Thursday, July 25, 2013

Comfort Foods and Curious Phenomena

The Kitchen Daughter by Jael McHenry

Ginny has Asperger's, and one of the few things that calms and comforts her during times of stress, is cooking. So when she's trying to cope with the sudden death of her parents by making one of her grandmother Nonna's recipes, and Nonna's ghost appears in the kitchen, she's not sure what to think. Is she being cursed or has she got a gift? One thing for certain, she can't tell her sister Amanda, or she'll certainly have to move in with her and her family. More importantly, what was the message Nonna was trying to tell her, just as she faded away? Whatever it was, Ginny knows one thing - she wants to be left alone to find out and take care of herself, no matter what Amanda thinks.

One of the interesting things about this story is that as the book begins, Ginny doesn't know she has Asperger's. Yes, she knows she's different, but the label has never been used with her. What little I know about the syndrome is what I've read in fiction and seen on TV series. From that, I can easily believe that Ginny could be in the dark about this, even at the age of 26, especially because her mother seems to have done so much to help her cope with life and make her feel normal. Of course, this brings up the whole issue of what is really "normal." Is it confined to only the type of behavior society finds acceptable, or are there gray areas as well? If Ginny can take care of herself, even if she has difficulties with some things, then isn't that enough? Personally, I think it should be, but her sister doesn't agree.

McHenry weaves her own version of magical reality into this story, which also complicates the situation. By adding the apparitions of lost loved ones conjured up through Ginny's cooking, the reader begins to doubt if she is even within the "normal" range. However, Ginny is so immediately sympathetic to the readers that it is easy to disregard the strangeness of these visitations. In fact, we quickly become involved with Ginny's journey to discover what Nonna was trying to tell her. So we really don't care if these ghosts are a figment of Ginny's imagination, some side-effect of her medications, an unusual case of waking dreams or actually real.

This is what impressed me the most about this book. The characters feel alive and their flaws are very human; we want to see them evolve and be witness to that process. We identify with their pains and difficulties, even if we've never been in their shoes. We understand their weaknesses and we are willing to forgive them when they make mistakes. And, as the tale unfolds, we also begin to question if our own concept of "normal." Is it just our own personal version, which others would view as abnormal? If so, then there is no normal at all.

With this beautifully crafted story, McHenry also gives us the delectable recipes that Ginny makes which bring about her ghosts. As we read these passages, we realize that the real point of her cooking is a unique path to discover more about herself. This makes this into a culinary coming-of-age novel like none I've ever read before. My only problem with the book is that I felt the ending was slightly rushed and tied things up just a touch too nicely for my taste. For this, I can confidently recommend Jael McHenry's "The Kitchen Daughter" and give it four out of five stars. 

"The Kitchen Daughter" by Jael McHenry is available from Amazon and Amazon UKBarnes & Noble, Kobo, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), iTunes or an IndieBound store near you.

This review was originally published on Curious Book Fans and also appeared on {the now defunct} Yahoo! Contributor Network.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Who is the better writer - Robert Galbraith or J.K. Rowling?

Yes, I know full well that the novel "The Cuckoo's Calling" was published under Rowling's pseudonym Robert Galbraith. By all accounts, the novel was getting fairly good reviews before anyone knew the truth about the author. While it wasn't being considered for any best sellers lists, it was certainly not doing badly for a seemingly "debut" novel.

But when the truth was revealed, two things happened. First of all, the sales started going through the roof, with both the UK and US Amazon sites have it as ranked #1. (I wish I knew how it had ranked before the news broke.) Secondly, a huge number of one-star reviews started popping up on both the Amazon sites. Obviously people were angry about being duped, or maybe they were angry at having the truth leaked. There were a few more four and five star reviews that showed up to counter this, but it seems no one thought the book was all bad until after the news came out. Does that seem a touch suspicious to you? It does to me!

So maybe it was a marketing ploy to leak the true identity of the author.  If so, it worked. The problem is that some people are going to hold that against the book (as they already do her). Does that mean I'll be reading the book? No, it does not. You see, I'm not a crime fiction person. Yes, I've read some, but it isn't the genre that I'm immediately drawn to when looking for something to read. So it isn't like I was going to go out and read this in any case. Knowing that the real author is Rowling hasn't changed that for me in the least. This is because, while I've always appreciated the fact that the Harry Potter books got young people reading again, I didn't find her to be all that marvelous of a writer.

