Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Cascade by Maryanne O’Hara — 384 pgs

Desdemona Hart Spaulding isn’t where she wants to be. As the wife of a pharmacist who runs his own shop during the late 1930s, Des and her husband are at a crossroads. He wants a wife that cooks, cleans, and bears him children, which is decidedly not what she wants. Des is an artist, and a very good one at that. But her paintings are not enough to hold on to when her husband becomes agitated with Des’ inability to get pregnant. Des has had the forbearance to make sure that never happens. When it becomes local news that the town of Cascade is in danger of being turned into a reservoir for the city of Boston, its little shops and homes flooded, Des dreams of relocating to New York to realize her dreams of being a famous artist. But soon, her friendship with another artist in the town becomes a scandal, and Des begins to make some very disturbing choices that will not only affect her marriage, but also the town where she has lived her entire life. While Des’ husband Asa moves in one direction, Des decides to go in another, forcing her to become not only duplicitous, but deceiving as well. In this pristinely written and very complex novel, the fate of a town and a marriage come down to the machinations of one woman who is desperate to be free, no matter the cost.

Reading this book was like looking at a watercolor painting, and I’m sure that this is what the author intended, as a large part of the narrative was given over to the nature and descriptions of art. This, to me, meant that large parts of the narrative had a soft and contemporary feel while still being set in the past and focusing almost exclusively on Des as an artist. Many of her works were explained in the book, and it was almost as if O’Hara had these paintings that Des was creating firmly fixed in her mind. The effect was one of blending art with a very complex and personal narrative, written with a mild yet somehow searing tone.

I really understood Des and her struggles. Because O’Hara gives so much attention to detail with her characters, there was little that wasn’t explained regarding her feelings of living a small town life, and an incompatible marriage. The choice to marry Asa was undoubtedly clear to the reader but the repercussions had a strangling effect on the entire community. Des, at times, may have been a little ethically challenged; however, I understood her and her wishes. It wasn’t her morality that was in question, but her desire and her unmitigated need to assert herself and attain the life that she knew she was meant for. Unfortunately, she caused a lot of collateral damage by doing these things.

The main thrust of this book were the themes of longing and self-actualization, blended within a framework of art, both on the canvas and in the theater. When I step back and see just what O’Hara was trying to communicate to the reader, I’m filled with a sense of bittersweet irony, because for one woman to go against the tide during this time period meant not only that this was a decidedly feminist novel, but also a novel that sought to explore the ways that the heart can be selfish and selfless at the same time.

I think those readers who enjoy character driven novels with a strong plot would love this book. It’s full of things to discuss and ponder, making it a great choice for book clubs, but it’s also one to read when you just want to curl up with a creative drama that’s gentle but firm. I’m sure that I’ll see more as I reflect further, just as O’Hara intends. A genuinely satisfying read that holds secrets, regrets, and unexpected joys. Recommended.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Monday, April 29, 2013

The Reckoning: Book Two of the Taker Trilogy — by Alma Katsu

Warning: This review contains spoilers for the first book, The Taker. If you haven’t read that one, you should get to it right away! It’s an unforgettable story!

Lanore McIlvrae thought she had it all planned out. After imprisoning Adair in the walls of the old castle where he had kept her prisoner, Lanore finally feels safe. With her latest partner, Luke, she is traveling the globe, selling off pieces of art that she has procured over several lifetimes. But something is amiss, for Adair has somehow escaped his prison, where he’s had a long time to think about Lanore’s hideous betrayal and his undying passion for her. How could his plans have gone wrong? Once he promised himself to her forever, in a body that she adored, but his cruelties were too many and too violent, leaving him in the darkness for many years. Now he’s on the hunt once again, and Lanore sets out alone to find Adair’s other consorts in an effort to discover the best way to hide from him forever. But the Adair that emerges from his prison is feeling very different than the man who was once lured into the trap. All of his feelings for Lanny have intensified exponentially, and he is a man at war with himself, trying to figure out if he wants to torture and kill her or make her his lover forever. Wicked and corrupt, Adair gathers his cronies to ensnare Lanny, where he will have her trapped, just as she had him trapped. What will become of this man, newly changed but destructively bent? And what can Lanny do when the sight of Adair turns her flesh cold but her body wanting? In this sequel to The Taker, Alma Katsu gives us a taste of the impenetrable life of the immortals and forces a climax that will leave readers hungering for the last and final installment of this series.

Alma Katsu doesn’t play around with her readers. She considers them smart, savvy, and bold enough to explore the depths of emotion that she delves into in her books. This book was a surprise to me, for although I knew that Adair couldn’t stay entombed forever, his attitude when he was released caused me to wonder what exactly had been running through his mind while he was enshrouded by darkness. Adair is a truly evil man, one who thinks of how best to use his minions and then toss them aside once they’ve fulfilled their duties. Now he’s on the hunt, and Lanore knows it. She can hear the shrieking in her brain that tells her that he is free, and that’s enough to send her flying to destinations halfway around the globe in search of a way to destroy him forever.

But despite Adair’s wish to tear Lanore limb from limb, there’s a stronger desire in him to capture her heart and make her love him. A new side to Adair, that’s for sure. But his motives still seem sinister, and when he wants something, nothing can stop him. For Adair, to love is to give up power, something that he refuses to do and something that he cannot do easily. His love is like a leech, sucking and swallowing souls whole and leaving the remnants behind. As he calculates just how to trap his supposed soul mate, a vicious streak comes out that binds another unwitting human to him forever, but this time, the human can manipulate things for Adiar that he never thought possible.

Adair has been trapped in his prison for many hundreds of years. When he escapes, the world is very different than the one he left behind. There are vehicles without horses traversing the roads, and people carry phones with them at all times. What, Adair wonders, are these phones for? Let’s not even get started with what happens the first time Adair sees the Internet. He is a man out of time, an escapee who will have what he wants, despite the cost, be it large sums of money or human life. Lanore is not safe, and knowing this, she leaves Luke to be free and not in danger like herself.

Lanny has changed too. Once a fine thief and seducer, she has narrowed her proclivities to furnishing art houses all over the world with her treasures and finding a second life with Luke. She is still, and always, grieving over Jonathan, but this hurt hasn’t prevented her from loving again, though the love is unconventional. She is a truth seeker and wishes to live in the light, but due to the foolhardy trust that she places in a band of old friends, she finds herself in a place where no one can help her and where she is at Adair’s mercy. A deliciously creepy and haunting atmosphere comes chiming out of this novel, bursting forth with violence, cruelty, and sabotage. Will Lanny ever escape the torments that her lover and torturer have for her?

I found this second installment of The Taker Trilogy to be just as breathtaking as the first, and was on tenterhooks watching Lanny being led about by her feelings, only to discover that she had been duped more viciously than I had expected. But there’s another book on the way, and I, for one, am rooting for Lanny and Luke to take down this hellion of a man—though it’s bound to come at a steep price. If you haven’t read these books, you are truly missing out on something great. Highly Recommended!

Thursday, April 25, 2013

From the Kitchen of Half Truth by Maria Goodin — 352 pgs

Meg May is a woman of facts. As a scientist, she finds the real and resolute comforting and orderly. Meg’s behavior as an adult has been a way of coping with her mother’s tendency for outlandish storytelling. Meg has grown up hearing stories about how she was so sweet that neighbors borrowed her to dip her toes in their tea, and how, as a small baby, she would not grow and had to be put into a warm oven after ingesting a teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda. These stories, while charming, are not the answers that Meg wants when she questions her mother about her childhood, and her mother refuses to be forthcoming. But the time is growing late for all the stories Meg so desperately needs to feel whole, for Meg’s mother is dying. Arriving at her cottage for what will be her last summer, Meg tries wholeheartedly to get her mother to finally reveal the secrets of her birth and childhood, all to no avail. Meg’s handsome boyfriend insists that Meg’s mother is trying to pull a fast one on her, leaving her confused and out of the loop. But as Meg discovers clue after clue about her mother’s life before and immediately after her birth, she discovers that the painful truth isn’t half as beautiful or digestible as the stories that her mother concots. For Meg’s mother, it’s only a matter of time before the truth comes out, and when it does, it has consequences so far reaching and tenuous that Meg may wish that she never started investigating at all.

I fell into this book with ease and rapidity, for along with the fable-like stories that Meg’s mother, Val, told her, there were vast sections that were devoted to food and gardening. It was a bit like Sarah Addison Allen’s books in that there was magic on the pages but the book never veered into magical realism. Val’s stories of Meg’s life were vastly entertaining and fun, and I found myself wishing that I had had that kind of childhood, where fact blended with fantasy to form the perfect melange of unique flavor and sparkling moments.

There was also romance, but of a rather different nature than most books. Meg is happy with her boyfriend, Mark, who is an outstanding scientist and who loves the facts and truth much more than any character that I have ever seen. But I found Mark to be a blowhard, and it was increasingly difficult to like the man who insisted that Val was purposely deceiving Meg to keep the truth from her. As difficult as it was for Meg to watch her mother die, it was even more difficult to have Mark at her side, viciously smearing the memories of her mother into an ugly paste of lies and deceit.

