Changes happenin’ in Padilla Camp

So I haven’t updated this thing in a really long time, and I feel really bad about that.

There’s been a lot going on around here. For starters, I found out in February that we’re adding a new member to the Padilla Pack. Between the near-complete lack of energy over the last few weeks and the overwhelming ickiness that accompanied the smell of books (a smell I loved pre-preggo), reading three books a week has been pretty much impossible. But we’re in “week 14” now, which means the ickiness is gone and the energy is back (extremely awesome how this switch flips) so I’ll try to step it up again.

I also decided this year that I would try to organize my life. I’m not the tidiest person in the world (a tornado of mess seems to follow me wherever I go, it’s weird), and part of this goal is to consolidate my life into manageable chunks. I started taking stock of everything that I have/do, and one thing I realized (among many, many others) is that trying to update three blogs on a regular basis is not really possible (nor going to get more possible with Little P fast-tracking to October).

I have so many passions in my life, and books and reading are only part of what I love. I love food, and fitness, and DIY projects and renovations and (of course) reading and writing. I want a website that reflects all of this.

So I decided there’s no time like the present. I recently purchased a website (; don’t go there yet because it’s nowhere near live) that I hope to build into a complete reflection of who I am. I’ll keep it blog-style, because I love writing off-the-cuff and informally. But my goal is to have sections for healthy living and sections for writing and reading, and sections for DIY projects and renovations, and sections for just updates on life in general. I want to have one easy-to-find place for all of this.

I hope that you’ll bear with me in the next few months as I work to a) try to figure out how to build a website and b) get enough posts up on the new site to be interesting. I’ll do my best to make this transition as easy as possible for the 12 of you that read this, I promise.

SDR Book of the Week: The Good Luck of Right Now, by Matthew Quick

The Good Luck of Right Now, by Matthew Quick. Harper, 304 pp.

When everyone was caught up in the amazingness that was The Silver Linings Playbook, I closed the final cover of that book with a resounding “meh. The movie was better.” I don’t know if I’d be able to say that with this book.

Bartholomew Neil is thirty-eight years old, and has just lost one of the two people in his life: his mother. His grief counselor tells him he needs to find other people to include in his life; he needs to simply go to a bar and have a beer with a friend.

Then Bartholomew finds a “Free Tibet” letter his mother received from Richard Gere around the time of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. He starts to document his life experiences, from his memories of his mother to his efforts to cope with her passing, in a series of letters to Mr. Gere. He has never met the actor, but he feels a kinship to him through his mother’s affinity to him. Toward the end of her life she even began to call Bartholomew “Richard.”

Through these letters, Bartholomew begins to break free from the life he’d always known and pave a new, independent way for himself.

What I appreciated most about Quick’s latest novel is that it wasn’t too complex. Many times, I feel, novels try to be everything to a reader. The Good Luck of Right Now is whimsical and tender, and accomplishes its mission well of entertaining and heart-warming. I smile even thinking back to this book.

Aside from The Silver Linings Playbook, The Good Luck of Right Now is the only book I’d read of Quick’s. I would like to read his other work, however. The Silver Linings Playbook was his debut novel, and The Good Luck of Right Now is his latest. To say he has grown as an author is an understatement.

Author Q&A: Charlotte Williams

I hope you enjoyed this month’s featured author week! If you haven’t yet already, be sure to pick up a copy of The House on the Cliff from wherever you buy books. Also, check out the excerpt and review from this week, or the review from earlier this year.

Q: What inspired The House on the Cliff? Tell me about the writing process

A: I wanted to write a mystery set in Wales, with gothic aspects but also a sense of domestic drama. For some time, I’d been thinking about a novel with a female protagonist who solves crime, but also has an ordinary home life. The setting for the house was inspired by an actual house on the coast in West Wales.

Q: I noticed Jessica went into a lot of psychological detail in her thoughts regarding other characters, and even in the places she traveled to. What led to your decision to make her a psychologist?

A: I liked the idea of a psychotherapist detective–solving crime through an understanding of human motivation and behavior. I also liked the idea of the set-up, rather like Chandler, where Jessica sits in her office, and a devastatingly attractive but untrustworthy client walks in with a story to tell, which she unwisely becomes caught up in. It was also an opportunity to show how a psychotherapist works, and to discuss what psychotherapy is, which I think many readers will find interesting.

Q: How is writing a novel similar–and different–from writing for television or radio? Did you expect them to be different?

A: I do write for radio. I think the difference is, a radio script has to be ‘dramatic’–it is drama after all, and the pace has to be fast; whereas in a novel there’s more space for the author’s voice, and it can afford to be more reflective. A script is really just a blueprint for the action, and it’s always wonderful to see the characters ‘come alive’ in reality, through the actors; in a novel, you have to make the characters come alive through words on the page!

