Sunday, February 28, 2010

Life Sentences by Laura Lippman - 352 pgs

Book CoverCassandra Fallows, the gifted daughter of a classics professor and his equally intelligent wife, has used the lives of her and her family for fodder in her first two books and seeks to recapture the public's adoration by getting to the bottom of the tragic circumstances of her childhood friend Callie's life. As a child, Callie was on the outskirts of Cassandra's group, always very quiet and shy. But in more recent times, Callie's son has mysteriously gone missing. Callie, refusing to incriminate herself, remains silent on the question of her son's whereabouts and eventually has to serve seven years in prison for her silence. When Cassandra catches wind of the woman's story, she begins to pursue Callie and those who knew her, hoping to uncover the secret that Callie has kept hidden for years. As Cassandra begins to investigate the strange story, she reaches out to the friends she remembers from childhood, only to discover that they are unhappy and sometimes even hostile about their shared past. Each woman contacted has a different grudge against Cassandra and none are willing to furnish the information that she is seeking. Under the guise of camaraderie, Cassandra tries to put the women at ease but discovers that her memories from the past aren't what she remembers them to be, and also discovers the secret that binds all of the women together. Written with literary flourish, Life Sentences tells the story of a group of women whom time has torn asunder.

When I was contacted to review this book by TLC Book Tours, I wasn't exactly sure what I was getting into. On the surface, the story seemed to be a literary one but I couldn't help but glean that it may actually be more of a suspense story, which is not exactly my favorite genre. But after getting sufficiently involved in the narrative, I was pleased to discover that the book actually grabbed elements from many different genres.

From the outset, I felt that I really understood Cassandra. Maybe it's because I am a bookish person by nature, but I felt that as a character, Cassandra was interesting to me for many reasons. One of the reasons, of course, was that she was an author. It was interesting to see how she mined her life and the lives of her acquaintances for fodder for her books and it seemed she was always looking for the literary bottom line in all of her encounters. Another reason her character was so compelling was that she was refreshingly honest about her life and her opinions of others. She didn't try to candy-coat all the unpleasant aspects of her personality or those around her. But for all this, I didn't really like her. She was very wily when it came to the other characters in the book and her motives were always suspect to me. Watching her maneuver through her friends' lives and secrets made me a little uncomfortable, and at best she came off as a bit of an opportunist. She was at times very manipulative, poking and prodding those around her for her own gain. I guess that was why I was a little conflicted when she got her comeuppance. I felt in some ways she deserved to be knocked down, yet in others I felt more than a little sorry for her. She was both a very pleasing and utterly contemptible person to me at times.

Callie's portion of the narrative was, I think, a real highlight for me. I marveled at her ability to remain stanch throuought the book and I really liked her sense of fierce independence. When she finally reveals what happened to her son in the last half of the book, it was hard not to judge her a little bit, but it was also hard not to sympathize with her as well. I liked the frankness of her life, her ability to move on past tragedy and keep herself upright for many long years, just as I admired her for finally getting her story out. Though Cassandra originally wanted to glean Callie's story for her own purposes, I think she ended up having a very positive effect on Callie, and it was through her intervention that the woman was able to reclaim part of her life. There was a great sense of vindication for me when Callie finally revealed her secret.

I also thought that the dynamics of Cassandra's friendship with the other women were well written and provided a lot of tension throughout the story. The other women never really thought of Cassandra as one of them but Cassandra never saw this. She saw only through the rose colored glasses of her past and assumed that their friendship would afford her some liberties among them. She never really saw that the the women only tolerated her and that she was far more out of their circle than in. I guess it would have been fair to say that Callie was more inclusive to the group than Cassandra had been. Each of the three other women begrudged Cassandra for her success, believing her to have rewritten their shared history for her glory. It wasn't really a surprise to me that they closed ranks upon her but it certainly came as a surprise to Cassandra. I got the picture that Cassandra saw only what she wanted to see, not what was actually in front of her.

