15 October 2009

The Promised World by Lisa Tucker

Flap Copy from ARC: "On a March afternoon, while Lila Cole is working in her quiet office, her twin brother, Billy, points an unloaded rifle out of a hotel window across from an elementary school, closing down a city block. "Suicide by police" was obviously Billy's intended result, but the aftermath of his death brings shock after shock for Lila when she discovers that her twin - the person she thought she was closer to than anyone in the world - was not only estranged from his wife, but also charged with endangering the life of his middle child and namesake, eight-year-old William."

This engrossing tale delves deep into the power of memory and the often blurry lines between actual events and the stories we're told about those events. The focus of the book are Lila and Billy, a set of unusually close fraternal twins whose lives and stories are enwtined more than anyone can imagine. After Billy's death Lila completely breaks down, leaving her husband Patrick - a man who has always valued reason and logic over emotion - to sift through what he knows and what he is told to piece together the truth about Lila and Billy's childhood.

Often poignant and incredibly readable, this novel was very well-written and I highly recommend it with 5 stars. Every family has its secrets, some more so than others - I think Tucker truly captured the quiet darkness that exists deep in the recesses of the human mind. She also tackled the very interesting topic of twins and the unique bonds they share, sometimes to the detriment of their other relationships. This book will make you think; it'll make you call your sibling or your mom; it will certainly make you want to read more from Lisa Tucker.

14 October 2009

The Day the Falls Stood Still by Cathy Marie Buchanan

Flap Copy from ARC: "The year is 1915, the dawn of the hydroelectric era in Niagra Falls. Seventeen-year-old Bess Heath has led a life of comfort and ease as the younger daughter of the director of the Niagra Power Company. But when a tragedy leaves her beautiful sister dead and her family disgraced, Bess's life is transformed beyond imagination.

At a time when the stunts of daredevils are as much fodder for town gossip as her own family's plight, when fortunes are made and lost as quickly as lives disappear, Bess must navigate suddenly unfamiliar territory. There to help her is Tom Cole, a handsome, rough-hewn riverman with a mystical ability to predict the whims of the river and the falls. His daring rescues render him a local hero - while launching a string of events that casts him as a threat to the power companies and puts Bess and Tom's future together to risk."

Set in Canadian Niagra between 1915 and 1923, Buchanan's debut novel is a historical, naturalist love story. With some characters and events loosely based on true historic figures and a looming and powerful Falls dominating nearly every page, this novel was certainly interesting but fell a little short on plot strength towards the end. I liked Bess and Tom, and was certainly rooting for them to succeed in life and love. I thought Tom especially was very well drawn - I found his deep and abiding relationship with the river and the falls to be both fascinating and a little chilling - that he was based on a real riverman of the era made him even more appealing. Their lives were perhaps overfull of tragic events, but I think that the realities of the era lend themselves well to such drama.

I think Buchanan's writing is clear and strong, and her characters are well-voiced. She captured the life of the times as well as the history and power of the Falls; she also incorporated a strong environmental message that would have been important then and still resonates now. I enjoyed the book, and would definitely recommend it with 3.5 stars - be prepared however, for a rushed and perhaps overly simple ending which in my opinion greatly reduced the impact of the novel as a whole.

11 September 2009

Testimony by Anita Shreve

Flap Copy: "Enter a world upended by the repercussions of a single impulsive action. At an exclusive New England boarding school, a sex scandal unleashes a storm of shame and recrimination. The men, women, and teenagers affected - among them the headmaster, struggling to contain the scandal before it destroys the school; a well-liked scholarship student and star basketball player, grappling with the consequences of his mistakes; his mother, confronting her own forbidden temptations; and a troubled teenage girl eager to put the past behind her - speak out to relate the events of one fateful night and its aftermath."

What a tragic yet wonderful book about the ways in which several intertwined lives can be derailed, or worse, destroyed, in one thoughtless moment. The narrative is told from several different points of view and travels back and forth through a limited period of time - this tactic might have been confusing from a lesser author, but Shreve kept each voice so clear and distinct that I had no trouble falling seamlessly into the many stories being told.

The idea of teenagers and sex isn't new, nor is it often particularly interesting - here, though, the story was less about sex and more about reason and consequence, about the fine lines between action and reaction. Four students and one night had the power to change the course of history for themselves, their parents and their school at large - a power they never considered nor ever seemed fully to realize throughout the story. Shreve captured the various characters and kept them rich and true to life, and though I had a feeling early on where the story would end, I couldn't put it down until I got there and saw for myself. I highly recommend this book - 5 stars!

08 September 2009

The Private Papers of Eastern Jewel by Maureen Lindley

Flap Copy from ARC: "Peking, 1914. When the eight-year-old princess Eastern Jewel is caught spying on her father's liason with a servant girl, she is banished from the palace, sent to live with a powerful family in Japan. Renamed Yoshiko Kawashima, she quickly falls in love with her adoptive country, where she earns a scandalous reputation, taking fencing lessons, smoking opium and entertaining numerous lovers. Sent to Mongolia to become an obedient wife, Yoshiko mounts a daring escape and eventually finds her way back to Peking high society - this time with orders from the Japanese secret service."

First, I wish this book had been billed as pure fiction, rather than 'based on a true story'. I'm not sure how much truth Lindley managed to include in her story - I'm not sure that very much truth is actually known about Eastern Jewel. While her life and story would be riveting to explore, this novel seems taken entirely from Lindley's imagination and relies far too heavily on the princess and her supposed sexual exploits to fuel every plot twist.

