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Domestic Violets: A Novel

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Tom Violet’s life isn’t what he had hoped it would be. Working for a soul-crushing company where his only jollies come from tormenting his overbearing and obnoxious coworker Gregory, Tom feels stuck and unfulfilled. He also may or may not have a crush on his pretty young assistant Katie, a woman who is as intelligent as she is beautiful. His father is one of the foremost American authors and has just won the Pulitzer, a fact which makes Tom proud and envious all at the same time. Topping it all off, Tom’s penis seems to be malfunctioning, a problem exacerbated by the fact that his wife, Anna, is trying to become pregnant again. Though Tom has been languishing as a desk jockey for several years, he’s just completed his first novel, a fact he’s keeping secret from just about everybody, hoping he’ll one day become an author of the same caliber as his father. When the economic crisis hits, Tom’s job situation suddenly becomes dubiously strange, and while his feelings for Katie begin to mount, Tom’s relationship with his wife is becoming more and more complicated. Soon Tom finds himself at a sticking point at work, at home, and with his novel. Will his self-deprecating wit and verve be enough to save him from sinking, or will Tom go under, desperately trying to cling to all he could possibly lose? In this hilariously funny and inventive debut, Matthew Norman gives us Tom Violet in all his goofball glory and takes us on a journey filled with laughter, absurdity and surprising poignancy.This is another book I felt had a lot of appeal due to it’s effortless comedy. In Norman’s portrayal of sassy and witty Tom, there was hardly a page that didn’t have me snorting with laughter. It was obvious that Tom’s humor was an attempt to give himself a lot of the bravado that he felt had suddenly slipped away from his life, and that his hilarious asides were somewhat of a mask that he placed over his insecurities and self-doubt. It was a coping mechanism, and while it was intensely satisfying to read, smoothing out the narrative and giving the story its zest, it was also very humbling to witness the mental contortions that were basically keeping Tom afloat while his world began to slowly crash down around him.And believe me, Tom had a lot going on. While at first it only seemed like one area of his life needed improvement (his job), soon all the other areas began to fray in a rapid and destructive way. I think that while the sections that focused on Tom’s job provided a lot of levity, there was a realness to what he was going through that many people will recognize. I particularly loved Tom’s interactions with Gregory because I think his unusual form of getting Gregory’s goat was something that office denizens all over would applaud. These scenes were comic gold in my eyes, and for me, the most exciting parts of the book. Tom is also conflicted by the feelings that he has for his coworker, Katie, and though he tries to be as altruistic as possible about the trajectory of their relationship, the reality is much more unmanageable. I believe that Katie represented to Tom his fleeting youth and his desire to once again be carefree and desired. I also believe that these scenes were intensely realistic and at times emotionally tense. Every flicker of attraction that passed between them felt illicit and dangerous, though it was thinly veiled with the ever-present humor and lightheartedness that was a constant fixture of this book.Tom’s familial relationships were also areas that were filled with potential landmines. While his desire for his wife, Anna, is palpable, there was definitely something awry with their relationship, and Norman does a great job of making his readers really think about what’s going on (or not going on, as it were) with them. Tom loves Anna and she loves him, but there’s something just blow the surface that’s causing disrepair between them, and it’s not so easy for him to wish it away. Like Tom’s relationship with Anna, things between Tom and his father, Curtis, aren’t always easy to put the proverbial finger on either. Curtis is a arrogant and loud philanderer, and though father and son are very different, Curtis and Tom may share more traits than one might think. Add to this Curtis’ new and random presence in his son’s life, and Tom isn’t the only one asking questions. Curtis is who Tom wishes to be, his success and magnetism both a lure and a tool for deflection, and though there are things about his father that Tom dislikes, his admiration and wonder for the man leaves him puzzling over his own life and the motives he has for writing his novel.This was a book that managed to be both surprisingly funny yet also very deep, and it was a read that I had no problem getting invested in. It was a lot of fun to get a chance to hang out with the ever effervescent and wacky Tom, and the plot was far from predictable. I think Matthew Norman has a great career ahead of him, and he’s an author whom I’ll be watching. As a side note, this book also contains an author interview in the postscript that had me tearing up with laughter, and it’s not to be missed. An all-star book, highly recommended!
