Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Ireland Reading Challenge - Completed

Hard to imagine another year has gone by (I feel old every time I say that!) but it has and so has the Ireland Reading Challenge hosted by Carrie at Books and Movies. Ireland holds a special place in my heart - my Mom is from there and I spend a lot of time there with grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins when I was growing up.
Kissing the Blarney Stone (credit: Blarney Castle)

So, I love to read a good book (fiction or non) set in the Emerald Isle. I signed up for the challenge at the Kiss the Blarney Stone level (6 books) and read:

  Dance Lessons by Aine Greaney (click for review): This book is set in the rugged West and explores the transgressions against a mother and how those are passed to her son.

Ellis Island by Kate Kerrigan (click for review): This book chronicles the story of Ellie who leaves Ireland to work in the US at the turn of the century - it follows her adventures and her heartbreak at leaving her love back in Ireland. This is the first in a trilogy and I am anxiously awaiting the next book.

Shannon by Frank Delaney (review to come): I listened to this on audiobook and I think I will listen to all future books by the author on audio - he has a great narration voice and a lilting Irish accent - the perfect companion in the car or while out and about.

An Irish Country Christmas by Patrick Taylor (review to come): Another audiobook selection. The accent in this book is a little different because it is from the North but also nice to listen to. The adventures of the crew of Ballybucklebo are heartwarming and the Christmas setting makes it even more so.

One for Sorrow, Two for Joy by Elisa Juska (review to come): This author is not Irish but her character does flee to Ireland when she has marital problems. It is a fun story, easy read and uncelebrated find.

O Come Ye Back to Ireland by Christine Breen and Niall Williams (review to come): Christine Breen and her husband Niall Williams leave the bustle of NYC to settle in Christine's great-uncle's homestead in the rural West Clare countryside. The book chronicles their first year in Clare - this book completely charmed me and so much of what they experienced reminds me of my grandparents' home and what we would find when we went "home" for the summer. There are sequels to this book and I cannot wait to get to them!

I already have another pile of books ready for the 2012 Challenge - Carrie will have the sign-up post up soon so drop by and sign up!

Friday, November 25, 2011

Thankfully Reading Weekend 2011

Happy (belated) Thanksgiving! I spent a lovely day with my parents enjoying Thanksgiving yesterday and even experimented with some gluten-free holiday fare for my first holiday season on a GF diet. There were some things I missed but all in all, I was happy with what I was able to cobble together. I hope you all enjoyed your Thanksgiving treats and spending the day with loved ones!

It is great to have a 5 day weekend - no work and lots of time to read! Jenn at Jenn's Bookshelves is hosting the Thankfully Reading weekend which offers a little community for those of reading with the extra spare time this weekend. I love this idea! Like last year, I am using the time to read some books that will help me finish my challenges for the year (help being the operative word because once again there will be some challenges I don't finish - when will I learn?) I made a nice dent today in O Come Ye Back to Ireland by Niall Williams and Christine Breen - I am really enjoying reading about this couple's first year living in rural Ireland after leaving NYC behind for the quiet, country life of the West of Ireland. The book is one of my selections for the Ireland Reading Challenge.

I have a few other books on the docket and hope to get to at least one more - I am also listening to an audiobook which I really enjoyed at the gym today (I usually am a music-only exerciser). A good friend is getting married in Annapolis tomorrow so I am heading down on the train in the morning. It will be good to see my college friends and help the bride and groom celebrate! The train will also afford me some uninterrupted reading time - "uninterrupted" is not guaranteed at home!

Do you have reading planned for the weeekend? What was your favorite part of Thanksgiving Day?

Monday, November 21, 2011

Review: Exposure by Therese Fowler

Exposure by Therese Fowler is centered around the very current topic of "sexting". A young high school couple, Amelia Wilkes and Anthony Winter, are smart, popular and in love. Carefully exploring the physical side of their relationship, they take some naked photos of each other on their phones and share them with each other via text and email. When Amelia's wealthy, over protective father discovers the photos and involves an ambitious DA hoping to make an example of the young adults, things quickly spiral out of control. This book is fast-paced and engaging.

