The Shoemaker’s Wife
By Adriana Trigiani
In the early 1900s, people who lived in the Italian Alps were struggling to make ends meet. Everyone was poor, and increasingly, people were leaving the mountain to make their fortune in America.
Ciro’s family was one of those families. However, when his father died in a mining accident in America, his mother was forced to leave him and his bother in a convent, unable to take care of them. Ciro and his brother are raised well, but after Ciro catches the local priest in a scandal, he is banished from his village. The nuns send him to America to become the apprentice to a shoemaker in Little Italy.
Upon arriving in New York, Ciro has a number of run-ins with Enza, a girl from his childhood on the mountain. While Ciro learns and masters his new trade as a shoemaker, Enza makes a life as a talented seamstress.
The Shoemaker’s Wife alternates between Ciro’s story and Enza’s, from their childhood in the Italian Alps, to living their separate lives a few miles away in New York, to their lives together in a small town in Minnesota.
Review/Recommendation: I cannot tell you how much I loved this book – I might start to sound like I’m gushing a bit (and if so, I’m sorry!). The Shoemaker’s Wife is an absolutely beautiful story – inspired by Trigiani’s own family history – of love, family, and faith. Trigiani did a wonderful job portraying the time period, making her readers (at least this reader!) feel like they were living in the moment. I personally grew very emotionally attached to the two protagonists as well as the set of secondary characters. I’ll admit that I cried more times than I could count (mostly in the last 75 pages).
In Trigiani’s absolutely beautiful writing, the reader experiences not just life in America during the time period, the first half of the century, but also to life as an immigrant. She paints a picture not just of American and Italian culture at the time but of a true Melting Pot of cultures, a sense of community built around shared experiences as foreigners in America and around hard work.
My only criticism of the book would be the time periods. There were several points further into the book where we jumped ahead in time, by a few years. Chapters weren’t dated, which sometimes made it difficult to keep track of time. I’d also have loved more on Ciro’s and Enza’s life together – the bulk of the book (which is still amazing) actually focuses on the period of their life in which they lived separate lives. But this latter comment speaks more to how much I loved the book than anything. I just wanted more, more more!
I can’t recommend this book more, for lovers of historical fiction or fiction in general.
The Red Scarf
By Kate Furnivall
Men and women taken to Soviet labor camps in the early 1930s endure day after day of manual labor until they cannot physically work anymore. It was a terrible fate for many, including Sofia. But unlike so many of the women in camp with her, Sofia remained hopeful and dreamed of freedom. She had her friend and fellow prisoner, Anna to keep her positive. Anna told story after story of her childhood filled of parties and her childhood love for a revolutionary named Vasily.
When Anna’s health suffers to the point where she must escape or would die the next winter, Sofia plots her escape. Sofia is successful and makes the long, hard journey halfway across Russia to the village where she believes Vasily lives, in disguise. There, she is adopted by a gypsy family and gradually becomes integrated into the town, earning the trust of (and falling in love with) the man she believes to be Anna’s Vasily. Her ultimate goal is to convince Vasily to return to the came with her to rescue Anna. (And that’s where this summary will end, so that I don’t give anything away.)
Review/Recommendation: I picked up this book after a friend and fellow fan of Russian historical fiction recommended the author to me. I have sort of a mixed opinion about the book. One the one hand, it was a decent story and kept me engaged. It was a very optimistic and fantastic view of communist Russia. I mean, not only do you have a malnourished girl escaping from a Soviet labor camp, but she survived a trip of hundreds of miles and becomes more or less accepted into a town fairly easily, despite being such an unknown person. I don’t want to give away the ending, but let’s just say that it was even more incredible than what I just described. Oh, yeah, and there was a bunch of magic in there too.
But this is where the realist in me comes in. I know the story is completely historical fiction, but it just seemed way too incredible, too far from the plausible for me, as a someone who studied Russian history a pretty good bit. I can appreciate a good historical fiction, but something difficult to articulate nagged at me a bit about this book.
Overall, the book was entertaining and a pretty good read. I’ve got another of Furnivall’s on my bookshelf that I’ll definitely read – it’ll be interesting to see if the same “plausibility” factor bugs me the way it did in this one.
