Friday, May 29, 2009

East of the Sun by Julia Gregson

Flap copy from paperback:
"As the Kaisar-i-Hindi weighs anchor for Bombay in the autumn of 1928, its passengers ponder their fate in a distant land. They are part of the "Fishing Fleet"- the name given to the legions of Englishwomen who sail to India each year in search of husbands, heedless of the life that awaits them. The inexperiences chaperone Viva Halloway has been entrusted to watch over three unsettling charges. There's Rose, as beautiful as she is naive, who plans to marry a cavalry officer she has met a mere handful of times. Her bridesmaid, Victoria, is hell-bent on losing her virginity en route before finding a husband of her own. And shadowing them all is the malevolent prescence of a disturbed schoolboy named Guy Glover."

This powerful historical novel follows the lives of three British women travel to India in the late 1920: Rose, engaged to a handsome cavalry officer she barely knows; Tor, determined to find a husband of her own to escape a loveless home in England; and Viva, an impoverished orphan returning to the country of her birth in search of answers. As these women set out on their individual paths, they confront personal and political challenges that reshape the courses of their lives and forge unbreakable bonds between them.

This was a truly wonderful novel that painted a vivid portrait of India in the last years of the British Raj. Extremely well-written, this novel managed to track a complicated cast of characters through an even more complicated world. The three women start out as almost stereotypical figures, but as the story unfolds so too do the depths of their characters. By the end of the novel, these women truly live and breathe.

I highly recommend this excellent addition to the historical fiction genre.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Mating Rituals of the North American WASP by Lauren Lipton

Flap copy:
New Yorker Peggy Adams is upset when she wakes up next to a strange man after a night in Las Vegas she can't remember...but she's horrified when she discovers she has married him! Luke Sedgwick is WASP royalty, the last of the New Nineveh, Connecticut, Sedgwicks. He might also have been perfect, if Peggy weren't already "pre-engaged" to her live-in boyfriend (with a promise ring to prove it). Peggy and Luke agree to get an annulment ASAP—and then receive an offer they can't refuse.

Luke's eccentric Great-aunt Abigail offers the two the chance to make millions on the family estate: All they have to do is stay married for a year. Peggy is soon pretending to be one-half of the perfect couple among New England's WASPy set on the weekends, while keeping her marriage a secret in New York during the week. But she isn't prepared for what might be her worst mistake of all: Falling in love with her soon-to-be ex-husband.

OK, so the plot falls nicely into the realm of "only in a chick lit book", and most of the confusion and conflict in the book could have been eliminated if the Luke and Peggy simply had an open and honest conversation about anything at all- I enjoyed this book regardless. Great-Aunt Abigail was a wonderful character, one whose poignant characterization helped carry this book to a four star rating. Lipton's writing is wonderful and at times the book is laugh-out-loud funny. A great escapist fantasy about why what happens in Vegas doesn't always stay in Vegas, this book should be a must-read for your summer vacation.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Mrs. Perfect by Jane Porter

Flap copy from paperback:
"For Taylor Young, life is very good. She has a handsome husband who loves her, three gorgeous children, a personally designed and decorated dream house. Suburbanite trendsetter and super mom, she regins supreme over her perfect world. And as long as no one notices the fragile woman beneath her coiffed and polished image, things will stay that way.

Then a devastating secret bursts Taylor's fairy-tale bubble, suddenly making her a cul-de-sac pariah and stripping her of the role that defined her. Struggling to maintain her alpha image, Taylor finds help from the unlikeliest of people, her nonconformist nemesis Marta Zinsser. But to become the woman her family truly needs, Taylor must first believe in the person she is hardest on- herself."

