Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane — 400 pgs

U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels has just arrived on a small island in Massachusetts, home to the Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane. Teddy and his new partner are on the island in an effort to locate a dangerous and psychotic female patient who is guilty of several murders. The woman appears to have mysteriously disappeared from the maximum security facility, and Teddy has reason to believe that she had some inside help getting loose. While traversing the island in attempt to locate the missing woman, Teddy begins to have inklings that there is more to this facility than meets the eye. He has come to suspect that the hospital is using dangerous drugs and psychosurgery on the patients and is operating outside the law in the manner of a torture camp. As Teddy makes his way further and further into the secrets of the island, he becomes enmeshed in a dangerous game with the doctors and orderlies, and everything he knows and holds dear becomes fodder for those who would like to see Teddy's mission crumble. In this work of dramatic noir, Lehane gives us a twisted and horrifying narrative, where nothing is exactly what it seems and the secrets hiding in the dark rush out to greet you in the final explosive and shocking conclusion.

After reading Sandy's fantastic and enthusiastic review of this book, and seeing some very intriguing movie trailers, I decided that I just had to try it out for myself. I'm not normally a reader of thriller and suspense novels and had yet to read anything by Lehane, but I couldn't resist this book, and I'm so glad that I gave it a go. It was time well spent!

I loved the atmosphere in this book. Lehane is a master at creating a creepy and malevolent background in which his characters wind their machinations. There was a great feeling of gloominess and darkness throughout the story, and it lent a lot of credibility to the narrative. He’s also very adept at his descriptions of place. Too often, I have trouble visualizing the settings in the books I read, even when they’re described with infinite patience. This is not the case with Shutter Island. In fact, the way that Lehane goes about calmly and methodically describing the hospital, its grounds and the island was wonderful. It bordered on simplistic, yet somehow was not simple. The fact that the description was so well done really enhanced my enjoyment of the story.

I feel that there is much in this book that I can't really talk about, for fear of giving away the crux and heart of the book's mystery. Suffice it to say that Lehane does a great job with twisting the story into a tale full of deception, secrets and the lies that people tell themselves. Though the story moves through several permutations and winds its way towards several shocking situations, it never felt convoluted and it held a great tension throughout the tale. It was a wicked tale, full of the deranged, the dangerous and the afflicted, and several of the scenes in the hospital left me feeling the chills. The journey through Teddy's investigation was chock full of unlikely scenarios that would make even the most hardened reader's hair stand on end, and as I wound my way through the narrative, I worked my way along stacking up the clues, though I was in no way prepared for the book’s final haunting scenes. When all is finally revealed, I found myself totally aghast, and appreciated what Lehane had done all the more.

One of the reasons that Teddy made such an impact on me was because, from the beginning, he was such a flawed and believable character. Lehane takes his time crafting Teddy's background and traumas, giving him not only the anger and curiosity that fuels his quest, but also the fighting spirit that enables him to crawl through even the most messy of situations. He had some great dialogue as well. Teddy never stopped with the wit and sarcasm, and often, the tension in a scene was mitigated by Teddy's droll pronouncements to those around him. I found it impossible not to react to Teddy. He was so human, filled with regret, sadness, and an unspeakable drive that propelled him ever forward. As the conclusion of the book finally made itself clear to me, I began to see that Teddy had several roles to play in this drama, and he played some much more successfully than others. I felt that Lehane was brilliant in his creation of Teddy and was completely caught off guard when I realized just what was going on in this twisted tale.

I also found the sections about the institution very interesting. Reading about mental illness in literature is one of the things that really intrigues me, and to see Ashecliffe from the point of view of both the patients and the staff was exceptionally interesting. Since the book was set in the 1940s, the mental health field was very different than it is today. At that time, talk therapy was almost unheard of and pharmaceuticals were just beginning to make it on the scene. The most typical way for the mentally afflicted to be treated during this time was the use of psychosurgery (namely the frontal lobotomy) and the use of manacles and chains to keep the patients from running wild. I found this to be very sad and it made me really think about the advancements that have been made in the treatment of mental illness since that time. Lehane takes it to the next level with the suspicions of harmful foreign drugs and the use of torture. It is said in the book that the staff at Ashecliffe “wrote their own playbook” in regards to their treatment practices. Frightening indeed.

If you’re the type of reader who wants to get lost in a fantastically dark and twisted tale full of surprises, then this is definitely the book for you. Though it was written in a simple and conversational style, the book was simply stunning. In the future, I'm going to be looking for more of Lehane’s work, and already have a copy of Mystic River on my shelf waiting for me. Looking for an unusual and dark thriller, where nothing is what it seems? Then by all means, go out and grab a copy of Shutter Island!

