Thursday, April 28, 2011

Real runners

Real runners run in the rain. Real smart runners look at the weather radar, see the severe weather still in the area, and find a treadmill on which to run. No one has ever accused me of being a smart runner. I do hate to run in humidity (a real handicap here in the generally sunny, hot south) and rain is nothing if not over the top humidity but I didn't melt when I ran in the rain before so I convinced myself I wouldn't melt this time either. My sister wants to run the Disney half with me again in January and I am not only considering that (although I'd hopefully train for it this time!) but I am unexplainably attracted to the idea of the Inaugural Rock and Roll Savannah Marathon and Half Marathon in November. Any takers who want to shuffle along with me? Of course, I have the running bug about as long as it takes for me to get out the door and start sweating. Who knew I was such a lame baby? --about the weather, about exercise in general, about hills, about everything except signing up online and forking over the money.

Anyway, despite the nasty storms lingering in the area, I liberally applied Body Glide (how can I possibly be almost out of it when I haven't done any long runs in a coon's age?) and popped out the door to a pleasant surprise. No, it wasn't the sun drying up all the rain ala Itsy Bitsy Spider but it was a break in the deluge. And really, it's good to find happiness in the small things, right? Of course, that means I used the last of my precious Body Glide for a short run that didn't require it. Ah well. Consider it my small contribution to the working of the economy when I buy the next stick.

It was still nastily humid but I discovered that my new iPod (shhhhh! Don't tell anyone D. got me a replacement iPod instead of the Zune. I just can't change my corporate allegiance if I love a product--and already have a good iTunes library--just because MS is now paying our bills) clips to my clothes and was already fully charged. Bonus! The neighbors haven't heard me belting out my playlist for quite a while now. I'm sure they missed the off-key serenade as well as my fabulous listening choices. It's funny when you listen to songs you haven't heard in a while. They do take you back. I was in the locker room at college with the rest of the swimmers as I caterwauled along to December 1963 (Oh What a Night). I smiled and hummed to The Shores of Les Cheneaux by Mary Gerwin as I imagined running up at the cottage. Incidentally, she's got a gorgeous voice if you are unfamiliar (and in the spirit of full disclosure, my daughter and her niece are friends). I remembered the Erasure concert with an old boyfriend when I heard Take a Chance on Me. I could see my daughter shaking pom-pons in one of her dances from years ago during Avril Lavigne's Boyfriend (of course, mine is the explicit version and hers was not only the radio track but cut out even further so not exactly the same song). I suspect I was running very strangely during Flo Rida's Low since that and Kid Rock's All Summer Long take me directly to The Islander Bar at the cottage and evenings spent dancing there with J. so the run started to look like a weird jerking run/dance combo. And there are so many more songs connected to people and places in my life. I might have to do a long run just to hear and enjoy them all again. (See how I can happily plan for more--and longer--running when I am safely ensconced at the computer and nowhere near the vicinity of my running shoes?)

So did the weather hold out for me you ask now that I've finished with the digression down the song inspired memory lane? It did. Not that you could tell by the time I got home given I was dripping with sweat and looked like a cloud burst had centered its efforts all on me. As much as I'd like to claim I worked that hard, it really is a function of the humidity combined with my appallingly overactive sweat glands rather than any impressive exercise chops that I looked like I had been running for hours. I also learned that my contacts help keep more sweat out of my eyes than I knew. How did I discover this little known perk of being blind as a bat? Well, I rubbed an eye to wipe some sweat out of it and promptly swiped my contact out too. I used to regularly lose contacts in the pool when I swam but I never imagined I'd sacrifice one to running. Life is just full of surprises. And once that tiny corrective piece of plastic was gone, salty water seemed magnetically attracted to that particular eye. Sopping wet, weeping from one blind eye, and only capable of barking out every tenth word of the songs on the iPod, the end of my run was really some kind of wonderful. Well, it was some kind of something but I'm trying to keep things G rated on here.

Running wasn't all bad though. If it had been, I wouldn't even begin to contemplate the races, even from the safety of the computer chair. I do feel smug about going out and going 3+ miles in nasty weather when I certainly didn't have to, not even for exercise purposes. I've played tennis twice this week already and have another match tomorrow (could I actually win for once?) so adding in a run as short as this was hardly impacts the exercise front at all. And I have mostly been good as gold with what I've been eating and am at almost 25 pounds lost since January so I'm a mere 6 pounds up from my lowest adult weight and what I weighed when we moved here three years ago. Feeling pretty good in general. Maybe that's what it takes for me. I won't be on the roads tomorrow (unless it rains and my match gets called off) but I very well might take running shoes with me to the dance competition and take a run during one of our very long breaks. Then again, the competition is in the mountains and, well, did I mention I'm a big lame baby about hills?!

Review: Heart of Deception by M. L. Malcolm

I am normally terribly fussy about reading series books in the order in which they were meant to be read but occasionally I can be persuaded to ignore this tendency and read the one that is at hand. Somehow, I missed the information that Heart of Deception is a sequel to Heart of Lies and so I might never have known I was breaking my own rules except that I read the back of the book when I picked it up to read and that was all she wrote of my ignorance of the previous book. In a happy circumstance though, this book stood on its own perfectly well so I didn't have to worry too much about a backstory with which I was unfamiliar.

