Sunday, February 27, 2011

Lucy Dillon - "Lost Dogs & Lonely Hearts" - Giveaway & Review

Ah, angst. When women are stressed out and dealing with emotional life changing events, they tend to worry themselves to no end. For a book with dogs in the title and two canines gracing the cover, this comes as a bit of a surprise to those expecting a warm and fuzzy read. With the introduction to an American audience of her UK release Lost Dogs and Lonely Hearts, author Lucy Dillon is hoping to connect with readers who fell in love with uber-successful, pet-themed novels like Marley & Me and Dewey the Library Cat. However, what sets this story apart is not its four-legged characters, but rather the well-rounded, realistic depictions of three women facing the day-to-day struggles of ordinary life.

Rachel, Zoe and Natalie are not superwomen, but neither are they one-dimensional puppets used to advance the plot. Their inner motivations and thought processes ring true. They say things they shouldn't and behave in ways that are inappropriate. But that's what makes them real. They have problems and issues that they are doing their best to deal with. What helps them through the hardships and frustrations are their dogs who remain steadfast amidst the psychological tumult.

Rachel is the super chic, London career woman. At 39, she leaves her married lover and her prestigious job to run her deceased aunt's boarding kennel/dog rescue.
She also inherits her Border Collie, Gem, who serves as a guide helping her negotiate the path from getting her hair cut in a posh salon to cleaning cages on her hands and knees. Add to the mix George, the town veterinarian, who the local women whisper looks just like Daniel Craig. Just when Rachel thinks she might be able to adjust to her new life in the country, an unexpected revelation as well as a visitor from her past threaten to disrupt her new-found serenity.

Zoe is the newly divorced mom of two young boys. When her husband cheated on her and ran off with a younger woman, she was left holding the bag. Struggling to make ends meet on a hairdresser's salary and battling for alimony and child support, her ex selfishly dumps Toffee, a new Labrador puppy, in her lap in order to buy his sons' affections. At her wits end trying to keep things together, she turns to Rachel for help. They agree to a weekday doggy daycare arrangement with Zoe walking the kennel dogs as a part of a volunteer group. Little does she realize that this set-up will lead her right into the arms of the handsome Dr. Bill. Finding herself more and more attracted to the charming physician, she must steel herself against his anti-children proclamation especially since she never worked up the courage to tell him she's a mother.

Natalie is on the fast track to promotion as a marketing executive when her company unexpectedly lays her off. With ample time on her hands, she decides along with her husband, Johnny that they can now focus on starting a family.
However, their plans go awry when Natalie fails to conceive. As the stress starts to mount regarding infertility treatments and doctor visits, they decide to serve as foster parents to a Basset Hound named Bertie from Rachel's kennel. As they start to drift apart and blame each other for their conception troubles, Bertie becomes a vital link in helping them remember what's most important in life.

While Lost Dogs and Lonely Hearts isn't exactly a relaxing escape from reality, it does paint an accurate picture of the issues facing women in today's society. Dillon expresses the turmoil bubbling beneath the surface of everyday life from financial problems to relearning how to date. She creates viable, likable female characters facing these issues with the help, love and support of their canine sidekicks.

Overall, this is a more introspective and fully formed narrative than the average chick lit/pet story.

Lost Dogs & Lonely Hearts by Lucy Dillon is available for $15.00 at
Amazon.com and at Penguin Group USA.

R
eview copy was provided by
New York Journal of Books.

Congratulations to our winner: Tran Nguyen!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Lea Wait - Shadows of a Down East Summer - Giveaway & Review

Young women of the Victorian era were expected to be pristine, unblemished and pure. But how did they really behave? Were calculated means employed to achieve desired marital ends? Lea Wait seems to think so in the time traveling, murder mystery Shadows of a Down East Summer. In the summer of 1890, the lives of Jessie and Anna May are irrevocably changed. Echoes of the intensity of their experience linger in the air of Waymouth just off the coast of Maine.