The Peach Keeper: A Novel

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Willa Jackson is keeping a low profile in the small town of Walls of Water. Though she used to be quite a mischievous teenager, the grown-up Willa now runs a green sporting goods store and leads a very simple life. When an invitation to a society gala turns up in her mailbox, she wants nothing to do with it. It seems some of the wealthier young ladies in town have decided to refurbish The Blue Ridge Madam, a dilapidated mansion that was once home to Willa’s grandmother. Willa’s grandmother was once a smart society maven in her own right, and it was only due to chance and misfortune that she ever fell away from that kind of life. Paxton Osgood’s grandmother, however, never fell away from that lifestyle, and now that the women’s society in Wall’s of Water has fallen into her hands, she’s eager to celebrate its 75th anniversary with a gala. Paxton and her twin brother Colin have never been friends with Willa, but all that is about to change when strange occurrences and unexpected run-ins begin to take place between the three with alarming frequency. In her efforts to avoid the gala, Willa will begin to uncover the strange and magical secrets that led to the formation of the women’s society, and the hidden secrets of her own lineage. Meanwhile, Paxton seems to be in love with a man who’s completely unavailable to her, has her hands full with her wealthy mother who insists that she live at home, and the re-dedication of the Madam in time for the gala. Blending magical realism with a suspenseful southern Gothic feel, The Peach Keeper is a playful read with a serious side that will keep new and old fans alike caught up in the mystery of Walls of Water.Sarah Addison Allen’s name is one I’ve heard in so many bookish circles that I can’t even remember a time when I didn’t know it. I guess what I’m trying to say is that she has a lot of fans out there, and that even though most people like her, I was hesitant to jump into the fray and try out her offerings because I was afraid I might be the only bookish person on the planet who didn’t like her work. I let all of her other books pass me by, and though I do have a copy of Garden Spells hanging around here somewhere, this was my first read by Allen, and it was facilitated by Books Babes and Bordeaux, who ambitiously decided that we would read two books for the July meeting. The first was the unforgettable Before I Fall and the second was The Peach Keeper.When I first dove into this book, I was surprised at how compulsively readable it was. Allen has a way of making her story immediately engaging and just quirky enough to keep you flipping pages. There were small hints of magical realism that, while not tipping the book fully into that genre, provided a great mystical and magical feel that I thought were very clever. This is a book that seems to place its reader right into the action and begins to sort out the story around them as they read. There were several threads going on all at once, and each was given equal footing as it shared the stage with the others. There were really two protagonists here: Willa and Paxton; and though they were both dealing with very different issues, they shared some of the same character traits that it was impossible not to see as the story progressed. The men in this story played supporting roles, but they were each developed and nuanced like the more major characters, which is something that I really liked.While this story would fit right into the women’s fiction genre, it also had the components of a mystery, a love story and it even bent into the genre of magical realism. That’s a pretty impressive straddling of genres in my opinion, and as the story wound its way around and through its vast permutations, it also became a story about friendship, family, and loyalty. Allen does a lot to make her story feel fresh and to keep her dialogue sparkling. I remember thinking that a lot of her character interactions were very witty and spunky, and I was pleased that so much care was given over to each piece of the puzzle. As secrets of the past and present intermingle, the story takes on the weight and heft of a more serious novel, but the lightness and verve of the writing doesn’t let the story turn dour and heavy. I read along at a good clip because Allen has a way of keeping her characters embedded in puzzling and intriguing situations, which translate well into keeping readers captivated and invested in their plights.The only problem I had with the book had to do with a character's sudden reversal of a crucial personality trait, which I felt was just a little too convenient and conciliatory for me. It wasn’t a huge issue but it did make me wonder if all the confusion regarding this reversal was just an elaborate ploy to garner a more appealing and titillating plot. I’m hesitating to say more about this than I really want to because I don’t want to spoil the book for future readers, but it irked me a little more than it probably should have. I know this is something I’m going to be bringing up at the meeting and getting other opinions on, but I felt my review would be incomplete without mentioning the fact that I had one sticking point with the book.While I did have a minor problem with one issue in the book, overall the story and execution pleased me greatly and I had a really good time with it. I’m glad to find that I enjoyed this first foray into Allen’s work and I look forward to sampling a few more of her books. I think a lot of readers would enjoy this book, and it’s really a prefect summer read due to it’s lightness and its ability to engage readers from the first page. I’m looking forward to hearing what everyone else thought about it and comparing that to the reception the book has gotten on the blogs. A really fun and undemanding read.
The Memory of After

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When Felicia is killed in a terrible accident, her bright future is cut short. But death isn’t the end for Felicia, as she has woken up inside a hive of blinding and pristine whiteness. There are others inside the hive, and as they stumble about numbed and forgetful, it seems the only thing that keeps them going is plugging into their separate memory chambers to relive bits and pieces of their lives over and over again. Though Felicia can’t remember much outside of her chamber, she forms a bond with two girls inside her hive and tries to understand what has happened to her. One day, after groggily exiting her chamber with her companions, a stranger with a familiar face seems to penetrate the very walls that are keeping the hive together. It’s Julian, a boy Felicia never expected or wanted to see again. When Julian tells Felicia that she must escape, she’s taken on the most dangerous of journeys, hunted by the beings who are prospering from her and her friend’s memories. As Felicia and Julian get further and further away, the danger becomes more and more apparent, for the sheer unstoppable forces that the enemy are using to hold her will do anything to keep her. But as Felicia and Julian advance, memories of her life come more clearly into focus, and in a place where she can trust only one person, can it be that Julian cannot be trusted at all? In Level 2, Lenore Appelhans gives us a frightening look into the world between here and heaven, and takes us to the brink of uncertainty through the use of magic, myth and religion in a potent and terrifying thriller that guarantees you will never think of heaven in quite the same way again.In a white and sterile world, there is life. This is where the story begins, and through flashbacks the author sets up a vast and foreboding set of circumstances that will gradually reveal how Felicia died and where she ended up. As the energy from her memories is being siphoned off, it’s almost like a puzzle to decipher why someone would want to do something like this and why the people around her can’t remember even the basics about themselves or how they got to where they are.In Applehans’ world, there is a deep symbiotic relationship between the darkness and the light, the powerful and the powerless, and the agents of evil and peace. As Felicia becomes more and more aware of what’s happening around her, she suffers terrible losses and must learn to cooperate with the devil she knows versus the one she doesn’t. This is a complex tangle of science, mysticism and spirituality that seems to defy any box that you can put it into. It’s textured and layered storytelling of the best kind, the type of tale that both compels you to delve deeper into chasm it’s created and to pull away from the darkness that is engulfing everything that Felicia knows and loves.Even as Julian is saving Felicia, one wonders what his true motives are and what he’s hiding. He seems amiable and sincere, but there’s something hiding underneath, and the group that he has allied with aren’t the nicest sort. As I read, I wondered if there was more to Julian’s saving Felicia than he had asserted, and surely it seemed as though the more I learned about him, the easier it was to distrust him. But the author has a few aces up her sleeve when it comes to the true motives of this character, and the circumstances get even more surreal by the end of the novel.In Felicia’s heart, there’s only room for one: the one whom she left behind. But the closer she comes to the terrible beings that are holding her and innumerable others prisoner, the closer she comes to the truth about the love she left behind and her life before Level 2. In the perfectly pitched and highly tense narrative, Felicia will find out more than she ever wanted to know, and she’ll have to make a choice that will affect not only her own soul, but that of those around her who are still slumbering in their hives, dreaming of the lives that they will never be a part of again.I enjoyed this book to the fullest and found myself speculating on character motives, wondering what was coming next, and actively engaging with the cast of very three-dimensional characters that Appelhans created. I was sucked into this white world that suddenly turned vivid and uncannily haunting, and was just as ensnared with the careful and compelling rendition of the plot. I’m eagerly looking forward to seeing what the author brings me next in her second installment, Level 3. A top notch YA novel. Highly Recommended.
