Thursday, May 31, 2012

Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay — 688 pgs

When Brandin of Ygrath ruthlessly destroys the city of Tigana as revenge for the death of his son during war, he places a spell that virtually ensures that Tigana and its residents will be lost and forgotten forever. The tyrant Brandin rules half the continent and seeks to conquer the remainder, which is ruled by Alberico of Barbidor. The two warrior sorcerers are so busy trying to dominate the Peninsula of the Palm that they never realize that the seeds of resistance are being planted right under their noses. These seeds are sown by an unlikely band of warriors whose aim is to break the spell placed over Tigana all those years ago. This traveling band of what would at first appear to be minstrels includes some very powerful and staunch men and women who long to break the region’s rule of tyranny, and whose acts of rebellion will involve a cast of characters from the most lowly to the most high. It’s up to this ragtag group of people to force a conflict of the greatest proportions between the two tyrannical leaders, hoping that they will one day bring the name of Tigana back to the ears and mouths that have lost the ability to perceive it. In this engrossing and heartrending fantasy tale, Guy Gavriel Kay takes his readers on an epic quest for redemption, conquest and healing in a place where brutality is the order of the day and sorcery comes face to face with the unflinching power of those who were once so greatly wronged.

One of the best things about having a reading buddy like Aarti is that, on occasion, she’ll get me fired up about a new author or genre, which is exactly what happened when she introduced me to the wonderful works of Guy Gavriel Kay. When we decided to read The Lions of Al-Rassan together last year, I became intensely interested in Kay and vowed to read as many of his books as I could. I’m not that well-versed in fantasy, but after reading these two books, I’m coming to find out that this is a genre that I can really fall in love with. Despite the fact that I enjoyed Lions just a little bit more than this book, I found that the story kept me glued to my seat, with revelations and twists coming in fast and ferociously.

This was not an easy read. Kay engineers his books in way that maximizes storyline and characters in a dense bunch, with political and social machinations that will leave even the most careful reader dizzy at times. In his winding narrative, he creates a fascinating world where things are very different than the world we live in and provides his readers with such plausible backstory that it’s impossible not to buy into all the various conundrums and difficulties that his characters face. It was literally spellbinding to think about the time and effort that goes into these books, and in his creation of this far-off world, Kay brings to life a civilization that stretches the borders of his pages and goes on to embed itself in his readers’ consciousness and imagination.

There was a lot going on in this book, and from its humble beginnings, I wondered just where Kay was going to take me. As the narrative stretched forward, people and places coalesced into a dramatic frenzy that not only includes magic and sorcery, but war, politics, and even a few love triangles. There were also many themes running through the tale, such as revenge and control, annihilation and rebuilding, and power and weakness. Though there was one character that I didn’t care for very much (and I think Aarti agrees with me on this point), all of the them had credibility and dimension, and all of them kept me pondering over the repercussions that their actions would have. It was the type of story that’s easy to lose yourself in, and great swatches of plot served only to magnify the conflict and desires that each of these characters faced. Kay pulls it off brilliantly and keeps his readers in the perfect balance of suspense and watchfulness as he plays one character and set of events off of the other time and time again.

Divided loyalties, shifting balances of power, and heartbreaking revelations are only some of what this book has to offer. A few times while reading, I would shout out with realization and wonder when plot points intersected and gelled for me. This book also speaks of the powerful bonds that are formed when people become enmeshed together, fighting for the same cause. In several instances, I marvelled at the potency of Kay’s ability to permeate the boundaries between these very different people, and came to relish the power, subtlety and skill of his writing. There was one particular storyline that involved Brandin’s captive concubine that had me furiously turning pages, eager to find out what would transpire between the woman who came to kill the warrior wizard but found herself caught up in the most indescribable love for her captor.

If there are readers out there who haven't experienced Guy Gavriel Kay’s awesomeness, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend both this book and The Lions of Al-Rassan as some of the most entertaining and thoughtful historical fantasy out there today. It was a lush read, one that surprised me with its intensity and fluid plot, and I’m now even more committed to reading more of Kay’s work. A great read all around, and highly recommended!

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott by Kelly O'Connor McNees — 384 pgs

In this interesting and enigmatic fictional account, the reader embarks on a journey through the life of one of the world's most loved authors, Louisa May Alcott. After landing in a spot of financial difficulty, the Alcott family has just moved into a deserted cabin owned by a friend in Walpole, New Hampshire. The family, which consists of four girls and their parents, are no strangers to domestic disturbance and poverty, due to Mr. Alcott's refusal to engage himself in gainful employment. Though his family disagrees, Mr. Alcott feels it is his duty to shun all material pleasures, focusing instead on his philosophical interests, a behavior which Louisa in particular finds abhorrent. As the family becomes immersed in their new surroundings, Louisa meets the local merchant's son, Joesph Singer, who immediately takes a curious interest in her. Louisa's only dream is to escape her family and move to Boston, where she hopes to have success as an author; so this new attention by Joseph Singer is not only unwelcome but strongly rejected by her, a fact that doesn't deter the young Mr. Singer in the least. Louisa grows more adamant and resistant to the charms of the young man but finds herself curiously drawn to his bright mind and eager advances. When Joesph finally begins to get past Louisa's prickly exterior, the two find themselves enamored of each other and ready to take their relationship to the next level. But then an unforeseen hinge drops a door on the couple's new-found happiness: Joesph may not be free to promise himself to the woman he loves. Louisa, for her part, struggles mightily between her desires for Joseph and her dream of a new life as a successful writer in Boston. The young lovers find themselves in the midst of a confusing and troubling set of events that threatens to overtake their dreams of the future. In this touching and reverent tale, the life of Louisa May Alcott is re-spun and re-imagined into a tale of deep love and disappointing heartbreak.

