Victor has only just turned sixteen when his father takes him for a walk around the family owned ranch and explains to him that it’s now time for him to be a man. This doesn’t mean being macho or scoring with all the girls, but only to begin to know himself and what he is about, never shirking his responsibilities and always being true to himself, no matter the cost. Though Victor hears his father’s advice, it’s not until his later teens and early twenties that he comes to really understand what his father had been talking about on that fateful day. As a young boy, Victor struggles in the all-boy military academy he attends. Though he is an American citizen, his father and mother hail from Mexico, and it’s only by chance, hard work and a little luck that they have prospered in California, becoming very wealthy from owning businesses and ranches. But Victor is treated very roughly at school, both by the other cadets and his instructors. They repeatedly call him stupid and lazy and attribute the worst of the Mexican stereotypes to him. Victor’s self esteem takes a nose dive, and it’s particularly distressing because he also can’t read beyond a fourth grade level. As Victor tries to piece together a life among the people who wish to do him harm and his parents who are clueless as to what’s going on at school, he has some confusing experiences with girls, comes to question his Catholic religion, and struggles under the burden of self doubt and low self esteem. When he finally decides to move to Mexico to experience a different life and go to the new university, he becomes aware of himself in new and exciting ways, and comes to believe that life is not what he once thought it was. Still struggling to make sense of himself, Victor begins to truly come alive in Mexico and learns once and for all just what makes him tick and how to be the man his father counseled him to be so many years ago. Written with an inexpressible and curious lack of self consciousness, Crazy Loco Love is the story of the author’s journey from troubled boyhood to replete and confident manhood.
When I first began to read this book, I had the distinct feeling that it was written with a young audience in mind. The language and sentence structure seemed very basic and there was something quite strange about the exuberance of the writing. Victor loves exclamation points and capitals and he’s not at all sparing in their use. As I moved further and further into the story, I began to see that the writing was really a reflection of the inner mind of Victor, and that by nature, he is a man prone to over-excitability and, most of the time, a lot of hyperbole. Every person he met was the most beautiful, most successful, best liked, etc. It was hard to gauge the real qualities of the people in his story because they were all so very similar. The best people he had ever encountered, in fact, even though their actions and behavior said otherwise. The problem, I think, had to do with the fact that Victor didn’t have a lot of experience with the written word, which may have made his writing seem a bit juvenile and inexperienced. I can say it was filled with a lot of emotion, and though it was a little distracting, it was also very passionate.
A lot of this story felt like it could have been penned by an over-emotional teenager. There was no real measurement or restraint in the emotions that the author expresses. He seemed often to be on the tip of hysteria, and because of that, the book lost a lot of its emotional impact. I also got rather tired of hearing about his wonder over his sexual exploits and his pondering over his penis. I assume this was a big deal because he’s Catholic and that kind of thing is generally frowned upon within that religion; To me, it just felt a little seedy and too confessional for me to really be able to enjoy it. Sometimes the thoughts we have running through out heads are not the best thoughts upon which to center a book, and particularly a memoir. I got the feeling that Victor was a trifle naive and that a lot of what was happening to him was normal, but from looking at it from his perspective, it was somehow strange and hysteria producing.
I think my biggest problem were the sections when Victor begins grappling with God. He comes to some very strange conclusions about Him and has all of these weird ideas about the nature and substance of God. Though he doesn’t go to church and only prays when something bad happens to him, he has this whole dogma of his own figured out that was rather strange and discomfiting. I began to suspect during the latter half of the book that he may have some sort of mental illness, because his thinking and behavior was so erratic and convoluted. It seemed he wanted God to fit into a little box of his own making and he was very self-centered about all of this. He goes about correcting passages of the Bible and having arguments with God in the middle of the desert, and I, for one, was worried about him. Now I’m not one to question anyone’s belief system or castigate anyone for the ways in which they find spiritual comfort. It’s not my place to do that and I feel I need to be as accepting as I can of others and their beliefs. But Victor’s grappling with God came off as unbalanced and scary at times, and his thought processes about these things were very disorganized and self-aggrandizing. It was interesting to read but frightening to contemplate.
Thought there was a lot to be concerned about, there were some moments of pure brilliance and Victor’s life story was rather interesting to read about. I think I just had a disconnect with the execution and emotional outbursts that plagued what could have been a very cogent and lucid tale. I think its interesting to note that Victor has had two other fictional works published and that at least one other reviewer compared him to Steinbeck. I didn’t see that at all, but then again, this memoir could possibly be very different from his fictional offerings. Though this book was not to my tastes, there may be other readers out there who would enjoy reading about Victor and his very unusual life. A rather strange read.
This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.
Monday, February 28, 2011
Friday, February 25, 2011
Bethany Cartwright was living what she thought was a very happy and productive life with her husband and young daughter, when one day, the illusions of her marriage and the health of her daughter slipped away simultaneously. When Beth discovers that her husband has been having an affair during his business trips and that her daughter is seriously ill, she feels overwhelmed, frightened and inconsolable. After asking her husband to leave, she begins to deal head-on with her daughter’s illness, but discovers that she needs her husband’s help in making their daughter well again. Just when she lets him into her life again, tragedy deals her another double blow. It seems her husband is dying of pancreatic cancer, and during his last days of life, he admits to Beth that he has had several other affairs over the course of their marriage.
During this time, her daughter, Charlotte, is beset by illness again and again, and no doctor can discover what exactly is wrong with her. Soon Beth is a shell of the happy and well adjusted woman she one was. Still reeling over the death of her husband and his final betrayal, Beth feels she can’t afford to place her trust in anyone ever again and resolves to live her life as a lonely single mother, raising a daughter beset by difficulties with her health.
