TLC Book Tours: Shout Her Lovely Name

Life is messy. But Natalie Serber’s collection of short stories, Shout Her Lovely Name, bravely delves right into the messy lives of family relationships, particularly those of mothers and daughters, and exposes them with empathy and affection.

In addition to being linked thematically, several of the stories follow the lives of the same characters, Ruby and her daughter Nora. We meet Ruby as a child, see her grow to adulthood and become a mother, and then watch the cycle occur again in Nora’s tumultuous life. The stories all reveal the characters ache for connection, as they explore their uneven and sometimes desperate attempts to achieve it.

Serber’s writing is sharp and sometimes acerbic. She marvelously captures every era, from the 1970’s to the present, and places the reader squarely into each place. I don’t often read short story collections, but I enjoyed the way these were linked both in theme and in character, making them read almost like a novel.

Serber’s story is a familiar one. “I imagined I would be a teacher like my mother, or maybe I would write for magazines,” she says,”but what I really wanted to do was to stay at home with my children, and I did.  I gardened, cooked, volunteered at their school.  When my youngest entered preschool, I took a writing class and then I took another.  Soon I gave up gardening and took up early rising until my morning shufflings—making coffee, letting the dog out, writing at my desk—woke the household at five.  With my kids in elementary school I wrote in coffeehouses and at the library, in the parking lot where I waited for them after school.”

Now, facing “the empty nest,” she has released another bird into the sky – this interesting and well written collection of stories about  motherhood. A fitting debut, I think, and one that should soar.

I have a copy of this collection to give away. If you would like a copy of this book, leave a comment below. A winner will be chosen at random on Sunday, July 15, 2012.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to read this book.

TLC Book Tours: An Unmarked Grave

When we arrived at the next station, I found lines of gassed men waiting for their turn to be seen. Bandages across their eyes helped some of the pain and was a distinctive marker. They had a hand on the shoulder of the man in front of them, stumbling along, tripping if no one warned them of uneven ground, at the mercy of orderlies and sisters who guided them.

We bathed their skin and did what we could for their lungs. The worst cases would die painfully, the less damaged would linger in a misery that was frightful.  An Unmarked Grave, by Charles Todd

One would think being a nursing sister in the trenches of France during WWI would give Bess Crawford enough to worry about. But somehow, this intrepid young woman seems to find herself embroiled in one mysterious and dangerous situation after another. In An Unmarked Grave, the fourth installment in Charles Todd’s excellent series, Bess is herself the target of a killer, on who has killed three others – among them a family friend, and member of Bess’ father’s regiment – and will stop at nothing to carry out his nefarious plan.

Each of the books in this series takes the reader deeper into the history of WWI, and with this one set in 1918, the characters are faced not only with the dangers of battle but the deadly infestation on the Spanish Influenza, which struck down men, women, and children by the score. For this reader, the actual mystery sometimes is secondary to the fascinating picture Todd creates of this period in history.

I also enjoy a series with recurring characters who continue to develop personally as the books go on. In this fourth book, Bess’ relationship with Simon Brandon, her father’s faithful and illustrious batman (the orderly of a British Military officer), begins to develop. When Simon is wounded, Bess acknowledges to herself at least just how important he is to her life as the dawning awareness of her feelings is brought to the fore.

The Bess Crawford mysteries are a worthy collection in the growing literature about WWI. With the popularity of the Downton Abby television series (which is also set during this time period) the interest in this cataclysmic event has grown. These books provide another way of informing readers of this very important period in Western history. I highly recommend them for lovers of historical fiction and mystery.

The mother son writing team of Charles Todd

GIVEAWAY: I have a copy of An Unmarked Grave and A Bitter Truth to giveaway to a Bookstack reader. Leave a comment below for an opportunity. Winner will be chosen at random on July 4, 2012. (US entries only, please.) 

Charles and Caroline Todd are a mother and son writing team who live on the east coast of the United States. Caroline has a BA in English Literature and History, and a Masters in International Relations. Charles has a BA in Communication Studies with an emphasis on Business Management, and a culinary arts degree that means he can boil more than water. Caroline has been married (to the same man) for umpteen years, and Charles is divorced.

Charles and Caroline have a rich storytelling heritage. Both spent many evenings on the porch listening to their fathers and grandfathers reminisce. And a maternal grandmother told marvelous ghost stories. This tradition allows them to write with passion about events before their own time. And an uncle/great uncle who served as a flyer in WWI aroused an early interest in the Great War.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to read this book.

