Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Lit: A Memoir by Mary Karr — 432 pgs

Book CoverIn this third memoir by famed author Mary Karr, the author explores in vivid detail her slow crawl out of alcoholism, the abandonment of her past and her evolution into a modern spiritual being. As a young woman, Mary longs to be a poet. A free spirit, Mary chafes at the strictures of society and finds herself moving far from home in her quest for an enriching and fulfilling life. Subsisting on meager cash, Mary finds herself working at a string of semi-serious jobs, gradually upping her alcohol consumption in response to the difficulties in her life. During a stint as a student, Mary meets the impossibly intelligent and handsome Warren and discovers in him a kindred spirit. As Mary runs forward to her future with Warren, she makes conscious decisions to leave her past behind: a past that is filled with distant alcoholic parents, mental illness and neglect. But the past doesn't fit neatly into a box, and as Mary runs from one set of circumstances, she ends up straight in the arms of another variation of the life she is trying so hard to leave behind. As Mary and Warren make a life for themselves, she discovers that they are not evenly matched. Mary is as temperamental and volatile as Warren is quiet and uncommunicative. After the birth of her son Dev, Mary finds herself slowly sliding into the realm of serious alcoholism. One night after the unthinkable almost happens, Mary takes the steps to leave alcohol behind. Though it is not easy for her, Mary's biggest difficulties lie in the acceptance of a higher power she does not believe exists. Struggling against poverty, alcoholism and the spiritual nadir, she relates the circumstances of her life that have brought her to this point, realizing with gradual clarity that the God she is so struggling against has her right in the palm of His hand. Funny, honest, and at times very sad, Lit is the memoir that fans of Mary Carr have been waiting for: a glimpse into the heart and soul of one of America's most compelling authors.

This is my first time reading a memoir by Mary Karr. Though I have heard a lot about both her and her books and even have her other two on my wish list, I had never had the experience of sitting down and getting to know this praised author through her writing before. At about the halfway point in this book, I wanted to stop reading and go back and read both of her previous books, The Liar's Club and Cherry. I found myself wanting to know so much more about her and the things that led up to this final book, and though I will be reading them out of order, I went out and got a copy of each of her other memoirs. Just knowing that they are patiently waiting for me makes me happy.

Mary Karr has the ability to render her memories in clear detail, without overdoing it, and one of the things I most appreciated about this book was the way that she, at times, allows for flaws in her interpretation of the things she is chronicling. She relates her story clearly but also tells the reader in no uncertain terms that the emotional slant she puts to some events may have only been her feelings in the heat of the moment and does not reflect what time does to alter these memories. I liked this a lot. Too often, I read memoirs that rely on past interpretation to be infallible and sometimes I wonder how much of the anger and disappointment of the past colors the perceptions of the author's tale. In order to avoid this, Mary comes at things from several angles, interjecting in her own story the traits and emotional states of the others she comes into contact with. This makes her tale much more informed and well rounded and creates a certain trust between the reader and herself.

I also liked the fact that she doesn't fall into the trap of villainizing everyone but herself. Often, Mary admits that she could be a beastly companion and mother, and that although she tried to be as altruistic as she could, she sometimes failed miserably. That she was honest enough to admit this made her appear to me more human and fallible and made me realize that often the way we see ourselves is just as important as the stories we tell. She freely admits that had this story been told from the pen of her husband, the reader would probably not like her very much at all, but for the most part, I felt that she was able to see herself and her actions without the rose colored glasses that often hang on the nose of authors telling their life stories.

I felt a real affinity for Mary's spiritual search because, in essence, a lot of it mirrored my own problems with spirituality. She speaks of not being able to find the God that is right in front of her face and talks at length about her antipathy towards humbling herself in prayer. Mary is a free thinker and somehow feels that religion is the opiate of the masses, a phrase that I have uttered on many occasions. Her gradual involvement in worship felt very real and heartfelt to me and I loved the fact that she learned that to embrace God was not the same as erasing her sense of self and her individuality. It made me joyous to see her embrace prayer and for her to realize that her prayers were being answered.

There were also a lot of sections about her love of poetry and her struggles to become a poet of acclaim, her struggles to be a good mother to her son, and her heartache over the dissolution of her family. In these sections the book became like a prism that reflected the secret parts of her heart. Karr has a way of opening herself onto the page and becoming someone that you can deeply care for, both in her brokenness and in her healing. I think the sections that dealt with her early family life were those that resonated with me the most. It is a mighty thing to see a child's unswerving love for parents who have consistently done her wrong. Her spirit of forgiveness was mammoth, and although she did a much better job raising her son than her parents did with her, she never shot forth with recrimination and bitterness for all she had suffered.

