Monday, November 8, 2010

Mary Tudor: Princess, Bastard, Queen by Anna Whitelock

Book description:
Though often overshadowed by her long-reigning sister, Elizabeth I, Mary lived a life full of defiance, despair, and triumph. Born the daughter of the notorious King Henry VIII and the Spanish Katherine of Aragon, young Mary was a princess in every sense of the word—schooled in regal customs, educated by the best scholars, coveted by European royalty, and betrothed before she had reached the age of three. Yet in a decade’s time, in the wake of King Henry’s break with the pope, she was declared a bastard, disinherited, and demoted from “princess” to “lady.” Ever her deeply devout mother’s daughter, Mary refused to accept her new status or to recognize Henry’s new wife, Anne Boleyn, as queen. The fallout with her father and his counselors nearly destroyed the teenage Mary, who faced imprisonment and even death.

It would be an outright battle for Mary to work herself back into the king’s favor, claim her rightful place in the Tudor line, and ultimately become queen of England, but her coronation would not end her struggles. She flouted the opposition and married Philip of Spain, sought to restore Catholicism to the nation, and fiercely punished the resistance. But beneath her brave and regal exterior was a dependent woman prone to anxiety, whose private traumas of phantom pregnancies, debilitating illnesses, and unrequited love played out in the public glare of the fickle court.

My interest in Tudor history began early- I was booted off a tour of the Tower of London at age 13 for the running commentary I was sharing with my mother! Elizabeth has always been my focus, so I was very excited to see this book on Mary because she is so often treated as only a springboard to Gloriana. Unfortunately, this book just missed the mark for me.

Despite the wealth of information and historical references, this book never made Mary a person to me. The manuscript seemed disjointed, and at times contraditory in its assessment of possible motivations. Quite frankly, the portions about Katharine of Aragon were the most human; her daughter Mary still came off as a cardboard figure throughout the rest of the book.

I appreciated the effort to reveal more about this fascinating woman's story, but was left feeling as disconnected as ever from Mary Tudor. This book is a decent history, but reading it was not a particularly enjoyable experience.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Boozehound by Jason Wilson

Book description:
While some may wonder, “Does the world really need another flavored vodka?” no one answers this question quite so memorably as spirits writer and raconteur Jason Wilson does in Boozehound. (By the way, the short answer is no.) A unique blend of travelogue, spirits history, and recipe collection, Boozehound explores the origins of what we drink and the often surprising reasons behind our choices.

In lieu of odorless, colorless, tasteless spirits, Wilson champions Old World liquors with hard-to-define flavors—a bitter and complex Italian amari, or the ancient, aromatic herbs of Chartreuse, as well as distinctive New World offerings like lively Peruvian pisco. With an eye for adventure, Wilson seeks out visceral experiences at the source of production—visiting fields of spiky agave in Jalisco, entering the heavily and reverently-guarded Jägermeister herb room in Wolfenbüttel, and journeying to the French Alps to determine if mustachioed men in berets really handpick blossoms to make elderflower liqueur.

In addition, Boozehound offers more than fifty drink recipes, from three riffs on the Manhattan to cocktail-geek favorites like the Aviation and the Last Word. These recipes are presented alongside a host of opinionated essays that cherish the rare, uncover the obscure, dethrone the overrated, and unravel the mysteries of taste, trends, and terroir. Through his far-flung, intrepid traveling and tasting, Wilson shows us that perhaps nothing else as entwined with the history of human culture is quite as much fun as booze.

This book would make an excellent gift for anyone who enjoys stepping outside of the box when it comes to imbibing. It is a wonderful introduction into a large variety of alternative beverages from the obscure and hard to find to the easily available but often under-rated. The drink recipes that follow each chapter help whet the appetite, and made me want to rush out to my local store to start picking up ingredients. Best of all, the narrative voice was friendly and approachable- I felt more like the author was sharing a love than teaching a lesson. 5 stars!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Corked by Kathryn Borel

Book description:
Meet Kathryn Borel, bon vivant and undutiful daughter. Now meet her father, Philippe, former chef, eccentric genius, and wine aficionado extraordinaire. Kathryn is like her father in every way but one: she's totally ignorant when it comes to wine. And although Philippe has devoted untold parenting hours to delivering impassioned oenological orations, she has managed to remain unenlightened. But after an accident and a death, Kathryn realizes that by shutting herself off to her father's greatest passion, she will never really know him. Accordingly, she proposes a drunken father-daughter road trip. Corked is the uncensored account of their tour through the great wine regions of France.

This meandering memoir covered a father-daughter wine-tasting trip trip through France, but the location was the only appealing element of the book. Both the narraor and her fathercame across as selfish, self-involved, and immature. Between his tantrums, her childish sulks, and both of their inability to communicate like adults, the book was actually painful in places to read. The book seems to have no general purpose- no grand revelations or useful life messages or interesting stories emerge that would make spending time with these self-indulgent people worthwhile. I gave it 2 stars only for the bits of interesting wine trivia that popped up on occasion.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Priceless by Robert K. Pittman

Book description:
The founder of the FBI’s Art Crime Team, pulls back the curtain on his remarkable career for the first time, offering a real-life international thriller to rival The Thomas Crown Affair.

Rising from humble roots as the son of an antique dealer, Wittman built a twenty-year career that was nothing short of extraordinary. He went undercover, usually unarmed, to catch art thieves, scammers, and black market traders in Paris and Philadelphia, Rio and Santa Fe, Miami and Madrid.

Wittman fascinates with the stories behind his recoveries of priceless art and antiquities: The golden armor of an ancient Peruvian warrior king. The Rodin sculpture that inspired the Impressionist movement. The headdress Geronimo wore at his final Pow-Wow. The rare Civil War battle flag carried into battle by one of the nation’s first African-American regiments.

The breadth of Wittman’s exploits is unmatched: He traveled the world to rescue paintings by Rockwell and Rembrandt, Pissarro, Monet and Picasso, often working undercover overseas at the whim of foreign governments. Closer to home, he recovered an original copy of the Bill of Rights and cracked the scam that rocked the PBS series Antiques Roadshow.

By the FBI’s accounting, Wittman saved hundreds of millions of dollars worth of art and antiquities. The art thieves and scammers Wittman caught run the gamut from rich to poor, smart to foolish, organized criminals to desperate loners. The smuggler who brought him a looted 6th-century treasure turned out to be a high-ranking diplomat. The appraiser who stole countless heirlooms from war heroes’ descendants was a slick, aristocratic con man. The museum janitor who made off with locks of George Washington's hair just wanted to make a few extra bucks, figuring no one would miss what he’d filched.

In his final case, Wittman called on every bit of knowledge and experience in his arsenal to take on his greatest challenge: working undercover to track the vicious criminals behind what might be the most audacious art theft of all.

What an excellent read! This memoir has all the action and adventure of a great thriller with the added kick that it all really happened. Wittman eloquently describes how he found himself pulled into the rough and tumble world of undercover operations designed to recover stolen works of art, and shares his frustration that the issue generates so little attention in the U.S. and at the FBI itself. Gangsters, museum thieves, art scholars- this book has a little bit about them all and makes for a great summer read, especially for anyone who has ever enjoyed an episode of Antiques Roadshow. Highly recommended!

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Keep Sweet by Michele Dominguez Greene

Book description:
Alva Jane has never questioned her parents, never questioned her faith, never questioned her future. She is content with the strict rules that define her life in Pineridge, the walled community where she lives with her father, his seven wives, and her twenty-eight siblings. This is the only world Alva has ever known, and she has never thought to challenge it.

But everything changes when Alva is caught giving her long-time crush an innocent first kiss. Beaten, scorned, and now facing a forced marriage to a violent, fifty-year old man, Alva suddenly realizes how much she has to lose--and how impossible it will be to escape.

I found this young adult novel about life in a polygamist cult to be an incredibly compelling read. Alva Jane is the oldest daughter of a favored wife, and has enjoyed her childhood on the compound, oblivious to the darker tones that underpin her life. She is looking foward to marrying a young man in her community until one innocent stolen kiss shatters all their dreams. Married off to a violent abusive older husband, Alva Jane is forced to take a new look at her life and the lives of those around her.

