Giveaway & Book Review: Pieces of Tracy

PiecesOfTracyPieces of Tracy by J. Daniel Parra (Diversion Books, 2013)

Genre: fiction, chicklit, romance, cultural influence

This is a very special review for me. I was contacted by a marketing/publicity representative for Diversion Books, who asked if I’d like to be part of a blog tour for a hot, new summer book. I had no idea what a blog tour even was, but I was indeed interested! I ended up signing up to do a review, have an author guest post, and author interview AND a book giveaway! I am happy and excited to be a part of this.

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J Daniel Parra

You can follow J Daniel Parra on Twitter and like him on Facebook for updates.

Meet Teresa Felicia Santana León. In New York, she’s Tracy León, a would-be artist and telemarketer who falls for an older tycoon, Bruce Babich. When Bruce’s mother sends her to Rome to find a stolen painting, Tracy assumes an alter ego, the zesty Felicia Santana. In Rome, she meets a younger artist named Mario Giordani who helps her on her quest. 

Before long, she is juggling two romances and two distinct identities: Tracy, demure trophy wife wannabe in New York’s high society, and wanton, thrill-seeking Felicia in sultry Rome. Against the backdrop of these exciting cities, she follows her divided heart, even if it leads her in the wrong direction. 

The secrets behind the stolen painting send her on an unforgettable journey that prompts her to re-examine her own talents and inspirations. As the pieces come together, Tracy faces a life-changing choice, one that will lead to surprising discoveries about love and her own identity.

Sounds exciting, right? I was very impressed with this debut novel based on the synopsis and had high expectations. I couldn’t wait to start reading, and I finished the book in a couple of days. I was so into this book! Let me tell you why….

New York
New York

Tracy Felicia Santana is a child of Texans, with big dreams of graphic design and putting her love of art to work in New York. She leaves the nest and moves to New York and gets started. She marries Diego Leon, a man in her realm of work. But Diego wants the limelight and a wife at home, not so much in the workforce. Tracy puts all her dreams and her graphic design classes out of her mind and does what Diego wants her to do. Instead of climbing the ladder in the art world, Tracy stays working in the circulation department for ArtHouse.

Through Tracy’s reminisces, if you can call them that, she makes it clear that Diego washed away her dreams and her motivation to pursue them. It’s a sad, downtrodden fact that a lot of women today face once they are involved in a new relationship or one that evolves into a hasty marriage, as Tracy’s did. She has low self-esteem and no direction for her life; she’s just going through the run-of-the-mill, day-to-day mundane routine, trying to stay afloat in pricey New York.

Since then, Diego has divorced her and married the woman he was cheating on Tracy with…and then he dies, suddenly. Somehow, Tracy and Diego’s second wife, Donna, become best friends. The antics of Diego draw them together. They reminisce about their time with Deigo, and the ending of the novel is very reflective of relationships and the past:

But only the good parts remain. Isn’t it amazing how kind your memory can be? Ultimately, you only remember the happy times. 

Donna is almost a foil of Tracy: she does not hide her beauty, she is an actress and she goes after new adventures. Tracy is content to stay in her little hole in New York. She doesn’t keep in regular contact with her family or “have a life.”

One day, Tracy’s boss at ArtHouse shares some more bad news. On that crappy day, she escapes to MoMA, where the art gives her an escape and lifts her mood. There she meets toy billionaire bachelor Bruce Babich, an Australian transplant, and they hit it off.

Map of Ancient Rome
Map of Ancient Rome

…And then enters Sophia Babich, Bruce’s socialite mother, as soon as Bruce shows interest Tracy. She gives Tracy an ultimatum: find and return a long-ago stolen painting of Sophia that was done by the famous Henri Matisse, or no Bruce. Talk about a hard assignment!

Where is Tracy even to start? She knows virtually nothing about the painting or the woman who stole it. She sets out for the only place that is connected to the woman: Italy. Little did she know what she’d find in Rome…or who.

Tracy discovers she is another person in Rome – and embraces it. She does as she’s asked, but experiences heartbreak and turmoil along the way. She got a hard bargain, but must pay up. But the secrecy and lies of Sophia Babich come to bite Tracy in the butt. It is indeed a twisted tale, very a-la Oedipus, that leaves Tracy in a very unexpected place.

Oedipus
Oedipus

OK, I said I had high expectations for this book. Tracy is a character who I’ve seen before in real life, but she gets a new lease on life, so to speak. Instead of fully using it, she squanders it.

All the moving around forced her to become a new person each time she had to fit in with a new class. 

