Monday, December 31, 2012

Review: The Song Remains the Same by Allison Winn Scotch

In The Song Remains the Same by Allison Winn Scotch, Nell Slattery comes to consciousness in a Iowa hospital after she has survived a deadly airplane crash. Only she and another passenger survived - the remaining 158 passengers were killed instantly. Nell, however, has suffered a brain injury and is completely unable to remember anything. As she tries to piece together her life, she is dependent on family and friends to help her recreate the life she cannot remember but each has an agenda and selectively withholds information from Nell in an effort to protect her or to protect themselves.

Nell is intent on re-creating herself - they are clues that she may not have been the most likable person - but she needs to understand who she was in order to create someone different. Nell Slattery decides shortly after awakening that she will allow a local Iowan reporter, Jamie, tell her story. It is a big break for Jamie and his research provides Nell with an unbiased view into the past she cannot remember. The others in her life - husband Peter, sister Rory and mother Indira, may each know more about her life than Jamie but they also tell a slightly modified version as they try to hide things from Nell. For example, Nell's father left when she was younger and her mother keeps telling Nell half-truths in an effort to re-write that history. But Nell doesn't want a cleaned up version of her past - she wants the truth so she can understand what shaped her, who she was and what she needs to change if she is going to be a different person.

 In talking to those closest to her, in addition to acquaintances, Nell learns that she had a hard edge and that she could cut someone with her quick tongue and dismissive barbs. She catches herself behaving the same way at times after the accident and muses about how much of her personality she can really effect and how much is just inherent. She also observes that she lived her life "in beige" - her clothes are neutral, she had a joyless relationship with her husband and she seemed to find enjoyment in very little. She existed in her life without really living it. Courageously, she takes the tragedy of the accident as an opportunity to change herself and especially to really live in the moment. One gift of losing your memory is that you cannot live in the past.

My Thoughts
The Song Remains the Same explores how experiences shape you versus what is hard-wired into your personality. The story is well-written and the author beautifully handles the introspective aspects of this book as Nell considers who she was but more importantly who she wants to become. By wrapping that introspection, however, into an appealing narrative with a likable main character facing family dysfunction with which many readers can relate, the author succeeds in creating a quick read with much to offer. A perfect New Year read as many of us consider what we would like to change in the coming year!

Friday, December 28, 2012

Audiobook Review: The Uncommon Appeal of Clouds by Alexander McCall Smith

The Uncommon Appeal of Clouds by Alexander McCall Smith (8 hours, 12 mins; narrated by Davina Porter) is book 9 in the author's Isabel Dalhousie series. When an art collector Duncan Monrowe discovers a painting is missing from his collection, Isabel is asked to help him solve the mystery of who stole the painting. Isabel is a philosopher and edits a journal on the topic but she is also an amateur detective who solves these mysteries in her hometown of Edinburgh. Since Duncan suspects his own son may be involved in the theft of the Poussin painting, Isabel is the perfect sleuth to assist in solving the mystery - she uses keen observational skills and her understanding of the human condition to solve her mysteries.

Duncan Monrowe planned to donate the Poussin to the Scottish National Gallery and is dismayed when it goes missing from his estate outside Edinburgh. Once Isabel gets involved, she soon learns that Duncan has a troubled relationship with his son and suspects there could be some connection to between their fractious relationship and the disappearance of the valuable painting. Duncan has inherited his estate from family and his son resents the titled class system and feels the estate should be distributed to those with fewer privileges. This irks his father as he is very invested in the family estate and wants his son to want to carry it on for the family. Isabel, after many discussions with both Duncan's son and daughter, however, begins to suspect the son may not be the only family member about which Duncan should be wary. Duncan's daughter also has motive to steal the painting and is quick to implicate her brother.

My Thoughts
This is my first novel by Alexander McCall Smith and I thoroughly enjoyed it - the mystery was by no means complex and in some ways is really a subplot to the human interest stories of those involved in the mystery and, of course, the detective Isabel. In addition to trying to solve the mystery of the Poussin painting, Isabel is embroiled in a power struggle with her young son's nanny and worries about the older woman's defiance of Isabel's wishes for her son. Isabel is immensely likeable - she is empathetic and that gives her an insight into those involved in these mysteries which allows her to see things more traditional detectives might overlook. I will definitely read more of the Isabel Dalhousie series although this book stands on its own - I didn't feel as if there were elements I was missing from earlier installments.