Q: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

A: Keep to a writing schedule, even if you don’t feel you’re getting very far. I also try to write a scene a day, with a rough word count of about 600-1000 words. Plot carefully in advance, but if the characters don’t fit, you may have to change your plot–or your characters–so don’t be rigid about it.

Q: What is your favorite book (or few books)?

A: Hard to say. From childhood, Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca; also Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle. As an adult, Jean Rhys’ books other than Wide Sargasso Sea, such as Voyage into Darkness. In recent crime fiction, I admire Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl.

Q: What are you reading right now?

A: The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard, who recently died, and who was Martin Amis’ stepmother.

Review: The House on the Cliff, by Charlotte Williams

The House on the Cliff, by Charlotte Williams. Bourbon Street Books, 338 pp. $14.99

If you follow lifebythebooks on any sort of a regular basis, you’ll have already realized I reviewed The House on the Cliff earlier this year. I don’t want to re-review it, at least not in the same way I’ve already done. But in reading other goodreads reviews on this book, I wanted to go a little deeper into an element that has been getting mixed thoughts.

The House on the Cliff is written in first-person POV by way of Jessica Mayhew, the main character. She’s a therapist, and a good portion of her life is spent untangling the psychological web in her clients. She’s used at approaching a situation in a psychological way, and Williams’ writing shows her dissecting her own life the same way she would dissect a clients.

I really liked this part of the character. I thought it helped flesh her out a bit. We were able to understand her better because we were able to understand the way that her mind dealt with a situation. She’s very analytical, and that showed through the writing. I don’t know what experience Williams has in psychology, but I thought her development of Jessica’s character through her training and career was a great move.

I understand, however, why other readers might not have liked the added touch. Some felt it was too complicated, too hard to wade through Jessica’s thoughts into what was happening in the story. The thing is, though, that the book is told through Jessica’s eyes. We get her account of the story, and her thoughts regarding that account. That’s the entire point.

I noticed the psychological element to the story more perhaps because it’s something I found unique to this book. Using a character’s career, and training, to help move through the plot happens on occasion, but rarely as well as this. It wasn’t forced, and it wasn’t undervalued. Jessica would have thought through things in this way, as a psychologist, and it helps us connect with her when we also learn to understand things in this way.

Sneak Peak: The House on the Cliff, by Charlotte Williams

It’s featured author week again! I’m so excited to bring you Charlotte Williams, author of The House on the Cliff. Today I’ll have an excerpt of her novel, tomorrow I’ll have my review, and Wednesday I’ll have an exclusive interview with Charlotte.

For today’s “sneak peak”, and with Charlotte Williams’ The House on the Cliff in mind, I wanted to share with you the description of the structure for which the book was named. The house belongs to the Morgan family; the son, Gwyndion, is a client of Jessica Mayhew, and plays an important role in the book. There’s mystery behind the Morgan family, but what I liked was how this mystery appears even in the house itself.

It was a few miles away from a tiny fishing village, perched on a cliff top in solitary splendor, overlooking St. Bride’s Bay. Before announcing my arrival I stopped the car on the side of the road and peered at the house through the big iron gates. It was tremendously grand. A darned sight grander than I’d expected. One of those Jacobean piles with tall chimneys, pointy gables, and castellated whatnots all the way round the roof. It looked like something out of a fairy story. There were latticed windows everywhere, and barley-twist pillars around the porch, and carved stone garlands drooping down over the front coo. But impressive as it all was, when you looked more closely, you could see that parts of it, especially on the wings, were crumbling away. The kind of house that, however much money you spent on it, would always be falling to pieces. Nevertheless, it was still beautiful. Unique. Rococo. Baroque even.

SDR Book of the Week: The Swan Gondola, by Timothy Schaffert

The Swan Gondola, by Timothy Schaffert. Riverhead, 464 pp.

Sometimes I start to get into a book and I really love it, for the first half. This was the case with Timothy Schaffert’s The Swan Gondola. Written in loosely the same thread as Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants (which I loved), I thoroughly enjoyed the relationship as it played out on the page.

Ferrit Skerritt is a ventriloquist, who travels around with his doll attached like a cape around his neck and trailing down his back. He’s also a con man, and he sees the 1898 Omaha World’s Fair as an opportunity to capitalize on both his talents.

Cecily is an actress whom Ferrit meets first at an impromptu performance before the fair begins. She’s a part of a traveling show, and he follows their caravan until he finds her again at the Chamber of Horrors in the midway. She spends every evening playing Marie Antoinette at the moment she loses her head.

