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Thursday, June 30, 2011

Coffins of Little Hope

Coffins of Little Hope
Timothy Schaffert
Unbridled Books, 2011

Essie, an octogenarian obituary writer for her family's small town newspaper, narrates this story about family in a small town. When a young country girl is reported to be missing, perhaps whisked away by an itinerant aerial photographer, Essie stumbles onto the story of her life. Or, maybe it’s the story of her death, considering Essie’s occupation. The problem is that no one knows if the girl actually exists at all – some in town believe it all could be simply a hoax, or a delusion, the child and child-thief invented from the desperate imagination of a lonely, lovelorn woman. Either way, the story of the girl reaches far and wide, igniting controversy, attracting curiosity-seekers and cult worshippers from all over the country to this dying rural town. And then it is revealed that the long awaited final book of an infamous series of teen gothic novels is being secretly printed on the newspaper's presses, but someone has stolen a copy and reads it aloud every night on the radio.

A lot is going on in this novel. At first several seemingly unrelated events provide confusing, albeit amusing, reading. Not only is the supposed kidnapping occurring during the top secret novel printing, Essie’s own great-granddaughter is trying to find her way in the world after being abandoned by her mother, who suddenly shows up wanting to be a parent again. Essie is caught in the middle of each of these scenarios:

1. She doesn’t know whether she should write the obituary of the kidnapped child because no one knows if the child even existed let alone abducted;
2. She is friends with the author of the blockbuster novel yet her family’s business is the one that allowed a copy to be stolen;
3. She’s stuck between the needs of her great-granddaughter and her two grandchildren – one who has raised his niece as his own daughter and his cousin, who wants to do the right thing after years of neglect and omission.

Essie is a likeable character, as is most of the other characters in the novel, but I think there is too much going on here to make the novel as successful as it could be. If you enjoy a slightly amusing elderly narrator and can overlook a crazy mishmash of plot developments, you may want to give it a try.


Other books by this author:
The Singing and Dancing Daughters of God (2005)
Devils in the Sugar Shop (2006)

Other titles you may enjoy:

The Bright Forever by Lee Martin (2005)
The disappearance of nine-year-old Katie Mackey, the daughter of the most affluent family in a small Indiana town, while riding her bicycle to town to return some library books, has profound repercussions for her entire family.

The Sand Castle by Rita Mae Brown (2008)
In August 1952, seven-year-old Nickel, her mother, aunt, and cousin Leroy head off for a day at the seashore, but Nickel's cruel teasing of her cousin and tensions between her mother and aunt provide a life-changing lesson in the joys and sorrows of family relationships.

Star Lake Saloon and Housekeeping Cottages by Sara Rath (2005)
Hannah Swann is a Wisconsin poetry professor who suddenly inherits a rustic lakeside resort in the north woods run by her enigmatic prodigal uncle Hal. Leaving her work and an affair with a married man behind in Madison, Hannah heads north, where an expected bit of paperwork and a few days quickly turn into months of hard work with disastrous results.

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Reliable Wife

The Reliable Wife
Robert Goolrick
Algonquin, 2009

It is 1907 in rural Wisconsin. Wealthy businessman Ralph Truitt has advertised for a “reliable wife” and Catherine Land has come from Chicago to answer his ad. But she is not what Ralph is expecting. Ralph has advertised for a plain woman to be his wife – someone who is dependable and sturdy enough to withstand the harsh Wisconsin winters. While Catherine is much prettier than he wanted, she proves herself to be a worthy and hardy person who must nurse him through a dangerous illness, thereby earning his love and devotion. What Ralph doesn’t know is that Catherine has an ulterior motive: she plans to win this man’s love, then slowly poison him and inherit his wealth. What she has not figured into the equation is falling in love with him before she can finish her plan.

This would be a lovely book to read in the heat of summer because the author’s descriptions of the extreme cold practically crackle off the pages. It is so cold that Ralph and Catherine’s intimacy must melt the ice off the roof of their house. It is so cold that people’s brains become addled and they commit suicide in odd ways. It is so cold that Catherine starts to rethink her plans, even if it means her husband will discover that she is slowly killing him with arsenic. It is so cold that you may need to take a walk outside in 112 degree heat just to take the chill off.

