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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.