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Midwife of Hope River by Patricia Harman — 403 pgs

Patience Murphy is a midwife living in depression-era Appalachia, and she has the raw instinct and gentle strength that birthing mothers are desperate to have. The only problem is that many of her mothers are unable to pay for her services, which keeps Patience at poverty level, like so many around her. When Patience delivers a healthy infant to a wealthy couple that lost everything in the big crash, she finds that this mother can’t pay either but will give her a gift she can never replace. At first Bitsy, the African American housemaid, seems like another mouth to feed, but she is good natured and a quick study. Now that Bitsy is living with Patience, she begins to garner more mothers from the colored section of town and is soon overwhelmed with the amount of work. Yet she’s still far from wealthy. A chicken here and some firewood there make Patience and Bitsy’s lives easier, but between the racial tension burning its way through the backwoods and an unlikely friendship she begins with Hope River’s only veterinarian, Patience is treading on thin ice. As more and more women ask Patience and Bitsy into their homes for the birthing of their children, they become well known and even more highly regarded. Until the night a woman bathed in blood and carrying an infant comes crashing onto the scene. From that moment on, Patience Murphy’s life will change, as everything she knows will be forever altered. Reticent and kind, Ms. Murphy will have to use every ounce of her strength and knowledge to save a group of people that she has come to know and care for. And though Patience Murphy is gentle, she can also be tough as nails when grind leads to grit. Filled with quiet and tender moments and moments of extreme drama, The Midwife of Hope River is a triumph of historical fiction blended smoothly with the bedside trials of the women that Patience helps to deliver not only of their children, but of their sadnesses and joys as well.

I think everyone in the world knows that I love midwife stories, but I also love Patricia Harman. I got the chance to see her speak at the SIBA Supper this year, and had huge love for her biography, Arms Wide Open. When someone asks me what I like to read about, midwives often top the list, and this fascination started early and is very long lived. I even have a very good friend who is a midwife, and it’s so interesting to hear her stories and live vicariously through them. When I came back from SIBA, this was the first book I picked up out of my haul. And Patricia is just as interesting on the page as she is on the stage. I relished this book and often lingered over single sentences as well as long passages.

One of the most striking things about this book was the setting. Rural Appalachia in the 20s was a place and time that I hadn’t explored before. When people today talk about being poor, there’s a radical difference from today’s economic status as poor than the types of poor mountain people that Patience worked for. Often many lived cramped into one dwelling, the younger children being taken care of by the older, and the men away in mines that were often hazardous and deadly. Patience not only delivers the children of these miners, but ministers to them and cares for them as individuals. And in this book, I truly found the meaning of dirt poor, with women and children living in domiciles that literally had floors made of dirt. Patience never turned a patient away, even when she knew that she wouldn’t be paid.

There was a lot of tension surrounding race relations, and this was brought to a head when Bitsy, a young black woman, moved in with Patience, a genteel white woman. Bitsy and Patience had a strong relationship and looked on each other as kin after a time, though Bitsy had other family still living and working in other parts of the woods. Harman doesn’t mince words when she speaks of the violence with which the Klu Klux Klan, spread in small groups around Appalachia, would take racial matters into their own hands. Even Patience feels the sting of this racism, as her friends and colleagues begin to look down at her for housing Bitsy. This puts both of the women in danger and forms the crux of a violent incident that rears its ugly head in the middle of the book.

The best parts of this book for me were the actual deliveries that took place in cabins, lean-tos, and sometimes even out in the woods. I learned so much from Harman’s stories about the cycle of pregnancy and birth, and the complications and the beauty of a woman bearing a child under almost every condition. Some births are easy and some end tragically, but Patience and Bitsy give every birth their all and become the inspiring angels to women all over the mountains. This story also contains elements of mystery and romance as well as all the other points I’ve mentioned above. Harman delivers her story like a woman giving birth, thrusting and pushing it at her readers until, eventually, her tale emerges fully formed and beautiful. It was a book that I never wanted to end.

If you haven’t tried out any of Patsy Harman’s books, this would be a great place to start, as it’s a story that has all the elements and hallmarks of a fantastic read. It covers so many topics and situations that the reader never becomes bored or overtaxed, and it radiates light and hope as it shines light into the dark wilderness of Appalachia. It’s a story about the uniting of women and the repercussions that these relationships and bonds have. A very solid and extremely well executed book. Highly recommended.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Sweet Dates in Basra by Jessica Jiji — 368 pgs

Living in Iraq in the '40s, Kathmiya Mahommed, a thirteen year old marsh girl, is sent out of her family's home to begin life as a housemaid in Basra. Kathmiya is very unhappy about this development, as she has been secretly longing to be married and become mistress of her own home, but her meetings with several marriage brokers have proven to be fruitless. During her first week at the job, Kathmiya meets Shafiq, the teenage brother of her mistress. Though they are from very different sectors of life, they begin a dangerous attraction and flirtation that will change the course of both of their lives. Meanwhile, the people of Shafiq's community are struggling with the advent of WWII and the increased prejudice against the Jews who live side by side among their Muslim neighbors. As Shafiq and Kathmiya learn to navigate the ways of their hearts, they also learn that although there are differences between those in their community, there are also several startling similarities.