I know it's a terrible thing to admit, but as of yet, I have not read Little Women. Oh, I’ve always planned to, but I’ve never made the reading time to invest in this classic of literature, despite all the glowing things I’ve heard about it. I had initially been a little skeptical about reading this book, and figured that having not read Little Women, this tale would surely fly right over my head. I was pleased to discover that this was not the case, and found myself very interested and absorbed in this fictional account of Alcott's life.

I have to say that this portrayal of Louisa was very eye-opening. For most of the story, she’s quite aloof and bad-tempered. I might even say that she bordered on rude at times, which made me feel a little distanced from her character. I think the real reason for her coldness was her intense desire to leave everything behind and embark on her writing career, which, by necessity kept getting shoved to the back burner time and time again. She was a very spirited heroine, but most of her drive came in the form of gruff proclamations and retorts about the dissatisfaction of her life. Joesph was truly in for a hard time when he set his sights on her, because it seemed that she had no time for love and affection and would rather spend her time in pursuits of the mind. I think that’s what finally cracked her shell in regards to the young man. When she discovered that he, too, longed for intellectual companionship, a bond between the two was formed, with eagerness on both sides.

I had a hard time with Louisa's father, Bronson Alcott. I thought it was extremely selfish that he would not work to support his family and basically left their fates to the mercy of friends and acquaintances. It was frustrating to see the women of the house working endlessly to keep things going while he spent most of his time reading in his study or entertaining philosophical debates with his friends. When the girls and their mother objected to his laziness, he would begin to spout off rhetoric about leaving himself free to entertain the world of the mind and would object to doing even basic work for his family's sustenance. I’m actually surprised that the family fared so well because it must have been tiring for his friends to always have to come to their rescue. Bronson was by turns arrogant, shiftless, and distant, which really frustrated me. I do believe that these parts of the story were based on historical fact, and as I was reading, I imagined that living under his rule must have been horrific at times. In a roundabout way, Louisa's behavior towards her work sometimes mirrored her father's, for she was endlessly pursuing creativity at all costs.

The love story between Joseph and Louisa felt very organic to me, and it formed the majority of the plot. At first, I was very upset that Louisa kept denying the young man, but when the battle was finally won, the progression of the love story seemed that much sweeter. One of the main things that caused distance between the two was Louisa's fierce drive for independence. Nothing else mattered to her, and it took tremendous effort on the part of Joseph to make her see another way. I really liked Joseph and thought that his courting of Louisa was almost regal in its sincerity. He was doggedly persistent in his courtship, which made me hold him in high regard. As the story wound toward its conclusion, I found that I was getting upset with Louisa's staunch attitude of defeat when it came to their love. It could have been so much easier than she was making it for the two of them! But Louisa was Louisa, and this was not to be.

The dramatic turn at the conclusion of the story was heartbreaking. Just when all was going well, things took a turn, and I was saddened by the fate that the lovers gave into. For Louisa, things went on as she had planned, but there was a lot of hurt along that path. It seemed that circumstance coupled with Louisa's desire to be free was the stronger of the imperatives. But lest you think I spoiled the book for you, there was much that was unforeseen in the conclusion of this story. Just when you think things are going to be played out in one direction, an unexpected turn is divulged. The door between the lovers does not close as abruptly expected.

I got unexpectedly caught up in this book and think that the author did a wonderful job of making her characters well rounded and sympathetic individuals. The story had a lot of immediacy, which is funny to think about, considering it occurred such a long time ago. The author admits that the love story portrayed here is a work of fiction, as are other aspects of the tale, but questionable gaps in the record of Alcott's life may lead the reader to believe that this story may not be all that far-fetched. I definitely think that those readers who have enjoyed Alcott's body of work would do well to pick up this book, and for those who have not read anything by the author, do not fear! There’s enough grist in this story for it to stand alone beautifully. It was a very interesting read, and I’ll be doing my best to start giving Alcott's work the attention that it deserves!

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

I Am Forbidden by Anouk Markovits — 320 pgs

In this multi-generational saga, the lives of a family of an extremely devout Jewish sect range from extreme joy to unmitigated tragedy as one transgression sets off an unstoppable chain of events. When two young children, Josef and Mila, are left orphaned by the horrendous events of the Holocaust, they travel a great distance to join the family of the religiously extreme Torah scholar Zalman Stern. Their new caretaker has a large brood of children, including a free thinking daughter named Atara. As time marches forward, Josef eventually leaves the Sterns to become a Torah scholar as well, while Atara and Mila become as close as sisters. When Zalman begins to look for prospective mates for both his ward and his daughter, the two young women are parted under very unusual circumstances. But it’s Mila’s destiny to be married to Josef, who hasn’t forgotten the young girl he left behind. Though the two are very much in love, Mila will shatter Josef’s heart and destroy the futures of her children and grandchildren with one misguided act—an act that she believes has been consecrated by God and the Torah. But redemption will come from an unlikely place, though it may not be enough to save what has been so tragically torn asunder. Will the silken cords of belief be unbound to prevent further heartbreak, or will they continue to tighten and strangle this loyal yet hopelessly estranged family?

