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The Marriage Price by Alma Katsu

The Marriage Price by Alma Katsu is another short story from The Taker series and it reunites readers with Jonathan’s hometown just before he marries child-like Evangeline.  Told from Evangeline’s point of view, readers will get a taste of her less than innocent side as she talks of the finery and the house that will be hers once she is married to Jonathan.  There’s is clearly not a love match in more ways than one as Jonathan’s family chose her for him, and she clearly has ulterior motives of her own.

She’s a naive girl who is chosen by his family to become his wife as Jonathan’s father declines in health. While Lanore from The Taker and The Reckoning does not appear in the short story, her presence is clearly felt by Evangeline, who — while naive about the sexual relationships between men and women — is not blind to the emotional connection between Jonathan and Lanore.

Evangeline’s character becomes more nuanced through this short story. Although she is portrayed as innocent in The Taker and even child-like, she is more of a strategist in The Marriage Price. She’s looking forward to the big house and the finery she can obtain through her marriage, and while Jonathan is preternaturally gorgeous, his behavior toward her is forward and aggressive by her standards. Their relationship is more student-teacher, though Evangeline’s eyes are more on the prize than on the “love” they can share together.

“Now, it was all she could think about, those shameful things Jonathan had coerced her into doing. That was why she was certain a woman would come forward on her wedding day: it would be a punishment for what she did with Jonathan before they were legally wed.” (Kindle short story)

Katsu creates a dynamic subordinate character that can stand on her own and gets a taste of what her married life will become.  Evangeline may have thought she would gain a great deal through her marriage, but she may have fooled herself into believing that what happened between them in the marriage bed would stay there.  The short story raises questions about arranged marriages, marrying for money and position, and the dark secrets that spouses can hide about not only their pasts, but also their passions.

About the Author:

Alma Katsu is a 30-year DC veteran who lives in two worlds: on one hand, she’s a novelist and author of The Taker (Simon & Schuster/Gallery Books). On the other hand, she was a senior intelligence analyst for CIA and NSA, and former expert in multilateral affairs.  Check out this Interview With Alma.

This completes my first series for the Finishing the Series Reading Challenge 2012.

Wayne of Gotham by Tracy Hickman

Wayne of Gotham by Tracy Hickman is an exploration into the Wayne legacy and its role in Gotham’s early days and its current influence on the city as Bruce Wayne dons a cape and cowl and chases criminals as Batman.  Through a series of flashbacks to the 1950s, Bruce and the reader learn about his father, Dr. Thomas Wayne, and the family secrets.  Bruce is clearly not the only Wayne who has kept big secrets from the rest of the family and the outside world.

The parallels Hickman draws between Bruce and his grandfather, Patrick, are intriguing as both men tend toward the aggressive nature of their personalities and are not afraid to meet violence with violence.  Thomas, on the other hand, wants no part of that violent world, even though his father believes he should be able to defend himself.  However, in Hickman’s novel Bruce Wayne is middle-aged and feeling the impact of his year’s saving Gotham from criminals as Batman, and his reliance on technological advances in his suits and cars tells a far greater tale of this aging hero.

“The garden was dead.  The roses had gone wild and died during the succession of winters without care.  Their gnarled limbs reached up like claws from the edges of the footpaths, which were covered in dead leaves decomposing into dirt.  The prize lilacs his mother had been so proud of now reached up menacingly over the walls.  The garden had gone native, weeds choking and obscuring the careful planning that now lay buried ad barely recognizable.”  (Page 35)

What’s interesting about Hickman’s take on the comic character and his family is that Batman uncovers a past that is not as rosy as he expects about his father.  Dr. Thomas Wayne and his work with Dr. Richter are more than his son can digest in one sitting, but Batman is hardly given the chance to do so as he’s being drawn deeper and deeper into a spider’s trap as ghosts from the past seek to right the wrongs of the past.  Through a series of surprising turns connected to the German Nazis, eugenics, and more, Batman is confronted with a father who is not as perfect as he thought and he must reconcile what he has learned with what he thought he knew about the man.

The criminal mastermind here is slightly obvious from early on, but that is not as bothersome as the incessant talk early on about Batman’s vehicles and gadgets, which don’t necessarily add to the plot especially when the narration focuses on the evolution of the Batmobile from its early incarnations to the present.  However, that’s a minor drawback that fades away once the novel gets going.  Hickman has clearly done his research into several incarnations of the Batman myth, but the plot movement with the entrance of criminals, like The Joker, is abrupt on occasion as their motivations are unclear and the catalyst of their involvement is murky until the end.

