Friday, August 31, 2012

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson — Audiobook Review

Recorded by Penguin Audiobooks
Narrated by Jenny Lawson
Length: 8 hours 41 minutes

Jenny Lawson, also known as The Blogess, has led a strange life. And I’m not talking about your everyday, tame kind of strange: Jenny’s life story is bizarre. But wait, don’t stop reading yet, because it’s also probably the funniest life story you’ll ever read, and it’s not G-rated. Growing up in rural Texas with a father who had a penchant for taxidermy, Jenny lived a life of wild animals racing through the house and being woken by her father in the middle of the night to play with stuffed chipmunks that pop out of cereal boxes. That kind of weird. Jenny relates all of this in her own hilarious and emotive voice, sharing her life as a child, her adolescence attending a high school that had a serious agricultural vibe, and rounding it off with her marriage to Victor, a man who not only keeps her sane but glides along smoothly beside her when she goes off the tracks into her habitual eccentricities. Whether she’s leaving passive-aggressive post-it notes on the dog or veering off into the more serious topics of anxiety issues and her terrible miscarriage, Jenny tells it all from the heart—and most of it is inexpressibly animated and comical. Jenny takes you on the road trip that is her life, and as she drives along pointing out all the odd sights and devilish merriment, there is pause for reflection and soul searching as well. This is the life of Jenny Lawson, and it’s full to the brim with bits and pieces so strange and unusual that you will never be able to forget her or her story.

When Sandy asked me if I would like to borrow the audio edition of this book, I was so eager and excited that I immediately said yes. She had given the book a great review, and almost all the other reviews I had seen were positive as well. I didn’t follow The Blogess, but you can bet I do now! I loved that Lawson narrated her own story, because having the book narrated by someone else would have been a huge mistake. Her infectious energy is almost tangible. She very candidly explores her life with just the right vocal inflections and groove, and adopts a more serious and somber tone for those difficult aspects of her life. Her narration absolutely made this book for me, and I can see that it was the right choice, as reading this on paper would not have had the same impact. My husband and I listened to this one together, and even he was laughing out loud, which is very rare, as he’s usually a rather serious listener.

Jenny’s life is totally out there. Living in rural Texas, she is a country girl and holds no pretensions whatsoever. It’s clear that she loves her family, but make no mistake, she knows that her dad is totally off the map. It was shocking but also very funny. Jenny’s dad clearly loves his children, but money was often tight, and his love for taxidermy and wild animals created some outrageously funny moments—probably moments that she wishes she could forget, but that a listener will revel in. Jenny’s mother takes all this in with a patient and forbearing attitude, making it easy for Jenny and her sister to laugh with glee at the wild moments in the house, but also to be scared stiff when bobcats go running through the living room. Jenny deals with her father’s particular brand of humor with dry and sardonic wit, but it’s clear that she wouldn’t have it any other way (well maybe fewer bobcats).

When Jenny meets Victor, she falls deeply in love with him, but even he can’t overcome her own brand of strangeness. Victor is from the other side of life, born to a wealthy and genteel family, and Jenny’s recounting of meeting Victor’s mother and having a family dinner with them was both entertaining and slightly neurotic. As Victor and Jenny wed, they blend together in a swirl of manic energy and lucid perseverance. Some of the antics that Jenny pulls had me saying “poor Victor”, but I think Victor knows the wry ostentation of his wife better than any reader ever could. I particularly loved the dead serious talks they have about zombie infection and when it’s okay to go hunting for zombies in the graveyard close to their house. It’s clear that Victor “gets” Jenny, and though there are times I felt she pushed to him to his limits, I can imagine that he must eagerly push her buttons sometimes too.

Jenny is much given to hyperbole, and this is one of the things that makes her book so funny. It’s clear that some of her mishaps have been embellished, but most of them come straight out of her life, and hyperbole aside, the book’s frenzied pace and acute delivery do justice to the world of comic writing. She steals the show with her oversized reactions and personality, and gives Victor a complete run for his money.

Jenny is also not afraid to touch on topics that some would consider TMI. In a heartbreaking chapter, she relates what it was like to miscarry her child and what it’s like living with anxiety that must be controlled by medical means. When she discovers the world of blogging, she makes friends but has a hard time during a weekend trip with other bloggers. I think most of us here can relate. As she wonders if her personality is too overeager and off the wall, I could see myself in her, albeit more calm and internal. While it was great to read about her insane life, I could see a side of her that was vulnerable and prone to nervousness and self criticism. It made me like her more to see these softer sides, and realize that she was not only an overly zealous personality, but a human being, scared and confused as we all sometimes are.

