Monday, June 30, 2014

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

This meme is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.

Books I completed this past week are:

Burial Rights by Hannah Kent
Elly in Love by Colleen Oakes
Losing Touch by Sandra Hunter
After I Do by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Bookmarks are still living in the middle of:

The Geometry of Love by Jessica Levine
Euphoria by Lily King

Reviews posted this week:

The Eight by Katherine Neville
Love Overdue by Pamela Morsi
Snapper by Brian Kimberling
Elly in Love by Colleen Oakes
The Affairs of Others by Amy Grace Loyd

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

Mimi Malloy, At Last by Julia MacDonnell
The Innocent Sleep by Karen Perry
Strings Attached by Joanne Lipman and Melanie Kupchynsky
Palmerino by Melissa Pritchard
If Not For This by Pete Fromm
The Lady From Tel Aviv by Raba'i al-Madhoun
Angels Make Their Hope Here by Breena Clarke
Ishmael's Oranges by Claire Hajaj
Neverhome by Laird Hunt
Burial Rights by Hannah Kent
Losing Touch by Sandra Hunter
After I Do by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Monday Mailbox

As I plan what I'm going to take with me on vacation, I find more in my mailbox and have to plot how to stash it into the suitcase. And after this week, I'm going to have to add a suitcase for sure. Not a bad problem to have though! This week's mailbox arrivals:

The Virtues of Oxygen by Susan Schoenberger came from Lake Union Publishing.

A novel about two women, each suffering in her own way, who come together to maybe, just maybe, save each other. This looks like a lovely read.

Bellman and Black by Diane Setterfield came from Emily Bestler Books.

Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale was magnificent so I'm willing to go outside of my comfort zone to read this ghost story whose catalyst is the senseless killing of a rook by a boy.

Juliet's Nurse by Lois Leveen came from Emily Bestler Books.

I can't get enough of Shakespeare inspired stories so this retelling of Romeo and Juliet told from Juliet's nurse's perspective should be completely satisfying.

The Traitor's Wife by Allison Pataki came from Howard.

Did you know that Benedict Arnold's young and beautiful American wife was more than a little involved in his treachery? This novel about the love triangle (Peggy Shippen Arnold, John Andre, and Benedict Arnold) that betrayed our country looks really good.

Gemini by Carol Cassella came from Simon and Schuster.

A medical mystery about ethics and life, this novel about a doctor making the decisions for a comatose Jane Doe in the absence of any family sounds riveting.

All Fall Down by Jennifer Weiner came from Atria Books.

With humor and grace, Weiner always tackles topics that impact women and this novel about a woman facing a prescription painkiller addiction is no different. Can't wait to see how she puts this together.

I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You by Courtney Maum came from Touchstone.

Love is always a topic ripe to write about and this novel about an artist who must find a way back to loving his wife after having an affair and the wife who may not want him back should be great.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr came from Scribner.

Doerr's About Grace was a beautiful novel and I have every expectation that this one about a blind French girl and a German boy during World War II will be wonderful too.

The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman came from Scribner.

Sometimes when oddities abound, great stories follow as I hope will be the case for this novel about the mermaid from a Coney Island freak show and the photographer who photographs the devastation of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.

Above by Isla Morley came from Gallery Books.

Normally I would shy away from a novel about an abducted teenager kept in captivity by a madman but I so unexpectedly loved Emma Donoghue's Room that I am curious to take on another similar sounding tale.

The Collector of Dying Breaths by M.J. Rose came from Atria Books.

Perfume, poison, and the elixir of immortality, thrilling sounding, no?

The Children of the Jacaranda Tree by Sahar Delijani came from Atria Paperback.

Spanning almost 30 years, this novel of Iran and the tragedies and horrors of its past and how they impact its people and its future looks stunning.

The Sea Garden by Deborah Lawrenson came from Harper.

With a cover like this how could you not want to open this book? A triple stranded story about romance, WWII, restoring a garden, and mystery just ups the can't wait factor!

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion came from Simon and Schuster Paperbacks.

I've already reviewed this charming novelhere.

The Girls of Atomic City by Denise Kiernan came from Touchstone.

I thought I knew all about Oak Ridge and the bomb but this fascinating looking nonfiction about the young women who were instrumental in building it and keeping the town of Oak Ridge going promises to fill in any knowledge gaps I've got.

Mrs. Poe by Lynn Cullen came from Gallery Books.

I've already read this one but what's not appealing about finding out what life was like for the sickly Mrs. Poe?

