Monday, January 31, 2011

The Finishing Touches by Hester Browne

Book description:
A fading English finishing school gets a twenty-first-century makeover in this modern-day fairy tale. Twenty-seven years ago, an infant turned up on the doorstep of London’s esteemed Phillimore Academy for Young Ladies. Now, Betsy Phillimore returns to the place where she was lovingly raised by Lord and Lady Phillimore, only to find the Academy in disrepair and Lord P. desperate to save his legacy. Enter Betsy with a savvy business plan to replace dusty protocol with the essentials girls need today: cell phone etiquette, eating sushi properly, handling credit cards, choosing the perfect little black dress, negotiating a pre-nup, and other lessons in independent living. But returning to London also means crossing paths with her sexy girlhood crush . . . and stirring up the mystery of who her parents are and why they abandoned her. Will the puzzle pieces of her past fall into place while Betsy races to save the only home she’s ever known?

This story about a finishing school on its last legs and foundling determined to bring it back to glory was light and enjoyable, but could have been so much more. The underlying story was perfect for a British chick-lit book but had elements that could have been developed into a deeper more literary novel. The characters were likeable and well-written though some could have used more backstory and development. I was also disappointed that some promising plot twists (possible embezzlement for example) were raised then simply allowed to die.

All in all, this was an enjoyable book but I couldn't help shake the feeling that it was missing some spark.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Other Family by Joanna Trollope

Book description:
When Richie Rossiter, once a famous pianist, dies unexpectedly, Chrissie knows that she must now tell the truth to their three daughters: their parents were never married. Yet there is one more shock to come when Richie’s will is read. It seems he never forgot the wife and son he left behind years ago—Margaret, who lives a quiet life of routine and work, and Scott, who never knew his famous father. Now two families are left to confront their losses and each other, and none of them will ever be the same.

This novel is another stellar work by Trollope, who does so well delving into the heart of love and family. This book opens with a family returning home from the hospital incomplete, the head of the household now nothing but a memory. As the story unfolds, we learn more and more about him and his actions in the past and the impact those actions continue to have on his two separate families. As both his abandoned widow and the woman he left her for try to cope with his death, his four children are left struggling to understand what his loss means to them.

Wonderfully drawn characters and exquisite emotional tension make this book impossible to put down. An excellent winter read- 5 strong stars!

Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Island of Lost Maps by Miles Harvey

Book description:
The Island of Lost Maps tells the story of a curious crime spree: the theft of scores of valuable centuries-old maps from some of the most prominent research libraries in the United States and Canada. The perpetrator was Gilbert Joseph Bland, Jr., an enigmatic antiques dealer from South Florida, whose cross-country slash-and-dash operation had gone virtually undetected until he was caught in 1995–and was unmasked as the most prolific American map thief in history. As Miles Harvey unravels the mystery of Bland’s life, he maps out the world of cartography and cartographic crime, weaving together a fascinating story of exploration, craftsmanship, villainy, and the lure of the unknown.

It is hard to know what to say about this book which rather defies description. It purports to be about the prolifigate map thief Gilbert Bland, but really Bland's crimes are just the jumping off point for a book about maps, those who made them, and those who covet them. I thought this book would be more similar to The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession, but because Bland remained but a shadowy presence, the feel of the two books is completely different. That said, I still found myself pulled into this book and unable to put it down. I can't really explain why I enjoyed it so much, I just did, to the tune of five stars. If you love maps then you are likely to love this book, but if you are looking for a true crime caper, this might not be your cup of tea.

Friday, January 28, 2011

The Convent by Panos Karnezis

Book description:
The crumbling convent of Our Lady of Mercy stands alone in an uninhabited part of the Spanish sierra, hidden on a hill among dense forest. Its inhabitants are devoted to God, to solitude and silence—six women cut off from a world they've chosen to leave behind. This all changes on the day that Mother Superior Maria Ines discovers a suitcase punctured with air holes at the entrance to the retreat: a baby, abandoned to its fate. Is it a miracle? Soon she will find that the baby's arrival has consequences beyond her imagining, and that even in her carefully protected sanctuary she is unable to keep the world, or her past, at bay.

