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

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

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

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

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

About the Author:

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

As Always, Jack by Emma Sweeney

As Always, Jack by Emma Sweeney is an epistolary memoir in that letters from Sweeney’s father to her mother are shared with several sections of explanation from Sweeney, herself.  After just 11 days together, Jack and her mother corresponded for a year and a half through letters as he went off to help stabilize the Pacific following WWII.  He wrote 45 letters to her mother over seven months in a oddball courtship that showcase her father’s wit and humor as well as his constant devotion.

In many ways the correspondence allowed the young lovers to get to know one another more intimately without the awkward face-to-face interactions.  They learned about their religious beliefs and their thoughts on infidelity when she tells Jack of her boss’ infidelity with one of the dental assistants.  Emma found her father’s letters to her mother after her mother’s death in the back of a drawer, but she never knew him in person as he died before she was born.

“I never told anyone of my discovery that day.  We lived in a big house, and, with twelve brothers and sisters, my things had a way of disappearing.  I put the letter and the photograph in the small cedar box I kept hidden under my bed.”  (page 4)

Jack was a funny man who liked to play cards and talk to his Bebe as much as he could, begging her for photos and tales of her trips to Florida from Coronado, California.  He made jokes, he took on personas, and he laughed at himself.  He wooed her with humor and honesty, and through his devotion, he garnered her love, which she eventually confessed in a letter to him, or at least that is what Jack says in one of his letters back to her.  What’s missing is her mother’s side of the letters and some explanations as to what Jack is referring to on occasion, but there are notations about dates and times in the letters that clarify some of the timeline.

However, this memoir is not only about the love that endures even through space and time, but also the discovery of a daughter of her true father and mother at time when they were youthful and full of hope.  As Always, Jack by Emma Sweeney is in a way a love letter from a daughter to a father.

About the Author:

Emma Sweeney is the author of several gardening books as well as a literary agent based in New York.  She formed her own agency in 2006 and has had five New York Times bestsellers, including the #1 New York Times best seller, Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen.  She is a member of the Association of Authors’ Representatives and the Women’s Media Group, where she served as its president in 2003. She graduated from the University of California at Berkeley with a BA in English Literature.  She divides her time between New York City and Rhinebeck, New York.

If you’d like to win a copy of this book, please leave a comment on this post with an email address.  Deadline to enter is July 20, 2012; This is open GLOBALLY.

This is my 49th book for the New Authors Reading Challenge 2012.

Place: New Poems by Jorie Graham

Place: New Poems by Jorie Graham, who is a Pulitzer Prize winner (1996), is a collection of poems in five parts that is about not just physical places, but also the place points in our pasts and the places in our soul that can define who we are.  Her poetry is clean, clipped, and infused with nature and human perception, espousing the benefits and limitations of humanity.

In part one, the narration talks of places in the moment and in the past and how they change over time based on the perception of the future self.  There is a mother and child, an unspoiled relationship and unspoiled being hovering on the “railing” and in the moment.  Bask in today, the feeling and the being — each poem seems to say.

From "Cagnes Sur Mer 1950" (page 6-8)

How the archway and the voice and the shadow
seize the small triangle of my soul
violently, as in a silent film where the accompaniment
becomes a mad body
for the spirit's skipping images -- abandoned homeland -- miracle from which
we come back out alive.  So here from there again I, 
read it off the book of time, 
my only time, as if in there is a fatal mistake of which
I cannot find the nature -- or shape -- or origin --
From "The Bird on My Railing" (pages 16-19)

             the still wet iron of
             of fire
             escape's top
railing a truth is making this instant on our clock
             open with a taut
             unchirping un-
             breaking note -- a perfectly
             released vowel traveling
the high branches across the way, between us and the
             others, in their 

There is the moment when life begins — a place — in which at our purest form we are human and untainted.  It is from this moment we are propelled forward, and though we are moving forward in time and in maturity and growth, we also pause to look back to see where we have been.  It is about these places, these experiences of which Graham writes, focusing on observing those moments without judgment.

