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Friday, July 30, 2010

A Melodious Song

The Long Song
Andrea Levy

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010

July is the child of a field slave on the Amity sugar plantation in Jamaica. When the master's sister, Mrs. Caroline Mortimer, a recently transplanted English widow, meets her, she decides to move her into the great house and rename her “Marguerite.” Resourceful and mischievous, July soon becomes indispensable to her mistress and grows up in the house as her personal servant. Together they live through the bloody Baptist war, followed by the violent and chaotic end of slavery. When Caroline's brother dies, Caroline must run the plantation herself, but it proves too much for her so she teaches July to read and write so that she can help her mistress run the business, July remains bound to the plantation despite her “freedom," but the other slaves decide they are more interested in building their own livelihoods than contributing to the success of the plantation. When a new overseer is hired, his beliefs in the value of the Negro along with his strong Christian values cause a crisis on the plantation -- and a dramatic change in the lives of both July and her mistress.

July narrates this story when she is an old woman at the request of her son. As she tells the story of the slave named July, she does so in the third person and her narration may or may not be the truthful story of her life. Sometimes when she bends the truth, her son calls her on it and then she is persuaded to give an honest account of events. In fact, her son occasionally enters the narration to tell his story when hers lacks perspective. This "story within a story" is a large part of this novel's success. Whether July's story is honestly told or not doesn't matter; she is an unforgettable character who lived through a hard time in Jamaica's history. She was strong and cunning and lonely -- and did some things that she may have regretted later, but choices have consequences that can't be foreseen ahead of time. July is not an easy character to like, but I still respected and admired her and appreciated her story and her storytelling efforts. She is a person I would like to get to know further, if she would let me, because she does not feel sorry for herself and enjoys the small pleasures that come to her.


Other books by this author:
Small Island, 2004
Fruit of the Lemon, 1999

Other titles you may enjoy:

Cane River by Lalita Tademy (2001)
Tademy weaves together historical fact and fiction to create a vivid and dramatic account of what life was like for the four remarkable women who came before her. Beginning with Tademy’s great-great-great-great grandmother Elisabeth, this is a family saga that sweeps from the early days of slavery through the Civil War into a pre-Civil Rights South.

Land of Many Colors; and Nanna-ya by Marise Conde (1999)
Two historical novellas set in the Caribbean. The first is on a revolutionary fighting the French, the second is a roman a trois against the background of a slave revolt in Jamaica.

Greenwichtown by Joyce Palmer (2001)
Set in Jamaica, Greenwichtown is the story of Fay Myrtle, an innocent, young girl who lives in a shack outside a Jamaican plantation. An older sister takes her from the village to live in the inner-city ghettos of Greenwichtown. As she struggles to come of age, she is caught up in a web of betrayal and is devastated by the death of the man she loves.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Sadness Ahead

Model Home
Eric Puchner

Scribner, 2010

Warren Ziller moved his wife and three children to Southern California in search of a charmed life, and to all appearances, he found it. But paradise isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Even though they live in a gated community in a huge house not far from the beach, Warren is worried about his real estate business, his wife Camille thinks he’s having an affair, and the children have grown distant from each other and their parents. Jonas, the youngest, is largely ignored and dismissed by everyone in the family, which may explain why he’s started dressing all in orange. Lyle, the middle child, decides to lose her virginity to the security gate attendant, but romance only serves to heighten her self-absorption. Dustin, the oldest, has aspirations for UCLA and his rock band, but he finds himself infatuated with his girlfriend’s younger sister and slightly out of kilter with the universe. Life for the Ziller family is moving right along, albeit slightly off track, when tragedy strikes. They are forced to give up the American Dream and move to Warren’s abandoned housing development in the desert. In this bleak lonely place, each member of the family will either work together to forgive each other and solve their problems or become smaller and smaller until one of them disappears forever.

Unfortunately, this story is all too familiar in our current economy. In the past, people who took risks were often successful and celebrated for their risk-taking. Today, risk-takers are not supported in their ventures and often ridiculed for making stupid decisions. Warren’s real estate venture was doomed the minute the city decided to locate a dump next to it; this is pure bad luck and not bad decision-making. The bad decision may have been risking all the family’s savings, including college funds to build the housing development, but still, Warren is not a bad person. Likewise, Camille is not a bad person. She neglects her children and makes some unwise decisions (like her career choice), but she tries to do the right thing. Dustin, Lyle and Jonas are normal children who must live with the mistakes of their parents and each other, which is regrettable but not uncommon or unrealistic. In fact, this family could be any family in the US today – broke, depressed, and simply existing day to day in some sort of zombie-like state, hoping to one day find a little taste of their former successful lives.

The Zillers are a depressing bunch. Their story is sad; their cheaply made house in the middle of a deserted subdivision is sad; the parents’ arguments are sad; the childrens’ hopelessness about their futures are especially sad. I could cry when I think about Jonas, who is blamed for an accident he didn’t cause and is so ostracized by the rest of his family that he wanders alone in the desert wishing someone loved him. Yes, the book is depressing, but that does not mean that you should not read it. On the contrary, this book exemplifies life for many people in our world today: sad. This story will remind readers of all the things they have to be thankful for – our jobs, our houses, our friends, and our families who love each other despite our differences. This story will explain that it could be worse: you could lose everything you thought was important and yet things will still be okay as long as you have your family. It's when you ;ose those you love that you really hit rock bottom.


