Sunday, December 30, 2012

Man in the Blue Moon

A land war in a Florida coastal town during World War I is the centerpiece of Man in the Blue Moon by Michael Morris (A Place Called Wiregrass, Slow Way Home). Ella Wallace's gambling, opium-addicted husband has disappeared. Struggling to raise their three young sons and keep her general store and land from foreclosure, Ella is forced to choose between making a partial payment on the property or paying the freight charges for a fancy clock her husband must've ordered before he vanished in the hope it might pay off her debt.

Ella's decision complicates matters in the quiet little town. And when Lanier Stillis, a distant cousin of Ella's absent husband shows up under mysterious circumstances, her dilemma takes surprising twists and turns. Is this man, with "Samson-like" blond hair and eyes that sparkle with "either hope or mischief," running from trouble? When Lanier miraculously heals one of Ella's sons and makes a lame mule walk, Ella suspects he might be an answer to prayer. But as interest in the stranger mounts, some in town perceive him as a charlatan. His presence exacerbates the land battle, forcing a conniving banker and the local preacher to begin to claw at each other.

Spiritual undercurrents abound in this well-plotted novel that raises provocative questions about faith and providence. With astute perception, Morris has crafted a story, rooted in true events, about survival at the turn of the century, plausibly fathoming small town life - and the judgments and modus operandi found therein.

Man in the Blue Moon by Michael Morris
Tyndale House Publishers, $19.99, Hardcover, 9781414368429,  400 pp
Publication Date: September 1, 2012
To order this book via INDIEBOUND link HERE

Please note: This review is a reprint and is being posted (in a slightly different form) with the permission of Shelf Awareness. To read this review on Shelf Awareness: Reader's Edition (9/11/12), click HERE.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Confessions of Joan the Tall

Joan Cusack Handler's adolescent self narrates short vignettes, diary-like entries, in her memoir of growing up as an Irish-American Roman Catholic in a predominantly working class neighborhood in the Bronx (NY) in the 1950s. Twelve year-old Joan is a bright, sensitive girl who believes that "Jesus counts on me to come see Him at Mass as much as possible..." Joan--self-conscious, awkward and plagued by nervous ailments--is a misfit who stands five feet eleven and a half inches tall, wears a size eleven, quadruple A shoe, and is often mistaken for being older. The journal offers Joan a safe place to purge feelings on subjects ranging from the father-son relationship between God and Jesus, sin, the Eucharist, obedience, purgatory, lying, honoring her mother and father, snitching on her siblings and her thoughts about some of the quirky nuns and kids at school. 

Young Joan has three siblings, most notably a brother who is a bully. She is fiercely devoted to her father, a devoutly religious man who works hard and likes an occasional whiskey, and her mother, who is a no-nonsense disciplinarian and tows the line on the home front. A beloved aunt, a nun, visits the family weekly and indulges in Blackberry Brandy and likes to drive past all the pretty houses in the upscale section of town, and she also expresses high hopes that Joan will someday join a religious order. This disparity of a familial culture anchored in the practice of religious faith versus the tug toward secular interests makes it hard for Joan, who wants "more than anything... (to have) a clean and pure soul," to navigate her own way in the world in this gentle, gracefully told, coming-of-age tale.

Cusack Handler's prose reverberates with evocative imagery, insight and emotion, conjuring not only the physicality, mystery and allure of the Roman Catholic faith of the 1950s, but also the authentic intensity and vacillation of adolescent feelings. The story, constructed in slice-of-life fragments and steeped in the present tense, deepens the intimacy of this well-drawn, psychologically astute narrative.