It seemed that Val’s only friend, aside from Meg, was the gardiner, Ewan. Ewan was a kind of nutty character, but he was a great nut and a lot of fun on the page. He talked to the apple trees to make them grow. He kindly told the slugs not to eat the lettuce, and he doted on Meg’s mother, who filled his belly with lovely treacle tarts and sticky homemade buns. I liked that he was practical yet still whimsical, and when Meg needed someone to talk to about Val, he was all ears. He was a great character and I had a lot of respect for him. Ewan and Meg had a difficult relationship, full of stormy battles, but he was a man that could and did deserve her trust.

This was a tale about identity and the lack of it that some people always feel. It was a novel where secrets were imbued with magic to take their sting and potency away, and where the unbelievable is scattered with truth to form the essence of what it was like for a young mother to raise a daughter alone and still have her come out to be whole, successful, and loving. It was a beautiful book that I would love to read again, and for those readers who are looking for some “comfort food” reading, this would be perfect. An outstanding read, highly recommended.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan — Audiobook Review

Recorded by Blackstone Audio
Read by Cassandra Campbell, Julia Whelan, and Danny Campbell
Length: 12 hours 15 minutes

When Antoinette and Marie van Goethem find themselves in dire straits after the death of their father, they cannot look to their mother for assistance, for she is caught at the bottom of the absinthe bottle. It’s up to the girls to provide for the household and they initially find work at the ballet. But the work there is hard and long, and though one has success, the other sets her sights on other occupations. When Marie finds herself being coddled by Edgar Degas, she agrees to model for him, eventually becoming the model for his statue Little Dancer of Fourteen Years. Soon Marie finds herself a wealthier patron and becomes aware of some of the darker and seedier sides of the ballet. Meanwhile, the headstrong Antoinette finds love and danger when she begins to shun the ballet and head off with Émile Abadie, a man who may or may not be a murderer. But Antoinette will not believe this of her Émile and comes to form strong opinions and objections when she is cautioned about him. Marie, however, is bound to the stage and to the patron who feels as though she is his personal plaything. Will Antoinette and Marie ever truly be free to live as girls ought and not as their horrible past has dictated? With grace and spirit, Cathy Marie Buchanan captures all the drama and vices that 1878 Paris is so richly steeped in and brings her characters into sharp relief among the Paris of the past.

When I read all the rave reviews for this book, I knew that I had to listen to it, and the experience was just right. Narrated by a cast of three, the book is primarily narrated by Cassandra Campbell, who voices Marie. Other chapters are read by Julia Whelan, voicing Antoinette, and Danny Campbell, who voices the interludes. Each voice had perfect French pronunciation and each seemed to embody the character that they were playing. Campbell’s voice (Marie) took on a dejected and sad quality, full of angst and wonderment at her supposed success, while Whelan (Antoinette) was high-strung and spirited, full of contempt at times yet readily sympathetic when it came to her sister. Campbell only played a small part and his vocal style was more authoritarian and removed. Of the three, he was my least favorite.

Though there are only two girls focused on in the tale, in reality there are three, for at home with their drunken mother is little Charlotte, only eight. It’s not her tale that’s explored, but often I found myself thinking about her and what life was like for her. The girls’ mother was a professional wheedler and often sent her daughters to do what she should have done herself, which is to work and take care of the family. Most of the time she was abusive and drunken, and would greedily take all the girls had earned to buy her beloved absinthe. In her abuse of power, the girls lay defenseless, and they became the fodder for all sorts of base proclivities.

When Maire begins to model for Degas, she thinks it’s an honor that he bestows on her, but in reality, he’s capturing her formidable brow and shrunken chin and proclaiming her, without words, inferior. He paints her and sculpts her, noting that her skull is that of one with a criminal mind, not the beautiful ballerina that she sees herself to be. But she soon finds another man to become her patron, and it’s he who takes the innocence that Marie has already found shaken and tramples it to the dust. She will become a ballerina, yes, but at what cost? For Marie is a good and gentle girl, but the darkness that others see in her is only a reflection of their own souls.

Antionette finds ballet too demanding and boring, and soon she is being swayed under the ministrations of Émile Abadie, a young man who seems to be a dandy but in reality is a dangerous fraud. He plays with Antoinette's heart and gladly gives her the love she gets from nowhere else, but in his arms Antoinette feels free. It’s only when she can deny no longer that he is corrupt that her heart breaks, and she freely wears her badge of pain. It’s not her struggle to love Émile, but to survive with her sisters. Though she’s headstrong and brash, she will come to find salvation in the things that once tore her apart.

I liked this audiobook, but didn’t love it. Perhaps I would have enjoyed it more in print. Though it was compelling and forceful, it left me wanting, and I hated the fact that Antoinette and Marie were so maligned throughout the story. I think readers who like historical fiction and particularly fiction about Paris or ballet would love it, but for me, the story that was narrated perfectly failed to move me as I expected it to.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Defiant Heart by Marty Steere — 400 pgs

The year is 1941, and fifteen year old Jon Meyer has just lost both parents and his younger brother in an auto accident. With no other living relatives, Jon is sent to live with his maternal grandmother, whom he has never met, in a small Indiana town. Once there, Jon is shunned by his grandmother and the townsfolk, for he is the only Jewish resident, and at this critical time in history, Jews are not universally accepted. Jon goes through torment after torment when the school’s basketball coach takes a serious dislike to him, garnering him the hate and ostracism of the basketball team and ultimately the whole student body. But one person doesn’t hate Jon, and this person is a leading citizen’s only daughter, Mary. As Jon sets about trying to make something out of his much-maligned reputation, he meets a few very caring strangers and suddenly has the respect and friendship that he has been looking for.When Jon and Mary begin a secret relationship, both are elated, but when the head basketball player, Vernon King, takes notice, he decides that Jon’s star has risen high enough. Vernon sets about to destroy the boy in a manner that puts Mary right in the middle. Through a series of unprincipled events, young Jon finds himself living the Army life. Here, Jon finds a niche and becomes an unlikely hero. But will he ever see Mary again and return to the town as the golden boy that he truly is? In this compelling and dramatic novel, Marty Steere creates the rich and bittersweet tale of a boy hated for something that he cannot change or control, and forced to give up his freedom and love to a group of unholy enemies.

This book had me at the opening scene. A young orphan arrives at the train depot to a waiting woman who has already decided to hate him. But it’s not that simple, for Jon is a boy with an extraordinary talent for fixing what’s wrong in people’s lives. He’s charming and charismatic, but this does nothing for him because of his ancestry. It was very hard to read about Jon’s plight, for it was shameful and felt almost too true to be fiction. It’s true that before the United States’ involvement in the war, there were precious few friends of the Jews. I never fully realized the impact this had on American Jews, nor how they might have been treated before America stepped into the showdown with Germany.

Though very dark and gritty, this was a book that was shot through with glimmers of hope so bright that I could not help but root for this underdog and hope that he had the might to endure until his time came. Jon was not totally alone, and this gave me heart. There were a few people that cared for him, and even loved the boy who was so hated. Even Jon’s grandmother, Marvella, began to see that this was a boy like no other, and that he deserved a place in her heart. For Mary, there was no other. The love between them was electric yet innocent, and though the odds were tremendous that they would never be together, it was impossible not to wish for that outcome.

When Jon enters the war, I finally saw the beleaguered boy turn into a man that any American could and should be proud of. His losses were devastating, but somehow he rose above the hurt and powerlessness again and again. He was brave and loyal, strong and commanding. This was a story about wars—the hateful wars fought against a boy in his hometown and across the skies of Europe as well. It was not only suspenseful, but hearty, and kept its tight narrative structure for the entirety of the novel. Full of unexpected twists and turns, there was no way to put this one down, for I never knew where the next punch would land or who would be throwing it.

I loved this book, but its title may lead people to believe that it’s only a silly love story, when in fact it’s so very much more. It left me with a myriad of feelings from helplessness to pride, and every step I took with Jon was filled with the knowledge that I was being lead into a rousing and compelling tapestry of inner strength, redemption, and spirit. Looking for something a little off the beaten path that will keep you inveigled and tightly gripped? Then look no further. Highly recommended!

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Something About Sophie by Mary Kay McComas — 320 pgs

When Sophie Shepard gets a call from a strange man asking her to visit him on his deathbed, she is at first confused and then reluctant. Discovering him already gone to the great beyond when she arrives only leaves her with more confusion. But the ultimate shocker comes when this stranger bequests his family’s home to her, leaving Sophie as the object of much gossip and speculation in the community. At first, Sophie thinks she’s finally found some clues to her adoption which happened almost 30 years ago, but that avenue quickly disappears and she’s left with more questions than answers. The newcomer in town does raise many eyebrows, and none more important than Dr. Drew McCarren, a handsome young scion of the town’s most prominent family. Before Drew and Sophie can explore any romantic feelings they may or may not have for each other, danger comes and leaves its calling card. First a man is murdered in front of the bed and breakfast where Sophie is staying, and it only gets stranger from there. What is the secret that Sophie’s benefactor wanted to relate to her, and why is it getting people maimed and killed? In this women’s fiction novel with a great dose of mystery, Sophie discovers the truth that she so desperately needs to know, despite the fact that reopening old wounds will take down many of the town’s biggest players and ruin the lives of those who have kept silent for so long.