Powerful, haunting and tragic, this novel elegantly weaves its narrative with precision and care, and creates a dark look into the lives of a family who’s religion seems to strangle them. The ferocity of the Judaism in this book was almost frightening, and each character living within this community seemed to lack the freedom to even think for themselves. All were bound to the writing of the Torah and its interpretation by a man with total control and questionable ethics. The Rebbe who ruled this particular sect was a man that dominated not only the Sterns but a whole community that looked to him for guidance. The only character who seemed to be suspicious of the Rebbe was Atara, who paid the ultimate price for going against the wishes of her pious father.

Many reviewers have mentioned the fact that the religious ritual was both fascinating and oddly striking, and I would have to agree with that assessment. I’ve read a fair amount about Hasidic Judaism, but the details that Markovits captures in her tale were not only new to me but sometimes shocking in their severity. There are fringe groups within every religious denomination, but never before has each rule and idiosyncrasy been documented with such clarity and care. I grew both angry and stricken while I read, knowing that one false step could result in complete isolation from the group, and that one's every action had to be thoroughly examined in order not to break the rules and guidelines that the Torah specifies.

Though the love story between Josef and Mila was romantic and beautiful, it was also full of pathos and pain. I won’t reveal the crux of the situation for fear of spoilers, but it was saddening to see the rose of their love bloom so beautifully, only to painfully wither away in an instant. What was maddening to me was that there was no redemption to be had. Though the two loved each other beyond compare, there was nothing they could do to erase the stain on their relationship. Though Mila acted in a completely rational and acceptable way, the rules set down by the Torah and the Rebbe forbade her forgiveness to an extreme degree. The impact that her act had was so far reaching and horrible that I felt my heart shrivel in my chest as I read the book’s final pages.

Forgiveness is a major theme in this book, and those seeking it never have the satisfaction of receiving it fully. There is a measure of redemption given to Atara, Mila and her offspring, and Josef, but there is never complete absolution for any of the characters. Suffering and pain is masked as religious adherence and filial duty, but there is no reprieve. In my opinion, Atara is the only character who ever really found a measure of peace, though even that is tainted by Mila’s unwise action.

This was a brilliant and beautiful book that sought to explain a way of life which is unfamiliar to most, populated by vivid characters who were placed under severe duress amidst stolen moments of joy. An incredible read that will leave an impression on even the most severe critic. Highly recommended.

Author Photo About the Author

Anouk Markovits was raised in France, one of fifteen children of Hasidic Jewish parents. She was sent to a religious seminary in lieu of high school. After she left home at the age of nineteen to avoid an arranged marriage, she attended Columbia University’s School of General Studies and graduated with a Bachelor of Science. She has a Master of Architecture from Harvard and a PhD in Romance studies from Cornell. Her first novel, Pur Coton, written in French, was published by Gallimard. I Am Forbidden is her English-language debut.

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

Monday, May 7th:Unabridged Chick
Tuesday, May 8th:Dolce Bellezza
Wednesday, May 9th:nomadreader
Thursday, May 10th:Life in Review
Friday, May 11th:Peeking Between the Pages
Monday, May 14th:Diary of an Eccentric
Tuesday, May 15th:The Literate Housewife Review
Wednesday, May 16th:Jenn’s Bookshelves
Thursday, May 17th:A Bookish Affair
Monday, May 21st:Raging Bibliomania
Wednesday, May 23rd:The 3 R’s Blog
Thursday, May 24th:Stiletto Storytime
Tuesday, May 29th:Luxury Reading
Monday, June 4th:Suko’s Notebook
Date TBD:Melody & Words
Date TBD:She is Too Fond of Books - guest post

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Hunger Games Trilogy Mini-Reviews

*WARNING: Some small spoilers may abound.*

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins — 384 pgs

I know I'm probably one of the last people in the blogosphere to jump on The Hunger Games bandwagon, but here I am all the same! Though I've resisted the impulse to pick up these books, when Mockingjay was finally released, I realized I couldn't wait any longer and gave in. Actually, everyone in my house is reading these books simultaneously. My husband and I are listening to the trilogy on audio and my kids are passing the books back and forth among themselves. When I finally got started, I was excited to find that I loved the book and found it constantly thrilling and exciting. Collins has unusual talent and a superb mastery of her plot, and I enjoyed every minute of it. Narrative aside, I found the characters and their plights to be quite genuine, though I did wonder at Katniss' thick-headedness at times. I was eager to push forward through the book, and easily gulped down chapter after chapter. For the most part, the plot twists came as a surprise to me, though there were a few that I saw coming—like the unfortunate fate of Rue and the relationship that eventually develops between the two main characters. There were some things that I didn't see coming at all and was shocked to learn about, particularly towards the end. I really loved the world that Collins created and found that she was extremely good at world building and stage setting. When I finally came to the end, I was wondering where this series was going next, what the fate of Peeta and Katniss be, and just what would happen in District 12. I started the second book right away, knowing that I couldn't leave these questions unanswered for long!

