Category Archives: Books

Book Buzz: Two Remarkable Debut Novels

I felt a little jaded on this Fourth of July.

Normally, the waving of flags, the community parades, the red white and blue, all spark patriotism in my heart. After all, we are the land of “liberty and justice for all.”

Don’t get me wrong. I love my country. But I despair of the injustices some of our citizens must endure, brought to light over and over, most recently with the shooting in Charleston.

There is no “liberty and justice for all.” Just for some.

Those of us who grew up in the time of the civil rights movement should feel jaded. What was it all for?  We have barely evolved. The fact is that we live in a racist society, and if you’re not a member of a racial or ethnic minority, this might not make much of an impact on your daily life.

But if you are in a minority, it smacks you in the face, over and over again, this patent unfairness of being judged differently because of the color of your skin or your ethnicity. There is a constant awareness of being scrutinized, profiled, ostracized.

I am so troubled by this, but even more so by the impotence of not knowing how to change it.

It may be a coincidence that I read two novels, both stunning debuts, that explore bigotry and feeling different, but the timing could not have been better.

I highly recommend both of them.

Dollbaby

Dollbaby, by Laura Lane McNeal, is a coming-of-age story set in New Orleans in the turbulent 60s when this city of Southern charm and hospitality was also a hotbed of racial strife.

Dollbaby

After her father dies in a tragic accident, eleven year-old Ibby Bell is abruptly abandoned by her mother, a troubled woman whose addiction issues destroy her ability to be a mother. Ibby is dropped off at the rundown Victorian home of her paternal grandmother whom she has never met into a culture that is foreign to her.

Ibby’s eccentric grandmother is unpredictable, and Ibby finds stronger role models in the two loyal black servants in the home: the cook, Queenie, and her daughter, Dollbaby, who provide stability and an education about life in the South, both its glory and its shame, its stately decorum as well as its segregation and brutality. They also hold the key to the secrets that haunt the house, secrets that will reveal surprises about Ibby’s family.

McNeal spins this tale of complexities with a deft hand. Her characters and the grand city itself spring to life.

Everything I Never Told You

Now in paperback, this exquisitely crafted novel by Celeste Ng ranks as one of my favorites this year, and perhaps ever.

Everything I Never Told You

Both a crime thriller and an expose of a family torn apart, Everything I Never Told You begins with a bang. “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.”

As the search for teenaged Lydia proceeds, we learn about her life in small-town Ohio in the mid-70s as the favored middle child in an interracial family. Her mother is Caucasian and her father is Asian. Lydia is an overachiever and a good girl, a girl focused on her studies and her family, the girl least likely to go missing and turn up dead.

But of course, all is not what it seems, and as the story unfolds we learn about what it means to look different and be judged for your ethnicity. In this white bread  community, Lydia and her two siblings are the only Asian children in their school. Taunted by their peers, they also face dysfunction at home, where unrealistic expectations and lack of communication are ripping the fabric of this family unit.

A heart wrenching tale of prejudice, of assimilation, and of misguided love, this masterfully written novel will stay with you long after the last page is turned.

I am delighted to give away a copy of each of these remarkable debut novels, Dollbaby and Everything I Never Told you, to two of my readers. Please leave a comment below. A winner will be selected randomly. USA addresses only, please.

I received a copy of Dollbaby and Everything I Never Told you from Penguin for an honest review, which is the only kind of review I do.

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Book Buzz: Enchanted August

Who among us hasn’t felt a desire to get away from it all – the stress of our everyday lives – and escape to a blissful haven, bringing a suitcase but leaving emotional baggage behind?

I know I have experienced a “Calgon, take me away …” moment or two in my life, particularly as a young mother during those vexing times when my children were cranky and we had one too many meltdowns.

And they lost it sometimes, too.

What I would give to just run away and be alone for a while, I would fantasize as I dried tears (mine). No kids, no husband, no responsibilities. Just me. Me time.

And then the fantasy would evaporate.

But more power to the two harried moms from Brooklyn in Brenda Bowen’s Enchanted August who do indeed take that ball and run with it.