The Kitchen House
By Kathleen Grissom
Set in the late 1700s and early 1800s, The Kitchen House tells the story of an Irish orphan, Lavinia, who is taken by a ship’s captain to serve as a servant on a Virgina tobacco plantation. Lavinia lives with the slaves of the kitchen house – she plays with the young slave children, does chores for the kitchen, is trained to cook, and gradually becomes part of their family.
When tragedy strikes at the Big House, Lavinia earns a place up there, caring for the children. She becomes a fixture at the Big House when she becomes one of the only people who can console the physically and mentally unstable mistress of the house. From then on, Lavinia is given opportunities that gradually take her further and further away from her adopted family, and into the world of the wealthy.
Review/Recommendation: I found The Kitchen House a very emotional read. It didn’t shy away from some of the harsh realities of slavery – rape, beatings, the selling of family members – which was hard when the slaves were the characters I cared about the most. But the compassion I felt for the characters and my involuntarily cringing when I knew something bad was going to happen, speaks to Grissom’s success in pulling the reader into the story.
The kindness and fierce loyalty shown by the characters was amazing and transcended races. The slaves not only watched out for one another and Lavinia but they also kept an eye on the children of the house and the mistress… to make sure they were not wronged in any way (and they were). And as Lavinia got older, she did the same for her adopted family. Hard decisions had to be made, but the internal struggle over whether (and how) to help while balancing a some sense of self-preservation was clear.
I thoroughly enjoyed Grissom’s first novel. While not the happiest read, I’m glad I finally picked it up off my bookshelf and gave it a try.
As much as I enjoy going out and seeing the sights, I’ve learned something about myself – I enjoy a new city so much more when I’m able to experience it, to savor it. I like being able to linger over a good meal (like we did at Tamayo in Lower Downtown, or Lodo) or wander through the streets looking at street art and architecture. Denver had some beautiful architecture – brick buildings framed with the snow-capped Rockies in the background. We visited the recently remodeled Union Station, where I wished for such elegant train terminals in my area. The train station had loveseats and desks and glass lamps. I could not believe how peaceful and relaxing it looked!
Alas, we did not stop to enjoy the scenery, but instead headed to The Tattered Cover, a large independent bookstore in LoDo. My hubby looked like he wanted to roll his eyes at me when I notified him about our destination, but it didn’t take any real convincing to get him to stop. I was smitten with the place as soon as I walked in. I was immediately struck by the smell of books – which I rarely find anymore – and the worn wooden shelves, arranged in 90-degree angles rather than straight rows. I could have stayed in there for hours, but I would have come home with more books than my suitcases could handle.
As my hubby and I sat having a cup of coffee, me thumbing the pages of my purchases (two books for me, one for my daughter, and a baby shower gift), we discussed the fate of bookstores in general. My hubby wanted a graphic novel, but told me that it was $10 (about 30%) cheaper on Amazon. While I’m all about shopping around, books are one of the things I’m more than willing to spend money on, especially at brick-and-morter bookstore. Doubly so at an independent bookstore. It makes me sad that so many bookstores are struggling to stay open. I love being able to go, browse the shelves, read the book jackets, sit with a cup of coffee and enjoy a new purchase. That’s something that no online retailer (or e-reader) can give me. (And I feel this way, despite reading about half of my books each year on an ereader.)
Does anyone else share my sentiment on the fate of bookstores today?
And now for a review of one of my purchases from The Tattered Cover.
The Intern’s Handbook
By Shane Kuhn
John Lago is one of the best interns Human Resouces, Inc. employes. But he’s not just an intern, Lago, like other interns HR, Inc. places into large corporations, is an assassin.
It’s a pretty brilliant set up. You see, interns work long, thankless hours doing grunt work in order to succeed. They are pretty much invisible to the corporate executives who come to rely on them to do everything from getting coffee to doing work that results in hundreds of thousands of dollars in billable hours. A a result, these interns gain easy access to the company’s executives, their targets, while largely being ignored. And then they move in for the kill, literally.
The Intern’s Handbook is Lago’s unofficial guide for new HR, Inc. recruits who are still in training. It tells of the lessons he’s learned in his decade at the company, through the story of his last assignment – the assassination of a partners of a top Manhattan law firm. The assignment is far from ordinary. Not only must Lago figure out which of the partners to kill (the one that is selling the FBI’s witness protection list) but during the course of his investigation, he learns that his primary asset, Alice, is actually an undercover FBI agent working on the same case that he is. What an assignment!
