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


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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: ‘The Little Paris Bookshop’ by Nina George

The Little Paris BookshopFloating on the Seine is a very special barge: a bookshop tended by Monsieur Jean Perdu, a brokenhearted bookseller nursing his decades-long heartache by “prescribing” must reads for the patrons passing through Paris. This literary apothecary has medicinal tales for young idealists, overworked businessmen, widows starting over. Perdu presides over the bookshop like an eager pharmacist, ready with a recommendation at every turn.

Long accustomed to a solitary life, Perdu isn’t prepared for the sudden appearance of an equally vulnerable — and beautiful — neighbor. Believing his one true love, Manon, to have abandoned him 20 years earlier, Perdu has thrown himself into work . . . and scarcely looked up until Catherine arrived on the scene.

When their burgeoning relationship awakens old feelings, he panics — and runs. The floating bookshop takes its inaugural run. Accompanied by a young writer in a slump and many friends he picks up along the way, Perdu embarks on a journey to discover the truth about Manon — and to finally find a way to heal.

Enchanting, warm and populated with memorable characters, Nina George’s The Little Paris Bookshop is a delightful read for francophiles and literary lovers alike. With a touch of magical realism and many fantastic quotes to delight readers, I fell in love with this story.

A melancholy man now in his fifties, Perdu isn’t the type of hero I’m accustomed to following. He’s initially cold, distant, despondent. In the decades since Manon departed, he has never come to grips with what made her go. Jean has not discovered — or even tried — to find love again, and all he has is his canal boat filled with books: self-help, literary fiction, memoirs. Something for everyone.

His apartment building is filled with unusual folks. Max, a popular young author, is now one of them: but he’s stricken with vicious writer’s block, dreading having to churn out his sophomore story. He turns to Jean as a type of mentor and friend, arriving at the bookshop needing guidance and support. Having never had the chance to have children, Jean takes him under his wing — and together, when the going gets tough, they take to the waters.

The French countryside, Provence, Paris . . . all come alive in The Little Paris Bookshop. The setting is so fragrant and beautifully rendered by George, it’s impossible not to feel as though you’ve gotten lost on the Seine yourself. It was the perfect opportunity for armchair traveling with a tenderhearted hero, and I loved George’s descriptions of everything Jean and Max experience. The towns they find, the meals they cobble together . . . everything is a sensory experience.

At its heart, though, the novel is about the redemptive power of love. Even decades later, Jean is still in love with Manon: and the mystery of their separation is a guiding principle of his life. I was as curious to discover the truth as our hero, somehow hoping for a happy ending for the pair even when I knew it couldn’t possibly be so. When they take off on the river, Jean doesn’t realize the journey fate is already taking him on . . . and by the close of the story, I was in tears.

Without spoiling a thing about this lovely tale, the ending was just so satisfying. Loose ends were tied in beautiful but understated bows; characters we’ve come to love find their meandering way to happiness. It was exactly the sort of sweetly enveloping read that’s perfect for a Sunday afternoon, and I really didn’t want it to end.

Interspersed with the narrative are gorgeous quotes about the power of reading — and the ability of books to be both “medic and medicine at once.” Jean takes his job as a bookseller very seriously. This was an instance when I wished I had a physical copy rather than a digital one; if I was holding The Little Paris Bookshop, I would have been dog-earing and highlighting and starring like a madwoman.

As it stands, I want you to discover this novel for yourself. It’s not one I’ll soon forget.

4.5 out of 5

Pub: June 2015 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher for review consideration


Book chat: ‘Etched in Sand’ by Regina Calcaterra

Etched in SandRegina Calcaterra could have turned out very differently.

The third of five children, Regina and her siblings were forced to scrabble a life together when Cookie — their mentally ill, alcoholic mother — went on weeks- or months-long binges, leaving her four daughters and son to fend for themselves.

Little to no food. Shelter — until a landlord gets wise to the fact that his tenant isn’t paying . . . and has abandoned her kids at his rundown apartment, where they live like warriors forced to steal to survive. The clothes on their backs and, if they’re lucky, a television set to entertain the little ones.

No more. No less. For years.

Though she thinks there are people who want to help them, Regina fears what has already come to pass before: being shoved into foster care, where she will be unable to look after siblings — especially Rosie, the baby of the group. Tired of playing “mom” before their time, Regina’s teenage sisters have begun hefting more of the responsibility to Regina . . . who has no resources, no support.