During a routine stop at the gas station one day, Beth notices a handsome and enigmatic man named Matthew, who approaches her and seems very interested in her. But Beth isn’t receptive to any of those kinds of attentions and quickly dismisses the man, hoping that she will never run into him again. But she does. Time and time again, Matthew finds and approaches her and asks her out, only to be met with a flat refusal. Not only does Beth have problems trusting men, Matthew is significantly younger than she is and she can see no reason why he would be attracted to her. But Matthew’s persistence finally pays off, and Beth begins to see him in a new light. Both romantic and attractive, Matthew steals Beth’s heart away and she finally believes that she will be able to love again. But there’s something mysterious and strange about Matthew. He knows things that he shouldn’t and seems always to be there for Beth in just the nick of time. When a misunderstanding occurs between the two, Matthew finally reveals his secret to Beth. Though at first she doesn’t believe it, she comes to accept that Matthew is a very important person, not only to herself in the present, but to her family in the years to come. In this realistic yet mystical tale, the story of the love affair between Matthew and Beth comes alive with intensity and clarity when the fates realign themselves in order to save a woman and her daughter from total emotional ruin.
I had a difficult time writing the summary paragraphs of this post, because one slip would have resulted in a spoiler that would have completely ruined the book for any potential reader. When I initially picked this book up, I thought it was going to be a Christmas story, which would have been strange, as it’s now the end of February. I think I was misled by the cover, which shows a bunch of mistletoe surrounded by a red and copper border. Once again, the cover of a book has led me to have quite a different expectation than what the book was ultimately about. How frustrating!
This book was mainly about relationships and the closing of a person’s heart when things have gotten too ugly to handle. Though in the beginning Beth doesn’t know her marriage is in trouble, some pretty huge secrets come to light very early on. It was sad to see that two people could live together and seem to have an idyllic life when one of them was being unfaithful to the other. And I just have to add that I’m really over-reading about infidelity as of late. You know what would be exceptional and unusual? A man who doesn’t cheat! Yes, I know it sounds jaded, but it seems all too common that people are willing to leave the bounds of their marriage to find comfort in a stranger’s arms. Okay, I’ll step off my soapbox now.
As Beth begins to deal with her husband’s betrayal, she shuts down and becomes the kind of person who is unable to focus and function. Although she eventually lets her guard down with her husband and lets him come back, the second she finds out about his other infidelities, she seems to lose whatever love she has for the man, which I can completely understand. It’s interesting that Beth decides to help ease her husband’s passing after all he’s done to her, but I could understand her reasoning for doing this, because despite what he put her through, he was still the father of her child, and the history they shared couldn't be so easily wiped away.
When Beth’s daughter gets critically ill after her husband’s confession, I could sympathize with her all the more. After taking Charlotte to doctor after doctor, the answers still didn’t come. No matter how hard Beth tried to manage what was going on with her daughter, her misery was compounded by the fact that her husband was not the man she thought he was, and this led her to be divided heart and soul between the two devastations in her life. It’s hard to describe the sense of helplessness you feel when your child is ill and there’s nothing you can do to help them. I imagine Beth was in a terrible position being the only one who could handle her ailing daughter and husband, and even though she had a staunch girlfriend to help her, she was basically alone in dealing with her issues. As her finances begin to grow tighter and tighter, Beth begins to struggle all the more with the imperfections of her life, and begins to become a bit maudlin and morose.
When Matthew comes into Beth’s life, she is completely unable to grant him entrance into her heart. I also found it strange that the much younger man would be interested in her, especially because he knew next to nothing about her. But there was something exceptional and special about Matthew that both Beth and the reader couldn’t ignore. As Beth lets him in, she begins to trust again and her life becomes transformed. But a crucial event puts Beth’s trust for Matthew on the line, and even I thought that there was a possibility he could be a villain. When he finally tells Beth the truth about himself, there was a curious sense of disbelief, and at that point I began to realize that for this book to work for me, I would have to suspend a portion of my sense of disbelief and just go with it. The background to Matthew’s conundrum was never explained, but that’s okay because it really didn’t need to be. He was there for a purpose, and though eventually Beth had to let him go, his intervention changed the course of her and Charlotte’s lives. Matthew’s appearance in Beth’s life was not only critical to Beth’s healing, but it also ended up shaping the destiny of all whose lives he touched.
It’s hard to fully explain this book or the impact it had on me without giving too may spoilers, but I think readers who have been intrigued by this review would really be in for a treat if they picked this book up. There’s a lot that’s unexpected and riveting about this story, and if you’re the type of person who loves stories that push the envelope and/or crave a thrill that will warm your heart, then this is the book for you. At its core it’s a bittersweet read, but it’s one that I found completely moving and ultimately uplifting. A very interesting read. Recommended.
This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.
Wednesday, February 23, 2011
Twelve years ago private investigators Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro's lives became consumed when they went searching for 4 year old Amanda McCready. The young girl, kidnapped from the home of her negligent mother, was at the center of a controversy when she ended up being found in a very unlikely place. After Amanda was found, she was returned to the disastrous home of her mother Helene, and Patrick and Angie began to move on with their lives. Now, 12 years later, Patrick and Angie are struggling to raise a family, which is all the harder because Patrick doesn't have a stable job and Angie is going to school. Pressure is mounting from all sides, and just when it looks like Partick could land a prestigious job as an investigator for a very upscale law firm, a face from his past comes back into sight. Out of the blue he is accosted by Amanda McCready's grandmother, who tells her that the now 16 year old Amanda has vanished again. Despite Patrick's initial reluctance to handle the case, he goes for it, and what he uncovers is not only seedy and dangerous, but this time the clues implicate Amanda herself. With time running out, Patrick and Angie begin a quest to find Amanda, and in doing so, they also uncover a group of people involved in a dangerous and unusual scheme. With a plot that moves like a speeding train and some of the most unsavory and entertaining villains ever to be seen on the page, Lehane gives us the conclusion of a case started 12 years ago, and an investigator like no other, the inimitable Patrick Kenzie.
I haven't read many of Lehane's books, but what I have read has really impressed me. A few months ago I read and really loved Shutter Island and found myself thinking and rethinking about the book long after I turned the last page. I know he has a few other books that deal with Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro, but I hadn't read any of them. I didn't feel lost at all in this story because I'd seen the movie version of the first book in this series, Gone Baby, Gone. One thing I thought was funny about reading this book was since I had seen Ben Affleck play Patrick Kenzie in the movie, I couldn't for the life of me not see him while I was reading Moonlight Mile. I think it actually made the book more enjoyable for me to be able to connect the actions of Patrick Kenzie with a face that I like very much!
