Tuesday, December 30, 2008
As a dog lover, I enjoy coming across sweet stories about our canine companions, especially ones with happy endings. In my opinion, dogs deserve the best in life and that includes giving them happy endings in books.
"A Dog Named Christmas" is a rather quick-read (it took me an hour and a half from start to finish) but it is a lovely tale about a wonderful dog who has the heart of a lion, strong and steady. In the story, Todd, a developmentally challenged twenty-year old, decides to foster a dog from the local shelter for Christmas. Since he is still living in his parents' home, he has to first convince them to go along with it. Mary Ann, the mother, is easy to sway, and is soon turning the pressure up for George, the father, to agree with the scheme. George, who is incidentally a Vietnam War veteran, has had sad experiences with dogs in the past; he is stubborn and doesn't want to break down the wall he has built after so many years.
At last, George gives in and one week and one day before Christmas, he and Todd find themselves at the shelter choosing a dog. After settling on one and naming it Christmas, Todd agrees to the stipulation that the dog must be returned the day after Christmas, that they are only providing a temporary home for a dog over the holidays.
Of course, as a dog lover, I was thinking to myself the entire book, "How can they keep a dog for a week and take it back? There's no way they can do that!" The ending, of course, is up to the reader to discover.
"A Dog Named Christmas" is inviting, warming and simple. If you are an animal lover, this book is definitely available for your reading pleasure.
Saturday, December 27, 2008
While reading this book, I flip-flopped like a freshly-caught fish on whether I liked the story or not. I have never been so undecided before. "Loving Frank" begins simply enough. It draws the reader in like any good book will do.
Mamah Cheney sidled up to the Studebaker and put her hand sideways on the crank. She had started the thing a hundred times before, but she still heard Edwin's words whenever she grabbed onto the handle. Leave your thumb out. If you don't, the crank can fly back and take your thumb right off. She churned with a fury now, but no sputter came from beneath the car's hood. Crunching across old snow to the driver's side, she checked the throttle and ignition, then returned to the handle and cranked again. Still nothing. A few teasing snowflakes floated under her hat rim and onto her face. She studied the sky, then set on from her house on foot toward the library.
It was a bitterly cold end-of-March day, and Chicago Avenue was a river of frozen slush. Mamah navigated her way through steaming horse droppings, the hem of her black coat lifted high. Three blocks west, at Oak Park Avenue, she leaped onto the wooden sidewalk and hurried south as the wet snow grew dense.
The images, including those of the teasing snowflakes and the steaming horse droppings, immediately paint a vivid winter picture of a woman who is desperate enough for a not-yet-specified-something to brave the cold. The reader soon learns Mamah Cheney is on her way to see Frank Lloyd Wright speak to a women's group.
Their affair begins in a fairly unobtrusive manner. A lingering glance. One's hand on another's leg. Sharing like thoughts that could never be shared with the spouse. Both Mamah and Frank are married to other people whom they each have children with, but they proceed with very little thought to that.
That is where the story started to lose me. The fact that Mamah and Frank seemed to hardly take their children into consideration, even seeming to almost resent the presence of their children, was what bothered me. However, since the framework of this story is true, I continued to read. Another point of contention I had with the book was that both Frank and Mamah seemed to adopt the attitude that they were the victims, not their spouses, because they were expected by society to be responsible to their own spouses. They wanted to be sympathized with by friends and neighbors. Perhaps in being unwilling to see Mamah and Frank's points, I am showing my age and standards.
In not giving up on the book, I was treated to a superb ending. Since few people know Mamah's history, the ending will shock the reader. It is gory and emotional, and while some of the neighbors in the book whispered that it was retribution, I felt completely sorry for both Mamah and Frank, as well as (almost) everyone else involved.
"Loving Frank" is very smartly written. Author Nancy Horan has a natural flow with her writing, making it easy to continue reading, even when you don't agree with the protagonists. She is able to breathe life into a story that has been brushed under the rug of forgotten history.
The book is interjected with newspaper articles and bits of actual history, but the writing is so seamless, it is hard to differentiate between the fact and the embellishment of Nancy Horan. She does provide an afterward that gives the reader a vague idea of which pieces she has filled in herself.
Overall, "Loving Frank" a very good book. Frank Lloyd Wright may have been a genius, but he also seems to have been a bit of a narcissist and egomaniac. Still, Nancy Horan has given a well-written account of what may or may not have transpired between Mamah and Frank. Since the middle of the book tends to drag a bit, I would give "Loving Frank" a B+.
Wednesday, December 17, 2008
Wow! This book takes your breath away in the ease with which one can read it, the message it denotes, and the emotions it creates in the reader. While the story's climax happens shortly after Christmas, the entire book unfolds over a span of several months prior to Christmas. "Grace" is not a book that is only good at Christmas, it is good year-round.
Eric is a fourteen-year old boy who has been moved from California to Utah by his parents as they struggle financially. His younger brother, Joel, is his dearest friend, and the two of them build a clubhouse in their backyard. Fall arrives and so does school. Eric is a good kid who gets picked on at school for being a dork; he spends most nights working at a burger place not far from his house. One night, while he is closing up, he notices a girl named Grace in the dumpster; she appears to be eating scraps, so Eric invites her into the restaurant and gives her a free meal. She admits she has run away from home and has nowhere to go. Eric invites her to stay at the clubhouse.
In the next couple of months, Eric and Grace fall in love. They rely on each other for so many things, so when the truth of Grace's situation is made known, Eric remains faithful and stoic. He continues to help her in any way he can.
Richard Paul Evans tells a beautiful story, employing many mechanics to make a story grab your attention from the beginning. He draws practical, easy-to-envision images:
Our new home was a warped, rat-infested structure that smelled like mold and looked like it might have fallen over in a strong wind--- if it weren't for all the cracks in the walls that let the wind pass through. What was left of the paint on the exterior was peeling. The interior rooms were covered with wallpaper, most of it water-damaged with long rusted streaks running down the walls. Still, for a couple of boys from the California suburbs, the arrangement wasn't all bad. The house sat on nearly five wooded acres bordered on two sides by a creek that ran high enough to float in an inner tube during the summer.
Richard Paul Evans also has a way of lightening the mood in the story, just enough that the reader doesn't feel mired in sorrow. He writes easy-going dialogue that truly gives voice to each character. An example of a scene that makes the reader chuckle is when Eric is talking to his mom on a morning when he has agreed (much to his own dismay) to skip school with Grace.
The next morning I got ready as if I were going to school. Mom made us Cream of Wheat for breakfast and, as usual, Joel put so much raspberry jam in his bowl that his cereal was crimson.
"Like a little Cream of Wheat with your jam?" I asked.
He took a mouthful, reading the back of a cereal box. "I like it this way."
"I'm going to work early," my mom said. "We're counting inventory. Want a ride to school, Eric?"
Not once since school started had my mother asked if I wanted a ride. It's like she knew I was up to something. "Uh, no. Thanks. I'm meeting someone on the bus."
She looked at me with pleasant surprise. "You have a new friend?"
My mother was always concerned over my lack of friends.
"What's his name?"
Her eyebrows rose. "Grack?"
"That's an odd name. Where's he from?"
"Hmm. Sounds Hungarian. What nationality is he?"
"American," I said. "I think."
"Well." She looked at the clock. "You'd better get going. Maybe Grack would like to come over sometime."
"Yeah. Sure. I'll ask."
She walked over and kissed me. "Have a good day," she said and left the room."Grace" is not just another Christmas story intended to make the reader have a revelation. There is an actual message with substance to this book. Grace is an abused teenager. Her step-father molests her. He abuses her both physically and emotionally. "Grace" serves as a reminder that there is always someone who needs help escaping their abusive homelife. All it takes is one person to help create a safer, better environment. While it is easy to turn our heads and look the other way, we need to be aware of others in our life.
Even though "Grace" is a sad book, it is a story of hope, it is a story of living, it is a story of caring about the people around us. Richard Paul Evans has given us a rich story; read it and take it to heart.
and Annie Barrows
Ordinarily, a book about a post-World War II German occupied island would not bring a smile to one's face. However, Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows have woven a tale that would make any shrew smile. "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society" is simply a splendid book. Since it is an epistolary novel, it is a quick and fun read that is easy to leave off and pick up again.
Juliet Ashton is a writer in London in 1946. She has a quick wit and possibly a short temper, though maybe it is more a case of being misunderstood. At any rate, Juliet is searching for her next great book idea (and searching for her true self) when she receives a letter from a man named Dawsey from Guernsey. He has no idea she is a writer but he has seen her name inscribed in the jacket of his favorite book by Charles Lamb, his favorite author. Dawsey is searching for more books by Charles Lamb, and as he has been living in German-occupied Guernsey, he has few ties to the "outside world."
