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!

Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin

Finding George Orwell in BurmaFinding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin
Published by Penguin

After years of studying about and traveling in Burma, American writer Emma Larkin began to realize that George Orwell had a major connection to this country. His mother was born there, and Orwell’s writing was very much inspired by the time he spent living and working in Burma. It has been said that three of his books – Burmese Days, Animal Farm, and Nineteen Eighty-Four – were based on his experiences there. Inspired by this knowledge, Emma Larkin decided to take a year to travel through Burma using George Orwell as her guide. She traveled to the places he lived and worked, and in Finding George Orwell in Burma, she illuminates for the reader how this country has been shaped by its history.

Last year, I read Everything is Broken: A Tale of Catastrophe in Burma for a book tour [my review] which got me really intrigued and wanting to know more about Burma’s history and the people there. Finally, a year later I picked up Larkin’s first book about Burma, Finding George Orwell in Burma, in an attempt to learn more about this country.

I’m definitely glad to have experienced this book. Like Everything is Broken, it was definitely a difficult read emotionally.  The country of Burma has been through a LOT, most of it not pleasant, and Larkin doesn’t shy away from giving the reader insight into these events. Much of the book deals with Larkin’s conversations with various Burmese citizens, which was eye-opening to say the least. To read about their experiences directly from them (well, from Larkin’s translations of what they told her if you want to get technical) was interesting and at times hurt my heart. But difficult reads can sometimes be the most important ones, so I’m glad I gave myself this experience.

If you typically don’t read much nonfiction, I am not going to lie, this book might be difficult to get through. It’s not “fun” nonfiction like some other narrative nonfiction reads are, but it certainly is important. If you have patience and an interest in learning more about the country of Burma, I would definitely recommend reading the book. If you enjoy travelogues, read it. If you enjoy history, read it. If you are the kind of person who knows bad things happen in the world and is okay with reading about them, read it. So yes I would recommend the book, however I am aware that not everybody is interested in this sort of thing.

While I have to admit that Everything is Broken had a greater impact on me than this book did, Finding George Orwell in Burma was certainly a worthwhile read for me and I’m glad I picked it up.

Between, Georgia by Joshilyn Jackson

Between, Georgia by Joshilyn Jackson
Published by Grand Central Publishing, an imprint of Hachette

Nonny has always lived her life as a balancing act between her two families – her family of origin, the Crabtrees, and her adoptive family, the Fretts – as a result of the fact that the two family matriarchs have a long-standing hatred of one another and rivalry between them. She’s also got two mothers – her adoptive mother Stacia who is both deaf and blind and Stacia’s twin sister Jenny who is mentally unstable. She’s dealing with two men who have laid claim to her heart – a husband she’s trying to divorce and her childhood best friend who she’s beginning to see in a different light. Now an incident in her hometown of Between, Georgia brings Nonny home to deal with the Crabtree/Frett fued and attempt to clean up the messes left from years of fighting between the two families.

I am starting to realize that Joshilyn Jackson is one of the best writers of Southern fiction out there. Between, Georgia is the second novel of hers I’ve read and I enjoyed it just as much as Gods in Alabama. She has a way of writing fully realized, interesting characters and creating a true sense of place in her novels. I’m just so happy I’ve discovered her! (This is thanks mostly to Sandy, who inspired me to not only read Jackson but also to listen to her books on audio, a decision I’m extremely happy with.)

I loved Nonny and sympathized with her immediately. Oftentimes I find myself being the peacemaker of my family too, so I completely understood the position she was in. She was the only person in her family who truly got along with everyone, and all she wanted was some peace for everyone. Every time it seemed like she was making progress, another conflict would crop up or another incident would occur and it was almost like she was back at square one. It was extremely frustrating for Nonny, but I have to say that it was certainly enjoyable to read about!

The sense of place that Jackson manages to create in her books astounds me. Reading Between, Georgia was like being transported to Georgia and it was just done so perfectly. In general, her writing is fabulous but the fact that she can evoke such a feeling of being in the south for me is the best part about Jackson’s writing.

I already mentioned how I love Jackson in audio format, and Between, Georgia was no different. I loved this audio because Joshilyn Jackson narrates the book herself and she has a perfect light Southern accent and does the voices of the characters extremely well. The inflection in her voice is spot-on and she kept me on the edge of my seat with her narration of the story. I would definitely recommend the audio version of this book.

