Painting Juliana – Martha Louise Hunter

Painting Juliana My children are avid readers and we often share and discuss the books we read. My son, Connor, in particular, always wants to know what I am currently reading and what it’s about and whether or not I like it. More often than not, I feel relatively ‘meh’ about a book. The books I really love are few and far between, a fact which makes Con roll his eyes. “You never love any books, Mom,” he says.

It’s not true, of course. I love lots of books. I read constantly and I’m always ready to be wowed by a book. I want it to be the book that makes me shout from this blog: you MUST read this book. I have a whole list of books like that here.

So that brings me to Painting Juliana, the debut novel by Texan writer Martha Louise Hunter.  About thirty pages into the book I thought to myself, I can’t read this.  Then I thought, Am I missing something? I went off to read other reviews – most of which were glowing. So, I attacked the book again. I eventually settled into the book, but I have to admit that this one falls into the decidedly ‘meh’ category for me.

Painting Juliana is the story of Juliana Morrissey née Birdsong. She’s married to Oliver, a big-shot lawyer, and mother to thirteen-year-old twins Lindsey and Adam. When the novel opens, she’s just been told (while at a marriage counselling session, no less) that Oliver is divorcing her. It’s apparent pretty early on that Oliver is a total asshat, but Juliana is absolutely floored by the news that he’s kicking her to the curb. She has twenty minutes to pack her bags and get out of the family home. Oh, and the kids are staying put.

Juliana has no place to go and she has more problems than just dealing with Oliver and her fractured family. She’s got a rocky relationship with her gay brother, Richard, and her father has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Plus, she has no skills. She was going to go to law school, but she got married instead. Now all she has are  designer bags and a lot of debt.  Also, there are some unresolved mommy issues and mysterious paintings that come to life.

Painting Juliana is the story of  a woman  reinventing herself and that’s a story that I can get behind. Having recently gone through a divorce myself, I empathized with her predicament and there were some moments when I felt as though Hunter got it just about right.

Where the book didn’t work for me, though, was some of the dialogue. For example, when Oliver and Juliana meet for a supposed conciliatory lunch, Oliver dismisses the waiter by loudly announcing: “Be gone with you, Jim. I must make out with my wife now” to which Juliana replies, “Unhand me, sir! I’m a married woman.”

At lunch with her friend, Kimberley, the women are interrupted by a man in his mid-forties who says: “I hear you’re in real estate now…I’ve been wanting to get into some real estate…preferably between your legs.” Do grown people really speak this way?

Another friend says to Juliana,”You’ve always gotten what you wanted, Juliana. The successful husband, the decked-out house, great car, the best clothes and jewelry. Plus you’re gorgeous with a smoking bod.” Seriously. Are we thirteen?

Moments like this – and there are many of them – made me cringe. The dialogue often felt clunky and expository and not at all the way people actually speak.

I also felt that perhaps Hunter tried to pack too much into this novel – as though the story of a woman trying to find herself post divorce wasn’t enough. There’s enough material in here for at least another novel and a half. I do think that some of the subplots were simply distracting and the novel might have benefitted from some judicious editing.

When, at the end of the day, I don’t feel strongly about a book one way or the other – it falls into the ‘meh’ category for me, and Painting Juliana is that kind of book. However, it appears that my feelings about the novel are eclipsed by readers who felt the novel is amazing, so let’s chalk my feelings about it to my own book snobbery.

tlc tour hostPainting Juliana was provided to me by TLC Book Tours in exchange for my review. Thanks to them for the opportunity.

The Ice Cream Girls – Dorothy Koomson

icecreamTold in the alternating voices of Serena and Poppy, The Ice Cream Girls, by British writer Dorothy Koomson, is part suspense novel and part family drama. Koomson expertly weaves the story of two teenaged girls accused of murdering their history teacher, Marcus  Halnsley. They’re called ‘the ice cream girls’ because of a photograph of the pair wearing bikinis and eating ice cream. Their story, and their relationship with Halnsley,  is anything but sweet, though.

We meet Serena at the moment when her husband, Evan, proposes to her for the second time. We meet Poppy as she leaves prison, where she has been incarcerated for the past twenty years. These are two women, one black and one white, who might have never met if it hadn’t been for Halnsley.

We meet him through Serena first who says that “all the girls said he should be a film star because he was good-looking.” Serena doesn’t really like him at first because he was “always picking on me.” But when Mr. Halnsley starts to take a special interest in her, Serena feels singled out and special. Halnsley convinces her she could excel at History and offers to give her private lessons. It isn’t long before he crosses the line. It’s a simple (although inappropriate gesture) at first, but it’s easy to see how easily Halnsley manipulates fifteen-year-old Serena.

I walked home instead of getting the bus and along the way, I kept reaching up to touch my face. His touch had been so gentle and soft. And the way he said he wanted to take care of me made my stomach tingle upside down every time I ran it through in my head. He wanted to take care of me. That must mean I was special. Someone as clever and grown-up as him thought I was special.

