Tuesday, December 30, 2008
As a dog lover, I enjoy coming across sweet stories about our canine companions, especially ones with happy endings. In my opinion, dogs deserve the best in life and that includes giving them happy endings in books.
"A Dog Named Christmas" is a rather quick-read (it took me an hour and a half from start to finish) but it is a lovely tale about a wonderful dog who has the heart of a lion, strong and steady. In the story, Todd, a developmentally challenged twenty-year old, decides to foster a dog from the local shelter for Christmas. Since he is still living in his parents' home, he has to first convince them to go along with it. Mary Ann, the mother, is easy to sway, and is soon turning the pressure up for George, the father, to agree with the scheme. George, who is incidentally a Vietnam War veteran, has had sad experiences with dogs in the past; he is stubborn and doesn't want to break down the wall he has built after so many years.
At last, George gives in and one week and one day before Christmas, he and Todd find themselves at the shelter choosing a dog. After settling on one and naming it Christmas, Todd agrees to the stipulation that the dog must be returned the day after Christmas, that they are only providing a temporary home for a dog over the holidays.
Of course, as a dog lover, I was thinking to myself the entire book, "How can they keep a dog for a week and take it back? There's no way they can do that!" The ending, of course, is up to the reader to discover.
"A Dog Named Christmas" is inviting, warming and simple. If you are an animal lover, this book is definitely available for your reading pleasure.
Saturday, December 27, 2008
While reading this book, I flip-flopped like a freshly-caught fish on whether I liked the story or not. I have never been so undecided before. "Loving Frank" begins simply enough. It draws the reader in like any good book will do.
Mamah Cheney sidled up to the Studebaker and put her hand sideways on the crank. She had started the thing a hundred times before, but she still heard Edwin's words whenever she grabbed onto the handle. Leave your thumb out. If you don't, the crank can fly back and take your thumb right off. She churned with a fury now, but no sputter came from beneath the car's hood. Crunching across old snow to the driver's side, she checked the throttle and ignition, then returned to the handle and cranked again. Still nothing. A few teasing snowflakes floated under her hat rim and onto her face. She studied the sky, then set on from her house on foot toward the library.
It was a bitterly cold end-of-March day, and Chicago Avenue was a river of frozen slush. Mamah navigated her way through steaming horse droppings, the hem of her black coat lifted high. Three blocks west, at Oak Park Avenue, she leaped onto the wooden sidewalk and hurried south as the wet snow grew dense.
The images, including those of the teasing snowflakes and the steaming horse droppings, immediately paint a vivid winter picture of a woman who is desperate enough for a not-yet-specified-something to brave the cold. The reader soon learns Mamah Cheney is on her way to see Frank Lloyd Wright speak to a women's group.
Their affair begins in a fairly unobtrusive manner. A lingering glance. One's hand on another's leg. Sharing like thoughts that could never be shared with the spouse. Both Mamah and Frank are married to other people whom they each have children with, but they proceed with very little thought to that.
That is where the story started to lose me. The fact that Mamah and Frank seemed to hardly take their children into consideration, even seeming to almost resent the presence of their children, was what bothered me. However, since the framework of this story is true, I continued to read. Another point of contention I had with the book was that both Frank and Mamah seemed to adopt the attitude that they were the victims, not their spouses, because they were expected by society to be responsible to their own spouses. They wanted to be sympathized with by friends and neighbors. Perhaps in being unwilling to see Mamah and Frank's points, I am showing my age and standards.
In not giving up on the book, I was treated to a superb ending. Since few people know Mamah's history, the ending will shock the reader. It is gory and emotional, and while some of the neighbors in the book whispered that it was retribution, I felt completely sorry for both Mamah and Frank, as well as (almost) everyone else involved.
"Loving Frank" is very smartly written. Author Nancy Horan has a natural flow with her writing, making it easy to continue reading, even when you don't agree with the protagonists. She is able to breathe life into a story that has been brushed under the rug of forgotten history.
The book is interjected with newspaper articles and bits of actual history, but the writing is so seamless, it is hard to differentiate between the fact and the embellishment of Nancy Horan. She does provide an afterward that gives the reader a vague idea of which pieces she has filled in herself.
