Saturday, March 31, 2012

Today’s the Day!

As many of you probably already know, the University of Central Florida is hosting its annual UCF Book Festival today. I’m so excited to have the opportunity to promote reading through this great event, and am more than a little wowed by the list of authors who are attending. Some of those will be Ted Dekker, Daniel Palmer, Nathalie Dupree, Joshilyn Jackson, Marybeth Whalen and Karen White. The list of amazing authors goes on and on! For more information about the event, click over to UCF’s website and take a look, and if you’re even remotely close to Orlando this fine Saturday morning, come to the Festival and indulge your bookish side! Also, look for a wrap-up post next week highlighting all the events that I attended.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Dispatcher by Ryan David Jahn — 368 pgs

Ian Hunt is a police dispatcher in a small city of East Texas. Though not a bad fellow, Ian is living a life punctuated by alcohol, resentment and regret. Then while on duty one morning, Ian gets a call that will change his life. The call comes from his daughter Maggie, who has been missing for seven years and whose memory was laid to rest in an empty coffin only four months ago. Knowing that he has no time to waste, Ian sets off on a dangerous mission to reclaim his now fourteen year old daughter. Meanwhile, the man who took Maggie is growing increasingly violent and volatile. In his very broken mind, Maggie’s abduction was necessary and he will fight to the death to keep her. When Ian takes the law into his own hands and decides to try to rescue Maggie on his own, he discovers that this mission is going to be lot harder than he ever imagined and that he is very quickly running out of time. In this fast paced and thrilling read, the plot twists itself into a tense knot that grows tighter and tighter leading up to an explosive and shocking conclusion.

While I’m not normally a fan of thriller/suspense novels, there seemed to be something a little different about this book and I eventually became very eager to read it. I do have to admit that the cover is a little silly and the blurb on the front jacket copy is clearly sensationalistic. Overall, this was a book that I sped through because the plot was just so engaging. Frankly, the story was sometimes implausible, but by suspending my sense of disbelief just a fraction, this book and I got on together very well. If I had to describe this book to someone, I’d say it’s like a mash-up between any Quentin Tarantino movie and No Country For Old Men. It was gritty and dark and at times bizarre, and all that led me to flip the pages faster and faster to see how things would turn out.

Ian Hunt isn’t the most healthy person you’re likely to come across in a book, neither physically nor mentally. Losing his daughter seven years ago has turned him into a man who seems not to care about much of anything anymore. Adding to his apathy is the fact that his career is more than a little stuck. He’s a police officer, yet he must sit and man the phones in a two-bit backwoods town. Ian leads a pretty grim life, yet when he receives that phone call from Maggie, everything takes an electric and vibrant turn for him. Ian feels that he can get the job done better and faster than the investigators around him. This leads him to a place of vigilante justice, where he makes the rules and anyone in his way is likely to get hurt. The ethics of his behavior are more than a little sketchy, but it was clear to see why he was acting as he was, so the inner turmoil that I felt towards the unfolding events was justified but also a little squirm-inducing at times.

Maggie’s situation was awful to behold. I’m not going to go into great detail because I don’t want to spoil the book for anyone out there, but I found her plight to be heartrending, and the mental games and exercises that she makes up to survive this day-to-day life seemed heartbreaking. I will say one thing: Maggie was a survivor, and there is no amount of suffering or squalidness that she couldn’t endure. I found her to be sassy and strong, and it was easy to root for her and wish that better things were coming for her after that secret call to her father. Jahn creates Maggie with care and gives his readers a character to care about and worry over; a girl caught up in a maelstrom of violence, abuse and rancor. She was the bright spot in this book for me, and she had a tremendous share of the action, which I also liked.

There were a few parts of the book that felt somewhat implausible, and because of this, I hesitate to give it a top notch rating. Things sometimes seemed very coincidental and certain aspects of the plot were more than a tad unbelievable. But the the main thing that held this story together was that it had a great structure; great bones from which to drape a pulse-pounding story. After awhile, I knew that I was going to have to suspend my disbelief and let some things go in order to enjoy the book, which is exactly what I did. I feel that this needs to be mentioned because some readers might not be comfortable doing this and it could lead to serious disappointment with the book.

I liked this fast paced and dramatically rich read, and hear that Jahn has another book out there for me to check out, so I will be doing that soon. Those readers who love suspense novels that aren’t part of a series might give this one a try and see what they think. If dark and violent thrillers are your thing, then this is something that you might enjoy. Just be prepared to let a few things go in service to the tale. Not perfect, but a riveting read nonetheless.

photo credit: Noel Bass About the Author

Ryan David Jahn won the Crime Writers Association debut novel prize for Good Neighbors (Penguin, 2011). He left school at sixteen to work in a record store and subsequently joined the army. Since 2004 he has worked in television and film. He grew up in Arizona, Texas and California and recently moved from Los Angeles to Louisville, Kentucky, where he plans to set his next novel.

For more info about Ryan and his work, please visit 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:

Monday, February 13th:Chaotic Compendiums
Tuesday, February 14th:Ted Lehmann’s Bluegrass, Books, and Brainstorms
Thursday, February 16th:A Bookworm’s World
Monday, February 20th:Life in Review
Wednesday, February 22nd:Reading on a Rainy Day
Wednesday, February 29th:Dan’s Journal
Thursday, March 1st:Wordsmithonia
Monday, March 5th:Book Reviews by Elizabeth A. White
Tuesday, March 6th: Man of La Book
Thursday, March 8th:Crime Fiction Lover
Monday, March 12th:Book Addict Katie
Tuesday, March 13th:The House of Crime and Mystery
Wednesday, March 14th:A Library of My Own
Wednesday, March 14th:Unabridged Chick
Thursday, March 15th:Mockingbird Hill Cottage
Wednesday, March 21st:Fiction Addict
Friday, March 30th:Raging Bibliomania

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Losing Clementine by Ashley Ream — 320 pgs

Clementine Pritchard is a very successful and lucrative artist who has decided that she’s giving herself a thirty day countdown to suicide. Caustically funny, irreverent and wickedly inventive, Clementine has secrets buried in her past that are so devastating and horrific that they have affected her day to day life as long as she can remember. She’s also decided to abandon the medications that were keeping her raging mental illnesses at bay and is slowly sinking into deeper and darker pits of apathy and self-abuse. But Clementine has given herself these thirty days to tie up loose ends: things like finding her poorly behaved cat a new home and buying herself a cemetery plot overlooking the city. She also wants to find her father, the man who abandoned their fledgling family many years ago and left no trace behind. As she embarks on her plan, things begin to go awry as unexpected events begin to change things in drastic ways. When two secrets in particular begin to disrupt Clementine’s plans for a painless and well considered suicide, she’s left reeling, and must decide if she can ever forgive and learn to live on or if she’ll carry her new knowledge to the grave. In this poignant and darkly comic novel, the reader comes to meet the enigmatic and pragmatic Clementine Pritchard and to see things from the perspective of a damaged woman who’s just too tired to hold on anymore.