The book is well-written and was a fast and enjoyable read, but I'm left with a definite distaste for Lindley's portrayal of life in Asia during such a tumultuous historical period. Eastern and Western characters alike are presented as stereotyped caricatures of real people, while the placement of plot points in actual history seemed disjointed - time is skewed, as 'years passed' but Eastern Jewel had only aged one year.

I give Lindley 3 stars for her vivid descriptions and smooth, easy writing style, but I wish she'd chosen pure fiction and left claims to historical accuracy for another genre.

01 September 2009

The Maze Runner by James Dashner

Flap Copy from ARC: "When Thomas wakes up in the lift, the only thing he can remember is his first name. He has no recollection of his parents, his home, or how he got where he is. His memory is blank. But he's not alone. When the lift's doors open, Thomas finds himself surrounded by kids who welcome him to the Glade, a large expanse enclosed by stone walls.

Just like Thomas, the Gladers don't know why or how they got to the Glade. All they know is that every morning, for as long as anyone can remember, the stone doors to the maze that surrounds them have opened. Every night, for just as long, they've closed tight. Every thirty days a new boy is delivered in the lift. And no one wants to be stuck in the maze after dark.

The Gladers were expecting Thomas's arrival. But the next day, a girl is sent up - the first girl ever to arrive in the Glade. And more surprising yet is the message she delivers. The Gladers have always been convinced that if they can solve the maze that surrounds the Glade, they might find their way home ... wherever that may be. But it's looking more and more as if the maze is unsolvable.

And something about the girl's arrival is starting to make Thomas feel different. Something is telling him that he just might have some answers - if he can only find a way to retrieve the dark secrets locked within his own mind."

Kudos to Dashner for writing a fast-paced and riveting young adult novel, one that kept me questioning right along with the characters and still guessing at the end. The Maze Runner is an easy and engaging read and I highly recommend it for teens and adults alike - 4 stars.

That being said, I am extremely frustrated by the abrupt ending both to the adventure and to the book itself. I understand there's a trilogy, but I want each book to function as well as a stand-alone read, either with some resolution or with an actual ending. I was so caught up in the boys' struggle, so ready for them to solve the Maze, or at least escape it, and then suddenly we're at an epilogue, written from a different narrative point-of-view, and I'm left only with clear foreshadowing of events to come in later books. But what about this book?

I found Dashner's writing to be clear and age appropriate, and his character development was very good, especially considering that none of the kids actually have any memories of themselves before the Glade - he still created distinct and realistic personality traits and flaws. But I was disappointed at the end of my reading - I will certainly look for the next book in the series, but I wish I felt like I had truly finished this one!

12 August 2009

Mercury in Retrograde by Paula Froelich

Flap Copy from ARC: "In this debut novel, the lives of three women intersect when they each decide to move into the same SoHo apartment building. Penelope Mercury is an intrepid reporter at the New York Telegraph who spends her days pounding the pavement in every borough to meet the unreasonable demands of her boss. She aspires to covering courtroom drama for the paper, but on one disastrous day, instead of being promited, she gets fired. Lena 'Lipstick Carcrash' Lippencrass is an Upper East Side socialite who works at the high fashion magazine Y and loses her perfect apartment after her wealthy parents cut her off from her trust fund. And Dana Gluck is a corporate lawyer on the verge of becoming a partner who has seen her marriage and prospects for motherhood disappear, leaving her almost comatose with depression.

As these three very different women become friends, they soon discover that having their carefully planned lives fall to pieces might have been the best thing that could have ever happened to them."

Despite a mildly formulaic feel and a very happy but a little too pat ending, I was surprised at how thoroughly I enjoyed reading this book. Three down-on-their-luck women end up in the same SoHo apartment building and rebuild their lives largely through their helpful and often hilarious interactions with one another. Each character is well-conceived and carefully drawn, and watching them wrestle with personal and professional failures (and eventually successes!)was made highly engaging by Froelich's strong and confident prose. This book is definitely worth the read, and proves that even when the stars are aligned against you, anything can happen.

11 August 2009

American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld

Flap Copy: "On what might become one of the most significant days in her husband's presidency, Alice Blackwell considers the strange and unlikely path that has led her to the White House - and the repercussions of a life lived, as she believes, "almost in opposition to itself."

A kind, bookish only child born in the 1940s, Alice learned the virtues of politeness early on from her stolid parents and small Wisconsin hometown. Alice candidly describes her modest upbringing and the tragedy that shaped her identity; she recalls her early adulthood as a librarian, and her surprising courtship with the man who swept her off her feet; she tells of the crisis that almost ended their marriage; and she confides the privileges and difficulties of being first lady, a role that is uniquely cloistered yet public, secretive yet exposed.

As her husband's presidency enters its second term, Alice finds herself increasingly conflicted. Ultimately she must confront contradictions years in the making and face questions nearly impossible to answer."

Curtis Sittenfeld's novel, loosely based on the life of Laura Bush but clearly more full of fiction than reality, was interesting and frustrating at the same time. Divided into four parts that represent the major periods in Alice's life, the book explores a coming-of-age in Riley, Wisconsin, the steady life of a public school librarian, the early days of married life and then finally the mystique of the White House. The first parts of the book were definitely more engaging and better written - by the time we hit the grat denouement, I was so tired of Alice and Charlie that I couldn't have cared less.

My biggest frustration came from the face that Alice is a study in contradictions, some too implausible for me to bear. She's a well-read, intelligent woman who makes every effort never to speak for herself. She is actively passive, always holding back, soothing ruffled feathers and letting her own thoughts and needs fall by the wayside. She is a liberal Democrat who marries into a staunchly Republican family and somehow supports her husband's political ambitions.