I liked this book. I liked the way the author made me smell cold. I liked the complex relationship that Catherine and Ralph developed. They grew to trust and respect each other despite the many ways they each betrayed the other. I liked the ending best of all -- and I think you will too.


This is the author’s first novel.

Other titles you may enjoy:

Secrets of Eden by Chris Bohjalian (2010)
Haunted by the final words of a newly baptized congregation member who was subsequently murdered by her husband, the Reverend Stephen Drew abandons his pulpit to spend time with an author who writes best-selling books about angels.

The Whistling Season by Ivan Doig (2006)
Hired as a housekeeper to work on the early 1900s Montana homestead of widower Oliver Milliron, the irreverent Rose and her brother, Morris, endeavor to educate the widower's sons while witnessing local efforts on a massive irrigation project.

A Prayer for the Dying by Stewart O’Nan (1999)
A diphtheria epidemic breaks out in a small town in post-Civil War Wisconsin and as people die Jacob Hansen, the community's sheriff and pastor, buries the dead and burns buildings.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Before I Go to Sleep

Before I Go to Sleep
S.J. Watson
Harper, 2011

A woman wakes up next to a stranger and she thinks that she must have had too much to drink the night before, because she doesn’t remember going home with him. When she sees herself in the bathroom mirror, however, she doesn’t recognize the worn, lined face staring back at her. Numb with disbelief, she notices pictures posted in the bathroom of her posing with the man who is still sleeping in the next room. How can this be since the last thing the woman remembers is being young and single?

The man hears her screams and comes to comfort her. She had an accident many years ago, the man explains. He is her husband, Ben, and every morning he must tell her again that she is middle aged and married, because every night she forgets everything she learned that day. After Ben goes to work, Christine gets a call from the therapist she has been secretly seeing because Ben does not approve of her having therapy. Her therapist tells her to go find her journal, hidden in a shoebox in the closet, in order to read all the things she has been able to remember up to that point.

The journal is exactly where her therapist said it would be, but Christine is disturbed to see a warning written in her own handwriting: Do not trust Ben. Soon Christine suspects that her husband has not been telling her the truth about her own past. As she starts to question things, she becomes convinced that his story does not ring true. She is determined to find out what happened to her to make her into this timid, fearful person she has become.

I could not put this book down and couldn’t stop thinking about it after I finished it. The plot may sound familiar but the first person diary format will keep you on the edge of your seat. The writing style is tense, the tone is disturbing, and the ending is totally unpredictable. For once I agree with all the reviewers: this is a must read book that everyone will be talking about.


This is the author’s first novel.

Other titles you may enjoy:

Among the Missing by Morag Joss (2011)
When a bridge collapses in the Highlands of Scotland, dozens of commuters vanish into the freezing river below, swept by the currents toward the sea, and only an amateur video and the bridge’s security camera record their last moments.

The King of Lies by John Hart (2006)
When his father is found murdered, the investigation into the crime uncovers dark family secrets that threaten to unravel the life of North Carolina lawyer Work Pickens and those of his troubled sister and other small-town characters.

Black Out by Lisa Unger (2008)
A woman has to quickly piece together disturbing events--one of which is the murder of her psychologist--before her past comes to claim her future and her daughter.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Swim Back to Me: Stories

Swim Back to Me: Stories
Ann Packer
Knopf; 2011

Once upon a time, in the not so distant past, a dedicated but somewhat forgetful reader and blogger read a collection of short stories. It took her about a week to read the stories, and she probably enjoyed them, but then she returned the book to the library, jotted down the title in order to remember it, and then went about her regular day as a busy branch manager in a medium size library. The summer reading program had just started, which meant lots of children to help, lots of books to sort and shelve and lots of requests for Diary of a Wimpy Kid and anything, please, by Rick Riordan. As any library worker can tell you, summertime is chaotic and overwhelming and usually short-handed, which would be a challenge for the best memory in the world, which our reader has not. In fact, some would say that this reader has a mind like a sieve, but not me. I would say that she does the best she can under the circumstances.

