Thursday, July 30, 2009

Two Years, No Rain by Shawn Klomparens - 384 pgs

Book CoverAndy Dunne is in a funk. As a weatherman in a city that has not seen rain in almost two years, Andy's job is neither exciting nor, it seems, stable. In addition to his career woes, his wife has just divorced him and left him without a stick of furniture in the house, and he is conducting a fierce flirtation with Hillary, an unhappily married friend. Add a spunky teenage niece who wants him to teach her to drive and the long buried trauma of his twin brother's death, and it seems Andy just can't win. When the head honchos at his job decide to let him go, Hilliary convinces Andy to audition for the host for a new children's television show. He thoroughly outshines the competition and lands the job, but now every situation in his life seems to be calling for a new Andy and he must learn to adapt. Soon Andy is on a new fitness plan to shed a few pounds, ramping up his public and private image, and his relationship with Hillary is beginning to move into new territory. But although the success, fame and money his television job brings is a tremendous boon, Andy faces new and unexpected challenges that may even be a little too much for his new persona. If he can learn to juggle it all, he just may end up on top, and may finally get to see that long hoped-for downpour.

I'm sure everyone is familiar with the chick lit genre, but this book falls into a similar yet drastically different category. I think I would classify this book as something I have never come across before: dude-lit. I really loved all the aspects of this book. Here we have a book that deals with fairly complex issues in a light and fun way, but focuses on a male main character going through relationship woes, job stickiness, and family issues. Much like it's antithesis, the chick lit book, the topics are dealt with in a fairly lighthearted and funny way, and there is a lot of personal growth and character development in the body of the narrative. It also contains some very realistic and lifelike slices of life that are framed in relation to the larger world that it attempts to capture. But that is not the whole story. The book has an undeniable charm, and a really convincing and immersive plot. I felt that the characters were not only well rounded and likable, but they had that unnameable quality that made them seem very lifelike and three dimensional.

I also liked the dynamic between Hillary and Andy; there was a lot of playfulness in their interactions and it was fun to watch these two get together on the page. The dialogue between the two sometimes veered into an affable shorthand that I found to be winsome and genial, and it embodied the chemistry between these two characters. Most of the other characters in the book were genuinely likable as well, and I found that although they were ancillary characters, they were just as finely rendered as the protagonist.

I found all the tidbits and behind the scenes aspects of television production to be particularly interesting. Those were the parts of the story that I liked best because I felt that it was an area that I didn't know much about, and I felt like I was getting secret insider information that is normally closely guarded. It was interesting to find out how specific scenes could be shot and how magical elements were created for use in the children's show that Andy was working on.

The book was very funny at times, but not in a way that was silly or over the top. Mostly it was subtle situational humor that seemed very natural in the context of the story. One of the best sections of the book came after Andy had been a television star for a few months and was being told by an old hand in the business all the rules of his new public persona, and while it was funny that someone would have to go through all the rigmarole, it was also a realistic situation that I had never before thought about and had never really considered. Towards the middle third of the book, the plot picks up dramatically and the main thrust of the novel begins to take shape in new and unexpected ways that were thrilling to me. I had been so unprepared for what this book came to deliver that everything in it seemed new and exciting to me, and although I have read many books, the plot was wonderfully unpredictable. I think that the author was very good at mixing the plot and the characters into a winning combination that kept me very interested in finding out just which avenue Andy was going to turn down next.

Reading this book was a fun and lighthearted experience that I enjoyed greatly. Not only did I find a new genre of book, I also found myself held in thrall by some great characters in some really unique situations. If you are a fan of chick lit, I recommend this book as a really nice change of pace and direction, and I think it would make a great summer read. I really enjoyed hanging out with Andy and watching him tackle his everyday life with aplomb. A great character driven novel, full of surprises. Recommended.

Thanks to TLC book tours for including me on this book tour. Please stop by these other sites and visit the other tour stops!

Monday, August 3rd: Chic Book Chick
Tuesday, August 4th: Planet Books
Monday, August 10th: Bookworm with a View
Wednesday, August 12th: Starting Fresh
Thursday, August 13th: Pop Culture Junkie
Tuesday, August 18th: Books on the Brain – Summer Reading Series
Thursday, August 20th: Book-a-Rama

Monday, July 27, 2009

**Sacred Hearts Giveaway**

Sacred Hearts, the reflective and revealing new novel from Sarah Dunant, sheds a light into the everyday lives and struggles of the Sisters of the Santa Caterina convent. Both shocking and reverent, the novel opens on a new and recalcitrant novice's struggle to free herself from the imprisonment of convent life. Her story is mingled with the hidden complexities of life within the society of pious, yet vibrant women who call Santa Caterina their home and haven.