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, June 29, 2014

Sunday Salon: The Traveling Team

Like last Sunday, I am still consumed with trying to accomplish too much before we leave on Wednesday. The good news is that I have managed to cross quite a bit off of my to do list. This does not mean I am not still running around like a chicken with my head cut off, because I certainly am. But things are less overwhelming and that's a good thing. So now I have time to sit down and do the important bit. You know that bit. The one where you determine the traveling team for the road trip. I always get great joy when I ponder which books to pack up and haul with me. I know. I'm weird. But I like me anyway.

So back to the books. I am going to be gone for all of July and the first week and a half of it, I may or may not have much reading time. I have to take the kids to Florida for my daughter's National Dance Competition. When she's not dancing, I will be hanging out at my sister's house hoping that I can sneak in some books. After that we're faced with a three day drive to northern Michigan, where I can relax into my book stash for the rest of the month. So per usual, I am taking a freakishly large amount of books with me. I mean, I hate to be caught without enough to read, not that I won't visit the tiny little independent bookshop up there, because I absolutely will. ::grin::  But variety is important, you know?  Below is what I have on the list so far and it is by necessity much of what I've already listed as my summer reading but I have added a few and subtracted all those I've already managed to read this summer so it's not all old news. Anything else you think I should absolutely not miss?

Taking for sure:

Serenade by Emily Kiebel
Last Night at the Blue Angel by Rebecca Rotert
The Sea Garden by Deborah Lawrenson
Queen of Hearts by Colleen Oakes
Gravel on the Side of the Road by Kris Radish
Marching to Zion by Mary Glickman
In Between Dreams by Iman Verjee
The Blessings by Elise Juska
Bellman and Black by Diane Setterfield
Juliet's Nurse by Lois Leveen
The Traitor's Wife by Allison Pataki
Gemini by Carol Cassella
We Are Called to Rise by Laura McBride
We Are Not Ourselves by Matthews Thomas
All Fall Down by Jennifer Weiner
The Orphans of Race Point by Patry Francis
Ruby by Cynthia Bond
The Divorce Papers by Susan Rieger
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
Painted Horses by Malcolm Brooks
An Untamed State by Roxane Gay
Til the Well Runs Dry by Lauren Francis-Sharma
Going Somewhere by Brian Benson
The People in the Photo by Helene Gestern
The From-Aways by C.J. Hauser
Chasing Perfect by Susan Mallory
The Way North by Ron Riekki
The Wings of the Dove by Henry James

If I don't finish it in the next three days:

The Geometry of Love by Jessica Levine
Euphoria by Lily King

If it arrives in time (otherwise the hub will have to mail it up to me):

Jane Austen's First Love by Syrie James

So even though I am not yet on vacation, my reading did take me places this past week. I was in Iceland on a remote northern farm with a condemned woman, in St. Louis with a sweet florist whose life seemed to be going a million miles an hour, in London with an Indian immigrant whose body was betraying him, in California with a woman who is questioning her love for her husband and their marriage's viability, in New Guinea with anthropologists trapped in a love triangle, and in New York with an artist torn between an old lover who inspires her and her husband who stifles her talent. Where have you gone on your reading vacations this week?

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Review: The Affairs of Others by Amy Grace Loyd

Grief and depression go hand in hand. And sometimes when they overwhelm a person, it is hard to go on being connected to the world. In Amy Grace Loyd's novel, The Affairs of Others, the main character has deliberately and intentionally closed herself off from others but her carefully constructed barriers are about to be crossed.

Celia is 30 and she's been widowed for several years, having lost her husband to cancer. After his death, she bought a brownstone composed of four apartments, three of which she rents out to others. She's vetted her tenants very carefully so that they stay self-contained and don't create any drama that might interfere with her isolation. When her upstairs neighbor has the chance to go to France, he brings in a subletter named Hope, a beautiful and vibrant woman who has been betrayed by her husband of many years.  Celia is attracted to the pulsing life in Hope and she can't help but hear all of the goings on upstairs, the result of Hope's new dangerous and abusive affair, being reluctantly drawn in to Hope's messy, troubled life and then to her other tenants' lives as well.

Celia values privacy above all else although she has always had a detached interest in her tenants' comings and goings. She has no close relationships herself, holding herself remote from the possibility of feeling emotional pain like she experienced during her husband's illness. So her eventual intrusion into the lives of her neighbors is very definitely an unlooked for intimacy. She narrates her own story in semi stream of consciousness, resulting in a very reflective and sometimes navel-gazing tale. Unfortunately, Celia's remoteness extends to the reader's feelings about her as well, making her not very likable. The other characters, Hope; the elderly Mr. Caughlin, a former ferry captain who goes missing; and Angie Braunstein, whose husband leaves her when their dreams no longer coincide are not fully developed, perhaps because of Celia's long standing lack of desire to know those around her, and as such don't feel three dimensional. Celia's self-destructive and anonymous grasping at life in her random Metro encounters are tawdry and don't help her to become a character with whom the reader wants to spend more time.

