Monthly Archives: February 2014

Wonderful Characters and Clever Plotting: A Review of LOVED AND LOST IN LEWISHAM by Peter Davey

I admit I wan’t paying attention when I started this book. I assumed it was a novel and became drawn in right away by the character Tom in “Seeing Stars.” He’s an aspiring filmmaker who earns his bread working for a shipping company. He’s also probably the sorriest womanizer in recorded history. While fantasizing about his dream woman, he gets himself entangled with someone else. It’s a disaster. He knows it from the first moment, but away he goes. Then he gets a shot at fulfilling his romantic fantasy and things really get crazy. Poor Tom, the lovable jerk, is lucky to get out in one piece.

http://amzn.com/B008PWXQI8

Author Peter Davey has a gift for creating characters who are so endearing and ridiculous that you don’t know whether you want to hug them or smack them upside the head. Take Beth In “Mike and Beth–A Modern Romance.” She’s a clerk in a grocery store who begins a romance with her sweet (if a little dim) co-worker. All is on course for this delightfully ordinary couple to end up reasonably happy ever after, until she starts reading the psychology rags in the store’s magazine section. Beth’s plan for self-actualization is as tragic as it is hilarious.

Of all Davey’s wounded creations, my favorite has to be Jeb Steam, who stars in the seven linked stories that make up the second half of the collection. Jeb’s an as-yet-unpublished writer determined to redefine the novel for all time. In the meantime, he holds a menial job and tries, mostly unsuccessfully, to have a romance with his housemate. Abby claims to not be interested in him, but, as is usual for a Peter Davey character, her true feelings aren’t quite so easy to ascertain, especially for Abby herself.

“Thank You For Flying Fuckair” is my favorite of the Jeb stories. He allows himself to be talked into a vacation he can’t afford and that even he knows is not going to be anything approaching fun in the sun. Indeed, it’s a mess from beginning to end. And yet, somehow, it’s also the closest Jeb Steam will likely ever get to complete and utter happiness. This is Davey’s gift, I think. He builds these complex simpletons and places them in extreme situations–basically setting them up for failure. But it’s a failure that is so human and beautiful we can’t help but be moved.

I loved LOVED AND LOST IN LEWISHAM and am eagerly awaiting Peter Davey’s next book.

Discomforting Degree of Honesty: A Review of THE ANTIDOTE by Oliver Burkeman

Reading THE ANTIDOTE: HAPPINESS FOR PEOPLE WHO CAN’T STAND POSITIVE THINKING isn’t a comfortable experience. I’d run into an excerpt in the online magazine BRAIN PICKINGS and was prepared for a snide, curmudgeonly critique of our be-happy-or-something’s-wrong-with-you culture. And Burkeman certainly demonstrates many of the hallmarks of a grumpy old man. He’s skeptical, judgmental, argumentative. He also seems to be onto something that most of us, in our rush to capture joy and fulfillment in a (recycled) bottle, never manage to grasp: prayers, wishes and abundance spells aside, things do not always work out for the best. Worse, as good as things might be at the moment, it’ll all head downhill as we inevitably age and die.

The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking

The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking

One day the sun will rise without us.

That’s the plain truth of the matter. It’s also, according to Burkeman, why it’s so important that we live our time here on earth with our eyes wide open. Even if it’s hard. And scary.

Burkman gathers evidence from various schools of philosophy/religion/psychology. One of the most entertaining parts of the book is the chapter about his week in the forests of Massachusetts attempting Buddhist meditation. His evaluation of the power our momentary (and often inaccurate) thoughts/judgments have over our perception of our world is fascinating.

I also enjoyed his discussion of Stoicism, basically, the idea that emotional pain results not from outside events themselves, but from our judgement about those events. This isn’t, as many people believe, an attitude of “life’s terrible so deal with it.” It’s more “plan for the worst and hope it doesn’t turn out quite so bad.” Some would call this crass pessimism or even nihilism, the belief that life is essentially meaningless. I don’t think this is Burkeman’s contention at all. He seems to be prescribing an unsentimental common sense. Like, save for retirement because, though you may die before you need the money, it’ll be worse to be old and destitute. Or, if your cholesterol is high, skip the fried food–sure, you’re going to die anyway, but why rush into it?

According to the author, rather than being a depressing way to live, this close attention to reality, especially the reality of our own mortality, can actually lead to a meaningful and–dare we suggest–joyful life. So, in the end, THE ANTIDOTE isn’t an argument against optimism and positive thinking. The question it addresses is far more basic and useful than that. Namely, does it really matter whether the glass is half full or half empty if you don’t appreciate the contents?

Reading this book requires and open mind and some bravery, but it’s worth the effort.

