Saturday, June 30, 2012

Review: The Girl in the Garden by Kamila Nair

Our past and our family are two of the biggest parts of what makes up each of us. The past may be finished but it forms the basis for so much, even if we try to distance ourselves from it; it is inescapable. And family is even more inescapable, written in our very genes and tugging at us no matter how hard we try to turn our backs on it. In Kamala Nair's debut novel The Girl in the Garden, recognition of family, excessive pride in name and reputation, and the exposure of its deepest secrets changes everything.

The novel opens with Rakhee leaving her engagement ring and a very long letter with her new fiance explaining that she cannot possibly get married without finding closure from the summer when she was 11 and her mother took her back to India, the summer that shook up her life and her family forever. The letter detailing the events of that summer makes up the bulk of the book. Rakhee's parents' marriage is floundering and in addition to the tension of life at home, she also has to deal with feeling outcast at school, the only Indian girl and so different than the rest of her classmates. When a letter arrives from India, her mother, who is clearly depressed and remote, decides to take Rakhee back to her small village in Southern India for the summer.

At first, aside from missing her father, Rakhee is happy enough in India. She makes friends with her cousins and settles into life in the big house with her family. But it doesn't take long until she notices some troubling things: her uncle no longer runs the family hospital, drinking his days away and leaving the administration to a slightly sinister man who visits too frequently for anyone's comfort. She is disturbed by her awareness of her mother's relationship with long-time family friend, Prem, worrying for her father's sake at how close they seem to be growing. And she has been forbidden to venture past a low stone wall into the jungle behind the house because of spirits but when she disobeys, what she finds instead is a deformed girl hidden away from the world in a gorgeous locked garden. There are secrets and things she doesn't understand everywhere Rakhee turns both because she is just a child and because even in India, she is "other," American and a cultural outsider.

Nair's writing is very descriptive, loaded with atmosphere, drawing a lush picture of Southern India and reflecting the slow decline and decay of the once proud Varma family. There is is an enchanted fairy tale feel here. And as in fairy tales, the plot is fairly predictable and simplistic. The characters, as seen through Rakhee's eyes, are almost all one dimensional, and her brief return to India as an adult to find closure and repair the hurts still festering from her long ago summer there doesn't change how the reader views any of the characters because it is too abbreviated to do so. Readers who fancy all things Indian will certainly enjoy this story, filled as it is with love and deceit, secrets and lies.

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

Friday, June 29, 2012

Review: Calling Invisible Women by Jeanne Ray

Who among us hasn't felt her contributions to family life or work or both haven't gone completely unnoticed at times. If dinner is on the table, laundry is washed and folded, reports signed off on, and emails sent is there any reason for those around us to look at us carefully enough to actually see us? Or is the presence of the expected enough that those providing the service are invisible to those around them?

When Clover, the main character in Jeanne Ray's Calling Invisible Women, wakes up invisible one morning, she is horrified to discover that neither her overworked and exhausted pediatrician husband nor her unemployed and depressed post-college aged son, nor her self-obsessed college cheerleader daughter notice that she is in fact invisible. As long as all the things she does around the house continue to be accomplished and she wears clothing on her invisible body, they do not notice that she in fact entirely lacking a visible presence. For them, it's life as usual. But for Clover, well and truly invisible, life is nothing like usual.

As she tries to navigate life even more invisible than she had been (because what woman of a certain age doesn't feel invisible in so many small ways already), she realizes that she can use her invisibility for the good of society. Putting her journalism background to use, she researches invisibility whenever it is mentioned although she realizes that few pop culture nods to invisibility are realistic or quite like what she is facing. And when she spots a personal ad in her own paper, "Calling invisible women" to come to a meeting at the local Sheraton, mustering up the courage to attend, she will find a group of women all suffering from true invisibility like she is and she will find that even without being able to see her body, she can let her inner light shine and make a real difference with the help of these women. Being invisible also allows her to see the true emotional needs of her own family, the things that she was too wrapped up to see about them just as they have so long been too wrapped up to properly see her.

Accessible and engrossing, this is storytelling the way it should be. It is appealing, straightforward, eminently relatable, and by turns humorous and sad. The characters are well-rounded, sympathetic (yes, even though many of them don't notice Clover's invisibility, they are still sympathetic), and very realistic. Clover herself is a wonderful character, discovering hidden strengths she never suspected, changing, and being empowered. The pace of the book builds as Clover comes to terms with her situation and builds again as the invisible women plan their campaign. Although this book posits actual invisibility (and there is a legitimate cause behind the actual invisibility) instead of just using it as a metaphor, anyone who has ever felt unappreciated or invisible to family or society will definitely appreciate this thoughtful and entertaining novel. I have already recommended it to many of my friends, all women of a certain age who have, without exception, said, "I'm definitely invisible. I need to read that."

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

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Review: Safe Within by Jean Reynolds Page

Carson is dying of pancreatic cancer when he asks his wife Elaine to take him back to the small North Carolina town they both grew up in and to the quirky treehouse on the lake that is Elaine's family's home. Going home transports them back into the small community with its gossip and undercurrents. It means Elaine and Mick, Carson and Elaine's adult son, will have to face Carson's mother Greta, nearly blind but still holding a grudge against them, and that the past will surround them every step of the way at a time when they most need love and compassion.

Elaine and Mick haven't spoken to Greta in more than twenty years. The source of the rift is that Greta has never accepted Mick, believing, despite Carson's assurances to the contrary, that Mick is not Carson's son. Although her animosity towards this stubborn old woman hasn't waned, in the wake of her beloved Carson's death, Elaine tries to extend an olive branch to Greta, knowing that it is what Carson would have wanted. After all, she and Mick are all that remain of Greta's family. The one thing that she draws the line at though, is explaining the truth surrounding the rumors over Mick's paternity, insisting that that information was between she and Carson and not for public consumption. And although she wants to do the right thing by her mother-in-law, Elaine is still prickly, defensive, and struggling with forgiveness.

As Elaine is trying to negotiate a tentative truce with her mother-in-law, Mick is feeling rudderless and completely adrift. He's met a girl who used to idolize him when she was small but she's 18 and beautiful and as interested in him as ever now. As he wonders if he can pursue something with her, rumors from the past about an old girlfriend, Kayla, rise up to challenge him. Kayla, who was of mixed race and whose family was extremely poor, was his first great love but also the girl who made him face the worst of himself. Although she is long dead in a car accident, he is still coming to terms with the hurt he caused her and the reality of who he was then. That her sweet six year old little brother might in actual fact be her son instead of her brother has sent him reeling, questions about Kyle's paternity and his responsibilities adding to his uncertainty about his life and future.

Greta, mother-in-law and grandmother, so certain of her convictions, is fighting battles on many fronts. She is in a dispute with her neighbor over her land. He wants it so he can expand his alpaca operation and she has no desire to sell, not even entertaining a single thought for his continued offers. She is perfectly content living with her long-time friend Mattie, who is a sort of housekeeper, companion, and lately Greta's eyes as well. Having Mattie's family living in the guest homes out back means that Greta always has company and she doesn't have to look too closely at her determination to shun her daughter-in-law and only grandson. But then Mattie has a stroke and her family moves to town, and although they are concerned about Greta, Mattie is their more pressing concern, forcing Greta to entertain the notion of relying on Elaine and Mick.