The writing here is meandering and self-conscious, occasionally overwritten. The tone never really lifts out of depressing, making the whole novel feel as if there's a damp grey cloth smothering it, even where the end is meant to show hope for the future. Celia learning that continued life is about connection and that shutting herself off from it shuts her out of any meaningful life feels muted as well. This is a very character driven, psychological novel that had so much sadly unrealized potential and I was glad to finally turn the last page.

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

Friday, June 27, 2014

Review: Elly in Love by Colleen Oakes

I swear that sometimes when you think you've finally handled everything that life can throw at you, life decides to prove you wrong. I guess that change and conflict and chaos (sometimes controlled and sometimes not) never stop happening and you have to learn to handle them with grace and good humor. Elly Jordan, in Colleen Oakes' novel, Elly in Love, the second in a planned trilogy, is figuring this out.

Elly's flower shop, Posies, is a success. She's blissful in her relationship with Keith, the deli owner down the street. Things are finally going pretty well for her after a really tough year. But life isn't through throwing her for a loop. First, the half brother she never knew about before shows up on her doorstep. Then she's offered the chance to submit a proposal to design the flowers for the huge reality show BlissBride, a celebrity wedding show that could send her business into the stratosphere. Next she agrees to the suggestion that she open a second, trendier store. And then, despite being in love with Keith, she finds that she can't keep overlooking the fact that he's hiding something from her, very possibly lying to her like her ex-husband did. All of this at once is almost enough to overwhelm her because, of course, very little goes as smoothly as hoped.

This is a sweet novel and full of heart. Elly is the kind of character you root for; she comes off as deserving of all the happiness and success she finds. She is described, quite a few times, as curvy and while others describe her positively, she has a very negative self-image that was rather sad coming from a successful and talented woman. Keith's character is a dream, supportive and understanding, and although Elly's past explains why she needs him to be completely transparent with her, she makes assumptions that don't jibe with his character at all, almost leading to heartache. Naming all the characters in the novel except one, who is called Snarky Teenager throughout, was distracting and unnecessary.  Her behavior and dialogue showed her character completely enough without leaving her nameless. The descriptions of the flowers in the shop and Elly's designs are simply gorgeous. As Elly tackles the latest challenges in her life, she learns a lot about people, the importance of family, and love. The novel is delightful, fun, and mostly light with moments of crisis that are deftly and speedily handled. This would be a charming and quick beach read.

For more information about Colleen Oakes and the book, check out her website, her Facebook page, follow her on Twitter, or connect with her on GoodReads. Take a look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Janay from Book Sparks PR and the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Review: Snapper by Brian Kimberling

This is not a novel in the traditional sense, so don't go into it thinking that it is. It is more an interconnected series of short stories all focused on Nathan Lochmueller, similar in form to Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge. And like that work, it is surprisingly appealing.

Nathan is a graduate student when he falls into a low paying job as a professional bird researcher and ecologist. He is assigned to track birds, their population, and their breeding and nesting habits for one square mile in wooded rural Indiana. In general, he is a bit of a bumbler and he has an ongoing obsession with the enticing and elusive Lola in his immediate post-college years. He drives a incongruous decorated and glitter festooned truck named the Gypsy Moth that Lola painted for him. While Nathan finds beauty in the woods, offering a loving look at the woodlands and animals in his square mile, he is less tolerant of the people in his Indiana college town. But he is shown up as similarly pretentious when he purports to like the unembellished small town life of those outside of academia. He can seem adrift at times but the threads of his life do weave together, creating a different, and ultimately appealing, sort of tapestry.

The novel is not told chronologically, with tales about his childhood friends and his family sprinkled into the story, but it spans several years in Nathan's life, specifically those years where he is trying to find himself and settle into the life he wants to lead. The stories are all connected through Nathan but they don't necessarily have a unifying plot thread running through them all. Each chapter is really its own self contained vignette from Nathan's life. Kimberling has written a graceful and unhurried tale, an environmental ode without the edge of extremism that sometimes accompanies a tale like this. He has captured a strong sense of place and created gently funny and unusual characters. The book is very well written, touching, and in the end, even a bit melancholic.

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

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

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 Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman. The book is being released by Sceptre on July 3, 2014.

