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Saturday, December 18, 2010

Exercising My Rights

Barbara Scrupski
Crown, 2003

Left penniless thanks to her spendthrift father, Countess Alexandra Korvin struggles to restore her fortunes, until, craving freedom and rebelling against the confines of being a woman, she cuts off her hair and joins the army as a man.

I made it about a quarter of the way through this book and didn’t even get to the good part about the countess joining the army. I just couldn’t take the predictable and boring story line. Alexandra is a typical romance novel heroine who must marry in order to get enough money to continue the life to which she has become accustomed. As you may guess, she finds herself attracted to the man she cannot have, and the man she can’t stand is the one who wants her. What is a romance heroine to do but join the army?

Ugh. As I was describing this book to a co-worker, I suddenly realized that there was a reason I was more interested in playing Brick Blaster every night instead of picking this book up to read: it sucked. Then I remembered the third rule of Daniel Pennac’s 10 Inalienable Rights of the Reader, which is: The Right to Not Finish a Book. (See all the rules here:

Hurray! I was saved from tediousness and mind-numbing reading torture!

I’m not sure where I heard about this title. I thought perhaps I read a good review, but I just checked the reviews and they were not very good at all, which made me feel vindicated and justified in my reaction. I’m returning it to the library and starting another title. Ah, but freedom is sweet.


This is the author’s first novel.

Other titles you may enjoy more than this one:

The True Memoirs of Little K by Adrienne Sharp (2010)
Ninety-nine years old, with a sharp memory for every jewel she owned and every conquest she made, Mathilde Kschessinska--"prima ballerina assoluta" of the long-vanished Russian Imperial Ballet--sits down to write her memoirs. The greatest dancer of the age, her scything technique catches the eye and heart of Nikolai Romanov.

Push Not the River by James Conroyd Martin (2003)
Ninety-nine years old, with a sharp memory for every jewel she owned and every conquest she made, Mathilde Kschessinska--"prima ballerina assoluta" of the long-vanished Russian Imperial Ballet--sits down to write her memoirs. The greatest dancer of the age, her scything technique catches the eye and heart of Nikolai Romanov.

Sonja’s Run by Richard Hoyt (2005)
Fleeing across European Russia for assaulting an infamous colonel and trying to bring daguerrotypes into the country, poet Sonja Sankova and American Jack Sandt find themselves pursued by the colonel's men.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

A House for Broken People

Sunset Park
Paul Auster
Henry Holt, 2010

After falling in love with an underage girl and stirring the wrath of her older sister, New York native Miles Heller flees to Brooklyn and shacks up with a group of artists squatting in the borough's Sunset Park neighborhood.

Point of view changes in this thoughtful novel about people living on the fringes of society. Miles is the main character who has been estranged from his parents since the accidental death of his stepbrother when he was a teenager. Now in the thirties, Miles is forced to reconnect with his previous life when his relationship with a high school girl is threatened. He knows that he could go to jail, but this girl is so beautiful, mature and gifted that he comes up with the idea of leaving her in his apartment to finish her senior year of high school while he returns to New York for the duration. While there, he sees the inevitability of connecting with his parents, so he begins the process of becoming their son again after not communicating with them for several years.

Meanwhile, Miles’ father enters the picture. He has known of Miles’ whereabouts ever since he disappeared because one of his high school friend, Bing, has kept him in the loop. Now he and Miles’ mother, a famous actress, both know that Miles is back in town and are waiting anxiously for him to contact them.

Trying to save money, Miles moves in with Bing and his friends Alice and Ellen. They are living in an abandoned house that somehow has electricity, rent-free. Alice is a graduate study working on her dissertation about the movie The Best Years of Their Lives, which apparently impacted many people powerfully. Ellen is a lease agent by day and an erotic artist by night, hoping to kindle a meaningful relationship with the right man. Bing, the author of this alternative lifestyle, is a musician and owner of the “Hospital for Broken Things,” a fix it shop. All these people are misfits of one kind or another and hoping beyond hope they can save enough money to move before they are evicted, or worse, arrested as vagrants.

This book is centered around the characters' past injuries and hurts and how they have come together at this one point in their lives to intersect in this one place. Sunset Park offers them their one chance to heal, if they so choose, and give each other the support and forgiveness that has been missing from theirlives. Yet, even in their little society, they each are lonely in their own way and struggling to trying to break free of their isolation and brokenness in order to connect with each other. Composed of long sentences with many details, Auster weaves a beautiful story of forgiveness and redemption that flows in a lyrical and easy manner. These characters feel like people I could sit down and have a chat with, perhaps becoming friends.

My only complaint is the end, which seemed abrupt and confusing. I even had to reread it several times to figure out what the heck happened. Otherwise, this was a very rewarding book.


Other books by this author:
In the Country of Last Things (1987)
Hand to Mouth: a chronicle of early failure (1997)
Timbuktu (1999)
The Book of Illusions (2002)
Oracle Night (2003)
The Brooklyn Follies (2006)
Travels in the Scriptorium (2007)
The New York Trilogy (2008)
Man in the Dark (2008)
Invisible (2009)

Other titles you may enjoy:

Postcards by Annie Proulx (1992)
Loyal Blood leaves his family in Vermont and carries the secret with across the country that he accidentally killed his girlfriend, and he continually sends postcards back home.

Shroud by John Banville (2003)
When a young woman threatens to expose a damaging secret from his former life, Axel Vander, an elderly scholar and master liar, is forced to examine his past to uncover the truths that he has so carefully hidden

Last Night in Twisted River by John Irving (2009)
In 1954, in the cookhouse of a logging and sawmill settlement in northern New Hampshire, an anxious twelve-year-old boy mistakes the local constable's girlfriend for a bear. Both the twelve-year-old and his father become fugitives, forced to run from Coos County-to Boston, to southern Vermont, to Toronto-pursued by the implacable constable. Their lone protector is a fiercely libertarian logger, once a river driver, who befriends them.

Monday, December 13, 2010


The Fat Man: a Tale of North Pole Noir
Ken Harmon
Dutton, 2010

A tough-guy elf is framed for murder in a North Pole mystery that is so hard-boiled that it makes Raymond Chandler look like chick-lit. In a world where elves live for hundreds of years, reindeer are playful bullies, and every Christmas story ever told is represented, this humorous but dark story provides something different for holiday reading.

Fired from his longtime job as captain and founder of the Coal Patrol, Gumdrop Coal , one of the original elves, is angry. He used to care about his job helping Santa bring toys to all the children of the world. But somewhere along the way things went sour for Gumdrop. Maybe it was delivering one too many lumps of coal for the Naughty List. Maybe it's the conspiracy against Christmas that he's starting to sense down every chimney. Either way, he’s started hitting the eggnog a little too much and brooding over a certain saucy female reporter. To make himself feel better, Gumdrop decides to give a serious wakeup call to parents who can't keep their vile offspring from landing on the Naughty List. But when one parent winds up dead, his eye shot out with a Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model BB gun, Gumdrop Coal must learn who framed him and why. Along the way he'll escape the life-sucking plants of the Mistletoe Forrest, battle the infamous Tannenbomb Giant, and survive a close encounter with twelve very angry drummers and their violent friends. The horrible truth lurking behind the gingerbread doors of Kringle Town could spell the end of Christmas-and of the fat man himself.

Although the author tries to add some nice words about Christmas spirit and the true meaning of the holiday, this is a very dark and disturbing story. Funny, but disturbing. The many references to other Christmas stories, like It’s a Wonderful Life, The Christmas Story, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, The Twelve Days of Christmas, etc., become tedious about halfway through the book. The plot is slight, the characters are stereotypical, and the action is about as exciting as a bowl full of jelly, but the writing is witty and the dialogue snappy. Personally, I would rather read The Best Christmas Pageant Ever if I needed a literary shot of holiday joy.

This is the author’s first novel.


Other titles you may enjoy:

The Stupidest Angel: a heartwarming tale of Christmas Terror by Christopher Moore (2004)
It's Christmastime in Pine Cove. Lena Marquez rings the bell for the Salvation Army, and when ex-husband Dale Pearson won't part with his pocket change, she decides to exact revenge. Meanwhile, while rushing home from a friend's house in the dark one night, little Joshua Barker, age seven, sees a woman kill Santa with a shovel. (But it wasn't Santa; it was Dale.) A small boy makes a simple Christmas wish: Please, Santa, come back from the dead. The angel Raziel, not the brightest halo in heaven, is sent to Earth and accidentally revives the entire Pine Cove graveyard. Now under attack by the undead, the town has to put aside differences, bind together, and discover the true meaning of "Christmas spirit."

