Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Fury by Elizabeth Miles — 384 pgs

Fury (Fury (Hardcover - Trilogy))Emily is having a conflicting winter break. While her best friend Gabby is away with her parents, she’s conscripted Em to keep a close eye on her boyfriend, Zach. But this in itself is quite a nefarious job, because Em has some deeply inappropriate feelings for Zach, and with Gabby absent, things begin to heat up in a very new way for Zach and Em. Meanwhile, all-star footballer Chase is being driven crazy by a flame-haired vixen who’s new to town. Chase isn’t really on solid footing at school because he’s hiding secrets about his home life and background, so when the beautiful Ty takes a sudden interest in him, he’s sure he can solidify his social standing by bringing her to the annual football dinner. But Ty is somehow...different. And though she ostensibly likes Chase, she always seems to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and seems to always want to get Chase into very compromising situations. She also has two equally gorgeous cousins who have some seriously weird preoccupations and behaviors. As winter break stretches on, Chase and Em will discover the real secrets behind the new girls and come to discover that karma can be a real bitch sometimes. When all is said and done, someone will be dead and someone else will be tied to these strange new girls forever.

While I really liked the last section of this book and thought it took a turn in a very interesting direction, the majority of the story was mired deep in teen drama. Cheating boyfriends, gossipy high-schoolers and tenuous crushes were not what I had been expecting, so perhaps I was a little underwhelmed with it all. And perhaps I’m not the target audience for this book. I think teenagers who love angst will be all over this one, and I can see that for a certain set, this would be a really interesting read. For the most part, I didn’t really care about the personal dramas that were being played out on the page, and hungered for the promised supernatural flare that came bounding out of the corners towards the end of the book. I had been wondering if it would ever happen!

The crux of this story dealt with issues that many teenagers will be familiar with. Namely, illicit relationships between people who should be off-limits to each other, and crushes on improbably hot girls. Yes, there was a lot lurking underneath all that, but those two situations were the focus of the drama. At certain points, a supernatural “bone” would be thrown at the reader, but it was all sort of vague and never really seemed cohesive to me. Who were these strange girls and what was their agenda, was the question on my mind most of the time, and I never felt like that topic got a lot of play in the story. Most of the book felt like a morality tale, but I admit that at points, there were some startling developments and strange twists. And I enjoyed that aspect of the book. I really did. But there needed to be more of it. I didn’t get the feeling that there was a whole lot of supernatural stuff happening at the root levels of the story. It was mostly a tale of teen drama superimposed over a background of the strange and otherworldly, which is fine, just not what I had been expecting.

One of the things I really liked about this book was the platonic relationship that Em had with her friend J.D. It was sort of the bright spot of the book for me because there wasn’t a lot of sticky sexual tension going on between them and there seemed to be a real and very natural affinity working in their relationship. I liked that they spent time together in a genuine and unromantic way, and it was because of this relationship that I was able to see the more well-rounded aspects of Em’s character. I also liked how they mentally riffed on each other and lovingly teased each other. It was an aspect of the book that I really enjoyed and felt very organic, and I was happy at the eventual direction this relationship took. Far from being uncomplicated, this relationship was complicated in just the right ways and left me eager to see what the next book brings for two characters who are simultaneously being pulled away from each other and pushed close. The conundrum between J.D. and Em is delicious enough for me to happily pick up the next book in the series without any qualms.

While this book was not quite my cup of tea, there were some interesting developments towards the end that will keep me hooked into this new series, and I think people who are less annoyed with teen angst and drama would find some very likable characters. I admit I can be a curmudgeon about teen angst, so you can take my harping on it with a grain of salt. Beyond the somewhat plebeian aspects of this story, there lurks something interesting, I think, and I’ll be more than happy to go along for the ride to discover what it’s all about. An interesting, if uneven read.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Rules of the Tunnel: My Brief Period of Madness by Ned Zeman — 320 pgs

The Rules of the Tunnel: A Brief Period of MadnessIn this frenetically charged, candid and frightening new memoir from Ned Zeman, the author compellingly relates how his battles with depression and anxiety force him into considering electroconvulsive therapy as a cure to what ails him. But the problems Ned faces when he submits to the therapy is far more damning and damaging than his initial illness, as afterwards, Ned becomes a severe amnesiac. When the journey first begins, Ned is a charismatic, if sometimes detached, reporter for Vanity Fair. Climbing the rungs from editor to contributing writer to screen play author, Ned is finding things difficult to manage, as his depression and anxiety are robbing him of the creativity he needs to write. After engaging a group of close friends to help him through these difficult times, Ned decides to begin medication and therapy, which seems to help him not one whit. He decides to enter a very expensive and elite hospital that at one time or another housed the crème de la crème of brilliant authors and journalists who struggled with mental illness. When he decides that electroconvulsive therapy is the direction he wants to go, friends and parents alike are alarmed. But not Ned. He is hopeful and excited, and it’s only after several treatments that he starts losing short and long-term memory and begins to act in some alarming and aggressive ways. This causes his friends to become anxious and scared for him, and a system is put into place for Ned’s safety. Now it’s up to Ned to rebuild and repair, but with no memory from which to draw, this is tough job indeed. The Rules of the Tunnel is Ned’s harrowing and sometimes unsettling story, from beginning to end and all the hair-raising stops in between.

I seem to be reading a lot of books that center on mental illness as of late. As the portrayal of mental illness in literature is quite fascinating to me, I certainly can’t complain at my headlong rush into this subject, but I do find that some books are better at capturing these stories than others. From the moment I picked this book up, I knew I was in for a wild ride. Ned is a very impressive dude, both in his intelligence and his intensity, and reading things from his point of view not only made me feel like I was being taken by the shoulders and brutally shaken, it also was like peeking into the window of a misunderstood man’s brain. All in all, an exhilarating experience, but one that also made me feel uncomfortably privy to some very sacred insights.

This book was written in the second person, and because of that, it was sometimes confusing. I can’t say I liked this perspective, but the appeal and strangeness of the tale sort of overrode my annoyance at this choice in style. Aside from some confusing moments, I was able to basically ignore this aspect of the book. There was also a decidedly experimental feel to a lot of this story. Ned takes his narrative in some pretty interesting directions by injecting the stories of the eccentrics whom he is profiling into his main narrative. Each of these stories relates the life and untimely death of a few men that had some strange compulsions and who suspiciously resemble Ned in their attitudes and mental proclivities. Incorporating these stories was a gamble, but I think it paid off handsomely and gave Ned’s story a heft and significance that it may not have had otherwise. I also admit to being just as fascinated by the stories Ned was investigating as he himself was, and the feeling was one of several layered stories being rolled into one poignant and relevant package.

As Ned fumbles his way towards sanity, it was easy to see that he couldn’t go on in this fashion for long. One of the reasons these mental afflictions took such a toll on him was that his illness not only robbed him of his ability to function in the outside world, but it hampered his ability to have normal and functioning relationships. Ned’s portrayal of his suffering was written with an erudite and punctilious style, and the self-depreciating humor he imbues his illness with was disarming and rather charming. Ned was the kind of depressive that you could easily understand and identify with because he was so deeply aware of both himself and his emotions. But his capacity for verbally communicating this to his family and friends was abysmal. Ned was a tough nut to crack in person, but in writing his story, he was both clear and creative. Clearly the pen was the perfect medium of self-expression for Ned, but as things became more and more hairy for him, even his capacity to reveal himself in his writing became limited. Sarcastic, witty and wry Ned became a shadow of his former self trapped in emotions that he couldn’t understand or relate to others.

At the zenith of his mental illness, Ned opts for elctroconvulsive therapy. Otherwise known as electroshock. Otherwise known as a concept that scares the bejesus out of me. Early on, the possibility of amnesia is discussed, but it never fazes him because it’s a condition that usually reverses itself rather quickly. But not in Ned’s case, and that’s what makes it all the more frightening. Post-procedure Ned is uncharacteristically mean and thoughtless. He’s a fabulist of intense proportions and swings into a mania that is truly out of character and shocking. He can’t be left alone because he has strange and alien ideas that put him in danger. As his friends form a human safety net around him, he becomes paranoid and suspicious, which are not usual side effects. Ned’s life begins to crumble, but he’s not as emotionally bashed as you or I would be, because frankly, he can’t remember what he has lost. He can’t remember significant relationships or even why he has certain mementos on his desk. Ned’s brain, reacting violently to the invasive procedure, flips into a twilight zone that is both harrowing and anxiety-producing.

