Friday, April 29, 2011

The Anatomy of Ghosts by Andrew Taylor — 432 pgs

The Anatomy of GhostsJohn Holdsworth is having a tough time making ends meet. Living in 1780’s London, Holdsworth was once able to provide for his family through the ownership of a modest bookstore, supplementing that income from the authorship of a book called The Anatomy of Ghosts. But recently things have turned sour for Holdsworth, as both his wife and young son have drowned within weeks of each other, and his property has been taken from him. Just when he thinks all is lost, he’s granted an audience with Lady Anne Oldershaw, one of the most prominent members of society. When Holdsworth meets Lady Anne, she initially asks him to help her decide what to to with the library her husband left behind, but that’s not really all she wants. It turns out that Lady Anne’s young son Frank, once a student at Jerusalem College, has recently gone mad and is now housed in a private sanitarium. Lady Anne wants Holdsworth to get to the bottom of Frank’s apparent mental instability by secretly infiltrating the college under the guise of investigating the library. But when Holdsworth begins his covert operation, he discovers a new and bizarre world of 18th century academia, where the social classes are sharply divided and where devious secret societies have unnatural power. Uncovering what made Frank go mad that spring evening soon becomes a dangerous occupation, not only for Holdsworth but for all those associated with him at the college as well. In addition to all the shady business going on at the college, there is more than one instance of a ghost appearing, making Holdsworth the perfect choice for this difficult assignment. But what is really going on behind all these locked doors, and is Holdsworth really prepared for all he will find? In this gripping and intense historical mystery, Taylor takes us on a tour of 18th century London academia, grime and seediness notwithstanding.

Though this was a rather long book, I found myself quickly absorbed with the story and aching to discover just what was going on in this strange and twisted tale. Like the best offerings of historical fiction, this book elucidated on a subject and place that many may not know a lot about. Taylor kept things very interesting by throwing in various plot twists and intrigues throughout the narrative, which really kept me on my toes. I was surprised by a lot of things and found that the more attention I gave to it, the deeper I was caught in this peculiar and involving tale.

One of the things I found fascinating about this book was also something I took a little bit of exception to. The role that women played seemed at times faintly misogynistic, and I was unsure if this was an attempt to be true to the time and place or if it came as a reflection he author’s attitudes. The women ran the gamut from genteel and respectable to loose and sexually wayward, but whatever their circumstances were, it felt like they got very little respect in the text. I reiterate in saying that I’m almost certain that Taylor does this in attempt to faithfully recreate the world of 18th century London, but for a modern female reader, there was a lot that made me uncomfortable about it. The women portrayed here were mostly treated with disrespect or mollified, and even the secondary heroine was left to stew with her thoughts for most of the book instead of being placed in the central narrative. This was ostensibly a man’s book, being that it dealt intimately with men and men’s concerns, and I being that it was set in a men’s college, I could see the importance of writing it this way, though it did rebuff me at times.

One of the things that I liked best was the way the story was so expertly involved and that Taylor was so adept at managing several plot points convincingly. There were may characters here and at times it was difficult to keep them all straight, but, luckily, there is a character index right at the beginning of the book where it’s bound to be seen. This story had elements of suspense right alongside the history which I think is one of the things that made it so successful for me. I really got the feeling that I was peeking into a world long past in addition to being entertained and mystified by the secrets that were going on at the college, and found myself reading speedily to discover how all of the intrigue would boil down. I think it was particularly clever for Taylor to highlight the differences between the wealthy students and teachers and the ones who were there by scholarship and graft because it enabled the reader to get an idea of the class differences in that society. I have to say that I’m rather fond of reading about how the underprivileged got along during those times, and was very interested in reading about their economies and their ability to rise among the ranks through sheer effort alone.

I also really liked Holdsworth and felt that he was the perfect character to star in this story. I found him to be rather intelligent, and his intellectual deductions seemed very organic and believable. I also liked that his attitude was always above reproach and that he was so polite. I began to see that his job would have been all that much harder if he didn’t maintain a veneer of respectability, and in more than one instance, his habit of holding his tongue served him well in creating a confidante instead of an enemy. Holdsworh was universally liked and trusted, and this reader felt the same emotions for him. Because of Taylor’s ability to write a character who was so agreeable yet so inquisitive, the narrative took on a lot of shape and piquancy. Leaving the rascals to be rascals, Holdsworth maneuvered around them deftly and with good regard, which caused the other more malign characters to let their guards down around him. I’m not embarrassed to say that Holdsworth was my favorite aspect of the book and that he was a great character with which to share an adventure.

Though this book was puzzling in its regards to women, overall I found it to be very absorbing and gratifying. The conclusion leaves some ends to be tied up, which I also liked, and I’ve been wondering if this is the first book in a proposed series. If it is, I’m thinking I’ll continue on with it because it’s the type of book that’s not only readable, but that focuses on a character whom I found delightful and fresh. Those lovers of historical fantasy wit a little meat on its bones would probably love this book, and despite its length, it’s easy to fly through the pages and be utterly compelled by the story it has to tell.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Lost Saint by Bree Despain — 426 pgs

Coming hot on the heels of The Dark Divine, Grace Divine is having trouble dealing with her newly altered circumstances. The mysterious events with her boyfriend Daniel have all been sorted out and there’s no longer any danger that he’ll be forever morphed into a dangerous creature beyond the realm of humanity. But things aren’t as easy as all that because Grace’s brother Jude has been greatly changed and is on the run, trying to escape the terrible monster inside him. To make matters worse, Grace has also been attacked and altered and is just beginning to discover what it means to have unusual powers and impossible strength.

When a few newcomers to town begin to shake up the status quo, Grace will find herself both with an unlikely ally and in thrall to a very handsome man who might not be what he seems. As Grace discovers more about this man, she becomes embroiled in a plot to hunt down and kill other unlikely creatures that have invaded her town, much to the disappointment of Daniel and the other people who care for her. But with Jude still on the run and a dangerous contingent of supernatural criminals on the loose, it will take all that Grace and Daniel have to keep the inner monster struggling inside of her from breaking free. Fast paced and utterly thrilling, this second installment of The Dark Divine series will leave readers breathless with anticipation until the final act is closed.

This book was very different from the first in the series because, while it basically continued the story from the first installment, it was much more robust and action packed than The Dark Divine. While the first book moved a more slowly and sedately, this one ratcheted up the suspense and tension to a much higher degree. It’s understandable that the first book would have a lot more scene setting and exposition, and because I liked that book so very much, I was excited when this second installment began and I was thrust directly into the action so quickly.

At the close of The Dark Divine, many things have changed. It’s no longer a mystery why Jude has chosen to leave his family, and the secret that Daniel has been hiding from Grace has been dealt with head-on, resulting in both terrible and wonderful repercussions for both of them. Grace now finds herself in a strange predicament, because now it's she who’s not fully human and she has to deal with the newly encroaching powers that will one day take over her life. Most of Grace’s angst comes from the fact that she has no idea how to harness these powers, and though she wants to be a force for good, she’s coming to suspect that she will not be able to use the gifts she has in any kind of positive way. This conflict within Grace sets her in the perfect position to be both exploited and revered by the two very different men who make an unexpected appearance in the town. Grace takes an immediate liking to one of the new visitors and a dislike to the other, but are her powers of discrimination another one of those things that she just doesn’t have a handle on quite yet?

