Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Betsy-Tacy Treasury: The First Four Betsy-Tacy Books by Maud Hart Lovelace — 736 pgs

In this timeless four book collection, readers are introduced to three very special little girls who make everyday life an adventure. Beginning with Betsy-Tacy, Maud Hart Lovelace chronicles the life of five year old Betsy’s first meeting with the new girl in the neighborhood, Tacy. As the girls go on their picnic outings and remonstrate with their pair of older sisters, they grow into the best of friends who are mischievous and busy but never quarrelsome. When they meet Tib, the newest member of their previous twosome in Betsy-Tacy and Tib, the three girls form a friendship of equals and the girls spend the days making the mundane seem extraordinary. From their correspondence with princes to their dawning tolerance and acceptance of others, these three always find themselves at the center of liveliness and exploration, inducing those around them to join in the playfulness and joy. As the girls turn ten in Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill, they realize that the world is bigger than their little corner and they find new opportunities for fun and frolicking. In the final story, Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown, new friends await in the world beyond and beckon to them from places far and near. As the girls go from five to eight to ten to twelve, they grow up with laughter, love, and most of all, the camaraderie that makes the Betsy-Tacy collection one of the most beloved series of all time.

Though I never got a chance to read these books when I was a child, I was introduced to them through the wonders of blogging. It seems that some of my favorite bloggers were big fans of Betsy-Tacy, and since first hearing about these books, I’ve been eager to get my mitts on them and see just what all the fuss was about. And believe you me, I wasn’t disappointed! Though these are ostensibly children’s books, the skill and playfulness of Lovelace’s writing makes these books a treat for young readers and offers a comfortable refuge for older readers alike. I can’t describe the delicious feeling of contentment that would steal over me when I was reading this book. The pickles the girls got themselves into reminded me of my own childhood, and I could recognize aspects of myself in each of the girls. It was delightful to curl up in my comfy chair and gobble up the stories, one right after the other.

This series is unique not only because of its timelessness but because of its innocence. I can imagine that even readers who had a less than stellar childhood would find themselves at home with Betsy, Tacy, and Tib. They are the quintessential threesome, and though they never fight, there are times when their antics become more and more daring yet remain within the realm of harmlessness. I thought it was interesting that the girls had a subtle rivalry going on with their older sisters, and thought that in itself was just so very real. And that’s the thing: These books do seem very real, and even though society has changed so drastically since the time these books have been written, they speak to the little girl inside every woman. They are effortlessly entertaining and unquestionably lovely.

I was always interested in what the three little girls were going to get up to next. Sometimes they were sly and impish, like little girls often are, but their hearts were in the right place and they were never hurtful to others. While one was talkative and buoyant (Betsy), another was shy and timid (Tacy) and the third was straightforward and no nonsense (Tib). Each little girl was different, yet these differences were respected and valued within the group. There was never any awkwardness or betrayal between the three, and in a world that’s dominated by separatism and elitism, this is the kind of book that can be cherished and wondered over. Every girl should be surrounded by such friends, and even reading about the special relationship between these three made my heart glad and light.

Maud Hart Lovelace made no secret that these stories were based on her real life experiences with her two closest childhood friends, and all I can say is: how lucky she must have been! I’m also aware that there’s a Betsy-Tacy Society and that the books continue as the girls go to high school and beyond. Having read about their childhood, I think I’m hooked and now I’m eager to read about the adventures they have in later life as well. I might even have to join the fan club. I know this is a series I’m going to proudly present to my daughter right away as well, because every little girl should have the opportunity to get to know these special children.

I loved this book for its innocence and simplicity. It was wholesome and fun without being preachy or exaggerated, and I think most girls and women will be able to relate to the girls, regardless of their age. Not only was it a glimpse into the friendship between three remarkable girls, it was a look into an almost forgotten way of life, and in exploring it, the reader grows richer and the times that Lovelace seeks to capture grow a little brighter. Very highly recommended for readers in all age groups.

Author Photo About the Author

Maud Hart Lovelace was born on April 25, 1892, in Mankato, Minnesota. Like Betsy, Maud followed her mother around the house at age five asking such questions as “How do you spell ‘going down the street’?” for the stories she had already begun to write. Soon she was writing poems and plays. When Maud was ten, a booklet of her poems was printed; and by age eighteen, she had sold her first short story, for ten dollars, to the Los Angeles Times.

The Hart family left Mankato shortly after Maud’s high school graduation in 1910. They settled in Minneapolis, where Maud attended the University of Minnesota. In 1914, she sailed for Europe, and spent the months leading up to the outbreak of World War I in England. In 1917, she married Delos W. Lovelace, a newspaper reporter who later became a popular writer of short stories, and in 1926 her first novel was published. Five more historical novels followed. Maud wrote two of them in collaboration with her husband.

The Lovelaces’ daughter Merian was born in 1931. Maud would tell her daughter bedtime stories about her childhood in Minnesota and it was these stories that gave the author the idea of writing the Betsy-Tacy books. Maud did not intend to write an entire series when Betsy-Tacy, the first book, was published in 1940. But readers asked for more stories, so Maud took Betsy through high school and beyond college to the “great world” and marriage.

The Betsy-Tacy books were based closely upon Maud’s own life. Almost all of Betsy’s experiences were also Maud’s. “Of course, I could make it all up, but in these Betsy-Tacy stories, I love to work from real incidents,” Maud wrote.

Maud Hart Lovelace died on March 11, 1980. But her legacy lives on in the beloved series she created and in her legion of fans, many of whom are members of the Betsy-Tacy Society, a national organization based in Mankato.

Find out about the Betsy-Tacy convention in 2012 and the Betsy-Tacy Society.

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, November 8th:Amusing Reviews
Thursday, November 10th:A Cozy Reader’s Corner
Tuesday, November 15th:Cafe of Dreams
Wednesday, November 16th:Teresa’s Reading Corner
Thursday, November 17th: Laura’s Reviews
Tuesday, November 22nd:Sidewalk Shoes
Wednesday, November 23rd:Books Like Breathing
Monday, November 28th:Reading Lark
Tuesday, November 29th:Reviews from the Heart
Wednesday, November 30th:Raging Bibliomania
Thursday, December 1st: The 3 R’s: Reading, ‘Riting, and Randomness
Friday, December 2nd:Book Hooked Blog

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Printmaker’s Daughter by Katherine Govier — 512 pgs

Based on the legends of the “ghost brush,” this historical fiction novel set in eighteenth century Japan tells the life story of Oei, the nontraditional daughter of master painter and artist Hokusai. From the time Oei is a young girl riding on her father’s shoulders, she’s been taught the secrets of his art and ways. Leaving the rest of his family behind and traveling from village to village with Oei, Hokusai is ever changing his art to avoid conflicting with the censors who seek to dominate the populace. As Oei grows up surrounded by prostitutes, fellow artists and the students who follow her father like a god, she becomes increasingly talented and more and more recalcitrant to follow the Japanese dictates for women. As she becomes a great artist in her own right, she eschews formal relationships and takes on many of the characteristics of the wayward women whom she befriends, also learning to be both similar and very different from her father. But when her father is cut down by illness, Oei’s only choice is to become “the ghost brush” and continue her father’s work. Oei learns to surpass the master to whom she is loyal but can never be revealed as the artist she truly is. As Oei struggles with her art and her fellow artists, she also become increasingly confused by the loyalty tinged with hostility and repugnance she feels for her father. Endlessly toiling as her father’s assistant, Oei learns the ways of the world are not synonymous with the ways of her heart, and before long she begins to not only fade into the background but to puzzlingly come forward and shine in secret as well. In this captivating and epic tale of two of Japan’s greatest painters, Govier gives us a glimpse into the heart and mind of the woman behind the man who made his name not only in Japan, but all over the world through the use of his brushes and ink.

I was puzzled by my reactions to this book. Normally this would be the type of book I devoured in only a few sittings, but there was something about the rhythm of the story that impeded me from becoming fully invested in the tale. There were certain junctions where the story sharply veered off from what had been expected, and I was at first a little confused and then perturbed at how the flow of the tale was being diverted in such a strange way. Don’t get me wrong, there were parts of the book that were just brilliant, and some of the scenes were written with such precision and skill that I got lost in them, but then the thread would be lost and I would be left stumbling through passages that were a lot less interesting. Carrie over at Nomadreader says it all so much more succinctly and concisely in her review, so if you haven’t checked it out yet, I encourage you to read it.