About halfway through the book, I realized Tracy as a character was not going to really grow and develop. If she did, I would be shocked, so I think that was my biggest disappointment. As a military brat, Tracy was constantly moving and having to make new friends. She is used to taking on or creating new identities – it’s how she survived childhood and is very typical of women in new, unstable relationships. It is typical of women who have no sense of self, who latch on and become whatever it is their love source wants them to become. Indeed, Tracy finds herself in an identity crisis:

Who was she? At one time, she knew she could be anything she wanted to be. Right now, she only knew she did not want to be this person. Couldn’t she be more? 

 And in Rome…

She was her own creation here, despite loving Bruce and wanting to be with him. Bruce was an ocean away. This was Rome and she could be anything she wanted. 

She knew she was using Mario to get over Bruce. She had lost the man she truly wanted and in exchange, Mario served as the quintessential rebound man.

The Roman Coliseum
The Roman Coliseum

The ache from losing Bruce still gave her a great deal of pain, but now she had Mario, she reminded herself, a young stud with an amazing technique in bed. He served as a rebound man, not a partner or a man for always, just someone who would give her romance and passion at a time when she needed it most. 

But Rome was so good to Tracy!  In Rome, Tracy comes alive, exploring the very things she loves: the arts. Her life in Rome is the antithesis of her life in New York. She is bold, daring, exciting, sensual, sexual. She is willing to take risks, and she finds a man who supports her, gives her freedom and reign to be her own person, and who promotes and encourages her freehand sketches. Reading the bits about Rome through Tracy’s eyes made her endearing, and you just can’t help but root for her to follow her passions!

Later, when everything comes to a head, as these things always do, Tracy claimed to be “a victim of circumstance.”  This surprised me, since Tracy made conscious decisions, making several flights between New York and Rome. She gives insight to readers about her turmoil, leading up to the thought that she will make a definitive decision. But as things do when we humans weave our tangled webs, things did not go according to plan…and everything snowballs.

The Sistine Chapel
The Sistine Chapel

The end of the novel is tied up in neat little bows. It gives a pretty depiction of people, romance and romantic conflicts. People don’t act that way – at all! So that bothered me a bit. The only change in Tracy from beginning to end was she became more risky (hence, all the running away) and the thing I liked: she’s keeping up with her own art. Perhaps that’s a stepping stone to reclaiming herself, I hope.

I’m going to be bold and suggest that Parra is making a statement with this novel:

Be who you are.

Do what you love, what you enjoy.

Take risks, do something new.

Change your life.

Be strong.

And those things are very important to a full, happy life and are often overshadowed when new, unexpected things enter our lives.

Limoncello
Limoncello

Don’t diminish yourself by being two incomplete fragments when you can be one whole.

I want to share this book with certain women in my life who are like Tracy, to show them that they can be the person they were meant to be. This is a great read that gives a lot of cultural references about certain areas and aspects of Italy. Parra has infused this novel in rich Roman experiences, food, culture and art. If you want an in-house experience of Rome, but can’t afford the trip, this book gives a beautiful sneak peek to enjoy. Parra did a very good job including large amounts of Roman culture and life into this novel, and that’s not an easy thing to do. My hat’s off to you, Daniel Parra!

Enter the Rafflecopter giveaway for your chance to win the book!

Want to know more about J. Daniel Parra? Toodle on over to my interview with him here. To read Daniel’s guest post about publication, go here. 

Tomorrow’s blog tour stop for Daniel’s Pieces of Tracy will be with Cinta Garcia De La Rosa. Check out Daniel’s guest post at Indie Authors You Want to Read.  Monday, 7/22, the blog stop will be at Diary of a Mad Stitcher.

Book Review: The Next Thing on My List

The Next Thing on My List by Jill Smolinski (Shaye Areheart Books, 2007)

cover art
cover art

Genre: fiction,

I received a digital copy via Smashwords in return for an honest review.

After a car accident in which her passenger, Marissa, dies, June Parker finds herself in possession of a list Marissa has written: “20 Things to Do by My 25th Birthday.” The tasks range from inspiring (run a 5K) to daring (go braless) to near-impossible (change someone’s life). 

To assuage her guilt, June races to achieve each goal herself before the deadline, learning more about her own life than she ever bargained for. (Amazon)

I’d only met her the night she died. 

This book has gotten mixed reviews on Goodreads and Amazon. However, I find it quite interesting that reviewers on Amazon didn’t make the same statements (and lower ratings) than those on Goodreads. I think this is due in large part to Amazon being a consumer site for purchasing. Goodreads is straight-up people who enjoy books (and in my opinion, know more about what they’re talking about). I also heard they’ll be turning this into a movie…

This is an incredibly light read, great to take on a trip and a good read for summertime.

First – the promoted reviews of entities (not individuals) doesn’t do this book justice, at all.

