Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Cascade by Maryanne O’Hara — 384 pgs

Desdemona Hart Spaulding isn’t where she wants to be. As the wife of a pharmacist who runs his own shop during the late 1930s, Des and her husband are at a crossroads. He wants a wife that cooks, cleans, and bears him children, which is decidedly not what she wants. Des is an artist, and a very good one at that. But her paintings are not enough to hold on to when her husband becomes agitated with Des’ inability to get pregnant. Des has had the forbearance to make sure that never happens. When it becomes local news that the town of Cascade is in danger of being turned into a reservoir for the city of Boston, its little shops and homes flooded, Des dreams of relocating to New York to realize her dreams of being a famous artist. But soon, her friendship with another artist in the town becomes a scandal, and Des begins to make some very disturbing choices that will not only affect her marriage, but also the town where she has lived her entire life. While Des’ husband Asa moves in one direction, Des decides to go in another, forcing her to become not only duplicitous, but deceiving as well. In this pristinely written and very complex novel, the fate of a town and a marriage come down to the machinations of one woman who is desperate to be free, no matter the cost.

Reading this book was like looking at a watercolor painting, and I’m sure that this is what the author intended, as a large part of the narrative was given over to the nature and descriptions of art. This, to me, meant that large parts of the narrative had a soft and contemporary feel while still being set in the past and focusing almost exclusively on Des as an artist. Many of her works were explained in the book, and it was almost as if O’Hara had these paintings that Des was creating firmly fixed in her mind. The effect was one of blending art with a very complex and personal narrative, written with a mild yet somehow searing tone.

I really understood Des and her struggles. Because O’Hara gives so much attention to detail with her characters, there was little that wasn’t explained regarding her feelings of living a small town life, and an incompatible marriage. The choice to marry Asa was undoubtedly clear to the reader but the repercussions had a strangling effect on the entire community. Des, at times, may have been a little ethically challenged; however, I understood her and her wishes. It wasn’t her morality that was in question, but her desire and her unmitigated need to assert herself and attain the life that she knew she was meant for. Unfortunately, she caused a lot of collateral damage by doing these things.

The main thrust of this book were the themes of longing and self-actualization, blended within a framework of art, both on the canvas and in the theater. When I step back and see just what O’Hara was trying to communicate to the reader, I’m filled with a sense of bittersweet irony, because for one woman to go against the tide during this time period meant not only that this was a decidedly feminist novel, but also a novel that sought to explore the ways that the heart can be selfish and selfless at the same time.

I think those readers who enjoy character driven novels with a strong plot would love this book. It’s full of things to discuss and ponder, making it a great choice for book clubs, but it’s also one to read when you just want to curl up with a creative drama that’s gentle but firm. I’m sure that I’ll see more as I reflect further, just as O’Hara intends. A genuinely satisfying read that holds secrets, regrets, and unexpected joys. Recommended.


This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Monday, April 29, 2013

The Reckoning: Book Two of the Taker Trilogy — by Alma Katsu

Warning: This review contains spoilers for the first book, The Taker. If you haven’t read that one, you should get to it right away! It’s an unforgettable story!

Lanore McIlvrae thought she had it all planned out. After imprisoning Adair in the walls of the old castle where he had kept her prisoner, Lanore finally feels safe. With her latest partner, Luke, she is traveling the globe, selling off pieces of art that she has procured over several lifetimes. But something is amiss, for Adair has somehow escaped his prison, where he’s had a long time to think about Lanore’s hideous betrayal and his undying passion for her. How could his plans have gone wrong? Once he promised himself to her forever, in a body that she adored, but his cruelties were too many and too violent, leaving him in the darkness for many years. Now he’s on the hunt once again, and Lanore sets out alone to find Adair’s other consorts in an effort to discover the best way to hide from him forever. But the Adair that emerges from his prison is feeling very different than the man who was once lured into the trap. All of his feelings for Lanny have intensified exponentially, and he is a man at war with himself, trying to figure out if he wants to torture and kill her or make her his lover forever. Wicked and corrupt, Adair gathers his cronies to ensnare Lanny, where he will have her trapped, just as she had him trapped. What will become of this man, newly changed but destructively bent? And what can Lanny do when the sight of Adair turns her flesh cold but her body wanting? In this sequel to The Taker, Alma Katsu gives us a taste of the impenetrable life of the immortals and forces a climax that will leave readers hungering for the last and final installment of this series.

Alma Katsu doesn’t play around with her readers. She considers them smart, savvy, and bold enough to explore the depths of emotion that she delves into in her books. This book was a surprise to me, for although I knew that Adair couldn’t stay entombed forever, his attitude when he was released caused me to wonder what exactly had been running through his mind while he was enshrouded by darkness. Adair is a truly evil man, one who thinks of how best to use his minions and then toss them aside once they’ve fulfilled their duties. Now he’s on the hunt, and Lanore knows it. She can hear the shrieking in her brain that tells her that he is free, and that’s enough to send her flying to destinations halfway around the globe in search of a way to destroy him forever.