Fowler depicts a community - including the wealthy Wilkes's and the comfortable but struggling to keep up with their wealthier neighbors Winter's - to which many can relate. Both families are raising young adults by trying to give them privileges like a private education in an effort to give them the best start in life. Amelia's father is, in particular, very anxious for his daughter to succeed. The son of an alcoholic mother, Mr. Wilkes had a rough childhood and he became successful as the owner of car dealerships in spite of his lack of education.  Despite this success, he always felt inferior for not having an education and the polish of privilege and he is determined that Amelia will have every advantage.  Meanwhile, Ms. Winter is a single mother who has raised her son Anthony with the support of her parents.  Anthony is able to attend private school because his mother is a teacher at the school.  Amelia and Anthony come from different economic backgrounds but are both essentially "good kids" exploring young love.  As young kids are wont to do, they made some bad choices which had drastic consequences that threaten their futures.

This book is fast-paced and engaging.  As things spiral out of control for Amelia and Anthony, there are unexpected twists and turns which make for good reading.  I did, however, find my patience with the couple beginning to wane at one point.  The first few mistakes they made were understandable and the consequences seemed disproportionate to their intent but after a while I just wanted to shake them both!  I couldn't believe they were willing to completely jeopardize their futures to stay together - I guess I am little too far away from young love to relate!  Despite that quibble, I enjoyed the book and would recommend.

Interestingly, the book was inspired by an event in the author's son's life.  In an interview with the author,  Fowler did not detail the specifics of the event but did say her heretofore well-behaved son came to her one day and admitted he had made a mistake and was going to be arrested.  This personal experience is likely what lent the realism to the "ripped from the headlines" novel - this realism makes the book a success because you can imagine easily being caught in a similar situation

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Audiobook Review: 40 Love by Madeline Wickham

40 Love by Madeleine Wickham (aka Sophie Kinsella)
Unabridged; Macmillan Audio
Released: August 30, 2011
Length: 7 hours, 19 minutes
Narrator: Katherine Kellgren

40 Love is a light comedy which exposes four couples and what drives them to succeed in the climb up the social ladder. They all gather for a weekend at the country home of Caroline and Patrick Chance and the feature event of the weekend is a tennis tournament - how very English! Each couple is at a different place on the social ladder - Patrick and Caroline are quite well-off thanks to Patrick's healthy salary in investment banking; Don and his daughter Valerie are also comfortable but Valerie still works hard for a living to the point that she has ignored her personal life; Charles and Cressida are at the zenith of the social ladder thanks to Cressida's inheritance which Charles has happily lived off since they were married; Stephen and Annie are the most down to earth of the group - Stephen is pursuing his doctorate and the couple live modestly while he is only on a stipend. As the couples compete on the tennis court, they also compete in terms of who has more and how they can try to surpass each other. As the weekend progresses, each person reveals a little of themselves and it is clear these couples are not completely honest with their spouses or the group about their finances. Everyone is so desperate to reach the next rung on the ladder that they make ill-advised decisions and get into petty squabbles with each other. When Charles's ex arrives, things really get interesting - and the ill-advised decisions continue. In a story like this, there is a risk that the characters would be very unlikeable but Wickham reveals the humanity in each character which makes them likable despite their foibles. My favorite couple is Stephen and Annie - they lack pretension and although they desire more money, they want it for the right reason and are not merely trying to best their friends.

The story is one big romp which keep things light and funny. Wickham's trademark humor and pacing definitely works in this book. Katherine Kellgren does an excellent job of narrating this book - she changes her inflection just enough with each character so that the listener can differentiate them. I just love a British accent so I found her easy to listen to. If you are looking for a lighthearted, amusing listen, 40 Love is for you!

I received a copy of the audiobook from Audiobook Jukebox.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Monday Mailbox: November 14, 2011

After touring different blogs for the past few months, Mailbox Monday is hosted this month at the dedicated blog for the meme. Here's what came into my house since I last posted a Mailbox Monday:
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett for book club this month. I have started reading it and it is as good as everyone has said!

