Monday, October 29, 2012

Review: Dune Road by Jane Green

Dune Road by Jane Green takes place in an affluent bedroom community in Connecticut shortly after the financial crisis of 2008.  Kit Hargrove is recently divorced from her husband, Adam, and has transitioned from her life as pulled together wife of a Wall Street banker to single Mom of two trying to find her identity. With her new job as assistant to author Robert McClure, her outings with girlfriends Charlie and Traci and her neighbor Edie who is like a mother to her, Kit has the building blocks to move into the next phase in her life.

Although Kit initiated the divorce from her husband, she has mixed feelings about leaving her marriage behind.  First and foremost, she worries about the effect of the divorce on her children as they shuttle between Kit's and her ex, Adam's, houses. She also finds herself starting to ask why she left her husband and if she gave up too quickly. She was a Wall Street widow as her husband spent long days in the city and then expected her to host and attend social functions - their marriage had been reduced to taking care of the children and looking good on her husband's arm.  As he comes to pick up and drop off the kids now, though, she feels sparks of the feelings she had for him when they were first together and her life as Wall Street widow seems far away. Charlie and Traci  try to support Kit through this and are excited when she meets a new man  - they think this is just what she needs to move on.

My Thoughts
I am a big fan of Jane Green and have enjoyed all of her books (my review of Another Piece of My Heart and Promises to Keep); this one, however, is my least favorite. There was nothing particularly bad about it . . . but nothing spectacular either. The characters didn't seem to have their usual depth and I felt fairly apathetic towards them. There is a mystery thrown into some of the sub story lines which does keep the book moving but there wasn't quite enough suspense.

Although this books was not my favorite among Green's, other reviewers felt differently. Check out Sarah's review and Swapna's review for a different perspective. 

I am looking forward to Green's upcoming book and hope it lives up to her many books that I have loved and that Dune Road is an anomaly for me.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Saturday Snapshot: October 27, 2012

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!

I am dog sitting for two weeks while my parents are on vacation; meet my new roommate - Angel.  She is a 14+ year old, spoiled Maltese but too cute to say "No" to  . . . so she is now running my house!

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Review and Giveaway: Lola's Secret by Monica McInerney

 Lola Quinlan is her family's matriarch, leader among her many friends and the glue that holds relationships together. Despite being in her 80's,  she is a force to be reckoned with within her family and her community. When her son and his wife plan to travel over Christmas and leave behind Lola in the motel they run in the Clare Valley,  Lola cooks up a plan so she will not be alone over the holiday.  In the lead up to Christmas, however, Lola also faces strained relationships within her family and a challenging addition to the committee at her charity.  Will Lola be able to pull everyone, strangers and family alike, together over the holidays and heal the cracks in their relationships?  If anyone can, it is Lola Quinlan.

Faced with spending Christmas alone, Lola decides not to close the motel as instructed by her son and his wife but to offer some rooms and a special Christmas luncheon in scenic Clare Valley.  She realizes managing the motel for ten guests will be a tall order for someone her age but she never turns down a challenge and thrives on human contact.  Ultimately, four groups book reservations at the hotel for the holiday and each is looking for refuge or healing in some way in the Clare Valley.  Meanwhile, Lola schemes to keep her plan secret from her family.

Considering the drama going on in the lives of Lola's family members, the secret is easy enough to keep.  Her two granddaughters, Bett and Carrie (first introduced in McInerney's novel Alphabet Sisters), have renewed their sibling rivalry now that they both have young children and each is insecure about their skills as a mother.  They both imagine that the other has this whole parenthood thing down and is secretly judging them.  They put Lola between them when they come to her for advice and tell their side of the story. Lola tries to help them but she also has her 12 year old great granddaughter to contend with as she struggles to accept the fact the her Dad is dating again following her mother's death. As only a wise great grandmother can, Lola tries to convince the girl to accept the changes in her Dad's life. To top it all off, Lola is dealing with a bossy new committee woman at the charity.  This woman has swooped in and taken over the annual window display for the charity store and has turned it into a dramatic, but unappealing, scene. Lola certainly has her share of battles on hand.

My Thoughts
Lola's Secret introduces us to feisty Lola and the wide cast of characters within her family and community. Lola is the type of woman we all wish we had in our own communities and families and is key to the success of this novel.  With so many characters, Lola is really the only character that gets developed so fully and she therefore is the spotlight of the novel.  In this way, the book reminds me of Maeve Binchy's novels - there is generally a strong main character around which the entire book is built.  The result is a novel in which the community becomes a character itself and charms the reader - that is exactly what happened with Lola's Secret.

