Book chat: ‘The Precious One’ by Marisa de los Santos

The Precious OneTaisy Cleary thought she’d finally banished him. After her father abandoned the family when she and her twin brother, Marcus, had just turned 18, Taisy made it her mission to press on without the dominating, controlling, sneering Wilson Cleary. With his pregnant second wife quickly ready to welcome a new daughter, his first wants only to exorcise him.

Wilson makes it his mission to protect Willow, this precious babe, from all the world’s hurts. As his third child lives a sheltered, academically-rich life under her father’s tender wing, Taisy and Marcus work to erase difficult Wilson from their lives. And they succeed — mostly — for 17 years. But after learning of her father’s recent heart attack, Taisy is shocked to receive an invitation back to the hometown she fled so long ago.

Faced with a surly teenage half-sister, dreamy stepmother and father who remains as self-obsessed as ever, Taisy is also confronted with memories of another man she lost so long ago: her first love, Ben. Returning to the Delaware town where she’d once been so happy, she hopes to forge new connections . . . just as her sister needs her the most.

Lyrical, thought-provoking and filled with memorable characters, Marisa de los Santos’ The Precious One challenges our notions of family, loyalty and second chances. Though it got off to a slow start for me, I became lost in the beautiful language and sucked into the world of the complicated, broken Clearys.

In chapters alternating between Taisy and Willow’s viewpoints, the story begins with Taisy estranged from her father and his second family — but still faced with a longing to understand, and be understood by, her dad. While her brother has long given up on Wilson, Taisy can’t seem to shake her strange, misguided feelings of loyalty to the man who destroyed to their once-strong family unit. Even decades later, she can’t help wondering . . . why?

With Wilson now in his 70s and in questionable health, he calls his oldest daughter — a writer — for a favor: to ghostwrite his life story, one of his marvelous mind. An unquestionable genius, Wilson places education and knowledge above all else. His daughter, Willow, was molded in his image: a brilliant, savvy young woman who thinks easily for herself . . . but can’t function away from her father’s grasp.

Public high school is a new circle of hell for Willow. With Wilson unable to continue her homeschooling, she enters eleventh grade without any of the grasp of culture or social norms. And it’s painful. When the author has us join Willow in a dirty stairwell where she’s somberly eating her lunch alone, I ached for her. Who hasn’t felt like the misfit?

And that’s why it’s so easy to understand how she is quickly adopted by a new mentor: her English teacher, a 30-year-old man who easily quotes poetry and Shakespeare but harbors dubious intentions. The Precious One is as much the story of a family as it is one of predation and loneliness, hope and belief.

I related to Taisy — in her thirties, still smarting with the dissolution of her first love — and with Willow, this sad and lovely girl who can’t understand just how sad and lovely she really is. No matter your age, there is probably a bit of Taisy and Willow in all of us: people who still seek the approval of their parents, regardless of what’s come to pass between them. Willow’s fondest hope is to never make a mistake, and Taisy’s is to atone for her worst one of all.

Can you tell I liked this book? I really liked this book. I read it almost entirely in one afternoon with my swollen pregnant feet propped on a coffee table, lost in the Clearys and their myriad issues . . . swept up in the idea of Wilson’s mysterious past and how much he inflicted his own issues upon his unsuspecting children.

Though I didn’t feel we got the most satisfying story arc from Wilson’s history, I appreciated Taisy’s desire to dig deeper — to try and find the root of what made this man so calculated, austere and cold (to everyone but Willow, that is). As Willow begins to clear a small path in the real world outside her parents’ arms, I felt a surge of protection for her . . . even though my loyalty was, for the most part, with Taisy.

The evolution of the sisters’ relationship is at the heart of the story. Though we have sinister subplots peeking into the crevices between paragraphs, Willow and Taisy finding solace and camaraderie in one another — and the changes they help bring to each other’s lives — was moving, to say the least. Though Willow would have never admitted to needing a “sister” around (and Taisy could never imagine being that sister), their changing dynamic was my favorite part of The Precious One.

