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Saturday, December 24, 2011

Joy for Beginners

Joy for Beginners
Erica Bauermeister
Putnam, 2011

When Kate was ill with cancer, six women joined forces to help her in various ways as she underwent surgery and treatment. When she was given a clean bill of health, she invited the women for dinner, where she shared her fears about a river rafting trip through the Grand Canyon with her daughter. When the group urged her to go despite her misgivings, Kate issued each of them a challenge: if she does the one thing that has always terrified her, each of them will also do one that that they would find difficult. Even though some of the tasks seem slight, easy or inconsequential, Kate’s wisdom in the assignments become apparent as each woman attempts to do the one thing that, it turns out, proves to be the most difficult.

Each chapter is each woman’s story of doing the assigned task. They range from the simplest (learning to bake bread) to the most difficult (taking a trip overseas). As each woman attempts to do what Kate has asked, they learn something of themselves that enables them to move past whatever event or situation has stopped them from learning and growing as human beings. Kate herself goes on the river trip with her daughter, and finds the experience to be even more life-changing than the cancer was.

Some might think this novel to be overly sentimental and simplistic, but it actually proved to me to be uplifting and refreshing. It is not dreary or sad, as many cancer stories are. Instead, it shows the power and rewarding benefits of friendship among women. Who else but a close friend can see us as we really are, and in fact, confront us about our own issues in a loving and accepting way? This book will remind you to call your best friend and have a good chat about things that aren’t really important, or things that are, just because you can. And if you can’t – it will make you miss her with all your heart even more than you did before.


Other novels by this author:
The School of Essential Ingredients (2009)

Other titles you may also enjoy:

Talk before Sleep by Elizabeth Berg (1994)
Ann Stanley, an unhappily married nurse, narrates this story of Ruth Thomas, a woman dying from cancer who has left her husband, even though it means leaving her son, too.

Always and Forever by Kathy Kelly (2007)
Their satisfying lives compromised by such challenges as career changes, parenting responsibilities, and difficult relationships with men, three Irish women gather at a spa and receive assistance from a fourth woman who helps them to rethink their priorities.

Colony by Anne Rivers Siddons (1993)
Looking back on her ninety years of life while waiting for the arrival of her children and grandchildren at the family summer home, Maude Chambliss recalls a life of wealth, friendship, love, and loss.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Birds of Paradise

Birds of Paradise
Diana Abu-Jaber
W.W. Norton, 2011

Teenage runaway Felice has called her mother, Avis, to arrange a meeting. Avis is a self-employed pastry chef who uses the opportunity to create her daughter’s favorite cookie, a confection that takes hours to make. Felice’s father Brian disapproves of his wife agreeing to this meeting, to making the cookies, to getting her hopes up, again, after so many disappointments. Felice has not lived at home since she was 13 years old.

Told in alternating chapters, this is the story of a damaged family. The setting is pre-economic downturn Miami, when money flowed easily and real estate was king. From our standpoint of looking back from the future, however, we know that the financial good times will soon come to an end, causing as much havoc and turmoil as the hurricane that is fast approaching the city. Felice is soon to be 18, a legal adult, and she realizes that it may be time to grow up and take ownership of her emotional problems instead of running away from them. Meanwhile, Stanley, the older son and brother who has been neglected ever since her sister first ran away, is struggling himself, but he has trouble asking his parents for help. In fact, he has given up on asking his parents for much of anything.

As the storm approaches Miami, the family struggles to connect, both physically and emotionally. Avis is on the verge of a breakdown, Brian considers an extra-marital affair, Stanley feels powerless to help himself or his business, and Felice discovers love while almost losing her own life. And yet, through all the drama, I could not warm up to any of these characters. Felice’s reasons for running away, not revealed until almost the end, just didn’t add up. Avis and Brian have real pain, but Avis just can’t let go and Brian has totally given up. Stanley was the only one I could sympathize with – he was a true victim of the situation.

Sometimes I feel uplifted after reading a good story; other times the story doesn’t move me. This is one of those times that I am left shrugging my shoulders, feeling neither good nor bad about the plot, characters, setting, or tone of this title. It was just okay – not memorable but not horrible either.


Other novels by this author:
Crescent (2003)
Origin (2007)

Other titles you may enjoy:

The Dearly Departed by Elinor Lipman (2001)
The untimely death of her single mother, Margaret Batten, brings Sunny back to small-town King George, New Hampshire, the scene of her unhappy adolescence, where she discovers old family secrets and a possible half-brother she never knew she had.

Trespass by Valerie Martin (2007)
Chloe Dales's growing dislike of her college-age son Toby's romantic relationship with Salome Drago, a Croatian refugee who is a seductive but somehow toxic blend of the old world and the new, threatens to alienate her from her tolerant husband and besotted son.

The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards (2005)
In a tale spanning twenty-five years, a doctor delivers his newborn twins during a snowstorm and, rashly deciding to protect his wife from their baby daughter's affliction with Down Syndrome, turns her over to a nurse, who secretly raises the child.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Story of Beautiful Girl

The Story of Beautiful Girl
Rachel Simon
Grand Central, 2011

Lynnie Goldberg and Homan Wilson, escapees from the School for the Incurable and Feebleminded, are on the run. It is 1968 and Lynnie has just given birth to a baby girl in the pouring rain. Not knowing where else to go, they knock on the door of Martha’s farmhouse, hoping for shelter. Martha is a retired schoolteacher and widow and lives alone. Even though Lynnie and Homan are unable to communicate with Martha, she is quick to comprehend two things right away: they need shelter and they care deeply about each other. She can tell by the gentle way Homan takes care of Lynnie and the baby and their caring glances at one another that they are in love. When the authorities finally track them down, Homan manages to escape but Lynnie is tied up and taken away. Lynnie, who hasn’t spoken in years, manages to whisper just two words into Martha’s ear as they take her away: “Hide her.”
Martha understands the concern and hides the child. Not knowing what else to do, she goes on the run herself, first to friends and then to former students. As the child grows, manages to sell the farmhouse and establish alternate identities for her and the baby. Homan, meanwhile, finds himself far away from the School as he eludes capture, with no idea how to find his way back to Lynnie. Lynnie misses Homan and waits patiently for him to come back to her, but as the years go by, she starts to lose hope.
This heartbreakingly sad and affecting story will stay with you long after you finish the last page. First of all, it is a tragedy that our nation’s developmentally disabled and hearing impaired children, men and women, were incarcerated in state run institutions. Secondly, the abuse they suffered at the hands of the hired staff was unforgiveable. Third, the love demonstrated between Lynnie and Homan, two people who could not talk to each other, is remarkable and touching. They never give up searching for each other despite all the miles and years that came between them. Their story illustrates that true love and compassion is not about the words we say – it is communicated in our looks, our actions and our hearts.

This is the author’s first novel.

Other titles you may enjoy:

Deafening by Frances Itani (2003)
Left profoundly deaf from scarlet fever, Grania O'Neill grows up protected from the hearing world and learning sign language, but her life changes when she falls in love with Jim Lloyd, a hearing man, on the eve of the Great War.