Overall, "Loving Frank" a very good book. Frank Lloyd Wright may have been a genius, but he also seems to have been a bit of a narcissist and egomaniac. Still, Nancy Horan has given a well-written account of what may or may not have transpired between Mamah and Frank. Since the middle of the book tends to drag a bit, I would give "Loving Frank" a B+.
Wednesday, December 17, 2008
Wow! This book takes your breath away in the ease with which one can read it, the message it denotes, and the emotions it creates in the reader. While the story's climax happens shortly after Christmas, the entire book unfolds over a span of several months prior to Christmas. "Grace" is not a book that is only good at Christmas, it is good year-round.
Eric is a fourteen-year old boy who has been moved from California to Utah by his parents as they struggle financially. His younger brother, Joel, is his dearest friend, and the two of them build a clubhouse in their backyard. Fall arrives and so does school. Eric is a good kid who gets picked on at school for being a dork; he spends most nights working at a burger place not far from his house. One night, while he is closing up, he notices a girl named Grace in the dumpster; she appears to be eating scraps, so Eric invites her into the restaurant and gives her a free meal. She admits she has run away from home and has nowhere to go. Eric invites her to stay at the clubhouse.
In the next couple of months, Eric and Grace fall in love. They rely on each other for so many things, so when the truth of Grace's situation is made known, Eric remains faithful and stoic. He continues to help her in any way he can.
Richard Paul Evans tells a beautiful story, employing many mechanics to make a story grab your attention from the beginning. He draws practical, easy-to-envision images:
Our new home was a warped, rat-infested structure that smelled like mold and looked like it might have fallen over in a strong wind--- if it weren't for all the cracks in the walls that let the wind pass through. What was left of the paint on the exterior was peeling. The interior rooms were covered with wallpaper, most of it water-damaged with long rusted streaks running down the walls. Still, for a couple of boys from the California suburbs, the arrangement wasn't all bad. The house sat on nearly five wooded acres bordered on two sides by a creek that ran high enough to float in an inner tube during the summer.
Richard Paul Evans also has a way of lightening the mood in the story, just enough that the reader doesn't feel mired in sorrow. He writes easy-going dialogue that truly gives voice to each character. An example of a scene that makes the reader chuckle is when Eric is talking to his mom on a morning when he has agreed (much to his own dismay) to skip school with Grace.
The next morning I got ready as if I were going to school. Mom made us Cream of Wheat for breakfast and, as usual, Joel put so much raspberry jam in his bowl that his cereal was crimson.
"Like a little Cream of Wheat with your jam?" I asked.
He took a mouthful, reading the back of a cereal box. "I like it this way."
"I'm going to work early," my mom said. "We're counting inventory. Want a ride to school, Eric?"
Not once since school started had my mother asked if I wanted a ride. It's like she knew I was up to something. "Uh, no. Thanks. I'm meeting someone on the bus."
She looked at me with pleasant surprise. "You have a new friend?"
My mother was always concerned over my lack of friends.
"What's his name?"
Her eyebrows rose. "Grack?"
"That's an odd name. Where's he from?"
"Hmm. Sounds Hungarian. What nationality is he?"
"American," I said. "I think."
"Well." She looked at the clock. "You'd better get going. Maybe Grack would like to come over sometime."
"Yeah. Sure. I'll ask."
She walked over and kissed me. "Have a good day," she said and left the room."Grace" is not just another Christmas story intended to make the reader have a revelation. There is an actual message with substance to this book. Grace is an abused teenager. Her step-father molests her. He abuses her both physically and emotionally. "Grace" serves as a reminder that there is always someone who needs help escaping their abusive homelife. All it takes is one person to help create a safer, better environment. While it is easy to turn our heads and look the other way, we need to be aware of others in our life.
Even though "Grace" is a sad book, it is a story of hope, it is a story of living, it is a story of caring about the people around us. Richard Paul Evans has given us a rich story; read it and take it to heart.
and Annie Barrows
Ordinarily, a book about a post-World War II German occupied island would not bring a smile to one's face. However, Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows have woven a tale that would make any shrew smile. "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society" is simply a splendid book. Since it is an epistolary novel, it is a quick and fun read that is easy to leave off and pick up again.