Into the confusion that are Grace and Daniel’s lives comes the news that a crime wave is sweeping the city and no one can discover who’s responsible. Security cameras consistently go on the fritz during these crimes and there are no fingerprints or physical evidence left at the scene. Grace finds herself thrown headlong into investigating these crimes by her new acquaintance Talbot, a man whose mysterious background is only overshadowed by his rugged and handsome good looks. Before Grace knows it, she’s hunting down these criminals with a vigilante’s sense of justice, and she begins to get in way over her head. These events must be kept secret from all those who love Grace, for she’s in terrible danger, and the more she immerses herself into this world, the more risks she begins to take.

When it’s finally revealed who is behind these crimes, the unlikely Jude resurfaces, but his presence now is malignant and horrible. With Daniel also being secretive, Grace resorts to putting more trust in Talbot, but comes to discover that he’s not who she believed him to be. All these questions and suspicions boil down to an ugly and dangerous confrontation between a group of other-worldly criminals pitted against Grace and Daniel, and it’s unclear if they’ll survive the ordeal. Someone from both of their pasts is orchestrating these nightmarish events, and he won’t stop until he's dispatched Daniel and taken possession of Grace.

I must say that by the end of this book, I was flipping pages madly, racing to discover what would become of the heroic Grace and the steadfast Daniel. When I finally got to the conclusion, I was flabbergasted! Despain leaves the reader with such a dramatic and unexpected cliffhanger that I was frantically searching the interwebs to see when the next book would be published. Alas, there was no information to be had, and I was almost overwhelmed with impatience to find out what happens next. It certainly was an unexpected development in an already superlative book.

This series clearly worked for me, and was so full drama and pathos that by the end of the book, I made myself a promise that I would see this series to the end, no matter what the cost. In these books Despain creates both a set of characters and a mythos that I found to be utterly irresistible. With a plot that seems to move forward on oiled springs and a handful of unexpected twists and turns, this is series that shouldn’t be missed. It transcends the YA genre and does its best not only to be relevant, but genuine. If you haven’t gone out to get these books, you simply must do it now. It’s a rockin’ good paranormal series and I very highly recommend it!

Great news! Egmont USA have offered me one copy of The Lost Saint and a bottle of eclectic blue nail polish to give away to one of my readers! But wait! In the interest of giving more readers the chance to read this great series, I’m sweetening the pot to include a brand new copy of the first book, The Dark Divine, to add to the prize pack as well. If you’re interested in winning this series, and the cute fingernail polish, please fill out the form below. The winner will be chosen at random at a date yet to be determined. Good luck to all!

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Dark Divine by Bree Despain — 400 pgs

Grace Divine is a preacher’s kid with a loving family and a lot going for her until, out of nowhere, a face from her past comes barging back into her life. Daniel, a young man who once lived under the protection of her father and whom the family hasn’t seen for many years, is finally back, but his looks aren’t the only thing that have changed. Long ago, Grace had a crush on Daniel, and after seeing him again, she can’t deny that her interest is piqued by his strange return. But there are secrets swirling around Daniel’s reappearance in her life. For one thing, her brother Jude, usually a reticent and polite boy, has been acting strange and wants Grace to avoid Daniel at all costs, and for another, Daniel seems to have some incredible abilities that Grace can’t understand.

Swirling over all of this is the fact that the town is being plagued by what some call the Markham Street Monster, a creature that has been attacking and killing both animals and people. Though Grace tries to piece everything together, no one will share any information with her, leading her to investigate these things on her own. Time is running out, and as her feelings for Daniel reach a fever pitch, she discovers just what happened to make Jude turn against him and why he may be as dangerous as everyone thinks he is. In this seductive and entrancing new paranormal fantasy series, many secrets and intrigues will be revealed, and it’s up to Grace Divine to put it all together and recreate the life she once knew and loved amid the shocking disruptions that have changed everything

My summary of this book was rather vague, as there are some things about it which I think are best discovered by the reader. Suffice to say that this was the first paranormal YA book I’ve ever read, and now I’m itching to get my hands on more books of this genre. I found so much to love here, and despite my fears, there was almost no annoying teen angst. It was a spectacular read overall.

Grace is your typical preacher's kid. An art student with a pretty active social life, Grace is a bit sheltered due to her upbringing and her mother’s over protection. When Daniel breezes back into her life, Grace has no idea what she’s getting into when she decides to welcome him back into the fold. Daniel has had a troubled past, and due to the abuse by his father, he at one time lived with the Divines as a sort of adopted child. During this time, Grace’s brother Jude and Daniel became inseparable. But everything changed one night, and although Grace doesn’t know what happened, Jude now considers Daniel to be a mortal enemy, a fact that bothers and confuses Grace immensely. Through her love for the forbidden Daniel, Grace comes to understand that there is something different and puzzling about him, and when his back is against the wall, she discovers that Daniel is not fully human anymore. Just what he is will take some discovering, but Grace isn’t willing to give him up, despite the danger that he may pose.

Meanwhile, strange things are happening all over Grace’s small town. Animals are being mutilated and severely mauled dead bodies are being discovered. Most of the town is blaming the Markham Street Monster, but Jude seems to know more than he’s saying. As more and more disturbing things happen, suspicion is cast upon Daniel, and though Grace refuses to believe it, everything that Daniel is and has done begins to spread out in stark relief in her mind. But there’s something else lurking in the secret that Jude and Daniel are hiding, and this may mean that someone else is to blame for all the strange occurrences in the town. All of this ends up in a three-way showdown between Grace, Daniel, and Jude, and when it’s over, nothing will ever be the same.

One of the best things about this book was the way that Despain was able to keep a tight rein on the suspense throughout the story. Through her clever twists and turns in the narrative, we see the plot unfold from various angles and perspectives. The story is mainly told through Grace’s eyes, and as more and more comes to light, we discover, right along with Grace, that those whom she thought she could trust may have been deceiving her, and that things are not always what they appear to be. The book ends on just the right note, and though there is closure, the book gives the perfect segue into the second installment. It’s a great feat of writing that Despain manages, keeping her readers asking pertinent questions and guessing all the way to that final paragraph.

If you haven’t done yourself the favor of picking up these books yet, I strongly urge you to do it soon! There are two in the series as of now, but there are sure to be more, and they’re just the type of book an adrenaline junkie would love. Great characters, plot, and dialogue are just the beginning with this series. A great and intriguing read. Highly recommended. Stay tuned for my review of the next book in the series, The Lost Saint, and a great giveaway, coming soon!