My one quibble with the book is that there were a few plot lines that were never fully developed; for example, the beginning of the book spent time introducing us to the four groups planning to come to Clare Valley as part of Lola's scheme.  They each had their own interesting backstory and I wanted to see those stories come to fruition.  Instead, we were off to deal with Lola's family dramas and her issues at the charity shop. There could have been two novels - one that fully developed the four story lines of the guests and a second one focused on Lola and her family.

I was saddened to learn of Maeve Binchy's death earlier this year especially since I have always relied on her books as my comfort reads. I am thrilled to have discovered Monica McInerney because if Lola's Secret is any indication, I will be relying on her for my comfort reads!

I reviewed this book as part of the TLC Book Tour. You see more reviews at the other tour stops:

Monday, October 15th:  Adventures of an Intrepid Reader
Wednesday, October 17th:  Seaside Book Nook
Thursday, October 18th:  Mom in Love with Fiction
Monday, October 22nd:  BookNAround
Wednesday, October 24th:  Silver & Grace
Thursday, October 25th:  Books in the City
Monday, October 29th:  Peppermint Ph.D.
Tuesday, October 30th:  Reviews from the Heart
Thursday, November 1st:  Colloquium
Monday, November 5th:  A Chick Who Reads
Tuesday, November 6th:  Bookfoolery and Babble
Wednesday, November 7th:  Amused by Books
Thursday, November 8th:  Suko’s Notebook
Monday, November 12th:  Fiction State of Mind
Wednesday, November 14th:  Life in Review
Friday, November 16th:  Books and Movies
Thanks to the publisher and TLC Book Tours I have one copy of this book to offer as a giveaway.  To be entered, please leave a comment below telling me what book is your "comfort read" and a way to contact youGiveaway will close on Thursday November 1st.

I received an e-galley for review as part of the TLC Book Tour

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Waiting on Wednesday: October 24, 2012

Jill at Breaking the Spine hosts Waiting on Wednesday where participants spotlight a pre-pub book they are waiting on. My pick this week is Everything Was Goodbye by Gurjinder Basran . The author has been billed as "for fans of Jhumpa Lahiri and Amy Tan" - sold!  It publishes 12/31/2012.

Publisher Blurb: THE YOUNGEST OF SIX daughters raised by a widowed mother, Meena is a young woman struggling to find her place in the world. Originally from India, her family still holds on to many old-world customs and traditions that seem stifling to a young North American woman. She knows that the freedom experienced by others is beyond her reach. But unlike her older sisters, Meena refuses to accept a life dictated by tradition. Against her mother's wishes, she falls for a young man named Liam who asks her to run away with him. Meena must then make a painful choice—one that will lead to stunning and irrevocable consequences. Heartbreaking and beautiful, Everything Was Good-bye is an unforgettable story about family, love, and loss, and the struggle to live in two different cultural worlds.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Review: Mrs. Queen Takes the Train by William Kuhn

Mrs. Queen Takes the Train by William Kuhn is a fictional account of Britain's Queen Elizabeth's "escape" from the Palace and the chaos that ensues in its wake. The Queen is suffering from a malaise - the effects of getting older, losing her Mother and sister, and weathering difficult years in which the monarchy was torn apart in the press have taken their toll.  The Queen is not herself and on a bit of whim wanders out outside the Palace walls and, energized by her rare independence, she takes off on a train to Edinburgh to see her  beloved Royal Yacht Brittania  which is docked there after being put out of commission. The Queen's staff set out to find the missing monarch and their caper is laugh out loud funny but also offers keen observations of the class system in England and the power of tradition in the face of progress.

The Queen is yearning for a visit to her "happy place" - the Royal Yacht Brittania which was put out of commission in 1997 by the bean counters that manage the Privy Purse. The Queens resents that privileges such as the yacht have been stripped from the monarchy in the name of pleasing the public who wanted to ensure that the Queen and her family paid their share.  She has moved with the times but not always willingly. She wanders off the grounds of the Palace and gets taken with the idea of heading to Edinburgh like any commoner  - via the train.  On the train, she sits, incognito, with some passengers and learns a little about how "her people" really live.