Juliet Ashton is a writer in London in 1946. She has a quick wit and possibly a short temper, though maybe it is more a case of being misunderstood. At any rate, Juliet is searching for her next great book idea (and searching for her true self) when she receives a letter from a man named Dawsey from Guernsey. He has no idea she is a writer but he has seen her name inscribed in the jacket of his favorite book by Charles Lamb, his favorite author. Dawsey is searching for more books by Charles Lamb, and as he has been living in German-occupied Guernsey, he has few ties to the "outside world."
In agreeing to help Dawsey procure more books, Juliet becomes a penpal to not only him but his friends in Guernsey. She is intrigued by the literary society they formed while occupied by the Germans and eventually writes an article about them for the newspaper. Juliet's friendships develop with them and before long, she makes a visit to Guernsey. What she discovers there are answers to the many questions that have burdened her.
In sitting down to read "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society," the reader is drawn immediately to Juliet's humor and her ease of deeply loving those who are important in her life. In her first letter to Sidney, her publisher, the reader can feel the love and the lighthearted approach she has to life.
Susan Scott is a wonder. We sold over forty copies of the book, which was very pleasant, much more more thrilling from my standpoint was the food. Susan managed to procure ration coupons for icing sugar and real eggs for the meringue. If all her literary luncheons are going to achieve these heights, I won't mind touring about the country. Do you suppose that a livish bonus could spur her on to butter? Let's try it--- you may deduct the money from my royalties.
Now for the grim news. You asked me how work on my new book is progressing. Sidney, it isn't.
English Foibles seemed so promising at first. After all, one should be able to write reams about the Society to Protest the Glorification of the English Bunny. I unearthed a photograph of the Vermin Exterminators' Trade Union, marching down an Oxford street with placards screaming "Down with Beatrix Potter!" But what is there to write about after a caption? Nothing, that's what.
I no longer want to write this book--- my head and my heart just aren't in it. Dear as Izzy Bickerstaff is--- and was--- to me, I don't want to write anything else under that name. I don't want to be considered a light-hearted journalist anymore. I do acknowledge that making readers laugh--- or at least chuckle--- during the war was no mean feat, but I don't want to do it anymore. I can't seem to dredge up any sense of proportion or balance these days, and God knows one cannot write humor without them.
In the meantime, I am very happy Stephens & Stark is making money on Izzy Bickerstaff Goes to War. It relieves my conscience over the debacle of my Anne Bronte biography.
P.S. I am reading the collected correspondence of Mrs. Montagu. Do you know what that dismal woman wrote to Jane Carlyle? "My dear little Jane, everybody is born with a vocation, and yours is to write charming little notes." I hope Jane spat on her.
"The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society" is a smartly written book. It was purely a joy to read a novel that presents facts in such a low-key manner. The reader learns so much about each character through subtly injected information in each letter. It is a relief to not be hit over the head with plot points and details.
Much praise is due to the writing team of Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. Their story was delightfully fulfilling and should be at the very top of every reader's or book club's list.
Sunday, December 14, 2008
While I am sure that Debbie Macomber is a very nice lady, it pains me to say that her newest book, "A Cedar Cove Christmas" is filled with so much schmaltz, I could feel my gag reflex working overtime. While a bit of "cheese" is good once in a while, "A Cedar Cove Christmas" is like living on a dairy farm in Wisconsin.
The book is about a girl in her early twenties who has gotten pregnant by an older man who has not-so-mysteriously disappeared. It is two days before Christmas and Mary Josephine (think about it) is being chastised by her three older brothers (their last name is Wyse, by the way) for not making the father of her unborn child marry her. So the morning of Christmas Eve, Mary Jo leaves to find the father of said unborn baby. She travels to Cedar Cove, a quaint town where it seems everyone knows everyone. She meets up with a librarian named Grace who invites her to stay at her farm, in the apartment over the barn (the barn that is housing a donkey, a sheep, and yes, a camel). Of course, Mary Jo agrees.