If you’re looking for a book that will make you bark out inappropriate laughter at any moment, this is the book for you. Also, as an audio bonus, Jenny sings each chapter title off key, and even imbues the audiobook with an extra chapter not found in the printed version. I loved this book and its weird blend of over the top humor and quirkiness. It’s fun and frivolous but also very emotionally significant at times. A read that would appeal to most fans of comedic writing. Recommended.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn — 432 pgs

In this mindbending and original thriller, Gillian Flynn takes us into the hearts and minds of a married couple that both terrifies and shocks. When Nick’s wife, Amy, disappears on their fifth wedding anniversary, he’s stunned. The clues left at the scene of the disappearance look ominous and seem to point to the bewildered Nick. As days go by and Amy doesn’t turn up, the police begin to put the pressure on Nick, suspecting him of abducting his wife and killing her. It doesn’t help matters that Nick is a strange sort of guy who has had a complicated relationship with his wife, or that he appears too calm when on camera while pleading for his wife’s return, or with the police investigators that won’t leave him alone. What really happened to Amy and why does it seem like someone wanted to frame Nick? Just when it seems like his fate is sealed, a whole new drama unfolds as the other side of the story is told. Resentment, anger and insanity come rolling off the pages almost quicker than the reader can keep up, and when all the secrets come tumbling out, you realize what a master storyteller Gillian Flynn is. In this spine chilling and dark story, Flynn gives the readers the ride of their lives, leaving no stone unturned and no situation more bizarre. A compulsively addictive book, Gone Girl will leave fans hungering for more of Flynn’s writing and leave them turning this story over and over in their minds.

This book has been an overnight sensation, with everyone everywhere dying to read it. I initially wasn’t terribly keen on reading it because most thrillers leave me hanging. But from the moment that I picked this book up, I knew there was something more than compelling about it, and I’m glad that it was Sandy’s pick for our book club. Gillian Flynn is very adept at creating stories that you can’t put down, and this book cast its spell on me immediately. This is a hard review to write because it’s so easy to spoil the magic that makes this book work.

Nick is a handsome and charming workaday kind of guy. He co-owns a bar with his sister, and is really just a genial man who is questioning his marriage on the very day that he is to celebrate it. It’s clear that Nick has some issues with Amy and feels that she can be very hard to please, but ultimately, he feels a kind of love mixed with resentment towards her. When Amy goes missing, he’s filled with grief and fear. Who has done this, and why? It’s clear that all fingers are pointing to him, and the fact that he seems detached at times made me wonder. But Nick is a man keeping a lot of secrets that are bound to come out once the media and law officials get involved.

When the second section of the book opened, my jaw dropped with dread. I dare not say more than the fact that the speed of the plot and the twisted thread it wove had me turning pages furiously, wondering where Flynn was heading next. It was a labyrinth of darkness and evil come to rest upon characters that had once seemed benign and likeable. I think as a reader, it’s impossible not to rush through this second and third section of the book, knowing that strange and ominous things are ahead, and for my part, I just felt that it was like being thrown onto a roller-coaster in a straightjacket.

When all is finally revealed and you see the repercussions from the choices that the characters have made,  it’s hard to feel anything but confusion and loathing for them. These are very damaged people, and even the secondary characters have their demons that make them very hard to deal with. I sped through this book at breakneck speed, and when I finally turned the last page, I shivered with horror. This isn’t the kind of book that you can finish and forget; rather, it’s a tale that will linger with you in all its ferocity and insanity long after you’ve finished it.

I loved this book, and though it was very disturbing, it was excellent reading and kept me up way past my bedtime just trying to squeeze in one more chapter. It was fraught with extremely complex emotional and physiological situations, and I would have to liken its suspenseful coils to those of an anaconda: the more you struggle to resist it, the tighter it embraces you. Highly recommended for readers who want something new and very different.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Shadow Tag by Louise Erdrich — 272 pgs

When the beautiful Irene discovers that her husband, Gil, is reading her diary, she decides to concoct another diary for his eyes only and hides her original. Gil and Irene’s marriage is on rocky territory, and as both of them struggle towards and away from each other, the full gravity of their marriage comes into clear focus. Gil is a renowned painter whose subject has always been, and will always be, Irene. Though it’s not clear at first why Irene loathes and resents Gil, as the narrative moves forward, Gil is exposed as an abusive and mercurial man who stops at nothing to minimize and humiliate his wife and children, both with his art and in his his dealings with them as a father and husband. When Irene hits upon the idea of the separate diary, Gil of course reads it and becomes inflamed. Irene is hoping to leave Gil and take her three children, but Gil is unwilling to let her go. But does Irene really plan on leaving Gil, or is she too caught up in his unhealthy adoration and abuse for that to ever happen? Shadow Tag takes a critical look at the life of a family in turmoil and shows its readers how a man and woman so obviously wrong for each other continue to gravitate back towards each other, no matter the consequences for them or their children.

This was a book that I chose for my second book club's (Woodbury Reads) April selection. I don’t often get the chance to read the books that strike my fancy, and after reading so many great reviews all over the blogosphere about this book, I took a chance and unilaterally decided that we would read this book, come hell or high water. I’ve heard a lot about Erdrich in the past, but had assumed that all of her books were sort of tied into one another and dealt a lot with Native American culture. This book had a lot to do with Native Americans as well, as both Gil and Irene were portrayed as characters who had a fraction of Native American bloodline. Erdrich also used this book as a vehicle to share some asides about a very popular Native American artist.