It is interesting to see the Queen step out of her cosseted life with all her handlers; but the stars of this book are the Queen's staff.  Their respect for the Queen and the monarchy are clear throughout but there is a also a bit of tension brought on by the differences created by class.  The protocol of who can do what for the Queen and the hierarchy in the royal staff is fascinating. In the midst of all this formality, each member of staff is dealing with their own hardships and challenges ranging from coming to terms with their sexuality to facing their elders years alone. The challenges and each member of staff's way of coping with them play out over the course of their pursuit of the fleeing Queen. These subplots add a little, but not too much, gravity to an otherwise comical novel.

I truly enjoyed this book - the Anglophile in me loved reading about the monarchy and its customs. The premise is, of course, a little unbelievable but the alternating story lines of all the staff added a little reality to this story to create an excellent balance.  Interestingly, as much as the book pointed out the archaic customs of the Monarchy and showed how insulated the Queen can be, it also humanized the Queen.  I don't know, but doubt, that the Queen has read the book but I have to imagine she wouldn't be completely opposed to it as it shows her as a hard working public servant who cares for her family but mostly for her country and its people.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Saturday Snapshot: October 20, 2012

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!

The Fund for Park Avenue hosts a series of scuplture displays on the avenue throughout the year.  Currently, there are sculptures by Niki de Saint Phalle .

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Review: Gold by Chris Cleave

Gold by Chris Cleave tells the story of two Olympic track cycling competitors, Zoe and Kate, who are friends but also fierce competitors. Friends since they were selected for the national cycling team at age nineteen, they are now facing their final Olympics in London 2012 where they will compete against a home crowd for Team GB. They each cycle against different demons but both are talented cyclists and tenacious racers and leave nothing on the track. The suspenseful tale follows the girls' road to London 2012 and reveals so much about each on the way.

Zoe and Kate have a complicated relationship.  Although friends and able to understand each other in a way that those who do not compete at this level cannot, they are also rivals on the track. Their relationship is consumed by the rivalry in many ways - they even competed at one point for their mutual friend, Jack.  Kate won that competition  - she and Jack are now married with a young daughter, Sophie. Kate's life is definitely more well rounded  - she has her husband and her daughter to focus on - but her cycling career has paid a price for it.  While single minded Zoe has collected gold medals in Athens and Beijing and struck lucrative endorsement deals, Kate's energies have been directed towards Sophie as she is fighting leukemia. But the fire of the competitor burns inside her and she yearns for the validation of her cycling talent offered by the Olympic contest.

Zoe and Kate are very different characters but both elicit strong reactions. Zoe is driven and ruthless in her pursuit of a win.  Time after time, she sacrifices her friendship with Kate in order to best her - she capitalizes on any weakness she perceives in her friend and blows that crack wide open, their relationship be damned. It is almost as if she is overcome by her desire to win and she does these horrible things but she looks back a little stunned and disappointed in herself for hurting Kate and destroying yet another relationship in her life. It is clear she races against herself and is often her own worst enemy. As the novel progresses, the layers of Zoe's psyche are peeled back and reveal the pain  which powers her rides.

By comparison, Kate is more unassuming and she continually gives Zoe second chances in their friendship. Although a fierce competitor herself, she exists beyond her cycling career and therefore can afford to grant Zoe kindness. She appears more evolved than Zoe because she is not so driven by a base desire to succeed.  She faces her own challenges, however, as she struggles with the constant worry for Sophie.  Even though she wants to train hard and perform in the Olympics, she is concerned about any time spent away from Sophie - will her prioritization of her cycling career even for a single day leave her daughter unprotected? The irony, of course, is that the course of Sophie's illness is completely out of her parents' control and that helplessness is terrifying.

Gold is a fast paced novel which offers a character study of two fascinating competitors. Cycling and competition, however, become just the vehicle to reveal Zoe and Kate's characters. Their is suspense in the novel with the upcoming Olympic competition and along with that suspense, more and more of the girls' history is unraveled. I thoroughly enjoyed this book - it dovetailed nicely over the summer with my London Olympics fever.  But you don't need to be an Olympics or a sports fan to enjoy this book - the characters are truly the stars and will keep you reading.  One of my best of 2012 for sure!

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Saturday Snapshot: October 13, 2012

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!

For some reason, I love photos of doors - I even have a Pinterest board dedicated to them.  This photo was taken in Tucson, Arizona.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Guest Post: Author of Bella Fortuna - Rosanna Chiofalo

Rosanna Chiofalo is the author of Bella Fortuna (my review) which tells the story of Valentina Deluca, the daughter of Italian immigrants who ultimately travels to Italy to change her fortune when life deals her a blow. Like Valentina, the author is the daughter of Italian immigrants. Rosanna graciously agreed to guest post on my blog about her own mother's immigrant experience in conjunction with my Immigrant Stories Challenge. 

