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Review: The Engagements, J. Courtney Sullivan

the engagements“A Diamond is Forever” has become one of those advertising slogans that gets burned into a young American’s brain forever. I know just one person who got engaged without a diamond ring and I suspect most people do think that diamond engagement rings were always the standard. Not so – certainly not until Mary Frances Gerety penned those four lines and Ayer built an advertising campaign around engagement. In The Engagements, Sullivan takes a few wildly different relationships from the 1960s to the present day and explores love, with and without diamond rings, throughout the last fifty years.

I had really high expectations for this book when I started it and I’m pleased to say it met all of them. I liked the many different perspectives on love, and particularly the focus on how little an engagement ring really means. A diamond may last forever, but it’s the couple that gives it meaning. Some of these couples do, and some of them don’t, but all of them have interesting, engaging stories that emerge believably from Sullivan’s pen. As she cycles between characters, she accomplished an amazing feat for me – I liked all of the different eras. I was interested in the outcome of all of the marriages.

I also just liked seeing how different each of the relationships was. One of the couples has been together for years, and it’s their son who is having the difficulty with his marriage. Another of the characters has left her husband for a whirlwind engagement, while a third adores his wife but can’t afford the diamond he believes she deserves. And one of the characters in Frances Gerety herself, who despite writing such a line, never married. Instead, she remained a “career woman” and remained at Ayer throughout her working life. It’s a window into a different world, as she’s a single woman with a steady, surprisingly typical office job, in contrast to the numerous other relationships in the book. Plus, we get an idea of how advertising works, and how these companies managed to completely change perceptions in a way that has lasted decades. Ayer doesn’t even exist now but people are still buying diamond engagement rings.

While there are a number of failed relationships, Sullivan doesn’t shy away from the successful ones, so this book isn’t at all depressing. Instead I found it uplifting, sweet, and thoughtful, with a measure of gravity; every relationship is different and has its own meaning and its own outcome. I loved the way that, in the end, all of the relationships were tied together and very cleverly so.

The Engagements is a fantastic book, a great story of a little period of history and how much relationships have changed throughout. Highly recommended.

All external book links are affiliate links. I received this book for free for review.

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Review: Maine, J. Courtney Sullivan

maineThree generations of women, none of whom ever really managed to get along, collide at one Maine “cottage”. The matriarch of the family, Alice, is disappointed by the way her progeny have turned out, especially Karen, her oldest daughter. Karen and Alice have never really connected, to the point of Alice becoming jealous of her late husband’s affection for his daughter. Now Karen’s daughter Maggie goes to the cottage to escape a disastrous relationship and her own personal issues, including the fact that she seldom sees her mother. The last of our narrators is Ann Marie, who married into the family, and finds herself trapped in the life of a housewife while struggling to maintain her perfect image.

What I appreciated most about this book was the perspective each woman had about the others. As in real life, we never know all the details of someone else’s life, not even those who are closest to us. So each woman judges the others and we can see why they’re right, why they’re wrong, or what they’ve missed. For example, Alice and her daughter Karen simply do not get along; what both women generally miss is the fact that they struggle to be close because they are too similar to one another. Is it any surprise that they were both loved so deeply by Alice’s husband Daniel?

I’d also suggest that a large part of the book’s humor comes from this – and it helps to lighten the very important and deep issues that they all face when coming together. It’s difficult to actually like any of the women – particular Alice – simply because we’re seeing them, flaws and all, and I’m not sure I’d actually want to be friends with them. Except perhaps for Maggie, who despite her difficulties is a kind girl who is uncertain about her life. But this is the sort of book where you don’t need to like the characters to actually enjoy the book.

To underscore the similarities between them despite their often acerbic opinions of one another, many of the women struggle, or have struggled, with the same problems. Alcoholism is a big issue and has affected all of the women in ways that they may not have known about until this story is told. Uncertain pregnancies is another – Alice was never sure she wanted to have children, and didn’t know what to do with them. Now Maggie is pregnant, but increasingly worried about her decision. And motherhood – Ann Marie isn’t sure what to do with her daughter, who has just announced that she’s a lesbian, and must return to loving her daughter as a person rather than focusing on this one aspect of her.

