My God, What Have We Done? by Susan V. Weiss

Normally, I’ll write up my own summary for a book, but this week has been hectic, so I’ll provide you with summary from Amazon:

“In a world afflicted with war, toxicity, and hunger, does what we do in our private lives really matter? Fifty years after the creation of the atomic bomb at Los Alamos, newlyweds Pauline and Clifford visit that once-secret city on their honeymoon, compelled by Pauline’s fascination with Oppenheimer, the soulful scientist. The two stories emerging from this visit reverberate back and forth between the loneliness of a new mother at home in Boston and the isolation of an entire community dedicated to the development of the bomb. While Pauline struggles with unforeseen challenges of family life, Oppenheimer and his crew reckon with forces beyond all imagining. Finally the years of frantic research on the bomb culminate in a stunning test explosion that echoes a rupture in the couple’s marriage. Against the backdrop of a civilization that’s out of control, Pauline begins to understand the complex, potentially explosive physics of personal relationships. At once funny and dead serious, My God, What Have We Done? sifts through the ruins left by the bomb in search of a more worthy human achievement.”

My God, What Have We Done? by Susan V. Weiss combines two seemingly divergent topics under one roof — a marriage and the making of the atomic bomb — and readers get to watch it build to a crescendo and explode.  Told in first person point of view, readers get a real taste for how obsessed Pauline is with Oppenheimer, so much so that her honeymoon with Clifford is spent in Los Alamos where the atomic bomb was created.  This is where readers first meet them, and may be stunned by the emotional distance between the newlyweds.  As the story begins unfolding, Pauline continues to exhibit emotional distance, as if she is disconnected from her feelings and every moment of her life must be plotted and thought out thoroughly before she acts.

The stories of Pauline and Clifford’s marriage and how it builds is in parallel to the third person POV tale about the building of Los Alamos and the atomic bomb.  While Weiss uses an interesting premise, particularly the bomb itself to signify the creation of relationships and families and their destruction, the first person POV of Pauline’s life is more captivating.  She’s pulled between her desires to be a wife and mother and her old life, feeling a disconnect from her friends and life in Philadelphia, but there is a greater desperation within her.

“Although I envied his serenity, I sometimes wished I could get him to grab onto some of my challenges, to declare himself, to fight back.”  (page 12)

While Clifford is often compared to Oppenheimer by Pauline for his angular facial features and his bookish intelligence, she acts more like the scientists as she parents her son.  Like the atom bomb they created to end the war — all wars — Jasper is an experiment to be tinkered with and nurtured.  Readers will often question Pauline’s emotional state and whether she has the depth necessary to care for a child, herself, and her husband.  She’s an enigma, much like Oppenheimer was.  Readers easily find the parallels in this narrative, but Weiss’s characters appear to be more like caricatures of people, rather than complex human beings.

My God, What Have We Done? by Susan V. Weiss is an attempt to draw wider conclusions about logically minded people, and will prompt readers to self examine.  However, the struggle through the shifting points of view and story lines may bog down some readers’ enjoyment of her tale.  Ultimately, the premise was unique, and the struggle of a new housewife was interesting, but the Oppenheimer sections were a bit dry and read like a laundry list of encounters rather than a fictionalized account of true events.



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About the Author:

Susan V. Weiss is a writer and a teacher who lives in Burlington, Vermont. Her stories have appeared in literary magazines and anthologies. In addition to teaching adult literacy and expository and creative writing, she has initiated community-outreach writing projects for offenders, refugees, and homeless people.



This is my 56th book for the 2011 New Authors Reading Challenge.

To the Moon and Back by Jill Mansell

To the Moon and Back by Jill Mansell tackles relationships on a whole new level and looks at what it means to love someone for better and for worse and in sickness and in health.  While the novel is infused with Mansell’s humorous style, it is more serious than her other novels.

Ellie Kendall, the main protagonist, finds that losing the love of one’s life is not the end of the world, though it is devastating.  She finds a way to move on with her life, though she’s cut herself off from all of her friends and family to do it and feels as though she’s drowning in sympathy.  Meanwhile, Zach McLaren is a workaholic with no idea what his life is missing until Ellie literally walks through and into it.