This was a book that was easy to slip into and just as easy to like. Sophie, a kindergarten teacher with chutzpah, was a formidable character, and the whole book, while being serious, had a great comedic flair that I really enjoyed. The mystery was very complex and layered, and there was no way to figure it out easily. When the ball finally dropped on what was going on in this sleepy little town, I was stunned and stymied. It was a very satisfying and rich read that kept me wondering and speculating the whole way through.

One of the things that impressed me most about this book was the fact that the characters were very three dimensional and most of them were likeable. Even the evil characters didn’t get short shrift in this department, and there was more than one side to them than originally seen. It also seems like McComas has a really well developed sense of comic timing, and at times I must have looked silly grinning at the pages of this enthralling and at times pulse racing mystery.There were enough thrills and dead ends to keep the reader guessing and then second guessing as things played out in a very different direction. The town’s characters helped this book along in that they were so colorful that you cared about what happened to them, and they were so likeable that you wanted a good outcome for all of them.

The love story was also a really well written component of this story, with things being innocent enough for a YA audience to appreciate but still nuanced and deep enough to satisfy an adult audience. The relationship between Drew and Sophie was tender and protective, but also very romantically comedic in a win you over way, instead of a “Three’s Company” way. Sophie was a beautiful and genuinely nice girl, but she didn’t flaunt her beauty or throw temper tantrums, and Drew’s playful and gentle side really came out when he was with her. Both of them fit together like hand in glove to form a team that was virtually unstoppable.

I thought this was a really engaging read from top to bottom, and with its ability to make me laugh and its stellar plot, it’s a book that I would recommend and would appeal to a wide audience. I had fun with it and it was a great escapist read, which is something that all of us need now and then. Recommended!

Author Photo About the Author

Mary Kay McComas started her writing career twenty-five years ago. To date she’s written twenty-one short contemporary romances and five novellas; Something About Sophie is her third novel. She was born in Spokane, Washington, and now lives in a small town in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley of Virginia with her husband, three dogs, a cat, and her four children nearby.

Find out more about Mary Kay at her website and connect with her on Facebook.

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

Tuesday, March 26th:Kritters Ramblings
Wednesday, March 27th:Book of Secrets
Thursday, March 28th:Under My Apple Tree
Monday, April 1st:Mom in Love With Fiction
Tuesday, April 2nd:5 Minutes for Books
Wednesday, April 3rd:A Book Geek
Thursday, April 4th:she treads softly
Monday, April 8th:Raging Bibliomania
Tuesday, April 9th:Tiffany’s Bookshelf
Wednesday, April 10th:Speaking of Books
Thursday, April 11th:I’m Booking It

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Like Chaff in the Wind by Anna Belfrage

When we last left Matthew and Alex, they had fallen into each other’s arms to live a simple life on their manor in 1644 Scotland. But when Matthew travels into the city one morning to hear the king’s message to his people, he is inconspicuously abducted and thrown onto a ship bound for the colonies as an indentured slave. Though Matthew insists that he is a free man and has committed no crime, he is treated brutally on the tobacco plantation, Suffolk Rose, in Jamestown. Alex knows that something isn’t right when Matthew doesn’t come home so she quickly finds out what his nefarious nemesis has done and leaves her young son behind to follow on ship to the colonies to find and rescue her beloved husband. But Alex’s journey is not a fast or easy one, and time is running out for Matthew, who is starving, beaten and worked like an animal. Will the two lovers ever be reunited, and will Matthew’s enemy pay for what he has done to an innocent man? In this beguiling and fast paced sequel to A Rip in the Veil, two lovers will be ripped apart in a scheme that will leave readers shocked, angered, and outraged.

I have to hand it to Anna Belfrage. Not only does she manage to captivate her readers with the plot of her tales, it’s hard to resist her characters as well, both for their incongruities and their pervasive courage and wit. This is a series that has had me on tenterhooks as a reader, wondering where it would go next and how the characters would overcome overwhelming odds to be reconnected and reunited. I guess it goes without saying that I am eagerly awaiting the next installment!

When Matthew doesn’t return home after a day in town, Alex is instantly suspicious. After all, their enemy has promised that he will kill and maim in return for the damage that was done him, which I must admit was substantial. But in Matthew’s defense, this man had it coming. Though Matthew only wants to live out a life of peace and love with his Alex, this seems almost impossible with both members of the couple in constant danger and always looking over their shoulder. But when Alex discovers that Matthew has been kidnapped and sold into slavery, she is thrown into a desperate conundrum, for she has a child at home who is just a baby, and a trip to the colonies could take a year or more.

As it turns out, Alex’s journey takes far longer than necessary, and it’s only the hope that she nourishes in her heart that keeps her going, missing the love and company of both her child and her husband. Alex thinks no more of the past that she left, only of the future and what it’s going to take to save Matthew. With her travelling companion, the wry and extremely adept Mrs. Gordon, Alex makes the crossing from Scotland to Jamestown, knowing that every day her husband comes closer and closer to death. And life for Matthew is indeed dangerous, as he has been singled out for the most cruel work and punishments, his life and energy flickering away each day.

Belfrage manages to do much with her material, covering themes of indentured slavery, revenge, governmental injustice, and cruelty. In her capable hands these topics are not only explored in depth, but given the touches of humanism that make the modern reader not only outraged, but seething for justice to be done for those souls who are just as tortured as Matthew. It’s a dark tale, and one that manages to expose what life was really like in the colonies back then, and it made me enraged and left me endlessly hoping that Alex would come to claim Matthew before it was too late. But as always, there is a price to be paid, and it is unfortunately very steep. Love and devotion pit themselves against rage and abuse in this breathtaking tale of injustice and its long lasting effects.

I love these books, and think that Anna Belfrage is an author of extreme talent, for she makes her female protagonists smart, strong and very independent, while making her male characters willing to bend instead of breaking. If you haven’t experienced these books yet, I must say that you can find them very reasonably priced for ereaders, and believe me, once you get sucked in, you will never want to leave this very real, and very vivid world of the past. Highly recommended!

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Friday, March 29, 2013

A Rip in the Veil by Anna Belfrage — 378 pgs

When Alex Lind’s car breaks down in the middle of nowhere on the way to a meeting in Scotland, she has no idea what will happen next or what will become of her career if she misses this most important of meetings. Before she knows it, Alex is in the middle of a terrible storm and a lightning bolt hits her and drags her towards a gaping maw in the center of the earth—a hole that was not there before and is not there afterwards. When she awakes, she’s discovered by a man on the run. Matthew Graham is a captive of the crown who has escaped his prison and is still wanted for being on the wrong side of the king. But when Matthew explains to Alex that the year is 1658 and not 2002, there are very colorful outbursts from both sides. It seems that Alex’s mother was a very powerful witch who was adept at creating just the kind of time portal that Alex has just fallen into, and once someone disappears down one, they are never seen in their own time again. To make matters worse, Matthew’s status as a wanted man complicates things in a rather unique way. The soldiers  hunting them are not simple, and it will take an awful lot of outwitting before Alex and Matthew can make their way to his manor. But before that, there is the little matter of the intense attraction they feel for one another: she for a man who’s strong and capable, and he for this mysterious and headstrong lassie who can best some men in a fight. In this first volume of a new series by Anna Belfrage, two very different people will become one, but not in the ways you would think, and the magic that brought them together also threatens to tear them apart. Historically fascinating and spellbindingly alluring, A Rip in the Veil is not only entertaining but fast paced and surprisingly unique as well.

I know, I know, some of you are screaming “Jamie and Claire,” but this is definitely not at all like Jamie and Claire. Though there are some commonalities, the books do deviate rather wildly from the very beginning, and Alex Lind is no Claire at all, while Matthew Graham isn’t a stand-in for Jaime. I loved the Outlander books and would have been offended had the author tried to pen her own series that took off on them, and to my delight, she did not. This book is original both in its tone and in its pacing. The demons that Matthew must fight are very real and the danger is a lot closer to home than one would think. Alex is a very real and intriguing character as well. She’s a blackbelt in karate and is as headstrong as a bull. I found that though I love Outlander, there is a place in my heart for this series as well.

Alex’s mother, Mercedes, isn’t what she claimed to be all those years of raising her daughter. In reality, she’s a time walking witch who has had to do battle with some serious foes whom she has trapped in time and who are now after Alex for answers. A few of these hauntingly ferocious men have also made their way to Alex Lind’s unexpected destination. This leaves Alex to confess the whole story to Matthew. He has no trouble believing that the woman who fell from the sky dressed in skin tight breeches might have a few enemies that have chosen to follow their prey. As Alex and Matthew become closer, so do their respective foes, and there is never a dull moment when it comes to the lives of these two. One has problems that haunt her from the past while the other has problems that threaten to take over his future.