As you can obviously tell, this is a very character-driven book. There is a plot going on at the same time, with different strands for each woman, but the ending is somewhat lackluster, so I hesitate to really recommend that as one of the book’s charms. But if you’re interested in a character study, with women you’re not sure you like even as you can begin to understand the workings of their various minds, you could hardly go wrong with Maine.

All book links to external sites are affiliate links. I purchased this book.

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Review: Outside the Ordinary World, Dori Ostermiller

outside the ordinary worldAs a child, Sylvia idolizes her beautiful, poised mother, who presents precisely the perfect image to the world – a stereotypically ideal wife and mother. But inside, Sylvia’s mother is anything but, as she’s been carrying on an adulterous affair and involving her children for years. As an adult, Sylvia has a husband and family of her own. She’s grown frustrated with her life and family, trapped in a seeming prison of her own making, until she meets Tai, the father of one of her art students. She’s irresistibly drawn to him. Can she avoid repeating her mother’s mistakes?

This book is told through two different time periods, both through Sylvia’s eyes; her childhood while she watches her mother slowly unravel her family’s life, and her adulthood where she is finally tempted by a man who isn’t her husband. This was an effective technique for telling the story, as each timeline has its own secrets that aren’t revealed until later in the novel. Both the narrative voices are (obviously) similar but never presented any problems in differentiating themselves to me.

What Sylvia slowly begins to realize is that her adult life has begun to parallel her mother’s, although it takes her a lot longer than it does for the reader. She hasn’t defined herself quite enough for her tastes. She’s an art teacher, but she feels as though she’s lost her own art. Her husband has buried himself in their new house, a project that’s been ongoing for years. Her younger child still needs her, but her older daughter is starting to grow apart from her, and her responsibilities are overwhelming her. She’s not sure where she is in her life, and in steps Tai, a chance to define herself apart from her family, a man who wants to give her attention just as she is. Even as she does that, she’s still not defining herself, merely repeating her mother’s footsteps.

In this sense, the novel is really about the quest of a woman reaching middle age to create her own identity. As readers we can see precisely why she is captivated by Tai, although he remains a more mysterious character. She needs to feel loved again, just for who she is without any of the trappings of her ordinary life.

The novel also carefully explores the damage that infidelity can wreak on a marriage and family, the slow but inexorable ways that couples who love one another deeply are led into adultery, and the difficulties of trying to keep together a marriage despite those faults. Would you stay with someone who had cheated so on you? Even Tai’s son is a victim, though neither Sylvia nor Tai appear to consider those consequences until it’s too late.

This thoughtful novel is an excellent choice for anyone who enjoys fiction about the inner workings of women’s lives and the difficulties wrought on relationships by infidelity. Outside the Ordinary World is a read that will linger in your mind long after you’ve turned the final page.

All book links to external sites are affiliate links. I received this book for free for review.

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Review: The Widow’s Season, Laura Brodie

the widow's seasonSarah McConnell’s husband has been dead for three months, lost in a boating accident. But then she sees him in the grocery store, in her home, at the cabin they once shared. She’s convinced that he’s real, more so when he speaks to her. When she tries to tell the women at her widow’s group, they all smile and reassure her, because they have all seen their husbands at one point or another. Sarah’s grief confuses her so much that she isn’t sure whether her husband is still alive, whether her experiences are real, or whether it’s all just the wishful thinking of a widow who wasn’t sure about anything beforehand either.

This book starts out with the perfect set-up. We instantly know Sarah is a widow and that she’s still seeing her husband as if he were alive. We speedily find out that he’s been lost in a boating accident, and though some of his personal items have been found, his body is still missing. So he might be alive, and missing, or he might truly be dead – it’s a mystery and Sarah is just as confused as the reader is. Throw in a bit of angst left over from their previous marriage and a whole lot of learning to be alone and it’s easy to understand how Sarah can struggle so much while doing her best to appear fairly normal.