This was a book that took my breath away in its ability to be piercing and strange, and the way Ned related all this was elegant and astounding. Mental issues aside, Ned’s voice and style was on the cusp of brilliance, and it was hard not to become just as overwhelmed as he was while reading this intense and personal tale. If you’re interested in finding out just what happens to Ned in the final sections of this book, I urge you to pick this one up and give it a try. In Ned’s voice you will find a man on a journey of epic proportions, and might even come to understand the unthinkable. An intense and thought provoking read that is so deftly rendered that it will have you enraptured. Highly recommended.

Author Photo About the Author

Ned Zeman is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, where he has covered a wide range of subjects: crime, politics, Hollywood, and outdoor adventure. He has also written for Newsweek, Spy, GQ, Outside, and Sports Illustrated. Two of his articles have been finalists for the National Magazine Award, and he cowrote the screenplay for Sugarland, the forthcoming film starring Jodie Foster. He lives in Los Angeles.

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, August 1st:Rundpinne
Tuesday, August 2nd:The Broke and the Bookish
Wednesday, August 3rd: Sara’s Organized Chaos
Thursday, August 4th:Chaotic Compendiums
Monday, August 8th:Acting Balanced
Tuesday, August 9th: Book Dilettante
Wednesday, August 10th: BookNAround
Thursday, August 11th:In the Next Room
Monday, August 15th:A Bookworm’s World
Wednesday, August 17th:Take Me Away
Thursday, August 18th:Bookshipper
Monday, August 22nd:Luxury Reading
Wednesday, August 24th:Melody & Words
Monday, August 29th:Life in Review
Tuesday, August 30th:Raging Bibliomania
Wednesday, August 31st:My Book Retreat
Date TBD:Brain Candy Book Reviews

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Lantern by Deborah Lawrenson — 400 pgs

The Lantern: A NovelAfter a whirlwind courtship, Eve and Dom decide to settle down in Provence, France in a crumbling and spacious homestead called Les Genévriers that is full of flavor and history. But from the moment the two embark on their new lives together, Eve begins to fret. While Dom was initially a very romantic and thoughtful partner, his behavior in Provence is at once puzzling and disturbing. First of all, Dom abhors any mention of his ex-wife, Rachel, and goes to great lengths to hide all facts about his previous relationship from Eve. At first Eve is gently understanding and considers Dom’s relationship must be too painful to speak about. But when Dom grows ever more distant and strangely uncommunicative, Eve is forced to seek answers elsewhere. It also seems that Dom can have an explosive temper when faced with the past, and as he becomes increasingly agitated, Eve begins to wonder just what happened between him and Rachel. As Eve and Dom work to refurbish and rebuild the crumbling homestead, haunting secrets begin to come to light that begin to change the way Eve looks at Dom, and she begins to realize that she knows far less about him than she had previously thought. Alternating with the story of Eve and Dom is the tale of Bénédicte, one of the women who lived in Les Genévriers many, many years ago. Bénédicte shares the story of her life at the homestead, where she worked the land with her family as sustenance farmers. But Bénédicte’s life was shadowed with unhappiness and pain, as her family was troubled in many different ways. From her sister Marthe’s blindness to her brother Pierre’s astonishing cruelty, Bénédicte recounts a life of hardship and dissension. Bénédicte’s story, nestled in between Dom and Eve’s tale, is a recounting of terrible misfortune, misunderstanding and murder. As the two tales weave together, Bénédicte and Eve will uncover some very frightening facts and come to understand that little is how it actually appears, both in the past and in the present, leaving them to deal with the ghost of their pasts, both metaphorically and literally.

From the moment this Gothic tale of suspense began, there was a subtle and nuanced atmosphere of mystery and darkness swirling about the characters and their situations. Strange occurrences, secrets, and possible ghosts all began to pop their heads up to give the story a very mystically original and inventively haunting feel. While one chapter would deal with Eve and Dom, the next would fly backwards in time to relate Bénédicte’s life at Les Genévriers and the mysteries of the past. It was, I think, a successful melding of two storylines, but like a lot of dual narratives, I enjoyed one section a fraction more than the other. In this case, I slightly preferred the present tale between Eve and Dom over the historical sections, which was sort of a surprise to me because I generally tend to appreciate the historical bits that usually present themselves in a dual narrative. In this case, Dom and his secrets were the powerful and enticing glue that kept me bound to the pages, for I wanted to see just what this very mysterious man was hiding, and just what Eve would do with the information she dug up about him. Despite my preference for Eve and Dom’s story, both stories were almost electrically charged with palpable suspicion and a heady dose of the macabre.

The story of Dom and Eve was very believable to me and also rather frightening in its own right. Eve was a woman who had never had a successful and long-lasting relationship with a man before, so Dom was like a dream come true for her. He was generous and giving and they had a strong chemistry that temporarily blinded Eve to Dom’s peculiarities. But as time wore on, Dom became more and more secretive and all but ignored Eve in some situations. It was obvious that he was hiding something, and I grew to dislike him and feel very uncomfortable with his relationship with Eve. Dom was really a mystery to me. He would lock himself away and write melancholy music, or disappear unexpectedly when pushed for answers. He became a sinister character who was sometimes menacing to Eve and the other people around him. Eve, for her part, began to drive herself crazy with speculation and wonder, and began to suspect Dom in bizarre plots and schemes. As I was reading, I could feel so much empathy for Eve, and I could feel her apprehension and fear towards a man she loved but was unsure whether she really knew. As the story wound further and further onward, Dom became a suspicious madman who seemed to shirk from all Eve’s attempts to understand him.

Bénédicte’s sections were also very dark, but in a different way. As she shared the story of her childhood and maturation at Les Genévriers, she laid the groundwork for what was to be a very affecting tale of secrets, harassment, and disturbing retribution played out by the horribly manipulative and cruel Pierre. Part of Bénédicte’s story centered around her sister, Marthe, and her eventual transformation from farm girl into dazzlingly successful perfumier. There were some very beautiful passages about the lavender fields of Provence, and the way the lavender was harvested to make perfume and medicinal tonics and powders, and these were sections that I lost myself in. They were sublime and very well crafted and made me feel enveloped in the sights and scents of the undulating fields of lavender that stretched across the countryside. But Bénédicte’s story was unnerving as well as evocative, and as she slowly recounts the horrors she witnessed and survived, I became both horrified and saddened for this woman whose life turned out so differently than she had dreamed it would. She was pursued and haunted by the roads not taken and by the ways in which she was forced to be complicit to a man whose heart was an abyss of hatred.

It was very easy to savor and get invested in the very different but complimentary storylines that Lawrenson created, and I also really liked that the atmosphere of the French countryside was such a permanent fixture for both sections of this story. Really, the setting was almost like a character in itself. There were a lot of intriguing pieces to this tale, and I found they came together wonderfully and seamlessly. Also, the last chapter was very surprising and satisfying and made me rethink the story and applaud the author for her cleverness. If you’re interested in Gothic literature and want a story with plenty of meat and mystery, this is definitely the book for you. It was the kind of read that you can’t help but get lost it. Recommended!

Author Photo About the Author

Deborah Lawrenson grew up in Kuwait, China, Belgium, Luxembourg and Singapore. She studied English at Cambridge University and has worked as a journalist for various publications in England, including the Daily Mail, the Mail on Sunday and Woman’s Journal magazine. She lives in Kent, England, and she and her family spend as much time as possible at a crumbling hamlet in Provence, France, the setting for The Lantern.

