Sunday, February 26, 2012

Sunday Salon: February 26, 2012

The Sunday

It has been a while since I have done a Sunday Salon - I am glad to be getting back to it! Work has been out of control lately and it has impinged on my blogging for sure. Case in point - it is almost the end of February and I still haven't posted about my selected 2012 challenges! Well, that ends now - here goes:

Mount TBR Challenge: Hosted by Reader's Block: I am sure you have seen me comment here before about just how many books are on shelves waiting to be read so this challenge is much needed! I am joining at the Pike's Peak level which requires me to read 12 books that were on my shelves prior to Jan 1, 2012. One per month - totally doable!

What's In a Name 5 hosted by Beth Fish Reads: I have attempted this challenge for the past two years but always seem to miss by one book or so. Here are this year's categories:

  • A book with a topographical feature (land formation) in the title: Black Hills, Purgatory Ridge, Emily of Deep Valley 
  • A book with something you'd see in the sky in the title: Moon Called, Seeing Stars, Cloud Atlas 
  • A book with a creepy crawly in the title: Little Bee, Spider Bones, The Witches of Worm 
  • A book with a type of house in the title: The Glass Castle, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, Ape House 
  • A book with something you'd carry in your pocket, purse, or backpack in the title: Sarah's Key, The Scarlet Letter, Devlin Diary 
  • A book with a something you'd find on a calendar in the title: Day of the Jackal, Elegy for April, Freaky Friday, Year of Magical Thinking  

The British Books Challenge hosted by Overflowing Library: The goal of this challenge is to read books by British authors and the requirement is 12 books (again, one per month). I love Britain and especially books by her authors so this one was a no-brainer for me!

Memorable Memoirs Challenge hosted by Betty and Boo Chronicles I love a good memoir so this might not be much of a challenge but I love to participate every year. My goal is to read between 5 and 9 memoirs this year. My participation as a voting memoir of the memoir category for Indie Lit Awards should give me nice head start on this one - I have 5 memoirs to read by the end of Q1.

  Battle of the Prizes (British Version) hosted by Rose City Reader In this challenge, participants are asked to read one winner of the James Tait Black Prize, One winner of the Booker Prize and one book that has won both prizes. The link to the challenge includes lists of books for each category. Some options for me this year are Lotus Eaters and Secret Scripture (Booker) and Line of Beauty and The Sea (James Tait).

The Ireland Reading Challenge hosted by Books and Movies: Ireland holds a special place in my heart and my shelves overflow with books set there and/or written by Irish authors. My goal is to read at the Ceilidh level (10 books). I attended an event on Thursday night at the Center for Fiction and picked up a book I will read for this challenge - Solace by Belinda McKeon. The event included Colm Toibin and Belinda McKeon, two Irish authors, in discussion. It was a great night!

South Asian Challenge hosted by S. Krishna's Books In this challenge, we are asked to read books by South Asian authors. I enjoy books set in this region and have signed up to read 4 books.

  Southern Literature Challenge hosted by Introverted Reader I am excited to include some Southern reads in my reading this year. I will be joining at Level 3 (Have a glass of sweet iced tea, honey") which means I am reading 3 books.

  Europa Editions Challenge : I joined this one last year but failed miserably! I am determined to read at least two Europas this year. Europa has some great books in the collection including some with Immigrant themes which is a special interest of mine.

Finally, I will be joining the other participants in the challenge I am hosting - Immigrant Stories Challenge 2012 I am excited to be hosting this one again - last year's challenge participants read some great books for the challenge and I hope to include some of them in my own picks this year.

Well, there you have it - the challenges have been set out - now off to read! Enjoy the week!

Friday, February 24, 2012

Review: The Underside of Joy by Sere Prince Halverson

The Underside of Joy, author Sere Prince Halverson's debut novel, is a beautifully written story about Ella, a young woman recently married to Joe and living in Sonoma with their two children. She suffers a great loss when Joe is suddenly killed but she can't imagine that this might only be the beginning of what she will lose.