Clementine was a really interesting character. Though she’s irascible and ill-behaved, there’s a lot about her to admire. Her chutzpah and assertiveness were things that I greatly admired, and despite her situation being dire, Clementine was oddly relaxed and competent in the plans she was making. In order to gain the support she needs, she lies about having a terminal illness. While ordinarily that would make me dislike a character, it was oddly fitting for Clementine and I could see her mental wheels spinning on why this could be acceptable. She has people in her life that she wants to spare, and for that reason, she can’t tell them of her plan. She wants to say goodbye before it’s too late, but nothing is going to change her mind and she wants no opposition to the plans she’s made for herself.

The secrets of Clementine’s origins were painful and grotesque. When I realized what her childhood was like, I was floored that she was able to have gone on this long. Mental illness ran in the family and was only a precursor to what inevitably took her childhood away before its time. Critical thought went into her plan, and when I finally realized why she had made this final plan, it stirred a deep well of sympathy in me that never abated. As she goes about putting her plan into action, she finds herself the star of many misadventures and discovers that the life she’s giving up isn’t what she had first thought it to be. I liked her because she was bitingly funny and acerbic, but on a deeper level, I found her to be a tragic figure, masking her iniquities with sarcasm and wit.

Food plays a big role in this book as well. Now that Clementine is off her medication, food is suddenly appetizing again and she begins to share luscious and exotic feasts with her friends and family. As a reader who loves foodie books, this aspect of the novel was surprising and very welcome. It was easy to mentally slip into the seat beside her and vicariously enjoy the amazing treats that she was serving up for herself and her guests. I suppose her reasoning was that she wanted to have one last taste of everything, and this in itself was wonderful; but it was also a reflection of the seriousness of her plan and her desire to really go through with it. I got the feeling that there were some elements of emotional hunger that were being fed bodily, which was satisfying to her for awhile but left lingering feelings of resentment.

I know this is going to sound strange, but this book had some really great instances of comedy strewn about it that really got my attention and made me realize that it was much more than a book of deep seated tragedy. Clementine was just so plucky, and with so little time left, she didn’t take crap from anyone. This meant that she did a lot of wild, unpredictable, funny and outrageous things that not many would do. I think she figured she had nothing to lose. The conclusion packs a serious punch, and when Clementine reaches her suicide deadline, a new problem arises that could never have been predicted. With all she finds out about herself and her family, this new revelation rocks her to the core. Will Clementine go through with it and finally be at peace, or will she give life another chance and discover a hidden reserve of power she didn’t know she had?

I loved this book for its mix of the comedic and the deeply resonant way in which Clementine struggled. It’s a serious book for sure, but there are some blissful moments of laughter among the brambles of pain and heartache. It’s also a must for foodies out there. In capturing Clementine’s dilemma, Ream does what few authors manage to do: turn a tragic decision into something that reveals the deep inner strength of her protagonist. A very smart and involving read. Recommended.

Author Photo About the Author

Ashley Ream got her first job at a newspaper when she was sixteen. After working in newsrooms across Missouri, Florida and Texas, she gave up deadlines to pursue fiction. She lives in Los Angeles and works at a nonprofit.

Website | Facebook | Twitter

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:

Wednesday, March 14th:A Musing Reviews
Thursday, March 15th:As I turn the pages
Friday, March 16th:Sara’s Organized Chaos
Monday, March 19th:Peeking Between the Pages
Tuesday, March 20th:A Soul Unsung
Wednesday, March 21st:The Lost Entwife
Thursday, March 22nd:Book Hooked Blog
Monday, March 26th:Life In Review
Tuesday, March 27th:Raging Bibliomania
Wednesday, March 28th:Tina’s Book Reviews
Thursday, March 29th:Into the Hall of Books

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Friday, March 23, 2012

A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty by Joshilyn Jackson — Audiobook Review

Recorded by Hachette Audio
Narrated by Joshilyn Jackson
Length: 12 hours 25 minutes

The three generations of Slocumb women living in one home have an awareness that something is coming. You see, every fifteen years, fate intervenes in the lives of this family and comes to change their situation. Big, the matriarch of the bunch, was pregnant with Liza at 15 and is now caring for her daughter after a stroke has left her severely disabled. Liza was also pregnant at 15 with Mosey, who is now 15 and is navigating the difficulties of adolescence. When Big decides to put in a pool to aid in Liza’s recovery, the big willow in the back yard must be removed, and when it is, a shocking secret is unearthed. It seems there was a body buried under the tree, and now that 15 year curse is here to raise its ugly head again. While Mosey is off investigating what these long-buried bones may mean for her future, Big is just trying to keep it all together for her girls; a situation that’s complicated by the man she can’t forget. Meanwhile, in the recesses of the silent Liza’s mind, the events that brought her to this state and the sins that she can’t forget play a constant movie in her head. It’s a story of extreme brokenness and healing, blame and forgiveness, and ultimately, the power, strength and love of two mothers who will never give up, no matter what the circumstances are.

This is my second experience listening to a Joshilyn Jackson book, and I was very excited to see that this book was narrated by the author herself! Jackson’s voice was rich with a cadence of compassion and gentleness that had me completely enraptured. I never wanted to stop listening and grew deeply involved with both the tenderness and the wonder of the tale I was being told. It was a story that had some very stomach-twisting aspects and there was real tension in the way that it was portrayed, but against the harsh realities, there was a gracious and benevolent humor as well. I have to say that although I’m far from an aficionado of Jackson’s work, this book was my favorite so far.

This book was told from the viewpoint of all three Slocumb women, in chapters that wove their shared tale together with elegance and precision. While Liza’s sections were more ethereal and dreamlike, Big’s were more resonant and emotional. Mosey’s sections were mostly just flat out funny, and these three very distinct and different narrative voices lent a very well rounded and fluid feel to the book. Each character had different agendas and ideas, but all of them evinced growth of both a personal and emotional nature, and it was how they all reacted to the same incidents in very different ways that really highlighted Jackson’s skill in telling this very dramatic story.

There were aspects to this story that made my skin crawl. Child abuse, addiction and revenge were peppered throughout the narrative in a way that made it virtually impossible to stop listening. And that’s the thing that I admired most: Jackson had the ability to be both brutal and loving in equal measures, and in a way, these two attributes balanced each other beautifully. It wasn’t always an easy story to hear, but it felt so real and so immediate that it was hard not to sit and listen for hours. I found the storytelling natural and dynamic, and though there were definitely some darker pieces to the pastiche, it was captivating in a way that I admired and relished.