Perhaps my favorite part of this audiobook, however, was the narrator - Davina Porter.  This is a new narrator for me and I am glad to have discovered her.  Her Scottish accent was melodic and each sentence was spoken with such expression that is was like listening to a play rather than a book narration. My grandmother was Scottish and I felt as I was listening to her speak while listening to this audiobook.  All in all a success -  a new author, a new series and a new narrator - each with many more installments for me to enjoy!

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Review: The Bungalow by Sarah Jio

In The Bungalow by Sarah Jio, readers are swept off to Bora Bora during World War II. Anne Calloway, a daughter of privilege living in Seattle, is bored with her well defined life and is looking for some excitement and the chance to step outside the expectations to which she has always lived up. So, despite her upcoming nuptials, she volunteers for the war with her friend Kitty. As they head off to Bora Bora, they don't know what they will find but are excited by the prospect of new experiences and a more exotic life than they had in Seattle. Of course, along with the exotic life, they also find heartache and experience loss. Now, almost seventy years later, Anne is reflecting on her time in Bora Bora and trying to unravel some lingering mysteries about her time there.

 Anne Calloway's granddaughter finds a postcard from Bora Bora in her grandmother's belongings and it prompts a conversation about her grandmother's war time service - it is a period about which Anne has spoken very little. Anne reflects on her time in the tropics and is surprised to see she still has feelings for Westry - the soldier she fell in love with while in Bora Bora. The two had discovered a bungalow on a beach near the base and made it into a love nest where they would sneak away from the prying eyes of their friends and co-workers as they tried to keep their relationship a secret. Anne's memories are filled with images of she and Westry together in the bungalow, leaving notes for each other in a hiding spot under the floorboards and tentatively making plans for after the war. Circumstances intervened, however, and now Anne wonders about Westry and where he is now. She also wonders about Kitty - she and Kitty had argued when they last saw each other and despite their once strong friendship, they had not spoken since the war.

  My Thoughts
 I started this book while on a plane and was immediately drawn into Anne's story and the beautifully described scenes from the tropics. I certainly felt swept away. The passion between Westry and Anne was palpable and I anxiously turned pages to see what would come to them next. I also appreciated the bit of murder mystery thrown in because that also kept the story moving and added another dimension to what would have otherwise been just a love story. There were some loose ends tied up in the end in a way that felt too pat and hard to believe but the criticism feels minor for a book that introduced me to great characters and the beautiful island of Bora Bora. I am looking forward to reading the author's other novels and being swept away once again.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Top 10 Books of 2012


On Top Ten Tuesday today, Broke and Bookish  asks you to list the Top Ten Books of 2012.  Without further ado - books are in no particular order and links are to my review if it is posted:

 The World We Found by Thrity Urmigar: What a way to kick off 2012!  This was one one the first books I read this year and I devoured it.  As I said in my review - just read it!

The Shoemaker's Wife by Adriana Trigiani (audiobook): This epic tale is still with me weeks after finishing it - from the mountains of Italy, to the streets of Little Italy in NY and mining towns in Minnesota, the story follows Enza and Ciro's dreams and losses. By far, best immigrant read of the year.

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker: This one surprised me  - the premise of the gradual slowing of the earth is apocalyptic which is not usually my thing but this book is really more about the coming of age of the book's young protagonist. Beautifully written.

Mrs. Queen Takes the Train by William Kuhn: The Queen of England wanders outside the walls of the palace and ends up on a train north to Scotland as she questions what has come of the monarchy and her considers her own disappointments.  I couldn't read this fast enough - it is so well done - smart and funny.

The Underside of Joy by Sere Prince Halverson: Beautifully written, this book drew me in from the beginning and I still think of the characters 10+ months later

The Midwife's Confession by Diane Chamberlain: This author's books feature well drawn characters and complex but easy to follow storylines and draw me right in .

