Category Archives: Book Tour

The Last Good Paradise – Book Review

LastGoodParadiseNow their life in tatters, Richard went off diving. Where had that protective, nurturing Richard gone? Amusing himself despite her torment. Ten years, every year since law school, lopped off. Ann worried because she knew from long professional experience that relationships only continued on some basis of parity, to be determined by the two parties. Where was that parity now? – from The Last Good Paradise –

Ann is a lawyer who is disillusioned by her corporate position and eager to support Richard, her husband, in opening their own restaurant. But when their life comes apart at the seams, they decide to empty their accounts. leave responsibility behind, and seek escape in a tropical paradise. Once on a remote island, they connect with a burnt out rock star and his young girlfriend, the flawed owner of the resort who has deep regrets about the path his life has taken, and a seemingly discordant couple who are native to the island and help run the resort.

Tatjana Soli’s newest novel explores the idea of failed dreams, the search for an ever more illusive paradise, and the pull of the technical, fast paced corporate world of computers, high finance, and success.

Richard and Ann seem like the typical all-American couple who are set on a path to success only to have their dreams shattered. When they escape their “real” lives to find freedom in “paradise,” they discover that paradise is not defined by ocean breezes, blue waters and endless sunny days. Rather, the idea of happiness and finding paradise is an inner journey and is linked to the connections we have with others.

Soli introduces some quirky characters and intersperses humor with tragedy to engage her readers in this modern tale of a group of people searching for meaning in a complex and isolating world.

I was prepared to love this novel because I adored The Lotus Eaters by this same author (read my review). But despite good writing, I felt a bit disconnected from the characters who at times felt oversimplified. I wondered if Soli intended to create caricatures to emphasis the outrageous and amplify her characters’ personalities. Instead the novel feel a bit flat for me.

Readers who enjoy novels firmly grounded in our contemporary world, will find this an interesting work of fiction. Read other reviews of this book by visiting the TLC Book Tour page and scroll down to the links.


About the Author:

Tatjana Soli is a novelist and short story writer. Her New York Times bestselling debut novel, The Lotus Eaters, was the winner of the James Tait Black Prize, a New York Times Notable Book, and a finalist for the LA Times Book Award. Her critically acclaimed second novel The Forgetting Tree was also a New York Times Notable book . Her stories have appeared in ZyzzyvaBoulevard, and The Sun, and have been listed in Best American Short Stories. She lives with her husband in Southern California.

tlclogoFTC Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher for review on my blog as part of the book tour through TLC Book Tours


2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas – Book Review and Giveaway

2AM Not today, Philadelphia. Bring your sorry shit back tomorrow. – from 2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas –

Madeleine Altimari is only nine years old, but don’t let that fool you…this is one brave, independent-minded kid who doesn’t let reality get in the way of her dreams. Madeleine has been practicing singing all her life. She just needs the chance to prove her voice to others.

Sarina Greene is the kind of teacher most fifth grade  kids wish they had, and she’s back in Philadelphia after a divorce wondering what it will be like to meet up with her old high school crush again. Insecure and disappointed by what life has so far dished her way, Sarina wonders if everything could change if she just took a chance.

Lorca is dealing with an estranged girlfriend and a teenage son (who only wants to play guitar) when suddenly he is faced with the possibility of losing his business unless he can come up with $30,000.

All three of these characters come together on the Eve of Christmas Eve at The Cat’s Pajama’s, an aging jazz club whose history seeps out into the smokey atmosphere and captivates its audience. Coincidence and maybe a little magic unite to open up a world of possibility and joy for this novel’s protagonists.

Marie-Helene Bertino has written a charming story about bad luck, human kindness, and the dazzling lure of possibility. Witty and surprising, the novel celebrates the little things in life which can lead us to inner change and happiness. Madeleine is the star of the novel, a kid who has lost her mother and is forced to care for her grieving father, but never gives up her dream of singing. She’s tough, has a mouth like a sailor and has a way of always coming out on top no matter what life throws her way.

Mixing literary fiction with a bit of magical realism, Bertino has crafted a fine first novel that will captivate readers.

Highly recommended.


About the Author:

MH BertinoMarie-Helene Bertino is the author of the story collection Safe as Houses, which won the 2012 Iowa Short Fiction Prize and The Pushcart Prize, and was long-listed for The Story Prize and The Frank O’Connor International Short Story Prize. An Emerging Writer Fellow at New York’s Center for Fiction, she has spent six years as an editor and writing instructor at One Story.

tlclogoFTC Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher for review as part of a TLC Book Tour.