In the early stages of this book, I couldn’t understand why Irene was so antagonistic and cruel to Gil. She’s constantly cutting him off at the knees, and when she decides to create the fictitious diary for Gil’s consumption, I actually thought that she was the villain here. In reality, things were much more complicated, for she was a villain of a kind but a victim as well. Gil dealt with her insouciance and anger by becoming more and more affectionate and loving, and for a moment, I wondered just what was going on behind the scenes with this couple. When I finally discovered just what Gil really was, I was taken aback, because like any abuser, Gil knew how to hide in the crevices of propriety and adoration. There was almost a sense of cognitive dissonance in the way that I related to Irene at times because while I felt her to be perfectly justified in how she was tricking Gil, I also felt that she was at times cruel and unusual in her baiting of him. She was at once willful and unconcerned, a mixture that I found incongruous.

I related to Gil in a different way altogether. At times, it seemed that Gil would not let Irene go for the sake of his art and that he was feeding off of her. Gil knew that Irene was unhappy but refused to believe that, and also, by extension, refused her release. He claimed that the art he was creating “celebrated” her, but it was clearly more cannibalistic than that. Gil remains in a powerful denial throughout the book, and the more he tries to make things right, the more his veneer peels away in layers. Gil, for all his good intentions, is a cruel man, not only to his wife but to his children as well. At times, I wondered if he was delusional about the life he was living, and particularly about his relationship with Irene. When the book winds down to its conclusion, Gil is left without a shred of hope for his family and takes drastic action to wipe it all away. At this point I became frustrated with Irene, for she was incapable of seeing that her freedom was in sight, nor able to extricate herself from Gil's carnivorous and unhealthy appetites.

Each of Gil and Irene’s three children have their own way of dealing with what is going on in their lives and with their parents. They all hang on tenuously, but they are all struggling in their own ways. When things really start to crumble, they react in alarming and uncharacteristic ways, and it’s clear that they are becoming damaged in irreversible ways by all that they see and all that remains hidden. I think it’s also important to mention that in Irene’s fake dairy she finds a way to symbolically liken the confessions she makes into the real life actions that are taking place in her marriage, blurring the lines where the truth ends and the fiction begins. The bottom line is that Gil and Irene are both damaged and damaging people, and their children seem to only be pawns in the game of destruction that they play with each other.

I found this book to be incredibly evocative, and at times, it felt almost as if I was too close to these people, whom anyone could see were emotionally unhealthy. Erdrich manages to create heightened emotions and scenes with an almost terse and sparse style that left me feeling like I was in the ring with these two flailing fighters. This is definitely not a feel-good book, and the conclusion is just as shocking as the slow degradation of the family’s relationship, but it’s a book that I know I will have a hard time forgetting. If I admit it to myself, it was a book that made me feel like a voyeur watching the private horrors that Gil and Irene inflicted upon each other. A very dark but powerful read.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Age of Desire by Jennie Fields — 368 pgs

This novel opens with scenes of the livelihood and revelry of Paris during Edith Wharton’s heydey. Edith, in her early forties, is married to Teddy Wharton, a match that has proved disastrous and totally devoid of passion. While all of France loves her for her brilliant new work, The House of Mirth, and considers her the height of modern femininity, there’s one in particular who intrigues her with his elegance and dapper presence. When that handsome face appears again and again, she discovers that this man, Morton Fullerton, has set his designs upon her as if she was a young and attractive coquette. At first Edith is flattered and no more, but soon Fullerton is pursuing her with ferocity. Rumors abound that Fullerton is a cad and a bounder, but Edith cannot see him without seeing the sensuality that he offers her. But his primal objectives have a price that Edith isn’t willing to part with easily, and as the rumors fly, Edith begins to alienate her one true companion as well as her husband. Behind all this romantic frenzy lies a secret that Fullerton will not disclose and that will undo the very fabric of Edith’s life. In The Age of Desire, Jennie Fields reimagines those frenetic years of Edith Wharton’s life with a careful and passionate hand, leaving the reader hungering for more of the inside details while also leaving them fretful of what they will eventually discover.

Having read Ethan Frome and The House of Mirth, I know from personal experience that Edith Wharton was indeed a prolific and incredible author, but I knew little about her personal life or the life of her indispensable secretary, Anna Bahlmann. This novel was based on historical record, but had a life and zest of its own that compelled me to devour the book greedily. It was as if Edith was a woman frozen, who could only be thawed by the hand of one man, and unfortunately for her, that man was not her husband. Fields juxtaposes Edith’s strength and formidable character with her rising desire for a man who is clearly toying with her. She hasn’t the foresight to see that she is not his center, as he is hers.

