Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Painting Juliana

Painting Juliana by Martha Louise Hunter
Goldminds Publishing: 5/20/2014
Hardcover, 362 pages
ISBN-13: 9781930584624

Juliana Birdsong is your typical eight-year-old with an obsessive-compulsive mother who's too paranoid to leave the house. Making double-lined, black-out drapes to protect their home from the outside world, her mother only looks up from her sewing machine when Perry Mason comes on TV - the type of successful man Juliana should marry if she wants to get anywhere in life.
But Juliana has other things to worry about. Night after night, she's awakened by a terrifying dream where she's chased down a long, tapering highway on the back of her father's motorcycle heading for an enormous, twisting funnel cloud that waits on the horizon. Even after locking it away inside her bedside drawer, Juliana wonders if there are parts of the dream she hasn't seen yet.
Years later, she finds dynamic trial lawyer, Oliver Morrissey and she marries him for love. Life is going reasonably well for the priviledged socialite - that is, until she's faced with losing everything, including her children.
Stepping out of her Lexus, Juliana peels off her Chanel sunglasses and glares up at her childhood home that's now smothered in ivy. Inside, there's only her estranged father left, who she's sure caused her mother's death. Moving in, she discovers a nude portrait of her with an odd set of tiny red footprints on the ankle, and another surprise she's not expecting: Her father has Alzheimer's and he needs her. Plus, a shipment of mysterious oil paintings arrives, all with his signature.
When Juliana puts a brush in his hand, it sets off a surreal time warp and the canvases eerily transform, painting a different picture of the parents she thought she knew. As tragic secrets emerge that mirror her own, Juliana's old demons come back to haunt her.
Consumed with his care and desperate for her old life back, the dream is still chasing her and it's catching up fast. Just when she can't run any faster, the funnel cloud is waiting on the horizon, twisting even faster than before.

My Thoughts:

Painting Juliana by Martha Louise Hunter is a very highly recommended novel about a woman whose life is in complete shambles, or, maybe, just perhaps, in transition.

"I woke up, I'm alive, the dream's not real. I woke up, I'm alive, the dream's not real..." As an adult who suddenly has way-too-much personal stress to handle, Juliana Birdsong certainly might have wished that repeating this mantra that helped her endure her reoccurring nightmare as a child, would make her current nightmare situation end. Her marriage to her emotionally abusive lawyer husband, Oliver Morrissey, is ending. He's kicked her out of their Austin, Texas, home and won't let her see their 14 year old twins, Lindsey and Adam. To make matters worse, she discovers her father has Alzheimer's and needs constant care so she is going to have to move into his house, which is falling apart.

Once she moves into her father's house, she must face the past which is full of unanswered questions, chiefly what happened in her parent's marriage and what lead to the death of her mother, Carmen, 22 years earlier, right after Juliana graduated from college. Juliana enters her bedroom, left exactly as she left it when she left for college at age 18, "Things left behind I didn't remember I'd missed. It's a diorama of me, stopping at age eighteen. The age of my arrested development. (pg. 51)" She has had no relationship with her father since her mother's death, at which time she felt his behavior was as per usual M. O.: he was selfish and caught up with his own grief. She suspects he had something to do with her mother's death. Now she is surprisingly the one he has given the Power of Attorney over his affairs.

When crates of paintings signed by her father show up, Juliana must figure out what they mean, especially after she receives a mysterious phone call from a woman who seems to know her.  While missing her children desperately, Juliana must try to figure out her father's affairs while her husband is trying to sabotage her every step. She's also starting to drink too much.

Anyone trying to care for or deal with someone suffering from Alzheimer's will feel a connection to Juliana.

Oliver is a bully and an a**hole of the first degree. He had planned to divorce her and had everything arranged long before she knew a thing. He ambushes her and has her served with divorce papers while they are in couples counseling. He has told their children lies about her. He cancels her credit card so she has no way to pay for anything. Juliana's story is, I'm sad to admit, the story of many women. As Anne Lamott wrote: "You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should've behaved better." Although I rarely get personal in my book reviews, I immediately felt a kinship with Juliana.  I was also kicked out by an increasingly abusive husband, ambushed in couples counseling (although not served with papers) and had my credit card cancelled and left with no way to pay for anything. I was lucky that my children were adults. But, enough of that...

Many women will relate to Juliana's confusion and inaction in the face of what seems like overwhelming stress. That doesn't mean that you won't be taking back to Juliana and telling her to use her head. She's a smart woman and she needs to start behaving like one. It does seem inexplicable that she wants to get back together with Oliver, even if it is explained as a means to seeing her children again and she should have figured out that Oliver owes her some support, even through her stress induced fog.

There is also magic realism swirling around as the narrative deals with Juliana's childhood nightmare and the story of the paintings. 

It's hard to believe this is Martha Louise Hunter's debut novel. It's well written, and engaging. She had me hooked and anxiously reading right to the end. The characters are well developed and the revelations are nicely spaced in the context of the evolving plot. Even if you don't understand or agree with all of Juliana's actions, you will consistently be hoping the best for her and want to will her the strength to succeed and overcome.

I loved this quote: "A lie didn't happen, so it's not a memory... The truth you remember. You don't even have to try." (pg. 178)

Disclosure: I received an advanced reading copy of this book from the author for review purposes.

TLC Book Tour Schedule 

Saturday, September 27, 2014

How Can I Possibly Forgive?

How Can I Possibly Forgive? by Sara Horn
Harvest House: 10/1/2014
eBook, 208 pages
ISBN-13: 9780736960991

Sometimes it's a struggle to forgive a friend, a family member, a coworker, or a neighbor. This book helps you to look at the meaning of forgiveness and the impact that choosing to forgive—or refusing to forgive—has on your life. It will help you identify the battles worth fighting and the ones that aren't and how to tell the difference.
As she did in her popular one-year experiment with submission, Sara Horn reveals through personal experiences and stories what she's learned about forgiving with God's help and healing. In the process, she explores the steps toward forgiveness, including how to
  • take care of the little problems we allow to become big issues
  • move on from painful slights and deep wounds
  • be real with ourselves and God first and then be real with others
  • find closure when disappointment in others doesn't resolve itself
  • let go of regret, anger, and bitterness that keep us from living in the freedom God intends
Life isn't about holding on to destructive and painful experiences. It's about letting go. And it's about letting God work in our trying situations so we can see Him more clearly on the other side.
My Thoughts:

How Can I Possibly Forgive?: Rescuing Your Heart from Resentment and Regret by Sara Horn is a highly recommended book that will help guide readers to the path of forgiveness.