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Friday, April 22, 2011

A Widow’s Story by Joyce Carol Oates — 432 pgs

In this haunting and lyrical memoir by Joyce Carol Oates, a wife speaks candidly about her husband’s untimely death and the repercussions it has on her life after the unthinkable happens. When Joyce’s husband Ray is up earlier than usual one morning, she immediately notices that something is just not right. Ray looks pale and clammy, and is sitting amid a tower of crumpled tissues, and when Joyce suggests that he may need to go to the emergency room, the two think this trip will be just an annoyance and interruption. But it turns out that Ray has pneumonia, and though at first he improves, a secondary infection suddenly takes his life. Joyce isn’t able to see Ray before he dies, and it’s only one of the things she begins to obsesses about after Ray’s tragic death. Now Joyce is alone and becoming unhinged. Though she immediately begins thinking about suicide, she decides against it and begins her painful days as a widow in a world that feels alien and hostile to her. As she begins to live a life without Ray, her most steadfast and loyal companion, Joyce becomes troubled by insomnia, anger and depression, and repeatedly considers suicide as the answer to the pain she feels. Her only redemption is through her steadfast friends and the writing classes she teaches, but in times of immense stress, even this seems like it’s not enough. In this memoir filled with remembrances, email correspondence and personal asides, we see Joyce Carol Oates as never before, and are on the sidelines as she reveals the shocking destruction left behind when her life mate tragically passes away.

Not having read any of Oates’ previous work, I wondered if I would be able to connect with the story the author tells. Not knowing much about Oates seemed like it would be a hindrance in this case, but ultimately, this book tells the story of what could happen to any one of us. With Oates’ ability to capture the hidden sides of her life along with the more personal topics, I was able to make a connection with her that made this book come alive in my hands. Oates captures all the rage, frustration and pain that losing Ray has caused her with a fluidity and emotional resonance that surprised me and wrung my heart in the most tender way possible.

Joyce and Ray had somewhat of a restrained relationship which I initially found odd. This could have been because Ray was somewhat older than Joyce and had grown up in a different era. They didn’t have conversations about painful or uncomfortable topics, and Ray was sometimes emotionally distant when it came to his previous life. They didn’t share their writing with one another and they never had children. I think Joyce looked at Ray as sort of a father figure, and what she got out of her marriage was stability, affection and comfort. This is very different from my marriage and most marriages I know, for it would never cross my mind to be reticent with my partner and not share everything that was on my mind with him. It was almost as if there were barriers between the two that would not be crossed, but it worked for the two of them and there was certainly a lot of love shared within the confines of their relationship.

When Joyce loses Ray, she loses a significant piece of herself as well, and it was frightening to hear her speak so matter-of-factly about taking her own life in response to losing her husband. She couldn't take the well-meaning condolences her friends and acquaintances offered her, and became very despondent over all the things she now had to deal with. She relates some of the insensitivity that Ray’s death inspired and speaks at length about the monster that lived inside her soul eating away all that was healthy and good from her life. Joyce was ill-equipped to deal with what was going on around her and often she spoke about having two personalities: the public one that functioned and even smiled and laughed around her friends and colleagues, and the private one that was desperately trying to hold on to life. She dealt with horrible insomnia and felt like an alien in her empty house, eventually becoming addicted to various medications in her efforts to stave off her despair and apathy. Joyce found her life again through the careful ministrations of her friends, but her road out of the hell she was in was long and painful, and even towards the conclusion of the book, it was clear that she still had a long way to go.

One of the things that made this book so compelling was Joyce’s ability to candidly express her despair and confusion over the loss of Ray. She’s extremely capable when it comes to relating her feelings and emotions that were provoked within her, and at times the book read like a lyrical portrayal of heartbreak. It was easy to empathize with her because she was so familiar with the contours of her heart and mind, and when utter destruction set in, she was able to give her words and feelings a gravity and depth that they would touch even the coldest reader. it was hard to watch her struggle like this, and very hard for me to realize that even when I turned the last page, her heartache hadn’t yet abated. I found her willingness to be open about even the most minute details of her life with Ray and the chronicling of the impact of her loss to be very courageous and noteworthy. Hers was a landscape of horrible despair, but nothing was done to sugar-coat what she was feeling at any time.

This book would be ideal for anyone who’s gone through a similar loss, and even for those who are dealing with crippling emotional circumstances of a different nature. Oates’ ability to capture the fragility of a wounded soul is remarkable and will make readers feel as if they’ve found someone who can share and understand their pain. It was a dark read for sure, but one that made me think about many things and made me realize just how the death of a loved one can change a life. A very intense and worthy read. Recommended.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

UCF Orlando Book Festival Recap

Last weekend, I attended the UCF Orlando Book Festival, held at the UCF Arena in East Orlando, Florida. A few Central Florida bloggers were asked to represent the blogging world as official festival bloggers and were able to get the chance to promote and attend the event in style. I met up with Sandy of You’ve GOTTA read this! and Jenny of Take Me Away and her awesome husband Jason (for the first time!), and Michelle from My Books. My Life. (also for the first time!) The event kicked off on Friday night with an author reception, where Sandy, Jenny and I got the opportunity to talk with the wonderful Lori Roy (Bent Road) and the fabulously funny Eleanor Brown (The Weird Sisters). I also got a chance to catch up with some wonderful author friends, the disarmingly charming and funny Susan Gregg Gilmore (The Improper Life of Bezilla Grove), Marybeth Whalen (The Mailbox) and Shellie Rushing Tomlinson (Suck Your Stomach In and Put Some Color On!). Marybeth and Shellie were like a comic tag team, and I had a wonderful time catching up with them again.
Lori Roy, Eleanor Brown and Me
Me and Susan Gregg Gilmore

A blogger suite was arranged for us on Saturday, and we spent most of the day haunting various author panels and discussions, as well as visiting the exhibit floor. Here’s what the view looked like from high above in our suite:

Christina Gonzalez, Sharon Draper, T.R. Simon and Victoria Bond
We three bloggers decided on the divide and conquer strategy, and we each attended different panels. My first panel was called Growing Up Me: Unique Stories of Childhood, and it featured authors Sharon Draper (Out of My Mind, Copper Sun, The Sassy Series), T.R. Simon and Victoria Bond (Zora and Me) and Christina Diaz Gonzalez (The Red Umbrella). The panel discussed the subjective and direct messages in their books, the inspiration for their books, and the creative impetus behind each of their works. This panel was attended by several middle school readers, and I found the content informative and the authors warm and eager to connect with their readers.

Shellie Tomlinson, Susan Gregg Gilmore and Marybeth Whalen
The second panel I attended was titled Love, Life, and Laughter: Inspiring Women Writers, and it featured my old friends, Marybeth Whalen (The Mailbox), Susan Gregg Gilmore (The Improper Life of Bezilla Grove) and Shellie Rushing Tomlinson (Suck Your Stomach In and Put Some Color On!). Shellie spoke about the importance of laughter not only in her writing but in all of our everyday lives, and also a bit about her website, All Things Southern, which was new to me. Susan spoke of how the characters in her book really shouldered the burden and carried a load for her when the circumstances in her life spun out of control. Marybeth shared how her faith inspired her book, and how she created a work that focused on spiritual search. I have to say that this was an incredible panel, and because I knew just how special each of these women truly was, it only heightened my enjoyment of the discussion.

