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.
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