Friday, December 21, 2012

The Raven’s Heart by Jesse Blackadder — 464 pgs

Alison Blackadder has lived in the shadows for years. Given by her father into the service of Mary Queen of Scots when she was but a child, Alison lives as Robert, a serving boy. This gender deception has gone on since Alison’s early days, for as one of the last surviving Blackadders, she is next in line to inherit a castle that has been overtaken by the Hume clan. As long as no living Hume knows of Alison’s existence she is safe; but life at the castle proves to be more inveigling than she had first thought. Powerless against Queen Mary’s charm, Alison is soon unmasked as a female. This delights the queen, who wants to learn to dress as a man and go about freely into her territory. When Alison finds love with another servant, she soon realizes just how entrapped she has become to the queen, and when eventually Lord Bothwell, a great friend of her father’s, comes to court, Alison becomes the plaything of a man more wise to ruse than she is. Soon, it seems that Alison isn’t safe anywhere, especially the castle, and when the border lords begin to clamor for war, they are aided by the queen’s new scheming husband. Though there are two people who vie for the queen’s trust, there is only one that is true to her, and in her guise of spy, servant, reveler, courtesan and young woman, Alison risks her life again and again defying the Humes to preserve her right to the stolen castle. But soon the risk becomes too great for her to shoulder alone. Will she agree to align with the enemy to protect the queen she is so enchanted with? In this dramatically tense and powerfully rendered tale, a young woman must disguise and unmask her heart over and over again to secure the fate of her captor, the unlucky Mary of Scots.

It’s been awhile since I’ve really felt invested in historical fiction as a genre. The last two were probably Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. It was with pleasure and intense enjoyment that I read Jesse Blackadder’s tale of one heroic girl tangled in the spiderweb of the Scottish court. I have to say that this was an unusual tale, and some of what I will share in my review was novel to me. I grew to be very invested in Alison’s story and the magic with which Blackadder told it.

First off, I must mention that this is the first time I have ever read a historical fiction book where the lead character was a bisexual woman. Alison, forced to grow up as a boy, grew also with the lusts of a boy. It was clear to me that she was totally besotted with the queen, and though others came into and out of her heart and bed, the queen was her enchantress again and again. Theirs was a chaste love, but it was powerful nevertheless. When Alison firsts realizes that she can never attain and possess the queen as she wishes she could, she takes another lover of the same sex, and the two embark on a tragically short lived but passionate affair. Later, Alison takes a male lover and revels in the similarities as well as the vast differences. I liked seeing that the author bent the lines when it came to the sexuality of her main character. It was different, and gave the tale a more vivid and replete feeling.

I was touched deeply by the winding wrenches of Alison’s heart. Her dilemmas were excruciating and exacting, but never did she waver in her loyalty to her kin or to her queen. This left her very open to manipulation, though she herself could never see it, or believe it. Most of the people that Alison interacted with were merciless in exploiting the boy in her, and the girl in her, never stopping to see that beyond all this, she was a person with deep feelings and a very passionate nature, be it in her hate or in her love. The agonizing tale of Mary Queen of Scots was told through Alison's love-clouded eyes, and while the queen was tormented, Alison was haunted.

The last bit of this tale that I found extraordinary was Alison’s loyalty to her father: a man who had forsaken her and repeatedly tried to hurt and disengage from her. He was on the wrong side of a losing battle, yet he too, was loyal where most men wouldn’t be. His desire to once again be the owner of Blackadder castle caused a lot of tension and reprehensible feelings to be passed from one family member to another. In my heart, I believe that all Alison wanted was her father’s love, but his blood-clouded eyes could see no further than the stone that made the castle walls. In the end, his misbegotten affections were no balm for our heroine, as she had paid so dearly to hear them aloud.

I loved this book for its bravery in placing a bisexaul character into a historical setting and for its free flowing lucidity in what was a bizarre situation. Those who aren’t familiar with the story of Mary Queen of Scots will revel in this tale for its brashness and uniqueness, and those who have heard of the fate of the queen before will see it anew from the vantage point of a character who will wring every drop of compassion from their hearts. Highly recommended.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Overseas by Beatriz Williams — Audiobook Review

Recorded by Penguin Audio
Narrated by January LaVoy
Length: 15 Hours 49 minutes

Kate Wilson is a small time player in the financial industry. Often overlooked and overworked, Kate has found some stability in her life, until the day that Wall Street tycoon Julian Lawrence sees her and begins to woo her in a most strange manner. At first Kate is flattered by the attention. Julian, a handsome Englishman, has sharp instincts, a winning and affable manner, and enough charm to melt any woman’s heart—but not Kate’s. When Julian steps in one night to rescue Kate from a dangerous situation, Kate’s walls begin to come down with creaking slowness. It seems like this was a match made in the stars to Julian, who hides a secret so deep that he may never be able to share it with Kate. With danger around every corner, Julian and Kate become the most dashing couple to have ever made it into the high society rag mags. But what Julian is not telling Kate may threaten not only what they are building, but their lives and honor as well.

Meanwhile, threaded into this tale is a dual narrative that begins on a rainy day in France during the first World War, when a woman literally falls into the arms of a celebrated poet and infantry captain, spinning a tale for him that is almost impossible to be believed. But when the lives of the future depend on a betrayal from the past, things begin to look bleak for the lovers in both narratives. If Julian dares to reveal his secret to Kate, he might lose her forever, but if the woman from the past cannot make her message mean something, all may be lost before it ever begins. In this tale of supernatural and spellbinding romance, a great and terrible responsibility rests on the fates of two lovers who are bound in more ways than one can ever dream.

I’m not normally a reader of romance, and going into this book, I hadn’t expected to find so much romantic tension in the story line. I went in expecting to find secrets and hidden agendas, fated meetings and magic. I got all that, and I even enjoyed it, but the romantic angles of this story just weren’t my cup of tea. I believe that one should at least try all genres before dismissing them, and I haven’t exactly dismissed romance on the whole, but for me this story struck me as more bland due to the heavy romantic elements. I am at odds with it. On the one hand, I can see romance lovers eating this book up, but for those out there who don’t consider themselves ripe for a novel that hinges on love might feel a bit cheated.

I also didn’t think the choice of narrator was right. At times, listening to January LaVoy reading this book became overwhelmingly saccharine. Hearing her vocalizing some of the passionate moments of the book made me feel a little dirty, because folks, she sure puts on a show. I did like the vocalization style that she used for Julian and some of his mates, but for me, the performance from the point of view of Kate turned me off. It was distracting, and I think that an older and more subdued female narrator would have been a better choice. Perhaps it was the material, but her groans of ecstasy made me cringe a little bit.

While I enjoyed the dual narratives, like many of the books that I read that feature them, I preferred the historical sections to the modern sections and was a little annoyed to find that this plotline seemed to always come second, as though it was an afterthought. I wanted more depth to the historical side and it just wasn’t there. Maybe that was the reason I couldn’t buy into the sections that were happening in the present. I’ve read some greatly constructed romantic leads, but usually the ones I prefer take a bit of a backseat to the plot. In this case, they were on full display and very passionate. To me, it just felt a bit amatuer. I like romance in the correct proportions, but when the whole book is chock-full of barely restrained libidos, things don’t quite work for me.

If you walk into this book knowing very certainly that you are reading what is a straight romance, I would have to admit that you would be fully satisfied. But, if like me, you need more meat in your stories and more structure to your tales, this book might be a bitter pill to swallow. In the end, I accepted it for what it was and was okay with it, however, the narration didn’t suit me.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Through Violet Eyes by Stephen Woodworth — 368 pgs

In this story of an alternate universe much like our own, society comes in two forms: the regular population and the Violets. It’s not only the Violet's uniquely colored eyes that set them apart, but their ability to contact the deceased through the intense power of their minds. They are groomed and educated away from the rest of society and do not mix well with the general population. But there are times when they become very useful, for the testimony of a Violet in a murder investigation or trial is irrefutable and damning, to say the least. Into this world comes the strange union between Dan Atwater, an FBI agent, and Natalie Lindstrom, a particularly reclusive Violet. When Atwater discovers that someone is brutally murdering the Violets, the government who finds them so indispensable wants answers and attaches him to Natalie to solve these puzzling crimes. Though Natalie at first objects, she finds that a stronger part of herself wants justice for the murders of her friends and agrees to work with Atwater. As the two creep closer and closer to the truth, they uncover some very strange similarities among the murders, and also find a new but cautious respect for one another. But soon the situation gets out of hand, and Natalie and agent Atwater are forced to investigate the people they are trying to protect. In this gripping and original thriller, Woodworth melds the aspects of a unique dystopia, where the hunters become the hunted.

I don't really read many of these types of books. For some reason, thrillers just don't excite me, and a lot of the time, I can see right through them. When my previous book club decided on something just a little bit creepy, I thought this might be a book worth taking a look at. It is a thriller, but it doesn't fall into the category of a procedural, and it also has some paranormal elements to it. Keeping the paranormal elements in mind, I found that I was pleasantly surprised by this book and might actually seek out more in this series.