Book Giveaway:

I am happy to be able to offer a copy of this book to a lucky winner living either in the US or Canada. The winner will receive a new book from the Publisher (Crown) after the conclusion of the tour (the end of this month).

  • To enter to win please complete the survey at the bottom of this post.
  • Comments left on this post do not enter you in the contest – you must complete the survey
  • Contest will run from August 17th through August 26th, 2014 at 5:00 pm PST.
  • I will draw one winner randomly from all entries and announce their name here on my blog on the 27th of August. I will also contact the winner via email.

Create your free online surveys with SurveyMonkey , the world’s leading questionnaire tool.

8Wikipedia: Year 8 was a leap year starting on Sunday of the Julian calendar. At the time, it was known as the Year of the Consulship of Camillus and Quinctilianus. The denomination 8 for this year has been used since the early medieval period, when the Anno Domini calendar era became the prevalent method in Europe for naming years.

Ade – Book Review and Giveaway

AdeIt was like nothing penetrated until I began making my way toward him. And then it was as if I had been dying of emptiness, so readily did the world bleed into me. – from Ade, page 10 –

Farida is an American college student when she decides to journey overseas with her friend, Miriam. Together they explore new worlds, flying to Cairo and moving south. In Africa, Farida begins to discover a part of herself which she has never known before. She notices how the local people look like her, she begins to feel bound to them in a way which is hard to express.

This new world – with its Afro-Arab-Portuguese inhabitants with whom I shared bone structure and skin color, and whose brown eyes appraised me as if they knew me better than I knew myself – had claimed me in a way I had not known. The island was becoming my home. My mother’s prophecy was becoming manifest. – from Ade, page 45 –

And then she meets Ade, a Swahili man who lives off the coast of Kenya on an island which feels safe and idyllic. Miriam and Farida part ways, and Farida immerses herself in Ade’s culture, meeting his family and planning a life with him. But Africa is not the romantic place which Farida imagines – there is violence, political upheaval, and illnesses which are not easily treated far from America. As reality begins to intrude on Farida’s dreams, she must wrestle with love and make a heart-wrenching decision.

But it was more than this. Yes, I could see it now. It wasn’t him, it was me. I had done what I swore I would not do: I had romanticized Africa. I had accepted Ade’s life before I realized what it might mean for my own. – from Ade, page 102 –

Ade is Rebecca Walker’s debut novel – really more of a novella at a slim 112 pages. Walker’s prose shimmers with a light and rhythm which pulls the reader into Farida and Ade’s dreamlike world. At first, like Farida, the reader wants to believe in this magical place and in the possibility of love overcoming darkness. But, Walker allows glimpses into the dangers and pitfalls rife within Africa – the cultural divide between the America which Farida has grown up in and the rigidity of African paternalism and governmental chaos.

From my sheltered American perch, I imagined checks and balances, the rights of the individual, and judicial protection, even though history had shown me otherwise. – from Ade, page 78 –

Walker explores the big themes of identity, romantic idealism, and the impact of civil war on the lives of individuals. The writing is luminous and beautiful, the characters captivating. Long before the end of the story, the reader sees the conflict and watches as Farida slides toward a reality she has not yet imagined. It is tense and riveting – the kind of literature which holds the reader in its thrall while it comes to its inevitable conclusion.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book which is not just a love story, but an exploration of what it means to discover oneself in a different culture. It is about idealism vs. realism, seen through the eyes of a young adult as she moves out into the world. Readers who enjoy literary fiction will want to pick up a copy of Ade and experience this very talented, new voice in fiction.

Highly recommended.


tlclogoFTC Disclosure: This book was sent to me by the publisher as part of a TLC Book Tour.

Read more reviews by visiting the TLC Book Tour page.

Rebecca-Walker_72dpi_cDavid-Fenton-242x300ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Rebecca Walker is the author of the best-selling memoirs Black, White and Jewish and Baby Love, and editor of the anthology Black Cool. She is also the editor of the anthologies To Be Real, What Makes a Man, and One Big Happy Family. Her writing has appeared in Bookforum,  Newsweek, Glamour, Marie Claire, The Washington Post, Vibe, and Interview, among many other publications, and she blogs regularly for The Root. Learn more about Walker and her work by visiting the author’s website.


