Wednesday, February 25, 2009

All That I Have by Castle Freeman Jr.

Flap Copy:
"Wing is an experienced, practical man who enforces the law in his corner of Vermont with a steady hand and a generous tolerance. Things are not as they should be, however, in the sheriff’s small, protected domain. The outside world draws near, and threats multiply: the arrival in the district of a band of exotic, major league criminals; an ambitious and aggressive deputy; the self-destructive exploits of a local bad boy; Wing’s discovery of a domestic crisis. The sheriff’s response to these diverse challenges calls on all the personal resources he has cultivated during his working life: patience, tact, and (especially) humor. "

For such a short book, this novel is densely packed with imagery and pathos. Told from the perspective of local sheriff Lucian Wing, this tale of small town crime with big city implications is a deft character study. I was reminded of No Country for Old Men, but this tale was less dark (though no less gripping) and used wry humor to soften the building tension. As Wing unravels the crime, local troublemaker Sean makes waves in both the community, Wing's marriage, and in the case itself. The ending is superb, the writing crisp, and the characters deep- highly recommended with a definite 5 star rating.

Monday, February 23, 2009

A Fortunate Age by Joanna Smith Rakoff

Flap copy from ARC:
"Rakoff's first novel details the lives of a group of Oberlin graduates whose ambitions and friendships threaten to unravel as they chase their dreams, shed their youth, and build their lives in Brooklyn during the late 1990s and the turn of the twenty-first century.

There's Lil, a would-be scholar whose marriage to an egotistical writer initially brings the group back together (and ultimately drives it apart); Beth, who struggles to let go of her old beau Dave, a onetime piano prodigy trapped by his own insecurity; Emily, an actor perpetually on the verge of success- and starvation- and grappling with her jealousy of Tal, whose acting career has taken off. At the center of their orbit is wry, charismatic Sadie Peregrine, who cooly observes her friends' mistakes but can't quite manage to avoid making her own. As they begin their careers, marry, and have children, they must navigate the shifting dynamics of their friendships and of the world around them."

I got this book through the Barnes and Noble Book Club and really thought I was going to enjoy it. I'm the right age and education level to blend right in with these characters, and yet I felt not one ounce of connection to any of them. The book was long and frequently tedious, and characters veered off on major life diversions with never a hint of the underlying motivations.

I was extremely disappointed with this novel and didn't feel the narrative spoke to me at all. These characters seemed to revel in immaturity, and the endless posing was exhausting to read. I felt like every character was a negative stereotype of one age or another, and they therefore never rang true to me. I had a really hard time with this book; the more I read, the less I liked it and the less connection I felt to the characters. I believe that Lil's wedding should have marked the transition to maturity, but none of these characters ever seem to actually mature. This is my generation, and I would hate to think that any of my friends resembled these folks...

I definitely found the characters mired in perpetual adolescence, and apparently unable to recognize that fact. Getting married and having babies doesn't make you an adult, and I feel these characters were all hiding their immaturity behind the trappings of adulthood. The ending was rushed despite my belief that the book is way too long. My constant feeling while reading was that we were missing too much- too many decisions and actions without any explanations. I think that helped contribute to my feelings of separation from the characters. I couldn't even summon up any sympathy for Lil when she died, and can't see how these people can be considered a group of "friends" given how they act toward one another.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Error World: An Affair with Stamps by Simon Garfield

Flap Copy from ARC:
From the Penny Red to the Blue Mauritius, generations of collectors have been drawn to the mystique of rare stamps. Once a widespread pastimes of schoolboys, philately has increasingly become the province of older men obsessed with the shrewd investment, the once-in-a-lifetime find, the one elusive beauty that will complete a collection and satisfy an unquenchable thirst.

As a boy, Simon Garfield was fixated on errors- rare pigment misprints that created ghostly absences in certain stamps. When this passion reignited in his mid-forties, it consumed him. In the span of a couple of years he amassed a collection of errors worth upwards of forty thousand pounds, at the same time pursuing not only this secret passion, but a romantic one as his marriage disintegrated."

I was excited to read this book, figuring either it would be a great memoir, or a great book about stamps, but this book was neither. Though I did enjoy reading about young Simon's growing love for stamps, I would have like the personal element of the story to be introduced much much earlier. After a promising tidbit about the role of stamps in ending his marriage, Garfield then reverted to long reflections on stamps; his wife and his adult relationships are never even factored into the story.

Perhaps a more knowledgable reader will enjoy the detailed discussions of specific stamps, but for me, the appeal of this book was supposed to be the personal connection, an element I found lacking. Though Garfield is an excellent writer, I just didn't feel a connection to the story or to his obsession with stamps and other collections.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Kitty and the Midnight Hour by Carrie Vaughn

Flap copy from book:
"Kitty Norville is a midnight-shift DJ for a Denver Radio Station- and a werewolf in the closet. Sick of lame song requests, she accidentally starts 'The Midnight Hour', a late-night advice show for the supernaturally disadvantaged.