Leo Hoffman is a spy and a damned good one. He's also a father who wants nothing more than to get back to his daughter. And if these two pieces of his life seem contradictory or mutually exclusive, they are. After his wife's death in a bombing in Shanghai, he sent their daughter Madeleine to the US and to safety with his new wife, a nasty, vindictive woman who wants revenge on Leo after he annulls their marriage. Maddy lives first with Amelia, the spurned wife, then with the family of a school friend, and finally with her mother's sister, a stern and emotionally cold woman. She has no knowledge of what her father does or where he is, indeed even if he's alive. In fact, in many cases, the people in her life actively try to poison her against her father. Leo meanwhile, is trying to be of enough use to the SOE (the WWII precursor to the CIA) to earn his American passport so he can rejoin the daughter he loves more than anything else.

Although narrated mainly by Maddy and focusing on the life she leads in New York, feeling abandoned and confused without understanding why, the storyline does jump back to Leo's exploits as one of the most successful Allied spies during the war. Malcolm weaves real life characters into the narrative to add to the realistic feel of the tightness and interconnectedness of the world of espionage. However, the jumps away from Leo's life leave some gaps that would perhaps have best been filled in, especially in the case of Leo's time as a German prisoner of war given the emphasis on his and Maddy's Jewish heritage earlier in the book. The plotline following Maddy's life likewise has some underdeveloped portions. More plot driven than character driven, sometimes the characters' actions come from out of left field rather than as a logical development based on how they are drawn. Maddy's wild, all-consuming affair with Gene Mandretti is just one instance of this.

Despite the flaws here and the characters I found not particularly likable, the story does gallop along and even when situations start to feel too far-fetched to be believable, it's impossible to put the book down. I finished this one in just a few short hours and while I could have wished for more fully developed characters and a few less coincidences, overall, it was an entertaining, fast-paced read.

For more information about M.L. Malcolm and the book visit her webpage and her on Facebook page.

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

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

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: Your Voice in My Head by Emma Forrest. The book is being released by Other Press on May 3, 2011.

Amazon says this about the book: Emma Forrest, a British journalist, was just twenty-two and living the fast life in New York City when she realized that her quirks had gone beyond eccentricity. In a cycle of loneliness, damaging relationships, and destructive behavior, she found herself in the chair of a slim, balding, and effortlessly optimistic psychiatrist—a man whose wisdom and humanity would wrench her from the dangerous tide after she tried to end her life. She was on the brink of drowning, but she was still working, still exploring, still writing, and she had also fallen deeply in love. One day, when Emma called to make an appointment with her psychiatrist, she found no one there. He had died, shockingly, at the age of fifty-three, leaving behind a young family. Reeling from the premature death of a man who had become her anchor after she turned up on his doorstep, she was adrift. And when her all-consuming romantic relationship also fell apart, Emma was forced to cling to the page for survival and regain her footing on her own terms.
A modern-day fairy tale, Your Voice in My Head is a stunning memoir, clear-eyed and shot through with wit. In her unique voice, Emma Forrest explores the highs and lows of love and the heartbreak of loss.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Review: The Violets of March by Sarah Jio

You just never know what someone else's life is really like no matter what it looks like from the outside. It can look like someone is living a charmed life and yet there are fissures beneath the surface that ultimately cause a collapse. Rebuilding after something like that can be difficult. Facing the fact that an imperfect life could possibly be a better one is hard but can be true as Emily, the main character is Sarah Jio's new novel, The Violets of March proves.

Opening as Emily's soon to be ex-husband leaves their home together for the last time, Emily reflects on the loss of her husband and her unsuccessful struggle to write another book after the phenomenal success of her first novel. She is really sort of drifting when a friend suggests she needs to get away and her great-aunt Bee writes and invites her to come and spend time with her all the way across the country on Bainbridge Island in Washington. With warm memories of wonderful childhood summers there, Emily jumps at the chance and sets off to the island to heal and open a new chapter in her life.

Once she gets to the island, Emily discovers a WWII era diary that proves captivating reading and has some close and surprising connections to her life. As she opens herself up to the possibilities of a new life, she is energized to dig into some old family history and to write again, this time the story that is in her heart.

The characters here are appealing. Great-aunt Bee is eccentric enough to captivate but not enough to be batty. Emily is floundering but has a core of strength to her that makes her intriguing and keeps the reader engaged, wanting to see where her story goes. The secrets and silences are by no means sinister but are clearly vital and important both the the mystery of the diary and to Emily's family. The mystery of the diary is a little bit predictable but since its story is interspersed in the larger narrative, that predictability is forgivable. Jio has drawn a vivid and appealing picture of Bainbridge Island. It is the perfect setting for a tale so tied to the past as so much of the island seems to be a place out of time where little has changed physically in years. There is a charming small town, interconnected feel to the story and Emily is folded into the community, allowing her to become a part of something bigger than her perceived failures and to look into her deepest, truest self as she learns the value of fresh starts even amidst the ties to the past. A pleasing read, Jio has created a delightful beach read of a book.

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

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Review: The Long Goodbye by Meghan O'Rourke

Losing a loved one is a very private and personal thing in our society today. We share memories of the person, commemorate their life in a funeral or memorial service and then get back to the business of living. At least this is the commonly accepted course of things. Meghan O'Rourke, in her hauntingly beautiful meditation on losing her mother and the personal nature of grief, suggests that this is not at all how we fold grief into our lives.

O'Rourke tells a deeply personal and at the same time universal tale. She shares the year and half after her mother's diagnoses with colorectal cancer, her death, and the subsequent year and a half as Meghan learned to live in a world without her mother. The narrative flip flops between flashbacks to a past untouched by cancer, the deep suffering time before her mother's death, and the frozen time afterwards when grief stabs and recedes. In addition to her own personal experience, O'Rourke peppers the narrative with sociological insights into the way we grieve and how we have hidden away our mourning rituals, leaving those most sunk by grief adrift without public support or acknowledgement. In examining her own feelings and the ways that they do not conform to the expected arc, she questions our assumptions about the mourner's course.

