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Thursday, September 13, 2012

Objects of My Affection

Objects of My Affection
Jill Smolinski
Simon and Schuster, 2012

Lucy Bloom is a professional organizer, or at least that’s what she’s supposed to be since she’s the author of a how-to book called Things are not People. She wishes her own life was as organized as her book makes her out to be. Ever since she broke up with her boyfriend and had to sell her house to pay for her son’s rehab, she’s been living out of suitcases on a friend’s couch. Luckily a famous artist’s son read of her book and hired her to clear out the cluttered home of the reclusive woman; maybe she can use the money to start over again herself.

Unfortunately, it’s not easy to persuade Marva Meier Rios to give up any of the belongings she’s accumulated over the past several decades. Marva won’t let Lucy throw away anything without examining it herself first, so each working session is full of persuading and then arguing over each item until Lucy despairs of making any progress. After a short time Lucy determines that Marva is a hoarder, a mental condition that Lucy feels unable to deal with. When Marva’s son issues a deadline with an ultimatum, however, Lucy knows that she has no choice but to tackle the problem head on in order to finally get paid and go forward with her own life.

Lucy is an interesting character because she is so paradoxical. She is supposedly an expert in organization, yet her own life is a mess. She believes that she should sacrifice everything to help her son, yet doesn’t realize that he has taken advantage of her generosity. She is in denial about the reasons she broke up with her ex-boyfriend, projecting the blame onto him for a difficult situation she couldn’t face herself. Lucy has her faults to be sure, but they are realistic and understandable and we end up really rooting for her to finally put herself first. Some may think this is light reading, but there are deeper messages here that make for a meaningful and satisfying reading experience.


Other novels by this author:
The Next Thing on My List (2008)

Other titles you may enjoy:

Past Secrets by Cathy Kelly (2007)
Assisting her friends on Summer Street when secrets threaten their relationships and well-being, Christie finds her own circumstances unbalanced when truths she has hidden from her husband and sons come to the surface.

Dune Road by Jane Green (2009)
A single mom working for a famously reclusive author in a tony Connecticut beach town stumbles on a secret that many of the eccentric and moneyed locals would love to get their hands on.

Not My Daughter by Barbara Delinsky (2010)
A pregnancy pact between three teenaged girls puts their mothers' love to the ultimate test in this emotionally wrenching story of love and forgiveness.

Monday, July 23, 2012

An Available Man

An Available Man
Hilma Wolitzer
Ballantine, 2012

Edward Schuler has always been somewhat shy and retiring, more interested in tinkering in his science lab basement than in socializing with people. When his beloved wife dies after a long illness, he fully expects his life to continue as it always has: teaching science at the local school, keeping in touch with his stepchildren, and trying to recover from such a huge loss. He has no interest in pursuing any new friendships, let alone looking for women to date. Imagine his surprise when he receives phone calls and visits from several single women in town, interested in bringing him food, inviting him to social events, and otherwise striking up an intimate relationship.

The problem is that Edward doesn’t want to start dating again. He just doesn’t feel available. His past relationships included a previous engagement that was broken off abruptly, and then he met Bee, whom he did meet and marry soon after. He is surprised that he receives so much interest from the local ladies; he politely refuses all offers and thinks that the end of things. That’s when the letters start coming. It seems that his well-meaning stepdaughter combined forces with a similarly like-minded daughter-in-law to put an ad in the New York Times on his behalf, advertising his availability. At first he resists reading them because it seems disloyal to even think about dating again, but after some time he acknowledges that he has become lonely and the letters awaken something in himself that he thought had died along with his wife. Can a lonely widower find happiness a second time in life?

This poignant and thoughtful story of a sensitive man trapped inside his grief will appeal to readers of all ages. Edward’s situation is far from special: spouses die every day and those left behind must cope with their loneliness and despair. What makes Edward’s story more interesting is how he handles the many women who make their own needs and desires known quite clearly. Edward is always a gentleman, even if he’s hesitant, confused or unsure of his feelings. I quite liked Edward and honestly hoped he would find a woman he would have another chance to grow old with.


Other novels by this author:
The Doctor’s Daughter (2006)
Summer Reading (2007)

Other titles you may enjoy:

The Photograph by Penelope Lively (2004)
Finding a mysterious photograph of his late wife, Kath, holding hands with another man, Glyn begins a search that proves shocking to Kath's family and friends.

The Road Home by Rose Tremain (2008)
Making his way to London through Eastern Europe in the wake of factory closings and his wife's death, Lev finds a job in a posh restaurant and a room in the home of an Irishman who has also lost his family.

Alice Bliss by Laura Harrington (2011)
Follows the experiences of teenage Alice during her father's deployment to Iraq, an agonizing waiting period during which she gains new independence and falls in love while trying to be strong for her mother and younger sister.

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Cove

The Cove

Ron Rash
Harper Collins, 2012

Laurel Shelton and her brother Hank live alone in the Cove, a piece of land in the Appalachians of North Carolina. Their parents bought this land cheap because the locals have long considered it to be cursed. It doesn’t help that Laurel has a deep purple birthmark on her face that has marked her as a witch and further ostracized her from the people in town. While Hank was away fighting in World War I, Laurel led a lonely existence on the farm, an elderly neighbor her only friend. Now that Hank has come back from the war, wounded and without one hand, she is not sure they can survive without help. She is living day to day, wondering what their future might be.

One day Laurel hears a flute on the mountain and she follows the sound to a solitary man who has set up camp there. Without telling Hank, she finds herself sneaking up there to spy on the man. One day she finds him ill and brings him to their cabin to nurse him back to health. Walter is mute and can only communicate by written notes, but his presence brings new life to the cabin – and to Laurel. Soon Walter is helping Hank on the farm, but he and Laurel have fallen in love and have made plans to run away together. Unfortunately, the local army recruiter hears rumors of this stranger and discovers that Walter is hiding something that once discovered could have tragic consequences.

Although this novel has lovely language that makes the story come alive, the ending was so devastating, disturbing and disappointing that I'm having difficulty reviewing it fairly. Why build such a captivating story if it ends like this? Why create some characters that are so realistic and likeable and then create another character that has so much power and corruption that he can completely take over the novel and ruin it? I can't decide if the author just couldn't decide how to end the story (what's wrong with a deserving character being happy for once in her poor life?) or if he wanted to shock complacent readers. Or maybe he just wanted his novel to be unpredictable.
I loved this book until it ended. Then I promptly forgot all about it until it was time for this review. Maybe that says it all.


Reader's Choice

Other novels by this author:
One Foot in Eden (2002)
Saints at the River (2004)
The World Made Straight (2006)
Serena (2008)

Other titles you may enjoy:

This Rock by Robert Morgan (2001)
In the Appalachian Mountains of the 1920s, the Powell brothers struggle to figure out their place in the world and their relationship with each other, as Moody drifts into alcohol and gambling, while Muir's path changes their family forever.

Nightwoods by Charles Frazier (2011)
Named the guardian of her murdered sister's troubled twins, Luce struggles to build a family with the children before being targeted by the twins' father--her sister's killer--who believes that the children are in possession of a stolen cache of money.