I have one copy of this excellent novel to give away to a lucky reader! To enter the giveaway, leave a comment here and be sure to leave an e-mail address where I can get in touch with you should you win. I will choose a winner at random on August 31, 2009. Good luck to all!

Monday, July 20, 2009

Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant - 432 pgs

Book CoverSerifina is a young girl who has just unwillingly taken her vows to become a novice in the convent of Santa Caterina. Her family, not able to afford the dowry price for both of their daughters, has decided to marry off the younger, and in turn, give Serfina over to the service of God. From the moment she steps into the convent, she exhibits extreme rebelliousness and anger the likes of which the nuns at Santa Caterina have never seen. When Suora Zuana is charged with her care, the dispensary mistress becomes fascinated and disturbed by the girl's furious fervor and vows to make her transition as easy for her as possible. Very soon Serfina begins to calm down, and while the other nuns are grateful and complacent with this change, Zuana becomes suspicious of the rapid change in Serifina's attitude. She is sure there is much more than acceptance and obedience behind the new behavior of the novice. But the secret that Serifina is keeping is a dangerous one, not only for herself, but for the entire convent. Santa Caterina is going through it's own growing pains as well. The Abbess, Madonna Chaira must constantly balance her sacred duties to her flock with her courting of the outside benefactors that keep the convent solvent as well as quelling the growing tide of sisters who wish to thwart her rule and ultimately replace her. The novel, both intoxicating and lush, peeks behind the convent walls to give a bird's eye view of the daily lives of the women of God, exposing the jealousies, power struggles and alliances that reflect Santa Caterina as an incredibly complex microcosm of Renaissance society.

This was a fabulous read. There was so much feeling in the story and characters that the pages seemed to be brimming with life. In exacting detail, Dunant was able to convey the loneliness and singularity of what a nun's life must be like while also portraying the fierce obedience to tradition and religion that made these women so strong and devout. The atmosphere of the plot was entirely believable, and at times it felt almost claustrophobic to be among these women who shared every aspect of their life with one another, never straying from the convents enclosures. I have long been interested in the aspects, practical and otherwise, of life in a nunnery, and I really feel that the author was able to beautifully convey what life for these women must be like. I was particularly drawn to the depictions of the convent hierarchy and the daily power struggles that went on between the Abbess and the other sisters. There was a deep exploration of the power of various convent factions and the delicacy of governing women from all backgrounds in life.

Serifina's trials were both ensnaring and dramatic, and although I didn't much care for her as a person, I came to understand her motivations and actions, and felt sympathy for her, despite her unlikablity. There was an element in Serifina that I never felt to be fully trustworthy, and even when she was acting in her natural capacity, I felt guarded about believing her motivations. But I liked that. I liked that she was so morally gray at times, and that her behavior was something that one could never calculate. Despite her disagreeableness, there was something about her that made me cheer for her unflagging spirit.

I had a good deal of affinity for Zuana. As the dispensary mistress, she was in charge of all the nursing and medicine making of the convent, and I really liked that Dunant included so much of the earthiness and practicalities of healing in the book. There were some great sections about the procuring of specific herbs and plants for medical use that I felt were very representative of their time, and I would have to say that anytime Zuana was in the dispensary, I was glued to the page. I found Dunant's discussions of ailments and their remidies to be one of the most exemplary aspects of this particular book.

One of the things that I found remarkable about this book were some of the moral choices that the nuns made. Until reading this book, I had believed that a life given to the service of God would be free of the compunction to be self-serving or to have ulterior motives, which is truly not the case. For it wasn't only Serifina that was hiding in moral grayness. Each nun had her own battles with integrity and ethics, and often they made surprising choices that they felt to be directed by the Almighty, when that was really not the case at all. The story also included a fair a bit about church reform, specifically, the changes that threatened to totally seclude the nuns from outside society, which was a point in history that I was not very familiar with. The pressure that was eventually put on the convents was not only sad, but I feel, unnecessary.