Towards the end of the book the story took a turn for the suspenseful, which although not my favorite genre, was, I felt, well deserved. As the women begin to slowly leak the unfortunate story of Callie's tragedy to Cassandra, the plot began to move and weave in ways I never saw coming. The secrets that had been hidden begin to come to light, and all the people that Cassandra had carefully canvassed become unmoored and careless with their stories. It was interesting to see who held information and to what lengths they would go to keep it buried. Finally the players begin to turn upon each other, leaving old notions and ideas shattered in their wake. The stunning conclusion to the story left me feeling very satisfied and I marveled at the author's ability to keep so many intertwined events clear and relevant.

Overall, I found this book a really pleasant diversion that was able to make me feel an abundance of conflicting emotions and anticipation. The very literary quality of the writing combined with the elements of suspense and interpersonal relationships within the story made for a great reading experience. I think that readers who like a good dose of realism in their fiction would probably enjoy this book, as well as those who normally gravitate towards mildly suspenseful reads. I think that Lippman did a fantastic job cobbling all of these various elements together in her story and I would definitely recommend this book. It was a highly entertaining read.

Author Photo About Laura Lippman

Laura Lippman grew up in Baltimore and returned to her hometown in 1989 to work as a journalist. After writing seven books while still a full-time reporter, she left the Baltimore Sun to focus on fiction. The author of two New York Times bestsellers, What the Dead Know and Another Thing to Fall, she has won numerous awards for her work, including the Edgar, Quill, Anthony, Nero Wolfe, Agatha, Gumshoe, Barry, and Macavity.

Learn more about Laura Lippman and her books on her website.

TLC Book ToursA warm thanks to TLC Book Tours for providing this book for me to read and review. Please continue to follow the tour by visiting these other blogs:

Wednesday, March 3rd:  Caribousmom
Monday, March 8th:  Thoughts From an Evil Overlord
Tuesday, March 9th:  Wordlily
Wednesday, March 10th:  Shhh I’m Reading
Monday, March 15th:  Booksie’s Blog
Wednesday, March 17th:  The Book Zombie
Tuesday, March 23rd:  I’m Booking It
Thursday, March 25th:  pages turned
Monday, March 29th:  Luxury Reading
Wednesday, March 31st:  Cozy Little House

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Keeping the Feast: One Couple's Story of Love, Food and Healing in Italy by Paula Butturini - 272 pgs

Book CoverShortly after their wedding, both Paula Butturini and her husband John Tagliabue are struck by separate tragedies and their new life together is drastically altered. As they begin to heal, Paula discovers her passion and fondness for delicious and uncomplicated food. Food becomes Paula and John's lifeline, and as they become whole again, they learn to cook and eat not only for the nourishment of their bodies, but also for their souls. Just when things seem to be getting back to normal, John spirals into a dangerous depression which seems to only get worse over time. Paula, barely hanging on to her own sanity, reaches back to food to help guide her through the difficult times and to provide John with the sustenance that he needs to overcome his depression. As Paula describes her husband's downward spiral, she also describes the meals that she cooked for both him and herself, hoping against hope that the food will be able to overcome the pain and disillusionment once again. Candid and deep, Keeping the Feast describes one couple's journey out of the depths of despair and into the sunlight of new hope.

I am a big lover of foodie literature and any book that purports to have anything to do with cooking and/or food immediately draws my attention and curiosity. I was not really sure how this book, a memoir that dealt with pain and frustration, could have anything whatsoever to do with food, but after reading it I think that Butturini did a great job with the melding of these two distinct parts of her story with grace and ease.

In the book, Butturini does her best to explain the tragic circumstances that surrounded the early years of her marriage. Both Paula and her husband were journalists during that time, and both of them were dealt a pretty severe blow in their professional endeavors. Paula was severely beaten by the police while covering a riot in Prague and her husband John was shot by a sniper in Romania. When the couple retreat to Italy to begin a long convalescence, they discover that although their foundations have crumbled, they can find pleasure amongst the simple things in life, mainly food. Paula describes her sun-soaked mornings in Italy, roaming the covered markets for fresh ingredients that she later transforms into the feasts that so excite and heal herself and her husband. She catalogs her wonderful finds with an enthusiasm and wonder that bounces off the page, taking the time to impart the specifics of dozens of different items that she finds on her daily journey and walks her readers through the steps the food takes in becoming part of her gustatory offering to her husband.

