The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley (audio)

Source: Public Library
Audio, 13 CDs
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The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley, narrated by Rosalyn Landor, was our January book club selection, which I read in December.  Carrie McClelland has been writing for some time and she has lived a life with her characters as most authors do, but in this case, her ancestors begin to speak through her.  A novel about the failed attempt to return the exiled James Stewart to the crown in the spring of 1708 in Scotland, McClelland is pulled in another direction when she realizes that her novel needs a new point of view.  In so choosing Sophia Patterson, her late-night writing takes a very different turn, as she uncovers her own family’s past.  In alternating points of view between Carrie as she meets the owner of a cottage she rents for writing and his sons and Sophia’s point of view, the story of her family comes alive.

The dramatic landscape and winter sea call to Carrie, like it called to her ancestors.  In many ways, Kearsley’s narrative asks whether memories can be inherited through DNA?  It also seeks to touch upon how much of our personalities and inclinations come from the people in our families who have gone before us.  The courage and power of love is palpable in Kearsley’s prose, and her characters face a number of obstacles beyond their control, at least in Carrie’s novel.  The life of an author can be lonely, and Carrie falls a bit quickly in love.  However, the author focuses not only on the romance of these characters in the present and past, the Jacobite Movement is well fleshed out, with intrigue and danger.  Landor is a passionate narrator, and she makes all of the twists and turns believable.

The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley, narrated by Rosalyn Landor, is wonderfully crafted, combining history with romance in a fantastic way.  Landor does an excellent job with the Scottish accents and dialects.

About the Author:

Susanna Kearsley studied politics and international development at university, and has worked as a museum curator.  Her first novel Mariana won the prestigious Catherine Cookson Literary Prize and launched her writing career. Susanna continued her mix of the historical and paranormal in novels The Splendour Falls, Named of the Dragon, Shadowy Horses and Season of Storms. Susanna Kearsley also writes classic-style thrillers under the name of Emma Cole.

What the book club thought:

Everyone seemed to enjoy this book for the most part.  A couple members wanted a bit more of a supernatural element to tie together the past and present storylines.  It seemed like things happened to connect Carrie McClelland with her ancestors’ past, but it is unclear why.  The Past narrative worked better for me, but others didn’t seem bothered by the past or modern story’s disconnect.  It was definitely an engaging story with an expected happy ending, at least expected by most of us.

Changes: A Child’s First Poetry Collection by Charlotte Zolotow, illustrated by Tiphanie Beeke

Source: Sourcebooks/Shelf Awareness
Hardcover, 40 pgs
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Changes: A Child’s First Poetry Collection by Charlotte Zolotow is gorgeously illustrated by Tiphanie Beeke, and the 28 poems are divided into seasons to reflect the title.  This collection is published posthumously, poems her daughter calls clean and clear about what changes and what stays the same.  The collection opens with “Changes” that talks about the differences between the seasons but that they always come around the same time each year, even though the narrator has changed through the years.  These verses are fantastic for little kids, projecting images that are complemented by the illustrations and allowing them to visual nature and the seasons.

These poems read as if told from the perspective of a child who stares in awe at the birds in the sky, the birds flying by, and all that surrounds them.  From the cool breezes of spring and the budding flowers to the salty wind of the sea in summer on vacation, children will see the fun and get absorbed in the costumes of Halloween, the beginning of school in the fall, and the winter wonders of snowmen and the first snow.  Beeke’s images are reminiscent of the whispy-ness of water color images and pastel smudges.  Zolotow clearly has a firm grasp of the wonder most children have when they are young; they are curious and inquisitive, but there also are some who are contemplative.  Read aloud these poems create a new world of rhyme and lyrical verse for children.

Changes: A Child’s First Poetry Collection by Charlotte Zolotow, illustrated by Tiphanie Beeke, is a great collection to start young readers with the wondrous world of poetry.  The illustrations are well matched with Zolotow’s lines.  My daughter and I have read this collection several times, and she often asks what season we are in when we read the poems.

About the Author:

Charlotte Zolotow—author, editor, publisher, and educator—had one of the most distinguished careers in the field of children’s literature. Born in Norfolk, Virginia in 1915, Changes: A Child’s First Collection of Poetry is published on the occasion of Charlotte Zolotow’s 100th birthday.

