Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Gap Year by Sarah Bird — 320 pgs

The Gap YearCam Lightsey is confused about what’s going on with her seventeen year old daughter, Aubrey. Though the two had been very close virtually Aubrey’s whole life, these days Aubrey is moody, secretive and just plain recalcitrant. Cam, a lactation consultant that some call “the boob whisperer” is not only dealing with Aubrey’s recent shift in behavior but also the resentment she still feels for her ex-husband, Martin. While Cam is running herself into the ground trying to get Aubrey ready to board a plane that will take her to college, Aubrey herself is learning that she isn’t exactly who she once thought she was and is undergoing a complete personality change. Although Cam and Aubrey are caught in the middle of a ferocious tug-of-war over control and expectations, neither can deny that they are both changing and moving away from each other. After an unexpected contact occurs between Martin and Aubrey, things begin to shift into overdrive between Cam and Aubrey. How can Cam make Aubrey see that college and breaking away are the most important things that will ever happen in her life when Aubrey refuses to speak to her? And how can Aubrey ever explain to her mother that she isn’t the girl she used to be and that her passions and interests have been dramatically altered? In this tale of a mother and daughter who can’t see eye to eye, Sarah Bird captures the struggle of a mother’s need to release her daughter to her own future and a daughter’s need to realistically assert her independence. At times sharp and always funny, Bird gives us a peek into the lives of a very headstrong pair of women and shows us that life can’t always be coordinated and prescribed as many think it can.

Essentially this book is about the deep chasm that forms between a mother and daughter who have very different ideas about what the future should hold for them. For mothers of teenage daughters, a lot of the fights and conundrums will feel very familiar, perhaps as though Bird has been spying on us! But what was different about this book was that while it had some very serious and frightening underpinnings, it was also raucously funny and witty. Just when the tension between mother and daughter seemed to reach astronomical levels, Bird would pull out her most engaging and hilarious material and set that in place to diffuse what would have otherwise been a very uncomfortable book. It was quite a feat to manage because, while one half of this book was tense and conflicted, the other half had me snorting with glee, which is something that doesn’t often happen with books that deal with a teenage girl’s rebellion.

And rebellion it was. Though Cam tries to be calm about what her daughter is doing and saying, it’s clear that Aubrey’s disregard and disrespect have cut her to the quick. Cam can’t understand where all this deliberate mutiny is coming from, but as readers, we can not only understand but even sympathize. Though a lot of her new behavior centers around a boy she discovers she’s crazy about, a lot of it also reflects her desire to break out of the mold that has kept her captive for so long. One couldn’t help but think that things might have gone a little more smoothly had Aubrey even given the merest hint to Cam about her changing feelings, but the fact that she didn’t seemed extremely realistic, and often very sad.

When Martin edges back into the picture, Cam is legitimately angry and even more confused than she’s ever been before. Now Cam has to deal not only with Aubrey and her outrageous behavior, but with the man who left them all those years ago as well. The pitting of mother against daughter is always at center stage, but soon other acts begin to crowd for the limelight as well. In addition to the back and forth between Aubrey and Cam’s perspective, there are also questions as to the logistics of raising a child as single working parent and issues of neighborhood snobbery. What’s most realistic about this story is the way that the relationship between Cam and Aubrey seems to morph overnight. Many a mother will understand this on a deep and visceral level, and I think part of what Bird is trying to reflect back to her readers is that it’s okay. This is normal and it’s what happens, despite mothers all over the world who wish to will it away.

The only small niggle I had with this book was Bird’s puzzling decision to eschew contractions in her writing, but other than that, this book rocked my sock off. It was wise and funny, and while it was honest, it was also sometimes sad. Bird seems to completely understand mothers and daughters and the rifts that can happen even in the strongest relationships. I didn’t expect to like this one as much as I did, and while there was a lot here to wring my hands over, the ultimate message was uplifting and hopeful. I was fully engaged with this book and would speculate that even those readers who don’t have daughters would be moved and enthralled with this tale that is both unusual and commonplace. Highly recommended.

Author Photo About the Author

Sarah Bird is the author of seven previous novels. She is a columnist for Texas Monthly and has contributed to many other magazines including O, The Oprah Magazine, The New York Times Magazine, Real Simple and Good Housekeeping. Sarah, the 2010 Johnston Dobie Paisano Fellow, makes her empty nest in Austin, Texas.

Connect with Sarah on her website,, on Facebook, and on 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:

Monday, August 1st:Raging Bibliomania
Tuesday, August 2nd:The Singleton in the Kitchen
Wednesday, August 3rd:Lit and Life
Thursday, August 4th:Suko’s Notebook
Monday, August 8th:Lakeside Musings
Tuesday, August 9th:My Random Acts of Reading
Wednesday, August 10th:She is Too Fond of Books
(Spotlight on Bookstores Guest Post)
Thursday, August 11th:Life in Review
Monday, August 15th:Juggling Life
Wednesday, August 17th:Books Distilled
Friday, August 19th:BookNAround
Monday, August 22nd:A Musing Reviews
Wednesday, August 24th:All About {n}
Thursday, August 25th:girlichef

Friday, July 29, 2011

The Peach Keeper by Sarah Addison Allen — 288 pgs

The Peach Keeper: A NovelWilla Jackson is keeping a low profile in the small town of Walls of Water. Though she used to be quite a mischievous teenager, the grown-up Willa now runs a green sporting goods store and leads a very simple life. When an invitation to a society gala turns up in her mailbox, she wants nothing to do with it. It seems some of the wealthier young ladies in town have decided to refurbish The Blue Ridge Madam, a dilapidated mansion that was once home to Willa’s grandmother. Willa’s grandmother was once a smart society maven in her own right, and it was only due to chance and misfortune that she ever fell away from that kind of life. Paxton Osgood’s grandmother, however, never fell away from that lifestyle, and now that the women’s society in Wall’s of Water has fallen into her hands, she’s eager to celebrate its 75th anniversary with a gala. Paxton and her twin brother Colin have never been friends with Willa, but all that is about to change when strange occurrences and unexpected run-ins begin to take place between the three with alarming frequency. In her efforts to avoid the gala, Willa will begin to uncover the strange and magical secrets that led to the formation of the women’s society, and the hidden secrets of her own lineage. Meanwhile, Paxton seems to be in love with a man who’s completely unavailable to her, has her hands full with her wealthy mother who insists that she live at home, and the re-dedication of the Madam in time for the gala. Blending magical realism with a suspenseful southern Gothic feel, The Peach Keeper is a playful read with a serious side that will keep new and old fans alike caught up in the mystery of Walls of Water.

Sarah Addison Allen’s name is one I’ve heard in so many bookish circles that I can’t even remember a time when I didn’t know it. I guess what I’m trying to say is that she has a lot of fans out there, and that even though most people like her, I was hesitant to jump into the fray and try out her offerings because I was afraid I might be the only bookish person on the planet who didn’t like her work. I let all of her other books pass me by, and though I do have a copy of Garden Spells hanging around here somewhere, this was my first read by Allen, and it was facilitated by Books Babes and Bordeaux, who ambitiously decided that we would read two books for the July meeting. The first was the unforgettable Before I Fall and the second was The Peach Keeper.

When I first dove into this book, I was surprised at how compulsively readable it was. Allen has a way of making her story immediately engaging and just quirky enough to keep you flipping pages. There were small hints of magical realism that, while not tipping the book fully into that genre, provided a great mystical and magical feel that I thought were very clever. This is a book that seems to place its reader right into the action and begins to sort out the story around them as they read. There were several threads going on all at once, and each was given equal footing as it shared the stage with the others. There were really two protagonists here: Willa and Paxton; and though they were both dealing with very different issues, they shared some of the same character traits that it was impossible not to see as the story progressed. The men in this story played supporting roles, but they were each developed and nuanced like the more major characters, which is something that I really liked.