This story about a foundling baby boy left on the doorstep of an isolated Spanish convent is a compelling and atmospheric read. The book is really more of a series of character studies that highlights the underlying tensions in a community of cloistered women. The reader will have no trouble figuring out the "miracle" of the the child's birth, but since this isn't really a plot-driven novel, the lack of mystery is less relevant than the author's ability to paint a vivid picture of the isolated life in the convent.

Not really an enjoyable read, at only 200 pages it is nevertheless a quick one. Wonderful use of language and a lyric style made this a four star read for me.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Bikini Car Wash by Pamela Morsi

Book description:
After Andrea Wolkowicz abandons corporate life to help care for her sister, she quickly wears out the want ads in their rust-belt hometown. Time to be her own boss.
Every mogul knows the best idea is an old idea with a new twist. So Andi proudly revives her father's business: an old-fashioned car wash…staffed entirely by bikini-clad women. That ought to get traffic—and blood—flowing on Grosvenor Street!

This gutsy gimmick soon has the whole town in a lather, and not necessarily in a good way. Scandalized citizens are howling, neighboring businesses are worried. But straitlaced grocery-store owner Pete Guthrie is definitely intrigued. He knows it's hard to run a small business in a big-box world. To him, Andi's brains and bravery are as alluring as the bikini she calls business attire.

The blurb for this book paints a picture of a light-hearted chick-lit book, but the book is surprisingly less amusing than expected. Though there were many strong elements of the book, ultimately the lackluster romance undermined the story, and i just never felt a real connection with Andi or Pete. They seemingly ended up together because neither had a better option in their small town which doesn't make for riveting fiction. Not a bad summer read but not as captivating as I had hoped. 3.5 stars.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Imperfect Birds by Anne Lamott

Book description:
Rosie Ferguson is seventeen and ready to enjoy the summer before her senior year of high school. She's intelligent-she aced AP physics; athletic-a former state-ranked tennis doubles champion; and beautiful. She is, in short, everything her mother, Elizabeth, hoped she could be. The family's move to Landsdale, with stepfather James in tow, hadn't been as bumpy as Elizabeth feared.

But as the school year draws to a close, there are disturbing signs that the life Rosie claims to be leading is a sham, and that Elizabeth's hopes for her daughter to remain immune from the pull of the darker impulses of drugs and alcohol are dashed. Slowly and against their will, Elizabeth and James are forced to confront the fact that Rosie has been lying to them-and that her deceptions will have profound consequences.

Though this book starts out slow and is rather hard to sink into, eventually the story captured me and carried me along. Watching as Rosie slowly devolves in front of her parents' eyes is poignant and disturbing, and Lamott tells the story in lyrical prose. I did enjoy this book for its treatment of the mother-daughter relationship and the peek inside the mind of an addict. A good read once it grips you but definitely a slow starter.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Fragile by Lisa Unger

Book description:
Everybody knows everybody in The Hollows, a quaint, charming town outside of New York City. It’s a place where neighbors keep an eye on one another’s kids, where people say hello in the grocery store, and where high school cliques and antics are never quite forgotten. As a child, Maggie found living under the microscope of small-town life stifling. But as a wife and mother, she has happily returned to The Hollows’s insular embrace. As a psychologist, her knowledge of family histories provides powerful insights into her patients’ lives. So when the girlfriend of her teenage son, Rick, disappears, Maggie’s intuitive gift proves useful to the case—and also dangerous.

Eerie parallels soon emerge between Charlene’s disappearance and the abduction of another local girl that shook the community years ago when Maggie was a teenager. The investigation has her husband, Jones, the lead detective on the case, acting strangely. Rick, already a brooding teenager, becomes even more withdrawn. In a town where the past is always present, nobody is above suspicion, not even a son in the eyes of his father.

“I know how a moment can spiral out of control,” Jones says to a shocked Maggie as he searches Rick’s room for incriminating evidence. “How the consequences of one careless action can cost you everything.”

As she tries to reassure him that Rick embodies his father in all of the important ways, Maggie realizes this might be exactly what Jones fears most. Determined to uncover the truth, Maggie pursues her own leads into Charlene’s disappearance and exposes a long-buried town secret—one that could destroy everything she holds dear.

