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Review: Downward Dog, Upward Fog by Meryl Davids Landau

19/08/2011

The original review was posted 8/18/2011 at Luxury Reading. Check out the other great reviews and giveaways available!

Follow Meryl on Twitter, @MerylDL

There are few among us who can’t relate to Lorna Crawford in some way. She has a job she loves with coworkers she decidedly doesn’t; a boyfriend who is sweet and charming, but constantly tied up with work; and a mother in whose eyes she never quite measures up. When we meet Lorna, she is on the verge of a road rage meltdown – something anybody who’s ever had to commute anywhere can understand – and we soon learn that this is a fair indication of her life as a whole. When she finds herself unreasonably frustrated with her closest group of girlfriends, Lorna knows it’s time for a change.

Lorna’s journey to enlightenment begins with some gentle prodding from her sister, interfaith minister Angelica (Anna), who consistently encourages her: “Last time something serendipitous happened to me, she quoted this fellow, Deepak something, who wrote in some book that coincidences are messages.” (p. 9) As Lorna jumps in to weekly yoga sessions, spiritual self-help books and nightly attempts at meditation (sujaling, as she calls it), she opens herself up to new friends and new understanding about her life. However, as uplifted as she feels in the moment, she finds her progress threatened by outside influences as well as her own self-doubt.

In Downward Dog, Upward Fog, Meryl Davids Landau explores the path to spiritual awakening and serenity with its many obstacles and small victories, with a protagonist who is sympathetic because she could be any one of us. Her supporting characters are equally engaging, realistic three-dimensional individuals rather than mere caricatures of the “nagging mother” or the “enlightened one”, which allows the reader to fall more completely into the story.

I was concerned that the spiritual concepts presented would be somehow separate from the central story, especially because of the potential for descriptions that would go over the average reader’s head. Fortunately, Landau approached the road to spirituality primarily from Lorna’s perspective, making the reader a partner in her discovery and development and maintaining the accessibility of those concepts. Anybody could, after reading this book, choose to begin a similar spiritual journey with a level of comfort she may not have had before. Even if the spiritual journey lasts no longer than the last page, the reader will find herself rooting for a happy ending – for Lorna, and ultimately for herself.

Rating: 5/5

Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Meryl Davids Landau. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.

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Review: The Borgia Betrayal, by Sara Poole

05/08/2011

Review originally posted at Luxury Reading June 12, 2011. You can navigate directly to the post here.

Francesca Giordano, poisoner to His Holiness Pope Alexander VI, lives a life full of secrets. An independent, passionate woman in late fifteenth-century Rome, she is responsible for protecting the Pope and his family — the infamous Borgias — from outside harm as well as for consolidating Il Papa’s position by eliminating those who could pose a threat to the safety of St. Peter’s Throne. But Francesca has another, deeper purpose: to find and kill the man responsible for her father’s death while in then-Cardinal Borgia’s service.

When the elusive killer allies with the Pope’s enemy, Girolamo Savonarola, to remove the Pope and install Savonarola in that office, a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse ensues in the piazzas and tunnels of Rome, even penetrating the boundaries of the Vatican itself. Can Francesca fulfill her duty to the Pope and avenge her father…or will she give her life in the attempt?

Sara Poole’s second novel about the enigmatic Francesca pulls the reader in from the start. She is a femme fatale, both strong enough to confront the challenges before her (and thwarting the men who would stop her in the process) and attuned enough to her own passions to indulge them. At times Poole expertly draws out Francesca’s deep-seated vulnerability — her wistful denial of love, the gradual recollection of repressed memories, and fear of losing still more people she loves — to create a truly three-dimensional character with whom any reader can relate.

Rome comes alive through Poole’s use of descriptors; it is easy to imagine the sultry heat of the summer and to conjure the bustle of people in the marketplace in ones’ mind. While some descriptions are repetitive, the picture of Rome is no less vivid for it. Skillful narrative makes use of the setting and allows for a few different subplots to intermingle while never losing sight of the main story, or of Francesca’s interactions with the supporting characters. Setting The Borgia Betrayal down often required a few moments to readjust to the real world; to me, that is the mark of an adept storyteller. Also, while this book is a sequel, Poole is careful to explain references to the earlier book well enough to make it a viable stand-alone story.

