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.