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BOOK REVIEW: And Only to Deceive by Tasha Alexander


Emily Bromley, a beautiful young woman is under persistent pressure to marry from an overbearing mother. Even though she would prefer never to marry, she accepts the proposal of wealthy Viscount Philip Ashton as a means of escape. Her new husband has a passion for hunting and shortly after their wedding departs for Africa for hunting. When the young bride is informed of her husband’s death due to fever, she feels relief rather than grief for she barely knew the man she married.

During her year of half-mourning, Emily begins to learn more about Philip from his friends as they pay condolence calls. Intrigued by the picture painted, she begins to study Greek literature and antiquities in an effort to learn more about the man she married. During her studies she develops a friendship with Cecile du Lac, a wealthy Parisian, and Colin Hargreaves and Andrew Palmer, Philip’s best friends.

As Emily learns more about her husband’s life, she begins to develop feelings for him. The more she discovers, the more worried she becomes that his death wasn’t an accident. Colin and Andrew are both behaving oddly and Emily uncovers that Philip may have been involved in unscrupulous activities. Uncertain who to trust, Emily decides to investigate on her own.

Tasha Alexander’s debut novel And Only to Deceive: a novel of suspense is a delightful mystery set during the Victorian period. While the story is engaging and the mystery fascinating, what is most compelling is the portrait she paints of the life of a young Victorian woman desiring independence. In the afterword Alexander describes her motivation in developing the character of Emily: “I was determined not to create twenty-first-century characters, drop them into bustles and corsets, and call them historical.”

She has succeeded in this novel, obviously doing extensive research to uncover the ethics and principles guiding Victorian upper class society. And Only to Deceive brings the Victorian period to life, capturing the small details of a widow’s life and the severe restrictions they face during their period of mourning. The small points of etiquette, such as opening the curtains facing the street or wearing a dress made out of a fabric other than crepe, could destroy a widow’s place within respectable society. Within this setting Alexander incorporates subtle commentary on the social politics of the time without hindering the pace of her mystery.

Lady Emily Ashton’s second adventure A Poisoned Season is scheduled for release in April 2007. Hopefully this series will maintain the historical depth exhibited by the first novel.

ISBN10: 006114844X
ISBN13: 9780061148446

Trade Paperback
336 Pages
Publisher: HarperCollins
Publication Date: October 10, 2006
Author Website:


BOOK REVIEW: Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl


Since the death of his wife, itinerate professor Gareth Van Meer has traveled extensively across the United States with his daughter Blue. He never spends more than one semester at a school before moving on with the result that, by age 16, Blue has attended 24 different schools. Their travels provide fertile ground for Gareth to instruct his daughter on life, literature and everything in between, with the result that Blue is erudite, overly educated and socially awkward. To ensure Blue’s entry into an Ivy League school, Gareth is determined that his daughter will have an uninterrupted senior year and so he settles them in Stockton, North Carolina where Blue is scheduled to attend the elite St. Gallway School.

Shortly after her arrival in Stockton, Blue meets Hannah Schneider, the magnetic film studies teacher at St. Gallway School. Through Hannah, Blue is introduced to the BlueBloods, the ruling aristocracy of the school who meet each Sunday night at Hannah’s home. When a student ends up dead during a party at Hannah’s home, Blue and the BlueBloods decide to investigate and later, on a camping trip in the Great Smoky Mountains, Hannah ends up dead dangling from a tree.

Special Topics in Calamity Physics is told as a flashback and readers are aware from the start that Hannah meets her death by hanging. When readers first meet Blue, she is in her freshman year at Harvard University and is trying to make sense of the past year. Structuring her reminiscences as a survey course of “great literature,” each chapter bears the title of a classic work as well as contextual similarities to the chosen work, as a means of framing this difficult period in her life.

Blue has whole-heartedly adopted her father’s philosophy of communication: “Always have everything you say exquisitely annotated, and, where possible, provide staggering Visual Aids.” Least readers worry that the continual annotation becomes too distracting, rest reassured that Blue’s distinctive voice supports her unique style of narration. Lovers of mysteries may moan that Marisha Pessl’s love of all things literary and erudite provides an onslaught of information which interferes with their enjoyment of the mystery central to this weighty novel. For some readers this may hold true and those readers might be wise to take a pass on Special Topics in Calamity Physics.