Enchanted August

Enchanted August

The story begins when Lottie and Rose come upon this notice on the bulletin board at their kids’ preschool:

Hopewell Cottage
Little Lost Island, Maine.
Old pretty cottage to rent on a small Maine island.
Spring water, blueberries, sea glass.
August.

It is a rainy morning and they have just dropped off their kids. Struggling with both rain gear and discontent, they pause to gaze at the notice in silence, each thinking the same thing. Oh, I couldn’t. Could I? Maybe?

Later that day Rose texts Lottie. “Do you think we could still go?”  Lottie responds, “I think we can.”

Whatever element of guilt they might feel about leaving their families is overshadowed by the enticement of this getaway.  It will be restorative, they reason, and by the end of the month they will feel reinvigorated, in much better condition to resume their real lives. They need two more renters to share the cost of the rental, and luckily they find Caroline and Beverly to sign on.

Four strangers, each leaving unresolved issues behind, set out for an adventure to an unfamiliar but alluring destination.

What I liked best about this book was the gorgeous description of Little Lost Island. Having never been to Maine, I could still feel the sea spray as I sat on the rocks. I smelled the salt air and felt the sun burning my shoulders. I inhaled the scent of the fragrant roses blooming in the garden.

The plot meanders languorously through daily discoveries of local nature and culture. The days are quiet and uneventful, and the biggest decision to be  made is what to have for dinner. Fresh blueberries are picked, lobsters are caught and cooked, salad greens from the garden are tossed. Pleasant enough, but I was about to doze off. I yearned for some action to break through the idyllic spell.

And then, maybe two thirds of the way through, the plot thickens when a philandering husband sets the stage for an embarrassing confrontation, and the back stories of the characters begin to collide with one another.

Based on the book The Enchanted April, by Elizabeth Von Arnim (which was also a movie made in 1935 and again in 1992), Enchanted August is as light and refreshing as a vodka and tonic with a twist. If you are looking for a beach book this summer, this one fits the bill.

Enchanted August

Book groups will be happy to know that Viking is providing this excellent book club kit to facilitate discussions.

I am delighted to be able to give away a copy of each book — Enchanted August and The Enchanted April — to two of my readers. Please leave a comment below and winners will be selected randomly.

I received a copy of Enchanted August and The Enchanted April from Viking for an honest review, which is the only kind of review I write.

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Book Buzz: Showering with Nana

Giggling my way through Cathy Sikorski’s memoir, Showering with Nana: Confessions of a Serial (Killer) … Caregiver, I recalled hearing an old Irish proverb that goes like this:

A good laugh and a long sleep are the best cures in the doctor’s book.

Sikorski, who cared for her 92 year-old grandmother and two year-old daughter Rachel simultaneously, would undoubtedly agree.

Showering with Nana

Co-opted to care for Nana for six months, Sikorski entered this agreement with a mix of apprehension and acquiescence. This was her beloved grandmother who  had taken care of her and her five siblings for decades with total love in their multi-generational home. As an elder care lawyer, Sikorski was attuned to the needs and rhythms of the nonagenarian demographic.

But nothing could have prepared her for what was to come.

Showering with Nana

In a diary format, Sikorski takes us along on this bumpy ride in which every day presents a challenge or five. Early on she discovered that toddlers and nonagenarians actually have a lot in common.

  • They wear diapers. And poop in said diapers.
  • Naps are a daily necessity.
  • If all else fails, ice cream is an effective bribery tool.
  • They must be watched constantly. Or else all hell can break loose.

Which is precisely what happened.

There was the time Sikorski came upon Rachel playing happily in the bathtub while Nana was in the process of scrubbing it (the tub, not Rachel) with Comet. In horror, Sikorski saw her daughter covered in the caustic powder and sucking on a toilet brush. Nana in her equanimity looked at her and said, “See? Now the shower’s clean and so is the baby. A double duty.”

And then the trip to the mall. What better way to occupy a toddler and an elderly person for a couple of hours? Only Sikorski lost Nana during the two minutes she looked away and had mall security doing a shakedown.

