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!