Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Cove by Ron Rash — Audiobook Review

Recorded by Harper Audio
Narrated by Merritt Hicks
Length: 6 hours 28 minutes

Hank and Laurel Shelton live in rural Appalachia on a homestead called the Cove, that is as dry and fickle as the people of the nearby town. Though the siblings try to go on with life as normally as possible, Laurel is unfairly branded as a witch due to a birthmark on her face. Hank, once a soldier who had seen combat in the Great War, now lives life with only one hand. But the locals have been kinder to Hank, and he even has a love interest whom he’s hoping to marry. Laurel, on the other hand, is treated with cruelty and disdain, and grows into a woman who is virtually isolated on the Cove—the same land that her parents lived and died on. When Laurel spots a stranger hiding on a remote area of her land, she is instantly intrigued by him. The stranger cannot speak, but soon becomes Hank’s right hand man on the farm and Laurel’s willing paramour. Life in this remote place seems almost idyllic with the stranger in their midst, but an unlikely chain of events lead towards disaster when secrets about the silent stranger come to the notice of the vengeful townspeople who are aching to see the downfall of Laurel and her hesitant and quiet lover. In this picturesque and eloquent novel of tragedy, Ron Rash shows us both the resilience and frailty of human life and the struggles we endure to attain our freedom and humanity.

I had the pleasure of hearing Ron Rash speak at SIBA last year, and when Kathy mentioned that he was one of the most loved and prominent authors of the South, I took notice and began looking for the perfect title to ensnare myself in. When The Cove was released, I knew that it was my turn to experience Rash’s brilliance for myself. I chose the audio version of this title, thinking that it would be a short and insightful read that would plunge me into the depths of what life might be like in rural Appalachia. The audiobook, however, was probably not the best way to experience this book. The narrator, Merritt Hicks, had a pleasant voice but it seemed to have no emotional range, and her narration felt very flat to me. This was a story that was rich with pathos and deeply surging emotion, but Hicks had a delivery that was as dry and blank as paper. I didn’t feel that she captured the intent and spirit of the book, which was disappointing, and while I loved the book itself, the audio version grated on my nerves a bit.

Laurel is a woman whom I could understand. Forced out of town and shunned, she became very isolated and lived most of her life in her head. Always dreaming of a way out of the Cove that she both loves and hates, Laurel is damaged by the senseless cruelty that the people outside her life inflict on her. She hopes and dreams, like all of us do, but her dreams are smaller and more related to daily survival. She eschews grand dreams of wealth and social acceptance, and instead worries what will become of her when Hank gets married and his new bride is installed in the Cove with the town witch. Laurel has every reason to be concerned, for Hank hasn’t been honest with Laurel regarding his marriage and living arrangements after the wedding. Though he’s trying to spare her feelings, her social standing is very bad for him and will cost him severely.

From the point of view of Hank, Laurel is just another thing to be sorted out. He loves his sister, yes, but he won’t let her status as a pariah hold him back. Into this emotional torpor comes a man who can help the wounded man and his sister make good on their promises to deliver a crop in the upcoming summer. This man, seeming to come from nowhere, is mute, but slowly Hank begins to trust him with more and more responsibility on the farm, whereas Laurel begins to let him into her heart. The romance between the two is slow and languid, and the stranger doesn’t mind the seclusion of the Cove or the birthmark on Laurel’s face. He is eager to be helpful to the damaged man who needs him, and tentatively begins to reach out to Laurel in her exile. By turns, he is loved and respected by both sister and brother, and finds a safe place in their home and hearts.

Before anyone realizes what has happened, Laurel, Hank and the stranger begin to be hunted by the townspeople for reasons that are unclear to Hank. Laurel, on the other hand, knows exactly what this is about, for the stranger has revealed things about himself that put him at great risk. With a great and terrible swiftness, love and fury meet head to head, and disaster comes calling at the Cove once again. Loyalty and strength are tested, and events that were once manageable become as wild and furious as the nature around them. Throughout the story, themes of belonging are coupled with loss, both on the small and grand scale. Hatred and prejudice strike against flinty resolve, and the result is a conflagration of unexpected and massive proportions. The sacred peace of the Cove is ruptured and broken, and each shard represents a separate heartbreak.

