Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Good Father by Diane Chamberlain

The Good Father by Diane Chamberlain explores the obligations and bonds of parenthood through the stories of three sets of parents who are all loosely connected. At the center of all of the stories is four year old Bella - the adults in the novel all try to do what is best for the young girl amidst challenging circumstances. How will they protect Bella while trying to overcome their own pasts and demons?

Travis Brown was nineteen when his daughter Bella was born and he has taken care of her alone for the past four years. He is obviously devoted to the little girl and doesn’t dwell on any regrets over giving up college or missing out on his early adulthood. As the novel opens, Travis has lost his job and is struggling to make ends meet. He worries about how he will care for Bella while looking for a job. He meets Erin in a coffee shop and notes her easy manner with Bella and a plan is hatched.

Erin is living in a rental apartment near the coffee shop because she is taking time away from her husband, Michael. After the loss of their daughter young daughter Carolyn, the couple are having problems connecting as they work through their grief differently. Erin cannot fathom rejoining “the real world” by returning to her job as a pharmacist while Michael has thrown himself into his work. She prefers to spend her time on a support group website for parents who have lost children; she heads to the coffee shop because it is anonymous and offers wi-fi. Her anonymous bubble is burst when Bella and Travis come in one day and Erin finds herself drawn to the little girl.

 Robin is the fiancee of Dale Hendricks who is the son of a political family and running for Mayor of Beaufort, North Carolina. Although she is aware that the Hendricks family have groomed her, Robin feels fortunate to be marrying Dale and to be joining the Hendricks family. She has much to feel thankful for - she suffers from a congential heart abnormality which limited her growing up as her overprotective father restricted her activity in order to protect her weak heart. So as not to give anything away, I won’t say how Robin is connected to Bella - it is better revealed in the book.

My Thoughts 
This is the second book by Diane Chamberlain which I have read (review of The Lies We Told) and it did not disappoint. Told from the viewpoints of the three narrators, the characters are all very well developed without including unnecessary details which distract from the story and slow down the pace of the read. I found I liked most of the characters and wanted to see things work out for them as the story progressed - I could even read a sequel that focused more specifically on Erin. I am interested to see how things turn out for her and Michael. All in all, this is an enjoyable read with well developed characters - a great way to spend a few afternoons.

Find additional reviews of the book, guest posts and clues to the scavenger hunt on the other blog tour stops.

You can chat live with the author on Thursday, May 31 at 3pm ET on

I'll be there - will you?

Thank you to Erin from Media Muscle for providing a review copy of the book

Friday, May 18, 2012

Review: Lucky Child by Loung Ung

Loung Ung lived in Cambodia with her family. When the Khmer Rouge assumed control of the country in the seventies, much of her family were brutally murdered. Ung recounts that period of her life in First They Killed My Father; Lucky Child continues with the story of her immigration to the United States at the age of ten and her journey back to Cambodia for the sister she left behind. This memoir poignantly captures the immigrant experience of Luong but it also speaks to the power of a sibling connection and how it drives Luong back to a place where she had suffered so much.

The memoir opens with Loung’s arrival in Vermont from Cambodia with her brother and sister in law. We learn that they have left behind family members including their sister Chou because there wasn’t enough money to take everyone - as the youngest, Loung is selected as the “lucky child”. There is a heart wrenching parting scene as Loung leaves her village to travel to the US and is literally pulled away from her last surviving sister and clings on to her until their hands no longer touch. The absence of the touch of her sister’s hand and the guilt over being the chosen one will haunt Loung as she settles into her life in Vermont.

The Ungs face typical immigrant challenges as they settle into their new lives. Even as their plane from Cambodia descends to the airport, Loung’s sister in law insists she put on a clean new shirt so she doesn’t look “off the boat”. Before even setting foot on foreign soil, the Ung’s are aware of their otherness and strive to minimize and conceal it. Of course, their immigrant story is heightened by all they have left behind and the memories that haunt them- I can’t imagine bearing the insults which are often part of assimilation while also mourning the loss of so many family members. Loung and her brother Meng are not only alone in the United States but truly alone in the world after the deaths of  their siblings and parents.

In many ways, their sister Chou is equally alone in Cambodia. As the chapters alternate between Luong’s new life in the United States with Chou’s in Cambodia, a contrast is drawn between their lives but there is also an interesting parallel.  This juxtaposition serves as a reminder of no matter the struggles faced by immigrants, often the life they have left behind is even more difficult. As Loung faces the sting of shame when she uses food stamps, Chou struggles to have enough rice for each meal. Chou is surrounded by the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge regime including all the suffering of a people in a land that has been systematically decimated. Luong is constantly haunted by the memories of what she witnessed while in Cambodia and the loss of those closest to her.

Lucky Child is very readable, despite the sometimes difficult subject matter, and I had to remind myself several times that this was a memoir and not a work of fiction. Luong tells her story with such honesty but also without sentimentality. She frankly recounts her experiences without a trace of self-pity. This very straightforward style adds to the power of the book. In Lucky Child, Loung bears witness to the aftermath of the horror of the genocide in Cambodia and in doing so ensures the atrocities are not forgotten.

Lucky Child is the second book by Loung Ung - her third book, Lulu in the Sky picks up where Lucky Child leaves off and recounts her move into adulthood. You can see reviews of all of Ung's books by checking out the other stops on the TLC Book Tour. 

Monday, May 14, 2012

Review and Giveaway: The Year of the Gadfly by Jennifer Miller

The Year of the Gadfly by Jennifer Miller is an interesting combination of coming of age and psychological thriller. The novel equally balances episodes of high school angst with a gripping mystery that keeps the pages turning - in fact, I was gripped from the first pages and couldn’t put this one down.