As the story flexes and contracts, the mysteries of the plot are deliciously revealed and each of the women must learn to put the past behind them and struggle towards the future, despite the hurts inflicted and the pain endured. It means starting over for all of them, but in their desire to be free of the past they must give up long held beliefs and plan new strategies for the life that awaits them. They are all imperfect people, but in the end, they learn that their imperfections are the glue that holds them together and that they are each a piece of a larger puzzle that they will do anything to hold onto. It was inspiring to read about their love and commitment for each other, and while at times I shuddered, I also laughed and commiserated with them. The Slocumb women were a force to be reckoned with.

This was a tale that was not only inventive and unique, but one that keep me on the edge of my seat with its tenuous storyline and adept characterizations. If you haven’t read anything by Joshilyn Jackson, I would recommend that you grab this book post-haste! I’m looking forward to hearing Ms. Jackson speak at the upcoming UCF Book Festival, and I have a feeling I’m going to be the nerdy little fangirl, eagerly gushing about how great I find her work. This was a beautiful Southern story told with aplomb and it will probably go down as one of my favorite reads of the year. Highly recommended for all types of readers.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Praying for Strangers: An Adventure of the Human Spirit by River Jordan — 352 pgs

River Jordan isn’t an evangelist or even a particularly religious person, yet when both of her sons are deployed at the same time, one to Iraq and one to Afghanistan, she feels as if her emotional world is crumbling. One morning during her quiet reflections, she resolves to begin praying for a different random stranger who crosses her path every day. As River begins this emotional journey, she realizes that the prayers she offers each day help not only the people she encounters; they also begin to help her heal as well. But it’s not easy to approach a stranger every day, and though she’s a successful author, River is more of a recluse than she’d like to admit. As her year progresses, she meets a tremendous variety of people and prays thoughtful and inspired prayers for each of them. The journey that River takes in opening her life and heart to the various strangers she meets is one of humbling power and delicate grace. Soon River begins to realize that we all need prayer more then we know. As she navigates her way through self doubt and shyness, she discovers that sometimes the act of blessing someone in prayer can be not only transformative but healing in its implications alone. This is the story of one woman who passed out blessings and was blessed in abundance as a result.

When I met River Jordan at SIBA this past September, she approached me with a big smile and gave me a friendly and warm greeting that I just couldn’t ignore. She had remembered me from the previous year and I was touched that she caught my eye and motioned me over to talk about her new book. When I discovered that she would be a featured author at the UCF Book Festival, I was instantly excited at the prospect of meeting her again. I knew that it was high time I took Kathy and Sandy’s advice and cracked open this book that would be sure to change my heart. And you know what? It did.

River’s emotional state when she discovers that both of her sons will be deployed was very interesting. Although she was overwhelmed with sadness and fear, instead of wallowing in those feelings, she made a resolution to turn herself outward towards the strangers she came across every day. Her reasoning was that if she needed prayer, how much more did the people around her need it? I found this reaction to be not only wonderful but miraculous at times. How is it that as humans, we can get so caught up in our own emotional mire that we lose sight of all the others struggling right alongside us? River never forgets that, and though she has to travel miles beyond her comfort zone, she is faithful to her resolution and carries on praying each and every day. I also found her method of choosing the strangers fascinating. She would just feel an intrinsic pull towards the person she should pray for, and most often, her instincts were right on target.

Now, I’m also not a woman who waves my religion like a flag over my head, but I do believe in the power of prayer, no matter what belief system you ascribe to. And while I was reading this book, I kept interrupting myself to say a little prayer here and there for people I knew who were in need of it. That’s the great thing about this book: It inspires its readers to really think about the people around them and to lift a selfless prayer into the ether and hope for miracles. I felt a closeness to River because I’m also not a person who would just walk up to a stranger and ask them how I could pray for them. However, I’ve noticed that since I finished this book, I’ve been taking notice of the people around me a little more fully and sending up silent prayers for them at the spur of the moment. I even stop to ask people their names and give them a greeting, whom others would ignore or even shun.

One of the greatest things about this book was the way that I could see River growing as the chapters progressed. I was also astounded by how recpetive most people were to hear that she would be praying for them. There were funny stories and sad ones and people that needed divine attention more than anything. But most people just needed that human connection: To be told that they matter, that someone was thinking about them and had the temerity to approach them to pray for them. The reactions varied wildly, and it was always intriguing to get River’s account of when her internal radar went off and what reaction her praying provoked. It was a quiet and elegant way for one person in the world to stave off indifference and cruelty; a homage to the broken hearts that pass us by everyday.

This book really changed the way that I look at other people. I’m no longer impatient when someone treats me rudely. I just sort of sigh and think they might need an extra prayer. I pray for people I pass by more than I ever did before, and I’m not saying that I’m going to start approaching people (!) but the thought has crossed my mind. No matter what background you come from or what you believe in, this is a book that will make you think and touch your heart. You don’t have to be a Jesus freak or even believe in God to get it. It’s about the power of positive thoughts put out into the world and how those thoughts change people. In a word: Beautiful.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Monday, March 19, 2012

A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick — 320 pgs

Ralph Truitt is a very lonely and extremely rich man. When he places an advertisement in the paper for a woman to share his life and become his wife, he’s met with a response from Catherine Land, a woman who describes herself as “simple and honest,” a description which ensnares Ralph from the beginning. When Catherine arrives in Wisconsin for their first meeting, Ralph quickly discovers that the woman to whom he’s been writing is a fabrication, and much to his embarrassment, he finds that he cannot send her away. As Catherine bides her time earning Ralph’s trust, it becomes clear that she has a secret and a plan that she is waiting patiently to execute. But Ralph has a plan of his own, and when he enlists Catherine’s help to execute it, he unwittingly brings danger and disaster down upon his own head as well as that of his new wife. But despite Catherine’s wishes to trick Ralph, as time slowly winds on, she finds herself in the uncomfortable position of falling in love with the man whom she’s bent upon destroying. When an unexpected visitor arrives, to the chagrin of Ralph and Catherine, a vicious turn of events catapults the three into desperation, revenge and a startling set of confessions that will leave Catherine and Ralph changed forever. In this haunting and atmospheric novel set in early 1900s Wisconsin, a damaged woman and lonely man somehow find their way towards each other with frightening repercussions that neither can foresee.

I have to say that I had mixed feeling about this book. While I enjoyed the evocative nature of the writing and the dynamic flow of the plot, I didn’t really like the characters and felt that their predicaments were less than satisfying. There was a lot of debauchery to this tale, and at times I grew a little overwhelmed with it all. Everyone seemed beset by strange sexual proclivities; at times it was as if sexual thoughts and scenarios were the major highlights of the book. Each of the characters had their own reasons for their fixation on the subject and each of them dealt with their obsession in different ways, but from where I stood, I had hoped the book would be more rooted in psychological suspense and intense plot twists rather than the carnality of the main characters.