Even in this quagmire in New York, Regina believes that staying together in an abusive hell with Cookie — who arrives only occasionally to dole out beatings and drop off pathetic groceries — is better than losing one another. Better than the unknown. Until one confession changes everything . . . and changes life forever.

Regina Calcaterra’s Etched in Sand: A True Story of Five Siblings Who Survived an Unspeakable Childhood on Long Island is the sort of book you desperately wish were fiction. These horrible things can’t really have happened, can they? No “mother” could be so heartless. No “parent” could be so cruel. No system in place to help children could be so neglectful, and no children could really be forced to steal or starve to death in a lonely, worn-out hell.

This book is jarring. Gut-wrenching. Horrifying. Despite the obvious pain and difficulty, though, we know from the beginning that Regina not only survives her mother’s abuse . . . but thrives. That glimmer of hope — that small, tiny ray of sunshine in the distance — is what kept me motivated to turn the pages. Regina is a woman you come to know and love: someone you want to cheer on and support. Someone who needs that support.

Why read a memoir detailing such neglect? The power of Regina’s story — which is her siblings’ story, too. Even in her darkest moments, she never loses sight of the most important people in her life: her family. Though the system fails Cookie’s children in many ways, they never give up fighting for one another. And knowing that Regina goes on to become wildly strong and successful, brave and resilient, well . . . it makes it all worthwhile.

Though occasionally tough to read, Etched in Sand was impossible to put down. I finished the book in two sittings, desperate to make sure that Camile, Cherie, Norman, Rosie and Regina would somehow land on their feet.

With or without Cookie.

Somehow, through it all, Regina’s first-person account does not come off as bitter — or even angry. Someone who has every right to be a fire-breathing dragon when recounting the horrible things she was forced to do, see and decide as a teen manages to tell her tale without malice. Regina’s writing strikes a delicate balance between factual detachment and impassioned storytelling, and I found that impressive. Crazy, even.

For much of the story, I felt focused on the idea of revenge . . . this hope that their mother would finally be forced to pay for what she did to them — either with jail time or mental anguish. Preferably both. In the process, I wanted her to repent and apologize. To be less of an unspeakably horrible monster, basically.

But real life doesn’t always work that way. By the close of Calcaterra’s powerful memoir, I was thinking more about forgiveness . . . and how important it is for the soul. Despite Cookie’s attempts to break them down and wreck them, her children found a way to move forward.

The best revenge, they say, is living well.

4 out of 5

Pub: 2013 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher for review consideration


Book chat: ‘Big Little Lies’ by Liane Moriarty

Big Little LiesWhen’s the last time you raced through a book like wildfire, so caught up in the story that you’re unable — or unwilling — to set it down . . . even if that means Mt. Laundrymore has grown in your bedroom and dinner just ain’t getting made?

For me, it had been a while. My reading in 2014 was, to be honest, pretty lackluster. After learning I was pregnant in September, my concentration was pretty much shot. Nothing interested me. Even with stacks of novels just waiting to be picked up, I could barely muster the energy to crack their covers.

That malaise traveled well into November and December . . . until I found Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies. A recommendation from Melissa, this novel follows the lives of several Australian families with children in the same kindergarten class: quiet Jane and her son, Ziggy, running from a disturbing past; beautiful Celeste with her wealthy and perfect husband, Perry, who transforms after-hours — and hides that side from their twin boys; outspoken Madeline and Ed, who are parents to two youngsters with Madeline’s teen daughter in the mix.

And then there are the Blonde Bobs: the seemingly-perfect moms who hover and preen and dictate, lording over the “inferior” parents when they dare darken the door of their beloved school. Madeline is well-versed in their antics . . . and all too happy to show newbie Jane, freshly arrived in Australia’s coastal Pirriwee, the ropes.

She knows young Jane needs it.

Interspersed with the narrative are snippets from an interview — and it’s clear something terrible has happened at the school’s Trivia Night. Terrible enough to leave someone dead. As readers, we don’t know what or who . . . but we do know when. And as we get ever closer to that fateful night, my heart began to pound.

What works so brilliantly in Big Little Lies is the wide, varied tapestry of characters we get to know and love. This is contemporary, domestic fiction that shimmers and shines; it’s engrossing, well-written, effortless to read. As I got sucked into Jane’s awful back story, Celeste’s current heartbreak and Madeline’s painful desire to connect with her daughter, I could think of little else. I didn’t want it to end.