But despite Adair’s wish to tear Lanore limb from limb, there’s a stronger desire in him to capture her heart and make her love him. A new side to Adair, that’s for sure. But his motives still seem sinister, and when he wants something, nothing can stop him. For Adair, to love is to give up power, something that he refuses to do and something that he cannot do easily. His love is like a leech, sucking and swallowing souls whole and leaving the remnants behind. As he calculates just how to trap his supposed soul mate, a vicious streak comes out that binds another unwitting human to him forever, but this time, the human can manipulate things for Adiar that he never thought possible.

Adair has been trapped in his prison for many hundreds of years. When he escapes, the world is very different than the one he left behind. There are vehicles without horses traversing the roads, and people carry phones with them at all times. What, Adair wonders, are these phones for? Let’s not even get started with what happens the first time Adair sees the Internet. He is a man out of time, an escapee who will have what he wants, despite the cost, be it large sums of money or human life. Lanore is not safe, and knowing this, she leaves Luke to be free and not in danger like herself.

Lanny has changed too. Once a fine thief and seducer, she has narrowed her proclivities to furnishing art houses all over the world with her treasures and finding a second life with Luke. She is still, and always, grieving over Jonathan, but this hurt hasn’t prevented her from loving again, though the love is unconventional. She is a truth seeker and wishes to live in the light, but due to the foolhardy trust that she places in a band of old friends, she finds herself in a place where no one can help her and where she is at Adair’s mercy. A deliciously creepy and haunting atmosphere comes chiming out of this novel, bursting forth with violence, cruelty, and sabotage. Will Lanny ever escape the torments that her lover and torturer have for her?

I found this second installment of The Taker Trilogy to be just as breathtaking as the first, and was on tenterhooks watching Lanny being led about by her feelings, only to discover that she had been duped more viciously than I had expected. But there’s another book on the way, and I, for one, am rooting for Lanny and Luke to take down this hellion of a man—though it’s bound to come at a steep price. If you haven’t read these books, you are truly missing out on something great. Highly Recommended!

Thursday, April 25, 2013

From the Kitchen of Half Truth by Maria Goodin — 352 pgs

Meg May is a woman of facts. As a scientist, she finds the real and resolute comforting and orderly. Meg’s behavior as an adult has been a way of coping with her mother’s tendency for outlandish storytelling. Meg has grown up hearing stories about how she was so sweet that neighbors borrowed her to dip her toes in their tea, and how, as a small baby, she would not grow and had to be put into a warm oven after ingesting a teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda. These stories, while charming, are not the answers that Meg wants when she questions her mother about her childhood, and her mother refuses to be forthcoming. But the time is growing late for all the stories Meg so desperately needs to feel whole, for Meg’s mother is dying. Arriving at her cottage for what will be her last summer, Meg tries wholeheartedly to get her mother to finally reveal the secrets of her birth and childhood, all to no avail. Meg’s handsome boyfriend insists that Meg’s mother is trying to pull a fast one on her, leaving her confused and out of the loop. But as Meg discovers clue after clue about her mother’s life before and immediately after her birth, she discovers that the painful truth isn’t half as beautiful or digestible as the stories that her mother concots. For Meg’s mother, it’s only a matter of time before the truth comes out, and when it does, it has consequences so far reaching and tenuous that Meg may wish that she never started investigating at all.

I fell into this book with ease and rapidity, for along with the fable-like stories that Meg’s mother, Val, told her, there were vast sections that were devoted to food and gardening. It was a bit like Sarah Addison Allen’s books in that there was magic on the pages but the book never veered into magical realism. Val’s stories of Meg’s life were vastly entertaining and fun, and I found myself wishing that I had had that kind of childhood, where fact blended with fantasy to form the perfect melange of unique flavor and sparkling moments.

There was also romance, but of a rather different nature than most books. Meg is happy with her boyfriend, Mark, who is an outstanding scientist and who loves the facts and truth much more than any character that I have ever seen. But I found Mark to be a blowhard, and it was increasingly difficult to like the man who insisted that Val was purposely deceiving Meg to keep the truth from her. As difficult as it was for Meg to watch her mother die, it was even more difficult to have Mark at her side, viciously smearing the memories of her mother into an ugly paste of lies and deceit.

It seemed that Val’s only friend, aside from Meg, was the gardiner, Ewan. Ewan was a kind of nutty character, but he was a great nut and a lot of fun on the page. He talked to the apple trees to make them grow. He kindly told the slugs not to eat the lettuce, and he doted on Meg’s mother, who filled his belly with lovely treacle tarts and sticky homemade buns. I liked that he was practical yet still whimsical, and when Meg needed someone to talk to about Val, he was all ears. He was a great character and I had a lot of respect for him. Ewan and Meg had a difficult relationship, full of stormy battles, but he was a man that could and did deserve her trust.

This was a tale about identity and the lack of it that some people always feel. It was a novel where secrets were imbued with magic to take their sting and potency away, and where the unbelievable is scattered with truth to form the essence of what it was like for a young mother to raise a daughter alone and still have her come out to be whole, successful, and loving. It was a beautiful book that I would love to read again, and for those readers who are looking for some “comfort food” reading, this would be perfect. An outstanding read, highly recommended.


This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.
 
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