Cecily and Ferrit have an unusual, and whirlwind, romance. I enjoyed their back-and-forth. But their relationship is cut short halfway through the novel, and at this point I paged through the rest of the pages wondering how Schaffert was going to continue this love story for an extra several hundred pages without one of the two key players.

It was a little strange, I’ll admit. At the beginning of the novel, I didn’t really like Ferrit. He seemed a little obsessive to me, someone too concentrated on getting what he wants, especially when he wants is someone who may not necessarily want him in return. I think I grew to like him because I liked her. And after they’re parted, I saw Ferrit revert back to his obsessive self. He cannot let her go, and he probably should have.

The story ended nicely, in a way I halfway predicted, but I still enjoyed it. And I also enjoyed the backdrop of the Omaha World’s Fair. Here in northwest Iowa, we’re infiltrated each year by the Clay County Fair, and I was able to relate a little. It was really interesting. But The Swan Gondola could probably have been a few hundred pages shorter and still been a good book, perhaps even a better one.

Paperback Release: Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer

Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 208 pp. $13

When I page (scroll) through the catalogs looking for books I’d like to review in upcoming blog posts or book reviews, different things catch my eye that attract me to one book, or one author, over another.

In the case of Annihilation, I recalled the summer I graduated high school, when I read one of Jeff VanderMeer’s previous books: BookLife: Strategies and Survival Tips for the 21st-Century Writer. I was 18, and it was a nonfiction book about how to be successful in this business we call writing, and I was hooked.

Let’s be frank: Annihilation is no BookLife. I requested this book because I enjoyed the first so much, but I continued past the first page because this book is just as good, if for different reasons.

There are very few characters in this book, and even fewer that have names. The protagonist, unnamed and undescribed aside from “the biologist,” whose perspective we follow through the story. We’re told all four members of this expedition, the biologist, the anthropologist, the surveyor and the psychologist, are all women.

The women are going into Area X, an extremely mysterious section that seems to affect everyone that explores it in different ways. The biologist is on the twelfth expedition; her husband was on the eleventh. Everyone from the eleventh expedition abandoned the mission and made their way back home. He came home earlier than expected and an entirely different person.

Now, the twelfth expedition seems to have effects of its own, and no one knows quite what’s going on.

For as vague as the story is, it’s quite captivating. Annihilation is the first in a trilogy to be published throughout the year (Authority will be released in June, and Acceptance in September) and it’s purpose is, essentially, to introduce us readers to Area X and to the experience reading this trilogy will undoubtedly be. It’s different, but it’s interesting and oddly compelling.

Book Roulette: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, by JK Rowling

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, by J.K. Rowling. Scholastic: 2003. 870 pp.

So I think this is the longest Harry Potter novel, yes? Even so, I think this one’s my favorite. I really didn’t like it much the first time, and for the life of me now I can’t understand why. But it’s crazy to think that we’re already over halfway through the novels, and through this series.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is the first book, perhaps, where we understand how Rowling’s novels were intended to be read. Just as Harry grows through the books, she understood that her readers would as well. I don’t think young children should read this book, mostly because I don’t think they would really understand it. There’s a lot going on here, and much of it was intended for an audience that fell in love with the series at a young age and grew a little older by the time this book was released.

Aside from the fact that I hate Umbridge (who doesn’t?), we see Harry in a new light in this book. Among other things, we see him as a typical teenage boy, who gets nervous around a girl he likes and doesn’t understand how said girl would have a problem with him talking about Hermione the entire time. After all, they’re just friends. What’s the worry?

Rowling mentioned in an interview with the British magazine Wonderland that she actually intended Harry and Hermione to be together, not Ron and Hermione. In fact, Ron wasn’t intended to be the character she wrote him to be. She even considered killing him off halfway through the series.

If there was a “first” moment that could have suggested this, it would be the scene with Harry and Cho in Hogsmeade. With that in mind, however, I think she was right to keep Hermione with Ron. Allowing them to be together gives two “lessons” to her readers that aren’t often described in literature. 1) It’s okay for a guy and a girl to be good friends, best friends even, without romance hanging over them like a dark cloud and 2) Sometimes the sidekick does get the girl, and that’s okay.


Paperback Review: Bristol House, by Beverly Swerling

Bristol House, by Beverly Swerling. Plume, 398 pp. $16

A friend of mine and I were talking a while back about the value of books in “books help me experience things so I don’t have to go out and actually do it” situations. Bristol House, by Beverly Swerling is one of these situations. Traveling to London for research would be fabulous. Living in a house that’s haunted by an old Carthusian monk would completely freak me out.