Scent of Butterflies by Dora Levy Mossanen

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Source: TLC Book Tours and Sourcebooks
Paperback, 288 pgs
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Scent of Butterflies by Dora Levy Mossanen is a novel of vengeance as an Iranian Jewish woman, Soraya, convinces her husband, Aziz, to let her go to America on an assignment.  As with many revenge tales, Soraya spends a great deal of time building her trap, complete with sweet nectar, only to find herself ensnared in her own web.  Readers will be holding their breath as she weaves her garden of plants in America, making it lush and beautiful to attract her prey.  She spends most of her days cultivating the land around her and taking photographs of American and Iranian men to make her husband jealous.

“Humans get buried under earthquake rubble, break their bones in tornadoes, drown in stormy seas.  Butterflies, despite their fragility, are hardly affected by most of these natural disasters.  Not only that, they are capable of migrating unimaginable distances.  They simply float with the wind, staying on track with uncanny tenacity until they arrive at their intended destination, just as my friend did.”  (page 50)

Growing up in Iran and enjoying certain freedoms, Soraya is taught to become independent, but once those freedoms are taken away following the revolution, she has little choice but to obey the strict tenants of her religion.  Her Baba has called her an artist since she was a little girl, but like many things in her life, there is an undercurrent of deception.  As she flees Iran and her pain, she tries on new identities before settling back into her own.  Readers will be at once baffled by her actions and heartbroken for her, but will they understand that this passionate woman has lost her entire world when her husband betrays her with another woman?  Sympathy from the reader can be a tough balance in a story of revenge, but Mossanen has created a character bucking the repression of her culture and the tumultuous nature of a country with conflicting identities.

Scent of Butterflies by Dora Levy Mossanen is complex and a lush novel for the senses that will have readers debating how far a woman scorned would go to right a betrayal and how far she would go to retain her freedom.  Very well written and absorbing, readers will be attracted by the decadent honey in Soraya’s web.

About the Author:

Dora Levy Mossanen was born in Israel and moved to Iran when she was nine. At the onset of the Islamic revolution, she and her family moved to the United States. She has a bachelor’s degree in English Literature from the University of California-Los Angeles and a master’s in Professional Writing from the University of Southern California.

Dora is the bestselling author of the acclaimed novels Harem, Courtesan, and The Last Romanov. Her fourth and most provocative book, Scent of Butterflies, was released January 7, 2014. She is a frequent contributor to numerous media outlets including the Huffington Post and the Jewish Journal. She has been featured on KCRW, The Politics of Culture, Voice of Russia, Radio Iran and numerous other radio and television programs. She is the recipient of the prestigious San Diego Editors’ choice award and was accepted as contributor to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Dora Levy Mossanen’s novels have been translated into numerous languages world-wide.

Don’t Want to Miss a Thing by Jill Mansell

Source: Gift from Diary of an Eccentric
Paperback, 418 pages
On Amazon and on Kobo

Don’t Want to Miss a Thing by Jill Mansell is another delightful story of love and life changes, and Mansell’s characters are always flawed human beings in search of better lives.  Dexter Yates takes the cake with his womanizing ways and charmed high-income life, but his sister has faith that he’s just lost and in need of a little guidance.  Soon, Laura will get her wish when Delphi, Dex’s niece, is born and the two become inseparable.  Molly Hayes, a cartoonist, lives in a Cotswolds village, and she’s happily teaching her classes at a local cafe and avoiding her latest ex-boyfriend, who just can’t seem to take no for an answer.  The village was the setting for a hit show Next to You, and her friend Frankie has the perfect marriage and family.

“Dex spent his life being laid-back and supremely confident; it was endearing to see him admit to a weakness.  Laura said encouragingly, ‘You can do it.  Just remember to support her head.  Like this.’

She demonstrated with her own hands and watched from the bed as Dex copied her.  ‘There you go, that’s it.'” (page 4)

Dex decides to buy the Gin Cottage in Molly’s village after she nearly drops a stinky fish on him and his current flavor of the month.  He has no one else to turn to when his sister suddenly dies and he has to make a major life decision in the blink of an eye, but the encouragement from a stranger seems to be all he needs.  Mansell excels at characterization and there is now doubt about her ability to write believable female leads, but in this novel, her lead is male, and she does an equally great job.  Dex is multifaceted and lacks the confidence he needs to fully commit to his decision, and Molly is strong and tries to keep her distance, even as she falls for Delphi.

