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Saturday, February 26, 2011

Nothing Happening Here

Nothing Happens Until it Happens to You
T.M. Shine
Crown, 2010

After being laid off from a mundane job he held for 18 years, Jeffery Reiner is at first shocked then resigned to living without a paycheck. He’s in no hurry to get back to work, but he knows that in order to make it through these economic times, he has no choice but to throw himself at any opportunities that come his way.

In spite of the recession, in spite of his colleagues being laid off all around him, and in spite of knowing he does a crappy job, Jeffrey is totally surprised when he is told he no longer has a job. He admits to the reader that he was not happy in his career and that he had coasted through most his working life, yet he seems lost and unprepared for the unemployed culture he finds himself in. It is hard to have any sympathy for Jeffrey, who lets most of his life happen to him and around him without having much say in the matter. Yes, it’s hard to feel sympathetic – but not impossible – because to know Jeffrey is to like Jeffrey. He seems to attract nurturers who want to help him get back on his feet: interesting characters like his retired neighbor who completes minor household fix-it jobs for Jeffrey; or his young female neighbor who acts as a mental therapist for Jeffrey; or his daughter who has reversed roles and takes care of him now, even though she thinks his mess is his own fault. (Which is true.)

Nevertheless, Jeffrey is a mixture of opposites: amiable and clueless; suspicious and uncommunicative; hopeful and not ambitious. It’s easy to be annoyed with Jeffrey, who feels and acts like a victim of his own making, powerless to do anything different to change his life or his circumstances. And yet, he persists in being likeable, in spite of himself, which is what makes this clever, witty and character-driven novel work, despite the fact that not much happens in it.


This is the author’s first novel.

Other titles you may enjoy:

This Book Will Save Your Life by A.M. Homes (2006)
Richard Novak is a modern-day Everyman, a middle-aged divorced man trading stocks out of his home. He has done such a good job getting his life under control that he needs no one--except his trainer, nutritionist, and housekeeper. He is functionally dead and doesn't even notice until two incidents--an attack of intense pain that lands him in the emergency room, and the discovery of an expanding sinkhole outside his house--conspire to hurl him back into the world.

Diablerie by Walter Mosley (2008)
Enjoying a precarious sober life balancing family duties with his relationship with a patient mistress, Ben finds his years of alcoholism catching up with him when he encounters a woman with knowledge of a significant event from his past that Ben cannot remember.

A Box of Matches by Nicholson Baker (2003)
During a month in the life of a forty-five-year-old editor of medical textbooks, Emmett--married with children, a cat, and a duck--ruminates about the meaning of life during his pre-dawn sojourns alone.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Insanely Good

Plea of Insanity
Jilliane Hoffman
Vanguard, 2009

Young and ambitious prosecutor Julia Valenciano is facing a case that could launch her career. The defendant is David Marquette, a successful Miami surgeon and devoted family man. The victims were Marquette's wife and three small children. His experienced defense team claims paranoid delusions caused by schizophrenia drove him to slaughter his entire family. But the state suspects Marquette's insanity defense is being fabricated to disguise murders that were cold blooded and calculated. The problem is Julia isn’t so sure she believes that Marquette is faking his mental illness. In fact, as Julia delves deeper into the case, she can’t help but recall a similar situation that happened in her own family. Haunted by her memories, Julia risks estranging her uncle and aunt, the only family she knows, to find her brother in order to finally find some answers of her own.

My book group assignment was to read a legal thriller – not my favorite thing. So I searched around for an unfamiliar author with stand-alone titles for something that appealed to me. I did not have much luck because most legal thrillers come in series, except for this title and a few others. I think I chose this title because of the vulnerability of the main character and her internal struggle to climb the career ladder despite her misgivings about the case she’s assigned. It’s difficult to describe the plot without giving away too many details, but Julia has several problems. One is that she is sleeping with the lead on the case and can’t help but wonder if she got the second chair only because of their casual relationship. The second problem is the similarities between this crime and something that happened to Julia when she was a child. As she tries to balance things, she becomes more confused about the right thing to do, which makes for very compelling reading.

As I mentioned, I’m not a big thriller fan, and I reluctantly picked this book up. The violence at the start of the story almost made me put it back down, but I stuck to it and I’m glad I did. Not only did the fast pace and appealing characters create a suspenseful and rewarding experience, but the ending was very just and satisfying. I’m glad I read it and highly recommend it to others, even those who don’t normally read legal thrillers.


Other books by this author:
Retribution (2004)
Last Witness (2005)
Pretty Little Things (2010)

Other books you may enjoy:

The Hidden Man by David Ellis (2009)
Hired by an anonymous client to defend a man charged with the vigilante murder of an alleged kidnapper, attorney Jason Kolarich is astonished to learn that the suspect is his estranged childhood best friend.

Law of Attraction by Allison Leotta (2010)
A thrilling ride through D.C.'s criminal justice, as Assistant U.S. Attorney Anna Curtis makes a series of choices that jeopardizes her career, her relationships, and her very life.