Ralph Truitt was a strange man indeed and he really exhibited a dual nature. On the outside, he was perfectly respectable and even mild-mannered, but underneath, Ralph was obsessed with sexual longing and imagery and spent a lot of time obsessing about the appetites that he longed to give into. When he discovers that Catherine isn’t the woman he thought she was, he reacts at first with anger and then, strangely, with longing. It was almost as if his anger at her betrayal melted away in the belief that she could be his ideal, despite the fact that he knew she was conning him. I had a hard time believing that the guilt Ralph harbored would make him so self-destructive and that he would willingly put himself into some of the positions that he did.

Catherine, on the other hand, was a smooth operator that fooled everyone into believing that she was just an innocent young woman who fell on hard times. When she decides to go forward and undertake Ralph’s business, another side of her is revealed and it isn’t pretty at all. Catherine is full of surprises, and none of them are nice. As she returns to her new husband, having both succeeded and failed at her mission, she becomes a woman who is caught in a maelstrom of lies and conscience, and she allows her dual nature battle itself right before Ralph’s eyes. The interesting thing about this was that she was more transparent than she had hoped to be, and that even while gently leading Ralph towards the path of destruction, her past was slowly marching its way towards her, ready to reclaim her in an instant. Passion and lies had a way of slowly wearing Catherine down until she finally could stand it no more.

While I didn’t really care for the main characters, the setting of rural Wisconsin during a particularly bold winter was something that I relished. It was as if Goolrick was writing from experience, and I relished the atmospheric touches that imbued the plot. I think if one was looking hard enough, they could tie both the cold and barrenness of the scenery to the characters’ inner emotional lives. Even without making those kinds of connections, the details of the frozen Wisconsin hinterlands had me mentally ensnared in the realms of a frigid winter and the kinds of secrets that drifts of snow and ice can muffle and cover. Though I was less than enamored of the story, I really enjoyed the setting and thought that it was the perfect backdrop.

Part of my dissatisfaction regarding this book had to do with expectations that weren’t met, and part of it had to do with the fact that this novel seemed only stage dressing for the discussion of sexual issues and proclivities. I would hesitate to call it a bad book per se, it’s just not what I had been looking for when I picked it up. I think readers that go into this one knowing a little more about the substrata of issues that it presents may enjoy it a bit more than I did. Overall though, it just was not the book for me.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Gods in Alabama by Joshilyn Jackson — Audiobook Review

Recorded by Hachette Audio
Narrated by Catherine Taber
Length: 8 hours 16 minutes

Arlene Fleet is not going home to Alabama. No matter how many times she gets the guilt trip from her Aunt Flo on their bi-weekly phone calls or what family event might be creeping up on the horizon. Arlene left that life behind many years ago and is now involved with a great man and has a good life, far away from all the drama. But the romantic situation is heating up with her boyfriend, Burr, and when he gives Arlene an ultimatum about meeting her family before he takes the relationship to the next step, she’s conflicted. Then a visitor from her past finds her in her new life and threatens to unearth the secret she’s been hiding for years. In order to protect herself and her family, and give Burr what he wants, Arlene finds herself making her way back to her hometown, deadly secrets in tow. In alternating chapters between the past and the present, Arlene and her past deeds unfurl like a bud. Though she tries desperately to hold on to the secret that changed her life one impossibly vicious night long ago, it seems like both Burr and Aunt Flo might discover it anyway. In this vibrant and enthralling southern fiction novel, the dark deeds of a good woman threaten to come to light in a past that seems far away but has never really been forgotten.

I’ve been hearing praises sung about Joshilyn Jackson’s work for a very long time. I actually think she was put on my radar about two years back, but up until now, I haven’t taken the chance to explore her work. When I found out that she would be attending this year’s UCF Book Festival and that her newest book, A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty, was indeed just as amazing as some of her older work, I knew I had to get on board and give Jackson’s books a try. This audio production was narrated by Catherine Taber and I thought she did a great job with it. Her voice was playful and jovial but had the capacity to be grave and serious when situations in the narrative demanded it. I liked the sweet and melodious tones of Taber’s delivery immensely and felt that she was a good choice for the narration of this story.

Arlene is living a normal life as a college professor and has landed herself in the middle of a perfectly wonderful relationship with Burr, but there are a few points she’s not willing to concede on with him and it’s starting to make him a little agitated. One of the main points of contention is Burr’s race, which is not something that she feels she can share with her family, who are pure Old South. This is only one of the reasons Arlene stays away. For all intents and purposes, she has a very checkered past and is carrying some terrible secrets that she feels should never come to light. I liked Arlene a lot and felt that as a character, she was not only fully realized and multi-dimensional but that she had a lot of inner strength that she used as the foundation for the personality she’s created for herself in her new life. Arlene didn’t let the sins of her past turn her into damaged goods, and that was refreshing to me. As the story wove its clever fingers deep into my heart, I grew to really like and respect Arlene in new and constantly shifting ways.

This is a story about secrets: the ones we keep from people that we love, and the ones that change the directions of our lives. In Jackson’s deep and penetrating narrative, it becomes clear that each secret we carry is a load on our souls that either props us up or holds us down, and the real key is to determine which secrets are safe to keep and which must come out, no matter the cost. In telling the tale of Arlene, I came to realize that the girl who held all these secrets to her chest was not only frightened but also the defender of others who were more weak and fragile than she was. And it made me cheer her. The promises and bargains that Arlene has made with God to keep her secrets safe are no longer feasible for her, and in her journey home, she discovers that what she thought was hers to carry has in reality been shouldered by some unexpected people who she left behind.

I enjoyed the way that Jackson dug deep into the plight of racism within a small town. Arlene's family would have never considered themselves racist, but some of the ideas and attitudes that they held needed some readjusting, and that was accomplished humor and aplomb. Burr was a great character and a very, very patient man, which is something that I grew to love about him. There were many heart stirring themes wrestled in this book and I felt that Jackson harnessed and molded them beautifully around characters that could withstand the weight and pressure of immovable mountains. It was a cleverly crafted tale that not only shocked at times but also wasn’t afraid of levity.