“Well anyway, good luck to them.  Molly’s stomach tightened as she doodled a quick sketch of Amanda Carr with her geometrically perfect hair, pert nose, and crisp white shirt, always so calm and in control.  They were probably close in age, but Amanda was the proper grown-up.  She had a stethoscope.

With mixed emotions, Molly exaggerated the slightly pointed chin and narrow mouth for witchy effect.  Perhaps it was the grownupness that had attracted Dex’s interest.  Maybe this was what he wanted or needed from a partner in order to stop him endlessly sloping off in search of the next conquest.” (page 236)

Don’t Want to Miss a Thing by Jill Mansell is heartwarming, fun, and full of missed cues and lost chances, but its also about second chances and glances and what it means to be a family.  Mansell has hit another one out of the park, which is why she continues to be a favorite women’s fiction author of mine.  You’re always going on a fantastic ride with her and her characters.

About the Author:

Jill Mansell lives with her partner and children in Bristol, and writes full time. Actually that’s not true; she watches TV, eats fruit gums, admires the rugby players training in the sports field behind her house, and spends hours on the internet marvelling at how many other writers have blogs. Only when she’s completely run out of displacement activities does she write.

Other Mansell books reviewed:

Jack Absolute by C.C. Humphreys

Source: Borrowed ARC from Diary of an Eccentric
Paperback, 320 pages
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Jack Absolute by C.C. Humphreys is a swashbuckling 007 tricked into rejoining the King’s military and the cause against the rebels (a.k.a. Colonials/Americans), to which he drags his Mohawk brother Ate.  Humphreys, who played Jack Absolute on stage before writing this novel, clearly has a love of cheeky dialogue and plot twists because the prose is filled with it.  Absolute wants to restore his family fortune and good name, but he’s soon embroiled in a spy’s game and turned around by pretty faces and dark blackguards.  Aboard the ship to America, he’s tasked with decoding messages by General Burgoyne and to observe his fellow shipmates to sniff out the traitor in their midst.

“He glanced around the circle of excited faces that turned to him.  No women, at least.  Not even the cause of this whole affair, that little minx, Elizabeth Farren.  The hour was too close to the lighting of the footlights at Drury Lane and her show must go on.  Yet how she would have loved playing this scene.” (page 3 ARC)

“And the strange new flag that floated over the ramparts–unseen til that day, concocted of stars and stripes obviously ripped from spare cloaks and petticoats–would soon be replaced by the Union Standard of Great Britain.” (page 67 ARC)

The novel gives readers a detailed glimpse into American Revolution battles — Saratoga and Stanwix –with Americans pulled between loyalty to the Crown and the desire for freedom.  At the same time, Absolute is torn between his duty to the Crown and his desire to protect his adopted brethren the Iroquois.  Humphreys mixes it up with Native Americans loyal to both England and Rebels, as well as those Native Americans that were schooled in Christianity and took on English names.  Like the U.S. Civil War, there is brother and cousin fighting against other family members, and friends and neighbors fighting each other.

The plot folds in on itself several times before it lengthens out to uncover some hidden mysteries, and while the big reveal is a bit predictable, the decision Absolute must make is emotional and heartbreaking.  It forces him to choose between duty and freedom and love and culpability.  In some ways, the novel reads more like a script for a movie or play, but the fast-paced nature of the plot makes for a fast and entertaining read.  Jack Absolute by C.C. Humphreys will entertain readers, while giving them an inside look into the tensions of battle, loyalty, and revolution.

About the Author:

Chris (C.C.) Humphreys was born in Toronto and grew up in the UK. All four grandparents were actors and since his father was an actor as well, it was inevitable he would follow the bloodline. He has acted all over the world and appeared on stages ranging from London’s West End to Hollywood’s Twentieth Century Fox. Favorite roles have included Hamlet, Caleb the Gladiator in NBC’s Biblical-Roman epic mini-series, ‘AD – Anno Domini’, Clive Parnell in ‘Coronation Street’, and Jack Absolute in Sheridan’s ‘The Rivals’.  Chris has written eight historical novels. The first, The French Executioner told the tale of the man who killed Anne Boleyn, was runner up for the CWA Steel Dagger for Thrillers 2002, and has been optioned for the screen.