Timely and Humorous: A Review of THE MONEY TREE by Helen Yeomans

The Money Tree tells the story of a Canadian farming family with a secret–hidden within their apple orchard is a grove of trees that grow money. After a decade of hiding their secret, the Frisbys wonder if it’s possible to share the wealth by teaching others how to propagate the trees, which can be “programmed” to produce different currencies. They are unaware at first that the authorities are on to them and are prepared to do just about anything to destroy the trees.

The Money Tree

The Money Tree

One of the reasons the novel works so well is that Yeomans makes the family just quirky enough to entertain without taking away from the serious sociopolitical discussion that underpins the work. George Frisby, a former horticulturalist who found the tree during an scientific expedition to the Amazon, is naively optimistic and works hard to improve the yield and quality of their “harvest”–not to mention find a way to disguise the scent of the bills, which drives animals crazy. Jane, his aristocratic wife, struggles to create a normal home life under the most abnormal of circumstances. Their kids are right in the middle of things. Young Mike is determined to be a pre-teen Donald Trump by franchising the money tree. His acquisitive attitude puts him at odds with his mother, who worries about his moral health. Meanwhile, Daffy, his older sister, has more revolutionary aims. She’s a politics and economics junkie, and she sees how the money tree could potentially level the playing field for people too long misled by governments entrenched in flawed fiscal policies.

Yeomans does a great job with her setting, a small Canadian Island near the American Pacific Northwest. She populates this cool, green world with a wonderful assortment of characters. An aging hippie mistrustful of the government’s interest in his medical marijuana, a hard-edged real estate developer who would pave the entire island in timeshares if she could get planning permission, and a dot com billionaire more interested in computer code than the fortune it created for him are just a few of the characters who are impacted when the authorities come kicking and smashing!

I enjoyed The Money Tree. It is a superbly written fable that takes on serious sociopolitical questions and managed to make me think almost as hard as it made me laugh.

Understated and Elegant: A Review of Water’s Edge by Jane Riddell

Family life is not for the fainthearted. Just ask siblings Portia, Vienne, Annie and Lawrence, all of whom have returned to Brunnen, Switzerland to help their widowed mother Madalena celebrate the fortieth anniversary of her lakeside hotel. These adult children, all within waving distance of middle age, share a lifetime of love, rivalry, attachment and betrayal. Add the complications of their individual situations–failed or troubled marriages, resentful children, career confusion–and the reunion is fraught with tension before it even begins.

Water's Edge

Water’s Edge

Author Jane Riddell’s prose is precise and beautiful. She creates complex, flawed characters who believe they know themselves and those around them better than they actually do. Nowhere is this lack of knowledge more apparent than in the children’s view of Madalena. They see their mother as a confident, self-sufficient woman who was strong enough to take the helm of the hotel after her husband’s early death. They have no idea of the debilitating grief she suffered and still suffers to some degree. Madelena’s regret and self-doubt provides the bass note against which all the other characters play.

While all of Riddell’s characters fascinate, they are not equally likable. There’s a grating, selfish quality about Portia in particular. She’s behaved badly towards Vienne and goes to great lengths during the course of the story to keep her secret from being revealed. Despite all of her angst and plotting, I never got the sense that she actually regrets what she’s done. Quite the opposite. It’s almost as if she blames Vienne and believes her sister is the one complicating HER life. Michael, Vienne’s husband, is even worse. In the end, he reveals something of the truth behind his cold, almost cruel behavior towards his wife, whom he professes to actually love, but it’s difficult to accept given what we’ve seen of him. I think my biggest criticism of Riddell is that she does not play fair with Vienne. All of the characters learn something about themselves over the course of their stay in Brunnen. These revelations lead them to make conscious choices about the paths they’ll take. This isn’t true for Vienne. She never really “knows” the truth, and so true choice is denied her. She’s living in hope, which is okay, I suppose. But it left a bitter taste in my mouth.

On the other hand, I have rarely read a book where the setting is so well done it becomes almost a character in its own right. Riddell does a fabulous job transporting her readers to Switzerland. We get to experience its amazing physical beauty and its unexpectedly gritty underside. Also, there’s wonderful insight into Swiss culture. Switzerland was never a country I particularly yearned to visit, now it’s near the top of my must-see list.

I enjoyed WATER’S EDGE and would recommend it to anyone interested in thoughtful, character-driven women’s fiction.

THE SHADOW PRINCE: Cover Reveal and Giveaway !

This prequel novella will be FREE and available on Goodreads, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble on March 25, 2014!

Every sacrifice has consequences.

Sixteen-year-old Rowan has spent most of his life living among the mortals—learning to control the element of fire, impatiently awaiting the day his vengeful mother, Queen Prisma, will abdicate her throne. When he finally returns to Avalon for his coronation, his mother insists he must first prove his loyalty to the court by completing a secret mission:

Kill Kalin, the half-human, half-elemental daughter of the air court king.

