Thursday, January 21, 2010

Knit, Purl, Die by Anne Canadeo

Book description:
"Gloria Sterling had it all -- money, looks, and a new sexy young husband. So when she's found floating face down in her own swimming pool, shock waves ripple through tiny Plum Harbor. At the Black Sheep Knitting Shop, Maggie Messina and her circle are devastated to lose their dear friend -- a woman as colorful as her fabulous yarn creations.

The police are quick to call it an accident, but sorting out Gloria's final hours leaves too many loose ends to satisfy her friends. The vivacious, fiftysomething cougar had her French manicured tips in more than a few pots, and the threads of some inside deals stashed in her chic knitting tote.

Who was the last person to see Gloria alive on that quiet summer night? Two empty wine glasses suggest she wasn't home alone knitting the entire evening.... The Black Sheep need to know the truth and set out to unravel -- stitch by stitch -- the weighty secrets that pulled poor Gloria under."

This was a light and enjoyable cozy mystery centered on a group of women who share a love of knitting and detecting. Though I haven't read the first book in the Black Sheep Knitting series, I never felt the lack when reading this second installment (though now I'm eager to go back and read the first). Though the mystery and surrounding plot twist weren't hard to figure out, knowing whodunit didn't affect my enjoyment of the book, which is more character than plot driven. A great read for a rainy afternoon, and certainly a must-have for any knitters in your life.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Julie and Julia by Julie Powell

Flap copy from paperback:
"Nearing thirty and trapped in a dead-end secretarial job, Julie Powell resolved to reclaim her life by cooking, in the span of a single year, every one of the 524 recipes in Julia Child's legendary 'Mastering the Art of French Cooking'. Her unexpected reward: not just a newfound respect for calves' livers and aspic, but a new life- lived with gusto."

I was surprised by this memoir/homage which I thought would be much more heavily food focused than it was. Obviously food (or its preparation) was the common tie between Julie and Julia, but the book is much more about Julia's quest to find herself through the admittedly odd project to cook her way through Julia Child's cookbook. The book is well-written though I often found myself frustrated with the author who seemed very immature in parts.

All in all a decent read for someone who was never exposed to the blog that sparked the novel. I wish I had found the author more sympathetic but as it was, my irritation with her colored my enjoyment of the book. 3 stars.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Enemies of the People by Kati Marton

Book description:
"You are opening a Pandora's box," Marton was warned when she filed for her family's secret police files in Budapest. But her family history -- during both the Nazi and the Communist periods -- was too full of shadows. The files revealed terrifying truths: secret love affairs, betrayals inside the family circle, torture and brutalities alongside acts of stunning courage -- and, above all, deep family love.

In this true-life thriller, Kati Marton, an accomplished journalist, exposes the cruel mechanics of the Communist Terror State, using the secret police files on her journalist parents as well as dozens of interviews that reveal how her family was spied on and betrayed by friends and colleagues, and even their children's babysitter. In this moving and brave memoir, Marton searches for and finds her parents, and love.

Marton relates her eyewitness account of her mother's and father's arrests in Cold War Budapest and the terrible separation that followed. She describes the pain her parents endured in prison -- isolated from each other and their children. She reveals the secret war between Washington and Moscow, in which Marton and her family were pawns in a much larger game.

Kati Marton's parents were Hungarian journalists working for Western news outlets behind the Iron Curtain, a courageous choice that became reason enough for them to be declared enemies of the people by the Communists in Hungary. The story of their lives as revealed through personal memories and their secret police files makes for an engrossing read on many levels.

The book does a masterful job of peeling back the bare facts that are public knowledge about the Martons to reveal the deeper history of this extraordinary couple. The reader shares the author's sense of discovery as she learns of her Jewish heritage and the true facts of her parents' early lives. Marton's love for her parents combined with her frustration about their unwillingness to discuss the past rings through this memoir; it is the ultimate irony that she only came to know and understand her family history because of the massive secret police files maintained by the government that imprisoned her parents and ripped her family apart.

Well-written and fast-paced, this book was an obvious labor of love that will appeal to readers no matter their level of familiarity with Hungary in the post-war years. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Murderer's Daughters by Randy Susan Meyers

Book description:
"Mama was “no macaroni-necklace-wearing kind of mother.” She was a lipstick and perfume-wearing mother, a flirt whose estranged husband still hungered for her. After Mama threw him out, she warned the girls to never let Daddy in the house, an admonition that tears at ten-year-old Lulu whenever she thinks about the day she opened the door for her drunken father, and watched as he killed her mother, stabbed her five-year-old sister Merry and tried to take his own life.

