07 December 2011

Girls in White Dresses by Jennifer Close

Flap Copy from ARC: "... Close follows Isabella, Mary and Lauren as they struggle through those dizzying years of early adulthood. While everyone around them seems to be planning a wedding or basking in professional success, our protagonists are grappling with blind dates ("What about me says 'Set me up with an obese person?'"), chasing away ghosts from the past ("Bridget Carlson was the kind of friend you couldn't get rid of"), and learning that sometimes beauty is in the eye of the beholder ("Our friend Ellen dates ugly boys"). Through boozy family holidays, on-the-job flirtations, disastrous ski vacations, and hungover bridal showers, "Girls in White Dresses" pulls us deep inside the circle of these friends, perfectly capturing the wild frustrations and soaring joys of modern life."

I don't have much positive to say about this novel ... in fact my experience of the book was so different from that of so many other reviewers that I almost wonder if we didn't read the same book?! These girls, immersed as they are in the murky and bizarre period of life known as one's twenties, should have been funny, interesting and at the very least memorable. As it was, the individual characters were so bland that at times I had a hard time remembering which was which or whose story was whose. They had such low self-esteem and such stereotypical and offensive prejudices against friends and strangers alike that I just felt sorry for them, and for myself for bothering to continue to read. Where are the intelligent stories about strong, funny, realistic women? Why does so much 'chick-lit' have to be stupid? Argh. Don't waste your time on this one - I give it 1 star.

06 December 2011

Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones

Flap Copy: "Set in a middle-class neighborhood in Atlanta in the 1980s, the novel revolves around James Witherspoon's two families: the public one and the secret one. When the daughters from each family meet and form a friendship, only one of them knows they are sisters - a relationship destined to explode. As Jones explores the backstories of her rich yet flawed characters, she reveals the joy, and the destruction, they brought to one another's lives. And at the heart of it all are the two girls whose lives are at stake - portrayed with raw authenticity as they seek love, demand attention, and try to imagine themselves as women."

This book was not exactly what I was expecting when I first picked it up. The writing is excellent, though the story is heartbreaking. Jones divided the novel into two halfs: the first is Dana's story, in her own words, of life as a secret daughter in a secret family; the second is Chaurisse's much more mundane tale of life in what she sees as a normal family. Dana's experiences are awful, as are (in my opinion) the adults in her life who enable and create her negative environment. Though Chaurisse is not directly to blame for the way that Dana is treated, her very existence as the public daughter nearly destroys her hidden sister's dreams.

Jones tells an engaging story, one that made me want to keep reading. I was truly disappointed by the Epilogue however, which left me with a bad taste in my mouth and less respect for the characters than I had previously held. I give 'Silver Sparrow' 3.5 stars - I'd recommend it, but be prepared for a little disappointment in your fellow man.

24 November 2011

You Against Me by Jenny Downham

Flap Copy from ARC: "If someone hurts your sister and you're any kind of man, you seek revenge, right? If you're brother's accused of a terrible crime but says he didn't do it, you defent him, don't you?

When Mikey's sister claims a boy assaulted her, his world begins to fall apart. When ELlie's brother is charged with the offense, her world begins to unravel. When Mikey and Ellie meet, two worlds collide."

This well-written novel addresses the very real issue of sexual assault in high school. I believe it was an accurate representation of what it would be like for a high school girl who got drunk at a party and was taken advantage of, only to face people who either don't believe her or believe she invited the assault because of the way she chose to act and dress. One surprising element to me was that it seemed all the high school kids were on her side, and against the accused assailant; I would think it would be more split and he would have people in his camp as well.

The writing here is casual and easy to read even if the subject matter is not; the author definitely invited you to be an up-close observer of the action. The novel featured well-flushed-out main characters that were distinct and had a clearly defined role in the plot. The best character by far was Ellie, the sister of the alleged assailant (Tom); her being torn between what she knows she saw and the story her brother and parents have told her to tell is very real and a bit heart-wrenching -- she's only a kid, and has to decide between telling the truth and saving her beloved older brother.

I was disappointed by how the parents of the accused rapist are portrayed - never once do they ever act as though their son did anything wrong, they never ask him if he actually did it, they never seem upset - only angry at their daughter for not being willing to blindly follow the family's story. They were infuriating (presumably by design) and I found it very difficult to relate to them as characters.

