If I Stay by Gayle Forman

If I Stay by Gayle Forman is a young adult fiction novel about a teenage musical prodigy and her family.  She’s got a boyfriend with a band that is just taking off, and she’s under pressure to gain admission to Julliard playing the cello.  Tragedy strikes and changes everything, shaking up her world.

Forman’s prose is engaging from the first page, but the tragedy that befalls Mia is a predictable plot device that forces this blossoming 17-year-old to reassess her life.  Her music transports her to a safe place and even though she is not as confident as she thinks she must be to perform it, it is as much a part of her as her family and her boyfriend.  The strength of this novel is Mia’s character, her introspection, her trepidation at experiencing new things, and her ability to overcome embarrassment and fear.

“And I didn’t know how to rock-talk at all.  It was a language I should’ve understood, being both a musician and Dad’s daughter, but I didn’t.  It was like how Mandarin speakers can sort of understand Cantonese but not really, even though non-Chinese people assume all Chinese can communicate with one another, even though Mandarin and Cantonese are actually different.”  (page 47)

Mia often feels on the outside of her family, which has deep rock-and-roll ties in the community, and from her boyfriend, who is a lead guitarist in a up-and-coming rock band, and sometimes even from her own classical music because she has not done many of the things that other classical music prodigies have done with local quartets, etc.  However, Mia continues to plug along, beating back her insecurities and striving for the life she wants.  Forman has a firm grasp of a teenager’s life — the peer pressures they face, the insecurities that haunt each decision they make, and the passions in which they lose themselves.

Forman builds tension by shifting from Mia’s present into her past, careful not to rush through each moment and unfurling revelations as Mia sees them in each fragment of time.  Readers will be moved by Mia’s story and her struggle to find her true self amid high school pressures and more.  But If I Stay by Gayle Forman is more than a coming of age story, it’s about the ties that bind us to one another and how we keep those ties alive and relevant.

This is my 15th book for the 2011 Wish I’d Read That ChallengeI’ve wanted to read this book since reading Jill’s dual review in June.



This is my 32nd book for the 2011 New Authors Reading Challenge.


The Secret Lives of the Four Wives by Lola Shoneyin

Lola Shoneyin’s The Secret Lives of the Four Wives is set in modern-day Nigeria where men are supreme and wives are meant to breed children — an obsession of Baba Segi and the reason he has four wives.  However, his newest wife, Bolanle, is the youngest and most educated of the four — Iya Segi, Iya Tope, Iya Femi, and Bolanle — and her entry into the household generates jealousy and change.

Baba Segi’s only concerns are being catered to by his wives and procreation, and when Bolanle fails to produce an heir after much “pounding” (his words), he seeks counsel from his male friends and the “Teacher,” who advises him to bring her to the hospital.  It is then that the jealousy of the women becomes more concentrated on Bolanle, as they struggle to protect a family secret.

“Even a child would have worked out why my father was extolling qualities that had previously vexed him; I was compensation for the failed crops.  I was just like the tubers of cassava in the basket.  Maybe something even less, something strange — a tuber with eyes, a nose, arms and two legs.  Without fanfare or elaborate farewells, I packed my bags.  I didn’t weep for my mother or my father, or even my siblings.  It was the weeds I didn’t get the chance to uproot that year that bothered me.”  (page 91)

Shoneyin adopts what many might consider a very masculine prose that creates a crass view of sex in a polygamist household and a not-so-favorable perspective of Baba Segi, the husband.  Even when the narrative shifts to Bolanle’s first-person point of view, the language is harsh, making it difficult for readers to discern the speaker with each shift.  However, these shifts gradually become easier to discern, and each perspective adds a new layer to the narrative and deepens the complexity within the Segi family.

Readers may want more background and detail of Nigeria and its customs or at least its a more vibrant picture of its places and culture.  Shoneyin generates a harsh world that is not only Nigeria, but could be any country at any time in which polygamy is the norm and women are seen as second-class citizens.  What is absent here is a clear sense of place and time — a setting that could have made the story more vivid and memorable.

The Secret Lives of the Four Wives may have been long-listed for the Orange Prize, but the characters and story are reminiscent of other oppressed women under similar circumstances.  However, what makes this novel unique is the four wives and their perspectives on why they became wives of Baba Segi — what circumstances led them to that choice and why they continue to stay.  Each has a compelling story to tell, and while Baba Segi is not a sympathetic character, he does provide his wives with an oasis from their pasts and with the confidence to rule their own lives.  Overall, readers will get a glimpse into another world and of what it means to be one of many wives.


About the Author:

Lola Shoneyin lives in Abuja, Nigeria, where she teaches English and drama at an international school. She is married, with four children and three dogs.  Please visit her Website and her blog.



Please check out the other stops on the TLC Book Tour by clicking the icon.



This is my 31st book for the 2011 New Authors Reading Challenge.

