Friday, January 31, 2014

Review: Silver by Andrew Motion

When I was young, I spent many hours with my books (not that I don't now too, mind you). I still vividly remember reading Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island and thrilling to all the adventure and swashbuckling in it. I even bought the tiny library by our cottage a copy because they didn't have their own on the shelves, having to order it from the main branch 45 minutes away. And perhaps it's the book that inspired the lifelong fascination with pirates for staid little me. So just imagine my delight when I found that Andrew Motion had written a sequel to Treasure Island, one where Jim Hawkins' son, also named Jim Hawkins, and Long John Silver's daughter Natty return to Treasure Island to retrieve the silver that their fathers left there in favor of the gold they brought home.

Forty years after their voyage to Treasure Island, Jim Hawkins runs an inn called the Hispaniola in the lonely marshes of the Thames.  He rather plods through life, mourning the early death of his wife and telling his tale of glory again and again of a rum soaked evening. Long John Silver is blind, ravaged, and invalid in his odd, higgledy-piggledy house and taproom but still controlling and somehow, even in his aged state, capable of inspiring fear and loyalty in equal measure. The canny old pirate sends his daughter Natty to beckon to young Jim Hawkins, the son of the original Jim, and to entice him to steal the map of Treasure Island from his father with an eye to sailing back to that distant island. And young Jim, feeling an immediate pull to Natty and despite his misgivings about the old pirate, agrees.

So the two young people set out on a long voyage on the Nightingale, a ship financed by Long John Silver, captained by a benevolent, moral, old salt, and with Natty disguised as a boy. As they sail, they find the dangerous, malevolent, and unhinged nephew of one of the original pirates working in the crew on their ship casting a blight on their journey and they must prepare themselves for whatever they might encounter when they arrive at Treasure Island, knowing that their fathers had marooned three men there when they left. And when they finally arrive, they do find that it is not a deserted island as might be expected but populated by a pure evil. This evil changes the tenor of their plans entirely.

Although using the original as a starting point and being beautifully written, easily evoking the language of Stevenson, this is a much less enchanting novel. The characters are firmly good or bad with only Long John Silver retaining any air of ambiguity and reality, but of course he is only seen at the start. Natty and Jim might be intrepid adventurers but they aren't as engaging as their fathers were. The situation on Treasure Island is unexpected (really, the maroons are still alive?) and quite honestly, rather unrealistic and unbelievable, as is the attitude of the Captain, his men, and Natty and Jim given the time period in which they live. There are other occurrences on the island that also beggar belief as well but the climactic fight scene is thrilling and as desperate as any reader could want. The ending of the novel, however, is wholly unsatisfying and feels like a complete cop-out. I so wanted to love this novel that perhaps my expectations were too high. Unfortunately the thing came off as moralistic and far less inspired than the original and I don't know that those unfamiliar with the original would be able to follow it at all.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review (although I did discover, upon rearranging my shelves, that I already owned the book in hardcover).

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Review: Ravenscliffe by Jane Sanderson

The Edwardian era in England was a time of great change, rife with social and political upheaval. Jane Sanderson's Ravenscliffe, the sequel to her Netherwood, is set in this transitional time period and populated with characters who highlight both the old and the new, working class, aristocracy, and a new breed of self-made man. And although I've read the first book in the series (there's another already out in England called Eden Falls), this second novel could certainly stand on its own.

Eve Williams is fresh off her culinary success in London, returned to Yorkshire and back to running the quite successful Eve's Puddings and Pies, and at the urging of her closest friend Anna, contemplating leasing a much larger house, Ravenscliffe on Netherwood Common. So much has changed in her life, so quickly and shockingly, almost all of it for the better since her beloved husband died in a mining accident. She found a way to support her family, she was befriended by the paternally benevolent Earl of Netherwood, and she discovered a deep and abiding love for the second time in her life. But there are struggles too. Her son Seth refuses to accept her fiancé, Daniel, and determined to hurt his mother the best way he knows how, he signs on to work in the mines as soon as he turns twelve. Her younger brother Silas reappears in her life and although she is thrilled, he and his newfound success, wealth, and attitude drive a wedge into the community, and more importantly between Eve and her dearest friends, Anna and union organizer Amos.

As Eve and her family and friends adjust to all the personal changes they face, the tenor in the big house is also changing. After another horrific mining accident, the Earl, although always counted among the "good" mine owners as far as that goes, sees the benefit and importance of modernizing his mine and increasing safety measures. His intelligent daughter Henrietta, still shut out from the running of most things or even just involvement because of her sex, is really the driving force behind moving the Earl into this new mindset. Heir Toby is captivated by the insouciant American, Thea, and determined to marry her despite his mother's disapproval. And Clarissa, the Countess of Netherwood, is as insulated in her cozy world of privilege as ever, concerned only with making certain that the King's long-awaited visit is a raging success and a feather in her cap socially.

These two very different worlds, working class and aristocracy both face the timely challenge of tradition versus innovation not only in people (the cosseted Clarissa and the brash Thea) but also in a wider sense. Politically the landscape is changing with suffragettes making slow but undeniable progress toward the vote, the Labor Party gaining in strength, unions increasing in influence, and a whole new breed of man like Silas rising up from the working class to find huge success and parlay that into their own jealously guarded empires. As was the case in Netherwood, Sanderson has brought this corner of Yorkshire to life through the landscape, the voices of the characters, and the tensions rising in it. Sanderson has fallen back on a few stereotypes here and there but over all the story is an engaging one and it was good to see the Netherwood characters once again. This is not a bonnet drama but rather a worthy successor to them, a well done period piece with a wonderful authenticity of setting. Historical fiction fans will enjoy it quite a lot.

For more information about Jane Sanderson and the book, check out her website 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 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.

Bread and Butter by Michelle Wildgen. The book is being released by Doubleday on February 11, 2014.

Amazon says this about the book: Kitchen Confidential meets Three Junes in this mouthwatering novel about three brothers who run competing restaurants, and the culinary snobbery, staff stealing, and secret affairs that unfold in the back of the house.

Britt and Leo have spent ten years running Winesap, the best restaurant in their small Pennsylvania town. They cater to their loyal customers; they don't sleep with the staff; and business is good, even if their temperamental pastry chef is bored with making the same chocolate cake night after night. But when their younger brother, Harry, opens his own restaurant—a hip little joint serving an aggressive lamb neck dish—Britt and Leo find their own restaurant thrown off-kilter. Britt becomes fascinated by a customer who arrives night after night, each time with a different dinner companion. Their pastry chef, Hector, quits, only to reappear at Harry's restaurant. And Leo finds himself falling for his executive chef-tempted to break the cardinal rule of restaurant ownership. Filled with hilarious insider detail—the one-upmanship of staff meals before the shift begins, the rivalry between bartender and hostess, the seedy bar where waitstaff and chefs go to drink off their workday—Bread and Butter is both an incisive novel of family and a gleeful romp through the inner workings of restaurant kitchens.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Review: And the Miss Ran Away With the Rake by Elizabeth Boyle

I miss letters. I miss the thrill of going to the mailbox and finding something addressed to me that doesn't require me to write a check. I miss the news-laden, handwritten notes that kept me connected to friends so far away. I miss being able to guess who my letter was from just from the handwriting on the envelope. I miss knowing that my friend had taken a piece of time out of her day to sit down and concentrate on writing me, just me. In our world of email and texts and online chats, we've really lost something, something slow and measured and personal. And we never have, at least not in my lifetime, written the kinds of letters that people used to write, so in depth that their very souls shone through the words. But perhaps when letter writing is your only means of communication, it is more special, more revealing, and more treasured. Certainly in Elizabeth Boyle's charming Regency set romance, And the Miss Ran Away With the Rake, where letters are such an integral part of the plot, this is the case.

