Friday, April 11, 2014

Visitation Street by Ivy Pochoda

This one was a huge surprise for me.  It was on the short list of ten for the Maine Reader's Choice Award, and it's still one of the five I'm considering voting for when we have to choose the three finalists later this month.

The publisher tells us:

It’s summertime in a blue-collar dockside neighborhood. (Red Hook Brooklyn New York).  June and Val, two fifteen-year-olds, take a raft out onto the bay at night to see what they can see.
And then they disappear. Only Val will survive, washed ashore; semi-conscious in the weeds.
This shocking event will echo through the lives of a diverse cast of Red Hook residents. Fadi, the Lebanese bodega owner, hopes that his shop will be the place to share neighborhood news and troll for information about June’s disappearance. Cree, just beginning to pull it together after his father’s murder, unwittingly makes himself the chief suspect, but an enigmatic and elusive guardian is determined to keep him safe.
Val contends with the shadow of her missing friend and a truth she buries deep inside. Her teacher Jonathan, a Julliard School dropout and barfly, wrestles with dashed dreams and a past riddled with tragic sins.
 My impression:  Reminiscent of West Side Story, the class struggle portrayed by The characters in this book is drawn with such precision that the reader is able to understand and empathize with each one of them in spite of their often less than savory backgrounds and behavior.  We might not want to live their lives or move into their hood, but they are portrayed with a realism that sings. The mystery is so well entwined in the lives of these characters that it takes a while to determine exactly what the mystery is.  Is June missing?  Did she drown?  Was she murdered?  What really happened, and who knows?  Who cares? And why?  It's a true underdog story, set in a vibrant, currant setting that will appeal to lovers of mysteries, young adults and adults alike, and readers who want a beautifully crafted work of fiction.  It works especially well in audio.  It's one I'll listen to and read again, and fully expect to see this one on the movie screen someday.

Title: Visitation Street
Author: Ivy Pochoda
Publisher: Dennis Lehane Books/Ecco (2013), Edition: First Edition, Hardcover, 320 pages
audio narrated by Roy Porter
Genre: Mystery, literary fiction
Subject: Missing teenager, social class prejudice
Setting: Red Hook Brooklyn New York
Source: Print: Review copy from publisher; Audio - purchased from Audible.
Why did I read this book now?  It was on the Maine Reader's Choice Short List for 2013 books.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Pigs Can't Swim by Helen Peppe

Helen Peppe cracked me up! Growing up as the youngest of nine children, she manages to tell us the story of the family's non-exciting, everyday life in a manner that enthralls the reader, without ever naming a player except herself and her later-to-be husband.

Her descriptions of life in this rural section of Maine include delightful stories of sibling rivalries, overburdened parents, the poverty of the area,  and the everyday sexual antics of her sisters.  Interspersed with the human stories she relates her interactions with a variety of animals who lived on the farm.  The fact that many of these animals often found their way to the family dinner table was a constant source of pain to young Helen, who tried valiantly to live a vegetarian life.

The Cast of characters is enough to make me want to pick this up and read it again:
Mom  known only as Honey
Dad called the "Old Goat"
The sisters:
 "The sad tittering sister"
 "The hair twirling pretty sister"
"The sister who holds grudges longer than God"
"The sister of poor choices"

The Brothers:
"The blustery and favored brother"
"The tough yet admirable brother"

There are a couple others, but these just tickled me.  Helen learns her sexual mores from her sisters (all of whom seemed to have become pregnant before age 16), the farm animals, and her mother's rather impressive  lack of information sharing.

The vignettes she shares about growing up in the midst of unorganized chaos could have been a depressing exposè of poverty and poor parenting.  Instead, she gives us a glance of a happy child who makes choices that bring her to adulthood with an intact psyche and a love of nature and animals that carries through life's travails.  A happy, hope-filled book.  

Title: Pigs Can't Swim
Author: Helen Peppe
Publisher: Da Capo Press (2014), Hardcover, 272 pages
Genre: Memoir
Subject: growing up in rural Maine
Setting: farm in Maine
Source: ARC from the publisher via Net Galley
Why did I read this book now? I was offered a copy to review.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Review: The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna

Others have dubbed this one atmospheric and disturbing.  I alternate between stunning and unsettling.  Make no mistake, this beautifully written story of the civil war that took place in Croatia in 2007, contains brutal text, ugly scenes, gut-wrenching episodes of inhuman behavior.  But it also provides the reader with a protagonist who is able to look objectively at his life and present us with an attitude of acceptance, sorrow, hope and revenge left unclaimed.

Duro Kolak, local handyman and hunter, agrees to help vacationing Englishwoman Laura and her two children, to repair and restore "the old Blue House".   Duro does not divulge his memories about the house or the friends who once lived there. Many of the scenes are centered on hunting - a necessary means of providing food for the village, but a form of carnage that is not one I'm fond of. Forna goes back and forth from present to the past to show the devastation caused by the war.  Her juxtaposition of the native villagers and their actions during the war with the fairy-tale vision Laura espouses of the beautiful mountain town provides a broad spectrum of emotions and reactions in the characters and the reader.  Duro's attempts to mesh his memories of the past (arising from his work on the Blue House) with the delights of the restoration work keep the reader turning pages to the end.

It's a book that will stay with the reader long after the story is finished.  It's on the short list for the Maine Readers' Choice Award this year, and it will certainly be one to which I give serious consideration when it comes time to choose the Finalists.