As a complex look at marriage, loyalty, responsibility and choice, Sittenfeld's third novel succeeds and even shines. But as a story that should engage and question the reader, the book falls a bit short. Still worth the read though, if only for the voyeuristic thrill of a novel that may contain just a bit of truth!

31 July 2009

The Actor and the Housewife by Shannon Hale

Flap Copy: "Mormon Housewife Becky Jack is seven months pregnant with her fourth child when she meets celebrity heartthrob Felix Callahan. A few hours, one elevator ride, and one alcohol-free dinner later something has happened, though nothing has happened ... It isn't sexual. It isn't even quite love. But soon Felix shows up in Salt Lake City to visit and before they know what's hit them, Felix and Becky are best friends - talk-on-the-phone, drop-everything-in-an-emergency, laugh-out-loud-at-stupid-jokes best friends.

Becky's loving and devoted husband, Mike, is mostly unconcerned. Her children roll their eyes. Her large extended family and neighbors gossip endlessly. But Felix and Becky have something special, something unusual, something that seems from the outside - and sometimes from the inside too - completely impossible to sustain."

Since finishing this book (which I did very easily, it's a quick and entertaining read) I have been struggling with how to review it. On the one hand, it's a fun tale about a normal woman who has the unlikely good fortune to meet her celebrity crush and actually find a meaningful friendship with him. Their banter is witty and their improbable friendship weathers the occasional storm just like any relationship, with spousal jealousies, the demands of work and family and general differences of opinion getting in the way. The story is often laugh-out-loud funny, and the characters are endearing in their own strange ways.

On the other hand, there were many times while reading that I wanted to just shake the book, or the characters within it, for the completely unrealistic moral overtones that I found leaping from most of the pages. Are there really people out there who believe it impossible for married women to have male friends, or vice versa? Are there families out there who would stage minor interventions because a sibling had a friend and the rest feared for her moral soul? I have no problem with storylines that contain religion or spirituality, but I want the devotion to seem realistic, I want to believe that the characters are people of faith, but real people. With this book I'm just not sure I bought it.

All that being said, I definitely recommend this book - it's not your standard chick-lit, the main character being far less independent than most heroines of the genre - if nothing else you'll have a good laugh.

30 July 2009

The Crying Tree by Naseem Rakha

Flap Copy from ARC: "The quiet and contented life of Irene and Nate Stanley and their two children, Bliss and Shep, is turned on its head when Nate comes home one day to announce he's been offered a job as a deputy sheriff in Oregon. Irene fights her husband about moving ... she cannot shake her misgivings about the move ... They are settling into their life in Oregon's high desert when tragedy strikes. Fifteen-year-old Shep is brutally shot to death in their new home, and the family reels with the unspeakable loss ...

Irene waits, week after week, for justice; for the man who killed her son to be executed. Those weeks turn into months, and then years. All the while Irene and her famly become more alienated from one another and even themselves. Ultimately, faced with a growing sense of depression and isolation, ... Irene makes an extraordinary decision to write a letter to her son's killer on death row. What she doesn't expect is that he will write back and the two will engage in a secret correspondence for years."

In The Crying Tree Naseem Rakha tells the story of a family destroyed by tragedy and fueled by emotion and vengeance, a mother, father and daughter trying desperately to find a way to live beyond their loss, and failing miserably. Individual grief makes them strangers to one another, allowing secrets to lie dormant for years and forcing each to live alone within the family unit.

When the killer's execution is finally scheduled, Irene is faced with emotions she never expected - she hated this man so much, but through years of secret communication has come to view him differently. When their hidden relationship comes to light, other family secrets are also revealed (though I had guessed to big secret fairly early in the novel, I think Rahka does a wonderful job building momentum and keeping the reader interested until the end) and each family member must seek a new kind of forgiveness.

I'm labeling this book a must-read - the character development is compelling and real, the plot moves at a good pace and the widely varied emotions are portrayed with heart-wrenching accuracy. Rahka took a difficult story of loss and a political argument about the death penalty and melded them into a very human tale that forces the reader to stop and think. Four stars - read this book, give it to a friend, and then discuss!

14 July 2009

Hollywood is Like High School with Money by Zoey Dean

Flap Copy from ARC: "Tewnty-four-year-old Taylor Henning has just landed her dream job as an assistant at a major movie studio. But when her catty coworkers trick her into almost getting fired, she realizes that the old saying 'Hollywood is like school with money' just may be true. The thing is, Taylor wasn't exactly a social butterfly in high school - how is she supposed to do any better the second time around?

That's when she meets her boss's popular 16-year-old daughter, Quinn, and has an epiphany: Maybe this teenager can teach her how to use her queen bee tactics to succeed in the Hollywood popularity contest. Quinn comes up with a plan to teach Taylor one lesson a week - everything from 'Fake it 'til you make it' to 'It's never your fault' - and soon Taylor finds herself winning the war against rival assistant Kylie. Until, that is, she's directed to steal Kylie's boyfriend, and something happens that's not in the game plan: Taylor falls for the guy. Now she must do the impossible - harness her inner mean girl while staying true to herself."

Obviously the premise of this book first struck me as a knockoff of The Devil Wears Prada. I was pleasantly surprised, however, to discover that this was not another tale of assistants putting up with impossibly awful bosses; rather, Taylor's boss was not the problem - she's the kind of classy lady you would want to work for - instead it was Taylor's fellow assistant who turned out to be the complete psycho.

Taylor's character wasn't wildly appealing, but the story was funny, fast-paced and truly captured the lives of many assistants. I was interested, I wanted Taylor to prevail over her seemingly-insane roommate and her shallow judgemental co-workers - even when the story took some unrealistic turns, I was rooting for Taylor to win. I definitely recommend this book as a quick and fun summer read.