The Year of the Gadfly by Jennifer Miller: This book doesn't seem to have gotten the attention it deserves. Smartly written and set in a boarding school, this author debut combines psychological thriller with coming of age.

Gold by Chris Cleave: I waffled between putting this book or the author's earlier work, Little Bee, on this list but landed on Gold since 2012 featured the London Olympics. I see why the author has so many fans.

Bossypants (audiobook) by Tina Fey: I love a good memoir and an intelligently funny one is even better - this is a winner for sure!

Happy Accidents (audiobook) Jane Lynch: On a business trip, I found myself parked in the hotel parking lot not unable to pull myself away from this audio in the car - enough said.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Review: 12.21 by Dustin Thomason

In 12.21, author Dustin Thomason combines a medical thriller with a 2012 Mayan apocalypse tale. CDC researcher Dr. Gabe Stanton is summoned to a hospital in L.A. to see a patient with unusual symptoms suspected to be infectious. Stanton recognizes the symptoms as FFI (Fatal Familial Insomnia), a disease whose vector is proteins similar to Mad Cow. When it is determined that the infected patient is speaking a Mayan dialect found in Guatemala, the hospital contacts Chel Manu, a curator of Mayan antiquities at the Getty Museum, to come in and translate. As the patient feverishly rambles, Dr. Manu learns that he is connected to a recently surfaced codex that explains the collapse of ancient Mayan society. How are the 2012 Mayan apocalypse craze and FFI connected? Chel Manu and Gabe Stanton must find out.

Despite all his work to date, a cure does not exist and Stanton knows he is in a race against time to try to stop the spread of FFI by finding it's source. He needs Dr. Manu to help him understand where patient zero has been and what he has eaten - Stanton believes FFI, like Mad Cow, is transmitted by proteins such as those found in beef. Dr. Manu, of course, wants to help stop the march of this disease but she is also very interested in the codex he was in contact with and initially selfishly focuses on getting that information from the patient. At some point, it becomes clear that the codex may offer clues not just to the past and ancient Mayan society but do where the patient may recently have been and therefore the source of the disease. Dr. Manu and Dr. Stanton's worlds converge at this point and they work within their expertise in parallel. Dr Manu and her colleagues furiously try to decode the codex which is written in ancient glyphs while Dr. Stanton and his colleagues test treatments that can cross the blood-brain barrier to treat the infection. At the same time, the disease inexorably spreads throughout the city and beyond and disease control efforts go into full effect with a citywide quarantine and bans on all travel.

 My Thoughts
I don't generally read a lot of thrillers but medical thrillers are an exception - I find them fascinating. As a medical thriller,  I also found this book fascinating and hungrily read the sections detailing Dr. Stanton's work and enjoyed the detail on the biology of the disease and potential cures. However, the sections about the connection to Mayan Apocalypse theories did not hold my interest as much and I found myself skimming the translations of the codex. The author tried to link the Mayan anthropology storyline with the medical mystery storyline through a burgeoning relationship between Dr. Chel Manu and Dr. Gabe Stanton but the two storylines never fully integrated. A reader more interested in Mayan apocalypse theories, however, may have felt differently. In summary, this book succeeded for me as a medical thriller and will bring me back to that genre but I found the other storyline flawed and it subtracted from my enjoyment of the book.

I received an ARC of this book from the publisher

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Virtual Advent: Would You Like It Gift Wrapped?

Kaliana from The Written World and Marg from The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader host The Virtual Advent Tour every year where participants post about the holidays - a favorite tradition, memory, food, whatever on their assigned day. Last year, I participated for the first time and blogged about my Christmas ornament collection. 

This year I am sharing a scene from a favorite Christmas movie - Love Actually. I first saw the movie in 2003 in a theatre in England - I spent Christmas with family there that year. For a lot of reasons, that Christmas was very special and I think the movie benefits from the halo effect of those memories. I just loved the connected stories, the music and the star-studded cast. There are many great scenes in the movie but perhaps my favorite is played by Rowan Atkinson - better known as "Mr. Bean". As a customer anxiously awaits his present which he is stealthily purchasing while his wife is in another department of the store, the shop clerk (Rowan Atkinson) painstakingly wraps the present unfazed by the urgency of his customer. It is a perfectly executed scene.