This is a hard book to review without giving away to many of the details that make teh story so good. When the police start asking guestions about Char and her troubled life, the town is forced to relive and reassess the facts of the disappearance 20 years ago of another high school girl, a disappearance that ended with the discovery of a body. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that the ripples from Sarah's death 20 years ago continue to impact the entire town today.

This novel explores the ties that bind people to each other and to a place, and reveals how strong yet fragile those ties can be when people are living with secrets. Excellent read!

Monday, January 24, 2011

Elizabeth's Women: Friends, Rivals, and Foes Who Shaped the Virgin Queen by Tracy Borman

Book description:
So often viewed in her relationships with men, the Virgin Queen is portrayed here as the product of women—the mother she lost so tragically, the female subjects who worshipped her, and the peers and intimates who loved, raised, challenged, and sometimes opposed her.

Borman presents Elizabeth’s bewitching mother, Anne Boleyn, eager to nurture her new child, only to see her taken away and her own life destroyed by damning allegations—which taught Elizabeth never to mix politics and love. Kat Astley, the governess who attended and taught Elizabeth for almost thirty years, invited disaster by encouraging her charge into a dangerous liaison after Henry VIII’s death. Mary Tudor—“Bloody Mary”—envied her younger sister’s popularity and threatened to destroy her altogether. And animosity drove Elizabeth and her cousin Mary Queen of Scots into an intense thirty-year rivalry that could end only in death.

Elizabeth’s Women contains more than an indelible cast of characters. It is an unprecedented account of how the public posture of femininity figured into the English court, the meaning of costume and display, the power of fecundity and flirtation, and how Elizabeth herself—long viewed as the embodiment of feminism—shared popular views of female inferiority and scorned and schemed against her underlings’ marriages and pregnancies.

This is the second Tudor history book I've read this month, and this was by far the more enjoyable. I've read a lot of books (fiction and non-fiction) about Elizabeth but never one like this that focused on the women who surrounded the Virgin Queen and helped shape her views on life and leadership. Though the cast of characters is huge, and many of them share names, Borman did a good job of helping the reader keep track and differentiating between the Janes and Katherines that populated Elizabeth's world. One weakness that I see is that Borman assumes a level of knowledge about the history of the time that makes it clear this book is not for the uninitiated. That said, anyone who has read a couple of books about Elizabeth will have no problem following the action. All in all, an interesting and innovative treatment of a much analyzed figure in history.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Naked Gardener by L.B. Gschwandtner

Book description:
In a remote forest of northern Vermont, Katelyn Cross takes five women on a wilderness canoe trip where they hope to come up with ideas for saving their dying town. Although the river is not always what it seems and the women have not left their problems behind, a painting ritual creates a new way to look at the world - and themselves.

Artist Katelyn Cross loves Greg Mazur and he loves her. He wants to be married but a previous relationship that went sour has made Katelyn overly cautious about any permanent commitment. And what about Greg's first wife? He lost her to cancer and Katelyn worries that he's only looking for a replacement. What's a girl to do? Canoe down a river with five gal pals, camp out, catch fish, talk about life and men. The problem is, a river can be as unpredictable as any relationship and just as hard to manage. On their last day, when the river turns wild, the women face the challenge of a lifetime and find that staying alive means saving themselves first while being open to help from a most unlikely source. As Katelyn navigates the raging water, she learns how to overcome her fear of change in a world where nothing stays the same. When Katelyn returns to her garden, she'll face one more obstacle and the naked gardener will meet the real Greg Mazur.

This is an interesting tale about life and love and women and relationships, an unexpectedly appealing story with great characters. The story revolves around Katelyn, an artist trying hard to maintain her distance from her live-in lover Maze. As she works through the reasons why she feels the way she feels, she finds herself leading a group of inexperienced paddlers on a canoe trip through the wilderness. Each of these women has a problem and of course the trip becomes a bonding experience that helps them work through these problems.

Despite what seems like a hackneyed plot, this book is actually quite enjoyable. The characters are appealing, both as individuals and as a group, and I was quickly pulled into their story. My initial dislike of Maze was eventually tempered as more of his character is revealed, and the sub-plot about their Vermont town was equally engaging. The ending makes it clear a sequel is in the works, but the author does an admirable job of wrapping up the story, providing enough of a conclusion to satisfy readers while introducing a hook to help sell the sequel. 4 strong stars- a great way to ring in the new year!