Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Magic Room

The Magic Room: A Story About The Love We Wish For Our Daughters, by Jeffrey Zaslow.

When I first drove up to Becker's Bridal, I was aware only that the store was a popular stop for brides-to-be from central Michigan. I didn't know its history. I knew nothing about the family that ran it. I certainly didn't know about the Magic Room.

But on the very first day I visited Becker's, I truly senses that this was a place that could illuminate the most poignant aspects of a woman's journey to the altar. I just knew that the story I wanted to tell about all of our daughters was here - in the walls, in the mirrors, on the racks, and especially, in that small, simple room at the top of the stairs.

I read this book for the BlogHer Book Club campaign, and it is the third book I have reviewed for them; however, it is the first that I have really enjoyed. The bridal shop in the novel is located in Fowler, Michigan (Lansing area), about an hour and a half from where I live, and since I had never heard of Fowler, I looked it up on Google Maps when I first started reading the book; and there it was! Becker's Bridal is located on their two-block Main St., and it even has its own denotation on Google Maps.

The story is rooted at Becker's, but, as the title says, really is a novel about "the love we wish for our daughters." It chooses six brides and tells their stories: how they got engaged, how they ended up at Becker's, and the special circumstances in their lives that all happened before their wedding days. It also focuses on the women who run Becker's, and how the store ended up under each's ownership.

The stories were all very interesting, and so was the history of the store. The Magic Room in the title refers to a special room that one bride goes into (only one at a time) with family or friends when she has found a dress that she thinks she may want to purchase. The storefront where Becker's exists used to be a bank, and the Magic Room used to be an old vault; it has since been renovated, but some of that inclusiveness remains. The lighting is soft, and when brides wear a dress into the Magic Room, they can see immediately whether that is the dress "for them" or not.

The writing is very good in the novel as well, although there were a few times that it tended to gear towards the sappy/dramatic. The Magic Room will be available in bookstores on January 2, 2012.

3.5 stars out of 5.

*Disclosure: I received compensation for writing this review. The opinions listed, however, are my own.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Lake of Dreams

The Lake of Dreams, by Kim Edwards.

My name is Lucy Jarrett, and before I knew about the girl in the window, before I went home and stumbled on the fragments and began to piece the story back together, I found myself living in a village near the sea in Japan. It had been a spring of little earthquakes, and that night I woke abruptly, jarred from a dream. Footsteps faded in the cobblestone lane and distant trains rumbled; I listened harder until I could make out the surge of the sea. But that was all.

The Lake of Dreams was released this year, but I only now found out about it. It's by the author of The Memory Keeper's Daughter, which is one of the best and also saddest books I have read in the past few years, and which was also turned into a made-for-TV movie as well. The Lake of Dreams, like her previous novel, does not disappoint.

Lucy Jarrett has been living overseas with her boyfriend, Yoshi, for a while now, but she is currently unemployed. She decides to go home to upstate New York, to The Lake of Dreams (actual city name), to visit her mother, brother, and family. Once there, she discovers a long-lost relative who may or may not have been involved in something scandalous, and therefore whose existence was covered up. It's connected to the discovery of beautiful stained-glass windows in an old church, too, and she works with an old boyfriend, Keegan Fall, now in the glassworks profession, to try and figure out the mystery.

This novel was very well-written and the characters seemed very real. The mystery story, too, helps reveal things about Lucy and also about her father's death, about 20-30 years previous, and it makes for a good read. The Lake of Dreams was featured on the BlogHer Book Club, which is how I found out about it, and I was pleased to discover that Edwards had written another novel; this is her second novel and third overall book (she also wrote a book of short stories). This novel was one of the better ones I've read recently, and I would recommend it to anyone who likes a good story.

4.5 stars out of 5.

Saturday, December 24, 2011


Restoration, by Olaf Olafsson.

Later, when she lay in the clinic at San Martino, listening to the cicada singing outside the window and watching Melchiorre's shadow by the door, it occurred to her that she had begun to change that evening. It took a long time; there was more than one veil over her eyes, and they were not stripped away all at once but little by little, until she finally saw Robert Marshall in a cold, pitiless light. And that was when she committed the crime, in the light that spared no one and was devoid of all beauty or forgiveness.

I had not heard of the author Olaf Olafsson before reading this novel, but it seems that he is a "jack of all spades," so to speak. He has a degree in physics from Brandeis University, and is the founder of Sony Interactive Entertainment (a division of Sony). He is also currently one of the "top media executives in the country" and is the Executive Vice President, International and Corporate Strategy, of Time Warner. I'm not sure when he finds the time to write, but this endeavor, Restoration, was interesting, once I figured out the characters and which voice was whose.

The character jumps from first-person POV, that of Alice's, to Kristin's, in the third-person. Alice lives in the countryside of Italy with her husband, who has recently disappeared, and formerly with her son, Giovanni, who died at a young age of meningitis. The time period is World War II, and Alice has taken in some children who would otherwise have been refugees. Kristin, injured from a train blast, stumbles upon their cozy household, and of course is taken in as well. Alice is hiding a painting for the Germans, which was given to them from the renowned restoration expert Robert Marshall, and is said to be a painting by one the greats. What they don't know, however, is that the painting is a fake: Kristin, an art student of Marshall's and later his lover, painted it in the style of the greats to fool Marshall and get back at him - he said he was going to leave his wife and never did. The painting was taken from her before she was able to explain it to him, however, and experts confirmed it to be by the great painter and not her.

Kristin hasn't told Alice any of this, but when her leg heals, she starts to look for the painting at the villa. Soon, however, the Germans have taken over the villa as the "front line," and they are all forced to evacuate to avoid the bombings.

This novel was a little confusing to me at first because it jumps around so much - from past to present - and is also written in two POV's (first-person, in Alice's voice, and third person, for Kristin's) - but once I figured it out it was easier to read. Anyone who is interested in novels based on / taking place during World War II will enjoy this book, and indeed, the story it tells is a tangled web of lies, hope, and complicated relationships. It reminded me a little bit of the movie The Red Violin, except that it was about a painting, in that it followed the painting from when Kristin created it to the very end of the novel, when she sees it again after many years.

3 stars out of 5.

Restoration will be in bookstores on February 7, 2012.

*Author's Note: I was given a copy of this novel to review. All opinions listed, however, are my own.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The World We Found

The World We Found, by Thrity Umrigar.

She made a face. "I was the ugly duckling of the group, I'm afraid."

"Are you kidding me? My God, Mom, you're still beautiful. Jeez, have you seen how Dad looks at you, still? Like he - like he could just inhale you or something." Diane sucked her cheeks in.

Armaiti squeezed her daughter's hand. "You're funny. Anyway, it doesn't matter who was pretty and who wasn't. What matters is" - and here she hesitated, wanted to get it right the first time - "that ... that these three women gave me something. A sense of belonging in the world, but more than that. A sense that the world belonged to me. Do you understand? A belief that it was my world - our world. To shape it as we wanted. That we never had to settle for things as they were, you know?

Diane was looking at her intently, her big eyes searching her face, and Armaiti saw how perilously young her daughter still was. Something about that look broke her heart. "You still believe that, Mom? About changing the world?" Diane asked.

How simple, how lovely, it would be to answer with a direct, honest yes.

I had never heard of the author Thrity Umrigar before reading this novel, but it is one of the best novels I have read in quite a long time, even though I was unfamiliar with India's history before this. Umrigar is the author of four other novels and a memoir, and I will definitely be reading some of her other work in the future.

The World We Found focuses on four women who were friends in college. Laleh and Nishta are still married to their college sweethearts; however, Laleh's husband Adish does well for himself and they have a happy household, with two teenage children, and Nishta's husband Iqbal, a Muslim, has turned their household into more of a prison. Nishta changed her name to Zoha to "fit in" - or, more accurately, Iqbal forced her to - and she now wears a burqa while going outside. Kavita has been a closeted lesbian ever since their college days, when she was in love with Armaiti but never told her, and now Armaiti lives in the U.S. with her daughter, Diane, and Kavita is in a relationship with Ingrid, a business associate of hers. Although these four friends haven't seen each other in many years, when Armaiti tells them that she is dying of cancer and asks them to come to the States, they all agree. The most difficult part will be getting Nishta out, especially since Iqbal took away her cell phone and passport, but Laleh and Kavita are willing to do whatever it takes to reunite with Armaiti again before her demise.

This book was very, very well-written, and the characters are really brought to life. It reminded me in a weird way of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, minus them sharing a magical pair of pants, because the four women were so close at one point and now their lives are completely different and separate, for the most part. The end of the novel sort of leaves the possibility open for a sequel, but I doubt Umrigar will write one; it was one of those books where it leads up to an event at the end, and where all the events happen before that one big event, if that makes sense. I will still wonder what happened to Nishta, Laleh, Kavita, and Armaiti, though, which gives you an idea of how descriptive these characters are.

