Monthly Archives: January 2012

The Invisible Ones – Book Review

You take your fragile secret out of the darkness and expose it to the light. You lay it on the ground, where anyone can tread on it. – from The Invisible Ones –

Ray is a private detective who is working through his own personal demons after separating from his wife. He doesn’t like missing person cases so it is with some reluctance that he listens to a Romany man tell him about his missing daughter, a girl gone six years now. Despite his reticence, Ray finds himself pulled into the case and promising to find out what happened to Rose Janko all those years ago after she wed a Gypsy named Ivo.

JJ is Ivo’s nephew, a fourteen year old boy without a father who has grown curious about his family’s secrets. He loves his cousin Christo, Ivo’s son, who is suffering from a mysterious family disease. JJ wants nothing more than to find a cure for Christo and uncover the identity of the father he has never met.

As Ray and JJ get closer to understanding what is hidden beneath the surface of the Janko family, things get more dangerous, and what appears to be the truth ends up being something entirely different from what they expect.

Set in Northern England in the mid-1980s, Stef Penney’s second novel takes the reader on a convoluted journey to uncover a mystery. Rich in detail about the nomadic life of the Romany people, The Invisible Ones is an intriguing and well-written book. There are two narrative threads which intertwine. JJ’s point of view is that of an insider, while Ray (although part-Gypsy himself) is clearly viewed as an outsider. In large part, the novel deals with the idea of identity and how the cultural, familial, and individual roles we play come together to form the complete person.

Strange, isn’t it, how you can think of yourself as one thing for ninety-five percent of your waking life, and then an encounter with something or someone jerks you into remembering you’re something else, that other five percent that’s always been there, but slumbering, keeping its head down. – from The Invisible Ones –

Penney has a way of constructing her novels to provide tension. This novel had me guessing right up until the end when Penney inserts a twist I did not see coming. Despite some moments of implausibility, the plot of this novel held up in the end.

Readers who enjoy suspense mysteries embedded in family sagas will enjoy The Invisible Ones.


  • Quality of Writing:
  • Characters:
  • Plot:

Overall Rating:

FTC Disclosure: This book was sent to me by the publisher for review on my blog.

Readers wishing to purchase this book from an Indie Bookstore may click on the book link below to find Indie sellers. As an Indiebound Associate, I receive a small commission if readers purchase a book through this link on my blog.

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Grief and Recovery

It washes over you, at first – a tidal wave. It sits on your chest like a rock. It sucks the air from your lungs. And then it slips beneath the surface where others cannot see it. A song, a beloved photo, even a smell can bring it back suddenly, and without warning. Early on grief is searing. Later it becomes a silent companion which leaks from your heart and fills your throat.

Yesterday marked three years since Caribou left me. Three years. It is hard to imagine because until very recently, her loss felt so acute it could only have been days since she closed her eyes for the last time. Caribou was a dog, but she was more than that to me. She was my search and rescue partner. She was a loyal friend. She rescued me from the depths of depression, and then showed me there was still joy in my future when she brought me to my husband through his dog, Argus.

After Caribou died, I shared my early anguish…and then I fell silent. My grief for her become solitary. My husband and I got a new puppy – Raven – very quickly. I loved her, of course I did, but I didn’t open my heart all the way to this new puppy. I just could not. It seemed around every corner was this memory of another dog, a friend to whom I was not ready to say good-by. Not yet.

After Raven came to live with us, I was asked many times if I would train her to do search and rescue. My answer was always no. My husband and I had talked about it, and in the end decided we were done with that part of our lives. Truthfully, I had lost my heart for it. The thought of slipping into my search gear and stepping out into the woods to train a new dog filled me with something like despair.

A month ago, however, I did just that. It was a beautiful sunny day with a cool breeze. My husband and I called it a hike, but we both knew we were doing something bigger. We clipped a search vest on Raven, fastened a bell to her collar, and headed into the woods to play search games. Raven is a natural. She took to the game as though she had just been waiting for the day we would ask her to “go search.” She ran with abandon, tongue lolling, eyes bright. And I found myself laughing, encouraging her, praising her every effort. We had fun.