The Improper Life of Bezellia Grove: A Novel

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Bezellia Grove is an young and affluent Southern girl who has inherited her unusual name from a long line of affluent Bezellias. But this Bezellia is more than she appears and is living a most unusual life behind the closed doors of her plantation style home in Tennessee. Though she’s passionate and expressive, Bezellia and her younger sister Adeliade live in fear of their sometimes abusive and always neglectful mother, while the girls’ father is unusually quiet and absent most of the time. This leaves Bezellia to be raised by the two African-American house servants, Maizelle and Nathaniel, who become a set of quasi-parents to the two troubled girls. As Bezellia finds her faltering way through adolescence and young adulthood, she will become affected by a horrific family accident and and engage in an illicit and innocent love that will change her and shape her future. And just when it seems that things can’t get any more complicated for Bezellia, she begins to uncover a few haunting secrets about her mother’s past that may begin to explain the woman she’s become. In this beautiful and intricate southern tale filled with heartbreak, longing and redemption, the irrepressible Bezellia Grove and her very unique life spin outward into the minds of readers who might discover that being true to yourself is sometimes the hardest job of all.It’s not often that I read a book that so touches me and makes me fall in love so helplessly with its main character. It’s also not often that I sit up until the wee hours of the morning racing to finish a story that I can’t seem to put down. But it does happen, and it happened with The Improper Life of Bezellia Grove. Between the magic and perfect cadence of Gilmore’s writing, and the nerve twisting story of Bezellia’s life, I ended up completely surrendering to my love for this book and reading avidly to find out what would become of this very unusual girl who lived a very unconventional life.From the first few pages, the relationship between Bezellia and her mother become painfully obvious. While Bezellia was just beginning to explore the world around her and find her place in it, her mother was dutifully trying to shove her into little prescribed boxes of her own making. And really, Bezellia was, and remained, the antithesis of her mother throughout the book’s permutations. It was tragic to see the forlorn Bezellia hungering for her mother’s love; a love that would never be granted to her. It was even more disheartening to watch Bezellia’s mother slowly spiral away from the people who loved her into greater abuses and tantrums, slowly being enveloped by alcoholism. While Bezellia’s mother was either climbing the rickety social ladder or drinking, both Bezellia and her sister grew very attached to Maizelle and Nathaniel, who took the children under their wing and cared for them as their own. Very early on Bezellia realizes that the marginalization of these two people, and the black community in general, is sickeningly unfair, and though she tries to shift the balance of power for them and with them, it proves a huge wedge to move on her own. The balance of power that exists in her home is one that is unfortunately not rare for that time period, and though Bezellia kicks and bucks it away, she’s also hindered by social custom and the narrow-mindedness of the time.When Bezellia falls in love with a socially unsuitable match, her predicament draws all kinds of attention, and it’s attention that she desperately wants to ignore and avoid. It’s a love that she feels is destined for her, and though society tries to dictate to her about the unacceptable nature of this relationship, Bezellia refuses to listen. But this isn’t the only problem she’s having, because her family life is in ever increasing shambles. Bezellia finds herself the head of her family, the one who everyone looks to for answers. It’s a confusing and heartbreaking time for her, but she never seems to loose her pluck, and her reserves, though at an all time low, don’t ever seem to be depleted. I admired Bezellia during these sections because she carried loads that her narrow shoulders should have never been responsible for. Gilmore creates her Bezellia with vigor and aplomb, packing her heroine with an unflappable desire for individuality and freedom that takes her into unexpected places and situations, and carries her through some of the most difficult times a young woman can face. Though her life is stilted and hobbled by her troubles, Bezellia finds a way to gracefully maintain equilibrium.For the most part, the thing that I made me feel so connected to this book was my total immersion into Bezellia’s life and my complete sympathy for her story. Bezellia wasn’t the type of character to willingly force herself into contortions of emotion that weren’t authentic to her, which made life a lot harder for someone who lived in a home where appearances were everything, both inside and outside the doors. She was also an idealist in a place where her ideals aren’t appreciated or understood, which pitted her against even those who she loved and regarded with respect. Her overwhelming desire to be loved in “the right way” often compromised her emotional stability, and is a factor of her personality that I think a lot of women will understand. Bezellia’s uncomfortable and fraught relationship with her mother is also packed with landmines for her character’s development and growth, and in some ways I could really relate to her struggles in this area. She was a very real character with some very realistic flaws and attributes that made me care for her almost instantly.This was one of the best books I’ve read in a long time, for many reasons that I stated above. In addition, Gilmore’s writing was very smooth and fluid and made it easy for me to become thoroughly submerged. She held me captivated in her storyteller’s hands until that final haunting conclusion. If you haven’t read this wonderful story yet, I would highly recommend it. I think it would strike the perfect chord in many different readers, and would be appreciated by many.