Work Song by Ivan Doig (2010)
In 1919, itinerant schoolteacher Morrie Morgan journeys to Butte in the hopes of making his fortune in copper mining but finds instead a rich assortment of local characters before an encounter with a former student leads to a violent union uprising.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Bellweather Revivals

The Bellwether Revivals

Benjamin Wood
Viking, 2012

Nursing assistant Oscar Lowe has an ordinary, if not lonely, life. He works at an assistance living facility for the elderly, has few friends, and is not close to his family. One day he hears beautiful organ music coming from a church near Cambridge and is drawn to enter even though he is not religious. That is where he meets and falls in love with Iris Bellwether, who is the sister of the musical genius Eden. The Bellwether family is wealthy, prominent, and influential – and Oscar feels totally out of his element. He has always been more of a working class guy, who never had the money or the opportunities to attend college or have as much leisure time as the Bellwethers and their circle of friends do.

Eden is rather an odd bird but very intelligent, talented and charismatic. He is convinced that he can heal the sick with the music of an obscure baroque composer and tries to prove his theory with a series of bizarre and abusive experiments on his sister and friends, including a very disturbing experience with Oliver. Iris believes that Eden is mentally ill with a little known and difficult to diagnose condition, and she enlists Oliver’s help to convince a doctor who specializes in this particular disorder to examine Eden. As the situation escalates, Oliver becomes more entrenched in the dysfunctional dynamic between Iris and Eden and he soon realizes that Eden’s mental illness could prove dangerous to those around him.

Since this novel’s preface describes a crime scene, it is no secret that the perceived danger surrounding Eden’s strange theories is very real and threatening. However, the novel’s opening chapters sets a steadier and measured approach to the action as it slowly builds the tension and suspense. Oscar is mesmerized by Eden and Iris in the beginning – he enjoys living the opulent lifestyle as part of the inner circle of friends invited for holidays, suppers, and the like. The author does a nice job of drawing the reader into the novel as Oscar is drawn into the mentally unstable and charismatic influence of Eden. I enjoyed the British setting of this novel as well as the fascinating characters and psychological situations. Oscar was likeable and sympathetic – a realistic portrayal of a hero who tries his best to make things right in a world that has gone horribly wrong.


This is the author’s first novel.

Other titles you may enjoy:

The Cadaver’s Ball by Charles Atkins (2005)
Psychiatrist Peter Grainger struggles to put his life back together following the death of his wife and unborn child, while an old friend from medical school, Dr. Ed Tyson, a man with a longtime grudge against Peter, seeks revenge.

A Secret Kept by Tatiana de Rosnay (2010)
When traumatic memories about a disturbing event from a childhood summer holiday cause his sister to suffer a debilitating car accident, Antoine befriends a street-wise mortician who helps him to manage painful family truths.

Fieldwork by Mischa Berlinski (2007)
Following his girlfriend to her new teaching position in Thailand, a young reporter researches the story of American anthropologist Martiya van der Leun, following her suicide in the Thai prison where she was serving a lengthy sentence for murder.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

A Land More Kind than Home

A Land More Kind than Home
Wiley Cash
Morrow, 2012

Jess is a nine year old boy with a beloved older brother Stump, who is autistic. Jess and his family live in rural North Carolina, where the boys and their mother attend a charismatic church led by a former meth addict turned prison preacher named Carson Chambliss. One day, he decides that Stump should be healed and, as Jess watches from outside through the boards of the building, proceeds to accidentally kill his brother during the service. This tragedy causes a series of events that are narrated by Jess, the town sheriff, and the midwife, Adelaide, which detail a family’s spiral into tragedy and despair.

This psychological suspense is dark, disturbing, and bleak. The gothic setting of a backwoods country church and its sinister leader practically drips with foreboding and foreshadowing. Jess is a likeable and naïve narrator whose youth and inexperience add a measure of unreliability to his words. Sheriff Barefield, on the other hand, is a man of few words, yet much is conveyed and understood in those short chapters. It is mostly through Adelaide, a generous and wise narrator, that the reader discovers the secret that Stump witnessed, which resulted in so much sorrow and heartache.

Although the plot is compelling, the characters interesting and the setting unusual, I found this novel to be too dark and depressing to enjoy. We all know that humans can be sad, miserable creatures who often contribute to their own downfall, but the evil that Pastor Chambliss brings to this family and town  overwhelms the plot, overshadowing any hope of redemption or justice. Because this character is so one-dimensional, it was difficult for me to relate to the book, yet I appreciated some of its qualities and would recommend it to the right reader who was in the mood for a dark, bleak, and skilled portrayal of a tragedy.


This is the author’s first novel.

Other titles you may enjoy:

Long Lost by David Morrell (2002)
Successful architect Brad Denning finds his perfect existence shattered when a man claiming to be his long-lost brother kidnaps his wife and son, forcing Brad to find his family before a dark secret from his past is exposed.

Places in the Dark by Thomas Cook (2000)
Cal Chase watches his younger brother William follow his wandering soul, never expecting him to find true love, but when a stunning woman walks into William's life, Cal begins to worry about his safety as well as his heart.

The Barrens by Rosamund Smith (2001)
Haunted by the memory of a murder he witnessed as a child, Matt McBride becomes erratic and obsessed with guilt after the disappearance of another young woman--a woman he knows too intimately for a married man--making himself a target for the real killer.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Snow Child

The Snow Child
Eowyn Ivey
Little, Brown, 2012

Jack and Mabel came to Alaska to start again. Middle aged and childless, they left their easy life in the Midwest to test themselves in this harsh and wild land where their nearest neighbor is many miles away. Unfortunately, the work needed to homestead their claim is much more than Jack can handle, and he refuses to let Mabel help him outside, so she becomes lonely and longs for companionship. One night they forget their worries and build a snow child to pass the time. The next morning, the snow sculpture is gone and in its place is a small gift. Jack isn’t sure but he thinks he saw a little wisp of a girl vanish through the trees, wearing a red scarf.

Mabel sees the child too, and she thinks her mind is playing tricks on her. The small gifts the child leaves tell her otherwise. When she and Jack compare notes, they are reminded of the Russian fairy tale of a snow child that comes to life. Mabel becomes obsessed with finding this girl, whom she believes is the snow child come to life, and Jack worries that the remoteness and isolation have affected their minds. Does the girl really exist or have they invented her in a last attempt to have the child that they have longed for so many years? Or is it possible that a wild child could be living by herself in the mountains, coming to Jack and Mabel only when it suits her moods? The couple finds that the girl brings depth and meaning to their existence in the wilderness, even if they have to eventually let her run free.

This is a wonderful and captivating book. Although I was skeptical of the magical realism genre that has been assigned to it, it is not a fantasy and does not have magical elements. The reader may have to suspend some beliefs regarding small children surviving alone in the wild, but I found this very easy to do, especially when faced with the brave and engaging child named Faina. I loved the characters and their relationships: Jack and Mabel are caring and loving people who support and nurture each other and the child; Faina is a smart and strong child who tries to change herself for love but ultimately cannot; the neighbors that become close friends are spunky, humorous and literally, lifesavers. The author’s spare and clean writing style perfectly matches the snow and cold that is Alaska’s long winter, yet the reader will long for the warm summer as the characters do. I can’t reveal the ending except to say it is satisfying and bittersweet and perfect.


This is the author’s first novel.

Other titles you may enjoy:

Mirror Mirror by Gregory Maguire (2003)
A retelling of "Snow White" set in Renaissance Italy draws a link between the original fairy tale and the Borgia family's infamous practice of poisoning its enemies.