Fast forward several weeks now. My husband and I are walking back to our vehicle and Raven is prancing, head up and proud of her training session. The sun is filtering through the pines and the wind has reddened our cheeks. A joy has filled my heart and as I watch my dog, I realize I am not thinking of Caribou. Instead I am enjoying Raven with her easy going personality, her sense that life is a big game…and love swells inside me. I have not noticed grief walking away, but suddenly I recognize its absence in the lightness of my step and the unfurling of joy from my heart.

That is the nature of grief, I think. It is there for a long time, and then it slips away and leaves in its wake a small scar. It makes way for something else eventually. For me, that something is the ability to enjoy a hike with my dog again, to find laughter in playing a search game, to feel a connection with another being who I had first held at a distance.

My husband and I are not returning to canine search and rescue. We have no plans to certify Raven. We are simply enjoying the time together – the three of us.


Mailbox Monday – January 30, 2012

Welcome to this week’s edition of Mailbox Monday.

This month Mailbox Monday is being hosted by Alyce of At Home With Books. Check out Alyce’s blog on Monday to get links to other readers’ mailboxes.

Go to the dedicated blog for the meme to see the complete tour schedule in the left hand sidebar.

I found some good books in my mailbox this week:

In the last couple of years I have discovered some amazing collections of short stories. So when Langan contacted me from Viking/Penguin, I could not resist accepting Drifting House by Krys Lee (release date February 2012). Lee’s writing is described as being in the tradition of Chang-rae and Jhumpa Lahiri. Her debut collection, which includes stories set in both Korea and the US, “explores love, identity, war, and the homes we make for ourselves.” The stories set in Korea examine characters whose lives are “threatened by civil war, military dictatorships, and the psychological fallout that tore Korea apart for decades.” Lee’s American characters find themselves in “cramped shared apartments and vacant strip malls of Koreatowns.” Reviewers are calling this a “sublime debut collection” whose stories are “breathtaking,” “haunting,” and “affecting.”

Read an interview with the author.

Krys Lee was born n Seoul, South Korea, and raised in California and Washington. She has studied in both the United States and England. A finalist for Best New American Voices in 2006, Lee received a special mention in the 2012 Pushcart Prize XXXVI, and her work has appeared in The Kenyon Review, Narrative, California Quarterly, Asia Weekly, and the Guardian. She lives in Seoul with intervals in San Francisco. Learn more about Lee and her work by visiting the author’s website.

No Mark Upon Her by Deborah Crombie arrived from William Morrow (due for release in February). his suspense-thriller looks tailor-made for me. When a K-9 search and rescue team discovers a woman’s body, Scotland yard superintendent Duncan Kincaid finds himself heading an investigation filled with complications. When someone tries to kill the search and rescue team members who found the victim’s body, the case becomes even more dangerous.

Deborah Crombie is a native Texan who has lived in both England and Scotland. She is a three-time Macavity Award winner, an Edgar Award nominee, and a New York Times Notable author. She has authored more than a dozen novels. Crombie lives in Texas with her husband, three cats and two German Shepherds. Read more about Crombie and her work by visiting the author’s website.

The good folks from Ballantine Books sent me an unsolicited copy of Four of a Kind by Valerie Frankel (due for release February 2012). This novel is described as “a hilarious and thoughtful story about four very different New York City moms who surprise themselves by becoming the very closest of friends over a weekly game of poker.” Instead of betting with chips or money, the four women play for intimate secrets about their lives.

Valerie Frankel received critical acclaim for her bestselling memoirs: Thin is the New Happy and It’s Hard Not to Hate You. She is the author of fifteen novels. Her writing has appeared in O: The Oprah Magazine, Allure, Self, Good Housekeeping, and The New York Times. She lives in Brooklyn Heights with her two daughters, four cats, and husband. Learn more about Frankel and her work by visiting the author’s website.

I also purchased a book which I have been dying to read (and the cover is gorgeous, too!):

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey (Hachette Book Group)

Did any wonderful books arrive at YOUR house this week?



