Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Book Review: Just Don't Call Me Ma'am by Anna Mitchael

Just Don't Call Me Ma'am: How I Ditched the South, Forgot My Manners, and Managed to Survive My Twenties with (Most of) My Dignity Still Intact by Anna Mitchael
Paperback, 256 Pages
Seal Press, April 2010

I received a copy of this book from Newman Communications in exchange for my review.

Summary from the publisher's website:
Anna Mitchael is like a lot of twentysomething women with full lives. In her fast-moving world, she might be called on as a friend, coworker, daughter, girlfriend, confidante, brat, cynic, or domestic-goddess-in-training. But there’s one label she’s simply not ready to embrace: ma’am.

Like so many bright-eyed college graduates before her, Mitchael begins her twenties armed with the conviction that the world is hers for the taking. And she discovers that it is, mostly—only no one told her just how often she’d have to pick herself up off the floor along the way.

From moving to new cities to domestic disasters to the occasional nervous breakdown, Mitchael guides readers through the various stages of her self-discovery with disarming humor and—like the best of friends—unmitigated honesty. Written for every woman who’s experienced the ups and downs of trying to figure out who you’re really meant to be, Just Don’t Call Me Ma’am is a story of one woman and the choices that add up to be her twentysomething life—and of how sometimes you have to remember where you came from before you can figure out where you’re going.
My Thoughts:
Just Don't Call Me Ma'am was a funny and entertaining book and Anna Mitchael most certainly has a gift for writing.  I appreciated many of the stories that were told and the experiences that Mitchael shared in the memoir, however I did not feel that I was able relate to the book overall.  The memoir was divided up into several sections which captured different phases of Mitchael's self-discovery.  While the individual stories were funny - one in particular about an experience with a Brazilian wax was hilarious - the book didn't flow for me.

I have seen several great reviews for Just Don't Call Me Ma'am, which makes me feel that I may have been missing something. There were some sections of the story where Mitchael was retelling very personal and emotional experiences, however I felt distanced from the true feelings of the author.  It seemed like much of the personal story may have been masked by trying to rely on her fantastic sense of humor.

I very much enjoyed Mitchael's relationship with her mother in the book.  I think that everyone needs a person in their life that gives them the wings that they need to grow up and be successful, and also the kick in the pants that we sometimes need to get out of a rut and move on.  When I reached the acknowledgements at the end of the book, I was saddened not to see her mother mentioned, because of the strong connection that I felt for this relationship.  When I flipped back and saw that the book was dedicated to her mother, I became choked up: "For my mother, who let me leave without letting me go."  Perfect!

It is hard and maybe unfair to critique a memoir, because the writing is obviously core to the author.  The book was by no means a failure - I had quite a few chuckles and I am happy that I read it, but I must be honest that this one just didn't work overall for my reading style. 

Blog Note: I am an Amazon Associate. I will make a small profit if you purchase a book after following one of the links in this post. Profits will be used to support giveaways and site maintenance.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Book Review: Heart of Lies by M.L. Malcolm

Heart of Lies: A Novel by M.L. Malcolm
Paperback, 336 Pages
Harper Paperbacks; 1 edition (June 8, 2010)

I was provided a copy by the publisher in support of my participation in the TLC Book Tour.

Summary from the book's website:
Meet Leo Hoffman, a dashing young Hungarian with a gift for languages. Because of his talents, he is adopted by a wealthy Jewish family in Budapest, only to have his dazzling new life destroyed by World War I and its aftermath. When his attempt to rebuild his life inadvertently embroils him in an international counterfeiting scheme, Leo escapes with his lover to the decadent city of Shanghai, where he discovers that the gangsters who control the city from the shadows do not intend to let him outrun his past.

My Thoughts:
Heart of Lies provided me with just the right combination of love story and historical fiction.  As a fan of novels set in the World War I and World War II eras, I found something very intriguing about the story that Malcolm created, and something different and unexpected about the setting and the storyline.