With a satisfying conclusion and engrossing plot, Marisa de los Santos presents a winning novel that swept me up with its gorgeous prose and compelling characters. This family isn’t one I’ll soon forget.


4.5 out of 5

Pub: 2015 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor on Facebook
Complimentary copy provided via TLC Book Tours for review consideration


Book chat: ‘Attachments’ by Rainbow Rowell

AttachmentsLincoln didn’t plan on becoming a snoop.

Hired by the nascent IT department of a local newspaper to ensure their employees aren’t using the new-fangled Internet for nefarious purposes (it is 1999, after all), Lincoln’s primary job is to hang around at night reading others’ email.

For a while, nothing interesting happens. Aside from the occasional off-color remark, his filter remains resolutely boring. Until chains of messages begin to pour in between Beth and Jennifer, two members of the editorial staff who share their lives through a series of notes passed like a digital middle school experience.

Though he feels awful invading their privacy, the friends’ emails keep appearing in his filter . . . and he keeps reading them, partly because he’s bored silly — it’s an overnight shift in an empty building — but, gradually, because he starts to feel connected to them. Especially Beth, a sharp and funny movie critic stuck in a dead-end relationship.

When their paths cross in daylight, everything feels different . . . and his affections only grow. But how do you confess to snooping on your love interest for months — and all on the company dime?

Rainbow Rowell’s Attachments is a sweet, modern love story that immediately sucked me in. As an editor at a local newspaper myself, it was literally impossible for me to not relate to this quick, quirky and entertaining read.

Lincoln is the sort of dude you can’t help but root for — a man floundering a bit to find his way in the world after a nasty break-up, but undoubtedly someone with a heart of gold. I loved his relationship with his well-meaning but overbearing mom, of all things; it was incredibly realistic, right down to her shoving casseroles into his hands on his way out the door.

In his late twenties, Lincoln doesn’t plan to still be living at home . . . or working in a soulless IT position, where even a monkey could read flagged emails and send warning messages to the paper staff. But he knows there is something more — and he’ll find it. Eventually. His predicament is one many can relate to, I’d wager, though the story was set in the chaos of Y2K. (Also: nostalgia.)

Beth and Jennifer’s dynamic was wonderful. I read Attachments thinking often of who my own Beth would be (I mean, I’m definitely Jennifer, the married and nervously pregnant editor). Though we only get to know the pair through their constant emails to each other, this style — a modern epistolary — worked really well for me.

And it made for an incredibly quick read. Though Lincoln is the star of our show, every side character held his or her own — and as the story progressed, I was dying — DYING — for Lincoln and Beth to meet. I kept wondering how they would eventually run into each other, waiting to see if instant sparks would fly. Wanting shy, handsome Lincoln to finally make a big move.

Lovers of contemporary fiction and the ever-funny, ever-wise Rainbow Rowell will find much to love in this savvy story. It was an incredibly entertaining way to spend a few weeknights, and definitely solidified my Rowell love.


4 out of 5

Pub: 2011 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Complimentary copy provided by publisher for review consideration


Book chat: ‘The Godforsaken Daughter’ by Christina McKenna

The Godforsaken DaughterWhen her father was alive, Ruby Clare didn’t much mind that she was single, serious, plain and sturdy. She and Vinny worked side-by-side on the family farm in Tailorstown, Northern Ireland, toiling together in a way that felt less like work and more like camaraderie.

But after his unexpected passing, Ruby is left to care for her aging, tyrannical mother and ungrateful twin sisters — both of whom fancy themselves sophisticated ladies now that they’ve fled to Belfast, working at a department store and returning only to antagonize Ruby about their starched sheets on the weekends.

Mired in grief and desperate for hope, Ruby discovers a set of mystical objects left by her paternal grandmother — a spiritual woman who died in the lake outside their house. The deeply-religious Martha immediately fears that Ruby has been taken over by an evil spirit, remembering how her mother-in-law — awash in her own grief years before — had eventually committed suicide.

