Category Archives: Fiction

Ann Leary, The Children

Children_01.inddNew York Times Bestselling Author Ann Leary takes you on a tour de force in this remarkable tale of old-money, family secrets, the time-neglect of mansion estates set against the quaint background of the northwestern region of Connecticut. This was my first foray into Leary’s literary works, a one of a kind, bestselling author who sweeps you into a storybook tale with real-life complexity that leaves you satisfied. Author Ann Leary, The Children, brings the reader into this world.

annolimpia2I had the privilege of meeting her in person on July 23 at Kent Town Hall, hosted by Kent Memorial Library, and introduced by New York Times bestselling author Marcia DeSanctis, 100 Places in France Every Woman Should Go Ann Leary spoke frankly about her novel, revealing the behind-the scenes daily grind involved in the writing process. Ms. Leary was welcoming and gracious, and it was an honor to be in the presence of a great literary talent so widely recognized in the publishing world.

I read through it in little time.  It’s a compelling read that draws you in…easily.  Leary is entertaining in her story telling.  The story is quick-paced, well written, and the characters are believable, thriving with their own peculiar traits.  Each individually crafted to human likeness.  Told from the first person narration of the imperfect, yet all too likable Charlotte (Lottie) Maynard, The Children is a blend of two families, the Maynards and the Whitmans, who seem to merge seamlessly at the onset, at least when viewed in hindsight from Charlotte’s perspective, but whose “truth will rise above falsehood as oil above water” as once quoted by Miguel de Cervantes. Don’t let the easy-going writing style with frank, clear cut, vivid depiction fool you.  What you see isn’t always what you get in this real ‘to life’ tale, and its timely deliverance of truths will leave you surprised at every turn, with a stunning conclusion that rips the rug our from under you.

When wealthy Richard (Whit) Whitman, while still married to Marissa, falls in love with Joan Maynard, he takes command of his destiny and leaves his wife for her, thus abandoning his job (former father in law’s firm in New York) and moving to northwest Connecticut to start life anew at Lakewood Cottage, a family dwelling estate from a long line of Whitmans that made their wealth from “steel money”.   Joan brings her two daughters (Charlotte and Sally) with her.  Add to this a partial blend of Whit’s two sons (Perry and Spin) from his previous marriage.  The two boys visited their father on weekends where he resided with his new family at the Connecticut home. It was noted that Whit, surprisingly thrifty, would forget to open the heating ducts for the boys’ rooms until after they’d arrived on their visit to their father’s Connecticut home.  The cold bedrooms, and a “chilliness that developed between Whit and his sons” gives you some idea of where the animosity starts to brew. Perry is not shy about letting his resentment be known. Something which he naturally took in from his mother, Marissa.  Spin, beloved by the sisters, is quite different and more agreeable.  Never complained. Never seemed to have an issue.  Or so it seems.

Fast forward to the future, with all children now grown.  Lakewood Cottage has become a run-down estate never properly maintained due to Whit’s frugality. As the book opens, we are introduced to Whit as spoken of through Charlotte’s memory.  Whit has since passed, his sons have inherited the family estate, with orders that Joan be allowed to live there until her own passing.  Spin, the favored brother, modest and naturally kind and loving towards his step sisters, brings home his new fiancée Laurel Atwood.  By all appearances, the woman is beautiful, accomplished by such a young age, almost enviably so, but to whom Charlotte easily warms to.  She seems to bring ‘life’ into the household, is affable and easy to be around.  Lottie’s sister Sally, on the other hand, a talented musician fragile from her own physiological ailments, doesn’t warm easily to Laurel.  And petty as her warnings appear, seems to see something no else can. But her warnings go unheeded due to her lack of credibility. Lottie, herself is a “mommy blogger”, pretending to be a suburban housewife, even though she has no children of her own, yet has a strong Internet following of women who believe her to be. It’s each man (or woman) to his/her own confidential.

Spin, previously open-hearted to his step sisters, now is influenced by Laurel, but she may have designs.  He will soon show a bitter indignation.  Has he felt this way all along?  Did Laurel bring this to surface, or did she create a catalyst that let it come on its own?

Laurel may not be who she portrays herself to be. But her presence tests the frailty of their relationship.  Something of which could either strengthen or tear them apart.  Everyone in the household has a secret of their own.  Everett, the groundskeeper, is close to the children like a brother, bonded to them by having lived through the ugliness of their shared past.  With Whit gone and a new generation coming up, the children of this blended family, the off-spring of both old and new money, will be tested to the limits.

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Disney, Disney, Let Down Your Hair!

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Seriously.  Just let it loose.  Merida had an unruly mop of red hair.  Snow White’s hair style has since moved far from the short pixie-bob.  And Elsa pulled her bun out to let the braid cascade in one side over her shoulder. Disney’s heroines are letting go of their inhibitions and rising to the challenges in a new era of fantasy film making.  And they are fast becoming epic.

Usually I do book reviews on my Corner Cafe, but my recent splurging into high-tech, computer-animated Disney musical fantasies have compelled me to make an unexpected turn here.  I want to explore the concept of how far we’ve come with fairy tales in the last two centuries. How gutsy our princesses have gotten.  How true to life their story lines are starting to align with ours.  I’m not just talking princesses here. Let’s call them what they’ve become; heroines. A personal calling to act with courage in the face of fear (often time to defend others) and to stand ground in defiance of any threat that looms. The heroines in Disney’s fairy tales have been letting their hair down…literally. Then they’re mounting their horses to gallop off in their mission to save the day.

From Merida wielding a sword against her father Fergus to protect her mother, to Snow White leading the Duke’s army to wage combat against Ravenna, to Rapunzel’s heavy-handed, cast-iron frying pan and Queen Elsa’s marked ability in cryokinetic ice-blasting, the women are pulling their weight, ripping out their hairs pins, whisking off those tight elastic bands, and shaking  those enviable tresses to lay siege.  Just watch any movie. Observe Queen Elsa sing her heart out in “Frozen” and run her hands through her hair in the most memorable ascension to liberation and personal catharsis in film history. Caution; spoilers follow.

