I Gave My Heart to Know This by Ellen Baker

Summary ~ I Gave My Heart to Know This ~ In January 1944, Grace Anderson, Lena Maki, and Lena’s mother, Violet, have joined the growing ranks of women working for the war effort. Though they find satisfaction in their jobs at a Wisconsin shipyard, it isn’t enough to distract them from the anxieties of wartime, or their fears for the men they love: Lena’s twin brother, Derrick, and Grace’s high school sweetheart, Alex. When shattering news arrives from the front, the lives of the three women are pitched into turmoil. As one is pushed to the brink of madness, the others are forced into choices they couldn’t have imagined—and their lives will never be the same. 
More than five decades later, Violet’s great-granddaughter, Julia, returns to the small farmhouse where Violet and Lena once lived. Listless from her own recent tragedy, Julia begins to uncover the dark secrets that shattered her family, eventually learning that redemption—and love—can be found in the most unexpected places. 

Well my dear Ellen Baker, you have done it again!!!  I Gave My Heart to Know This is an intricately woven tale of family, friendship, love and loss and it is simply amazing.  Ellen Baker’s debut novel, Keeping The House, is one of my all-time favorite novels and her sophomore release sits right up there with it.  This book had me reading when I could and even when I really shouldn’t have.  Baker’s mastery of character development as well as plot twists and turns kept the pages flying and are what makes her so great and her novels very memorable. 

Grace, Violet, Lena, Joe and Jago found themselves in tragic times along with many of our great-grandparents and grandparents.  The times were WWII and the U.S. was asked to make the sacrifice and help its military overseas by giving blood, sweat and tears.  Grace, Violet, Lena and their friend “Boots” joined the work force as welders and ship builders.  Relief from the dangerous work and long hours came from Lena’s twin brother Derrick’s letters from his military base in California and later the Pacific theater.  On Lena’s suggestion, Grace and Derrick became pen-pals and soon star-crossed lovers who never met but made plans for after Derrick’s return home.  That never came and from that sorrow and heartbreak grew lies, deception and more heartbreak.  The family never quite recovered from the loss of the golden brother/son who wanted to see the world. 

Baker’s storytelling crescendos throughout the story but reaches great volume when later generations discover hidden letters and secrets that tore the family apart all those years ago.  The history of our nation is rich and told well in I Gave My Heart to Know This.  Little known facts enriched the everyday actions and helped create a very realistic feeling for the reader.  I feel like these characters truly lived there on that rural farm and cried real tears.  Though most of the time the vibe of the book is sad and melancholy, I was rewarded with one of the best endings I’ve read as of late.

I can’t tell you with enough urgency TO BUY I GAVE MY HEART TO KNOW THIS ON AUGUST 2nd and while you’re waiting for that day to come TO READ KEEPING THE HOUSE NOW! Sorry for “yelling” but I felt it extremely necessary. 🙂

Thank you to the lovely, kind, friendly and interesting Ellen Baker for thinking of me when she received her galleys of I Gave My Heart to Know This and felt the need to get one to me as early as she did.  I’m sorry it took so long to finally read it!  I adore her and our pen-pal friendship.  XOXO

{Rating ~ 5 out of 5}

Then Came You by Jennifer Weiner

Summary ~ Then Came You ~ Jules Strauss is a Princeton senior with a full scholarship, acquaintances instead of friends, and a family she’s ashamed to invite to Parents’ Weekend. With the income she’ll receive from donating her “pedigree” eggs, she believes she can save her father from addiction.
Annie Barrow married her high school sweetheart and became the mother to two boys. After years of staying at home and struggling to support four people on her husband’s salary, she thinks she’s found a way to recover a sense of purpose and bring in some extra cash.
India Bishop, thirty-eight (really forty-three), has changed everything about herself: her name, her face, her past. In New York City, she falls for a wealthy older man, Marcus Croft, and decides a baby will ensure a happy ending. When her attempts at pregnancy fail, she turns to technology, and Annie and Jules, to help make her dreams come true.
But each of their plans is thrown into disarray when Marcus’ daughter Bettina, intent on protecting her father, becomes convinced that his new wife is not what she seems…
With startling tenderness and laugh-out-loud humor, Jennifer Weiner once again takes readers into the heart of women’s lives in an unforgettable, timely tale that interweaves themes of class and entitlement, surrogacy and donorship, the rights of a parent and the measure of motherhood.