Confessions of Joan the Tall by Joan Cusack Handler
CavanKerry Press, $21.99, Trade Paper, 9781933880334,  246 pp
Publication Date: November 13, 2012
To order this book via INDIEBOUND link HERE

Note: This book was provided for review by TLC Book Tours

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Never Hug a Nun

Patrick Cantwell is a good kid, however misguided. He's a seven-year-old with a conscience, growing up in the 1960s in Webster Groves, a middle-class suburb of Saint Louis. The nuns at Mary Queen of our Hearts parochial school have done a good work in Patrick - he feels guilty about playing on the train tracks (and lying about it afterward), sneaking orange soda during lent, throwing tomatoes at buses and failing to sell enough raffle tickets for church. Swept up in a quest to help his brother get a drum set, Patrick's level of mischief escalates until he gets caught up in a robbery at the neighborhood convenience store. Amid his antics, Patrick must deal with a secret crush on schoolmate Ebby Hamilton, the impending prospect of his first confession, his 39 year-old mother being pregnant again and how pretty, young Aunt Jenny, who is "almost" a nun, is having second thoughts about her choice of vocation.

Kevin Killeen's novel breathes life and nostalgia into a bygone era. You can almost smell the pomade, see the paperback James Bond novels, S&H Greenstamps, Frank Sinatra 45 records, the family's Ford Falcon and hear the cheers for The Beatles. The story follows young Patrick's life over the course of a few months, from Easter until Christmas. The book is filled with a balanced blend of humor and poignancy, structured in short chapters that are richly woven with period details and a pitch-perfect re-creation of the  Roman Catholic Church of the 1960s (the rituals, tenets and mindsets therein) and how morality and faith were once the cornerstones of American family life.

Never Hug a Nun by Kevin Killeen
Blank Slate Press, $14.99, Trade Paper, 97809850071,  182 pp
Publication Date: December 8, 2012
To order this book via INDIEBOUND link HERE

Note: This book was provided for review by TLC Book Tours

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Christmas Tree

The Christmas Tree by Julie Salamon (illustrated by Jill Weber) is a compact story about trees and the deep-rooted emotional meanings they can hold in our lives. 

It is narrated by the chief gardener from Rockefeller Center in New York City and his quest to acquire the immense Norway Spruce from a convent in New Jersey. The book tells the story of Sister Anthony, an elderly nun at the Mother House, who refuses to accommodate the gardener's agenda to cut the tree down for use as the centerpiece in the annual Rockefeller Center Christmas display.  

During the process of many years of negotiations, Sister Anthony ultimately shares her back-story about how, when she was a shy, orphan girl named Anna, she was sent from New York City to live at the convent. Once there, she felt incredibly lonely, but she befriended a tiny fir tree whom she came to call, "Tree." Anna and Tree grew up together and it was through their life-long union that Anna came to love and appreciate the wonders of nature - a breadth of knowledge she generously passes on to the next generation. 

One winter, when a harsh storm threatens Tree's safety, Sister Anthony begins to have second thoughts about the tree becoming the crown jewel at the Rockefeller Center.

This is a sensitive, simply told and moving story, a perfect December read about growth, memory, love and letting go. You'll never look at a tree, or Rockefeller Center at Christmas-time, the same way.

The Christmas Tree by Julie Salamon; Jill Weber (Illustrator)
Random House, Paper, 9780375761089, 128pp.
Publication Date: October 29, 2002
To purchase this book via INDIEBOUND click HERE

This blog post was originally featured on "Reading Between the Lines" on December 5, 2010. The full post from that date can be read HERE.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Devil's Garden

Author Brady Christianson cures writer's block by target practicing with his knives. "I can spend hours throwing them," he says. "Focusing on the target helps focus my thoughts." 

It's no wonder this former Marine, who served in the Reconnaissance Division, has centered his first novel, The Devil's Playground, around a retired Recon Marine who thinks he is enjoying a quiet, civilian life but who has his world suddenly turned upside-down when heavily armed Arab terrorists break into his house and try to kill him and his family. It is clear that his former military "secret identity" has been compromised and ghosts from the past have come back to settle old scores. 
This action-packed mystery/thriller was inspired by true events, after Christianson learned that a laptop was stolen from the Department of Veterans Affairs. "It contained the names, addresses, phone numbers, dates of birth and social security numbers of every veteran who served this country since the Vietnam conflict. The missing laptop was not recovered until about a month later, which was an eternity for someone to copy the information and sell it...Considering these events and weighing them against the fact that there are those in the military services whose identities are protected—and they are protected for good reasons—the potential for disaster becomes painfully apparent...The story almost wrote itself."