But it did end . . . and what an explosive conclusion it was. I must admit to never guessing the twist, and the identity of the murder victim remained elusive until I literally gasped aloud during Trivia Night. My husband asked what was happening — but I shushed him, unable to fill him in with a little snippet. “It’s complicated,” I said.

It was . . . and it wasn’t. As Moriarty deftly unveiled many secrets, I was awestruck at her ability to throw me off while still leading me in the right direction the entire time. She got me — and she got me good.

With its glimpses into many marriages — some working, others not — and the families either trying to stay glued together or ripping apart at the seams, Big Little Lies will appeal to fans of domestic dramas and well-written contemporary fiction. I loved my time with Madeline, Jane and Celeste, and find myself thinking about them even after turning the final page.

4.5 out of 5

Pub: 2014 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy purchased by Meg


Book chat: ‘New Money’ and ‘Independently Wealthy’

New MoneySavannah Morgan arrives in New York on the dime of a father she never met with a plan to take the city by storm.

Now a part of the illustrious Stone News empire, Savannah is the secret daughter who grew up modestly in Charleston away from the prying eyes of the media — and her wealthy, successful siblings. After her biological father suddenly dies, Savannah is left a fortune on the condition that she move to the city and join her brother and sister in the Stone family business.

Simple enough? Perhaps . . . until everything turns out differently than she imagined.

Lorraine Zago Rosenthal’s New Money is a light, entertaining story of a 24-year-old debutante set loose in Manhattan after a lifetime among Southern society. To say she is lost amidst a sea of dark-clothed, serious New Yorkers is an understatement — but once she flees the comfort of her mother’s home in South Carolina, she is determined to create a new path for herself as a writer . . . or maybe something else entirely.

Though I enjoyed Savannah’s story, success seemed to find our heroine a little too easily. After learning the identity of her biological father, a billionaire, Savannah hops a plane and steps straight into a sleek apartment overlooking Central Park with barely a thought of the mother she is supposedly devoted to — or the life she is leaving behind. Her whacky best friend temporarily turns Savannah’s new life into a sorority romp, and the tenuous relationship she is trying to build with her half-siblings is constantly under fire.

The set-up of New Money felt to be entirely tell with no show — a fact that surprised me. I didn’t feel I actually got to know Savannah until the end of the novel, when she was in love with a bartender and fighting to keep her new family’s name out of the press. We were told she is this strong, passionate, intelligent woman . . . but her scatter-brained actions didn’t always reflect that.

But even having said that, I can’t say I didn’t enjoy this story . . . I did! It was fun escapism that demanded little of me, which was perfect. It’s actually been a while since I read a story set in Manhattan, and Rosenthal’s descriptions of the city through an outsider’s eyes were fun. Her budding romance with Alex, a reformed fighter, was sweet and sweetly believable; her attempts to get to know her brother and sister were realistic and a little heartbreaking.

All in all, New Money was the first novel I’ve read in the burgeoning “new adult” category — and with a little romance, plenty of family dynamics and lots of rich-people-peeping to keep me company, it was a fun story with interesting characters that I enjoyed getting to know.

Which brought me to . . .


Independently WealthyIndependently Wealthy. Now that Savannah is rooted in Manhattan society and earning her keep at Femme, the magazine which recently published her first work, she is focused on building a place within the Stone family — and discovering the truth about what happened to their father. When her search takes her to Washington, D.C., and into the complicated world of American politics, Savannah must decide whether to push harder than she ever has or turn back.

Filled with more mystery and depth than its predecessor, Independently Wealthy finds us acquainted with a much stronger, more empowered heroine with a clear goal: finding out the truth about the fatal accident that claimed her father’s life and a potential cover-up that could make headlines around the world. When investigators hit dead ends, Savannah snoops in Edward’s files to find connections others may have missed and leaves for Washington in the hope of learning the truth.

Given I’m from the D.C. area, I loved seeing glimpses of my hometown as Savannah races among the political elite to confront the man she believes was instrumental in Edward’s death. We also see romantic development in several areas and a pretty dashing new male lead — one I found vastly superior to Alex, quite honestly. Like, completely.