Wayne of Gotham by Tracy Hickman is a satisfying read for those interested in the past of the Wayne family and its role in the rise and potentially the degradation of Gotham City.  Warring within each of these men is the duty to do good and the desire to just be free and follow their passions.  The relationship between Thomas Wayne and his father is clear from the beginning, but the relationship between Thomas and his son Bruce is less clear as Bruce himself is unsure how to view his father in light of the secrets revealed.  In many ways, this novel may have worked better as a graphic novel, but Hickman does a good job sticking to the origins of the character and bringing in unique story lines to fill out the ancestry of Wayne family.  By the end of the novel, it would also seem that more needs to be said and uncovered, especially when the second son of Thomas and Martha Wayne is alluded to, but not seen.

About the Author:

Tracy Hickman is a best-selling fantasy author, best known for his work on Dragonlance as a game designer and co-author with Margaret Weis, while he worked for TSR. He married Laura Curtis in 1977, and together they have four children.

This is my 59th book for the New Authors Reading Challenge 2012.

The Color of Tea by Hannah Tunnicliffe

Macau is a former Portuguese colony and is now a special administrative region of China and a hub of gambling and more.  The Color of Tea by Hannah Tunnicliffe is a woman’s journey into a strange land and the time of her life as she trails behind her husband, and their dreams of a new life change drastically.

“Macau: the bulbous nose of China, a peninsula and two islands strung together like a three-bead necklace, though by now the sand and silt have crept up and almost covered the silk of the ocean in between.  Gobbled up, like most everything in Macau, by Progress.  Progress and gambling.”  (Page 1)

Grace Miller is a woman who has lost her dream and builds another with tea and French pastries.  With the help of Leon, a French chef, Grace learns to make macarons and she opens a cafe, breathing new life into her days.  Although she doesn’t know Portuguese, Cantonese, or Mandarin, she finds the strength to become a businesswoman with little help from her husband, Pete.  She finds a new strength in her situation as she creates new kinds of macarons, serves coffee and tea, and provides a community with a little hope and connection.

“The day after the earthquake Lillian’s is packed to the rafters.  It is so crowded that those who can’t find their own tables join strangers and start to talk.  It is as if the catastrophe has brought out the community-minded side of people.  Conversations are hushed, and customers linger over their coffees.  Children are sent to the corner to play with our basket of toys, mutely constructing castles or ships out of LEGOs; even they must sense the need for regrouping and rebuilding.”  (Page 125)

It is the essence of Tunnicliffe’s novel — rebuilding and regrouping — to create something shiny and new out of the rubble . . . to begin again.  Lillian’s is a cafe born from the ashes of a Portuguese restaurant in a Chinese owned commonwealth by a British woman seeking a foothold in a spiraling out of control life, but what this cafe brings to her and to the community is more than she could have bargained for as cultures are bridged and friends are earned.

Grace is dedicated and strong, but she’s also naive about the cultural differences surrounding her, but those traits together make her more endearing.  Peter tries his best to cope with the loss of their dream, but throws himself more and more into his work when his wife withdraws.  His character is less well drawn, but the novel is told from Grace’s perspective, so that is to be expected.  Gigi, Leon, Celine, Rilla, Marjory, and Yok Lan are secondary characters who are full of life, teaching one another how to have patience with one another and grow.

Tunnicliffe’s debut novel is ripe with sugar and creamy pastry as each new relationship adds to the culinary masterpiece that is The Color of Tea.  It is Grace’s story.  Through her baking she comes alive, and subsequently comes into her own.  Tunnicliffe is talented and makes Macau come alive through food, relationships, and tea — creations that transcend sorrow and class.

About the Author:

Hannah Tunnicliffe was born in New Zealand but is a self-confessed nomad.  After finishing a degree in social sciences, she lived in Australia, England, and Macau.  A career in human resources temporarily put her dream of becoming a writer on the back burner.  The Color of Tea is her first novel.

This is my 58th book for the New Authors Reading Challenge 2012.

 

 

If you’d like to win a copy and live in the US or Canada, please leave a comment about your favorite tea or pastry.

Deadline is Aug. 16, 2012, at 11:59PM EST

Small Damages by Beth Kephart

There are books that pump your adrenaline for you and there are books, like Small Damages by Beth Kephart, that seep deep into your being, settle there, making their mark on your emotions, your perceptions about other cultures, and your own world view.  Kephart has a skill unlike other young adult authors in that she never sees her younger readers as incapable of understanding or of deep emotion.  She trusts them to follow her characters in their unusual circumstances and settings and garner a deeper understanding of what it means to mature from a child into an adult and the responsibilities that weigh on them even now when they are so young in this modern world.

Kenzie Spitzer is an 18-year-old pregnant girl who struggles with the loss of her father and the silence of her mother every day, and she keeps secrets from her friends, her family, and herself.  Kevin Sullivan, the boyfriend, is on his way to Yale in the fall, and she had planned to attend Newhouse film school after a summer on the New Jersey shore in a rented house with her boyfriend and friends.  To say the least, her life is turned upside down by the pregnancy news, but what’s worse is the decision to have the child and give it up for adoption is taken out of her hands when her mother makes arrangements for her to go to Los Nietos (the granchildren) ranch in Spain where she will be cared for by her mother’s friends Miguel and Estela until the baby is born.