This was an amazing read that had both spirit and flavor, and Mary Karr surely knows how to tell a story that will keep readers on the edge of their seats and frantically flipping pages. The book had a remarkable feel of both a confessional and an accounting, and in the author's very capable hands she takes readers right along with her in her journey through life. I would definitely recommend this book both to readers who relish a good memoir and to those who are interested in matters of spirituality. I know that I will be enjoying more from this author, for she has won me over with both her candidness and forthright writing style.

About The Author

Mary Karr is an award-winning poet and best-selling memoirist. She is the author of Lit, the long-awaited sequel to her critically acclaimed and New York Times bestselling memoirs The Liars’ Club and Cherry. A born raconteur, she brings to her lectures and talks the same wit, irreverence, joy, and sorrow found in her poetry and prose. A sought-after speaker, Karr has given distinguished talks at prestigious universities, libraries, and writers’ festivals, including Harvard University, Oxford University, Princeton University, Brown University, Syracuse University (“On Salmon Rushdie” with Salmon Rushdie), the New York Public Library, the Los Angeles Public Library, the Folger Library (Poetry Society of America/Emily Dickinson Lecture), The New Yorker Literary Festival, PEN/Faulkner, and the Festival of Faith and Writing. Karr welcomes conversation with her audience and she is known for her spirited, lively, and engaging Q&A sessions.

Connect with Mary:

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:

Wednesday, July 7th:  Book Club Classics
Monday, July 12th:  Rundpinne
Wednesday, July 14th:  Nonsuch Books
Thursday, July 15th:  Fizzy Thoughts
Thursday, July 22ed:  The Girl from the Ghetto
Tuesday, July 27th:  Bloggin’ ‘Bout Books
Wednesday, July 28th:  Chefdruck Musings
Thursday, July 29th:  Raging Bibliomania
Friday, July 30th:  Chick Lit
Monday, August 2nd:  The 3 R’s: Reading, ‘Riting, and Randomness
Tuesday, August 3rd:  Absorbed in Words
Wednesday, August 4th:  Sasha and the Silverfish
Thursday, August 5th:  Tales of a Capricious Reader

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Monday, July 26, 2010

My Name is Mary Sutter by Robin Oliveira — 384 pgs

Book CoverMary Sutter, a young midwife living in 1860’s Albany, longs to become a surgeon. Though she has requested admittance to every medical school in her area, she has been invariably denied, a situation that frustrates and angers her. Mary is also struggling with the pain and heartache of an unrequited love, which is why she flees her home and practice when the Civil War begins in earnest and the call for nurses is put out. But Mary is not exactly welcomed with open arms into the nursing profession and soon finds herself in an inhospitable and unsanitary hotel that has been transformed into a Union hospital. Before she really knows what is happening to her, Mary begins to get the education that she has desired for so long, but it comes at a very heavy price. When Mary’s mother sends a message that her skills are urgently needed at home, Mary makes a choice that will have devastating consequences for both herself and all the people she loves. After circumstances force her to briefly give up nursing, Mary, with the help and admiration of her mentor, William Stipp, plunges headfirst back into the maelstrom of war and learns that to truly become fulfilled she must decide on her future and be true to herself and her dreams. Along the pitted path of war and its aftereffects, Mary discovers not only the secrets of surgery but the secrets of her hidden heart. A dual narrative that races between the fate of Mary and her compatriots and the difficult choices that faced Lincoln and his men, My Name is Mary Sutter is a charged and action-laden debut worthy of critical acclaim and praise.

Though I have read an awful lot about various wars, I've never really read much about the Civil War. Many of the specifics eluded me, and though I do have a few books on my shelf that deal with this particular war, I have not yet read them. I was really excited to get the chance to read this book, not only for the story of Mary, a woman who wants to break past the gender boundaries of her time, but also to read and learn more about the aspects of the Civil War that I had been so ignorant of. The book did not disappoint in any way, and I found myself completely enthralled with the story it told.

In Mary, Oliveira has created a woman of substance and integrity. She is described as more plain than pretty, and it is only as the reader gets to know her that her internal beauty and mettle begin to shine forth. Mary is as headstrong and ambitious as it is possible to be. Though she has mastered the art of midwifery, she finds herself dreaming of and planning for the day she will become a surgeon and does everything in her power to hasten this outcome. Though she sometimes seems to lack the internal component for being loyal and compassionate to her family, she eventually manifests loyalty to an extreme degree that awed me. Mary is not the forgiving sort and those who land on the wrong side of her temper are often forced to live in her chilly regard for long periods of time, but it can also be argued that once you have earned her friendship she is not quick to let you go. I found Mary to be an extremely complex woman and, despite the fact that I never knew what she was going to do next, I really came to admire her. Not only for her persistence and determination but also for her hard work and scruples. Mary Sutter is a woman who trades her softness for competence and ambition, and though at first this puts her at a disadvantage, in the end it is this competence that saves many lives and touches so many people.