Review/Recommendation: Author Shane Kuhn’s debut novel was a good, quick read. The cover of the book calls it a thriller, but I’m not sure I’d categorize it so. It was more of an action-packed fiction novel that was heavy on the deception. It’s written in Lago’s blunt, sarcastic voice which is part wit, part dark humor. (If you’re sensitive or easily offended, then this isn’t for you.)
Kudos to Kuhn for taking some twists and turns I didn’t expect. Because everything is based on multiple deceptions, I found myself questioning which threads were complete fabrication and which had some basis on reality. As I was reading the book, I wondered how Kuhn was going to tie everything together. I can honestly say that the ending was something I never saw coming – couldn’t have guessed it in a million years – which is part of the reason that I rated this book so high. You just don’t find that any more.
This is the second book in the Don Tillman series. If you haven’t read the first one, this review may contain spoiler.
The Rosie Effect
By Graeme Simsion
After completing both The Wife Project and The Rosie Project in the precursor to The Rose Effect, Australian genetics professor Don Tillman and wife Rosie move to New York where Don works at Columbia and Rosie is finishing her PhD and MD.
The pair are married less than a year. Don is still adjusting to the new way of life with Rosie – less planning, more spontaneity – when Rosie tells him that she’s pregnant. Don sets out to learn everything he can about pregnancy and being a father… hiding it from Rosie (who feels like he isn’t interested) and getting himself into a world of trouble in the process.
Review/Recommendation: I started The Rose Effect with high hopes. I loved The Rosie Project, but was disappointed in its sequel. I will admit that I had a hard time focusing on much of anything while reading this book – I was in the last weeks of my pregnancy and nesting; and my son was born when I was halfway through the book, adding fatigue and an influx of visitors to the mix.
All of that being said, I just wasn’t as into this book as I was The Rosie Project. Simsion introduced a new group of characters in this book – Don’s men’s group. Some of these characters appeared in The Rosie Project, but they have a larger role in the sequel. They are a sort of support group, offering advice (both good and bad) and sharing their lives. I enjoyed these characters, although I did feel that their role in the book surpassed that of Rosie.
For me, the Don-Rosie relationship was incredibly weak. Rosie withdrew from their relationship, and thus, her role in the story felt diminished. I have a hard time with the idea that one person in a committed relationship could withdraw so much, especially given that the couple were expecting a child, that they would scarcely be present.
I do wish that this book lived up to the expectations I had set, based on its predecessor. Have you read this pair of books? Am I the only one disappointed in the sequel? What did you think?
Last time I was on maternity leave, I had all of these plans to accomplish so much – lots of cooking and reading and blogging; lots of time crafting; even some home improvement projects… and for the 3ish months I was at home, almost none of that got done. Don’t get me wrong, Sophie was a super easy baby. But between the constant flood of family and friends visiting, I didn’t get to touch most of what I had wanted to. And when I did have a moment of quiet, I was too restless to sit and read.
So this time around, I wanted to be prepared. While I really hoped for a quieter time at home, I didn’t want to leave you without a new book to check out. Thus, I asked Heather from Hezzi-D’s Books and Cooks to write a book review for me. Heather is an avid reader and cook – I have no idea how she manages to find the time to do everything while also working full-time, so if you haven’t visited her blog, I highly recommend you check it out. This post will give you a little taste of what you can expect.
Thanks for joining me this week, Heather! I’ve got Orphan Train on my to-read list, for that next quiet moment!
by Christina Baker Kline
Synopsis from Goodreads
The author of Bird in Hand and The Way Life Should Be delivers her most ambitious and powerful novel to date: a captivating story of two very different women who build an unexpected friendship: a 91-year-old woman with a hidden past as an orphan-train rider and the teenage girl whose own troubled adolescence leads her to seek answers to questions no one has ever thought to ask.
Nearly eighteen, Molly Ayer knows she has one last chance. Just months from “aging out” of the child welfare system, and close to being kicked out of her foster home, a community service position helping an elderly woman clean out her home is the only thing keeping her out of juvie and worse.