Sunday Salon – January 29, 2012

January 29, 2012

Good morning and welcome to this week’s edition of The Sunday Salon – check out links to other readers’ posts by visiting the Facebook Page.

Last week I lamented being in a reading slump – and although I am reading, it has continued to be slow for me. I have pretty much given up on my goal to read 10 books this month. Oh well.

At any rate, I did finally finish Swamplandia! by Karen Russell – a book in which the characters were terrific, but the plot was just so-so (read my review). I had really wanted to love this novel, so I turned the final page with a little bit of disappointment in it.

My current read is The Invisible Ones by Stef Penney. I was first introduced to Penney’s writing in The Tenderness of Wolves – a debut which I loved (read my review). In her latest novel, Penney takes the reader to England where a family of gypsies have some family secrets. A private investigator is hired to locate a missing woman – and his investigation takes him into the heart of the Janko family where a mysterious family illness seems the least of their secrets. I am actually really enjoying this one although it has taken me days to read it. I should finish it this afternoon.

The next book on my stacks is Running the Rift by Naomi Benaron which I got for Jen and Nicole’s BOOK CLUB (discussion of this book will take place on Jen’s blog on Tuesday this week). I am really going to try to finish this one in the next two days so I can fully engage in the discussion. It looks like a great book which is set in Rwanda and won the Bellweather Prize for Fiction.

In other bookish news, Mandy of The Literary Life of a Well-Read Wife has posted a terrific reference for book bloggers – a directory of book bloggers on Pinterest! If you are like me and spend far too much time on Pinterest, you’ll appreciate this quick way to find other book bloggers. Mandy is asking people to drop her an email if they want to be added to the directory. Looks like I will be spending at least part of my day today browsing over at Pinterest!

Since my reading has been flagging these days, I have turned my attention to other things. My husband and I went to see the movie The Grey on Friday – this is a pretty intense movie starring Liam Neeson. Although on the surface it looks like a graphic movie about survival, I think it is actually more about faith (or the lack of it). Even the title, which clearly alludes to the grey wolf (a big part of the movie) could be interpreted as something deeper – faith is not always black and white, but grey. The movie was inspired by the short story “Ghost Walker” by Ian Mackenzie Jeffers which I would love to read but cannot seem to locate anywhere. Animal activists have been protesting The Grey for its poor portrayal of the wolf (in fact, a couple with their wolf-hybrid were outside the theater where we saw the movie). I would agree that the wolf is shown to be far more vicious and more of a myth than fact in the movie – but I think the animal is largely symbolic of death and the fight for survival. Either way, The Grey kept me on the edge of my seat and gripping Kip’s arm through 90% of the film. Definitely not for the faint of heart.

I’ve also been focused on quilting and finishing some of my projects. This week I finally got my Sister’s Collaborative Quilt completed – and I am loving it!

What are you up to today? Whatever it is, I hope it involves at least one great book!


The Sisters Quilt – A Collaborative Effort

Some of you may remember back in October 2011 that my sister, Paula, came out to visit me in California. During that visit, we put together two lap sized quilts – one for me, and one for her. These quilts were made up of blocks we had both made over the course of a year. This idea was born during the weeks I spent in New Hampshire following my sister’s surgery for colon cancer.

We were inspired to make a collaborative quilt (actually TWO quilts) using the book by Gwen Marston and Freddy Moran called Collaborative Quilting: Talking it Over. We established some “rules” for our block construction: they had to be a size divisible by three (to make construction of the final quilts easier), we had to use bright colors, and the blocks needed to be liberated trees, stars, and houses (or a combination of those images).

During the year we spent making blocks, we did not share what we were doing…which made it REALLY fun when we got together and started putting everything together. As much as we were alike, we discovered we were also different. I saw houses and trees differently than how Paula saw houses and trees. Our choice of fabric varied wildly. We also found that in putting together our quilts, we had a different vision of how blocks went together. The result was two very individual quilts even though they used blocks made by each of us. This week I finally finished the quilting of my quilt (Paula is still working on hers). All photos below are clickable for a larger image.