Alva Jane reads as a complete and believable character with a strong narrative voice. I read this book through in one sitting, unable to walk away from Alva Jane and her suffering. An excellent novel, this book does deal realistically with the darkness of child marriage and so includes sex scenes that may be disturbing to some readers. A highly recommend read.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Homicide in Hardcover by Kate Carlisle

Book description:
The streets of San Francisco would be lined with hardcovers if rare book expert Brooklyn Wainwright had her way. And her mentor wouldn’t be lying in a pool of his own blood on the eve of a celebration for his latest book restoration.

With his final breath he leaves Brooklyn a cryptic message, and gives her a priceless—and supposedly cursed—copy of Goethe’s Faust for safekeeping.

Brooklyn suddenly finds herself accused of murder and theft, thanks to the humorless—but attractive—British security officer who finds her kneeling over the body. Now she has to read the clues left behind by her mentor if she is going to restore justice…

Since I love books, bookbinding, and mysteries, this should have been the perfect summer read. Unfortunately, though the characters are interesting and the plot was initially engaging, the whole book never quite snapped together for me. The characters were just a little too quirky all together (I mean, surely everyone knows at least a few normal people) and the solution to the mystery seemed completely out of nowhere to me (in terms of motive). I really wanted to like this book, but instead just found myself plodding through to get to the end.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Small Island by Andrea Levy

Book Description:
Set mainly in the British Empire of 1948, this story of emigration, loss and love follows four characters—two Jamaicans and two Britons—as they struggle to find peace in postwar England. After serving in the RAF, Jamaican Gilbert Joseph finds life in his native country has become too small for him. But in order to return to England, he must marry Hortense Roberts—she's got enough money for his passage—and then set up house for them in London. The pair move in with Queenie Bligh, whose husband, Bernard, hasn't returned from his wartime post in India. But when does Bernard turn up, he is not pleased to find black immigrants living in his house. This deceptively simple plot poises the characters over a yawning abyss of colonialism, racism, war and the everyday pain that people inflict on one another.

This book was a hard one to review because I found it a hard one to read. I started this book at least three times but just couldn't sink into the character or the story. I finally read it when stuck indoors one weekend because of the weather- by the time I was about a third of the way through, I was caught up, but that slow start was hard to overcome. The writing is wonderful and the racial and relationship tensions deftly presented; this is another novel about the importance of the things we never say and the actions we don't take. Each of these characters was unhappy with the status quo, but none seemed to be prepared to truthfully confront the other people in the story. Still, though I didn't feel an emotional connection to the characters, I was eager to see how the story would play out. A good read, but one I recommend starting only when you have enough time to really get into it.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Still Missing by Chevy Stevens

Book description:
On the day she was abducted, Annie O’Sullivan, a 32-year-old realtor, had three goals—sell a house, forget about a recent argument with her mother, and be on time for dinner with her ever-patient boyfriend. The open house is slow, but when her last visitor pulls up in a van as she's about to leave, Annie thinks it just might be her lucky day after all.

Interwoven with the story of the year Annie spent as the captive of a psychopath in a remote mountain cabin, which unfolds through sessions with her psychiatrist, is a second narrative recounting events following her escape—her struggle to piece her shattered life back together and the ongoing police investigation into the identity of her captor.

I really enjoyed the structure of this book- a kidnap victim talking to her therapist to work through her complicated fears and feelings in the aftermath of the abduction. The narrative voice was strong, and Annie was definitely a character that pulls the reader into the story. The majority of the book deals with Annie's quest to recapture some of the life she used to lead, and this portion of the narrative is definitely 5 stars. For me, the ongoing question of the identity of her captor was less compelling, and the plot twist that resolves this central mystery wasn't as shocking as I believe it was meant to be; it was this element of the story that made the overall book 4 stars for me. Still, a great summer read from a talented author!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Under The Blue Flag: My Mission in Kosovo by Philip Kearney

Book description:
Seeking to escape the monotony he had come to endure in his job as assistant District Attorney in San Francisco, Philip Kearney needed a change. His solution came one day in a casual email from a friend: "U.N. has opening here for an international prosecutor doing war crimes stuff. You should apply, gotta go."

"Here" meant Pristina, Kosovo. And "stuff" - Kearney soon finds out, after landing the job despite his inexperience with international law and an inability to speak any foreign languages - meant a harrowing string of investigations involving the most brutal and devastating crimes imaginable. Abruptly removed from the comforts of home and the order and stability of America's justice system, Kearney finds himself the sole international prosecutor assigned to a region of nearly one million people. Welcome to the Balkans circa 2001.

Kearney is thrown headlong into a series of historic investigations that quickly land him under the protection of four armed security guards. Armed himself with only the region's archaic criminal justice code, Kearney is soon prosecuting local street thugs, shutting down a ring of international sex-traffickers and spearheading an investigation into secret death camps - a case that ultimately implicates local officials and inflames ethnic violence. He developed an urgent passion, stemming from devastating stories of torture, murder and slavery that dominate Kosovo's bleak landscape.

Though I haven't been to Kosovo, I did spend two years living in Bosnia which struggled with many of the same challenges in the aftermath of the breakup of Yugoslavia. Kearney does a good job of framing an incredibly complicated set of issues in order to make them palatable to readers unfamiliar with the complexities of war crimes tribunals. His picture of working for the UN as an American rings true and provides an excellent introduction into that lifestyle. Though I would have preferred more focus on the issues and less on his perception of them, the book was certainly a good strong read.

Model Home by Eric Puchner

Book description:
Warren Ziller moved his family to California in search of a charmed life, and to all appearances, he found it: a gated community not far from the beach, amid the affluent splendor of Southern California in the 1980s. But his American dream has been rudely interrupted. Despite their affection for one another--the "slow, jokey, unrehearsed vaudeville" they share at home--Warren; his wife, Camille; and their three children have veered into separate lives, as distant as satellites. Worst of all, Warren has squandered the family's money on a failing real estate venture.
As Warren desperately tries to conceal his mistake, his family begins to sow deceptions of their own. Camille attributes Warren's erratic behavior to an affair and plots her secret revenge; seventeen-year-old Dustin falls for his girlfriend's troubled younger sister; teen misanthrope Lyle begins sleeping with a security guard who works at the gatehouse; and eleven-year-old Jonas becomes strangely obsessed with a kidnapped girl.

When tragedy strikes, the Zillers are forced to move into one of the houses in Warren's abandoned development in the middle of the desert. Marooned in a less-than-model home, each must reckon with what's led them there and who's to blame--and whether they can summon the forgiveness needed to hold the family together.

I thought this story of the American Dream gone horribly awry would have a wry humor, but instead it was just overwhelmingly depressing. Everything bad that could happen to this family did, and there was little joy to redeem the story. The book was well-written and the characters rang true, but reading it became a bit of an ordeal as the depressing events just piled up on one another. I would recommend this book for the vibrant literate writing, but definitely don't pick it up if you're in the mood for a light beach read because this novel is gloomy enough to depress any beach vacation. 3.5 stars.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Molly Fox's Birthday by Deirdre Madden

Book description:
It is the height of summer, and celebrated actor Molly Fox has loaned her house in Dublin to a friend while she is away performing in New York. Alone among all of Molly's possessions, struggling to finish her latest play, she looks back on the many years and many phases of her friendship with Molly and their college friend Andrew, and comes to wonder whether they really knew each other at all. She revisits the intense closeness of their early days, the transformations they each made in the name of success and security, the lies they told each other, and betrayals they never acknowledged.

This wonderful literary novel may take place in one day, but encompasses 20 years of shared friendship. The narrator, a successful playwright battling a case of writer's block, is vacationing in the Dublin home of her friend, successful actor Molly Fox. What follows is an unexpectedly rich story of their friendship, as the narrator avoids thinking about the play she cannot write by thinking of the moments she and her friends have shared.

The book isn't really about anything at all, and yet I found it impossible to put down. The quiet beauty of the writing combined with the surprisingly complexity of the characters as the story develops made for a powerful novel. Though I haven't read any of Madden's previous work, she is defintitely going on my wishlist now. Highly recommended!

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok

Book description:
When Kimberly Chang and her mother emigrate from Hong Kong to Brooklyn squalor, she quickly begins a secret double life: exceptional schoolgirl during the day, Chinatown sweatshop worker in the evenings. Disguising the more difficult truths of her life-like the staggering degree of her poverty, the weight of her family's future resting on her shoulders, or her secret love for a factory boy who shares none of her talent or ambition-Kimberly learns to constantly translate not just her language but herself back and forth between the worlds she straddles.

