All Passion Spent - Book Review

All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West

Perhaps best known for her passionate affair with Virginia Woolf and for her creation of the gardens at Sissinghurst Castle, Vita Sackville-West's writing is often overlooked. But if All Passion Spent is any indication of her talent as a writer, she deserves to be considered as one of the finest female British authors of the 20th century.

The novel is divided into three parts: first, we're introduced to the children, then the widow of the newly deceased Henry Holland, first Earl of Slane, dead at age 94. Lady Slane's children are debating what should be "done" with their mother who, at age 88, they consider flighty and unable to take care of herself. They're shocked when she reveals that she wants to live alone - with her maid in attendance - in a cottage in Hampstead, one that she'd dreamed of for 30 years.

The second part of the novel takes us to Lady Slane's now simple life in Hampstead, where she realizes she will spend her final days. She has plenty of time to reminisce about her life, her dream of being a painter and her lack of choices as a woman in the 19th century. Though her marriage and exciting life would be the envy of most women of her class, she faces the fact that she gave up her one true passion to do what was expected of her by society and her family. But she isn't angry about her fate; she is resigned to life as it is in her era:
Yet she was no feminist. She was too wise a woman to indulge in such luxuries as an imagined martyrdom. The rift between herself and life was not the rift between man and woman, but the rift between the worker and the dreamer. That she was a woman, and Henry a man, was really a matter of chance. She would go no further than to acknowledge that the fact of her being a woman made the situation a degree more difficult. (Page 164)
In the third part of the novel, a person from Lady Slane's past makes an appearance. Their conversations are frank and startling to her. But she is relieved to have a confidant with whom she can be honest about her feelings of having given up her dreams all those years ago.

This is a beautifully written novel with some finely drawn characters (though her children, portrayed as despicable vultures, are a bit over the top). I enjoyed reading some of the insights this aged woman had and about the surprising relationships she developed with people she encountered late in life. Highly recommended.

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The Sunday Salon: August 22, Playing Catchup, Continued

Some more mini-reviews from the last few months:

1. One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson. Good, fun mystery, well written. A sequel of sorts to Case Histories. Atkinson is master at weaving a bunch of stories together. (4/5)

2. The Patron Saint of Liars by Ann Patchett. Excellent book. Love the story, the writing, the characters. (4.5/5)

3. A Guide to the Birds of East Africa by Nicholas Drayson. Charming, funny novel with much irony and an occasional nod to some serious subjects (AIDS, death, politics, boy soldiers). Lovely writing. (4/5)

4. Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry. Astonishing book - the characters, narrative, dialog, story, setting, all practically flawless. And that's saying a lot for 850+ pages. McMurtry is a master storyteller. I never thought I'd be interested in this Western, but Lonesome Dove will make it onto my top 20, if not top 10 books of all time. (5/5)

5. The Boy Next Door by Irene Sabatini. Interesting novel about Zimbabwe after independence. Beginning in the 1980s, we follow the narrator Lindiwe from adolescence through adulthood. The boy next door is Ian, a white boy, who is charged with murdering his stepmother by setting her on fire. In the first part of the book, Lindiwe is filled with teenage angst as she explores her attraction to Ian, who is released and returns to the neighborhood after just a few years.

The story is full of tensions -- racial, sexual, political, familial -- and secrets. The chaotic inner worlds of Lindiwe and Ian are mirrored by the chaos in the outer world, as Zimbabweans try to find their way after independence, which involves a great deal of fighting and inner turmoil.

I found the first part of the book choppy and difficult to follow -- but the narrator was a 14 year old girl; as Lindiwe matured, so did the story and the narration. There were a number of Shona words and no glossary, so I had to guess at the meaning sometimes.

That said, this was an excellent read and I recommend this debut novel - the 2010 winner of the Orange Prize for New Writers. (4/5)

6. No Fond Return of Love by Barbara Pym. I love Pym's writing, but this one seemed a little draggy to me. (3.5/5)

7. The Outcast by Sadie Jones. Compelling, difficult subject matter, intense, very well written novel of a young man in 1950s England who is not permitted grieving over a very traumatic event in his life and the effects this has on his coming of age. Recommended. (4/5)

8. The Voluptuous Delights of Peanut Butter and Jam by Lauren Liebenberg. Fabulous book. Orange Prize shortlist for new writers, 2008. (4.5/5). Highly recommend.

9. Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson. Absolutely delightful novel full of humor, compassion, social justice and romance. A love story with a lot of depth. Some of the characters are a bit over the top, but most are spot on and endearing. So glad I read this! (4.5/5)

10. Property by Valerie Martin. Another Orange Prize book (winner, 2003). Another excellent, if difficult, read. (4/5)

That's it for this week. One more Sunday and I'll be caught up! Enjoy the rest of your Sunday.
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The Good Daughters - Book review

The Good Daughters by Joyce Maynard
This review is based on the uncorrected proof, advanced readers' edition.

