REVIEW: Flying Changes by Sara Gruen

flying changesFormat:  Paperback
Genre:  General Fiction / Equine Fiction
ISBN:  978-0-06-124109-3
Published:  2005

Rating:  3 out of 5 stars

Back of the Book Blurb:

Anxiety rules Annemarie Zimmer’s days—the fear that her relationship with the man she loves is growing stagnant; the fear that equestrian daughter Eva’s dreams of Olympic glory will carry her far away from her mother . . . and into harm’s way. For five months, Annemarie has struggled to make peace with her past. But if she cannot let go, the personal battles she has won and the heights she has achieved will have all been for naught.

It is a time of change at Maple Brook horse farm, when loves must be confronted head-on and fears must be saddled and broken. But it is an unanticipated tragedy that will most drastically alter the fragile world of one remarkable family—even as it flings open gates that have long confined them, enabling them all to finally ride headlong and free.

My Thoughts:

I always find it interesting to read reviews after I have finished a book, especially if I am having a difficult time articulating my reactions to the book. In this case, I found the reviews highly informative, most noticeably because there was very little middle ground on this novel. The vast majority of reviewers either loved it or hated it, so I find myself in the minority here.

I read Riding Lessons immediately prior to Flying Changes, and were it not for the redeeming factors in that book (noted in my review), I may not have pushed forward. That, and unless I truly hate something, I am often compelled to get to the end of the story…and clearly the end of the story was not at the end of Riding Lessons. And I’m glad I did, because this book had, in the end, more to redeem it than Riding Lessons did.

Amazing to me was that I grew to like Mutti, and to understand her better. AnneMarie continued to be a collossally immature trainwreck until very near the end of the book, when a convergence of several factors forced her to step up and be an adult. Thankfully there was a good support system surrounding her, because otherwise it’s hard to fathom that there was any hope she could actually do it. Eva continued in her truant ways, and frankly, it was understandable considering how little her mother seemed capable of mothering her. It was never AnneMarie who dropped the hammer on her, but Mutti (or Dan). I am not an iron-fisted parent by far, but I do believe in setting limits, and disciplining disobedience and defiance, so I found AnneMarie’s inability to handle Eva frustrating, even after accounting for a divorce and a seemingly absent father (who started a new family with his new wife).

Still, in the end, she (AnneMarie) redeemed herself. She got hold of her irrational fear…at least, enough to keep from derailing her daughter’s ambitions. She also pulled herself together when there was no other choice, and considering her track record, I was relieved and gratified by that. Had she not, I am certain I would have heaved the book across the room with curses following. It’s not a ringing endorsement, but if you’re a horse person with a reasonably forgiving nature for irrational, unlikeable characters who may or may not change, then you’ll like this book.

REVIEW: Riding Lessons by Sara Gruen

riding lessonsFormat:  Paperback
Genre:  General Fiction / Equine Fiction
ISBN:  978-0-06-124108-6
Published:  2004

Rating:  3 out of 5 stars

Back of the Book Blurb:

As a world-class equestrian and Olympic contender, Annemarie Zimmer lived for the thrill of flight atop a strong, graceful animal. Then, at eighteen, a tragic accident destroyed her riding career and Harry, the beautiful horse she cherished. Now, twenty years later, Annemarie is coming home to her dying father’s New Hampshire horse farm. Jobless and abandoned, she is bringing her troubled teenage daughter to this place of pain and memory, where ghosts of an unresolved youth still haunt the fields and stables—and where hope lives in the eyes of the handsome, gentle veterinarian Annemarie loved as a girl . . . and in the seductive allure of a trainer with a magic touch.

But everything will change yet again with one glimpse of a white striped gelding startlingly similar to the one Annemarie lost in another lifetime. And an obsession is born that could shatter her fragile world.

