Monday, June 29, 2009

Perfection: A Memoir of Betrayal and Renewal by Julie Metz - 352 pgs

Book CoverWhen her husband of twelve years dies in her arms, Julie Metz thinks the worst has happened, but soon she discovers a horrible secret about the life that she and her husband shared. Although Julie thought she had been living a life of domestic contentment with her husband Henry, the reality is that Henry had been involved in several sexual and romantic affairs over the entire length of their marriage. As Julie reflects on her marriage, a picture of Henry emerges: a narcissistic and insecure man who was far more concerned with himself and his needs than that of his beleaguered wife and child. At times, Henry could be dually romantic and thoughtful, but she also discovers that he could be sly and secretive, eventually discovering an indiscretion that went on with increasing intensity for years, only terminated with his death. Julie realizes that her life was not what she had thought, and has difficulty adjusting both to these new revelations and to her new social status as a wronged widow in a small town. As she deals with her growing feelings of resentment and anger, she must also find a way to remain composed and present for her young daughter. Eventually she begins to contact the other women in Henry's life in the hopes of understanding the man who she realized she never really knew at all. Perfection is Julie's hauntingly honest and intensely reflective journey through deception, acceptance, and eventual healing.

This was a very powerful book. Juile's discoveries and their aftermath were told in a vibrantly forthright manner that left no stone unturned. Even before the details of Henry's secret were uncovered, I had some troubles with him. He seemed to be a very selfish and vain man who was totally disconnected from the realities of parenting and marriage. It was impossible to feel any sympathy for him because he always seemed to be exhibiting troubling behavior. He was very jealous that his wife spent more time focused on their daughter than on himself, and seemed to alternately fly off the handle or be unresponsive to his wife's emotional needs. It was frustrating to read about first his callousness and eventually his indiscretions.

Julie brilliantly chronicled her downward emotional spiral in a way that was both easy to envision and understand. As her confusion and resentment towards Henry begins to bleed into all aspects of her life, she never blames herself, which I thought embodied a great sense of empowerment over her situation. She did not slide into the self-pity that I would expect of a woman in this situation, but rather used her anger and hurt to fuel the quest for discovery that she needed to complete in order to heal. I found her willingness to find the other women Henry had dallied with to be very courageous, and something that I don't know if I would have been able to manage. Henry had essentially led two lives, and although in hindsight she could see there was some oddness in his behavior, the bombshell that was dropped on her had taken her totally by surprise. Unfortunately, there was a lot to discover and the more she dived in, the more she ended up retrieving. From his brief one night stands to his long romantic entanglement with a friend, Julie painstakingly uncovers it all, often carrying on correspondence with each of the women. In trying to decipher Henry's motivations for his affairs, she discovers that Henry had been trying to reinvent himself with each woman, trying to find the elusive perfection of the book's title.

As Julie is piecing together all this information, she is also trying to regain some normalcy in her life. She begins dating and after a brief period of hopelessness, throws herself into being a responsible and caring single mother. Julie has a way of imparting this story in a no-nonsense fashion and deals with her emotions on a level that I found to be very objective and open. Instead of painting Henry in the most negative light possible, she admits that the problems between the two were not solely of her husband's making. It would be easy to for her to sit in the seat of the victim, passing judgment on Henry and his infidelities, but she is far more honest and fair in her tale than this. Though life with Henry was not unbearable, it was not a picnic either. She relates with painful detail the crushing responsibilities that he would not share with her, instead choosing to rove the country in search of ideas for his novels (in addition to the women he was collecting).

I really felt a great sense of happiness for Julie when she began to move forward in her life and was able to put the past behind her. She had an unrelenting spirit about her that made me want to root for her, to see her finally happy after the ordeal that she had been put through. She concludes her tale with a healthy dose of forgiveness and understanding for the man who betrayed her, something that again I would find difficult, but for Julie, it seems completely natural and right. This tale is not only cautionary, but it is obvious that in her own way, Julie's writing of this memoir is an act of healing.

