Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Flying Troutmans by Miriam Toews

Flap copy from hardcover:
"Some families appear destined for catastrophe: meet the Troutmans. Hattie's boyfriend has just dumped her, her sister Min is back in the psych ward, and Min's kids, Logan and Thebes, are not talking and talking way too much, respectively.

Then there's the past, in which Min tried to kill Hattie once, and to kill herself a lot, in which Min threw the kids' father out of the house, in which Hattie dropped out of school, in which Logan and his friends kidnapped a friend and in which Thebes frequently impersonated their troubled mom in order to cut class.

So, when Hattie returns to take care of her niece and nephew, she's rapidly freaked out by the realization that the responsibility is in fact far greater than she'd expected- cute as it may be, for example, that Logan is infatuated with acerbic New York Times Magazine interviewer Deborah Solomon, and charming as Thebes' hip-hop vernacular is, she's in danger of becoming their surrogate parent. She decides to take the kids in the family van (think Little Miss Sunshine) to go find their father, last heard to be running an idiosyncratic art gallery in South Dakota.

What ensues is a remarkable journey across the United States, as aunt and kids - through chaos as diverse as their personalities - discover one another to be both far crazier and far more normal than any of them thought."

This book was by turns funny and moving and tragic. The quirky character traits the children exhibit definitely spark a smile, but it is a sad smile as you realize why they were forced to develop these defense mechanisms. None of the adults in the books act actually like adults (most of the time) which is truly unfair to these children. Hattie is certainly not prepared to act as a parent; in their own way, Thebes and Logan are the most grown-up characters in the story.

I thought that Min's mental illness was handled with sensitivity and accuracy, especially as it impacted the lives of those around her. I was also impressed with Hattie's character development as the novel progressed. This novel doesn't present any answers to the questions raised in the narrative- it is just a story of a family trying to cope the best way they can. Impressive and enjoyable read.

The Crying Tree by Naseem Rakha

Flap copy from ARC:
"Irene and Nate Stanley are living a quiet and contented life with their two children, Bliss and Shep, on their family farm in southern Illinois when Nate suddenly announces he’s been offered a job as a deputy sheriff in Oregon. Irene fights her husband. She doesn’t want to uproot her family and has deep misgivings about the move. Nevertheless, the family leaves, and they’re just settling into their life in Oregon’s high desert when the unthinkable happens. Fifteen-year-old Shep is shot and killed during an apparent robbery in their home. The murderer, a young mechanic with a history of assault, robbery, and drug-related offenses, is caught and sentenced to death.

Shep’s murder sends the Stanley family into a tailspin, with each member attempting to cope with the tragedy in his or her own way. Irene’s approach is to live, week after week, waiting for Daniel Robbin’s execution and the justice she feels she and her family deserve. Those weeks turn into months and then years. Ultimately, faced with a growing sense that Robbin’s death won’t stop her pain, Irene takes the extraordinary and clandestine step of reaching out to her son’s killer. The two forge an unlikely connection that remains a secret from her family and friends.

Then Irene receives the notice that she had craved for so long – Daniel Robbin has stopped his appeals and will be executed within a month. This announcement shakes the very core of the Stanley family. Irene, it turns out, isn’t the only one with a shocking secret. As the execution date nears, the Stanleys must face difficult truths and find a way to come to terms with the past."

This was without a doubt the most powerful book I read this year. This deeply moving family drama pulled me in from the first page- I just couldn't put it down. To me, this wasn't really a book about the death penalty but rather about family and love and the nature of forgiveness and of justice. Irene's journey through pain and suffering to a place of comfort was remarkable, and I don't mind admiting that this book reduced me to tears more than once. The ending was a surprise to me, one that only increased my respect for this author. This incredible novel is definitely a dark and yet wonderfully redemptive story; a highly recommended must-read!

Beat the Reaper by Josh Bazell

Flap copy from paperback:
"Dr. Peter Brown is an intern at Manhattan's worst hospital. He has a talent for medicine, a shift from hell, and a past he'd prefer to keep hidden. Pietro Brwna is a hit man for the mob, with a genius for violence, a well-earned fear of sharks, and an overly close relationship with the Federal Witness Protection Program. Nicolas LoBrutto is Dr. Brown's new patient, with three months to live and a very strange idea: that Peter Brown and Pietro Brwna might- just might- be the same person...

As goons, G-men, and death itself descend on the hospital, Dr. Brown must so whatever it takes to save his patients, himself, and his last shot at redemption. He just has to get through the next eight hours- and somehow beat the Reaper."

This book is a fast-paced, often terrifying ride, a literary marriage of House and the Sopranos. The main character is crude, frightening and cold-hearted, and yet he is one of the more appealing characters in the book! As the true story of his past unfolds, Peter/Pietro becomes a deeper, less stererotypical character (though no less terrifying). The dark humor and the sheer force and energy of the writing make this an excellent debut novel, though the language and the medicine are not for the faint-hearted! 4.5 stars.

Songs for the Missing by Stewart O'Nan

Flap copy from paperback:
"It was the summer of her Chevette, of J.P., and letting her hair grow. It is also the summer when, without warning, college-bound Kim Larsen disappears from her quiet Lake Erie town. As time passes and local search parties give way to wider television appearances, private investigations unearth dirty secrets, those closest to Kim struggle to maintain hope and, finally, as the news cameras turn away, to hang onto both her and themselves."

This is a powerful novel about any parent's worst nightmare- the sudden dissapearance of a child. O'Nan focuses on the effect that disappearance has on the people left behind- the anxious parents, the bewildered sister, the guilt-ridden friends. As the police investigation and search stall, the Larsen family graducally faces the possibility that they might never find an answer to what happened to Kim on that summer afternoon. The story is both poignant and terrifying- a truly excellent read. Highly recommended!

True Colors by Kristin Hannah

Book descrption:
"The Grey sisters have always been close. After their mother’s death, the girls banded together, becoming best friends. Their stern, disapproving father cares less about his children than about his reputation. To Henry Grey, appearances are everything, and years later, he still demands that his daughters reflect his standing in the community.

Winona, the oldest, needs her father’s approval most of all. An overweight bookworm who never felt at home on the sprawling horse ranch that has been in her family for three generations, she knows that she doesn’t have the qualities her father values. But as the best lawyer in town, she’s determined to someday find a way to prove her worth to him.

Aurora, the middle sister, is the family peacemaker. She brokers every dispute and tries to keep them all happy, even as she hides her own secret pain.

Vivi Ann is the undisputed star of the family. A stunningly beautiful dreamer with a heart as big as the ocean in front of her house, she is adored by all who know her. Everything comes easily for Vivi Ann, until a stranger comes to town. . . .

In a matter of moments, everything will change. The Grey sisters will be pitted against one another in ways that none could have imagined. Loyalties will be tested and secrets revealed, and a terrible, shocking crime will shatter both their family and their beloved town."

This enjoyable novel started out strong, but became too unbelieveable and melodramatic toward the end for my taste. Hannah does a good job of fully developing her characters and explaining their motivations, but I just couldn't understand why they all continued to interact with one another as the story developed- no family ties are that strong! I felt Aurora was definitely the middle child- she appeared to function more as a foil to her sisters than as a character in her own right. Winona had really no redeeming qualities that I could find, and her actions up until the very end of the novel were all reprehensible; I simply could not find it in me to empatize with her. The book is definitely a good read, but is not Hannah's best effort as it veered toward soap-opera territory at times.

What the Dead Know by Laura Lippman

Flap copy from paperback:
"Thirty years ago, the Bethany girls, ages eleven and fifteen, disappeared from a Baltimore shopping mall. They never returned, their bodies were never recovered, and only painful questions remain. Now, in the aftermath of a rush-hour hit-and-run accident, a clearly disoriented woman is claiming to be Heather, the younger Bethany sister. Not a shred of evidence supports her story, and every lead she reluctantly offers takes the police to another dead end—a dying, incoherent man; a razed house; a missing grave. But she definitely knows something about that terrible day—and about the shocking fissures that the tragedy exposed in the foundation of a seemingly solid family."

This excellent novel about two missing girls kept me guessing all the way to the powerful and riveting conclusion. Lippman is a wonderful writer, and I found myself unable to put this book down until I read it all the way through. The tragic tale of two girls who disappeared one afternoon and the effect that disappearance had on the lives of those around them is wrapped up the gradual unraveling of the truth behind that afternoon, and the many shadings of guilt that surround Heather and Bethany's disappearance. Despite bouncing between perspectives and time, this novel never loses momentum; Lippman keeps the tension building as the story rockets toward the truth. Highly recommended.