Somehow, though, while I liked this book well enough, I never really crossed the line into loving it or feeling like I wanted to pick it up after I’d put it down. I did finish it, but it didn’t stand out in any way, and I felt there was a reason I’d had it for review for a while without considering reading it yet. I think a degree of this is personal; I generally struggle with books like this, which are about women and feelings, mainly I think because I am a woman and have feelings and get enough of that in my own life.

Still, I appreciated the way the book was put together, the slow unveiling of the mystery, confusing at first but with a twist at the end that helps it all make sense and coalesce. It’s a story about coping with grief and making sense of what is left, however possible. Whether David is still alive or not, and we spend most of the novel unsure, Sarah still has to manage her grief because her life will never be the same either way. I can appreciate that The Widow’s Season a very good book and I suspect someone who is the right target audience for this will just love it.

All book links to external sites are affiliate links. I received this book for free to review.

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Review: The Four Ms. Bradwells, Meg Waite Clayton

the four ms bradwellsIn one life-altering law school class, four women of different backgrounds and beliefs were christened Bradwells, and afterwards became friends for years. Though life has taken each of them down different paths, of success and of failure, Mia, Betts, Laney, and Ginger have remained loyal to one another and to their friendship since that day. Now, with Betts about to be appointed to the Supreme Court, investigators have dug up the memories of one summer where a man committed suicide. All four women flee from the truth and end up on the island where it happened, where Ginger’s family lived in the summers, to try and face the facts of their past and work out how to grow from here as women and as friends.

The Wednesday Sisters by Meg Waite Clayton was released to favorable reviews nearly everywhere, so even though I hadn’t managed to read that one yet, I still jumped to get my hands on The Four Ms. Bradwells. I wasn’t quite sure what I expected from it when I started, but what I got was a tale about four strong women who have to face demons from their past – demons that many women face in their own private lives without the spotlight placed on these four. As such, it was a compelling and meaningful read with a lot of relevance for women’s lives.

The story is told mainly through flashbacks. All of the friends are together on the island trying to face what they’ve kept from the world for so long. As they experience the familiar scenery, they are reminded of the past and forced to reflect upon their lives. I liked how the novel touched deeply on the nature of female friendships, relationships, and family, how the women can love one another yet cause each other to suffer. We’re only given the past through these flashbacks, so at the beginning I had no idea what had happened. The actual events weren’t earth-shattering but were certainly moving and I felt for these characters and the pain they’d endured over the years.

There were things I didn’t like about the book as well, unfortunately. For one thing, I found it really hard to distinguish the women’s separate voices. I never take note of chapter headings and I more than once experienced the phenomenon of confusion as it turned out the perspective had switched and I hadn’t noticed. Ginger’s poetry and Laney’s Latin helped with this some but also got old as the novel wore on. I’d find someone who quoted Latin phrases or any poetry endlessly to be annoying in real life, too, so no surprise that happened here. And, finally, I understood that the said event was a terrible event for these women and their families, but I didn’t really see it as ‘dirt’ that would interest anyone about Betts’s nomination to the Supreme Court. Is it really that bad if you’re simply at a weekend party where a suicide happens? I know I wouldn’t have thought anything of it.

Overall, though, I did enjoy The Four Ms. Bradwells and it’s certainly a worthy read for other women. I also still intend to read The Wednesday Sisters as I have for at least a year now – soon I hope!

All book links to external sites are affiliate links. I received this book for free for review.

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Review: These Things Hidden, Heather Gudenkauf

these things hiddenAllison Glenn has done her best to hide what happened the night she was arrested, but people always find out. Five years later, she’s out of prison, but she isn’t sure she’s happy about it; in prison she had peace for the first time in her life. Though everyone knew what she’d done, they’d done heinous things themselves. Out in the world, though, she is judged and condemned without an opportunity to speak up for herself. Her sister has been open to the criticisms for five long years, dealing with the stigma of that night, and wants nothing to do with Allison ever again. But Allison won’t give up and her perseverance will have consequences not only for herself and her sister, but for an innocent little boy and his family as well.