4.5 stars out of 5.

The World We Found will be in bookstores on January 3, 2012.

*Author's Note: I was given a copy of this novel to review. All opinions listed, however, are my own.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Best of Me

The Best of Me, by Nicholas Sparks.

Neither one of them was able to move or speak as surprise gradually turned to recognition. Dawson's first thought was how much more vivid she was in person than in his memories of her. Her blond hair caught the late afternoon light like burnished gold, and her blue eyes were electric even at a distance. But as he continued to stare, subtle differences slowly came into focus. Her face, he noticed, had lost the softness of youth. The angles of her cheekbones were more visible now and her eyes seemed deeper, framed by a faint tracing of lines at the corners. The years, he realized, had been more than kind: Since he'd seen her last, she'd grown into a mature and remarkable beauty.

I am a huge fan of Nicholas Sparks' books, and this one was no exception, except the ending was much more sad than his usually are.

Amanda and Dawson were deeply in love and were going to move in together after high school, but Amanda's parents forbade it, since his family was from the "wrong side of town." They threatened to not pay for college if Amanda continued seeing him, so she went to Duke and they broke up. Now, twenty-four years later, their mutual mentor Tuck has died, and they both return to their small town of Oriental, and end up seeing each other again. They must decide if what they have is worth jeopardizing Amanda's marriage and home life for, and if it even IS still true love, after all of these years.

As all his novels are, this one was beautifully paced and descriptive. I had an inkling of what the (sad, but kind of bittersweet) ending would be once a few key events happened, and I was thinking "Oh no," and then it ended up playing out that way. The ending is more of a Jodi Picoult type, I thought, but it still works with the novel. The characters and their actions are all very believable, and you will finish The Best of Me in one or two sittings if you have time.

A few of Sparks' novels have been turned into movies, and I was trying to think of a few actors who could play Dawson and Amanda, but the way they are written in the book is very specific. Another of his novels, The Lucky One, features Zac Efron and will be in theaters this April 2012.

4 stars out of 5.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

1 Dead in Attic

1 Dead in Attic, by Chris Rose.

This is no environment for a wuss like me. We reporters go to other places to cover wars and disasters and pestilence and famine. There's no manual to tell you how to do this when it's your own city.

And I'm telling you: it's hard.

It's hard not to get crispy around the edges. It's hard not to cry. It's hard not to be very, very afraid.

Chris Rose was a journalist for The Times-Picayune newspaper in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina struck in August 2005. He and his family got out of town and eventually settled with his parents in Maryland, but he came back to New Orleans quickly after Katrina to write columns for the newspaper. 1 Dead in Attic is a collection of his columns, in a semi-chronological order, and it helps us to get a sense of the city from 2005-2006 as a whole. The novel title refers to what was written on doors in the city - the number of people dead, the number of pets dead, and the number of people found alive - and it was written on a door that Chris Rose saw while bicycling around the city one day.

I was a college freshman in 2005, starting out at the University of Michigan, and I knew that New Orleans had been ravaged by a hurricane, but I didn't know the extent of it until I visited a friend in New Orleans last month, and also read this book. Most of the areas we went to (Lakeview, downtown, Uptown, Mid-City, etc.) were fine, but in 2005 and 2006 they were not. There's a Starbucks near the Lakeview area that has a line painted on it, wrapping around the building, that is almost to its roof, and it simply says "Katrina" next to it; this was the highest that the water got up to in 2005.

The novel was interesting but I think residents or former residents of New Orleans would enjoy it more than I did, as a lot of the places' names were still foreign to me. The writing is very good, though, and paints a picture of a city in tumultuous times that was just then, in 2006, trying to rebuild itself.

3 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Lost in Time

Lost in Time, by Melissa de la Cruz.

Oliver took a series of naps, but since time was no longer a factor, it was difficult to tell how he was supposed to feel. Was he hungry? He'd had an enormous breakfast, but the transition from the glom had taken a lot out of him. Did they serve lunch in Hell? Should he have packed a snack? Why was he suddenly thinking about food? He felt tired and mixed up; it felt a little like jet lag, which he was still fighting. He hoped Mimi knew where she was going.

Lost in Time is the sixth novel in the Blue Bloods series by Melissa de la Cruz, with the seventh and final book being released in January 2013. I have been a fan of de la Cruz's books for some time, including her Au Pairs series, and I really enjoy these. They are about vampires, but these aren't your typical Twilighters: they have covens, the "glom" (kind of like the spirit world), and, in this book, they must travel into Hell to retrieve one of their own, a former Silver Blood (evil) vampire named Kingsley with whom Mimi Force has a connection. Mimi brings her human Conduit, Oliver Hazard-Perry, but does not tell him that she is going to leave him there in exchange for Kingsley. At the same time, Mimi's "twin brother" Jack Force is in Egypt with his new "wife" Schuyler, hoping for some answers, and they eventually do run into Mimi and Oliver.

I liked this novel a lot, and the cover is gorgeous as well. I'm a little sad that the next book won't be released until January 2013, but in mid-2012, a spinoff novel called Wolf Pack and also the next Witches of East End book, another series by de la Crus, will be in bookstores. Mimi reminds me a bit of Blair Waldorf from Gossip Girl, in that she is fierce, determined, and always gets what she wants, but she's angry at Jack for skipping out on being bonded to her (kind of like being married, but they have been bonded throughout the centuries, in all of their past lives). She wants to hunt him down so they can have a "blood trial," or a fight of sorts.

This novel also finally gave us the backstory of Allegra Van Alen, Schuyler's mother who also chose to break her bond and marry a human (Schuyler is half vampire and half human). I'm hoping the next novel sheds more light on her character as well.

4 stars out of 5.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Mother Daughter Show

The Mother Daughter Show, by Natalie Wexler.

Besides, the show was for Grace, a gift for her, a gesture of love. Because she really did love Grace, she positively ached with love for her, and lately - the last several years, really - it had been hard to figure out how to show it. Barb had been so consumed with trying to get Grace to do what she wanted her to do - or at least, not to do things that were self-destructive - that there was no room left for a simple hug, a murmured "I love you." Things were at the point where Grace would only be suspicious of such gestures, wondering what new parenting technique her mother was trying out now. But the show - the show would have no strings attached, no hidden agenda. Maybe it could even put their relationship on a whole different footing before Grace left home. Before it was too late. It was a long shot, but you never knew. Of course, it could only happen if they actually manage to get a show together.

This story is told from the points of view of three moms: Barb, Amanda, and Susan. Their daughters are all seniors at the Barton Friends School in D.C., loosely based on the real life Sidwell Friends School, and the tradition each year is to do a "mother daughter show" where the mothers perform skits and songs for the daughters. Each of the aforementioned mothers are having trouble relating and/or communicating with their daughters, and they figure that the show will be a way to show them how much they care about them.

However, each of the moms have different ideas for the show, and when you combine those with the fifty-four other senior moms, there is definitely a difference of opinion. Amanda has been the perfect "stay at home" mom, but due to money problems she is considering going back to work. Her daughter, Kate, is more interested than her iPod and her friends than talking to her mom, and Amanda wants to find a way to remedy that. On the other hand, Susan, one of Amanda's best friends, is super close with her daughter, Allie, but she has a feeling that there's something big that Allie has been keeping from her. Barb's daughter Grace has fallen in love with a 27-year-old Australian man, and she wants to move to Australia with him instead of going to college. All three of the mothers must put together a great show, and hopefully patch things up with their daughters as well.

The book was entertaining, and I would somewhat classify it as "chick lit." Perhaps this is the Grammar Nazi in me, but I think the title should have been hyphenated (The Mother-Daughter Show); I could be wrong on this, though. There were a lot of things in the novel that I liked and some things that I did not. First: the characters are all developed nicely. We can see why these mothers are having trouble with their daughters, and it's not really either side's fault - it's a combination of both. Susan has a corporate job and Amanda wants to get back into the workforce, and this is explored as well. Barb has way too many things on her plate, but is trying to do right by everyone, and it doesn't always work out.

The author's daughter is a graduate of the Sidwell Friends School in D.C., where the Obama children currently attend. In the novel, President MIYAMA'S daughter MARINA attends Barton Friends School, and he is the first Asian-American that has been elected to office. Marina is a minor character but parts of the book focus on how most school events are sold out, since people hope to catch a glimpse of the president or first lady. I feel like Wexler could have been a little more original with this - President Miyama (Obama), the first Asian-American (African-American) president, with a daughter named Marina (Malia)? The names, at least, could have been more original.

