaven knows I can come off as insufferably smug often enough to not need yet another occasion for my friends to seriously wonder about me.) Of course now I've stuck myself in it since I just wanted to know that a party was happening. I didn't really want to have to help plan it and to weigh-in on every little thing. See, it's the details that I want to be a surprise. What do I want the food to look like? As long as there's no seafood, no mushrooms, and no olives, I don't care. Surprise me! What should the dress code be? Not formal but other than that, I don't care. Surprise me! Where should it be? When should it be? Who should be invited? I don't care. Surprise me! There's going to be a party. I'm happy. If all of you folks want to come to it, call my hubby. He's in charge. And you can totally keep your attendance a surprise from me. Well, unless you think it might make me wet myself. Then I'll need a little heads up.

I wrote today's post as part of the WOW-Women on Writing Blanket Tour for Letter from Home by Kristina McMorris ( This debut novel is the story of three young women during World War II and the identity misunderstandings they and the men in their lives have. Ask yourself: Can a soldier fall in love with a woman through letters? and What happens if the woman writing the letters is different from the woman he met the might before he shipped out, the woman he thought was writing the letters? Is it still love or just a lie?

Like many authors, Kristina has had a wild selection of "real jobs" everything from wedding planner to actress to publicist. She finally added novelist to the list after Kristina got a peek at the letters her grandfather wrote to his sweetheart(a.k.a. Grandma Jean)while he was serving in the Navy during World War II. That got her wondering how much two people could truly know each other just from letter writing and became the nugget of her novel.

In honor of her grandparents, and all the other families kept apart by military service, Kristina is donating a portion of her book's profits to United Through Reading, a nonprofit organization that video records deployed U.S. military personnel reading bedtime stories to their children. You can learn more about the program at United Through Reading.

If you comment on today's post on this blog or any of the others participating in Everybody's Talking About Surprises, you'll be entered to win a special surprise prize! It includes a personalized copy of Letters from Home, a Big Band CD, Victory Garden seeds, and more. To read Kristina's post about surprises and a list of other blogs participating in Everybody's Talking about Surprises visit The Muffin.

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.

For me, I can't wait to read: The Civilized World by Susi Wyss. The book is being released by Holt Paperbacks on March 29, 2011.

Amazon says this about the book: In this smart, urbane debut, characters strive for understanding within a cacophonous modern landscape. Two parallel but conflicting stories open and close the collection, to moving effect: Adjoa and her twin brother, Kojo, are migrant workers from Ghana, having lived for 12 years in the Ivory Coast, saving up to make enough money to return and start a hair salon. Adjoa is serious and single-minded about her mission, but Kojo's impatience at gaining fast money prompts him to get involved in the robbery of the home of Adjoa's wealthy American employer, Janice. The reckless act ends tragically, and Adjoa has to carry a heavy load of guilt back to Accra, where she opens her salon and tries to find a good husband who won't take advantage of her or her business. Elsewhere, Janice reappears on a road trip in the Central African Republic and at an Ethiopian orphanage, where she intends to adopt a child on her own. Wyss offers nuanced takes on vastly different corners of Africa, transcending travelogue to achieve resonant narratives—sometimes funny, sometimes stark—with both grit and heart.

Monday, March 14, 2011

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Another good reviewing week for me. I didn't get much reading done given all the packing and last minute stuff I've been up to for the trip. (And by the time this posts, I will have been away from home for several days so with luck I'll have read some more by then.) This meme is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.

Books I completed this week are:

Home to Woefield by Susan Juby
The Beauty of Humanity Movement by Camilla Gibb
The Perfect Wife by Lynsay Sands
When Summer's in the Meadow by Niall Williams and Christine Breen

Bookmarks are still living in the middle of:

Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens
The Vagabond by Colette

Reviews posted this week:

The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown
The Sandalwood Tree by Elle Newmark
The Other Life by Ellen Meister
Home to Woefield by Susan Juby

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

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
The Beauty of Humanity Movement by Camilla Gibb
The Perfect Wife by Lynsay Sands
When Summer's in the Meadow by Niall Williams and Christine Breen

Open Giveaways

Three copies of Radio Shangri-La by Lisa Napoli

Monday Mailbox

Off on my big birthday trip so this is really only a partial week's accounting (as far as I know since I have refrained from asking my in-laws whether or not they've been lugging books into my house daily). This past week's mailbox arrival:

A Thread of Sky by Deanna Fei came from Penguin thanks to Trish at TLC Book Tours.
A novel of three generations of women and their secrets set in mainland China, this one is sure to be fascinating.

Inconceivable by Carolyn Savage and Sean Savage came from FSB Associates thanks to a Facebook contest win.
I can't begin to imagine how terrible and heart-wrenching the decision to carry and deliver a child not your own must be but this book should give some insight into it and I'm looking forward to reading it (how bad does that sound to say?).

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

Friday, March 11, 2011

Review: Home to Woefield by Susan Juby

There is a trend right now for adults to read YA literature. Being the cantakerous reader than I am, I still don't read much of it, not because I think it's of a lesser quality but because most of the premises I've seen haven't appealed to me much. This first novel targeted at adults by YA author Susan Juby appealed to me greatly though. The idea of a native New Yorker with back to the land ambitions inheriting a scrubby farm in Canada and moving there to try her hand at farming sounds like just my type of book. I've read a number of these in memoir form but I hadn't yet come across this story in fiction until now. Just let me say that I enjoyed this book so much that I fully intend to go back and read Juby's YA works (and maybe even pass them along to the YA reader in my house if they are as entertaining as this book was).