In agreeing to help Dawsey procure more books, Juliet becomes a penpal to not only him but his friends in Guernsey. She is intrigued by the literary society they formed while occupied by the Germans and eventually writes an article about them for the newspaper. Juliet's friendships develop with them and before long, she makes a visit to Guernsey. What she discovers there are answers to the many questions that have burdened her.
In sitting down to read "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society," the reader is drawn immediately to Juliet's humor and her ease of deeply loving those who are important in her life. In her first letter to Sidney, her publisher, the reader can feel the love and the lighthearted approach she has to life.
Susan Scott is a wonder. We sold over forty copies of the book, which was very pleasant, much more more thrilling from my standpoint was the food. Susan managed to procure ration coupons for icing sugar and real eggs for the meringue. If all her literary luncheons are going to achieve these heights, I won't mind touring about the country. Do you suppose that a livish bonus could spur her on to butter? Let's try it--- you may deduct the money from my royalties.
Now for the grim news. You asked me how work on my new book is progressing. Sidney, it isn't.
English Foibles seemed so promising at first. After all, one should be able to write reams about the Society to Protest the Glorification of the English Bunny. I unearthed a photograph of the Vermin Exterminators' Trade Union, marching down an Oxford street with placards screaming "Down with Beatrix Potter!" But what is there to write about after a caption? Nothing, that's what.
I no longer want to write this book--- my head and my heart just aren't in it. Dear as Izzy Bickerstaff is--- and was--- to me, I don't want to write anything else under that name. I don't want to be considered a light-hearted journalist anymore. I do acknowledge that making readers laugh--- or at least chuckle--- during the war was no mean feat, but I don't want to do it anymore. I can't seem to dredge up any sense of proportion or balance these days, and God knows one cannot write humor without them.
In the meantime, I am very happy Stephens & Stark is making money on Izzy Bickerstaff Goes to War. It relieves my conscience over the debacle of my Anne Bronte biography.
P.S. I am reading the collected correspondence of Mrs. Montagu. Do you know what that dismal woman wrote to Jane Carlyle? "My dear little Jane, everybody is born with a vocation, and yours is to write charming little notes." I hope Jane spat on her.
"The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society" is a smartly written book. It was purely a joy to read a novel that presents facts in such a low-key manner. The reader learns so much about each character through subtly injected information in each letter. It is a relief to not be hit over the head with plot points and details.
Much praise is due to the writing team of Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. Their story was delightfully fulfilling and should be at the very top of every reader's or book club's list.
Sunday, December 14, 2008
While I am sure that Debbie Macomber is a very nice lady, it pains me to say that her newest book, "A Cedar Cove Christmas" is filled with so much schmaltz, I could feel my gag reflex working overtime. While a bit of "cheese" is good once in a while, "A Cedar Cove Christmas" is like living on a dairy farm in Wisconsin.
The book is about a girl in her early twenties who has gotten pregnant by an older man who has not-so-mysteriously disappeared. It is two days before Christmas and Mary Josephine (think about it) is being chastised by her three older brothers (their last name is Wyse, by the way) for not making the father of her unborn child marry her. So the morning of Christmas Eve, Mary Jo leaves to find the father of said unborn baby. She travels to Cedar Cove, a quaint town where it seems everyone knows everyone. She meets up with a librarian named Grace who invites her to stay at her farm, in the apartment over the barn (the barn that is housing a donkey, a sheep, and yes, a camel). Of course, Mary Jo agrees.
In the meantime, the three Wyse men jump into their truck to find their sister (but only after they grab a gold coin, some perfume, and some incense as "I'm-Sorry" gifts). They follow clues that could lead them to where she is staying, but they keep getting lost. While they are ambling around the wilds of rural Cedar Cove, Mary Jo goes into labor, calls the hot, young EMT named Mack (he had treated her earlier in the day for a dizzy spell), who jumps in the car and comes to the barn. Her hostess (Grace) is at church with her family for Christmas Eve services. Mack calls the church, just so happens to reach the secretary who finds the preacher who tells the secretary to pull the hostess out of the service. (Still with me?) Mack tells Grace there is no time to take Mary Jo to the hospital to have her baby. Instead, Grace has enough time to tell her family and a friend that Mary Jo is having the baby in the barn; the family leaves the church and some of them stop by their own respective homes to grab baby items (diapers, baby blankets and clothes), and they all get to the barn before the baby is born! Hmmm.........
Meanwhile, the three "Wyse" men are still driving around aimlessly, until they see fireworks and
decide to follow them. Yes, fireworks. And I know you will never guess where the fireworks are being set off-------
Back at the barn, hot, young EMT Mack delivers the baby girl while Mary Jo falls in love with him, and he with her. Grace's family is all hanging around the barnyard and her grandson starts to play his drum that he had just received as a gift that very night. Oh yes, you didn't think this story would be complete without a drumming child, did you?
Stay away from this story if you are diabetic or have any respect for your intelligence and the quality of literature you enjoy. It is one thing to read a book for fun, as we all need to do. But to allow the author to smack you over the head with the book, well, that's just a waste of time, isn't it?
Don't let this review sway you from reading some of Debbie Macombers other books. She does have quite a following. I have never read any of her other work, so I cannot say anything as to the quality of that. We're all allowed to have mistakes. Unfortunately, Debbie Macomber's mistake comes in the form of a book called "A Cedar Cove Christmas."
Remember people, I read them so you don't have to.
Friday, December 12, 2008
A bittersweet story of the daughter of Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra, "The Tsarina's Daughter" creates an alternate ending for the very real story of what happened to Grand Duchess Tatiana during Russia's Revolution.
The story begins before the Revolution. Tatiana is six years old and living in affluence in the opulent Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. She has witnessed the love the Russian people have for her father and family; it is this love that starts to sour a few years later, shocking Tatiana. She begins to see the poverty and squalor some Russians are living in, and wonders at the stark difference between their living situations and her own.
As the story progresses, Tatiana falls in love as a girl. It is later, when she is a nurse during the war, that she finds love as a young woman. The soldier she falls in love with is her patient and she helps him regain complete health. He becomes her father's right-hand man, staying with him through the war, and finally during his abdication.
Once Tsar Nicholas abdicates, his family becomes prisoner in their palace. Upon his return from the war, soldiers remove them all to Siberia, where they are locked away in a cold, old house all through the winter.
"The Tsarina's Daughter" is a book that illustrates strength and perseverance, even in the most trying times. The reader is greatly sympathetic to Tatiana who never quits. She faces obstacles head-on and works to live her life. Author Carolly Erickson weaves a sad tale that really pulls at the reader's heartstrings, especially when the Tsar and his family are imprisoned and mistreated. In one scene, the family is finally allowed outside their home to take a spring picnic. When they get outside, there are people standing on the other side of the iron fence, shouting and calling them names like "German bitches," referring to Tatiana, her older sister Olga, her younger sisters Anastasia and Marie, and their mother. The Tsar tries to ask the guards to let them eat their meal inside, saying that it looked like it was about to rain. He is denied.
At a signal from papa we sat on the picnic cloth, hastily unwrapped the food in our hamper and tried to eat it as quickly as we could. But it was hard to force ourselves to take a single bite, with the constant yelling and jeering. To chew was torment, to swallow all but impossible, though I managed to force down a few small bites. The food was tasteless and stuck in my throat, making me cough.
Anastasia spat out her food. Marie managed to spill her plate, though whether she did this intentionally or not I couldn't have said. Mama sat on the cloth, unmoving, stony-faced. Papa ate, slowly and methodically, until the first raindrops began to fall.
We all looked up at the sky gratefully, hoping that we would be allowed to go back to the palace now that the weather had changed.
But we were wrong. We were forced to stay where we were, while the tormenting, taunting crowd grew, heedless of the rain, and the guards, enjoying our humiliation, stood by and watched the scene, making rude remarks to us and to each other and elbowing one another in the ribs and laughing.
The rainwater ran down our faces and into our mouths, mingling with the tasteless food, until in the end the plates were washed clean, the food having run off into the grass, and we were completely bedraggled.
"All right, Romanov," the head guard spat out. "Back to your jail now. The picnic's over."
My stomach hurt. I was nauseous. But I was afraid that if I threw up in front of our jailers there would be more punishment for us all. As we walked back to the palace I did my best to fight my nausea, holding onto Olga--- who, I could tell, was feeling ill too--- and concentrating on taking one step at a time.
This story of Tatiana Romanov and her family is embellished a great deal from the actual story of Tatiana Romanov, but it is a happier alternative (though only slightly) to how she really ends up. The book is well written; the characters are each integral. While you should not read the story to be educated on the facts of the Russian Revolution, you should read the book. It is a fantastic story full of suspense, sorrow, passion, and above all, perseverance.