As I've mentioned before, this book was told in the dual narrative form. One half of the book was given over to the story of Abraham Lincoln's frustrations and difficulties with his Union Army, which was mostly filled with volunteer soldiers who hailed from various towns. In these sections, Lincoln himself graces the pages with his gentle and preoccupied laments over the war. Many of the depictions of war in these sections were frightening. Oliveira makes the reader see the futility of battle and the harrowing damage that the soldiers inflict upon each other. The dead and injured lay strewn across the fields with flyblown wounds festering in the heat. These depictions were startling in their violence and horrible to really sit and contemplate. Some of the sections in these parts of the book read like a history book and it pleased me that I was able to basically get two books in one with this story. It was half history book and half historical drama folding in upon itself in complex and thought provoking directions.

I was also very pleased with the medical complexities of this story. Oliveira doesn't dumb down the medical diagnoses and treatments, but instead explains them to the lay reader who might not be very familiar with these practices. There were some nail-biting and horrific moments when Oliveira fleshes out and describes the procedure of amputation, a technique that was in its infancy during this time period. As a reader, it was interesting to see the huge differences between medicine today and medicine in those forgotten times. Simple things we take for granted everyday were all but unheard of at that time, and despite the amazing things that were done during those furiously dangerous surgeries, the things that undid all their work seem so simple to the modern reader. I found these aspects of the story to be the most compelling and watching Mary learn, struggle and triumph through them made me cheer for her and the doctors that worked beside her.

A lot of this story speaks to the huge gulf between the sexes when it came to opportunities for advancement throughout schooling and career. According to society, Mary had reached the peak of her usefulness as a midwife. Never mind the fact that she wanted to go further and could go further. Even the woman in charge of nurses during that period discounted Mary due to her age and experience. It was a hard time to be a woman. I can't imagine not being able to pursue my dreams, to always be shut in a box of society's making and to have to go to superhuman lengths to get out of that box. There was even some conversation in the book about the accomplishments of a woman named Florence Nightingale, but even then, she was the exception and not the rule. I can imagine that it must have felt so limiting and horrible to be in Mary's position, and realistically, that was the plight of women all over the country at that time. She broke free of the chains of convention, and that in itself was reason enough to love this book.

If you can't tell by now, I really loved this book. There was a lot going on but the story never seemed to be overcrowded at all and the character creation was expert. I cherished the reading of this book because it bought me into a whole new frontier in terms of understanding the Civil War and the complexities of living in 1860's America as a woman. I think this book would be interesting to many readers for a bevy of reasons, but mostly, I would steer those interested in historical fiction towards this story. There is much to admire in the story of Mary Sutter and her experiences, and I highly recommend this book!

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Sea Escape by Lynn Griffin — 304 pgs — Review and Giveaway

Book CoverLaura Martinez is struggling to manage her career and relationship with her family when her mother, Helen, suddenly becomes debilitated by a stroke. Mother and daughter have not had the most successful of relationships since, after the death of her father, Joseph, Laura's mother has become distant and cold. Now it's up to Laura to bridge the distance between the two and discover the secrets of her parents' strange marriage. Drawing on a series of old letters from her father to her mother, Laura begins to trace the delicate faults in her mother's heart and comes to understand that, now more than ever, their relationship needs to be mended. Reaching far into the past, a dual narrative emerges focusing not only on Laura and her mother's painful relationship, but also of the early days of Helen's relationship with Joseph. Theirs is relationship marked with tenderness and love, but also with painful separations and deception. As the novel winds forward, Laura struggles to close the distance between herself and her mother while also juggling the feelings of resentment towards her husband and her frustrations with her children. As it winds back, Helen draws on her ingenuity and creativity to craft beautiful designs in fabric to take her focus off of missing Joseph and having to raise her children virtually alone. Tender and stirring, Sea Escape becomes a novel that carefully crafts the fragile bond between mother and daughter and shares the way that the tragedies of our past can affect us even today.

Though I don't read much women's fiction, I did end up really enjoying this book. The two story lines blended together well and enhanced each other in a way that made the story very full bodied and well rounded. Sometimes when a book goes the dual narrative route, I find myself more interested in one section than the other, but surprisingly in this book that wasn't a problem. I found both stories to be entertaining, and because they dealt with such different issues, the scope of the novel was larger and more diffuse.

One thing I have to admit is that I didn't like Laura very much as a main character in the beginning. She seemed very whiny and plaintive at times, and at others she could be remarkably selfish. Of course, there were moments when she could be incredibly loving and altruistic, but for the most part, I had a hard time getting close to her. I didn't understand why she kept losing patience with her husband because he seemed to be just about perfect. I'm not sure if this drama between them was an artificial construct to keep the tension running high in the book or if it was just Laura taking out her stress on an innocent target. Whatever it was, I didn't much like it. I do think Laura had some incredible moments though. She gave and gave to her mother, never shrinking back when her gifts were not accepted, and she was constant in her love for her children, which I admired. I just got a little tired of the "woe is me" attitude she had and felt like she wasted critical time being wounded and sorrowful when she could have been learning how to open herself to the love that other family members, like her husband and sister-in law, wanted to give her.