As Horn points out in How Can I Possibly Forgive? forgiveness is the act of letting it all go, it being resentment, anger, bitterness, frustration, and unresolved issues of both the seemingly insignificant minor annoyances to the unfathomably deep wounds that have left scars. It is an action on your part to let go of the pain. Some of these issues can be forgiven much easier than others, which can take years to heal. Horn makes it clear that a personal relationship with God will help you forgive and heal your wounded heart.

There are several numbered steps or characteristics included in the book. Horn expounds on each step or characteristic and includes Biblical passages and principles along with personal stories to illustrate and explain. An example would be "Five Ways to Start Forgiving Right Now" which include: 1. Pray for the person who wounded you; 2. Look the offending person in the eye, say hello, and offer a compliment; 3. Do the right thing; 4. Be OK with what you’ve got; 5. Pick your battles. Or the  "Five Ways to Choose Forgiveness over Resentment Right Now" include: 1. Offer compassion; 2. Offer kindness; 3. Offer humility; 4. Offer gentleness; 5. Offer patience.

An example of characteristics includes "Seven Habits of Highly Forgiving People." Highly forgiving people are: 1. intentional about living in peace; 2. kind; 3. generous with their time, money, and life; 4. living by the Golden Rule; 5. meeting with God regularly through prayer and Bible study; 6. offering the benefit of the doubt to others when their actions are hurtful or disappointing; 7.  consistently praying for other people.

I do want to make it clear that this is a helpful book and could be a nice guide for a Bible study on forgiveness. Horn offers some great advice, especially for the small niggling issues that can pop up or minor acts that can become huge battlegrounds. For some more serious issues that people have to deal with, while very helpful and full of basically the information people need, this book would be "Forgiveness: the lite version." It is certainly true that when people learn to forgive and let go of the little things, following Biblical principles, it is easier to tackle forgiving the huge things, but, because this is a general book of helpful information and principles, Horn simple isn't dealing with the specific problems involved in some major traumas people struggle to forgive. While she mentions some of these big traumas, they are quite different from the examples she gives. Most people will understand that it is easier to forgive someone for a cruel remark than to forgive the person who sexually abused you as a child.

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Harvest House for review purposes.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

To Dwell in Darkness

To Dwell in Darkness by Deborah Crombie
HarperCollins: 9/23/2014
eBook, 336 pages

ISBN-13: 9780062271600
Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James Series #16

In the tradition of Elizabeth George, Louise Penny, and P. D. James, New York Times bestselling author Deborah Crombie delivers a powerful tale of intrigue, betrayal, and lies that will plunge married London detectives Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James into the unspeakable darkness that lies at the heart of murder.
 Recently transferred to the London borough of Camden from Scotland Yard headquarters, Superintendent Duncan Kincaid and his new murder investigation team are called to a deadly bombing at historic St. Pancras Station. By fortunate coincidence, Melody Talbot, Gemma's trusted colleague, witnesses the explosion. The victim was taking part in an organized protest, yet the other group members swear the young man only meant to set off a smoke bomb. As Kincaid begins to gather the facts, he finds every piece of the puzzle yields an unexpected pattern, including the disappearance of a mysterious bystander.
The bombing isn't the only mystery troubling Kincaid. He's still questioning the reasons behind his transfer, and when his former boss—who's been avoiding him—is attacked, those suspicions deepen. With the help of his former sergeant, Doug Cullen, Melody Talbot, and Gemma, Kincaid begins to untangle the truth. But what he discovers will leave him questioning his belief in the job that has shaped his life and his values—and remind him just how vulnerable his precious family is.

My Thoughts:

To Dwell in Darkness by Deborah Crombie is the very highly recommended sixteenth novel in the ongoing police procedural series featuring Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James.

Superintendent Duncan Kincaid has been transferred to the London borough of Camden, what seems to be, in reality, a demotion. He is missing his old team and trying to get used to his new detective inspector, Jasmine Sidana, when there is a deadly bombing at historic St. Pancras Railway Station. It appears that one member of a group of preservation activists who were there protesting may have immolated himself with a white phosphorous grenade. The shocked protestors claim it was supposed to be a harmless smoke bomb. Two friends of the family are also injured in the attack.

While Duncan works this case, Gemma is solving a case of her own. And then there is the mother cat and four kittens that their sons rescue from the garden shed. It is another busy police procedural set amidst a hectic family life. Not only is Duncan on the case, but many characters from previous novels in the series are back as well as some new characters.
My previous review of The Sound of Broken Glass shetreadssoftly.blogspot.com/2014/02/the-sound-of-broken-glass.html may also give more background information on thefamily and characters.

This is another winner from Crombie. The investigation is followed closely, step by step. Since this is certainly an ongoing series there are loose ends that will be tied up in the future, as, I imagine, more loose ends will appear. Certainly Crombie provides enough basic information that you can read this as a stand-alone novel, but you will certainly want to consider reading more in the series.

Personal aside:  Although it seems inconsequential, I was slightly annoyed that Gemma and Melody were always nibbling sandwiches or sipping tea and never seriously eating and drinking in the last novel. I literally laughed aloud when Gemma mentioned that she and Melody had drunk pots of tea in one chapter. Probably my rambling thoughts about it had nothing to do with this being included, but it pleased me enormously.