Rating Justification:
Sometimes a book comes along that affects me very strongly and this is one of those times. You may not react the same way to it, but I still urge you to read it because these characters may touch something inside you, too.

Other books by this author:
Music Through the Floor: Short Stories (2005)

Other titles you may enjoy:

I’ll Go to Bed at Noon by Gerard Woodward (2005)
Colette Jones has had problems of her own with alcohol, but now it seems as though her whole family is in danger of turning to booze. Her oldest son, Janus, has wasted his talents as a concert pianist, and his drinking sprees with his brother-in-law, Bill, a pseudo-Marxist supermarket butcher, have turned violent and landed him in trouble with the police. This is a darkly funny novel about a quirky, troubled family as it lurches from farce to tragedy to pub and back again.

Windfall by James Magnuson (1999)
A Texas university professor finds several million dollars in a basement and takes the money home, keeping the find secret from his wife who would want him to alert police. The novel describes Ben Lindberg's difficulty in spending the money and the impact the secret has on his life, especially the deceit and paranoia it engenders.

The Memory of Running by Ron McLarty (2004)
Meet Smithson "Smithy" Ide, an overweight, friendless, chain-smoking, forty-three-year-old drunk who works as a quality control inspector at a toy action-figure factory in Rhode Island. By all accounts, including Smithy’s own, he’s a loser. But when Smithy’s life of quiet desperation is brutally interrupted by tragedy, he stumbles across his old Raleigh bicycle and impulsively sets off on an epic journey that might give him one last chance to become the person he always wanted to be.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Roses are red/Roses are white...

Reading this book
Will waste your whole night.

Leila Meacham

Grand Central, 2010

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the small east Texas town of Howbutker is run by three families. The Tolivers preside over the massive cotton plantation of Somerset, the Warwicks possess acres upon acres of timber and the DuMonts handle the retail stores in town. The story really begins when Mary Toliver, only 16 years old, inherits Somerset over her older brother and her mother. Miles never really wanted to run the plantation anyway, but Mary's mother is heartbroken over the slight and takes to her bed. Mary is secretly thrilled that Somerset is hers but the shunning by her mother is sobering and even worse, her brother ships her off to boarding school in order to smooth things over in the family.
When World War I erupts, Miles enlists, along with his boyhood friends Percy Warwick and Otto DuMont. Mary learns how to run the plantation while they are gone; when they return she and Percy fall in love. The big problem? Mary won't give up the plantation for Percy. Mary is adamant that she will never have room in her heart for anything but Somerset, yet they are undeniably attracted to each other and they cannot deny their passion despite their differences. Through a trick of fate, Percy and Mary are forced apart. The consequences of their separation vibrate throughout the years, giving rise to lies, deceit, secrets, and tragedies that their families must suffer through, until, ultimately, their decisions mean that families are broken apart and the infamous Somerset curse may be true after all.
This novel was almost a one cupcake review. After ten pages I asked my friend who raved about it if it would get better. After the first section (Mary's), I debated continuing through the forced metaphor of the roses, the continuing missed opportunities between Mary and Percy, the melodrama of the "Somerset curse," and of course, the blatant similarities to Gone with the Wind. But Percy's story was next, and I hoped in all innnocence that his part would steer the plot into something new and different. Alas, it was not to be. Whether you decide that Percy is a victim, a saint, a martyr or just stupid, he is not much more likeable that Mary. I understand the need for human foibles to move the plot forward, but both Mary and Percy do such irreversible damage to other human beings it's no wonder things turn out as they do.
But, hope springs eternal and to the author's credit, the last section is the best of the three (faint praise, I know). Rachel, Mary's great-niece, has some depth to her character -- and some principles to do the right thing. Despite some convenient plot twists (EVERYONE dies in an accident?), the last section also has some suspense (slight, but still!) and a bit of unpredictability (of course, who would expect EVERYONE to die?), which caused me to actually sit up and read a little more compulsively than I had the first two sections. (In fact, the first two sections took me the better part of a week to finish -- not my usual speed.) Saint Percy actually gets what's coming to him -- well, everyone gets what's coming to them, whatever that may be, which may or may not mean everyone lives happily ever after. I don't want to ruin the ending for anyone.
This is the author’s first novel.

Rating justification:
The last section moved it up from two cupcakes to three. I am nothing if not fair.

Other titles you may enjoy:

The Ravenscar Dynasty by Barbara Taylor Bradford (2007)
When Cecily Deravenel tells her eighteen-year-old son Edward of the death of his father, brother, uncle, and cousin in a fire, a part of him dies as well. Edward and his cousin Neville Watkins are suspicious of the deaths. They vow to seek the truth, avenge the deaths, and retake control of their family’s business empire.

Giant by Edna Ferber (1952)
This sweeping tale captures the essence of Texas on a staggering scale as it chronicles the life and times of cattleman Jordan "Bick" Benedict, his naive young society wife, Leslie, and three generations of land-rich sons.