Flipping between the past and the present, the narrative fills in Elaine and Carson's relationship and marriage, the foundation of the so many loving and now much mourned years, fleshing out Carson in a way that would only be possible through other characters' views if the entire novel took place after his death. Elaine, Mick, and Greta, as main characters are all sunk in their own grief but their faltering attempts to right their worlds in the wake of Carson's loss are realistic and human. They are each multi-faceted and their relationships with each other are complicated by history and feeling. The plot is intricate and Page weaves the many threads together deftly. Her writing is true, beautiful, and detailed and she has captured masterfully the deep ache of grief as it stands alongside continued living. Having tapped into a small town setting, she has placed her characters at the mercy of the secrets and gossip that have eaten at the edges of their lives for so many years. But with the whimsical treehouse above the lake, she has also given these characters a nest of imagination and uniqueness in which to find safety, forgiveness, and the ability to move forward with hope. Engrossing and frequently humorous, this compassionate look at living after a loved one's death amidst the tangle that family can be is a wonderful read.

For more information about Jean Reynolds Page and the book visit her website or her Facebook page. Follow the rest of the blog tour or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

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

Juliet in August by Dianne Warren. The book is being released by Amy Einhorn Books on July 5, 2012.

Amazon says this about the book: With writing reminiscent of Alice Munro, Carol Shields, Larry McMurtry, and Elizabeth Strout, Juliet in August uncovers the incredible drama beneath the inhabitants of a sleepy prairie town.

Juliet, Saskatchewan, is a blink-and-you-miss-it kind of town—a dusty oasis on the edge of the Little Snake sand hills. It’s easy to believe that nothing of consequence takes place there. But the hills vibrate with life, and the town’s heart beats in the rich and overlapping stories of its people: the rancher afraid to accept responsibility for the land his adoptive parents left him; the bank manager grappling with a sudden understanding of his own inadequacy; a shy couple, well beyond middle age, struggling with the recognition of their feelings for each other. And somewhere, lost in the sand, a camel named Antoinette.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Review: The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey

I first read Jane Eyre when I was in elementary school. I even still have my copy of it from then, a mass market copy published by Scholastic. I have always loved the story so when I saw that Margot Livesey's novel The Flight of Gemma Hardy was a retelling of Jane Eyre, I was thrilled to get my hands on it.

Opening with Gemma at her unwelcoming and unpleasant aunt's house, she soon leaves for a girls' boarding school where she is expected to work for her meager education. She has not felt love since her Scottish uncle died so her lonely existence at the school is nothing new for her. But when she makes a friend there, she gives her whole heart, grieving when she loses that friend and wondering what life has in store for her next. With the school closing down, she finds an au pair position at Blackbird Hall on the Orkney Islands working for the moody and yet enticing Mr. Sinclair. As Gemma tames and teaches his niece Nell, she finds herself falling for him as well and he for her until the revelation of his secret pushes her away causing her desperate flight from the Orkneys and Mr. Sinclair and everything he represents. It is only with her departure from Blackbird Hall that Gemma will mature beyond the girl she was and uncover the truth about her Icelandic roots and family. Gemma wants to be well regarded and well loved, a desire that drives the entire second half of the book, at which point the novel moves afield from Jane Eyre's plot and forges its own storyline.

This novel follows the story line from Jane Eyre extremely closely and Gemma and Jane are very clearly parallel characters so that anyone who has read and remembers Jane Eyre will not be surprised by the plot developments that befall Gemma. Those who have not read Jane Eyre will not be at a disadvantage though as no knowledge of that work is necessary to read and enjoy this one. The one disadvantage of the parallel plots is that Mr. Sinclair's "madwoman in the attic" is anemic in comparison with the original and although his secret is necessary to drive Gemma away, it is not so impressive, dramatic, or honestly so believable as the cause of such a great rupture with a young woman who has been so starved for love. Yes, this is a novel about the search for love but not simply of the romantic variety. It is a search for belonging and home and the love that family and friends offer. It is a more modern set coming of age novel draped on the plot of the much loved Jane Eyre. And it works that way. The writing flows smoothly, beautifully and even for a reader like me who knew what was round the bend, it was still enjoyable rounding those bends.

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

Monday, June 25, 2012

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

This past week was a busy one as I tried to simultaneously get ready to go on vacation, packed and traveled to my daughter's dance Nationals in the opposite direction of our upcoming vacation, and came home to the sort of mess that only two sons and a husband can make. But I figure the more books I read and review prior to leaving at the end of this week, the fewer I have to take with me to deal with on vacation so... This meme is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.

Books I completed this past week are:

Calling Invisible Women by Jeanne Ray
A Night Like This by Julia Quinn
The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin

Bookmarks are still living in the middle of:

Let the Great World Spin by Colm McCann
Triangles by Ellen Hopkins

Reviews posted this week:

Alice Bliss by Laura Harrington
We Only Know So Much by Elizabeth Crane
The Art of Hearing of Heartbeats by Jan-Philipp Sendker
A Night Like This by Julia Quinn
The American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin
In Hovering Flight by Joyce Hinnefeld

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

The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey
The Girl in the Garden by Kamala Nair
Calling Invisible Women by Jeanne Ray
The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin

Monday Mailbox

Two books this past week but they look fantastic. This past week's mailbox arrivals:

The Thread by Victoria Hislop came from TLC Book Tours and Harper for a blog tour.
Greece has always intrigued me so this tale of love and loyalty spanning almost 100 years in Thessaloniki is definitely appealing.

A Simple Thing by Kathleen McCleary came from TLC Book Tours and William Morrow for a blog tour.
Moving to a remote place to save her kids but potentially sacrificing her marriage, Susannah's story is one backdrop to this tale of the simple life, friendship, and choices and it totally intrigues me.

As always, if you'd like to see the marvelous goodies in other people's mailboxes, make sure to visit Burton Book Review 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, June 24, 2012

Sunday Salon: The Kid's Reading List

I remember the lazy days of summer when I was still school-aged. I'd wander outside to my favorite spot and settle in with a good book. I'd dip into different worlds, pretend to be different people, and sink into the story as bees buzzed nearby and the sun poured down through the lightly blowing leaves above me. It really didn't matter if the book was one of my own choosing or one off of my required summer reading list, I just loved the reading. So it's a little sad to me that two of my three kids no longer have summer reading to do. Don't get me wrong, I am lucky enough to have good readers who will read for pleasure but without a directed reading list, they may never venture out of their own comfort zone because no one is pushing them to do so.

On the plus side, the rising fifth grader does have a reading list. Again, sadly, it is simply recommended reading rather than required reading so there's no reason he *has* to read anything on the list. I might have to come up with a bribe compelling reason for him to tackle at least some of the suggestions on the list. And since I am not familiar with quite a few of the books, I may have to read them along with him. Any suggestions for which one I should push at him first?