Title: The Hired Man
Author: Aminatta Forna
Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press (2013), Hardcover, 304 pages
Genre: historical fiction
Subject: Croation civil war
Setting: Fictional town Gost Croatia
Source: Review copy from the publisher.
Why did I read this book now?  It's on the Maine Readers Choice Short List.

 My thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Happy Saint Paddy's Day!

With all the glitzy shamrocks, green beer, outlandish outfits, and leprechauns bounding about today, I thought I'd try to share something more historic. This stained glass window is in St. Benin's Episcopal Church in Kilbannon, Galway, Ireland.  Interesting that the great St. Paddy himself is shown with shamrock in hand.  No matter how you do or do not celebrate the legends, achievements and/or stories of the great Irish Saint, best wishes for a happy Monday and the beginning of the what we can only hope will be a glance at spring coming the end of the week.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Slowing Down...Digging Out....and ......... OH FORGETTABOUDIT!!

This past week I finished reading all ten of the short listed books for judging in the Maine Readers'Choice Award competition. The next step is to narrow those ten down to three finalists. We'll do that in early May. I've definitely eliminated two of them and have several others in the 4 out of 5  star range that will probably not make my cut. But then I wouldn't be horribly upset if the group voted any of them in. I have my top two pretty firmly established (and I will be very upset if they DON"T make the finalist list) but I'm really conflicted about choosing that third book.

I went back and re-read and listened to Transatlantic and Benediction.  Since I read both of them months before the long-list ever came out, I wanted to have a current assessment of them against other entries.   This week I finished Visitation Street (review coming soon) and was very very pleasantly surprised.

With the exception of The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope, I ended up reading them all in print and listening to the audio versions too, thereby giving me a pretty good handle on all of them.  I'm actually glad a couple of them turned out to be such duds for me.  It helped to narrow the field..especially since they were for me duds in both formats.

This week I'm going to take a breath, excavate my library/office ( it's so bad I couldn't even take a photo that would make any sense - if it were not enclosed it would like this outdoor market in Spain!), make a few phone calls to friends and family members, and try to gather the paperwork I need to do my taxes. UGH.   So my reading is going to be of the total fun, "not anybody making me do" it variety.

In the dock:
Snow in May - a review copy of Russian short stories on my nook - pub date in May
Bruno, Chief of Police - an audio I got from the Library, recommended by a LibraryThing friend. Just what I need-- another good detective series.

I also have "next ups" standing by - Colin Cotterill's latest Dr. Siri Paiboun adventure, and the newest Ely Griffiths book, as well as the audio of Bill Bryson's One Summer - a long one that will probably take me until the summer to finish.

I've got several Audible credits waiting to be spent, and lots of books on the wishlist to use them up.

The weather was gorgeous yesterday, so I got nothing done except to plan some meals for next week.  In the meantime,  it's time to stop procrastinating and get to the taxes.  Maybe later....but it's supposed to be very cold, so I'll need to curl up in front of the fireplace.  So....maybe  Monday...or Tuesday...or........wish me luck!

Oops....forgot that I have bookclub on Wednesday, so I'll have to grab my copy of Christopher Morley's Haunted Bookshop which I read years ago and refresh my memory before then.  Like I said.....wish me luck!

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Review: Bird Lake Moon by Kevin Henkes

Every once in a while I like to read something from our YA collection at the library.  This was actually recommended by an adult patron, and I wanted to see if it was something to recommend to my 13 year old grand-daughter. This one is definitely on the recommended list!
Birk Lake Moon is the story of two boys and the summer they spent next door to each other at Bird Lake.  Mitch Sinclair is living with his rather rigid, not much fun, grandparents while his mother recovers from the trauma of her husband (Mitch's father) having just walked out on them to take up life with a younger girl-friend. No one seems to catch on that Mitch is grieving also. Spencer Stone arrives at his family's lake house several days after Mitch.  The Stones have owned the house for years, but have not returned for about 10 years since Mitch's little brother drowned there.  Spencer's parents aren't sure they can handle the memory, but want to try.  Spencer's little sister provides some delightful and typical little sister humor to the story.

The two boys meet, take a bit of time to decide whether to be friends, and discover that grief and loneliness is better handled with friends to help.   It's a beautiful book, written with great insight into the emotions young people often try to handle without the help of adults who may be too busy handling their own problems.  I think today's adults, both teen aged and older would enjoy this short but stunning novel.

Title: Bird Lake Moon
Author: Kevin Henkes
Publisher: Greenwillow Books (2008), Edition: First Edition, Hardcover, 192 pages 
Genre: realistic fiction
Subject:  divorce, grief, moving, friendship
Setting: Lake in Wisconsin
Source: Public library

Monday, March 10, 2014

Review : Mrs. Queen takes the Train by William Kuhn

From the publisher:
An absolute delight of a debut novel by William Kuhn...Mrs Queen Takes the Train wittily imagines the kerfuffle that transpires when a bored Queen Elizabeth strolls out of the palace in search of a little fun, leaving behind a desperate team of courtiers who must find the missing Windsor before a national scandal erupts. Reminiscent of Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader, this lively, wonderfully inventive romp takes readers into the mind of the grand matriarch of Britain’s Royal Family, bringing us an endearing runaway Queen Elizabeth on the town—and leading us behind the Buckingham Palace walls and into the upstairs/downstairs spaces of England’s monarchy.

What a fun book! This light, cheery, and surprisingly introspective work looks at the burdens of isolation, old age, and changing mores not just in Merry Olde England, but with enough panache to allow us to apply it anywhere. Some might see it merely as a somewhat pedantic view of the value of maintaining a monarchy. Kuhn chooses to portray a Queen who is struggling to do her duty as she has been taught and to be human with all the fatigue, self-doubt, and anxiety that goes with growing old, watching loved ones die, worrying about children, and trying to figure out what life is all about before it's over.

