Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Crown by Nancy Bilyeau

The Crown. Nancy Bilyeau. Touchstone. September 2012. 448 pages. ISBN #: 9781451626865.

Henry VIII and his supporters are busy eliminating opponents, those who opposed his annulment to the first Queen and those who maintain the "old ways" of the Catholic Church, including priests, monks, friars, professed nuns, and novices.  Henry wants his Protestant Church (that name is used here, though it was really called Church of England by its adherents) to thrive, and the coffers of the monasteries will add to his dwindling wealth.  This is the story of those who oppose Henry but out of different motives.  For Joanna Stafford, the death of her cousin marks the beginning of a long journey of suffering, confusion, shocks, betrayals, and more; however, it's a journey that will deepen her faith and yet free her from its restrictive boundaries.

The protagonists are the nuns in her Dominican home, Dartford Priory, two Dominican friars, Brother Richard and Brother Edmund, various porters and servants, and Bishop Gardiner. The latter has freed her from the notorious Tower, where she has been imprisoned for attending her cousin's execution and as a member of the rebellious Stafford family.  Gardiner holds her father hostage and will free him if she finds the secret crown that once belong to a medieval King, Athelstan.  The Crown is said to hold a secret that may be a blessing to some, a curse to others, a mystery supposedly applying to those with pure or impure motives who wish to possess it.  Is it the curse or coincidence that all who have possessed it have died very soon after briefly owning it?

This is a thriller containing constant surprises as the mystery of the hunt continues and vile acts of others comes to light. But there are unique qualities to Bilyeau's plot.  While some may think this is a proverbial stereotypical plot with like characters, nothing could be farther from the truth. For some want to protect the Church which is gradually being exterminated by King Henry VIII, others want to turn the tides of political power with the inherent sacred power of this crown, and others turn to violence because of events that snap the mind in a frightening, life-threatening instant! Most, however, have mixed motives that only get sorted out as the story progresses!

Who will each character ultimately serve?  Joanna Stafford is a feisty woman who exhibits incredible intelligence, a penchant for leadership and confrontation when necessary, but also a vulnerable woman acting outside of the confines of roles allowed for women at that time (outside of the seducers in Henry's court, that is) and knowing she yearns for more - and more as the mystery approaches an unexpected end.  After what she has endured, how could she settle for a marriage planned by someone else, with a a shadow of existence under the shameful "Stafford" reputation? She can't and so the future remains an open question, and somehow the reader knows disappointment will not loom in the follow-up to this super story.  And what of the other relics that are held and then hidden by the Benedictine monks? 

The Crown is outstanding historical fiction, a ripping thriller, in short A GEM!!!!

Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Sunshine When She's Gone. Thea Goodman. Holt, Henry & Company, Inc. March 2013. 240 pp. ISBN #: 9780805096620.

Veronica and John Reed are two very, very, very tired parents! Gloria is a typical infant who has quite literally, albeit totally unconscious of her effect, sucked the passion out of her parents.  Veronica has post-partum depression and John thinks why not give her a break; yes, a break is just what will help her and perhaps bring backs some zip into their sexless lives.

What starts out as a well-intentioned plan on John's part begins to spin out of control.  The reader wishes he would go home when he finds every place where he could dine with his daughter closed.  Awe shocks the reader when John on a whim decides to make it a weekend off for Veronica and takes Gloria to Barbados in the Caribbean.  Somehow one knows this is going downhill and it does but it's such a valuable time for John who really learns about parenting and his own expectations from both wife and daughter.  One has to chuckle as John is getting more and more frantic looking for the "goats milk" that Gloria is used to, with herbs mixed therein, as well as enough diapers, etc.  Mr. Dad he is not and it only gets crazier!

Veronica on the other hand goes through several stages upon discovering John's absence.  Did he kidnap Gloria?  Where the heck is he?  Little by little she begins to "use" the time to get in touch with old friends, where conversations and old ways mix with thoughts of her dating, marriage and pregnancy.  She even perhaps goes too far with a one-night stand that will have repercussions later on the story.  The ensuing confusion is good for her as she needs to sort out what she wanted and what she actually has with John and Gloria.