The list

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle (we listened to this one on CD last year)
A Young Patriot: The American Revolution as Experienced by One Boy by Jim Murphy
Appalachia: The Voices of Sleeping Birds by Cynthia Rylant
Black Cowboy Wild Horse by Julius Lester & Jerry Pinkney
By the Great Horn Spoon! by Sid Fleischmann
Earth's Fiery Fury by Sandra Downs
Going Back Home: An Artist Returns to the South by Michelle Wood
In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson by Betty Bao Lord
Martin Luther King, Jr.: I Have a Dream by Jacqueline D'Adamo
Mr. Revere and I by Robert Lawson (we already own this one since Lawson wrote my favorite kid book of all time: The Fabulous Flight)
Nikola Tesla: A Spark of Genius by Carol Dommermuth-Costa
Nory Ryan's Song by Patricia Reilly Giff
Phoebe the Spy by Judith Berry Griffin
Pueblo Storyteller by Diane Hoyt-Goldsmith
Tales of the Shimmering Sky by Susan Milford
The Planets by Gail Gibbons
The True Adventures of Grizzly Adams by Robert McClung
Thomas Edison: Inventor of the Age of Electricity by Linda Tagliaferro
Walk Across the Sea by Susan Fletcher

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Review: In Hovering Flight by Joyce Hinnefeld

My grandparents had lots of bird feeders outside their house when I was small. My grandmother has always loved birds, waiting to see the regulars at the bird feeders. I never paid much attention to birds though unless I was at their house. But as I've gotten older, birds have become more intriguing to me with their combination of delicacy and strength, their freedom, and the sweetness of their song. I now turn my head to see if I can spot the bird I hear and although I don't know enough to identify any but the most common birds, I stop to watch them flying by. I envy people who can identify them and those who can capture their essence in images and words. Joyce Hinnefeld has captured the beauty and intricacies of birds and the natural world they live in in her poetic and beautiful debut novel In Hovering Flight.

Scarlet Kavanaugh has come home because her mother, Addie, a famous bird artist is dying. Actually, she hasn't gone home to Pennsylvania, she's gone to Addie's best friend Cora's house in New Jersey since that is where Addie has chosen to die, unwilling to be surrounded by so many haunting memories as she passes on. As Scarlet, named for the scarlet tanager, faces the loss of her mother, she will come to understand Addie better than she ever has before and will mourn the extinguishing of the unique fire that was Addie Sturmer Kavanaugh, artist, environmentalist, activist. She will also have to come to a decision about whether to honor Addie's final wish to be buried illegally on a ridge where she claims to have seen a bird only ever seen before by John James Audubon.

Although opening with the end of Addie's life, the novel looks backwards, telling the tale of Addie and Tom's love and marriage, of Addie's long friendships with college friends Cora and Lou, of her increasingly political art and environmental activism, and of her distracted mothering of Scarlet. Tom Kavanaugh is an ornithologist and professor at a small school in rural Pennsylvania whose classes are wildly popular. When Addie and her friends sign up for his class, he is as immediately captured by Addie as she is by him. They spend time in the field together, looking for and naming birds, as their relationship with each other grows and takes flight. They start their life together wrapped in the beauty of the natural world, collaborating on Tom's classic book: he wrote and she illustrated.

As Addie's art evolves over time beyond the bounds of book pages so too do her political opinions evolve, leading her deep into environmental activism in hopes of saving the habitat around the college and her home. As she becomes more engaged in the fight for a better world starting in her own backyard, she becomes more distant as a mother and a wife. And this strained distance is what Scarlet remembers most from her childhood relationship with her mother, the sense that there was something bigger and more important than their mother/daughter bond. Addie lived a complex life filled with great passions and her husband and best friends do their best to share all they can with Scarlet about the amazing and driven woman that was her mother so that she will carry that knowledge into the future and in her own life.

The writing here is gorgeous and subtle with the weaving of the natural world and birds throughout the narrative of Addie's life. There's meaning and wonder packed into the ephemeral here and the idea that the attempt, even if defeated, is the first step to something better and greater. The deep and abiding love between Addie and Tom is beautifully rendered as is the long and important friendship between Addie, Cora, and Lou. The inclusion of Addie's field journals allow Hinnefeld to seamlessly incorporate Addie's point of view and motivations. This is a phenomenal and compassionate look at the dynamics of relationship, both between people themselves and between people and the creatures with whom we share our world. It addresses responsibility and stewardship and reminds us all to take the time to look at our loved ones and the spaces around us and to appreciate them. For all of time is brief but if we are lucky, our touch extends beyond us.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Review: The American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin

We may have fought a war to throw off monarchical rule here in the US but we still have a serious fascination with royalty and titles. We generally turn to England to supply this craving and in the not too distant past, Americans with money actually went to England in search of impoverished, titled men in hopes that by buying membership into the English aristocracy, they could achieve the kind of social pre-eminence that their money couldn't buy them on these shores. This is the basis for Daisy Goodwin's glittering, decadent, and delicious novel The American Heiress.

Cora Cash is fantastically rich, one of the very richest Newport heiresses, but her family's money is so newly minted that she is still not considered an appropriate match for Teddy Van Der Leyden whose money may not equal the Cash fortune but whose pedigree elevates him beyond her. Although Cora's trip to Europe to find a titled husband is already planned, she is hopeful that she and Teddy may still defy convention. After all, she very nearly always gets what she wants, unless it conflicts with what her manipulative mother wants. After a near tragedy, Cora and her mother proceed to England to snare Cora a titled husband just as her mother's plan always assumed. They hire a woman to get them into the drawing rooms of the right people and end up at a house party where Cora goes out for a ride, is thrown from her stallion, and finds herself recovering in the neighboring Duke of Wareham's home. A more perfect situation Cora's own mother couldn't have envisioned.

And so Cora becomes the Duchess of Wareham and is plunged into a society with undercurrents and conventions that are as foreign to her as they can possibly be. Spoiled though she is, she is in love with her new husband and wants nothing more than to please him. But her lack of familiarity with Ivo's world and the expectations that are a part and parcel of it cause her make misstep after misstep with her moody and aloof husband and to befriend people who are not interested in mentoring her but in crushing her. Both Cora and Ivo's pasts threaten to overwhelm their current lives and could dictate the future just as completely. As Cora learns to navigate the hidden shoals in her British life, she has to mature from the lovely but spoiled heiress she was at eighteen into a woman who chooses her own future.

This well written, superbly researched novel is a window into the late nineteenth century American invasion of Britain. Cora and Ivo, who start off as rather stereotypical, develop into multi-dimensional and realistic characters. The secondary characters are definitely more one dimesional in their roles but their very presence moves the plot along at a good clip. The reader sees all the pitfalls Cora faces and wants to warn her about her mistakes as she's a likable and sympathetic character. In addition to the cultural differences between the US and England, there's also the theme of class and race weaving through the novel just beneath the surface, best highlighted through the relationship between Bertha, Cora's black lady's maid, and one of the footmen at Lulworth, the Duke of Wareham's ancestral home. A confection of a novel, this was a quick and engaging read that seems like a guilty pleasure on the surface but certainly gave my book club enough to talk about to sustain an evening's discussion.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Review: A Night Like This by Julia Quinn

When I rediscovered romances, Julia Quinn was one of the authors I fortuitously stumbled across. I devoured her Bridgerton series, funny, well-written, and thoroughly enjoyable. I realized that sometimes I need to read a book where I am guaranteed a happily ever after and romances fit the bill perfectly. So when the opportunity to meet her latest family arose, I couldn't jump on it fast enough. And the perpetually unmusical Smythe-Smiths are entertaining but they are no Bridgertons.

Daniel Smythe-Smith, the Earl of Winstead, had to flee England three years ago after he tripped and shot his friend in a duel. He spent three years looking over his shoulder since Hugh's father vowed to hunt him down and kill him. But Hugh himself finds Daniel and convinces him that he has extracted a promise from his father to quit hunting Daniel. And so Daniel comes home. He comes home the night of the annual Smythe-Smith musicale when the unmarried girls in the family showcase their lack of musical talent by performing perfectly dreadfully. The cousin slated to butcher the piano accompaniment fakes an illness and her younger sisters' governess, Anne Wynter, is roped in as a stand-in. From behind a cracked door, Daniel spies Anne laboring away at the piano and he is immediately struck by her.