One of the things I liked most about this book was the realistic grittiness of it. Everything seemed to have a patina of grubbiness and grime to it that gave the book an unusually urban flavor and a hard edge. Lehane gets the dialect of the streets down perfectly, as well as the description of a town that has been subsumed by the economic recession. He shows the dichotomy of those who live the high life by being lowlifes, and the desperation of those who can't make ends meet and who have to turn to unlikely and unwholesome ventures to get by. Lahane is a master of creating whole worlds and societies that mirror our own in frightening complexity and darkness, and his uncanny ability to populate his world with smugglers, druggies, mobsters, prostitutes and others of the same ilk is not only impressive, but authentic as well.
It was interesting to see the way Patrick had grown from the first part of this story to the second. No longer a heedless rebel, Patrick is now more restrained and thinks more about the things he does. His conscience troubles him because of the work he must do to feed his family, and his sense of being a vigilante out for justice seems more subdued as well. He feels the pressure of his life acutely and finds himself at a crossroads when deciding which direction his life will go in. This was a much more mature and level-headed man, a man who seemed to have so much more to protect and so much more to lose. I liked that Lehane made Patrick the kind of character you could not only become invested in, but lose yourself in, and that throughout the book, while Patrick is wrestling with the evil that surrounds him, he's also wrestling with himself.
There were a lot of genuinely surprising things about this book, from the canny and hilarious Russian mobsters, to the villains hiding in plain sight, to the lengths Amanda will go to keep her secrets hidden. While I found the book to be very enthralling and entertaining, I also found the conclusion to be a little far-fetched. It wasn't so much of a problem that it marred my enjoyment of the book, but I think Lehane went a little too far out into left field to tie all of the aspects of his story together. The journey and the characters made this a top-notch suspense novel, but in the end, I had trouble believing that things would turn out this way in the end. I think that had Lehane managed to go in another direction, the book would have been flawless, but it seems like he might have written himself into a corner that he had trouble getting out of.
Despite the conclusion, I found quite a lot to admire in this strange and twisted tale, and for the most part, the book was easy to pick up and get lost in for countless hours. I loved the complexity of the characters and the strange circumstances that brought them all together, and found that although I usually have a hard time enjoying these books, Lehane is very capable with his material and manages to sweep his story into the highest realms of suspense and action. If you have a chance to read this book, I would say go for it. It is full of twists and turns that might just surprise you.
This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.
Monday, February 21, 2011
Anna Curtis is an an assistant U.S. attorney working in Washington D.C. As a prosecutor with a strong sense of ethics, Anna is initially empowered and hopeful when she gets involved in the domestic abuse case of Laprea Johnson. Laprea has been beaten by her boyfriend D'marco for what she says is the last time, but when she recants her testimony during her trial, Anna is left angry and bewildered. Cowed by her experience in court, Anna is at first cold when the defendant's attorney, Nick Wagner, takes an interest in her. Though she and Nick have attended the same university, Anna doesn't know Nick personally and the only information she has about him is that he is attractive and he is representing Laprea's attacker. When Nick and Anna start a romance, things seem to be going very smoothly until the day there's another confrontation between D'marco and Laprea, and Laprea ends up dead. Anna of course feels responsible for Laprea's fate and immediately breaks things off with Nick, who she can't forgive for defending D'marco and eventually allowing him to regain the freedom to kill Leprea. Now Anna has been pulled into the investigation of Laprea's murder and been assigned to work with Jack Bailey, a tough criminal prosecutor who also works for the U.S. Attorney's office. But when Anna and Jack begin to uncover clues that may prove D'marco is innocent, the guilt begins to point in some very incongruous and unexpected places. Both fast paced and surprising, Allison Leotta delivers a unique crime thriller that will keep its readers guessing all the way to the very last page.
I'm not a big reader of the crime thriller genre, and usually when approached for a review of one of these books, I have to decline. My problems stem from the fact that a lot of these books feel very homogenized. When I do end up getting invested in them, it seems like they have all the same story elements, character archetypes and twists that I have come to negatively associate with this particular genre. Rarely do I find something new and unexpected, and when I do venture out and read one of these books on my own, I rely heavily on the perceptions and opinions of other bloggers whom I respect. So I'll have to be honest when I say I wasn't expecting much of this book. Now, I didn't read a lot about it and knew only the barest information when I went into it. After an intense opening section, I began to plow right through its pages and wound up being excited that I had found something new and refreshing in this genre that I could really appreciate. I think Leotta ended up pulling off a one of a kind story within these pages, and it's one that earned my esteem.
Anna Curtis was a wonderful protagonist. Though she has high standards and ideals, she's very human and has some self-esteem issues when it comes to her work. Part of my ability to bond with Anna came from the fact that she was so human, and that while she could be very tough, there was an underlying sensitivity and compassion in her that left her struggling at times. I wouldn't exactly call her troubled, but she was conflicted, and as the story moved forward, these conflicts come into play not only in her budding relationship with Nick, but in her protective instincts towards Laprea. She grew throughout this story, but a lot of the time it was uncomfortable growth spurred on by the situations she was caught up in. She never became so hard-boiled that she allowed the suffering of her client or the case itself to become something that she looked upon with jaded eyes, which I think is kind of rare. I think the thing I admired most about Anna was her persistence and her willingness to go to great lengths to find the justice that Laprea deserved, not matter what it cost her personally.
I had a bit of a hard time with Anna's decision to start a relationship with Nick, and I think she did too. Caught up in a bevy of romantic feelings, I think Anna let her guard down and let Nick in hoping their relationship might be hidden from those who could make obvious waves for the couple. I didn't exactly like Nick, or trust him for that matter, and felt that although he treated Anna with a lot of respect and love that there was something utterly smarmy about him. I think he was a little ostentatious in his relationship with Anna, and truly never thought of the repercussions that dating her might result for them both. I was a little thrilled when things didn't work out for them, but Nick was very persistent and worked desperately to not let Anna slip through his fingers. That annoyed me. I wanted him to realize the kind of jeopardy he was putting her career into, but he never did, and it seemed like he turned a blind eye to a lot of rational and level-headed behavior. In some ways there were stark similarities between Nick and Anna's relationship and the relationship between Laprea and D'marco, but they weren't immediately obvious and it took some real cogitation to work out the ways in which the situations were similar and the ways in which they were different.
