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Monday, August 29, 2011

American Heiress

The American Heiress
Daisy Goodwin
St. Martin’s Press, 2011

Cora Cash is beautiful, intelligent, and most of all, rich. After her debut at a party designed to top any other social occasion in the history of the New World, Cora and her mother have come to England in order to find a titled husband. Cora, who is also a tad spoiled and self-centered, understands her role in her mother’s ambitions, but is reluctant to play her part with any enthusiasm. Fate, however, has a hand in her future when she falls from her horse and is rescued by the Duke of Wareham – a handsome and withdrawn man with a secret. Before she quite knows what is happening, Ivo proposes and Cora finds herself the Duchess of Wareham and suddenly involved in a very complex English social scene that confuses her and eventually causes a rift in her marriage.

Juxtaposed with Cora’s story is the one of her maid, Bertha, an Africa-American woman who is surprised to find that her color makes no difference in England, but her social class does. She is also surprised when she doesn’t fit in with the downstairs staff in her new home because she refuses to gossip about her mistress because of her conflicted loyaties. When she learns about the Duke’s past and finally understands the betrayal that surrounds the Duke, Bertha is the one to act with true conviction and integrity.

This story of decadence, love and ambition set in the late 1800s totally captivated me. I knew it was something special in the first chapter and it did not disappoint. Cora begins the book as an immature child who stamps her foot to get her own way, but she grows up quickly when she falls in love with Ivo. Ivo seems to love her too – sometimes – and other times he is inpatient and disappointed in her ignorance. Despite the fact that he seemingly married her for her money, he does not like her to throw it about as she was accustomed to do in America. This dichotomy between old and new, lower classes and aristocracy, poor and rich totally confuses Cora and sometimes causes her to make mistakes that may forever hurt her reputation in a time and place where reputation is the upmost importance.

I absolutely loved this book. It’s moody, romantic, enthralling, and entertaining. It's a must read for anyone who loves historical fiction.

This is the author’s first novel.


Other titles you may enjoy:

The House at Riverton by Kate Morton (2008)
Living out her final days in a nursing home, ninety-eight-year-old Grace remembers the secrets surrounding the 1924 suicide of a young poet during a glittering society party hosted by Grace's English aristocrat employers, a family that is shattered by war.

Author, Author by David Lodge (2004)
Set against the backdrop of literary and theatrical life in late Victorian England, this tale of literary ambition, rivalry, and creativity follows the public career and private life of Henry James.

Next of Kin by John Boyne (2008)
In 1936 London, Owen Montignac, the scion of a wealthy family, awaits the reading of his late uncle's will in the hopes that his legacy will alleviate his gambling debt, but when he discovers that he has been disinherited, he comes up with a scheme to escape his troubles.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Summer Rental

Summer Rental
Mary Kay Andrews
St. Martin’s Press, 2011

Longtime girlfriends Ellis, Dorie and Julia have arranged a month long, much needed vacation together on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Even though they had specifically said it was to be a girls only vacation, Ellis and Julia grudgingly allowed Dorie to bring her husband because he needed a vacation too. When Dorie shows up alone, acting strangely, the other two women start speculating that something must be wrong, but they have no idea what kind of shocking revelation they are in store for.

Ellis, meanwhile, has her own secret: she has a big crush on the hunky dude next door. She knows that Dorie and Julia would be very supportive of her having a relationship, but she’s just not sure it will be more than a summer fling and she doesn’t need all the advice and comments she just knows she would have to endure. Ellis has just lost her job and doesn’t know what she’s going to do career-wise or boyfriend-wise.

Julia, on the other hand, knows what everyone should do about every problem in her life. She likes to think she has everything under control, but in reality, life is just as confusing and problematic for her as it is for anyone else. She just doesn’t like to admit it.

And Madison? Where did she come from? What’s her story? When Dorie meets Madison in town, she impulsively invites her to stay with the three of them. Not only does Madison seem to have a lot of money that can help pay the rent, she seems to have her own secrets. But will her secrets lead to a happy ending? The other women are determined to help her, even if she fights them every inch of the way.

This delightful story of friendship, relationships, and life-changing decisions is a wonderful mixture of light and dark, happy and sad, and even beginnings and endings. It is not deep, but it has a strong plot that was only a little predictable and enough likeable characters to make it a light but meaningful reading experience.


Other novels by this author:
Savannah Blues (2001)
Hissy Fit (2004)
Savannah Breeze (2006)
Blue Christmas (2006)
Deep Dish (2008)
The Fixer Upper (2009)

Other titles you may enjoy:

Maine by J. Courtney Sullivan (2011)
Descending on a family beach house won in a bet years earlier, three generations of women gradually impart difficult respective secrets including a pregnancy, a terrible crush and a deeply held resentment for past misdeeds.