This was the kind of book that will leave readers feeling dazed and overcome with emotion for a small group of people who have been shunned by the outside world. I think that had I read it in print, it would have made much more of an impact, which tells me that Rash is an author that readers should take very seriously. I didn’t quite love the medium in which the story was told due to the stilted quality of the narration, but the book itself was powerful, painful and portentous. I’m looking forward to sampling more of Rash’s work, with Serena already loaded onto my iPod. I’ve heard that sparks fly from that book as well. Written with a thunderous precision, The Cove is a beautiful novel that leaves readers with a haunting and unexpected conclusion. Recommended.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Game of Secrets by Dawn Tripp — 272 pgs

In 1957, Luce Weld disappeared and was never heard from again. His wife and young daughter believed that he abandoned them, not caring enough even to say goodbye. That notion held until the day a skull with a neatly placed bullet hole tumbled out of the gravel pit that was being dug out for renovations to the new bridge. Local lore had it that it was Ada Varick’s jealous husband who left Luce dead, and nobody denied the story. Years later, Luce’s granddaughter Marne has come back to town and is desperately trying not to fall in love with Ray, one of Ada Varick’s sons. This leaves Marne’s mother, Jane, at the edge of an emotional cliff, trying to win back her stubborn daughter’s love while also dealing with the repercussions that come with Marne’s increasing interest in Ray. As each day passes with more and more of Jane’s attention shifting to the exact nature of what happened to her father, Marne draws ever closer to Ray only to dart away, time after time. But old Ada Varick isn’t to be counted out just yet, and as she and Jane while away each Friday afternoon playing Scrabble, Jane plays a cat and mouse game with her father’s one-time lover. But as the tiles laid down—over and over again—they will spell out not only the fates of the lives of the present, but all the secrets of the past as well.

There were a lot of things to love about this novel of feelings and wordplay. I think the first thing that drew me in was the sultry feeling of both the backstory and the current tale. There was a deeply sensual and mysterious feeling to these words, and Tripp manages to make her prose slow and golden, like honey dripping from the jar. It took a little time for all the players to be introduced, but the spaces between them felt well laden and charged with emotion and resonance. I lingered over the lyrical prose and felt that even though the story was moving along slowly, it was a dance of heartbreak and passion, told from many different angles and perspectives.

Though the game between Ada and Jane has been going on for many years, there was a timeless feel to the interactions that the women had both on and off the board. There was a gentle tease that secretly wasn’t so gentle, a feminine rivalry that was tinged with love and respect, and a spine-tingling secret that both women were trying to discover as they fished for letters. There was a sharpness to Ada Varick that was never able to be softened by Jane, and a hardiness and sweetness to Jane that could never be undercut by her partner. Often, the play between them felt like a cat and mouse game, and as the book progressed, it became clear that that’s exactly what it was. One sly and one demure, these two women were at odds not only over Luce, but over the future of their children as well.

When the secrets start spilling out, the reader is left to make the stunning connections between these very different families with only a gentle and well-placed touch by the author. Everything hangs in the balance of these games and the secrets they will reveal. As game after game is played, unspeakable tragedy comes to light and lovers move slowly together in the turn of a play and the linger of a kiss. The novel’s suspension is built on the past, and this is what drives it forward into the future, honing in on the relationship between mother and child, and the lingering  heat between lovers. The past echoes the future and the future holds keys to the past, everything intertwining in a delicate balance of love and hatred.

One of the main aspects of this tale takes place in the present, in the form of the relationship between Ray and Marne. A girl with wings to fly, it seems, will never stay put, and a man who will never leave his hometown seem destined not to survive a relationship, much less a battle of wills. But Marne has been harboring some troubling feelings for Ray for a long, long time, and when she finally has what she wants, right in her hands, she’s in anguish over the history between his family and hers. She also looks askance at her mother’s relationship with Ada and her mother in general. There’s enough heat between Marne and Ray to burn the pages between these covers, but what of the past? What of promises?

The final three chapters of this book blew me right out of the water. I knew there was something hidden to be revealed, but as those games grew more and more intense, and time ran out, I had no idea that Tripp would take me all the way to the finish line with this intense and haunting double ending. But aren’t the best Scrabble games that way? You win not only with one word, as in this case, but with what has been played, over and over again. A stunning and deeply perceptive book. Highly recommended.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Virgin Cure by Amy McKay — 336 pgs