June Parker, the main character, is a newbie to a Weight Watchers class – and as she’s leaving fellow classmate Marissa Jones – who just reached her weight goal of losing 100 pounds! – is waiting for the bus. June decides some of Marissa’s luck will rub off on her, and gives her a ride. But it ends in tragedy – Marissa is thrown from the vehicle. June attends the funeral, all bruised and in casts.

The only thing that brought me out of the hole was a soul brave enough to reach in and grab me. 

June is wracked with guilt – mostly, that she lived and Marissa died…and it all stems from a list. Marissa made a list of 20 things she wanted to do before her 25th birthday, and only one item was crossed off. She died before she could cross off “Wear sexy shoes,” June discovered once the items of the scene were returned to her. She gave all of Marissa’s belongings back to her family except for the list, which she doesn’t mention until she bumps into Marissa’s brother, Troy, six months later at her grave.

June admits to keeping the list, and in a panic, spins a heart-felt lie she is then compelled to keep:  complete the items on the list before Marissa’s 25th birthday. In less than six months.

People are living too much or too little, and I wondered if anyone out there is living the right amount.

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Try, try again!

And completing the list proves for June that she was really quite boring and didn’t have an aspirations or direction in her life. She was literally going through the motions, not speaking up at work when her boss steals her ideas to pass off as her own (until they fail!) and letting her co-workers torment and humiliate her. Hell if she’s telling them what she’s trying to do, when they’re accusing her of killing Marissa!

Through trying to complete items on the list, June…

  • establishes better relationships with her coworkers
  • enlists the help of her coworkers to accomplish work tasks and list tasks
  • finds the “perfect” guy – Marissa’s brother, Troy
  • sets out to change some lives – her brother’s and his wife’s, and her Little Sister Deedee
  • gets a backbone, takes charge of work tasks, and sells herself to the big boss Lou
  • finds a relationship with an unlikely person
  • realizes how much Marissa set out to do
  • realizes she had no motivation for anything in life
  • tries…and fails

Some of June’s plans go wrong, some are quite hair-brained, and some of the items are difficult. Who is Buddy Fitch? She enlists the help of her blind date, coworkers, Troy, family and Little Sister to complete the list. There is a lot of sarcasm and humor in doing it all.

I’d already done the finger-counting thing and realized the most sleep I could hope for was five hours.

As I said, this is a quick and light read. I enjoyed it for the sake of reading, but was left unsatisfied. June is only the completing the items on the list for sake of completing them because she LIED to the dead girl’s brother. Way to start off on a good foot. And the big boss, Lou Bigwood, is notoriously known for “finding” good-looking women (dubbed Charlie’s Angels) at conferences to manage his company… seriously, Bigwood? Big wood? Come on!Big-Brother-Big-Sister

Throughout the whole book June makes snarky comments about her parents and her brother, who was obviously the favorite…and yet, she writes a letter “expressing gratitude” to her brother to show how much he means to her. Since rules were set down that actions to complete the items on the list had to be genuine, this one doesn’t count. June failed on that one. She sets out on changing a life by signing up to be a Big Sister – who she parts ways with after a difficult last-minute decision and heartbreak for June’s own brother and his wife.

The thing that made me feel any kind of emotion was an incident between June and Troy. He made it quite clear how he felt about June’s efforts to “change a life” Plan A. And yet, she still crushing on him. NO! If a man can’t deal with a non-life-threatening decision, such as wanting a child on your own terms, kick him six streets down! Troy proves to still be somewhat of a friend, and at times it seems they will reconcile, but June discovers something quite unexpected.

The ending was cheap and bland – I expected much more. The one good thing I liked: June decides it’s time she make her own list.

I knew there was something that I needed even more: the truth. I’d been running from it for a long time, and now it was time to face it. 

Jill is the author of two other novels, Objects of My Affection and Flip-Flopped: A Novel, as well as several how-to origami books.

Readers: if you enjoy bucket lists, check out this excellent blog post. Maybe some of the items on your list will change, maybe some of them will be borrowed or added by others. You never know.

What’s on YOUR list? Check out mine in an up-coming post.

your-bucket-list

Novelette Review: Chasing Dolphins

Chasing Dolphins by September Lynn Gray (2012)

cover art
cover art

Genre: fiction

This is a novelette by another new-coming author, September Lynn Gray. She has released two novelettes, and is working toward publishing a novel.

When I first charted a deadline for reading Chasing Dolphins and writing a review, I had no idea it wasn’t a full-fledged novel. (Since embarking on this book blog, I try to steer clear of reading the synopsis about a book just on the off-chance that it forms an opinion and expectation in my mind. The worst thing would be for a synopsis to get my hopes up just to have them crash, and having to include that in a review.) When the “book” just ended – The End – I thought it was a joke.