“It was starting to concern her, just slightly, that it wasn’t quite normal to be doing what she’d been doing for the last year.  Because Jamie wasn’t here anymore.  And he wasn’t a ghost either.  All she did was conjure up a mental image of him in her mind, talk to him and have him talk back as if he were real.”  (page 18 of ARC)

In addition to the two main leads, there are some great side characters who are fleshed out really well, including the U.S. actor/father-in-law Tony Weston and the former girl band bad girl Roo.  Todd, who was one of Ellie’s good friends before her husband died, is not as well fleshed out as the others — at least initially — but readers won’t mind because he’s sort of a stand in for Ellie’s deceased husband much of the time.  Roo is a delight with all of her antics and her selfish nature, which as always gets turned on its ear when she realizes that the man she’s dating is a cheater.

Mansell’s got a wit about her unlike other authors in her genre, she’s connected to her characters in a way that makes readers feel like they are hanging out with friends, even if those friends are formerly famous. Ellie has a great deal of grief to deal with, while Zack must navigate his relationship with her very carefully and wait for her to be ready to begin again.  Readers will enjoy the realistic way in which their relationship blossoms and their tentative interactions as they become friends and more.  Todd and Tony round out the narrative, showing how events can change relationships in unexpected ways.

Readers seeking happy endings at the end of an evolutionary road will adore To the Moon and Back by Jill Mansell.  When you need a pick me up, her books are there to cheer you up, provide a spot of romance, and tug at your heart strings.

Ten Beach Road by Wendy Wax

Wendy Wax has an excellent beach read with substance in Ten Beach Road for those of you looking for an end of summer winner.  Ripped from the headlines, these three women find that their only remaining asset is a rundown beach house (Bella Flora) in Florida after Malcolm Dyer — aka Bernie Madoff — stole their life savings.  Madeline’s life has been flipped upside down when she realizes her investment advising husband not only lost his clients’ money in a giant Ponzi scheme perpetrated by Dyer, but also that of his family.  Meanwhile, Avery has discovered that her father’s estate was similarly lost just as her stint as a co-host of Hammer and Nail on HGTV as her ex-husband edges her out with his elbow.  Nicole’s situation is a bit different because she had a personal connection to Dyer and her trust was more born of that loyalty than a financial desire, which makes her financial crash all the more crushing.

“‘Yes, it’s a fine old home,’ the Realtor said as if their surprise had been of joy.  ‘And as you’ll see a large portion of it has been renovated.  It just needs a little tender loving care.’

‘More like hospitalization,’ Nicole said.  ‘Or a team of paramedics.'” (page 56)

Add to the mix, a former childhood male friend, Chase, who had the perfect family life that Avery wanted and an FBI agent, Giraldi, stalking Nicole and looking for Dyer, and you’ve got a bit of mystery and sexual tension.  Wax has a down-to-earth sense of humor that livens up the playful interactions of three strangers, who soon become friends offering advice and support as they deal with family drama.  Her characters are varied and out to prove themselves to one another, their families, and everyone else, demonstrating their strengths and hiding their weaknesses as best they can.  Avery is the degreed architect portrayed on television as an airhead; Nicole is the bombshell who makes her living pairing up the rich and famous; and Madeline is the trunk of her family tree, the one that holds it all together just as the hurricane is set to rip everything apart.

“The army had spread out to attack different sections of the garden.  John Franklin sat on a camp chair that had been placed near the fountain, a smile on his face as he watched his wife command her battalion.

‘Mrs. Franklin wanted to get started before it got too hot,’ Avery said.  ‘I don’t think a single one of them is under seventy-five.  They’ll fill in with some new plantings after the house has been pressure washed and painted.’

Nicole moved down the hall to peer out the rear windows above the loggia; that was the one advantage in being last in line — she didn’t need to hold on to her spot.  Only her bladder.  ‘Good God, that woman is climbing up that tree.  I think she’s got a . . . ‘

The whir of an electric saw drifted p to them followed by the crash of a limb landing on concrete.”  (page 237)

What makes this novel more than women’s fiction is the mystery of where Malcolm Dyer is and how tragedy can either pull families apart or bring them together.  Readers searching for a summer read to close out their holiday season should seriously consider Wendy Wax’s Ten Beach Road for its tropical locale — Florida — its hot men — Chase and Giraldi — and the triumph of its female leads as they find their inner strength and pursue their dreams of redemption.