I won a set of Jane Porter books from a fellow book blogger and was excited to check out a new author. This book is very timely in terms of subject matter, but I found it a little too unrealistic that Taylor was so very clueless about her own family's financial situation. The book was fairly well-written, and I did like the parts where Taylor is forging a new life for her daughters by demonstrating how to make the best of a bad situation. Unfortunately, I thought the end was entirely too convenient and that left a bad taste in my mouth. All in all, a decent read that suffered from a rushed ending.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Bella by Anne and Edward Syfret

Flap copy from hardcover:
"What was this strange spell that the antique doll Bella cast over Sandy's friend Honorine? When they first found her in deserted Bell Tower Hall, Sandy had to admit that she was beautiful Her hair, a luminous reddy-gold, was piled on top of her head, and she wore an exquisitely tucked ivory gown. Honorine impetuously named her Bella, and then declared that she must have her, even though they both knew she belonged to the absent owner of the Hall. Honorine's immediate and intense attachment to the doll caused a sense of foreboding and danger in Sandy- a feeling which she suppressed again and again as Honorine's preoccupation with the doll grew.

When an unexpected development brings the doll closer to their reach than before, it seems that Honorine will stop at nothing to have her for her own. In spite of herself, Sandy is drawn further and further into Honorine's obsession. After repeatedly futile visits to the Hall., the girls become enmeshed in a bizarre and sinister chain of events, the explanation for which they are not to discover until years later.

For Bella, however ravishing, is only a sawdust-filled doll. Or is she?"

I read this book probably 25 years ago and it stuck with me, so much so that I recently hunted down a used copy to have for my very own (the one I originally read came from the library). I reread it semi-reluctantly, afraid the creeping sense of horror I remember so vividly would not carry through for an adult read. I am delighted to report that my fears were unfounded.

Granted, reading this book for the first time as an adult is unlikely to bring on the same sleepless nights I once suffered, but nothing about the book seems hokey even at this age. Though parts of the story seem a bit dated, overall this book definitely stands the test of time. Great atmosphere, scary setting, creepy homicidal doll- excellent young adult horror!

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

A Hint of Wicked by Jennifer Haymore

Flap copy from paperback:
What happens when a lady desires not one man, but two?

Sophie, the Duchess of Calton, has finally moved on. After seven years mourning the loss of her husband, Garrett, at Waterloo, she has married his best friend and heir, Tristan. Sophie gives herself to him body and soul...until the day Garrett returns from the Continent, demanding his title, his lands- and his wife.

Now Sophie must choose between her first love and her new love, knowing that no matter what, her choice will destroy one of the men she adores. Will it be Garrett, her childhood sweetheart, whose loss nearly destroyed her once already? Or will it be Tristan, beloved friend turned lover, who supported her through the last, dark years and introduced her to a passion she had never known? As her two husbands battle for her heart, Sophie finds herself immersed in a dangerous game- where the stakes are not only love...but life and death."

This book was a great debut into the regency genre, though some of Sophie's attitudes seemed a bit modern to me. The plot was certainly complicated, and doesn't all wrap up by the final pages (most probably because there is a sequel in the works). I found Sophie and Garrett to be satisfying characters, but felt Tristan was more two dimensional despite his primary role in the novel. Miranda was also surprisingly well-drawn, though Gary was a bit of an after-thought. I did think the narrative seemed rushed at the end, with a lot of action popped in and resolved rather quickly; the pacing just felt a bit off to me. One thing this book does have in overabundance is heat- there is none of the chaste "fade to black" you sometimes find in period romances! All in all, a great read; I for one will be on the lookout for the next book in the series.

If you would like to read this one for yourself, or just want to read more about it, check out Bookin' with Bingo's list of reviews and giveaways here- good luck!

Monday, May 18, 2009

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

Flap copy from paperback:
"Hanna Heath, an Australian rare book expert, has been offered the job of a lifetime: analysis and conservation of the famed Sarajevo Haggadah, rescued from Serb shelling during the Bosnian war. Priceless and beautiful, the book is one of the earliest Jewish volumes ever to be illuminated with images. When Hanna discovers a series of tiny artifacts in its ancient binding- an insect wing fragment, wine stains, salt crystals, a white hair- she begins to unlock the book's mysteries, ushering in its exquisite and atmospheric past, from its salvation back to its creation through centuries of exile and war."