Skipping Christmas by John Grisham (2001)
Luther and Nora Krank have decided to set sail on a Caribbean cruise on December 25th and skip Christmas. They are about to discover that their decision brings enormous consequences--and isn't half as easy as they imagined.

Visions of Sugar Plums by Janet Evanovich (2002)
A holiday adventure finds Stephanie Plum struggling to remove an intruder from her apartment and falling for a mysterious newcomer.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Be Careful What You Wish For

29: a novel
Adena Halpern
Simon and Schuster, 2010

Who hasn’t among us older folks wished to be young again? When Ellie closes her eyes to blow out her birthday candles, she wishes she was 29 years old again – the same age as her granddaughter Lucy – just for one day. And, guess what? It actually happens!

Ellie Jerome is a young-at-heart seventy-five-year-old who feels she has more in common with her twenty-nine-year-old granddaughter, Lucy, than her fifty-five-year-old daughter, Barbara. Ellie’s done everything she can to stay young, and the last thing she wants is to celebrate another birthday, hence the wish. Ellie is very surprised to discover the next morning that she is young, beautiful and sexy just like she was when she was 29 years old. Of course, many problems arise as a result of this strange turn of events, not the least of which is her nosy daughter who musters the troops to find out where her mother is.

This the story of three generations of women and how one magical day shakes up everything they know about each other. While Ellie finds that the life of a twenty-something is not as carefree as she expected, the sheer joy of being young again prompts her to consider living her life all over. Does she dare stay young for more than this day, even if it means leaving everyone she loves behind? Or perhaps she just needs to appreciate the life she has already lived and resolve to make the most of things the best she can. I’m sure you can figure out how the book will end as soon as you start it, but it is still lots of fun to escape into this fantasy for a while.

This is another light and humorous book that is perfect for a busy and hectic December. Some of the characters are a bit one-dimensional, and Barbara, Ellie’s daughter is downright annoying, but the unusual situation and thoughtful comparison between generations of women make it a worthwhile read.


Other books by this author:
The 10 Best Days of My Life (2008)
Target Underwear and a Vera Wang Gown: notes from a single girl’s closet (2006) -- nonfiction

Other titles you may enjoy:

The Girl Who Chased the Moon by Sarah Addison Allen (2010)
Emily Benedict has come to Mullaby, North Carolina, hoping to solve at least some of the riddles surrounding her mother's life. But the moment Emily enters the house where her mother grew up and meets the grandfather she never knew, she senses that mysteries aren't solved in Mullaby -- they're a way of life. There's wallpaper that changes to suit your mood, lights skipping across the yard at midnight, and a neighbor, Julia Winterson, who bakes hope in her cakes. Can a hummingbird cake bring back a lost love? Is there a ghost dancing in Emily's backyard? The answers are never what you might expect in Mullaby. But in this town of lovable misfits, the unexpected fits right in.

Picking Bones from Ash by Marie Mutsuki Mockett (2009)
This evocative debut novel explores the struggles women face in accepting their talents, and asks what happens when mothers and daughters dare to question the debt owed each other.

The Ice Queen by Alice Hoffman (2005)
A small town librarian lives a quiet life without much excitement. One day, she mutters an idle wish and, while standing in her house, is struck by lightning. But instead of ending her life, this cataclysmic event sparks it into a new beginning. She goes in search of Lazarus Jones, a fellow survivor who was struck dead, then simply got up and walked away. Perhaps this stranger who has seen death face to face can teach her to live without fear.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Light and Tasty

Wedding Season
Katie Fforde
St. Martin’s Press, 2010

Sarah, a wedding planner who doesn't believe in marriage, must rely on the help of her friends Elsa and Bron if she is going to get through preparing for two weddings on the same day--one for a high-profile celebrity, and the other for her pregnant sister.

This light and easy British novel is a perfect read for the holidays. It’s not deep or demanding, and you can put it down and pick it up later and not have to worry about losing the plot in the meantime. The characters have some conflict, but not much, and everything works out reliably in the end. If you like your chick-lit a little more substantial, this is for you.


Other books by this author:
Wild Designs (1996)
Stately Pursuits (1997)
Life Skills (1999)
Second Thyme Around (2000)
Thyme Out (2001)
Artistic Licence (2001)
Highland Fling (2002)
Paradise Fields (2003)
Restoring Grace (2006)
Bidding for Love (2007)
Practically Perfect (2008)
Love Letters (2011)

Other titles you may enjoy:

The Pajama Girls of Lambert Square by Rosina Lippi (2008)
Moving to a small South Carolina town in order to turn around a failing stationery shop, John Dodge is embraced by his new community, but finds his attempts to woo the widow owner of a neighboring store thwarted because of her inability to escape a painful past.

Addition by Toni Jordan (2008)
In Melbourne, Australia, a neurotic, 35 year old woman who loves to count, meets an Irish transplant named Seamus Joseph O'Reilly and with some gentle encouragement decides to give love a chance.

Everything’s Coming up Rosie by Kasey Michaels (2006)
When Rosie Kilgannon and Doug Llewellyn meet at a week-long society wedding celebration, they decide to enjoy each other's company with no strings attached until the hysterical bride, the shifty groom, the insane wedding planner, and true love gets involved.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

True or False?

The False Friend
Myla Goldberg
Doubleday, 2010

Celia is a successful professional working in Chicago. She is involved in a committed relationship with a young man and everything seems to be going okay for her -- except – one day she is hit with a memory of a tragedy that happened when she was a young girl. This memory is so real and so compelling that she must correct a lie she told when it happened – that a friend of hers got into a car with a stranger, never to be heard from again. Celia has suddenly remembered what really happened: that her friend Djuna fell into a hole in the woods, and Celia deliberately did nothing to save her. She immediately goes to her hometown where her parents still live, to right the wrong she committed so many years ago.

When Celia gets home, however, her parents are incredulous and don’t believe her story. Although the girl was never found, many people in the community spent time in the woods and town looking for her. They would have found her if she fell into a hold, her parents insist. Celia knows in her heart what really happened, and desperate to make things right, she contacts the other girls in their group to see if any of them remember the truth. As she finds each of them, Celia remembers more about the cruelty and domination she and Djuna lorded over the others, especially one girl who was poorer than the others, and more desperate to belong to the clique. Celia's desperate search to understand what happened to Djuna has powerful consequences as she uncovers clues to herself that she thought she had hidden away forever.

This psychological novel is an interesting study in self deception and how the lies we tell ourselves can eventually become a truth of sorts. I think we all have events in our past that we are ashamed of, and sometimes it’s necessary to hide these truths away in order to proceed with our lives. Celia had successfully recreated her childhood to erase the girl she had been with her friend Djuna, a girl she did not particularly like. It’s no accident of coincidence that Djuna disappears and Celia misremembers the occurrence – it is symbolic of the effort she makes to become a new person. The psychological aspects presented are fascinating as they unfold into a deeper explanation of motives, group dynamics, and the particular nastiness of little girls. Be prepared to condemn characters you had previously liked, and don’t be surprised if the ending isn’t really very happy after all. In fact, you may be left with an uneasy and unsettled feeling that causes you to think about the book for some time after it’s finished.


Other books by this author:
Bee Season (2000)
Wickett’s Remedy (2005)

Other titles you may like:

The Pact: a love story by Jodi Picoult (1998)
This is about a teenage suicide pact between a pregnant girl and her boyfriend, both children of wealthy New England families. He shoots her, but fails to shoot himself and is charged with murder. At the trial he explains what made them do it.

The Silent Lady by Catherine Cookson (2001)
When an unkempt woman who is barely able to speak arrives in his office, London attorney Alexander Armstrong is surprised to find out that she is the woman who holds the key to solving a mystery that has plagued him for twenty-six years.

Losing You by Nicci French (2008)
Nina Landry awaits the return of her fifteen-year-old daughter, Charlie, who had spent the night at a friend's house, but Nina begins to worry when Charlie does not come home and no one takes the disappearance seriously.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Hello, Fellow Fiction Fanatics:

Miss me? I’ve been absent from this blog for a while. My deepest apologies, but it’s not really my fault. I was trying to slog my way through today’s blog entry: World and Town by Gish Jen. And then the holiday happened, which entailed making four pies, one turkey and enough dressing to feed 11 people.