Reign of Madness

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Juana of Castile is just a girl in the court of her illustrious parents, Isabel and Fernando, rulers of the Spanish Empire, when she gets the news that she is to marry Phillipe the Handsome, Duke of Burgundy. This means traveling to a country very different from her own to live with a man she’s never met, a situation that troubles her. When she’s received in Phillipe’s court, brave Juana is hopeful that life with her doting and handsome husband will be all she hopes it can be. And for awhile, it is. Phillipe is loving and attentive, and despite some minor flaws, treats his new wife with tenderness and love. But soon Juana is noticing that Phillipe has an eye for the ladies and would much rather spend his time hunting then with her and the royal heirs. But still Juana is patient with her husband, until the day when plans are made to transfer the power of the Spanish throne to her with Phillipe acting only as king consort. This seems to quietly enrage Phillipe, and soon he is on a campaign to smear Juana's name and reputation. When he plants rumors that she’s gone mad and locks her away, Juana is confused and saddened but doesn’t know how best to quash this threat. Soon Juana is alone and friendless with rumors of her madness spread far and wide. Will Phillipe succeed in taking the crown of Spain for himself and making everyone truly believe that Juana is mad? Or will someone or something help Juana overcome this disaster that seems to be shaping her future? In this breathtaking and provocative new novel by Lynne Cullen, the doors are thrown open to the past and the story of Juana the Mad is re-imagined with a fresh perspective that might be closer to the truth than anyone has ever realized.I’ve got to hand it to Lynne Cullen. This is the second book of hers that has just blown my socks off. Last year, I read and loved The Creation of Eve, and was impressed with Cullen’s fluid writing and gift for story creation. While it’s no secret that I adore historical fiction, there are some specimens that are better than others, and Cullen’s books seem to have that undefinable sprinkling of magic that make my eyes want to rove slowly and languorously over the pages. In her fictional treatment of the infamous Juana the Mad, Cullen gives us an inexpressibly human character who is caught in one of the most bizarre and terrifying situations ever to be imagined. And though the truth may be stranger than fiction, as Cullen mentions in her end notes, this book certainly captures the perplexing situation that Juana of Castille found herself in.While at times I thought Juana was a little naive, when I stopped to examine the situation a little more fully, I realized that it wasn’t really naivety that kept Juana at a disadvantage with Phillipe. it was more that she had a forgiving and optimistic heart, and that she wished to create a situation that was more peaceable not only for herself, but for her family and subjects. And I came to see then than Juana was very brave, though perhaps a little foolhardy, when dealing with her husband who turned like a chameleon from attentive and loving to domineering and controlling. It was such a complete reversal that I could see why Juana was stunned and confused by him. Where at first Phillipe didn’t seem to care about becoming acting regent for Spain, his interest suddenly sharpened and began to overwhelm all the other aspects of his personality. When Phillipe begins to do the unthinkable to Juana, there is little power the woman can assert as she has been virtually isolated in this foreign land.A good portion of this book also examined the relationship between Fernando and Isabel as seen through the eyes of their middle daughter, Juana. Because of Isabel’s formidable personality as regent, Juana was never able to become close to her mother, and was never able to learn about her to any satisfactory degree. Fernando, though seemingly content, was portrayed as feeling somewhat emasculated by his strong wife whose subjects often called her King Isabel. In later chapters, Fernando is also responsible for keeping Juana’s crown from her, and one wonders if this was due to the rumors that Phillipe spread about the realm or if it was his own ambition that was in play. It was sad to realize that Juana was beset by traitors from all sides, and although she felt content to relinquish her power at times, it was clearly wrong for others to try to usurp it. It angered me to see her disregarded and treated as a joke or a nonentity, and though she was tractable, it was hard not to feel that there was a degree of weakness to Juana’s actions. But truth be told, there really weren’t many options open to her.In this examination of Juana’s life, I came to see that the power plays between monarchs and their courts could not only be dangerous but also deceptive and controversial. In the end notes, Cullen speaks about a trip to Spain where the old myths about Mad Queen Juana are seriously offensive to some of the natives. It’s in this kernel of revelation that the story in Reign of Madness really begins to pepper its readers about the accuracy of the history we’ve all been taught and believe. Cullen rounds out her tale with guest appearances from Cristobal Colon (Christopher Columbus) and other famous regents and religious men of the time. The effect is one of total encapsulation of the time period, and brings Juana and her life into fulsomely colorful relief, rendered with an expert’s hand at sussing out conspiracy, plots and revenge.I loved this look into the life of a woman that I knew so little about, and I thought Cullen did a wonderful job of creating a vivid representation of what might have actually happened in the life of Mad Queen Juana. Cullen has once again exceeded my expectations and delivered a flawless historical fiction novel that I fully savored and appreciated. It was a wonderful book that is sure to have its share of admirers. Highly recommended!
