Friday, July 12, 2013

The Great Divide: A Novel by Janet Goss

The Great Divide: A Novel.  Janet Goss.  Penguin Group (USA). July 2013. 336 pp. pbk. ISBN #: 9780451239266.

It’s fun to be a rebel, to be immature for a certain period of life!  That’s the label Vera Van Loon has; she’s got a lightweight albeit talented calligrapher’s job, Daddy pays many of the bills, and others make her life in the city with a summer vacation in rural New York swell, indeed!  So now she wonders why others are trying to keep her summer lark delayed.  An “Uncle Cyrus” is the man they’re trying to make sure she never meets because they are so obviously wild and wacky!

Newcomers enter Vera’s life, the first being Georgie across the hall from her place who on first meeting her accidentally informs her that a member of her family is not the staid person she thought, a very upsetting realization.  Then he tries to cover his tracks by hinting it’s somebody else and at the same time bringing a disastrous dessert treat that totally belies his culinary abilities! Very funny scenes grace these pages!

The story then gets even more bizarre with the appearance of her landlord’s gay, pot-smoking son who it turns out is actually a very, very talented guy who will be part of the inspiration that changes Vera’s career direction but that will take a while.  Meanwhile, Vera finally meets “Uncle Cyrus” who is a hot “sex” as others call him.  The sparks between them were already primed by the photographs she saw of him, but when they meet it’s a mixed bag of flight or passionate embraces!

We get to go back to Vera’s past and meet an artist who earlier broke her heart and an elderly art connoisseur who enables Vera to live where she wants and opens up inspirational doors to reveal the real talent Vera doesn’t even know she has.

The Great Divide: A Novel is a fun read that proves that distance, misunderstandings, and the past can’t block a woman from emerging into a beautiful soul and finding the one who complements her in every way.  Delightful read!

Sweet Nothings by Janis Thomas

Sweet Nothings.  Janis Thomas. Penguin Group (USA). July 2013. 384 pp. hbk. ISBN #: 9780425264829.

This is a fun story in spite of some of the quandaries that Ruby McMillan finds herself in, life-changing shockers that she is totally unprepared to handle.  But Ruby is a feisty lady; so when her husband decides to leave for his “soul mate” from work, Ruby does her mourning with her two children.  But she never wallows in the sadness, even though it’s most definitely there! 

The next shocker is about the possibility of losing her home and her gourmet bakery due to lack of financial resources, again caused by her husband who has cut off all her money and won’t pay a dime to support her or her children.  Creep for sure! 

Ruby has good friends and is actually making a new friend in a mortgage broker, Jacob.  This is greatly helped by the total makeover she gets first from her daughter which turns her from a frumpy Mom to a hot chick who catches many male looks for her great beauty which has so long been hidden.  What’s really been hidden is the sense of self-worth beyond just knowing she’s a great baker!  All it takes is a bit of encouragement, daring and allowing the naturally bright and beautiful woman to emerge!  The journey is wonderful!

Now her life is about to travel down many unforeseen roads to become a “Cake Lady” teacher and perhaps even consider getting a TV show to teach and show her magnificent baking skills.  Her husband?  By the time he’s gotten over his mid-life crisis or whatever it is, where will Ruby and Walter be?  Quite a surprise, actually!

Janis Thomas writes with a light style that is so pleasant to read and makes one flip the pages, with interest never once waning.  There’s a reading guide in the back of the book with very thoughtful, provocative questions for book clubs or just one’s own private consideration.  

Sweet Nothings is a light, delicious read which I am sure readers will relish!

Strange Medicine: A Shocking History of Real Medical Practices Through the Ages by Nathan Belofsky

Strange Medicine: A Shocking History of Real Medical Practices.  Nathan Belofsky. Perigree Books: Penguin Group (USA). July 2013. 224 pp. hbk. ISBN #: 9780399159954.

The path to modern medicine is strewn with helpful and malignant practices, all of which are wondrous to the modern reader.  The earliest theories most of us have heard are included which concern the four humors of the body believed to cause health and disease, blood, black bile, yellow bile or phlegm.  In ancient Rome the first doctors were better known as “executioners.”  Little was known about the human body and experimentation by analysis of internal anatomy was mostly forbidden until the time of Leonardo da Vinci when cadavers were used to study the body.