As they both begin to heal, food remains a stanch pleasure that never recedes into the background of their lives, and they find themselves trying new and different things. Using the treasured recipes of family and friends, Paula delights in her creativity and produces meals that wash succulently over the reader. With excitement she relays the wonder of her surroundings and her meals, never suspecting that things are headed for a nose dive once again. Then, it happens. One day John shrinks into silence and depression so deep that medications and doctors can't touch it. Paula relates with despair that she does not know how to help her husband and turns once again towards food to be her magical elixir. One of the most shocking things about this section of the book was the fact that John goes to almost primitive lengths to address his condition. Finding no help from pharmaceuticals, he decides to take his chances with electro-shock therapy, which has helped him in the past. Still he suffers, and the only thing Paula can do is keep him grounded by providing the wonderful food he loves and try to keep him rooted as strongly as she can into the present.

I really admired Paula's perseverance. I think that most people dealing with the circumstances that she had would have probably turned tail and run. She never did that. Instead, she plotted a course and stuck to it feverishly, not knowing if it would ever work. She translated a lot of her grief into her cooking and turned something hideous and awful into something healing and rejuvenating. I think I most admired the way she stuck by her husband through all of these awful times. She mentions that she could have left him, that the thought had crossed her mind many times, but she believed that she was John's only salvation and she stuck it out amidst the pain and frustration that she must have felt every minute of every day.

In the end, this story is about survival and wholeness, and though it takes the determination of one woman scratching out success from tortured outlets, the couple learns to revel in the time and healing they have carved out for themselves. It is by no means an easy or uncomplicated read. Emotion and frailty pour from the pages in wave after wave of defeat. But somehow, they manage to become whole again and learn that life can be fruitful and rewarding, despite the difficult path they have traveled. In my reading of this book, I think only one thing could have made it better, and that would have been the inclusion of some of the recipes that made the book so colorful and mouthwatering. Other than that, I would have to say that I found it a particularly engaging and emotion filled read.

This is not a book for foodies alone. I think it would greatly appeal to those readers who have battled with mental and physical ailments and for those who like to read triumphant stories of redemption. I think that Butturini does a great job with juggling all of the practical concerns that overtake a heart in turmoil without turning herself into a pitiful and woeful character. What she manages to capture in this book is essentially what she manages to capture in her life: hope and healing. A very engrossing look into the lives of an everyday couple pitted against destruction. Recommended.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Weight of Heaven by Thrity Umrigar - 384 pgs

Book CoverAfter the death of their seven year old son Benny, Americans Frank and Ellie Benton relocate to India. Ostensibly, the move is a career opportunity for Frank, but the real reason seems to be an effort to put Benny's death behind them. Although Ellie finds comfort and solace in her volunteer activities and close friends, Frank finds India harder to negotiate. He is working for a company that is mindlessly exploiting the country's natural resources, and labor disputes and anger abound among his workers. Frank's only happiness is his odd relationship with the young charismatic son of his housekeeping couple, Ramesh. Frank has taken the boy under his wing for tutoring and mentoring, despite the anger and resentment that it causes Ramesh's father, Prakash. As Ellie struggles with Frank's emotional distancing from herself, she also comes to resent Frank's growing obsession with the young Indian boy. Frank, oblivious to those around him, begins to contemplate dangerous plans for himself and Ramesh. He begins to put into motion a series of events that will devastate the life and family that he loves, changing the fates of the people around him forever. Both lucid and frightening, The Weight of Heaven expertly examines the mind of man filled to the brim with compulsion and the chaos he leaves in his wake.