This well-written and moving tale of immigration and exploitation is one of the best books I've read this year. When Ah-Kim and her mother immigrate legally to the U.S., they nonetheless find themselves working in a sweatshop to pay off the debt they owe to Kim's aunt (the owner of the factory). As Ah-Kim, a star student in Hong Kong, wrestles with English and the tribulations of school in Brooklyn, she is forced to re-evaluate her vision of herself and to assume a caretaker role over her mother whose lack of English skills keeps her isolated.

This extraordinary book explores the mindset of an immigrant child, and traces the lifelong impact that some choices can have on an individual and a family. The central story here is that of a mother and daughter fighting against the odds to succeed, and the love that keeps them strong in the face of overwhelming adversity. Highly recommended debut novel- I hope we see many more from author Jean Kwok!

Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Hand that First Held Mine by Maggie O'Farrell

Book description:
"Lexie Sinclair is plotting an extraordinary life for herself.

Hedged in by her parents' genteel country life, she plans her escape to London. There, she takes up with Innes Kent, a magazine editor who wears duck-egg blue ties and introduces her to the thrilling, underground world of bohemian, post-war Soho. She learns to be a reporter, to know art and artists, to embrace her life fully and with a deep love at the center of it. She creates many lives--all of them unconventional. And when she finds herself pregnant, she doesn't hesitate to have the baby on her own.

Later, in present-day London, a young painter named Elina dizzily navigates the first weeks of motherhood. She doesn't recognize herself: she finds herself walking outside with no shoes; she goes to the restaurant for lunch at nine in the morning; she can't recall the small matter of giving birth. But for her boyfriend, Ted, fatherhood is calling up lost memories, with images he cannot place.

As Ted's memories become more disconcerting and more frequent, it seems that something might connect these two stories-- these two women-- something that becomes all the more heartbreaking and beautiful as they all hurtle toward its revelation."

This stunning book tells the stories of two women- two mothers- whose lives are changed first by love and then by motherhood. These two separate stories highlight the differences between women's lives in the post-WWII and modern day eras and also the similarities of the ties that bind them. As Lexie and Elina struggle with love and loss, Elina's husband Ted struggles with the memories he can't escape (Elina almost dying in childbirth) and those he cannot call to mind (his entire childhood is a blank). As this book builds to its stunning conclusion, these two stories collide in an unexpectedly graceful way. Though the book was a little hard to sink into at first, by the time I hit page 30, I knew I couldn't put it down until finished. Highly recommended!

Friday, May 28, 2010

A Soft Place to Land by Susan Rebecca White

Book description:
For more than ten years, Naomi and Phil Harrison enjoyed a marriage of heady romance, tempered only by the needs of their children. But on a vacation alone, the couple perishes in a flight over the Grand Canyon. After the funeral, their daughters, Ruthie and Julia, are shocked by the provisions in their will.

Spanning nearly two decades, the sisters journeys take them from their familiar home in Atlanta to sophisticated bohemian San Francisco, a mountain town in Virginia, the campus of Berkeley, and lofts in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. As they heal from loss, search for love, and begin careers, their sisterhood, once an oasis, becomes complicated by resentment, anger, and jealousy. It seems as though the echoes of their parents deaths will never stop reverberating until another shocking accident changes everything once again.

This was a marvelous story of sisterhood and the ties that bind siblings together. As Ruthie and Julia attempt to deal with the horror of their parents' deaths, they are struck again by the bizarre terms of their will. As these two sisters grow up separately, they are forced to make painful decisions about the nature of their relationship and their relation to the past. This book was moving, at times even heartbreaking- a definite must read for the summer. The writing was strong and the characterizations very true to life- a truly impressive effort. The novel was poignant and true to life, and deeply compassionate. Highly recommended!

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

Book description:
"Set against the gorgeous backdrop of Rome, Tom Rachman’s debut follows the topsy-turvy private lives of the reporters, editors, and executives of an international English language newspaper as they struggle to keep it—and themselves—afloat.

Fifty years and many changes have ensued since the paper was founded by an enigmatic millionaire, and now, amid the stained carpeting and dingy office furniture, the staff’s personal dramas seem far more important than the daily headlines. Kathleen, the imperious editor in chief, is smarting from a betrayal in her open marriage; Arthur, the lazy obituary writer, is transformed by a personal tragedy; Abby, the embattled financial officer, discovers that her job cuts and her love life are intertwined in a most unexpected way. Out in the field, a veteran Paris freelancer goes to desperate lengths for his next byline, while the new Cairo stringer is mercilessly manipulated by an outrageous war correspondent with an outsize ego. And in the shadows is the isolated young publisher who pays more attention to his prized basset hound, Schopenhauer, than to the fate of his family’s quirky newspaper.

As the era of print news gives way to the Internet age and this imperfect crew stumbles toward an uncertain future, the paper’s rich history is revealed, including the surprising truth about its founder’s intentions."

I was suprised by how very much I enjoyed this wonderful debut novel. Revolving around the lives of the current staff of an English language daily published in Rome, the narrative is broken up by snippets from the past that give the reader greater insight into the paper than the characters themselves have. Each chapter is a short story about one of the characters; the way they weave together to tell the story of the paper itself is a delightful surprise.

Each of these vignettes has its own flavor, and while some are happy or redemptive, most highlight the feelings of futility that must haunt many newsrooms as newspapers are overtaken by the realities of the digital age. Regardless, this is an excellent debut novel with characters any reader is sure to remember. Highly recommended!

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez

Book description:
Tawawa House in many respects is like any other American resort before the Civil War. Situated in Ohio, this idyllic retreat is particularly nice in the summer when the Southern humidity is too much to bear. The main building, with its luxurious finishes, is loftier than the white cottages that flank it, but then again, the smaller structures are better positioned to catch any breeze that may come off the pond. And they provide more privacy, which best suits the needs of the Southern white men who vacation there every summer with their black, enslaved mistresses. It's their open secret.

Lizzie, Reenie, and Sweet are regulars at Tawawa House. They have become friends over the years as they reunite and share developments in their own lives and on their respective plantations. They don't bother too much with questions of freedom, though the resort is situated in free territory–but when truth-telling Mawu comes to the resort and starts talking of running away, things change.

To run is to leave behind everything these women value most–friends and families still down South–and for some it also means escaping from the emotional and psychological bonds that bind them to their masters. When a fire on the resort sets off a string of tragedies, the women of Tawawa House soon learn that triumph and dehumanization are inseparable and that love exists even in the most inhuman, brutal of circumstances–all while they are bearing witness to the end of an era.

This well-written historical novel looks at the lives of four slave women accompanying their masters on a summer holiday to free Ohio. The novel focuses on the women, the relationships they form, and the way they deal with the possibility of escaping to freedom. I was drawn into the stories of the women, though would have liked more attention paid to the backstories of characters other than Lizzie. I do believe the author did an excellent job getting into the mindset of these characters, trying to show the conflicts between love, loyalty, and true freedom.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Map of True Places by Brunonia Barry

Book description:
Zee Finch has come a long way from a motherless childhood spent stealing boats—a talent that earned her the nickname Trouble. She's now a respected psychotherapist working with the world-famous Dr. Liz Mattei. She's also about to marry one of Boston's most eligible bachelors. But the suicide of Zee's patient Lilly Braedon throws Zee into emotional chaos and takes her back to places she though she'd left behind.

What starts as a brief visit home to Salem after Lilly's funeral becomes the beginning of a larger journey for Zee. Her father, Finch, long ago diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, has been hiding how sick he really is. His longtime companion, Melville, has moved out, and it now falls to Zee to help her father through this difficult time. Their relationship, marked by half-truths and the untimely death of her mother, is strained and awkward.

Overwhelmed by her new role, and uncertain about her future, Zee destroys the existing map of her life and begins a new journey, one that will take her not only into her future but into her past as well. Like the sailors of old Salem who navigated by looking at the stars, Zee has to learn to find her way through uncharted waters to the place she will ultimately call home.

This a another moving yet mysterious tale from Brunonia Barry, who returns to Salem and some familiar characters in this wonderful novel. I loved Zee, a therapist whose life was shaped by her own mother's suicide. When she returns to her childhood home to care for her father, a rapidly deteriorating Parkinson's patient, she is forced to assess her life and her understanding of herself and others. The underlying mysteries are not difficult to unravel, but it is in finding some level of truth that Zee also finds herself. Though this story was not as dark as The Lace Reader, it was no less emotionally compelling. Definitely a must read!