Daniel pursues her by spending time with his young, highly entertaining cousins whenever they are in their governess' care. Anne tries to hold herself away from him and deny the growing attraction between them because she is desperate to maintain her position and to chart her own course in life, no matter how lonely that course is destined to be thanks to a youthful indiscretion. But when Daniel's and Anne's lives are in danger, she might just have to let him in on the secret of her past.

The banter between Anne and Daniel is delightful and they definitely have a sweet sexual tension as well. The hilarious and lively secondary characters often overshadow them when they appear in scenes though. The plot romps along and is strongest when Daniel's family (those strong secondary characters) is a part of the narrative. Once Anne and Daniel have to figure out who wants to hurt them (and which one of them is the target), the plot weakens and relies on some tired plot devices like a kidnapping. On the plus side, Anne is not a hand wringing sort of heroine and she is a deeply caring character. She is determined and takes charge of herself. Both Anne and Daniel have had to make amends for terrible misjudgments in their respective youths but they've come out of it as appealing characters who deserve each other and happiness. This is a pleasant, well-written tale that fulfills the historical Regency-set romance reader's expectations.

For more information about Julia Quinn and the book visit her website or her Facebook page. Follow the rest of the blog tour or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

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

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Review: The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Philipp Sendker

The heart and the mind do not see in equal measure. And sometimes those of us with reasonably decent eye sight miss the things that the heart sees. Jan-Philipp Sendker explores this idea and the enduring love that the heart can find when it is allowed to see unfettered by our other senses in his masterfully translated novel, The Art of Hearing Heartbeats.

Julia Win travels to her father's village in Thailand searching for him with the only clue she has to his disappearance: an unmailed love letter addressed to a woman named Mi Mi in Tin Win's village. Tin Win is a high powered, successful Wall Street lawyer when he disappears the day after Julia's law school graduation. Several years go by without any word of him but when Julia's mother sends her a box of her father's things, she finds the letter and sets out on her quest to discover what happened to her father.

When she arrives Kalaw and asks about her father, she finds a man named U Ba who says he has been waiting for her for years. Leery of trusting this stranger, he is the only person who seems to have any information for her at all so she keeps going back to see him, drawn, almost against her will, by the story he's telling her and which he claims her father told him. U Ba tells her of her father as a boy and a young man, sharing things she never knew before and she is uncertain as to whether this tale of her father, his childhood blindness, his meeting with the "crippled" Mi Mi, and their deep and abiding love is true or simply a fairy tale created for a tourist.

As Julia listens to the immensely touching story of the blind boy and the beautiful girl whose legs won't support her so she must scurry on all fours, she learns about her father's ability to hear the smallest of noises, to locate a person by their heartbeat, to see without seeing. She listens carefully to the special and unusual love story between Tin Win and Mi Mi for clues about the man who would become her father. And she also learns to listen to more than just the words of the tale, to listen with her own heart.

Sendker has woven both the western and the eastern sensibilities together in this narrative by using both American born Julia and her Burmese born father. He's captured Julia's discomfort with what she doesn't understand, the fantastical and mystical of her father's childhood. Sendker has offered up a lovely tribute to the way that true love recognizes its perfect match and endures despite all. The story of Tin Win and Mi Mi is delicately done and sweet but there's not much that explains Tin Win's decades in America or his feelings for his family there and that lack is inexplicable, or perhaps it just would have made the plot and the character of Tin Win too complicated but it feels missing. Julia's anger and hurt at her father's choice to disappear is understandable but over all she's not a particularly well-fleshed out character; she seems to be simply the reason for telling Tin Win's story. In another book this might be a problem but in this one, the rest of the story makes this small weakness immaterial. The end was a bit predictable but the journey to get there was so engaging that this too didn't matter. The idea of enduring love that survives no matter what curve balls life throws, spanning years, continents, and cultures is definitely appealing and readers will be hard pressed to put this one down until they've turned the last page.

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

Waiting on Wednesday

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

The Reluctant Matchmaker by Shobhan Bantwal. The book is being released by Kensington on June 26, 2012.

Amazon says this about the book: In her thought-provoking, uplifting new novel, Shobhan Bantwal vividly blends the nuances of contemporary Indian-American culture with an unconventional romance. . .
At thirty-one, Meena Shenoy has a fulfilling career at a New Jersey high-tech firm. Not that it impresses her mother and aunts, who make dire predictions about her ticking biological clock. Men are drawn to Meena's dainty looks and she dates regularly, but hasn't met someone who really intrigues her. Someone professional, ambitious, confident, caring. Someone like her new boss, Prajay Nayak.

Just as Meena's thoughts turn to romance, Prajay makes an astonishing request. He wants her to craft a personal ad that will help him find a suitable wife: a statuesque, sophisticated Indian-American woman who will complement his striking height.

Despite her attraction to Prajay and the complications of balancing work and her "marriage consultant" role, Meena can't refuse the generous fee. And as her family is thrown into turmoil by her brother's relationship with a Muslim woman, Meena comes to surprising realizations about love, tradition, and the sacrifices she will--and won't--make for the sake of both.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Review: We Only Know So Much by Elizabeth Crane

In Elizabeth Crane's debut novel, We Only Know So Much, the Copeland family is quite possibly the most hilariously self-involved group of people I've read about in a very long time. I was going to say they are a family but aside from blood relationships and habit, there's very little holding them together as a family at this point. They are quirky, eccentric, and dysfunctional but eminently entertaining.

Four generations of Copelands live together in one large home and every one of them is so focused on themselves and their own problems that they don't see their family relationships completely imploding. Vivian is the matriarch of the family and at 98 years old, although mentally still fully present, she is uninterested in anything that doesn't center around her or her life. Her son Theodore is failing both physically and mentally, stricken with Parkinson's but is still stubborn and sneaky, wanting to maintain a semblance of autonomy in his life. His son Gordon is a pompous, pontificating blowhard who regularly lectures the family on any topic they mention but he is suddenly terrified by the thought that his mind, his most prized possession, is deteriorating. His wife Jean, emotionally unavailable to her family, has been having an affair with a man in her book club who gives her everything Gordon doesn't (and may never have). Contented and fulfilled feeling in her infidelity, she is rocked when her lover hangs himself, finding herself obsessed with the knowledge that as intimately as she thought she knew him she didn't know he was depressed which must mean that somehow his final act reflects on her. Nineteen year old daughter Priscilla is undirected and narcissistic (but then look at her great-grandmother) and her biggest goal in life is to land a part in a reality tv show. Nine year old Otis is just a nice kid but he's falling in love with a classmate and that's enough to make anyone nutty but especially so when his parents barely notice his existence. His mother only spends her time answering Otis's questions about love in terms of her own adulterous affair with the result that Otis understands that lovers kill themselves. And his father lectures and instructs him instead of actually hearing Otis and his newfound uncertainty.

Written in a funny, sarcastic tone, this tale of a family so individually wrapped up in their separate lives is narrated by an unnamed observer who has incomplete access to the thoughts of each of the characters in the ensemble. In addition to this limited access, the narrator shares his or her opinions on each character with the reader directly, giving the narration an air of snarky gossip being passed along. The story follows each character by turns, speculating about what is driving each personal drama and the ways in which these are unacknowledged by the others in the family but also the ways in which these dramas impact the Copelands as a whole, even if they remain ignorant of the origins.