The Girl in the Garden by Kamala Nair

The Girl in the Garden by Kamala Nair is a stunning debut novel framed by an older Indian woman who leaves her fiance to return to her ancestral home and deal with the past, which is a bit cliche.  However, the bulk of the novel settles on Rakhee’s summer spent in India before her 11th birthday with her mother’s (Amma) mysterious family and away from her father, Aba.  Clearly Nair’s prose has been influenced by fairy tales and is sometimes reminiscent of The Secret Garden and Little Red Riding Hood, which makes the story that much richer.

“Slowly I moved toward the wall with my arm outstretched until my fingertips touched its vine-smothered surface.  I waited for something drastic to happen when my skin made contact with the stone, but when neither I nor the wall burst into flames or evaporated into thin air, I continued dragging my hand along the wall, emboldened, until my palm felt the roughness of the vines give way to a smooth, hard wood.

A door.” (page 67)

In a way the garden she discovers is like a fantasy with its beautiful plants and fanciful creatures.  Rakhee struggles a lot with her identity at home and abroad as a child, but its her curiosity and determination bred by the confidence of her father that will endear her to readers.  The world created by Nair is so absorbing that readers may even forget about the adult Rakhee.

“The thunder was deafening — I had only ever watched and listened to storms from behind the safety of a glass window.  But I was part of the storm now, ran-whipped and shaking.”  (page 140)

Rakhee is that young girl looking for her place in the world, a world where she doesn’t look like everyone else and doesn’t know or understand all of her family and their customs.  Nair paints a vivid landscape of India and the young girl’s odd family with its wizened aunties and an uncle with his broken dreams.  But the mystery of her mother’s past is just as captivating, if not predictable in some ways.

The Girl in the Garden by Kamala Nair is not just a coming of age story, its a clash of cultures, a love story, and a struggle between desire and family obligations.  Nair has crafted a world that readers will be reluctant to leave, especially as the storm kicks up more skeletons and other mysteries are unraveled about the past that could affect Rakhee’s future.  One of the best novels of this year, and it includes a bit of poetry from Mirabai.

About the Author:

Kamala Nair was born in London and grew up in the United States. A graduate of Wellesley College, she studied literature at Oxford University and received an M.Phil in Creative Writing from Trinity College Dublin in 2005. She currently lives in New York City, where she has worked at ELLE DECOR.

Connect with Kamala on her Website, Facebook, or on Twitter.

I read this novel as part of a TLC Book Tour, for the rest of the tour stops, go here, or click on the icon at the right.

This is my 2nd book for the South Asian Reading Challenge.



This is my 30th book for the 2011 New Authors Reading Challenge.

Lagan Love by Peter Murphy

Lagan Love by Peter Murphy is a dense novel steeped in Irish lore and angst.  Janice, a Canadian, is a young student at the famed Trinity in Dublin, and she is easily swept up in the tumult that clings to the brooding poet Aiden.  She’s a student who dreams of painting and traveling the world, and at one point dreams of her life with Aiden as the famous poet and painter duo.  Is Aiden a struggling poet who has sold his soul for a few hundred dollars and a published collection, or is he the next Seamus Heaney?

His first collection of poems is published with the help of Gwen/Bridey, with whom he’s sleeping and who is married.  Aiden thinks that by introducing Gwen and Janice, he can ensure Janice’s paintings get noticed and that his affair with Gwen remains a secret because publicly Janice will be seen as his muse/girlfriend.  It’s not just Gwen, Aiden, and Janice, but Sinead as well who are searching.  Searching for love or the darknesss within the light and vice versa.

“The dawn sprinkled the suburbs with golden promise that paled in the older parts of town, down streets broad and narrow to the docklands where everything was just plain and ordinary.  Another brave new world beckoned, but Dublin was dubious — too often hope had been trampled down by foreign armies or strangled in dark alleys by the shadows of avarice and graft.”  (page 9)

There are a number of references to ghosts, love, revolution, and even a succubus, which readers will have to wade through, discern the meaning of, and tackle before they can care about these characters with any real depth.  Some cliched images and language are used throughout the novel, but those should not detract from the picture Murphy creates with his words.  However, the density of the narration and metaphors does become too heavy, distancing the reader from the characters and possibly even causing them to step away from the book for a while.  Beyond the density of the narration, there are several moments in the novel where the reader will be distracted by transitions between scenes and characters that are muddied, making it a puzzle readers must solve before they can delve back into the story (i.e. like the aftermath of one fight between Sinead and Janice — where readers may have a difficult time determining which character is in the next scene).

“His mind was a mess of disorganized verses piled on top of each other.  Some were orphans and would wither, but others lingered defiantly, like stones in his shoes.  They were the ones he found the time to polish.  But even some of them were destined to irrelevance.” (page 20)

Like the love song, “My Lagan Love,” the novel is a bumpy ride but with an undercurrent of devotion to love and country.  Murphy explores not only love and inspiration, but what it means to be an artist, especially an artist hungry for their voice to be heard.  What is an artist willing to give up or what kind of compromises are they willing to make?  He answers these questions, but also leaves a bit of mystery behind for the reader to examine and unravel.  Lagan Love is a complex as love itself, particularly when artists and simply men and women are competing for the affections of the same person — even if only to be in control.  Murphy’s style is as complex as his characters, but readers will be absorbed in the forlorn myths and legends created and expounded upon.