Lottery by Patricia Wood (2007)
Having learned essential life skills from his grandmother that helped him overcome his low IQ, Perry finds himself without a caregiver at the age of thirty-one and wins a fortune by playing the lottery, a windfall that brings him more family than he ever wanted.

Eventide by Kent Haruf (2004)
A novel of small-town life in the high plains region around Holt, Colorado, follows the challenges, emotional upheaval, tragedies, and intertwined destinies of the local inhabitants as they cope with the changes they encounter.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Then Came You

Then Came You
Jennifer Weiner
Atria, 2011

The plans of four women are thrown together when an aging second wife, surgically enhanced and carefully falsified, fails to get pregnant for her rich husband. India, not her real name, has been attempting pregnancy through in-vitro procedures even though she suspects she’s too old at 43 (not her real age) to get pregnant. Marcus, her truly generous and nice husband, will do anything to make her happy, so they decide to hire a surrogate to have the baby for them.

Jules is a senior at Princeton. Beautiful and smart, she is willing to donate her eggs so that she can pay for her addict father to finally get the help he needs at an in-patient facility known for their success rates. But Jules still finds herself wondering about any babies that her eggs have produced, especially after she discovers true love with her best friend.

Annie is the mother of two little boys. She and her husband own an old farmhouse out in the country badly in need of repairs. Frank, her husband, does what he can to provide for the family but his TSA job just doesn’t pay enough to cover all the bills. Annie decides to become a surrogate in order to help the household, but Frank doesn’t want to accept help if it means he has to watch his wife carry someone else’s baby.

Bettina is Marcus’s grown daughter who suspects that her father’s new wife is not all she pretends to be. She hires a private detective to investigate India, but when she discovers how rampant the lies are, she finds herself reluctant to break her father’s heart again. Bettina’s mother was the one to leave the marriage, and Bettina misses her terribly now that she has moved to Arizona to join a cult. Not knowing what else to do, she holds onto the information that the detective discovered, and soon discovers a new relationship herself.

When Marcus, the soon to be father, has a heart attack, India panics and flees the country. She only wanted the baby in order to bind Marcus to her and provide a little insurance policy – she can’t be a single parent. Bettina is shocked to discover that she is now the baby’s guardian in the absence of both father and mother. Annie finds that she misses the baby she carried for nine months, so she helps when she can. And Annie, the egg donor, also becomes involved in caring for the child, who Bettina names Aurora. In this situation, it truly takes a village to raise a child.

Despite my initial worries that Jennifer Weiner was trying to channel Jodi Picoult with this story straight out of the newspaper, I enjoyed this book. I’ve always loved Weiner’s writing, from the very first (and best!) novel. I love her humor, her strong female characters, and the very real conflicts they face. This book is no different, except that there isn’t quite as much humor as her first (and best!) novel. The plot may have been plucked from the headlines, but the characters have real life struggles, make mistakes, and try to fix them in the end.


Other novels by this author:
Good in Bed (2001)
In Her Shoes (2002)
Little Earthquakes (2004)
Goodnight, Nobody (2005)
Certain Girls (2008)
Best Friends Forever (2009)
Fly Away Home (2010)

Other titles you may enjoy:

Watermelon by Marion Keyes (1998)
When her husband, James, leaves her after she delivers her first child, Claire retires to her family in Dublin, where she slowly recovers from the experience, giving James a big surprise when he shows up again.

Get Lucky by Katherine Center (2010)
After an inappropriate email causes Sarah Harper to lose her job, she goes home to Houston to spend Thanksgiving with her sister, Mackie. After years of trying, Mackie has given up on having children. As Mackie prepares to sell the nursery on eBay, Sarah gets an idea that may fix everyone's problems.

Wives Behaving Badly by Elizabeth Buchan (2006)
Minty Lloyd is now the second wife to her husband, Nathan--but she is shunned by his friends, despised by his grown children, and haunted by her very much alive, and quite reborn, predecessor Rose. Yet after a shocking phone call, Minty finds herself united with an unexpected ally--the woman she once betrayed.

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Sisters Brothers

The Sisters Brothers
Patrick DeWitt
Ecco, 2011

Eli and Charlie Sisters are hired gunmen who have been commissioned to find and kill Hermann Kermit Warm, with Charlie as lead man for the first time in their history together. Eli, the younger brother, does not much care for this turn of events, especially when they run into problems along the way. As the brothers deal with an attacking red-heared bear with a bounty on its head, a double crossing saloon owner and his murderous cohorts, a contact that vanished, plus various characters who thwart their progress along the way, Eli and Charlie come to some conclusions about their chosen lifestyle.

The rough and tumble Old West comes to life in this darkly comic, sometimes gruesome and often violent western novel. Poor Eli has decided during this job that he lost the taste for killing. Charlie has his work cut out for him to keep Eli to task, but he knows what to say to fire Elie up to killing. Charlie, on the other hand, has a taste for brandy that often derails their schedule, so Eli has time to spend with a local woman or with his broken down horse. There's a sadness and wistfulness to Eli and Charlie's story, an unspoken wish that their lives had taken a different route but it's just too late to make any changes. As we learn, however, it's never too late to choose differerently, especially when things don't go exactly as planned. As you can tell, this is a different kind of Western novel. It may appeal to those of us who don't normally pick one up.


Other novels by this author:
Ablutions: notes for a novel (2009)

Other titles you may enjoy:

Appaloosa by Robert Parker (2005)
Arriving in a small nineteenth-century western town where the sheriff has been killed and the residents are at the mercy of a renegade rancher, lawmen Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch face an adversary who works by playing psychological games.

The Hot Kid by Elmore Leonard (2005)
Having made his name by killing notorious bank robber Emmet Long, Deputy U.S. Marshal Carl Webster embarks on a dangerous search for Jack Belmont, the son of an oil millionaire who dreams of becoming Public Enemy Number One.

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry (1985)
Former Texas Rangers leave their unsuccessful cattle business when they hear of good opportunities in newly opened territory.

Friday, December 2, 2011

The Buddha in the Attic

The Buddha in the Attic
Julie Otsuka
Knopf, 2011

This is the story of some Japanese women who came to the United States in the early 1900s as mail order brides for Japanese men. Some of the men were laborers, some were shop keepers. Some of the men were rich, some were poor. Some treated their new wives with love and respect, others were abusive and demanding. Some of the new husbands and wives deceived each other with their pictures and letters sent before marriage, and so were disappointed when they met. Some had open and honest relationships. Most had children who grew up to reject their ancestry and history and heritage. Almost all found themselves classified as the enemy after the events at Pearl Harbor. A few disappeared, never heard from again. Many lost their homes and their businesses when they were relocated to the camps.

Told in beautiful and descriptive language that combines the experiences of many women into one voice, this novella may perhaps be more accurately described as a prose poem. Interestingly, it is full of contradictions. It is one story, yet it describes many women’s experiences. It is an emotional and painful account of the suffering and disappointment that the women experienced, yet the overall tone is detached and impersonal. There are very few names and no specific characters mentioned, yet the author gives the impression that the women know each other and have relationships as the years go by. As readers, we don’t get to know any of the women very well, yet we learn a great deal about the lives of the immigrants through their voices gathered together.