Pessl takes time to build the tension in Special Topics in Calamity Physics, walking readers calmly through introductions to the players and the scene. However, the pace quickly escalates about a third of the way into the book and from there readers may feel like they are on a runaway train. The pace, combined with Pessl’s thousands of references to books, movies, and popular culture result in a novel that often leaves the reader off-balance and confuse as to what actually happened – a state reminiscent of teenage angst. Pessl uses language as a shield and a mirror, reflecting the emotion of her characters while protecting them from extensive scrutiny, creating an atmosphere of uncertainty and illusion.

In the end, Special Topics in Calamity Physics is a difficult novel to penetrate and within which to gauge what truly happened to Hannah Schneider. As one reviewer comments: “Pessl…is like an explosion, her energy going off in all directions, her power not under control.” This is directly attributable to her youth as a novelist. Special Topics in Calamity Physics is an amazing achievement for any writer and is extraordinary as a debut novel. Marisha Pessl is a writer to watch as she discovers her métier and matures into her talents.

Read the review at Curled Up with a Good Book.

ISBN10: 067003777X
ISBN13: 9780670037773

528 Pages
Publisher: Penguin Books
Publication Date: August 3, 2006
Book Website:


BOOK REVIEW: Was She Pretty? by Leanne Shapton


In every relationship there are more than just two players, there are the specters looming in the background – the ghosts of past partners. This is the topic explored by Leanne Shapton in her debut Was She Pretty? This slender volume invites readers to explore the truths of modern love, their darkest fears and secret anxieties through her line drawings and prose.

Tracing a group of interconnected friends, the narrator outlines each ex with unemotional prose, capturing entire relationships in single lines: “Martin had never mentioned his hauntingly beautiful ex-girlfriend Carwai to Heidi.” Shapton’s spare prose leaves room for the reader’s imagination to fill in the blanks based on their own experiences and emotional reaction. Don’t be surprised if she manages to conjure up ghosts from your own past.

The sparse narrative makes for a quick read but Shapton’s novel remains with the reader. She appears to suggest that jealousy refines a relationship, enhancing it – if the relationship survives. Our partners’ exes haunt us while at the same time we ourselves are exes. Was She Pretty? explores this engaging dichotomy, asking: what is it about exes that creates this love/hate relationship? While she offers no answers, the journey into one’s own psyche is a fascinating one.

ISBN10: 0374299269
ISBN13: 9780374299262

198 Pages
Publisher: Farrar Straus Giroux
Publication Date: November 7, 2006


BOOK REVIEW: The Friday Night Knitting Club by Kate Jacobs


Tucked away on a second story in Manhattan’s Upper West Side is a hidden gem, Walker & Daughter. This treasure trove of textiles is the result of years of hard work by Georgia Walker: knitwear designer, proprietress and single Mom to Dakota. Years ago, when James walked away during her pregnancy, Georgia wasn’t sure she’d make it. Thanks to the support of her mentor (and clerk) Anita, Georgia’s business has thrived and so has Dakota.

More than just a shop, Walker & Daughter is a haven for many of the customers and the result is The Friday Night Knitting Club, started by some of the regulars. As James returns wanting a larger role in his daughter’s life and an old “friend” from high school shows up, Georgia will need all the support these supportive knitters can provide.

The Friday Night Knitting Club, Kate Jacobs’ debut novel, while set within a knitting group really could be written in any setting. Superficially about knitting, in reality this is a novel about the importance of friendship and love. Georgia has closed herself off from the world and has focused everything into Dakota and making a success of her store. She has eliminated the possibility of getting hurt again, but she has also remained aloof from the friendship offered by customers and employees. Jacobs’ message is a universal truth – life will quickly pass you by if you turn your back on possibility.

Jacobs has cleverly divided her book into sections representative of the various stages of knitting projects that also tie into her unfolding novel. These sections are written as knitting instruction but are true to life: “You have to experiment to see what works. But there’s a similarity no matter the method: you either try or you don’t…Casting on is as much a leap of faith as technique.”

After a slow start, The Friday Night Knitting Club engage its readers in the unfolding life dramas of the knitting club members. However, readers expecting a superficial, happy novel of sisterhood should be prepared for some heart-wrenching moments as The Friday Night Knitting Club takes an unexpected turn.

ISBN10: 0399154094
ISBN13: 9780399154096

352 Pages
Publisher: Putnam
Publication Date: January 18, 2007


BOOK REVIEW: The Rhythm of the Road by Albyn Leah Hall


Josephine Pickering has grown up on the highways of the United Kingdom, in her father Bobby’s rig. Abandoned by his wife shortly after Jo’s birth, Bobby took to the road with his baby daughter. A Northern Irishman, Bobby was a country musician before he became a father and he passed his love of country music and the open road on to his daughter.