Overall, though, The Mother Daughter Show is a fun book, and if you like chick lit you will probably enjoy it. The novel will be in bookstores on December 1, 2011.

*Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book to review. The opinions listed, however, are my own.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Litigators

The Litigators, by John Grisham.

The law firm of Finley & Figg referred to itself as a "boutique firm." This misnomer was inserted as often as possible into routine conversations, and it even appeared in print in some of the various schemes hatched by the partners to solicit business. When used properly, it implied that Finley & Figg was something above your average two-bit operation. Boutique, as in pretty cool and chic, right down to the Frenchness of the word itself. Boutique, as in throroughly happy to be small, selective, and prosperous.

Except for its size, it was none of these things.

The Litigators is the newest novel by John Grisham, one of my favorite legal authors, and of course I had to read it. I was lucky enough to win a copy of it from his Facebook page, but since I perpetually have a large stack of books sitting on my desk, I am just now getting to read it.

David Zinc is a well-paid, overworked associate at the large Chicago firm of Rogan Rothberg. One day, he has a mini-breakdown and decides that he has had it with the firm, and drinks himself into a stupor. He somehow ends up on Finley & Figg's front porch, and they take him in for the day. He bargains with them to let him work there, and they give him a small room (attic, really) upstairs. When Finley & Figg weasel themselves into a lawsuit about Krayoxx, a drug that is supposed to control cholesterol but that some people think is causing deaths instead, David is third string on the case; due to various factors, however, he ends up sitting first chair, and even though he has no trial experience, he must somehow find a way to persevere.

The book was great, as are all of Grisham's, although the ending was a little different than some of his others. I believe I read once that Grisham himself used to be a lawyer, which is probably why is books are so accurate and detailed. If you are a fan of Grisham's or you like law/legal books in general, this is a fantastic choice, and I look forward to his next novel.

4 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Leftovers

The Leftovers, by Tom Perrotta.

They hunkered down for a couple of weeks, just the four of them, watching DVDs and playing board games, anything to distract themselves from the hysterical monotony of the TV news - the obsessive repetition of the same few basic facts, the ever-rising tally of the missing, interview upon interview with traumatized eyewitnesses, who said things like He was standing right next to me ... , or I just turned around for a second ..., before their voices trailed off into embarrassed little chuckles. The coverage felt different from that of September 11th, when the networks had shown the burning towers over and over. October 14th was more amorphous, harder to pin down: There were massive highway pileups, some train wrecks, numerous small-plane and helicopter crashes - luckily, no big passenger jets went down in the United States, although several had to be landed by terrified co-pilots, and one by a flight attendant who'd become a folk hero for a little while, one bright spot in a sea of darkness - but the media was never able to settle upon a single visual image to evoke the catastrophe. There also weren't any bad guys to hate, which made everything that much harder to get into focus.

This book definitely brought up some interesting ideas. On October 14th, in what some are calling "The Rapture," people's friends and families just vanished. One minute they were there; the next, they were not. Devout Christians were angry that they were not among the Chosen, and others are baffled as to the reasons why some were chosen. Most people lost 1 family member, or maybe 1 friend; Nora Durst, however, lost her whole family, her two kids and husband. Kevin Garvey, Maplewood's mayor, lost his wife, but in a different way: she goes to join the Guilty Remnant, a cult-like group who wears all white, takes a vow of silence, and makes their presence around Maplewood known. His son, Tom, goes back to college, but soon drops out and falls in with a "prophet" of sort, Holy Wayne. His daughter, Jill, has slipping grades and frequently skips her high school classes. Nothing is the same as it was before, and people want an explanation for the events of October 14th; unfortunately, there is no concrete answer to give.

Tom Perrotta has written numerous other novels, including Little Children, which was a great book that got turned into a film, and I like his writing a lot. The focus of the book is more on the people "left behind," and how October 14th affected them, rather than the events itself, and it is here in which the prose excels. The concept was interesting as well - how would you feel if some of the population just randomly disappeared? - and juxtaposes that against the setting of what used to be a normal, small-town community.

3.5 stars out of 5.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Night Circus

The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern.

The circus arrives without warning.

No announcements precede it, no paper notices on downtown posts and billboards, no mentions or advertisements in local newspapers. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.

The towering tents are striped in white and black, no golds and crimsons to be seen. No color at all, save for the neighboring trees and the grass of the surrounding fields. Black-and-white stripes on grey sky; countless tents of varying shapes and sizes, with an elaborate wrought-iron fence encasing them in a colorless world. Even what little ground is visible from outside is black or white, painted or powdered, or treated with some other circus trick.

But it's not open for business. Not just yet.

I read a review of The Night Circus in People magazine and was intrigued by it, so I put myself on the waitlist at my local library for it and just now have received it. It is Erin Morgenstern's debut novel, and as another reviewer online said: "The hype is justified." Imagine Water for Elephants but fifty times better, with more mystery and intrigue surrounding its characters.

Celia and Marco have been each others' opponents since they were very little, but neither of them knew that they were opponents; they only realize it after they finally do meet, and fall in love. The circus is the venue for this challenge, and whomever loses the challenge will die. It is a challenge that Celia's father and Marco's teacher of sorts bound them to when they were very little, neither of them really knowing what it meant at the time, and this sort of challenge has been done before. But for others, such as Bailey, Le Cirque due Reves is a magical apparition, opening only at night, and they wait for it patiently to come back to their home towns as it travels the world and back again.

The whole idea of the "challenge" was interesting, as was the circus, but the real story is that of the circus's players and the "magic" upon them. With the exception of the Murray Twins, no one has really aged in the 16 years or so that the book encompasses, and although this is disconcerting, the players tend not to think about it. What is also interesting is how Celia and Marco struggle with the challenge - not because they are not talented, but because they are against it, and wish to stop the game, but physically cannot, as they are magically bound to compete in it.

Ms. Morgenstern's age is not listed online, though she appears to be 21 or 22 (which makes the 24-year-old me super lazy for not writing a novel yet ...), and I hope to see more from this new talent.

4 stars out of 5.

-Edit: the author is actually 33! Wow.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

She Can Run

She Can Run, by Melinda Leigh.

He'd known her casually for a long time. Why hadn't he noticed how pretty she was before? Not beuatiful, just wholesome and fresh-faced. He handed her a twenty. "You look nice this morning."

Dropping hear head shyly, she blushed and handed over his change. "You have a good day."

"I will. Thanks." He exited the diner with a new spring in his step.

Mary Ann was lovely.

He wondered how loudly she could scream.

This is another full-on "romance" book, but I enjoyed it more than In Her Sights, which I recently reviewed, as it focused more on the mystery/thriller story rather than the romance (though there was plenty of romance as well).

Elizabeth (Beth) Baker has run away from her crazy politician husband, Richard, and is on the run with her kids and a new identity. Her uncle sets up a job for her in a rural town, as a caretaker of an estate, but when she arrives two weeks later, the old man whom she was supposed to be employed by has died. His nephew, Jack O'Malley, agrees to hire her, since he still needs a caretaker, and soon finds himself attracted to her. He knows that something is wrong with her and her kids, though, and wants to find out what it is.

There were definitely some sexual scenes in this novel but I enjoyed the mystery and thriller part of it a lot, even though I figured out who the Riverside Killer was just based on process of elimination. The characters in the novel feel very real, and Melinda Leigh does a good job at creating believable situations and scenes.

3.5 stars out of 5.

*Disclaimer: I received an ARC of this book to review. It will be in stores on November 22, 2011.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Narrows Gate

Narrows Gate, by Jim Fusilli.

Still stunned and confused, Benno was struck by the weighty silence in the apartment. He could've used some noise to block his thoughts. Every week there were funerals at St. Francis. You heard the bells in the classroom, you could smell the incense, then here comes the casket. People died; old, young, sick, accidents, killed tripping and falling under trolley wheels. It happens. You shrug when you heard that the crew chained up a guy and threw him off a bridge, blew another guy's brains out the top of his head. After a while you thought it's nothing, somebody dying. But it ain't nothing.

Narrows Gate is a mob story that takes place during the time of World War II and beyond, and it reminded me a lot of The Godfather except with more characters with different personalities. There are so many characters, in fact, that the author makes a list of them at the beginning of the book, which is helpful in writing this review.

The main character is Bill "Bebe" Marsala, who grows up in Narrows Gate. His mother Hennie hears him singing one day, and realizes he has a gift. The Narrows Gate mob decides they are going to promote him, and he will sing in their joints. Soon, though, Bebe wants more exposure, and he ends up traveling all over the country to perform.

