Review – Palisades Park

Palisades ParkToday, something different — me gushing about book outside my normal reading habits.

I tend to read heavily in the fantasy and historical fiction genres but every once in awhile I like to step outside of my reading habits and try something new. Palisades Park was that something new. Let’s just say that stepping out of routine is a very good thing, because if I hadn’t taken that chance, I never would have found this book.

Eddie Stopka is a kid with dreams. Looking to escape an abusive step-father, he runs away as a teenager but he can’t stay away from his little hometown on the New Jersey coast for long. When he returns, he finds a job at the Palisades Amusement Park, a place that holds very happy childhood memories for him, and it’s there he meets the woman who will become his wife. Taking a chance, the two buy into a French fry stand at the park, start a family, and live a life. However, it’s their oldest child, a daughter named Toni, who is the true dreamer in the family. Having seen a woman high diver at the park, Toni immediately knows that’s what she wants to do when she grows up.

Even with her mother telling her women can’t be high divers, Toni persists. Her mother gives in enough to get her and her brother swimming lessons, but beyond that, doesn’t give much encouragement to her diving dreams. Toni, however, knows her heart and it sits at the top of the high platform in front of an audience.

I’m a character driven reader. Yes, plots are nice and I like when they stick together for a story to play out properly, but when characters are wonderful, I’m in for the duration. The Stopka family, well, even for all their faults and problems, they are a pleasure to be with. Also, Brennert manages to evoke such a sense of time and place in this story that I felt right at home with the characters and setting.

Brennert knows how to draw a reader in and keep them in the pages of the book. Palisades Park spans over 50 years and the characters are not immune to the world around them — WWII, Korean War — as well as smaller scale problems pertaining to family life and work. Even with all the years in between, the story doesn’t falter and the characters feel very genuine.

Palisades Park is what I think of as a soft-spoken book. There’s not always a great deal of happiness in the lives of the characters, and we are reminded that bad things do happen to even the best of people, but somewhere in all the mess that is life, there is a wonderful story. The laughter is tinged with a bit of bitterness, sometimes even sadness, but the dreams that are held dear, can sometimes come true. I like leaving a book with that kind of ending.

In addition to this blog, I also do reviews for The Book Reporter website. The above review was done for the Book Reporter which can be found here. The book was provided to me by the publisher.
Palisades Park

By Alan Brennert

St. Martin’s Press

ISBN: 9780312643720

 

Review – The Anubis Gates

The Anubis GatesWhen a book comes highly recommended, I want to love it. Sometimes I like the book just fine but I don’t love it but I wholeheartedly wanted to. This is the case with The Anubis Gates. It’s a good book, don’t get me wrong, but I had such high hopes for it that I think it just didn’t live up to my very high expectations.

So what’s this book about? So many things. The contentious relationship between Britain and Egypt in the very early 19th Century, powerful Egyptian gods, time travel, body swapping, magic, and a few historical literary figures all mixed up in a plot that can go anywhere.

Let’s start at the beginning… The early 1980s, an aging billionaire discovers a gate, for lack of a better word, that allows him to travel back in time. He organizes a trip with several other wealthy individuals, and a lone English professor, to attend a lecture by a well-known poet. A magician who happened to open the time travel gates way back when, happens to spy the travelers and kidnaps Brendan Doyle, the hapless English professor brought along for some educational tidbits. Brendan ends up stranded in 1810. Completely unequipped to deal with life in 1810, he ends up a beggar, a rather bad one at that, in a beggars guild, and manages to get caught up in a body swapping scheme being perpetrated by the billionaire who brought him back in time. In a new body, Brendan, now a well-known poet, or at least a poet who will become well-known, lives out an unexpected life.

I hope you understand that description because that damn thing took forever to write. There are so many plot lines in this book that at one point I needed to go back a chapter just to figure out who was in what body and, well, what the hell was going on. Now, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t entertaining, it was (there are many good things about this book), but there was more than one time when I found myself confused. To be honest, I read fast sometimes and I think this was one of those moments when that habit didn’t help me at all.