Leo's character had many layers that allowed the book to evolve and find new paths.  His talent for languages and even more specifically, his ability to adapt into various cultural and class settings was very impressive.  Writing this character could have easily become forced, but I felt Leo to be genuine, regardless of his circumstance. 

The love story between Leo and Martha, and the obstacles that they overcame to be together was lovely and beautifully told.  Martha's emotions while waiting to be with Leo were real and raw.  Their first days and weeks together in Shanghai seemed to be out of a more modern fairy tale.  I enjoyed seeing how Leo and Martha learned about each other, grew into their new surroundings, and enjoyed amazingly steamy love scene.

Despite my enjoyment of the early portion of the story, as Martha and Leo found each other, I felt a greater connection to the last third of the story that focused on Martha and Leo's daughter Maddy.  Without giving away the plot, I felt that the Maddy went through an evolution of her own, just like her father and mother experienced between Europe and Shanghai.  Maddy's strong character and her experiences brought the story to life and provided the ending and closure that Leo's character needed so badly.

I really enjoyed Heart of Lies, and recommend it highly.  The depth of characters and the very believable storylines created a very successful novel.  I feel like I learned something from the historical settings, but the characters also touched me deeply.

Many thanks to TLC Book Tours for allowing me to participate in this tour.

Other Participants on this TLC Book Tour:
Tuesday, June 8th: My Two Blessings
Wednesday, June 9th: I’m Booking It
Thursday, June 10th: Books for Breakfast
Monday, June 14th: Diary of an Eccentric
Wednesday, June 16th: Rundpinne
Tuesday, June 22nd: Raging Bibliomania
Monday, June 28th: Heart 2 Heart
Tuesday, June 29th: Chefdruk Musings
Wednesday, June 30th: Dolce Bellezza

Blog Note: I am an Amazon Associate. I will make a small profit if you purchase a book after following one of the links in this post. Profits will be used to support giveaways and site maintenance.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Book Review: How Clarissa Burden Learned to Fly by Connie May Fowler

Hardcover, 288 Pages
Grand Central Publishing (April 2, 2010)

Review Copy received from Hachette Book Group for participation in the Manic Mommies Book Club

Summary from the Author's Website:
Set amidst the lush pine forests and rich savannas of Florida’s Northern Panhandle, HOW CLARISSA BURDEN LEARNED TO FLY tells the story of one woman whose existence until now has seemed fairly normal: she is 30-something, married, and goes about her daily routine as a writer. However, it is soon discovered that ghosts, an indifferent husband, and a seemingly terminal case of writer’s block are burdening Clarissa’s life. She awakes on the summer solstice and, prodded by her own discontent and one ghost’s righteous need for truth, commences upon a twenty-four hour journey of self-discovery. Her harrowing, funny, and startling adventures lead Clarissa to a momentous decision: She must find a way to do the unthinkable. Her life and the well-being of a remarkable family of blithe spirits hang in the balance. Connie May Fowler demonstrates her keen abilities as a storyteller in this remarkably original novel about an unexpected mid-life awakening. This is an empowering story that will resonate and be discussed for years to come.

My Thoughts:
I can understand why How Clarissa Burden Learned to Fly is being selected for book clubs - there is a tremendous amount to be discussed in this novel.  The depth of topics, in a relatively fast read, is extensive and includes hints of mid-life crisis, marital distress, a search for the end to writer's block, ghosts seeking an opportunity to transition to their final realm, hope for redemption, and struggles against violence of the past.

Clarissa's character is wounded and she is searching for a way to improve her circumstance.  Fowler was extremely successful in weaving the storyline around Clarissa, even though there were multiple plots that were occurring throughout the story.  Early in the story, I began to route for Clarissa and wanted to help her on her journey.  To say that Clarissa's husband was not a likable character is an understatement.  He had a demeaning attitude toward Clarissa and his so-called career only helped to make Clarissa doubt herself more.

I was especially shaken by the vivid descriptions of the violence that occurred 200 years ago to the residents of Clarissa's home.  The description was lifelike and stirred a great deal of emotion.  Though the scene was only a small part of the novel, it stood out as a critical event and helped to tie each of the characters together.