I enjoyed this book so much that I’ve already started on my next read from Jackson, and I’m delighted that I’ll get the chance to hear her speak at the end of March. If you haven’t had the pleasure of reading any of her books yet, I would say go for it with full gusto. She knows the South and she knows how to tell a great story with compelling and rich characters. A very delectable read. Recommended.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Perfect by Ellen Hopkins — Audiobook Review

Recorded by Simon and Schuster Audio
Narrated by Aya Cash, Heather Lind, Aaron Tveit & Tristan Wilds
Length: 8 hours 9 minutes

Cara. Kendra. Shawn. Andre. All high school seniors, and all trying to attain perfection of different kinds. For Cara, a young girl who is dealing with her twin brother’s attempted suicide, the pressure of fitting into her parents’ exacting mold is stifling and crippling. Though she wants to live up to the expectations placed upon her, a new relationship may change the way that everyone thinks of her forever. Kendra vows that one day she will be a model and goes to incredible lengths to attain the perfect look, including surgery and an eating disorder, and soon her struggle to be prefect will become a battle that none can ignore. Shawn longs to play college ball, but when he starts using steroids and begins to lose himself to rage and jealousy, he falls further and further away from the perfect athlete that he’s trying to become. Andre is hiding the fact that he would rather become a dancer than an investment banker from his parents, who expect him to be the best. As he navigates a personal life full of drama and attempts to keep his dreams a secret from everyone, he grows more and more unhappy. As these four teenagers move through their days putting on the false facade of perfection, underneath they are all falling apart; some in dangerous ways and some in quiet ways. But when tragedy forces them to look at themselves in a new light, will it be enough to shake them from their mindless pursuit of perfection? In this novel of heartbreaking clarity and emotional resonance, Ellen Hopkins takes her readers on a journey through the lives of four people who are bound by their desires to become something that they can never be: Perfect.

Though this is my first novel in verse, I think the fact that I listened to it on audio had much to do with my acceptance and even love of this form of writing. I had expected a novel in verse to be somewhat rigid and stylistically scattered, but I found that Hopkins does her best to make the book feel fluid and cohesive and it read just like a regular novel would have. The audio production was incredible as well, and I thought that the whole compliment of narrator voices were well suited to the story as well as being able to sustain dramatic vocal tension without overdoing it. I was really pleased that I chose to listen to this one instead of reading it because I feel that there was a lot of gravity that I would have missed by experiencing this one in print.

Hopkins seems to understand the teenage mind to an incredible degree. She gets the frustration, anger and resiliency that being a teenager is all about. Each of her four characters are on the cusp of a new things, and while some are breaking down, some are hiding secrets that will change the landscape of their lives. What I liked about these characters was that they themselves and the attitudes they conveyed were so varied. Some were cynical, some were depressed and some were hopeful and eager. I liked that Hopkins created her characters with subtlety and nuance and that there was a great amount of emotion packed into the seemingly short exposés of their lives. These were teenagers dealing with major issues, and the one thing that I kept wondering was, where are the parents in all this? In most cases, they were too self absorbed to be of any help to their children and they failed to see what the pressure they were exerting was doing to their kids.

There are several issues addressed in this book. Hopkins tackles drug use, eating disorders, mental illness, rape, gender conflicts and body shame. What sets this book apart is that she tackles each from a different perspective and doesn’t get moralistic and preachy about them. She allows each character to explore the boundaries they are caught in and gently leads them to places of understanding. This isn’t to say that all the stories end happily, because, as in life, not everything is black and white. These are big problems that for some can’t be fixed and for others the struggle in managing their crisis becomes the crux of their existence. It’s all very realistic and it made me think about teenagers in a way that I might not have seen them before. They deal with sadness and longing just like adults but are less able to sort out their feelings and deal productively with them without the support of family and friends. Sometimes they have no support at all.

This tale was frank and unapologetic. In seeking to represent the teenagers of her tale, Hopkins gets the verisimilitude just right. A few times I was shocked, but as I listened, I realized that there was great candor to the writing that made everything click for me as a reader and evoked a deep compassion for these struggling kids. Often the characters were so good at hiding what was bothering them that they seemed just like their peers, and in a touch that I relished, Hopkins even gets into the heads and hearts of some of the secondary characters and exposes their plights as well. At times unsettling, at times very sad, this novel sought to expose the mystery behind the almost universal drive towards perfection and the high price associated with that drive. The writing was filled with fire and passion of a kind that I hadn’t experienced in a long time, and though it was ambitious to tackle essentially four stories at once, the result was a multi-layered mosaic of pain and beauty seamlessly overlapping throughout the narrative.

This is a book that should not only be read by older teens but by adults as well. In Hopkins’ examination of the teenage subculture, there are messages here for everyone. It was honest without being vulgar and told a multi-threaded story of the dangers that can come to pass when the ideal is not only acceptable, but critically sought. A one of a kind book that will haunt and impress in equal degree. Recommended.

Ellen Hopkins will be one of the featured guests at the UCF Book Festival on March 31st 2012. I’m looking forward to getting the chance to speak with her about the book and about what she’s planning for the future. For more information about the event, click here.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Monday, March 12, 2012

This Beautiful Life by Helen Schulman — 256 pgs

The Bergamots are a family headed for big trouble, very quickly. Though husband Richard has just landed a new job that will result in the family moving to new and improved digs, at the moment they are living the American dream in a cramped apartment in New York. Mother Liz is curiously disaffected by the bad behavior and social recalcitrance of her adopted Chinese daughter Coco, who is only 5, but her 15 year old son Jake is the obvious apple of her eye. When Jake attends a party that leads to a very underage girl sending him an inappropriate video, the Bergamot’s slide into the abyss comes rapidly and at a high cost to everyone in the family. Though Jake is your average teen boy, the video shocks him and he makes a very unwise choice in handling this sensitive issue. Meanwhile, Liz is trying to maintain an equilibrium for her family and is badly failing, causing Richard to take things into his own hands, which may not be for the best. When push finally comes to shove and the family is reduced to guilt, recrimination and self doubt, it’s up to Liz and Richard to put them all back together again. However, the cost of doing this might propel them into opposite sides of the ring, and in trying to hold their family together, they may unwittingly tear it apart. In this frank and unapologetic novel, Schulman captures the life of one family as it twists apart in slow motion emotional turmoil.

This book was the February selection for my book club, Books, Babes and Bordeaux. When I first settled in with this novel, I was sort of shocked and very bothered by its messages and the way that the author chose to portray them. Little did I know that each woman in the group would come away with much the same impression, and the meeting was definitely lively and full of spirit as we discussed the book and the ramifications it had upon us as we read. I think Sandy’s post sums it up very well. It wasn’t what I had been expecting, and for some reason, the whole book got my ire up. I listened to this book on audio, and its narrator, Hilary Huber, did an excellent job with it. Her vocal inflections were not only spot on but felt deliciously languid and imbued the audiobook with gravity.

First of all, I must admit that I disliked each and every character in this book and felt that they all had little to no redeeming qualities. Liz was a terrible mother whose insensitivity to her daughter came across as boredom and inattentiveness, which Huber did an excellent job of conveying. She was a woman who played favorites with her children, and it showed. I also thought that she showed tremendously bad judgement over and over again, and that her behavior was immature and self serving. Richard was obnoxious and came across as a man who cared little about his family but for the image that they projected to his business associates. When he stumbles home after a celebratory round of drinking after a new job offer, his irritating machismo and arrogance are on full display to his crumbling family. Jake is the only character who I had a modicum of respect for, though it’s clear to me that he was completely falling apart due to his parents’ mismanagement of the video crisis.