I have to admit that I wasn't crazy about this book. For the first half of the story, the writing seemed very muddy and undeveloped. There was an unfocused quality to the story and it took a few tries to actually get into the grist of the story. I actually put the book down for awhile and read something else before picking it back up again. When I did get back to it I had to spend an awful lot of time trying to psych myself up before beginning to settle into the story. Coupled with these problems was the fact that Kathmiya was an unmitigated whiner. I got really tired of her haranguing her mother, sister and anyone else who would listen about the unhappiness of her life. She seemed so sour all of the time and it was really hard for me to like her. Aarti mentions much the same reaction to Kathmiya in her review and I would have to agree with her. Kathmiya was just tiring.

On the other hand, the story had a lot of great intrigues going on within it. I really liked the mystique surrounding the secret of Kathmiya's past and felt that the author really did a wonderful job of keeping me in suspense over those sections. I wanted to know more, and ultimately, that's what kept me turning the pages furiously. After the blundering of the first section of the book, I felt like the author had recovered nicely and turned this into a very entertaining novel that kept me guessing. I almost wish that the Kathmiya's secret had been alluded to earlier on, that way I wouldn't have felt so hopeless about having to make my way through the book. I also liked the way the supporting characters had their place within the mystery. It was a great coming together of all the aspects and players, and had this been the main thrust of the narrative, I would have enjoyed the book much, much more.

Although I had my problems with Kathmiya, I really found myself enamored over Shafiq. Whenever he was on the page, I knew that I was sure to have my interest captured. Shafiq's portions of the story felt more weighty and important, because not only was he dealing with his attraction to Kathmiya but also the severe tensions that the war in Europe and the British settlers were bringing into his homeland. He was an unapologetic supporter of the Iraqi way of life and liberties, and several other characters and their problems with the political situation were woven within his story. There were some very moving and revealing sections about the problems that the Jews of the community faced during these times and I thought that it was extremely heartening that most of the community refused to see separation between the Jews and Muslims and treated each other as neighbors and brothers. It was nice to see that even in extreme situations, the people of Iraq formed such a great sense of community.

There were also some really moving and emotional scenes in the book that I felt gave the story a really great depth and range. From the death of one of Shafiq's most beloved friends to the wrongful imprisonment of a suspected Zionist, I felt that there were some absorbingly dramatic turns within the narrative that really gave the author full use of tension and emotional atmosphere. Even the conclusion of the book hinged on a bit of drama and I found that I appreciated the slightly messy and unresolved ending more than I would have had everything been neatly tied up with a bow. There was a really good mix of pathos embedded within the story that I thought was very interesting.

Though there were definitely some really great things about this book, I would have to say that it wasn't really a spectacular read for me. I felt that the story's slow and laborious start coupled with the unlikeablilty of the protagonist really ruined most of this book's appeal for me. It certainly wasn't the book I had been expecting when I picked it up. I feel that it's a shame that I was so prejudiced against this book from so early in the story, but I really felt that I couldn't help my reaction to it. I am unsure of who I would recommend this book to, as I am sure that most readers wouldn't have the patience for such a slow start combined with a whiny character, so I will just close this review with the conclusion that this book had it's moments, but overall, it was an uneven read.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Where We Belong by Emily Giffin — 384 pgs

Marian Caldwell has a life that anyone would envy. At thirty-six, she is the producer of one of the hottest shows on television and is dating a handsome heartthrob television executive, hoping to take it to the next level. She’s living the dream in New York, but somehow, something is missing. When a bickering session with her boyfriend sends her home one evening, she’s surprised when a knock on the door reveals a young girl named Kirby Rose, whom she thought she’d never see again. Kirby is Marian’s daughter, who she had given up for adoption only three days after her birth. Marian is stunned and caught off guard that the eighteen year old has come looking for her now that the adoption records have been unsealed. Young and reckless, Kirby has never felt that she fit in with her adoptive family. Of course they love her and have seen to all of her needs, but Kirby has has always felt that she plays second fiddle to her more vivacious and outgoing sister, born only eleven months after her adoption. After a whirlwind weekend in New York, Marian bustles Kirby back home, nervous and unsure how to handle the girl’s sudden appearance. But there are questions that must be answered, and Kirby will have no hedging. Who is her father and why does Marian refuse to speak of him? What really happened all those years ago when she was forced to give up her only child to a couple of strangers? In this touching and engaging read, Emily Giffin imagines the life of a woman who ran away from motherhood and the daughter who has come running back to find her.