Alphabet of Thorn by Patricia McKillip (2004)
Working in the royal library as a translator, Nepenthe becomes obsessed with a strange book, given to her by a young mage during the coronation of the new Queen of Raine, and begins to discover her destiny.

Stardust by Neil Gaiman (1999)
Living in a Victorian countryside town overshadowed by an imposing stone barrier, Tristran is compelled to retrieve a fallen star for the woman he loves and crosses to the wondrous other side of the barrier, where he encounters dangerous rivals for the star.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Orphanmaster

The Orphanmaster
Jean Zimmerman
Viking, 2012

Blandine von Couvering is now 22 years old, but she was orphaned at a young age and pretty much raised herself. That’s how she came to know and love Orphanmaster Aet Visser, who was like a father to her. In seventeenth-century New Amsterdam, orphans were put under the care of an orphanmaster, who ensured they were taken care of by foster families and safeguarded any inheritance the child may have left after the death of his or her parents. Blandine is now a “she-merchant” and does pretty well for herself buying and selling furs. Most of the traders are so surprised to be competing against a woman that she can usually make a good deal before they realize what has happened.

When an eight year old African American orphan goes missing, nobody seems to care, so Blandine enlists the help of the Orphanmaster to find out what happened. Before they know it, little Piddy’s body turns up dead, and then more orphans are abducted and killed. One manages to escape, however, and spreads the story of a very tall half-man, half-beast creature that eats its prey. This sets off a panic in New Amsterdam. Parents keep their children inside where they can watch them and accusations start to fly. Among the accused: the Orphanmaster himself, who is shocked that anyone would think he could ever hurt his baby ducklings.

Meanwhile, a stranger shows up in town: Edward Drummond, who is masquerading as a businessman but is really an undercover spy hunting down traitors to the British monarchy. Blandine finds that she is attracted to Drummond despite the fact that she is practically engaged to the town’s eligible bachelor. The two join forces to protect the Aet’s name and find out who is terrorizing the town, even if it means that they become the target of the strange creature themselves.

While I enjoyed the historical details and setting of this novel, I found the plot to be quite complicated and the crossing of genres somewhat confusing. Is it a romance? A mystery? A mysterious romantic historical fiction? There are several plot lines to keep track of – and don’t get me started on all the names! (It was all Dutch to me, she said jokingly.) The main characters are intriguing and unpredictable, but I guessed the bad guy about half way through, despite the numerous red herrings scattered along the way. I also found myself a little bored with the drama of it all, and couldn’t wait to get to the end. Not a good feeling.


This is the author’s first novel.

Other titles you may enjoy:

The Interpretation of Murder by Jed Rubenfeld (2006)
In 1909, as a sadistic killer stalks Manhattan's wealthiest heiresses, Sigmund Freud is called in by American analyst Dr. Stratham Younger to assist him in interviewing Nora Acton, a hysterical survivor of the killer who can recall nothing about the attack.

The Queen of Bedlam by Robert McCammon (2007)
Investigating New York City's first serial killer in 1702, magistrate's clerk Matthew Corbert contemplates working with an elderly asylum resident who may hold the key to the killer's identity, in a case that is further challenged by the murderer's dark designs for the city.

The Alienist by Caleb Carr (1994)
In 1896, the New York reform police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt asks an upper class police reporter and a psychologist to investigate the serial killer of boy prostitutes, but crime bosses oppose their questions

Friday, May 25, 2012

Contents May Have Shifted

Contents May Have Shifted
Pam Houston
Norton, 2012

Narrator Pam, not to be confused with author Pam but seemingly very much like her, travels a lot. Her day job is teaching writing at a California college, and she must use every school break she gets to fly somewhere else. The planes she takes vary from jumbo jets to single propeller puddle-jumpers, and her flight experiences vary as well – sometimes dangerously so. Pam is a scattered narrator, who explains in many short chapters that bounce around in time that she is searching for a committed relationship that will be strong enough to keep her at home. Recovering from a hard breakup, she is now with an artist who shares her love for travel but has his own baggage: a child with a controlling mother who causes problems. When it gets too much for Pam, she goes somewhere else, or gets a massage, or talks to one of her friends to get a more realistic perspective. Pam has lots of friends who are much wiser than she is.

This is a scattered and untraditional method of novel writing but an effective one. The reader may need a few chapters under her belt to get to know Pam, but to know her is to love her. Whether she is escaping her present life or looking for a new one, we understand that she is searching for something bigger than herself to make some order out of chaos. She has a remarkable and beautiful way of describing her life, unsettled as it may be that makes the reader envy not only her ability to write so lyrically but her enthusiasm for travel as well.


Other novels by this author:
Waltzing the Cat (1998)
Sight Hound (2005)

Other titles you may enjoy:

A Risk Worth Taking by Robin Pilcher (2004)
Laid off in the wake of the dot-com industry collapse, Dan Porter finds himself increasingly estranged from his clothing designer wife and three teenage children and considers implementing drastic changes in his life.

The Ha-Ha by Dave King (2005)
Rendered unable to speak, read, or write after a Vietnam War injury thirty years earlier, Howard Kapostash feels trapped by his disability until his high school sweetheart, recently forced into rehab, asks him to care for her nine-year-old son.

Vibrator by Mari Akasaki (2007)
Following a chance encounter with a truck driver one night, Rei Hayakawa, a troubled young journalist, embarks on a journey through the snowy wastelands of northern Japan. Together the unlikely pair explores their sexuality and their demons, and the memories that compel them to keep moving.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The World We Found

The World We Found
Thrity Umrigar
Harper, 2012

Armaiti has been living in America for many years. Originally from India, she emigrated after college, married and divorced an American man and now has a college aged daughter. She has recently received a sobering diagnosis of terminal cancer. She rejects the slim chance that receiving treatment will extend her life and instead focuses her attention on reuniting with old friends for one last visit before she dies. Laleh, Kavita, and Nishta live in Bombay. In college the four women were inseparable as political activists for a reformed India. Today, they barely keep in touch and Nishta, in fact, has not been heard from in years. Laleh is now married to her college sweetheart and quite wealthy, despite their youthful communistic leanings. Kavita is a successful architect and trying to be open about her once hidden sexual orientation. Nishta married into a fundamentalist Muslim family and her husband strictly controls her activities.

Armaiti has her own challenges to deal with as her illness progresses and she becomes more dependent on her daughter and ex-husband. She has many regrets that surface as she contemplates the end of her life, but in the end nothing matters as much as seeing her old friends again. The four women were idealistic in their youth and now must reconcile past hopes and dreams with the practical realities of middle age, much like the divided India that is portrayed in this novel. As the women struggle with the memories of their college years, they realize they have some unresolved issues that must be laid to rest before they can say goodbye to each other one last time.


Other novels by this author:
Bombay Time (2001)
The Space between Us (2005)
If Today be Sweet (2007)
The Weight of Heaven (2009)

Other titles you may enjoy:

The Winter Garden by Kristin Hannah (2010)
Reunited when their beloved father falls ill, sisters Meredith and Nina find themselves under the shadow of their disapproving mother, whose painful history is hidden behind her rendition of a Russian fairy tale told to the sisters in childhood.

First Friends by Marcia Willett (2006)
Life-long best friends, both married to naval officers, Kate Webster and Cassandra Wivenhoe find their lives, families, and marriages thrown into turmoil by Cassandra's infidelities.

