Tag Archives: Sourcebooks

Becoming Who You Are

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A Desperate Fortune
A Novel
by Susanna Kearsley

Can we make ourselves into the people we want to be? Do we become the people we pretend to be?

In A Desperate Fortune, two women centuries apart learn about their true selves, one of whom during a months-long journey as part of an entourage traveling to meet an exiled king.

Published by Sourcebooks Landmark, an imprint of Naperville’s Sourcebooks, A Desperate Fortune is the latest novel from Susanna Kearsley, bestselling author of The Winter Sea and The Rose Garden. It is an engrossing read that follows the adventure of Mary Dundas, a young woman in 1730s France who finds herself pulled into the dangerous world of the Jacobites, British and Scottish loyalists to King James VIII during his exile in Rome.

DesperateFortune_FINALReaders meet Mary in the home of her aunt and uncle, who have cared for her since she was a child while her father serves with the king and her older brothers live their own lives. She spends days spinning tales for her cousins, while dreaming that adventure will find her and grieving the loss of her family who don’t appear to want her. While she yearns for adventure, she doesn’t hold out much hope for it.

When her brother, Nicholas, sends for her, she thinks she’s finally being brought “home,” that is, reunited with her family. Instead, however, she learns that she’s being asked to serve as a companion to a man trying to reach the king, along with his Scottish bodyguard and another woman. Mary’s role is to complement the man’s disguises and manufactured backstories by acting as his wife or sister to help him avoid the attention of the English who are hunting for him.

During her travels, Mary keeps an encrypted journal, preserving her story yet hiding it in plain sight. Those travels quickly turn out to be far more dangerous than Mary’s brother would have imagined, and Mary is forced to determine who she trusts, how fast she can think, and what risks she is willing to take.

Mary’s story unfolds along with a parallel narrative, that of Englishwoman Sara Thomas, who is skilled at solving puzzles and cracking codes. Through acquaintances of her cousin, Jacqui, Sara is hired to decipher Mary’s diary while she stays in the home of the diary’s present-day owner in France.

Sara offers a perspective not found often in novels, that of a woman with Asperger’s. In a time when so many people are or know someone on the autism spectrum, it is refreshing to look through Sara’s eyes and feel her emotions, even if she is a fictional character. Sara’s story may dispel some myths along the way, and it reminds us that each person is unique.

sourcebooks landmarkSara believes her challenges because of autism will mean lasting love will elude her. Like Mary, she believes her future will hold only unrealized dreams. Sara is close to her cousin, Jacqui, who has been a lifelong friend and was the first person to truly understand how to help Sara navigate through social situations. Jacqui advises Sara to pretend she’s an alien observing another universe, one who must assimilate to learn.

Centuries before, Mary Dundas uses a form of bravado in order to be liked. Believing people preferred wit over intellect and “vivacity and merriness” above shyness, she forced herself assimilate by flirting, joking, and acting much more confident than she truly felt inside.

By the end of the novel, each woman is learning what she really is, and how she can be the person she wants to be.

Although a work of fiction, the notes at the end of the book explain how Kearsley used memoirs, news publications, and other documents to create realistic details that enrich the story. Some of the characters are indeed based on actual people from the time. The attention to detail certainly adds to a well-crafted adventure that’s well worth the read.

Four-Star Review

April 2015, Sourcebooks Landmark
Fiction
$16.99, softcover, 495 pages
ISBN: 978-1-4936-0202-6

—Reviewed by Paige Fumo Fox

Learn more about the book and the author.

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Exploring Life’s What-Might-Have-Beens

CBR_Logo2If You’re Not the One
A Novel
by Jemma Forte

What if …?

It’s a question so many of us ponder about various aspects of our lives. What if I’d gone to a different university? What if I’d taken that other job? What if I’d stuck with that other lover? Where would I be now? How might my life have been different?