The messages that this book imparts were disturbing to me. Why does the mismanagement of a video made by a clearly disturbed girl seem to have the power to crumple a family? Why would Liz cop out and make some of the stunningly awful decisions that she made? I’d love to share them here with you but I’m trying to resist spoilers as much as I can. It was as if each of these characters was impacted by this situation and just slowly began to disintegrate from the inside out. There was no responsibility taken for their reactions to this drama, no one to tell them to get it together and make things sensible for the kids. It was almost as if they had been spinning in separate universes and when the drama came down, they began to collide with fruitless malignancy. Their lives just fell apart, and it was ugly.

Another problem that I had was the very graphic nature of some of the narrative. It’s not enough that a young girl made a sex tape, it had to be dissected and described in thinly veiled innuendo that made my stomach sick. In fact, this is how the book opens, so I had already formed a pretty unappetizing opinion of it even before it got to its major plot points. The video continues to have shocking repercussions and it is played upon over and over again, leaving the reader to suffer through the sordid mental visuals of what this young girl did on camera. While I was reading this, I felt very uncomfortable in my skin. As a mother of two teenage kids, I felt that the descriptions and plot tendrils that floated away from this event were not only done in bad taste but it seemed as if it was meant to be titillating. This wasn’t what I had been expecting and it left a bad taste in my mouth.

This book wasn’t to my liking at all, and I think that although it succeeded in being relevant, a lot of it just made me angry. It’s hard to say what I would have thought about this book if I didn’t have teenagers on the cusp of adulthood here at home with me, but I can’t imagine that this would ever be a favorite of mine. While the book managed to be sordid, it didn’t capture my interest in any positive way at all, and I can’t say that I was pleased to have read it.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Property by Valerie Martin — 196 pgs

Manon Gaudet is the wife of a notoriously dissolute planter and slave owner whom she despises. As she navigates her pointless and angry days spent in the house with her servants, she becomes more and more enraged with one female servant in particular. This quiet and reserved slave named Rachel has been the target of her husband’s lustful intentions and has bore him two children. Though Manon has no respect or amiable feelings for her husband, his illicit affair is more than she can handle and causes her great embarrassment and florid outrage. A slave revolt causes Manon’s husband to ride out almost nightly with other landowners like himself, leaving his homestead unguarded, which has tragic and violent consequences one horrifying night. When it’s all over, Manon’s life has changed greatly, and though she’s free to move on, her hatred of Rachel keeps her trapped where she is, plotting a revenge unlike any other. As Manon nurtures the flames of her vengeance upon Rachel, her life becomes a shadow of what it once was, and secrets about her family come to light causing her to reevaluate everything she has ever known about herself. Will Manon succumb to the dark nature that is threatening to overtake her as she plans her torturous punishment for Rachel, or will the shreds of kindness and goodness that are slowly withering away inside her come bursting back to life? In this dark and penetrating novel set in late 1820s New Orleans, a wife and slaveholder becomes both the victim and instrument of a terrible violence that threatens to consume her and everyone around her.

Though this was a rather short book, it was very piercing. There was an undeniable beauty to the writing, but the story is one of racism, hatred and vengeance. In this bleak and terrible tale, the reader becomes deeply embedded in the psyche of a female slave owner who is just as much a piece of property as the slaves that surround her. In Manon, all the greed and injustice of slavery is made human and is personified by a woman whose frightening downward spiral into revenge makes her not only unusually cruel, but curiously unable to see beyond her own rage.

Manon is not living the life she had in mind for herself. As a child who was doted upon by her slave-owning father, Manon had been expecting a marriage in which she was not only cherished, but treated with respect and kindness as well. But this isn’t what she’s gotten. Manon is a wife in name only to a reprehensible man with little kindness and compassion in his heart. Though he allows Manon full control of the house and the indoor servants, he runs his plantation with an air of cruelty that extends to taking Rachel as a sort of concubine. It’s easy to see that Manon is repressed both emotionally and financially by her husband, and just when I was starting to be able to feel a modicum of sympathy for her, she began her cruel campaign against Rachel and her children. Manon has no other outlet for her anger, and soon a silent war of attrition is waged between the two women, who both hate the man that controls their lives.

When the news comes that slaves across New Orleans are banding together to take revenge upon their masters and escape into the wilds to create new lives, everyone is justifiably scared. Manon’s husband takes this opportunity to put on his arrogant swagger and hunt down these men and women with the utmost perseverance. It almost feels like a sport among the well-to-do gentlemen, but it’s a sport that has dangerous consequences. One night, things go terribly wrong, leaving Manon in a situation that is initially satisfying but soon becomes intolerable. Due to Rachel’s revenge upon her master and mistress on that fateful night, Manon is gripped by an unquenchable hatred for the slave who would be free. Manon is in a strange position. Though she’s financially in ruins, she finds peace and solace in her new personal circumstances. But through it all, a blinding hate for Rachel will melt away her positive traits, one by one.

The power of perception and appearances are strong things, and they are what ultimately sets Manon against Rachel. Though there’s no love lost between Manon and her husband, she cannot bear to live with the shame that he has taken Rachel as his lover, and is furious that he has had children with her. She is doubly inflamed that Rachel has escaped, and will go to heinous lengths to bring her back into slavery. One can see that Manon’s idea of personal revenge will finally break Rachel’s spirit, but for all that, it will never undo her husband’s injustices. In the conclusion of the book, Manon’s transformation into a monster is complete, and as Rachel once again becomes property, Manon throws off her chains and becomes a more cruel and exacting master than her husband ever was.

This was a difficult book to read, but one that I believe has a lot of merit when it comes to shedding light on the plight of women and slaves during the mid-nineteenth century. It’s a tale that is slick with hatred and revenge, and while it’s not uplifting, it certainly is eye-opening and tells a story that will be shocking to some and angering to all. A very turbulent and involving read. Recommended.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Hystera by Leora Skolkin-Smith — 194 pgs

Lillian is in an acute state of mental crisis. After attempting to take her own life with a lethal cocktail of pills and alcohol, she’s taken to a psychiatric facility. While Lillian may seem like a normal young woman, her mind is filled with strange sexual delusions and hallucinations that make every day seem like a nightmare to her. As Lillian’s mind slowly unravels, pieces of her past come racing to the forefront of her consciousness. An overbearing and emotionally unstable mother who clings to Lillian like a life preserver is only one of the things that’s holding her back. Lillian is also dealing with the ever consuming sense of guilt over her father’s stroke and brain damage, which is undoing both him and her as she is confined to the padded room of the ward. As Lillian learns more about the people who share the facility with her, she discovers more about herself and the shaming fantasies that are crumbling her. It’s only when she begins to trust her doctor and to begins digging into her torturous past that Lillian is able to find some semblance of normality among the refuse that is her mind. In this intensely provocative new novel, Leora Skolkin-Smith presents her readers with a woman who’s helplessly trapped inside the memories of her life; memories that are day by day eating away her sanity.