Dolen Perkins-Valdez, Susan Gregg Gilmore and Nina Revoyr
The third author panel I attended was called Conflicting Loyalties: Cross-Racial Relationships, and it featured Susan Gregg Gilmore (The Improper Life of Bezilla Grove), Dolen Perkins-Valdez (Wench) and Nina Revoyr (Wingshooters). This panel discussed various issues relating to race: from the cultural standpoint of what it was like to grow up as an immigrant of mixed race in the Midwest and the contradictions of racism (Nina Revoyr) to the political and social implications of the identity of those who are mixed race (Dolen Perkins-Valdez) to the class divide between African American servants and their white employers (Susan Gregg Gilmore). This was a panel that had the potential to become heated, but the authors kept things spirited without being offensive, and they were all able to make their points in a very tactful and informative way.

Lori Roy, Susan Hubbard and Eleanor Brown
The last panel of the day for me was titled Family Secrets, and it starred Eleanor Brown (The Weird Sisters), Lori Roy (Bent Road) and Susan Hubbard (The Season of Risks). The authors on this panel discussed the role that family secrets played in each of their books, and Susan Hubbard speculated on whether or not these secrets were best left undiscovered in her work. Eleanor Brown made a point about her book by saying that the secrets in her book needed to eventually be uncovered for the family to begin to work again. Susan Roy spoke about the damage that comes from the family secrets in her book and the destruction they cause. The authors also discussed their writing processes and rituals, their favorite villains, and the importance of plot and character and how they intertwine. This panel was probably the most light-hearted of the day, and I have to say that the three authors really worked well together. It was also a very funny and frank discussion, and I enjoyed it very much.

Jason, Jenny, Sandy, Liz, Heather, Me, Michelle, Ben
After all the festivities wrapped up and much shopping was done, I headed out to the local Macaroni Grill to meet up with a whole host of Central Florida bloggers. I got the wonderful opportunity to hang out with Sandy, Jenny, Michelle and Michelle’s husband, also a voracious reader! Some bloggers that weren’t able to make it for the festival were luckily able to meet us for dinner, and I got the chance to meet the very book savvy and sweet Heather from Book Addiction and the incredibly funny and tireless Liz, from Cleverly Inked. We all had such a great time at dinner, and talked about every bookish thing under the sun, from our reactions to Mockingjay to those little pesky Florida silverfish that will eat through a stack of books faster than you could imagine. This lead to a wider discussion of all thing creepy and crawly, and by the time we were done, we finished up with the wonder that is Joe Hill. All the girls were incredibly smart and funny women, and again it was a strange experience of meeting people for the first time whom it feels like you’ve known all your life. Sandy and I even convinced Heather to join our book club, so I’m confident we will be getting to know her much better in the future. All in all, the blogger dinner was a wonderful event that I wouldn’t have missed for the world.

The entire weekend was a total book-lover's dream, and I’m already looking forward to participating in next year’s event, as I’m sure the other blogger attendees are. I also wanted to give a warm and special thanks to Susan Wegmann, who, with her team, coordinated with all the bloggers who attended the event. We were made to feel very special and included in every aspect of the festival and I don’t think any of us could have had a more wonderful and enriching time. So, if you’re thinking about joining us next year, I strongly encourage you to come out for the 2012 Orlando Book Festival. A more top-notch literary event for Orlando could scarcely be imagined!

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Confessions of Katherine Howard by Suzannah Dunn — 320 pgs

Book Cover
In this historical fiction novel, the life of a young girl who is enigmatically crowned Queen to rule beside Henry VIII is explored through the eyes of her girlhood companion turned Lady-in-Waiting. When Cat Tilney is sent to the estate of the dowager Duchess of York to be tutored in the ways of nobility,, she has no idea that Katherine, one of the most savvy and headstrong girls in residence with her, will one day become the Queen of England. As the narrative flashes forward and backward, the reader comes to know the irascible Katherine and follows her throughout her juvenile escapades with the men of the manor to her time as a queen who notoriously cuckolds her husband, the fearsome King Henry. As Katherine and Cat’s stars rise, Katherine becomes ever more secretive and wily, while Cat remains true to her young lover Francis, who was once one of Katherine’s playthings. But when it’s discovered that Katherine took the throne belying her status as a virgin, things become dangerous for both the queen and her serving women, leaving Cat in the position of harboring a horrible secret from the rest of the world. At once suspenseful and evocative, The Confessions of Katherine Howard tells the sordid story of the fifth wife of Henry VIII.

I have to say I thought this book was dreadfully mistitiled. The title would lead you to believe that the book was told from the viewpoint of Katherine Howard when the reality is that the book is told from the viewpoint of Cat Tilney, and most of the action and dialog revolves around her. It makes me a little irritated that every historical fiction author out there wants to write a book about Henry VIII and his ill-fated wives, but what makes me even more frustrated is when a book’s title infers that it’ll cover one subject but really is aiming to cover another. Though I did enjoy most of the book, this nit-pick I had with the title really hampered my enjoyment and suspended my ability to read without prejudice. The book should have been called The Confessions of Katherine’s Howard’s Handmaid.

One of the things I liked about the book was that it revealed a great deal that was previously unknown about Katherine Howard. I had known for some time that she hailed from a politically ambitious family of sycophants, but Katherine’s origins and early history remained opaque to me until I read this book. All I really knew was that she was considered a man-eater, and that she had several affairs throughout both her teenage years and into her days as Queen to Henry. Katherine was portrayed as a rather cold and calculating person who never gave much thought to propriety or appearances. She rather shamelessly strung many men along, and in the end, it was her voracious appetite for carnal pleasures that was her undoing. I can’t say I liked her very much, as she had none of the spunk of Anne Boleyn or the spiritual long-suffering as Henry’s first queen, Catherine. As the book was mainly a bystander’s account of her life, I felt more invested in the story of Cat Tilney and her budding relationship with Francis. Cat seemed much more of an everyday person who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. I don’t think she wanted to be tied up in Katherine’s fate, but circumstances left those things out of her control, and because of that, she became the final piece in Katherine’s undoing.

Though it first it didn’t really bother me, as the book progressed, the management of the flashbacks became a little obstructive to a smooth reading experience. I never really knew just what period I was reading about, which caused a lot of confusion during certain sections. I would have liked to see some kind of separation by date in the mingling sections, because as it was, whenever I began a new chapter, I was initially lost as to where it fit in in the timeline. I also had a problem with the fact that a lot of the characters’ thoughts were interspersed within the dialog in a rather clumsy way. Someone would be talking, and all of a sudden, quotation marks would be dropped and text would be italicized, with another set of quotations marks picking up right behind it. It was a little irksome to read and I thought it could have been handled in a different and more orderly fashion.

Though I had some obvious problems with this book, I still have to confess that I rather enjoyed the story it told. The writing was simple and direct, which made the intricacies of the plot stand out fully. The crucial information it provided on the early life of Katherine Howard was hugely satisfying and filled in what scant information I had come across regarding this ill-fated queen’s rise to fame. I think those readers who enjoy historical fiction set in early 16th century, and those who like to gobble up anything about Henry VIII’s illustrious wives, would do very well in giving this book a try. Though I do warn there are some caveats, it was still a very interesting read.

