Review and Giveaway: Belong to Me by Marisa de los Santos

imageDB-1.cgiBelong to Me by Marisa de los Santos starts out like this: 

“My fall from suburban grace, or, more accurately, my failure to achieve the merest molehill of suburban grace from which to fall, began with a dinner party and a perfectly innocent, modestly clever, and only faintly quirky remark about Armand Assante.” 

It begins as a fish out of water story about Cornelia Brown, a character from de los Santos’ debut novel, Love Walked In, which I did not read.  No matter.  I didn’t even realize this was a continuation of another book until after I’d read it.  It was great all by itself!

Cornelia and her handsome doctor hubby, Teo, move to suburbia from the city, and pretty soon they are getting to know people.  Teo, by the way, is Handsome with a capital H.  The frequent reminders of his hotness made me think of the way Stephenie Meyers described Edward in Twilight.  He’s attractive; very, very attractive, and doesn’t seem to know it.  Mr. Modest.  

We don’t get to know Teo that well, although he plays a pivotal role in the story.  Belong to Me is more about women, and their relationships with each other.  Ok, about their relationships with men, too.  But it’s more a book about women.  Piper from across the street is a snooty beyotch (did I spell that right??); a married stay at home mom who is critical of everyone.  Right off the bat, she makes comments about Cornelia’s name, hair, and yard.  Pipe’s BFF Elizabeth, sadly, is battling cancer, which is awful but really brings out the human side of Piper.  Cornelia befriends a waitress named Lake who seems smart and blissfully normal (and nicknames Piper “Viper”- ingratiating herself to Cornelia instantly).  But Lake has a secret- a big one.  She also has a son, 13 year old Dev, with a genius IQ.  And Clare is a frequent guest at Cornelia and Teo’s house, who Dev falls for, hard.  Ah, first love. 

It was interesting to see the transformation that takes place in the characters, especially Piper. All her perfectionism and controlling behaviors mask an inner self doubt and lack of confidence, and when things beyond her control threaten her carefully constructed life, it forces her to take a closer look at the things that truly matter- love, friends, family- not the manicured lawn or the perfect crease in the sleeve of her blouse.  Even Cornelia likes her by the end of the book.  

The story is told from 3 points of view in alternating chapters- Cornelia, Piper, and Dev.  De los Santos did a great job of keeping their voices unique- I could easily tell who was telling the story.  Cornelia had such an interesting vocabulary, Piper was really into appearances and denial, Dev was teenage-awkward and brilliant in the best possible way.  The characters had a depth that made them very realistic to me. 

There’s money, private schools, cancer and death, secrets and lies, inappropriate relationships, affairs, and children- legitimate and otherwise.  Does it sound a bit like a soap opera?  I guess it does, but Santos is able to intertwine these characters and their stories in such a way that the reader truly cares about them.  The book is filled with hope and friends, laughter and tears, and the warm feeling that comes from knowing we belong to the ones who love us.  My emotions were all over the map while reading Belong to Me, and the unexpected ending was a real treat.  De los Santos is a truly gifted writer.  I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would highly recommend it.  

Please visit Marisa de los Santos at her website, and check out the wonderful guest post she wrote for me about balancing family life with writing and working from home.

Oh!  OH!  I almost forgot!  Harper Collins is generously offering copies of Belong to Me to 3 lucky readers!  Leave a comment by Monday, May 25th, for a chance to win!!

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Review: One Perfect Day by Lauraine Snelling

51sk2b7tptl_sl500_aa240_ One Perfect Day by Lauraine Snelling 

Two mothers are preparing for what could be the last Christmas with their families intact.  Nora’s teenage twins will be heading off to college next year, while Jenna’s daughter, Heather, is on a transplant list waiting for a new heart.  

Nora, the ultimate Christian mom, gets up each day to do her devotions and write in her journal.  Everything in her home is just so.  The decorations, the gifts, the food- she is preparing for the perfect Christmas.  The only thing out of place is that her husband is away on a business trip. 

Jenna, a single Christian mom who lost her husband in Desert Storm when Heather was a baby, works nights in the ER.  She tries to make everything perfect for what could be Heather’s last Christmas, hiding her tears behind closed doors.  Heather, a young adult who has been treated like a much younger child due to her infirmaries, is a great kid but would like her mom to talk honestly with her about her fears and her future. 