The writing is gorgeous and touching. O'Rourke's love for her mother and her devastation at becoming motherless is absolutely palpable. Despite the intense and overwhelming sorrow, there is no point in the book where the reader feels manipulated. All the empathy is solidly earned. This is also not a neat and tidy tale of grieving. O'Rourke allows her innermost self to show no matter whether she comes off well or not. She is not afraid to let the push back against her mother's iminent death, the child's claim on the parent she is losing, stand starkly testament to the magnitude of the loss. This is truly a beautiful memoir, one that looks unafraid at the face of grief, recognizing its place in our hearts forever. O'Rourke has captured the last part of her mother's life and her death and done so with the strong and steady hand of her extraordinary mother's extraordinary daughter.

For more information about Meghan O'Rourke and the book visit her webpage and follow her on Twitter.

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

Waiting on Wednesday

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

For me, I can't wait to read: Planting Dandelions by Sandra Kyran Pittman. The book is being released by Riverhead Hardcover on April 28, 2011.

Amazon says this about the book: In the family of Jen Lancaster and Elizabeth Gilbert, Kyran Pittman is the laid-back middle sister: warm and witty and confiding, with an addictively smart and genuine voice-but married with three kids and living in the heartland. Relatable and real, she writes about family in a way that highlights all its humor, while at the same time honoring its depth.

A regular contributor to Good Housekeeping, Pittman is well loved because she is funny and honest and self-deprecating, because her own household is in chaos ("semi-domesticated"), and because she inspires readers in their own domestic lives. In these eighteen linked, chronological essays, Pittman covers the first twelve years of becoming a family, writing candidly and hilariously about things like learning to maintain a marriage over time; dealing with the challenges of sex after childbirth; saying good-bye to her younger self and embracing the still attractive, forty-year-old version; and trying to "recession- proof" her family (i.e., downsize to avoid foreclosure).

From a fresh new talent, celebrating the joys and trials of a new generation of parents, Planting Dandelions is an entertaining tribute to choosing the white-picket fence over the other options available, even if you don't manage to live up to its ideals every day.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Review: The Coffins of Little Hope by Timothy Schaffert

What do an 80+ year old obituary writer, the top secret printing of the last book in a wildly popular kids' book series, and the disappearance of a young girl who may or may not have ever really existed have in common? They are all integral parts of this entertaining and quirky book. And as disparate as these things might seem, in Schaffert's skilled hands, they come together seamlessly forming a whole much more than its eccentric parts.

Essie Myles has written obituaries for the local paper since she was in her early teens. Now in her eighties, she prides herself on finding the kernel of truth about the deceased person rather than repeating the usual platitudes. In a small town where everyone is tightly connected, unearthing anything new is a challenge. But all of a sudden, there's a flurry of newsworthy activity in this out of the way Nebraska town. Essie has been asked to write the obituary of Lenore, a young girl who has gone missing. Daisy, Lenore's mother, wants the obituary so that Lenore stays in the forefront of the nation's consciousness. We are, after all, a nation obsessed with loss, wallowing in schadenfreude. But as time has gone on and Lenore's disappearance has become less current, less newsworthy and captivating, questions start to emerge about just whether Lenore ever existed or if she is simply the creation of a lonely woman looking for attention.

While Essie is following the story of the girl who might or might not have been, her own family is facing major changes and upheavals. Her grandson Doc is thinking about closing the long-time, family-owned newspaper. The only thing having kept it solvent in the last years is his contract to be amongst the small, remote printing presses chosen to print the last few books of the very popular, catastrophe-driven, YA series of Miranda and Desiree books. As the drama surrounding Lenore's disappearance grips the town and nation, the last book of the series is rolling off the presses, adding to the mystique of the little dying town. And Essie's granddaughter rolls back into town to stay, coming back to resume raising daughter Tiffany, who has been happily living with Doc for many years. Change in life is inevitable, for the Myles family, for the newspaper, and for the town.

There is a dark, macabre thread running underneath the surface of this novel but it is so winsomely presented that it is completely appealing and addictive reading, much in the way that the Lemony Snicket books (which must be a source of inspiration for the Miranda and Desiree books in the novel) are. The characters are well-developed and eccentric but charming in their eccentricities. They are people trying to hold on, to find the right course, and to face reality, even if it is one they have to construct for themselves. The economic viability of unknown small towns, the complicated ties of family, the ways in which jobs become or define a person, voice and imagination, a skewering of the American taste for the sensational, and the surprises that life hold are all touched on as the multiple and intricate plot threads twist and weave together. Short, punchy chapters, pithy characters, and a plot unlike any other I've read make this a quick, entertaining, and completely worthwhile read.

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

Monday, April 18, 2011

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

It's been a busy week at casa de Kristen so neither reading nor reviewing took center stage. Still did manage to do some of each though. (Probably the only thing keeping me sane.) This meme is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.

Books I completed this week are:

Slow Love by Dominique Browning
The Long Goodbye by Meghan O'Rourke
The Violets of March by Sarah Jio

Bookmarks are still living in the middle of:

Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens
The Vagabond by Colette

Reviews posted this week:

A Thread of Sky by Deanna Fei
Playdate by Thelma Adams
The Kitchen Daughter by Jael McHenry
Finding Emilie by Laurel Corona

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

The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady by Elizabeth Stuckey-French
Strange Relation by Rachel Hadas
The Coffins of Little Hope by Timothy Schaffert
Slow Love by Dominique Browning
The Long Goodbye by Meghan O'Rourke
The Violets of March by Sarah Jio

Monday Mailbox

Spoiled again this past week! A girl could get used to this (if she isn't smothered under stacks of falling books, that is). This past week's mailbox arrivals:

The Dry Grass of August by Anna Jean Mayhew came from Kensington.
Being compared to The Help, I, of course, need to read this and see for myself.