You will be glad to know that after I ate several Thanksgiving dinners that couldn’t be beat, I had time to settle down and finish not only today’s featured title but two other books as well. Hallelujah! That means you won’t have to wait too long for the next blog entry!

Thanks for your patience. Stay tuned for today's feature presentation:

World and Town
Gish Jen
Knopf, 2010
386 pages
(but it seemed like more)

Two years after burying her husband and best friend, 68-year-old Hattie Kong moves to a small New England town. It takes her a while but she is finally fitting in and making friends with the local residents. One day she notices a Cambodian family has moved into a dilapidated trailer next door to her, and she can’t help but watch their daily goings-on through her kitchen window. After being acquainted with the family, she discovers they are having problems and she tries to organize help for them, only to be rebuffed and rejected. Instead, she notices, the local fundamentalist church has taken the family under their wing, providing guidance, food and education, but Hattie is not so sure this type of help will keep the family together and out of trouble. Meanwhile, her Chinese relatives are having a string a bad luck and keep pestering Hattie to send back her parents’ bones so they can be buried properly.

Have you ever noticed that the book with all the positive reviews is the one that’s hardest to get through? However, I did finish it – FINALLY. This is a very dense book, with lots of description and long sentences. The point of view moves around a bit, but it usually focuses on Hattie, a very nice older woman who is lonely and alone except for her dogs. She reallywants to help the family next door, but she is Chinese and they don’t trust her because of their past experiences with China. I think there are too many subplots in this novel to make it flow smoothly. It’s easy to get the characters mixed up between the subplots, and the added switches between the present and the past are also hard to keep straight. It’s very slow going, but people who like descriptive, character-driven, literary novels may enjoy this more than I did.


Other books by this author:
Typical American (1991)
Mona in the Promised Land (1996)
Who’s Irish and Other Stories (1999)
The Love Wife (2004) – I very much enjoyed this title!

Other titles you may enjoy:

A Week in Winter by Marcia Willett (2002)
When Maudie Todhunter, the elderly owner of a Corwall farmhouse, decides to sell the family homestead, old family secrets threaten to come to the surface.

Brother and Sister by Joanna Trollope (2004)
David and Nathalie, adopted and raised by the same parents decide to begin a painful journey to find their birth mothers, affecting their spouses, children, and co-workers.

Bingo by Rita Mae Brown (1988)
Two elderly widows, Julia and Louise Hunsenmeir, fight over the same man while Julia's daughter, Nickel, faces her own battles to save the local newspaper from corporate takeover.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Can you hear me now?

By Nightfall
Michael Cunningham
FSG, 2010

Peter and Rebecca Harris have settled into a comfortable mid-life with their careers as an art dealer and editor in Manhattan. Their only daughter is in college, and while she is experiencing some issues with her choices and her parents, everything seems to be on an even keel for Peter. He is happy with his career and his wife and his life -- until Rebecca’s brother Mizzy shows up.

Mizzy, short for Mistake, was born late in his parents’ lives and was a surprise. As the youngest of three sisters, Mizzy was raised spoiled and coddled and has done nothing with his life, which is fast approaching 40. He also has a history of drug abuse, which makes it debatable whether Peter and Rebecca should take him in – again. After much discussion, they decide to let him stay for a while, but his presence is confusing to Peter. He finds himself attracted to this younger male version of his wife and these conflicting feelings make things uncomfortable between them. In fact, Peter is having a sort of midlife crisis. He thought he was settling into middle age easily, but his career, his friends, his wife, and his daughter are causing him concern, maybe even worry. He’s not sure what he wants or what he should do.

Peter does a lot of thinking and self-reflection as he tries to figure things out. In fact, he does so much thinking and self-reflection that I lost patience with him about a third of the way through the book. A long time ago when I was in college, I worked as a proofreader for the school newspaper. The faculty advisor was also one of the college librarians and since I worked at the library, he and I were friends of sorts. As I proofed a particular article, Mr. Koehler told me that he didn’t care for the writer’s style because it was “mental masturbation.” In other words, the writer was more interested in writing for his own sake than sharing any information or ideas with the reading public.

In many ways, this term can be used to describe Peter. He muses (or obsesses) about everything:
· Why his daughter is giving him the cold shoulder
· Life in the city and how great it was
· Art collectors and/or art collecting
· Whether he should fire his two helpers
· Should he tell his wife about Mizzy’s drug use
· Was he gay if he was attracted to a man
· What was Mizzy thinking?
· What was Mizzy thinking now? What was Mizzy doing now?
· And now? What about now?

I finished the book but could have cared less what happened.


Other books by this author:
At Home at the End of the World (1990)
Flesh and Blood (1995)
The Hours (1998)
Specimen Days (2005)

Other titles you may enjoy:

All He Ever Wanted by Anita Shreve (2003)
Years after escaping from a hotel fire and encountering an elusive woman, whom he subsequently married and divorced, a man travels from New England to Florida by train and remembers the relationship.

That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo (2009)
The lives of Jack and Joy Griffin always seem to come back to Cape Cod, where they honeymooned, as they experience the ups and downs of life, including the deaths of Jack's parents, the marriage of their daughter, and Jack and Joy's divorce.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Lost and Bound

Antonya Nelson
Bloomsbury, 2010

Catherine and Oliver, young wife and older entrepreneurial husband, are negotiating their difference in age and a plethora of well-concealed secrets. Oliver, now in his sixties, is a serial adulterer and has just fallen giddily in love yet again. Catherine, seemingly placid and content, has ghosts of a past she scarcely remembers. When Catherine's long-forgotten high school friend dies and leaves Catherine the guardian of her teenage daughter, that past comes rushing back. As Oliver manages his new love, and Catherine her new charge and darker past, local news reports turn up the volume on a serial killer who has reappeared after years of quiet, causing everyone to be just a little bit on edge.

This quiet little book at first appears to be contemplative and reflective. Perhaps the reader expects lots of description and too little dialogue. It actually proved to be more interesting and compelling than I expected. Don’t get the wrong idea: it wasn’t so fascinating that I couldn’t put it down, but it wasn’t boring, like the cover implies. However, I quite forgot what it was about two days after I finished it -- I guess it wasn’t as good as I remembered. The premise is not so unique: older husband is a cheater; younger wife finds she doesn’t much care. He is giddy with new love; she is preoccupied with the news that she is now the guardian of a girl she has never met. Orphaned teenager is confused, grieving, and feeling abandoned. All very typical and perhaps even stereotypical.

So, what made this book different? I’m not sure. The tone was quiet, reserved and distant. I didn’t really care about the characters or the outcome, but something appealed to me. The writing was spare and the book short. It seemed that each word was carefully chosen and placed in exactly the perfect spot. The experience of reading was rewarding even if the characters, plot and ending were uneventful. It’s almost as if the language took over the rest of the elements of the story, making them unimportant in the whole. It’s an interesting effect, and worth the effort.


Other books by this author:
The Expendables: stories (1990)
Talking in Bed (1996)
Nobody’s Girl (1998)
Living to Tell (2000)
Female Trouble: a collection of short stories (2002)
Nothing Right: stories (2009)

Other books you may enjoy:
One Foot in Eden by Ron Rash (2002)
Will Alexander is the sheriff in a small town in southern Appalachia, and he knows that the local thug Holland Winchester has been murdered. The only thing is the sheriff can find neither the body nor someone to attest to the killing. Simply, almost elementally told through the voices of the sheriff, a local farmer, his beautiful wife, their son, and the sheriff's deputy, this story reveals infidelity, jealousy and betrayal in 1950s South Carolina.

In the Heart of the Canyon by Elisabeth Hyde (2009)
A rafting trip through the Grand Canyon changes the lives of everyone on board, including a jaded guide; a septuagenarian couple who know they will never make this trip again; and a teenager and her mother, who will face the most daunting journey of all.