Or the time when she noticed Nana and Rachel munching on a snack and discovered it was dog food.

Funniest of all are the episodes of diaper stories. When you’ve got one of your charges in Huggies and the other in Depends, there is a lot of sh*t happening. It was one of these predicaments that led to the title of the book. But you’ll have to read it to find out.

Through it all Sikorski learns a lot about patience, inner strength and what it means to be tired all the time. But most of all, she learned that whenever possible, laughter is the best recourse.

Showering with Nana is a funny book, but it also pulls the heartstrings. Sikorski is a terrific writer and communicates her range of emotions, from frustration to tenderness to anger and then back to frustration. She writes dialogue so well, I could hear Nana calling her “honey girl” and I could hear Rachel’s sweet little toddler voice announcing “I find Nana’s pottyboot.” (pocketbook)

For anyone going through a difficult time, especially with aging parents or grandparents, this book will lift the spirits.

And show us that when life gets tough, the tough figure out how to laugh.

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Book Buzz: 9 ½ Narrow

If you’re a shoe-loving woman of a certain age, Patricia Morrisroe’s new memoir, 9 ½ Narrow: My Life in Shoes, will take you back over the years and evoke memories of shoes gone by.

From white patent leather Mary Jane’s to oxfords to granny boots and stilettos, Morrisroe’s shoes play a starring or supportive role in this coming of age story. She writes with humor and sentimentality, just perfect for a trip (without falling) down Memory Lane.

She also supplies interesting tidbits of shoe history and even a little gossip. For example, did you know that Jackie Kennedy wore a size 10 shoe?

Let’s face it, shoes matter to us women. A lot.

9 ½ Narrow: My Life in Shoes

Like Morrisroe, I have shoe memories that make me smile. I get misty thinking about my cheer leading saddle shoes, my first Frye boots, my first black boots with a 3″ heel, the designer sandals I got on sale.

From these memories I will share a bad shoe story and a good shoe story.

First the bad one.

For a few years when I was a pre-teen, I had to wear ugly-ass corrective shoes with thick soles and no soul because I was slightly pigeon-toed.

What could be more mortifying, in the age of cute thin-soled penny loafers with a real penny tucked in the opening on top which is what all the girls wore. My corrective shoes gave me more agita than the acne that dotted my adolescent forehead. I begged my mother to reconsider. Popular girls did not wear shoes like this, I argued. But she held firm.

Every few months she took me to the shoe store downtown that carried these awful shoes. The clerk, a balding man with perspiration stains on his short-sleeved white shirt and bad breath, would measure my feet in those shiny things you stepped on. That too was traumatic, because not only were my feet apparently weird and abnormal, they were big.

Muttering my size in disbelief as he walked away, Mr. Sweat Stains disappeared into the back room and returned with several boxes  of horrible shoes. As I sat moping, he squeezed my feet into each pair with his metal shoehorn. I had to fight back the tears.

The summer I was 12 I went away to overnight camp. Before I left, my mother took me to that shoe store for a new pair of the dreaded shoes. But wait! This time the clerk brought out a pair of loafers. Was I dreaming? Penny loafers? For me? My mother nodded approval.

I was elated. We took them home and I kept them wrapped in their box, sneaking a peek to make sure they were there before Mom packed them in my camp trunk.

When I arrived at camp and started to unpack, I gently removed the loafers from their box and put them on. Casually I glanced at the penny loafered feet of my bunkmates.

I gazed at my loafers, then at everyone else’s, and then back to mine. Suddenly, it was as if I were hit by a lightning bolt of doom.

What had I been thinking? In my excitement at the store I had seen what I wanted to see, not what was. I had been oblivious to the thick sole, the orthopedically designed heel and toe. No! These loafers were wrong, wrong, wrong. So wrong. I tucked them back in the box and left them there the entire summer. The end.

And here’s my good story.

When I was 15 my mother bought me a beautiful scarlet velvet dress to wear to my brother’s Bar Mitzvah. In our quest for shoes we found a pair of low heels in the same red velvet. I felt like Dorothy wearing the ruby slippers. The end.

