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Help Fight Illiteracy


It’s Giving Tuesday, a movement to balance the consumerism of Black Friday/Cyber Monday and Grammarly has chosen to focus on the problem of illiteracy this year. From their website:

“…help stomp out a truly global problem: illiteracy. A few months ago, in honor of International Literacy Day, we gathered the latest statistics from around the world to raise awareness about the importance of literacy. Literacy is an essential skill and human right, yet the numbers show that there are still 757 million adults who can’t read or write a simple sentence.” The infographic below shows these statistic.

Global Literacy Infographic

Infographic courtesy of Grammarly


BOOK REVIEW: Lydia by Tim Sandlin


Lydia Cover Image
Sam Callahan had an unusual life growing up in GroVont, Wyoming. The only child of feminist, single mother Lydia; to call Sam’s upbringing eccentric would be kind. These days his daughter from his first relationship (Shannon) is grown, his relationship with her mother Maurey is fairly stable, his marriage with Gilia is a blessing and his work at the Virgin Birth Home for Unwed Mothers fills his life with meaning. All of that is about to change however; for Lydia is coming home from jail, and she won’t settle for anything less than a triumphal return. However, when her parole officer assigns her the task of recording 99 year-old Oly Pedersen’s life story, the winds of change sweep in for many residents of GroVont.

Fifteen years after publishing Social Blunders, the final volume in the GroVont Trilogy (begun in Skipped Parts and Sorrow Floats), Tim Sandlin rewards “Sandlinistas” (die-hard fans) everywhere with Lydia. As anyone who has read the first three novels knows, Lydia is everything loud, obnoxious and self-indulgent. Sandlin reminds readers of this early in the novel: “She’d gone into prison as a force to be reckoned with and come out as a tiny shred of aged mass…Hatred, she could fight; being dismissed was intolerable.”

Lydia is so blatant with her anger and hostility that readers will soon want to swat her away like an annoying fly buzzing around their ear. Her son Sam has spent much of his life wondering why his mother treats those she loves so horribly: “Lydia would starve before not tipping a waitress. She’d go back home if the alternative was parking in a handicapped slot, yet she lied to and browbeat the family she loved.” Even if you’ve read all of the previous novels, the amount of rage within Lydia can be difficult to understand, often rendering her motivations positively incomprehensible.

Yet her family continues to try for some sort of a relationship with this woman who could have written the manual on emotional abuse. And thus we reach the crux of the problem – readers simply must trust Sandlin’s plans for the novel and hop on for the ride. For “Sandlinistas” this is no problem; we’ve been committed to the ride since Skipped Parts but anyone beginning the journey with Lydia may find it impossible.

Truly unlikable characters are easy for readers to dismiss and therefore can be an effective distraction from the subtler messages writers wish to share. I believe that Sandlin uses Lydia as the pivot point for his novel the same way a magician uses a pretty assistant and wand twirling – look over here so you don’t see what I’m doing around back. Lydia distracts from the message Sandlin’s secreted within Oly’s story, providing time it to unfurl (even though its importance is announced from the beginning by both the quieter narrative and the use of a distinct font for his sections).

If you haven’t read anything by Tim Sandlin, don’t start with Lydia. Do yourself a favour; grab a copy of Skipped Parts and start the journey to GroVont, Wyoming at the beginning. It’s worth the trip!

ISBN: 140224181X
ISBN13: 9781402241819

464 Pages
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
Publication Date: April 12, 2011
Author Website:

(Disclosure: A review copy of this novel was provided by the publisher.)

posted under fiction | No Comments »

BOOK REVIEW: Mr. Darcy’s Little Sister by C. Allyn Pierson


Georgiana Darcy is perpetually shy and uncertain about the future. Her brother Fitzwilliam is about to be married to Elizabeth Bennet, changing the living situation for all. And Georgiana is about to make some major changes of her own, beginning with her debut in London and her presentation in court.