After reading Emily Giffin’s first book, Something Borrowed, I knew that I would someday read another of her works. It was my lucky day when the Books, Babes, and Bordeaux book club picked this little gem for their October read. I knew that this book would be light but meaningful, and the buzz on the blogs was pretty positive. I chose to read this one in one sitting during Dewey’s Readathon, and even though it was the only thing I got finished with for the day, I was truly happy to just sit like a sponge and absorb this charming story, which was a little predictable at times but fun nonetheless.

Marian is living large, but her dreams aren't being fully realized because her handsome beau won’t commit to her at this stage in the game, and it’s been a long game. She’s happy but could be happier, and doesn’t expect to find her long lost daughter knocking at her door on one of the worst nights she’s had in awhile. When Marian realizes who this stranger is, she’s both shocked and a little giddy, but she just can’t let Kirby get past her protective walls, and because of this, the reunion is somewhat painful for both mother and child. Marian does her best to include Kirby in everything, including her job, but she won’t open her heart, and the unanswered questions about Kirby’s father seem to float just above their heads like silent dialogue bubbles.

I loved Kirby so much. She was marching to the beat of her own drummer, literally, and she wasn’t afraid of the next step, be that what it may. Kirby was a girl child alone. Though she had met Marian and was impressed by her, there was more about her that she needed to discover. Her adoptive parents were not happy about Kirby meeting Marian because she was “theirs,” but they never treated her like she was. They never just let Kirby be Kirby, and they pressured her about her plans for the future when all she wanted to do was discover herself and her birth parents. I loved her spunk and her grace, and the more she discovered about how she became who she was, the more her heart opens to accept all of her parents, birth and adoptive.

There’s a lot that I’m not saying about this story because it’s better for readers to find out for themselves, but it’s safe to say that there’s a lot of turmoil in Marian’s life, and a lot of it revolves around Kirby’s birth father. In her typical style, Giffin seamlessly blends emotion and pragmatism in her characters, and though some of it was predictable, it was an engaging and powerfully built tale. Nobody comes out of this tale untouched by the reunion of Kirby and Marian. Simple and clean, while also being messy and complicated, Giffin gives this story her all and tells it beautifully, right down to the final sentence.

I’m now convinced that I need to read all of Giffin’s books, as her take on life and its complexities is not only engrossing, but full of laughter, love and above all, heartfelt emotion. Those who haven’t tried Giffin yet are in for a happy surprise if they pick up this book. Though it’s light reading, it still feels weighty enough to be striking. It was just what I needed at this point in my reading life, and I’m sure there are others out there who would agree that Giffin is a talented author who gently cradles both her readers and her characters. Recommended!

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Red Tent by Anita Diamant — 336 pgs

Dinah. Her story in the Bible is brief and violent and she fades quickly into obscurity. But Anita Diamant has a different version of the events of Dinah's life. Daughter of Jacob and Leah, Dinah lives with her four mothers, all wives of Jacob, and her many brothers and sisters, on a harsh land. As the only girl of the extensive brood, Dinah learns from her mothers the ways of women, from the art of midwifery to the sacred days of the Red Tent, where the women of the camp gather to share their monthly experiences of womanhood. As Dinah grows from girl to woman, she learns lessons of love and family from all who surround her, and struggles to accept her singular place among the tribe of Jacob, eventually leaving her family for a marriage to a wealthy prince of the realm. But Dinah's fate is not so easily sealed, and when her brothers come to exact revenge upon the man who they feel stole their sister's maidenhood, Dinah must begin life again on a foreign shore as a servant midwife. In this lush and vibrant story, Diamant presents the mystical story of Dinah and weaves the famous tale of the family of Jacob within the confines of her tale. The story is luminous and unique, filled with the passion and pathos of ancient times, when women celebrated the power and vitality locked inside their hearts and bodies.

My first experience reading this book was about ten years ago. When I read it back then, I found that it was quite unlike anything I had ever read before, and I quickly housed it among my "keeper" books. This time around, I read it in conjunction with my book club, and this second reading afforded me more insight into the characters’ perspectives and also into the Biblical significance of the story that Diamant so expertly tells. I know now that this is a story that I’m destined to read again, hopefully with an eye to more fully capturing the hidden wisdom that’s hiding within the story.