Author Photo About the Author

Suzannah Dunn is the author of ten previous novels, all of which have been critically acclaimed. She has written three historical novels: The Queen of Subtleties, The Sixth Wife and The Queen’s Sorrow.

Visit Suzannah at her website.

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:

Tuesday, April 5th:Debbie’s Book Bag
Thursday, April 7th:Book Reviews by Molly
Tuesday, April 12th:Luxury Reading
Thursday, April 14th:Life In Review
Monday, April 18th:Raging Bibliomania
Tuesday, April 19th:Rundpinne
Thursday, April 21st:Unputdownables
Tuesday, April 26th:Books Like Breathing
Wednesday, April 27th:Peeking Between the Pages
Wednesday, April 27th:Katie’s Nesting Spot
Thursday, April 28th:Bookworm’s Dinner

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Guest Post: Anene Tressler, Author of Dancing with Gravity

Today we feature a guest post by Anene Tressler, author of Dancing with Gravity: Anene has a wonderful talent, and an artistry in creating characters with real motivations behind their actions. I was surprised and intrigued by Dancing with Gravity, and today Anene shares a little about her creative impulses with us. So, without further ado, please welcome Anene to Raging Bibliomania, and sit back while she shares her thoughts with us.

Once upon a time…I took a summer writing workshop from Richard Bausch. I don’t take them anymore. But that’s another story.

One afternoon, our class discussion turned to the question of whether a person could be taught how to write (my take is whether a person should be taught how to write). Bausch said that writing was like singing in the shower. A lot of people do it. And many actually do it pretty well. But very few people pair raw talent with the work required to become great, as did Frank Sinatra.

Writing is both mystery and mechanics. And while I don’t believe that talent—the mystery of writing—can be taught, I know that each of us can do a lot to nurture our writing and to take it seriously. That’s where the mechanics/writing processes come in. Needs and circumstances are as varied as writers themselves, but here are a few of the principles that guide me:

Before there is writing, there is preparation. For me, that’s reading. I’m talking about reading with a capital “R.” Reading things that interest me. And challenging myself to reach beyond comfortable parameters. I read classic as well as contemporary writers...books that demand I pay attention...and force me to use a dictionary or other reference from time to time.

As a writer, I am honor bound to know the rules of grammar and punctuation. And when I forget them, it means taking the time to look them up all over again. Not something I would file under ‘happy times.’

And while research isn’t the same as real writing, it’s essential. Eudora Welty was both an outstanding writer and an accomplished gardener. She’s quoted as saying that if an author had a plant growing in the wrong season or zone, she’d put the book down at once. The writer had lost her trust...and her interest.

Now for the actual writing: There’s a terrific book called The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. It’s filled with innovative ideas for jump-starting the creative process. One of my favorites involves something called “Morning Pages.” Cameron recommends that a writer start each day by filling three pages with stream of consciousness, random observations, even complaints about the drudgery of writing morning pages. She contends that this exercise helps get past self-imposed blocks. By literally filling the pages, we’re strengthening the pathways that we’ll need for the real work. It may sound like a simplistic idea, but I know from personal experience that it works. The literal making of marks on a page has an alchemy whose whole is greater than its parts. While the word ‘synergy’ has been co-opted by motivational speakers, it’s worth checking.

I’ve also tailored Cameron’s idea to address specific problems: If I’m having trouble with a particular scene, for example, I may focus my three pages on that alone. More often than not, I’ve written my way to something I can then use for the problem at hand. If nothing else, I’ve “limbered my writing muscles” and defused some of the tension so I can focus.

And while my own work centers on the short story and novel forms, I have always been drawn to the imagery and beauty of poetry. Many times, I’ll begin my writing session by reading a poem. And while I cannot hope to achieve the skill of poets such Ted Kooser, David Clewell and Pamela Stewart, their work is very important to my own understanding and appreciation of language.

Then, of course, comes the actual writing. And that, for all the pleasure it may ultimately bring, is work. I schedule my writing time just as I would any other appointment. I find I work best in the morning, so I get up early and get to work. Before my husband is awake. Before I check email or bring in the paper. Before I find any other activity that will tempt me from writing. (I think Steinbeck used to sharpen pencils and write ‘letters’ to his editor.) It’s a demanding goal. And I don’t always reach it. Sometimes I must slash my writing time in order to attend to something that really can’t wait. But even a little work is something. And it adds up. Besides, I know that when I give myself permission to miss a weekend or a week, it often turns into a month, or more. And when I come back to the work, it means guilt and pain as I confront lost time and opportunities.

An essential part of writing is editing. And lots of it. I often start my writing session by re-reading what I wrote the day before, polishing it, and going on. This isn’t the final edit, but it’s incremental. It helps me return to the mental place I occupied the day before, and it gives me a jump-start on the day’s work.

I keep a quote by the writer David Huddle near my desk. It has offered solace and encouragement more times than I can count, and I offer it to you here: “For a writer, the one truly valuable possession is the ongoing work—the writing habit, which may take some getting used to, but which soon becomes so natural as to be almost invisible.” Whatever habits lead you to the ongoing work, I encourage you to embrace them. And I wish you well.

Thank you, Anene, for sharing your thoughts with us. I know I'm looking forward to reading more of your future offerings with relish, and hope that others out there will pick up their own copy of Dancing with Gravity.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

So Much for That by Lionel Shriver — 480 pgs

Book Cover
Shep Knacker has a dream. As a one-time business owner who has sold out for a million dollars, he now works a regular job, biding his time. Shep has been stashing away his fortune with the intent of fleeing to a tropical paradise to spend the rest of his days, which he calls The Afterlife. But when he decides to go there immediately, with or without his wife Glynis (her choice), he gets the surprise of a lifetime. Glynis announces that she has mesothelioma, an aggressive form of cancer, and that Shep’s money would be best applied somewhere else. As Shep deals with his incredibly ill wife, he finds out that his health care plan is really very paltry, and he must use his getaway fortune on the very expensive rounds of treatment his wife requires. Meanwhile, Jackson Burdina, Shep’s best friend and one-time business partner, is having problems of his own. Jackson has a teenage daughter who is afflicted by familial dysautonomia, a debilitating and progressive disease that’s slowly spiraling out of control. Jackson, a very unhappy man, is fond of regaling friends and even strangers with his ranting and raving about the political, social and economic problems in America, and his radical views begin to infect every conversation he has. Between the Knacker and the Burdina families, many ethical and intriguing issues are raised; not only about the characters and their plights, but about the plight of any one of us who may fall critically ill. In Shriver’s dark yet very recognizable world, the persistent struggle of the working class is wonderfully and mischievously elucidated, forming a story of painful beauty and unending strife.

I have to say that after reading We Need to Talk About Kevin a few months ago, Shriver has been on my list of authors to watch, and I’ve been very interested in reading her back list. When the review offer came from TLC Books, I didn’t hesitate for a moment, because although Shriver’s writing is as dark as it comes, it’s also incredibly penetrating and full of contradictions that leave her readers questioning not only the material, but themselves as well.

