The Best of 2013 List…

In Descending Order (links to the reviews included):
  1. Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir by Beth Kephart
  2. The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan
  3. Imperfect Spiral by Debbie Levy
  4. Looking for Me by Beth Hoffman
  5. The Time Between by Karen White
  6. Survival Skills: Stories by Jean Ryan
  7. Unexplained Fevers by Jeannine Hall Gailey
  8. Lotería by Mario Alberto Zambrano
  9. Solving the World’s Problems by Robert Lee Brewer
  10. The Scabbard of Her Throat by Bernadette Geyer
  11. The Neruda Case by Roberto Ampuero, translated by Carolina De Robertis
  12. Six Sisters’ Stuff: Family Recipes, Fun Crafts, and So Much More
Here are my honorable mentions for this year, in descending order (links to the reviews included):
  1. The Gods of Heavenly Punishment by Jennifer Cody Epstein
  2. Dr. Radway’s Sarsaparilla Resolvent by Beth Kephart
  3. Joyland by Stephen King
  4. Seduction by M.J. Rose
  5. Black Aperture by Matt Rasmussen
What books made your list of favorites this year?

The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan

The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan is about dreams, dreams that can raise you up out of the most dire circumstances, if only you are willing to work hard and do what you must to survive.  Antoinette and Marie, by turns, are ballet girls in the Paris Opera, with Antoinette learning too late that she cannot hold her tongue or bend her stubbornness.  Imagine a time in 1880’s France when Emile Zola publishes L’Assommoir, which becomes a play about a laundress and the dire consequences of poverty and alcoholism, and when Cesare Lombroso postulates that people who are born criminals can be identified by physical characteristics of the skull.  Buchanan has taken the real-life figures of Edgar Degas, Emile Zola, and Degas’ model for the statute Little Dancer of Fourteen Years — Marie van Goethem — and intertwined their stories with criminals Emile Abadie and Pierre Gille.  Tempted by different fates, Marie and Antoinette’s stories are told in alternating chapters, providing greater insight into certain situations and events as well as the complicated relationship between sisters, particularly those struggling to survive with a drunk mother, deceased father, and younger sister weighing heavily upon them.

“But then the next minute, my mind flipped back to thinking how a smear of greasepaint might hide her sallow skin.  Back and forth I went.  How to diminish.  How to boost up.  All I knew for sure was even if old Pluque saw his way to giving her a chance, even if she clawed her way up from the dance school to the corps de ballet, she was too skinny, too vulgar in her looks, too much like me to ever move up from second set of the quadrille, the bottom of the scale.”  (Page 13 ARC)

Even as each sister raises the other up with praise and support when times are tough, there are moments of doubt — that the love is not enough and that the support is somehow hollow.  Antoinette has fallen from her place with the ballet and is scrambling for walk-on parts in the opera before she meets Emile and gets a steady role in L’Assommoir, while Marie is just embarking upon her journey in the ballet with their sister Charlotte close behind.  There is the push and pull of these sisterly relationships as they compete to be the best in ballet and to earn the most, while still supporting one another and doing the little things that keep them spirited.  However, their world is about to fall apart when Antoinette falls in love and becomes tempted by that love to throw all that she knows away on the belief that her love is real and ever-lasting.

Buchanan also demonstrates through Marie the notion that believing something to be true can make it a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Marie says at one point, “Monstrous in face, monstrous in spirit.”  She does not see herself as the beauty others see, and her self-image is a faulty foundation for her to stand on when she enters the ballet as she compares herself not only to her sister, Charlotte, whom is considered a cherub, but also to the beauty and grace of the other ballet dancers.  Meanwhile, Antoinette does not have as many concerns about her beauty, relying on her wiles to capture the attentions of Emile and hold his rapt attention.  She sees him as her escape from poverty, despite his criminal-like behavior and greater commitment to his friends.

In many ways, The Painted Girls is about the bond between sisters and about the self-fulfilling traps that many of us fall into even when the support system is there to support us.  It is about taking things for granted, about being selfish, and about not giving into temptation.  Buchanan’s storytelling is captivating, and her characters, while rooted in history, are dynamic and flawed — like the criminals spotted by their physical characteristics, Antoinette and Marie are typecast by the law, theater members, ballet instructors and the wealthy sponsors who have designs on dancers.  Buchanan’s portrait of sisters in France during this period is gritty and emotional. Readers will immediately feel the dark, dank alleys of Paris and the heel of class distinctions upon their necks, just as the van Goethem sisters do.

The first contender for the 2013 best of list.