Dreaming Water by Gail Tsukiyama (2002)
Cate and her adult daughter, Hana, who has Werner's Syndrome, a disease which speeds aging to twice the normal rate, find their lives changed irrevocably by the arrival of Hana's childhood friend, Laura, and her two energetic daughters.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Flea Circus

Flea Circus: a brief bestiary of grief
Mandy Keifetz
New Issues/Western Michigan University, 2012.

Izzy has a hard time coping with her grief after her entomologist lover Tim commits suicide by falling down a tenement airshaft. As she works through her loss with the help of another entomologist, Pudge Goroguchi, she goes to her banker job and also helps out at Tim’s brother’s bar while doing mathematical equations and wondering if she’s pregnant. Tim left behind a flea circus, so Izzy befriends Pudge, who also loves fleas, as a fill-in lover. As each short chapter unfolds, the reader will either delight in the “whip-smart narration,” like one reviewer did – or become frustrated with the too-witty urban hipster language that goes nowhere and does little to move the plot forward, like I did.

I started this slim volume with high expectations but quickly grew tired of the clever writing and lack of plot. I felt like Izzy was trying too hard to impress the reader with her smartness and her hipness. She did not feel like a real person to me. Reviewers used words like “enthralling,” “hilarious,” and “a must for fans of literary fiction” to describe this book. This reviewer, on the other hand, believes other terms, like “tedious,” “nonsensical,” and “not worth the paper it’s printed on” would be more accurate.

Needless to say, I did not finish it.


Other titles you may enjoy:

The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides (1993)
The narrator and his friends piece together the events that led up to suicides of the Lisbon girls, brainy Therese, fastidious Mary, ascetic Bonnie, libertine Lux, and saintly Cecilia.

The Surface of Earth by Reynolds Price (1995)
Eva Kendal, 16, elopes with her Latin teacher, twice her age, in 1903 and begins a dysfunctional family line in North Carolina.

Housekeeping by Marilyn Robinson (1981)
Ruth, a young girl struggling to overcome haunting family memories in a town which will not let her forget, gradually grows close to Sylvie, the sister of her dead mother.

Friday, May 4, 2012


Lauren Groff
Hyperion, 2012

Bit Stone is five years old. He and his mother and father live in Arcadia, a commune in New York State, during the turbulent sixties and seventies. The commune was developed to be a utopian society by a charismatic musician. The major concepts of the commune were free love, of course, but shared work and shared resources were also mandated. Bit was special because he was the first of many, many children born at Arcadia. The leader along with the rest of the adults always considered Bit to be representative of the commune’s origins, and so he and his family were part of the inner circle.

Bit’s mother suffered from seasonal depression and spent much of her time in bed until she finally got some medical help. Bit’s father worked very hard restoring an old house that was on the property until he was severely injured. Bit spends his time with the other children in the commune, going to the school and helping with chores as needed. As he and Arcadia grow older, things change. The commune’s leadership becomes divided as they debate issues such as allowing outsiders to join the group, drug use, sexual norms, and financial hardship. Food has always been scarce, but now that so many people have invaded Arcadia, there are more mouths to feed and fewer hands willing to work in the fields or the kitchen.

The story progresses to a future that becomes bleaker than Arcadia’s idealistic leaders could ever have imagined. The adult Bit discovers that his childhood was not what he remembered, and he must struggle to deal with the ghosts that have remained. As a pandemic spreads through the world, the only place that he can find to safely shield his family is the deserted place that used to be Arcadia, which is a shell of its former busy, productive, and sometimes dangerous self.

Arcadia is a mesmerizing and rewarding reading experience. As adults we can see the flaws with Arcadia: the selfishness; the unfair gender roles; the poverty. But Bit only sees the joys: acres of land to roam; many nurturing adults to care for him; children to serve as surrogate siblings. In theory, the communal life would solve many societal problems, but we all know that theories don’t often hold true when confronted with human beings and their many faults. Still, it is fascinating to see Arcadia’s rise and fall through Bit’s eyes, at first innocent and hopeful and then not so much. Like Bit, we really want Arcadia to succeed, and, like Bit, we are somehow so disappointed when it doesn’t.


Other novels by this author:
The Monsters of Templeton (2008)

Other titles you may enjoy:

Faith Fox by Jane Gardam (2003)
Emotionally abandoned by her father and maternal grandmother when her birth results in her mother's death, young Faith Fox is raised by an unlikely group, including the owners of a commune and her bickering paternal grandparents.

Summer of the Redeemers by Carolyn Haines (1994)
Emotionally abandoned by her father and maternal grandmother when her birth results in her mother's death, young Faith Fox is raised by an unlikely group, including the owners of a commune and her bickering paternal grandparents.

The Limits of Enchantment by Graham Joyce (2005)
Growing up in the 1960s under the tutelage of unconventional midwife Mammy, Fern Cullen finds the people of their small English village rallying against them when a patient dies, forcing Fern to turn to former adversaries for support.

Friday, April 20, 2012

The Last Nude

The Last Nude
Ellis Avery
Riverhead Books, 2012

Young Rafaela has escaped an arranged marriage by getting lost in 1920s Paris. Her parents put her on a boat to Italy but she traded sex for a train ticket, clothes, shoes, and, once in desperation, money. When she meets art deco artist Tamara de Lempicka, the two hit it off, professionally and sexually, and Rafaela becomes immortalized in a series of paintings that become famous.

Rafaela has never experienced the kind of passion she finds with her lover Tamara, but she feels unbalanced by the older woman’s power and control over her. Tamara pays her for her services as a model, but as the affair continues, Rafaela falls in love and will do anything to protect and defend Tamara, even when the painter manipulates two different men who want to buy a painting in which Rafaela is featured. As Tamara schemes and plays the two buyers against the other, Rafaela is torn between believing she has a future with the painter and the fear that Tamara is just using her for her own gain.

This novel is rich with details of the Roaring Twenties in expat Paris. Based on the actual artist and model, the imagined romance of the two brings to life the carefree and indulgent decade that enabled Gertrude Stein, Picasso, and Hemingway to create great art. Told from the viewpoint of the young and naïve Rafaela, the reader will understand and appreciate the ups and downs, hope and disillusionment, and finally, the bitterness and despair that she experiences during her first love affair. Although this novel is defined by its rich and complex characters, the plot is interesting and compelling and will keep you guessing all the way to the somewhat disappointing ending.


Other novels by this author:

The Teahouse Fire (2006)

Other titles you may enjoy:

Twilight by Katherine Mosby (2005)
Breaking her engagement to an undesirable partner in the years preceding World War II, Lavinia Gibbs rebuilds her life in Europe, where she experiences a sexual and political awakening at the side of enigmatic Frenchman Gaston Lesseur.

The Art of Seduction by Katherine O’Neal (2007)
Faking her own death to finally get her haunting, sensual paintings noticed by the world, Mason Caldwell, masquerading as her surviving "sister" Amy, reaps the rewards of fame, wealth, and privilege, gaining entrance to haute Paris, where a dangerously sexy art expert calls her bluff.

I am Madame X by Gioia Diliberto (2003)
Follows the life of Virginie Gautreau, the subject of John Singer Sargent's controversial portrait "Madame X," from her Creole youth and flight to France during the American Civil War, to her marriage to a prominent banker.