  • Contest open from November 26 through December 3, 2013 at 5:00 pm PST.
  • Contest open for US and Canada mailing addresses only (no PO boxes)
  • To enter, leave a comment on this post telling me you would like to be entered.
  • I will draw ONE winner after 5:00 pm on December 3rd (PST).


Save Yourself – Book Review

SaveYourselfFamilies were like oceans. You never knew what was under the surface, in the parts you hadn’t seen. – from Save Yourself –

Patrick Cusimano and his brother, Mike, are just getting by after their father is sent to prison for a drunken hit and run which took the life of a young boy. They live in their father’s home and try to ignore the pointed accusations of the townspeople who hold them responsible for their father’s actions. Patrick works in a meaningless job and comes home alone to sleepless nights. When Mike’s girlfriend, Caro, turns her romantic interests towards Patrick, he finds himself caught in an uncomfortable place between his brother and Caro.

Layla Elshere has turned away from her strict Christian upbringing and toward a charismatic teen named Justinian and his strange friends. She dyes her hair black, wears dark makeup and Goth clothing, and acts out sexually. When her younger sister, Verna, begins attending Layla’s high school and becomes a target for bullies, Layla pulls Verna into the chilling activities she shares with her rebellious friends.

But when Layla turns her sexual attentions to Patrick, a man much older than her seventeen years, she ignites a chain of events which will have tragic consequences for them all.

Save Yourself is a grim, ripped from the headlines kind of novel which explores the impact of bullying, fundamentalist Christian values, guilt, love and the desire to find acceptance. Kelly Braffet dares to go to disturbing places, digging deep inside the pathos of her characters…most of whom are teens or young adults.

All of the characters are damaged and lost…and seeking something better, even if the path to that often seems destined to fail. Layla and Verna are perhaps the saddest of the characters – two girls who discover cruelty and, as a result, find themselves lured into a lifestyle which is dark and dangerous.

Braffet’s writing is vivid and emotional and captures the desperation of teens who are victim to bullies. If I had to classify the novel, I would say it is a cross between adult and YA fiction and will especially appeal to older teens and twenty-somethings…and parents of teens may find the book too disturbing to even contemplate.

Although I found myself easily immersed in the story, I did find the plot a bit predictable. In fairness to Braffet, the fast paced world of media and violence which invades our lives these days doesn’t leave much to the imagination. Reading Save Yourself was a bit like watching the inevitable collision between two oncoming trucks – I could see the disaster approaching, but I could not look away.

Chilling, sad, brave, and all too real, Save Yourself is an unnerving read. If you like your novels dark and creepy, this one’s for you.


tlclogoFTC Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher for review on my blog as part of a TLC Book Tour.

Go to the TLC Book page to read more reviews.


Kelly Braffet is the author of Josie and Jack and Last Seen Leaving. She is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College and Columbia University, where she received her MFA. Kelly lives in upstate New York with her husband, the writer Owen King. Learn more about Braffet and her work by visiting the author’s website. Follow the author on Twitter @KellyBraffet; or on Facebook.


Race Across the Sky – Book Review and 3 Book Giveaway

RaceAcross the SkyOver the past decade he had successfully extracted any emotional confusion from his life. Jobs, career, family, the expectations of the world, were all like forgotten high school friends. But now, like a patient in remission who with horror senses his symptoms returning, Caleb felt a range of sharp emotions rising up; emotions he thought he had put aside forever. – from Race Across the Sky

Caleb Oberest works in a highly paid corporate position in New York City until the events of 9-11 shatter his world. On an impulse, he quits his job and moves to Colorado to join an elite group of ultra marathoners. These runners slave beneath the tutelage of a man named Mack who believes in pushing one’s body to such an extreme as to produce kinetic energy capable of sustaining the body with as little as 4 hours of sleep and very little fuel. To belong, members of the group sever ties to family and friends and vow to turn from any romantic relationships. Caleb immerses himself in this running cult, cutting all connection to his family to become a premier ultra marathoner. But then a young woman named June arrives in the mountains of Colorado with her very ill infant daughter, Lily, looking for the healing powers which Mack promises…and everything changes.

Shane, Caleb’s brother, works at a biotech firm which finds cures for fatal diseases. He and his wife, Janelle, are expecting their first baby and life has never seemed better. Then Shane gets a letter from Caleb after eleven years of silence. Caleb is desperate for a cure for Lily. Reeling from his own feelings toward becoming a father, Shane makes a decision to help in any way he can even if it means putting his career and everything he loves at risk.

