Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante — 320 pgs

Turn of MindDr. Jennifer White is slowly losing her mind after having been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Jennifer, once a prominent and skilled orthopedic surgeon, has not only lost her ability to practice medicine, but her independence, mobility and cognitive skills. Now she regresses day by day to the point of an aggressive and almost childlike senility. Jennifer has good days and bad days, but recently she’s had to have a home health aide move into her home to assist her, a fact that embarrasses and angers her. Her grown children, Fiona and Mark, visit frequently, but it’s debatable whether they’re helping their mother or hindering her. When Jennifer’s best friend and neighbor of many, many years, Amanda, is found murdered with four fingers from one hand surgically removed, the police investigators come right to Jennifer as the prime suspect. The problem is that Jennifer has deteriorated so badly that she can’t remember if she committed the crime or not. But this isn’t a cut-and-dried case, for Amanda was good at alienating and threatening everyone around her, and through the increasingly muddy reflections of Jennifer's ailing mind, a picture begins to emerge of two women who are ideally suited for each other yet repugnantly averse to each other as well. As Jennifer’s cognitive abilities begin to dwindle more and more rapidly every day, she’s left in the position of having to be moved into a full time care facility while her children watch her mind slowly slide away. Will Jennifer ever remember if she played a role in Amanda’s death or not, and what will become of her when she’s no longer able to mentally function or recognize those around her? In this harrowing and suspenseful novel, the day to day life of one woman living through Alzheimer's disease is achingly portrayed in all its terrible impact, leaving her to cope with impotent fury at the inevitable future that’s lurking just around the bend.

Though this book was incredibly suspenseful, it was also very, very sad. Having to watch as one woman loses every faculty her mind possesses was not only enervating, but also at times torturous. The book is written in a unique style of small paragraphs that each house snippets of dialogue or action, and as such, the story moves quickly in small digestible bits of information and narration. As the reader works their way through the tale, more and more is revealed about Jennifer and the people surrounding her, and the effect of the parceling out of this information has a stunning impact on the realities of what type of life this woman is living and has lived in the past. Though her future is terrible to contemplate, her past was also filled with woe and discomfort, and it’s Jennifer’s ability to remain detached, both in the past and present, that allows for greater impact in the story of her life.

Both of Dr. White’s children are somewhat suspect. Her son, Mark, seems always to be looking for a handout and will sometimes manipulate his unwell mother in order to get what he wants. He seemed to be very untrustworthy and at times even cold and hostile to his ailing mother. Fiona was a little better, but there was something about her that evaded normalcy and made her a person who was not always trustworthy either. LaPlante succeeds in making the people who interact with Jennifer seem a bit debauched, and by doing this, the reader can start to feel like they’re inhabiting Jennifer’s mind and feeling the suspicion and paranoia that the protagonist is experiencing. As Jennifer deteriorates, she has moments and even hours of stiff lucidity that allow her to reflect on her life and the lives of her family. She never regrets the things she’s done, but there is a certain wistfulness at the way things have turned out for her. At other times she’s no better than screaming, biting harridan, incapable of behaving normally or remembering who her family are. In the typical fashion of Alzheimer’s, Jennifer swings from bad to good several times a day, and though she’s usually compliant, there are times when she is violent, refuses her medication, and acts out.

When the news of the murder reaches Jennifer, she is disbelieving, and because of the nature of her disease, she must have the news broken to her over and over again. As Jennifer mentally regresses, she’s sometimes able to get lost in the memories of her friendship with Amanda in all its unhealthy and strange permutations. Amanda was the type of woman who was controlling, demanding and secretive. She has information at her disposal and uses it to blackmail others and make demands that she would otherwise not be able to make. Her friendship with Jennifer is strange in that both women seem to both hate and love each other, and there is a dependence that they share for one another that is not in the least healthy. When I was reading, I was wondering why Jennifer kept her friendship with Amanda going, why she kept forgiving this woman. Ultimately I think it came down to power. Amanda had it, and Jennifer was envious of it, and because of the inequality in the balance of power between them, the friendship crossed boundaries that it normally wouldn’t have. At the bottom of all this was the fact that no matter how abusive Amanda was to her, Jennifer genuinely loved and cared for her. This was one reason why it was so hard for her to understand that the police suspected her in Amanda’s murder, and why it was so painful for her to have to receive the news over and over again. In a way, Jennifer was closer to Amanda than she was to anyone in her own family, even her children.

This was a suspenseful knot of a read that kept me guessing all the way to the final page. The book’s plotting was exceptionally tight and though the story was written in a slightly different style, it was the kind of book that’s easy to become emotionally invested in on several levels. Far from being only a murder mystery, this book has the added depth and pathos of sharing the story of a woman in the throes of a disease that is eating her consciousness away day by day. In the end, I think you‘ll be just as surprised as I was at the implications of this story, and though it’s a difficult read, it’s definitely one that will keep its readers guessing time and time again. Recommended.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Miss Timmins’ School for Girls by Nayana Currimbhoy — 512 pgs

Miss Timmins' School for Girls: A NovelWhen young Charulata Apte is sent to Miss Timmins’ School for Girls as a new teacher, she is sheltered, shy and reclusive. Believing herself to be disfigured by a birthmark on her face, Charu spends a lot of her time fading into the background and observing the world from behind her dark curtain of hair. Navigating her way among the other teachers and students, Charu is suddenly swept up into a curious relationship with one of the more unconventional and wayward teachers, Ms. Moira Prince, and this relationship begins to change the reserved and quiet Charu in ways that no one can imagine. But when Moira is murdered and rumors fly through the school, Charu finds herself at the center of a controversy regarding Ms. Prince. Added to this mysterious murder is Charu’s new and unpredictable relationship with a man named Merch and the wayward drifters he spends time with, and Charu’s increasingly difficult relationship with her parents, whose hidden secrets have finally burst forth in destructive and powerful ways. In this novel of India during the 1970s, one year of boarding school mayhem and an unexpected murder is examined through the myopic lens of those who reside inside Miss Timmins’ School for Girls and the surrounding area.

I have to admit that I had a really hard time with this book for a lot of reasons. Normally I love books set in and around India, and the time period the book took place in was also a boon for me. But for some reason, the amalgamation of all these elements coupled with the plot and characters just didn’t work for me. It all came across as sort of a jumble, and I was glad to have finally turned the last page and called it quits. Stylistically, I felt this book had a lot in common with The God of Small Things, which is another read that although beloved by others, just didn’t work for me.

One of the main problems I had with the book was the sheer overabundance of characters. Each was given a brief description and then sort of disappeared from view for a while until they would make their second and third appearance and I would have forgotten every description I had read earlier. They were all just so amorphous and fuzzy, these many characters, and for some reason even the characters that weren’t given short shrift lacked subtle definition. The one character I felt that I got to know well was the protagonist, Charu, and what I knew of her, I liked. I thought her moral and mental indecision was very realistic and I grew invested in finding out what would eventually happen to her. Unfortunately, the other characters just didn’t stick with me and I was unable to form any type of connection with them, which made me feel curiously detached from the story.