While this story would fit right into the women’s fiction genre, it also had the components of a mystery, a love story and it even bent into the genre of magical realism. That’s a pretty impressive straddling of genres in my opinion, and as the story wound its way around and through its vast permutations, it also became a story about friendship, family, and loyalty. Allen does a lot to make her story feel fresh and to keep her dialogue sparkling. I remember thinking that a lot of her character interactions were very witty and spunky, and I was pleased that so much care was given over to each piece of the puzzle. As secrets of the past and present intermingle, the story takes on the weight and heft of a more serious novel, but the lightness and verve of the writing doesn’t let the story turn dour and heavy. I read along at a good clip because Allen has a way of keeping her characters embedded in puzzling and intriguing situations, which translate well into keeping readers captivated and invested in their plights.

The only problem I had with the book had to do with a character's sudden reversal of a crucial personality trait, which I felt was just a little too convenient and conciliatory for me. It wasn’t a huge issue but it did make me wonder if all the confusion regarding this reversal was just an elaborate ploy to garner a more appealing and titillating plot. I’m hesitating to say more about this than I really want to because I don’t want to spoil the book for future readers, but it irked me a little more than it probably should have. I know this is something I’m going to be bringing up at the meeting and getting other opinions on, but I felt my review would be incomplete without mentioning the fact that I had one sticking point with the book.

While I did have a minor problem with one issue in the book, overall the story and execution pleased me greatly and I had a really good time with it. I’m glad to find that I enjoyed this first foray into Allen’s work and I look forward to sampling a few more of her books. I think a lot of readers would enjoy this book, and it’s really a prefect summer read due to it’s lightness and its ability to engage readers from the first page. I’m looking forward to hearing what everyone else thought about it and comparing that to the reception the book has gotten on the blogs. A really fun and undemanding read.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Galore by Michael Crummey — 352 pages

GaloreIn the small Newfoundland island town of Paradise Deep a strange occurrence has turned the town upside down. It seems a huge whale has beached itself on the shore, and due to the fishing town’s recent hardships, the residents soon begin to divvy up the carcass for food and fuel. But when the widow Devine begins to cut through the animals stomach, she and the other onlookers are surprised to see a man tumble out. He’s a strange man indeed, with his white hair and skin, and he seems to be mute as well. He also stinks of dead fish, and it’s a smell destined to never go away. So begins the magical and dense saga of a town that’s unlike any you’ll ever experience. Love and hate, passions and feuds, birth and death, they’re all encompassed in this winding and rich tale of a town lost in the middle of the ocean, a town that society forgot. As Crummey follows the handful of families on the island over a span of a hundred years or more, we share in their heartbreaks and sorrows, their triumphs and defeats. In this magnificent and unusual tale, the magic of Paradise Deep and its inhabitants is cleverly meted out with an eye for the fantastical, wonderful and strange.

This was a hard book to summarize; not because it was confusing but because there was just so much going on that it would have been impossible to even hint at all the plot permutations and narrative twists. I found that although I tried to sit down and read this one straight through, it was almost impossible to do so because of the book’s density and the abundance of genealogical information. This isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy the book, because I did. I thought there was a great use of magical realism that didn’t end up stretching into absurdity and that all the various components of the town’s saga were captivating and engaging. Though it took me awhile to rip through this one, I was very pleased with both the journey and the destination.

Part of what I loved about this book was Crummey’s ability to be playful and at times crass. It was obvious that although there was a lot of gravity in this story, the author didn’t take himself or his characters too seriously; in turn, I was rewarded with a great sense of the joviality of Paradise Deep’s residents. There were some heartbreaking moments as well, and the balance between gravity and humor was one that was well played within this tale. The more I read, the deeper I fell into the spell of the story and the more intimately I began to understand the characters and their motivations. There was a great give and take here, a seesawing between the details of the town’s growth and the characters’ interplay with one another that was mingled with just a touch of the magical realism that I so enjoy.

I think it’s a feat to manage such a sprawling novel the way that Crummey did. The book wasn’t astronomically large, but seemed to encompass so much time in a succinct and elegant way. From the moment the strange man is disgorged from the whale’s belly, Crummey is off and running with his history of Paradise Deep and his eccentric cast of characters, who are always doing something surprising and counter-intuitive. I also really enjoyed Crummey’s character creation because it was extremely layered for a book of this scope and size. Most of the characters were given a lot of development and substance, which is impressive considering that there were probably over two dozen characters in play. But what’s also impressive is that Galore didn’t feel overpopulated at all. While there were times when I had to check the family tree in the front of the book, each character managed to be singular and richly defined.

When I finally got to the last page, I fully realized the magic that Crummey had managed with this book. His story went from engaging and intriguing to ephemeral and awe-inspiring. It was an ending that I had started to guess at, but the implications it created made me rethink the whole story. And when I started to look back, I saw that those missing puzzle pieces had been there all along, just waiting for a savvy reader to pick them up and fit them all together. I can’t say I knew this all along though, and had to wait for that final page for the wheels to begin churning in my brain. In some ways, this book reminded me of A Hundred Years of Solitude, with its scope and intention feeling very similar. It also reminded me that when magical realism is done right, it can be just…well, magical.

I’m going to have to jump on the bandwagon and join the other reviewers who thought this book was brilliant. It wasn’t what I had been expecting, and although I had read several reviews, the book was constantly surprising to me. Though I went into things with high expectations, Galore really delivered and inspired me to check out more of Crummey’s work. It was definitely a dense and chewy book, but one that I think a lot of readers would enjoy. I know it was an unexpected treat for me. This is a book I would definitely recommend.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Minding Ben by Victoria Brown — 352 pgs

Minding BenWhen Grace Caton boards a plane heading to New York from Trinidad, she’s only sixteen years old. Promised a home with a distant cousin in America, Grace is both excited and scared as she makes her way abroad. But when Grace arrives, she finds that she’s been stranded with no one to retrieve her from the airport and nowhere to live. Soon Grace is living with the mercurial Sylvia and her patchwork family. Though Grace isn’t exactly freeloading at Sylvia’s, her luck in the job department has been pretty meager. As Grace searches for the perfect position, she is also considering marrying Sylvia’s brother Bo for a green card. Just when she thinks she’ll never get a job, a call comes for her regarding a nanny position. But Miriam, the woman offering the job, wants to hire Grace to be her maid, nanny and helper, all for ridiculously low salary. What is Grace to do with no other options on the horizon? With a sinking heart, she agrees to the job, and her life is never the same. Moving between the circles of Island immigrant nannies, her party-loving friends, and her mish-mash family at Sylvia’s, Grace discovers that life in New York isn’t as easy as she once imagined it would be, but despite the hardship and disadvantages she faces, she will not turn tail and run back home. At times funny, at times tragic, this is the tale of a young girl left on her own to manage life in the big city, and of the people she meets who will sometimes help and sometimes hinder her.

This was one of those books that was really hard to put down. From the very beginning, I was caught up in Grace’s unusual tale. She had a great head on her shoulders and was very responsible, which is really unusual for a sixteen year old girl. Grace is living in an untenable situation at Sylvia’s because the family lives a very low income and restricted life. Grace’s presence is a godsend for Sylvia, who uses Grace’s services in minding her small children in exchange for room and board. But Sylvia is not always the best roommate, and the five residents are living in a two room apartment that may or may not be hazardous for their health. Sylvia can also be demanding and uppity, which is one of the reasons Grace must find herself another situation soon. But her lack of a green card is something that hinders her time and time again.

When Grace finally lands a job with Miriam Bruckner, she knows she’s being taken advantage of but has no better option. Miriam is not only overly demanding but can be racist at times, and her inappropriate comments sometimes went over Grace’s head. Not so with me. When I read how Miriam would exploit Grace and then treat her with racist contempt, my blood would boil. I felt a little angry with Grace for standing by and taking all this ridiculous abuse, but time and time again, I realized she had no other options available to her. There were also some subtle sexual tension between Miriam’s husband and Grace, which did not go unnoticed by Miriam. Grace’s only respite from this horrible family was her connection to the other nannies in the building. But even there, there were rivalries and factions that Grace was loathe to get caught up in. There was a lot of internal and external conflict in this book, and it was all very realistic and emotionally charged. In spite of Grace’s innocence, there was a lot of messiness to her life and the lives of those around her, and in her struggle for freedom and independence she began to grow both in wisdom and experience.

