Penny’s Backlist Reading Challenge

Keep Calm

Keep Calm and Think What to Read Next: now you know that can be a difficult thing to keep calm about over here with the amount of book hoarding that goes on! So many lists for 2014 have already had me hurriedly adding to the TBR lists, but then I started looking at allllll those books sitting on my shelves, the Kobo, on the “For Later” shelf at the library, etc. and decided that I needed to create some kind of “Backlist Challenge” for myself.

I’ve compiled lists (that seemed to keep growing) broken down by “Category” from Library titles, Kobo titles, NetGalley titles and Home titles. Now the challenge for me is how to choose from each of those lists and how desperately not to stray tooooo much from them. The book covers only are showing below, they are not linked to anything, only to give a visual of what I put on my lists. I would ask for suggestions but then I’m so afraid I would quickly fall off track! Your comments are always welcomed however on what you think my selected titles.  Continue reading

Book Review: Clara’s Heart

17173365Thank you to Open Road Media and NetGalley for allowing me to read Clara’s Heart by Joseph Olshan.  What had me originally intrigued was the cover. I then read the description and decided to request it. So I had no idea it had already been made in to a movie starring Whoopi Goldberg and a very young Neil Patrick Harris long ago in the 80s! A glimpse at the movie can be seen here (hang on, it’s very 80s!): (and after seeing this clip and then reading the book, NPH was the only person I kept in mind when reading David, and of course Whoopi as Clara.)

Synopsis: When David’s mother brought Clara Mayfield from Jamaica to live in their affluent household, David told the exotic intruder to go back to where she came from. But the indomitable Clara would take no nonsense, and soon began to capture David’s affections.

The synopsis is a tad brief and doesn’t really cover a great deal of what the book holds for the reader. Firstly, Clara is indeed brought to their home following a trip David’s parents make to Jamaica. This trip was necessary in order to bring David’s mother back from the brink of despair following the death of her infant daughter. She is completely unable to re-enter reality and is painfully neglectful of David and her marriage is collapsing. David’s mother meets Clara and insists she is the only one that can save her from her funk. With hesitation, David’s father agrees and Clara arrives homes with his parents following a lengthy five-week absence. Five weeks in which David is left under the care of another black woman from North Carolina with some serious issues. Issues like hiding in the closet when a thunderstorm strikes.

Therefore, when David sees Clara in her red wool coat and her red case stepping in to the house, he is obviously taken aback with grave hesitation. And Clara isn’t exactly a person without deep-seated issues either. She talks funny, she mutters strange things, her red case is locked up and she is extremely secretive about an event in her past which has caused her great pain and shame.

Although bringing Clara in to their home was supposed to help “fix” things, this is still not a happy home. David’s mother continues engage in increasingly flakey behaviour and joins a hippie movement, studies philosophy and tries to cook strange twigs and berries for dinner. David’s father continues his lengthy absences and affairs away from home. The only constant in David’s life is Clara. So much so that he becomes fiercely dependant upon her. He is able to speak Patois with such ease he can fool her friends that call on the phone. Clara is David’s only friend. Most times, he wishes Clara was his mother because the one he has could care ever less for him.

When David’s parents decide to (finally) divorce, the struggle for David continues. He is to live with a mother that doesn’t even spend time at home, his father is trying to shed his life from the suburbs and moves to a swanky Manhattan apartment complete with a fur comforter on his bed. Again, the only person that David wants to be with is Clara. He even wishes he could move with her permanently to her weekend apartment in Brooklyn. As David ages, his parents make life altering decisions and leave David to determine where he should fit. In his heart he knows where he fits and where he wants to be, but Clara is now making it tough for David as well. For she too has become too close to David and knows that she must make a hard decision to leave the family, for it is only best for her and David as well.

Clara’s Heart is a very tender, easy-going coming of age story about David, and really, about Clara as well. In the final pages she finally shares with David her deepest, darkest secret and the shame it has caused her. However, too many times it was really quite hard to not become so annoyed and frustrated at the shameful adult behaviour and neglect that was pulling David apart. It rendered him completely confused during an incredibly important time in childhood. His need for Clara became so great, he could not go at any time without her just to get through his days. It does become very frustrating to read of the pull on David, the neglect and great confusion he is made to suffer throughout this story. Even now, days and days after finishing it, I cannot get David out of my mind. He suffered so greatly and had to grow up in a very confusing home with parents that were so frustratingly neglectful of him I wanted to shake them silly. Clara’s Heart is a gentle coming of age story and David is a character you will not easily be able to shake.

“Only one more thing I want to tell you, David,” she said…She touched her chest with her fist and said, “Only you is in dere, David. Only you in my heart.” (Clara)

Book Review: Gracianna


The gripping story of Gracianna–a French-Basque girl forced to make impossible decisions after being recruited into the French Resistance in Nazi-occupied Paris.
Gracianna is inspired by true events in the life of Trini Amador’s great-grandmother, Gracianna Lasaga. As an adult, Amador was haunted by the vivid memory of finding a loaded German Luger tucked away in a nightstand while wandering his great-grandmother’s home in Southern California. He was only four years old at the time, but the memory remained and he knew he had to explore the story behind the gun.
Decades later, Amador would delve into the remarkable odyssey of his Gracianna’s past, a road that led him to an incredible surprise. In Gracianna, Amador weaves fact and fiction to tell his great-grandmother’s story. (Description taken from Goodreads)

Trini Amador provides further background to his story of Gracianna, to the time of finding a loaded gun in her room and for the reasons why he wrote this story – it’s all in the trailer here:

During the first half of this book I was ready to leave it, put it down, delete it, whatever. It was written very simplistically and to me if felt as though written for those in an elementary grade. For example it seemed to be geared toward a reader whom required short sentences with explanations of the words and terms included in brackets at the end of the sentence. To add to the simplistic style, subheadings would start off every new thought or occurrence. (“Meeting Monsieur Dominique”; “The Woman’s Dormitory”; “The Letter to Bettina”.)