Between, Georgia is a fantastic Southern fiction novel that I absolutely would recommend. I loved the characters, the setting, and the entire experience of listening to it. I will happily read the rest of Jackson’s books in the very near future!

TSS

Good morning everyone and welcome to the Sunday Salon. My weekend has been okay so far, although I’m hoping it gets better today. I got some not-so-good family news yesterday, the details of which I won’t be discussing here in the interest of protecting someone’s privacy, but it shook me up quite a bit. Everyone is okay, nothing horrific happened, but I am finding myself thinking about it constantly. So I’m hoping I’ll be able to move on and just be thankful that everyone is okay. Last night hubby and I ate dinner at a restaurant we’d never been to before, Fin.Esse and it was very delicious. We had a $25 coupon so we didn’t end up spending too much on dinner, which made me very happy since it is a very nice restaurant. And we may go back some day for their Sunday brunch – I absolutely love brunch. :)

Today I plan to spend a little time by the pool if the weather clears up (it’s a bit cloudy at this moment) and then later, hubby is taking me to see the final Harry Potter movie! To be honest, I’ve never been a huge fan of the movies even though I am a majorly huge fan of the books, but I still want to see how everything turns out in the movie versions. I just watched Part 1 of HP7 last weekend and was underwhelmed, so I’m hoping the last part will be better. We’ll see!

So what are you up to this weekend?

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.

Attachments by Rainbow Rowell

AttachmentsAttachments by Rainbow Rowell
Published by Dutton Adult, an imprint of Penguin
Review copy provided by the publicist

Jennifer and Beth, best friends and co-workers, know that their company has a policy of no personal conversations using their employer-sponsored email accounts, and they also know that their email is being monitored to prevent them from using email for that purpose. However, they still have long conversations with one another over email about anything and everything going on in their personal lives. Lincoln is the internet security officer at their company, which basically means he’s responsible for screening all company emails to make sure people aren’t using them for non-work related purposes. In essence, he’s reading the vast majority of Jennifer and Beth’s conversations. At first he thinks he needs to report these women, and begins the process of doing just that. But soon he’s finding himself entertained by their conversations, and keeps reading them because they are making his job just a bit more fun and exciting. And furthermore, he’s developed quite a bit of a crush on Beth. By the time Lincoln realizes his feelings for Beth, it’s too late to introduce himself, as he can’t figure out a proper way to do so, but he’s dying to meet her in person. He decides he absolutely must follow his heart… no matter how awkward or difficult that might be.

There are so many things to smile about in Attachments. The concept certainly is clever and Rowell definitely executes it well. Her characters are fun, realistic, and real. The conversations between them feel very authentic and are reminiscent of similar conversations I’ve had with friends and co-workers over the years. And finally, the book is a quick, light read but with more depth than I had expected.

I suppose my favorite thing about Attachments would have to be the characters. It’s funny, because the reader gets to know Jennifer and Beth only through their email conversations, but I really felt that I got a sense of who they both are as individuals. I related to both of these women for different reasons, and as I stated, their conversations felt very authentic to me. The things they discussed over email were typical things that women discuss – relationship issues, family issues, etc. – and I could relate to having these same conversations with my own girlfriends. Lincoln, too, was a fully realized character and came to be the one I most rooted for. He was shy, insecure, but with a really good heart and deep down just wanted the opportunity to love someone and be loved back. I can relate to that (who can’t?) and I wanted so badly for him to find the love he was yearning for.

While I wouldn’t consider Attachments to be serious, literary fiction by any means, Rowell is a good, solid writer and her talent shows. Yes, the book is lighter in tone than some other books I’ve read, but it flies by and I found myself surprised with how much I was entertained by and enjoyed the novel. If you are a person who enjoys the more fun, lighter side of fiction from time to time, I would definitely recommend Attachments.

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.

Hunger by Jackie Morse Kessler

HungerHunger by Jackie Morse Kessler
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Lisabeth is your average seventeen-year-old, living a perfectly normal life, except for the fact that she is severely anorexic and suffers from debilitating depression in her obsession with food and staying thin. When Death knocks on her door and tells her she’s been appointed to be one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Famine), she is pretty sure she’s hallucinating. That is, until her steed – a black horse who lives outside her house and can be seen only by Lisabeth – summons her and she climbs upon his back to begin spreading hunger, as is her new role.  While on her journeys, Lisabeth begins to understand the consequences of real hunger which gives her insight into her own disorder, and she starts to see how she’s destroying her body and her life by starving herself.