This was a very satisfying and immersive read, and by it's end I felt that I had really gotten to personally know the author and her struggles. In the simple act of forgiveness that she extended to Henry, she surpassed an emotional level that you don't often find in people. If you are a memoir reader and are looking for one with bite and insight, I highly recommend this book. I don't think you will be disappointed.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

**Coventry Winner**

The winner of the hardcover copy of Coventry by Helen Humphries is:


Congratulations texasheartland! I will be contacting the winner shortly by e-mail. Thanks to all those who entered the giveaway. If you didn't win this time around, please keep checking back as I have some great giveaways coming up in the near future!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

An Edible History of Humanity by Tom Standage - 288 pgs

Book CoverIn this highly informative and interesting book, Tom Standage chronicles the evolution of food, explaining how humanity's first meals were hunted and gathered by people who literally lived off the land and how a shift towards farming and a development of agriculture prompted the first civilizations to be built. As people and cultures evolved, so did food's place in society, and as Standgae relates, food became, by turns, a power to exploit, a wealth to hoard, and a very special focus of politics. From the spice trade to the special cultivation of seeds that will miraculously survive disease and drought, Standage gives us the history of food as it relates to the history of people, societies, and governments in an engaging and interesting buffet that will delight and titillate even the most quaint appetite.

The sheer amount of information in this book was very impressive. Standgae has a way of making all of these minute bits of information not only interesting, but important. Far from being a weighty and dry tome, this book had me involved and curious from the very first pages. The information provided is obscure yet relevant in today's society, where it seems that everything of consequence is minutely examined; after reading this book, I came to see that food is of much greater consequence then I had previously thought.

I really enjoyed the sections that dealt with the propagation of special seeds that were basically engineered to maximize the growth and nutritional output of the various crops. Standage explains how just a small strip of a plant called teosinte was eventually bred into the corn that we now find in the supermarket, and how wheat was altered to be shorter, stronger and more easily harvested. Other chapters dealt with how transporting food across the ocean actually made great strides in spreading Islam beyond it's traditional boundaries, and how the rise of industrialization both in food production and in other sectors changed our history, particularly in Europe.

I was constantly amazed by this book because the information was so varied and there was so much more than just food encapsulated within these pages. From the topic of food logistics during war to a special section called "Food As a Weapon," Standage imparts his wisdom like a particularly friendly and engaging professor. I found the book to be very conversational, and though the information presented was academic most of the time, I didn't feel that the author was making his explanations impenetrable with concepts or topics that the average reader could not understand. I don't even think that one needs to have a background in history to appreciate or understand this book because Standage does a great job of filling in the gaps about what was going on in the various sectors of the world during the time frames he is examining.

This book doesn't really talk about food a a gustatory experience: you won't find recipes or tales of exotic meals. What you will find is the progression of food from an object of sustenance to an object of power, and onwards towards its scientific manipulation and use as a precursor of both population explosion and decline. You will find out why the Aztecs began to sacrifice food to their gods in favor of people, and why a small chemical reaction dramatically changed the way food was grown. You will find out how food was preserved throughout history (one of my favorite sections, I have to say), and how food had direct responsibility for the slave trade. This book provides the answers and explanations for many of the food questions that you may have never even thought about, and gives an accurate and flavorful account of just how and why things end up on our plate.

I am not normally a reader of non-fiction, and although this book wasn't exactly what I expected, I found it totally absorbing. Once again, I followed my husband about the house reading quotes and passages to him, which is something I only do when a book has me completely hooked. I liked the fact that the author was very direct and didn't meander, and that all his facts were so relevant towards today's food-conscious mindset. I think that this would be a great read for anyone who has even a modicum of curiosity about food, or if you are fond of non-fiction that is extremely well written. An excellent book that I am sure will enable some excellent conversations. Highly recommended.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie - 384 pages