Lord Henry Seldon is horrified to discover that his rascal of a nephew, the Duke of Preston, has placed an ad in the paper on his behalf looking for a bride. Henry is one of the notorious Seldons but unlike the rest of his family, he doesn't have a scandalous nature or history. He's positively charming, kind, proper and sensible. And he has no intention of writing back to any of the multitudes of women who have responded to the slightly dry ad. But he reads one of the replies and can't help himself, writing back to this intriguing woman under the pseudonym of Mr. Dishforth. Soon he has a deep and serious correspondence going with "Miss Spooner" and he is eager to meet her.

Daphne Dale is Miss Spooner. And her honest and heartfelt correspondence with Mr. Dishforth makes her certain that he is her soul mate. So it is with great excitement that she discovers that her friend's betrothal means that she will have a chance to go to London and meet her mysterious letter writer. Unfortunately her friend's betrothal also means that she'll have to spend time in the company of the loathed Seldon family. It seems that the Seldons and the Dales have hated each other since time immemorial and it is only the promise that she can finally reveal herself to Mr. Dishforth and he to her that has her willing to attend first the engagement ball and then the wedding of her dear friend Tabitha to the Duke of Seldon. Daphne meets and has an immediate attraction to a stranger at the ball so she's horrified to discover that this man is Lord Henry Seldon, a member of the hated Seldon clan. And yet Daphne and Lord Henry are too drawn to each other, enjoying their sparring and banter and even some steamy stolen kisses to stay completely away from each other as they try to discover the identity of their respective correspondents.

The plot hinges on a sweet idea and the snippets of earnest passages from their letters is well done. The addition of the long-time feud between their families (over a startlingly hilarious occurrence that isn't revealed until almost the end) keeps the hero and heroine nicely separate as long as possible but doesn't fall into the "easily cleared up misunderstanding" plot contrivance that is so common. Daphne and Henry are both likable characters, the tale is enjoyable and it is entertaining to watch each of them try to work out the mystery of each other's identity. Best yet, there is a surprising, if slightly unbelievable, development on the way to the happily ever after here. Boyle writes solidly appealing historical romances and she has done it with this one as well.

Monday, January 27, 2014

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

This meme is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.

Books I completed this past week are:

Under Magnolia by Frances Mayes
And the Miss Ran Away with the Rake by Elizabeth Boyle

Bookmarks are still living in the middle of:

Better Than Fiction edited by Don George
Quiet by Susan Cain
Ravenscliffe by Jane Sanderson

Reviews posted this week:

In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner
The Group by Mary McCarthy
Let Him Go by Larry Watson
A Star for Mrs. Blake by April Smith
Under Magnolia by Frances Mayes
Among the Janeites by Deborah Yaffe

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

And the Miss Ran Away with the Rake by Elizabeth Boyle

Monday Mailbox

This week's mailbox arrivals:

The Serpent of Venice by Christopher Moore came from William Morrow and TLC Book Tours for a blog tour.

Christopher Moore cracks me up. I thoroughly enjoy Shakespeare. And I have loved everything I've read of Moore's so this warped take on Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice should hit it out of the park.

The Taste of Apple Seeds by Katharina Hagena came from William Morrow and TLC Book Tours for a blog tour.

A novel about a woman who inherits her grandmother's magical cottage but that means she also has to face the difficult memories that are also bound up there, doesn't this sound wonderful?

If you'd like to see the marvelous goodies in other people's mailboxes, make sure to visit Mailbox Monday and have fun seeing how we are all doing our part to keep the USPS and delivery services viable.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Review: Among the Janeites by Deborah Yaffe

I don't remember when I first read Pride and Prejudice but I suspect I was fairly young given the look of my loopy signature on the inside cover. I do, however, know for sure that I fell in love with it and it inspired me to read all of Austen's other works as well. I've read most of them more than once and have thrilled to the language and the story every time. I have seen several of the movies inspired by Austen's works and have been known to enjoy the spate of fiction reworking the originals in modern times or written as sequels. Does this make me an avid fan, a Janeite? Maybe. But I am not a Janeite like the people chronicled in Deborah Yaffe's new light and fun nonfiction, Among the Janeites: A Journey Through the World of Jane Austen Fandom.  They are incredibly devoted and enthusiastic, integrating Austen into many, many parts of their lives.

Yaffe herself is a self-professed Janeite and she is curious to trace the different sorts of people drawn to Austen and the ways in which their love for her works becomes so huge and influential for them. She interviews some of the folks most well known in JASNA (the Jane Austen Society of North America), examines the rise of Austen fan fiction, orders a ball gown for the AGM (Annual General Meeting of JASNA), and generally chronicles the unexpected ways in which Austen mania has manifested, especially in recent times with the advent of the movies bringing scores more fans, who may or may not ever read the originals on which the movies are based. As she goes about revealing the various ways in which people feed their Austen cravings, she is certainly focused on the most devoted fans: those who have created a business that relies on Austen or her times, those who spend untold amounts of money dressing authentically or recreating the time, those who spend hours upon hours online chatting with other devotees or traveling to all the places important in Austen's life, the Cisco founder who is paying (for 125 years) to preserve Chawton so others can experience one of Jane's homes, and so on. And as she interviews these super fans, she is always respectful of them, regardless of how unlikely and off the wall they might seem to others.

Yaffe does include her own adventures in sinking a bit deeper into the world of the Janeites, going on an Austen tour, having her own gown made for the ball, sharing her disappointment over the huge numbers of fans flocking to all things Austen, and more. What she doesn't do here is to discuss the books much, nor does she spend a lot of time analyzing the people she's interviewed so the book is not a scholarly look at Austen's works and the rise of her incredibly devoted fan base. But neither of those things are Yaffe's stated purpose; she wrote and researched this initially because she just wanted to see where she fit within the ever growing world of Jane Austen enthusiasts. And she has succeeded marvelously. Some of it makes her a little uncomfortable and some of it seems a tad excessive but overall, she seems to have found the place within the Janeite world where she is happiest. This is a fun and entertaining insider's view of the strange and wonderful (and sometimes wacky) world of Janeites. For those who aren't already Austen fans, this might be a bit of a confounding book but for those who appreciate Austen themselves, even if they are a fan, like me, of a much less flamboyant and vocal variety, this is a delightful romp.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Review: Under Magnolia by Frances Mayes

Frances Mayes is, of course, best known for her memoirs about buying and restoring a home in Tuscany and the sunlit ex-pat life she lives there. But Mayes is not just the American professor from California now living in Italy, she's a mid-twentieth century child of the deep South and all that that entails.  Her newest memoir, Under Magnolia, offers a window into her childhood and the ways in which her family and growing up in Fitzgerald, Georgia have shaped the writer and person she is today.