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Let’s start with Tangled. The original version told by the Brothers Grimm in the early nineteenth century showed us Rapunzel openly obliging the prince when he commands her to let down her hair so he can climb the tower. Never mind that she doesn’t know him, has never even met him.  No wonder women were disillusioned.  Old fairy tales led us to think there was nothing wrong in letting in a perfect stranger.  Not even preparing us for the inevitable disappointment when he turns out to be a jerk.  But modern fairy tales are now being filled with cads.  Unprincipled scamps. Many of whom give the princesses a run for it.  And the prince no longer comes from a castle.  He’s now the nice, reliable guy you’ve come to trust, the one you’ve been blowing off for that other guy; you know the one; the unprincipled scamp who’s turning out to be a jerk.  In today’s Frozen, Kristoff questions Anna’s judgment…  “Wait, you got engaged to someone you just met that day?”  That’s how far we’ve come.  We actually make fun of the old stereotypes of fantasy storytelling.

Yet the Grimm’s Rapunzel willingly and naively lets him up. In the re-imagined tale told through Disney’s Tangled, Flynn Rider doesn’t get in that easily, not without having to answer for it. After stealing the tiara of the Lost Princess from a nearby Kingdom, he climbs Rapunzel’s tower while trying to flee from the Captain of the Guards. Little does he know what awaits him. Two hundred years later, Disney introduces us to a fiery and playful young woman. He’s single-handedly knocked unconscious by a vigilant and vivacious blonde haired teenager, who, upon his awakening, reveals that she’s confiscated his satchel (containing the tiara) and will only return it to him if he promises to take her to see the floating lanterns. Rapunzel is not only bold and spirited, but a competent and clever negotiator.

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Then there’s Snow White.  The original princess damseled herself guilelessly into biting a poisonous apple handed to her directly from the Queen, disguised as a peddler. In Snow White and the Huntsman, Snow White, (okay, she does bite the apple, but that’s only  because the queen disguised herself as her friend William) is far from naive, and stands in blatant opposition to the Queen.  After being imprisoned by the Queen Ravenna for several years, escapes the palace only to return with an army, her own horse, and in military pursuit to take back her family’s castle.  She never begs the huntsman for her life, and allies herself to him in a strategy of survival.

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Queen Elsa, shedding the legal and moral constraints that have bound her, liberates herself by ripping out her hair clip, running her hands through her hair to loosen her military bun, and magically phasing-out her high-collard conservative apparel into a curve-hugging, shimmering gown (embroidered with the most exquisite detail any fashion designer, or girl, would envy) topped with a leg teasing slit to the knee.  It is a character taking ownership of her true self and embracing an inner talent she was shamed into hiding from the world.  Later, when Hans leads a search into the North Mountain to recover Queen Elsa, they find her in an ice palace, ready to forge a defense against their onslaught. As the Duke’s men attempt to surround her, she unleashes her cryokinetic powers on them, creating crystalized boulders and weapon-ed shards of ice to fend them off. Her sister Anna later does an impressive show of bravery when she throws herself in front of her sister so that Hans sword doesn’t reach her as he attempts to harm the Queen.

But these achievements in the rising heroines belong not only to the women.  They belong to humankind.  Because these characters are really dealing with something that is larger than them.  The lessons teach us fortitude and expression of the human spirit. It’s epic fantasy at its finest.  The kind that I hope we can see more of in the future.

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The Girl Who Fell From The Sky by Heidi W. Durrow

What an amazing debut for a novel.  It was written with a style of simple prose and yet packs a powerful punch.  Something that gives rise to a new awakening in literature.  In the wake of a family tragedy, Rachel, a biracial girl and the lone survivor of a horrendous fall from an apartment building, moves to Portland to be with her paternal grandmother after her hospitalization. There, in her new town, she develops an awareness of categories of black and white, (divisions that weren’t as seemingly evident where she previously lived in Europe) and where she tries to contend with how she fits into this new society that deigns to define her (and everyone else) by race. As a lone survivor to the preceding distress in her life that wipes her family out, she is separated from her mother and siblings.  This book was chosen by Barbara Kingsolver as the winner of the Bellwether Prize for best fiction because it ‘takes on’ issues of social justice.

On February 12, 2011, my husband and I had the amazing opportunity to meet with Heidi in person at an indie bookstore, RJ Julia, in Madison, CT. where she made an appearance for a reading.  In person, she’s sweet, petite, lovely and with a flowing ease spreads a generous warmth to her faithful readers who’ve travelled from near and far to meet with her.  Not to mention shrewdly intelligent.  I was, to the say the least, very impressed with her, both as an author and an individual.  She is more than happy to share her inspirations for this novel, and off the path, the journey she’s travelled as a writer that landed her to this point as a New York Time’s Bestselling Author.  RJ Julia set her up in the front of the room on a comfortable chair where she proceeded to give a reading.

Now, as we continue our story:  Rachel’s mother, Nella, was a Danish woman, whom (deigning to protect her children) we later come to discover had her own issues to battle with that would later come inflicted upon her family, and that her father, an African-American GI who, although he watches over her recovery in the hospital, ultimately leaves Rachel in the care of his mother.  Abandoned twice, Rachel must wrestle not only with her newly acquired social status (which as a young girl, she handles remarkably well) but she must also face the issues of her past that had torn apart the very fabric of her family.

Realize now that this is a ‘coming-of age’ novel.  Something we’ve all gone through, regardless of what our own personal experience of that issue entailed.  When we go through that God-forsaking period of life (it seems to grab us during adolescence, sometimes right into highschool) where we catch the identity crisis bug.  That pivotal epoch of life when we are challenged to define ourselves to our peers.  We are tyring to figure out who we are, where we belong and who our friends should be.  A time where we have to make up our mind on our own distict individuality and where it ranks us in the world.  In highschool, these ranks are clearly defined in social heirarchies that we refuse to be relegated or pegged into, (though some are content to resign to whatever classification they’re thrown into) since we’d rather make that choice for ourselves.  Remember the ending quote in The Breakfast Club from little geek Brian Johnson who wrote with an incomplex honesty to the principle, “Mr. Vernon, we accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it was we did wrong.  But we think you’re crazy to make us write an essay telling you who we think we are. You see us as you want to see us… In the simplest terms and the most convenient definitions. But what we found out is that each one of us is “a brain”Andrew Clark: …”and an athlete”…Allison Reynolds: …”and a basket case”…Claire Standish: …”a princess”…John Bender: …”and a criminal”…Brian Johnson: Does that answer your question? Sincerely yours, the Breakfast Club.”