This is my 52nd book for the 2011 New Authors Reading Challenge.

Believing Is Seeing by Errol Morris

Believing Is Seeing: (Observations on the Mysteries of Photography) by Errol Morris, a filmmaker, unravels the mysteries of documentary photography.  Why is Morris so skeptical about documentary photographs?  Does it relate to his deceased father and the secrecy around his role in the family or to his eye surgery as a child?  Beyond that, Morris seeks out factual evidence through testimony, history, and careful examination of light and contrast to determine the authenticity of photos and the stories behind them.

While some of the discussion and technical analysis of the Fenton photographs of the Crimean War can be a bit much for some readers, the conclusions drawn from these discussions are captivating.  Did Fenton stage the photo with the cannon balls on the road or did he not and which photo did he take first — The one with the cannon balls on the road or in the ditch?  When I first looked at the photographs, the one with the cannon balls on the road appeared to be a more powerful image, but then it appears to be staged because the balls are too evenly randomized.

“To use the familiar gestalt image of the duck-rabbit:  if we believe we see a rabbit, we see a rabbit.  If we believe we see a duck, we see a duck.  But the situation is even worse than the Gestalt psychologists imagined.  Our beliefs can completely defeat sensory evidence.”  (page 83-4)

Photographers often frame images in a way that captures the best of a scene, that’s the most aesthetically pleasing, and that provides the best lighting.  Moreover, photographers will take more than one picture of the same scene, if possible, and choose the best image to submit to magazines, etc.  They are framing the image we see regardless of whether readers realize it or not, but readers also are framing the scene and history.  Morris aptly titles this examination of photography “Believing Is Seeing” because each viewer’s beliefs, prejudices, etc., often frame their perspective when looking at a photograph.

Morris’ book is tutorial, historical, and poignant in how it examines photography, conjecture about photography and news articles, and human reactions to images.  My analytical brain was working overtime with this analysis, particularly when I got to the Abu Ghraib’s The Hooded Man.  One thing Morris clearly demonstrates is that each photo has a history or a context behind it, and without conducting appropriate research and background verifications, viewers and readers can draw the wrong conclusions.  In the discussion of The Hooded Man photo and the false identification of Ali Shalal Qaissi (called The Claw) as that man, two photos from two different perspectives are discussed, one taken by Sergeant Ivan Frederick without the flash that became iconic and one taken with a flash by Sabrina Harman.  While Qaissi is not the man in the iconic photo, Abdou Hussain Saad Falah (called Gilligan) is said to be that man, but in his testimony to the Taguba Commission he mentions a flash when his captors took his photo with the hood and blanket on.  So, is this telling us that he only remembers the flash and that maybe something happened between Frederick’s photo session and that of Harman’s, or is the flash more memorable because he was wearing a hood?

Believing Is Seeing: (Observations on the Mysteries of Photography) by Errol Morris is captivating from page one, and it will have readers, photographers, and more reassess their view of photography and history.  It raises questions about whether appropriate research was conducted, evidence collected, and correct facts appropriately used.  Like any good journalist or photographer, documents should include the facts of the moment, the event, and the context, and Morris’ book demonstrates that while many blame the 24-7 world in which we live for the slipshod journalism completed today, it has happened throughout the ages and may have less to do with technology and more to do with human nature and our desire to frame the story.  Photography is not the mystery here, it is the human mind and human behavior that is the mystery.  How are things cropped, framed, and modified to suit our purposes and why?  How can we as readers know that images and stories are modified to suit a specific purpose?  Morris suggests research, analysis, and skepticism, but also a curious mind bent on uncovering the truth.

About the Author:

Errol Morris is a world-renowned filmmaker—the Academy Award-winning director of The Fog of War and the recipient of a MacArthur genius award. His other films include Mr. Death, Fast Cheap & Out of Control, A Brief History of Time, and The Thin Blue Line.

Find out more about Errol Morris at his website, and follow him on Twitter.  Also there is this interesting interview from California Magazine.


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This is my 51st book for the 2011 New Authors Reading Challenge.