Although her childhood was not a happy one and her family was dysfunctional, Frances Mayes could not escape the South that was bred into her very bones. Living in California and Italy, she still felt pulled to the South, especially after uncovering a collection of memories written long ago and long since set aside. And so she convinces her husband to move from California to North Carolina, to the land of her ancestors and if not exactly the land of her memories, close enough.

The youngest of three daughters by a good margin, Mayes grew up in the midst of her parents' constant battles, unaware that happier childhoods were to be had. Her father died young, leaving her mother and her dependent on her cantankerous grandfather's charity, after, at least for her mother, a lifetime of wealth. Mayes was left alone much of the time, stubborn as a mule, and determined to do as she pleased. And even as she grew and matured and society changed in massive and monumental ways, she rebelled against the only upbringing she knew, her biggest life goal to escape Fitzgerald as her mother never did.

Each of the chapters in the book is really a short essay strung together with the other essays to form a snapshot of her growing up years. They are arranged mostly chronologically, telling of her early life as scrap of memory after scrap of memory. The writing is descriptive and lyrical and it is clear that Mayes is a poet heavily influenced by the natural world around her. As each chapter follows on the previous one, the writing lulls the reader into stifling, heavy peach scented memories weighted with heat and humidity and dysfunction. It is somehow not a traditional memoir, grounded so heavily as it is in the physical description of place and the attitudes that pervaded that small town.  And the reading of it is thick and slow, as only a southern summer day can be. But that Mayes both escaped Fitzgerald and is forever rooted in the South is evident in every honestly felt word of the book.

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

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Review: A Star for Mrs. Blake by April Smith

In many ways WWI and its aftermath have been eclipsed in our collective consciousness by WWII. We've forgotten that it was once "the war to end all wars." And we certainly have forgotten the fact that in the aftermath of the war, despite the Great Depression gripping the nation, Congress authorized payments to send mothers and widows of the boys and men lost in the war and buried in foreign soil across the ocean to see their loved ones' final resting places. One such pilgrimage by Gold Star Mothers to the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery is the center of April Smith's new novel, A Star for Mrs. Blake.

The long widowed Cora Blake lives on a small island off the coast of Maine. She cares for her brother-in-law and her late sister's three daughters, single-handedly keeps the tiny island library open, and finds paying work when she can, in these tough economic times, at a fish cannery. Cora's only son lied about his age and enlisted in the army during the war, dying at only 16 on a battlefield in France so far from home. Cora has spent the intervening years missing her Sammy, wondering if he had had a father at home if he would have gone and died in the war, and second guessing her decision to allow his final resting place to be the French countryside where he fell. When a letter comes from the government offering to pay to send her on a pilgrimage to see her boy's grave, all expenses paid, she jumps at the chance, leaving behind a good man who loves her and an offer of marriage and future happiness.

Cora is one of five mothers in her group, traveling together from New York to Paris and then to the quiet fields outside Verdun where their boys fought and died. The women are from all different walks of life and different situations but they have the shared loss of their sons and their unavoidable grief in common. Bobbie Olsen is a wealthy socialite from Boston. Minnie Seibert is a Russian Jewish émigré who lives on a chicken cooperative. Katie McConnell is an Irish maid from a large and loving family and she lost two sons in France while her remaining young son is forever handicapped by a bout of polio. Wilhelmina Russell is a well-to-do athletically gifted woman recently released from an asylum where she was placed by her husband because of her recurring depression and his philandering. The women are so different that there are bound to be conflicts between them as they travel but there is also the bond of their unimaginable loss. The group is accompanied by the young, just out of West Point, Lieutenant Hammond and Nurse Lily Barnett, both of whom must address and solve any problems or snafus that arise in the course of the pilgrimage, starting from the very outset with the mix-up of the Mrs. Russells, both of whom lost sons but one of whom is white and one of whom is black and therefore to be on a separate pilgrimage.

The narrative flips back and forth between all of the women, their history with their boys, their lives at home, and their hopes for the pilgrimage, but the matter of fact, down to earth, peacemaking Cora Blake's story dominates the story line. In many ways, she assumes leadership of the women, smoothing things over between them and understanding their prejudices far better than the impossibly young lieutenant and nurse can. And it is Cora who meets Griffin Reed, a reporter badly injured in the war, and offers him her friendship and understanding as well as her story, a story that will change her own ending there in France. The experience of the mothers is emotional and moving as they confront anew the loss of their much beloved sons. Some of the plot twists are quite predictable and that detracts a bit from the emotional punch that the book serves but the story over all is a fascinating one, the characters are realistic and interesting, and the truth of the pride and the grief that these women forever carried in their hearts is carefully rendered and affecting.  Fans of historical fiction will be drawn into the story of the women and their pilgrimage.

For more information about April Smith and the book, check out her website, her Facebook page or connect with 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 the book for review.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Review: Let Him Go by Larry Watson

I first discovered Larry Watson when I read his stunning, beautiful, and stark novel, Montana, 1948, many years ago. That book still haunts me and I was hoping for a similar reaction to his latest.  Let Him Go is another slight, Western set novel, with a plot so visceral and gripping that I wasn't disappointed.  Another gorgeously exquisite, heartbreaking and masterful novel.

It is 1951 and Margaret Blackledge is not content for her only grandson to disappear with his mother and new stepfather. Little Jimmy is the only link she and husband George, a retired sheriff in small Dalton, North Dakota, have to their late son James.  Margaret knows that Jimmy's new stepfather, Donnie Weboy, is not a good person, abusive and mean to her beloved grandson and she is decided that she will follow Lorna and Donnie to the ends of the earth if need be in order to bring back her grandson. How she'll convince the boy's mother to give him up remains to be seen. And she has no idea of the resistance, ugliness, and simmering violence awaiting her in the form of Donnie's ruthless, morally bankrupt clan. But Margaret is driven by her love for her son and grandson and she is resolved not to come home without her boy.

George is a much more stoic character than Margaret and more inclined to let things lie but when his choice is to watch Margaret leave on her quest or to accompany her, there is no choice really. And it is George who discovers that their journey into the Weboy underworld will cost them far more than they expected. As Margaret and George travel towards Gladstone, Montana, their relationship, its quiet endurance and its unspoken love and support, is laid bare in their conversations, the simple quiet, and the internal expectations each harbors. Margaret's fierce, driving determination becomes a shared thing so that once they encounter the sinister Blanche Weboy, matriarch of the lawless and vigilante clan, they are as one, even under the onslaught of a twisted and possessive evil.

Watson's writing is spare, eloquent, and elegant, echoing the frozen wide open spaces of the landscape. There is a stillness and a sense of waiting about the novel and in the characters, Margaret and George in particular. The ending is shocking and yet the only way the novel could possibly end. A tour de force about justice, strength, sacrifice, and all the lengths to which people will go in order to rescue those they love, this is a powerful and deceptively simple book.

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.

Wake by Anna Hope. The book is being released by Random House on February 11, 2014.

Amazon says this about the book: Wake: 1) Emerge or cause to emerge from sleep. 2) Ritual for the dead. 3) Consequence or aftermath.