This book had so much potential. I know the story that this novel was loosely based on - such a fascinating human interest story that deserves a better telling than this. (I won't reveal too much since the whole book leads up to the reveal - which is a little too easy to spot early on.)

First, the good news. Some of the pieces were handled so tenderly and poignantly. I loved the story of Dana and Clarice. It was so refreshing to see a lesbian relationship treated so normally; the love between the two women was evident and portrayed beautifully. Some of the stories on the farm were beautifully written: Edwin's love of the land and the struggles of a family farm were told well.

The bad news: since this is an uncorrected proof, I do hope that some of the many inconsistencies will be corrected. I found myself thumbing back through a number of times, feeling confused about a character's name that changed or a scenario that changed. There was also a tremendous amount of repetition early on that felt messy. If it was done for effect, it failed.

The piece that bothered me the most was that there were two first person narrators, Ruth and Dana, yet they were virtually indistinguishable in their manner of telling their stories. I would get confused - again! - as to which was whom sometimes because their voices were so much alike. I appreciate novels with multiple narrators, but please make them individuals, not carbon copies!

This book was seriously flawed and fell flat for this reader.

FTC Disclosure: This book was provided to me by the publisher for review on LibraryThing. Read More!

The Sunday Salon: August 15, Playing Catchup

Oh blogs o' mine, you stand so neglected. I should know better than to promise to post a review of every book I read or to take a photo a day for a year and post to my photo blog.

So here on this ultra hot Sunday (100ish degrees), I'm sitting in front of a fan and looking at the long list of books I've read in the last several months. I post mini-reviews of most of them on LibraryThing, so I will begin my list here and re-post those comments, just so you know what I think about what I've read.

1. The Patience Stone by Atiq Rahimi. Must gather my thoughts after reading this short and powerful novel. Disturbing and poetic. 4/5. (Apparently my thoughts remained ungathered.)

2 .Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. Wow. 5/5 Review coming (hopefully) soon. (And we keep hoping.) This was one of my favorite books so far this year, so well written and such a wonderful story.

3. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. Wow. Just wow. Amazing book. Will review soon. (4.5/5) (Do you see a pattern here?)

4. Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. This is a re-read for me. I first read this book ~15 years ago and was struck by the lyricism. I didn't remember much about the story. On this re-read, I'm still struck by the lyricism - I feel as though I've read an extended poem. The story is almost incidental to the language. But the story, largely character driven, is wonderful, too. (4.5/5)

5. Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier. Excellent historical fiction about a little known fossil hunter, Mary Anning, in early 19th century England. (4/5)

6. The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance: A Memoir by Elna Baker. Quite a remarkable book - very funny with not a little twenty-something spiritual and romantic angst.(4/5)

7. Shadow Tag by Louise Erdrich. A wild departure from Erdrich's usual novels. Compelling, disturbing, readable; almost a psychological thriller. Will have to mull this one over awhile. (3.5/5) (Still mulling.)

8. Rush Home Road by Lori Lansens. Engaging story, but overly long for what it is. Also, a few too many convenient events and coincidences. Lansens wrote the fabulous novel The Girls after this debut novel. The Girls was stunning, so it was good to see she got better after this one! (3.5/5)

9. Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. I love this book. Probably my fourth read and it still gives me pause. I was especially moved by it in light of the gushing oil in the Gulf of Mexico. A little bit fantasy, a lot philosophy and a cultural message we should have taken in decades ago. (4.5/5)

10. Potiki by Patricia Grace. Excellent. Really stunning writing and good to read a story of exploitation through the eyes of the exploited Maoris.(4/5)

I'll stop there for now. There are another 15 or so, and I will try to get them posted by next week's Sunday Salon. I'm not sure why it's been so challenging for me to write reviews - I think I just want to get on to the next book! I have quite a list of good ones on the horizon, including All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West, The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri, and Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon.

Happy reading! Read More!

The Love Ceiling - TLC Blog Tour and Book Review

The Love Ceiling
by Jean Davies Okimoto

Endicott and Hugh Books

The Love Ceiling is a story of people in transition. Annie Duppstadt is about to turn 64; her mother has just died and her father, a famous painter and a narcissistic tyrant, carries on as though nothing much has changed; Annie's husband, Jack, is about to be forced to retire; and her daughter Cass is in an unfulfilling relationship with a man who can't commit to marriage.

Annie has always wanted to paint, but she was traumatized by her father at an early age (what I call Art Abuse) and grew up believing that she'd never make it as an artist. As her mother nears death, she extracts a promise from Annie that she will paint.

"When you see this do you...want to paint it?"

"Always." It was a whisper as much to myself as my mother.

" I thought so." Mom grabbed both my hands, turning her head to look at me. "You must do it."