Londoner Jemma Forte ponders this question—and the possibility of alternate realities—in her novel If You’re Not the One, published in the United States this month in paperback by Naperville-based Sourcebooks.

if you're not the one 9781492607892If You’re Not the One follows several alternate-reality paths of one Jennifer Wright, a not-quite-forty mother of two who gave up a promising career to raise her daughters after marrying a man she met at a party, to which she had gone with a boyfriend she eventually threw over. Several years into her marriage to Max, the guy from the party, Jen finds herself existing (barely) in a stale, virtually sexless marriage, working a part-time job she doesn’t love, and raising two energetic, demanding young girls—the kind of routine suburban existence she never expected for herself.

A string of accidents sends Jen and her daughter to the hospital emergency room within a few days of each other, the daughter with a broken arm and Jen in a much more serious condition: a coma that lasts several weeks. While trapped in this coma and unresponsive to the outside world, Jen realizes that her subconscious is actually more than responsive and is, in fact, providing her with an usual gift: the ability to see what life would have been like had she chosen a different path for herself.

While comatose, Jen’s mind explores several alternate realities, examining relationships she’d had with other men during her life and what would have happened had she stuck with those men. Each of the men is wildly different from one another: one a cold, successful tech entrepreneur; one a charismatic, drug-dealing rogue; one a supremely kind momma’s boy.

This exploration of Jen’s what-might-have-been paths doesn’t come from nowhere. Unhappy in her marriage and wondering “what if …?” Jen’s subconscious takes over during her coma to explore the questions and issues that, awake, she avoided, questions that would have been painful to confront, with answers that might have forced some serious decision-making.

If You’re Not the One addresses some pretty heavy questions with a light, humorous touch, providing a perfectly balanced look at love and marriage and how relationships change over time. Forte tackles love, sex, and infidelity as well as friendship and parenthood. The book also looks at how we balance our personal and professional lives and how choosing motherhood affects women and their careers.

This romantic dramedy could easily have veered into kitsch or melodrama, but Forte keeps it light and funny while exploring the kind of real-world issues that many readers will find it easy to identify with. Putting the lead character into a coma could well have slipped into soap opera-territory—and some readers might well find the tack a little too gimmicky—but the notion of having lucid, productive visions of one’s alternate realities is irresistible (think It’s a Wonderful Life or Sliding Doors). Forte makes the most of the shtick she’s chosen to employ, carefully guiding the readers through time, into Jen’s past, back into her present, and into the possible futures she might have lived through had she made different choices in her life.

Whether this ability to see her alternate realities is a positive or a negative for Jen remains a question, and the book concludes on a question mark. There are no easy answers here. This, too, is to Forte’s credit: a perky, facile ending would have rendered the book too fluffy. Instead, If You’re Not the One leaves things a little messy—just like real life.

Filled with likable characters, If You’re Not the One is lively and engaging without becoming too heavy or dramatic. Readers on this side of the pond could likely do without some of the Britishisms (the book has not been Americanized), although this probably won’t bother fans of Bridget Jones or even Jane Austen. In addition, some readers might find this book too light, casting it aside as breezy chick lit. But there is something more here for those who choose to look a little deeper, and those who do will find that this charming book is as thoughtful as it is thought-provoking.

Three-Star Review

June 2015, Sourcebooks Landmark
Fiction
$14.99, paperback, 408 pages
ISBN: 978-1-4926-0789-2

—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen

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Brutally Beautiful

CBR_Logo2Pieces of My Mother
A Memoir
by Melissa Cistaro

A daughter’s memories correspond with the timing of letters written—but never mailed—by her absent mom, in Pieces of My Mother, Melissa Cistaro’s excruciating memoir about finally unearthing, and coming to grips with, the big picture of her family’s deep dysfunction.

pieces of my mother 9781492615385It’s only as her mother, Mikel, is dying, and Cistaro begins rifling through her home office, that she stumbles upon the letters. They fully reveal for the first time her mother’s painful life journey, before and after she abandoned her family.

Cistaro delves deep into the wreckage wrought by her mother’s abrupt departure when she and her brothers are ages four, five, and six. They go on to be single-handedly raised by their loving but also imperfect father, seeing their mother only occasionally.

Cistaro pens her story as nonfiction; it’s immediately evident that she has an abundance of weighty material to carry it without fictional padding.