The Deal, the Dance, and the Devil

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When Diana Bishop, a scholar working on alchemical research in England for an upcoming conference, requests a manuscript from the Bodelian library, she unwittingly sets off a chain of events that will change her life forever. You see, Diana is a reluctant witch who comes from a long line of very powerful spell casters, and though she has forcefully denied her power and magic after the horrific deaths of her parents many years ago, her magic is about to come crashing down all around her. The manuscript in question is called Ashamole 782, and when Diana recalls it from the library, she inadvertently casts a spell that opens the enchanted book, which has been lost for thousands of years. Soon the library is filled with curious and malevolent witches, daemons and vampires, all hungry for the secrets that Ashamole 782 is hiding. Into this mix of curious creatures comes Matthew Clairmont, a very powerful and exceptionally handsome vampire, who seems to take an unusual interest in Diana. But this is a problem because vampires and witches can never mix, according to old customs and laws. However, Matthew is not to be deterred, and before Diana knows it, she’s in over her head not only with unexpected feelings for Matthew, but with protecting Ashamole 782 from greedy and vicious creatures who wish to plunder it for their own ends. So begins an epic tale of forbidden love between two very powerful creatures who are on the run to protect not only themselves and their unspeakable relationship, but the magical book that may contain the secret history and future of the daemons, witches and vampires who long to possess it. Thrilling, provocative, and enthralling, A Discovery of Witches takes its readers on a fantastical and magical journey of epic proportions and leaves them spellbound and hungry for more.I’d heard a lot about this book before picking it up and had remembered that Steph had reviewed it for BookPage earlier this year and had fallen in love with it. I normally pay attention when Steph falls in love with a book because I think she has great taste, so when I was looking for something to get engrossed in over the long weekend, I decided to pick this one up and give it a shot. It was sort of a dicey proposition because before reading the book I wasn’t sure how I felt about books that carried heavy paranormal elements, and aside from the Harry Potter books, this was a relatively new genre for me. Despite my reservations, when I really got into this book, I was totally hooked, and found that the book mixed the elements of The Outlander series with the magic and wizardry of the Harry Potter saga. There was even a little bit of Twilight in here (to my dismay) but this book was much more entrancing that Twilight could ever hope to be.There was a lot going on in this book. From interspecies love affairs, to secret manuscripts and societies, to time travel and magic, to academia and intrigue, this book had it all. It was the kind of story you can’t help but get invested in quickly because it was so vivid and perfectly imagined. The characters (which were a well developed and varied lot) were not stereotypical and this was a great feature because often it’s too easy to fall into stereotypes within the framework of a paranormal tale. I also liked the myths and backstories that Harkness created behind the various creatures. They each had their own defining features and special talents, and I was surprised that she varied a bit from the usual vampire lore to create a subtly different species than what I had come to expect. The book was long by anyone’s standards, but it never felt arduous or overwritten, and the story was consistently morphing between its different elements, making it all seem fresh and exciting. A lot of space was given over to the practice of magic, which is another thing I enjoyed. It was all so refreshing and clever, and the worldbuilding was also done exceptionally well. Each of these components felt very organic and was written with aplomb and energy that gave the story a life and mythology of its own.The Matthew and Diana contingent was one that was easy to enjoy because of the obvious sparks between them and the fact that their love was forbidden. There was a whiff of the exotic when it came to the very touching and sensual interactions between them. I may have swooned a little bit when reading about Matthew’s romantic overtures. Though they tried mightily to stay away from each other, it was obvious that they would find a way to be together despite the danger their relationship created, even if it started a war between the supernatural creatures. Which it did. Like the vampires that we have come to know, Matthew could be possessive and overbearing, but in a flash of brilliance, Harkness created her Matthew as a genetic scientist who was obsessed with finding out the secrets behind the singularities of the different species of creatures. He was a very intense character, full of passion and drive, and he had a very strict set of ethics that were difficult to sway. Diana, on the other hand, was somewhat reserved on the outside but very conflicted on the inside. Often plagued by anxiety, she relished physical endeavors and was stubbornly resolute about refusing to embrace her inner witch. These two players were very different, resulting in a lot of friction that generated some very bright sparks. It was lovely to watch them slowly melting towards each other, despite their instincts telling them that it was not safe to do so.Between the mysteries of the enchanted manuscript, the malevolent witches and vampires out to destroy Diana, and the secret world of magic that lay just beyond human eyes, A Discovery of Witches was filled with action and adventure. Subtle quirks in the storyline were also really appreciated, like the house that had ideas and behaviors of its own and the delicious history of Matthew’s vampire family living in France. It was the type of book that you pick up for only a moment, and before you know it, hours have passed. Danger, love, creatures, fabulist science, and old grudges mixed themselves into a delicious hodgepodge of a book that I couldn’t tear myself away from. The only quibble I had with it was discovering very close to the end that the book ended on a cliffhanger that will be resolved in future books. Oh, what I wouldn’t give to have the next installment in my hot little hands right now! The book was intense and mystifying, and it continually surprised me with its inventive plot and the strength of the amorous relationship between two very different creatures.This was a tremendously entertaining book, and it came at just the right time for me, as I had been gorging on much more depressing reads for many weeks now. Unexpectedly, this book took on a life of its own as I read, and read, and read. I exclaimed to anyone that would listen that I found a new favorite, and that’s saying a lot for me. If you’re even mildly curious about this book, I would strongly urge you to pick it up and give it a try. It will surprise you for sure, and keep you guessing all the way to the final page. A wonderful and mystical page turner of the highest order. Heartily recommended!
A Mountain of Crumbs: A Memoir

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In this memoir, the life of a young woman growing up in cold war Leningrad is explored with depth and feeling as she struggles to come of age in the very forbidding and intense landscape of the former Soviet Union. Life for Elena and her family hasn’t always been easy. Through her parents’ hard work, Lena and her sister aren’t living at the bottom rungs of the communist society, but there isn’t a lot of extra in their lives either. Elena’s mother, once a surgeon during the war, is now teaching anatomy at the university. Elena has been raised to believe in the superiority of Russia and communism and to regard the rest of the world with suspicion and cynicism. Much to her mother’s dismay, these views strangely begin to melt away as she matures into a young woman. When Elena’s sister decides to pursue a career in acting instead of medicine or engineering, the idea that there multiple paths to happiness begins to occur to her, despite the messages she gets from society. As Elena begins to rise through the professional world and falls in line to do exactly what’s expected of her, a chance meeting with an American drastically alters the future that has been so carefully arranged by her and her mother. When the once iron grip of the Soviet Union begins to loosen its hold on Elena, her life will never be the same and the future that‘s laid out before her will be unlike anything she could have ever imagined.This book has been compared to the Russian version of Angela’s Ashes, and has also been touted as being amusing and wry, which is not exactly my experience with it. While I did grow to appreciate this coming of age story, the first hundred pages were a little rocky for me. When the storyline began to shift, I must say I was a little more pleased that the book was going in a different direction. I’m not sure if my reactions were due to the very maudlin aspects of life in Russia or