The other story going on at the same time is that of the mob itself and also of the friendship between Leo Bell and Sal Benno. Bell and Benno grow up together, but soon go their separate ways; Benno ends up working for the Narrows Gate mob as a driver and delivery boy, and Bell joins the FBI (or what it was called before it was the FBI), and soon they are investigating the mob. Bell says he will help them but tells them not to pull Benno in for questioning.

The story spans over a few years and we follow these boys from their youth in Narrows Gate until their 20s or 30s, I believe. Bebe marries Rosa, a girl he grew up with, but is fooling around with Eleanor Ree, a famous actress, on the side, and Bebe and Rosa eventually divorce, though they have a son (Bill Jr.) together. There are two distinct mob families that have a grudge against each other, and even though the list at the beginning helped, it was still a little confusing as to who belonged to which family.

The book would make a great movie a la The Godfather, in my opinion. The novel is published by Amazon Encore, which says "identifies exceptional yet overlooekd books and works with the authors to introduce or re-introduce their books to readers," which leads me to believe that Narrows Gate has been published before in the past. I liked the book overall, my chief complaint being its length (about 575 pages), but the story was definitely interesting. Jim Fusilli grew up in Hoboken, apparently, and "learned about the mob as a kid through hearing stories in the neighborhood, and later, from his work as a Teamster." He said:

"Hoboken was a rough town back then and I was a teamster when I was in college. The guys I worked with told stories of their childhood, which is the era in much of which the action of Narrows Gate takes place. They gave me a sense of what it was like."

I haven't read a ton of mob books, but out of the ones I have read, this ranks among the best, if you can get past the long page count.

Narrows Gate will be in bookstores on November 15th.

3.5 stars out of 5.

*Disclosure: I was given an Advance Readers Copy of this book to review. The opinions listed, however, are my own.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

In Her Sights

In Her Sights, by Robin Perini.

The trigger felt right.

The sight was zeroed in, the balance perfect. The Remington 700/40 fit her body and her mind like an old friend she could trust, and Jasmine "Jazz" Parker didn't trust easily. But she and the rifle were connected in a way a lover, friend or family could never be. The Remington would never let her down.

The only hitch - she didn't have an ideal shot at the kidnapper. Not yet, anyway.

Jasmine (Jazz) Parker has a lot of skeletons in her closet, but in the present day she is the Lead Sniper for her local police department; that is, until she misses a shot, and one of her teammates gets knifed. It soon becomes apparently that someone tampered with her rifle, and she seeks answers. Unfortunately, the one person who may be able to help her is Luke, her ex-boyfriend whom she still cares about. She soon realizes that someone is out to get her, too, and frame her for some crimes, so she doubly needs Luke's help in exonerating herself.

I love reading books that have romantic parts but I am not a big fan of "romance books." You know the type - scintillating sex scenes that leave nothing to the imagination. This novel had a few of those in there, but the best parts of it were actually the mystery/cop/sniper parts. This is the first novel for the author, Robin Perini, who works at a technology company for her "day job," so she was not devoid of expertise regarding the way police departments and snipers work (as you can see from the first paragraph listed above - she goes into details about the Remington rifle Jazz uses), so that was a plus for the book.

I wish the book didn't go into the sex scenes as much, but since it's a romance novel, I guess that's kind of in the novel description.

2.5 stars out of 5.

*Disclosure: I received an Advance Reader's Copy of this book to review. The book will arrive in bookstores on November 29th, 2011.

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Return of Jonah Gray

The Return of Jonah Gray, by Heather Cochran.

So people sometimes tried to avoid me. Sure, I might have wished it was different, but I was an excellent auditor. Not everyone could do my job. Not everyone could build lives atop quantitative foundations or look beyond numbers to the events and decisions that put them there. The best auditors love to unravel the story that lurks in the data, to see hidden meanings and solve the puzzle. They have an eye for detail and great powers of concentration.

At least, they should, and I always had. Only, sometime earlier this month, I had started to drift.

This is Heather Cochran's second book, of two total, and the first was Mean Season, which I read a few weeks ago and liked as well. In this novel, Sasha Gardner works for the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), which most Americans love to hate. Because of this, it's sometimes hard for her to find guys to date, once they find out her occupation. When she gets to do a random audit of someone named Jonah Gray, though, she soon finds herself receiving complaining calls, from Jonah's friends and neighbors and website readers, who ask her why she is doing that to him, when he is such a good person. Her curiosity about Jonah leads her to delve deeper into his life, and she likes what she sees on paper; but what about in real life?

Sasha is a compelling character, and the banter in the first chapter is excellent. I could definitely see this book made into a movie. My only complaint is - POSSIBLE SPOILER - that Jonah himself does not pop up until the very end; I wouldn't mind a sequel being made that details the exploits of Sasha and Jonah, but at the same time Sasha's story has pretty much been told by the end of Jonah Gray.

I am hoping that Ms. Cochran writes more novels in the future, as well; on her website, I don't see anything listed as "in the works." Check out both Jonah Gray and Mean Season while we wait for more, however, as both are fun, great reads.

4 stars out of 5.

Sunday, October 16, 2011


Bumped, by Megan McCafferty.

I check once more for anyone I know, then blind my MiNet with a blink-left-right-left-wink-double-blink. The song is wrapping up - You're the most important person on the plaaaanet ... Babiez R U!" when I'm startled out of my reverie by the sound of my own voice.


I jump.

I've been so focused on my expectant spectacle, I forgot that I'm not alone in the dressing room. Standing directly behind me is Harmony. Until a few weeks ago, we had never spoken. And until a few hours ago, we had never met in person.

She's my identical twin.

This book is a dystopian novel, but unlike any other I have read before. It's not all doom and gloom; it's actually fairly normal, for the most part. Melody is 16 and attends a prep high school, and is hoping to get into Global U, one of the most prestigious colleges around. She lives with her parents, and was adopted when she was a baby. She has a best friend, Zen, with whom she shares a mutual attraction. At school, she has other friends whom she hangs out with as well.

The difference: about 50% of the girls at her school are pregnant, and the rest are hoping to get pregnant.

The reason? A virus has made people 18 and over, for the most part, unfertile, so wannabe parents pay these girls to get pregnant. Melody signed a contract two years ago that includes full college tuition, a car, and other goodies, but she hasn't been matched yet with a suitable boy, or "bumped," as they call it. (I'm thinking this came from the phrase "bumping uglies," a euphemism for sex, but I'm not entirely sure)

One of her best friends, Shoko, is almost ready to pop, and Shoko is an "amateur" that turned "pro" - now, she gets paid to get pregnant BEFORE she actually GETS pregnant, while the "amateurs" copulate first and then hope to find a suitable family.

Melody has been groomed her entire life for this, and is more than ready to get bumped ... until she meets her twin sister, Harmony, who has lived in Goodside her entire life (similar to an Amish community - they don't use electricity, they get up early to do household chores, and they dress very modestly). At Goodside, they can be paired with a husband as early as age 13, and Harmony has just married Ram, but hasn't yet "consummated" the marriage with him.

Melody is finally matched with the famous 17-year-old Jondoe, one of the most popular sperm donors around, but it's Harmony who actually meets him when he comes to visit and leaves the house with him, and she doesn't tell Melody that she has been matched. Melody finally figures it out later when her MiNet is blowing up with comments about her and Jondoe, and how they were sighted out at all the popular spots.

The novel really jumps into Melody's world without really explaining anything, but you will soon pick up the lingo used. "MiNet" is like Facebook, but with a GPS tracking system too, and if you want to "go blind" so that people can't tell where you are, you have that option. Goodside is basically like an Amish community, in that they aren't allowed to leave it (bad Harmony!) and there are many things that are expected of them there. The novel is set in the 2030s, I believe, because it was around the year 2020 that the virus struck (all of the girls in the novel have the virus, but onset is not until they are 18, it seems), and the drink of choice is "Coke '99," which I am guessing is similar to the Coke we drink today. They stopped making condoms around the year 2025, so now when people have sex they do it solely to procreate, for the most part.

Melody would secretly like to "bump" with her boy best friend, Zen, but he is "vertically challenged" - only 5'7", her height. Future parents only hire "the best of the best" genetically to bump, for the most part, and although Zen would definitely fulfill the intelligence requirements, he does not fulfill the physical requirements, such as height. Parents also try to pick donors who look like themselves, so that their baby will bear a resemblance to them.

The lingo and the beginning of the book is a bit overwhelming, but once you get into the book you won't want to put it down - I read it in 1 day.

McCafferty is currently at work on a sequel, called Thumped, which will be out in April 2012. I am looking forward to that because she definitely left the end of Bumped "up in the air," so to speak.

4.5 stars out of 5.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Island

The Island, by Elin Hilderbrand.