This is a very remarkable book that I highly recommend, especially if you enjoy the power of a perfectly chosen word. I was particularly impressed with the unique voice of the collective Japanese women and the skill that Otsuka used to create one narrative voice with many characters. It is mesmerizing and memorable.


Other novels by this author:
When the Emperor was Divine (2002)

Other titles you may enjoy:

The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford (2009)
When artifacts from Japanese families sent to internment camps during World War II are uncovered during renovations at a Seattle hotel, Henry Lee embarks on a quest that leads to memories of growing up Chinese in a city rife with anti-Japanese sentiment.

How to be an American Housewife by Margaret Dilloway (2010)
Entreated to visit her ancestral family in Japan in place of her ailing mother, Sue uncovers family secrets that influence her life in unforeseen ways, offer insight into her mother's marriage to an American GI, and reveal the role of tradition in shaping personal choice.

My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki (1998)
Strange things happen in the love lives of two women--one a Japanese-American filmmaker from New York, the other a Japanese housewife--linked by a Japanese television show sponsored by an American meat exporter.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Family Fang

The Family Fang
Kevin Wilson
Ecco, 2011

For as long as Buster and Annie can remember, their parents have been weird. They could have coped if their parents had been the normal kind of weird that most kids complain about. You know, like wearing black socks with sandals or arguing in public. Instead they were stuck with the kind of weird parents called public performing artists who created mayhem and chaos in public places just to watch other people’s reactions and record it as art. Which was fine when it was just Caleb and Camille Fang creating public scenes, but it seemed that the only reason they had their children was just to use them as props their parents’ performance pieces? Or at least, that’s the way Buster and Annie felt.

For as long as they can remember, the children starred in their parents' madcap pieces, but now that they are adults, they are having a hard time coping in a normal world. When Annie and Buster make a series of bad decisions that affect their careers and their lives, they have nowhere to go but home, where they discover that Caleb and Camille are planning one last performance – whether the kids want to help or not. Can Annie and Buster cope with what they see as the ultimate betrayal, or will they understand that for their parents, art is more important than they are?

If you like to squirm uncomfortably while reading your novels, then this book is for you. Chapters alternate between the circumstances surrounding the past performance pieces, where young Annie and Buster are reluctant and sometimes resistant participants, to current situations involving adult Annie and Buster, who find themselves still reluctant and resistant to playing the same game with their parents. This odd and compelling novel will leave you with a lot of conflicted feelings and moral questions about parental love and damaged children. And yet, it has an odd appeal – maybe because we can all identify with having fairly odd parents to some degree.


This is the author’s first novel.

Other titles you may enjoy:

The Ghost at the Table by Suzanne Berne (2006)
Thanksgiving at the New England home of the second of three sisters marks a reunion between the three Fiske sisters and their long-estranged father, in a portrait of the unraveling of a family.

The Field Guide to Burying Your Parents by Liza Palmer (2009)
As a child, Grace Hawkes was abandoned by her father; as an adult, she feels abandoned when her mother dies unexpectedly. Not knowing what to do, Grace runs away. Five years later she reunites with her siblings at her father's deathbed and confronts her past.

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen (2010)
The idyllic lives of civic-minded environmentalists Patty and Walter Berglund come into question when their son moves in with aggressive Republican neighbors, green lawyer Walter takes a job in the coal industry, and go-getter Patty becomes increasingly unstable and enraged.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

This Beautiful Life

This Beautiful Life
Helen Schulman
Harper Collins, 2011

When 15-year-old Jake rejects the sexual advances of an eighth grader, then forwards a pornographic video she made for him to his friend, the beautiful life that his mother Liz and his father Richard created for him and his younger sister disappears. As expected, the video goes viral and immediately puts Jake’s future in jeopardy as well as disrupting the family’s well-being. Jake and his friends are questioned by the police and suspended from school; Liz has a breakdown of sorts; and Richard’s new job in New York is up in the air. If only, Liz laments, they had never left their idyllic life in Ithaca. If only, Richard wishes, he had made more time for Jake. If only, Jake thinks repeatedly, he had deleted that email without even watching it.

Set in a pre-9/11 Manhattan full of excessive wealth and a strange kind of innocence, this story could happen to anyone, which is what makes it so compelling. Liz and Richard make lots of mistakes along the way, not the least is their lack of parenting to their older child in order to concentrate all their time and energy with the younger one, who, ironically, becomes ignored during the family crisis. Still, it is hard to watch this unraveling of what seems like a perfectly happy family, who will never the same after this event. Readers expecting a happy ending will want to read something else, because this is a sobering, thought-provoking and somewhat depressing story.


Other novels by this author:
P.S. (2001)
A Day at the Beach (2007)

Other titles you may enjoy:

Before You Know Kindness by Chris Bohjalian (2004)
After a decade of spending a delightful summer week at their country house in New Hampshire, the members of the extended Seton family are confronted by a terrible accident, testing the values and relationships that hold them together.

The Summer Guest by Justin Cronin (2004)
Nearing the end of his life, financier Harry Wainwright journeys to a rustic fishing camp in Maine and leaves a profound legacy for a haunted young man, a Vietnam draft evader, and a spirited young woman who holds a key to the past.

Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry (2002)
In mid-1990s Bombay, Nariman Vakeel lives in a crumbling apartment with his two middle-aged stepchildren--the mild-mannered Jal and his domineering sister, Coomy, who plots to turn over the care of her stepfather to her younger sister, Roxana.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


Rosamund Lupton
Crown, 2011

Beatrice and her sister Tess have always been close, so when Beatrice doesn’t hear from Tess for several days she begins to worry. It turns out that Beatrice is right to worry. Tess, who is single and pregnant, is officially missing. Beatrice quickly travels home to London to find out what happened, and she is shocked to learn that Tess’ baby died several weeks earlier. Not only that, but Tess had been stalked by someone who left frightening messages on her phone and watched her through her windows at night. Then, when Tess is found dead of an apparent suicide, Beatrice starts to investigate on her own, convinced that Tess would never take her own life.

Part psychological drama, part medical thriller, and part mystery, this fast-paced suspense story will keep you alert and interested in the outcome. Beatrice seems driven by a combination of guilt over moving away from her sister in London and determination to prove the police wrong about her sister’s death. When Tess’ therapist tells the police that Tess suffered from hallucinations brought on by illicit drug use, Beatrice works even harder to prove that she was murdered. She feels so close to a motive, but every turn seems to result in a dead end. Could it be that Beatrice is starting to lose her own grip on reality? Everyone else seems to think so.

If there is such a thing as a quiet suspense story, this would be it. The book’s structure has alternating chapters between a letter that Beatrice narrates to her sister and an interview that Beatrice has with an attorney explaining her every step to solve the mystery. While I was not as riveted to the book as others were, I found the story compelling and the premise intriguing enough to keep reading. A surprise twist at the end, however, left me feeling a bit betrayed and disappointed.


This is the author's first novel.

Other titles you may enjoy:

The Water’s Lovely by Ruth Rendell (2006)
A decade after the killing of her stepfather, Ismay is still haunted by nightmares of his murder and of seeing his naked body floating in the bathtub and her sister, Heather, standing over him.