My Thoughts (**spoiler**):

Well, I didn’t love it and I didn’t hate it. I found it disappointing after having read Water for Elephants a few years back, which I loved. I pretty much disliked every single character in Riding Lessons…which makes you wonder why I went on and read Flying Changes. I found AnneMarie to be ridiculously immature for a woman of 38 years, married 18 years and mother to teenage daughter. She doesn’t seem to have outgrown her own adolescence, and maybe that was a direct result of her career-ending accident when she was 18, but her seeming inability to admit her weaknesses and learn lessons from them was very frustrating. Add to that the once overbearing father who is now dying – and with whom there are unresolved issues, an iron-fisted mother who is intrusive and continues to parent her daughter as if she were still an adolescent, and Eva, with a huge attitude and a smart mouth.

I suppose a woman who has not yet resolved issues with her own parents can not be expected to be a mature, effective parent to a daughter just like herself. Particularly when she is going through a divorce from a cheating husband, a husband whom her daughter adores, and who therefore blames the split on AnneMarie. Still, there does come a point when big girl panties are necessary.

**spoiler**

As much as I disliked almost every character, the book did have some redeeming aspects to it. I related very much to AnneMarie’s devotion to finding the truth of Hurrah’s lineage, and what really happened to him. I also appreciated that, in the end, AnneMarie recognized how much damage she had done, and used her own money to set it right. She was so selfish and had blinders to everything except what was immediately in front of her for so long, that I was gratified to see her make this very real effort, since she had basically run the stable into the ground.

REVIEW: Pictures of You by Caroline Leavitt

pictures of youFormat:  Paperback
Genre:  General Fiction
ISBN:  978-1-56512-631-2
Published:  2011

Rating:  4 out of 5 stars

Back of the Book Blurb:

Two women running away from their marriages collide on a foggy highway, killing one of them. The survivor is left to pick up the pieces, not only of her own life, but also must go back and deal with the devastated husband and fragile, asthmatic son the other woman left behind. Together, they try to solve the mystery of where April was running to, and why. By turns riveting and unsettling, Pictures of You looks at the choices women make-the roads they choose-to be loved.

My Thoughts:

Pictures of You is classic Caroline Leavitt, and if you have read her books (as I have), you will know what to expect. The women are damaged, they are running from trauma of some sort, there are always complications, and (ultimately) that which has been hidden gets discovered in the end. It is a formula that Leavitt uses very effectively, and she weaves her words together in a way that typically sucks you into the story within a few pages. This book is no exception.

I loved that photography was the connective tissue in this novel, and in particular that Isabelle took pictures of kids. That is the kind of detail through which both mounting discomfort and eventual healing took place. And that worked for me. I also liked that in the end, what I was rooting for was NOT what happened. It was a good choice, and though it made for some unfinished business between characters, it made the ending good, and open-ended, and hopeful.

My first experience with Caroline Leavitt was Into Thin Air. I loved it, and I have read her work faithfully ever since. Though she uses a familiar formula, I like her spin on it. I like the characters (for the most part anyway), and I like most of all that she doesn’t tie her stories up neatly. The truth is, life is never tied up neatly, and if the argument that fiction is truth has any merit at (I think it does), then it does have to reflect the messiness of life and truth to some degree. Leavitt gets that, and she writes good stories as a result.

REVIEW: Needles and Pearls by Gil McNeil

needles and pearlsFormat:  Paperback
Genre:  General Fiction / Chick Lit
ISBN:  978-1-4013-4129-9
Published:  2010

Rating:  3.5 out of 5 stars

Back of the Book Blurb:

Slip one …A year after her husband’s death, Jo Mackenzie is finally starting to get the hang of being a single parent.

Knit two together …The boys are thriving in their new seaside home, the wool shop is starting to do well and despite two weddings, an in-school knitting project and Trevor the Wonder Dog coming to stay, she’s just about keeping her head above water.