About the Author:

Peter Murphy was raised in Dublin, in a house full of books.  After a few years studying life in Grogan’s, he wandered through the cities of Europe before setting out for Canada, for a while, and has been there ever since, raising a family.  Lagan Love is his first novel.


This is my 1st book for the Ireland Reading Challenge.



This is my 29th book for the 2011 New Authors Reading Challenge.

A Wife for Mr. Darcy by Mary Lydon Simonsen

A Wife for Mr. Darcy by Mary Lydon Simonsen continues the slew of Pride & Prejudice spinoffs and continuations coming from Sourcebooks.  In this version, Simonsen explores what may have happened had Mr. Darcy apologized to Elizabeth Bennet after the Meryton Assembly for calling her beauty only tolerable.  Would the connection between them be as strong? Would Lizzy and Darcy cast aside their assumptions and simply enjoy one another’s company?  But what if Darcy also had been seen in the company of another young lady in London and her father had political plans following the match?  All of these questions are explored and more.

Simonsens writing is as close to Austen’s as you can get, but it is modern at the same time, with sexual intimacy talked about, but never shown explicitly.  The wit of Austen is here as well, though with a more modern sensibility.  Readers will enjoy this creative exploration of these characters, the introduction of new characters, like Sir John Montford and his daughter Letitia and Bingley’s older sister and her brood the Crenshaws.  One of the most amusing scenes in the novel is when Jane takes on the task of taming the savagery of the Crenshaw children, who are prepared to survive any apocalypse.

“‘Please.  You must say please, Master Lucius,’ Mrs. Bennet told the more compliant twin.
‘Soldiers don’t say please,’ he answered in a voice revealing just how insecure he was feeling.
‘Are you an officer or an enlisted man?’ Mr. Bennet asked.
‘An officer.’
‘Any officer in His Majesty’s Army would be regarded as a gentleman, and as such, would know the proper manners to use when dining.’
‘Well, then, I am an enlisted man,’ he said, even less sure than when he had been an officer.
‘Enlisted men follow orders,’ and after staring him in the eye, he continued, ‘or they are flogged.'” (page 119 of ARC)

Simonsen showcases Mr. Bennet’s trademark wit and knowledge in this book like no other, and he appears more frequently, which many readers will enjoy.  While certain plot points from the original are modified, there are some that remain the same or are slightly varied from their originals.  However, the scene of Darcy proposing to Lizzy at Rosings is not in this novel, and that particular exchange or the passion of that exchange will be missed by readers looking for the tension it creates.

Tension, on the other hand, is created by the introduction of another woman — though not a woman who he views with love, but merely obligation.  In this way, Simonsen has called attention to societal norms in a way that Austen would have, pointing to their shortfalls and ridiculousness.  Another interesting element of the novel is the inclusion of song lyrics, which will make readers curious as to whether those songs were from the time period or merely created for the occasion.   A Wife for Mr. Darcy is a quick read that allows readers to revisit their favorite characters, see more of Austen’s characters who were more on the sidelines in the original, and be introduced to new and interesting characters.

Everyone Is Beautiful by Katherine Center

Anna (her review) handed me Everyone Is Beautiful by Katherine Center after a conversation we had about marriage and child rearing. She told me that I would enjoy it, and she was right . . . for the most part.

Everyone is Beautiful by Katherine Center begins when Lanie Coates and her family move from Houston to Cambridge, Mass., into a smaller home with their rambunctious boys who clearly need more space to run.  From daily visits to the park and the struggle to make friends, Lanie is losing her grip on herself and what’s important.

Even before her family makes the move, she feels adrift from the painter and person she was when she met her husband Peter in college, and even more so, when she learns that her parents have sold the family home to move overseas.

“Now I’d been on the couch for almost three hours, flipping channels with delight, my eyes wide and glazed in a way that made our moving across the country and setting up an entirely new life seem uninteresting and unimportant.  I felt a crazy kind of elation.  I’d forgotten how much TV could pull you out of your own world.  I’d forgotten how great it was.  Books were a good distraction, but TV was like not even being there at all.”  (page 16 of ARC)

The novel is told from Lanie’s point of view, which helps readers experience her struggles with parenting, fitting in with other mothers, and finding herself first hand, but there is a distance between readers and the narrator that is created when she refers to things she learns in the future that she didn’t know at the time.  Narration that slips into this pattern can be distracting to readers who want to be absorbed in the experiences of the characters, making it hard to remain “there” with Lanie and become emotionally connected to her and her situation.