For those of you who came from this era, I’m just trying to make a point that there is a common thread between this novel and many of the classic films we’ve seen growing up during the cottage industry days of so many teen dramas.  The point of which was to make us realize that there is something more to each of us then our stereotypes (brought on by the flavor of our ‘not always well-received’ images) suggest.

For Rachel, she finds herself tangled between two worlds; on the one hand, she has light skin and blue eyes and therefore she is not black due to these contrasting features.  On the other hand, she is not exactly white either because her skin is dark enough that gives enough alert to her biracial identity.  Rachel has much to contend with as a young girl and Durrow handles this story gracefully and with unflinching and open honesty, showing no fear in addressing what could be a thorny topic.  Whether you’re able to associate yourself with her situation of biracial identity or not, there is still a feel for the ‘familiar’ in her plight to ‘fit in’. Alienation is not just exclusive to race. Many children and adolescents don’t fit in with their peers for a number of reasons. The story addresses issues of race and class, family tragedies, told easily, gently and delivered frankly from each characters’ personal observation. To be honest, Durrow simply writes fearlessly.

I could not put this book down. It touched me so deeply. It’s a refreshing read in a novel of this sort. There is no anger, no judgment, no ill will. Just forgiveness. And a willingness to find an inner courage. Rachel is threatened in that her social economic class and a painful past, patronizes to define her and her future. But Rachel is a character that knows her worth runs deeper than the vagaries of the world. Durrow encapsulates it all so eloquently when she delivers the lines of her lead protagonist, “I’m not the color of my skin. I’m a story. One with a past and a future unwritten.”

Throughout the book, we get a peek, small glimpses into Rachel’s past told by alternating points of view from each contributing character, each chapter climbing to that final, climactic build up in the story where the most profound incident of Rachel’s life is finally revealed. I was just so stunned when I read it. Yet in spite of it all, Durrow brings light into the storyline through Rachel’s strength and forgiveness. So there is hope delivered in its final pages. This is one novel I would strongly recommend that readers not miss.

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Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly

Jennifer Donnelly is quickly turning into one of my favorite authors, a beautiful find in the literary world.  After reading her novel The Winter Rose (sequel to the Tea Rose), I realized I’d stumbled across another gem with an amazing talent, a love of writing and a gift of storytelling.  Her latest release, Revolution, will have a sweeping appeal across the board to both adult and young adult readers alike.

Revolution is an intriguing tale that weaves historical fiction with the gritty edge of young adult drama.  Andi Alpers is a troubled teenager living in modern-day Brooklyn.  On the surface, she has everything to hope for; she’s highly intelligent, exceptionally talented as a musician and is attending an exclusive, private school in New York.  Alexandrine Paradis, the alternate protagonist in this novel, becomes the voice of two centuries past whose words come to the living through a diary Andi later finds while on a trip to Paris. 

It quickly becomes apparent, in this double-entendre, that each woman has a radical change, a revolution of her own that she is destined to face.  Andi’s family has been torn apart by an unexpected tragedy.  She’s suffering from guilt and the grief of having tragically lost her younger brother Truman two years earlier.  Her mother, with limited ability to cope, has retreated in her own shell, while her father, a Nobel Prize winning geneticist, leaves them, unbeknownst until later, to their own disarray.  But while Andi repeatedly has suicidal thoughts, she immerses herself in the art of her own music to find a place of solace.  

Eventually, the rage catches up to her.  Andi is close to expulsion from her elite high school when her father suddenly becomes aware of the circumstances of the family now falling apart in his absence.  Taking action to settle the situation, he checks her mother into a mental institution (much to Andi’s contentious disagreement), and takes Andi with him to Paris where she is to work on her senior thesis of guitarist Amadé Malherbeauand of the 18th century where Andi’s life is about to take another turn for the unexpected.

While lodging with a friend of her father’s, a renowned historian, Andi eventually discovers Alexandrine’s diary, a young teenager who lived 200 years ago during the bloodiest battles of the French Revolution and who served Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI in their final days, each of whom were doomed to the guillotined. Though Alex had dreams of being an actor, she found herself serving as companion to the young dauphin (the son of Marie Antoinette), to whom she had grown close and become so considerably fond of.

Jennifer Donnelly has a writing style that induces the deepest emotions from the reader.  Though Andi would seem a more relatable character since she and I are of the same era, there was something about Alexandrine’s harrowing desperation, her vivid description of what she witnessed in her time that whirled me into her storyline.  I felt myself there, in her shoes, at the palace in the midst of the revolutionaries’ increasing aggression. 

I’d briefly touched on the French Revolution in highschool, and my last fictional encounter of it was in Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.  But Ms. Donnelly gave me a ticket to another venue with a front row seat. A literary performance that brought me to the action of this historical calamity between the aristocracy of France and the peasantry whose uprising proved too brutal in making their point.  Interestingly, Andi’s father is performing genetic tests on a small heart believed to belong to the young dauphin who was imprisoned under inhumane conditions by Robespierre (a terror and influential figure of the French Revolution).  Andi feels a gut-wrenching compassion towards the young child’s plight and agony, I imagine for reasons that he was, for her, her Truman equivalent. 

Through Donnelly’s spell-binding storytelling, I reached a level of understanding of the French Revolution in ways that no history book has ever been able to do for me.

Donnelly is also accomplished in her historical research, and diligently does her work in gathering pieces, taking you through the streets of Paris in both its past to present state, while showing a startling contradiction, that dividing line of two worlds, one crude and unpleasant, an era of marked discontent, the other boisterous and full of new life, equality, both separated by nothing more than intangible time.

