Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Crown by Nancy Bilyeau — 416 pgs

Joanna Stafford is a young novice from a once prosperous family who has just made a hasty escape from Dartford Priory. Upon discovering that her cousin is to be executed as a traitor to King Henry VIII, Joanna leaves the protection of the abbey that she loves in order to show her support for her cousin on the day of her death. But when events don’t go as planned, Joanna finds herself being held in the Tower of London for four long months, and soon the manipulative schemes of bishop Stephen Gardiner will change her life. Returning to the sisters that she left behind with a secret mission that may save the abbey from King Henry’s ministers, Joanna is up against men who long to close these religious houses for their own nefarious purposes. Sent back to Dartford Priory along with her are two Dominican friars whose directives and purposes are unclear to Joanna. But what is clear is this: Bishop Gardiner will stop at nothing in having Joanna search for a holy relic that may change the face of Christendom. Now Joanna must deceive not only the other sisters whom she has grown so close to, but also the new Prioress. When Joanna begins to discover the magnitude of the secrets being kept at Dartford Priory, it may be enough to destroy not only her calling, but to endanger her life as well. In this historical mystery, the fate of Dartford Priory, and the lives in it become hinged on the decisions made by one very unusual and brave novice, Sister Joanna Stafford.

With all the Tudormania that goes on in the realm of historical fiction, both on screen and in print, this book was refreshingly different because it sought to tell the story of a few unheard voices that never got the chance to take center stage in all of Henry’s dramas. I actually didn’t know what to expect from this book, for on the one hand, it was historical fiction, but on the other, there were elements of suspense and mystery surrounding an unearthed relic that had the power to change dynasties. I get the feeling that this book is ripe for a series to be founded upon it, but I liked the fact that even if I choose not to read any further, the story was completely encapsulated in this first book.

Joanna was a spunky heroine in a time where spunk could get you killed. She’s fairly headstrong and inventive, but she goes about doing things in a very quiet way and sometimes it took me awhile to figure out just what she was hoping to accomplish with the things she did. This was wonderful, because I found her to be completely unpredictable, and I think a lot of her cohorts felt this way as well. She was clever and spirited, but it never seemed that her calling interfered with her individuality. What I liked most about Joanna were the same things that made her unique among the other sisters. Her passionate zeal for justice and her ability to follow through no matter the cost to herself made her an excellent character to read about and cheer for, despite all the messiness of her situation.

With the introduction of the relic that’s hidden in priory, I worried that the book would take on shades of The Da Vinci Code and be less than satisfying to me, but Bilyeau manages to stand firmly in her historical time frame and imbued the plot with various period references and details that made this a solid and tightly plotted historical novel with more than a dash of mystery. The mystery was essential to the story and carried with it many different elements of significance, some religious, some political and some personal. Through the manipulation of Joanna, Bilyeau carries her audience into the very heart of the uncertainty that was the hallmark of this time. Treason and execution, persecution and perseverance, sovereignty to king or God; all of these issues come rapidly upon each other in a twisting puzzle of a read that keeps its readers guessing.

Though there were some slight romantic ripples through the plot, romance wasn’t really on offer in this book, and I think Bilyeau made the right decision in keeping those aspects of storytelling tightly reigned in. By doing so, Joanna’s spiritual crisis felt more authentic and pure, and though there was tension in that direction towards the end of the book, most of the plot involved intrigue and complicity, not the tender stirrings of Joanna’s heart towards the men of the novel. I also enjoyed that life in the priory was examined so closely, and even the smallest elements were spiced with great attention to detail. As the story weaves its spell around its readers, one becomes fully surrounded by the intrigue and danger competing with the quiet and ordinary life among the nuns.

I greatly enjoyed this historical drama and felt that as a lover of historical fiction, this was just the tonic I had been looking for. I enjoyed not only the winning and amiable character of Joanna, but the fevered and robust plot as well. The fact that this book made me ponder the bigger truths was another welcome touch. I think lovers of historical fiction and intrigue would be solidly entertained by this inventive debut novel. A hearty and satisfying read.

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Great news! The publishers of The Crown have offered one copy to give away to my readers. If you’re interested in winning it, please fill out the form below. The winner will be chosen with the help of on Wednesday March 21st. This giveaway is open to U.S. residents only.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Monday, February 27, 2012

The Pioneer Woman: Black Heels to Tractor Wheels — a Love Story by Ree Drummond — 352 pgs

Ree is your quintessential city girl who loves sushi, shoes and designer jeans. When she breaks up with her longtime boyfriend J after spending years just getting by on the fumes of romance, she heads back to her parents’ home in rural Oklahoma, where she’s planning to get her act together before moving to Chicago for the next great adventure in her life. But all that changes the night she goes out for a glass of wine with a group of friends and is caught up in the mystique of a mysterious cowboy whom she can’t seem to stop thinking about. As Ree prepares for her move to Chicago and tries to shake off J’s unwanted intrusion into her future, the unexpected happens: the cowboy reappears and sweeps Ree off her feet. In a whirlwind romantic courtship, Ree begins to learn about the realities of love and comes to crave the nearness and perfection of the cowboy she calls “The Marlboro Man.” As Ree adjusts to the change from city socialite to a woman who relishes the quiet and outdoorsy way of life, she begins to discover that the Marlboro Man is more than just a fling: He’s the real thing. But Ree’s life is far from calm, and when severe relationship problems begin to crop up for her parents, Ree becomes scared of the life she is embarking upon. But Marlboro Man won’t let that stop him because Ree is the woman he wants to spend the rest of his life with. In this memoir from award winning blogger and Food Network star Ree Drummond, readers get to hitch a ride on a star as they traverse the course of the early days of the relationship between Ree and her cowboy, the irrepressible and quietly solid Marlboro Man.