As the story unfolds, each character sinks farther into his and her own self-centered diversion. It is hard to sympathize with any of them besides perhaps Otis or maybe Theodore but they are all highly entertaining to read about. There is not much of a plot here; each individual's dawning realization that they are not in fact their own island is enough to drive the tale. Personal growth through caring and engaging in each other's concerns again is the heart of the novel and watching the characters come to understand this to varying degrees and with varying degrees of success is eminently satisfying. I found myself reading this with a wry grin on my face even as I winced when I recognized some of the traits of these characters in myself and my own family. A fast, enjoyable read, this will remind readers to "just connect," a worthy reminder any time.

For more information about Elizabeth Crane and the book visit her website, her Facebook page or follow her on Twitter. Follow the rest of the blog tour or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

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

Monday, June 18, 2012

Review: Alice Bliss by Laura Harrington

The war in Iraq has been going on for so many years now that it can be very easy to forget that we are still sending soldiers over there, soldiers who leave family and loved ones at home worried about their safety and just trying to go on with daily life as best they can in the face of an uncertain future. There are tv shows capturing the deeply emotional moments of a returning soldier surprising his child, parent, wife, etc. but there's very little media coverage of these same loved ones' lives while that soldier was half way across the world. Laura Harrington has captured what it means for families and particularly children old enough to understand the risks and ramifications of a soldier father (or mother) in her novel Alice Bliss.

Teenaged Alice is a daddy's girl, her uncomplicated relationship with him a direct counterpoint to her difficult relationship with her mother. She's a tomboy who shares her father's interests and she is crushed when she learns that he is being sent to Iraq. She is angry and devastated and unsure just exactly how she can go forward in life without her father right there with her. But go on she does, changing and maturing, fighting with her mother, trying new things, and cherishing the brief phone calls and longer letters from her dad. She wants everything to stay the same for him when he comes home but life doesn't stand still. Alice starts running on the track team, learns to drive, goes to her first dance, all without her father.

This novel is loaded with emotions right on the edge. Alice narrates the story and she is a typical teenager, vulnerable and defensive, but with added weight. Harrington has drawn her characters completely realistically. The tension and relationship between Alice and her mother Angie rings true at every moment of the narrative. And her interactions with her best friend and her younger sister are equally real and authentic. Readers will be touched by this young girl struggling to come of age and to grow into herself even as she doesn't want life to change so it is still recognizable to her father. Being a teenager is hard no matter how you slice it but when your father, the family's north star, is away fighting a war no one wants to talk about, it is that much more difficult, that much more raw, that much more emotional. And this book is nothing if not highly emotional. You'll feel for the Bliss family as they face fear and the implacability of the military at war. And even though the climax of the novel is not at all unexpected, Harrington has written an honest and heartwrenching look at what happens to the families at home that will keep readers engrossed until the last page.

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

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

I haven't been doing a whole lot of reading lately for no particular reason at all. I've been busy (my son had four different tennis tournaments in the past two weeks and got his driver's permit so we've had to do a lot of nerve-wracking driving lately, my daughter has had dance rehearsal every day for a while since her Nationals is this week, the youngest has been sick plus had some soccer practices when he wasn't, and school let out--probably the biggest time sucker of all if I'm being honest) but that's not really substantially different than usual. So no reason behind it but not much reading to report and only slightly more reviewing. This meme is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.

Books I completed these past two weeks are:

Passing Love by Jacqueline Luckett
The Flight of Emma Hardy by Margot Livesey
Picture This by Jaqueline Sheehan
We Only Know So Much by Elizabeth Crane
The Girl in the Garden by Kamala Nair

Bookmarks are still living in the middle of:

Let the Great World Spin by Colm McCann
Triangles by Ellen Hopkins

Reviews posted this week:

An Uncommon Education by Elizabeth Percer
The Voluntourist by Ken Budd
When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man by Nick Dybek
Passing Love by Jacqueline Luckett
Picture This by Jacqueline Sheehan
The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht

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

Alice Bliss by Laura Harrington
The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Philipp Sendker
The American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin
In Hovering Flight by Joyce Hinnefeld
The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey
We Only Know So Much by Elizabeth Crane
The Girl in the Garden by Kamala Nair

Monday Mailbox

Only a few books this past two weeks but given my general reading slump right now, that's probably not a bad thing at all! This past two week's mailbox arrivals:

The After Wife by Gigi Levangie Grazer came from Ballantine Books.
Widowed in Los Angeles, this tale of grief and Hannah's learning to live again promises to be funny and eccentric. I mean, seriously, just look at the cover with a woman perched in a tree!

A Night Like This by Julia Quinn came from TLC Book Tours and Avon for a blog tour.
When I first rediscovered romance novels after I finished school required reading, Julia Quinn was one of the first I read and she remains one of the most entertaining to me so her newest historical set novel is definitely appealing.

Great-Aunt Sophia's Lessons for Bombshells by Lisa Cach came from Gallery Books for a blog tour.
A novel about a Woman's Studies student and her diva of a great aunt with different philosophies on life and what happens when the student follows Great Aunt Sophia's lessons? Sounds fanastic, doesn't it?!

As always, if you'd like to see the marvelous goodies in other people's mailboxes, make sure to visit Burton Book Review 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, June 17, 2012

Reflections on a dance recital weekend

Do you watch Dance Moms? I don't. I don't feel like I need to for numerous reasons but first and foremost is that I am a dance mom (lower case and certainly not at all like I've heard the women on the show are). My daughter has been dancing now for 9 years. Our initial reason for signing our 4 year old peanut up for dance was to help her gain some self-confidence. Little did we know that she'd gain self-confidence and fall in love with dance. I am totally and completely not cut out to be a dancer's mom. I stopped wearing make-up once I aged out of scads of blue eye shadow and junior high. I wash my hair and run out of the house with it still dripping wet. I rarely give much thought to what I'm wearing. In other words, for an art form and a sport that does in fact rely heavily on appearance, it's clearly a good thing that it's my daughter and not me who is the one on stage. Aside from my lack of coordination and grace and all of that.

But in 9 years of being a dance mom, I have learned a few things and since I have, I am now uniquely qualified to help backstage at the annual recital. This year, I was assigned to the baby room. This means that I was in a room with all the dancers 6 years old and younger. As I've mentioned before, I'm not a fan of other people's children. My own children know about my low boiling point and have learned that it's a happier situation for all when they behave the way I'm asking them to behave. So I was a little (ok, a lot) leery of the baby room. Being trapped with the criers and the wetters and the blankie needers had the potential to go terribly, terribly wrong. Thankfully it didn't. Other than giving a couple of kids the evil eye, I didn't have to make my head spin 360 degrees. Better yet, I ddn't have to wipe any bottoms (another big hazard in the baby room) although I did have to help a couple of small people to the bathroom and lift them onto the potty. It's been years since I had to do that for my own crew and doing it for these tiny girls reinforced how glad I am to be past that point in my life.