Days of Summer by Jill Barnett (2006)
In the aftermath of a fatal car crash, Laurel grows up in a single-parent home and Cale and Jud Banning are raised by their grandfather, a situation that culminates years later in the Banning brothers' heated rivalry for Laurel's affections.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Diamond Ruby Does Not Shine

Diamond Ruby
Joseph E. Wallace

Touchstone, 2010

Young Ruby Thomas has to grow up fast after the Spanish Influenza hits New York and her family. Ruby is only 17, but she is determined to keep her two young nieces safe, warm and fed in spite of her older brother’s neglect and irresponsibility. But Ruby has got several things going for her: street smarts, boundless determination, and one unusual skill: the ability to throw a ball as hard as the greatest pitchers in a baseball-mad city. After suffering through a frigid winter with nothing but squirrels to eat, Ruby decides she must use her skill to provide for her family. From Coney Island sideshows to the brand-new Yankee Stadium, Diamond Ruby chronicles the extraordinary life and times of a girl who rises from utter poverty to the kind of celebrity only the Roaring Twenties can bestow. But her fame comes with a price, and Ruby must escape a deadly web of conspiracy and threats from Prohibition rumrunners, the Ku Klux Klan, and the gangster underworld.

I found this book to be at first interesting, then melodramatic, then tedious and finally, unrealistic, despite the fact that it’s based on the true story of Jackie Mitchell, one of the first women to play professional baseball. The beginning evokes a feeling similar to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, in which a young girl experiences sorrow and hardships beyond her years. Then it switches gears and becomes The Grapes of Wrath, in which Ruby has to hunt city squirrels and her nieces work 16 hours a day doing piecework instead of going to school. Then it switches again and becomes The Elephant Man, in which Ruby becomes part of the sideshow at Coney Island and is mistreated because she is “different.” Then it turns into The Natural, in which Ruby is approached by bad people and asked to throw her games. It doesn’t take a Mensa member to figure out that things will work out for Ruby and everyone lives Happily Ever After.

If you like baseball stories and fantasy fiction, you will like Diamond Ruby. I found it to be full of clichés, bigger than life historical figures, bizarre coincidences, and stereotypical characters. Kind of like the sports page. In case you’re wondering -- yes, I finished it. After the last failure, I couldn’t not finish it.


This is the author’s first novel.

Other titles by this author:

Grand Old Game: 365 Days of Baseball (2004)
Baseball: 100 Classic Moments in the History of the Game (2000)
The Autobiography of Baseball (1998)

Other titles you may like:

Snow in August by Pete Hamill (1997)
The war veterans have come home. Jackie Robinson is about to become a Dodger. And in one close-knit working-class neighborhood, an eleven-year-old Irish Catholic boy named Michael Devlin has just made friends with a lonely rabbi from Prague. Snow in August is the story of that unlikely friendship – how each opens the other’s eyes to learning and baseball.

The Sweetheart Season by Karen Joy Fowler (1996)
In the tiny town of Magrit, Minnesota, a business owner forms a women’s baseball team called the Sweetheart Sweethearts. One of the employees, Irini, becomes the star center fielder due to her strong throwing arm. Her successes, failures, and revelations on and off the ball field are endearingly recalled by her now grown daughter.

All the Stars Came Out that Night by Kevin King (2005)
A tale based on the 1934 World Series traces the machinations of legal genius Clarence Darrow to bring about the Cardinals win, an achievement also marked by the contributions of such figures as Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, and Henry Ford.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

"Ruff" Going

Wolf Hall
Hilary Mantel

Henry Holt, 2009

From the book jacket:
England in the 1520s is a heartbeat from disaster. If the king dies without a male heir, the country could be destroyed by civil war. Henry VIII wants to annul his marriage of twenty years, and marry Anne Boleyn. The pope and most of Europe opposes him. The quest for the king’s freedom destroys his adviser, the brilliant Cardinal Wolsey, and leaves a power vacuum. Into this impasse steps Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell is a wholly original man, a charmer and a bully, both idealist and opportunist, astute in reading people and a demon of energy: he is also a consummate politician, hardened by his personal losses, implacable in his ambition. But Henry is volatile: one day tender, one day murderous. Cromwell helps him break the opposition, but what will be the price of his triumph?

In inimitable style, Hilary Mantel presents a picture of a half-made society on the cusp of change, where individuals fight or embrace their fate with passion and courage. With a vast array of characters, overflowing with incident, the novel re-creates an era when the personal and political are separated by a hairbreadth, where success brings unlimited power but a single failure means death.

Reasons to read this novel:
1. It won lots of awards: Amazon Book of the Month, Man Booker Prize, National Book Critics Circle Award, AND the Walter Scott Historical Fiction Prize.
2. It was meticulously researched. Or so I assume.
3. It won lots of awards.
4. It has 560 pages, complete with FIVE pages detailing the cast of characters. So it’s very well organized.
5. It won lots of awards.

True Confessions:
1. I could not read this “wonderful” book.
2. I am ashamed of myself.
3. I kept asking myself why I couldn’t finish it. Literally. Here is my self-interview that attempts to explain this unusual phenomenon.

Kellie interviews Kellie

Kellie, the Blog Writer: “So, Kellie, what happened?”

Kellie, the Compulsive Reader: “I really wanted this to work, but fate was against me.”

Writer: “Really? Fate?”