First off, I found the Violets to be a really clever creation by Woodworth. They are not mentally like other humans, and because of the work they do, they must be physically altered as well. Most of them are shaved bald and tattooed in order to have better access to pressure points on their heads that are fit with electrodes while they are at work, and all of them have the most hypnotizing violet eyes. They are a pretty anti-social group, but really, you can't blame them for that, as the government seeks them out at birth and basically controls their education, family lives and careers. There is a lot of vague threatening on the government's behalf when it comes to the Violets. There’s no doubt that the the government considers them a form of property—an advanced set of bloodhounds, if you will. All of this makes the Violets pretty bitter people, and even when they are forced to do their jobs, they are mostly petulant and sarcastic.

The ball really gets rolling fast with this story, and the first scene is one of horror, as a young Violet girl is brutally murdered. When it comes to tracking this killer down, things get sketchy. First off, there is no evidence to collect, and when Natalie makes a connection with the murdered girl, the investigators find that the girl didn't actually see her killer. This is a problem, as a first hand account cannot be obtained. After more investigation, Atwater and Natalie realize that more than half the population of Violets have been murdered in a similar fashion, and information is scant.

One of the most interesting aspects of the Violets and their talents is the view of the afterlife that is presented to them. It seems that once your body dies, your soul goes into a black and undefined space that lacks any exit. The soul is confined there, fruitlessly trying to find release, and can only be delivered from the darkness once the Violet has made contact and has let the dead speak through them. I found this to be pretty bleak, as this seemed to be the most common fate of the people in this world. Woodworth does make mention of the fact that some souls find a way to pass on, but the majority of them are trapped. This causes problems for the Violets because they are the only ones who really know what happens after death, and creates a fear of their impending imprisonment and darkness in the void of their afterlife.

Though I saw the love story in this book coming a mile off, I still ended up enjoying aspects of it. Mainly that was because Atwater and Natalie seemed so different and it wasn't until much later on that their personalities became complimentary. I was actually surprised at how much I liked them as a couple and was a little disappointed by the direction that the story took in the later sections of the book. Natalie was really no-nonsense and Atwater pestered and cajoled her out of her ill humor most of the time, but it wasn't until later that I saw the sparks between them that could lead to something more. It was a restrained love affair, that's for sure, but one that I felt was well deserved. There wasn't a lot of sex in this story, which made it seem a little more genuine to me, and as the two lovers came together, there was a sense of shared bonding in horrific circumstances.

Though I wasn't really happy with the ending of this book, I did find the majority of it pretty interesting. There was a great sense of urgency to the plot, and aside from the flimsy dialogue and the plain writing, I ended up enjoying it a lot more than I had expected to. There were some great twists in the story that propelled things very nicely, and what the book lost in artfulness, it gained in creativity. If you are looking for a paranormal thriller that doesn't involve vampires, werewolves or fairies, this might make a good read for you!

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

A Good Man Says Goodbye

A lot of you may have noticed that I was absent from your blogs for a few days last week, and unfortunately it was not a holiday I had planned. My step-father, William “Bill” Fricke, passed away in the early morning hours on Wednesday after a long battle with cancer. He was a good man, beloved by his children, Katherine and Matthew, and the love of my mother’s life. He loved me and my brother too and treated us like his own children, always smiling and hugging, always loving each of us with intensity and pride. Bill did many things and was an expert at all of them. He was a winemaker, a winner of the chili cookoff, ( and incidentally, he taught me that real chili from Texas doesn’t have beans! Who knew?) he was an expert chef, and served in the military. He had many friends and coworkers who knew him as a genuine and humorously cantankerous comrade. He was a member of Atlanta’s Koi Club and built a beautiful pond for my mother, filled with some of the most beautiful fish in the world. But most of all, he was a proud and honorable man who always did the right thing. He fought this illness for fifteen years and was in remission for eight. He underwent a stem cell transplant two years ago, receiving the cells from Mark, his brother, who was a perfect match. His sister Connie was one of his favorite people to talk to. As we all go along our merry way for the holidays, my wish is that you send healing prayers to my mother and his family. There is no doubt that he made it to the gates of heaven, and though he said he had to polish a few stars, he one day wanted to become an archangel. Raise a glass to this amazing man tonight, for though he is now silent, his words and wisdom live on in all the people that he so graciously loved.

I leave you with this poem, which I give to all the people who have touched Bill’s life:

I Am Always With You

When I am gone, release me, let me go.
I have so many things to see and do,
You mustn't tie yourself to me with too many tears,
But be thankful we had so many good years.
I gave you my love, and you can only guess
How much you've given me in happiness.
I thank you for the love that you have shown,
But now it is time I traveled on alone.
So grieve for me a while, if grieve you must
Then let your grief be comforted by trust
That it is only for a while that we must part,
So treasure the memories within your heart.
I won't be far away for life goes on.
And if you need me, call and I will come.
Though you can't see or touch me, I will be near
And if you listen with your heart, you'll hear
All my love around you soft and clear
And then, when you come this way alone,
I'll greet you with a smile and a "Welcome Home."

I love you, Bill. May God open his arms wide for you, and give you the peace you deserve.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn — 254 pgs

Camille Preaker hides her damaged soul and ravaged body well. As she works diligently as a journalist at a failing newspaper, she hides more than she tells. When two young girls from Camille’s hometown are brutally murdered, her boss and mentor sends her back home—back where it all began. For Camille, home doesn’t mean good times and friendly faces; it means facing demons that she thought she put to rest years ago. Her mother, an aging beauty, has a heart like a faucet: one minute warm and expressive, the next cold and bitter. Camille also has a sister that was born five years before she left town and who doesn’t know of her troubled past. But this sister and mother are more than what they appear to be, and the sickness that almost devoured Camille runs rampant and unchecked in them. They are all broken dolls, living a life that looks perfect on the outside but that hides malevolent secrets. As Camille investigates the two strangely similar deaths, she unwittingly begins circling the drain, wondering just where she went wrong. Something is not right in that town, and in a place that she once called home, she will have to face the last of her demons as they rip through the community, plunging it headlong into destruction. The secretive residents of Wind Gap are full of more darkness than light, and they may be harboring a brutal killer in their midst. In this tale of unmitigated wickedness, Gillian Flynn once again takes her readers for a hell of a ride and leaves them holding the tatters of a community that has seen violence like no other.

After reading Gone Girl, I knew that I was going to read all of Gillian Flynn’s backlist. I was so happy that my book club decided to pick this novel for its December meeting. I needed no cajoling to go out and get this book, and in fact I yelped in delight when I found out it was picked. I may have been a bit hasty with that yelp, because this had to be one of the most twisted and strange books that I have ever read. When I reached the middle, I had to put the book down between chapters because it was so raw and powerful. Sad, strange, gripping: these are just the beginning of the adjectives that could apply to this book. It was feral and wild and dark in ways that I never expected.

Camille is a head-down worker bee, always on the lookout for a good story that will elevate her career and get a jump on the other reporters. Though she works alone and has few friends, she does have a mentor who wants to see her succeed. But even the idea of sending her to Wind Gap seems crazily illogical to Camille, for reasons that are as yet undiscovered. Camille is a recovered cutter, and words blaze across her hidden skin like wildfire in the night. Very few people know this about her, and she is excellent at hiding it, but her words begin to itch and come alive as soon as she hits Wind Gap. While she is a former cutter, she still hangs on to a thread of that vice, making her delicate and malleable to nefarious forces beyond her control.

The interplay between mother and daughter is fraught with tension and a confusing mesh of instability. Adora Preaker is a woman who is flawed beyond comprehension. There is a deep absence of love between mother and daughter that Camille has never understood, and as she creeps closer and closer to finding the girls’ killer, she also learns that her relationship with her mother is like a cancer, eating away all that is clean and whole in her. Adora clearly has favorites, and Camille is certainly not one of them. I was surprised that Flynn took her characters to the precipice and let them drop. Not one ounce of gruesomeness was spared, be it of the carnal, mental or physical variety. This book treads on the thin line of insanity, tipping over drunkenly into Camille’s horrific past.

The most interesting character in this tale was Camille’s younger sister, Amma. She is force of nature, and not in a good way. The leader of a pack of vicious high school blondes who terrorize the school and the residents of Wind Gap, Amma is uncannily coercive and flamboyantly proud of it. She rules not only in the word of adolescents but is equally feared by the adults. While Camille is on the hunt for the murderer, Amma is happily striking horror into the hearts of those less glamorous and fortunate than she. But being the daughter of the wealthiest scion of the small town, Amma goes unchecked, power dancing wildly from her delicate fingers like a slashing rain in the night. She is every girl you ever feared all rolled into one, but there is fear in her as well as around her.