The first scene takes Cistaro back to the day that changed her life. It’s a hot summer afternoon. She is watching out of the window as her mother loads her belongings into a car, preparing to leave her young children home alone—and forever. Their father is at work, unaware of her imminent departure. Cistaro writes,

“I know this is not a trip to get cigarettes.
I want to yell out to her: ‘Please don’t leave …’
I am trying to say it. But nothing comes out.”

The guilt of not asking her mother to stay becomes a recurring theme that haunts Cistaro into adulthood.

Drawing from scores of notebook journals she kept over the years, Cistaro goes on to detail her and her brothers’ turbulent childhoods and adolescences. She continues on into the present day, as she struggles with insecurities and questions about her own role as a wife and mother.

Pieces of My Mother particularly soars in its crafting, the masterful way in which the past and the present, and elements of the story in general, are edited and knit together. Juxtaposing scenes and chapters connect critical moments from Cistaro’s past and present with her reflections as she reads the letters. We see Cistaro, at age four, watching her mother leave while she is supposed to be taking an afternoon nap. In the next chapter, she lays down with her own four-year-old daughter, who is having trouble falling asleep. Cistaro writes,

“She smiles, pleased that I am lying on her bed, then whispers a reminder,
‘Don’t leave, Mama.’ The room tilts again; the ceiling stars go blurry.
The words I never once said.”

We see Cistaro losing a tooth during a deeply disturbing, rare visit with her drug- and alcohol-addicted mother, followed by a scene in which her own daughter loses a tooth. She rubs a forehead scar in consternation while reading Mikel’s letters, immediately followed by a car accident scene from her childhood, in which her visiting mother is driving. And a tussle with a chicken at Mikel’s home reignites a long-ago memory of a farm their father bought after their mother’s departure.

cistaro

Author Melissa Cistaro

While they don’t exonerate her mother, the letters do explain some things, at the very least providing much-needed context. They tell, palpably, of a young mother overwhelmed by three babies, who longs to get away from diapers, strained peas, and stifling responsibility. Walking away from that—if they’re honest—is something many mothers fantasize about. Mikel actually follows through. Not without regrets, though.

“Now darlin’—you must write to me. I want to hear about school and your friends and the animals at home,” she writes to an adolescent Cistaro, while her daughter is shakily navigating her teenage years without a strong adult female presence. “And please, please let me know how you feel—I mean really feel—about my going away so suddenly and about things in general.”

Had she received those and other loving notes from her mother as a teen, at the time they were written, Cistaro ponders, would her life have been different? Cistaro writes,

“In her letters, I feel her full presence for the first time—
the beautiful, complex and full human being she was.
There are no concrete answers in her letters.
There isn’t anywhere where she really says ‘I’m sorry.’
But her words here are something that I can hold onto.”

 Cistaro’s beautiful prose – she is a gifted writer — sweeps the story along, as when she writes,

“I rest my lips against Bella’s shoulder
and breathe her in like sweet, warm bread.
I want my daughter to feel safe. Every day I rebuild a scaffold inside myself
in hopes that she will have something sturdy to hang on to.”

There is always more to be understood about a situation; unearthing the why requires opening your heart to what might seem best left buried. In stumbling across her mother’s letters, Cistaro gets the chance to go there. In reaching resolution—not necessarily the same as granting absolution—Cistaro pushes beyond her own lifelong pain and simplistic childhood views to maturely empathize with her mother’s underlying agony and to see her as a multi-dimensional person whose full breadth of experiences complexly led her to abandon her family. She comes to see Mikel a woman who, as one letter eloquently states, “have and will ever mourn the loss of my babies … none will know the agonies of missing you.”

Brutally and beautifully honest, Pieces of My Mother chronicles the intertwined, soul-wrenching journey of a mother and her daughter in search of individual, and shared, peace.

Four-Star Review

May 2015, Sourcebooks
Memoir
$24.99, hardcover, 320 pages
ISBN: 978-1-4926-1538-5

—Reviewed by Karyn Saemann

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