The third aspect of this book had to do with Grace’s ties to her island acquaintances living in New York, and these, I think, were my favorite sections. The interactions between Grace and her friends were sometimes portrayed in heavy patios dialect, and having had a few friends from the small islands many years ago, the patios brought back a lot of memories. Grace’s friendship with Kathy, another girl who immigrated from her village to New York, was full of gentle teasing and genuine affection. Often it was Kathy who saw Grace through her toughest times, and the two girls did a lot of leaning on one another over the course of the story. There was even a love component in this story in the form of another islander named Brent. As Grace begins to realize her own worth and to navigate her own struggles, her friends, including an American from her building, become the heart of her support system. I had a very affable reaction to her growing social ties and their effects as the book wound its way forward.

I really enjoyed Minding Ben for a lot of reasons, primairly because of the interplay between the dramatic tension and the character creation of the story. Brown does an exceptional job imbuing her story with all the elements that a reader will find engrossing and takes the narrative through many believable twists and turns that kept me hungering for more. It was a really diverting read, and certain sections had a deliciously scandalous feel to them. This book would be a perfect beach read, and I can’t imagine anyone not falling for the unapologetic and winsome Grace. A very intriguing read, and one that I won’t soon forget. Highly recommended.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War by Deb Olin Unferth — 224 pgs

Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the WarThis is the hilarious and moving true story of how a woman named Deb and her boyfriend George randomly decided to travel to South America to join the revolution. When they arrived in South America, they had no idea which revolution to join, nor did they even have any concrete reason for joining. What they wanted was to be involved in something bigger than themselves, and their altruistic natures led them to believe that this something was the revolution. Traveling through South America in a wayward fashion, they go from Mexico City to Nicaragua to El Salvador, bumbling their way along and getting themselves into alternately comic and frightening situations. It seems that Deb and George’s help is not wanted, and though they try to become involved in any way they can, they are quickly fired from their jobs as revolutionaries and sent packing. But there’s more to the story than that, because Deb isn’t sure she wants to be with George anymore, and though she’s strangely obsessed with him, she sometimes can’t stand him. As the two bump along, becoming increasingly ill due to poor sanitary conditions, they also find themselves at an emotional crossroads. Chasing the revolution with zest and zeal, both Deb and George will find themselves in the most unlikely places, and find that the revolution taking place inside themselves is much larger than the one they are running through the jungles to find.

One of the things I love best is when a book manages to be genuinely funny without trying too hard. This was that book. While I was reading, I was laughing and snorting with glee because Deb Unferth has a way of just laying it all out there and sharing the ridiculous and absurd along with the poignant and thought-provoking. From the very first sentence, I knew this was going to be a book I was going to love, and I wasn't wrong at all. It was a relatively fast and short read but I enjoyed every second of it, and of Deb and George’s journey.

First off, I should mention that when Deb and George set off for their journey into revolution, they were both rather young and didn’t have the support of their parents. They basically left college and ran away to South America to be revolutionaries. I’m not sure they even knew what a revolution was or why one would join up to fight in one. As they make their way towards and away from some very scary destinations, they find themselves participating in some strange ways: Like building bicycles for the revolution, or minding children who are caught in the war zone. It’s almost like they’re attracted to and called by bizarre enterprises, and of course, being so young, they think they are the height of coolness and altruism by doing these strange things. Of course these jobs don’t last long, and soon they are fired from their jobs as revolutionaries and on the road looking for another gig. But the problem is that during this time, most all of the revolutions are just starting to wind down. When they join the Sandinistas, they find that most of the time they are on duty, they are really scrounging for food or trading things on the black market (things they had agreed that they would never do.)

In addition to their hunt for the revolution, Deb and George are having problems of a different sort. Deb is sort of clingy and is always hanging all over George and letting him make all the decisions. This bothers her on one level and satisfies her on another, so she’s always at war with herself. George, meanwhile, is a strange duck and has a lot of incongruous behavior and ideas that make him unpopular with both the natives and the other revolutionaries. He’s one of those quiet guys, and though he has good intentions, his quietness seems to be hiding a whole lot of crazy. The relationship antics that pepper the pages of Revolution are wildly funny and weird but also somehow strangely sad. As Deb and George make their way from country to country, I could see their relationship deteriorating bit by bit. Deb doesn’t hold back about how she’s both in love with George and annoyed to death with him. All of this pressure comes to a head when they finally agree to head home, and things go from bad to worse in the relationship department.

The last parts of this book intermingle some of the singular and weird scenes from the couple’s stint in various revolutions and Deb’s attempt, many years later, to track down George. It seems she is a little obsessed with him and does some strange things to find him. Like repeatedly calling a private eye to track George down, and pretending to be a different person each time she calls (she obviously didn’t fool the private eye, of course). The whole book is delivered in Deb’s deadpan style, and I couldn’t help but get caught up in the bizarre humor of this couple who were sort of good-hearted bumblers. It was uncanny how unprepared these two were for life as revolutionaries, and just how young they appeared, both in terms of their relationship and their mission. I felt sorry for them a lot of the time but I was also overjoyed with the humorous way that Unferth tells her story.

I had a great time with this book, and as it was such a fast and enjoyable read, I’m hoping to read it again soon. This was another book that I followed my husband around the house reading passages out of, and even he was shaking his head and laughing. If you’re looking for something light and comical, this is the book for you. It tells a most implausible story in a very comic way and keeps you guessing as to what will eventually befall Deb and George. It was one hell of a fun read and unlike anything I have read before. Highly recommended!

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Ellis Island by Kate Kerrigan — 368 pages

Ellis Island: A NovelEllie Flaherty is a young woman living in a small town in Ireland who, after a series of small inconveniences, has just married her childhood sweetheart, John. But when John is seriously injured fighting in the Irish resistance against England, his injuries force Ellie to take some drastic measures. Due to their financial insolvency, there's no money for the operation that John needs to fully recover. Soon Ellie finds herself on a ship to America to begin working as a ladies' maid, with plans to send her pay home to John for his needs. But America is nothing like what Ellie had been expecting, and soon she's caught up in its siren song. Leapfrogging out of her job as a maid and on to bigger and better things, Ellie reinvents herself as a young cosmopolitan woman about the city and finds the freedom and elegance she never had in Ireland. Years pass when an unexpected event threatens to send her home to her life back on the farm, but Ellie isn't sure she's ready to leave behind the land of opportunity for a small backwater, despite the fact that she loves John deeply. In this country mouse/city mouse tale, Kate Kerrigan shares the story of a woman whose loyalties and heart are torn in two opposing directions, and the choices she must make to finally bring everything together.

Having recently read Brooklyn by Colm Toibin, I was eager to read another Irish immigrant story to see how the two tales were similar and how they differed. Generally, I enjoy these types of stories and find that I always learn a lot about history when I indulge myself with one of them. One of the key differences in this story from Brooklyn was its historical focus on the struggles Ireland had with England to win the freedom of their country. Though the plot wasn’t totally centered around this conflict, there were a few pertinent pieces that hinged on this plot element, and through John’s injury, Ellie gains the impetus to travel to America, where the bulk of this story really takes place.

Ellie was a wonderful character, and very human. Though she wasn’t overly selfish, she was pragmatic about how much easier life was for her in America. She was sensitive to her family back home and knew that they also would fare better in America, but she never became pushy and overbearing with them. Ellie also had the kind of attitude that lent itself to the enjoyment of her new surroundings without ever becoming frivolous. The crux of her conundrum came when she discovered that she simply could not lead two very different lives, and that the life she wanted for herself might not be the life she had to settle for. This was a very hard choice for her to make, and her reactions and behavior upon making it were not only realistic, but potent. Though Ellie found a way to navigate America and make her situation work for her, in reality, her heart was at odds with itself over her separation from John. The situation was even more complex because Ellie and John had been in love since their childhood, and John’s absence left a huge hole in Ellie’s life.