Over the past few years, I’ve read a lot about various mental states in literature. In one way, I think my curioisity about other people has extended outward to such a degree that I felt it was necessary and even important to read these types of books, and in another way, I also read these books as a way to understand some of the people in my life who deal with issues like these. Often these types of books can be scary and depressing, and so for awhile now, I’ve been backing away from them in an effort to keep from overwhelming myself. As I read Hystera, I came back to a lot of issues that I had read about before, but in some ways this book felt less than genuine and less representative to me.

Lillian is obviously troubled with delusions and hallucinations that keep her from functioning normally. I won’t get into what exactly these hallucinations are, only to say that they are sexual in nature and extremely odd. When I came across the first scenario of her illness, I was worried that this was going to be a book that was so out there that I would have trouble with it. Eventually these delusions seem to calm down and I was able to look past them into the story itself. I had been wondering if the particular delusion that Lillian was suffering from had some symbolic meaning, but you know what? Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and I was beyond the point of trying to scrutinize the weirdness in search of the meaning of these symbols. Suffice to say that Lillian was not well and that a lot of the ideas she had were ramifications of her helplessness and passivity.

Another thing that I found strange was the absence of pharmaceuticals in the ward that Lillian is assigned to. Everyone is pretty much out of control over there and there are incidents of disturbing behavior, both sexual and violent, but nobody is getting medication. This hardly seems believable to me. When Lillian begins to have strange delusions and reacts with violence towards the nurses and doctors, their way of handling things is to lock her in a room instead of giving her medication that may calm her delusions. Now, I’m not advocating for flagrant pill-pushing because often that’s not the answer, but in some cases medications can be a useful tool that enables patients to get over debilitating mental afflictions. It just didn’t ring true to me that all these people were just running around all over the place, not being medicated. I especially felt this way when one of the characters threw himself out of a window and fell to his death.

This book is set in the mid 70s, and as such, a lot of the societal issues that were in play during that time made their way into the plot. There were numerous discussions about Patty Hearst. The patients inside the ward were usually consumed by the things that went on in the world outside the locked doors and spent a lot of time speculating about them. As Lillian comes to break down her mental barriers and learns to be guided by the intrinsic truths of her emotions and mind, she begins to see that the genesis of these delusions is in her fear of her mother and her culpability in her father’s accident. As she struggles to normalize her worldview, things begin to fall into place and the shadowy recesses of her mind are scoured with a bright and healing light that expunges the fear and delusions that she has lately become enveloped in.

While this was an artistically interesting book, I felt that it didn’t feel authentic in a number of ways. Having read quite a few books on the plight of the mentally ill and their road to recovery, I felt that this book was a little bit of a lightweight. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy it or that there weren’t some really interesting perspectives and ideas thrown into the mix. Though it wasn’t a favorite, I do have to admit that the strangeness of some aspects of the story was a tad addictive. An interesting, if not entirely genuine, addition to the genre.

Author Photo About the Author

Leora Skolkin-Smith’s first published novel, Edges, was nominated for the 2006 PEN/Faulkner Award by Grace Paley. Edges is in pre-production under the name The Fragile Mistress.

Leora was recently a panelist at The Haitian Cultural International Book Festival, The Miami International Book Fair, The Virginia Festival of the Book and The National Women’s Association. She is currently a contributing editor to and her critical essays have been published in The Washington Post, The National Book Critic’s Circle’s Critical Mass, Conversational Reading and the Quarterly Review, among other places.

Website | Facebook | Twitter

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, March 5th:Veronica M.D.
Tuesday, March 6th:Jenn’s Bookshelves
Wednesday, March 7th:Raging Bibliomania
Tuesday, March 13th:Book Hooked Blog
Wednesday, March 14th:Life In Review
Thursday, March 15th:A Bookish Way of Life
Monday, March 19th:The House of the Seven Tails
Tuesday, March 20th:Stiletto Storytime
Thursday, March 22nd:I’m Booking It
Tuesday, March 27th:“That’s Swell!”

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Carry the One by Carol Anshaw — 272 pgs

On the evening of Carmen’s wedding, after a very nontraditional service and reception, Carmen’s siblings Alice and Nick pile into a car with a few other guests, each of whom are either on the cusp of sleep or very far from sobriety. When a young girl runs across the road and is mowed down by the party guests, her death leaves lasting impressions upon all those attending the reception that evening. Moving forward through 25 years, each of these primary and ancillary characters’ lives are revealed. As they grapple with the weight that life forces upon them, some will sink into perpetual moral and ethical mire while others will find themselves chasing dreams that can never be caught. For Carmen, life will dance around the various issues and causes she supports as she repeatedly loses and finds herself amidst her younger siblings and the family she has constructed. For Alice, the accident marks the beginning of an obsession that will carry her into the arms of the woman that she loves but can never make a life with, while Nick begins to careen down a path that vacillates between flashes of intense brilliance and dangerous and stuporous binging on a startling amount of drugs and alcohol. As the tragedy that marks the three weaves its way in and out of their lives, they will begin to discover that the joys and sorrows of their lives are inextricably entwined. As they fight for the control and emotional stability that constantly eludes them, they will all come to discover the inner strength and curious frailty that they all share.

While this was a book that I enjoyed immensley and found to be extremely satisfying, it was also a very gritty and emotionally charged read. Anshaw is an amazingly skillful author, and in her complex layering of character and plot, a tremendous amount of inner turmoil and narrative flexibility is revealed. Ostensibly, this is a book about how a tragic event has repercussions that ripple through the lives of the three main characters, but to say that this is all the book is about would be tremendously misleading. There are many ideas and themes in this novel that are balanced throughout the story, and in what amounts to literary snapshots of the lives of Alice, Carmen and Nick, Anshaw tethers and pulls a vast amount of gravity and relevance into a tale that is at once stunning and reflective.

Though the three siblings have some similarities, I found each of them to be vastly different. All three share a modicum of obsessive behavior, and though Nick’s obsession is the most damaging, one could argue that Alice and Carmen also struggle with letting their desires and ideals contort and stretch them into uncomfortable situations. For Carmen, the drive to take a progressive stance on political and social issues is a factor that dominates her life, while Alice, an artist, is brought repeatedly to her knees in her attempts to obtain and keep the love of a woman who is beautiful but sometimes cruel. Each of the siblings are enclosed in boxes of their own longing, and while they accomplish much at times, there are significant reversals in their forward progression that enables the reader to realize that they are all somewhat damaged individuals.