13 July 2009

The Chocolate Lover's Club by Carole Matthews

Flap Copy:"Some women are addicted to shopping; others can't get enough of champagne. But there's one thing that Lucy Lombard can't live without, and that's chocolate - rich, creamy, delicious chocolate. Sharing her passion are three other addicts: Autumn, Nadia and Chantal. Together they form a select group known as the Chocolate Lovers' Club. Whenever there's a crisis, they meet in their sanctuary, a cafe called Chocolate Heaven, and with a cheating boyfriend, a flirtatious boss, a gambling husband, and a loveless marriage, there's always plenty to discuss ... The Chocolate Lovers' Club brings together four unforgettable women from totally different worlds united in their passion for chocolate."

I love chocolate and I love good chick-lit, especially of the British variety, so I was ready and excited to dive in to this potentially delicious read. Unfortunately, good chocolate just isn't enough to carry a story when the characters are vapid, shallow and seem completely implausible as actual human beings.

The book definitely has some redeeming and hilarious moments - a fabulous break-up revenge scene and a plot-turned-caper to retrieve Chantal's stolen jewels - but it was so hard for me not to shake my head in disbelief at the way the characters acted and spoke that the good moments just didn't outweigh the bad. I was especially turned off by Lucy, the narrator and convener of the Chocolate Lovers' Club. No self-respecting woman would actually stick with a cheating boyfriend for so long and actually be proud of herself for it, nor would true friends let such stupidity go on indefinitely. And when her Crush shows interest in her she's about as awkward and moronic as a girl could be - and not just once, but over and over again. I appreciate characters drawn from reality, people whose lives aren't perfect and whose problems are real if sometimes mundane, but Lucy was over-the-top. Chantal was the most appealing character for me, and her problems seemed the most legitimate, but even she possessed a fair amount of bizarre and unrealistic quirks that didn't fit together.

If you want to learn a million different types of chocolate, or drool over your book a bit, then this book is a worthwhile read. As far as chick-lit goes, however, I was really disappointed. I want to find women in books that strike me as people I might know, friends I might have - not women who make me cringe and give the worst name to the fairer sex.

04 July 2009

Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant

Flap Copy from ARC:"By the second half of the sixteenth century, the price of wedding dowries had risen so high that most Italian aristocratic families could afford to marry off only one daughter. The remaining young women were dispatched into convents, and not all of them went willingly. Santa Caterina's new novice sets in motion a chain of events that will shake the convent to its core.

Serafina, a willful, emotional, furious girl, has just been ripped from her proposed marriage and sent by her noble family to Santa Caterina. During her first night inside, such is her violent, incandescent rage that the dispensary mistress, Suora Zuana, is sent to her cell to calm her with a draft of herbs. Thus begins a complex relationship of trust and betrayal. And while outside the convent walls the forces of the Counter-Reformation push for ever more repressive chances, Serafina's rebellious spirit challenges not only Zuana but many other nuns who have made peace with the isolated life.

A rich, captivating, multifaceted love story, Sacred Hearts is a novel about power, creativity, passion - both secular and spiritual - and the indomitable spirit of women in an age when religious, political and social forces were all stacked against them.

This richly layered historical narrative provided a fascinating glimpse into an often-overlooked facet of Renaissance life. Serafina is willful, passionate and adamantly unwilling to accept her fate and a life in the convent. While she plots her escape and creates a web of deception that only her advisor Zuana can penetrate, the rest of the convent struggles to reconcile her presence and her rebellion with the potential for glory that her renowned singing voice might bring them. At the same time the abbess seeks desperately to remain a convent apart while the greater church invokes new restrictions on the tiny luxuries the nuns still enjoy.

I was engaged and invested while reading this book - at first I was thoroughly on Serafina's side; as the story wore on, I felt more and more for Zuana and her own struggles. By the end of this complex retelling of a star-crossed lovers tale, I was both happy with the outcome and extraordinarily sad for all of the women involved. I give Dunant and Sacred Hearts five stars and highly recommend it as an intense and thought-provoking read.

16 June 2009

The Patron Saint of Butterflies by Cecilia Galante

Description from Amazon.com: "Agnes and Honey have always been best friends, but they haven’t always been so different. Agnes loves being a Believer. She knows the rules at the Mount Blessing religious commune are there to make her a better person. Honey hates Mount Blessing and the control Emmanuel, their leader, has over her life. The only bright spot is the butterfly garden she’s helping to build, and the journal of butterflies that she keeps. When Agnes’s grandmother makes an unexpected visit to the commune, she discovers a violent secret that the Believers are desperate to keep quiet. And when Agnes’s little brother is seriously injured and Emmanuel refuses to send him to a hospital, Nana Pete takes the three children and escapes the commune. Their journey begins an exploration of faith, friendship, religion and family for the two girls, as Agnes clings to her familiar faith while Honey desperately wants a new future."

It's a good thing business was slow at work while I was reading this book - I couldn't put it down. Galante shares a glimpse into the world of a conservative religious commune with the clarity born of personal experience; the remarkable thing is that she keeps opinion out of the narrative, presenting the story without preaching to the reader. The book's chapters alternate between Agnes' and Honey's points-of-view, giving the reader two very different sets of emotions and personalities, and two different private struggles.

This novel is a great find for young adults, highlighting the importance of friendships, honesty, and most importantly standing up for oneself. Galante's writing is crisp and unadorned, perfect for this kind of storytelling. I highly recommend this book, and look forward to reading more from Galante in the future!

28 May 2009

Neil Armstrong is My Uncle & Other Lies Muscle Man McGinty Told Me by Nan Marino

Flap Copy from ARC:" 'Muscle Man McGinty is a squirrely runt, a lying snake, and a pitiful excuse for a ten-year-old. The problem is that no one on Ramble Street knows it, but me.'