Ella Beene is happy, almost blissfully so, with her husband Joe and his two young children, Annie and Zach. In the three years since Joe and Ella have met, she has mothered Joe's children and created a home with their father. Annie and Zach's mother has abandoned them and Joe is raising them alone when Ella meets the threesome. She steps into this family as wife and mother seamlessly - so much so that when it was not immediately obvious to me that these were not her biological children. But with great happiness comes the "underside" - Joe is tragically killed when he is pulled under by a wave and Ella soon discovers that everything was not quite as it seemed. In addition to revelations about Joe's business and his family, Ella learns that the children's mother may not have actually abandoned them. While grieving for Joe, she faces the fact that she may also lose his children.  

My Thoughts
 I loved this book from page one. The beautiful descriptions allowed me to transport myself to the Sonoma setting and to observe the happy existence Ella had created with Annie, Zach and Joe. In the following passage, Ella describes herself:
My name is Ella Beene and, as one might imagine, I have had my share of nicknames. Of all of them, Joe's was one I downright cherished. I'm not a physical beauty - not ugly, but nothing near what I'd look like if I'd had a say in the matter
That is so well put - "not ugly, but nothing near what I'd look like if I'd had a say in the matter". She continues with some basic physical characteristics - tall, red hair, fair and freckles. From this basic description coupled with her admission to not being ugly but perhaps dissatisfied with some of her looks, I could perfectly picture Ella (fyi - I imagined Julianne Moore). These types of beautifully turned phrases and well drawn descriptions are peppered throughout the book and drew me into the story.

The story reveals itself at a brisk pace - there is revelation after revelation - from the return of the children's mom, Paige, to the fact that Joe's family run business was in more trouble than Ella could have imagined. This pace makes the book very readable - I found myself anxiously turning the pages to get the next installment of the drama and to watch how Ella took each revelation in, processed and made sense of it. To round out the story, there is a colorful supporting cast of characters from Joe's brother and parents to the perplexing Paige who left her children but has complicated reasons for doing so.  

I am not sure that I am doing this book justice (this happens when I really love a book) but trust me, read it!

The author has a great story about her road to getting published and the value of perseverance. You can read about it on her blog - Who Moved My Buddha or check out her facebook page 

I received a copy of this book from Amy at KMSPR for review

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Book Review: First You Try Everything by Jane McCafferty

In First You Try Everything we look inside the marriage of Ben and Evvie and see a deteriorated union in which Ben and Evvie have grown apart even though Evvie is now clinging desperately to their marriage. Despite all signs to the contrary, Evvie believes their marriage is salvageable and she is determined to do everything in her power to hold on to Ben. But their marriage is built on an unsteady foundation - both Ben and Evvie come from troubled childhoods and are somewhat broken - the resulting cracks begin to show themselves as their marriage unravels. Evvie pushes herself and Ben to dangerous lengths in trying to save their marriage - "First You Try Everything" goes way beyond how most couples endeavor to save their marriage.

Evvie and Ben met in college and married young - their early relationship is marked by their need to be together to the exclusion of others. They are one of those couples with only eyes for each other to the point where they are isolated from friends and family - they only need each other. Perhaps their difficult childhoods draw them together and drive them to seek solace in each other. Both Evvie and Ben are passionate about their ideals as a young married couple. Ben eschews the tyranny of a 9-5 job and corporate attire while Evvie protests the mistreatment of animals and refuses to eat meat.

When we meet them at the beginning of the book, however, they are a couple in middle age who have been through the trials of life including a struggle with infertility. Ben has definitely grown away from his ideal young self and finds he is drawn to convention, even energized by being part of the hustle and bustle of rush hour enroute to work in his suit. He is frustrated by the fact that Evvie clings to him and in his eyes, she has evolved little since their early days together. Meanwhile, Evvie is relatively unchanged and her passion and idealism has even taken on a tinge of obsession. She seems to hang onto her old self very desperately and the more Ben pulls away the more Evvie tries to reclaim who she was and what they had. Evvie is unraveling and her judgement is clearly compromised.  

