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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.