The Borgia Betrayal is a fast-paced historical narrative that keeps the reader hooked until the unexpected conclusion. Rather than dissatisfying, the loose threads at the end only made me want to read Poole’s next work even more.

Rating: 4/5

Review copy was provided free of any obligation by St. Martin’s Griffin. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.

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Friday Freewrite: Monsters in Literature

05/08/2011

Whew, sorry for the hiatus! Rest assured that I’ve been devouring book after book to deliver you some tasty reviews for your end-of-summer enjoyment. (And really, it’s already nearing the end of summer? Weird…)

One book in particular made me stop and recall an assignment I had in my English 1100 class at Lakeland (if you’re going there, take it with Dr. Soto-Schwartz — you will love her or hate her, but if you open your mind you will definitely learn something), about exploring the concept of the “monster” in literature. Certainly we encounter creatures universally recognized as monsters — Moby Dick, Voldemort and the dementors of Azkaban, the Big Bad Wolf — but what about the ones who look like us? After all, even Tom Riddle was an attractive and charismatic boy before the rending of his soul played out across his physique.

Those are the interesting monsters, seemingly normal human beings who carry dark and twisted secrets beneath the surface: fetishes of violent eroticism, control and slow, torturous destruction mark them as different, other. Some instinctively shy away from those stories, afraid to look below the surface…fear of the unknown, or even of seeing one’s own dark side mirrored in a fictional character who suddenly becomes all too real. Since our universe thrives on balance there are also those who find themselves drawn to those stories — those for whom a simple fairy tale is not enough, those who need to face the darkness with a clear and steady gaze, to deconstruct it and thereby understand it.

Alice Sebold, for one, is not shy about forcing the reader to confront the monster: in Lucky, her rapist; in The Lovely Bones, a seemingly harmless recluse who builds a trap to murder an unsuspecting girl; and in The Almost Moon, a daughter who kills her mother. (Note: I have only read The Lovely Bones and cannot critique the other two more fully in this respect; however, any basic synopsis of the two will support my assertion here.) Part of the draw of this type of story, unlike the crime drama that leads to the perpetrator’s apprehension, is that it scours the depths of the evil or deranged mind, insisting by its very existence that we not turn away from the uncomfortable or downright terrifying parts of literature…or of life.

I didn’t fully appreciate this assignment when I had to do it. We read stories like Joyce Carol Oates’ “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been”, and then we had to write a paper about a “monster” in a book or short story outside of the assigned reading. Of course I wrote the paper, but in my naive attempt to step back into the light I focused on my favorite Wicked Witch, Elphaba — not truly a monster, though she is believed to be by some. I wrote about how she was misunderstood, about the secret guilt she carried around with her and how she was not so much a “monster” as an example of “no good deed goes unpunished.” I think I was more prepared at 14 and 15 to confront the bogeyman than I was at 18.

Now, though, I’m read to step back into the darkness, to stare down the monsters and understand them, to accept them without trying to rehabilitate them. My latest read, Brandi Lynn Ryder’s debut novel In Malice, Quite Close, is another chilling masterpiece that puts the reader face-to-face with the deepest, darkest parts of the human soul. A review is pending for publication on Luxury Reading, after which of course I will share it with you, but for the first time in awhile I feel like a review may not be enough.

Because of that, I am going to rewrite my original college assignment; this time, though, I will take it seriously and I will not embark on a crusade to find redemption where there is none. This can technically be considered my introduction, and I am excited to share the finished product with you. In the meantime, just remember: the most disturbing monsters aren’t the ones we can imagine, but the ones who walk among us every day.