My Thoughts
At the start of this book, I was unsure about it - I had trouble relating to Ben and Evvie and their entire lives, from the dull gray of the Pittsburgh sky to their ordinary, unhappy lives, seemed grim. But as the story progressed, told alternately from Ben and Evvie's perspectives, I became drawn in by their complex, flawed characters. The author does an excellent job of building these characters from their troubled childhoods to their complicated adulthood so that although I really couldn't relate to them I did become fascinated by them. Both Evvie and Ben are flawed and I found there was no obvious "bad guy" in this relationship - despite Evvie's becoming unhinged, Ben tempers his frustration with compassion. In much the same way, Evvie tries to understand Ben's distance. In addition to the character development, the writing is beautiful and I found myself struck by many passages. If you are looking for a psychological journey into a marriage with a complex husband and wife, I recommend this novel.

I reviewed this book as part of TLC Tours - you can check out the reviews of others on the tour here. The book seems to have elicited strong reactions so I encourage you to check out the reviews!

 I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Book Review: Julia's Child by Sarah Pinneo

Julia is a New York City mom with two young boys who is running a fledgling business creating healthy meals for toddlers. She is desperately trying to balance it all and make good on the investment her husband made in her business but despite long hours and some great ideas (Give Peas a Chance), Julia is just barely holding it all together. When an appearance on a morning television show brings unexpected attention and opportunities to Julia and her business, success is within striking distance. But . . . the challenge of balance has arguably gotten worse and there are tradeoffs (think selling out) that Julia must consider. Despite all this talk of hard work and struggling for balance, Julia's Child is laugh out loud funny with a main character you really want to see make it.

Julia's business idea is brilliant - organic, healthy food for toddlers. Moms are generally very conscious of what they are giving their young children to eat and its a time in their lives where many transition to a more organic diet even if just for their kids. But even with a great idea and the ability to leave the corporate world behind to focus on her business and hopefully have more flexible time with her children, Julia finds herself stretched so thin that her Nanny spends much more time with her kids than she does and she is driving her assistant straight out the door. This crazed schedule creates many funny moments throughout the book as Julia hectically shuttles between her business responsibilities and her kids at home I truly enjoyed this quick read. Although I don't have kids, I can relate to the hectic schedule and the desire to make it all work so it was fun to read about Julia's escapades as she tried to hold it all together. I liked the fact that the author allowed Julia to laugh at herself and to have doubts about some of the choices she made - it would have been easy for Julia to become very sanctimonious about the organic food choices she made for her kids but, like many of us who want to eat more organically, Julia has moments of doubts where she wonders if paying $6 for a box of organic crackers is really worth it.

Author Sarah Pinneo has also written a cookbook and this novel ends each chapter with one of "Julia's" healthy toddler recipes. She also has written articles (you can find links on her website) about eating locally and food economics. I think this lends the novel authenticity - the author knows her subject well and therefore it rings true throughout. I have seen this novel compared to I Don't Know How She Does It (which I also loved) and I agree with the comparison - same humor amidst a crazed life with a main character trying to do it all for all the right reasons. If you are a Mom, you will find much to like in this book; but even if you are not but have a hectic schedule and/or struggle with the art of healthier living, there is something in this book for you too!

I received a copy of this books electronically via NetGalley

Monday, February 13, 2012

Books with HEART

Happy Valentine's Day! Books make great gifts-  here is a selection of "heart" themed books to dig into on V-Day . . .

 For the Women's Fiction fan:

Skipping a Beat by Sarah Pekkanen
Heart and Soul by Maeve Binchy
Another Piece of My Heart by Jane Green
 The Home for Broken Hearts by Rowan Coleman

For the Non-Fiction Fan:

First Comes Love Then Comes Malaria by Eva Brown-Waite
Listening is an Act of Love by Dave Isay

For the Literary Fiction/Classics Fan:

The Art of Hearing Heartbeats Jan-Philipp Sendker
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
 Child of My Heart by Alice McDermott

For the Chef:

 The New American Heart Association Cookbook The chili and pumpkin bread recipes are among my favorites  

What are your favorite books with "heart"?

