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17 April 2014

Two Sisters, by Mary Hogan

If you want a secret kept safe, Muriel is the one to tell it to. In her entire life, the only connection she had with her beautiful and worshipped mother, Lidia, and equally mesmerizing sister, Pia, are the things she's seen or gone through with them, or because of them. Never once, though, has Muriel broken her promises and told a soul. With her father emotionally absent and bonded to his only son, Logan, and Lidia and Pia always excluding others, Muriel continues to be the outcast in a family of four who accidentally had a fifth.

Now an adult at twenty-three and living in New York with an entry level job, Muriel still keeps her promises, but limits her time with family. She prefers Sundays securely snug in the comfort and safety of her tiny fourth-floor walk-up apartment, eating popcorn while on the bed and reading the Times. Planning the day starts off like any other, but when her perfect sister Pia, now living in Connecticut with the perfect husband, house, and daughter, unexpectedly calls to spend Sunday with her, little does she know her entire life will change. What Muriel once thought about her family turns upside-down and sideways as relationships are scrutinized, past events are inspected again, all because of one more secret Pia has to share.

No matter how odd it may sound that I loved a story so sad and heartbreaking, Two Sisters resulted in just that. Beautifully written, Muriel's sad story is oftentimes difficult to read, frustration seeping in for the reader as Lidia and Pia dig at Muriel, cruelly teasing Muriel's hair, shape, and more. With reminders that being the odd man out in any situation can feel horrible, within a family, it can be damaging.

I couldn't put down Two Sisters and ended up flying through it in a day. It was an excellent change of pace from my current reading preferences, and I enjoyed every page. With truly nasty, unlikable characters throughout, Muriel's the ultimate underdog, and I cheered her on. While things tied up a little too neatly for my preferences, I loved Muriel's story, her quiet attempts to bond with her sister and mother tugging at my heartstrings.

Mary Hogan has a gift when writing the voice of the tortured soul excluded from others, and I'm eager to read more from her. I've heard that this is her first foray into adult fiction, with seven previously published books in the YA genre, so I'm excited to dive more into her work when her next adult novels come out.

Book club readers will definitely feel inclined to share their own personal family stories after reading Two Sisters. There is much to think about and mull over with others, and the simultaneously sweet and harsh message that sometimes you have to look at who you are, instead of always thinking everyone else is the problem, might hit home for many. The words lift from the page, pulling you into Muriel's world and I happily went into it, no matter how sad it sometimes could be.

FTC Disclosure: I accepted this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Publisher: William Morrow
Release Date: 3/4/2014
Pages: 384

About the Author
Mary Hogan is the award-winning author of seven Young Adult novels, and is also a writer for several national magazines, including her most recent article featured in Woman's Day about her mother, sister, and herself. (I'm going to have to read that one now, too!)  She lives in New York City with her husband and her dog Lucy. Two Sisters is her first mainstream adult fiction book. And it is good.

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08 April 2014

Seasoned Search and Rescue volunteer and debut novelist M.L. Rowland takes on the subject she knows best and brings the first in a thriller series sure to maintain your edge-of-the-seat spot.

Gracie Kincaid is a professionally serious volunteer with the Timber Creek Search and Rescue team, the largest county in the country. And while she may be ordered and disciplined in her role, her youthful and feisty vigor can sometimes get just a little bit in the way of her personal life, if you can call failed relationships and a string of job-hopping as one. In this first installment in the Search and Rescue mystery series, Gracie's partnered up with Cashman, a rogue and reckless volunteer who is given the lead to search for the missing British actors of a movie being filmed locally and who have somehow gotten lost in Southern California's wilderness on Thanksgiving Day. When Gracie and Cashman finally find one of the missing persons, he's been a little bit knocked around and seems to slightly remember being attacked on the trail. As Cashman takes the radio and hike out to report their position, Gracie does her best to not worry that the only link to the rest of the team, and ultimate rescue, didn't just go with him. With a possible killer in the mountains to contend with, Gracie has to keep Rob Christian, world-famous actor, alive and well at all costs.

This isn't my typical reading choice, but I was in the mood for something different. Different, thrilling, and one I could learn from. So when I got the offer to read M.L. Rowland's debut, I was more than happy to accept it. With survival tactics weaved into the story, Gracie's cute and somewhat rebellious self (although never about her SAR volunteer work), was incredibly fun to read. It'll keep you distracted in a busy airport, and engaged throughout.

