Thursday, February 14, 2019

My take on: Dumplin

Every time I picked up Dumplin by Julie Murphy, the song Jolene by Dolly Parton played on a loop inside my head. That's not a bad thing! The song made me smile and this book made me smile! The characters in this book have a special kinship to Dolly Parton's music, which I had heard about before I read a single page. I wasn't sure how that would work, but it definitely does and that also made me smile!

Willowdean "Dumplin" Dickson is comfortable with her self-proclaimed fat body, even if others, including her beauty-pageant obsessed mother, are not. She's happy and mad about her body at the same time. She can accept being fat, but the moment someone else is OK with it then it's time to panic -- and question everything you ever thought was true. Handsome jock Bo has taken a liking to Willowdean, so much that he wants to be more than just a friend from work. It's a shock to Willowdean. She's used to boys like Bo ignoring her or making fun of her weight. In her mind, it's unthinkable that a boy wants to date her, wants to kiss her, and see's her body as beautiful. Boys tend to go for Willowdean's best friend, Ellen, who is skinny and beautiful. Willowdean wants to share in her joy about Bo with Ellen but is afraid to. If Willowdean is still struggling to understand what Bo sees in her how can she explain it to another person -- even her best friend.

At times like this, Willowdean would normally crank up some Dolly Parton music and tell her troubles to her Aunt Lucy. But Lucy recently passed away, leaving Willowdean without her sounding board. Lucy was closer to Willowdean than her own mother. Lucy could relate to Willowdean better than anyone, as she struggled with her weight until the day she died. Willowdean loves her mom, but always feels like her mom sees her as a project. Something that needs to be fixed. When her mom isn't dropping subtle hints about losing weight or self-improvement, she obsesses over the Miss Teen Blue Bonnet beauty pageant. The pageant is the biggest event of the year in their small town, and Willowdean's mom, also a former Miss Teen Blue Bonnet, is in charge of running the pageant. Willowdean normally avoids the pageant like the plague, but it just might end up being her salvation. She's doubting ever aspect of her life, including her friendship with Ellen. Entering the pageant could be her chance at regaining her confidence.

It's quirky. It's funny. It's complex. It's also heartwarming. It's the kind of book I wish was around when I was a teenager. Fat girls in books were few and far between when I was a teenager, and I wish they weren't. This girl can be more than comic relief or a sidekick. Like Willowdean, these girls can be the object of affection, funny, sad, sarcastic, and happy all rolled into one. Now, time to see if Netflix did the book justice! Off to watch the movie and sing Jolene in my head!

Rating: Superb

Note: I received a copy of the book from Wunderkind PR in exchange for an honest review.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

My take on: Map of the Heart

I haven't read every book by Susan Wiggs, but her latest Map of the Heart seems like a departure from her prior books. That's a good thing. There's still the family dramas and contemporary romance elements that I've come to love in her books. But in this book there's also a connection to the past, specifically World War II France. She blends the past with the present in a descriptive and often times haunting way. This period in history was filled with strife and pain, which is still being felt in the present day.

Widowed Camille Adams is struggling with the death of her husband. It's been years since Jace died, but his loss is felt in every aspect of her life and their daughter, Julie's, life. When Jace died, so did Camille's zest for fun, traveling, and adventure. With Jace she used to throw caution to the wind and take chances with life. Those days are over. Instead Camille chooses to stick close to home, if she does travel it's by car or by train. But she still manages to harness her passion for photography by restoring old images or film. This passion leads Camille to her newest client, handsome professor Malcolm "Finn" Finnemore. Finn's father went missing during the Vietnam War. Recently discovered film, in his father's belongings, could provide some answers on his disappearance. They have to. Finn has pinned all of his hopes on this film. Those answers don't come when Camille accidentally damages the film. That should be the end of Camille and Finn's interaction, but of course fate and family keep bringing them together.

While Camille has a potential budding romance, her daughter is drowning -- literally and figuratively. Like Camille, Julie's life has never been the same since Jace died. The once happy and popular kid has turned into a sullen, moody, and isolated teenager. There's something more going on with Julie, but Camille is struggling with how to help her daughter. Getting more than a few words out of Julie is like pulling teeth. Only Camille's father can soften Julie's rough exterior and get to the heart of the matter. Camille's father had his own struggles growing up in World War II France. Camille's father was the son of a Nazi sympathizer, a label no one wanted in their small town. In America, Camille's father got to be someone else. He got to have a family. He got to experience a free life. But Camille's father wants to revisit his past, he wants to go back to where he grew up. And he wants Camille and Julie to go with him. Camille fights against it. This trip is about more than Camille's dad confronting his past. Camille will have to confront her past. She will have to confront her fears. She will also have to confront her feelings for Finn.