Fast forward to the present day and visiting antique print dealer, Maggie Summer. After discovering Anna May's journal, the girls' long held secrets begin to unravel. However, as Maggie gets closer and closer to reading the diary's final entry, death, violence and destruction descend all around her. Someone does not want Maggie to know what really happened to Anna May and Jessie that summer, and they'll stop at nothing to keep her from learning the truth.

The novel excels when the setting shifts to 1890. With Anna May as the narrator, she relates how she and Jessie were hired to pose for the world renown artist, Winslow Homer. The eccentric recluse paints them as fisherwomen repairing nets with their hair unrestrained hanging loosely around their shoulders and feet unadorned of stockings and shoes. Both were cultural taboos for well brought up young ladies of the time period. As propriety starts to wane, so do the girls' sexual inhibitions. Swept up in the bohemian influence of the artist's cottage, they readily consent to try new things without fully realizing the perilousness of their position.


The majority of the story is focused on Maggie's quest to follow the breadcrumbs left by Anna May. While a likable character, the details involving Maggie slow the dramatic pacing. It is not exactly riveting material to follow her around a rained-out antique show or an L.L. Bean outlet store. While Wait's attempt at infusing local color is welcome, especially the delectable seafood dishes, having Maggie as the book's driving force seems misplaced. Since the book is the fifth in a series of Maggie novels, the choice seems correct at the outset, but flounders as it progresses onward. The gripping, page turning momentum lies in 1890, and not with Maggie.

Since Wait is a fourth-generation antiques dealer, herself, she blends her knowledge into catalog-like listings of paintings, prints and maps to begin each chapter. These are fascinating snapshots of collectible artwork such as hand-colored lithographs by
Currier & Ives and wood engravings from Harper's Weekly. Dimensions are given as well as their estimated current value. These gems of knowledge serve to foreshadow the theme of each chapter. From the death of President Franklin Pierce's son in a train derailment to the idealized figure of the Gibson Girl, Wait's carefully selected treasures add a level of authenticity to a book subtitled "An Antique Print Mystery."

Overall, the momentum of this antique thriller gets bogged down in the present.

Shadows of a Down East Summer by Lea Wait is available for $14.95 at
Amazon.com and at LeaWait.com.

R
eview copy was provided by
New York Journal of Books.

Congratulations to our winner: Victoria Zumbrum!

Monday, February 14, 2011

Valentine's Day Books With Love Hop - Giveaway - "The Pionner Woman" & "How to Knit a Heart Back Home"



Some girls have all the luck. Ree Drummond's depiction of her cowboy husband in The Pioneer Woman: Black Heels to Tractor Wheels would make any female swoon. He is quite literally the perfect man, and yet totally believable in the role. Despite his wife's glowing characterization, the affectionately dubbed "Marlboro Man" still manages to come across as authentic and utterly likable. What seems to be a personality that is too good to be true is actually the genuine nature of a decent, respectable guy.

Ree is more critical of her own faults and short comings. She grew up as an American princess. Her backyard was the golf course of a country club. Her wardrobe was filled with designer clothes. When she moved back home after a break-up, she didn't have to worry about finding a job right away in order to support herself. Not to say that her life was completely devoid of anxiety, but she lived a life that was secure and protected. Her plan was to pick herself up, dust herself off and head to Chicago for a life filled with excitement and culture. That is until, she met Marlboro Man.

The two begin to form an intimate relationship that can rightly be called a courtship. On most evenings, Marlboro Man drives Ree to his ranch in his pick-up truck where they spend the time cooking dinner, watching movies and snuggling on the front porch under the stars. Ever the gentleman, Marlboro Man doesn't push things farther than long make-out sessions on his couch and makes sure Ree makes it home every night. But not before calling to wish her a good night with his deep baritone voice that never fails to send shivers down Ree's spine.

If Marlboro Man has an agenda, it is to make Ree his wife. Though not necessarily reluctant to spend the rest of her life with the man of her dreams, she begins to question her suitability in regards to his rural lifestyle. The quiet. The isolation. The manure. Can she really give up everything she's ever known and planned for in order to adapt to the rugged, physical existence of life on the farm?