“We scatter the herd, break the bulls out of the shade until they are near, running beside us — fast in a straight line, awkward on the turns, annoyed.” (Page 14 ARC)

Like the scattering of the bulls when she arrives, Kenzie’s life has been derailed and those of her friends and of Kevin are moving parallel to her and from her point of view cased in blissful ignorance as her life is the only one changed.  She even ruminates on how even though a child conceived is the doing of man and woman, it is the woman’s life that is changes irrevocably.  Kenzie’s thoughts are very similar to teenage girls, vacillating between the past and what the future could have been — analyzing each moment over and over.  Unlike other novels on this topic, Kephart’s kind hand guides the narration without judgment allowing the character to reveal her own maternal love for the child and her confusion without the harsh lens of blame and resentment.

“I stay where I am, halfway in, halfway out, the moon and the stars bright behind me.”  (Page 172 ARC)

Forced into a decision that is not her own — but is in a roundabout way a compromise with her mother — Kenzie is left adrift in a foreign land with people she doesn’t know or understand, wondering through silences and asking endless questions that are unanswered more often than not.  She meets Esteban with whom a connection is born as they share a tragic parental past, even though for a long while all Kenzie wants is to be someone else, somewhere else.  Like the birds in Seville and at Los Nietos, they are there guiding Kenzie, showing her the color as Kevin had done when her father died.  She is alive, and they remind her.  There is one passage in the novel in which Esteban talks of how one particular bird always comes, but that he brings the others with him — reminiscent of The Conference of the Birds (my review) and the faith they need to find what they seek.

“‘Only to the earth do I tell my troubles,’ Arcadio sings softly, ‘for nowhere in the world do I find anyone to trust.’

‘If my heart had windowpanes of glass,’ Bruno sings the next line, ‘you’d look inside and see it crying drops of blood.’

‘These Gypsies, they are the famous,’ Miguel says.  ‘They are starting very young; they played for Lorca.  They had duende. Have duende. ?'”  (Page 165-6 ARC)

Small Damages by Beth Kephart is about the courage we must find within ourselves to face the past, our tragedies and losses, and our fears about the future.  Kenzie is a young woman on the verge of her new life when it is turned upside down, and while the decision to go to Spain is not her own, she finds the courage to make her own decisions for herself, her baby, and her future.  Through the chords and melodies of gypsy music, Kenzie must peel the tough, bumpy rubber skin of the orange in her journey through Spain to reveal the prized juice and supple pulp beneath the skin.  While damages may seem large and insurmountable when they are first scored through our hearts and skin, they heal and become the small scars that make us who we are and how we learn to be better than we were.

About the Author:

Beth Kephart is the author of 14 books, including the National Book Award finalist A Slant of Sun; the Book Sense pick Ghosts in the Garden; the autobiography of Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River, Flow; the acclaimed business fable Zenobia; and the critically acclaimed novels for young adults, Undercover and House of Dance. A third YA novel, Nothing but Ghosts, is due out in June 2009. And a fourth young adult novel, The Heart Is Not a Size, will be released in March 2010. “The Longest Distance,” a short story, appears in the May 2009 HarperTeen anthology, No Such Thing as the Real World.

Kephart is a winner of the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts fiction grant, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, a Leeway grant, a Pew Fellowships in the Arts grant, and the Speakeasy Poetry Prize, among other honors. Kephart’s essays are frequently anthologized, she has judged numerous competitions, and she has taught workshops at many institutions, to all ages. Kephart teaches the advanced nonfiction workshop at the University of Pennsylvania. You can visit her blog and my interview with her.

My other Beth Kephart reviews:

Have you seen this book trailer?

When She Woke by Hillary Jordan

When She Woke by Hillary Jordan has been compared to The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne and The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, but it is really a combination of the two as Hannah Payne is not melachromed for adultery, but for another sin and she lives in a world where the separation between church and state has been broken.  Roe vs. Wade has been overturned once a scourge has rendered most women unable to have children and men who are carriers unwittingly have passed the disease onto unsuspecting partners.  Under the defense of saving the human race, society has outlawed abortion.  This idea parallels the notions of The Handmaid’s Tale, though the society in that novel is more severe in terms of limiting women’s rights and control over their bodies.

Punishment for breaking the laws of this society are no longer being thrown in jail, but being chromed and thrown back out into society to face ridicule and stigmatization.  Chroming takes place when a virus — which had unknown side effects for many years and often results in fragmentation of the brain if not re-administered every six months or reversed properly — turns the skin the color of the crime, such as red for violent offenders and blue for molesters.  Once back in society these men and women are looked upon as freaks and outsiders, and they are lucky if they are given jobs to survive on their own while their sentence is carried out.