Dance Lessons by Áine Greaney

Dance Lessons by Áine Greaney is about the dance we play with our husbands, wives, in-laws, and our own parents as we strive to keep things amicable and not reveal too many of our own secrets, especially secrets we’re not comfortable with ourselves.  Sometimes, it is about the dance the characters play with themselves, balancing the truth and the lies.  Set in Boston, the North Shore, and mostly Gowna, Ireland, Greaney’s prose sways like a graceful dancer telling Ellen Boisvert’s (a young lecturer at Coventry Academy) story.  She learns that her Irish husband, Fintan, was not an orphan as he had told her, but has a mother still in Ireland, and there are many other secrets he never revealed to her while alive.

“Ellen has read this about nurses, psychotherapists, doctors.  Even the largest or most life-saving job boils down to its component pats, a roster of daily tasks.”  (page 132)

Despite Ellen’s desire to leave her husband, she stayed with him for more than a decade and never left him before he died in a tragic sailing accident.  Upon learning that she has a mother-in-law, she writes a letter to inform Jo Dowd of her son’s death.  After an eerie conversation with the woman and several ghostly dreams, Ellen decides to travel to Ireland.  Each step and each movement is part of a larger story, a larger existence.  Fintan’s life and decisions had more of an impact on those around him than he realized, from his mother to his one-time girlfriend and his current wife, Ellen.  Greaney’s story is not one just of grief, but of moving on, stepping out into the light and claiming one’s life back.

“It comes at night, that dagger-pain in the lower back.  It jolts her awake, then circles, snakes up to her shoulders.  You can bear anything, she tells herself, then tries to go back to sleep.  She reminds herself of all the pain, years and years of it, she has borne and borne well, without troubling a soul.  Giving birth.  And there were bee stings as a child.  Or once, years ago, in one of the upper meadows, a hay fork went straight through her foot.”  (page 53-4)

In death, there is a renewal, a new beginning, but people have to be willing to reach out and grab it.  Ellen, like Jo, has lived in the shadow of her sister, but unlike Jo, she is given the chance to excel to take a hold of the reins and steer her own destiny.  Greaney’s story is heartbreaking, heart warming, and as turbulent as the weather of Ireland and the human heart.  Readers also get a taste of the Irish hierarchy and the depressed economic times of the 1950s, and the influx of foreigners.  From jealousy and rage to pity and understanding, the range of emotions in Dance Lessons are reminiscent of the ballet and operatic pieces of some of classical’s greatest artists.

About the Author:

Born and raised in County Mayo, Áine Greaney is a writer and editor living on Boston’s North Shore. She is the author of the novel The Big House and the short story collection The Sheep Breeders Dance. In addition, she has written several award-winning short stories and numerous feature articles for the Irish Independent, the Irish Voice, Creative Nonfiction, and the Literary Review, among others.


This is my 2nd book for the Ireland Reading Challenge.



This is my 50th book for the 2011 New Authors Reading Challenge.

Review of Quirk’s The Baby Owner’s Books

Normally, I don’t review three books in one post, but I’m making an exception for this set of baby-related books.  When the publicist at Quirk found out my husband and I were having our first child, they kindly sent us some reference guides on caring for her.

The Baby Owner’s Manual by Louis Borgenicht, MD, and Joe Borgenicht, D.A.D., can be used as a reference guide by all new parents and probably some who already have children.  The main approach of the book is similar to how a manual would talk about your new stereo or other consumer product by first describing its parts and functions and then discussing care and maintenance.  There are tips on how to perfectly swaddle the baby and how to deal with emergency situations.  Included also is a section on what accessories are not included, such as bottles and diapers, and a caution that some “models” may vary.  New parents don’t have a ton of time to read this book cover-to-cover, but it is easily dipped into for advice, particularly if they encounter a particular problem at feeding or bed time.

Readers will enjoy the instructional tone, but also the witty nature of the concept of baby as product, which eliminates the need for hard-to-understand medical jargon and other instructional nonsense that leave parents confused or bored.  Most of these tips are practical and easy to employ without incurring great expense, which is fantastic since most things related to babies are expensive and time-consuming.