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of HarperCollins for review purposes.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

A Slip of the Keyboard

A Slip of the Keyboard by Terry Pratchett
Knopf Doubleday: 9/23/2014
eBook, 336 pages
ISBN-13: 9780385538305

A Slip of the Keyboard is the first collection of Pratchett’s nonfiction work, and it brings together the finest examples of his extraordinary wit and his persuasive prose. Whether in short opinion pieces (on death and taxes), or in long essays, speeches, and interviews (covering a range of topics from mushrooms to orangutans), this collection is a fascinating look inside an extraordinary writer’s mind. It includes his remarks at science-fiction and fantasy conventions, his thoughts on the importance of banana daiquiris on book tours, his observations on fan mail, and his belief that an author is obligated to sign anything a fan puts in front of him (especially if it is very sharp). He also writes about the books that shaped his love of language and legends, not to mention his entrance into science-fiction fandom when he attended his first sci-fi convention as a teenager.
Filled with all the humor and humanity that have made his novels so enduringly popular, this collection brings Pratchett out from behind the scenes of Discworld to speak for himself—man and boy, bibliophile and computer geek; a champion of hats, orangutans, and Dignity in Dying.
With a foreword by Pratchett’s close friend and Good Omens coauthor Neil Gaiman to lead off, A Slip of the Keyboard is a must-have for any Pratchett fan.

My Thoughts:

A Slip of the Keyboard by Terry Pratchett is a very highly recommended, consistently entertaining collection of short nonfiction pieces.

The  work presented in A Slip of the Keyboard showcases a wide variety of work that can be both serious and humorous. This is a wonderful collection of nonfiction that should appeal to fans of his writing as well as those who enjoy a well written, insightful essay that can also take a wry look at life.

After a Foreword by Neil Gaiman, the collection is divided into three parts:
A Scribbling Intruder (On bookshops, dragons, fan mail, sandwiches, tools of the trade, waxing wroth, and all the business of being a Professional Writer)
A Twit and a Dreamer (On school days, scabby knees, first jobs, frankincense, Christmas robots, beloved books, and other off-duty thoughts)
Days of Rage (On Alzheimer's, orangutans, campaigns, controversies, dignified endings, and trying to make a lot of things a little better)

Neil Gaiman writes in the foreword that: "There is a fury to Terry Pratchett’s writing. It’s the fury that was the engine that powered Discworld, and you will discover it here: it’s the anger at the headmaster who would decide that six-year-old Terry Pratchett would never be smart enough for the eleven-plus, anger at pompous critics, and at those who think that serious is the opposite of funny, anger at his early American publishers who could not bring his books out successfully. The anger is always there, an engine that drives. By the time this book enters its final act, and Terry learns he has a rare, early-onset form of Alzheimer’s, the targets of his fury change: now he is angry with his brain and his genetics and, more than these, furious at a country that will not permit him (or others in a similarly intolerable situation) to choose the manner and the time of their passing.

While there may be anger, especially in some of the later works included in the collection, this anger presented itself as passion for me. In many of the pieces, I found myself reading along, agreeing with him, and then he'd throw out a couple lines that had me snorting aloud or chortling guiltily. How could you not at something like the following concerning others that might be at a book signing, "If you have got a TV personality promoting something with a title like The Whoops-Where-Did-That-One-Go? Christmas Fun Book, don’t pass comment if they spend a lot of time reading their book while they’re in the shop. It may be the first time they’ve seen it. Do not offer to help them with the longer words."

There are, quite naturally, a lot of pieces that concern fantasy writing or what others perceive as fantasy. There is a lot of advice to be gleaned from this collection if you are an aspiring writer, like this gem from" Elves Were Bastards" (1992):"I get depressed with these fluffy dragons and noble elves. Elves were never noble. They were cruel bastards. And I dislike heroes. You can’t trust the buggers. They always let you down." Pratchet continues, discussing escapism "But the point about escaping is that you should escape to, as well as from. You should go somewhere worthwhile, and come back the better for the experience. Too much alleged “fantasy” is just empty sugar, life with the crusts cut off."

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Knopf Doubleday for review purposes.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Early Science Fiction of Philip K. Dick

The Early Science Fiction of Philip K. Dick by Philip K. Dick
Dover Publications: 7/17/2013
eBook, 256 pages
ISBN-13: 9780486497334

The highly prolific writer Philip K. Dick (1928–82) ranks among the most influential of science fiction authors. The Hugo Award winner published 44 novels and more than 120 brief works during his lifetime, and his fantasies formed as the basis for Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, The Adjustment Bureau, and other successful motion pictures. This anthology presents twelve of his finest early short stories and novellas, which originally appeared in Space Science Fiction, Imagination: Stories of Science Fiction and Fantasy, and other pulp magazines of the early 1950s. These gripping stories include "Second Variety," which stars nasty little death-robots; "The Crystal Crypt," an account of a terrifying flight to Mars; "The Defenders," featuring a self-aware weapon frightful enough to put an end to war; and "The Variable Man," a tale of a handyman's misadventures in the future. Additional selections include "Beyond the Door," the story of the lonely bird inside a cuckoo clock; "Mr. Spaceship," a fable concerning spacecraft controlled by the human brain; and "Beyond Lies the Wub," in which intelligence lurks in an unlikely form.

My Thoughts:

The Early Science Fiction of Philip K. Dick by Philip K. Dick is a very highly recommended collection of 12 of the best of his very early works. I loved this collection of short stories from works written from 1952–1954. They are all engaging and indicative of Dick's later, more impressive work.

Quite naturally, knowing that this is a collection of his early works,  you will be able to tell that they were written in the 50's. I found it easy to set aside the notion that these themes were too dated and found all of the stories very entertaining. I actively enjoyed every single story in this collection. There is, again, quite naturally, a pulp-feel to them, but the stories themselves are quite solid and show the promise of things yet to come from this intelligent, talented writer. Fans of Philip K. Dick and early pulp science fiction will appreciate this collection.

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of
Dover Publications for review purposes.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Living Courageously

Living Courageously: You Can Face Anything, Just Do It Afraid by Joyce Meyer
FaithWords: 9/16/2014

ebook, 272 pages

Fear commonly affects our ability to live fully, holding us back from what enriches our lives and the lives of others. But our quality of life will improve when we learn how to be courageous in the face of fear.
In LIVING COURAGEOUSLY, Joyce Meyer explains how, as Christians, we can overcome the paralyzing power of fear by calling upon the Lord. "Fear not" is written throughout the Bible. God knows His children will be confronted with fear, but He can help us resist it.
It is your inherited right as a child of God to live life to the fullest and to enjoy it. Joyce will encourage you to be expectant as you learn to conquer fear, become all God wants you to be, and do all He wants you to do. With a blend of personal insight and inspiring Scripture, this book will help you employ the power of God to overcome fear and achieve your best.