Though I’m not very familiar with Ree Drummond’s blog or television show, I have heard her name bandied about enough to have been curious about her memoir. Despite not being much of a romance reader, the fact that this story is written as a memoir really enticed me, and at a time when I’m rather busy and harried in my real life, I thought it would be a perfect escape to read about the journey into love that Ree never saw coming. For the most part, this book was enticingly romantic, but there were also deft bits of humor surrounding the story of Ree and Marlboro Man that I couldn’t help giggling over. This was a book to be savored and remembered, if only to prove that real romance does indeed exist and is found in the most unlikely spots.

I would have to classify Ree as something of a princess when the book starts, and I admit that I didn’t really feel a closeness to her. I don’t know if it’s just me, but I can’t really relate to a woman who’s main focus is clothes, shoes and hair. I initially thought Ree’s treatment of her longtime boyfriend, J, was a little cruel, given the fact that she had lived with him for so long, and I wondered what I got myself into with this book. It wasn’t until I began to see the little insecurities hiding behind Ree’s fancy facade that I began to take her a little more seriously and grew to like her. When Ree decides to introduce herself to the handsome cowboy at the bar, I knew the story was just taking off, and it was with a mixture of trepidation and curiosity that I watched this woman transform from a cynical fashionista into a love struck woman who became completely transparent and utterly likable.

Ree’s romance with Marlboro Man was recounted from its first precarious steps to its satisfying conclusion with lot of heat in between. I grew to see Marlboro Man from her perspective: a kind and romantic man with no time for games or foolishness. He takes his relationship with Ree very seriously but isn’t afraid to poke fun at her when he gets the chance, and the chemistry and heat between these two seems to gush off the page. All this is not to say that there weren’t problems along the way, for there were some issues between the two lovers that seemed insurmountable. Gently and with great care, these two moved together seamlessly to overcome the difficulties that plagued them while learning to lean on each other for support and strength that no one else could give. I was touched by the concern and compassion they showed for each other, and have to admit that I swooned a time or two over the Marlboro Man.

As Ree and her man become more and more enmeshed, questions of permanency and marriage begin to crop up, and unexpectedly, the situation is upon her. In the last section of the book, Ree decides to leave her old life behind and bend her existence to the love of her life, whom she seems to have discovered by fate and chance. This was my favorite section of the book because I remember asking myself many of the same questions as I took the plunge into married life that Ree struggles with as well. But through all the ups and downs, (and there are plenty) the loving and attentive man by her side never gives her reason to doubt, and with all her soul, Ree longs to become one with him. I was surprised at how this section turned out, because while the two had an almost perfect love, the situations surrounding them were far from perfect. When it weighed the most heavily on them, the two found strength in each other.

This was a very sweet romantic memoir to fill my February with, and I was glad that I had the opportunity to read it. Though it’s not my genre or subject choice very often, sometimes a girl just needs to escape into a blissful and extravagant tale of love and passion. If you’re looking for a book  to warm your heart and make you feel a rush of tenderness in your soul, this is the book for you. A really endearing read.

Author Photo About the Author

Ree Drummond, an award-winning blogger since 2006, is the star of the hit Food Network show The Pioneer Woman. In addition to her #1 New York Times bestselling cookbook, The Pioneer Woman Cooks, Ree is the author of Charlie the Ranch Dog and The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Food from My Frontier. She lives on a working cattle ranch near Pawhuska, Oklahoma, with her husband and their four children.

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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:

Friday, February 17th:Chick Lit Reviews and News
Monday, February 20th:Hospitable Pursuits
Tuesday, February 21st:Book Club Classics!
Thursday, February 23rd:Joyfully Retired
Monday, February 27th:Laura's Reviews
Tuesday, February 28th:Raging Bibliomania
Wednesday, February 29th:Jenn's Bookshelves
Thursday, March 1st:Books Like Breathing
Tuesday, March 6th:BookNAround
Wednesday, March 7th:Amusing Reviews
Thursday, March 8th:girlichef
Monday, March 12th:Tina's Book Reviews

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Friday, February 24, 2012

The Face Thief by Eli Gottlieb — 256 pgs

When Margot decides to give up her humdrum life as a slave to the rat race to become a polished and silver-tongued grifter, she starts small, taking advantage of her alcoholic father’s confusion in order to siphon his funds into her nearly depleted savings account. Before long, Margot is venturing into more dangerous waters, and when she begins to study face and body reading in order to perfect her art, she stumbles across Lawrence Billings, a man who can teach her everything she needs to know. But Margot is a busy little bee, and while manipulating Lawrence, she’s also out to swindle a few bigger fish, who won’t take her trespasses lightly. As Margot comes closer and closer to the precipice, her targets also begin to edge closer and closer to the truth, which might be fatal for her. Now, with Margot becoming the victim of serious crime, she may manage to escape scot-free, but her precarious situation doesn’t stop her from ensnaring a few more targets, including the ultimate prize, which will have repercussions more severe than anyone could have imagined. Floating between three points in time, this is the story of a girl who can and does become anyone, and the disasters that she creates as she stumbles forward taking down everything in her path.

After reading a few very positive reviews of this book, I was intrigued enough to seek it out for myself. Eli Gotliebb is a new name to me, but it seems that his work has been lauded by many, and I have to agree that this was a book that was hard to put down. The expertly crafted language was not only evocative and rich, but the story that Gotliebb told wiggled its way into my brain where it burrowed and squirmed, full of portent and and suspense. It was an uncomfortable book to read, but it was alarmingly powerful and urgent as well.

Gotliebb doesn’t waste a lot of time trying to seduce his readers into falling in love with Margot. It’s clear from the outset that she is one bad egg and that her desire to come out on top will propel her into abuse of privilege, exotic acts of manipulation and wild treacheries that know no bounds. At first, I was skeptical of Margot’s situation, as she seemed so reduced and powerless, but like a snake in the grass, it was only her attempts to gather herself before the final strike. Gotliebb does an amazing job of making everything about Margot and her past murky and shadowed, and as he doles out the information, slowly but surely I began to see what a tremendous force this woman actually was. Her ability to feed off of the emotions of others and compose herself into whatever they wished her to be was stunning and more than a little scary.