Twelve year old Moth lives in a tenement slum with her mother, a gypsy and fortune teller by trade. Though she longs to be the apple of her mother’s eye and often imagines a life of ease and refinery, the truth is that Moth’s mother is ambivalent about her child and her welfare. Left by a careless man who only wanted her maidenhood, Moth’s mother is an emotionally and physically absent parent. While Moth is busily running the streets in rags and fending off the boys, her mother is quietly selling off everything of value to pay her many demanding creditors. One night, Moth is awakened by her mother to discover that she is to be sold off as well. Moth is taken in as a lady’s maid in the home of the abusive Mrs. Wentworth, a woman who at first seemed innocuous but soon grows peevish and destructive. But Moth is a survivor, and she escapes this hellish situation to be met by a beautiful young girl who promises her a better life. This grand new life she stumbles upon comes from the hand of Miss Everet, a woman who is in the business of selling virgins to the highest bidder. As Moth comes to know the world of luxury, she never forgets that one day she will be giving up her most prized possession, squirming fruitlessly under a man who has paid for her flesh. But an unlikely friend appears in the guise of a female doctor, who is committed to care for the girls in the house both before and after their virginity is taken. Will Moth escape this life of genteel brutality for the life of her dreams? Or will she find herself left used and ruined by a man under the spell of Miss Everet and her house full of beautiful human merchandise? In this artful blend of history and fiction, Ami McKay brings us a tale of fear and seduction, obscene wealth and crippling poverty, and a girl named Moth at the center of it all.

When I first heard that Ami McKay had a new book coming out, I was alight with feverish excitement. But I soon found out that the book was only released in Canada, and to later make its debut in the US. When I was approached to review this book for TLC Book Tours, I didn’t give it a second thought. I knew I must read this one right away. And for all you lovers of intriguing historical fiction, I can honestly say that this book had me wrapped in its spell from the very first page until its final climactic ending.

Moth is only twelve but is savvy and smart in the ways only a street urchin can be. While she dreams of the finer things, she has little hope of ever seeing them. Living in a world where her body must be protected at all costs has made her not only cautious, but wily. She knows how to beg, borrow and steal, while always grasping at the wisps of dreams that float through her hands. I found Moth to be an incredibly endearing character, and one who not only had morals, but scruples as well. She was bright, and never lived a life of bartering her body like the other girls in her station had done.Though her dreams were bigger than her prospects, she tried to maintain the upper hand through using her wits rather than selling both her body and soul.

When Moth is placed as a lady’s maid in Mrs. Wentworth’s home, life takes on a new hue of happiness for her. She is well dressed and regularly fed, and though she tries to make a new start for herself, Mrs. Wentworth is an exacting and cruel employer whose brain is addled and strained. Though she claims to want the best for the girl, it’s obvious that she wants to break and demoralize Moth. The women are locked in a struggle that will never end and grows more dangerous every day. One close call too many, and the struggling Moth flees with no thought of where she will land, leaving her in a very dangerous city, struggling alone.

When Moth’s new friend inveigles a place for her at Miss Everett’s, all her dreams seem to come true. She has the finest of everything and longs for nothing. But the price is steep, for Moth is being trained to become a prostitute, and her virginity is highly prized by the men she must consort with. I found this situation unbearably distressing, and the fact that she was only twelve made matters all the worse. Moth plays at being a grown-up, but she’s still a child, dressed and paraded about as a strumpet. It’s harrowing to know that her day is coming and a suitor has been chosen to buy her. Her only hope is Dr. Sadie, a woman who is kind and good and virtuous. But this woman can’t give Moth the life she desires, and the young girl is trapped between two worlds, forcing her in different directions. The broken Moth will be rich and sought after, but the intact Moth could have a chance at happiness.

If you’ve been debating whether or not you should read this book, I would say “go for it” with gusto. The book does a great job of highlighting the seamy underbelly of New York during a time when the poor must do anything to survive and the rich turn their heads away. Moth’s story is not only compelling, but speaks to the heart of every woman throughout time who has ever wondered what they were worth, and if it was enough to make a life out of. A more transporting read would be hard to find. Highly recommended.

Author Photo About the Author

Ami McKay is the author of the #1 Canadian bestseller The Birth House, the winner of three Canadian Booksellers Association (CBA) Libris Awards and a nominee for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Her work has aired on various Canadian radio programs, and her documentary, Daughter of Family G, won an Excellence in Journalism Medallion at the 2003 Atlantic Journalism Awards. She is also active with UNICEF and other organizations. Originally from Indiana, she now lives with her husband and two sons in Scots Bay, Nova Scotia.