Derek Sherman’s debut novel, Race Across the Sky, explores the limits of human endurance both physically and emotionally. Narrated in alternating points of view between Shane and Caleb, the story reels the reader into the obsessive world of competitive distance running and the lure of cults, as well as giving a disturbing glimpse into the powerful, financially driven realm of biotechnology firms and the development of medicines.

Sherman’s prose is character driven and compelling. From page one, I found myself intrigued and embroiled in the lives of the characters. Sensitive without being maudlin, the story is ultimately about love – that between brothers, and between parents and children, and also romantic love and how it can save us from despair. As I was reading, I found myself asking “What would you do to save someone else? What would you do for the person you love? Would you risk everything?

Race Across the Sky is dazzling in its descriptions of the Colorado and California mountains. As a runner once myself, I thought Sherman truly captured the compulsion of athletic competition and the battle that runners have within themselves to simply finish a distance race. I also loved the insight into the medical world of drug companies and the cutting edge technology of the biotech field.

I fully enjoyed this novel from beginning to end. It is compulsively readable with a strong plot, well-constructed characters, and terrific writing. Original and thought provoking, I can recommend Race Across the Sky for readers who like their novels to be provocative.


tlclogoFTC Disclosure: This novel was sent to me by the publisher for review as part of TLC Book Tours. Book giveaways are NOT paid promos. Although books for giveaway will be supplied by the publisher (in most cases), I do not accept payment to host these special events.

For more reviews, please visit the TLC Book Tour page.


Derek Sherman works in advertising as a writer and Creative Director. His work has received every major industry award, and been named among the best of the last 25 years by Archive Magazine. He is a co-founder of the Chicago Awesome Foundation, a charity dedicated to awarding micro-grants. He lives in Chicago with his wife and children. This is his first novel.

For more information about Race Across the Sky, visit the website.


  • Contest open from August 5, 2013 through August 13, 2013 at 5:00 pm PST.
  • Contest open to US and Canada mailing addresses.
  • To enter, please leave a comment on this post telling me why you want to read the book (other comments are welcome – but if you want a chance to win, please say so and tell me why you want to win the book).
  • I will choose THREE winners randomly and announce their name here on my blog on August 14th.

Good Luck!

This Is Paradise: Stories – Book Review and Giveaway

ThisIsParadiseWe look at each other, and we feel the heat rising in our faces. Our families are barely affording a life here, the land is being eaten away by developers, the old sugar companies still control water rights. Not only does paradise no longer belong to us, but we have to watch foreigners destroy it. – from This is Paradise –

A tourist to Hawaii believes she has arrived in paradise, only to find a much darker future there. A daughter seeks retribution for her father by pitting her fighting cocks against an adversary, only to discover there is a very high price to pay for revenge. The life of a stray dog reveals the deep fissures between a man and a woman. A daughter ponders the choices her father makes and wonders, if there is another family, does he love me less? A son sits at the bedside of his dying father and wishes to reveal his deepest secret, but will that heal the distance between them, or widen the gap?

These are just some of the characters who people the stories in Kristiana Kahakauwila’s beautiful collection which examines the gap between those who consider themselves “locals” and those who are visitors to a place; the divides within family; the secrets we keep from ourselves and those we love; the search for personal identity; and the definition of home and family. Kahakauwila has a deep understanding of what it means to be of a place, to cling to our pasts while trying to forge our futures, and the feeling of wanting to cling to family while being true to oneself.

My favorite story of the collection was The Old Paniolo Way. Pilipo grew up in Hawaii and revered his father, a man who ran a ranch and spoke pidgin, a man who had earned the respect of those around him. But Pili has left Hawaii, is now living in San Francisco where he feels more accepted for who he is…and who he is, is a gay man who has not yet come out to his family. When he returns to his family home, he comes to be with his dying father, Harrison, and reconnect with his sister, Maile. He longs to reveal himself, finally, to his family and, somehow, to bridge the gap which has formed between them.

Now, as his father was dying, Pili was haunted by the desire to re-create the intimacy he and Harrison had once shared. Pili wondered what might bring them back to that kind of closeness, and he began to think that if he could just come out to his dad – and Maile, too – thenperhaps he would regain the relationships he missed. In sand Francisco, his coming out – along with the honesty and self-realization that it required of him – was cheered and celebrated among his friends, and championed without hesitation. But in Hawai’i, Pili was unsure of his desires and of himself. – from The Old Paniolo Way.