The beauty of the narrative lies in Ree's transformation. She was always a good-hearted person - having patience with her special needs brother, trying to be there for both of her parents as they go through a painful divorce - but she grows beyond the boundaries of her suburban mindset. It is as if she experiences a reawakening about what is really important in life versus what is just meaningless excess. The pure, unconditional love of Marlboro Man opens her eyes to a whole new host of possibilities now before her. It is beautiful to walk with Ree as she undergoes this transformation.

While in many ways a modern day fairy tale, the book is not all fluff. After their wedding, the couple comes to experience several back-to-back hardships that test their mettle right off the bat. Things do not begin to run as smoothly as during their dating days, but they come to rely on and support each other in a conjoined effort to face head-on whatever comes their way.

One wonders how the quiet, reserved nature of Marlboro Man feels about having his private moments with Ree captured in print for all to read. Does he truly feels comfortable sharing such intimate details with the world? However, he will no doubt feel the gratitude of every woman who picks up the book thanking God that a man like him truly exists.

Overall, women the world over will swoon for Marlboro Man.



The Pioneer Woman: Black Heels to Tractor Wheels by Ree Drummond is available for $25.99 at Amazon.com and at ThePioneerWoman.com.

***

Do men find women who knit sexy? In today's looks-based culture, it seems more believable in the comforting world of fiction. Rachael Herron champions the idea in How to Knit a Heart Back Home. Lucy Harrison is the plain Jane heroine following in the footsteps of her late grandmother. From operating her financially strapped bookstore to habitually wearing her threadbare, hand-knitted sweater, Lucy willingly submerges her own identity in that of the deceased. Her life in the small coastal California town of Cypress Hollow is so quiet that the penultimate highlight of her romantic life occurred all the way back in high school with bad boy, Owen Bancroft. As the story begins, Owen is back home for the first time since their adolescent encounter. Needless to say, this sends Lucy into a tizzy.

Herron
depicts Owen's nostalgia as on par with Lucy's, yet throughout the narrative the concept rings false. First, Owen does not recognize Lucy when they see each other for the first time. He's had several romantic interludes with other women throughout the years, one even a few weeks before returning to Cypress Hollow. He certainly is not the romantic hero who has been pining away for Lucy all these years. Since his abrupt departure, he never made a single attempt to reconnect with her.

As they begin to develop a relationship, the basis of it seems purely physical on Owen's side. Again and again, his attraction to Lucy is, for the most part, based on satisfying his desire. While this may be gratifying to Lucy to some extent, she is thrown into a constant state of upheaval as they begin to get reacquainted with each other. The further Owen advances, the quicker she is to pull away, but not before he moves her another step closer to his ultimate fulfillment.

The descriptive details relating to the amorous scenes are a tad on the cheesy side. They are more appropriate to a romance novel with a Fabio emblazoned cover than a love story with a knitting/literary theme. The frequent mention of prophylactics puts the book more on par with being a poster child for a STD awareness campaign. Herron even has Lucy's mother walk in on the couple while in the act. This cringe-worthy moment is the very antithesis of what any romance reader wants to uncover in a love story. It gets even worse when instead of bolting from the room, she tries to carry on a conversation with the amorously intertwined couple.

The saving grace for knitters is wrapped up in the legendary status of Eliza Carpenter. The fictitious icon of knitters the world over has turned Cypress Hollow into a mecca for those wishing to click their needles in their idol's former place of residence. The drawing together of Lucy and Owen is based on the discovery of Eliza's unpublished patterns. The reason Owen is back is because of his guilt over his mother's dementia and having to place her in a nursing home. After selling Lucy boxes of his mother's old books, the valuable papers are uncovered. The opportunity to work together on the project forges their strengthening bond.

However, when Owen begins to see Lucy as more of a person than an object, he becomes quite overbearing. He wants her to quit being a volunteer firefighter/EMT in order to ensure her safety. Being a former cop, he draws his gun on Lucy's brother mistaking him for a burglar. He even investigates her past by snooping through her private documents. Only by asserting herself does Lucy come to gain equal footing in the relationship.