The eventual reunion is quite stormy and necessary and no it doesn't get weary or stereotypical at all for the reader.  It's vital and probably elicits something in every single reader with all the accompanying highs and lows of thoughts and emotions.  Their second dedication to each other after making up is even more real and therefore rewarding to enjoy.  

What a delightful, simple yet profound tale Thea Goodman tells so artfully!  For all parents or parents-to-be or parents whose babes have left the nest, this is a great read!  Well done, indeed, Thea Goodman!

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Let's Pretend This Never Happened: A Mostly True Memoir by Jennie Lawson

Let's Pretend This Never Happened: A Mostly True Memoir. Jennie Lawson, The Bloggess. Berkley Trade: Reprint Edition. March 2013. 384 pages. ISBN #: 9780425261018.

Jenny Lawson is a hoot!  Beginning with the family stories she tells, which are probably the wackiest you ever heard, the author describes her father's odd penchant for bringing animals home, like the "magic" squirrel in the Ritz cracker box which turned out to be a dead squirrel he'd made into a puppet.  To say it like that doesn't convey half the hilarious humor of the telling - plenty of swearing at just the right times that leave the reader howling and remembering it for hours later.  Or how about animals he brought home to boil down to study their bone structure; dozens and dozens of similar unbelievable antics follow that are just another day in Jenny's life.

How about a first try of drugs or her fascination with Neal Patrick Harris a/k/a Doogie Howser in her time?  At about this time she met Victor her life-long husband now, and tells us about how much he accepted her exactly as she was, though her father's unexpected animal gifts did take time to become accustomed to.  What a time she had on meeting Victor's parents - one must sit on the couch but in NO way lean back against the cushions on the couch.  Insane, right?  Yeah, people live like this! How outrageous is a proposal from a groom-to-be who doesn't realize until it's too late that he's kneeling in ground glass and she's about to wet her pants from her dire need for a bathroom - the stuff you can't possibly make up!

She also reveals as time goes on about her realization that she had an anxiety disorder and OCD but don't expect any whining about this; she finds a way to joke about what had to have been a horrendous period, including her initial infertility and eventual birth to her children whom she brought home - no, not to raise them in the bathtub which is where all her childhood animal visitors spent a great deal of their time.  

Living in Texas, she tries very hard to fit into her husband's world and doesn't succeed but she's so funny and so positive that everyone learns to love her for who she is - or completely stay clear of her like someone running away from a contagious disease!  In between we have some discussions about vampires, zombies, the dead and more! That is when she's not setting fire to the house and other quirky things - always followed by apologies to Victor and their love deepening with the aftermath. 

There's a subtle darkness to this humor that is troubling at times but which quickly recedes when one realizes Jenny says and does things the rest of us think and reflect on but never actually let out of our carefully constructed worlds.  Let's Pretend This Never Happened... is a gripping memoir that deserves best-seller status and one you certainly won't forget! Or as Jenny would say, maybe you will because you're a beep! Fine writing, Jennie Lawson!  

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

A Place For Us: A Novel by Liza Gyllenhaal

A Place For Us: A Novel.  Liza Gyllenhaal. Penguin Group (USA). March 2013. 336 pp. hbk. ISBN #: 9780451239235.

Brook Bostock wonders in the back of her mind whether her husband, Michael, married her for love or for her family’s money.  Both are deeply in love with each other after fifteen years of marriage. They moved back to Michael’s hometown but his family has never really accepted her, believing her penchant for entertaining extravagantly is showing off.  In reality, it’s a part of the successful business she and her friend have developed over the years.  Now the very foundations of their life are about to be challenged big time.

Their son, Liam, has always been close to a girl Phoebe.  One night he arrives with his friend Brandon and Carey, who are brothers.  All have been drinking way too much and Phoebe is sexually attacked by one of them.  Her parents, especially her father Troy, are more than outraged when they see the bruises on her body and promise to bring legal action.  Phoebe initially in a moment of anger at something Liam said, a terrible betrayal of their relationship, accuses the attacker and rumors begin to fly.  The town is a rumor mill that demands retribution from Brook and Michael, holding them responsible for the terrible events of that night.