Just imagine Her Majesty traipsing through the streets of rainy London with no umbrella, wearing her trademark head scarf and a borrowed hoody with a skull and crossbones on the back.  It can only get better from there.  This one is a short read, but is not one to be brushed aside. For me it was a perfect palate cleanser from a steady diet of ponderous, dark, and often pompous literary fiction. Books like this one make reading fun, and at the same time give us a glimpse of what might be ahead.

I got this one in audio because it was right there for the picking. It was a great choice. Definitely recommended. 

Title: Mrs. Queen takes the Train
Author: William Kuhn
Publisher/Format: Harper Perennial (2013), Paperback, 384 pages
Audio edition Dreamscape Media; Unabridged edition 9 hr, 33 min
Narrator Simon Preble
Genre: fiction
Subject: Queen Elizabeth goes rogue
Setting: various settings in England and Scotland
Source: Public library

Friday, March 7, 2014

Review: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

This imposing chunkster demands a significant commitment of time on the part of the reader. The story is long, taking the protagonist from New York to Las Vegas to Amsterdam, through the world of art, antiques, drugs, and dysfunction, from the age of 13 to about 30, and still leaving the reader gasping at the end. It's a book that inspires awe at the level of detail the author presents. It arouses sympathy for some characters, and rage at others. It infuriates, cheers, exasperates, and still produces belly laughs. At the end, the reader is stunned and must sit for some time digesting all that has happened, trying to decide if the implausible scenes are at all plausible, if the plot isn't a bit too contrived, if the protagonist and all those around him aren't just too well-drawn to be believable. the end, it all works to leave me able simply to say "This is a very good book."

Without major spoilers, this is the story of 13 year old Theo Decker, victim of a terrorist bombing in a New York Museum of Art in which his divorced mother dies. Theo somehow manages to "save" the painting entitled The Goldfinch from the carnage, doesn't tell anyone he has it, and begins a journey of several years trying to decide what to do with the painting and whether (and to whom) he should return it. In the meantime, he is also the victim of a modern day sin - lack of parenting. His father (who lives in Las Vegas) doesn't want him, his grandparents don't want him, and he ends up under the temporary care of very aristocratic upper-crusty New Yorkers whose son is a classmate.

When his father finally appears to whisk him away to Las Vegas, Theo begins a terrifying fall into the pit of drugs, crime, and gambling debts, and a life-long friendship with Boris - son of a Russian immigrant who leads him down the garden path of adolescent misdeeds, misadventures and sometimes downright crime. 

As Boris and Theo mature (at least in age), so does their involvement in nefarious situations. Here is a picture of two young men, both very intelligent and cunning, with no moral compass and nothing to prevent them from becoming mired in page after page of "how did I get here and how do I get out of this?" There were times when I had to put the book down and let each adventure perk for awhile before I dared pick it up again to find out what could possible happen next. That Theo arrives alive at the end of this period of his life is as much a tribute to Tartt's writing skills as it is to the caprices of real life.

This is a major piece of fiction with more than the usual number of words. Normally, I'd be put off by its length, but Tartt uses words to paint pictures, to evoke feelings, to stimulate all our senses, so that we can place ourselves in the moment with Theo and all the powerfully portrayed  supporting cast of characters who exert some influence on his eventual arrival at adulthood. I'm not sure about the ending. But then, I'm sure that there are many who will love it.

The novel is certainly a worthy candidate for all the accolades it has garnished. It's on the short list of those being considered for the Maine Readers Choice Award, which is how I came to read it and it's going to be one of those that will be a top contender for me to advance to the finalist list.

Title: The Goldfinch
Author: Donna Tartt
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company (2013), Hardcover, 784 pages
Genre: Literary fiction
Subject: art, antiques, adolescence, parenting,
Setting: New York, Las Vegas, Amsterdam
Source: review copy from the publisher
Awards: New York Times Best Ten Best Books of 2013
National Book Critics Circle Award finalist (Fiction, 2013)
Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence in Fiction Longlist (2014)
Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction Longlist (2014)
Maine Readers'Choice Award 2013 Short List

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Review: By Its Cover by Donna Leon

One of the items on my life's bucket list is to visit Venice and follow one of Commissario Guido Brunetti's journeys from the Donna Leon series. I'm a huge fan of these stories, and Guido Brunetti is one of my favorite fictional detectives. So it really bothers me to have to give one of these books less than my full enthusiastic endorsement.

This one's due out next month. I wish I could shout "Go get in line right now to order it", but I'm beginning to tire of Leon's increasing tendency to phone them in. This one concerns the theft and/or destruction of ancient, priceless books and manuscripts, a subject that should be close to my heart. Brunetti's apparent ignorance of the subject and his skillful questioning of those involved so he can make himself smart is handled well and gives the reader at least a smattering of knowledge. But there's nothing deep to this one. Leon presumes we all know all the background of the cast, gives us very little motivation for anything or anybody, offers some flip remarks about the in depth, inbred crime rampant in modern day Venice, offers enchanting descriptions of Venetian scenery, throws in a few mentions of food (the hallmark of previous volumes), and comes to such an absolutely abrupt halt that I had to go and double-check to make sure my download of the e-galley hadn't been corrupted. Sorta like she ran out of steam and said "ok,,, I'm done now....I'm off to the opera."