There’s no doubt that Shep Knacker is downtrodden. Even before Glynis’ announcement, Shep is the kind of guy who is forever taken advantage of, both emotionally and, more importantly, financially within the scope of the relationships he has. Though he loves his wife, the reader is given to understand that she’s a rather cynical and caustic woman, whom Shep always plays second fiddle to. Though Shep has a great fortune at his disposal, he continues to work for the man who bought his company and is treated like a serf by the passive aggressive man who he must now call his boss. Shep is what his friend Jackson would refer to as a chump, and though he longs to escape from his burdensome life, the announcement that Glynis has cancer puts Shep in a strange place. He immediately lets go of his desire to travel and feels that it’s important to do whatever it takes to make her well. What it entails, in fact, is eating away his nest egg and dredging the bottom of his financial pool of resources. But it’s not like he has any other choice, and once I began to understand just the type of guy Shep was (solid, dependable, morally upstanding) I knew there was no other way he would respond. Shep is the everyman who will do anything for his friends or family, and it was very sad to see his dreams wash away once Glynis’ condition came to light. The fact that he chose to stay and fight was only one of the things that made me admire him.

More interesting to me was the secondary plot that involved Jackson and his family. From my perspective, they were living in a nightmare world of feeding tubes, medication upon medication, and a surly attitude that all revolved around his ailing daughter. While I was reading about all of this, I kept asking myself questions about Jackson’s attitude and radical leanings. Was his daughter’s illness and the lengths they had to go to keep it under control the impetus for his ire, or was it all incidental? Secretly, I believed Jackson loved his daughter’s moroseness because it mirrored his own, but there was no doubt that the girl needed therapy. In addition, Jackson is dealing with a troubled marriage, and although it was troubled in a way that was very different than what the Knackers had going on, it was troubled nonetheless. The final resolution for Jackson left me very upset and shocked, and I couldn't help but expend a lot of thought and sympathy over his plight.

The one thing that bothered me about this book was its relentless push of the issues it discusses. Mostly it centered on the state of health care in America, and in that rushing maelstrom, Terry Shaivo, Medicare, insurance companies and the government all made their wicked appearance. This issue-spouting mostly came from Jackson’s rants, but it was littered throughout the book, and at times felt indiscriminate and overbearing. I get that Shriver has some problems with the American health care system and with the government, really I do, but this non-stop approach of bombarding the reader with it wore very thin after awhile. She takes her opinions on “mugs” and “moochers” very seriously. So seriously, in fact, that I think it weighed down what would have otherwise been a five star book. Thinking back on it, Shriver makes some very good points, but by using Jackson as her mouthpiece, it all felt very aggressive and at times even whiny. This non-stop rant spoiled parts of the book for me, but after awhile, I was able to view it as a character with a predisposition for griping, and finally, I was able to read around it.

While this book was very heavy on the issues, the story it told was rather poignant and also very interesting to read. Shriver’s ability to capture her audience early on and hold them by the throat all the way through is not only impressive, but also unusually stimulating. She knows how to tell a hell of a story, and though it’s dark and very portentous, it kept me hooked into the narrative despite some slight misgivings. I was also surprised by the ending. I would recommend this to fans of Shriver and also to new readers because the book really gets to the heart of its characters and their motivations with unusual flair. Though parts of the book were morose, the execution of the story was really quite amazing. A fabulous read with a little gristle that may offend but will surely entertain.

Author Photo About the Author

Lionel Shriver is a novelist whose previous books include Orange Prize–winner We Need to Talk About Kevin, The Post-Birthday World, A Perfectly Good Family, Game Control, Double Fault, The Female of the Species, Checker and the Derailleurs, and Ordinary Decent Criminals. She is widely published as a journalist, writing features, columns, op-eds, and book reviews for the Guardian, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, the Economist, Marie Claire, and many other publications. She is frequently interviewed on television, radio, and in print media. She lives in London and Brooklyn, NY.

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:

Tuesday, March 15th:In the Next Room
Wednesday, March 16th:Book Club Classics!
Thursday, March 17th:Man of La Book
Monday, March 21st:The Brain Lair
Monday, March 21st:Life Is A Patchwork Quilt
Thursday, March 24th:Stephanie’s Written Word
Friday, March 25th:Colloquium
Monday, March 28th:A Certain Bent Appeal
Tuesday, March 29th:Life in the Thumb
Wednesday, April 13th:Raging Bibliomania

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Dancing with Gravity by Anene Tressler — 298 pgs *GIVEAWAY*

Book Cover
Father Samuel Whiting is head of Pastoral Care at a St. Louis hospital. Filled with anxiety and indecision, Whiting is finding it harder and harder to be the man he’s supposed to be. He has unexplained feelings for Sarah James, the media consultant at the hospital, and fears that his secretary thinks she is superior to him. He’s also dealing with a mother whose constant demands are offset by her creeping decline into infirmity, and when he gets the news that a good friend from seminary is suffering from cancer, Whiting is barely able to hang on. Whiting goes through his days providing an ear and a shoulder to the sick and wounded, but his heart is not really engaged with the work he does, and his troubles begin to weigh him down significantly. When a traveling circus that was bequeathed to the hospital by a reclusive millionaire comes to the hospital grounds, Whiting’s life begins to take an unusual turn. At first he’s asked to provide a blessing over the circus and later to perform Mass and provide pastoral care to the circus performers. Suddenly Whiting is expectant and hopeful, full of the life and vigor that he once had so abundantly. But there are dark secrets swirling around the circus and their mission, and before long, Whiting is engaged in a very strange and surreal relationship with the enigmatic Nikolai, the trapeze artist. To complicate things further, Whiting’s relationship with Sarah begins to take on a strange cast as well, and it becomes obvious that in Whiting’s heart both the circus and its performers are vying with God for a place in Whiting’s heart. In this curious and remarkable novel, a man of God undergoes a series of humbling and unsettling changes that will leave him markedly changed, defying not only his expectations of himself, but of others as well.

Despite its odd premise, this book was actually a rather successful read for me, and most of that hinged on the fact that Samuel Whiting was such a genuine character who was easy to relate to. He was bumbling. He was anxious and had all sorts of mental proclivities that I wouldn’t exactly call healthy. Above all, it was his insecurity and indecisiveness that really made me take notice of him. Above all things, I think Samuel wanted to love and be loved, but the strictures of his calling placed severe limitations on his ability to both give and receive the kind of love most of us take for granted. He talked to himself and tried to assuage his nervous feelings by engaging in self-therapy, but this did little besides making him more anxious and unsure of himself. Samuel was an odd duck whom I could relate to more than I expected. In his efforts to give himself completely to his work and calling, he somehow disastrously lost his way, and the consequences were dire. One reason he was such a compelling character was that he was constantly growing as the narrative spun its web. His reluctance to be confrontational became a desire for conflict and his heart was ever on his sleeve in some alarming ways. He took chances and risked a hell of a lot, even when it wasn’t in his best interest to do so.