These Things Hidden is a book that starts out fairly slow but more than makes up for its drawn out beginning. Because it’s only a short book, I was surprised at how many characters were introduced over the course of the first fifty pages; there are four perspectives and each have their own supporting characters. I suspect it felt longer than it was because I was most drawn to Allison’s story and I wanted to get back to her immediately! Lucky for me (and the book’s momentum), the individual stories began to be interwoven almost immediately and all of them are necessary for the central mystery of the book.

Essentially, finding out what exactly happened that night, when Allison got arrested and destroyed her family’s life, is the underpinning of the entire book. Bits and pieces are made clear as the story goes along, but it doesn’t all wrap up until the end of the book. It’s an important driver for the rest of the book, which is a more emotional look at family love all around. Each character has a completely different relationship with her immediate family. Claire and her husband have been unable to conceive and have been able to adopt Joshua. Charm loves her stepfather, but has a difficult relationship with every other member of her family. And obviously, Allison and Brynn’s relationships with their families have changed drastically since that night and continue to evolve. They’re all very different structures, but the women are connected.

One thing I really appreciated about the book as well was how different each of the women’s voices were. I don’t know about you, but often when I’m reading a book with multiple narrators, they start to blend together. I hardly ever notice chapter divisions and there have definitely been times when I’ve sped through a book, the perspective has changed, and I haven’t realized that I’m in someone else’s head. That doesn’t happen here; each woman is distinct, with her own story to tell. The only one I struggled to relate to was Brynn. While I couldn’t understand all of their actions, I understood hers the least, but I think if I had gotten further inside her head it would have been a bit worrying.

These Things Hidden is a compelling novel that explores the relationships between women and their families in real depth while providing enough plot to keep the pages turning. Recommended.

I am an Amazon Associate. I received this book for free for review from a publicist.

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Mini Reviews

Trying to catch up again before the start of October!

Bombay Time, Thrity Umrigar

In this moving novel, a group of families in Bombay come together for the wedding of one of their children.  While there, they are all thrown into reminiscing about their past together and just how they got this far in the future.

I wish I’d reviewed this one earlier so I could look more deeply into it, but unfortunately it got a little lost in the shuffle as I tried to get reviews for actual review books out.  I loved it, however, most particularly the depth of the relationships between the people and their all too human foibles.  I found it gave me striking insight into some aspects of Indian communities and India itself, how it was growing and changing and the people either grew or didn’t grow with it.  The relationships – both romantic and platonic – between all of these people are gorgeously drawn, and what I really appreciated was the fact that they weren’t over.  This is a snapshot of lives, not an ending to them.  Beautiful book and has me determined to read more by Thrity Umrigar.

Splendour, Anna Godbersen

I actually haven’t reviewed any of the last three of this series, so this will stand as my summation of all of them.  As a result I won’t bother with a summary here; let’s just say that the ladies of New York City are out and about yet again, as things are shifting and their lives are going slightly crazy as always.  I have enjoyed this series; I still stand by my original assessment that it’s a bit of a guilty pleasure read as these girls’ lives are so scandalous and probably not quite accurate to history.  Unfortunately I wasn’t quite satisfied by the ending, but I am glad I managed to read to the end, and would recommend the whole series to anyone who is interested in a very romantic YA series based around the lives of a few girls in early twentieth century New York City.

Winnie-the-Pooh, A. A. Milne

I’d never read the actual Winnie the Pooh before, so when I found it was free for my Kindle, I decided to give it a read.  I was thoroughly charmed, let me tell you; these stories are so enchanting and so quick to read.  Even with the black and white screen, the illustrations are just gorgeous and bring the words to life.  This is really the perfect book for children and if/when I have some of my own, I fully intend to get them this book for their very own.  It was only missing Tigger; when does he show up??

The School of Essential Ingredients, Erica Bauermeister

As a girl, Lillian uses food to express herself and to bring her mother back to her.  As an adult, she runs a restaurant, and on Mondays holds a cooking class to bring other people together with food.  The motley mix of students this time each have their own problems and varying degrees of happiness, and Lillian doesn’t offer them a solution.  Instead she offers them a peaceful haven to rediscover themselves and to find connections with others that they’d feared lost forever.