 As a child growing up, my siblings and I were constantly reminded of my mother’s emigration from Sicily to the United States. For she still longed to live in her native homeland and be surrounded by her large, tight-knit family. Her depression and yearning for Sicily, hung like a dark cloud over my family and me, and as a result, my siblings and I grew resentful of this foreign place that had occupied my mother’s attention and stolen her happiness.

Though my siblings and I were also proud to be of Italian heritage and loved many of the customs my mother brought with her from Sicily—the Feast of the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve, Easter bread, her impeccable seamstress skills which enabled her to sew whatever clothes we desired—we often spoke derisively of Italy when we were among ourselves. It wasn’t until I went to Sicily for the first time and spent the entire summer there, that I started to understand more of my mother’s sadness over leaving her country.

Sicily (Credit)
The island of Sicily is a paradise with temperate weather, verdant soil, majestic panoramas that include mountains and pristine beaches, volcanic islands that are just a ferry ride away, amazing architecture of its many churches and cathedrals, ancient Greek ruins, and a host of culinary treasures. As our airplane approached the island, the aerial view left me awe-struck and brought tears to my eyes. Finally, I had caught a glimpse of what my mother had left behind. She had traded the beauty of Sicily for a life that would be filled with struggles, especially the first few years after she and my father emigrated to the U.S. and resided on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in a rat-infested tenement. Money was scarce as my father worked whatever odd jobs he could find, and my mother often skipped meals so she could feed my older brothers. She had traded mild winters for ones where the temperatures dipped close to or below the freezing mark, and snow, instead of the grass she walked barefoot through in Sicily, blanketed the streets. Everything in America was foreign to her, and she soon realized, immigrants were often treated like second-class citizens.

Despite her trials, eventually my mother did come to embrace her new home. Years later when she visited Sicily, she proudly defended America to her sister when they got into a heated political debate. I remember my aunt saying to my mother, “Why are you so upset that I’m badmouthing America? You’re not from there.” My uncle replied, “She’s now lived in America for more years than she has in Sicily.” My mother acknowledged this fact years later, after my father died, and my siblings and I implored her to return to Sicily so she could live out the rest of her days there. She said, “This is my home now and you’re my family.” Sadly, I couldn’t help wondering why this epiphany had eluded her throughout my childhood, when my brothers and sister and I would have given anything to see our mother smile. But once I became a woman, I grew to understand just how difficult it was for her to adjust to life in America.

 Four years ago, my husband and I relocated to Austin, Texas. While I knew it would be hard being apart from my family whom I was very close to, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. From the moment I said goodbye to my mother before we left New York, I was grief stricken. While Texas is not oceans or continents apart from New York as Italy is, the thought that I couldn’t simply hop in my car and see my mother whenever I wanted to devastated me. Having lost my father to cancer when I was just sixteen-years-old, I was more sensitive to having my loved ones absent from my life. I thought about my mother a lot, and finally, I was able to empathize with her more as well as understand the emotions she had after she lost her family.

Unlike my mother, my own story had a happy ending. My husband and I decided to return to New York after only living in Texas for one year. And my ambivalence over my mother’s homeland faded a long time ago. Now, I am not only proud to tell everyone I meet for the first time that I am a first-generation Italian America, but I also chose to highlight the Italian culture in my debut novel, Bella Fortuna. And if my mother ever voices doubts regarding her decision to emigrate with my father to America, I tell her to read my book’s dedication to remind her she did make the right choice: “I vostri sacrifici non furano vani” or “Your sacrifices were not in vain.” 

  Rosanna Chiofalo is the author of Bella Fortuna, (Kensington Publishing).You can visit her website at: 

Thank you Rosanna for sharing your and your mother's story with us.  Your debut novel is quite a tribute to the sacrifices made by your Mom and her unique story!  

Monday, October 8, 2012

Review: Bella Fortuna by Rosanna Chiofalo

In Bella Fortuna by Rosanna Chiofalo, we meet Valentina DeLuca, the daughter of Italian immigrants living in her childhood home with her close-knit family and a community in which she knows most of those she sees on her walk from home to the wedding dress store she manages with her sisters and mother. Although at times the neighborhood and her meddling family can be overwhelming, Valentina actually flourishes in the familiar. When she is dealt a blow in the romance department, however, the familiar is what she wants least and she heads to beautiful Venice to heal and to explore.

