Monthly Archives: September 2009

Review: A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore

A Gate at the Stairs My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As much as I did like A Gate at the Stairs, I’m almost embarrassed to say I think I would have liked it more if I was more literary in my tastes.  I think most of the things I didn’t love about it are part of what make it an exceptional book for others.

Looking at other reviews, the author is very well known and highly regarded, but I’d never heard of her before.  She seems to be known for her short stories, which is a field that  I have neglected.

As the United States begins gearing up for war in the Middle East, twenty-year-old Tassie Keltjin, the Midwestern daughter of a gentleman hill farmer—his “Keltjin potatoes” are justifiably famous—has come to a university town as a college student, her brain on fire with Chaucer, Sylvia Plath, Simone de Beauvoir.

Between semesters, she takes a job as a part-time nanny.

The family she works for seems both mysterious and glamorous to her, and although Tassie had once found children boring, she comes to care for, and to protect, their newly adopted little girl as her own.

As the year unfolds and she is drawn deeper into each of these lives, her own life back home becomes ever more alien to her: her parents are frailer; her brother, aimless and lost in high school, contemplates joining the military. Tassie finds herself becoming more and more the stranger she felt herself to be, and as life and love unravel dramatically, even shockingly, she is forever changed.

I really enjoyed Tassie’s character, and thought the book was worth reading just to get to know her.  She had a great sense of humor and a wonderful view of events around her.   She was young and fresh, but with interesting insight.

I was also interested in the book’s insight into adoption, as Tassie falls into a job as a nanny for a couple trying to adopt.   Sarah (the adoptive mom-to-be) is very earnest and seems to be well-meaning in her views on the birth mothers, adoption across racial lines, and so on– but it is Tassie that actually expresses interest in the birth mothers as people.

A Gate at the Stairs looks at racism from many different angles, from outright nastiness from strangers to well meaning but ultimately demeaning behavior from friends.

The biggest problem I had with A Gate at the Stairs is something that other people have noted as the book’s strength– the rich language it is written in.  I read for character and plot, and prefer the words to be the delivery vehicle.  Although the book had strong characters, and interesting plot, I found the words getting in the way at times.

I also felt that the different storylines and sections of the book were disjointed, didn’t completely tie together.

Back to the literary front, I think (based on the book description and a few references in the book) there were further points being made about September 11 and terrorism that simply went over my head.  Whoosh.

I read this book for the September Twitter Book Club*. I was lucky enough to win a copy thanks to The Book Studio and Random House.  Thank you, particularly since if I didn’t have a copy in hand, I probably would have skipped this month due to a busy reading schedule, and I’m very glad I didn’t.

I really enjoyed the TBC discussion this month.  It was smaller than last month, and that made it easier to hear and be heard.  There were many insights I didn’t catch on my own, and several times were people were able to state my thoughts better than I could.   I think everyone participating enjoyed the book, and most appreciated the writing more than I did, although I’m not the only one that felt it slowed them down.

*Twitter Book Club is exactly what it sounds like– a group that discusses a book on Twitter each month.  Anyone is welcome to join in.  Full details are at the Twitter Book Club website. Please feel free to join in, even if you’re new to Twitter or to book club discussions.


Posted by on September 30, 2009 in Book Club, books, reviews, Twitter


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Review & Giveaway: The Smart One and The Pretty One by Claire LaZebnik

The Smart One and the Pretty One coverMy rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

I alternated between loving this book and being very annoyed by it. I spent more time in the enjoying it side, but got more annoyed as the book went on.

From the Hachette web site:

When Ava Nickerson was a child, her mother jokingly betrothed her to a friend’s son, and the contract the parents made has stayed safely buried for years. Now that still-single Ava is closing in on thirty, no one even remembers she was once “engaged” to the Markowitz boy. But when their mother is diagnosed with cancer, Ava’s prodigal little sister Lauren comes home to Los Angeles where she stumbles across the decades-old document.

Frustrated and embarrassed by Ava’s constant lectures about financial responsibility (all because she’s in a little debt. Okay, a lot of debt), Lauren decides to do some sisterly interfering of her own and tracks down her sister’s childhood fiancé. When she finds him, the highly inappropriate, twice-divorced, but incredibly charming Russell Markowitz is all too happy to re-enter the Nickerson sisters’ lives, and always-accountable Ava is forced to consider just how binding a contract really is …

I really struggled with this review.  Overall, I enjoyed The Smart One and The Pretty One, but it did push a few buttons for me.