When Jo is twelve, her father stops to give hitchhiker Cosima Stewart a lift. Cosima, lead singer of Cosima Stewart and Her Goodtime Guys, quickly becomes an idol to Jo, although over time the idolization turns into obsession. When Bobby finally gives in to the depression which has haunted him for years, Jo follows Cosima’s band to America where she must finally confront the truth about her life and the choices she’s made.

Albyn Leah Hall’s debut American novel, The Rhythm of the Road is a quiet work; full of teenage angst, the desperation to belong and a search for meaning. Hall has created a strong voice for this young woman seeking roots and a place to belong and Jo’s agony is almost painful to experience. While Jo’s spiral out of control is violent at times, Hall never lets the reigns slip from her firm grasp, ensuring that Jo remains an empathetic character.

Although The Rhythm of the Road is the story of Jo’s development into a woman, by far the strongest character is Bobby. His quiet strength balances Jo and Cosima; however, it is the buried pain and words he doesn’t share which remain with the reader. While Hall’s writing in The Rhythm of the Road is at times uneven, she has a manner of character development which means she is a writer to watch.

ISBN10: 0312359446
ISBN13: 9780312359447

304 Pages
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
Publication Date: January 9, 2007
Author Website:


BOOK REVIEW: The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield


Vida Winter, one of Britain’s best-loved novelists, is known for her reluctance to share the truth of her life story. Having spent the past six decades creating outlandish stories, Vida is facing death and wishes to leave the truth as her legacy.

Margaret Lea is surprised to receive the request from Miss Winter, an author she’s never spoken to, asking her to act as biographer. Margaret has published a few articles on lesser known author but is unable to fathom why an author of such reknown would choose her. In an effort to learn more about her potential subject, Margaret picks up her father’s rare copy of Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation and is mesmerized by the stories. As she nears the end of the volume she is confronted by one of Britain’s biggest literary mysteries: where is the thirteenth tale? Margaret agrees to meet with Miss Winter and is quickly engaged in the unfolding story of her complex life and the destroyed estate of Angelfield.

Diane Setterfield’s debut novel The Thirteenth Tale rocketed up the best-seller lists soon after its release mid-September and many skeptics wondered how much of this success was due to aggressive online marketing efforts rather than its merit. This reviewer is pleased to report that, in her opinion, Setterfield’s success is due to a well-crafted plot, engaging characters and frequent nods to gothic novelists of the past.

The Thirteenth Tale centres around a story-within-a-story, as Vida recounts the family history leading up to her birth and beyond. All the elements of a gothic novel are found here; a mouldering old house, mental illness, twins, neglectful parents, a domineering governess, isolation and ghosts. Margaret, an exceptional narrator, is drawn into the action as she tries to substantiate Vida’s story, while battling the specters of her own past.

Initially Margaret is reluctant to be drawn in by Vida, maintaining a professional distance from her subject. Her research, and the parallels she sees between Vida’s and her own story, eliminate her defenses and, like a du Maurier or Brontë heroine, Margaret becomes consumed by the story around her.

Setterfield uses her descriptions of place to increase the readers’ understanding of her characters. Miss Winter has spent so many years suffocating the truth that “..the other rooms were thick with the corpses of suffocated words: here in the library you could breathe.” The library, Margaret’s domain, is the place of truth, therefore a place within which light and air preside.

Essentially, The Thirteenth Tale is about the battle between truth and fiction, and the consequences of each. Fiction is easier, as Miss Winter points out: “What succour, what consolation is there in truth, compared to a story?” As readers soon learn, there is a price for each and no simple line can be drawn in the sand.

ISBN10: 038566284X
ISBN13: 9780385662840

416 Pages
Publisher: Bond Street Books
Publication Date: September 12, 2006


BOOK REVIEW: The Interpretation of Murder by Jed Rubenfeld


It is a historical fact that in 1909 Sigmund Freud paid his only visit to the U.S., after which he labeled Americans as “savages.” In Jed Rubenfeld’s debut novel, The Interpretation of Murder, Freud’s arrival in New York coincides with a rash of attacks against beautiful young socialites. Dr. Stratham Younger, a Freud devotee, is asked to help the second victim, Nora Acton, regain her memory. He turns to his teacher for help in treating his reluctant patient and, in turn, must aid his mentor by allaying the cloud of suspicion hovering around Freud.

The Interpretation of Murder is based around the real-life mystery surrounding Freud’s visit to America in 1909. In an interview with, Rubenfeld says he was inspire to use, as the jumping off point for his novel, a basic question which has puzzled Freud’s biographers for a long time: “Could something have happened to Freud during his week in Manhattan, something we still don’t know about, some event that could account for his severe antipathy to America?” In his detailed author’s note, Rubenfeld carefully delineates the line between his fiction and historical fact.