Georgiana is beset with worries: What if Elizabeth doesn’t like Georgiana? What if she (Georgiana) makes a major faux pas, something her companion Mrs. Annesley is trying to help her overcome? What if she doesn’t “take” with the ton during her debut?

Still viewed as a child by her guardians Fitzwilliam and Colonel Fitzwilliam, Georgiana wants to be a self-possessed and refined young lady, able to hold her own with the ton. She knows she’ll be plagued by fortune hunters but longs to find true love. Now, if only she can get through it without spilling her tea or setting off an overprotective big brother.

C. Allyn Pierson’s debut novel is a delightful coming-of-age story and romance set within the world of Pemberly and Pride and Prejudice. Mr. Darcy’s Little Sister is a delightful entry into a very crowded marketplace. The proliferation of novels featuring Jane Austen’s characters leaves readers with spoiled for choice and the popularity of these novels means that some less-than-stellar examples end up on the shelf.

Happily for readers, Mr. Darcy’s Little Sister is a delightful and well-written novel that happens to focus on Georgiana, a minor character from Pride and Prejudice. Pierson’s dialogue flows effortlessly and her characterization and plot stand their own merits, even without ties to the Austen canon. This was a truly delightful read, consumed in one sitting and I was loath for it to end.

Pierson is obviously well versed in the history and customs of Regency England, as well as the literary voice of Jane Austen. Mr. Darcy’s Little Sister has an authentic voice and leaves the reader with the warm feeling of having returned to favourite place and time, with no bitter aftertaste. This reader looks forward to Pierson’s future trips to Pemberley, and Regency England.

ISBN10: 1402240384
ISBN13: 978-1402240384

Trade Paperback
448 pages
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
Publication Date: September 1, 2010
Author’s Website:

A new blog has launched, devoted to Austen fiction writers. Austen Authors can be found here.

BOOK REVIEW: One Amazing Thing by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni


In an unnamed American city, seven people wait to apply for visas to visit India. When an earthquake rips through the city, two workers from the Indian visa office are trapped along with the strangers: a Chinese teenager and her grandmother who speaks no English; an older Caucasian couple who have little to say to once another; a young Muslim-American man who trusts no one; an Indian graduate student facing family conflicts over her love life; and an ex-military African-American with breathing problems, with only a few puffs left on his inhaler.

As time passes, the smell of gas begins to permeate the office, conflicts arise and supplies of food and fresh water dwindle. Their situation becomes increasingly dire and these nine individuals must overcome their prejudices and fears if they wish to survive. And so they take it in turns to share a story from their life – showing the power of story to transform, heal and sustain a group of strangers.

I should admit right from the start that I have long been a fan of Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, ever since I read Mistress of Spices and Sisters of My Heart. Each new novel is a treasure to be savoured, requiring restraint to make it last. So it was with eager anticipation that I began her newest, One Amazing Thing.

Unlike her earlier works, I was not immediately carried away by her words. It required perseverance to carry on reading and my initial reaction was one of avoidance. I was shocked, because Divakaruni’s evocative language still carries power and the ability to transport readers: “The dark was full of women’s voices, keening in a language he did not know, so that at first he thought he was back in the war. The thought sucked the air from his lungs and left him chocking.”

As I read these words I could feel the claustrophobia and fear the characters were feeling and I realized – the “real” world has carried so many images recently of the terrible devastation caused by earthquakes; first Indonesia, then Haiti and now Chile that One Amazing Thing strikes too close to home for me to give an honest review.

I finished the novel in a fairly short period, roughly a week. Some of the stories engaged more than others and her choice to write the novel as a set of connected stories, similar to The Canterbury Tales or The Decameron has great possibilities. I suspect that in six months or a year this will be a novel I read again and find much to exclaim about. For now, I have news footage from Haiti playing in my head.