Center, however, does drop anecdotes that all parents, even first time parents, learn very quickly, like telling kids that things are fun just so they won’t complain or give you a hard time or the perverse pleasure some parents have in criticizing others about their parenting skills or kids behavior as a way to reassure themselves that they are doing well.  Some readers may find the antics of Lanie’s children amusing or outrageously funny, but newer mothers may not feel anything but wide-eyed horror.  The novel takes a few twists and turns, which for the most part can be seen miles away, but the end is pure satisfaction.  Everyone is Beautiful is not only about rectifying wrongs or finding oneself, but also is a rekindling of passions and marriage.

This is my 28th book for the 2011 New Authors Reading Challenge.

Vlad: The Last Confession by C.C. Humphreys & Giveaway

Dracula was made famous by Bram Stoker, and the man behind the infamous vampire, Vlad the Impaler, was etched into history as a purely evil man.  However, was the man that inspired Dracula and whom history has called the impaler the devil incarnate?

Vlad:  The Last Confession by C.C. Humphreys seeks to answer these questions through three confessions from those who knew him best — Ion, his childhood friend; Ilona, his mistress; and the hermit — as the powers that be try to resurrect Vlad’s reputation as a means of conquering the Turks and spreading Christianity.  The confessions begin and take readers back to when Vlad was a mere teenager and hostage of the Turks as a means of keeping his father, the ruler of Wallachia, in line.  Unlike typical hostages, Vlad and Ion are taught philosophy and other subjects, and Vlad excels at them.  Unfortunately, the Sultan takes notice much to the chagrin of his nephew, Mehmet, who once ruled the Turkish kingdom and is itching to get it back.  Vlad is then sent to Tokat to learn a different set of subjects at the hands of the Turks in a way that damages his innocence and fuels the fire for revenge.

“In the crook of a copper beech sat a man.  His arms were crossed, gloved hands folded into his lap, the right beneath to support the weight of the goshawk on his left.  They had been there for a long time, as long as the blizzard lasted.  Man and bird — part of the stillness, part of the silence.  Both had their eyes closed.  Neither were asleep.”  (page 3)

Humphreys ensures that readers live in these pages, traveling with Vlad and the other characters through the harsh countryside in the 1400s and breathless with anticipation as the next confession begins in the present (1481).  There are moments in the early part of the book in which events are told that could not have been told by the confessor because Dracula was not with him or her, particularly when Dracula is taken from Tokat by his former teacher Hamza.  However, this is a minor quibble given the story weaved by Humphreys; it will capture readers and suck them into the story, anxious to see if Dracula’s reputation is salvaged.

“All had seen the twin-tailed comet that had torn through Wallachian skies the year the Dragon’s son took back his father’s throne.  It was said then that Vlad had ridden it to his triumph.  To those who followed now, it looked as if that comet flew again, their prince once more astride it.”  (page 249)

Vlad is a character who is driven by a force beyond himself to right a series of wrongs against his people, but this force consumes him to the point of obsession, leaving him little room to deviate from the path he’s chosen.  Humphreys crafts a story that demonstrates this catch-22 so thoroughly that readers see how Vlad is unable to choose and must merely follow the path laid out before him.  Despite the carnage in these pages, readers will hope that Vlad sees the light, finds solace, and achieves the victory he seeks.

The only drawback is that the secondary character of Ion is flat.  When he is torn between revenge and the love of his friend, it is hard to feel the tension of his indecision and applaud him when he warns his friend of impending doom.  On the other hand, Ilona is seen less often in the narrative and is more fleshed out, with her love and dedication to Vlad pulsating in each of her scenes.

What makes a man commit acts of evil? Should this man be forgiven if his motivations were just?  All of these questions are posed in the novel, but the answers are left up to the reader.  Vlad:  The Last Confession by C.C. Humphreys is part history, part epic adventure — an engrossing novel that will surely have you reconsidering other “villains” of the past.

Please check out this podcast with author C.C. Humphreys at What’s Old is New, a site from Devourer of Books and Linus’s Blanket.

For this international giveaway for 1 copy of Vlad:  The Last Confession by C.C. Humphreys, you must do the following:

1.  Tell me which “villain” from history you would like to see reassessed in a novel and why?

2.  Blog, Tweet, or Facebook this giveaway and leave a link in the comments for a second entry.

Deadline is July 1, 2011, at 11:59PM EST



This is my 27th book for the 2011 New Authors Reading Challenge.

Somewhere Over the Pachyderm Rainbow: Living in an Elephant-Controlled 2010 Election Diorama by Jennifer C. Wolfe

Somewhere Over the Pachyderm Rainbow:  Living in an Elephant-Controlled 2010 Election Diorama by Jennifer C. Wolfe, published by BlazeVOX, is a satiric look at the government today following the Republican take over of the U.S. House of Representatives.  However, readers with staunch Republican beliefs who do not have a sense of humor about politics are NOT going to enjoy this volume and may even be angered by it.  On the other hand, Democrats will nod their heads in agreement, while Independents will nod, smirk, and disagree with certain aspects of these poems, which read more like prosaic diatribes.  More than anything, Wolfe has written a collection of poems to get the nation energized and talking politics, just in time for the upcoming 2012 elections (because you know that elections are now tackled at least 12 months in advance, if not more).