Connect with Deborah:

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, August 9th:A Soul Unsung
Wednesday, August 10th:Wordsmithonia
Thursday, August 11th:nomadreader
Friday, August 12th:Life In Review
Tuesday, August 16th:Unabridged Chick
Wednesday, August 17th:Books Like Breathing
Thursday, August 18th:The Road to Here
Friday, August 19th:The Lost Entwife
Monday, August 22th: Sara’s Organized Chaos
Tuesday, August 23rd:Dolce Bellezza
Wednesday, August 24th:Unabridged Chick
Wednesday, August 24th: Rundpinne
Thursday, August 25th:Bookstack
Friday, August 26th:Café of Dreams
Monday, August 29th:Raging Bibliomania
Tuesday, August 30th:Colloquium
Wednesday, August 31st:JenandthePen
Thursday, September 1st:Book-a-rama
Tuesday, September 6th:Book Dilettante
Thursday, September 8th:Book Hooked Blog

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Kimberly Freeman, A Guest Post and a Giveaway!

Wildflower HillToday I have a great guest post from Kimberly Freeman, the author of Wildflower Hill. I reviewed the book this week and have to say that it was a fantastic epic that really dealt with some startlingly deep issues. Today, Kim shares with us a little about her creative space, where she toils away creating books that will electrify and enmesh readers. So please welcome Kim, and stay tuned after the guest post for a great giveaway!

Welcome to my world.

As long as I can remember, I have been making up stories. When I was a child, imaginary friends simply weren't enough. I wanted them to do things, preferably things I couldn't do myself (like fight dragons or drive cars). I filled notebook after notebook with stories. I'll never forget the time I left one of my notebooks, with a half-finished story in it, on the bus. I was so distraught! My father called the council to ask if it had been found, and they said, "We have a notebook here, but it doesn't have the name Kim on it. It has the name Queenie McCartney." Yep, that was it. Queenie McCartney was my imaginary crime-solving buddy.

One of my favourite things about making up stories was always finding the right place to write. I inhabited many cubbies and nooks over the years, decorating them with pictures, hiding them from the world with curtains or bookcases. For me, the trip down the rabbit-hole was so much more fun if I had everything I needed around me (especially lots and lots of new stationery... oh how I love new stationery!!!), and if I knew I wouldn't be interrupted.

I still love writing more than anything (except perhaps my children), and I still have a special writing place that I go to. I have a lovely office looking out into the trees and out to Mount Coot-tha. This photograph was taken with my iPhone on a winter afternoon. Winter here in Brisbane is utterly sublime: the sun always shines, the sky is big and blue, the wind is high and soft in the treetops, and my cats always end up on my lap or across the back of my chair. You can see my desk is very neat. I love a sense of order all around me. You can probably also see I have a cup of tea. I have a low tolerance of caffeine so can only have two cups of tea a day: one at breakfast, and the other I save for writing time. And no doubt you can also see that I still have a stationery fetish.

So Wildflower Hill was written in this space, looking out into those trees, and drinking tea out of that cup. I loved every moment of creating Beattie's and Emma's world, and I hope that readers love it just as much.

Thanks for sharing your writing space with us, Kim! I have to admit I’m a lover and collector of stationary as well. All those pretty papers and envelopes just get me all a-twitter!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Displaced Persons by Ghita Schwarz — 368 pgs

Displaced Persons: A NovelIn this haunting and penetrating novel that explores the lives of a handful of Holocaust survivors, strangers and family alike become enmeshed in remembering a brutal history and creating a new and more peaceful future. For Pavel, a man who escaped a concentration camp, his new life as a displaced person in Germany is aided by his blatant opportunism. He’s also taken in a woman named Fela and a boy much like himself named Chaim, who have both lost their families. As the three learn to live in a war-torn country, their hope is to one day emigrate to America, but after failure and betrayal, it’s many years before they finally land in New York. Even then, things aren’t what they had hoped. As the three start a new life, with Fela and Pavel marrying, and Chaim relocating to Palestine before coming to America, the lives they lead are drenched in the difficulties of assimilation. As three generations of the family recount their lives from the moment the Allies arrive in Germany to the year 2000, when lives have been altered and different circumstances lived, Displaced Persons shares the hopeful, yet at times grave circumstances of those in-between people who somehow survived the unthinkable.

One of the things I found most interesting about this book was that it examined the Holocaust form a very different perspective than most other books about WWII. In my opinion, the stories of survivors have the potential to be one of the most potent types of stories from this period. In Schwarz’s portrayal of the difficulties these survivors faced, there was an elegant sorrow and a pervasive uphill climb for them to ever regain a sense of normalcy. The book opens just as the Allies are coming to the rescue of the Jews, so in fact, there aren’t many details about the Holocaust in the pages. Instead the book focuses on the way these displaced persons deal with their circumstances, which are strangely more hopeful, yet also understandably reduced. While it’s obvious they are grateful for their lives, at the same time they are broken and dispirited by their tremendous losses and the things they’ve experienced.

Part of the focus of the book was on Pavel and the makeshift family he surrounded himself with. Though he still has a few living relatives after these terrible circumstances have been wrought, he decides to provide a home for Fela and Chaim, and by providing both for them and himself, he regains a modicum of his stolen manhood. His love for Fela is something that grows over time, and after an inexplicable betrayal by a fellow survivor, he and Fela decide to unify and they eventually escape to America. Here they’re met by Chaim and his new family, and even others who have immigrated to form a small pocket of survivors living in the States. As the book moves through time, Pavel and Chaim's families grow, but no matter how far into the future they reach, they cannot leave their shared past behind.

As survivors of a tragedy like this, they are of course resilient, but also suspicious and fretful. At times they fade into the background, afraid to make their grievances known, afraid to trust fully in their new circumstances. As I was reading, it was hard for me not to feel the waves of discomfort coming from these people. To feel their heartache like a stone in my throat. In a way they maintained a sense of innocence and incredulity, due to their inability to fully process what had been done to them and taken from them. In their grief they sometimes become emotionally closed off to each other and to the world around them. It was chilling and saddening to realize that many years later, they would still question new acquaintances about possible survivors. I can’t even imagine the hope and terror that lives at the heart of a question like that. Sometimes it even seemed that they lived on the brink of an insidious paranoia, with all their joys tinged with a darkness that subtly revealed itself as they moved through their new lives.

At its heart, this was a book that, while enlightening, was also sometimes painful to read. It was a story that was steeped in the tragedy of the past but also in the ephemeral hope for the future. The characters in this tale maintained a passion for life but also harbored secret bruises that left them unable to exist in the same ways as others who hadn’t been a part of the Holocaust . It was a tenuous balance for them to maintain, and sometimes they were more successful than others. I think most of this book centered on the very ways that the survivors tried to make their lives as plebeian and normal as possible, despite the very unusual and horrible tragedies of their past.

This was a very serious and emotionally sticky book, but one I’m glad I experienced, because it told a very well known tale from a very different perspective. While there seem to be a glut of books that deal with the WWII experience, this book felt very different, and because of that, the voices of the characters seemed fresher and more immediate. I think those readers who have a fascination with this time period and subject would do really well to pick up this book and give it a try. It was unusually beautiful, but it was also a book that made one stop and consider the impact that the war had on the victims and survivors.

Author Photo About the Author

Ghita Schwarz is a civil rights lawyer specializing in immigrants’ rights. She lives in Brooklyn, New York. Displaced Persons was a finalist for the Foundation for Jewish Culture’s Goldberg Prize for Outstanding Fiction.