Rubenfeld portrays a New York City well known to readers of Edith Wharton and Henry James’ work. Dr. Stratham Younger and many of the other characters inhabit the world of the beau monde, the Vanderbilts and the Astors. These glittering figures wander carelessly through the events portrayed with the same cold disdain portrayed so cleverly in The House of Mirth. By invoking the spectre of Wharton and James’ writing styles, Rubenfeld effortlessly exposes the hollowness filling the houses and settings his killer treads.

This world of excess is in sharp contrast with corruption found within the New York police department and government. In these early days of investigation, crime scene investigation is almost non-existent and the wealthy can easily circumvent procedure. What is particularly fascinating in The Interpretation of Murder is the commentary he provides on American society in the early 1900s. The resistance to Freud’s theories is expounded upon at great length and the developing rift between Freud and Jung gradually exposed.

Many of the theories expressed are laughable viewed from a century later; others however, are extremely repugnant. Many Americans felt that Freud was promoting sexual license and believe his theories would lead to all sorts of social ills. At a dinner party attended by Freud, one of the guests suggested that, as a man of science, Freud should be concerned with the dangers of sexual emancipation such as the problems of overpopulation. His proposal is that every immigrant without means should be sterilized so that American society “are not required to bear the charge of their unfit offspring, who end up as beggars and thieves” although the guest is willing to “make an exception, of course, for those who can pass an intelligence test.”

Early in The Interpretation of Murder, Dr. Younger explains one of his most exciting theories – man’s moments of revolutionary genius have all happened at the turn of a century, specifically in the first decade of a century. Rubenfeld has brought this dynamic period vividly to life and proposed a fascinating solution to the mystery of Freud’s visit to and the rise of psychoanalysis in America.

Read the review at Curled Up with a Good Book.

ISBN10: 0805080988
ISBN13: 9780805080988

384 Pages
Publisher: Henry Holt
Publication Date: September 7, 2006


BOOK REVIEW: Remainder by Tom McCarthy


In Remainder, our narrator is a young Englishman traumatised by an accident which, while destroying his memory, has left him a very wealthy man. All he knows is something fell out of the sky and hit him, and someone very wealthy is willing to pay a lot of money to guarantee his silence about the event.

With no memories to tie him to the past and having remapped his brain to perform the most basic tasks, he obsessively tries to capture “real” moments – instances which feel fluid and natural rather than learned. He seeks the perfection achieved when he loses consciousness of and merges with his actions.

To help him achieve these moments of perfection, he spends his time and money obsessively reconstructing and re-enacting memories and situations from his past. He purchases a large building and hires actors to help match the setting to the remembered moment. When this fails to quench his thirst for authenticity, he starts reconstructing more and more violent events.

Tom McCarthy’s artistic eye is apparent in Remainder, translating into vividly described settings. The setting is as much a character as our nameless narrator. Readers are immersed in the setting which is invoked at such a visceral level that one feels the sunbeam warming one’s skin as the narrator lays in a sunbeam and smell the liver wafting through the ventilation system.

As McCarthy describes in an interview with ReadySteadyBook: “Trauma is intimately tied in with re-enactment: it brings about a compulsion to repeat…What excited me right from the crack-moment onwards was that the premise clearly had much wider implications: it was about history and time, simulation, questions of authenticity and, by extension, of our whole state of being-in-the-world. And it was about the world’s state of being-in-the-universe as well: the world, matter, this shard left over from some unnameably violent disaster – a remainder.”

While the conclusion of Remainder is unsurprising, how McCarthy reaches it is unique. This is not a novel in the traditional sense, and it is not remarkable that traditional publishers were unwilling to take it on. McCarthy’s work will make many readers uncomfortable; yet within the progression of the narrator’s obsession the world he presents is terrifyingly plausible.

ISBN10: 1846880157
ISBN13: 9781846880157

290 Pages
Publisher: Alma Books
Publication Date: September 2006


BOOK REVIEW: Swimming Upstream, Slowly by Melissa Clark


Sasha Salter is on the fast-track to success. She has her own hit children’s TV show Please Pass the Salter, she’s being profiled as one of the “20 under 30-Ones to Watch”, and she’s living a life she loves. So the news that she’s pregnant, even though she hasn’t had sex in more than two years, is completely unwelcome. Quickly her life spins out of control: the specialist she’s sent to wants her to track down every man she’s ever had sex with; Melanie, the writer profiling her for 20 under 30 is determined to ferret out all her secrets; and Sasha doesn’t know if she’s ready to be a mother. Are “lazy sperm” going to make her the poster girl for medical anomalies, or will the journey down the rabbit hole turn out to be a blessing in disguise?