Call me a heathen, but the best parts of the book for me were the illicit looks into the brothels and the secret lives of the prostitutes. I guess I’m just fascinated by things like this, because for some reason, these parts were immensely readable and utterly absorbing. I was a little turned off that Oei was so young when she started being exposed to such things, but I began to believe that this was a byproduct of the time and the society in which she lived, and though it made me a little angry, I was also interested in seeing how she would react to it all. I also really liked the descriptive qualities of Govier’s writing when it came to describing the art that Oei and her father were creating. I could almost see the paintings she was describing, and it was interesting to get the added infusion of the supposed emotion that was behind the art the two were churning out. There was a lot of detail and piquancy to the writing which I really enjoyed, and despite the meandering way of the plot at times, I did enjoy certain  aspects of the book very much.

One of the main themes which was constantly in play in this book was loyalty. Oei’s loyalty to her father was something that was explored in depth and with great skill by the author. The impression I got was that the more Oei’s loyalty grew, the more quickly she became subsumed in her father’s desires, fame and image. It was impossible for a woman of that time to be known as a great artist, and in some ways I think Oei’s collaboration with her father was both a help and a hindrance to her. She lived in obscurity so he could live in the light, and the more she gave up for him, the more he expected her to give. I thought he was very childlike in his pursuit for recognition and adoration. Frankly, he was a very selfish man, and by taking the best years of Oei’s life in the service of his art he demonstrated his inability to love anyone other than himself. This was a recurring theme. Hokusai valued himself alone, and though Oei grumbled about him and held resentment towards him, she truly did love him and did everything in the service of their shared art: the art that he would get all the credit for.

Another plot element I found interesting was the role the government played in society. These men ruled through violence and fear, and they were constantly changing the strictures when it came to which types of art it was acceptable to create and sell, and which would bring punishment. This left artists at loose ends and constantly having to change their styles and subjects, which is one of the reasons they were so poor. By keeping them off kilter all the times, they were ensuring that no one other than the officials had influence in the community. Hokusai found numerous ways around this, as did the other artists, but it was a daily factor in their lives that kept them from truly being able to advance and become prosperous. When Japan is finally opened to the rest of the world (something the Shogun has violently protested) these artists finally begin to receive the recompense and notoriety that has been held from them for so long. It was all very interesting to read and contemplate.

Though I had subtle issues with the pacing and abrupt narrative shifts, this book was really a very interesting piece of fiction. It was a rather long book and at times it felt plodding, but overall, it was a read that I think a lot of historical fiction enthusiasts would enjoy. The narrative had the ability to veer between raunchy bits and passages of great esoteric wisdom and beauty, which was also interesting to experience. It wasn’t exactly a favorite for me, but I did get a lot of enjoyment out of some of the themes and ideas expressed. A fascinating story that could have used just a little tweaking in the execution.

About the Author

Katherine Govier is a winner of the Toronto Book Award and Canada’s Marian Engel Award for a woman writer in mid-career. Her novel Creation, about John James Audubon in Labrador, was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. She lives in Toronto.

Visit her website at www.theprintmakersdaughter.com and connect with her 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:

Tuesday, November 22nd:Melody & Words
Wednesday, November 23rd:Books Like Breathing
Friday, November 25th:nomadreader
Monday, November 28th:Raging Bibliomania
Tuesday, November 29th:A Few More Pages
Wednesday, November 30th: Life In Review
Tuesday, December 6th: Life in the Thumb
Wednesday, December 7th:The Lit Witch
Thursday, December 8th:Unabridged Chick
Friday, December 9th:Amused By Books
Monday, December 12th:Iwriteinbooks’s blog
Tuesday, December 13th:A Bookish Way of Life
Wednesday, December 14th:Hopelessly Devoted Bibliophile

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand — 496 pgs

Louis Zamperini was the kind of child you didn’t want living in your neighborhood, much less your house. A troublemaker and a thief, Louis was always finding ways to exasperate his parents and get himself into loads of trouble. When his older brother, Pete, decides to take Louis under his wing and teach him to be a track star, Louis begins to do a moral and ethical about face and becomes a celebrated Olympic runner and model citizen, and it seems he’ll have a golden future. But then Zamperini is drafted in the war and trains as a pilot in the fight against the Japanese after the attack on Pearl Harbor. When his plane goes down over the ocean, Louis and two of his fellow airmen begin the fight of their lives against the tossing waves, the beating sun and the hungry sharks. Floating aimlessly on a raft for over 2000 miles, Louis and his fellow crewman think it can’t get any worse for them; then it does. When Louis and the only other survivor spot land, they discover what true horror is, for they have landed in the hands of the enemy and the Japanese will never let them forget that they are indeed prisoners of war. Moving from camp to camp, Louis finds himself among hundreds of other P.O.W.s and is brutally abused and tortured day after day, falling into the hand of a sadistic and malevolent Japanese captor known as “The Bird”. Though The Bird is the most awful of his minders, there are others who make life for the men one brutal trial after another, and it’s almost all the men can do to survive the indignities, humiliations and torture they face each and every day. When the end finally comes for Louis and the other prisoners, an amazing story of revival, healing and forgiveness begins to take place. Through the horrendous afflictions and degradations they suffer, the men begin to lose themselves, but one man, Louis Zamperini, will remain, amazingly, Unbroken.

This book was chosen for the Books, Babes, and Bordeaux book club’s October read, and while I knew it was a long book, I also knew it was probably the most celebrated pick for clubs all over America this year. I have to say although the book got off to a slow start initially, at about the 150 page mark it became a book I couldn’t stop listening to. I chose the audio format because I wanted to experience this book in a short period of time, and I already knew Sandy was digging the audio and I thought I would too. The book was narrated by Edward Herrmann, and I thought he was a good choice because his voice, while not very adept at inflection, had a smooth and rolling quality to it that kept me enthralled and hungering for more of Louis’ story. I wouldn’t hesitate to listen to Herrmann again, but I think I would probably be a little choosy as to which of his books I picked up. I get a deep gut feeling that he would be best with works of narrative nonfiction, such as this one.

I read the first few chapters of this book with my eyebrows raised.  I couldn’t imagine living with a child like Louis. Smoking cigarette butts by the age of four and drinking by age five, it was hard to believe he was indeed a child! He was terribly badly behaved and was a force to be reckoned with when it came to discipline from his teachers and parents. He really broke his mother’s heart with all his antics. When his older brother, Pete, stepped in to remold Louis into a track star, I was wondering if that would have any effect on this boy of a thousand crimes. But the adulation that Louis found as a runner seemed to be all he needed to turn from his waywardness and start life anew. I admit to being a little bored with the sections that recounted his running and Olympic endeavors, and worried that the book would devolve into a categorization of minutiae that I wouldn’t be able to engage with. Even the early bits about the war and Louis’ training were somewhat stagnant sections for me. But from the moment the book took a turn into a survival story, I was hooked and couldn’t peel myself away for very long. Louis’ cataclysmic adventure from sky to sea took me to heights of incredulity and anxiousness. It was the type of thing that was almost too unbelievable to be true. But it was true. Every bit of it.

With Louis and the two other crash survivors floating about aimlessly in the ocean, life became a very different sort of affair. It was wild and unpredictable, and when the sharks got involved, savage as well. The men drifted for 47 days, and it was a miracle they survived because they had little food and water, and had to come up with ways not only to eat and drink, but to protect themselves from the elements. When they saw the telltale signs that land was ahead, it seemed the journey was over, but that, my friends, was really when it all began. Louis and his crewmate were taken at once by the Japanese, and before long, the goodwill they had been met with melted away into the kind of torture that made my stomach twist to read. Not only did the men’s health deteriorate rapidly, the savage mental and physical abuse they suffered was enough to make me see red and set me to seething. I grew heavy hearted to listen to the indignities heaped upon these men, and especially hear about the psychotic behavior and repugnance of the man the captives called The Bird. This man seemed to have a special hatred for Louis and followed him from camp to camp raining abuse on him with glee. These men suffered in ways you and I would never be able to comprehend, and it was both saddening and frightening to hear the ways in which they were dehumanized and overpowered.