Fullerton is a character whom I grew to love and hate at the same time. The gift of frank and raw sexuality that he imparts to Edith was invaluable, but at heart he was a womanizer with specific tastes. Edith was only one morsel on his plate, but she didn’t see this. He was a very sensual man, and it was hard for me not to connect with that aspect of his character, but he was also in many ways a derelict and a loathsome creature. Fullerton ran hot and cold to Edith’s consistency. He was aware of what he was doing yet couldn’t stop himself. I grew agitated reading about him, for he could be astonishingly cold but also maddeningly charming.

One of the foremost aspects of this book was the focus that Fields took on Anna Bahlmann’s life. She was with Edith from the time she was just a child, and grew to love her as a mother, sister and friend. Often, this meant that she put up with the childish demands that Edith placed on her while she was dangerously flailing with Fullerton. Anna was patient and long-suffering, and at times I grew very angry at Edith when she became hostile and punitive toward the only friend that was a constant in her life. Anna was completely consumed with being Edith’s helpmeet and partner. She had other opportunities, but chose to be in turns loved and banished by Edith as her moods fluctuated.

Teddy was the last piece of this puzzle. Overly and overtly fond of Anna, he played with the desire of wanting Edith to be true and steadfast to him and taking Anna as a poor second when Edith would frequently abandon him. I had an instant dislike of Teddy. What is obvious as a modern reader is that he was bipolar, but it wasn’t this that made me dislike him. It was his constant need of attention and his wheedling sorrow when he was not accommodated that kept me from connecting any positive emotion to him at all. At times very unpredictable and always needing comfort, Teddy was like a child, and it was easy to see why Edith preferred to be where her husband was not.

In many ways this book was very seductive and gratifying, but it also felt like walking through a minefield of intrepid danger and coy traps. Picking it up again and again, I felt completely immersed in Field’s world, where the outcome was not certain and everything was tense and fluid. Even readers who know nothing of Wharton and her work would have no trouble being consumed by this story, and though it was a delectable read, it was also bittersweet. A very moving look at one of the greatest known writers in the prime of her life. Highly recommended.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Darkness All Around by Doug Magee — 352 pgs

Eleven years ago, Risa’s alcoholic husband Sean disappeared and her best friend Carol was horrifically murdered. Risa’s one-time love, Alan, stepped up and married Risa and raised Sean’s young son with her. Now Alan is in the political arena and the voters are starting to swing his way. Though Risa is torn between her love for Alan and the hate that brews inside her for the slick politico he’s becoming, things begin to slide out of control the day Sean reappears, ready to confess to Carol’s murder. But Carol’s murderer has already been put away, under strong evidence and even stronger doubts. Sean’s reappearance causes the small town of Baden to be fraught with doubts, fear and dangerous secrets. For Sean, life seems confusing and strange because he can’t remember many things from his past due to a serious brain injury. The pieces that are coming back everyday point to himself as the brutal murderer of kind and loving Carol. But for more reasons than one, Alan, once best friends with Sean, doesn’t want him to come forward nor even to be in Baden at all. With Risa willing to give Sean the second chance that he needs and Alan’s political career just a heartbeat away from being wrecked, explosions are bound to ensue. Just when you think you’ve got this one all figured out, a new sinister twist comes along to sweep the residents of Baden away. With Sean on the lam and Alan off swindling the voters, Risa must handle this one alone. Memories are always tricky little devils that can’t be pinned down, and when the truth comes to light, all of Baden will be shocked and mystified. Deeply suspenseful and packed with reveal after reveal, Darkness All Around is a novel that will leave its readers both gripped and satisfyingly rewarded with its sinuous plot and clever storyline.

Anyone will tell you that I am not usually a big fan of thrillers. A lot of the time, you see the same plot devices and characters rehashed over and over again. But there was something intensely gripping about this book, and the biggest factor was the atmosphere. Magee has a way of making this small sleepy town in Pennsylvania just drip with darkness and acrimony. It was inside all the descriptions of the wooded areas that housed the town’s secrets and in the hearts and faces of the townsfolk who could go from warm and open to cold-shouldered in an instant. The mood of the town was close knit, yet never really unguarded at all, and through all this, Risa shone like a lonely beacon of light, even as her world tumbled upside down.

This story was impressive for a lot of reasons, but one of the main things that I took away from it was that Magee had set up his environment and characters so well that the reader felt comfortable in thinking they had figured out the book, when in fact, there was a deeper and more complex substructure going on behind what everyone else was seeing and reacting to. It was a risky move, and had the timing and interplay between the characters been off by one millimeter, this book would have been rather ineffectual. As it was, Magee engineered a perfect milieu of secretiveness and mystery that took me further and further into the story, never predicting the final outcome that blew the lid off of the madness that had been secreted away inside the protective town.

Another bright spot was that the characterizations were perfect. Though Risa was trusting, she was not naive, nor was she foolish. I felt really invested in what would become of her life and the life of her son. Sean was also sympathetic. A man run ragged over memories that haunt him day and night, and looking for absolution through punishment. While I liked most of the characters, I had an immediate dislike and distrust for Alan and all his smarmy ways. He was like two different people inside the same body; one for the cameras and one for his wife. I hated the way he sacrificed the love of one woman and thought only of the campaign ahead. I am confident that readers of this novel will feel much the same towards Alan, who I felt was emotionally stunted and crippled.