When Margot gets involved with Lawrence, her motives seem to be those of a student sitting at the feet of a master, but this isn’t all Margot wants. She is incapable of letting anyone walk away from her undamaged, and in Lawrence’s struggle with his powerful attraction to Margot, he unwillingly lets out his inner demons who not only torment him but take him hostage into a dark vortex of self deception and regret. Though Lawrence has traveled this road before, he cannot admit to anyone the power that Margot holds over him, and in her grip, he becomes a man devoid of self-control and perspective. Margot holds the keys to Lawrence’s destruction, and in her eyes, Lawrence sees reflections of the man he used to be, reflections that disturb and anger him into shame.

Margot has been playing games with everyone, it seems, for she has also swindled John Potash, a man who is living a dream of self sufficiency and wealth beyond his wildest imaginings. When Margot gets her hooks into John, she squeezes mightily and leaves him broken and spent, in more ways than one. But Potash isn’t about to give up and let Margot win. In an effort to replenish his fortune and get revenge on Margot, he becomes willing to compromise himself in a myriad of ways. His feelings of overwhelming anger and bitterness at Margot are bolstered by a nefarious plan that shapes the future destruction of not only his savings but his family as well. In these three intertwining stories of Margot’s various deceptions, Gotliebb ensnares his readers with sinewy narrative strength and reveals flashes of expertly crafted suspense. Dark desires and their swift repercussions race each other throughout this novel, and in its conclusion, readers will find themselves chilled and justifiably ensnared.

This book was brilliant in its intensity and power, and I dare say that anyone who reads this story will come away with feelings of an intense measure. If you’re looking for a suspense novel that is unique yet powerfully captivating and thrilling, you need look no further. An unquestionable success in the genre and a very dark look at the power of perception versus reality. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

What Happened to Hannah by Mary Kay McComas — 352 pgs

When Hannah Benson left her small town twenty years ago, she vowed never to return. Running from terrible abuse and an uncertain fate, Hannah struggled long and hard to create a life of normalcy and independence far away from her horrible origins. But when she gets a call one day telling her that her mother and sister have both died, leaving her sixteen year old niece without a family, Hannah must put aside old demons and painful memories to become the mother of a girl who is just as frightened and confused as she is. Though Hannah tries to kept the secrets of her past buried, her old flame Grady, now sheriff of the town, isn’t just going to let her waltz into town and take charge of her niece. He wants answers about the reasons for her disappearance, and most of all, he wants to let Hannah know that his feelings for her never died. But this old life and the people left in it are almost too much for Hannah to bear, and though she grows increasingly attached to her young niece and dreams of taking her far away to a new life, some of the things she has long kept hidden are starting to work their way out of the cracks and crevices where she once left them buried. Now it’s only a matter of time before Grady gets to the bottom of Hannah’s painful past. Will her memories and past actions turn the town, and most importantly, her niece, against her? In this novel of secret shame and painful reckoning, one woman will confront potent demons and hair raising abuse in order to break the cycle and reclaim a life that she thought she had given up forever.

When I first picked up this book, I had thought I was in for another light women’s fiction read that was heavy on the romance, with a side of drama that would keep me invested in flipping the pages. What I got was much more startling and direct, and in her efforts to create a moving and fluid story, I found that McComas created a vibrant and eclectic set of characters all impacted by the terrible events that happened in their midst twenty long years ago. It was intriguing to watch the layers and layers of secrets peeled back like tissue paper, finally exposing the brutality and fear nestling within. As I grew more and more invested in the book, I came to care for Hannah in an immediate and urgent way.

The Hannah that shows up on these pages is not very much like the Hannah of old. Sure, they were both filled with spunk and fire, but this new Hannah was a lot more vulnerable and fearful about the past that she left behind, and for good reason. When Hannah left town that dark night, she took with her a secret that she went to great lengths to hide, a secret that would change the shape of her future and the people that she left behind. For all her running and removal, Hannah wrestled with herself, both within her heart and mind, against the terrible monstrosity that claimed her that night. This is why the call to come back home so destroys her. Not only is she shielding her mind from the life that she lived, but she has reason to believe that someone else may know just what she did and that her secret may not be safe.

When Hannah first meets her niece, Anna, her namesake, she’s unsure of how to care for the girl, and it’s not a surprise to find that mothering comes hard to her. With the gentle pressure of Anna’s need, Hannah finds her way and begins to form the attachments to family that she never was able to form in the past. A lively group of teenagers, close friends of Anna, are there to provide the social and emotional lubrication in this new and fledgling relationship, and it’s the verisimilitude of the group’s social interactions that uncover pivotal strengths and weaknesses in Hannah’s character. As she grows closer and closer to Anna, she grows more and more fearful of her secrets coming to light, and she realizes that for the two to break away and be free, she must reveal all, much to her terror.

It’s really Grady who sets these events in motion, for his love for Hannah has never abated and he feels more than responsible for the events that lead her away in the night. But he has no idea what really happened. Once a popular rebel, time has brought Grady perspective, and at last he realizes that Hannah can’t slip away again. At times, I felt that he was pushing her too hard and that he was too fierce when it came to uncovering her secret, but Grady was only trying to break down the walls that Hannah put up so that she would finally let him love her. His strength and pushiness was a balm to her wounds, and though he was impatient to get to the bottom of things, his timetable turned out to be right on target. Though Hannah felt him to be pursuing her in more ways than one, what she couldn’t see was that his motive was always his love for her and the blame he shouldered for not protecting her.

This was a rather intense read, which made it all the sweeter when it’s denouement arrived. The force of so many strong willed people in such small confines could have been disastrous, but in this case, it all worked out really well. Character development never took a backseat to plot, and emotion ran high throughout the story. It was the kind of book that left me eager to uncover each development, and McComas had me eating out of her hand from the first paragraph. A lovely read with a lot of heart. Recommended for those who like fiction that’s got a little meat on its bones.

Great news! Mary Kay McComas did a wonderful interview over at Book Club Girl, and if you’d like the chance to check it out, click here!