“The virus no longer mutated the pigment of the eyes as it had in the early days of melachroming.  There’d been too many cases of blindness, and that, the courts had decided, constituted cruel and unusual punishment.”  (Page 6-7)

Aiden Dale in Jordan’s book is very reminiscent of Arthur Dimmesdale in The Scarlet Letter in that his character is very weak and he is forced by the pressures of guilt to confess.  Naturally, Hannah is a young women in a close knit community of religious communities and the injury of her father leaves the family in a precarious position until their pastor Aiden Dale comes to the rescue.  His character is only seen through Hannah’s eyes as she is the main point of view throughout the novel, which leaves a lot of his motivations in question, especially given the relationship he embarks upon as a pastor and married man.

Jordan’s novel is very fast-paced, and may even be too fast-paced as it seems that Hannah needs a moment to slow down, breathe, reflect but her character is very emotional, impulsive, and impatient.  Given her upbringing in a religious community, it is clear that she knows little of the outside world in Texas, which is cliche location for a novel about ultraconservative religious groups, etc.  Her actions are frustrating, but at least they are understandable given her upbringing, but there are other occasions where she seems superior in her perceptions of others’ personalities and actions and yet completely oblivious when others are plying her with food and a place to sleep after being chromed.

When She Woke by Hillary Jordan is ultimately a mesh of worlds that does not go to the extremes of the other nations created by Atwood and Hawthorne, and in that, the world building loses ground as it uses a heavy-handed nature in drawing parallels to today’s society, its punishments, and our own history of discrimination against certain groups.  However, this novel would make an excellent selection for a book club discussion given the issues it raises about the separation of religion and government, abortion, crime and punishment, and other topics.

About the Author:

Hillary Jordan received her BA in English and Political Science from Wellesley College and spent fifteen years working as an advertising copywriter before starting to write fiction. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia University.  (Photo by Michael Epstein)

What the Book Club Thought (beware of spoilers):

When She Woke by Hillary Jordan was one of the two books I nominated and the book club selected it for this month’s discussion.

Most members agreed that the character of Aiden was very weak and that we disliked him.  One member insisted that most of us had laid too much blame on Hannah for what happened to her, but the women of the group said that blame lied with both Aiden and Hannah.  Given that Hannah knew Aiden was not only her pastor, but also a married man, she should not have engaged in an illicit affair with him, and he knew he was married and a paragon of the community.  While this is billed as a love story, I didn’t see the depth I expect from love-based relationships and the relationship between Aiden and Hannah appeared to be more one of lust and passion than of love.

While some of the sci-fi elements worked best for one member of the book club, others of us were happy that unlike the Hunger Games series of books the back story as to why the society had changed so drastically was presented.  Some of the members thought that Jordan skewed some elements of the society such as making all of the religious figures and members mean or evil, except for the one female priest.  But one of us thought there was a balance in the casting as there were good and bad in both the religious community from the bad priest and his wife to Hannah’s father who was more tolerant and in the Novemberists (which reminded me of the V is for Vendetta movie with its focus on November and bombing, etc.) there were good and bad guys as well.

In terms of the books we’ve read so far, this one generated a great deal of discussion about what would happen in today’s society if Roe vs. Wade was overturned (which most of us don’t see happening), what punishments are considered cruel and unusual, what being a second-class citizen would entail if we were chromed, and how the women in the group felt about abortion.  One of our members also suggested that the book is focused on demonstrating that we should not judge others and their sins but worry about ourselves, even if we are devote Catholics, etc.

This is my 57th book for the New Authors Reading Challenge 2012.

Flight From Berlin by David John

With the London Olympic Games already under way, Flight From Berlin by David John is a novel that can demonstrate the political turmoil beneath even the most beloved sporting event across the globe.  It is set during the 1936 Olympic games in Germany just as Adolf Hitler is gaining more power, and British journalist Richard Denham is fully aware of the brutality the Nazis hope to hide behind the spectacle of the games.  Mrs. Eleanor Emerson is an Olympic hopeful whose father, a senator, is very much against the United States’ participation in the games and who eventually gets kicked off the team when her rebellious behavior aboard ship gets her into all kinds of trouble with her father’s nemesis.  Fate conspires to bring these two together as Emerson is offered a job as a reporter for William Randolph Hearst’s media empire given her connections with the team.

Embroiled unwittingly in a cloak-and-dagger search for a secret that could stop the rise of Hitler, Emerson and Denham run through the Berlin streets, attend society parties, and hide in back alleys as they seek to interview the only Jewish athlete on the German Olympic team.  The rebellious streak of Emerson draws Denham to her, but she’s intrigued by his passion to uncover the truth even without considering the consequences.  John’s prose is quick paced and appropriate for the old world espionage feel of the novel, and the relationship between Denham and Emerson is one of convenience and mutual respect.