Sunday, December 7, 2008
Is it April 2009 yet? That is when the next book in this series comes out; it will be called "Decision and Destiny: Colette's Legacy." Avon Books must enjoy torturing their readers by making them wait for answers and resolutions in the drama of the Duvoisin family.
The book's Prologue is an attention-grabber:
An evening mist settled over the moss-scarred walls of the stone church, shrouding it in hopelessness. A solitary man slumped forward in one pew, muttering disparaging phrases to the looming shadows. He needed another drink. Expensive whiskey hadn't yielded peaceful oblivion, hadn't even dulled his senses. And yet, he wasn't drunk, what the hell was he doing in a house of God? What, indeed! He chortled insanely, the inebriated laugh ended in a dizzying hiccup. He'd come to pray--- pray for death. Not his own death. He wasn't quite so noble. Not yet, anyway. Instead, he petitioned the Almighty to bring about the demise of another. Retribution--- justice. His lips twisted with the delicious thought of it. Death...So simple a solution.
"Put him out of his misery. Put me out of my misery," he slurred, confronting the wooden crucifix that hung above the barren alter. "Do you hear?"
His sudden movement sent the walls careening, the statues a nauseating blur of spinning specters. He grasped for the bench, attempting to right his toppling world, but his hand missed its mark. Not so his forehead. It met the back of the wooden pew with a resounding crack. With a groan, he crumbled to the stone floor, his anger blanketed in a palette of smoky-blue, a vision that dissolved into the consuming void of blessed unconsciousness.
It was not until I re-read the Prologue after finishing the book that I realized we indeed see this mysterious character again. The clues are there, if the reader is attentive. It can be easy to miss though, because the reader gets drawn in by the great love story that evolves between Charmaine Ryan and Paul Duvoisin. Charmaine is an eighteen-year old girl who becomes a governess to three children on a Caribbean island. While Charmaine has great reason to distrust men, the children's older brother Paul, has great reason to love beautiful women. Thus, the two meet and are like oil and water. At first....
They come to an agreement. Paul will no longer make crude comments and proposition Charmaine, but she has to trust him. In time, she realizes she is falling in love with him. But is he falling in love with her?
Meanwhile, the Duvoisin clan has their own struggles to face. Frederic, the patriarch of the family, has been crippled by a stroke. His family is broken in two by an event (undisclosed as of yet) that happened among himself, his oldest son, John, and his bastard son, Paul. John is handling the family empire on the mainland in Virginia; he is basically in exile.
Colette, Frederic's second wife is ailing after two difficult pregnancies. It is then that she hires Charmaine as governess to her three young children, twin girls and a boy. Colette proves to be a wonderful friend to Charmaine and makes the Duvoisin family promise to keep Charmaine on as the governess to the children, even after her own passing. It is that simple act which secures Charmaine's position in an episode that takes place after Colette dies.
John seems to be trying to wreak havoc from the mainland when ships show up at the island with shipping invoices that have been tampered with and inventory that has been cluttered on the boat. He has few fans in the Duvoisin household, so when he actually shows up at Charmantes, on the island, he is met with much ire.
There are so many tiny details in "A Silent Ocean Away," it would be impossible to convey in one review all that will capture the reader. This book is a must-read for anyone who enjoys historical fiction, romance, intrigue, Caribbean islands, ships, or all of the above. The story is lavish and beautiful. It is a perfect escape to a gorgeous landscape with fascinating people in a remarkable era.
The authors, Debra and Valerie Gantt, are sisters. They created the pseudonym DeVa Gantt upon writing this story together. Their combined talents are sure to meet with great success in this, and all of their future books.
Wednesday, December 3, 2008
Anna Roitman is approaching her late-thirties when she marries Alex K., a Russian-Jewish immigrant like herself. He has become a successful businessman in New York and Anna quickly learns that she enjoys the ease of living a wealthy life. A son is born to the couple but Anna feels withdrawn, allowing the nanny to completely fill the maternal role. Instead, Anna focuses on preparing her postpartum body for an upcoming party; she wants to be the center of everyones' attention.
At the party, she meets her cousin Katia's boyfriend, David. Anna gives in to her weakness for writers and soon begins an affair with him. At the New York City Marathon, she feels the sudden need to confess the affair to her husband.
"What Happened To Anna K." is a depressing book. I remember feeling a constant sorrow while reading "Anna Karenina," and experienced the same feeling while reading this novel by Irina Reyn. This is not to say the book is bad. On the contrary, if a book can create that much tension in the reader's mind, it is possibly a very good book. If an author can paint such a desolate picture for the reader, then they have done their job.
"What Happened To Anna K." is a retelling of Leo Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina;" the difference being that the newer book is set in present times. One must feel sorry for Anna, in a way, but she also is quite the villainess. She basically lures men right out from under other women's noses. Ironically, the men in this story are portrayed as weak and incompetent. They are unhappy before they are married, and they are even unhappier after they get married.
The reader is made aware of the males' weaknesses, as well as exactly how Anna K. operates. At the aforementioned party, Katia has been delaying David's introduction to Anna, for fear Anna will charm her way into his heart. At last, the introduction can not be put off any longer:
Katia allowed herself to be led away, but she never took her eyes off Anna and David. She knew him, yes, she did, she knew him well enough to read every sign. She knew what his gestures meant, the way he tipped his head to the right, listening to Anna intently. Every time she looked back, they were still rooted to the spot. She watched David lift a bottle of wine off the table and pour Anna a glass. He handed it to her by the stem, holding it just a second too long, as if to verify that it would not come crashing to the floor. From his face, she could tell they were talking about books, books Katia had not read but Anna probably had. Nabokov novels no one had heard of (more obscure than Lolita, even Katia had tried to hack away at that one after David mentioned how much he loved it). Maybe David was trotting out his beloved Brodsky or that Polish Szymborska. Why else was the usually shy David so translucent, practically trembling with charm.
Katia looked around for Alex K., but he was lost in conversation with another man. Should she draw his attention to the scene, or was it not her place? Turning back to them, Katia recognized the old Anna K., the one whose existence she had always known about but denied, her small, peaceful actions of flirtation, almost unobtrusive, the invisible ways in which she controlled a man's attention, then swallowed it whole. In the past, Katia had admired this quality of Anna's, her enviable composure. Didn't Katia have the smallest crush on all that, if she were to be completely honest?
But there they stood. Why, she was almost as tall as he was, and they were leaning into each other. Was the music too loud, was that why they had to whisper? Why did the momentum of their conversation generate speed, whirring, one picking up where the other left off, sentences left unfinished, unarticulated? He nodded, he kept on nodding, agreeing with her, nodding, while Anna appeared composed, polite, even. But Katia read the pinkness of her cousin's chest--- it was this that gave her pleasure away, her deep, red enjoyment in the conversation.
"What Happened To Anna K." is an intriguing book, full of Russian Jewish ideals and practices. It places a certain value on the sanctity of marriage, and gives the message that sometimes, it is truly best to work through marital problems first, with your spouse. To be able to do this, one must be able to identify one's self. Which "Anna K." character are you?
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
Hamlet was one of Shakepeare's most popular plays, and over the years, it is become a story that is re-told by countless writers. Lin Enger is the most recent author to attempt this re-telling of a son avenging his father's death.
Jesse Matson is hunting with his father one day when he hears a gunshot in the direction of his father's hunting stand. He runs through the woods and finds his father's body, a portion of his head missing from a gunshot wound. The death is deemed a suicide but Jesse has reason to doubt it. His father's ghost visits him and tells Jesse it was Jesse's uncle Clay, his father's jealous brother. Jesse starts formulating how he can trick his uncle into admitting guilt, but then he begins to plot his uncle's murder, to avenge his own father's death.
Everyone around Jesse tries to tell him that he needs to let it go, that he is insane, that he has no proof. Jesse stands firm in his belief of his uncle's guilt.
Lin Enger is a very good author, his story of deception and disloyalty is a timeless tale. He has written a book that makes the reader intrigued by the duplicity of the characters. However, he does employ some techniques of a modernist writer, in that he uses no quotation marks in the entire three-hundred pages. To someone who enjoys a more "conservative" approach to writing, the absence of quotation marks is distracting and at times confusing. I found myself having to re-read quite a few passages to understand who was actually saying what. Certainly, Lin Enger's nod to authors such as Henry James and James Joyce is respectable. Modernist literature is just not my "cup of tea." Had the book simply used quotes, I would have given a glowing review.
Friday, November 21, 2008
A novel with a little bit of everything, "Mistress of the Sun" is one to add to any "favorites" list. It conveys the romance of being at French court in the seventeenth century. Author Sandra Gulland has added every element to hold the reader's attention: romance, intrigue, sorcery, religion, all set against the backdrop of Paris and the outerlying areas. There are cold, crumbling castles as well as cozy, well-furnished castles and villas.