After college, Chess moved to New York City. She got a job in the advertising department at Glamourous Home; then she was promoted to editorial, where they could make better use of her talents. She indulged her lifelong love of cooking by attending the French Culinary Institute on the weekends and learning the proper way to dice an onion and how to measure in metric. She discovered Zabar's and Fairway and the greenmarket in Union Square. She threw dinner parties in her apartment, inviting people she barely knew and making difficult dishes that impressed them. She went to work early and stayed late. She smiled at everyone, she knew all her doormen by name, and she joined the Episcopal church on East Seventy-first Street and worked in the soup kitchen. She got promoted again. She was, at age twenty-nine, the youngest editor in the Diamond Publishing Group. Chess's life had been silk ribbon unspooling exactly the way it was supposed to - and then it was as if she'd looked down and the ribbon was a rat's nest, tangled and knotted. And so Chess threw the ribbon - spool and all - away.

I've read a few of Elin Hilderbrand's books, but this, from 2010, was by far the best I've read.

Chess is engaged to marry Michael, who is perfect on paper for her, but she pines for his brother, Nick, the fledgling rock star. Her sister, Tate, does very well for herself and owns her own business, but has never had a long-term relationship with anyone. When Chess abruptly breaks off her engagement to Michael, Birdie, their mother, invites her and Tate to spend a month with her on Tuckernuck Island, near Nantucket, and they cajole Birdie's sister India to go as well. While on the island, they must all face the problems they have been having, and they have a month to overcome them, as well as work through new ones.

The writing in this novel was fantastic, and the island is apparently real, as Hilderbrand refers to in the Acknowledgments section at the end of the book. Hilderbrand is a Nantucket resident, as well, which means she has a wealth of knowledge about it and its surrounding areas. Chess, India, Birdie, and Tate all are very different people, yet all fully brought to life in this novel, and it will engage its readers throughout its 403 pages.

4 stars out of 5.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Twenty Boy Summer

Twenty Boy Summer, by Sarah Ockler.

When someone you love dies, people ask you how you're doing, but they don't really want to know. They seek affirmation that you're okay, that you appreciate their concern, that life goes on and so can they. Secretly they wonder when the statute of limitations on asking expires (it's three months, by the way. Written or unwritten, that's about all the time it takes for people to forget the one thing that you never will).

They don't want to know that you'll never again eat birthday cake because you don't want to erase the magical taste of the frosting on his lips. That you wake up every day wondering why you got to live and he didn't. That on the first afternoon of your first real vacation, you sit in front of the ocean, face hot under the giant sun, willing him to give you a sign that he's okay.

I recently read Sarah Ocker's second novel, Fixing Delilah, so I wanted to go back and read this book, her debut novel. Great book with compelling characters, focusing on Anna and her best friend Frankie, who are still grieving the loss of Frankie's brother, Matt, in a car crash about a year before. Anna had loved Matt her whole life, but it was in the few months before he died that they had started secretly seeing each other. He had asked Anna not to tell Frankie about it - that he would, on their family trip to California - and she honored that promise; unfortunately, that ended up being one of the last times they had together. Anna and Frankie survived the car crash, but Matt did not - he died of a heart defect, which caused him to crash the car.

Now, Frankie has invited Anna along on her annual family trip to California, and their goal is to make it a "twenty boy summer" - they will each find twenty boys (their trip is about 2-3 weeks long) that they like on the trip, and perhaps Anna will even lose her virginity, as Frankie lost hers with a German exchange student a few months earlier.

I love good YA (Young Adult) novels, and this one definitely qualifies. As the reader, we can see why Anna is hesitant to date/find new boys, as she still isn't over losing Matt the way she did, but in time, she comes to realize that she can honor his memory but still find happiness in her own life.

4 stars out of 5.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Weight of Silence

The Weight of Silence, by Heather Gudenkauf.

When Antonia laughed, those around here did too, except for Calli. Calli hadn't laughed for a long time. She smiled her sweet, close-lipped grin, but an actual giggle, which once was emitted freely and sounded of chimes, never came, though she knew her mother waited expectantly.

This novel was excellent, and I hope that it's turned into a movie some day. Petra and Calli are best friends, but Calli hasn't talked since she was four years old. One day, both girls go missing, and the girls' families are stricken with grief; what they don't know, however, is that the two disappearances are not related. Griff, Calli's father, has dragged her into the forest in a drunken stupor and a jealous rage, whereas Petra is in real danger.

The novel was told in 3rd person throughout but each chapter was told from a different character's point of view. Petra only received one chapter, but Calli, Ben (Calli's brother), Antonia (Calli's mother), Griff, and Deputy Sheriff Louis, a former boyfriend of Antonia's, all have their own chapters, which helps to make the novel as strong as it is.

I am looking forward to Ms. Gudenkauf's next novel, which, according to her Twitter, will be entitled The Bitter Season.

4.5 stars out of 5.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Fixing Delilah

Fixing Delilah, by Sarah Ockler.

The maples near the porch shake their rustling green heads in the breeze, but Mom and Aunt Rachel don't notice. They just stare at each other, standing here in the middle of things with their arms dangling and the screen door half-open, the same blood flowing through their veins and a thousand pounds of unspoken words keeping them apart.

Delilah remembers staying at her grandparents' house in Red Falls, Vermont, when she was younger, and then after her grandfather's funeral her mom and she never went back. When her grandmother dies, however, they must go to fix up the house and sell it, and in the process they meet up with her mom's sister, Delilah's Aunt Rachel, and a childhood friend of Delilah's, Patrick. Originally they are resistant at leaving the city for the summer, but as time goes on, Delilah finds that perhaps everything she needs is right there in Red Falls.

I liked this novel a lot and the protagonist, Delilah, is very believable/relatable. There are a lot of secrets in her family, starting with her Aunt Stephanie, who died at age 19, and over the course of the summer, Delilah starts to find out some of these secrets in unusual ways. Then there's Patrick, who was inseparable with Delilah when they were little, and who has grown up and become very cute ... and a new friend she meets, Emily, whose family owns a coffee shop in the town. Red Falls makes Delilah realize that maybe her "city" life wasn't ideal after all, and that sometimes "home" can be the place you least expect it to be.

4 stars out of 5.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011


Delirium, by Lauren Oliver.

I comfort myself by thinking that in less than two months this will seem like nothing to me. All of it will fall away and I'll rise up new and free, like a bird winging up into air.

That's what Hana doesn't understand, has never understood. For some of us it's about more than the
deliria. Some of us, the lucky ones, will get the chance to be reborn: newer, fresher, better. Healed and whole and perfect again, like a misshapen slab of iron that comes out of the fire glowing, glittering, razor sharp.

That's all I want - all I have ever wanted. That is the promise of the cure.

This is one of the best dystopian novels I have read in quite a while, and the good news is that it's actually going to be a trilogy, with the second installment coming out in March 2012.

At first glance, Lena's life seems pretty normal. She lives in Portland, Maine, with her aunt and uncle and cousins, and she is eager to graduate high school and go on to college, provided she passes her "entry" exams of sorts. But she's also counting down to something else: the day she receives the cure, and no longer has to worry about being infected with amor deliria nervosa, or love. Once you get the cure, you are not as emotional, and you don't have to worry about little things. You get matched with someone who you will spend the rest of your life with - after the cure started, the divorce rates became very, very low - and you will have children with that person, the amount of which will be determined by the government.

Her friend Hana, however, sees the world a bit differently, and the night that Lena meets her at a illegal party changes everything for Lena.

Lena's mother had committed suicide, and she had been given the cure three times but had never been fully cured. Lena's worst fear is that she will end up like her, but at the same time, a part of her knows that her mother loved her very much, and that type of love is rare for an older person, once who is supposed to have been cured.

This book was fantastic and in a weird way, very realistic. It takes place in the future, as most dystopian novels do, but it doesn't say when, although a brief timeline of sorts is given: about 60 years ago, the United States put up borders, to keep its residents "safe"; Lena is just now realizing that although it may do that, it's also keeping them fenced in. The Invalids live in the Wilds, though some people tell her that they are just a rumor, and the Wilds are beyond Portland's borders. When Alex, a supposedly cured boy she meets, takes her there one time, she sees just how different (and better) the Wilds are then the "civilized" areas of Portland, and she begins to see that the government may have been lying to them all this time about the cure.

The "cure" makes people not feel emotions (sadness, or love - amor deliria nervosa); the only thing I can really compare it to is a lobotomy, though most of the people who have it are mentally fine afterwards (a small number die or become mentally unstable, though). Her aunt Carol behaves like a good parent should but never shows any love towards Lena, because she is cured - she makes sure she has a roof over her head and hot meals on the table but that's about it.

The novel ended rather suddenly so I was hoping there would be more to come. I will definitely be checking out the next book in the trilogy in March of next year.