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Review: Bond Girl by Erin Duffy

In Bond Girl by Erin Duffy, we meet Alex Garrett, a recent college grad with her heart set on following her father's footsteps into the world of high finance. She snags a job at the prestigious brokerage firm Cromwell Pierce and embarks on what she imagines will be a fast-paced, exciting career. Imagine her disappointment when she arrives at the firm and is assigned a metal folding chair (no desk) with her assigned nickname "girlie" emblazoned across the back in wite-out. Faced with lots of testosterone, outright sexism and grueling hours, Alex tries to make her way on Wall Street and enjoy her life along the way.

Alex is smart and tough but a little naive when she arrives at her new employers - she expects luxury but is met with crass male colleagues and absolutely no respect. It is clear she is going to have to prove herself both by performance in crunching numbers and also in her ability to shrug off the comments of her co-workers and show she can hold her own amidst their practical jokes. The metal chair is only the beginning - Alex is the dedicated pizza courier, she endures comments about her body and works long into the night on spreadsheets and formulas. At one point, Alex's boss Chick even sends her to the Bronx to procure a massive wheel of cheese as punishment for a mistake made in calling an order on the desk. Despite the humiliation and reminders that she is the low girl on the totem pole, Alex develops a collegial relationship with the guys at the office and starts to see them as big brothers.

There is one male colleague, however, that she does not see as a big brother but rather a love interest - Will Patrick. Despite the fact that inter-firm relationships have been strictly prohibited by Chick, Alex takes her chances and starts to date Will. Their relationship is casual - they meet up late at night for a dinner and spend the night together but rarely see each other on the weekends. Although the top secret nature of their relationship excites Alex, the fact that her "boyfriend" is never around for the simple things like helping to pack when she is moving starts to wear on Alex. She has begun to master life at the firm - she even has her own desk - but mastering this relationship with Will is proving much more difficult.  

My Thoughts  
 This was a fun read and reminded me a lot of The Devil Wears Prada - even the covers look similar with the red high heel. Both books feature a young, female protagonist working in the field of her dreams while being tortured in a hostile work environment. They both love life in the Big City and are intent to take on everything it has to offer. The fact that they are antagonized on a daily basis makes you as the reader root for them and want to see them succeed. The books differ, however, in the fact that Alex is paid handsomely for her trials and tribulations while Andrea (main character in Devil Wears Prada) barely ekes out a living for all her hard work. That mega salary and what Alex is willing to put up with in order to make it does erode a little of my sympathy for her as a protagonist.

With that said, Alex is a smart and sharp protagonist and reading about her adventures in the city is a lot of fun. I whizzed through this book in no time and it really took me away from the ho-hum of daily life. I would never have the guts the put up with Alex does but it was fun to watch her do it! 
Thank you to Chelsey at William Morrow for sending a review copy of this book

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Review: O Come Ye Back to Ireland by Niall Williams and Christine Breen

O Come Ye Back to Ireland by Niall Williams and Christine Breen is an engaging memoir about the couple's first year in County Clare, Ireland. They moved to the quiet, rural setting from their busy, urban lives in New York City. The book recounts their losses and their revelations during the year and everything the learned along the way. It almost made me pick up and move to my own little oasis in Ireland . . . almost.

Christine Breen is the American born daughter of Irish parents attending University College Dublin when she meets Niall Williams who was born in Ireland's capital city. Ultimately, they marry and set up life in NY with jobs in Manhattan and a home just outside the city. Christine's family home in Kiltumper, West Clare becomes available after the death of her uncle and a seed is planted as she finds herself inexplicably drawn back there. At the same time, the couple has begun to grown weary of their lives in the city. Niall writes:
It [Kiltumper] struck us as so utterly different from anywhere we had ever been, so remote, so very rural. Each time we shook our heads, and returned to New York. Why then did we change our minds and commit ourselves to the West of Ireland? Because when we walked up the streets of Manhattan too many people pushed too hard to cross the street or squeezed too hard to get into too few subways ...And there would suddenly be the sense of a place far from the rushing streets, a place remote from the extravagant, urgent business of today, an old place growing older in the rain.