Through this novel, Jennifer Donnelly has written a story that explores the theme of good and evil, and having the courage to ask questions “How could something like this happen?” of a time and place where horrific atrocities ran rampant and became commonplace.  Unimaginable to us living in the modern-day United States, how could something like this be allowed, especially to young children?  We often see this in themes of war. Why is it that people, in their gain for wealth and power, shed their humanity in their sociopathic pursuit for earthly gains that are never really permanent?  Does war, any war, even if it were to take place today on any continent, really provoke unspeakable evil?  Or, do such unspeakable acts become a necessary evil? Depending on the perspective of victim versus survivor.  Of one whose witnessed such iniquities that they are pushed to the brink of having to take action to change the politics and institution that suppressed them.  After all, isn’t anger the reaction to an unjust?  And what is unjust?  The suffering of the peasantry, the revolution that followed to bring democracy to France? Or the price that would have to be paid for a new democracy to come about?

And let’s not be so mighty as to rank ourselves above our ancestors.  Is it possible, could it occur from any of us for that matter?  Since people are people, after all, we are linked together, regardless of time, space and era?  Though we like to think of ourselves as being ‘above it’, are we all as equally capable of such monstrosities?  Or can we learn from the past though authors like Jennifer Donnelly who are here to remind us, from a more sober perspective that we’ve gained as a society, the events of the past that left its stain?

Everyone has somebody that they love, and as you read this book, the characters within it will draw such a parallel for you.  Revolution is highly recommended to both new and veteran readers of Donnelly’s work.  Follow my post to my website, http://debrahutchens.com/blog/, where a brief discussion and video on the french revolution follows.  This is one book that will carve a deeper understanding, a greater awareness, and excite an appreciation for an epoch in history that is worth remembering.

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Twilight by Stephanie Meyer

This is one book that is long overdue in its time to be mentioned on this page.  A story that, to date, hundreds of people have spent time analyzing, practically shredding its psychological context to pieces.  Before you think this is another book review, my analyses will dig a trench far deeper than that.  I’m here to discuss Twilight from a much purer perspective.

First, I haven’t seen any of the movies yet, but, being an avid reader, I’ve read all the books.  I’m not a die-hard fan, just someone with an appreciation for yet another book I’ve come across. I’ll take a stab in the dark in my presumption that I won’t be needing to do the usual run down of the typical synopsis that I’ve done with other books.  You’ve all heard the story by now, it’s quite simple, the concept known familiarly by most of us, even to those who have yet to read it if it ever pleases them to do so. 

A young teenage girl moves from sunny Phoenix to live with her father in the rainy town of Forks.  Eventually she meets and falls in love with a handsome teenage boy in her class, (one to whom she finds herself powerfully drawn) only to later discover he’s not quite human.  A discovery that will do nothing to deter her, but one that will ultimately test their love and lead to a quadrant of books in the same series that will explore not just their relationship, but a host of problems that are sure to stem from it.

Typical teenage stuff, really.  In fact, as Fan-tastical as Twilight is, there is much to it that many people, teens and adults alike, can actually relate to on a more powerful scale that dives in its reach beyond our consciousness.  This is what I’m here to discuss with you today.  That part of fantasy fiction that works so well to identify with us on a very human level to suction readers into its universe.   And might I mention as a side bar -that which has become the most controversial part here- the writing style, which I find to operate at a breakneck speed of clean, simple prose, with a quality of poetic substance that is uncomplicated and bears few embellishments.

When the book first came out, it all seemed to surmount the concept of innocence, did it not?  The book cover with the famous hand reaching out, holding, gently cupping the apple; the hand of a young teenage girl, of pure white skin, unpolished nails, cast in an aura of diffused lighting.  The hand that reached to temp something…or rather, someone.  What is it, exactly, that this innocent was inviting to bring upon herself?

Then there’s the apple.  Okay, I get it.  The apple represents the forbidden fruit.  Bella is Edward’s forbidden fruit.  Yet before I was provided with this explanation, I, like so many readers, was forced to use my own imagination and interpret the visual imagery for myself.  Several pages into the book, we are treated with an excerpt from the Book of Genesis 2:17 “But the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.”  Unbeknownst to Eve, she was trading eternity, her immortality in paradise with a mortality that would be far more painful.  Something good was to be given up, foresaken, in the act of resigning herself to temptation. Something she wanted in that moment of desire. But as theologists and scholars would argue, some would say Eve was in control, the one who tempted Adam to his doom.

Is this the new twist, unintended or not, of Vampirism?  Something we’ve historically come to know through Bram Stoker’s legend and every rendition that followed, when good was corrupted, de-flowered from evil, and given a novel twist in Vampire folklore for the first time ever.  It seemed to me that the book cover, in the ballad of this legend, portrayed good challenging evil for the first time ever.  That it would ultimately come to tame it, the way a lion tamer subdues and subjugates its ferocious beast to submission.  I’m not claiming this to be a universal impression, nor am I presuming that this was the intent of the publisher when they did the cover art work for the book, but it was the first ‘message’ that I got.  And it has stayed with me ever since. 

Then the movie came out.  And the book cover changed.  Or did it?  Gone was the hand holding the forbidden fruit, and in its place, emerging from the corridors of our literary imaginations were the characters fulfilling and rounding out these roles in their glorified forms.  The beautiful male vampire, who we’ve come to know as Edward Cullen, of pallid skin, reanimation of the living dead, with blood thirst in his eyes, cloaking a shield of protection to the young Bella Swan whose youthful face is an apparent posture of vulnerability and innocence.  No makeup, no streak of ash blonde or low tone highlights, no blood-red gloss to her lips, not a hint of blush to her cheeks.  Not this girl.  Only the peach color of her humanity giving rise to her pure beauty.  She is not a slayer ready to take on the vampire world, but someone who unwittingly, and yet with an open heart, walks blindly into it.  All form of sexuality seems eliminated until you later realize it’s there, not to worry, just hidden under the sheets.