London, 1920. The city prepares to observe the two-year anniversary of Armistice Day with the burial of the unknown soldier. Many are still haunted by the war: Hettie, a dance instructress, lives at home with her mother and her brother, who is mute after his return from combat. One night Hettie meets a wealthy, educated man and finds herself smitten with him. But there is something distracted about him, something she cannot reach. . . . Evelyn works at the Pensions Exchange, through which thousands of men have claimed benefits from wounds or debilitating distress. Embittered by her own loss, she looks for solace in her adored brother, who has not been the same since he returned from the front. . . . Ada is beset by visions of her son on every street, convinced he is still alive. Helpless, her loving husband has withdrawn from her. Then one day a young man appears at her door, seemingly with notions to peddle, like hundreds of out-of-work veterans. But when he utters the name of her son, Ada is jolted to the core.

The lives of these three women are braided together, their stories gathering tremendous power as the ties that bind them become clear, and the body of the unknown soldier moves closer and closer to its final resting place.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Review: The Group by Mary McCarthy

When this was written, it caused a huge scandal. And it's fairly easy to see why even in the very beginning of the book. Mary McCarthy's novel, The Group, proves that for women anyway, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Set in 1933, the novel centers on a group of friends all recently graduated from Vassar. They come together in the beginning to attend the slightly odd, definitely unconventional marriage of one of their number and they will come together again in the end, seven years on for a funeral. The young women are heading in different directions following their graduations and although their lives are somewhat constrained by the time they live in, they do have some options. One will go to Europe. Several will get jobs. One will come into her own sexually with nary a wedding ring in sight. Some have money. Some don't. But they are all educated women embarking on their adult lives with fresh attitudes and expectations, some aligned with the social mores of the times and some in direct opposition.

The chapters focus more on individual women rather than the group as a whole, which makes sense as they are all dispersing into their post-collegiate lives but that structure makes it a little difficult to see them as a group and to weigh their interactions with each other to see how they differ from when they were all living together at school. In a way it seems as if this is more a collection of character sketches rather than a novel with any discernible plot. As a historical novel, written about the 1930s and published as short stories in the late 50s and finally as a complete novel in 1963, it is fascinating (and not a little depressing) to see that we are still facing many of the same social issues that these women were eighty some years ago. The book touches on so many things: politics, literature, religion, class, mental illness, parenting styles, opportunities for women, homosexuality, and so on. And it certainly explores the nature of friendship, the shifting relationships between the women in the group and the way that outside forces change those seemingly solid, college-forged relationships. Some of the women appear in the pages often while others, despite their apparent importance to the group as a whole, hardly feature at all. And because the narrative follows one and then another friend in great chunks, it can be difficult to remember which member of the group has experienced which event. As a social history it succeeds, but as an engaging novel, it doesn't do nearly as well. I found it to be a bit meandering and long-winded, boring even.  Unfortunate when the language is clearly so polished and the potential for an engaging novel is so obviously there.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Review: In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner

If we think about communism in Asia, as Americans we tend to focus on China or Korea or Vietnam. Very few people probably include Cambodia in that list and an even smaller handful of people are likely to have any knowledge of the Cambodian revolution and civil war in the 1970s, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, the atrocities they perpetuated, and the genocide that followed their takeover of this South East Asian neighbor to Vietnam. Vaddey Ratner's lyrical and heartbreaking tale of a seven year old girl's view of the revolution, based loosely on her own terrible experiences living through that desperate time, brings the reality of the time to vivid life.

Raami is a young princess in the Cambodian royal family.  Despite her leg brace, needed after suffering polio as a baby, she lives a privileged life with her graceful mother, sensitive and poetic father, and beautiful baby sister.  But her educated and wealthy family is not blind or indifferent to the poverty and want that seems to be growing daily outside their door.  And as loved as the royal family is in some quarters, when the revolution comes, they too are swept up in the exodus from the city, hiding their origins in order to survive and struggling to stay together. The situation escalates as they move from place to place, feeling the pinch of hunger and forced into meaningless backbreaking labor. And they are not spared the suffering, separation, and the deaths of those they love that people all across the country endure at the brutal hands of the Khmer Rouge.

Because Raami is merely a child, the narration captures the horrific alongside her innocence and lack of understanding of the bigger, more menacing reality. She is sustained by the memory of her father's lyrical poetry and the fanciful stories she's internalized. And she has the striking ability to notice the landscape and the beauty of nature all around her even in the midst of horrors. This perspective helps to temper the graphic and terrible experiences, muting them some for the reader as well. As Raami recounts the starvation and the inhumanity of the labor camps, the deaths, and the brutality, she also finds instances of good and kindness around her, counterbalancing the inhumanity of man.

The novel is beautifully written although it still remains difficult to read about the worst of the atrocities, even with the gentler perspective of a child. And it is hard to believe that all of this horror was packed into only four years because there's so much sorrow and pain. Ratner's first hand experience shines through the text and her ability to find the beauty in the Cambodia she left so long ago and which decimated her beloved family is astounding. She has written a novel that doesn't shy away from documenting the worst of humanity but also celebrates survival, the resilience of the human heart, and the enduring bonds of family and of love. You won't soon forget this one.

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

This meme is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.

Books I completed this past week are:

Good Kings, Bad Kings by Susan Nussbaum
Netherwood by Jane Sanderson
Marry Me by Dan Rhodes
A Star for Mrs. Blake by April Smith

Bookmarks are still living in the middle of:

Better Than Fiction edited by Don George
Quiet by Susan Cain
Under Magnolia by Frances Mayes

Reviews posted this week:

My Mother's Funeral by Adriana Paramo
Netherwood by Jane Sanderson
Good Kings, Bad Kings by Susan Nussbaum
Marry Me by Dan Rhodes
Autobiography of Us by Aria Beth Sloss

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

A Star for Mrs. Blake by April Smith

Monday Mailbox

This week's mailbox arrivals:

A Star for Mrs. Blake by April Smith came from Knopf and TLC Book Tours for a blog tour.

Five mothers who lost their sons in WWI travel to France to see the graves of their boys in what promises to be an affecting and unforgettable novel based on actual history.

Clever Girl by Tessa Hadley came from Harper and TLC Book Tours for a blog tour.

The tale of a woman as she moves from childhood to middle age, this one might hit close to the bone for me but I am looking forward to it all the same.

Two Sisters by Mary Hogan came from William Morrow and TLC Book Tours for a blog tour.

I am my sister's sister and so I have always been attracted to stories about sisters. This one about a sister who has always felt shut out of the relationship between her perfect older sister and their mother is definitely enticing.

The Visitors by Patrick O'Keeffe came from Viking.

A novel about Irish immigrants to the US who don't necessarily like each other but are connected by their pasts and their loves, this novel of stories and relationships sounds fantastic.

If you'd like to see the marvelous goodies in other people's mailboxes, make sure to visit Mailbox Monday and have fun seeing how we are all doing our part to keep the USPS and delivery services viable.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Sunday Salon: Visiting bookstores in other cities

I went to San Francisco last weekend to visit my husband, who was out in the Bay Area for a long training. I'd been out there before and we had done all of the touristy type stuff the last time we were there. So this time we had no plans. Well, almost no plans. Because when I visit a city, I always want to stop in at an independent bookstore or two. And my husband knows me well enough to not only know that but to plan for it.