Author Photo About the Author

Mary Kay McComas started her writing career twenty-five years ago. To date she’s written twenty-one short contemporary romances and five novellas; What Happened to Hannah is her second novel. She was born in Spokane, Washington, and now lives in a small town in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley of Virginia with her husband, three dogs, a cat, and her four children nearby.


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, February 7th:Life in the Thumb
Wednesday, February 8th:Tina’s Book Reviews
Thursday, February 9th:A Bookish Affair
Monday, February 13th:The Book Bag
Wednesday, February 15th:Jenn’s Bookshelves
Monday, February 20th:Sara’s Organized Chaos
Tuesday, February 21st:Book Hooked Blog
Wednesday, February 22nd:Raging Bibliomania
Thursday, February 23rd:Library of Clean Reads
TBD:A Cozy Reader’s Corner

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Healing by Jonathan Odell — 352 pgs

When the young daughter of plantation mistress Amanda Satterfield dies of cholera, the mistress is unable to contain her grief and steals the newborn child of one of the slaves. Though the child she names Granada comes to love the fine life that she lives inside the main house, she finds herself being constantly chastised by the other house slaves for her apparent defection and devotion to her white Mistress. At the same time, Amanda’s constant attentions to the girl begin to embarrass and anger her husband, Ben. When a large group of slaves who are working in the swamp begin to come down with a a fatal and frightening illness, Ben takes things into his own hands and purchases a slave like none other, the indomitable Polly Shine, a medical healing woman who holds the key to the salvation of the entire plantation in her wizened hand. But when Polly selects Granada as her assistant, the girl is beside herself with anger and bitterness, for it means leaving the comfortable side of the Mistress and all the little fripperies that she’s grown so accustomed to. Doing her best to get herself back into the house seems to be futile, and it’s only when Granada begins to put her anger and her own strange prejudices aside that she begins to see the injustice all around her and finds her capacity to heal and understand those who come to Polly for help. As Polly and Granada begin their works of healing, they come face to face with the dangerous ideas of freedom that are sweeping through the south with alarming alacrity. Soon enough, Master Ben begins to wonder if he’s paid too high a price for the slave he knows as Polly Shine, and Granada, finding herself at war between the blackness of her skin and the secret white soul she houses inside it must also choose a path that she never thought she would encounter. Deftly moving between past and present, Jonathan Odell takes his readers on a heartbreaking and startling journey through the lives of two very different slaves and the places where their lives and hearts intersect.

This year I was honored to attend a panel at SIBA that dealt with book club reads. I had the opportunity to hear several amazing authors speak about their upcoming books, and one of those that I was most excited about was The Healing by Jonathan Odell. I sort of have a fascination with healing and midwifery, and as Odell so eloquently explained, this book was rife with those elements in addition to mostly taking place on a plantation among the slave quarters. When I got back to my room that night, I immediately searched through my books to find this one, and was greatly absorbed with it from the moment that I picked it up until I turned the last page.

This was the type of book that you can’t help but read with your mouth agape. The plights of the slaves working on the plantation, the madness and addictions of the mistress of the house and the ultimate savior that Polly Shine turns out to be kept me trapped between the pages, longing for the full story to finally reveal itself. At its core, this is the story of Granada, the young girl who doesn’t know her own heart or her own people. It was easy to become frustrated with Granada and her incessant thoughts of her own welfare, until I realized that she was, in fact, only a child. A child who had been misused and had been a pawn in a cruel game between master and mistress, and who had been turned against her own family and relations. Though at times she could be unwittingly selfish, Granada’s plight began to speak to me after awhile, and what it related was a story in which a group of people can be so subsumed and alienated that they can’t even understand their own hearts or minds. Their loyalties and thoughts can be turned from the natural places inside them and they become immune to those like them who suffer injustice and abuse. Instinct and kindness become perverted into the hatreds and prejudices of others. This wasn’t only evident in Granada but also in the others whom Polly Shine comes to serve.

While this book had a very fluid and deft plot, there was an amazing amount of character development as well. What I loved was the subtle gradients of ethics and morals in all of the characters that show up on the page. The master wasn’t totally evil, he had subtle shadings of kindness and compassion in him, just as Polly Shine’s character wasn’t as spotlessly blameless as readers would expect. Like the people we deal with day in and day out, there was a blend of selfishness and selflessness in these characters: a moral divide that felt very authentic, organic and cohesive. These variations were surprising to me as a reader because as humans we like to compartmentalize people into little boxes of good and bad, but that’s neither realistic nor appropriate, both in this story and in the lives we lead. Odell has a wonderful gift for making his characters thrillingly lifelike and multidimensional. It wasn’t hard to simultaneously love and hate a character, and to realize that though some of their actions were done for the greater good, they were indeed horrific actions.

There were a lot of jaw-dropping moments in this story and Odell got the balance of history and suspense just right in his tale of plantation slaves who were both subjugated and overwrought. The mystifying aspects of the relationship between Granada and her masters was something that I relished, but at times it repulsed me as well. When Polly arrives and takes Granada into her cabin to be her apprentice, a new and more complex story begins to emerge, for now the reader begins to see just what’s at stake for the slaves and for Granada herself. This story eases back and forth between two different time periods and effortlessly tells the tale of Granada’s early days and her later life when she has taken on a new and unexpected role among her people. Themes of belonging, identity and sacrifice are rife throughout this narrative, and nothing ends up like the reader would expect. It’s a marvelous feat of artistry that forms the backbone of this story and leaves the reader breathlessly turning pages until its unexpected conclusion.

As Odell explained at the conference, a lot of historical research went into the crafting of this book, and while the book benefits from this expert approach, there is never a feeling of things being overly orchestrated or a feeling that the story is being told by rote. I enjoyed this book immensely and think that other readers will also get a lot of enjoyment out of the dual stories of Polly and Granada. It was an excellent read for many reasons, and I think Odell did a wonderful job with it all. It’s a book to savor, and I highly recommend it.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Friday, February 17, 2012


I’d like to congratulate Wendy from caribousmom on her win of a paperback copy of The Kings of Colorado! It’s a really absorbing book, and I hope very much that she enjoys it!