The novel continues to depict the quandary about who is to blame, parental responsibilities, and the attitude of those who believe the wealthy can buy their way out of any illegality or immorality.  To say more would be a spoiler, but suffice to say there’s no guessing the outcome.  The pages fly and the intensity deepen over an issue that is timeless and has happened to more than one unfortunate family, wealthy or not.  Liza Gyllenhaal is a writer to note well as she definitely knows how to craft not only the central issue but also the teenage angst of those who have failed and are trying to find enough self-worth to surmount their greatest weakness.  Self-identity is the essence of the characters’ struggles and its true definition and evolution.  Very nicely done, Liza Gyllenhaal!

The Mapmaker's War by Ronlyn Domingue

The Mapmaker’s War. Ronlyn Domingue. Atria Books. March 2013. 240 pp. hbk. ISBN #: 9781451688887.

Once upon a time…how many times in the past does a reader enter a tale where a person battles evil and wins peace and happiness for a very long time? Despite the stark realities that age imposes about how much goodness and evil humans can foster, a part of us subconsciously dares to dream of a Utopian existence, a Shangri-La, a fantasy yes but all the more sweeter for the dream!

Aoife is our heroine in this wonderful tale.  Although girls and women have their affixed roles in the home, Aoife is allowed to develop her significant skills as a mapmaker.  First she charts the local area and then after being mentored and trained travels afar, loving her unique job and yet always aware that her good fortune exists because of the gracious will of her King.  Her life is about to undergo a whirlwind change when she inadvertently comes upon a magic village where a dragon and people with special powers live. A huge treasure pile stuns her and she quickly realizes what other greedy people would do for such a bounty.  What most impresses her, however, is the sense of total peace these people emanate and she absorbs.  Her desire to stay is intense but she knows her duty.

The challenge in this tale as in all stories of real life is the fall Aoife experiences when her lover, Prince Wyl, becomes King and allows his brother to twist his mind regarding the land Aoife found. This will cause a horrendous war that brings unbearable suffering to the members of the peaceful town, especially their Warriors.  Because Aoife has told her King about this land and mapped the way to its borders, she feels responsible; remapping with a deceptive path changes little.  She will suffer dire consequences, leave and return to that other place for the rest of her life where she will come to understand how gifted these people are, trained to handle all that would poison a healthy and whole lifestyle, and establish oh so loving relationships that will delight the reader. She will re-learn what it is to be a fully present wife, mother and community member in a fully-functioning cooperative society.

The Mapmaker’s War is a lovely tale in which this talented author inserts tension and conflict in all the right places, as well as including some amazing unique scenes that will enthrall the reader.  Superb story and this reviewer so looks forward to the sequel in this classic fantasy tale!!!

The Crooked Branch by Jeanine Cummins

The Crooked Branch.  Jeanine Cummins. Penguin Group (USA). March 2013. 400 pp. hbk. ISBN #: 97800451239242.

Could losing one’s mind arise from the presence of an ancestor’s spirit in one’s home?  Majella is giving birth to her daughter, Emily, and thinks she is going mad.  At first the reader thinks it’s only the effects of Majella’s labor which has lasted twenty-seven hours before she finally has a Cesarean section.  Could it be hormonal imbalance?  Whatever it is, she’s hearing crunching sounds and dreaming the most awful scenes of murder and guilt, and it’s clearly thought to be a passing phase by her family and friends. Even the second therapist she sees is unable to find a cause and finally allows this haunted woman to just tell her tale as it unfolds.

Meanwhile, she finds a diary from the 1800’s written by her maternal ancestor, Ginny Doyle, a woman who is living through the “Troubles” time of the devastating potato famine.  Nothing could possibly be worse than being unable to feed one’s children and yearning for hope against hope while awaiting word from her husband who traveled to America in one of the famous “coffin” ships that were filled with men who hoped to raise money in the States to help their families survive.

To say more would be a spoiler but little by little the reader discovers the mystery of a woman who befriended Ginny but with a terrible price compounding that aid. Emma’s drastic feelings and thoughts begin to resolve as the riddle unfolds but it’s no less a fear-filled, disorienting, and sad tale in the process of that historical journey.

Jeanine Cummins is a master at creating the mental and emotional atmosphere pervading the events of both centuries.  Society’s expectations are the standard of normalcy that belie the horrors of both women’s experiences and actually heighten the same.  Very potently crafted, Ms. Cummins!