The author asks the reader to take a bit of a leap of faith.  The presence of ghosts in the story, and the way they work to impact the lives of the living takes a bit of imagination and suspension of reality.  Despite this leap, however, the approach worked very well and helped to make the story whole. 

I enjoyed the novel very much, and recommend it to lovers of women's fiction, lovers of stories that show the empowerment of women, and stories that give a bit of a glimpse into how the past might intersect with our lives today.  Thanks to Hachette Book Group and the Manic Mommies Book Club for giving me the chance to read this book!

Blog Note: I am an Amazon Associate. I will make a small profit if you purchase a book after following one of the links in this post. Profits will be used to support giveaways and site maintenance.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Book Review: Very Valentine by Adriana Trigiani

Very Valentine: A Novel by Adriana Trigiani
Harper Paperbacks (January 5, 2010)
416 pages

Source:  Library Audio Copy

Summary (Amazon.com):
Meet the Roncalli and Angelini families, a vibrant cast of colorful characters who navigate tricky family dynamics with hilarity and brio, from magical Manhattan to the picturesque hills of bella Italia. Very Valentine is the first novel in a trilogy and is sure to be the new favorite of Trigiani's millions of fans around the world.

In this luscious, contemporary family saga, the Angelini Shoe Company, makers of exquisite wedding shoes since 1903, is one of the last family-owned businesses in Greenwich Village. The company is on the verge of financial collapse. It falls to thirty-three-year-old Valentine Roncalli, the talented and determined apprentice to her grandmother, the master artisan Teodora Angelini, to bring the family's old-world craftsmanship into the twenty-first century and save the company from ruin.

While juggling a budding romance with dashing chef Roman Falconi, her duty to her family, and a design challenge presented by a prestigious department store, Valentine returns to Italy with her grandmother to learn new techniques and seek one-of-a-kind materials for building a pair of glorious shoes to beat their rivals. There, in Tuscany, Naples, and on the Isle of Capri, a family secret is revealed as Valentine discovers her artistic voice and much more, turning her life and the family business upside down in ways she never expected. Very Valentine is a sumptuous treat, a journey of dreams fulfilled, a celebration of love and loss filled with Trigiani's trademark heart and humor.

My Thoughts:

I very much enjoyed Very Valentine: A Novel by Adriana Trigiani.  It was a light and interesting read, that was full of wonderful family dynamics, entrepreneurial spirit, opportunities for love, beautiful descriptions of Italy, and shoes!

Trigiani has a tremendous sense of humor, which was reflected in this novel.  The story was narrated by the character Valentine who began with an entertaining description of a family wedding and a hilarious rooftop encounter of sorts.  As the novel progressed, I began to love Valentine's descriptions of her family, her work at Angelini shoes, her relationship with Roman, and especially her trip to Italy.  Valentine's genuine accounts of conflict within the family and her extreme desire to continue the legacy of the Angelini shoe company, made for a wonderful book.

I found a little of myself in Valentine - a daughter who strives to do the best for her family, who has a wonderful work ethic and love for the family history, as well as her struggle to find balance between her personal and professional life. 

The ending was perfect and allowed for a wonderful transition to the next book in the trilogy.  I'm very much looking forward to continuing with Brava, Valentine!
Blog Note: I am an Amazon Associate. I will make a small profit if you purchase a book after following one of the links in this post. Profits will be used to support giveaways and site maintenance.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Anna Karenina Read Along: Part Five

Mari at Bookworm with a View is hosting a Read Along of Anna Karenina.  We are reading one of the novel's eight parts each month.  Here are the links to my thoughts on Parts One, Two, Three and Four.

Mari has posted discussion questions for Part Five on her site.  Feel free to jump in with us and participate in the Read Along!