Though Laura and her mother were very different kinds of women, as I read I began to see a lot of similarities between them. Both of them were strong and independent and felt that they could handle pretty much anything on their own. Both women were stubborn as well, making the same mistakes and butting their heads against the same walls over and over again. I think that although their passions differed, they had a lot of the same temperaments, and felt that they were both a little too independent at times, which made others in their lives feel unnecessary. I think Laura tended to be a little more high strung than her mother, but both let emotion run very high in their lives and let their emotions rule them at times. It was interesting to see how different the women were, while still being the same. I think this is one of the reasons they had so much trouble connecting with one another.

A lot of this book is about the spirit of forgiveness and the need to let go of resentment. It was a constant theme in the book, from the relationship between Helen and Joseph to the later struggles between mother and daughter. I think the book dealt with this nicely. When is it okay to let go and forgive, and when do you stop the recrimination, not only towards others, but towards yourself? This story held many secrets that, once revealed, had the capacity to heal the people who kept them hidden and the people to whom they were revealed. The book spoke about the the road not taken and the dreams left behind. One of the things I found most interesting was the way the characters dealt with their secrets and lost desires. They all were alike in that they kept these things hidden, and buried them so deeply inside themselves that they were almost forgotten, leaving only feelings behind as painful reminders.

I also really liked the sections in the book that dealt with Helen's sewing. Helen specialized in creating curtains and window dressings, and though I have never tried my hand at that particular craft, I thought it was interesting to hear about the interesting creations she was working on. Her main motivation for doing these things was not only to earn money while her husband was away, but to dress up a rather shabby life and to give her husband something special every time he came into town. Though she abandons her sewing after Joseph dies, later sections of the book find her once again picking up her needles to share her gift with a special family member. I loved that I was able to live vicariously through these sections and get lost in the descriptions of fabrics and thread and the creations that came from loving and talented hands.

I think that this would make a great read for those who gravitate towards women's fiction and also for those who like character driven novels. I think this is my first foray into this genre, and although I had some quiet niggles with the main character, I found the book very diverting and well constructed. I think the author did a wonderful job working so many different themes and ideas into her tale and felt that there was a real cohesion between all the aspects of the story. I am glad to have given this book a try and I am looking forward to reading another of the author's books, Life Without Summer.

The wonderful people over at Simon & Schuster have given me the opportunity to host a giveaway for two of Lynne Griffin's books! In the giveaway, I will be giving a copy of both Sea Escape and Life Without Summer to one lucky reader. All you need to do is let me know if you'd like to be included in the drawing and leave a valid e-mail address so I can contact you if you win. You must leave a valid e-mail address to be entered in this giveaway! The winner will be drawn on August 2nd, 2010. Good luck to all entrants!

About Lynn

Lynne Griffin is a nationally recognized expert on family life. She is the author of Life Without Summer and Negotiation Generation: Take Back Your Parental Authority Without Punishment.

As the parenting contributor for Boston’s Fox 25 Morning News, she appears regularly in the segment Family Works.

Lynne teaches in the graduate program of Social Work and Family Studies at Wheelock College, and at Grub Street Writers.

She has written for Parenting Magazine, Scholastic Parent & Child, The Writer Magazine, and the popular blog, Family Life Stories.

She lives outside Boston, Massachusetts with her family.

Connect with Lynne:

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 stops on this book to see what other bloggers have to say about it:

Tuesday, July 6th: Peeking Between the Pages
Wedensday, July 7th:  S. Kristinas Books
Thursday, July 8th: She is Too Fond of Books
Monday, July 12th:  Bookstack
Tuesday, July 13th: Caribousmom
Wednesday, July 14th: Red Lady’s Reading Room
Thursday, July 15th:  Booking Mama
Monday, July 19th: Raging Bibliomania
Tuesday, July 20th: Beth Fish Reads
Wednesday, July 21st:  Maw Books Blog
Thursday, July 22nd: Dolce Bellezza
Monday, July 26th: Books Like Breathing
Tuesday, July 27th: Write Meg
Wednesday, July 28th: Thoughts From an Evil Overlord
Thursday, July 29th: As Usual, I Need More Bookshelves

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Sugar by Bernice McFadden — 240 pgs

Book CoverSugar Lacey has just moved to Bigelow, Arkansas in an effort start anew. Though she longs for a normal life, Sugar is far from normal. A prostitute since her adolescence, she is a hard woman accustomed to consorting with even harder men, and finds that she is always on the outskirts of life looking in. When Sugar's new next door neighbor Pearl Taylor comes by for a visit intending to make a new friend, the two women's lives become inexplicably entwined forever. Pearl is a modest and unassuming housewife and the tragedy of her young daughter's murder more than 15 years before comes swimming back into her life with her first glimpse at Sugar's face. Though the two women have a rocky start, soon their friendship is cautiously growing, much to the chagrin and anger of their neighbors and townsfolk. Sugar begins to find herself nestled in the family she once dreamed of having and Pearl finds herself learning to be more adventurous in her life, sharing her time and love with a woman who she soon considers kin. When an unexpected relationship begins to blossom in Sugar's life, she yearns to leave her past behind and move on towards a more respectable and safe life, not realizing that her past has clung to her too tightly to ever be shaken off. In this poignant and earnest story, two women searching for redemption and healing end up finding the solace they need in one another. But will it be enough to right the wrongs of their pasts?