A good read about an intense subject - I give it 4 stars.

15 September 2011

The Gap Year by Sarah Bird

Description from ARC: This is a novel "about love that can both bind family members together and make them free, set in that precarious moment before your child leaves home for college.

Cam Lightsey, lactation consultant, is a single mom, a suburban misfit who's given up her rebel dreams to set her only child on an upward path.

Aubrey Lightsey, a pretty, shy girl who plays clarinet, is ready to explode from wanting her 'real' life to begin.

When Aubrey meets Tyler Moldenhauer, football idol of students and teachers alike, the fuse is lit. Aubrey metastasizes into Cam's worst teen nightmare: full of secrets and silences, uninterested in college. Worse, on the sly she's in touch with her father, who left when she was two to join NEXT! - a celebrity-ridden cult - where he's a headline grabber. As the novel unfolds - with emotional fireworks, humor, and edge-of-your-seat suspense - the dreams of daughter, mother and father chart an inevitable, but perhaps not fatal, collision ...

I started this book expecting a standard chick-lit-esque story of a teenage girl yearning to escape the nest and her over-protective mother who can't let go. While that plotline does exist within the book, Sarah Bird has crafted a delightful novel with so many more nuances and layers than that first bare-bones description could convey.

The novel is told from both Cam's (the mom) and Aubrey's (the daughter) perspectives; it also shifts in time over the course of Aubrey's senior year of high school. Aubrey's voice is especially well-done - Bird clearly has a very strong awareness of the realities of late adolescence! I found all of the characters to be interesting and well-written, from Cam, the lactaction-consultant/single mom, to Dori, her ageing hippie friend, to Aubrey and Tyler, two teenagers struggling to become individuals in the shadow of so many people's great expectations.

This book was, at turns, laugh-out-loud funny, tender, and even heartbreaking. I think Bird got to the heart of the tough relationship between mother and daughter, and the painful reality that sometimes what we most desperately want is unachievable, and may not be the right thing for us anyway. She explores the many 'gaps' in our lives, and how normal families try to fill them, with gentle humor and compassion.

This is the first book I've read by Sarah Bird, but it won't be the last. I give it 4 stars.

07 June 2011

When God Was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman

Flap Copy from ARC: " ... Sarah Winman has written the story of a memorable young heroine, Elly, and her loss of innocence - a magical portrait of growing up and the pull and power of family ties. From Essex and Cornwall to the streets of New York, from 1968 to the events of 9/11, 'When God Was a Rabbit' follows the evolving bond of love and secrets between Elly and her brother, Joe, and her increasing concern for an unusual best friend, Jenny Penny, who has secrets of her own."

To quote the publisher, "this is a book about a brother and a sister. It's a book about secrets and starting over, friendship and family, triumph and tragedy, and everything in between. More than anything, it's a book about love in all its forms."

Winman's debut novel is divided in two - a humorous look at Elly's childhood relationships and trials, and a much more serious tackling of her adult life and the fractured connections she struggles to maintain. Winman has created quite a cast of characters - from Joe, Elly's moody gay brother who would do anything to protect his little sister, to Nancy, the glamorous Hollywood-actress aunt whose bountiful and loving personality are the glue that keeps the family together, to Arthur and Ginger, elderly best friends who enter the family as guests at their bed-and-breakfast and never leave.

The tone of the book is certainly more serious than not, as Elly, Joe and Elly's best friend Jenny Penny struggle with abuse, sexual uncertainty, family drama and the stress of separation. Winman has defintely captured the pain and awkardness of lost innocence while stepping outside the standard coming-of-age mold.

The characters' voices are clear, and I really enjoyed Winman's descriptive, literal writing style - there were multiple moments where I couldn't help but laugh out loud. At the same time, I found certain elements of the plot to be unrealistic - honestly, how many bizarre turns of fortune can one family experience? I would have rated the novel higher had I found it to be more believable - as it is, I give it 3 stars for being well-written and creative. I definitely look forward to reading more from Sarah Winman in the future.

03 June 2011

Heat Wave by Nancy Thayer

Product Description from Amazon.com: "Making the startling discovery that her family finances are in dire straits is only the latest shock endured by Carley Winsted after her husband’s sudden death from a heart attack. Resisting her in-laws’ well-meaning overtures to take in Carley and her two daughters, the young widow instead devises a plan to keep her family in their beloved home, a grand historic house on the island of Nantucket.