Really disappointing. I guess it could be a stand alone, but I'm not sure if I started here if I'd ever want to read any others. The subject matter should have made it much more interesting than it did, and I miss the sharp repartèe so common to her characters in earlier books. Much as I hate to see Brunetti go, I may be more reluctant to read any more of these if she doesn't find the old spark again.

Title: By Its Cover
Author: Donna Leon
Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press (2014), Hardcover, 288 pages
Genre: Mystery - police procedural
Subject: murder, book theft
Setting: Venice
Series: Commissario Brunetti mysteries
Source: E-galley from publisher via Edelweiss
Why did I read this book now? I love the series and was offered a copy to review.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

TLC Blog Tour: The Dark Road to Mercy by Wiley Cash

Finally......Tutu gets to chime in and pile on the love!
This one has been on a TLC Blog tour for several weeks and if you haven't seen any of the other reviews, the list is posted below.  I get to wind up the tour so it's a bit difficult to say too much new.

I have the distinct privilege of serving on the panel of selectors of nominees for the annual Maine Readers' Choice Award to present outstanding literary fiction to our readers here in Maine.  Last year, Wiley Cash's first novel A Land More Kind than Home, was not only a finalist but was chosen by the readers of the state as their choice for best book of the year.  With that in mind,  I was anxious but reluctant to read his next book.  You know how you feel when a book is so good that you worry if the author can possibly achieve that level of excellence again?  Well, Tutu is here to tell you that Wiley Cash is no one-book wonder!

This one is every bit as well-written as the first.  This Dark Road to Mercy brings a different story, but uses that same slightly scary setting of young people being raised in a dysfunctional setting. This time parents are absent (at least in the beginning), and rather than the fundamentalist church as the frame, Cash uses baseball and the summer of the Mark McGuire/Sammy Sosa homerun race to underpin the story.

I especially liked the portrayal of the love between the two sisters as they navigated the unfamiliar waters of adult malfeasance.  Once again the author gives us a story of confused youngsters, dark secrets from the family past, and compassionate outsiders, provided in three different voices - a technique that might get old if it continues in more of his books, but which, for the time being, works well in this one.  I also listened to this one in audio to see how well it works in that format, and HarperAudio has done a wonderful job choosing talented narrators to capture the subtle nuances of the three different points of view.

Cash gives us believable and heart-wrenching characters, a feel for the gritty southern setting, and a story line that has us rooting for all of the players at one time or another.  It's a deep, dark, but ultimately liberating story about the power of forgiveness and the endurance of the parent/child/sibling bond.

As for the plot itself, in case you haven't seen any of the previous tour posts, or don't have time to go looking right now, here's what the publisher says:

The critically acclaimed author of the New York Times bestseller A Land More Kind Than Home—hailed as “a powerfully moving debut that reads as if Cormac McCarthy decided to rewrite Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird” (Richmond Times Dispatch)—returns with a resonant novel of love and atonement, blood and vengeance, set in western North Carolina, involving two young sisters, a wayward father, and an enemy determined to see him pay for his sins.
After their mother’s unexpected death, twelve-year-old Easter and her six-year-old sister Ruby are adjusting to life in foster care when their errant father, Wade, suddenly appears. Since Wade signed away his legal rights, the only way he can get his daughters back is to steal them away in the night.
Brady Weller, the girls’ court-appointed guardian, begins looking for Wade, and he quickly turns up unsettling information linking Wade to a recent armored car heist, one with a whopping $14.5 million missing. But Brady Weller isn’t the only one hunting the desperate father. Robert Pruitt, a shady and mercurial man nursing a years-old vendetta, is also determined to find Wade and claim his due.
Narrated by a trio of alternating voices, This Dark Road to Mercy is a story about the indelible power of family and the primal desire to outrun a past that refuses to let go.

Read an excerpt from This Dark Road to Mercy here.

About Wiley Cash

Wiley CashWiley Cash is the award-winning New York Times bestselling author of A Land More Kind than Home. A native of western North Carolina, he has a Ph.D. in English from the University of Louisiana-Lafayette. He has held residency positions at Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony and teaches in the low-residency MFA program at Southern New Hampshire University. He and his wife live in West Virginia.
Find out more about Wiley on his website, connect with him on Facebook, and follow him on Twitter. 

Wiley is scheduled to do a book signing in Portland ME next week, and I'm hoping to be able to get there to meet him in person - so let's all cross our fingers that we don't get any more of this snow stuff that day!

Title: This Dark Road to Mercy
Author: Wiley Cash
Publisher (Print): William Morrow 2014; ARC 340 pages;
Publisher (audio): Harper Audio, 2014,7hrs 53min
Narrators(audio): Jenna Lamia, Erik Bergmann, Scott Sowers
Subject: family relationships, redemption,
Setting: North Carolina
Source: print review copy from the publisher; audio copy purchased from
Why did I read this book now? I was invited to join the TLC Blog tour and loved the author's first book.  How could I refuse?
To see what others think of this one, check out the previous posts on Wiley’s Tour Stops
Tuesday, January 28th: Book-alicious Mama
Wednesday, January 29th: River City Reading
Thursday, January 30th: Knowing the Difference
Monday, February 3rd: cupcake’s book cupboard
Tuesday, February 4th: Sara’s Organized Chaos
Wednesday, February 5th: she treads softly
Thursday, February 6th: Turn the Page
Monday, February 10th: Girls Just Reading
Tuesday, February 11th: No More Grumpy Bookseller
Wednesday, February 12th: BookNAround
Thursday, February 13th: Kritters Ramblings
Monday, February 17th: BoundbyWords

Many thanks to William Morrow for making the print review copy available.  I purchased my own audio copy through