I also had a problem with the plot, or really, the lack of it. I can only assume this book was meant to be a character study of Charu, because the murder of Ms. Prince was literally the only thing that happened here, and it was examined from so many angles and garnished with so many rumors that I quickly became exhausted with it. How many times can you go around and around about the same plot point without it becoming tedious? I grew to resent the fact that this crime was so all-inclusive and important to the story, and felt that the author was beating the reader over the head with the significance, repercussions and nuances of the murder. At a certain point, I didn’t care anymore, and the more it was harped on, the more I felt like I just wanted to close the book and be done with it. One significant plot point does not a book make, and though the writing was elegant and lush, I found myself becoming ever more frustrated with the way the book kept circling the same events over and over again. This is not to say that the murder was the only thing that happened in the book, but that it was the focal point for too long in in too many ways. I would have liked to have learned more about Charu and her family, or possibly have seen more information about the townsfolk that populated the area.

There were some aspects of the book that I did like even though most of it didn’t work for me. I liked the atmosphere of 1970s India during the monsoons and felt that the book drew a lot of tension and ambiance from the setting, which was pitch perfect. I also really adored the protagonist, Charu, and felt her fears and worries were very credible and understandable. The prose was tightly and expertly crafted, and I found certain sections of the book to be written with a very solid and artistic style. If not for the other problems I had with the plot and characters, this probably would have made for a tremendous reading experience for me. I can imagine that I’m probably going to be in the minority with my opinions on this book, which is fine with me, but I feel like the book could have been so much more with just a little bit of careful editing and trimming of fat.

Though I wasn’t overly fond of this book, it did have its moments and I can imagine that there are many readers out there who might like it. In spite of the difficulties I had with it, there are some scenes that stick in my mind and that I know will be hard to forget. I think this book will end up being very polarizing, with two camps forming between love and hate, and while I wouldn’t exactly say I hated it, I can say that it wasn’t at all what I had been expecting. A dark and mysterious read that although uneven was still haunting.

Author Photo About the Author

Nayana Currimbhoy was raised in India where she attended an all-girls boarding school in a fairly remote hill station. She moved to the U.S. in the early eighties, and has been a businesswoman and a freelance writer. She has written books, film scripts, and articles about many things, including architecture and design, and a biography of India Gandhi. Miss Timmins' School for Girls is her first novel. Nayana lives in New York City with her husband, an architect, and their teenage daughter.

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, June 21st:Dolce Bellezza
Wednesday, June 22nd:The Lost Entwife
Thursday, June 23rd:Bookworm’s Dinner
Monday, June 27th:Raging Bibliomania
Tuesday, June 28th:Steph and Tony Investigate
Wednesday, June 29th:Book Journey
Tuesday, July 5th:Life In Review
Wednesday, July 6th:Reading Through Life
Thursday, July 7th:Rundpinne
Monday, July 11th:Alison’s Book Marks
Tuesday, July 12th:The House of the Seven Tails
Wednesday, July 13th:Unabridged Chick

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Healer Giveaway

Healer: A NovelClaire Boehning is dealing with a lot these days. After a disastrous complication with her husband Addison's new drug research, Claire and her small family are left financially destitute. This is a severe change, as in the days leading up to the disaster, Claire, Addison and their teenage daughter Jory lived a very expensive lifestyle. Now the family has sold their beautiful and spacious home in Seattle and moved to a small farmhouse in rural Washington. Addison is not deterred by these complications and continues to seek funding for his new drug, flying to cities all over the country to meet with entrepreneurs who might be interested in backing him. This leaves Claire to struggle alone at the farmhouse with Jory during a blisteringly cold winter, a winter in which she cannot afford to purchase propane to heat the house. As Claire struggles to make ends meet, she hatches a plan to seek employment as a doctor in the nearby small town. But having given up her schooling after Jory's birth, Claire has not actually been certified as a doctor, and as such can only find work caring for the sick in an underfunded clinic that mainly treats migrant farm workers. Meanwhile, the relationship between Claire and Addison is deteriorating rapidly due to the anger and resentment Claire feels about Addison's financial mismanagement. In addition, issues begin to crop up with Jory, who is not only lonely in her new surroundings, but acting out as she sees her parents' marriage crumbling. In this timely and realistic tale, Cassella shows us the life of one family struggling under the financial burdens that so many today are facing.

Click here for my full review.

In honor of the paperback release of Healer by Carol Cassella, the publishers of the book are offering my readers one copy to be won in a giveaway. If you’re interested in reading this book (which I have to say was totally engrossing and involving) please fill out the form below, and good luck to all entrants!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Iron Queen by Julie Kagawa — 368 pgs

The Iron Queen (Harlequin Teen)Meghan Chase, a half human and half faerie girl, is finally coming home to her human family after being drawn deeply into the faerie world in order to battle the Iron Fey. But just as Meghan and her companion and lover Ash, prince of the winter realm, finally reach Meghan’s home, she’s accosted by malicious servants of the Iron Fey and dragged back into the all-consuming war that is taking over the faerie realm. It’s only Meghan and Ash’s quick thinking and use of their faerie power, called glamour, that they escape unscathed. But just when Meghan thinks she’s free, she’s summoned by her father, the Summer King, and offered a reprieve of her exile from the faerie world. If Meghan agrees to assassinate the new Iron King, she’ll be granted freedom to travel between the human and faerie worlds again. This doesn’t hold that much interest for Meghan, who is happy enough leaving faerie behind, but when she realizes the Summer and Winter Fey are at the mercy of the Iron Fey who wish to destroy them and their realms, Meghan agrees. Traveling with her on her journey are the same group of friends who have done battle with her previously, including the serious and loyal Ash, the ever instigating Puck and the adorably coy cat Grimalken. Will Meghan and her cohorts arrive in time to save the world of faerie from the Iron Fey and their murderous king? Fans of the Iron Fey series will relish Meghan’s continuing journey through the land of faerie and will be at the edge of their seats in this, their most suspenseful encounter yet.

I felt slightly hindered while I was reading and now while reviewing this book, as I haven’t read the previous books in the series. While I obviously know that it would have been much better to start with the first two books, I thought it would be interesting to see if this one would be able to stand alone without having read the others in the series. I guess the answer to that is a bit mixed. While I do think one can enjoy this book as a standalone because much care is given to review the various plot points of the other two books, there were certain important points that I never really could understand. Things like, what exactly were the Iron Fey and how did they come to be? And why were all the fairy worlds at war?