Told in four narrative voices, that of Prudence, who has inherited the farm and its seemingly insurmountable debts from her late uncle; Sara, the eleven year old girl who moves her chickens to Woefield Farm; Earl, the cranky septugenarian farm hand who came with the farm; and Seth, the twenty-one year old alcoholic blogger from across the road who moves in when his mother kicks him out. It is indeed a woeful and motley crew of characters but they are completely hilarious and charming. Prudence is delightfully naive, certain she can make the farm a paying proposition based on her extensive reading of "moving and starting over" memoirs. She is uber-positive and incredibly motivated, if as innocent of the necessities involved with farm life as a newborn chick. She is indeed a cheerful force to be reckoned with.

To start with, Prudence must face the dire financial situation on the farm that she is so determined will fulfill her dream of living sustainably. In order to buy a little time, she decides to hoodwink the bank by telling them that she is opening the farm up as a treatment center, using the alcoholic Seth as a dummy client. And somehow she pulls it off but then she is landed with a local mother desperate for help with her sullen, drug-abusing teenaged daughter in tow as well as the local writing group who has learned that Prudence is a published author (the fact that her novel was poorly received and almost unknown seems to dissuade the group about her skills not at all). As Prudence juggles the situations she's created for herself, jaded Earl goes about the farm trying to build the things that Prudence's visions require, Seth fights his demons, and Sara stoically endures a demoralizing home life.

The plot is not overly complicated and the main focus of the story is on building relationships more so than building a productive farm. Watching the four very disparate characters come together is great fun and having the differing perspectives on each disaster as it befalls them is wonderful. Where else can so many characters riff on a sheep wearing maxi-pads taped to her hooves and sides? Each of the characters has a very distinct voice. They're unique and quirky and I enjoyed spending time with them. One reservation about this charmingly entertaining read is that the ending is a little too easy, a little too deus ex machina although as it stands, we could certainly see a future trip to Woefield Farm for more. While Juby raises some interesting issues, the green movement and sustainability, alcoholism, politics, and dysfunctional family dynamics, she doesn't dig too deeply into them here, keeping the novel breezy and light, goofy and generous, tenderhearted and warm. I have to admit that I turned the last page of this one with a big grin on my face. I liked it. I really, really liked it.

For more information about Susan Juby and the book visit her webpage and her blog where she's the best kind of goofy/funny around. You can also follow her on Twitter: @thejuby.

Tune in to the interview Book Club Girl is going to with Susan Juby on Blog Talk Radio on Tuesday, April 5th at 4:00pm PT (7:00pm ET).

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

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Review: The Other Life by Ellen Meister

"Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth."

Who, like the narrator in Robert Frost's poem, has not wondered at the course his or her life has taken? How would different choices, especially those at major crossroads, have changed our lives and us? What would that other life look like? This is the question at the center of Ellen Meister's novel The Other Life. Her main character, Quinn, has long sensed the actual existence of lives where she chose differently; she can even touch those other lives. And yet she has avoided the temptation to see what her life would have been like had she not chosen to leave her emotionally needy boyfriend for the stable, loving man she married. She is grounded by her love for her 6 year old son but when she discovers that the baby she is pregnant with has a serious, perhaps fatal condition, she can no longer contain her curiousity about her other life in her rush to escape the terrible, gut-wrenching truth of this pregnancy.

Pushing through the portal in her basement, Quinn enters the life she would have had if she had stayed with her shock jock DJ boyfriend Eugene all those years before. Her life couldn't be more different but the thing that makes Quinn unable to let go of her hold on this alternate life is the fact that here, in this version of reality, her bi-polar artist mother did not commit suicide, did not leave a gaping hole in Quinn's life.

As Quinn moves back and forth between her two lives, albeit with increasing difficulty physically, she must confront the harshness of life. She has to decide the fate of her unborn baby, grieve for the absence of her mother in her originally chosen life, learn to trust and rely on her husband's love, and be the mother than her son needs. Most of all, Quinn has to accept that our decisions may be irretrievable but that they shape us and give us strength to keep walking down the path we have chosen.

Quinn is a deeply conflicted main character who has to confront and accept some terrible things: the loss of a parent, news of a congenital defect in her unborn child, mental illness in a sibling. Her fears and her longing for what she can only have in her other life (her mother's presence) is so clear it reaches off the page and grabs the reader. She is a very sympathetic and complex character and the reader wants her to make the right choice, be in the life she should inhabit, even if that means unimaginable loss. The secondary characters round Quinn out, helping to develop and show her character fully. Her desperate grasp for a world where she doesn't have worries and cares so immense is completely understandable and real. The pacing of the plot is consistent and steady and the storyline itself is compelling. The themes of love and loss are well-drawn and realistic and the ending of the story is really quite perfectly written. I don't know that I'd want to see what any of my "other lives" look like but I enjoyed my glimpse into the possibility as presented here. This book would be a fantastic choice for reading groups given its premise and all the issues Meister raises.

For more information about Ellen Meister and the book visit her webpage and her blog. You can also follow her on Twitter: @EllenMeister.

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

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