What made Independently Wealthy really work for me were the growing family dynamics. Ned and Caroline, Savannah’s half-siblings, really became human in this second installment. In fact, where I once found Ned to be particularly insufferable, I actually started to like the guy. He is charismatic and snobby and cocky, but he’s a little lost, too. Each character seemed more vulnerable this time around — and I liked that we got to know them beyond the superficial.

Lorraine Zago Rosenthal has written two books with a sassy narrator who takes chances and goes big, and I enjoyed the time spent with the Stone family. As Savannah has grown so much between books one and two, who knows what could be in store for her down the line . . . I hope we’ll get a chance to find out.


New Money: 3 out of 5!

Independently Wealthy: 4 out of 5!

Goodreads • Amazon (New Money, Independently Wealthy) • Author Website


Book chat: ‘Jane Austen’s First Love’ by Syrie James

Jane Austen's First LoveRomantic, wistful and richly engrossing, fans of the beloved Miss Austen will delight in Syrie James’ well-researched, evocative story of the summer Jane is believed to have first fallen in love.

For a month in 1791, 15-year-old Jane Austen is welcomed with her sister and brother to the vast, beautiful world of Goodnestone to celebrate the engagement of her brother, Edward, to Elizabeth Bridges, one of the young ladies of the estate. On their way to the celebration, their carriage meets with calamity — and Edward Taylor, a handsome and educated young man who lives nearby, comes to their rescue.

As their connection to the Bridges family brings them together, Jane and Edward pass many enjoyable weeks in each other’s company . . . much to the chagrin of the chaperones entrusted with making sure the reputations of both families remain unsullied. Though she knows a match between a wealthy heir and a reverend’s daughter is unlikely, their affection continues to grow — even as Jane meddles in the romances of those around her, causing disturbances and miscommunications.

Based on the scholarly belief that Jane did, in fact, meet one Edward Taylor through her brother — and snippets of letters in which she mentions both Him and Bifrons, Edward’s actual home — James has constructed a lively, entertaining tale of the man who may have stolen young Jane’s heart. With generous and creative nods to future characters (especially Emma Woodhouse, intrepid but misguided matchmaker), Jane Austen’s First Love is a treat for fans of the author and historical fiction alike.

The way Jane falls in love with Edward was sudden but believable — a feat not easily accomplished. As a young woman with little experience away from Steventon (and her mother’s grasp), Jane is enamored to be passing time as she chooses — and in the company of new, exciting, accomplished people. In addition to being handsome and well-traveled, Edward is adventurous and kind. Though a bit of a daredevil with a reputation to match, he has no trouble questioning the status quo: unique in a society that places propriety above all else.

Jane comes from different stock, of course. Visiting Goodnestone for her brother’s engagement celebration, she and Cassandra are under immense pressure to behave well and not present as “country folk.” At 15, Jane is too young to actually be “out” in society . . . but her mother relents for the special occasion, allowing her to participate in the many events and balls held in honor of two sets of soon-to-be newlyweds (the sister of Edward Austen’s intended is also to marry). This new independence delights Jane — but it comes at a cost.

The early feelings of love and affection blossoming between Jane and Edward Taylor — the nerves; the excitement; the desperation to see each other again — are familiar to all of us. Indeed, it’s tough to read Jane Austen’s First Love and not feel transported back to your own first brush with romance. James does a remarkable job of drawing us into the easy banter and camaraderie the two share . . . but of course, we know the ending of the story.

Is it a spoiler to talk of the fate of a famous author who passed nearly 200 years ago? Austen fans know that, for all her exquisite explorations of the human heart, Jane herself never did marry — nor did her sister, Cassandra, after losing a fiance as a young woman. Jane passed at age 41 and left an enormous legacy that still has us talking, speculating and daydreaming centuries later.

Knowing the end of her romance with Edward Taylor even before it began did nothing to harm it; in fact, James beautifully demonstrates how reasonable it was that Jane could have fallen in love . . . but how, in the end, first loves are not always forever loves. What could have been a bittersweet ending was, instead, satisfying and realistic.

I loved my time at Goodnestone — and any time spent in the company of dear Jane is always well spent. Syrie James does a remarkable job of returning us to Regency England in the company of “characters” that actually feel like friends, with a story that felt both familiar and fresh. Jane Austen’s First Love will be a welcome addition to the shelves of Janeites everywhere — and those interested in a good love story will rejoice in it, too.

4.5 out of 5

Pub: August 2014 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Paperback copy provided by publisher for review consideration