But Ruby is buoyed by the strength and confidence the objects give her, eventually finding the courage to stand up to her family and a sense of peace that she does, in fact, have some control over her own destiny . . . however fleeting.

Alongside the story of Ruby is that of Henry, a psychologist from Belfast who arrives in Tailorstown after fleeing his own wayward life following his wife’s disappearance. It’s the 1980s in Northern Ireland, and unrest is still all around them . . . and in Henry’s soul, too. Not knowing what happened to Constance, his beloved wife, is destroying him — but he’s been told to lay low and “stop looking.” He’s just not sure how.

The Clares and Henry’s lives eventually intersect in Tailorstown, where everyone is yearning for something about unsure how to find it. In the mix, too, are Jamie McCloone, a lonely farmer; Rose, his friend and Ruby’s new confidante; and Father Kelly, the devoted parish priest who tends to the Clares in their darkest moments.


Irish countryside


Christina McKenna’s The Godforsaken Daughter is an enthralling, well-drawn and incredibly evocative story of love, grief, redemption and faith. I couldn’t read a passage or two without picturing the rolling Irish countryside, and the idea of life on a small pastoral farm was intoxicating.

Of course, life for Ruby Clare is far from picture-perfect. I immediately bonded with our heroine as she traverses the strange, awful landscape of life without her father. Her mother, Martha, is a distressingly awful woman who leans mercilessly on her oldest daughter but offers little in return. When Martha threatens to parcel off her late husband’s farm, Ruby shows her first signs of a backbone — and I desperately hoped to see more.

There is so much happening in The Godforsaken Daughter, but it never felt cluttered. First, the time period: set in the 1980s during the Troubles, there is a sense of unrest and simmering violence throughout the narrative. Without giving too much away, several characters are affected by the Troubles. Though I’m not intimately familiar with Irish history, I remember stories of the violence and bombings in Belfast when I visited in 2011. My lack of knowledge didn’t hamper my understanding — and enjoyment — of the story.

And enjoyable it was! I fear my synopsis has made it sound darker than it actually is. Even with mysticism, seances, religious differences and death, The Godforsaken Daughter still manages to be . . . uplifting? interesting? wildly compelling?

McKenna draws each of her characters so vividly, you feel as though you’re sitting in a diner nibbling on pastries with Biddy or cruising through town in the back of Rose and Paddy’s car. Ruby is a Cinderella-like character who longs to be loved and accepted, and she eventually comes into her own. Though she’s in her early thirties, the novel also functions as Ruby’s coming-of-age story.


Irish Sea


Northern Ireland itself comes alive in McKenna’s tale, taking on a shape and personality as distinctive as any other character. I felt like I was on the banks of the Irish Sea, thinking about a different way of life in a town populated by such colorful people. I loved how easily I could picture each of Tailorstown’s residents — even the awful sisters, who were terrible brats I hoped would get theirs.

The Godforsaken Daughter is an engrossing, page-turning read about family, love, faith and moving forward. I adored its country setting, relatable cast and unique plot. By the last page, the loose ends had come together in a way that was deeply satisfying without being predictable. I really enjoyed it, and look forward to reading McKenna’s other works!


4.5 out of 5

Pub: 2015 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Digital review copy provided by TLC Book Tours in exchange for my honest review


Book chat: ‘Love, Lucy’ by April Lindner

Love, LucyThe summer before her freshman year of college, Lucy Sommersworth embarks on a European adventure for a taste of freedom before sacrificing her dreams of acting to focus on business in school. Accompanied by Charlene, a new friend and fellow college student, the pair purchase rail passes to crisscross the continent and meet many characters along the way.

Landing in Florence, Lucy and Charlene check in at a hostel in the heart of the city with the goal of exploring the famous Italian locale — and it’s not long before they meet Jesse Pallatino, a New Jersey native currently bumming his way around Italy busking for cash.

