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!