I enjoyed this book, but I did have some issues with it. There are certain romance tropes that I can't stand. One being two characters who have trouble dating other people, but once they met "the one" they can't stop thinking about each other. There's a spark. They can't understand where this attraction is coming from. This book has that trope. I wish it didn't, but I was able to get past it!

Rating: Superb

Notes: I received a copy of the book from the publisher (HarperCollins) as part of a blog tour with TLC Book Tours

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Guest post from Dawn Adams Cole

Please welcome Dawn Adams Cole, the author of the debut novel Drops of Cerulean. Spanning the years 1930–2014, Drops of Cerulean chronicles the lives of Ilona, the daughter of a Greek restaurateur, who marries into a prominent Houston family; her son, Cadmus, who becomes a professor and then moves into a retirement home after his husband passes away; and Delphina, an anxiety-ridden woman with a mysterious recurring dream. 

Ilona and Cadmus have a falling out when Cadmus is a young man, and before they are able to reconcile, Ilona dies. Cadmus is plagued with guilt and feels responsible for the death of his mother. Two worlds collide when, years later, Delphina comes to understand that she had been Ilona, Cadmus's mother, in her previous life.

Today, Dawn Adams Cole talks about the inspiration for her debut novel.

“Everything had an intention, a purpose, a pattern. The seagulls that flew in formation along the shoreline, with each bird departing the front of the line one-by-one to take up the end; the symmetrical markings on a blue jay’s wings; the blood that circulated through the body in an elaborate system of veins – how could anyone think of playing games or memorizing spelling lists when such amazing things existed?”

The natural world was an inspiration for Drops of Cerulean. Delphina, one of the three protagonists, takes solace in nature from the time she was a child, noting symmetry and order in her everyday surroundings. Like my character, I noticed the patterns as a child, but sheer amazement over the natural world grew as I matured. During the challenging times in adult life, the awe of the natural world directly in front me provide the most comfort of a divine presence. Once I let go of my ego, I realize that I, too, am part of that world. I wanted to capture visual representations of this belief, and I created Delphina, as the reincarnated Ilona, as the character to attribute this appreciation, the visualization of universal design and ananchor for the narrative of living multiple lifetimes.

The foremost spiritual influence for the saga centered on my interest in exploring the concept of reincarnation. I remember reflecting about my soul when I was a child, perhaps as young as five years old. I struggled to reconcile the spirit inside my head and heart with my physical body. I recall wondering what constituted the real me – the stillness of my being or the body into which I was born. I could not state it then as I am now, but the struggle to understand was very real. I believe this is where my initial appreciation of interconnectedness formed – I knew I was part of something greater than myself.

There are books and stories told of people connecting with their previous lives. Some instances cite young children instantly recalling memories when they pass a particular place or meet a specific person, much to the surprise of the people to whom they are speaking. Most of my research, however, centered on books detailing people who experienced regression through hypnosis. Often times, they shared details of former lives that were later confirmed through historical records. The experience confirmed the source of predilections and talents, and at times the source of a fear or negative tendency was brought to light, which resulted in a healing of sorts. Delphina received this healing.

While the spiritual concepts served as the inspiration for the novel, the piece needed a foundation for setting and characters. As a native Houstonian and as a resident of the historic Heights neighborhood, the setting very much selected itself. Houston is now a cosmopolitan city, but the Houston in my memory bears an industrial, gritty narrative that echoes a can-do spirit. My great-grandfather immigrated to Texas and founded a machine shop in East Houston in 1929, around the time Houston entrepreneur and philanthropist Jesse Jones helped spare the city from the full impact of the Great Depression by bringing together city leaders to insure no Houston bank would fail during this economic downfall. My family’s bold move to continue pursuing their dreams despite the times folded into the spirit of the novel’s key Petrarkis and Doyle families, a sentiment not unusual for optimistic Houstonians of the time.

The primary neighborhood in the novel, Houston Heights, embodied this ethos, which is one of the reasons my husband and I decided to settle here in 2004. Founder Oscar Martin Carter envisioned a planned community where the wealthy and working class could live alongside one another. Heights Boulevard, modeled after Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, housed impressive Victorian homes while bungalows settled on the surrounding streets. I enjoy walking throughout my neighborhood and admiring the historic homes that remain today. My love for history centers on the humanity of the people who came before us, on my belief that we share commonality on our desires and search. As I took walks throughout Houston Heights, the spiritual thoughts that were the genesis of the saga became rooted in the specifics of the neighborhood. The historical context of the city and neighborhood gave shape to the metaphysical narrative.