This is my 2nd book for the American Revolution Reading Challenge 2013

Thinking of You by Jill Mansell

Source: Sourcebooks Landmark
Paperback ARC: 432 pages
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Thinking of You by Jill Mansell is another romp in the English countryside.  Ginny Holland has a problem when she’s in emotional turmoil — her mind wanders and the tasks at hand just disappear from her consciousness.  Even when she’s worried about her daughter’s first year at college in Bristol and away from home, Ginny is still not immune to the charms of a hot-looking man in an antique shop.  But while she’s browsing and happily daydreaming about the man in the shop, he catches her red-handed with a shoplifted item.  Mansell has an uncanny way of bringing together the most divergent plots, weaving in secondary characters that are just as fun and hopeless as the main character.  While her books generally have happy endings and wrap-up relationships pretty neatly, they still provide a few hours of escape that can lift any mood.

“‘Watching how it’s done?’ Evidently amused, Evie paused on her way to table six with two plates of mussels.  ‘Can’t you just feel all those flirty female hormones in the air?’ With a wink, she added, ‘Good old Finn, he hasn’t lost his touch.’

‘I can see that.’  As Finn crossed the room in order to answer the ringing phone, every female eye followed him.

‘You’d better watch out.  You could be next.’

Ginny grinned because the idea was so ludicrous.  ‘I don’t think that’s going to happen.  He’d be too worried I might nick his wallet.'”  (page 119 ARC)

Beyond the fun, faulted characters, Mansell has a gift for humorous and witty dialogue that will leave readers in stitches.  Ginny is a mother looking to hang onto her daughter Jem for as long as she can, but reality gets in the way when she advertises for a flatmate and ends up with a young woman who is unable to get over her ex-fiance and is utterly depressed.  Mansell’s books aren’t just about the mistakes we make, but also the silver linings of those mistakes.  Without advertising for the flatmate, Ginny never would have been forced by the incessant ex-fiance talk to go out and get a job and a social life.

Even though the main romantic relationship is not only predictable, but also a little less developed than some of the others, Mansell excels at creating other relationships that are dynamic and complicated.  From Ginny’s relationship with the vivacious and slutty Carla to Ginny’s relationship with her grown daughter Jem, each of these relationships provide the characters with a foil and with a sounding board when they get into hot water.

Thinking of You by Jill Mansell is a soap opera on paper with characters in college and middle-age, each striving to find out where they want to go when they hit that inevitable fork in the road.  While some choose the right path, others stumble onto the wrong one for awhile before falling through the bush onto the other side.  But there are still some that blissfully walk the same path they always have.

About the Author:

Jill Mansell lives with her partner and children in Bristol, and writes full time. Actually that’s not true; she watches TV, eats fruit gums, admires the rugby players training in the sports field behind her house, and spends hours on the internet marvelling at how many other writers have blogs. Only when she’s completely run out of displacement activities does she write.

Other Mansell books reviewed:

A Walk in the Park by Jill Mansell

A Walk in the Park by Jill Mansell is another engaging story about love and coming together as a family.  Lara Carson is forced to leave home at the age of 16 and returns to Bath 18 years later for her father’s funeral.  Things have changed drastically, but Evie is still the warm friend she remembers.  Lara believes she’s prepared to deal with the past, but when Flynn Erskine arrives unexpectedly her feelings nearly overcome her.  Not only does she owe the two most important people from her past an explanation, but she also has secrets she has to reveal — secrets that Flynn and Evie may not be ready for.

Mansell’s characters are always quirky, and there is no absence of that here, from Lara’s strong Aunt Nettie in Keswick to Don the jewelry shop owner in Bath.  While many of these characters are looking for love, denying that they are looking for love, or hoping to fall out of love with a cad, Mansell quietly addresses the fear that still haunts gays who have not come out of the closet, single-parenting obstacles, and how secrets can topple families.

Meanwhile, Lara is blindly making decisions that are best for her daughter, Gigi, but she refuses to look around her to see how her decisions affect herself and others.  She’s also busy trying to make love matches for her aunt and friends, at the same time she’s struggling to ignore her own passionate feelings for Flynn — her former teenage boyfriend.  Life and love is anything but a walk in the park for Lara and her friends, especially when the death of Lara’s mother raises questions about her mother’s faithfulness and about where she got the money to buy the family home.