In the second and third sections of the collection, Graham revisits the notion that “matter is neither created nor destroyed” in that the self is neither created nor innovative because it borrows from its surroundings.  In many ways, humans are on the outside looking in and are intruders to the natural world in some moments.  There are a number of references throughout the collection to plants and generation in these sections, which act as a segue into the next section in which revision occurs and humanity interferes with the natural world.  There is even a revision of the Garden of Eden story here that uncovers the inner thoughts of one resident and the need to grow and experience more than s/he is given.

Place: New Poems by Jorie Graham touches on the inner experience and how “outside” of the world it makes the narrator feel, but it also examines the human need to touch, become, and take over — greedy for it all.  Through an examination of the human relationship to mothers and nature, Graham builds a disconnection between nurturing relationships and the desire for experience and immersion in the world around us.  Finding a place amongst family, nature, work, and the world is a journey all of us take, but not all of us complete.  In many ways, we are only shown slivers of the world outside ourselves and what it means and how it actually is, and even with this knowledge how can we apply it to our own journeys and futures?  The choice is up to us.

About the Poet:

Jorie Graham was born in New York City in 1950, the daughter of a journalist and a sculptor. She was raised in Rome, Italy and educated in French schools. She studied philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris before attending New York University as an undergraduate, where she studied filmmaking. She received an MFA in poetry from the University of Iowa.

Graham is the author of numerous collections of poetry, most recently Sea Change (Ecco, 2008), Never (2002), Swarm (2000), and The Dream of the Unified Field: Selected Poems 1974-1994, which won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

You also can check out this review.

This is the 18th book for my 2012 Fearless Poetry Exploration Reading Challenge.

My Dear I Wanted to Tell You by Louisa Young

My Dear I Wanted to Tell You by Louisa Young is a WWI novel and love story that illustrates the toll that war takes on couples from mere recruits to the officers that give them orders.  Young’s novel examines social and monetary class distinctions, even providing slight nuances to the “poshies” in how they treat the working class.  Truly, this is a love story — the story of Riley Purefoy and Nadine Waveney, childhood sweethearts separated by more than the war.

The narration sets it up so that readers get to know Nadine and Riley in their early years and the timid beginnings of their love, which helps not only anchor the emotional arc of the story but the connection readers feel to them both.  Nadine is from an upper class family with artistic roots — her father is a famous conductor — and Riley is from a working class family.  Both end up under the tutelage of Sir Arthur, a famous artist, who sees potential in Riley and Nadine.  Eventually, they are separated by her parents who refuse to send her to Sir Arthur’s for lessons if Riley is still working there, which ultimately pushes Riley to see his fortunes through a different lens and join the military.

“He had to pull the bayonet out again, which was strange.  And that wasn’t an end:  it was just a moment on a long line of moments, and time went on, and they went on.  He stepped away in a mist of red, a numbness spread across him, a sense of capacity.  He smelt the blood, and took on the mantle of it.  He ran on, screaming, til he found himself alongside Ainsworth, and felt safer.”  (Page 40-1)

The introduction of CO Peter Locke, his wife Julia, and his cousin Rose serve as a juxtaposition to the love of Riley and Nadine, but although Locke’s story is of interest in how the war can change a man, his wife Julia can be trying and insipid — wearing on readers’ nerves.  Julia is self-absorbed to the point that she finds her actions for self-improvement as a way to “do her bit” for the cause by becoming the perfect wife in looks and caring for the household, rather than volunteering to care for the soldiers.  Locke, himself, is more in the background providing support for the soldiers and holding in the horrors and losses he’s experienced, but eventually, his story jumps to the forefront and readers see a broken man wallowing in women and booze.

If no one won that, after all that, that — if neither side won that, then neither side can win. The war won, and goes on winning.” (Page 125)

Young has the skill and detail to capture the horrors of war from the adrenaline rush of battle to the devastation of losing one’s companions and comrades. She also captures in realistic and devastating description the medical procedures used to reconstruct faces and other body parts of wounded soldiers — so much so, that some readers may squirm in their seats.  The war itself becomes a character taking over all that is good and twisting it, shoving the best bits into the waste bin.  However, the overarching themes celebrate the perseverance of the human spirit and its ability to recover from even the most devastating injuries — no matter if they are physical or emotional.  My Dear I Wanted to Tell You by Louisa Young is by turns endearing and horrifying, and WWI is ever-present in everything these characters face and endure.