Usually it’s not a good idea to judge a book by its cover, but in the case of Jennifer Weiner’s new release Then Came You, the cover invites you into a wonderful story of four women who are bound together by decisions and wants.  It’s a gorgeous cover and I enjoyed picking the book up every time I went to read it.  The pages within the covers were filled with a story that brings the reader into the lives of four women.  Four very different women all bound together by a child.  I don’t want to say much more about the story than is listed above because I want you to read it and I don’t want to give anything more away.  I will say that I loved reading Then Came You and it quickly became one of my favorite Jennifer Weiner books and one of my favorite books I’ve read this year.  It’s not cheesy chic lit at all and Weiner takes care to create rich and deep back stories for each of her main characters.  I became invested emotionally in each woman and her story.  I liked the twists Weiner took with the story on a whole and never once rolled my eyes. 

I don’t want to lighten things by suggesting that this be a “beach read” this summer because I found myself reading an intricate book that is focused around the timely subject of surrogacy.  With surrogacy having its spotlight in the headlines and celebrity magazines in the last couple of years (Nicole Kidman, Sarah Jessica Parker to drop a couple of names) this was an interesting look into the people it takes to even get a surrogate pregnancy off the ground.  The money, donors and the “gestational host”.  Though Weiner’s book isn’t a heavy read like say a story by Picoult or Shreve, it still made me think about the people who find themselves and place themselves in that situation. 

All in all I loved this book and hope that even if you have never picked up a book by Jennifer Weiner that you will buy Then Came You this summer and find a good story in it.  I must also take this moment to recommend the two other books by Jennifer Weiner that I love.  First is her debut novel from 2001, Good In Bed.  The other is Little Earthquakes, a story that focuses on four women in a different stage of life than the ladies in Then Came You.

{Rating 5 out of 5} Available July 12th, 2011

I would like to thank Irina Binder with Engelman & Co. PR for sending me this beautiful book.  It was such a lovely surprise the day it arrived!  Thank you Irina!!

The Typist by Michael Knight

Summary ~ The Typist ~

Written with the stunning economy of language for which Michael Knight’s work has always been praised, The Typist is a rich and powerful work of historical fiction that expertly chronicles both the politics of the Pacific theater of World War II, and the personal relationships borne from the tragedies of warfare. When Francis Vancleave (“Van”) joins the army in 1944, he expects his term of service to pass uneventfully. His singular talent—typing ninety-five words a minute—keeps him off the battlefield and in General MacArthur’s busy Tokyo headquarters, where his days are filled with paperwork in triplicate and letters of dictation.

But little does Van know that the first year of the occupation will prove far more volatile for him than for the U.S. Army. When he’s bunked with a troubled combat veteran cum-black marketer and recruited to babysit MacArthur’s eight-year-old son, Van is suddenly tangled in the complex—and risky—personal lives of his compatriots. As he brushes shoulders with panpan girls and Communists on the streets of Tokyo, Van struggles to uphold his convictions in the face of unexpected conflict—especially the startling news from his war bride, a revelation that threatens Van with a kind of war wound he never anticipated.

If you are a regular visitor to Planet Books then you know that I enjoy reading historical fiction set during WWII.  I don’t know why this is but I can’t seem to turn away from stories set during this tumultuous time in our world history.  I have not read very many books set in Japan during this period though.  Most take place in Nazi occupied Europe.  The Typist by Michael Knight is another book that takes the reader back to the mid 1940’s but this time it is in American occupied Tokyo, Japan after the obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan by atom bombs.  General Douglas MacArthur is the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers in the Far East and his headquarters are in “Little America”, a few square miles in Tokyo that were spared from American bombing and left in tact.  Here we meet Francis “Van” Vancleave, a typist in the OPS department at HQ.  Because of his swift typing speed of ninety-five words a minute he is assigned to this billet.  His mother had taught him to type when he was a kid and that skill brings Van into company with General “Bunny” MacArthur himself.  