Ellie’s time in America was drawn with large strokes, and instead of minute detail, there was more of an overall encompassing of the large period of time she spent away from Ireland. I particularly enjoyed her first few American discoveries, such as indoor plumbing, telephones and electricity. What was interesting is that Kerrigan never seemed to mention that life in Ireland lacked all of these benefit but instead filled in that gap by showing Ellie’s first reactions to these strange accouterments of life in the States. Her gradual immersion into an American lifestyle changed her in ways that made it hard for her to ever be that humble girl that left the farm, but it didn’t taint her in ways that made it impossible for her to ever return. Most of the time I was reading, it was like looking through the eyes of a foreign stranger who was constantly surprised and delighted by the things that most Americans take for granted.

I must say a lot of this book surprised me, because it’s not your typical immigrant tale. Sometimes I find that these stories have set patterns that they never stray away from. This tale wasn’t like that. People didn’t do the things that you expected them to do, and many of the issues were not handled in the way I had expected them to be. I enjoyed this because it made for a rather unpredictable and organic feeling story that intrigued me. Though I had been expecting the last third of the book to unravel in a very orderly and predictable way, Kerrigan mixed it up for her readers and gave them something other than the usual to chew on. From top to tail it was a bittersweet story, and it was such a pleasant read that I had a hard time putting it down.

Though there are other books out there that are similar to this one, I believe that Kerrigan’s offering is a cut above due to the advanced character creation and narrative. Each section of this story seemed to build upon the last, creating a brilliant melange of a tale that readers who enjoy immigrant stories will love. It was a gentle tale, told with style, and I found that as I turned the last page, I wished I could continue on the journey with Ellie. I’m hopeful that the next time Kate Kerrigan plys her pen, she creates a heroine as delicious as Ellie Flaherty.

Author Photo About the Author

Kate Kerrigan is the author of two previous novels in the United Kingdom. She lives in Ireland with her husband and their two sons.

Visit Kate’s website at and follow her on Twitter: @katekerrigan.

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

Tuesday, June 28th:2 Kids and Tired Book Reviews
Wednesday, June 29th:Life In Review
Tuesday, July 5th:Dolce Bellezza
Wednesday, July 6th:Rundpinne
Thursday, July 7th:Reviews from the Heart
Monday, July 11th:Book Addiction
Tuesday, July 12th:Tina’s Book Reviews
Wednesday, July 13th:Colloquium
Tuesday, July 19th:Raging Bibliomania
Thursday, July 21st:A Cozy Reader’s Corner
Wednesday, July 27th:Peeking Between the Pages

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

The True Memoirs of Little K by Adrianne Sharp — 384 pgs

The True Memoirs of Little K: A NovelMathilde Kschessinska is seventeen and just graduating from the Russian Imperial Ballet in St. Petersburg during the reign of Tsar Nicholas I. She comes from a long line of performers and is expected to culminate her career as a prima ballerina on the Russian stage. But Little K, as she comes to be known, has other plans, for she is interested in snagging the affections and protection of tsarevitch Niki, the young man who will one day become Tsar Nicholas II. During this period in history, the ballet ostensibly existed for the pleasure of the royal family, and each ballerina strove to snare a young and handsome protector from one of the royal houses or the upper echelons of the military. But for Little K, only tsarevitch Niki would do. After a brief flirtation, the tsarevitch succumbs to Little K’s wiles and a life-long relationship begins. As their courtship is cemented, Niki uses his sizable influence to secure the best roles and opportunities for Little K. Though this relationship is initially fraught with passion and vigor, soon Niki decides to make the princess Alix his wife, much to Little K’s anger and chagrin. Soon Little K must search for another protector and benefactor while still holding on to her dreams of luring Nicholas back to her bed. But the Russia of this time was not a stable place, and before long Nicholas I has succumbed to illness, leaving the young Niki the tsar of the land. After his betrothal and marriage to Alix, Little K is left in the wings, seemingly forever. But soon the Russian revolution begins and the tsar and his family are in danger from both the common folk and the nobility. Little K soon finds herself in the middle of a conspiracy of giant proportions and back in Niki’s good graces as well. As Russia begins to self-destruct and its leaders are torn from their illustrious positions, Little K must decide how far she will go for love and whom she will protect when her world comes crumbling down around her. In a subtle blend of history and fiction, The True Memoirs of Little K takes its readers into the heart and mind of one very ambitious ballerina and shines a spotlight on the Russia of the past.

I had a lot of mixed feelings while I was reading this book, and I’ll tell you why. First off, I love Russian history and feel like there’s a lot that I don’t know about this particular time, though I am quite familiar with the story of Nicholas, Alexandra, and Rasputin. I also love books that are structured in the style of a memoir but are actually fictional works. The history in this book was clear and cogent, and I learned a lot about the inner machinations of 19th century Russia, which was a real boon for me. What I don’t love is when a protagonist is so egotistical and arrogant that it annoys and irritates, which was the case for Little K herself. It was only towards the end of the book that she showed any humility, and in my opinion, even that bit was marred by her subtle egotism. I grew tired of Little K’s antics and her bragging, which seemed to encompass every area and topic, and while I liked the history of the story, I was much less enamoured of its protagonist.

At the heart of things this book is basically a triple layered story about love, ambition and history, and while it excels in some areas, others are not as magnanimously wrought. What I did enjoy was that Sharp was not afraid to go full throttle with the history, explaining the various coups and their players without dumbing them down for her audience. She had a knack for making the dusty annals of history come alive through her narrative and for focusing tightly on the drama and corruption of that time. Having known only a little bit about what was going on in that time and place, I felt that the knowledge that I gained was substantial and it really grounded me in the atmosphere of 19th century Russia. While reading, I got to see things from every vantage point, which made for a really rich reading experience. Reading about the opulence of the Russian court in its heyday all the way through to its final gasps was enlightening to say the least, and gave me a fresh perspective on things I’ve long heard about but never delved deeply into.

The second piece of this tapestry was the focus on the ambitions of Little K. Though tsarevitch Niki was her first and foremost concern, her career as a ballerina was also pretty important to her. This was where I started getting annoyed with her, for she was just so overwhelmingly narcissistic about what a wonderful dancer she was and how she was leagues beyond her counterparts when it came to her performance style. As Little K’s relationship with the tsarevitch begins to heat up, she’s granted special compensation and undeserved roles in the ballet due to her standing as a royal favorite. I think even Little K herself knew that she never would have gotten as far as she did on her own merits, and that wasn’t where the problem lay with me. The problem was her incessant bragging and her hostility and tantrums when she didn’t get her way to the letter. She was also ruthless about attacking the other ballerinas’ looks and skill, and for me, it got old very quickly. Whenever Little K opened her mouth to pat herself on the back, I just rolled my eyes and sucked my teeth.

The love story in this book was not exactly what you would call one of romance and like-mindedness. Rather, it was punctuated by obsession and jealously, mostly from Little K. It was clear that she would never be able to marry the tsar, being that she was only a dancer, but Little K held on to that little nugget of hope that one day he would be hers. She went to some great lengths to seduce him and anger his wife, Alix, and while he almost always indulged her, it was clear that he was also wary of her at times. I didn’t see a lot of reciprocity when it came to the love between the tsar and Little K, but in her eyes, this was unimportant. Though it’s not the type of love that I would want, in the end, both parties stood by each other and tried very hard to save each other, which may indeed point to a greater love and respect than I had thought possible in this union.

Though I had some niggles with the main character’s behavior and antics, I did really enjoy the book’s deep historical leanings, and I ended up learning a lot. There were a lot of ballet and dancing terms scattered throughout, and since I’m not a dancer, I was happy to let my eyes glide over those bits with no detriment to my reading experience. If you’re the type of reader who can’t stand smug and self-centered characters, this is probably not the book for you. But if you want a very elaborate and detailed account of 19th century Russia and its last tsar, you would be doing a great thing by picking up this book.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Summer Giveaway Winners!

It’s time for the summer giveaway winners to be announced!

Sea Escape: A Novel The two winners of a copy of Sea Escape are: Margie T., and Ellie B.