Swim Back To Me by Ann Packer from a good friend. We were in a book club together and read Dive From Clausen's Pier so she thought I would like this short story collection from the same author.

London Under by Peter Ackroyd was a twitter win from Doubleday Publishers

From Netgalley:
Gold Boy, Emerald Girl by Yiyun Lee - this collection of stories will let me meet the "jewel" category of the What's In A Name 4 challenge - yahoo!

E-book from #earlyread sponsored by Random House: Catherine the Great: A Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie. At 656 pages, this has me a bit intimidated!  

 What came into your home this week?

Friday, November 11, 2011

Review: The Orphan Sister by Gwendolen Gross

The Orphan Sister by Gwendolen Gross tells the story of Clementine, one sister of a triplet set of girls. She, however, is the odd one out because her sisters are fraternal twins and always seem much more connected to each other than either is to Clementine. With a scandal involving her father brewing in the background, Clementine explores her "otherness" and tries to figure out not only where she fits in the world but also in her own family.

The book opens with the revelation that Clementine's father is mysteriously missing; Clementine and her twin sisters, Odette and Olivia, alternate between imagining worst case scenarios like their Dad is dead in the street somewhere and suspicion of him and where he might be. It is clear the women - even Odette and Olivia who seem closer to their father and are certainly fulfilling his expectation that they follow in his footsteps with a career in medicine - distrust their father. The family crisis of their father's disappearance instigates an examination by Clementine of her life as an outsider within her own family. Although the three girls are close and can sometimes read each other's minds in the way multiples often report, Olivia and Odette are much more in sync than either sister is with Clementine. Here, Clementine remembers this special connection even present in childhood:
Twins-and triplets, for that matter- understand each other in ways other people can't . . . When we were little and played duck-duck-goose, three of us enough to make games fun -no need for schoolmates, we were a class all by ourselves - Odette and Olivia knew whom they would goose, when even I didn't know which sister I'd pick to chase me in the circle, to put me in the pot. In a way, my own secret language with my sisters was to see their couplehood in a way no one else could. It didn't seem fair that my gift was related to their relationship, when their gifts were related to each other. No one was my doppelganger.
The lack of a doppelganger and what it means to Clementine's sense of self pervades other areas of her life. She struggles in her relationship with her father. She wants to step out of the mold her father has cast for all three girls. Unlike her two sisters who attended Harvard, Clementine shuns the Ivy League and attends Oberlin. She doesn't want to pursue medicine - Olivia and Odette become doctors- but decides to apply to vet school. Her refusal to conform to her father's expectations despite his attempts to control her with his money creates a tension in their relationship and further separates Clementine from her family. Clementine also struggles in her romantic relationships. She is haunted by the memory of her relationship with her college boyfriend and no one can seem to measure up. She is very close to her friend Eli and their relationship has potential to become romantic but that also is not easy for Clementine. By contrast, her two sisters are married and both expecting their first child. Again, their is a "differentness" in Clementine and she just doesn't seem to navigate the world as easily as her sisters.

This book is very rich - the characters are well drawn and their relationships with each other are thoroughly explored. In addition, the thread of the missing father adds intrigue to the story and I found myself wanting to know what had happened and what family secrets would be revealed. I was fascinated by Clementine's relationship with her family - especially her father; the family dynamic scenes were definitely my favorite. I had more difficulty relating to her romantic challenges and wanted to tell her "to get on with it". If you enjoy a book that centers on family dynamics and how they shape its members as their head out into the world, The Orphan Sister is for you.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Review: A Watershed Year by Susan Schoenberger

A Watershed Year by Susan Schoenberger tells the story of Lucy, a young professor in her thirties who has recently lost her friend, Harlan, to cancer. Before dying, he set up a series of emails to arrive in her inbox in the months following his death - in these emails he delivers advice to his friend and speaks things previously unsaid between the two. When he tells Lucy she would make a wonderful mother, Lucy begins exploring adoption and begins her journey to motherhood. This beautiful story is a about Lucy's loss of Harlan and the insight be delivers in these emails and about her experience trying to adopt and bond with a young boy; but more than all that it is about Lucy's self-discovery and how both the loss of Harlan and the process of getting her son drive that self-discovery.

