Monday, April 22, 2013

Boy Band Drama

Several years ago, I read Sushi for Beginners by Marian Keyes, and I really liked it.  The best part about it for me was that the story was set in modern day Dublin.  Until I read that book, my idea of Dublin  involved maybe one or two stop lights, narrow cobble stone streets with walls on either side, and a friendly old man who could show me the way to the pub.  Sushi burst that bubble, and made me realize that Ireland really is in the twenty-first century, complete with office buildings, mortgages, and obviously, sushi. 

When Rebecca Lang of Viking and Penguin Books asked me to review Keyes' new book, The Mystery of Mercy Close I was excited to see what Keyes had been up to since I last read her.  I was a little concerned, however, to hear that Mercy Close was "a Walsh sister novel", since I didn't think that I had read any of the earlier Walsh sister books.  But, I dove right in nevertheless. 

Mercy Close is the story of Helen Walsh, a private detective working in Dublin.  Helen is hired by her ex-boyfriend, Jay Parker, to find a member of the boy band, The Laddz, who has gone missing just before the reunion tour is set to begin.  As you might expect, The Laddz are a little one dimensional.  There is the cute one, the gay one, the wacky one, the truly talented one, and the other one.  When our story begins, several years after their popularity peaked, the cute one has become the religious one, the gay one has gone straight, the wacky one, Wayne, is the one who is missing, the truly talented one has quit the band to find solo fame, and the other one is still just the other one.  Adding this second characteristic to each band member served to make them not two dimensional, but one dimensional in a different way.

A lot of the first half of the book is spent establishing the traits of the band members, and reminding the reader of the characteristics of each of Helen's sisters.  I found the sister side story completely unnecessary, and would have liked the story just as well if Helen was an only child. Helen is a quirky character.  Many pages are spent detailing the things that bother her, and the misfortunes that she has faced as a result of the Irish recession, rather than chasing the bad guys or looking for Wayne.

In the second half of the book, the story comes together, and Keyes' talent shows through.  We find that Helen is struggling with depression.  Her battle is really well written, with depression treated as a disease, like emphysema, and not something that one can get over with a pill and a call to a shrink.  As the deadline approaches, it is unclear whether Wacky-One-Wayne is missing, or trying to be lost.  There seem to be as many people who need Wayne to participate in the reunion tour as there are people who would profit if the shows were cancelled.  The suspense builds, and Keyes has us turning pages as quickly as we can. 

As always, with these "industry requested reviews", I received the book for free, but no other payment.  I promised to review the book, but did not promise a positive review.   My next industry requested review will be The Honey Thief by Najaf Mazari and Robert Hillman.  I'll have an extra copy of that one to give away, so stay tuned!

Next Up:  Sweet Life in Paris by David Lebovitz

Still Listening To:  The Undomestic Goddess by Sophie Kinsella

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Founding Mother

A few months ago, when I talked about The Odyssey, I complained to you about how every book that my son will read in his Freshman English class was written before my parents graduated from high school.  Then, I went to a curriculum council meeting, and was excited to be asked to approve a book that was written in 2006, Ines of my Soul by Isabel Allende.  Dutifully, I added Ines to my TBR list, to make sure that I wouldn't regret my vote.

Wow, I'm glad I'm not a high school student today!  Ines was not an easy book!  The class that will be reading the book in my district is a 9th grade-12th grade class that combines English and History to try to make the classes more relevant to each other.  In that sense, Ines is perfect, but woe be to the student who procrastinates and figures that he'll be able to whip through this one in a few hours late on Sunday night.

Ines of my Soul is the story of Ines de Suarez, and her lover, Pedro de Valdivia, as they founded Chile in the 1500's.  Like the United States, Chile was not a vacant plot of land just waiting for someone to find it.  It had been "found" centuries earlier by the Manpuche, the Inca, and other people who the Europeans referred to as "Indians."