The solution is right at Carley’s front door: transforming her expensive, expansive house into a bed-and-breakfast. Not everyone, however, thinks this plan prudent or quite respectable — especially not Carley’s mother-in-law. Further complicating a myriad of challenges, a friend forces Carley to keep a secret that, if revealed, will undo families and friendships.

When her late husband’s former law partner keeps showing up at the most unexpected times, Carley must cope with an array of mixed feelings. And then, during a late-summer heat wave, the lives of Carley and her friends and family will be forever changed in entirely unexpected ways.

First, let me specify that I received an ARC of this book - the above description comes from amazon.com because the description inside the ARC is clearly of a MUCH earlier version of the book, when the story was intended to take a very different turn!

This novel would make a great beach read, despite beginning with a sad premise (that the heroine (Carley) has just been widowed and finds herself in dire financial straits.) I think Thayer does a great job of introducing complex, interesting female characters - I'm just not sure she does a great job with the follow-through. The trajectory of this novel was highly predictable, and I think cheapened my experience as a reader - as though the author didn't give me enough credit to appreciate a more complex storyline, or the real problems and stresses that the characters would most likely face in real life.

Overall the story is light, a little fluffy and insubstantial for my taste. I enjoyed reading the book, and it was certainly a quick read, but I just wanted more from the story and from the characters - I wanted them to wow or surprise me in some way, and it never happened. I think Thayer has a knack for character creation, I hope she takes it one step farther next time. I give this book 2.5 stars.

02 June 2011

Promise Me: How a Sister's Love Launched the Global Movement to End Breast Cancer... by Nancy Brinker

Flap Copy from ARC: "Growing up in postwar Peoria, Illinois, Suzy and Nancy Goodman were inseparable, with the elegant, socially poised Suzy serving as younger sister Nancy's best friend and role model in the grand adventure of life. Then, in 1977, at thirty-four, Suzy was diagnosed with breast cancer. Three years later, having endured uninformed doctors, multiple surgeries, and several grueling courses of chemotherapy and radiation, she died. In one of the sisters' last conversations, Suzy begged Nancy to do something to stop the suffering. "Promise me, Nanny," she said. "Promise me you won't let it go on like this."

Her heart broken, Nancy promised. "I swear, Suzy. Even if it takes the rest of my life."
At that moment, Susan G. Komen for the Cure was born.
Armed with only $200 and a shoebox filled with names, Nancy embarked on her thirty-year quest to change the way the world thought about, spoke about, and treated breast cancer - a quest that took on added urgency when she herself was diagnosed with the disease. Through it all, she was aided by her husband, Norman Brinker, whose dynamic approach to business became Nancy's model for running her foundation ...

Nancy was luckier than Suzy: she survived breast cancer and went on to turn SGK into the most influential health charity in the world. To date, SGK has contributed some $1.5 billion for cutting=edge research and community programs. And thanks to a sister's love, a diagnosis of breast cancer is no longer a death sentence."

"Promise Me" is at heart the story of a family in motion - from Nancy and Suzy's early years together, to their young adulthood and the individual growth they shared, to Suzy's unexpected and tragic illness and death, to the promise Nancy made and was unable to forget, to Nancy's second marriage and the strength and resources that relationship afforded.

From the start, Nancy and Suzy are two very different sisters being raised in a household with one common theme - that support of and service to others is the only true path to happiness and fulfillment. The girls are brought up smothered with love and family, but with a sense of duty to the less fortunate and the less appreciated. That attitude, instilled in them both by their incredible mother, shapes both women as they mature and become wives, mothers and active members of their communities. When Suzy is diagnosed with breast cancer, and her sad prognosis becomes clear to the family, Suzy extracts a promise from her baby sister - that Nancy will make it better for other women, that she will do everything in her power to change the experience of breast cancer for women everywhere - from the social silence to the drab hospital waiting room, Nancy must bring women's needs to the forefront of scientific research. The promise is made, though Nancy at first has no idea how to proceed.

Suzy's death is the catalyst for Nancy's action, and the first breath of life for Susan G. Komen for the Cure. The remainder of the book summarizes the various actions and goals of the organization, with personal vignettes peppered throughout. Nancy's relationship with her second husband, Norman Brinker, is explored in detail as he was a motivating and educating force in her efforts at building and then maintaining a successful non-profit organization.