Barefoot by Elin Hilderbrand (2007)
Visiting Nantucket with their children during a summer vacation, three women befriend a local youth and share their struggles with such challenges as infidelity, the loss of a job under scandalous circumstances, and health problems.

Ladies of the Lake by Haywood Smith (2009)
Spending a summer together in the hopes of inheriting their grandmother's lake estate, four sisters share old rivalries and new understandings while struggling with respective challenges in the areas of finance, marriage, and boundaries.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Pigeon English

Pigeon English
Stephen Kelman
Houghton Mifflin, 2011

When a basketball-playing classmate is killed in what seems to be a senseless act of violence, eleven-year-old Ghana emigrant Harrison Opuku and his best friend, Dean, decide they are going to find the killer. Dean is, after all, an avid CSI television show viewer, so he knows how to collect fingerprints with cello tape and observe the behavior of suspects. Harrison, his sister Lydia and their mother live in a housing project while they await the rest of their family still in Ghana. While attempting to find the boy’s killer, Harrison and his friends must dodge the violence of the local gang while still trying to enjoy some of life’s pleasures: the sound of his baby sister over the telephone, falling in love with a girl in his class, and of course, tormenting Lydia whenever possible. Things get scary when it becomes apparent that the killer is someone that Harrison and Lydia know, and they must try to escape the same fate as the boy who was murdered.

Harrison is such a clever and funny fellow – it is a shame that he wants to find the killer’s identity, because no good can come of it. The reader can sense this almost from the beginning of the book. “Stop!” we want to shout to Harrison. “Just quit spying on people and looking for the murder weapon!” We know that an eleven year old boy, full of innocence and love and a sense of justice, is no match for a teenage gang member evil enough to murder a boy. Yet the reader will keep reading because that’s what readers do – because we have to find out what happens. Even if that ending is not exactly what we expected, but not exactly what we had hoped for either.

While not a lot may happen in this novel, the characters – especially Harrison – make it a book worth reading. His life in the project may be gritty, dark and disturbing, but Harrison’s attempts to find joy in the smallest things overcome at least some of the despair.


This is the author’s first novel.

Other titles you may enjoy:

Cold Flat Junction by Martha Grimes (2001)
Twelve-year-old Emma investigates the suspicious drowning of another child. Her search for answers is both an inquiry into murder and a way to deliver herself from the confusion of childhood. It is the story of a mystery and also her story.

The Ethical Assassin by David Liss (2006)
Working as a door-to-door salesman in a South Florida trailer park, teenager Lem Altick witnesses the murders of two of his would-be customers and is forced into an alliance with the assassin, an extremist dedicated to animal rights.

Fruit of the Lemon by Andrea Levy (2000)
Content with her life in England and delighted with her first job in the costume department of BBC television, Faith Jackson is stunned when her parents announce that they are moving "home" to Jamaica, an announcement that threatens Faith's fragile sense of identity.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Burnt Mountain

Burnt Mountain
Anne Rivers Siddons
Grand Central, 2011

Thayer Wentworth was the second daughter of a wealthy Middletown, Georgia, family. She was her father’s favorite daughter and adored him in turn, but he died when she was nine in a car accident coming home from the family camp on Burnt Mountain. Thayer grew up feeling like a disappointment to her mother, who has led an unsatisfying and unhappy life in a small Georgia town. Thayer felt as though she wasn’t as beautiful as her mother or her older sister, and therefore a failure in love and in life – until she attended a summer camp on Burnt Mountain as a counselor and fell in head over heels in love with Nick Abrams.

Thayer and Nick swore eternal devotion to each other, but teenage love is a fickle thing. After his promised phone calls never came, Thayer grieved for her lost innocence and love and went away to college. Her beloved “Grand,” her father’s mother, funded her college education and when she died, left her a sort of fairy house in Atlanta for her and her new husband to live. Aengus was a professor of Irish mythology at the same college, and he and Thayer married despite the obvious disapproval of Thayer’s mother. But something happened when they moved into the fairy house: Aengus changed. At first he just went to the camp at Burnt Mountain to tell Irish stories, but soon he was spending every spare minute at the camp. Just what was going on up there, anyway?