Friday, April 13, 2012

The Odds

The Odds
Stewart O’Nan
Viking, 2012

Art and Marion are spending the last weekend of their marriage at Niagara Falls. They are celebrating 30 years together through many ups and downs, but this weekend is also a chance to decide if they are going to stay together or get a divorce. Both have been unfaithful, although they are both aware of only one. Their children are grown, they are both unemployed, and their house is going into foreclosure, so they have decided to go scrape together all the available cash they have and go all in on a bet at the casino. As they go through the motions for their marriage, they each present their points of view towards themselves and each other, their long standing resentments, joys, dreams and hopes for a different future present themselves in turn. Although it is obvious that Marion is less likely to want to reconcile than Art, she cannot help but appreciate the long history they have shared. At the same time, she longs for a new beginning and cannot decide if it should include Art or not.

This spare but engaging little novel packs a lot into few words. Art and Marion are like many married couples who are experiencing roadblocks in their relationship. It is sad to watch their relationship dissolve, but there is still hope they will stay together because they do genuinely care for each other. The “all-in” bet at the casino seems like an obvious metaphor for their marriage, and perhaps a foolish risk to take, but Art is determined to try it. I felt bad for Art, who wants so much to stay with his wife that he tries too hard to make her happy. As he tries to recreate their honeymoon, which was also spent in Niagara Falls, Marion is mostly irritated by the sightseeing and crowds, and even gets sick after eating shellfish. Poor Art, and poor Marion, too, who have had so much bad luck the past few years that their life together has come to this point. And yet, the reader is left with the hope they will figure out a future and be happy together in some way.

Other novels by this author:
Snow Angels (1994)
Speed Queen (1997)
A World Away (1998)
Everyday People (2001)
Wish You Were Here (2002)
The Night Country (2003)
The Good Wife (2005)
Last Night at the Lobster (2007)
Songs for the Missing (2008)
Emily Alone (2011)

Other titles you may enjoy:

The Truest Pleasure by Robert Morgan (1995)
Pentecostal worship ideals attract Ginny while her husband Tom disapproves, but they keep their marriage intact in the early-20th-century Blue Ridge mountains through a series of difficulties.

Slow Man by J.M. Coetzee (2005) Dependent on others after losing his leg in an accident, sixty-year-old Paul Rayment finds himself falling in love with a down-to-earth Croatian nurse and encouraged by a mysterious writer to take an activist role in his own life.

After This by Alice McDermott (2006)
A portrait of an American family during the middle decades of the twentieth century evokes the social, spiritual, and political turmoil of the era as seen through the experiences of a middle-class couple and their children.

Friday, March 30, 2012

The Invisible Ones

The Invisible Ones
Stef Penney
Putnam, 2012

Ray Lovell is a private investigator who was hired to find a missing woman. Rose Janko is a young Gypsy who went missing seven years earlier. Half Romany himself, Ray knows that he was selected for the investigation based more on his ancestry than his professional skills. Even though Ray knows the culture, he was surprised at the level of hostility that the Janko family showed him, but he knows the family has been touched by tragedy and distrusts outsiders more than usual. It seems that the family has inherited a curse which afflicts the male members – an illness that Rose’s husband was lucky enough to be healed from. Unfortunately, Rose’s son also suffers from the illness, and according to her husband, that’s why Rose abandoned them. Ray suspects from the family’s response to him that something bad has happened to Rose, and when a land excavation project reveals the skeleton of a woman who died several years before, he prepares himself for the worse.

As Ray becomes more involved in the family’s history, he meets a female relative that intrigues him. Ray’s been divorced for a couple of years now, but the divorce was not his choice and he’s had trouble adjusting to single life. Knowing that it’s a bad idea to mix business and pleasure, Ray tries to distance himself from seeing this woman, but the more he tries to uncover the Janko family secret, the more he finds himself drawn to the members of the family, especially this woman. As he starts to learn more about the events that happened seven years earlier, Ray experiences a head injury lands him in the hospital for several weeks. The book begins after the accident, as he recovers in the hospital, not remembering a thing that has happened. As he attempts to recover and remember the case he’s investigating, little bits come back to him as he struggles to make sense of the mystery that he’s stumbled upon.

I had high expectations for this title since I enjoyed her first novel so much. It did not disappoint, although it is very different in tone, setting, and plot than the first one. Penney has a skill for building a special world inside her books by focusing on unique characters and places that come alive. This literary mystery is not the most exciting or suspenseful book you will ever read, but it is hard to put down anyway. There is a subtle tension that builds slowly throughout the story – we know there is a terrible secret that must be revealed, but what is it? WHAT IS IT???? Well, I won’t reveal it -- but it’s a good one and well worth the itchy, uncomfortable feeling that builds inside you as you turn each page. All I can say is, I should’ve seen it coming.


Other novels by this author:
The Tenderness of Wolves (2006)

Other titles you may enjoy:

Case Histories by Kate Atkinson (2004)
As private investigator Jackson Brodie investigates three resurrected old crimes, he finds himself caught up in a story of families divided, love lost and found, and the mysteries of fate.

The Old Wine Shades by Martha Grimes (2006)
Richard Jury considers the authenticity of a fantastical tale, told by a stranger and fellow patron at the Old Wine Shades pub in London, about a string theory scientist's wife, son, and dog, who disappeared without a trace nine months earlier.

Moonlight Mile by Dennis Lahane (2010)
Private investigators Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro revisit the case that troubled them the most when the missing girl they found twelve years earlier--only to see her returned to a neglectful mother and a broken home--goes missing again.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Dreamers of the Day

Dreamers of the Day
Maria Doria Russell
Random House, 2008

Agnes Shanklin is a forty-year-old schoolteacher from Ohio who is still reeling from the tragedies of the Great War and the influenza epidemic. This middle aged spinster comes into a modest inheritance that allows her to take the trip of a lifetime to Egypt and the Holy Land. Arriving at the Semiramis Hotel, site of the 1921 Cairo Peace Conference, she meets Winston Churchill, T. E. Lawrence, and Lady Gertrude Bell. Agnes doesn’t mince words or strong opinions, but her outspoken ways are embraced by the others, especially a German spy who pays special attention to her. As the historic political events occur that create the nations of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Jordan, Agnes finds herself somehow in the middle of the political intrigue surrounding the conference. Even more surprising to Agnes, her German spy is interested in pursuing a romantic relationship with her despite her advanced age and lack of romantic experience. Even though Agnes suspects he is more interested in the intelligence that her friends may provide him, she decides to go forward with the romance, however brief it may be. This may be her last and only chance to experience one of life’s basic pleasures.

I am particularly fascinated with historical fiction set during World War I, which is what attracted me to this novel. I am also a big fan of Maria Doria Russell. Her science fiction book, The Sparrow, is one of my all-time favorites, and I loved Doc, which was previously reviewed on this blog. The first problem I had with this novel is that the narrator is already dead and refers to her upcoming demise several times throughout the novel. I hate reading first person accounts in which the narrator is dead. It’s just not natural. I mean, how could a dead person be describing her own life if she is already dead? So I was not into the novel much since I knew the person narrating the events would die by the end of the novel, and I have to admit this was the big reason I didn’t finish the book. Plus, I didn’t really care much for the events surrounding the action and I was, frankly, bored by the detailed descriptions of the politics of that time. AND, the war was already over, which obviously meant my fascination was done, too.

All in all, this was a big disappointment from one of my favorite authors. (Sigh.)