The Vanishing of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell (2007)
Iris Lockhart receives news that her great-aunt Esme is being released from Cauldstone Hospital, where she has been confined for more than sixty years, and soon discovers that Esme holds the key to long-hidden family secrets that could change her life forever.

The Secret Smile by Nicci French (2004)
Discovering that her sister has become involved with a deceptive man whom she herself dumped weeks earlier, Miranda becomes increasingly apprehensive when her sister begs Miranda to let them both live with her while they find a place of their own.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Dovekeepers

The Dovekeepers
Alice Hoffman
Scribner, 2011

This fictionalized account of the first century massacre at Masada unfolds through the voices of four women: Yael, the hated daughter of an assassin; Revka, a baker’s wife determined to protect her orphaned grandsons; a girl who fights battles disguised as a warrior; and her mother, a woman of mysterious powers. What unites all these women in this community is their assigned duty as dove keepers, where they learn to forgive each other in order to survive in an increasingly hostile time.

Hoffman fans may struggle through this massive volume, because it is a significant departure in style and content from many of her previous works. She spent a great deal of time researching the history behind the event, and this shows through the extensive detail and background that accompanies each character’s story. However, the long paragraphs and slow plot make this a tedious work to get through. Some may find it rewarding – but others may elect to just give up. After finishing it myself, I’m not sure it’s worth the long, hard slog to the end.

By the way, isn't the cover fantastic? It makes me wish I liked the book more!


Alice Hoffman has numerous novels to her name. Check them out at!

Other titles you may enjoy:

The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley (2010)
Carrie settles into the shadow of Slains Castle in Scotland, creates a heroine named for one of her own ancestors, and starts to write about the Jacobite invasion of 1708. When she can no longer tell the difference between today and centuries ago, is she dealing with an ancestral memory-- a memory that might destroy her?

Innocent Traitor by Allison Weir (2006)
A fictional portrait of Lady Jane Grey, the great-niece of Henry VIII, follows her turbulent life against the backdrop of Tudor power politics and religious upheaval, from her youth, to her nine-day reign as Queen of England, to its tragic aftermath.

Madame Bovary’s Daughter by Linda Urbach (2011)
A continuation of Flaubert's classic finds twelve-year-old Berthe cast off by society in the aftermath of her mother's suicide and sent to live with her impoverished grandmother, from where she eventually rises through the ranks of Charles Worth's famed fashion empire.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Lost Memory of Skin

Lost Memory of Skin
Russell Banks
Ecco Press, 2011

The Kid is a young sex offender who has no choice but to live with other outcasts in a makeshift homeless camp under a south Florida freeway. He and the other sex offenders are required to live outside society because of a law which restricts them from going within 2500 feet from any school, church, daycare, or virtually any other place that children or teens may frequent – which pretty much rules out every place except the underpass.

The Kid has a job, a bicycle, and a tent, so he can get by. He and the other ex-cons have figured out ways to charge their ankle bracelets with a generator (for a fee, of course); they know the best locations to dumpster dive for groceries; they have learned how to survive in a society that has only contempt and disgust for them. The Kid, who was kicked out of the army, had a troubled upbringing but he doesn’t blame his mother for leaving him alone for long periods of time. Although some people would accuse her of neglect so profound it could be considered abusive, The Kid figures she was doing the best she could, and it wasn’t her fault he discovered online pornography at a young age, which led to his subsequent downfall and current situation. If anything, The Kid was so na├»ve and trusting and desperate for human contact, that he did a stupid thing that he will pay for the rest of his life. He knows the score.

When the Professor shows up, the Kid is naturally suspicious and does not let his guard down for even a minute. The Professor teaches sociology and thinks he can rehabilitate The Kid as a social experiment. He gives The Kid money and counseling sessions, but the Professor is not everything he seems and his past starts to haunt him. He enlists The Kid to help him, which he does despite his misgivings, and the two men develop a relationship based on trust and friendship – something The Kid has never before experienced in his life.

I never thought I would feel such compassion and caring for a character like The Kid. He is definitely a victim of his own mistakes, and while I certainly would never condone his choices, I kind of understand why he made them. Many lonely people survive in this sad world without resorting to doing wrong. In fact, The Kid makes no excuses for himself. He doesn’t expect any special favors, nor does he bemoan his condition, but he does get tired of living in a tent under the freeway with other lowlifes like himself. This book is not a feel-good story: it raises many questions about rehabilitation and sexual predators and societal pressures. It will make you wonder about sex offenders trying to survive in a world that hates them and what, if anything, we should do about that. But it’s The Kid -- a young man who finally learns how to love someone else -- who will stay with you long after the book ends.


Other novels by this author:
Affliction (1989)
Rule of the Bone (1995)
Cloudsplitter (1998)
The Darling (2004)
The Reserve (2008)
Outer Banks: three early novels (2008)

Other titles you may enjoy:

The Echo Maker by Richard Powers (2006)
Twenty-seven-year-old Mark Schluter, suffering from a rare brain disorder that causes him to believe his sister to be an impostor, endeavors to discover the cause of the motor vehicle accident that resulted in his head injury.

Invisible by Paul Auster (2009)
Poet and student Adam Walker meets the enigmatic Frenchman Rudolf Born and his silent, seductive girlfriend, Margot, sending Adam into a perverse triangle that leads to a shocking act of violence that will alter his life.

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.

Thursday, November 10, 2011



Jennifer Haigh
Harper, 2011

When her older brother Art--a Catholic priest and the popular pastor of a large suburban parish--finds himself at the center of a scandal, his younger sister Sheila McGann returns to Boston to help the family and fight for Art’s reputation. The problem is: Sheila isn’t absolutely convinced that Art is innocent of any wrongdoing.

Sheila has been estranged from her Catholic family for years, but she has always been close to her brother, Art. She and her younger brother Mike have tried to keep in touch, but Mike’s wife made it clear that she didn’t approve of Sheila, so she kept her distance. As Art struggles with his immediate ouster from the parish and relocation to a dismal apartment, Mike communicates his distrust of Art, and warns him to stay away from their family home. Gossip, innuendo, and outright lies run rampant, and Sheila despairs of every learning the truth until Mike decides to take matters into his own hands with disastrous results.

Sheila narrates a story that could be taken directly from the Boston headlines a few years ago. Her detached writing style is hard to warm up to, however, and left me only mildly interested in discovering the “truth” about Art and his accusers. We suspect, rightly, that there is more to the story than meets the eye, and while I didn’t quite guess the exact ending to the drama, I was correct in some of my assumptions. I would classify this one as mildly interesting, only somewhat compelling, and while not entirely forgettable, not something I enthusiastically recommend, either.


Other novels by this author:
Baker Towers (2005)
Mrs. Kimble (2006)
The Condition (2008)

Other titles you may enjoy:

The Priestly Sins by Andrew Greeley (2004)
Assigned to his first parish, Father Herman Hoffman witnesses child abuse in the parish rectory and reveals the situation to the local pastor, only to discover the fate of a whistle-blower.

An Act of Love by Nancy Thayer (1997)
When Linda McFarland's daughter attempts suicide and then accuses Owen McFarland's son (her stepbrother) of raping her, the happily married couple find their lives torn apart at the seams.