About the Author:

Louisa Young grew up in London, England, in the house in which Peter Pan was written, and she studied modern history at Cambridge. She was a freelance journalist and has written ten books, including the Orange Prize–longlisted Baby Love. She is the co-author of the bestselling Lionboy trilogy, which has been published in thirty-six languages. She lives in London and Italy with her daughter and the composer Robert Lockhart.  Check out her Website.

This is my 50th book for the New Authors Reading Challenge 2012.



This is my 13th book for the WWI Reading Challenge.

The Reckoning by Alma Katsu

There are some books that you read quickly through and there are those books are almost too seductive and you want to slow down and savor every moment with the characters, and The Reckoning by Alma Katsu — the second book in The Taker series (check out my review of The Taker) — is the latter.  Once plunged into this world of immortal, devilish, and sometimes wayward beings, readers will not want to leave and by the end of the book, they will be clamoring for more.

The novel picks up just where Lanny and Luke leave off in the previous novel, and just as he begins to settle into their new life together — helping her to purge her past — the unthinkable happens.  The terror Lanny feels is palpable and forces her to take action in a way that she never thought she would, leaving Luke devastated.  What makes this all work so well is the tables are turned not just on Lanny forcing her to react, but the tables turn on other characters as well, including the powerful and frightening Adair.

“Inside, he detected a scent that he associated with Lanore, her musk making a part of his brain fire excitedly, re-creating the feeling of being in her presence.  She felt so real, so present, that he expected her to walk around a corner or to hear her voice carry down the staircase, and when neither happened, he felt his loneliness more profoundly than before.”  (Page 236)

The Reckoning is not only about the revenge that Adair will take upon Lanore and the events that lead her back into his path, but also it is about the judgment we all must make of ourselves, our past deeds, and our future path.  Readers will uncover more of Adair’s secrets, learn about the great Lord Byron, and come to find out that Lanore is not as immune to the charms of the dark side as she’d like to think she is.  There is a great blurring of the line between good and bad, with each character playing along the edges in their actions and thoughts.  Lanore’s character grows stronger here, burning with fear, yet conviction, while Adair’s softer side is revealed without taking over.  Katsu does well to blur these lines and show us the reality of this surreal world — that not everything is as black and white as it seems  (dare I use the pun that there are more than 50 shades of gray?).

The Reckoning by Alma Katsu is an addictive world that readers will plunge into without looking and emerge from emotionally spent and eager for the next whirlwind with The Descent.  Katsu is a phenomenal writer who is adept at building worlds and atmospheres that will hold readers in their grip and never let go, and many of these worlds straddle reality and fantasy like no other.  History, even its alternate versions, come to life in her hands as her characters run through the pages, fearing the worst and never expecting redemption.

She’s made me into a believer, enticing me back into the world of fantasy, horror, and, dare I say, the Gothic, which I had given up as trite and overwrought long ago.  I’ve been seduced.  The Reckoning by Alma Katsu is one of the best books I’ve read this year, and I don’t say that about many sequels.

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.

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

Happy 4th of July, Everyone!

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway is an emotionally draining novel about Tenente Frederic Henry, an American serving in the ambulance corps of the Italian army during World War I, and the impact of war on its soldiers, displaced populations, and others.  Some critics say that the novel is semi-autobiographical given that Hemingway did indeed serve in the Italian Army as an ambulance driver during the Great War; learn more about the autobiographical elements here.

While WWI and the front is always in the background and weighing heavily on the characters, much of the focus is on Henry and his relationship with Nurse Catherine Barkley of Britain.  When they meet, it seems as though both are contriving a romance out of thin air, and when Barkley’s past is revealed readers understand her desperation, though they may not like it.

