Tag Archives: US

The Care and Handling of Roses with Thorns – Margaret Dilloway – 7/10

“Difficult and obstinate. Thriving under a set of specific and limited conditions. That pretty much describes me. Maybe that’s why I like these roses so much.”

care and handling

Gal has struggled all her life with a kidney failure, going to dialysis several times a week, hoping upon hope that she’ll get a transplant soon. While she waits, she teaches biology very strictly at the local Catholic high school, and cultivates roses. As an amateur breeder, she tries to create a unique new strain of the Hulthemia rose. When her niece Riley turns up unannounced, she turns Gal’s well-ordered life inside out… and breathes fresh life in.

Gal is a bit of an odd fish – but to me, a fairly understandable one. She sees everything very much in black and white, is ambitious and scientific and colours very much within the lines. She’s so keen to be considered a legitimate rose competitor, to be validated, while she copes with the devastating reality of her kidney issues. Dilloway includes in Gal the depression of a chronic illness sufferer, the logistical difficulties of dialysis and rose-tending, and the elation, jealousy and heartbreak of watching other patients on the same transplant list.

Like all these types of books (Looking for Me, SisterlandMeet Me At the Cupcake CafeLove Anthony), the writing is easy and munchable without impediment, but equally not unappetising. Extra characters are as developed as necessary (i.e. often, not very), and certain conflicts and romances are easily foretold. The drama of the kidney failure is in a sense secondary to the main suspense of the Riley-Gal relationship. 

Riley, the unexpected teenager, is the unsung heroine of this story. It would have been easy to cast the teenager as the disruption, the troublemaker, but Riley is actually a cleverly constructed character, full of surprises and gentle actions rather than trouble. She’s honest but sullen, open and secretive in turns.

Not difficult to read at all – but quite good fun.

Additional information:
Copy provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review
Publisher: Penguin, 397 paperback pages
Order The Care and Handling of Roses with Thornsfrom Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting

The Two Deaths of Daniel Hayes – Marcus Sakey – 7/10

(at least 18 months since I read this. Might be a little vague)

“‘Y cuidate lo que dices,’ Daniel replied over his shoulder, then did a double take. Huh. I know Spanish. Cool.”


Daniel wakes upon on an “apocalyptic beach, water frothing beneath a shivering sky, wind a steady howl over the shoals”, naked and with no memory of how he got there, why he’s there, or even who he is. In an attempt to resolve the mystery, he gets in the car and heads as far west as he can, piecing his life back together before it gets ripped apart again.

This sort of “forgotten identity” novel is pretty unusual and the whole plot construct was impressive. He gets back West and then ends up in a cat and mouse-with-no-memory game, no idea who he can trust, what is true, what is an illusion, what is a mis-memory. It gets very confusing as lots of people play multiple characters or there are only glimpses of them and Daniel isn’t sure who they are.

As a result, the characters don’t have to be particularly magnetic; Daniel is a dark sort of person who is driven to anger and violence by extreme circumstances. Bad guys are bad guys, the wife is a bit strange but in the end her motivations are straightforward enough. I particularly liked the older woman, Sophie, the guiding aunt figure – she’s a useful plot device and a nice person into the mix.

The emptiness of the Hollywood life is laid out pretty starkly here – less humorously than in The Lawgiver. Daniel and Laney’s relationship is sweetly captured in emails and notes – actually a funnier way to give credence to an unlikely romance. I did not see the enormous twist at the end coming at all – I couldn’t figure out what was going on for ages and then it suddenly hits you. Not sure that’s where I wanted it to end up, but it’s all slick and throws the rest of the book into the right angle to make sense of.

Interesting, unusual, massive twist at the end.