In the meantime, the three Wyse men jump into their truck to find their sister (but only after they grab a gold coin, some perfume, and some incense as "I'm-Sorry" gifts). They follow clues that could lead them to where she is staying, but they keep getting lost. While they are ambling around the wilds of rural Cedar Cove, Mary Jo goes into labor, calls the hot, young EMT named Mack (he had treated her earlier in the day for a dizzy spell), who jumps in the car and comes to the barn. Her hostess (Grace) is at church with her family for Christmas Eve services. Mack calls the church, just so happens to reach the secretary who finds the preacher who tells the secretary to pull the hostess out of the service. (Still with me?) Mack tells Grace there is no time to take Mary Jo to the hospital to have her baby. Instead, Grace has enough time to tell her family and a friend that Mary Jo is having the baby in the barn; the family leaves the church and some of them stop by their own respective homes to grab baby items (diapers, baby blankets and clothes), and they all get to the barn before the baby is born! Hmmm.........
Meanwhile, the three "Wyse" men are still driving around aimlessly, until they see fireworks and
decide to follow them. Yes, fireworks. And I know you will never guess where the fireworks are being set off-------
Back at the barn, hot, young EMT Mack delivers the baby girl while Mary Jo falls in love with him, and he with her. Grace's family is all hanging around the barnyard and her grandson starts to play his drum that he had just received as a gift that very night. Oh yes, you didn't think this story would be complete without a drumming child, did you?
Stay away from this story if you are diabetic or have any respect for your intelligence and the quality of literature you enjoy. It is one thing to read a book for fun, as we all need to do. But to allow the author to smack you over the head with the book, well, that's just a waste of time, isn't it?
Don't let this review sway you from reading some of Debbie Macombers other books. She does have quite a following. I have never read any of her other work, so I cannot say anything as to the quality of that. We're all allowed to have mistakes. Unfortunately, Debbie Macomber's mistake comes in the form of a book called "A Cedar Cove Christmas."
Remember people, I read them so you don't have to.
Friday, December 12, 2008
A bittersweet story of the daughter of Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra, "The Tsarina's Daughter" creates an alternate ending for the very real story of what happened to Grand Duchess Tatiana during Russia's Revolution.
The story begins before the Revolution. Tatiana is six years old and living in affluence in the opulent Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. She has witnessed the love the Russian people have for her father and family; it is this love that starts to sour a few years later, shocking Tatiana. She begins to see the poverty and squalor some Russians are living in, and wonders at the stark difference between their living situations and her own.
As the story progresses, Tatiana falls in love as a girl. It is later, when she is a nurse during the war, that she finds love as a young woman. The soldier she falls in love with is her patient and she helps him regain complete health. He becomes her father's right-hand man, staying with him through the war, and finally during his abdication.
Once Tsar Nicholas abdicates, his family becomes prisoner in their palace. Upon his return from the war, soldiers remove them all to Siberia, where they are locked away in a cold, old house all through the winter.
"The Tsarina's Daughter" is a book that illustrates strength and perseverance, even in the most trying times. The reader is greatly sympathetic to Tatiana who never quits. She faces obstacles head-on and works to live her life. Author Carolly Erickson weaves a sad tale that really pulls at the reader's heartstrings, especially when the Tsar and his family are imprisoned and mistreated. In one scene, the family is finally allowed outside their home to take a spring picnic. When they get outside, there are people standing on the other side of the iron fence, shouting and calling them names like "German bitches," referring to Tatiana, her older sister Olga, her younger sisters Anastasia and Marie, and their mother. The Tsar tries to ask the guards to let them eat their meal inside, saying that it looked like it was about to rain. He is denied.
At a signal from papa we sat on the picnic cloth, hastily unwrapped the food in our hamper and tried to eat it as quickly as we could. But it was hard to force ourselves to take a single bite, with the constant yelling and jeering. To chew was torment, to swallow all but impossible, though I managed to force down a few small bites. The food was tasteless and stuck in my throat, making me cough.
Anastasia spat out her food. Marie managed to spill her plate, though whether she did this intentionally or not I couldn't have said. Mama sat on the cloth, unmoving, stony-faced. Papa ate, slowly and methodically, until the first raindrops began to fall.
We all looked up at the sky gratefully, hoping that we would be allowed to go back to the palace now that the weather had changed.