Add to that the superstitions of the ancient world where some believed illness arrived via the presence of ghosts, elves, or other malignant, demonic spirits.  Therefore one could reason that such dangerous beings called for severe measures.  But what does one think when considering the use of electric eels attached to the head to treat migraine headaches? Or what about using branding irons to cauterize parts of the head until bone was exposed?  Sounds gruesome but burning away, on par with later uses of leeches to purge the blood of illness at the time seemed quite logical.

On the other hand, the well-known Hildegard of Bingen’s (12th Century) believed the origins of all sickness were linked to lungs, spleen and liver, a theory that many alternative medicine practitioners today follow with substantial success.  Or one could read about the 19th Century practitioner Mandt prescribed a laxative for the first time for a patient who had swallowed a snake.

The terrors of surgery were quite real to almost all patients in the nineteenth century where gangrene, lack of anesthesia, and surgical errors proved deadly to far too many victims. More amazing is the fact that the “Great Anatomy Theater” was standing room only status as viewers vied to watch a live macabre removal of a groin tumor.  So these stories progress, all the way to the well-known shock therapy and surgical lobotomy procedures used to cure or at least help patients suffering from mental illness.

Belofsky’s book is replete with amazing facts and stories of medical treatments intriguing those who practiced as doctors with and without formal training.  What drives one’s interest in Belofsky’s history is the fact that there was no other way for medical practice to evolve but the “practice’ of trial and error.  All, after all, truly wanted to “help” those in medical need.  Strange Mystery… is shocking but intriguing and fascinating reading for all interested in medical care, as it is well-researched, readable for the average layman, and panoramic in scope.  Highly recommended!

Down and Out in Bugtussle: The Mad Fat Road to Happiness by Stephanie McAfee

Down and Out in Bugtussle: The Mad Fat Road to Happiness.  Stephanie McAfee. Penguin Group (USA). July 2013. 368 pp. pbk. ISBN #: 9780451239907.

Graciella “Ace” Jones is back in town, that is Bugtussle, Mississippi.  She’s left the man she thought was her future all-consuming love and now has to work as a substitute teacher.  She’s hoping to be restored to her art teacher status, but Cameron Becker, a first year teacher, has that spot firmly rooted in spite of the fact she’s a disaster as a teacher.  Ace’s friend Chloe is supporting Ace’s desire to work as a full-time art teacher, but the baggage of the past is clogging the plan.  Ace is an off-beat character, at least she thinks so until she meets another new teacher, Stacey Dewberry, who seems certifiably crazy, that is until Ace gets to know her better and a friendship forms.  Crazy and funny galore define these two teachers who manage to survive the sub-teacher-hateful antics of students at Bugtussle High School!

Ace, and her beloved dog, Buster Loo, has moved back into her Gramma Jones’ home where she discovers her grandmother’s flower book with some interesting sticky notes specifically aligned next to certain flowers, a poignant secret leading to one even more shocking and emotional.  But that doesn’t come until much later.  For now, there are plots afoot at the high school to help Ace in her employment quest, but then suddenly the tide has turned as Chloe has her own problems to deal with on the romance side.  Add to that Chloe’s love, Dax, is being called to serve in the military, probably in Afghanistan.  It’s crisis time for Chloe who has a secret she doesn’t want Dax to learn unless he tells her she means more to him than a live-in love machine.

Meanwhile, Ace goes on several disastrous blind date which are absolutely hilarious because of the way she describes them, probably not so in reality.  Yes, her weight is a definite problem but she’s confident enough in herself that it doesn’t overly concern her.  But romance she will find, when least expected, and it is that which changes her dreams, attitude, and future.  It parallels the garden she is planting at home, establishing her own flowers with very specific meanings for the reader to discover.

Stephanie McAfee is a hoot!  She knows exactly how to present very, very funny scenes, crisis-laden scenarios, and tender moments of support and love that constantly and consistently engage the reader on every page.  

Down and Out in Bugtussle… is a great, fun, tender read!  Enjoy!

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Shadow Tracer by Meg Gardiner

The Shadow Tracer.  Meg Gardiner.  Dutton: Penguin Group (USA). June 2013. 368 pp. hbk. ISBN #: 9780525953227.