Reviewers have called this novel uneven and odd. I call it mesmerizing and haunting and a little scary. I loved the beginning about Thayer’s parents and her early years. Then I got hooked when Thayer’s father died and she went away to camp to try to escape the harsh judgment of her mother. I was happy for Thayer when she found herself happy at college and somewhat recovered from her tragic love affair, and I believed Aengus was the one for her. But I absolutely could not put the book down when—well, I can’t tell you about that part because it will spoil the ending. I just could not put the book down until I finished every last word. And it was way past my bedtime.


This author has many novels available at the Mesa Public Library. Go to to check them out!

Other titles you may enjoy:

Heat Wave by Nancy Thayer (2011)
After her husband's sudden death from a heart attack and to keep her family in their beloved Nantucket home, Carley Winsted transforms her expensive, expansive house into a bed-and-breakfast. But complications arise: Carley's mother-in-law disapproves; a friend forces Carley to keep a secret that, if revealed, will undo families and friendships; and, her late husband's former law partner keeps showing up at the most unexpected times.

Magnolia Wednesdays by Wendy Wax (2011)
Finding herself pregnant and jobless, investigative journalist Vivian Armstrong Gray returns to the simple life back home in Georgia, and becomes involved in the social life centered on her sister's ballroom dance studio.

Between, Georgia by Joshilyn Jackson (2006)
Unduly familiar with choosing between sides throughout her lifetime, Nonny Frett finds herself once again caught in the middle between an escalating family feud that began before her birth and the realization of her own dreams.

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Gap Year

The Gap Year
Sarah Bird
Knopf, 2011

Cam Lightsey is a woman with certain expectations, one of which is seeing her daughter Aubrey finally get out of the suburban town they live in and go to an out of state college. Cam originally wanted to move to this town because of the excellent schools, but she has never really fit in with the soccer moms with big SUVs that populate the area. She thought Aubrey wanted to leave too, since she didn’t have very many friends and was not part of the “in” crowd at school. But when Aubrey meets the local football star and falls in love, all bets are off. Instead of studying and making cookies with her mom, Aubrey starts staying out late and lying about her whereabouts, causing Cam to clamp down hard in an attempt to force a solution to the problem. This only makes the situation worse, as any mother could have told Cam. As Aubrey spends more and more time with her boyfriend, she was less inclined to go away to college, but Cam refuses to see this evidence right in front of her own eyes, as she blissfully buys dorm room items and airline tickets. Further complicating the problem, Aubrey has started an online conversation with her long-absent father, who left the family to join a quasi-religious cult without her mother’s knowledge, and Martin starts offering advice that leads Aubrey to make some decisions that lead to a crisis in the family.

I’ve enjoyed several of Sarah Bird’s other novels and this one was no exception. Disguising serious issues with a light-hearted and sometimes humorous tone, Bird alternates voices and chapters so that readers can see how Cam and Aubrey arrive at their perspective points in their relationships – both with each other and with the men in their lives. Mother and daughter relationships are often tumultuous, usually fragile, and never easy. I suspect Bird must have experience raising a teenage daughter, because this study of a complicated and rewarding relationship rings true. Some may be critical of the way the ending wraps up a little too neatly, but I enjoyed the way things came around full circle to a new baby and a new beginning for someone – not necessarily Aubrey – to experience. This book reminded me that the mother/daughter relationship has its ups and downs to be sure, but it can also be the best thing in the world.


Other novels by this author:
The Mommy Club (1991)
Virgin of the Rodeo (1993)
The Yokota Officers Club (2001)
The Flamenco Academy (2006)
How Perfect is That (2008)

Other titles you may enjoy:

Family Sold Separately by Kate Long (2008)
Raised by her eccentric grandmother Poll after the death of her father and disappearance of her mother, Katherine Millar finds her sheltered life forever altered by a package that arrives on the eve of her eighteenth birthday.

Eat Cake by Jeanne Ray (2003)
Ruth draws on her talent for concocting delectable cakes and desserts when her family begins to disintegrate around her--her husband loses his job, her mother moves in, and her long-estranged father shows up at the door with no place to go.

Just Trust Me by Judy Markey (2004)
When her ex-husband, whom she has not heard from in fifteen years, offers her financial freedom, with a high price, Chicago radio host Kate Lerner accepts his bizarre proposal and hides the truth from her family.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Remember Ben Clayton

Remember Ben Clayton
Stephen Harrigan
Knopf, 2011

Francis "Gil" Gilheaney is a skilled and accomplished sculptor living in a self-imposed exile in Texas just after World War I. His adult daughter, Maureen, serves as his assistant, although she has artistic ambitions of her own. She is just beginning to realize how her own life’s goals have taken a back seat to her father’s career ever since her mother’s death. When Lamar Clayton, an aging, heartbroken rancher, offers Gil a commission to create a memorial statue of his son Ben, who was killed in the war, Gil seizes the opportunity to create what he believes will be his greatest masterpiece.