This truly excellent book that tracks the fictional history of the Sarajevo Haggadah is a must read. I've lived in Sarajevo, and felt Brooks perfectly captured the flavor of the city in the brief glimpses we see in the narrative. This is the story of a magnificent and unique work of art, a book that has survived overwhelming odds and serves as an inspiration merely by its continued existence. Though the true story of the Sarajevo Haggadah is compelling enough, this narrative serves as a "what if" about the creators and protectors of the book, a story that personalizes a truly incredible journey. As Hanna unravels the story of the Haggadah, she simultaneously uncovers the lost truth about her own life and family, and discovers the self she never knew she had. I cannot recommend this book highly enough- 5 strong stars!

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Perfection: A Memoir of Betrayal and Renewal by Julie Metz

Flap copy from ARC:
"Every wife's worst nightmare.

In the aftermath of her husband's death, one woman discovers her life has been a lie.

Julie Metz seemed to have the perfect life- an adoring if demanding husband, a happy, spirited daughter, a lovely old house in an idyllic town outside New York City- when in an instant, everything changed. Her charismatic, charming husband Henry suffered a pulmonary embolism and collapsed on the kitchen floor. Within hours he was dead, and Julie was a widow and single mother at forty-four. Just like that, what had seemed like a perfect life melted away. But the worst was yet to come.

Six months after his death, Julie discovered that her husband of twelve years, the man who loved her and their six-year-old daughter ebulliently and devotedly, had been unfaithful throughout their marriage, going so far as to conduct an ongoing relationship with one of Julie's close friends.

This the story of coming to terms with painful truths, of rebuilding both a life and an identity after betrayal and widowhood. Ultimately, it is a story of rebirth and happiness- if not perfection."

This memoir of a grieving widow forced to reassess every aspect of her marriage in light of revelations of her husband's infidelities is both raw and moving. Metz pulls the reader into her feelings of loss and confusion as evidence of multiple betrayals mount. As Metz delves into the stark realities of her marriage, she is honest that there were signs that she missed, opportunities to invstigate that she ignored in favor of maintaining the fiction of the perfect marriage. In the end, she is more forgiving that I suspect I could be under similar circumstances. Despite the awkwardness of certain chapters (such as Metz's reentry into the wonderful world of dating), I couldn't help but root for her and her journey to rediscover the self that had been savaged by her husband's actions. A great read, highly recommended especially for anyone who has dealt with the issue of infidelity.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Palace Circle by Rebecca Dean

Flap copy from ARC:
"Delia Chandler, an eighteen-year-old Southern girl, marries Viscount Ivor Conisborough just before World War II and becomes part of the Windsor court. It's every girl's dream come true. But Delia is jolted from her pleasant life when she realizes, after the birth of her two daughters, that Ivor chose her only to bear an heir to his estate. Shortly thereafter, she begins an affair with her husband's handsome, titled, and frequently scandalous best friend."

This book is a hard one to review, especially because I was so primed to enjoy it before I began. Unfortunately, the more I read, the less I liked the Delia and the less I enjoyed the novel. Both Delia and the plot itself remained to superficial for me, and I found the vast leaps in time grating. The best part of the novel by far was the insights into the Windsor court and into the Egyptian colonial society of the time, but even those highlights were not enough to carry the narrative for me, especially as I'm not sure how historically accurate they were.

I was ultimately disappointed by Delia's decisions, and by her blind refusal to see how much her actions blighted the lives of those around her; honesty would have been by far the best policy for all of these characters. The narrative also moved incredibly slowly which made it even harder to sink into the story. I gave this one three stars, and believe it might make a decent vacation read.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Neil Armstrong is My Uncle & Other Lies Muscle Man McGinty Told Me by Nan Marino

Flap copy from ARC:
"Muscle Man McGinty is a squirrelly runt, a lying snake, and a pitiful excuse for a ten-year-old. The problem is that no one on Ramble Street knows it, but me.