The finished size of this lap quilt is a generous 53″ X 67″. Much of the quilt is constructed with scraps. The blocks are all different sizes…so in putting them together, Paula and I had to create “filler blocks” which included rectangles of fabric as well as some pinwheel type blocks. If you look carefully, you can see that there is a letter “P’ and a letter “W” in the quilt…which is, of course, our initials!

The back of this quilt is pieced. Both Paula and I made letter blocks to spell out sisters on our quilt backs. We also made a large star block (I made Paula’s and she made mine) for the back.

The label is hand embroidered and “framed” using some colorful ribbon.

Here are some more photos of the quilt draped:

I quilted this quilt by doing a very free-form outlining of the houses and trees, and using a meandering stipple over the rest of the quilt (except for the borders which I straight line quilted). I am still working on my free motion quilting skills, so the quilting is not perfect – but I liked how it mimicked the folk artsy feel of the quilt.

I used a variety of fabrics for the border, including a Kaffe Fassett orange stripe and a Kaffe Fassett flower print. I bound the quilt with a Kaffe Fassett purple stripe.

In the end, I have a fun, happy, very bright quilt which I treasure because my sister and I made it together. This was a fantastic experience. I promise to post photos of Paula’s quilt when she finishes it. Until then, here is a shot of it in progress last October:

We are already planning our next collaborative effort!

Swamplandia! – Book Review

The Beginning of the End can feel a lot like the middle when you are living in it. When I was a kid I couldn’t see any of these ridges. It was only after Swamplandia!’s fall that time folded into a story with a beginning, a middle, and an ending. If you’re short on time, that would be the two-word version of our story: we fell. – from Swamplandia!, page 7 –

It has been a year since Hilola Bigtree died from ovarian cancer leaving behind her three children – Ava, Osceola (“Ossie”), and Kiwi – and “The Chief,” her husband. Swamplandia!, with their mother at its center, is the family business and the only life the Bigtree children have ever known. Wrestling alligators, selling “museum” trinkets, and entertaining the tourists who arrive on the ferry is what they have always done. But, now things have changed. Their mother’s loss has not only left them achingly alone, but has also left Swamplandia! without a star act. And there is a new game in town by the name of World of Darkness, a garish theme park of twisted rides inside a whale’s digestive tract and pools filled with ruby colored water. Kiwi, nearly seventeen and longing for a college education, runs away from Swamplandia! to become an employee at World of Darkness. Chief Bigtree mysteriously disappears on one of his vague “business trips,” and Ossie, just turned sixteen, seems lost in a world of ghosts and an old dredge boat. Ava, age thirteen, is left to her own devices and resolves to save Swamplandia! and her family before time runs out.

Karen Russell’s Orange Prize nominated debut novel is filled with quirky characters, rambling plot lines, and gorgeous descriptions of the Florida swamps. It is also a darkly constructed story about the individual nature of grief and loss. Each character in Swamplandia! is devastated by the loss of Hilola – a woman whose death-defying act of swimming with the alligators (called “Seths”) opens the novel. It seems that death is all around this family – from the monstrous Seths, to the World of Darkness where tourists are called “Lost Souls,” to Ossie’s flirtation with a dead teenage dredgeman, to Ava’s fantasy of visiting the Underworld and finding her mother. Each character is traveling their own path through grief.

Chief Bigtree, the dad, is oddly disconnected from the reality of his failing business. He seems unaware that his children are falling apart. His reaction to the loss of his wife can only be called denial. Perhaps Ava understands this best of all when she observes:

You could become a fossil in your lifetime, I’d discovered. I’d seen the eerie correspondence between the living Seths in our Pit and their taxidermied brothers in our museum. The Chief could achieve an ossified quality, too, with his headdress skeletally flattened against the sofa back, drunk and asleep. – from Swamplandia!, page 238 –

Kiwi flees the family, and runs from the memory of his mother whose image he keeps taped to the inside of his closet door. He leaves behind the safety of Swamplandia! and enters society where his differences stand out and he struggles to fit in with his peers. Now seventeen years old, he is no longer a child whose eyes are closed to the stark reality of his parents’ world and as he navigates through his grief, he uncovers family secrets and a rage he hardly knew existed.