A few months ago, I had the great pleasure of reading my first book by Bernice McFadden. It was a novel called Glorious and it was an excellent read for me. When getting ready to review this book, I had wondered if the two books would be similar at all and if I would enjoy this second book as much as I did the first. What I found in this book was an enthralling story that weaves its way among two unforgettable characters and a story that rivaled Glorious in its messages and complexity.

When the story opens up, the reader is privy to the terrible circumstances surrounding the murder of Pearl's daughter, Jude. Though the incident is dealt with in an oblique fashion, it sets the mood for the electric and volatile story to come. Jumping forward to the immersion into Sugar's life and circumstances, we meet a woman trapped within behaviors that are slowly wrecking her. Sugar is not a wishy-washy character who fumbles her way through her predicaments; Rather, she is strong and outspoken, turning her back on the society that surrounds her before they get the chance to turn their backs on her. She never feels the need to mix with the people around her, knowing that she is fundamentally different than they are, a woman damaged beyond repair by her choice of life.

When Pearl and Sugar do finally meet face-to-face, there is not a lot of feel-good friendship between them. Though Pearl is struggling mightily to be a good neighbor and possibly a friend, Sugar rebuffs her instantly and won't let her get a toehold into her heart. That the two women will become great companions is uncertain, but as a reader, I could see that they both desperately needed one another. As the book progresses, the two become many things to each other and there is a sense of cohesion between their relationship and the relationships of the women who starred in Glorious. The two became not only friends but mentors to each other in a way, in addition to sharing a mother/daughter like bond. I think McFadden does a great job exploring these issues and friendships between women. They become all and everything to each other, each fitting into the roles that have been missing from the other's life. I thought the relationship between Pearl and Sugar was very complex and multifaceted. Each woman seemed to be unaware of her importance to the other. They were willing to put everything on the line for each other, to change the shapes of their hearts to fit one another's needs.

As the story winds forward, Pearl and Sugar begin to explore different aspects of life together. Pearl especially becomes more open to experience and whimsy at the behest of Sugar and finds a way to live that doesn't involve shutting down her emotions. Sugar becomes more open as well, and I would dare to say, a bit more refined. It's interesting to compare both of the women and try to discover which one was growing and changing the most. On the surface, it would seem that Pearl was experiencing the most change, but in pondering the subtle changes that were taking places in Sugar, I begin to question my early assertions. Both women exhibited courage of different kinds and both began to see that the lives they led were not what would ultimately fulfill them. It was only through the reflection of the other woman beside them that they were able to have these revelations.

I really liked that McFadden refused to moralize in this tale. Yes, Sugar was a prostitute, but I never felt that there was judgment of her in the writing. Instead, there was a clear and concise accounting of flaws and attributes, leading the reader to be more open to a woman that was far from innocent. Pearl, on the other hand, was the embodiment of innocence for most of the book. Both women got the same loving treatment in the narrative, for there was neither condemnation nor aggrandizement of either. I think the balance in the writing of this book must have been hard to achieve and just reading it made me marvel at McFadden's skill. Though the book does straddle dark themes and issues, I think it also speaks of great hope and, ultimately, a bit of redemption in some ways. The conclusion of this book is mired in complexity and depth, and though it doesn't have a sugary sweet happy ending, the reader is ultimately able to reach some closure in regards to the two women and their friendship.

This was an amazingly interesting and deep book that kept me mired in its complexity. Though the plot was very dark, it was dense and satisfying in a way that I really appreciated. The layers of characterization and pathos was continually intriguing, and when I finally turned the last page, I felt satisfied and enriched in a way that I haven't felt in a long while. If you've never read anything by McFadden, I heartily suggest you try this book. It is definitely a page turning feast when it comes to execution, and if you are looking for a more serious read, this is the pick for you. A great read: Recommended.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Lace Makers of Glenmara by Heather Barbieri — 304 pgs