Additional information:

Copy sent by We Love This Book so long ago for review that I missed every deadline imaginable.
Publisher: Bantam Press, 388 paperback pages 
Order The Two Deaths of Daniel Hayesfrom Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting

Lean In – Sheryl Sandberg – 7/10

“Then, as the years ticked by, I started seeing female friends and colleagues drop out of the workforce. Some left by choice. Others left out of frustration, pushed out the door by companies that did not allow flexibility and welcomed home by partners who weren’t doing their share of the housework and child rearing. Others remained but scaled back their ambitions to meet outsized demands. I watched as the promise my generation had for female leadership dwindled. By the time I had been at Google for a few years, I realised that the problem wasn’t going away. So even though the through still scared me, I decided it was time to stop putting head down and to start speaking out.”


Fraught topic, this one. In the interests of disclosing my personal biases: I work in what used to be, and still is at senior levels, a male-dominated professional services industry. 14% of the partners at my firm are women. I haven’t encountered much sexism at work although I’ve encountered the odd isolated incident. I’m pretty introverted and “head down and work hard” is my Plan A for anything. I’m not sure I want to lead anything (I’d much rather be y in “behind every successful x is a y”) but I’m not willing to rule it out. Oh, and I’m closely related to a bona fide glass-ceiling smasher.

Sandberg examines any number of areas where she feels that Women (I capitalise to indicate my scepticism about this kind of generalisation) are sabotaging their futures through various innate or culturally-trained personality aspects. My favourite chapter was “Don’t Leave Before You Leave” – stop turning down fantastic opportunities or actively backing away from opportunities because they might conflict with your future priorities.

The writing is at an appropriate register – approachable without being overly simplified. I can’t find any references to a ghost writer and it feels quite personally open. Sandberg digs out plenty of anecdotes (which, in my humble opinion, make any kind of non-fiction psychology/management book much more readable), a decent proportion of which would have caused me great embarrassment to have on the printed page! There is also plenty of common sense in here, some of which surprised me, some of which struck me as blindingly obvious. So lots of decent “life in business” tips for people from pretty much any background.

Somehow though, even though I read it straight through on a Friday afternoon, this is lacking something. I don’t know whether it’s because I’m not sure I have the Will To Lead of the front cover, or whether I found this, like corporate life today, fails to acknowledge that some exceptionally talented people may not want to make it to the top for prominence and recognition, but rather to leverage their talent in some other form of reward. Sandberg is so busy saying “you can do it” that there is no room for anything else. There is a deeper lesson here though, which gets lost in the bullish “you can do it” – which is the perhaps more-commonly heard “do your best”.

This is refreshingly honest, an important book to be out there, and full of helpful thoughts, but somehow not as life-changing as I thought it would be. (I thought the same of Quiet).

Additional information:

Copy bought for me by The Book Accumulator on an expensive family trip to Waterstones Piccadilly.
Publisher: WH Allen, 173 paperback pages 
Order Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Leadfrom Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting

The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls – Anton DiSclafani – 7/10

“But then, I knew nothing about the place except that it was where my parents were sending me so they wouldn’t have to see me.”


Thea has brought disgrace on her Florida old-money Great Depression family and is sent away for the summer to a riding camp. When it becomes clear that her stay is not just for the summer but that her parents want her permanently out of their sight, she tries to make herself more welcome in her new world, trading favours and gossip for social elevation…

Thea is an intriguing character. In some senses she is wise beyond her years, acting more adult than many of the adults around her, but still very much a teenage girl with that brutal mix of sharpness. Her odd relationship with her twin – maybe it only seems odd to me because I’m not a twin. The liaison with a far-distant cousin, who at the same time is like a brother to her, predictable and yet tragic. Her parents, considering that she spends very little time with them in the book, are also sharply captured – on the cusp of modernising while buried in their orange grove dollars. 

DiSclafani (what a great surname!) captures the fading South well; the drip-drip-drip of family money down the Depression drain while girls are packed off to finishing school. The importance attributed to decorum and the age of family money is thrown into relief against the lacking morals displayed by several characters and the spicy ambition of the girls to succeed.

In a sense I found it disappointing that the plot continues to return to Thea’s sexual adventurousness – as if there was no other aspect of her that could cause conflict (when there were plenty of other aspects). But I often find that frustrating in a novel. The inevitable decay of the old money system was much more interesting, as was the evolution of Thea’s relationship with her parents.