What follows is a whirlwind romance that sizzles in the Florence sun . . . but threatens to implode when Lucy returns to Philadelphia, where she begins her practical education but struggles to forget the amazing summer they shared. As the pair try to determine if and how they fit into each other’s lives, Lucy undergoes a metamorphosis all her own.

April Lindner’s Love, Lucy is a sweet — if predictable — young adult novel perfect for armchair travelers. With its warm Italian breezes, vivid scenery and romantic settings, Lucy’s time in Europe reads like something out of a dream . . . especially when a guitar-playing free spirit comes on the scene.


David

Florence

Florence cafe

Scenes from Florence, 2007


Though I’ll admit to liking the first half of the book — set abroad — more than the second, Lucy is a likeable heroine struggling to appease her difficult father while still being true to herself. In love with theatre, she feels alive on stage . . . but her dad, who happens to be footing the bill for her college education, has little interest in the arts.

After their chance meeting and mutual attraction, it’s Jesse that gets Lucy thinking about how life could be should she leave the safe path her parents have laid for her to chase her dreams. I found the conflict realistic and, for many, familiar: choose the comfortable route, or dare to be bold?

Though Lucy and Jesse never felt totally formed as characters, I didn’t mind the lightness with which I read Love, Lucy. It was sweet, uncomplicated and relatable, especially as Lucy struggles to choose between a new love interest and the wild Jesse. Intimacy definitely plays a role in the storyline, so bear that in mind for younger readers.

If you’d like to take a walk through Italy without leaving the comfort of your porch, Lindner’s fun story may be your ticket. The scenes in Florence and Rome took me back to my own trip there in 2007, and I loved reliving that experience through Lucy’s eyes.


3.5 out of 5

Pub: 2010 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy kindly passed along by Estelle. Thank you!


Book chat: ‘The Dirty Life’ by Kristin Kimball

The Dirty LifeKristin Kimball’s transition from tenacious New Yorker to muddied farm wife is lovingly documented in The Dirty Life: A Memoir of Farming, Food, and Love — and it almost made me want to get dirty myself.

I’m a suburban girl with no experience around animals or agriculture. Though surrounded by farms — the last vestiges of Maryland’s tobacco past — growing up, my knowledge of farming practices and experience with homegrown food is incredibly limited. I don’t like to be sweaty or hot, basically; the idea of slaving away all day in the sun pulling tubers from the ground isn’t appealing.

And yet, on some level . . . it is?

It’s hard to describe the immense satisfaction we get from a hard day’s work — far away from a computer. Kristin and her then-fiance, Mark, take over a rundown farm in Essex, New York, with the idea of creating a CSA (community-supported agriculture) and living off the land.

While Mark has extensive farming experience, Kristin does not. She’s just a woman tired of fighting the good fight in New York’s cutthroat journalism world . . . and when she meets muddy, sincere, unassuming Mark, the pair fall into easy conversation. And love.

I felt for Kristin from the beginning, relating to her lack of experience but her drive to learn. She starts out visiting Mark for a story and, with time, finds she enjoys her hours spent on the farm with the crew — especially when it comes to the fresh, organic and healthy meals they’re served. It’s farm-to-table on a literal level, and the authenticity of it all stands in stark contrast to Manhattan’s manufactured happiness.


Farm


The Dirty Life chronicles Kristin and Mark’s early courtship and the origins of Essex Farm, which starts as nothing but bare fields and slowly becomes a booming, productive enterprise that brings the community together. I’ve long been interested in the concept of CSAs, and Kristin makes the idea of joining one immensely appealing.

One of the most interesting parts of the story is the idea that, when times are tough, people return to the land. Published in 2010, The Dirty Life arrives in the thick of the recession — and I thought a bit about how and why farming is still considered the noble American profession. While farmers themselves have seen their numbers dwindle significantly over the decades, we all still need to eat. This food must come from somewhere. So why not Essex Farm?