Book Cover Kate Robinson has left America behind after the death of her mother and a break-up with her boyfriend. She is traveling alone in Ireland when she comes upon the small town of Glenmara and is invited to stay with a widow named Bernie. Bernie is dealing with her own heartache and is one of a group of women who meet together to make handmade lace. Soon the women begin to teach Kate both the ways of the town and the ways of the lace. Because the town is economically unstable, the women decide to adopt Kate's idea of creating lace lingerie out of their creations and soon they begin to design beautiful and luxurious pieces for themselves. As each woman becomes the subject for design, her past and present are revealed. Bernie is longing for the husband who passed away and the children that the couple never had. Aileen is losing her teenage daughter to influences beyond her control. Moira is caught in an abusive marriage. Oona is living with a body ravaged by breast cancer and Colleen is forever wishing that her husband would come home from sea. When the women's project catches the eye of the stringent local priest, sparks begin to fly around the community. Now the women must not only come to terms with what is ailing each privately but also to defend their creations publicly. Both enchanting and heartfelt, The Lacemakers of Glenmara paints a beautiful portrait of the struggles of women and the friendships that aid them in their heartache.

When this book first hit the blogosphere, I was really excited about getting the chance to read it. Though it's not my usual fare, I thought that it would be interesting to read about lace makers in Ireland and the ways that their lives intersected. I read so many wonderful reviews of the book all over the place that I was eager to try it for myself and see what I thought of it. While I ultimately found the book to be a very pleasant and interesting diversion, there were some moments where I scratched my head in perplexity.

First off, I really liked Kate and thought that she was an eclectic and interesting character. Though she was running from heartbreak, she didn't pity herself and get caught up in moroseness and apathy. I thought it was pretty brave of her to venture into a country where she knew no one and nothing, and though I knew that at times her motive for travel was escape, she came across as a really adventurous woman. I also liked that she had talent as a clothing designer and used that skill to fit into her new surroundings. In her desire to help the women of the town, Kate uses the craft she knows well to draw inspiration from the women around her. I did have a bit of confusion as to why these lace undergarments were such a hit with the little town though. On the one hand, they may have never seen lace decorated panties and bras, but on the other, I considered it a tad unlikely. Ultimately, I was forced to see that the making of the lace into undergarments was just a bit of symbolism to describe the cathartic changes that took over the women after Kate's arrival.

I was also a little underwhelmed by the romance between Kate and one of the men of the town. There was very little setup and courtship between the two and I had a hard time understanding their mutual attraction. Sure, the gentleman in question was very easy on the eyes but I felt that Kate was such a rich character that maybe she would require a bit more out of a man she considered her paramour. When the relationship began to move forward, things became a bit more believable and plausible. The two lovers' pasts kept interfering in their budding relationship and it was up to them to share the secrets that were holding them apart. Though the relationship got off to a rocky start, as things progressed, I found myself more able to buy into the love between the two.

The relationship between the women in this book was the true wonder of this story. Their unity and love for one another outlasted the petty dramas and rivalries that they succumbed to from time to time. Most of the drama and recrimination came from Aileen's corner, for she could be very jealous and possessive at times. Aileen provided a lot of combustion between the lace makers and Kate and she did it with an outrageous sense of entitlement. The other women were more mild mannered, but as they moved into the spotlight, I began to see that they were all beset by personal difficulties and heartache. Though the foundation of the women's friendships had been cemented long ago, there was a constant push and pull between all of them and the newcomer Kate. I liked the steadfastness of their relationships and felt this gave the book a solidity and resonance beyond the threads that held the story together.

One of the things that I was most puzzled about in this book was the reactions of the priest to the ladies and their new creations. For the life of me, I just didn't understand why lace panties made him fear for the sanctity of his community! He was a really interesting character but I felt that his story sort of petered out in the end and I would have liked to see more come of his outrage. I guess I was hampered by the fact that I had never really lived in a small town, so I had a hard time understanding the social dynamics of the Church in relation to its supplicants in one. I would have loved to see a bit more done with this aspect of the story or maybe to have learned a little more about the priest's background. As it was, this was the part of the book that tripped me up a bit.

For the most part, I did enjoy this book and its look at a small community of women in Ireland but there were times when I felt that the story was a little underdeveloped. I think Barbieri accomplished a lot with this tale and it was a beautiful testament to women and the friendships that grace their lives. As I mentioned before, some of the aspects of the story were a bit puzzling to me, and in the case of this book, I wish it had been a bit longer in order to fully explore some of the things that I felt were a little raw. I think that readers who enjoy women's fiction would get a lot out of this book, as well as those who are armchair travelers. I can imagine that this would make a great summer read for a lot of folks. Have you read this book? What did you think of it?

About Heather Barbieri

Heather Barbieri is half-Irish. Her paternal ancestors left counties Donegal and Tipperary after The Great Famine and worked in the coal mines of Eastern Pennsylvania before settling in Butte, Montana. Her impeccably dressed maternal grandmother was a descendant of a lady-in-waiting to Queen Victoria and instilled an avid interest in fashion in her granddaughters. Barbieri’s first novel, Snow in July (Soho Press), was selected as a Book Sense Pick, a Glamour magazine “Riveting Read” and a Library Journal Notable First Novel. Before turning to writing fiction full-time, she was a magazine editor, journalist and film critic. She lives in Seattle, Washington, with her husband and three children and is currently working on her third novel.