I want to say read this one because there are some really great parts of this book. And I think I will say that because I wasn’t disappointed with this book, but I think I picked it up at the wrong time and we weren’t a good fit.

One thing I loved about the book, and the reason I’m telling you to read it, is the way the travel was incorporated into the story. Having magical gates that transport people in time is just cool and I want one. I also liked the body swapping for all that it threw me off at one point in the story. I guess at that point if you’re going to go with time travel, why not swap a few bodies too.

So tell me, is there another Tim Powers book I should read? I want to give him another try.

The Anubis Gates
By Tim Powers
An Ace Book

ISBN: 9781101575895

Has the read ahead curse been broken?

I like to read the last page of a book. Sometimes, I do this before I start a book, but most times, I read the last page before the end of the first chapter. Sometimes I read even more than the last page. You see, I like to know how things are going to turn out. I’m not good with spoilers. Ask anyone who knows me and they’ll all agree. Some people tell me this habit ruins the story, but for me, that isn’t the case. I like to see how an author is going to get me there. It not how it ends, it’s the journey to the ending that I want.

So, I’m reading Lords of the North by Bernard Cornwell, the third book in the Saxon Tales series, and Uhtred, my favorite character, is in trouble. I get nervous. But I don’t read ahead. In fact, when I come to the end of the dreadful chapter, I put the book down and don’t read for the rest of the night. I could have read ahead, and in most cases, I would have but something stopped me. I wanted to let this one play out and see what would happen. Instead of quelling the anticipation, I let it build. This might be a first for me people. That’s why I’m telling you all this.

I think it’s because I like this particular character so much. Uhtred is a Saxon, raised by Danes, in 880s Britain. He’s brutal, but loyal, shrewd but bullheaded, brilliant in battle, and an excellent battle strategist, but somedays he doesn’t stop to think. And that gets him in trouble, and in this particular case, it lands him in a boatload of trouble. I like that about him though. He’s an unpredictable character but a great narrator. He knows he’s flawed but he’s got one hell of a story to tell and all you want to do is listen.

Maybe that’s it then. Maybe my habit has not been broken. It’s not that I can’t read a book without looking ahead, I have, but I like the knowing. The knowing is a good thing for me. But I’m playing this one fast and free. Any bets on how long I can hold out before reading the end?

Review – The Courtier’s Secret

The Courtier's SecretWhen I picked up this book, I was looking for historical fiction and I got it. Historical fiction was my staple for a long time and is still a comfort read for me, especially when I hit a slump. And to be honest, anything set in Versailles gets my attention even if Marie Antoinette is not part of the story. This book features the Sun King and is set slightly before Maria Antoinette arrives on the scene.

Jeanne du Bois is now back at Versailles, kicked out of the convent her father shipped her off to. She’s outspoken, and as far as her father is concerned, a hindrance to everything he needs to get ahead. Wanting her out of his house, he plans to marry her off to a man who can help him politically but does nothing for Jeanne romantically. Not wanting anything to do with her father’s plans, Jeanne does what she can to sabotage everything he’s set in place and goes on with her life as usual, which includes a secret life only she and her uncle know about.  In this secret life, she poses as a musketeer and fights alongside the men tasked with protecting the crown. When Jeanne happens upon a plot to kill the queen, a woman she greatly admires, she finds can’t give up the charade. When love enters the picture, it becomes even more difficult to hide her feeling and cover up her second life.

I have to say, it’s totally unbelievable but it’s fun. Who wouldn’t want to be a sword wielding musketeer instead of standing around smelly Versailles waiting for someone more important to pass by? Although, I always love hearing about the court rituals and the silly gossip and this story has that and more. The details about the king’s toilette were at once fascinating and so strange I wanted to laugh. I’ll never understand how people, royalty or not, could live like that. And why anyone would put up with it to be in favor of the king confounds me, but not living in that time, I can’t even begin to understand the fascination with watching someone get their hair curled. But, yes, I like very much to read about it.