The Civilized World by Susi Wyss came from Holt Paperbacks.
Novels of interconnected stories always fascinate me and this one set in Africa promises to be a goodie.

When Did I Get Like This? by Amy Wilson came from Gallery Books thanks to Trish at TLC Book Tours for a blog tour.
Humorous tales of life as a mom, especially one who compromises on her pre-kid conceptions of how to parent? Sign me right up please!

The Moment by Douglas Kennedy came from Atria.
A love affair amidst the intrigue of divided Berlin, I am fascinated by the walls, literal and figurative, that seperate us.

The Little Women Letters by Gabrielle Donnelly came from Touchstone.
Descendants of Alcott's Little Women? Would skipping and clapping and doing cartwheels be undignified? Completely enticing!

Left Neglected by Lisa Genova came from Gallery Books.
I enjoyed her first book and am curious to see what this one is like.

Amaryllis in Blueberry by Christina Meldrum came from Gallery Books.
A family with four daughter goes to West Africa as missionaries in hopes of repairing their own lives but things spiral out of control in Africa. This one had me just at the gorgeous blue cover.

Dance Lessons by Aine Greaney came from Syracuse University Press.
Family secrets and tensions always make for a good, engrossing story.

Anthropology of an American Girl? by Hilary Thayer Hamann came from Spiegel & Grau thanks to Lisa at TLC Book Tours for a blog tour.
A chunkster of a coming of age story, I do so love this sub-genre.

Skinny by Diana Spechler came from Harper Perennial thanks to Trish at TLC Book Tours for a blog tour.
A counselor at a teen weight-loss camp who is trying to connect with a girl she thinks is her stepsister. I'm curious to see how these girls and their self-images are portrayed.

The Arrivals by Meg Mitchell Moore came from Reagan Arthur Books for a blog tour.
Imagine all your children coming home to live one summer, bringing family with them. The bubbling stew of so many people in one house will certainly provide some wonderful plot lines.

The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh came from Ballantine Books.
Flowers are another thing, like water, on a cover that immediately grab my attention. Add a main character who uses flowers to change the lives of people around her and you've easily reeled me in.

As always, if you'd like to see the marvelous goodies in other people's mailboxes, make sure to visit Passages to the Past 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, April 17, 2011

Sunday Salon: The Friends of the Library

The libraries here, as in many places around the country, are facing a serious budget crisis. In order to help staunch the blood a bit, they have been having book sales. The first sale consisted of mostly culled library books. Sadly, they had a lot to sell as they've closed quite a few branches. Happily the sale was reasonably successful. This next sale is not former library books. It is comprised mainly of donated books.

I tend to keep a stack of books I am ready to part with in a closet in the basement. Bookish friends and family members know to look in the closet to see if there's anything there they are interested in snagging for themselves. I also use the closet contents when I hold my neighborhood bookswap. Since it was getting close to time for one of those, my closet was full. But instead of my usual, I decided to bag them all up and deliver them and myself to the library sale.

I took my teenaged son with me and we spent the next four hours helping to sort and stack donated books in their assigned categories. (Well, I spent the four hours doing that; he kept getting waylaid by a Garfield book that he found highly entertaining and forgetting to help.) Sorting through donations, it is amazing the sheer breadth of books out there. There was a pair of 1904 Mark Twain books and a 1980's Color Me Beautiful make-up guide book. There were current bestsellers and complete unknowns. There were completely obscure interest books and some books that were just baffling. My personal favorite was one called The Total Woman by Marabel Morgan, a book predicated on the idea that the man is the Head of the Household and he must be catered to, humored, deferred to, and occasionally treated to a genuflection. OK, I made up the last bit but the book is really that ridiculous. Surprisingly, now that I've checked the reviews on amazon, there are many that are overwhelmingly positive. And here I was thinking of filing it in the humor section. It did give all of us some serious chuckles though when I did a few dramatic readings out of it.

I won't be able to make the sale itself since I am out of town so I'm glad I had a chance to help out in my own small way now. Sorting can be fun and if you are anything of a voyeur about other people's books like I am, doing something like this is fascinating. My closet is clean again, just waiting for a new infusion of books ready for new homes. My son's community service hours for this last quarter of school are finished and signed off on. And a large amount of books for the sale are sorted into their appropriate categories. Win-win-win all the way around. And for people in the Charlotte area, the Friends of the Library sale is the last weekend in April in the Quail Corners Shopping Center on Park Road. Go support your library! There's great stuff there. I know because I brought some of it.

This week in my reading, I spent time learning to appreciate the slower pace of life after the frenetic pace of working is gone, I learned the course of grief is long and personal, and I uncovered long hidden family secrets in the course of healing from a divorce. Where did you spend your hours between the pages?

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Review: Finding Emilie by Laurel Corona

Spirited, unconventional, brilliant. We generally think of these as compliments but when applied to a young woman during the French Enlightenment, no matter that she was the intellectual superior of many of the leading minds of the day, these were not compliments. Indeed, they were thinly veiled insults. Luckily there were still women who ignored the whispers and mutterings, driven to use their brains and defy convention. This historical fiction posits one such woman, Lili du Chatelet, the daughter of noted French philosopher and intimate of Voltaire, Emilie, the Marquise of Chatelet. Historically Emilie died not long after giving birth to her last daughter and that daughter, Stanislas-Adelaide, called Lili here, died as a toddler. Corona has taken the opportunity to wonder what would have happened if Lili had lived and been gifted with a brain as fleet and adept as her mother's.