Things abruptly change as a tragedy on a stormy night brings these two families together, though they never actually meet.  God is with both families as one deals with heartbreak and the other cautiously begins to hope and plan for a future. Nora slides into depression as her family and friends attempt to pull her out of it.  Jenna, always thinking of the other mother, feels some guilt over their good fortune.  She is publicly optimistic but privately terrified that Heather’s body will reject her new heart. 

There is joy, though, for Jenna, as she watches Heather become stronger, do things for herself, meet a boy, make new friends, plan ahead.  And there is a budding relationship for her too, as she moves from the caretaker role in a child centered home to a time when she can think about having a life of her own.  

Nora initially rejects the support of family and friends and the comfort of her church, retreating to her bed and sleeping the days away.  She is unable to help her family through their grief and heartache because her pain is too raw.  But she has the unfailing love and devotion of the family dog, who needs her to get up out of bed to let her out and feed her, and who just wants to be near her without demanding anything in return.  The dog was my favorite character in the book!

Each year I try to read one seasonal book during the holidays, although Christian fiction isn’t something I normally read as I generally find it too preachy and sappy. One Perfect Day isn’t either of those things.  The way the family members react to their circumstances is realistic and emotional.  I found the book to be very positive and inspirational and would highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good family story.  

Big thanks to Miriam at Hachette Book Group for sending me this novel to review.

Review and Giveaway: The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff

With the success of HBO’s Big Love and the recent raid on the polygamist compound in Texas, there is a lot of interest in the subject of polygamy.  The idea of a harem:  one husband married to multiple wives, underage girls marrying much older men, huge households filled with children, a community cut off from the outside world, women in prairie dresses and braided hair, husbands keeping “marriage manager notebooks” to keep track of how often they visit their wives’ beds- it’s fascinating and titillating subject matter.

David Ebershoff takes on this sweeping topic in his book, The 19th Wife, giving the reader both a contemporary murder mystery and a historical view of plural marriage.   The stories are parallel and not totally interconnected, allowing the reader to get the big picture- the history and it’s effect on current times- without confusion. 

There is the historical story of Ann Eliza Young, one of Brigham Young’s wives, who divorced him after 5 years and went on to help end polygamy by speaking out about it.   Told with depth and clarity, from many viewpoints and with various fictionalized documents, letters, and research papers (even a wikipedia entry!), we get a good sense of the history of the Mormon religion, the early days of the church and its Prophets Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, and the divine revelation of celestial marriage that nearly caused it’s downfall. 

There is also the modern day story of Jordan Scott, a gay 20 year old who was turned out of an FLDS polygamist household, ordered by his father to be dumped along the side of a highway by his mother at age 14 because he was caught holding the hand of his step sister.  Jordan, living in California, sees a news story on the internet about his mother, also a 19th wife, being arrested for killing his father.  He travels back to Utah to see his mother in prison to find out what happened.  He becomes convinced of her innocence and proceeds to investigate, with the help of his mother’s attorney, his secretary, Johnny (a street smart 12 year old, also turned out by the sect), and Tom-also gay and estranged from the Mormon Church because of it. 

I liked both stories very much and think that together they make for an intricate and well rounded portrayal of the complex issue of polygamy; the reasons it existed in the past and why it is still around on the fringes of society today.  While reading The 19th Wife, I wasn’t clear on what was fact and what was fiction, but that didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the book.  It wasn’t until I read the Author’s Note and Acknowledgements at the end that I understood that the documents were entirely fictionalized, which was fine except I wished I’d known that from the beginning.  It was all very realistic and believable.  

The 19thWife is a great book.  It drew me in and put me into the minds of people struggling with their faith, questioning their beliefs and their leaders, and wrestling with difficult decisions, something we all do.  And isn’t that what excellent historical fiction should do-present differing viewpoints and make you think?  This book is wildly successful in that area! 

You can visit David’s website for all kinds of fascinating info at The19thWife.com.  It’s interesting to note that in 1875, Ann Eliza Young really did write a bestselling and controversial memoir, Wife No. 19, and you can download and read the original memoir from David’s site. 