Also? I already knew that Jackie Kennedy wore a size 10, because every time I moaned about my big feet, this is what my mother reminded me.

True confession: I’m a 9 ½, just like Morrisroe.

Do you have a favorite shoe memory?

I am delighted to give away a copy of 9 ½ Narrow to one of my readers. Please leave a comment and a winner will be selected randomly. US addresses only, please.

I received a copy of 9 ½ Narrow from Penguin Random House for an honest review, which is the only kind of review I write.

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Book Buzz: Cut Me Loose

Are you in a book group? If yours is like mine, you wait for or books to be released in paperback before selecting them for discussion. Two books that I have read and enjoyed — Cut Me Loose and The Invention of Wings — will be out in paper next month and they are terrific choices for a book group. Or individual reading, of course!

Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra Orthodox Girlhood

As I read through this book in almost one sitting, I was reminded that fundamentalism can be found in any religion, including my own — Judaism — and when human suffering is overlooked at the expense of an ideology, there is something very, very wrong.

Such was the case with Leah Vincent, who gives us a glimpse into the narrow, sheltered world of the community known as Yeshivish, the ultra-religious, ultra-Orthodox sect of Judaism that shuns the modern world. As the daughter of a prominent Yeshivish rabbi and one of 11 children, she grew up with strict rules. Nonetheless, she was devoted to her father and accepted the doctrines of his teachings.

Cut Me Loose and The Invention of Wings

But as she grew older she began to question some of the ideology. At age 16 she expressed interest in attending college, and her parents reacted with horror – her mother threatened to have her locked up in a psychiatric hospital. And when word got out that she corresponded by mail with the older brother of a friend, she was promptly ostracized for breaking the ban of contact between the sexes.

Totally alone and living in Brooklyn at the age of 17, she received little financial or emotional support. Isolated, friendless and clueless about living independently in a big city, she spiraled into a deep depression and engaged in risky behavior and self-mutilation.

But she found her way out of despair, and in the end she triumphed over tremendous adversity. Cut Me Loose is a riveting and ultimately uplifting story about self-discovery and transformation.

 

The Invention of Wings

A year ago I reviewed The Invention of Wings, historical fiction by well-known author Sue Monk Kid based on the true story of Sarah and Angelina Grimké, two sisters from Charleston, SC who became the first female agents of the American Anti-Slavery Society, before the Civil War. This was all the more remarkable given that they were born into an aristocratic, slave-holding family.

Cut Me Loose and The Invention of Wings

Recently New York Times columnist Gail Collins weighed in on the exciting campaign to get a woman on the $20 bill. In her column, A Woman’s Place Is on the $20, she mentions Angelina Grimké as a worthy candidate. Sarah and Angelina were the first women to make the link between abolitionism and women’s rights. They fought the restrictions placed on women alongside advocating to free the slaves.

I learned so much about this chapter of American history from The Invention of Wings. To supplement the book, Penguin is providing this handy book club resource, featuring a Q&A with the author, recipes and cocktails, further reading, and more

I am delighted to be able to give away a copy of each book to two of my lucky readers. Please leave a comment below and a winner will be chosen randomly. US addresses only, please.

I received a copy of Cut Me Loose from Penguin Books for an honest review, which is the only kind of review I do.

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Book Buzz: Our Bodies, Our Shelves

So, a book of essays on library humor crossed my desk.

Library humor?

I thought the same. What could be funny about the library?

Well, I stand corrected. Library humor is not, in fact, an oxymoron, particularly when it comes from a terrific writer who just happens to work in a library.

Since today is National Librarian Day, what better time than the present to introduce you to Roz Warren, librarian, humorist and author of the hilarious collection of essays, “Our Bodies, Our Shelves: A Collection of Library Humor.”

Our Bodies, Our ShelvesWith a title like that, you know from the outset that you’re in for a good time.

Our Bodies, Our Shelves

If you haven’t visited a public library lately, a lot has changed since back in the day of card catalogs, wooden chairs that scraped the floor and made the librarian look up and glare at you. And no air conditioning, which made your bare legs stick to the aforementioned wooden chairs, and getting your book stamped at the circulation desk, which is how remember my childhood library.