 I watch Love, Actually every year and remember that wonderful Christmas in England. I hope you enjoy the "Would You Like It Gift Wrapped?" scene! Check out the other Virtual Advent posts today:

Teri @ Henningsen Happenings
Cam @ epiBloguer
Jane @ Life @ Number 8

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Review and Giveaway: The Chronicles of Downton Abbey

The Chronicles of Downton Abbey: A New Era by Jessica Fellowes and Matthew Sturgis is the official companion to the award-winning PBS Masterpiece show and gives Downton fans lots to drool over as they await the US premiere of Season 3 on January 6th. The beautiful hardcover book dedicates a chapter to each character and includes gorgeous, full-page photographs of the characters, memorabilia and behind-the-scenes looks at the sets. Authors Jessica Fellowes and Matthew Sturgis explore not just the series itself but also the period in which it is set including common customs of social norms of the time. In addition to covering the characters and the story through Season 2, the book looks towards Season 3 with little clues scattered throughout and an introduction to the newest character - Cora's mother which will be played by Shirley MacLaine.

The Chronicles of Downton Abbey: A New Era is a beautifully presented and would make the perfect gift for the die-hard Downton fan or even the newly initiated. I count myself among the newly initiated; after hearing all about the series from friends and on Twitter, I decided I needed to see what it was all about. I started with Season One and cannot get enough! Between catching up on Seasons 1 and 2 and the book, I am in Downton immersion mode! If you are a Downton fan or have one in your life, The Chronicles of Downton Abbey is the perfect companion!  

I have one copy of the book to giveaway - just in time for the holidays and/or to tide you over until Jan 6th. For a chance to win, leave a comment below and let me know if you are in the diehard fan category or the newly initiated.  Please also leave a way to contact you (such as email). The giveaway will close on Sunday, December 23rd.


Sunday, December 9, 2012

Mailbox Monday: Dec 10, 2012

Mailbox Monday is a meme in which readers share what has arrived in their mailbox each week. Although I haven't done my own Mailbox Monday post at all in 2012, I never miss a tour through the mailboxes where I check out what my fellow readers have received and add some of their boxes to my TBR list.

Mailbox Monday is hosted in December 2012 at Suko's Notebook. Stop by there to see other mailboxes. This week I received:


The Chronicles of Downton Abbey: A New Era by Jessica Fellowes and Matthew Sturgis : received from Emily at Wunderkind-PR
Isn't this book gorgeous? I think it will keep many a Downton fan happy until the series returns in the US on Jan 6th. Check back for my review and giveaway!

Nothing Ever Happens at The South Pole by Stan and Jan Berenstein was a twitter win from HarperCollins Children's  I know my niece will love this book from the creators of the Berenstein Bears

The Good House by Ann Leary - This one is getting great press already and the film rights have been optioned

Saturday Night Widows by Becky Aikman  - This memoir written by a young widow chronicles the support group of young widows she created after losing her husband to cancer. I read the prologue (in the elevator after ripping the package open in my lobby) and it is off to a great start!

What did you receive this week?


The Sunday Salon: Dec 9, 2012 - Challenges

The Sunday
It's been an overcast weekend here in NY and I am feeling a little under the weather which means I have accomplished very little over the past two days. This Christmas to-do list is looming next to me - I need to get a least a few things done! I have the cards out and am going to get those started today for sure. Do you have holiday tasks scheduled today?

As the end of the year nears, I am wrapping up my 2012 reading challenges. After three years of attempting challenges, I think this is the first where I have completed most of them (there are still some DNF's in there unfortunately).   I am also excited to see all the reviews people have linked to the challenge that I am hosting - The Immigrant Stories Challenge. You can check them out here.  I am going to host again in 2013 so look for the sign-up info soon!