The story of the founding of a country could be quite dry.  I am pretty sure that if the nation of Chile was mentioned in my high school text books at all, it was only in a list of countries in South America.  If we had discussed the country any further, the name, Pedro de Valdivia, might have been something that I was supposed to be able to recognize on a multiple choice test, but nothing more.  After reading Ines, today's students could easily write a five page essay on him.  However, here's the problem that I often face:  historical fiction is not historical fact.  Allende wrote in her author's note, "This novel is a work of intuition, but any similarity to events and persons relating to the conquest of Chile is not coincidental."  Hopefully, when they take the ACT, these kids will be able to sort out the standardized test approved "facts" from the fiction that might actually be closer to the truth than the sanitized textbooks are.

Allende's story is full of action.  The battles are detailed.  The crimes are documented.  It is not a politically correct story.  In the US, we feel a ton of guilt about our history of slavery.  I think that we tend to overlook the fact that we didn't invent slavery, and that it went on just about every time a new country was formed and the conquerors needed free labor.  Slavery is a part of the story of the founding of Chile, as is torture, slaughter, and genocide.  I would say, however, that Allende spends a little too much time talking about the sexuality of the women involved in the founding adventure.   It is interesting and a little relevant that Valdivia had a wife, but also lived openly with two concubines at the end of his life.  It is less important that we know who was a considerate lover and who was well endowed.  This bit may have been what Allende felt she that had to include to make Ines appeal to the over 40 book group crowd.   I'm sure that it also helped to hold the high school students' attention!

I thought it was interesting that Allende credits Ines de Suarez and Pedro de Valdivia (and others) with "founding" Chile in Ines.  Wikipedia uses the verb "conquering" instead.  In talking about the creation of the US, we tend to use the verb "discover" to refer (incorrectly) to Columbus, and "colonize" to refer to the pilgrims and their followers.  When we talk about our "founding fathers" we are speaking of the people who created our Constitution, and not the first people to wage war against the Native Americans. 

So, should your read Ines?  If  you are interested in Chile's history, absolutely!  If your children will read it in high school, and you're the kind of parent who likes to quiz them on their reading to prepare them for finals, then yes, you should read it too.  But if you are looking for a quick page turner, this isn't it.

Next up on CD:  Undomestic Goddess by Sophie Kinsella

Still Reading:  The Mystery of Mercy Close by Marian Keyes

Friday, April 19, 2013

Typical Book Group Report - 12

Last night, 9 members of The Typical Book Group got together to talk about What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty.  All but one of us finished it.  The one who hadn't still didn't know who Gina was, which was really the biggest question for the reader. 

We talked a lot (predictably, I suppose) about what we were doing 10 years ago, and what it would be like to forget these last 10 years, as Alice did.  We agreed that it seemed more like Alice forgot 15 or maybe even 20 years, rather than just 10.  Her oldest daughter, who was only 9 or 10 in the story, acted more like our teenage daughters, and it was a little unrealistic that their economic status would change so much so quickly without a lottery ticket or an inheritance.

One thing that we didn't discuss was Alice's muscle memory.  I really liked how even though Alice didn't recognize her purse, her hands knew where to look for her makeup and how to apply it.  Her body also reminded Alice that she had learned to depend upon coffee, even though she hadn't been a coffee drinker before she had kids.  Obviously, this is fiction, but it seems realistic that one's body would just automatically go through the morning's routines, even if one's mind didn't remember what to do first.

We agreed that we liked What Alice Forgot, but that it slowed down after the first 100 pages. 

A few months ago, we discussed The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey.  The Pulitzer people just announced the 2013 winners, and I was surprised to hear that The Snow Child was a finalist.  I guess we are more discerning readers than we realized!

Next month we'll read Tell the Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt.

Still Reading:  The Mystery of Mercy Close by Marian Keyes

Almost Done Listening to:  Ines of my Soul by Isabel Allende

Friday, April 12, 2013


Back in the good old days, and by that I mean 2010, I had 3 big box book stores within 5 miles of my house.  First the Barnes and Noble closed.  Then Borders went into bankruptcy.  And since February of 2011, there has not been a bookstore that I can get to without driving for 20 minutes.  What about the independents, you may ask?  When you have 3 big boxes that close together, there's not much market left for them, and I am not aware of any.