“How strange, how small the things that change history, turn it from its darkened course, send it eddying off down new, sunlit streams.”  (Page 2 ARC)

However, the fast-paced nature of the story often takes over too much in that the relationship between Denham and Emerson is not fully realized and when declarations of love occur, it seems to be too soon.  While John does use the cliched oops moment of overhearing a conversation in the garden, the story is intriguing enough to keep the reader’s attention.  Meanwhile, the chapters on the Hindenburg are very well done and demonstrate the awe people at that time would have felt at seeing such ingenuity.

“It was like a film set built from an Erector set.  A gargantuan spider’s web of bracing wires and girders radiated out from the central axis, and looking along the corridor’s length was like seeing infinity reflected between two mirrors.  The air was much colder.

Together they walked along the corridor between towering gas cells, which hummed quietly with the vibration of the engines.”  (Page 66 ARC)

Flight From Berlin by David John provides the right mix of thrill and historical elements to anchor readers into the time between WWI and WWII when Germany was hosting the Olympic games and Hitler was hovering the line between diplomatic peace and alienating the entire world.  Denham, a former WWI soldier, is forced to recall his training and the tragic things he saw during the war, but it also enables him to remain sympathetic to the Jews and others he meets while working in Berlin on his journalistic stories.  Emerson is a socialite who is used to getting her way either through charm or her father’s connections, but she has to learn to be more observant of the world around her and that she has her own strength to get her through.  Another gem in the novel is the notes in the back about what characters were real and which were fictionalized.

About the Author:

DAVID JOHN was born in Wales. He trained as a lawyer but made his career in publishing, editing popular books on history and science. In 2009 he moved to Germany to write Flight from Berlin. He lives in Seoul, South Korea, where he is researching his second novel.

This is my 56th book for the New Authors Reading Challenge 2012.

The Book Club Cook Book (revised edition) by Judy Gelman and Vicki Levy Krupp

The Book Club Cook Book (revised edition) by Judy Gelman and Vicki Levy Krupp is a second edition that includes more book recommendations from book clubs across America and recipes from the authors of those books.  The book is the brain child of two voracious readers who love to share their reading and the recipes they pair with their own book club selections.  After surveying more than 500 book clubs, including some contacted for the previous version, Gelman and Krupp filled out the cook book with some of the latest books being discussed, while retaining the ones that remain book club picks.

Additionally, they sought to include some vivid, color photos to demonstrate the breadth of new recipes included in the latest version of the cookbook.  If there were one nitpick with this cookbook, it would be that each recipe or most should include a photograph of the food created from the authors’ recipes — either from book clubs or the authors providing the recipes.

What’s unique about this cookbook is that each book is described in detail, complete with publisher and publication information, and information from one or more book clubs about the recipe used to accompany the book club discussion of the book.  Following the recipe, “Novel Thoughts” offers up a bit more from book clubs about what they felt and discussed about the book and how it inspired them to cook or read another book they found to be related, and more.  In “More Food for Thought,” book clubs offer full menus for certain books or how books generate culinary creativity.

In the back of the book, there are ideas about what makes book clubs successful and how books can be selected, etc.  Moreover, the authors include ideas on where to look for food inspiration in books that don’t explicitly mention meals, such as paying attention to the time period, the setting, or culture.  The Book Club Cook Book (revised edition) by Judy Gelman and Vicki Levy Krupp is an excellent cookbook for book clubs and those just looking for new recipes to try out, and paired with the Website even novice cooks can wow their families.

***I had the joy of meeting both these passionate readers and cooks at the Gaithersburg Book Festival in May, and I’m eager to check out their other books.

About the Authors:

Judy Gelman and Vicki Levy Krupp, are cooks, book enthusiasts and friends. Seeking to combine their passion for books, food, and book clubs, they met over stacks of books and endless cups of coffee at a local sandwich shop, where The Book Club Cookbook was born. The revised edition of The Book Club Cookbookwill be published in March, 2012.

They were motivated to write their second book, The Kids’ Book Club Book, after librarians, parents, and teachers who attended their talks asked for a similar book for the growing number of youth book clubs across the country.

Table of Contents features book related recipes from fifty of today’s most popular authors.

Their latest book is the revised edition of The Book Club Cookbook, featuring 20 new book club titles and recipes.

Judy and Vicki enjoy speaking about book clubs, and appreciate their ongoing conversations, both in person and via their websites, with book and food enthusiasts across the country.

They live with their families in the Boston area.

This is my 55th book for the New Authors Reading Challenge 2012.