The book opens with the arrival of the Duponts in Nye, Massachusetts where fourteen year old Iris will start school at the prestigious Mariana Academy. Iris is precocious with a keen interest in journalism - so keen that she travels to school with a briefcase and carries on conversations with the deceased Edward R. Murrow. Upon arriving at Mariana, Iris is looking for a “big story” which she can break in the school’s newspaper. She doesn’t have to look far - the school’s Prisom Party offers plenty of potential intrigue and Iris sets about learning everything she can about the storied academy and its secret society.

In addition to Iris’s point of view, the story is also told from the point of view of two past students. Lily Morgan is the daughter of the headmaster who left the school under interesting circumstances in 2000. Jonah Kaplan attended Mariana at the same time as Lily and is now back at the academy as a biology teacher (Iris is one of his students). The Mariana Academy and their role in its murky history connects all three narrators and they each reveal another piece of the many mysteries which underlie this novel.

As with many books set in high school, Year of the Gadfly explores the science of fitting in and the devastating results when one does not fit in. The children at Mariana Academy are under intense pressure to succeed at the competitive prep school. Perhaps that brings out the worst in these students because they seem inordinately cruel to each other and the secret society plays a special role in the bullying perpetrated by the student body. The scenes in which students are blatantly left out are expertly written - I could feel the sting of rejection just reading them.

The Year of the Gadfly is ambitious - it combines coming of age with psychological thriller and includes three narrators recounting two distinct periods in the Mariana Academy history. Toss in the eccentric Iris who speaks to the smoking apparition of Edward R. Murrow and you have a book with the potential to be disjointed or bizarre. However, it is a credit to the author that the book is cohesive with each scene and sentence sitting well together and adding to the story. This is a gripping novel which gives the reader much to consider - I think about these characters and the storied Mariana Academy.

 I read this book as part of the TLC Book Tour for the novel - you can see more reviews from others on the tour at the book's page on TLC.

I am pleased to have one copy of this novel to giveaway - please leave a comment below with a way to contact you for your chance to win. Winners will be selected next Monday, May 21st. US and Canada only, please.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Review: The Wedding Beat by Devan Sipher

The Wedding Beat by Devan Sipher is a romantic comedy and it is unique in that it features a male protagonist. Gavin Greene writes the “Vows” column for The New York Times so his life is all weddings, all the time. Despite the healthy dose of skepticism for everlasting love given to him by his job, Gavin is a romantic at heart who is looking for true love and a partner. He has been unlucky in love but when he meets Melinda at a party he is finally compelled to overcome his insecurities and turn his luck around. Easier said than done - they part without making a real connection and Gavin is left to search the city for the one he believes will be his true love.

The Wedding Beat is humorous but with more serious truths weaved throughout. I enjoyed the sarcastic wit of Gavin and found myself chuckling throughout the book. For example, there is this comment as Gavin worries about losing his job at The Paper:
I also loved this exchange with his parents via cell phone - I have had almost the exact same call with my parents more times than I care to count:
“I’m putting you on speakerphone in the car. Can you hear us?”
“I can hear you. Where are you?”
“Gavin, tell us if you hear us”, she repeated.
“You hit the mute button”, I heard my father say. “That’s impossible", she said. “I don’t even know where the mute button is."
I hung up and called back. The phone rang several times before my mother picked up. There was much amplified jiggling throughout, as if the handset were being scraped against every surface in their vehicle.
While his parents’ relationship gives Gavin pause about lifelong partnership, his grandmother and her marriage to Bernie impresses upon him that it is important to have someone with whom to share your life. Of all of Gavin’s relationships, his relationship with his grandmother is the one I most enjoyed. She is a fun loving octogenarian who still goes for a daily run and Gavin calls her every day to check in. When his grandmother’s fourth husband, Bernie, is hospitalized, Gavin witnesses what it really means to care for a partner and he wants it for himself. Comedy aside, Gavin is truly looking for a partner and in this quote he reflects on his single on his single status:

I was happy she [his friend Hope] had found someone, but her success made me all the more aware of my failure. I knew that “failure” was not a politically correct or psychologically helpful word to use, but that’s what it felt like. I had failed in the most basic of life’s tasks. Oh I know: In our evolved, multicultural world all lifestyles are equally valid, but for the billion or so people who don’t watch Oprah, being alone violates societal and biological norms. From a macroeconomic perspective, living by myself in a Manhattan apartment was a waste of limited housing and energy resources. Taking an even broader view, according to Darwin (and Richard Dawkins), I was on this planet solely for the purpose of procreating, and to the best of my knowledge, I hadn’t done so. It was not longer a matter of losing out on two-for-one airline deals; I was letting down the species.
This serious side of Gavin is a nice balance to the humor and lighter fare in the book and keeps the novel from being superficial.

If you have ever spent Sunday morning perusing the wedding section of the Times or are a romantic at heart looking for a different take on the girl searches for boy tale, The Wedding Beat is for you. It is a fun novel peppered with keen observations of modern love.
 Thank you to Penguin for providing a review copy.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Saturday Snapshot- May 5

Alyce of At Home with Books hosts Saturday Snapshot and asks participants to post any photo (just no random photos you found online). Stop by and see what others have posted!

Ankor Wat - Siem Reap, Cambodia

I recently finished Lucky Child by Luong Ung which tells the story of the author's assimilation to the US after she left war-torn Cambodia during the rule of Khmer Rouge.  It has had me thinking a lot about my trip to Cambodia a few years ago. Ankor Wat is truly majestic and I was awestruck throughout our visit there.