Then it happened.  Books-A-Million moved in to the space that one of the Borders stores left vacant, only about a quarter mile from my house!  It opened yesterday, and I was there with my credit card and two kids today.  I insisted that each kid pick something out ($9.99 [!]Taylor Swift magazine for my daughter, and $4.99 Rolling Stone for my son), and I got The Sweet Life in Paris by David Lebovitz which has been on my TBR list for months.  I also bought into the membership card.  Anything to keep this store open.

I have learned my lesson.  I will not always shop at Amazon.  I will not always shop at Amazon.  I will not always shop at Amazon.  I will not give up shopping at used book sales and checking books out of the library, but when I need a quick gift, or there's something I can't wait to find, B-A-M will be my new best friend.

Still Reading:  The Mystery of Mercy Close by Marian Keyes

Still Listening to:  Ines of my Soul by Isabel Allende

Monday, April 8, 2013

Lost and Found

Remember all of those things that we were never going to do or say when we had kids?  So does Alice Love.  In fact, that's all she remembers.  Alice fell and bumped her head at a spinning class, and somehow forgot the last 10 years of her life.  When she came to, she thought that she was pregnant with her child who was really in 4th grade.  Alice even forgot that she and her husband were in the process of getting divorced.

What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty is the story of Alice, her sister, her mother, and her surrogate grandmother, all of their losses, and how they recover from them.  Alice has lost the most.  She has lost her memory, her marriage, her relationships with everyone who was close to her, and the ideals that she had as a 29 year old mother to be.  39 year old Alice is constantly busy, going from PTA meetings, to the gym, to after school activities, to drinks with her single friends.  After her head injury, Alice can't imagine why she would be doing all of these things, and neglecting the relationships with the people who were important to her.

The first night that I was reading Alice, I couldn't put it down and read almost 100 pages.  The next night I read less, then the next night even less, and so on.  The initial premise of the story was great, and had my attention.  As the story went on though, it became a little predictable.  There were still twists and turns, but the resolution was always in sight.  One nice thing about the story was that it was set in Sydney, Australia.  Hearing about the Christmastime barbecue, and the other reminders of the December summer kept me on my toes.

I read Alice for The Typical Book Group.  We'll discuss it in 10 days, and I'll report back.  All told, I liked it, and would recommend it to someone looking for a lighter read.  Moriarty sold the movie rights, but from what I can see, the movie has gotten lost in development. 

Next Up:  The Mystery of Mercy Close by Marian Keyes

Still Listening to:  Ines of my Soul by Isabel Allende

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Americans Abroad

The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James is a story of bright futures and committed friendships.  It's also a story of regrettable choices and duplicity.  Isabel Archer is a young American woman who has recently lost her parents.  In an act of kindness, that is implied to be somehow self serving, her aunt, Lydia Touchett, brings her to England.  There Isabel charms her cousin, Ralph, and his father, Mr. Touchett, who is expected to die shortly.  In a last minute change to his will, Mr. Touchett decides to make Isabel a wealthy woman.  Isabel is shocked by her good fortune.  Lucky for her, she has her new friend, Madame Merle, to guide her life as a rich bachelorette.

This was the first Henry James book that I have read, and I read it (or actually listened to it) just because I hadn't read him before.  I have to say that I liked him better than Jane Austen.  His characters faced true conflicts, there was good and evil, and there was a little more action than I found in Emma.  The characters' decisions are also more relevant to the modern day reader.  We can relate to the idea of people using one another for their wealth, or of an unfortunate marriage that the parties are still reluctant to leave, even though James was writing in the 1880s.  In fairness, Austen could have been James' grandmother, and her works were from the early 1800s, so they should be expected to be less like the modern day.  I think that Austen's fans would say that this is part of the charm.

A strange thing about The Portrait of a Lady is that all of the major players are US ex-pats living in Europe.  The Touchetts, Isabel, her friends Henrietta and Casper, Gilbert Osmond, and Edward Rosier are all main characters who are originally from the US.  I was trying to figure out why Portrait should be the story of Americans living abroad, as opposed to the story of Europeans living in Europe, or of Americans in America.  I decided that it must have had to do with creating a limited circle of acquaintance, so that there would be reasons for the characters to keep running into each other.  This also served to isolate the characters, so that those who have been in Europe for less time have fewer true friends who they can rely on for advice.