Also, I’m offering a giveaway for a chance to win either a copy of Charles Dickens: A Life by Jane Smiley, which is a great biography that I recently reviewed, or a copy of James Joyce: A Life by Edna O’Brien. One winner will be chosen for each book. If you’re interested in participating in this giveaway, please fill out the appropriate from below, and good luck!

The winners will be announced on March 9th with the help of

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The House I Loved by Tatiana de Rosnay — Audiobook Review

Produced by: Macmillan Audio
Narrated by: Kate Reading
Length: 5 hours 56 minutes

It’s 1840s France, and whole neighborhoods are being razed to the ground in order for the city to become restructured and modernized. Meanwhile, Rose Bazelet hides in the cellar of her abandoned home, refusing to leave no matter the cost. Rose has a long and troubled history with her home, as it was the home that her dearly loved and deceased husband was born and raised in, and it’s where she took her place as a young wife and raised her fledgling family. As Rose begins a series of letters to her beloved husband, the late Armand, she traverses the mental landscape of the Paris she once knew and loved. But from the meanderings of her mind, Rose will reveal a shocking secret that she’s kept hidden with as much skill as she is now hidden from the authorities who wish for her to vacate her home. And in her reflections of time passed, she will slowly uncover the great joys of her life as well as the stark tragedies. Is Rose destined to crumble fruitlessly along with her home, or will there be a moment when her resolve breaks, as her spirit did many years ago? In this atmospherically rich and emotionally complex tale, Tatiana de Rosnay weaves a spell spanning many years and countless heartbreaks, remembered in the troubled portrait of  of a city slowly being destroyed and painfully reassembled.

A few years ago I had the pleasure of reading Tatiana de Rosnay’s first book, Sarah’s Key. It was quite a memorable book and it made a deep impression on my psyche. A more deeply psychological look into grief and recompense could not be imagined. I was eager to get the chance to review this new offering by de Rosnay and was lucky enough to get to hear it on audio. The narration was performed by Kate Reading, and it was a very good choice for this book. Her French inflections and accent were rolling and smooth, and it was very pleasant to listen to her imparting the story. While I didn’t enjoy this book quite as much as Sarah’s Key, there was a lot here to love, and I moved through it briskly and with great interest.

The book takes the format of a series of letters from Rose to Armand, and as each letter is created, Rose delves deeper and deeper into her history. While some of this information is startling and was not revealed to Armand in his lifetime, other reflections take place in the space of years that Rose has been a widow. As I was listening, I could feel Rose’s anguish for her lost way of life, and though she appears upbeat and even jovial at times, there were subtle undercurrents of tremendous grief in the story she told. A fractious and cruel mother, a daughter who she never felt an affinity for, and a son whom she may have loved too much. All this Armand was spared, but now, seeing the end of her home, Rose feels as if she must come clean about the hidden sides of her life. It was in these helpless remembrances that I grew close to Rose and to feel a protective urgency towards her that I couldn’t shake.

After Armand’s death, Rose becomes a friend to the sagacious and opinionated young flower seller who occupies a space for her shop in one part of the great house Rose lives in. It’s in this friendship that I could see the push for modernity become something very tangible and real, and it’s almost as if de Rosnay introduces this character as a personification of the change that is rapidly spreading across the countryside. Though Rose and the young woman remain close and loving to each other, they couldn’t be further apart in their convictions of what should be done with the city. On the whole, it was a very interesting interplay between young and old, new and tarnished, and it’s this friendship that makes the very last sentences of the book seem so powerful and tragic.

The secret that Rose has kept from Armand is heavily foreshadowed, but when was revealed, I was taken aback. The force with which she protected this secret for so many years shed light on not only the powerful fortitude of Rose, but also on the strange predicament that she had within her family as a mother. In a way, she was protecting her family and all that she held dear, but the repercussions wore on her mentally and may have imparted a fatalistic bent to her personality. It’s interesting to contemplate this after having listened to the book, and to sit and think on it now leaves me wondering ever the more. Who is Rose without her hurts and losses? Who are the people she now relies on and will they be a comfort to her when all is lost?

This was a very interesting look into a period and place that I knew virtually nothing about, and by crafting the very personal story of Rose into this devastating backdrop, Tatiana de Rosnay has given readers a lot to consider and to explore. As with her other books, secrets long hidden become like live bombs in the hands of those who seek to recollect them. An emotionally percussive and solidly powerful read, made perfect in its execution. Recommended.

If you're interested in hearing a clip of the audiobook, please click below and enjoy!

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides — Audiobook Review

Narrated by: David Pittu
Produced by: Macmillan Audio
Length: 15 Hours 35 minutes

Madeline Hanna is completing her final year in college and discovers herself, quite by circumstance, in a class dealing with semiotics, where she meets the charismatic and attractive Leonard Bankhead. While Madeline is busily dissecting 19th century novels and assembling her thesis on the Marriage Plot, she finds herself inexplicably drawn to Leonard, who is a loner with a reputation for being somewhat of a Lothario. Though Madeline is from an upper crust family and is highly intelligent, she’s no match for Leonard’s power of persuasive attraction and soon finds herself falling deeply in love with the troubled genius. This whole situation greatly troubles Mitchell Grammaticus, a young man who feels that Madeline is his spiritual and romantic ideal. As Madeline, Leonard and Mitchell finally graduate, their destines are shaped by misguided love, powerful jealousy and mental illness. Now the three are off into the real world, where their academic prowess holds no sway over the more typical struggles of everyday life. For Madeline, this means heartbreak in the form of a complicated love that demands more than she’s capable of giving, while for Leonard, it means a dive from a high mental precipice that cannot be stopped. Meanwhile, Mitchell’s journey will take him deep into the recesses of his soul, where the power of religious mysticism will force him to change not only his life, but the lives of Madeline and Leonard. In this highly original and erudite tale of entwining lives, Jeffrey Eugenides brings us three unforgettable people just leaving the world of academia who are edging out into the cusp of a world that’s so very different than the one they left behind.