Smash Cut by Sandra Brown(2009)
Hired by a woman who believes that the accidental shooting of a friend was actually orchestrated by the victim's depraved nephew, defense lawyer Derek Mitchell comes to realize that the nephew is a psychotic movie buff who enjoys acting out violent film plots

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Little K and Jane

The True Memoirs of Little K
By Adrienne Sharp
FSG, 2010

This novel is about the life of Mathilde Kschessinka, Russian prima ballerina and mistress of Czar Nicholas II. Narrated by Mathilde--"Little K" as she was affectionately known--the story follows her early life in the royal ballet on through the Russian revolution of 1905. Her father was also a dancer and under his direction, she became famous for her on (and off) stage performances. As a member of the royal ballet, she enjoyed being the center of society, with all of the perks that the tsar could bestow, including invitations to royal dinners and access to the young royal son. Thus began Little K’s infatuation and obsession with Nicholas II, and her determination to become his wife despite her lack of royal blood, including bearing his son out of wedlock. Her efforts are in vain, for of course Nicholas and his family are murdered, and Little K must find a way to escape with her son to the safety of Paris, where she is left with her memories of a glamorous and sad life gone by.

Other books by this author:
White Swan, Black Swan: Stories (2001)
First Love (2005)

Jane Eyre
By Charlotte Bronte

In early nineteenth-century England, an orphaned young woman accepts employment as a governess and soon finds herself in love with her employer, Mr. Rochester, who has a terrible secret.

After a traumatic and unhappy childhood as an unwanted ward of her aunt, Jane is sent away to school, where she finally makes friends and learns the attributes of honesty, dignity and self-esteem. Although she is considered to be “below” Mr. Rochester’s station, they fall in love and intend to marry when suddenly Jane becomes aware of his terrible secret. Unwilling to compromise her own values, Jane runs away and starts over again in another village, but she can’t forget Mr. Rochester and the life she could have had with him. Despite some initial misgivings over her decision to leave, Jane soon realizes she chose the right path until a series of events causes her to return to Mr. Rochester and check his well-being.

Other books by this author:
Shirley (1908)

I read these two titles very close together and couldn’t help but compare the characters of Jane Eyre and Little K. Although they lived more than a century apart and in different countries, they have much in common. They were both strong women who defied the accepted norms of their day and lived their lives the way they believed was right for them. They both had obstacles to overcome and people who disapproved of their actions, but each woman persevered despite opposition and did the right thing for herself at the time. Neither one was false to herself, and in her own way, did what she needed to do to survive.

But, the real question is: did I like either one of them? No, I did not, and for different reasons. Little K was a schemer and manipulator, always working out how to get her own way with Nicholas and other members of the government so often that she became distasteful to me as a character. Jane, on the other hand, was so “good” and righteous in her own belief system that I became inpatient with her inflexibility. At the same time, I admired both for their strong opinions and determination to get what they wanted, even if they both should have gone about it a different way – Little K by being more genuine and caring, and Jane by being more self-focused and impulsive.

Rating for both novels:

Other books you may enjoy:
The Kitchen Boy by Robert Alexander (2003)
Presents a novel based on the 1918 Bolshevik revolutionary murder of Czar Nicholas II and the rest of the Russian royal family as told from the perspective of the event's only surviving witness, a young kitchen boy.

Mistress Shakespeare by Karen Harper (2009)
Her engagement to William Shakespeare broken by his forced marriage to a pregnant Anne Hathaway, Anne Whateley pursues a clandestine affair with the bard that is complicated by Elizabeth I's campaign to eradicate Catholicism.

The Wide Sargasso Sea by Jane Rhys (1966)
In a prequel to Jane Eyre, Creole heiress Antoinette Cosway lives in Dominica and Jamaica in the 1830s before she travels to England, becomes Mrs. Rochester, and goes mad.

The Mistress of Mellyn by Victoria Holt (1991)
A young Victorian girl accepts a position as governess at Mellyn Manor, an estate shrouded in rumors of mystery and murder.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

How to Write About a Book You Could Not Understand

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe
By Charles Yu
Pantheon, 2010

Minor Universe 31 is a vast story-space on the outskirts of fiction, where paradox fluctuates like the stock market, lonely sexbots beckon failed protagonists, and time travel is serious business. Every day, people get into time machines and try to do the one thing they should never do: change the past. That’s where Charles Yu, time travel technician-part counselor, part gadget repair man-steps in. He helps save people from themselves. Literally. When he’s not taking client calls or consoling his boss, Phil, who could really use an upgrade, Yu visits his mother (stuck in a one-hour cycle of time, she makes dinner over and over and over) and searches for his father, who invented time travel and then vanished. Accompanied by TAMMY, an operating system with low self-esteem, and Ed, a nonexistent but ontologically valid dog, Yu sets out, and back, and beyond, in order to find the one day where he and his father can meet in memory. He learns that the key may be found in a book he got from his future self. It’s called How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, and he’s the author. And somewhere inside it is the information that could help him – and, in fact, it may even save his life.