The story's spotlight opens on Louise, known as Petite to her friends and family. Louise is a six-year old girl who is "horse-possessed," as her father says. After sneaking off to town one day, so that she could see a traveling show with horses, she sees a beautiful white stallion, strong and bedeviled, according to his previous handlers. Petite feels an instant connection to the horse and convinces her father to purchase it for her.
After getting the horse home, no one is able to train the him, so Petite dares to try a magic spell she reads about in a book from her father's library. Upon completion of the spell, the horse is instantly tame and submissive with Petite. Petite is afraid that her spell has opened a door for the devil and she often hears sounds that frighten her at night. The family deteriorates one day when Petite's father is found dead in the horse barn and the white horse has vanished. Petite is sent to a convent.
She spends a few years there, studying and worshiping, until one day her mother comes and takes her away from the convent. Petite is sad to leave the solace of the church but remains devout. Her mother marries a man who has ties to the court. Through a series of events, Petite is made a waiting maid to a princess.
Eventually, Petite is noticed by King Louis XIV, who was only a young man at the time. He begins to show her favor and they fall into a torrid affair, even though he is married. She feels guilt daily over the relationship they develop, but her love for him is strengthened nonetheless. He, in turn, seems to be a most attentive, ardent lover. It is obvious that he truly would give her anything to make her happy, as long as it was within the confines of that which was good and proper for a King and what was expected of him. He creates a way for them to escape the prying eyes of court and asks her to accompany he and some of his men on a long hunt, away from the city. The only catch is she is to dress like a man, even though the men in their party are privy to the fact it is she, the mistress of the King. Upon arriving at the hunt chateau, the reader is gladdened by being witness to the King's indulgences for Petite.
The hunt chateau was like a fairy tale house: slate roof, wrought-iron balconies, marble courtyard and a little dry moat. Made of red bricks and white stone, it reminded Petite of the chateau at Blois, but in miniature, and all of a piece.
"Welcome, Your Majesty!" A stout, red-faced man with a drooping mustache cried out greetings, waving his hat about in a confusion of etiquette. "We were told that the road was washed out." He held the reins of Louis's horse as the King dismounted. "We feared you might not get across."
"Nothing stops this rider," Louis said, indicating Petite.
"Get this young man's horse," the stout man called out to a boy sprinting across the cobblestones.
"I think he's a girl," the boy said, studying Petite as she dismounted.
"I think so too," Louis said with a laugh. "Messieurs, please pay your respects to Mademoiselle de la Valliere," he announced, swiping off Petite's hat and wig, allowing her golden curls to fall to her shoulders. "Mistress of this chateau."Life continues upon their return to court. There are parties and secret get-aways, but Petite soon learns that no one can ever be trusted. The story is rich with back-biting, complications and trickery. Friends and families are torn apart.
Ultimately, Petite realizes that to save others, sometimes you must first save yourself.
"Mistress of the Sun" plays with every emotion available to the reader. The chicanery and amour move the story along swiftly, making it impossible to put the book down once you have started it. This novel is a little weightier and will require more than one's average weekend to read, but it holds your attention. Sandra Gulland is an extraordinary writer and master storyteller, definitely one of the very, very best.
Sunday, November 16, 2008
with Kevin Balfe and Jason Wright
New York Times Bestselling Author Glenn Beck tries his hand at writing a novel about a Christmas epiphany for a twelve-year old named Eddie. While the book is loosely based on some of the events in Glenn Beck's own life, "The Christmas Sweater" is a story about growing emotionally and spiritually. It is a parable of holding tightly to faith while being challenged to release it.
The book starts with Eddie pleading with God for a red Huffy bike for Christmas, even though he knows money has been tight since his father died a few years earlier. He has been doing his chores and trying to be more compliant with his mother. When Christmas morning rolls around though, there is no bike in sight. Eddie has a pre-teen tantrum and as the day wears on, he gets more and more upset. He thinks about all his friends and assumes they have all gotten better presents than the roll of pennies and the ugly hand-knit sweater he received.
When his mom tells him they are going to spend the night at his grandparents' instead of driving the hour and a half it would take to get home, he demands they go home anyway. He refuses to have any fun. His mom finally relents and they make their way home. That is when Eddie's life changes forever.
Glenn Beck writes in a very easy-to-read style. The reader is instantly engaged by the simple flow of words. The story starts out,
The wipers cut semicircles through the snow on the windshield. It's good snow, I thought as I slid forward and rested my chin on the vinyl of the front seat.
"Sit back, honey," my mother, Mary, gently commanded. She was thirty-nine years old, but her tired eyes and the streaks of gray infiltrating her otherwise coal black hair made most people think she was much older. If your age was determined by what you'd been through in life, they would have been right.
"But Mom, I can't see the snow when I sit back."
"Okay. But just until we stop for gas."
I scooted up farther and rested my worn Keds on the hump that ran through the middle of our old Pinto station wagon. I was skinny and tall for my age, which made my knees curl up toward my chest. Mom said I was safer in the backseat, but deep down I knew that it wasn't really about safety, it was about the radio. I was constantly playing with it, changing the dial from her boring Perry Como station to something that played real music.
"The Christmas Sweater" is a book about a revelation that ends with a twist. It is a short read but the sentiment is uplifting. The true miracle is coming to the realization that life is what you make of it. Hopefully, this book is only the first in Glenn Beck's foray into writing novels.
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
Everyone has one or two events in their lives that they will always remember where they were when it happened. In our most recent lifetimes, everyone remembers September 11 and Katrina. Our grandparents may have remembered the Depression and Pearl Harbor. Maybe our own parents remember the Kennedy assassination. For the protagonist Luke, of "Recovering Charles," his outstanding memory will always be of Hurricane Katrina.
Luke's mother committed suicide when he was younger; she had gotten depressed when her own mother died in a tragic car accident. After Luke's mother was gone, his father, Charles, was devastated by the loss of his soulmate. He began drinking heavily; every time Luke thought Charles was going to clean up his act, Charles would return to his old ways. To make matters worse, he would call Luke and ask for money. Being between a rock and a hard spot, Luke would enevitably give in and wire money to whatever city his nomadic father was inhabiting.
Charles ended up in New Orleans about six months before Hurricane Katrina wreaked her havoc on so many. Though Luke loved his father, he had made a life for himself in New York. Seperated by distance and time, Luke is at a loss when a phone call from New Orleans comes in one day. The caller identifies himself as a friend of Charles' and asks Luke to travel to Louisiana to search for his father, who has been missing since the levees broke. Still angry with his father, Luke drags his feet but eventually ends up in New Orleans.
The story unfolds as he sees the effects of the hurricane. People are forlorn, yet have an underlying resolve to make things right again. The city is in ruin and the desolation is everywhere. Yet the people are survivors and Luke has much to learn from them. They are living a psalm of second chances.
Though "Recovering Charles" is not a book solely about Huricane Katrina, it calls all the images of the aftermath to mind. The writing is that vivid. Jason F. Wright seems to be writing as one who was there, who smelled the smells, who saw the the bodies, who saw the sorrow and fatigue in everyones' eyes. When Luke, Bela (a friend of Charles'), and a policeman named Frank go to the Morial Convention Center in search of Luke's father, the reader can see and smell the sights that lay within.
He pushed the door open and held it for me. The smell didn't wait for me to step in. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Bela cover her nose and mouth and walk away.
"You weren't exaggerating," I said, gagging.
He said something I couldn't understand. His mouth was hidden under both his mask and his uniform collar.
Frank led me through the lobby. We passed hazmat workers beginning the daunting process of undoing Katrina's human consequences. A water fountain had been pulled off the wall. The metal gates covering a concession stand lay on the floor. Empty Styrofoam cups and plastic lids were tossed everywhere. Cabinet doors hung from their hinges.
Frank opened a service door, revealing a pitch-black hallway. He pulled a flashlight from the side of his belt. "Come on," he managed. "I'll show you the food service area."
The hallway smelled even worse than the airy lobby had. Small mounds of feces and stained newspapers or magazines appeared every so often. What appeared to be dried urine was everywhere. With little warning I doubled over, pulled my mask down, and threw up in a trash can. I was thankful I couldn't see what was in it.
"Frank," I called ahead to him, wiping my mouth on my shirtsleeve. "I can't. I can't go this way. Come---" I threw up again, this time on the floor.
Hats off to Jason F. Wright for continuously writing better novels each time. It will be a treat to read his next book. His capability of writing a story with so much heart and soul with a moral tied in is astounding. His style is very real and easy to read, but the words all carry great meaning. Being reminded that seizing second chances is a thoroughly peaceful experience. Read "Recovering Charles" and let Luke's catharsis become your own.