due to the fact that everything in this tale seemed so dark and reeked of cynicism, but for the most part, I found this to be a very heavy read. It’s not that this was a bad book, but it was, for the most part, rather darkly portrayed.Elena is a girl like most. She hungers for love and opportunity and doesn’t quite understand how to discover the secrets behind these things and how to figure out the mysteries of life. She’s very secretive with her mother and doesn’t seem to have a very healthy relationship with her at all. It was easy to see why, though, because her mother was extremely militant about controlling her daughters and forcing them to do the things that she found acceptable. I got the feeling that Elena was proud of her mother, but that doesn’t translate into intimacy, which is something I don’t think Elena had with anyone in the story. A lot of her reactions to the world around her were very familiar to me because a lot of them dealt with her feelings of disconnection from that world; a world that she would one day be expected to take part in and flourish in. It was obvious that Elena suffered from a great amount of naivety and to a certain degree had been very sheltered throughout her upbringing, and I kept asking myself if this was a byproduct of the very oppressive place in which she lived or her mother’s overprotectiveness. In some ways I felt that Elena never really matured the way that those in the West do; she never had those coming of age moments that are so crucial to forming adult perceptions. When she did finally have these moments, she had already crossed the threshold into adulthood.It bothered me a little to hear all the comments about how the West was filled with rotten capitalist pigs, and how our society was belittled as an untrustworthy foreign melange full of greed and debauchery. I began to realize that although Elena and her parents said these things often, these ideas stemmed from the propaganda that the Soviet Union generated over many years and thorough various means. This doesn’t mean that it wasn’t annoying, only that I understood how a group of people could be so indoctrinated into thinking that the progressive west was just too radical and progressive. To tell you the truth, the Russia of this time sounded horrible, and stories of waiting in line for hours to procure a few rolls of toilet paper seemed as alien to me as capitalism probably seemed to Elena and her family. The Russia of this time period was no joke, and Gorokhova really succeeds in identifying the menacing aspects that the government used to keep its citizens under control. These sections, to me, were the darkest of the book, and lent Elena’s reminiscences a casual cruelty and sense of abiding provocation.There was a very deep sense of pragmatism that permeated the minds of the characters in this story. Despite the very foreign aspects of life in cold war Russia, it was clear to see that the people living in this society were not only downtrodden and overburdened, but deeply instilled with a degree of pride and a false illusion of superiority. As Elena realizes that life in Russia is not what she wants and takes steps to release the country’s hold over her, she begins to see that the life she and her family have been living is one of half realized dreams and fruitless sacrifice. Though the situation that enables her to escape is not a perfect solution, it’s one I think many will be able to relate to, and one that Elena herself feels a begrudging appreciation for, despite it’s challenges and inconveniences. When all is said and done, Elena is able to make peace, not only with herself, but more importantly, with her mother and her homeland.Though this wasn’t my favorite memoir, it did provide a lot of chewy food for thought and a very deep exposure to a way of life that’s extremely alien to my own. It was filled with the cultural details that readers of this genre will appreciate, but there’s no denying that the story is rather bleak. I did end up admiring Elena Gorokhova for her stoicism and her ability to persevere, and I think that this is a book that would open a lot of readers’ eyes to the very different lives that are lived outside the United States.
Galore

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In the small Newfoundland island town of Paradise Deep a strange occurrence has turned the town upside down. It seems a huge whale has beached itself on the shore, and due to the fishing town’s recent hardships, the residents soon begin to divvy up the carcass for food and fuel. But when the widow Devine begins to cut through the animals stomach, she and the other onlookers are surprised to see a man tumble out. He’s a strange man indeed, with his white hair and skin, and he seems to be mute as well. He also stinks of dead fish, and it’s a smell destined to never go away. So begins the magical and dense saga of a town that’s unlike any you’ll ever experience. Love and hate, passions and feuds, birth and death, they’re all encompassed in this winding and rich tale of a town lost in the middle of the ocean, a town that society forgot. As Crummey follows the handful of families on the island over a span of a hundred years or more, we share in their heartbreaks and sorrows, their triumphs and defeats. In this magnificent and unusual tale, the magic of Paradise Deep and its inhabitants is cleverly meted out with an eye for the fantastical, wonderful and strange.This was a hard book to summarize; not because it was confusing but because there was just so much going on that it would have been impossible to even hint at all the plot permutations and narrative twists. I found that although I tried to sit down and read this one straight through, it was almost impossible to do so because of the book’s density and the abundance of genealogical information. This isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy the book, because I did. I thought there was a great use of magical realism that didn’t end up stretching into absurdity and that all the various components of the town’s saga were captivating and engaging. Though it took me awhile to rip through this one, I was very pleased with both the journey and the destination.Part of what I loved about this book was Crummey’s ability to be playful and at times crass. It was obvious that although there was a lot of gravity in this story, the author didn’t take himself or his characters too seriously; in turn, I was rewarded with a great sense of the joviality of Paradise Deep’s residents. There were some heartbreaking moments as well, and the balance between gravity and humor was one that was well played within this tale. The more I read, the deeper I fell into the spell of the story and the more intimately I began to understand the characters and their motivations. There was a great give and take here, a seesawing between the details of the town’s growth and the characters’ interplay with one another that was mingled with just a touch of the magical realism that I so enjoy.I think it’s a feat to manage such a sprawling novel the way that Crummey did. The book wasn’t astronomically large, but seemed to encompass so much time in a succinct and elegant way. From the moment the strange man is disgorged from the whale’s belly, Crummey is off and running with his history of Paradise Deep and his eccentric cast of characters, who are always doing something surprising and counter-intuitive. I also really enjoyed Crummey’s character creation because it was extremely layered for a book of this scope and size. Most of the characters were given a lot of development and substance, which is impressive considering that there were probably over two dozen characters in play. But what’s also impressive is that Galore didn’t feel overpopulated at all. While there were times when I had to check the family tree in the front of the book, each character managed to be singular and richly defined.When I finally got to the last page, I fully realized the magic that Crummey had managed with this book. His story went from engaging and intriguing to ephemeral and awe-inspiring. It was an ending that I had started to guess at, but the implications it created made me rethink the whole story. And when I started to look back, I saw that those missing puzzle pieces had been there all along, just waiting for a savvy reader to pick them up and fit them all together. I can’t say I knew this all along though, and had to wait for that final page for the wheels to begin churning in my brain. In some ways, this book reminded me of A Hundred Years of Solitude, with its scope and intention feeling very similar. It also reminded me that when magical realism is done right, it can be just…well, magical.I’m going to have to jump on the bandwagon and join the other reviewers who thought this book was brilliant. It wasn’t what I had been expecting, and although I had read several reviews, the book was constantly surprising to me. Though I went into things with high expectations, Galore really delivered and inspired me to check out more of Crummey’s work. It was definitely a dense and chewy book, but one that I think a lot of readers would enjoy. I know it was an unexpected treat for me. This is a book I would definitely recommend.