A much darker, more American boarding school tale than those of Enid Blyton on which I grew up. Just as addictively readable.

Additional information:

Copy sent by the publisher, Tinder Press, in exchange for an honest review
Publisher: Tinder Press, 389 hardback pages 
Order The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girlsfrom Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting

House Rules – Jodi Picoult – 7/10

“Motherhood is a Sisyphean task. You finish sewing one seam shut, and another rips open. I have come to believe that this life I’m wearing will never really fit.”

house rules

Jacob has Asperger’s. His little brother Theo doesn’t. Their mother Emma is struggling to keep the three of them on the same track. When Jacob’s fascination with sleuthing makes him the prime suspect in a murder case, it all could go horribly wrong…

So the vehicle is a standard Picoult 5 door hatchback… family drama against legal proceedings, secrets being kept within the family that would really make everything a lot easier if they were out in the open. Feel free to say it’s easy-to-read writing, but it’s so moreish.

As with all of Picoult’s books, there is a particular personality/mental health aspect being explored here. I’m not in a position to say that the representation of Asperger’s, including what life is like with a son or brother who has Asperger’s, is authentic, but it is thoroughly and sympathetically conveyed. Different aspects are explored – the triggers (sensory overload, changes to routines), the outcomes (tantrums, violence, getting more difficult to manage as the person gets older), and the often-forgotten positives (helpful, sweet, funny, devoted, lives by the rules, including “look out for your brother, he’s the only one you’ve got”). 

And, as with all of Picoult’s books, there is at the heart of the book a dilemma about family life. In others of hers which I’ve enjoyed, there has been forgiveness, trying to help someone through depression, using one child to save another. Here it is Emma’s two faces – doling out advice, including parenting advice, for an agony aunt column, while feeling like she can’t manage at home any more. She can’t control her son physically. A more general question: where are all the adults with Asperger’s? In this, the father has a dash of it himself and ran away from the confronting reality of his son.

Younger brother Theo is one of the most complex characters I’ve encountered to date in a Picoult novel. Resentful that his plans always get shelved because of some drama with Jacob, hormonally pubescent, feeling abandoned by his unknown father, he’s several shades darker than most side characters. I would have liked to see a few more chapters from his perspective. Our template lawyer Oliver is young, inexperienced, heart in the right place – a typical Picoult litigator. Emotional angst with the client – again standard. But sweet and funny. And critically – sympathetic to the Asperger’s angle. Somewhat like the lawyer in John Grisham’s The Rainmaker (one of my favourite books).

Of course, almost in the background, there’s a murder investigation. I worked out how the “murder” had been committed, and also how the assault fitted into the picture quite early on, but the suspense became about whether Jacob would totally incriminate himself, the damage to Theo, and the ongoing economic difficulties of the Hunt family.

Another perfectly satisfactory cocktail of drama from the Picoult production line.

Additional information:

Copy borrowed from Mini-Me
Publisher: Hodder, 640 paperback pages 
Order House Rulesfrom Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting

The Happiness Project – Gretchen Rubin – 8/10

“Why should I spoil a peaceful moment with my irritation? Hearing someone complain is tiresome whether you’re in a good mood or a bad one and whether or not the complaining is justified.”

happiness project

Rubin, successfully published non-fiction writer, is enchanted by the topic of happiness and our modern malaise of having neither time nor inclination to improve our happiness. Whether happiness is even a reasonable or worthy pursuit.

I absolutely loved Happier at Home, and I really enjoy these “year of…” memoirs. I do love a bit of watching someone else improve their life. Maybe that’s why I love watching West Wing and all the police procedural shows where people solve problems (murders)? Anyway… This is another in the vein of Sleeping Naked is Green, The New York Mormon Singles’… something-or-other (seriously, that book’s title is too long).