Time went on and the book of stories faded into a pleasant haze of something vaguely remembered and appreciated but nothing specific. When it came time for our reader to update her book review blog, she drew a blank. Did she actually read this collection, she wondered? Did she finish it? And most importantly, did she like it? She had a good feeling about the book, but feelings aren’t specific enough for a review, and besides, was that really fair? So she did some research and looked at book reviews (they were positive) and on websites (also positive) and read summaries of some of the stories in order to jog her memory. Nothing worked. She thought about it while she hunted for Dr. Seuss books. She thought about it while she pulled piles of picture books out of the book bins. She even thought about it while she shelved holds (which might explain why one ended up on the wrong place!) but she could not remember a single thing about the book. What should she do? How could she review the title?

Then she realized something. Most people who are looking for something to read don’t need a detailed summary of the plot, nor do they really want a specific review of the title. They just want to know two things: 1) Are people reading this book; and 2) Will I like it? Luckily, this librarian knew the answers to both:

1) Yes, people are reading this book;
2) Yes, you will like it.

3) However, I'm guessing you won't remember it either.

Other books by this author:
Mendocino and other stories (1994)
The Dive from Clausen’s Pier (2002)
Songs Without Words (2007)

Other books you may enjoy:

Sourland: Stories by Joyce Carol Oates (2010)
Sixteen short stories explore violence, loss, and grief with tales about a librarian amputee who attracts a married man and a young girl in love with her incarcerated cousin.

Secrets from the Vinyl Café by Stuart McLean (2011)
The popular CBC radio personality describes the characters who populate The Vinyl Cafe, featuring their misdemeanors, transgressions and clandestine matters of the heart.

by Julian Barnes (2011)
A volume of fourteen stories about loss, friendship, and longing includes the tales of a recently divorced real-estate agent who invades a reticent girlfriend's privacy, a couple that meets over an illicit cigarette, and a widower who struggles to let go of grief.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The World Beneath

The World Beneath
Cate Kennedy
Black Cat, 2009

Rich and Sandy used to be a couple in love with each other and with a cause: environmental activism. In fact, that’s where they met – during a world-famous blockade in Tasmania to save the wilderness. Now, twenty-five years later, they have settled into middle age separately but they both remember their involvement in the blockade as the pinnacle of their lives. Even though they have not been together for many years, they share a daughter, Sophie, who Rich has kept in touch with sporadically over the years. Sophie is now 15 years old and her disdain for her mother has reached a new high, which is why she jumps at the chance to go on a wilderness camping trip with her father. Not only does it greatly annoy her mother, she looks on the exercise as a plus in her anorexic experience.

Sandy has plenty of misgivings about the whole idea, but Rich and Sophie apply too much pressure for her to resist. So she decides to splurge and find her inner goddess at a new-agey retreat center, but she finds the experience tedious and trite. Rick and Sophie bravely set off together despite hardly knowing each other. At first things go well, but as the trip progresses, they become disillusioned and disappointed in each other. Instead of the respect Rich expected from his daughter, she disdains and snubs him, which causes him to make a series of bad decisions. In turn, Sophie finds her father to not be as cool as she had hoped and her snotty teenage behavior causes the situation to escalate into a full blown war of the wills between the two, with very dangerous consequences.

Despite the desperate and potentially life-threatening situation that the characters face, this is not a sit-on-the-edge-of-your-seat type story. The reader may experience a sinking feeling as the plot plays out, but there is hope that things will be okay despite the many foreshadowing hints too obvious to miss. But men being men and teens being teens, we all know that no good thing can happen when they bump up against each other, especially if they each had high expectations about the outcome of such a bonding experience. I found some things tedious here: Sandy’s exaggerated adherence to current “hip” environmental concerns, Rich’s exalted view of himself, Sophie’s total brattiness that surpassed normal teenage angst – but the story was interesting and the sense of place very strong and compelling. Over-the-topness notwithstanding, this is a debut novel worthy of a second read – and a good book group choice.

This is the author’s first novel.


Other titles you may enjoy:

The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai (2006)
In a crumbling house in the remote northeastern Himalayas, an embittered, elderly judge finds his peaceful retirement turned upside down by the arrival of his orphaned granddaughter, Sai.