My Thoughts:

Living Courageously by Joyce Meyer is a very highly recommended book that encourages us on the path to live a victorious and courageous Christian life.

The complete title of Living Courageously: You Can Face Anything, Just Do It Afraid explains the basis for this sure-to-be-a-best-seller by Joyce Meyer. She points out that God has promised to go before us and bring us through life victoriously as we obey Him, so we should be living boldly instead of fearfully. Even though we are free, that doesn’t mean that we will never experience or be confronted by fear. It does mean that we do not need to allow it to rule our lives, and if we have to do or face something we fear, we can do it afraid, knowing God goes before us.

Meyer correctly points out that the inherent nature of God is that He is good, He is good all the time, and He will work all things together for our good. We need to live out lives in a positive manner. It is time for us to seriously consider everything that God is doing to protect, provide and help us - our every breath is a gift from God.

The book is divided into two parts. Part 1 gives the reader an "understanding of what fear is, where it comes from, what your attitude toward it should be, and how you can overcome it."
Part 2 discusses some of the more prominent fears that people experience. Even though your specific fear may not be discussed, Meyer provides the key to the tools you need to defeat it. "The best attitude you can have toward fear is, 'I will not fear, and I will do what I need or want to do even if I have to do it afraid!'"

Meyer has a down to earth, conversational style of writing that is easy to follow and understand which makes her teaching very accessible to many people. She shares with candor and honesty several painful, emotional times where fear has ruled her life, but is clear to also credit God for helping her overcome her fear. Meyer is a wonderful teacher and backs up her every thought with scripture. This will be a great resource for a group Bible study.


Chapter 1: Say Good-Bye to Fear
Chapter 2: Right and Wrong Fear
Chapter 3: The Source of Fear
Chapter 4: Phobias
Chapter 5: Cultivating Courage
Chapter 6: Insecurity
 Chapter 7: Keep Your Eyes on the Prize
Chapter 8: The Creative Power of Fear and Faith
Chapter 9: The Fear of Lack
Chapter 10: The Fear of Losing Control
Chapter 11: The Fear of Not Being Wanted
Chapter 12: The Fear of Being Inadequate
Chapter 13: I Am Afraid I Am Not Doing Enough
Chapter 14: The Fear of Man
Chapter 15: The Fear of the Unknown
Chapter 16: The Fear of Making Mistakes
Chapter 17: The Fear of God’s Anger and Judgment
Chapter 18: The Fear of Intimacy
Chapter 19: Are You Passing Your Fears on to Your Children?
Chapter 20: The Fear of Death
Chapter 21: Do It Afraid!
Scriptures to Help You Overcome Fear
Scriptures About the Power of Faith

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of
FaithWords for review purposes.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Stone Mattress

Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood
Knopf Doubleday: 9/16/2014
eBook, 288 pages
ISBN-13: 9780385539128

A collection of highly imaginative short pieces that speak to our times with deadly accuracy. Vintage Atwood creativity, intelligence, and humor: think Alias Grace.
Margaret Atwood turns to short fiction for the first time since her 2006 collection, Moral Disorder, with nine tales of acute psychological insight and turbulent relationships bringing to mind her award-winning 1996 novel, Alias Grace. A recently widowed fantasy writer is guided through a stormy winter evening by the voice of her late husband in "Alphinland," the first of three loosely linked stories about the romantic geometries of a group of writers and artists. In "The Freeze-Dried Bridegroom," a man who bids on an auctioned storage space has a surprise. In "Lusus Naturae," a woman born with a genetic abnormality is mistaken for a vampire. In "Torching the Dusties," an elderly lady with Charles Bonnet syndrome comes to terms with the little people she keeps seeing, while a newly formed populist group gathers to burn down her retirement residence. And in "Stone Mattress," a long-ago crime is avenged in the Arctic via a 1.9  billion-year-old stromatolite. In these nine tales, Margaret Atwood is at the top of her darkly humorous and seriously playful game.
My Thoughts:

Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood is a very highly recommended collection of 9 tales from an extraordinarily adept writer who has stunning insights into the human psyche. 

It's always been a pleasure to read Atwood's novels so I have been looking forward to her latest collection of short stories, or tales, Stone Mattress. Unabashedly, I loved this collection.  The tales mainly feature aging characters, with one exception. The first three stories are linked through the characters. Several of the stories feature aging writers.

Alphinland - Constance is a writer whose recently deceased husband's voice guides her through her day. She also reflects about Gavin, an ex-lover from her youth.
Revenant -  Gavin, a pretentious, curmudgeonly elderly poet is disgruntled with life.
Dark Lady - We meet Jorrie, a former lover of Gavin.
Lusus Naturae - "When demons are required someone will always be found to supply the part, and whether you step forward or are pushed is all the same in the end."
The Freeze-Dried Groom - A man finds a corpse in a storage locker he has bought.
I Dream of Zenia with the Bright Red Teeth - Three friends discuss life and their interconnected past misadventures.
The Dead Hand Loves You - An older writer who sold shares of his first book when young resents the three friends involved.
Stone Mattress - A woman meets her rapist from 50 years ago and plots her revenge.
Torching the Dusties - An elderly nursing home resident has lost her sight and must rely on a friend to guide her.

Don't let the theme of elderly protagonists prevent you from picking up this collection. Atwood is intelligent, politically and socially astute, and a superlative writer. In other words, Margaret Atwood rocks. This is a short story collection that should not be missed.

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Knopf Doubleday for review purposes.

Margaret Atwood Interview

Saturday, September 13, 2014

In Certain Circles

In Certain Circles by Elizabeth Harrower 
Text Publishing Company: 9/9/2014
eBook, 256 pages
ISBN-13: 9781922182296

In Certain Circles is the novel Elizabeth Harrower wrote after the release of The Watch Tower. The author withdrew this novel before publication in 1971, and it has languished in a library for four decades.
In Certain Circles is an intense psychological drama about family and love, tyranny, and freedom. Set amid the lush gardens and grand stone houses that line the north side of Sydney Harbour, it follows the lives of four unforgettable characters whose fates are intertwined.