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
Queen Elizabeth I held the throne of England for forty-five years, after a tumultuous span of time while her sister, Mary, was Queen. "The Lady Elizabeth" follows the life of Elizabeth from the time she is a toddler to her accession. While most of the story is historically factual, Alison Weir has taken creative license and presented the novel with a few embellishments, both to fill in the blanks and to eliminate any repetition of events. In doing so, Ms. Weir has written a truly engaging story involving court intrigue and royal scandal.
King Henry VIII is father to Mary, Elizabeth and Edward VI. Upon the King's death, Edward, as the only male heir, is made King of England. He is only nine years old but quickly decrees his Catholic subjects to becomes Protestants. When King Edward dies at age sixteen, Mary is next in line as heir to the throne. Her rule begins with all the people loving her; however, she loses popularity when she commands England to once again adhere to the Catholic faith. Even her sister Elizabeth has happily become a Protestant, so when Elizabeth refuses to convert to Catholicism, Mary is angered. She starts believing that Elizabeth is plotting to have her overthrown.
The story of Mary and Elizabeth takes sibling rivalry to a whole new level. Alison Weir has done an amazing job of invoking sympathy and allegiance from the reader for Elizabeth. Many movies have been made of this woman and her dramatic life, but none have made the Queen's story so personal. None have made subtle supplications to adore Queen Elizabeth I like "The Lady Elizabeth" does from the first chapter. The reader immediately undertstands that she is to reach a place of great import in her lifetime, as well as sees Elizabeth as her father's daughter.
Looking out the window, Elizabeth saw the ramshackle dwellings of the poorer people clustered around Westminster Abbey, the solid timber houses of prosperous merchants, the churches with their ringing bells, and the townsfolk bustling here and there. She drew away, wrinkling her nose, from the city stink of sewage, rotting food, and unwashed bodies, or the sight of a beggar in rags, his stump scabrous with sores, but peeped out again, emboldened by the broad grin of a rosy-cheeked goodwife, who boldly offered her an apple from her basket, Suddenly there was a thud, as a well-aimed egg splattered against the painted side of the litter, and an indignant Lady Bryan shook her fist at the impudent apprentice who cheekily bit his thumb before disappearing into an alley.
All along the wayside, clusters of people were gathering to stare in awe at Elizabeth's fine carriage with its royal crest, and wave to its small occupant. It gave her a good feeling to be accounted so important, and looking at the plain, homespun garments of the common folk, she felt a certain satisfaction that she did not have to live as they did in their humble cottages, but was housed in a great palace and clothed in rich fabrics.
It is simple to see Alison Weir as the New York Times bestselling author she is, upon reading "The Lady Elizabeth." Hopefully, she will indeed complete the sequel to this book, called "The Phoenix and the Bear," a love story between Queen Elizabeth I and Robert Dudley (a minor character in this book).
"The Lady Elizabeth" will sweep the reader to another time and place, one that seems romantic on the surface, but in truth is filled with the tragedy and difficulty of the time. It is a journey that is worth its weight in gold.
Tuesday, November 4, 2008
There are two things that everyone experiences: birth and death. Everything in-between varies from person to person, and each event impacts us differently. In "Goldengrove," Francine Prose (what a great name for a writer!) leads the reader on a journey of grieving. From the shock to the denial to the guilt, each character in this novel experiences the death of a loved one in a varying manner. Each one of them deals with it in their own way, and each of them finds themselves in similar places when they achieve acceptance.
Margaret is a seventeen-year old beauty, living on a lake with her parents and thirteen-year old sister, Nico. While Margaret and Nico are lounging in a boat one day, in the beginning of their summer break, Margaret waves goodbye, dives off the side of the boat and disappears. Nico does not see her reach the shore but assumes she has; in fact, Margaret had a heart problem that coalesced with her dive, making the bottom of the lake her temporary grave.
Divers find her body the same day, and at first the family is in such shock, they believe they will see her walk through the door or hear her voice on the other end of a phonecall. Margaret's boyfriend, Aaron, whom the parents did not approve of, has a difficult time processing his grief, as well. He makes contact with Nico and the two of them begin secretly spending time together. They both tell themselves it is just to aid in the healing process, when in actuality, Aaron is using Nico to replace Margaret. He perversely asks Nico to wear Margaret's clothes and Margaret's scent, watch Margaret's favorite films. Since she is trying to find her own way in life as a girl with a dead sister, she lacks the ability to see what he is doing to her.
"Goldengrove" is a sad book, in that anyone can relate to the sorrow inflicted by the death of a loved one. However, it is also a book of healing. The reader will feel comfort seeing others process grief in such a real and honest manner. Francine Prose writes with such sincerity and dignity. She employs the use of extremely vivid imagery. The reader can smell the toxicity of a teenage boy's room with:
The shades were drawn, and a stew of putrid odors had been simmering in the dark: wet dog, pet food, mildewed carpet, cat spray, spilled beer, plus the various illegal substances that Aaron and his siblings had sneaked out here to try. Layered on top of the smell were all of Aaron's mom's industrial-strength attempts to kill it.
Of course, Francine Prose also sprinkles some wit and humor into the story, like tiny nuggets of gold that make the reader feel as though all the characters will turn out okay. One moment, like a flicker, that offers this hope is when Aaron and Nico are sitting on his bedraggled, old couch preparing to watch a movie. He offers a bowl of chips and a can of Coke, and Nico notes in her mind:
Greasy crumbs sprinkled everywhere as I helped myself from the bowl.
I said, "I'm making a mess."
"Don't worry about it," said Aaron. "The reason the couch has lasted so long is because we feed it."
Each moment in this novel is like a tiny morsel of goodness and flavor. When you read "Goldengrove," do not let the lugubrious beginning scare you away. The story you find inside will be one of hope and endurance.
Sunday, November 2, 2008
A book about devotion, "The Wednesday Letters" is an excellent read that is easy to consume in a weekend.
Jack and Laurel, an elderly married couple dealing with cancer while running a quaint bed-and-breakfast in Virginia, die in each others' arms one night. Their commitment to one another is clear even in their last moments together; it seems to be a relationship any couple would envy. The first few paragraphs of the story are indicative of the comfort level the Coopers have worked to achieve with one another:
Shortly after 11:00 P.M., Laurel slid under the maroon comforter and into bed next to her husband, Jack. She wrapped her strong arms around him from behind and worried at how easily she could feel his ribs. She remembered the many years when he's weighed considerably more than she had.
Assuming Jack was already asleep, she she began her nightly routine. Laurel breathed in deeply, expanding and filling every corner of her lungs. With her full lips closed tightly, she let the air slowly escape through her nose. It calmed her.
She closed her eyes; she prayed for each of her children--- Matthew, Malcolm, Samantha--- and for her only granddaughter, Angela, and for her only sibling, Allyson. Then she pleaded with God for more time and cursed herself for not being stronger. She ended her silent prayer with her first and last tears of the day.
"Hi." Jack's voice startled her.
"Hey you, I thought you were asleep." Laurel dabbed her eyes on her navy blue cotton pillowcase.
Upon their death, their three children come to the B&B. Matthew, the oldest, arrives without his wife, signifying he may be having marital problems. Samantha, Jack and Laurel's only daughter, is a single mother after her husband cheated on her. Malcolm returns from a two-year stay in Brazil; now he is forced to face the problems he was trying to run from.
As all relationships do, so did Jack and Laurel's require a little work throughout some very trying times. This is all made clear in the letters their three grown children discover upon the death of their beloved mother and father. Not only do the letters raise questions, they also teach how to love and forgive those who mean the most to you.
The end of the novel is touching and brings a tear to the reader's eye, as well as a lump to the throat. Jason K. Wright is a writer who possesses the ability to comprehend and appreciate an array of emotions that spans generations and gender roles. The book serves as a reminder to never take your loved ones for granted; it is an apprisal to hug your child or spouse daily.
"The Wednesday Letters" is a recommended read; let Jason F. Wright tell you a story.
Wednesday, October 29, 2008
It would only stand to reason that to be married to an actor/comedian, you would have to be just as funny. Ann Leary, wife of Denis Leary, has written a hilarious novel about being married to an actor.
Julia and Joe Ferraro are a married couple living in New York City; he is an actor on a hit NBC show and she is a former writer. They live in a nice apartment with their two children: a fourteen-year old daughter and a four-year old son. Julia is not a stereotypical "glamour wife," even though she tries to be for a while. One night while they are out with friends, Julia checks her voice messages and hears a steamy message for Joe, from a woman with a sultry Southern accent.
Julia sits on the knowledge for a while, not knowing how best to proceed. She surreptitiously listens to the messages on her husband's cell phone and is "rewarded" every few days with a new message from the mystery woman. While all this is going on, Julia is closing up to everyone around her.