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Review: The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope by Rhonda Riley

From the cover:

In the waning months of World War II, young Evelyn Roe's life is transformed when she finds what she takes to be a badly burned soldier, all but completely buried in the heavy red-clay soil on her family's farm in North Carolina. When Evelyn rescues the stranger, it quickly becomes clear he is not a simple man. As innocent as a newborn, he recovers at an unnatural speed, and then begins to change—first into Evelyn's mirror image, and then into her complement, a man she comes to know as Adam...Evelyn and Adam fall in love, sharing a connection that reaches to the essence of Evelyn's being. But the small town where they live is not ready to accept the likes of Adam, and his unusual origin becomes the secret at the center of their seemingly normal marriage...Intensely moving and unforgettable, The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope captures the beauty of the natural world, and explores the power of abiding love and otherness in all its guises. It illuminates the magic in ordinary life and makes us believe in the extraordinary.

Tutu's thoughts:
This is one of the short list books for the Maine Readers Choice Awards. It's not normally one I'd read - particularly if I had known of the subject matter ahead of time. It had not been on my radar at all, and I was a bit nervous after reading the cover blurb.  However, I had agreed to read all the books on the list, so I plunged in and was blown away. It's very very different, beautiful writing, gorgeous love story(ies) and has an exceptional out-of-the-box premise.  Once I started,  I was at first afraid to keep reading because I didn't want the magic to end, and I worried that Riley could not sustain the level of exquisiteness she started (but she did!). I was also afraid that whatever the ending was going to be, I wouldn't like it. (Surprise!) took me a while to get my mind around the whole concept.  The premise of this otherworldly person who develops into Adam was a difficult one for me, so I chose to read the book as an allegory of the original Adam and Eve in the garden story.  About half-way into the story however, I just fell in love with the characters, the settings, and the story of love in all its forms.  Magical realism isn't a genre in my comfort zone, but Riley's writing is so special it won me over.  It is as lush and verdant as the Garden of Eden, and at the same time as straight-forward and unadorned as the North Carolina farm where the story begins.

This one is a worthy entry for the short list and will definitely be one that I look at when I have to choose the finalists.  It would be a very interesting book discussion group choice.

Note:  I also downloaded this one to listen to in audio.  Because the story involves characters who communicate in strange unworldly ways with music and sounds, the producers could have tried to duplicate that experience in the audio format.  I want to heap great praise on them for choosing not to try to replicate that and letting the reader use his/her imagination to "hear" those sounds.  It would have changed this from a beautiful reading experience (either eyes or ears) to a dumb-down music/hollywood video soundtrack.  Choosing to let the words speak the story without musical enhancement was a great tribute to the power of written words and the talent of the author.

Title: The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope
Author: Rhonda Riley
Publisher (print): Ecco (2013), Paperback, 432 pages
Publisher (audio):  HarperCollins Audio (2013) 16 hrs, 23 min
Narrator: Stina Nielson
Genre: literary fiction; fantasy
Subject: family relations,
Setting: rural North Carolina; Florida
Source: Review copy from the publisher
Why did I read this book now?  It's on the short list for the  Maine Readers Choice Award

Sincere thanks to Harper Publishers (ECCO) for providing the review copy.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Review: Drowning Barbie by Frederick Ramsay

I've been a fan of Frederick Ramsay's Ike Schwartz series since its beginning, although I confess I haven't read them all or in order. Ike and his "main squeeze" Ruth Harris, are both old enough to know what they're doing.  He's a sorta-retired CIA agent now serving as a small town sheriff in rural Virginia, and she's the President of a small private woman's college in the same town.  This combo provides many opportunities for the townies and the academics to tittle and gossip. Drowning Barbie begins as the couple ends a rather raucous mini-vacation in Las Vegas, waking to realize that in their drunken stupor, they've actually visited the local wedding palace and done the deed. Now, how to tell the folks back home, many of whom have been scandalized by their not too secret relationship.
The Publisher tempts us with:
 Ethyl Smut, everyone agreed, deserved to die. Drugs, child abuse, a life wasted, but murder is murder and killers must be brought to justice.So, when a second body is unearthed in her shallow grave, and the town's worst nightmare in the person of George LeBrun also find their way onto Ike's desk so to speak, things get messy fast. Then there is Ethyl's missing daughter, Darla, who could testify against some important people if she were found. And as if Ike hadn't enough on his plate, Karl Hedrick and Sam arrive to investigate the source of the second body and it's like old home week in Picketsville. Finally, there is the ""Never-ending Story"" of Ike and Ruth's engagement that friend and foe alike insist be settled one way or another.
So's a crime novel, and there appears the obligatory roster of murder victims (both known and unidentified), a runaway teenager, some drug dealers, bad cops, incompetent law enforcement, meddling busybodies, etc, etc, etc. Nothing horribly complicated, but definitely engaging enough to keep the pages turning.  Not only do Ruth and Ike provide us with wonderful dialogue, but the supporting cast keeps the reader entertained as well.  At the end of this one, Ramsay leaves us looking forward to a new and very different lifestyle for this eclectic and fun couple.There's certainly at least one more book for these two.

Thanks to Poisoned Pen Press for making the review copy available through Net Galley.