After desperate vampires, werewolves, and witches across the country begin calling in to share their woes, her new show is a raging success. But it's Kitty who can use some help. With one sexy werewolf-hunter and a few homicidal undead on her tail, Kitty may have bitten off more than she can chew..."

I don't usually read vampire or werewolf books, but this series was recommended and so I gave it a shot- boy am I glad I did! This book is at heart a murder mystery with a protagonist who just happens to be a werewolf. The irony of it all is that Kitty is much more human than many of those around her, and it is her human side that makes her radio program so popular. Though there are a few spots where the werewolf humor is a bit forced, overall this is a wonderful introduction to a series that only gets better with each book. Highly recommended even for those who normally don't read this genre.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Lost City of Z by David Grann

Flap copy from ARC:
"After stumbling upon a hidden trove of diaries, acclaimed New Yorker writer David Grann set out to solve "the greatest exploration mystery of the twentieth century:" What happened to the British explorer Percy Fawcett and his quest for the Lost City of Z?

In 1925 Fawcett ventured into the Amazon to find an ancient civilization, hoping to make one of the most important discoveries in history. For centuries Europeans believed the world’s largest jungle concealed the glittering kingdom of El Dorado. Thousands had died looking for it, leaving many scientists convinced that the Amazon was truly inimical to humankind. But Fawcett, whose daring expeditions helped inspire Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, had spent years building his scientific case. Captivating the imagination of millions around the globe, Fawcett embarked with his twenty-one-year-old son, determined to prove that this ancient civilization--which he dubbed 'Z'--existed. Then he and his expedition vanished.

Fawcett’s fate--and the tantalizing clues he left behind about 'Z'--became an obsession for hundreds who followed him into the uncharted wilderness. For decades scientists and adventurers have searched for evidence of Fawcett’s party and the lost City of Z. Countless have perished, been captured by tribes, or gone mad. As David Grann delved ever deeper into the mystery surrounding Fawcett’s quest, and the greater mystery of what lies within the Amazon, he found himself, like the generations who preceded him, being irresistibly drawn into the jungle’s green hell."

This is a truly excellent book that tells the parallel stories of two explorers- one looking for El Dorado, the other looking for the truth. From the very first page, Grann pulls the reader into the story; it is easy to see how he became obsessed with the story of missing explorer Percy Fawcett and why it risked everything to try to find the truth about Fawcett's disappearance. This book is a real-life Indiana Jones story which kept this reader on the edge of her chair.

The writing is crisp and engaging as Grann presents the history of Fawcett's life and legacy. I found myself unable to put the book down, hoping that reading just one more page would shed some light on the enduring mystery. This book is a must read for anyone interested in the Amazon or in the history of exploration. 5 stars and highly recommended.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Sima's Undergarments for Women by Ilana Stanger-Ross

Flap copy from ARC:
"There are some life-long quests that all women have in common- meaningful work, true love, and a bra that doesn't leave red marks on your skin...In the comfort of her Brooklyn basement bra shop, Sima Goldner teaches other women to appreciate their bodies, but feels betrayed by her own. Shamed by her infertility and a secret from her youth, she has given up on happiness and surrendered to a bitter marriage. But then Timna, a young Israeli with enviable cleavage, becomes the shop seamstress. As the two serve the colorful customers of the orthodox Jewish neighborhood, Sima finds herself awakened to adventure and romance. Years after giving up on their marriage, Sima and her husband Lev must decide if what they have is worth having."

This book goes so much further than the blurb above captures, though it is hard to say too much about that without spoilers. In the very beginning, it was hard to connect with Sima, but the narrative quickly reveals the depths of her pain and her tragedy. I though this would be a novel about friendship, but it isn't really- it is a story about love and loss and small decisions that have lasting consequences.

Stanger-Ross has created a moving tale of one woman's battle with infertility, and as Sima's story unfolds, my heart ached for her. This is sad book, a picture of how easy it is to withdraw from life and love, and how hard it is to ever make your way back. I highly recommend this book; four strong stars.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Rock Bottom by Michael Shilling

Flap copy from cover:
"Once upon a time, Blood Orphans were the next big thing. They has a fat recording contract, the swagger of the gods, and cheekbones that could cut glass. They were the darlings of the LA music scene. They were locked and loaded for rock-and-roll greatness.

And then everything...went...wrong. The singer became a born-again Buddhist who preached from the stage. The bass player's raging eczema turned his hands into a pulpy mess. The drummer, a sex addict tormented by the misdeeds of his pron-king father, was losing his grip on reality. And the guitar player- the only talented one- was a doormat cowed by the constant abuse of his bandmates.