Told in two narrative threads, this is both the story of Lili and her desire to be allowed to exercise her intelligence even if she had to stand outside of the norms of the time to do it and of her mother and the circumstances surrounding a brilliant life cut short. The latter storyline shows in brief snapshots between the more detailed tale of Lili's life. After her mother's death, she was raised for a few years by her father's strict, unbending, authoritarian, and unimaginative sister-in-law. Luckily the Baronne's health forces her to turn Lili over to Julie Bercy, a friend and confidante of Lili's late mother Julie's own daughter is Lili's age and the two girls grow up as sisters under the kind and loving tutelage of their Maman. Even luckier, Julie Bercy is an intellectual herself, holding salons and encouraging the girls to think for themselves, nurturing the spark she sees in Lili. She is also an accomplished hostess and able to model for the girls a way in which to live in the world as it is and to still satisfy their curiousity, shine, and find happiness.

The girls are charming and their growth, especially Lili's, from naive children to intuitive adults, is well limned. The difficulty of trying to fit into a society that only wants women to be ornaments when the woman in question wants to match wits with the men had to be incredibly disheartening and Corona does a wonderful job capturing Lili's frustration as she learns to work within and around the constraints placed on her by her sex. The addition of short snippets of Lili's fictional creation, helps to underline the life lessons the girls learn as they grow and also offers them a fanciful escape from their reality as well as hope that they might ultimately escape for real.

Pre-Revolutionary France is fascinating and quite detailed in Corona's presentation here. The minutia of the court and the social niceties are accurately and carefully depicted. The weaving of historical figures with fictional characters works seamlessly and Corona's version of what could possibly have happened to a brilliant daughter of Emilie du Chatelet is entirely plausible. This was a very satisfying read combining both the realities and restrictions of the times with the courage and convictions of a smart, strong-willed young woman who is ultimately encouraged and allowed to thrive.

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

Review: The Kitchen Daughter by Jael McHenry

Merriam-Webster dictionary defines normal as "conforming to a type, standard, or regular pattern" and "of, relating to, or characterized by average intelligence or development" among other definitions. These definitions then require an outside entity to determine what the "standard" or "average" is. Therein lies the rub with the labels of both normal and abnormal. And so we try to quantify these concepts but there are so many different normals that it is confusing, and to character Ginny Selvaggio, reassuring.

Opening at the funeral for Ginny's parents, the novel immediately highlights some of Ginny's quirkier coping mechanisms for dealing with crowds, being touched, making eye contact, and just generally being overwhelmed. It is pretty immediately clear that Ginny is different. She's 26 and has never been formally diagnosed with anything but she shows classic Asperger's symptoms. Having always lived at home with her parents and protected from the world, their accidental deaths have left her vulnerable to her overwhelmed, bossy younger sister's desires and unable to articulate her own needs and desires. And so she retreats to one of the few places she feels comfortable: the kitchen. Ginny loves to cook and finds peace in the kitchen amongst the ingredients and cooking techniques.

In fact, Ginny discovers that when she follows a handwritten recipe exactly, she actually conjures the ghost of the original cook. Making her grandmother's ribollita after the funeral, she is so shocked when her grandmother's ghost manifests, that she only hears a part of the important message her grandmother has for her. But this fragment of a sentence and her subsequent discovery of some photographs and a cryptic letter from her father to her mother drives the narrative as Ginny searches to unravel long hidden family secrets even as she must figure out how to convince her sister not to sell the family home so important for Ginny's stability and routine.

Ginny is a charming and real character. Her desire for the truth about the letter and the warning but her refusal to pigeon-hole herself with a diagnosis reveals a lot about her character, as does her reluctance to summon the ghosts of her so recently deceased parents through their recipes. Told mainly through Ginny's perspective, the reader is privy to all of her thoughts and rationales, her struggles and triumphs. The other characters in the story circle around Ginny, protective and careful, frustrated and insensitive. Although there are a few other main characters out there narrating from their place on the autism spectrum, the premise of this novel is unique and appealing. It is as individual as each person in the world and offers up another perspective on the shifting sands of normal. The recipes and Ginny's habit of cooking, either in fact or simply in her head, mean that this will appeal to my fellow readers of food-laced fiction. And while the supernatural element might drive some readers away, more will be intrigued by the idea of having just one more conversation with loved ones, especially through their signature kitchen dishes. An original and wonderful novel, this was a quick and charming read.

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

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Review: Playdate by Thelma Adams

Stay at home parents are very frequently undervalued in today's society. I know that when I chose to stay at home with my first child (and the subsequent two) I had to defend my choice. And a neighbor actually told his wife, in my hearing, that she was too smart to waste her brain and stay at home with their baby. Either I've chosen better friends or the stigma of staying home to raise children has eased some, at least for mothers, as I don't seem to hear this sort of thing much anymore. It does seem to be in full force still for stay at home dads though and it must be even harder for those men who have had the position thrust upon them instead of choosing it, regardless of how much they might actually enjoy full time at home. Men have long been identified by their job. Cooking meals, keeping house, raising children, doing laundry, and the like do not carry much prestige despite their importance, leading to the marginalization of those who do these tasks. Such is the fate of Lance, one of the main characters in Thelma Adams' new novel Playdate.