The Last Will of Moira Leahy by Therese Walsh

Book description:
"This haunting debut novel explores the intense bond of sisterhood as a grieving twin searches for her own identity in the ruins of her sister's past.

Moira Leahy struggled growing up in her prodigious twin's shadow; Maeve was always more talented, more daring, more fun. In the autumn of the girls' sixteenth year, a secret love tempted Moira, allowing her to have her own taste of adventure, but it also damaged the intimate, intuitive relationship she'd always shared with her sister. Though Moira's adolescent struggles came to a tragic end nearly a decade ago, her brief flirtation with independence will haunt her sister for years to come.

When Maeve Leahy lost her twin, she left home and buried her fun-loving spirit to become a workaholic professor of languages at a small college in upstate New York. She lives a solitary life now, controlling what she can and ignoring the rest–the recurring nightmares, hallucinations about a child with red hair, the unquiet sounds in her mind, her reflection in the mirror. It doesn't help that her mother avoids her, her best friend questions her sanity, and her not-quite boyfriend has left the country. But at least her life is ordered. Exactly how she wants it.

Until one night at an auction when Maeve wins a keris,a Javanese dagger that reminds her of her lost youth and happier days playing pirates with Moira in their father's boat. Days later, a book on weaponry is nailed to her office door, followed by the arrival of anonymous notes, including one that invites her to Rome to learn more about the blade and its legendary properties. Opening her heart and mind to possibility, Maeve accepts the invitation and, with it, also opens a window into her past.

Ultimately, she will revisit the tragic November night that shaped her and Moira's destinies–and learn that nothing can be taken at face value–as one sister emerges whole and the other's score is finally settled."

This moving story of twin sisters Moira and Maeve and the ties that bind them together is an excellent debut novel. The story blends seamlessly Maeve's present-day quest to learn more about an antique knife that drew her at a local auction with her memories of sharing a colorful Maine childhood with her twin sister Moira. As Maeve unravels the mystery of the keris so does the reader unravel the truth of what happened between Moira and Maeve, a mystery so devastating it led Maeve to try to suppress every hint of her former self. The quality of the prose and the underlying feeling of the book itself reminded me of The Thirteenth Tale: A Novel. The mystical elements are subtle and add a unique ethereal feeling to this well-written and wonderful book- highly recommended!

One Amazing Thing by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Book description:
"Late afternoon sun sneaks through the windows of a passport and visa office in an unnamed American city. Most customers and even most office workers have come and gone, but nine people remain. A punky teenager with an unexpected gift. An upper-class Caucasian couple whose relationship is disintegrating. A young Muslim-American man struggling with the fallout of 9/11. A graduate student haunted by a question about love. An African-American ex-soldier searching for redemption. A Chinese grandmother with a secret past. And two visa office workers on the verge of an adulterous affair.

When an earthquake rips through the afternoon lull, trapping these nine characters together, their focus first jolts to their collective struggle to survive. There's little food. The office begins to flood. Then, at a moment when the psychological and emotional stress seems nearly too much for them to bear, the young graduate student suggests that each tell a personal tale, "one amazing thing" from their lives, which they have never told anyone before."

This well-written and well-imagined book offers readers a diverse collection of stories that help explain exactly how nine different individuals found themselves in the visa office of the Indian Consulate during an earthquake. The characters were certainly a group of unique individuals, but each could have been further fleshed-out to create a more satisfying experience for the reader. I would have appreciate more interaction and evidence of charcter growth in the present-day circumstances, rather than just the backstories presented in the narrative. I also wasn't too thrilled with the rather abrupt ending (nothing more on that to avoid any spoliers). All in all, an enjoyable read that left me feeling vaguely dissatisified because I feel it could have been so much more. 3.5 stars.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Saving Cee Cee Honeycutt by Beth Hoffman

Book description:
"Twelve-year-old CeeCee Honeycutt is in trouble. For years, she has been the caretaker of her psychotic mother, Camille-the tiara-toting, lipstick-smeared laughingstock of an entire town-a woman trapped in her long-ago moment of glory as the 1951 Vidalia Onion Queen. But when Camille is hit by a truck and killed, CeeCee is left to fend for herself. To the rescue comes her previously unknown great-aunt, Tootie Caldwell.

In her vintage Packard convertible, Tootie whisks CeeCee away to Savannah's perfumed world of prosperity and Southern eccentricity, a world that seems to be run entirely by women. From the exotic Miz Thelma Rae Goodpepper, who bathes in her backyard bathtub and uses garden slugs as her secret weapons, to Tootie's all-knowing housekeeper, Oletta Jones, to Violene Hobbs, who entertains a local police officer in her canary-yellow peignoir, the women of Gaston Street keep CeeCee entertained and enthralled for an entire summer. "

In this heartwarming Southern tale, CeeCee Honeycutt searches for a safe-haven from her troubled life with an absentee father and mentally-ill mother. When CeeCee's mother is killed, her father sends her to live with her mother's Aunt Tootie in Savannah. There she finds love and acceptance even as she faces racism, violence, and a series of crazy neighbors.

Though the story is fairly predictable and cliches of Southern literature abound, this book is still an enjoyable read. CeeCee is a well-fleshed character, one whose reactions and dialogue ring true. Aunt Tootie and her cook Oletta are also well-written and help ground the story. Even though there is little narrative tension and everyone is ready to live happily-ever-after by the last page, there are some elements of the novel that hint at bigger and better offerings from Beth Hoffman in the future.

This book makes for a light and pleasant read; 3.5 stars.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Sweetheart of Prosper County by Jill Alexander

Book description:
"Almost-15-year-old Austin Gray is tired of standing at the curb and watching the parade pass her by. Literally. She decides this is the year she’ll ride on the hood of a shiny pickup truck in the annual parade, waving to the crowd and finally showing the town bully that she’s got what it takes to be the Sweetheart of Prosper County.

But far from simply being a beauty contest, becoming Sweetheart involves participation in the Future Farmers of America (FFA), raising an animal, and hunting or fishing. Austin will do almost anything to become Sweetheart, and has the support of her oldest friend, Maribel, her new FFA friends (including the reigning Sweetheart, and a quiet, cute cowboy), an evangelical Elvis impersonator, a mysterious Cajun outcast, and a rooster named Charles Dickens. If only her momma would stop overprotecting her, and start letting Austin live her own life. But Austin can’t move on until Momma moves on, too—and lets the grief of losing Austin’s daddy several years before out into the open."

I really enjoyed this sweet and heartwarming book story; Austin is a great character who definitely tugs at the reader's heartstrings. Her quest to find acceptance through her town's annual Christmas parade leads her on a journey of discovery that ultimately helps move her life forward in wonderful and unexpected ways. I thought the relationship between Austin and her mother was compelling, especially given the loss of her father in a freak accident years ago; Austin's attempts to become more popular help bring her mother through the final stages of the grieving process. The themes of friendship, bullying, and even first love are sensitively handled by Alexander. My only complaint is that the book felt a bit light; it was short and sweet but could have been further fleshed out to make a longer deeper book that would have revealed more about Austin to the reader. Great read; highly recommended.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Wrong Mother by Sophie Hannah

Flap copy from paperback:
"Sally Thorning is watching the news with her her husband when she hears a name she never thought she'd hear again: Mark Bretherick. It's a name she shouldn't recognize. Last year, a work trip Sally had planned was canceled at the last minute. Desperate for a break from juggling her job and a young family, Sally didn't tell her husband that the trip had fallen through. Instead, she treated herself to a secret vacation in a remote hotel. While she was there, Sally met a man- Mark Bretherick.

All the details are the same: where he lives, his job, his wife Geraldine and daughter Lucy. Except that the photograph on the news is of a man Sally has never seen before. And Geraldine and Lucy Bretherick are both dead..."

This dark thriller starts out with a bang, quite literally, and keeps ratcheting up the suspense until the shocking end. Sally Thorning's life takes a turn toward the surreal when she discovers the man with whom she shared a weeklong affair is not in fact the man she thought he was. As she attempts to unravel that mystery, police are investigating the apparent murder-suicide of that man's wife and daughter. As the book alternates between Sally's deteriorating situation and the police investigation, the suspense and questions build toward a stunning crescendo.