This was my first point of relation to the book.  I am that girl.  Ordinary, plain, falling for the guy outside my league who’s impossibly gorgeous beyond his right to be.  If I read this book when I was in my teens, I would probably have empathized with Bella Swan, at least in the early hours of her loneliness and ultimate feelings of desolation when Edward, in the coming sequence, makes his departure.  But I jump ahead here.  The first book in the series opens with Bella at the airport, saying goodbye to her mother where she is slated on a one-way trip to Forks in order to live with her father and situate herself before the first day of school.  She is lonely, unsettled, anxiety running slightly high and feeling understandably scared (at least, this is what I felt on her behalf).  Though seemingly ordinary in its opening chapters, it manages to draw us in as readers begin to feel a parallel of closeness in this experience we watch her tread alone.  A path each of us might have walked ourselves at some point in our lives.

Bella wasn’t overly confident, but let’s be real, who is at that age?  Is it fair to put that kind of pressure on a young protagonist?  I don’t care about stories which evolve around the ‘Mean Girls’ and the ‘Heathers’ who parade with egotistical, self-inflated importance through the hallways of high school, but ordinary ones who are simply trying to fit in like the rest of us.  The kind of girls I came to be friends with; the ones who became the core of my circle.  And while some might view her insecurities as annoying, it was a part of what made her so humanly relatable. 

Is she the best role model?  She’s not supposed to be.  Do stories have to teach, or can they simply exist as a focal point of relation to our own lives, where we evaluate ourselves by watching others? So the debate will continue to rage on regardless of what anyone says, depending on one’s perspective of this novel.  Economists can’t seem to agree with the projected forecast of today’s financial crisis, so readers aren’t expected to agree either and will continue to extract something different.  As the saying goes, To each his own.

So this brings us to the next chapter in the series.  New Moon followed in its wake.  The interesting thing  here, among the many other book cover designs that have been used, is the humanistic expressions  featured in the cover art.  It is brimming with symbolism.  Therein lies the message of an evolution that is taking place.   Regret, departure, longing, possession, dominion over one’s territory.   But most importantly it is Bella’s transformation that is, if only moderately so, slightly more sexualized.   Now that she’s been exposed to the experience of first love from not just one, but two suitors, she’s one step further away from her innocence, and one step closer to becoming a woman.  She is less girl-ish here, more womanly, as these inter-gender relationships are serving to transform her in her journey to that eventual decision she is compelled to make. The choice between two loves, and later, that of life and death.

I don’t think Young Adult fiction has to teach a lesson.  When I was growing up, the library separated fiction into Adult and juvenile, where so many of the young books aimed at teen audiences revolved around ‘doing the right thing’.  YA fiction today explores these episodes through practice in absence of a reprimand.  Is there any wonder why parents seem to be ‘out of the picture’ or strangely absent from the lives of these teens?  Think Elena Gilbert of the Vampire Diaries who simply has an aunt as a guardian, fostered at the young age of seventeen where she now feels a duty to serve as  her younger brother’s protector.  Perhaps these teens are intended to venture these experiences alone, without the benefit of adult intervention.  Bella is a student, conscientious, thoughtful, introspective with a sincere confession that she finds it hard to ‘relate to people her age’.  Just another girl who seems slightly introverted without a “click” posse of friends.  She isn’t the most popular girl in class, but had only but a handful of friends who’ve proven sincere.    

She was uncoordinated and un-athletic.  So was I in highschool.  It seemed to me that everyone ranked athletically in some sport, and while I might have tried to get into track during those first critical weeks of tryout, I was eventually relegated to junior varsity because I wasn’t physically qualified, or more aptly put, worthy to compete in Varsity.  And don’t even get me started on gym class.  In sophomore year I left second-period in tears when we played floor hockey, when I inadvertently shot a puck into the opposing team’s goalie.  That’s how uncoordinated I was.  I even missed the boat on strategy.  I was the one ‘unleashed’ to the classes’ peril.   

So I found her ‘bull in a china shop’ awkwardness to be a near memorable impression of my own experiences in that period.  Dishes slip out of my hands when I’m washing them at the sink, I dropped a pizza the other day (luckily it was still in the box, so the cheese just hit the roof of the cardboard), and well, the list goes on, like the way I cook, (I cut my finger the other day dicing pepperoni).  Band Aid Brands will be kept in business through me.  So the shame I felt of my own lack of handling capability was put in a gentler light that seemed far less condemning.  As opposed to other heroines in classic literature who are untouchable, valiant, flawless.   

Rather, I’ve been served one who is relatable and flawed in so many ways.  One that isn’t trying to prove anything.  As far as all the boys having an instant attraction for her, believe me, it happens.  Isn’t the new girl (or boy) in town always a mystery?  When I moved from highschool to college, I found the same response in my male peers.  In high school, where most guys were ‘trained’ to only look at the elitist few who stood at the top of the food chain, in the university setting, the lines get blurred, and the rankings that once were soon crumble in a rubble pile of smoke and dust.  A new season, a new beginning.

And so it was the way for Isabella Swan as she entered into what would become a new experience of her life.  One that would come to prove irrevocable by her own free will of choice.  Hence, we return to the apple, the forbidden fruit.   It represents a choice we are all tested to make at some point in our lives  The ones we are repeatedly challenged against the earthly needs of our humanity.  In the end, we’re going to have to live with the choices we make for the rest of our lives.

More importantly, a story doesn’t need to be an epic, or be delivered to its audiences in epic proportions in order to be great.  Any narrative or dramatic literary work can easily revolve a simpler story line that touches a part of us that we can relate to in a large way.  It doesn’t need a flamboyant, elocutionary structure of literary bottle rockets and plot boosters. Some stories are simply character driven.  And with that style alone they tend to work so artistically well.  If it’s drawing readers in who seem to develop a stronghold connection to it, then it’s doing something right.

Why is it that we relate to vampires?  Why does the genre keep making a come back repeatedly?  Why are we always welcoming the folklore at our doorstep with open arms?  Perhaps because it is a form of fantasy/realism, where we see a world of creatures and imagine with serious consideration, our place in it.  We somehow feel a connection to vampires in that their origins are rooted in the human experience.  The cross over into the world of their immortality is but a bite away, sometimes offered, other times forced upon us.  They are lost souls who, although are very much in touch with their sexuality, lost touch with their humanness.  While others, like the Cullens struggle to keep what remains of this in their conscience, the last thread that binds them to the human path. 