My first morning there we wandered from our hotel to the farmer's market to get ourselves some breakfast. As I snacked on lovely grapes, dates, and clementines, we also meandered through the shops in the Ferry Building and stumbled across Book Passage book store. I had no idea it was there but I do have this special super power where I'm a bit like a homing pigeon for bookstores, ending up in front of them even when I have no idea they exist. And if you ever need to give me directions, include the locations of bookstores in your landmarks and I'm likely to find I know exactly where I am going even if it didn't sound like it to start with. So we strolled into the store and I immediately set about building a stack of books to buy. I even convinced my husband to buy two books as well. When we left, we detoured back to the hotel to drop of my new purchases and then my husband gamely headed off with me to visit City Lights book store because one book store is never enough but two might be. I had another nice browse, a friendly chat with the guy behind the counter, and walked away with yet another stack of books to lug home (and my husband got another couple as well).

When we made it back to the hotel after this little pilgrimage, I loaded all of the books into my LibraryThing account and discovered that I had done what I always do; I'd bought a couple that I already own, meaning we'd have to retrace our steps the next day and return them. Meanwhile the credit card company had also called, worried about fraudulent charges on hubby's card. I just snickered. I know we were all the way across the country spending money but I can't help but think that if we'd used my card, they wouldn't have blinked over a large bookstore charge. I have them trained to expect that from me, after all. ::grin::

The following morning after a lovely breakfast with an old friend and his partner, we headed out to return my duplicates. (Don't tell my husband but quite honestly, I was not unhappy with the prospect of going back to the bookstores.) It turns out that City Lights only gives you store credit for returns so I had to browse a little more. The man behind the counter remembered me from the day before and said he was confident I'd easily find replacements.  He doesn't even know me and yet somehow he just *knows* me, ya know?  Not shockingly, I did find more to take home. Then we walked about a billion miles out of our way (apparently Apple maps thought we needed more exercise--maybe it saw all the books I was planning on reading while curled into the couch when I should have been exercising), finally getting back to Book Passage and returning that duplicate as well. Another quick saunter through the Ferry Building shops and I also had a new canvas bag to bring all of my new treasures home since they wouldn't all fit in the small bag with which I had arrived. Now I just need to feed them all into my bookshelves here, provided I have room (I probably don't). Good thing I'm in the middle of reorganizing the shelves anyway! Oh, and I've already read one of the books I brought home with me: Marry Me by Dan Rhodes. So it doesn't even have to languish on my tbr shelves like the others. But even if I don't get to them in a timely manner, whenever I see them on the shelves, I will remember this latest San Francisco trip and smile.

This week I not only took a real trip, I visited many places and situations between the pages. I inhabited a nursing home for teenagers with physical and mental disabilities. I experienced early twentieth century Yorkshire and a coal mining town from both a working class and an upper class perspective. I dipped into brief, blackly humorous snapshots of love and marriage. I traveled to France with a group of Gold Star mothers on a pilgrimage to visit their sons' graves. And now I am visiting the Southern childhood and memories that created a writer. Where did your weekly reading take you?

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Review: Autobiography of Us by Aria Beth Sloss

Friendship isn’t easy. A friendship started in childhood has to grow and mature as do those in the relationship. No matter how dear someone is to you, there will be bumps in the road. Misunderstandings. Arguments. Hurts. But when a friendship is solid, it will weather these because it must. Aria Beth Sloss’s new novel, Autobiography of Us, is a tale of just such a friendship, one started young, one that must endure betrayal and estrangement, but one that ultimately knits itself back together because it is too hard, impossible really, to let it go.

Rebecca is a bit of a loner, quiet, introverted, smart, and scientifically minded. She’s always wanted to be a doctor, even though in the early 1960s in Pasadena, California, this is not a usual or likely goal for a girl. When she meets Alexandra, she is immediately drawn to Alex and she is thrilled to be chosen to be the magnetic Alex’s best friend. Alex is outgoing and a bit wild, popular and set on becoming an actress. When the two young women go off to college, they go as best of friends although they do start to drift apart on their different trajectories. While Rebecca is studious and single-minded about eventually going to medical school, Alex is much more social, collecting a coterie of friends.  When Rebecca makes a mistake at a friends’ wedding, it shatters their long-standing friendship and changes Rebecca’s entire life trajectory. And it will take many years before the two women come back together again to tentatively rekindle their friendship.

The historical period of time during which the two of them come of age is well drawn and compelling. Sloss has set her novel in a time of great social upheaval when options for women were still constrained and narrow but were about to widen unimagineably. And in this still repressed setting with its seemingly immutable gender roles, Sloss tackles many difficult and contentious issues: abortion, abuse, adultery, mental illness. And she weaves all of this into a tale centered on the nature of friendship, what relationship can endure without cracking wide open and the lengths that a friend will go to, even if just in memory of what the friendship used to be.

Although the title of the book is Autobiography of Us, much of the book takes place when there is no us except in memory. Even in beginning, the "us" that there is is not quite convincing. The friendship between Rebecca and Alex often feels one-sided with Alex using Rebecca to bolster her own self-esteem, always enjoying the mild hero-worship of her friend, appreciating her built in audience. She’s selfish and demanding and difficult and yet Rebecca continues to love her as her very best friend, wanting, in a way, to be Alex or at least to be more like her. Neither of these women are particularly likable, except perhaps to each other. Rebecca is a doormat and Alex is manipulative, making it hard for the reader to feel much sympathy for either of them. There is little real depth to their friendship and it remains a mystery why these two are in fact as close as the story says. Told from Rebecca’s point of view, the narrative proceeds in fits and starts with large missing chunks of time, akin to pictures missing from a photo album. The ending does reveal the reason why the story is told as it is and changes quite a lot but the payoff may not be big enough. Although there are some flaws here, the novel shows the lack of choices for women of their age and time and will make readers reflect on just what does make a lasting friendship and the nature of friendship in their own lives.

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

Friday, January 17, 2014

Review: Marry Me by Dan Rhodes

I tend to be fairly wordy, which is a serious handicap in our 140 character world. When I come across someone who can, unlike me, convey a world in very few words, I am impressed and a little awed. Dan Rhodes' newest story collection, Marry Me, is comprised of very brief flash fiction pieces, many of which contain a universe in their short paragraph(s).

Ranging from a paragraph in length to a couple of pages, each story is fully self contained. Thematically, they are all similar, focusing on relationship, engagements, weddings, marriage, and divorce. Rhodes doesn't present the hearts and flowers version of any of this. Instead he cheerfully skewers each in turn. And rather than containing raptures, his brief flashes are composed of wry observations, cynical black humor, and casual uneasiness. They make a pretty forceful statement about the ridiculous expectations we put on the trappings of marriage (both prior to and afterwards) and the way in which society has caused us to look for the unrealistic in our relationship lives and loves.