Connect with Heather:

TLC Book Tours I want to give a warm thanks to TLC Book Tours for providing this book for me to read and review! Please continue to follow the tour stops to see what other readers have to say about this book!

Tuesday, June 22nd: Life and Times of a "New" New Yorker
Thursday, June 24th: Books and Movies
Monday, June 28th:
Tuesday, June 29th: Drey's Library
Friday, July 2nd: Redlady's Reading Room
Tuesday, July 6th: The Tome Traveler
Wednesday, July 7th: Raging Bibliomania
Thursday, July 8th: Savvy Verse and Wit
Monday, July 12th: Bloggin' `Bout Books
Tuesday, July 13th: Chefdruk Musings
Wednesday, July 14th: My Two Blessings
Thursday, July 15th: Diary of an Eccentric

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Mistress of Rome by Kate Quinn — 480 pgs

Book CoverAs Thea, a slave from ancient Rome, tirelessly works to please her domineering mistress, she finds no pleasure in the monotony of her days. But one day she unexpectedly crosses paths with one of the most famous gladiators of the time, a brutal man named Arius, known to the public as The Barbarian. Thea and Arius quickly become entangled with one another but are brutally separated by Thea's manipulative and cunning mistress, Lepida Pollia, who desires Arius for herself. Thea is at once sent to live at the mercy of men but soon finds herself the slave of a generous man who cultivates a house full of talent. Soon Thea is reinvented as Athena, a singer and lute player that captivates even the most lofty patricians. As Thea rises to stardom, she keeps many secrets about her past and longs to one day be reunited with her famous lover. But fate is not kind to Thea, and when she captures the interest of the the great Emperor Domitian, she finds herself in a new world of pain and uncertainty. Domitan, a savage man, quickly brands Thea as his own and begins to calculate frightening abuses upon her, but underneath it all, Thea remains resolute and strong, never expecting the day when Arius reappears in her life. But Arius and Thea are not free to find their happiness in each other and must face down not only an Emperor but some of the most shrewd and calculating enemies ever to walk the streets of Rome. In this thrilling tale of historical fiction, the underbelly of Rome is most deliciously explored and exposed through the eyes of the colorful cast of characters who will all share a part in the unfolding drama of two rather remarkable slaves.

When I first picked up this book, I was somewhat discouraged. You see, I was sure that I had read this story before. I mean, it wasn't so long ago that I reviewed both Cleopatra's Daughter and The Forgotten Legion. I figured that this book would be just another mix between a gladiator and a slave story and that I had probably been through all of this before. What I got was an entirely new story, filled with breathtaking action, intriguing drama and a pretty darn good love story. I guess by now I should know not to walk into any book with preconceived notions, because more often than not, I am completely wrong.

Mistress of Rome is a story told through several vantage points. Through the eyes of Thea the slave, Lepida the Mistress and quite a few others, the tale of Thea and Arius begins to take shape, pulling several other players into the drama. As chapters move successively forward, the vantage point shifts and each character continues on with the story, reflecting on how the unfolding drama impacts them personally. I liked this technique and thought it was extremely well done here. Each of the characters had a distinct voice and focus, and through the flavor of those voices, the story came alive into an all encompassing tale that lived and breathed. I think I enjoyed reading the sections from Lepida Pollita the best. Though she was the character that I most wished would be crushed by a war horse, I found myself engrossed in her opinions and behaviors. I guess she was the character I loved to hate and I loved getting into her head and trying to figure out what she was going to do next.

Though the story was filled with twists and turns, I didn't get the feeling that the plot line was convoluted or unbelievable in any way. The story was told in a matter-of-fact way with little room for flight and fancy. Though some of the sections relied on coincidence, I didn't feel that the plot was orchestrated by it, or that there was not enough left to chance. Though this story was mostly centered around Thea and Arius, there were several other strong plot lines winding their way through as well, and each got a fair share of attention. I think it's kind of tricky to tell so many stories from so many perspectives at once, but I felt that Quinn pulled excelled with the drama and action that surrounded the lovers' story. She has a great way of making all of it relevant and interesting, and every time the story broke away from the couple I waited with interest to see where she was going next.

I do think a lot of this book was sensationalistic; that's one of the things I liked about it. Although most of the time I am looking for books with a very literary feel to them, sometimes it's nice to be able to enjoy gobbling down something that you consider literary junk food as well. This was the kind of book that kept me turning the pages for that very reason. Things were messy, violent and dramatic, and I must say that I had a heck of a time putting this book down due to the great development of the plot. It was a fun read that had me shaking my head at the intrigues and betrayals on every page, and the more I let myself get carried away with it, the more I became enveloped in the story. It was the kind of book that you keep by your side at all times, just to have it close to you should you get a few minutes to read.