Vivian Daly has lived a quiet life on the coast of Maine. But in her attic, hidden in trunks, are vestiges of a turbulent past. As she helps Vivian sort through her possessions and memories, Molly discovers that she and Vivian aren’t as different as they seem to be. A young Irish immigrant orphaned in New York City, Vivian was put on a train to the Midwest with hundreds of other children whose destinies would be determined by luck and chance.
The closer Molly grows to Vivian, the more she discovers parallels to her own life. A Penobscot Indian, she, too, is an outsider being raised by strangers, and she, too, has unanswered questions about the past. As her emotional barriers begin to crumble, Molly discovers that she has the power to help Vivian find answers to mysteries that have haunted her for her entire life – answers that will ultimately free them both.
Rich in detail and epic in scope, Orphan Train is a powerful novel of upheaval and resilience, of second chances, of unexpected friendship, and of the secrets we carry that keep us from finding out who we are.
Review/Recommendation: The story follows two very different characters. Molly is a year old whose father died when she was 8 and whose mother is in and out of jail. She has been hopping from foster family to foster family for the last 9 years and she can’t wait until her 18th birthday when she’ll be free from the craziness. She can’t take the families that keep her for the money and want nothing to do with her.
Vivian is 91 years old and lives alone in a big mansion. On the outside it appears she has a wonderful life. She was married for 50+ years, she has an amazing house, money, and someone to help her keep the house.
Molly meets Vivian when she goes to her house to help her clean out her attic as part of her community service hours. She has to complete 50 hours from stealing a book from the library. When Molly and Vivian begin going through the boxes it’s clear that Vivian simply wants to reminisce and not really clean anything.
Molly finds herself fascinated by Vivian’s story. It turns out the old woman is much more like Molly then she could have ever dreamed. Vivian’s family came to America when she was just a child. When a fire kills her entire family Vivian is left alone. She is quickly sent to a home for orphan’s and begins her journey on the Orphan Train. As Vivian goes from city to city she both hopes she will be chosen by a family and fears it.
Molly learns that Vivian had her fair share of bad families. The two grow close as they recount the stories of their childhoods and growing up as orphans. It’s an unlikely friendship that blooms into something more as the two grow emotionally attached.
This is a beautiful story about a present day orphan and an orphan back in the 1920’s and 1930’s. The similarities and differences are startling. The journey that Molly and Vivian takes together is something that only the two of them could possibly share.
I found Molly to be an intelligent young woman who has a lot of great characteristics but is unfairly judged by many people, including the woman she is living with. She dresses like a Goth but inside there are deep emotions of a trouble teenager.
Vivian is lonely and longs for the days when she was happy. Her life started out rough and while she is now comfortable there is still something missing. Can Molly help her find the piece that is missing?
Rating: I give this book 4 ½ out of 5 stars.
The Rosie Project
By Graeme Simsion
Don Tillman is a brilliant but socially awkward genetics professor who, at the age of 40, decides it’s time to find a wife. Rosie Jarman meets none of his qualifications – she smokes, drinks, can’t cook, and is chronically late. However, once Don learns about her quest to identify her biological father, he can’t get her out of his mind. He becomes invested in what he dubs The Father Project. But what starts as a sort of social project morphs into much more. It’s incomprehensible to him, but despite the number of reasons Don can cite for why Rosie is not the perfect partner (see aforementioned list of qualifications), he falls in love with her.
Review/Recommendation: My review is going to be short and sweet, just like the book. I really enjoyed it. 🙂 I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that Tillman’s speech and social awkwardness reminded me a lot of Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory, although Tillman appears capable of learning those social queues that Sheldon is not. The story is light and quick, although peppered with facts about genetics and Asperger’s . The characters are all likable and quirky. I’d describe it as cutely romantic – not over the top, not super sappy dialog. There were a few lines of dialog in the latter half of the book that had me chuckling out loud.
By Brooker T Mattison
One night while driving his normal bus route, Andre Bolden, aka Dre, witnesses a murder. In a town where nobody talks to the cops, Andre calls in an anonymous tip and tries to move on with his life.
However, that night changed his life. His tip to the cops results in him losing his job. While Andre only saw the killer’s eyes, his presence that night marks him as a target. Andre’s life is a mess – he has no job, is locked out of his apartment for failure to pay rent, and is unable to make amends with the woman he loves. He’s anxious, severely depressed and struggling to find the good in the world when he feels like he’s been dealt such a bad hand.