The only gripe I had with the book was the conclusion. I felt that what had been building up through the pages was bound to be a bit more exciting and surprising, but in the end, I felt a bit let down by the book's resolution. It didn't feel entirely believable to me, and that bothered me because until that point the book seemed very realistic and authentic. It was not a terrible ending, and it was fitting, but I felt that it could have been done a little differently.

If you have not yet read a book by Sarah Dunant and wish to, this is the book to read. I have read all of her previous works, and have to say that this one is the best, hands down. This story had just the right amount of drama and a great undercurrent of passion, and I was loathe to read the last page and have it all end for me. There are few books that I move to my permanent collection, but this is definitely one of them. If you are looking for an engrossing read that will keep you thinking and entertained late into the night, you will probably love this book. In particular, those who are fascinated with convent life will really get a lot from it. A great read and highly recommended.

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Gilded Chamber by Rebecca Kohn - 384 pages

Book CoverIn this inventive work of Biblical fiction, Rebecca Kohn tells the story of a young Hassadah, a Jewish orphan who is sent to live with her cousin Mordecchai following her parents' deaths. Hassadah barely has time to unpack her things before she is swept away by King Xerxes's soldiers, who are in the process of gathering up all the young virgins of the land to be presented to the King as prospective wives. The hundreds of young women who are not selected by the King will eventually come to spend the rest of their days in the King's harem as his concubines. When Hassadah enters the harem, she is immediately noticed by the keeper of the women and her name is changed to Esther. As she navigates the troubled world of the harem, she learns about the King she has not yet met and begins to be groomed as the perfect companion for Xerxes. When the King finally meets the beautiful and kind Esther, he is immediately enamored of her and quickly makes her his Queen, removing her from the fate of the concubines and making her the most powerful woman in the land. But Esther's story does not end there, for there is mischief in the form of plots on the King's life and danger and jealousies from all corners of the kingdom and beyond. Soon it becomes apparent that Esther will be more influential and powerful than even she thought possible, as the very survival of the Jewish people rests solely in her hands. Sweeping and illuminative, Kohn transforms this short chapter of the Bible into an intricate story of a courageous and influential young woman who became Queen, and so much more.

I had read this book several years ago and ended up having a pretty positive experience with it. Not so the second time around. Although I found the story interesting, this time I found that it veered a bit too much into the area of melodrama for my liking. At times, Ester would burst into dark poetic passages that mirrored her circumstances, but I found that these passages were somehow jarring and took me out of the story, and frankly, they sometimes put me in a bad mood. I think the author's intention was to add a bit of dimension to her main character, but it came off as stiff and unbelievable, and it was a definite detraction in this tale. I felt as though there was already enough meat in her character portrayal without the dramatic pandering that she went through every time she faced conflict; instead of it drawing me closer to her, it actually pushed me away.

I was also a bit put off by the blatant sexuality in the tale. The sexual elements in this book seemed very out of place and not really rendered well at all. I didn't really need to know that the Queen's gown neatly left visible all of her "secret treasures" and I thought it was a bit exploitative to inject these bits into what was already a sufficiently stirring story. I think the author had a way of cheapening the sexual aspects of the story in her attempts to be coy and non-offensive. I would have much rather had the characters refer to their body parts or sexual activities in proper terms, instead of having to read about "innermost treasures."

Another thing that I had a problem with was the historical accuracy of this book. While each writer of historical fiction must take certain liberties when writing a fictional version of historical events, I don't much like it when the history portion of the narrative is fabricated. I understand that this was done in order to provide a more smooth storyline and to increase the dramatic intent of the story, but it really affected my enjoyment of and immersion in the story. It just wasn't fun having to pick apart what was accurate and what was not while trying to enjoy the novel, and so this also irked me.

On the other hand, I found that the story had great atmospheric touches and that the sections that described harem life were very consuming. I liked that there were several other supporting characters' stories that round out this story and the stories of the other concubines were integrated very nicely with Esther's main storyline. The girls that Esther befriended in the harem all had interesting qualities and striking motivations for their actions, while her handmaiden, Puah, exhibited the motherly love that Esther had been longing for most of her life. I also liked all of the royal intrigue that took place within the kingdom, and thought that the author had a great ability to imbue her characters with telling and believable behavioral traits. In some way this book was very pleasurable, but in others I found it lacking.