Tamara Ann Simpson is tired of all the lies. And boy, oh boy, can Muscle Man McGinty tell some whoppers! When he does the unthinkable and challenges the entire block to a game of kickball, Tamara knows she's found her opportunity to prove to everyonw what a wormy little liar Muscle Man really is. Of course things would be a lot easier if her best friend Kebsie Grobser were here to help her ...

It's the summer of 1969 and the world is getting ready for a young man named Neil Armstrong to make history by walking on the moon. But change happens a bit more slowly in Massapequa Park, and it'll take one giant leap for Tamara to understand the likes of Muscle Man McGinty."

Such a rich and entertaining young adult find! This slim novel has a bully for a narrator, a tall-tale-teller for an enemy and the summer of 1969 as its volatile setting. Tamara has a clear and honest voice - she made me feel the frustrations of her ten-year-old self as though they were my own. The story definitely delivers a few life lessons about loss and rushing to judgement, but does so quietly, without an overbearing moral voice. I really enjoyed this book and highly recommend it, for young adults and grown-ups alike.

20 May 2009

Perfection by Julie Metz

Flap Copy from ARC: "Julie Metz seemed to have the perfect life - an adoring if demanding husband, spirited daughter, a lovely old house in an idyllic town outside New York City - when in an instant, everything changed. Her charismatic, charming husband, Henry, suffered a pulmonary embolism and collapsed on the kitchen floor. Within hours he was dead, and Julie was a widow and single mother at forty-four. Just like that, what seemed like a perfect life melted away. But the worst was yet to come.

Six months after his death, Julie discovered that her husband of twelve years, the man who loved her and their six-year-old daughter ebulliently and devotedly, had been unfaithful throughout their marriage, going so far as to conduct an ongoing relationship with one of Julie's close friends."

Metz has produced a raw and moving memoir of her life as a grieving widow faced with the reality of her dead husband's infdelity. Her writing is honest and brave as she chronicles the unraveling of her marriage post her husband's death - as evidence of each new woman comes to light, Metz acknowledges that there were signs along the way, signs she either misread or simply ignored.

She approached her 'recovery' with zeal, contacting all of her husband's lovers, researching the sociology and psychology of infidelity and of human desire, but also with the very real shame, fear and dismay that anyone would feel in the same situation. Metz was more forgiving than I can imagine being, and there were times along the way that I found her self-questioning to be tedious, but overall I was rooting for her, hoping she would emerge at the end of the tunnel with a capacity for love and happiness that had previously been taken from her. This memoir is definitely worth the read - I give it 3.5 stars.

14 May 2009

Palace Circle by Rebecca Dean

Description from Publisher's Weekly: From London to Cairo, in the glittery world of high society before WWII, Dean taps into an exotic and distant world in her page-turning debut. After 18-year-old Virginia belle Delia marries older British aristocrat Ivor Conisborough, they decamp to London and get to work on producing an heir for the aging viscount. Delia is agog at her new friends in high places, but her idyll is trampled when she learns a painful secret about Ivor. Even so, Delia is endlessly infatuated with London, and she eventually has two girls, Petronella and Davina. The family, to Delia's chagrin, is relocated to Cairo on a long diplomatic mission ... Davina and Petronella, meanwhile, grow into young women who think of Cairo as home and fall in love with men they meet there."

I really wanted to like this book, but ultimately I was just very disappointed. Divided into 5 sections, one for each of the main characters, the story remained superficial and the characters for the most part poorly developed. Though the narrative contains vast leaps forward in time, it still manages to drag.

The most interesting elements of the book were its historical glimpses of the Windsor court and of society in colonial Egypt - it was these settings which drew me to the book in the first place. I'm not sure of Dean's historical accuracy, though, as she seems to take quite a bit of license with a variety of famous names and places.

I suppose as a light-hearted period piece, Palace Circle succeeds, recounting one family's journey through time and war. I give it 2.5 stars - for me, this book just didn't deliver all that it had promised.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

Flap Copy from ARC: "It is the summer of 1950 - and a series of inexplicable events has struck Buckshaw, the decaying English mansion that Flavia's family calls home. A dead bird is found on the doorstep, a postage stamp bizarrely pinned to its beack. Hours later, Flavia finds a man lying in the cucumber patch and watches him as he takes his dying breath. Then someone steals a slice of Mrs. Mullet's unspeakable custard pie that had been cooling on the kitchen window. Flavia sums it up: 'I wish I could say I was afraid, but I wasn't. Quite the contrary. This was by far the most interesting thing that had ever happened to me in my entire life ...'

As the noose tightens, Flavia decides it is up to her - and her fully equipped Victorian laboratory - to piece together the clues and solve a murder."

Entertaining and quirky, this debut novel was well worth read. I was immediately drawn to the precocious 11-year-old heroine, with her love of chemistry, her passionate obsession with poisons and her beloved bicycle named Gladys. The book is filled with strange characters, Flavia's unsympathetic family among them - each encounter serves to further enhance the bizarre, almost surreal nature of Flavia's surroundings.

Bradley's mystery plot unfolds at a good pace, with enough twists and turns to keep Flavia guessing - though I had it figured out pretty quickly, my enjoyment of the book came from watching Flavia reach the same conclusion. Four stars, a highly recommended read!

24 April 2009

The Girl She Used to Be by David Cristofano

Flap Copy from ARC:"When Melody Grace McCartney was six years old, she and her parents witnessed an act of violence so brutal that it changed their lives forever. The federal government lured them into the Witness Protection Program with the promise of safety, and they went gratefully. But the program took Melody's name, her home, her innocence and ultimately, her family. She's been May Adams, Karen Smith, Anne Johnson, and countless others - everyone but the one person she longs to be: herself.