Valentina DeLuca has grown up in Astoria, Queens -  a suburb of NYC with a strong Italian immigrant community. She is now engaged to her childhood crush, Michael Carello and is thrilled to be designing her own wedding dress after designing them for the brides who were customers of her family's dress store, Sposa Rosa. Her mother, Olivia,  is excited for her daughter and likes her future son-in-law but can't shake a nagging fear of the "malocchio" - evil eye.  She has held on to this fear of a curse of bad luck from her youth in Italy and constantly warns her three daughters of it and tries to ward it off any every turn.

Olivia is an example of strength for her girls - after immigrating with her husband and struggling to make ends meet, Olivia worked alongside her husband in their tailor shop and eventually transformed it into a bridal salon specializing in custom wedding dresses.  After her husband's death when the girls were still in grammar school, Olivia supported the entire family. Although she mourns her husband's death and misses him as she watches her daughter grow into young women, Olivia also has a tale of lost love back in Italy. She thought it was long in her past but a visitor to Sposa Rosa brings that past to her front door.

Valentina denies believing in the curse of the evil eye and sees it a an old wives tale; she laughs with her sisters each time their mother warns them of "malocchio" but when things in her life take a sharp left turn she wonders about those warnings.  She heads to Venice and looks to the beautiful city to heal her and most of all bring her some good luck - Bella Fortuna.

My Thoughts
Bella Fortuna is a warm novel with characters that you would love to have in your own neighborhood.  They were very familiar to me - like Valentina, I grew up in Queens in a neighborhood with many immigrant families - close-knit, hard working families. Almost 2/3rd of the book takes place in Astoria and the last third takes place in Venice; there Valentina's life moves in a new direction and I would have liked to see more of her new life.  Maybe in a sequel?

The book is largely Valentina's story although some chapters are told from Olivia's point of view and I found I really enjoyed her story and wanted to learn more about her first love in Italy.  And, of course, there is her immigrant story.  She recalls how she and sisters believed the streets of NY were paved with gold and her life would be charmed when she came there from Italy. They all coveted Noxema which was out of reach for them in Italy but it took many years in the US before Olivia could afford those blue jars.

If you are a fan of Adriana Trigiani's books, pick up Bella Fortuna!

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Saturday Snapshot - October 6, 2012

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!

 I took this picture on a trip to Scotland with my Dad in 2009. Born and raised in Scotland, my Dad moved to the US in his twenties. This was taken in the village of Pennan, a picturesque town where the movie Local Hero was filmed.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Review: Gilded Age by Claire McMillan

Gilded Age by Claire McMillan is a retelling of Edith Wharton's House of Mirth set in contemporary Cleveland. It explores the boundaries created by social obligation and hierarchy and how they persist even though in modern times. There is a cast of old money descendants approaching middle age and attending all the "right" social events while they play out the social pecking order of their ancestors. The star, however, is Ellie Hart who has recently returned to Cleveland from NYC after a failed marriage and stint in rehab.  Ellie is looking to remake and legitimize herself in Cleveland society and she leverages all her charms in that effort. Navigating high society is not easy and as it takes it toll on Ellie it is unclear whether she will completely unravel under the scrutiny of Cleveland society.

The novel is alternately narrated by Ellie and an unnamed female character who grew up with Ellie in Cleveland and, like Ellie, went to NY and has returned to Cleveland. This character is a calming influence on the more flighty Ellie and offers interesting commentary on the Cleveland social scene. She worries about Ellie's flings with Cleveland's society men some of whom are single and some who are married - she worries about the flings' impact on Ellie's reputation and emotions.  However, she also fears Ellie a little - she watches Ellie's easy way with her husband and wonders whether he can resist her charms.  At the same time, she is also going through her own transition - she is pregnant and, though excited about her upcoming addition, she also seems to question the move to full time homemaker and what that says about her modern sensibilities.

My Thoughts
A story about high society romantic liaisons may seem frivolous and certainly has the potential to be one dimensional.  Gilded Age, however, is nothing like that.  The society maneuvers fade to the background as the characters and their vulnerabilities are explored. In addition, there is a theme of social commentary weaved throughout the novel which is reminiscent of the classic it retells - Wharton's House of Mirth. The book is more subtle than a "society romp" would imply.

At times, however, the book is almost too subtle and the subtlety creates a distance between the reader and the characters. It felt as if parts of the book needed to be driven a bit more by plot in order to keep it moving.  Those parts, however, are by far the minority and I did enjoy this intelligent society "romp".  If you enjoy stories about class and society life, especially with a modern sensibility, pick this book up.

I received an unsolicited copy of this book for review from the publisher