Diamant opens with the story of Dinah's childhood, as she explains the genealogy of Jacob’s family and tells how each of her four mothers have come to be wed to the man who is at the head of her tribe. Most of these stories are unconventional and each woman has a different motive for wanting Jacob at her side. The crux of each of these stories are straight from the Bible, but Diamant has a way of making even these well-known facts fresh and new. Part of me believes that she took this approach in an effort to keep from alienating readers who may not adhere to Christianity or who haven’t had the experience of reading the Bible. This was a brilliant approach, and because of her efforts not to classify this tale as one of a particular Christian leaning or origin, Diamant has made the book accessible to all. I found the story of Dinah's childhood to be the most interesting sections of the book. She doesn't shy away from describing the tensions between the women, or the problems that such a large brood would be susceptible to. Jacob is portrayed as a flawed male lead: loving, yet somehow unrefined and unaware of the emotional issues that go along with having a brood of wives and children. He is noble and long-suffering, yet also careless, and at times stubborn.

The women of the camp were more interesting to me. By nature of their gender and the times they lived in they should have lived marginalized lives in the shadows of their men, but somehow this wasn't so. They were passionate, opinionated and headstrong. They shared all they had with their sister-wives despite the animosity and jealousies that they felt for one another. Because Dinah was the only girl in the huge brood, she was afforded all the love and knowledge that her mothers had to give, and was the treasure of the camp. These were powerful and noble women who were aware of the unique power of being women. Strong women who suffered, yes, but also who know the hidden might and potency that lived within them. Though it was ostensibly Jacob who ruled the camp, it was easy to see that the women were the ones who were in control, and it was their whims and desires that drove their family further and spurred them on.

The sections describing the women's monthly red tent ritual were full of beauty. There the women were free to worship their gods and free to marvel at the changes that were taking place in their bodies. The tent was a place of power, where births and cycles were given the gravity that they deserved, and where they could all commune safely to experience the power of birth and life. They speak of the wondrous things that their bodies are responsible for, the power that has been invested in them and their sisters like them, and the beauty of all things female. It’s here that Dinah learns the secrets of the camp and of the jealousies of her mothers, which must be left outside the tent flaps. Dinah also becomes privy to the secrets of midwifery and discovers that this is where her talents lie. The red tent embodies the spirit of the women and becomes a place for refuge, respite and celebration, and it sends a powerful message to the women of the world that their lives and differences should be rejoiced and shared with one another. It's a starkly feminist message that many women today have forgotten, and Diamant expresses it with clarity and feeling.

Later sections of the book deal with the fall of the house of Jacob and the scattering of Dinah's tribe. The problems that destroyed them were mainly the fault of the men of the tribe, and in their errors of propriety and judgement, all the women, especially Dinah, met their destruction. I found it sad that the men who had lived with these remarkable women had not profited one iota from the lessons and wisdom that they imparted, and that the whims of Jacob’s sons were so destructive and left to fester out of control. Dinah loses all she has known and must start over, with the painful loss of her network of mothers left behind in the red dust of defeat. She never really gets away from the memories and wisdom of her mothers no matter how far she travels, and in some ways she grows to be much like them, remaking herself piecemeal by taking parts of each into the mosaic of her soul. Though I did enjoy these sections of the book, I found that they couldn't really compare to the earlier scenes of life at the camp with Dinah surrounded by her loving and supporting mothers: women who were strong enough to change the course of their fates and the fates of those around them.

I really think this book is destined to become a classic, and in some circles, it already is. Those readers who are usually shy about picking up a Biblical fiction book would do well to give this one a chance. It really does speak to a lot of the particular issues that women face, both together and alone, and Diamant doesn't get stuck attempting to preach or moralize to her audience. I know that this story already has a huge following, and it's interesting that so many readers find pleasure in the book, both for the first time and after repeated readings. I know that this is a book that makes an appearance on my top books of all time list, and would highly recommend it to readers who span all ages and beliefs.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Shadow of Night by Deborah Harkness — Audiobook Review

Recorded by Penguin Audiobooks
Narrated by Jennifer Ikeda
Length: 24 hours 30 minutes