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Friday Freewrite: Survival of the Book

24/06/2011

I was mulling over ideas for a Friday Freewrite, and had almost given up the idea on the basis that freewriting anything while multitasking is sort of cheating when I stumbled on a HuffPo article posted yesterday. Johann Hari makes the claim that “In The Age of Distraction, We Need One Thing More Than Ever: Books” by highlighting the depth and timelessness of words committed to paper, far more substantial than the snippets of information and opinion we glean from social networking, sites like HuffPo itself, blogs like this one, and other sources of micro-publishing. Hari also admits being wooed by the thought of an eReader (his gadget of choice would be the Kindle), but contends that as the devices become multifunctional they move further away from being a suitable substitution for a hard copy book.

Quite honestly, I couldn’t agree more. I mean, let’s be clear: this blog is dedicated to writing and reading. And I absolutely love my Nook, but more recently it has spent more and more time sitting on the bedside table beneath whatever actual book I’m reading at the moment. A couple of times the device has completely powered down because I left it alone for so long. There’s just something about the ability to hold pages between my fingers as I turn them, to run my finger down the page as I search for my spot, to smell that new (or old) book smell… These are a few of my favorite things, things that I’ve taken for granted but would fight to the end to keep.

Besides, I can’t fathom a world in which there is absolutely no market for books. They are the economically frugal option; even if the digital version of a book costs half the price of a hard copy, that’s only after the initial investment of hundreds of dollars. There is still an entire generation of people alive for whom technological advances are confusing and not a little frightening (my 83-year-old grandmother still thinks of laptops as “magic boxes”), and it is unrealistic to expect them all to acclimate to a change of that enormity. And when they are gone, there will still be the bibliophiles: people like myself who feel most at peace when they are surrounded by the written word.

You see, the eternal beauty of books to me is not entirely bound in the reading of them. I find that simply walking into a room and seeing books lying on a table or neatly arranged on a shelf puts me in a better, more relaxed mood and gives any environment a more open and cultured feel. Maybe that just means I’m a book snob, but I feel how I feel.

As convenient as a digital reader can be, I worry that we’re conditioning ourselves to be constantly locked in to one screen or another — either we’re staring into a computer monitor, furiously scrolling on a smart phone or tablet, or navigating our favorite stories on a Nook. While the convenience of the latter cannot be overstated (over 5000 books at your fingertips with an 8GB microSD card installed!! No more bulky suitcases for “light” reading!), it would be a mistake to completely toss away “old” technology for the glitz and glitter of the new. After all…a book’s battery never needs recharging.

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The Integrity of the Blogger

17/06/2011

The internet has given us nearly unmitigated global access to news, opinion, and the ability to share our own thoughts and opinions with an audience whose only limits exist in just how far out there you want to put yourself. There are as many types of blogs as there are bloggers who write them, and while many of them are personally oriented there are yet millions of bloggers — such as myself — who use the forum to present their commentary on current events. That is, we cast ourselves as reporters on the ground providing up to the moment coverage of different goings-on without the restrictions of a major network.

However, just because we are more free to express ourselves does not mean that we have the right to neglect the tenets of journalistic integrity, for if we undermine our own credibility by ignoring or deliberately misinterpreting the facts and substituting polemic for substance, we damage the credibility of every blogger around us who is careful enough to take all those steps we have skipped.

What then, of bloggers who adopt alternate identities to get out a message? Where do they fall in the question of integrity? This has become a hot-button issue in the last week or so, when the lesbian authors behind two popular blogs — “A Gay Girl In Damascus” and LezGetReal — were discovered to be married, white, American men. Whatever good came of their messages is now tarnished by the realization that they duped their audiences (not to mention the U.S. State Department), as is the reputation of every blogger who dares share her opinion.

Sadly, however good a reason people may have to be skeptical, it now adds a greater onus on the legitimate blogger who may always be accurate in his or her self-representation and in disseminating the factual evidence behind their claims but who now must combat disbelief from an audience that just will not stand for being fooled again.

Yes, Bill Graber and Tom MacMaster may have had wonderful things to say, and yes they may have legitimately felt that obscuring their true identities was the best way to spread their message (though I rather doubt that in MacMaster’s case, given some of the commentary he’s provided to explain himself), but at the end of the day they pushed bloggers’ position back from one of relative legitimacy to that of the hack who cannot do, and so writes.