As a writer I look forward to exploring how we are alike, a concept that on one hand seems obvious, but on the other hand is foreign to so many during these highly polarizing times. I reflect on the belief in one lifetime followed by eternal redemption or damnation. While it is a commonly held religious tenet, it does not seem to garner the love and urgency to do the good that it is supposed to engender. So much judgment and hatred comes in the name of religion. I wonder if rethinking the concept of an eternal life with no definitive end, with only an eternal, interdependent connection to all creation, would result in better outcomes in current, everyday lives?

About the Author
Dawn Adams Cole was born and raised in Houston. She received her BA from the University of St. Thomas and her MEd from Harvard University. She lives in The Heights with her husband, Burton, and her daughters, Caroline and Elizabeth.

Friday, January 25, 2019

My take on: The Gown

I confess...I have a mild curiosity about the British royal family. I got up early for the last two royal weddings. Why? I don't know. I like the glamour and for a few brief moments I can live vicariously through others. I say all of this because that mild curiosity piqued my interest in my latest read.

The Gown by Jennifer Robson is a fictional take on a real event, the story behind the wedding dress of Princess Elizabeth set against war-torn England. World War II has been over for two years, but the recovery is ongoing. People are still reeling from tragedy. But there's nothing like a wedding to lift everyone's spirits. When the engagement is announced, the royal family commissions famed designer Norman Hartnell to design the wedding gown. While Hartnell is celebrated for his work, he doesn't do it alone. With a vast crew of seamstresses and embroiderers, Hartnell assigns his most-trusted employees to work on the gown. For best friends Ann Hughes and Miriam Dassin, working on the dress is the chance of a lifetime. But it comes at a price, no one on the team, including Ann and Miriam, is allowed to utter a peep about the top-secret dress. These two working-class women pour all their energy into the dress. It's a welcome distraction from their difficult pasts.

Fast forward to 2016, Heather Mackenzie is grieving the loss of her beloved grandmother, Nan. Her mother discovers a box Nan left for Heather, inside delicate swatches of embroidery. Where are they from? Queen Elizabeth II's wedding gown. What was Nan doing with these? Did she really work on the Queen's wedding gown? Yes, she really did work on that famous dress. Also in that box was a photo of Nan with Miriam, who is now a famous artist. How could Nan keep such an important part of her life from Heather and her mother? Nan's time in England is a mystery to them both. A mystery that Heather wants to solve. 

The book is told from Heather, Ann, and Miriam's perspectives. Through Ann's and Miriam's eyes, the reader gets to see what life was like in 1947 England. Rationing of food is still going on, even the royal family has to do it. Her parents and brother are dead, her sister-in-law, Milly, has moved to Canada, leaving Ann struggling to keep her house. Enter Miriam, a French Jewish woman who has just moved to England. After surviving imprisonment at the hands of the Nazis, Miriam is trying to rebuild her life. A job at Hartnell's and a room in Ann's house are just what Miriam needs. The two women are at first reluctant to trust each other, but soon they form a strong bond. Their friendship is at the heart of this book. A friendship that even Heather can see and feel in the present-day.

When Heather finds Miriam, it's clear that Nan's friendship meant a lot. It was Nan who gave Miriam a place to live when she needed it the most. It was Nan who encouraged Miriam to pursue her passion as an artist. Miriam did the same for Nan. Miriam reassured Nan not to doubt herself even in the most difficult times. They were strong women on their own, but their deep friendship made Miriam and Nan better people. Miriam, Ann, and Heather are not real people but I felt like they were. I loved how the author took a real event and managed to make it a relatable story. I would definitely put this on your TBR pile.

Rating: Superb

Notes: I received a copy of the book from the publisher (HarperCollins) as part of a blog tour with TLC Book Tours. 

Monday, December 31, 2018

One year ends, and there's another to look forward to!

The new year is upon us. I look ahead to 2019 with optimism for my personal and professional life. I feel the same for my reading goals.

My reading goal for 2018 was 50 books. As of December 30, I read 33 books. I started and stopped several books that I just wasn't into. Some books felt like a chore to read, and where is the fun in that.

Even though I read 33 books, I struggled to come up with a "best of list." Last year I felt like there were a lot more books that wowed me. But I still managed to come up with a short list.

Best Books of 2018
(Please note, not all of these books were published in 2018. I just happened to read them in 2018)

1. Start Without Me by Joshua Max Feldman: The literary equivalent of the movie Planes, Trains and Automobiles.

2. Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys: Fast-paced YA historical fiction.

3. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling: Ok, I didn't review this on my blog because there's not much I can add to the conversation. But so far this is my favorite of the series.

4. The Kept Woman by Karin Slaughter: A long but nuanced crime thriller.

5. The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn: Each chapter is like a potato chip, you always one more.

Honorable Mention

It by Stephen King: This almost made my best of list. . .BUT that STUPID child sex scene at the end was so unnecessary.

Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi and The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton: Both of these books suffered from what I call first-book syndrome. As in both books had everything but the kitchen sink in them. Too much setup and some unnecessary romances. I have high hopes for the next books in both series.

Worst of the year: For me that was Modern Lovers by Emma Straub. This has a very pretty cover, but a rather boring interior!

Looking ahead!

I still want to try for 50 books in 2019. Even though I might not get there, I just like the number 50!

Monday, December 24, 2018

My take on: Season of Wonder

Festive times calls for a festive read. Just look at that cover, it just screams Happy Holidays! I saved Season of Wonder by RaeAnne Thayne specifically for this time of the year. I relished the opportunity to read something positive and uplifting.

Single mom Dani is starting a new life for herself and her daughters, Silver and Mia, in Haven Point. Small-town Idaho, where everybody knows everybody, is very different from the hustle and bustle of New York City. But it's just the change of pace her family needs. Dani is trying to escape the shadow of her now deceased ex-husband's misdeeds. Her ex was a thief and a murderer, and in Dani's mind she can never run far enough from his crimes. Dani's not a criminal and neither are her children, but she's afraid people will think badly of her family if they know the truth. The fewer people who know the truth, the better. Only Dani's boss, a retiring veterinarian, knows about her past and she'd like to keep it that way. Dani has a chance to take over the veterinary practice and she's not going to let anything derail that, including handsome deputy sheriff Ruben -- who just happens to be her boss's son.

Wanting and seeking happiness beyond her work and life with her daughters, just isn't in the cards for Dani. Despite a mutual attraction to Ruben, Dani runs from him at every chance. She's afraid to trust. She's afraid to love. She doesn't believe she deserves any of it. As a former foster kid, Dani has trouble building lasting relationships. But fate often has a way of intervening. Ruben quickly becomes a constant in her life, saving teenage Silver from following in her father's footsteps and forging an instant friendship with six-year-old Mia. No matter how hard Dani tries, Ruben is always there to show her there are good people in this world.

This was a welcome change of pace. For most of this year, I think I've been on a fantasy and thriller kick. I haven't read a lot of romance lately, but I'm glad I read this one. I didn't like the instant attraction that Ruben and Dani had. As soon as the book begins, the reader already knows Dani and Ruben like each other. I kind of wanted a couple more chapters before the attraction became clear. I liked Ruben's relationship with Silver's children. He genuinely cared about them regardless of Dani constantly rejecting him. Dani eventually realized it's ok to want happiness not just for her daughters but also for herself. Overall, this was cozy, and endearing story.

Rating: Superb

Note: I received a copy of the book from Little Bird Publicity in exchange for an honest review. 

Monday, December 10, 2018

My take on: Start Without Me

It's holiday time, so it's time for holiday reads! In Start Without Me by Joshua Max Feldman, for the first time in years Adam has an invite to the Thanksgiving table. After several failed rehab attempts, the recovering alcoholic is facing the daunting task of spending the holiday with his family. A holiday meal is something most people look forward to, but not Adam. It means he has to talk to his parents, talk to his siblings (and to their families). It means no alcohol. It means being present and accountable -- something Adam struggles with in his sobriety.

Simple tasks pose a challenge, like making coffee for his family. Adam accidentally breaks the coffee pot and flees the house because he's afraid of the consequences and the potential judgment from his family. To him, it makes more sense to flee the family home in Connecticut and head back to the safety and routine of his new home in Seattle. But a chance encounter at an airport restaurant derails Adam's chance to runaway.

Like Adam, flight attendant Marissa is dreading Thanksgiving dinner. A marriage riddled with strife about race and money, is only going to get worse if Marissa's husband, Robbie, finds out she's pregnant with a baby that's not his (not a spoiler since that little tidbit is revealed very early). When Adam asks to sit at her table, Marissa borders on saying no but says yes. It's a decision that helps and hurts both Marissa and Adam. It helps that they have someone to talk to. But it also hurts that they have someone to talk. Each can be objective about the other's problems. Each person serves as a welcome distraction to their own problems. It's easier for them to talk to a stranger because you don't have to worry about disappointing a stranger. While neither is ready to face their problems, a friendship is born. A friendship that leads to a troubled, sad, funny, and heartwarming road trip.

I would call this the dark and satirical book version of the movie Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. Two strangers who wouldn't otherwise be friends find a way to confront the past so that they can move forward in the present. Like real life, nothing wraps in a neat little bow. Both Adam and Marissa have to face the messes they made and by the end there is some hope for the future. I loved this book, and I think you will too!

Rating: Superb

Note: I received a copy of the book from the publisher (HarperCollins) as part of a blog tour with TLC Book Tours

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