TLC Tours: The Cottage at Glass Beach

What better reading for the first official summer weekend than a book titled The Cottage at Glass Beach? Heather Barbieri’s beguiling story about mothers and daughters and secrets of the past, all wrapped up in the enticing atmosphere of  a rustic cottage on a tiny island in Northern Maine, was the perfect way to while away some time in my lawn chair under a shady tree.

The story stars Nora Cunningham, whose husband is Boston’s youngest district attorney. When he is caught in a public scandal involving another woman, Nora flees the tempest with her two young daughters and retreats to Burke’s Island, a remote place where she was born and lived for the first five years of her life until her mother mysteriously disappeared. Nora’s Aunt Maire provides the loving support she needs to get back on her feet. A mysterious fisherman washes up on shore and offers some romantic interest. A strange old woman drops clues about the circumstances leading to Nora’s mother’s disappearance, which was never resolved. Meanwhile, Nora’s daughters Ella and Annie are struggling with their new circumstances, and all the storylines come to a head when the two of them embark on a dangerous quest, and the powers of the sea are finally revealed.

The real star of any good beach book is, of course, the beach. The craggy coasts of Maine, the charming little cottage, the salty sea air and the incessant crashing of waves – all these create a wonderful atmosphere of life at the coast, one we Midwestererns can only dream about. Although I was in my backyard in Michigan, Barbieri has a gift with description that placed me right on those sandy shores.

The Cottage at Glass Beach was a wonderful way to kick off my summer reading. Thanks to TLC Tours for the opportunity to read this lovely novel.

TLC Tours: My New American Life

She wanted to stay in this city with them, she wanted to have what they had. She wanted it all, the green card, the citizenship, the vote. The income taxes! The Constitutional rights. The two cars in the garage. The garage. The driver’s license. My New American Life, by Francine Prose

Because my daughter in law immigrated to the United States in 1999, I’m always interested in books about the immigrant experience. But I have to hope that My New American Life would not be the book that best describes her journey. Satirical, cynical, and somewhat silly, the plot involved Lula, a 26 year old Albania woman who is living surreptitiously on an expired tourist visa in New York, acting as a pseudo-nanny to a rebellious high school boy (really?) Things are going along quite well for Lula – she doesn’t have to do much except keep this sullen teenager company when he’s home – until some shady members of the Albanian “Brotherhood” show up with an offer she can’t refuse.  They ask her to hide a gun for them, and insinuate dire consequences to follow if she doesn’t cooperate.

What’s a girl to do? especially when one of the thugs is so darn good-looking.  She hangs on to the firearm, thereby insuring an extension of this already far-fetched plot.

Lula is not a good example of an American immigrant – she lies to everyone about her background, she even lies to herself. She seems feckless, without real ambition to better herself. With the exception of the stories she writes, thinly veiled vignettes of her own life, she has nothing with which to occupy her time. And the Americans in the novel don’t fare much better – Mister Stanley, who made his fortune working for the big banks, and has now hired this girl to keep watch over his teenage son. Or Don Settebello, the attorney who serves as the Greek chorus in this rambunctious novel.

For all that, there is a certain charm to Lula, one that made me smile indulgently, as one would at the antics of a spoiled toddler. But like that spoiled toddler, you know there will be nothing left but a big mess to clean up once the cuteness is over. As an example of satire, the book is fast paced and cleverly written, and if you enjoy that genre, you would most likely appreciate it more than I did.



TLC Tours: The Year of the Gadfly

Contrary to popular belief, high school did not run according to a horizontal social hierarchy with the nerds as serfs to the popular despots. The alliances and antagonisms were more complicated than the political dealings of a Third World country. In high school, you never knew who was your enemy and who was your friend. The Year of the Gadfly, by Jennifer Miller

Iris Dupont knows all about the social hierarchy of high school. A budding journalist who channels the spirit of Edward R. Murrow, Iris transfers to the historic Mariana Academy after her best friend commits suicide. Mariana is known for it’s honor code, it’s pledge to treat everyone as equals. But a secretive underground group threatens the reputation, even the very existence of the entire school.

Iris, in her best investigative reporter role, is determined to break into the ranks of the group’s underground newspaper. There, she uncovers the source of all it’s blackmail schemes and rumors, some of which involve her favorite teacher, others which point to an albino girl (whose home Iris’ parents happen to be renting) who disappeared from school under strange circumstances.