"Maybe someday. You know how it is, Mom."

"You must do it." Direct, unequivocal, this time almost a command, while she tried pathetically to squeeze my hands. "Promise me, Annie."

"I promise," I whispered. (page 34)

Thus begins Annie's journey to her Self - a struggle to carve out time and create places where she can explore her artistry. Most women with families have obligations that pull them in many directions. When they give their passions a priority and give themselves permission, they can claim their power and explore possibilities. Okimoto did a wonderful job of portraying this struggle in The Love Ceiling. We recognize that Annie's mother was unable to do this herself, thus was so adamant about Annie pursuing her talent.

The story is told from alternating first and third person narratives - Annie in the first person and Cass in the third (though I suspect Okimoto originally had both characters in first person, as there's at least one instance of "I" in the narrative when it should have been "she" - editors, please!). It feels slightly awkward to have the two POVs. I enjoyed Annie's first person narrative - I felt as though I was inside her head and could understand her motives and actions.

I found there were places where there was way too much mundane detail - for example, I'm not sure why it was necessary to list all the bathing suit coverage options available in the Land's End catalog (again, editors!).

I enjoyed reading about Seattle and Puget Sound, since I hail from that area. I could visualize the Vashon Island ferry ride, the Olympic Mountains at sunrise, the seagull suspended against the wind. Okimoto brought those scenes to life for me. There is some lovely prose in this book, for example, as Annie is painting:
I felt almost disconnected from myself physically, detached from hunger or even thirst, lost in the mystery of the color, the emotions it evoked, and the luminous impasto taking shape before me. (page 151)
Okimoto's publicists refer to The Love Ceiling as a "coming of age novel for women over 50...60...70...80...90...!" I would add 30...40 to that too, as 32 year old Cass is also struggling with the questions, "what comes next? how do I do this?" and has some important insights along the way. Overall, this is an enjoyable read, and I recommend it to readers who like stories about families going through big transitions as well as stories about art and artists.

There's a wonderful interview with Jean Davies Okimoto you can hear on this podcast, and another interview transcript here. And be sure to check out her website.

Thanks to TLC tours for asking me to be part of this tour, and to Endicott and Hugh Books for sending me a complimentary copy for review. Read More!

Watermark: TLC Blog Tour and Book Review

Watermark by Vanitha Sankaran
Avon Publishing
The following review is from the uncorrected proof.

Love, betrayal, fear and suspicion are some of the themes that populate this historical novel, a superb debut for Vanitha Sankaran. Set in early 14th century France, Watermark begins with the birth of Auda, the novel’s protagonist. Her mother, Elena, sacrifices herself so that her infant may live. But it’s obvious from the beginning that Auda will face many challenges:

Onors, the healer’s apprentice, dropped her muddy clump of roots and leaves and rushed to Elena’s side. Seeing a child kick beside its mother’s eviscerated body, she crossed herself…She looked more closely at the infant and gasped. This thing was no child at all but a sickly creature, ivory-colored in skin and hair, white as bone. Even its eyes were so light, the translucent pink of a worm.

It had come too soon, undercooked, with no color yet baked into its skin and hair, so silent that she wondered for a moment if it still lived. But then it blinked.

“Demon,” she said in a whisper and crossed herself again. (page 6)

In a time and place when anyone out of the ordinary is suspected of being a heretic or of the devil, a mute albino girl - sometimes called the White Witch – might be blamed for the weather, for crop failures or livestock deaths. Auda has the protection of her father, Martin, a paper maker, but he is not invincible. Her older sister Poncia is a pious, fearful woman and thinks Auda would be safe if she were married to the old miller, so she makes the arrangements. However, Auda wants no part of it and prefers to stay with her father to help him with the paper making business. She has dreams of becoming a scribe – unheard of for a woman – and even more extraordinary, contemplates writing her own books.

Sakaran does an admirable job of keeping the story moving. Several times I thought I knew what was going to happen and was pleasantly surprised at the turns the story took. I was fascinated to learn about the paper making process: fermenting old rags into a pulp and pressing the pulp into paper. The title of the book, Watermark, refers to the technique invented in the 13th century to identify paper by pressing a unique symbol into the paper as it’s made. In this story, the watermark was also used to indicate a secret religious sect.

I’m always interested in stories involving witch hunts and the Inquisition. Medieval Europe is not a place I’d like to visit in reality, but I enjoy reading good historical fiction based on the time period. While reading Watermark, I was aware of the similarities to some of today's extreme religious fanatacism, resulting in polarities within our own culture, and I was reminded how dangerous intolerance can become.

Sankaran has written a compelling novel with interesting characters and has done some good research of the era. She even includes a glossary, a bibliography and a chronology of papermaking and other pertinent events of the time. I'm looking forward to reading her next book about printmaking in Italy.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for giving met the opportunity to read and review this book.