“‘This is the third day. But I’m back now.’
She looked at me, ‘And you do love me?’
‘You did say you loved me, didn’t you?’
‘Yes,’ I lied. ‘I love you.’ I had not said it before.
‘And you call me Catherine?’
‘Catherine.’ We walked on a way and were stopped under a tree.
‘Say, “I’ve come back to Catherine in the night.”
‘I’ve come back to Catherine in the night.’
‘Oh, darling, you have come back, haven’t you?'” (page 30)

Henry is another matter, with the distant, first-person account of events in the past, readers will know little of how he makes decisions or how he feels unless he speaks aloud.  In many ways, the reader must focus on what is not said to catch a glimmer of the hopelessness of his situation and the conviction he has in remaining with the Italian army even as it appears that they are losing the war.  The silences of his mind and the things left unsaid in conversation make a surface reading of this novel inadequate (please check out Jeanne’s posts on this book from the read-a-long with War Through the Generations).

“I was afraid we would move out of the eddy and, holding with one hand, I drew up my feet so they were against the side of the timber and shoved hard toward the bank. I could see the brush, but even with my momentum and swimming as hard as I could, the current was taking me away. I thought then I would drown because of my boots, but I thrashed and fought through the water, and when I looked up the bank was coming toward me, and I kept thrashing and swimming in a heavy-footed panic until I reached it.” (Page 227)

There are moments where the supply shortages are noted, but there seems to be a never-ending supply of alcohol, which Henry uses to deal with the pain in his leg and the war that continues to rage on without an end.  He loses friends, he loses his way, he must escape the enemy, and he must survive.  There is desperation and scrambling for comfort and a sense of normalcy, but the hopelessness pervades everything in the novel and highlights the truth of war.  Hemingway’s terse sentences, little insight into his main character, and the over-the-top antics and subservience of Barkley to Henry can get overwrought.  However, in the latter portion of the novel there are moments of tenderness between Barkley and Henry are good to see and temper the uneasiness readers may feel about their relationship and its lack of depth.

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway is a stark look at the emotional and psychological effects of war on soldiers, residents, and nurses, but it also raises questions about courage and bravery, whether peasants are beaten before they even enter the war, and how everyone, even the most dedicated, have a breaking point.  Readers may find the novel plodding and ridiculous, and the characters distant and obnoxious at times, but with the threat of war at the backdoor, it must be hard to remain rational and unemotional.  However, in this way, Henry’s actions often seem super-human, particularly during his knee surgery and other events.

Check out the read-a-long discussions for week 1, week 2, week 3, and week 4 at War Through the Generations.

This is my 12th book for the WWI Reading Challenge.

Sea Change by Karen White

Sea Change by Karen White is told from the alternating points of view from three women — Ava, Gloria, and Pamela — who each hold secrets close and family closer.  Ava is a midwife who is impulsive and marries a man, Matthew Frazier, she knows little about and moves from her hometown and family to St. Simons Island, Georgia.  Gloria, Ava’s mother, has secrets that she barely acknowledges in the presence of her mother, Mimi, and has never told Ava.  Meanwhile, Pamela Frazier is a midwife from the 1800s who allegedly ran off with a British Army man, leaving her husband and son behind and whom the community branded a traitor and erased from history.

“Storms bring the detritus of other people’s lives into our own, a reminder that we are not alone, and of how truly insignificant we are.  The indiscriminating waves had brutalized the shore, tossing pieces of splintered timber, an intact china teacup, and a gentleman’s watch — still with its cover and chain — onto my beloved beach, each coming to rest as if placed gently in the sand as a shopkeeper would display his wares.  As I rubbed my thumb over the smooth lip of the china cup, I thought of how someone’s loss had become my gain, of how the tide would roll in and out again as if nothing had changed, and how sometimes the separation between endings and beginnings is so small that they seem to run together like the ocean’s waves.”  (Page 1)

White creates multifaceted characters with real problems and sometimes places them in surreal circumstances, including worlds in which ghosts exist and past lives are possibilities.  Ava is the only daughter in a family full of older brothers, and she escapes into the arms of Matthew to feel free and to roam as she chooses, but is her love for him real or contrived and will their relationship last even as the past surfaces to reveal some ugly secrets about him and his ancestors.  White uses water imagery in a way that connects the idea that a circle never begins or ends, but continues endlessly — forever — in a way that demonstrates the power of love and devotion to family.

There are intricate details in this novel that connect not only Ava and Matthew, but also some secondary characters, like Tish — the local florist.  White easily weaves in these details among the finer setting elements, ensuring that the island itself becomes a character in her novel about changes and the current beneath that connects everything.