Cast off …But boys, babies and best friends certainly make life a lot more interesting. Can Jo cope when things get really complicated? Because if knitting truly does keep you sane when your life starts to unravel then it looks like Jo is going to need much bigger needles.

My Thoughts:

Funny, I didn’t expect to like this book more than The Beach Street Knitting Society and Yarn Club, but I did. Perhaps Gil McNeil hit her stride with this one. Perhaps it was due to several (somewhat unexpected) details that I really liked. Regardless, this one is better.

I won’t give away details, but I will say that I appreciated so much the fact that Jo Mackenzie is character who is growing. I do not enjoy characters who are all they are going to be from the very beginning, and do not learn from mistakes or gain at least some sort of wisdom from their existence. Jo (thankfully) is not that kind of character…at least not so far. She is not given to airs, she seems solid & grounded, and she doesn’t take the easy way out of problems (nor advise her friends to do so). That is refreshing, especially given that this is sort of a departure from what is societally popular right now. She also speaks her mind, and when the occasion warrants it, will put others in their place when they have crossed the line. She gets this trait honestly, and I truly love it, in large part because she also knows when to hold her tongue.

When I read Beach Street Knitting Society, I didn’t realize it was a series, but I’m a sucker for series when they have characters I enjoy. Despite the fluffiness of the books, I do like the characters, and frankly, they provide a nice break from the heavy reading I’m doing this year (and there is plenty of that). Of course, the cliffhanger ending (cue major emotional manipulation) makes it a bit difficult to stop at this point, knowing there are plot resolutions out there that I have not read. I’m glad I finally got around to it.

REVIEW: The Lost Art of Mixing by Erica Bauermeister

the lost art of mixingFormat:  Hardcover
Genre:  General Fiction / Chick Lit
ISBN:  0399162119
Published:  2013

Rating:  3.5 out of 5 stars

Back of the Book Blurb:

Lillian and her restaurant have a way of drawing people together. There’s Al, the accountant who finds meaning in numbers and ritual; Chloe, a budding chef who hasn’t learned to trust after heartbreak; Finnegan, quiet and steady as a tree, who can disappear into the background despite his massive height; Louise, Al’s wife, whose anger simmers just below the boiling point; and Isabelle, whose memories are slowly slipping from her grasp. And there’s Lillian herself, whose life has taken a turn she didn’t expect. . . .

Their lives collide and mix with those around them, sometimes joining in effortless connections, at other times sifting together and separating again, creating a family that is chosen, not given. A beautifully imagined novel about the ties that bind—and links that break—The Lost Art of Mixing is a captivating meditation on the power of love, food, and companionship.

My Thoughts:

This wasn’t as good as The School of Essential Ingredients, even though as a sequel (and having several of the same well-loved characters), there was potential. I was hoping that title, with it’s double entendre, was a preview of another book lush with great food made from excellent ingredients, with the personal stories weaving around (or growing out of) the food preparation. While there was some of that, it wasn’t the protagonist of the story as it was in her first book. That was disappointing, because the food was where the passion resonated from, and it was the catalyst that allowed the personal stories to blossom.

This is not to say that The Lost Art of Mixing was bad…it wasn’t. Some of the personal stories developed well, and were compelling. Some were less so. I particularly loathed Louise, and found her irredeemable even in the end. The thing is, had Bauermeister chosen to keep the food as a primary character in this book, I think the personal stories would have resonated with warmth across the board, rather than feel hit & miss as they did.

I’m glad I read it, because the characters that were so likable in The School of Essential Ingredients, and whose stories were not yet finished, made a repeat appearance. Those kinds of characters are hard to let go, and it was nice to see their stories find a conclusion…not a stopping point, but a point where you (the reader) know they are going to be ok.

REVIEW: The Beach House by Georgia Bockoven

the beach houseFormat:  Trade Paperback
Genre:  General Fiction / Chick Lit
ISBN:  9780061727641
Published:  1997

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Back of the Book Blurb:

The beach house is a peaceful haven, a place to escape everyday problems. Here, three families find their feelings intensified and their lives transformed each summer.