Amazon says this about the book: There is something about Ove. At first sight, he is almost certainly the grumpiest man you will ever meet. He thinks himself surrounded by idiots - neighbours who can't reverse a trailer properly, joggers, shop assistants who talk in code, and the perpetrators of the vicious coup d'etat that ousted him as Chairman of the Residents' Association. He will persist in making his daily inspection rounds of the local streets. But isn't it rare, these days, to find such old-fashioned clarity of belief and deed? Such unswerving conviction about what the world should be, and a lifelong dedication to making it just so? In the end, you will see, there is something about Ove that is quite irresistible...The word-of-mouth bestseller causing a sensation across Europe, Fredrik Backman's heartwarming debut is a funny, moving, uplifting tale of love and community that will leave you with a spring in your step - and less ready to judge on first impressions a man you might one day wish to have as your dearest friend.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Review: Love Overdue by Pamela Morsi

There seem to be loads of stories these days about people getting engaged or married in libraries and bookstores. At least this is true of the sort of news I tend to read. And for a book lover, there's very little sweeter than the idea of falling in love amongst the stacks. So when I find a romance with a librarian in it, like Pamela Morsi's Love Overdue, it's too appealing to pass up.

DJ is a stereotypical looking librarian in her boxy, unattractive clothing and glasses. She seems to strive to be as drab as pop culture expects a librarian to be. She's clearly most comfortable when she's hiding in plain sight. She's moved to a small farming town in Kansas to take a head librarian position that she's very excited about. But she had no idea that the library would be so dark and unwelcoming, that one of her staff members is firmly against change and therefore against any of DJ's ideas, or that the apartment that comes with the job is in the home of the town pharmacist's mother. This last fact might not be all bad except that Vivian (Viv) is determined to set DJ up with her son Scott, who just so happens to be the man DJ had a one night stand with eight years ago while on vacation. And he doesn't connect staid and conservative looking DJ with the sexy and appealing Sparkle at all.

Scott doesn't understand why the new librarian seems to dislike him on sight but once he looks past her façade, he rather likes what he sees. What DJ sees though, is a man who cheated on his wife, a man who plays the field even with a married woman, and a man who has had so many women in his past that he can't even recognize the one standing right in front of him. But even with her feelings about him, she can't avoid him in this small town, especially since his mother is on the library board, is her landlord, and keeps throwing them together any chance she gets. And when Scott shows DJ around town, explains the importance of the wheat harvest, and ultimately makes her dream for the library come true, she realizes that she's misjudged him.

This is a sweet, small town romance. The misunderstanding between DJ and Scott is an embarrassing one so it is perfectly understandable that it wouldn't be addressed as their relationship begins but the fact that the story is lacking a resolution to this vital piece of their shared history, skipping another eight years into the future at the very end rather than offering the reader a view of the confrontation/realization weakens it. Both the main characters are likable and the secondary characters each have their own quirky personalities so that their presence on the page is welcomed. It is nice to see a buttoned up heroine who comes out of her shell but not so far out as to be unrealistic or untrue to her introverted, quiet portrayal. And it is equally nice to see a hero who accepts this in the heroine and doesn't seek to change her but to support her in the ways that make her happy. The chapter titles as Dewey Decimal classifications are cute and well done. Aside from the missing piece in the ending, this is a winsome romance in the traditional sense.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Review: The Eight by Katherine Neville

My book club likes to choose different genres throughout the year in order to push each of us out of our reading ruts. Katherine Neville's The Eight was a push for me since I neither read thrillers nor play chess. I don't love mysteries and I haven't found a book that does slight of hand (eyes?) that I've liked since I was young and reading Ellen Raskin's masterful The Westing Game. I might have grumbled over the group's choice but I was a dutiful member and read it. And it was fine. It didn't really change my perceptions of the genre but since I didn't hate it, I consider the whole thing generally a success.

Opening at the end of the eighteenth century at Montglane Abbey in the south of France, two young novices are told of the existence of the Montglane Service, a chess set imbued with dangerous powers, given to Charlemagne and crafted by the Moors. The one who possesses all of the pieces will be immensely powerful, invincible and immortal. The nuns of the Abbey have guarded the service faithfully but now the political climate in France and the aspirations and cold intelligence of those on the rise have endangered its hiding place. The service must be scattered to the four winds in order to keep it from coming together as a set and granting the wrong person its strength. Mireille and her cousin Valentine are to take a piece of the service and flee to Paris to their guardian. They will risk everything to keep their piece and those of others safe even in the face of the Reign of Terror.  And their opponents are some of the brightest, most calculating minds of their time.