When the day of reckoning comes for Louis and the other men at his camp, the journey for them comes full circle. But some of them will never be the same again, and even Louis can’t escape the demons he leaves behind in the camp. These terrors seize him and make his life a living nightmare, until one day the unthinkable happens and Louis does another about face that will astound and shock readers. It’s only when Louis reaches this final step that he can begin to live again and be the person he was made to be, and though I could never have gotten to the point Louis did, I’m filled with admiration for the man and for all the survivors that not only defied the odds at the camp but that then made their way back into the world they had left so long ago. Hillenbrand, while not an overly artistic conveyor of plot, does her subject justice by being balanced and injecting her story with key bits of detail that left me feeling as if I could see and hear everything that was going on. It wasn’t stylish writing but had a very skillful journalistic feel to it that gave the story a level of credibility that it otherwise might have lacked.

This was definitely one of the better pieces of narrative nonfiction I’ve ever read, and though there were some stumbling points towards the beginning, by the time I got to the grist of the story, I simply couldn’t look away. It was a book I think will shock many readers, not only because of the story it tells, but because of the conclusion, which some will find unsatisfying and others will find amazing. It’s a very emotional book, yet it never veers into histrionics, and it was a story that I am unlikely to ever forget. Recommended.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Love Times Three: Our True Story of a Polygamous Marriage by Joe, Alina, Vickie and Valerie Darger and Brooke Adams — 304 pgs

This is the very unusual story of a modern polygamous family living in Utah and the struggles and joys they face, not only in their day-to-day lives, but in the greater social and legal arena. Joe Darger has always believed that to attain spiritual completeness, he needs to fully live out his life in a polygamous marriage. When he courts both Alina and Vicki at the same time, he’s not only judged by the outsiders of the faith but by his close group of polygamous friends and family as well. But Joe, Alina and Vickie were committed to living this lifestyle and were in love, and worked hard to integrate themselves into this highly unusual family structure. As Joe, Alina and Vickie have children and solidify their family, they encountered many obstacles and many rewards. Later, they were joined by Valerie, who had been severely mistreated in her previous polygamous marriage and who had a harder time adjusting to her new situation and the demands it placed on her. As Joe, Alina, Vickie and Valerie take turns explaining the ins and outs of their marriage, a picture of the complex and intricate life they lead begins to emerge. Though there have been trials and tribulations in this plural marriage, the four adults and twenty-six children that live in this relationship have found they wouldn’t want it any other way. As the Dargers share their story, they highlight the dangers that face by living this lifestyle and the prejudices and ignorance that bombard them in a society that doesn’t understand their way of life or their beliefs. Both engrossing and highly personal, this look into the lives of a family living a plural marriage will educate some and inflame others, but ultimately it will shed light on a subject that fascinates and mystifies so many.

This is going to be a tough review to write. I’ve been putting it off because while I want to remain respectful and open-minded about the life the Dargers have chosen, there were bits and pieces about this story that bothered and confused me. I decided to read this book based on Kathy’s review. I’m currently fascinated by anything that has to do with polygamy and how it works, and I’ve read several books about over the past few years. I chose to listen to this book on audio, and it was narrated by several different actors, including James Lurie, Eliza Foss, Kathleen McInerney and Karla Hedrick. I liked the use of multiple narrators to tell this story because it really helped the reader understand all the players, where they came from, and how they interacted as a family.

The Darger family are polygamists, but they don’t practice fundamental Mormonism. They instead are independents and don’t adhere to the full tenants of any religion. Joe, Alina, Vickie and Valerie all grew up in polygamous households where their fathers were solely responsible for their religious education. This is the case with the Darger clan as well. The Dargers believe they can only reach the third and highest level of heaven (called celestial heaven) by practicing plural marriage. They came together in a few nontraditional ways because Alina is a cousin to Val and Vickie, who are twins. Even the way Joe courted the girls was unconventional, as he chose to court the first two women at the same time, which drew considerable ire from other polygamists. Eventually they added a third wife, and Joe has stated they are not looking to add more wives to his family, but that isn’t set in stone. The women co-parent each other’s offspring and each takes their turn at working outside the home. They are modern, hip and open minded, but some of the characteristics of their family life bothered me.

First off, there is a tremendous amount of thinly veiled jealousy between all the women. This is easy for the narrators to gloss over with smooth and untroubled voices, but the fact that there are three adult women vying for one man’s attention is sure to produce many issues, jealousy being just one. It’s here that I must interject my opinion that jealousy is a healthy and normal human emotion when held in proportion. I simply can’t imagine having to share my husband with another woman, for any reason, and though the Dargers explain their beliefs and feelings on why they feel this is necessary, I had a hard time wrapping my head around it. It’s not healthy to try to stamp out your jealousy like a fire and subsume your natural feelings and instincts. The human drive for jealousy is biological and evolutionary. It exists for a reason, and despite what these women were doing or saying about it, there was a distinct feeling that they were not as removed from these feelings as they wished to be. A couple of them said it was a ongoing task to root out jealousy, and I honestly felt sorry for them.

Another reason that I felt sorry for some members of the family was because they were asked to make some seriously heavy sacrifices in order to live a polygamous lifestyle. When one of the wives was young, she was forced to quit attending high school so she could tend to the other young children in her family. The Darger children must pay a portion of their income for rent at a young age and are all tasked with contributing financially to their household, as well as doing many chores and watching the younger children. Some of the Darger’s children have rebelled and admit to being less enthralled with the lifestyle, but others hope to practice it one day themselves. The Dargers don’t force their children into the polygamous lifestyle and allow them to have their own beliefs, which I felt was honorable and encouraging. Joe and his wives even encourage the children to visit other places of worship and to study other religions so they can be aware of the choices they make. I was glad the parents of these children respected them enough not to force their beliefs on them and have to say the Dargers appear to be about as egalitarian as they could be living in a plural marriage.

There’s so much more to discuss in a book like this one, but I hope I’ve been able to impart the experience of this book without being judgmental. I think most of my discomfort had to do with the human side of this arrangement, and it’s obvious that what works for most of us doesn’t work for everyone. I can see that Joe, Alina, Vickie and Val are happy in their choice of relationship. But like every relationship, there are issues and problems that make day to day life a struggle. Though polygamy is certainly not for me, it was intriguing to get a deep and intimate look at what it might be like to live in a family such as this. A very enlightening read.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Personal History of Rachel Dupree by Ann Weisgarber — 336 pgs

Rachel Dupree is the mother of 5 children and the wife of homesteader Issac Dupree. After hatching a scheme many years ago to ensnare the man she so desired to marry, Rachel finds herself living many hard years in the unforgiving South Dakota Badlands. Life has been hard for this African-American pioneer family, and through all of the blistering summers and unforgiving winters, it’s Issac’s insistence that he needs to buy as much land as possible and make this hellish place his home that has kept his family living in near poverty and seclusion year after year. Rachel has always been an eager help-meet, but now, after 14 years, she’s pregnant again and the land is suffering through a horrible drought that has left many of the family’s herd dead and the family’s lives in jeopardy from lack of water. As Rachel struggles through the drought and her fears for the upcoming winter, she travels backwards in her mind to her first meeting and eventual marriage to Issac, and discovers that these badlands she has tried so hard to carve an existence out of may just be the thing that finally eradicates her family. But getting Issac to see this is impossible, and when he begins to ask Rachel to make some of the most demanding and dangerous sacrifices she’s ever been forced to endure, Rachel finds herself at a moral and emotional crossroads she never thought she would have to face. Both gripping and poignant, this is the story of one woman’s fight for survival against a most harsh and unforgiving landscape.

This book was a real eye-opener for me because, while I have read many books about people pitted against the elements, this book dealt with a time and situation I had never read about before; namely, a lone African-American family surviving as homesteaders during the pioneering days. It was quite a emotional story for me because I felt I could relate to Rachel both as a mother and as a wife, and I found that despite the vast differences in our situations and living arrangements, the protectiveness and hope she felt for her children was something I can imagine any mother would relate to. While I was reading, I was trying to put myself in Rachel’s shoes, watching her children walk around in ragged clothes and begging for water with tongues  horribly swollen from dehydration. It was not only a story that provided a glimpse into the life of a pioneer but ultimately a story of survival and sacrifice that was hard to distance myself from. Weisgarber’s writing felt intimately personal and resonant, and Rachel’s voice captivated me from very early on.