Monarch Beach by Anita Hughes

Monarch Beach by Anita Hughes is one of those beach reads that barely scratches the surface about what divorce can do to a family, especially when one spouse cheats on the other and more than once.  To Amanda Blick’s credit she doesn’t go postal and take out her husband’s (Andre) French fondue restaurant in Ross, an exclusive, elite neighborhood, and she doesn’t have a nervous breakdown.  Rather, Blick takers their son, Max, out of the San Francisco area to St. Regis Monarch Beach Resort with her mother, Grace, who promises to quit smoking if they come stay with her for the summer in the Presidential Suite.

Pretty posh lifestyle, but nothing less can be expected from the offspring of a society family, whose friends used to call her parents’ home The Palace.  The relationship between Andre and Amanda is rushed, but that’s to be expected as she meets him just after graduating undergrad following a family tragedy.  When Andre’s restaurant partnership sours, he doesn’t turn to his mother-in-law or his wife for help, but a busty former high school classmate of Amanda’s and her husband Glenn.

Clearly blinded by lust or love, Amanda rushes headlong into a marriage and finds contentment with being a mother and wife, as her dream of becoming a fashion designer fades into the rearview.  But her world crumbles around her when she finds the chef’s legs wrapped around her partially naked husband in the restaurant one afternoon.  She’s forced to make a decision or have a meltdown.

“I pulled into the parking lot at the post office, threw my purse under the seat, and started walking.  I was still in my yoga clothes, so I looked like any other mother going for a morning hike.  I left the parking lot and took long strides till I reached the lake, a walk that usually took me half an hour.  That Tuesday I made it in sixteen minutes.  I sat on a bench watching the ducks and took deep breaths.  It was a beautiful spring day.  The sun was warm, the sky a pale blue, and beds of purple and white daisies surrounded the lake.”  (Page 2)

Hughes creates a woman who copes with heartbreak in the only way she knows: she asks her mother’s advice.  Amanda waffles, she indulges, she cries, and she wallows over the summer, and by turns she’s at the beach, eating, or at the bar, but most of all she’s spending time with her son and her mother, the people she cares most about.  Many readers will envy her lifestyle and wonder what she has to complain about, but upon further reflection, readers will find that heartbreak can transcend classes.

Monarch Beach by Anita Hughes is beach read that will take most readers’ minds off their troubles.  A satisfying peak into the life of the elite, even when heartbreak is the order of the day.  The ending is a bit open-ended, which could leave readers wondering if there is a sequel in the works.

About the Author:

ANITA HUGHES attended UC Berkeley’s Masters in Creative Writing Program, and has taught Creative Writing at The Branson School in Ross, California. Hughes has lived at The St. Regis Monarch Beach for six years, where she is at work on her next novel.  Please check out her Website. (Photo by Sheri Geoffreys)

This is my 54th book for the New Authors Reading Challenge 2012.

Enchantment: New and Selected Stories by Thaisa Frank

Enchantment by Thaisa Frank, author of Heidegger’s Glasses (my review),  is a collection of short stories that offers a variety of perspectives on the real and imagined, and some stories have a more other-worldly feel to them than others.  Each story wears a mask of beauty and fantasy in which characters themselves take journeys or dream of traveling to cover up the heartbreak and dissatisfaction with their lives.

Frank’s prose is beautiful and mysterious, and her characters are genuine and real, even the vampire from “The Loneliness of the Midwestern Vampire.”  Each story has an undercurrent of longing as each character searches for a connection to something or someone, and in some cases, there is a longing to repair even broken connections as a means of regaining some of that lost sense of wonder that most of us feel when a connection is first made.

From “The White Coat” (page 147 ARC)

“She remembered almost nothing of her life back home–the cramped little alcove where she did translations, their sprawling city apartment–everything vanished in this air of limitless depth.”

Starting out the collection are some more fanciful stories, like “Thread,” “Enchantment,” and The Girl with Feet That Could See,” but further into the collection the stories are less fanciful and less playful and more realistic, like “Henna” and “Postcards.”  However, the real gem of the collection is the collection of stories within the collection — a series of stories — that make up “The Mapmaker.”  These stories or vignettes told from a single point of view focus on one family and its most intimate secrets, like who made the map that hangs in the father’s study and was it really the narrator’s grandfather.  There is even a story that touches on the manipulative nature of children when adults have a secret they don’t want others to know and of course, there is the overarching story of families and communication and how broken it all becomes.  In this section of the collection, it is clear that Frank is a novelist and in many ways, these stories could become their own full fledged novel.

Enchantment by Thaisa Frank straddles the world between the real and the imagined as her characters try to capture some of that awe that we often feel as children about life and to connect with others in the deepest way possible.  Frank is a talented writer with a firm grasp of characterization and storytelling, and while not all of the stories feel complete, they all will transport readers to another world, another time, and another place in the hope that they will once again become captivated with their own lives.