Readers will note there are a variety of subplots, and while they are successfully concluded, there are some that felt a little rushed, which may be partially due to the multitude of characters Mansell creates.  Mansell novels are full of romance and flirty fun, but this one has some serious notes and a more mature set of story lines.  With a mother-in-law from hell and the outrageous behavior of rap star EnjaySeven, A Walk in the Park by Jill Mansell is a literary soap opera that leaps off the pages and makes readers thank their lucky stars their lives are less complicated.

About the Author:

Jill Mansell lives with her partner and children in Bristol, and writes full time. Actually that’s not true; she watches TV, eats fruit gums, admires the rugby players training in the sports field behind her house, and spends hours on the internet marvelling at how many other writers have blogs. Only when she’s completely run out of displacement activities does she write.

Things Your Dog Doesn’t Want You to Know by Hy Conrad and Jeff Johnson

Things Your Dog Doesn’t Want You to Know by Hy Conrad and Jeff Johnson is a humorous collection of stories from 11 dogs who bare all.  Not only do they divulge secrets about why those “pee” walks take so long, but they also enlighten dog walkers on the order that dogs should be taken out and why.  There are hijinks from dogs eating shoes and eating even mores hoes when owners lock them in the shoe closet, and there are dogs giving parenting advice to owners about their own puppies.

Sarge was one of the funniest given that he was a narcotics dog and became addicted to the pot that the police had him sniffing out.  He goes through several different jobs from junkyard dog to service dog.  He has trouble holding down a job.  Axelrod is another funny little dog who has a thing for herbs and incense given that there are herbal soaps in the bathroom, he thinks the herb garden outside is the perfect place to go potty since his owners seem to like the scent.

Conrad and Johnson have a firm grasp of the dog mindset and their seemingly erratic behavior from chasing cars to herding kids throughout the house.  A book you can dip into in the waiting room for entertainment, follow only one dog’s story from beginning to end, or read cover to cover.  Things Your Dog Doesn’t Want You to Know by Hy Conrad and Jeff Johnson is fun for dog owners, kids, those who love dogs, and anyone in between looking for a good chuckle.

About the Authors:

Best known for his work in mysteries, Hy Conrad was one of the original writers for the groundbreaking series, Monk, working on the show for all eight seasons, the final two as Co-Executive Producer. In a related project, Hy was Executive Producer and head writer of Little Monk, a series of short films featuring Adrian Monk as a ten-year-old.  His latest TV work was as writer and Consulting Producer for White Collar.

Hy is also the author of hundreds of short stories and ten books of short whodunits, which have been sold around the world in fourteen languages.  Hy’s first mystery novel series, Abel Adventures, will debut in 2012 with the publication of Rally ‘Round the Corpse.  And his first full-length comedy/mystery play, Home Exchange, premiered at the Waterfront Playhouse in May 2012.  He lives in Key West and Vermont with his partner and two miniature schnauzers.

Jeff Johnson spent most of his working life in advertising agencies, currently as General Manager of Cramer-Krasselt in New York City.  He is the author of The Hourglass Solution:  A Boomer’s Guide to the Rest of Your Life and co-authors (with Paula Forman) a national online advice column called Short Answers, which also appears in newspapers all along the east coast (from Massachusetts to Florida).  Jeff lives in Vermont and Key West and is on the Board of Directors of the Waterfront Playhouse and the Florida Keys SPCA.

This is my 76th book for the New Authors Reading Challenge in 2012.

Pride & Pyramids: Mr. Darcy in Egypt by Amanda Grange and Jacqueline Webb

Pride & Pyramids: Mr. Darcy in Egypt by Amanda Grange and Jacqueline Webb is one of the most unique spinoffs of Jane Austen’s work as it takes place years after Darcy and Lizzy have been married — double digit years later — and sets them off on what some would consider a dream honeymoon to Egypt, although without the modern conveniences that are likely to be there today.  Darcy’s Cousin Edward has been obsessed with Egypt and a fabled tomb filled with treasure since he was a boy and heard tales of his father’s trip there years before.  Edward’s fantastic stories of the African land tantalize Elizabeth’s desire for adventure.