The case between Laprea and D'marco was one that was fraught with intrigue and it seemed to be so clear for most of the book. There was never a doubt in my mind that D'marco had killed the woman, but in a stunning reversal, all that the reader knows to be true is flipped on its head and thrown out the window. The clues, motive and storyline said one thing, but as more and more is revealed, it's clear that D'marco is not what we first think he is. I thought Leotta did a great job with this reversal. She made D'marco just slimy and perverse enough to do something like this, and then revealed that there was more to this picture than met the eye. The relationship between Laprea and D'marco was something that was tense with emotion, regret and jealousy, and even when it was clear to me that D'marco was a horrible human being, it was also clear that there was no ultimate black and white where these two people were concerned. The conclusion of the book literally had me sitting rigid in my seat and ingesting the words compulsively, as darker figures than D'marco came tumbling out of the shadows and into the light. Though D'marco might have been capable of the murder, I questioned his innocence all the way throughout the story and came to conclude that he played a mighty part in this drama.
With a fast paced plot and characters that are so recognizably flawed and human, Leotta had me in the palm of her hand throughout the whole story. Not only is this a suspense thriller, it also asks a lot of important questions about abuse and the role a victim plays when she consistently refuses to prosecute her attacker. It asks questions about the sticky ethical situations that those representing these cases can get into, and it had unexpected dashes of romance in all the right places. This would be a great read for a book group to discuss and disseminate, and I have to say that not only did I have a great time with it, it did a lot to eliminate my prejudices towards this genre in general. A highly suspenseful and original read. Recommended.
This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.
Thursday, February 17, 2011
The UCF Orlando Book Festival is drawing ever closer, and today I’ve decided to shine a light on just a few of the books that will be featured. The event will be a great opportunity for readers and writers alike to share their enthusiasm for the book and publishing worlds, and in addition to the wonderful books and authors that are being showcased, the festival also promises to include panels and discussions on a range of topics. So here for your consideration are a handfull of the books that will be featured at this great event. If you happen to be in the area during the weekend of April 16th, be sure to stop by and have a look at all that UCF is doing to promote books and reading in this, it’s second annual Book Festival!
The Mailbox, by Marybeth Whalen
Nonfiction author Whalen pens her first novel, centered on an actual landmark mailbox in Sunset Beach, N.C. Over a span of some 20 years, Lindsey Adams makes summer visits to the Kindred Spirit mailbox and deposits an annual update on her life. When her husband divorces her, Lindsey makes the trek again and meets up with long-lost love Campbell Forrester, whose own marriage dissolved years earlier. Unsure they can rekindle their youthful love, both Lindsey and Campbell struggle to make the leap from teenage infatuation to a lasting adult commitment. Whalen's use of a mailbox as the tie between people, memories and romantic love is intriguing, and she makes it work more effectively than a reader might expect.
Note: I read and reviewed this book very recently, and you can find my review here. It was a beautiful read with exceptional characters that really made an impression on me, and I am looking forward to Whalen’s next offering.
Wench, by Dolen Perkins-Valdez
In her debut, Perkins-Valdez eloquently plunges into a dark period of American history, chronicling the lives of four slave women—Lizzie, Reenie, Sweet and Mawu—who are their masters' mistresses. The women meet when their owners vacation at the same summer resort in Ohio. There, they see free blacks for the first time and hear rumors of abolition, sparking their own desires to be free. For everyone but Lizzie, that is, who believes she is really in love with her master and he with her. An extended flashback in the middle of the novel delves into Lizzie's life and vividly explores the complicated psychological dynamic between master and slave. Jumping back to the final summer in Ohio, the women all have a decision to make—will they run? Heart-wrenching, intriguing, original and suspenseful, this novel showcases Perkins-Valdez's ability to bring the unfortunate past to life.
Note: I also reviewed this book, and you can find my review here. I was stunned by the impact that Perkins-Valdez was able to provoke within the complex confines of her story. A greatly moving read.
The Improper Life of Bezellia Grove, by Susan Gregg Gilmore
Bezellia Grove, who is one of a long line of Bezellia Groves in one of Nashville’s oldest families, dreams of someday living up to the name that looms so large in her heritage. But her family is not as stable as everyone thinks. Her mother is strict and proper, when not drinking, and her father is never home, preferring to work long hours. Bezellia and her younger sister are raised by the household servants, Nathaniel and Maizelle, who are more like parents to them than their real ones. When Nathaniel’s smart, good-looking son Samuel appears, Bezellia is completely smitten. But the South in the 1960s is not a welcoming place for Samuel, especially when he falls in love with a white woman. Bezellia must decide whether it’s her heart or her heritage that is most important. Gilmore’s second novel (after Looking for Salvation at the Dairy Queen, 2008) is a highly emotional story that vividly evokes a sense of place, the 1960s era, and the heady feelings of first love.
Note: I will be reviewing this book in the upcoming weeks.
The Season of Risks: An Ethical Vampire Novel, by Susan Hubbard
Aglow with the promise of her budding friendship with third-party presidential candidate (and closet vampire) Neil Cameron, Ari Montero returns to school frustrated, like most teenagers, that she’s just not old enough—darn it!—to be accepted in grown-up circles. But Ari isn’t like most teenagers. Half human, half vampire, she is destined to remain at the same tender age at which she crossed over. Her desire to achieve instant adulthood leads her to the Miami clinic run by a vampire notorious for his delusions of world domination. There she is injected with a serum that instantly takes her from 15 to 22. But just as Cameron is about to clinch the presidential nomination, Ari’s true age is mysteriously leaked to the press and the ensuing scandal sends Cameron’s campaign crashing in flames—just like the jet carrying Ari to Ireland to visit her parents. Artfully handling the conundrum of age versus maturity, Hubbard continues to provide substance as well as thrills in her thought-provoking series.