Today I am going to wrap up two challenges for which all the reviews are posted (I have finished others but the reviews of some are still pending).

Ireland Reading Challenge  - This challenge is hosted by Carrie at Books and Movies.  My Mom is from Ireland and I have always enjoyed books set in Ireland so this is an easy one for me.  This year I joined at the Kiss the Blarney Stone level (6 books) and I read:

Heart and Soul by Maeve Binchy
Whitethorn Woods by Maeve Binchy (audio)
Solace by Belinda McKeon
When Summer Is In the Meadow by Niall Williams and Christine Breen
Lola's Secret by Monica McInerney
Recipes for a Perfect Marriage by Morag Prunty

South Asian Challenge is hosted by Swapna at S. Krishna's Books. I read a lot from this part of the world so I have joined this challenge for the past few years. This year I read five books:

The World We Found by Thrity Urmigar
Miss New India by Bharati Mukherjee
Little Princes by Conor Grennan
And Laughter Fell From The Sky by Jyotsna Sreenivasan
The Good Muslim by Tahmima Anam

Do you do reading challenges?  How have you done on yours so far?

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Saturday Snapshot: December 8, 2012

Alyce of At Home With Books hosts Saturday Snapshot where participants share a photo they have taken (please don't post photos you find online). Stop by her blog and see what others have posted!

 Christmas 2010 - Letter to Santa

I am looking forward to Christmas and was going over pics from past years.  My nephew wrote this  cute note to Santa two years ago when he was about 6. Guess those notepads in the hotels do get used!

Monday, December 3, 2012

Review: Solace by Belinda McKeon

Solace by Belinda McKeon is set in modern day Ireland while the country is in the throes of economic crisis following the boom years.  Mark Casey is a PhD student at Trinity College in Dublin and is called home frequently to Longford to help his father, Tom, with the family farm. Mark deeply resents being urged back to the farm each weekend but his dislike for farming, like so much else, remains unsaid between Mark and his father. His mother constantly negotiates a careful peace between father and son - gently reminding Mark of his obligation to the family while making excuses to Tom when Mark doesn't make it down from Dublin for another weekend. Mark is away from home but not truly away  - the binds to the farm and family are not easily broken.

While in Dublin, Mark meets Joanne, a trainee "solicitor" (attorney) and they quickly fall into a relationship.  Like Mark, Joanne is from Longford and somewhat estranged from her family.  Although her mother doesn't expect her home each weekend, their relationship, much like Mark and Tom's, is fractured and she is separated from her mother by more than the mileage between Dublin and Longford. In that sense, Mark and Joanne understand each other and are both struggling to live their own lives separate from their families of origin.  Joanne certainly succeeds at that to a greater degree than Mark but she pays the price of total estrangement from her mother whereas Mark is unable to shut his parents out and carries out his obligatory farm work many weekends each month.

The book opens with a scene involving Mark, Tom and a baby girl on the farm - it is clearly post a tragedy but the reader doesn't know what tragedy has occurred or the relationship of the baby to Tom and Mark.  The novel then flashes back and moves slowly towards the tragic event. This keeps the story moving despite it being an otherwise quiet novel. The quietness stems from the persistent tension between the characters - especially Mark and Tom. The two men understand so little about each other but struggle, still, to communicate until it is almost painful to watch. Underneath their resentments and lack of understanding for each other, however, is a desire to connect and a love between father and son which cannot be denied.

My Thoughts
I was introduced to this book during a reading I attended at The Center of Fiction. Belinda McKeon, a young, debut writer from Ireland, appeared with Colm Toibin, one of Ireland's greatest modern writers. Each read from their new novels and talked about how "home" was represented in their novels and the meaning of home in many Irish novels. After reading Solace, I see other parallels between McKeon and Toibin's writing. They both write quiet novels where little may happen on the surface but there is much going on in the mind of the characters as they struggle to understand themselves and relate to those around them.  There is a darkness to their novels generally created by troubled characters steadily moving through life. If Toibin's spare style with characters grappling to understand themselves and move beyond losses great and small appeals to you, pick up Solace.  I am confident this novel will be one of many for the talented writer.