Reader: “Okay, I know it’s hard to believe. I can usually read almost anything. In fact, that’s why I majored in English – because it was just a lot of reading. I’ve struggled through all the classics: War and Peace, Les Miserables, The Fountainhead, just to name a few. So I figured this one would be a piece of cake.”

Writer: “Was it the number of pages that did you in?”

Reader: “No, not really. But I have to say the size of the book was rather daunting. I actually put in on reserve three times before I could devote enough time to read it. I kept returning it and putting it back on hold. Then it would sit on my nightstand until it was due and I would start the process again. But I’m not afraid of big books.”

Writer: “So, was it the five pages of characters that proved your downfall?”

Reader: “No, W. Not entirely. But it was the first clue that this book was going to be a challenge.”

Writer: “Okay. You were faced with a big book. Lots of pages. Lots of characters. Historic British stuff. Any of these would be a challenge even for the most compulsive reader. Yet you gave it your best shot. I know this is a personal question, R, but how far did you get?”

Reader (sheepishly) “Page 82.”

Writer: “That’s it? Frankly, I’m shocked. You are usually so dependable, so faithful, so dedicated to your craft. Have you ever not finished a book?”

Reader (defensively): “I’m not perfect, you know. I’ve not finished books before. I can’t remember a time in the last couple years when I didn’t, but sure, it’s happened. More than once, I might add.”

Writer: “So you got to page 82. Something must have happened to make you give up. Too much sex?”

Reader: “What?! There’s no such thing as too much sex. As my friend Pam says, sex ALWAYS makes a book better. I’m pretty sure that I would have stayed glued to those pages if I had sensed even a promise of sex in it somewhere down the line.

Writer: “Too much violence, then?”

Reader: “Uh, no. There may have been some violence, but that didn’t bother me.”

Writer: “Well?”

Reader: “I’m ashamed to say what it was.”

Writer: “Why? Aren’t we all friends here in the blogosphere? If you can’t trust us, who can you trust?”

Reader: “This is embarrassing. This book has won about a million awards, and it received starred reviews from professional librarians, and it is supposed to be a wonderful book.

Writer: “Well? (sound of foot tapping) I’m not going to go away. Just spill it already.”

Reader: “It was the pronouns.”

Writer: “It was the what?”

Reader: “Pronouns. There were too many “hes.”

Writer: “Too many whats?”

Reader: “’He.’ You know, the pronoun “he.” Also, “his” and “he’s.” Remember the five pages of characters that are in the front of the book? Well, imagine trying to keep all those characters straight when the author uses a lot of pronouns instead of names. It was “he this” and “his that” and I couldn’t figure out which he it was. And I tried. Lord knows I tried.”

Writer: “So you just gave up?”

Reader: “So I just gave up.”

Writer: “Huh. Defeated by a pronoun. It’s gotta be a first.”

Reader: “Yeah.”

There you have it: a wonderful unreadable (by me) historical fiction. I hope you have better luck than I did.

Rating (yes, it’s harsh, but I have to go by the rating guide below):

Other books by this author:
Lots and lots.
All with awards and starred reviews.
I’m too tired to list them all right now.
Go to the Mesa Public Library catalog ( and you’ll find them.

Monday, July 19, 2010

A Revolutionary Woman

The Rebellion of Jane Clarke
Sally Gunning

William Morrow, 2010

Jane Clarke lives in pre-Revolutionary War New England. Her life is simple yet rich. She is lucky enough to be able to enjoy the vibrant scent of the ocean breeze, the stark beauty of the dunes, and the stillness of the millpond. Her days are full attending to her father's needs, minding her younger siblings, helping her stepmother, and working with the local midwife. But at twenty-two, Jane knows things will change. For one thing, her father has picked out a young man to be her husband as well as his business partner, but Jane feels unsure of his intentions and her heart. When Jane refuses Phinnie Paine’s proposal of marriage, her father at first attempts to change her mind, then sends her away to Boston to care for her frail, elderly aunt, which turns out to be the second big change in Jane’s life.

At first she dreads the isolation and quiet involved with caring for an invalid, but soon Jane grows attached to her aunt and suspicious of the servants. She suspects them of stealing but can’t prove anything in spite of constantly monitoring them. Why are they acting so strangely? Meanwhile, she develops a friendship with the bookseller Henry Knox, and others who are involved in the growing rebellion against the British. In fact, Jane herself becomes embroiled in the situation when the unexpected kindness of a British soldier pits her against the townspeople who taunt them – and her own brother. The situation threatens to blow up in spite of all her efforts to explain the truth, but no one will listen to her – it’s as if they want an excuse to go to war. Then, Jane witnesses the infamous “Boston Massacre,” when five colonists are killed by British soldiers. Now she must question her own beliefs and values and face one of the most difficult choices of her life – tell the truth and risk estrangement from her friends and family, or be complicit in a lie, which goes against everything she knows.

Gunning has created another historical novel that once again exceeds expectations. Jane is a likeable and agreeable young woman who can’t decide what she wants in life, but she knows she is special and deserves quality in her friends, her books, and a potential husband. The other characters are fascinating – especially the frail aunt who turns into something quite unexpected, and Nate, Jane’s brother, who starts out as a minor character and then becomes the center of the action. Speaking of action, the book is full of it, complete with spies, intrigue, dangerous situations, sexual liaisons, and even forgiveness and reconciliation. This book is almost worthy of five cupcakes, except I didn’t feel the need to turn around and read it again. It was quite satisfying all by itself.