Other novels by this author:
The Sparrow (1996)
Children of God (1998)
Thread of Grace (2005)
Doc (2011)

Other titles you may enjoy:

The Linen Queen by Patricia Falvey (2011)
Abandoned by her father and neglected by her self-centered, unstable mother, Sheila McGee cannot wait to escape the drudgery of her mill village life in Northern Ireland. Her classic Irish beauty helps her win the 1941 Linen Queen competition, and the prize money that goes with it finally gives her the opportunity she's been dreaming of. But Sheila does not count on the impact of the Belfast blitz which brings World War II to her doorstep. Now even her good looks are useless in the face of travel restrictions. When American troops set up base in her village, some see them as occupiers but Sheila sees them as saviors--one of them may be her ticket out.

Lady of the Butterflies by Fiona Mountain (2010)
Scandalizing her seventeenth-century Puritan community with her scientific experiments with butterflies that are believed by others to be the souls of the dead, Eleanor Glanville pursues a passionate desire to find an all-consuming love and sense of self-worth.

Daughter of the Sun by Barbara Wood (2007)
Living in prehistoric New Mexico, seventeen-year-old Hoshi-tiwa, the daughter of a corn grower and betrothed to a storyteller's apprentice, finds her life thrown into turmoil when she is captured by the powerful and violent ruler of Center Place.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Grief of Others

The Grief of Others
Leah Hager Cohen
Riverhead Books, 2011

When John and Ricky’s third child dies soon after birth, the family tries to cope with their grief by pretending that everything is normal, but Biscuit knows it’s not. Biscuit is ten years old, and she believes the baby’s death is her fault. She has stolen a book from the library about different cultures rituals surrounding death and has decided to skip school, again, to throw the baby’s ashes in the river. Unfortunately, Biscuit chooses to run past her own school and her classmates spot her, which brings her father to school to deal with the matter. This seemingly inconsequential event of a child skipping school is what finally breaks the family into two.

Ricky has been keeping a secret for a long time – ever since she found out that the baby she was carrying had a serious birth defect that would now allow him to live long after birth. Not only did she not tell John about the birth defect until right before the birth, she didn’t tell him how long she had known herself. Naturally, John feels betrayed when he discovers this secret and this causes a further rift in the family. When Jennifer, John’s daughter by a previous relationship, shows up stating that she is pregnant herself, the family falls apart. Paul, who is 13, is being bullied at school and is worried about his friendship with another boy. John considers an extramarital affair. And Ricky finally realizes what is important to her but it may be too late to change the course of her own decisions.

This is a thoughtful and sobering story about the power of a secret, especially the damaging effects it can have on a family. Ricky had her reasons for keeping information to herself, but in reality she chose a selfish way to experience her son, denying her husband any part of the experience or even the ability to make his own decisions. She even denied him the chance to help her deal with the situation -- which seemed to me to be the ultimate betrayal. I had a hard time understanding Ricky and I had very little sympathy for her.

It may seem impossible for this family to overcome the sadness and grief they are experiencing, and even harder for the reader to have any hope for them to find a way to save themselves. Despite this, the book is worth reading, even if the dysfunction threatens to overwhelm the interesting and dynamic characters.


Other novels by this author:
Heat Lightning (1997)
House Lights (2007)

Other titles you may enjoy:

Blue Water by A. Manette Ansay (2006)
Devastated when their six-year-old son is killed by a drunk driver, Meg's childhood friend, Cindy Ann Kreisler, Meg Van Dorn and her husband Rex purchase a boat, planning to leave their old life behind forever, but they soon discover that it is impossible to escape the past and all its complexities.

Lost in the Forest by Sue Miller (2005)
For Eva, the divorced and happily remarried mother of three children, and her adolescent middle child, Daisy, the death of Eva's second husband John in a car accident turns their lives upside down.

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.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Domestic Violets

Domestic Violets
Matthew Norman
Harper Perennial, 2011

Tom Violet, the son of a famous and successful writer, has struggled his whole life. Not only does he want to be a better husband and father than his own father was, he has writing aspirations himself but lacks the confidence to do anything about it. Instead, he works for a soulless corporate entity producing meaningless press releases designed to help other companies improve in a vague nonproductive way. Tom has a wife who works in academia, a five-year-old daughter, and a neurotic dog. He is also suffering from a midlife crisis of sorts. His assistant is young and attractive and idolizes his every move, and Tom suspects it would take very little for him to do something he would very much regret later. An extramarital affair would be so much like something his father would do – and he is not someone Tom wants to emulate. At all. Especially now that the famous writer has shown up on his doorstep, suitcase in hand. Wife Number 4 has discovered his latest dalliance and threw him out of the house. Tom really doesn’t want that to happen to him. What a cliché his father has become, especially now that just want the Pulitzer Prize.

While Tom resents his father, Tom really would like to be like him, too – at least the famous writer part. He has been working feverishly on his own novel, late at night and has shown it to his junior copywriter assistant, who naturally gushes on and on about it. He has also shown it to his wife, who takes it with her on her out of state conference, promising not to call until she has finished reading it. Meanwhile, Tom’s daughter shares with Tom that Mommy has a special friend she meets at the gym. Tom is immediately suspicious and discovers that his wife’s conference is for two people only, and this other guy is one of the people. While he’s trying to figure out how to deal with his wife’s possible infidelity, his stepfather calls to say that Tom’s mother has left him, and could Tom please try to talk her into coming back home? Oh, and the president of the company that Tom works for has offered him a promotion with a big raise, and Tom now has to decide whether he wants to be a soulless corporate hack permanently, or at least until he does something stupid at work and gets himself fired like he has fantasized about every day since he started working there.

Some may call this novel a dark comedy, but I think it’s just real life, albeit real life portrayed in a very humorous way. Tom has real problems, to be sure, but he just can’t help thinking funny things while he’s contemplating all the ways his life has gone wrong. Sometimes it’s just fun to read about other people’s situations and not worry about your own for a while, and if you can laugh along the way, all the better.


This is the author’s first novel.

Other titles you may enjoy:

Captives by Todd Hasak-Lowy (2008)
Disaffected and angry screenwriter Daniel Bloom finds that his revenge fantasy about a nameless assassin who is taking down evil corporate executives and politicians is becoming all too real.

Rude Behavior by Dan Jenkins (1998) Billy Clyde Puckett--"good ol' boy," former star halfback, and broadcaster--hits on a scheme to secure a new NFL franchise team.

Grub by Elise Blackwell (2007)
A novel of literary New York follows the lives of a cast of characters including editors, writers, and their friends over a five year period.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Bird House

The Bird House
Kelly Simmons
Washington Square Press, 2011

Ann Biddle is 70 years old and a widow who has started to forget things. It may be little things, like the location of her purse or a lunch date with a friend, but despite her best efforts, she can’t forget things that happened forty years ago. Her grandchild, Ellie, has a school assignment about her family history that renews Ann’s relationship with her only grandchild, her son, and his wife, Tinsley. Tinsley is overprotective of Ellie, perhaps more so because she knows that Ann’s daughter died many years ago when she was only four years old. Ann has always blamed herself for her death.

Prompted by Ellie’s questions about the past, Ann is forced to relive some of the life-changing events that occurred when she was a young mother: a breast cancer diagnosis and treatment; a school reunion that reconnected her with an old boyfriend; and her struggle to deal with a difficult child. When she told Ellie about the cancer recurring, Tinsley objected to the disclosure and started limiting their visits. Meanwhile Ellie has been sharing her observations about Tinsley’s special friendship with another man, and Ann decides to use that knowledge as leverage to see her granddaughter. Then Ann’s old boyfriend reconnects after many years, and she struggles with the idea of pursuing a relationship with him now that she has been alone for so long.

