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.