I can’t say I liked or respected her husband, Issac, very much though. It was clear the land and his property was his first and only concern. Though he was at times loving and kind to his children, I felt as if they and Rachel were only possessions to him that he did with as he saw fit. Don’t get me wrong, Issac wasn’t abusive but he was hard and uncompromising. I found his actions to be unloving in the extreme and I grew frustrated with his inability to understand what was best for his wife and children. Issac seemed to think of Rachel and the children as workhorses who existed to make his land more profitable, and it was his lack of attentiveness and care that put Rachel and the children’s lives in danger time and again. I found him repugnant, and mentally veered between wanting him to change his mind about things and wanting him to just go away. Rachel was always mentally battling herself against negative feelings for Issac, and I could understand that. Such was the believability of this tale that at first I found her struggles to be perfectly valid. Later, I grew frustrated that she let herself be overtaken by Issac and began rooting for her to take a stand.

This book is truly unique because while there exist many books about the pioneering lifestyle, this one focused on what it was like for an African-American family. I can’t say there was much prejudice against them in the badlands and I think that was mainly because there were so few families that could survive the crushing droughts and forbidding winters. It was also interesting that during this time, while there was immense prejudice against blacks in the cities, Issac had an unswerving hatred for the Native Americans who roamed the land. It seemed sort of counter intuitive and was definitely ironic, that this man who would have been subjected to hatred by whites during that period in time was living his own life of intolerance and ignorance against a group of people who had been marginalized and subjugated. Weisgarber does a great job of elucidating this without hitting the reader over the head with it, and I think this and other pertinent plot points were written with a deft hand and clear eye.

This was a very emotional read for me because there was an emotional resonance and power to Rachel’s thoughts that matured throughout the story and created scenes that were not only significantly powerful, but also enabled the reader to truly become invested in Rachel’s plight. I loved this book, not only for its raw power, but for the emotions it elicited in me. A great read that was not only introspective and deep, but also carefully crafted and rich. Recommended.

Author Photo About the Author

Ann Weisgarber was born and raised in Kettering, Ohio. She was a social worker before earning a Master’s degree in sociology at the University of Houston and becoming a teacher. She divides her time between Sugar Land and Galveston, Texas.

Visit Ann 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, November 1st:nomadreader
Wednesday, November 2nd:Peeking Between the Pages
Thursday, November 3rd:Linus’s Blanket - Author Q&A
Monday, November 7th:A Bookish Libraria
Tuesday, November 8th:Man of La Book
Thursday, November 10th:Unabridged Chick
Monday, November 14th:Book Dilettante
Tuesday, November 15th:Book Chatter
Wednesday, November 16th:She is Too Fond of Books
Spotlight on Bookstores Guest Post
Thursday, November 17th:Book Club Classics
Friday, November 18th:Historical Tapestry - Guest Post
Monday, November 21st:Raging Bibliomania
Tuesday, November 22nd:The Brain Lair
Wednesday, November 23rd:Broken Teepee
Friday, November 25th:Historical Tapestry
Monday, November 28th:A Bookworm’s World
Tuesday, November 29th:My Bookshelf
Wednesday, November 30th:Elle Lit.
Thursday, December 1st:Melody & Words
Monday, December 5th:Book Snob
Wednesday, December 7th:Life in Review
Thursday, December 8th:The 3 R’s Blog

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka — 144 pgs

In this gripping story told in the collective voice of a group of Japanese mail-order brides, Julie Otsuka examines the lives of hundreds of women who left Japan to marry men they had never seen and live in America. But when these women step off the boat after their long journey, they discover that nothing is how it had been represented to them. The men they had been waiting for were not wealthy, educated and handsome; most were actually itinerant farm workers who paid their dowry in order to have an extra pair of hands to work the fields and assuage their physical needs and loneliness. The women are distraught to discover the lives they hoped for were but a mirage on a distant horizon, and they take their places on their knees in the fields or becoming maids or laundresses. When the women give birth they must strap the babies onto their backs immediately afterwards so they don’t miss a day in the fields, and their children grow up to be timid, shy or obstreperous. Some of the women grow to love their husbands but most learn to accept their fate quietly and become worn down with sorrow and work. When news comes that the Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor and the country is at war, these Japanese wives and their husbands begin to face hatred, prejudice and finally forced evacuation. Haunting, lyrical and sparse, The Buddha in the Attic tells the tale of the women who were dealt a bitter hand by fate and the ways they learned to accept and overcome all that their lives had become.

When I initially started reading this book, the collective voice was a little hard to get used to, but I began to see that Otsuka actually performed an amazing feat by writing her book in this style. Not only was she able to tell the story of hundreds of women at once, she was also able to faithfully represent all the variations and vagaries of life these women coming over from Japan faced. I actually grew to enjoy this use of the first person plural, though I thought I never would. I understand where some people could see this style as impersonal, but to me, it felt very intimate and gave me a feeling of being in the midst of a large group of women recounting their sorrows to an impartial listener, though anyone reading this book cannot remain impartial for long.

I was awash with sympathy for the way these women had been tricked and forced into lives they had never suspected to lead. Only a few found joy with their new husbands and children. Most of them lived sharp lives of percussive unhappiness, moving and migrating along with the men they had been yoked to for better or worse. I think the chapter that most tugged at my heartstrings was the one that dealt with the taking of the women’s virginity on the night they arrived in America. There was nothing romantic or tender about any of it, and it was with a heavy heart that I read about women who were forced bodily into becoming the wives that their new husbands had paid for. The way the women were treated and tricked into the voyage was treacherous, and as I gripped my book in my hands, ingesting all their heartache and bitterness, a wave of sadness rolled over me that couldn’t be shaken.

With the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese have now become the suspicion-laden enemy, and the Americans who had formerly ignored them begin to harbor deep resentment and anger towards them. This forces the Japanese women and men to become even more stolid and silent, and they remain confused as to why certain men are being dragged off into the night, never realizing the same fate awaits them. The last chapter is narrated by the Americans who watched the mass exodus of the Japanese and can’t understand the puzzling feelings of sorrow and loss they feel for people who have existed so long beside them but have never been respected or properly honored. Otsuka does a remarkable job of making this section, and indeed the whole book, feel at once like a confessional statement and a list of regrets that will move and touch both readers who are familiar and unfamiliar with the circumstances surrounding these lost people.

This is a short read that packs a powerful punch, and while it’s ultimately very sad, it tells a story that may be new to some. In the fluidity and grace of Otsuka’s imaginings, these women move out of the territory of the faceless and nameless and become recognizable and human; more like us than we will ever be able to realize. This was a powerful and haunting book that will make readers consider and think deeply as they peruse the pages, and some may find these stories cannot be forgotten once the covers have been closed. Recommended.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Chosen by Chandra Hoffman — 320 pgs

Chloe Pinter is a social worker employed by a private adoption agency. Bringing together birth mothers and potential adoptive families always makes her feel useful and necessary, but lately, her job and clients are taking more and more of her time and the situations surrounding the adoptions are becoming more intrusive and dangerous. When the book opens, Chloe is working with Jason and Penny, a couple of teenage grifters who are trying to bully Chloe and the agency into paying exorbitant fees for the adoption of their child. Chloe is reluctant to work with Jason, for he’s not only menacing but manipulative and dangerous as well. When their son is finally born and placed with Francie and John McAdoo, Jason begins a campaign for compensation that will embroil not only Chloe and the Chosen Child agency, but a handful of unexpected players as well. Meanwhile, Eva and her husband, Paul, have just brought their new child home from the hospital after a difficult birth. Eva and Paul were once clients of Chosen Child, but not having been picked as adoptive parents, their luck changed when Eva finally got pregnant. But now something isn’t right, for as Eva and Paul attend to their new baby, Eva slips into a dangerous bout of postpartum depression and it’s all Paul can do to hold it all together. When Chloe unexpectedly bumps into Paul, he learns of the difficulties she’s having with her adrenaline junkie boyfriend, just as Chloe learns of Eva’s difficulties with the new baby. Slowly, and with great precision, all these people will become enmeshed and entwined in a strange and violent story revolving around the newborns in their lives, both the unwanted babies and the ones who have been longed for so desperately.