Although the cover of this book may cause readers to assume it is a heartwarming story of an elderly woman and her family, it is anything but. Ann is a mean and manipulative woman who threatens her daughter-in-law in order to get what she wants – a relationship with her granddaughter. And yet, after learning about her past sorrows and hardships, perhaps we can understand how she came to be this way. Her husband was not the most sympathetic of men; her daughter who died obviously had some emotional issues; and her approaching dementia could explain some of her personality changes. I found this book to be deceptively complex, thought-provoking and disturbing to read. At first I was sympathetic to Ann’s problems, but the more I got into the story the more I suspected that Ann’s issues probably stemmed from her own unhappiness with her marriage and role as a stay-at-home mother. It was hard to like Ann, but I still admired her courage and daring in order to finally get what she wanted while she still had the mental and physical abilities to enjoy them.


Other novels by this author:
Standing Still (2008)

Other titles you may enjoy:

The Little House by Philippa Gregory (1996)
Giving up her job as a reporter for a mediocre radio station, Ruth Cleary becomes pregnant and moves to Bath, only to become lonely and depressed and find that her mother-in-law is beginning to control and manipulate her life.

Winter Garden by Kristin Hannah (2010)
Reunited when their beloved father falls ill, sisters Meredith and Nina find themselves under the shadow of their disapproving mother, whose painful history is hidden behind her rendition of a Russian fairy tale told to the sisters in childhood.

Life’s a Beach by Claire Cook (2007)
Dreaming of becoming an artist while living above her parents' garage, forty-one-year-old Ginger pursues a relationship with a commitment-phobic man and babysits her sister's kids while overseeing her eccentric family's descent into dysfunctional chaos.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Art of Fielding

The Art of Fielding
Chad Harbach
Little, Brown, 2011

When Henry Skrimshander is recruited by Mike Schwartz to play baseball at Westish College, no one, least of all Mike, would fully appreciate or understand how much one person could change the lives of five other people, including Mike himself. Henry is a shortstop of phenomenal ability, but he is a social misfit who understands his own failings and is refreshingly modest about his talent. Mike is his mentor and his coach, but Henry’s bible for all things in baseball as well as life is a book called The Art of Fielding. The Art of Fielding is more than a book about baseball; Henry finds that its wise philosophy addresses most problems off the field as well as on it.

Unfortunately, Henry’s book has little to offer him when a routine throw goes off course and wounds Henry’s roommate, causing Henry to have a confidence crisis of epic proportions. The college team is in the middle of a championship season, and major team scouts have been nosing around at the games. Rumor has it that they are interested in Henry, but his bad throw has him spooked and his performance is not good. Meanwhile, Henry’s roommate’s injury has been the catalyst that allows the college president to finally act on his infatuation that he has been indulging himself with for the past several months. The president’s estranged daughter, Pella, shows up unexpectedly during these events with the news that she is divorcing her husband; then she and Mike find themselves in a complicated on again-off again relationship that confuses them both.

If this sounds complicated, it is, but in a thoroughly delightful way. You know a book is totally captivating when you think about it constantly; you pine for it when you aren’t reading it; and you totally wish you could just climb into the world the author has created and actually live the story along with the characters. I wanted to put my arm around Henry and be there for him as he suffered through his estrangement from Mike and his team; I wanted to tell President Affenlight that he was behaving in a self-destructive manner that would only hurt those he loved; I wanted Mike and Pella to be open and honest with each other and fall in love. I wanted the Westish College world to be my world – but I had to be happy with my all too brief time as an observer of these fragile, brave and loveable people.


This is the author’s first novel.

Other titles you may enjoy:

The Chosen by Chaim Potok (1967)
A baseball game between Jewish schools is the catalyst that starts a bitter rivalry between two boys and their fathers.

Battle Creek by Scott Lasser (1999)
A man who has spent his adult life juggling the roles of coach to an amateur baseball team, father to his estranged son, and caretaker to his own disapproving father, finds his life coming apart at the seams when, during one single season, his pitcher loses his arm, his son drifts further away, and he learns his father is dying of cancer.

A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989)
Owen Meany hits a foul ball while playing baseball in the summer of 1953 that kills his best friend's mother, an accident that Owen is sure is the result of divine intervention.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Forgotten Waltz

The Forgotten Waltz
Anne Enright
Norton, 2011

Gina is 32 years old and married to a sweet if slightly clueless husband. No doubt she is bored with her life when she meets the older and also married Sean at a party, or maybe she is just caught unaware in the immediate attraction she feels for him. Through a series of events she carefully orchestrates, she and Sean have an affair that eventually causes both their marriages to fail, even though by the end of the novel, Sean is just separated from his wife and hasn’t fully committed himself either way. Evie is Sean’s preadolescent daughter who figures prominently in the story – both because of the strange relationship she and her father have as well as her basic oddness that distances herself from others, especially Gina.

The setting is contemporary Ireland. Gina tells the story of her affair during a rare snowstorm during which she is stuck at home, which is now the former house of her mother. Because of the dire economic situation, the house hasn’t sold, but during most of the affair, the money flowed freely and may have caused some of Sean’s reluctance to leave his wife since he could have lost much of his net worth. Now that things have spiraled downward, however, he seems more willing to talk about their future, which, of course, must include Evie. This quiet, contemplative book moves back and forth through time quite a bit, much like a person’s thoughts as they reminisce about the past. The writing is memorable; it has a lyrical and melancholy style that is absolutely beautiful..

I wish I could have warmed up more to this novel. I had trouble identifying with Gina or caring very much about the circumstances of her affair. I admired the writing style and found myself rereading several sentences just to enjoy them a second time, but this did not redeem the novel for me. The child was portrayed so strangely that I kept expecting her to do something sinister to sabotage the lovers, but nothing ever really happened. As usual, all the reviewers absolutely loved this novel, but I was mostly lukewarm about it.


Other novels by this author:
What Are You Like (2000)
The Gathering (2006)

Other titles you may enjoy:

A Small Hotel by Robert Olen Butler (2011)
A tale set in reverse chronicles the failing marriage of New Orleans residents Michael and Kelly Hayes, who, on the day their divorce becomes final, revisit their shared history to evaluate the insecurities and inabilities that have driven them apart.

The Sea by John Banville (2005)
Following the death of his wife, Max Morden retreats to the seaside town of his childhood summers, where his own life becomes inextricably entwined with the members of the vacationing Grace family.
The Love of My Youth by Mary Gordon (2011)

The Love of My Youth by Mary Gordon (2011)
Having not seen each other for more than 40 years, Miranda and Adam unexpectedly reunite in Rome--where they once spent a summer deeply in love--and agree to spend the Italian afternoons taking walks together, experiencing the city, bringing each other up to date--and reviewing the betrayal that drove them.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Cat’s Table

Michael Ondaatje
Knopf, 2011


In the early 1950s, an eleven-year-old boy in Colombo boards a ship bound for England. At mealtimes he is seated at the "cat's table"--as far from the Captain's Table as can be--with a ragtag group of "insignificant" adults and two other boys, Cassius and Ramadhin. As the ship makes its way across the Indian Ocean, through the Suez Canal, into the Mediterranean, the boys tumble from one adventure to another, bursting all over the place like freed mercury. But there are other diversions as well: one man talks with them about jazz and women, another opens the door to the world of literature. The narrator's elusive, beautiful cousin Emily becomes his confidante, allowing him to see himself "with a distant eye" for the first time, and to feel the first stirring of desire. Another Cat's Table denizen, the shadowy Miss Lasqueti, is perhaps more than what she seems. And very late every night, the boys spy on a shackled prisoner, his crime and his fate a galvanizing mystery that will haunt them forever. As the narrative moves between the decks and holds of the ship and the boy's adult years, it tells a spellbinding story--by turns poignant and electrifying--about the magical, often forbidden, discoveries of childhood and a lifelong journey that begins unexpectedly with a spectacular sea voyage.