Visit Gita 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, August 23rd:Reviews from the Heart
Wednesday, August 24th:nomadreader
Thursday, August 25th:Raging Bibliomania
Friday, August 26th:Books Like Breathing
Tuesday, August 30th:The House of the Seven Tails
Wednesday, August 31st:Rundpinne
Thursday, September 1st:Man of La Book
Friday, September 2nd:Diary of an Eccentric
Monday, September 5th:Life in the Thumb
Tuesday, September 6th:Crazy for Books
Wednesday, September 7th:Reading Through Life
Thursday, September 8th:Life in Review
Friday, September 9th:Diary of a Stay at Home Mom

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Wildflower Hill by Kimberly Freeman — 544 pgs

Wildflower HillBeattie Blaxton is shaken and distraught when she finds herself with child in 1930’s Ireland, being neither married nor even engaged to the child’s father. After an unsuccessful attempt to part from her lover and give her unborn child up for adoption, her lover Henry comes to the rescue and spirits her away to Australia. But life for Beattie is still not easy, as Henry, having absconded from his legal wife, is quite a drinker and spendthrift who also has a problem with gambling. Soon Beattie decides to take her chances alone with her young daughter in a town where an unmarried mother is not looked upon kindly. When Beattie secures a job as a maid at a struggling sheep farm called Wildflower Hill, her future begins a slow revolution that will take her from the bottom rungs of society to the upper echelons of wealth and power. But along the way, there is much she will have to sacrifice. Two generations later, Beattie’s granddaughter Emma is having her own struggles. As a premiere ballerina who is just hitting the upper age range for a successful career, Emma has just had a career-ending injury. After weeks of wallowing following her accident and an untimely break-up, Emma is called into her grandmother’s lawyer’s office to take receipt of the last piece of her inheritance. But it’s not wealth that has been imparted to her, and when she discovers just what Beattie meant her to do, she embarks on a trip to Tasmania and Wildflower Hill, where she will discover the truth about herself and about her grandmother’s past that was kept hidden for many dark years. Blending the lingering past with the intoxicating present, Kimberly Freeman gives us the lives of two women cut from the same cloth, yet so very, very different.

Though Beattie and Emma were very similar characters, there were some substantial ways in which they differed. While I would have to say that Beattie was the more courageous and motivated, Emma sometimes appeared a little more cold and less emotionally evolved than her grandmother. Part of this may have been that Beattie got a lot more page space and her conundrums were a lot more interesting and heartrending than Emma’s refusal to let her dancing career go. While I did like both women, I think I felt more at home in the historical sections, because for some reason that story had a little more gravity and drama to it. Emma’s story was by far lighter and more redolent of romance than the hardship of Beattie’s story, though the narrative devices that tied these two stories together was strong and did have me very curious.

The historical parts of the story had a lot of different and pressing issues taking place within its structure. Not only was the difficulty of being a single mother explored, but also the dubious position that Beattie got herself in when she agreed to let Henry share custody of Lucy, her daughter. It was heartrending to read about the problems that faced a woman on her own in Australia, from the town’s prejudice and intolerance of Beattie and her hired hands, to the way that religion was used as a weapon to subdue and control those who were felt to be out of line. Beattie maintains a strength and fortitude throughout her trials, but even the most casual reader can see that all this wears on her and slowly breaks her spirit. By the end of her tale, Beattie is a shadow of her former self and her dreams and hopes have been subtly replaced by secrets and longing. It was interesting to see this morphing of such a strong character into a woman who was beset with regrets, and one can argue that although Beattie was wildly successful in some venues, she had to sacrifice so many things for that success that it must have been a bittersweet victory.

Emma too was discovering that some of her life was going to have to be sacrificed, and one of the problems that arose from this situation was that Emma had no idea of who she was outside of her dancing. From childhood, Emma was able to indulge this creative side of herself to the detriment of forming real relationships and attachments. Though she did have a relationship with a very successful man, it turns out that most of that relationship was a facade as well. As Emma begins to see that there is more to life than the pursuit of her dancing career, she discovers a side of herself that she didn’t know existed; and in her search for the clues to Beattie’s past, Emma comes to find that her new life is ripe with possibilities and opportunities. I liked that Emma was able to pull away from the character traits that were subsuming her real intellect and grace, and that she was eventually open to starting a new chapter in her life that was slated to go in a very different direction. Her romantic entanglements were refreshing as well, and I was very pleased at her final choice of paramour.

Throughout this story a lot of very sensitive issues were brought up. From the prejudices that the aboriginal peoples have faced, to the problems that arose during a mixed-race relationship during the 50’s, to the sticky issue of parental rights, there were a lot of thoughtful and emotional landmines in this tale. And while some of these issues were never fully resolved, there was a great striving for enlightenment and understanding from the principals in the story. At its heart, there were vast currents of prejudice and dishonor and hatred that had to be dealt with, and in dealing with these very uncomfortable topics, there was a lot of character growth. I admit that it wasn’t always empowering and comfortable growth, but I really admire Freeman for sticking to her guns and including so many serious topics in a book that really could have been just about the fluff. In the end so many questions are raised and explored that it was easy to categorize this book as a thoughtful and intelligent read.

Though I preferred the historical sections to the contemporary ones, both were done rather well, and each half of the story seemed to blend into a satisfying whole that I came to appreciate and enjoy. It’s not only a book about relationships, but about ideas that challenged the times they were captured in. Also, as the book ends in a bit of an ambiguous fashion, I’m wondering if there might ever be plans for a sequel. If so, I would definitely be in line to read it. A very thoughtful and entertaining read.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Monday, August 22, 2011

What Language Is (And What It Isn’t and What It Could Be) by John McWhorter — 240 pgs

What Language Is: And What It Isn’t and What It Could BeIn this non-fiction work, John McWhorter explores language in all its copious forms and varieties. From languages that are so abstract as to be referred to as “tongues” or dialects, to the idiosyncrasies of some of the largest languages known today, McWhorter takes his audience on a crash course in the origin of language and the ways in which it proliferates. Here then are the strange facts about language that you may never have even thought to ask yourself, peppered between layers of language fact and lore. Sharing the way that language grows exponentially, and drawing the reader into the various complexities of pronunciation and language conversion, McWhorter attempts to explain to his readers why languages are messy and intricate. He also shares his interpretations of the upswing and realities of Ebonics and other looser and more informal styles of language. He even goes on to share his conclusions about the written language being superior to the spoken language, and why this should be patently not so. What Language Is is a heady mix of linguistic interpretation and discourse that will have some readers knee-deep in McWhorter’s thoughts and revelations about the various conundrums of linguistics, past and present.

I’m going to be totally honest here and state that I didn’t understand most of this book. I’m not a person who is enthralled with linguistics, but the thought of a good piece of narrative non-fiction that explores ideas I’m not that familiar with does indeed catch my fancy. Unfortunately, this was not that type of book. Instead, this book seemed to be meant for an audience that has at least some passing experience or interest in the peculiarities of linguistics. Which is not me. So let’s just all sit back and see if I can explain this book in a way that all of us will understand and maybe even appreciate.

Part of the problem I had was that it was extremely erudite regarding a subject that I knew very little about. And unless you’ve read any of McWhorter’s previous books about linguistics, it’s an area that most of us would probably feel is over our heads. Being that McWhorter knows all these fabulous things about language, I had hoped he would present them in a way that a layperson could understand them, but from the moment the book rockets off, there’s little patience or room for those who can’t keep up. Sadly, that was my fate while reading this book. When I finally grasped one concept, McWhorter was on to another that was increasingly difficult and I was left in the dust. Perhaps I grew anxious by all the pronunciation charts and maps, but I do admit that as I got further and further into this book, I became increasingly confused and was only able to take away a smattering of all the brilliant things that McWhorter was telling me.

Some of the things that did interest me were the statements about the relevance of languages that aren’t written languages, and the ways that language is so deeply tied to psychology and identity. I would have loved to hear more about that, and I have a feeling that would have made this book more like the narrative non-fiction that I had been so hoping for. McWhorter also discusses why and how languages differ from each other regionally and the idiosyncrasies of particular idioms and tongues due to fluctuations of history and the growth of populations. You see what I mean? There was some terribly interesting stuff in there, but it wasn’t shared in a way that made it compelling to read, or even easy to understand, which made the book feel like a school textbook. On the other hand, if linguistics and its particulars are your bag, then this book would probably be perfect for you.

At the heart of things, I would have to say that this book is meant for a much more serious set of eyes than mine, and though I did try to sit back and take in what McWhorter was so intelligently creating here, it wasn’t something I felt like I could relax and enjoy. I found the only way that I could understand a lot of it was to take detailed notes, which sometimes, upon rereading, made not a lick of sense. I opened this book with a lot of hope and curiosity but was sad to find that there wasn’t much here to appeal to a lay reader. I do admire McWhorter for being so assiduously able to manage and tame his subject, but I have to admit it wasn’t really a pleasant reading experience for me. And really, when it comes down to it, I read to take my mind to a different place, a place where I am challenged and I learn. But the place I was taken to while reading this book made my mind feel a little overwhelmed and small. I know that if I were just able to decode the brilliance in this book, I would have walked away a very happy reader.

