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.