Portrait is told in third person omniscient style, meaning that it is narrated by an unidentified third person who is able to tell us the characters' thoughts.  There were a couple of times where I thought that it was hinted that the narrator was really Henrietta Stackpole.  Henrietta is Isabel's brash friend from the US who is a newspaper correspondent, and who is constantly on the verge of publishing too much about our characters.  I like the idea that the novel could be the culmination of Henrietta's work that she has written but not submitted to the newspapers out of deference to her friendship with Isabel.  I also think that it is clever that this character shares the name of the author, using the feminine variation.

Portrait was a long book, at 656 pages.  Although I enjoyed listening to it on MP3, I think that I would have gotten bored at certain points if I had been reading.  But probably not as bored as I got reading Austen.  Portrait is another book off the list for the Off the Shelf Challenge.

WINNER ANNOUNCED:  The winner of the Glow giveaway is Mary B!  Mary contacted me via email, so I have her contact information and she will be hearing from me shortly.

Next up on CD:  Ines of my Soul by Isabel Allende

Still Reading:  What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty

Monday, April 1, 2013

Glow Giveaway

I'm so sad that you missed my March Industry Requested Review.  April Fools!  There wasn't one.  I got so behind while I was reading The Savage Detectives that I didn't get around to starting The Mystery of Mercy Close by Marian Keyes.  Anyhow . . . my slacking might be good news for you!  To help me catch up, I am going to give away a copy of Glow by Jessica Maria Tuccelli before I even read it.

Amazon describes Glow  like this:

In the autumn of 1941, Amelia J. McGee, a young woman of Cherokee and Scotch-Irish descent, and an outspoken pamphleteer for the NAACP, hastily sends her daughter, Ella, alone on a bus home to Georgia in the middle of the night—a desperate measure that proves calamitous when the child encounters two drifters and is left for dead on the side of the road.

Ella awakens in the homestead of Willie Mae Cotton, a wise root doctor and former slave, and her partner, Mary-Mary Freeborn, tucked deep in the Takatoka Forest. As Ella heals, the secrets of her lineage are revealed.

Shot through with Cherokee lore and hoodoo conjuring, Glow transports us from Washington, D.C., on the brink of World War II to the Blue Ridge frontier of 1836, from the parlors of antebellum manses to the plantation kitchens where girls are raised by women who stand in as mothers. As the land with all its promise and turmoil passes from one generation to the next, Ella's ancestral home turns from safe haven to mayhem and back again.

Jessica Maria Tuccelli reveals deep insight into individual acts that can transform a community, and the ties that bind people together across immeasurable hardships and distances. Illuminating the tragedy of human frailty, the vitality of friendship and hope, and the fiercest of all bonds—mother love—the voices of Glow transcend their history with grace and splendor.

If you would like to win this copy, which was made available by Audrey McGlinchy at Viking and Penguin Books Publicity, simply comment at the end of this post.  I'll give you an easy topic:  Were you fooled this April Fools?  A "yes" or a "no" is fine, but it might be fun to hear the details!  For those of you who are comment impaired, or just feel a little shy about commenting, you can email me at, with "Glow Giveaway" in the subject line, and I will enter you.

If you win the book, and would like to review it, I would be happy to post your review here, or to link to your review if you have your own blog.

LEGALEESE:  One entry per person.  Numbers will be assigned to each entrant, and winner will be randomly picked by number.  I will announce the winner when I post my next review.  I am tearing through What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty, so I would enter sooner rather than later, if I were you!  If you choose to comment as "Anonymous", please leave your first name, so that you will know who you are when I announce the winner.  The winner must then contact me via email with his or her U.S. mailing address, within 7 days.  If the first announced winner fails to respond within that time, the book with go to the second place winner, and so on and so forth.  Got it?  If you have questions you can post those in the comments section too.  Good luck!

Still Reading:  What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty

Still Listening To:  The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

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