I can’t say that this was a reading experience that I relished, but I did like the way I could look through the book and see the very impressive way that McWhorter’s brain worked. Unfortunately for me, mine doesn’t work the same way and I was left with a whole lot of buzzing confusion when I was finished. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that I don’t know many readers who would properly appreciate this book, but as I said before, if you’re the type to get all excited about linguistics, this may be something that you would enjoy.

Author Photo About the Author

John McWhorter is the author of the bestseller Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America, The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language, and four other books. He is associate professor of linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and a contributing editor to The City Journal and The New Republic. He has been profiled in the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and has appeared on Dateline NBC, Politically Incorrect, and The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.

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, August 1st: Book Club Classics!
Thursday, August 4th:One Book Shy of a Full Shelf
Friday, August 5th:Melody & Words
Monday, August 8th:Rundpinne
Tuesday, August 9th:Lit and Life
Thursday, August 11th:The Broke and the Bookish
Friday, August 12th: In the Next Room
Monday, August 15th:Book Dilettante
Tuesday, August 16th:BookNAround
Thursday, August 18th:My Book Retreat
Monday, August 22nd:At Home with Books
Tuesday, August 23rd:Raging Bibliomania
Wednesday, August 24th:SMS Book Reviews
Thursday, August 25th:Unabridged Chick
Friday, August 26th:Acting Balanced
Monday, August 29th:Overstuffed
Date TBD:Hey I Want to Read That

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Marybeth Whalen: An Interview and a Giveaway

All right, so by now you all know just how wonderful and delectable I found Marybeth Whalen’s new book, She Makes It Look Easy. Aside from the obvious reasons I loved it, I have a feeling that it will speak to the hearts of many women out there today, for various reasons. In an effort to shed some light on some of the more enticing aspects of the book and the story behind it, I asked Marybeth if she would stop over today and share a little behind-the-scenes information with us, and I was very pleased and thrilled that she agreed! So without further ado, I’d like to share her interview with you all today, and for you to read in her own words why this book was such a different endeavor for her and how she felt about some of the not-so-transparent characters that make an appearance in She Makes It Look Easy. Please welcome Marybeth here today to spend some time with us!

As an author of Christian fiction novels, this book is a departure for you, and recently there has been some backlash regarding your decision to write about such a sensitive and inflaming topic. Why do you think this book has gotten so many people up in arms?

Some of the feedback is that I didn't treat adultery as bad or wrong. The problem is, in writing from the character of Justine's perspective (seeing things from inside her head) she wasn't going to call what she was doing wrong. She was going to justify it, the same way anyone who is doing something wrong would. Which is exactly what you see Justine doing and I had to be true to that, to present her in that way. It's what is true instead of what we wish were true. The fact is people make bad decisions all the time and hurt other people and it can even seem that they got away with it. So I have had some readers say they wish I would've handled the adultery differently. I think for some this is just a very sensitive issue with a lot of hurt feelings from the past.

In The Mailbox, your main character Lindsay is dealing with some very different situations than Ariel in She Makes it Look Easy, but somehow to me, the women seemed to have some similarities. Did you find that there were similarities between these two female protagonists?

These two women are similar in that they are searching for meaning and identity in places that are coming up empty. This search has led them to deeper issues. I am sure this is a theme I will come to again and again in my writing, because I see it in myself and the women I hear from. We're wired to seek more. The trick is to learn to look in the right place.

She Makes it Look Easy deals with some very sensitive issues, as I mentioned before. Did the ideas in this book spring up entirely from your imagination, or was there a real life event that inspired the book?

There were several real-life issues that triggered this book. I knew a woman who walked away from her seemingly perfect family and two of my close friends also knew women who did the same thing at that same time. As we compared the stories, we were like "What is going on?" As I tried to process what would make a woman do this, this story started to form in my mind.

Was this book harder to write than your first, and if so, for what reasons?

I would say that yes, it was harder to write because the issues were bigger and more damaging and I had to handle them carefully. With The Mailbox, I basically thought about falling in love and going to the beach every day. What's not to love? With She Makes It Look Easy, I was tapping into some tough areas of life-- areas that are not easily resolved. And yet persevering and tackling these issues was quite rewarding in the end.

In this story, the relationship between two women is one of the central themes of the book, and the themes of acceptance and loyalty were mixed in with ideas of exploitation and trust. I’m wondering if these relationships were the real crux of the story, and how you were able to develop such lifelike situations and emotions regarding Ariel and Justine’s friendship?

It's funny-- I think we put so much stress in stories on male/female, romantic love. And yet, those good, enduring friendships (and the struggle to find and maintain them) are such pivotal parts of a woman's life as well. I know that I count my good, solid friendships as some of my most valued treasures of life. So the idea that we have to look for them and work on them was something I wanted to delve into in this novel. I based much of Ariel's struggle with defining a true friendship on my own journey, which is probably what made it seem lifelike. (Thanks for saying that it did!)

There was a lot going on in Justine’s life, and although some would label her as a villain, I’m wondering how you feel about her, and how difficult it was to create such a multi-layered, yet flawed character?

I will be totally honest: I started out really disliking and judging Justine. It wasn't until I had to write her that I softened. She wasn't as cut and dried as I wanted to make her out to be, which has been wonderful for my own outlook as a woman with other women. It's the whole "walk a mile in my flip flops" thing-- we have no idea what that other woman is going through. We can't because we can only see what other people let us see. For Justine, she chose to put that perfect image out there and hung onto it til the bitter end. I hope that my novel urges women to be real, to let go of any image they are putting out there and live in freedom. I ended up loving and feeling so much grace towards Justine.

What are you working on now, and when can we hope to get our hands on it?

I am back to the beach! I am writing my second Sunset Beach novel, tentatively titled The Guestbook. Like my first novel, The Mailbox, this is a coastal NC love story that centers around a mysterious inanimate object (this time a guestbook in a beach house) that brings two people together over time and against all odds. It will be out, Lord willing, in fall of ‘12.

Thanks, Marybeth, for shedding a little more light on the book for us today! And for my readers, great news! I have an awesome giveaway going along with this interview today!

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

She Makes It Look Easy by Marybeth Whalen — 336 pgs

She Makes It Look Easy: A NovelWhen Ariel and her family move into a new neighborhood across town, she’s hopeful that great friendships, new opportunities and a new life are just around the corner, but life with three boys and a husband who’s constantly traveling has her more than frazzled. That’s why she’s so excited to be welcomed into the neighborhood and taken under the wing of the community’s most “together” woman, Justine. Justine is not only a great mom and wife but she’s super organized and creative, the woman that all the other women strive to be. Ariel finds Justine’s tutelage to be just what she needs, and she begins to relish her new life and Justine’s place in it. But something is niggling at Ariel, for Justine isn’t always as open and friendly as she could be, and although she’s chosen Ariel to be her protégée, it seems there’s an underlying struggle for the women to really bridge the distance between them and become the close friends that Ariel wishes them to be. It turns out that Justine has a secret she’s trying to keep from Ariel and the other neighbors, and this secret is destined to change the lives of all those around her. But Justine won’t heed any warnings and determinedly rushes towards a fate that will shock everyone and destroy several lives. Will Ariel stay quiet and protect Justine and their faltering friendship, or will she have to do a very difficult thing and expose the woman who she so desires to emulate, a woman who makes it look so easy?

Last year at SIBA, when I had the awesome opportunity to meet Marybeth Whalen, one of the things we discussed was the book she was currently working on called She Makes It Look Easy. When I heard the premise and how the book came to be, I was really excited and added it to my mental list of books to watch for in the new year. Well, okay, that’s not exactly true. This book was THE book that I was most excited to read in the coming year, and luckily for me, it was just as page-turning as I had hoped it would be. In its intricate plot and realistic female protagonists, this is a book that bent my mind around the delicate issues of female friendships and the secrets we keep hidden from those who we love, even when they destroy us.