Jeanne is part of the upper class with the strange rituals but she shuns most when possible. The fencing lessons her uncle bestows on her are just one of her many offending traits, at least to her father. Her mother is interesting in that she wants to help her get out from under the tyranny of her father, who is just a cruel and mean individual, that can’t and won’t see the world around him even when it’s in his best interest to do so. You don’t ever feel sorry for him.

Love story time. Jeanne falls for her fellow musketeer Henri. Her father wants her to marry a sniveling little man named Poligniac because he thinks it will increase his access, and mostly to get back at Jeanne and his wife for transgressions only he seems to perceive. Without saying, there’s a happy ending here.

Donna Russo Morin is a new to me author but I’ve seen her books around. This is her first book for me. My library only had this one but I might have to see if it would be possible to get more. I liked her style.

The Courtier’s Secret

By Donna Russo Morin

Kensington Books

ISBN: 9780758226914

Review – Ashenden

AshendenAshenden is an old, yet still grand, English country house. Falling into disrepair over the years, it can still impress, even if it’s just by the enormous cash reserves needed to heat the place. When Charlie and his sister inherit the crumbling estate, the stress of how to care for the place takes a toll on their already distant relationship. The two begin consulting engineers and surveyors to determine what needs to be done and whether or not selling or renovating is in their best interests, or the house’s.

While a decision is made about the house’s future, its past begins to unfold giving the reader a glimpse of the people it has sheltered, the sorrows and joys felt in its rooms, and the memories that have seeped into its walls. We are introduced to the people that have walked the halls of the house from the architect who envisioned the grand space, to the staff who kept the fires burning, and the families that owned the property.

What I enjoyed about this book was the way all of the stories were tied together, each flowing smoothly into the next. It wasn’t about the people but how the house was transformed by the years from a money pit that was wanted more for the prestige it bought, but was ultimately unaffordable, to the original builder, the individuals that toured the house, and the sick it protected. The people come and go but the house itself is the one constant that brings everything together.

Ashenden is a mixture of short stories about the people that admired the grand house, found love and heartbreak inside its walls, and those that recovered in the green expanse that was part of the property. Its residents, owners, builders, all make and break the house and while the reader sees the past, it’s the current owners that are struggling with the future. I liked the way Wilhide smoothly moves the story along while it remains in place at the same time. It’s a very effective way to tell the story of the house and make it more than simply a structure of bricks, glass, and wood. It becomes a living part of the story, in fact, the story itself. With each new chapter, I wanted to know how it was holding up and what it had become in its new reincarnation as it does change with each new generation that walks through the doors. From the start, you know it’s not a simple home but something built and imagined to be more than that.

Many of the stories told here are very sad but overall I wouldn’t say that about the book. It made me smile many times, and even though the individual stories being told were not on the whole always happy, it was an honest look at the people who passed through the halls and that I could appreciate — nothing too sad but not all that happy either, a nice equilibrium of stories.

Wilhide is a writer who cares very much about the details and it is those details that make this story. Without the finer points and the clear image she creates of the house, this story wouldn’t work. The particulars create an invisible web that lets the story meander, but always bringing it back home. It’s such a lovely story and a satisfying read for a winter evening.

In addition to this blog, I also do reviews for The Book Reporter website. The above review was done for the Book Reporter which can be found here. The book was provided to me by the publisher.

Ashenden

By Elizabeth Wilhide

Simon & Schuster

ISBN: 9781451684865

Mini Reviews

I’ve been meaning to review both of these books for a while, but I kept putting them off and now it’s been weeks. I still want to talk about them so I thought mini-reviews would be best. These are two very different books so have fun with that.

Fact about both books, each is the start of a series.

 

The Name of the StarThe Name of the Star

By Maureen Johnson

GP Putnam Sons

ISBN: 9780399256608

This is my first Maureen Johnson book. I follow her on Twitter and she’s hysterical so I thought I’d finally read one of her books. I know the second book in the Shades of London series is coming out soon so I picked this one. Also, a lot of other bloggers liked it; how could I say no to that kind of recommendation.