Friday, May 14, 2010

Breaking the Bank by Yona Zeldis McDonough

Book description:
Mia Saul is down on her luck. Dumped by her husband, jettisoned from her job, and estranged from her adored older brother, she and her young daughter, Eden, have had to make a downscale move to a crummy apartment, where their neighbors include a tough young drug dealer and a widower who lets his dogs use the hallways as their own personal litter box. Juggling a series of temporary jobs, wrangling with her ex-husband over child support, and trying to keep pace with Eden's increasingly erratic behavior have left Mia weary and worn out.

So when a seemingly functional ATM starts handing Mia thousands and thousands of dollars -- and not deducting the money from her account, because it sure isn't in there -- she isn't about to give it back. Her newfound cash stash opens up a world of opportunity, and a whole lot of trouble. Worried friends, family, and in-laws start questioning her judgment about everything, and the cops really, really want to know where all that cash is coming from. And then there's Patrick, a man Mia most definitely would never have met if things hadn't spun out of control. Mia is beginning to think that maybe somebody, somewhere, is trying to teach her a lesson about what matters in life, and what doesn't....

I really wanted to like this book, and the characters within it, but I just couldn't find it in myself. I wanted to like the magic of an ATM dispensing free money, but I found the actions of Mia (the recipient) so irritating as the novel continued that I wasn't able to simply sink into the narrative. She made so many bad choices, and was just so generally wishy-washy that I found myself reading just to finish rather than to enjoy. Though it started our strong and had an interesting premise, this is definitely not a good example of escapist chick-lit.

A Vintage Affair by Isabel Wolff

Book description:
Every dress has a history. And so does every woman.

Her friends are stunned when Phoebe Swift abruptly leaves a plum job at the prestigious Sotheby’s auction house to open her own vintage clothing shop in London—but to Phoebe, it’s the fulfillment of a dream. In the sunlight-flooded interior of Village Vintage, surrounded by Yves Saint Laurent silk scarves, Vivienne Westwood bustle skirts, cupcake dresses, and satin gowns, Phoebe hopes to make her store the hot new place to shop, even as she deals with two ardent suitors, her increasingly difficult mother, and a secret from her past that casts a shadow over her new venture.

For Phoebe, each vintage garment carries its own precious history. Digging for finds in attics and wardrobes, Phoebe is rewarded whenever she finds something truly unique, for she knows that when you buy a piece of vintage clothing, you’re not just buying fabric and thread—you’re buying a piece of someone’s past. But one particular article of clothing will soon unexpectedly change her life.

Thérèse Bell, an elderly Frenchwoman, has an impressive clothing collection. But among the array of smart suits and couture gowns, Phoebe finds a child’s sky-blue coat—an item with which Bell is stubbornly reluctant to part. As the two women become friends, Phoebe will learn the tale of that little blue coat. And she will discover an astonishing connection between herself and Thérèse Bell—one that will help her heal the pain of her own past and allow her to love again.

This well-written and moving book tells the story of the power of love and of friendship. Phoebe, struggling to overcome the loss of her best friend (and subsequently her fiance) uproots herself from the life she has known and follows her heart to start a business focused on her passion for vintage clothes. Therese is approaching the end of her life, and seeks to pass along her clothes and her stories, and to alleviate her guilt for an error committed long ago. These two stories intertwine in ways that are both surprising and emotionally compelling.

Even though I am not much of a clothes person myself, it was impossible not to be drawn into Phoebe's passion for vintage clothing and the glimpses it provides into bygone eras. The clothes are as much a character as anyone in the novel, and I was drawn to the impact the dresses had on the women who fell in love with them. As Phoebe and Therese draw closer to resolution of their individual problems, it is there friendship that allows them to face the difficult truths in their pasts and forgive themselves for the mistakes that harmed their beloved friends. This book was an excellent read, one that I recommend sharing with your friends and family.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Wives of Henry Oades by Johanna Moran

Book description:
When Henry Oades accepts an accountancy post in New Zealand, his wife, Margaret, and their children follow him to exotic Wellington. But while Henry is an adventurer, Margaret is not. Their new home is rougher and more rustic than they expected—and a single night of tragedy shatters the family when the native Maori stage an uprising, kidnapping Margaret and her children.

For months, Henry scours the surrounding wilderness, until all hope is lost and his wife and children are presumed dead. Grief-stricken, he books passage to California. There he marries Nancy Foreland, a young widow with a new baby, and it seems they’ve both found happiness in the midst of their mourning—until Henry’s first wife and children show up, alive and having finally escaped captivity.

This book is based on an actual legal case of a man legally (though unintentionally) married to two women at the same time. The story starts our strong with a detailed look at the fateful decision of Henry Oades to sail off to New Zealand with his family. The characters are well-introduced, and I looked forward to the gradual reveal of their deeper thoughts and motivations- unfortunately, such revelations never occured.

Though the facts of the case remained interesting, the lack of detail in the narrative was extremely frustrating. After all, this is a fictional account so some effort at character development (even if it wasn't supported by primary sources) would have made for a much more enjoyable read. There is no background given that might help explain why the Maori took the Oades captive, and much more attention is focused on Henry's reaction to the abduction than on the reactions of those abducted. The subsequent escape comes out of nowhere, the journey to America passes in a flash, and even the actual court case is just glossed over in the narrative.

The author had all the seeds necessary to create a strong dramatic piece, but ultimately failed to pull this reader into the narrative. Overall, I found this to be a very unsatisfying novel, lacking as it did any real emotional connection to any of the characters.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Greyhound by Steffan Piper

Book description:
12-year-old Sebastien Ranes is taking a trip. He doesn't exactly understand why, but he accepts it. His mother often seems too emotionally detached to care for him. Her latest boyfriend Dick takes cruel pleasure in mimicking the boy’s stuttering, and wants to live his life without "somebody else's kid" getting in the way. So it's no surprise when they pack his bags to send him away. It is a surprise when they send him alone. Ushered from his Stockton, California home, Sebastien must fend for himself and travel two thousand miles across the country to live with his grandmother and sister in Pennsylvania. Along the way, he learns that sometimes caring, guidance and understanding can come from some unlikely people.

Marcus is a man who has been neglected more by society than his family. As a young black ex-con, he is not the epitome of the person most would pick as a chaperone for their child's cross country trip. Yet rather than be held apart by their differences, Marcus and Sebastien are drawn together by the things that make us all alike. As both guide and protector, Marcus imparts his own style of wisdom while showing Sebastien that, despite the darker side of the human condition, people can and do care for one another.

From the moment I started reading Greyhound, I was hooked by the main character, a 12 year old boy about to board a bus across America alone so that his mother's new husband wouldn't have to raise a child that wasn't his own. Sebastian is a wonderful character- naive and sensitive and astonishingly open-minded given his situation. It is so telling that is he surprised every time an adult reacts take-aback by his mother's decision to pack him off to PA on a bus; he apparently expects nothing better.

The characters Sebastian meets along the way are extremely colorful, but not outside the realm of possibility, especially on such a long bus ride. I know some reviewers have taken issue with the series of dramatic events on the journey, but I've known Greyhound bus trips involving a police reception, shootout and subsequent arrest, followed by bus breakdown due to engine fire (and that was just on a 5 hour ride!) In fact, for anyone who has ever ridden Greyhound for anything other than a DC-NY-Boston run, this story will bring a smile and a shudder for its accuracy.

There were some places where the prose was awkward, and some grammar errors that grated (not sure how the editor missed them) but these were niggling irritations that did not detract from the strength of the story. Sebastian is a wonderful character- flawed and vulnerable and oh-so-appealing. This book was an impressive debut effort; I hope we see more from this author.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Perfect Reader by Maggie Pouncey

Book description:
Flora Dempsey is the headstrong and quick-witted only child of Lewis Dempsey, a beloved former college president and famous literary critic in the league of Harold Bloom. At the news of her father’s death, Flora quits her big-city magazine job and returns to Darwin, the quaint New England town where she grew up, to retreat into the house he has left her, filled as it is with reminders of him. Even weightier is her appointment as her father’s literary executor. It seems he was secretly writing poems at the end of his life—love poems to a girlfriend Flora didn’t know he had.