The Well and the Mine by Gin Phillips (2008)
Witnessing what she believes to be the murder of an infant in a Depression-era Alabama mining town, nine-year-old Tess Moore and her civic-minded family subsequently struggle with the darker side of their racially torn community.

The Center of Everything by Laura Moriarty (2003)
Fending for herself in the wake of a chronically unemployed, dysfunctional mother, ten-year-old Evelyn Bucknow experiences feelings of confinement in their small Midwestern town and suffers the heartache of a first love.

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Secret Scripture

The Secret Scripture
Sebastian Barry
Viking, 2008

Recording the events of her life from a mental hospital as her hundredth birthday approaches, Roseanne McNulty considers returning to society when she learns that the hospital is about to close. Her therapist, Dr. Grene, hardly knows her yet he must decide whether Roseanne is sane enough to rejoin the community. Alternating journal entries tell the story of these two people: one who is the victim of the tumultuous political climate in Ireland’s past, and one who is grieving for his dead wife while attempting to do what’s right for his patient.

This quiet but powerful story is not a page turner, but it has a lyrical rhythm and poetic language that makes it hard to put down. The character of Roseanne is skillfully and sympathetically portrayed. Is she really insane or was she committed because it served others to have her silenced? As Dr. Grene investigates her past, he discovers that the parish priest was instrumental in the events that caused her personal tragedy, but he also discovers that his own life has been affected by Roseanne’s in ways he never imagined.


Other books by this author:
Annie Dunn (2003)
A Long, Long Way (2005)

Other titles you may enjoy:

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell (2006)
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 Vineyard by Barbara Delinsky (2000)
A woman and her daughter accept an invitation to spend the summer on a vineyard to help the owner, a widow, write her memoir. They soon learn that all is not as it seems at the vineyard.

Love and Summer by William Trevor (2009)
Living an unfulfilling existence at the side of a tragic husband, shy orphan Ellie Dillahan begins an affair that forces her to choose between an uncertain future with the man she loves and the desolate life she has built for herself.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Outside Boy

The Outside Boy
Jeanine Cummins
New American Library, 2010

Christy Hurley is almost 12 in 1959 Ireland. He and his father are Pavee Travelers who move with his father’s extended family from town to town, carrying all their worldly possessions in their wagons. Christy carries with him a burden of guilt as well, haunted by the story of his mother's death in childbirth. He has no friends but his cousin and his dad, but everything changes when his grandfather dies. Not only does his father decides to settle down temporarily in a town where Christy and his cousin can attend mass and receive proper schooling, but Christy discovers a piece of newsprint in his grandfather’s things that proves to be very puzzling. Determined to find the answers to the puzzle, Christy begins to investigate his own past. Soon his questions make his father uncomfortable and Christy is forced to sneak around to find answers – answers that soon make him suspect everything he knows and loves.

I enjoyed reading about Christy and his longing to belong. He and his dad have a great relationship, but Christy is at the age where he questions everything – something his dad has no patience for. When Christy begins to suspect the stories he’s been told about his mother’s death are not true, the reader is afraid for Christy and his father –afraid that their relationship will not survive any revelations of what really happened. I enjoyed reading about this alternative way of life in a place and time not so far away, but I especially enjoyed seeing the world through the hopeful, anticipating eyes of a 12 year old boy.


This is the author’s first novel.

Other titles you may enjoy:

The Widower’s Tale by Julia Glass (2010)
Enjoying an active but lonely rural life, 70-year-old Percy haplessly allows a progressive preschool to move into his barn and transform his quiet home into a lively, youthful community that compels him to reexamine the choices he made in the decades after his wife's death.

The Improper Life of Bezillia Grove by Susan Gregg Gilmore (2010)
Born to prominent but dysfunctional Nashville parents, Bezellia Grove leans on disregarded African-American servants as substitute family figures and incites wrath from both groups when she pursues an interracial relationship.