 

Van lives a quiet life in the barracks with his roommate Clifford, a member of Honor Guard Company.  Clifford brings excitement to Van’s life and through that excitement a story set during a time of rebuilding in Japan develops.  In addition to the dramas that Clifford brings, an act of kindness on Van’s part finds him in the company of The General and his family on an intimate level.  These relationships made for complex plots that I enjoyed.    Knight’s writing took to the streets of 1944 Tokyo and the culture that was redeveloping itself to fit into a modern and westernized world.  Van is a likable guy and the problems he faced are tough and probable.  I enjoyed learning about some of the history of the rebuilding of Japan and the policies and ideas that General MacArthur implemented.  Though liberties were taken by Knight I still found myself researching some facts brought to my attention throughout the story.  

All in all The Typist was an enjoyable and quick read.  The vibe of war torn Japan is heavy and desperate but also laced with hope.  The characters that Knight creates weave themselves well into the history of the time and real-life characters like General MacArthur.   My only problem was after Van is discharged from the Army and finds himself back home, creating a new life for himself the story felt like it just fell off a cliff.  It was such an abrubt ending in my opinion that I don’t have a sense of closure with the book like I find in every other book I’ve read.  Though it has left me frustrated I still enjoyed the book. 

{Rating ~ 3.5 out of 5}

 I would like to thank Kristen @ Grove Atlantic for sending me this book for me to read and review!

The Story of Beautiful Girl by Rachel Simon

Summary ~ The Story of Beautiful Girl~ It is 1968. Lynnie, a young white woman with a developmental disability, and Homan, an African-American deaf man, are locked away in an institution, the School for the Incurable and Feebleminded, and have been left to languish, forgotten. Deeply in love, they escape, and find refuge in the farmhouse of Martha, a retired schoolteacher and widow. But the couple is not alone-Lynnie has just given birth to a baby girl. When the authorities catch up to them that same night, Homan escapes into the darkness, and Lynnie is caught. But before she is forced back into the institution, she whispers two words to Martha: “Hide her.” And so begins the 40-year epic journey of Lynnie, Homan, Martha, and baby Julia-lives divided by seemingly insurmountable obstacles, yet drawn together by a secret pact and extraordinary love.

The Story of Beautiful Girl is haunting, hopeful and beautifully written.  Rachel Simon brings the reader a story that unfortunately reflects real life and what was happening in our country in the early to mid twentieth century.  It is a story about a girl named Lynnie who was loved by her parents but not enough to be brave and care for her themselves or even maintain a relationship with her when they place her into an institution for the intellectually inhibited.  The year is 1968 when Lynnie is facing a very difficult time in her life.  She was impregnated by a fellow resident at “The School” and doesn’t want her baby to face the same fate she has.  With the help of her true love Homan, a deaf-mute who lives and works at the school, she escapes and gives birth to her daughter on a stormy night.  With nowhere to go and fear racing through their veins Lynnie, Homan and “Little One” come across a small farm-house where an unsuspecting older woman lives.  They knock on the door seeking refuge and not only do they briefly find kindness and care in Martha’s home, Lynnie finds “Little One’s” salvation and protector without really knowing it in the moment.  And so begins the amazing story of Lynnie, Homan, Martha and “Little One” aka Julia. 

I was swept up in the story immediately and ate up the pages with satisfaction and anticipation.  Each character, including Lynnie’s best friend and nurse Kate were given ample time for character and story building throughout the story.  Each person was effected by the terrible treatment of the intellectually inhibited and the outcome of others actions.  It brought to light a time and events that would probably prefer to be forgotten by some but haunt others.  At times I was reminded of The Memory Keeper’s Daughter but this was a much darker and emotional story and left me feeling completely different after reading it.  I felt like I had learned some history and had a new understanding and respect for people who were born this way.  Not only was the character development strong but the descriptions of settings was so well written that each place came to life for me.  I just love that!

I highly recommend picking up The Story of Beautiful Girl when you get a chance and finding out for yourself what I enjoyed about it.  I also advise friending Rachel Simon on Facebook and following her on Twitter because she is very active and one of the most gracious authors I’ve come across.  She’s a busy bee this summer but it’s nice to “meet” authors via social media and Rachel is one of my favs. 