Healer: A Novel The winner of a copy of Healer is: Erin L.
… and finally …

Island Girl the winner of a copy of Island Girl is Suko!

Congratulations to all the winners, and if you weren’t a winner this time, fear not, as I have some great giveaways planned for the upcoming months!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver — 480 pgs

Before I Fall Sam Kingston is one of the popular girls. The kind of girl that is idolized by her peers and can get away with just about anything. In her close social circle are Lindsay the queen-bee, Elody the fast and loose girl, and Ally the not so bright one. As Sam and her friends plow their way to the top of the the social strata of Thomas Jefferson High, everyone else needs to make way. But today will be a day like no other, because today, Sam will die. This is just the beginning of the story, because although Sam is dead, she seems to be reliving her last day over and over again. As Sam navigates her way through that last fateful day time and again, she works on several different ways to circumvent the accident that will take her life and comes to discover just what life is like for the people who orbit her little cruel little clique. A clever textual cross between Groundhog Day and Mean Girls, Before I Fall is the story of the endless permutations of fate and one girl who will try to defy them all.

This book was our July choice for the Books, Babes, and Bordeaux book club, but it’s not like I needed that excuse to read it, because frankly, it’s been on my radar since I read the first rave review several months ago. And while I usually eschew books that have been hyped, something about this one had me eager to read it and see what I made of it for myself. Though I’m probably the last person on the planet to have read this one, I’m glad I finally did, because it blew my socks off. It was a clever read to spend an afternoon with, and I finished it in one sitting. Now I’m officially wondering why I always insist on being the last to the party when it comes to books like this?

Sam and her friends are mean girls, there are no two ways about it. In a school full of prosperous students, these girls are at the top: wealthy, exclusive and snotty. While I was reading, I was mentally traversing the miles back to when I was in high school and remembering what it felt like to be caught up in the bizarre social intricacies that my kids are a part of now. I kind of wanted to smack Sam and her friends a lot of the time. They seemed to be unendingly shallow and narcissistic, and though I imagine it would have been nice to be on top of the world when I was seventeen, these four girls made me a little sick. I suppose that in a world full of designer boots and keg parties someone has to emerge as the alpha dog set, but reading about how Sam and her friends did that made me more than a little sad and angry. As Sam repeatedly teeters on the precipice of a day that will change her future forever, she somehow begins to register that the things she and her friends have been doing for so long might just be wrong.

One of the things I liked about this book was the fact that it was so realistic. I know it’s been many moons since I was in high school, but with two kids who are there now, you do hear things about what it’s like to be a teenager in today’s society. Drinking, sex, drugs and status are all beating about this story in a heady mixture, and the complex act of balancing them all, coupled with the popularity factor, was interesting to read about. Lauren Oliver understands teenagers quite well, and that fact is reflected in her writing. The social hierarchy of high school is represented unflinchingly here, and it all felt so real that it was hard not to get caught up in. Moving around from circle to circle as Sam tries to figure out what’s going on, the reader gets a peek at almost every social group in the school and how they impact each other. There is, of course, a romantic component to this book as well, and it was created with just enough longing, lust and romance to be both relevant and moving. In this stifling world of social pressure, Sam and her friends are at center stage, and the things they do, not only to those on the outside but to each other, are not only intense but very shortsighted.

I’m kind of hard pressed to say why this book worked so well for me. Obviously the plot had a lot to do with it, but I also think that the sense of urgency in which the book was written, along with the peek it gave into the random social workings of a group of high-schoolers was a big draw. Though Sam is desperately trying to turn back the hands of time or learn the secret that will change her fate, she ends up discovering so much more along the way. Like the fact that all the people she and her friends bully are real people, with real feelings, and the fact that the friends whom she so idolizes are not exactly who she thinks they are. There are some tough issues addressed in this book. Eating disorders, suicide, mental illness and promiscuity are just a few that I can mention, but there are many more issues that push the envelope in this narrative. It’s a complex book that doesn’t dumb down for it’s audience, and the effect is a feeling of timelessness and relevance. It also presents an object lesson but doesn't do it in a preachy or smarmy way; instead the book gives a simple and intelligent cautionary tale.

Though I’m the last on the bandwagon with this book, I will go ahead and echo what others have already said: Go get this book, now! It’s a brilliant piece of social commentary housed within a story that you won’t be able to look away from, and Oliver succeeds beautifully in creating the type of book that not only works for the YA audience, but for the adult set as well. A great crossover read that’s both intense and thought-provoking. Highly recommended!

Monday, July 11, 2011

Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell — 256 pgs

Unfamiliar FishesIn this crisp and witty non-fiction selection, Sarah Vowell elucidates her readers on the events leading up to 1898 American annexation of Hawaii, and shares how this surprising development impacted not only the people of Hawaii but how the repercussions changed the course of history for America as well. As Vowell pushes backward into the past, she gives us a taste of what Hawaii was like before this momentous change, when it was ruled by monarchs thought to be blessed by the gods, and how the arrival of American missionaries changed the political and historical landscape of this beautiful and picturesque archipelago. As Vowell relates this incredible story, her trademark humor comes bounding off the pages and her succinct observations on the mingled American and Hawaiian cultures will leave readers aglow with anticipation and wonder. Sharing her insights and the very particular components of this strange event in history, Vowell comes to understand the Hawaiian people in a way that she never has before and shares with her readers how the act of annexing Hawaii could not only be interpreted as an act of possession and domination, but as an act of military imperialism gone tragically overboard. Both witty and wise, Unfamiliar Fishes seeks to understand not only the culture and inhabitants of Hawaii before the annexation, but also after, when it was thrown into the melting pot of America to be boiled down to it most basic elements.

I’ve read a lot about Sarah Vowell and her writing, but until I sat down with Unfamiliar Fishes, she was an unknown quantity in my reading life. Some words I’ve heard used to describe her books are: funny, fascinating, engaging and witty; and after reading this book I would have to agree with all of these adjectives. Vowell gets right to the heart of her material but isn’t afraid to follow the occasional non-sequitur to its very end. She crafts history into a story that even those who are apathetic on the topic can savor and enjoy, and she has a sense of humor that kept me giggling along with her throughout. Though I didn’t know much about Hawaii before reading this book, I now feel that I could talk intelligently about the subject, as well as regale my family over dinner with the Hawaiian importance of belly buttons.

It was surprising to learn that before the missionaries arrived, the islands had no written language, and it was the missionaries who created the first Hawaiian alphabet (12 letters instead of 24, if you are curious). They also made education one of the premiere focuses of the island, first getting the king’s approval and teaching him. It would have been great if everything the missionaries ended up doing in Hawaii was that altruistic, because although that contribution was huge, the missionaries were mostly the harbingers of a change that many Hawaiians were not comfortable with. They wanted to change the fundamentals of Hawaiian religion, politics, land ownership and marriage laws. They brought disease that ravaged the population, and they started many territorial wars with the sailors that used the islands as a stopover on their whaling trips. With one hand they blessed and with the other they snatched away, creating a strange mixture of admiration and revulsion in the native population. As years went by and the missionaries became more at home on the Islands, their priorities began to change from ideas of benevolence to ideas of ownership.

But Vowell doesn’t only share the history of the American missionaries on the island, she really digs deep and shares the history of Hawaii from its earliest origins. She speaks of the Hawaiian reverence of nature and how the kings and queens also revere their people and their responsibility to them. She shares the strange customs of royal incest that Hawaiians believe produce the most powerful of monarchs, and shows how these hardworking and compassionate people ended up at the mercy of a country that didn’t understand them or their way of life. She gives us many examples of a people who are still bitter over the usurping of their home into the jaws of a country that seems to want to swallow other territories whole, never realizing or appreciating the differences of other lands. Vowell writes at length about the seizure of the Hawaiian queen and tells her readers just how her power was stripped from her, leaving the islands at the mercy of foreigners that wanted nothing more than to add them to a collection of other militarily advantageous lands.