I am pleased to welcome Brady Christianson to Reading Between the Lines to share his thoughts, in his own words, about The Devil's Garden:

The fog of war is a place where confusion rules, innocence dies and demons are born. Sometimes these demons come back to haunt a man and other times they simply come back to kill him. Few men would welcome the fight, which is to say, a proud and terrible few. The Devil’s Garden twists a Recon Marine’s worst nightmare into a deadly reality.

There is a saying in Recon: There is no life after Force. The lack of adrenaline and ensuing boredom will kill a warrior’s spirit. However, former Recon Marine Brandon Colson has a different kind of death to fear. After years spent in remote deserts and jungles on the other side of the planet dreaming of a quiet, civilian, family life, he finally has it. The problem is he has a large price on his head that even his family doesn’t know about: He is wanted by terrorists he worked to bring down.  With revenge in their hearts and murder on their minds, Colson’s enemies plan to revisit his sins upon him, his wife and his children. When a heavily armed squad of assassins arrives at his home in the middle of the night, he quickly dispatches the men, but knows the identity he buried deep in his past is no longer a secret. With his family in hiding, he makes it his personal mission to eliminate the threat to his family and reclaim the life he’s made.

The Devil’s Garden captures the irreconcilable thoughts and trepidation of a military man turned family man who must now fight to protect his family. As Colson’s crucial mission leads him to the Devil’s Garden of Florida, a forgotten wasteland of swamps, collapsed shacks, and lost souls, he finds that the midnight attack on his home was simply an omen of what is to come. With his fate in the balance until the last second, Colson must navigate a trail littered with bloodshed and revenge.

To learn more about The Devil's Garden and Brady Christianson (and read excerpts from the novel), link HERE

Follow the book blog tour for this novel at Tribute Books 

The Devil's Garden by Brady Christianson
Two Harbors Press, Trade Paper, 9781938690167, 392 pp

Publication Date: November 11, 2012
To order this book via AMAZON link HERE

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Christmas in Cornwall

An Anglican convent in decline brings together a host of characters in Christmas in Cornwall, a novel that explores the implications of loss, the complexities of family and friendship and the need to feel loved.

Taking place in the English countryside from the Feast of the Epiphany to Advent, Marcia Willett (The Summer House) stitches together tender stories about the bonds between ordinary people: Jakey, a five year-old boy who believes that a real angel is keeping watch over him; Clem, his father, a young widower who comes to work at the convent after the death of his wife in order to regroup and be closer to his own mother; Dossie, Clem's mother, a widow herself and a successful caterer who has concerns for the well-being of her son and grandson and her elderly parents - along with romantic woes; Janna, an eccentric, single woman, cast adrift from a broken past, who feels she's finally found a home by working for the aging, quirky nuns. When a stranger arrives in town claiming to be writing a book about the history of the region, rumors swirl that he actually has secret designs on taking over the convent - an old, Elizabethan Manor House. Might his quest change the future for everyone?  

Willett has written a perfectly balanced ensemble piece - a gentle, moving story about faith and trusting in God's presence via the generosity of strangers, the love of friends and family and the miracle of Christmas.

Christmas in Cornwall by Marcia Willett
Thomas Dunne Books, $25.99, Hardcover, 9781250003706,  320 pp
Publication Date: October 30, 2012
To order this book via INDIEBOUND link HERE

Please note: This review is a reprint and is being posted (in a slightly different form) with the permission of Shelf Awareness. To read this review on Shelf Awareness: Reader's Edition (11/9/12), click HERE.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

High Fashion Hounds: Anatomy of a Dog Grooming

Happy Thanksgiving!

Taking time out from books to share a little slice of life...

Pam, the groomer of my Yorkshire terrier, just invested in her own mobile grooming van, and today, HIGH FASHION HOUNDS paid us our very first "house call." 
Awesome truck! 
Pam backed into the driveway with a little help from her  back-up video cam.   
A perfect park!

The mobile grooming center is like an ambulance without the oxygen, stretcher and defibrillator! It's equipped with everything Pam needs to undertake each individual grooming job - and also includes a great lighting system, heat, hot water, a washing and drying station, a first rate sound-system (Jimmy Buffet was cranking on the satellite radio during her visit with us) and even a traveling company mascot!