Ariel is a woman like many others. Her life is one big to-do list that keeps stretching further and further into infinity. She’s stressed in her attempts to raise three young boys and in her marriage with a husband who’s mildly reproving that she can’t get it all together. She’s a lot like me and, I’m sure, a lot like many women out there today. Ariel is waiting for the day things become manageable, but it doesn’t seem like that day will ever come. Enter Justine, the queen of the neighborhood. Justine is poised, elegant, and has every aspect of her life under control. She teaches a class on organization at the church, where women all over the neighborhood come to stare and admire. She irons her shorts. Need I say more? When Justine picks Ariel as her new project, Ariel is flattered and overcome with thoughts that she may have just found her new best friend. But Ariel has put Justine on a pedestal and doesn’t see the real Justine behind the facade. In her struggles to conform to Justine’s ideals, Ariel is unsure of herself and has some issues with her self-esteem. She feels grateful, but also somehow oddly detached from Justine. This is a situation that bothers her greatly, because wasn’t her friendship with Justine supposed to be fulfilling and edifying?

Justine, on the other hand, is a woman who looks out for number one and only number one. Her friendship with Ariel is much like some of the other friendships she’s had in the neighborhood, some of which have ended very badly. She has delusions of a greater life just waiting for her somewhere else, and her relationship with her husband is a nadir of hurt feelings and rejection. She has a definite feeling of superiority that she hides with a big smile and a patina of false concern for others. Justine is a walking contradiction. She cares what others think of her and her life, but underneath it all, she couldn’t care less if she hurts an innocent person who gets caught up in her quest for fulfillment. She was scary at times and could be overwhelmingly cold and calculating. But under it all, I think Justine was confused and had really bought into the idea that she was the center of everything. She believed in her grandeur and believed that her desires were more important than others and their feelings. It was hard not to feel sorry for her because her life was a big masquerade that she constantly fooled herself into believing was all about her.

When Justine decides to take matters into her own hands, Ariel discovers the real reason Justine has been grooming her, and it breaks her heart. Where Whalen excels is in the tense and realistic push/pull between these two very different women. There is hurt and confusion on one side, balanced with manipulation and secrecy on the other. Whalen gets the complex chemistry of female relationships just right in this very tightly paced book. Themes of rejection and of subsuming oneself for another are just the beginning of the story in this complex and portentous relationship between Justine and Ariel. And though misinterpretation and misunderstandings abound, I could really feel the struggle in Ariel’s heart for a woman whom she so admired and wanted to love. I could also feel the disillusionment and hopelessness that Justine was going through, and the combination of these two very different protagonists living within each other’s worlds was accompanied by my breathless anticipation for how things would turn out for both of them. It was a complex balance of longed-for intimacy and shifted expectations, and turning the last page, I discovered that, like real life, these situations can be messy and at times painful.

I was totally enthralled with this book and had no trouble shirking other obligations so I could spend more time with it. The emotional complexity and the perfectly imagined friendship between the two women was something that I quite literally couldn’t put down. Justine’s decision to take her life into another direction, despite all warnings and the fact that she destroyed the lives of others, was also something I read with more than a little schadenfreude, and with the talent of Whalen’s plotting and character creation, I was even able to sympathize with her at times. This was a great book that I hope gets lots of attention because it tells a story that’s not only believable, but intense. A great read and highly recommended!

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Domestic Violets by Matthew Norman — 352 pgs

Domestic Violets: A Novel (P.S.)Tom Violet’s life isn’t what he had hoped it would be. Working for a soul-crushing company where his only jollies come from tormenting his overbearing and obnoxious coworker Gregory, Tom feels stuck and unfulfilled. He also may or may not have a crush on his pretty young assistant Katie, a woman who is as intelligent as she is beautiful. His father is one of the foremost American authors and has just won the Pulitzer, a fact which makes Tom proud and envious all at the same time. Topping it all off, Tom’s penis seems to be malfunctioning, a problem exacerbated by the fact that his wife, Anna, is trying to become pregnant again. Though Tom has been languishing as a desk jockey for several years, he’s just completed his first novel, a fact he’s keeping secret from just about everybody, hoping he’ll one day become an author of the same caliber as his father. When the economic crisis hits, Tom’s job situation suddenly becomes dubiously strange, and while his feelings for Katie begin to mount, Tom’s relationship with his wife is becoming more and more complicated. Soon Tom finds himself at a sticking point at work, at home, and with his novel. Will his self-deprecating wit and verve be enough to save him from sinking, or will Tom go under, desperately trying to cling to all he could possibly lose? In this hilariously funny and inventive debut, Matthew Norman gives us Tom Violet in all his goofball glory and takes us on a journey filled with laughter, absurdity and surprising poignancy.

This is another book I felt had a lot of appeal due to it’s effortless comedy. In Norman’s portrayal of sassy and witty Tom, there was hardly a page that didn’t have me snorting with laughter. It was obvious that Tom’s humor was an attempt to give himself a lot of the bravado that he felt had suddenly slipped away from his life, and that his hilarious asides were somewhat of a mask that he placed over his insecurities and self-doubt. It was a coping mechanism, and while it was intensely satisfying to read, smoothing out the narrative and giving the story its zest, it was also very humbling to witness the mental contortions that were basically keeping Tom afloat while his world began to slowly crash down around him.

And believe me, Tom had a lot going on. While at first it only seemed like one area of his life needed improvement (his job), soon all the other areas began to fray in a rapid and destructive way. I think that while the sections that focused on Tom’s job provided a lot of levity, there was a realness to what he was going through that many people will recognize. I particularly loved Tom’s interactions with Gregory because I think his unusual form of getting Gregory’s goat was something that office denizens all over would applaud. These scenes were comic gold in my eyes, and for me, the most exciting parts of the book. Tom is also conflicted by the feelings that he has for his coworker, Katie, and though he tries to be as altruistic as possible about the trajectory of their relationship, the reality is much more unmanageable. I believe that Katie represented to Tom his fleeting youth and his desire to once again be carefree and desired. I also believe that these scenes were intensely realistic and at times emotionally tense. Every flicker of attraction that passed between them felt illicit and dangerous, though it was thinly veiled with the ever-present humor and lightheartedness that was a constant fixture of this book.

Tom’s familial relationships were also areas that were filled with potential landmines. While his desire for his wife, Anna, is palpable, there was definitely something awry with their relationship, and Norman does a great job of making his readers really think about what’s going on (or not going on, as it were) with them. Tom loves Anna and she loves him, but there’s something just blow the surface that’s causing disrepair between them, and it’s not so easy for him to wish it away. Like Tom’s relationship with Anna, things between Tom and his father, Curtis, aren’t always easy to put the proverbial finger on either. Curtis is a arrogant and loud philanderer, and though father and son are very different, Curtis and Tom may share more traits than one might think. Add to this Curtis’ new and random presence in his son’s life, and Tom isn’t the only one asking questions. Curtis is who Tom wishes to be, his success and magnetism both a lure and a tool for deflection, and though there are things about his father that Tom dislikes, his admiration and wonder for the man leaves him puzzling over his own life and the motives he has for writing his novel.

This was a book that managed to be both surprisingly funny yet also very deep, and it was a read that I had no problem getting invested in. It was a lot of fun to get a chance to hang out with the ever effervescent and wacky Tom, and the plot was far from predictable. I think Matthew Norman has a great career ahead of him, and he’s an author whom I’ll be watching. As a side note, this book also contains an author interview in the postscript that had me tearing up with laughter, and it’s not to be missed. An all-star book, highly recommended!

Author Photo About the Author

Matthew Norman is an advertising copywriter. He lives with his wife and daughter in Baltimore. Domestic Violets is his first novel.