I compared this novel to Harriet the Spy for grown -ups, and Iris is quite Harriet-like with her single minded determination, her quest for the truth, and her belief in her ability to affect change with the written word.

She is also Harriet-like in her otherness. Iris is different, and so are most of the other students featured in The Year of the Gadfly. Astoundingly different, actually, for author Jennifer Miller has peopled her novel with a cast of characters that are almost outrageous in their uniqueness.

But then again, almost every teenager feels their differences are exaggerated to the point of ludicrousy. It can be a painful time, one when mistakes are made from which it’s impossible to recover.

Does Iris make those kinds of mistakes in her quest for truth and justice?

You’ll have to read The Year of the Gadfly to find out.

In the tradition of some of the most popular “school” novels – like Prep and The Secret History – Miller explores the seamy underside of adolescence, and reminds us how this time in our lives can affect our futures in unbelievable and powerful ways.

Thanks to TLC Tours for the opportunity to read this interesting novel.

TLC Book Tours: An Uncommon Education

Oh how I loved this book.

It’s a quiet book, a coming-of-age story about a brilliant only child who thinks she can save the people she loves from harm.

Author Elizabeth Percer introduces us to Naomi Feinstein when she’s a young girl, an introverted, lonely child who is extremely close to her father. (Her favorite pastime is going with him to visit the John F. Kennedy Historical site in Boston, the home where Kennedy was born.) One day while they are at the museum, Naomi’s father suffers a heart attack, and although he recovers, she determines to become a cardiologist someday, to learn all about the workings of the heart to prevent such things from happening again.

With this goal in mind, and with her father’s encouragement, Naomi studies almost obsessively with the goal of attending Wellesley College. I can feel the hopes they both have for Naomi – that once she gets to Wellesley, things will fall into place for her, she will make friends, her social awkwardness will disappear, she will retain her brilliance but also become more like a “normal” young woman. But Naomi finds it hard to penetrate the layers of social strata and competitive behaviors that abound. She is still lonely, still on her own, lost in her quest for knowledge.

Until a chance encounter leads her to The Shakespeare Society, the oldest “club” on the Wellesley campus. The passionate, unconventional students she meets in this ancient group with its rituals and secrets, introduces her to another world and another version of herself.  Then one of her new friends is unjustly accused of misconduct and is threatened by the scandal, and Naomi – who wants so desperately to save her – is forced to learn the most difficult of lessons in all of her education.

Naomi’s penchant for trying to “save” people – especially her parents – drives this novel. Her mother, chronically ill and depressed, hovers around the edges of Naomi’s childhood, and becomes a major figure at the end of the novel. Her one childhood friend, Teddy, who needs her friendship as much as she needs his. Her college roommate, Jun, who chooses to leave the college rather than bring any hint of dishonor to her family. In her lonely, awkward way, Naomi tries to save them all.

What she learns while caring for her mother during her final illness, what is finally the most important lesson of all, is that she must first save herself before she can make a difference to others.

I began to tell her everything I could think of that was real and foreign to me about the Wellesley outside of the house, how that realness and foreignness together kept me there, forever trying to solve them both. And then I told her about everything before then, about being her child, how I sometimes thought I’d already spent my life missing her, how I’d marveled at her beauty and poise and wondered how it could be mine, how I finally understood why she hadn’t wanted me to be a part of her sickness, a part of the uglier parts of her life. And finally, I told her how I’d tried to save Teddy, then Jun, and had always been trying to save her, and that by not allowing herself to be saved she had probably saved me.

Elizabeth Percer (a Wellesley graduate, and past president of The Shakespeare Society), has given us a debut novel that is poignant and full of heart. An Uncommon Education is a wonderful and wise book about learning the lessons we most need, about finding our way in a world where we never exactly fit, about being able to accept our human limitations.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to read this delightful book. The complete tour schedule is here.

TLC Tours: Make It Stay

“Only – how to – make it…stay.”

He meant us. Mike believed in us, I saw then – saw it somehow for the first time. Believed and loved without complexity or qualification, and this quality must have been true of him all their lives together, Neil’s and Tilda’s with him…

In the tree-nestled Northern California town of Mira Flores, writer Rachel (“an aging typist with an unprofitable hobby”) and her Scottish husband Neil prepare dinner for a familiar “crew” of guests – among them Neil’s best friend, the burly, handsome Mike Spender, an irrepressible hedonist – and Mike’s wife, the troubling Tilda Krall, a hard-bitten figure who carries her dark unknowability like an accusation.