Any Bitter Thing by Monica Wood (2005)
After surviving a near-fatal accident, thirty-year-old Lizzy Mitchell faces a long road to recovery. She remembers little about the days she spent in and out of consciousness, save for one thing: She saw her beloved deceased uncle, Father Mike, the man who raised her in the rectory of his Maine church until she was nine, at which time she was abruptly sent away to boarding school. Was Father Mike an angel, a messenger from the beyond, or something more corporeal? Though her troubled marriage and her broken body need tending, Lizzy knows she must uncover the details of her accident-and delve deep into events of twenty years before, when whispers and accusations forced a good man to give up the only family he had.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

A good Place to be

The Faithful Place
Tana French
Viking, 2010

Planning to run away with his girlfriend to London in the hopes of escaping poverty, Frank concludes he has been dumped when Rosie fails to join him and is astonished when Rosie's suitcase and evidence of foul play are discovered more than twenty years later.

This is third book in the Dublin Murder Squad series, but I hadn’t read the first two titles and didn’t notice anything missing in this one. Frank is not on the murder squad; he works undercover. It appears to me that each book in the series focuses on a different character who investigates the current case. Frank is an interesting choice with a compelling back story. He and his girlfriend wanted to escape their families when they were teens. Rosie’s father didn’t approve of Frank and Frank’s family had an abusive father. But when Frank went to their designated meeting spot, he found a note from Rosie that insinuated she had left without him. For twenty years, he assumed she had rejected him and this blow colored every decision he made since then. Rosie’s friends and family also assumed she had escaped their small neighborhood, some with hope that she made a life for herself, some with regret because they missed her so much. Imagine their shock and dismay when her remains turn up so many years later. Everyone who knew her had to revise their beliefs and assumptions regarding her disappearance and subsequent life after.

This literary mystery has a strong sense of place. The neighborhood is close knit and has its own code. Family life means sacrificing privacy, freedom, and sometimes a personal life. Everyone comes home for Sunday dinner and no one snitches on anyone, no matter what. Good jobs are scarce and many are on the dole. I found all of this fascinating, including the special vocabulary and dialect from the Faithful Place neighborhood. This literary mystery is chock full of characters with personality and depth and motivation, but the mystery may be a little weak for true mystery fans. Even I could guess the killer before the ending of the book, but it didn’t matter in the long run. There was enough suspense for me even without the mystery element.


Other books by this author:
In the Woods (2007) – Dublin Murder Squad #1
The Likeness (2008) – Dublin Murder Squad #2

Other titles you may like:
Oblivion by Peter Abrahams (2005)
Waking up in a hospital with much of his memory missing, Nick Petrov, a private investigator renowned for his ability to reclaim stolen children, pursues clues about his own life and discovers a link to a haunting murder case.

First Deadly Sin by Lawrence Sanders (1973)
A well-dressed man stalks the high-class neighborhoods of New York City. He is armed with an ice ax. His victims are strangers. And one cop, Captain Ed Delaney, must solve a series of bizarre murders that defy logic.

Bones to Ashes by Kathy Reichs (2007)
Discovering the skeleton of a young girl in the neighborhood of a childhood best friend who had gone missing thirty years earlier, Tempe Brennan investigates suspicions that victim and her friend are one and the same.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Sweet Dreams

Mr. Rosenblum Dreams in English
Natasha Solomons
Little, Brown, 2010

At the outset of World War II, Jack Rosenblum, his wife Sadie, and their baby daughter escape Berlin, bound for London. They are greeted with a pamphlet instructing immigrants how to act like "the English." Jack fully embraces learning to be British, but Sadie does not. The more Jack tries to assimilate, the more Sadie misses her family and the community she left behind. Jack acquires Saville Row suits and a Jaguar. He buys his marmalade from Fortnum & Mason and learns to list the entire British monarchy back to 913 A.D. He never speaks German, apart from the occasional curse. But Sadie stays at home, at first raising her daughter, and then puttering around the house, sometimes taking the time to reminisce with her box of photographs and mementos.

As the years go by, Jack adds more items to the list of things needed to become British. But no matter how he tries, he cannot gain access to the one key item that would make him feel fully British -membership in a golf club. In post-war England, no golf club will admit a Jew, and Jack does not want to join a Jewish club. So, he hatches a wild idea: he'll build his own golf club on his own land that he’s bought sight unseen out in the country. And he’ll let anyone join who wants to.

This obsession with British golf courses is an obsession that Sadie does not share, particularly when Jack relocates them to a thatched roof cottage in Dorset to embark on his project. She doesn't want to forget who they are or where they come from. She wants to bake the cakes she used to serve to friends in the old country and reminisce. Now she's stuck in an inhospitable landscape filled with unwelcoming people, watching their bank account shrink as Jack pursues his quixotic, and some would say, worthless dream.

At first I thought this was a pastoral, gentle story about an older immigrant couple trying to make their way in a new place, maybe accompanied by some quirky characters and mildly amusing stories dealing with cultural differences. While it does have these things, this novel possesses something deeper and more meaningful than that. I’ve been trying to put my finger on what this element is – maybe it’s the associations that start out superficial and then change into caring and supportive relationships. Or maybe it’s the predictable storyline that takes a side turn to the unusual with Jack’s efforts to build a golf course with his bare hands. Or maybe that magic element is Sadie’s development into a full bodied person with hopes and dreams and memories, whose confusing story of sadness and contentedness is a realistic one for most readers. Whatever “it” is, it makes for a satisfying poignant book.

I think the ending was a bit rushed, however. That is my only criticism.


This is the author’s first novel.

Other titles you may enjoy:

Never Say Never by Elizabeth Waite (2007)
In 1930, the sleepy Hampshire village where Emma Pearson lives with her family is offering rural holidays to orphaned children from London. John and Tommy, the two lads who stay with the Pearsons, become part of the family. Years later, when World War II breaks out, Emma must watch not only her own two girls, but also the boys who are like sons to her, play their parts as dramatic events unfold.

The Lost Garden by Helen Humphries (2002)
London is on fire from the Blitz, and a young woman gardener named Gwen Davis flees from the burning city for the Devon countryside. She has volunteered for the Land Army and is to be in charge of a group of young girls who will be trained to plant food crops on an old country estate where the gardens have fallen into ruin. Also on the estate is a regiment of Canadian soldiers. During this time, Gwen will inspire the girls to restore the estate gardens, fall in love with a soldier, and find her first deep friendship while finding a life that’s worth living.

Remember Me by Trezza Azzopardi (2004)
Determined to be no trouble to anyone, homeless septuagenarian Winnie pursues a young girl who has stolen her suitcase and wig, an endeavor that causes her to evaluate the events that culminated in her current status.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Forgiveness and Reconciliation

How to be an American Housewife
Margaret Dilloway
Putnam, 2010

Shoko is an old woman now but she remembers when she was so young and pretty that men would turn to look at her when she walked down the street. But that was long ago in Japan, before she married an American serviceman and moved to America. Now her heart is failing, probably due to radiation exposure during the Second World War, and she wants more than anything to go see her brother and make things right again. She and her brother have not spoken ever since she married and left Japan, so many years ago.

Shoko and Taro’s parents encouraged Shoko to find an American to marry so she could escape occupied Japan and have a better life. Shoko had many boyfriends, so she brought their pictures to her father and he selected the one she should choose. Taro never forgave Shoko for betraying her country and her family by leaving, and once she got to America, Shoko sometimes believed she had made a terrible mistake. She never could learn the language or the customs, despite the guidance of a book called How to be an American Housewife. She never felt like she fit in, like she was always the outsider. American customs and people were so strange.

But Shoko has an idea. She wants her daughter Sue to go to Japan in her place and try to convince Taro to forgive her. She has saved bits of money over the years to fund such a trip, and to her surprise, Sue agrees to go! She gives Sue a letter to give to her brother, and then it’s Sue’s turn to take over the narrative. Sue’s daughter accompanies her, and they learn many things about their heritage and family history, and this serves to make Sue prouder of her ancestry instead of ashamed of it.

Despite having some early issues with the alternating narratives, I quickly became interested in Shoko’s story. She seems like a cranky old woman now, but after reading about her move to America and the difficulty she had assimilating, I understand that her life was not what she imagined it would be. People were not always nice to Shoko, or her children, but she did the best she could in spite of the cultural and language difficulties. Short chapters may have increased the pace of the book, but I found them to be disruptive to the narratives of Shoko and Sue, and there was no need to build suspense in this type of literary fiction. Some reviewers have remarked about the quick wrap-up ending, but I found it comforting and satisfying even if it was a bit quick and anticlimactic. I am looking forward to more books by this author.