Part of the reason this book appealed to me, despite my tepid regard for full-on historical reads, is the fact that Vowell stands in the unique position of making her book historically accurate while also seeking to entertain her readers. I can’t imagine wanting to read about these subjects had they been penned by another author. Vowell is never dry nor repetitive, and the sense of wonder that she feels while exploring these events comes across clearly as she shares them with her reader. She also has a unique gift for being sympathetic to all parties in the drama and never resorts to stereotyping or name calling within her reflections. It’s obvious that some parties bear more responsibility for the problem than others, but Vowell lets her readers decide just how much and how to feel about all the players in this event. It’s to her credit that she takes on all sides of this quibble equally and doesn’t resort to mudslinging at any point. Her all-encompassing need to get the facts straight provided an unbiased reflection of the Hawaii/ American conflict.

Unfamiliar Fishes was a very interesting read, made more enticing because it wasn’t vague nor taxing. Vowell has a way of getting to the kernel of her material and expanding her study in a way that’s not only instructive but invigorating. It’s history yes, but written in a sometimes playful and sometimes grave way. If, like me, you haven’t had the experience of losing yourself in Vowell’s writing, I would recommend it heartily. If you’ve read previous books by this author then you know what I’m talking about. I’m eager to continue my history lessons under Vowell’s tutelage and will probably grab The Wordy Shipmates from my stack very soon. An intriguing and engrossing read, written with candor and intelligence. Recommended.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Storm at the Door by Stefan Merrill Block — 368 pgs

The Storm at the Door: A NovelIt is 1962 and Fredrick and Katherine Merrill have reached a stand-off in their marriage. While Fredrick finds himself exceptionally entertaining and erudite and considers himself to be the life of the party, the reality is that he is a boorish drunkard who may or may not be beset with mental illness. Katherine has long tolerated Fredrick’s idiosyncrasies but is now finding herself at an impasse. After an evening party goes awry, Fredrick finds himself at the Mayflower Home, the nation’s premiere mental institution, for what everyone assumes is a much needed rest. But soon Fredrick discovers that getting out of the institution is a lot harder than he ever imagined, and his life becomes a more sinister maze to manage. As a patient of Mayflower, Frederick is housed with some of the most brilliant and troubled minds of the age, and the idyllic atmosphere and permissive regulations make Mayflower Home seem like the perfect place for that much needed rest. But when a tragic occurrence forces the hospital under new administration, the tranquil peace of Mayflower Home becomes a repressive and dangerous place, and now Frederick really is trapped by the whims of the new head of hospital, Dr. Canon. Meanwhile, Katherine must survive in her newly reduced circumstances and learn to navigate the social milieu of the friends and family from whom she cannot hide Fredrick’s circumstances, nor her own. As the chapters shift from Frederick’s to Katherine’s vantage point and back, the haunting and elegant conundrum of a marriage in tatters begins to emerge, along with the uncertainty of whether Frederick will ever escape the hallowed halls of Mayflower Home. Emotionally taut with psychological and emotional suspense, The Storm at the Door is a rich study of a troubled marriage and of a man fighting the tide in a place he should not be.

Okay, so, as many of you have mentioned in the comments, I seem to be reading some very dour books of late. A lot of serious stuff about mental illness, Alzheimer's disease and other such topics. Then I picked up this book for the TLC tour. I have to say that although I thought I did my research pretty well, I was surprised to find myself neck deep into another serious book about mental illness, purported or otherwise. And while I do have to say that my limits have been strained by the difficult things I’ve been reading lately, this book was something exceptional that I’m really glad to have read. It was of course a difficult read, but it was also exquisite for many reasons, and it’s one that I probably won’t forget for a long time.

Fredrick, as I mentioned, is a boor and a bully. He’s quite impressed with himself and can’t understand why others don’t always appreciate his attitude and sense of humor. He’s a philanderer and a drunkard who tests the limits of his friendships and marriage as easily as he breathes. When he misjudges one of his comic performances and is subsequently sent to Mayflower Home, everything changes. For the first time, Frederick is at the mercy of others more powerful than himself, and though at first this isn’t as big as a problem as it will become, Frederick believes that his trademark wit and insouciance will eventually free him. What follows is the gradual erosion of a man who once had the world by the tail into a frightened and submissive shell of his former self. It’s not only the change of administration and the new rules that have trapped Frederick, but the plight of the other mentally ill men and women that surround him. Some famous and some obscure, these people are on the tipsy verge of insanity, and their presence and actions impact Frederick in ways that scantly seem possible. As Fredrick is reduced to minuscule mental proportions, he comes to fleetingly understand both himself and his predicament but is unable to change either.

On the other hand, Katherine is much like an abused servant. Taken for granted and misused, she must always find a way to pacify and assuage her overly aggressive husband. It’s more than a trial for her, and when Frederick lands himself in Mayflower, she is at first relieved. But there are things stirring within Katherine and she seems to be on a daily migration between guilt and rage with a stop over into bleakness. Soon Katerine begins to relive her life with Frederick in her mind, and her emotions vacillate even more. Is it right that Frederick has been committed? When will he come home? These questions plague her mind every second, and on top of this, she must face the social repercussions of having had her husband committed. She shares four daughters with Frederick and must raise them alone while he is away “resting.” But her anger at the way Frederick has usurped her life is slowly spinning out of control, and it’s forcing her to consider some drastic measures that she’s not even comfortable voicing. Between her indecision and Frederick’s absence, Katherine is in a very dark place of her own.

Situations at the hospital also take a turn for the worse once the administration has been changed, going from peaceful to out of control very quickly. It seems that the new administrator, Canon, has a very different approach than his predecessor, and in this approach integrity and humane treatment become bygones of the past. Canon is passive-aggressive and controlling, believing that each of the men he is responsible for are only objects to be moved and controlled by his whims. He is loathe to sanctify changes that will shed an unflattering light on him, and he has an urge to break Frederick that surpasses all reason. Canon’s hospital is run with militant control and a totalitarian regime, leaving the patients even more aggressive and hopeless than they have ever been before. Such changes seem to happen overnight, and in Frederick and the other patients’ eyes, daily survival becomes as grim and violent as a war. But locked in perpetual battle among his now uncooperative patients, Canon can only tighten the grip of his iron fist, leaving Frederick and the other men to start considering the unthinkable.

Though this was a heavy read, I found myself luxuriating in the voices of these characters and caught up in the plights that had carried them so far from their starting points. Block has done something extraordinary with this book, giving his readers several different and competing vantage points from which he tells an amazing story of courage and abuse, despair and recrimination. This is the type of book to savor and read slowly, as there are so many revelations and hidden meanings that it’s easy to go too fast and blow right through them. In the continuing drama of Frederick and Katherine, it’s hard not to take sides, but with Block’s ceaseless examination of both of these people, there is eventually a middle ground reached that is both amazing, yet difficult to contemplate. A very worthwhile and affecting read. Highly recommended.

Author Photo About the Author

Stefan Merrill Block was born in 1982 and grew up in Plano, Texas. He graduated from Washington University in St. Louis in 2004. He lives in Brooklyn.

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

Monday, June 13th:Luxury Reading
Tuesday, June 14th:Book Club Classics
Wednesday, June 15th:Books and Cooks
Thursday, June 16th:Jenn’s Bookshelves
Friday, June 17th:Diary of an Eccentric
Tuesday, June 21st:Life in Review
Thursday, June 23rd:Girls Gone Reading
Friday, June 24th:Rundpinne
Saturday, June 25th:Colloquium
Monday, June 27th:Man of La Book
Friday, July 1st:Book Reviews by Molly
Tuesday, July 5th:Crazy for Books
Thursday, July 7th:Raging Bibliomania
Monday, July 11th:Melody & Words
Tuesday, July 12th:Amused by Books
Thursday, July 14th:Take Me Away

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Love Begins in Winter: Five Stories by Simon Van Booy — 256 pgs

Love Begins in Winter: Five Stories (P.S.)In this superb collection of five stories, Simon Van Booy gives his readers a perpetually moving and emotionally complex ride as he examines several individuals and the relationships that change their lives. First we meet a famous cello player whose loneliness and singularity is abandoned one fleeting moment after a chance meeting with a beautiful and contemplative woman in the titular story, Love Begins in Winter. Next we fall into the midst of a relationship between a young couple who are decidedly against marriage after dually witnessing the death throes of an emotionally starved relationship in the story Tiger, Tiger. Later we travel to Las Vegas where a young boy and his mother are exposed to the tender ministrations of a stranger when they are abandoned for a night of ill-fated gambling in The Missing Statues. Next we’re taken into the fevered heart of a young male gypsy living in rural Ireland as he tries to arrange a chance meeting with the woman of his dreams in the tale The Coming and Going of Strangers. The set concludes with The City of Windy Trees, in which a man named George Frack gets some unexpected and life-changing news with the arrival of a mysterious letter. With Van Booy’s subtle wit and grace, his stories come alive to touch readers in the unexpected soft places of their hearts, proving that the offerings in this collection can be at once provocative and moving.