This story about the love between a father and son and the isolation that one feels when he or she cannot be their authentic self, touched me deeply. It was in this story where Kahakauwila’s talent fully shone for me. But in all her stories in this collection, Kahakauwila infuses an empathy and authenticity which makes her work ring true and real.

This is Paradise: Stories is a haunting, beautifully crafted collection from a penetrating and talented new voice in fiction. Kahakauwila writes with a finely honed and observant point of view. Her characters jump from the pages, real and fully formed. Readers who are new to short fiction will find this collection accessible and poetic.

Highly recommended.


tlclogoRead more reviews of this book by visiting the TLC Book Tours page.


KRISTIANA KAHAKAUWILA, a native Hawaiian, was raised in Southern California. She earned a master’s in fine arts from the University of Michigan and a bachelor’s degree in comparative literature from Princeton University. She has worked as a writer and editor for Wine SpectatorCigar Aficionado, and Highlights for Children magazines and taught English at Chaminade University in Honolulu. She is an assistant professor of creative writing at Western Washington University.

FTC Disclosure: Many thanks to Hogarth and TLC Book Tours for providing me with this book for review on my blog as part of a book tour.


  • Contest open from July 23 – July 30, 2013 through 5: 00 pm (PST)
  • US mailing addresses only.
  • Please leave ONE comment on this post being sure to tell me you would like to be entered in the contest (if you just leave a comment, but don’t tell me you want to be entered, I will assume you do NOT want to be entered).
  • One winner will be randomly selected after 5:00 pm PST on July 30th and their name announced here on my blog; I will also send an email to the winner who will have five (5) days to respond to that email with their snail mail address or I will choose another winner.


In The Garden of Stone – Book Review and Giveaway

GardenOfStone“When you got something, someone always wants it,” he said. “You don’t show off what you got, not even your happiness. If you are happy, you go into your room and lock the door. You jump up and down where nobody gonna see your happiness. If you hide all your shiny things, ain’t nobody gonna take them away.” – from In The Garden of Stone, page 49 –

The year is 1924 and sixteen year old Emma wakes one night in War, West Virginia with coal dust in the air. A train has overturned and spilled coal over the porch of her home. Caleb Sypher, a railroad man who is many years older than Emma, helps to dig her and her family out. A week later Emma marries Caleb who takes her far from her childhood home to the mountains of Virginia and 46 acres of pristine wilderness. Over the next several decades, Emma and Caleb’s family live their lives against the backdrop of stunning scenery. They have babies, and struggle against poverty and unimaginable losses. They despair over unfaithfulness and mourn when illness strikes. And they find the simple joy in the freedom of wild horses, the leaping of trout from a cold mountain river, and the breathtaking beauty of colorful wildflowers. Sometimes they leave, but they always return, anchored to the land which they call home.

In The Garden of Stone is a multi-generational novel about the power of family and what it means to be a part of the land on which one lives. Susan Tekulve has had many short stories published, and her first novel feels a bit like short stories woven together. The book is a very literary novel where the characters drive the narrative. Each chapter moves the story forward through the years, introducing successive generations of the Sypher family. When Caleb dies, Emma grieves so deeply that her son Dean briefly returns to the poverty stricken coal town of War, West Virigina where he is raised by his grandmother and aunt. Eventually he returns to the family homestead and begins his own family. The reader comes to understand Dean and his wife, Sadie, and gets to watch their daughter grow up to adulthood. There are also other minor characters including a disturbed tramp who lives off the land, a friendly (albeit alcoholic) veterinarian, and a neighbor whose wife leaves him after the suspicious death of their son.

An important aspect of In The Garden of Stone is that of the Italian immigrants who came to the United States to stake their roots, raise their families and find work in and around Virginia. Tekulve captures not only the challenges these immigrants faced, but the culture which they brought with them from Italy. Early in the book, Caleb brings home rocks to create an Italian inspired garden for him and Emma. He finds joy in creating this oasis as a reminder of what his family left behind.

Tekulve’s writing has a dreamlike quality and she writes with authority about the Virginia mountains and the depressed coal towns of West Virginia. Perhaps the strongest aspect of her novel are the descriptions of the landscape. There were times as I was reading where I could feel the warm breeze, smell the sweetness of wild roses, and hear the gurgle of water as it rushed around river rocks.

In The Garden of Stone is a quiet book. The plot is not exciting or fast paced, instead the novel celebrates the lives of its characters – their growth, their struggles, their dreams and disappointments. There were times I wished to stay longer with certain characters but Tekulve left them behind to pursue the stories of the next generation. I kept returning to the feeling I had from the beginning – that this was a series of linked stories, any one of which could have stood on their own, but were made stronger by being connected to each other.