Rating (see guide below):

Other titles by this author:
The Widow’s War (2006) – my favorite!
Bound (2008) – also pretty darn good.

Other titles you may enjoy:

Gun Ball Hill by Ellen Cooney
In 1774, the friends and relatives of the Mowlan family of Tibbetston, Maine are shattered by an event that is rooted in personal animosity but that takes its occasion from the growing unrest in the American colonies. For some, it is the wake-up call announcing the inevitability of war; for others, it is a spur to long-delayed action. Each character must come to terms with the staggering uncertainty that the war represents. For some, that means setting aside the concerns of "normal" life; for others, it means struggling to maintain some connection to normalcy in the face of disaster.

Rise to Rebellion by Jeff Shaara
In 1770, the fuse of revolution is lit by a fateful command—"Fire!"—as England's peacekeeping mission ignites into the Boston Massacre. The senseless killing of civilians leads to a tumultuous trial in which lawyer John Adams must defend the very enemy who has assaulted and abused the laws he holds sacred. Yet a taut courtroom drama soon broadens into a stunning epic of war, as King George III leads a reckless and corrupt government in London toward the escalating abuse of his colonies. Outraged by the increasing loss of their liberties, and extraordinary gathering of America's most inspiring characters—Ben Franklin, Sam Adams, John Adams, George Washington, and others—confronts the British presence with the ideals that will change history.

Testimony of an Irish Slave Girl by Kate McCafferty
In 1651, ten-year-old Cot Daley is kidnapped from her home in Galway, Ireland, and taken to Barbados. She is just one of more than 50,000 Irish who were sold as indentured servants to the plantation owners of the Caribbean, who worked them alongside the African slaves. After surviving a failed rebellion in which the black and Irish slaves conspired to overthrow their masters, Cot has been called in for questioning by Peter Coote, a disenchanted British doctor who has sold his soul to the governor of the island. She agrees to give her account of the uprising but only as part of her life story, wanting to set the record straight for posterity. As Coote begins to record the testimony of Cot Daley, whom he refers to as "the biddy" and "the white woman," what unfolds is the story of her amazing life-the brutal journey to Barbados, her harrowing years as a slave, her marriage to an African slave and rebel leader, and the fate of her children.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Outer Banks House

The Outer Banks House
Diann Ducharme

Crown Publishers, 2010

As the wounds of the Civil War are just beginning to heal, the once-wealthy Sinclair family builds a lone crooked cottage on the barren shores of the resort village of Nags Head. Although the local residents, known as the “bankers,” think they are crazy for being so close and vulnerable to the sea, seventeen-year-old Abigail loves the proximity of the ocean, even though she doesn’t know how to swim. Abby is beautiful and book-smart, but sheltered by her plantation life and hemmed-in by her emotionally distant family. She is also near-engaged to a family friend, Hector, who is studying to be a lawyer and considered a good catch for a Sinclair.

To make good use of her time, Abigail is encouraged by her family to teach her father’s fishing guide, the good-natured but penniless Benjamin Whimble, how to read and write. At first, she is disgusted by Ben’s fishy smell and dirty clothes, but soon she and Ben form a friendship that transcends their different classes and cultures. Ben, however, has a girlfriend and aspires to be more than just a fisherman. In an attempt to get a construction job from Abby’s father, he agrees to do him a questionable favor, which turns out to cause harm to someone else, threatening the awkward relationship he and Abby have created. Meanwhile, Hector turns up and insists on courting Abigail. She knows her parents would like her to marry Hector, but her heart belongs to Ben, despite the terrible thing he helped her father do.

Abby previously served as both teacher and parent figure for her younger siblings, but at the beach cottage she has time for herself. She learns that she loves the ocean, loves the island, loves to teach others, and wants to right the wrongs of her parents. She discovers that she wants something different than the life her parents chose for her. Ben, on the other hand, learns that the life that was chosen for him is far better than anything he could have chosen for himself.

This quiet and sleepy novel is quite enjoyable despite the awkward twists of plot and uneven pacing of action. I understand the need for action to move the plot along, but the story line starts as a quiet love affair and suddenly ratchets up to a racially provoked tense situation. I was quite troubled at the violent turn of events. I also think that the characters were unevenly developed. Abigail and Ben takes turn narrating, although Abigail dominates the narration with far more chapters. (I got the impression that the Ben chapters were added later, more as an editing afterthought.) Abby is a normal young woman who tries to please her parents, although it’s hard to understand why since they have to be the most self-centered and disagreeable parents ever portrayed in print. And what’s up with Abby’s mother? She is just plain mean.

Despite the flaws listed above, I quite enjoyed this novel until the ending, which I don’t want to give away. I wish that things didn’t wrap up quite so nicely and that Abby’s mother was portrayed more realistically throughout the story. She experiences an abrupt personality change at the end, which startles the reader, and frankly, minimizes the pain she caused the children. This sudden change is never really explained. Also, Abigail’s father is left dwindling at the end – what happens to him? Otherwise, this is a pleasant summer read, even if the end is a bit unsatisfying. Maybe a sequel is in the works…

This is the author’s first novel.