One thing I really liked about this book, and which will make me interested in going back and picking up the first two, was the great world-building that Kagawa succeeds in delivering. There are all sorts of strange locations and rules to these worlds, and where she really got me was in her great imagination when it came to all the creatures that populate her faerie realms. If there was ever a book that would keep you entranced with all the odd creatures you could imagine, this wold be that book. Tree people and great metallic bugs, talking cats and mechanical gremlins: this book had it all. It would be interesting to go back and see this world from its inception and see just how intricately developed the world-building is from the beginning. As such, it was the kind of book that always surprised me and kept me on my toes because I never knew what kind of creature or setting I was going to find myself reading about. As far as creativity goes, I would have to give Kagawa high marks for the type of creation she undertakes.

The storyline, while a little convoluted, was also easy to get invested in. The only reason I mention that it was a bit convoluted is the same reason I stumbled over other parts of the book, and that’s because of my lack of background and frame of reference. Overall the book had a wonderfully organic feeling plot and it didn’t feel like there was too much reliance on coincidence or an over orchestration of events that might make things feel forced and overdone. I also liked that it wasn’t predictable and that I had trouble guessing what was going to happen next in relation to the plot and character interactions. I often find that books which are the most creative and inventive are also the ones where things feel least predictable, and in this case, the verve and wit of the characters and scenarios was both interesting and fantastical. The only thing that mildly irked me was that it contained a token love triangle that I thought the story could do without. Because of this triple-sided love affair things seemed a lot more angst-y, and as such, I was never able to forget that this was a book that was targeted to a YA audience. The crossover potential could have been huge had this not been the case, but because of its inclusion, the potential appeal to adult readers is somewhat diminished.

While I do wish I had started this series at the beginning, I think the narrative undertaken in this book was just about good enough to stand alone, and I was surprised at how invested I got in Meghan’s story. I think the crucial element was the world building and the creature creation, so if that is your bag too, I think you‘d really find a lot here to entice you and capture your interest. I hear that there will be a fourth book, called The Iron Knight, and hopefully after I’ve caught up on the first two books, The Iron Knight will be available for my perusal as well. A fun romp of a read that will help you escape those hot summer days.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Bitter Melon by Cara Chow — 320 pgs

Bitter MelonFor Frances, a young Chinese-American girl who lives in a dilapidated apartment with her mother, the pressure to succeed and fulfill her mother’s dreams for her is almost too much to bear. Though Frances is an excellent student, her mother is constantly pushing her to more and more rigorous feats of academics, hoping that one day Frances will become a doctor and take care of her financially. But though her mother is ostensibly looking out for Frances’ welfare, she can be very abusive and demeaning. At times, it’s all Frances can do not to give up when her mother repeatedly attacks her, both physically and emotionally. When a mistake is made with Frances’ schedule during senior year, she finds herself taking a speech class instead of the calculus class she needs to get into Berkley. Frances decides to remain in the class, and finds the class and its related competitions are the one safe haven for a girl who is trying to make her way against the heavy strictures of her mother. Soon Frances is lying and enlisting the help of her best friend to hide the fact that she’s competing in speech tournaments. Will Frances ever be free of her manipulative and cruel mother, or will she eventually bend and succumb to forces that seem stronger and stronger everyday? In this stunning and perceptive work of fiction, Cara Chow brings us the life of girl who’s desperate to escape the power of her all-consuming and abusive mother, and shares the triumphs and defeats she faces on her journey towards freedom.

When I was initially pitched this book, the publicist mentioned the story had a lot in common with that very controversial non-fiction work, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Though I haven’t read the book, I’ve certainly read about the controversy it sparked, and found that this book did indeed have a lot of the same hallmarks as Battle Hymn. It was a tough read, and while at first I didn’t see the problem with the behavior of Frances’ mother, her misbehavior grew exponentially until I could no longer stand her and I was desperate to see Frances free herself of her mother’s poisonous influence.

Part of the reason Frances wasn’t able to defend herself against her mother’s tirades and abuse was because she had been instilled with a sense of family loyalty, and because her mother touted the belief that she should always be honored, respected and obeyed. It was hard for Frances to believe her mother didn’t have her best interest at heart, and the constant put-downs and debasement had a very negative effect on her self esteem. I couldn’t believe her mother was so nasty and caustic when it came to belittling her daughter and I found it repugnant that her sole motivation for pushing Frances into medical school was her own self-interest. When Frances begins to strike out on her own, her mother seems to always be one step ahead of her and soon discovers that Frances isn’t following the directions that have been set for her. This leads to more acrimonious abuse and name calling, and I began to despair for Frances and the horrible life she had to lead. Another component of the problem was that Frances and her mother were isolated from most of the community and had very little outside influence with which to temper themselves. Shutting out the rest of society, Frances’ mother kept her alienated and afraid, unable to go to anyone for the help she so desperately needed.

When Frances breaks out of her shell and begins to compete in speech competitions, she really begins to flower, both emotionally and socially, but all her advancements must be hidden from her jealous and controlling mother. As she becomes more and more enveloped in speech, she’s mentored by a teacher who cares for her and encourages her, giving Frances a sense of self worth that even her mother can’t take away. Eventually, of course, there is a showdown, and Frances’ mother becomes not only violent and abusive but painfully self-serving and controlling. It’s up to Frances to break away from her mother and into the kind of life she wants to lead, and though she’s only spreading her wings into adulthood, her mother mistakes her independence for betrayal. As Frances steps away from her mother’s influence, I cheered for her and got completely invested in her struggle to be free from the oppression that her mother so diligently presses upon her. It’s the journey from battered and abused child to free young woman that captivated me and kept me turning the pages.

I’m not sure this book directly parallels Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother because where one speaks of control and subservience in the mother/child relationship, the other speaks of unspeakable cruelty and abuse committed in a relationship that is in some ways supposed to be sacred. The book did remind me a little bit of Girl In Translation because both dealt with the relationship between a Chinese mother and daughter, and both highlighted the fallout caused by high academic and social expectations perpetrated by Chinese mothers. Girl in Translation differs because it didn’t feature abuse and manipulation on the maternal side, and I found that by introducing this concept into the story, the emotional component was heightened by several degrees. Though it was an uncomfortable story to read, it was realistic and at times very angering.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Please Look After Mom by Kyung-sook Shin — 256 pgs

Please Look After MomIn this somber and heartbreaking novel, an older woman, mother to four children and three grandchildren, goes missing after she fails to follow her husband onto a train in a crowded station. Though her children immediately take to the streets to hand out flyers offering a reward for information, time passes with no news or plausible leads. Park So-nyo is out there somewhere, lost and confused as each child reflects on their life with a mother who would do anything and sacrifice all for each of them and her husband. As the chapters move forward, an intimate picture or Park So-nyo is revealed: a hardworking farm woman living in the rocky hills of Korea, cooking and cleaning and farming the land year after unchanging year, giving her children the kind of love and support that is often taken for granted. When the grown children begin to talk amongst themselves and their father, it’s revealed that Mother had been acting strangely even months before her disappearance, succumbing to violent headaches that sometimes left her unconscious and other times forgetful. Now it’s up to the children and their father to bring Park So-nyo back home, despite the extended length of time she’s been missing, for they all wish to finally tell her they love her and that her seemingly inconsequential life has meaning to each of them. Spare and unflinching, Please Look After Mom is a story with immense emotional weight and heft, and will leave its readers hungering for a resolution to the dilemma of a missing woman, gone before her time, and the pain it sparks in the family that still searches for her.