“As she went over to her writing table, she had a brilliant vision of Darcy and herself standing in the middle of a glorious Egyptian painting, with their children seated in front of them.  She imagined the girls in pristine white dresses and the boys looking immaculate in coats and breeches, surrounded by golden sand dunes.  Then the impossibly perfect picture dissolved as her lively mind provided her with a more realistic picture:  Laurence and Jane running about, Margaret sucking her thumb, and a camel eating the flowers on Beth’s bonnet.”  (Page 39 ARC)

With the introduction of Paul Inkworthy as the Darcy family painter of portraits and archaeologist Sir Matthew Rosen, Grange and Webb have created a new dynamic to the story when Lizzy invites the youngest Lucas daughter, Sophie, along on their trip.  Besides the continued romance between Lizzy and Darcy, we see the budding of young love with Sophie and the early schoolgirl crush of Beth, the Darcy’s daughter.  And of course, our favorite villain George Wickham has to enter the foray and stir things up, and the ridiculous Mrs. Bennet and Lydia offer some comic relief.  Beyond the sweeping Egyptian landscapes and romantic adventures, Grange and Webb also weave in the stories of ancient gods and fairy tales, including one about a jealous woman, Aahotep, who bears a stunning likeness to a doll young Margaret finds and attaches herself too.

The family faces conditions unlike what they are used to, but they are all adventurous and willing to remain positive.  Readers will enjoy seeing how the marriage has matured and how they nurture their children and Sophie as she deals with a broken heart.  Grange and Webb provide glimpses of a parents’ perspective, watching how their children grow and mature and begin to find their own way in the world.  It leaves both with a sense of loss, but accomplishment.  Pride & Pyramids: Mr. Darcy in Egypt by Amanda Grange and Jacqueline Webb is an amazing journey of mystery, love, and family devotion.

About the Author:

Amanda Grange is a bestselling author of Jane Austen fiction (over 200,000 copies sold) and a popular author of historical fiction in the U.K. She specializes in creative interpretations of classic novels and historic events, including Jane Austen’s novels and the Titanic shipwreck. Her novels include Mr. Darcy, Vampyre, Mr. Darcy’s Diary, and Titanic Affair. She lives in England.

All Roads Lead to Austen by Amy Elizabeth Smith

All Roads Lead to Austen by Amy Elizabeth Smith is the memoir of one college professor’s journey through Latin America discussing Jane Austen’s books with book clubs and having a misadventure of her own that changes her life.  Her enthusiasm for the trip is infectious.

“Was I nervous about spending a year away from family and friends, trying to function in a foreign language I had a tenuous grip on while convincing several dozen people in six different countries to join me for book groups? Hell, yeah.  Was I excited about the trip anyway? Hell, yeah.” (page xiii ARC)

She decides to discover if Jane Austen’s Sense & Sensibility, Pride & Prejudice, and Emma can carry the same sway with Latin and South Americans that it does with Americans and Europeans.  She visits not only Mexico and Guatemala, but also Ecuador, Chile, Argentina, and Paraguay, and she finds that underneath all the stereotypes and prejudices, each of has a base need for family, acceptance, love, and support.  Smith’s memoir highlights not only her insecurities about committed relationships and her conscious efforts to avoid stereotyping or relying on her assumptions of various cultures when meeting new people, but also her quirkiness at making each temporary apartment or hotel feel more like a home by decorating it with statues, blankets, and other items.  She’s also like many readers, a book collector and completely helpless when it comes to saying no to books in a bookstore.  Her over-packed luggage and rising airport fees are a testament to her journey to South American and Latin American bookstores, especially as she seeks recommendations who compare to Jane Austen from the local residents.  All the while, she’s learning Spanish and immersing herself in the language at every turn.

“One of the fun features of Spanish that English lacks is the capacity to create nouns that express behaviors out of other nouns or verbs.  So a dog is un perro, and behaving like a dog to somebody (see how many words that takes?) is una perrada.  Behaving like un burro (donkey) translates into una burrada and un cochino (a pig), una cochinada.”  (page 21 ARC)

There are moments when she falls ill and cannot recall the names of the book group members, which readers may find a bit disrespectful given the time these men and women gave her for the book group discussions.  What would really have added to the memoir would have been better descriptions of the places she went or saw or perhaps the inclusion of pictures from some of these locations.  However, these are minor quibbles given the societal and social insights the memoir provides as a bungling American travels through unfamiliar countries.  More than a discussion of Jane Austen and her books, All Roads Lead to Austen by Amy Elizabeth Smith is an examination of one woman’s journey through other worlds and learning how to go with the flow and find her own happiness in a world that moves blindingly.