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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, June 26th:Unabridged Chick
Wednesday, June 27th:Cerebral Girl in a Redneck World
Thursday, June 28th:Reading on a Rainy Day
Monday, July 2nd:Book Hooked Blog
Wednesday, July 4th:Book Him Danno!
Thursday, July 5th:nomadreader
Monday, July 9th:Broken Teepee
Monday, July 16th:Jenn’s Bookshelves
Tuesday, July 17th:Lit and Life
Tuesday, July 17th:Bookworm’s Dinner
Wednesday, July 18th:Twisting the Lens
Monday, July 23rd:Just Joanna
Tuesday, July 24th:Raging Bibliomania
Wednesday, July 25th:Diary of a Stay at Home Mom
Thursday, July 26th:Peeking Between the Pages
Monday, July 30th:Bookworm with a View
TBD:A Novel Source

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey — Audiobook Review

Recorded by Narrated Books
Narrated by Debra Monk
Length: 10 hours 51 minutes

Jack and Mabel have moved to the brutal yet beautiful Alaskan wilderness after Mabel’s inability to accept her life as a woman who can’t bear a child. Jack, a hard working yet emotionally stunted man, is very enamored of Mabel and hopes that the move will lessen her pain and bring them closer together. But the winters are hard in Alaska, and the couple’s ability to survive the first winter with little comfort and scarce provisions proves to both of them that this is indeed a wild and untamed land. As they make friends and learn to both farm and forage, they do indeed survive, and when a playful snow fight evolves into the couple building a little girl made of snow, they go to bed happy and safe in each other’s arms. But in the morning, the snow child has disappeared, as have the hat and gloves that adorned it. Soon they discover a girl child in the woods and wonder if the magic of their love and longing have created this perfect being, a daughter of snow made flesh. But as winter passes, the young girl, who calls herself Faina, disappears, along with the fox that she hunts with. Soon it’s summer, and the couple believe that their strange little snow daughter has left them forever. But as winter once again approaches, Mabel is hopeful that Faina will return to them. It’s a life of waiting and wondering, of unspeakable joy and terrible sadness. As Jack and Mabel begin to organize their lives around this strange creature, Jack discovers a secret about the child and her origins that he hides from his wife. Is Faina really a wonder come to life? Or is there another more sinister reason that the child is living in the woods alone? As the pieces begin to come together in this modern retelling of The Snow Maiden, Eowyn Ivey brings to life the magical and haunting tale of a wild a feral child and the couple who grow to love her.

When this book came out, there were so many positive reviews that I took immediate notice of it. I had never read The Snow Maiden, which is the fairy tale that this story is based on, but the secret urgency of a child who comes from the winter and melts away during the summer was fascinating to me, so I purchased the audio version and listened to it compulsively. The narrator, Debra Monk, was the perfect choice for this book. Her voice was strong yet gentle, and the delicious slowness of her cadence and vocal delivery brought the hidden symbolism and strong emotional resonance out of the tale in just the right ways. This story called for a gentle but firm narrator, and this is exactly what Monk brought to the table. I listened with rapt attention while staring out the window at the nature beyond. It seemed the perfect accompaniment.

This book was set in the 1920s, a time when there wasn’t much known about the frozen and stark state of Alaska. Mabel and Jack’s choice to relocate there and live their lives in the wilderness is seen as strange and foreign to her family. In reality, Mabel is tired of the awkward silences that fill the room when a sister or cousin’s child enters, and the whispers and pity that seem to follow her everywhere. The couple is middle aged and they will never have another chance at having a child. Mabel decides to leave the bosom of her family to survive in a place that is cold and barren, much as she is, and Jack, being as loving to Mabel as he can, sets off to begin a life that he knows nothing about. Their first winter is dire, but thanks to the aid of another family, they live to see the summer. They also create a little girl who Mabel convinces herself is magical. But soon their hearts are broken when the little girl disappears with the snow.

This is a tale that takes on many forms. It’s a tale of mysticism and reality, despondency and elation, and holding on versus letting go. Faina is a strange creature in herself. She’s very young, yet totally independent. She is wild. Yet somehow she sees the need in Jack and Mabel, and realizes that she also needs human companionship. In a graceful narrative arc, Ivey gives her readers a glimpse into the elements of survival throughout a bare and alien winter, and also shows how our desire to possess something can not only blind us to the truth but also lead to futility and desperation. These elements are balanced out with the beauty and hopefulness that Faina brings to Jack and Mabel and everyone who meets her. It’s a strongly redemptive tale, but one that is both exhilarating and full of tribulation. It’s a quiet story told with loud emotions.

The truth about Faina is eventually revealed, but that doesn't stop the couple from loving the girl who they seem to have made from snow and their love for each other. As she grows, she eventually goes through all the stages that a young woman does, only with Faina, her absence during the warmer months makes things a little more complicated. Jack and Mabel love her as their own, but she’s a child like no other, and the little things that parents impart mean more to her than she can verbally express. As the couple watch her grow and mature, they begin to fear that they will not only lose her to the woods, but to another thing altogether. It’s a tense and riveting plot, and what was formerly gentle and suffused with a humble pitch of love and longing begins to rotate towards danger and loss. As I listened, the imagery of what life was like in the Alaskan wilderness became almost hypnotically soothing and lulling.