This is not a book for the weak of stomach. Its debauchery is flagrant and vividly powerful. It’s a story that I can’t forget, and a tale that gave me the sweats while I was reading it. Gillian Flynn is a master at forging a story that had me on tenterhooks from the very first line, and her haunting denouement brought chills to my skin. For the brave and the intrigued, this book is a masterpiece of malevolence brought to you by an author who can craft a story that seeps into your brain like a vile worm. Highly disturbing, but recommended.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Bent Road by Lori Roy — 368 pgs

When African-American boys begin calling on his teenage daughter, Elaine, after the race riots in Detroit, Arthur Scott decides to take action and move his family back to the small city in Kansas that he left many years ago. His wife, Celia, and son, Daniel, are not happy about the move, but the youngest child, Evie, is rather excited by this proposed new life. After arriving in Kansas, Arthur is reunited with his sister Ruth, who is married to the enigmatic Ray. But the Scott family is plagued by secrets, the first being the death of Arthur and Ruth’s sister Eve. No one wants to talk about the night they found her bleeding to death in the shed, and though Celia struggles to gather information, she is closed off at every avenue. Along with that horrible secret, there seems to be something going on between Ruth and Ray that Ruth would rather not share with anyone. When push comes to shove and the family must eventually deal with that calamity, life for the Scotts is forever changed. Adding to the secretiveness of the Scott clan is the fact that a young girl has gone missing in the town, and while efforts are being made to find her, suspicion rears it’s ugly head to strike many unlikely people. Soon the town begins to suspect that Eve’s earlier murder and the missing girl are tied together in some way, and unraveling the past and the present just might tear the Scotts apart. Written with gothic energy and dark resonance, Bent Road is a triumphant debut from promising author Lori Roy, and explores the difficult ties that family holds on each one of us.

This was a book that kept me guessing. Though I was constantly trying to work the puzzle pieces of the narrative into something that made a full picture, Roy kept pulling out new and strange revelations that swept me off my feet, and the landscape of the story kept morphing and changing. I really didn’t expect to be engrossed with all of these revelations, but like a master, Roy continued to reveal more and more of her characters and their motivations in sharp bursts and revealing asides. One of the things I most loved about this book was that it was so evocative and atmospheric. From the attitudes of the townsfolk to the images of chicken and dumplings cooking away on the stove, Roy evokes a clear picture of life in late 60s Kansas. It was interesting to me because I hadn’t read much about that time and place before, but after having finished the book, I felt as if I had been there, watching the action take place in all its surroundings of darkness and light.

The writing in this book was also pretty amazing. Roy seems to be expert at creating the scene with her words, and even the cadence and flow of the writing shifts from viewpoint to viewpoint, which was not only effective but also felt highly skilled. Roy also manages to create her characters in wonderful definition and each one of them had believable interactions, behaviors and motives. From Celia’s passive-aggressive actions towards her mother-in-law to the unsure and changing reflections of Daniel, all these characters had the flavor of real people caught in the confines of some very difficult and dangerous situations. I liked that Roy never revealed in one fell swoop what she could deliver in little bites throughout the narrative. As more and more is revealed about the Scott family and their past, age old grievances and shocking secrets begin to come out of the woodwork, and the developing picture is startling, to say the least. In addition, Roy has a gift for dialogue as well. In her book, the characters speak with crispness and curtness, making everything that comes out of their mouths more meaningful and strangely more cutting. Roy doesn’t waste time with verbal dalliance, preferring to be direct and straightforward with her characters’ dialogue.

The only problem I had with this story was that despite its bits of brilliance, the plot felt flat at times, and there was very little hope to what was eventually a story of brokenness and sadness. Roy does a great job with scene setting and character, but I would have loved the tale a lot more if it had flashed just a little happiness amid the mire of ungainly sadness. When I got the chance to hear Roy speak about her book, she was very forthcoming about the the way this story was written and how she created her characters. And she convinced me that instead of this being a gothic novel, it was more down home south. Our book club had the pleasure of speaking to her, and though there were some technical difficulties, Lori was able to answer all of our questions and share her impressions on our reflections with us.

This is a book that I enjoyed but didn’t totally lose myself in due to the sadness and heaviness of the plot. While there were things about it that I didn’t care for, I do think that Roy displays an excellent grasp of character and a finesse with her plotting that you don’t often see. I think that if I had read this book at another time, I might have walked away with a different opinion. Roy sure has the method of atmosphere down pat, and I was excited to hear that she is working on a new novel that is due out soon.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Field to Feast: A Moveable Blog Tour — Side Dishes

This year at SIBA, I had the great fortune to meet and speak with Pam Brandon, Katie Farmlad and Heather McPherson, the authors of Field to Feast. Sandy, Heather, Jill and I decided to run a week’s worth of foodie posts on this book because it’s an incredible look into the foods that Florida produces, processes and prepares. This is not your average cookbook. Each recipe is brought to you by a farm, chef or restaurant that resides in Florida. If you follow the tour in order, you’ll have a complete meal by the end of the week. Sandy started us off with the drinks and appetizers, which were mouth-watering and easy to create, then we hopped over to Heather’s blog for our main course. I’m up next with two side dishes that are both very different but wonderful to both the palate and the wallet.

First up, I chose to make the Roasted Broccoli with Lemon and Parmesan, courtesy of Full Earth Farm located in Quincy, Florida. This recipe is very easy to make and the finished product looks and tastes incredible!

Roasted Broccoli with Lemon and Parmesan
Serves 4
  • 1 large or 2 small heads of broccoli
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • ½ teaspoon coarse salt
  • ½  teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
  • 1 lemon zested and juiced
  • ½ cup shaved Parmesan cheese
1) Preheat oven to 425, and Line a baking sheet with parchment paper; set aside

2) separate broccoli crown and stalk. Cut crown into bite sized florets. Peel stalk with a vegetable peeler and cut into ½ inch thick strips.

3) Toss florets and stalk strips with oil in a large bowl. Add salt and toss to coat. Pour broccoli onto prepared baking sheet

4) Roast 20 minutes, tossing once or twice, until broccoli is tender and dark brown in places.

5) Transfer roasted brocoli into a large bowl. Add pepper, lemon zest, and 1 teaspoon of lemon juice. Toss to combine. Transfer broccoli into a serving bowl and top with shaved Parmesan.

It’s really a very easy recipe, and the shaved Parmesan can be substituted for grated, which is what we did. I had a friend over helping me cook these dishes and she couldn’t keep her hands out of the broccoli bowl! I had to threaten that she would be last to be served if she couldn’t stop nibbling these!! The result was a crispy and tangy masterpiece that was softened by the cheese, and it was a hit with us.

The second recipe was for Hua Moa Tostones, brought to us by Chef Michael Schwartz from Michael’s Genuine Food and Drink, based out of my hometown of Miami. These tostones were a little more effort to prepare but they were delectable, and not many were left, as my sous chef once again got a little overeager and snapped them up!

Hua Moa Tostones
Makes 12 to 16 Tostones
  • Unripe (green) hua moa plantains, peeled and sliced into 1 ½ inch rounds
  • Vegetable oil for frying
  • Coarse salt to taste
1) To peel plantains, make one shallow slit lengthwise, just through the skin. Place split plantains in boiling water for about 1 minute, or until skin turns brown. Remove and place in an ice bath; peel and discard skin. Slice peeled plantain into 1 ½ inch rounds.

2) Heat 4 inches of oil to 350 in an electric fryer or deep pot. If you don’t have a deep fry thermometer, a good way to test if the oil is hot enough is to stick the end of a wooden spoon or chopstick in it. If bubbles crce around the end, oil is ready.

3) Fry plantain rounds all together about 1 ½ minutes, or just until they start to turn golden.Remove from the fryer with a slotted spoon and transfer to an aluminium bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and let rounds  sit 5 minutes. Leve oil at temperature on stovetop.

4) Place one round at a time, cut side up on center of a lightly oiled wooden wooden cutting board. Using both hands on each side, take another small oiled board or flat surface and press down evenly, flattening plantain round to a ½ inch  thick disc. Carefully lift top board. The plantain disc will now be about 4 inches in diameter. To remove, carefully slide a chef’s knife under disc and transfer to a plate. Repeat, placing sheets of parchment paper between layers of plantains

5) Fry discs, this time in batches of 3 or 4 without crowding, 2 to 3 minutes, or until golden brown. With tongs, transfer plantains to paper towels to drain. Season generously with salt and serve immediately.

These were seriously delicious and had all the flavor of the plantain with the  perfect amount of salt and crunch. I ate these like chips, and we made many more than the recipe actually called for. I also changed one of the steps and smashed my plantains  after their first frying between two pieces of wax paper and a rolling pin. So seriously yummy.

If you’re looking for a cookbook that really delves into the tastes of Florida and you want to see some of the lovely little farms and restaurants that make Florida such a popular destination and a cool place to live, you seriously need to check out this book. Not all of the recipes have pictures to go along with them, but this is a cookbook that  shines beautifully with Florida’s native foods and the people who love them. An excellent foray into Florida cooking. Recommended.

Hop on over to Jill’s blog on Friday where our tour will end with a mightily magnificent dessert!

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith — 528 pgs

This is the classic story of Francie Nolan and her impoverished family. Growing up in turn of the century Brooklyn, Francie struggles greatly to live a normal life amid the abject poverty surrounding her. Her mother, Katie, a house-cleaner, never seems to have much time to devote to her, and Francie suspects that her mother feels a greater affection for her kid brother Neely than herself. Her father, Johnny, is the apple of her eye, but repeatedly lets the family down due to his chronic drinking and troubles keeping himself employed. As Francie relates the dramas of her days, both great and small, she comes to observe the prejudices and inequities all around her. She greatly details all the colorful characters who make cameo appearances in her life, such as her Aunt Sissy, a "bad girl" who is, nevertheless, uncommonly kind and generous. Scraping by on whatever they can eek out of life, Francie's family is no stranger to hardship and adversity. As the young girl turns into a woman, she gains an uncommon understanding of life and her place in the world. For Francie has big dreams and plans and won't let her poor station in life prevent her from accomplishing her goals. Through the foibles and tears of her childhood, Franice emerges battered yet triumphant in this marvelously engineered tale of hardship and acceptance.