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins — 400 pgs

The second book in this trilogy met with a little less success with my husband and me. For the most part, I felt that a lot of the first section seemed directionless, and it took me awhile to warm up to the fact that this book was not going to be the action packed thrill ride that The Hunger Games was. I got used to the meandering way of the plot, but I felt that the love triangle was a little awkward and the sections about life in District 12 after the games was a little plodding. It's not that I thought that this was a bad book, it's just that it was very different from what I had come to expect from Collins. Just when I had gotten used to the fact that this was going to be a more sedate and functional story, the tables turned on me and we were back in the Hunger Games again. I must say that while interesting, the games didn't have the same bite or originality as they did in the first book, and a lot of the time I was wondering why Collins had such trouble recreating the thrilling and original bits that kept me excited and engrossed in the first book. These games seemed more like a plot contrivance, and while I did find them interesting, my excitement just wasn't at the same sustained level as it had been in the previous book. Don't get me wrong, there were some really good moments, but overall we felt a little underwhelmed with it all and I began to fear what was coming in the final installment. I think if this book was plotted a little more tightly and the action was more riveting I would have had a better time with it. As it was, I would probably have to give it a C in terms of plot, narration, and character development.

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins — 400 pgs

Oh boy! What to say about this book? I dreaded the time I had to spend listening to it and often made a mockery of all the ansgty drama in the audio production.  It was terrible, and most nights, I would fall asleep and have my husband recap it the next morning. The narrative was all over the place, and I felt it didn't really know what type of story it wanted to be. Evil Peeta? Soldier Everdeen? C'mon, really? Sometimes intriguing premises would pop up, never to be mentioned again, and what the book did chose to focus on was repetitive, boring and really of no interest to me. I didn't want a revolution and military story, and would have much preferred a personal tale that dealt with the fallout of having been a Hunger Games survivor. I even would have taken another Hunger Games. As it was, this book was filled with all kinds of violence that wasn't only unnecessary but felt forced just for shock value. And what was up with District 13? It was all just so much dreck, and I found myself becoming hardened to the plight of most of the characters. Sometimes it seemed that the book had lost all direction and focus and was just a random jumble of scenes placed together in some sort of puzzling arrangement that really turned me off. My husband didn't like it either but felt we must push through, no matter what. The book put me in a bad mood and I started getting very angry when it was time to settle down and listen, creating all sorts of tension and negative feelings. As good as the first book was, this one was just as equally bad, and I was so glad when we had finally reached the last chapter that I danced around the room in joy.

All in all, this series was hit and miss for me. I definitely felt that the books went downhill as they went on, and whereas I loved and gulped down the first book, by the time the third book rolled around I was a lot less enamored of what Collins had done with the series. In the audiobook production there was a brief interview with Collins after the end, and she mentioned the fact that she had written an overarching outline for all three books at one time. This seems rather strange to me, because the latter books, especially the third, felt like it was a very forced and rushed affair, and it was hard for me to imagine that Collins had done it this way on purpose. In my opinion, I think we should have stopped after the first book, or perhaps even the second, as by the time I finished the third book, I was just wrung out and in a very unhappy state of mind.

Friday, May 18, 2012

So Far Away by Meg Mitchell Moore — 336 pgs

Natalie Gallagher is only thirteen and dealing with an emotional load that no one should ever have to carry. After her parents’ bitter divorce, Natalie is basically left to fend for herself as she lives with her severely depressed mother. Natalie’s mother has checked out and is rarely ever outside her bedroom, spending all her time sleeping instead of caring for her daughter. When Natalie begins to receive threatening text messages from two girls at school, one of them her former best friend, she becomes increasingly anguished. Soon the venomous texts are coming fast and furious. When she decides to tackle an independent school project in the Massachusetts archives to distract herself, she’s quickly befriended by the senior archivist, Kathleen Lynch. Though Kathleen doesn’t know about the secrets that Natalie has been hiding, she immediately senses that something is wrong with the young girl she’s working with. Kathleen has her own secrets: many years ago, her daughter became a heroin addict and left home after a terrible confrontation, and Kathleen has been searching for her ever since. As the cyberbullying becomes more and more vicious, Kathleen realizes that this young girl is in danger, and that only she can do something to stop it. In the process of helping Natalie, the two stumble across an old diary that may hold clues to the lonely Natalie’s heritage, and Kathleen and her co-worker Neil are just the two to ferret them out. But Natalie is slipping away from Kathleen just as her daughter did so many years before. Can Kathleen rescue this tormented girl, not only from her enemies but from herself, before it’s too late? In this breathtaking novel, Meg Mitchell Moore searingly explores the issue of cyberbullying and ingeniously interweaves the diary of an young Irish immigrant, a young girl who also found herself in difficult conundrum many decades before.

This book was hard to tear myself away from. Its sincere tone and frightening story struck me so deeply that I had to put it down midway and go speak to my daughter about cyberbullying. Natalie’s plight was hair-raising, and the fact that no one took her seriously until it was too late disturbed me greatly. There’s something heartrending about reading a book in which the main character is being bullied unceasingly with nowhere to turn. I was so angry at Natalie’s parents for forcing her to fend for herself at such a tender age. This left Natalie in the wind, fighting for her pride and reputation, alone.

When Natalie unearths a strange diary in the basement of her home, she decides that she’ll uncover its secrets as her independent project for English class. But before she even opens the diary, she meets the lonely and very perceptive Kathleen Lynch. In revealing even the smallest part of her soul to Kathleen, Natalie and her diary become a subject of intense interest to the archivist. Kathleen is longing for the daughter that left her many years ago, and when she discovers the truth behind Natalie’s reticence and fear, she resolves to save the child at all costs. There’s an instant bond between the two, but Natalie is skittish and won’t reveal everything to the woman who longs to be the hero to one lost girl.