This was a kind and gentle tale at a time when I needed it most. It explored the deep connections that humans have towards others and the peace we can find in ourselves. I loved every moment of this book—not only for its fairy tale feel, but for the internal propulsion of the tale. I haven’t read many books like this one and would feel confident to say that most of those out there probably haven’t either. Take this one home with you and get comfortable. It’s worth it. Recommended.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Dead End Gene Pool by Wendy Burden — 288 pgs

Growing up as the the great-great-great granddaughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt, Wendy Burden lives life in what she calls Burdenland, shuttling between her grandparents’ lavish homes and the more emotionally complex world where she lives with her mother and two brothers. As Wendy describes the heady lifestyle lived by her grandmother and grandfather and their plethora of servants, she delights her readers in the ridiculousness of their excesses and their outlandish eccentricities. Wendy herself is an enigma. She is a young girl who is entranced by the mortuary sciences and who delights in her attempts to emulate Wednesday Addams. She’s sarcastic and wild, yet somehow vulnerable and naive. She longs for a more normal life and feels alienated as her mother repeatedly tramps off to the Caribbean in search of the perfect tan. She often feels marginalized in a family where only the males are considered worthy and important. From tales of her ultra-flatulent grandmother, to her endless wars with her mother's series of ever-revolving beaus, Wendy's chronicle of her early life is heartily succinct and often penetrating. Her life here is presented as a strange series of vignettes where she struggles between two very different ways of life, never quite knowing which one fits.

I’d heard many good things about this book from all the media outlets and there were even some rumors that it would be the biggest hit of the summer. I know that many have been waiting for the chance to read it, and I have been one of them. I think that placing such high expectations on a book can sometimes be ruinous, and in this case I feel like that warning has been borne out for me. Though I went into this book very excited and hoping for a lot, I think that all the hype the book has gotten lately really worked against it.

First of all, while this is definitely supposed to be a humorous and cynical book, at times I felt that the story the author told was just sad. While her mother cavorted all over the globe in an effort to escape her responsibilities, her three children were often left alone to fend for themselves or shuttled off to their ridiculously rich grandparents’ houses where they were all but ignored. The elder Burdens seemed to view the children as mobile pieces of furniture, and at no time did I ever get the feeling that the kids were the welcome visitors that they were supposed to be. Wendy's mother was horrible as well. She was extremely shrew-like and constantly harped on her daughter about her weight and appearance, not noticing that Wendy had a penchant for disturbing fantasies about mortuaries and dead people, or that her eldest son was withdrawn and on shaky ground emotionally. As boyfriend after boyfriend entered the picture, her mother rushed to fulfill these men's longings, never mind what was best for her kids. Wendy relates all this with grand flashes of droll humor, but I'd bet that as a child she often felt alienated and alone. As a matter of fact, she even admits to having these feelings as a youngster, but laughs it off from her adult vantage point several years later.

Wendy's type of family may have been typical for the times in which she grew up, where children were less coddled and adults looked first to their own needs, but in today's society they would have been deemed extremely negligent and possibly even abusive. Money was the only thing that they seemed to care for, and I quickly grew tired of reading about the laundry list of possessions that they had amassed throughout their lives. It's one thing to read about the filthy rich but quite another to fill a book with a pointless inventory of their treasures. Most of these sections bored me and I almost began to relish the focus on Wendy's disturbing behavior, if only to relieve me of the cataloguing of family histories and rehashing of expensive objects. It was meant to intrigue, I'm sure, but it had the opposite effect on me.

The troubling aspects of the family's mental disorders and flagrant abuse of prescription drugs also bothered me. I mean, why in God's name didn't these people ever seek help? They basically swept these secrets under the rug and let the mental illnesses filter down through the generations, heedlessly putting their loved ones in needless danger. There was the uncle that was basically a functioning psychotic who imbibed caffeine and stimulants like they were air, the various members of the family that committed or attempted suicide, and the older generation that looked quietly away from it all. It was sort of frightening to tell you the truth. That Wendy was fascinated by dead and decomposing birds or that she tried to fry her brother's hamster on the stove was frankly not all that surprising.

There was a lot of pain in this story masquerading as humor, and it was impossible not to feel the weight of it all pressing down you as you read. I wasn't sure what to make of the point of this book. It was not only haunting, but very, very sad that the people who these children relied upon to give them love and attention basically ignored them and fed them to the dual wolves of materialism and mental illness. It surprised me to discover that she doesn't harbor a lot of ill will towards her family, but one can argue that their portrayal in this book was revenge enough.