The Alito, Kennedy, Roberts, Scalia, and Thomas Pledge of Allegiance (page 42)

I pledge allegiance to the flag
Of the United States of our America,
And to the corporations, for which it stands,
One nation, under our thumb,
Poor invisible,
With liberty and justice, as dictated by the 5-4
Conservative majority of our Supreme Court.

As in the above poem, Wolfe twists well known moments and sayings from history and creates a new narrative to illustrate the “horrors” she sees happening in today’s government and society.  Vitriol drips from each line as she slices through the Republican rhetoric and policy to uncover the intentions of their decisions and desires.  Wolfe is clearly angered by the prominence of Fox News and Sarah Palin, but those are not her only targets.  George W. Bush, John Boehner, Tim Pawlenty, terrorism, and the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords garner equal attention from Wolfe’s sharp pen strokes.

She uses clear language, current events, rhyme, and repeating refrains to maintain the attention of the reader, especially as she nears the point in which she’s ready to slice political platforms to shreds.  There are no puzzles to unwind and the approach to politics is as aggressive as commentary from Bill O’Reilly.  From flip-flopping on Second Amendment issues to hidden agendas in policies, Wolfe calls attention to the rhetoric that covers up the truth.  For instance, why is China our ally if they continue to ship toxic toys, food, and other items to the United States?  Is it related to the fact that they own most of the national debt?

Overall Somewhere Over the Pachyderm Rainbow:  Living in an Elephant-Controlled 2010 Election Diorama by Jennifer C. Wolfe is a jumping off point for further conversation, but it will leave some readers wondering what the references refer to as they lose their immediate meaning and newer events replace those within these pages.  Luckily, the Internet will enable everyone to look up some of these references, though many will wonder if this is merely a collection by a leftist angered by the victory of the right in a political election and what it, if any, significance, it will have on the political arena.  Only time will tell how this collection impacts thinking and action into the future or if it will simply fade into the background like the many scandals among today’s political figureheads.  Taken in small chunks, readers will digest the barbs in these poems and hunger for the next course.

About the Poet:

Jennifer C. Wolfe grew up in Maplewood, Minn., and studied fiction writing and poetry at Century College in White Bear Lake. Mississippi. Wolfe has five previous publishing credentials: a poem “If” included within the Century College (White Bear Lake, MN) Spring 2008 Student Lounge literary magazine along with three poetry manuscripts, Kick the Stones: Everyday Hegemony, Empire, and Disillusionment published as an eBook by BlazeVOX Books, New York, October 2008, Yukon Rumination: Great Fun for All in the Land of Sarah Palin’s Joe Sixpack Alaska, published as an eBook by BlazeVOX Books, New York, June 2009, and Healing Optimism, and Polarization, published as an eBook by BlazeVOX Books, New York, February 2010, and two poems “St. Patrick’s Day” and “Roller Coaster,” published within the online edition of Scrambler Magazine, Issue 39, June 2010.


This is my 17th book for the Fearless Poetry Exploration Reading Challenge.


This is my 26th book for the 2011 New Authors Reading Challenge.

Ordinary Miracles by Erica Jong

Ordinary Miracles by Erica Jong begins with an introduction by the poet herself in which she talks about how poems have become “the stepchild of American letters,” especially since the novel has become so popular.  She further goes on to discuss the duality of being a poet and a novelist and how it is often considered “promiscuous.”  She has thrown those adjectives aside to embrace her duality and to make the most of both genres, with the themes of one informing and flourishing in the other.  “I am always hoping that someone will recognize the poet and novelist as two aspects of the same soul — but alas, the genres are reviewed by two different groups of people, so no one ever seems to notice this in print,” she says.  (page xvi)  It’s funny that she would have this concern in the 1980s, and I wonder what she would think about blogs today that review both novels and poetry.

Erica Jong’s collection is broken into four parts: Fetal Heartbeat; The Breath Inside the Breath; The Heart, The Child, The World; Straw in the Fire.  From these section titles alone, readers can tell that the poems are likely to generate an arc from birth to death.