Some readers may find the pace of this book too slow, but I enjoyed the leisurely journey through the lives of the characters. Those who like character-driven stories with a deeply rooted sense of place will find In The Garden of Stone a satisfying summer read.


FTC Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher for review as part of a TLC Book Tour.

Read other reviews of this book by visiting the TLC Book Tour page for the book.


Tekulve-300x216Susan Tekulve’s nonfiction, short stories and essays have appeared in journals such as Denver Quarterly, Indiana Review, The Georgia Review, Connecticut Review, and Shenandoah. Her story collection, My Mother’s War Stories, received the 2004 Winnow Press fiction prize. Author of Savage Pilgrims, a story collection (Serving House Books, 2009), she has received scholarships from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Scholarship and teaches writing at Converse College. Her debut novel, In the Garden of Stone, won the South Carolina First Novel Prize.


  • Contest open from May 14 through May 21, 2013 at 5:00 pm PST.
  • Contest open ONLY for U.S. mailing addresses.
  • I will randomly choose a winner using Random.Org and announce their name here on my blog by May 22, 2013. The winner will also receive a confirmation email.
  • To Enter: Click here to take survey


A Constellation of Vital Phenomena – Book Review and Giveaway

ConstellationAt the kitchen table she examined the glass of ice. Each cube was rounded by room temperature, dissolving in its own remains, and belatedly she understood that this was how a loved one disappeared. Despite the shock of walking into an empty flat, the absence isn’t immediate, more a fade from the present tense you shared, a melting into the past, not an erasure but a conversion in form, from presence to memory, from solid to liquid, and the person you once touched now runs over your skin, now in sheets down your back, and you may bathe, may sink, may drown in the memory, but your fingers cannot hold it. – from A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, page 120 –

One snowy night in Chechnya, in a small village called Eldar where everyone knows everyone else, Akhmed watches from behind his curtains as Russian soldiers drag his friend and neighbor, Dokka, from his home. As they torch the house, Akhmed watches horrified, and wonders, “Where is Haava?” After the soldiers leave, Akhmed races to the woods behind Dokka’s home where he finds Haava, only eight years old,  huddled in the dark with a blue suitcase of “souvenirs” at her side. Leaving his disabled and senile wife alone in her bed, Akhmed leads Haava through the woods, skirting the road blocks and land mines to a hospital in another town. He pleads with the hospital’s only doctor, a woman named Sonja, to take Haava in and offer her refuge. But Sonja has problems of her own including sleep deprivation, and her sister’s disappearance, and when she hesitates, Akmed quickly offers his services at the hospital.

Anthony Marra’s debut novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, is a powerful, poignant, and deeply moving story that unfolds over five days, but also takes the reader back into the pasts of its characters where surprising connections are revealed. The characters are who drive this narrative set in a war torn, violent part of the world between 1994 and 2004. To gain further insight into the novel and its characters, it is helpful for the reader to understand some of the major events which occurred in Chechnya during those years.

The First Chechen War, also known as the War in Chechnya, happened between 1994 and 1996 and culminated in the Battle of Grozny. Brutal guerrilla warfare defeated Russian federal forces in their attempt to gain control of Chechnya. Despite a initial peace treaty, the Second Chechen War was launched by the Russian Federation in August of 1999. Later that year, the government restored Russian federal control over the territory. By the end of the war in 2009, death toll estimates ranged from 25,000 to 50,000 dead or missing, mostly civilians in Chechnya. Western European rights groups estimate there have been about 5,000 forced disappearances in Chechnya since 1999. These gruesome statistics are the backdrop for Maara’s novel.

What Marra does so effortlessly in his book, is to humanize the conflict in Chechyna. Sonja is an incredibly skilled doctor who has learned to set aside her emotions to do her job. Even her love for her sister, Natasha, has been tempered and controlled. But now, with fatigue and burnout taking their toll, her cool exterior has started to crack. Akhmed is a trained doctor who prefers art over science. Here is a man who reorders the stacks of art books at his ill wife’s bedside “so that the first book she reached for was new to her.” Here is a man who, when faced with the wrecked body of patient who has stepped on a land mine, walks past that person in order to drape a lab coat over the head of an eight year old girl so that she does not have to witness the horror. It is Akhmed who uses his skills as an artist in order to reconstruct the faces of the “disappeared” so that their families may somehow have them back.