This is not a collection celebrating marriage or love by any stretch of the imagination but it is hilarious. I did truly laugh out loud as I read it. I also snorted derisively. And I shook my head in disgust. The stories are quirky, sarcastic, and even farcical. They chronicle an awful lot of unhappiness, acceptance of the mediocre, and the way in which we treat marriage as disposable. Because the short collection of 80 stories revolves around the same theme, some of the stories feel repetitious and it is a bit odd that there's no alternate vision of marriage offered as a counterbalance but over all, as a collection, this is a fantastic read. It can easily be read in one sitting but is perhaps best dipped into to maintain the impact of the stories individually.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Review: Good Kings, Bad Kings by Susan Nussbaum

Do you think that nursing homes are only for the elderly? Have you ever considered where physically and mentally disabled children and young adults whose parents can’t care for them or who are wards of the state live? I know I hadn’t, blithely assuming that these kids would, of course, live with their families, never considering that these families might not have the resources, physically or monetarily, or, frankly, for some families, the interest in caring for their children. But Susan Nussbaum’s PEN/ Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction award winning novel, Good Kings, Bad Kings, showed me how wrong I was. A number of disabled young people are abandoned in homes and are at the mercy of the often underpaid staff, the integrity of the private companies that run the homes for profit, and the greater community that serves the homes and the interests of the children living there.

Told by seven different characters, three teenagers living at ILLC (Illinois Learning and Life Skills Center), three staff members, and a woman paid to fill the beds at the home, the novel is eye-opening and impressive. Each of the characters is very different as they narrate their lives and interactions in the home. Yessenia has been sent to ILLC from Juvie after she beat another girl at school with the footrest of her wheelchair. She is fierce and quick to flame up in a temper but she’s also funny and intelligent and still grieving the loss of her beloved Tia Nene, the last person to love and care for her. Mia is pretty, sweet, and quiet and she and her boyfriend Teddy are inseparable until her vulnerability and dependence expose her to evil. Teddy is endearing and he wants nothing more than to get out of ILLC, live in his own apartment, and marry Mia. Joanne, a newly hired data entry clerk at the home, is disabled herself and she is appalled and astounded by the way in which the home is run, cutting corners and costs, leaving these children without the services they need and no one to advocate for them. Michelle is a rising star in sales at the private company that runs ILLC but through her closer contact in the home itself, she becomes progressively more disillusioned by what she sees even as she allows her boss and his shiny, rich life to escape her censure. Ricky is a young Latino man who both drives a bus transporting the kids and works as an aide in the home and he is gifted to see these teenagers as just plain kids who often don’t deserve the punishments dealt them. And finally, Jimmie is another aide at the home who has been homeless and dependent on others herself and who develops a deep bond with Yessenia because of their common experiences and their many shared personality traits.

There’s terrible abuse, greed, ignorance, and tragedy in these pages but there’s also love, caring, kindness, and empowerment. Each of the seven characters is very different, their voices are unique and believable, and the insight into their thoughts is sympathetically and realistically done. The lives that some of these kids lead will break your heart but their resilience in the face of it all is amazing. And in the end, they are just normal kids, no matter what their IQs are or whether they move about in wheelchairs, or are struggling to overcome a history of abuse. As all of the characters interact, a more complete picture of life in the home emerges, the difference among the attitudes and actions of staff members, how the kids see the rules and restrictions, and how they each interact with each other, teen to teen, teen to staff, and staff to staff. Nussbaum has peeled back the veneer and shown the horrific and the tender and although it is clear that places like ILLC and their ilk are not the answer, the story shows that there are no easy answers, no one size fits all solutions for such a diverse population. Well written and engaging, this is a wonderful novel, one that is hard to put down once you’ve met the wide range of personalities and heard their backstories within these pages.

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

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Review: Netherwood by Jane Sanderson

The early years of the twentieth century were years full of change and promise for a new reality. Trade unions were becoming more prevalent in Britain. There were more opportunities for social mobility even far from major cities. The whole complexion of society was changing and rapidly; indeed, the world as a whole was changing. Jane Sanderson's novel Netherwood, set in Yorkshire, captures one corner of the world in which these changes were occurring.

Arthur and Eve Williams are contented in their lives. They have a happy marriage and three young children. Arthur is a miner in one of the Earl of Netherwood's collieries and Eve is a fastidious housewife. The Earl is a benevolent mine owner known for treating his employees well. Arthur and Eve go about their raising their children, work, and the daily realities of their lives generally cheerfully, involved in the life of the community. When Eve hears that the miners in another town, not so lucky as to work for good owners, are striking, she is determined to help them, especially since it is the depressed town where she grew up and was lucky enough to escape. Arthur is less certain about any sort of activism or support but when the local minister asks if the Williams' can temporarily house a young Russian widow and her baby, Arthur is the one to agree. But then tragedy strikes.

It is only thanks to the presence of Anna Rabinovitch, a woman who has lost even more than Eve, that Eve can find the courage to go on. And it is Anna who suggests that Eve's talent, and the thing that will keep her family afloat in the terrible aftermath of tragedy, is her skilled and delectable cooking. So Eve opens her door, selling pies and puddings to other local families. As she makes a success of it, she comes to the attention of the Hoyland family (the Earl of Netherwood's family name) and she starts a rather meteoric rise thanks to her industry, Anna's support and encouragement and the financial backing of the Earl.

Alternating with the story of the working class Eve, is the very different world of the aristocratic Hoylands, introducing the Earl and Countess of Netherwood and their children, the feckless, good-time heir Toby, his eminently capable older sister Henrietta, and their carefree (Dickie) and spoiled (Isabella) younger siblings. The Earl loves Netherwood, both his magnificent family home and the town, and he has a very vested interest in seeing the townsfolk succeed and lead happy lives since so many of them are his employees at the mines. But he is adamantly opposed to allowing his workers to unionize as so many around them are doing. He despairs of his son ever taking an interest in the land and the people for whom he holds a responsibility, only occasionally noting that it is a shame that daughter Henrietta hadn't been born a son as she is far more suited to the job of future earl than her brother. The Countess is a delicate creature who loves London far more than Netherwood and indulges in sudden enthusiasms, following the fashion of society.

Eve's worries (will she be able to pay her rent, how can she expand her business, is her son accepting Arthur's death and Anna's advent in their lives, and can she maintain just a friendship with miner Amos when he wants to give her his heart) are mainly of a far different ilk than the worries facing the Hoyland family (will Toby ever mature, why doesn't the King want to come to visit Netherwood, who should Toby marry, will Henrietta marry, where should the Earl invest some of his considerable fortune) highlighting the gulf between the two halves of society. But despite their differences, Eve's life and the Hoylands' lives are inextricably bound together, especially once the Earl invests in the expansion of her business, becoming a patron of sorts. And it is this interconnectedness that drives the latter half of the novel.

Sanderson has kept a light hand when writing about the emerging issues of classism and feminism, choosing to draw her characters, upper and lower class both, sympathetically. She does have a thread of social commentary running throughout the novel, in the character of Amos and his desire to unionize the miners, but as he's not the focus of the novel coupled with the fact that the Earl is generally a decent employer, this minimizes the importance of the labor movement to the storyline. Despite this, the novel is heavily weighted in its focus on the working class in the character of Eve and her surprisingly easily achieved success. But she's such an appealing character, as are the other main characters as well as the secondary characters, that this can be overlooked. It's a bit slow to start but once the reader gets into the novel a ways, the story becomes more compelling and harder to put down. Those who enjoy historical sagas will certainly appreciate this one as there's a little humor, some sadness, and a lot of pluck in these well-written pages.  And for fans of series, the sequel is available and a third has already been released in the UK.