Meanwhile, in 1972, Catherine (Cat) Velis is about to leave for Algeria for work when she is warned about the danger to her there. She is a computer expert for IBM being sent to work with the Algerian government where she will come into contact with the newly formed OPEC. Not long before she is to leave, she is approached by an antiques collector who wants her to negotiate for a very old chess service there. Her work and her search for the chess pieces will collide and make for a thrilling, cat-and-mouse game through Northern Africa as she learns more about this chess service that people will even kill to posses.

The novel is certainly rife with intrigue as this dangerous game plays out across Europe, Africa, and America and across history, touching many of the most famous people of the day. The characters are fairly typical for this genre and it is pretty easy to guess who is on the side of good and who is evil, even without putting them mentally on a chess board, although a knowledge of chess moves certainly helps a reader appreciate the novel and the characters who people it better. The double narratives are equally interesting and they do eventually intertwine in an unexpected way. They are always connected by the chess service but the way that the late eighteenth century directly touches the middle twentieth century is unexpected and mystical. Both parallel stories gallop along at a pretty decent clip with danger, close calls, mystery, and revelations around every corner. But the writing itself isn't outstanding and has the potential to bog the reader down although some of the ideas contained here are smart: Fibonacci numbers, chess strategy, music, and their connections to and mirrors of each other. Suspense and thriller fans who want a roller coaster ride will certainly appreciate this more than I, the non-mathematical, non-chess playing, tone deaf me, did.  But over all, even for me, it was a quick and decent read.

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

This meme is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.

Books I completed this past week are:

The Witch of Belladonna Bay by Suzanne Palmieri
Betty's (little basement) Garden by Laurel Dewey

Bookmarks are still living in the middle of:

Elly in Love by Colleen Oakes
Burial Rights by Hannah Kent

Reviews posted this week:

The Glass Kitchen by Linda Francis Lee
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba
The Walk-In Closet by Abdi Nazemian
The Witch of Belladonna Bay by Suzanne Palmieri

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

Dinner With the Smileys by Sarah Smiley
Mimi Malloy, At Last by Julia MacDonnell
The Innocent Sleep by Karen Perry
Strings Attached by Joanne Lipman and Melanie Kupchynsky
Palmerino by Melissa Pritchard
If Not For This by Pete Fromm
The Lady From Tel Aviv by Raba'i al-Madhoun
Angels Make Their Hope Here by Breena Clarke
Ishmael's Oranges by Claire Hajaj
Neverhome by Laird Hunt

Monday Mailbox

I didn't get anything in my mailbox last week and I was feeling a bit forlorn but this week's bounty has restored my spirits. This week's mailbox arrivals:

Painted Horses by Malcolm Brooks came from Grove Atlantic.

I had a geology professor who maintained that the word dam(n) should always be a four letter word so I am very interested in this novel about 1950s America, an archeologist working on a damming project, and a man living in the canyon that's going to be flooded.

Euphoria by Lily King came from Atlantic Monthly Press.

I suspect that a love triangle between anthropologists in Papua New Guinea can only end horribly but I can't wait for the ride taking me there!

An Untamed State by Roxane Gay came from Black Cat.

This tale of a Haitian American woman who lives a life of privilege before she is kidnapped by a group who resents everything she represents has been highly lauded already and I know I'll turn to it when I need a heart pounding read.

Marching to Zion by Mary Glickman came from Open Road.

The story of both an interracial and interfaith love in the close of the 1910s in America, this book should capture an inflammatory time and carry the reader along.

The Perfume Collector by Kathleen Tessaro came from Harper.

I've already reviewed this one here.

The Orphans of Race Point by Patry Francis came from Harper Perennial.

About two children linked by tragedy trying to grow up and put their past behind them, this sounds phenomenal.

In Between Dreams by Iman Verjee came from Oneworld.

A novel about a strange and sometimes cruel girl sent away to school after a party gone awry and her grandmother's death, this promises to be a serious investigation of darkness and secrets and truth.

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng came from The Penguin Press.

After the death of the favorite child in a Chinese American family in small town 1970s Ohio, the family must choose how to move forward. This sounds heartbreaking and wonderful all in the same breath.

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, June 22, 2014

Sunday Salon: Panic mode

I made the mistake of glancing at the calendar and noticed not only how busy I am on a daily basis but how soon I take the kids to Florida for R.'s dance competition and then on up to Michigan for vacation. Leaving can't be just over a week away! I have a to do list 25 miles long. I have a reading list 300 miles long and a review list twice that size. I have meetings and appointments and commitments, oh my. And the packing! I have to get packing. But I am floating along as if everything that needs to be accomplished will all come together without any help from me and the calendar says I'm running out of time to have this happen. Can you say panic attack?