Sarah Keller is a “skip tracer,” a person who finds people who have attempted to do everything possible to hide, from subpoenas, arrest, whatever it is that demands secrecy and constant moving, a life of living one step ahead of the pursuer.  Sarah is very, very good at what she does.  But before her job comes her passionate love for her daughter, Zoe; at least that’s what she tells anyone who asks.  Zoe and Sarah have a very special bond that is now threatened to completely unravel!

Right after Sarah serves a subpoena on someone she had tracked relentlessly, Zoe is injured in a bus accident.  After being taken to the hospital, the examination reveals two shocking revelations that seem to prove that Sarah is not really Zoe’s mother and may be a murderer as well.  Now, the hunter becomes the hunted, and the two, with the help of a friend, Danisha, speedily exit from Oklahoma.  They are not only being pursued by the FBI and the Oklahoma police, because of another related murder as well, but her ex-boyfriend Nolan’s family are in on the chase as well.

Nolan’s father is a self-appointed, sociopathic prophet who is a polygamist, murderer, fanatic, thief, dictator, wife and child abuser, and just about every other negative label one can imagine.  But one can’t just write him off as he views rebellion as treachery and insists on the absolute punishment – death – to all who cross his sick vision and decisions.  He wants Zoe now and has put something inside her that will enable him to easily find her – that is his family and followers will as he’s presently locked in a maximum security prison.

So the chase grows more and more intense as friend and foe get closer to Sarah and Zoe.  There are other threads within this story in which friend becomes foe and vice versa.  Every page is filled with high drama and one comes to admire Sarah for her fervor in protecting Zoe and eluding her pursuers.  No, it doesn’t think the way the reader believes it will; instead it leaves the reader wondering if there will be a another hair-raising sequel to this gripping story.

The Shadow Tracer is great crime fiction, a simple plot with many unexpected twists and turns, enough adrenaline-pumping action to keep a reader up all night during and after one’s non-stop reading, and very real scenarios that partially bear truth to realistic stories that have been in the news in the last twenty-five years.  Get ready for a rollicking roller coaster ride – Meg Gardiner knows how to spin a deadly mystery/crime novel!! Great read!

Rutherford Park: A Novel by Elizabeth Cooke

Rutherford Park: A Novel.  Elizabeth Cooke. Random House Publishing Group. July 2, 2013. 336 pp. pbk. ISBN #: 9780425262580.

Harry Cavendish is a lady’s man, thinking nothing of seducing the maids in his parents’ home – that is, if one can think of a residence where the father, William, rules both wife and children without any warmth and guidance beyond rules.  But Harry’s gone too far this time, leaving Emily, the housemaid, pregnant and so distraught that she acts in a devastating way; Harry at first doesn’t seem to care but it seems Emily’s demise has actually filled him with guilt and remorse.  However, there are rules for the upper class, very much like the ones so many have viewed on Downton Abbey, the extraordinary popular British TV series.  One can’t marry below one’s class and concentrates on cleaning up the messes that occur as humans basically are flawed, no matter what class their origin!

Harry’s mother, Octavia, seems a cold woman but it’s really not so at all.  She secretly arranges for Emily’s child to be cared for and then begins to contemplate how she herself should react (or not) to her suspicions about her husband’s infidelity.  Servants can’t be told anything directly or even have hints dropped, although they always know more about the comings and goings of the family than the family itself.

Harry wants desperately to fly, especially with WWI looming.  It would also be a fortuitous escape route for him, guaranteeing that lack of presence would mean lack of responsibility for the suffering he’s left behind him.  Octavia, on the other hand, wants Harry to deal with it all.  But for a very understandable way, she knows where he learned his “privileged” status, the same way her husband did, despite the fact that he married into her wealth and not vice versa. She'll have to make a choice soon or change their entire lives.

But now a young man approaches William Cavendish with a claim that William causes preposterous.  Yet that claim assumes threatening status when William’s daughter, Louisa, disappears, what will be the response of these parents?  And what of the woman who hates Octavia because she secretly loves William – for years!

Rutherford Park: A Novel is a sweeping story involving changes happening to both upper and lower classes of pre-World War I England as well as industrial changes throughout the country.  The novel races along with increasingly different relationships and changes that mandate a different way of living.  How these challenges are met and the maturing of all characters creates gripping reading that neither lags nor is reduced to simplistic responses and answers.  

Excellent historical fiction that stands up to its comparison and contrast with the beloved Downton Abbey and even exceeds it in some ways.