One of the things that was different about this book was the fact that three of the four sections, which alternated in their viewpoints, were written in the first person. Although this doesn’t always work, what happened here was that the use of first person actually intensified the urgency and alienation of each of these characters from their mother. It was a risky thing to attempt, but because it was employed successfully, it elevated the narrative into a thing of beauty and, at times, terror.

The story in this book was penetrating, yet somehow reserved with secrets popping out of the text like landmines. Each section is a narration from a different character, whose relationship with Park So-nyo varies in strength and passion, and who comes to realize that the loss of their mother is a fundamental source of agony for so many reasons. The eldest daughter is the first section to be narrated, and as she rediscovers her mother through long forgotten or discarded memories, she begins to see that all the sacrifices that her mother made for her went unappreciated. Park So-nyo’s life has been filled with melancholy and longing, and it’s only after she is gone that her daughter sadly begins to realize this. Throughout the book, Park So-nyo is brought into clear focus and then curiously blurred away again.

The sections that are told from the point of view of Hyong-chol, the oldest son and favored child, revel in the memories of his complicity in her special coddling of him, and as he treks all over town following one bad lead after another, his heart is breaking. It becomes evident as the story progresses that none of the children, and even her husband, ever really knew what kind of woman she was; What her thoughts and desires might be, or why she consistently put her family before her in every matter. As strange reports of sightings begin to come in about an injured woman wandering alone, both the readers and the characters come to share a feeling of discomfiture at the implications of this news. Even the children’s father comes to realize that she was a stranger to him, and his ambivalent and neglectful treatment of her rear up in his heart to cripple him once his wife is not returned to him promptly.

Park So-nyo begins to emerge as a hard-scrabbling farm woman who is careful with money and very industrious, laboring long and hard in her fields, rice paddy and kitchen, but for whom sacrifices are not rare. What’s saddest about all this is her family’s complete lack of concern for the woman who cares for all their ills and who ignores her own pain to give them a better and more successful life. Park So-nyo is essentially unappreciated, and by the time she has gone missing, it’s only regret and heartache that she inspires in her children and husband, who are now desperate to tell her how important she is to them. It’s a heartbreaking and poignant tale that speaks eloquently of regret and missed opportunities, of mistreatment and the kind of ignorance of the heart that can begin to take place so easily in day-to-day life. These are relationships that survived on indifference, silence and disregard. The last chapters of the book are the most heartrending, as Park So-nyo narrates them herself and expounds on the lives of her children and husband and how she feels about each of them individually.

This was a very powerfully written yet quiet book that reverberated with the kinds of emotions that left me feeling withered and saddened. There are no easy answers and things don’t tie up nicely in the end. At times it was frustrating to read about how these ancillary characters cared so little for Park So-nyo while she was with them and how condescending and cruel they could be to her at times. It was a book that packed a huge emotional punch and left me feeling saddened, yet also a bit more heart-wise. It made me consider the error of leaving things unsaid and emotions left unexplored, and pulled me into the story of a broken and divided family whose only wish was for their mother to return. An entrancing read, highly recommended.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Memory Palace by Mira Bartok — 320 pgs

The Memory PalaceIn this haunting and penetrating memoir, author Mira Bartok shares her story of living life with a mother who suffers from schizophrenia, and the lengths to which she and her sister have gone to break away from the spreading violence and madness that so corrupt their lives. From Mira’s earliest memories, there was something not right about her mother, Norma. She often held conversations with unseen voices and became dangerously agitated when confronted. Living with her two young girls after being abandoned by her husband, Norma finds herself unable to take care of the three of them properly, her instances of illness growing exponentially. Eventually Norma and the girls move back into the home of her parents, but this too is a fraught situation, as Norma’s father is extremely abusive. As Mira and her sister grow older, Norma’s mental illness reaches an all time high and she becomes a persistent interrogator, and at times can be violent with her girls. Eventually the girls decide they must move to far-off cities and leave no forwarding address, hoping their mother will not be able to locate them. But when they learn that Norma is homeless and physically ill, the emotional toll it takes on Mira is severe. Though the girls try to get their mother the help she needs, she is far too stubborn, and it’s only when she’s in the throes of her final battle with cancer that the girls reunite with her and are able to get past the mental illness that has so decimated their lives. Stark and unflinching in its intimations, The Memory Palace is a chronicling of a life lived in the shadow of severe mental illness and the corrosion it inflicts upon a family.

Reading this book was difficult for many reasons. While the topic is one that interests me greatly, the realities of the story was the stuff of nightmares. It was extremely difficult to digest the ways in which this family was flawed, and the devastation was not only clear from Norma’s viewpoint, but of her girls as well. At times the book was frightening, and imagining what it must have been like to be a little child coping with this type of illness in a parent was heartbreaking and at times overwhelming. What was most frightening was the fact that Norma was constantly oblivious to her medical condition, leaving her daughters to bear the brunt of taking care of her and themselves, even when they were only small children.

As Mira reflects back on an atypical life and the consequences it had for her and her sister, she’s also dealing with the difficulties of having a brain injury after a disastrous car accident. All of these situations coalesce and leave her reserve low when attempting to deal with her mentally ill and dying mother. Mira begins to build a memory palace in her mind where the memories of her life can find a permanent home, but most of these memories are vivid with her mother’s madness and her inability to cope with the guilt this brings. Mira and Norma keep in contact through letters that Mira picks up from a post office box, and it is through these letters that the reader can see the psychosis and bizarre turns of Norma’s mind. In Mira’s reflections on life with her mother, Norma is at times horrifyingly emotionally spastic and occasionally ruthlessly dangerous, a woman pushed from the confines of sanity in electrifying relief. The memory palace Mira constructs also serves to highlight how both of the girls live in a world where it’s easy to shut out the infirmity of their mother.

Though most of the book is difficult and emotionally demanding reading, there are some spots of ethereal beauty in the story as well. One of the things that both Mira and her mother share is a love of art and music, and though both take very different paths in pursuing these interests, it’s something that they both can converse freely about and share appreciation for. Through the medium of artistic creation and interpretation, they bridge the distance between them. But most often, Norma is portrayed as paranoid and delusional, and even from childhood, she fills her daughter’s heads with otherworldly terrors and unimaginable and inappropriate things. Interspersed within Mira’s reflections on life with her mother are actual pages of Norma’s diaries and calendars, and what they reveal is a mind crumbling at its foundation. As Mira shares her perceptions of her mother, I could really understand how tiresome and scary it all was, the seemingly baseless paranoia and the interrogations that never ceased. When Norma is on her deathbed, the girls finally find a way to love their mother while still shunning the illness that consumes her, and it was here that the book took on heartrending urgency and emotional heft.