Lamar Clayton is a prideful, stubborn man, but he has met his match in Gil. Both have a vision for the statue and both have troubled pasts that have come to haunt them. Meanwhile, Ben’s wartime friend was also greatly impacted by the war in that he was seriously injured, so much so that he doesn’t want to return home and subject his friends to his deformed face. After he sends a letter to Ben’s father explaining the circumstances of Ben’s death, Maureen picks up the correspondence and the two become friends, providing support that enables each of them to move forward with their lives.

This complex and moving story is a captivating one. Each character is richly and realistically portrayed. I found myself caring about each one, especially the wounded soldier who bravely attempts to carry on with his diminished life. Gil and Lamar both carry heavy secrets that weigh them down, affecting their relationships with family members, especially their children. When Ben discovers his father’s secret, he reacts with a self-destructive violence, while Maureen channels her emotional turmoil into a more positive outcome. This novel about family dynamics, the power of secrets, and emotional vulnerability is excellent and sure to please readers who like literary and historical fiction.


Other novels by this author:
Challenger Park (2006)

Other titles you may enjoy:

Winter Garden by Kristin Hannah (2010)
Reunited when their beloved father falls ill, sisters Meredith and Nina find themselves under the shadow of their disapproving mother, whose painful history is hidden behind her rendition of a Russian fairy tale told to the sisters in childhood.

The Tenth Circle by Jodi Picoult (2006)
When his fourteen-year-old daughter is raped by her boyfriend, an overprotective father with a secret past decides to take the law into his own hands, a choice that takes him into the wilds of the Alaskan bush.

My Dear I Wanted to Tell You by Louisa Young (2011)
A story that intertwines the lives of two very different couples during World War I follows army soldier Riley as he fights for the love of Nadine despite a terrible injury, and Riley's commanding officer Peter Locke, who returns home from the war a bitter and scarred man.

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Girl in the Blue Beret

The Girl in the Blue Beret
Bobbie Ann Mason
Random House, 2011

Marshall Stone, an American World War II pilot shot down in Occupied Europe, returns to his crash site decades later and finds himself drawn back in time to the brave people who helped him escape from the Nazis.

Marshall became an airlines pilot after the war, but now that he’s been forced into retirement, he finds himself drifting and alone after his wife passed away. He’s never been close to his two children, perhaps due to the frequent and long absences as a pilot, or perhaps due to a distance he created around himself after the war. He now realizes that he never made an effort to be close to his children and he regrets this. Instead of bridging this gap, or maybe because of it, he goes to France in an attempt to retrace his steps after the plane crash and find the people who helped him. Once there, he is pleased to discover that several people are still alive and remember him, including Annette, who was a teenager during the war. As Marshall learns more about the terrible consequences his rescuers suffered at the German hands, he is shocked at his own youthful innocence and assumptions that his one life could be worth risking so many others.

The author switches back and forth in time between Marshall’s story as an escaped downed pilot and Marshall’s story as a retired widower, not always smoothly. I had trouble identifying with Marshall – although his thoughts are revealed, I found him as remote and distant with the reader as he was with his children. Honest communication seems difficult for him, which keeps him at arm’s length, and therefore difficult to understand. His motives for finding his past are vague and frivolous; basically, he had nothing better to do than go to Paris and stir up old memories from hurt and damaged people. I was also a little disturbed when he revealed that he had cheated on his wife several times and was only slightly remorseful about it. For some reason, this really bothered me and seemed out of character for him.

In retrospect, I would describe this book as reading like a nonfiction account of a true story that lacked the emotion and connection normally found in novels. I just couldn’t warm up to the main character or the events portrayed.


Other novels by this author:
In Country (1985)
An Atomic Romance (2005)

Other titles you may enjoy:

Skeletons at the Feast by Chris Bohjalian (2008)
During the final months of World War II, a small group of people make their way westward across a ravaged Europe in a desperate attempt to reach British and American lines.

Charlotte Gray by Sebastian Faulks (1999)
A young Scottish woman who falls in love with a World War II RAF pilot shortly before his plane is lost over France joins the Resistance movement to find him, only to discover a larger meaning in her new role

The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer (2010)
An unforgettable story of three brothers, of history and love, of marriage tested by disaster, of a Jewish family's struggle against annihilation, and of the dangerous power of art in a time of war.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

I'll Never Get Out of this World Alive

I’ll Never Get Out of this World Alive
Steve Earle
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011

Just when every ray of hope was gone
I should have known that you would come along
I can't believe I ever doubted you
My old friend the blues

---from “My Old Friend the Blues” by Steve Earle

I love Steve Earle’s music. I love his bluegrass, his rock, his blues and even his country music.