Jong’s narrator examines what it means to be a mother, the trepidation that comes with, and the joys that are discovered as the child enters the world and grows up questioning the world around them.  More than that, there is a circle of birth-life-death that Jong refers to and wonders about, working back from her advanced years to her childhood.  From “Poem for Molly’s Fortieth Birthday” (page 23-6), “Now,/I begin/unraveling/the sleeves/of care/that have/stitched up/this brow,/unraveling/the threads/that have kept/me scared,/as I pranced/over the world,/seemingly fearless,/working/without a net,/”

The second section tackles the trials of living, embarking on new aspects of our lives and the moment in which we straddle the past and future.  The indecision, the drawing back, the confusion, and the final moment the decision is made.  The narrator is on the precipice of decisions and movements through life.  From “This Element” (page 39), “Looking for a place/where we might turn off/the inner dialogue,/the monologue/of futures & regrets,/of pasts not past enough/& futures that may never come/to pass,/”

In the smallest of the sections — three — presents the grittiness of life — the love and loss and the pain and joy — but much of this is written bitterly or ironically.  Jong uses simple language and images to demonstrate these emotions without clearly carving out each situation that gave way to those emotions.  Her lines are short and clipped, drawing from that additional emotional power.  On page 55 from “Letter to my Lover After Seven Years,” “Now we have died/into the limbo of lost loves,/that wreckage of memories/tarnishing with time,/that litany of losses/which grows longer with the years,/as more of our friends/descend underground/& the list of our loved dead/outstrips the list of the living.//”

In the final part of the book, the anger, bitterness, and frankness are all that is left as the scars have bored into the narrator and the fluttery, flowery ideas of birth have been completely worn away, leaving only a bristly exterior and nearly empty interior.  In this way, the final section is not a closing of the circle, but it could be if the opening of the circle was ill-perceived.

Ordinary Miracles by Erica Jong takes a look at life from a female point of view — a poet who is derailed and tainted by love and childbirth, who thinks she may have been better off remaining untainted as a way to create the best work.  Whether this interpretation is correct is up to each reader, especially given that many of the poems also illustrate the hidden joys of childbirth and life — the hope that comes with each, a hope that things will be different.  However, readers may cringe at some of the word choices and language used in some of the poems to describe the anatomy of men and the act of sex.  The poet may have chosen the words to provide shock value, and make a point about perspective once relationships fail.  The collection examines the ordinary in an attempt to show readers how miraculous those moments are, but the effort falls short on some occasions.  Overall, the collection will have you talking with book clubs and friends for a long time as it raises issues about relationships and motherhood.

About the Poet (from her Website):

Erica Jong—novelist, poet, and essayist—has consistently used her craft to help provide women with a powerful and rational voice in forging a feminist consciousness. She has published 20 books, including eight novels, six volumes of poetry, six books of non-fiction and numerous articles in magazines and newspapers such as the New York Times, the Sunday Times of London, Elle, Vogue and the New York Times Book Review.

Erica Jong lives in New York City and Weston, CT with her husband, attorney Ken Burrows, and standard poodle, Belinda Barkowitz.  Her daughter, Molly Jong-Fast, is also a writer.



This is my 25th book for the 2011 New Authors Reading Challenge.




This is my 16th book for the Fearless Poetry Exploration Reading Challenge.

War & Watermelon by Rich Wallace

War & Watermelon by Rich Wallace, a Junior Library Guide selection, is set in 1969 in New Jersey just as the Vietnam War is beginning to rage and Woodstock is ready to rock suburban New York.  New Jersey brothers Brody and Ryan take a road trip to the concert of their generation as Ryan continues to avoid questions from his parents about his future, particularly college, and the draft.  Brody is just about to start junior high school and is eager to join the football team, but his world is insular in that his main focus is football, girls, the Mets, and the Top 40 hits.

“I grab the ball, make a juke to the right, and send a line drive over the clothesline and directly into the basket.  The bell rings.  Ryan puts his hands on his hips and stares at the ceiling.  I raise my fists and say, ‘Yes!’

I carefully move past the shirt — it looks more like polka dots than tie-dye — and smack hands with him.  ‘Champion,’ I say, patting myself on the chest.

‘Mr. Clutch,’ he says.  ‘ Best in the basement, for sure.'” (page 23)

Told in Brody’s point of view, the novel thrusts readers into the life of a teenage boy who only thinks about sports and girls.  But it’s more than that for Brody.  He’s worried about fitting in at junior high and whether his brother will be drafted into the Vietnam War in September when he turns 18.  The prose is clipped and focused, with breaks between scenes as Brody’s mind shifts from football worries to family concerns and between girls and the start of school.

Wallace’s style is no-nonsense, and he has a football announcer/coach’s way of describing football plays so that even a layman can picture the players’ moves.  He had a firm grasp of what kids in junior high are thinking and feeling, particularly during this time period in the late 1960s.  What’s interesting is that there are poems sporadically thrown in written by Brody, usually about his family, football, and the like.  They are not masterpieces, but they’re also written by a young boy entering the seventh grade.

Woodstock Flock
by Brody Winslow (page 50)

Not to battle
All night long
Past barns and cattle
To hear a song

With my brother
With thousands more
To hear another
Against the war

Wallace creates a childlike innocence in Brody that becomes marred by his brother Ryan’s unwillingness to take action — to decide between college and the draft. Their father continues to insult Ryan’s indecision, pushing him to apply to college, and while Brody may agree with his father that Ryan needs to act to avoid going to war, he also agrees with his brother that he should not be forced into making a decision he’s not ready to make.