Rory, a teenager from Louisiana, moves to a London boarding when her parents take jobs in England. As soon as she arrives, Jack the Ripper style killing begin and she somehow ends up wrapped up in the case.

The Name of the Star is a weird mix-up of ghost story, mystery, police story, and teenage angst. Toss in a bit of boarding school drama and I had a story that I liked very much. I’m now looking forward to the second book.

 

Silent in the GraveSilent in the Grave

By Deanna Raybourn

Mira

ISBN: 9780778324102

Sometimes I do stupid things, like start a series in the middle which means I have to go back and start at the beginning and read ALL the books because that’s how I am. That happened with the Lady Julia Grey series. I read The Dark Enquiry when it came out almost two years ago and now I’m finally getting around to the start of this series and I want to devour ALL of them. No, really, these are so good.

Lady Julia Grey’s husband, Edward, is dead and as it turns out, he was murdered. Nicholas Brisbane, a man Edward hired to help investigate the sinister notes he was getting, is now all up in Julia’s business and she can’t decide if she likes it or not.

This is where Julia and Nicholas get together and oh it’s so fun — the arguing, the lust, and the misunderstandings. So. Much. Fun. Also, it’s a good mystery and the characters are fantastic. Thank god my library likes Deanna Raybourn.

Best of 2012

It’s that time of year when I begin to panic. Yes, panic and it has nothing to do with the holidays. What worries me, causes lack of sleep, and makes me ponder endlessly over a glass of wine (or two)? It’s best of lists. That’s stupid, I know, but here’s the thing — I always look back over the year and think about what happened, good and bad, vacations, time with family and friends, and of course, the books I read. So, to alleviate some anxiety, I’m going to share a best of list with you. Whether you like it or not.

Last year I had this genius idea (I thought it was genius and I’m not taking any feedback on that!:)). Instead of picking a list of say 10 books (how could I pick a number one), I would go month by month and pick the books I liked that month. Now, you may see a book on this list and then look at my review and notice I didn’t rate the book high at the time. The reason I picked it? All gut feeling. I’m telling you which books resonate with me, even months later in some cases, so I can say, ‘You know what, try it.’

January
The Lantern by Deborah Lawrenson
The Secret Diary of a Princess: A Novel of Marie Antoinette by Melanie Clegg
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

February
American Gods by Neil Gaiman
The Technologists by Matthew Pearl

March
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
Soulless (The Parasol Protectorate #1) by Gail Carriger
The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch (read along, no review)
Changeless (The Parasol Protectorate #2) by Gail Carriger

April
The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley
Let’s Pretend This Never Happened (A Mostly True Memoir) by Jenny Lawson

May
Blameless (The Parasol Protectorate #3) by Gail Carriger
Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch (read along, no review)
Railsea by China Mieville

June
The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
Heartless (The Parasol Protectorate #4) by Gail Carriger
Timeless (The Parasol Protectorate #5) by Gail Carriger

July
Among Others by Jo Walton
Frenchman’s Creek by Daphne du Maurier
Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton
In The Woods by Tana French

August
Salem’s Lot by Stephen King
The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley

September
The Map of the Sky by Felix J. Palma

October
Death in the Floating City by Tasha Alexander
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Island of Bones by Imogen Robertson

November
The Likeness by Tana French

December
Silent in the Grave by Deanna Raybourn

I read more fantasy and less historical fiction than in earlier years. And, as always, I have a few series going — not something that I see changing in the New Year. A good series is this reader’s downfall. It’s interesting how my reading habits change, even over the course of a year. One of the reasons I like to keep lists is to see my progress over a year’s worth of reading, that, and I really do like a good list.

OK, the big question — what did you read this year? Anything memorable, wonderful, something you wish you hadn’t read? Share, share. It’s not as if my to read list is getting any shorter anyway.