Rating (see key below):

Other books you may enjoy:

The Keeper’s Son by Homer Hickman
Separating himself from his family of lighthouse keepers in order to work for the Coast Guard, World War II Outer Banks resident Josh Thurlow searches for his brother, lost at sea 20 years earlier, in the wake of invading U-boats.

Nights in Rodanthe by Nicholas Sparks
After her husband leaves her for a younger woman, forty-five-year-old Adrienne Willis reconsiders her entire life, until a trip to Rodanthe in North Carolina's outer banks leads to an encounter with successful surgeon Paul Flanner.

Outer Banks by Anne Rivers Siddons
They came together as four sorority sisters on a Southern campus is the '60s, spending two idyllic spring breaks at Nag's Head, North Carolina. Now, thirty years later, they are coming back to recapture the exquisite magic of those early years, to experience again the love, enthusiasm, passion, pain, and cruel betrayal that shaped the four young girls into women.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Not So Hot Sixteenth

Sizzling Sixteen
Stephanie Plum Mystery Series, #16
Janet Evanovich

St. Martin’s Press, 2010

What can I say about the sixteenth episode in the life of Stephanie Plum? Once again she is in a pickle, only this time she is attempting to save her cousin Vinnie’s life so that she can continue to have a job. I’m not sure why she wants to keep her crappy job; it would seem to me a good time to switch careers (if not companies) when the boss is kidnapped and her car is once again blown up, or crunched, or stolen, or whatever happens to it this time.

Don’t get me wrong; I love the Stephanie Plum mystery series. I’ve been reading them since the beginning and I quite understand that some are better than others. I enjoyed reading this one, but it did not make me laugh out loud, nor did it forge any new ground in the “who-will-she-pick” saga. In fact, this one seemed to be just run of the mill Evanovich, but it’s still better summer reading than a lot of other choices. Number 16 is a little boring and predictable and lazy, so I’ve come up with the plot outline for No. 17, just in case Janet needs some ideas

Ceremonial Seventeen:

1. Stephanie and Joe get engaged. This leads to lots of funny side plots that revolve around planning a wedding. For instance, Lulu assumes she will be the maid of honor and plans a very interesting maid of honor ensemble. Maybe Grandma also assumes she will be the maid of honor. Hilarity ensues. Stephanie doesn’t know how to tell Ranger she is engaged to Joe, so she avoids the issue and then gets herself in hot water with Joe. Stephanie’s mother and sister start planning an elaborate wedding that Stephanie doesn’t really want, complete with garish flowers, elaborate ice sculptures, etc. Stephanie and Joe have to go to premarital counseling, which could be very entertaining all by itself.

2. Stephanie, Connie and Lulu start their own private investigation company. They have to find investors and, being naïve, they look in all the wrong places. Ranger bails them out, of course (pun intended). The private investigation firm can also get a lot of amusing detective cases, like suspicious wives hiring them to follow husbands, which can add to the fun.

3. The mystery plot, always the least important aspect of a Stephanie Plum novel, should focus on Joe this time. Maybe he’s accused of receiving kickbacks for protection. Maybe he’s accused of associating with the mob – they are in New Jersey, after all. So he hires Stephanie and associates to investigate the situation and find out who is setting him up.

Ideas for #18, #19 and #20:
1. Joe and Stephanie get married and have a kid. Lulu assumes she will be godmother.
2. Stephanie hires additional people to work in the detective agency, which may or may not prove to be a good idea. How about hiring Mooner? Or some of the past characters that she had to track down when they skipped bail (only the nonviolent ones, of course).
3. Stephanie’s mom (does she have a name?) goes through a mid-life crisis, in which she goes a little nuts. Maybe she has an affair, or starts shoplifting, or just gets a job outside the home. Ha.
4. Ranger is so sad that Stephanie picked Joe he starts dating Joyce, Stephanie’s arch nemesis. Stephanie decides to investigate Joyce and discovers she’s involved in some illegal activities. Or maybe Ranger loses control of himself and goes to Vegas to get married. It’s time for Ranger to discover his inner child and become vulnerable.

If you haven’t started the series, now is a good time to start. If you sped read through the latest installment, maybe you are in the mood for some other series:

Sierra Lavotini mystery series by Nancy Bartholomew
Bubbles Yablonsky mystery series by Sarah Strohmeyer
Loretta Kovacs and Frank Marvelli mystery series by Anthony Bruno
Lilly Bennett mystery series by Marne Davis Kellogg
Izzy Spellman mystery series by Lisa Lutz (my personal favorite!)

Rating (see key below):

Monday, July 12, 2010

"Nobodies" Perfect

The Nobodies Album
Carolyn Parkhurst
Doubleday, 2010
Adult Fiction

Bestselling novelist Octavia Frost has just completed her latest book—a revolutionary novel in which she has rewritten the last chapters of all her previous books in order to remove any clues about her personal life -- especially a horrific tragedy that befell her family years ago. On her way to deliver the manuscript to her editor, Octavia reads a news crawl in Times Square and learns that her rock-star son, Milo, has been arrested for murder. Though she and Milo haven’t spoken in years—an estrangement stemming from him reading one of her novels, she can’t resist traveling to California in order to help him in any way she can.