I was really excited to finally read this book. Up until this point, I had heard a lot about it and that it was a staple of modern literature, and was delighted to get the chance to delve into it. What I found surprised me, for although this was a story of triumph, it was bitterly sad and overwhelming at times, and I struggled with many emotions as I read my way through.

Francie is a typical girl living in a bleak world. Though she does her best to have a bright outlook on life, she struggles with her situation and the restrictions it places on her. She is a stellar student, but because she is poor, she gets very short shrift from her teachers and is constantly having to make do with less of an education than other, more affluent girls of her age. She is a solitary child who is constantly bullied and harassed by others her age, and it’s really only her brother who provides most of her companionship. Francie goes through life feeling the anxieties of a poor girl and wonders whether or not she will turn out like all the other people she sees living in the tenements and struggling along day to day. She collects junk from the gutters with the other children in her neighborhood, hoping to sell it to the junk man for a few pennies to buy a frivolity, a sad indulgence that she comes to depend on.

I was really surprised to see just how little money the family survived on. Between her mother's work and the occasional odd job that her father picked up, Francie's family seemed to have to do more scrimping than the other families in her neighborhood, and most times they left the table hungry. Smith takes the time to give the details about the family’s finances, recording just how much money Katie brings in each week and how much even tiny expenditures are costing them. In one part of the book, Francie relates all the meals that her mother makes for them with week old, stale bread. There is a bread loaf (much like a meatloaf, made with ketchup, bread and egg) and fried bread, and bread pudding, along with plain slices of bread with butter. Meat is a rarity in their household, and they’re much more likely to get a bone picked almost clean for a pot of soup than an actual piece of meat. I marveled at the ingenuity of the family's use of the bread, but it also made me sad and disheartened. The children were often described as hollow-eyed and gangly, no doubt because of the food restrictions they were made to endure.

The relationship between young Francie and her father was sad as well. Johnny never wanted a family (a fact that he never hides from Francie) and he’s slowly drinking himself into an early grave. Though Francie loves her father with all of her heart, she can never be truly proud of him because she too often sees him stumbling home after a night of drinking, and the work that he cannot seem to get has to be done by her forever suffering mother. Katie puts up with Johnny's selfish and slovenly behavior with a no nonsense attitude, but the hard work and worry wear her down to a coarse nub over time. As Francie observes, her mother's gay attitude dissolves away into one of bitter supplication and acceptance. I was a little mad that Katie was forever forgiving Johnny his excesses. I felt that she should have put her foot down many times, but I also understand that at the time, a woman's life and prospects were far different than they are today. It was just very wearying to read about at times. No matter what the family tried to do to improve their lot, some unseen hand kept coming down to crush their dreams.

Though I admired Katie at times for her persistence, I found it maddening that she harbored favoritism in her heart for her youngest son. She tried valiantly to keep this revelation from Francie, but the girl was very bright and it was easy for her to see it anyway. Often while I was reading, I wept internally for Francie, for I felt that she was unloved and always put upon. She didn't dwell on it, but it was plain to her as the nose on her face that she was not the favored child, and that no matter how she tried to love her mother, she would never gain that position. She was hit with prejudice from all sides in her life, and it was horrible to see that it extended itself towards her, even in her own household. Though she tried, she was never able to be a carefree little girl because the pressures of life were weighing her down. It was eye-opening to see the way in which the poor struggled in this story. They were constantly maligned by the more affluent and even took it upon themselves to form little groups of prejudice and hatred. They were scorned by others and by themselves, and theirs was a society plagued by bullying, rumors and contempt. In one section of the book, Francie is castigated by her teacher for writing true stories about her life. The teacher tells Francie her stories are filled with ugliness and makes her promise only to write about beautiful things, things that Francie knows nothing about. Her teacher makes her feel despondent and alienated, much like the other more fortunate people in her life do. With a broken spirit, Francie complies with her teacher's wishes, only to begin fabricating stories of deceit and grandeur.

As I was reading, I came to see that this period of time was simpler, yet more difficult. The people that lived during these times seemed almost innocent but were faced with such extreme hardship and prejudice that it would be wrong to assume that their lives were less complicated than ours are today. There was a sense of community in the book that doesn't seem to exist today, but there was a niggling sense of failure that permeated the lives of the characters as well. Many of the situations in this book were heartrending and sad, and there seemed only to be brief joy in the characters’ striving. It seemed like a very hard time in which to live, let alone thrive. Though I did enjoy this book, it was not what I had been expecting at all. It was a very finely crafted and engaging story and had a wonderful narrator in Francie, but it was also bleak and at times very dark. I was glad to see Francie finally get out of the cycle of poverty that ate up everyone around her, and since reading the book, have often let my mind journey into speculation about her future. I think that readers who haven’t experienced this piece of Americana would get a lot out of this book, and though it gave me a heavy heart, I do recommend it. I would love to hear the opinions of others who have read this book because I'd be interested to hear other reactions to it. This is not a book to be missed, but be aware that it is at times emotionally heavy.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel — Audiobook Review

Recorded by Macmillan Audio
Narrated by Simon Vance
Length: 14 hours 45 minutes

In this second installment of the life of Thomas Cromwell, Mantel sharpens her focus to tell the tale of the fall of Anne Boleyn. It seems that King Henry is not happy with Anne after her failure to deliver him a robust and healthy son, and that the ginger-haired Elizabeth is not fit to take her place in the line of succession. When we last left Cromwell in Wolf Hall, he had done the impossible and secured the marriage of Anne and Henry to the discomfiture of half the nation and the Papal court. Now it’s up to Cromwell to catch Anne’s heel and bring her down, a task that he both disdains and relishes with equal fervor. With the aim of an expert marksman, Cromwell finds that many have been in the queen’s private chambers, and seeks them out one by one to turn on each other like dogs in a fight. But the queen won’t go quietly, and as she is slowly being thrust out of the life she wiggled her way into, she finds that Cromwell, the man who once served her so well, is now her most dire enemy—a man who will do her serious harm for the pleasure of the king. But the king isn’t lonely, no, not at all. He has his eye on a Howard. Katherine to be exact, and her puritanical lifestyle has captured his heart, and he aims to have all obstacles removed in his quest to make her the next Queen of England. Interspersed in this tale of deceit and malevolence, Mantel shines an even brighter light on Thomas Cromwell and seeks to understand the character of a man who can can and will turn on you like a cur but who can also remain the staunchest ally one could have. This is a tale that history has told a thousand times over, but with Mantel’s sharp eyes and even sharper wit, we get the entire tale of Anne’s fall from grace as seen through the eyes of the king’s most trusted man, Thomas Cromwell.

I was very excited to listen to this book after I had finished Wolf Hall, and though I knew that the narrator would be different, I quite enjoyed Simon Vance’s smooth and languorous voice bringing me the thoughts of Cromwell himself. Vance displays a great emotional range, but is never cruel in the guise of Cromwell, and completely avoids making him out to be a smarmy and flattering letch. I enjoyed his rendition of this tale so much that I had wonderings about hearing the first book read in his voice as well. While in Wolf Hall Cromwell seemed cutting and snide at times, here he seemed saddened and wizened by the years and how they reflected upon himself and his household.

This was a story that moved with speed and grace from a slow moving and leisurely pace to a free fall from thousands of feet. Anne was not, in fact, aware of her predicament, and attempted again and again to use her influence to gain advantage from the king. But the king turned a deaf ear and a blind eye towards her, seeing her as a great seducer of men and a woman who laughed among her male courtiers at his attempts at lovemaking. As Anne chortles away, she moves closer and closer to the gallows that Henry has standing erect for her and her lovers. What struck me most deeply was the way in which the queen was so eloquently ignorant of what was to befall her. She had to have known that the king was displeased, but her attempts at jocularity fell flat on top of her, and Cromwell assisted that maneuver brilliantly.

Cromwell in this tale plays the errant servant to Anne and the powerful envoy of the king. The woman he once placed so highly is now in the throes of the pit, and I can’t exactly say that he was sorry about it. Cromwell had never seen the jewel in Anne that the king had, only the conniving and cunning woman who strove to push Elizabeth to her grave and disinherit Mary. He never felt warmness towards her and never liked the fact that he was, as she more than once exclaimed, “her man”. It turns out Cromwell was not, in fact, her man, but the king’s, and as Anne begins to realize that, her graceful arc becomes a thing spinning out of control. She is morbid and moody, but this time her morbidity rests upon her own fate.

What Mantel has done in this book exceeds what I had expected. A side of Cromwell, the visionary, is exposed, and it’s at once beautiful and terrifying to look at. He’s not above torture and also not above grieving over it. He lacks no panache, yet struggles to make others see that he, too, is a man with power. And this power must be played out to whomever he is sent to serve next. He is full of rage but also full of compassion for those who suffer wrongfully, and even when Anne is at her lowest, he finds himself just as astonished yet slightly less moved than the English as a whole are over the death of the queen. His part in this matter is huge, but little credit goes to him, which is just how he wants things to be.