Title: Drowning Barbie
Author: Frederick Ramsay
Publisher: Poisoned Pen Press (2014), Paperback, 250 pages
Genre: mystery: Police procedural
Subject: child abuse, murder, drugs
Setting: Picketsville Virginia
Series: Ike Schwartz mysteries #8
Source: Net Galley review copy from Poisoned Pen Press
Whydid I read this book now?  I love the series.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Another Short List - The Maine Readers Choice Awards

Well, we all hashed out our selections, and the committee of readers for the Maine Readers Choice Award  has chosen the 10 tomes for this year's  "short list". We now have to read these and we'll decide by May which three will be presented to the readers of Maine for them to read and vote for their choice as the best Literary Fiction published in 2013.

So here's the list: (I've **'d the ones I've already finished.  Links are to my reviews published earlier).

**Benediction by Kent Haruf
The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope by Rhonda Riley (review coming next week)
 The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
**The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna
**Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger
The Silver Star by Jeannette Walls
The Tenth of December by George Saunders
TransAtlantic by Colum McCann
Visitation Street by Ivy Pochoda

I plan to read two of these each month, and maybe re-read the ones I've finished so I have them fresh in my mind before I have to vote. We had such a bounty of great fiction to choose from that it was really difficult to narrow them down.  

How about you?  Have you read any of these?  Do you have a favorite?  Drop a line and share your impressions.  

Monday, February 10, 2014

Review: The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon by Alexander McCall Smith

I received the audio version of this latest in the No.1 Ladies Detective Agency series from the Early Reviewer program on When I began the series years ago, I had a difficult time with the unusual language patterns and unfamiliar names. Then I discovered the audio books narrated by Lisette Lecat. Her amazing ability to provide different voices and accents gave me an appreciation for the lyrical rhythm of the language, and caused me to fall in love with the whole series, the colorful the country of Botswana, and several of the colorful characters McCall Smith has so carefully crafted.

In this episode (the 14th), Mma Precious Ramatswe is working two different cases: one involving a questionable inheritance and heir, the other a case of trying to find out who is maligning the newly opened business "The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon."   While she quietly and ploddingly works on these two cases, she is also helping Mma Makutse, her ertswhile side-kick and "associate detective" who is having a baby, and having to deal with the overbearing aunt of her husband Mr. Phuti Radiphuti.  In the meantime, Mma Ramatswe's husband, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, enrolls himself in the "How to be a modern husband" night course at the local university.  The results are not what he expects.  The whole story is very focused on the personal lives of Mma Makutse, Mma Ramatswe, their husbands, and their friends.  We see quite a bit more of the husbands and their musings about marriage.

While classified as detective stories, these books are so much more.  The mysteries are generally the skeleton on which McCall Smith hangs gentle, beautiful and affirming stories of Botswana and its way of life.  Precious Ramatswe is a woman wise beyond her years, but with a wisdom that recognizes there are always lessons to be learned from others, from life, and from the unfortunate happenings that befall all of us.  No matter what happens, she manages to dispense gems of beauty that keep us reading and wanting more.

If you've tried others in print and decided they weren't for you, please give them a try in audio.  The difference is incredible.  These are fun, relaxing, inspiring and vastly educational all at once.  They just keep getting better with each new installment.

Title:The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon
Author: Alexander McCall Smith
Publisher: Recorded Books, LLC (November 5, 2013), 9 hr, 45 min.
Genre: Cozy Mystery
Subject: Botswana customs, male-female relationships
Setting: Gabarone, Botswana
Series: No.1 Ladies Detective Agency
Source: Publisher via the EarlyReviewers program of
Why did I read this book now?  I received the book in exchange for an honest review and I love the series.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Review: Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin

I saw a discussion about this book on a thread in my LibraryThing group.  As with just about any book written about important religious figures, there are many diverse opinions about this one.  I had to go see for myself, and was able to pick up the audio version, narrated by Meryl Streep.

On the 2013 Booker Prize Shortlist, this short (104 pages in print, just over 3 hrs in audio) powerful narrative gives us a completely different voice for Mary, mother of Jesus.  This is not a plaster saint, nor is she wearing anything close to a halo.  This is the reflection of an elderly woman, looking back on her life, wondering what happened to turn her precious baby boy into a radical rebel who was ultimately subjected to a brutal and violent death.

This is a woman who does not see her boy as the son of God, who doesn't understand the disciples (those bullies her boy got involved with), who is afraid, who is searching for meaning, and who, as she nears the end of her life, is trying to make sense of everything that happened to her son during his short time on earth.

As one might expect, Meryl Streep's reading is superb.  I actually think this is one book that is much more powerful in audio than just being read in print.  Mary is brought to us in low, at times almost catatonic, monotones.  Her dreamlike remembrances give us an insight unlike any Christians are used to in their Bible readings.  In particular, her version of the resurrection of Lazarus gives us an almost zombie-like figure barely stumbling around supported by his sisters.  Mary cannot believe her son would participate in such a quack like show of magic.  She doesn't understand, and yet doesn't question him.

At Cana, we get a very different picture from the Synoptic gospels.  In Toibin's work, Mary is not the instigator; in fact she is trying to get him to keep from making a show of himself.  At the crucifixion, which Toibin paints in excruciating detail, we feel for this woman, who in spite of her love for her son (or because of it?) does not stay to witness the end, but rather runs into hiding in fear of her life.  It is only in her later dreams that we are given the Pièta vision of Michaelangelo's statue.

This is a powerful read with many opportunities for challenging what we think and believe.  In the end, I don't think it will change any religious beliefs, but it will flesh out a marble statue.

