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.