But even a smoothly run recital leaves stories to tell. And these stories are the only things that keep those of us working behind the scenes from quitting and running out screaming. Recital, for those in the audience, is a sweet showcase of varying degrees of dancing competence, a culmination of everything their kids have learned over the year. For those of us in the bowels of the auditorium, recital is like Groundhog Day the movie, all weekend long for all six recitals. Kids stayed occupied in our room in a variety of ways: Simon Says, games, sing alongs, and movies. Much to my surprise, the babies in the baby room knew all the lyrics to Dynamite, Hey I Just Met You, and several other popular songs. These and Christmas carols make for some odd entertaining sing-alongs. The weekend also had Barbie movies on permanent loop down in our room. Yes, lucky soul that I was, I got to watch, and watch, and watch Barbie movies that my own daughter never saw, having aged out of Barbie before they were released. They haven't gotten any better in the intervening years. They still make me want to stick a fork in my eye. Groundhog Day, ghastly pop song sing-alongs, and Barbie movies for hours. If that's not an enticing recommendation to work one for yourself, perhaps the stories will be.

We actually had one mom drop her child off with fabulous instructions for us. Apparently her daughter was very constipated so mom gave her a laxative. She needed us to know that she had done this because, this being a small kid, we'd have to accompany the child to the bathroom and she didn't want us to be alarmed if the kid had explosive diarrhea. Yes, seriously! There's clearly no better time to give your young child a laxative than when she is going to have on a costume and tights and be in the care of strangers she doesn't know and who have no higher calling in life than to wait on your child's bowel movement so they can wipe her bottom for you. Really? It couldn't have waited two hours to get her through the show first? People never stop surprising me.

While we were trying to ignore the potential poo disaster in our room, the older kid room was having adventures and fun too. Luckily for us, they got the vomiter in their room. I'm pretty sure that puke did not improve the look of the ballet costume. They also had a girl who arrived in the room with a handful of yarn. She gave it to her dance teacher saying, "Can you put this in my bag? I'm going to want to finger it later." Yes, the dance teacher let out a yip of laughter before smothering it. And all of us who heard the story later laughed uproariously. If you aren't seeing the humor in it, congratulate yourself on not living in the same gutter the rest of us do.

These are just the creme de la creme of the weekend's stories. We had to keep a tally of how many times one particular kid annoyed the pants off of us. For people who allow their children to think the universe revolves around them, please stop! It doesn't. Even if the kid is young and has an older sister at the studio. That just makes your kid the one voted most likely to be smacked with a shovel by the adults in the room. We didn't have a shovel so we just kept a tally of the child's annoying, obnoxious moments. (Yes, as I later admitted to my daughter, adults do keep slam books when we have to be around rotten kids for too long.) She doubled that tally in about two minutes and we had to endure her for two plus hours. I probably won't be able to look the mom in the face any more without feeling murderous.

But it's all over for another year and because the tears in the room were not ones I caused, I'm likely to be doing this same thing next year. I'll probably have recovered by then. Maybe.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Review: The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht

It's hard when you don't love a book as much as everyone else seems to do. It's doubly hard when that book is a book that has had award after award heaped on it. It makes you wonder what about it you completely missed. And that's where I am with Tea Obreht's The Tiger's Wife. This won the 2011 Orange Prize and was a finalist for the 2011 National Book Award for Fiction. People all over the internet rave about it. My book club liked it. All these people found it extraordinary and I just found it meh. Leaves a girl feeling just a little bit out of step.

Set in an unnamed Balkan country after the Balkan War, this is the story of Natalia and her grandfather. She is a young doctor on a mission to take medicines to orphans across the newly established border when she receives a call from her grandmother telling her that her grandfather has died. He's died far from home, having claimed that he was traveling to see her, Natalia. The fact of his death does not surprise her as she knew he was ill but that he claimed to be coming to her is entirely new to her. Although she continues with her difficult mission trip, she cannot stop thinking about her grandfather, to whom she was close, her childhood with him, and the tales he told her.

As Natalia continues with her intended medicine delivery and administration, she retells the stories, the cultural mythologies told to her by her grandfather and which threaded through her childhood. As a young girl, she visited the zoo with her grandfather many, many times, always spending the most time with the tiger. As war is declared and times change, Natalia grows tired of her grandfather's predictable habits and pulls away from their outings but she internalizes his stories of the tiger's wife and of the deathless man. As an adult, thinking back on her younger self and her experiences with her grandfather, she remembers and tells these folktales, these magical stories that symbolize the fear of death in this area so recently haunted by the brutality and killing of war.

These fantastical stories her grandfather told wrap through the present day narrative but seem often, to be part of a different story entirely, not as well-integrated as I'd have liked. They threaten to overwhelm Natalia's story in places but they also take on an air of tediousness and I found myself hoping that we were almost through them at other times. The language of the novel is beautiful and well-written but it is ultimately flat and the over-arching feeling of the book as a whole is the gloomy, dark, and grim aftermath of a needless war. Ultimately I just wanted to turn the last page and even discussing it with my book club didn't give me a deeper appreciation of the book. I'm sure I've missed something here but darned if I can figure it out.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Waiting on Wednesday

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

The Hypnotist's Love Story by Liane Moriarty. The book is being released by Amy Einhorn Books on June 14, 2012.

Amazon says this about the book: From the author of critically acclaimed What Alice Forgot comes a wonderfully fun, insightful novel about the crazy things we do for love.

Ellen O’Farrell is a bit unusual. She’s a hypnotherapist. She’s never met her father. And she can’t seem to keep a relationship going (okay, that’s more normal that we want to admit). When Ellen meets Patrick, she’s hopeful nevertheless. But when he says he needs to tell her something, she fears the worst. However, when Patrick reveals that his ex-girlfriend is stalking him, Ellen thinks, Is that all? Actually, that’s kind of neat. She’s more intrigued than frightened. What makes a supposedly smart, professional woman behave this way? She’d love to meet her. What she doesn’t know is that she already has.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Review: Picture This by Jacqueline Sheehan

Rocky Pelligrino moved to Peaks Island, Maine after the unexpected death of her husband. Reeling from her loss, she traded in her job as a college psychologist for animal control warden on the island. In this sequel to Lost and Found, Rocky is slowly unfreezing emotionally and starting to make connections and open her heart up to life again. She has some wonderful neighbors who care about her, a budding romantic relationship, a thoughtful boss, and of course, Cooper, the big black lab, who saved her as surely as she saved him from the arrow that almost killed him.

But recovery is fragile and Rocky is about to get derailed. First the phone rings and a girl claiming to be the biological daughter of Rocky's late husband is on the other end. Then she sees Hill, for whom she has come to care quite a lot, with his estranged wife and she knows that she cannot tolerate a cheater. She is completely emotionally overwhelmed and makes some impulsive choices without thinking things through. She breaks it off with Hill before she even hears his explanation. She buys a house on the island which needs some serious renovation. And she invites the very damaged Natalie, who might or might not be Bob's biological daughter, to move in with her thinking that this girl/woman could be a way for her to preserve a piece of Bob.

The narration of the book rotates among the different characters, including Cooper the dog and the neglected house Rocky's bought. This allows the reader to see the internal motivations of not only Rocky as the main character but also those around her. And it is in being privy to every character's thoughts that the reader realizes, long before Rocky does, that everything is not as it seems and she needs to be on her guard. While this narrative technique gives the reader additional insight into the story, it is initially a bit choppy and the addition of Cooper's narration and the house's narration might come off as too far fetched for some readers. It is frustrating, if understandable, to watch Rocky, who is clearly intelligent, make such foolhardy choices because she is still so close to the clutches of crippling grief.