Tamara Ann Simpson is tired of all the lies. And boy, oh boy, can Muscle Man McGinty tell some whoppers! When he does the unthinkable and challenges the entire block to a game of kickball, Tamara knows she's found her opportunity to prove to everyone what a wormy little liar Muscle Man really is. Of course, things would be a lot easier if her best friend Kebsie Grobser were here to help her...

It's the summer of 1969 and the world is getting ready for a young man named Neil Armstron to make history by walking on the moon. But change happens a bit more slowly in Massapequa Park, and it'll take one giant leap for Tamara to understand the likes of Muscle Man McGinty."

What an excellent offering for young adults! This slim book should be an easy read for the 8-12 crowd, and offers some important life lessons about loss and dreams and rushing to judgment. In this first person account, Tamara speaks with a clear and wonderful voice that really captures the petulant anger and confusion of a young girl whose best friend moved away without advance notice or a forwarding address. I enjoyed this novel and recommend teachers consider it for possible inclusion in a school curriculum. Highly recommended!

Monday, May 11, 2009

Soft Spots by Clint Van Winkle

Flap Copy from ARC:
"We'd been told it would be a good idea to write a 'death letter' in case we didn't make it home alive. The First Sergeant said we should write the letter to our loved ones: wife, children, parents, or whoever. It didn't need to be long, just a memo tht would give the family closure in case we died on the battlefield.

He was brief, just told us to write, address them, and then to hand the envelope over to him. He'd make sure they made it to where they needed to go once you stepped on a mine, got shot by a friend, or were blown apart by a rocket-propelled grenade. Eighteen-year-old Marines had to drop their superman acts and face the truth of war- people die. As if a letter was going to make anyone feel better. We were left to ponder our young lives, to sum it up on notebook paper, then seal it in an envelope. No stamp required. The government would pay for that."

This troubling memoir of a Marine attempting to live a normal life in the aftermath of a PTSD diagnosis highlights the need for more research into treating this dehabilitating condition. The author survived his tour in Iraq only to return home to a system unable to deal with his now fractured psyche. The memoir is hard to follow- dreams and real life blur, and there is no clear sense of time to give the reader an anchor, but the effect is to plunge the reader into Van Winkle's shifting reality.

I found this book powerful and moving, but a little incomplete. I would have appreciated more information about Van Winkle's wife Sara and her efforts to live with his PTSD. I also would have liked more information on Van Winkle's backstory to help highlight the changes he has experienced since the war. Nevertheless, this book is an excellent account of one man's struggle to rediscover himself in the aftermath of serving in OIF. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Glassblower of Murano by Marina Fiorato

Flap copy from ARC:
"Venice, 1681. Glassblowing is the lifeblood of the Republic, and Venetian mirrors are more precious than gold. One of the greatest artists of his time, Corradino Manin, must sell his methods and his soul to protect his secret daughter. In the present day his descendent, Leonora Manin, becomes inextricably linked to her ancestor as the secrets of his life begin to come to light."

This was an extremely enjoyable read that bounced back and forth between modern-day and 17th century Venice. Reeling from a recent divorce and an infertility diagnosis, Leonora Manin leaves England for Venice, her birthplace and spiritual home. In search of solace and a sense of history, Leonora looks to her father's ancestor and legendary glassblower Corradino to help her find a anchor in a city built on water. As the sometimes sordid details of Corradino's life come to light, Leonora finds her footing in Venice, and with her Venetian love Alessandro, shifting beneath her.

I enjoyed this book and the story that centered around Leonora and her search for herself because it felt emotionally true. The storyline that focused on Corradino was rich with details of 17th century Venice and the art of glassblowing, but lacked that same emotional connection. On the other hand, Fiorato's love of Venice itself shone through both narratives and provided an excellent unifying thread. I have travelled to Venice several times and can definitely relate to Leonora's desire to make a home there if at all possible. Venice in this novel lives and breathes as much as any other character, and lends its unique flavor to this excellent novel. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Chosen One by Carol Lynch Williams

Flap copy from ARC:
"Thirteen-year-old Kyra has grown up in an isolated community without questioning the fact that her father has three wives and she has twenty brothers and sisters, with two more on the way. That is, without questioning them much---if you don’t count her secret visits to the Mobile Library on Wheels to read forbidden books, or her meetings with Joshua, the boy she hopes to choose for herself instead of having a man chosen for her.