When he graduated from medical school in the bottom tenth he didn’t know the disgrace weighing on him like a hundred rubles in five-kopek coins would one day be converted to less cumbersome denominations, when families, like this one, came, knowing he was too incompetent a doctor to save their son’s life, but so skilled and well-trained an artist he might bring their son back. – from A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, page 139 –

And then there is Haava, an eight year old girl who has lost her mother, watched her father be dragged away by soldiers, and is now living in a hospital where trauma arrives daily.

“Are the Feds going to take me, too?” To ask the question was to acknowledge that it could happen, and in Havva’s experience, any horror that could happen eventually did. Better to armor yourself with the unreal. Better to turn inward, hide in the dark waters among the sea anemones, down deep where the sharks can’t see you. – from A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, page 101-

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena weaves the lives of these primary characters back and forth in time. In doing so, Marra explores themes of interconnectedness, hope, betrayal, and love. Even while showing us the horror of a neighbor informing on a friend, Marra defines the very essence of what it means to be human.

This is a beautifully wrought novel that brought tears to my eyes. Achingly real and an unflinching look at the impact of war on every day people, it is not a story I will soon forget. Readers interested in historical fiction centered around Russia and its neighbors, as well as readers of literary fiction, will find this a book not to be missed.

Highly recommended.


Read other reviews of this novel by following the links on the TLC Book Tour Page.

Meg Wolitzer also wrote a terrific review of this book on NPR.

FTC Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher as part of a TLC Book Tour.

About the Author:

Anthony-Marra-credit-Smeeta-Mahanti-199x300Stegner Fellow, Iowa MFA, and winner of The Atlantic’s Student Writing Contest, ANTHONY MARRA has won the Pushcart Prize, the Narrative Prize, and a scholarship to Bread Loaf. He is also the recipient of the 2012 Whiting Writers’ Award. He has studied, resided, and traveled throughout Eastern Europe. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is his first novel.


  • Contest is open from May 7, 2013 through May 14, 2013 at 5:00 pm PST.
  • Contest is open for US and Canada mailing addresses.
  • I will randomly choose a winner using Random.Org and announce their name here on my blog by May 15, 2013. The winner will also receive a confirmation email.
  • To enter: Click here to take survey



The Paradise Guest House – Book Review and Giveaway

Paradise Guest HouseFor the last year, she played out every scenario in her mind: He would listen to her, he would rage, he would cry, he would hate her or love her. But he never walked away.  – from The Paradise Guest House –

At 23:05 Central Indonesian Time (15:05 UTC) on 12 October 2002, a suicide bomber entered Paddy’s Pub in the tourist district of Kuta on the Indonesian island of Bali. He detonated the explosive device inside his backpack and customers immediately fled into the street where, twenty seconds later, a second bomb exploded just outside the Sari Club, located across the street from Paddy’s Pub. Two hundred and two people (including 88 Australians, 38 Indonesian, 27 Britons, 7 Americans and 5 Swedish citizens) were killed and 240 people were injured. Later, members of Jemaah Islamiyah, a violent Islamist group, were convicted for their role in the bombing. Osama Bin Laden stated that the Bali bombings were in direct retaliation for Indonesia’s support of the United States’ war on terror and Australia’s role in the liberation of East Timor.

Ellen Sussman has set her novel, The Paradise Guest House, against the backdrop of these horrifying events. Jamie is an American adventure guide who has survived the blasts and finds herself, a year later, returning to Bali for a one year memorial event. But the ceremony is only part of the reason she has decided to go back to the a place which still haunts her. Jamie hopes to find the man who saved her life, a man named Gabe who was an American ex-pat living in Bali and working as a teacher. What unfolds is a gentle story of love, forgiveness, and the difficult road to healing after unspeakable loss.

 The Paradise Guest House is beautifully crafted. Sussman’s descriptions of Bali – its lush jungles, sudden rainstorms, and spiritual people – deliver the reader into the heart of the island. The characters are well developed and include Jamie who lost her lover in the bombing and is looking for closure; Gabe who carries his own deep loss of a son and marriage and wants a new life on Bali; Nyoman, a local man whose wife perished in the bombing; and BamBang, a street child with a tendency towards theft. All the characters have had loss and are journeying towards recovery.