But oh, are we not drawn to that physical prowess?  That speed and agility that seems so inexplicably impressive and awe-inspiring!  Humans are athletic and becoming increasingly so over time.  See for yourself as you watch the Olympic Games of the 1940s compared to those athletes showing skills today that are vastly superior by comparison now in this day, the twenty-first century. 

Let’s face it, and for a moment here, stretch our literary imaginations where it can touch the province of our own reality if only for a brief second.  Vampires are our cousins.  Twice removed; once by death and then by divine power they exercise through their speed and strength,  gifted to them in compensation, a small consolation prize for the life and the humanity that has been so cruelly taken from them.

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The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson

The opening chapter of this book instantly throws you into shock as the main protagonist finds himself, while drinking and driving late in the pre-dawn hours of morning, plunging down a steep mountain slope.  The car doesn’t stand a chance against the forces of gravity and inertia as it gathers momentum down the hill, turns over, leaks fuel, explodes, burning both the car and the victim trapped within it.  It is a terrible car crash where the main narrator is almost killed in the first scene.  And what he manages to survive, leaves him horribly burnt for life.  My favorite line in Chapter 1 …”Once you’ve spun that steering wheel around and found it doesn’t make any difference…you have this one, clear, pure thought…oh shit.”  Nothing gets closer to the feeling of being on the precipice of a life altering moment that’s about to take place right before your disbelieving eyes.

A good portion of the novel’s opening chapters relate to the aftermath of what one sharp turn off the road is about to cause.   The book goes into detail on the graft procedures he has to endure now that he is a third-degree burn patient.  The depiction is so real, so unapologetically graphic, that, similar to when I’m watching a movie on DVD, I had to turn my eyes away from the page.  Yes, literally turn them away.  You can endure it as a reader, and be enlightened on the medical aspect of it, seriously.  If you’ve never heard of a penectomy, here’s  your chance.  We also watch as he develops relations with the medical staff in the hospital, and more importantly, Marianne Engel, a sculptress of gargoyles who’s an artist who becomes the embodiment of, well, weird.  But Marianne actually saves his life.  Unable to withstand the agony inflicted by this misfortune, he was devising a well-crafted plan to commit suicide once upon his release from the hospital.  But Marianne enriches his mind as she weaves stories (little vignettes that dominate chapters of their own, shifting immediately into her point of view, some of which entail tragic love).  One which tells of their past together in medieval Germany when they were lovers.  This is a storyline that Marianne adamantly believes in, the timbre of her voice is so somber, almost tired, that you believe she’s a product of the ages who’s lived centuries in the world, and is claim her reincarnated lover.

Let’s step back a little.  When the main character was young, he didn’t exactly have a wholesome, stellar, “Brady Bunch” childhood.  He was raised by “meth addict” relatives, but he eventually grows older to become a gorgeous man who puts his good looks and “well endowed” gift to good use.  It goes without saying that after the accident, there is no career for him, much of what he owned was signed away to pay his medical bills, and in once incident after the accident, he watches a video of himself in all his sexual, vain glory, only to shut it off from the painful reminder of the man he is no more.  At least physically. But we begin to understand his personal journey to a higher self, led by the woman who mysteriously, for no other reason but for the faith we’re asked to put into it, enters into his life.

Marianne was a bit strange, almost a tortured artist, and believed that God spoke to her as she “carved” the gargoyles from the block of stone.  Telling them how to take shape.  The ending just left me wondering:  Did they really live a life together in the past?  Are we to believe her story, or dismiss her as some deranged woman, manic artist who believed in it herself?

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The Dust of 100 Dogs by A.S. King

The Dust of 100 Dogs is a novel that merges both present day and historical fiction, spanning the reach of over several centuries.  It is told from varying points of view in just about every other chapter.  The interesting thing is that the point of view is told from one soul.  In the 1700s, Emer Morrissey was living the life of a successful, enterprising, swashbuckling pirate and gathering riches beyond her imaginings.  A successful feat, considering her origins.  She had a pretty tough childhood.  When her parents are killed after Cromwell’s army invades Ireland, her guardianship falls into the hands of an abusive Uncle at the age of six.   By her early teens, she manages to escape and eventually leaves Ireland, her voyage ultimately landing her in the Caribbean.  But after an enterprising life as a pirate sailing the high seas, manning her own ship, and just after miraculously reuniting with her lost love from Ireland, her life is cut short.  Her vindictive murderer dooming her, in her final moments, to live as a dog for 100 lives.

In fulfillment of the curse, Emer is reincarnated 100 times over as a dog with her memory intact:  thus allowing her a discerning sense of judgment unusual for a canine.  Until centuries later, after completion of the 100 lives she’s lived, she is finally born into an Irish-American family as a human girl named Saffron Adams.  Due to the extensive knowledge gained throughout the ages, she is considered a ‘genius’ since she knows more than most teens her age.  She is brilliant, an excellent student that her parents see as their ticket out of their lower-income status.  But Saffron has other plans in mind, and that is to recover the treasure she buried centuries ago when she lived as Emer.  She comes from a slightly dysfunctional family, and she is desperate to make something of herself.  After high school, she bravely begins her voyage to head where her life as Emer was cut short hundreds of years earlier in an effort to recover this buried treasure.

For every other chapter of the Dust of 100 Dogs, A.S. King switches the point of view from Saffron to the pirate Emer, darting you back and forth between the past and present, with intermissions of Dog Facts scattered throughout the novel.  But this is not just any dog fact you read, it’s told from the point of Emer/Saffron, when her soul reincarnated into these canines, sharing not only what she learned as a dog, giving handy advice to canine owners,  but what she discovered about human nature and ultimately herself.  So that when she is reborn again, she’s gained some compassion that was missing in Emer.  Emer was a pretty ruthless pirate, and seemed to spare no enemy.  The novel is excellent, but some parts are a little graphic.  The war in Ireland during Cromwell’s invasion, where women and children are slain.  And of course, her life as a pirate with all the battles she waged.