This book is full of life, full of a sense of purpose but without a holier-than-thou attitude regarding that greater purpose. I think Brinker's strengh and personality are evident on every page, as are her intelligence and wide breadth of knowledge on all subjects relating to breast cancer. I found her 'memoir' to be honest, uplifting and also strongly grounded in reality - her voice is strong, her message clear, yet her vulnerability as a sister and a woman are embraced. I highly recommend this book, I want to share it with my sister right away.

01 June 2011

I Could Love You by William Nicholson

Flap Copy from ARC: "Belinda decides that she wouldn't feel too guilty having an affair, but then finds out that her husband has beein doing more than thinking about it. Meg loves Belinda's husband, Tom, but Matt, Meg's plumber, loves Meg. Jack wants Chloe, but all he can get is Alice, and Alice feels like she can't get anybody. Art and love intersect in this tragic tale of growing up and growing old, and the question is asked: can attaining happiness ever be as simple as we want it to be?"

This novel is quite reminiscent of the movie 'Love Actually' - set in and around London during the Christmas holiday season, a cast of interconnected characters spanning all age groups seeks meaning in love and life. Nicholson has reasonable success making the characters' voices distinct, though for the first section of the novel I did have a hard time keeping track of which people were related, which were just friends and which ones were the most unknown.

The middle aged-group are battling the monotony of monogamy and the challenges of childrearing; the adolescents are either over-sexed or under-experienced, trying to navigate the complexities of sex and relationships; the oldest character has given up on life, feeling a lack of recognition of himself in the world, while the youngest child is desperately seeking attention and love in all the wrong places.

Nicholson places his novel soundly in modernity, referencing and also mocking our obsession with things like Facebook and also tackling our perception of art, both traditional and modern.

I enjoyed this book, I found myself engaged in the characters' struggles and rooting for some and against others. I think Nicholson has an entertaining novel here that does a good job of capturing the way people often overthink their lives to an almost comical degree. I wish that some of the characters had been more developed, I wanted more from Matt the plumber and from Meg, his live interest - I think they might have been the most interesting stories in the book and their non-resolution left me a little wanting. But in general, I liked the book, it was an enjoyable read - I give it 3 stars."

Friendship Bread by Darien Gee

Description from 'Amazon.com': "Friendship Bread begins with the mysterious present of starter bread batter and expands to show how the smallest gifts can change entire lives.

Julia Evarts has sustained a tragedy of heartbreaking proportions. She manages to care for her little daughter, but she can’t tolerate being near her once-beloved sister Livvy. Her marriage to her husband Mark hangs by a thread. Julia’s grief and estrangement is a constant torture for her. She can no longer find joy in her life.

Hannah de Brisay is a talented cellist who has devoted herself to her art from the age of three. She’s young, vibrant, and celebrated, when a back injury prevents her from playing professionally again. Philippe, her partner in marriage and in music, sticks her in the charming town of Avalon while he is away--playing, in all senses of the word.

Madeline Davis has also had her share of sorrow. She’s older, though, and perhaps even wiser. Certainly she knows, as this captivating book shows, that nurturing others often helps you heal yourself. In her small tea salon, these women come together and begin the slow alchemy of friendship and personal transformation.

Much more happens, too: an ambitious journalist named Edie causes problems for everyone in town; a sexy architect named Vivian works very hard to seduce Julia’s husband Mark; and Connie Coll loses her job as a Laundromat attendant with surprising consequences. Other residents of Avalon make delightful cameos as they deal with their unexpected gifts of Friendship Bread. Some are happy about it. Some aren’t."

I read this book in one sitting during a 3 hour train ride. It was light, pleasant and certainly engaging.

The story begins when a woman with tragedy in her past and apathy in her present receives an anonymous gift - a bag of 'Amish Friendship Bread' starter. From that moment, we are drawn into the tiny Illinois town of Avalon, where life-long residents and newcomers of all description will find their lives entwined through the giving and receiving of these strange, gooey bags of batter.

I think the premise of the book is a little hokey, and the trajectories of each woman's story is predictable, but even so I really enjoyed reading it! I found myself rooting for the women, hoping that each would gain the intended 'right' perspective from the making and sharing of their baked goods.