Clare Coastline - credit
After wrestling with the pros and cons of such a big move - afterall, the couple were moving to Ireland in the 80's at the height of great emigration from Ireland - they decide to take the leap and head for the West of Ireland. The book recounts their initial shocks and struggles as they try to adjust to life in a very rural, albeit picturesque, rugged West Clare. They arrive to their cottage which is in need of a lot of work and has little furniture and try to make it a home. Something as seemingly simple as purchasing a car becomes an ordeal as they try to navigate the rules of road taxes and licenses; this is made all the more difficult by the lack of direct dial telephone service in their small village. The convenience of picking up the phone and trying to get something "sorted" was not to be had. So the couple waited in relative isolation as they tried to get the many pieces of their life in Ireland in order - home, car, furniture. Niall speaks here to that isolation:
We saw a clearing in the south; the more land we saw from the window, the less isolated we felt. .... to Chris and me the overwhelming gloom of sheer aloneness that hangs in the air in rural Ireland is a potent force. It is at once the greatest positive and negative thing about the countryside
Village, Clare - credit
The people of their village, however, are their salvation. The steady couple next door visits with freshly made food and brings welcome company on cold, otherwise lonely evenings. Michael and Pauline head to the bog to help Niall and Christine with the back breaking work of cutting the turf - turf which is necessary to heat their home and cook their food but requires a grueling series of steps over many weeks and months to get it ready to burn. The story of their first Christmas and the story of the death of a much loved woman in the village perfectly highlights the tight knit farming community they had become part. In both instances, all the families in the village pull together to cook and bake readying themselves for visitors and they go to each others homes to share a bit of food and some stories. It is the neighbors that ultimately sustain Christine and Niall in that first year of adjustment.  

My Thoughts 
I was captivated by this book on many levels. First and foremost, it is very well written - there is almost a lyrical tone to many of the passages. There is a touch of humor as the couple muse at the new world in which they find themselves. Perhaps most of all, however, is the setting. The West of Ireland, although rugged and spare, has a certain draw. As I have mentioned before on the blog, my Mom is from the West and we went "home" to Ireland most summers to visit my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins in a small farming village not unlike Kiltumper. Much of what amazed and frustrated them about the area were things I could relate to and reminded me of the happy times we spent in Ireland. Every time I visit I consider whether or not I could live there and feel pulled to the country; each time, however, I decide it is too big of change. Perhaps that is why the story of this couple seems especially compelling.

Emigration is the theme on which this book is built and that seems appropriate in a country which has in many ways been defined by waves of emigration. This scene described by Niall so perfectly captures the reality of emigration:
To know the real story of the West of Ireland, spend a day in Shannon Airport at the foot of the stairs to the departure lounge. They come in little clusters, farming families dressed in their best clothes, with a son or daughter moving slightly ahead in anticipation of the dreaded moment of goodbye. Mothers' faces are damp with tears, fathers are stiff with emotion, and they all grasp the rails of the moving stairs. It is joyous and sad at once. An old Irish image, the farewell has lived on through centuries of immigration and is as real today as it ever was . . . . Shannon airport is a an emotional place for people in the West. More than an airport, it is an escape hatch to America for the young and the symbol of Ireland's massive unemployment problem.
The image of traveling to Shannon in our best is very vivid for me as I remember seeing my grandfather in his suit when we came through arrivals in Shannon at the beginning of our trip and in that same suit with tears in his eyes as we went back up to Shannon six weeks later to return to NY. I never realized it then but my grandparents had to relive the farewells and departures every year without knowing if we would make it back - or they would be there- the next year. Obviously I felt a personal connection to this book but even without that this is a charming memoir about the bravery to start all over and what you learn along the way. It gives a peek into real Irish country life and all that comes along with it. If you like Ireland or memoirs or stories about starting over, you will find something to love in this book.

I never would have found this book if not for fellow blogger Kristen at Booknaround - I often find gems in her reviews and thank her for introducing me to this book!