All I can say is: BORING!

Okay, I lied. I can say more than that, but nothing good. I enjoyed the first bit, where the three boys are aboard the boat and their adventures. Things started getting boring about the time that the book moved back and forth in time and the narrator became more reflective about his past and his friends and his wife and well, you get the idea. There is a lot of description, which really slowed the action down --when there was action, which became less and less as the book went on. And on.

As usual, all the book reviews LOVE a book that I can’t even finish. There must be something wrong with me.


Other novels by this author:
The English Patient (1992)
Anal’s Ghost (2000)

Other titles you might enjoy:

The Life of Pi by Yann Martel (2002)
Possessing encyclopedia-like intelligence, unusual zookeeper's son Pi Patel sets sail for America, but when the ship sinks, he escapes on a life boat and is lost at sea with a dwindling number of animals until only he and a hungry Bengal tiger remain.

Rites of Passage by William Golding (1980)
Edmund Talbot recounts his voyage from England to the Antipodes, and the humiliating confrontation between the stern Captain Anderson and the nervous parson, James Colley, which leads to the latter's death.

The Reivers by William Faulkner (1962)
Boon Hogganbeck persuades Lucius Priest, 11, to borrow his grandfather's car in 1905, and after they arrive at a bordello, the black Ned McCaslin trades the car for a horse.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

What Alice Forgot

What Alice Forgot
Liane Moriarty
Amy Einhorn Books, 2011

When Alice falls off her exercise bike during a spinning class, her return to consciousness is missing one thing: the last ten years of her life. She tells the paramedics she is 29 and pregnant and is astonished when her husband is rude to her on the phone. Imagine her shock when her sister, who is acting oddly, (why does everyone keep looking at her strangely?) tells Alice that she and Nick are separated and fighting for custody of their three children. THREE children, she thinks? How on earth did she even raise one baby, let alone three? And what happened to the relationship she shared with Elizabeth, who used to be her closest friend and ally? But the thing she just can’t get over is the problem with her marriage. Nick is the best thing that ever happened to her; she is madly in love with him and can’t even bear the thought of not being married. She doesn’t know what happened (does it involve this Gina that everyone keeps asking her about?) but she knows if she just can talk to him, everything will be fine.

As Alice relearns her 39-year-old self, she discovers that she has mastered several new skills in the past ten years: purchase and apply expensive make-up; remodel and lavishly decorate the old house she and Nick bought ten years ago; lead a large volunteer corps; exercise religiously; and that she has a new boyfriend. She also has become very thin, apparently by not eating anything of substance. She has to be introduced to her children, who quickly take advantage of her lack of knowledge and experience by telling her that they normally stay up all hours watching television and eating junk food. Nick, meanwhile, is not quite as receptive to her old charms as she thought, but he’s warming a little to the idea of a new Alice. Meanwhile, at some point in the past she somehow started to organized a giant event that everyone keeps pestering her about – the world’s biggest lemon meringue pie – and she has no idea what to do and isn't sure she really cares all that much anyway.

While at first glance you may think this novel is light and frivolous, it is anything but. Alice has turned into quite a hardened and bitter woman at age 39 – and a person that the 29-year-old Alice really doesn’t care for much. Neither does anyone else, apparently. In fact, the reader will quite like the “new” Alice and hope that she never regains her memory if it means her and Nick won’t get back together. And yet, she has lost so much of her past that she really misses, like the birth of her three children and all that was involved in their growing up. And what happened with this Gina, who must have once been her best friend. How could she not even remember her?

I was entranced with this book. I couldn’t stop reading it. I had to know what happened to Alice and Nick in the past to destroy their marriage, whether they would get back together, what happened with Gina, her relationship with the three children, and Elizabeth (I can’t forget Elizabeth!). Written with humor and sensitivity, this novel succeeds on every level and is thoroughly satisfying.


Other novels by this author:
Three Wishes (2004)
The Last Anniversary (2005)

Other titles you may enjoy:
Remember Me by Sophie Kinsella (2008)
Awakening in the hospital after a car crash believing that she is a single, twenty-five-year-old sales associate, Lexi discovers that she has lost three years in her life and she is married to a handsome millionaire, but her perfect new life soon begins to go awry.

Waking Up in Dixie by Haywood Smith (2010)
Trapped in a loveless marriage thirty years after escaping her unpromising small hometown, Elizabeth is shocked when her greedy husband is profoundly transformed by a stroke that compels him to correct his ways by blackmailing their community's bad guys.

Noah’s Compass by Anne Tyler (2009)
Preparing to retire early from an unfulfilling teaching job, Liam Pennywell struggles to recall missing memories of the night before he awoke in the hospital with a head injury, an effort that leads to unexpected discoveries.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Salvage the Bones

Salvage the Bones
Jesmyn Ward
Bloomsbury, 2011

The Batiste family lives in a rural area in Mississippi. The children, four boys and a girl, live with their father. The main character, a fourteen year-old girl named Esch (Esch?) is pregnant. Their mother died soon after the birth of the youngest child, Junior, now eight. The three older children look after each other and Junior, but all are neglected, usually hungry, and alone except for a few friends who usually end up having sex with Esch. As Hurricane Katrina approaches the coast, the father is preparing the house by boarding the windows and fixing the truck in hopes of making money during the clean-up, while Skeet tries to help his dog’s puppies survive their new harsh world, much like the Batiste children are. Meanwhile, Esch worries how to tell the baby’s father and her own that she is pregnant.

I had problems with this novel, one of which is Medea mythology story that Esch reads and identifies with. I just didn’t get it. It felt to me like the author wanted to create a deeper character in Esch – one who had higher aspirations in life that she was probably going to have, being as how she’s pregnant at age 14. I also had some distaste for the dog in the story – which Esch also seemed to identify with in some ways since she had her puppies to care for, much like Esch would have a baby to care for. So I felt like I was being hit over the head with symbolism and “meaning,” but in reality, this book was just depressing. And sad. I think the part that saved it from a 1 or 2 cupcake rating is the love that the siblings felt and eventually showed one another.

Sometimes I think that some authors are just a little too “literary for” my tastes.


Other novels by this author:
Where the Line Bleeds (2008)

Other titles you may enjoy:

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.

Fay by Larry Brown (2000)
This is the saga of 17-year-old Fay Jones, who leaves her family's squalid home with three dollars to hitchhike to Biloxi, Mississippi. Along the way she is befriended by a variety of people whose lives she affects in unpredictable ways, finally becoming the catalyst in a chain reaction of desire and violence.

Sap Rising by Christine Lincoln (2001)
Set against the backdrop of the rural American South, this story captures the lives of a group of struggling young African Americans whose dreams are tempered by their difficult circumstances.