Lucy's relationship with Harlan is interesting in that it is told almost completely in reflection - Harlan dies right at the beginning of the book so his character and relationship with Lucy is told as she looks back on their time together and feels the loss of his death. Their relationship is firmly in the "friend" category but it veers at times towards a more romantic place which helps to explain why their relationship - and therefore his postmortem advice- has such a powerful impact on Lucy. It is almost as if this tremendous loss and the advice from her trusted friends propels her life forward at time when she is otherwise "stuck". Her desire to become a mother is crystallized when Harlan emails that he feels she is destined for motherhood and so she begins the adoption process.

The book really has two main threads - Lucy's relationship with Harlan and then her road to adopt and the relationship with her adoptive son. They are obviously linked in that Harlan essentially prompts her move to adopt. In facing the challenges of a foreign adoption, Lucy relies on much of what she has learned about herself from facing Harlan's illness and loss. Of course, motherhood brings a host of new realizations. For example, after the difficult trip home from Russia with her newly adopted son, Lucy leaves her carry-on unattended in the airport when she suddenly realizes she has lost sight of her son in the chaos of the baggage claim area. When she has found her son, a woman comments to Lucy that she shouldn't leave her bag unattended:
 Lucy had almost nothing left, just a shallow well of shame to berate herself for losing track of the one thing she would always-always - have to remember.
Clearly, leaving her bag unattended was the least of her problems and the enormity of being someone's mother hit her.

A Watershed Year is beautifully written and moves very quickly. Even though Lucy is reflecting and discovering, the story is not necessarily told from inside Lucy's head but instead in dialogue and action. In addition to being so well written and to moving quickly with a likable main character, this book is thought provoking (which makes it an excellent choice for bookclubs). I found myself considering a number of things after finishing this novel - what would it take to spur me to take action on certain areas of my life? Would it take the loss of someone close to make me consider what I really wanted and what I was willing to do to get it? What messages would l leave for someone close to me?  

How might you answer some of these questions?

You can read other reviews of this book by checking out the blogs on the TLC Book Tour and also read more about the author (including what sparked the idea for the novel) on Susan Schoenberger's website.  

Thank you to Trish from TLC Book Tours for including me on the tour and for providing a review copy of this book.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Sunday Salon: November 6, 2011

The Sunday Salon.com

Today was a great day in the city - it's Marathon Sunday! The New York City Marathon took place today and spectators were out in force to cheer the more than 40,000 runners. I am lucky enough to have friends with an apartment right across from the 59th Street Bridge - they hosted a party and we had a great view of the runners as they crossed the bridge from Queens to Manhattan (about Mile 16). We enjoyed mimosas, bloody mary's and assorted brunch items while cheering the runners. I did head out onto 1st avenue so I could cheer for them from beside the course - I know how much cheering means to the runners! Here are some pics from the day:
59th Street Bridge
View of Runners From Party Location
Some bunnies (um, runners) hamming it up
Rounding the corner of 1st Avenue (catch the guy on left all in yellow)
In Case You Missed It

The Next 15 Minutes by Kim Kircher  This memoir chronicles the author's experience waiting for a liver transplant.  Kim Kircher is a ski patroller who uses her experience from the slopes to help her cope with the rollercoaster of her husband's health crisis.  The memoir is remarkably well written and will appeal to outdoor enthusiasts but also to those that just enjoy an inspiring, realistic read.

Falling for Me by Anna David Anna David spends a year following the advice of the iconic Helen Gurley Brown as she tries to find love (or least a sustained relationship) in the city.  This memoir hit close to home in many places but the author's wit kept things light enough for an enjoyable read. She discovers the secret to finding a man is not learning to roast a chicken or the right clothes but loving herself first.  Simple enough advice but not always so easy to do. 

I have been on a memoir kick recently but I want to give it a rest since I am a  voting member in the Biography/Memoir category of the  Indie Lit Awards.  Have you voted for your favorite books published in 2011 in this or any of the other categories?  There is still time - nominations are open until December 31st - but why not stop by today and nominate some of your favorites?