I loved the writing, and enjoyed the dialogue of The Dust of 100 Dogs.  I thought A.S. King did a great job on one character named Fred Livingstone who seemed to hear ‘voices’ and carried conversations with himself.  That was especially humorous.  I could read Fred’s chapter and his quirky self-dialogue over and over again.  Although he appears from out of nowhere and seems completely separate from Saffron, he proves to have a very surprising connection with her.  The story ends leaving you satisfied for the character.

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Heart of the Matter by Emily Giffin

I’m a huge Emily Giffin fan and have read all her books.  I just absolutely love her writing style.  It’s easy, free-flowing, conversational and well, honest, unpretentious and forthcoming.  She transcends conventional literature, making her characters relatable where the lead heroine reveals the deeper part of herself in such an honest, assured way that reminds us we’re ‘not alone’, we are all humanely flawed, and in so being, share company in whatever ‘issues’ we’ve faced.  Whatever the dilemma, Emily Giffin’s characters have been there too, and they’re more than happy to take you on a tour of every bitter emotion, happiness and fear that only make them all the more intriguing. 

More importantly, I finally got to meet her on  May 13 in New York at the New York Look.  The interesting thing is that when you finally meet Emily, you feel you already know her.  And if you’ve spoken to anyone standing in line, you’ll find that many of her readers feel similarly connected to her and speak of her as if she’s a friend.  She’s adjoined herself to her readership in such a way as to amass a huge following.   Yes, I was one of the first people there, waiting, (I bought a nice pair of earrings showcased in the glass window – hey, I was early), then later had a glass of wine with my husband at a little bistro across the street until the hour of her arrival– when all her fans started excitedly piling up outside the door.  When she finally stepped in, she sauntered through, energetic, smiling, eager to see her fans, in a pretty dress fitting to her petite frame, camera in hand, and snapping photos of her long line of readers.  That’s a first!  But that’s Emily reaching out and connecting with her fans.  Up close, sitting beside her on the couch where each reader was invited to have his or her book signed, she’s sweet, pretty and disarming.  On a glass table in front of the couch are custom-made miniature pink and blue pins, scattered about and filling a glass vase with SOBO and ‘eg’ printed on them, celebrating Emily and the movie that is currently in production.  I point to my husband, sitting across from us on another chair, and we both turn to look into the lens to smile as he snaps our photo.  And you don’t want to leave the moment while you’re in it.  But alas, you must, to make room for the next reader in line who, like you, travelled just as far to see her. 

Readers have often compared Something Borrowed with every other book in the genre that has followed in its wake.  It was a fun, refreshing read, addressing infidelity from a unique, sympathetic and at relative points, comical reference.  Each character evoked some kind of emotional response from you, and you found yourself talking and venting about Darcy, Rachel, and let’s not forget Claire, as if they were real people part of our inner circle.  If you’ve read this book, opinions ran pretty deep; you discussed these women as if you knew them personally and shared the same alma mater with them.  I often found myself thinking about their situation years after reading the story.

Well, get ready to make room for another novel that will spin you in a whole new direction, but will find itself setting the standard once more.  This time, the tone has changed from her other novels, Giffin competently proving again her ability to foray into new territories of fiction and story-telling the very flaws that trademark her stories and the characters who inhabit them into being so utterly relatable.  In Heart of the Matter, she tackles infidelity once again, but from a perspective told more soberly and in alternating points of views; the wife and ‘the other woman’, allowing readers for the first time ever to obtain a thorough, if even reluctant understanding for both grievances.  Each finds herself facing disheartening circumstances that merge and radically abort their lives in a way that neither ever expected.  Tess and her pediatric-surgeon husband Dr. Nick Russo are celebrating their seventh wedding anniversary when he is paged to the hospital unexpectedly, cutting the evening and the celebration short for husband and wife.  The call is in response to an incident regarding a six-year old burn victim named Charlie.  While caring for him through Charlie’s process in healing in rounds of surgery and skin grafts, Nick eventually becomes emotionally attached to Charlie’s mother, Valerie; a single mother, hard-working lawyer, who’s been raising Charlie on her own.  Abandoned by the biological father of her son so many years back, cut off by her friends over a minor disagreement, and feeling somewhat isolated from the snob society of her son’s peers, Valerie has been dealing with loneliness far too long, and Nick, over stepping the boundaries of his oath as a doctor, allows himself to get a little too close to mother and son.  And Valerie, worried sick over her son’s unfathomable misfortune that no child should ever endure, becomes emotionally and faithfully dependent on her doctor’s ability as healer.  His presence in their life is a stark reminder for the void of both father and spouse that Valerie and Charlie are understandably aching to fill.  But is our empathy so great that it’s at the cost of a greater sacrifice from another family? 

Here enters the complexity of omniscience when we see all sides.  Tessa, against her mother’s advice, walked away from her career to commit herself as a stay-at-home mother for her two children, is now having serious doubts.  Unaware of Nick’s growing attachment to Valerie, she now feels a distance growing between herself and her husband, and doesn’t know what to ascribe it to.  The book is deep, serious, and at unexpected moments, heart wrenching as we find ourselves sympathising with the plight of both women, rooting that a resolution can be found for everyone involved without more suffering going any further than need be.  Heart of the Matter bravely approaches the uncomfortable territory of forgiveness, the consequence that a choice or a chance meeting can irrevocably put into effect.  We also are reunited with Rachel and Dex, Giffin’s way of bringing both reader and vintage character together in a casual reunion, allowing us to get a glimpse of where they are today long after the final page of Something Borrowed was closed.

So where does this leave Tessa after the sacrifice is made?  And an unforseen consequence that is un-rewarding follows?  Whatever choice Tessa makes in the end, in reaction to this dilemma, I’m with her.  This is the first time I’ve read a novel where I found myself suspending judgement, where no one earns the rank as villain and where objectivity takes a front seat to emotion; or maybe it shares the same place, since empathy allows this to be so.  I support Tessa in whatever decision she makes.  Feel for both women in their plight. 

In which case we come to learn that sometimes there is no right and wrong, situations aren’t always absolute (particularly with infidelity), and that forgiveness isn’t just a choice but a process we have to work through.  But above all, that the best choice we can make is the one we can live at peace with.  I strongly recommend this book to both new readers and veterans of Giffin’s books alike.