Willing to do anything to remove his mother from power, he agrees to sacrifice the halfling. He returns to the mortal world with his best friend, Marcus, determined to kill the princess. But as he devises a plan, he starts to question whether or not he’s capable of completing such a heinous task. And what price he will pay if he refuses?

Mortal Enchantment (Book 1)
ebook262 pages

Expected publication: May 20th 2014 by Phoenix Reign Publishing



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Stacey O’Neale started her career in publishing as a blogger turned publicist for two successful small publishers. She loves to write stories with swoony paranormal heroes, snarky heroines, and lots of kissing.
 
 
When she’s not writing, she loves blogging and fangirling about books on twitter. Occasionally, she leaves her computer to go outside.


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Carrie’s Classics: LITTLE WOMEN by Louisa May Alcott

I must have been eight or nine when I fell in love with Little Women. This cozy read follows the four March sisters as they grow up in Concord, Massachusetts during and after the American Civil War. Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy are as different as sisters can be. Jo is the fierce and argumentative tomboy who wants to be an author. Meg, the responsible oldest sister, is embarrassed enough by her family’s reduced circumstances without having to worry about what “society” will make of wild girl Jo. Beth, lovable but dogged by ill health, is the musical third sister. Finally, there’s spoiled, artistic Amy, who knows exactly what she wants out of life even as a little girl…and it’s not to live in penury, even if her parents are so much in love.

Little Women (Little Women, #1)

Little Women

As a child, it was the girls’ adventures which captured my attention. Jo outwitting her grumpy Aunt March, who forces her to read dry religious tracts rather than the novels the young writer craves. The wild theatricals that she writes and produces with her sisters. Her ongoing battles with bratty Amy, who tries to horn in on Jo’s friendship with the Lawrence boy, who lives next door. Throughout the entire first part of the book, Jo and Laurie seemed destined for each other, even if she steadfastly denies any interest in romance and canoodling. I don’t know about other readers, but I never believed her. My mistake. Josephine March meant what she said–at least as far as poor Laurie was concerned.

Little Women was the first book I read where a main character–a young girl like me–actually DIED. I can remember my utter shock the first time I read of Beth’s final illness. I cried until I could barely breathe. Death. It didn’t seem real. And then again, it seemed all too real. I recall sprawling on my bed, eyes closed, as I imagined what dead felt like. But how can you “feel” nothing?

As I grew older, I re-read the novel once every couple of years. Strange, the sense of spending time with old friends, yet at the same time, enjoying a completely new experience. Scenes that didn’t register before suddenly stood out. The questions I asked myself changed. They had less to do with Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy and more to do with life under difficult circumstances. Or being female at a time when girls–even grown up ones–had limited options and very narrow influence. I asked myself how the March girls’ lives might have been different had they been born only a generation or two later. Then Jo might have, in some small way, been able to fulfill her wish to do something that mattered.

The Ways of Mud and Bone

The Ways of Mud and Bone

Eventually my questions grew so large that they had to be explored in some meaningful way. I decided to write a book about people a lot like the March sisters, only my girls would have wider choices. In The Ways of Mud and Bone, the Great War descends on a small town not unlike Concord. Meryl Goodson, 19, has the chance to serve in an overseas relief unit. Her sister Claire and cousin Nora stay home. What difference would these decisions make to their experience of tragic times? Would my girls be crushed? Or would they rise to meet challenges head on? The answers surprised me and demonstrated once again how character and circumstance mold one another, which is kind of what Louisa May Alcott
expressed so beautifully in her timeless classic.

Even now, in early middle-age, I love re-reading Little Women. Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy are still some of my best friends. I can’t wait to see where they take me next.

Sensitive and Full of Heart: A Review of TWELVE HOUSES by Olga Soaje

Amelia Weiss is in her late fifties when she loses her husband of many years to an unexpected heart attack. Her grief is profound, and she’s unsure how to move forward–or even if it is possible to do so. She has support from friends and from her two children, though they live in different cities. But Amelia’s grief gets in the way of her creativity–she’s a famous sculptor. This is a problem because her agent, a difficult and complicated woman, has arranged a show in a renown NY venue. Amelia has no idea how she’ll keep this commitment. Adding to sadness is her troubled relationship with her daughter. Her husband, while he was alive, used to act as a buffer between the two. With him gone, Amelia feels her fragile boned with Chloe will deteriorate even more.

Twelve Houses

Twelve Houses

I enjoyed the book a great deal. Amelia is a well-drawn, realistic character. I like how imperfect she is. Her stubbornness in her grief adds a lot of tension to a plot which could have easily become too sentimental. The integration of Astrology–as a means for Amelia to connect with her pre-married self and gain a little perspective on her current situation–was well done and believable. It made me want to have my own Natal chart done. The various settings–Seattle, San Francisco, Napa–were realistic and enhanced the larger narrative.