I loved this book for Mantel’s smooth writing, and for Vance’s expert delivery. I found ways to enliven my day by driving around pointlessly and listening to this in the car, or while doing the daily drudgery of housekeeping. It was tame and sincere while still managing to be salacious and divisive, and I’m so glad that I got the chance to hear this second act of the story. Hilary Mantel, I urge you to finish this tale for me. Tell me what happens next to my old buddy Cromwell. I’m all ears. Highly recommended.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Falling Together by Marisa de los Santos — 384 pgs

Pen Calloway has just received an email that will change her life. Six years have passed since her two closest friends decided that it would be best for the threesome to split apart and lead separate lives. Now Pen is alone, living with a young daughter, the product of an affair that went south. When Pen opens her inbox and finds an urgent message from her old friend Cat, she quickly decides that she must attend her ten-year high school reunion and meet Cat there. What Pen discovers when she arrives is that Will, the last piece of that triangular friendship, also got an email from Cat. But things are not what they seem, and when Will and Pen begin an earnest search for the woman who sent the email, they must team up with a man whom they both have negative feelings for while also realizing that there are some unresolved feelings between each other as well. The journey they take is both physical, mental and metaphorical, and along the way, each of them will come to see how life can rip people apart but can also glue them back together again. As Pen and Will discover, some things cannot be changed but others cannot be stopped. In this novel of searching and discovery, de los Santos takes her readers on a journey through the narrow passages of the heart—the place where things fall apart, and fall back together again.

This was my first time reading a book by de los Santos. Though I’ve heard many rave over her talents as an author, including Sandy and Heather, I’ve not gotten the chance to read any of her work before now. Most reviewers have decided that this is not her strongest book, and my sentiments on it lead me to believe that if de los Santos can write better than this, she must indeed be amazing. I’m looking forward to exploring more of her work in the future.

De los Santos has a great grasp of character. Though it took me awhile to warm up to Pen and Will, and though I thought Cat was extremely selfish, I eventually felt a lot of attachment to the first two. They had an easy relationship fit, kind of like putting on your most comfortable jeans. They had a huge psychic bond, and though this bothered others in the novel, it made me realize that they were made for each other. Of course, it wasn’t that easy because of their history, but overall, I felt that these were two people who really *got* one another. There were levels of dysfunction surrounding them, but what remained pure were their intentions towards each other and Cat.

Cat was the wildcard in this situation. She never really felt fleshed out to me, and despite the fact that Will and Pen loved her so much, she seemed both manipulative and a little cold. I know that I wouldn’t have gone to the ends of the earth to track her down, that’s for sure, and I just didn’t buy into the fact that Pen and Will had been so connected to her. She seemed like a grown-up child, complete with tantrums and very vicious behavior towards her husband—who I frankly thought was too good for her, though he was sort of a schlub. I found her to be a bit repulsive, and wondered why so many people cared so deeply for her when she seemed to care for no one at all but herself.

This is a book that centers around relationships: the kinds we hope and dream of, and the kinds that we overlook. De los Santos has a clear grasp of the myriad of relationships that people can have with each other and the struggles they will go through to maintain those relationships. Like children, Pen and Will avoided the obvious, and this set them up for a lot of strife and a few heart-wrenching moments. In the end, what is lost has been found, but there are no easy answers for the elusive Cat. This didn’t really bother me because she felt like an extemporaneous character and really brought out negative feelings from me.

If you’re in search of a story of journeys taken and difficult paths that are overcome, this is a book you will want to read. Though all the characters aren’t as loveable as one would hope, I think de los Santos gives her readers a lot of warmth and emotion in the characters that she chooses to focus on in this book. As I said before, I’ll be reading more from this author. Her gentle story had a lot of bite, and it reached me in a way that not many books do. Recommended.

Author Photo About the Author

Marisa de los Santos is a New York Times bestselling author and an award-winning poet with a Ph.D. in literature and creative writing. She lives in Delaware with her husband, David Teague, and their son and daughter.


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

Tuesday, October 2nd:Reflections of a Bookaholic
Wednesday, October 3rd:Reading Lark
Thursday, October 4th:girilichef
Friday, October 5th:The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader
Monday, October 8th:A Reader of Fictions
Tuesday, October 9th:A Patchwork of Books
Wednesday, October 10th:No More Grumpy Bookseller
Thursday, October 11th:The Feminist Texican [Reads]
Friday, October 12th:Book Spark
Monday, October 15th:Books and Movies
Tuesday, October 16th:Kritters Ramblings
Thursday, October 18th:Between the Covers
Monday, October 22nd:Silver & Grace
Wednesday, October 24th:Book Hooked Blog
Thursday, October 25th:My Bookshelf
Friday, October 26th:Iwriteinbooks’s blog
Monday, October 29th:Lit and Life
Tuesday, October 30th:The Book Bag
Monday, November 5th:Raging Bibliomania
TBD:Book Journey

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane — 400 pgs

U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels has just arrived on a small island in Massachusetts, home to the Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane. Teddy and his new partner are on the island in an effort to locate a dangerous and psychotic female patient who is guilty of several murders. The woman appears to have mysteriously disappeared from the maximum security facility, and Teddy has reason to believe that she had some inside help getting loose. While traversing the island in attempt to locate the missing woman, Teddy begins to have inklings that there is more to this facility than meets the eye. He has come to suspect that the hospital is using dangerous drugs and psychosurgery on the patients and is operating outside the law in the manner of a torture camp. As Teddy makes his way further and further into the secrets of the island, he becomes enmeshed in a dangerous game with the doctors and orderlies, and everything he knows and holds dear becomes fodder for those who would like to see Teddy's mission crumble. In this work of dramatic noir, Lehane gives us a twisted and horrifying narrative, where nothing is exactly what it seems and the secrets hiding in the dark rush out to greet you in the final explosive and shocking conclusion.

After reading Sandy's fantastic and enthusiastic review of this book, and seeing some very intriguing movie trailers, I decided that I just had to try it out for myself. I'm not normally a reader of thriller and suspense novels and had yet to read anything by Lehane, but I couldn't resist this book, and I'm so glad that I gave it a go. It was time well spent!

I loved the atmosphere in this book. Lehane is a master at creating a creepy and malevolent background in which his characters wind their machinations. There was a great feeling of gloominess and darkness throughout the story, and it lent a lot of credibility to the narrative. He’s also very adept at his descriptions of place. Too often, I have trouble visualizing the settings in the books I read, even when they’re described with infinite patience. This is not the case with Shutter Island. In fact, the way that Lehane goes about calmly and methodically describing the hospital, its grounds and the island was wonderful. It bordered on simplistic, yet somehow was not simple. The fact that the description was so well done really enhanced my enjoyment of the story.

I feel that there is much in this book that I can't really talk about, for fear of giving away the crux and heart of the book's mystery. Suffice it to say that Lehane does a great job with twisting the story into a tale full of deception, secrets and the lies that people tell themselves. Though the story moves through several permutations and winds its way towards several shocking situations, it never felt convoluted and it held a great tension throughout the tale. It was a wicked tale, full of the deranged, the dangerous and the afflicted, and several of the scenes in the hospital left me feeling the chills. The journey through Teddy's investigation was chock full of unlikely scenarios that would make even the most hardened reader's hair stand on end, and as I wound my way through the narrative, I worked my way along stacking up the clues, though I was in no way prepared for the book’s final haunting scenes. When all is finally revealed, I found myself totally aghast, and appreciated what Lehane had done all the more.

One of the reasons that Teddy made such an impact on me was because, from the beginning, he was such a flawed and believable character. Lehane takes his time crafting Teddy's background and traumas, giving him not only the anger and curiosity that fuels his quest, but also the fighting spirit that enables him to crawl through even the most messy of situations. He had some great dialogue as well. Teddy never stopped with the wit and sarcasm, and often, the tension in a scene was mitigated by Teddy's droll pronouncements to those around him. I found it impossible not to react to Teddy. He was so human, filled with regret, sadness, and an unspeakable drive that propelled him ever forward. As the conclusion of the book finally made itself clear to me, I began to see that Teddy had several roles to play in this drama, and he played some much more successfully than others. I felt that Lehane was brilliant in his creation of Teddy and was completely caught off guard when I realized just what was going on in this twisted tale.

I also found the sections about the institution very interesting. Reading about mental illness in literature is one of the things that really intrigues me, and to see Ashecliffe from the point of view of both the patients and the staff was exceptionally interesting. Since the book was set in the 1940s, the mental health field was very different than it is today. At that time, talk therapy was almost unheard of and pharmaceuticals were just beginning to make it on the scene. The most typical way for the mentally afflicted to be treated during this time was the use of psychosurgery (namely the frontal lobotomy) and the use of manacles and chains to keep the patients from running wild. I found this to be very sad and it made me really think about the advancements that have been made in the treatment of mental illness since that time. Lehane takes it to the next level with the suspicions of harmful foreign drugs and the use of torture. It is said in the book that the staff at Ashecliffe “wrote their own playbook” in regards to their treatment practices. Frightening indeed.