Having moved to fulfill his wife Darlene's dream of opening a bigger and better version of her restaurant with an eye to franchising it out in the coming years, Lance cannot find another job as a meteorologist. Instead he throws himself into raising his and Darlene's daughter, being cookie dad for the local Girl Scout troop, and trying to convince his wife that the time is right for them to have another baby. Darlene is ambivalent about the baby idea, swallowed nearly whole by the upcoming launch of the restaurant and her rapacious, womanizing partner Alec. Of course, Lance is not exactly the model husband either, indulging in a tantric sex affair with Wren, coincidentally the wife of Darlene's partner, and protecting his secrets from the forward and conniving babysitter who thinks she can blackmail her own way into Lance's bed.

The backdrop to this circular and scathing look at suburbia is the approaching Santa Ana winds, which are fanning the flames of an out of control fire even as the volatile situation between Lance, Wren, Alec, Darlene, and the babysitter takes unexpected turns, becoming as combustible and dangerous as the fire itself. Not only do marriages hang in the balance but so does the future happiness of the adults and children. Lance has spent a lifetime understanding a father's betrayal since his own father walked out on his family when he was just a child but he still cannot help cheating himself. In the role reversal of traditional expectations that the mother stay home and the father earn the living, Lance is minimized, marginalized, and emasculated. And yet his childhood baggage and adult situation do not make him a particularly sympathetic character. All of the other characters are as short-sighted and selfish as Lance is, leaving the reader to pity only daughter Belle, trapped in a situation not of her own making.

The story itself chronicles a mere three days in the lives of these characters but they turn out to be pivotal days indeed. While the characters aren't necessarily likable, they are sly, entertaining, and often times quite humorous. The tension built slowly and dramatically as the pages passed and the Santa Ana winds blew their fire closer to the hearts of these characters' lives. An incisive look at modern morality, marriage, and job identification making the man (or woman), this novel has the same guilty pleasure feel to it that watching those train wreck reality shows does but it should spawn conversation on deeper issues than they do.

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

Waiting on Wednesday

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

For me, I can't wait to read: The Bride's House by Sandra Dallas. The book is being released by St. Martin's Press on April 26, 2011.

Amazon says this about the book: It’s 1880, and for Nealie Bent, seventeen, the splendid Victorian house under construction in Georgetown, Colorado, is like a fairy tale come to life. She dreams of living in “the Bride’s House,” as she calls it, with Will Spaulding, the young entrepreneur sent from the East by his grandfather to learn about the mining business. Will is not the only one who courts Nealie. Charlie Dumas, a miner who lacks Will’s polish, wants to marry the hired girl, too, and although Nealie rebuffs him, Charlie refuses to give up. Ultimately, Nealie must deal with lies, secrets, and heartache before choosing the man who will give her the Bride’s House.

For the motherless Pearl, growing up in the Bride’s House is akin to being raised in a mausoleum. Her father, robbed of the life he envisioned with Nealie, has fashioned the house into a shrine to the woman he loved. He keeps his daughter close. When the enterprising young Frank Curry comes along and asks for Pearl’s hand in marriage, Pearl’s father sabotages the union. But Pearl has inherited her mother’s tenacity of heart, and her father underestimates the lengths to which the women in the Bride’s House will go for love.

Susan is the latest in the line of strong and willful women in the Bride’s House. She’s proud of the women who came before her. Their legacy and the Bride’s House’s secrets force Susan to question what she wants and who she loves.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Review: A Thead of Sky by Deanna Fei

Many years ago when I was still in school, I chose to focus on Asian-American literature not only because it was fully of newly emerging voices, but because I was fascinated by the differences in the stories told by these first, second, and third generation Americans. Deanna Fei's novel, A Thread of Sky, not only illuminates the generational differences but also highlights the differences between parents and children in this achingly lovely story of family dynamics and the search for connection.

Irene Shen is newly widowed and worried about her relatonship with her three daughters when she cooks up the idea of a tour of mainland China with the girls, her sister, and their mother. She is, in part, trying to atone for saying "Good riddance" as her late husband walked out the door the last time, only to die in a car accident hours later. She chooses to ignore the girls' reluctance to go on the trip, to put their own lives on hold for some strange notion of returning to their roots despite the fact that each was born in New York. Irene also feels the need to reconnect with her own semi-estranged mother and distant sister, making for an unlikely travel group with each member harboring her own secrets and disappointments. And despite the reluctance on the part of all participants, everyone falls in with Irene's tour plans. The characters' desires to remain invulnerable is absolutely palpable as they hide themselves from each other. But throughout their journey both within China and into their relationships with each other, they start to slowly unfold, allowing glimpses of their true and hidden natures.

Irene's daughters, Nora, Kay, and Sophie, are second generation Chinese-Americans who fit the stereotypical Asian-American ideal, at least superficially. But they each have their own challenges. Nora is afraid to trust men and cannot even commit enough to her fiance to set a date or even tell her family they are engaged so when she finds him cheating and kicks him out, she understands that he has only done what she long expected of him. Kay has gone to China for school, looking for an authentic experience and understanding, tired of being asked in the US where she is from when the correct answer is New York. But she comes to understand that she does not come from China either. She has been trying to rescue young women from careers as "hostesses" aka prostitutes but finds that she doesn't understand the cultural situation well enough to save anyone, least of all herself. Sophie, the youngest, has only just graduated from high school. She is filled with self-loathing and suffers from bulimia, unsatisfied with the person she is and wanting to break free.