One of the things I liked most about this book was the gritty and slightly malevolent feel it had. From the instant I picked it up, the action and plotting were tight and felt expertly handled. The narrative was split between a handful of characters, and this, too, made the book feel very cohesive and suspenseful. The prose wasn't filled with pointless and aimless wandering, but instead, there was a directness that some would even call bluntness about the story, and it made for highly engrossing reading. There were several points-of-view shifts in this tale and each built layers upon layers of intrigue and mystery into an already compelling story that left me feeling slightly unbalanced and introspective throughout the whole ride.

None of the characters in this book were extremely likable. Except for Chloe, I had a hard time relating to anyone, but this proved to be an excellent decision in terms of Hoffman’s orchestrating of people and events. These people were selfish, violent and demanding, and they could never see their blessings, even when they got the things they had been dreaming of for so long. A lot of them lived just to cause drama and confusion, and I found them all to be manipulative, cruel and mentally warped, which provided a lot of fireworks on the page. Hoffman isn’t afraid to examine the darker sides of people’s personalities and get to the bottom of those emotions that we all hide deep in our mental closets. Grasping, savage and mercurial would be a few words I would use to describe the characters that made their homes between these covers.

This book highlighted the underside of the adoption industry, and when you read it, you’ll understand why I call it an industry. Birth mothers on drugs hoping for a payout that will enable them to effectively sell their children; adoptive parents who are prejudiced and can’t be happy even when they receive the child they’ve always wanted; and agency honchos who see gestating children as a source of revenue: they were all here, popping up their nefarious little heads to populate this tremendously scintillating and dark tale. In between bouts of adoption drama, Chloe is trying to make sense of her life, her career and the man whom she’s fallen in love with. Though there was a very dramatic and fulfilling conclusion to all this drama, one couldn’t help but ask questions about the very strange processes that are the hallmark of a private adoption agency. Hoffman does a great job investing her damaged characters with real emotion and creates for them a catharsis of sorts, though it didn’t turn out at all like I expected it to.

This was a book that I picked up during a busy week and devoured in no time at all. It was haunting and gripping, and though the reader never really knows where Hoffman is going with her audacious and gritty story, I can tell you that you won’t be disappointed with its strange developments and intrepid conclusion. The pugnacious characters were something to be savored as well. If you’ve ever wondered about the hidden underbelly of adoption, then this is definitely the book for you. It will keep you in its clutches until that final page is turned.

Author Photo About the Author

Chandra Hoffman has been an orphanage relief worker in Romania, a horse trainer in the Caribbean, a short order cook in a third world hospital, the director of a U.S. adoption program, and an event planner for Philadelphia’s Main Line elite. A graduate of Cornell University and Antioch’s MFA program, she has settled back in her hometown outside of Philadelphia with her husband, three young children, and an ever-changing menagerie. Chosen is her first novel.

Visit Chandra at her website, and follow her on Facebook and Twitter at @chandraKhoffman.

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

Wednesday, November 9th:The House of the Seven Tails
Thursday, November 10th:Books Like Breathing
Friday, November 11th:Iwriteinbooks’s blog
Monday, November 14th: As I turn the pages
Wednesday, November 16th:Raging Bibliomania
Thursday, November 17th:Life In Review
Monday, November 21st:Wandering Thoughts of a Scientific Housewife
Tuesday, November 22nd:In the Next Room
Wednesday, November 23rd:Review from the Heart
Monday, November 28th:The Book Chick
Tuesday, November 29th:A Cozy Reader’s Corner
Wednesday, November 30th:A Bookish Way of Life

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Monday, November 14, 2011

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness — 224 pgs

In this earth shaking novel from acclaimed author Patrick Ness, a young boy begins the fight of his life against a monster that only he can see and recognize. When Conor wakes up at 12:07 a.m. with a monster calling his name from outside the window, he’s not all that afraid of what waits for him in the dark. The monster seems to grow out from the tree that’s in his backyard and wishes to tell Conor three stories. At the conclusion of his third story, Conor must tell his own. But the monster, though he appears repeatedly, is the least of Conor’s worries, for his mother is extremely ill and no one will tell him if she’s really getting better or not. Conor is also being viciously attacked by a group of school bullies, with one in particular who seems to know no bounds. So when the monster arrives, it’s with little fanfare from Conor, who seems to have more to fear than a great tree beast intent on telling him stories. But as each night and story begins to count down, Conor knows that his time is running out, and soon it will be time for him to reveal his own story: A story of terror, and loss, and fear; A story that houses the real monster that Conor is trying so desperately to run from. Told both in text and with dark and foreboding artwork, this is a story of the monster that lives in the deepest heart of all of us and its desire and will to break free.

I had heard a lot about this book before ever picking it up. I think the first time I ever read anything about it was over at Nymeth’s site, when she reviewed it and related how devastating and beautiful a read it was for her. I was instantly intrigued, because, lets face it, she knows a thing or two about great books! When I had the chance to grab this book at SIBA, I was all over it and knew no matter what else I had planned to read, this one was going to be on the top of my list. What I found was a book that was like no other I had read before, where sorrow was the neighbor of indescribable fear and where loyalty and love can divide itself into something tragic and heartbreaking.

Conor has a lot going on emotionally, and seemed, for most of the book, to be a little numb. His mother is very ill and no one will tell him the truth of what lies ahead. His father is in and out of his life and is shamelessly inconsistent in his son’s time of need. For some reason Conor feels the need to be punished for the terrible dreams he’s been having, dreams he cannot share with anyone else. It was hard to read about such a boy as this. Hard to see him act and react to a danger he’s not sure of and a future he’s unwilling to embrace. On the surface, Conor may seem resigned, but as the book peddles further and further, it becomes clear there’s a storm in this boy just waiting to break loose and destroy everything around him. His fears, anger and uncertainty begin to amass in his mind into a terrible guilt that nothing can assuage, and as he becomes more deeply embroiled in all the terrible feelings that surround him, an unlikely monster surfaces to both frighten and enlighten him. But it’s not this particular monster that holds any power for Conor, and soon the two are in the throes of a very unusual relationship.

This monster that begins to visit Conor is indeed terrifying and dark, and though he tries to frighten the young boy, Conor isn’t having any of that. Soon the monster begins to tell tales, but these are tales unlike any you’ve ever heard before. The lines between good and evil intermingle in these stories and nothing is as it should be. The stories and their outcomes are tremendously frustrating for Conor, and sometimes were frustrating for me as well. Nothing was as it seemed, and there were so many shades of grey in the ambiguity of the tales that I was bothered and confused. This is where the book excels, because while the monster shares his stories in the narrative, a whole other element of storytelling is going on with the black and white illustrations, which are wild and dark in and of themselves. There’s a haunting and very real menace in both the words and the pictures of this story.

When the monster reaches the end of his tales, it’s finally Conor’s turn to share the story that has been internally savaging him, and its conclusion was so painful and tragic I couldn’t help but be moved to tears. Here at last was the monster that had been terrifying the boy who could not cry. Here, finally, was the shocking and haunting truth that could not be denied. When it’s finally out in the open though, the monster doesn’t seem to lose its menace and it takes all the power the boy has to tame it into submission. Ness explores all this beautifully and with a measure of pain that cannot be denied or avoided. Reading the story of Conor’s monsters caused me to both despair and hope, to an equally incredible capacity. It was a story that was alive and pregnant with meaning and portent, and I was equally relieved and grieving when I turned the last page.

This was a relatively short book that will take readers no time at all to finish, though I would advise paying close attention to the illustrations, for they’re not only beautiful but they make their own statements about the story and its characters. Though it’s a sad and disturbing tale, it’s remarkably important and teaches a humbly resonant lesson on what it means both to grieve and to live through the terror that can take an unwitting hold in our lives. Very highly recommended.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Motor City Shakedown by D.E. Johnson — 352 pgs

Detroit, 1911. Will Anderson is going through an amazingly tough time after the murder of his best friend, Wesley, at the hands of the gangsters controlling the city streets. Now Will is looking for answers and prepared to take revenge, but he has another problem as well: although Will seems to be focused on revenge, he’s also addicted to the morphine that helps ease the pain of the hand that was mangled and disfigured in the fight that took Wesley’s life. Will is also unsure of what has happened to Elizabeth, the woman he loves, who has also battled against abuse. When Will discovers that one of the henchmen responsible for Wesley’s murder has been killed and that he is the prime suspect, the game is on to escape the mobsters and the police in an increasingly dangerous cat-and-mouse game where nothing is what it seems and everyone is suspect. With the help of friends on both sides of the law, Will goes on the offensive and comes to realize that to erase the taint from his name and to find the peace he’s been looking for, he may indeed have to bargain with the very men he had hoped to destroy. Both fast paced and gritty, this sequel to The Detroit Electric Scheme shares the continuing story of Will and his desperate struggles to be free of the painful grip of the past and the terrible specter of the possible future.

