SIBA Day One

As many of you know, I had an amazing time last weekend at SIBA with Sandy, Heather, and Jill. Since I had so much fun, I thought it would be appropriate to recap the fun for you all in excruciating detail. ;) So this is the first of four posts recapping the awesomeness that was SIBA 2012.

Thursday morning Sandy and I left Orlando for Naples, a drive that took about four hours. Of course, we were chatting the entire drive so it went by super fast. We also stopped for lunch at a delicious little cafe in Punta Gorda. When we arrived at the hotel, after checking in, Jill and Heather meandered their way into our room and we got to meet Jill for the first time! I love how when book bloggers who have never met meet for the first time it is like we have known each other forever. The four of us hung out and chatted for an hour or so before going downstairs to meet the bus we were taking to a bookstore event and dinner that night.

We got on the bus and headed over to Sunshine Books, the only independent bookstore on Marco Island. In fact, they have two locations, so after checking out the first store we all got back on the bus and headed over to the second location, where they had wine and cheese waiting for us! These bookstores were super cute and I was sad that I don’t really live anywhere in the area in order to frequent them more often.

After touring the bookstores, we went to dinner with a large group of booksellers and authors at an Italian restaurant nearby. At our table, we were lucky enough to be joined by the bookstore owner and several authors. We met author Jenny Milchman, whose debut novel, Cover of Snow, looks AWESOME and will be out in January. Also at our table was Peter Golden, author of Comeback Love, Steve Piacente, author of Bootlicker, and Wendy Kupfor, author of Let’s Hear it for Almigal, a children’s book about a girl with hearing loss. At the end of the dinner, which was supposed to be dutch, we learned that JKS Communications took care of the bill! Crazy nice of them. :) Although the food service was distressingly slow, the conversation (and wine) flowed wonderfully and I am pretty sure we all enjoyed ourselves tremendously.

It was an awesome first day, one that showed me the entire event promised to be full of bookish, nerdy fun. Stay tuned for days two, three, and four!

The Madonnas of Echo Park by Brando Skyhorse

The Madonnas of Echo ParkThe Madonnas of Echo Park by Brando Skyhorse
Published by Free Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster
Review copy provided by the publicist

When the girls and women from the Mexican neighborhood of Echo Park, Los Angeles gather together on a street corner to practice a scene from a music video, they are caught in the middle of a drive-by shooting and one little girl is killed. In the aftermath of the attack, Aurora Esperanza’s relationship with her mother, Felicia, grows increasingly strained as Felicia, a housekeeper, forges a relationship with the woman she works for. Meanwhile, Aurora’s father reflects on the fact that he’s been separated from his wife and daughter – by his own doing – for so many years, and other people in the community of Echo Park go on with their lives as usual. This novel, which is more like short stories within a novel, brilliantly illustrates how all of these lives are interconnected.

The Madonnas of Echo Park was, for me, a lovefest I completely did not expect. I fell completely in love with these characters, Skyhorse’s gorgeous writing, and the structure of the novel – everything about it worked in perfect harmony for me.

The blurb on the publisher’s website for this novel compares it to the movie Crash, and while I hadn’t seen that comparison before reading the novel, I think it’s a very appropriate comparison to make. Being that Crash is one of my all-time favorite movies, I suppose it makes perfect sense that I would love this book too. The thing is that the book (and the movie) is really a series of short stories, with characters from each of the stories being a part of other characters’ lives from other stories too. Each chapter could easily stand on its own, but you really need to read the entire book to get the true impact of what Skyhorse did with these characters and their stories. In fact, I may just read it again from the beginning because it did take me a chapter or two to really get into it. It would be interesting to read it again from the beginning, knowing what’s to come.

Brando Skyhorse’s writing is absolutely brilliant. His writing is lush, descriptive, and gorgeous without even once being over the top. He created these amazingly realistic characters, and then treated the reader to some of the most beautiful writing I’ve read in a while. Fabulous.

I loved this unique short story/novel experience so much that I really hope you’ll give it a try. I couldn’t put this book down and I cannot more highly recommend it. I loved everything about The Madonnas of Echo Park and I can’t think of any other way to say that – just read it!

The Book of Lies by Mary Horlock

The Book of Lies by Mary Horlock
Published by Harper Perennial, an imprint of HarperCollins
Review copy provided by the publisher in conjunction with TLC Book Tours

Beautiful Nicolette arrives at Cat Rozier’s school in 1984 and Cat and Nic become inseparable. They spend their time hanging out with other teens, drinking, and causing trouble on the small island of Guernsey where they live. Unfortunately, they have a falling-out due to a cruel betrayal, and their friendship is shattered, causing Cat to react in the worst possible way. When Cat isn’t spending time with Nic, she is reading the story of her father’s brother Charlie, who had a very interesting life during the Nazi occupation of Guernsey during the Second World War. While Cat doesn’t know the full story of her uncle’s past, she is desperate to uncover the family secrets within her father’s journals.