Once in California, Octavia is shocked to learn that Milo can’t remember what happened the night of the murder. She takes it upon herself to clear Milo of the murder charge, and in doing so she realizes that her son may indeed have killed his girlfriend. As she sorts through the details of his life, she finds herself reliving many of her own memories of his growing years, and once again regretting her own actions and decisions. Soon she realizes that she has the power to rewrite the ending of her relationship story with Milo just like she rewrote the endings to her own novels.

The “last chapters” of Octavia’s novels are layered throughout the story, and each of these alternative endings reveal clues to the “mystery” of the family tragedy that affected Octavia and Milo so deeply. Readers will either enjoy these endings or feel it adds another layer of understanding to the story – or they will hate the interruptions to the narrative and skip over them to rejoin the plot in action. It would be a mistake to skip these vignettes, however, because each one illustrates something that Octavia wishes she could change about her own past. Who doesn’t have regrets about decisions and choices that were made, friendships that were nourished or neglected, children that were overprotected or slipped through our fingers? How many of us get a second chance to heal the rifts that come between us and our loved ones? Octavia is tiptoeing around the edge of her failed relationship with her son, the only family she has left, hoping she can get close enough to him in order to make amends for past mistakes.

Don’t get too excited about the murder mystery aspect to this novel; it is slight and anticlimactic. Furthermore, it really doesn’t matter whether Miles committed the murder or not. What matters is the kind of future Miles and Octavia will manage to forge from this tragedy in order to heal the damage that was caused by the long-ago tragedy. I enjoyed watching the characters struggle and learn from their mistakes, because I could identify with the themes of loss, grief, hurt and regret. This novel shows it’s never too late to rediscover the truth about oneself, even if this truth is hidden in fiction.

Place this book on reserve at the Mesa Public Library today!

Rating (see key below):

Other books by this author:

Lost and Found (2006) – my personal favorite!
The Dogs of Babel (2003)

Other titles you may like:

The Distinguished Guest by Sue Miller
Lily Maynard is proud, chilly, difficult, and has become a famous writer at age seventy-two. Now, stricken with Parkinson's disease and staying with her architect son Alan, Lily must cope with her fading powers as well as with disturbing memories of the events that estranged her from

The Ghost Orchid by Carol Goodman
Journeying to the luxurious Bosco estate in upstate New York to work on a book based on the troubled events that took place there in the summer of 1893, novelist Ellis Brooks uncovers the dark secrets of the wealthy Latham family.

The Perfect Reader by Maggie Pouncey
At the news of her father’s death, Flora quits her big-city magazine job and returns to Darwin, the quaint New England town where she grew up, to fulfill her obligation as her father’s literary executor. It seems he was secretly writing poems at the end of his life—love poems to a girlfriend Flora didn’t know he had. Flora soon discovers that this woman has her own claims on Lewis’s poetry and his memory, and Flora must try to figure out many things: the fate of the poems, the girlfriend who wants a place in her life, her memories of her parents’ divorce, and her own uncertain future.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Backseat Saints by Joshilyn Jackson

Backseat Saints by Joshilyn Jackson
Grand Central Publishing, 2010
Adult Fiction

Rose Mae Lolley grew up an abused and abandoned child in Alabama and barely escaped with her life. When she married Thom, this fierce and dirty girl became Mrs. Ro Grandee, suppressing her true self under flowery skirts and bow-trimmed ballet flats. Ro really tries to please her husband by growing her hair long, keeping her house clean, creating gourmet dishes and working at the family store for slave wages. No matter how much she tries, however, her husband seemingly finds any excuse to beat her bad enough to break bones. Ro may try to hide her past, but that girl Rose Mae sometimes has to make herself known with a sassy comment or snotty look, and then Thom is forced to beat her away again. Ro seems doomed to spend the rest of her life scared of her husband and her former self until fate sends her to the airport where she meets a gypsy. This gypsy knows an awful lot about Ro and when she advises her to kill Thom or be killed by him, Ro takes her words to heart and plans to murder her husband. Taking her grandfather’s gun out of storage, Rose Mae emerges again to save her own life before her husband finishes the job he started.

For some reason I expected this novel to be southern wit and charm, but it’s more of a heavy hitter. Rose Mae’s mother abandoned her when she was eight years old and Rose’s father was the one who accustomed her to a life of being physically abused, and this is never funny. Although Jackson has a way with dialogue, it’s the inner struggles that Ro has with herself that moves the plot forward – though the reader may wish she would hurry up and figure herself out. I found some developments puzzling – for example, why search out a former boyfriend only to suddenly switch gears and then go find her father? I thought she never wanted to see him again; this turn of events left me bewildered. Some things happen so quickly that you are left scratching your head, and then other times the action is painfully slow and cumbersome. The characters have this same inconsistency: eventually I came to like and care about Rose, but we had a rocky start. Her husband Thom, on the other hand, was so evil that he was one-dimensional and stereotypical to a fault. In fact, the only fully developed characters were Rose, her mother, and Fat Gretel, the dog. I found it frustrating that some characters, like Rose’s father’s neighbor, and Mrs. Fancy were almost developed into something interesting then disappeared, never to be heard from again.