I’m not too crazy about his fiction, however.

I’ll Never Get Out of this World Alive is the title of a Hank Williams song, which is appropriate since his ghost is a major character in this odd little story of a down and out physician addicted to heroin. Doc is the one who gave Hank his final and lethal dose of morphine, which is why he is a guilt-ridden addict haunted by his own demons in addition to Hank, who only shows up to torment Doc when he’s high. Otherwise, Doc is busy taking care of his clientele, which consists of prostitutes, drug addicts and other derelicts in San Antonio. His practice is mostly back door abortions, gunshot wounds, and overdoses; his small fees help pay for the heroin. When he performs an abortion for a young illegal Mexican girl, Graciela, she ends up staying with him and helping him with his practice, but strange things begin to happen to her. Whenever she helps Doc heal a patient, her hands begin to bleed. And then---

And then I had to stop reading. Ghosts, heroin use, prostitutes, abortions, and now stigmata? It was all too much for me. I didn’t like any of the characters; I didn’t find the writing style to be exceptionally lyrical (I know! Shouldn’t it have been?!?) or compelling; I did not find any hope or redemption in sight (but to be fair, it was probably lurking right around the corner); and I just lost interest in the whole premise. Trust me – no one is more disappointed in my disappointment than I am.


This is the author’s first novel, but my favorite Steve Earle CD is Transcendental Blues.

Other titles you may enjoy:

Ghosts and Lightning by Trevor Byrne (2009)
After his mother dies suddenly, Denny Cullen returns home to Dublin for the funeral and to sort out his life. With no job, he spends his time hanging out with aimless friends who, in between stealing or doing drugs, seem to be searching for some meaning in life.

And the Word Was by Bruce Bauman (2005)
Taking the job of resident physician at the American Embassy in India after the tragic death of his son, Neil Downs seeks a philosophical refuge in the writings of Levi Fustenblum and forms a bond with Holika, the rebellious, activist niece of a prestigious family.

Wasted Beauty by Eric Bogosian (2005)
In a tale of contemporary urban desperation and desire, Reba Cook, an unusually beautiful woman, struggles with her drug addiction while enduring city life alongside an assortment of neighbors.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Best Staged Plans

Best Staged Plans
Claire Cook
Voice-Hyperion, 2011

Sandy Sullivan is a professional home stager in the Boston suburbs. She and her husband Greg have started planning life after retirement, which includes selling the house and moving somewhere exotic, but things aren’t moving along according to Sandy’s schedule. Greg has taken an early retirement and seems more interested in playing golf and tennis than helping get their house sale-ready, and their son hasn’t demonstrated any initiative in finding himself an apartment. Frustrated with the lack of help and support, Sandy Sullivan issues her husband an ultimatum and takes a job staging a boutique hotel in Atlanta where she becomes immersed in other people's lives while trying to fix up her own.

This charming, short, and light-hearted story won’t win any literary awards but it sure provided some entertaining reading one recent weekend. I loved Sandy’s sense of humor, her compulsive need to fix everything, and her obsessive personality. I could really identify with this woman! This book may be light-hearted, but Sandy and her family are dealing with some heavy issues, including economic uncertainty, homelessness, and family relationships, so there are some unpredictable plot developments that will keep any reader on their toes. Still, the humor and witty writing style make this a good, quick summer read.


Other novels by this author:
Ready to Fall (2000)
Must Love Dogs (2002)
Multiple Choice (2004)
Life’s a Beach (2007)
Summer Blowout (2008)
Wildwater Walking Club (2009)
Seven Year Switch (2010)

Other titles you may enjoy:

First Friends by Marcia Willett (2006)
Life-long best friends, both married to naval officers, Kate Webster and Cassandra Wivenhoe find their lives, families, and marriages thrown into turmoil by Cassandra's infidelities.

Casting About by Terri DuLong (2010)
In the four years since Monica Brooks moved to Cedar Key, Florida, she's found a home, a husband, and a business taking over her mother's bustling knitting shop. But when her husband Adam's ex-wife is deemed an unfit mother, will the normally even-keeled Monica be ready to go straight from honeymoon to motherhood?

Within Arm’s Reach by Ann Napolitano (2004)
A lyrical novel narrated from six different points of view chronicles the effects of an unexpected pregnancy on three generations of an Irish-American Catholic family.