This is the author’s first novel.

Other titles you may enjoy:

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford (2009)
Set in the ethnic neighborhoods of Seattle during World War II and Japanese American internment camps of the era, this debut novel tells the heartwarming story of widower Henry Lee, his father, and his first love Keiko Okabe.

The Gift of Rain
by Tan Twan Eng (2008)
In 1939, sixteen-year-old Philip Hutton-the half-Chinese, half-English youngest child of the head of one of Penang's great trading families feels alienated from both the Chinese and British communities. He at last discovers a sense of belonging in his unexpected friendship with Hayato Endo, a Japanese diplomat. Philip proudly shows his new friend around his adored island, and in return Endo teaches him about Japanese language and culture and trains him in the art and discipline of aikido. But such knowledge comes at a terrible price. When the Japanese savagely invade Malaya, Philip realizes that his mentor and sensei-to whom he owes absolute loyalty-is a Japanese spy. Young Philip has been an unwitting traitor, and must now work in secret to save as many lives as possible, even as his own family is brought to its knees.

Flesh and Blood by Michael Cunningham (1995)
This epic tale of an American family follows three generations of the Stassos clan as it is transformed by ambition, love, and history. Constantine Stassos, a Greek immigrant, marries Mary Cuccio, an Italian-American girl, and they have three children, each fated to a complex life. Susan is oppressed by her beauty and her father's affections; Billy is brilliant, and gay; Zoe is a wild, heedless visionary. As the years pass, their lives unfold in ways that compel them--and their parents--to meet ever greater challenges.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Go Ape!

Ape House
Sara Gruen
Spiegel and Grau, 2010

When an explosion at the Great Ape Language Lab severely injures scientist Isabel Duncan and her special bonobos are recaptured and then sold, Isabel must form connections of the human kind in order to find them.

Alternating chapters (yes, again!) detail the stories of Isabel as she recovers from her illness and John, a reporter who initially covers the story of these unique apes who understand English and communicate via American Sign Language. Isabel has formed a unique bond with her family of bonobos, and she is naturally distraught when she discovers their location and what their new owner is doing to them. John, on the other hand, has his own difficulties when his news story is taken away from him and he finds himself resigning from a prestigious job and moving to Los Angeles. He and his wife are having their own issues, but he finds himself drawn once again to the great apes when a new assignment sends him once again to report on their situation. Isabel and John are then able to reconnect and work together to save the apes from a fate worse than death.

I loved this book. I couldn’t put it down. The plot is unique and compelling and carries the momentum right through to the fascinating ending. Isabel may be a tad obsessive and dramatic, but we can excuse her extremes because of her fierce dedication and determination to help the apes – the only family she has ever known. John is an empathetic and ethical person who tries to do the right thing, but still slips up every once in a while despite his best intentions. I especially loved the relationship he and his wife have; it’s a true love affair that is refreshing to see in a contemporary novel. Put simply: this is a darn good book.


Other novels by this author:
Riding Lessons (2004)
Flying Changes (2005)
Water for Elephants (2006)

Other titles you may enjoy:
Next by Michael Crichton (2006)
Journeys inside the world of bioengineering and genetics, in a provocative novel of near-future science run amok.

The Darkest Evening of the Year by Dean Koontz (2007)
Amy Redwing is the founder of a California organization that rescues abandoned and endangered golden retrievers. Amy risks her life to save Nickie and takes her into her home. The bond between Amy and Nickie is immediate and uncanny. But the instant joy Nickie brings is shadowed by a series of eerie incidents.

A Dog’s Purpose by W. Bruce Cameron (2010)
Searching for his purpose over the course of multiple canine lives, Bailey is reborn as a golden-haired puppy after a tragic death as a stray and shares a loving bond with young Ethan before he again dies and starts over.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

A Tale Worth Reading

The Widower’s Tale
Julia Glass
Pantheon, 2010

In a quirky historic farmhouse outside Boston, seventy-year-old Percy Darling enjoys a vigorous but solitary life. In order to help his oldest daughter obtain a job, he allows a progressive preschool to remodel and move into his barn. Although he resents the noise and confusion the school brings, he soon realizes that the children and young people have forced him to reconnect with the world. His recent retirement had caused him to become a sort of recluse in the large lonely house. With the constant commotion of people coming and going, Percy comes to regret some of the choices he’s made since his wife’s death three decades ago. He finds that he can no longer remain aloof from his neighbors, his two grown daughters, or, to his own surprise, the joy of falling in love. Meanwhile, Percy's beloved grandson Robert, a premed student at Harvard, has become involved in a subversive green organization that commits destructive “pranks” around prosperous neighborhoods targeting wasteful lifestyles. Though Robert is enlisted as a helper in what sounds like harmless actions, they escalate into harmful and scary attacks, with dire consequences for Robert's family and the people around them.

At first impression, this book is about an older gentleman undergoing a change of life event. Percy is a grumpy yet energetic former librarian, who just wanted to retire in order to read books and think about important things. That events forced him to be more outgoing and personable makes him even grouchier, but it also causes him to feel needed and relevant again. When he falls in love with Sarah, a woman a bit younger, he comes alive again in a way he hadn’t felt since his wife died. Yet, Percy is used to being in charge, the boss, and he doesn’t react very well when things don’t go according to his plan.

I enjoyed witnessing the journey that Percy takes in order to become a more complete human being. I could identify with his newfound feelings of being alive, of intense emotional ups and downs, of connecting once again with the world around him. My only complaint was the alternating chapters with other characters’ voices that added too many subplots and confusion to the main storyline. But in the end, everything tied together nicely, albeit somewhat unhappily, and Percy once again is the main character in a very satisfying novel.


Other titles by this author:
Three Junes (2002)
The Whole World Over (2006)
I See You Everywhere (2008)

Other titles you may enjoy:
Lady Oracle by Margaret Atwood (1976)
Joan Foster is the bored wife of a myopic ban-the-bomber. She takes off overnight as Canada's new super poet, pens lurid gothics on the sly, attracts a blackmailing reporter, skids cheerfully in and out of menacing plots, hair-raising traps, passionate trysts, and lands dead and well in Terremoto, Italy.

Roxanna Slade by Reynolds Price (1998)
Roxana Slade, born with the century, looks back from the near present over her long and (seemingly) uneventful life as a wife and mother in a small North Carolina town.

Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee (1999)
In a novel set in post-apartheid South Africa, a fifty-two-year-old college professor who has lost his job for sleeping with a student tries to relate to his daughter, Lucy, who works with an ambitious African farmer.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

An Old Bag of Tripe

Enter a Murderer
Ngaio Marsh

St Martin, 1998, 1935

This classic whodunit mystery is the second in the series by Ngaio Marsh. Roderick Alleyn is a detective working for Scotland Yard. His friend, Nigel, is a newspaper reporter who invites Alleyn to a play in which his good friend is starring. One of the cast members is a disagreeable drunk who has rubbed several people the wrong way. As you might expect, this actor gets “accidentally” shot during one of the scenes. Luckily, Alleyn is there to conduct an immediate investigation and everyone in the theater is a suspect.

Ngaio Marsh is considered one of the “crime queens” that wrote mysteries during the thirties and forties. As opposed to Christie, however, Marsh uses quite a bit of slang that was popular in England at the time, and which most modern American readers will have absolutely no idea what it pertains to. I found the detective to be a pompous jerk who ridiculed others while acting smug and self-righteous. Nigel, his dumb sidekick, wasn’t much better. This was a difficult book to read and understand; too bad the experience did not justify the effort.

Some inexplicable quotes from the book:
“You old sausage”
“We’ve got to come all over scientific”
“You couple of boobies”
“Shut your silly face up”
“You fatuous old bag of tripe”
“He’s been the cat’s paw”

And the winner:
“If Diogenes had rolled up against you, he’d have got out of his barrel, filled it with booze and made whoopee.”


Rating Explanation:
I couldn't give it one cupcake because I had to finish the book for a book discussion group.

There are many other books in the Roderick Alleyn Mystery Series. Go to to see the library catalog.

Other authors you may enjoy:
Agatha Christie
Dorothy Sayers
Josephine Tey
Michael Innes

Tuesday, October 5, 2010


Bill Warrington’s Last Chance
James King

Viking, 2010

Bill Warrington has many regrets. Too many, maybe. The past isn’t something he can change, regrets or not, but maybe he can change the future. When Bill learns he has Alzheimer’s, he wants to change things with his children, before it’s too late.