Part Five Synopsis (Wikipedia):
Levin and Kitty marry and immediately go to start their new life together on Levin's country estate. The couple are happy but do not have a very smooth start to their married life and take some time to get used to each other. Levin feels some dissatisfaction at the amount of time Kitty wants to spend with him and is slightly scornful of her preoccupation with domestic matters, which he feels are too prosaic and not compatible with his romantic ideas of love.

A few months later, Levin learns that his brother Nikolai is dying of consumption. Levin wants to go to him, and is initially angry and put out that Kitty wishes to accompany him. Levin feels that Kitty, whom he has placed on a pedestal, should not come down to earth and should not mix with people from a lower class. Levin assumes her insistence on coming must relate to a fear of boredom from being left alone, despite her true desire to support her husband in a difficult time. Kitty persuades him to take her with him after much discussion, where she proves a great help nursing Nikolai for weeks over his slow death. She also discovers she is pregnant.

In Europe, Vronsky and Anna struggle to find friends who will accept their situation. Whilst Anna is happy to be finally alone with Vronsky, he feels suffocated. They cannot socialize with Russians of their own social set and find it difficult to amuse themselves. Vronsky, who believed that being with Anna in freedom was the key to his happiness, finds himself increasingly bored and unsatisfied. He takes up painting, and makes an attempt to patronize an émigré Russian artist of genius. Vronsky cannot see that his own art lacks talent and passion, and that his clever conversation about art is an empty shell. Bored and restless, Anna and Vronsky decide to return to Russia.

In Petersburg, Anna and Vronsky stay in one of the best hotels but take separate suites. It becomes clear that whilst Vronsky is able to move in Society, Anna is barred from it. Even her old friend, Princess Betsy - who has had affairs herself - evades her company. Anna starts to become very jealous and anxious that Vronsky no longer loves her.

Karenin is comforted – and influenced – by the strong-willed Countess Lidia Ivanovna, an enthusiast of religious and mystic ideas fashionable with the upper classes. She counsels him to keep Seryozha away from Anna and to make him believe that his mother is dead. However, Seryozha refuses to believe that this is true. Anna manages to visit Seryozha unannounced and uninvited on his ninth birthday, but is discovered by Karenin.

Anna, desperate to resume at least in part her former position in Society, attends a show at the theatre at which all of Petersburg's high society are present. Vronsky begs her not to go, but is unable to bring himself to explain to her why she cannot go. At the theatre, Anna is openly snubbed by her former friends, one of whom makes a deliberate scene and leaves the theatre. Anna is devastated.

Unable to find a place for themselves in Petersburg, Anna and Vronsky leave for Vronsky's country estate

My Thoughts:
I adore the storyline of Kitty and Levin. Descriptions of their wedding were lovely, and I think that their time together as newlyweds transcend time (I could totally relate).  To me, they were the people who deserved to end up together - their love and almost innocence have been beautifully told.  Anna and Vronsky, in contrast, have challenged me quite a bit.  Their lust for one another in the first few parts were entertaining, but I do not believe that they had a foundation on which to build a love for the future.  In the questions below we discuss Anna's relationship with her children, which has challenged me the most in this book.  Even though I read Anna Karenina years back, I do not remember the plot, and I am hoping that Anna can find her way back to her children in the end.

Discussion Questions (from Oprah.com):
1. In Part Five, both Vronsky and Levin are described as being "not as happy as they expected to be." From what you know of them, do you think their expectations were realistic?
Levin's expectations, I'm sure, could only be described as naive new love.  Most newlyweds dream of the perfect life that they will have together - free from fights and disagreements and full of love.  So Levin's expectations were not realistic maybe, but they were understandable.  On the other hand, I cannot see how Vronsky's hope for happiness could be realistic.  Having left her son behind, and living without the honor and respect that she had become accustomed to, Anna would most likely become miserable.  In this sense, Vronsky, despite his deep love for Anna would also be naive to think that they could be happy.

2. Preparations for death play a big role in Part Five. Who do you feel handles Nikolai's final days well and who, if anyone, does not?
Kitty is a wonderful help to Nikolai in his final days, and assumes the caretaker role naturally.  She is nurturing and anticipates Nikolai's needs, and the needs of the family.  Levin is in shock, and is unaccustomed to caring for a sick person.  He does not know how to give his brother comfort, but I did not see his reaction as cold - it was just characteristic of his personality.