So, have I piqued your interest?  Want to read the book yourself?  If you’d like a chance to win a hardcover First Edition copy of The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff, leave a comment here by Friday, November 7th.   So sorry- this is only open to residents of the US and Canada due to shipping expenses. 

I received this book as part of David’s TLC Book Tour, and he also generously sent me a 2nd signed and personalized copy to keep (thanks, David!) but what’s up with that date?  My calendar says 2008! 

David Ebershoff has been all around the blogosphere doing interviews and guest posts.  Here’s his schedule if you’d like to follow his tour:

David Ebershoff’s TLC Book Tours TOUR STOPS:

Wednesday, Oct. 15th:  Maw Books (Natasha got to meet David at a book signing!)

Thursday, Oct. 16th:  Maw Books (review)

Friday, Oct. 17th: Reading, ‘Riting, and Retirement (guest post and review)

Monday, Oct. 20th:  She Is Too Fond Of Books (will have another post soon with David answering questions from readers)

**Check out this post at She Is Too Fond Of Books about a book signing with David

Tuesday, Oct. 21st:  Age 30 – A Year in Books

Thursday, Oct. 23rd:  A High and Hidden Place

Monday, Oct. 27th:  It’s All About Books (guest post) and review

Tuesday, Oct. 28th:  Musings of a Bookish Kitty (review and author interview)

Thursday, Oct. 30th:  Books on the Brain (giveaway)

Monday, Nov. 3rd:  The Cottage Nest

Tuesday, Nov. 4th:  B&B ex libris

Wednesday, Nov. 5th:  Anniegirl1138

Thursday, Nov. 6th:  The Tome Traveller

Friday, Nov. 7th:  Educating Petunia

Monday, Nov. 10th:  The Literate Housewife

Wednesday,  Nov. 12th:  Diary of an Eccentric

Friday, Nov. 14th:  Book Chase

Review: Peony in Love by Lisa See

Lisa See is a master at exploring ancient Chinese life, particularly the lives of women.  Set in 17th century China, Peony in Love is the story of how a privileged young girl from a wealthy family becomes a lovesick maiden, a hungry ghost, and eventually, an honored ancestor. 

The story opens with 16 year old Peony and her household preparing for a performance of the opera “The Peony Pavilion” which her father has staged and directed at great expense.  Visitors have arrived and there is much excitement.  The opera is performed over the course of several days, and the young unmarried women are permitted to view it only from behind a screen, because it would be improper for a man outside of their immediate families to see them. 

Peony, an only child, is educated and well loved, unlike many ‘useless’ girls of her time.  She is lovely with her tiny bound feet and delicate lily gait.  She has studied the opera, considered a danger by some, and has many opinions and feelings about it.  Through the screen she can see some of the guests and a section of the stage.  She glimpses a handsome young man in the audience and, during a particularly poignant scene, is overcome with emotion and needs to move about.  Quite by accident, she encounters this young man (a sensitive poet who was also moved by the scene) in a courtyard of her home.  Ashamed at being seen yet drawn to him, they have a few moments together boldly speaking about the opera.  

Peony finds a way to meet this young man twice more.  Her mother discovers she has been out, and fearing the appearance of impropriety, banishes the betrothed Peony to her room.  Though she never learns the poet’s name, Peony becomes obsessed with the idea of him.  Her father has already arranged a marriage for her but she is lovesick for her poet, consumed by thoughts of him and wishing to marry him.  Ever the dutiful daughter, she continues to prepare for her marriage but also begins a project based on The Peony Pavilion, obsessively recording her thoughts on love in the margins.  She starts refusing food and ignores the advice of her doctors.  Her mother, alarmed and desperate to make Peony well again, burns every edition of The Peony Pavilion that she can find in a vain attempt to shock Peony back into health.  By the time Peony realizes she has made a horrible mistake about her sensitive poet, she is on her deathbed and it is too late. 

But that is just the beginning of this love story.  Peony learns about yearning and romantic love as a young girl; she later discovers physical love as a hungry ghost, and ‘deep heart’ love as a sister-wife in the afterworld.  She finds a way to make her voice heard and to live on even after death. 