Increasing attention is paid to what we’re eating, where it’s coming from and why. Shoppers seeking “organic” foods have more options at the grocery store than ever before, and farmers’ markets — especially in and around my hometown — seem to be booming. It’s appealing to shake hands with the man or woman who grew your tomatoes, you know? It’s refreshing to hand cash over to farmers living, working and supporting your own community.

So it’s easy to see why Kristin and Mark — with their passion, drive and hard work — would eventually succeed. Her story is quick, interesting and entertaining. The steep learning curve Kristin faces while working with Mark on their great farming adventure is realistic and human. I loved that she did not romanticize all the long hours, exhausting work and painful sacrifices, but she’s not complaining, either. She acknowledges both the slog and tremendous reward of working side-by-side with your family in a place you love. How they have really built something together.

Kristin feels like that cool, bold friend who leaps first and figures it out later . . . and, by the close of the story, I found myself proud by proxy of all she and Mark have accomplished. The Dirty Life is a very enjoyable read — especially for those interested in agriculture.

I might be just a girl from the suburbs, but I do love a good cow story.


4 out of 5

Pub: 2010 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Audio book borrowed from my local library


Book chat: ‘Hugo & Rose’ by Bridget Foley

Hugo & RoseThis book was . . . not quite what I was expecting.

That’s not inherently a bad thing, you know; surprises are exciting. Interesting. Compelling.

But sometimes they’re jarring. And with Bridget Foley’s Hugo & Rose? Well, I felt jarred. I’m still jarred, in fact.

To start, the cover is just so pretty and whimsical, you know? And reading the description — about a stay-at-home mom who has dreamed of the same man and their adventures every night since childhood — made me think of the imaginary friends who once accompanied me at recess, lending an ear to all my troubles and taking my side in sister fights.

But this was . . . darker. Textured. Nuanced. I liked that, but it startled me. In a good way, perhaps? But I’m still not sure. It’s not too often that I’m left with such mixed feelings on a story. Have I been ambivalent about a novel in the past? Absolutely. But I’m not suffering from a lack of opinion on Hugo & Rose — just a lack of clarity.

So Rose — our dear, troubled Rose — is in a bit of a rut. She deeply loves Josh, her doctor husband, and their three children — but Josh’s hours are long and his attention short, and the boys can be a bit much to handle. Now in her mid-thirties, Rose struggles to believe she’s an aimless woman with a baby on her hip. It’s in her dreams that she finds relief, escape, fulfillment: her dreams with Hugo.

After a bike accident knocks her unconscious as a child, Rose finds herself on Hugo’s island locked in eternal struggle to get to a glistening city on the horizon. Like “Lost” without the other castaways, Rose and Hugo help each other fight off enemies and battle evil forces — both seen and unseen. While they start their time there as kids, they grow together into adulthood. No matter how they may look in reality, their island selves are strong, lean, tan. More beautiful. Powerful.

Following a kids’ soccer match in a nearby Colorado town, Rose succumbs to temptation and takes her bawling boys for fast food on their drive home. It’s there that she first sees Hugo perched in a take-out window, hunched and weary at work. He’s thicker in the middle, balding, less enigmatic — but definitely Hugo.

Hugo in real life.

Shocked and inexplicably drawn to this strange not-stranger, Rose tumbles down an obsessive path. Foley excelled at showing Rose’s deepening preoccupation with this man, eventually demonstrating what can happen when reality and fantasy collide. There is a touch of magical realism to Hugo & Rose — a little suspension of disbelief. But Foley is a talented writer, and I felt the transitions between the island and reality were well done.

While I didn’t always like Rose, I did appreciate her challenges and nuanced personality. Who hasn’t longed to feel like a better, stronger version of themselves? I could sense her physical and mental exhaustion in Foley’s descriptions, feeling a very suburban desperation in it all. That’s why sleep is so welcome for Rose . . . well, until it isn’t.