Sussman’s novel is a meditation of sorts on grief and our connection to others. It captures the shock and devastation post trauma, and the slow, often difficult, path towards healing. The book is also, at its heart, a love story. Despite the underlying sadness which echoes through the narrative, there is the bright light of hope, a glimpse of something better for these characters who stole my heart.

Readers who enjoy character driven novels with gorgeous writing will want to read The Paradise Guest House in one big gulp. I sped through this novel, fully immersing myself in its sensuous prose.

Highly recommended.


About the Author:

Ellen Sussman is the author of the novels French Lessons andOn a Night Like This, both national bestsellers. She has two daughters and lives with her husband in Northern California. Learn more about Sussman and her work by visiting the author’s website.

photo credit: Chris Hardy

How to Win a Copy of this Book:

  • Contest open from April 16th through April 23rd, 2013
  • US and Canada mailing addresses only.
  • Click here to take survey  to enter to win a copy of THE PARADISE GUEST HOUSE by Ellen Sussman.
  • I will draw ONE winner randomly and announce their name on my blog on April 24th, 2013.

tlclogoFTC Disclosure: Many thanks to Ballantine Books and TLC Book Tours for providing me with a copy of this book for review and giveaway.


The End Of The Point – Book Review

EndOfThePointThere are moments in every life when something terrible happens to someone you love in a place where you are not, and you don’t know what has happened until afterward, and if you had known, you’d have altered the course of things by placing yourself here not there, a restraining wall, a force of nature: Stop. – from The End of the Point

It is 1942, Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts. The Porters arrive at their summer home on Ashuant Point with their three daughters – Helen and Dossie who are teenagers, and Janie who is only eight years old. With them are “the help,” including a Scottish nanny named Bea whose task it is to watch over Janie. Ashaunt has been their place, but this summer things are different. Soldiers have taken over the Wilson home, erected barracks, paved the road. And Charlie, the Porter’s son, is far away, training to go to war overseas. As the summer progresses, Bea falls in love and Helen and Dossie test out their new-found maturity, while something happens to Janie that forces the family to leave Ashaunt earlier than expected. The years spiral outward – Helen goes to school in Switzerland, marries and starts a family; Dossie struggles with mental illness; Janie grieves that Bea has moved back to Scotland. There are new generations, and one child in particular – Charlie, Helen’s son who is named after her brother – again looks to Ashaunt to find solace and meaning.

The End of The Point is a sweeping, multi-generational family saga which spans more than fifty years. The book is a quiet novel. Elizabeth Graver takes her time to slowly develop the characters, to examine their lives and their tragedies. The backdrop of history is always right there: WWII, Vietnam, the drug-addled years of the sixties and seventies, and real estate development along the shores of Massachusetts.

The novel is broken into four parts and told in multiple points of view, following a family through time. My favorite section was the first where the immediate members of the family are introduced and the girls are coming of age. Bea also takes a central role in the novel – a woman who has lived her life for others and becomes a part of the extended family.

It is the characters who drive the narrative in this novel about growing up, family legacy, parenting, and the power of place. Charlie, the brother, is someone who the reader only meets through the eyes of the other characters, and yet his presence reverberates throughout the novel. Janie, who is a strong presence in the first section, yields the novel to Helen, her older sister, as time passes. Charlie, Helen’s son, struggles with his identity, befriends questionable people, and clings to the one place he has always felt he belonged. And Bea, the motherly woman who adopts the Porters as her own, weaves her own tale through the book.

This is a novel which is subtle in plot, but beautifully rendered in description and character development. Readers who enjoy quiet novels with a strong sense of place will enjoy The End of The Point.


Read more reviews by visiting the TLC Book Tour page for the book and following the links.

About the Author:

Elizabeth-GraverElizabeth Graver is the author of The End of the Point, a novel set in a summer community on Buzzard’s Bay from 1942 to 1999. She has also written three other novels: AwakeThe Honey Thief, andUnravelling.

Her short story collection, Have You Seen Me?, won the 1991 Drue Heinz Literature Prize. Her work has been anthologized in Best American Short Stories (1991, 2001); Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards (1994, 1996, 2001), The Pushcart Prize Anthology (2001), and Best American Essays (1998). Graver’s story “The Mourning Door” was award the Cohen Prize from Ploughshares magazine. The mother of two daughters, Elizabeth Graver teaches English and Creative Writing at Boston College.

Learn more about Graver and her work by visiting her website, or follow her on Twitter, and connect with her on Facebook.

FTC Disclosure: Many thanks to TLC Book Tours and Harper Collins who provided this book for review.