For more information about Jane Sanderson and the book, check out her website 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 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.

A Life in Men by Gina Frangello. The book is being released by Algonquin Books on February 4, 2014.

Amazon says this about the book: The friendship between Mary and Nix had endured since childhood, a seemingly unbreakable bond, until the mid-1980s, when the two young women reunited for a summer vacation in Greece. It was a trip instigated by Nix, who had just learned that Mary had been diagnosed with a disease that would inevitably cut her life short. Nix, a free spirit by nature, was determined that Mary have the vacation of a lifetime, but by the time their visit to Greece was over, the ties between them had unraveled, and when they said goodbye, it was for the last time.

Three years later, Mary returns to Europe to try to understand what went wrong, in the process meeting the first of many men she will spend time with and travel with throughout the world. Through them she experiences not just a sexual awakening but a spiritual and emotional awakening that allows her to understand how the past and the future are connected, and to appreciate how important it is that she live her life to the fullest.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Review: My Mother's Funeral by Adriana Paramo

Who is your mother? Can you define her? Who was she before she was your mother? Before she was anyone's mother? And who are you in relation to her? Adriana Paramo's honest and searing look at her mother and their relationship in the wake of mother Carmen's death in her memoir, My Mother's Funeral, is a beautifully written portrait of a mother, a daughter, and their life together in Colombia.

Told non-linearly, Paramo recounts the story of her mother as a young woman, the woman who is captivated by and marries the suave and smooth-talking Mr. B, but also the mother who is bowed but not broken by mothering six children while enduring poverty and a mostly absent, philandering husband who contributes nothing to the household but another mouth to feed each time he comes home to visit. In addition to her mother's story, Paramo also tells her own story, that of the last of six children who always knew that she was loved no matter how difficult another child would make life, how she was raised and taught to value herself, how she left Colombia to pursue another life, and ultimately how she faced the crushing loss of her mother.  And each of these parts of the whole weave around and through each other as Paramo writes so that they are all part of the same story.  In writing her memoir thusly, she honors the mother daughter bond they shared, keeping it alive, cherishing it in all of its imperfection.

As she writes the details of her mother's life, Paramo draws a picture of Colombia, its poor, its criminal, its warring parties, and the fight to stay above it all. Her mother's struggles are many but she is determined to turn her daughters into worthy women. She is practical, often making do with meager food, pushing the girls to get an education (even helping one of her daughters render down a body into a skeleton for a science class), and holding them to standards she herself maintains no matter how poor they are. Paramo's depiction of her family's everyday life in Colombia can be startling, as in the case of the skeleton, but it is also a lesson in perseverance and resilience. And she has captured the ordinariness of life, the innocence of a child living that life. But Paramo has also opened herself fully to the reader, exposing the scope of her grief at her mother's death, her guilt over leaving Colombia for Alaska, and her devastating sense of loss for the connection between she and her mother when she writes so viscerally of her emotions during the brief time encompassing her mother's wake, funeral, cremation, and the disposal of her worldly possessions.

My Mother's Funeral is a magnificent weaving, beautifully written, meditative, and messy with truth. This is no nostalgic and saccharine tale of mothers and daughters but a gritty and realistic look at the ties between our hearts, those that tug and chafe but also those that enfold. It is a history of one mother and daughter, a glimpse into Colombia then and now, and a stunning, difficult love story.

For more information about Adriana Paramo and the book, check out 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 Lisa from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.

Monday, January 13, 2014

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

This meme is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.

Books I completed this past week are:

The Sister Season by Jennifer Scott
Nine Horses by Billy Collins
Suddenly Royal by Nichole Chase

Bookmarks are still living in the middle of:

Better Than Fiction edited by Don George
Quiet by Susan Cain
Netherwood by Jane Sanderson
Good Kings, Bad Kings by Susan Nussbaum

Reviews posted this week:

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline
The Sister Season by Jennifer Scott
Nine Horse by Billy Collins
Suddenly Royal by Nichole Chase

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

nothing (yay!)

Monday Mailbox

This week's mailbox arrival:

Ravenscliffe by Jane Sanderson came from William Morrow and TLC Book Tours for a blog tour.

The second book about the coal mining community of Netherwood and its surrounding environs, the grand family, their servants, and their employees who work in the mines, this should continue deliciously the drama of the first one.

If you'd like to see the marvelous goodies in other people's mailboxes, make sure to visit Mailbox Monday and have fun seeing how we are all doing our part to keep the USPS and delivery services viable.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Review: Suddenly Royal by Nichole Chase

Every little girl dreams of being a princess, right? Well, maybe not every little girl. In Nichole Chase's novel, Suddenly Royal, the first in a new series, Sam Rousseau has no grand desire to be a princess.

Sam is a grad student in wildlife biology and working with raptors when she receives the shocking news that she is the last member of a long lost royal family in the small but wealthy country of Lilaria.  The Queen has been looking for her for some time, wanting to reinstate the family lands, wealth, and title on Samantha, making her the Duchess of Rousseau. Uncertain of whether she wants the public life and responsibilities that come with all of this, Sam weighs her choices with the help of Crown Prince Alex, the heir to the Lilarian throne and the man her hilarious and straight-talking roommate has nicknamed Prince Yummy. Sam and Alex have an almost immediate attraction to and understanding of each other but it is the idea that Sam can get access to an outstanding cancer doctor to help her beloved step-father, who is enduring treatments for prostate cancer, that decides Sam to take up the mantle of her heritage and postpone her dream of a Master's degree.

It isn't without misgivings that she leaves her ill father behind in Minnesota to finish out his chemo regimen and heads to Lilaria. She doesn't speak the language and she is staggered by the ferocity of public interest in her but she doesn't change from the casual, down to earth person she was when she was simply a poor grad student, which ultimately endears her to her new people. And of course, Alex promises not to throw her to the wolves, to help her through the transition to such a different life, giving them every opportunity to spend time together, trying to resist the inevitable.  Alex and Sam agree to be friends but the sexual tension surrounding them remains thick. And when they finally come together, the question is whether Sam can overcome her overwhelming fear of losing the people she loves and her feeling of inferiority to Alex because of her American background and grab the life she wants to live.

The story is a sweet fairy tale with touches of sorrow but it's also a sexy and hot romance. The main characters are both incredibly likable and the secondary characters are fun and interesting in their own right. It's an overall light and engaging read but one that doesn't minimize the struggles of real life and shows some of the disadvantages of what is a very privileged life. Fans of straight contemporary romance should thoroughly enjoy it and look forward to the sequel.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Review: Nine Horse by Billy Collins

My son is suffering through poetry in his high school English class. He does not find it easy to see symbolism or to plumb behind metaphor for meaning. He already dislikes the class and this unit finds him struggling terribly. I remember feeling a little at a loss myself when reading poetry despite my general facility with all things English class related.  Unlike my boy, I could eventually winkle out a meaning acceptable enough to earn me praise but the work of it left me unwilling to read poetry on my own. And this has stayed the case for twenty some years now. But for some reason, when I saw Billy Collins' collection, Nine Horses, I was drawn to it. And the word "Poems" on the cover did not make me immediately want to run and hide. So I brought it home and now I've read it. And I wish that my son could be studying some of the simple, natural, and elegant poems contained in this collection. Yes, because they are accessible but mostly because they are wonderful.