Thanks to NetGalley.com for providing the opportunity to read and review The Story of Beautiful Girl.  If you are a “professional reader” and are looking for new ways to review upcoming titles be sure to check out Net Galley.  It’s a cool website with a quick turn around on review copy requests.  It’s a digital download of the review copy and they even format for Kindle which was how I read The Story of Beautiful Girl.

{Rating ~ 4 out of 5}

The Bird Sisters by Rebecca Rasmussen

 Summary ~ The Bird Sisters~ Love is timeless. So too is heartbreak.

Whenever a bird flies into a window in Spring Green, Wisconsin, sisters Milly and Twiss get a visit. Twiss listens to the birds’ heartbeats, assessing what she can fix and what she can’t, while Milly listens to the heartaches of the people who’ve brought them. The two sisters have spent their lives nursing people and birds back to health. 

But back in the summer of 1947, Milly was known as a great beauty with emerald eyes and Twiss was a brazen wild child who never wore a dress or did what she was told. That was the summer their golf pro father got into an accident that cost him both his swing and his charm, and their mother, the daughter of a wealthy jeweler, finally admitted their hardscrabble lives wouldn’t change. It was the summer their priest, Father Rice, announced that God didn’t exist and ran off to Mexico, and a boy named Asa finally caught Milly’s eye. And most unforgettably, it was the summer their cousin Bett came down from a town called Deadwater and changed the course of their lives forever.
Character analysis, atmosphere and subtlety are the name of the game in Rebecca Rasmussen’s lovely debut novel The Bird Sisters.  Twiss & Milly are sisters in every sense of the word.  Blood sisters, best friends, supporters, criticizers and playmates.  Life in rural Wisconsin is slow, quiet and calm for the most part.  That is until the church pastor walks away from his faith and his church community, the sisters father suffers unknowing damage from a freak accident and their cousin Bett arrives for the summer.  The Bird Sisters was a slow start for me but once I found my rhythm and became familiar with the characters and their lives I became wrapped up in their stories. 
 
I was disappointed to find myself unwillingly figuring out the secrets way too early that showed themselves later in the book.  I don’t try to do that but my brain just sees things between the lines.  The Bird Sisters surprised me when I found myself welling up due to the heartbreaking sadness that plagued the sisters and their family.  It takes a lot for me to cry when reading and I didn’t realize how invested I was in this book until the first tear fell.  Like the subtle story telling that Rebecca writes so beautifully the emotions crept up on me and took me over like the scent of flowers in a field as you drive by.  Taboo topics are hinted at and then quietly brought to the forefront by Rebecca’s gentle hand. 
 
 
Like The Bird Sisters, its author is sweet, lovely and full of layers.  I had the sincere pleasure of not only meeting Rebecca Rasmussen last night at One More Page Books in Arlington, VA but because of the strange turn of events I had the opportunity to really talk with Rebecca and get to know her quickly but truthfully.  This crazy weather we’ve been having here on the east coast played its tricks about fifteen minutes before Rebecca’s book event was to begin.  Lightning and thunder struck just above the building that One More Page Books is in and that tripped the circuits.  The fire alarms in the building block went off and weren’t reset for two hours.  We all had to stand outside for forty minutes where I proceeded to melt and wither a bit.  Eileen, the store owner and host took matters into her own hands and went across the street to La Cote D’Or Cafe, a quaint restaurant that graciously allowed One More Page Books to hold the book event in their dining room. 
 
 
Once settled the evening proceeded smoothly and quite nicely.  Instead of reading from The Bird Sisters Rebecca took questions from the audience.  I really loved the way she could elaborate on a question and in a way tell a story to get her answer across.  She made me feel better when she discussed the fact that some readers were finding it difficult to get settled into the book.  I had felt the same way and though I love literary fiction and prefer it to “commercial fiction” I still found it challenging at first to find my groove with The Bird Sisters.  Rebecca also answered questions about her publishing experience and sang her editor’s praises.  All in all Rebecca Rasmussen was a joy to meet, talk with and listen to.  If you get the chance to attend one of her upcoming events I highly recommend it.  She will be on the east coast for a little while and you can check out her website for tour dates and locations HERE.
 