This is one of those books I suspect I’d like more if I actually enjoyed fiction about people who have lives just like mine.  Unfortunately I didn’t think it dug quite deeply enough; each person got a single chapter, which was just enough to get a taste of their lives and not much else.  They were, for obvious reasons, all heavily tied in with food.  Eventually they do start to link together, but without the community feel and thoughtfulness of a book like Bombay Time.  This one just left me empty, although it did make me hungry as well with its luscious descriptions of food.  I’d hesitate to recommend this but I know others have enjoyed it more than me, so it might just be my dislike of women’s fiction popping back up again.

I am an Amazon Associate. None of these books were sent to me for review.

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Review: How to Be an American Housewife, Margaret Dilloway

Shoko, a young Japanese girl, is uncertain of her future in Japan; she is clever, but she can’t get very far without marrying someone of her class.  She and her father eventually decide that she should marry an American, so when she starts dating Charlie, the decision to marry is an easy one.  Years later, Shoko suffers from the same ailment that killed her sister, an enlarged heart.  Uncertain of how long she has left, Shoko longs to return to Japan and make amends with her family, but the doctor deems her too unwell.  Instead, her daughter Sue, with whom she has always had difficulties, heads off to find them for her, learning much more than she would have expected about her mother in the process.

I was a little wary of this book when I started, simply because I wasn’t sure if it was for me.  Similar books have ended up with me disliking them, and despite near universal praise I thought I might not like this one either.  I was completely wrong, though; the power of Dilloway’s storytelling swept me away and I got completely caught up in Sue and Shoko’s individual stories.

As always, though, my favorite part was that set in Japan during Shoko’s youth.  I always prefer the historical fiction over the modern day part of stories.  It frustrated me that her intelligence couldn’t get her anywhere, that she had to marry because that was simply what young girls did.  She worked, but it was clear there was no path for her.  I was also fascinated by her motivations in marrying Charlie – overall, I thought this section was just really well done.

I also found the relationship between Shoko and Sue to be completely believable.  I could easily understand how Sue resented her mother and the way her childhood had been different from everyone else’s, but saw how much she still cared for her.  Their relationship felt very real to me and though I haven’t experienced that particular one, I think any pair of mothers and daughters could see something of themselves in their bond.  Sue’s discovery of her mother’s past in detail – things that they’d never discussed – was also a fantastic journey of discovery, made even better by the fact that her daughter went along, too.

This was also a quick, delightful read, with nice even turns of phrase and nothing to really distract the reader from its central mother-daughter storyline.  I did find that it even had a bit of suspense, as after Shoko’s heart surgery the book switches to Sue’s perspective and we have no idea what’s happened to Shoko.  It added tension to her discoveries and gave the book an edge of unpredictability when the rest of it was fairly straightforward.

How to Be an American Housewife was a speedy read that really engaged all of my emotions.  I would highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys women’s fiction or historical fiction on post-World War II Japan.

I am an Amazon Associate. I received this book for free from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.

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Review: Writing Jane Austen, Elizabeth Aston

Georgina Jackson is a serious, literary writer – which is her world means she’s writing quality stuff, but sales are low and people are uninterested.  Though her first novel was a success by those standards, she’s struggling with book number two and has no idea whether she’ll be able to stay in her beloved England after her research money runs out.  So when her agent pitches her as the ideal writer to complete a Jane Austen book based on a single chapter, Georgina knows she can’t do it – especially because she hasn’t ever read a single book by Jane Austen – but she capitulates anyway because she desperately needs the money.

I liked a lot of things about this book.  For one thing, I can completely understand an American in love with England, especially London.  I’m a ridiculous Anglophile myself and I could completely identify with Georgina’s longing to stay.  I nodded my head every time she listed all the wonderful things she’d miss about England – and as she travels a bit searching for inspiration, I recognized the places she went and I could just feel the appeal coming through the book’s pages.