The love story in this tale was refreshing, because Alex is a modern woman, and as a modern woman, she isn’t afraid to seduce the protective Matthew, who can’t seem to understand why she isn’t quiet and complacent, and doesn’t do as she’s told. There are many thunderstorms in this relationship, as Alex is not afraid to tell Matthew when he’s acting like an ass or when she finds his behavior unacceptable. She is an enigma to him. Though she will sometimes do as he requests, there’s no ordering her around and no getting her under his thumb. She just will not have it. As the lovers struggle, they come closer and closer to the truth behind what’s got them both running. His secrets and hers together are enough to put a serious wrench in their plans, but since Alex has no present to return to, she must take him for all he is worth, and give of herself in return.

This was a wily and fun book that I didn’t expect to keep me so invested or entertained. I loved the sparks that flew from this couple, and I loved that the “bad guys” were so cleverly engineered. They weren’t implausible, instead they were right in your face and coming for the duo with both guns blazing. There was also a great degree of historical accuracy to the tale as well, which was fascinating to read. Suffice to say that I learned a lot about the Scots during the rule of the lords and during the rule of the king. This book was a clever melding of the past and the present, and instead of having a dual narrative, Belfrage ties it all together in one story. It’s a twisted and clever tale she tells, and her narrative timing and originality make this a read that one can enjoy for escape and enjoyment.

If you walk into this one thinking that it’s just another Jamie and Claire retake, you will be totally mistaken. The characters will see to it that there is just no comparing the two, as will the storyline. It was the perfect book for me to sink my teeth into after the more serious books that I had been reading, and its plot was ever revolving and all consuming. I’m happy to say that I have the second installment, Like Chaff in the Wind, right here, and it will be happily devoured very soon. An excellent read that pits some very unusual characters for and against one another. Recommended!

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Skinnydipping by Bethany Frankel — Audiobook Review

Recorded by Simon and Schuster
Narrated by January LaVoy
Length: 12 hours 2 minutes

Faith Brightstone is convinced that she is going to make it big in L.A. Her dreams of success, money and handsome eligible bachelors are soon quashed when she realizes that Hollywood wants someone other than who she is. When she finally lands an acting job, she discovers the sleazy side of Hollywood and is off in a flash, back to New York to begin anew. Fast forward five years, and Faith is flourishing in her own way, with a bakery that serves the finest muffins New York has ever tasted. And in a moment of pure luck, her charisma and muffins attract a television producer at food festival. The producer has the dream of a lifetime for Faith. Would she like to be on a reality television show hosted by the domestic goddess, Sybil Hunter? There is no hesitation for Faith, and soon she is back in L.A. with a motley assortment of other contestants vying for their own television show on Sybil’s network. But the tasks assigned to Faith are harder than she can ever imagine, and her new housemates on the show are not only volatile, but also sly and nefarious. Add to this a seductive but elusive gentleman that not only shows interest in Faith but is filthy rich in his own right, and Faith has got her hands and mind full. Full of endless possibilities. Full of romance. And most of all, full of dreams to land her own cooking show on Sybil’s network. Like the firecracker that she is, Faith is determined to keep up appearances, but for some reason, Sybil seems to be taking Faith’s ambition as an assault upon her senses. Faith struggles and struggles, while contestant after contestant are packed up and sent home. Will Faith really get her dream and have it all? Or will it all comes crashing down around her, ending her dreams of fame and fortune?

There once was a time, when reality shows were new on the scene, that I just couldn’t get enough of them. Those days were long ago. Now, I know that there are millions out there who love a good reality show, but these days, I just don’t seem to have the time for them anymore. I guess that’s why I was so surprised at how exciting and vibrant this book was. I thought I had seen it all, but Frankel is so skilled at creating the perfect combination of drama, romance and hijinks that I couldn’t stop listening to this wonderful book. In the past, I’ve had problems with January LaVoy’s narration, but for this book, she was a natural fit. She was Faith, in all her potty mouthed, exuberant splendor. I loved her narration and felt that, unlike her other efforts, she wasn’t stretching into the bounds of the unbelieveable or the smugly coy.

Faith is a big girl with big dreams, and like so many who go to L.A. to make their fortunes, Faith just can’t seem to get a callback. She’s not shy, that’s for sure, but something about her doesn’t translate into television or movie material. Her naiveté in the matters of Hollywood make her easy to manipulate, and when she finds herself in a soft porn movie shoot, she knows her dreams are not about to come true and leaves before she can be set up again. Her departure leaves her broken-hearted and bitter, and Faith decides that Hollywood is just not for her.

Back in New York, Faith seeks to cast out her dreams by recreating herself and her image, and she does it in a way that nobody ever expected. Faith has always loved to bake, and her muffins are a hit with friends and family alike. This gives the battered Faith confidence, and on a whim, she decides to buy a bakery and produce her muffins for all of New York to devour. It’s here that she meets a handsome stranger, one who will consume her thoughts, even when she’s immersed in her work. Though Faith hasn’t made it in Hollywood, she will make it here. Her tenacity and grit begin to shape her in ways that she can’t yet understand or appreciate. I loved her gumption, and I loved that she never even knew she had it.

At a local food fair, Faith’s muffins are a hit! So much so, that she runs out of samples and begins to take orders to fill coffee houses all over New York. But it’s the three strangers who approach her that change her future forever. In what feels like a whirlwind, Faith is on her way back to L.A. to endure the hellish reality show that will leave one contestant very rich and very successful. But it's also where Faith’s true mettle will be tested and where people will betray her like never before. Before Faith even realizes it, a scandal breaks out around her and her place as a contestant is jeopardized. And as Sybil becomes more and more unmanageable and cruel, Faith must work harder and harder to become the final contestant, the last man standing. Raw emotion and hard work become Faith, and her trials only make her stronger, but sometimes even her best efforts don’t seem like enough for the harsh taskmaster, Sybil. In Faith, desire, diligence and even a few dirty tricks crystalize her resolve to be the last contestant.

There’s so much to this book that I’m leaving out because it’s just too juicy and fun to ruin for potential readers. It had me hooked so deeply that I couldn’t even sit still while I was listening. LaVoy does a great job with voicing so many other characters that I was amazed. And the story was so full of sharp and witty escapades that I felt enlivened listening to it. It’s the perfect read for your beach bag, and though it’s a tremendously intriguing read, there’s also room for genuine emotion and love. You will love Faith Brightstone, and cheer for her all the way... but watch out for that calculating Sybil Hunter. She’s an enemy worthy of hissing at and jeering at every turn. An enormously fun and entertaining book. Very highly recommended!

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Abide with Me by Sabin Willet — 384 pgs

Roy Murphy has just returned from a hellish tour in Afghanistan to a hometown that gave up on him long ago. Roy was the town’s miscreant, always finding himself in the pit of trouble. When, years ago, he was caught with a gun trying to kill a man, Roy was written off for good by the others in the town. Everyone except Emma Herrick. Emma is the town sweetheart: beautiful, smart and ambitious. It’s the fire in Roy that pulls Emma towards him like a moth, despite the fact that her parents are furious over her choice of Roy. Just when their love starts to flower, Roy makes the decision to go off to war, and Emma leaves him behind for good—or so she thinks. On the eve of her engagement party, Roy, just discharged from the service, comes calling for the woman he never forgot. While Emma remains unmoved on the surface, inside her the fire still burns. When Roy discovers that Emma’s childhood home is up for auction, he buys it and agrees to let her mother, who is suffering from dementia, live there for a time. Roy doesn’t know what he wants or needs, and neither does Emma. As they fight over the past and the future, Emma’s new husband hangs back, awaiting the news that she will leave him. But on a night like no other, a desperate accident takes place and the consequences and scars are many. It will be a night that changes Emma and Roy’s lives forever. A compelling retake on Wuthering Heights, Sabin Willet brings forbidden romance into desperate play with shocking violence that trembles with fury from the great house on the hill.

Wuthering Heights is the book that readers love to hate. It’s a very complicated and detailed look at the deconstruction of two people who are just not good for each other and the havoc that they wreak on each other’s lives. It was a book that I couldn’t put down, and for that reason, I chose to review Abide with Me, which held many of the same hallmarks of the original yet was still very versatile and new. It was a book that was rich in its darkness and very impressive in its plot revolutions. Roy Murphy is the modern day Heathcliff. He’s dark, edgy, and he loves from a deep part of himself that chooses never to share with the people around him. His love is brooding and bruising.

Emma has never stopped being the good girl. Her folly with Roy was just that, and now she has moved on to remove the tarnish from her family’s name with a high power career and a husband who is calm, steady and neutral. Emma hides her love for Roy so deeply inside herself that even she has been unaware of it for so long. But the night that he shows up at the engagement party, things begin to unravel for her. She tries to avoid him, to hate him, and to remove any impact from her life that he may have. But in her heart, she knows she can’t avoid him forever, and takes herself far from him to remove temptation. Roy is like a cancer that grows and grows inside her, feeding off old memories and new improvements. He is the seed in her that is hidden under the frost, waiting to bloom.