War & Watermelon is a coming of age story in which a young man realizes that there are events and issues larger than his concerns about school, football, and girls.  The war, protests, and his brother’s indecision prompt Brody to make some choices of his own and gain the confidence he needs to remedy his own issues at school.  Wallace has a way of teaching lessons without lecturing, and young boys should easily relate to the story.  However, young girls in this similar age group (9-12) may have a tougher time relating to a young football player unless they have older brothers or are interested in what boys their age are thinking about.

Stay tuned tomorrow, June 14, for my guest post from Rich Wallace about his writing space and another chance to win War & Watermelon.

About the Author (From TLC’s Website):

Rich Wallace is the author of many award-winning books for children and teenagers, including Wrestling Sturbridge, Sports Camp, Perpetual Check, and the “Kickers” and “Winning Season” series. He lives with his wife, novelist Sandra Neil Wallace, in Keene, NH. (As an aside, my cousin when to college in Keene.)

A note from Rich : ”Bloggers might like to know that, like Brody in War & Watermelon, I was 12 years old in 1969 and living in suburban New Jersey, just becoming aware of the war and the music and the other world-changing events of that summer. I also had an older brother who was eligible for the draft, which caused considerable concern in our household and informed the events of this novel.” Please visit his Website.

Please check out the rest of the stops on the TLC Book Tour.

To win 1 copy of War & Watermelon by Rich Wallace (US/Canada Only),

1.  Leave a comment on this post about what other middle-grade books you recommend.

2.  Spread the word on Facebook, Twitter, and the Blog about the giveaway for a second entry.

3.  For a third entry, read and comment on tomorrow’s (June 14) guest post from Rich Wallace.

Deadline is June 22, 2011, at 11:59 PM EST.


This is my 24th book for the 2011 New Authors Reading Challenge.

Dreams of Joy by Lisa See

More than a follow-up to Shanghai Girls (my review), Dreams of Joy by Lisa See is about sisterly love, loyalty, and adolescence.  Readers will see in Joy, Pearl’s daughter, the headstrong young woman that many parents see in their daughters — they know everything and cannot be told anything they don’t already know and understand.  However, what do young adults do when the times get rough in many cases?  They run.  Joy is no exception, but in her case, she not only runs from home when family secrets are revealed, but she runs to a nation she has never lived in and that is under the iron fist of communism and at the whims of Chairman Mao.  Pearl heads to China after her daughter, in a country that tortured her and abandoned her when her family needed help most.

“Yes, I’ve escaped the blaming eyes of my mother and the reproachful eyes of my aunt, but I can’t escape myself.  The only things I can do to save myself are pull the weeds in the fields, let my emotions for Tao envelop me, and obey what Z.G. tells me to do with a paintbrush, pencil, charcoal, or pastel.”  (page 87)

Set in late 1950s to early 1960s China, Joy brings us on a journey through China in her quest to rediscover herself and find her biological father, while her mother searches for her and evades deportation, imprisonment, and other punishments for her capitalist ties and bourgeois thoughts and actions.  See has taken these characters from China to America, shown us how Pearl and her sister May adapted and became American in Shanghai Girls, and in Dreams of Joy she has expanded their world and struggles, demonstrating how returning to the homeland is fraught with danger and has essentially left Pearl and Joy country-less.  To enter China, they must renounce their U.S. ties, which were hard to win and maintain when Pearl and May arrived as immigrants.

“Four months later, I’m on the deck watching Shanghai come into view.  A week ago, I stepped off a plane in Hong Kong and was enveloped by odors I hadn’t smelled in that particular combination in years.  Now, as I wait to disembark, I breathe in the scents of home — the oil- and sewage-infused water, rice being cooked on a passing sampan, rotting fish moldering on the dock, vegetables grown upriver wilting in the heat and humidity.”  (page 56)

While much of the story is focused on Joy and her first experiences with her biological father Z.G. and homeland China, Pearl’s arrival complicates the story as she and Z.G. are presented as Joy’s parents but are not married and do not share a bed. For Pearl, her journey is not only to reclaim her daughter, but also one of reconciliation with the past, which ultimately leads to the redemption she has longed for.  She returns to Shanghai to find the city in shambles and less vibrant than when she left it, but her home remains and she begins anew as she patiently waits for her daughter’s return to Shanghai from the countryside and to her open arms.

“The village, the fields, and the canteen begin to look like movie sets — just facades.  The people around me seem fake too, putting on their smiling face and shouting slogans about things they don’t believe.  Everyone still pretends to be open, welcoming, and enthusiastic about the Great Leap Forward, but there’s a furtiveness to them that reminds me of rats slinking along the edges of walls.”  (page 260)

What’s fantastic about this novel is not only the deep examination of what love is in its many forms, but what strong bonds a mother and daughter have regardless if the mother is biological or not.  There is a lot to discuss in this novel for book clubs and the like, particularly as See shows the deeply hypocritical slogans and actions of the Maoist regime and its campaigns to “out produce” imperialist nations like Britain and the United States in the Great Leap Forward, while at the same time maintaining its ties with capitalist nations through Hong Kong (which during this time was owned by Britain) and several fairs in Canton.