Title: Testament of Mary
Author: Colm Toibin
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio (2013), Edition: Unabridged, Audio CD
Genre: Fictional memoir
Subject: Mary's recollection of Christ's last years
Setting: Jerusalem and Ephesus
Source: public library
Why did I read this book now?  People I respect recommended it.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Supreme Macaroni Company by Adriana Trigiani

This is not intended to be a full review. Several readers at my library expressed disappointment in this book. Like me, they had read and enjoyed the first two in the series. I decided I'd better take a look so I could be more prepared to discuss with future readers. I too was disappointed, not at the story line, which seemed to be one of the major problems with several people, but with the trite, hackneyed writing. This book seems to be one stereotype and cliché after another. The whole story could have been told in about 2/3 of the words and not lost anything but a lot of melodrama.

Essentially, it is the continuation of the romance of Valentine Roncalli and Giancarlo Vechiarelli. As the wedding day approaches, Valentine struggles with worries about her factory in Argentina closing down and the conflicting expections between Valentine and Giancarlo concerning a permanent home. It's a beautiful romance, spoiled by Valentine's rather, IMHO selfish desire to have it all. Her unwillingness to bend caused me a lot of angst. At times, it was like listening to a four-year-old stamping her foot and demanding her way. It's hard to review this one without a major spoiler, and for those of you who are fans of the series, I don't want to spoil the story. If you're a fan, it's still a good story; if you haven't read the first two, I'd recommend you start at the beginning.

A final note: I did listen to parts of this on audio.  The narrator,  Cassandra Campbell did an excellent job giving Valentine's angst a true interpretation.  In fact, she was so good, I had to go back to reading it because I wanted to grab Valentine and give her a good talking to.

Title: The Supreme Macaroni Company
Author: Adriana Trigiani
Publisher:Harper (2013), First Edition, Hardcover, 352 pages
Genre: Fiction- Romance
Subject: Shoes and marriage
Setting: New York
Series: Very Valentine #3
Source: Public library
Why did I read this book now? Next one in a series I've enjoyed 

Monday, February 3, 2014

Review: In the Company of the Courtesan by Sarah Dunant

Last fall I read and reviewed Sarah Dunant's latest book "The Blood and the Beauty", a book I thoroughly enjoyed. I have always been a fan of Dunant finding her historical fiction easy to read, enjoyable and always well researched. So I sought this one out for no reason other than I wanted to read more of her work and had somehow missed this one published back in 2007.

Essentially this one is the story of a famous beauty Fiametta Bianchini and her sidekick business manager, companion, and friend Bucino Teodoldi the dwarf. Bucino narrates the story, and his point of view is what makes this one so much fun.  Together with Tiziano Vecellio (a thinly veiled Titian) they provide us with the male point of view on this distinctly female occupation.

The story opens in Rome in 1537 as the Catholic city is being overrun by Protestant hordes from outside the country.  Fiametta and Bucino escape to Venice where Fiametta grew up.  They have only her collection of jewels (which they managed to swallow !!!!) to support them.  In Rome, she had been a well-known, well-regarded and very wealthy courtesan, entertaining royalty, businessmen and not a few Cardinals of the church.

In Venice, she must begin again. Bucino goes about finding them living quarters, working space, and all the accoutrements needed to maintain the lifestyle she must project to be successful in her calling. She was well trained by her mother for this life, and knows her worth.

Up to about the middle of the book, the pace moves along, we are able to empathize with the characters, and look forward to a reasonable conclusion.  At some point though, the story begins to unravel.  It becomes less linear, and the reader is left to stumble along trying to keep track of several different story lines and characters. For instance, I never could get a clear handle on the character of Elena "La Draga" Crusichi.  Was she simply a servant, a healer, a sorceress, WHAT?  Her side story seems to come out of nowhere, and I'm not quite sure how it fits.

In spite of the crazy plot pattern, it's still a good read.  It gives a good picture of Venice and a well-researched story of the art of the courtesan, but it presented a fuzzy finale that left me frustrated.  In short,  I found the ending particularly disappointing and that colored my overall perception of the work.

Title: In The Company of the Courtesan
Author: Sarah Dunant
Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks (2007), 385 pages  
Genre: Historical Fiction
Subject: Prostitution
Setting: Venice, 1500-1600
Source: Public library
Why did I read this book now?  I like the author and it was available on the library shelf.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Review: The Butterfly Sister by Amy Gail Henson

A mixed review for this one. There were times when I really sank into the story and thought the author gave a well drawn word picture. There were other times I wondered where she was going. I think Meg Cabot in her cover blurb hit the nail on the head when she said it was " the perfect beach read." It's certainly more than chick-lit, but it lacks the heft of a good mystery.

In short, Ruby Rousseau, 20 year old college drop-out who now writes obituaries for a living, finds herself pulled into looking for a missing girl who was at all-girls Tartle College with her. Ruby has not returned to Tartle since her ill-fated romance with a married professor ended in disaster and a failed suicide attempt. So far, lots of tantalizing tid-bits......How coincidental that Tartle is having alumnae weekend and Ruby's roommate Heidi is on staff now and in charge of the festivities!  Desparate to break out of the obit gig, Ruby accepts a challenge from her boss to do a piece about the missing girl, and returns to Tartle.

At this point, the story and Ruby's life begin to unravel (or get scrambled up). Strange coincidences are unearthed, there's another girl lying in the hospital having just tried to kill herself, Ruby is befriended by a professor who seems too convenient for belief, and bam, bam, bam, all kinds of little puzzle pieces start falling out of the sky, and into the frame to fit perfectly. Or do they?  I also found the literary allusions to Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath and other writers named Sexton and Perkins very disruptive.  I don't have a strong background in English lit, and resented having to go find information about these women to find how their writing and ghostly presences fit into and influenced the story.