The companion The Baby Owner’s Maintenance Log wasn’t as useful given that new mothers and fathers are merely scrambling around trying to find time to sleep, let alone write down each feeding and bowel movement.  Inside, there are spaces to record name, birth weight, eye color, bowel movements, feeding times and ounces, and of course developmental feats like rolling over.  To be honest, readers will not likely have time to write all of these moments down, though doctors will expect you to know roughly how many ounces the baby is eating, how frequently, and how long s/he sleeps.  It would be a blessing to have all of that information written down in one place, but from a practical standpoint, it is unlikely to happen unless the parents are super-organized and write down the details in the moment.

Finally, The Baby Owner’s Games and Activities Book by Lynn Rosen and Joe Borgenight offers a wide variety of activities to do with a baby and is grouped by specific age ranges to ensure proper development.  Again, this reference guide offers a fun and non-clinical look at development.  Surprisingly, I found myself doing some of the activities outside our daughter’s age range, but she seemed to just go with the flow and gobble up the knowledge.  The age ranges are not hard and fast rules/categories.

Babies tend to learn by modeling after activities done by their parents.  If you make a funny face, they will try it to — emulating you.  If you clap, they will try to clap.  Its fun to watch babies grow and adapt to new activities, even at ages younger than those outlined in this book.  There are probably activities that new parents will not have thought of or done that are included in this book, like having their child smell different flowers, etc.  These are merely exercises in development, but also in having fun with baby!

Overall, Quirk has an excellent set of baby manual books to help new parents that won’t be overly prescriptive or boring.  They will teach new parents and babies alike, but also be fun and enjoyable.  The only one in the set that seems least useful is the log book, but that’s just due to time constraints.  It could come in handy for parents who have nanny’s or babysitters and want to know what their baby did when they were at work or having date night.

This is my 40th-42nd book for the 2011 New Authors Reading Challenge.

The Book of Lies by Mary Horlock

The Book of Lies by Mary Horlock is written in chapters that alternate between the present with Catherine Rozier in 1984-5 and the past during the German occupation of Guernsey during WWII and her uncle Charles Rozier’s story.  Like her uncle, Cat is a liar.  Lies are often told to protect loved ones, to gain acceptance among peers, or to cover up bad behavior, and the lies told here are no different.  Unreliable narrators are tricky in that readers can often get frustrated with the lies or become disenchanted with the story because they no longer know how to gauge the truth.  However, Horlock hovers on the edge of that line so as to keep readers engaged by presenting “historic” documentation for the WWII portion of the story.

Cat’s father, Emile, often shut himself away from his family and buried himself in historical research about the German Occupation of Guernsey, and this isolationism led Cat to believe she needed to make up stories to fit in and gain attention from not only her peers and parents, but from everyone else on the island.  In a way readers will wonder throughout the novel if she is still lying to gain the attention of readers with her sensational narrative of murder and teen hijinks.

“It’s a 3,000-foot drop and even though I’m fat, I’m not fat enough to bounce.  I’ll dive headfirst into ye ancient Guernsey granite outcrops and then my mashed-up body will be washed out to sea.  Of course, if I get the tides wrong I’ll be stranded on the rocks with seagulls eating my eyes.  I know for a fact they’ll eat anything.”  (page 1)

Cat unwittingly gets swept up in a friendship with Nicollette Louise Prevost, a beauty and from a family of wealth.  Everything is grand as Nic and Cat drink, hang out, start rumors, and hit on boys and men, but something changes and Cat is cast aside in a callous manner, which drives her to engage in reckless behavior and possibly murder?!  Her uncle’s story is similar in that he is befriended by Ray, who quickly casts him aside, but they are reunited in an effort to escape the Germans.  Lies are told by each, and each face tough consequences as a result.  The incestuous nature of the island and the close ties of families on the island are often alluded to, and in a way the close-knit community resembles a large family, and like all families, they hurt those they love.