Dreams of Joy by Lisa See is one of the best books of 2011, and readers will be dragged kicking and screaming into a dark past filled with hypocrisy, corruption, and famine that makes the journey even harder for Pearl, Joy, and their family.  There are moments of joy, resolution, and sadness that will touch readers deeply.  A cultural melting pot of characters that delves deep below the surface of political beliefs and preconceptions to the core of what happiness and reunification with family really means.  Although many Chinese see their homeland and culture as tied to Mao’s liberation, it is clear that deep down their ties to family are at the core of their decisions and actions.  The circle closes around Pearl, May, Z.G., and Joy to make the dreams of bliss a reality for them all.

About the Author:

Lisa See is the New York Times bestselling author of Peony in Love, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Flower Net (an Edgar Award nominee), The Interior, and Dragon Bones, as well as the critically acclaimed memoir On Gold Mountain. The Organization of Chinese American Women named her the 2001 National Woman of the Year.  She lives in Los Angeles, California.

Please check out her Website and my interviewed Lisa See, here.  Please also check out the discussion guide for Dreams of Joy.

The Giveaway for my ARC of Dreams of Joy (international):

1.  Leave a comment about which Lisa See novel is your favorite or why you want to read Dreams of Joy.

2.  Tweet, Facebook, or blog about the giveaway and leave a link in the comments for a second entry.

Deadline is June 22, 2011, at 11:59PM EST


This is my 14th book for the 2011 Wish I’d Read That Challenge.   I’ve wanted to read this since I finished Shanghai Girls last year.

The Decadent Lovely by Amy Pence

The Decadent Lovely by Amy Pence, published by Main Street Rag, is a collection lush in mystery as it is in setting and pulsating with dramatic domesticity.  Broken into seven parts, Pence begins the collection with the “ugly and the ordinary” and moves to the end of the collection with the infinitesimal.  Her images call attention to the darkness of the narrator’s family as they witness the drunken stupors, like in “Landing Space, 1970” (page 5-6), “Cutting too:/the eyes of the sunflowers/the swell of them, pulpy,/like my stepfather’s,/roused too soon//from an alcoholic stupor/for the graveyard shift.  Was it too much/what they saw or not enough? . . . ”

Like the pleasant and the darker aspects of the family, Pence juxtaposes the landscape of New Orleans to that of Las Vegas, with the darker elements of family life up in neon lights.  But there is darkness in New Orleans, a past that cannot be escaped and a past that can be touched only through the voodoo of memory and self-assessment.  In “The Waiting Room” (page 40), “Maybe/she’ll talk of a version of her self/decades before the cancer:  the Rose Bowl court in the 50s/or her years in New Orleans, to relate, she’d say/to the woman waiting.  In that/hazy B&W film, my mother/was one of the Golddust Twins,/the flashier one, running headlong out of Ohio, constantly/misunderstood by husbands, children, lovers./Maybe the black woman would begin/to resent my mother as most did, would/see her as merely another shipwreck in Vegas,/unmade by her own addictions.  . . . ”  Readers will find the new perspective on these mundane scenes fresh and captivating, as the narrator reveals the truth behind the surface interactions of women in a waiting room.  Pence has a number of these moments in her poems.  However, there are poems that will require more time, reading them several times and greater reflection for each image and line — a process that could bog down some new readers of poetry.  That being said, the collection is worth the effort.

Put Muse Here (page 22)

Dalí renders Dante’s Beatrice with
his beloved’s form, face obscured. Uses

grisaille, a netting & rivulet to dress her
ginger-crisp: a locust shell split. Then

there’s me: putting another face where the Dark
should be, like dreaming (an Emma Bovary),

of punctuation. The colon: two face one-upon-
one, the lock in the door, a figment well-oiled.

In the slash / my avarice: cut (an Emily Brontë)
window across which I rub my wrist.

Then there’s the period — the body’s
rush to an ending. The Thee (an Emily Dickinson)

through which the self moves —
finds the mouth, fills the face, enters in.

Sometimes cryptic, sometimes plain spoken, Pence crafts an inside look at family (those are her parents on the cover) and the happy dysfunction that can occur and often does.  Beyond that, she draws parallels between that dysfunction and the human condition, which we often attempt to control and fail to control.  The Decadent Lovely is a self indulgence worth wallowing in, if not to examine one’s own life but to understand that humans tend to be self-indulgent even though they espouse the shedding of ego.


This is my 15th book for the Fearless Poetry Exploration Reading Challenge.


This is my 23rd book for the 2011 New Authors Reading Challenge.