The Poisoner’s Handbook, by Deborah Blum
Pulitzer Prize–winning science journalist Blum (Ghost Hunters) makes chemistry come alive in her enthralling account of two forensic pioneers in early 20th-century New York. Blum follows the often unglamorous but monumentally important careers of Dr. Charles Norris, Manhattan's first trained chief medical examiner, and Alexander Gettler, its first toxicologist. Moving chronologically from Norris's appointment in 1918 through his death in 1936, Blum cleverly divides her narrative by poison, providing not only a puzzling case for each noxious substance but the ingenious methods devised by the medical examiner's office to detect them. Before the advent of forensic toxicology, which made it possible for the first time to identify poisons in corpses, Gettler learned the telltale signs of everything from cyanide (it leaves a corrosive trail in the digestive system) to the bright pink flush that signals carbon monoxide poisoning. In a particularly illuminating section, Blum examines the dangers of bootleg liquor (commonly known as wood, or methyl, alcohol) produced during Prohibition. With the pacing and rich characterization of a first-rate suspense novelist, Blum makes science accessible and fascinating.
Monday, February 14, 2011
Lizzie, Reenie, Mawu and Sweet are female slaves who have been brought to the Tawawa House resort with their masters for the summer. Leaving their wives behind, these men journey to the resort with their slaves, hoping to create for themselves a world in which each of them can be free to mix with the slave women, who are also their mistresses, in polite society. Each slave woman has a different relationship with her owner, from Lizzie who believes that her master Drayle loves her, to Mawu whose master Tip thinks nothing of publicly abusing and threatening her. As three summers pass, the women weave their way into each other's lives, becoming more than just friends. As the story winds its way through the three summers the women spend with each other, Perkins-Valdez shows her readers the pain, misdirection, and brutality visited upon a group of women who long for freedom and happiness with a power that is so tangible and fierce that it screams from the page.
About a year ago, I reviewed a book called The Kitchen House which dealt with evils and horrors of slavery on a small plantation in the South. When I reviewed that book, I also posted a bit explaining that I felt uncomfortable reading these types of stories. What I realized while reading this book is that my feelings have slightly morphed, and now, instead of being discomfited by reading literature about slavery, I realize that I'm shamed and angered by it. I have a hard time believing there was ever a time when people were considered chattel. I mean, these were human beings, men, women and children, whose freedom was ripped away by another group of people who felt that they had more right to run their lives than they did. All of this was perpetrated based on the color of a person's skin, the random dressing of their heart and soul. I realize now that despite my initial reaction to want to steer clear of these books, I need to educate myself about this situation. It's a part of history that's hurtful and despicable, but by hiding my head in the sand, I not only avoid dealing with it, in some ways I deny to myself that these things happened at all. I credit a lot of this change of heart from reading Dolen Perkins-Valdez's book Wench.
From the opening pages, I felt there was a lot of restrained emotion and sadness seeping from this tale, and though Perkins-Valdez goes to amazing lengths not to include histrionics and melodrama, the pain and cataclysm of the lives of these women is on full display. It's interesting that she gives us the perspectives of four different women. Women who are ostensibly in the same situation but all have very different beliefs about it and reactions to it. Lizze, who is the main focus of the book, feels that she's different from the others because she's certian that her master Drayle loves her like an equal. Lizzie loves Drayle and and she deludes herself into believing that he cares for her and her feelings, when in fact the only difference between her and the others is that she has garnered a bit more freedom. It was clear to me that Drayle was no different than the other slave owners, and in some ways he was more selfish and cruel, because his decision-making processes and behavior mislead Lizzie into believing that she was the woman he loved and preferred This set her up for some devastating falls when he repeatedly refused to free their children.
Reenie, the oldest of the bunch, is a living life with a deadened soul. Her master Sir, who is also her half-brother, takes extreme liberties with her body both sexually and otherwise, even offering her over to the manager of the hotel, and Reenie is unable to contain her grief at the life she's forced to live. For most of the book Reenie is on the edge of the living and the dead, both fearful and resigned to what is happening to her. While Reenie is compliant only because she's broken, Sweet is another who tends to believe good things about her master. It's clear to everyone else when the pregnant Sweet is held as ransom while the other slaves take a sightseeing trip that Sweet is not so different than the others. Made to stand as the other women's surety, Sweet can only abide by the rules that are set for her, and taking this role even further, Sweet lives a life of relative concord with her master. Confusing the matter, it was clear to me that Sweet's master had relativley strong feelings for her, and while reading, I questioned the similarities between the hearts of Lizzie and Sweet. The difference between them, I think, was the fact that Sweet was a champion in compliance, whereas Lizzie questioned and bargained her way through all her misfortunes.
The last woman, Mawu, was very different from the rest. There was a certian amount of pride in her that she would not relinquish, no matter what the brutal Tip did to her. Her physical attributes were different as well, as she was described as having a fiery halo of red hair and freckles. Mawu is the only one of the four who ascribes to a mystical belief system rather than belief in the traditional Christian mindset, and she was the only one who worked diligently to give herself a different future than the one fate had in mind for her. Though she could be aggressive with the other women, it was her efforts to make the others take stock of their situations and her resolve to change her own that was the impetus for change within the group. It's arguable which of the slaves had suffered and endured the most, and where some would agree that it was Mawu, I would say her fate and Lizzie's were equally troubling to me. It's a sad fact of the time that there were no definite answers or solutions for the women and men in these situations, and though they all yearn for the freedom that will never be granted to them willingly, only a few would ever receive it.
I asked myself a lot of questions while reading this book, and quite a few of them made me uncomfortable. As Lizzie and the others begin to gain new awareness of themselves and the lives they lead, they also come into contact with free black men and women, abolitionist literature, and people hailing from the north, where slavery doesn't exist. They begin to wonder when they can expect to have these changes come into their lives, and at least one comes to the conclusion that it's better to physically give into her fate while mentally fighting against it. The book made me incredibly sad, and the very realistic character portrayals and situations within it opened up a world of debate inside my heart for these women and their real life counterparts, both male and female. A very sobering and intense read. Recommended.