ISBN10: 1401340997
ISBN13: 9781401340995

240 Pages
Publisher: Voice
Publication Date: February 2, 2010
Author Website:

BOOK REVIEW: Houston, We Have a Problema by Gwendolyn Zepeda


Jessica Luna’s life contains all the average troubles of a twenty-something living in Houston. There’s the man trouble cause by gifted and troubled artist Guillermo who is unable to “commit” and always seems to disappoint. Then there’s her “perfect” sister who married a white man and moved to the suburbs and seems to want to turn Jessica into a suburban clone. Then there’s her boring corporate job and now her parents are fighting. Where’s a girl supposed to turn for help?

Well if you’re Jessica, the signs or answers could be anywhere: her rearview mirror Virgin-de-Guadalupe; the card readings of psychic Madame Hortensia; or in the prophetic utterances of a TV talk show host. Now Madame Hortensia has confirmed that a change is coming in work and love, but Jessica isn’t sure that Jonathan, the rich and successful guy her sister introduced her to, is that new guy. But when Madame Hortensia refuses to come through with answers – and her life starts dissolving around her – Jessica realizes it’s time to figure some things out for herself.

Gwendolyn Zepeda’s debut novel is a fresh voice in the growing “chica lit” market. A sub-genre of chic lit, chica lit first gained notice with the publication of The Dirty Girls Social Club. Author Mary Castillo explains what makes chica lit different: “Family is always involved somehow.” “Unlike early chick lit that kind of created the image that it’s always about single women worrying about their shoes, in the ethnic books they’re trying to balance their ethnicity and being American. How can you be both? The issues seem to be a little deeper.”

It would be easy for people to dismiss Houston, We Have a Problema as a fluffy offering but Zepeda offers an important message about finding your place in the world, and within your own family. Anyone who has ever found themselves torn between two worlds or found themselves floundering and without direction will find reflections of themselves here.

While the writing is sometimes uneven and a few characters are rather two-dimensional, Zepeda shows great promise as a comedic writer. Madame Hortensia’s personality, flair and vibrancy fairly bursts off the page. Perhaps there’s another novel in her future?

ISBN10: 0446698520
ISBN13: 9780446698528

Trade Paperback
392 Pages
Publisher: Grand Central
Publication Date: January 2009
Author Website:

BOOK REVIEW: Sounds Like Crazy by Shana Mahaffey


n314823Holly Miller is stuck in a dead-end job and lives in a run-down apartment in New York City. While she seems to live alone in reality Holly lives with “The Committee,” the five different personalities that make up her Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). Residing in the Holly’s head are the faceless Boy in the red Converse; the ancient meditating Silent One; Sarge, who keeps her safe; whale-size Ruffles, the chip eater, and Betty Jane, the Southern belle. When flirtatious Betty Jane lands Holly a job as a cartoon voice-over artist, her life appears to stabilize and she is finally able to support herself. However, when the directors want to make Ruffles the star of the show, all hell breaks loose.

The first half of Sounds Like Crazy, the debut novel from Shana Mahaffey, reads like a farcical play on fast forward. Personalities rapidly appear/disappear, bizarre events happen and Betty Jane’s Southern drawl quickly feels “like a bad hang-over pounding against [one’s] temples.”

The second half of Sounds Like Crazy is the stronger, as Holly focuses on her therapy and layer after layer is pulled away to reveal the events that led to Holly’s development of DID. The pace of the novel slows, Mahaffey’s writing style becomes clear and concise as she delves into a subject that clearly fascinates her, how the human mind works. While her narration is evocative (“…the familiar rattle of a Volkswagen Beetle…that sounded like a bag of rocks and sand shaking…”), the character of Holly remains quite undefined for a novel of this length (400 pages).

The comedic tone in the first section of Sounds Like Crazy stands in complete opposite to the rest of the book, so much so that one is led to suggest the book has multiple personalities. This attempt at levity and slapstick detracts from the strong voice that resounds from the second section. Like many debut novelist, Mahaffey tries to do too much in one novel and ultimately this detracts from the power of Holly’s story. If Mahaffey focuses her writing on other topics that interest her as much as the human mind, she should enjoy success as a novelist.