This was a book that I was very invested in and that convinced me that psychological thrillers are a genre that I need to explore further. It wasn’t a light and breezy read, but. in fact, a surreptitiously beguiling one that left me feeling emotionally untethered for awhile. If you’re in the mood for a book that turns rabid darkness into light, I would highly recommend this one to you. I was pleased that I never once figured out what Magee had up his sleeve. A fantastic read.

Author Photo About the Author

Doug Magee has been a photojournalist, screenplay writer, children’s book author, death penalty activist, film producer and director, war protestor, college football player, amateur musician, and the basis of the Aidan Quinn character in Meryl Streep’s “Music of the Heart.” This is his first novel. He lives in Spanish Harlem with his wife and two teenaged children.

Learn more about Doug and his work at his website,

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 19th: Crime Fiction Lover
Thursday, June 21st:You’ve GOTTA read this!
Monday, June 25th:Bewitched Bookworms
Tuesday, June 26th:Life in Review
Wednesday, June 27th:House of Crime and Mystery
Thursday, June 28th:Inside of a Dog
Monday, July 2nd:Mockingbird Hill Cottage
Tuesday, July 3rd:Reviews by Lola
Thursday, July 5th:Chaotic Compendiums
Monday, July 9th:Man of La Book
Tuesday, July 10th:Wordsmithonia
Thursday, July 12th: Well Read Wife
Monday, July 16th:A Chick Who Reads
Tuesday, July 17th:Unabridged Chick
Wednesday, July 18th:Reviews by Elizabeth A. White
Thursday, July 19th:Drey’s Library
Friday, August 17th:Raging Bibliomania
TBD:Murder by Type

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Runaway Girl: Escaping Life on the Streets, One Helping Hand at a Time by Carissa Phelps and Larkin Warren — 320 pgs

Carissa Phelps was one of eleven children living with her mother and stepfather. Her stepfather, an outwardly violent and abusive man, was particularly vicious to his stepchildren, causing Carissa to run away at age twelve. When the police brought her back, she would run away again and again, until the moment she seriously hit the streets and was was picked up by a pimp. Though Carissa got free of the first pimp, she landed in with a new one, named Icey, who took every shred of her innocence in perverted and degrading acts of abuse and rape. When she was finally able to break free of him, her spirit had been so broken that she actually wondered if leaving him behind was the right thing to do. At least he seemed to care about her, she thought. Carissa moved through group homes and the juvenile justice system, always running when she came up against a rule or person who threatened to get too close to her damaged heart. Her parents surrendered her to the system because she was a “runner” and they refused to believe that she had the potential to become anything else. Landing in juvenile detention for six months, Carissa met the man who would become a father figure and teacher who saw the potential behind the mask of indifference and defiance. With the help of the staff and teachers, Carissa managed to leave the system behind and to realize potential that few ever accomplish. But she never forgot the streets nor the children like her who had their childhoods stolen away. Realizing that her life would never be complete without being able to one day give those kids the help they needed, Carissa embarked on a path that worked to free children from exploitation, and along the way she began to heal herself. This is a story of one girl’s terrible history of abuse, and the people who helped her turn her life around, one miniature movement at a time.

It was hard to read this book and not become angry. Angry at the system, the parents that hadn’t protected their child, and angry at those men who saw a small pre-pubescent girl and used her for their own gain. As I read, I fought down the frightening inclination of seeing this girl as my daughter, or any of the young girls whom I know and love. Parental irresponsibility in these cases isn’t uncommon, but I loathed her parents. How could someone see their daughter in this situation and never lift a finger unless it was to call the authorities to take her away. It was reprehensible. Carissa reveals that she hasn’t yet learned how to forgive her parents, especially her mother, who throughout the book seemed almost robotically unemotional. Her parents’ negligence and incompetence put this very young girl in the path of some seriously bad people, and for that, I believe that forgiveness is not an option.

Carissa admits early on that she was gambling with her life and freedom, looking for a good time and someone to love her. The fact that she was only twelve when she began running away prevented her from realizing the potential dangers that lurked around every corner. It was amazing to me how many men (and women) were eager to exploit this young girl, and this made me very, very afraid, having a daughter who’s just on the cusp of womanhood. The likelihood of Carissa getting out of these situations was very slim, but when help came, she didn’t want it. Help came with strings attached, and often the rules were simply too hard for her to follow. So, she would run again and again, looking for the affection and attention that she never experienced at home.

When Carissa ended up in a locked facility, she came to the attention of a man who knew that she was special and not cut out for life on the streets. She had promise and potential, and by giving her encouragement and advice, Carissa came to trust him, and by some miracle, she also let others in. She had a great mind, and coupled with a sense of pervasive and deeply personal integrity, she took a higher path and started reconstructing her life into something that she could not only be proud of, but that could be of assistance to other children in the same situation.