This is one of the books that is to be highligted during this years Orlando UCF Book Festival, taking place on April 16th 2011 at the UCF Arena. For more information about the event, and to see a list of authors, please visit the Orlando UCF Book Festival website, and stay tuned for more information about the event in the upcoming weeks!
|About The Author
Dolen Perkins-Valdez's fiction and essays have appeared in Robert Olen Butler Prize Stories 2009, The Kenyon Review, PMS: PoemMemoirStory, North Carolina Literary Review, and the Richard Wright Newsletter. She is a former University of California postdoctoral fellow and graduate of Harvard. Dolen lives in Washington, D.C. with her family.
Connect with Dolen:
|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:
This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.
Friday, February 11, 2011
In this inventive and puntastical re-imagining of Austen's Pride and Prejudice, the handsome Mr. Darcy and his cohorts are quite unexpectedly introduced to Elizabeth Bennett and her companions after the group of ladies witnesses the gentlemen frolicking in a weed-choked pond at Pemberly. The young women and men immediately become smitten with each other, and throughout the days and weeks that follow, their attachment and regard for each other only grows. For Elizabeth and Darcy, the initial attraction is soon replaced by affection and furious desire, and when another suitor threatens to interfere with Darcy's plans to ask for Elizabeth's hand, great lengths must be gone to in order for the two to be reunited. For Jane Bennett, the meeting at the pond turns into a love triangle between herself and Messrs. Fitzwilliam and Bingley, and for Georgiana Darcy the event culminates in a formidable attachment with the eligible Ellis Fleming. There are trips to the country and journeys to the city, parties where misunderstandings abound, and decadent and scandalous waltzes. Through it all the Darcy and Bennett girls and their suitors astound and aggravate their current and prospective families with abundant wordplay and pernicious puns. When the three women finally succeed in snaring the eligible and handsome bachelors, the story concludes with an extraordinary and unusual wedding that will leave romance lovers with warm and moving feelings for the happy couples. In this, Croft's debut, Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy and friends are re-imagined and reinvigorated with playfulness, tenderness and aplomb that will leave readers enticed and hungering for more.
There seem to be hundreds of Austen re-imaginings, sequels and prequels out in the book world nowadays, and though I've been interested in a few of them, this was really my first experience actually reading one. I think these types of books can be tricky, not only because Austen is such a beloved and accomplished author, but because often these types of books can devolve into a form of fan fiction that's not widely appreciated by purists. While this first attempt at reading Austen-inspired fiction was rather successful for me, there were a few points that niggled me in my final thoughts and reactions to the book.
Though Austen's work in her original form can be sobering and serious, this was more playful and happy than any of the Austen I've read. Of course there were misunderstandings and conundrums, but the feeling of tension that usually accompanies these types of things was curiously missing. I think the light-heartedness of the writing ensured that no stone would be left unturned in relation to the match-ups in this book, and though I did feel there was some internal conflict within the pages, there seemed to be a lack of serious drama when it came to the bare bones of the story. At its heart, this was a playful book, and one that didn't seek to question the whys and wherefors of the relationships within it. Rather it was a book that felt light and unencumbered and the main feeling I got from it was one of high-spiritedness and amusement.
At first the heavy use of puns and wordplay was amusing, but after it wore on for awhile, my eyes began to glaze over. Every type of wordplay you can imagine was used here, from alliteration to simile to riddles, and of course, puns. While I did think it was increasingly creative that Croft was able to keep up the stamina with this throughout the book, I felt that it did start to overburden the story she was trying to tell. Fun for a time, yes, but also repetitive and taxing after awhile. I began to look ahead in my reading, searching for the wordplay, and that took away from my enjoyment of the story. It was so heavily done that I found multiple examples on every page. This may not be a problem for other readers, but in my case, I've never been particularly appreciative of excessive wordplay, and while I admit it was exceedingly clever, it also detracted from what the story was trying to do.
What I really liked was the way the author aligned all the couples in their quest to find their perfect partner. I don't need a whole lot of drama and pathos when it comes to the relationships in the books I'm reading, and for some reason, there was a feeling of comfort and ease in the permutations of couples and their adventures. I also liked that each section of the book payed homage to specific books in Austen's canon, and felt that it was rather clever and well-managed that cameo appearances and storylines were grafted in pieces and parts from their original sources. I also liked the romance angle of this book, and while it seemed that it was a modern construct, it also felt like it had an appropriate Regency feeling to it. I was a little bemused that Darcy was portrayed as such a romantically passionate character, for in the original Pride and Prejudice, he was a lot more restrained and circumspect with his emotions. Elizabeth Bennett was true to form though, full of spunk and charisma, and it was certainly easy to see why Darcy held her in such high regard.
This was a book filled with mirth and joy, and while it did wrap up every last loose end imaginable, it was a very easy book to get caught up in. I would have to say the biggest detractor for me was the excessive and overabundant wordplay, but other readers would possibly be more appreciative of that aspect than I was. One thing I learned is that I quite like Austen spin-offs, which is very good for me because I happen to own a lot of them! If you're looking for a romp of a read that features some of Austen's most beloved characters, you need look no further. A more cozy and playful read would be hard to come by.
This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.
Wednesday, February 9, 2011
Today I have the distinct honor of being featured over at Kittling: Books for her Scene of the Blog feature. I'd love it if you stopped by to check out my workspace and see the pictures I shared of my creative collaborator, the gentle Mr. Boogie. Stop by and have a look!
Also, it's my pleasure to announce that Angi Holden is the winner of my giveaway for a copy of The Lotus Eaters. Congratulations Angi! If you haven't read my review of the book, or the post where I share our book club's conversation with the author Tatjana Soli, go on and take a peek. If you weren't a winner this time, don't despair, as I will have other great giveaways coming in the future.