If you are looking for a beautifully written book to add to your TBR list pick up The Bird Sisters.  The beautiful cover is just the icing on the cake with this book!
 
Rebecca Rasmussen & Me with The Bird Sisters
 {Rating ~ 4 out of 5}

The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli

 Summary ~ The Lotus Eaters

In the final days of a falling Saigon, The Lotus Eaters unfolds the story of three remarkable photographers brought together under the impossible umbrella of war: Helen Adams, a once-naïve ingénue whose ambition conflicts with her desire over the course of the fighting; Linh, the mysterious Vietnamese man who loves her, but is torn between conflicting loyalties to his homeland and his heart; and Sam Darrow, a man addicted to the narcotic of violence, to his intoxicating affair with Helen and to the ever-increasing danger of his job. All three become transformed by the conflict they have risked everything to record.

In this much-heralded debut, Tatjana Soli creates a searing portrait of three souls trapped by their impossible passions, contrasting the wrenching horror of combat and the treachery of obsession with the redemptive power of love.

I had wanted to read The Lotus Eaters ever since it first came out and so I jumped at the opportunity to win it for my book club when TLC Book Tours offered it in their book club giveaway in December.  While relaxing on my birthday, New Year’s Day, I received an e-mail from Lisa at TLC and was super thrilled to read that I had won copies of The Lotus Eaters for my book club.  Thing about that was it wasn’t my turn to present my pick for the club until May 1st.  I had such fun presenting everyone with their very own copy of the book and I dived in that afternoon when I got home.  Now a week and a half later I have reluctantly finished the adventure that was The Lotus Eaters.

Where to start?!  Well, like the heroine Helen who did not want the war in Vietnam to end so she wouldn’t have to leave her life there I did not want this book to end.  I found myself carrying the book around the house just to hold it and feel the cover.  I would take breaks from reading so I could reflect on the story that continued to blow me away.  It was difficult to believe that I hadn’t read one hundred pages, when in actuality I had only read a measly thirty, because there was so much description, emotion and action within each sentence, paragraph and page.  Now I am done.  Now I’m reading entries on Wikipedia about The Vietnam War and trying to give this book justice with my review.

Helen, Sam and Linh are so great!  These characters, war photographers for LIFE Magazine, live through horrors on the page that real life war photojournalists continue to face everyday.  War unfortunately is an endless cycle.  Different place, different time, different reason, same old war.  The first chapter had me a little worried because I felt that it was disjointed but looking back on it now it makes sense.  The Lotus Eaters starts at the end of the story.  The reader is plunged into a historic day in Vietnam, The Fall of Saigon.  Helen and her Vietnamese husband Linh are two of the very few journalists and foreigners still in Saigon when the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) take over the city.  Helen gets the wounded Linh onto a U.S. military helicopter and then goes back to the chaos for that last picture.  Then the reader is taken back to Saigon before the war becomes what it became. 

Passion, battle, death, injury, friendship and love.  These words make up The Lotus Eaters.  Sam Darrow and Linh have been a team for a time when Helen, green and full of desire, arrives in Saigon.  The three are eventually pulled together as partners and lovers.  I especially enjoyed Helen and her sense of self that she gained through the years.  I  loved her passion for getting that photo that could tell the world what was happening in one shot.  Unfortunately that passion required her to follow the danger of war. 

Soli’s description of combat missions out into the jungles of Vietnam where death was hiding under rocks, in rice paddies and in the eyes of the people, children included was heart stopping!  I found myself holding my breath constantly.  I was amazed to learn in an online interview that Soli has never been to Vietnam.  I read Born on the Fourth of July and The Things They Carried, both memoirs written by Vietnam Vets and felt the same depth, description and raw emotion in the pages of Soli’s novel.  Relationships that Helen has with U.S. troops create the human connection to war that made the book even more rich and powerful. 

The heaviness of the horrors of war and seeing it all through the lens of a female war photographer makes for a thrilling and fresh read.  This book is not for the faint of heart but it is a very memorable story that I hope you will take the time to read. 