Marcie, Bill’s only daughter has about had it with her daughter, April. April is fifteen and a royal pain in the neck. Marcie is a single parent trying to keep things together, despite the constant roadblocks she gets from April. She is also her father’s primary caregiver and the constant need to check on him, clean up after him, and shop for him and just about worn her out. This is why she is secretly thrilled that April and her father have started spending so much time together. It gives her a break and seems to make them both happy – something she has given up on ever happening.

The reason April and Bill have started spending so much time together is a secret. Bill is teaching April to drive, despite the fact that she is only 15 and has no driver’s permit. April and her grandfather have a pact that they will always be straight and honest with each other, but April suspects her grandfather hasn’t been totally honest with her regarding his plans or why he keeps forgetting who she is. In any event, she is thrilled when he announces one day that they are driving to California, where she hopes to become a singer-songwriter, but the trip turns out to be way more than she bargained for.

There were some problems with this novel:
1. Bill and April are fully fleshed out, but Nick and Mike, the brothers, are just shadows. There is an attempt to give them some depth, but their short back stories don’t really give them any motivation for their behavior. Marcie has a little more to her, but she still feels like half a person.
2. The plot has a good start and builds to a compelling climax and then fizzles out to a dead end, leaving the reader feeling like a popped balloon.
3. The reading experience is enjoyable but forgettable. The characters are unoriginal, the plot is predictable, and the setting is inconsequential. I was sufficiently entertained by the story as I read it, but then I promptly forgot it when I finished.


This is the author’s first novel.

Other titles you may enjoy:

Object Lessons by Anna Quindlen (1991)
In this novel about a large Irish-Italian family in the late 1960s, young Maggie Scanlan begins to sense that, beneath the calm, everyday surface of her peaceful suburban life, everything is going mysteriously wrong especially during one summer that changes their lives.

Brass Ankle Blues by Rachel Harper (2006)
Embarking on a season at her family's summer house with her father and an estranged cousin, multi-racial teen Nellie Kincaid encounters first love, shifting family loyalties, and an emerging sense of self that raises her awareness of her diverse heritage.

My Latest Grievance by Elinor Lipman (2006)
Chafing under the claustrophobic care of her liberal parents, Frederica Hatch finds her snug world transformed by Laura Lee French, a new college dorm mother who had once been married to Frederica's earnest and unglamorous father.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Split Personalities

The Rossetti Letter
Christi Phillips

Pocket Books, 2007

Claire Donovan always dreamed of visiting Venice, especially now that she needs to research her Ph.D. thesis on Alessandra Rossetti, a mysterious courtesan who wrote a secret letter to the Venetian Council warning of a Spanish plot to overthrow the Venetian Republic in 1618. Claire views Alessandra as a heroine and harbors a secret hope that her findings will elevate Alessandra to a more prominent place in history. But an arrogant Cambridge professor is set to present a paper at a prestigious Venetian university denouncing Alessandra as a co-conspirator -- a move that could destroy Claire's paper and career. Not having any other options, Claire agrees to chaperone a surly teenager to Venice in exchange for her airfare and accommodations so she can finish her research and publish her results before the professor publishes his findings first. As Claire races to locate the documents that will reveal the courtesan's true motives, Alessandra's story featuring sensuality, political treachery, and violence of seventeenth-century Venice is revealed. Claire also falls under the city's spell. She is courted by a handsome Italian, matches wits with her academic adversary, bonds with her troubled young charge, and, amid the boundless beauty of Venice, recaptures the joy of life she thought she had left behind.

Alternating chapters between Claire’s and Alessandra’s stories do not work together well. There’s a lack of meaning and emotion in the historical chapters which creates a gap between the reader and the events and characters portrayed in 16th century Venice. It is hard to identify with Alessandra or her contemporaries, and it is even harder to keep all the characters straight. I wanted to skip past the historical accounts and get back to the business at hand: will Claire discover the truth about the Spanish Conspiracy? I understood Claire’s anxiety about her research and her life plans; I sympathized with her reluctance to enter into a romantic engagement; I fully appreciated her troubles with the snotty teenager who eventually turned into a decent sort of person. But then I had to slug through those historical chapters again, which were BORING. In my opinion. Cool cover, though.

For the record, I usually like historical fiction.

Rating for Claire’s chapters:

Rating for Alessandra’s chapters:

This is the author’s first novel.

Other titles you may enjoy:

The Conspiracy of Paper by David Liss (2000)
Benjamin Weaver is an outsider in eighteenth-century London: a Jew among Christians; a ruffian among aristocrats; a retired pugilist who, hired by London's gentry, travels through the criminal underworld in pursuit of debtors and thieves. Now he is investigating a crime of the most personal sort: the mysterious death of his estranged father, a notorious stockjobber. Between him the answers is a network of secrecy, deception and violence.

The Stalking Horse by Miriam Monfredo (1998)
Based on an actual event, The Stalking-Horse is set on the eve of the American Civil War. Glynis Tryon's niece, Bronwen, has joined Pinkerton's Detective Agency. While on her first assignment in secessionist Alabama, two of her fellow agents are murdered. When word reaches Seneca Falls that Bronwen is in trouble, Glynis heads south and finds her niece caught in the midst of a diabolical plot designed to strike at the heart of the United States government.

Ex-Libris by Ross King (2001)Responding to a cryptic summons to a remote country house, London bookseller Isaac Inchbold finds himself responsible for restoring a magnificent library pillaged during the English Civil War, and in the process slipping from the surface of 1660s London into an underworld of spies and smugglers, ciphers and forgeries. As he assembles the fragments of a complex historical mystery, Inchbold learns how Sir Ambrose Plessington, founder of the library, escaped from Bohemia on the eve of the Thirty Years War with plunder from the Imperial Library. Inchbold’s hunt for one of these stolen volumes -- a lost Hermetic text -- soon casts him into an elaborate

Friday, September 24, 2010

Got Mystery?

The Scent of Rain and Lightning
Nancy Pickard

Ballantine Books, 2010

One beautiful summer afternoon, Jody Linder is unnerved to see her three uncles parking their pickups in front of her parents’ house unannounced. Of course, this house is not really her parent’s house anymore since Jay and Laurie Joe have been gone almost all of Jody’s life, but she still has trouble thinking of their house as hers even though she is now grown up. “What is this fearsome thing I see?” the young high school English teacher whispers, quoting Shakespeare as she watches them from the second floor window. Polished boots, pressed jeans, fresh white shirts, Stetsons—her uncles’ suspiciously clean visiting clothes are a disturbing sign.

The three bring shocking news: The man convicted of murdering Jody’s father is being released from prison and returning to the small town of Rose, Kansas. Twenty-six years ago, Jody’s father Jay was shot and killed and her mother Laurie Jo disappeared, presumed dead. Jody went to live with her loving grandparents and caring uncles, but nothing could replace her parents. She always wondered what happened to her mother and would often search for any clues to explain her disappearance. Now, her father’s killer, Billy Crosby, has been granted a new trial, thanks in large part to the efforts of his son, Collin, a lawyer who has spent most of his life trying to prove his father’s innocence. As Jody lives only a few doors down from the Crosbys, she knows that sooner or later she’ll come face-to-face with the man who she believes destroyed her family.

An old murder that was seemingly solved many years ago comes back to haunt the victims of the crime, stirring up old fears, prejudices and once again dividing the town into opposing sides. This time, however, many people believe that Jody’s family unfairly used their power as town leaders to influence the murder investigation, thereby putting an innocent man in jail. Because Jody was so young when her parents were killed, she doesn’t know what to believe and feels pulled in different directions by the situation. This mystery is light on the whodunit question and heavy on the character development of Jody, her grandmother, and Collin, the son of the accused man. The three could be considered victims of the long ago crime and their conflicting feelings provide a thoughtful study of the effects this action so many years ago had on their lives. Mystery buffs may be disappointed in the lack of plot development and wish clues had been provided for the reader, but I liked the characters and enjoyed the story despite a lackluster and anticlimactic ending.


The author has a string of mysteries to her credit.
Look them up at!