My Thoughts:

In Certain Circles by Elizabeth Harrower is a recommended historical novel that is an examination of both character and social class.

In Certain Circles open right after WWII in Sydney, Australia and we meet the Howard family and the two Quayle siblings. The Howard's are a wealthy family who live in a large stone house on the north side of Sydney Harbor. Both parents are biologists and well known. Their son, Russel, has returned from the war and their 17 year old daughter, Zoe believes she deserves the praise written about her.

"She and Russell were greatly taken notice of. Russell was never affected by the propaganda, having a life of his own from the start; Zoe took attention and praise for granted, as though they were part of the public utilities, like running water and electricity. She was quite sated with the interest turned on her, but did not think it unjustified. World-weary as any international success, so confident that few opinions could move her, fearless, seventeen..."

Stephen and Anna Quayle have lived dramatically different lives. After the death of their parents they have been brought up in Parramatta by an uncle who is overly preoccupied with caring for his neurotic wife. Now Stephen, a born pessimist, is a salesman, something Russell doesn't judge, but Zoe finds incredulous. Anna is still living with her uncle but is sure to wind up  being "one of those clerks, working to eat." However, since Stephen is not immediately taken with Zoe and doesn't find her unfailingly charming at all, Zoe finds herself attracted to him.

The novel is divided up into three parts. The first part is after WWII, when we are introduced to the characters (above), the second opens 8 years later, and the third part is in the 1960s.The attitudes of most of the female characters is that they will certainly give up their lives to support their husbands in any way they possible. I think In Certain Circles will appeal to those who enjoy period pieces and  novels that deal with social class differences.

This is a novel that was written to be published in 1971, but was never released until now. Fans of Harrower's other novels will want to read In Certain Circles. While the writing is excellent and the characters basically well developed with discernment regarding their motives and behaviors, I was unable to fully immerse myself in this novel. Perhaps this is because I never connected with the characters at the start, at which point I found Stephen a complete jerk and the younger Zoe an over-privileged jerk. 

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of the Text Publishing Company for review purposes.

Thursday, September 11, 2014


Ballroom by Alice Simpson
HarperCollins: 9/23/2014
Hardcover, 304 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062323033

A beautiful debut, Ballroom follows a group of strangers, united by a desire to escape their complicated lives (if only for a few hours each week) at a New York City dance hall that’s about to close its doors for good.
The Ballroom used to be a place to see and be seen, but the years have taken their toll, and by the end of the 1990s this Manhattan dance hall, just off Union Square, is a husk of its former self. A small crowd of loyal patrons still makes its way to the worn parquet floor every Sunday evening: although they each have their private reasons for returning again and again to the Ballroom, they are united by a shared desire to seek solace from reality, if only for a few hours, within its walls—and in the magic of dance.
Nearly forty and still single, Sarah Dreyfus is desperate for love and sure she’ll find it with debonair Gabriel Katz, who seduces the women he meets at the Ballroom to distract himself from his crumbling marriage. Lonely bachelor Joseph believes that his yearning for a wife and family will be fulfilled—if he can only get Sarah to notice him and see that he is in love with her. Obsessed with his building superintendent’s beautiful daughter, Maria Rodriguez, elderly dance instructor Harry Korn is convinced that together they will find the happiness that has eluded him throughout his life. And Maria, who—thanks in part to Harry’s instruction and encouragement—is one of the stars of Sunday nights at the Ballroom along with her partner, Angel Morez, has a dream of her own that her brokenhearted father refuses to accept or understand.
My Thoughts:

Ballroom by Alice Simpson is a recommended novel only for those who enjoy character studies of the disagreeable and ballroom dancing.

In Ballroom, a debut novel, we meet a cast of characters who gather to dance at The Ballroom. All of them are loyal patrons who love to dance, even if for most of them it is simple a way to escape their sad, dreary lives and create superficial connection with others. We also meet 65 year old Harry Korn who has been teaching 20 year old Maria how to dance since she was a child. Harry is under the illusion that he and Maria will run off together when she turns 21. Maria has a dance partner, Angel, and they are winning trophies together even as Maria finishes college and heads off to grad school. Sarah is a lonely woman searching for love with a dance partner, while Joseph is a lonely man who thinks his dream of a family will be realized through a dance partner at the Ballroom. Gabriel is a man who is seducing women he meets to escape from his real life.

While Simpson does a good job at characterization, I couldn't relate to or sympathize with even one of these characters. They are all so sad and unlikeable, even young Maria, and desperately wanting to change their lives but totally ineffectual and impotent to do anything concrete. Frankly, I found the whole Harry and Maria plot line repulsive, disgusting, and creepy, which might have worked had Simpson used that feeling in the plot, but, alas, she doesn't.

This is one of those novels where the quality of the writing is good, the characters are there, but then nothing is really done with them. We learn about their past, and their dreams, but then nothing is brought to a satisfactory conclusion. There is no big dramatic ending or plot twist.

The opening of each chapter is prefaced by quotes from old school books on ballroom dancing etiquette and the whole story is infused with dance. Those who enjoy ballroom dancing and can see how the steps in each dance can mirror life might find Ballroom a more satisfying novel than I did.

If you visit Alice Simpson's website you will see that Ballroom began as an Artist Book and you can see a picture of the cover and one of the exquisite watercolors. In fact, I am much more impressed and in awe of her art work than this novel.

Disclosure: I received an advanced reading copy of this book from the publisher and TLC for review purposes. 