Ann Leary writes all this in the most humorous way. Anyone who reads this book will probably find themselves actually chuckling out loud, in appreciation of the hairbrained dilemmas the protagonist finds herself in the midst of. In one scene, Julia is trying to avoid some of the other mothers from her son's preschool. When they corner her and ask why she has failed to return their phone calls, she tells them her cell phone was stolen and that she had her service shut off. The scene continues,
"Wait," said Judy. "I just called you this morning. Who's your service provider? You must have the same shitty service that I do. I don't think they shut off your service yet, because I just called you this morning and heard your voice mail. Whoever stole your phone is probably racking up thousands of dollars in overseas calls...."
Judy opened a pocket on the side of her Chloe bag and removed her cell phone. "Here," she said. She held the phone at arm's length and squinted at the front of it. She pushed a few numbers and then said, "Here, let's call you now. Maybe the guy who stole it will answer it." Judy handed me the phone and I could hear the ringing coming from the earpiece before I got it anywhere near my head. A millisecond later, my phone could be heard loudly ringing from somewhere in the dark fathoms of my oversized bag. It didn't actually ring; it played a ring tone that Ruby had decided to surprise me with several months before. It was the song that broadcast: I like big butts and I cannot lie... Ruby had downloaded it onto my phone as a joke after I complained about my weight one too many times. I pretended I didn't hear the song in my purse and Judy and Vicki pretended with me. When I heard my recorded voice through the earpiece and my bag stopped playing, I slapped the phone shut and said, "You're right. It's still on."
"Right," said Vicki. "Okay."
"I'll have to get that taken care of."
"Outtakes From A Marriage" is an easy and quick read; the writing flows and the individual chapters are not too lengthy. The book also has a "fun factor," in that it mentions a lot of celebrities that are household names, making the reader feel as though they are getting an inside glimpse of the Hollywood/New York City scene. The best part of the story is the end. Julia knows what she has to do for her own sake, and while the author does not come out and explicitly say what Julia will do, she provides a metaphor that lets the reader deduce the conclusion.
"Outtakes From A Marriage" is a recommended read for anyone who is intrigued by celebrities, or has a marriage or children. It is an amusing book with much heart and wit.
Monday, October 27, 2008
A romance by the same author as "Barefoot," a New York Times Bestseller, "A Summer Affair" is the story of soccer mom Claire from Nantucket. She agrees to co-chair a huge fundraiser for the children of the island's working residents. Quickly and haphazardly, she falls in love with the director of the program, Lock Dixon. They begin an affair that lasts almost a full year. When their love is new, it is filled with the passion and neediness that many relationships experience. Claire can never imagine her life without Lock, and even cries at the mere act of leaving his arms to go home to her husband every night.
Jason, Claire's husband and the father of their four children, knows nothing of the affair, but hates the fact his wife has so many night meetings every week. He is tired of her "being absent" even when she is there physically. In his eyes, the gala event has stolen her from their family.
Throw in Claire's alcoholic ex-boyfriend who has become a big rock star. Matthew and Claire were best friends as children and fell in love in highschool. They will always love each other, so when he comes to Nantucket to perform the concert for the benefit she is co-chairing, she is faced with the decision of who she wants to spend the rest of her life with.
Some novels fall into the category of "beach read" and "A Summer Affair" is most certainly that. It does not have a hardcore revelation at the end of the story, though when Claire realizes which man she truly wants to be with, the reader will agree with her decision.
The characters are smart; the landscape is inviting and romantic. The book lacks a certain depth that some audience members may be looking for, but as a "beach read," "A Summer Affair" has hit the jackpot.
Wednesday, October 22, 2008
A book about sisterhoods, "The Secret Life of Bees" is nothing short of brilliant. It captures all the struggles of life as a southern female in the mid-1960's. It proves that no matter the pigment of your skin, there is something very beautiful and very heartbreaking about being a woman.
Lily Owens is a fourteen-year old girl living in South Carolina. Her mother died when Lily was four-years old; there are mysterious circumstances surrounding the death. She has been left in the care of her abusive father and an uncaring black nanny. As Lily and Rosaleen the nanny walk to town one day so Rosaleen can register to vote, an altercation occurs. Lily and Rosaleen end up in the small-town jail; Rosaleen is beaten and bloodied at the hands of a few racists while the cop turns his head and looks the other way. Rosaleen is sent to the black wing of the hospital, but Lily hatches a plan to break her out before the nanny is returned to jail.
They hitch-hike through the state, following a ghost from Lily's past. In doing so, they make discoveries about themselves, about their past and about the world around them.
A movie of the book has come out in theaters, and while I have yet to see it, I greatly hope that with a story this remarkable, the movie is every bit as good as the book.
Sue Monk Kidd masterfully weaves the story with her beautiful words and images. Every single woman in the novel achieves their own greatness in life. The backdrop for the entire book is brought to life, drawing the reader in so closely, they can see and feel and taste their surroundings. Sunsets are personified with actions and colors:
First we ate. By now I'd learned eating was a high priority with the Daughters. When we finished, the redness had seeped from the day and night was arranging herself around us. Cooling things down, staining and dyeing the evening purple and blue-black.
Sue Monk Kidd has seen her novel succeed; at the time of the printing of this third edition, "The Secret Life of Bees" was on the New York Times Bestseller List for over one hundred weeks and sold over five million copies.
The author began her writing career writing memoirs. Hopefully, she will listen to her fans and followers when they express interest in a sequel to "The Secret Life of Bees."
Many books today fail to have a focus or moral to the story. It is refreshing and energizing to read a book that has the ability to make the reader feel empowered by the end. Make the journey and read "The Secret Life of Bees."
Tuesday, October 21, 2008
One thing most people want in life, whether they wish to admit it or not, is money and the comfort that goes with it. While New York City is a very expensive place to live, there are many people who are living the "high life" by making a fantastic amount of money, which they then spend on gorgeous apartments, clothes and shoes. Candace Bushnell gives the reader a peek into this lifestyle in a fun, energetic and sexy way.
Anyone who is going to read this book must know upfront that there are some very explicit sex scenes as well as adult language. This is not the book to purchase for your fourteen-year old granddaughter for Christmas!
While the character list is a bit weighty, each character has taken on a life of its own by the end of the second chapter. There is a slew of writers: gossip columnists, bloggers, novelists, screenplay writers. There are the hedge-funders (the wealthiest of them all). There is an actress. Bushnell has even created a few characters who are not of this class, but are trying to be, like the young girl from the south who has been spoiled all her life; she comes to the city to find a rich man to marry.
The character readers will be most sympathetic of is Billy Litchfield. He is a bald, gay man (think Stanford Blatch-ish) who has lived in the city for several decades. While very personable, he is not of the same class as the rest of his friends, though he makes himself appear to be similar. He knows everyone and understands all the intricacies of "being someone." On the flip-side, he has real problems: money, an ailing mother and sibling disagreements. He is forced to deal with them in very real ways.
Not all the characters are likeable. Mindy Gooch is a cold fish; Parker Posey could play her in the movie, in a very "Meg Swan" from "Best in Show" fashion. And of course, there is the trampy Lola Fabrikant, the twenty-two-year old gold-digger.
"One Fifth Avenue" is a lot of fun. It is a dense book, in that there are a lot of names and places to take in, but it is worth it. Candace Bushnell has a definite flair for creating these glamorous and troubled stories. She gives "One Fifth Avenue" the money and sophistication of "Lipstick Jungle," and the charisma and charm of "Sex and the City."
This book is sure to be a hit.
Thursday, October 16, 2008
How far should a parent go to protect their own child? And how will that choice affect the relationship? Deborah Monroe was faced with the first question and made a decision in an instant, not realizing how her decision would affect her relationship with her daughter.
In "The Secret Between Us," Deborah Monroe, our protagonist, picks her daughter Grace up from a friend's house on a rainy night. Since Grace has a learner's permit, her mom lets her drive home. On the way, Grace hits her history teacher, who was seemingly out for a jog in the dark, in the rain. The teacher has little more than some superficial wounds and a broken hip, but he still dies. Therein lies the mystery, as well as the trouble.
Pieces of this story seemed bit far-fetched. For instance, after the teacher has been hit by the car, the mother sends the daughter home, while she stays at the scene to deal with the police and medics. This behavior is questionable. What honest persons would agree simultaneously that it is best for the driver to leave the scene of an accident before police arrive?
Regardless of a few improbable details, the book is still entertaining and a very quick read. Barbara Delinsky seems to have a natural story-telling ability in that the book flows swiftly. While the book has a nice ending, it doesn't exactly have that sparkling "ah-ha!" moment, or overwhelmingly happy feeling a reader is left with after finishing some books.
I would give this book a B+.