Make It Stay, a slender, evocative novel, describes the arc of friendship between Mike and Neil, a deep and unequivocal bond that is sometimes proves difficult for their families to understand. It also tells the love story of each man with his wife, and how their friendship effects that relationship. Joan Frank’s reflective, character driven novel provides much food for thought about adult relationships and how they permeate our lives. Here are two men who appear as different as can be – larger-than-life Mike, with a huge appetite for life, and Neil, a Scottish attorney who seems conventional and emotionally curtailed – yet who develop a strong friendship which outlasts time and circumstance.

Although Make It Stay is definitely a study of characters and relationships, it is also definitive of time and place. Set in northern California (a topography I’m very attracted to) Frank shows off her descriptive chops with paragraphs like this:

It was one of those afternoons the townspeople cherish about autumns here: sky a deep, aching blue, motes of gold in the air…Leaves had begun to flush crimson, wine, umber; days filled with a warm-sugar smell. Around and through lazed scents of cola, hot pretzels, smoke from leaf fires (still legal), cut-grass, geraniums. Tips of trees barely stirred. In the hills the vines had given up their precious roe and turned to ridge upon brimming ridge of tarnished gold. Gardens hung heavy with their last great loads, tomatoes, eggplant, green peppers. Light felt spun, the color of whipped honey, hovering over the stillness. The whole town, the county, the whole world seemed briefly suspended inside one of those globe spheres – except instead of crystal, the sphere might be one big fire opal.

There is a bittersweet, autumnal scent to this entire novel, in which events don’t seem to happen so much as people experience them. Reading Make It Stay reminded me of looking at a deeply detailed series of paintings, where experience, personality, and environment are reproduced in gorgeous and vivid hues. As the novel recounts the “glory days” of the friendship between the two couples, time and circumstance have its way with them and we come face to face with the inevitable changes that aging brings and the difficulty of “making it stay.”

Make It Stay
is Joan Frank’s 5th work of fiction. She is the recipient of many writing awards and grants, and has taught creative writing at San Francisco State University. She lives in Northern California.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to read this book. Other reviews can be found here.

Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay

…I was retracing, in some half-conscious way, earlier journeys, trying to feel between finger and thumb some thread of trauma and survival from those earlier generations. I wanted to know how suffering had found us, and what we made of it. I wanted to be able to touch it, like the frayed edge of my serape, with its jagged and esoteric key design.

Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay is a book that  defies classification. It’s a memoir, it’s a study of folk art, of geology, of  history. It’s creative nonfiction at its best, I think, because it weaves several genres together into an interesting, cohesive whole.

Christopher Benefy sets out “searching for patterns in the wanderings of his far-flung family.” He looks for those patterns in geology – the red brick and folk pottery of of North Carolina, where his mother (the daughter of brickmakers and bricklayers) was raised; and the white clay so coveted by early potters like Wedgewood and Benefy’s Quaker ancestor William Bartram, for making fine porcelain. He looks for patterns in the art created at the Black Mountain College, where artists Josef and Ani Albers (his Great Aunt and Uncle) explored the contrasts of texture and pattern in pottery and design. Along the way the takes some side roads into Mexico, Japan, and Nazi Germany. His cast of characters include scholars, artists, craftsman, Quakers, and poets, as well as his own parents whose story he tells with affection and understanding.

Rarely does Benefy go awry in this journey. Occasionally the narrative derails a bit for me – when he wanders too far into the past discussing Josiah Wedgewood or the Cherokee nation. But mostly I was deeply engaged with his evocative journey into the past.

And as one who enjoys the folk arts, and who has always had a sense of appreciation for kinds of objects that serve as functional art – pitchers and bowls and vases – I was able to appreciate the philosophy Benefy shares:

My grandparents’ pitcher on the telephone table was glazed with orange lead and speckled with random spots of black iron that had oxidized during the long firing in the half-buried “groundhog” kiln. The glaze was known as tobacco spit. Only now, writing down the familiar name, do I see what it means: the color of chewing tobacco spat out on the ground.