The Memory Palace deals with one of the least understood mental illnesses in human physiology, and as such, it expounds on something that is frightening and alienating both to its sufferers and to those who love them. While Bartok shares her perceptions on what it’s like to live with a mentally ill mother, she also shares pieces of her life that are eclectic and beautiful, but the thrust of this book is difficult and painful. It is obvious, though, that Bartok seeks to pay homage to her mother in a respectful yet uncompromising way, and in this endeavor, she succeeds fully. A very introspective and emotional read. Recommended.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Hundred Secret Senses by Amy Tan — 368 pages

The Hundred Secret Senses: A NovelOlivia was born to a Chinese father and American mother and has lived all her life in San Fransisco. Her father passes away while she’s still young, but not before telling her mother he was married before and fathered a child in China. As his dying wish, he asks Olivia’s mother to find this child and bring her to America. Soon Olivia’s half-sister, Kwan, is living with the family, but she’s not what you would call normal by Chinese nor American standards. Kwan claims to have yin eyes, a condition that allows her to see and speak with the ghosts of the departed, and also to have had some very interesting past lives which she shares in detail with Olivia over and over again. Olivia doesn’t much like Kwan, and the two sisters never manage to have the close relationship that Kwan so hopes for. Olivia is also having problems of a different kind, for she is going through a divorce from Simon, a man whom she once loved but now can’t stop arguing with. Though Kwan tries to push Olivia and Simon back together over and over again, it’s only when the three agree to go to China for a visit to Kwan’s old home that Simon, Olivia and Kwan discover each other again and realize the fateful place they all share in one another’s lives. Part family drama and part ghost story, The Hundred Secret Senses is Amy Tan at her best, once again telling a story that is nestled somewhere between China and America.

I’ve long been a fan of Amy Tan’s work and have read just about everything she’s ever published. I originally read this book many years ago but had pretty much lost whatever insights I had on it over time. When the opportunity came to review the book, I jumped at it, because who could refuse a stay in Tan’s lush and wonderful world once again. As I read, little bits of the book came back to me, but I have to admit that most of it took me by surprise, which was just what I had been hoping would happen. Though this is not my favorite of Tan’s books (that honor would go to The Kitchen God’s Wife) I did have an excellent time rereading this one. Tan is a master at creating the kinds of characters that you instantly care for and her plot lines are just wonderful.

Kwan and Olivia are a strange pair, and though they share no similarities or traits, Kwan is forever speaking about the likenesses between them. While Kwan is loving and forgiving, able to believe in past lives and ghosts, Olivia is more canny and headstrong; sometimes she can even be considered cruel. As the girls grow and mature together, they never lose these traits. Despite the fact that Olivia treats her shabbily, Kwan is always looking out for her younger sister and always willing to think the best of her. I liked Kwan, but Olivia was a different matter. She was often hard-hearted and emotionally cantankerous, who, when forced to deal with the softer and nobler emotions, often turned selfish and vindictive. This is true not only in her relationship with Kwan but in her relationship with Simon as well. Olivia is aghast with Kwan most of the time and resents her with a passion that Kwan refuses to notice or internalize, and with Simon, Olivia is jealous and possessive, not giving him the space or time to grieve his past losses.

As Kwan tells Olivia the story of her past life, she shares how she lived with Jesuit missionaries in 1800s China and befriended an American woman named Miss Banner, who had secrets of her own. This historical fiction component was wedged seamlessly into the modern day storyline and presented Kwan in a more full and all-encompassing light, revealing her her character, not only from days past, but in the present as well. As the historical plot line advances, we see the reason it was so hard for Kwan to be loyal to Miss Banner and why the woman came to depend on her above all others. This storyline skirted the lines between war, loyalty and romance, and was the perfect companion story to the modern day tale of Olivia and Kwan.

In the modern timeline, Olivia begins to reveal her failed relationship with Simon, and she creates a picture of a broken man and couple whom time has never been able to heal. Simon and Olivia’s relationship is plagued by the yearning Olivia suspects him of feeling for a lover from his past, and when Simon, Kwan and Olivia travel to China to visit Kwan’s homeland, each go searching for something different. As the trip progresses, resentments and doubts rear their ugly heads but begin to fall away after the unthinkable happens. The three then embark on new and tenuous courses in their relationships, and Olivia discovers a secret about herself that will not only change her relationship to Kwan, but to Simon as well.

This book is actually several stories within a story, and as it flows gracefully along, the themes of identity, family and memory are visited and revisited in the narrative. It ends on a bittersweet note, yet it’s not devoid of hope, and though some of the characters show great emotional growth, others hang on to stubborn and recalcitrant behaviors. It was a story that highlighted the importance of forgiveness and showed the delicacy and love between sisters so different from each other, yet so similar. A great read that will wrap you in Tan’s spell until the final page.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Friday, June 10, 2011

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood — 521 pgs

The Blind Assassin: A NovelIn this intricately woven novel, Margaret Atwood gives us the life story of Laura and Iris Chase, sisters whose fates are intertwined from their first recollections to their last. Daughters of a dissolute and extremely wealthy factory owner, both Laura and Iris are raised in the lap of luxury by their parochial mother; but when she dies, it’s up to their housekeeper Reenie and Iris herself to do the job of raising the sisters, a job their father cannot do. While Iris is mostly a solitary young girl and woman, Laura is more flighty and taken by strange notions and beliefs that shape her consciousness and the way she views the world, a fact that will change both her destiny and her sister’s.

Running concurrently with the story of Laura and Iris’ lives, a third story, housed within a second, is taking place. A young woman is having an affair with a man who is on the run, and the two are forced to meet in various abodes that he has been able to negotiate. The young man begins to create a fantastic tale for the woman’s entertainment, of an alternate universe where aliens make hostile overtures, bands of renegade tribes are on the loose, and where human sacrifice is the order of the day. The hero of this universe is the titular blind assassin, who will go to great lengths to live up to his calling. As the story of young lovers and their fantastical story moves forward, it’s sandwiched between the continuing life saga of Iris and Laura, one of whom will end up dead under mysterious circumstances, leaving the other to carry on her memory. Both fantastically imagined and beautifully crafted, The Blind Assassin is a triumph of literary achievement from one of the world’s most beloved authors.