The believability of some points is questionable. Can Lucy really afford a house of her own when visitors only stop by her bookstore to use the restroom or help themselves to the free coffee? Would the town bombshell really prefer Lucy's ear flap hat wearing, barely communicative, younger brother to the dashingly handsome, Owen, who just happens to be her old high school flame? At times, a slip here or there is allowable, but when questionable details start to add up it begins to detract from the work as a whole.

Overall, through the power of a love story, a meek knitter/bookworm converts the town bad boy into a romantic, leading man.



How to Knit A Heart Back Home by Rachael Herron is available for $13.99 at
Amazon.com and at Yarnagogo.com.

Review copies provided by New York Journal of Books.

Congratulations to our winner: Linda Henderson!

Monday, February 7, 2011

Barbara Abercrombie - Cherished: 21 Writers on Animals They Have Loved and Lost - Giveaway & Review

The loss of a beloved animal is often best commiserated among fellow pet owners. Those who do not have a four-legged family member in their lives often cannot comprehend the inconsolable void that accompanies the death of a pet. When the earthly bond of unconditional love is shattered, only the memory of it remains. That is the empathetic feeling that is captured in the short story collection, Cherished: 21 Writers on Animals They Have Loved and Lost edited by Barbara Abercrombie. It is a heartfelt look at bereavement and grief throughout the animal spectrum. There is no defined limitation as to what constitutes a pet, and each of the contributors reflects on the specific losses they have endured. For many, it is the first time they have turned to writing in order to express the emotions that accompanied their final good-byes.

Th
e standout piece of the anthology is "True Love" by Samantha Dunn concerning her horse, Gabe. In a fitting description, she writes, "I see him again each time I go to a movie theater and the logo for TriStar Pictures appears on the screen - the strong white chest, the thundering legs." What makes this relationship even more remarkable is that at the time, Samantha was living in a trailer park - not the typical residence of a horse owner. Throughout her teenage years, Samantha enjoyed riding and caring for Gabe. It is not until she returned home during a college break that she learned that her grandmother had sold the elderly equine to a children's summer camp. Samantha never found out if this story was true, or just something her grandmother told her in order to comfort her about Gabe's final resting place. Choosing not to uncover the truth, this unresolved ending still effects Samantha to this day.

Another atypical pet revolves around May-lee Chai's "Red the Pig." Growing up in the farmlands of South Dakota with a white mother and an Asian father wasn't easy for May-lee and her brother. In order to fit in, they decided to work together in raising pigs. Red was the biggest of the piglets. May-lee named them by color in order to not get emotionally involved, but it wasn't long before she was posing with Red for her senior picture. As Red continued to grow, the day arrived when he was destined for the slaughterhouse - something that May-lee could never really accept. After the loss of her pig, she knew she "never wanted to live on a farm again."

In "Party Girl," Monica Holloway explores the animal-autism connection between her son, Wills and their shepherd-collie mix, Hallie. Monica shares, "there was a deep love between them, but it was as if Hallie were a protective aunt, standoffish but fiercely protective." When Wills was 12-years-old, he returned the favor. After Hallie fell into the pool and her arthritic body sank like a stone, it was Wills who jumped in and saved her. Pretty impressive for an autistic boy who didn't like getting his clothes wet. As the selection comes to an end, Hallie is rapidly approaching her final days. Monica ends with a poignant thought, "Hallie ... has been the one constant through the years, completely devoted but asking nothing in return." It is a fitting summation of love between pets and owners everywhere.

The subject matter of the book may be one that many readers will be afraid to approach. The loss of one's pet is hard enough without having to endure the blow-by-blow accounts of other owners for over 200 pages. The repeated scenes of physical deterioration and subsequent euthanization do not make for happy reading. The ending of each story is known before diving in. While it can lead to an experience of continual heartbreak, the collection's intention is to help a pet owner through the grieving process by being able to gain insight from the coping strategies of others. Whether this is a helpful strategy or not is up to the needs of the individual reader.

Overall, these writers share their personal experiences in order to empathize with other grieving pet owners.

Cherished: 21 Writers on Animals They Have Loved and Lost by Barbara Abercrombie is available for $14.95 at
Amazon.com and at BarbaraAbercrombie.com.

R
eview copy was provided by
New York Journal of Books.

Congratulations to our winner: mrsshukra!