So when the feds spirit her off to begin yet another new life in another new town, she's stunned when a man confronts her and calls her by her real name. Jonathan Bovaro, the Mafioso sent to hunt her down, knows her - the real her - and it's a dangerous thrill that Melody can't resist. He insists that she's just a pawn in the government's war against the Bovaro family. But can she trust her life and her identity to this vicious stranger whose acts of violence are legendary?"

This unusual glimpse into the Witness Protection Program was interesting and engagingly written, though I had some problems with its fundamental plot devices. The story grabbed me from the very beginning, with clever dialogue and quick surprises that kept me turning the pages. Melody was a well-written and quite loveable narrator -- Cristofano is to be highly commended for his ability truly to capture a woman's voice in such emotional and intelligent detail.

And yet, for all the highlights this novel held, I was ultimately disappointed. Other reviews seem to view the ending as realistic and honest - I, on the other hand, felt it was wildly unrealistic and also unsatisfying. Not that I expect a book to end with every character's problems solved and the story wrapped up - on the contrary, I much prefer novels whose characters suffer real problems with real, not-so-sexy solutions. But Melody and Jonathan were tortured yet false - I just didn't buy it, at the end of the day I guess I just didn't buy it. I was rooting for Melody, I thought Cristofano perfectly captured her uncertainty, the confused psyche that might allow her to have romantic feelings for her would-be assassin -- the romantic elements of the story was not my problem. But I finished reading and felt let-down, felt almost angry at the cop-out ending.

I give this book 3.5 stars -- it was thoroughly enjoyable and Cristofano is definitely an author to watch - I just wanted more from this particular book!

17 April 2009

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe

Flap Copy from ARC: "Connie Goodwin should be spending her summer doing research for her Ph.D. dissertation in American History. But when her mother asks her to handle the sale of Connie's grandmother's abandoned home near Salem, she's compelled to help. One day, while exploring the dusty bookshelves in the study, Connie discovers an ancient key, and within the key is a brittle slip of paper with two words written on it: Deliverance Dane.

Along with a handsome steeplejack named Sam, Connie begins to research Deliverance Dane. But even as the pieces fall into place, Connie is haunted by visions of long ago, and she fears that she is more tied to Salem's dark past than she could have ever imagined."

Howe's debut novel is truly wonderful, seamlessly blending the stories of a modern PhD student and the 17th century cunning woman she is researching. Rife with historical detail, romance, intrigue and ultimatley revelation, this novel was a quick and mesmerizing read. I've always been interested in stories (both fiction and non-) of the Salem witch trials, but this is the first in a long time to so thoroughly capture my attention.

Both well-written and meticulously crafted, this novel is a must-read. The women in this book are real - witches who might truly walk among us - and their stories, loves and fears reflect the actual struggles of women both past and present. I give Katherine Howe and her Deliverance Dane 5 stars and a huge thumbs up.

08 April 2009

The Believers by Zoe Heller

Flap Copy from ARC: "When New York radical lawyer Joel Litvinoff is felled by a stroke, his wife, Audrey, uncovers a secret that forces her to re-examine her ideas about him and their forty-year marriage. Joel's adult children will soon have to come to terms with this unsettling discovery themselves, but for the meantime, they are grappling with their own dilemmas ... "

Well-written though this book may have been, I found the characters and also the story to be annoying at best, extremely frustrating at worst. I give Heller credit for once again creating a rich, layered protagonist -- I loved her 'Notes on a Scandal' and was hoping that 'The Believers' would not disappoint. But it did - I just found the characters to be so unlikeable, their thoughts and actions so distasteful, that it was hard to enjoy the book. I was thoroughly engaged, I don't deny that Heller has written an intelligent, witty and brutally honest novel about contemporary society - I just didn't like it.

Audrey is a shrew - mean-spirited, self-righteous and completely void of any moral compass. When her husband of forty years falls into a coma and the stories and secrets of his life come to light, she grows increasingly nasty. Her children are another story. At first I felt sorry for them, raised by two leftist ideologues who probably never should have had children. But as their stories were illuminated I began to feel antagonistic towards them - Rosa, the priggish 'new Jew' whose exploration of her inherited faith is full of bitterness; Karla, the timid parental defender with no self-image and a fear of happiness; and Lenny, the adopted drug addict whose master manipulation of family and situation was the most accurate metaphor for the family's problems. I just didn't like them.

I'm not someone who needs to identify with a character in order to enjoy a book - I read for the sake of the writing more than for the story or its' characters. And I do believe that Heller has written a masterful novel about the nature of family, and more keenly the very nature of individual life. But at the end of the day I found 'The Believers' hard to enjoy, I wanted it to be over so I wouldn't have to know these people anymore, so I wouldn't have to think about them. So I suppose Heller succeeded in her ultimate task of capturing humanity at its worst ... but really, that's more than a little off-putting.

01 April 2009

Sima's Undergarments for Women

Flap Copy from ARC: "There are some life-long quests that all women have in common -- meaningful work, true love, and a bra that doesn't leave red marks on your skin ... writer Ilana Stanger-Ross has created a secret underground New York sisterhood where women of every shape and creed can come to share their milestones, laugher, loves and losses against a backdrop of discount lingerie.