This book kept me guessing until the very end, and left me eerily staring over my shoulder on the street. The story is quietly dark and I was impressed by the thrills the author achieved in this psychological drama. The writing was tight and the voice never faltered though it was sometimes hard to understand Sally's actions in light of developing events. The Wrong Mother was my first exposure to Sophie Hannah- I'm delighted to discover she has other books I can add to my wishlist. Highly recommended psychological thriller.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Alice I Have Been by Melanie Benjamin

Book description:
"But oh my dear, I am tired of being Alice in Wonderland. Does it sound ungrateful?"

Alice Liddell Hargreaves’s life has been a richly woven tapestry: As a young woman, wife, mother, and widow, she’s experienced intense passion, great privilege, and greater tragedy. But as she nears her eighty-first birthday, she knows that, to the world around her, she is and will always be only “Alice.” Her life was permanently dog-eared at one fateful moment in her tenth year–the golden summer day she urged a grown-up friend to write down one of his fanciful stories.

That story, a wild tale of rabbits, queens, and a precocious young child, becomes a sensation the world over. Its author, a shy, stuttering Oxford professor, does more than immortalize Alice–he changes her life forever. But even he cannot stop time, as much as he might like to. And as Alice’s childhood slips away, a peacetime of glittering balls and royal romances gives way to the urgent tide of war.

For Alice, the stakes could not be higher, for she is the mother of three grown sons, soldiers all. Yet even as she stands to lose everything she treasures, one part of her will always be the determined, undaunted Alice of the story, who discovered that life beyond the rabbit hole was an astonishing journey."

From the moment I started this engaging novel, I was pulled into the story, unable to put the book down until I finished. This well-imagined look at the life of Alice Liddell, the "real" Alice in Wonderland. Though I loved Alice in Wonderland, I had never read anything about the author or the inspiration before- this book has sparked a desire to pick up some non-fiction books on these fascinating characters.

I thought the author did a wonderful job with the voice and tone of the narrator- adult Alice looking back on a life lived in the shadow of her childhood self was both poignant and a little heartbreaking. Faced with a cold, even austere, mother and a manipulative, self-involved sister, Alice was obviously the odd child out from her behavior and dreams to her short bobbed hair. I can easily imagine that it was that difference, that sense that Alice was an adult in a child's body, that attracted and fixed the attention of a young Charles Dodgson with such split results (wonderful for literature, terrible for Alice).

Though the true story of what happened between Charles Dogson and Alice Liddell will likely never be known, this excellent novel by Melanie Benjamin rings true in both its ambivalence and its presentation of the motivations of the main characters. By far one of my favorite reads of the year, Alice I Have Been would be a welcome addition to any reader's library. Highly recommended!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

After You by Julie Buxbaum

Book Description:
"On a cobblestone street in Notting Hill, Ellie Lerner's life-long best friend, Lucy, is stabbed to death in front of her eight-year-old daughter. Ellie, of course, drops everything - her job, her marriage, her life in the Boston suburbs - and travels to London to pick up the pieces of the life Lucy has left behind. While Lucy's husband, Greg copes with his grief by retreating to the pub, eight-year-old Sophie has simply stopped speaking.

Desperate to help Sophie, Ellie turns to a book that gave her comfort as a child, The Secret Garden. As the two spend hours exploring the novel, its story of hurt, magic and healing blooms around them. But so, too, do the secrets Lucy kept hidden, even from her best friend. As Ellie peels back the layers of her friend's life, she's forced to confront her own as well - the marriage she left behind, the loss she'd hoped to escape, and the elusiveness of the place we choose to call home."

Though others have categorized this book as chick-lit, I think that underplays the emotional truths laid out in the narrative. When Ellie's friend Lucy is killed, Ellie knows she has to rush to London to help care for Sophie; what she doesn't seem to realize is how much her actions are driven by a desire to escape the life she is currently living. Ellie uses that classic tale The Secret Garden to reach out to Sophie because her mother used it years before to reach out to Ellie in a time of grief, or at least so Ellie believes. Over the course of the novel, Ellie comes to realize that Lucy's perfect life in London wasn't so perfect, and begins to address the problems in her own marriage that helped drive her out of the country.

This book is features a compelling narrative that does founder a little toward the middle before recovering, but the emotional truths that Ellie comes to learn more than make up for that brief section. Definitely an excellent read that I for one found hard to put down. Highly recommended.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Day the Falls Stood Still by Cathy Marie Buchanan

Book description:
"1915. The dawn of the hydroelectric power era in Niagara Falls. Seventeen-year-old Bess Heath has led a sheltered existence as the youngest daughter of the director of the Niagara Power Company. After graduation day at her boarding school, she is impatient to return to her picturesque family home near Niagara Falls. But when she arrives, nothing is as she left it. Her father has lost his job at the power company, her mother is reduced to taking in sewing from the society ladies she once entertained, and Isabel, her vivacious older sister, is a shadow of her former self. She has shut herself in her bedroom, barely eating—and harbouring a secret.

The night of her return Bess meets Tom Cole by chance on a trolley platform. She finds herself inexplicably drawn to him—against her family’s strong objections. He is not from their world. Rough-hewn and fearless, he lives off what the river provides and has an uncanny ability to predict the whims of the falls. His daring river rescues render him a local hero and cast him as a threat to the power companies that seek to harness the power of the falls for themselves. As their lives become more fully entwined, Bess is forced to make a painful choice between what she wants and what is best for her family and her future."

This historical novel focuses on a truly intriguing time in the history of Niagara Falls- one of the great wonders of the world. Well-written and well-imagined, this book is a love story with an environmental message, an unlikely combination that works nevertheless. The characters rise off the page and live, from poor doomed Isabelle to gutsy Bess and mysterious Tom. Once I started the book, I had a hard time putting it down because the story was carrying me along. I really enjoyed how Buchanan made the river and the falls themselves essential characters in the story; it is the contrast of petty human problems against that magnificent backdrop that makes this book so good. Four strong stars for this enjoyable read.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Boy Who Couldn't Sleep and Never Had To by DC Pierson

Book description:
"When Darren Bennett meets Eric Lederer, there's an instant connection. They share a love of drawing, the bottom rung on the cruel high school social ladder, and a pathological fear of girls. Soon they're collaborating on a comic book that becomes a series of graphic novels that becomes a movie trilogy before they've actually put pen to paper. Then Eric reveals a secret: He doesn't sleep. Ever. When word leaks out about Eric's condition, he and Darren suddenly find themselves on the run from mysterious forces. Is it the government trying to tap into Eric's mind, or is there something else Eric hasn't told Darren? It could be that not sleeping is only part of what he's capable of, and the truth is both better and worse than they could ever imagine."

This book was an unexpectedly quick and enjoyable read, one that should certainly appeal to its target audience. The story is a little all over the place, but it works nonetheless, and Pierson does a wonderful job capturing the inner voice of a teenager. There is enough foreshadowing in the introduction to hint at how the story will unfold, but the journey is still worth the effort. I was especially impressed by Pierson's willingness to explore the more negative aspects of Darren's behavior, aspects that helped make him a more believeable character. Though I found the sexual content and language realistic, some readers may find it more offensive. All in all, a great debut novel- I hope we see more from DC Pierson in the future.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Imposter's Daughter by Laurie Sandell

Flap copy from ARC:
"Laurie Sandell grew up in awe (and sometimes in terror) of her larger-than-life father, who told jaw-dropping tales of a privileged childhood in Buenos Aires, academic triumphs, heroism during Vietnam, friendships with Kissinger and the Pope. As a young woman, Laurie unconsciously mirrors her dad, trying on several outsized personalities (Tokyo stripper, lesbian seductress, Ambien addict). Later, she lucks into the perfect job--interviewing celebrities for a top women's magazine. Growing up with her extraordinary father has given Laurie a knack for relating to the stars. But while researching an article on her dad's life, she makes an astonishing discovery: he's not the man he says he is--not even close. Now, Laurie begins to puzzle together three decades of lies and the splintered person that resulted from them--herself."

This graphic novel was a truly wonderful read, full of insights and pathos. Sandell's willingness to lay bare her family secrets in an effort to better understand the reasons behind her sometimes self-destructive behavior is so raw and honest that I hurt for her. Her story is a touching one that outlines the challenges that those living with mental illness in the family must endure, and the terrible effect that an untreated condition can have on family members. I found myself enraged on Sandell's behalf when her mother and sisters acted as enablers, but came to realize they too were coping in the ways they thought best. Though this is my first graphic novel, its quality has convinced me it will not be my last. Highly recommended!