Though Natalie is initially confused by the bullying, things get way out of hand in a very short time. There’s nowhere to hide, and Natalie is powerless against the two girls who have targeted her. Again and again she tells her story, but the people who should save the day are hearing but not listening. This was maddening to me. The suffering of a young girl with nowhere to turn immediately made me think of all the children out there being bullied, secretly carrying this great weight of shame and abuse. The major crux of this story lies in the themes of trust. It’s because Natalie can’t fully trust Kathleen that things go horribly wrong for her. There is a great amount of gravity and tension in this story, and most of it centers around a victim’s sense of shame and humiliation.

The final element to this story is the inclusion of the secret diary, written by an Irish maid in the 1900s. This is the life story of Bridget O’Connell, and the tragic and scandalous events that changed her life. Moore entwines this story with precision, making it not only a source of mystery and suspense in the narrative, but also the figurative glue that bonds Kathleen and Natalie together. Like the main narrative, it’s also a cautionary tale, and left me greedily gulping the pages to find out what eventually happened to Bridget. It’s a story within a story, and gifts the reader with a lot to think about and discuss.

This is a book that every parent needs to read. Not only is the narrative thoroughly addictive, the messages within are hugely important and relevant. Once I picked this book up, there was no stopping me until I had turned the final page and discovered the fate of the characters who were not only lifelike, but tenderly endearing. An important book that will hold you in its spell until you turn the final page. Highly recommended.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Objects of my Affection by Jill Smolinski — 320 pages

Lucy Bloom is struggling to start her life over. After selling her home and decimating her savings account to send her troubled teenage son to a drug rehab, and losing her boyfriend in the process, Lucy is reinventing herself as an expert in the field of organizational decluttering. Having been the author of a book devoted to decluttering, Lucy feels that she is well prepared for any mess life can throw at her. But what Lucy doesn’t count on is her first client, Marva. Marva is a very famous artist who is living as a recluse, and she also happens to be a hoarder of immense proportions. Hired by Marva’s son, Lucy walks into an organizer's worst nightmare, complete with the client who won’t allow one item in her overstuffed home to be removed. But what is most odd is that Marva has decided to clear her home of its massive clutter without any prodding by her son, and she has a timetable that Lucy must strictly adhere to. With all that Lucy has to do, and her son becoming unmanageable once again, it’s not surprising that Lucy is falling apart. But when Daniel, her old boyfriend, comes back into her life to help out with the massive clean-up, old tensions begin to surface. Struggling to keep her head above water, Lucy and Daniel discover some shocking secrets about their client, and are unsure how to proceed. Will Marva and Lucy, both women in crisis, find some closure and healing, or will their hearts remain as cluttered and messy as the house that Lucy is tasked to organize? In this compelling yet humorous look into the lives of two very different women, one is asked to give it all away, while one can’t get rid of it fast enough.

Though the past few weeks have left me little time to read, when I was reading, I was loving this funny, tragic, and amazing book. I hadn’t heard much about it on the blogosphere, but any book that can manage to make hoarding comedic, and also make me shed a tear and a nod in understanding, is one that I feel should be shared with every reader who is too afraid to let go or too damaged to hold on. There’s a lot that I could say about this book, and all of it makes me happy that I got a chance to read it and see for myself how talented Jill Smolinski is.

Lucy is every bit as troubled as you would expect. She has given her all for her son, Ash, yet he throws it all away again and again. He’s not a drug user, he is a full blown addict, complete with the lies and manipulations that have worn Lucy down to a nub. Lucy is not afraid to let go of her possessions, and this is, in fact, what she has done to an extreme degree. The only thing that she hasn’t given away for the sake of her son’s rehabilitation is her car—the one thing that can carry her away, and that she has a special affinity for. While Lucy is able to let go of her possessions, she can’t let go of her son, and as she’s dragged under again and again in the emotional turmoil that sending him away has caused, she keeps telling herself that this will be the last time. But will it, really?

On the other end of the spectrum, we have Marva: a very famous and infamous painter who is a secret hoarder. When Lucy walks into her home for the first time, she is astounded and appalled. Marva can’t let go the way Lucy has. She has lost so much, and in an attempt to heal herself has surrounded herself with objects that she feels will somehow fill the gap. Marva is a curious mix of frightened recluse and cantankerous rebel. Only she knows the real reason she must have her house cleared out in a matter of weeks, and only she knows what Lucy needs. But getting Lucy to accept the advice of a woman who can’t stop compulsively collecting is going to be more than a little difficult. Marva is keeping big secrets from everyone, and when Lucy finally digs out the reasons for her housecleaning project, the novel turns from curiosity piquing to intensely emotional. Maybe the two can heal each other, but as it always does, healing will come at a price.

Added to this mix are the problems that Lucy and Marva bring with them: Lucy is still in love with Daniel but can’t forgive him for betraying her in her time of need, and Marva is struggling to conquer a heartbreak that cannot be forgotten. As the two women clear the respective spaces in their hearts and living spaces, they can’t help but confide in each other the secrets that no one else knows. It’s a fascinating juxtaposition—the lonely and fierce hoarder, and the headstrong and clueless mother. Marva and Lucy are very different but also alike in ways that seem unclear at first yet become as stark as can be as the novel moves forward. They both need healing, and Smolinski’s brand of humor is just the tonic to spice up this unlikely pairing.