This book is difficult to summarize because there are two storylines, both with quite a lot of twists and turns that are not to be spoiled. Cat’s own story is an interesting one because from the onset, the reader knows Cat isn’t exactly the most trustworthy or reliable of narrators. Cat tells the reader about some horrible thing she’s done pretty early on in the story, but it takes her the entire book to reveal what exactly happened and why. As a result, I was on the edge of my seat to find out what her secrets were, while at the same time wondering if anything she was saying was even true in the first place. The secondary plot, about Cat’s uncle Charles, was less interesting to me but I still wanted to know the family secrets regarding that situation. I also liked that plot for the historical aspects – I will read just about any historical fiction regarding World War Two, so this worked for me in that regard.

I have to say that I didn’t much enjoy Cat’s character. She really was a terribly behaved teenager, and not only that but she was rather self-absorbed and not very self-aware. She kind of did whatever she wanted with no thought to the potential consequences. While I was interested in her story and wanted to know where it would take me, I had a difficult time connecting with her which probably hampered my overall enjoyment of the story. The fact that I couldn’t trust her added an interesting element to the story, but it also made it difficult for me to feel close to her in any way.

The fact that this book is essentially two separate stories coming together is fun and exciting, but I have to admit that I had difficulty getting overly involved in either one because every time I would get sucked into one plot, it would pause and the other one would continue. It just didn’t seem to me like they threaded together very well, and as a result I found the interruptions somewhat distracting. However, in the end I was satisfied with the resolutions to both of them, so I guess that’s a positive. I admire what Horlock was trying to do in putting these two stories into one novel, but I can’t say that it worked all that well for me.

While The Book of Lies has many interesting and unique elements and I did enjoy reading it, overall it won’t become one of my favorite novels. It’s not that I disliked it by any means, it’s just that it falls more into the “it was decent” category and ultimately I think it will be forgettable. I would still recommend trying it out if the plot intrigues you, as some of the elements might come together better for you than they did for me. Overall, this is an interesting and creative book, but not necessarily a favorite of mine in the end,

Stay by Deb Caletti

Stay by Deb Caletti
Published by Simon Pulse, an imprint of Simon & Schuster

Clara met and quickly fell in love with Christian, and their relationship was intense, crazy, fun – like nothing she’d ever experienced. But fun and intense turned fast into terrifying and intense, and Clara began to imagine the lengths Christian might go to make her stay with him. Now Clara and her father have moved to a new town, and nobody knows where they are, but Clara still can’t relax. She knows the depths of Christian’s obsession with her, and she can’t let go of the feeling that he won’t stop until he has her back with him again – whatever it takes.

To say that Stay hit close to home for me would be a massive understatement. In fact, it hit so close to home that I don’t think I’m capable of writing a proper review. You see, years ago, I was in a relationship with an emotionally abusive, manipulative, and controlling person. He hurt me and broke my spirit in more ways than I can count or begin to explain. It’s been more than five years since I’ve spoken to this person, but the ways in which he destroyed my self-esteem, belief in myself, and my soul still have a profound affect on me to this day. Sometimes I feel bad for my husband because I need a little more TLC than most people probably do in average situations because this relationship messed with my head to such a large degree.

This is to say that I get how terrifying and paralyzing these relationships can be, and I am here to tell you that Deb Caletti got it right in this book. She got it so right that I found myself reliving moments from my past – moments I wish I could forget but I know I never will – as I was reading Clara tell her own story. The way I felt about Clara goes beyond empathy – truth be told, I was her at one point in my life. I know firsthand how this type of relationship can destroy one’s soul, how it can make a person question every single decision, every step, every action and wonder how the other person will react. This type of relationship made a person like me, a reasonably intelligent, decent-looking, and extremely rational girl believe that she is nothing. And Caletti made this come to life with Clara and Christian. It was difficult for me to read, yes, but almost cathartic in a way. Because it made me remember that this happens to girls (and guys, too) all the time. That there are manipulative, emotionally abusive people out there just waiting for a person to abuse, and it was not my fault that this happened to me. And if you ever find yourself in a situation like Clara, or ever have in the past, it is not your fault either. Emotional abuse is still abuse, and it can hurt just as much if not more than being hit.