Every year I make a resolution to read more short story collections, and every year I fail miserably. Though my intentions are noble, I always seem to shy away from picking up these types of books off my shelf. Part of the reason I feel so reluctant to dip into short stories is the very nature of their construction. At times, they are just too short for me to really get a feel for the characters and situations that they attempt to house. Last year, I had an unexpected and delighted reaction to Deborah Willis’ short story collection Vanishing, and since reading it, I’ve been more open to the possibility of involving myself in more short story collections. I figure if Willis’ can be that good, there have to be others that I would appreciate as well. Well, I have to admit that I found another star in Simon Van Booy, and now I think I’m back on the short story wagon!

Van Booy has a way with the short story, let me tell you. Each offering in this collection is stylistically distinct, with some stories being verbally sparse and enigmatic, and others leaving little emotion to the imagination. The titular story, Love Begins in Winter, had a very French feel to it and was quietly understated while still maintaining a stunning impact. I liked the way all Van Booy’s words and scenes evoked a place and time that was to me unfamiliar, but was the perfect home for his characters. Each story highlighted a longing and desire of a different kind, and though most of the tales had a touch of melancholy about them, they weren’t overwhelmingly sad. All the stories ended on a note of hope, even the strange Tiger, Tiger, which had a twist that I could scarcely believe. And now that I think to categorize it, each of these stories had a subtle twist to them, giving them a little more pizazz and sparkle than your ordinary short story.

My favorite story in this collection was definitely The City of Windy Trees. Because of its intense subject matter and the elegant way it was handled, I found my eyes welling up at its climax. It was a touching and bittersweet story, with gentle and eccentric characters who found themselves in a very odd position. I marveled at the way Van Booy created this piece, gently stacking layer upon layer of meaning into a structure of heartbreak and redemption that made its way unerringly towards my heart. Though the other stories were excellent as well, Trees evoked emotions in me that felt carefully orchestrated and complex. And that’s one of the beautiful things about Van Booy’s writing. Though it’s not maudlin or depressing, it creates a host of strong emotions in the reader by gently drawing on emotions that all of us can understand and relate to. It’s rare for me to feel so enamored of a short story collection, but by the end of the book, I felt very close to the characters I was reading about, and though we hadn’t spent a lot of page space together, I contemplated them for hours after I closed the book.

One of the reasons Van Booy is so successful in these stories is because he’s not afraid to show his characters in various stages of emotional undress. Their sadness and their joy is palpable and clear, and in many cases, it’s the source of the complexity that I spoke of earlier. Things don’t always go as planned for these characters, and because of that, their natural and organic reactions to their circumstances become focal points. Any author can create a man in love, but few can make his reader ache for the man as he watches his beloved through a thick pane of glass in the window. Another thing I liked was Van Booy’s decision to take some of his stories in unexpected directions. I felt that this gave a lot of depth and relevance to the stories themselves, and created layers of meaning that would otherwise have been neglected. It seemed to be done very casually, but the effect was one that deeply rooted me into the tales themselves.

If you are a reluctant reader of short stories, I would definitely recommend Love Begins in Winter to you. Far from being pointless and dry, these stories call up great stores of emotion and pin them securely against the framework of interesting and compelling narratives that you are unlikely to find parallelled anywhere else. I’m a new fan of Van Booy’s writing, and because of his clever extrapolation of events and emotions, I’ll be looking forward to reading more from this talented young author. A great collection that might just revitalize your interest in the short story. Highly recommended.

Author Photo About the Author

Simon Van Booy grew up in rural Wales. He is the author of The Secret Lives of People in Love and Love Begins in Winter, which won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. He is the editor of three philosophy books, titled Why We Fight, Why We Need Love, and Why Our Decisions Don’t Matter, and his essays have appeared in the New York Times, The Daily Telegraph, and The Guardian, and on NPR. He lives in New York City, where he teaches at the School of Visual Arts and is involved in the Rutgers Early College Humanities program for young adults living in underserved communities. He was a finalist for the Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise, and his work has been translated into thirteen different languages.

Visit Simon at his website. You can also like him on Facebook and follow him on 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:

Wednesday, July 6th:Raging Bibliomania (Love Begins in Winter)
Thursday, July 7th:Books Like Breathing (Everything Beautiful Began After)
Monday, July 11th:Life In Review (Everything Beautiful Began After)
Tuesday, July 12th:Books Like Breathing (Love Begins in Winter)
Wednesday, July 13th:Rundpinne (Everything Beautiful Began After)
Thursday, July 14th:The House of the Seven Tails (Everything Beautiful Began After)
Monday, July 18th:Luxury Reading (Everything Beautiful Began After)
Tuesday, July 19th:“That’s Swell!” (Everything Beautiful Began After)
Wednesday, July 20th:Book-a-rama (Everything Beautiful Began After)
Thursday, July 21st:Bibliophiliac (The Secret Lives of People in Love)
Firday, July 22nd:Chaotic Compendiums (Love Begins in Winter)
Monday, July 25th:Regular Rumination (Love Begins in Winter)
Tuesday, July 26th:Caribousmom (Everything Beautiful Began After)
Wednesday, July 27th:Books Like Breathing (The Secret Lives of People in Love)
Thursday, July 28th:Unabridged Chick (Everything Beautiful Began After)
Tuesday, August 2nd:A Bookish Way of Life (Everything Beautiful Began After)
Wednesday, August 3rd:Steph and Tony Investigate (The Secret Lives of People in Love)
Monday, August 8th:In the Next Room (The Secret Lives of People in Love)
Tuesday, August 9th:In the Next Room (Love Begins in Winter)
Wednesday, August 10th:In the Next Room (Everything Beautiful Began After)
Wednesday, August 10th:My Reading Room (Everything Beautiful Began After)
Thursday, August 11th:Books and Movies (The Secret Lives of People in Love)
Friday, August 12th:My Two Blessings (Everything Beautiful Began After)

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Forbidden by Tabitha Suzuma — 464 pgs

ForbiddenSeventeen year old Lochan and his sister Maya, who is a year younger, have a very difficult life. Since their mother has for all intents and purposes abandoned her family, the two older teens are responsible for taking care of not only each other, but their three younger siblings. Lochan and Maya are not only beset by the pressures of raising a family while still attending high school, they are also socially adrift, and in Lochan’s case filled with a hefty dose of social anxiety. As the children’s mother drunkenly flits in and out of their lives, Lochan and Maya find themselves responsible for more and more of the younger children’s care. But raising children isn’t an easy job, what with 13 year old Kit becoming more and more of a delinquent and young Tiffin beginning to follow in Kit’s footsteps. Then there’s 5 year old Willa, darling and precocious but also demanding of a lot of time and attention. As Lochan and Maya are subsumed into their role of surrogate parents, they find themselves beginning to feel a strange love and attachment to one another and embark on a dangerous and illicit relationship that is not only severely taboo, but that consumes them and puts their entire family at risk. Refusing to give each other up and crossing more and more lines of normalcy and propriety than they ever imagined, Maya and Lochan become mired in a complicated web of emotion and physical hunger that will shatter not only their lives, but the lives of those that depend on them. Stunning in it’s implications and realities, Forbidden tackles a subject that is mired in controversy and shares the story of two teens who are in way over their heads.