Libraries have changed with the times, and so have librarians. Or maybe they’ve just been misunderstood all these years.

They’ve gotten a bad rap, librarians have.

If you still think of librarians as elderly matrons in dowdy calf-length dresses, wispy gray hair in a tight bum and sensible shoes, who are more likely to shush you than to crack a smile, let me dissuade you of that notion right here and now.

But don’t listen to me. Pick up a copy of “Our Bodies, Our Shelves” and start reading.

And chuckling.

In these twenty essays you will find the answers to such burning questions as:

◊ What is the strangest bookmark left in a library book?

◊ What is the most unusual request made by a library patron?

◊ Do librarians curse? If so, where?

◊ How do librarians maintain their composure when they are cracking up inside?

Warren finds humor in every aspect of her job at the Bala Cynwyd, Pa. library, If you are in the vicinity, stop in to say hello to the world’s funniest librarian.

But be forewarned. You may become the target of her next amusing essay about the patrons who frequent her library.

Our Bodies, Our Shelves

A former attorney who left the law to take the library job “because I was tired of making so damn much money,” she said, Warren is no newcomer to humor writing. She has written for The New York Times, The Funny Times, The Christian Science Monitor, The Jewish Forward and The Huffington Post. And she‘s been featured on the Today Show. (Twice!)

What’s more, she does not wear dowdy dresses and sensible shoes.

After reading this book, I paused for a moment to ponder my career options. At this point, am I too old to go back to college to get a degree in library science?

Because being a librarian seems like a really fun job. Especially if it is working with Roz Warren.

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Book Buzz: The Winter Family

As I read “The Winter Family,” a Western noir about a group of violent men in a cross-country jaunt over three decades in 1800s America, there were several times when I thought about calling it quits.

But I was unable to abandon the story, and the band of ruthless outlaws took me hostage on the ride across the American frontier.

Let me say this. The Little House on the Prairie it’s not.

The Winter Family, a saga drenched in blood and bone chilling perversion, is not for the faint of heart.

The Winter Family

Nonetheless, I persevered. I’m actually a fan of the Western genre and I have enjoyed works by Larry McMurtry and Cormac McCarthy, among others. I believe an authentic tale of the Old West should be grim and gritty.

I would expect a group of ruthless outlaws to commit murder and other atrocities to overcome their enemies, or gain status, or simply be feared by all who come before them. Or to make a living. Or for no reason at all.

Meet The Winter Family

The Winter Family was what they called themselves, this band of depraved thugs who left murder and rampage in their wake. Their story begins at the time of the Civil War in Atlanta and ends in the prairies of the Oklahoma Territory.

Headed by the cruel and sadistic Augustus Winter, son of an abusive preacher, and joined by sociopathic liar Quentin Ross, the two dim-witted Empire brothers, alcohol-soaked Bill Bread and inscrutable ex-slave Fred Johnson, the group provides a service for a price. They burn Atlanta for General Sherman. They fix an election in Chicago for the Republican Party. They get rid of the Indians in Oklahoma for the land barons.

What distracted me was not so much the bloodshed, of which there is plenty, but more what was missing. Where was the humanity, even a shred? How can anyone be so thoroughly evil and sustain it for so long?

There were virtually no women in The Winter Family, nary a brassy barmaid or loving girlfriend who could have softened the grimness and provided a context for the characters’ motivations.

However, the reason I stuck with The Winter Family — and recommend it –is that as historical fiction it succeeds, masterfully. A bleak commentary on the human condition, yes, but an honest portrayal of our civilization — or lack thereof — in lawless times long ago.

 

I am happy to be able to give away a copy of The Winter Family. Please leave a comment below and a winner will be chosen randomly. US addresses only, please.

I received a copy of The Winter Family from Doubleday for an honest review, which is the only kind of review I write.

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Book Buzz: Bettyville

Can a story about elder care be told with equal parts love, humor and pathos? And can you really go home again?