If you’re the type of reader who wants to get lost in a fantastically dark and twisted tale full of surprises, then this is definitely the book for you. Though it was written in a simple and conversational style, the book was simply stunning. In the future, I'm going to be looking for more of Lehane’s work, and already have a copy of Mystic River on my shelf waiting for me. Looking for an unusual and dark thriller, where nothing is what it seems? Then by all means, go out and grab a copy of Shutter Island!

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Midwife of Hope River by Patricia Harman — 403 pgs

Patience Murphy is a midwife living in depression-era Appalachia, and she has the raw instinct and gentle strength that birthing mothers are desperate to have. The only problem is that many of her mothers are unable to pay for her services, which keeps Patience at poverty level, like so many around her. When Patience delivers a healthy infant to a wealthy couple that lost everything in the big crash, she finds that this mother can’t pay either but will give her a gift she can never replace. At first Bitsy, the African American housemaid, seems like another mouth to feed, but she is good natured and a quick study. Now that Bitsy is living with Patience, she begins to garner more mothers from the colored section of town and is soon overwhelmed with the amount of work. Yet she’s still far from wealthy. A chicken here and some firewood there make Patience and Bitsy’s lives easier, but between the racial tension burning its way through the backwoods and an unlikely friendship she begins with Hope River’s only veterinarian, Patience is treading on thin ice. As more and more women ask Patience and Bitsy into their homes for the birthing of their children, they become well known and even more highly regarded. Until the night a woman bathed in blood and carrying an infant comes crashing onto the scene. From that moment on, Patience Murphy’s life will change, as everything she knows will be forever altered. Reticent and kind, Ms. Murphy will have to use every ounce of her strength and knowledge to save a group of people that she has come to know and care for. And though Patience Murphy is gentle, she can also be tough as nails when grind leads to grit. Filled with quiet and tender moments and moments of extreme drama, The Midwife of Hope River is a triumph of historical fiction blended smoothly with the bedside trials of the women that Patience helps to deliver not only of their children, but of their sadnesses and joys as well.

I think everyone in the world knows that I love midwife stories, but I also love Patricia Harman. I got the chance to see her speak at the SIBA Supper this year, and had huge love for her biography, Arms Wide Open. When someone asks me what I like to read about, midwives often top the list, and this fascination started early and is very long lived. I even have a very good friend who is a midwife, and it’s so interesting to hear her stories and live vicariously through them. When I came back from SIBA, this was the first book I picked up out of my haul. And Patricia is just as interesting on the page as she is on the stage. I relished this book and often lingered over single sentences as well as long passages.

One of the most striking things about this book was the setting. Rural Appalachia in the 20s was a place and time that I hadn’t explored before. When people today talk about being poor, there’s a radical difference from today’s economic status as poor than the types of poor mountain people that Patience worked for. Often many lived cramped into one dwelling, the younger children being taken care of by the older, and the men away in mines that were often hazardous and deadly. Patience not only delivers the children of these miners, but ministers to them and cares for them as individuals. And in this book, I truly found the meaning of dirt poor, with women and children living in domiciles that literally had floors made of dirt. Patience never turned a patient away, even when she knew that she wouldn’t be paid.

There was a lot of tension surrounding race relations, and this was brought to a head when Bitsy, a young black woman, moved in with Patience, a genteel white woman. Bitsy and Patience had a strong relationship and looked on each other as kin after a time, though Bitsy had other family still living and working in other parts of the woods. Harman doesn’t mince words when she speaks of the violence with which the Klu Klux Klan, spread in small groups around Appalachia, would take racial matters into their own hands. Even Patience feels the sting of this racism, as her friends and colleagues begin to look down at her for housing Bitsy. This puts both of the women in danger and forms the crux of a violent incident that rears its ugly head in the middle of the book.

The best parts of this book for me were the actual deliveries that took place in cabins, lean-tos, and sometimes even out in the woods. I learned so much from Harman’s stories about the cycle of pregnancy and birth, and the complications and the beauty of a woman bearing a child under almost every condition. Some births are easy and some end tragically, but Patience and Bitsy give every birth their all and become the inspiring angels to women all over the mountains. This story also contains elements of mystery and romance as well as all the other points I’ve mentioned above. Harman delivers her story like a woman giving birth, thrusting and pushing it at her readers until, eventually, her tale emerges fully formed and beautiful. It was a book that I never wanted to end.

If you haven’t tried out any of Patsy Harman’s books, this would be a great place to start, as it’s a story that has all the elements and hallmarks of a fantastic read. It covers so many topics and situations that the reader never becomes bored or overtaxed, and it radiates light and hope as it shines light into the dark wilderness of Appalachia. It’s a story about the uniting of women and the repercussions that these relationships and bonds have. A very solid and extremely well executed book. Highly recommended.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Sweet Dates in Basra by Jessica Jiji — 368 pgs

Living in Iraq in the '40s, Kathmiya Mahommed, a thirteen year old marsh girl, is sent out of her family's home to begin life as a housemaid in Basra. Kathmiya is very unhappy about this development, as she has been secretly longing to be married and become mistress of her own home, but her meetings with several marriage brokers have proven to be fruitless. During her first week at the job, Kathmiya meets Shafiq, the teenage brother of her mistress. Though they are from very different sectors of life, they begin a dangerous attraction and flirtation that will change the course of both of their lives. Meanwhile, the people of Shafiq's community are struggling with the advent of WWII and the increased prejudice against the Jews who live side by side among their Muslim neighbors. As Shafiq and Kathmiya learn to navigate the ways of their hearts, they also learn that although there are differences between those in their community, there are also several startling similarities.

I have to admit that I wasn't crazy about this book. For the first half of the story, the writing seemed very muddy and undeveloped. There was an unfocused quality to the story and it took a few tries to actually get into the grist of the story. I actually put the book down for awhile and read something else before picking it back up again. When I did get back to it I had to spend an awful lot of time trying to psych myself up before beginning to settle into the story. Coupled with these problems was the fact that Kathmiya was an unmitigated whiner. I got really tired of her haranguing her mother, sister and anyone else who would listen about the unhappiness of her life. She seemed so sour all of the time and it was really hard for me to like her. Aarti mentions much the same reaction to Kathmiya in her review and I would have to agree with her. Kathmiya was just tiring.

On the other hand, the story had a lot of great intrigues going on within it. I really liked the mystique surrounding the secret of Kathmiya's past and felt that the author really did a wonderful job of keeping me in suspense over those sections. I wanted to know more, and ultimately, that's what kept me turning the pages furiously. After the blundering of the first section of the book, I felt like the author had recovered nicely and turned this into a very entertaining novel that kept me guessing. I almost wish that the Kathmiya's secret had been alluded to earlier on, that way I wouldn't have felt so hopeless about having to make my way through the book. I also liked the way the supporting characters had their place within the mystery. It was a great coming together of all the aspects and players, and had this been the main thrust of the narrative, I would have enjoyed the book much, much more.

Although I had my problems with Kathmiya, I really found myself enamored over Shafiq. Whenever he was on the page, I knew that I was sure to have my interest captured. Shafiq's portions of the story felt more weighty and important, because not only was he dealing with his attraction to Kathmiya but also the severe tensions that the war in Europe and the British settlers were bringing into his homeland. He was an unapologetic supporter of the Iraqi way of life and liberties, and several other characters and their problems with the political situation were woven within his story. There were some very moving and revealing sections about the problems that the Jews of the community faced during these times and I thought that it was extremely heartening that most of the community refused to see separation between the Jews and Muslims and treated each other as neighbors and brothers. It was nice to see that even in extreme situations, the people of Iraq formed such a great sense of community.

There were also some really moving and emotional scenes in the book that I felt gave the story a really great depth and range. From the death of one of Shafiq's most beloved friends to the wrongful imprisonment of a suspected Zionist, I felt that there were some absorbingly dramatic turns within the narrative that really gave the author full use of tension and emotional atmosphere. Even the conclusion of the book hinged on a bit of drama and I found that I appreciated the slightly messy and unresolved ending more than I would have had everything been neatly tied up with a bow. There was a really good mix of pathos embedded within the story that I thought was very interesting.

Though there were definitely some really great things about this book, I would have to say that it wasn't really a spectacular read for me. I felt that the story's slow and laborious start coupled with the unlikeablilty of the protagonist really ruined most of this book's appeal for me. It certainly wasn't the book I had been expecting when I picked it up. I feel that it's a shame that I was so prejudiced against this book from so early in the story, but I really felt that I couldn't help my reaction to it. I am unsure of who I would recommend this book to, as I am sure that most readers wouldn't have the patience for such a slow start combined with a whiny character, so I will just close this review with the conclusion that this book had it's moments, but overall, it was an uneven read.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Where We Belong by Emily Giffin — 384 pgs

Marian Caldwell has a life that anyone would envy. At thirty-six, she is the producer of one of the hottest shows on television and is dating a handsome heartthrob television executive, hoping to take it to the next level. She’s living the dream in New York, but somehow, something is missing. When a bickering session with her boyfriend sends her home one evening, she’s surprised when a knock on the door reveals a young girl named Kirby Rose, whom she thought she’d never see again. Kirby is Marian’s daughter, who she had given up for adoption only three days after her birth. Marian is stunned and caught off guard that the eighteen year old has come looking for her now that the adoption records have been unsealed. Young and reckless, Kirby has never felt that she fit in with her adoptive family. Of course they love her and have seen to all of her needs, but Kirby has has always felt that she plays second fiddle to her more vivacious and outgoing sister, born only eleven months after her adoption. After a whirlwind weekend in New York, Marian bustles Kirby back home, nervous and unsure how to handle the girl’s sudden appearance. But there are questions that must be answered, and Kirby will have no hedging. Who is her father and why does Marian refuse to speak of him? What really happened all those years ago when she was forced to give up her only child to a couple of strangers? In this touching and engaging read, Emily Giffin imagines the life of a woman who ran away from motherhood and the daughter who has come running back to find her.