When the erudite and insightful Aarti decided we should do another joint read, I was eager and excited that we would finally be reading a book by Margaret Atwood. Though I’ve read a few of her books, there were some in her canon that I never got the chance to explore. That is why I was very excited that I would be reading The Blind Assassin alongside Aarti, because though I knew that Atwood could be at times difficult, I also knew that with the help of my reading buddy, we could untangle all the mysteries that the narrative presented. And there was a lot in this book to ponder and discuss, so it was really wonderful to have a sounding board to tease out the meanings behind the book’s themes and ideas. So without further ado I present the second half of our joint conversation regarding The Blind Assassin. For the first half, hop on over to Aarti’s blog and check it out!

Aarti: Strangely, I think some of the most interesting aspects of the book for me revolved around characters I didn’t like, such as Iris’ husband and sister-in-law. I think it's fascinating the way Iris’ sister-in-law Winifred was thought so highly of, but is portrayed by Iris as being pretty reptilian. I love not knowing what the truth is. I don’t trust Iris’ viewpoint entirely because she was such a self-absorbed person. She never seemed to care about anyone but herself. She kept saying that she pretended to be stupid just to annoy Winifred and her husband Richard, but I think she used it as a method to not take any ownership over her actions. She just let things happen to her. She gave up on fighting back way before she should have. She never really wanted to fight- much more a passive person than a strong one.

Heather: I also found Iris to be pretty repugnant by the end of the book, and one can argue that her loneliness and hermit-like behavior were her just rewards. Spineless is a good word for her. A lot of the things she did frustrated me. Iris really is the only one left to tell the story, and that got me thinking about unreliable narrators, because I just finished a book where the narrator was of the most unreliable kind. Not that Iris was at all like that, but her comment that she was the only one left to remember made me think about it.

The story of Iris' life could have been boring had it been written by a different author, but for some reason I find it all very fascinating, which I didn't expect when I started reading it. I’m starting to understand that when one section is taking place, slight clues are being left that will be picked up in the next section.

Aarti: I really like the sections about old Iris. Like you, I think they could have been really boring, but instead are just so touching. She's so clearly very lonely and tired and it comes out so well in her story. I think a lot of old people probably feel like that- that they used to be vibrant, independent people and now they have to depend on other people to even take them to the store for errands and the like. I think it would be so difficult to cope with that, and I wish I understood that more while my grandfather was alive.

Heather: I also felt really sorry for Iris at times. Though she didn't really express it, it felt to me like she was just waiting for her time to die, which made me sad. It’s so interesting to think about what you say. For many years we are vibrant and at the center of our own worlds, and then one day, we just aren't any more. We’re burdens to those who care for us and we have little to no usefulness. I think Iris came from a place where she felt sorry for herself and what she had become, and it was definitely the case that she felt sorry for what happened with her daughter and granddaughter. Most of these sections left me feeling a bit melancholy at best, but they were still very interesting to read.

Aarti: I am not sure what I think about Iris’ personality. I vacillate between hating her and feeling sorry for her. It's easy to be full of regret after seeing the consequences of your actions, but to have no thought as to how they affect people while you are making those decisions? That's not okay.

Overall, I enjoyed the book. It was one that I think I could probably read again immediately after finishing it, and get so much more from it, because of all the linkages between different story lines and the very tightly-woven plot. I have a feeling it’s one of those books that, each time you read it, you get something different from it and appreciate anew the author’s dexterity in writing it. It isn’t often that I enjoy reading a book with some truly horrible characters in it, but I was so engaged with this one because the narrator’s voice was so true and strong. This is, I hope, the first of many Atwood novels I’ll enjoy! I’m so glad we decided to read it together- I think I got so much more from it that way.

Heather: I also really enjoyed this book, and it was very different than the Atwood I read previously. I think you’re right about the story being layered and tight, and I can see that reading it again might give me another viewpoint and vantage point from which to draw opinions on it. I do think that, though the characters were unlikable, they had a very unique viewpoint and their perceptions and voice were original. I also would have loved to see more from Laura’s viewpoint, because as it was, there was a lot to speculate on in regards to her mental state and actions. In fact, if there was one small drawback in this book, I would have to say it was the lack of a concrete foundation where Laura was concerned. Other than that, the book was actually pretty flawless, and I enjoyed it a lot. There was a lot to ponder here, and I‘m glad we were able to read this one together as well. I always get more out of books that we can dissect together!

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Sea Escape Giveaway!

Sea Escape: A NovelLaura 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 on 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 away from 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.

Just in time for the paperback release, Lynn Griffin, author of Sea Escape, has generously offered two copies of her book for giveaway on my blog! If you’re interested in winning a copy for yourself, please fill out the attached form, and good luck!

You can read my original review here.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Island Girl by Lynda Simmons — 448 pgs

Island GirlWhen Ruby Donaldson learns she is afflicted by Alzheimer's, or Big Al as she calls it, she decides she’s not going to hang around in limbo as she becomes a shell of her former self. As she organizes and reorganizes her life to leave her family safe and well taken care of after her eventual succumbing to the inevitable, Ruby is consumed with creating a future that she will likely not be a part of for those she loves.

Although Ruby is working overtime to cobble together a future for her family, she still has a lot to concern herself with in day-to-day life. Ruby runs a salon out of the home she shares with her daughter Grace, a woman who is mildly learning disabled and whose past is burdened by a secret that has torn her family apart. Then there is Liz, Ruby’s other daughter who lives far from the island and who despises and vilifies her mother. Ruby is also surrounded by her lover of many years, Mark, and his preteen daughter, Jocelyn.

As she tries to keep the secret of her Alzheimer’s to herself, her family life begins to spill out of control. For Liz, it’s an addiction to alcohol that has taken away her career and potential for friendships. For Mark and Jocelyn, it’s a father-daughter tug-of-war for independence and dominance; and for Grace, it’s the resurfacing of memories that have been locked away for too long. When Ruby’s disease begins to advance, the time to make family reparations grows short, and it’s only when both Ruby and the people surrounding her learn to forgive that there’s a chance for the healing and restoration of her family. But it all needs to happen quickly, as Big Al is working overtime on Ruby’s mind and pushing her toward an inexorable decision that will change her life and the lives of those in her family forever.

This book was a tough customer emotionally. I’ve read books about terminal illness and the pathos it creates before, but Simmons really outdid herself when it came to portraying the potency and fire of these situations. Never before have I seen such emotional conflict or been witness to such destructive and flawed characters. Though each character had their own reasons for their anger and their actions, a lot of the time their actions seemed ultra caustic and spine-numbingly cruel. Needless to say, this made for a most intriguing reading experience and left me scanning the pages with my mouth hanging open in awe most of the time. These characters were far from PC and they didn’t care who knew it. I liked them and hated them at the same time, but what I really admired was Simmons’ ability to keep the emotional stakes high and tingling at all times.