A work of pottery like my grandparents’ orange pitcher lives in two different worlds. It is beautiful to look at, and Jugtown pots during the last fifty years have migrated steadily from private homes into museums. But these pots were also made for use, for keeping the iced tea cold. The German philosopher Georg Simmel, in a beautiful essay called “The Handle,” wrote about this double life. A pottery vessel, he wrote, unlike a painting or statue, is not intended to be insulated and untouchable but is meant to fulfill a purpose – if only symbolically. For it is held in the hand and drawn into the movement of practical life. Thus the vessel stands in two worlds at one and the same time.” The handle marks the journey from one world to the other, it is the suspension bridge from the world of art to the world of use.


Thanks to TLC Tours for the opportunity to read and review this very interesting book.

Other stops on the tour can be found here.

TLC Tours: How to Eat A Cupcake

When I eat cupcakes, I like to peel back the paper liner, take one big bite right out of the middle as if it were an apple, and then nibble my way around the rest of the cake, frosting first. Any little bit of cake I have left I simply pop into my mouth in one bite.

Reading Meg Donohue’s novel How To Eat A Cupcake inspired that little reflection -as well as making me hungry for cupcakes the entire time I was reading it. This sparkling little novel is the story of two young women who renew their childhood friendship while building a successful cupcakery together.

Annie Quintana and Julia St. Clair are from entirely different worlds, although they grew up almost in the same San Francisco mansion. Annie’s mother was the housekeeper for the elegant St. Clair’s, but she and her daughter became practically  members of the family. The girls were close as sisters until an incident during their high school years caused a huge rift that destroyed their friendship. When the novel opens, ten years have passed, Annie’s mother has died, and Julia is engaged to be married. A chance reunion allows the duo to open the lines of communication and they decide to bury the hatchet and start a business together.

Here the novel takes a slightly darker turn, as a mysterious saboteur targets the cupcakery, and it becomes obvious that Julia is hiding a dark secret which is affecting her emotionally. Annie discovers some things she didn’t know about her mother and the mysterious stranger who has been haunting her movements.

All the ingredients finally come together in a smooth concoction, and the story has a neat, if somewhat predictable happy ending.

I enjoyed this novel, it was a fast read with interesting characters. Even though I probably identify more with the mother in the story, it was fun to tag along on Annie and Julia’s excellent adventure.

Recommended reading for a sunny afternoon outside, with cupcakes at hand.

Author Meg Donohue’s running a pre-order campaign where she’ll email a Meyer lemon cupcake recipe developed exclusively for How to Eat a Cupcake readers by the pastry chef at San Francisco’s acclaimed Bar Bambino to anyone who pre-orders the book.  Details are at her blog.

 Meg will be joining Book Club Girl on Air on Tuesday, April 24 at 7pm ET.

Thanks to TLC Tours for the opportunity to read this book.

For a chance to win a copy of How To Eat A Cupcake, leave a comment below and tell me how YOU eat your cupcakes 🙂

TLC Book Tours: Late for Tea at the Deer Palace

Iraq is a nation that is portrayed either through its politics, most notoriously through Saddam and his regime, or through its ancient and glorious history, but never through its people. ~Tamara Chalabi, author of Late for Tea at the Deer Palace

Since my knowledge of Iraq is based on solely on the attributes Tamara Chalabi identifies in the above statement from the Prologue, I was eager to read her book because she has chosen to tell her country’s 20th century story as it relates to her family. Through the eyes of her people, Chalabi is able to bring a troubled nation to life. She also helps us understand the background of the Iraqi people, and what they have been through in the past 100 years.

Ms. Chalabi’s father and grandfather were prominent Iraqi businessmen and political leaders in the early part of the 2oth century, but were forced to flee their home when the monarchy was overthrown in the 1950’s, leaving most of their wealth and possessions behind. The family was forced into exile in London, and had to virtually rebuild their entire lives. Unlike many other immigrants who had the same experiences over the years, the Chalabi family has come full circle and was able to return to Iraq.

The book is subtitled “The Lost Dreams of my Iraqi Family,” and the reader becomes well acquainted with Ms. Chalabi’s family. I loved her grandmother, Bibi, who was short in stature, but long on faith and devotion to her family, and knew how to “work the political system” to the family’s advantage. Chalabi acknowledges in the introduction that her father, Ahmad Chalabi, has been accused of being the source of false intelligence that led the US into war with Iraq, so perhaps the families troubles are not over.

Tamara Chalabi holds a PhD from Harvard, and her attention to historical detail is marvelous. But because the books focus is on the way historical events in general affected one family  in particular, it is accessible to the non-historically minded reader while it provides a great deal of insight and information about this interesting and troubled country.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to read this book. A list of other stops on this tour can be found here.