ISBN-10: 0451227913
ISBN13: 9780451227911

Trade Paperback
400 Pages
Publisher: NAL Trade
Publication Date: October 6, 2009
Author Website:

posted under debut, fiction | 1 Comment »

BOOK REVIEW: A Bridge Back by Patrick M. Garry


bridgeNate Morrissey has spent the past eighteen years trying to forget the tragic events of a stormy night in Mount Kelven. The decisions he and his Mormon girlfriend Laura made that night, set off a tragic train of events which culminated in their parents’ cars going off a bridge and landing on a boat full of children.

Nate, now a lawyer for a high price firm in New York City, has been sent by his boss to Mount Kelven to undertake some delicate investigations. His firm’s client, a prominent government official, was involved in the case Nate’s father was prosecuting at the time of his death and is now under investigation by CBS’s “60 Minutes” and new evidence may have been uncovered casting new light on the events of eighteen years ago.

“All he wanted, for now, was to feel the presence of some vague and undefined possibility.” p. 76, A Bridge Back

Patrick M. Garry’s new novel, A Bridge Back, is a novel about remorse and redemption. For the past eighteen years, Nate has floated along where life took him. Rather than being an active participant in his life, his focus was on achieving professional success and the rest of his life just happened. The result was predictable; even though he has achieved professional acclaim, emotionally he has remained frozen at the day of the accident.

Garry has crafted an emotionally stunted character who, despite blustering bravado, is an appealing, optimistic child. A naïf swept up in events he would prefer to remain buried, Nate realizes that “the tasks of repairing the past [are] unlimited.” Now that he has returned to Mount Kelven, the past has resurfaced and he is emotionally thawing. Readers will be caught up in this story of redemption and will struggle along with him to untangle the affairs of eighteen years ago.

Tragedy, especially when it involves children, can destroy both people and a town. Garry provides insight into the various ways human deal with traumatic events and the long-term ramifications. As an exploration of guilt, redemption and regret, A Bridge Back provides an engaging read, even though this reader wishes that some secondary characters were more fully realized.

ISBN10: 159299332X
ISBN13: 9781592993321

Trade Paperback
232 Pages
Publisher: Inkwater Press
Publication Date: February 18, 2008

posted under small press | 1 Comment »

BOOK REVIEW: The Fixer Upper by Mary Kay Andrews


fixerDempsey Jo Killebrew has had a very bad day. Her employer, a high-powered Washington public relations firm has been caught up in an explosive scandal, her computer has been seized by the FBI, her boss has fled and she’s suddenly the scapegoat. Desperate to find a way to rebuild her life, Dempsey reluctantly accepts her father’s offer to help restore Birdsong, the family home he’s inherited in Georgia. If she slaps on some paint and gives the place some minor renovations so they can flip the property, he’ll split the profits with her.

When Dempsey arrives in Guthrie, she finds a house more in need of a bulldozer than a paintbrush – and a firmly entrenched squatter who meets her at the door with a shotgun. With no options left to her she rolls up her sleeves and tackles the massive renovation project, and faces Guthrie’s residents who have learned more than she wanted them to know from the endless newspaper reports. What she didn’t expect was that, in the process, she’d learn so much.

Bestselling author Mary Kay Andrews’ latest offering, The Fixer Upper is perfect beach reading. Dempsey is a delightful heroine whose naiveté may strike some readers improbable, while others will simply find it charming. No matter which opinion you adopt, her head-on approach in dealing with the situation in Georgia makes for wonderful reading. The title obviously refers to both the house and Dempsey, whose need for direction and growth drive the plot. The light romantic interludes add depth to the coming of age story and readers will be rooting for Dempsey to triumph in her confrontations with her shady boss.

This lighthearted romp never loses its breezy tone, even when dealing the fairly serious subjects of fraud, political shenanigans and influence peddling. Readers may find it difficult to accept the level of blindness Dempsey has for what’s really happening in the lobbying firm, those who suspend belief and simply enjoy The Fixer Upper are in for a treat.