But we were wrong. We were forced to stay where we were, while the tormenting, taunting crowd grew, heedless of the rain, and the guards, enjoying our humiliation, stood by and watched the scene, making rude remarks to us and to each other and elbowing one another in the ribs and laughing.
The rainwater ran down our faces and into our mouths, mingling with the tasteless food, until in the end the plates were washed clean, the food having run off into the grass, and we were completely bedraggled.
"All right, Romanov," the head guard spat out. "Back to your jail now. The picnic's over."
My stomach hurt. I was nauseous. But I was afraid that if I threw up in front of our jailers there would be more punishment for us all. As we walked back to the palace I did my best to fight my nausea, holding onto Olga--- who, I could tell, was feeling ill too--- and concentrating on taking one step at a time.
This story of Tatiana Romanov and her family is embellished a great deal from the actual story of Tatiana Romanov, but it is a happier alternative (though only slightly) to how she really ends up. The book is well written; the characters are each integral. While you should not read the story to be educated on the facts of the Russian Revolution, you should read the book. It is a fantastic story full of suspense, sorrow, passion, and above all, perseverance.
Sunday, December 7, 2008
Is it April 2009 yet? That is when the next book in this series comes out; it will be called "Decision and Destiny: Colette's Legacy." Avon Books must enjoy torturing their readers by making them wait for answers and resolutions in the drama of the Duvoisin family.
The book's Prologue is an attention-grabber:
An evening mist settled over the moss-scarred walls of the stone church, shrouding it in hopelessness. A solitary man slumped forward in one pew, muttering disparaging phrases to the looming shadows. He needed another drink. Expensive whiskey hadn't yielded peaceful oblivion, hadn't even dulled his senses. And yet, he wasn't drunk, what the hell was he doing in a house of God? What, indeed! He chortled insanely, the inebriated laugh ended in a dizzying hiccup. He'd come to pray--- pray for death. Not his own death. He wasn't quite so noble. Not yet, anyway. Instead, he petitioned the Almighty to bring about the demise of another. Retribution--- justice. His lips twisted with the delicious thought of it. Death...So simple a solution.
"Put him out of his misery. Put me out of my misery," he slurred, confronting the wooden crucifix that hung above the barren alter. "Do you hear?"
His sudden movement sent the walls careening, the statues a nauseating blur of spinning specters. He grasped for the bench, attempting to right his toppling world, but his hand missed its mark. Not so his forehead. It met the back of the wooden pew with a resounding crack. With a groan, he crumbled to the stone floor, his anger blanketed in a palette of smoky-blue, a vision that dissolved into the consuming void of blessed unconsciousness.
It was not until I re-read the Prologue after finishing the book that I realized we indeed see this mysterious character again. The clues are there, if the reader is attentive. It can be easy to miss though, because the reader gets drawn in by the great love story that evolves between Charmaine Ryan and Paul Duvoisin. Charmaine is an eighteen-year old girl who becomes a governess to three children on a Caribbean island. While Charmaine has great reason to distrust men, the children's older brother Paul, has great reason to love beautiful women. Thus, the two meet and are like oil and water. At first....
They come to an agreement. Paul will no longer make crude comments and proposition Charmaine, but she has to trust him. In time, she realizes she is falling in love with him. But is he falling in love with her?
Meanwhile, the Duvoisin clan has their own struggles to face. Frederic, the patriarch of the family, has been crippled by a stroke. His family is broken in two by an event (undisclosed as of yet) that happened among himself, his oldest son, John, and his bastard son, Paul. John is handling the family empire on the mainland in Virginia; he is basically in exile.
Colette, Frederic's second wife is ailing after two difficult pregnancies. It is then that she hires Charmaine as governess to her three young children, twin girls and a boy. Colette proves to be a wonderful friend to Charmaine and makes the Duvoisin family promise to keep Charmaine on as the governess to the children, even after her own passing. It is that simple act which secures Charmaine's position in an episode that takes place after Colette dies.
John seems to be trying to wreak havoc from the mainland when ships show up at the island with shipping invoices that have been tampered with and inventory that has been cluttered on the boat. He has few fans in the Duvoisin household, so when he actually shows up at Charmantes, on the island, he is met with much ire.