I will hand it to Amy Gail Hansen. She has written a book that seems determined to fall apart in the middle after a very tightly woven beginning. It is the ending however, that saves the book. Several times, I almost put the story aside, believing I knew how it ended, only to find that I was totally wrong and the bad guy was never on my radar screen.  The plot saves the book. The settings were entertaining:  it's always fun to re-visit New Orleans and drink some java at Cafe DuMonde whilst blowing powdered sugar off my beignet, and I'm a graduate of an all-girls college so Tartle was familiar too; but I found the female characters too girly oozy for my liking, even though they worked well in the story.

Altogether an slightly above average read that won't disappoint anyone looking for a fun and light piece of fiction.  Just don't expect the Great American Novel.

Title: The Butterfly Sister
Author:  Amy  Gail Hansen
Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks (2013), 320 pages
Genre: Literary fiction
Subject: suicide, betrayal, inappropriate relationships
Setting: College campus
Source: Review copy from publisher
Why did I read this book now? Long-listed for Maine Readers Choice Award 

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Review: We Are Water by Wally Lamb

I was not familiar with Wally Lamb’s writing before I read this novel. It came to me as one of the books long-listed for the Maine Readers Choice Awards, and it blew me away. The subject matter is not pretty, and is bound to make some readers uncomfortable. The characters are so well-portrayed however, that the reader is able to understand all the complex motivations that drive the players in the story.

Orion Oh is a psychologist on the staff of the local college. Married to Annie Oh, for over 25 years, they are the parents of twins Arianne and Andrew and another daughter Annie is an eclectic artist whose work often demonstrates an internal anger. She has gradually moved out of the family house in Connecticut to live in New York As the story unfolds, we gradually become aware of Annie's fractured childhood background which definitely impacts her adult actions. In the meantime, the now adult children are coping with their own coming of age difficulties while processing their mother’s choice of lifestyle and what they perceive as their father’s being abandoned by her.

The new bride, a high visibility art gallery owner, is quite assertive and is determined to have her wedding be one of the social events of the year. They are marrying in CT since same-sex marriage has, at the time of this story, not been approved in NY where the couple reside.

As the story progresses, each chapter presents a different character’s perspective, both about the upcoming marriage and also a retrospective glance back to the earlier years of the marriage and their own childhood. The past life experiences (especially regarding Annie's behavior) that influence the characters sneak up on the reader, and unexpectedly explode in a devastating scene of powerful emotions.

Without much of a spoiler, it seems that the children were traumatized throughout their growing-up years by actions of their mother who in turn has unresolved issues from her mother and younger sister's death in a flood; the children never thought to tell their father, and the father-busy with his professional life-was blind to what was happening in his own home to his own family. He is horrified when he realizes what may have happened and how that impacted his now grown children.As the family members gather back in the Connecticut home town to attend the wedding, emotions boil over, memories are triggered, and disaster seems inevitable.

I’m normally not a fan of epilogues, finding them often a tack–on that detracts from the reader’s assimilation and interpretation of the details. In this instance however, the epilogue could just as easily have been titled as another chapter giving the reader a glimpse into the future of the main characters. I found it fulfilling to be able to see how these lives played out, even though the scenarios were different from what I might have imagined or hoped for.
This is a powerful book that delves into very timely issues with compassion, and non-judgmental understanding. It does not sugar-coat unpleasantness, but neither does it make choices for the reader about the correctness of individual actions. It’s a well-researched, well-constructed story of life today, and one that will certainly be a popular choice for book discussion groups in the future.

Title: We Are Water
Author: Wally Lamb
Publisher: Harper (2013), Hardcover, 576 pages
Genre: Literary fiction
Subject: Gay marriage, child abuse
Source: Review copy from publisher
Why did I read this book now? Long-listed for Maine Reader's Choice Award

Monday, January 27, 2014

Review: The House Girl by Tara Conklin

Tara Conklin intertwines the story of two women: Josephine Bell, a Virginia house slave who in 1853 is trying desperately to escape to freedom and Lina Sparrow, a New York attorney looking for a plaintiff to serve as "lead plaintiff" in a class action suit in 2004  to compel the payment of reparations for descendants of slaves. The story is hung together by the discovery of some artwork that is thought to have been painted by Josephine Bell although heretofore attributed to her white owner.

The slave story is by far the more compelling.  We read of harsh treatment, unsuccessful escapes, and finally her "trip" on the Underground Railroad.  The characters are well-drawn, believable, and the story hangs together beautifully.  The reader is emotionally drawn into the life of Josephine, given insight into the extreme conditions slaves endured both in captivity in the south, and throughout the ordeal of the escapees.

Lina's story on the other hand is a bit sparse.  I found it difficult to relate to this young woman who seems to have no backbone in her job, whose researching skills are lacking and who seems to be on the receiving end of several fortuitous happenings.  I couldn't quite figure out if the plaintiff she was pursuing was also meant to be a romantic interest, and I found the whole reparations story a wee stretch, as did the plaintiff.  The story of Josephine and her paintings carried the book.  The platform of the reparations case was quite unsteady, and the ending really left me hanging.

Overall, the book is still worth reading if for no other reason than for the clear picture of slave life and the hopelessness of their situation.  Reparations may be called for.  I just wish the author had made a better case for them, and found a more convincing plaintiff and built a more persuasive case.

Title: The House Girl
Author: Tara Conklin
Publisher: William Morrow (2013), Hardcover, 384 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Subject: Slavery, Underground Railroad
Setting: Virginia 1853, New York 2004
Source: Review copy from the publisher
Why did I read this book now? It was on the long list for the Maine Reader's Choice Award