Wildflower Hill

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Beattie Blaxton is shaken and distraught when she finds herself with child in 1930’s Ireland, being neither married nor even engaged to the child’s father. After an unsuccessful attempt to part from her lover and give her unborn child up for adoption, her lover Henry comes to the rescue and spirits her away to Australia. But life for Beattie is still not easy, as Henry, having absconded from his legal wife, is quite a drinker and spendthrift who also has a problem with gambling. Soon Beattie decides to take her chances alone with her young daughter in a town where an unmarried mother is not looked upon kindly. When Beattie secures a job as a maid at a struggling sheep farm called Wildflower Hill, her future begins a slow revolution that will take her from the bottom rungs of society to the upper echelons of wealth and power. But along the way, there is much she will have to sacrifice. Two generations later, Beattie’s granddaughter Emma is having her own struggles. As a premiere ballerina who is just hitting the upper age range for a successful career, Emma has just had a career-ending injury. After weeks of wallowing following her accident and an untimely break-up, Emma is called into her grandmother’s lawyer’s office to take receipt of the last piece of her inheritance. But it’s not wealth that has been imparted to her, and when she discovers just what Beattie meant her to do, she embarks on a trip to Tasmania and Wildflower Hill, where she will discover the truth about herself and about her grandmother’s past that was kept hidden for many dark years. Blending the lingering past with the intoxicating present, Kimberly Freeman gives us the lives of two women cut from the same cloth, yet so very, very different.Though Beattie and Emma were very similar characters, there were some substantial ways in which they differed. While I would have to say that Beattie was the more courageous and motivated, Emma sometimes appeared a little more cold and less emotionally evolved than her grandmother. Part of this may have been that Beattie got a lot more page space and her conundrums were a lot more interesting and heartrending than Emma’s refusal to let her dancing career go. While I did like both women, I think I felt more at home in the historical sections, because for some reason that story had a little more gravity and drama to it. Emma’s story was by far lighter and more redolent of romance than the hardship of Beattie’s story, though the narrative devices that tied these two stories together was strong and did have me very curious.The historical parts of the story had a lot of different and pressing issues taking place within its structure. Not only was the difficulty of being a single mother explored, but also the dubious position that Beattie got herself in when she agreed to let Henry share custody of Lucy, her daughter. It was heartrending to read about the problems that faced a woman on her own in Australia, from the town’s prejudice and intolerance of Beattie and her hired hands, to the way that religion was used as a weapon to subdue and control those who were felt to be out of line. Beattie maintains a strength and fortitude throughout her trials, but even the most casual reader can see that all this wears on her and slowly breaks her spirit. By the end of her tale, Beattie is a shadow of her former self and her dreams and hopes have been subtly replaced by secrets and longing. It was interesting to see this morphing of such a strong character into a woman who was beset with regrets, and one can argue that although Beattie was wildly successful in some venues, she had to sacrifice so many things for that success that it must have been a bittersweet victory.Emma too was discovering that some of her life was going to have to be sacrificed, and one of the problems that arose from this situation was that Emma had no idea of who she was outside of her dancing. From childhood, Emma was able to indulge this creative side of herself to the detriment of forming real relationships and attachments. Though she did have a relationship with a very successful man, it turns out that most of that relationship was a facade as well. As Emma begins to see that there is more to life than the pursuit of her dancing career, she discovers a side of herself that she didn’t know existed; and in her search for the clues to Beattie’s past, Emma comes to find that her new life is ripe with possibilities and opportunities. I liked that Emma was able to pull away from the character traits that were subsuming her real intellect and grace, and that she was eventually open to starting a new chapter in her life that was slated to go in a very different direction. Her romantic entanglements were refreshing as well, and I was very pleased at her final choice of paramour.Throughout this story a lot of very sensitive issues were brought up. From the prejudices that the aboriginal peoples have faced, to the problems that arose during a mixed-race relationship during the 50’s, to the sticky issue of parental rights, there were a lot of thoughtful and emotional landmines in this tale. And while some of these issues were never fully resolved, there was a great striving for enlightenment and understanding from the principals in the story. At its heart, there were vast currents of prejudice and dishonor and hatred that had to be dealt with, and in dealing with these very uncomfortable topics, there was a lot of character growth. I admit that it wasn’t always empowering and comfortable growth, but I really admire Freeman for sticking to her guns and including so many serious topics in a book that really could have been just about the fluff. In the end so many questions are raised and explored that it was easy to categorize this book as a thoughtful and intelligent read.Though I preferred the historical sections to the contemporary ones, both were done rather well, and each half of the story seemed to blend into a satisfying whole that I came to appreciate and enjoy. It’s not only a book about relationships, but about ideas that challenged the times they were captured in. Also, as the book ends in a bit of an ambiguous fashion, I’m wondering if there might ever be plans for a sequel. If so, I would definitely be in line to read it. A very thoughtful and entertaining read.