I loved this book and thought it had the perfect mix of humor and soulfulness that elevated it into a story that I won’t soon forget. While I did figure out Marva’s secret a smidgen before it was revealed, the tight construction of the narrative and the emphasis on letting go juxtaposed with holding on for dear life was something I think a lot of readers will be able to empathize with. A great read, full of humor and surprises. Recommended.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Most Dangerous Thing by Laura Lippman — 368 pgs

Friends for only a brief amount of time, Gwen, Mickey, Sean, Tim and Gordon spent every moment together. The five spent their time playing made up games, foraging in the woods, and making connections that they thought would last a lifetime. Now, many years later, Gordon is dead under suspicious circumstances, and as the others try to understand what happened to their gregarious and troubled friend, secrets about the night the group’s closeness melted away begin to surface. Although the four have kept a horrible secret hidden for many years, it seems that before his death, Gordon set off a chain of events that may lead to the exposure of a tragedy that none of them fully understand. One by one they begin to realize that though their lives have changed drastically since that night in the woods, they’ve carried over the suspicion and sadness into their current existences, and as each one moves forward, they have no choice but to regress. Following the clues that Gordon left behind, they ultimately reveal the truth behind that night that will force them to once again bind themselves together, against their better instincts. A tale of five friends whose secrets and redemptions lie within each other, Lippman creates a story unlike any she has written before, one full of both generosity and manipulation, combined in just the perfect proportions.

Lippman is an author whom I love. Although I’ve not read any of the books in her Tess Monaghan series, I’ve read almost all of her standalone novels, and she never fails to impress me. This book is a departure for Lippman, as it combines a multifaceted coming of age tale with the suspense and mystery that she is known for. It was the kind of book that I love reading: complex characters juggling inner turmoil and outward nonchalance, and a mystery that seems clear cut but is anything but. Lippman’s new direction fascinated me and kept me very eager to untie the knot that she so skillfully ties.

This was not only the story of five friends hiding a secret; it had the added aspects of a multi-generational tale as well. As Lippman explores the lives of this group, she also dissects the relationships of their parents, which turns out to be a brave move. This story could have been much too messy and overpopulated, but in fact, there was a succinct and interesting weaving of each character into the ever-undulating plot, making this a very exciting mixed genre read. The parents of each member of the group have a huge role to play here, and the importance of their actions and interactions was not lost on me.

It was interesting that these five came together, as they were very different and seemed to have no common ground. Sean, Tim, and Gordon were brothers, but that doesn’t mean they were friends. In fact, there was a lot of competition between Sean and Tim, with Gordon, the youngest, following behind in a cloud of adoration and mimicry that each member of the group exploited. The women, Gwen and Mickey, were different as night and day. Gwen, the more refined of the two, never knew where she stood with the others, while Mickey, the uniquely beautiful tomboy, never really cared. All of these characters were somewhat unlikeable, but their behavior and actions made it difficult not to be interested in them.

Lippman does a lot in this novel. While she manages to capture the moment when a child loses their innocence, she’s also very adept at tackling themes that are sure to hit home with every reader. To say more would be spoiling the plot. Suffice it to say that Lippman manages to be on the cutting edge of relevancy, and her characters turn out to be surprisingly forward thinking and forgiving. The last few pages of this book were mesmerizing, as I felt that Lippman was tackling issues that I had not seen written about before.

This was another case where Lippman hit it out of the park for me. I’ve grown to love her writing and the style she utilizes in telling her stories, but I think this one was my favorite by far. Rhapsody Jill has already enticed me with her reviews of the Tess Monaghan series, so I better get movin’, time’s a- wasting! A great read that will keep you wondering until the final pages. Recommended.

Author Photo About the Author

Laura Lippman grew up in Baltimore and returned to her hometown in 1989 to work as a journalist. After writing seven books while still a full-time reporter, she left the Baltimore Sun to focus on fiction. The author of two New York Times bestsellers, What the Dead Know and Another Thing to Fall, she has won numerous awards for her work, including the Edgar, Quill, Anthony, Nero Wolfe, Agatha, Gumshoe, Barry, and Macavity.

To learn more about Laura’s work, visit her website or connect with her on Facebook.

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

Tuesday, May 1st:Wordsmithonia
Wednesday, May 2nd:Sara’s Organized Chaos
Thursday, May 3rd:Book Journey
Monday, May 7th:Life in Review
Wednesday, May 9th:Life is Short. Read Fast.
Monday, May 14th:Kritters Ramblings
Monday, May 14th:Raging Bibliomania
Tuesday, May 15th:Colloquium
Friday, May 18th:Laura’s Reviews
Monday, May 21st:Proud Book Nerd
Friday, May 25th:Book Him Danno!
Tuesday, June 5th:Drey’s Library

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Neither Here nor There by Bill Bryson — 245 pgs

Bill Bryson is traveling across Europe. Many years previous, he made this same trip with his obnoxiously funny friend Katz, and as Bryson meanders his way across the continent, he treats his readers to an eclectic mix of his current travels interspersed with reminiscences of his previous travels with Katz. Europe is exactly the way he remembered it, yet somehow vaguely changed, and through his eyes, we are treated to an uproariously funny and vaguely snide journey. From Vienna to Yugoslavia, Bryson shares his joys and frustrations with the local people, the climate, and the accommodations that he comes into daily contact with. His adventures are crafty and at times inauspicious, and his revelations about the landscapes and natives give even a well traveled reader something to ponder over and smile about. He shares the absurdity, the revelations, and the sadness of these places with a sense of wonder and amusement, his voice of experience having the effect of both a caution and an encouragement. Neither Here nor There is a colorful romp into a place that few know and even fewer understand.