Flora soon discovers that this woman has her own claims on Lewis’s poetry and his memory, and in the righteousness of her loss and bafflement at her father’s secrets—his life so richly separate from her own in ways she never guessed—Flora is highly suspicious of her. Meanwhile, Flora is besieged by well-wishers and literary bloggers alike as she tries to figure out how to navigate it all: the fate of the poems, the girlfriend who wants a place in her life, her memories of her parents’ divorce, and her own uncertain future.

I really wanted to like this book more than I ultimately did. The writing was intelligent and nuanced, and the storyline, centered as it was around books and reading, was a strong draw. Unfortunately, I found a lot of promise that was never really fulfilled, making for a frustrating read in the end. I never felt emotionally invested in the characters or their lives; for a book with so few personalities, none of them were particularly well-developed except for Flora, and I found her hard to like. The glimpses of Flora's childhood were the most emotionally compelling portion of the narrative, and came too infrequently for my taste.

In the end, I found myself unable to make a connection to these characters. Though the writing was strong, the sense of detachment made it possible to walk away from the book without a qualm to do chores or run errands. When I came to the end, I was neither glad to be done nor sad to be finished- I didn't have a viceral enough reaction to the book to care one way or the other.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

How Clarissa Burden Learned to Fly by Connie May Fowler

Flap copy from hardcover:
Set amidst the lush pine forests and rich savannahs of Florida's Northern Panhandle, this is the story of one woman whose existence until now has seemed fairly normal: she is thirtysomething, married, and goes about her daily routine as a writer. But we soon learn that ghosts, an indifferent husband, and a seemingly terminal case of writer's block are burdening Clarissa's life. She awakes on the summer solstice and, prodded by her own discontent and one ghost's righteous need for truth, commences upon a twenty-four-hour journey of self-discovery. Her harrowing, funny, and startling adventures lead Clarissa to a momentous decision: she must find a way to do the unthinkable. Her life and the well-being of a remarkable family of blithe spirits hang in the balance.

Let me say first of all that this was a good read, full of the details that make Southern gothic novels so enjoyable. I was delighted by Fowler's strong narrative voice, and lush descriptions of the Florida landscape. I even enjoyed the ghosts that populated the story- in many ways, their stories seemed much more compelling than Clarissa's ever could.

For me, the difficulty with this novel lay in Clarissa herself, and her enthroned status as a complete doormat. This woman is a successful novelist who tolerates a husband who belittles her and conducts affairs right under her nose even as he lives off of her earnings. He hasn't touched her in years, she is dying by inches inside, and yet she worries about making his lunch or angering him? I just couldn't accept that as realistic- she should have kicked his ass to the curb long ago! I always like to find some aspect of a character that I can relate to my own life and story, but with Clarissa, this was just impossible.

That said, I did enjoy the book. I would have liked more followup on the cemetary, and certainly more focus on the story of the house and its ghosts, but at least in the end Clarissa was able to break free (at least in her mind) on the magical longest day of the year. Four stars because I just didn't like Clarissa as much as I liked the writing itself.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Half Life by Roopa Farooki

Book description:
On the morning that changes everything, Aruna Ahmed Jones walks out of her ground-floor Victorian apartment in London wearing only jeans and a t-shirt, carrying nothing more substantial than a handbag, and keeps on walking. Leaving behind the handsome Dr. Patrick Jones, her husband of less than a year, Aruna heads to Heathrow, where she boards a plane bound for Singapore and her old life. Educated and beautiful, Aruna has a desperate need to risk it all. But why? Waiting for her is a messy past and a perfect past lover she had once abandoned without even saying goodbye – a story left unfinished – until now.

Aruna is not running away from home, she is running back to the home she always had, before it became impossible for her to stay. Before her father, the only family she’d ever known, passed away. Before she tried, and failed, to create a life and a family with her best friend and lover, Jazz. Before her doctor delivered a complicated psychological diagnosis she’d rather forget. After years of fleeing the ghosts that continue to haunt her, Aruna is about to discover that running away is really the easy part; it is coming home—making peace with her past, with Jazz and those they have loved—that is hard.

I sat down with this book yesterday, intending to read just a few pages, and found myself unable to put it down. Though at first I was uncertain about Roooney and Jazz, as the novel progressed I grew to understand them and their unique and troubling situation. I thought the author's handling of the sensitive subject matter was masterful, and appreciated that she let the truth build slowly, revealing itself only gradually (both to the reader and to the main characters).

The prose flowed freely, and did an excellent job of capturing the essence of the shifting locales. Both Rooney and Jazz grew emotionally throughout the novel, and I found the ending quite satisfying and realistic. This book was not what I expected, but quickly became more than I could have hoped. Highly recommended!

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Search for God and Guinness by Stephen Mansfield

Book description:
It began in Ireland in the late 1700s. The water in Ireland, indeed throughout Europe, was famously undrinkable, and the gin and whiskey that took its place was devastating civil society. It was a disease ridden, starvation plagued, alcoholic age, and Christians like Arthur Guinness-as well as monks and even evangelical churches-brewed beer that provided a healthier alternative to the poisonous waters and liquors of the times. This is where the Guinness tale began. Now, 246 years and 150 countries later, Guinness is a global brand, one of the most consumed beverages in the world. The tale that unfolds during those two and a half centuries has power to thrill audiences today: the generational drama, business adventure, industrial and social reforms, deep-felt faith, and the beer itself.

This book is a little bit history, a little bit morality play, and a little bit personal reflection. It is more focused than I expected on the religious legacy of the Guinness family, but was nonetheless an enjoyable read. There were a few places where I thought the religious rhetoric got a bit strong, but then the author always dialed it back a bit. Though I'm not sure I agree about beer being the savior of the working class, it was interesting to read about the social changes in Dublin that can be traced to the Guinness family. All in all, a great choice for anyone who loves stout.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Love in Mid Air by Kim Wright

Book description:
A chance encounter with a stranger on an airplane sends Elyse Bearden into an emotional tailspin. Suddenly Elyse is willing to risk everything: her safe but stale marriage, her seemingly perfect life in an affluent Southern suburb, and her position in the community. She finds herself cutting through all the instincts that say "no" and instead lets "yes" happen. As Elyse embarks on a risky affair, her longtime friend Kelly and the other women in their book club begin to question their own decisions about love, sex, marriage, and freedom.

Though the underlying plot of a woman assessing her unhappy marriage is a common one, I found this treatment of it very unusual and original. I was delighted that the book focussed on a woman making decisions about her marriage rather than finding herself left behind for a younger woman. I mean, I'm married and so obviously frown upon the idea of adultery, but the thought of living in a marriage like Elyse's where your partner doesn't really see you or hear anything you say, and is content to be content (even knowing that you are not) is so crushing that I could understand why Elyse grasped at a relationship where she could at least feel a passionate connection to another person. I was also surprised that in a book about so many women, I couldn't really find a character that I thought I would like in real life, and yet still I enjoyed the book so much.

One thing I really enjoyed was Wright's use of old movies in the novel. Most of my friends also love watching old black and white movies for the romance of them, whereas most of our husbands love watching new action movies with lots of special effects. I found those scenes involving the movies very true to life.

This is one of those books I will recommend to my friends even though it is rather bleak in its look at relationships because I think it expresses some of the fear that so many of us have about where our marriages may end up. I didn't think the book itself was bleak, just the view of relationships as not one of the characters was truly happy. Of course, maybe none of us is ever really truly happy- maybe we just read too many books where it all ends happily ever after. I also thought the question of religion quite sensitively and accurately handled, a nice change from so many books I've read in the last couple of years.

Wednesday Sisters by Meg Waite Clayton

Book description:
When five young mothers– Frankie, Linda, Kath, Ally, and Brett– first meet in a neighborhood park in the late 1960s, their conversations center on marriage, raising children, and a shared love of books. Then one evening, as they gather to watch the Miss America Pageant, Linda admits that she aspires to write a novel herself, and the Wednesday Sisters Writing Society is born. The five women slowly, and often reluctantly, start filling journals, sliding pages into typewriters, and sharing their work. In the process, they explore the changing world around them: the Vietnam War, the race to the moon, and a women’s movement that challenges everything they believe about themselves. At the same time, the friends carry one another through more personal changes–ones brought about by infidelity, longing, illness, failure, and success. With one another’s support and encouragement, the Wednesday Sisters begin to embrace who they are and what they hope to become, welcoming readers to experience, along with them, the power of dreaming big.