ISBN10: 0060837381
ISBN13: 9780060837389

432 Pages
Publisher: Bantam
Publication Date: June 23, 2009
Author Website:

posted under fiction, romance | 1 Comment »

BOOK REVIEW: The Ingenious Edgar Jones by Elizabeth Garner


edgarThe birth of Edgar Jones, sometime in the 1850s, was marked by a wonderous meteor shower. His father, a night porter at Oxford University, is sure this is a sign of a great destiny for his son but Edgar, a restless child, is more at home exploring the natural world and how things work than making sense of the words in his father’s books. When Edgar turns his back on his father’s dreams by apprenticing himself to a blacksmith, a silent détente
occurs in the family home.

Soon Edgar’s ingenuity and skill bring him to the attention of a “bone man,” a professor of anatomy at Oxford with grandiose ideas for a natural history museum. Edgar’s work on the new museum restores his father’s hopes for the future but threatens to tear the family apart as scientific progress wars with traditional beliefs.

The Ingenious Edgar Jones by Elizabeth Garner is a classic coming-of-age story. Mankind’s understanding of the world is rapidly changing and for many, the shifting sands of reality cause them to view scientific discoveries as heresy and view “progress” with horror. Garner’s choice of Victorian Oxford as setting allows her to use Edgar and William to mirror the conflicts waging within Oxford’s walls and, in return, show how monumental such a schism can be between parent and child.

Despite featuring prominently in the narrative of The Ingenious Edgar Jones, Edgar’s mother is a shadowy figure. Her disquiet and worries about Edgar permeates the text, yet as a character is barely developed leading readers to be frustrated at the amount of space devoted to her voice. Her role seems to be that of Cassandra, prophecizing the heinous outcome from a split between father and son and left helpless to watch the preordained outcome.

The construction of the natural history museum in The Ingenious Edgar Jones is based on Oxford University Museum, the first natural history museum in Britain which played a part in the great divide between science and religion.

ISBN10: 030740899X
ISBN13: 9780307408990

323 Pages
Publisher: Crown
Publication Date: May 29, 2009

BOOK REVIEW: The Sugar Queen by Sarah Addison Allen


sq_us_paperbackJosey Cirrini’s life has been one of atonement and servitude; atonement for misdeeds as a child and servitude to her unhappy, domineering, widowed mother.  Mrs. Cirrini ensures that her daughter possesses no thoughts of independence; instructing her on what to wear (and what not to wear), when and how to do things.  However, Josey’s life is full of secrets.  She secretly has kept the red sweater her mother forbids her to wear, her closet is a stockpile of romance novels and candy, and she has a secret crush on her postman.

Everything changes when Della Lee Baker, a down-on-her luck, tough waitress, sets up camp in Josey’s closet and refuses to leave.  Slowly Della Lee encourages Josey to reevaluate her life and expand it beyond her mother’s limitations.  In the process Josey meets Chloe Finley, a young woman with a peculiar affinity for books and a close friendship with Josey’s postman.  As Josey’s life changes, her relationship with her mother fractures, revealing long buried secrets and unexpected possibilities for the future.

Sarah Addison Allen’s second novel The Sugar Queen is pure delight, a magical work that immediately captivates readers and should come with a warning label: “Do not begin this book just before bed.”  Readers who do may soon find themselves wondering “how could it possibly be 4 a.m.?”  Once you’re captured by The Sugar Queen, there is no chance of reading only a few chapters.

The characters in The Sugar Queen are strongly drawn and fairly sparkle with life.  In fact, the entire novel vibrates with constrained energy and vitality.  In Allen’s world, books appear when needed and will remain as not so subtle reminders of what needs to happen.  Passion causes water to boil and eggs to fry in their cartons.  And here, fairy godmothers can appear in the most unlikely guises.

Not much can be said about The Sugar Queen without revealing spoilers, suffice it to say that this is a book you’ll read in one sitting and like Chloe’s books, will follow you around until you understand its hidden meanings.

ISBN10: 0553384848
ISBN13: 9780553384840

Trade Paperback
294 pages
Publisher: Bantam
Publication Date: April 15, 2009
Author Website:

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