Swimming Upstream, Slowly takes as its basic premise an unlikely occurrence – lazy sperm – and then explores the painful ramifications of such an event. The confusion, denial and painful outcomes experience by Sasha are to be expected; however, Melissa Clark pulls to the forefront the comedic elements which prevent Swimming Upstream, Slowly from becoming just another “poor me” chick lit novel.

Beginning novelists are advised to “write what they know” and Clark has taken that to heart. The creator/executive producer of the award-winning children’s show Braceface, Clark’s knowledge of the inner workings of children’s programming clearly shows in Please Pass the Salter. This solid framework of verisimilitude makes the plot device of “lazy sperm” more believable, preventing readers and critics from dismissing Swimming Upstream, Slowly as too extreme or silly. The strong base of reality allows doubt to creep in for readers and renders Sasha’s fears more potent and sympathetic.

Like most first novels, Swimming Upstream, Slowly has a few uneven moments. The character of Melanie comes off a bit forced at times and occasionally the pacing feels off; however, these minor glitches will smooth out with time as Clark’s writing continues to mature.

Read the review at Front Street Reviews.

ISBN10: 0767925262
ISBN13: 9780767925266

Trade Paperback
240 Pages
Publisher: Broadway Books
Publication Date: September 2006
Author Website:


BOOK REVIEW: The Stolen Child by Keith Donohue


“Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand”
The Stolen Child by W.B. Yeats

Children often express their displeasure by running away from home, wandering a short distance before returning once they feel their parents have been sufficiently punished. The parents, awash with joy at once more having their child, brush off any minor personality differences as residual shock from a traumatic experience. But what if the child brought home isn’t their child at all, but a changeling?

This is the premise behind Keith Donohue’s haunting debut novel, The Stolen Child. Drawing its plot and title from the W.B. Yeat’s poem of the same title, Donohue has crafted the modern fairy tale of Henry Day and the changeling (or hobgoblin) who replaces him. One summer night Henry runs into the forest and hides in a tree. It is there that he is taken by the changelings, who have been covertly watching him. If changelings wish to reenter the world, they must find a child to replace who is exactly the same age as the changeling was when he/she left. Henry becomes the magical Aniday and the changeling who replaces him becomes the new Henry Day, suddenly a musical prodigy. The Stolen Child is the story of the two young boys searching for identity in a world turned upside down.

The new Henry slowly adjusts to the life of a twentieth-century family. Having spent more than one hundred years in the forest, he spends his time in intense concentration, “I set my mind to forgetting the past and becoming a real boy again.” Aniday spends learning a way of live beyond civilization and it is only by a similar amount of effort that he maintains the ability to read and write.

Yeat’s poem shows life in the woods as one full of innocence; however, many experts suggest that the forest of fairytales is really about the journey of sexual awakening as the child moves through puberty into adulthood. Unknown creatures, dangers and pain lurk in the dark forest, a journey of pitfalls every child must travel on the road to maturity.

In Donohue’s forest, the tribe of hobgoblins exists in a life free from memories, familial ties and responsibility. Their life a perpetual existence given to the baser instincts of the body, one in which all sense of self disappears along the way.

As decades pass, Aniday lives as a permanent child in the wilderness, making friends and enemies among the hobgoblin band, struggling for survival, and trying to remember his past. The other changelings tell Aniday to “stay away from people and be content with who you are.” By settling for the life in the forest however, Aniday would lose the innocence of his dreams of a future. Both Aniday and Henry are tormented by the fleeting memories of half-remembered paths and it is these memories that keep them tied to a search for identity – destined to lose their innocence.

Donohue has created a mesmerizing world that seems to exist shifted slightly outside of our time. The Stolen Child quickly engages the reader in the familiar rhythm of childhood fairytales, allowing the magic to infuse the carefully crafted words. It is only upon stepping outside, back to reality, that questions slowly seep into the reader’s mind.

Has Henry really lived as a changeling or could he be suffering from split personality, everything being a fantasy his illness has created? Donohue says in an interview with the Pittsburgh Tribune Review: “The subconscious world, the world underneath, is a real world, and it’s just as valid, our imaginative reality, as our everyday reality.” Whether readers choose to approach Donohue’s offering as it is written or choose to engage the novel on an existential level, The Stolen Child is a timeless, magical novel that will linger with readers long after they read the last page.

See the review posted at ReadySteadyBook.


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