Like Wuthering Heights, this book is a tragedy, but not in the traditional ways one might think. There are new worries: financial solvency, PTSD, and the cruel way that Roy deals with the people in his life, even, sometimes, Emma. But there is light here too. Roy’s love for his commander, who becomes a father figure to him and teaches him to delight in the knowledge that he was so void of before. His undying passion for a woman who he knows he should not have, and the woman that comes between them like a splinter of rebuke. It’s a well built tale, and one that modern readers can relate to.

I thought this book was extremely well crafted and that it took a very sharp deviation from the original story of Wuthering Heights, but it remained, in essence, a transfixing book that was not only resplendent in love but in suffering as well. If you haven’t read Wuthering Heights, this makes no difference. One book can be enjoyed without the other, but if you do read both, you will see the modern day equivalent of a masterpiece of literature.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin — 448 pgs

William Talmadge is an orchardist of great talent. Living on his own among his trees, he has found peace in solitude. But one day, Talmadge espies two young girls at the edge of his land, and before he knows it, they have been in his pantry while he was tending his trees and have made off with his food. But these shy and strange girls don’t run away; They come to live just at the edge of the land, where Talmadge leaves food for them each day and night. When he discovers the young girls are pregnant, Talmadge longs to give them shelter and respite. But these girls are from another life, a life of abuse and deprivation, and they never find themselves entering the domicile that Talmadge offers them. They prefer to live under the stars and eat the proffered food that Talmadge brings. When the girls, who are found to be sisters, go into labor, there are many complications and only one of the babies survives. Believing themselves free of their onerous past, the girls come to find life almost pleasant at Talmadge’s orchard. But the past won’t let them go so easily, and there are men coming who will change the course of their lives forever. On that day both sisters are lost, though one will take years to discover it. But the babe, Angeline, will be Talmadge’s one consolation through the bitter years to come. Powerfully gripping and utterly transfixing, The Orchardist is a tale that will leave your soul blistered and your mind captivated by the elegant and powerful tale that Coplin spins up and throughout the trees of the orchard.

I finished this book last week, and still it lingers on my mind. Its simple power and raw story leave me wondering and hoping—sad and still clinging to the life of the orchardist who gave his everything to these girls, and then to Angeline. The robustness of the plot carried forth a tale of hideous abuse mingled with gentle compassion and filled me with tenderness for all of the characters, be they soft and gentle or hard and unforgiving. It was a story fraught with mind bending realities and unspoken grief, and it touched me to the core. There are not many books that draw out this level of emotion in me, and I will try to explain why.

Talmadge is damaged. As a young child, he was left orphaned with his young sister who soon went missing. He never forgot that loss and never stopped looking for her. This is why, when the girls appear, Talmadge comes to life, in a way. He wants to give to them all the things that his sister never received; he wants to love again. But these are badly damaged girls: confused, frightened and full of fire. They are difficult to love and even harder to manage. Talmadge comes to them with open hands and a heart full of kindness, but they can’t see it. They will never be able to see the power of the orchardist who holds their lives in his hands.

As the girls come closer and closer to delivering their babies, they wander away, trying to give birth by themselves, only to be rescued and brought back to Talmadge, where tragedy strikes. Angeline is the only surviving baby, and loved like a daughter by Talmadge. In his love there is a gentle protectiveness, a proclivity to spoil, and a heart full of wonder at the child that both girls neglect. It’s a ruinous day when the girls discover their hunter has never given up on them, and finds them in the orchard with Talmadge. He does what he can, but fate has its plans and the winds of change are in the air. Heavy with sorrow, he cannot save them, and they find themselves far away from the loving protectiveness of Talmadge, that one will come to crave later in her life.

As Angeline grows, she becomes a constant helpmate to her “father,” but as he ages, he sees things that he should never see, for one of the girls has been badly treated and seems to exist only to torment her tormenter. It’s the steady hand and quiet ways of Talmadge that save Angeline, that set her above the fate of her mother, that give her the courage to look into her past and come away unscathed. Although Talmadge tries to do the same, guilt and shame mire him in their traps and he finds himself in two frames of mind: one of sorrow for the girls and one of hope for Angeline.

This book had a power like no other. It was vast and limitless yet quiet and desolate. It was a story that bent like the branches of the trees into twisted and gnarled canopies, graced with beautiful fruit that became it like jewels in a crown. This was by far the best book I’ve read in years, and though it made me cry, it also made me feel peace as the last page was turned. Very highly recommended.

Author Photo About the Author

Amanda Coplin was born in Wenatchee, Washington. She received her BA from the University of Oregon and MFA from the University of Minnesota. A recipient of residencies from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and the Omi International Arts Center at Ledig House in Ghent, New York, she lives in Portland, Oregon.

Find out more at Amanda's website and connect with her on Facebook

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

Tuesday, March 5th:Book Club Classics!
Thursday, March 7th:Book Snob
Friday, March 8th:Unabridged Chick
Tuesday, March 12th:A Bookish Affair
Thursday, March 14th:Cerebral Girl in a Redneck World
Friday, March 15th:5 Minutes For Books
Saturday, March 16th:Unabridged Chick
Monday, March 18th:The Betty and Boo Chronicles
Tuesday, March 19th:Tiffany's Bookshelf
Wednesday, March 20th:Raging Bibliomania
Thursday, March 21st:Becca's Byline
Monday, March 25th:Amused By Books
Tuesday, March 26th:A Library of My Own
Wednesday, March 27th:Silver's Reviews
Thursday, March 28th:Between the Covers
Monday, April 1st:Lit and Life
Tuesday, April 2nd:Paperback Princess
TBD:The Written World

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Friday, March 15, 2013

The Shadow on the Crown by Patricia Bracewell — Audiobook Review

Recorded by Penguin Audio
Narrated by Katie Firth
Length: 13 hours 40 minutes

The year is 1002, and Emma of Normandy is beginning her trip overseas to become the bride of King Ethelred of England. These are hard years, for England is under the threat of the murderous Danes, and Emma’s bond with Ethelred is England’s main strategy for forging an alliance with Normandy. But what Emma finds when she arrives is a cold and calculating man who is beset and tormented by visions that he cannot escape. Emma, also, cannot escape the hideous attentions of her husband, and it’s clear to all that his only use for Emma is to provide a royal heir. Ethelred is truly desirous of another: one who will do anything to be queen and will try to use might and witchcraft to smite Emma again and again. But the people of England love their new queen and are united by her, which is exactly as Ethelred hopes. Emma must also contend with the other sons of Ethelred, who are covetous of their father’s crown and know that if Emma births a son, they may be disinherited. This court is a venomous and dark place for Emma, and one misstep could have grave consequences for her. But under the king’s vicious proclivities and dark mind, Emma comes to find a kindred soul in the most unlikely of places. As she begins to feel real love for the first time in her life, the greatest of dangers lurks just around the corner, threatening to undo both the kingdom of England and her homeland as well. Fraught with tension and richly dramatic, this is epic historical fiction at its grandest. Emma is a survivor, but can she survive this?

One of the reasons that I was so enticed by this book was because it dealt with a time that I had never before explored: namely, an England before King Henry. This book deals with the very birth of England, when the Danes were a ferocious force that threatened to take over large parts of Normandy, England, and any other place that seduced their senses. It was a dark look at a dark part of history that was not taught to me, where brave men and women fought for a budding nation that had yet to see glory. I was definitely surprised at the way this book ended though, as it seems that it’s going to be a trilogy, and many questions were left unanswered. Katie Firth is the narrator of this thoroughly enthralling tale, and her voice was made for this story. Tight with restrained emotion and abundantly alluring, she tells the tale with superior skill, managing to sound regal and forceful without being overbearing. A better choice could not have been made.

Emma is young when she sets off to forge her father’s alliance, but she is not without courage or resolve. She is headstrong, and will not bend to the king’s will, but thwart it, which reaps grave consequences for her. The king has guilt on his soul and fears that he is being pursued by the ghost of his brother, the rightful heir, who was murdered so that Ethelred could take control. Some believe that he is mad, and I would certainly agree that based on his actions, the king was not sane or fit to run England. King Ethelred saw evil everywhere, even in his innocent wife, and in his fear, he forced her to remain confined, where she would rule only by proxy. Devilish and dangerous, he is a force greater than Emma, whose courage lands her little reward.

There is another woman in this story who will remain unnamed, and it’s this woman who wants to be queen. She believes that prophecy has told her that she will one day rule the land, and does her best to seduce the king and put Emma in the most dangerous situations she can. Her countenance is beautiful, but it hides a heart that is so black and vile that many fear her—and none respect her. It’s her doing that destroys kingdoms, and her cowardly way of slinking away when the damage is done speaks to great character flaws that all but she can see. She is truly the queen’s foil, and she is desperate. Some may even consider her as mad as the king, but her plotting is more queer and dangerous than his could ever be.