Rocky's relationships with the other characters seem very tenous in the novel. Perhaps reading the first book would have changed this for this reader, laying a groundwork missing here. Rocky's attachment to Natalie and her horror at hearing how the foster system damaged her beyond belief is much better fleshed out, as it must be since Natalie is a new character in this book. And really, the story here centers around Rocky and Natalie and the truth that stands between them rather than about Rocky and the community of people who have embraced her. There is some pretty strong foreshadowing here but the actual turn of events in the end of the novel are surprising. The tension increases as the story progresses and the island folk become embroiled in a situation not of their making. Some of the resolutions are a little too easy but overall this is a nice read and fans of the first book will enjoy revisiting with Rocky and Cooper and the people of Peaks Island.

For more information about Jacqueline Sheehan and the book visit her website or her Facebook page. Follow the rest of the blog tour or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

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

Monday, June 11, 2012

Review: Passing Love by Jacqueline Luckett

Sometimes a place gets into your heart and head and you have no idea why. It just captures your imagination. It calls to you. It becomes the place you most want to visit in person. You just know you belong there in ways that are completely inexplicable. Paris is this sort of place for Nicole-Marie Handy in Jacqueline Luckett's novel Passing Love.

Nicole is at a turning point in her life. Her elderly parents are failing and she helps them out as best she can. Her married lover is proposing marriage but still seems to have no intention of actually leaving his current marriage. Nicole's best friend, with whom she had planned a trip to Paris to see the city that so captivates her, died of cancer. But she didn't die before extracting a promise from Nicole to take the much-needed trip anyway. A little distance from her life might give her some perspective on her road forward.

As Nicole wanders through Paris, learning to be a little bit spontaneous and to take a chance here or there, she makes some friends in the city. It is at the shop of one of these new acquaintances that she finds an old photograph of her father. The mystery of it and how it came to be between the pages of an old book in Paris takes over Nicole's thoughts and she embarks on a journey to discover this long buried part of her father's life knowing that she can't simply ask him, fogged in by Alzheimer's as he is.

Nicole's quest is not the only plot thread running through the novel though. Alternating from Nicole in present day Paris to Mississippi during WWII and then Paris after the war, the tale of RubyMae, a young black girl who escapes the Jim Crow South for the relative racial blindness of liberated Paris, also weaves through the narrative. These two parallel stories of women, one young and one in her fifties eventually come together but long before they do, it is clear that both tales are of women finding themselves, facing and making decisions that will forever impact their lives and who they are.

Each chapter, whether about Nicole or about RubyMae, starts with a small French lesson and some vocabulary words that foreshadow the story to come. The alternating between Nicole and RubyMae was initially confusing and felt a bit choppy but it eventually smoothed out. As can be the case, though, one story line was more interesting, more dramatic and so the reading experience was a bit lopsided. Thankfully, as the two stories started to come together, the whole strengthened but the connection was fairly predictable and the ending expected.

RubyMae started off as vibrant and passionately full of life but then the depth of feeling in her character faded unfortunately leaving her fairly flat. Nicole's character was flat for me all along. We're told her feelings and that she is driven to go to Paris, but that drive has to be taken on faith. Even her anger later in the book is described rather than expressed and while that fits in some ways with her suppressed character, it makes it hard to understand and sympathize with her. Finding the photo was a tad bit too deus ex machina for my taste but without it, there is no story.

The book does a nice job describing Paris now and then. And the portions about "black Paris," where all of the jazz musicians lived after the war, and how they lied and played was fascinating stuff. The book did a good job showing the opportunities and freedoms to be found overseas as compared to the US in the late forties and early fifties. Although simple and fairly predictable, folks interested in Paris after the war, the birth of jazz, and race relations in the Jim Crow era will probably find this a worthwhile read.

For more information about Jacqueline Luckett and the book visit her website, Facebook page or follow her on Twitter. Follow the rest of the blog tour or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

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

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Review: When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man by Nick Dybek

I have always been attracted to the sea but also wary of it. It is the source of life, often benevolent, but it can turn threatening and violent in an instant swallowing lives whole. Those people for whom it is a source of income hold a healthy respect for it, always conscious that it can both give and take away, their livelihood, their life. It offers a hard and fickle life and yet it is the only life that many fishermen know and or would choose. When this way of life is threatened, as it is in Nick Dybek's debut novel When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man, the consequences can be as unforgiving as a sudden squall at sea.

The men of Loyalty Island, off the Olympic Peninsula in Washington, are Alaskan king crab fishermen. It is the only life that they know, sailing away from their homes and families for the season to make their living in the remote, cold Alaskan waters. But these men who face hardship everyday on their boats do not control their own living. Local man John Gaunt owns everything connected to the fishing industry on Loyalty Island and the summer he dies, the community is on the cusp of unwelcome and unwanted change. Gaunt's only son Richard inherits the fleet, and in essence the men as well, but he wants nothing to do with it and threatens to sell it all to the Japanese and that is the catalyst for the terrible and somehow unavoidable events that come to pass after his announcement.

Cal is fifteen the summer in question but he is narrating the events in hindsight thirteen years on, 28 now and the weight of his silence is finally too crushing to keep. John Gaunt is ill as the story opens and Cal and his parents are called to visit with the dying man. His father is a captain in Gaunt's fleet. His mother is pregnant with their second child. Cal doesn't completely understand the undercurrents and tensions floating about as John Gaunt dies by inches. What he does understand is that his parents' marriage seems to be strained and crumbling even before Richard Gaunt comes to town to claim and then destroy his inheritance in front of the very men who depend on him for their livelihoods.

As the men band together to ensure that their imminent fishing season is unaffected, everything is changing in Cal's life. The men leave for the Alaskan waters and his mother escapes to an old friend's in Santa Cruz abandoning Cal. Cal navigates his new life at a neighbor's, going through the motions and recognizing deep in his bones the loneliness and despair that drove his mother to finally break free of the stagnation she felt on Loyalty Island. He misses his connection to his parents: the memory of his father telling him tales of when Captain Flint was still good and his mother's beloved music pulsing through the house and so he sneaks home in hopes of recapturing the life he misses. Instead he stumbles across a discovery at once terrible and enormous. But as Jim Hawkins found in Treasure Island, once you've discovered the adults' secret, no good will come of it; there is no turning back. There is a sickening sense of looming injustice and selfishness throughout the novel and in the end, no matter how many years have passed, there is no escape from Loyalty Island and the events of that long year.

This is an unrelentingly dark and atmospheric novel rife with deception and betrayal. The moral dilemma at its core is horrifying and yet somehow not unexpected. The pace of the narrative is slow and forbidding but no less suspenseful for all that. The characters are all so isolated and disconnected from one another that no decision seems beyond them, no matter how desperate, deliberate, or morally bankrupt. Occasionally the writing is overdone and crammed with too many obvious similies. In spite of this and the slowness of the tale, the book is oddly riveting and although it has its share of flaws, it bodes well for Dybek's future novels.

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

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

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.

Brand New Human Being by Emily Jeanne Miller. The book is being released by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on June 12, 2012.

Amazon says this about the book: I’m putting the drill back in the safe when my fingers touch something unexpected—paper. An envelope. I take it out. Where an address should be, my name is written in Gus’s unmistakable, back-slanting hand.