TLC Ballroom Tour

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Station Eleven

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Knopf Doubleday: 9/9/2014
eBook, 352 pages
ISBN-13: 9780385353304

An audacious, darkly glittering novel set in the eerie days of civilization’s collapse, Station Eleven tells the spellbinding story of a Hollywood star, his would-be savior, and a nomadic group of actors roaming the scattered outposts of the Great Lakes region, risking everything for art and humanity.
One snowy night Arthur Leander, a famous actor, has a heart attack onstage during a production of King Lear. Jeevan Chaudhary, a paparazzo-turned-EMT, is in the audience and leaps to his aid. A child actress named Kirsten Raymonde watches in horror as Jeevan performs CPR, pumping Arthur’s chest as the curtain drops, but Arthur is dead. That same night, as Jeevan walks home from the theater, a terrible flu begins to spread. Hospitals are flooded and Jeevan and his brother barricade themselves inside an apartment, watching out the window as cars clog the highways, gunshots ring out, and life disintegrates around them.
Fifteen years later, Kirsten is an actress with the Traveling Symphony. Together, this small troupe moves between the settlements of an altered world, performing Shakespeare and music for scattered communities of survivors. Written on their caravan, and tattooed on Kirsten’s arm is a line from Star Trek: “Because survival is insufficient.” But when they arrive in St. Deborah by the Water, they encounter a violent prophet who digs graves for anyone who dares to leave.
Spanning decades, moving back and forth in time, and vividly depicting life before and after the pandemic, this suspenseful, elegiac novel is rife with beauty. As Arthur falls in and out of love, as Jeevan watches the newscasters say their final good-byes, and as Kirsten finds herself caught in the crosshairs of the prophet, we see the strange twists of fate that connect them all. A novel of art, memory, and ambition, Station Eleven tells a story about the relationships that sustain us, the ephemeral nature of fame, and the beauty of the world as we know it.

My Thoughts:

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel is a very highly recommended fresh take on a pre- and post-apocalyptic novel.

Station Eleven opens with the death from an apparent heart attack of an actor, Arthur Leander, while he is onstage performing King Lear in Toronto. Jeevan Chaudary, who would like to be an EMT, jumps up to help him. He later notices child actress, Kirsten Raymonde, watching in the wings, and sits with her until her handler arrives. This was the night that the Georgia Flu hits. With one of the fastest incubation periods ever seen, the spread of the flu marks the start of a deadly pandemic that will leave few survivors. 

Twenty years later Kirsten is now traveling and performing with the caravans of the Traveling Symphony, an itinerant troop of musicians and actors who travel to sparsely populated small towns to play classical music and perform Shakespearean plays. The land is dangerous, though, and a new man who calls himself a prophet is on the loose.

Mandel deftly juxtaposes the present day hard-scrabble existence of the survivors with flashbacks on the past life of the actor Arthur Leander. There are several characters who all have a connection to Leander and the sections of the novel that deal with his life pre-apocalypse show all those connections. These sections stand in stark contrast with the current conditions and what happens to people after his death. The contrast between the privileged celebrity past with the grim present is well handled and gives Station Eleven a unique outlook on its exploration of destiny in a genre that is getting crowded with lesser contenders.

The title of the novel comes from a graphic novel Leander's first wife, Miranda, makes and later prints off in a limited edition. Leander gives copies to young Kirsten, who still has them 20 years later in the post-apocalyptic sections.

Station Eleven is an extremely well written and all-consuming novel that never lags and should keep you captivated to the end. Those who enjoy literary fiction should appreciate this along with the fans of dystopian fiction. We can have art simply for art's sake - and know that art has value that may not be measurable but, perhaps, can endure even the collapse of civilization. In this end of the known world, art, music, poetry, and theater all survive in some remnants.

The chapter on an "Incomplete List" of what was gone should get everyone thinking about what would be gone. Currently with the Ebola outbreak (and seriously, does anyone really think we have heard the right numbers of those who have died?) a global pandemic could spread easier than ever and an extremely unknown virulent strain of the flu crossing over requires no great stretch of the imagination.

(The only question I had was I did wonder at one point why Kristen would be scavenging and decide to wear a silk dress she found rather than taking it for a costume and look for some jeans to wear.)

I would declare this a camp out all night at the airport book but... just read it and you'll know why I can't go there.

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Knopf Doubleday for review purposes.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Yesterday's Kin

Yesterday's Kin by Nancy Kress
Tachyon: 9/9/2014
eBook, 192 pages

ISBN-13: 9781616961756

Aliens have landed in New York. After several months of no explanations, they finally reveal the reason for their arrival.
The news is not good.
Geneticist Marianne Jenner is having a career breakthrough, yet her family is tearing itself apart. Her children Elizabeth and Ryan constantly bicker, agreeing only that an alien conspiracy is in play. Her youngest, Noah, is addicted to a drug that keeps temporarily changing his identity. The Jenner family could not be further apart. But between the four of them, the course of human history will be forever altered.
Earth’s most elite scientists have ten months to prevent a disaster—and not everyone is willing to wait.
My Thoughts:

Yesterday's Kin by Nancy Kress is a highly recommended short novel that succinctly captures a first contact story from the viewpoint of one family - with a twist.

They said they were here making contact for a peace mission. At first the aliens, nicknamed Denebs, were staying in orbit off the earth, but then they asked permission of the UN to set up an embassy off shore from NYC. Then they requested specific visitors to their embassy and they revealed their true reason for making contact. The aliens claim there is a deadly interstellar spore cloud headed for earth and they want to warn earth scientists about it so they can find a cure/vaccination before it arrives in 10 months.

The Denebs are also interested in the genetics research of Marianne Jenner. She recently published a paper on mitochondrial Eve and a new branch of her descendants. The aliens are interested in this research. Jenner is one of the scientists the aliens ask to the embassy. Yesterday's Kin focuses on the contact with the aliens but it also explores Jenner's family and their interactions during this time.

There are pros and cons to Kress' story. This is a good hard science fiction read since Kress does use up-to-date scientific research in her story. She packs a whole lot into 192 pages, which is good for a simple fast read but bad for any sort of extensive character or plot development. Kress does manage to do an excellent job of telling the story and developing her characters in the limited number of pages, but I think it may have been better if there was a bit more development of the narrative. Even while I enjoyed the story a lot, I was left with a few questions. For me at least, the twist at the end was guessed well before anything was revealed.

(I also wondered about the quote "My, people come and go so quickly here," being attributed to Alice in Wonderland, when most people will recognize it from the movie The Wizard of Oz. I'm not sure if it is in both works or not, but perhaps someone knows.)

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Tachyon via Netgalley for review purposes.