Friday, October 30, 2009

Everyone She Loved by Sheila Curran

Book description:
"Penelope Cameron, loving mother, devoted wife and generous philanthropist, has convinced her husband and four closest friends to sign an outlandish pact. If Penelope should die before her two daughters are eighteen, her husband will not remarry without the permission of Penelope's sister and three college roommates. For years, this contract gathers dust until the unthinkable happens. Suddenly, everyone she loved must find their way in a world without Penelope.

For Lucy Vargas, Penelope's best friend, and a second mother to her daughters, nothing seems more natural than to welcome them into a home that had once belonged to their family, a lovely, sprawling bed-and-breakfast on the beach. This bequest was only one of the many ways in which Penelope had supported Lucy's career as a painter, declaring her talent too important to squander. But now, in the wake of a disaster that only lovable, worrisome Penelope could have predicted, Lucy has put her work on hold as she and Penelope's husband, Joey, blindly grasp at anything that will keep the girls from sinking under the weight of their grief.

With the help of family and friends, the children slowly build new lives. But just when things start to come together, the fragile serenity they have gained is suddenly threatened from within, and the unbreakable bonds they share seem likely to dissolve after all."

I had expected to enjoy this book- the premise was interesting and I thought the book would be a fun read. Unfortunately, any fun was sucked out by the overly-complicated and ridiculous plot, and the completely unsympathetic cast of characters. At one point I thought the book might drift far enough into absurdity to become a farce, but it never quite hit the satirical note required to pump it up to that level. The only people in the book that evoked any emotional response other than irritation were the two poor daughters and their dog. Heck, even the evil British cousins were more enjoyable than the main characters; all they were missing was a maniacal laugh to make them the perfect soap-opera villans.

All in all, a disappointing read. 2 stars because of the kids and the way they were portrayed- though the adults around them behaved like idiots, their pain as they dealt with the loss of their mother was the most honest, meaningful, and successful part of this novel.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

William S. and the Great Escape by Zilpha Keatley Snyder

Flap copy from hardcover:
"William S. Baggett is a good kid trapped in a really awful family. William has his running-away money ready to go, he's just been waiting until he's older than twelve to leave. When his big brothers flush his sister's pet guinea pig down the toilet, she insists they leave now. And take the two littlest Baggetts with them. So they head out in the middle of the night, ready to escape to their aunt Fiona's house.

Unfortunately the trip doesn't go exactly as planned. It's not so easy traveling with two little kids, and some help from a lonely rich girl makes it even more complicated. Will they ever make it to Aunt Fiona's? And if they do, will she let them stay?"

William S. Baggett has no choice but to plan his escape- he is too small, too nice, and too talented to survive in the Baggett household. That said, his escape plans are a distant dream, brought sharply into focus by his sister's determination to escape (with their younger siblings) from an increasingly abusive situation. The tale of the preparation and the escape make for a great adventure-read for children.

This is a wonderful book with a great retro-feel; the Depression-era tale resonates with authenticity. The quirky storyline and interesting cast of characters kept this adult reader involved; I'm sure younger readers would be equally engrossed.

On the other hand, there are darker themes that are touched on here so parents should be ready to discuss the issues of child abuse, welfare fraud, bullying and violence as they arise. All in all an excellent read!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon

Book description:
"Longing to get on with his life, Miles Cheshire nevertheless can’t stop searching for his troubled twin brother, Hayden, who has been missing for ten years. Hayden has covered his tracks skillfully, moving stealthily from place to place, managing along the way to hold down various jobs and seem, to the people he meets, entirely normal. But some version of the truth is always concealed.

A few days after graduating from high school, Lucy Lattimore sneaks away from the small town of Pompey, Ohio, with her charismatic former history teacher. They arrive in Nebraska, in the middle of nowhere, at a long-deserted motel next to a dried-up reservoir, to figure out the next move on their path to a new life. But soon Lucy begins to feel quietly uneasy.

My whole life is a lie, thinks Ryan Schuyler, who has recently learned some shocking news. In response, he walks off the Northwestern University campus, hops on a bus, and breaks loose from his existence, which suddenly seems abstract and tenuous. Presumed dead, Ryan decides to remake himself–through unconventional and precarious means.

This novel is told as three interwoven stories whose connections only become clear toward the very end of the book. It is a tribute to Chaon's abilities as a writer that these stories do mesh so unexpectedly well and that the reader is carried along far enough to see the connections. This is a sparse and dismal tale of self-definition and identity that sparks questions about who any of us really are inside our own minds and to the people around us.

Miles is haunted by the twin who disappeared, but never completely, whose forceful and potentially false memories of their shared childhood continue to keep Miles separated from reality and questioning his own existence. Ryan is haunted by his memories of his own failures and what he sees as his betrayal by his parents; his active attempt to remove himself from the world has far-reaching consequences. Orphaned Lucy is haunted by the life she fears she'll never have, the choices she won't have the opportunity to make; though her decision to runaway is brought on by a desire to remake herself, she finds it more difficult than expected to abandon her own knowledge of who she truly is.

This masterful work was a surprisingly quick read and yet raised questions that are still floating unanswered in my mind. Highly recommended- this book will stay with you.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Weight of Silence by Heather Gudenkauf

Flap copy from paperback:
It happens quietly one August morning. As dawn’s shimmering light drenches the humid Iowa air, two families awaken to find their little girls have gone missing in the night.

Seven-year-old Calli Clark is sweet, gentle, a dreamer who suffers from selective mutism brought on by a tragedy that pulled her deep into silence as a toddler. Petra Gregory is Calli’s best friend, her soul mate and her voice. But neither Petra or Calli has been heard from since their disappearance was discovered.

Now these families are tied by the question of what happened to their children. And the answer is trapped in the silence of unspoken family secrets.

This novel was riveting- once I started it, I just couldn't put it down. As the story of the girls is revealed, the clues to their disappearance gradually reveal a very different story than I was expecting. I found it difficult to relate to some of the characters, especially Antonia, but regardless was pulled along by the power of the narrative. This is an excellent debut novel with an ultimately redemptive story that will stick with you long after you finish the book.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Promised World by Lisa Tucker

Flap copy from ARC:
On a March afternoon, while Lila Cole is working in her quiet office, her twin brother, Billym points an unloaded rifle out of a hotel window across from an elementary school, closing down a city block. 'Suicide by police' was obviously Billy's intended result, but the aftermath of his death brings shock after shock for Lila when she discovers her twin- the person she thought she was closert to than anyone in the world- was not only estranged from his wife, but also charged with endangering the life of his middle child and namesake, eight-year-old William.

This gripping tale of family secrets and shattered lives is both tragic and redemptive. When Billy commits suicide, his fraternal Lila is left shattered. Unable to understand Billy's actions or to piece together the fractured pieces of her childhood without his help, Lila starts to separate from her life trying to piece together what happened in his. Meanwhile Billy's wife Ashley and Lila's husband Patrick dance around the edges of the picture, reintroducing Lila's mother Barbara to the family with almost tragic results.

Tucker is a masterful storyteller and this heartbreaking novel stretches those skills to the limits. I found the story haunting, and am still thinking about the revealed truths weeks later. Though the ending drifted toward the unbelievable, it didn't cross over the edge which could have ruined this wonderful novel. This novel pushes at the definitions of truth and memory, and explores the blurry lines that sometimes mask the two.

Highly recommended- this wonderful novel with stay with you long after you have finished reading.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Secrets She Left Behind by Diane Chamberlain

Flap copy from paperback:
One afternoon, single mother Sara Weston says she's going to the store- and never returns. In her absence, she leaves her teenaged son alone with his damaged past and a legacy of secrets.

Keith Weston nearly lost is life in an act of arson. He survived- but with devastating physical and emotional scars. Without his mother, he has no one to help him heal, no money, nothing to live for but the medications that numb his pain. Isolated and angry, his hatred has one tight focus: his half-sister Maggie Lockwood.

Nineteen-year-old Maggie spent a year in prison for the acts that led up to the fire. Now she's back home. But her release cannot free her from the burden of guilt she carries. She grew up with Keith, played with him as a child...and recently learned they share the same father.

Now the person Keith despises most is the closest thing he has to family- until Sara returns. If Sara returns...

Let me start by saying that I really enjoyed this book; Chamberlain is an excellent storyteller. That said, there were a lot of points during the novel when I found myself feeling a little lost, and it wasn't until I was finished with the book that I realized the first half of the story was told in Before the Storm. As I hadn't read the first book, I definitely felt at a disadvantage during some of the action.