4.5 stars out of 5.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

I Don't Know How She Does It

I Don't Know How She Does It, by Allison Pearson.

Monday, 1:37 A.M. How did I get here? Can someone please tell me that? Not in this kitchen, I mean in this life. It is the morning of the school carol concert and I am hitting mince pies. No, let us be quite clear about this, I am distressing mince pies, an altogether more demanding and subtle process.

Discarding the Sainsbury luxury packaging, I winkle the pies out of their pleated foil cups, place them on a chopping board, and bring down a rolling pin on their blameless floury faces. This is not as easy as it sounds, believe me.
And homemade is what I'm after here. Home is where the heart is. Home is where the good mother is, baking for her children.

Kate Reddy works full-time - more than full-time, really - as a hedge-fund manager, all while taking care of her two children (with the help of her husband and a nanny, of course) and trying to be a good wife. Her husband, Richard, works full-time as well, as an architect, and Kate often works until 7pm or later. She tries to juggle all of her responsibilities, but inevitably it ends up taking a toll on her, her husband, and her kids, and when this happens she has to figure out which is more important to her: her job or her home life?

I wanted to read this novel because the movie adaptation of it, with Sarah Jessica Parker, is coming out next week, and the novel was frequently hilarious. It's set in England, and I think for the movie they've Americanized it, but I can see the movie being great if it sticks to the novel. SJP is the main character, Kate Reddy, and Greg Kinnear will be playing her husband, Rich, while Pierce Brosnan plays Jack, the man she has an "email affair" of sorts with ... which I found to be a bit ironic because in the novel it is mentioned that he looks like George Clooney.

(George, too busy to be in this movie?)

The stay-at-home "mums" in the novel frequently tell Kate that "they don't know how she does it" (hence the book title) and frankly, Kate doesn't know how she does it either. All too frequently she must make choices like staying home to tend to a sick child, or hopping on the plane to New York for a business trip, and near the end of the novel events occur that make her question if two incomes are really worth it, or if they could maybe get by with just one.

3.5 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Slow Love: How I Lost My Job, Put on My Pajamas, and Found Happiness

Slow Love: How I Lost My Job, Put on My Pajamas, and Found Happiness, by Dominique Browning.

At the start of this journey, all I could think about was loss: lost work, my children who had left home; my house slipping from my grasp; my parents slipping into their last years. Lost love, on top of it all, because I was finally forced to confront the failure of a relationship that had preoccupied me for seven years. Attachment, abandonment, misery - I was plagued, until, mysteriously, something in my brain shifted into a new gear, and I was no longer experiencing all the changes I was going through at the loss of everything I loved. Instead, I began feeling the value of change and ... experience, events - yes, some of them calamitous - that have unexpectedly come to enhance the quality of my days.

In other words, life.

It never gets easier. But if we're paying attention, it can get simpler.

I recently read Slow Love for the BlogHer Book Club and it was decent but not great. It almost read like “stream of consciousness” writing, although the author presents complete sentences and grammar. Browning’s story is interesting, and one that we can all relate to, but I frequently found myself bored, save for quick snatches of humor sprinkled throughout: “The table in my date’s kitchen was beautifully set; clearly we were to eat alone, while the children were led to a trough somewhere.”

Characters are introduced and then never spoken of again, save for the infamous “Stroller,” the married-but-separated man with whom she has been having an “affair,” and her two sons, though she is now divorced. She reveals some delicious gossip about Conde Nast, such as how she was actually scolded one time for not wearing enough designer clothing to work, yet she is lost after the magazine she works for closes its doors, as she has worked there for 13 years.

She finally decides to sell her New York house where she raised her children, and move to her vacation home in Rhode Island, away from Stroller, and it is here where she finds happiness. She also rebuilds the house since the foundation is sagging – must be nice to have the money to do this while unemployed. Browning’s musings are sometimes right on the mark, but unfortunately often reads like that one annoying friend (everyone has one) droning on about their entire life story.

2.5 stars out of 5.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Sisterhood Everlasting

Sisterhood Everlasting, by Ann Brashares.

Once upon a time there were four pregnant women who met in an aerobics gym. I'm not joking; that's how this story begins. These large, fit, sweatband-sporting women bore four daughters, all born in and around the month of September. These girls started out as babies together and grew to be girls and then women. A sisterhood, if you will.

As I look back on them - on us - I realize that though we aren't related by blood, we are like four siblings.

This is the culmination to the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series, and it checks in on the four girls when they are 29. Carmen is engaged to Jones and is getting to be a well-known actress. Tibby has moved to Australia with her boyfriend Brian, and Bee lives in California with her boyfriend, Eric, as well. Lena lives in Providence and has an on-again, off-again relationship with a man who works at a sandwich shop. They all keep in touch but they haven't seen each other in a while, until Tibby sends them all airplane tickets to Santorini (Greece), where they met up over ten years ago.

Something sad and shocking happens after about the first third of the book, and at first I was angry at the author for putting in this twist, but gradually I grew to accept it, and it defined the rest of the novel. I enjoyed the other Pants books, as well as the two movies based on them, and this provides a fitting ending to their story, although I actually wouldn't mind seeing even more stories about them in the future.

4 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011


Divergent, by Veronica Roth.

"Every faction conditions its members to think and act a certain way. And most people do it. For most people, it's not hard to learn, to find a pattern of thought that works and stay that way." She touches my uninjured shoulder and smiles. "But our minds move in a dozen different directions. We can't be confined to one way of thinking, and that terrifies our leaders. It means we can't be controlled. And it means that no matter what they do, we will always cause trouble for them."

I feel like someone breathed new air into my lungs. I am not Abnegation. I am not Dauntless.

I am Divergent.

And I can't be controlled.

When I read a book that I want to review on here, I bookmark a page with a quote(s) I like that I plan to later include in the review (like above). In Divergent, I bookmarked not one, not two, but FOUR pages, which, in my opinion, is the mark of a great book.

Beatrice lives in a dystopian society - formerly Chicago - which separates itself into five factions, and upon each member's 16th birthday, they must choose to stay in their faction, with their family, or leave for a new faction. The choices are Candor (honesty), Abnegation (selfless), Dauntless (brave), Amity (peaceful), and Erudite (intelligent/the scholars). Beatrice lives with her parents and brother and is Abnegation - the selfless. In her faction, people put others before themselves, and she is fine with this. After she takes the "aptitude test" that tells her what faction she most clearly belongs to, however, the results are inconclusive, and the tester, Toni, tells her that she is Divergent - but that she should not tell anyone this, as it's a dangerous thing to be.

When Choosing Day rolls around, Beatrice surprisingly chooses to become a Dauntless, and thus plunges herself into a world of the unknown, which is completely upside down from Abnegation.

This novel was so good because the characters are so well developed. The year that the characters live in was never discussed, but some of the "old" Chicago landmarks are there - they call the Sears (now Willis) Tower "the Hub," and Millennium Park, with its "rusted-out structures," simply "Millennium." The idea of dividing into five factions was established as to prevent war, and the system has been in place for a while; it is the people who are "divergent," though - those who have characteristics of more than one of the factions - who will end up trying to prevent this war.

I read on the author's website that Divergent has been optioned for a movie (yay!) and I think it will make one hell of a film. The next book in the supposed trilogy, Insurgent, is expected to be out in May 2012.

4 stars out of 5.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Art of Forgetting

The Art of Forgetting, by Camille Noe Pagán.

She paused, then added, "In the interest of full disclosure, I will say that i don't trust myself to not be jealous if the two of you are together. Who knows that that could do to our relationship."

The picture, out of focus for the past two weeks, was suddenly crisp and clear. It didn't matter if Julia was
actually in love with him - which I highly doubted, given her history of commitment issues. What mattered was the fact that Julia couldn't stand the thought of being left behind. Or worse: being ignored.

She gave me a kiss on the forehead.

"You understand, don't you, Marissa?"

"Of course," I said.

But I didn't. Not at all.

The author of this book is a U of M grad and is from Ann Arbor, and she sprinkles bits of Ann Arbor - both made-up and real places/streets - throughout the novel, which I loved. The novel partially takes place in Ann Arbor, and partially in New York.

Marissa has always been the "beta" to Julia's "alpha" - until Julia gets hit by a cab, and suffers severe brain injury. When she wakes up, she's not the same Julia that she was before, and Marissa must learn how to help her friend and also move on with her life, forging new paths for herself and learning to be her own person.

I really liked this novel, and not just because some scenes take place in Ann Arbor. The writing was crisp and easy to read, and the scenes were very believable. Marissa and Julia have been best friends their whole lives, and so Marissa must now learn how to stand on her own two feet, so to speak, and not pander to Julia as much as she used to. Anyone can identify with that sort of friendship, and Pagán deftly invokes this scene after scene.