Overall, this novel was worth reading as long as your expectations are not too high. I enjoyed her other titles much more and can recommend them more enthusiastically.

Rating (key below):

Other books by this author:
Gods in Alabama (2005)
Between, Georgia (2006)
The Girl Who Stopped Swimming (2008)

Other titles you may like:

Cavedweller by Dorothy Allison (1998)
When Delia Byrd packs her car and begins the long trip home from Los Angeles-from the glamour of the rock 'n roll business, her passion for singing and songwriting, and the darker days of whisky and violence and too much belief in the promises of a man she loved-she heads to Cairo, Georgia, and her own unresolved past.

Behind Closed Doors by Susan Sloan (2004)
Coming of age in the 1950s, Irish Catholic Valerie O'Connor marries a dashing Air Force veteran who hides a drinking problem and violent rages that lead to years of abuse and terror for Valerie and their children.

Grace Notes by Charlotte Allen
Early in her marriage, Grace Loring became the victim of her husband's unpredictable rages. Taking her infant daughter, Grace fled to the safety of her brother Gus's home in Vermont. Now, Grace is a successful author with her own web site. Accustomed to abused women writing to ask for advice, Grace is contacted by a troubled young woman named Stephanie Baine. When Stephanie's e-mails abruptly stop, Grace fears the worst. Then the e-mails resume, and Grace learns that everything she believed about Stephanie may not be true.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Major Pettigrew is my hero

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson
Random House, 2010
Adult Fiction

Major Ernest Pettigrew (retired) has led a quiet life in the village of St. Mary, England, since his dear wife passed away several years ago. But his quiet life suddenly ends when a death in the family starts a chain reaction that drastically changes the Major’s life, most of it for the better.

The Major is quite shocked when his brother, Bertie, dies of a heart attack. This shock leads him to accept a ride from a near-stranger, which is not normally in his nature to do. (Major Pettigrew is usually the one doing the favors, not the other way around.) The near-stranger, Mrs. Ali, was recently widowed, and happened to be standing at his door collecting for the newspaper when the major received the awful news of his brother’s death. This explains her proximity to the situation and why he thankfully accepted her offer to drive him. Not only was his head muddled because of the death, he was also very worried about the status of an antique gun, one of a pair that his father bequeathed to each of his sons at his death, and something Major Pettigrew had long wanted to acquire in order to have the matched set. So you see, he was not in any state to drive himself to his brother’s house and get that gun – or to offer his condolences to his brother’s family, which was his first priority, of course.

Recovering the gun is not successful; in fact, he is again shocked to discover that not only does his brother’s family want to sell the beloved heirloom, his own son is looking forward to spending his perceived share of the inheritance. Major Pettigrew finds himself explaining all this to Mrs. Ali during their car ride, and this intimacy forms the basis of a friendship between the two. They begin to spend more time together, doing such things as discussing literature on Sunday afternoons, running errands, or just chatting when the Major pops into her shop periodically just to have an excuse to talk to her. Could it be that he’s falling for her despite his advanced age?

Meanwhile, other things are happening in the little village. The golf club is sponsoring their annual gala, which the organizing ladies have decided will have an Eastern Indian theme and feature a reenactment of the Major’s father receiving the gift of the antique guns from the maharishi. Mrs. Ali is enlisted to help authenticate the ethnic details, which the Major soon regrets, because the whole town starts to talk about their interracial “love affair.” Meanwhile, Roger, the Major’s formerly absent son, has turned up again, interested in joining the club, helping with the gala, and even moving to the village as a new resident. This all leaves the Major quite confused, a state he is unaccustomed to, and things quickly spiral out of control despite of all his efforts to keep everyone happy. Will Major Pettigrew follow the social conventions which used to govern his every move – or will he do what his heart tells him?

This novel is thoroughly delightful in every way. The author has a sharp wit and a gift for dialogue that brings the characters alive. Major Pettigrew is charming and gruff as he tries to keep the stiff upper lip and all that entails while demonstrating a heart that still has a lot of love to offer. Mrs. Ali is wise, caring, and true to herself and her heritage despite the prejudice and shallowness shown to her by the villagers. This novel has received many positive reviews, and I’m happy to say its reputation is justified. If you are looking for something that is light summer reading yet substantial enough to keep you interested and entertained – along with a little meaning to reflect about later, this is the book for you!

This is Simonson’s first novel, with many more to follow, we hope. See the link below to place your reserve at the Mesa Public Library.


Other titles you may like:

The Sea by John Banville
Following the death of his wife, Max Morden retreats to the seaside town of his childhood summers, where his own life becomes inextricably entwined with the members of the vacationing Grace family.

East of the Mountains by David Guterson
A retired heart surgeon, recently widowed, does not wish to confront his terminal colon cancer. He decides to go on a last hunt in his home state of Washington.

Deaf Sentence by David Lodge
Desmond Bates is a recently retired linguistics professor vexed by his encroaching deafness and at loose ends in his personal life. Without the purposeful routine of the academic year, he finds his role reduced to that of escort and house-husband while the monotony of his days is relieved only by wearisome journeys to London to check on the welfare of his querulous, elderly father, an ex-dance musician.