What I liked:

  • I liked the family relationships in the book. I enjoyed the byplay between the sisters, and how they went about reestablishing their friendship. I found both sisters to be interesting characters.
  • Lauren needs to grow up, but she’s got a good heart. Her sister Ava is trying to help her in the growing up department. Sometimes she appreciates this, sometimes she doesn’t.
  • Ava’s been grown up for a long time. She’s always taken life seriously. She wants to share this with her younger sister.
  • The parents were funny and real and touching.  I loved their interactions with each other and the girls.

Those are where the book spent most of its time, and it was good.

I think it is possible I took the book too seriously, but here is what I didn’t like:

  • Russell’s character.  He never clicked for me.  And his tie into my next issue pushed my buttons.
  • The message about appearance. The characters say that beauty isn’t important, but their actions say ignoring your appearance is wrong, and they keep coming back to it. The fact that these conversations take place between two gorgeous size 6 women doesn’t help.

My second issue listed there could make for an interesting book club discussion, because I may well be overreacting, but I might not be the only one! There is further food for discussion in the relationship between the sisters, the male/female relationships (not just with Russell) and in the mother’s cancer storyline. There is a Reading Group Guide as well.

If you think you’d enjoy this book, or want to see if you agree with my criticism, or want to argue with me, you’ve got a chance!

Thank you to Hachette Books for providing me a review copy of The Smart One and the Pretty One. Thanks to them, I’m hosting a giveaway of 5 copies!


  1. Leave a comment to enter. I’ll get your address if you are on WordPress or you enter it where requested.  Make sure it is valid!
  2. If you have additional entries, you can leave them in the same comment.
  3. For another entry, let me know if you subscribe to my blog via RSS or e-mail, or if you follow me on Twitter. Thank you to my current subscribers, Welcome if you are new to my blog.
  4. One more entry if you let other people know about this giveaway! On your blog, on Twitter, another social site. Just let me know.
  5. As a bonus (for an additional entry) tell me what your favorite chick lit book or who your favorite chick lit author is, I’d like to try some new ones!

Having an address (not a PO Box) in the US or Canada is required. I’ll pick the winners in the evening of October 19.


Posted by on September 28, 2009 in books, giveaway, reviews


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The View From Monday

booksI’m participating in It’s Monday, What are you reading? at J. Kaye’s Book Blog.  Head over there to see what others are reading.

This week, I

  • finished Second Honeymoon by Joanne Trollope (and discussed it at my book club)
  • read The Smart One and the Pretty One by Claire LaZebnik (I’m hoping to have my overdue review and giveaway up today!).
  • read Heaven to Betsy by Maude Hart Lovelace (I’m hoping the have the review of the first four Betsy-Tacy books up tomorrow, and then review this one and Betsy In Spite of Herself on Friday).
  • I’ll finish A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore today, in time to discuss it at Twitter Book Club tonight.  (I hope to post my review on Wednesday.  We’ll see.)

I finished no audiobooks last week.

  • It just isn’t the same without my own player.  I’ve been looking into replacements– anyone have a recommendation for an MP3 player that supports bookmarks and plays protected WMA files (so no Ipod!)?
  • I admit, the start of the fall TV season really cut back on my listening time.
  • I finally bailed on The Merchant of Death by D.J. McHale.  Bobby Pendragon was acting all to much like a young teenager, and the book just wasn’t grabbing me.  It actually was coming together a little better after the halfway point, so I may pick it up again later.
  • I started listening to The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley. I’m enjoying it when I listen, but it isn’t encouraging me to pick up my player.
  • I don’t know why I’m using a list for this section.  Maybe it makes me feel more organized.

I have coming up:

  • The Thirteenth Tale by Dianne Setterfield for my other book club next Monday. (I’m planning on listening to this one– there goes the rest of The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie)
  • The next three Betsy-Tacy books for a blog tour of Betsy and Joe a week from Tuesday.
  • I have another blog tour scheduled for next Monday, but if the book doesn’t arrive by tomorrow (Wednesday at the latest), I’m not sure I can make the date.
  • And one more book that was supposed to be up in September, but again, I don’t have the book yet!

I posted this to Twitter, but I thought I’d show you why I looked everywhere for my book one day this week. The (white ribbon) bookmark gave it away in the end.

missing book

I hope you have a great reading week!


