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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.