I wasn’t able to read the first book in this series, The Detroit Electric Scheme, and there were a few reasons I think this affected my enjoyment of this second installment. First off, there was a lot of backstory that I wasn’t privy to and I had to guess about a lot of things that were eluded to and figure out a lot for myself. I also didn’t know why these various players were so important, and would have been better served to have read the first book so my knowledge of past events could have helped me understand Will’s motivations and his relationship with Elizabeth better. I also would have liked to have read the first book because this was such a rip roaring story that I think I would have enjoyed seeing it from its inception.

This was a dark and gripping tale that didn’t pull any punches or baby its readers in the slightest degree. There wasn’t a lot of bad language but the story was very violent and full of a portentous picture of what life was like in Detroit around the turn of the century. I liked that the narrative moved with such precision and speed, and I grew to understand that Will’s resolve to find justice on his own was a byproduct of not only his own injuries, but also his loyalty to his friends and family. Will was a character that I could sympathize with deeply, and his persistence in putting himself in danger didn’t really surprise me. He seemed to be an honorable man who was at the height of despair, and though I raised my eyebrows at his behavior more than once, I never felt the way he acted was unbelievable or out of character.

This was a story that kept its readers on their toes. The action was quick and shifting, and there were a lot of players to keep track of. Once again, I think I did myself a disservice by not having read the first book, because there were significant revelations that it seemed were meant to strike the reader in a powerful way that were lost on me, but I was still able and eager to follow along. The rawness and grittiness of the story was heightened by the seemingly calculated violence that all of the characters engaged in, and the addition of real life historical characters embedded into the plot was another touch that helped Johnson’s story seem like a very accurate historical period piece. I was flabbergasted by the way everything turned out and felt that a more unexpected conclusion to this story could scarcely be possible, but Johnson handles it all with finesse and a great sense of style that I both appreciated, and at times, underestimated.

There were slight tinges of romance along with the intrigue, as Will again joins up with Elizabeth. For the most part, this romance was filled with the piquancy of verbal sparring and a deeper emotional resonance that’s not typically a hallmark of these types of hardboiled reads. I really liked Elizabeth and felt her presence did a lot to stabilize Will during the more dangerous exploits that he engaged in, but I also felt at times that she herself could be a loose cannon, capable of exploding at the wrong moment. Their romance and predicament was not only a tantalizing little tidbit that was embedded in a story of deep treachery, it also provided a smoother and more emotional component to a read that could sometimes be dominated by depravity and rancor.

Though I’m not sure if this book works that well as a standalone novel, it did provide me with a lot of moments when I was glued to the page with eagerness and anticipation, so overall, I would have to say the narrative was a success. If you’re the type of reader who enjoys gripping and engaging crime novels with punch, I would say to run right out and add both The Detroit Electric Scheme and Motor City Shakedown to your list. I can vouch that the second book in this series was both engrossing and entertaining.

Author Photo About the Author

D.E. (Dan) Johnson, a graduate of Central Michigan University, is a history buff who has been writing fiction since childhood but had to hit his midlife crisis to get serious about it. His first novel, a historical mystery entitled The Detroit Electric Scheme, was published in September 2010 by St. Martin’s Minotaur Books. The Detroit Electric Scheme has garnered excellent reviews (including being named one of Booklist’s Top Ten First Crime Novels of the year) and also won a 2011 Michigan Notable Book Award.

Motor City Shakedown, the first sequel to The Detroit Electric Scheme, was published by St. Martin’s in September 2011. Dan is married, has three daughters, and lives near Kalamazoo, Michigan.

For more info, visit Dan's 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:

Monday, October 10th:A Bookish Libraria
Tuesday, October 11th:The Rap Sheet – guest post
Thursday, October 13th:Crime Fiction Lover
Friday, October 14th: Life in Review
Monday, October 17th:Joyfully Retired
Wednesday, October 19th:Unabridged Chick
Thursday, October 20th:Mockingbird Hill Cottage
Friday, October 21st:The House of Crime and Mystery
Monday, October 24th:Life in the Thumb
Tuesday, October 25th:The Literate Housewife Review
Wednesday, October 26th:Murder by Type
Thursday, October 27th:Fiction Addict
Tuesday, November 1st:Dan’s Journal
Tuesday, November 8th:Book Reviews by Elizabeth A. White – guest post
Wednesday, November 9th:Book Reviews by Elizabeth A. White
Thursday, November 10th:Raging Bibliomania
Monday, November 14th:Wordsmithonia

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver — 544 pgs

When Irina McGovern and her longtime partner Lawrence Trainer agree to host the handsome and cocky Ramsey Acton for his annual birthday dinner, the repercussions that spin wildly from that night form a double-stranded narrative that features the two very different paths of Irina’s life. Though Irina and Lawrence have a comfortable and sedate life together, theirs is a love that is devoid of passion and spontaneity. It’s only when Irina decides to be kind to Lawrence’s snooker playing pal Ramsey by taking him to dinner for a birthday celebration while Lawrence is away that Irina begins to see Ramsey’s charms and attentiveness. What happens next is shocking. In one strand of narrative, Irina succumbs to Ramsey’s charms, which has the effect of forever altering her life with Lawrence and saddling her with a man who’s not only obsessed with his sport, but with Irina herself. In the alternating chapters, a different future plays out for Irina, who this time does not melt into Ramsey’s embrace. In this very contrasting tale, Irina continues onward with Lawrence, realizing over time that he’s not the man she once thought him to be. As successive chapters undulate between a life with Ramsey and a life with Lawrence, the dichotomy of a life lived with the passionate and slightly off-balanced Ramsay is contrasted with a life lived with the passionless and stringent Lawrence is revealed. But it’s not always easy to judge which life has the upper hand, for both men have attributes that are wonderful but are sometimes terrible as well. In this utterly fascinating dual storyline, a woman lives out two very different lives, all the while wondering if the choices she’s made will ultimately ruin her or reward her.

When I started reading Lionel Shriver’s work this year, naturally I gravitated towards We Need To Talk About Kevin, as I had heard some very scary and impressive things about it. It was a book that knocked me backwards with its force, and I was hooked. Next I read So Much for That for a TLC Book Tour, and was once again impressed with Shriver’s capacity for wit and wounding all in the same narrative. When my book club Books, Babes, and Bordeaux decided on this for our selection, I was beside myself with joy. I can’t seem to get enough of the woman’s writing and was eager to see what she would do with this very unusually constructed and intriguing tale. While decidedly less aggressive than the other two Shriver books I read, this book had a personal impact that I couldn't ignore, for how many of us can’t relate to the pondering of a life that we may have either narrowly avoided or artlessly embraced?

While Irina is living with Lawrence, there’s a noticeable lack of commitment in their relationship, a fact that endlessly niggles at Irina, though she prefers not to think about it directly for fear of disappointment. Lawrence is steadfast and loyal but he’s a decidedly unromantic partner. I cringed with embarrassment when I discovered the sexual aspects of the couple’s lives and felt so humbly sorry for Irina that I was uncomfortable with Lawrence from that point forward. It almost seemed that Lawrence was more of a strict father to Irina in lieu of a real paramour to her. When Irina’s story bifurcates into two separate storylines, the sections dealing with Lawrence made me feel just as hopeless as Irina felt about the prospects of their relationship together. Hear me out. Lawrence was not a bad guy, just an uninspired and bossy one. He doted on Irina and showered her with compliments on her work, but their relationship was just so devoid of passion that Lawrence was a constant source of annoyance to me. As the story of Lawrence and Irina plays out, it’s one of endless frustration and unmet desires, a story that felt hopeless in all its trappings.