I know that my husband won't care if I leave for a month and the piles around the house are still there. (He's already learned to navigate around them so he might be more inclined to notice if they disappear than if they stay--and since he did notice, on the very day it happened, that I managed to clear out 95% of the garage again, this is probably very true.) I know that the reading and reviewing is mostly self-imposed so I should be able to let that go although some of it is promised to others and therefore really should be done.  (See how I do that to myself?)  And really, in looking at the summer reading list I created, I've already read 12 (plus one not on the list) of the 46 books I listed. I compiled that list to last me from Memorial Day to Labor Day so in theory, I've got time. The meetings and appointments and commitments that I have control over should be quick and I think the people who have to listen to me drone on will appreciate that immensely. So I shouldn't be panicked, right? If I rationalize this enough, maybe I'll even start to believe it. Or not. Now that I've had my reality check, maybe I'll indulge in a just little panic attack, a baby one if you will. Because maybe a little one will spur me to actually get enough done that I won't fret too much about leaving the rest unfinished. If nothing else, I should definitely get off the computer and go accomplish something. Yes, I'll get right on that!

This past week my reading travels have taken me to Malawi to see the ingenuity of a young boy who figures out all on his own how to build a windmill to generate electricity for his family, to Alabama where magic and family have caused so much pain in need of the healing power of love, to Colorado and the fight over the legalization of marijuana, and to Iceland where a condemned murderess awaits execution. Where did your reading take you this week?

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Review: The Witch of Belladonna Bay by Suzanne Palmieri

Magic and the supernatural are not usually things I search out in the books I read. There's magic enough just in the escape found in books for me. But occasionally a little extra magic in a book helps to drive the story onwards. In Suzanne Palmieri's new novel, The Witch of Belladonna Bay, magic and the supernatural swirl all through the characters and the plot of this novel about a family coming back together, facing long avoided truths, and learning to embrace love.

Bronwyn Whalen left her Alabama town fourteen years ago, after her mother's opium overdose and she hasn't been home since. But now she's got to go back. Her brother Paddy is in jail for murdering her childhood best friend Charlotte and Charlotte's son Jamie.  Paddy's daughter Byrd, the niece Wyn has never met, needs her. So despite her misgivings and no desire to face the unresolved feelings that her home and family inspire in her, Wyn heads home to her alcoholic father, Jackson, wealthy and privileged mayor of the town; to her great aunt and the mysterious man she married; to her memories and ghosts, literal and figurative; to the place where her long suppressed powers belong; to free spirited and precocious Byrd; and to BitsyWyn, the sassy, determined Southerner she's been deep down all along.

Wyn is determined to discover who really killed Charlotte because she knows in her heart that it can't have been Paddy. As she digs around to exonerate her brother, she falls in love with her strange and magical niece, loving her fiercely and protectively. When Wyn's fiancé, Ben, arrives in Alabama, she learns more about herself and the heritage she's been running from forever and she knows in her bones that she can never leave Byrd, no matter what. It is only when all the puzzle pieces are in place that Wyn can see not only what happened the night that Charlotte died and Jamie disappeared but that she can start to help those she loves heal all of the hurts they have carried for so long.

Narrated in turn by Wyn, Byrd, and Naomi, Wyn's dead mother, the story is more about coming to accept and love who you are down to your very soul than it is about the mystery surrounding Charlotte's death. Wyn is holding onto bitterness and carrying a load of guilt that has left her something less than happy. Byrd is an old soul, funny, earnest, and loving beyond her years. Naomi is held back by her regret and the need to explain and ask for forgiveness for her choices. And while Jackson chooses alcohol over everything, he still loves his family, wanting the best for them. The scene is very southern Gothic with the hovering mist over the forbidding and scary island in Belladonna Bay and the characters are suitably eccentric. There are quite a few plot threads weaving through the narrative, Ben as Wyn's caretaker, what really happened to Charlotte, Wyn's childhood love and Charlotte's brother Grant and his role in everything, Byrd's powers, and more, not all of which are as fully developed as might have been. But even so the novel is enticing. The resolution of the mystery is one part predictable and another part surprise and the end of the novel wraps up tidily, moving from slightly sinister feeling to contented, a tone shift that is a bit abrupt. Over all though, a good read, this will appeal to fans of the supernatural, contemporary southern fiction, and those who like reading about families who find their way back to each other and to their hearts.

For more information about Suzanne Palmieri and the book, check out her website, her Facebook page, follow her on Twitter, or connect with her on GoodReads. Take a look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Janay from Book Sparks PR and the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Review: The Walk-In Closet by Abdi Nazemian

What is it about heading into a new decade age-wise that makes so many people assess their lives, where they've been, where they are, and where they want to be? I might be the least introspective person on the planet but a new age ending in a zero doesn't ever make me pause to take stock of my life so far. But so many people are in fact spurred on to do just that when they turn thirty or forty or fifty. For  Kara Walker, the main character of Abdi Nazemian's new novel, The Walk-In Closet, her looming thirtieth birthday coupled with the Persian new year celebration called Nowruz, definitely forces her to look at her life and start thinking about where she wants it to go.