Book Cover Hiroko Tanaka's life has been irrevocably marred by the American bombing of Nagasaki in the summer of 1945. Not only did she lose her father, village, and way of life, but also the young German artist Konrad, with whom she was beginning a relationship. After the kimono she was wearing in the blast becomes fused with her skin, she bears scars shaped like birds across her back. It is with these painful scars and memories that she leaves Japan, unable to find her place in society after the war. Hiroko travels to New Delhi, where she meets Konrad's half-sister Ilse and her husband James, who agree to shelter her in honor of Konrad's memory. James employs an ersatz assistant, Sajjad, who is in reality only there to provide him amusement and company. When Hiroko and Sajjad begin to have feelings for each other, a set of events occurs that enmesh two families through the generations and take them across the ocean from India to Pakistan to America. Along the way they face the realities of the Partition of India, the nuclear threats of Pakistan, and the more modern struggle of terrorism in America. Fraught with the themes of cultural alienation and identity, Burnt Shadows gives an account of those whose lives are built despite and amidst the destruction of war.

The story was definitely powerful and emotional, but there was a lot there to digest. At times I think that the author overreached in portraying this story, with too many elements in close quarters. I understand that this story was meant to capture a large span of time and encompass several important cultural themes and events, but at times it felt like there were too many balls in the air at once.

The story and message in this book prompted me to put a human face to the complications that arise during war, not only governmental, but socially and personally. The moral and personal struggles of the characters as a whole were much more complex and at times more ambiguous than in any other novel I had read previously about war and it's impacts; at times, even my own opinions were muddy about certain aspects. Many of themes and conversations of this book revolved around the characters' feelings for their homeland, prior to and during war. Some things seemed very black and white while others were clothed in subtle shades of gray. In a way, the book shattered a lot of the preconceived notions that I had, not only about political hostilities, but about the effect they have on the future generations. When Hiroko and Sajeed's young son decides to get involved with a group of young Afghans who are training for guerrilla combat, it was hard for me to find an acceptable position to take. Was I to feel upset that the boy had flown into the arms of terrorism, or was I to understand that this was only a misguided attempt to find acceptance with a group of men who seemingly idolized him?

Some of the things I found interesting were not only the larger issues of cultural identity and societal belonging, but the smaller and finer character motivations and interactions that filled the pages. I think it would be too simple to focus on these things though. The issues that the book presents are meant to be much more oblique and all-encompassing than that, so I will just say that the variegated relationships, tensions, and conversations that these characters were embroiled in were both impressive and authentic. They lent a depth to the story that made it more interesting. The characters in this book inspired reaction, and whether it was frustration, anger or sympathy, I found myself being much more involved with them then I have with other characters while reading similar books.

The latter half of the book examines terrorism in a manner that I found compelling, and essentially gave several differing viewpoints of the issue from both the accused and the accuser. This was done in a manner I had not been expecting or familiar with and gave me even more to think about. The conclusion of the book left me stunned. I think that the author really did more to leave me embroiled and impassioned in the last few pages of the book then anywhere else. I wanted there to be a happy ending, but like life, the reality is that things sometimes end messily.

As I have said before, this is a book that made me do some deep thinking. Its story, characterization, and ultimately, its conclusion were multi-faceted and elaborate and I appreciated both the scope and density of the story that was told. I think this book definitely had a statement to make, on many levels, and it succeeded in a way that went beyond the boundaries of earnest storytelling. It was both a plausible and affecting read, and one that I ended up enjoying. Aside from the cluttered manner of the plot, I think that readers of historical fiction would really enjoy the wide range in this book, and those that like books that are character driven would also get a lot out of it.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Don't Call Me a Crook: A Scotsman's Tale of World Travel, Whiskey and Crime by Bob Moore - 256 pgs