The Astral by Kate Christensen (2011)
The Astral is a huge apartment building in Brooklyn, which has been the happy home of the poet Harry Quick and his wife, Luz, who raised two children in their rambling top-floor apartment. However, the aging Astral's glory is beginning to fade- and as the building crumbles around him, a series of events forces Harry to face the reality of his own fractured family.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Everything Happens Today

Everything Happens Today

Jesse Browner
Europa, 2011

Wes is a seventeen-year-old who lives in Greenwich Village in a dilapidated town house with his terminally ill mother, remote has-been author father and precocious younger sister. This novel is the record of what happens to Wes In the course of one day: he accidentally loses his virginity to the wrong girl; he tries to rewrite an English paper on War and Peace , and he prepares an elaborate dinner for his mother. As Wes struggles with his conflicting feelings about the girl he hooked up with the night before, he juggles grocery shopping, texting his friends, taking his sister to a movie, and doing his homework while contemplating such issues as sex, love, song lyrics, innocence, friendship, God and French cuisine.

Long sentences and longer paragraphs provide a stream of conscience approach to the atypical brain of a bright young man who seems overwhelmed with too many responsibilities for a teenager. No doubt Wes has a lot on his mind, but most readers would be questioning why Wes is the one who has to the caregiver of both his mom and his little sister. Where is his father? And why hasn’t anyone called Protective Services? These issues are not addressed, however, and then, frankly, I stopped caring. Although I felt sorry for Wes, I really didn’t care to read his every passing thought and detail of every minute of his one day. Yes, a lot happened to Wes today, but much of it did not make compelling reading and in fact, was a little boring and more than a little forgettable.


Other novels by this author:
The Uncertain Hour (2007)

Other titles you may enjoy:

The Dearly Departed by Elinor Lipman (2001)
The untimely death of her single mother, Margaret Batten, brings Sunny back to small-town King George, New Hampshire, the scene of her unhappy adolescence, where she discovers old family secrets and a possible half-brother she never knew she had.

Trepass by Valerie Martin (2007)
Chloe Dales's growing dislike of her college-age son Toby's romantic relationship with Salome Drago, a Croatian refugee who is a seductive but somehow toxic blend of the old world and the new, threatens to alienate her from her tolerant husband and besotted son.

A Multitude of Sins by Richard Ford (2002)
A collection of short stories that explores the theme of love and intimacy looks inside the relationships between men and women--both in and out of marriage--and the sense of right and wrong.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Night Circus

The Night Circus

Erin Morgenstern
Doubleday, 2011

The Night Circus opens at midnight and closes at dawn. It travels around the world and there has never been anything like it. Spanning a time period from 1973 to 1903, this complicated and ambitious story is about a competition between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood to compete in "a game," in which each must use their powers of illusion to best the other. Their battling arena is the Night Circus, a world renown magical place that inspires a cult following. Unbeknownst to them, this game is a duel to the death, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will.

Celia’s father is Prospero, a famous magician. When she turns up after the death of her mother, he is amazed and delighted to see she was gifted with certain talents that he could develop and use in the competition. Marco was an orphan, picked up by Prospero’s opponent, in order to be trained as a worthy adversary. Marco’s job was to manage the circus, carefully and unobtrusively manipulating the people, acts, and illusions in order to attract – and then overpower – his opponent. As the two battle each other within the elements of the circus, they grow to care about each other in ways their mentors never expected.

This novel is extremely unusual, sometimes confusing, and may be too complicated for some. It alternates between characters’ perspectives and time periods for each chapter, which meant I was doing a lot of paging back and forth to keep track of the timeline and plot. Rave reviews of this fantasy make it worth reading; just be prepared for an intense journey that requires much brain power to keep everything straight. I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it as much as I appreciated the author’s skill in keeping all the balls in the air at the same time.


This is the author’s first novel.

Other titles you may enjoy:

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke (2004)
In nineteenth-century England, all is going well for rich, reclusive Mr Norell, who has regained some of the power of England's magicians from the past, until a rival magician, Jonathan Strange, appears and becomes Mr Norrell's pupil.

Mister B. Gone by Clive Barker (2007)
A medieval devil speaks directly to the reader, his tone murderous one moment, seductive the next, in a memoir allegedly penned in the year 1438. The demon has embedded himself in the very words of this tale of terror, turning the book itself into a dangerous object, laced with menace only too ready to break free and exert its power.

Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal (2010)
In a Jane Austen-inspired alternate universe, two sisters, one beautiful and the other skilled in the glamour arts, test the limits of their gifts on an unscrupulous suitor.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Turn of Mind

Turn of Mind
Alice LaPlante
Atlantic Monthly Press, 2011

Jennifer White is a brilliant retired surgeon who has dementia. Every day is a struggle for her to remember the simplest of things: her adult children’s names, that she needs to wear clothes when she goes outside, or even that her best friend and neighbor was murdered. In order to help remember the details of her life, she keeps a notebook where family members and her caregiver keep a record of her daily activities, and also where Dr. White can summarize events for future reference. As we read Dr. White’s journal, however, we come to believe that she may have been involved in the death of her best friend because Dr. White starts to implicate herself by revealing past events that may have provided a motive for the murder. In fact, the police are also very interested in Dr. White as a person of interest, despite the fact (or perhaps because of it) that Dr. White keeps forgetting that her friend is dead and speaks of past conflicts between the two as though they just occurred – conflicts that could prove very damaging to Dr. White and her family. As the doctor loses herself more and more to the disease, we can start to see evidence that the others around her don’t always have her best interests at heart.

This intriguing premise is sure to please readers who enjoy literary mysteries as well as those who are interested in the effects a catastrophic illness can have on a proudly independent medical professional. Dr. White (never Jenny or Jen) was not a warm person to her patients or very maternal to her children. She didn’t seem worried about her husband’s infidelities, nor was she very friendly with coworkers. She was dedicated to medicine and her work, however, and this defined her life so much that she had trouble separating herself from it upon retirement. Dr. White’s distant yet dedicated personality is what makes the slow unraveling of her life all the more remarkable – especially when the reader is confronted with her inexplicable actions at the end of the novel.

This is definitely a book worthy of more contemplation.


This is the author’s first novel.

Other novels you may enjoy:

Before I Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson (2011)
Without her husband's knowledge, Christine, whose memory is damaged by a long-ago accident, is treated by a neurologist who helps her to remember her former self through journal entries until inconsistencies begin to emerge, raising disturbing questions.

The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey by Walter Mosley (2010)
Ptolemy Grey is a 91-year-old man, suffering from dementia and living as a recluse in his Los Angeles apartment. Then Robyn Small, a 17-year-old family friend, appears and helps clean up his apartment and straighten out his life. A reinvigorated Ptolemy volunteers for an experimental medical program that restores his mind, and he uses his last days--shortened now by the medical experiment--to delve into the mystery of the recent drive-by shooting death of his great-nephew,

The Bird House by Kelly Simmons (2011)
Eight-year-old Ellie finds herself in dark territory when her dementia-ridden grandmother begins using her as a sounding board for the family's most forbidden secrets.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Promise Not to Tell

Promise Not to Tell

Jennifer McMahon
Harper, 2007

Kate Cypher is forced to relive the murder of her childhood friend when she returns home to Vermont to care for her mother who's afflicted with Alzheimer's. On the night she arrives, a young girl is murdered - a horrific crime that eerily mirrors the brutal murder three decades earlier of Del, Kate’s dirt poor friend who was shunned and bullied by the other children. Nicknamed “Potato Girl,” the victim has since achieved immortality in local legends and ghost stories, but her killer was never found. Because her mother was seen wandering around the woods the same night the second girl was murdered, Kate must do some investigation of her own in order to clear her mother’s – and now her own – name.