Gee's power of description is subtle and strong - there were times when I could almost smell the baking cinnamon through the pages. She brought women of all varieties to life throughout the story, and truly showed them as distinct individuals with whom I could really relate. Her male characters are under-developed but I think that was intentional, as for the most part they played relatively inconsequential roles in the story - only Mark, the husband of the very first recipient, is given much room to tell his story - but then, his story is integral to the movement of the plot.

I really enjoyed this book, much more than I expected to - in general, "women's fiction" is not my cup of tea. I give it 4 stars, and definitely recommend it as a light and airy read.

23 April 2011

Backseat Saints by Joshilyn Jackson

Flap Copy: "Ro Grandee is the perfect Texas housewife. She's determined to be nothing like her long-missing mother - the one who left her with only a heap of old novels and her father's fists for company - so Ro keeps quiet and takes her husband's punches like a lady. But Ro wasn't always this way. Underneath her pastel skirts and hidden bruises lies Rose Mae Lolley, teenage spitfire, Alabama heartbreaker, and a crack shot with a pistol. Rose Mae is resurrected when a gypsy's tarot cards foretell doom for dutiful Ro: her handsome husband is going to kill her. Unless she kills him first.

Armed with only her wit, her pawpy's ancient .45, and her dog Fat Gretel, Rose Mae hightails it out of Texas. In a journey that is by turns harrowing and exhilerating, she uncovers long-buried truths about her family and herself, running from the man who will never let her go, on a mission to find the mother who did."

I came into this book with high hopes - I've loved Jackson's previous novels and was looking forward to another gripping story. I was not disappointed. From the start, the plot grabs you, while Jackson's voice sparkles with wit even in the face of some serious subjects.

Rose Mae, a good Southern Catholic girl, is the main character, though her alter-egos Mrs. Ro Grandee and Ivy Rose Wheeler play equally into the movement of the plot. Rose Mae was abandoned by her mother and left to her abusive, alcoholic father. Ro is Thom Grandee's beautiful, perfect punching bag of a wife. Ivy Rose has reached the end of her tether, and is running both from her husband and from her past. Rose, like most people, lives as a complex mix of all three and constantly seeks some order in her mind and in her life.

I think Jackson has a gift for developing characters in such a way that draws the reader in, post-reading, makes the characters difficult to shake. Often stories of abuse can seem a little tired or predictable - Jackson took a difficult topic and gave it such an appealing, human voice that I was audibly rooting for her as I read. I highly recommend this book, 4 stars!

21 April 2011

Miles from Ordinary by Carol Lynch Williams

Flap Copy from ARC: "Thirteen-year-old Lacey wakes to a beautiful summer morning excited to begin her new job at the library, just as her mother is set to start work at the local grocery store. Lacey hopes that her mother's ghosts have finally been laid to rest; after all, she seems so much better these days, and they really do need the money. But as the hours tick by and memories come flooding back, a day full of hope spins terrifyingly out of control ..."

I loved Carol Lynch Williams' 'The Chosen One' when I read it a couple of years ago - 'Miles from Ordinary' certainly rose to the challenge of meeting and exceeding my expectations for Williams' next work. At the start of the book, thirteen-year-old Lacey has very reasonable hopes for her summer - jobs for herself and for her mom, and the chance to make a real friend for herself, someone who might share and understand her life. The book chronicles one day, from hopeful morning through to desperate and tragic evening, and captures with haunting realism the desperation Lacey feels when her mother disappears and her day - and life - fall apart.

Williams has a real knack for writing adolescence with honesty and tenderness - Lacey is a well-developed, nuanced character and I acutely felt her pain and distress through Williams' prose. I highly recommend this book, for YA and mature readers alike - 5 stars!

15 April 2011

Wrecker by Summer Wood

Flap Copy from ARC: "It's June 1965 when Wrecker enters the world. The war is waging in Vietnam, San Francisco is tripping toward flower power, and Lisa Fay, Wrecker's birth mother, is knocked nearly sideways by life as a single parent in a city she can barely manage to navigate on her own. Three years later, she's in prison, and Wrecker is left to bounce around in the system before he's shipped off to live with distant relatives in the wilds of Humboldt County, California. When he arrives he's scared and angry, ready to explode at the least thing, and quick to flee. 'Wrecker' is the story of this boy and the motley group of isolated eccentrics who come together to raise him, and become a family along the way."