It's funny, I consider Indian fiction to be one of my favorite genres, but looking back, I see that I have not really read any books that fit this description in the almost three years that I have been blogging. When I was offered the chance to review this book by TLC Book Tours, I became very excited because I had previously read Umrigar's Bombay Time and had really enjoyed it. I felt that this book was a bit of a departure for the author. Instead of focusing intently on the vagaries of India and its inhabitants, this book mildly veers off into the suspense genre. Though suspense is not really my favorite genre, I did end up enjoying the book very much.

About a third of the story, plot wise, focuses on American business practices in India. Umrigar uses her fictional framework to show what can only be called American bullying and slyness in acquiring and exploiting a specific natural resource of the country. It turns out that this resource is something that sustains the local people and that they are being restricted from using it, as American interests have bought complete ownership of the land and everything on it. This causes major problems in the local economy and the well-being of the people. I felt these sections to be very candid and thought provoking. It is only fairly recently that the American population is getting a whiff of what other countries think about us, and I have to be honest in saying that sometimes we do come across as a bullying and exploitative group. Umrigar shows this in her writing without name calling and ostracising, and in her efforts to humanize these issues, makes her point very eloquently.

I found the relationship between Frank and Ramesh to be very puzzling at first. Frank, a grown man, was constantly searching out the young boy to play and study with, ignoring his wife's protests and reservations. Upon closer inspection, I began to see that Frank was actually trying to recreate the life of his son, using the young boy as a stand-in. What was once strange became harrowing when Frank's obsession began to grow out of control. His usurping of Ramesh, despite the anger of the boy's father, seemed at first selfish and then began to become alarming. As Frank's preoccupation with the boy grows, his life begins to spin out of control, first at work and then at home with Ellie. I felt like Frank was more than a little mentally unbalanced, though he managed to hide his true intentions and feelings from almost everyone, including Ramesh.

The end of the book had a pretty substantial twist that left my mouth dry and my heart pounding. It is at this point that Frank has become totally unhinged and makes some choices that not only leave lasting repercussions, but also change the barometer of the story. Umrigar effortlessly turns the tide in her tale from a quiet and thoughtful character study into a full-fledged and riveting drama. Watching Frank turn from a seemingly benign father figure and husband into a cold and calculating schemer turned my insides cold and left me feeling a sense of dread that was fully realized at the story's conclusion. Umrigar dealt a forceful blow in her tale and the story never felt any less organic for all her skillful manipulations of the narrative.

I think this book has a lot of cross-genre appeal and that many would find the story hard to put down. With her clear and concise writing and her expert handling of emotional and charged situations, Umrigar manages to create a powerful and energetic story that both engages and frightens with it's believability. I also think that those who enjoy Indian fiction would love this book, despite its focus on American characters. I know that this book is one that I will definitely read again, with an eye towards monitoring Frank's downward spiral more closely. A unique and tense read. Recommended.

TLC Book Tours A warm thanks to TLC Book Tours for providing this book for me to read and review. Please continue to follow the tour by visiting these other blogs:

Thursday, February 18th:  Booksie’s Blog
Tuesday, February 23rd:  BookNAround
Wednesday, February 24th:  Dreadlock Girl Reads
Thursday, February 25th:  Book Chatter

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Our Hart by Lloyd Lofthouse

In this sequel to the bestselling book My Splendid Concubine, Robert Hart's story continues. After the death of his beloved concubine at the hands of a disgruntled assassin, Hart moves his remaining concubine, Ayaou, and himself to safer quarters; But this does not abate his feelings of fear and desolation for the safety of Ayaou. Robert is perplexed over who would wish to do his family harm, but he does not have the luxury of time to ponder these things, for he is needed in governmental capacities in China. Working his way up from an interpreter to Inspector General of Maritime Customs, Hart befriends some of the most powerful men in China and brings revolutionary ideas and change to a country where time seems to have stood still. Although his star continues to rise, he is held back by his love of Ayaou, knowing that by marrying her, his career will falter. Still, Robert staunchly refuses to leave Ayaou and fathers children with her, hoping that one day he will be able to bring his relationship with her into the light. In this poignant tale of love and duty, Llloyd Lofthouse illuminates one of the most fascinating and forgotten men in history, the loyal and ingenious Robert Hart.