“And in the moment before I closed my eyes, the flashlight caught on the corner of the wall by the stairs, where kudzu vines had begun to work themselves into a crack along the wall, climbing upward like a spider, relentless in its advance, lie the doubt that crept around my skull and took root in my chest where my heart beat.”  (Page 128)

While White’s characters are strong, particularly the women, Matthew is more of a stand in, the logic and realism that anchors the story.  He’s note as deep as White’s other characters, though this also is likely due to the drawback of having the present day sections told by Ava and Gloria and readers can only see him through their interactions with him.  Readers may not only find him distant and enigmatic, but a character too stuck in the past and not caring enough toward his wife, Ava.  As suspicions pile up around him, his behavior becomes more bizarre and he becomes more distant from Ava.

Sea Change by Karen White is like the ocean waves undulating against the shore, eroding away the beach of lies and half-truths that cover the reality beneath — the truth of Ava and Gloria’s lives and the mystery of Matthew’s ancestors.  Readers will discover that the lull of the rocking ocean waves can be easily churned into a roaring storm tossed seascape, but once the storm has subsided, there will be nothing left by hope.

About the Author:

Known for award-winning novels such as Learning to Breathe, the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance 2009 Book of the Year Award finalist The House on Tradd Street, the highly praised The Memory of Water, the four-week SIBA bestseller The Lost Hours, Pieces of the Heart, and her IndieBound national bestseller The Color of Light, Karen has shared her appreciation of the coastal Low country with readers in four of her last six novels.

Italian and French by ancestry, a southerner and a storyteller by birth, Karen has made her home in many different places.  Visit the author at her website, and become a fan on Facebook.

Also check out my reviews of The House on Tradd Street, The Girl on Legare Street, The Beach Trees, and On Folly Beach.

Ocean Beach by Wendy Wax

Ocean Beach by Wendy Wax reunites readers with Madeline Singer, Avery Lawford, and Nicole Grant on another renovation adventure in South Beach, Miami.  When you don’t know what the house looks like or have its address, but the Lifetime network comes calling for a pilot of Do Over, the cash-strapped friends have little choice but to accept, hoping for reboot to their lives and careers.  Kyra, Deidre, Giraldi, and Chase return as well.

“Avery’s hands tightened on the wheel.  She knew the sinking sensation in her stomach had nothing to do with the dizzying height of the bridge, but everything to do with fear of the fall.”  (Page 19)

From Bella Flora in Ten Beach Road (my review), the women became not only friends, but a YouTube sensation.  Their latest project in Ocean Beach is The Millicent, which is owned by an aging comedian, Max Golden, who has dealt with a heavy loss for many years.  Max is wildly eccentric, but fun, and he takes a shine to the girls and their crew.  Meanwhile, the girls are constantly at odds with the crew from Lifetime that was an unexpected and unwelcome surprise.

As the ladies mix it up with renovation, they are still remaking their lives after losing everything in Malcolm Dyer’s Ponzi scheme, and they are still struggling to rebuild their familial relationships.  Wax also throws in some suspense and a mystery to keep readers turning the pages.  It’s not all fun in the Miami heat as the paparazzi returns when movie star Daniel Deranian re-enters Kyra’s life.  Wax is great at describing the Florida coasts, architecture, and Art Deco homes, making the setting almost a character unto itself.

“Like a patient on an operating table, The Millicent lay open, her guts spilling out, her innermost self put on display.  The kitchen had been stripped down to walls, floors, and windows.  They were down to one bathroom for however long it took to replace miles of rusted galvanized iron pipe and reconfigure an equal amount of cast iron.  Because they were trying to preserve rather than rip out existing walls, tiles, tubs, showers, and sinks, it often took an excruciating amount of time to move a pipe as little as ten feet.”  (page 243)

Even the house begins to stand in as a metaphor for the women who are bared to public view and raw, and as the house is resurfaced and put together, so too are the women.  Maddie must use her new strength to find her backbone where her marriage is concerned and learn to care for herself as well as others.  Nicole must learn to rely on others rather than go-it-alone all the time, just as Avery must learn the same and to forgive past transgressions.  Ocean Beach by Wendy Wax is a great summer read that will take readers to the beach, show them what it means to come together, and triumph over the most harsh circumstances even without creature comforts.