Effectively orphaned by their mother’s death and father’s imprisonment, Lulu and Merry, unwanted by family members and abandoned to a terrifying group home, spend their young lives carrying more than just the visible scars from the tragedy. Even as their plan to be taken in by a well-to-do foster family succeeds, they come to learn they’ll never really belong anywhere or to anyone—that all they have to hold onto is each other.

As they grow into women, Lulu holds fast to her anger, denies her father’s existence and forces Merry into a web of lies about his death that eventually ensnares her own husband and daughters. Merry, certain their safety rests on placating her needy father, dutifully visits him, seeking his approval and love at the expense of her own relationships. As they strive to carve lives of their own, the specter of their father, unrepentant and manipulative even from behind bars, haunts them. And when they learn he’s about to be paroled, the house of cards they’ve built their lives on teeters on the brink of collapse."

This debut novel tracks the lives of two sisters as they attempt to create lives in the shadow of a harrowing family tragedy. Older sister Lulu must cope with the guilt of opening the door to their father the day he stabbed their mother to death, while younger sister Merry lives with her memories of the murder and her father's failed attempt to kill her and himself. Forced into an orphange by the death of their maternal grandmother, the sisters are lucky enough to find a stable foster family who nonetheless fail them on an emotional level. Betrayed by everyone else, the two sisters form an unhealthy (but understandable) co-dependent relationship marred only by Merry's regular visits to her father and Lulu's refusal to admit he is alive.

I literally couldn't put this book down- it was powerful, heart-breaking, and ultimately redemptive all at the same time. The girls are wonderful characters whose voices and actions ring true without seeming stereotypical. I felt emotionally connected to these girls, invested in their well-being and frantic to try to keep them safe. The author's experience with the victims of violent crime serves her well and gives the reader a wonderful (and terrifying) insight into the lives these victims lead. Highly recommended!

Monday, January 11, 2010

Petropolis by Anya Ulinich

Book description:
"After losing her father, her boyfriend, and her baby, Sasha Goldberg decides that getting herself to the United States is the surest path to deliverance. But she finds that life in Phoenix with her Red Lobster–loving fiancé isn’t much better than life in Siberia, and so she treks across America on a misadventure-filled search for her long- lost father."

This touching tale of one girl's journey from innocence to mail-order bride tells the story of Sasha Goldberg's quest to find a place for herself in the world. As she travels from Siberia to the United States, Sasha carries a dream of reuniting with her father, a man she has idealized since his departure from Russia years before. Unfortunately, the more time she spends in America, the more Sasha learns about her father and his new life, and the less she is able to maintain that childish vision of him.

I thought this was an excellent look what might drive a young girl to offer herself as a mail-order bride in search of a better life in America. It is definitely a better treatment of this subject than another book I read this year, Moonlight in Odessa. Sasha's situation is never romanticized and the reader definitely feels for her as betrayals build and her disillusionment grows. Well-written and sensitively portrayed, Sasha is a standout protagonist whose moving tale will stick with you long after you finish reading the book. Highly recommended.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

When Skateboards Will Be Free by Saïd Sayrafiezadeh

Book description:
"Saïd’s Iranian-born father and American Jewish mother had one thing in common: their unshakable conviction that the workers’ revolution was coming. Separated since their son was nine months old, they each pursued a dream of the perfect socialist society. Pinballing with his mother between makeshift Pittsburgh apartments, falling asleep at party meetings, longing for the luxuries he’s taught to despise, Said waits for the revolution that never, ever arrives. “Soon,” his mother assures him, while his long-absent father quixotically runs as a socialist candidate for president in an Iran about to fall under the ayatollahs. Then comes the hostage crisis. The uproar that follows is the first time Saïd hears the word “Iran” in school. There he is suddenly forced to confront the combustible stew of his identity: as an American, an Iranian, a Jew, a socialist... and a middle-school kid who loves football and video games."