The more I delve into historical fiction, the more I realize that there are so many people and places that I have no experience with, and I am always surprised to discover that there is so much richness in these seemingly quiet stories. My experience reading this book is no different. I am not sure how I had never heard of Robert Hart, but after reading this second installment of his story, I have found another character in the annals of history to ponder over and admire.

This book was written in fairly simple language. Starting out, I had felt that this might be a hindrance to the tale, for it might fail to capture the more complex nature of the plot. As I read on, I discovered that the choice of unadorned language really made all of the elements of the plot stand out in a way that complicated sentence structure wouldn't. It was not a simple story but the fact that it was told in such a simple way fully highlighted the impact of heroism and devotion of the main character. Lofthouse managed to be very through and complex through the use of minimalist language, which I really ended up enjoying and remarking over.

Though the focus was mainly on Robert Hart, I was a bit more interested in his concubine Ayaou, and not due to a fondness for her. I found her to be whiny and self-absorbed and thought that Robert was really a saint for putting up with her. Between her running away when she didn't get what she wanted and being petulant because she couldn't figure out what direction she wanted to take her relationship in, it seemed remarkable to me that Robert continued to love and adore her throughout. It became ever clearer to me that they were not really a good match, and why others, including his family in Ireland, would object to their marriage. Though Robert does some amazing things in his career in China, I thought the most amazing thing he was able to do was love Ayaou unconditionally for so many years. To me it was remarkable that he was such a glutton for punishment.

Hart himself was a wonderful character to be invested with. He had a quiet determination and a no-nonsense attitude towards his work for the consulate. Where countless others failed, he was able to triumph due to his strict moral code and the fact that he understood Chinese culture so fully. As he worked his way up the ladder, he became more and more well regarded until he was hobnobbing with the emperors. When the elite of China began to call him "Our Hart," it was clear to me that he had managed something that no other Westerner was able to do: blend in so perfectly that he became in essence, Chinese. He never failed to rise to the occasion, and no matter what he was asked to sacrifice, he did so with aplomb. He pushed through some pretty magnificent changes in China and was responsible for building most of China's railroads, post offices and schools.

Much was said in this book about the disparities between Eastern and Western culture. Robert's success is mostly due to the fact that he thought of the Chinese as a worthy people with a culture that was not to be absorbed and destroyed, but rather a culture to be honored and preserved. Throughout the story, many other figures are highlighted, and most of these men had a reprehensible attitude towards the country and its inhabitants. Men that thought of the Chinese as savages, good only for hard labor and extermination. These men came from all over the world to subjugate China and steal its resources, never willing to preserve and replenish the beauty that had existed for thousands of years.

I enjoyed this look at a time and place that was fraught with uncertainty and was pleased to get to know the force of nature that was Robert Hart. I think that those readers with a discerning eye for Chinese history would be greatly impacted by this book and learn a lot about not only the area, but the politics of the time period. Don't let the simple style fool you, this is a story full of bravery, honor and sacrifice. A very compelling read.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Winner of The Believers

Book Cover

The winner of a paperback copy of The Believers by Zoƫ Heller is:

Sandy Nawrot

Congratulations Sandy, and thanks to everyone who participated in the contest! If you did not win this time around, please keep checking back, I will be hosting some other great giveaways in the near future!

Monday, February 8, 2010

The Forgotten Legion by Ben Kane - 544 pgs

Book CoverRomulus and Fabiola are twins who were born into Roman slavery. They are unexpectedly sold one day by their malicious owner when they are just fifteen: Romulus to a school for practicing gladiators and Fabiola to a high-priced brothel, where she will meet a rich and powerful man who holds the keys to her future. Tarquinius is an Etruscan seer and warrior. Fleeing from his life as a slave and farmhand, he arrives in Rome seeking retribution for the death of his mentor, Olenus, who has taught Tarquinius everything he knows. Soon Tarquinius will find that all his gifts are put to the test in his desire to seek revenge and eventually return to his homeland. Brennus is a powerful Gaulish warrior who has just been sold as a slave to the gladiator school after having watched his village and clan be destroyed by the invading Roman army. He will become one of the most formidable gladiators in Rome and will lead a very different life then the one he had been expecting. In this spellbinding story of war, violence and politics, these four people will meet and join forces to fight both for and against Rome, and to change the course of their shared destinies.