Told in alternating chapters, this story is eerie, compelling, and suspenseful. Strangely enough, the paranormal developments are skillfully woven into the story so that it is very believable and frightening. It is hard to stop reading because the reader learns early in the book that Kate feels guilty over her treatment of Del when they are children, and, in addition, feels as though she contributed to an incident that led to her murder – but we don’t find out what that incident is until towards the satisfying and predictable ending. Nevertheless, this is a quick and undemanding reading experience that will please most readers, even if you wouldn’t normally pick up a ghost story like this one.


This is the author’s first novel.

Other novels you may enjoy:

Body Surfing by Dale Peck (2009)
While a typical teen gradually realizes that a dark force has taken over the body of his best friend, prompting the latter's dangerous and reckless behavior, a member of an elite and secret organization of hunters investigates the sinister activities of human-possessing demons.

Tick Tock by Dean Koontz (1997)
After stumbling upon a mysterious rag doll on his doorstep, Tommy Phan finds himself hunted in his own home, as the doll begins to grow into a monster that is determined to kill him.

The Ethical Assassin by David Liss (2006)
Working as a door-to-door salesman in a South Florida trailer park, teenager Lem Altick witnesses the murders of two of his would-be customers and is forced into an alliance with the assassin, an extremist dedicated to animal rights.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Gin Closet

The Gin Closet
Leslie Jamison
Free Press, 2010

Stella is at a crossroads after her grandmother dies. She has a crappy job in New York but feels on edge. When her mother refuses to tell Stella's aunt about their mother's death, Stella feels an obligation to seek her out and tell her in person. Her brother thinks she is crazy but agrees to accompany  her to Nevada anyway.

On the edge of dying from alcoholism after running away from home when she was a teen, Tilly Rudolph's life changes with the arrival of her niece Stella. Living in a crappy trailor, she has virtually no contact with the outside world and much prefers her life drinking in a small closet. When Stella arrives, she is at first resistant to Stella's attempts to help her, but she becomes more optimistic about things when Stella convinces her to move to San Francisco to reunite with Tilly's son.

Reviewers loved this book but I could barely force myself to finish it. It may have poetic and moving language, but I felt the writing was lost on the depressing plot and sad characters. I found myself caring very little what happened to Stella and Tilly as each page slowly unfolded into another boring and pitiful day for them. In fact, I highly recommend a good gin and tonic for any reader who finds him or herself assigned to read this book -- you will need some help to get to the predictably sad end.

This is the author’s first novel.


Other titles you may enjoy (more than this one):

Blue Shoe by Anne Lamott (2002)
When she stumbles upon a small blue shoe and other small items left behind in her deceased father's car, Mattie Ryder, a divorced mother of two, and her brother struggle to uncover the truth about their dysfunctional upbringing.

Men and Dogs by Katie Crouch (2010)
After the loss of her business and her husband sets her adrift, Hannah Legare is compelled to try to solve the mystery behind her father's disappearance when she was 11, an endeavor that hinges on her ability to unlock secrets long held by her brother and ex-boyfriend. .

Paradise by A.L. Kennedy (2005)
Hannah Luckraft finds an escape from her sales job, her strained relations with her younger brother, and her lonely and difficult life in her growing relationship with alcoholic Robert, as she looks to find happiness in an ultimate altered state.

Thursday, October 13, 2011


Sebastian Faulks
Doubleday, 2007

Mike may be highly intelligent and seem normal to his classmates, but something is not quite right. When he becomes fixated on a classmate named Jennifer Arkland and she goes missing, the reader is left wondering if Michael Engleby may have had something to do with it.

We first meet Engleby when he at university, but as he reveals more about his past abuse at the hands of others, we realize that he is a very unreliable narrator and start to mistrust his version of events. As he grows up, finding a job and even a girlfriend in London, Mike only becomes increasingly detached from those around him; it seems that he would prefer to observe and record his version of events instead of becoming a part of them. His inability to relate to others mixed with his frequent black-out episodes cause the reader to suspect that Engleby is not to be trusted and in fact, could be considered quite dangerous to others. Or, is he?

Reviewers were mixed about this book and I can understand why. I am fascinated with the premise of a narrator that can’t be trusted and admire any author’s ability to successfully portray the subtle nuances required to give this impression. We guess pretty quickly that Engleby is the prime suspect in the murder, but he seems to lack the necessary mental illness required to be a killer. This doubt on the reader’s part is the tension that carries the story through to an unpredictable ending. While the middle part dragged on a bit too long for me, I kept with the story because I wanted to find out whether Mike actually was a murderer or not. And I was not disappointed.

This title would make a good book group choice.


Other novels by this author:
The Girl at the Lion D’or (1989)
Birdsong (1993)
Charlotte Gray (1998)
On Green Dolphin Street (2001)
Human Traces (2005)
Devil May Care (2008)
A Week in December (2009)

Other titles you may enjoy:

Enduring Love by Ian McEwan (1998)
Joe and Clarissa Rose's spring idyll in the park is cut short when Joe helps rescue a child from a balloon accident, one man is killed, and Joe becomes the target of suspicion and ultimately an assassination attempt.

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner (1985)
The members of a Southern family contribute their individual tribulations to this encompassing impression of rural poverty.

Drood by Dan Simmons (2009)
A tale inspired by the mysterious final years of Charles Dickens finds the fifty-three-year-old literary master irrevocably changed when a train journey with his mistress ends in violence.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Missing

The Missing
Sarah Langan
Harper, 2007

“When schoolteacher Lois Larkin takes her third grade class on a trip to Bedford, a town destroyed by an environmental catastrophe, one of the children unearths an ancient, contagious plague that transforms its victims into something violent, inhuman, and hungry.”

Horror is not my favorite genre, but when I needed to find a supernatural horror title for a work book discussion group, I picked this title because it got a favorable review. Actually, to be more accurate, I picked her first novel, The Keeper, but I couldn’t get into it. It felt like it was the sequel to another book, so I decided to start with The Missing instead. Then, when I was about halfway into The Missing, I realized that I should have read The Keeper first, but it was too late. I wasn’t going to force myself to read another miserable horror novel if I didn’t have to.

Reviewers love Sarah Langan, and to be fair, she is probably a great horror novelist if you like that sort of thing – and I don’t. However, I feel that I could be objective enough to recognize a good story if I read one, even if it did involve flesh-eating zombies. I could not get past the ridiculous premise of an elementary school teacher taking a bunch of third graders on a FIELD TRIP to the scene of a former environmental catastrophe. Really? Even if supernatural events occur, I would like to at least try to believe it COULD happen, yet this story was so implausible that I could not suspend reality enough to enjoy the story. In fact, I found some of the scenes more comic than scary, and frankly, a little boring. How many times can someone get eaten in one novel?