The giveaway for Out of Oz by Gregory Maguire ends tomorrow.  Enter for a chance to win!

Hope you all had a great weekend!

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Saturday Snapshot - Nov 5, 2011

Saturday Snapshot is hosted by Alyce of At Home With Books
Me- NY City Marathon - 1998
Tomorrow will be the 41st running of the New York City Marathon and more than 45,000 runners will take to the streets of New York City's 5 boroughs to conquer the 26.2 mile distance. I have run NYC three times and each times the crowds made the event for me - especially when I hit the dreaded wall at Mile 20 in upper Manhattan - their cheering and encouragement spurred me to push on.

I will be out tomorrow doing my part to cheer on this year's participants because I know just how much it means. Of course, I get something out of cheering too - inspiration. As Kathrine Switzer said, "If you are losing faith in human nature, go out and watch a marathon." Good luck to all the runners!

Friday, November 4, 2011

Review: The Next 15 Minutes by Kim Kircher

The Next 15 Minutes: Strength From the Top of the Mountain is a memoir by Kim Kircher, a ski patroller who works the slopes at a ski resort in Washington state; she rescues skiers and performs avalanche control. The book, although it talks about that part of her life, is about the experience of watching helplessly as her husband's health deteriorated while he waited for a life-saving liver transplant. In beautifully written prose, she draws parallels between her life as a mountain rescuer and her life as wife to her gravely ill husband. She deftly translates the survival skills honed on the mountain to surviving the challenging months waiting for a liver to come available for her husband.

Kim Kircher is used to living life on the edge - as a ski patroller she takes calculated risks in setting explosives to cause avalanches on at risk slopes and runs. By identifying the slopes most at risk for an avalanche and forcing an avalanche, the ski patrol ensures the unpredictable slope doesn't give way while skiers are on it later in the day. She describes a number of harrowing scenes in which she just escapes ahead of the avalanche or where the fuse to her explosive is burning dangerously close to her hand. Although these situations are risky, Kim is totally in control of the risk - in many ways, she lives her life trying to control risk whether it be by performing avalanche control or by managing her blood sugar carefully to stave off the long term damage from her diabetes. When her husband becomes seriously ill and needs a liver transplant to survive, however, she is decidedly out of control and is faced with a situation where can't manage every detail and thereby exert control over something but instead just needs to navigate and take things as they come. She navigates much the way one does on a steep and windy ski slope - taking it in little pieces, letting the turns take you instead of fighting them, taking strength from recognizing how much you have already tackled and letting that strength get you to bottom of the mountain.

Kim and her husband John's story is compelling - they are both young, newly married and living life to the fullest when John became so ill and the course of their lives changes. But the compelling story is not what makes this memoir so good - it is the quality of the writing. I really enjoy a good memoir but good writing is not always a given in the genre - often the memoir's draw is its subject or story but the writing may not impress.  Kircher, however, writes beautifully with tremendous insight and articulates emotions that really resonate with the reader. For example, in the following passage, Kim reflects on a conversation with her mother while she sits in the waiting room at the Mayo Clinic:

Now in Rochester, I had to admit it. I couldn't do this alone. But I was afraid that around Mom, my mask of strength would fall. She'd find a chink in my armor. She'd reach into that small entry with her slender fingers and extract handfuls of my sorrow, holding it for herself, as if by harboring my pain, she could keep it from me.

Here she draws a parallel between the changes to slopes over time and changes that happen to individuals as they face stressors:

But once tracked, snow changed forever, losing its soft, fluffy nature and becoming work-hardened. Those turns stabilized the snowpack against avalanches. Working snow helped it withstand the harsh rigors of stress and weather. It strengthened under stress, much like the human intellect. Like tracks through a once-naive enthusiasm, life had a away of hardening a person.

It may be grim to think about life hardening a person but also realistic and laced with hope because, like the snowpack, we strengthen under stress. Certainly something to hold on to as you hang on and weather a difficult period- 15 minutes at a time.

Thank you to Meryl Moss Media Relations for providing a copy of this book for review