Historical fiction is one of my favorite genres. I find that I learn so much through reading it, and to me, it is a lot more accessible and interesting than straight history. I have read about a lot of differing areas and peoples but it is only now that I am starting to really delve into reading about ancient Rome. This book is only my second foray into the time period and place, and while I did have some minor quibbles with the book, overall I think the story was executed very well.

This book deals with its characters rather superficially, and instead of really being a character driven book, it is more plot driven. In the first few chapters, the players and their plights are introduced but I got the feeling that this was only setting the stage for the scenes to come. While I do enjoy both character and plot driven novels, I would have been really pleased to see a little more of an in-depth analysis of the four main characters. As it was, the book alternated chapters from each of the four vantage points and gave a startling picture of what it meant to live as a member of the lowest rungs of Roman society.

Towards the middle third of the book, the plot shifts and most of the action revolves around extensive battle scenes. This continues throughout most of the rest of the story. The author manages to be both informative and intricate in these scenes, while also making them relevant to the main narrative. Though I thought the battle scenes were done with a skillful hand, I am not sure that they would work for all readers. I think that those readers who enjoy a deep and detailed rendering of history would find these sections very fulfilling, but those who aren't particularly interested in the minutiae of war might find these sections a little long winded and drawn out.

One of the things I liked best about this book was the way the characters' stories complimented and augmented each other. Throughout the story, there were some great moments of cohesiveness between the characters and their plights that made each section bridge together wonderfully. When the three male leads got together, becoming confidantes and doing battle together, there became a great symbiosis between them that I felt had been building up for a long time. It was really good to see it finally borne out. I also thought that the writing was very clean and unencumbered and that the author was able to impart his story with a great forthrightness and skill. The natural feel of the writing really won me over and impressed me.

Another thing that bears mentioning in this review is that at times this book could be very bloody and brutal. Though this might tend to turn some people away from reading it, I think that it gave the book an accurate and authentic feel, and was eye opening at the same time. To portray Rome during this time period without the brutality and blood lust would, I feel, have been false and would have been sugar-coating history. Having read a little bit about this time period and its particulars, this was not totally new to me, but for those who haven't been exposed to this culture and time, there might be some shock and apprehension. I don't think that the author glorified the use of violence or its consequences; rather, I think he was struggling to make the book as authentic and as relevant as he could.

This is the first book in a series of three, and I am planning on continuing on with it. The crispness of the writing and the very developed quality of the plot were refreshing to me, and I am interested in finding out what lies in store for the four very different people who inhabit this book. While I don't think this book is for everyone, those with a hunger for knowledge about the Roman empire, particularly about those at the bottom of society in that time, will greatly enjoy it. There is a lot to keep a reader entertained inside these pages, and those readers who might enjoy an abundant and comprehensive account of Roman war and its participants would do very well to pick up this book. An interesting glimpse into Ancient Roman society.

TLC Book Tours
I read and reviewed this book as part of a TLC Book Tour. I encourage you to stop by these other sites to continue following the tour:
Wednesday, February 10th:  Bibliofreak
Thursday, February 11th:  Luxury Reading
Tuesday, February 16th:  My Two Blessings
Thursday, February 18th:  Rundpinne
Tuesday, March 2nd:  It’s All About Books

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Summer We Fell Apart by Robin Antalek - 384 pgs

Book CoverIn this revealing family saga, the four very different siblings of the Haas family must come to terms with their approaching adulthood and with each other. Amy, the youngest, is constantly searching for normalcy in her life after a childhood that was anything but normal. George, the sensitive one, is looking for the love and acceptance he never got as a child. Kate, the oldest, is on a quest to drive the past out of her mind with hard-won success and business acumen. And Finn, the most damaged of the four, is slowly drinking himself to death in an effort to escape the past. Growing up as children in the house of absent and cold show business parents, the four siblings had no one to rely on but each other. But time has scattered each of them in different directions and given them different lives. Now the fast approaching death of their father will bring them all together again, towards the reconciliation and unity that has evaded them for most of their adult lives. Hopeful, yet at times painful, The Summer We Fell Apart is moving look at an emotionally complex brood of people who never give up struggling for harmony amongst themselves.