Ossie escapes reality by slipping into a world of ghosts and fantasy. On the cusp of womanhood, she begins a relationship with the ghost of a dredge boat, slipping out of the house at all hours and spending her time calling up spirits with the help of a mysterious book.

She set off across the muck as briskly as a mainland woman who is late for her ferry. Her footprints filled with groundwater and as I watched a dozen tiny lakes opened between us. Rain blew in from the east while out west the sun burned through a V in the trees, bright and gluey-gold as marmalade. – from Swamplandia!, page 127 –

But is is Ava, narrator of much of the novel, who is the saddest in her grief. She believes her mother has trained her to become the next amazing alligator wrestler. Ava tries to hold her family together, and when that fails, she dreams up a way to save Swamplandia! which includes applying to compete in an alligator wrestling competition, and hand raising a rare red alligator. Ava’s memories of her mother are clear and poignant, and cloaked in a child’s reflections.

Our mother, in several beautiful ways, may have been a little crazy. For example: who dries their clothing with a hurricane coming? Like Ossie, Mom got distracted easily. It was seventy-thirty odds whether she would remember a conversation with you. Her moods could do sudden plummets, and she’d have to “take a rest” in the house, but she’d always emerge from these spells with a smile for us. Until she got sick, I can’t remember our mother ever missing a show. – from Swamplandia!, page 43 –

Swamplandia! is, at its heart, about the love that binds a family together in the face of devastating loss. The strength of the novel is in its characters who are memorable and feel very real. Russell also excels at description of the flora and fauna of the Florida swamps. Where the novel struggles is in the plot which tends to drag until the latter third of book. Russell alternates between Ava’s first person narration and Kiwi’s third person point of view – a technique which tended to break up momentum in the plot. It felt, at times, like Russell could not decide whose story she really wanted to tell. Ava’s voice is, overwhelmingly, the strongest and could have carried the novel alone.

Despite its occasional humor, Swamplandia! is a dark novel which resonates with danger. Reality is often fragile and just out of reach. Not everything is as it seems. It is this haunting quality which carries the reader through the final pages of the book to an ending that stretches believability. In fact, the end of the novel did not endear me to it. Russell quickly wraps up the book and pins a little bow on it, something I found frustrating after some plot twists which took my breath away.

I did not love this book, but I found it interesting. Russell is a talented author whose child characters pulled on my heartstrings, but whose meandering plot kept me from fulling engaging in their story.

  • Quality of Writing:
  • Characters:
  • Plot:

Overall Rating:

FTC Disclosure: I bought this book.

Readers wishing to purchase this book from an Indie Bookstore may click on the book link below to find Indie sellers. As an Indiebound Associate, I receive a small commission if readers purchase a book through this link on my blog.

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A Little Quilting Motivation

Rhonda at Quilter in the Gap is hosting the 2012 Finish-A-Long. I just discovered her blog, so I (unfortunately) missed the sign up for the first quarter…BUT, I’m going to play along unofficially and in April I will be sure to get on board. Rhoda has some great sponsors and giveaways in store, and {of course!} there is a Flickr group.

So, in the spirit of finishing my projects, here is what is on deck through the end of March:

1.  The Sisters Quilt

Remember this one? This is the collaborative effort of my sister, Paula, and me. I finished quilting this one the other day and it is all ready to be bound…so you should see this quilt in its completed form very, very soon!

2.  The Summer Sampler Quilt

One of these days SOON, I am going to get this one sandwiched (pinned) and get it all quilted and finished. I pieced this one during a summer quilt-a-long and it has been waiting patiently for me to finish it.

3.  The Rockin’ Robin Quilt

Another one which I pieced over the summer as part of a quilt-a-long. The top is all done, and I am working on piecing the back … so really I just need to sandwich and quilt this one.

What do you think? Can I get these all done before April 1st? Wish me luck!!



Mailbox Monday – January 23, 2012

Welcome to this week’s edition of Mailbox Monday.

This month Mailbox Monday is being hosted by Alyce of At Home With Books. Check out Alyce’s blog today to get links to other readers’ mailboxes.