About the Author:

Thaisa Frank grew up in the Midwest and the Bronx, the granddaughter of a Presbyterian theologian and a Rumanian Chassid, who consulted each other about Aramaic texts. Her father was a professor of medieval English and her mother a director of small theater groups.  She earned an honors degree in philosophy of science and logic from Oberlin College, studied graduate linguistics and philosophy at Columbia and worked as a psychotherapist before becoming a fulltime writer. She has traveled extensively in France and England, and currently lives in Oakland, California.

The Rose of Fire by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Carlos Ruiz Zafón, author of The Shadow of the Wind, is like many other authors these days in that he is pumping out short stories for digital devices.  The Rose of Fire is one such story, but this story tells the tale of how the Cemetery of Forgotten Books was born at the time of the Spanish Inquisition in the fifteenth century.  The labyrinth of books is an intriguing idea, and Zafón’s prose is at once lyrical and absorbing, transporting readers into another time and place.

As fear and suspicion are around every corner, many Spaniards keep to themselves in the hope that they will be spared the wrath of the church.  Raimundo de Sempere, who knows too many languages to stay outside the church’s suspicion, is a printer who is asked to translate a mysterious notebook found on Edmond de Luna, the only surviving man of a ship left battered and adrift near Barcelona just after a plague has ravaged the city.

“Edmond de Luna could see himself reflected in those eyes that resembled huge pools of blood. Flying like a cannonball over the city, tearing off terrace roofs and towers, the beast opened its jaws to snap him up.”  (ebook)

Zafón has created a tantalizing back story for his series of books about the library, and for those who have not read his previous books in the series, The Rose of Fire serves as an introduction to that fantasy world he’s created in which magic and nightmares come alive.  While the story is enchanting and absorbing, it is likely to leave readers wanting more in the way of character development that would likely come with a longer piece of work.  In many ways, this ebook release achieves its goal of ensuring the reader will look for more of the author’s work, but it seems to be a means to an end only, rather than a well developed short story.  With that said, Zafón is a talented author who creates believable worlds full of adventure and conflict.

About the Author:

Carlos Ruiz Zafón is a Spanish novelist. Born in Barcelona in 1964, he has lived in Los Angeles, United States, since 1994, and works as a scriptwriter aside from writing novels.

This is my 53rd book for the New Authors Reading Challenge 2012.

The Great Lenore by J.M. Tohline

The Great Lenore by J.M. Tohline, published by Maryland-based Atticus Books, is loosely based upon F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (my review — no, you don’t have to read Fitzgerald to enjoy Tohline’s novel), but it’s also part Edgar Allan Poe(m)-inspired.

Richard Parkland takes up his friend’s offer of using his summer home on Nantucket during the winter to write his next novel, and he soon comes in contact with the Montanas, who live in an ornate home much like that of Gatsby in Fitzgerald’s novel.  Richard parallels the narrator of Gatsby, Nick Carraway, while Lenore is the female lead here and is not as insipid or self-absorbed.  Many of the elements are similar in that the Montana’s are a rich family and that their members are embroiled in drama, particularly the brothers Maxwell and Chas.  There are great loves and there are mistresses, but there is much more in these pages than a replication of Fitzgerald or any other writer.

“We stopped looking at him, and he drifted through the house like an orange blob inside a lava lamp, with a cold glass of whiskey glued to his hands.”  (page 53 ARC)

The dialogue between the characters is reminiscent of Fitzgerald’s Gatsby as they tiptoe around what they really want to say to one another or shout uselessly in anger and frustration because of the situations in which they find themselves.  These characters are acting and reacting to one another in a vacuum in which no one else matters, not even Richard.  He’s a sounding board more than once, and he’s meant to just listen — he’s the outsider, the observer, the recordkeeper.  But one of the clear gems in the novel is the setting of Nantucket, which is a small, exclusive island.  It comes alive under Tohline’s talent creating a deep sense of other-worldliness and isolation.

“Clouds of frustration and anger and betrayal eddied off behind me, and the same clouds lay before me.  The same clouds wrapped their cold, iron claws around me, scraping over my veins and shuddering through my nerves.”  (page 116 ARC)

Tohline addresses the waffling nature of humanity, our fear of making decisions and our fear of the decisions we’ve made and the regret that comes with choosing the path we’re on.  In more ways than one, Lenore becomes mythical, she is no longer a real person until her untimely death.  At this point in the story, readers would expect the “prefect” Lenore to take on an even more ideal hue, but Tohline has a different experience in mind.  He breaks down her character through the eyes of others, and as secrets are revealed about her relationships with Chas, Maxwell, and others, Lenore becomes like the rest of us — fallible.  The narration allows the reveal to come gradually, providing the reader with a faster paced page-turner than expected from a piece of literary fiction.