In Irina’s other life, as it were, she has kissed Ramsey and must leave Lawrence behind to begin a new life with him. This is a life of unadulterated passion and indulgence of every whim. But there are problems with this life too, for Ramsey is a very egocentric man who is only capable of being charming when he’s being adored. The fights and arguments that Irina and Ramsey engage in are horrendous and terrible, for Ramsey is also an intensely jealous and selfish man. It seems there’s a price to pay for passion, and though Ramsey and Irina have a tremendous chemistry and the sex and intimacy are off the charts, living with the man causes Irina to totter between helpless states of intense joy and satisfaction and boundless states of discomfort and alienation. Another problem is that Ramsey cannot and will not ever discuss anything of importance other than snooker, a game that Irina finds dull and boring after her first initial flush of appreciation for it. I disliked Ramsey a great deal, for within him was the capacity for great cruelty and indifference that was never satisfied. It was a life that was full of inconsistency and ego-stroking for Irina, and though there was immense gratification for her, there was also abuse and heartbreak.

What I found so interesting about this book was Shriver’s capacity for understanding the human condition in all its nuances. She poses some pressing questions to her readers by inveigling them in Irina’s story. Is it better to love or to be loved? When we give up a life in which we’re not happy, who’s to say we’re making a change that will make a difference in the long run? Even more profoundly, this book forced me to ask questions about my own life. Has there ever been a time when I chose a direction in my life that took me to unparalleled new ground? In the deepest parts of my heart, I know I have, and luckily for me, my new directions were a lot more rewarding than Irina’s ever were. It was with great skill that Shriver plundered the emotional closet of my life and her characters’ lives, letting the skeletons out for all to see. The book’s resolution crystallized the unpredictability of those decisions that we make in the heat of the moment that can change our lives forever.

Shriver is well on her way to becoming my favorite author, and part of what I love about her writing is not only its exceptional artfulness but her ability to morph each story she tells into its own new and spectacular shape. No two are the same and no two deal with the same issues. This is a longer book, so those looking to read it should make some time for it, but be aware that you will be well rewarded for doing so. It was a very contemplative and erudite road to have traveled, and I enjoyed it immensely. A great and very smart read. Highly recommended!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Mozart's Last Aria by Matt Rees — 336 pgs

Upon the unexpected death of the great composer and musician Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the city of Austria is overwhelmed with sorrow. For Mozart’s sister Nannerl, a woman separated from him by past recriminations and familial grudges, the loss is almost more than she can bear. When Nannerl discovers that Wolfgang may not have succumbed to disease as she had once suspected but may have been murdered, she leaves her loveless marriage and five children in the country to travel to the heart of Austria. Nannerl hopes to learn the truth behind her brother’s death, but upon her arrival, she discovers that there was more to Wolfgang than his music. It seems that Wolfgang’s involvement in a secret masonic society may have put him in greater danger than he had ever imagined. Now it’s up to Nannerl to ferret out the truth when deception lies around every corner and to discover the secrets of the masons and those of the highest echelons of Austrian nobility and society. Soon, Nannerl is buried deep in secrets, discovering along the way that her passion and talent as Wolfgang forgotten sister has not diminished over the many years that Nannerl spent forgetting about him. In this historical novel full of suspense and intrigue, the passion of Mozart’s music comes alive with ferocity alongside the strange secrets and nuances of his death.

This book was a bit of a blended experience for me. While I didn’t know the strange facts surrounding the composer and musician’s death, I had assumed this book would be more of a historical novel that dealt with his life, and his music in particular. I was very surprised to discover that this was more of a mystery novel than I had originally anticipated. While I usually enjoy these types of novels, there were some strange things about this book that kept me from buying into the story completely. Part of it had to do with the mood of the book and part of it had to do with the scope of the story that Rees was trying to tell.

First off, this was a very melodramatic book. There was swooning and weeping galore, and sometimes I grew weary of it. Everything was done with the utmost emotion and it made me tired just to contemplate the vast amount of emotional energy that everyone was expending. Perhaps it was a case of being hit with a very dramatic book at the wrong time, but time and time again, I grew bothered that everyone in this tale was so hypersensitive. There was always great weeping and gnashing of teeth at every turn, and frankly, it was overdone and bothersome. I get that one would be overwhelmed at the passing of a great man, but this felt a little shlocky to me, and as it drew on and on, I lost interest in what I felt was an overabundance of sentimentality in what could have been a solid and tight read.

I also felt that the mystery was too complex for me to fully become engaged in the story. The players became muddled in the intricate framework of the mystery and I wasn’t quite sure why some of these things seemed to have such a strong impact and importance. It took a lot of explaining from the author to pat it all into shape, and because of that, I felt that the writing was a little heavy-handed. Personally, I don’t like to feel like I’m being led and directed by an author so diligently towards the things that he or she feels are important. After awhile, I ceased to be intrigued and became annoyed at the over-execution that was taking place. A reader shouldn’t be able to spot a red herring the minute that they step into the story, but that’s what happened here. There was a feeling of intense orchestration in this tale that left it void of spontaneity and curiously, robbing the mystery of its significance and power.

Though things were definitely amiss in my experiences of this book, I really enjoyed the historical aspects and details that were imbued in the plot. I liked getting to know the background story of Mozart and his sister, and learning about the things that kept them apart for so long. The book was rich in historical detail that I found to be pitch perfect, but that was marred by the inclusion of so many drama-laden tangents. After reading the author’s notes at the end of the book, I discovered that all these events were based on historical fact, yet this story is not what has been proven to be true and it’s mostly speculation. I felt that as a reader, I had been led down a path that was not only frustrating but that hindered my enjoyment of the more sedate aspects of Mozart’s life and death. I usually don’t have a problem with historical embellishment, but this book took things in a direction I wasn’t pleased with, and I felt that I would have been much happier had the story not been so far-fetched and dramatic.

Perhaps my reactions to this book have something to do with my utter lack of knowledge of Mozart and his life before picking this book up. Perhaps it’s only that the book and I didn’t get on well together, but whatever the case may be, I found this to be a book that I alternately loved and loathed in equal measure. Readers who are fascinated by secret societies and theories of conspiracy would likely have a very different reaction than I did, and if you’re that type of reader, then I would say to go for it! If not, this one might better be left alone.

Author Photo About the Author

Matt Rees is an award-winning crime novelist and foreign correspondent. He is the author of the internationally acclaimed Omar Yussef crime series, including The Collaborator of Bethlehem. He is also the author of Cain’s Field, a nonfiction account of Israeli and Palestinian society. Matt lives in Jerusalem.

You can visit Matt at his website, read his blog, and follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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

Thursday, November 3rd:Life In Review
Monday, November 7th:Raging Bibliomania
Tuesday, November 8th:Reviews from the Heart
Wednesday, November 9th:Book Hooked Blog
Tuesday, November 15th:Unabridged Chick
Wednesday, November 16th:The Road to Here
Thursday, November 17th:Book Drunkard
Wednesday, November 23rd:The House of the Seven Tails
Monday, November 28th:Life Is Short. Read Fast.
Wednesday, December 7th: Reading Lark
Thursday, December 8th:Life in the Thumb
Monday, December 12th:That’s What She Read

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot — 400 pgs

In 1951, at the age of 30, an African-American woman named Henrietta Lacks died from an especially virulent form of cervical cancer, and the world of science and medical research was never the same again. When Henrietta Lacks visited her doctors at John’s Hopkins complaining that she felt “a knot growing on her womb” they were shocked to discover a form of cervical cancer they had never seen the likes of before. Though she received radical treatment, she soon died from her horrible affliction. But that’s only the beginning of the story, because although Henrietta left behind a husband and a handful of children, she also left behind the immortal cancer cells that would come to be known as the Hela cells. It’s not really clear if her family was tricked into allowing the doctors to take samples of her cancerous cells; but regardless of that fact, those cells have become some of the most important cells that have ever been harvested and have been aiding in the cures of many diseases. When author Rebecca Skloot decides to investigate the woman behind the cells, what she discovers will amaze, frighten and stupefy readers. For although doctors and researchers were getting rich off of Henrietta’s cells, her family was never compensated for them, and indeed never even educated about them. Most of her surviving family couldn’t even afford health care and were constantly mystified about the strange reports of the cells’ longevity and healing capacities. Long before they began to speak to Skloot, the family was living in fear and isolation, having been misdirected and exploited again and again. When the entire story of the cells and the family behind them is revealed, it’s one of shocking betrayals and strange science fiction like qualities. In this work of narrative nonfiction, Rebecca Skloot does the impossible and breaks through a barrier of grief, anger and resentment to tell the story of one woman and her incredible gift to the medical world — a gift that has tragically cost her family so very much.