I was anxious to read this book after having read Lisa See’s Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, perhaps my favorite book of all time (definitely in my top 3).  It is beautifully written, historically accurate, well researched and artfully constructed.  It’s a very visual book; I could vividly see the scenes in my mind’s eye.  There are so many wonderful cultural details and rich descriptions of traditions, superstitions and ideas about the afterlife, the treatment of ancestors, foot binding (not nearly as intense as Snow Flower, thank goodness), women’s issues, marriage, writing, and everyday life that make this a truly absorbing novel.  I loved it and would recommend Peony in Love to anyone who enjoys historical fiction, or just a really good (tragic romantic asian ghost) story. 

My book club will have the great privilege of talking to Lisa See by speaker phone next Sunday at our meeting.  I’ll be sure to take notes and share the details here!

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

A couple of weeks ago in a Sunday Salon post I listed some books I’d read but hadn’t reviewed, inviting readers to ask me questions about them (copying a Weekly Geeks idea).  This question came from Florinda (who is having an AWESOME 2nd chance CONTEST- Check it out HERE):

Florinda, on August 3rd, 2008 at 4:02 pm Said: 

Bird by Bird is one of my “permanent collection” books – LOVE it.

A couple of questions for you:

The subtitle of the book is “Some Instructions on Writing and Life.” What “instructions” do you think will be most helpful to you, in writing, life, or both?

What are your thoughts about Anne’s expressions of her Christianity? 

Anne Lamott is the teacher I wish I’d had, or the friend I wish I knew.  In reading Bird by Bird, you feel like you’re sitting in her class, or maybe chatting over coffee.  She’s able to give advice without coming across as preachy or better than you- just wise, loving, and experienced.  She acknowledges your fears and encourages you to keep going.  She’s enormously talented and generous with her words.  She’s inspiring, giving you the courage and motivation to just do it and keep on doing it (whatever “it” is- not just writing), all while making you laugh.   Here is what she says about writer’s block: 

“Writer’s block is going to happen to you.  You will read what little you’ve written lately and see with absolute clarity that it is total dog shit. …  Or else you haven’t been able to write anything at all for a while.  The fear that you’ll never write again is going to hit you when you feel not only lost and unable to find a few little bread crumbs that would identify the path you were on but also when you’re at your lowest ebb of energy and faith.”  Pg. 177  

She goes on some more about writer’s block, the reasons for it and the feelings associated with it, before giving her advice:

 “The problem is acceptance, which is something we’re taught not to do.  We’re taught to improve uncomfortable situations, to change things, to alleviate unpleasant feelings.  But if you accept the reality that you have been given-that you are not in a productive creative period- you free yourself to begin filling up again.  I encourage my students at times like these to get one page of anything written, three hundred words of memories or dreams of stream of consciousness on how much they hate writing- just for the hell of it, just to keep their fingers from becoming too arthritic, just because they have made a commitment to try to write three hundred words every day.  Then on bad days and weeks, let things go at that.”  Pg. 178

Her advice is to approach writing (or a project of any kind) in a step by step (bird by bird) way, breaking it down into smaller, more manageable chunks, and trust in the process rather than focusing on the end result.  Her specific writing advice that I’m trying on is to write every day (300 words)- even on a bad day- even when you don’t feel like it, use simple language, write for the love of writing-not the end result, give your best stuff- don’t save it up for later, give everything you have, be interested-look around-pay attention and write about things that matter to you, give yourself the freedom to write anything that pops into your head- to try new things- to not self-edit while writing but to wait and remove things later as necessary.  In general, don’t take yourself too seriously.  It’s good advice.  

On Anne’s Christianity and her expression of it.. I don’t really feel I know enough about it to comment on it.  She seems to love and trust God through all of life’s unexpected turns, and for that I applaud her.  I haven’t read her other work in which she talks about her faith more extensively.  Her younger reckless years are documented at length in Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year (one of very few end-of-the-century works included on the Modern Library’s listof the 1900s best nonfiction) and Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith, but I haven’t read those yet.  

But back to Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.  I received this book as a gift, and it’s a gift that will be giving back to me for years.  I would highly recommend this book to beginning writers, of course, but Lamott’s little life lessons and anecdotes would appeal to anyone.  I loved this book and plan to re-read it soon, as it’s almost like a warm hug from someone who cares. 