This was also the first pick for our book club. Most of the group had similar feelings as I did towards it, and most found the first half of the book to be more involving than the latter half. A few of the members had substantial issues with the fact that the history and the timeline of the story was so changed from the actual story in the Bible, and others felt that her characters, particularly her portrayal of Esther, was not constant throughout the narrative. I have to agree that in later sections Esther acted truly out of character in order to fill out the machinations of the plot. Overall, I would have to say that the surface opinion of the book was generally positive, but further discussion led us to agree that there was much to pick apart in relation to several aspects of the story. I think that if you are not familiar with the story of Esther in the bible, this book would make a pleasant diversion for you. If, however, you are looking for a book that is more faithful to the actual story in the bible, I suggest you look elsewhere.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Surviving High Society: Lots of Love Trumps Lots of Money by Elizabeth Marvin Mulholland - 184 pgs

Book CoverAdopted into a wealthy family shortly after her birth, Elizabeth Mulholland led a life of lavishness and riches that most only dream about. But in her youth, she hungered for the things money couldn't buy: the love, acceptance and stability of her adoptive mother. Her family, which also included another adopted brother, was additionally complicated by his frequent violence and disruptiveness. After her father's death, Elizabeth's mother, a controlling and manipulative woman, begins to attempt to control her daughter by threatening disinheritance. Eventually, when that fails to get the desired results, she places Elizabeth in an asylum to be medicated for an invented mental disorder. Her hope is to have Elizabeth committed for life, or possibly, and more fiendishly, have her die of mysterious causes while in the care of the asylum. Although Elizabeth leads a tortured home life, she is adept at finding joy in the small things, and in this memoir chronicles the life she has led in spite of her mother's cruelty and hatred. Both shocking and scandalous, Elizabeth's story embodies the persistence and triumph of one woman's spirit amidst the chaos surrounding her.

I am a bit on the fence about this book. While I found reading it to be a completely absorbing experience, there were times that I felt as though the real grist of the story may have been obscured. I think in the author's attempt to be good mannered about the trials she suffered, she left out some of the most compelling aspects of the story. Why was her mother so vile, and why was her vileness so inconsistent? I never got the gist of that from her recollections. At times, her mother would remove her from the asylum to take her on cruises around the world, and the two would go shopping and dining in a way that seemed relaxed and even friendly. It was hard to stomach that she seemed to arbitrarily enforce a truce towards the daughter she hated and wished ill, only to place her back into the hospital once the trip had ended. I kept thinking that the author should have had more feelings of negativity towards the woman who made her suffer such torments, but throughout the book, Elizabeth remains passive and compliant in way that I found a bit odd.

On the other hand, I liked that she didn't persist in a sour grapes attitude and seemed to be cleverly optimistic about her life, even when the worst was upon her. Some of the most interesting sections of the book were her observations about the world and people around her and it was a refreshing change of pace to be privy to the thoughts of someone so genuinely optimistic. There was something about her that never let her wallow, but instead focus on the pleasing aspects of her life. In a way it was like reading two stories, one that was filled with treachery, and the other with humble hope. I liked the fact that nothing seemed to get her down, and that she took everything in stride, but was that honestly the way she felt about her situation? That was something I could never quite figure out. I know that if I had been where this author was, there would be a lot of bitterness in my heart for a mother who was so vicious, and I am not sure if, realistically, most people wouldn't have felt the same. I think it's great that she was able to rise above her mother's smallness, but was it really healthy to forgive and forget? Didn't that only place her in the danger zone again and again?

Aside from that, I liked Elizabeth and really wanted to see her succeed. She seemed like a very peaceful and genial person who maximized her enjoyments and minimized her discomforts. She didn't act like a victim but more like a passively resistant participant. It is also worth mentioning that during her childhood she was on friendly terms with Katherine Hepburn's family, and sections of the book provide a close look at the actress and her personality during the various stages of her life.

In writing this book, the author certainly unmasked her mother and learned to have a great life, though it seemed that she was not destined for one. In her later years, after her mother has died, she is finally free of the crippling control and abuse and leads a more normal life. But I still am left wondering: Has she really forgiven the woman who ruined most of her life? Does she really possess the nobleness and grace to let everything go and move on with nary a complaint? Ultimately, I must conclude that I admire Elizabeth for her staunch determination to face a tide of malice and come away the winner after all.

This book would make a great read for those who like an uplifting story or those who like compelling memoirs. I think that it was a very interesting and uncommon read, and one that may leave you with more questions than answers. For those who would like a chance to figure it out for themselves, I recommend giving this book a try.
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