This book was blunt and brutal at times, and could easily shock the senses of the average reader. But please don’t let that stop you from reading it, because Carissa’s story is one of hope and regeneration, and proves that even the most meager of lives can become a model of wisdom, encouragement and care. If ever there was a book to show you how a life can be turned around, this is that book. Sad and haunting, yes, but uplifting and courageous as well. This is a story you will never forget.

If you would like the chance to experience Carissa’s story for yourself, please enter my giveaway for a copy of this inspiring and deeply personal book. Two winners will be chosen at random. Giveaway is open to U.S. residents only.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Prisoner of Heaven by Carlos Ruiz Zafón — 288 pgs

In this third installment of The Shadow of the Wind series, young Daniel Sempere is all grown up and about to discover the mysterious and painful history of one of his oldest friends, the ever jocular and romantic Fermin. As Fermin’s wedding day approaches, he appears to be suffering greatly, not only in body but in spirit as well. When the nature of his problem is revealed, Daniel agrees that he must help his friend at any cost and give the gift of existence to the man he loves like a brother. As Fermin relates the story of how he became a man with no history, his shocking past comes to light: a past that began when he was arrested in pre-Franco Spain and underwent brutal torture, callous manipulation, and even became involved in the murder of someone whom Daniel once loved and cherished. While this yarn is being spun around the reader, glimpses of the genesis and importance of the second book of the series, The Angel’s Game, begin to coalesce into a very densely woven portrait of the Sempere family, beginning many years before Daniel’s birth. Labyrinthine in its construction, the book brings cohesion to the series and further deepens the mysteries that can only be solved in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. And though this is a complete and definitive work, it leaves the reader with the scent of the hunt on the wind, for some damages cannot and should not be forgiven.

I’ve been a major fan of this series since reading the first book, The Shadow of the Wind, many years ago. I was lucky enough to get a chance to review The Angel’s Game, and though Shadow truly knocked my socks off, Game blew me away with a skill and cunning that I had never known the likes of before. To say that I had been eagerly awaiting this book’s release is an understatement. This is a series that I never fail to recommend to serious readers who are looking for a way to blow their minds wide open, and from what I’ve read in this book, I can already see that there will be another installment in this masterful series. There will be more waiting and more anticipation, for while this book set the stage, I think the real fireworks will be forthcoming in the next installment.

Anyone who has read Shadow will remember Fermin as the garrulous and charming foil to Señor Sempere and young Daniel; but in this book, he is the star. Fermin is universally loved in the city and is treated as a friend and confidante to all who know him. But this Fermin is not the same man he was only a handful of years ago, when he was imprisoned in Fascist Spain and made to dwell in a hovel with others who were captured fleeing the country or for their intellectual beliefs. This Fermin was starved and debased, and utilizing an insane amount of willpower and help from other inmates, he was able to escape that brutal life. But no amount of cleansing can wipe away the horror and stain of nonexistence from Fermin, who is about to be married to the love of his life.

When Daniel agrees to help Fermin create an identity for himself, he gets a lot more than he bargained for. He discovers that one of the men that Fermin was imprisoned with was very ill and was secretly penning a novel called The Angel’s Game, telling his story in the only way he knew how before madness stole his mind. This man not only holds great power in Daniel’s life, he is a source of great shame and sorrow, blowing Daniel’s world apart when Daniel discovers that all the clues lead back to him, again and again. All three books build on each other, and as Zafón beautifully demonstrates again and again, all our stories are tied to each other in ways we can see and ways we cannot.

By the time I reached the final stages of this book, I knew there had to be more coming. From what I read in the last few chapters alone, I’m fairly certain that the next book will be the one that ties all four together in a tapestry of amazing syncopation and terse, tense drama. A lot of what came out of this book was tame compared to the messages in The Angel’s Game, but after reading that book and following through to this one, the implications were not only chilling but downright disturbing. Not at all what I was expecting, but very, very tantalizing. This book gives a roundness and a fullness to what has already been published and sets up some dire situations for the next installment.

As far as recommendations go, I would suggest that readers who enjoy deeply psychological and human stories go straightaway and read all three of these books. The wordplay is sharp, the ideas sharper, and taken as a trilogy soon to expand, there’s a lot here to love. Besides, I need more people to chat with about these intense books. A winner all around.

Author Photo About the Author

Carlos Ruiz Zafón, author of two critically acclaimed and internationally bestselling novels, The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel's Game, is one of the world's most read and best-loved writers. His work, which also includes prizewinning young adult novels, has been translated into more than fifty languages and published around the world, garnering numerous international prizes and reaching millions of readers. He divides his time between Barcelona and Los Angeles.