Sometimes it's really hard to put my feelings about a book into words. This could happen for many reasons, but in this case I think the reason for it is because my feelings on this book never really reached the surface; they stayed at gut level and worked deeper and deeper from there. That's not a complaint about the book in any way, it's just that for me, the feelings in this book were at times very uncomfortable on a deep level. I would liken it to the feeling you have when you get a splinter in your finger. You know it's there, it's painful for sure, but it's not a gory wound that is up at the surface of the skin, it is buried and tender to the touch. That's much how I felt about this book. There weren't too many major dramas and messy confrontations sprinkled throughout the pages, but what remained was tender and raw in a way that wrenched my stomach.

The book was a powerful read and one that made me really empathize with the characters. I think that it hit home so much for me because I grew up in a house with absent and emotionally uninvolved parents and I felt that the hurts that these siblings incurred were some of the same hurts that I had felt myself at one time or another. It was uncomfortable to see them all struggling to get attention from a mother who didn't know how to give it and it touched something deep in me to see them reacting to a father who was emotionally unavailable in the extreme. All the more complex emotions and themes of family life were there for me and I think that the author did a great job in making these characters real and believable. At times their reactions prompted a panic in me, for I was much too familiar with how they were feeling and those long forgotten feelings of the past were not always pleasant to revisit. This, I think, was a brilliant feat for the author to have managed; to have so masterfully created your characters that they scream with life and relevance right off the page and into your reader's psyche.

The relationship between the siblings felt both unique and authentic to me as well. Each of the four had complex reactions and feelings for each other. Oftentimes those emotions conflicted with each other, which is something that I felt was truly representative of the relationships between siblings. I found the troubled relationship between Kate and Finn to be very compelling for me to read. Kate, the ultimate fixer, was unable to fix Finn no matter how hard she tried, while Finn struggled between his loyalty to his sister and his loyalty to the bottle, creating havoc in both of their lives. At the polar opposite was the relationship between Amy and George, a relationship filled with mutual respect and affectionate ribbing. I think that the author did an amazing job of creating complex and multifaceted relationships between her characters, not just the characters themselves, and sprinkling those relationships with astute and penetrating emotion and dialogue as well.

The last section of the book looked at life through the eyes of the children's mother. This was different, because previously, the book had been divided into sections focusing on one of each of the four siblings. I found that the section dealing with the siblings' mother, Marilyn, was a little more hopeful. Maybe it was because she voiced thoughts of remorse and acted as though she wished to rebuild the relationships she had missed with her children. Maybe it was because I finally got a peek into the mind of a character who up until that point had been shrouded in silence and mystery. Whatever the reason, this last chapter seemed to give me a hopeful attitude towards the the future for these characters, which is something I had not been expecting but was pleased to see.

This book had a wonderful directness of emotion and the ability to face some of the unpleasantness of family life, and I think those who enjoy long and involving family sagas would appreciate this book. If you are a reader who delights in character studies, you might also like this book, as there is much to feast on in that respect. I think that for me, although the book hit unfailingly close to home, I took great satisfaction in the story and its eventual and well-deserved conclusion. A very emotionally complex read, and well worth your time.

TLC Book Tours

A warm and sincere thanks to TLC Book Tours for providing me this book to read and review for my tour stop. I encourage you to continue following the tour by stopping to visit these sites:

Tuesday, February 9th: Lit and Life
Thursday, February 11th: BookNAround

The AuthorAbout the Author: After making a career out of changing careers, from PR to tending bar, and from waitressing to managing a modern dance company, Robin Antalek eventually gave in to the voices in her head and began writing fiction. She studied at The New York State Writer’s Institute at the State University of New York at Albany, and has published in many literary journals: Sun Dog: The Southeast Review, Literary Mama, among others, and has twice been a finalist in Glimmer Train’s Family Matters contests as well as a finalist for The Tobias Wolf Award for Short Fiction. You can also find her nonfiction essays monthly on the web at The Nervous Breakdown.