Let the games begin . . .
First up was a nail trimming and thorough brushing out.  

Next, a bath.

As the anxiety-riddled, pip-squeak of a Yorkie gets a soak in the bathtub, she gradually begins to calm amid a sudsy massage.  

In the meantime, Kitsy, Pam's lovable Welsh Corgi and the HIGH FASHION HOUNDS' roving mascot, looks on from behind the Plexiglas door that leads to the driver's cabin. 

After a thorough rinse, blow-dry and more brushing, out come the scissors and Pam gets down to the nitty-gritty, giving this fluffy, long-haired Yorkie a much needed make-over. 
Kitsy gets bored with all the fuss and finally just nods off and takes a little snooze! 

As Pam finishes up the grooming session, Kitsy suddenly stirs, realizing it's almost time for HIGH FASHION HOUNDS to take to the road yet again and set off for the next grooming victim canine make-over! 
And now for the finished product...
 complete with a little bow!
(and yes, that's Kitsy looking out from the passenger's side window)
You do beautiful work!
Link HERE to learn more about HIGH FASHION HOUNDS.
 Be sure to watch the video!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Mrs. Queen Takes the Train

Her Majesty, The Queen of England, is depressed. She reads biographies about  The Royals and writes "Not true" or "Never happened" in the margins. To keep calm and fit and rail against aging, she takes up yoga and even tries to learn the computer. But nothing can dissuade her sadness over her children's marriages breaking up, the death of Princess Diana, the fire at Windsor castle and other woes. The Queen had "internalized the shock, stored it up, and now she was suffering," writes William Kuhn in Mrs. Queen Takes the Train, an affecting, yet amusing, fictitious look at the heart and soul of Queen Elizabeth.

When the Prime Minister informs that the government can no longer subsidize the Royal Train--an outdated, expensive mode of transportation dedicated exclusively for official business of The Monarchy--the 80 year-old Queen is delivered a final jolt. She gets fed up and walks away from Buckingham Palace, unattended, on a rainy day. Cloaked beneath a borrowed hoodie with a skull stenciled on the back, she sets off for King's Cross, London's busiest public train station, and sets off to the Royal Yacht Britannia moored in Scotland. Along the way, she encounters an array of ethnically diverse commoners - some who mistake her for a homeless person, others Helen Mirren.

Orbiting the suspense and excitement that swirls around Her Majesty's mysterious disappearance are engaging stories about the lives of those who work behind the scenes at the palace, those who know Queen Elizabeth best. Kuhn (Reading Jackie: Her Autobiography in Books) delivers a clever, funny send-up mirroring all facets of contemporary British life while portraying The Queen as an emblem of " a secular era."
Harper, $25.99, Hardcover, 9780871404619,  384 pp
Publication Date: October 16, 2012
To order this book via INDIEBOUND link HERE

Please note: This review is a reprint and is being posted (in a slightly different form) with the permission of Shelf Awareness. To read this review on Shelf Awareness: Reader's Edition (10/26/12), click HERE.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Miss Dreamsville and the Collier County Women's Literary Society

Amy Hill Hearth (Having our Say: The Delaney Sisters' First 100 Years) takes the reader back to 1962, when Naples, Florida was a "sunbaked southern backwater town" and not what it is today, one of "the richest, swankiest places on earth." The book is told from the perspective of 80 year-old, divorced Dora Witherspoon, who recollects a time when she was a postal worker and was caught, on the job, violating postal regulations by perusing the latest issue of Vogue addressed to a glamorous newcomer in town, a transplant from Boston, Massachusetts , Jackie Hart. When Jackie catches Dora in the act and asks, "What else do you like to read?" the encounter sparks the formation of the Collier County Women's Literary Society, a group that draws an array of local misfits who gather to read and discuss great books - and inadvertently reveal mysteries and secrets about their own lives.

The society grows to include the local librarian; the town's one and only Sears employee; a woman who once did prison time for allegedly killing her husband; a middle-aged poet; a token male member; and a young "colored" girl, a maid, who is secretly whisked to the meetings in the racially segregated town.