When Heather over at Book Addiction asked me if I would like to listen to the audio version of this title, I was really excited and eagerly said yes. I read and loved Middlesex many years ago and had been pretty excited about this book since first hearing of its imminent release. The audiobook was narrated by David Pittu, and I found myself utterly held captive by his expert narration and perfectly pitched vocalization. When I finally reached the end of the book, I lamented its ending for days, thinking over and over again about the paths of Madeline, Leonard and Mitchell and what would happen to them once the final scene had closed. Pittu’s voice was uniquely suited to this book, and in his rich tones and the warm introspection of his voice, I found a comfortable groove in which to take in this wonderful story.

This was a big book filled with big ideas, but Eugenides never loses his readers, despite the complexity of the vocabulary or the sinuousness of his narrative construction. It’s quite a feat, but Eugenides manages it well, creating a large sprawling book that has the amazing ability to both energize and enervate his readers with an emotionally stirring plot. At times this book could also veer into the realm of one of sustained intimacy, and though the story is large, it never becomes ponderous or unfocused. Each bit of this tale interlocks with the others with ease, bring together a whole crystalline picture that seems to touch on several dozen issues with fluidity and cohesiveness and a sustaining movement of plot that is both smart and sometimes audacious.

Though the book is set in the 80s, it’s really a story that lives outside of time, and though there are many period references, Eugenides doesn’t amplify them and make them the point of the narrative. The 80s, in this tale, is simply another character that is honed and harnessed in order to serve the drive of the plot. As a setting, it worked brilliantly, because while it had aspects of modernity, there was also a bit of reflective genius working just under the surface of the tale, helping readers to feel as if they were both trapped in a time period yet far removed from it. Another thing that really worked for me was the way Eugenides shifted the story about in time, deftly shuffling the elements of how and when these events took place. In once scene we would see Madeline and Leonard in a very specific situation, and then the narrative would work itself backwards, revealing how these predicaments came to be. It was handled beautifully and was a style of foreshadowing that I hadn’t seen before.

Though the root of this novel is a triple-stranded love story, it was also much more than that. Though it’s impossible to lay it all out in one review, I was left with a great many ideas and thoughts as I was listening. Themes of rejection and incompatibility seemed to be nestled in between tucks and folds of maturation and acceptance, while spiritual reflection and a trueness to one’s nature sat beside themes of the unalterable aspects of fate. I grew to love these characters and to truly understand their moral and physical struggles. I wept for them and missed them when it was all over and done with. Eugenides’ skill in creating real people whom you can care about is only rivaled by the skill with which he creates the worlds and circumstances they live in. There was an element of chaos to all this order, but it was beautiful chaos.

I was highly enamored of this book, and for those readers who enjoy stories that are both character and plot driven, this will be a magnificent read. It’s also very smart and involving, and one that creatively encompasses Eugenides’ ability to showcase humanity in all its flawed grace. I’m so glad I was able to spend time with this book and have to admit that it’s been the best read of the year so far. An excellent choice for a wide spectrum of readers. Highly recommended.

If you’d like to hear a sample of Pittu’s elegant narration, please click below for an audio sample:

Friday, February 10, 2012

Taylor Polites Guest Post

Today I have the pleasure of bringing you a guest post from Taylor Polites, author of The Rebel Wife, which I reviewed Tuesday. After having read the book, I can vouch for the fact that his creation of Augusta was a unique accomplishment. Here Taylor gives us a glimpse of what inspired him in building the essence of Augusta and making her such a rich and inspiring protagonist. Taylor’s search to find the perfect voice for his heroine is a unique story as well, and I’m pleased to share it with you today. So without further ado, I present Taylor in his own words.

One of the biggest challenges of writing The Rebel Wife was defining the voice of the heroine, Augusta. I have always loved strong women in fiction, from Scarlett O’Hara to Becky Sharp and Isabel Archer. But to write in the voice of a woman—and a woman of 1875, no less—was challenging to say the least. I used many resources to get a sense of period and the material culture, but to get into the nitty-gritty of a woman’s voice, I needed women guides. Thankfully, there are a lot of Southern women from the period who felt compelled to put their thoughts on paper.

Portrait of Mary Chesnut
(Wikimedia Commons)
The tumultuous years around the Civil War saw a huge number of women who turned to writing as a means of expression, relief or ambition. Women novelists were already a major American phenomenon. Diarists and memoirists burst the seams of the literary market from the 1880s through the early 1900s. Since then, many books of letters and diaries, documents where writers put their most intimate and honest thoughts, have been made available. Mary Chesnut’s Civil War diary, as reconstituted by C. Vann Woodward, was a major resource for me, as were the letters of Kate Fearn Steele of Huntsville, Alabama, in the collection Cease Not to Think of Me. These women were my guides to a sensibility and worldview. There were many others, but two fascinating Alabama women also served as important muses and counterpoints of 19th century female ambition and its limits.

One was Kate Cumming, an upper-class woman who kept a detailed journal of her career during the war. The other was Augusta Jane Evans, the writer of blockbuster women’s fiction who was an ardent supporter of the Confederate cause. Both women were born in 1835. Both moved several times with their families when they were very young. Evans in particular suffered the vicissitudes of family bankruptcy and pioneer life in Texas. Both ended up in Mobile and as young adults, dedicated themselves to nursing during the Civil War. Doubtless, had they been men, they would have been among the first to volunteer to fight.

Photograph of Augusta
Jane Evans in 1890
(Wikimedia Commons)
But they were women of the 19th century with ambitions that were considered outscale for their gender. Evans already had broken the gender-line by having written the successful Inez, a Tale of the Alamo at the age of fifteen, followed in 1859 by the best-seller Beulah. Her wealth enabled her to endow a hospital, found an orphanage and devote herself to nursing in Mobile during the war. But even her wealth could not overcome her family’s objections to her plan to work as a nurse in the field hospitals that followed the army. She remained in Mobile. Her war novel, Macaria, or Altars of Sacrifice, was published in 1864 in wartime Richmond and even with paper scarcity circulated in a printing of 20,000 copies. One copy was smuggled to her publisher in New York where it was printed, the proceeds being held in her name until the war ended. In Macaria, Evans has two heroines, Irene and Electra, who both reject support from men and traditional roles to pursue ambition and duty. Irene in particular sacrifices her love for a soldier to the needs of the fledgling Confederacy. Evans’ heroines seem to embody the dichotomy of her own position: breaking through gender-lines while still speaking the language of the male-dominated social order.