Overall, I finished this book with a lot of sadness and felt that Wendy and her siblings had suffered a great deal during her earlier years. I don't feel that Wendy was really at fault for the things that happened to her, but I do feel that I have to be honest about my reaction to this book. Others may find the story wry and sarcastic, but for me, the endeavor of reading it left me feeling morbidly curious about the family's continued survival, which is not exactly a comfortable feeling. A disturbing read to say the least, and one that I won't soon forget.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Land of Decoration by Grace McCleen — 320 pgs

Ten year old Judith McPherson has a secret. Inside the walls of her room lies a city which she has built from discarded rubbish—a city that mimics the one that she and her father live in. Judith’s life is just shy of chaotic. Her mother died in childbirth with her and her father is a factory worker whose belief system is firmly entrenched within an obscure Christian sect that believes the end is near. Judith must help her father and the other believers canvas the neighborhood each week and let them know that the apocalypse is near. Things are also unstable for Judith at school, as another of the factory worker’s sons has taken to mercilessly bullying her. When there is no intervention from her teacher or her father, Judith begins to pray. And God answers. God implies to Judith that her little city is rife with possibilities, and as Judith begins to adjust the dolls and structures in her city, strange things begin happening. At first Judith is ebullient, believing that God has given her a gift to manifest miracles. But soon, very bad situations begin to arise, and God seems to care very little. As Judith makes more and more miracles happen, she discovers that the perfect life is not always easy to create and that this God that is speaking to her may not be who she thinks he is. As her life swings between dramatic plunges of pathos and wellsprings of hope, Judith seeks to undo the changes she has made to her world. But can she ever really be free of the people and situations that haunt her? And just who is this voice inside her head that seems just as comfortable with peace as he is with destruction?

This is a book that is hard to fit into any genre box. While at first it seems to be about faith, the reader slowly becomes aware that this great power that has been bestowed upon Judith is in fact a terrible curse. Judith makes moves that are designed to create stability in her world, and by acting, she sets a chain of events into motion that cannot be stopped. While I was reading, I became intensely aware of how deeply psychologically disturbing the story actually was. Judith goes from being publicly teased to having her family become privately tortured as she seeks to gain control of a force that is terrifying and malignant. A quiet and reflective child, Judith becomes heady with excitement over her “miracles,” but before she even realizes what’s happening, her world becomes littered with violence and anger.

One of the most intense aspects of this book was the relationship that Judith has with her father. He is both commanding and responsible, but never loving or gentle. The young girl strives so desperately to make her father love her, but this task seems momentous. He is silent when Judith needs him to be loud. He is broken when she needs him to be whole. All this she knows and states baldly and without emotion. Judith’s father doesn’t love her. Or does he? From the point of view of the child he seems emotionally very distant and cold, but it’s easy for the adult reader to acknowledge that Judith’s father is still grieving over the loss of his wife and sees Judith as a reminder. As the child tries to form and shape a new reality, her goal of making her father truly see her without ambivalence is brought to light again and again.

The city in Judith’s room is perfect. There are no boys named Neil putting snot in her hair or calling her nasty names. There is no hatred nor malice, and no religious exclusion. It’s her utopia. But when Judith is finally pushed to the edge, she begins to wish for some dangerous things that are designed to bring retribution but end up bringing wrath upon herself and her father. And as the tale begins to twist from a fairylike dream of magic and miracles to something more dark and sinister, Judith begins to change too. She manifests a series of behaviors that, while not uncommon for an unloved and bullied child, are so drastically unlike herself that the danger she’s in spits up from the page right into the reader’s face. Judith’s pain is alive and well, and she begins to twist her world into something quite dark indeed.

This was a very dark but satisfying read, and one that left me feeling like I had been right there with Judith through every miracle and repercussion, making images of light from the darkness and treading the very thin ice that she’s found herself stranded upon. It made me think very deeply about the mind of a child and what impressions can be made upon it. If you’re up for a read that will challenge your sensibilities on the differences between saints and sinners, this is surely a read that will pack a punch for you. Recommended.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Little Face by Sophie Hannah — 320 pgs