Emma is virtually alone in this sea of madness. War is spreading around her like fire when out from the flames comes an ally: one that she never would have counted on, and one who brings with him fierce bravery along with a desire for the queen that is dangerous to both. He is stubborn and willful, yet he is the only one that Emma can trust. No one must know about this love, for it’s forbidden to take anything from the king, and this man especially must watch his moves and motives. All this is crafted in such fine and emboldening suspense that it’s like reading an action novel. There are plotters and heros, the wicked and the damned, but  Bracewell never loses the thread of her story, and keeps it all barely contained in a combustible narrative that will leave readers taking shallow breaths and waiting for the impending disaster to unfold.

I really have to say that this was one of the most finely honed tales of historical fiction that I have ever had the pleasure to listen to. Its driving plot was almost punishing in its alacrity and power, and there was no way that I could predict what was coming next. There is enough darkness and evil in this book to infect everyone, yet there is love and honor as well. If you are new to historical fiction, this is the book for you; if you are not, there is no way you should miss out on what Bracewell has to offer. A more splendid book I couldn’t imagine. Now, where is the sequel?

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Appearances and Other Stories by Margo Krasne — 160 pgs

In Krasne’s debut short story collection, women struggle for love and redemption while battling the bitterness of failed familial relationships, encroaching death, and humbling desire. Most of this collection is given over to several stories that chronicle the life of Alice, a young Jewish girl who slowly grows into an adult as the stories progress. Life for Alice is difficult, for she has to deal with a harping and exceedingly competitive mother and a loutish father. But in a stunning reversal, Alice turns the foibles of her parents back onto themselves and becomes a therapist, after having had much revealed to her over her years of being in the patient’s chair. For Alice’s family, it’s all about the appearance one makes, not what truly goes on behind closed doors. Even her brother is boorish and pigheaded, much like their father, and it's with a firm hand and an emotionally expressive air that Alice deals with it all. The other stories that populate this collection deal with a young woman traveling by train car who has the sudden experience of being recognized and reliving her glory days, while the final and most poignant story deals with a female photographer who, upon discovering that she has cancer, wishes to capture her death on film, forming her last exhibit. Each story is powerful and compelling and effortlessly pulls the reader into the internal dramas and struggles of these women—who are all at very different points in their lives, yet all harbor the same iron will to overpower the things that are clinging to them and pulling them away from their true selves.

This is the first short story collection that I’ve read in two years. It’s not that I don’t like the format, it’s just that sometimes I feel that short stories give me just a taste when I want the whole bowl. It’s hard for me to come to know a character in such a short span of pages, only to be pulled out of their world when the story ends, always too abruptly for my liking. This isn't Krasne’s style. Instead of giving the reader just a taste, she fills her pagespace to the brim, and just when you think the story is over, she tackles it from another angle until all sides are revealed. These interconnected stories, along with the standalones, didn’t leave me hungry for more but instead left me satisfied and full of warmth, and dare I say, sadness.

A third of this book is given over to the life of Alice. Alice is young and unsure of herself, but she knows that her mother is a jealous and possessive woman who, it's later revealed, will justify anything that she does in an attempt to get what she wants. The juvenile Alice finds that her only solace is to retreat and to become passive-aggressive, but as she ages and sees what her mother and father truly are, she comes away from each encroachment stronger and more able to manipulate her own feelings into a sort of reason that defies the pain of her youth. She is loving and caring, but her parents and even her brother feed off of this to provide her with fresh guilt and powerlessness, relegating her to an inferior position that she carefully examines, steps away from, and disowns. It’s hard to read about the neglect and the emotional coldness of her family, but Alice doesn’t dwell on the negative: She finds the solution, while still fully realizing that they are all pitiable creatures.

In the ensuing chapters, Krasne transitions beautifully to short stories that feel like whole and complete sketches that capture both a time and a place under a magnifying glass. The first story is called “At the Algonquin,” and while it tells the tale of a cabaret singer who is recognized on a train many years after her career has ended, underneath it evokes feelings of loss, failed attempts at second chances, and what the heart must face when it settles. it's a story that I read slowly, with a lump in my throat, for all the clues are there if one only looks. “Re-unions” tells the story of a woman picking up a man in a bar for a one night stand, but of course there’s more to it than that: The aching longing of a friendship that seems true but is only one of convenience, the timeless fact that friends grow apart and that they can be manipulated so easily, even when it's not intended. Her stories are like mirages. you look once and see something; yes, there is definitely something there, but then it morphs into something else entirely.

The last story was called “Stopping Time,” and this one broke my heart. When a cancer diagnosis is given to a woman who was once so vital and strong, she retreats into herself and into her mind. Her lover cannot help her and neither can her daughter. it's a series and litany of regret that marches through her mind, and the only thing she can do is what she’s always done: capture it on film so that she can know her own boundaries, and know that this is her final showdown with the camera. Only she isn't the photographer, but the subject, and to her grieving daughter there must be some closure. It was a bleak and heartbreaking story, but one that didn’t overwhelm the reader with maudlin sentiments as most stories like this would have. It was written in a hand that can feel the pressure of heartache but not the overbearing grief that accompanies it. It was brilliant, and when I closed the book, I felt the release of the photographer’s soul slip out of the pages.

If there was ever a short story collection to recommend, this is the one. it's a character driven set, and each character deals with her burdens in a very different yet entrancing way. If there is more from this author in the future, I will be reading it, for her tales took me by surprise and though they were sad, they offered no melancholy or inner turmoil. Just grace. Plain and simple.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Romancing Olive by Holly Bush

At 36, Olive Wilkins is considered a spinster. Living in a small town as a librarian, she watches her days go by, doing her part for the community, but never thinking about love. Then one day a letter arrives letting her know that her brother and his wife have been killed and that her niece and nephew have been left orphaned. When Olive makes haste out to the wilds of Ohio to claim them, she discovers that they have been taken in by a farm owner with his own children, Jacob Butler. Jacob’s wife perished while delivering her last child, and though he is careworn and taciturn, he cares for the brood of children as well as he can. With accommodations being slim, Aunt Olive agrees to stay in Jacob’s home while he sleeps out in the barn. But before long, Jacob is privy to the kind way that Olive has with all the children and the way that she keeps the house and farm orderly and homey. Jacob isn’t looking for love, but his proximity to Olive, and his secret glimpses of the woman that she is underneath all the spinster trappings, is enough to move him to thought. As thought precedes action, Olive begins to be distracted by Jacob as well. It’s not an easy road, for Olive is bossy and domineering, and Jacob is afraid to love and lose again. When an old relative of the childrens’ comes to collect them, all are put at risk, leaving Jacob with feelings of protective love that he hadn’t seen coming. Will Olive and Jacob become as one, as their respective children want them to be, or will their different lives and heartaches keep them apart, to the detriment of both? In this new novel, Holly Bush examines both Olive and Jacob with a searching and tender eye, and sheds new light on what it means to love, in all senses of the word.

This is my second book by Holly Bush. The first, Reconstructing Jackson, was a hit for me, so I thought that I might as well try something else by the author, and was given the chance to review this one as well. This is a very different story than the one told in Reconstructing Jackson. A tale of love yes, but love unbidden, and love that cannot be accepted for what it is by either party. A woman of a certain age, which nowadays we would consider young and vital, Olive is much older than Jacob Butler, and though this concerns her, it doesn’t concern him. What does concern him is the fact that he is not open to concede the feelings he has in his heart for Olive, fearing that he cannot bear to lose any more than he already has. A complex set of problems for one couple to overcome, in addition to the raising of children who are traumatized orphans and motherless.

The book greatly combines the varying stories of the difficulties of love and the problems that Olive has with the children in a melange of humbleness that is interspersed with joy. Mary and John, Olive’s niece and nephew, are being raised by Jacob, but there are savage realities about what their home life was like before the death of their parents. John, in turn, has gone mute, and Mary is rebellious and hardened, like a woman who has seen it all and is jaded. Olive, upon discovering the way they had been raised, is full of undeserved guilt that borders on neurosis. But who is to blame? Olive wants her family, and wants to move them back to Philadelphia, but they are too broken to step beyond the farm that Jacob has lovingly housed them in. Though he is not a sentimental man by any means, he protects and loves Olive’s relatives in the same ways that he does his own motherless children.

In the first half of the book, Olive sets out to do right by all the children, in her spinsterish ways, her hair tied tightly in a bun, glasses at the crook of her nose, and frocks buttoned up to her throat. But soon she eases, and sees that she loves the land, and this love for her new family transforms her into a thing of beauty. She begins to wear simple dress, let loose her long and beautiful hair, and relax into the notion that she could have possibly left too much undone by maintaining her schoolmarmish ways. It is here that Jacob takes notice of the struggling flower in his garden, but he repeatedly holds himself away from her, for fear of her reaction, and his as well.