Yes and yes. Case in point: “Bettyville,” a tender memoir by George Hodgman, about moving back to his hometown of Paris, Missouri to care for his ailing 91 year-old mother.

Bettyville: A Memoir

Hodgman, who worked as an editor at Vanity Fair and several publishing houses, moved back home from Manhattan when his mother’s health had declined to the point of needing full-time assistance. On the waiting list at a local assisted care facility, she was ultimately rejected. Instead of returning to New York, Hodgman moved in and became Betty’s caretaker.

Bettyville

Mother and son found themselves at a crossroads — he lost his job, and she lost her independence– and became room mates, finding that life isn’t always easy for two willful people used to getting their own way.

Hodgman chronicles the joys and stresses of  this new chapter in his life. With affection and respect, he candidly describes Betty’s struggles while championing her resilience: her insistence on writing words down to remember them, of keeping her weekly bridge game and playing piano once a month at church. The mother-son banter provides a context for their complicated relationship of butting heads, percolating with silent resentment, then reconnecting.

With a sharp eye to detail and his self-deprecating wit, Hodgman recounts growing up in a household filled with both love and tacit disapproval, of living with secrets and unexpressed emotions that would haunt him throughout his life, of an adulthood as a work-obsessed editor wrestling with self-doubt and periods of drug addiction, of living in New York City when the AIDS crisis first took hold, of seeing many friends get sick and die.

For Hodgman, who is gay, the geographic transition is exacerbated by the culture shock of moving from New York City to an area without an active gay presence, and moreover, a slice of American pie that no longer exists. To his dismay, the once thriving town of Mom and Pop stores has been a victim of the Walmartization (my word) of America.

However, he appreciates what is still good and nurturing about a community that, though dwindling, still rallies around him and his mother, providing the support and occasional casserole so deeply appreciated.

Honest about his own mixed feelings, Hodgman’s adoration for Betty never wavers. How true this relationship rings to me, the good and bad, the ups and downs, the spectrum of emotions he pinpoints so acutely.

Ultimately, he discovers that patience, love and acceptance are what really matter. And we are a product of our parents, for better or worse. As he says,

 “We have sometimes struggled with words, but I am Betty’s boy. There are so many things I will carry when I leave Bettyville with my old suitcase.”

I think Betty would like that.

 

I am so happy to be able to give a copy of ‘Bettyville” to one of my readers. Please leave a comment and a winner will be chosen randomly. USA addresses only, please.

I received a copy of “Bettyville” from Viking for an honest review, which is the only kind of review I do.

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Book Buzz: Small Mercies

I’ve written before about my lifelong love affair with New York City.

New York City, the Big Apple, the city that never fails to delight and entrance  me, is just a train ride away and I visit as often as I can. Which is never often enough.

So what is the next best thing if I need a bite of The Big Apple from afar? I dive into a book that will sweep me into a New York state of mind.

Many writers have captured the essence of New York City in all its iterations. Off the top of my head, I can name Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe, Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, and three of my favorites: Call it Sleep by Henry Roth, The Alienist by Caleb Carr and Time and Again by Jack Finney.

Make room for one more.

Small Mercies

The writer’s name is Eddie Joyce, and you may not have heard of him. Yet.

But with Small Mercies, his genius debut novel, I have no doubt that his name will be added to the list of New York writers who, well, get New York.

Small Mercies

It is the story of a working class Italian Irish family, the Amendolas from Staten Island. The fifth and “forgotten borough” of New York.

This “everyfamily” – fierce, flawed, and loving – lost one of their own in the 9/11 attacks. Now, nine years later, they prepare for a family birthday party and over the course of one week we watch them, each one still struggling in the aftermath of that tragedy in a different way.

The nuclear Amendola family consists of Gail, is a retired teacher, Michael, her husband and former firefighter, and two adult sons. There are also in-laws, grandchildren, neighbors, childhood friends, each character orbiting through the spheres of Gail and Michael.

We hurt for this family. Just as the rest of the world felt after 9/11, we who witnessed this tragedy are part of the universal grief.