About the Author:

Award-winning author Wendy Wax has written eight novels, including Ocean Beach, Ten Beach Road, Magnolia Wednesdays, the Romance Writers of America RITA Award finalist The Accidental Bestseller, Leave It to Cleavage, Single in Suburbia and 7 Days and 7 Nights, which was honored with the Virginia Romance Writers Holt Medallion Award. Her work has sold to publishers in ten countries and to the Rhapsody Book Club, and her novel, Hostile Makeover, was excerpted in Cosmopolitan magazine.

A St. Pete Beach, Florida native, Wendy has lived in Atlanta for fifteen years. A voracious reader, her enjoyment of language and storytelling led her to study journalism at the University of Georgia. She also studied in Italy through Florida State University, is a graduate of the University of South Florida, and worked at WEDU-TV and WDAE-Radio in Tampa.

All Roads Lead to Austen by Amy Elizabeth Smith

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

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

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

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

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

About the Author:

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

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

Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick

Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick is a quick read even at 600+ pages, and is a middle grade novel that pairs words and images to tell a heartfelt story of family, discovery, and understanding.  Ben, who has one good ear, has lost his mother in a car accident in 1977 Minnesota and is thrust into his aunt’s home with his cousin Robby, who isn’t too keen on sharing his room.  Ben by all accounts is a curious and shy boy, whom his mother showered with love and attention, encouraging him to scavenge for mementos along the way, which he kept in his museum box.  The loss of his mother weighs heavily on him, and upon discovering his other cousin, Janet, in his mother’s room, he decides to remain behind and feel closer to her.

Meanwhile, Rose’s story is told in drawings set in New Jersey and New York City.  The narration shifts from the present (1977) and Ben’s story to Rose’s story in 1927.  Their stories parallel one another at various points after Ben makes the fateful decision to run away to find the father he has never known.  Wolves, nature, and the Big Apple loom large in both stories as Ben and Rose make their way into the unknown.

Selznick’s prose has an easy flow between the illustrations and the text, and given that both stories are told in separate mediums, it is easy for younger readers to keep them straight. Most readers will note the parallels in the two stories and likely will uncover the final destination long before the last page is turned. The illustrations are detailed in some cases, but there are moments where the illustrations seem to be just filler pages to increase the suspense associated with Ben’s story of self-discovery. Rose’s story could have been told in fewer pages and more sparsely spaced throughout the book and the connections would still have been present.

“The curator then must decide exactly how the objects will be displayed.  In a way, anyone who collects things in the privacy of his own home is a curator.  Simply choosing how to display your things, deciding what pictures to hang where, and in which order your books belong, places you in the same category as a museum curator.” (page 98-9)

Additionally, readers may find that they wanted more about the teasing Ben endures as a boy with only one good ear and who does not know sign language, as well as more about Rose’s story as a young deaf girl in the late 1920s who is sheltered a little too much by her parents.  However, Selznick doesn’t always need a pencil to paint a picture of readers, especially when he can do it so well with words.

“Jamie came and sat next to him as the sky filled with shooting stars.  The projector rotated, the view changed, and the boys found themselves inside a meteor, hurtling across the sky.  They flew to the moon and bounced between craters.  One by one, the planets drifted into view, and soon they were out beyond the solar system, gazing down on the universe like ancient gods.  Ben thought of the glow-in-the-dark stars in his room, and the Big Dipper, and the quote about the stars, and his mom.  The glowing lights above him spun and swirled, tracing endless patterns against the perfect dome of the ceiling like a million electric fireflies making constellations in the dark.”  (page 406)

Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick definitely will appeal to younger readers and illustrators, but it should not be discounted as a fluffy YA novel.  There is a deeper message about finding one’s place outside your own family, about discovering new places and wonders, and about finding the courage to take chances.