Other titles you may enjoy:

Dreaming of the Bones by Deborah Crombie (1997)
When the talented and tormented poet Lydia dies after a prior suicide attempt, it is assumed that she has taken her own life. Victoria McClellan. a feminist biographer at Cambridge, finds herself immersed in the poet's world. Uneasy about the manner of Lydia's death, Vic calls on her ex-husband, Scotland Yard Superintendent Duncan Kincaid, for help. But before he can take action, Vic herself is dead -- and there's no question that this one is murder. As Kincaid investigates, they are exposed to secrets that have reached out over three decades and poisoned a dozen lives.

Last Post by Robert Barnard (2008)
A mysterious envelope arrives on Eve McNabb's doorstep soon after she has buried her mother, a woman who kept many secrets. The puzzling letter inside this envelope hints at an illicit passion between the letter writer and Eve's mother, May McNabb. Even when she was a child, Eve sensed that there were parts of May's life she would never understand. She would never know the details of her parents' marriage or why her father suddenly disappeared from her life. While Eve has always believed that her father was dead, she begins to wonder whether her mother's life as a widow had been a ruse and she sets out to find the answer.

What We Remember by Michael Thomas Ford (2009)
When the body of sheriff Daniel McCloud, who went missing seven years ago, is discovered buried in a box in the woods, the family must come to terms with the murder of their father. As the investigation by the current sheriff, Nate Derry, progresses, McCloud's son, James, becomes the prime suspect, and a dark web of deception that chokes the Derry and McCloud families threatens to be unearthed.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Truly Rewarding

The Map of True Places
Brunonia Barry

William Morrow, 2010

Zee Finch spent her adolescence perfecting the art of boat stealing. It wasn’t so much that she needed a boat as it was the challenge of not getting caught. In most cases, she just took the boat from one marina and then returned it to another, which caused the owners much puzzlement and Zee much amusement. Zee is now a respected psychotherapist and understands why she felt the need for attention at that time in her life. It isn’t until she starts treating a young mother who has suicidal tendencies that Zee realizes she has her own issues regarding her mother’s suicide when Zee was 13 years old. She knows she should distance herself from treating this patient, but she feels she can make a difference and perhaps save other children from the pain and grief she herself felt growing up without a mother. Unfortunately, Zee’s patient ultimately dies, throwing Zee into emotional chaos and disrupting her work and her life.

What starts as a brief visit home to Salem after Lilly's funeral becomes the beginning of a larger journey for Zee. She takes a leave of absence from her work, not knowing if she can ever help anyone again. She also puts her wedding on hold, not sure if she truly wants to marry her fiancĂ©. In addition, her father, Finch, long ago diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, has been hiding how sick he really is. Zee is needed to help him through this difficult time. Their relationship, marked by half-truths and the untimely death of her mother, is strained and awkward. Zee doesn’t know how to help her father, how to help herself, or even how to continue her work as a therapist when she feels so lost. Ultimately, Zee must learn how to follow her own heart in order to help those around her find theirs.

It’s not often that a character comes to life in a novel the way Zee does in this one. Named for a character in a Nathaniel Hawthorne novel, Hephzibah, or Zee for short, is totally confused after her patient dies and naturally wants to fix things – for the family left behind, for her father, for her father’s longtime companion. For everyone except herself, who probably needs the most fixing of them all. I think most women can identify with Zee’s attempts to “fix” everyone around her while neglecting her own needs – even to the extent that she is stuck in a seemingly loveless relationship that she doesn’t know how to end. In fact, most characters in the book are real and fully developed, full of life and quirks and faults and motivations that are surprising and understandable at the same time. Some critics have found fault with an elaborate plot with a secondary twist at the end, but I found the plot to be as complex and interesting as the characters. I thoroughly enjoyed it and recommend it highly.


Other novels by this author:
The Lace Reader (2006)

Other titles you may enjoy:

The Sabbathday River by Jean Korelitz (1999)
Jogging outside the town of Goddard, New Hampshire, Naomi Roth finds the body of a newborn baby girl floating face down in the Sabbathday River. News of the dead child spreads quickly through Goddard, and Naomi is shocked when the community fingers Heather Pratt, a young single mother notorious for her affair with a married man, as the prime suspect. Naomi engages the help of Judith Friedman, a lawyer, to defend the young woman. But when the truth at the heart of this astonishing case - and the body of a second baby - comes to light, it is Naomi who must confront how little she has understood her town, her friend, and herself.

Jackalope Dreams by Mary Clearman Blew (2008)
The departed men in her life still have plenty to say to Corey. Her father, a legendary rodeo cowboy who punctuated his lifelong pronouncements with a bullet to his head, may be the loudest. The story of the newly orphaned, spinsterish Corey is a sometimes comical, sometimes poignant tale of coming-of-age a little late. As she tries to recapture an old dream of becoming a painter, Corey finds herself figuring in other dramas in lives already as lost as her own.

Mirror Lake by Thomas Christopher Greene (2003)
Hoping to escape painful memories about his deceased father, Nathan Carter journeys to rural Vermont, where bad weather prompts his meeting and subsequent friendship with the aging Wallace Fiske, a social outcast with his own difficult past

Friday, September 17, 2010

Misery, Remembered

Bliss Remembered
Frank Deford

Overlook Press, 2010

Sydney Stringfellow Branch is dying of cancer at age 87, so she wants to tell her 62-year-old son the story of her life. Her story basically begins when she’s a teenager and she discovers that she possesses the ability and skill to become a suberb backstroke swimmer, perhaps even a female athlete phenomenon. Through a twist of fate she is invited to attend the 1936 Olympics in Berlin as part of the women’s swimming team, even though she cannot compete. While there, she falls in love with a young German named Horst, an assistant to director Leni Reifenstahl, who had been commissioned by Hitler to make a film about the games. While Sydney's escapades in Berlin bring her briefly into contact with Nazi politics, most of her time is spent with Horst, which develops into a physical love affair. Inevitably, Sydney must return to America, where she slowly initiates a move from her Eastern Shore Maryland home to New York City and then finds a job and joins the Women's Swimming Association (WSA). With her focus now on competing in the 1940 Tokyo Olympics, Sydney does not foresee that destiny and impending war will bring further surprising changes to her life – along with a secret she reveals to her son at the end of her story.

I finished this book because a secret was foreshadowed all the way through and I wanted to know what it was. Unfortunately, this secret could not save the melodramatic writing style and corny dialogue that I had to endure to ultimately find out what happened to Sydney, her husband, her lover and finally, to her son. While it was mildly interesting to learn about the Olympics in Nazi Germany, these historical details could not save the story from mediocrity, nor could it stop my eyes from rolling every time the old lady picked up the thread of her story again. I have never read anything by Frank Deford before and now that I know he’s a former sportswriter, I don’t see any reason to read anything by him again. In my opinion, sportswriters tend to overuse adjectives to foster a dramatic and theatrical description of the ordinary, and this story is no exception.


Other novels by this author:
Love and Infamy (1993)
American Summer (2002)
The Entitled: a tale of modern baseball (2007)

Other titles you may enjoy:

Hope’s Highway by Dorothy Garlock (2004)
Abandoned by Ernie Harding, who steals her life's savings, Margie Kinnard pursues her dream of becoming a movie star with the help of her long-lost father, but her goals could be sidetracked by Ernie's reappearance.

Consequences by Penelope Lively (2007)
A love story that connects the lives of three generations, Lorna and Matt who experience heartache during World War II, their daughter Molly, and their granddaughter Ruth, who begins a journey that takes her back to 1941.

The Secret by Elizabeth Gill (2007)
London, 1944: A young man is killed in an air raid, leaving a wife, two children and a secret. The man’s brother Cal persuades the family to relocate to the North East, to the town he came from. Despite their grief and bitterness, they find a new life there which will sustain them in the hard times to come.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

This Jewel is Tarnished

The Jewel of St. Petersburg
Kate Furnivall

Berkley Books, 2010

Valentina Ivanova, the daughter of a Russian aristocrat, was raised to be a member of high society, but after her sister is seriously injured she goes against her parents’ wishes and trains to be a nurse. All of the St. Petersburg elite class is watching Valentina because she is expected to make a fine match, but she doesn’t care what anyone thinks. She falls in love with Jens, a Danish engineer, and they secretly meet after her work each day. Meanwhile, the Bolsheviks are planning their uprising and a series of violent attacks is making everyone nervous and apprehensive. It is clear that the opulence and excess of the Tsarist period is about to end. Unfortunately, Valentina and Jens are careless in their meetings, and their unchaparoned rendezvous have been detected. This causes a scandal of epic proportions, and Valentina is forced into a loveless engagement with a Russian count. Will Jens and Valentina be together again? Will the Bolsheviks violence affect Valentina’s family?