But when the Prophet decrees that she must marry her sixty-year-old uncle---who already has six wives---Kyra must make a desperate choice in the face of violence and her own fears of losing her family forever."

This excellent novel of silent rebellion and the power of choice follows 13-year old Kyra, a young girl living in a polygamist cult that is growing ever more hostile to the outside world. Kyra is a silent rebel- her trips to the mobile library have opened her eyes to a world outside, and her secret meetings with a teenaged boy on the compound threaten the power structure of the cult. After the prophet declares that God has chosen Kyra to become her 60 year-old uncle's seventh bride, Kyra is faced with an unspeakable choice between her family and her freedom.

This thought-provoking novel is a must-read for anyone interested in the concept of free will or in the inner lives of girls in polygamist cults. The novel presents all sorts of choices that people make in order to benefit or protect themselves and their family. As Kyra's family fails to protect her, she is forced to make the difficult decisions for herself. This book is violent in parts, but not unrealistically so, and faces head on the issues of immature child brides.

Highly recommended.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Firefly Lane by Kristin Hannah

Flap Copy:
"In the turbulent summer of 1974, Kate Mularkey has accepted her place at the bottom of the eigth-grade social food chain. Then, to her amazement, the "coolest girl in the world" moves in across the street and wants to be her friend. Tully Hart seems to have it all- beauty, brains, ambition. On the surfacethey are as opposite as two people can be: Kate, doomed to be forever uncool, with a loving family who mortifies her at every turn. Tully, steeped in glamour and mystery, but with a secret that is destroying her. They make a pact to be best friends forever; by summer's end they've become TullyandKate. Inseparable."

I read this book back in January, but just couldn't seem to craft a review. It was a compelling book- I started it one afternoon, and read right through the night until it was finished. The book made me laugh and cry, and reminded me a little of Beaches except that the characters were deeper and definitely more complicated. Though both Tully and Kate start as almost stereotypical caricatures, their idiosyncracies are gradually revealed and they become much more real.

I'm not sure I truly liked either character, I did think the book itself was excellent. The evolving story spoke to me and kept me reading despite my ambivalence about the individual personalities. I imagine this book would be especially moving for anyone who has been touched by cancer. Highly recommended.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

One Deadly Sin by Annie Solomon

Flap copy from paperback:
"Revenge. Edie Swann has hungered for it since she fled her hometown as a little girl. Now she's returned, ready for payback. Armed with a list of names, she leaves each suspect a chilling sign that he has blood on his hands. Her father's blood. What happens next turns her own blood cold: one by one, the men she's targeted start dying.

Sheriff Holt Drennen knows Edie is hiding something. She has a haunted look in her eyes and a defiant spirit, yet he can't believe she's a murderer. As the body count rises and all evidence points to Edie, Holt is torn betweeen the town he's sworn to protect and the woman he's come to desire. But nothing is what it seems. Long-buried secrets begin to surface, and a killer won't be satisfied until the sins of the past are paid in full- this time with Edie's blood."

This romantic thriller was definitely a page-turner, one that kept me guessing right until the end. The writing was crisp, and the evolving relationship between Holt and Edie was compelling. The only weak spot for me was eventual revelation of the identity of the killer- I didn't feel there were any clues to help the reader solve the mystery along the way and so didn't appreciate the deus-ex-machina feel of the solution. That sai, reading this book reminded me of an early Kay Hooper or Iris Johansen thriller and I would definitely read other books by this author. Would have been four stars if I hadn't felt like the solution came out of nowhere.