Review/Recommendation: I read a good bit of mystery and suspense novels. You might say that I’m a mystery junkie. I love a good quick read, with very little thinking, to take my mind off the long day. I’d say that Snitch, filmmaker Mattison’s second novel published in 2011, falls into this genre.
However, Snitch stands out from its peers in the mystery-suspense category in several ways. First is the writing style. The prose is slightly poetic – something that could be attributed to the main character’s passion for poetry and creative writing or to the author’s own writing style (I’ll have to read his first and only other novel to find out). Secondly, unlike many other novels I’ve read in this genre, almost every character in this book truly had his or her own voice. There was no rereading a page of dialog because I lost track of who was speaking. Each character’s upbringing and lifestyle was reflected in their voice. Finally, the depth and development of the characters, Andre in particular, was unparalleled to many other books in this genre. Their spiritual and emotional conflict and angst was truly apparent and genuine-feeling, although the story still read like a quick mystery novel.
Snitch was a breath of fresh air compared to so many of the suspense novels I read. Great, quick story but with so much more depth that it’s hard not to appreciate it.
By Kate Mosse
Labyrinth features two story lines of women both destined to play critical roles in a secret society created to protect the Grail.
As the Crusaders threaten Carcassonne, in the Pyrenees mountains, southern France, a Guardian of the Grail worries that he won’t be able to protect the secret of the Grail. To ensure that that these obligations are met in event of his death, he shares the secret – along with a small book and ring – with his daughter, Alias. The Guardian’s fears come true and he dies during the Crusaders’ siege on Carcassone. Alias loyally takes up her father’s duties to protect the Grail.
Eight hundred years later, Alice, a British archaeological volunteer at a dig in southern France, stumbles onto the secret society when she discovers a cave with two skeletons and labyrinth on the wall. From that point forward, she starts having strange dreams, believes like she’s being followed, and feels threatened due to a series of events that take place around her or against her. Alice begins researching, putting together the pieces of the mystery that she fell into. Finally finding a few people to trust, Alice unfolds the mystery of the Grail…
Review: This book sat on my shelf for more than a few years (it was published in 2005 and I have a hardcover copy – that should give you an idea of just how long it’s sat) before I picked it up just before Christmas. I was in desperate need of a book to read and I couldn’t chose an e-book, as the little one steals my iPad every chance she gets. I’m glad I finally picked this one up. A little history, a little mystery and action, Labyrinth kept my attention from start to finish.
I think that the only thing that kept me from really loving this book was the discontinuity as Mosse flipped between Alias’s story and Alice’s. Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed both story lines. However, because I became engrossed in each woman’s tale, I was always a little disappointed when it was time to flip to the other story. In the beginning, this was much less noticeable. That was in part because the tales were just beginning, but also because the flip-flopping was less frequent.
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore
By Robin Sloan
Web designer Clay Jannon is in his late 20s and a victim of the economic recession – recently unemployed and unable to find a new job in his field. One day, he stumbles upon a help wanted sign in the window of Ajax Penumbra’s 24-hour bookstore. A couple of quick questions and Clay is hired to work the graveyard shift.
Mr. Penumbra’s bookstore is unique – there is a very small area in the front of the store for books for sale. The larger section in the back of the store – from floor to a very high ceiling – is a sort of library. Clay isn’t supposed to touch these books but a mischievous friend couldn’t resist, revealing that each of the library books is written in some sort of code.
Review/Recommendation: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is the debut novel written by former Twitter manager Robin Sloan. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and was bummed when it ended. It appealed to me on so many levels – my curiosity, my love of books, my dorkiness… I loved the mystery surrounding the encoded books and the 500-year old secret society of bibliophiles (the Unbroken Spine) who sought to solve the mystery. I loved how Sloan intertwined the old and traditional of the Unbroken Spine with the most modern aspects of today’s world – what one can do with a bit of computer programming and the all-powerful Google. Combined with the references to a childhood favorite book, The Dragon-Song Chronicles, I couldn’t help thinking about some of my friends growing up, and today. Just a bit dorky. 🙂
This book is a quick read, but really something fun, a unique blend of interests – from the mystery to a historical fiction-ish feel, with just a little romance. I’d definitely recommend it!