Credit: Nigel Dickson

About the Author:

CATHY MARIE BUCHANAN is the author of The Painted Girls, a novel set in belle époque Paris and inspired by the real-life model for Degas’s Little Dancer Aged 14 (forthcoming January 2013). Her debut novel, The Day the Falls Stood Still, was a New York Times bestseller, a Barnes & Noble Recommends selection, a Barnes & Noble Best of 2009 book, an American Booksellers Association IndieNext pick and a Canada Reads Top 40 Essential Canadian Novels of the Decade. Her stories have appeared in many of Canada’s most respected literary journals, and she has received awards from both the Toronto Arts Council and the Ontario Arts Council. She holds a BSc (Honours Biochemistry) and an MBA from Western University. Born and raised in Niagara Falls, Ontario, she now resides in Toronto.

Please check out the reading guide.

Mailbox Monday #193

Mailbox Mondays (click the icon to check out the new blog) has gone on tour since Marcia at A Girl and Her Books, formerly The Printed Page passed the torch. This month’s host is BookNAround.

The meme allows bloggers to share what books they receive in the mail or through other means over the past week.

Just be warned that these posts can increase your TBR piles and wish lists.

Here’s what I received:

1.  Edge of Oblivion: A Night Prowler Novel by J.T. Geissinger, which came unexpectedly from Wunderkind PR.

In a dark underground cell, Morgan Montgomery waits to die. A member of the Ikati, an ancient tribe of shape-shifters, Morgan stands convicted of treason. And Ikati law clearly spells out her fate: death to all who dare betray.

But there is a glimmer of hope. Thanks to her friendship with Jenna, the new queen of the Ikati, Morgan has one last chance to prove her loyalty. She must discover and infiltrate the headquarters of the Expurgari, the Ikati’s ancient enemy, so they can be destroyed once and for all. The catch? She has only a fortnight to complete her mission and will be accompanied by Xander Luna, the tribe’s most feared enforcer. If Morgan fails, her life is forfeit. Because Xander is as lethal as he is loyal, and no one—not even this beautiful, passionate renegade—will distract him from his mission. But as the pair races across Europe into the heart of Italy, the attraction blooming between them becomes undeniable. Suddenly more than justice is at stake: so is love.

2.  Bowling Avenue by Ann Shayne, which is from the author for review after a recommendation from Alma Katsu.

Welcome to 603 Bowling Avenue, a lush, empty Colonial Revival house tucked away in a leafy Nashville neighborhood. Who’s that in the ratty attic bedroom, holed up like a squirrel, writing real estate ads as fast as she can? Delia Ballenger, former Nashvillian. She’s back in town to sell the house that her tender-hearted big sister inexplicably left her after dying in a car crash. Delia needs to get back to Chicago as fast as possible. But uninvited people keep showing up at the front door: • Her mother, Grace Ballenger. Brilliant federal judge and the number-one reason Delia lives in another state. • A patrician and poorly socialized neighbor, Angus Donald. • Shelly Carpenter, the watchful housekeeper who raised Delia. • Brother-in-law Bennett Schwartz, a wretched surgeon, along with his girls Cassie and Amelia—the nieces she’s never known. • And, most vexing, a charming real estate agent, Henry Peek. Delia finds herself up to her eyeballs in a flood of mysteries, secrets, and the sort of love that sneaks up on you. For everyone who has muttered “You can’t go home again,” here’s what happens when you go anyway. You’ll laugh. You may cry, if you’re the weepy type. And you’ll cheer for Delia even as you wonder how she can eat a Pop-Tart as an entree. Like THE DESCENDANTS, BOWLING AVENUE is a story of learning how to let go, hold on–and bail water.

3.  The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan for review from Riverhead Books in January.

1878 Paris. Following their father’s sudden death, the van Goethem sisters find their lives upended. Without his wages, and with the small amount their laundress mother earns disappearing into the absinthe bottle, eviction from their lodgings seems imminent. With few options for work, Marie is dispatched to the Paris Opéra, where for a scant seventeen francs a week, she will be trained to enter the famous ballet. Her older sister, Antoinette, finds work as an extra in a stage adaptation of Émile Zola’s naturalist masterpiece L’Assommoir.

Marie throws herself into dance and is soon modeling in the studio of Edgar Degas, where her image will forever be immortalized as Little Dancer Aged Fourteen. There she meets a wealthy male patron of the ballet, but might the assistance he offers come with strings attached? Meanwhile Antoinette, derailed by her love for the dangerous Émile Abadie, must choose between honest labor and the more profitable avenues open to a young woman of the Parisian demimonde.