** Spoiler alert! Some spoilers for the first book, A Discovery of Witches, may lie ahead. **

When we last left Diana and Matthew, they were about to step into the past and travel backwards in search of Ashmole 782, that elusive manuscript that holds portentous information for vampires, witches and demons alike. Here in Shadow of Night, we pick up right where we left off as Diana and Matthew travel back in time to Elizabethan England, where Diana must search out a witch in order to learn how to correctly tap into her powers as well as search for the manuscript. For Matthew, a centuries-old vampire, the past holds no secrets and he knows just what he will be facing, but for Diana, the trip is both alluring and frightening. Matthew seems to know some very important people, yet not all of them are onboard with his and Diana’s relationship. And one mischievous and very well-known man may destroy the couple with only a scant word to the wrong person. It’s here in Elizabethan England that the couple realize it won’t be easy to locate Ashmole 782 or to find a witch that can teach Diana the things she needs to know. But as they travel over the ocean to new places in the past, they threaten to disrupt the future; and when Diana realizes that she is more powerful than she could have ever imagined and that she’s closer to Ashmole 782 than anyone ever thought, both figuratively and literally, the heat is on to close the rent in time that the couple has made and get back to their rightful lives in the twenty-first century. Blending alchemy, magic and history into one stunning brew, Deborah Harkness gives her hungry readers the story that so many have waited for, and she does it gloriously.

Upon turning the last page of A Discovery of Witches, I groaned aloud. "What! That’s it?" I said. Harkness ended the book with a wildly intriguing cliffhanger, and while I was a bit angry, I was even more excited that the next book would eventually come and my questions would be answered. And so I waited, and waited, and waited some more, until finally the book hit the shelves. When Sandy found an audio copy in her mailbox from the wonderful folks over at Penguin Audio, she lent it to me right away. I was so very excited! The narration is done by the same narrator as the first, Jennifer Ikeda. I loved her voice and felt that she embodied Diana perfectly. She was also crazy good at capturing the voices of the other players, especially the Emperor, whom Ikeda voiced with high-strung levity. She was a perfect choice for this book and made the listening experience breeze by.

One of the things that I really loved about this book was the fact that Diana and Matthew have matured so much since the first one. Matthew no longer acts controlling with Diana, and when he does, she lets him have it. I loved Diana’s fire and her intense wonderment at the things she was seeing in the past. Listening to this book was like watching a modern day woman step back through the pages of history, and though some have derided the book for Harkness’ use of so many famous personages of the age, I felt that it was delightful to see history reinvented a bit. I knew of a few of these famous people, but since I’m not as well versed in Elizabethan society as in other parts of history, a good amount of people and places were new to me. One never knew who would step into the page, and that excited me and made me eager to keep listening.

The crux of this story revolves around locating the missing manuscript and finding another witch to teach Diana how to use her newly developed powers, but this book was more than that. Matthew has secrets. A lot of them, and he knows that by taking Diana to the past, she will uncover some very dark things about her husband. There will also be reunions and retributions that the couple must face, and for Diana, the impossible comes to life over and over again. I loved the unpredictability that Harkness created for her readers, and the storytelling was solid and very tight. Ashmole 782 is not the beating heart of this novel; that place goes to Diana, as she discovers and rediscovers herself and her husband, Matthew.

Harkness has a great command of darkness and light in this tale and uses her skill rather boldly, creating new and exciting situations for her readers to intoxicate themselves with. The impossible becomes possible, and Diana grows more than she ever hoped she would. She must also learn to let go and say goodbye to a very special person in her life, a person who has shaped her and made her the fierce yet loving person that she is today. Matthew too must come from behind the shadows and face up to the truth that he has hidden from Diana, and it’s not pretty. Time after time, he must face up to the man he has been versus the man he is today. As their love deepens, it’s also tested again and again.

Lovers of this series, don’t hesitate! Pick this book up and fall in love all over again. It’s solidly entertaining and full of some very unique surprises, and just as in the first book, there are some real scoundrels to keep Matthew and Diana embedded in time and in danger. I’m anxiously awaiting the last book in this series because there are more hidden gems that need to be sorted out and I can’t wait to find out what happens next with Diana and Matthew. A excellent and very fun read. It will be one of my favorites this year. Highly recommended!

Monday, October 8, 2012

SIBA 2012

SIBA was a little closer to home this year, taking place in Naples, Florida. My husband and I jostled the kids around and headed over to the Hilton Grand Resort Naples, listening to Tana French’s Into the Woods along the way. We looked at SIBA as a couple’s trip this year, with me off and running doing my bookish thing and him sleeping and web surfing all day with no responsibilities. When we arrived on Thursday afternoon, I met up with Sandy, Jill and Heather, and we took a bus ride over to Sunshine Books of Naples. We actually went on a tour of two of their stores, and between the books and the snippets of wine and cheese, the three of us had a wonderful time. After our tour, we were treated to a delicious Italian dinner, and the the three of us had a wonderful time chatting with the authors and booksellers around the table. Each of them was eager to find out what makes a blogger so motivated to write about books and what we like to read. The food was very tasty, and our thanks to JKS Communications, the dinner was on them. It was a wonderful way to begin the SIBA weekend.