Such Good Girls

Such Good Girls by R. D. Rosen
HarperCollins: 9/9/2014
eBook, 288 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062297105

They defied death by being such good girls—keeping secrets, staying out of sight, and suffering in frightened silence.
Sophie—pictured on the cover—survived the Holocaust without even knowing she was Jewish, while her terrified, widowed mother worked for the Nazis in Poland under the guise of a Christian bookkeeper.
Flora, orphaned by Final Solution, was shuttled through southern France, from convents to the homes of one Christian family after another, unsure of who she really was.
Carla and her family took shelter in the apartment of a Dutch barber, while, one floor below, the man who protected them would cut German soldiers' hair.
Sophie Turner-Zaretsky, Flora Hogman, and Carla Lessing (and her husband, Ed) survived not only the Holocaust—among the mere 10 percent of European Jewish children who did—but their own survival. Each of them ended up in New York, where they slowly emerged from the traumas of their childhoods, devoted their careers to helping others, and played important roles in the groundbreaking 1991 event that, for the first time, brought together the hidden child survivors scattered around the world.
A chance meeting with Sophie sent author R. D. Rosen, a privileged Jewish American child of the suburbs, on a journey to grasp the scope of Nazi extermination of Europe's Jews and to honor hidden children, the very last generation of survivors to have witnessed the Holocaust firsthand.
My Thoughts:

Such Good Girls: The Journey of the Holocaust's Hidden Child Survivors by R. D. Rosen is a very highly recommended nonfiction account of several hidden child survivors of the holocaust.

Most people know of Anne Frank, a child hidden for most of WWII who did not survive, but there were other Jewish children who were hidden and survived the Holocaust. In Such Good Girls  R. D. Rosen shares the stories of three woman who survived the holocaust by hiding and how it affected their lives. The book is divided into two parts. The first tells the individual stories of the three girls, one Polish, one French, and one Dutch, and what they had to do and endure in order to survive. The second half of the book explores the lingering effects their childhood trauma has had on them as adults.  The Hidden Child Survivors have been meeting since the 1980s and sharing their stories to add to the Shoah Foundation and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

The numerous name changes, constant relocation and moving, the loss of family, heritage and personal identity are all heart breaking. The children may have survived the war, but at a great cost. This is not an exhausting, scholarly account of all the stories, but a selection of three that should highlight the fact that others also endured and were traumatized. Sharing and allowing these stories to reach a wider audience will shed light on a group of survivors that have been neglected in the past.

While this is not an emotionally easy book to read, the information it contains is necessary for us to always keep in mind that this must never happen again, although I know that it is, to other groups of people throughout the world. The book includes 16 pages of pictures, a bibliography, and list of documentaries and films.

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of  HarperCollins for review purposes.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

The Secret Place

The Secret Place by Tana French
Viking Adult: 9/2/2014
eBook, 464 pages
ISBN-13: 9780670026326
Dublin Murder Squad Series #5

The photo on the card shows a boy who was found murdered, a year ago, on the grounds of a girls’ boarding school in the leafy suburbs of Dublin. The caption saysI KNOW WHO KILLED HIM.
Detective Stephen Moran has been waiting for his chance to get a foot in the door of Dublin’s Murder Squad—and one morning, sixteen-year-old Holly Mackey brings him this photo. “The Secret Place,” a board where the girls at St. Kilda’s School can pin up their secrets anonymously, is normally a mishmash of gossip and covert cruelty, but today someone has used it to reignite the stalled investigation into the murder of handsome, popular Chris Harper. Stephen joins forces with the abrasive Detective Antoinette Conway to find out who and why.
But everything they discover leads them back to Holly’s close-knit group of friends and their fierce enemies, a rival clique—and to the tangled web of relationships that bound all the girls to Chris Harper. Every step in their direction turns up the pressure. Antoinette Conway is already suspicious of Stephen’s links to the Mackey family. St. Kilda’s will go a long way to keep murder outside their walls. Holly’s father, Detective Frank Mackey, is circling, ready to pounce if any of the new evidence points toward his daughter. And the private underworld of teenage girls can be more mysterious and more dangerous than either of the detectives imagined.
The Secret Place is a powerful, haunting exploration of friendship and loyalty, and a gripping addition to the Dublin Murder Squad series.

My Thoughts:

The Secret Place by Tana French is a highly recommended, extremely well written police procedural.

Over a year ago a young man was found murdered on the grounds of an exclusive private girls school. The crime was never solved so when a girl from the school, Holly Mackey, brings a postcard that has a picture of the murdered young man, Chris Harper, on it with letters cut out saying "I know who killed him," Detective Stephen Moran realizes this may be his opportunity to get onto the Dublin police department's homicide squad. Stephan takes the information to detective Antoinette Conway on the homicide squad and the two head out together to interview girls at the school.

Soon it becomes clear that there are no easy answers. Their investigation, which takes place over the course of one day, clearly shows that there are two groups of girls who could be involved, Holly's friends and another group of popular girls. As Moran and Conway interview the girls and try to untangle all the lies and deception surrounding the case, the main suspect seems to change and perceptions shift with every chapter.

French is an incredible writer who manages some of the best character development while still creating an atmosphere of tension and suspicion. I love how the shifting information provides clues that continually pointing to a different suspect. I love mysteries where I can't guess who did it until the end. Bravo on that point - I was guessing right to the end. And oohhh, doggies, more on teenage girls in a minute...

This is a 5th in the series book, but you can enjoy it without following the series. I have read a couple earlier books, but not all of them. The Secret Place is a stand-alone novel that just happens to be in a series. I have a feeling if you have never read French, after reading The Secret Place you'll want to give her previous novels a try. It's a long novel, but the action takes place in one day. The chapters alternate between the present day with the investigation and interviews with the girls, and in the past, showing the lives of the girls before Chris was killed. The pre-murder chapters tell you how much longer Chris has to live and then you have a slice of life and what was happening, information that should give you clues about all the suspects.

Now, teenage girls... Those of you in the know probably also realize that all teenagers can be dangerous. (Teenage boys also have this capacity, but in a different way from the girls.) Girls can be devious and clever. They can play off each other making up rumors and lies in an attempt to finagle a relationship with whatever guy they like. Some of them can play the guys like a fiddle. Add social media and texting to the mix and it is explosive. Some of these same girls grow up to be women who still do the same thing while trying to exert their will on others as adults. French captures this capacity to perfection in The Secret Place.