I also really ended up disliking Sarah, whose relationship to Whiting was integral to the book. I found her to be foppish and narcissistic and quickly grew to hate her long before Whiting ever began to reevaluate his opinions of her. She was so involved with her own self-promotion that it was easy to see she really didn’t understand or reflect on Samuel at all. With all of her being, she desired to be loved just as much as Samuel did, but in a more selfish and egocentric way. Positioning herself as some strange rival to Whiting was the last straw, and I was glad when she got her comeuppance. In addition, I was glad that Whiting’s passion for her seemed to abate after a confession was revealed. Whiting, being a priest and having taken vows of chastity, was not free to love her, but it made sense and it was very human that he did so anyway. I enjoyed his revelation that she was not what he thought her to be, and even though his affections roved to an even more inappropriate target, I was glad that the blinders finally came off when they did.

Another thing I greatly enjoyed was the behind the scenes view it gave of the circus. It’s rare for a book to provide a look at this type of lifestyle and entertainment from such a perspective, and by imbuing the circus with a dark secret, as was done here, the level of intrigue was increased exponentially. Whiting’s eventual preoccupation with the circus was something that developed over time, but as it did, it began to change the man in some startling ways. He began to experience uncomfortable jealousy and intense passion, and the reserve that usually accompanies the clergy began to drop away. This only made him more human in my eyes and heightened the effect of Whiting’s desire to lose himself in some ways. This strange attraction began to shape the book in some very diverting directions and changed what was once a staid and sensible narrative into something that was more wild and uninhibited.

I know this book hasn’t gotten a lot of press, but I think it moves so far beyond its boundaries that many readers would find something special about the story and the gravity with which Tressler tells it (no pun intended). It was remarkable not only for the story it told but for the intense focus on a character that many of us will see a resemblance to, and I do recommend it heartily to those who are looking for something that is just far enough out of the box to be unusual and compelling. A very robust and emotionally astute read.

Great news! Anene Tressler has generously offered one copy of Dancing with Gravity to one lucky reader of my blog. To enter, all you have to do is fill out the entry form at the bottom of this page. Giveaway is open to to those in the U.S. and Canada only. Good Luck to all entrants!

Author Photo About the Author

Anene is an award-winning fiction and poetry writer whose work has appeared in Best of Writers at Work anthology, The Distillery, Treasure House, Currents, River Blossoms Lit Mag and Word Wright’s. While at UMSL, she won the English Department’s annual prizes for fiction and for poetry and she has studied with Richard Bausch at Johns Hopkins, Nicholas Delbanco at Breadloaf, Claire Messud at Sewanee, Lorrie Moore at Vermont Studio Center, and Robert Olmstead at Rappahannnock. She also attended two workshops at the University of Iowa’s summer program and spent a month at Wellspring House in Massachusetts. Most recently, she has taken two semester-long poetry classes with David Clewell, poet laureate of Missouri. She holds undergraduate degrees in Communications and Nursing from Saint Louis University, Masters Degrees from Washington University and the University of Missouri, St. Louis, and she teaches scriptwriting and media writing as an adjunct professor in the School of Communications at Webster University. After making a change in focus from fiction and poetry to running a successful company specializing in corporate communications, print and film/video production and meetings, she is back hard at work in the world of literature.

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:

Monday, April 4th:Well Read Wife
Wednesday, April 6th:This That and the Other Thing
Thursday, April 7th:Suko’s Notebook
Monday, April 11th:Raging Bibliomania
Wednesday, April 13th:Rundpinne
Monday, April 18th:Life is Short. Read Fast.
Tuesday, April 19th:Simply Stacie
Wednesday, April 20th:Day by Day in Our World
Thursday, April 21st:Overstuffed
Monday, April 25th:Book Club Classics!
Wednesday, April 27th:Musings of an All Purpose Monkey
Thursday, April 28th:Book Addiction

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Pox: An American History by Michael Willrich — 400 pgs

Book Cover
Although now extinct, during the late 1890s and early 1900s, smallpox, also known as the variola virus, was a widely feared and extremely destructive disease that made its virulent way across America and abroad. As smallpox cases, beginning in the south, raged across the country, new and terrifying measures were taken to stop the spread of the disease and to inoculate the population. But resistance to the new procedures forced American lawmakers, scientists and doctors to become more aggressive in their tactics, forcing citizens into compulsory vaccinations that were fought with violence and hatred, and sometimes even resulted in court cases. Over many years and across many continents, compulsory vaccination spread its vicious claws, effectively turning the American government into a police state, at least where the issue of small pox was concerned. In this revealing portrait of the disease, Michael Willrich exposes not only the very serious and possibly fatal consequences of smallpox, but of the revolutionary zeal with which the American government went to war with this most heinous of diseases. Incorporating statistics, personal reflections, photographs and impeccable research, Willrich gives his readers a comprehensive overview of the history of smallpox from its first serious outbreak to its final abatement. The struggle against this horrible disease is captured here, in all its terrifying reality and implications.

From the earliest infestations of smallpox, leading medical authorities mistakenly believed that the disease was caused by unhygienic practices, which led to utter confusion when trying to stamp out epidemics. The real cause of smallpox is an incredibly robust virus, able to disperse itself through various measures. Scientists and physicians had been on the wrong track for a long time. When scientists discovered that by scratching the live smallpox virus into the skin of the arm, the patient could actually be vaccinated against the virus, smallpox abatement became the order of the day, and governmental officials sought to vaccinate every man, woman and child in America.

But the effects of the vaccination were sometimes painful, and due to the inability to sterilize the virus before use as a vaccine, the vaccinations sometimes caused other infections, such as syphilis and tetanus. Public outcry against vaccination became the norm, and anti-vaccination leagues began to rage In many cases. Compulsory vaccination became like warfare, with those objecting being forced to comply at gunpoint or being fined and thrown in jail. No American was spared, and often children were turned away from schools, and men and women from labor, if they could not show the telltale vaccination scar.

Pesthouses, where those ill with smallpox could recover, began to be built in areas of each city, much to the dismay of the surrounding population, and vaccination was carried into the Spanish and Philippine wars, not only for the soldiers, but for the natives as well. Compulsion became coercion and violence in these instances, and the rights of the people to refuse vaccination were summarily dismissed. Quality control of the vaccines became a problem again and again, with many people suffering dreaded diseases after their vaccinations. In one stunning display, tens of schoolchildren died of tetanus after being vaccinated by a tainted batch of smallpox vaccine. Smallpox vaccination engendered heated discussion among professionals as well as laypersons, and as the right to refuse vaccination flew away, more and more opposition began to grow. In effect, the government of the United States had decided to act in the welfare of all of its citizens by enforcing vaccination in every case. In its first real skirmish against the American people themselves, the government won, and it changed the way that individual liberties would be shaped from that time until today.