4.  Beautiful Lies by Clare Clark for a TLC Book Tour this month.

London 1887. For Maribel Campbell Lowe, the beautiful bohemian wife of a maverick politician, it is the year to make something of herself. A self-proclaimed Chilean heiress educated in Paris, she is torn between poetry and the new art of photography. But it is soon plain that Maribel’s choices are not so simple. As her husband’s career hangs by a thread, her real past, and the family she abandoned, come back to haunt them both. When the notorious newspaper editor Alfred Webster begins to take an uncommon interest in Maribel, she fears he will not only destroy Edward’s career but both of their reputations.

Inspired by the true story of a politician’s wife who lived a double life for decades, Beautiful Lies is set in a time that, fraught with economic uncertainty and tabloid scandal-mongering, uncannily presages our own.

5.  Murder Most Austen by Tracy Kiely for review from Kaye Publicity.

A dedicated Anglophile and Janeite, Elizabeth Parker is hoping the trip to the annual Jane Austen Festival in Bath will distract her from her lack of a job and her uncertain future with her boyfriend, Peter.

On the plane ride to England, she and Aunt Winnie meet Professor Richard Baines, a self-proclaimed expert on all things Austen. His outlandish claims that within each Austen novel there is a sordid secondary story is second only to his odious theory on the true cause of Austen’s death. When Baines is found stabbed to death in his Mr. Darcy costume during the costume ball, it appears that Baines’s theories have finally pushed one Austen fan too far. But Aunt Winnie’s friend becomes the prime suspect, so Aunt Winnie enlists Elizabeth to find the professor’s real killer. With an ex-wife, a scheming daughter-in-law, and a trophy wife, not to mention a festival’s worth of die-hard Austen fans, there are no shortage of suspects.

6. Out of True by Amy Durant for review and giveaway in October.

The poems in Out of True flow through stories of life and love, deep feeling and light perspective, all with a foundation in the elemental core of the human spirit. Amy’s poems speak to all of us with a bruised heart still willing to embrace hope and joy.

7. King Solomon’s Ring by Konrad Lorenz, which I purchased at Wonderbook for out book club discussion in November.

Solomon, the legend goes, had a magic ring which enabled him to speak to the animals in their own language. Konrad Lorenz was gifted with a similar power of understanding the animal world. He was that rare beast, a brilliant scientist who could write (and indeed draw) beautifully. He did more than any other person to establish and popularize the study of how animals behave, receiving a Nobel Prize for his work. King Solomon’s Ring, the book which brought him worldwide recognition, is a delightful treasury of observations and insights into the lives of all sorts of creatures, from jackdaws and water-shrews to dogs, cats and even wolves. Charmingly illustrated by Lorenz himself, this book is a wonderfully written introduction to the world of our furred and feathered friends, a world which often provides an uncanny resemblance to our own. A must for any animal-lover!

8. The Absent One by Jussi Adler-Olsen, translated by K.E. Semmel, which I purchased at Novel Places.

In The Keeper of Lost Causes, Jussi Adler-Olsen introduced Detective Carl Mørck, a deeply flawed, brilliant detective newly assigned to run Department Q, the home of Copenhagen’s coldest cases. The result wasn’t what Mørck—or readers—expected, but by the opening of Adler-Olsen’s shocking, fast-paced follow-up, Mørck is satisfied with the notion of picking up long-cold leads. So he’s naturally intrigued when a closed case lands on his desk: A brother and sister were brutally murdered two decades earlier, and one of the suspects—part of a group of privileged boarding-school students—confessed and was convicted.

But once Mørck reopens the files, it becomes clear that all is not what it seems. Looking into the supposedly solved case leads him to Kimmie, a woman living on the streets, stealing to survive. Kimmie has mastered evading the police, but now they aren’t the only ones looking for her. Because Kimmie has secrets that certain influential individuals would kill to keep buried . . . as well as one of her own that could turn everything on its head.

Every bit as pulse-pounding as the book that launched the series, The Absent One delivers further proof that Jussi Adler-Olsen is one of the world’s premier thriller writers.

9. The Caller by Karin Fossum, translated by K.E. Semmel, which I also bought at Novel Places.

One mild summer evening, a young couple are enjoying dinner while their daughter sleeps peacefully in her stroller under a tree. When her mother steps outside she is stunned: The child is covered in blood.
Inspector Sejer is called to the hospital to meet the family. Mercifully, the child is unharmed, but the parents are deeply shaken, and Sejer spends the evening trying to understand why anyone would carry out such a sinister prank. Then, just before midnight, somebody rings his doorbell.
No one is at the door, but the caller has left a small gray envelope on Sejer’s mat. From his living room window, the inspector watches a figure disappear into the darkness. Inside the envelope Sejer finds a postcard bearing a short message: Hell begins now.

What did you receive?