If there was one aspect of the book that distracted me a bit, it was the across-the-board upper class economic situations of ALL of the characters. On one hand it added a fairy tale quality to the book which was pleasant to dally in for a while. Also, it highlighted the fact that, for all the material riches at Amelia’s fingertips, her heart and soul were as vulnerable to suffering as anyone else’s. But it did get to be a tad too much. The zipping around the country. The buying of wineries and penthouses. Out-of-state interior designers for a baby’s nursery. Toning it down a little would have emphasized the genuine emotion which makes the book such a pleasure.

Overall, I loved the book. The writing is thoughtful and accomplished. The plot touches the heart yet avoids melodrama. Also, in a literary landscape populated with heroines of eighteen-to-thirty, it’s refreshing to explore the hopes and desires of a woman in late middle age.

Suspense in Sin City: A Review of CALLING HER NAME by Nancy Sansone

Secrets and Las Vegas go together like chocolate and peanut butter, as author Nancy Sansone demonstrates in her dark, fast-paced thriller Calling Her Name.

All Vegas blackjack dealer “Rachael Jensen” wants is a quiet, normal life for herself and her young son. A widow, she works the swing shift at a Strip casino so she can spend her days with Matt. Rachael’s social world is basically limited to her co-worker Bonnie, who also has a son and lives next door. It isn’t that Rachael is particularly shy. For her, keeping a low profile is a matter of life and death. She’s on the run from an abusive ex-boyfriend who has 350,000 reasons to want to find her. Now a strange white Jeep SUV is following her around town. Has Vince finally tracked her down?

Calling Her Name

Calling Her Name

What follows is a complex tale of twisted motives and mistaken identity.

Sansone gives us a cast of characters as flawed as they are funny. Two standouts for me are cocktail waitress Barbara “Babycakes” Cakes and her hooker cousin Pearlie. Both women are by turns hilarious and tragic as they become unwittingly drawn into a plot to bring Rachael face to face with her past. These two also have worse taste in men than Rachael does–and that’s not easy. Speaking of Rachel…let’s face it, she won’t win any awards in the brains department. Who in her right mind believes stealing $350,000 from her violent mob-connected boyfriend is the best way to get AWAY from him? She doesn’t even spend the money! But since she’s otherwise a sympathetic and engaging character, we can forgive her odd life choices and just enjoy her travails.

If I had one criticism of the book it’s the lack of genuinely honorable male characters. Sansone’s men beat, lie, gamble and betray. Seriously, you wouldn’t want to take even the “nice” ones home to meet Mamma. While I’m all for realistically drawn characters, I do wish the author had softened at least some of her edges. Instead, despite the shining Mediterranean-style housing developments and vast emerald golf courses, the world we’re given is cold and forlorn. Rachael and Bonnie–and even misguided Babycakes and poor, lost Pearlie–deserve so much better.

Philosophy of Book Reviewing Part II: Old vs. New

Some readers might wonder why a book blogger would bother reviewing anything but the latest, hottest reads.  ARCs (advanced reading copies)  of  the soon-to-be released novel of a popular author, or the next book in a series that has taken off on the various social networking sites, excite reviewers as much as readers. And what reader doesn’t get a secret thrill out of being the first person to post a review of their most recent literary discovery on Amazon or Goodreads? I know this delight is directly inverse to the disappointment I feel when I log on all pumped and ready to debut my carefully crafted opinion and discover 300 (or 3000!) readers have gotten there first.

Believe it or not, at times I’ve been the 300th/3000th reviewer and still received feedback. Usually it is because I’ve been critical of a book that most people rated four or five stars. Not terribly critical. I don’t review/rate fiction or memoir if I can’t give it at least three stars. I’ve set out my reasons for this tempered approach in a previous post about how much I detest the star system. Let’s just say that I’m sensitive to the subjective nature of creative work, and my intention when I review is to inform and entertain, not to damage writers or their books.

So why bother reviewing a book that is two or three years published? Or twenty years? Or two hundred years?

Publishing books…and reading them…is not a linear process. Authors come in and out of vogue. Likewise, it’s possible for a book to be a huge hit at publication, forgotten for decades or centuries, and then rediscovered by an entirely new audience. I don’t think it’s overstating it to say that every book ever written is one film adaptation away from a New York Times bestseller.

Hollywood jackpots aside, a book is brand new to every reader who comes to it. This can be extended to re-reading. The (insert your favorite title) we read at eighteen or twenty is not the one we read again at forty or sixty. We have changed, the world has changed, so all our references as we read our old friend are brand new.

It’s in this spirit of discovery and re-discovery that I offer books here that are fresh out of the author’s imagination, others that have been around a decade or two, and still others straight out of Great Literature 101. A book, especially a good book, is never too old to be worthy of critical attention. People pass away. Our books–especially in this digital age–live forever.