Ruby is a resourceful and energetic woman, which is one of the reasons her diagnosis is so hard for her to swallow. She has issues with control, and I think part of the problem she had with accepting the Alzheimer's was that she would have to slowly cede all control over to the illness, despite her efforts to hang on. But Ruby’s quest for control could be damaging at times, especially in her relationship with her daughter Grace. Using her disability as an excuse, Ruby becomes an iron fist of dominance in Grace’s life. She spies on her computer habits, forbids her from contacting her sister, and keeps her close to home at all times. But this is not the only flaw in Ruby’s character, because she has volatile relationships with all the people around her, from her other daughter Liz, to her lover Mark and his daughter. I found it interesting that I could care about Ruby’s prognosis and degeneration because, frankly, she was a witch. She ran roughshod over everyone and took over whenever she got a toehold in someone’s life. She was not a nice or loving person, and at times she was supremely selfish, but Simmons made her so real and human that I couldn’t help but get invested in her plight.

The two sisters, Liz and Grace, were as different as night and day. Liz, an unrepentant and belligerent drunk, had basically washed out of her career as a lawyer and was harboring some deep-seated issues with her mother. When Liz is compelled to help a friend, she comes to realize that she does indeed still have potential and she can heal from the wounds she’s inflicted upon herself. Grace, on the other hand, was an innocent who was domineered by her mother. It was sad to watch her being limited in every sense of the word by a mother who felt she needed protection from herself and the world around her. Though Grace had difficulties in her past, she is loving, kind and is able to manage her life far more capably than anyone in her family suspects. As the sisters deal with life and their mother in their own ways, they prove to be just as persistent and unstoppable as Ruby in their own fashion and time.

Thematically this book dealt with a lot of issues and it made me ask myself a lot of questions. What is the ultimate end of control, and who does it benefit when a life is restricted by the overarching domination of another? Who’s to say when infirmity trumps quality of life, and is forgiveness of past transgressions always possible? Though this book attempts to solve these and many other issues, the outcome is not always what’s expected, and the road to restoration can be brutal and indelicate as the characters twist and contort themselves into a semblance of normality. it was a brave story, and for all its abruptness and ugliness, it felt true and realistic. In asking these questions and creating this rich drama for her characters to fight their way through, Simmons slices her way down to the nucleus of what it means to be alive and to fight for that life. As many have probably said before, the ending was rather shocking and sad, but it also had the hallmark of plausibility and credibility and it made the book all the more poignant and heartbreaking

If you’re the type of reader who likes a meaty story that will suck you into the pages, and relishes characters whom you can love and hate at the same time, you’ll doubtlessly love this book. Island Girl is not only a timely story, it’s one that’s imbued with some of the toughest emotions and situations that I’ve ever come across in a fictional work, and it’s a story I won’t soon forget. Both taut and psychologically penetrating, this is a book that will get people talking and will live on in your mind long after the final page is turned. Highly recommended.

Great news! Lynda Simmons has graciously offered to give two copies of Island Girl to two of my readers. If you’re interested in winning a copy for yourself, please fill out the form below and good luck! This contest is open to residents of the US and Canada only.

Author Photo About the Author

Lynda Simmons is a writer by day, college instructor by night and a late sleeper on weekends. She grew up in Toronto reading Greek mythology, bringing home stray cats and making up stories about bodies in the basement. From an early age, her family knew she would either end up as a writer or the old lady with a hundred cats. As luck would have it, she married a man with allergies so writing it was.

With two daughters to raise, Lynda and her husband moved into a lovely two story mortgage in Burlington, a small city on the water just outside Toronto. While the girls are grown and gone, Lynda and her husband are still there. And yes, there is a cat – a beautiful, if spoiled, Birman.

When she’s not writing or teaching, Lynda gives serious thought to using the treadmill in her basement. Fortunately, she’s found that if she waits long enough, something urgent will pop up and save her – like a phone call or an e-mail or a whistling kettle. Or even that cat just looking for a little more attention!

To learn more about Lynda and her work, visit her website or check her out on Facebook.

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, May 16th:Lit and Life
Tuesday, May 17th:A Library of My Own - author interview
Tuesday, May 17th:A Library of My Own - review
Wednesday, May 18th:Book Reviews by Molly
Thursday, May 19th:Acting Balanced
Friday, May 20th:Knowing the Difference
Monday, May 23rd:Life in Review
Tuesday, May 24th:Rundpinne
Wednesday, May 25th:Reviews from the Heart
Friday, May 27th:BookNAround
Tuesday, May 31st:Teresa’s Reading Corner
Author Guest Post: “Writer’s Block”
Tuesday, May 31st:Teresa’s Reading Corner - review
Wednesday, June 1st:Book Club Classics!
Monday, June 6th:A Cozy Reader’s Corner
Tuesday, June 7th:Book Bird Dog
Wednesday, June 8th:Raging Bibliomania
Thursday, June 9th:Hey, I Want to Read That
Monday, June 13th:Peeking Between the Pages
Date TBD:Colloquium

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Joy for Beginners by Erica Bauermeister — 288 pgs

Joy For BeginnersIn this novel of vignettes, six women gather to celebrate their friend Kate’s remission from breast cancer. As they gather for a wonderful night of shared conversation and good food, Kate levels a challenge to each of the women assembled. Each woman is going through a rough patch in her life and Kate’s task for each of them is designed to make them take stock of their life and help propel them forward from their static situations. Both lyrical and wise, Bauermeister’s second novel of stories touches on the resiliency and wonder of womanhood, and expounds on the remarkable journeys that each woman must take to become whole and sound.

One of the things I found unique about this book was the fact that it was a group of interconnected stories held together by tiny threads that reverberated throughout the shared narrative. It was a lot like Olive Kitteridge in this way, and each woman got the chance to have her moment in the spotlight and her eventual reckoning when it came to performing her task. Each woman was unique and all were at very different stages in their lives, but there was something about them that made them all seem familiar. I think it was easy for me to single out particular character traits from all the women and morph them into a semblance of who I was, which enabled me to sympathize with even the colder and more remote characters.

As each woman’s life is uncovered, they are all tasked with the kinds of things that will help them see life from another angle: whether striking out independently and doing something entirely for and by themselves, or pruning the solitude of their lives and making room for happiness in their hearts, or making an irreversible decision that one particular woman has been avoiding for years, Kate hits on the exact formula for each woman that will help them erase their bonds from the past and present and send them spiraling into a fresh and unknown future. Kate even sets a challenge for herself and finds herself reclaiming her life and diving into adventure after her remission from cancer. She, like all the other women, discovers that she can once again hold her future in her hands.

Bauermeister does a great job incorporating all sorts of elements into her story, and fans of her first book will be excited to hear that there are a lot of delicious foodie moments in this book as well. There are also some great passages about the love of books, and that, going hand in hand with the foodie portions, made me a very happy reader indeed. This book both delicately and resoundingly shares the viewpoints and experiences of women who are stuck in the everyday conundrums and difficulties that life forces on them, and in their struggles to complete their challenges and change their fates, each woman learns to become the center of her own joy and fulfillment. It was a heady message, and one that Bauermeister effortlessly crafts between each of her female leads and their plights. I thought there was a lot here that fully embodied the experiences of being a woman and that highlighted some of the difficulties and joys that reverberate through the lives of women everywhere. Bauermeister does a wonderful job of making these women realistic and sympathetic, and though there really isn’t a cogent narrative thread running throughout, there was never a lack of emotion, feeling or urgency to the story she tells. Each woman has her moment in the sun and steps forward, changed and renewed, giving Kate’s challenge meaning and portent.