Summer Wood's novel tells the story of Wrecker, a destructive 3-year old who ends up in the custody of his uncle after his mother goes to prison. When Uncle Len realizes he can't care for a child on his own, he turns to his neighbors - a motley group of women who've escaped their own lives and heartaches and started fresh at Bow Farm. The plot follows Wrecker as he grows, but this book is about much more than one boy's journey into adulthood - Wood captures the essence of family in the most unconventional of packages, and really brings home the notion that love comes in all shapes, sizes and demonstrative forms.

Some other reviewers felt removed from the characters and found it hard to relate to their problems - I disagree, I think Wood's characters are well-developed. By the end of the novel, I felt that I knew each backstory, knew their problems and their joys.

I think 'Wrecker' is a great portrait of family life, and the myriad ways that people change their lives for and because of the other people in their lives. Once I started reading, I was reluctant to put the book down. I give it 4 stars!

20 January 2011

The Whole Wide Beauty by Emily Woof

Flap Copy: "David Freeman, the charismatic and renowned director of the Broughton Poetry Foundation, has always been more interested in his work than family, and his daughter feels the wound of his neglect. David's intense passion for his work masks a complicated inner world, and his already fraught relationship with Katherine is further threatened when she falls in love with his protege, the poet Stephen Jericho. Years earlier, Katherine abandoned her career as a dancer, and she is muffled by motherhood and a conventional marriage; with the affair, she senses freedom. As she falls in love and her marriage starts to come apart, she begins to question the depth of the romance. Her emotional journey leads her back to the north of England where she was brought up, to her father, and to her younger self, the passionate dancer."

David is struggling to maintain his faltering poetry foundation, while his daughter is adrift after giving up her life as a dancer to become a wife and mother. The two have a distant and tense relationship, made worse by David's long-held secret and Katherine's new affair with David's favorite young poet, married-with-children Stephen Jericho.

The affair awakens a new passion in them both, leading Stephen to creative productivity and Katherine to a new sense of self. Meanwhile, David is diagnosed with cancer and must devote himself even more whole-heartedly to finding a wealthy benefactor for the Foundation, which pulls him even farther from his family.

Woof's writing is sparse, her emotions buried deep under the surface of her characters' stiff outer personalities. The story here was not wildly compelling, but the characters' rich inner worlds and tumultuous ups and downs did make for a moving drama of love and family. I guess the plot doesn't matter so much, if the characters can carry the tale.

Sweet Dates in Basra by Jessica Jiji

Flap Copy from ARC: "When two Iraqi families - one Jewish and one Muslim - break through a wall in their adjoining courtyard to accomodate a shared water pipe, two young boys, from two very different cultures, begin passing notes through the hole. As the world disintegrates around them, these boys become fast friends and their families become a microcosm of the brotherhood many Jewish and Muslim families nurtured during the era following Iraq's independence. In that period of promise and peril, the Jewish boy succumbs to a romance as timeless and fraught as Romeo and Juliet when he falls in love with, and compromises, a beautiful Marsh Arab maid, whos emother is determined to preserve her daughter's honor in a land where its loss is punishable by death.

Set during the tumultuous years surrounding World War II, this book is the redemptive story of an unlikely friendship and a forbidden love amid two converging worlds as well as a powerful reminder that human solidarity holds the potential for deliverance."

When I began this book, I was afraid that my complete ignorance of the history of Iraq during WWII would hinder my enjoyment of the story - I worried that I would need background knowledge I didn't have. I needn't have been concerned. Jiji seamlessly wound a history lesson into her story of forbidden love, educating the reader while at the same time spinning a creative tale of fmaily and friendship.

Kathmiya, a young teen sent to town from the marshes to work as a maid and earn money for the family, cannot understand why her father doesn't love her as much as her sister, or why he will not permit her to marry and live a normal life. In her loneliness, she turns to a friendship with Sharif, a young Jewish boy, though it would mean a death sentence were anyone to discover their relationship.

The novel starts with a barrage of characters that take a bit of time to sort out; once the family trees are clear, however, Jiji's story is a depiction of culture both beautiful and terrible. The ending is unexpected, as is Jiji's lack of sentimentality - her voice is strong and delivers a vibrant read.