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, August 9:Rundpinne
Tuesday, August 9:Like Fire
Wednesday, August 10:Life In Review
Thursday, August 11:BookNAround
Friday, August 12: The House of the Seven Tails
Monday, August 15:Colloquium
Tuesday, August 16:Raging Bibliomania
Wednesday, August 17:Book Chatter
Thursday, August 18:Teresa’s Reading Corner
Monday, August 22:The Bodacious Pen
Tuesday, August 23:StephTheBookworm
Tuesday, August 23:Write Meg
Wednesday, August 24:I’m Booking It
Thursday, August 25:Sara’s Organized Chaos
Friday, August 26:Iwriteinbooks’s blog
Monday, August 29:A Bookish Way of Life
Tuesday, August 30:My Life in Not So Many Words
Thursday, September 1:That’s What She Read

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

The Foreigners by Maxine Swann — 272 pgs

The ForeignersIn this tense and erotically charged new novel from Maxine Swann, three very different women experience life in Buenos Aires, Argentina amid a backdrop of tropical torpor and haute society. When Daisy, an American divorcee, escapes to Argentina after a medical scare, she’s at first withdrawn and alienated from her new surroundings and their inhabitants. When one day she’s discovered by Leonarda, a young Argentine woman with a strange sprightly outlook that hides a deep streak of masochism, Daisy is thrown headlong into a very confusing world of desire, repulsion and jealousy. Meanwhile, Isolde, a beautiful Austrian, is trying to use her looks and connections to climb into the upper echelons of Argentine society, but is finding that her brash neediness is undoing all of her careful work of ingratiating herself with the upper-class locals. As Isolde and Daisy experience a new world with very different rules than they’re used to, they’ll come face to face with their insecurities and strengths in a place where appearances and motives may be deceiving, and where their passions and fears are juxtaposed with the lives they left behind.

I have to say I wasn’t sure what to expect of The Foreigners. I had thought it would be a quiet story of a few women’s adventures abroad, with an emphasis on character development and a look into the exotic locale of Argentina. What I got was a dizzying ride into the heart of two very different women on the edge of a society that’s sometimes cruel and that prided itself on appearances and facades that were designed to make foreigners feel superior while being silently sneered at in private.

When Daisy arrives in Argentina, ostensibly to work on a grant project, she’s more aimless than involved, but that all changes when young Leonarda chooses her as a target for her whirlwind courtship and strange power plays. As the two get caught up in increasingly bizarre and dangerous forays, Daisy is held emotionally captive by a woman who seems to like to have people in her thrall and who executes malevolent games of desire and violence. As Daisy and Leonarda wind their way through the city, I was on the edge of my seat, wondering what was behind Leonarda’s manipulations and disturbing trysts with a man that she goaded Daisy into agreeing to humiliate. It was a volatile situation that grabbed my by the throat, and though I got the impression that Daisy felt the danger too, it didn’t stop her from being fully inveigled by the games Leonarda was playing. Working on Daisy’s visceral side, Leonarda began to warp her slowly, baiting her with passion, attention and complicity. It was a heady mix for Daisy, and for myself, and I began to see that although Daisy thought she had things under control, Leonarda was like a wild animal who would not be contained. The end result was a mix of obsession and jealousy that pricked Daisy violently and caused her to behave in some very uncharacteristic ways.

The situation with Isolde was also uncomfortable. Coming to Argentina seemed to be Isolde’s way of escaping the conundrum of settling down like the other women from her hometown. Isolde was an emotionally needy woman who tried to insinuate herself into the quasi-aristocracy of Argentina but who somehow kept getting it wrong. She was constantly humiliating and debasing herself in her desire to be at the center of the action, and her unfortunate relationships with all the wrong men kept her from being taken seriously in the right circles. Isolde was a beautiful woman, but along with her penchant for being pushy and overbearing, she was also running out of money and had no way of obtaining what she needed other than by promoting herself as an international art procurer. This was fraught with problems because Isolde had greatly embellished her credentials and experience, and often she would negate her chances by becoming romantically involved with her prospective employers. In Isolde there was a constant flux of self-sabotaging behavior that for some reason she refused to acknowledge or rectify. Isolde was constantly at war with herself and often her fear of being alone and unwanted made her do some very unwise things.

As things speed towards a conclusion, the situation between Leonarda and Daisy begins to turn very strange, with the prey becoming the predator. But is this merely what Daisy wants to believe, and will she ever really be able to turn the tables on a woman who refuses to be subdued and marginalized? Isolde, too, finds herself in very foreign straights and must come to accept a life that at times horrifies and embarrasses her. It’s at this point that the story begins to creep into the edges of the readers psyche and crouches there, waiting to spring into its final haunting conclusion. Obsession and mayhem turn to debasement and cruelty for one, and expectations come crashing down for the other, into a reality that is unpleasant and tinged with regret. Both women, seeing the futility of the lives they’ve led, begin to come to terms with what they’ve become and realize that there is indeed a way out.

I was greatly impressed with Maxine Swann’s narrative, and it was thrilling to be brought to the brink of suspense and discomfort by her elegant and spare prose. This was an emotionally charged book that kept me constantly reevaluating and that felt dire albeit in a very quiet way. It was also erotic at points without being vulgar, its strangeness tempered with a curious feeling of intimacy. I would certainly recommend this book to people who are looking for something different that will penetrate their sensibilities in a slightly untoward way. A fantastic read, and one that I would highly recommend.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Friday, August 12, 2011

A Mountain of Crumbs by Elena Gorokhova — 308 pgs

A Mountain of Crumbs: A MemoirIn this memoir, the life of a young woman growing up in cold war Leningrad is explored with depth and feeling as she struggles to come of age in the very forbidding and intense landscape of the former Soviet Union. Life for Elena and her family hasn’t always been easy. Through her parents’ hard work, Lena and her sister aren’t living at the bottom rungs of the communist society, but there isn’t a lot of extra in their lives either. Elena’s mother, once a surgeon during the war, is now teaching anatomy at the university. Elena has been raised to believe in the superiority of Russia and communism and to regard the rest of the world with suspicion and cynicism. Much to her mother’s dismay, these views strangely begin to melt away as she matures into a young woman. When Elena’s sister decides to pursue a career in acting instead of medicine or engineering, the idea that there multiple paths to happiness begins to occur to her, despite the messages she gets from society. As Elena begins to rise through the professional world and falls in line to do exactly what’s expected of her, a chance meeting with an American drastically alters the future that has been so carefully arranged by her and her mother. When the once iron grip of the Soviet Union begins to loosen its hold on Elena, her life will never be the same and the future that‘s laid out before her will be unlike anything she could have ever imagined.

This book has been compared to the Russian version of Angela’s Ashes, and has also been touted as being amusing and wry, which is not exactly my experience with it. While I did grow to appreciate this coming of age story, the first hundred pages were a little rocky for me. When the storyline began to shift, I must say I was a little more pleased that the book was going in a different direction. I’m not sure if my reactions were due to the very maudlin aspects of life in Russia or due to the fact that everything in this tale seemed so dark and reeked of cynicism, but for the most part, I found this to be a very heavy read. It’s not that this was a bad book, but it was, for the most part, rather darkly portrayed.

Elena is a girl like most. She hungers for love and opportunity and doesn’t quite understand how to discover the secrets behind these things and how to figure out the mysteries of life. She’s very secretive with her mother and doesn’t seem to have a very healthy relationship with her at all. It was easy to see why, though, because her mother was extremely militant about controlling her daughters and forcing them to do the things that she found acceptable. I got the feeling that Elena was proud of her mother, but that doesn’t translate into intimacy, which is something I don’t think Elena had with anyone in the story. A lot of her reactions to the world around her were very familiar to me because a lot of them dealt with her feelings of disconnection from that world; a world that she would one day be expected to take part in and flourish in. It was obvious that Elena suffered from a great amount of naivety and to a certain degree had been very sheltered throughout her upbringing, and I kept asking myself if this was a byproduct of the very oppressive place in which she lived or her mother’s overprotectiveness. In some ways I felt that Elena never really matured the way that those in the West do; she never had those coming of age moments that are so crucial to forming adult perceptions. When she did finally have these moments, she had already crossed the threshold into adulthood.