Though I think I enjoyed The School of Essential Ingredients just a tad more than I did this book, I found the story to be very cleverly put together and liked what Bauermeister was able to create with this collage of women and women’s issues. It was a book that was easy to relate to, and I’m confident that each female reader will find her counterpart within these pages. A very melodious and comfortable read that had a lot to say about the realities of being a woman. Recommended.

Great news! The publisher of Joy for Beginners is offering one copy of the book to one lucky reader. If you’re interested in winning a copy for yourself, please fill out the form below and good luck! This contest is open to residents of the US and Canada only.

Author Photo About the Author
Erica Bauermeister is the author of the national bestseller The School of Essential Ingredients. She lives in Seattle with her family.

Connect with Erica on her website and on her Facebook page.

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, June 6th:Peeking Between the Pages
Tuesday, June 7th:Raging Bibliomania
Wednesday, June 8th:Books, Movies, and Chinese Food
Thursday, June 9th:Jenny Loves to Read
Friday, June 10th:Amusing Reviews
Monday, June 13th:Book Club Classics!
Tuesday, June 14th:2 Kids and Tired
Wednesday, June 15th:Books and Movies
Thursday, June 16th:Joyfully Retired
Friday, June 17th:Redlady’s Reading Room
Monday, June 20th:Luxury Reading
Tuesday, June 21st:Teresa’s Reading Corner
Wednesday, June 22nd:Rundpinne
Thursday, June 23rd:Lit and Life
Friday, June 24th:Lori’s Reading Corner
Monday, June 27th:The Brain Lair
Tuesday,June 28th:Library of Clean Reads
Wednesday, June 29th:Life in Review
Thursday, June 30th:POOF…books.
Date TBD:Bookish Ruth

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Brooklyn Story by Suzanne Corso — 336 pgs

Brooklyn StoryIt’s 1978 and fifteen year old Samantha Bonti is living in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, in a shabby apartment with her ailing mother and grandmother. Though her grandmother is loving and kind to Samantha, her mother, a prisoner of addiction and ill health, is constantly berating and maligning her daughter to no obvious effect. When Samantha’s older friend Janice introduces the young girl to twenty year old Tony Kroon, a local who is part of the “Brooklyn Boys” crew, Sam’s life is changed forever. Soon she’s living the high life of expensive gifts, hot cars and exclusive clubs, but it all comes with a hefty price tag. Before she even realizes what’s happened, things begin to take a sinister turn. Though her relationship with Tony goes from smooth to rocky in the blink of an eye, Sam still has dreams of becoming a writer and moving across the bridge to Manhattan, dreams that may perish if she continues to be Tony’s girl. As Sam grows into a young woman, she must navigate through the rough waters of Tony’s possessiveness, violence and disregard. Though her mother and grandmother constantly tell her Tony is trouble, it’s only when Sam begins to see him through newly clear eyes that she discovers a man unlike any she has ever known, and must decide whether to remain the girlfriend of a small time mobster or to attempt to realize her dreams of becoming famous across the water. In this realistically gritty portrayal of a young girl caught up in a dangerous relationship, Suzanne Corso brings 1970s Brooklyn into fast and furious relief, and shares Samantha Bonti’s heartbreak and joy as she attempts to make a better life for herself.

This is going to be a tough book to review, because although it’s not a memoir, it’s based upon the real life circumstances of the author’s past. This causes a problem for me because I wasn’t a huge fan of the book, but by making critical comments on it, it feels like I’m judging the life of a person and not just the story between the pages. The book’s curious melding of fact and fiction present me with a unique problem in giving it a fair review, but I’ll do my best to explain how I felt without trying to alienate or offend the author whose life story this book reflects.

Sam is a bright girl with dreams, but though she dreams of a better life, she’s soon invested in a pedestrian and controlling relationship with a wannabe gangster who treats her like a piece of property. There were times when she did mentally rebel over the way Tony treated her, but she never seemed to let those thoughts move into action. I also found it a little off-putting that Sam was only fifteen years old when when she began to date a twenty year old man. I know that this sort of thing happens, but having a daughter this age, it really stuck an unpleasant chord and sort of nauseated me. I also was also frustrated by the repetitive way that Sam reacted like a deer in the headlights every time her so-called great catch acted abusive. Thinking back, it’s clear to see that Sam was in way over her head, but with only the other girls in her neighborhood (who were all in the same situation) to look to for advice, Sam never really had a chance.

There was a lot of talk about how smart Sam was in regards to her writing, but I guess it was all book smarts and not street smarts. She continually acted rather foolishly for most of the story, caught up in the wash of a baby mobster's bad behavior. Though every adult in her life tells her that she should get away from Tony, Sam continued to be naive and trusting of a man who was just no good for her. A lot of the time she came off as a bit backward and seemed to have some underlying self-esteem issues that halted her progress when it came to leaving Tony. I also didn’t like that she constantly made excuses for his behavior, even when no excuse could have sufficed, and it was bothersome that she kept changing her behavior and attitude to model the type of behavior that Tony demands. As Sam gets more and more invested in Tony and his lifestyle, she gets further and further away from the life she longs to lead one day, but it isn’t until things begin to get out of control that she even thinks that being with Tony might be a problem.

Another thing that bothered me was the fact that although Sam was purportedly only fifteen, she thought, spoke, and acted like a much older teenager. The story was littered with clich├ęs and uninspired dialogue which took a lot of the originality out of it as well. As Sam mistakes dominance for affection over and over again, she repeatedly deludes herself about the strong connection that she shares with Tony, which was upsetting to me. She also continues to support all of his ill-intentioned decisions, and even as I turned the last few pages, I saw that Sam wasn’t able to fully break away from Tony as I had thought she would once she realized what kind of person he really was. It angered me that she kept going back to him, even when he did things that were tremendously unfeeling and selfish. The only bright spot was the relationship Sam had with her grandmother and her adherence to and love for her writing. As Sam eventually discovers, she must rely on herself to pull out of the tailspin she’s in and move on to a better life.

I have to be honest and say that this book frustrated me. In certain regards, I think it glamorized abusive relationships, and the main character spent a lot of time deluding herself and making things like this seem acceptable. If read by the wrong audience, it might send the wrong message, and though I’m loathe to criticize the author’s life, I didn’t find the book to be as memorable or original as I had hoped it would be. There are lessons to be learned, but they come very late, and as such their impact is severely diminished.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.
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