Go to the dedicated blog for the meme to see the complete tour schedule in the left hand sidebar.

Two fantastic books arrived at my house this week:

Algonquin Books sent me a copy of Running the Rift by Naomi Benaron (January 2012) as part of BOOK CLUB. We’ll be discussing this book over on Jen’s blog on January 31st. This debut novel won the 2011 Bellweather Prize for Fiction for its treatment of compelling social issues. Set in Rwanda, Running the Rift centers around Jean Patrick Nkuba who dreams of an Olympic medal in track. But as a Tutsi, he is caught up in the tensions between the Hutu and his people and as his world becomes more unsettled and brutal, Jean Patrick must make some difficult decisions. Benaron’s novel is told from the point of view of an unforgettable boy as he comes of age during Rwanda’s tragic history. Described as “unflinching,” “finely crafted,” and “an auspicious debut,” this is a novel I am eager to read.

Naomi Benaron holds a master of fine arts degree from Antioch University and a master of science degree in earth sciences from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. She is an Ironman triathlete. She teaches at UCLA Extension Writers’ Program and mentors for the Afghan Women’s Writing Project. Benaron works as an advocate for African refugees in the community and has worked extensively with genocide survivor groups in Rwanda. She is the winner of the G.S. Sharat Chandra Prize for Short Fiction, and the 2005 Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition. Learn more about Benaron and her work by visiting the author’s website.

Unbridled Books sent me an Advance Readers Edition of Hollywood Boulevard by Janyce Stefan-Cole (April 2012). The novel is a noir psychological thriller centered around Ardennes Thrush, an award winning movie star who finds herself at the Hotel Muse with her husband Andre. When a box of dead roses is delivered to her suite, Ardennes suspects she is being stalked. Enter a Beverly Hills detective who comes to investigate, and “a powerful attraction becomes unexpectedly unprofessional and quickly carnal.

Janyce Stefan-Cole writes fiction, essay and freelance journalism. A finalist for the James Jones First Novel Fellowship, she is included in the Boston Globe bestselling anthology, Dick for a Day (Villard Books), The Healing Muse and Knock Literary Arts Magazine; a story will be published, January 2012, in the Editions Bibliotekos anthology, Being Human: The Call of the Wild. A fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, she attended the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, and resides with her husband in Brooklyn, NY, and Freedom, NH.

Did any amazing books arrive at YOUR house this week?

Sunday Salon – January 22, 2012

January 22, 2012

Good morning – and welcome to The Sunday Salon where bloggers talk about books all day long. Check out other blogger posts by visiting the Facebook Page.

Well, it was bound to happen sometime. I have been blogging books since 2006 (although my blog started in February of 2005, I didn’t discover the book blogging community for another year after that), and I have never, ever, ever had a reading slump. I have read about other people’s slumps, but never experienced my own. Now, I think it is time to admit that my reading has slumped. I find myself reading for ten minutes and my mind begins to wander, I put the book down, and go do something else. This has been going on for DAYS now. I just can’t seem to get motivated to read – and this is a very foreign feeling for me. What’s up? I have no idea.

My current read is Swamplandia! by Karen Russell and I love her characters although the plot is a little wonky and out there. Russell writes well. But I am only 167 pages into this 300 page book and I have been reading it since last Sunday – seven days and 167 pages??!?!? Ridiculous. I don’t want to stop reading this book, but I wonder if I will ever finish it. And there are a lot of other great books staring at me from the shelves. What would YOU do?

This trouble with reading falls, ironically, on the heels of a post I published earlier this week called Blogger Impact where I talk about how much I love reading!!! How weird is that?

I hope by next week, I will be out of this slump and will be able to talk more about the books I am reading.

In the meantime, check out my post about books I recommended in celebration of Martin Luther King Day. And if your curiosity  was aroused by my review of The Street Sweeper, why not jump on board the Chunkster Challenge train and earn a chance to win a copy of the book (contest ends January 29th).

Raven is recovering from her birthday yesterday (she played hard and had steak for dinner), and I plan on sewing a little today and trying, once again, to tackle Swamplandia! Wish me luck!!!

Have a wonderful week!