I also think the crafting of the story was done very well. Things that didn't seem very important in the beginning went from window dressing to integral plot point towards the end, and the character creation was out of this world. I liked that the bad guys were horrible and the good guys were blameless. Such stark black and white doesn't always work so well for me, but in this book it was very fitting and it made the book more enjoyable. There was a lot of good storytelling here, a lot to keep its audience at the edge of its seat, and a lot to keep them coming back. One of the things I most liked was the way the characters' stories all folded in on each other and created a sort of framework for the story to hang upon. It was interesting to watch both how the story was being constructed and the story itself, and I spent a lot of time being impressed with both aspects.

This is not the type of book that's going to win any literary awards but I urge you not to hold that against it. It's a really riveting read for a lot of reasons, and I found it to be a lot of fun to while away an afternoon with. There's enough drama and action to satisfy picky readers and the characters within are interesting creations that haven't been seen before. I think this book would make an amazing beach read but I wouldn't limit it to that. If you are looking for the reading equivalent to some good junk food, I would definitely tell you to look here. It was a lot of fun to make my way through this book and I think that it would appeal to many others as well. A really fun read. Recommended.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Zan-Gah and the Beautiful Country by Allen Richard Shickman - 160 pgs

Book CoverOpening where the first installment left off, Zan-Gah returns home from his journeys after having recovered his twin brother Dael from the pits of torture and slavery. Though Zan wants to live peacefully and start a family, Dael is not so peaceably inclined. When his wife passes away while giving birth to his daughter, Dael becomes both enraged and despondent, making life for everyone in the camp bitter and unpleasant. Even more curiously, Dael seems to direct most of his anger at his brother Zan and those close to him. After repeated attempts to make war and disrupt the lives of the people surrounding him, Dael begins to change dramatically, tattooing symbols onto his body, shaving off all his hair and recruiting a group of fighting men who are as eager to make trouble as he is. Despite Zan's protests, Dael continues to live life as a hothead and soon is putting the entire tribe in serious danger. Will Zan ever be able to make Dael see the errors of his ways, or must the two part company forever? In this second volume of the story of Zan-Gah, two very different brothers must either learn to live alongside one another or forgo each other completely in order for both to survive.

Though this book was ostensibly titled after Zan-Gah, in reality this was more a book about Zan's brother, Dael. I must admit to being a bit more excited about the first book, possibly because I felt that Zan was a much more amiable character. In this book, the action was split between the two men, with most of the action taking place around Dael. This enabled this second installment to be a much darker and more pathos driven read. While I did find Dael's story interesting, I think I much prefer looking at things through Zan's perspective.

One of the things that was interesting about this book was the way that the story really magnified and expanded the consequences of Dael's imprisonment and torture. It was very clear to see that because of his past Dael was traumatized and scarred, and for the most part I don't really even think that he was aware of the brokenness of his spirit. Most of the time Dael expressed himself by being violent, angry and irrational. Though Zan tried to make him see things from a different light, he didn't have much success because there was no way for him to erase the two years that Dael had spent in a cage and at the mercy of another warring tribe. I found it very sad that Dael continued to struggle through the years, and that although his captivity had ended, his heart and mind were left in shreds and tatters, never to be whole again.

As the story moves forward, Zan and Dael's tribe once again comes in contact with another tribe that wishes to make war upon them. In fact, this war only comes about because of Dael's interference, and the reader is left to deduce that had Dael kept a little better control over himself, the two tribes may have learned to coexist peacefully. In fact, there are some very interesting bits about the women of the settlement trying to make peace with the invaders, using the things that they have in common to create a shared intimacy and friendship. Unfortunately this does not go exactly as planned but it was interesting to again see the way that women contributed to the the life of the tribe. It was also very enlightening to read about the various weapons that both tribes used and the way that warfare was perpetrated upon each other. I thought that Shickman did a really wonderful job fleshing out all these aspects of the plot.

In the conclusion of the story, Zan is forced to accept the fact that Dael will be forever changed by the brutality that he has undergone and that Zan's wish for his brother to be the happy and carefree man of long ago is unrealistic. I think Shickman did a great job of dealing with these issues sensitively and with conscience, and instead of painting Dael with the paintbrush of villainy, he comes across as a much maligned and injured man. Though it takes a lot of permutations of the plot for the reader to finally be able to see these things, the conclusion of the book does seem well deserved and justified.

Though I didn't feel that this book was as unilaterally successful as the first in the series, I did end up enjoying the story of Dael's life and circumstances. I think these books would be perfect for middle grade readers and would likely stretch their imaginations and vocabulary to new levels without being pedantic or overly detailed. I had a good time reading these two books and felt that though this book was not as carefree as the first, it did a really good job of highlighting and exploring some of the tougher and more mature issues that it presented. A very worthwhile read.
This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.
Blogger Template by Delicious Design Studio