I've heard Bryson's books mentioned over and over again in the book blogging world. He seems to be the type of author whom you either love or hate, and in addition to writing travelogues, he's dabbled in science writing and general non-fiction. To be honest, I wasn't really sure if I would like travel writing because I didn't know if I would find it interesting or entertaining. But in discovering Bill Bryson's work, I needn't have worried so much. The man could make using a phone booth interesting and funny, and at times I couldn't contain myself when reading this book. I guess I'm sort of a funny reader because most comic writing seems to leave me tepid, and about the only author that seems to consistently make me laugh is David Sedaris. That is, until I met Bill Bryson.

Bryson starts his adventures in Hammerfest, Norway, and right from the beginning, things begin to spiral out of control when he's not listed on the flight's passenger manifest. After a hilarious and eye opening chat with the ticketing agent, I began to see just what this book was going to be like. It was going to be a slapdash romp through the European countryside, filled with a provocative peek into some of the worlds most picturesque places. It was likely to be very weird as well.

As Bryson travels to both the known and unknown stretches of Europe, he gives an account of what the land and people are like in that part of the world. He describes beautiful mountain vistas, bucolic fields and rolling hills, and marvelous descriptions of lakes and rivers. He also likes to spend a lot of time in museums, and chooses some of the more famous haunts along with some new ones: like the tobacco museum in Vienna, where he comes across a whole lot of smoking implements and ashtrays and more than a few portraits of people smoking. It was these weird bits that kept me entertained. The story of the strangely erotic portrait in France, or the graphic arts museum that seemed to hold no art—these things were the tidbits I looked forward to on each page, and though I did enjoy the sedate information on the attributes of each area, I was all about finding the funny.

Some of the things Bryson relates were totally foreign to me, such as the severely depressed economy of Bulgaria and his observations that shopping there was more like scavenging for anything that was for sale. Stores have empty shelves and sell their wares out of a crate. When the crate is empty, the store closes for the day, and people with handfuls of useless money go into insane buying frenzies over pairs of mustard colored socks. I was also surprised to find that it's perfectly acceptable for drunken businessmen to pee against buildings in Amsterdam, and that a general state of disrepair was all too common in most areas of Europe. It was eye opening for me, because I've never really been a traveler, and to get this inside look into a place that I had always considered mysterious was to get a look into a world completely foreign from my own.

Bryson doesn't always get caught up in the negatives though, and there are a lot of sections that relate the cultural bonding of travelers and natives, who truly appreciate and celebrate their differences and similarities. Bryson speaks with passion about these people and their country, and shares meals, accommodations, and conversation with them, as well as getting the scoop about places that he might not have found on his own. Of course, there are some drawbacks to mingling with the natives, especially when you don't speak their language, and Bryson wittily dissects these moments as well, sharing his perplexity with the reader in an utterly hilarious way.

I think I annoyed the stuffing out of my husband, following him around the house and reading passage after passage of this book to him, whether he wanted to hear it or not; but he often smiled and a few times even guffawed along with me at Bryson's take on Europe. I think that is the best recommendation that I can give to a book. When I pester and pester you with quotes and asides it's likely that I am having a great time with that particular book, and for those who haven't read Bryson yet, I would definitely advise picking up one of his books. Neither Here nor There was lively, entertaining and fun, and might just make you wheezy with laughter. Recommended.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Ten Beach Road Giveaway

Publisher’s Summary: Madeline, Avery and Nicole are very different from one another. Madeline is a homemaker coping with an empty nest and an unemployed husband. Avery is an architect. At least she was until she ended up as the sidekick on her ex-husband’s television program—the one she created, sold and co-hosted. Nicole, dating guru, matchmaker extraordinaire and founder of Heart, Inc., is living in the shadow of her biggest mistake—trusting her only brother.  All are at the end of their financial ropes, the victims of a Bernie Madoff-style Ponzi scheme.  All they have left is shared ownership of the once-glorious Bella Flora mansion, now a beachfront ruin.

Madeline, Avery and Nikki have to make a choice—cut their losses and sell the historic property for whatever amount of money they can get or trade sweat equity for the backing of a local contractor in order to restore it and their bank accounts. The women choose to save Bella Flora. There amidst the rubble and former glory, in the midst of a sweltering summer and the backbreaking tasks of renovation, they begin to redefine themselves, and to discover their own strength and the power of friendship.  Then, as Bella Flora again stands magnificent and proud, secrets begin to pull them apart and fate steps in once more, ready to destroy everything they’ve built.

Sounds exciting doesn’t it? I know that a few of my favorite bloggers loved the book and I’m hoping to get the chance to bring you a review soon as well. In the meantime, I have an opportunity to give away a paperback copy of Ten Beach Road to one lucky reader. The giveaway will close on May 18th and the winner will be determined with the help of This giveaway is open to residents of the U.S. and Canada. Good luck to all entrants!

And just a reminder, if you haven’t gotten the chance to enter the giveaway for a paperback copy of The Language of Flowers, click here!