Anyway, like I said, I clearly don’t have the ability to properly review Stay but what I will say is that I suggest you read it. These manipulative and abusive relationships are probably more common than we’d like to think and Caletti did an amazing job bringing such a terrifying situation to light. Although it wasn’t easy for me to read this book, I’m so glad I did and I cannot more highly recommend it.

Dreams of Joy by Lisa See

From the Hardcover editionDreams of Joy by Lisa See
Published by Random House
Review copy provided by the publicist

After her father’s devastating suicide and her discovery of long-buried family secrets, nineteen-year-old Joy flees to China to meet her biological father, the artist Z.G. Li. Joy is overwhelmed with respect for this man she’s never met but who seems almost godlike to her, so she goes with him into a commune of the New Society of Red China, believing that the communist regime is doing the right thing for her parents’ home country. Her mother, Pearl, follows her into China, believing with every fiber of her being that Joy is making a mistake in settling down in such a totalitarian and communist country. Desperate to be reunited with her daughter, Pearl confronts the pain of her past and challenges that seem near impossible, making every attempt to get her daughter out of this terrifying country. While both Joy and Pearl fight to understand how their pasts have so deeply tinged their present, one of the most deadly events in Chinese history threatens both of their lives.

I absolutely loved See’s Shanghai Girls (the predecessor to this novel) so there was no question in my mind that I would read Dreams of Joy as soon as I could get my hands on a copy. I’m very happy to report that this book was just as good everything else I’ve read by Lisa See (I have to admit, I’ve come to expect excellence from her and she always delivers) and it was the perfect conclusion to Shanghai Girls.

Admittedly, Joy bothered me a lot at the beginning of this novel. True, she had just learned some pretty major things about her life which her parents had kept secret from her for almost twenty years, but she acted very rashly and without any forethought. She spent a huge portion of money on a ticket to an unknown and unfamiliar country – a country which had strict rules on who can come and go across its borders. And when she arrives in China, she’s told she must surrender her passport in order to be admitted in, and she does! She doesn’t think about the consequences of her actions, not in terms of how they affect her own life and definitely not in terms of how they will affect the people who love her. Part of me admired her plucky spirit and sense of adventure, but the biggest part of me got annoyed with how spoiled and selfish she was acting, putting herself in an extremely dangerous situation with no ability to get herself out of it. All that being said, she won me over by the end of the book. There was such humanity in her character – she was just so honest, so true to herself, and eventually she displayed a deep level of regret for what she’d done and eventually forgiveness for what her family had done to her.

I loved the sense of time and place that See displayed within this novel. Red China was a terrifying place, and Lisa See captured that terror so accurately. At the same time, there were people who felt this society was a paradise, and she captured their feelings of hope, comfort, and confidence in this new regime so well. I found myself feeling fearful as I read about some of the things the characters dealt with. Lisa See really evoked in me a sense of what it must have been like to live in China during that period of history.

Of course, what I most hoped from this novel was some kind of resolution to the tumultuous ending Shanghai Girls gave me. While I loved being along for the ride on this journey with Joy and Pearl, what I most hoped for was a happy conclusion to their story. Obviously I’m not going to get into any spoilers here but I will say that I was happy with the overall plot of the novel, including the ending. Things were very, very difficult for Joy and Pearl while in China and as I was reading it, I found it difficult to imagine how See could end on a positive note. As with all of her novels, she managed the perfect resolution to an excellently told story.

I have one word for Dreams of Joy and it is this: LOVE. I strongly suggest reading Shanghai Girls before reading this book, though, or you’ll find yourself very confused. But please read both books, they are excellent and Lisa See is fabulous as ever.

My One and Only by Kristan Higgins

My One and OnlyMy One and Only by Kristan Higgins
Published by Harlequin
Review copy provided by the publicist

Divorce attorney Harper James is shocked when her younger sister, Willa, announces that she’s engaged to the brother of Haper’s ex-husband, Nick. Harper and Nick married young, divorced quickly, and haven’t spoken much since – but as soon as Harper sees Nick again, she remembers exactly why she fell for him in the first place. Due to a weather issue, Harper’s flight back home after the wedding is cancelled, and Nick offers to drive her – which means the two of them are alone together for a few days. Although Harper has a boyfriend of several years back at home, she can’t help thinking about what might have been with Nick as she realizes that they truly might get another chance to make things right.