Book CoverBob Moore wants his readers to know that he is not a thief. He just takes the opportunities that have been presented to him, even if that means he has to do a little swindling and lying, but he most certainly is not a thief. This vivid memoir, written in 1935, displays Moore in all his unique glory. From his stint as Chief Engineer on a luxury yacht of the restlessly rich to his snatching of a sack full of diamonds, Moore relates his almost unbelievable tale in a theatrical and over-the-top style. As he winds his way from Glasgow to New York to China, Moore unfailingly finds himself in odd and lucrative situations. His boundless pluck in circumstances like his wildly unsuccessful job in elevator repair or his elaborate duping of a mysterious woman on a train remains a constant throughout his tale. With an attitude as abrasive as sandpaper and no morals of which to speak, his adventures not only astound in the fact that they happened, but in the fact that he got out of them alive. Moore never seems to lose his cool but rather seems to gain someone else's property, no matter what is happening to him. Some of the insights in his story are telling asides of the times in which they were written, giving an almost birds-eye view of the events unfolding during the 1930's and 40's. Whether or not you like this audacious man, it becomes evident that Bob Moore is not only a con man's con man, but a man who can spin a yarn with the best of them.

I was a little uncertain of what to expect with this book. Would it be uproariously funny or would his antics be too reckless to be enjoyable? What I found was a pleasant surprise. Though it's not very literary, Moore's book seems to capture his vitality and pluck in a way that immediately enmeshes his reader. Moore sidles his way around a story, and often the reader is left wondering about his actual complicity in the unlikely events that he seems to continuously find himself in. Yet at times this often funny tale veers into much darker territory, capturing a grit and intensity of a life lived without apologies.

I found that although I could never stomach a man like Moore in person, reading about him was a quite different matter and it was entertaining in a way that I found unexpected. I savored the intensity of the story but I didn't want to get too close. Moore always came across as disarmingly frank, yet he also has a secretive side and didn't always tell the whole story or let on all he knew about the events he was involved in. Often I was left wondering if Moore really was the lovable reprobate that he wanted his readers to believe he was or if the reality was much more ominous. I noticed that many who tangled with the man met with mysterious accidents or acts of sabotage and that those events were always related with a certain satisfaction, which left me wondering about Moore's capacity for vengeance.

Though he mostly came across as very charming and affable, there were moments when his attitude floated into the realm of racism and violence; I found those sections of his narrative were curiously left unexplored and unexamined. On the other hand, the sheer non-stop adventure of his tale left me at times incredulous. I found myself constantly asking if it was possible for this much mayhem to really have existed in Moore's life or if these were just a collection of exaggerated adventures meant to regale. After awhile though, I simply got too involved with his tales of adventure to speculate on these things and started wondering what his next move was going to be.

There was much to enjoy about this book, from the easy rapport that Moore establishes in his recollections to the insanity of some of the situations he places himself in. The only problem I had with the book was that it was not written in a very conversational or literary style. At times it reads almost like a detailed list of exploits, with a dearth of dialogue or description to smooth out the story. Although there was a sufficient amount of action and excitement to attract even the most finicky reader, the delivery was a bit rough.

This book was bold and exciting in a way that I wouldn't have expected by just glancing at the cover or reading a blurb. I came to enjoy the company of this sketchy little man, and I think that readers who are looking for a little variety and color in their memoirs would find a lot to love here. Is Moore just a teller of tall tales, or is there more to the life of this grifter then what's to be expected? Give this book a read, and then decide for yourself.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Palace Circle by Rebecca Dean - 432 pgs

Book CoverDelia Chandler is only eighteen wen she marries Viscount Ivor Conisborough, an older English Aristocrat. Believing that she is destined for great happiness with Ivor, the Southern belle moves across the ocean from Virginia to England, where she will begin a life of luxury. But when she arrives in England, she discovers a shocking secret about Ivor that changes her feelings for him dramatically. Although Delia isn't exactly happy in her marriage to Ivor, she learns to hob-nob with the best of English society and eventually bears her husband two beautiful daughters. Eventually, Ivor's government job requires him to relocate his family to Egypt. Although Delia isn't thrilled with the idea of moving away from her social set, she eventually finds her happiness traveling between the high societies of England and Egypt. While Delia lives the life of one of those in the Palace Circle, her daughters, Petra and Davina, take the stage. Both are determined and independent, like their mother, but their passions lie in different directions. Petra lives a life of refinement and clandestine romance in England, while Davina chooses Egypt as her home and begins to feel the call of social reform, training to become a nurse in the underprivileged sections of the city. Spanning two generations and thirty years, Palace Circle is a story of scandal, intrigue and unlikely romance among the elite and powerful.