Is this romance worth reading?
Umm, yes and no.

If you’re like me, no. Romantic novels as a genre are not my favorite thing to read. I like romance novels if they have some humor, or some exciting characters, or there is something “different” about them – some kind of hook that makes the reading experience rewarding. This romance novel is not as cheesy as your typical romance, but it’s still predictable and formulaic. Of course Valentina is not your typical society dame: she wants to do something important with her life; she meets a sexy man her parents don’t approve of; she has to marry someone she doesn’t love; blah blah blah. I can predict the end before I’m even finished, and guess what -- everyone lives happily ever after. True love conquers all. The Russian revolution is mildly interesting, but the characters and plot line are so unoriginal and boring that it overshadows any fleeting interest in the historical details.

Now, if you’re not like me and actually LIKE romances, you will love this one. And it has a great cover!

Rating (with apologies to any romance fans):

Other books by this author:
The Russian Concubine (2007)
The Red Scarf (2008)
The Girl From Junchow (2009)

Other books you may enjoy:

Sonja’s Run: Colonel Cut and the Romanov Rubies (2005)
At the 1852 Christmas party hosted by Tsar Nicholas I, the plucky half-Chinese, half-Russian poet Sonja Sankova decks Peter "Colonel Cut" Koslov, who is infamous for his necklace of ears taken from serfs and Jews.

White Blood by James Fleming (2006)
Riding out World War I in his family home near Smolensk, naturalist Charlie Doig finds himself trapped during a snowstorm by a motley group of aristocrats, servants, and soldiers, one of whom may be a Bolshevik out to destroy them all.

Ruslan by Barbara Scrupski (2003)
In glittering St. Petersburg, we meet Countess Alexandra Korvin: beautiful and intelligent, but also unmarried and—thanks to her late spendthrift father—quite penniless. In her polarized society of aristocratic grandeur and crushing poverty, a woman's only option is to marry well. Alexandra makes her way through St. Petersburg society, attending dazzling balls, lavish dinners, and operas in search of a spouse. Finally, craving freedom and rebelling against the confines of her life as a woman, she cuts off her hair and joins the army as a man—only to find the ultimate test of her feminine heart.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Road Not Taken

The Stuff That Never Happened
Maddie Dawson

Shaye Areheart Books, 2010

Annabelle McKay knows she has a wonderful life. She’s been married to the same reliable man for almost thirty years and has two remarkable adult children. She’s thankful for a stable life with a rewarding career as a book illustrator. She’s been happy, mostly, until recently. Lately, Annabelle has been feeling neglected and unappreciated because Grant, her husband, is trying to write a book and he has no time or energy left for her. In fact, he has scheduled lovemaking into his calendar for every Wednesday morning, which Annabelle resents. Other wives envy the fact that Grant is not the type of man who would ever cheat on her or leave her for a younger woman. The trouble is Annabelle isn’t sure she wants to be married to Grant anymore. The trouble is she’s still in love with someone else.

In the early tumultuous years of her marriage, Annabelle carried on a clandestine affair with the one person whose betrayal would hurt her husband the most. When it ended, she and Grant found their way back together and made a pact that they would never speak of that time again. But now years later, with her children grown and gone, and an ominous distance opening between them, she can’t help but remember those glorious, passionate days and wonder if she chose the right man. So, when her pregnant daughter needs her help, Annabelle goes to stay with her in the city, hopeful she will “accidentally” bump into this other man and perhaps pursue the other road not chosen, even if it means risking her marriage and her family’s well-being.

This thoughtful novel probes deep into the dynamics of a seemingly happy marriage to find the cracks that can occur when two people begin to grow apart. Grant is so preoccupied with his career and his novel that he can’t see that his wife needs his attention. Annabelle, on the other hand, does not communicate any of her needs to Grant, nor can she see that his inattention is a temporary situation. I could identify with both marriage partners; the author does a good job exploring the motivations and feelings of each so that the reader can sympathize and understand what is happening. I had less sympathy for Annabelle, however. She did some very hurtful things that were very self-centered but I could see that she had to explore some things in order to set her mind at ease about her decisions.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book: the characters were quirky and interesting and funny; the plot moved right along and even had a couple twists I wasn’t expecting; and the ending was realistic and satisfying. I highly recommend this for readers who like authors such as Kristin Hannah, Nancy Pickard, and Elizabeth Berg.

This is the author’s first novel.


Other books you may enjoy:

The Summer Guest by Justin Cronin (2004)
The great financier Harry Wainwright, nearing the end of his life, arrives at his fishing camp in Maine to fish and arrange an astonishing bequest that will forever change the lives of those around him.

The Goddesses of Kitchen Avenue by Barbara Samuel (2004)
Struggling to pick up the pieces after her marriage falls apart, Trudy Marino finds support from a quirky group of friends -- the goddesses of Kitchen Avenue. As Trudy weighs what she and her husband still share against some powerful new possibilities, she'll surprise everyone -- including herself -- as she tries to reconcile the best of both worlds.

Fortune’s Rocks by Anita Shreve (1999)
This novel transports us to the turn of the twentieth century, to the world of a prominent Boston family summering on the New Hampshire coast, and to the social orbit of a spirited young woman who falls into a passionate, illicit affair with an older man, with cataclysmic results.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Tennis, Anyone?

Nic Brown

Counterpoint, 2010

Slow Smith is a professional tennis player in a slump, both professionally and personally. He’s stuck in limbo because his wife is in a coma and he’s afraid he’s to blame. All he can do right now is visit her hospital room to continue to document her life with daily Polaroid photographs, something she had done through each month of her pregnancy. Meanwhile Kaz, Slow’s lifelong doubles partner, is traveling the world while playing with someone new while Slow’s tennis points dribble down to nothing. When Manny, Slow’s old coach, appears one morning in a dumpy Fiat convertible, he somehow persuades Slow to return to Forest Hills, the site of a six-year winning streak. Here Slow and Manny reunite with old friends who call up long-buried desires and reveal a secret that threatens to destroy Slow’s marriage as well as his friendship with Kaz. Slow just can’t win — and especially not back on the court. Turns out Kaz can’t either. Theirs is a bond driven as much by odd habits and superstitions as it is their shared life experiences, a partnership not unlike a marriage. Soon they discover the only way to get their lives back on track is by playing together again, whether they can win or not.

This is an odd little book that meanders around and doesn’t really get anywhere – kind of like Slow’s life. The only character that readers are allowed to get close to is Slow; the others are distant shadows whose actions aren’t explained or revealed in any meaningful way. Because of this, the only likeable character is Slow – perhaps because we understand his feelings of grief, betrayal, depression and confusion. We have no idea what’s going on with the others, and frankly, don’t really care by the end of the book. Luckily, things move along pretty quickly. No one is allowed to get too close or personal to anyone or anything, kind of like a doubles tennis game. At first I was sort of ho-hum about this book, but the more I thought about how closely it resembles the game of tennis, I became more enthusiastic about the author’s skill to accomplish this with mere words.


Other books by this author:
Floodmarkers, 2009

Other books you may enjoy:

The Kept Man by Jami Attenberg (2007)
Jarvis is a dark-haired young woman of Irish descent whose offbeat beauty gets her noticed everywhere. Rising art star Martin Miller has to have her, and their marriage is one of funky, punk-rock counterculture bliss until the unthinkable happens -- Martin suffers a fall that leaves him in a coma. As the months turn into years with Martin suspended in time, Jarvis's devotion to him continues even as her life moves forward without him.

Winter Dreams by Don J. Snyder (2004)
Having developed a love for golf and literature in the orphanage where he was raised, college professor Ross Lansdale travels to Scotland to confront his personal fears and compete in a tournament at the Old Course at Saint Andrews.

Lights Out by Jason Starr (2006)
A love triangle between baseball star Jake Thomas, his one-time high-school teammate, Ryan Rossetti, and Jake's fiancée Christina, collides in violence on the streets of Canarsie, Brooklyn.