This book was extremely informative but I couldn't help feeling a little overwhelmed with all the information presented. There were sections that were much more interesting than others, particularly those sections on germ theory and the information about vaccine production and purity. Other sections that dealt more heavily with wartime vaccinations and court battles were somewhat dry, which created a feeling of unbalance in the scope of my reading. Considering that this was a very controversial and lengthy issue, the book was sometimes weighed down by its own preponderance of information, though there were times when I read compulsively and avidly. The book was greatly informational about all the aspects of smallpox, from the domestic and governmental issues to the medical and legal issues, but a lot of this information seemed a little too tightly packed for casual reading. Smallpox certainly created some interesting conundrums in the area of contagion management, civil liberties and medical ethics, and I think Willrich did an impressive job of explaining it all to an audience that may never before have thought of the kinds of problems that a smallpox epidemic would raise.

Though the book was weighty and dense, it was written with a solid foundation in research and with a truly inquisitive style that elevated it beyond what I would have considered it to be. It might not be concise, but those looking for a well rounded book that exposes the many sides of the smallpox issue would do well to pick this one up and give it a try. Ambitious in its scope, this book delivers in ways that you might not expect.

Author Photo About the Author

Michael Willrich is the author of City of Courts, which won the John H. Dunning Prize awarded by the American Historical Association for the best book on any aspect of U.S. history, and the William Nelson Cromwell Book Prize awarded by the American Society for Legal History. A native of Washington, D.C., Willrich was educated at Yale and the University of Chicago. Currently an associate professor of history at Brandeis University, he worked for several years as a journalist in Washington, D.C., writing for The Washington Monthly, City Paper, The New Republic, and other magazines. He lives in Wellesley, Massachusetts.

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, March 31st:Man of La Book
Monday, April 4th:Aetiology
Wednesday, April 6th:Book Club Classics!
Thursday, April 7th:Raging Bibliomania
Tuesday, April 12th:Amy Reads
Wednesday, April 13th:Superbug
Thursday, April 14th:Sophisticated Dorkiness
Monday, April 18th:Bookworm’s Dinner
Tuesday, April 19th:In the Next Room
Wednesday, April 20th:Rhapsody In Books
Thursday, April 21st:Take Me Away
Monday, April 25th:Mommypotamus
Tuesday, April 26th:Eclectic/Eccentric
Wednesday, April 27th:Life Is A Patchwork Quilt
Thursday, April 28th:PhD in Parenting
Date TBD:Ruby Slippers

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Quickening by Michelle Hoover — 224 pgs

Book Cover
In this quiet and haunting debut novel, two families living in an early twentieth century farming community begin a dance of fate that will change their lives forever. Eddie Current is a mild-mannered and quiet woman who works the land with the help of her husband, Frank. When one day she is visited by her closest neighbor, the religious Mary Morrow, Eddie is not at all disposed towards friendship. This doesn't stop Mary from becoming an integral part of the couple's lives, much to their chagrin. Mary is focused on appearances and longs to transform Eddie into the kind of woman she wishes her to be. Encroaching upon her home and farm, Mary orchestrates events that leave Eddie confused, angry and unhappy, never realizing that she herself is being changed in frightening and unpredictable ways. Mary, dealing with the complications of an abusive husband and her children who remain chill and aloof to her, longs for someone to understand and appreciate her and reaches out the the local parish priest with disastrous repercussions. When a series of conflicts between the two families pushes them each to the brink of disaster, Eddie and her husband are left shunned and ostracized from their community. Rich in psychological drama, The Quickening roots itself in the consciousness of its readers and delivers a powerful punch of the dark and unexpected.

First off, let me say that this was a slim volume but one that really made the most of itself. It should have been a nondescript premise: Two women on a farm grow to hate each other. And that is what it was about, basically. But to say that's all it was about would be a gross disservice. It was a book about longing and lies, both the ones we tell each other and the ones we tell ourselves. It was a book about recrimination, silence and abuse at the hands of others. The way that this was all neatly rolled up into such an unimposing story was not only masterful, but unique.

Eddie is a typical farm wife. A little haggard, a little overworked, she struggles through the day to day with her loving husband by her side to share the toil. She is unprepared for Mary and wants nothing from her. It almost seemed as though she could see though Mary right towards the misery she would cause in her life. Unfortunately, Eddie is not able to put her foot down and Mary begins her slow encroachment into her life. I think that most of what made this possible was Mary's weariness and anxieties for the future. Though she wanted to have children, she had so far been unable and the thought of her house being devoid of babies was her prime focus. She was so intent on her daily work and worries that she let Mary slip right in under the radar. I think the most interesting thing about this is that she never could muster up the resolve to get her out. Nothing she could do would loosen Mary's hold upon her family, and though Eddie made it very clear that she wasn't wanted, Mary ignored that and kept cajoling the couple.

Mary, on the other hand, was a whole different kettle of fish. A woman who was damaged from adolescence and onward through adulthood, she still had severe issues of entitlement and delusions of grandeur. Mary's own fantasies often took the place of her realities. As a reader, I kept asking myself whether Mary was truly evil or not, and I would have to say Yes. But I wonder, is evil truly the same evil if it is unintentional? Again I would have to say Yes, and that Mary's evil was unintentional at times but still fearsome and awful. I think part of her behavior was a coping mechanism used when times became difficult for her and another part was her inability to see herself for what she really was. The woman grated on every nerve I have because she never stopped to think of anyone but herself. She moved in an almost otherworldly fashion, doing and saying things that were completely selfish and self serving and acting as if her hurts and heartaches were justifiable reasons for her to run roughshod over everyone else. Though ostensibly Mary mostly felt herself to being good deeds and helping others, she never really realized that her interference was not wanted. When Eddie does finally begin to resist, Mary takes things onwards to the next level and steps up her acts of aggression. It was terrifying to get a good look into Mary's mind at times. She was very manipulative and possessed no altruism whatsoever. Mary existed for herself alone and tried to make everyone bend to her will. This is the most dangerous personality type to have in a society like the one in which she lived. Some would probably argue that Mary was a damaged individual and that her flaws came from this damage, but I can't really see that. Mary to me was a tragic figure, but also a viper left to her own devices. I couldn't have sympathy for her because she constantly turned her hurts outward and inflicted them on other people.

As the book winds toward its conclusion, Mary is left alone and scrabbling, once again, for dominance. It is not enough that her lies and delusions have decimated the Currents. She must go onwards, like an automaton, and continue to ruin them to her satisfaction, all in the name of self preservation and self service. The state she leaves Eddie in is deplorable, taking her pride and her dreams from her. It is during this last section that I really saw Mary for who she was. All her grasping had gotten her nowhere and even Eddie manages an escape from her. The lives of both families have been utterly transformed by the powerful hands of fate and the acts of one woman, and things can never be the same. This book, moving between the past of life on the farm and all of Mary's misdeeds and the present where Eddie rehashes it all in letters to her grandson, gives the whole story a feel of weight and heft that might not have been accomplished in any other way, and lets the reader see that frightening past, episode, by episode.

I would definitely recommend this book to a variety of readers. Though the prose and writing is somewhat sparse at times, I felt it really fit the story well. I think the book takes a close look at both of these women and the psychology of not only their personalities, but of the relationship between them. It is a dark tale and one that has no happy ending, but it is both an engrossing and powerful read that shouldn't be missed. An intriguing debut.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.
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