Friday, May 4, 2012

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes — Audiobook Review

Recorded by AudioGO
Narrated by Richard Morant
Length: 4 hours 38 minutes

Tony Webster and his group of friends were inseparable during their heyday. Young, intelligent and driven, the group expands to include Adrian, a very serious and scholarly boy, who becomes the de facto leader of the group—a boy whom all the rest admire and glean understanding from. When Tony becomes involved with a young woman named Veronica, he naturally spends less time with the group. But things with Veronica are strained from the beginning and Tony can’t understand why she rebuffs his physical advances time and time again. Now many years later, Tony is a middle aged man reflecting back on his days with the group and the unexpected turns that befell his relationship with Veronica. When an unexpected incident puts Veronica in his path once again, Tony finds himself unnaturally curious about her and her life, and also his friend Adrian whom he once felt such a fondness for. But at the heart of his curiosity is a secret that he discovers through clues that Veronica grudgingly gives to him, and what he uncovers may threaten not only his sense of self but the memories of bygone days that he once held so dear.

This book was the winner of the Man Booker Prize for 2011, and it was a relatively short listen. Other reviewers have stated that this book would be best read in one sitting and I have to agree with them. I listened to this book over the course of a week and I have to admit that I think breaking apart the narrative in this way caused my opinion of this book to suffer. The audio version was narrated by Richard Morant, whose dulcet British inflections were perfect for this book. Morant had a very soft and gentle voice that he imbued with a great melancholy and a nostalgic edge that suited the story’s flavor wonderfully. I enjoyed listening to him voice the thoughts of the reminiscing Tony.

I can’t quite put my finger on why this book was not as great as I was hoping it would be. Barnes certainly has a graceful and intense way of writing but, for me, there was an utterly cryptic conclusion, and that bothered me. I felt that there was a gradually pressing urgency to the story that was never fully delivered upon, and part of that may have had to do with the fact that I broke this story into pieces instead of digesting it whole. It was a very introspective narrative, focused mainly on three people, and because of that, the whole story felt concentrated and magnified on small events that would later become momentous. It’s not the story that I had issue with, it was the reveal at the end. I just didn’t think it was as impactful or clear as it could have been. Had I not been listening very carefully, I would have missed it altogether.

The writing, however, was outstanding, and often I wished that I was reading the book in print so that I could pore over some of the more beautiful sentences over and over again. Barnes has a way of making his story read like poetry, and because of that fact, I’m loathe to say that this book wasn’t a success on that front. I greatly enjoyed listening to Tony’s mental cogitation and ruminations, and found that Barnes created a very elegant narrative in which to place his characters. Judging this book on the writing alone, I would eagerly say that it was a success. There was great care given to the general construction of the story’s language, and that might have been why I felt let down at the end: the writing left me anticipatory and the ending let me down.

Veronica and Tony, the two major players, were very different types of people, yet they had some very striking things in common. The fact that this was almost indistinguishable until the very end of the story was something that I think was deftly maneuvered. Themes of loss, mortality, and ambiguity of memory are rife within this tale but carefully interwoven through an exquisite and microscopic lens of character development.  “A sense of an ending” becomes loaded into many variations throughout the tale, gently rippling through each word in the text and creating untold possibility for the reader. The conclusion is more than a little open-ended and I think that’s what disappointed me. Thinking deeply about it only provokes more questions that I wish had been answered.

While I really enjoyed this audio book, I didn’t love it, and that’s frustrating to me. It had all the components of a superb book but Barnes just didn’t assemble them in the correct proportions to take it to the next level. I haven’t read many reviews on it so I am not sure what the general consensus is, but this reader was left wanting. If you’re a lover of character studies with very open endings I would recommend this book to you. I would recommend it to every lover of literary fiction on the strength of the writing alone. An intelligent and astute book, but one that might frustrate some readers.

This audiobook was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Language of Flowers Giveaway!

Victoria Jones is a victim of the foster care system. Given away at birth and repeatedly shuttled between loveless homes, it is no surprise that Victoria is both socially and emotionally stunted. But at age 9 she’s placed in the home of Elizabeth, a single woman who is also a vintner. As Victoria struggles with becoming attached to Elizabeth and growing into a healthy child, Elizabeth begins to teach her the Victorian rituals surrounding the language of flowers. The language of flowers is one of the oldest arts, and given that each flower has a meaning and an intention, what first only looks like a beautiful bouquet is transformed into a message to its recipient. From terse and abrupt to involved and intricate, Victoria begins to learn the definitions of the flowers and to access her innermost feelings through the art that Elizabeth so tenderly impresses upon her. But Elizabeth is also struggling with issues within her own extended family, and when Victoria takes it upon herself to garner retribution and secure her position in Elizabeth’s life, everything is changed in an instant. Now, many years later, Victoria has a chance to make amends in a very unusual way. Living the life of a damaged individual, she once again discovers the power of the language of flowers and their ability to heal her and erase her once unbearable past. But is it too late for Victoria? Can the damage wrought on her heart and psyche be washed away with delicate blossoms and hardy stems? It’s in Victoria’s journey that the past, present and future collide, and where the most painful and hopeful secrets must be uttered by the flowers and the secret messages they themselves deliver. (For my full review, click here.)

I'm so excited to be offering one copy of The Language of Flowers for giveaway to the readers of my blog! If you’d like the chance to win, please fill out the brief form below. The winner will be determined with the help of on May 18th, and the giveaway is open to U.S. residents only. Good luck to all entrants!

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