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The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

Tantalizer; Having won the Boston Book Review‘s Fisk Fiction Prize, and having heard from so many people who’ve either seen the movie or read the book, The Reader was a novella that was well worth stocking in my library.  An author whose name I wanted to add to my list. 

In post World War II Germany, a chance encounter entwines the lives of a young boy and a grown woman, both of whom are separated by a new generation of Germany and the Nazi Third Reich.  Fifteen year old Michael Berg is walking home from school one day, when, in a period of failing health, falls ill until a stranger (a bosom blonde named Hanna Schmitz) comes to his rescue and helps him in his weakening moment, even walking him back to his apartment safely.  Michael, under his mother’s urging, returns to her apartment once he is feeling well and brings her flowers.  With no prior expectation otherwise, they develop a physical relationship, one punctuated with inexplicable mood swings and dark behaviors by Hanna that both baffles and frustrates Michael.  Part of what bonds them in this relationship is that he reads to her.  Even during their hikes, walks through the woods, he is the one in charge of translating the maps that take them through their journeys.   Then one day, with no reason, she disappears from his life. 

Years later, Michael and Hanna meet, once again, under unique circumstances.  This time, he is a law student and  is enrolled in a course that is examining the Nazi war trials.  To his surprise, Hanna is one of the accused on trial in her role as an SS camp guard, answering to the court on the cruelty inflicted on its prisoners.  And though there is evidence that could absolve her, or at the very least, the extent of her involvement in these crimes, she refuses to speak up, believing that the truth is far more shameful than her perceived participation in the holocaust.  Michael, unbeknownst to anyone else, is aware of what Hanna is deliberately keeping from the court, and faces the dilemma of whether or not to expose this if only to save her from a more severe sentence.

Impressions; The story tests our unwavering committment to love those who’ve committed atrocities beyond our imaginings, and our willingness to continue to love them regardless.  It also explores a new generation of Germany, examining and condemning their predecessors for either their actions, or, just as damning, their willingness to look the other way.  One has to wonder, if the very same people who condemned the Third Reich Germany had lived in a time of its occurrence, if they would have followed suit as their ancestors.

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Something Borrowed, by Emily Giffin

Tantalizer; The story opens with Rachel out on the town celebrating her thirtieth birthday with a group of friends; among them, her outgoing and popular best friend Darcy who actually threw the party (and is stealing the show already by dancing on the bar) and Darcy’s fiance Dex.  Incidentally, Dex and Rachel had met years back in law school, having been friends for quite some time before Rachel eventually introduced him to Darcy.  Towards the end of the evening after everyone’s departed and in what seems to be an open invite to coincidence, Darcy, after having had one too many drinks, makes an early departure in a cab ride to head back home.  Thereby leaving Rachel and Dex alone in the bar to talk over a few more drinks, and steal some time together to catch up as old friends.  They share a cab ride home, and, hitting a pothole that throws Rachel on Dex’s side of the car, literally and in his arms, opens the floodgates in what becomes an illicit love affair.

I was originally outraged at the very concept, but as the story develops, we learn a few things that seem to weave sympathy in Rachel’s favor.  It’s told from Rachel’s point of view (the passive aggressive good girl who always tries to do the right thing and play by the rules).  The very rules that,  Rachel is now learning, doesn’t always get you ahead in today’s world.  We discover that Rachel and Darcy have been friends since childhood.  And that Rachel, deep down, resents Darcy.  Soon, we come to see why:  Darcy is the popular girl, with perfectly proportioned features of beauty that few can surpass.  This pretty much allows her to have any guy wants, (or, ‘ahem’, steal any man she desires) and be the object that every woman wants to be friends with, every employer wants to hire.  Basically, a life with the red carpet rolled out for her passage.  With her combination of beauty, outgoing personality and favorable fortune, every opportunity falls in her lap.  Rachel, meanwhile, is the ever so-reliable friend, working in a law firm that she despises.  And who, despite her compounding resentment towards Darcy, strangely feels still protective of the friend she’s known (and looked out for like a sister) long since her early childhood.  During the course of the story, we’re not only shown Darcy’s selfishness, but we also come to realize how unfulfilled Rachel is in her own life, exasperated even more as she measures herself against Darcy.  Meanwhile, the affair between she and Dex thickens.  With Rachel having the implicit understanding that what they have will end as the wedding date draws near in September, she begins to ask herself some very hard questions. Questions that deal with her claiming her own happiness, and the sacrifices she must make for it happen.

Impressions;  Soon to be made into a movie with Kate Hudson and Ginnifer Goodwin, to be released in 2011, I can’t wait to see this brought to life on the big screen.  I’ve been keeping an eye on the casting for the last several months, and am fairly pleased with how they rounded it out.  Colin Egglesfield was chosen as Dex, running very similar to what I’d imagine him to look like.

One of the reasons why I love this story is that it gives the good girl a shot at happiness.  It makes the circumstance work beautifully in her favor, allowing the mistakes and selfish behavior committed by Darcy to finally catch up with her.  In no way am I here to condemn Darcy, or to condone what Rachel did, but Darcy was so self-absorbed, she behaved in a way that showed little regard for other people’s feelings.  And it was interesting to see Karma work its magic in this unique tale.  You just don’t always get to see scenarios play out this way in real life.  Another psychological part at what worked in this story, I feel, is that it taps into almost a primal envy that so many people possess.  Yes, Darcy was selfish, and her beauty seemed to give her the boldness to stake her claim on anything she wanted.  Why not? It’s not like no one ever rejected her.  Guys even dumped their girlfriends (one story depicted by Rachel) to be with her.  But at one point, Rachel explains how, as they searched for Darcy’s wedding gown so many months back, they had such a difficult time finding the perfect dress.  Why?  Because Darcy, having the body of a runway model, looked good in EVERYTHING.  No dress was off-limits for her.  Enough to spark envy in any female friend.

Did I mention in my “About Me” page that I love books that are confessional?  Well, this qualifies as one of them.  In this first-person narration, it’s easy to relate to Rachel’s dilemma.

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