About the Author:

Amy Elizabeth Smith, originally from Pennsylvania, teaches writing and literature at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California. Her memoir, All Roads Lead to Austen: A Yearlong Journey with Jane (Sourcebooks, June 1, 2012) recounts her year spent learning Spanish and holding Austen reading groups in Guatemala, Mexico, Ecuador, Chile, Paraguay, and Argentina.

This is my 48th book for the New Authors Reading Challenge 2012.

Giveaway for Anastasia Romanov’s 111th birthday

The fate of Anastasia Romanov is one of life’s great mysteries, and today would have been her 111th birthday.  She was the last of four daughters born to Tsar Nikolas Romanov and his wife Alexandra.  Following the tragic execution of the Russian Royal family in 1918, officials were never able to recover the remains of Anastasia.  There have been numerous tales of her supposed escape from Russia, fueling speculation that a daughter of Russia’s last sovereign ruler survived the revolution that destroyed her immediate family.

About The Last Romanov by Dora Levy Mossanen:

She was an orphan, ushered into the royal palace on the prayers of her majestry. Yet, decades later, her time spent in the embrace of the Romanovs haunts her still. Is she responsible for those murderous events that changed everything?

If only she can find the heir, maybe she can put together the broken pieces of her own past-maybe she can hold on to the love she found. Bursting to life with the rich and glorious marvels of Imperial Russia, The Last Romanov is a magical tale of second chances and royal blood.

Doesn’t this sound like an excellent read? You can win a copy by commenting on this post about what fascinates you about Anastasia Romanov or if you’ve read other books about her that you’d recommend to me.

Deadline to enter is June 22, 2012, at 11:59PM EST for U.S. and Canadian residents only.

Nadia Knows Best by Jill Mansell

In Nadia Knows Best by Jill Mansell, the Kinsella family is far from conventional with a mother, Leonie who skips out on her husband and two daughters, Nadia and Clare, and drops another daughter, Tilly, off with her former husband James years later.  Living with their high-brow grandmother, Miriam, Nadia and Clare are mostly well-adjusted young women sorting out their own lives, while their youngest sister, Tilly, is just 13 and still looking for her place in the family.

With Mansell readers know their will be misunderstandings, false-starts, romance, and comedy, but as with the last few books, there are moments of seriousness as well.  Nadia and Laurie have known each other for years and become a couple just as his career as a model begins to take off, prompting Laurie to sever ties and branch out to America and leave Nadia devastated.  Her chance meeting with Jay Tiernan, a hot man in the real-estate biz, a year ago still gets her heart beating fast, but it’s unlikely that they will meet again . . . until they do.  If that weren’t enough fodder for romance and mishap, Mansell introduces Clare and her shockingly narcissistic boy toy Piers, plus James, their father, finds himself popping into the same newsstand not just to pick up Tilly after work but to see Annie every day without saying a word.

“‘D’you have a brush in there?’ Piers nodded at the beaded clutch bag on her lap.

‘Yes, do you want to borrow it?’

‘I meant for you.’  He sounded amused.  ‘I prefer your hair down.'” (page 121 ARC)

Unlike Nadia who is honest and cognizant of how everyone feels, Clare is clearly unashamed to ask for what she wants, especially when it comes to selling her paintings.  Even as her relationship with Piers goes rocky, she’s still got her eyes open for the next big catch and on the next rich person to sell her paintings too.  She’s very shameless.  Nadia being the good sister tries to tamp down her sister’s enthusiasm, but at the same time, she’s also the peacekeeper in the family when Leonie resurfaces and wants Tilly to move home with her and her latest man, who has a daughter about the same age.

Despite the varied characters and numerous story lines, the main focus is Nadia who is caring for others almost through the entire book even after she’s dumped by Laurie.  Although the relationship with Laurie ends in the expected way, there are some loose ends that aren’t as neatly tied up as readers may expect, leaving Laurie in a positive light in Nadia’s eyes despite his less than stellar behavior.  There are fits and starts to many of these relationships, as the family members try to navigate their own lives and the drama with the disappearing-reappearing Leonie and other family drama, but it all works well in a complex roller-coaster ride that will keep readers turning the pages.

Nadia Knows Best by Jill Mansell is about taking a gamble, leaping into the unknown and finding out that sometimes there are good surprises in the deep end of the pool.  Mansell’s characters are charming, witty, and fun, but they’re also dynamic and flawed, which will keep readers coming back for more.