This memoir was painfully honest and suprisingly rather bleak despite the amusing title. The story of young Said's life as the child of two Socialists was leavened by humor but this reader for one wondered how any adults could so selfishly ignore the needs of their own progeny in favor of the abstract needs of the people. Neither of Said's parents appeared to be fit caretakers for this sensitive child, and his ability to survive and even thrive in that environment is a testimony to his strength of personality. This book is full of hard truths about prejudice, political agitation, and family dysfunction. Highly recommended!

The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag by Alan Bradley

Book description:
"Flavia thinks that her days of crime-solving in the bucolic English hamlet of Bishop’s Lacy are over—and then Rupert Porson has an unfortunate rendezvous with electricity. The beloved puppeteer has had his own strings sizzled, but who’d do such a thing and why? For Flavia, the questions are intriguing enough to make her put aside her chemistry experiments and schemes of vengeance against her insufferable big sisters. Astride Gladys, her trusty bicycle, Flavia sets out from the de Luces’ crumbling family mansion in search of Bishop’s Lacey’s deadliest secrets.

Does the madwoman who lives in Gibbet Wood know more than she’s letting on? What of the vicar’s odd ministrations to the catatonic woman in the dovecote? Then there’s a German pilot obsessed with the Brontë sisters, a reproachful spinster aunt, and even a box of poisoned chocolates. Most troubling of all is Porson’s assistant, the charming but erratic Nialla. All clues point toward a suspicious death years earlier and a case the local constables can’t solve—without Flavia’s help. But in getting so close to who’s secretly pulling the strings of this dance of death, has our precocious heroine finally gotten in way over her head?"

This second installment of the series is even more satisfying than the first; Flavia de Luce is without a doubt the most entertaining sleuth to make an appearance in decades. In this story, Flavia finds herself embroiled in the mysterious death of visiting puppeteer Rupert Porson, a BBC personality marooned in Bishop's Lacy by the breakdown of his van. As Flavia learns more about Rupert's many women, she is haunted as well by the bizarre hanging death of five year-old Robin Ingleby some years before.

Flavia remains her wonderful precocious self, using complicated chemical tests to analyze tears, create poisons, and (of course) ultimately solve the mysteries. Though Daffy, Feely and Father all have cameo roles, this story is more focused on other inhabitants of the perfect country town of Bishop's Lacy. The expanded cast of characters makes for an enjoyable read as more quirky personalities act as a foil to Flavia's quiet (and still disturbing) brilliance. The reader can't help but reflect on the likelihood that Flavia might one day find herself on the other side of the magnifying glass.

Once I started, I couldn't put this one down- Flavia and her quest for truth is just that compelling. Alan Bradley has another hit on his hands, and fans of Flavia have even more evidence to support their passion. My only regret is the time I will have to wait to read the third installment of Flavia's story...

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Saving Cicadas by Nicole Seitz

Book description:
"When single mother Priscilla Lynn Macy learns she's having another child unexpectedly, she packs the family into the car to escape. Eight-year-old Janie and Rainey Dae, her seventeen-year-old sister with special needs, embark on the last family vacation they'll ever take with Poppy and Grandma Mona in the back seat.

The trip seems aimless until Janie realizes they are searching for the father who left them years ago. When they can't find him, they make their way to Forest Pines, SC. Priscilla hasn't been to her family home in many years and finds it a mixed blessing of hope, buried secrets, and family ghosts.

Through eyes of innocence, Janie learns the hard realities of life and the difficult choices grownups make. And she must face disturbing truths about the people she loves in order to carry them in the moments that matter most."

I selected this book thinking it would be an appealing addition to my growing collection of Southern fiction. Nothing in the description prepared me for the overwhelming Christian elements and the heavy-handed anti-abortion message that form the basis for the narrative. Though the characters of Janie, Rainey and Priscilla are appealing and the folksy tone consistent, I was very disappointed by the way Priscilla's dilemma was treated. The talk of God and angels was off-putting and overly simplistic as was the treatment of Rainey's special needs. The surprise twist was so telegraphed that it lost any effect and just served to further increase my dissatisfaction with this book. A more even-handed treatment of Priscilla's choices and a greater understanding of why she made them could have made this a powerful book about the dilemma of an unplanned pregnancy; instead it reads as a shallow and preachy piece of propoganda. Disappointing read- the book description should definitely indicate that this is Christian fiction to help people make a more informed purchasing decision.