When Alice Fancourt returns home from her first solo outing after her daughter’s birth, what she finds makes her hair stand on end. While her husband David has been napping, someone has stolen her newborn daughter and replaced her with another. Hardly daring to believe it herself, when Alice confronts David, he believes her to be mad and tries to unsuccessfully convince her that the child now lying in the cradle is indeed their daughter Florence. But as tension mounts and the police are called in, the real truth about David and Alice’s relationship and their singular and joint relationships with David’s mother, Vivianne, comes into sharp focus. It seems that the wealthy Vivianne has not only infantilized and controlled David and, more shockingly, Alice, but that David has a hidden side that is only revealed when his daughter goes missing. When detective Simon Waterhouse is called to the scene to investigate, he naturally doesn’t believe a word Alice is saying. But for some reason, he is drawn to her and her strange story, and agrees to step out of the bounds of police formalities and take an interest in Alice’s strange case. Detective Waterhouse is struggling with personal issues of his own, and due to his anger management problems, he is intrinsically linked to his superior officer, the crude and cynical Charlie. But there’s a secret between Waterhouse and Charlie too, and as the investigation into the missing child’s case grinds forward, this secret may have damning effects on not only Waterhouse’s psyche but the way in which the kidnapping of little Florence is handled and resolved. Both hauntingly wicked and strangely plausible, Little Face tells the story of a woman who is in over her head in every respect possible, and the detective that decides to take an unusual risk to come to her aid.

This book was a selection for The Books, Babes and Bordeaux book club, and while I had little knowledge of this book beforehand, I was eager to read it after hearing the brief summary on the jacket of the book. It was an odd tale from the beginning, and as the book rocked forward, it became almost like a surreal and strange nightmare from which I couldn’t seem to disentangle myself. Though ostensibly this was a book about a kidnapping, it quickly began to morph into a book about control, internal conflict and strange proclivities. Despite the problems that I ended up having with it, I felt that Hannah was really at the top of her game when it comes to the psychological suspense that she so liberally uses to spice up her plot.

Though I’m sure Alice wouldn’t agree with the assessment of her as a person inflicted with damaged self-esteem, it was clear that this was most definitely the case. As an adult orphan, Alice has come to rely upon, and even to crave and depend upon, the benevolent behavior of her very controlling mother-in law. The ever-present Vivianne has taken the liberty of managing every aspect of Alice and David’s lives, and also the lives of her grandchildren, the new baby Florence, and the young Felix, David’s son from a previous marriage. The newly married couple live exclusively in Vivianne’s mansion, where she not only controls their movements but their minds and activities as well. It was strange to read about a woman who had so completely engulfed the wills of those around her, and as the story progressed, I began to see that Vivianne was harboring some malicious intentions of her own, which she would see through to the end. I can’t say that I recognized these things immediately because there was such a polished layer of veneer over Vivianne and her actions, but as I grew to understand what she was capable of, I grew more and more frightened of her.

One of the things that I found most interesting was the changing relationship between Alice and David. Though Alice makes several excuses for David’s coldness and emotional unavailability, it became apparent that there was something drastically wrong with him once the baby went missing. I wondered to myself just what Alice was thinking when she agreed to marry this man, and wondered if he had somehow tricked her into believing that he was a different kind of person altogether. At times he was frighteningly brutal and calculating, and one of the things that I felt wasn’t addressed fully was why this behavior was coming out of him in these tense moments. Hannah gives a brief explanation, but to my sensibilities, it didn’t seem all that realistic or plausible. David’s strange behavior provided most of the drama and tension in the storyline. Creepily cunning and perversely bent, David, I feel, was the true villain in this tale, though others would probably say otherwise. During these sections of the book, it was an effort to tear myself away from the page because David’s actions seemed so far out in left field and so undeniably aggressive.

Alice was also a puzzling conundrum by the close of this book. I had the feeling that she was a lot more manipulative than I had first realized, and there was at least one section where I felt that Hannah had broken trust with me as a reader and let the machinations of her story become somewhat unbelievable and uninspiring. Though this didn’t happen until the very end, it made me doubt the author and made me wonder what kinds of concessions she had made to further her agenda of a suspenseful plot. While I did admire most of this book, the ending felt too meticulously engineered, and there were times when this strategy of an unreliable narrator made me want to throw the book against the wall. I spoke about this to my husband and related the whole plot to him, in addition to my problems with it. He actually felt very differently than I did and appreciated the subtle nuances of how the story ended. Unreliable narrators usually make or break a book for me, and in this case I didn’t fully appreciate the trick that Hannah played on her audience.