This couple has a way of dealing with each other that sends sparks flying, for Olive is no shrinking violet. She says what she means and is not afraid to offend. In turn, this stokes Jacob’s anger and refusal to believe that she is a helpmeet or that he and she might be good for one another. Situations eventually come to a head when Olive decides to leave Jacob’s home but not the land she has grown to love, and many comical scenes arise when the townspeople and even Olive’s visiting friend Theda get the wrong impression of what is going on between them. It is a tale of love yes, but that’s only what’s on the surface. Underlying themes of catharsis and resolution come clashing between social propriety and conventions and the owning of one’s feelings.

I liked this book even more than I liked her first, and most of this love was due to Olive. I feel like, in a different time and space, we could be friends, and I was very invested in the relationships that she made and the choices that she eventually faced. A brave woman doesn’t go unnoticed by this reader, and Olive was not only brave but fierce. If you are fond of historical romance with taste, this is the book to read. It was both saddening and funny, and left me reaching for more reads from Holly Bush. Recommended.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Reconstructing Jackson by Holly Bush — 191 pgs

It’s 1867 in Fenton, Missouri, and Reed Jackson has just arrived. After fighting on the losing side of the Confederate War, Reed is now confined to a wheelchair and has been disinherited by his plantation-owning father. Reed’s father, a prejudiced and stalwart man, has decided that his son is unfit to do his family duty, and this necessitates Reed’s removal from the South. When he arrives in Fenton, he is kindly met by his cousin Henry and Henry’s bride, Mary Ellen, who agree to house Reed in their thriving hotel. But before Reed can begin to get a handle on his new life, he is faced with two huge difficulties: namely, the fact that African Americans in the North are treated very differently than in the South, and that the rescue of an abused woman will land Reed in a marriage he had not seen coming. As Reed struggles to unite himself with his new surroundings, he will, at the behest of his new wife, begin to see things in a very different way, leading to a sort of personal growth that he never even dreamed of. But racial tensions are still high in an area where slavery has just been abolished, and there are still men who aim to destroy the fragile peace that exists between the races. What happens one night will change everything for Reed and his wife, and will lead him on a new path of redemption and vengeance upon the faceless men who think and act exactly like the father he escaped.

I've been reading a great many books about racial inequality over the past few months, and although it does educate me in ways that my schooling never did, it also makes me realize that there are so many despicable notions that have permeated through history when it comes to the relations between Caucasians and African Americans. It’s all well and good to say that slavery is over, but as many people doubtlessly realize, the tensions between different ethnic groups still flourishes and stains the world even today. This is one of the reasons that this book was so eye-opening for me. While Reed, a man who is stuck in a wheelchair, has been raised owning slaves all his life and even lost his legs in order to protect that lifestyle, there is a marked growth and understanding that comes to him when he sees and experiences life in the North, where all men are free.

Reed is an angry and disheveled mess when he lands in Fenton, carrying years of regret and hurt with him like the baggage that he wheels along with. He sees things going on in the town that anger him, and he refuses to treat each Freeman with the dignity and respect that he has for his own race. When he meets Beulah Freeman, a Free Woman who manages the hotel owned by his cousin, he is initially rude and discourteous. As Beulah refuses to validate his chastisement and meets him with challenge, he becomes curious about her and begins to treat her with a grudging respect. This is the first change of many that will turn a man from a racially insensitive creature into a full-fledged human being—one who is caring and trusting, and one who goes far out of his way to help someone that Beulah cherishes.

The other catalyst to this story is the arrival of Belle. Belle is a woman who is dirt poor and lives with her abusive father and brothers. Though monetarily disadvantaged, Belle has honor, dignity and dreams for herself. Caught in a trap of her father and brothers’ making, Belle’s only way out of her daily beatings is to marry Reed. What at first seems an act of pity begins to change the lives of everyone in the town, most markedly Reed’s. In the book’s exploration of love as a softening agent, Reed makes decisions that he never thought himself capable of. His heart, once a festering wound, begins to show that thing that we all wish for, self actualization. It’s more than the love for Belle that proves to be his remaking, but the love that he finally grants to himself that gives him the courage to break the bonds of slavery to a life that keeps others as property and evaluates them by the color of their skin. A lifelong promise is what he makes, but what is more important is that he is rebuilt, from stern to soul.

While some of this book made me angry, especially the violence that was perpetrated on African Americans and women, I think the author did a wonderful job immersing herself in the realities of the times and subjects that she sought to capture. There was a sweetness to the changing reflections of Reed and the courage that he demonstrated on behalf of people he would have earlier shunned. It was easy to keep turning the pages and reading because the characters were realistic, and history tells me that they were also accurate. A novel that moved me, despite my initial reluctance.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Monday, March 4, 2013

A White Wind Blew by James Markert — 400 pgs

Waverly Hills isn’t the world’s most compelling Louisville destination during the 1930s, but it’s a popular one due to the severe tuberculosis epidemic going on all over the nation. As a doctor, Wolfgang Pike can’t do much for his patients but give them access to fresh air and perform experimental surgeries on them. But as a man who has music in his soul, he can offer the patients his musical talents, which seems to ease their aching bodies and tortured souls. Wolfgang, once a seminary student headed for the priesthood, finds now that his calling is here, at Waverly Hills, where illness is at an all time high. But things aren’t as easy as they seem for Wolfgang and his patients, for there is a colored hospital just around the hill that is being bombarded with threats from the newly reformed KKK, and his superior, Dr, Barker, is refusing to agree that music therapy is helping the patients. Meanwhile, a new patient arrives in a strange non-communicative state, and for some reason, Wolfgang knows that he will change the direction and the course of the hospital forever. Embarking on a plan to treat the entire hospital to a concert, Wolfgang will be sidetracked by racial tension and violence, ambivalence and hatred, and even the buddings of first love. In this stunning  new novel from author James Markert, a young man at a crossroads in his heart will come to the realization that he can’t save everyone, but the ones he can save will be forever marked upon his heart, and he will come to see that saying “yes” to God might not mean what he thought it meant.

This was a book that took me by surprise with its profundity. When the first chapters were read, I felt unconnected to Wolfgang and his plights, but as I moved further and further through the book, it was impossible not to feel a connection with a man who was so broken, yet who was rapidly trying to assemble himself for the betterment of his patients. Just as the patients were sucuumbing to death at a rapid pace, Wolfgang’s resentments and bitterness were dying as well, and the more Markert revealed about his tragic past, the easier it was for me to see that Wolfgang was beyond a complicated man. He was brave, loyal, and felt guilt to the bottom of his soul for the things that he could not control.

There was a segment in the back of the book about this particular hospital, and conservative estimates place the death toll at around 60,000 when the hospital was at its most active. Markert seeks to explore the ways that the treatment for tuberculosis before the advent of antibiotics was a losing battle, and one that was fought with bravery—for those treating the patients were as likely to contract the disease as not. In this novel, the reader can see just how many lives were impacted, and how the rapidity of the disease ruined families and cast suspicion upon those towns that surrounded Waverly Hills. Portions of this book were rather bleak to read, for the spreading of disease was so random, and often cruel, but Markert made all his characters fully three-dimensional and supplemented fact with fiction to create a tale that was breathtaking.

Wolfgang is not only dealing with the losses and broken relationships and pieces of himself, but also with a racism that is so strong that it threatens his dreams of bringing the hospital unity with the performance that he is struggling to build. He has many willing patients to sing and play instruments, and the fact that so many musicians and vocal talents lived up on the hill should reveal that this disease sought to destroy the lives of all walks of people, not only the poor and destitute. When a heinous racial crime takes the hospital by surprise, it’s Wolfgang and his special patient that keep hearts and minds at the hospital limber and ready to act against a perpetrator that hides among them. There really is so much to say about this book that I can’t do it all here. Secrets, lies and murder battle with confession, truth and forgiveness to produce a balm that strokes the heart in its final movement.

I loved this book, and I really wasn’t sure that I was going to like it very much at all. It does seem to have a bit of a slow start, but readers who will get past that first interlude will find themselves handsomely rewarded for their patience and determination. The questions and answers in this book leave me very reflective, and because of this, I would have to say that in the end, this will probably make one of my favorite books of the year.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Call the Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy and Hard Times by Jennifer Worth — Audiobook Review

Recorded by HighBridge Company
Narrated by Nicola Barber
Length: 12 Hours 2 Minutes

At only 22, Jennifer Worth has decided to become a midwife in postwar London, specifically in the slums of the East End. When she arrives at the convent that will be both her home and her workplace, she meets the eclectic bunch of nuns and trained nurses that will come to be a second family to her as she begins plying her craft to the poor and underprivileged women of the city. Riding out on her bicycle to labors both just beginning and already in progress, Jennifer tells the tales of the remarkable women and babies who show such a zest for life, that she is sometime taken aback. Life in the slums is dirty and most of the women that
Worth sees are badly in need of other types of assistance as well. Each birth she attends is rare, special and beautiful, but there is at times heartbreaking sadness that accompanies her deliveries. From the tiny baby that is so premature that she must take milk wrung one drop at a time out of a towel, to the reproductive health clinic that she must sometimes manage, Jennifer sees it all with newfound awe and sometimes even with amusement. Some of the tasks that she is asked to cope with are gruesome and some are bittersweet, but as she learns to navigate her way on bicycle across the city, in any weather or condition, Jennifer becomes a nurse and midwife of such skill that she sometimes even surprises herself. Interspersed with her birthing tales are the tales of the nuns whom she lives and works with—nuns who range from sly and spirited to diffident and easily offended, Jennifer comes to know and love them all. It is a solid and well told tale, crafting equal bits truth and reflection. Jennifer the midwife will linger in your mind long after the book is put away on its shelf.