Posted by Zibilee at 2:15 AM
Monday, February 7, 2011
In this riveting historical mystery set in 16th century Prague during the Inquisition, Benyamin Ben-Akiva, the newly arrived shammes (religious leader), finds himself embroiled in the investigation of a murder that threatens to tear apart the Jewish community. It all begins when the body of a young Christian girl is found in the shop of Jacob Federn, a Jewish businessman. Despite his pleas of ignorance, the Christian sector of Prague, who already hate and lambast the Jews, believe Federn has killed the girl in order to use her bodily fluids for a blood ritual. This incenses the Christians, and soon Federn is in custody and the segregated Jewish ghetto is under lock-down. Benyamin Ben-Akiva, a newcomer to the town, immediately begins to investigate the strange case, but due to his status as a Jew, he must rely on a bevy of Jews and Christians alike to bring the girl's true killer to light. As he carefully uncovers clue after clue, he discovers the improbable status of Jews in his new homeland and gains insight into his own religion through the help of other like-minded rabbis who are also considered dangerous freethinkers. As the hours wind down and the Jews fate begins to look inescapable, Benyamin Ben-Akiva enlists the help of a group pf ragtag villagers, prostitutes, and a Christian girl with the heart and mind of a Jew, culminating in a shocking conclusion that will change the city of Prague, and Benyamin Ben-Akiva, forever.
When I initially started reading this book, I was worried that I had too little knowledge of Jewish history and culture to be able to fully appreciate what Wishnia was trying to do with this story. But from the moment that Benyamin Ben-Akiva hears the wailing cry of a mother looking for her daughter piercing the city's early morning tranquility, I knew this was going to be a story that not only moved me, but that kept me reading late into the night. Though this book dealt heavily with Judaism and particularly the academic side of it, it was at once enlightening and unfamiliar. Wishnia has a way of not only generously pouring out information, but of explaining it in a way that almost anyone could understand.
At the heart of this story is the conflict between the Jewish and Christian populations of Prague. During the 16th century, the Jews were segregated into their own community, and though they were allowed basic freedoms and protections under Emperor Rudolph, they were also harassed, reviled and often the scapegoats of the community when anything went amiss. The hatred eminating from the Christians was almost too hard to read about, and once again, I realized it was not only in Nazi Germany that the Jews had suffered at the hands of others who thought themselves superior to them. This book reminded me a little of The Mistress of the Art of Death in the way it related the plight of the Jews. In both books, the Jews were at the center of a controversy after a child was killed and the Christians believed the Jews had committed the murder in order to use the blood of the slain child as an ingredient in a ritual. In both books, the outrage and anger from the Christian sector was similar. It's interesting to note that this motive for the murder would be impossible, as the Jews as a whole look upon blood as unclean and would have been at great pains to avoid it, but the Christians use their influence and prejudice to ascribe monstrous qualities and intentions on these people.
Wishnia also reveals himself in this book as a superior scholar. A vast amount of the dialog and narrative revolves around quotes and ideas represented in the Talmud, the Torah, the Kabbalah and other Jewish writings. These sections of theological debate exist right alongside the story, and often, the two embrace and imbue the story with allegorical and symbolic meanings that further heighten the plight of the Jews, both in the immediate and historical sense. I felt these sections melded together beautifully, and though at first I was intimidated with all the knowledge that was being passed to me through the pages, I grew to trust what Wishnia was doing and what he would create. I can't adequately express how academically potent this book was to me, and not only was it extremely edifying, it also turned the story into a complex and astute work of art.
Another thing that impressed me was the range of unusual characters that passed through the story. There were wise women and prostitutes, a giant mentally challenged man, and inspectors who had hidden hearts of gold. There were brave men and cowardly ones, stubborn and recalcitrant wives, and Christan girls with forbidden passions. All of these characters felt very well rounded and three dimensional and they were intrinsic to the value of this strange and wonderful tale. Though I liked all of the characters and felt varying degrees of attachment to them, it was Benyamin Ben-Akiva who was the star of the show. He was just so human and his impulses to disobey and follow his own path were constantly at war with his spiritual beliefs and leanings. There were times when he bent the prescribed law and times he played it by the book, but it was his vibrancy and his duty to the Jews of his newly arrived home that I found most interesting. Benyamin Ben-Akiva's altruism played dangerously with his selfishness, which to me was very human.
Though this was a rather intense and dense book, I thought Wishnia did an incredible job of not only telling his story, but backing it up with an undeniable atmosphere and flavor that not many historical novels can deliver. The book had the ability to be a fast paced page turner and a slow introspective read, which is also unusual. I think the scope of the story was impressive, and the fact that Wishnia never falters in his narrative makes this a book that a lot of reader will enjoy. I certainly did, and I look forward to plowing through it again, with an eye to disseminating some of the more theological aspects in greater detail. Highly recommended.
|About Kenneth Wishnia
Kenneth Wishnia has a Ph.D. in comparative literature. His crime fiction has been nominated for the Edgar and Anthony awards. He teaches composition, literature, and creative writing at Suffolk Community College on Long Island, where he lives with his wife and children.
Find out more about Kenneth at his website.
|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:
This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.
Friday, February 4, 2011
When Helen Brown's two young sons see the neighbor's litter of kittens for the first time, she's staunch about not bringing any of the new babies into her home. When she sees the tiny runt of the litter, she falls in love with the little kitten and agrees to welcome the little bundle into her home when the kittens are old enough to be weaned. But before the delivery date is due, a terrible accident befalls Helen's family and her older son is killed in a horrible traffic accident. The Brown's world is crushed, and no matter what they try, they can't seem to get over the loss of Sam. One day a neighbor pops over to deliver the new kitten. Of course Helen is mortified and thinks of as many excuses as she can to deny the new addition, but as soon as the cat snuggles into her chest, her heart begins to melt and Helen's prejudices are pushed aside. The cat, named Cleo, is instantly at home in the house and quickly wraps everyone around her little paw. Devious and playful, Cleo's antics give the family something to focus on besides their grief, and her cuddliness and winsome attitude soon make this house of confessed dog lovers prey to the whims of an unusual and special feline. As Cleo teaches Helen and her family about healing and redemption, they come to envelop the cat into all areas of their hearts. Through the years, Cleo becomes not only an ally to be counted on, but the center of healing for the broken and careworn family. At times hilariously funny and at others tearfully sad, the story of Cleo: The Cat Who Mended a Family is not only a great story for animal lovers, but for anyone who is dealing with unexpected heartache and change.