Furthermore, there was an excessive and more often than not, completely unnecessary, (over)use of quotation marks….

“This trait came from his mother, who some said was “too timid”. Others said she was simply close to God, devoted to her family and “preferred to stay inside,” doing everything to make the household run.”

“Shen used the back porch of the house for his “exercises”.

“Juan wanted to be more like Shen, so Shen would teach him how to “meditate”.”

“Juan was able to occasionally “let go” of the world and listen to himself.”

“Once, Juan had “missed” his provision wagon by a day.”

It was agonizing. There is no other way to describe it. However, I continued on as I felt it would be a great injustice to a story that holds such deep meaning and emotion for the author. And once again, I found myself thankful for doing so. When we approach the parts where Gracianna is heavily involved with the French Resistance and desperate to have her beloved sister, Constance, freed from a concentration camp, does the story rapidly improve. The simplistic style of writing seems to disappear, or perhaps I’ve grown more accustomed to it, the overuse of quotation marks has definitely stopped and the pace begins to pick up considerably. The determination of Gracianna to rescue her sister, all while putting herself in great and grave danger, along with the stories about Constance’s terror in the camp are truly wonderful to read.

Amador did lovingly share the story of his great-grandmother and what he came to see as the real story to how she came to have a gun hiding in her nightstand. This powerful woman consistently stressed the need for gratitude and the final notes about Gracianna are filled with love and gratitude for her. So, while the simplistic style of writing and the overuse of quotation marks in the beginning of this story caused some “serious distraction” from “truly enjoying” it, I am very glad I kept with it, because the second half and end does shine for this wonderful person in Amador’s life. Thank you for sharing it with us. (And thanks to NetGalley for providing an advanced reader’s copy, much appreciated.)

Review: Blue Asylum

A thank you to Netgalley and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (and Thomas Allen, Ltd) for rewarding us with the ability to read Blue Asylum before it was released.

Amid the mayhem of the Civil War, Virginia plantation wife Iris Dunleavy is put on trial and convicted of madness. It is the only reasonable explanation the court can see for her willful behavior, so she is sent away to Sanibel Asylum to be restored to a good, compliant woman.

Iris is a woman sent away to the insane aslyum for defying her husband. A man she knows is a cruel plantation owner and whom she despises. The beginning of the story is where Iris has already been tried and sentenced to be detained at the asylum, she is taking the boat to the island where the asylum is housed. Iris is desperate to have everyone understand the mistake that was made and that she is of sound mind, her madness being that she challenged and defied her husband.

There has been a mistake. I do not belong here. I am simply here for the act of defying my husband, who is a man of most indecent character.

I am not a lunatic. I am the victim of a terrible campaign of outright slander by own husband.

It is always amazing to read how a man’s opinion carried so much weight at that time and that no matter how calmly you presented yourself, women were never believed. What a convenient way to cast aside an unwanted wife simply by claiming her insane. Any potential nostalgia for this bygone era should be swiftly wiped away! There is also great insight about the laudanum laced patients and the horrible “water treatment” that was used on women to make them docile and acquiescent again.

You’ve embarrassed your husband. Humiliated him, here in such a pressing time, when the war is taking such a toll.

At Sanibel, Iris meets a woman that swallows small objects, and whom becomes one of her closest friends, a man that believes his feet are too heavy and a recovering solider suffering from intense shock, dreaming of the colour blue to help calm him and whose story also unfolds in time. And there is Wendell, the son of the good doctor Cowell, who lives full time on the island. Wendell has no children his age there and is surrounded by madness. He quite fears he himself is insane, for he has no one to confide in about what he sees from the patients, and of the changes in his body or his feelings. Wendell becomes something of a watchkeeper over Iris. He is fascinated by her and wishes to keep her safe. For Iris, Wendell becomes her confidante and her only and best way to escape from the island.

Iris’ past unfolds amid the blossoming friendship between herself and Wendell. The story switches from the present at the asylum, and slowly unfolds with the past story as to how Iris really came to be there. Her afternoon chats with Wendell expose the tryanny of her husband and his treatment of the slaves there. She tells Wendell with care and patience, how she came to help free and escape with the slaves from her husband’s plantation. Through these stories Iris also provides parallells for Wendell to think about, how his father is running his own slave plantation in a way, and the tyranny of the asylum, etc.

She is also “getting into” Dr. Cowell’s head as he fights to justify her insanity but also his growing infatuation with her. Iris falls in love with Ambrose, the recovering soldier and these feelings are impeding her ability to escape.

This was her true suitor, not the plantation owner but the madman, pure of heart and strong and kind. The one who made her feel completely a woman and not an ounce a prisoner or a patient or a lunatic.

This was a really good story. You may find that it starts out perhaps just a tad slow, but it does build all along the way and the slow unveiling of Iris’ story and of the stories of the various characters is worth the wait. The tension and anticipation builds to a solid ending. I’ve waffled between the 3.5 and 4 star rating. So let’s settle with a 3.75. 🙂 It is a worthy read!

Parts of this novel did remind me of Dracula in Love, by Karen Essex, where Mina Harker is sent to an asylum, again because of her husband, and his sole declaration that she is insane. (I do encourage you to pick up Dracula in Love- I absolutely loved it, perhaps the only book with a vampire in it that I will ever read.)

This is Nellie Bly being examined and determined to be mentally insane. Nellie Bly was a journalist who went undercover to expose the travesty in the Blackwell Insane Asylum. The link will take you to the full story as written by Bly.