Tuesday, October 14, 2008
Although you know how the story ends, this historical novel is a marvelous read for anyone who is interested in the history of the Revolution. It is the entire history of Martha and George Washington as a couple, told from Martha's point-of-view. While many aspects of the story are factual, it is primarily supposition and embellishments. Nancy Moser creates a completely believable narrative, though it is impossible to know truly what always went through Martha's head and heart.
One fun aspect of this book is the "Fact or Fiction" section at the end. It explains to the reader where some of the embellishments were derived from; most often the supposition stems from an actual account. It is as if the blanks were merely filled in by Nancy Moser to create this delighful tale. Due to the fact that Martha Washington burned all the letters between herself and George, very little is known of their personal life. The book gives a great and fairly detailed historical account of Washington's life as a landowner, General and eventual President of the United States. Battles are recounted in discussions from Washington's mouth, making the reader feel as though they are speaking with him.
Some of the text denotes the upper class in the story. While the vocabulary is not above the average reader's head, it is very articulate. For example, when George Washington comes to visit friends of Martha's, the reader sees the scene from Martha's point-of-view:
"But then an unexpected visitor came to call. I had met the dapper Colonel Washington at various soirees in Williamsburg and, of course, had heard tales of his heroism fighting the French and Indians out west. Those western borders were held precariously. I had heard Daniel speak of horrendous violations endured by many of the brave settlers. I had also read portions of a journal Colonel Washington had written about his exploits. Apparently it had been published on both continents.
We gathered in the foyer to receive this new guest. I had not remembered him to be quite so striking. He stood well over six feet, towering over me and the other ladies--- and even most of the men. His torso was sturdy, his hands and feet enormous. His hair held a reddish cast and was pulled into a ribbon. His nose was large, his eyes a pale blue. The only weakness about him was his face, which was a bit gaunt and pale as though he may have been ill of late, and scarred, most likely from a bout of the smallpox.
While "Washington's Lady" is a love story between a widow and a war hero, it is also a reminder of the greatness from which our country has grown. The book invokes pride and patriotism, for both the United States as we know it, and for the sacrifices made by our Founding Fathers.
In my book, this book is a must-read.
Thursday, October 9, 2008
Life in colonial times was never easy. There was war, hunger, hard work, untreatable health issues that the inhabitants faced daily. Christine Blevins captures the essence of the difficulties of the eighteenth century in her book "Midwife of the Blue Ridge."
Maggie Duncan comes from Scotland as an indentured servant, to escape the hardships of her homeland. She was trained as a midwife at a young age and is a very capable healer. A poor man buys her contract so that his pregnant, ailing wife will stand a chance of living through pregnancy and childbirth. Maggie quickly becomes part of the Martin family and adapts to her life in the colonies with little problem.
This historical novel is a fun adventure for any reader to embark upon; the characters are very alive and their dialogue is enjoyable. The author captivates the reader with the accurate dialect of each individual persona. For instance, while Maggie is on the auction block after reaching America, a rude young man makes a lewd comment to her. Being a somewhat brassy character herself she responds,
"'Ho there! Laddie! Aye, you...' She pointed. 'You wi' the face like a tinker's spotty arse. Here's a sound bit of advice--- best make friends wi' yer fist'--- the girl punctuated her verbal assault with an explicit hand gesture--- 'for it's bound to be yer one true love.' The crowd roared its approval and the heckler slunk away."
The landscape is beautiful. The reader can see the morning mist in the valleys, can experience the color of the trees and flowers. The smell of smoke and the sound of birds readily plays on the reader's senses.
If you enjoyed the "Outlander" series by Diana Gabaldon (and if you haven't read that yet, do so!), you will love "Midwife of the Blue Ridge" just as much. I can only hope Christine Blevins writes a sequel; if she is as smart as she seems from her writing, she will continue the story of Maggie Duncan.
Monday, October 6, 2008
Any parent knows that being a parent involves a willingness to learn when to hold on tight and when to let go. Any parent also knows it's the letting go that is the harder to learn of the two lessons.
Susan Shaffer has a daughter named Lily; this book follows them from Lily's birth to when she is nineteen-years old. While Susan's thoughts are her own, they truly respresent all that every mother faces when having a child. From the melt-downs in a restaurant to the fitful tears when she is denied the privelege of attending a friend's slumber party, Lily is every woman's daughter.
The obverse of Susan and Lily is mom JoJo and daughter Tiffany. They are best friends with Susan and Lily but have a very different take on what the relationship between a mother and child should be. Their mother-daughter role is allowed to be friend-friend rather than parent-child. It is this approach to parenting that gets them into trouble.
There may not be a handbook on how to face individual situations with a child; however, Roxanne Henke has written something that is very close, in the form of a novel. The situations are completely relatable, if not exact. She writes with utter empathy; she seems like a woman who may actually have parenting down to an exact science.
While God and Christianity are a background to this story, it does not come across as the main focus. Any reader can still relate to everything she writes, especially if you have a daughter. She proves how one parenting style can work over another by giving examples of each and novelizing the repercussions.
The chapters of the book switch back and forth from Susan and JoJo's point-of-view, and later, Lily's. In a JoJo's-point-of-view chapter, she is seeing her four-year old, Tiffany, have a tantrum at the mall because Tiffany wants to see Santa Claus. At first, she tries reasoning with her daughter and explaining that Santa is at the North Pole. When that fails to work, she tells Tiffany that if she does not stop the tantrum, they will leave the mall right then and there. Tiffany continues her bad behavior. Instead of making good on her threat, JoJo says, "Tiffi, listen to Mommy. If you stop crying, I'll buy you a treat at the toy store. Okay?"
Tiffany blinked two crocodile tears down her cheeks and stared back at me. I'd seen that obstinate attitude before. I was going to have to do better than a toy. "When we go to McDonald's, you can have an ice-cream cone for the ride home."
JoJo is the parent that is easy to become. She gives in to her children just to avert tantrums, but in the end, it makes her life much harder. On the other hand, Susan puts her foot down. Her daughter turns out much differently than JoJo's daughter.
This book is a recommended read to anyone (mother or father) who has a daughter or will have a daughter. Not only is the story full of emotions, it is easy to read and reinforces what we know to be the right way to parent. Roxanne Henke is to be commended for her attention to detail and her honesty. Be prepared to feel a tug at your heartstrings upon finishing the book; the pride you feel for what happens in the story will make you feel as though it is your own pride in your own beloved child.
Thursday, October 2, 2008
A book filled with heart, with character, with inspiration; "Hannah's Dream" is story-telling perfection. By far the best book I have read in ages, it is sure to strike a chord in every reader's marrow.
Samson Brown has been Hannah the elephant's caretaker for over forty years at a small zoo in Bladenham, Washington. His health and agedness require he retire soon, but he knows he cannot leave his beloved Hannah in the conditions she must subsist in at the Max L. Biedelman Zoo. His empathy with Hannah, combined with the devotion and hard work of those around him, work together to better the pachyderm's life.
This book is beautiful. The characters are each detailed with such color and flavor and voice. The writing is very smooth and fluid, yet smart and to-the-point. The story is quick to capture the reader's attention, making the book difficult to put down, and impossible to forget once finished.
One of the most impressive aspects of "Hannah's Dream" is the easy way the author inserts details of the characters' histories. For example, the reader can see what a character looks like and learns where a character has been, all with the same thought:
"Sam steered his old Dodge Dart back into morning traffic, making sure the coffee and the bag of donuts were secure. He was a careful man and it paid off. At sixty-eight, even by his own lights, he looked damned good. He stood upright and proud, no gut whatsoever, not even a little one people would have forgiven him for, at his age. A little snowfall on the top of his head, just a light dusting; no gray at the temples, either. Seeing him from the back, you might think he was twenty, but when he turned around his face gave him away. It was deeply lined, like a roadmap starting someplace far away---Cincinnati, maybe, where he was born, or Yakima, Washington, where his daddy had had a truck farm; then Korea, where Sam had served in the war; and ending right here in Bladenham, Washington."
"Hannah's Dream" is a book without murder, sex, over-used profanity or needless, directionless thoughts. It is "just" a nice book. It is a relief from so many books that try too hard. The reader never feels like they are being manipulated or that the story is too contrived. "Hannah's Dream" is a blessed accession to the literary world.
Tuesday, September 30, 2008
John Shors is an up-and-coming author to watch for; “Beside A Burning Sea” is his second novel, and he does display real potential with this particular work.
The story is about a World War II medical ship stationed in the South Pacific. The reader learns in the first line that the ship is going to be torpedoed in ten minutes. Within the first few pages, the reader also learns that one of the American officers on the ship is a Japanese spy.