It is extremely rare for me to even think about picking up a romance novel. Therefore, when I received a copy of My One and Only as a surprise from the publisher, I set it aside, thinking I’d hold on to it for a giveaway or something, but most likely would not actually read it myself. For whatever reason, though, I needed a light read one day so I decided to just go for it. I told myself it was more of a contemporary romance, more like chick-lit than an actual romance novel, and why not give it a try.

Did I enjoy the book? Yes and no. It was kind of what I expected – very on-the-surface characters, funny and fun to read about but lacking depth. The story was humorous and sweet at times but too predictable for my tastes, as I don’t much enjoy when a book does everything you expect it to do, without exception. But I have to admit that it was an entertaining ride. And at a time when I was looking for something a little more on the fluffy side, that didn’t require me to think too much, this book did the trick. That’s not an insult at all, so please don’t take it as such – all I mean is that these kinds of books are easy to consume and can be very fun for that reason, but I tend to like my fiction to be a little more thought-provoking.

What I want to say, though, is that I can very much appreciate the market for a book like My One and Only. The main character is ballsy and independent yet you know from the beginning that she will get her happy ending. Sometimes we all need to read a fairy tale to be reminded of what is possible in life – and these kinds of books are like fairy tales for grownups. So yes I enjoyed the experience of reading it but overall, this kind of novel is just not my cup of tea.

I can’t really compare My One and Only to other books of its kind because, as I’ve made quite clear, I don’t read romance novels hardly at all. But for a romance novel newbie like myself, the book fit exactly what I was looking for. It was fun, funny, and very sweet. I definitely think readers who are more accustomed to this kind of fiction will enjoy the book.

Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly

From the Unabridged Compact Disc editionRevolution by Jennifer Donnelly
Published by Delacorte Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Random House

High school senior Andi Alpers is busy grieving over the death of her bother and failing out of her private school in Brooklyn, finding her only happiness in her music, when her father decides that she must accompany him on a trip to Paris. While in Paris, her father is kept away by his work – he’s a scientist testing the DNA of a preserved heart thought to have belonged to the son of Marie Antoinette – so Andi is free to roam about the city. She is supposed to be beginning the work on her senior thesis when she comes across an old red journal. This journal was written by a girl named Alexandrine, companion to the young prince Louis, the same son of Marie Antoinette whose heart Andi’s father is studying. Andi is captivated by the diary, and she comes to find connections between her own life and Alexandrine’s experiences she never could have expected.

Would you believe Revolution was my first Jennifer Donnelly reading experience? Well I’ll tell you for sure, it won’t be my last. I’ve been meaning to pick up her books for ages now and finally spotted a copy of this one on audio at my library, so I grabbed it right away. I’m very satisfied with that decision because the book worked remarkably well on audio. The narrators, Emily Janice Card (Andi) and Emma Bering (Alexandrine) did a wonderful job bringing these characters to life, and I thought both of their voices really worked for the characters they were portraying.

As for the book itself, I absolutely enjoyed it. The story kept me on my toes and I was just as desperate to find out what would happen to Alexandrine and Prince Louis as Andi was. I definitely saw connections between the two girls’ stories, and it was fun to listen as Andi gradually began to see these connections too.

Andi herself is the kind of character who is difficult to like, but eventually she did win me over. She is a spoiled and petulant teenager in the beginning, treating her father horribly and wallowing in her own self-pity instead of focusing on more important things, but as the story went on I began to see things more clearly from her point of view. She couldn’t see anything through the grief she was suffering over her brother’s death, her father had basically abandoned their family in favor of his work, and her mother had become almost unable to take care of herself due to her own suffering. While Andi was a major brat in the beginning of the book, she was bratty and self-involved for good reason, and her character did grow on me as I listened further. Also, it helped matters that she had quite a transformation in her own right over the course of the book, which made me like and respect her even more.

There was one aspect of the book that was mildly confusing for me and I’m still not sure how I feel about it (THIS IS A MINOR SPOILER), which was the time traveling thing. I sort of felt like it came out of nowhere, I wasn’t expecting it at all and I’m still not sure if I think it fit in well with the rest of the book. I actually enjoyed that part of the story, but I didn’t like how there was never any explanation of why and how Andi was able to do that. It almost seemed like a too convenient, too easy way for Donnelly to resolve both girls’ stories. However, as I said, I did enjoy that section and once I forced myself to stop asking questions and just go with it, it became very fun for me. But still – I remain confused. (OK SPOILER OVER)

Overall, I really enjoyed Revolution and will be reading more of Donnelly’s books very soon. I love historical fiction for teens, and this one was not only satisfying YA, but it was impeccably researched, well-written and interesting historical fiction as well. Highly recommended.