I did not write the above summary, but I assume it adequately explains the plot of the book that I read, actually finished, and did not understand one iota. Yes, it’s satirical and witty and experimental. Yes, it received rave reviews like, “a clever, fluently metaphorical tale,” and “a fascinating, philosophical and disorienting thriller about life.” Yes, it initially appealed to me in some weird way that I cannot fully explain. But it obviously went way over my head. I must have been designed to read and enjoy more pedestrian novels, like Jane Eyre or The Story of Edgar Sawtelle or a Calvin and Hobbes comic strip. Reader, you know I respect Library Journal and Kirkus, those pure examples of book review journals that usually provide revered and expert opinions on novels. Alas, I cannot for the life of me figure out how this book could get a starred (STARRED!) review, or how it could be considered a future cult classic (like A Wrinkle in Time?).

I couldn’t even understand the following, actually written for a review of this book: “The conclusion tries to mitigate character-Yu's risk-averse solipsism, but is too quick and abstract to really counter the rest of the book's emotional weight.”

All I can say is “huh?”

I guess I’m a lot dumber than I thought I was, or maybe I just like dumb books. In any event, I cannot in good conscience give this book any more than one cupcake and I really hate to waste one cupcake on it. Maybe I need to revise my rating bakery inventory.


This is the author’s first novel.

Other books you may enjoy and actually understand (or not):

Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs
Bill Lee, an addict-hustler, travels to Mexico and then Tangier in order to find easy access to drugs, and ends up in the Interpose, a bizarre fantasy world.

The End of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas
Discovering a copy of a mysterious book reputed to be unread by anyone presently alive, Ariel Manta finds herself transported into a wonderland where she can travel through time and space using the thoughts of others.

The Evolution Man, or How I Ate My Father by Roy Lewis
Containing an eyewitness account of the first human courtship ever, a study of the lives of an everyday, ordinary cave family includes portraits of Mom, the ape woman; brother William and his attempted animal domestication; and Dad, the inventor.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Save me!

Anita Shreve
Little, Brown 2010

Peter Webster was a straight-as-an-arrow rookie paramedic when he pulled Sheila Arsenault from her totaled car that day. Little did he know that he would fall in love with the streetwise and tough-talking woman, despite her initial unwillingness to get involved with him. But he persevered, at first visiting her in the hospital and then taking her out at night, away from her depressing rental room. Soon Sheila and Peter were embroiled in an intense love affair, married, and parents to a baby daughter. Like the crash that brought them together, it all happened so fast.

Can you ever really save another person? Eighteen years later, Peter has given up on Sheila and is raising their daughter, Rowan, alone. But Rowan is doing some dangerous things, threatening her own future if not her life, and Peter fears for her future. His job all too easily illustrates how fleeting life can be, how wrong everything can go in a second. Not knowing what else to do, Peter seeks out Sheila, hoping that a mother, no matter how long ago she was one, could have an impact on her daughter’s life.

This was not my favorite Shreve novel. It lacked the depth of character and complex story lines that her previous books have, and even worse, was rather boring. None of the characters appealed to me. Peter was so much in love with Sheila, despite all the warning signs, that he reacted typically, forgiving her transgressions over and over until he finally couldn’t take it anymore. We never really got to know or understand Rowan very well, so it was hard to care very much about her problems. And we don’t meet up again with Sheila until the book is almost over, and it’s a little late to start caring about much of anything at that point. This one reads like Shreve didn't much care about it either.

The most interesting bit of the book was the ending, but I don’t want to give it away. Just suffice to say that a more mature Sheila is a more interesting Sheila. Perhaps Peter would do well to get to know her again.


Other novels by this author:
Eden Close (1989)
Strange Fits of Passion (1991)
Where or When (1993)
Resistance (1995)
The Weight of Water (1997)
The Pilot’s Wife (1998)
Fortune’s Rocks (1999)
The Last Time They Met (2001)
Sea Glass (2002)
All He Ever Wanted (2003)
Light on Snow (2004)
A Wedding in December (2005)
Body Surfing (2007)
Testimony (2008)
A Change in Altitude (2009)

Other books you may enjoy:

The World Below by Sue Miller (2001)
After being diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1919, a young woman is sent to a sanitarium, where she rediscovers the pleasures of unfettered youth and falls in love with a doomed man.

The Diary by Eileen Goudge (2009)
When the two grown daughters of Elizabeth Marshall discover an old diary of their mother's in her attic, it comes as a shock to learn that the true love of Elizabeth's life was not their father.

The Way We Were by Marcia Willett (2008)
Thirty years after Tiggy travels to her best friend's home on Bodmin Moor to mourn the loss of her partner and give birth to her child, Tiggy's son anticipates becoming a father and discovers long-buried family secrets.