I also am a huge fan of Jane Austen – I love her work and I often get annoyed that people fail to see more than the romances which make up her books’ plotlines.  (Seriously, why do we always dismiss things the minute we learn they’re romantic?)  As she wanders the streets and bumps into all the people who are crazy about Jane Austen, Georgina listens to their conversations about the books and can’t understand why everyone cares.  I was clamoring for her to just read them for herself – nothing irritates me more than someone who disdains a book without trying to read it first – but in the end I found I really liked her slow discovery of the books’ appeal.  The author really got into how fabulous Austen’s books are and it formed a crucial part of the story; she had plenty of opportunities to explain just why her books have universal appeal even now.

I did think Georgina herself was annoying for most of the book, though; I’m not really the type of person who can understand constant procrastination with deadlines looming, so I just wanted her to sit down and write a book already.  I’m no author but I can pretty reliably sit down and force out a couple thousand words a day; if she’d just done that from the start, she might have had something she could have worked with.  And then there was her refusal to even read Jane Austen for pages on end, and her snobbery, despite the fact that she goes on trips to get into the proper atmosphere.  She improved by the end in terms of openness, especially with a couple of sweet romantic interludes, but overall I had trouble understanding her and thus couldn’t really identify with her.  The secondary characters were particularly charming, especially Henry and his 14 year old runaway sister, and did help to lessen the annoyance I felt with Georgina.

While the main character got on my nerves, I still found Writing Jane Austen to be a wonderful book in many ways.  I think it would be perfectly suited to someone who loves Jane Austen or just loves England and London in particular.

I am an Amazon Associate. I received this book for free for review.

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Review: The One That I Want, Allison Winn Scotch

Tilly Farmer loves everything about her life.  She loves her high school sweetheart husband, her job as a guidance counselor, and her residence in the same town she grew up in.  She and her husband Tyler have decided to try and have a baby.  As far as Tilly is concerned, her life is just about perfect.  Then an old friend turns up in town, and Tilly gains the ability to see someone’s future when she looks at their photograph.  In a matter of months, her perfect life has begun to unravel, and she has to face the uncomfortable truth that it may never have been perfect at all.

I went into this book with fairly low expectations.  I know a lot of bloggers who really enjoyed this, but I usually am not a big fan of women’s fiction; people living in “my” world often don’t do it for me.  I just mentioned this in another review, The Bonesetter’s Daughter by Amy Tan.  That didn’t happen here, and in fact I found myself really enjoying this novel, perhaps because Tilly is so very different from me that I might as well have been reading a book set in a fantasy world.

The truth that this novel revolves around is the fact that Tilly is willfuly blind.  When the story starts, she expresses her enthusiasm for the high school prom and how eager she is to sponsor it.  It’s very clear to us that she never quite got past high school and is constantly reliving those glory days every minute of her life.  While helping students achieve their goals is admirable, Tilly never seems to have her own, and is instead content with what she has – or the illusion of it.  She thinks it’s cute when her husband falls asleep watching sports instead of going to bed with her, believes her father has finished drinking, and tries to persuade her best friend to stay with her own high school sweetheart husband even though he’s cheated on her.  Tilly needs that gift of clarity, and it’s only when she starts to confront the uneasy reality of her life that the whole book starts to shine.

What I think I liked most about this book is that it looks at what’s underneath the ideal American life.  Tilly looks, sounds, and has even convinced herself that she’s happy.  But she isn’t, and those issues only come out when you look a little closer.  Her mother’s death, her father’s alcoholism, her dissatisfied and distanced husband, and even her own desire to take care of her siblings are all problems that she can only confront once reality is presented to her.  She moves from contentment to happiness, which made the entire book a rewarding read.  The ending is slightly open, but I was left with confidence that Tilly was on track to make the right decisions for her future.

The One That I Want left me eager to read more of Allison Winn Scotch’s work.  If you enjoy women’s fiction, don’t miss this.

I am an Amazon Associate. I received this book for free from the Read It Forward program.

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