This book is an unflinching look at the consequences from our actions however big or small. It is also a story of forgiveness and redemption as almost every character has something to atone for, something to be forgiven. Keith is catapulted into adulthood by the fire which almost claimed his life and by the sudden disappearance of his mother Sara. His half-sister Maggie (who started the fire that almost killed him) is wrestling with a community unwilling to forget and her own unwillingness to forgive.

The structure of the story that bounces between diary entries that explain the complicated history these two families share and their present-day attempts to navigate through that history to find truthful answers. I did think the ending was a little contrived, and that ending, combined with the need to read Before the Storm first, dropped this from 5 stars to 4. All in all, a great read, especially I imagine if read as intended as a sequel.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

This One is Mine by Maria Semple

Flap copy from hardcover:
Violet Parry is not Anna Karenina. Witty, affectionate, and fearsomely resourceful when she wants to be, she's a modern woman who had traded a great job for a picture perfect Los Angeles life with her rock-and-roll manager husband David and their darling daughter. She can speak French, quote Sondheim, and whip up dinner from the vegetables in her garden. She has everything under control- except her own happiness. When David wakes one morning to find a dead gopher floating in the Jacuzzi, he expects Violet to take care of it- after all, she;s got nothing better to do. For Violet, the dead rodent become the symbol for everything wrong with her life. As she drives in the hills of Los Angeles, her sense of isolation grows with every curve. She has a chance encounter with Teddy Reyes, a roguish small-time bass player with a highly evolved sexuality. He shows an interest. That's all it takes. Heedless of consequences, Violet embarks upon her monomaniacal journey toward destruction.

Meanwhile, David's sister Sally, in great shape but pushing forty, is on a mission of her own to attain exactly the status and security which Violet is so quick to abandon. Nothing can stop her- as is discovered by the unfortunate bystanders in her path, and by Jeremy, the sportswriter-savant she's desperate to marry before he achieves the television celebrity she knows is his destiny.

Consumed with recklessness, Violet and Sally might be overlooking the possibility that David and Jeremy have some surprises of their own to deal out.

This well-written novel was surprisingly engaging, especially given that I didn't much like the characters when I started reading. As the story unfolded however, the motivations behind their actions became more clear, and I found myself reacting to them with much more empathy. Parts of the book were tragic while others were tragically funny; only in a book about Hollywood could entire plotline not seem a bit contrived.

Though I never fully understood Violet's attraction to Teddy, I could understand her frustration with her marriage and the life she found herself living. Sally initially appeared cold-hearted and calculating, but revelations about her health and the profound impact that had on her outlook on life gave her character unexpected depth. The revelation about her insurance, so life-altering to her and so unimportant to David, struck me as the most poignant moment in the book- I almost cried for Sally.

Semple has the voice and flavor of Hollywood life down pat, and this first novel tells a wonderful yet cautionary tale about the teeming depths beneath the surface lives of these characters. A strong 4 stars, I hope this novel is not the last we see from Semple.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

A Change in Altitude by Anita Shreve

Flap copy from ARC:
Twenty-eight year old Margaret travels to Kenya with her new husband, Patrick, with the intent of staying a year. In a dizzying multi-cultural city, she struggles to maintain her balance as her sense of self, her marriage, and her understanding of the world are shaken to the core.

Invited on a climbing expedition to Mt. Kenya, the newlyweds are caught up in a horrific accident. In its aftermath, Margaret must try to understand exactly what happened on that mountain and what it has done to her and to her marriage.

In this latest effort, Shreve sticks to her general formula- how one moment, one decision can forever change a life. Margaret and Patrick are a young newlyweds living in Africa when a tragic moment on a mountain climb with their landlords causes a rift from which their marriage may never recover. The book covers the year following the actions on the mountain, and traces the efforts Margaret makes to rediscover her life and her love.

The book was well-written, and the flavor of expat life in Africa came through beautifully, but I just found it impossible to connect to the characters. Margaret seemed to be drifting through life, never really making choices about the things that most impact her. Patrick was not sympathetically drawn- I for one could not figure out why Margaret married him and followed him to Kenya, let alone why she was interested in saving her marriage to him. Even at the end, I just didn't care one way or the other about how the story turned out which is never a good sign.

Perhaps this book wouldn't have been so disappointing if I hadn't recently finished the absolutely incredible Testimony where the characters so truly touched me that the story continues to resonate. In contrast, A Change in Altitude left me cold; not one of Shreve's best efforts.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Day of the Pelican by Katherine Paterson

Flap copy from ARC:
Meli could never have imagined the terrible news: the leader of the Kosovo Liberation Party and his entire family have been killed by Serbs, and all Albanians in Kosovo are in danger. Meli and her family must leave their store and home, taking very few of their possessions. The refugees, now including Uncle Fadil and his family, have their courage and resilience tested at every turn as they travel through the mountains and towns. At times they go without food and water; they was the dangerous roads at night and carry Granny in a wheelbarrow; they live in crowded tent cities.

This masterful tale of one girl's journey from childhood across a war-torn landscape easily stands with Paterson's body of work. Meli and her family are forced to flee their home- first to the mountains, then to a refugee camp in Macedonia, and finally to a small town in Vermont- in order to survive as Kosovo goes up in flames. Though the harsh realities of war are muted in the narrative, there are veiled references to rape, torture, and genocide that will be picked up by older readers. The strength of this story lies in its focus on what these larger world events mean to one girl already struggling to chart her path into adulthood. When Meli leaves Kosovo, she leaves her childhood behind as well.

I've lived in the region, and believe that Paterson captured the flavor of terror of the time. Not many books have been written that cover the genocides that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia; this wonderful tale will serve as an excellent entry into the time period for teen readers. Highly recommended!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Tory Widow by Christine Blevins

Flap copy from paperback:
On a bright May day in New York City, Anne Peabody receives an unexpected kiss from a stranger. Bringing news of the repeal of the Stamp Act, Jack Hampton, a member of the Sons of Liberty, abruptly sweeps Anne into his arms, kisses her —and then leaves her to her fate of an arranged marriage…

New York City 1775: Anne, now the Widow Merrick, is struggling to survive in a city on the brink of war. In a time when Loyalists are tarred and feathered, Anne continues her late husband’s business printing Tory propaganda, not because she believes in the cause, but because she needs the money to survive. When her shop is ransacked by the Sons of Liberty, Anne once again comes face to face with Jack Hampton, But he is no longer the optimistic youth she remembers. Despite her better judgement, Anne finds herself drawn to both the ardent patriot and his rebel cause.

As shots ring out at Lexington and war erupts, Anne is faced with a life-altering decision: sit back and watch her world torn apart, or stand and fight for both her country’s independence and her own.

I really wanted to like this book, and it certainly had its moments, but overall I just couldn't get into the story. The best parts were the insights into life in Colonial New York, but the aggravating characters, insipid dialogue, and implausible coincidences made finishing this book a chore. The author's occasional efforts at period speech were stiff and added nothing to this already struggling narrative. The book was way too long, and then ended by setting up the obvious sequel, a tactic I generally find irritating as it undermines any sense of completion in the work. In this case, I was so glad to get to the last page, I didn't even care that much about the foreshadowing, especially as I have no plans to read more about these characters.

All in all, the interactions between Jack and Anne read more like a teenaged romance than a serious work of historical fiction, and I couldn't see any real basis for their "relationship". I can see how this book would translate into a movie script because I suspect the big action scenes would play better on the screen than on the page. All in all, a disappointing read about an interesting period in U.S. history.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Unholy Business by Nina Burleigh

Flap copy from ARC:
"In 2002, an ancient limestone box called the James Ossuary was trumpeted on the world's front pages as the first material evidence of the existence of Jesus Christ. Today it is exhibit number one in a forgery trial involving millions of dollars worth of high-end, Biblical era relics, some of which literally re-wrote Near Eastern history and which could lead to the incarceration of some very wealthy men and embarrass major international institutions, including the British Museum and Sotheby's.

Set in Israel, with its 30,000 archaeological digs crammed with biblical-era artifacts, and full of colorful characters—scholars, evangelicals, detectives, and millionaire collectors—Unholy Business tells the incredibly story of what the Israeli authorities have called "the fraud of the century." It takes readers into the murky world of Holy Land relic dealing, from the back alleys of Jerusalem's Old City to New York's Fifth Avenue, and reveals biblical archaeology as it is pulled apart by religious believers on one side and scientists on the other."