Friday morning saw me stumbling around at 5:30am to take a walk along the beach with Jill and Sandy. Fitness is serious business for those two, and I was seriously winded and needed a nap before the events began! Friday was given over to author panels, and all the bloggers headed over to attend the panel Magical & Mysterious featuring Sandra Brennan, Tonya Hurley, Joseph Scott Morgan, Joelle Charbonneau, Suzanne Johnson, & Jeff Hirsch. This panel was hugely entertaining, and there was not only laughter and information about the books that the authors were debuting, but also a bit of singing from Joelle, who is also an opera singer. I think the book that I was most excited about was Blessed, which has a double-sided cover that reveals part of the story. Excellent and very cool idea!

From there we moved on the the Kick-Off Lunch with the Lee Brothers, where we heard from Matt and Ted Lee, Michael Morris, Stephanie McAfee and Janice Owens. The lunch was delectable and the speakers kept us more than entertained with the enticements that their books had to offer. I particularly loved hearing Matt and Ted Lee speak about their cookbook, The Lee Brother’s Charleston Kitchen. All three of us were leafing through the book while at the table and feasting our eyes on the beautiful photography and great recipes inside.

The next panel I attended was called Looking for the Uncommon Thread, where I was entertained and wowed by Robert LeLeux, Kevin Hawkes, Scott Anderson and Sharon Anderson. This was a really eclectic panel of books and authors that were wildly divergent, but somehow they all really fit well together. Jill, Sandy and Heather attended other panels so that the bloggers could spread out and cast a greater coverage of all the events.

Later that evening, we moseyed on over to the First 180 Days party that was held out in the tropical breeze with cocktails and more wonderful books! My old friends Beth Webb Hart and Lisa Wingate were there, as well as the amazing Marybeth Whalen! Before long it was time for the SIBA Supper, where we had a fine dining experience while we were swept off our feet by William Joyce, Randy Wayne White, Rhoda Janzen and Jill McCorkle. I was really blown away by the excerpt that Jill McCorkle chose to read, and I was excited to see Rhoda Janzen, whose first book, Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, was a favorite of mine. Later in the evening, my husband and I sat in on the late night reading and had a great time listening to a few wonderful ladies reading from their books as we sat and enjoyed the balmy summer night.

Saturday morning started off with a wonderful breakfast put on by HarperCollins, where we got the chance to hear Debra Dean, Courtney Miller Santo, Patricia Harman and Mary Kay Andrews speak. I was really excited to hear Patricia Harman speak, as her book Arms Wide Open was one of the most fun and eclectic that I have ever read. I’m in the middle of her newest, The Midwife of Hope River, and must say that it is fantastic too!

For the rest of the day, we wandered the showroom floor, filling bag after bag of glorious books and talking to publishing reps and authors about what’s coming up in the fall and winter that we should be looking for. The girls and I shared a late lunch at the hotel’s restaurant, and I gabbed over the most exciting books that we had picked up. Later in the evening, after perusing the showroom floor again, we headed over to The Writer’s Block Party, where we participated in carnival style games in order to win tickets. These tickets were then thrown into raffle bags to win dinner with an author. Sandy, Heather and I were lucky enough to win two authors (!) and got the chance to take Karen White and Wendy Wax out to a sumptuous Italian restaurant. Wendy and Karen were very fun and charming and we had a lovely time gabbing and eating.

Sunday morning found us at our tables for A Taste of Florida Feast Breakfast, where we got the chance to hear from Heather McPherson, Katie Farmand and Pam Brandon, Bob Kealing, Craig Pittman, and Joie Wilson and Penny Taylor. The books showcased at this event were both beautiful and unique. As we made our last trips around the showroom floor, we were all looking forward to the premier event, The Moveable Feast. Though each of us were seated at different tables, we all got the chance to speak with some fantastic authors, who showed us their latest work. It was a great event.

After all was said and done, the bloggers plus one husband went down to the pool and took in the sun for a few hours. Then the hubby and I went out for a romantic dinner in downtown Naples at a terrific little sushi bar that made the best dragon roll I’ve ever tasted! As we settled down for the night, we knew that tomorrow it would be time to head back to our real lives, but for just a weekend, we had the time of our lives, thanks to Wanda Jewell and the authors and publishers that made SIBA the event of the year.

Friday, October 5, 2012


Congratulations to Pearl and Suko, winners of a hardback copy of Runaway Girl! If I haven’t already, I will be sending you an email shortly.

Stay tuned on Monday for a recap of SIBA 2012, where I’ll go all gushy about the great time that was spent there.

Have a super nice Friday everyone!