This book has been compared to the offerings of Philippa Gregory, which I think is an unjust comparison. Gregrory's books are page-turning, drama-filled reads that I equate to literary junk food: things that are interesting to snack on, a guilty pleasure, if you will. This book, on the other hand, was filled with self-importance and tended to get weighed down in name dropping.

First of all, I found the story very abrupt. Things moved rapid fire and nothing was really deeply covered at all. It seemed like many years and events were compressed into a few pages, which made everything seem rushed and barely explained. I also found it difficult to relate to the characters. They all seemed rather haughty and elitist, and although I tried to overcome it, their plights and predicaments failed to move me. Somewhere around the middle of the story, the book morphed from historical fiction into an espionage novel, which I found a bit odd. Unfortunately the switch didn't enhance my enjoyment of the book at all; rather it just left me a little quizzical. Most of the plot points were very predictable, and the further I got into the main narrative, the more I discovered that the characters' revelations weren't all that shocking or ensnaring. In fact, I had figured out the main thrust of the intrigue very early on in the book, and the only thing left to amuse me was to read about the way in which it would unfold.

I also found it vaguely annoying that everything about this story was written with overwrought melodrama. Everything was dealt with in the most histrionic way possible, and it seemed these people lived only to have outbursts. The characters in this novel were largely one-dimensional and I had a hard time relating to them because there was just so little emotional development evident in their behavior. I also didn't like the fact that Delia seemed to operate solely on her naivety and gullibility. She was very insubstantial as the protagonist; very little seemed to be going on in her head. I found it very unbelievable for a person to be so enmeshed in such a worldly atmosphere and still behave so innocently, especially when further reading exposed the fact that she was just as duplicitous as those around her. The fact that the author commented on her beauty in her every mention also got old very quickly.

Further sections of the book focused on secondary characters that were even less interesting than the major players. Though I enjoyed the sections regarding Egypt a bit more, there was still not enough glue to hold this story together for me. I also felt that the absence of morals in the characters was extremely distasteful, and felt that as a plot point it failed miserably. The fact that almost every character was involved in some sort of extramarital relationship was not particularly inventive, and I wondered why it had to be the crux of this story.

There was no real bite to these characters or their story, everything was just average, and for me, reading four hundred plus pages of average really gets me discouraged. Though the second half of the book (which focused on Egypt) was a bit more entertaining, I found this book not much to my liking. Although this wasn't really the book for me I think if you are the type of person who likes your historical fiction heavy on the drama, this might make a nice read for you.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Guest Post by Jim Lepore

Zibilee has asked me to write about how I got the inspiration to create the central characters in A World I Never Made. I had written two other novels and had calmed down after twice going through the emotional cycle of elation at getting an agent and increasing disappointment and depression at serial rejection by the publishing world. I was determined--why? I am not sure--to keep on writing. One night I was told a very sad story about a young woman who had committed suicide and left a taped message to each of her parents and siblings. This woman had been seemingly happy. But what if she had had reason to be angry at one of her loved ones? What was on those cassettes? What story did they tell?

I have good relationships with my daughters, but I got to thinking about a father-daughter relationship that had gone wrong, that had given the daughter reason to be bitter, and angry at her father.

In his novel, The Man With The Golden Arm, Nelson Algren said (I’m paraphrasing) that those closest to our hearts tread heaviest upon them. From this seemingly simple statement of fact springs, I believe, much if not all of human drama. Algren’s words have resonated with me since I read them over twenty years ago. It is a given that we hurt each other. But it is equally true, I believe, that redemption is offered to us, often in ways that we would never have imagined possible.