What the Book Club Thought (beware of spoilers):

Wonderstruck was the selection of our youngest member, The Girl from Diary of an Eccentric. She prepared discussion questions ahead of time to see what everyone thought of the entire book, the way the two stories were told, and whether anything surprised us. We also discussed what each of us would put in our own museum boxes, and answers ranged from coin collections and shells to Red Sox and Patriots stuff to pictures, stuffed animals, and other sentimental items.

We had an interesting discussion about the “Captain Obvious” nature of some of the prose (The Girl’s words, not ours), and about whether who Rose was or how the stories came together surprised any of us. Most of us were not surprised to find out who Rose was, but I was surprised to learn who Walter was. Many of us agreed that Rose’s ability to cut up a book for the deaf and create a paper replica of NYC was fantastic, and I particularly liked how one of the buildings she made had the picture of the mouth on it from the book. One of the male members liked elements of the story individually, but not how they came together as a whole. Overall, it seemed like most of us enjoyed the book, though two members were absent from the discussion this time around.

Next month is my selection, When She Woke by Hillary Jordan, and one of our members has already finished it and is itching for discussion.

About the Author:

Brian Selznick is the illustrator of “Frindle” by Andrew Clements, “Riding Freedom” and “Amelia and Eleanor Go For A Ride,” both by Pam Munoz Ryan; as well as his own book “The Houdini Box,” winner of the 1993 Texas Bluebonnet Award. Mr. Selznick lives in Brooklyn, New York.


This is my 47th book for the New Authors Reading Challenge 2012.

Flesh by Khanh Ha

Flesh by Khanh Ha is dark and dreamlike.  Tai’s coming of age story is fraught with trauma and hardship, but he maintains his determination and remains grounded despite the beheading of his father at the hands of his granduncle in Northern Vietnam.  Ha has woven a dark love story within Tai’s trip through adolescence that takes him to Hanoi and other places as he searches for the man who turned in his bandit father to the authorities.  Part dark adventure, Tai is thrown into the world of Vietnam’s opium dens and indentured servitude as his mother barters him away to pay for a safe, final resting place for his father and younger brother.

“He could not tell which one was my father’s as he passed under the banyan tree.  Those were the same heads he saw in the rattan baskets, but now they had no eyes, only black sockets with grubs crawling in them.  He spotted a hole bored under each jaw, and a rod was pierced through it to the top of the skull and into a limb.  The heads looked out in different directions, and in the early morning light they bore a pinched look neither of hurt nor sorrow.”  (page 18)

Each chapter reads like a short story, a memory recalled by Tai about his journey and the impact is at once immediate and lasting.  Readers are piggybacking on Tai’s shoulders as he runs through the jungles of Tonkin and the streets of Hanoi as the dark, mysterious Frenchman chases him and he bumps into Xiaoli, a young Chinese girl working in an opium den.  Ha’s prose is poetic as it paints the scene in which you can smell the opium, see and hear the brown of Tai’s village and the busy streets of Hanoi, and feel the delirium of smallpox or his pulse quicken as he begins to fall in love.

“The bank was steep.  I was a salamander, half naked, creeping on the clay soil, seizing knotty vines that bulged across the incline.  The dark odor of sundered organics.  Lying flat on the ridge of the bank, I felt unusually warm, and then a suffocating heat hazed my eyes.”  (page 42)

Tai’s journey is through darkness and fear, and Ha raises questions of nurture vs. nature — whether we are only who we are because of who our parents were or the circumstances in which we were raised.  From the atmosphere to the myths and legends, Ha generates a novel that will capture readers from the beginning, but there are times when the dialogue is a bit trite and wooden.  However, as there is little dialogue per se and that dialogue is often between characters that know little of the other’s language, it can be forgiven.

Flesh by Khanh Ha is a stunning debut novel that showcases the writer’s ability to become a young male narrator whose view of the world has been tainted by his life circumstances and tragedy, but who has the wherewithal to overcome and become a better man.  Through a number of twists and turns, Tai must come to terms with the loss of his father, his obligations as the remaining male member of his family to care for his mother, and the secrets that his culture and family hide.


About the Author:

Khanh Ha was born in Hue, the former capital of Vietnam. During his teen years he began writing short stories which won him several awards in the Vietnamese adolescent magazines. He graduated from Ohio University with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism. Flesh is his first novel. He is at work on a new novel.