It bothered me a little to hear all the comments about how the West was filled with rotten capitalist pigs, and how our society was belittled as an untrustworthy foreign melange full of greed and debauchery. I began to realize that although Elena and her parents said these things often, these ideas stemmed from the propaganda that the Soviet Union generated over many years and thorough various means. This doesn’t mean that it wasn’t annoying, only that I understood how a group of people could be so indoctrinated into thinking that the progressive west was just too radical and progressive. To tell you the truth, the Russia of this time sounded horrible, and stories of waiting in line for hours to procure a few rolls of toilet paper seemed as alien to me as capitalism probably seemed to Elena and her family. The Russia of this time period was no joke, and Gorokhova really succeeds in identifying the menacing aspects that the government used to keep its citizens under control. These sections, to me, were the darkest of the book, and lent Elena’s reminiscences a casual cruelty and sense of abiding provocation.

There was a very deep sense of pragmatism that permeated the minds of the characters in this story. Despite the very foreign aspects of life in cold war Russia, it was clear to see that the people living in this society were not only downtrodden and overburdened, but deeply instilled with a degree of pride and a false illusion of superiority. As Elena realizes that life in Russia is not what she wants and takes steps to release the country’s hold over her, she begins to see that the life she and her family have been living is one of half realized dreams and fruitless sacrifice. Though the situation that enables her to escape is not a perfect solution, it’s one I think many will be able to relate to, and one that Elena herself feels a begrudging appreciation for, despite it’s challenges and inconveniences. When all is said and done, Elena is able to make peace, not only with herself, but more importantly, with her mother and her homeland.

Though this wasn’t my favorite memoir, it did provide a lot of chewy food for thought and a very deep exposure to a way of life that’s extremely alien to my own. It was filled with the cultural details that readers of this genre will appreciate, but there’s no denying that the story is rather bleak. I did end up admiring Elena Gorokhova for her stoicism and her ability to persevere, and I think that this is a book that would open a lot of readers’ eyes to the very different lives that are lived outside the United States.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Reign of Madness by Lynne Cullen — 448 pgs

Reign of MadnessJuana of Castile is just a girl in the court of her illustrious parents, Isabel and Fernando, rulers of the Spanish Empire, when she gets the news that she is to marry Phillipe the Handsome, Duke of Burgundy. This means traveling to a country very different from her own to live with a man she’s never met, a situation that troubles her. When she’s received in Phillipe’s court, brave Juana is hopeful that life with her doting and handsome husband will be all she hopes it can be. And for awhile, it is. Phillipe is loving and attentive, and despite some minor flaws, treats his new wife with tenderness and love. But soon Juana is noticing that Phillipe has an eye for the ladies and would much rather spend his time hunting then with her and the royal heirs. But still Juana is patient with her husband, until the day when plans are made to transfer the power of the Spanish throne to her with Phillipe acting only as king consort. This seems to quietly enrage Phillipe, and soon he is on a campaign to smear Juana's name and reputation. When he plants rumors that she’s gone mad and locks her away, Juana is confused and saddened but doesn’t know how best to quash this threat. Soon Juana is alone and friendless with rumors of her madness spread far and wide. Will Phillipe succeed in taking the crown of Spain for himself and making everyone truly believe that Juana is mad? Or will someone or something help Juana overcome this disaster that seems to be shaping her future? In this breathtaking and provocative new novel by Lynne Cullen, the doors are thrown open to the past and the story of Juana the Mad is re-imagined with a fresh perspective that might be closer to the truth than anyone has ever realized.

I’ve got to hand it to Lynne Cullen. This is the second book of hers that has just blown my socks off. Last year, I read and loved The Creation of Eve, and was impressed with Cullen’s fluid writing and gift for story creation. While it’s no secret that I adore historical fiction, there are some specimens that are better than others, and Cullen’s books seem to have that undefinable sprinkling of magic that make my eyes want to rove slowly and languorously over the pages. In her fictional treatment of the infamous Juana the Mad, Cullen gives us an inexpressibly human character who is caught in one of the most bizarre and terrifying situations ever to be imagined. And though the truth may be stranger than fiction, as Cullen mentions in her end notes, this book certainly captures the perplexing situation that Juana of Castille found herself in.

While at times I thought Juana was a little naive, when I stopped to examine the situation a little more fully, I realized that it wasn’t really naivety that kept Juana at a disadvantage with Phillipe. it was more that she had a forgiving and optimistic heart, and that she wished to create a situation that was more peaceable not only for herself, but for her family and subjects. And I came to see then than Juana was very brave, though perhaps a little foolhardy, when dealing with her husband who turned like a chameleon from attentive and loving to domineering and controlling. It was such a complete reversal that I could see why Juana was stunned and confused by him. Where at first Phillipe didn’t seem to care about becoming acting regent for Spain, his interest suddenly sharpened and began to overwhelm all the other aspects of his personality. When Phillipe begins to do the unthinkable to Juana, there is little power the woman can assert as she has been virtually isolated in this foreign land.

A good portion of this book also examined the relationship between Fernando and Isabel as seen through the eyes of their middle daughter, Juana. Because of Isabel’s formidable personality as regent, Juana  was never able to become close to her mother, and was never able to learn about her to any satisfactory degree. Fernando, though seemingly content, was portrayed as feeling somewhat emasculated by his strong wife whose subjects often called her King Isabel. In later chapters, Fernando is also responsible for keeping Juana’s crown from her, and one wonders if this was due to the rumors that Phillipe spread about the realm or if it was his own ambition that was in play. It was sad to realize that Juana was beset by traitors from all sides, and although she felt content to relinquish her power at times, it was clearly wrong for others to try to usurp it. It angered me to see her disregarded and treated as a joke or a nonentity, and though she was tractable, it was hard not to feel that there was a degree of weakness to Juana’s actions. But truth be told, there really weren’t many options open to her.

In this examination of Juana’s life, I came to see that the power plays between monarchs and their courts could not only be dangerous but also deceptive and controversial. In the end notes, Cullen speaks about a trip to Spain where the old myths about Mad Queen Juana are seriously offensive to some of the natives. It’s in this kernel of revelation that the story in Reign of Madness really begins to pepper its readers about the accuracy of the history we’ve all been taught and believe. Cullen rounds out her tale with guest appearances from Cristobal Colon (Christopher Columbus) and other famous regents and religious men of the time. The effect is one of total encapsulation of the time period, and brings Juana and her life into fulsomely colorful relief, rendered with an expert’s hand at sussing out conspiracy, plots and revenge.

I loved this look into the life of a woman that I knew so little about, and I thought Cullen did a wonderful job of creating a vivid representation of what might have actually happened in the life of Mad Queen Juana. Cullen has once again exceeded my expectations and delivered a flawless historical fiction novel that I fully savored and appreciated. It was a wonderful book that is sure to have its share of admirers. Highly recommended!

Author Photo About the Author

Lynn Cullen is the author of The Creation of Eve, named among the best fiction books of 2010 by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and as an April 2010 Indie Next selection. She is also the author of numerous award-winning books for children, including the young adult novel I Am Rembrandt's Daughter, which was a 2007 Barnes & Noble "Discover Great New Writers" selection, and an ALA Best Book of 2008. An avid traveler and historian, Cullen lives in Atlanta.

Connect with Lynn on her website and 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, July 25th:In the Hammock
Tuesday, July 26th:Rundpinne
Wednesday, July 27th:Unabridged Chick
Thursday, July 28th:Debbie’s Book Bag
Monday, August 1st:The Broke and the Bookish
Wednesday, August 3rd:Books Like Breathing
Thursday, August 4th:Peeking Between the Pages
Monday, August 8th:2 Kids and Tired Book Reviews
Tuesday, August 9th:Broken Teepee
Wednesday, August 10th:Raging Bibliomania
Thursday, August 11th:Cafe of Dreams
Friday, August 12th:A Fair Substitute for Heaven
Monday, August 15th:A Library of My Own
Tuesday, July 16th:Life in Review
Wednesday, August 17th:Simply Stacie
Thursday, August 18th:Book Addiction
Monday, August 22nd:One Book Shy of a Full Shelf
Wednesday, August 24th:Starting Fresh

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.
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