When I was casting about looking for something to listen to on audio, I remembered that many readers had loved this book and that it had indeed earned a top spot on many “best of” lists. My good friend Sandy convinced me that audio was the way to go with this one, and so I set off with it, never knowing just how strange and compelling it was going to be. I found myself making up reasons to drop my print read and putter about the house trying to get more time with this incredible book that had me shaking my head in amazement and sorrow. It was a story I found incredible and that raised some frightening questions and suspicions in my mind, but at its heart this was a story of family. Be they broken or in bondage to wills outside their own, it was the story of the Lacks clan that really made the most impact on me. The audiobook was narrated by Cassandra Campbell with interludes of narration from Bahni Turpin. Both narrators did an amazing job, and Campbell in particular came off with just the right note of inquisitiveness and incredulity in her performance.

There were really two parts to this book. One part focused on the science behind the discovery of Henrietta’s cells and the other told the story of the Lacks family and the impact that these discoveries had on them. The cells in themselves were incredible, and it seemed, indestructible. They grew at an alarming rate and were so hardy and tenacious that they had the ability to grow even in places and ways they were not wanted. Medical men made millions off of these cells and they’ve been used in almost every form of medical research known in the world today. In the 50’s and 60’s the reports given to the public about these cells were not only misleading, but they had the cast of a bizarre Twilight Zone episode about them. News reports purported that the cells could create insidious life forms and clones, and read by a nation of unsavvy readers, the cells became sinister to some. The real truth was that these special cells, harvested from an unknown woman, were fast growing and useful for many different medical purposes in a way that none before them had ever been, and this in itself was a new phenomenon.

The part of the book that focused on Henrietta’s family was a decidedly less invigorating story. Henrietta was uneducated and married young. She had a philandering husband and a large group of children. The family and extended family were extremely poor, and when she was first diagnosed with the cancer that killed her, she was no stranger to health problems that were left untreated due to financial difficulties. Her treatment for cervical cancer was short-lived but intense, and by the time she died, her body was akin to a chemical dumping ground. It was heartbreaking to realize that she left behind children who were neglected and abused, but what happened after their eventual maturity bordered on the heinous. Henrietta’s family was never educated about the cells that the medical professionals took from her body. They never received any compensation for them, and even accolades came late in the game. Though all this caused a myriad of confusion and problems for the family, it was her daughter Deborah that took the emotional brunt of all this upheaval. Deborah’s story of ill-treatment and confusion broke my heart, for she seemed to suffer from an emotional cancer that mirrored her mother’s in its aggression, and Skloot’s eventual friendship and work with Deborah unveiled a world of confusion, helplessness and pain that the family was never able to recover from. I found it intensely wrong that the Lacks family could afford so little medical care when their matriarch’s cells were a gift that the medical community could never have done without.

Towards the end of this book, Skloot educates the reader a bit about tissue disposal and donation, and these sections had my blood boiling. A person has no rights to the medical refuse that they leave behind after a procedure or a blood draw, and these samples can be used for research and profit at the whim and will of those who collect it. Normally, I would have never been bothered by this, but after reading Henrietta’s story, this brought up frightening and untoward possibilities to my mind. Many have sued for the rights of their discarded tissues; readers of this book will be shocked to discover just how far these battles went and of their eventual outcome. The rational side of my mind says these things aren’t a big deal in the context of everyday life, but the emotional side of my personality needs only to look towards Henrietta and the legacy of suffering left to her children to tell me that this is indeed an important issue.

This book will probably make it to one of my top spots of the year. It had all the intrigue and mystery of a suspense thriller but with a much more complicated and muddied outcome. It was the kind of book you can’t help but talk about and bring up in every conversation. It was that good. If you haven’t read this book, I urge you to do so. Not only will it enlighten you in so many important ways, it will expose one more reader to a woman and family that deserve to be remembered and even celebrated. A highly original and impressive book, and very strongly recommended.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist — 272 pgs

In this dystopian thriller, a woman whose life has been deemed superfluous is housed in a state-of-the-art facility to begin the gradual harvesting of her organs for dispersal to those who are deemed more socially necessary. When Dorrit arrives at the unit, she knows the future that awaits her. Being without children or loved ones to care for her, she’s somewhat blasé about living out her final days in a place where all her creature comforts are provided for, but where her life will ultimately be robbed from her in a slow succession of surgeries and experiments. In this strange society, any person who either lacks children or a profession that is deemed somehow worthy to society is considered a “dispensable” person. When these dispensables reach the age of maturity, they become prisoners of the unit and begin to be medically sacrificed for the greater good. As Dorrit begins to adjust to this new life and starts to make friends, she begins to discover that the connections she lacked in the outside world are now hers for the taking. But it’s when she finds love at the unit, a love unlike any she’s been privileged to know, that she starts to question her ultimate sacrifice and that of those around her. In this stark and frightening novel, a world of brutal and unfeeling economy emerges, and the fate of Dorrit and her lover are suspended over the bleak and oppressive maw of those in charge of the unit.

When I told my husband the premise of this book, his comment was “A Swedish book that deals with the horrors of socialized medicine?” I of course thought that was hilarious, but I digress. When I started seeing the reviews for this book all over the Internet, I was immediately intrigued by the story but felt that it might turn out to be a something of a derivative version of Never Let Me Go, which in some ways it was. In my opinion, you can only read this story and be truly horrified by it and its implications once, and so this book failed to be as gripping and moving for me the second time around. Yes, there were new things done with the storyline and new angles explored, but in my eyes, this book was probably not as groundbreaking and revelatory as the author had planned it to be.

I listened to this book on audio, and the narrator, Suzanne Toren, was a good choice for this book but not all that pleasant for me to listen to. Part of it I think had to do with the book itself. The sentences and dialogue were very clipped and almost terse, and Toren seemed to revel in this fact to the point that her narration almost sounded clinical. I guess that fits with the theme of the book, but I felt that the story combined with this particular narrator felt cold and sometimes wooden. The emotions of the characters didn’t have the necessary human warmth that enabled me to feel compassion for them, and as such, I felt the story stayed on the surface with me. The detachment I felt for the characters and their plights had everything to do with the way Holmqvist wrote them, and it was a surreal experience to be aware of the author attempting to move her audience and to feel myself remaining aloof. To a certain point, I remained unengaged the entire way through and was only invested for the sake of curiosity in how the story would eventually end.

The book used a lot of the same terminology that was used in Never Let Me Go, and that bothered me for a few reasons. These two books told basically the same story, one from the perspective of the young and one from the perspective of the old, and I ended up finding less to enjoy about this second version. It felt a little bit manipulative to tell you the truth, and all along as I was reading, I was very aware of the author behind the curtains pulling the strings to make the audience react. The book also had a very slow build-up and was frankly boring at times. It wasn’t until about the third quarter that I finally started becoming invested and wanting to know how it ended. As far as audiobooks go, this was by far the least compelling book I’ve listened to in a long time, and this was due in part to the choice of narrator as well as the plodding feeling of the writing.

I was also really angered by the ending and felt that it made no sense. I can’t really explore that too fully here for fear of spoilers, but to say it enraged me would be an understatement. I felt like all I had learned about Dorrit became forfeit and I really didn’t know her at all. This was maddening because I had spent so much time looking through her eyes only to have her do an about face that didn’t ring true to me. In my mind, I can think of quite a few alternate endings that I would have found preferable, even exciting, but it was not to be. I think Holmqvist intended this book to speak quietly and carry a big stick, but it just didn’t work for me at all. The conclusion lacked the punch I know it was supposed to deliver because it was so much of a rebuttal of what had gone previously. I felt cut off and adrift when I finished it and felt that the final chapter was extremely disingenuous.

I can’t say that I had a good time with this book, or that it left me thinking. All it really did was make me mad that I had spent so much time with it only to be left hanging in space. Since this book and Never Let Me Go tell a very similar story, I would advise the latter over the former for many reasons, but mostly because I felt that Ishiguro got the emotional resonance in his book just right, where this one just felt sterile and cold. Not a favorite by far.
Blogger Template by Delicious Design Studio