Though I had issues with the conclusion, I was able to appreciate what Hannah had created overall and thought that all the requirements of a great psychological mystery had been fully met. In fact, had it not have been for the ungainly and sloppy ending, it might have become one of the contenders for a favorite. As it was, I just couldn’t get in line with Hannah’s final twist, and that had lasting repercussions on what I felt for the entire narrative. It was a very involving and interesting read, but it wasn’t completely pulled off without a hitch.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Rook by Daniel O’Malley — Audiobook Review

Recorded by Hachette Audio
Narrated by Susan Duerden
Length: 17 hours 51 minutes

When Myfanwy Thomas awakens in a room full of dead bodies, she’s not sure who she is or what has happened to her. Very quickly, she discovers a set of instructions that will tell her all she ever wanted to know and more. It seems that Myfanwy Thomas is a Rook: one of the highest players belonging to an organization called the Chequy. The Chequy are secret British government operatives that deal entirely with the supernatural elements that most of society never even realize exists. As Myfanwy becomes more and more aware that there is danger all around her, she realizes that her consciousness in this new body is like that of a babe in the woods. As she fumbles her way through meetings with the other very unusual Chequy operatives, each possessing a powerful and strange skill, she learns that she can trust no one but the Myfanwy of the past who has left her a large set of information and instructions. But things are getting too hot to handle in the Chequy, for there seems to be a dangerous member in their presence—a member who can destroy the delicate balance between a world of normalcy and a world of exceptional hostility. Will Myfanwy be able to discover who she is in time to save not only herself but the world that counts on her to keep the balance? Or is it already too late to harness the powers that have been unleashed upon the unsuspecting Chequy operatives and the more average world beyond? In this sassy and clever debut, Daniel O’Malley melds the world of the ordinary and the alternately witty and wild world of the supernatural together as they engage in a battle for supreme control. And at the center of it all is Myfanwy Thomas: a woman who can’t even remember her own name.

I first heard of this book over at Nicole’s website and was instantly intrigued. Her review was wonderful and gave me just enough information to be tantalized, but didn’t spoil a thing. When I realized that this book could be had on audio, I knew this was my opportunity. Though it’s a long book–clocking in at almost 18 hours–the narrator, Susan Duerden, had a wonderfully crisp British accent and great skill at doing many voices and accents, which lent the audio version a life and vibrancy that I would have missed had I read this one instead of listened. Duerden was always composed and even a bit snarky at times, and by God she was funny! There was a lot of suspense here, and the trepidation in the narrator’s voice as she read really cemented the successfulness of the genre mixing and superb character creation of this tale.

The listener or reader really meets Myfanwy (pronounced just like Tiffany) as she is first meeting herself. Awakened to a mass of bodies lying all around her, she is only discovering that she has immense power for the first time, and that she has no idea where or who she is. This could turn into a farce, but O’Malley injects so many intelligent and tight plot devices and characters into this mix that the effect was like listening to a mixture of The X-Files and Bridget Jones’ Diary. Myfanwy is timid but powerful, and comes to realize that she is a new consciousness in a Rook’s body. This particular Rook was very feared and skilled, but she was vastly underutilized—a fact that the new Myfanwy seems to enjoy reversing. As she pores over the notes left behind by her old self, she begins to discover her hidden skills and takes pleasure in removing former obstacles and preconceived notions about the person who used to be housed in her body.

The Chequy operatives are a shady bunch, and amidst them are some real surprises. There are some who share one hive mind and several bodies, some who can invade dreamscapes, and even some who are strange vampiric creatures. Each has a special talent, and as a group they are both fearsome and funny. They don’t often work well together, and this makes for a very unstable atmosphere just ripe for unrest and tyranny and possibly even defection. I was delighted by the lengths that O’Malley went to in order to make his fictional universe diverse and creative, and felt that although there are a lot of books out there that deal with the supernatural, this one felt fresh and exciting.

As each operative knows, the biggest threat to them all are the Grafters. These sinister monsters take their superior advancements and turn them upon each other, surgically and organically creating horrific monsters that are built for mutilation. The Grafters are a nasty bunch, and for some reason they’ve come out of hiding to terrorize the people of England and the Chequy themselves. They want something, and someone has granted them access. But who could it be? It’s Myfanwy’s imperative to find out, and as she does, the shy girl that people used to cower away from is transformed into a warrior of fierce measure, someone even the Grafters fear. Duerden does an incredible job with her vocal talents in giving this story presence and imbuing it with a sinister air, and really does justice to O’Malley’s genius of a plot.

I would have to give this book a full endorsement in audio, though I imagine that the print version is probably quite wonderful as well. The life and imagination of this story seems to crackle out of the speakers, and as with the best audiobooks, I never wanted it to end. Suspicion, thrills and humor roll smoothly together into a tale that never stops pulsing. For those readers looking for something new and exciting that will thrill you to the very marrow, you need look no further. A rambunctious and highly captivating novel. Recommended for all types of readers.

Monday, July 2, 2012

The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott by Kelly O'Connor McNees — 354 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.
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