Posted by on September 28, 2009 in books, summary


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Mailbox Monday

I’m participating in Mailbox Monday from Marcia at The Printed Page.

Financial Lives of PoetsI only had one new print book enter my house this week.

The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter arrived for an October date with TLC Book Tours.  This looks to be a rather quirky book about the lengths a man will go to in order to save his world.   A big thank you to Trish!

Audio Books are a different story.  Audible had a sale!  I’d already bought The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield for my upcoming book club M discussion.  I added another four books: Hard Truth by Mariah Stewart, The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell, Anyone But You by Jennifer Crusie, and Kindred by Octavia Butler.  A couple of these are books that have been on my TBR list for a while, one is by an author I recently enjoyed, and one is an author I remember seeing a positive book review for on a blog.  It’s a pretty random assortment :-).

Thirteenth TaleSparrowKindredHard TruthAnyone But YouWhat arrived in your house this week?


Posted by on September 27, 2009 in books


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Review: Luv Ya Bunches by Lauren Myracle

Luv Ya Bunches: Book OneLuv Ya Bunches is a middle-grade book  my 11 year old daughter (the target audience) loved.  I (as an adult) found it interesting, but not compelling.

The publisher’s description:

What do Katie-Rose, Yasaman, Milla, and Violet all have in common? Other than being named after flowers, practically nothing. Katie-Rose is a film director in training. Yasaman is a computer whiz. Milla is third in command of the A list. And Violet is the new girl in school. They’re fab girls, all of them, but they sure aren’t friends. And if evil queen bee Medusa— ’scuse me, Modessa—has her way, they never will be. But this is the beginning of a new school year, when anything can happen and social worlds can collide . . .

When I read this book, my primary focus was on the characters. I liked the 4 girls that the story focused on. Each was a very distinct personality, and this showed not only in their approach to events in the book but in the way they told their stories.

The four girls all get caught up in a classic girl’s bullying scenario. The story follows them as they find ways to deal with the bully and build a healthier network of friendships.  The ending scenario where they get their revenge on the bully was a little over the top, but made for entertaining reading.

The book uses a variety of styles (movie scripts, IM conversations, etc) to relay the girls conversations and thoughts. The chapters alternate point of view, so we can see each girl’s take on the situations that arise.

I found the language a bit flat, but overall, it’s a nice kid’s book.

My 11 year old daughter loved the book. When she finished, she e-mailed a friend to recommend it. That evening, she started a second pass.

She particularly liked the different viewpoints. She appreciated the author’s choice to have Violet narrate a key scene between the other three girls, since Violet was a bystander at that point, and could give a more neutral view of the events.

She also called out the different approaches at different times– Some of Katie-Rose’s sections are told as movie scripts. Yasmine writes in her blog. We see Internet chat between the girls. My daughter thought this made reading more interesting.

She thought the characters were realistic, and liked how they became friends even though they were so different. She also commented on how different her school is from the one in the book– I’m glad she appreciates it!

In general, this book was spot on for its target age range.  I did have one issue of age appropriateness arise.  After starting her second pass, my daughter asked me a question that I would have been perfectly happy to avoid for a few more years: “Mommy, what’s a pole dancer?”. It was a small, passing reference, and really wasn’t necessary. Oh well.

Thank you to Laura at ABRAMS for the opportunity to review Luv Ya Bunches.


Posted by on September 27, 2009 in books, reviews


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Expectations for books for younger readers

girl readsEver since I started my blog, I’ve had middle grade and young adult book reviews mixed in with the other books I’ve reviewed. Most of these books have been ones I’ve selected to read for myself. Some are books that I’m reading with my daughter in mind.

I have no problem reading books for younger readers.

In her memoir A Circle of Quiet, Madeleine L’Engle is asked “Why do you write for children?” She answers:

My immediate response to this question is, “I don’t.” … If it’s not good enough for adults, it’s not good enough for children. If a book that is going to be marketed for children does not interest me, a grownup, then I am dishonoring the children for whom the book is intended, and I am dishonoring books. And words.

Sometimes I answer that if I have something I want to say that is too difficult for adults to swallow, then I will write it in a book for children. This is usually good for a slightly startled laugh, but it’s perfectly true.

I have several books I’ve read recently, but am waiting on the review while I try to figure out what standard I should hold them to.