{Rating ~ 5 out of 5}

Check out Tatjana Soli’s website for more information on her and her debut novel, The Lotus Eaters

Sing You Home: A Novel by Jodi Picoult

 Summary ~ Sing You Home:

In the aftermath of a series of personal tragedies, Zoe throws herself into her career as a music therapist. When an unexpected friendship slowly blossoms into love, she makes plans for a new life, but to her shock and inevitable rage, some people—even those she loves and trusts most—don’t want that to happen.

Sing You Home is about identity, love, marriage, and parenthood. It’s about people wanting to do the right thing for the greater good, even as they work to fulfill their own personal desires and dreams. And it’s about what happens when the outside world brutally calls into question the very thing closest to our hearts: family.

Where to start?  Throughout the reading of this book I felt that I would not be able to review it because a lot of the time it made me so mad.  Sing You Home is full of heated topics plucked from the society we live in today.  Gay Marriage, divorce, the Christian Right, IVF and legal rights.  I don’t know if Picoult tries to write from a neutral place but in this book I felt that her writing was on my side of the coin.  Let’s just say I was very happy with the ending and if you have read or are planning to read Sing You Home then you will know where I stand.  Some characters seem to be written with a heavy hand and others came across as gently written with an authors love.  Let me just add that while reading parts of the book where certain characters where spewing words I felt physically ill.

Picoult’s writing is strong in this book.  Her character development progresses beautifully, especially with the character named Max.  As a reader I felt frustrated, pissed off and amazed at what I was reading.  The story is constructed perfectly in my opinion.  Zoe, Vanessa, Liddy, Reid, Mama Dara and the legal teams they hire to do battle for them are all so strong and vivid that I forgot at times that I was reading a work of fiction.  In my opinion though Max was the deepest, most thoroughly written of all the characters.  Max is full of flaws that make him the most believable character but also at times the weakest character I’ve ever read.  The care that was taken when developing Max was obvious and appreciated by me.  Picoult could have written him completely different and that would have changed things for the story and the characters that live in it.  Thank goodness she wrote him just the way she did. 

If you like to read a book that makes your blood boil no matter where you stand morally, spiritually and ethically than pick up Sing You Home and read it.  If you shy away from hot topics in the media then I think you should read this book.  It will make you uncomfortable but remember it’s fiction.  If you like to learn things and come away from a reading experience feeling more knowledgeable about topics than pick up this book.  I don’t think you’ll regret it!

*Update ~ I don’t know why I was in such a rush to write/post my review as soon as I finished reading SING YOU HOME but in my haste I forgot to include my rating.  I didn’t realize I had forgotten to rate the book until I updated my reading status on Goodreads a moment ago!  I gave it four stars.

{Rating ~ 4 out of 5}

Water for Elephants ~ Sara Gruen

Summary ~Water for Elephants: A great, glorious, big-hearted novel set in a traveling circus touring the back blocks of America during the great depression of the early 1930s. It’s a story of love and hate, trains and circuses, dwarfs and fat ladies, horses and elephants – or, to be specific, one elephant, Rosie, star of the Benzini Bros Most Spectacular Show on Earth . . .

A second chance.  That’s what I gave this book years after buying it and unable to get into it.  With the film adaptation due out in theaters a couple of weeks from now I thought I should give it another try.  I am SOOOOO GLAD I DID!!!!  I don’t know what I wasn’t connecting with when I first cracked the spine in 2006 but I didn’t even remember the first quarter of the book I had read.  At least that was where the cover of the book was placed in the pages when I pulled it off the shelf on Monday.  This week went so unbelievably quickly because I was reading this book and enjoying every word. 

Water for Elephants took me into a world that I had never read about.  The old train-touring circus’ of the early 1900’s.  Also, I wasn’t too well-read in the topic of The Great Depression.  Gruen laid out these two worlds for me and combined them so beautifully.  Reading along I found myself imagining a very brown and tan America.  Colors seemed muted through the words and the occassional pop of color came from the circus preformers, whom the townsfolk across the land paid to see just for an escape from their lives.  Gruen’s characters were rich and vibrant thoughout.  Walter and Queenie became favorites of mine as well as Rosie, Jacob and Marlena.  August was written so perfectly that I am fearful of what the magnificent Christoph Waltz will do with him in the upcoming film.  Waltz may just top his performance in Inglourious Basterds (sp is correct!) as the cunning Col. Hans Landa which he won the Oscar for last year.  In the assisted living facility where 90 or 93 year old Jacob feels he’s wasting away, Nurse Rosemary was a beam of light not only for Jacob but for me.  Kindness towards Jacob was all I wished for him in that horrible place.