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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:

Thursday, July 5th:No More Grumpy Bookseller
Monday, July 16th:A Bookish Affair
Tuesday, July 17th:Man of La Book
Monday, July 23rd:Drey's Library
Tuesday, July 24th:Col Reads
Thursday, July 26th:Jenn's Bookshelves
Friday, July 27th:Wordsmithonia
Monday, July 30th:Broken Teepee
Monday, July 30th:A Book Geek
Monday, August 6th:No More Grumpy Bookseller
Tuesday, August 7th:A Novel Source
Wednesday, August 8th:My Two Blessings
Thursday, August 9th:Raging Bibliomania
Friday, August 10th:Kritters Ramblings
Monday, August 13th:Book Him Danno!
TBD:Just Joanna
TBD:Bookworm's Dinner

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson — 219 pgs

Housekeeping is the tale of sisters Helen, Sylvie and Molly, and their mother, who lost her somewhat guileless husband when the train he was working on derailed and plunged into one of the great lakes of Fingerbone. After raising her daughters in a quiet and workaday way after the death of her husband, all three girls left home to find their fortune far from their mother and the crippled old town. Now Helen has returned out of the blue to deposit her daughters, Lucille and  Ruthie, on her mother’s doorstep before driving her car into the same lake that claimed her father. The girls are initially raised with care by their elderly grandmother, but too soon, she passes away one night in her sleep, and two maiden great-aunts are called in to come  take over the task of overseeing the girls. The duo of aunts are not cut out for raising children and come to dread the task, as it makes them increasingly nervous and upset, so when they hatch the idea for Sylvie to come home and look after Ruthie and Lucille, they are very pleased with themselves. But the problem is that Sylvie is a transient and hasn’t been back to Fingerbone in many years. Complicating matters intensely, there’s the possibility that she may be slightly mentally ill. When she arrives to take charge of her young nieces, the elderly aunts soon disappear, and life goes from confusing to scary for the little girls who know nothing about what will come. Though at first things are fine, Sylvie begins to display some alarming tendencies, and although she loves the girls, she cannot seem to maintain a stable home or routine for them. In her attempts to feed, clothe and protect the girls, Sylvie shows herself to be more than eccentric, and it seems she’s never quite able to leave behind her transient ways. But when one of the girls runs off and the other is threatened with removal from the home, Sylvie begins to go to great lengths to improve things. Will her efforts be enough to keep the small family together, or will her dangerous plot only serve to finally destroy the remains of the family that Ruthie and Lucille depend on?  Both emotionally minimalistic and crowdingly complicated, Housekeeping presents drama and tension on the small scale, in the story of a wayward family in need of exceptional help.

This is the second selection of the Books, Babe’s and Bordeaux book club, and the reason that we chose it was because Tatjana Soli pinpointed it as one of her favorite books when we hosted her for an author discussion during our previous meeting. I must say that I was excited by the choice and had high hopes for this book after having read and loved her later book, Home. I discovered that this was actually Robinson’s first book, and while I thought that the ideas that it presented were very interesting, there was something about the execution of the book that left me feeling a little cold.

First of all, I must say that there was a curious lack of emotional cohesion in this story. Things were going on that had emotional weight and importance, yet the lack of feeling in the writing made the story feel almost clinical. I never was able to get close to the characters because of the lack of empathy in the writing. From reading the summary paragraph above, you would imagine that this book would be fraught with emotion and feeling, but curiously, it was utterly devoid of these emotions. It all felt very stale, like Robinson was writing case notes on a difficult psychological case. There was no spark and life in the story she told, leaving me to wonder if reading this book was going to be a pointless exercise in itself. I never felt that I really knew any of the characters and how they were feeling. Sure they did things, and oftentimes those things were bizarre and uncomfortable, but I never felt I knew the reason why they did these things, or how they felt about them.

I also got a feeling of intense claustrophobia when reading this book, and I can’t exactly explain why. Everything was so dense, from the writing to the way the family lived to the outcome of the situations portrayed, and it all made me feel like I was in a closed little box with little air. It was not a fun experience, and I began to dread having to sit down with it again and again. Everything was so crammed within the story and there was little room for light or easy and uncomplicated emotion. When a book is so filled with portent, it begins to feel too ponderous to handle, and though I do sometimes enjoy these types of books, I felt that this one was overly filled with a type of darkness and murkiness that I didn’t understand or enjoy. At times the tale attempted lightness, but because of all the weight that was dragging the story down, I couldn’t buy into it. Now that I think on it, I realize my reaction to this book is one of hopelessness due to the depression and subdued anxiety that tried to disguise itself as something else. What that something else is, I never quite understood.