Though Unholy Business has the potential to be a riveting read, it falls far short with its disjointed approach to storytelling. The author bounces back and forth through time and introduces a dizzying array of similarly named characters in the process. In the beginning, I found myself flipping back to previous chapters just to track the chain of events and people involved. The complicated story of this massive fraud often seemed to take a back seat to the author's opinion of the reasons behind the fraud which made for a much less compelling narrative.

I was disappointed that this book focused so much on personalities rather than on the facts of the case. I also thought the ending was abrupt and unsatisfying. A more scholarly approach to this interesting case would have made for a much more satisfying read.

Friday, September 4, 2009

The Maze Runner by James Dashner

Flap copy from ARC:
"When Thomas wakes up in the lift, the only thing he can remember is his first name. He has no recollection of his parents, his home, or how he got where he is. His memory is blank. But he’s not alone. When the lift’s doors open, Thomas finds himself surrounded by kids who welcome him to the Glade—a large, open expanse surrounded by stone walls.

Just like Thomas, the Gladers don’t know why or how they got to the Glade. All they know is that every morning, for as long as anyone can remember, the stone doors to the maze that surrounds them have opened. Every night, for just as long, they’ve closed tight. Every 30 days a new boy is delivered in the lift. And no one wants to be stuck in the maze after dark.

The Gladers were expecting Thomas' arrival. But the next day, a girl is sent up—the first girl to ever arrive in the Glade. And more surprising yet is the message she delivers. The Gladers have always been convinced that if they can solve the maze that surrounds the Glade, they might find their way home...wherever that may be. But it's looking more and more as if the maze is unsolvable.

And something about the girl's arrival is starting to make Thomas feel different. Something is telling him that he just might have some answers- if only he can find a way to retrieve the dark secrets locked within his own mind."

This was an excellent young adult book- just enough questions to peak the interest, just enough answers to keep you invested in the narrative. I thought Dashner did a wonderful job portraying Thomas' confusion as he seeks to make his way in a world without any true frame of reference. The descriptions of the maze and the terrors it contains are masterful- Dashner has invented a wonderful dystopian world populated by teen-aged boys trying unsuccessfully to make sense of it all.

I was very impressed by this novel right up until the very end. I know this is the first book of a trilogy, but I would have been happier had the book ended a few pages earlier with the narrative arc completed- the introduction of a whole new underlying story in the last pages of the novel was a turn off for me; I was planning to buy the sequel anyway, so I didn't need the sequel to start at the end of this book. I prefer books in a series to be capable of standing on their own in addition to as part of the series, and the foreshadowing at the end of this book defeats that objective.

Regardless, still a strong four star read (would have been five if the book had ended earlier) bound to appeal to both teen and adult readers. Dashner has an interesting vision and a strong narrative voice- I look forward to the sequel.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Spiced by Dalia Jurgensen

Flap copy from ARC:
"Spiced is Dalia Jurgensen's memoir of leaving her office job and pursuing her dream of becoming a chef. On her path to earning spots in world-class New York kitchens, she reveals in witty detail the dry cakes and burnt pots of her early internships, and the secrets to holding her own in male-dominated kitchens, and divulges what life in chef whites is reall like- from the sweet to the less-than-savory. Find out what happens in the kitchen when a restaurant critic is spotted in the dining room, how great food is made, what the staff eats at 'family meal', why cooks hate waiters, and what happens after the last customer leaves."

I really enjoyed this kitchen expose, mostly because it was so very well-written. As an avid Top Chef viewer, I love learning more about the ins and outs of the restaurant world (even when it does make eating out a scary proposition). Jurgensen does an excellent job outlining the almost accidental nature of her rise to success, and her insider knowledge makes for an extremely interesting read. I read this book just after finishing Waiter Rant which made for some fun comparisons between viewpoints (chef vs waiter). Definitely an enjoyable read for restaurant voyeurs like me, though true insiders are unlikely to find anything new and exciting here. 4 strong star- a great summer read!

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Private Papers of Eastern Jewel by Maureen Lindley

Flap copy from paperback:
"Peking 1914. When eight-year-old princess Eastern Jewel is caught spying on her father's liaison with a servant girl, she is banished from the palace, sent to live with a powerful family in Japan. Renamed Yoshiko Kawashima, she quickly falls in love with her adoptive country, where she earns a scandalous reputation, taking fencing lessons, smoking opium, and entertaining numerous lovers. Sent to Mongolia to become an obedient wife, Yoshiko mounts a daring escape and eventually finds her way back to Peking high society- this time with order from the Japanese secret police."

This book is a hard one to review as I suspect I would have reacted more favorably had it been billed as a straight novel rather than a work of historical fiction based on true events. I actually enjoy a well-imagined work of historical fiction, but this book relied too much on sexual exploits as the motivating factor for every plot twist to be even close to believable. Though it seems the true motivations for Eastern Jewel's actions remain clouded by history, it is hard to accept Lindley's version of events given the lack of any factual justifications.

Though I did enjoy the glimpses into court life in China and Japan in the early part of the 20th century, the characters all seem a bit more like caricatures of Western stereotypes. It is hard to accept this bleak picture of life in Asia from an author with few (if any) qualifications in the region. Despite all these weaknesses, the book was well-written and easy to read. Lidley paints vivid pictures with her words; the clothes and settings are well explained even if the characters are not.

I probably would have given this book four stars if it were billed as straight fiction, but presenting it as a possible version of history was too much of a stretch for me. It is a shame though because the real story of Eastern Jewel would probably make for an excellent book if anyone actually knew it...

Monday, August 24, 2009

Summer of Two Wishes by Julia London

Flap copy from paperback:
"Macy Lockhart's life shattered in a moment with the news that her husband, Finn- serving in the military overseas- has been killed in the line of duty. Their ardent and devoted marriage is over, leaving Macy along, empty, directionless. But while she tries to sustain herself with memories of Finn, the quiet, strong man who made her and their small Texas ranch the center of his life, it is wealthy Wyatt Clark who slowly brings joy back into her life. Her love for Wyatt may be less romantic than the breathless passion she's once shared with Finn, but she vows to cherish him, and their marriage is happy and as solid as a rock. Until the day that Finn, miraculously spared from death, returns home to claim his bride..."

First off, let me say that I think the flap copy is rather deceptive- this book begins with Finn's return so we never really see Macy dealing with his death or finding solace in Wyatt, so basically the flap copy is the back story which I found misleading. I had a hard time with this book because I thought London did an excellent job with some aspects of the story but couldn't really feel strongly for Macy herself who I found rather aggravating in her inability to assess what she herself wanted out of her life.

Macy married Finn and their conversations about their past relationship makes it clear that though it was passionate and loving, it was no equal partnership. Macy quits her job to help with the ranch despite her lack of true interest in leading that type of life, then gets stuck trying to keep it above ground when her husband joins the military over her objections and disappears in Afghanistan. When she is forced to sell Finn's horses and to give away his dogs, she faces opposition from Finn's overbearing mother who nonetheless seems to offer no concrete assistance of any kind.

Macy's relationship with Wyatt was equally problematic for me as it seemed to center on her need to be taken care of and his need to have a pretty wife who focused her life on his needs. Again she doesn't work, and they seemingly decide to try for a baby because Wyatt thinks it is time and Macy isn't doing anything else anyway. His actions in the actual narrative paint him as selfish, deceitful, and opportunistic- I'm not sure how any woman could fall in love with Wyatt let alone find it hard to leave him when her "true love" returns from the dead.

Given that I didn't like the main character and couldn't empathize with her dilemma (I think she would have been better off on her own), I obviously didn't much like the book. Nonetheless I was impressed with the way London treated some aspects of Macy's impossible situation. I think she did an excellent job portraying the challenges Macy faced when Finn left her behind to join the military and when she ultimately learned of Finn's death. I appreciated that Finn had to work his way through symptoms of PTSD when he returned, and that he was forced to grow a bit throughout the story.

My husband is an active duty Marine so I did connect with the underlying plot of the story, and with some of the choices and decision that Macy was forced to make. Ultimately though, I would have preferred a heroine who seemed more in control of her life and her decisions; Macy was too much like a ping-pong ball bouncing between Finn and Wyatt for me to enjoy.

Another Mother's Life by Rowan Coleman

Book description:
"For wealthy Alison James, moving with her family to her hometown of Farmington presents more than a case of relocation jitters. Fifteen years ago, she fled town, eloping with her best friend's boyfriend. Now, blessed with three children, but uneasy in her marriage, she wonders if that decision led her away from the life she was meant to lead.

Catherine Ashley, broke, the mother of two and almost divorced, can't help but wonder the same thing. Although she's content with her children, she finds herself returning again and again to those few weeks fifteen years ago when she fell deeply in love, only to be betrayed by her most trusted friend.