Jacob!  What a fabulous character to read.  90 (or is it 93?) year old Jacob was heartwrenching to read and wonderful at the same time.  Gruen’s feel for the geriatric character, and a man no less, was so great and breathtaking.  Young Jacob who’s feelings were so raw had my heart from the moment he walked out of the morge and into a world that took him farther than I believe he would have gone had his folks survived the car crash that took their lives.  His passion and sensitivity for animals of every size was touching.  His sense of responsibility for them all was crushing at times too.  In three short months he became a hero and caregiver for Boo Boo the orangutang, Rex the toothless lion, Rosie the fabulous elephant and all the animals in between. 

Reading was not always fun with this book.  I got extremely upset with the animal cruelty portrayed in this book and I wonder how the director of the film will manage these scenes.  I can’t imagine them not making it into the film so I am concerned.

Water for Elephants has such a simple yet extremely complicated plot that kept me flipping pages ever more quickly as it progressed.  I was so moved by some parts that I found myself reading them aloud to Hubby (not his favorite thing to do just before bed) and thinking about them much later.  Can I say “Coochie Tent” and you know what I’m referncing?  Whoa!

I am sure that most of you out there in the book blogging universe have read this book already.  I believe that books find you when you are ready and I guess I wasn’t ready in 2006.  I sure was ready this week!  Water for Elephants will be on my top 10 list for 2011 (at least) because the art of storytelling is alive and well within the books pages. 

{Rating ~ 5 out of 5}

The Sandalwood Tree by Elle Newmark

Summary ~ The Sandalwood Tree: A sweeping novel that brings to life two love stories, ninety years apart, set against the rich backdrop of war-torn India. 

In 1947, American historian and veteran of WWII, Martin Mitchell, wins a Fulbright Fellowship to document the end of British rule in India. His wife, Evie, convinces him to take her and their young son along, hoping a shared adventure will mend their marriage, which has been strained by war.

But other places, other wars. Martin and Evie find themselves stranded in a colonial bungalow in the Himalayas due to violence surrounding the partition of India between Hindus and Muslims. In that house, hidden behind a brick wall, Evie discovers a packet of old letters, which tell a strange and compelling story of love and war involving two young Englishwomen who lived in the same house in 1857. 

Drawn to their story, Evie embarks on a mission to piece together her Victorian mystery. Her search leads her through the bazaars and temples of India as well as the dying society of the British Raj. Along the way, Martin’s dark secret is exposed, unleashing a new wedge between Evie and him. As India struggles toward Independence, Evie struggles to save her marriage, pursuing her Victorian ghosts for answers.

Bursting with lavish detail and vivid imagery of Calcutta and beyond, The Sandalwood Tree is a powerful story about betrayal, forgiveness, fate, and love.

Where in the world do I start?  Well I guess first off I should say that I LOVED THIS BOOK!!!  The Sandalwood Tree is one of those (in my experience) rare novels that pull you in immediately and doesn’t let you go even after the last word is read.  Seriously!  I haven’t read a book as engrossing, epic, tender, scary, educating and magical since I read Ellen Baker’s Keeping the House in July 2008Elle Newmark’s novel, The Sandalwood Tree, provided all of those things for me to enjoy. 

The Sandalwood Tree is truly an epic journey for two “families” at opposite ends of a century and opposite ends of an era in India’s history;  The British Raj (rule).  The history lessons alone in this book made for an interesting and eye-opening experience.  I was constantly Googling words and events as I cam across them.  I wanted to learn the English meaning for Indian words and to research the history of India from 1856 to post WWII and the Partition.  Partition of British India was based on religious differences in the population.  The characters set among these tumultuous and dangerous times in India range from two women choosing to live as they please away from the rule of English society and the restrictions and expectations put on young women in the mid-1800’s to marry, have children and be silent, obedient housewives; to an American family sent to live in India during the passive protesting of Ghandi and Partition. 