Don't get me wrong; she isn't a bad writer, she's just not a great one. Her forte is that she knows how to devise a good plot with lots of action and twists to keep the readers' interest. And that's a must for a crime novelist. However, a great deal of things in her Harry Potter books made them less than optimal. For instance, her dialog was on the weak side. The protagonists all sounded alike, as did all of the antagonists. Also I found her style to be a bit simplistic. Yes, they were young adult novels, but that doesn't mean they can't read slightly more sophisticated texts. But my biggest bone of contention was that, as the series wore on, we got the feeling that her editors stopped doing their jobs. Her last books in the series were bloated beyond belief, and after a while, I just gave up on them.

Does this mean the new book can't be good? No, it does not. Not even in light of the lukewarm reception that her adult novel brought. Did I read that? No, I didn't. And I have to admit that it was partially because of my last impressions of the Harry Potter books that I didn't bother with it. The other reason was that it sounded far too much like so many other books I've read by authors I really like. So I ignored it - like many others did.

In fact, perhaps it was because of just this type of criticism that not using her real name for this new book was a good idea. I imagine that publishing under a pseudonym can be either a humbling or an exhilarating experience. If it gets high praise, you know you've got a talent - your popularity wasn't a fluke. If not, you know that people were buying your books because of your fame and not because of your abilities (which would be, apparently, lacking).

To tell the truth, I'm kind of sorry that her secret was leaked. Some people will never stop being angry with her for hiding behind the name Robert Galbraith. Others will buy the book solely because the mask has been removed. In the end, love her or hate her, the book can no longer be judged on its merit alone. That's just sad. And if I were Ms. Rowling, I would have preferred it otherwise.

Monday, July 15, 2013

A Novel of Art, Birds and Mysteries

The Gravity of Birds by Tracey Guzeman

This book follows two paths. First we have the story of Alice and Natalie Kessler - sisters who were once lovingly close and now forcibly remain together, still bonded by mutual bitterness. Part of that bitterness comes from Alice's Rheumatoid Arthritis, and Natalie's need to care for her sister after their parents die. But a larger part comes from the pasts that both women are running from.

Then there is Thomas Bayber's story - the charismatic and extremely talented artist who stopped painting and became a recluse, but no one knows why. Then Thomas calls his friend, the Professor of Art History and Bayber expert, Dennis Finch, to tell him of the existence of a painting that Finch never cataloged. Bayber insists Finch use the out-of-luck but expert art authenticator, Stephen Jameson to validate the work is real. But they quickly discover that the painting "The Kessler Sisters" is actually one of a triptych, and Jameson's art dealers will only agree to sell the painting with its companions. This is when these two paths begin to intertwine, and the mystery behind Bayber's last works and the two women begins to unfold.

Yes, this is a complicated plot, but thankfully dealt with in a very elegant manner. To begin with, the sections containing the flashbacks about Alice and Natalie have a very gentle and poetic fell about them. These nicely contrast with the more modern sounding parts, which recount Finch and Stephen's detective work. In fact, these parts feel so different it is almost hard to believe they were both written by the same person. However, Guzeman does some mixing between the two. For instance, when Alice speaks, there is nothing sentimental in her choice of words. On the other hand, when Finch thinks about his wife and daughter, the descriptions flow with sensitivity. This allows the two stories better cohesiveness and helps them both circle around Bayber - the man and his art.

What's really fascinating about Guzeman's writing is how she has these parts spiral in ever decreasing orbits until they practically collide, making the reader all the more interested in reaching the conclusion. This could be the metaphor of the word 'gravity' in the title, as the two stories pull towards each other. As for the birds, first Alice and then Bayber are drawn to them for their own reasons. But it is more than that, and the application of other meaning of 'gravity' only becomes evident as we near the end of the book. All this gives the novel a very carefully carved - almost sculpted feel, without ever feeling stiff or stilted.

However, a few things didn't sit completely right with me. For instance, several characters hear voices from the past. These were mostly flashbacks inserted into the action, all of which flit by like… well, birds. The idea is obviously a good one, and in many places these were executed very well. However, in a few instances, Guzeman gives these shadows enough of a physical presence that they can practically, and sometimes literally, be touched and felt. While I'm willing to accept voices from beyond and the past in people's heads, the few encounters that went beyond that just didn't work for me. I also felt that as we got closer to the conclusion, there were some passages that related to characters pasts and their present motivations which distract the reader from the action. I would have preferred these to have stayed in the earlier parts of the book, and not nearer the end when I was anxious to read how things turned out.