Now, once more living in the same town, Alison and Catherine are about to find out just how different their lives could still be. But this time around they are adults, and while their own happiness is at stake, so is their children's."

When Alison and Catherine were 17, their friendship was torn apart by Marc, who wooed Catherine only to elope with Alison. 15 years later, Alison and Marc move back to the scene of their crimes to discover Catherine now separated from Jimmy, Alison's teenage crush. As their children become friends, Alison and Catherine each face the question of whether or not they are living the another mother's life.

As with Coleman's other book, The Accidental Mother, Another Mother's Life skirts the lmore serious edge of chick-lit. At the beginning of the book, it is difficult to like any of the characters, but as the story unfolds and the reasons for some of their foibles are revealed, they all (except maybe Marc) become more understandable and more human. I was content with the ending, and felt Coleman remained true to her characters rather than imposing the deus-ex-machine happily ever after that dooms so much of the genre.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Testimony by Anita Shreve

Flap copy from paperback:
"Enter a world upended by the repercussions of a single impulsive action. At an exclusive New England boarding school, a sex scandal unleashes a storm of shame and recrimination. The men, women, and teenagers affected- among them the headmaster, struggling to contain the scandal before it destroys the school; a well-liked scholarship student and star basketball player, grappling with the consequences of his mistakes; his mother, confronting her own forbidden temptations; and a troubled teenage girl eager to put the past behind her- speak out to relate the events of one fateful night and its aftermath."

This was a wonderful, tragic, and unforgettable book about actions and consequences, about sinning and redemption, about life and death, about guilt and blame. At first I found the shifting perpectives a little difficult, but once I sank into the story, I ceased to even notice. It is hard to talk about the plot without spoiling the narrative- the central element for each person's story is one bad decision that ties into the bad decisions of others eventually escalating into a terrible act. Even though it became clear fairly quickly where the story was moving, I was still gripped by the hope that I was wrong. As events unfolded as I knew they must, I couldn't stop myself from crying even though I knew the whole time exactly where we were going to end. Shreve is a gifted writer, and this is an excellent book that will stick with you long after you have finished reading. 5 strong stars- highly recommended!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Trouble by Kate Christensen

Flap copy from ARC:
"Josie is a Manhattan psychotherapist living a comfortable life with her husband and daughter- until she is struck with the sudden realization that she must leave her passionless marriage. At the same time, her college friend Raquel, a Los Angeles rock star, is being pillories in the press for sleeping with a much younger man who happens to have a pregnant girlfriend. The two friends escape to Mexico City for a Christmas holiday of retreat and rediscovery of their essential selves."

I'm confess, for the first few pages, I didn't know if I would be able to sink into this novel, but I persevered and was amply rewarded for my efforts. This forthright look at three professionally sucessful middle age women re-assessing their life choices made for a wonderful and fairly quick read once I was fully engaged. Though I didn't much like Josie in the opening pages of the book, her character and motivations became more understandable as the story unfolded and I found myself warming to her. As for lost soul Raquel, I found her much more sympathetic than I had imagined I would, and truly enjoyed her role in the Mexico City portion of the story.

All in all, a well-written and well-imagined look at the nature of relationships between women, and the consequences of the choices we make as we progress through life. 4.5 stars.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Damas, Dramas and Ana Ruiz by Belinda Acosta

Book description:
All Ana Ruiz wanted was to have a traditional quinceaƱera for her daughter, Carmen. She wanted a nice way to mark this milestone year in her daughter's life. But Carmen was not interested in celebrating. Hurt and bitter over her father Esteban's departure, she blamed Ana for destroying their happy family, as did everyone else. A good man is hard to find, especially at your age Ana was told. Why not forgive his one indiscretion? Despite everything, Ana didn't want to tarnish Carmen's childlike devotion to her beloved father. But Ana knows that growing up sometimes means facing hard truths. In the end, Ana discovers that if she's going to teach Carmen anything about what it means to be a woman, it will take more than simply a fancy party to do it...

Despite some excellent insights into the psyches of her characters, this book never really took off for me. As a person who took French in high school and college, I found the frequent use of Spanish (and sometimes Spanglish) distracting at best and irritating at worst as it kept wrecking the flow of the narrative for me. I did think the author captured some of the underlying emotions quite well (the teen-aged hostility of Carmen, the quiet uncertainty of older brother Diego, the truly tormented reality of cousin Bianca), in the end I just didn't find myself emotionally invested in the two main characters (Ana and Carmen). Ana's abortive crush on a visiting artist at her university made little sense to me in the context of her ongoing emotional feelings for husband despite his infidelity.

In the end, I think there was just too much going on in this novel for any of the myriad plot-lines to be satifactorily explored. I also found myself quite put off by the onmicient third-person narration that dropped previews of the future into the story as if to constantly re-assure the reader that everything will be OK. This was a decent read, but there are better books out there that explore mother-daughter relationships in a deeper, more meaningful way.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Idea of Love by Louise Dean

Flap copy from ARC:
"Richard’s life is unraveling: his beautiful wife, Valerie, is having an affair, his son Maxence may (or may not) be mentally disturbed, and the idyllic life he’d hoped for when they moved to Provence has become more nightmare than paradise. Suddenly, a routine trip to East Africa to sell pharmaceuticals is more than he can handle and his life starts to implode as he realizes that the idea of a life full of that love he has cherished is a mere illusion.

Next door, their neighbour, Rachel makes a trip to West Africa which leaves her questioning her ideals and her faith. Now Rachel, and her husband Jeff, as well as Richard and Valerie, are left groping for the things that once defined them.

Their excursions to Africa will lead them into their own private heart of darkness, and will bring shock waves home to their little Eden, unsettling the very idea of love."

I chose this book based on the flap copy description which led me to believe it was a book about Africa and the impact the continent had on the lives of two expats. In reality, this is a book about a group of self-involved expats who make fleeting visits to Africa which may or may not lead to some manner of existential crisis. Unfortunately, the story isn't really a story, it is a series of vignettes focused on individual characters, none of who really spoke to me or created any feelings of interest or sympathy.

The book is well-written, and some of the characters are well-drawn, but ultiamtely, I was left wondering exactly what I was supposed to take away from this reading experience. I do feel the flap copy was misleading- if the book description had more accurately reflected the actual contents, I might not be left feel so disastisfied by this novel.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Ravens by George Dawes Green

Flap copy from hardcover:
"The Boatwrights just won 318 million dollars in the GeorgiaState lottery. It's going to be the worst day of their lives.

When Shaw McBride and Romeo Zderko pull up at a convenience store off I-95 in Georgia, their only thought is to fix a leaky tire and be on their way again to Florida-away from their dull Ohio tech-support jobs. But this happens to be the store from which a 318,000,000 million dollar Jackpot ticket has just been sold -- and when a pretty clerk accidentally reveals to Shaw the identity of the winning family, he hatches a ferociously audacious scheme: He and Romeo will squeeze the family for half their prize.

That night, he visits the Boatwright home and takes the family hostage, while Romeo patrols the streets nearby, prepared to murder the Boatwrights' loved ones at any sign of resistance. At first, the family offers none. But Shaw's plot depends on maintaining constant fear-merciless, unfaltering terror-and soon, under the pressure, everyone's sanity begins to unravel.."

This book was an unexpected pleasure. After reading the blurb, I thought this would be a suspense filled thriller, likely to end in a bloody mess at the end like so many thriller/horror movies. I started reading with some trepidation, but was immediately sucked into the story. Well, maybe not into the story because there really isn't a lot of plot or story here, but into the work itself.

This book is a wonderful set of character studies loosely tied to the whole kidnapping/terror plot. There are jewels here, tightly written snippets of conversation and memory that reveal volumes about the personalities involved in just a few well-chosen words. Romeo especially offers a wealth of pain, confusion, and love wrapped up in the persona of a tough guy who is much more a lost boy. I definitely preferred Romeo to Shaw as a character, and found his to be a more believable back story and personality.

Given that I sat down meaning to read just a few pages and ended up pushing through to the end, this book obviously succeeds in engaging the reader. I would have given it five stars if I had been able to better understand the power that Shaw seemed to exert over people. The whole cult that sprang up around Shaw was a little too unrealistic for my taste, but otherwise I was quite impressed by the character sketches delivered in Ravens. Highly recommended 4.5 stars.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

I Can See You by Karen Rose

Flap copy from hardcover:
"Eve Wilson's face was once scarred by a vicious assault. Terrified and ashamed, she escaped to the online realm, where she could choose the face she allowed people to see. Years later, her outer scars faded and inner scars buried, Eve has fought her way back to the real world and is determined to help others do the same. Now a graduate student moonlighting as a bartender, Eve researches the addictive powers of online communities. When her test subjects begin turning up dead as a result of apparent suicides, she doesn't know where to turn.