Meet Logan Pyle, a lapsed grad student and stay-at-home dad who’s holding it together by a thread. His father, Gus, has died; his wife, Julie, has grown distant; his four-year-old son has gone back to drinking from a bottle. When he finds Julie kissing another man on a pile of coats at a party, the thread snaps. Logan packs a bag, buckles his son into his car seat, and heads north with a 1930s Lousville Slugger in the back of his truck, a maxed-out credit card in his wallet, and revenge in his heart.

After some bad decisions and worse luck, he lands at his father’s old A-frame cabin, where his father’s young widow, Bennie, now lives. She has every reason to turn Logan away, but when she doesn’t, she opens the door to unexpected redemption—for both of them.

A deftly plotted exploration of marriage, family, and the road from child to parent, Brand New Human Being is a page-turning debut that overflows with heart and grace.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Review: The Voluntourist by Ken Budd

Many people look at their children as their legacy to the world. They are, after all, what so many of us leave behind after our deaths, the best parts of ourselves. But if someone chooses to remain childless, what remains after they are gone? How are they remembered and what is their legacy? Ken Budd tackles that question in his introspective, unusual, and wonderful travelogue.

When his father dies of a heart attack unexpectedly, Budd sees first hand the many ways in which his father lived a good life, contributed to others' happiness, and made a difference in the world in so many small but significant ways. Losing his father makes Budd think about what he wants to do to live a life that matters. Unlike his own father, he himself will never be a father so he cannot strive to emulate his dad in that way but he can choose to give back for the goodness in his life and so he embarks on six "voluntouring" trips of around two weeks each in which he pays for the privilege of going to poor, troubled, or devastated places in this world to do whatever sort of work he can to contribute to bettering the lot of the people and the place.

His drive to volunteer cleaning up in New Orleans post Katrina, to teach English in Costa Rica, to help care for and teach special needs kids in China, to count flora and fauna in a cloud forest in Ecuador as a part of a scientific global warming project, to help Palestinian refugees with menial work on the West Bank, and to care for orphans in Kenya in between stints in his regular working life comes as much from his realization that life is short and it is vital that we do the best we can with the time we are given as from his need to somehow process and grieve the fact that while he would very much like a child, his wife is certain that she does not and he must honor her feelings in this above his own.

Each section of the book presents a different voluntourism experience and Budd deftly captures the uniqueness of each place, the resilience and hope of the people, and his own feelings facing each different situation and in coming to terms with his father's loss and the loss of his potential children. He captures the personalities of some of his fellow volunteers, sketching them briefly but managing to show their essence even in their short cameos. He describes the hard and dirty unskilled labor for which he, a writer and editor, is qualified and honestly presents the difficulty and frustrations of many of his volunteer jobs. But he also acknowledges that despite the deprivations, the occasionally uncomfortable living conditions, and the looming question of whether he is really making a difference, doing something good, or causing more harm, he is the one who has gained immeasurably through his varied experiences.

Well written, inspiring and honest, this travelogue/memoir is filled with humor and humanity. It chronicles Budd's personal journey, his marriage, coming to terms with his grief, and stepping outside of his own comfort zone to grow into the sort of person he wants to be. You'll find politics, history, science, and so much more here. But mainly you'll find people going about their daily lives in the face all sorts of obstacles, pleased that others truly see them and thankful for the help they are given, even if sometimes that help causes them even more work. This is all about human connection and the small wonders that can occur when we just reach out one hand and make that connection. It would be tough to come away from this book without the wish to set out on your own voluntourism experience, to make your own difference in this world, to be a person who matters.

For more information about Ken Budd and the book visit his website or Facebook page. Follow the rest of the blog tour or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

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

Monday, June 4, 2012

Review: An Uncommon Education by Elizabeth Percer

Ask children what they want to do when they grow up and you'll be given any number of generally entertaining answers. Follow up with those children years later and almost none of them will have become whatever profession so captured their imaginations when small. For that matter, there's an incredibly high percentage of people who don't ever even work in the field towards which their major in college would have directed them. We all seem to revise our goals and dreams as we grow up, shifting, changing, coming of age. Perhaps this is what is called maturing. Told in two distinctly different parts, An Uncommon Education by Elizabeth Percer is a coming of age tale that directly confronts set desires, goals, and expectations for the future even as life and an uncommon education mold main character Naomi Feinstein into a different person than she or those closest to her expected.

As a young girl, Naomi is very close to her father and eager to fulfill his high ambitions for her. Possessed of a photographic memory, she is a loner and a misfit amongst other children, friendless and bullied at school. She spends most of her time with her father, visiting the John F. Kennedy National Historic Site over and over again. Her father's deep obsession with Rose Kennedy and her unrealized potential shapes Naomi's life. When her father collapses and has a heart attack in front of Naomi on one of their visits to the home, she vows to become a doctor to learn to fix things like her father's broken heart and the deep, clinical depression her mother suffers from throughout Naomi's life.

Into Naomi's life moves a young boy named Teddy, a neighbor, a Hasidic Jew, and the only child of a very strict mother and a father with a bad heart. Over the years, Naomi and Teddy become inseparable, tied to each other closer than actual siblings. They complete each other, despite Teddy's deeply disapproving mother. But when Teddy's father dies, he and his mother move away from Boston and Naomi is left adrift without the comfort of her friend. And when she receives increasingly strange letters from him, she is devastated to discover that she cannot save him, cannot reverse whatever has gone wrong for him. Life has given her the first of its irrefutable lessons. But she still intends to go to Wellesley and become a doctor as her father has planned for so long.

Arriving on campus at Wellesley, Naomi expects her life to change for the better now that she is surrounded by other high achievers like herself. And yet she finds herself even more isolated than she previously was, adrift and as friendless as she has been for most of her life. Her first year is an uncomfortable and lonely one and she looks towards the next three years as more of the same, time to be put in until she goes to medical school and starts her doctor training. But early her sophomore year, something happens that changes Naomi's life and her path. She sees a woman walk out onto the lake and slip through the ice. Helping to save Ruth, Naomi is introduced to the Shakespeare Society, fondly called Shakes, and ultimately to friends. She re-encounters Jun Oko, the Japanese economics student who bested her for the single freshman position on the tennis team the year before and the two of them, each with the weight of heavy expectations on their shoulders, become friends. It is through Jun that Naomi will finally learn that she cannot always save the others she most wants to save and that perhaps her life trajectory is not the one she and her father always imagined.

The writing here is very slow and deliberate, drawing out the quiet lessons of Naomi's life at each stage. Her mother's depression and absence from her life in fundamental ways beyond physical create Naomi's character as much as her father's academic expectations do. As a character shaped by these forces, Naomi is very believeable and realistic but she still comes across to the reader at a remove. She's the narrator but she maintains a distance and detachment that make it hard to sympathize with her. Her closest friendships, with Teddy and with Jun, are described but are perhaps too cerebrally discussed to feel as natural and believable as they should. The characters surrounding Naomi at Wellesley, especially those in Shakes with her, ostensibly the community with whom she is closest, are not particularly distinct from each other and play only tangential parts in the play of her life. Although well-written, the novel felt drawn out to me. Naomi came across as an old soul in the sense that she seemed weary and unlikely to be happy in life. And the ending seemed rather abrupt and an about face given her character to that point. I wanted to really love this but I, unlike almost everyone else, just didn't.

For more information about Elizabeth Percer and the book visit her website. Follow the rest of the blog tour or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book. An Uncommon Education was selected by Amazon as one their

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