4 stars out of 5.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Interview with Susan McBride, author of "Little Black Dress"

Susan McBride is the author of Little Black Dress (click here for my review) and I was able to interview her via email recently.

How did you start writing, and who are some of your favorite authors?

Susan McBride
(from the author's site)
I’ve been writing since I was a kid, and I still have three books I wrote in fifth grade (I even illustrated the covers!). But I didn’t know until I was 19 and between transferring from the University of Texas to the University of Kansas that I truly wanted to be a novelist. That’s when I took some time from school and sat down to write a 600-page historical romance called THE THORN OF THE ROSE. My fate was sealed! Some of the authors I love reading right now (although I’m always discovering new ones!) include Kate Morton, Sarah Addison Allen, Susan Vreeland, Santa Montefiore…oh, gosh, so many! I particularly love novels that blend history with a little mystery or magic.

Do you have your own “little black dress,” though it might not be a dress? (some clothing or talisman that makes you feel lucky?)

I do have a pair of lucky earrings. They’re sterling silver Celtic crosses that I bought about a decade ago. Now I can’t travel without them on. I feel like they keep my planes in the air!

When I first started reading this novel, the dress reminded me of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, in the way that it fit all three woman (Evie, Anna, and Toni). Did you find inspiration in that novel for this one?

Yes, I did get some inspiration from TRAVELING PANTS. When I started conjuring up the idea of a magical black dress, I knew it had to fit sisters Anna and Evie as well as Evie’s daughter, Toni. They are three very different women, not only in personality, but in shape and size. I kind of thought, “Well, if Ann Brashares can do it, why can’t I?” It worked out beautifully!

from the author's site
I read in the press handout that you base some characteristics of the male characters in your novel on your husband, Ed. Were any of the male characters in this novel based on (or made up of parts of) him?

Ed inspires me to write about men who are good and loyal and loving, which is how I see Jonathan Ashton and Hunter Cummings from LITTLE BLACK DRESS. Neither of those men looks much like Ed, but they do have his decency and his steadfastness.

Which is your favorite genre to write, women’s fiction or mysteries?

I really think I’ve found a home in women’s fiction. Writing THE COUGAR CLUB and then LITTLE BLACK DRESS suited me so very well. I just love being able to explore the lives of women and delve into their friendships and families. It’s pretty much what I’ve always wanted to do. I did enjoy writing mysteries immensely, and I’ve got a young adult mystery in the works right now. What’s fun about writing women’s fiction is that you can always incorporate elements of mystery, as I did in LBD. So I feel like it’s the best of both worlds!

Your bio says “[You] were 40 years old and had spent most of [your] adult life working [your] tush off trying to get published.” When did you start writing, and when did you realize you wanted to be a published author one day?

As I mentioned earlier, I’ve been writing since I was a kid (and reading like a maniac, too). Once I wrote a full-length manuscript at 19, I realized, “I am a writer.” That’s all I ever wanted to do with my life. After I graduated from college, I wrote a manuscript a year for at least a decade before I signed a traditional publishing contract with a small press. I was 34 when AND THEN SHE WAS GONE finally came out. I learned a lot about the business with my first published book, and I kept learning with each book after. I feel fortunate that I’ve been able to work so steadily these past 12 years—and for two wonderful publishing houses, HarperCollins and Random House. I hope I can continue working steadily for years and years to come!

Will you write more women’s literature after this book? Is there anything you are working on now?

Yes, I just finished DEAD ADDRESS, the young adult mystery, for Random House, although it needs a revision before I turn it in. And I’ve got another women’s fiction book that delves into magical realism (like LBD) due this year to HarperCollins. It’s called LITTLE WHITE LIES, about a woman whose lies catch up with her when a tornado dumps a man from her past smack into her lap (well, into her walnut grove anyway). I’m excited about that!

If Little Black Dress was to be made into a movie, who would be perfect to play Evie, Anna, and Toni, in your opinion? What about Hunter and maybe Greg?

Oh, gosh, I’m really bad at this kind of thing. We’d have to cast young Evie and Anna as well as their older selves. Hmm, I don’t know! Any suggestions???

*Interviewer's note: I would suggest the following for a movie adaptation!
Young Evie: Emma Stone 
Young Anna: Evan Rachel Wood (but may have to change hair color)
Older Evie: Maggie Smith
Older Anna: Patricia Clarkson, maybe? This is a hard one to cast.
Toni: Rachel Weisz, though she's about 10 years younger than Toni.

Interview with Georgia Bockoven, author of "The Year Everything Changed"

Georgia Bockoven's newest book is The Year Everything Changed (click here for my review) and I was able to interview her via email.

How did you decide to start writing novels, and how long have you been writing? I saw on Amazon that you mostly write romance novels and “women’s lit.”

I was in my thirties and frustrated by the women’s fiction I was reading when it hit me that I could create the stories I’d like to read myself. Until then, even though I’d always been a reader and writer, I’d thought only “special” people could be published writers, not common folk, like me. The transition wasn’t easy, I was so naïve about the process that when I signed up for a class on writing it turned out to be one for non-fiction writers. This set up a seven-year detour into freelance journalism before I found my way back to fiction. I think the “women’s lit” tag comes from the fact that, while every book I write has a love story, they also deal with broader issues that face women like adoption and loss and infidelity.

Georgia Bockoven
(image from
I read in an interview online from 2001 that said that you moved around a lot while you were young, as did Rachel in this book. Is Rachel based on you, or parts of you? Did you base the characters on people you know in real life?

Nice observation! Yes, she is based a little on me. Many of my own experiences are woven into the characters I create. But I’m also a people watcher. And I love talking to people about their life experiences. When I visited my aunt in North Dakota she took me into the basement of the house my grandfather built and told me that she and her seven brothers and sisters lived in this tiny basement for four years before the rest of the house was finished. I can’t conceive how hard that must have been on my grandmother. Many of the thoughts and reactions I’ve had thinking about what her life must have been like seeped into what it must have been like for Jessie’s mother on the farm in Oklahoma. (Jessie is one of the main characters in the new book, The Year Everything Changed.)

Out of the books you have written, which is your favorite? (either your favorite overall or your favorite to write)

That’s a hard one to answer. I spend so much time with the characters that while I’m working on the book, and sometimes for a long time after, they are almost a part of my family. So it’s a little like asking which child you like better. Now, that said, I have a real fondness for the people in The Year Everything Changed because they still join me for an occasional meal or on a long car ride, but because the child in A Marriage of Convenience was based on my first grandson who was born at two pounds, two ounces, there will always be a special place in my heart for that book.

Of course there’s Joe and Maggie from The Beach House and then there’s . . . See what I mean?

If this book was to be made into a movie – and I definitely think it’d be an interesting movie – who would you pick to be cast for Jessie, Elizabeth, Ginger, Rachel, and Christina? While I was reading the book I was kind of picturing Tom Selleck as Jessie, even though I don’t think he’s quite as old as Jessie.

Oh, good choice! He would be perfect. I think Tommy Lee Jones would be another good one. And remember, Jessie didn’t look as old as he was. And I really like Patricia Clarkson for Lucy. Ginnifer Goodwin would be perfect for Christine and definitely Juliana Marguelis for Elizabeth. Ginger is a tough one. I’m going to have to think awhile for her, but Ann Hathaway is a shoe in for Rachel.

Where do you draw inspiration for your writing? For example, how did you get the main idea for The Year Everything Changed?

I like to work with “what ifs” when I’m plotting a book and really love to take the opposite side of accepted ideas. While I passionately believe it is always wrong for a parent to abandon a child, I do recognize there was a time when the popular belief was that a child would be better off if a missing parent just disappeared from that child’s life - that the child would suffer less confusion and be able to get on with his/her life without feeling “torn.” I wanted to show the consequences of this kind of abandonment and yet try to find a way to show that Jessie did what he did out of a sincere belief it was the right thing to do. However, it’s far easier to accept the logic of something like this in the abstract. Jessie’s daughters must learn to forgive and then mourn their loss before they can find peace.

I see that your novel The Beach House first came out in the late ‘90s, and then its sequel, Another Summer, was just recently released. Why is there such a big gap between the two? (did readers demand a sequel?)

Another Summer originally came out in 2001, December, 2001. Which, of course, is why it was missed. I’m delighted Harper decided to reissue it, along with The Beach House, so readers could revisit some of the characters they fell in love with and get to meet new ones. I’ve been asked by readers to do a third book ... I’m mulling it over now.

Who are some of your favorite authors, and why?