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The White Queen by Phillipa Gregory — 464 pgs

Elizabeth Woodville is a young and attractive widow living with her two sons on her parents’ estate when one day the boy King, Edward of York, passes through her yard. Elizabeth wishes to draw his attention to the fact that her lands have not been returned to her after her husband’s death, which occurred during a battle between the Lancasters and Yorks. Though Elizabeth feels no loyalty toward this king whom she calls a usurper, she can’t help but feel the spark and blush of attraction to the young king, a feeling that is evidently reciprocated. Soon Edward and Elizabeth are wed in a secret ceremony and Elizabeth takes her place as the new Queen of England. But things are far from peaceful in the kingdom, for King Edward is one of three York brothers who are all vying for the throne. As Elizabeth advances her friends and family through the ranks of the English court, making powerful enemies along the way, her husband faces betrayal and war from his once loyal brothers and his trusted advisers. Elizabeth begins to draw on an ancient magic to protect her new husband and her family, but even this isn’t enough. When her two young sons are born into the line of succession and Edward's reign is threatened once again, Elizabeth and her remaining children must go into hiding from their dangerous uncles. But despite her magic, her two sons lives are not safe, and the future of the two boys in the Tower remains shrouded with danger and foreboding. In this captivating and rich historical drama, Phillipa Gregory re-imagines the famous War of the Roses and introduces her reader to the indomitable and cunning Queen Elizabeth Woodville.

I’m normally a huge sucker for anything written by Phillipa Gregory. I can't get enough of her racy writing and love to indulge myself every now and then with some eye candy from one of my favorite authors. Unfortunately, this is the first time I’ve been utterly disappointed by the story that Gregory has created. I went into this book expecting to be blown away and found that I was only moderately entertained by the first book in this new series.

I have always been keenly interested in the Tudor dynasty, and having not read anything about the Plantagenets, I assumed that this book would be a very entertaining way to begin studying them. The problem was that the story of the York brothers was such a never ending tug-of-war that things became very boring very quickly. I’m not suggesting that Gregory rewrite history (though sometimes she does just that), but I think she could have tried to make things a little more interesting and diverting than she did. By the third time there was a rebellion by a younger brother, my patience was fully exhausted by that particular storyline, because it was written the same. way. every. time. Like I said, I know this is history and this is the way it happened, but I had hoped it could have been a bit more condensed or that the storyline could have focused on something more exciting and steamy (as I usually expect with Gregory).

I also really disliked Elizabeth Woodville. She was always scheming and came across as ultra ambitious, doling out money and land to those in her family and then wondering why she had so many enemies. She was not portrayed as a very charismatic woman, and unlike Greogory's past portrayals of Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth was not in the least mysterious or enigmatic. She was a huge whiner most of the time and came across as a spoiled child with entitlement issues. I disliked her immediately, and I guess having to read a whole book from her point of view was a little too much for me. I hated the way she played power games with her children's lives and the way she cared so much about getting revenge on those who had hurt or belittled her. Too much scorn and entitlement in a character is annoying to me, favorite author or no.

One of the other things that didn't work well here were the supernatural elements. While I liked what Gregory did with witchcraft in The Wise Woman, I didn't like it here. It seemed contrived, and though it was probably meant to feel very organic and go hand in hand with the accusations of witchcraft made against Elizabeth at the time, it all felt very artificial to me. Ditto on the sections about her spiritual and familial connections to the water goddess Melusina. A storm preventing warfare? Caused by Elizabeth, her witchcraft, and Melusina. An enemy dying in agony? Elizabeth and the witchcraft again. See where I’m going with this? If Gregory wants to stand on precedent in her history, that’s fine, but filing historical inconveniences under witchcraft and water goddesses all the time got very tiresome, very quickly.

I did end up learning an awful lot about the Plantagenets and the War of the Roses in this book, which in some ways was excellent. I learned all the ins and outs of the brothers in war and beyond it, and I discovered the history of the two Princes in the Tower, which is something I’ve always wanted to learn about. The problem was that I could have gotten all this information from a decent history book, which I probably would have enjoyed a lot more. I guess I just expected too much from Gregory on this account, and was really disappointed to discover that although she does the Tudors very, very well, her brilliance in other areas is a little less mature. Everything in this book was very stiff and clunky to me, and the writing felt very junior and inexperienced. It wasn’t a particularly exciting story, and the characters were less distinct than any of her others have ever been to me.

As much as it pains me to say this, I would have to urge others to avoid this book. While I really admire Gregory as an author, I felt that this book was just too awkward and unpleasant for me to recommend, and I’m a little mad to have picked it out of a stack full of books that were all waiting for attention. If you’re a first time reader of Gregory, I would really recommend The Other Boleyn Girl or The Queen's Fool. Maybe even The Wise Woman if you're feeling adventurous. I won’t be reading the rest of this series because, frankly, Gregory's treatment of this time period just doesn't interest or suit me.
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