There are so many tiny details in "A Silent Ocean Away," it would be impossible to convey in one review all that will capture the reader. This book is a must-read for anyone who enjoys historical fiction, romance, intrigue, Caribbean islands, ships, or all of the above. The story is lavish and beautiful. It is a perfect escape to a gorgeous landscape with fascinating people in a remarkable era.
The authors, Debra and Valerie Gantt, are sisters. They created the pseudonym DeVa Gantt upon writing this story together. Their combined talents are sure to meet with great success in this, and all of their future books.
Wednesday, December 3, 2008
Anna Roitman is approaching her late-thirties when she marries Alex K., a Russian-Jewish immigrant like herself. He has become a successful businessman in New York and Anna quickly learns that she enjoys the ease of living a wealthy life. A son is born to the couple but Anna feels withdrawn, allowing the nanny to completely fill the maternal role. Instead, Anna focuses on preparing her postpartum body for an upcoming party; she wants to be the center of everyones' attention.
At the party, she meets her cousin Katia's boyfriend, David. Anna gives in to her weakness for writers and soon begins an affair with him. At the New York City Marathon, she feels the sudden need to confess the affair to her husband.
"What Happened To Anna K." is a depressing book. I remember feeling a constant sorrow while reading "Anna Karenina," and experienced the same feeling while reading this novel by Irina Reyn. This is not to say the book is bad. On the contrary, if a book can create that much tension in the reader's mind, it is possibly a very good book. If an author can paint such a desolate picture for the reader, then they have done their job.
"What Happened To Anna K." is a retelling of Leo Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina;" the difference being that the newer book is set in present times. One must feel sorry for Anna, in a way, but she also is quite the villainess. She basically lures men right out from under other women's noses. Ironically, the men in this story are portrayed as weak and incompetent. They are unhappy before they are married, and they are even unhappier after they get married.
The reader is made aware of the males' weaknesses, as well as exactly how Anna K. operates. At the aforementioned party, Katia has been delaying David's introduction to Anna, for fear Anna will charm her way into his heart. At last, the introduction can not be put off any longer:
Katia allowed herself to be led away, but she never took her eyes off Anna and David. She knew him, yes, she did, she knew him well enough to read every sign. She knew what his gestures meant, the way he tipped his head to the right, listening to Anna intently. Every time she looked back, they were still rooted to the spot. She watched David lift a bottle of wine off the table and pour Anna a glass. He handed it to her by the stem, holding it just a second too long, as if to verify that it would not come crashing to the floor. From his face, she could tell they were talking about books, books Katia had not read but Anna probably had. Nabokov novels no one had heard of (more obscure than Lolita, even Katia had tried to hack away at that one after David mentioned how much he loved it). Maybe David was trotting out his beloved Brodsky or that Polish Szymborska. Why else was the usually shy David so translucent, practically trembling with charm.
Katia looked around for Alex K., but he was lost in conversation with another man. Should she draw his attention to the scene, or was it not her place? Turning back to them, Katia recognized the old Anna K., the one whose existence she had always known about but denied, her small, peaceful actions of flirtation, almost unobtrusive, the invisible ways in which she controlled a man's attention, then swallowed it whole. In the past, Katia had admired this quality of Anna's, her enviable composure. Didn't Katia have the smallest crush on all that, if she were to be completely honest?
But there they stood. Why, she was almost as tall as he was, and they were leaning into each other. Was the music too loud, was that why they had to whisper? Why did the momentum of their conversation generate speed, whirring, one picking up where the other left off, sentences left unfinished, unarticulated? He nodded, he kept on nodding, agreeing with her, nodding, while Anna appeared composed, polite, even. But Katia read the pinkness of her cousin's chest--- it was this that gave her pleasure away, her deep, red enjoyment in the conversation.
"What Happened To Anna K." is an intriguing book, full of Russian Jewish ideals and practices. It places a certain value on the sanctity of marriage, and gives the message that sometimes, it is truly best to work through marital problems first, with your spouse. To be able to do this, one must be able to identify one's self. Which "Anna K." character are you?