Nine survivors (out of hundreds of victims) swim to a nearby island as the ship sinks into the dark, night waters. The first chapter is dramatic and intriguing; one of the swimmers might not be strong enough to get to shore, another of the swimmers is the spy, the reader just has no idea which person it is until the second chapter.
The author could have continued to maintain the suspense regarding the spy once the survivors all reached the island. Admittedly, it was a tad disappointing when the spy was made immediately apparent to the reader. A little more mystery might have been fun.
While the first chapter was intriguing, the second was less so, and the third and fourth were hard to wade through. At this point, the reader still has no history of any of the characters, and therefore is unable to care about the characters. If you stick with the book to the fifth chapter, which I highly recommend you do, you will fall in love with the characters (except for the bad guy, who turns out to be really bad) and their island.
Shors paints a beautiful landscape for the island which becomes home. From colorful birds to pesky mosquitos, the reader feels they are there, sitting next to Akira (a Japanese patient from the ship) and Joshua (the ship’s captain) around the campfire on the beach. Each character takes on a life of their own and by the end of the book, you will hate to see anything unjust happen to any of them.
The book is set up so each chapter is a new day. Day 18 is the final chapter of the book. At the start of each chapter, the author supplies an appropriate haiku on the opposite page, as two of the central characters bond over poetry. When an author employs this tactic, it is oft the case that the chapters become too lenghty or weighty. That is not so with the chapter length in “Beside A Burning Sea.” Each chapter is segmented by page breaks as the reader follows each character around for a snippet, and they are of perfect length.
While some may read this book and think it carries an anti-war theme, it is still possible to read the book as just a novel and enjoy it as such. The characters in the book do not enjoy the war, but who does? They dream about the day they no longer have to live with war, but that is as most people who experience war firsthand do.
Though the imagery in “Beside A Burning Sea” is good, Shor’s strong suit seems to be his dialogue. Each character has a very clear and distinct voice. From the young British lad to the middle-aged engineer from Missouri, all the characters could be standing in front of you, speaking. This is the key that carries the story along at a nice pace.
“Beside A Burning Sea” is a good book. Not a great book, but I suspect Shor’s next book will be great. He is a young author and could very well be a great literary force someday. Read this book if you enjoy romance, history or war, and escapes to a faraway, if only temporary, paradise.
“When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily.”
This is the first sentence in “The Almost Moon” by Alice Sebold, and you know when you read it, the book has successfully pulled you in, whether you want to be pulled in or not. Many readers may feel too uncomfortable to read it, but there will be quite a few who find the challenge of this particular self-exploration rather intriguing.
Our protagonist, Helen, is called to her mother’s house by her mother’s neighbor. Upon Helen’s arrival, her mother is in full-dementia mode and very quickly soils herself. As Helen is pulling her mother around the house, in a blanket so she’ll slide easier, Helen suddenly breaks. She takes a hand towel she has been carrying and holds it down over her mother’s face. She uses so much pressure, her mother’s nose breaks. And then Helen realizes what she has done.
“The Almost Moon” is about the twenty-four hours that transpire after the murder, in which Helen makes one bad decision after another. The reader walks through Helen’s life, viewing first-hand the events which have molded Helen into the woman she is today.
There really is nothing normal about Helen’s childhood. Her mother was agoraphobic and bi-polar and was never treated for it. She was unfeeling for the most part and was part of the reason Helen never grew up knowing the importance of a hug. Helen’s father was primarily her mother’s protector; Helen was merely an afterthought. When he got tired of caretaking, he would leave a young Helen to her own devices; he would retreat to his own childhood home where he created plywood cut-outs of familial scenes. He eventually committed suicide.
The book leads you through Helen’s decision-making process after she kills her mother; should she run away, lie to the authorities, commit suicide? At different points in the book, the reader is sure of Helen’s choice. But then Helen makes a poor decision and it’s off to the races once again.
While this book was not something I can say I enjoyed (mostly due to the fact I was uncomfortable about it; I’ve honestly never felt like killing someone), I also have to admit I could not put the book down. It was a page-turner and some of the descriptions and images were interesting. One technique the author employed was giving Helen a very vivid imagination. Most often, her “daydreams” revolve around cutting her mother into tiny pieces and either holding her heart above a frying pan on the stove, or mailing her body parts in little boxes to places around the world.
Helen’s memories hold the key to what she has held as most important in her life: her own children. She recalls “Along with my father’s letters in the basement, there would be the paper Emily wrote in junior high, on which a teacher had scrawled a failing grade. I no longer remembered the woman’s name, Barber or Bartlett, something beginning with a B. I had marched into the junior high in a mock-mommy outfit I’d composed for effect– corduroy bag jumper and deranged Mary-Jane flats– and lit into Emily’s teacher with all my might. This had succeeded in gaining Emily a C and me a plea from my daughter never to do anything similar again. I still saw these moments spent in defense of my children as the finest of my life.”
Alice Sebold is an author who must be credited for thinking outside the box. Her nonchalance in her written violence makes the reader wonder just what tendencies lay deep within a neighbor’s, a friend’s, an acquaintance’s heart. Just where does one draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable?
This book is great for people who like dark stories. If you like books with a little more sunshine, don’t bother with this one. You probably won’t feel good after reading it. If sunshine isn’t necessary, read “The Almost Moon.” You may be occupied with all the questions running through your mind for several days after.
“Peony in Love” is a remarkable book about seventeenth-century China with a deep look into the culture of both the living and the dead.
The reader is immediately transfixed by sixteen year-old Peony’s beauty and innocence. She meets a mysterious young poet in the garden one night, the sounds of her favorite opera in the background. The two have an instant connection but choose to remain distant, as they know they are each betrothed to strangers. Peony pines for her young poet in weeks to come and becomes obsessed with writing about and dissecting the aforementioned opera. As her obsession grows, she wilts. She fears marrying her betrothed and can think only of the opera and the young poet. As Peony is lying on her death bed, her father comes into her room and tells her she was betrothed to the poet. Her heart swells and her sorrow instantly evaporates. But it’s too little, too late. She is taken into the courtyard to die, as was the custom of the time.
From this point in the beginning of the story, the book takes the reader on an emotional journey like no other. The sympathy invoked in regards to Peony’s growth and understanding is tantamount to the vivid landscape of the different realms Peony passes through. Lisa See paints an intricate tapestry of hungry ghosts and mournful lovers, and of the landscape of China and Chinese beliefs.
“Peony in Love” is a book about the relationships between women, and how they can either help or harm. It is a book about secrets and deception, as well as a book about honesty and love.
The style of “Peony is Love” is simple to follow, yet filled to the brim with details that have been carefully researched by Lisa See, who is a self-acclaimed “research fiend,” according to the interview she gives in the back of the book. She traveled to each location she wrote about in China, as well as spoke with top scholars in the field of Chinese women’s history. While reading this story, the reader feels confident that the author is presenting the story as factually as possible.
It is quite normal for the living to wonder about death. The author explains the process of how the Chinese perceive death and believe in it. Peony says, “I had heard that death is darkness, but that’s not how I experienced it. It would take forty-nine days to push me out of the earthly realm and pull me into the afterworld. Every soul has three parts, and each must find its proper home after death. One part stayed with my body to be buried, another part traveled toward the afterworld, while the last part remained in the earthly realm, waiting to be put in my ancestor tablet. I was rent through with terror, sadness, and confusion as my three parts began their separate journeys, each full aware of the other two at all times.”
While death is certainly an ancillary theme in this book, the motif of life is fully infused into the book. The voice the author has given Peony is what draws the reader into the book. When Peony sneaks away from her family’s home, her voice gives life to this passage: “He held my elbow, since some of the rocks were slick with moss. I felt the heat of his hand through the silk of my sleeve. Warm air lifted my skirt as though it were a cicada’s wing carried by the wind. I was out. I was seeing things I’d never seen before. Here and there, bits of vines and branches draped over our compund wall, hinting at what was hidden inside. Weeping willows hung over the lake, their tendrils teasing the water’s surface. I brushed against wild roses blooming on the bank and their scent infused the air, my clothes, my hair, the skin on my hands. The feelings that rushed through my body were nearly overwhelming; fear that I would be caught, exhilaration that I was out, and love for the man who had brought me here.”
Instead of simply saying “the rocks had moss on them,” the author created a more intense image by using the word “slick.” The metaphor likening her skirt to a cicada’s wing illustrates the grace of her skirt blowing in the wind. “The tendrils teasing the water’s surface” strengthens the serenity of the image both with the personification and the alliteration of the phrase.
This is an author who knows what she is doing. The book “Peony in Love” is so very well written, I find myself picking the book back up, weeks after I finished reading it, to glance through the pages at my favorite passages. My only complaint is the title. It sounded more like a cheesy romance than the great work it actually is.
If you choose to read this book, know that you will not be sorry. It is a marvelous read.