In the midst of it all, the KKK is hard at work and Collier County becomes rapt by an anonymous radio show anchored by Miss Dreamsville, whose mysterious identity spices up life in the small town. Inspired by true events, Amy Hill Hearth has written a heart-tugging story about how this band of colorful characters finds liberation--and friendship--amid a time and place where "sameness" was once revered.   

Atria Books, $15, Trade paper, 9781451675238, 272 pp
Publication Date: October 2, 2012
To order this book via INDIEBOUND link HERE

Please note: This review is a reprint and is being posted (in a slightly different form) with the permission of Shelf Awareness. To read this review on Shelf Awareness: Reader's Edition (10/12/12), click HERE.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Yankee Miracles

Baseball might be considered America's favorite pastime, but to a 17-year-old graffiti artist from Queens, it also became a saving grace. While spray-painting his "art" on Yankee Stadium in the Bronx on June 29th, 1973, Ray Negron was caught in the act by George Steinbrenner, the Yankees' infamous owner. But instead of prosecuting the vandal, "The Boss" showed uncharacteristic compassion and offered the young Negron a way to work off his transgression by helping out the team. This begins a moving story of how a fatherless street kid and vandal, given a chance by an unlikely savior, transformed himself from batboy to gofer to batting practice pitcher, ultimately becoming a much beloved and trusted inner-circle member of the Bronx Bombers.

With an assist from Sally Cook (Another Season), Negron--a loyal Yankee employee for nearly four decades--pays tribute to the powerful and oft-maligned Steinbrenner for his role in changing his life, while also presenting a plethora of surreal moments and memories shaped by baseball greats like Billy Martin, Reggie Jackson, Thurman Munson, Bobby Murcer, Phil Rizzuto, Catfish Hunter, A-Rod and Derek Jeter. Told with candor and admiration, Yankee Miracles is an inspirational mosaic detailing Negron's unusual relationship with each of his heroes and the wisdom and lessons they imparted--and of how Negron, now a community adviser for the team, has dedicated himself to helping sick and needy city kids find joy, fulfillment and hope in their own lives.

Yankee Miracles by Ray Negron
Liveright, $25.99, Hardcover, 9780871404619,  288 pp
Publication Date: September 3, 2012
To order this book via INDIEBOUND link HERE

Please note: This review is a reprint and is being posted with the permission of Shelf Awareness. To read this review on Shelf Awareness: Reader's Edition (9/7/12), click HERE.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

We Only Know So Much

On the surface, the Copelands might appear a typical American family that lives in a small, Midwestern town. But in the hands of author Elizabeth Crane (When the Messenger is Hot) their worlds are skewed by the intrusive absurdity and cruelty of life in the novel, We Only Know So Much. Thus, the family members are challenged by things they don't understand. The mother is numb from the suicide of her secret lover. Her unaware husband, a walking Wikipedia, fears he might be losing his memory. Their daughter, an angst-ridden 19 year-old, longs for a "career" on reality TV. And their 9 year-old son is convinced he must choose between his love of crossword puzzles and girls. Add a grandfather suffering the tangled forgetfulness of Parkinson's disease and his mother, a 98 year-old matriarch whose sharp, keen mind enables her to still dream big, and what emerges is an eccentric cast of characters whose lives are rife with conflict.

Crane is an accomplished, prolific short story writer. In this, her debut novel, she makes painful issues accessible via a clever, original narrative voice that allows the reader to peek inside the head and heart of each character. By accentuating the offbeat flaws and failures of those who populate the novel, Crane reveals a dark, yet endearing sense of humanity as the individual and collective stories unwind at a descriptive, unhurried pace. In the end, the "ordinary" aspects of living life, however dysfunctional, escalate until the novel reaches thought-provoking conclusions about the meaning of life.

We Only Know So Much by Elizabeth Crane
Harper Perennial, $14.99, Trade Paper, 9780062099471,  304 pp
Publication Date: June 12, 2012
To order this book via INDIEBOUND link HERE

Please note: This review is a reprint and is being posted (in a slightly different form) with the permission of Shelf Awareness. To read this review on Shelf Awareness: Reader's Edition (6/22/12), click HERE.