Visit the author at his website.


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This is my 46th book for the 2012 New Authors Challenge.

Guardians of the Gate by Vincent N. Parrillo

Guardians of the Gate by Vincent N. Parrillo is a historical fiction novel about Ellis Island between 1893 and 1902 as immigration to the United States increases, particularly from Italy and other non-northern European nations, and sentiment in America turns against immigrants.  Dr. Matt Stafford and his wife have moved to New York City and are living the high life with a very busy social calendar as he works at Presbyterian Hospital.  After losing a child in a miscarriage, their relationship fractures and each seeks satisfaction in life through different means — Peg through social activities and Matt through his job as a surgeon and ultimately as a doctor at Ellis Island.  Stafford is a likeable doctor and clearly cares about his patients and learning different languages and cultures, but his morals become more flexible when his wife’s ailment takes a turn for the worse and he spends more time with a lovely nurse at Ellis Island — a relationship that starts too quickly given the set up of the nurse’s character as aloof and consummately professional, even shying away from small talk with co-workers.

Meanwhile, nearly half of the book is spent with Ellis Island’s lead administrator Dr. Joseph Senner, whose heavy handed management style rubs personnel the wrong way, but endears him to his kindred German immigrants.  Senner expresses his concerns about the operations at Ellis Island openly and sets about making changes.  Senner is aloof to his workers and his German accent remains thick, even after 13 years in America.  Parrillo’s adherence to the use of “v” rather than “w” and other typical German-American accented English words continue to pull the reader out of the story and could have been phased out early on after the cadence had been well established.  Given the aloof nature of Senner’s character from his employees, the relationship in the latter half of the book between him and Dr. Stafford is surprising.

“The impact of this grand hall was striking.  The hall was virtually the full size of the building itself.  Its vastness was enhanced by the cathedral ceiling and the light — even on this overcast day — that filtered through the tall, eave-high windows.  A wide-planked pine floor, resembling a sailing ship’s deck so familiar to the arriving ocean voyagers, set off the woodwork.  The place even seemed to have the scent of a ship.  Ten parallel aisles, framed by railings, marked where the immigrants began the screening process.  Potted plants, American flags, and red, white, and blue bunting festooned the hall.”  (Page 5)

However, Parrillo is clearly a student of Ellis Island history as details about the island, the immigrants, the inspection procedures, and even the buildings themselves pour into the dialogue between Senner, who is a new administrator, and his assistant Ed McSweeney.  The facts and figures, plus the inclusion of photographs from the real Ellis Island provide this historical fiction novel with a unique style, mimicking a piece of nonfiction.  There are good and bad workers on Ellis Island, but the story is less about them and the immigrants than it is about Stafford and his troubled love life.

While Parrillo does include fictionalized accounts of immigrants coming to Ellis Island and their histories, the prose merely tells and does not show the emotion of these characters, as it does when the immigration officials interact.  While the plot and Dr. Stafford anchor the story and keep the pages turning, readers may want greater depth from Parrillo’s characters who at times are wooden in their actions and conversation.  With that said, the historical details of the bureaucracy related to Ellis Island, the corruption of immigration officials, and the procedures that had to be put in place to accommodate an influx of immigrants is interesting.  Through carefully selected details, Parrillo ensures that Ellis Island comes to life, nearly becoming a larger-than-life character of the book and stealing the show from Dr. Stafford and others.

Guardians of the Gate by Vincent N. Parrillo is a satisfying look at Ellis Island’s struggles in the beginning of the 1900s as immigrants began flooding America’s shores.  Parrillo is adept at blending in historic details and data into his prose, bringing to life the historic buildings and struggles of those entering the country and those helping them enter.  Those interested in Ellis Island’s history (complete with photos) and immigration will enjoy the historic parts of the novel.

About the Author:

VINCENT N. PARRILLO is a professor of sociology at William Paterson University of New Jersey. An internationally recognized expert on immigration, he is the executive producer, writer, and narrator of the award-winning PBS television documentary, Ellis Island: Gateway to America (1991). He currently lives in northern New Jersey.

This is my 45th book for the 2012 New Authors Challenge.