Rubin writes intelligently and thoughtfully without being boring, about the science of happiness and introducing it into her daily life. She makes lots of attempts, some fail, but discovers lots of tricks and happy accidents along the way. My favourites include Act more energetic, Tackle a nagging task, Spend out (i.e. use up those things you’re saving for one day… what if it never comes?). I was also a big fan of the Secrets of Adulthood – Rubin has a knack for the simple but insightful one-liner, such as “if you can’t find something, clean up” or “what’s fun for other people may not be fun for you – and vice versa”.

I think this is a fascinating book and definitely one to take away a few ideas from (I was mocked by my colleagues when I was reading this on a plane from Denver to New York and taking lots of notes!) – and I’m still reading her blog.

Additional information:

Copy bought (BOUGHT) in Denver a few months ago.
Publisher: HarperCollins, 296 paperback pages 
Order The Happiness Projectfrom Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards give-aways and site hosting

Russian Winter – Daphne Kalotay – 8/10

“Probably that sliver of doubt was always with her, lodged inside her, as it was inside everyone, about everybody else”

One-time prima ballerina of the Bolshoi Ballet Nina Revskaya, now wheelchair-bound in Boston, decides to sell her impressive jewellery collection for the benefit of the Boston Ballet Foundation. As she looks at the treasures of her past,  she recalls her life on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Drew Brooks, in charge of the auction, pries deep into Nina’s life with the help of the obsessive Professor Solodin to try to add some historical colour to Nina’s precious jewels.

I write this review having just finished the book this morning and mostly read it solidly, straight through. I’m left with a feeling of enduring, beautiful sadness. Kalotay has crafted a mystery of sorts (why did Nina leave? Why is the professor so convinced that he has a connection to her? Why is she selling the jewellery?) and maintains it with the suspense of the threat of arrest for political dissent in Stalinist Russia. Yet it is the personal tragedies that are most haunting: the tragedy of Nina’s friend Vera, her parents shipped off to who knows where. Of Viktor, forced to compromise his artistic ideals in order to survive. Of Gersh, forced to the same, but refusing. Of Zoya and her unrequited love. The ending packs the biggest punch, as the true tragedy of Nina’s escape from Russia is revealed, both to Nina herself and to the reader.

I was surprised to see that Kalotay does not have a background in ballet; she has clearly done her research well and has some good contacts. Similarly, her research on gemstones and auctions is clearly displayed but fortunately not in depth, or the story could quickly get bogged down. I was also rather pleased that the connection between Grigori and Nina has a serious twist in it – for it to be what the reader easily assumes during the main part of the book would have been saccharine.

Nina is an excellent lead character; one empathises and acknowledges her struggles, but her flaws are also clear. Her pride and stubbornness are occasionally frustrating when the reader knows what is going to happen anyway, but she is a well-crafted and consistent protagonist. Solodin’s story had a few too many loose threads, or rather, Kalotay tries a little too hard to make him interesting. Recently deceased wife, potential for a scandalous love affair, unclear parentage, evidently interesting up-bringing; it feels like the novel was supposed to be more balanced towards Solodin and the editorial red pen was uneven in its application, leaving the Solodin storyline rather bare and Nina’s over-developed by comparison.

This was a highly enjoyable debut novel, “intelligent chick lit”, and I look forward to reading more of Kalotay’s work.

I read this book as part of a blog tour organised by TLC Book Tours; watch out for others’ thoughts on Russian Winter.

Monday, February 6th: She Reads Novels
Thursday, February 9th: Fleur Fisher in her world
Tuesday, February 14th: DizzyC’s Little Book Blog
Wednesday, February 15th: Pining for the West
Thursday, February 16th: Chuck’s Miscellany
Monday, February 20th: one more page
Tuesday, February 21th: I hug my books
Wednesday, February 22th: The Sweet Bookshelf
Thursday, February 23rd: A Book Sanctuary

Additional info:
This  copy was provided through TLC book tours in return for an honest review.
Publisher: Arrow Books (Random House), 459 pages
Order Russian Winter from Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards giveaways.

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