Kara lives with Babak (Bobby) Ebadi in a duplex condo his staggeringly wealthy parents bought for him. His family thinks that they are boyfriend and girlfriend but they are simply best friends.  In fact, Kara is Bobby's beard, allowing him to stay deeply closeted with his family. Kara doesn't mind this living situation because she loves Bobby's parents, Leila and Hossein, and she adores the Iranian/Persian culture and traditions in Tehrangeles. But the Ebadis are starting to ramp up the pressure on Bobby and Kara to get married and provide them with grandchildren to spoil. Under this pressure, the façade of a heterosexual relationship that Kara and Bobby have created is starting to crumble and cause Kara stress.

Kara and Bobby have an easygoing understanding with each other. Kara gets to live in the condo and enjoy the designer hand me downs and expensive gifts that Leila passes her way and Bobby gets to pursue his anonymous online hook-ups without anyone the wiser. They have decided, through the many years that they have been friends, not to outright lie to Bobby's family, but they allow everyone to draw the wrong conclusions about their relationship. Kara is still mourning her last relationship and living a celibate life while Bobby has one night (or day) stands with any and all comers. But she's not as happy as she once was and so Kara decides that she needs to learn to be more like Bobby, to learn to be less emotionally invested and to have no strings attached sex with anonymous people. But when she attempts to do this, she meets Kyle, who completely fascinates her. He's clearly not using his real name and she doesn't want to scare him away since this was supposed to be a one time, unemotional, scratch an itch thing but her monogamous little self is hooked. And eventually Kyle will change everything.

Kara and Bobby come off as far younger than they actually are, perhaps because of the sheltering umbrella of the Ebadi's money or perhaps because they are truly immature, the latter a conclusion the random casual sexual encounters seems to support. But even with this, both of them are rather likable characters. They deal with emotions in different ways; Kara obsesses and Bobby avoids. And a lot of this is attributable to their respective upbringings. As Kara faces her own feelings, needs, and desires, and whether she's comfortable continuing to string Bobby's family along about his sexuality, she uncovers a lot of secrets and deep hurts that have been glossed over by a hyper consumerism and the shine of the finer things in life. There are some pretty detailed sex scenes between Kara and Kyle but Bobby's trysts are left in the closet with a wink. The Tehrangeles community is lovingly skewered here and the insight into the Persian diaspora from Iran is well done. Who Kyle is and what happens in the end is clear almost from the moment he appears in the story and the fact of it stretches credibility, tying the end up just a tad too neatly and hurriedly. Over all though, the novel is fast paced and fun, a generally light look at coming to know yourself and to learn acceptance and love.

For more information about Abdi Nazemian and the book, check out his website, his Facebook page, follow him on Twitter, or connect with him on GoodReads. Take a look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Janay from Book Sparks PR and the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Review: The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer

Some people are amazing. They are smart and motivated and they can't help but do great things. When a person like this grows up without the benefits and privileges that so many of us take for granted, it makes their accomplishments that much more inspiring. This is absolutely the case with William Kamkwamba, a Malawian teenager who built a windmill to generate electricity for his family's home. This memoir of his young life so far shows just what an impressive young man he is.

Kamkwamba is the son of a farmer. In good years the farm is productive and provides well for everyone. In lean years, it is much tougher. And in the famine years, the Kamkwamba family is lucky not to starve. Divided into three parts, the first section of the memoir tells of a typical farming life in the small African country of Malawi. This is an extensive part of the book, setting the scene for a readership certainly not familiar with the way of life, the lack of amenities and technology, and the worries in this mostly non-industrialized place. Kamkwamba paints a picture of his family's closeness, his friendships, and the magic that infuses their lives. But he doesn't shy away from the hardships and the want either, including the horrific drought and famine that devastated the country and resulted in many deaths. It was this famine that stole Kamkwamba's chance to go to school from him. If there were no crops, there was no money for school, never mind for school fees.

In the absence of formal schooling, Kamkwamba visits the tiny free library in the village to try and maintain his studies. He is drawn to the old donated American textbooks on physics, energy, and engineering. It is from these books, written in a language not his own, that he comes across the idea of building a windmill to generate electricity. The second section of the memoir deals with his scavenging for pieces that he could cobble together out of discarded junk to create the windmill and bring his dream to fruition. His curiosity, determination, and fierce perseverance shine as he learns from diagrams and through trial and error. This section has some of the most technical pieces of the memoir and the detailed explanation of the mechanics, without pictures, can be a little overwhelming and dry for the non-scientific reader.