Kate Cumming in a carte de
visite (Alabama Department
of Archives and History)
While Augusta Jane Evans was writing about nursing (and doing it herself in a Mobile hospital), Kate Cumming boarded a train with a group of women and went to the battle lines. In the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Shiloh, Cumming and many other women worked tirelessly as nurses in makeshift hospitals, always short on supplies. She committed herself to this work for three years in spite of the strenuous objections of her father and brothers. Florence Nightingale’s book on nursing, published in 1860, inspired her. She left a journal where she recounted her harrowing experiences, the wounds, the amputations, the death, the nearness of the battles. The journal was published in 1866, one of the first to be printed, and was little altered from the original. In her introduction, she says that “the vivid recollections of what I have witnessed during years of horror have been so shocking, that I have almost doubted whether the past was not all a fevered dream, and, if real, how I ever lived through it.” Those experiences left her conflicted, carrying bitterness for all the loss, but a desire for peace and reconciliation.

After the war, both women returned to their pre-war lives. Cumming moved with her father to Montgomery, never married and became a teacher. Evans wrote the mega-blockbuster, St. Elmo, then married in 1869, becoming mother to her new husband’s children and devoting herself to running the household. Both women became involved in Confederate memorial societies. Both died in 1909. Two different lives, but with so much in common. Like many of the disparate voices of women from the Civil War era, each with their own path, these two women left their writings behind to tell of their ambitions and frustrations and the challenges they overcame.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Rebel Wife by Taylor Polites — 304 pgs

Augusta Branson has just buried her husband, Eli, after a horrendous bloody death brought on by a mysterious illness. Though “Gus” wasn’t overly fond of Eli and felt that she had been trapped in a marriage that betrayed her political and social sympathies, Eli’s death isn’t the escape that she had so hoped it would be. Eli hasn’t even been put into the ground before her cousin, the enigmatic Judge, comes calling to inform Gus that he is the executor of her husband’s will and that Eli has squandered away the family fortune, leaving Gus nearly destitute. In addition, there are subtle undercurrents of vicious racial hate surging through the town, and though the slaves have been freed, it seems that Eli was on the wrong side of the political divide, financing and assisting the Freedmen in numerous ways and making himself some very powerful enemies. Just when Gus has lost all hope, salvation comes from an unexpected quarter, and in her late husband’s manservant, Simon, Gus finds a tenuous alliance. Simon has kept many secrets for Eli, and when he decides to put his trust in Gus, the two begin to uncover a winding trail of secrets that may lead to freedom for the repressed former slaves, and liberation for Gus as well. But despite all their care, Gus and Simon cannot keep the danger fully at bay, and as they uncover more and more clues to the elaborate deception that is going on all around them, they find themselves in a twisted pit of hate, corruption and evil. In this absorbing and provocative novel, Taylor Polites brings us the pulse-pounding story of one woman’s journey to the discovery of ultimate truth and redemption, both in her life and the lives that surround her.

One of the best experiences that I had at SIBA late last fall was getting the chance to meet Taylor Polites, whose razor sharp wit and charisma made me feel as if I had known him for ages though we had only just met. When I attended the Book Club Picks panel, I was excited to see Taylor there, speaking about his upcoming book, The Rebel Wife. I was rooted to the spot and fascinated by every word, because this was a tale told from a perspective that I had never heard before, and as I sat and listened, I grew more and more intrigued. When I opened the book and began reading, I was transported to a time and place that was new and emotionally stirring to me. As I wound my way through the pages, I became eager and anxious to untangle the threads of plot, character and emotion that were woven into this rousing tapestry.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this book was the character growth of Gus. It was not only believable, but intriguing to watch. There are times when historical novels frustrate me because the starring roles are occupied by characters that don’t evince any growth at all, and I close the book in frustration, seeing no forward movement. This isn’t the case with Gus. In her emotional evolution she begins as closed as a bud and slowly unfurls into a woman who embodies and displays grace and courage. Her refusal to become hardened and bitter, and her eventual acceptance and increasing esteem for the servants who were closer to her than kin, was also extremely heartening to see. I have to admit that I didn’t really like Gus at first, but as her trials wore on her and her exterior was sloughed away, she became not only a likable character but someone whom I rooted for and became invested in. The forward momentum of her personality wove through the plot as well, and as it did so, the narrative became rich and enlivened.

It was in the plight of the former slaves and Freedmen that I found the true substance and grit of this book. Theirs was a cruel predicament, for they were not captured by the bonds of slavery, yet they still existed in a type of bondage that was more spiteful and harder to categorize. Though they had their rights, the novel sheds light on the ways in which organized resistance kept them from voting and from holding land of their own. Where once they were slaves, now they were servants, and in effect, it was only the change in terminology that separated the two. In light of these facts, Simon was a most welcome character: a man who refused to succumb to the more dominant whites that wanted to keep him ensnared. While Eli lived, he was a right hand, but after his death, he became so much more than that, both for Gus and the men of his community. His was a troubled path as well, and his redemption was hard won, but Simon was both loyal and powerful in his quiet and subdued way.

As the narrative spins, Gus becomes lost in the plots and plans of men who think that they are better, smarter and stronger than she is, and due to her gender, all the actions that she takes must be done in secrecy. It was a hard time for women of the South after the devastation of the Civil War, and it was interesting the way that black Americans and women shared the feelings of helplessness and futility in their ability to affect change and hold power. These struggles were deftly examined and exposed in the novel, and in addition to shedding light on this frustrating situation, Polites weaves a significant amount of historical background into the personal narrative. Well crafted and finely honed antagonists round out the picture into one that was not only satisfyingly complete, but full of intrigue as well.