My only wish was that I found out earlier on the depths of Gracie's life and why she's built the way she is, especially why the defiant and personal wall set up with her family is so big. The work was incredibly interesting to learn, and I enjoyed the twists and turns and survival knowledge thrown in, but I wanted to understand more about Gracie and really get into her past. It wasn't until the last few chapters that I got that peek, which easily painted the full picture of why Gracie is the way she is.

M.L. Rowland is an author to keep on the watch list; as with any author, there is no doubt she's only going to just get even better, and more thrilling, with each step along the Search and Rescue mystery trail.

FTC Disclosure: I accepted this book from the publisher in order to provide an honest review.

Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
Release Date: 01/07/14
Pages: 293

About the Author (from the website)
M.L. Rowland is an experienced Search and Rescue volunteer of twelve years, participating in hundreds of missions and trainings, including technical ropes rescues, helicopter insertions and evacuations, and searches for lost children, hikers, snowboarders, mountain bikers and criminal evidence, in alpine, desert and urban environments. She served as the team’s Training Officer and participated in community events and public speaking engagements. Trained in land navigation, and desert and winter survival, including avalanche awareness and self-arrest, she holds a certification in tracking from the State of California.

Rowland also served as a member and on the Board of a Colorado County Sheriff’s Department All-Hazards Incident Management Team (IMT) which manages local search and rescue operations, brush and wildfires, planned community events and other critical incidents.

Rowland is an avid political activist, naturalist and environmentalist. She is an accomplished painter and loves to snorkel. She has traveled to all fifty states in the US and also throughout the world. As often as possible, she hikes and explores the slot canyons of Utah.
Rowland lives with her husband, Mark, and their chocolate lab, Molly, at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in south-central Colorado.

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02 March 2014

The Good House, by Ann Leary (Audio Review)

Well, I'm an idiot. Let's just get that out of the way right from the start.

I began this audiobook months ago from excellent recommendations from JoAnn at Lakeside Musing and Sandy at You've Gotta Read This. Somewhere along the way, I decided to take a break from the story. Don't ask. I have no idea why.

Hildy Good is an older single woman and is the most successful realtor in a small New England town. A descendant of a witch from the Salem Witch Trials, Hildy's also got a knack for finding out what everyone's secrets are, whether they want to spill it or not. With two adult daughters, an ex-husband who is her ex only because she can't really be in a marriage with a man when he's gay, and a little bit of a problem with her wine (she just can't stop drinking it), Hildy's confident that life is now exactly where it needs to be. If a little bit of wine in the evenings takes the edge off of her busy day, what harm can it do? She's never viewed wine as a source of a problem and even when her daughters planned an intervention, forcing Hildy to go to rehab, she always told herself she was only going so her daughter wouldn't stop her from seeing her grandson.

For some reason, something didn't click with me. At first. Was it the narrator or was it the story? I really have no idea. It was just something, and probably something silly and minor, but I took a break from it, resolving to start it back up again one day in the future.

When another audio concluded and I was stuck in the car with another hour to go, I realized I had nothing ready except for The Good House. Deciding to give it another try, I pressed play. And I was floored. I absolutely fell in love with it. The narrator felt like an old friend I hadn't spoken with in forever, the character of Hildy suddenly became clearer to me and her story started to take shape even more. I got the humor, I started to feel her pain, and realized that Hildy's battle with the bottle was something she might never fully come to terms with. I grumbled about Rebecca, Hildy's new friend, a younger mother born into old money, who was just a tad entitled and definitely annoying, but I even changed my opinion of her as well. I loved Frank and wanted everything for him, and then suddenly, I was shocked when I realized I couldn't stop listening to it. I tweeted with JoAnn about this, and I made excuses to take long drives and run random errands just so I could be with Ann Leary's story. And then it all made sense that Mary Beth Hurt 's gravely voice and timely inflection was absolutely the only person on this planet who could deliver Hildy's story, revealing dark pain laced with an unsuspecting humor that seemed to blanket her in some iron-clad defense. This was incredible. One of the best audios I have ever listened to, and one for the books that New England can count as a "win" for stories told of small town life.

Click here for the sample so you can listen and be convinced. Don't be an idiot like me and think you need to take some silly break. The last few foreboding hours set up by an innocent first few chapters will keep you on the edge of your seat, the tale magically composed by Ann Leary and cunningly voiced by Mary Beth Hurt. You won't regret it.