The third and final section of the book deals with how his ingenuity finally gets recognized by the wider world. His experiences at conventions and with people around the world and in his own country feels rushed and like an unembellished list after the extensive narrative of the first and second parts. At this point the narration is quick, almost hurried, and short changes the further scientific creations he attempts, both those that succeed and those that fail. But even for its brevity, the final section does show, very abundantly, just how amazing his accomplishments were and are.

The memoir is co-written and it definitely has the feel of a simple, conversational telling, almost as if it is a transcription of interviews. Its balance is a bit off but the hope carried in the telling helps to mitigate that some. It is definitely an inspirational memoir with a touch of "necessity is the mother of invention" to it. If a boy from rural Malawi can simply state, "I try, and I made it!" then surely the possibilities for all of us everywhere are endless.

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.

One Plus One by Jojo Moyes. The book is being released by Pamela Dorman Books on July 1, 2014.

Amazon says this about the book: One single mom. One chaotic family. One quirky stranger. One irresistible love story from the New York Times bestselling author of Me Before You

American audiences have fallen in love with Jojo Moyes. Ever since she debuted Stateside she has captivated readers and reviewers alike, and hit the New York Times bestseller list with the word-of-mouth sensation Me Before You. Now, with One Plus One, she’s written another contemporary opposites-attract love story.

Suppose your life sucks. A lot. Your husband has done a vanishing act, your teenage stepson is being bullied, and your math whiz daughter has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that you can’t afford to pay for. That’s Jess’s life in a nutshell—until an unexpected knight in shining armor offers to rescue them. Only Jess’s knight turns out to be Geeky Ed, the obnoxious tech millionaire whose vacation home she happens to clean. But Ed has big problems of his own, and driving the dysfunctional family to the Math Olympiad feels like his first unselfish act in ages . . . maybe ever.

One Plus One is Jojo Moyes at her astounding best. You’ll laugh, you’ll weep, and when you flip the last page, you’ll want to start all over again.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Review: The Glass Kitchen by Linda Francis Lee

Food really does get to the heart of so many things. We have comfort food and food that brings up memories. We all have favorites and also foods we really don't like at all.  When food is right, it can be magical. And magical is the right term for Linda Francis Lee's newest novel, The Glass Kitchen.

Portia Cuthcart runs to New York City after her husband and best friend cheat on her and her marriage falls apart, moving into the basement garden apartment in the old rundown brownstone that she and her two sisters inherited from their great aunt. She is not only trying to escape her failed marriage but also her own brand of family magic, "the knowing," that she thinks caused her beloved grandmother's death. "The knowing" is a feeling that Portia gets when she must cook something. She has no idea why, just that she must do it.  After her grandmother's death, combined with her politician husband's disapproval of this power, she has shoved her abilities down and ignored them. But now having left Texas, she's going to have to face her talent and start cooking again.

The morning she moves into the apartment is the first time in a long time that she feels compelled to cook. It's also the morning she meets her rugged, very sexy upstairs neighbor, Gabriel Kane. Gabriel is the widowed father of a teen and a preteen, Miranda and Ariel, and he's bought the two upstairs apartments from Portia's sisters. Although Portia vows to steer clear of him, especially since he wants to buy her apartment and she has no intention of selling, she cannot help but be drawn into Ariel's life and therefore into Gabriel's. As she gets closer to Gabriel, Portia also learns allow herself to be who she is, opening a take-out café/bakery of sorts in her apartment with her sisters while they look for funding to open a complete restaurant.

This is a sweet and delicious love story, a tale of second chances and opening yourself up to what comes your way. The magic portrayed here is subtle and points to the kitchen and food as the heart of home and relationship. It allows Portia, despite her very real fears, to uncover secrets that need to be aired out and to help people heal, including herself. The development of Portia and Gabriel's relationship is not too fast and not too slow and the inclusion of Gabriel's less than loving mother and selfish brother serve to make his own character that much more appealing. Ariel is a charming child character, precocious but not annoying. Miranda, on the other hand, is a typical pill of a teenager. The book is organized into a multiple course menu, giving the reader some indication of where they are and where they are still going in this quirky treat of a novel. And for those readers who love recipes, this has some very tempting ones included at the end.

For more information about Linda Francis Lee and the book, check out her website, her Facebook page, or follow her on Twitter. Take a look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Staci from St. Martin's Press for sending me a copy of the book for review.

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