Review: Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies is a collection of 9 unique short stories with a common thread… the characters are mostly people of Indian descent, either in America or India.

Lahiri tells these fish out of water experiences of immigrants and first generation Americans with compassion.  They are stories of everyday situations and frustrations; snapshots of daily life. Lahiri’s precise attention to detail is what makes them so amazing.

All 9 stories are excellent, but my favorite was the first story in the collection.  “A Temporary Matter” is about a young married couple whose marriage is suffering after the loss of a baby.  Their relationship has disintegrated into long stretches of silence until they get a notice that, for a week, their power will be cut off for an hour each evening.  For that week, they share meals and secrets by candlelight, until one heartbreaking secret is more than they can bear.

Lahiri is a gifted writer whose style is very subtle, sensitive and restrained.   Her stories are realistic and touching, and are told from different perspectives (1st person, 3rd person, narrator).  She writes of arranged marriages, marriages in trouble, loneliness within marriages, an affair between a girl and a married man, envy, fear, love; in other words, the human experience.  I would highly recommend this Pulitzer Prize winning collection.

Book clubs can find discussion questions HERE.

Review: The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory

It’s All Fun and Games Until Someone Loses a Head!

Our book club is reading The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory this month. The size concerned me a bit (661 pages) so I started it immediately after our last meeting to be sure I had plenty of time to read it. I needn’t have worried.. it is a very fast, easy read. I devoured it in less than a week. When I wasn’t reading it, I was thinking about the book and the characters, and would try to finish whatever I was doing quickly so I could get back to it.

You might expect a book of this size to have lulls or slow parts. It doesn’t. The editing is tight, and the tension builds throughout. An absorbing page-turner; I could not wait to see what would come next.

There are those who don’t care for historical fiction because the outcome is a forgone conclusion.. the ending a certainty. For me, this was not an issue, as I knew very little about the 16th century English court or the reign of the spoiled tyrant, Henry VIII (aside from the playground song, “I am Henery the 8th I am!”). In this case, ignorance is bliss. I liked not knowing what would happen.

Framed by two executions, this novel reads like a 16th century soap opera, full of scandal, danger, murder, ambition, greed, opulence, sex, incest, and more. The Other Boleyn Girl is told from the perspective of Mary Boleyn, the lesser known sister of Anne Boleyn, one of King Henry VIII’s six wives. Taking sibling rivalry to new heights, it tells the tale of two sisters vying for the attentions of the king, and a fiercely ambitious family who sacrificed their daughters in order to find favor, wealth and power.

Mary comes to court as a young girl. Married to William Carey at age 12, she soon catches the eye of the king. She is then ordered by her family to leave Carey’s bed to become the king’s mistress in the hope that their affair will yield land, riches, and power for the Howard/Boleyns. An obedient daughter, she sets aside her own life and desires and does as she is told. After several years and two illegitimate children, the king’s interest begins to wane. The more ambitious sister, Anne, is thrown into his path, and Mary falls from favor. The madness that is Anne’s exhaustive pursuit of the king takes over. Anne, using Mary and their brother George, will stop at nothing to get what she wants. She creates a situation with Queen Katherine that seals her own fate years later.

The historical detail is flawless and the research extensive. It was fascinating to learn about the way people lived, the inequality of English society (from deep poverty to amazing wealth), the expectations of women (proper language, proper manners, the ability to speak several languages, fine domestic arts), the small daily rituals and the use of household items like lice combs (yes, lice, even among the highest levels of society).

There are so many great passages in this book. When I read for my book club, I highlight quotes that I might want to refer back to during our meetings. I did a lot of highlighting in The Other Boleyn Girl! One of my favorite lines is a simile about the excesses of the court, found on page 54:

“There was a trail of extravagance and dishonesty and waste that followed the king round the country like slime behind a snail.”

Such vivid imagery! I was impressed by Ms. Gregory’s writing, the way she handled the complexities of the characters and the seamless blending of fact and fiction. This is an enthralling novel, one I would highly recommend.

You can check out Philippa Gregory’s website HERE

For information about the upcoming movie, starring Scarlett Johansson as Mary, Natalie Portman as Anne, and Eric Bana as Henry VIII, click HERE

You can see our book club’s other selections HERE