The way that Anshaw manages to tell this tale is spellbinding and very original, and the writing was simply outstanding. Even the dialogue felt authentic and true. In capturing the emotional somersaulting of these characters, there was a feeling of vivid clarity and a rawness that took my breath away. Often when I was reading, I would begin to feel a sudden overload of feeling as Anshaw was leading her characters down some particularly rough and troublesome paths. Everything was exposed here in way that sometimes made me joyous and sometimes made me ache. It was a tale that was steeped in sorrow but that unexpectedly had moments of pure lightness and ease. There were no easy answers for this family, and as a reader, I grew apprehensive in the moments of ease, knowing that the struggle was surely not far behind.

For each character, the girl that the accident claimed becomes a haunting and intruding presence upon their lives. For Nick, the guilt he harbors becomes an excuse to lose himself within a debauchery that alienates himself from his higher reasoning centers as well as his family. Alice feels her presence as a strange muse who forces her to create visually stunning pieces of art that she feels she can’t share with the world. I felt Carmen was least affected, but in a quiet way she also feels as though her suffering and mistakes are part of the penance she must pay for that one awful night so long ago. In the bigger picture, the girl is just a fragmentary image, but one that is nonetheless destructive no matter how much time passes.

This was a novel that I had a hard time tearing myself away from, and its beauty was sometimes brutal and intense. I would have to say that as a work of literary fiction, this book was stunning and one that would be enjoyed by many. For readers looking for something both real and haunting, look no further. Both elegant and quietly terrifying, this is a book not to be missed.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Friday, March 2, 2012

2012 UCF Book Festival Spotlight

This year, I and a handful of other bloggers (including Sandy, Jenny and Heather) have been invited to participate in and help promote the 2012 UCF Book Festival, which will be held on March 31st. We had an amazing time last year and got the chance to meet several new authors as well as a few old friends. Check out this post to see how it all went down. This year, the Festival is lucky to have snagged some great talent, and here today I give you a sample of some of the amazing authors and the works they’ll be highlighting. If you’re in the Orlando area March 31st, this is an event that you’re not going to want to miss

The Ballad of Tom Dooley by Sharyn Mc Crumb: The Ballad of Tom Dooley, the folk song made famous by the Kingston Trio, tells the story of a tragedy in the North Carolina mountains in the aftermath of the Civil War. Laura Foster, a simple country girl, was murdered and buried in a shallow grave on a mountain side, and her lover, Tom Dula, was hanged for the crime. The sensational elements in the case attracted national attention: a man and his beautiful married lover accused of murdering the other woman; the former governor of North Carolina spearheading the defense; and a noble gesture from the prisoner on the eve of his execution, saving the woman he really loved.

What seemed at first to be a sordid tale of adultery and betrayal was transformed by the new discoveries into an Appalachian Wuthering Heights. The Ballad of Tom Dooley brings to life the star-crossed lovers of this mountain tragedy with the understanding and compassion that Sharyn McCrumb brings to her compelling tales of Appalachia.

The Beach Trees by Karen White: Julie first knew loss at the age of twelve, when her younger sister disappeared from a local park—never to be found. As her once close-knit family grew apart, Julie’s mother obsessively searched for the girl, and when her mother died, Julie took up the search. Even as she went on with life, discovering a love for art that she attributed to her painter grandfather, she never let go of the hope that she might find her sister.

Then, working at an auction house in New York, Julie meets Morgan Guidry—a struggling artist and single mother who reminds Julie so much of her sister that she can’t help feeling drawn to her, and even a bit protective. Morgan paints a vivid picture of her southern family through stories, but never says why or how she lost contact with them. And she has another secret: a heart condition that will soon take her life.

Feeling as if she’s lost her sister a second time, Julie inherits from Morgan an antique portrait—as well as custody of her young son. Taking him to Biloxi, Mississippi, to meet the family he’s never known, Julie discovers a connection of her own. The portrait, of an old Guidry relative, was done by her grandfather—and unlocks a surprising family history…

A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty by Joshilyn Jackson: When a long-hidden grave is unearthed in the backyard, headstrong young Mosey Slocumb is determined to investigate. What she learns could cost her family everything…

Every fifteen years, trouble comes after the Slocumb women. Now, as their youngest turns fifteen, a whole new kind of commotion is chasing all three generations. Mosey's desperate to know who used their yard as a make-shift cemetery, and why. The oldest, forty-five year old Ginny, fights to protect Mosey from the truth, a fight that could cost Ginny the love of her life. Between them is Liza, silenced by a stroke, with the answers trapped inside her. To survive Liza's secrets and Mosey's insistent adventures, Ginny must learn to trust the love that braids the strands of their past - and stop at nothing to defend their future.

Perfect by Ellen Hopkins: Everyone has something, someone, somewhere else that they’d rather be. For four high-school seniors, their goals of perfection are just as different as the paths they take to get there.

Cara’s parents’ unrealistic expectations have already sent her twin brother, Conner, spiraling toward suicide. For her, perfect means rejecting their ideals to take a chance on a new kind of love. Kendra covets the perfect face and body—no matter what surgeries and drugs she needs to get there. To score his perfect home run—on the field and off—Sean will sacrifice more than he can ever win back. And Andre realizes that to follow his heart and achieve his perfect performance, he’ll be living a life his ancestors would never have understood.

Everyone wants to be perfect, but when perfection loses its meaning, how far will you go? What would you give up to be perfect?

She Makes It Look Easy by Marybeth Whalen: Ariel Baxter has just moved into the neighborhood of her dreams. The chaos of domestic life and the loneliness of motherhood, however, moved with her. Then she meets her neighbor, Justine Miller. Justine ushers Ariel into a world of clutter-free houses, fresh-baked bread, homemade crafts, neighborhood playdates, and organization techniques designed to make marriage better and parenting manageable.

Soon Ariel realizes there is hope for peace, friendship, and clean kitchen counters. But when rumors start to circulate about Justine’s real home life, Ariel must choose whether to believe the best about the friend she admires or consider the possibility that "perfection" isn't always what it seems to be.

A novel for every woman who has looked at another woman’s life and said, "I want what she has," She Makes It Look Easy reminds us of the danger of pedestals and the beauty of authentic friendship.

Praying for Strangers by River Jordan: As 2009 approached, New Year’s resolutions were the last thing on River Jordan’s mind. Her sons were both about to go off to war—one to Iraq and the other to Afghanistan—and she was planning a family reunion to see them off. All River could do was pray for her sons’ safety and hope to maintain her strength, until she unexpectedly came upon the perfect New Year’s resolution—one that focused on others instead of herself. She would pray for a complete stranger every single day of the year. In Praying for Strangers, River Jordan tells of her amazing personal journey of uncovering the needs of the human heart as she prayed her way through the year for people she had never met before. The discovery that Jordan made along the journey was not simply that her prayers touched the lives of these strangers (in often astounding ways), but that the unexpected connections she made with other people would be a profound experience that would change her own life forever.

As you can see, this event is going to be chock full of fantastic authors, and I'm already getting very excited to be a part of this year’s festival. Stay tuned for more information and book reviews as the festival continues to approach!
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