And yet, Annie Kendall remains at Bristol House. The back bedroom, the room she had been planning on turning into her office, is haunted. Every once in a while she gets the feeling that the spirit of the Carthusian monk–who still inhabits the place–is sending her signs. She doesn’t know what they mean, but she knows they’re important. Annie was sent to London by the Shalom Foundation to learn more about the Jew of Holburn. Soon after arriving she is led to Geoffrey Harris, a television personality with research of his own, and she realizes he may be able to help her find what she’s looking for. The more she digs, however, the more she uncovers mysteries surrounding the Shalom Foundation and its administration.

Bristol House was a little slow at first. There’s a lot of history here–from present-day Judaism to the sixteenth century with a stop in World War II–everything ties together in ways you wouldn’t even imagine, but it takes a while to get there. That being said, once the book falls into a rhythm–about 1/3 of the way through–it doesn’t stop. The last half of the book is intense enough to make up for the tedious exposition in the first half.

I like stories that have a foundation in the real world. The tunnels that run underneath Holburn–which make an appearance in the book–were used in World War II. Little bits about the monks are also drawn from history.

I don’t know how I feel about the inclusion of the parts from Dom Justin and Giacomo the Lombard. They certainly helped with the understanding of the whole of the story, but I’m sure that same understanding could have been relayed in different ways. They didn’t take away from the story too much–not looking back at least–but they did dampen the building intensity of the Annie and Geoff story. (This may be why the first half of the book went a little slower for me.)

Swerling is also the author of Juffie Kane, Mollie Pride, City of Promise, City of God, City of Glory, Shadowbrook, and City of Dreams.

Bristol House is available in paperback.

SDR Book of the Week: Call Girl Confidential, by Rebecca Kade

Call Girl Confidential: An Escort’s Secret Life as an Undercover Agent, by Rebecca Kade. Gallery, 230 pp. $26

It seems a little strange to go from Harry Potter to high-class escort, but I’m willing to go there.

I was originally interested in reading Call Girl Confidential because I think the concept alone sounds like a USA original television series: A smart, sexy escort who goes undercover to take down a very successful–and elusive–madam. And the best part about this entire thriller is it’s all true.

According to Rebecca Kade, the author of the memoir she became an escort to pay for the legal bills she was racking up in order to gain custody of her daughter, Isabella. Isabella’s father, a rock star named Mike, kidnapped the girl under the ruse that he was going to take her out with her grandfather and then to a Broadway show. Not long after, Kade was served papers notifying her that Mike had filed for full custody and was prepared to show the judge how she was an unfit mother.

Later, one of Mike’s exes confided to me that what he really wanted was to stop having to pay me child support. It would be easier on his wallet if his new wife looked after Isabella, supplemented by a cheap nanny who ultimately ended up watching Isabella most of the time, as he was always out nights or away on tour.

She found her first madam, Kristin Davis–or “The Manhattan Madam” as she was called by the media after her arrest–on Craigslist. Later, after understanding the escort business a little further and realizing the danger she was in by staying with Kristin, Kade moved on to Anna Gristina, the “Soccer Mom Madam.” Gristina was so over-the-top cautions with her operation it borderlined paranoid. It also, however, kept her off the government’s radar for nearly 15 years.

It was Kade that helped bring Gristina down, through various recorded conversations and manipulated situations. She was tied to Davis, and she was told she could either cooperate or find herself convicted. As with every decision in her life, she thought of her daughter first.

Call Girl Confidential is certainly an intriguing book, and a story that would be difficult to find elsewhere. It’s not graphic–Kade doesn’t go into detail about her sessions with her clients–though it does give the picture of her life as an escort.

As good as it was to read, however, I felt Kade played the victim card too much. She came from a super-strict Southern Baptist family; she is taken advantage of by the first man she meets and falls in love with; said man kidnaps her daughter; she turns to the escort business; etc. I won’t go much further without risking ruining the ending, but the woman she portrays herself as and the woman who writes the book seem different. In the book, Kade is strong and sexy. She’s intelligent–a quality that appeals to her clients and allows her to move up in the industry. She becomes respected by not only her madam, but by her clients as well. And yet the “author Kade” explains her decision to enter into the escort business and details her experience there and as a confidential informant with an expounded, “I had no other choice.” In every part of her life outside of the characters she creates for her clients, she is a victim, backed into a corner with only one option out.

Despite this disconnect between author and subject, Call Girl Confidential is entertaining and enlightening. It’s very interesting to read another angle to an often-stereotyped industry, and inspiring to read the story of a woman who will go to any length for her child and still come out on the other side.