Vanitha Sankaran holds an MFA in creative writing from Antioch University. In addition, her short stories have been published in numerous journals, such as Mindprints, Futures, Prose Ax, and The Midnight Mind. She is at work on her second novel, which is about printmaking in Italy during the High Renaissance.

Visit Vanitha's website here.

FTC Disclosure: This book was provided to me by the publisher for review on my blog. Read More!

Teaser Tuesday and Where Are You? 04-27-10: Watermark

Should Be Reading - Miz B - hosts this weekly event. We throw out a couple of sentences from our current read (without spoilers, of course) to entice you to read the book.

This week's teaser is from Watermark by Vanitha Sankaran, page 16*:

Auda quelled a shiver of excitement and tried not to dream, as she often did, that the first original book Martin made would be written by her. Surely that was his dream, too--why else would he go through such effort to bring books home to share with her? She could picture it, a leather-bound volume containing pages and pages of her writing, maybe even decorated with bright illuminations. If Poncia knew of her ambitions, she would scoff at them both, asking what kind of woman wanted to write books? Few could even read.

It's Tuesday, Where Are You? is hosted by an adventure in reading.

I'm in 14th century France in the small village of Narbonne. I'm a young albino woman who helps her father in his paper making business.

I'll be touring this book on Thursday for TLC Book Tours. Be sure to check back then for my review and other information about Watermark.

*This is an Advanced Reader Edition; page numbers may differ. Read More!

French Milk - Book review

French Milk by Lucy Knisley - graphic memoir

I've fallen in love with graphic novels and memoirs the last two years and looked forward to this one that came highly recommended by...someone, I don't remember who. Unfortunately, I found this one to be boring, repetitive and sloppy.

Lucy travels to Paris with her mother to celebrate their birthdays - Lucy's 22nd and her mother's 50th (though she failed to mention anything about her mother's birthday in the story). They rent an apartment for a month and see the sights and eat. And eat. And eat. And every meal is drawn and written about in detail on just about every other page. It was like reading someone's food journal combined with the angst of a narcissistic young adult, which sometimes can be interesting and insightful, but not here.

In addition to the illustrations, which are fairly good, there are some not so good photos every few pages. I don't think they added anything to the book - most of them are of Lucy posing in front of a building or in a cemetary [sic] or of - that's right - food.

Fortunately, this only took a couple of hours to read. And I just can't recommend it.

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Teaser Tuesday and Where Are You? 04-06-10: Moral Disorder

Should Be Reading - Miz B - hosts this weekly event. We throw out a couple of sentences from our current read (without spoilers, of course) to entice you to read the book.

This week's teaser is from a collection of short stories, Moral Disorder by Margaret Atwood, page 170:
It couldn't be toilet trained, however. It peed whenever it felt the urge, and left piles of shiny brown raisin-sized pellets on the linoleum. Nell made it a diaper out of a green plastic garbage bag, cutting holes for the back legs and the tail, but that was worse than useless.

It's Tuesday, Where Are You? is hosted by an adventure in reading.

I'm in cities, suburbs, farms and forests of Ontario. Read More!

The Sunday Salon- 04-04-10: 1st Quarter Wrapup

Good morning Sunday Saloners and other readers! How can you tell if it's spring in Portland? The weather changes every 5 minutes. It's been cold, blustery, rainy, sunny, warm, cloudy - even a little hail mixed in. Good reading and blogging weather. And you can tell it's April by all the first quarter wrapup posts that pop up in the book blog world, including this one.

Here are the 20 books I've read in 2010:


The Bone People by Keri Hulme
The Mammoth Cheese by Sheri Holman
Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann
Peace Like a River by Leif Enger
The Dew Breaker by Edwidge Danticat
Under the Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy
The Hearts of Horses by Molly Gloss
The Septembers of Shiraz by Dalia Sofer


The Voyage of the Narwhal by Andrea Barrett
Lark and Termite by Jayne Anne Phillips
Crampton Hodnet by Barbara Pym
Possession by A.S. Byatt
The Girl with No Shadow by Joanne Harris
The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson


The Patience Stone by Atiq Rahimi
Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese
Friday's Child by Georgette Heyer
The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

And now, the awards.

Favorite book: by far - Cutting for Stone
Least favorite book: The Girl with No Shadow
Biggest surprise: The Lotus Eaters (because I didn't expect to like a book about Vietnam so much)
Biggest disappointment: Possession
Most astonishing: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Favorite re-read: (OK, the only re-read) Housekeeping

My average rating for these 20 books: 3.95 of 5. Not bad.

And ask me how I'm doing on those reviews. "Terri, how are you doing on those reviews?" Yes, I'm behind a bit, I have four yet to write. They're on my list. Next week I'll catch you up on my challenges.

Enjoy the rest of your weekend and the coming week. Happy reading!
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