First we meet Evie and her family who have relocated to Masoorla, India in the Himalayas from Chicago.  Her husband Martin fought for the U.S. in war-torn Europe and was deeply scarred by the sights he saw while liberating concentration camps.   These scars haunt him and create a deep divide in his and Evie’s marriage.  She hopes that by moving to India and standing behind her historian husband and his work that the mending and healing can finally begin.  Their son Billy is written so beautifully and makes a wonderful sidekick to his adventurous mother that I loved reading their story.  The heartbreaking relationship that is Evie and Martin was gripping and full of wonderful twists. 

After Evie discovers hidden letters from the mid-1800’s in the wall of her rented home in Masoorla we flash back almost one hundred years to the same house and meet Felicity and Adela.  They are best friends and become the only family they have through decisions and choices that leave them in a sense abandoned by disapproving family.  Their story is also a love story of sorts and also brings great things to the book.  Their India is so different yet so similar to Evie’s and Evie soon becomes obsessed by their story that unravels through the pages of Adele’s journal that she finds in the most unusual places. 

I truly LOVE this book! What a wonderful piece of historical fiction with strong female characters full of ambition and dreams. Elle Newmark’s writing is delicious and had me quickly turning pages to see what amazing description of India she had written next.

“But the morning tide took us away & eventually we came to Calcutta.  On the wharf, a rainbow-coloured crowd greeted us, a few staid Europeans in their pith helmets scattered here & there like common mushrooms in a field of exotic flowers.  The vibrancy of India makes England look like a faded watercolor, & my first glimpse of it made my heart leap, it’s gorgeousness & its great seething masses.”

Reading this book I could hear the sounds of the market place, smell the delicious and not so appealing smells of the land and its people and imagine a world so far from what I know that if it hadn’t been for Newmark’s sensational prose would still be a mystery to me. 

This book was simply, intricately and entirely fantastic!! It comes out in stores this Tuesday, April 5th.  If you are looking to be swept away and engulfed in a beautifully layered story that will hold your attention so intensely that you won’t want to put it down, then you should read The Sandalwood Tree!  Thank you so much to Grace and Atria Books for inviting me to participate in the release event of The Sandalwood Tree.  I enjoyed it immensely and can’t thank you enough for bringing this book into my life.

{Rating 5 out of 5}

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakthrough by Ruth Pennebaker

Summary ~ Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakthrough: Joanie’s ex-husband is having a baby with his new girlfriend. Joanie won’t be having more babies, since she’s decided never to have sex again.

But she still has her teenaged daughter Caroline to care for. And thanks to the recession, her elderly mother Ivy as well. Her daughter can’t seem to exist without texting, and her mother brags about “goggling,”-while Joanie, back in the workforce, is still trying to figure out her office computer. And how to fend off the advances of her coworker Bruce.

Joanie, Caroline, and Ivy are stuck under the same roof, and it isn’t easy. But sometimes they surprise each other-and themselves. And through their differences they learn that it is possible to undo the mistakes of the past.

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakthrough by Ruth Pennebaker is a novel that is relevant in ways to the world we are living in today.  There are three generations of women living under one roof.  Daughter, Mother/Daughter, Grandmother/Mother.  That is not always a good combination and in this book that proves true.  Ivy, the grandmother, looses half her and her deceased husband’s savings in the market crash of ’08 and finds herself in a situation she never dreamed of.  Having to move in with her forty-nine year old daughter Joanie and her fifteen year old granddaughter Caroline.  Ivy is a challenging new roommate for both of them and eventually is diagnosed with depression.  Joanie is trying to make ends meet as she takes a job that she ends up resenting and tries to mother a bratty, disrespectful teenager and take care of her aging mother.  The book is laden with dark clouds of emotion, anger, disrespect and all-together unlikable characters in my opinion.  I prefer a book to entertain me and/or provide something new to learn about.  This did neither for me.  The character development was good enough but the story lines and how these characters conducted themselves with each other did not make for a worthwhile read in my opinion. 

Maybe I would have enjoyed this book at another point in my life but right now it just wasn’t for me.  I would like to thank Tolly & Penguin Books for inviting me to read and review Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakthrough.  It never hurts to say yes!

{Rating 2 out of 5}