There aren’t many historical novels that I would read twice, but in The Rebel Wife I’ve found a book that I want to go back to again and again; not only because of the things I learned but because I believe the book still has lessons to teach me and its characters are vivid and solid enough to withstand close scrutiny and become favorites. I was greatly impressed with this book and I think those that love historical fiction or stories that reflect the human condition would have a lot to chew over and contemplate here. A fantastic read. Highly recommended.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Ruins of Us by Keija Parssinen — 352 pgs

The Baylani family is slowly disintegrating. When matriarch Rosalie discovers that her husband, Abdullah, has taken another wife and has been hiding this secret from her for over two years, she’s understandably distraught and furious. Rosalie is an American, and it’s been decades since she left her home in Texas to share a life with Abdullah in Saudi Arabia. Diluting her foreignness down to almost imperceptible levels, Rosalie has embraced her new culture and has pinned all her dreams and happiness on Abdullah, who has betrayed her in the worst way possible. Meanwhile, Rosalie and Abdullah’s children, the severe and stoic Faisal and the more whimsical and free-spirited Miriam, are spinning off into their own private orbits of loneliness, confusion and, in the case of Faisal, extreme religious pliability. But with Abdullah’s secret out in the open, the family, once close and loving, begins to slowly unravel into a group of people fighting for emotional survival at the expense of one another. When Rosalie decides to take her future into her own hands, she sets off a devastating chain of events that will lead to one member of the clan contemplating and executing the unforgivable. Now it’s up to the people around them and the family themselves to pull themselves back from the brink where they’ve been teetering for so long. In this provocative and gripping look into a Saudi marriage that’s falling apart, the reader watches as each piece of the puzzle rapidly falls away, leaving only heartbreak and emptiness behind.

Recently I’ve seen a lot of reviews of this book and the majority of them have been tepid. I had wondered, after reading them, if my experience would be the same, and had concerns about what I was getting myself into. I think part of the reason that my opinion differed from most of the other reviewers’ was because as I was reading, I became imminently aware that each of these characters was deeply flawed in one way or another. I became engrossed in an attempt to understand where their motives lay and invested in learning whether they would find the redemption that they were so longing for. While I do agree somewhat with the reviewers who felt the book was a bit salacious, I found the scandals that were created in the narrative to have the qualities of a motivator that lent the plot credibility and justified the characters’ suffering and ire.

I really felt for Rosalie. Here was a woman who left America behind to follow her soul mate into the desert and begin a family with him, only to be strung along into a multiple marriage by the man she trusted most int he world. Rosalie was no shrinking violet, but her helplessness at the situation she was in made me feel a deep thrum of compassion for her. Sure, she could have been a little less focused on herself and more in touch with her kids, but what parent couldn’t? In Rosalie’s desperate mental revolutions, she felt that she was trapped, indeed knew that she was. Though she was a spitfire, some of her life force seemed to drain away from her in her struggle to understand why Abdullah had strayed from their marriage and into another woman’s arms. It was not only that he had strayed, but had *married* another woman without her knowledge that both scandalized and shocked me.

Abdullah, on the other hand, was a very disagreeable character for me to deal with. He was absurdly selfish in all that he did and his rationalizations for his behavior stuck me as not only crude, but strangely immature. When faced with a chasm of growing separation from Rosalie, what does Abdullah do? Why, he goes out and gets another wife, of course! Though Saudi custom doesn’t forbid this, in modern day Saudi Arabia, this is a behavior that is frowned upon. The fact that he keeps this woman a secret from his family is an indicator of just how wrong he knows his behavior is. Abdullah is self centered and indulgent with himself. He gives what is in his pockets and bank accounts, not in his heart, and it was very repugnant to me to have to spend time with him on the page. I grew tired of him rather quickly and wondered how it was that Rosalie ever fell in love with such a man.

The third point of this plot triangle is Faisal, Rosalie and Abdullah’s son. As he matured, his belief system has become radical, and I got the feeling that he was in the throes of a moral and ethical search that really had no answer. He was adored by his mother and complicit with his father, but at some level, Faisal believed that he was beyond them in his spiritual capacities. This isn’t so different than a lot of teenagers in the West feel, but in a country that’s ripe with fanatics and whose religion demands such a total giving of one’s entity, Faisal does much more than just lose his way. He becomes dangerous to some degree and his moral indignation at his parents’ plight results in a twisted form of retribution that is meted out in intense ways. Faisal’s basic struggle is one for acceptance, and when the wrong people start to accept him, his psyche begins to become warped and unstable.

This was a great novel for those readers who like deeply resonant and dramatic looks into dysfunctional families. The setting provides a new and almost unprecedented look into a culture that is beset with very different ideals and dangers than those posed in the West. While the book does provide a heightened level of drama, it’s a story that many will find intoxicating due to its exposure of issues that are explosive and that target themes of forgiveness, culpability and regret. A very thought-provoking read; Recommended.

Author Photo About the Author

Keija Parssinen was born in Saudi Arabia and lived there for twelve years as a third-generation expatriate. She earned a degree in English literature from Princeton University and received her MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where she held a Truman Capote Fellowship and a Teaching-Writing Fellowship. For The Ruins of Us, her first novel, she received a Michener-Copernicus Award. She lives with her husband on the edge of a quarry in Missouri.

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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, January 17th:Book Hooked Blog
Wednesday, January 18th:Take Me Away
Thursday, January 19th:Broken Teepee
Friday, January 20th:Bibliosue
Monday, January 23rd:Book Club Classics!
Tuesday, January 24th:Wandering Thoughts of a Scientific Housewife
Thursday, January 26th:Peeking Between the Pages
Tuesday, January 31st:Col Reads
Wednesday, February 1st:The House of the Seven Tails
Thursday, February 2nd:Raging Bibliomania
Monday, February 6th:Library of Clean Reads
Tuesday, February 7th:Man of La Book
Wednesday, February 8th:2 Kids and Tired Book Reviews

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.
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