“I haven’t had a shower for as long as I can remember and there’s this spot on my chin that I’ve had to squeeze and squeeze.  Peter Falk might be able to get away with looking like he’s slept in a hedge but I’m not a famous TV detective (wearing what is surely a wig).”  (page 146)

Much of the world created by Horlock is fantasy, but readers know that their narrator is unreliable from the beginning.  The chapters about Charles’ life are taken from the transcripts of a conversation he had with his brother before his death, which provides a certain authenticity to them.  However, are these entries true?!  Readers will have to sort that out for themselves.  Horlock’s style places you in the thick of it with Cat, and readers will feel all of her emotions, particularly that of alienation.  However, how much whining and justification for her actions readers can take will determine how much they empathize with her.  One part of Cat’s character that could annoy was her overuse of “as per usual” and “as per” to clarify nearly every statement or situation.  Also some of the diction was just awkward and stilted.

Regardless of or in spite of the unreliable narrator, Horlock has created a well-crafted story that circles in on itself as ancestry is unraveled and history appears to repeat itself decades after Charles Rozier’s story of espionage and teen rebellion.  The Book of Lies will keep you guessing throughout its 300+ pages, –right up until the end — but readers will be riveted and satisfied once they get there.  An excellent selection for book clubs with the espionage, teen angst, and trail of lies to analyze and discuss.


About the Author:

Mary Horlock is an authority on contemporary art who has worked at the Tate Britain and Tate Liverpool, and curated the Turner Prize for contemporary art. She spent her childhood in Guernsey, and lives in London.



For the rest of the stops on the tour, please click the TLC Book Tour icon.  Thanks to TLC and Harper Perennial for sending me a copy of the book for review.



This is my 38th book for the 2011 New Authors Reading Challenge.



The Tree It Was by Sandra Fuhringer

Sandra of Fresh Ink Books told me in 2009 that she would send me a copy of her poetry book, and it finally arrived this week.  It didn’t make the previous Mailbox Monday, but it will be in next week’s edition.  I was so happy to see my copy, which she signed to me, that I decided to read it right away.

The Tree It Was by Sandra Fuhringer is the 15th book in Marco Fraticelli’s Hexagram Series based on the ideographs of the I Ching and is published by King’s Road Press.  Her hexagram is The Source or The Well, “which represents the deep, inexhaustible, divinely centered source of nourishment and meaning for humanity.”  The Book of Changes is a divination system or later a cosmology system that espouses the dynamics of balance (i.e. yin and yang) and the inevitability of change.  Furhinger’s haiku certainly reflect change and the struggle with maintaining balance.

First, the expansive white space surrounding each haiku provides readers a moment of pause between haiku, allowing them to visualize each one’s images and absorb its meaning.   The collection begins with a haiku demonstrating the hidden strength in even those of us who are perceived as weak, pushing through even the most difficult circumstances.  In a way, the first haiku demonstrates that each of us has a well of strength from which we can draw at any time.

Fuhringer’s poems bring to light our embarrassments, our fears, and our pain with the shrill sounds of ambulances and the coloring of pictures by children.  Others have a surreal quality to them, like a patient on morphine or under other treatments that leave them dissociated from their bodies.  Not all of these poems worked as traditional haiku with surprising last lines, but a majority of the collection is near perfect.  About midway through the collection, the traditional form of haiku is modified as the poet seeks to draw immediate attention to juxtapositions within her words  — such as Hiroshima pulled downward from the “h” in kittyhawk.

From page 3 (one of my favorites for its startling imagery):

five tries to get a vein
the leaf’s purple

The poet’s narrator is The Tree It Was, and you can’t help but think that the narrator is Sandra Fuhringer in her most raw moments.  Many poets have personal connections to their poems, but how many can say that their poems are an embodiment of their daily struggles while simultaneously providing the strength they need to continue fighting?  This slim chapbook is a testament to The Well of the I Ching, and Fuhringer should be applauded for broadening the spirit of the Book of Changes into Western culture.

Also reviewed by one of my favorite short form online literary magazines, LYNX (please scroll down the page in the link).

This is my 19th book for the Fearless Poetry Exploration Reading Challenge.


This is my 35th book for the 2011 New Authors Reading Challenge.


The Secret Lives of the Four Wives by Lola Shoneyin

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

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

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

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

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

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


About the Author:

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



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

The Girl in the Garden by Kamala Nair

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

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

A door.” (page 67)

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

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

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

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

About the Author:

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

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

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

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



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

Lagan Love by Peter Murphy

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

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

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

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

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

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

About the Author:

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


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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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