This appealing book centers around a group of young women who become friends in the beginning of the tumultuous civil rights era. The California setting allows the author to explore a variety of issues but in the end I think there was just too much going on in this novel. I was impressed by how the author presented the mindset of these women- I thought it was a great mix of personalities and a realistic picture of a group of women just coming to grips with feminism. I liked these women, and the way they bonded over writing, but I felt like there were no real surprises and I never found myself making an emotional connection to any of them. In the end, this was an enjoyable read, but it felt rather undercooked.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Waking Up in the Land of Glitter by Kathy Cano-Murillo

Book description:
One ill-fated evening, Star jeopardizes her family's business, her relationship with her boyfriend, and her future career. To redeem herself, she agrees to participate in a national craft competition, teaming up with her best friend, Ofelia-a secretly troubled mother whose love for crafting borders on obsession-and local celebrity Chloe Chavez-a determined television personality with more than one skeleton in her professional closet. If these unlikely allies can set aside their differences, they'll find strength they never knew they had, and learn that friendship, like crafting, is truly an art form.

I was pleasantly surprised by this light offering, which started out a little to frothy for my taste, but then developed into a truly interesting story. I was initially interested because I love crafts, and found the idea of a craft-related novel appealing. The characters as initially introduced are typical quirky chick-lit characters whose problems are entirely of their own making. Fortunately, as the novel progresses, these women become more like characters and less like caricatures, and I found myself truly invested in their adventures. They each achieve some believeable personal growth, and I was definitely rooting for them as the big craft competition approached. This would be a great book club offering, or a wonderful spring break beach read.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

And Then Came the Evening by Brian Hart

Book description:
Bandy Dorner, home from Vietnam, awakes with his car mired in a canal, his cabin reduced to ashes, and his pregnant wife preparing to leave town with her lover. Within moments, a cop lies bleeding on the road.

Eighteen years later, Bandy is released from prison. His parents are gone, but on the derelict family ranch, Bandy faces a different reunion. Tracy, his now teenaged son, has come to claim the father he’s never known. Iona, Bandy’s ex-wife, has returned on the heels of her son. All three are damaged, hardened, haunted. But warily, desperately, they move in a slow dance around each other, trying to piece back together a family that never was; trying to discover if they belong together at all.

This dark family drama is a riveting read I found hard to put down. The bleak landscape, so well-drawn, provides the perfect backdrop for the story of Bandy, Tracy, and Iona. Reading this book, I couldn't help but reflect on how if put me in mind of No Country for Old Men- it has that same deftly rendered cinematic feel to the background. I was surprised by how invested I felt in these characters, whose lives are far outside my realm of experience. I was sorry when the book ended, because despite that lack of personal connection, I was drawn into the world Hart created. I certainly hope to read more by this talented author in the future.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

For All the Tea in China by Sarah Rose

Flap copy from ARC:

In 1848, the British East India Company, having lost its monopoly on the tea trade, engaged Robert Fortune, a Scottish gardener, botanist, and plant hunter, to make a clandestine trip into the interior of China-territory forbidden to foreigners-to steal the closely guarded secrets of tea horticulture and manufacturing. For All the Tea in China is the remarkable account of Fortune's journeys into China-a thrilling narrative that combines history, geography, botany, natural science, and old-fashioned adventure.

Disguised in Mandarin robes, Fortune ventured deep into the country, confronting pirates, hostile climate, and his own untrustworthy men as he made his way to the epicenter of tea production, the remote Wu Yi Shan hills. One of the most daring acts of corporate espionage in history, Fortune's pursuit of China's ancient secret makes for a classic nineteenth-century adventure tale, one in which the fate of empires hinges on the feats of one extraordinary man.

This could have been a fascinating book about one of the most economically impactful thefts of intellectual property in history, but unfortunately. it was a little too light on details and data to be completely successful. Though I enjoyed reading this book, it left me wanting more- more information, more details, more history. As the book itself was fairly short, it could have included more of that missing information to make for a more satisfying read. I expected the details of Fortune's actual adventures in China to dominate the book, and was disappointed that they didn't make up a larger portion of the narrative.

The California Roll by John Vorhaus

Book description:
Meet Radar Hoverlander, a witty, gifted con artist with the mind of David Mamet, the voice of Tom Robbins, and the morals of a sailor on shore leave.

What do the Merlin Game, the Penny Skim, the Doolally Snadoodle, and the Afterparty Snuke have in common? They’re all the work of world-class con artist and master bafflegabber Radar Hoverlander. Radar’s been “on the snuke” since childhood, but he’s still looking for his California Roll, the one big scam that’ll set him up in sushi for life.

Trouble arrives in the stunning, sassy package of Allie Quinn—either the last true innocent or a con artist so slick she makes Radar look like a Quaker. Radar’s hapless sidekick, Vic Mirplo, a lovable loser who couldn’t con a kid out of a candy cane, thinks Radar’s being played. But if love is blind, it’s also deaf, dumb and stupid, and before Radar knows it, he’s sucked into a vortex of double-, triple-, quadruple-crosses that’ll either net him his precious California Roll or put him in a hole in the ground.

This book was a fast moving, slick romp though the mysterious underworld of grifters and con men. The prose was colorful and convoluted, much like the patter of a street hustler running a game of three card monte- give the subject matter, completely appropriate! I found the book a little hard to get into at first, but gradually got the hang of Radar's speech and thoughts, and found myself just letting go to enjoy the ride. As the novel built to a complicated climax involving double cross on top of double cross, I found myself unable to put the book down. Well written and engaging, this book was a fast and enjoyable read.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Bride Collector by Ted Dekker

Flap copy from ARC:
"FBI Special Agent Brad Raines is facing his most complex case yet. A Denver serial killer has murdered a string of young women, leaving a bridal veil at each scene, and he's picking up his pace. Unable to crack the case, Raines appeals for help to a most unusual source: residents of the Center for Well-being and Intelligence, a private psychiatric institution for mentally ill people who are extraordinarily gifted.

It's there that he meets Paradise, a young woman who witnessed her father murder her family and barely escaped his hand. Diagnosed with schizophrenia, Paradise may also have an extra-sensory gift: the ability to experience the final moments of a person's life when she touches the dead body.

In a desperate attempt to find the killer, Raines enlists Paradise's help. Gradually he starts to question whether sanity resides outside the hospital walls...or inside."

This is the first Dekker book I've read, and I'm not sure I'll pick up another. Though the plot has lots of wonderful elements, they never really gel into a thriller in this book- I get more chills from an episode of Criminal Minds. Though Raines was an interesting and well-drawn character, I never really warmed to Paradise or bought into their interactions. The other patients at the hospital are interesting, more interesting than the spiritual questions they raise for Raines, but do seem to have been added almost as comic relief.

In the end, this book has too much religion and not enough suspense to truly hold my interest. The book was well-written, and there were certainly elements of each character that I enjoyed, but in the end it just didn't pull me in the way I need a thriller to- I was easily able to put down this book which is never a good sign.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven by Susan Jane Gilman

Flap copy from paperback:
"In 1986, Susan Jane Gilman and a classmate embarked on a bold trek around the globe starting in the People's Republic of China. At that point, China had been open to independent backpackers for roughly ten minutes. Armed only with the collected works of Nietzsche and Linda Goodman's Love Signs, the two friends plunged into the dusty streets of Shanghai. Unsurprisingly, they quickly found themselves in over their heads--hungry, disoriented, stripped of everything familiar, and under constant government surveillance. Soon, they began to unravel--one physically, the other psychologically. As their journey became increasingly harrowing, they found themselves facing crises that Susan didn't think they'd survive. But by summoning strengths she never knew she had--and with help from unexpected friends--the two travelers found their way out of a Chinese heart of darkness. "

Now this is what a travel memoir should be- funny, poignant, and ultimately redemptive. Gilman's account of her travels through China are beautifully drawn. From her initial crisis of homesickness through her desperation to find something familiar in an alien environment, Gilman is painfully truthful and so her story resonates. Though today's mature reader will immediately see the warning signs in Claire's behavior, Gilman's narative voice is strong enough to carry the reader along, to make you view the story through her younger, infinitely more naive eyes. This book captures a snapshot of a China that no longer exists, and gently mocks a mindset that equates "true adventure" with sometimes life-threatening hardship. This trip had an enormous effect on Gilman, on her life and world view, and she shares those revelations with an admirable honesty and modesty. Truly a wonderful travel memoir- a must read 5 star adventure!