I think I should have picked a Stephen King book instead.


Other novels by this author:
The Keeper (2006)
The Missing (2007)
Audrey’s Door (2009)

Other titles you may enjoy:

Under the Dome by Stephen King (2009)
After an invisible force field seals off Chester's Mill, Maine, from the rest of the world, it is up to Dale Barbara, an Iraq veteran, and a select group of citizens to save the town, if they can get past Big Jim Rennie, a murderous politician, and his son, who hides a horrible secret in his dark pantry.

A Dark Matter by Peter Straub (2010)
Old friends try to come to grips with the darkness of the past--a secret ritual that left behind a gruesomely dismembered body--and find themselves face-to-face with the evil they helped create.

The Walking by Bentley Little (2000)
As a strange epidemic characterized by a series of deaths and a reanimation of the dead who are drawn to an unknown destination, spreads across the country, investigator Miles Huerdeen follows a nightmarish quest to uncover a secret as old as time itself.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Leftovers

The Leftovers
Tom Perrotta
Centerpoint, 2011

Imagine that a person you are talking to just vaporizes. Or, maybe you turn your head to look at something on the television, and your whole family disappears. When this bizarre phenomenon happens all over the world – when millions of people vanish without reason or explanation – those left behind are the ones who are confused, grief-stricken, and, in some cases, without purpose. What makes things even more confusing for those left behind is the people are now gone were a mix of good and bad, religious and secular, young and old. In other words, there was no rapture, no plague, and no warning, which makes the leftovers struggling to find meaning in a world that no longer makes sense.

Some who are left behind join religious cults, like the Guilty Remnant, whose members take a vow of silence, chain smoke cigarettes, and try to ready themselves and others for another Sudden Departure. Others try to make a difference in their community, like new mayor Kevin Garvey. Others seem lost in their grief, like Nora Durst, who lost her whole family and entire reason for living. Reverend Jamison, on the other hand, is so enraged about being passed over that he has started researching those taken away and publishing their sins in hateful pamphlets just to prove that the Rapture has not happened yet. Even though only 87 people in this small New Jersey town disappeared, those left behind will never be the same.

I found this novel to be richly ironic, sometimes confusing, and very compelling. The premise is quite fascinating: how do ordinary people cope in extraordinary situations? In most cases, they cope by acting out in some way, or making drastic changes in their lives, or hurting the ones they love most. Even though the tone is uneven and borders on comic, the characters carry the plot as they struggle to live through a most perplexing and unsettling time. Although I enjoyed this novel, I couldn’t get past one woman’s story: even though she lost neither her husband nor her two children, she felt compelled to leave them anyway and join the Guilty Remnant, for no reason that is ever explained. This really bugged me.


Other novels by this author:
The Wishbones (1997)
Election (1998)
Joe College (2000)
Little Children (2004)
The Abstinence Teacher (2007)

Other titles you may enjoy:

The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood (2009)
When a natural disaster predicted by God's Gardeners leader Adam One obliterates most human life, two survivors trapped inside respective establishments that metaphorically represent paradise and hell wonder if any of their loved ones have survived.

The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist (2009)
Assigned to the Unit to submit to testing and eventual organ donation and death, Dorrit Weger accepts her fate as a single woman over the age of fifty until she meets a man inside the Unit and falls in love.

Ghost by Alan Lightman (2007)
Three months after being unexpectedly fired from his banking job, David takes a temporary position at a local mortuary, where he experiences an inexplicable encounter with the unknown that transforms his relationships with everyone around him.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

State of Wonder

State of Wonder

Ann Patchett
Harper, 2011

When a fellow researcher dies while checking on a field team doing research in the Amazon, Marina Singh is asked to learn about his death – and to investigate the research group stationed there. Although Marina is justifiably nervous about suffering the same fate as her colleague, she feels pressured into the trip by the president of the company, partly because she is having an affair with him and partly because the dead man’s wife begged her to find out what happened to her husband. Marina understands the urgency regarding the research team’s work: they have discovered a tribe of Amazonian Indians where the woman are fertile until their eighties, and a drug that could help women conceive and bear children would make millions of dollars. However, she is nervous about meeting the doctor in charge of the research, Annick Swenson, who was her mentor and instructor in medical school.

Marina undergoes quite a journey to find the research group and Dr. Swenson, who is alive and well and still developing the drug despite what she considers to be undue harassment from Vogel, the pharmaceutical company funding her research. Clearly bothered by Marina’s presence, she nonetheless brings her to the tribe’s location and there Marina learns how important – and dangerous – the research is. In fact, Marina now easily understands how easy it is to die in the jungle; there are enough deadly insects, reptiles, fish, and other creatures there to kill off a whole team of doctors, let alone one man. As she learns more about the amazing properties of the tree bark that seemingly enables elderly women to become pregnant, Marina finds herself becoming less interested in her former career and more drawn into the Lakashi way of life – so much so that she debates staying on to take over Dr. Swenson’s life work until an event occurs that wakes her from this romanticized, dream-like existence, and she is required to make the most difficult decision she has ever had to make.

Patchett has woven a hypnotic and magical story about a normal person who must gather every ounce of courage, strength and skill to tackle a task that most people would not be able to accomplish, let alone attempt. Marina is not so special – and in fact – she freely acknowledges that she is not the best person to travel to a remote village to check on her former professor, a person that she shared an unpleasant and unfortunate experience many years ago. Yet, she finds the inner resources to do what must be done, and in the process changes the lives of so many others. This story succeeds on many levels, but the best things about it are the unforgettable setting of the Amazon Valley, the fascinating portrayal of the Lakashi people, and the moving stories of two women who must make very difficult decisions and live with the consequences.


Other novels by this author:
The Patron Saint of Liars (1992)
The Magician’s Assistant (1997)
Bel Canto (2001)
Taft (2003)
Run (2007)

Other titles you may enjoy:

White Mary by Kira Salak (2008)
War reporter Marika Vecera learns that her long-time hero, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Robert Lewis, has committed suicide and sets out to write his biography, only to hear rumors that he may still be alive in Papua New Guinea.

An Obvious Enchantment by Tucker Malarkey (2000)
A woman heads to Africa in search of her professor, who mysteriously vanished while researching an ancient African legend about a mythical king, and uncovers romance, mystery, crime, and magic along the way.

The Tattoo Artist by Jill Ciment (2005)
Sara Ehrenreich, an acclaimed American painter who has spent the past thirty years living on a remote South Pacific island, returns to New York in the 1970s, in a novel that reveals the story of her life through flashbacks.

Monday, September 26, 2011



Mary Doria Russell
Random House, 2011

“Without hope, without fear” is the motto that John Henry “Doc” Holliday and his lover Kate “Big Nose” Harony agree to live by in this historical fiction novel set in the early days before the infamous OK Corral gunfight set in Tombstone. Doc and Kate have come west to Dodge City, hoping that the warmer dry air will help his consumption. If they can make some money gambling at cards, so much the better. Wyatt Earp and his many brothers are also in Dodge working in various enterprises including the law and prostitution. When a young mixed breed dies in mysterious circumstances, Doc and the Wyatt brothers join forces to protect the town from the corrupt and bullying methods of the local leaders, which provides a unique background to their later battles.