After reading Emily Giffin’s first book, Something Borrowed, I knew that I would someday read another of her works. It was my lucky day when the Books, Babes, and Bordeaux book club picked this little gem for their October read. I knew that this book would be light but meaningful, and the buzz on the blogs was pretty positive. I chose to read this one in one sitting during Dewey’s Readathon, and even though it was the only thing I got finished with for the day, I was truly happy to just sit like a sponge and absorb this charming story, which was a little predictable at times but fun nonetheless.

Marian is living large, but her dreams aren't being fully realized because her handsome beau won’t commit to her at this stage in the game, and it’s been a long game. She’s happy but could be happier, and doesn’t expect to find her long lost daughter knocking at her door on one of the worst nights she’s had in awhile. When Marian realizes who this stranger is, she’s both shocked and a little giddy, but she just can’t let Kirby get past her protective walls, and because of this, the reunion is somewhat painful for both mother and child. Marian does her best to include Kirby in everything, including her job, but she won’t open her heart, and the unanswered questions about Kirby’s father seem to float just above their heads like silent dialogue bubbles.

I loved Kirby so much. She was marching to the beat of her own drummer, literally, and she wasn’t afraid of the next step, be that what it may. Kirby was a girl child alone. Though she had met Marian and was impressed by her, there was more about her that she needed to discover. Her adoptive parents were not happy about Kirby meeting Marian because she was “theirs,” but they never treated her like she was. They never just let Kirby be Kirby, and they pressured her about her plans for the future when all she wanted to do was discover herself and her birth parents. I loved her spunk and her grace, and the more she discovered about how she became who she was, the more her heart opens to accept all of her parents, birth and adoptive.

There’s a lot that I’m not saying about this story because it’s better for readers to find out for themselves, but it’s safe to say that there’s a lot of turmoil in Marian’s life, and a lot of it revolves around Kirby’s birth father. In her typical style, Giffin seamlessly blends emotion and pragmatism in her characters, and though some of it was predictable, it was an engaging and powerfully built tale. Nobody comes out of this tale untouched by the reunion of Kirby and Marian. Simple and clean, while also being messy and complicated, Giffin gives this story her all and tells it beautifully, right down to the final sentence.

I’m now convinced that I need to read all of Giffin’s books, as her take on life and its complexities is not only engrossing, but full of laughter, love and above all, heartfelt emotion. Those who haven’t tried Giffin yet are in for a happy surprise if they pick up this book. Though it’s light reading, it still feels weighty enough to be striking. It was just what I needed at this point in my reading life, and I’m sure there are others out there who would agree that Giffin is a talented author who gently cradles both her readers and her characters. Recommended!

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Red Tent by Anita Diamant — 336 pgs

Dinah. Her story in the Bible is brief and violent and she fades quickly into obscurity. But Anita Diamant has a different version of the events of Dinah's life. Daughter of Jacob and Leah, Dinah lives with her four mothers, all wives of Jacob, and her many brothers and sisters, on a harsh land. As the only girl of the extensive brood, Dinah learns from her mothers the ways of women, from the art of midwifery to the sacred days of the Red Tent, where the women of the camp gather to share their monthly experiences of womanhood. As Dinah grows from girl to woman, she learns lessons of love and family from all who surround her, and struggles to accept her singular place among the tribe of Jacob, eventually leaving her family for a marriage to a wealthy prince of the realm. But Dinah's fate is not so easily sealed, and when her brothers come to exact revenge upon the man who they feel stole their sister's maidenhood, Dinah must begin life again on a foreign shore as a servant midwife. In this lush and vibrant story, Diamant presents the mystical story of Dinah and weaves the famous tale of the family of Jacob within the confines of her tale. The story is luminous and unique, filled with the passion and pathos of ancient times, when women celebrated the power and vitality locked inside their hearts and bodies.

My first experience reading this book was about ten years ago. When I read it back then, I found that it was quite unlike anything I had ever read before, and I quickly housed it among my "keeper" books. This time around, I read it in conjunction with my book club, and this second reading afforded me more insight into the characters’ perspectives and also into the Biblical significance of the story that Diamant so expertly tells. I know now that this is a story that I’m destined to read again, hopefully with an eye to more fully capturing the hidden wisdom that’s hiding within the story.

Diamant opens with the story of Dinah's childhood, as she explains the genealogy of Jacob’s family and tells how each of her four mothers have come to be wed to the man who is at the head of her tribe. Most of these stories are unconventional and each woman has a different motive for wanting Jacob at her side. The crux of each of these stories are straight from the Bible, but Diamant has a way of making even these well-known facts fresh and new. Part of me believes that she took this approach in an effort to keep from alienating readers who may not adhere to Christianity or who haven’t had the experience of reading the Bible. This was a brilliant approach, and because of her efforts not to classify this tale as one of a particular Christian leaning or origin, Diamant has made the book accessible to all. I found the story of Dinah's childhood to be the most interesting sections of the book. She doesn't shy away from describing the tensions between the women, or the problems that such a large brood would be susceptible to. Jacob is portrayed as a flawed male lead: loving, yet somehow unrefined and unaware of the emotional issues that go along with having a brood of wives and children. He is noble and long-suffering, yet also careless, and at times stubborn.

The women of the camp were more interesting to me. By nature of their gender and the times they lived in they should have lived marginalized lives in the shadows of their men, but somehow this wasn't so. They were passionate, opinionated and headstrong. They shared all they had with their sister-wives despite the animosity and jealousies that they felt for one another. Because Dinah was the only girl in the huge brood, she was afforded all the love and knowledge that her mothers had to give, and was the treasure of the camp. These were powerful and noble women who were aware of the unique power of being women. Strong women who suffered, yes, but also who know the hidden might and potency that lived within them. Though it was ostensibly Jacob who ruled the camp, it was easy to see that the women were the ones who were in control, and it was their whims and desires that drove their family further and spurred them on.

The sections describing the women's monthly red tent ritual were full of beauty. There the women were free to worship their gods and free to marvel at the changes that were taking place in their bodies. The tent was a place of power, where births and cycles were given the gravity that they deserved, and where they could all commune safely to experience the power of birth and life. They speak of the wondrous things that their bodies are responsible for, the power that has been invested in them and their sisters like them, and the beauty of all things female. It’s here that Dinah learns the secrets of the camp and of the jealousies of her mothers, which must be left outside the tent flaps. Dinah also becomes privy to the secrets of midwifery and discovers that this is where her talents lie. The red tent embodies the spirit of the women and becomes a place for refuge, respite and celebration, and it sends a powerful message to the women of the world that their lives and differences should be rejoiced and shared with one another. It's a starkly feminist message that many women today have forgotten, and Diamant expresses it with clarity and feeling.

Later sections of the book deal with the fall of the house of Jacob and the scattering of Dinah's tribe. The problems that destroyed them were mainly the fault of the men of the tribe, and in their errors of propriety and judgement, all the women, especially Dinah, met their destruction. I found it sad that the men who had lived with these remarkable women had not profited one iota from the lessons and wisdom that they imparted, and that the whims of Jacob’s sons were so destructive and left to fester out of control. Dinah loses all she has known and must start over, with the painful loss of her network of mothers left behind in the red dust of defeat. She never really gets away from the memories and wisdom of her mothers no matter how far she travels, and in some ways she grows to be much like them, remaking herself piecemeal by taking parts of each into the mosaic of her soul. Though I did enjoy these sections of the book, I found that they couldn't really compare to the earlier scenes of life at the camp with Dinah surrounded by her loving and supporting mothers: women who were strong enough to change the course of their fates and the fates of those around them.