Life in Miniature by Linda Schlossberg (2010)
After her sister Miriam runs away, Adie is left behind with their mother, who, convinced that their lives are in danger, takes her on a crazy adventure across northern California where Adie unexpectedly embarks on her own journey of self-discovery.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Life is Short but Wide

Life is Short but Wide
J. California Cooper
Doubleday, 2009

In the early twentieth century, Irene and Val build a life for themselves in Wideland, Oklahoma, while also allowing neighbors Bertha and Joseph to live on their land, and the two families cope with changing times and fortunes. Narrated by a local woman with no clear ties to either family, this story spans many generations. Irene and Val’s two daughters go different directions when their parents die: one stays away after college and the other one lives on in the family house while Bertha and Joseph live nearby. Each generation has its own joys and trials while living in that small town, but they persevere through the years, sometimes with tragic consequences.

I did not enjoy the homespun and folksy tone of this book, nor did I “get” the meandering plot that went back and forth through time for no apparent reason. I found most of the characters to lack a backbone or even a reasonable explanation for their actions – or inaction. This could be classified as a family saga, but some generations are given barely a mention while much time is spent on others.

I’m not sure why I even finished the book. The narrator does tease the reader with hints to an upcoming event that may have compelled me to finish, but the ending was not worth the effort. I also found the Jehovah’s Witness proselytizing to be a major turnoff.

Oh, and I love the cover and title. Maybe that was why I finished it.


Other books by this author:
Some Soul to Keep (1987)
Family (1991)
In Search of Satisfaction (1994)
Some Love Some Pain Sometime (1995)
The Wake of the Wind (1998)
The Future Has a Past; stories
Some People, Some Other Place (2004)
Wild Stars Seeking Midnight Suns (2006)

Other titles you may enjoy:

The Well and the Mine by Gin Phillips (2007)
Witnessing what she believes to be the murder of an infant in a Depression-era Alabama mining town, nine-year-old Tess Moore and her civic-minded family subsequently struggle with the darker side of their racially torn community.

Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell (2006)
Reaching her sixteenth year in the harsh Ozarks while caring for her poverty-stricken family, Ree Dolly learns that they will lose their house unless her bail-skipping father can be found and made to appear at an upcoming court date.

Right as Rain by Bev Marshall (2004)
Living and working side-by-side on the rural Southern farm belonging to their white employers, Tee Wee and Icey forge a bond based on their shared servitude and their equally painful pasts.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

How High the Moon

How High the Moon
Sandra Kring
Bantam, 2010

Ten-year-old Isabella, nicknamed Teaspoon, has been a handful ever since her mother, Catty, dumped her with an old boyfriend and ran off to Hollywood. Teaspoon fights, fidgets, and fibs like crazy – so much so that her teacher tells her she will have flunk unless she takes part in a mentorship program during the summer. Teddy, the old boyfriend who has taken her in, is determined to raise her right, so Teaspoon knows she has to do better. Fortunately for Teaspoon, her mentor is Brenda Bloom, the beautiful reigning Sweetheart of Mill Town, whose family owns the only movie theater in town – a place Teaspoon goes every chance she gets in order to see her mother on the big screen. Against all odds, as the summer passes, this unlikely duo discover a special friendship as they face personal challenges, determined to follow their hearts instead of convention.

The down-home folksy writing style almost put me off finishing this book, but luckily for me the unpredictable plot and engaging characters more than compensated for it. At first this novel starts out with a southern "charm" that is somewhat off-putting, but if you keep reading you may find Teaspoon’s annoying child-like voice to become more real, sad and sympathetic as the story progresses. While it's not the best book I have read in the past few months, it definitely builds into something worthwhile and relevant. If you like Fannie Flagg, you will enjoy this author.

This title would make good summer reading. It’s not too demanding and easy to pick up after taking a dip in the pool. Enjoy!


Other books by this author:
Carry Me Home (2005)
The Book of Bright Ideas (2006)
Thank You for All Things (2008)

Other titles you may enjoy:

Every Visible Thing by Lisa Carey (2006)
Two years after the disappearance of their oldest son, Hugh, Elizabeth and Henry Furey, estranged by grief, work to put the tragedy behind them, while their two younger children still struggle with the past.

The Summer We Got Saved by Pat Devoto (2005)
Embracing the belief systems of her Southern hometown, Tab witnesses changes in the attitudes throughout the course of a 1960s gubernatorial campaign, which is marked by the establishment of a voting school for church members.

Similar authors you may want to try:
Lorna Landvik
Rebecca Wells
Ann B. Ross