Doc is portrayed as a sensitive and caring individual, who is more concerned about loyalty, friendship and ethics than his own personal situation. He and Kate have a tumultuous and volatile relationship, which concerns Doc’s friends in Dodge, but he shrugs off their concerns and sticks with Kate. She is needy, self-centered and argumentative but loves him fiercely and completely. Indeed, Wyatt is a little afraid of her and avoids her whenever possible. Wyatt and Doc become friends after Doc, a dentist, works on Wyatt’s teeth and improves his self-confidence with a new smile. Meanwhile, Morgan, one of the Earp Brothers, reads classic literature recommended to him by Doc, and the two form a deep friendship based on their intellectual discussions.

The infamous gunfighters are finding their way in this “prequel” to the famous battle. They are all young – in their twenties and thirties – and just learning what is important and worth fighting for in the isolated frontier town of Dodge. Wyatt Earp is nervous and broke and lacks self-confidence; Doc is sickly and worried and determined to live life to the fullest; and Kate is brash, self-indulgent and impulsive. Russell has created a fascinating world where legends have just begun the journey that will make them famous.


Other novels by this author:
The Sparrow (1996)
Children of God (1998)
Thread of Grace (2005)
Dreamers of the Day (2008)

Other titles you may enjoy:

An Ordinary Woman: the dramatized biography of Nancy Kelsey by Cecelia Holland (1999)
Nancy Kelsey, her husband, and a small group of Americans make the perilous overland trek to California, where she works at Sutter's Fort and rides in the Rebellion that wrests California from Mexico, in a novel based on the real-life exploits of one courageous American pioneer woman.

Anything for Billy by Larry McMurtry (1991)
The dime novelist Ben Sippy tells the story of Billy Bone whom he named Billy the Kid after meeting him in 1878.

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt (2011)
Set against the backdrop of the great California Gold Rush, this darkly comic novel follows the misadventures of the fabled Sisters brothers, two hired guns, who, under the order of the mysterious Commodore, try to kill Hermann Kermit Warm, a man who gives them a run for their money. .

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Language of Flowers

The Language of Flowers

Vanessa Diffenbaugh
Ballantine, 2011

Victoria was abandoned as an infant and grew up in a series of foster homes before finally landing in a group home for unmanageable and unwanted girls. Now that she is 18, she is being released from the state’s custody into a transitional home and told that she has 30 days to find employment or she will be evicted and on the street. Victoria chooses to disregard her caseworker’s advice, which is nothing new for her, and makes a series of bad decisions that force her to leave the group home and live in a city park. There Victoria decides to cultivate a secret garden among the vegetation there, tending it and sleeping among her plants.

Once when Victoria was much younger, she lived with a single woman named Elizabeth who owned a vineyard. Elizabeth and Victoria got off to a rocky start, but over time they became a family of sorts. Something happened, however, to stop the adoption that Elizabeth was planning, but we don’t know what it was. We can only assume that Victoria did something so bad, so hurtful, that Elizabeth came to the same conclusion that every other foster family that housed Victoria came to: Victoria was unlovable and unwanted. Through alternating chapters we watch Victoria and Elizabeth learn to trust and love each other, until finally, an event occurs that causes Victoria to end up alone again.

Victoria does not end up living in the park forever, but it takes a lot of time, patience and careful choices that finally enable her to get a job in a flower shop. She may not understand how to talk to humans, but she understands the language of flowers. A customer can explain what they need, and Victoria can find the flower or plant or herb that speaks the words that the customer can’t in order to help them accomplish what they want or need in life. What Victoria doesn’t expect is that she can use the language of flowers herself to connect with another human being, and perhaps find the love and acceptance she never thought she deserved herself.


This is the author’s first novel.

Other titles you may enjoy:

Salvation by Lucia Nevai (2008)
Disadvantaged by poverty, abuse, and a physical deformity, budding scientist Crane Cavanaugh is assigned to a convent and subsequently adopted by a middle-class mother whose adoration is only partly successful in countering Crane's stunted and wryly comic emotional development.

Between Sisters by Kristin Hannah (2003)
With her wedding day approaching, Claire Cavenaugh prepares to confront her estranged older sister and self-absorbed mother after more than twenty years apart and find out how to transform themselves into a family.

The Summer Guest by Justin Cronin (2004)
Nearing the end of his life, financier Harry Wainwright journeys to a rustic fishing camp in Maine and leaves a profound legacy for a haunted young man, a Vietnam draft evader, and a spirited young woman who holds a key to the past.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Call

The Call

Yannick Murphy
Harper, 2011

David is a large animal vet living in rural New Hampshire. He has three active children and a harried wife who is not shy about expressing her emotions. David is a worrier. He worries about his patients and their owners; he worries about a spaceship that hovers over his house; he worries about his own health (but not as much as his wife and doctor do); and he worries about someone who keeps calling and hanging up without speaking. But most of all, he obsesses about the hunter who accidentally shot his son on his first hunting expedition, causing him to fall on his head and lapse into a coma. It appears that the hunter is avoiding taking responsibility for his actions, and David wonders if he is lurking behind the face of almost everyone he meets each day.

Told in spare journal entries, David gives a very brief outline of each “call” he receives each day, along with one or two sentences about the medical situation, the visit, and subsequent thoughts that occur to him – both relating to the call and otherwise -- listed in categories. We learn much about David, his family, his patients, and others in the community as he records his thoughts and opinions on their actions, but underlying each entry is the usually unspoken anxiety and worry about his son’s condition and the possibility that he will never learn who shot him. I especially enjoyed the entries about his wife’s reactions to his and the children’s behavior, which were often very funny and biting in their sarcastic wit.

While the writing style is admirable (how can each entry be so short yet say so much?), it does take some getting used to. The action is off-camera, so to speak, yet skillfully layered with so much emotion and tension that each word carried a great deal of weight. In spite of the skill and the tension and the interesting animal conditions that necessitated each “call,” I had trouble warming up to this book. Maybe the spare writing left me a bit cold, or maybe I wanted to know more about the other characters. I’m not sure, but I was left with a bit of a let-down feeling, a little disappointed that some things weren’t fleshed out a bit more. I especially would have liked to get to know the wife just a bit better. I have a feeling we would have gotten along really well.


Other novels by this author:
Here They Come (2006)
Signed, Mata Hari (2007)

Other novels you may enjoy:

Sight Hound by Pam Houston (2005)
In his endeavor to teach his human, Rae, about the power of love over fear, wolfhound Dante simultaneously impacts the lives of Rae's housekeeper, her therapist, two veterinarians, fellow dog Rose, and Stanley the cat.

A Year of Cats and Dogs by Margaret Hawkins (2009)
After her longtime boyfriend abruptly leaves and she quits her job, Maryanne hopes to crawl out of a mid-life crisis as a veterinarian's assistant at an animal shelter when she discovers the ability to communicate with animals.

A Country Affair by Rebecca Shaw (2006)
The first in a series of novels set in a veterinary practice on the outskirts of a Yorkshire, England, town introduces Kate, the receptionist in a busy veterinary practice; Scott, the flirty Australian vet; her faithful boyfriend, Adam; and the entertaining animal patients.