There are so many it’s hard to pick among them. I love Catherine Coulter’s FBI series and Victoria Thompson’s Gaslight series. And speaking of series, I don’t think anyone does series books better than Susan Crosby. Stephen King is a master with mood and characterization. And J. K. Rowling’s books could, and probably are, used as teaching tools for writers looking to improve their craft. I could go pages and pages listing the writers I read and love.

Would you ever consider a sequel to The Year Everything Changed, maybe following one of the four households? (Ginger and Logan’s, for example)
Though in my opinion, the ending was perfect.

I think the epilogue answered the questions most readers would ask. It was particularly satisfying for me to end the book the way I did.

One of the questions in the “Questions for Discussion” at the back of the books says “Which daughter do you feel was most like her father? Which was the least?” Who do you think was most like Jessie, or who were you trying to make the most similar to him?

Elizabeth has a lot of Jessie’s personality. She was with him the longest and suffered the most at his loss. Ginger, growing up never knowing her biological mother or father, is the least like her father.

Are you working on any new projects as of the moment?

I am. It’s a book I’ve worked on off and on for several years that was sparked by a photograph I saw that was taken during the depression. The young girl in the picture had the most incredible, haunted eyes. Behind those eyes was a story begging to be told. I’ve moved the time frame to the fifties and given her a name—Katie Ann.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Little Black Dress

Little Black Dress, by Susan McBride.

I never meant to resurrect the dress. I had intended for it to remain out of reach so that there would be no more meddling. But I awoke before dawn with tears in my eyes after another strange dream bout Anna, and I knew I had to find it.

From the press release:
"Antonia "Toni" Ashton has worked hard to build a thriving career and a committed relationship, but she realizes her life has gone off-track. Forced to return home to Blue Hills when her mother, Evie, suffers a massive stroke, Toni finds the old Victorian where she grew up as crammed full of secrets as it is with clutter. While taking on the task of getting her mother's hosue and affairs in order, Toni discovers a mysterious black dress, woven from spider's silk. Toni soon realizes that the dress is more than an old relic; it is enchanted with magic that allows the wearer to glimpse into the future. As she looks to her own future, Toni uncovers long-buried secrets of her family's past. Through the dress Toni reconnects with her mother Evie and learns of her long-lost aunt Anna, a reckless woman who disappeared fifty years ago on the eve of her wedding. Alternating between the voices of Toni and Evie, LITTLE BLACK DRESS is expertly intertwined with dark secrets, enlightening lessons, and unspoken love of a rich and complicated mother-daughter relationship."

This novel reminded me a lot of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, in that the magic "little black dress" fit Evie, her sister Anna, and Toni (Antonia). Readers who are a fan of that series, as well as those who like supernatural books/movies like Practical Magic, will enjoy this book, as well as pretty much ANYBODY who enjoys a good read. The narration is done by Toni and Evie, in alternating chapters, even though Evie is in the hospital in a coma, which forces Toni to return to Blue Hills, a tiny little town about an hour from St. Louis where she lives and operates her business, Engagements by Antonia.

I really liked how Toni's chapters were told in the present, in which we learn of her relationship - a bit strained - with Evie, and Evie's chapters were told in the past, in which we learn of her rebellious sister Anna and exactly what happened surrounding the circumstances of Toni's birth. The little black dress, of course, is ever-present within the entire book, and it begs the question: if you had a dress or some sort of talisman that could tell the future, would you use it? Or would you stay away from it?

4.5 stars out of 5.

*Check back later this week for an interview with the author, Susan McBride.

*Disclosure: I was provided a copy of this book to review; the opinions listed, however, are of my own.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Year Everything Changed

The Year Everything Changed, by Georgia Bockoven.

Lucy took the paper. Fifteen years ago Jessie found his oldest daughter living in Fresno and called her. She'd refused to have anything to do with him. She told him she would get a restraining order if he ever tried to see her. His letters were returned unopened. After a year he stopped trying.

When they'd gone over the information the detective would need to find Jessie's four daughters, Lucy asked if Elizabeth was the only one he'd ever tried to contact. She simply couldn't believe the man she knew would abandon his children the way her father had abandoned her. Jessie had hesitated before answering, plainly upset by the question. She'd let it go then. Now she decided to try again.

Jessie Reed is dying, but before he goes, he wants to see his four daughters again. None of them know the other exist, and some of them don't even know that he is their biological father. He has his attorney, Lucy, find the girls, and then send them a ticket to Sacramento so that he can see them one last time. When the girls arrive, they are astonished to find that there are four of them, ranging in age from 48 (Elizabeth) to 23 or so (Christina), and Elizabeth, the woman that perhaps knew him for the longest as her father figure, storms out of the office. The other three meet him, which is fortuitous, because he dies shortly after.

Lucy is sneaky and adds an addendum to their father's will, which leaves each of the sisters $10 million each: they must meet up once a month, together, to listen to the tapes he made of his life story, before they are eligible to receive their inheritances. The women are all wary of this at first, but soon they find that they actually do like each other, and there is a lot about Jessie that none of them ever knew.

This book was interesting because I had never read a story like this before. There are definitely stories out there of children not knowing they were adopted, or not knowing they had a brother or sister, but I was interested in seeing how not one, but FOUR women would not know they had (half-)sisters out in the world. Bockoven develops each of these characters, as well as Jessie, over the course of the narrative, and their stories slowly begin to entwine with each other's.

I could definitely see this book being made into a movie, and when I was reading it I was picturing Tom Selleck in the role of Jessie.

The Year Everything Changed will be in bookstores this Tuesday, August 23rd. I will be interviewing Georgia Bockoven as well in the next few weeks, so watch this blog for that interview.

3.5 stars out of 5.

*Disclosure: I was provided a copy of this book to review. The opinions listed, however, are all mine.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Witches of East End

Witches of East End, by Melissa de la Cruz.

There was something not quite right about the three dead birds on the beach that morning, the ones she had buried a little ways away in the sand, but Joanna could not put her finger on it just then. Was it a threat? Or a warning? And for what? And from whom?

I love de la Cruz's series Blue Bloods, so when I heard she had written a book about witches for adults, I decided to read it; little did I know that some of the Force family from Blue Bloods would make cameo appearances in it!

The Beauchamp women have not been allowed to practice magic for a very long time, and they live a relatively peaceful life in North Hampton, New York. When strange things start happening in town after they start using their magic again, however, they must find out who - or what - is causing them to happen, and fix it before North Hampton becomes like a 17th century Salem, MA situation.

I really liked this book and there's going to be a sequel, as the author's bio on the back cover says she is currently working on it. It's definitely more "adult" than her YA novels, but didn't have anything too "gratuitous" in it. The witches are likable characters, and the ending definitely sets up the second novel well.

You can check out the "trailer" for this novel below, from de la Cruz's website:

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Kid

The Kid, by Sapphire.

I have not read Push by Sapphire, but I have seen the movie Precious on which it is based, and it was a grim, heartbreaking story but also interesting. A friend of mine read Push and said that it was very hard to get through, since Sapphire wrote it in the way that the main character, Precious, would have – with bad grammar and spelling -- and The Kid follows in that vein.

*Read the whole review at here.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

My Name is Memory

My Name is Memory, by Ann Brashares.

When he first appeared at school there was a lot of commotion about him because he was extremely good-looking. He was tall and strong-boned and self-possessed, and his clothes were a little nicer than most other kids'. At first the coaches were sniffing around for him to play football because of his size, but he didn't pursue it. As it was a small town and a bored town and a hopeful town, kids talked and rumors started. The rumors were ennobling at first, but then he made some mistakes. He didn't show up at Melody Sanderson's Halloween party, even though she invited him personally in the hallway, and everyone saw it. He talked to Sonia Frye straight through the annual junior/senior picnic, even though she wan an untouchable freak to people like Melody. It was a delicate social ecosystem they lived in, and most people got scared off him by the first winter.

Except Lucy.

Ann Brashares is the author of the Traveling Pants series, as well as one or two other adult books, and this book was fascinating; it was about reincarnation, a subject that I find very interesting, and a boy named Daniel who has "The Memory" - he remembers every single one of his past lives. In most of his lives, he is destined to meet up with "Sophia," though she may have a different name in each life, and he has known her ever since the beginning. In this life, she takes the form of Lucy, a senior in high school, and he is the same age as her, so he moves to her town, once he finds her, and enrolls in her high school. They have a brief rendezvous at the end of her senior year, at a dance, and then she doesn't see him for another 2 or 3 years. At first she was a little freaked out, because he tells her all that he knows, but while she is a student at UVA in Charlottesville, she comes to term with it, and then seeks to find Daniel again.

The ending was really open-ended, and I really hope there is a sequel, since I want to find out what happens to these characters.

5 out of 5 stars if there's a sequel; 4 out of 5 stars if there is not.

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