Set in Amsterdam on the last day of Blood Orphans' final tour, this novel tells the raucous story of a band- and their heroically cokes out female manager- trying to get in one last shot at fame's elusive bull's-eye."

This was an intriguing read about the last day of glory of a failed rock band. I was drawn into the story of these few desperate boys trying to hold onto their fleeting moments of fame and fortune. Shilling is a good writer with a strong grasp of the voice of his characters; although he used a lot of obscenities, they never came across as gratuitous because it was so clearly the appropriate language for Blood Orphans.

It was interesting to note that the band was on the verge of imploding from its first tortured gigs; reading this book made me think of the many "VH1 Behind the Music" specials I've seen over the years. The only quibble I had involved the revelations about Darlo and his father- I believe Shilling could have gotten another entire book out of that plotline so it seemed a bit rushed at the end.

All in all, an enjoyable read- dark humor, bleak yet occasionally uplifting, certainly an excellent selection for anyone who has been involved in the music scene. 3.5 stars.

Age Before Beauty by Virginia Smith

Flap copy:
"Allie Harrod is ready for a new career. She doesn't want to go back to full-time work and risk missing her baby's first smile. But she does want to contrinute to the family income, and a home-based business seems like the perfect solution. Sure, she dropped out of Girl Scouts because she was lousy at cookie sales, but selling makeup is different, right?

Still, the challenges Allie faces seem to be rising as fast as her credit card balance. None of her clothes fit, her mother-in-law is driving her batty, and her husband only leaves the couch to go help his beautiful- and single- coworker with her home repairs. What's a working girl to do?"

This book was a quick read, certainly an enjoyable way to spend a quiet winter evening. The characters, from harried Allie to quiet Betty to slightly scary Sally Jo, live and I found myself genuinely interested in their lives as the story unfolded. Smith is a good writer who ably crafts an enjoyable and yet realistic picture of a new mom struggling to reconcile her pre-baby and post-baby plans.

Although the flap copy makes this book sound like your average chick-lit book, readers should be aware that there is a Christian thread interwoven through the storyline. Though I assume readers familiar with the author will not be surprised by this plot element, I was unaware when I entered to win this book on Goodreads, and I do think it is an important distinction that should be raised somewhere in the flap copy.

I'm torn on a rating because this really isn't a book I would normally choose to read because of the religious undertones. Given that, I found that portion of the storyline (which only gains prominance in the last third of the book) distracted me from my appreciation of the book. Discounting my feelings about that aspect of the book though, I would give this one 4 stars for the quality of the prose and the strength of the characterizations. If you are a reader who appreciates a Christian element to your fiction, you should definitely put this book on your must-read list.

Monday, February 2, 2009

The Girl She Used to Be by David Cristofano

Flap copy from ARC:
"When Melody Grace McCarthy was six years old, she and her parents witnessed an act of violence so brutal that it changes their lives forever. The federal government lured them into the Witness Protection Program with the promise of safety, and they went gratefully. But the program took Melody's name, her home, her innocence, and ultimately, her family. She's been May Adams, Karen Smith, Anne Johnson, and countless others- everyone but the one person she longs to be: herself.

So when the feds spirit her off to begin yet another new life in another new town, she's stunned when a man confronts her and calls her by her real name. Jonathan Bovaro, the Mafioso sent to hunt her down, knows her- the real her- and it's a dangerous thrill that Melody can't resist. He insists that she's just a pawn in the government's war against the Bovaro family. But can she trust her life and her identity to this vicious stranger whose acts of violence are legendary?"

This well-written book traces one woman's attempt to carve out an identity from the tattered remains of a life. Alone, and constantly on the run, Melody has no true connections to anyone other than the agent who has run her case since she was six years old. When he retires, and a new agent takes over, Melody's attempt to resolve questions about her life and her presence in the program take on new dimensions when she is confronted with a killer who knows her name. As she finds herself drawn to the son of the man who ordered her death, she still tries desperately to find some semblance of a normal life.

As the book progresses, it becomes clear that Melody's many questions about her life and possibly her death will never be truly answered by anyone. I did find the romantic relationship between Melody and Jonathan hard to believe, though Cristofano did do a good job building up psyche that might allow her to have feelings for her would-be-assassin.

The ending was fabulous- I found myself reluctant to turn the pages, afraid at any moment that the worst would happen as a crescendo of action and violence built. Despite my reservations about a central plot element (the love between Melody and Jonathan), I must confess the finale of the book was a magnificent twist that redeemed the entire novel.

I read this book in one sitting the day that it arrived, and know that it has a bright future. This unsual look at the Witness Protection Program receives a solid 4 stars- highly recommended.