As the tour progresses, the characters start learning to accept each other for who they are instead of imposing an outside vision of who they should be on each other, to accept each other flaws and all. And as the girls' relinquish their hold on the secrets they have been concealing, they work on their grandmother and the silence she's maintained for years. Before the tour, Kay had discovered that Lin Yulan had been a feminist revolutionary but none of them knows much beyond that and the fact that she had left their grandfather and emigrated to America, following in her daughters' footsteps. The girls push for a reconciliation between their aging grandparents, not understanding the depth of the betrayal the memory of which they are besmirching. But when they see that some hurts and betrayals are too deep and too permanent to ever heal, they back off and allow Lin Yulan the peace of her own choices.

The descriptions of the scenery is very evocative and majestic. And there is a respectful reverence towards China's tourist attractions and landmarks that shines though. The characters are multi-faceted, flawed but sympathetic. The ways in which they hurt each other precisely because they love each other and the feelings of inadequacy and disppointment is rife in the depiction of their relationships with each other. Their striving for perfection, for themselves and in each others' eyes is a theme that permeates all of their interactions. This well-written novel will appeal to book clubs and to readers who enjoy not only tales of families but those looking for a story that ultimately rewards compassion, understanding, forgiveness, and love.

For more information about Deanna Fei and the book visit her webpage, her facebook page and follow her on Twitter.

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

Monday, April 11, 2011

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

This meme is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.

Books I completed this week are:

Strange Relation by Rachel Hadas
The Coffins of Little Hope by Timothy Schaffert
The Kitchen Daughter by Jael McHenry
Finding Emilie by Laurel Corona

Bookmarks are still living in the middle of:

Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens
The Vagabond by Colette
Slow Love by Dominique Browning

Reviews posted this week:

Reading Lips by Claudia Sternbach
The Baby Planner by Josie Brown
The Whistling Season by Ivan Doig

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

Playdate by Thelma Adams
The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady by Elizabeth Stuckey-French
A Thread of Sky by Deanna Fei
Strange Relation by Rachel Hadas
The Coffins of Little Hope by Timothy Schaffert
The Kitchen Daughter by Jael McHenry
Finding Emilie by Laurel Corona

Monday Mailbox

One of my many packages this week arrived already open. I certainly hope that no one helped themselves to the delectable books within although I wouldn't blame them for being tempted. This past week's mailbox arrivals:

French Lessons by Ellen Sussman came from Ballantine Books.
A novel about three Americans in Paris who spend a day with a tutor and learn more than just the French language is completely and totally appealing.

The Kitchen Daughter by Jael McHenry came from Gallery Books for a blog tour.
I so love novels that incorporate cooking. This one where a young autistic woman whose parents have just died can conjure up ghosts by cooking their handwritten recipes sounds absolutely delicious.

Finding Emilie by Laurel Corona came from Gallery Books for a blog tour.
An intellectual woman on the eve of the French Revolution who wants to know more about her elusive mother, a brilliant mathematician. Can you say yum?!

Ten Beach Road by Wendy Wax came from Gallery Books thanks to Lisa from TLC Book Tours for a blog tour.
Summer's coming (especially here in the south) and it's time to find some great beachy reads. This tale of three women who lose their life savings and are left only with a ramshackle beach house sounds like just the thing to read while sitting beside the pool.

The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown came from Amy Einhorn Books.
I've already reviewed this wonderful novel.

When the Killing's Done by T.C. Boyle came from Viking.
A family tale that also pits people interested in wiping out non-native, invasive species versus folks who find the eradication to be terrible is of great interest to me given the growing pervasiveness of situations like this, including by our cottage.

Slow Love by Dominique Browning came from Plume.
Don't we all wish for more time? I'm curious to see the truths Browning learned when she was actually given the gift of time and forced herself to slow down and revel in it.

The Silver Boat by Luanne Rice came from Pamela Dorman Books.
A tale of sisters finding out about their own family history, a summer cottage by the sea, and an unexpected trip to Ireland? Definitely appealing!

You Know When the Men Are Gone by Siobhan Fallon came from Amy Einhorn Books.
A series of interconnected stories set on an army base while the men are deployed, this one sounds like it is incredibly timely.

As always, if you'd like to see the marvelous goodies in other people's mailboxes, make sure to visit Passages to the Past 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, April 10, 2011

Sunday Salon: Can't read, gotta read

Have you ever had times in your life where you feel like there's so much emotionally freighted stuff going on that you can't read but you have to because it's the only thing holding you together? That's how I feel right now. I am overwhelmed daily by the fact that one of my children is failing a core class that he needs to pass if he doesn't want to end up in his sister's grade in school (and no, that's not the most pressing issue with potentially failing but it might be the only thing that motivates him to work harder--or not), another child is being a horrible "mean girl" at dance and has been told in no uncertain terms that if she doesn't straighten up, she will be asked to leave, and the third child is too busy being social Susie to give a rat's hind end about school so he's poised to follow in his older sibling's footsteps. I walk around with a lump in my stomach the size of a watermelon on steroids and every time I pick up a book to read, I start dwelling on where I have failed these children of mine. And yet if I don't pick up a book, I dwell on it even worse.

I am at a complete loss and actually had the thought the other day that if I could just mash the older two together, it would be perfect. It's awful to look at them and think about the first one, "Well, at least he's a lovely, sweet kid," and then look at the second and think, "Well, at least she gets great grades." If we are all being offered a lesson in this, I think I am failing to grasp it just as much as the kids are. And it is no concsolation to hear that my father-in-law didn't buckle down to school until he was a senior in high school and after all he ended up as a college professor. The world is so different today that I can only see that he will be living in my basement forever if it takes him that long to catch a clue (my son, not my father-in-law). And it is no consolation to me that I remember sitting and sobbing in the guidance counselor's office in junior high after my own stab at nasty "mean-girldom" so many years ago. I can hope that my own daughter is through the cutting ugliness after being called on the carpet about it but I am not convinced. And that lazy, socially oriented kid? I have no idea how to intervene now and help him become self-motivated, nor does D. from whom he inherited the social gene (the lazy gene must have come from the pool boy or something).