Just a few short weeks after Halnsley has convinced Serena that he loves her, he meets Poppy. It’s clear, of course, that he’s a predator and that both Serena and Poppy are vulnerable despite the fact that they come from decent families. For the next couple of years the girls share the man who alternately abuses them and plays them off against each other – all the while convincing them that he loves them.

The story requires some finesse and Koomson does a terrific job of layering all the bits together. There’s a lot the reader wants to know. Why did Poppy go to prison, for example, and not Serena? Serena went on to college, met and married Evan (a doctor) and now lives in suburban bliss with her two children. Of course, behind the scenes she’s a hot mess. Every night before bed she has to hide all the knives.

The dinner knives are safe but the sharp ones, the ones that can do serious damage, seem to be missing in action. Admittedly, that’s my fault: I hid them last night, and I can’t quite remember where.

Things aren’t much better for adult Poppy, either. She arrives home to her parents only to discover that her father isn’t speaking to her, can’t even look at her and her mother

managed to sit down at the same table as me for more than three seconds. She didn’t make herself a cup of tea, so I knew she wasn’t staying, but it was a start. She actually came into the kitchen and didn’t immediately walk out again.

Poppy is intent on finding Serena and getting her to admit that she is actually responsible for Halnsley’s death and while their reluctant reunion dredges up all sorts of bad memories, it also allows the women to finally have a chance at exorcising the ghost of Halnsley, a man whose hold on them has poisoned their lives long after his death.

Great book.





My Ideal Bookshelf – Thessaly La Force & Jane Mount

myidealbookshelf1_grande My son gave My Ideal Bookshelf to me for my birthday back in May.  It’s one of those books that is both a pleasure to read and a pleasure to look at. The premise was to ask 100 plus people (writers, designers, chefs, artists, photographers) about their ideal bookshelf.  In other words:

Select a small shelf of books that represent you – the books that have changed your life, that have made you who you are today, your favourite favourites. You begin, perhaps, by walking over to your bookshelf and skimming the spines on the top shelf. You pull down a handful that you remember loving; you grab a couple that you read over and over again. Some you know just by the colour of their dust jackets. One is in tatters – it was passed down by your mother – and it’s dog-eared and carefully held together by tape and tenderness. The closer you look, the trickier the task turns out to be.

You got that right. But before I talk about what I did with My Ideal Bookshelf let me just point out how much fun this book was to read. Although I don’t know everyone whose bookshelves were included, it didn’t matter. If you are a book lover, you are naturally drawn to other people’s bookshelves. You know it’s true. If I am in someone’s house, their bookshelves take precedence over anything else. I must snoop. It’s futile to resist the siren call of the books.

I read My Ideal Bookshelf cover-to-cover. Each person’s shelf is artistically recreated by Jane Mount. For example, this is Stephanie Meyer’s shelf:


Each shelf is accompanied by a personal reflection. Meyer offers this insight into her choices:

These books contain threads of what I like to write about: the way people interact, how we relate to one another when life is beautiful and horrible. But these books are greater than anything I could ever aspire to create.

None of the commentaries explain the person’s entire collection, but each  offers a glimpse into that person’s reading life.  For example, book designer Coralie Bickford-Smith says “The written word means so much to me. If I design a cover that gets people to pick up a book, then I’ve done my job. I want the younger generation to fall in love with books like Jane Eyre again.”  Interior designer Tom Delavan offers this: “Books are the very best kind of decoration, really. There are two types of books, the ones you read and the ones you have on your coffee table. Both make a space feel like home – you spend time with them, they have meaning for you, and they actually look good, too.” Writer Dave Eggers says “These are the books that crushed me, changed me when I first read them, and to which I have returned many times since, always finding more in them.”

Book lovers always have something to talk about. Always. My Ideal Bookshelf is like a beautiful conversation. With pictures.

I liked the book so much that I thought it would be really cool to ask my students to build their own ideal bookshelves and then write an essay to talk about their reading lives.  There’s a handy template at the back of the book (and it’s also available on their blog). As the school year winds down, this is a great way to have students reflect on the books they’re read – not only during their time with me, but for as long as they’ve been reading. We just got started on Friday, but it was so much fun to walk around and see what had made students’ lists. (When I saw that my Turkish exchange student had Donna Tartt’s The Secret History on her list – we both shared a moment of squealing delight.)

I wanted to take up the challenge, too. I’m going to cheat, though, and do a YA bookshelf and another bookshelf – although there may be some cross-over titles. I am no artist, but here’s what I came up with.


It wasn’t easy to come up with these titles…and I left off a dozen more…so I am looking at this like it’s a snapshot of my YA reading life…including both books that I  read when I was a teenager and younger  (Jane Eyre, A Little Princess, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, That Was Then, This Is Now and Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl all fall into that category. I read them between 35-40 years ago!) and more recent reads. The thing they all have in common is that I loved them and the characters that inhabit the pages have stuck with me.

My Ideal Bookshelf would make an excellent gift for any book lovers on your list.

I’d love to hear about your ideal bookshelf!