I found this story to be gripping and real and, most importantly, passes my litmus test for authentic dialogue. You know these people. You have seen them at high school basketball games, at a neighborhood bar downing a few beers, in church, at potlucks.`

Joyce tells it like it was, and a few phrases jumped out at me. For starters, isn’t this one of the best opening lines in a novel ever?

“Gail wakes with a pierced heart, same as every day.”

And I love, love, love this :

“Across the street, one of their new neighbors, Dmitri, runs out from the old Grasso house to his car  … They have two young kids, a boy and a girl, with dirty-blond hair and the pinched faces of the frequently disciplined.”

And this, describing marital sex:

“They’d gone through the bumping frenzy of early love, the safe experimentations of settled monogamy, the clinical coitus of attempted procreation, the semi-abstinence of two pregnancies, the sleep-deprived sparsity of two infancies, the temporary revitalization afforded by procedural infertility.”

Joyce has a flair with language, and the gift of storytelling. Small Mercies will stay with me as a poignant, heart-wrenching story of loss, but also a lesson in how you go on.

Eddie Joyce, I have this to say to you: wow.

I am delighted to give away a free copy of Small Mercies to one of my readers. Please leave a comment below and a winner will be chosen randomly. USA addresses only, please.

I received  a free copy of Small Mercies from Viking for an honest review, which is the only kind of review I write.

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Book Buzz: Shadows Over Paradise

When a book draws me in with a compelling plot, well-drawn, believable characters, a page-turning pace AND I learn something new about a time in history, well, for me that’s a definite win-win.

Shadows Over Paradise

Such was the case with “Shadows Over Paradise” by Isabel Wolff, the story of two women with deeply buried secrets who meet unpredictably, and come to discover a common bond.

Shadows Over Paradise

The women couldn’t be more different on the outside, but lurking in their backgrounds are demons that have haunted both of them all their lives.

Jenni, a woman in her 30s, is a ghost writer by trade. Why ghostwriting? She likes being under the radar. As she says, “I’m happy to be … invisible.” At a friend’s wedding she chats with a guest who, fascinated by her livelihood, mentions that his elderly mother, Klara, is looking for someone to help her write her memoir.

Klara lives on a farm in a coastal town called Polwarth in Cornwall, England, a place that Jenni had been on holiday with her family many years earlier but never returned. It was during that holiday that Jenni’s younger brother died in an accident for which she feels responsible.

This guilt has impacted many aspects of her life, including her reluctance to commit to relationships and her refusal to have children of her own because she believes she is incapable of caring for them.

With trepidation, she returns to this seaside town for 10 days to interview Klara and to also take a breather from her boyfriend. Their inability to agree on having children has put a strain on the relationship and they need distance to think about it.

She and Klara find that they work well together, and they like each other. Klara feels that she can open up to Jenni, and Jenni sees similarities in Klara’s life to hers.

Like Jenni, Klara’s childhood was ripped from her after she and her family, originally from Holland, moved to a Dutch colony in Java in the early 1940s for her father’s business. What started out as a lovely life of privilege and comfort turned to horror when the island became occupied by the Japanese during World War II.

Klara, her mother and brother were interred in a Japanese prison camp and endured two years of suffering.  The atrocities and deprivation were similar to what was occurring in concentration camps in Europe.

I’ve read much about the concentration camps in Europe. But I had not been aware of what happened in Java. Wolff brings this to life through the eyes of Klara, recounting her story to Jenni.

Wolff’s meticulous research brings this sad event to life, both before the occupation, during and after. The reader feels the family’s initial dismissal of the impending danger … then the fear as their homes and possessions are seized … and the panic as they become prisoners.

However, “Shadows Over Paradise” is ultimately a story of survival and healing as Jenni and Klara come to terms with the ghosts in their past.

This is a book I will definitely recommend to my friends. I am also able to give one of my lucky readers a copy of “Shadows Over Paradise.” Please leave a comment below and a winner will be selected randomly.

Disclosure: I received a free copy of “Shadows Over Paradise” from Random House for an honest review, which is the only kind of review I do.

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