Love At Absolute Zero

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Gunnar Gunderson is a physicist with some pretty straightforward ways at looking at the world. While his research delving into the physics of absolute zero is going very well and he’s just secured tenure at the university, Gunnar suddenly feels an intense need to find a mate and wants to act on this desire quickly. While on a small hiatus from his teaching and research, Gunnar decides to devote his three day stretch to finding a woman whom he can settle down with. But three days being what it is, Gunnar finds himself in a pickle when his strange preparations for meeting the girl of his dreams don’t go as planned. However, he’s delighted when a chance encounter puts him in the way of a very attractive woman who is receptive and open to Gunnar in a way that none have been before. From the moment they meet, Gunnar and his paramour are smitten, and when Gunnar agrees to go to great lengths to be with the woman he loves, he has no idea what he’s getting himself into. Thus the three day courtship of his imagination takes on some huge permutations, and Gunnar begins to realize there are huge differences between love and science. In this hugely heartwarming and emotionally eloquent saga of Gunnar and the stirring of his heart, Meeks shares with us a most endearing man, looking for love and enchantment in some very unusual ways.Every time I discover that Chris Meeks is putting out a new book, I get unusually antsy about getting my hands on it. It’s always a pleasure to discover the way in which he will capture my attention and immerse me in the lives of characters that are so complex and concrete that they are difficult to separate from their real life counterparts. Meeks is always upping the ante and outdoing himself with each successive book, growing and stretching as an author whom I’ve come to trust and admire. This latest book was different for Meeks in that he explored the human comedy and tragedy of love in a perfect arena, juxtaposing it as he did with stone cold scientific fact. It was lovely the way the immutable played against the transcendental, and the way Gunnar emotionally slid from his staunch and scientific opinions on love to a more refined and relaxed attitude when it came to taking a chance and letting the desires of his secret heart be fulfilled.Gunnar was one interesting dude. While he’s a very successful physicist and not a bad teacher, there’s a component of his life that’s lacking, and it takes a wave of success to realize that he needs someone to share it with. He’s funny and self-depreciating, but unrealistic about love because he doesn’t understand it or how it works. Gunnar is very comfortable looking at love as a scientific problem, and because of this his attempts to solve it as such are usually impractical and don’t make a lick of sense. And when you stop to analyze what Gunnar thinks about love, it’s enough to make you question what love is and wonder if there are any universal rules that apply to love at all. Meeks subtly proposes these questions by putting Gunnar through his paces, and as the reader laughs at the improbable notions of his protagonist, there’s an element of perplexity as to why it shouldn’t be so. Discovering love isn’t like discovering a new isotope or element, but there is the same flush of initial recognition and the same enthusiasm to share your discovery with the world. For all that, love will not and cannot react in an explicit and time tested manner. For Gunnar, this is a realization that comes to chafe at him. While I could sympathize deeply with Gunnar plight, I could also laughingly relate to what he was going through at times. He had an uncanny knack in his humanness to be thoroughly affective and involving, his confusion and beliefs both charged with the spark of genuine humanness that is a hallmark in Meeks’ writing.When Gunnar decides to immerse himself in the experience of love and to let go of the safety of some of his ideas and his world, he’s in for a rude awakening. This new twist to his love affair baffles and untethers him. Once again, Gunnar tries to insert himself into science, but this time, the results are different. One of the most elegant things about this novel was the way that science and physics were more than ideas. Not only were they solid and sculpted plot elements, they gave the narrative a push/pull between two very different ideas and schools of thought that Gunnar tried to apply to his life. When leaving science behind to venture towards love, Gunnar becomes lost and directionless and finds himself fervently wishing to be ensconced in a world he understands and feels safe to him. But unfortunately, these new directions cannot be reversed so easily, leaving him feeling unmoored and angry. Always at the back of his mind is another opportunity for love that has passed him by, and as Gunnar grows less and less comfortable with the situation, his mind wanders to places where it’s painful for it to go. It was here that Gunnar loses himself and loses his way. The tenderness and confusion of his heart was on full display, and there was an element of hopelessness and melancholy that effused this section of the book and drew me deeper and deeper into Gunnar’s heartache and grief. But no matter how deeply shattered he felt, there was a glimmering light to his personality that clued me in to not counting him out of the game just yet.While the first sections of the book were lighthearted and comedic, the middle was more somber and reflective. Towards the end, there’s a measure of redemption for Gunnar, and there’s a sense that the time has come for this man. Gunnar’s plight is the path that will take him from the safety of ideas he can hide behind to the raw and uncharted territory of the unknown, finally landing him in a place where he doesn’t need to have all the answers and can let his heart soar. I was rooting for this man to extricate himself from the mire he had unwittingly gotten himself into, but was also appreciative that Meeks gave his character a heart that was truly ardent and that I could relate to without difficulty. As a character, Gunnar grows exponentially, and that’s something I love to see in the books I read. Plot, character and motivation combine into the perfect confection of a book that sees its readers cheering along for the underdog: a specimen who seems to have it all figured out but is repeatedly shocked when his hypothesis doesn’t lead to the desired outcome. Gunnar and his life go from looking into the yawning maw of hopelessness to landing in a harbor of contentment and fulfillment with a satisfying and well deserved conclusion. There are elements that are left up in the air, but one has the feeling that this new Gunnar will react with with a preciseness of the heart that has eluded him before.This book was another winner for Meeks, and decidedly so. It was in scope and emotion a very different book than The Brightest Moon of the Century, but in some ways, the concern I had for Gunnar both rivaled and matched the concern I had for Edward in Brightest Moon. This is a story that is fundamentally original and inventive. It forces its reader to ask pressing questions about not only the state of the protagonist’s heart and mind, but their own, and proves to both that the ideas we sometimes hold dear may limit us in imperceptible but very life altering ways. A deeply resonant read that manages to be funny without sacrificing its gravity. Highly recommended!
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