I really think this book is destined to become a classic, and in some circles, it already is. Those readers who are usually shy about picking up a Biblical fiction book would do well to give this one a chance. It really does speak to a lot of the particular issues that women face, both together and alone, and Diamant doesn't get stuck attempting to preach or moralize to her audience. I know that this story already has a huge following, and it's interesting that so many readers find pleasure in the book, both for the first time and after repeated readings. I know that this is a book that makes an appearance on my top books of all time list, and would highly recommend it to readers who span all ages and beliefs.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Shadow of Night by Deborah Harkness — Audiobook Review

Recorded by Penguin Audiobooks
Narrated by Jennifer Ikeda
Length: 24 hours 30 minutes

** Spoiler alert! Some spoilers for the first book, A Discovery of Witches, may lie ahead. **

When we last left Diana and Matthew, they were about to step into the past and travel backwards in search of Ashmole 782, that elusive manuscript that holds portentous information for vampires, witches and demons alike. Here in Shadow of Night, we pick up right where we left off as Diana and Matthew travel back in time to Elizabethan England, where Diana must search out a witch in order to learn how to correctly tap into her powers as well as search for the manuscript. For Matthew, a centuries-old vampire, the past holds no secrets and he knows just what he will be facing, but for Diana, the trip is both alluring and frightening. Matthew seems to know some very important people, yet not all of them are onboard with his and Diana’s relationship. And one mischievous and very well-known man may destroy the couple with only a scant word to the wrong person. It’s here in Elizabethan England that the couple realize it won’t be easy to locate Ashmole 782 or to find a witch that can teach Diana the things she needs to know. But as they travel over the ocean to new places in the past, they threaten to disrupt the future; and when Diana realizes that she is more powerful than she could have ever imagined and that she’s closer to Ashmole 782 than anyone ever thought, both figuratively and literally, the heat is on to close the rent in time that the couple has made and get back to their rightful lives in the twenty-first century. Blending alchemy, magic and history into one stunning brew, Deborah Harkness gives her hungry readers the story that so many have waited for, and she does it gloriously.

Upon turning the last page of A Discovery of Witches, I groaned aloud. "What! That’s it?" I said. Harkness ended the book with a wildly intriguing cliffhanger, and while I was a bit angry, I was even more excited that the next book would eventually come and my questions would be answered. And so I waited, and waited, and waited some more, until finally the book hit the shelves. When Sandy found an audio copy in her mailbox from the wonderful folks over at Penguin Audio, she lent it to me right away. I was so very excited! The narration is done by the same narrator as the first, Jennifer Ikeda. I loved her voice and felt that she embodied Diana perfectly. She was also crazy good at capturing the voices of the other players, especially the Emperor, whom Ikeda voiced with high-strung levity. She was a perfect choice for this book and made the listening experience breeze by.

One of the things that I really loved about this book was the fact that Diana and Matthew have matured so much since the first one. Matthew no longer acts controlling with Diana, and when he does, she lets him have it. I loved Diana’s fire and her intense wonderment at the things she was seeing in the past. Listening to this book was like watching a modern day woman step back through the pages of history, and though some have derided the book for Harkness’ use of so many famous personages of the age, I felt that it was delightful to see history reinvented a bit. I knew of a few of these famous people, but since I’m not as well versed in Elizabethan society as in other parts of history, a good amount of people and places were new to me. One never knew who would step into the page, and that excited me and made me eager to keep listening.

The crux of this story revolves around locating the missing manuscript and finding another witch to teach Diana how to use her newly developed powers, but this book was more than that. Matthew has secrets. A lot of them, and he knows that by taking Diana to the past, she will uncover some very dark things about her husband. There will also be reunions and retributions that the couple must face, and for Diana, the impossible comes to life over and over again. I loved the unpredictability that Harkness created for her readers, and the storytelling was solid and very tight. Ashmole 782 is not the beating heart of this novel; that place goes to Diana, as she discovers and rediscovers herself and her husband, Matthew.

Harkness has a great command of darkness and light in this tale and uses her skill rather boldly, creating new and exciting situations for her readers to intoxicate themselves with. The impossible becomes possible, and Diana grows more than she ever hoped she would. She must also learn to let go and say goodbye to a very special person in her life, a person who has shaped her and made her the fierce yet loving person that she is today. Matthew too must come from behind the shadows and face up to the truth that he has hidden from Diana, and it’s not pretty. Time after time, he must face up to the man he has been versus the man he is today. As their love deepens, it’s also tested again and again.

Lovers of this series, don’t hesitate! Pick this book up and fall in love all over again. It’s solidly entertaining and full of some very unique surprises, and just as in the first book, there are some real scoundrels to keep Matthew and Diana embedded in time and in danger. I’m anxiously awaiting the last book in this series because there are more hidden gems that need to be sorted out and I can’t wait to find out what happens next with Diana and Matthew. A excellent and very fun read. It will be one of my favorites this year. Highly recommended!

Monday, October 8, 2012

SIBA 2012

SIBA was a little closer to home this year, taking place in Naples, Florida. My husband and I jostled the kids around and headed over to the Hilton Grand Resort Naples, listening to Tana French’s Into the Woods along the way. We looked at SIBA as a couple’s trip this year, with me off and running doing my bookish thing and him sleeping and web surfing all day with no responsibilities. When we arrived on Thursday afternoon, I met up with Sandy, Jill and Heather, and we took a bus ride over to Sunshine Books of Naples. We actually went on a tour of two of their stores, and between the books and the snippets of wine and cheese, the three of us had a wonderful time. After our tour, we were treated to a delicious Italian dinner, and the the three of us had a wonderful time chatting with the authors and booksellers around the table. Each of them was eager to find out what makes a blogger so motivated to write about books and what we like to read. The food was very tasty, and our thanks to JKS Communications, the dinner was on them. It was a wonderful way to begin the SIBA weekend.

Friday morning saw me stumbling around at 5:30am to take a walk along the beach with Jill and Sandy. Fitness is serious business for those two, and I was seriously winded and needed a nap before the events began! Friday was given over to author panels, and all the bloggers headed over to attend the panel Magical & Mysterious featuring Sandra Brennan, Tonya Hurley, Joseph Scott Morgan, Joelle Charbonneau, Suzanne Johnson, & Jeff Hirsch. This panel was hugely entertaining, and there was not only laughter and information about the books that the authors were debuting, but also a bit of singing from Joelle, who is also an opera singer. I think the book that I was most excited about was Blessed, which has a double-sided cover that reveals part of the story. Excellent and very cool idea!

From there we moved on the the Kick-Off Lunch with the Lee Brothers, where we heard from Matt and Ted Lee, Michael Morris, Stephanie McAfee and Janice Owens. The lunch was delectable and the speakers kept us more than entertained with the enticements that their books had to offer. I particularly loved hearing Matt and Ted Lee speak about their cookbook, The Lee Brother’s Charleston Kitchen. All three of us were leafing through the book while at the table and feasting our eyes on the beautiful photography and great recipes inside.

The next panel I attended was called Looking for the Uncommon Thread, where I was entertained and wowed by Robert LeLeux, Kevin Hawkes, Scott Anderson and Sharon Anderson. This was a really eclectic panel of books and authors that were wildly divergent, but somehow they all really fit well together. Jill, Sandy and Heather attended other panels so that the bloggers could spread out and cast a greater coverage of all the events.

Later that evening, we moseyed on over to the First 180 Days party that was held out in the tropical breeze with cocktails and more wonderful books! My old friends Beth Webb Hart and Lisa Wingate were there, as well as the amazing Marybeth Whalen! Before long it was time for the SIBA Supper, where we had a fine dining experience while we were swept off our feet by William Joyce, Randy Wayne White, Rhoda Janzen and Jill McCorkle. I was really blown away by the excerpt that Jill McCorkle chose to read, and I was excited to see Rhoda Janzen, whose first book, Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, was a favorite of mine. Later in the evening, my husband and I sat in on the late night reading and had a great time listening to a few wonderful ladies reading from their books as we sat and enjoyed the balmy summer night.

Saturday morning started off with a wonderful breakfast put on by HarperCollins, where we got the chance to hear Debra Dean, Courtney Miller Santo, Patricia Harman and Mary Kay Andrews speak. I was really excited to hear Patricia Harman speak, as her book Arms Wide Open was one of the most fun and eclectic that I have ever read. I’m in the middle of her newest, The Midwife of Hope River, and must say that it is fantastic too!

For the rest of the day, we wandered the showroom floor, filling bag after bag of glorious books and talking to publishing reps and authors about what’s coming up in the fall and winter that we should be looking for. The girls and I shared a late lunch at the hotel’s restaurant, and I gabbed over the most exciting books that we had picked up. Later in the evening, after perusing the showroom floor again, we headed over to The Writer’s Block Party, where we participated in carnival style games in order to win tickets. These tickets were then thrown into raffle bags to win dinner with an author. Sandy, Heather and I were lucky enough to win two authors (!) and got the chance to take Karen White and Wendy Wax out to a sumptuous Italian restaurant. Wendy and Karen were very fun and charming and we had a lovely time gabbing and eating.

Sunday morning found us at our tables for A Taste of Florida Feast Breakfast, where we got the chance to hear from Heather McPherson, Katie Farmand and Pam Brandon, Bob Kealing, Craig Pittman, and Joie Wilson and Penny Taylor. The books showcased at this event were both beautiful and unique. As we made our last trips around the showroom floor, we were all looking forward to the premier event, The Moveable Feast. Though each of us were seated at different tables, we all got the chance to speak with some fantastic authors, who showed us their latest work. It was a great event.

After all was said and done, the bloggers plus one husband went down to the pool and took in the sun for a few hours. Then the hubby and I went out for a romantic dinner in downtown Naples at a terrific little sushi bar that made the best dragon roll I’ve ever tasted! As we settled down for the night, we knew that tomorrow it would be time to head back to our real lives, but for just a weekend, we had the time of our lives, thanks to Wanda Jewell and the authors and publishers that made SIBA the event of the year.
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