In the comfort of her Brooklyn basement bra shop, Sima Goldner teaches other women to appreciate their bodies, but feels betrayed by her own. Shamed by her infertility and a secret from her youth, she has given up on happiness and surrendered to a bitter marriage. But then Timna, a young Israeli with enviable cleavage, becomes the shop seamstress. As the two serve the colorful customers of the orthodox Jewish neighborhood, Sima finds herself awakened to adventure and romance. Years after giving up on their marriage, Sima and her husband, Lev, must decide if what they have is worth saving."

I love love love this book, I couldn't put it down! It's beautifully written, alternating the humor and the tragedy of lives lived. Stanger-Ross has crafted rich, genuine characters - I felt Sima's silent emotional struggle as though it were my own, while Timna felt like so many young women I have known.

Sima is a local wonder in her tiny basement lingerie shop, where "in a glance she could see their size, the back and the cup combined. '36-D,' she'd say ... In vain the women protested, 'but I'm a 34. I've always been.' [But] when on her advice they slipped back on their shirts to evaluate the shape a new bra gave, they inevitably agreed." Her loyal customers rely on her to fit them, their sisters and their daughters with the perfect underwear while at the same time hearing their joys and sorrows and providing meaningul advice. This role has been Sima's for so long that she has completely forgotten how to think about her own problems, her own needs -- until Timna arrives, a breath of fresh air for the shop and the daughter that Sima and her sad husband Lev never had.

Watching Timna explore New York and her own freedom and youth, Sima is forced to examine her own life and the secrets and shames she has held since adolescence - and ultimately to accept her husband and begin the task of rebuilding their love. With graceful, unselfconscious prose Stanger-Ross brings to life the hidden stories all around us. I give this book a rousing 5 stars -- read it and you'll want to share it with all the women in your life.

31 March 2009

The Center of Everything by Laura Moriarty

Flap Copy from Cover: "Set in Kerrville, Kansas, The Center of Everything is told by Evelyn Bucknow, an endearing character with a wholly refreshing way of looking at the world. Living with her single mother in a small apartment, Evelyn Bucknow is a young girl wincing her way through adolescence. With a voice that is as charming as it is recognizable, Evelyn immerses the reader in the dramas of an entire community. The people of Kerrville, stuck at once in the middle of nowhere but also at the center of everything, are the source from which Moriarty draws on universal dilemmas of love and belief to render a story that grows in emotional intensity."

Moriarty's crowning achievement with this novel was her creation of such an honest, real character in Evelyn Bucknow, a gifted but poor student living with her irresponsible young mother on the outskirts of a small Kansas town. The author also captures in brutal reality the scary uncertainties of poverty - when the family car breaks down Evelyn can't go to school, her mother Tina can't go to work and the only available help comes with definite strings attached.

Evelyn and Tina grow up together as the novel progresses, maturing and finding their places in the world - one of the book's primary themes is that of education, or more fundamentally the power of one person to teach another. Eveyln is influenced by her Bible-thumping grandmother at the same time that a progressive Biology teacher at her school fights for the right to teach her students evolution. Evelyn's life is forever changed when one teacher tells her that she's gifted: "She takes off her glasses, still looking at me. I take off my glasses too, because for a moment I think she is going to place them on my eyes, the way you place a crown on someone's head when they become queen. Welcome to being smart." It is this 'strength of smarts' that girds Evelyn through the traumas of adolescence and leads her to a college scholarship and the elusive possibility of freedom.

I really enjoyed this book, I give it four stars. The characters are real, the writing clear and honest and the themes univeral - and yet, Moriarty keeps the story feeling fresh and as-yet-untold, in my opinion quite a feat.

19 February 2009

The Position by Meg Wolitzer

Flap Copy:
The Position is the story "of one extraordinary family at the hilarious height of the sexual revolution -- and through the thirty-year hangover that followed.

In 1975, Paul and Roz Mellow write a bestselling Joy of Sex-type book that mortifies their four school-aged children and ultimately changes the shape of the family forever. Thirty years later, as the now dispersed family members argue over whether to reissue the book, we follow the complicated lives of each of the grown children and their conflicts in love, work, marriage, parenting and, of course, sex -- all shadowed by the indelible specter of their highly sexualized parents."

When I first read the back of this book I thought it sounded potentially hilarious and at the very least quite interesting. And while the premise certainly is interesting, Wolitzer falls a little flat on her delivery. The story begins in the seventies when the Mellows first publish their how-to sex guide (featuring illustrations of themselves in all the positions!) but rapidly moves to the present day and focuses on the current lives and loves of the four grown children.

It's hard to imagine, but this story truly was boring. The book was well-written, the author's way with language and humor was fairly adept, and yet I was just soooo bored. The adult characters were really still just whiny adolescents blaming their parents for all their problems, and the parents were now retirees unable to accept the realities of age and still stuck in the memory of their sexual heyday.

Wolitzer's primary focus in the book is certainly the notion of self-discovery -- a worthy one for discussion and certainly relevant to any reader, as were other primary issues (family, expectations, sexuality, acceptance.) I think all the right elements were present in the novel but never quite achieved their potential. I give this book 2.5 stars - it would make a good beach read, but make sure you're wearing sunscreen in case you fall asleep!

06 February 2009

Mistress Shakespeare by Karen Harper

Flap Copy from ARC:
"Elizabethan beauty Anne Whateley records intimate details of her dangerous, daring life and her great love, William Shakespeare. As historical records show, Anne Whateley of Temple Grafton is betrothed to Will just days before he is forced to wed the pregnant Anne Hathaway. The secret Whateley-Shakespeare match is a meeting of heards and minds that no one - not even Queen Elizabeth or her spymasters - can destroy. Often at odds, always in love, the couple sells Will's first plays, and as he climbs to theatrical power in England, they fight off fierce competition from other London dramatists, some as treacherous as they are talented. Persecution and plague, insurrection and inferno, friends and foes, even executions of those they hold dear, bring Anne's heartrending story to life."