I find Charlene Brown so eerily familiar. Perhaps because she is somewhat of an embodiment of myself: I am a young female, my name is Charlie (short for Charlie), I have a Dottie (my aunt Debbie), and I can relate to the sexuality that Gray exposes of her character.

Charlene is a character who has experienced emotional and physical loss in so many ways. She grew up being disposed of by loved ones, and she tries to hide from the idea that her stepfather killed her ailing mother while swindling her inheritance and chunkin’ a deuce out of town. She was  raised separately by her uncle and grandmother during school years and summers, respectively. Under the care of both she was sexually molested and either thrown out for it or basically called a liar, again proving that she isn’t really loved and she is an option for her loved ones.

She’s 18 and had to figure out her life completely on her own….and she naturally finds the wrong guy to spend forever with. But out of that bad, abusive relationship she earns some professional skills by being the bread winner, knowing she can do it. And she also gets a pretty cool son out of the deal and a friend from work. She finally leaves after finding her supposed best-friend drying her bed sheets with a hair dryer to get rid of the wet remains of her affair with Charlie’s man. So she packs up and moves on.

She moves on, but she doesn’t change much. She frequents bars, hoping that “[i]f [she] sat there long enough, he’d come. Always, the wrong guy [finds her].” She’s lonely, so she’ll go home with strangers in hopes of finding an emotional connection to feel less lonely. She forces herself to
“form a connection with [another] human being, pretending that his touch meant so much more than it did.”

As a woman, I understand this. Halfway through college I decided guys at Texas State were either taken, gay or just all around douchebags. So I turned to online dating, going through two bad relationships just like Charlene’s encounters with strangers that I thought would develop into more. But one day I had to look in the mirror and realize, “Girl, you are nothing to him.” But there was one in between the two bad that gave me hope, which is why I tried again…and ended up with a dud, again. It took me a long time to realize he (the middle one) was just like the first, with just a little more suave. His sweet-talking skills were eventually wasted on me. He should have used them to get a business or law degree – they would have served him better there. In terms of this area of Charlene’s character, I understand and can actually relate. However, I can’t relate to the sexual abuse – I am thankful and grateful that I never had to experience that, but I know some who have, and it’s not pretty.

Her work friend, Dottie, is a native Texan, and is the kinda gal that always seems to find those rich SOBs who blow exuberant amounts of money on the stupidest things and own multiple luxury vehicles. But she’s hung on to Charlene, and it’s not really clear why.

Dottie believes love is expressed through food. She is always trying to feed Charlene, because it’s what Texans do. We may not have a lot, but we show appreciation and love through food. Dottie reminds me starkly of my aunt Debbie, who can feed you breakfast at 8 am and tries to feed you again at 10:30 am, knowing lunch is at noon. That’s just who she is, and that’s how Dottie is. She thinks food will solve some of Charlene’s poverty and employment problems.

After one of these bar run-ins with a local, Charlene finds herself in deadly need of medical attention, and all of a sudden she turns her life around. The end.

Yep, just like that. The end.

In terms of development of the story line, I find it lacking (even for a novelette). All of a sudden, after a LIFETIME of neglect, bad decisions and bad relationships, she makes a 180 turn for the better? I find the ending quite trite, tying up all the loose ends into pretty little bows. Bows don’t go with this story. Charlene is the kind that doesn’t do bows – she rips them out. A lifetime of abandonment, abuse and sexual molestation can’t be packaged up like a gift basket wrapped in cellophane and ribbons. It’s utterly unrealistic, and I must say it disappointed me greatly.

The other thing I found not to my liking was the story behind the title. At a young age, her stepfather promised a trip to Hawaii that would never happen. Despite all his drinking, disappearing, stealing and general philandering, Charlene still believed that she would go to Hawaii and see dolphins, explaining her insatiable need to see them in Corpus. Usually children of that upbringing realize what to expect and what won’t happen. It just doesn’t add up. But, I do understand Charlene’s need to see dolphins. Perhaps it serves as an assurance that her life is on the right track.

But I do sing praises and accolades to Gray in her message to women in these kinds of situations:

Concentrate on finding ways to create your own happiness, rather than rely on men to validate your existence. 

I’ve tried to have that conversation with a friend who was chain-smoking through boyfriends (and she was trying to have the “get out of this bad relationship” talk with me with the middle boy during the same time period) and it ruined a friendship. It’s a hard conversation to have with someone, especially when you love them. But, you do because you love them. Her message is something young women of today need to hear, as so many are relying on men to make their lives fulfilled and meaningful.

I’m not too interested in Gray’s other novelette, Lights and Tunnels (2014) but I am piqued to see what she does with a full-length novel.