Collins captures the beauty of the natural world and of our place within it. He writes of the stages of life and the everyday. And he presents it all in clear and lovely verse. Sometimes he makes surprising but accurate comparisons, sometimes he pops in a twist on the expected, and sometimes he writes something witty and tongue in cheek, but overall and most of the time the poems are infused with a sense of familiarity and comfort. This is an eloquent and pleasing collection to be sure and I'll have to search out his others to allow myself to slip into the plain and profound beauty of his language and imagery again and again.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Review: The Sister Season by Jennifer Scott

Abuse leaves scars that don't always show. It breaks people down and affects them forever, even long after they have escaped the abuse or the abuser. As generations of families who have lived it show, it taints members' relationships, destroys their ability to trust, and is terrifically difficult to overcome in order to develop a healthy life. In Jennifer Scott's first adult novel, The Sister Season, the three Yancey sisters and their mother Elise have endured years of abuse at the hands of father and husband Robert but now they are all gathered, just before Christmas, to bury, if not mourn, the man.

The sisters haven't been home in ten years, not only because of their father's abusive alcoholism and their mother's sad enabling, but because they fled from each other as well. Now they are all home and even though Robert's death is the reason, Elise is hoping that they can have a regular, happy family Christmas, of the kind they never once had while Robert was alive. But each of the three sisters has returned home harboring a secret and clinging to the tension and dysfunction of ten years prior. Julia, the sister they call Queenie for her regal ways and the way that nothing ruffles her, has brought her suicidal teenaged son Eli with her and left her uber-busy, work-obsessed second husband behind at home. Maya, the middle sister, arrives with her two young children and her serial philandering husband Bradley. And Claire, the family wild child, who is assumed by Maya, and perhaps Julia and Elise too, to have slept with Bradley ten years ago despite her constant disavowals of the accusation seems to flit lightly home but she too is carrying a well camouflaged distress with her. All three of them are hiding something but what they don't bother to hide is their antagonism, making Elise's dream of a happy, peaceful Christmas impossible.

The narrative shifts between a focus on each sister and Elise, with increasingly explicit teasers about the secrets each of them have in their live. Julia's suicidal son Eli also narrates short sections as he tries to choose the perfect time and day to kill himself. Through his narration, the excessive dysfunction of the Yancey family is exposed as he sees things almost from the perspective of an outsider. As each sister's full story is revealed, it is clear the many ways that these women are physical survivors of abuse but that they are still emotionally trapped and affected by what they experienced and witnessed for so many years. They are all emotionally fragile in different ways, detached from relationship, and distrustful. Being uninvolved or channeling perfection or staying at arm's length has been the sisters' coping mechanisms and must be what they face in themselves as they try to come back together and make connections now in the wake of Robert's death.

This is not a heartwarming Christmas tale complete with healing at the end. It is a tough and painful emotional journey. The characters are a bit one dimensional and because of the major issues facing each sister, it sometimes seems as if it is a dismal bog-wallow. Things go from bad to worse for this family all through the holiday. The ending is quite tentative and maybe the tiniest bit hopeful but the time jump from Robert's funeral after Christmas to the following year means that the reader is told about the sisters' healing and change, having it presented as a fait accompli.  Overall a very quick and easy read, it definitely tackles some difficult issues.

Thanks 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.

Still Life With Bread Crumbs by Anna Quindlen. The book is being released by Random House on January 28, 2014.

Amazon says this about the book: Still Life with Bread Crumbs begins with an imagined gunshot and ends with a new tin roof. Between the two is a wry and knowing portrait of Rebecca Winter, a photographer whose work made her an unlikely heroine for many women. Her career is now descendent, her bank balance shaky, and she has fled the city for the middle of nowhere. There she discovers, in a tree stand with a roofer named Jim Bates, that what she sees through a camera lens is not all there is to life.

Brilliantly written, powerfully observed, Still Life with Bread Crumbs is a deeply moving and often very funny story of unexpected love, and a stunningly crafted journey into the life of a woman, her heart, her mind, her days, as she discovers that life is a story with many levels, a story that is longer and more exciting than she ever imagined.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Review: Orphan Train by Christina Baker Cline

Some people don't like to read fiction because they think it's all invented by the author. What they don't realize is that there is a huge amount of research that goes into writing the best fiction and there's a good chance that they'll learn something as they read. This is especially the case in historical fiction. There have been many historical fiction novels that have introduced me to aspects of history I had either never heard of or with which I had just the barest glancing familiarity. Christina Baker Kline's Orphan Train is one such novel. Before reading it, I had no idea that orphaned and abandoned children from the overpopulated east were bundled onto trains and sent west to be adopted, stopping at town after town along the way to drop these children into new, and sometimes less desirable, lives.

Molly is a seventeen year old in foster care. She's been disappointed enough by the system that she's not going to count on this latest placement either and her new foster mom's attitude towards her just reinforces her aloof surliness. She opens herself up to very few people, not trusting them to be there for her or to care for her as a person. But she's more than just this untouchable, emotionally distant Goth teen. She's a girl who so loves the book Jane Eyre that she steals a battered, old copy from the library. But she gets caught and sentenced to community service. And this is where things start to look up for Molly because she gets to do community service by cleaning out decades of accumulated stuff in the attic of Vivian Daly, an elderly woman with an unbelievable history and more in common with Molly than the either of them can begin to imagine.

Interspersed with the story of this sad and hurting teenager in 2011, is the story of Niamh, a red-headed, freckle-faced, 9 year old Irish child living in New York City who loses her entire family in a tenement fire in the late 1920s. Without relatives willing to take her in and in a city prejudiced against the Irish, she was dumped on the Children's Aid Society. When the Society started shipping children west on so called orphan trains, young Niamh was aboard. The infants on the trains were often adopted into loving families and raised as the family's children. Many of the older boys on board were chosen for their ability to help with farm work while older girls became nannies or maids. A visibly Irish Niamh was passed over again and again at each of the train stops until she was finally chosen by a man and his wife who renamed her Dorothy and only took her into their home as an unpaid laborer in their woman's clothier business.

And so the two stories continue alternating with each other, Dorothy's life and continued hardship and Molly working for Vivian Daly, coming to know and like the upright and interesting old woman. Working at her community service and learning the difficult story behind Vivian's life, Molly blooms, starting to feel as if she is important in someone else's life, and even volunteering to help Vivian look into her past and discover the truth of her life with the help of modern technology.

The information about orphan trains and the lives that the children who were transported on them lived was fascinating stuff. Kline has done a good job researching both the situations that led to the trains and the hardships that many of the children faced even once they reached a new life. The endurance of children like Niamh/Dorothy, because they had no other choice, is simply heatbreaking. The historical aspect of this novel was far more engrossing than the modern portion though, making the novel slightly unbalanced. It is a sad commentary that the failures of the foster care system for Molly are not unexpected or unbelievable but as such, they come off as a bit clichéd. Although the ending and its revelations are not terribly surprising, they are, in this day of information only moments away at your fingertips, completely realistic and perfect to wrap up the story of these two lonely people searching for connection and care in their lives.

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