There are tons of animal books out there right now, and for the most part, I stay away from them. If you know me personally, you'd think this is very strange indeed, because I'm a huge animal lover and have a houseful of pets of all varieties. I've had pets all my life, from chinchillas and turtles to ducks and snakes, and of course the run of the mill dogs and cats. So I would be the perfect person to enjoy these stories of extraordinary animals, right? Well, that's not exactly what happens. I get all invested in these stories and come to love the animals in the books and feel a deeper and stronger connection to the animals I live with... and then the subject of the animal book dies. And I cry something fierce and ugly, and I vow to never read another book like it again. I figure what I need is an animal book that doesn't over-sentimentalize this point of the book and that doesn't build me up to a point where I'm heart sore for days after turning the last page. I got all that and more in Cleo, and though there were some things that I didn't really like about the book, the one thing that I did like was the straightforward and no-nonsense coverage of some of the more touchy and sensitive parts of this unusual cat's life.
A few things struck me as odd. First of all, I thought there might be a little too much anthropomorphizing of Cleo than was strictly necessary, and while the description of some of the things she did sounded very human, I guess it was a little hard for me to believe that she was sort of like a human trapped in a cat's body. During the early sections, Helen goes to great pains to let the reader know that Cleo seemed to be a bundle of energy, and somehow interprets this as Cleo's way of giving the other human residents in the house something to focus on besides their grief. I can certainly understand that she would see it that way, but being the owner of kittens at many different times in my life, I have to say that this is not all that unique a trait. Kittens are normally very playful and at times destructive by nature. They are often more self-absorbed than Helen thinks her cat is, and I can't exactly say that Cleo's personality was all that different from a lot of cats I've had. Maybe this struck Helen because she'd never been a cat owner before, but after awhile, Cleo lost her sparkle for me because, although she was beautiful and lovable, I just didn't see that she was acting like a human as Helen did. As a matter of fact, the best things about cats to me is that they are so different from humans, so much more wild, playful and at times aloof. This turning Cleo into a human who seemed to be trapped in a cat's body was just a little weird for me.
Another thing that seemed strange was that Helen and her remaining son seemed to attribute all these mystical powers to the cat. Cleo invaded the boy's dreams and spoke to him of how she would being him peace and friendship, and at other times, Helen claims to have had powerful spiritual awakenings in relation to Cleo. This was just weird to me. I'm always open to new and challenging ideas, but this just didn't seem to fit. Perhaps Helen was searching so hard for something after her son died that she thinks she found it in a cat. Perhaps I'm wrong and all these things are true, but to believe that Cleo is adept at picking Helen's next suitor or that she can bring friends to the family who has lost so much seems to be stretching it a bit. I also didn't like that when Cleo comes to live with the family, the dog they've had for years is relegated to second fiddle and eventually given away to her mother. This is not the way a responsible pet owner behaves, and though she makes some convincing reasons why this has to happen, it really made me uncomfortable.
Where this book excels is in its revelation of how the presence of an animal can heal even the deepest wounds. Though I sort of disagree with all the magical properties that Helen imbues Cleo with, there's no doubt in my mind that a cat can not only be a wonderfully loyal and steadfast companion, but can also demonstrate and require the attention and love that may be missing in our lives. The healing power of a warm "fur child" on your lap is worth years of therapy to some, and science has proven that animals have restorative and healing powers beyond what we think is possible. They teach us to love unconditionally and to take things as they come. They teach us it's not so bad to have a few lazy days or to get excited by the little things, and I think this book shares that message in a clever and uplifting way. As I mentioned before, it's also not one of those "downer" animal books, and it manages to be very emotionally level when it comes to the more difficult parts of owning a pet.
As anyone who owns an animal knows, they can be your best friend and greatest ally, and though I enjoyed those parts of Cleo's story, I found that the book may have been a little too strange to fully relate to. The sections dealing with Helen's grief over losing her son were poignant and humbling, but it was really hard for me to believe that one cat saved a family from that kind of grief. I am not saying it's impossible, just that I think it may have taken a little bit more for me to get over something like that. I do think that those readers who like stories about precocious and adorable animals could possibly love this one, and it's a bonus for me to have found an animal book that doesn't leave me bleary eyed with tears. An interesting, if not totally believable tale.
Wednesday, February 2, 2011
Last Thursday night I attended my first event with my new book club, Books, Babes, and Bordeaux hosted by the fabulous and wonderful Sandy of You've GOTTA read this! It was an amazing meeting and we got the chance to discuss our read for the month, which was none other than the unforgettable The Lotus Eaters. We were fortunate to have had Sandy arrange for the author, Tatjana Soli, to speak with the club and to share her ideas and influences for writing the book.
From the first moment she called in, I noticed she was quite a charming and disarming woman. Tatijana told us how her mother's work with the Vietnam Veterans and her experiences with them helped shape her interest in the period, and how she used her early memories to shape what would one day become The Lotus Eaters. Tatjana gave us a few insights behind her characters' motivations and related that most of the people who have read her book seem to have two very different interpretations and feelings towards her protagonist, Helen. She also shared how the Vietnam Veterans reacted to her book and questioned the club on which cover we found to be more visually appealing.
The women of the club were quite enamoured of Tatjana and found her to be a friendly and outgoing person. She was completely open to all of our questions and opinions and was honest about her intentions for the book. One thing I found interesting was that The Lotus Eaters took ten years to complete and was rejected many times before it was finally published. Tatjana had no idea it would garner the kind of success that it did, and she's now at work on her second book, tentatively titled The Wilding Tree. While talking with Tatjana she mentioned a few of her favorite books, two of which are Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson and A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. The club decided to take a chance on one of Tatjana's favorites and will be reading Housekeeping for our next meeting, which delights me to no end because I'm a huge fan of Robinson.
And now for an announcement! I was recently contacted by Susan Wegmann, a representative of the University of Central Florida, and she invited me, Sandy and Jenny of Take Me Away to participate in covering and promoting the UCF Orlando Book Festival, which is taking place on April 16th, 2011. The three of us are pretty excited about this development and I ask that you stay tuned as more information and spotlights on some of the featured books will be highlighted on our blogs in the weeks to come!