Obviously, the frustration I felt at these sections only goes to prove how engrossing this story really is. Guzeman is very talented at building characters that evoke empathy from the reader while weaving a tale that has almost as many twists as a mystery novel. Her use of atmospheric language is carefully crafted to suit the time-frames involved, and the characters themselves. All told, this is a lovely story with fascinating characters, and deserves a solid recommendation of four stars out of five. 

"The Gravity of Birds" by Tracey Guzeman released on August 6, 2013 by Simon & Schuster is available from Amazon (US & UK), Barnes & Noble, in ePUB format from Kobo, as an iBook or audiobook from iTunes, in paperback from the Book Depository or from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an advanced review copy via NetGalley.

(This is a revised version of a review that appears on Dooyoo under my username TheChocolateLady and also appeared on {the now defunct} Yahoo! Contributor Network.)

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Come to me, my little pretties!

Here in Israel, where English is maybe the third, if not the fourth language of the country, bookstores don't leave much room for English titles on their shelves. Those they do stock are more often than not fan-fiction, and what I call best-seller pulp (Danielle Steele, Stephen King, etc.) that hold little to no appeal for me. Since these are imports, they also aren't always affordable. Used bookshops do exist here, but there too one finds slim pickings at the best of times. Plus, these shops are almost always located off beaten and inconvenient tracks. In short, since moving to Israel, obtaining reading material in my native tongue has always been a bit of a challenge here.

For quite a long time the British Council had a network of English libraries. These were the source of dozens of years' worth of reading materials for a nominal fee. Through them, I became aware of writers from across the United Kingdom that I would never have been exposed to while living in the USA (along with videos and later DVDs of British films and TV series). It was a sad day indeed when they went the way of the Dodo Bird. What's more, the American Cultural Center's fiction section has always been a huge disappointment.

For all of my life here, we have always taken every opportunity to purchase books on any trip abroad. If we were visiting the UK or the USA, our suitcases would certainly be far heavier on our return journey. If we were going somewhere non-English speaking, a trip to any airport newsstand could always garner us at least one or two new titles. 

Then came the advent of on-line shops like Amazon. These could have been the answers to our prayers.  But the cost for shipping books all the way to Israel made buying them very expensive.  Still, we did buy some books like that, as did many others. But when this became a national trend, the one-and-only Israeli importer of books convinced customs to begin cracking down on Amazon shipments, with high import duties on shipments over a certain size. That was when Book Depository, with its slightly higher prices but no shipping charges, became our best friend. 

Moving with the Times 

It was around this time that my sister made a trip to the US and decided it was time for me to have an eReader. She went with a Nook, because that was what she had. I soon found out that while Barnes & Nobel would let me buy eBooks, but I couldn't use my PayPal funds for them. Many other sites (including Amazon and iTunes) wouldn't let me buy eBooks because of my location (and when I tried to fake it by hiding my IP, I got error messages). Luckily, I found sites that didn't care where I was, and also took PayPal (unfortunately, the one I liked the most got shut down).

In the meanwhile, I muddled through, getting books wherever I could. At one point I noticed someone was reviewing books for their blog. What interested me in this was that they were getting publishers sending them advance readers copies (ARCs) of books. The idea of writing a review of a book that hadn't yet been published was terribly appealing to me. But her site was all about "chic-lit" and well, that's not really my genre. I'm more of a literary fiction girl. 

Not long after that when I came across Curious Book Fans. Here was a site that was also being contacted by publishers who were willing to give their writers books to review. Despite my living in Israel and not the UK, they were willing to accept some of my previously written reviews. Plus, some publishers were even willing to send me their books. At first, I only got them as PDF files, but then I got some "dead-tree" ones as well. I was thrilled! I was reading books that most people hadn't yet read. I could formulate my own opinion about them, and maybe influence others. So far, I've received eight books from this site, only three of which were eBooks. (Unfortunately, one of those eBooks was really, really bad, and I disliked it so much, I couldn't finish it.)

Then one day I requested a book that they couldn't send me. They suggested I get it through a site called NetGalley, so I looked them up. Lo and behold, here was a site just for people just like me - book reviewers (as well as book sellers, librarians and bloggers) who wanted to review new books! I signed up, filled in my profile and began requesting titles. 

To my surprise, two of the first requests I made were accepted (one of which is already being touted as a 'best seller'). That was in late April. I've now had 10 requests accepted, written reviews on five of those (one of which I'm still waiting to get published).  Suddenly, I've got a pile of books I have to read, and we won't even get into those books we've bought over the years that I never got around to reading, and still want to get to. 

All this means that because of the slow speed I read at, I have the delightful dilemma of having too many books and too little time to read them!

Pity me?

I bet you don't!

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