The Great Lenore by J.M. Tohline is a literary debut from an author whose prose is at times poetic and suspenseful, but always hovering on the edge of the mysterious.  His novel is a testament to the inevitability of choices we make and the inability we have to change them even if we have the desire and opportunity to change them.  It’s about the idealizing the past and those we love and the journey it takes to realize that the reality of those times and people was not at all what our minds remember.  Tohline’s novel is one of regret and hope for a better future, but there also is a hopelessness reminiscent of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.

About the Author:

JM Tohline grew up in a small town just north of Boston and lives in a quiet house on the edge of the Great Plains with his cat, The Old Man And The Sea. He is 26 years old. The Great Lenore is his first novel.  Check out his Website and this Atticus Books interview.

 

This is my 52nd book for the New Authors Reading Challenge 2012.

The Healer of Fox Hollow by Joann Rose Leonard

The Healer of Fox Hollow by Joann Rose Leonard is a story of change, struggle, and perseverance in the great Smoky Mountain town of Fox Hollow between the 1960s and 1970s (around the time of the Vietnam War).  Layla and Ed Tompkin live a hard life, carving it from the mountains that surround their home without a feminine hand to guide or support them.  Layla spends parts of her day during the week with the Yeagleys, who tend to take the Bible and its teachings literally, while her father works to keep them clothed and fed.  After a tragic accident, Layla is rendered mute and must find her way once again in the face of adversity.

“Looking at the gaunt, unshaven face of her sister’s husband, sapped of its usual outdoor burnish and as vacant as an abandoned house, Avis could barely breathe.  She retrieved a hankie from her pocket, pressed each eye and gave her nose a vigorous, head-clearing blow.  In an attempt to squeeze her crumbling composure back together, Avis clutched the balled-up fist of one hand with her other and began again.”  (Page 15 ARC)

Layla’s accident renders her different from her fellow classmates and neighbors and her father’s decision to keep them out of church on Sunday, further separates her from the community, until she is seen as a healer.  The community is very willing to turn to her in times of ailment or crisis, even when they have their own community doctor available, but they continue to see her as an outsider.  It’s almost as if the community is using her, and she’s almost too willing to help.  However, as Layla grows up and becomes a woman, it is clear that she becomes more conflicted about her role in the community and while she enjoys providing comfort, even she is not convinced of her powers.

Leonard’s prose is folksy, which is appropriate given the community she is describing and the situations she is portraying.  Layla is a quiet and unassuming girls swept into a role that she has little control over until she becomes an adult.  Given the choice, she relies on the teachings of her father to weigh the pros and cons of her decision and choose what is best for her upon her high school graduation.  In a community where God plays a large role and where struggles are the norm, Layla must face her fair share and more of these troubles, but through her gifts, she discovers the power of empathy and connection as a way to heal herself and others.

As Layla comes in contact with the severely injured and broken — soldiers of the Vietnam War — she must contend with feelings she never thought would be hers to feel or to dream about.  Leonard does well portraying the maturation of Layla while maintaining her naivete about certain things, and she easily demonstrates the psychological and physical pains of soldiers from the Vietnam War.  However, when Damian appears into Layla’s life, it is out of the blue and would have been better choreographed in another way, especially given his connection to the community doctor’s son, Brian.  Despite this minor flaw of a “convenient” meeting and what it stirs up in Layla, The Healer of Fox Hollow by Joann Rose Leonard is heartfelt tale of adaptation, survival, and love filtered through the heat of the sunset over the Smoky Mountains.

About the Author:

Wisconsin born JOANN ROSE LEONARD was Texas-raised and has chigger bite scars to prove it, theatre-trained and frostbitten at Northwestern University, and worked as an actress in New York.   She studied mime in Paris with Marcel Marceau while dubbing films into English to earn her daily baguette; raised 9 kids (2 human, 7 goats) in State College PA, where she was founder and director of MetaStages, the youth theatre program at Penn State University, and, with her husband, Bob, a retired professor and theatre director, has relocated to CA to be nearer their sons, Jonathan (DJ Child, an award-winning music producer and founder of the multi-media company, Project Groundation) and Joshua (actor/filmmaker including The LieHigher Ground and The Blair Witch Project.) Joann is author of The Soup Has ManyEyes: From Shtetl to Chicago; One Family’s Journey Through History“From Page to Stage,” a chapter in Holt Rinehart Winston’s Elements of Literature and two collections of multicultural plays, “All the World’s a Stage Volumes I & II” (Baker’s Plays).   In her research for The Healer of Fox Hollow, Joann discovered that the truth the novel is based upon is infinitely stranger than the fiction she wrote.

For more info on Joann and her work, please visit her Website.

This is my 51st book for the New Authors Reading Challenge 2012.

***To win a copy of this book, you must be a resident of the United States or Canada and be over age 18.

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