Given all of this, is it any wonder that I crave an escape in books? Or that I am having trouble finding it? I am irrationally angered by child narrators or characters who seem to have their $#!t together. Ditto parental characters or narrators who have the answers, even if they only discover them on the final page of the book. But I cannot read and wallow at the same time and so I continue to open books and turn pages and live a little somewhere else even if real life often intrudes and insists that I put that book down. I don't have any answers to my situation or to anyone else's. Heck, my brightest idea right now is to sell them cheap on e-Bay or find a mad scientist who can get me back in time for a do-over (although I'm still debating in my head, as if it's a real possibility, whether or not that do-over would mean scrubbing them out of existence entirely or just doing something differently with them). Barring the failure of those two ideas, I'll be the one with her nose in a book pretending the fictional world is real and the real world is pretend.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Review: The Whistling Season by Ivan Doig

The one room schoolhouse is an iconic image of the prairie, one which rural farmers' children traveled for miles to attend. Paul Milliron is the State Superintendent of Montana's schools charged with closing down some of the last one room schoolhouses in the state now that the advent of Sputnik has focused the whole nation on the state of math and science education and accelerated the school consolidation movement. Paul himself is the product of one of the schools he must now shut down. As he travels to his childhood home and toward his scheduled meeting with the intent only of softening the blow, he finds himself remembering a seminal year in his education.

The year that Paul is 12, his father sees an advertisement for a housekeeper who can't cook but doesn't bite. He hires Rose Llewellyn to come tend to the house and his boys, who have been missing a woman's care ever since their mother died. The advent of Rose and her dapper and very erudite brother Morrie in the Milliron home, and indeed this dry land farming community, turns out to be of momentous import. Morrie assumes the schoolteacher's position in the tiny schoolhouse that serves the surrounding farms, engaging and challenging the children far beyond anything ever expected of them before.

The characters in the story are complex and interesting and their actions, even when they are surprising, remain true to their cores. They are no-frills, reflective of the landscape in which they live. The slow unfolding of the story of that pivotal year is carefully measured and only occasionally interrupted by the older Paul's thoughts on his upcoming and unlooked for meeting to close the school that served him so well in his youth and offered him so much the year that Morrie and Rose moved to Marais Coulee. Doig's skill in painting place and atmosphere shines throughout the novel as does his rending of tensions and loyaties in this place still being settled. The unembellished writing makes the story accessible and unsentimental. But unembellished doesn't mean that there are not many riches here. The depiction of family, knowledge, and learning is plain and true and real. And while it took a little effort to get into the rhythm of the story at the beginning, I recommend perseverance. Doig has a given the reader a gift with this novel chronicling a time not so long past but certainly disappearing forever.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Review: The Baby Planner by Josie Brown

Adding a baby to a family is a huge decision composed of big decisions and small ones too. Some people enjoy the small stuff: decorating the nursery, having a baby shower, deciding which baby products are necessary and safe, etc. But some people are overwhelmed by the decisions or want guidance and that's where someone like the fictional Katie Johnson in Josie Brown's novel The Baby Planner comes in.

When Katie's department is slashed during state budget cuts, she loses her job as an advocate for consumer public saftey so she turns her attention to helping one of her sisters prepare for her second baby. What Katie would really like though, is to get pregnant herself. Unfortunately her husband Alex, who hasn't seen his son by his first wife in years, is unwilling to have a baby. While shopping with her sister, another woman looks at the material Katie's pulled together, wanting the same help for herself and voila, Katie's new job as a baby planner is born.

As Katie develops her business and starts spending all her time around pregnant women and one widowed, single dad, her desire for a baby grows impossibly stronger. And her husband continues to sidestep any discussion of starting their own family. Several of Katie's clients become friends and she ably shepherds them through great joy and great grief while sharing only bits and pieces of her own increasingly conflicted personal life with them.

Katie as a character is enthusiastic, optimistic, and charming. When she addresses the reader directly, what could have felt like a break in the narration feels more like a response in a cozy, chatty conversation. She is completely endearing although she is amazingly blind to a situation that is immediately clear to the reader. She does react strangely, and a tad out of character, to one bit of unexpected news given her previous reliance on family. The other characters are more of an ensemble supporting cast and most recognizable through their quirks and foibles, the high powered lawyer only having a baby because her husband wants one, the Senator's wife who needs to pander to his constituents' views, the sad mom-to-be who doesn't want to lose another baby to miscarriage and won't believe in this baby until she has him in her arms, and the single mom whose other half is Mr. Wrong. But all of these women, and indeed the other characters, are immediately recognizable and different, allowing Katie's character, through her interactions with them, to show fully.

The plot here is uncomplicated and straightforward despite the numerous characters. It doesn't cover new ground and occasionally wanders into terribly predictable territory but the unusual career of baby planning and Katie's friendly character help to alleviate this a bit although I have to admit I was disappointed with two of the most predictable instances. The novel comes across as a very beachy, fluffy read but still tackles some pretty weighty topics: secrets, love, what defines a family, marriage and the decisions made between husbands and wives, genetics and all the things that medicine still doesn't know or understand being just a few. Book clubs wanting a have an accessible but still discussable book during the lazy summer months would find this a good option.

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

Popular Posts