It’s up to the rest of us to restore the reputation of the blogosphere, with unimpeachable integrity.

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Review: Nerd Do Well, by Simon Pegg

12/06/2011

Originally posted on Luxury Reading June 10, 2011. See the original review here.

The best kind of memoir is one where the reader feels as if the memoirist is sitting across from them on a couch, sipping a beverage and chatting comfortably – a flowing and dynamic conversation rather than a dry biographical analysis of how s/he got where s/he is today. Simon Pegg, with his characteristic good humor, sets that perfect tone in Nerd Do Well.

Simon Pegg has near universal recognition after roles in the popular Star Trek reboot (2009) and such offbeat comedies as Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Hot Fuzz (2006), both of which he co-wrote with director Edgar Wright. As his star rises, fans and followers will enjoy tracing his path from the British suburbs to the big screen.

This, however, is no ordinary memoir. While Pegg delves into his past to share with the reader the roots of his love for acting and comedy, he is careful not to overindulge in emotional recollections – he openly expresses a reluctance to address emotion, yet does so just enough to make his story come alive. Pegg also tempers personal anecdotes with an almost academic discussion of cinema and science fiction through the last several decades (with special attention paid to the Star Wars franchise), brilliantly illustrating how the development of the latter contributed to his own personal and professional development.

Every couple of chapters, the reader also encounters a pleasant and highly entertaining surprise: a science-fiction story starring a swarthy and heroic Simon Pegg and his robotic sidekick, Canterbury. The story itself is so over-the-top that one cannot help but laugh, recognizing at the same time that the effort is more to blow off steam than to achieve a literary triumph. The effect, regardless, is an exercise in hilarity.

Nerd Do Well is a tantalizing glimpse into the mind of one of Hollywood’s celebrity outliers – a man of extreme talent and humor who nonetheless is still the little boy from Brockworth, or any other little town, who dreams of something bigger.

Rating: 5/5

Review and copy was provided free of any obligation by Gotham. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.

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Review: The Confessions of Catherine de Medici, by C.W. Gortner

06/06/2011

(Originally posted June 1, 2011 on Luxury Reading)

“You’ll fare better without love. We Medici always do.”

The story of sixteenth-century Europe cannot be told without telling of Catherine de Medici, the last legitimate descendant of the illustrious Medici family of Florence. Hers is not an easy story, for her reign as Queen of France and Queen Mother during the reigns of three sons was fraught with conflict and tragedy. In The Confessions of Catherine de Medici, author C.W. Gortner digs beneath historical canon to reveal a woman both pragmatic and passionate, who devoted her life to defending the country she came to call home and the last branches of the Valois line who would rule it.

Ten-year-old Caterina de’ Medici has visions, portents of the future she can neither control nor understand. When her aunt takes her to a trusted seer for guidance, he shares with her that she is to fulfill a grand destiny – “It may not be the destiny you want, Caterina de’ Medici, but fulfill it you will.” (p. 15)

Four years later, Catherine is married to the Duc d’Orleans, second son of King Francois I of France, and as she acclimates to the French court she must overcome the rumors surrounding her marriage and bear a son to secure the succession. As the story progresses through years and decades, Catherine recounts the end of the Valois dynasty that claims the lives of her husband, two of her sons, and countless thousands of French citizens who engaged in civil war, Catholic against Huguenot. Her own inexperience in statecraft and her single-minded focus on protecting her children provide hard and often tragic lessons; despite all, however, Catherine rises to every challenge and sees her many visions come to pass.

The Confessions is a heartfelt look into the life of one of history’s more enigmatic royal figures. Catherine is alternately revered and reviled, feared by those who fail to understand the motivations behind her actions. Gortner transports the reader back to sixteenth-century France and surrounds her with such dynamic characters that she comes out of the reading a bit shocked to be sitting on a couch rather than traveling in a royal convoy. Through his excellent writing the Valois and their countrymen become far more than footnotes in a history book; they come alive once more.

Any lover of historical fiction will have a hard time putting this down, and anybody looking for a well-written and moving narrative need look no further.

Rating: 5/5

Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Ballantine Books. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.