The Summer We Fell Apart is her first novel. She lives in a very needy Victorian house in Saratoga Springs, New York, with her husband, two daughters, and three dogs.

Visit Robin Antalek’s website.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Cleopatra's Daughter by Michelle Moran - 448 pgs

Book CoverAfter the death of their parents Cleopatra and Marc Antony, their three surviving children, Selene, Alexander and Ptolemy are captured and taken to Rome by their parents' greatest rival, Octavian Caesar. Despite their parentage, the three are not executed but instead are paraded throughout Rome as a testimony to the triumph of Caesar, and later taken to be raised among his family. As they mature in Rome amongst their enemies, they must learn how to live and operate in a society far more brutal and dangerous than their homeland of Egypt, and must learn the importance of keeping vigilant and silent in the house of Caesar. Woven with delicious intricacy and wonderful detail, Cleopatra's Daughter not only tells the story of these remarkable children but also expounds on ancient Rome and the notorious and unforgettable people who lived there.

I had heard such great things about this book in the book blogging community and even saw that a few people mentioned it as their best read of 2009. I have to say,that after reading it, I agree that this is one hell of a book! I liked pretty much everything about it and thought that Moran did a spectacular job of creating a version of ancient Rome that really enthralled and excited.

First off, I thought that her characters were finely tuned and easy to empathize with. The book is told from the viewpoint of Selene, Queen Cleopatra's only daughter. I liked Selene's voice and found her courage and bravery to be really beguiling. I can't imagine I would ever be able to be as brave as she was under those circumstances. It seemed that no matter what situation she was placed in, she had a heart full of contrary intentions, which is probably one of the things that kept her alive! I thought that Alexander was a little to compliant with Caesar at times and was too easily led into disaster, but ultimately I believed in his voice and felt that he was another character written with distinction. The supporting cast of characters were both original and unique and I felt that they were not given short shrift in the narrative either, which made for a more all-encompassing and detailed reading experience that I relished.

I was surprised to find out just how brutal life in ancient Rome actually was. I am not the type of person who thrives on cruelty but I thought it was fascinating to read just how little an individual's life was valued during those times. Women seemed to be looked on as items to be traded for opportunity, and even if a woman was already married, her father or brothers could annul her marriage and place her with a more advantageous man in the blink of an eye. Gladiators were viciously murdered after a tournament, no matter if they won or lost, and the common people faced daily brutalities and injustices at the hands of Caesar and his men. I thought these facts were cleverly peppered into the fictional aspects of the story and really gave the book an authentic and feasible feel. I am torn as to how to explain how I felt at these bits. I think that although my mouth was hanging open and my eyes agog at what I was reading, I was intensely interested and caught up in these details and their execution.

I also felt that the plot was pretty wonderful as well. The story never felt stale or flat and there were many surprises in the story line. I think that the romantic elements of the plot were juggled pretty well amongst the intrigue and historical sections, with no one single aspect of the plot overtaking the other in any obvious way. The overall story flowed together very well and I thought that there was just the right amount of combustion in the plot lines to keep everything moving along at a great clip. I think my favorite aspect of the plot was the one having to do with the secret outlaw who was opposing Caesar's rule throughout Rome, and I was really surprised to discover how that eventually turned out!

I think that lovers of historical fiction would be greatly pleased by this book but I don't think that they are the only ones who would love it. I think it has appeal for those who enjoy character studies as well as those looking for something that will grab and hold your attention like a dog with a bone. I really enjoyed this read and am happy that my book club and I will be discussing it at our next meeting. I think that this is a perfect book for book clubs, and I am sure that the discussion engendered by this one will be fantastic! A great read, recommended!

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.
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