Some of them have language that seems noticeably simplified. Some have characters that are acting all too age appropriate. I can imagine that I’ll come across books that back off on subject matter.

Young Adult Books

The issues are different for YA books than for young adults.

I’ve had the issue of teenage characters acting like teenagers, and annoying me.  That’s appropriate for the audience, and I feel I should give them some leeway on that.

On the other hand, the language should not be simplified, and subject matter should not be restricted for this age group.

I use my normal rating scale and call out any issues in my review.  I’ll let the reader decide.

Middle Grade

I’m having a harder time with the middle grade books.  I don’t know that it is fair to hold them to Madeleine L’Engle’s standard.

The best of children’s books clearly are there.  Even when reading the Harry Potter books, I never stopped to worry about any of these issues. I didn’t  need to remember I was reading books written for kids. I just enjoyed reading them, even if I recognized flaws later. This has been true of other books as well.

It isn’t always the case. On the other hand, things that bother me can be complete non-issues to my kid’s book review partner, my 11 year old daughter.

I’ve decided not to assign a numerical rating to middle grade books, because I can’t reconcile decide what scale to use.

I’ll try to call out in my review whether an opinion is relative to an adult reader or a child reader. If I read the book because I wanted to, I’ll represent both views as best I can.  If I read it as a book for kids, I may not bother with the adult view.

Books for younger audiences

In general, I’m not expecting to review books aimed younger than 3rd-4th grade.  There are always exceptions, and I’ll deal with them individually rather than coming up with a general policy.

What do you think?

Is that enough? Is there anything else you keep in mind as a reviewer, or would like to read in my reviews?  What do you do?


Posted by on September 26, 2009 in blogging, books


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Review: Second Honeymoon by Joanne Trollope

Second Honeymoon: A Novel My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

I found Second Honeymoon an enjoyable and thought provoking read.

The focus is on a woman whose youngest child has finally left home. Edie has defined herself as a mother for so long that she has no desire to be anything else. Her husband, Russell,  has his vision of how life will be now, and is eager for her to conform to his view.

Edie half-heartedly auditions for a role in a production of an Ibsen play, and (to her great surprise) gets the part. Just as she is rediscovering the actress in herself, who she had put in the backseat for many years, her children return home. As much as she’s wished for this, the experience isn’t what she expected.

Each child had their own story. I was particularly interested in Matthew, the oldest. In many ways, he is the opposite of the rest of his family– neat where they are messy, organized where they are scattered, ambitious where they are laid back. He’s got a successful girlfriend that is ready to move up in the world, and is going at a pace he can’t keep up with. He’s having a very hard time dealing with this.

Ben and Rosa are both much earlier in the process of finding out who they are and what they should be doing with themselves. Rosa is fairly newly out of an intense relationship that left her significantly in debt. Ben is moving in with his girlfriend, who isn’t quite ready to leave her mother.

These characters and more are what made the book work. They had interesting stories. They were each flawed while still being sympathetic. I was interested in where they ended up, even while recognizing the mistakes they made in getting there.

To me, the book reflected the importance of control over ones own life. The characters making their own choices about how they were living had a much easier time coping than those at the mercy of circumstances.

Edie did not choose her empty nest and is miserable.  After they return, she is briefly happy until she realizes that having grown children around is not the same, and begins to take control of her life.  Mathew and Ben both choose to use their childhood home as a place to regroup and move forward, while Rosa only returns home when she has no other options.  Russell celebrates the arrival of the next phase of his and Edie’s life together with very specific ideas as to how it will look, and is also unhappy when events don’t play our as he envisions.

Even though I’m at a different point in my life than Edie is in hers, I could still identify.  I’ve been extremely involved in my daughter’s life, and now that she’s in middle school, I need to start to step back and find another identity to add to the one that has dominated the last 11 years– mother.

book clubI read Second Honeymoon for my Book Club L.

We all liked the book, and enjoyed talking about it.  We all are mothers, and appreciated the warning that Edie’s character gave us.  Out opinions of the other storylines varied, with some spirited discussion on the Matthew and Ruth thread. Several members expressed interest in reading other books by this author.

Our membership has recently jumped after being stable for a long time, and I think I’m going to have to play a more active role as moderator, at least for a while, since we kept breaking off into different conversations.  Anyone have any tips for me?


Posted by on September 26, 2009 in Book Club, books, L, reviews


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