These thoughts were the genesis of A World I Never Made. I started with the idea of a father and daughter who are not completely estranged but who have longstanding and unresolved feelings of anger and recrimination. It sometimes takes a great and dangerous storm to clear these feelings away and thus the thriller genre and its terrorism component. A World I Never Made started in my mind with its characters and their need for redemption. The fast paced plot came second, although it was great fun to write.

Thanks so much Jim for guest posting today! And also a big thanks to TLC Book Tours. Please stop by some of the other tour stops for A World I Never Made:

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

A World I Never Made by James LePore — 262 pgs

Book CoverPat Nolan has just arrived in France after hearing the worst possible news: his estranged 29 year old daughter Megan has been found dead in her hotel room, and her death is being ruled a suicide. In shock, Pat accompanies the lead investigator to the morgue, where he will have to identify the body and make the necessary arrangements. As he is waiting to view the body, Pat is lost in remembrances of the troubled relationship between himself and his daughter. Megan was a headstrong and beautiful journalist who divided her time between reporting from around the globe and having dalliances with some of the world's richest men. But when Pat finally looks under that white sheet in the morgue, he discovers that something is very wrong. It turns out that the body lying beneath is not Megan at all, but bears a striking resemblance to her. In a split second decision, he identifies this unknown woman as Megan to the authorities and vows to find out what really happened to his daughter. Following a set of clues Megan secretly left behind, Pat begins the search for his daughter. With the help of Catherine Laurence, a French detective who has gone off the grid, Pat discovers that Megan faked her own death in order to elude a dangerous group of men tied to international terrorism. Pat and Detective Laurence must race against the clock and the other operatives to find Megan alive, and in enough time to reveal the identity of a powerful and sinister man who is bent on changing the world with his subversive crimes.

I'm not normally a reader of suspense novels, but from the beginning, this book had a very forceful and authentic style that made me push thorough the pages in an effort to get to the bottom of the story. Told in a shifting style of narrative, the book moves between Pat's dilemma and the complete back story told from Megan's point of view. I thought the author melded the two components of the story together in a way that fleshed out the whole picture very effectively. There was no awkwardness in the transition between the two sections, and I was quickly entangled in the labyrinth of the plot . The action and pacing of this story were very tight, and I found that both parts of the story were equally engaging and thorough. The middle section of the story included a bit of a romantic subplot, which I felt was a little stiff and formulaic, but despite this small gripe, I thought that the plot was extremely plausible and excellently crafted.

Another thing that really impressed me was the character creation and interaction. Each character had a distinct personality without being a stock character, and the way they played off of each other was very interesting to see. I particularly liked Megan's character. She was a no-nonsense woman who was strong and independent without being overly aggressive. I thought that she had some very sharp character qualities that enabled her to be very feminine while still being unyielding and intense. This served to incorporate a definite heroicness to her character without diminishing her mystique and appeal.

I also liked Catherine Laurence. She had an honest and unaffected quality about her, and didn't compromise her stronger emotions for the sake of propriety. I liked that she was resolute towards her feelings, and without being dispassionate, she was able to successfully compartmentalize her feelings towards her past and the tenacity that her future brought forward. I also liked that she went rouge in order to help Pat and his daughter when she realized the full scope of the problem at hand. Her involvement in the case gave the plot a real push and furthered the story along some very interesting avenues.

This book was a bit uncommon in the fact that it contained literary writing with a suspense storyline. The writing and exposition were more developed and nuanced than what you would regularly find in the average book of this genre, but the action and suspense elements of the story were not compromised in order to maintain that effect. I felt that I had finally found a niche where the writing was not sacrificed for furtherance of the plot, or to make it more palatable for the non-literary suspense readers.

This was an engaging read with clear and stylized writing, a great action-filled plot and some really entertaining characters. If you are on the fence about suspense novels, I urge you to give this book a try. I also think that this book would be a good fit for those who like novels that contain an element of drama. Both interesting and entertaining, this book was a great escapist read. Recommended.
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