The concept behind Hunger is a very creative one: an anorexic girl has to become one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and go around the world seeing how devastating famine truly is. Unfortunately, I didn’t particularly enjoy the execution of said original and interesting concept. I think the book could have been excellent but honestly, it just fell flat for me.

I think it was just too strange for me to have such a fantastical concept mixed in with a realistic situation of an anorexic girl. It was a great idea, like I said, but it didn’t play out well on the page. I couldn’t get involved with the story because I was left with so many questions. Other readers might be able to just relax and enjoy the story without trying to understand the why behind everything, but in this case I was not able to do that. This might have stemmed from the fact that the book was very short – it just didn’t give me enough time to really understand and absorb what was going on.

The other issue I had with the novel is that I couldn’t latch onto Lisabeth as a character, couldn’t care about her at all. You would think it would be easy for me to care about a teenager clearly suffering from this disease – I mean she was very clearly in pain from her anorexia – but I couldn’t. I don’t know if it was (again) because of the length of the book, or because of how Lisabeth was written, but whatever the reason I was not invested in her at all. Which, as I’m sure you can imagine, made it difficult for me to get into the story.

While I loved the concept behind Hunger, I was sad to see that it didn’t work out as well as I’d hoped in its execution. This book is the first in a series and I’m not planning to continue on with the series because I just did not enjoy this one very much. While I can’t recommend Hunger, Kessler certainly had a clever idea in writing it so I definitely give her props for that.

Ellis Island by Kate Kerrigan

Ellis Island by Kate Kerrigan
Published by Harper Paperbacks, an imprint of HarperCollins
Review copy provided by the publisher in conjunction with TLC Book Tours

The year is 1920. Ellie Hogan is madly in love with her husband John and looking forward to their future of living on and maintaining their farm in Ireland. But when John, a soldier in the Irish Republican Army, is met with a serious injury requiring surgery, Ellie knows she must figure out a way to pay for the treatment her husband desperately needs. So Ellie contacts a childhood friend who is living and working in New York City, and she is immediately given a job as a maid for a wealthy New York woman. Upon her arrival in New York, Ellie is overwhelmed with all the new things she has to learn about and experience, but soon she gets into the swing of things and begins to feel at home in America. But John is in Ireland, waiting patiently for her return home. Ellie is faced with an almost impossible decision – stay in New York, the city she’s fallen in love with, or return to Ireland where the true love of her life is waiting for her.

I’m always in the market for a good historical fiction novel, so when I heard about Ellis Island I was immediately intrigued. I was thrilled to discover that Ellis Island was everything I had hoped it would be and more. I found myself drawn into the story right from the very first page, and my enjoyment of the novel did not cease until I turned the very last page.

I loved the peek into rural Ireland this novel afforded me. Ellie and John grew up in a poor, tight-knit farm community, and over the course of the novel Kerrigan illustrates perfectly what it must be like to live in those kinds of circumstances. The people in the town, while being very close, are also very cliquish and gossipy. Growing up, Ellie never fit in with her classmates because her parents didn’t fit in with the other adults in their town. Her marriage to John helps give her roots but also inspires her to grow wings, based on his need for the surgery. And once Ellie spends time in New York, she can’t imagine going back to her (what she perceives as) small, insignificant life on the farm. The strong ties she felt to this life she really didn’t even want showed me just how much small-town life in that time would pull a person in. They truly took pride in their farms, their homes, and everything else about their lives – especially since this was just after they became independent from the English. It really was a joy to read about this part of Irish history.

In addition to a peek into rural 1920′s Ireland, Ellis Island gives the reader a thorough look into New York City at that same point in history. Ellie hobnobbed with the most influential socialites of that day, so the reader really gets a taste of the kind of luxury enjoyed by the richest people in New York at that time. Also, since Ellie came into America via Ellis Island, the book gives the reader a look at what the immigrant experience was like at that time. This was truly historical fiction at its best, and I loved every second of it.

In addition to loving the historical fiction aspects of this novel, I loved the character of Ellie. She is resourceful and smart, plucky and very determined. She’s a dutiful wife but also clear on the fact that she needs to do more than take care of her home and her husband. Her courage in going to America by herself is inspiring and the fact that she assimilated so well and so quickly is pretty amazing. I loved reading this story about her and from her perspective. She was truly the perfect heroine of this novel and I honestly loved everything about her.

I cannot possibly continue explaining how much I enjoyed Ellis Island without encouraging you to just read it! If you enjoy historical fiction with an excellent main character, this book is absolutely not to be missed.