Homicide detective Noah Webster is one of the few people who believe the victims are connected murders. Eve becomes Noah's online guide and realizes that the handsome detective may have secret scars as painful as her own. As Eve and Noah chase a killer who is always one step ahead of them, together they try to overcome the tragedies of their pasts and learn to trust again, but they soon discover that danger is much closer than they think."

Wow- this latest offering from Karen Rose was an excellent romantic thriller, one that kept me involved and guessing until the very end. Reading this book, I was reminded of vintage Iris Johansen- fully drawn characters, exciting romance coupled with great action, and suspense that builds throughout the story. Eve and Noah were enjoyable and relatable characters surrounded by a supporting cast of inter-related friends and family that should provide for a nice ongoing series of connected books. Highly recommended- 5 stars.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Chocolate Lover's Club by Carole Matthews

Flap copy from paperback:
"Some women are addicted to shopping; others can't get enough of champagne. But there's one thing that Lucy Lombard can't live without, and that's chocolate - rich, creamy, delicious chocolate. Sharing her passion are three other addicts: Autumn, Nadia and Chantal. Together they form a select group known as the Chocolate Lovers' Club. Whenever there's a crisis, they meet in their sanctuary, a cafe called Chocolate Heaven, and with a cheating boyfriend, a flirtatious boss, a gambling husband, and a loveless marriage, there's always plenty to discuss ... The Chocolate Lovers' Club brings together four unforgettable women from totally different worlds united in their passion for chocolate."

This book sounded like the perfect light read for my vacation- a tight group of friends bonding over exotic chocolates and tales of woe should be an automatic chick-lit home run. Unfortunately, this book was more a swing and a miss to me because the main protagonist Lucy was clearly more caricature than character.

I would like to believe that no self-respecting young woman would truly be so proud of her ability to stick with a serial cheater of a boyfriend. I would like to believe no self-respecting young woman would be so proud of her absolute inability to perform any of the basic functions of her employment. I would like to believe no self-respecting young woman wants to read and sympathize with so vapid and annoying a main character.

It was a real shame to me that Lucy was so stereotypical and idiotic a character, because the problems faced by the other women in the book rang true and could have elevated this book above the fray if they hadn't been constantly undermined by clumsy babbling irritating Lucy.

A disappointing 2.5 stars.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Castaways by Elin Hilderbrand

Flap description from hardcover:
"On the timy island of Nantucket, everybody's business is everyone's business. When the charming, talented music teacher Greg MacAvoy shares a rainy Sunday night with the beautiful high school senior April Peck, rumors swarm the island like tourists on Memorial Day. The stories strain Greg's marriage, and his wife Tess is torn between her love for her husband and a secret of her own. With their anniversary approaching, the MacAvoys head out on their sailboat to celebrate, hoping the roughest waters are behind them.

But instead comes heartbreaking news: Greg and Tess have mysteriously drowned, leaving behind two small children. Their closest friends- the Kapenashes, Drakes, and Wheelers- are devastated. For as long as anyone can remember, the four couples have vacationed and celebrated together, confided in and depended on one another. But tragedy brings long simmering conflicts and emotions to the surface. The six friends, upended by grief and denial, set out to answer the question: What happened to Greg and Tess MacAvoy?

This was an excellent offering by a talented author, one that explored the tough issues of love and loss and redemption through the eyes of a disparate cast of characters. Though we never meet Greg and Tess MacAvoy, they loom large over the narrative as their characters are revealed in snippets of memories. Each of the six main characters in The Castaways have a different vision of Tess and Greg, and only by combining all those different versions do their true personalities unfold.

Well-written and deftly rendered, this story of adult relationships between friends, families, spouses and exes reflects the complicated reality of today's world. I was most impressed by the pacing of the various revelations and quality of the ending. I found the novel engaging and difficult to put down once I started. This is a must-read for the summer season. Highly recommended- 5 strong stars!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Moonlight in Odessa by Janet Skeslien Charles

Flap copy from ARC:
"Odessa, Ukraine, is the humor capital of the former Soviet Union, but in an upside-down world where waiters earn more than doctors and Odessans depend on the Mafia for basics like phone service and medical supplies, no one is laughing. After months of job hunting, Daria, a young engineer, finds a plum position at a foreign firm as a secretary. But every plum has a pit. In this case, it’s Mr. Harmon, who makes it clear that sleeping with him is job one. Daria evades Harmon’s advances by recruiting her neighbor, the slippery Olga, to be his mistress. But soon Olga sets her sights on Daria’s job.

Daria begins to moonlight as an interpreter at Soviet Unions(TM), a matchmaking agency that organizes “socials” where lonely American men can meet desperate Odessan women. Her grandmother wants Daria to leave Ukraine for good and pushes her to marry one of the men she meets, but Daria already has feelings for a local. She must choose between her world and America, between Vlad, a sexy, irresponsible mobster, and Tristan, a teacher nearly twice her age. Daria chooses security and America. Only it’s not exactly what she thought it would be..."

I really wanted to like this book which has such an interesting premise and started out strong. Daria is a great character, and I felt truly invested in her struggles and her life in Odessa. The descriptions of trying to work in the post-Soviet era Ukraine are hysterical. The entire mail-order bride business is both amusing and tragic, and is very well depicted in this novel.

Unfortunately, once Daria makes a choice about how she wants to live her life, my interest in the book rapidly waned. Daria immediately lost all of the vivacity and humor that made her such an interesting character, and without a strong character interestd to drive it, the narrative petered out. I feel like this was two different novels- one a lighthearted chick-lit offering with set in Odessa, the other a darker look at the questionable world of international mail order brides. Either book as a stand-alone tale would have been an enjoyable read, but the combination here weakened the impact of story.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Lucky Girl by Mei-Ling Hopgood

Flap Copy from hardcover:
"Mei-Ling Hopgood was an all-American girl. She grew up in the midwest, was a high school pom-pom girl, studies journalism at the University of Missouri, and become a reporter for a Michigan newspaper. She wasn't really curous about her Asian roots, though she new she was adopted. Then one day, when she was in her twenties, her birth family from Taiwan came calling- on the phone, on the computer, by fax- in a language she didn't understand. The Wangs wanted to meet her; they wanted her to return home.

As her sisters and parents pulled her into their lives, claiming her as one of their own, Mei-Ling fell in love with them. But this unexpected reunion has a price. She uncovers the devastating secrets that haunt them to this day as she attempts to understand the hard choices of her birth mother."

This well-written and sometimes painfully honest memoir was an excellent read that I highly recommend. I was touched by Mei-Ling's situation growing up as part of a blended family, trying to create an identity independent of her ehtnicity. When she is confronted with the opportunity to learn more about her birth family, I was impressed by her original attitude and yet concerned that it might all go terribly wrong. The story of that meeting and the relationship Mei-Ling eventually forges with her sisters is extraordinary given the language barriers and the sad tale of her actual adoption.

I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who has adopted or been adopted from overseas, or anyone who is thinking about an international adoption. Though I have no personal experience with adoption, I thoroughly enjoyed this memoir and believe it has a wide appeal.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Knight of Desire by Margaret Mallory

Flap description from ARC:
"His surcoat still bloody from battle, William FitzAlan comes to claim the strategic borderlands granted to him by the king. One last prize awaits him at the castle gates: the lovely Lady Catherine Rayburn.

Catherine risked everything to spy for the crown. Her reward? Her lands are declared forfeit and she is given this choice: marry FitzAlan or be taken to the Tower. Catherine agrees to give her handsome new husband her body, but she's keeping secrets and dares not give him her heart.

As passion ignites and danger closes in, Catherine and William must learn to trust in each other to save their marriage, their land, and their very lives."

This well-written debut novel was a joy to read, and introduces a wonderful new voice to the historical genre. William and Catherine share an interesting, though convoluted, connection and their interactions are the solid base that carries the rest of the plot. I enjoyed the pacing and the love story, though felt some of the more interesting elements of William and Catherine's backstories called for greater exposition, as did the important betrayal the served as such a central plot device.

All in all, a great read especially for a debut novel. I definitely look forward to future offerings from this new author. Highly recommended!