FTC Disclosure: I downloaded this from

Publisher: Macmillan Audio
Release Date: 01/15/13
Audio Time: 10 hours and 12 minutes
Narrator: Mary Beth Hurt

About the Author
Ann Leary is the author of the memoir An Innocent, A Broad, the novel Outtakes From a Marriage, and the latest New York Times and national bestselling novel The Good House. She is a co-host of the NPR weekly radio show Hash Hags, is a volunteer EMT and competes in equestrian sports. She sounds pretty awesome, so I just might have to read everything else now.

About the Narrator
Mary Beth Hurt is an actress best known for her role in The World According to Garp (1982), Interiors (1978), and Bringing Out the Dead (1999). Her voice has the perfect gritty stylings that will keep you transfixed to the story. I can't wait to listen to more from her.

20 February 2014

The Sun and Other Stars, by Brigid Pasulka

Without even knowing it when I accepted it, I realized within a few chapters of Brigid Pasulka's The Sun and Other Stars that this was the book I'd been waiting to read for a long time. A coming-of-age story set in Italy, mixed with the peculiarities and blessings of a small town, I was swept away with its love and grief. What a lovely story.

Etto, the butcher's son in a tiny seaside resort town on the Italian Riviera, is lost. Suffering the recent deaths of both his twin brother and his mother, Etto and his father find themselves slowly growing further apart. Cynical and doubtful of supposed good intentions, Etto distances himself even further from his friends and the residents of their small town, who always think they know what's best. It's only when his father's favorite soccer player, Ukrainian Yuri Fil, seeks sanctuary in San Benedetto to hide from a scandal, that Etto realizes there just may be hope for each of them, no matter how much of an outsider they might be.

There are few things that make me jump at the chance of reading a book offered by a publisher, but the story's setting in Italy is a sure thing for me. When the publicist kindly reached out, I did jump at the chance, even though I've been steadily declining most book offers over the past year. Returning back to work from maternity leave was of course another distraction, but Brigid Pasulka's The Sun and Other Stars seemed like the perfect story to settle in with. And it was. It was worth every single moment.

Written casually yet beautifully, Etto speaks directly to the reader and allows his negativity to take center stage at the beginning, showcasing quite the chip on his shoulder. Like most complex characters, however, the peeling of the onion delivers more layers, and it's clear Etto is not only heart-breakingly devastated by the loss of his brother and mother, but sweet and sensitive as he allows himself to fall in love with Yuri Fil's younger sister.

Most successful stories are able to create a character out of the town itself, and Pasulka does just that with the quirkiness of San Benedetto. Every character, from the nonne (grandmothers) who gather outside of church on Sundays to share in local gossip, to Martina, the owner of the bar everyone goes to in order to watch soccer and cheer for victories or argue and lambast for defeats, provides such substance and support to Etto's overall growth, rebuilding his lost faith and his connection to them. While a tiny village can sometimes either be a curse or a blessing, most times it's the only place to heal. The journeys Yuri, Etto, and his father each need to take to realize how much they do fit, that recovery is possible, is a reminder that perhaps a small town isn't such a bad thing after all.

This is one to remember. I highly recommend this, and I urge you to check it out. I loved everything about it, with Italian thrown into the dialogue and description, I felt like I was right back in Rome five years ago on my honeymoon. Ahh. To move there one day is the goal.

Anyway, you won't regret reading this one. You'll learn how soccer is like a religion, that love can heal, and that small towns and big families of friends and neighbors will always give you the strength you need.

Passages of Note:
I sit through the next round, watching them, and I feel a little like Nonna must feel, like I've got my face pressed to the glass looking in on everybody else. (p.158)
The beaches are empty this early in the morning, the sea so flat, I could fold it up into an envelope. (p.159)
That's another thing they forget to tell you about grief, that every loss you feel after the first is not added but multiplied, like what they tell you in school about drinking and taking drugs at the same time. And after squaring so many fraction and fractions of fractions, you find out you've used up your lifetime allotment of both pain and joy, and all that's left is an emotional flatline and the deep conviction that you will never, ever try anything with the potential to intoxicate you again. (p.295) 
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Release Date: February 4, 2014
Pages: 336

FTC Disclosure: I accepted this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. If you can't tell from the above, I loved this book.

About the Author (from her website)
Brigid was born and raised in rural Illinois and has lived in Poland, Russia, Germany and Italy. Her debut novel, A Long, Long Time Ago and Essentially True won the 2010 Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award and was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection. Her second novel, The Sun and Other Stars, was an Indie Next pick for February 2014. Brigid lives in Chicago with her husband and son and runs the writing center at a public high school.

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