There was one little glitch in my enjoyment, which was the insertion of some supernatural powers. When it happened I said aloud, "Don't go there - you don't need to" but, alas, it was already there. In the end, however, it added nothing to the book, perhaps a red herring, but one that I didn't think was necessary and found distracting.

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Viking Adult for review purposes.


Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Drop

The Drop by Dennis Lehane
HarperCollins: 9/2/2014
eBook, 224 pages

ISBN-13: 9780062365446

A love story wrapped in a crime story wrapped in a journey of faith.
Three days after Christmas, Bob, a lonely bartender looking for a reason to live, hears a whimper coming from inside a trash can. The abused puppy he finds there will change his life forever, as will Nadia, the damaged woman he meets that night. Like him, she's desperately searching for something to believe in.
Bound together by their decision to rescue the puppy, Bob and Nadia's relationship grows. But just as they've found something to live for, they cross paths with the Chechen mafia; a man grown dangerous with age and thwarted hopes; two hapless stick-up artists; a very curious cop; and the original owner of the puppy, who wants his dog back. . . .

My Thoughts:
The Drop by Dennis Lehane is a very highly recommended, gritty, bleak crime novel set in Boston.

Bob Saginowski works as a bartender for his cousin Marv in a bar Marv used to own. Now the bar is owned by the Chechen mafia. Bob, an introspective loner who regularly attends mass but never takes communion, finds a puppy beaten near death in a garbage can on his way home from work one night. As he rescues the puppy, he meets the woman whose garbage can the puppy was dumped in, Nadia Dunn. After Nadia determines why he is going through her garbage, she helps him by cleaning up the puppy's injuries and cares for the puppy until he is able to come back for it. Then she helps Bob buy supplies and gives him advice about training his puppy. Bob is hopeful that the puppy and Nadia will both be a good edition to his otherwise solitary life.

When the bar is robbed one night, it is clear that whoever did it doesn't fully understand who really owns the bar and why members of the Chechen mafia are owners no one should want to cross. Bob notices a detail about one of the robbers when giving a description to the police that could be a clue to the identity of the robbers.

In a further complication, a psychotic man claims he is the owner of Bob's dog, now named Rocco after a Saint, and is threatening Bob. Cousin Marv is also up to something.
The Drop is definitely noir fiction and not for the faint-hearted.  It is a dark, tension filled novel where cruel men demonstrate just how loathsome they can be to each other, as well as a puppy.

There is language. The atmosphere is one of hopelessness and resignation to the cruelties of life, with perhaps, the smallest distant glimmer of some hope. I galloped through this short novel, wanting to know what happened next.

Apparently The Drop was based on a short story, “Animal Rescue,” and is the novelization of the screenplay for the soon-to-be-released movie of the same name. I have a feeling it will make an excellent movie.

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of
HarperCollins for review purposes.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Lighthouse Island

Lighthouse Island by Paulette Jiles
HarperCollins: 7/29/2014
eBook, 416 pages

ISBN-13: 9780062232519

In the coming centuries, Earth's population has exploded and covered the planet with endless cities. It is an unwelcoming world for Nadia Stepan, abandoned at age four and left with only a drawing of the Big Dipper and her mother's parting words: "Look to the North Star, and we will always be there." Nadia grows up dreaming of the vacation spot called Lighthouse Island, in a place called the Pacific Northwest where she believes her long-lost parents must be.
In the meantime, this bright and witty orphan finds refuge in neglected books, and the voice of Big Radio that emanates from an abandoned satellite, patiently reading the great classical books of the world.
When an opportunity for escape appears, Nadia strikes out in search of a dream. She faces every contingency with inventiveness and meets a man who changes the course of her life. Together, they head north toward a place of wild beauty that lies far beyond the megalopolis: Lighthouse Island.
My Thoughts:

Lighthouse Island by Paulette Jilesis a highly recommended (with a codicil) dystopian novel set in the future.

The earth is an endless, borderless city where water is scare and people are disposable. Lighthouse Island  opens:  "The winds carried dust to every part of the great cities; left it on roofs and windowsills and uneven streets. It scoured glass to an iridescent glaze. The city covered the entire earth, if people think of the earth as 'where I live.'”(Page 1) "As far as anyone knew, the world had become nothing but city and the rains had failed for a century. (Page 3)

Raisa was abandoned by her parents at age 4: "Her parents had given her a coin purse of red leather—in it were five coins—and a note, and another piece of paper on which were drawn the constellations of the Big Dipper, Cassiopeia’s Chair, and the North Star. Her mother handed her the paper and said, Look to the North Star and we will always be there. You’ll be lonely for a while but things will get better. (Page 2). Raisa became a PD--a Parentless Dependent, and was renamed Nadia Stepan at the orphanage where she grew up.

Nadia, who temporarily went blind as a child, listened to the television but, even after her sight returned, she avoided watching it, preferring to read and memorize poetry. The one thing she heard about on TV that enchanted her was Lighthouse Island and, even though she is not sure it is real, she wants to visit it. When she grows up, events send her running for her life and in search of Lighthouse Island.

James Orotov is a demolitions expert who became a paraplegic. He is fascinated by geography and cartography, even though most old maps have been destroyed and are outlawed. He and Nadia meet and he instantly knows he must help her for he also knows he will be running for his life shortly too.

Lighthouse Island is a beautifully written novel. Jiles does an exceptional job describing her setting, the barren, dusty, decaying, over-populated earth. In a way, Jiles novel brought to my mind China MiƩville's Bas-Lag novels and his city of New Crobunzon, like Perdido Street Station. Although they are also very different novels, I think the connection is due to the incredible ability both authors have demonstrated in creating their dirty, dusty, crowded, urban police state cities, although Jiles' Lighthouse Island is definitely set on earth in the future. They both have some steampunk influence.

That brings me to the codicil on my rating. Lighthouse Island started out strong and held my rapt attention for much of the novel. There are some brilliant moments and observations throughout the novel. But, as other reviewers have pointed out, while the writing is beautiful, Jiles also needlessly does some repetition of descriptions, and the plot does move at a very slow pace. Then, in the last third of the book or so, the tone of the novel changes dramatically and it felt like a different novel with an ending that is... interesting, but not conclusive, and it feels somewhat rushed and incomplete.

Thanks to TLC for providing me with a review copy for my Kindle.

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