For more info, check out Susan Jane Gilman's blog.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Secrets of Eden by Chris Bohjalian

Book description:
"There," says Alice Hayward to Reverend Stephen Drew, just after her baptism, and just before going home to the husband who will kill her that evening and then shoot himself. Drew, tortured by the cryptic finality of that short utterance, feels his faith in God slipping away and is saved from despair only by a meeting with Heather Laurent, the author of wildly successful, inspirational books about . . . angels.

Heather survived a childhood that culminated in her own parents' murder-suicide, so she identifies deeply with Alice’s daughter, Katie, offering herself as a mentor to the girl and a shoulder for Stephen – who flees the pulpit to be with Heather and see if there is anything to be salvaged from the spiritual wreckage around him.

But then the State's Attorney begins to suspect that Alice's husband may not have killed himself. . .and finds out that Alice had secrets only her minister knew.

This wonderful novel features Bohjalian's signature style. The dense yet lyrical prose carries the reader away and makes this book almost impossible to put down. The individual characters rise off the page and live, pulling the reader into an emotional investment with the story. Stephen, Heather, and Katie were the most successful and relatable narrators in this novel; I found neither Catherine's voice nor her story compelling which made for a disappointing midsection.

Without giving any spoilers, I will say the plot twist was something I speculated about early on which reduced its emotional impact as the story drew to a close. I also found it rather hard to relate to the angel theme that runs throughout the story; it never really connected emotionally for me despite Heather's personal experiences. Regardless, this a wonderful offering from a talented writer- highly recommended.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Never Tell Our Business to Strangers: A Memoir by Jennifer Mascia

Book Description:
"When Jennifer Mascia is five years old, the FBI comes for her father. At that moment Jenny realizes that her family isn’t exactly normal. What follows are months of confusion marked by visits with her father through thick glass, talking to him over a telephone attached to the wall. She and her mother crisscross the country, from California to New York to Miami and back again. When her father finally returns home, months later, his absence is never explained—and Jenny is told that the family has a new last name. It’s only much later that Jenny discovers that theirs was a life spent on the lam, trying to outrun the law.

Thus begins the story of Jennifer Mascia’s bizarre but strangely magical childhood. An only child, she revels in her parents’ intense love for her—and rides the highs and lows of their equally passionate arguments. They are a tight-knit band, never allowing many outsiders in. And then there are the oddities that Jenny notices only as she gets older: the fact that her father had two names before he went away—in public he was Frank, but at home her mother called him Johnny; the neat, hidden hole in the carpet where her parents keep all their cash. The family sees wild swings in wealth—one year they’re shopping for Chanel and Louis Vuitton at posh shopping centers in Los Angeles, the next they’re living in one room and subsisting on food stamps.

What have her parents done? What was the reason for her father’s incarceration so many years ago? When Jenny, at twenty-two, uncovers her father’s criminal record during an Internet search, still more questions are raised. By then he is dying of cancer, so she presses her mother for answers, eliciting the first in a series of reluctant admissions about her father’s criminal past. Before her mother dies, four years later, Jenny is made privy to one final, riveting confession, which sets her on a search for the truth her mother fought to conceal for so many years. As Jenny unravels her family’s dark secrets, she must confront the grisly legacy she has inherited and the hard truth that her parents are not—and have never been—who they claimed to be."

This true tale of one woman's childhood on the run from her parents' criminal activities is deeply personal and poignant in parts, though ultimately the narrative voice kept me from sinking completely into the story. Jennifer Mascia, whose life was shaped by the activities of her parents and a past she didn't learn about until after her father's death, is certainly exorcising her fair share of demons here, and rightfully so.

I definitely felt for the lonely child so caught up in her parents dramas, though I thought the book itself could have been more tightly edited. It does get repetitive in places, and seemingly builds toward narrative peaks that then somehow are revealed as only plateaus. I also didn't appreciate Mascia's moments of self-loathing when she speaks of wearing size 14/16 pants; it was off-putting and didn't seem to fit into the narrative.

Though Mascia herself seems to have forgiven her parents for her unconventional upbringing, it is hard for the reader to do the same. Though her parents undoubtedly loved her, they certainly seemed to love themselves more, and gave little to no thought to the impact their actions would have on their young impressionable child. Well-written and even conversational in parts, this book certainly highlights the seamy side of life in the Mafia while demonstrating the painful effect parents can have on their children. Raw in parts, this memoir is nevertheless painfully honest- a solid offering from a novice writer.

Benjamin Pratt and the Keepers of the School: We the Children by Andrew Clements

Book description:
"Benjamin Pratt's harbor-side school is going to be bulldozed to make room for an amusement park. It sounds like a dream come true...or is it more like a nightmare? Something about the plan seems fishy, and Lyman, the new assistant janitor, seems even fishier. When Ben and his friend Jill start digging for answers, they find things that the people with money and power don't want them to see. Could the history hidden deep within an old school building actually overthrow a thirty-million-dollar real-estate deal? And how far will the developers go to keep that from happening? Ben and Jill are about to discover just how dangerous a little knowledge can be."

I really enjoyed this introduction to Clements' new series that focuses on two kids' efforts to save their elementary school from an evil corporate takeover. Ben is a delightful character struggling to accept his parents' recent separation; his dislike of change finds a focus in the plans to tear down his school. His partner in crime is the brains of the operation, and her inclusion in the story helps make the book attractive to both boys and girls.

This first installment is a slim volume that serves to introduce the theme and main characters, and sets up the mystery by solving one set of clues and introducing the next. Clements writes with an authentic voice that will appeal to young readers but introduces mature themes that should spark discussions around the dinner table. All in all an excellent read.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Weekends at Bellevue by Julie Holland

Book description:
"Julie Holland thought she knew what crazy was. Then she came to Bellevue.

New York City’s Bellevue Hospital, the oldest public hospital in the United States, has a tradition of “serving the underserved” that dates back to 1736. For nine eventful years, Dr. Holland was the weekend physician in charge of Bellevue’s psychiatric emergency room, a one-woman front line charged with assessing and treating some of the city’s most vulnerable and troubled citizens, its forgotten and forsaken—and its criminally insane. Deciding who gets locked up and who gets talked down would be an awesome responsibility for most people. For Julie Holland, it was just another day at the office.

Holland provides an unvarnished look at life in the psych ER, recounting stories from her vast case files that are alternately terrifying, tragically comic, and profoundly moving: the serial killer, the naked man barking like a dog in Times Square, the schizophrenic begging for an injection of club soda to quiet the voices in his head, the subway conductor who watched a young woman pushed into the path of his train. As Holland comes to understand, the degree to which someone can lose his or her mind is infinite, and each patient’s pain leaves a mark on her as well—as does the cancer battle of a fellow doctor who is both her best friend and her most trusted mentor."

In this admittedly disjointed memoir, Holland reveals just what it takes to run the weekend shift at one of America's most famous mental hospitals for almost a decade. Not one to sugarcoat reality, Holland paints a disturbing picture of our current mental healthcare priorities, and quite frankly of herself. I'll admit there were plenty of aspects of her life and personality which I found off-putting, but the raw honesty she displays is a testament to her commitment. I'm not sure I'd choose Holland as a friend or as a doctor, but suspect it was her ability to compartmentalize that made it possible for her to do her job and do it fairly well for 9 years.

Ultimately, I would have preferred a slightly more cohesive narrative structure; the book reads like a series of unrelated vignettes until close to the end. That said, this is certainly a book worth reading if you are in the mental health field. Though I could wish for a more sympathetic narrator, I suspect that Holland's rather grim portrayal of herself reflects the real truth about those battling on the front lines of the mental heathcare system- too little time, too few beds, and too little follow-up must wear down even the most optimistic of practitioners.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Knit, Purl, Die by Anne Canadeo

Book description:
"Gloria Sterling had it all -- money, looks, and a new sexy young husband. So when she's found floating face down in her own swimming pool, shock waves ripple through tiny Plum Harbor. At the Black Sheep Knitting Shop, Maggie Messina and her circle are devastated to lose their dear friend -- a woman as colorful as her fabulous yarn creations.