When thirty-year-old Julia, mourning the death of her husband, decides to sell the Santa Cruz beach house they owned together, she sets in motion a final summer that will change the lives of all the families who rent it year after year. Teenaged Chris discovers the bittersweet joy of first love. Maggie and Joe, married sixty-five years, courageously face a separation that even their devotion cannot prevent. The married woman Peter yearns for suddenly comes within his reach. And Julia ultimately finds the strength to rebuild her life—something she once thought impossible.

With equal measures of heartbreak and happiness, bestselling author Georgia Bockoven’s unforgettable novel tells of the beauty of life and the power of love, and speaks to every woman who has ever clung to a child or loved a man.

My Thoughts:

I almost lean to 3.5 stars for this book, due to the fact that I liked how Bockoven structured it, using the beach house as the central connective fiber of the story, and telling the story of each month’s renters. There was just enough detail provided on their back stories to have a clear understanding of how each family arrived at their current situation. Bockoven also touched on a couple of hot button issues (end of life/right to die and religion – fundamentalist hypocrite variety), but she was not heavy-handed, so the story was enjoyable whether or not you found yourself agreeing with her position.

However, as most light and easy “beach reads” (pun intended) generally are, this book had plenty of predictable outcomes. I’m not usually a fan of predictable formulas, but there was enough originality in how the story was told to make it a solid 3-star read for me. I’m glad I read it.

REVIEW: The Beach Street Knitting Society and Yarn Club by Gil McNeil

beach street knitting societyFormat:  Trade Paperback
Genre:  General Fiction / Chick Lit
ISBN:  978-1-4013-4122-0
Published:  2009

Rating:  3.5 out of 5 stars

Back of the Book Blurb:

For every woman who has ever dreamed of starting over, or being a better mother, or just knitting a really nice scarf . . . Jo Mackenzie needs a fresh start.  Newly widowed with two young sons and a perilous bank balance, she leaves the bustle of London to take over her beloved Gran’s wool shop in her sleepy seaside hometown.  There, she finds unexpected comfort in a “Stitch and Bitch” knitting group that meets every week to trade gossip, and, occasionally, a new stitch.  When a man enters Jo’s life, the knitting club has even more trouble confining the conversation to knit one, purl two.  The Beach Street Knitting Society and Yarn Club is an uplifting, winning tale about the healing power of friendship and new beginnings.

My Thoughts:

I rated this book 3.5 stars…I didn’t love it (for good reason), but I definitely liked it a lot. It was a quick, light read that was great for the holiday break. McNeil’s style reminded me of Elizabeth Buchan and Elizabeth Noble in many ways, but most particularly in the lead female character. She was strong and likable, had flaws that the reader could identify with, and was successfully moving forward from a losing a spouse (who was a wanker, but still). All in all, it was a good story that had me kind of wishing I could move to a small town on the coast and run a yarn shop. Of course, learning to knit would help.

As much as I enjoyed the book (and I did), I kept stumbling over how the author presented fatherhood. With the exception of one good guy, who was both a devoted husband and father, her attitude about fathers seemed to be that they were not only expendable, but they were really a nuisance, and actually ended up bollixing things up entirely. She presented men as great for dating (and for shagging), and evening marrying (if that’s your thing), but pretty much useless for parenting. I despise this point of view, because it not only diminishes men in general, but it also diminishes what women should expect from a partner, and it diminishes respect for good men…because the flippant attitude that men are useless becomes so pervasive.

That being said, this didn’t ruin the book for me. The author wasn’t heavy-handed with this view, but it was overt and matter-of-fact, and assumed that all men were the same in this regard. Still, there was much to enjoy, including knitting as the theme throughout. Every time a read a book is built around knitting, it makes me want to try it (again), so that in itself was enough to balance it out. I will read the sequel.