3. The more you learn of Anna as a mother, what are your thoughts? What do you think about her attitude towards the baby, and how do you feel about her reunion with her son? If you are a parent, can you imagine making the choices Anna has?
Early in the story, I was quite taken with Anna and I loved the story of Anna and Vronsky.  Anna's husband is not a likable character, so their tryst was a good literary diversion.  When the story turned to choosing a life with Vronsky over her son, my opinion turned as well.  I can't imagine leaving my daughter behind under any circumstance.  Even her visit with her son on his birthday was not enough to bring me back.  The fact that she left him was unexplainable to me.  I would like to see how the last three parts of the book address Anna's relationship with her children - and want very much for Anna to redeem herself.

On to Part Six!

Monday, June 07, 2010

Book Tour: The Great Lover: A Novel by Jill Dawson

The Great Lover: A Novel by Jill Dawson
Harper Perennial (June 1, 2010)
Paperback, 336 pages

Source:  I was provided a copy by the publisher in support of my participation in the TLC Book Tour

Summary (Goodreads.com):
Nell Golightly is living out her widowhood in Cambridgeshire when she receives a strange request: a Tahitian woman, claiming to be the daughter of the poet Rupert Brooke, writes to ask what he was like: how did he sound, what did he smell like, how did it feel to wrap your arms around him? So Nell turns her mind to 1909 when, as a seventeen-year-old housemaid, she first encountered the young poet. He was already causing a stir - not only with his poems and famed good looks, but also by his taboo-breaking behaviour and radical politics. Intrigued, she watched as Rupert skilfully managed his male and female admirers, all of whom seemed to be in love with him. Soon Nell realised that despite her good sense, she was falling for him too. But could he love a housemaid? Was he, in fact, capable of love at all? In a dazzling act of imagination, Jill Dawson gives voice to Rupert Brooke himself in a dual narrative that unfolds in both his own words and those of her spirited fictional character, Nell. A memorable tale of love in many guises, of heartbreak and loss, the novel brings Brooke vividly to life as it shows him to have been a far more interesting, complex and troubled figure than the romanticised version allows.

My Thoughts:
The Great Lover was a beautifully written, historically intriguing novel.  The basis for the story was a woman who was seeking information on her father, poet Rupert Brooke.  Nell Golightly, a housemaid who knew Brooke, helped to tell the story, so that the woman could learn more about her father. 

The story, told in the alternating voices of Nell and Rupert, showed strong emotion and I connected easily with both characters.  The families and societal standing of Nell and Rupert were in stark contrast to one another, but their lives intersected at the Orchard tea garden, during Rupert's stay.  The two were immediately drawn to one another and even though Rupert had an active love life, he continued to seek out Nell as a companion and confidant.  Nell's character was especially moving to me - I could feel the pain and concern that she had for her family, and the struggle that she felt to do what was right and to keep her job at the Orchard.  This drive however could not overcome the connection that she had with Rupert, and I am conflicted between feelings that Nell was trying to rescue Rupert from himself and her desire to change her own life.

I appreciated the historical setting very much and references to the political struggles of the time.  Rupert Brooke was associated with many individuals with controversial opinions, which caused many conservative individuals to challenge his views and question his activities.  The real-life letters and writing excerpts included within the novel helped to solidify the imagined storyline that Dawson created.

My only hesitation with the novel was in its early pages.  The alternating narration between Nell and Rupert, when the story was unfolding confused me at some points - if I put the novel down, I had to go back a few pages in order to remember who was telling the story, and re-establish a rhythm.  After the first fifty pages, this was no longer an issue, as the narration and voices became more clear.

The Great Lover was an enjoyable read and I recommend it to lovers of historical fiction, especially early twentieth century novels.  Many thanks to TLC Book Tours and Harper Perennial for allowing me to participate on the tour.