The police are quick to call it an accident, but sorting out Gloria's final hours leaves too many loose ends to satisfy her friends. The vivacious, fiftysomething cougar had her French manicured tips in more than a few pots, and the threads of some inside deals stashed in her chic knitting tote.

Who was the last person to see Gloria alive on that quiet summer night? Two empty wine glasses suggest she wasn't home alone knitting the entire evening.... The Black Sheep need to know the truth and set out to unravel -- stitch by stitch -- the weighty secrets that pulled poor Gloria under."

This was a light and enjoyable cozy mystery centered on a group of women who share a love of knitting and detecting. Though I haven't read the first book in the Black Sheep Knitting series, I never felt the lack when reading this second installment (though now I'm eager to go back and read the first). Though the mystery and surrounding plot twist weren't hard to figure out, knowing whodunit didn't affect my enjoyment of the book, which is more character than plot driven. A great read for a rainy afternoon, and certainly a must-have for any knitters in your life.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Julie and Julia by Julie Powell

Flap copy from paperback:
"Nearing thirty and trapped in a dead-end secretarial job, Julie Powell resolved to reclaim her life by cooking, in the span of a single year, every one of the 524 recipes in Julia Child's legendary 'Mastering the Art of French Cooking'. Her unexpected reward: not just a newfound respect for calves' livers and aspic, but a new life- lived with gusto."

I was surprised by this memoir/homage which I thought would be much more heavily food focused than it was. Obviously food (or its preparation) was the common tie between Julie and Julia, but the book is much more about Julia's quest to find herself through the admittedly odd project to cook her way through Julia Child's cookbook. The book is well-written though I often found myself frustrated with the author who seemed very immature in parts.

All in all a decent read for someone who was never exposed to the blog that sparked the novel. I wish I had found the author more sympathetic but as it was, my irritation with her colored my enjoyment of the book. 3 stars.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Enemies of the People by Kati Marton

Book description:
"You are opening a Pandora's box," Marton was warned when she filed for her family's secret police files in Budapest. But her family history -- during both the Nazi and the Communist periods -- was too full of shadows. The files revealed terrifying truths: secret love affairs, betrayals inside the family circle, torture and brutalities alongside acts of stunning courage -- and, above all, deep family love.

In this true-life thriller, Kati Marton, an accomplished journalist, exposes the cruel mechanics of the Communist Terror State, using the secret police files on her journalist parents as well as dozens of interviews that reveal how her family was spied on and betrayed by friends and colleagues, and even their children's babysitter. In this moving and brave memoir, Marton searches for and finds her parents, and love.

Marton relates her eyewitness account of her mother's and father's arrests in Cold War Budapest and the terrible separation that followed. She describes the pain her parents endured in prison -- isolated from each other and their children. She reveals the secret war between Washington and Moscow, in which Marton and her family were pawns in a much larger game.

Kati Marton's parents were Hungarian journalists working for Western news outlets behind the Iron Curtain, a courageous choice that became reason enough for them to be declared enemies of the people by the Communists in Hungary. The story of their lives as revealed through personal memories and their secret police files makes for an engrossing read on many levels.

The book does a masterful job of peeling back the bare facts that are public knowledge about the Martons to reveal the deeper history of this extraordinary couple. The reader shares the author's sense of discovery as she learns of her Jewish heritage and the true facts of her parents' early lives. Marton's love for her parents combined with her frustration about their unwillingness to discuss the past rings through this memoir; it is the ultimate irony that she only came to know and understand her family history because of the massive secret police files maintained by the government that imprisoned her parents and ripped her family apart.

Well-written and fast-paced, this book was an obvious labor of love that will appeal to readers no matter their level of familiarity with Hungary in the post-war years. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Murderer's Daughters by Randy Susan Meyers

Book description:
"Mama was “no macaroni-necklace-wearing kind of mother.” She was a lipstick and perfume-wearing mother, a flirt whose estranged husband still hungered for her. After Mama threw him out, she warned the girls to never let Daddy in the house, an admonition that tears at ten-year-old Lulu whenever she thinks about the day she opened the door for her drunken father, and watched as he killed her mother, stabbed her five-year-old sister Merry and tried to take his own life.

Effectively orphaned by their mother’s death and father’s imprisonment, Lulu and Merry, unwanted by family members and abandoned to a terrifying group home, spend their young lives carrying more than just the visible scars from the tragedy. Even as their plan to be taken in by a well-to-do foster family succeeds, they come to learn they’ll never really belong anywhere or to anyone—that all they have to hold onto is each other.

As they grow into women, Lulu holds fast to her anger, denies her father’s existence and forces Merry into a web of lies about his death that eventually ensnares her own husband and daughters. Merry, certain their safety rests on placating her needy father, dutifully visits him, seeking his approval and love at the expense of her own relationships. As they strive to carve lives of their own, the specter of their father, unrepentant and manipulative even from behind bars, haunts them. And when they learn he’s about to be paroled, the house of cards they’ve built their lives on teeters on the brink of collapse."

This debut novel tracks the lives of two sisters as they attempt to create lives in the shadow of a harrowing family tragedy. Older sister Lulu must cope with the guilt of opening the door to their father the day he stabbed their mother to death, while younger sister Merry lives with her memories of the murder and her father's failed attempt to kill her and himself. Forced into an orphange by the death of their maternal grandmother, the sisters are lucky enough to find a stable foster family who nonetheless fail them on an emotional level. Betrayed by everyone else, the two sisters form an unhealthy (but understandable) co-dependent relationship marred only by Merry's regular visits to her father and Lulu's refusal to admit he is alive.

I literally couldn't put this book down- it was powerful, heart-breaking, and ultimately redemptive all at the same time. The girls are wonderful characters whose voices and actions ring true without seeming stereotypical. I felt emotionally connected to these girls, invested in their well-being and frantic to try to keep them safe. The author's experience with the victims of violent crime serves her well and gives the reader a wonderful (and terrifying) insight into the lives these victims lead. Highly recommended!

Monday, January 11, 2010

Petropolis by Anya Ulinich

Book description:
"After losing her father, her boyfriend, and her baby, Sasha Goldberg decides that getting herself to the United States is the surest path to deliverance. But she finds that life in Phoenix with her Red Lobster–loving fiancé isn’t much better than life in Siberia, and so she treks across America on a misadventure-filled search for her long- lost father."

This touching tale of one girl's journey from innocence to mail-order bride tells the story of Sasha Goldberg's quest to find a place for herself in the world. As she travels from Siberia to the United States, Sasha carries a dream of reuniting with her father, a man she has idealized since his departure from Russia years before. Unfortunately, the more time she spends in America, the more Sasha learns about her father and his new life, and the less she is able to maintain that childish vision of him.

I thought this was an excellent look what might drive a young girl to offer herself as a mail-order bride in search of a better life in America. It is definitely a better treatment of this subject than another book I read this year, Moonlight in Odessa. Sasha's situation is never romanticized and the reader definitely feels for her as betrayals build and her disillusionment grows. Well-written and sensitively portrayed, Sasha is a standout protagonist whose moving tale will stick with you long after you finish reading the book. Highly recommended.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

When Skateboards Will Be Free by Saïd Sayrafiezadeh

Book description:
"Saïd’s Iranian-born father and American Jewish mother had one thing in common: their unshakable conviction that the workers’ revolution was coming. Separated since their son was nine months old, they each pursued a dream of the perfect socialist society. Pinballing with his mother between makeshift Pittsburgh apartments, falling asleep at party meetings, longing for the luxuries he’s taught to despise, Said waits for the revolution that never, ever arrives. “Soon,” his mother assures him, while his long-absent father quixotically runs as a socialist candidate for president in an Iran about to fall under the ayatollahs. Then comes the hostage crisis. The uproar that follows is the first time Saïd hears the word “Iran” in school. There he is suddenly forced to confront the combustible stew of his identity: as an American, an Iranian, a Jew, a socialist... and a middle-school kid who loves football and video games."

This memoir was painfully honest and suprisingly rather bleak despite the amusing title. The story of young Said's life as the child of two Socialists was leavened by humor but this reader for one wondered how any adults could so selfishly ignore the needs of their own progeny in favor of the abstract needs of the people. Neither of Said's parents appeared to be fit caretakers for this sensitive child, and his ability to survive and even thrive in that environment is a testimony to his strength of personality. This book is full of hard truths about prejudice, political agitation, and family dysfunction. Highly recommended!