When I saw this book reviewed over on Amy’s blog a few weeks ago, I was alternately a bit disgusted and fascinated. Incest isn’t a topic I’ve read much about, and due to social mores and ethics, not a lot of books seem to feature plots that center around this phenomenon either. It was an emotionally complex book to read, and where I did find the sections that dealt with the teenage brother and sister having to morph into parents due to the absence of their mother complex and interesting, the sections that dealt with the physical relationship between them were almost surreal. It was the kind of book that made me uncomfortable and fidgety, and even though I finished it in one sitting, I’m not quite sure how I feel about the book as a whole.

I think part of the reason the relationship between Maya and Lochan came about was due to the very abnormal situation they had going on at home. Their mother was a laughable excuse for an authority figure, and most of the time she appears on the page, she is drunk and acting irresponsibly. Lochan must constantly fight with her to support the family monetarily and all the children seem like they’re more emotionally balanced when she’s not there. This leaves a gaping hole where parental figures should be, and Lochan and Maya seem to step right in and become the surrogates that the family needs to survive. It’s interesting to note that the situation they are in doesn’t escape the two teenagers’ attention, and later, after they’ve embarked on a course of forbidden encounters, they question what part their strange family circumstances play in their ever widening spiral of unwholesome desire. As they begin to question the motives behind their desire, they admit to themselves that one component of it may have to do with their strange upbringing and continually fractured family life.

The sections that dealt head-on with the incest between Lochan and Maya seemed at times to be strangely romanticized, and for that reason, a lot of it was off-putting. Where one of them wanted to bound ahead physically, the other was much more concerned with the propriety and the illicit nature of the relationship. It was painful to read about just how much these two people desired each other and how wrong it was for them to do so. The situation reminded me a lot of the plight that the main characters in Flowers in the Attic faced, though here the practicalities seemed more dire and all-consuming. At certain points in the book, the two reflect on why what they are doing is wrong but they never seem to be able to stop themselves, and predictably they take their relationship past social norms and boundaries that eventually put them at great risk. It was all very… odd. Though I found their regard and passion for each other to be plausible, it just seemed so alien and strange that these two siblings were so carelessly crossing over the border into the taboo, especially when only one of them could see the danger. In the end, things begin to crumble rapidly between Lochan and Maya, forcing them to deal with their unwholesome desires in a very public way.

I’m not exactly sure what the point of this book was. Was it attempting to be titillating to the adolescent set, or was it more of a cautionary tale? Was it as uncomfortable for the author to create as it was for the observer to read? And why is it that this taboo is so formidable that even reading about it or contemplating it is so uncomfortable for most people? In the end, the matter of consensual incest is a topic that not only inflames and draws lines in the sand, but one that, in this book at least, provides a credible story that involves heartbreak, repression and guilt. It’s the kind of book that dares you to look away and makes you feel sort of squiky reading or discussing it. I can say that this book prompted a lot of conversation between my husband and myself, and that may be the point after all. Despite its exploration of these deeply socially abnormal behaviors, I would have to say the book was written in a respectful and unapologetic fashion.

Since this is a topic that’s not dealt with much in YA literature, I’m unsure as to whether or not to give a thumbs up to this particular book. I do think that if you’re interested in exploring this very alien topic this would be the book to go for. It takes a hard look at a subject that doesn’t get much play, and for good reason, I think. While the book made me uncomfortable at times, it also got me thinking about the issue in a different way and it challenged me on a moral as well as ethical level. So, in essence, I would have to say that this book, while being a little emotionally snarling at times, is definitely worth your time. A very unique and interesting read.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Spousonomics: Using Economics to Master Love, Marriage, and Dirty Dishes by Paula Szuchman & Jenny Anderson — 352 pgs

Spousonomics: Using Economics to Master Love, Marriage, and Dirty DishesIn this new and revolutionary self-help book, authors Szuchman and Anderson tackle the problems of marriage in a way that has never been considered before. What if you could organize your marriage and make it better by applying the principles of economics to one of the most personal relationships in your life? Sound kind of boring? Well, surprisingly, it’s not boring at all. Keeping everything at a layman’s level, the authors explain how game theory can bust through any argument you may be having and how division of labor can help you get out of doing the most awful and time-consuming chores. They explain how to use incentives to get what you want and what happens when one spouse has more information about a subject under discussion than the other. They teach us about moral hazard and why it can be a killer to any marriage, and why intertemporal choice is so important to healthy and happy marriages. In all of these sections, they interview real couples and get down to the nitty-gritty with each of them to discuss what’s gone wrong and how to fix it. Did I mention that this book is also very funny? Because it is, and not just funny, it will make you think about marriage in a way you’ve never thought about it before. Whether you are newly married or have been married for several years, Spousonomics is a refreshing and interesting way to look at life with your partner, and to maybe help get him to do the dishes once in awhile.

I have to admit that I’m a bit of a geek when it comes to economics, but it’s been awhile since I’ve studied it, and for all intents and purposes, most of the information I once had is very rusty or has flown the coop altogether. That’s one of the reasons I had mixed feelings about reading and reviewing this book. Would it be dry and dusty, the way I sometimes remember studying economics being? Or would it go over my head now that I’ve forgotten all that I had learned? There was no need for me to worry though, because this book hit it out of the park on all levels. It was smart enough to get its point across, even to people who may know nothing about economics, and it was funny and personable enough to catch my interest from the very beginning.

Each chapter begins with a different economic principle and breaks it down in a digestible and clear way that anyone can understand. Often a colorful example of how this principle works is shared as well. Then we get to the good stuff: the couple interviews. Each section shares the story of three different couples and how they met. Many of these couples are offbeat and strange, making this a very interesting reading experience. Each couple has a big problem relating to the economic principle being discussed and each of them finally gets a solution after having laid it all out on the line. I liked this approach a lot, because lets face it, I’m a bit of a voyeur when it comes to other people’s relationships and I like to see how different people act within the confines of their marriages. It was interesting to get to see how the assorted couples had been dealing with their problems and how they could become better communicators and partners based on some simple principles of economics that are clear and easy to understand.

I liked this book a lot, and aside from the pleasure I got from getting a birds-eye view into several marriages and the laugh out loud moments of humor that were scattered throughout, I found that a lot of these principles were relevant to me and could help me in some ways. And it’s not that I have an awful marriage. Just like anyone’s relationship, there are things that could be more smooth and areas where I would like either my spouse or I to improve. And that’s the thing about this book. There is no blame or shame attached to these solutions. These are not people in the serious throes of relationship hell. In fact, they’re people just like you or me. People trying to maximize the time spent together versus the time spent on chores. People who have different priorities about money or who want to make more time for sex. In a clear and universal way, this book seeks to make all these things easier for you, and to enlighten you about a few things you may have never thought about. It’s a heady combination of exposés that delve deeply into the relationships between several couples, and an instruction manual that will let even the most timid and shy partner take control in their marriage.

One of the things I liked best was the book’s sly conversational feel and its no-nonsense approach to some of the problems that any couple could face. Reading this book felt like sitting with a couple of very smart and funny women who had a competitive edge in the field of marriage and who didn’t mind sharing it with me. It was a refreshingly honest approach, and there was no talk of man-caves or any of that other silliness. Just a principle, an example and a solution underscored with variations or helpful tips. The book took instructive relationship advice to a new level that any smart woman would be eager to read and apply. It was a lot of fun to read for a lot of reasons, and without man-bashing, (or woman-bashing for that matter) it taught some very interesting techniques that seem to be useful and easy to apply.

I had a great time with this book, and perhaps it was the high level of humor that made me feel like this wasn’t your average self-help book. It had wit and sparkle while still being helpful and unique. Who knew that economic principles and relationships could intersect in this way, and who knew that I would find it so entertaining? If you’re looking for a great book that deals with relationships in a rational, and more importantly, sane way, this book is probably your best bet. I think a lot of readers will be surprised at how much good information is passed along and how fun it can be to peek into the lives of men and women who are just like us, but subtly different. I can heartily recommend this book for a lot of reasons, but the main reason is that it’s just plain fun. Recommended.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.
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