The story becomes increasingly sinister — almost frightening. While I didn’t always enjoy it, I was invested in the characters’ fates and racing to finish. At times I wanted to slap some sense into Rose, desperately not wanting her to ruin everything good and whole in her life, but our heroine has spent so much time feeling powerful on an island and powerless in reality; it’s easy to see why escapism appeals to her.

The twists and turns were not ones I saw coming. Though I wondered how the island would be explained, of course, I wasn’t preoccupied with knowing all the hows and whys. It’s fiction, not science. Hugo’s back story is a fascinating, tragic one, but I was glad that Foley never took the easy route to cast him entirely as a villain. No one here is a saint, and no one just a sinner.

I wasn’t always in love with the story, but Foley made me care about her characters. There’s no denying Hugo & Rose makes — and leaves — an impression.


3 out of 5

Pub: May 5, 2015 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor on Twitter
Digital review copy provided by publisher for coverage consideration


Book chat: ‘Catching Air’ by Sarah Pekkanen

Catching AirFor Dawn Zukowski, fleeing a life — and love — she thought she wanted is more than she bargained for. Marooned in the snowy wilds of Vermont, she happens to meet two couples — Kira and Peter, Rand and Alyssa — who have recently taken over a charming bed-and-breakfast in the mountains.

With nowhere to go and no plan for the next step, Dawn reluctantly agrees to accompany the crew to the B&B and assist in day-to-day tasks in exchange for her lodging. Though Kira senses there’s plenty more to Dawn’s story, she doesn’t push her — especially as plans ramp up for a coming wedding at their little lodge. Despite her strange presence, they need Dawn. And Dawn needs them.

Kira and Peter have traded their busy lives in Florida for the slower, snowier pace of Vermont. Rand, Peter’s estranged brother, proposes the four go into business as a way of rebuilding his relationship with his sibling. Babies loom large in the lives of the couples: Alyssa desperately wants to be a mother, but is having trouble conceiving; Kira knows Peter desperately wants to be a father, but isn’t sure she’s ready for a family.

Sarah Pekkanen’s Catching Air is a quick, engrossing story of a family finding their way back to each other — as well as the meandering paths one sometimes takes to motherhood. Though Dawn’s character always felt a little “off” to me, I fell in love with the cozy winter setting of the story and would have loved to take up residence on one of the B&B’s plush couches.

Of the two couples, I bonded most with Kira and Peter — two young professionals escaping their complicated work lives in the south. A hardworking lawyer by day, Kira finds it easy to deflect Peter’s overtures on having children when she has a grueling schedule . . . but in Vermont? Away from the hustle-bustle? Well, the conversations get more complicated.

I found Pekkanen’s exploration of marriage and compromise very interesting. Where Kira and Peter are serious and straight-laced, Alyssa and Rand are the nomads: free spirits, wanderers, travelers. The idea of having children with Alyssa — though something he professes to want — also scares Rand, wondering how children will impact their lifestyle. And with good reason.

Playing out against the marital dramas is their first wedding at the B&B: a lavish affair in the dead of winter, and the key to getting them all out of financial trouble. Ever the organized taskmaster, Kira spearheads the event coordination and handles the meals churning out of the lodge’s kitchen. As the details became more complicated, I felt my anxiety rising right along with Kira’s — and wondered how she was going to handle it all without collapsing. It felt like too much.

Pekkanen’s charm is her ability to create likeable, realistic characters and seamlessly interject readers into their lives. Her heroines feel like real people — women that could be your girlfriends — and her stories are always fast and compulsively readable.

Though this wasn’t my favorite of her works, I was engrossed in the story and invested in the characters’ fates. Though Dawn felt out-of-place, even she grew on me by the end. An entertaining read for fans of women’s fiction and stories exploring family dynamics.


3.5 out of 5

Pub: 2014 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher for coverage consideration