When I discovered this audiobook at SIBA, I didn’t know that there was a planned PBS series already underway, and I took that as a good sign. I love it when books become television shows, and know that PBS has a fantastic reputation—just look at Downton Abbey. I was very pleased with this audiobook from start to finish, and thought that Nicola Barber totally embodied Jennifer Worth in this reflective set of tales. Her British accent was flawless and spirited, and she had no trouble in capturing the awe of bringing struggling babes into the world, and also in the jovial way that she captures the voices of the nuns. I liked her delivery, for she was able to handle the soft and tender moments with care, and also the less swanky side of life in the slums. You could hear her voice, gripped with empathy and silent understanding of these women in the way she spoke her tales, and by the time it was all over, I felt very close to both the narrator and the author.

Despite her choice of profession, Jennifer is not a stodgy and overserious woman, and in fact, she struggles with the choice of living in  St. Raymond Nonnatus house when she first arrives on the scene. She has no particular religious calling, but the fact that the nuns of Nonnatus house are so well regarded in the community for their successful birthing methods, and the fact that Jennifer herself feels somehow called to be there, leads her right into the ruckus that will one day become second nature to her. Jennifer herself was very capable, even in her first deliveries, and she had a sound mind that enabled her to cope with the many sadnesses that life in the slums would expose her to. She was bold enough to know when a woman was in travail, and when it became dangerous, and she was sure in her ways with the women of the town. Make no mistake, it was not only the births and postnatal care that she had to be responsible for, but also for the sexual health clinic in a disorderly corner of London. Many times the things she saw were unappetizing, and sometimes even even the stolid Jennifer was shaken.

The many stories that she tells about the births that she presided over were the icing on the cake for me. I’ve already admitted to loving midwife stories, but the truths and solidity behind every aspect of the births that she attends were totally absorbing to me. Many of the medical advancements that we now take for granted had not been invented yet, and still, not many of her mothers fared badly at all. Particularly striking was the tale of the immigrant mother who was married to an Englishman and spoke no English, while bearing him 24 children. It’s impossible to even contemplate that number, but what Jennifer insists is an error on her record is indeed fact, and giving birth to her 24th child, Jennifer is present and sees a rapturous love for both the new baby and all her other children from a mother who speaks not a word of English.

Some of the stories were funny, some unusual, and some very sad as well. Both babies and mothers were lost, but funnily enough, not as many as you would expect, for the training and expertise of the Nonnatus house nuns was impeccable and went beyond the standard of care that we have even today. Mothers were visited at their homes for home births, unless it became perilous for them to do so. Only then were they removed to the hospital. Each mother had two visits a day from a traveling nurse as their day approached, and they were to stay abed for two weeks after delivery. This is virtually unheard of nowadays, when the typical delivery and hospital stay is about three days, after which the mother is sent home to fend for herself, with no one looking in. The nuns of Nonnatus house were different in that they did continue to look in, again, twice a day. They must make sure the child and mother were healthy, the child was suckling, and all things in between. It was dedication of the highest order, and it was hard not to be impressed with the level of care.

The other aspect of this winning book was the nuns themselves. They ran the gamut, personality wise, and flew in the face of what a nun should look like or be. They were ever compassionate and understanding, but this didn’t mean that they weren’t above petty rivalries in the abbey, or didn’t have difficulty trying to keep their own intentions honestly or without struggle. As Jennifer gets to know each nun very closely, she finds that living among the sisters is just like living among literal sisters, and that despite their higher calling from God, some could be petty while still being loving and selfless. As she breaks through the walls of their emotional interiors, she discovers that they are all very human women who have had lives of struggle and who all come from very different walks of life. It is these nuns who, without knowing it, help Jennifer to find her own way to God, and find her place among them as well.

This was a fantastic listen for me, and it only took me a couple of days to finish it. It’s a must read for all those who love midwifery or those who would like to get a picture of what it was like to be a British woman in the 1940s. It was not a book that one could read totally dry-eyed, either with tears or with laughter, and because of the abundance of emotion instilled in Jennifer’s words, it was a book that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about. Both the emotional and physical practicalities were given great regard, and despite the differences that readers will see cross culturally and cross generationally, it is a book to be marvelled at. I can’t wait to see the series that PBS crafted from this wonderful specimen of literature.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Tim Rowland’s Creature Features by Tim Rowland — 160 pgs

Whether it’s the bouncing and flopping dog, Opie, or the tiny horse with attitude, Tim Rowland has probably seen it all on his farm.  He shares it all with his readers in this collection of off-the-cuff essays that will leave animal lovers hungering for more. A pig that graciously thanks his owner for the scraps? A chicken who can’t seem to stop thinking of Tim’s outstretched leg as a perch? Three fractious billy goats that cause a ruckus wherever they go? Tim’s got them all living down home on the farm with him. It’s an eclectic mix of pets, that’s for sure, and he knows it. As he shares his wonderment at the strange jokes that nature plays, he gives his readers a peek at what it’s like to live nose to nose with the animals that have come to be his constant amusement and his unlikely harassers. In these 75 short essays, readers will come to know the truth about Tim: he is a man with an extremely adept way with animals, and he has a heart that is both kind and funny.

This was a departure for me. As the stress levels in my life have gone up, I ‘ve sought out softer and funnier stories to get me through the storms. This was the first of my lighter reads, and once again, it had me following my husband all over the house trying to read him passages of the book. Even he could not argue with Tim’s assessment of his pets, which was wry and amusing, and gave us both many laughs. It wasn’t the comedy alone that made this collection great, it was also the size of the pieces and the clarity of the writing.

Tim knows he’s not a normal guy. He and his wife have made a life carved out of the land and have adopted many animals into the fold, not only to be food sources but also to be companions and unlikely ruffians.  Some of his cows are there to give milk and breed, but some are there to be beef cattle, and as Tim claims, once an animal has a name, it’s here to stay. And a spirited group it is. There is a chicken named Stink who is the most agile and productive at catching stink bugs when they infest the farm, and Tim is very attached to this little fellow, who doesn’t have much going for him other than the bug work. There is a chicken who is jealous when she doesn’t receive enough attention and will peck holes into the legs of unsuspecting company when they do not exhibit the proper awe. And then there are the dogs: a bulldog, who is quite content just watching the action, and wild and wily Opie, a dog with a pedigree who acts like a feral three year old.

Like many of his animals, Tim is a card, and he relates his tales with a wilting sense of defeat that his animals seem to be overtaking the farm and worming themselves into the category of “The Named.” And there are many already on that list. What makes this particular book so refreshing is that each essay is approximately 2-½ pages long, making for bite sized reading that will have you rolling your eyes and giggling away at the odd things that he discovers on a daily basis. You need some of this in your lives, for this is all good clean fun that pokes fun directly where it should: at the animals and the couple who own them. It’s a crafty bunch that live on the farm, and each day brings new surprises that Tim may find daunting but that will provoke readers to chuckle along as Tim bumbles around and discovers the daily maelstrom that his goats, cows, pigs, et al. are involved in.

From sweet and golden moments to the wild conundrums that his pets cause , Tim has to learn to sigh and laugh it off. When the cow begins to give birth in front of Tim, he is flabbergasted and can only think to give her verbal praise, because what else can he do? Luckily his wife is on the scene and she knows just how to handle things. The thuggish goats were my favorite though. As they vow to take down a group of wild deer, they get more than they could ever bargain for. I liked the pigs too. One dour and highly righteous, the other as friendly as a dog, giving his grunts of thanks to every meal thrown into his trough, it’s clear that this particular little porker is destined to be named. Rowland gives the writing of these stories not only a hefty dose of comedy, but clearly invokes irony and his suspicion that his animals may at any time revolt and cause havoc that none can contain. It’s a clever balance between the farmer and his animals, and it’s related with such a punchy and winsome voice that readers will be smiling as the pages keep turning and turning, almost outside of their control.

I found the humor and utter brashness of Rowland’s animals to be not only funny, but could relate to the feeling that perhaps the pets will take over one day. I know I feel that way in my house sometimes, and I think others will relate to Tim’s causal stupor of the big blunders that his animals seem to naturally create for themselves and for him. If you need some funny, delivered in bite sized packages, this is the book for you. It’s hilarious without being in any way offensive and it shows its readers that animals have a lot more personality than we give them credit for, even farm animals. Original and highly raucous, this is a book that begs to be read and glitters with personality and verve. A wonderfully tight and solid little read. Recommended!

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.
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