Not a lot happens in this book. It’s more of a character study of the people who populate the pages. In Sylvie, Robinson has created a domestically and mentally challenged individual who has no business raising children. In the young girls, she’s created a repository for all the worry and anxiety that both the reader and Sylvie harbor towards the act of successfully raising them. It was a worrisome book that felt very slow and uneventful, and it had the quality of one moving slowly underwater, which, interestingly enough, is one of the things that was portrayed in the plot. Where the book strived to be deep and meaningful, I only found that it was maudlin and overwhelming, and where there was a brief bit of hope, it was always quickly extinguished. This was a book that surged in ebbs and flows of disappointment and strangeness, and I was never able to find my reading groove with it because reading it made me feel overcome with desperation. This is not a book that I would feel comfortable recommending, and I would tend to think that it’s only necessary for completists. Definitely not a favorite.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Color of Tea by Hannah Tunnicliffe — 336 pgs

When Grace Miller finds herself living in Macau, a peninsula of China, she’s caught up in feelings of isolation, brokenness and fear. Grace and her husband, Pete, have been trying to have a child for years, but the latest news is heartbreaking for her: Grace, still young at 43, is infertile and is staring into the face of early menopause. Feeling emotionally adrift, Grace open a café named Lillian’s, named after her mother, and begins to try to salvage the pieces of her life. At the café, Grace serves the delicate and delicious macarons, a tiny French confection that the locals and expats both seem to crave. But the business is pulling her further and further away from her husband and the infertility that they both cannot seem to speak of. Realizing that the café is too much to handle on her own, Grace decides to hire help, and before she even realizes it, both the café and Grace’s life are infused with a handful of amazing and resilient women. Like Grace, each woman carries a secret, yet they all seem to find themselves slowly turning towards each other for support, secrets plunging out to reveal their inner wounds and scars for the others to see. As Grace navigates these new and unfamiliar waters, she will finally discover if there’s a future for herself and Pete, and if she can truly recover from her tenacious sadness. Intermingled with this crisp and moving story are the fragrant and rich depictions of the foods that pass through Grace’s shop, giving the reader a story that resonates exquisitely, both in the heart and in the palette.

This is a story that had several layers folded into it, and each was just as satisfying and remarkable as the last. Stories of abuse, mental illness and infertility vie for balance amongst the tales of Grace’s café and the staff she employs. The book isn’t a light romp through the streets of China, but a fully realized and minutely rendered world that is equal parts love and sadness. Grace’s story melts in between the stories of the other women she has chosen to help her at the café, and what begins as a soft dance of loss becomes a quick-tempoed push and pull between Grace and those surrounding her.

The other women surrounding Grace add the flavor to her life that had been nonexistent and lost for so long. Rilla, a young woman who is hiding secrets that mirror Grace’s in complexity, is the first to be hired, and it’s with great gusto that the two women bond, Rilla’s quiet and proud efficiency matching Grace’s quiet watchfulness. The café is patronized by many, and the confections they serve are constantly being reworked and redesigned to the delight of everyone who visits. Though Rilla is the last to reveal her secret, she is the first in the café, and her polite attentiveness masks a deep fear and a secret resolve.

Gigi is just another straggler until one day she shows up at the café with a suggestion for Grace’s business. Gigi is full of energy and spunk, the perfect catalyst for Rilla and Grace, who are more prim and cautious. Though Gigi tries mightily to keep her skeletons deeply in the closet, she cannot do so for long, and her painful secret breaks Grace’s heart. She is taken on, and her fire and energy are quickly put to use in the business’ supply negotiations. But Grace can clearly see that Gigi is a foodie like herself, and soon she‘s in the kitchen creating delicious new macarons in exotic and tempting flavors. Gigi has a gift for the business, but will she have to leave it all behind to placate her demanding mother?

Rounding out the group is Margery, another expat who is shunned by the other wives for being more risqué and less uptight than the others. She provides the emotional support for all the women and helps each move along towards their paths of self healing and acceptance. Margery is the rock upon which the others stand, and she’s clever and very perceptive. It’s within the walls of the café that ailing hearts begin to heal and cavernous pits of despair begin to morph into something more malleable and less malignant. The love that each of the women give and experience transforms their lives into a place where hope shines through and broken dreams can be recrafted and repaired.

I loved this book for its ability to be blunt and brutal at times while still maintaining shreds of optimism that were artfully arranged into whispered promises of hope and healing. It was a book that had me in tears and laughing with joy, right along with the women, and while the subject matter could indeed be dark and shadowed, there was sweet release when the final page had been turned. Lovers of foodie literature will be wanting to seek this book out for its amazing descriptions and mouth-watering scenes of extravagant delicacies. Recommended to all types of reader.

Author Photo About the Author

Hannah Tunnicliffe was born in New Zealand but is a self-confessed nomad. After finishing a degree in social sciences, she lived in Australia, England, and Macau. A career in human resources temporarily put her dream of becoming a writer on the back burner. The Color of Tea is her first novel.

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, July 9th:Book Club Classics!
Tuesday, July 10th:BookNAround
Wednesday, July 11th:girlichef
Monday, July 16th:Book Addiction
Wednesday, July 25th:Stiletto Storytime
Thursday, July 19th:Twisting the Lens
Monday, July 30th:A Bookish Affair
Thursday, August 2nd:Suko’s Notebeook
Friday, August 3rd:Raging Bibliomania
Monday, August 6th:Savvy Verse and Wit
Thursday, August 9th:Southern Girl Reads
Tuesday, August 14th:The Written World
TBD:Regular Rumination

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.
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