I thoroughly enjoyed this retelling of the story of Shakespeare in love, though I'm not sure what (if any) historical truths the novel actually contains. I have always been fascinated, though, by the mysteries surrounding much of Shakespeare's life -- though his writing is so widely studied and appreciated, details of his life story are murky and patchy at best.

Harper's book is primarily a love story, chronicling the lifelong see-saw of feelings between Anne Whately and Will Shakespeare. Anne is a strong and independent woman -- it's a little disappointing, then, that she so completely devotes herself to a man whose affections come and go with the ever-changing political and social scene. Shakespeare is presented as a flawed man with a burgeoning genius talent, a man who never quite understands how his writing and behavior have affected the two women in his life.

Harper's writing is entertaining and for the most part well-crafted - the only times I felt the story floundered occurred when the characters slipped into poorly executed period speak. Because these moments stunted the narrative, I'm giving the book 3.5 stars, but I definitely recommend it for anyone who enjoys Elizabethan history.

03 February 2009

A Fortunate Age by Joanna Smith Rakoff

Flap Copy from ARC:
Rakoff's first novel "details the lives of a group of Oberlin graduates whose ambitions and friendships threaten to unravel as they chase their dreams, shed their youth and build their lives in Brooklyn during the late 1990s and the turn of the twenty-first century.

There's Lil, a would-be scholar whose marriage to an egotistical writer initially brings the group back together (and ultimately drives it apart); Beth, who struggles to let go of her old beau Dave, a oneime piano prodigy trapped by his own insecurity; Emily, an actor perpetually on the verge of success - and starvation - and grappling with her jealousy of Tal, whose acting career has taken off. At the center of their orbit is wry, charismatic Sadie Peregrine, who coolly observes her friends' mistakes but can't quite manage to avoid making her own. As they begin their own careers, marry, and have children, they must navigate the shifting dynamics of their friendships and of the world around them."

I have mixed feelings about this book. I was thoroughly engaged while reading it but feel somewhat bereft at the end, as though each page or chapter promised a revelation or an emotion that was never delivered. I felt no connection to any of the characters, though I think they were well-drawn and very well-imagined.

Most of the book's writing is episodic, with narrative and chronological jumps that were at times confusing; many important character interactions and plot movements occur off the page and rely solely on indirect mention. I'm not sure whether Rakoff is nostalgic for her own circle of educated-but-floundering post-college friends, or if she was one of the clique's outsiders and so now bitter and reflective about her own and their experienecs.

I enjoyed reading A Fortunate Age and I recommend it as an insightful look at the inner workings of a burgeoning adult friend group -- I'm just left feeling a little unsatisfied, I suppose because I always hope to connect with at least one character in a story and here I reached the end of the book liking each of the characters even less than I had at the beginning.

01 February 2009

The Mighty Queens of Freeville by Amy Dickinson

Flap copy from ARC:
"Five years ago, after an exhaustive nationwide search, the Chicago Tribune announced Amy Dickinson as the next Ann Landers. They wanted a contemporary voice and they found it. Bracingly witty and candid, Amy is not your mother's advice columnist. Readers love her for her brutal honesty, her small-town values, and the fact that her motto is 'I make the mistakes so you don't have to.' Her advice column "Ask Amy," appears daily in more than 150 newspapers nationwide, read by more than 22 million people. In The Mighty Queens of Freeville, Amy Dickinson takes those mistakes and spins them into a remarkable story. This is the tale of Amy and her daughter and the women in her family who helped raise them."

This memoir was wonderful - once I started reading I couldn't put it down. Dickinson's candid, no-nonsense prose is at once honest, touching and punctuated with hilarity, and her stories of female resilience are achingly real.

The story follows Dickinson from her divorce (when her daughter Emily is a toddler) to Emily's freshman year of college and catalogues the wide and varied lessons they learned together along the way. It's not a memoir about her rise to fame but rather about the extraordinarily ordinary women in her family who gave her skills to become a successful advice columnist and at the same time raise a child.

I highly recommend this book - read it, then give a copy to your mom!

29 January 2009

Home Song by LaVyrle Spencer

Flap Copy from Cover:
High school principal Tom Gardner feels a sense of shock when he sees Kent Arens, a new transfer student. With one glance, Tom can see that this teenager is the son he never knew he had - the result of a one-night stand on the eve of his wedding years before, now grown into an intelligent, athletic and polite young man. But the boy's presence has a devastating effect on Tom's family. To his wife, Kent is the symbol of a wrenchin betrayal she cannot forgive. To their daughter, he is the boy she begins to love - until she learns the truth. And to their son, he is a rival - and the force driving his parents apart. As the Gardners careen toward disaster, they test the foundation of trust and respect that their family was built on - and learn that love leaves no choice but forgiveness ...

This book reads like a bad made-for-tv movie and was a complete waste of time. Spencer's grammatically shaky, over-emotional and adjective-laden prose made the book a pain to navigate and nearly impossible to enjoy, while her complete inability to draw a realistic human character forced the story into cliche after cliche. Her teenagers were wooden, drenched with sickly sweet kindness and school spirit and completely lacking any normal adolescent characteristics; her adults were erratic, frenzied and drawn without an ounce of realism.

I picked up this book at a used book sale and thought the story might have some interesting twists - there were none. I thought the plight of the characters, especially the principal's wife Claire, might resonate in some way - it did not. I suppose if nothing else, Home Song did evoke strong feelings in me as a reader: I was so angry with each of the characters and so bored by the non-existent plot that I couldn't wait to finish the book, review it and shelve it on the 'never to be touched again' pile.