Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Wives of Henry Oades by Johanna Moran

Book description:
When Henry Oades accepts an accountancy post in New Zealand, his wife, Margaret, and their children follow him to exotic Wellington. But while Henry is an adventurer, Margaret is not. Their new home is rougher and more rustic than they expected—and a single night of tragedy shatters the family when the native Maori stage an uprising, kidnapping Margaret and her children.

For months, Henry scours the surrounding wilderness, until all hope is lost and his wife and children are presumed dead. Grief-stricken, he books passage to California. There he marries Nancy Foreland, a young widow with a new baby, and it seems they’ve both found happiness in the midst of their mourning—until Henry’s first wife and children show up, alive and having finally escaped captivity.

This book is based on an actual legal case of a man legally (though unintentionally) married to two women at the same time. The story starts our strong with a detailed look at the fateful decision of Henry Oades to sail off to New Zealand with his family. The characters are well-introduced, and I looked forward to the gradual reveal of their deeper thoughts and motivations- unfortunately, such revelations never occured.

Though the facts of the case remained interesting, the lack of detail in the narrative was extremely frustrating. After all, this is a fictional account so some effort at character development (even if it wasn't supported by primary sources) would have made for a much more enjoyable read. There is no background given that might help explain why the Maori took the Oades captive, and much more attention is focused on Henry's reaction to the abduction than on the reactions of those abducted. The subsequent escape comes out of nowhere, the journey to America passes in a flash, and even the actual court case is just glossed over in the narrative.

The author had all the seeds necessary to create a strong dramatic piece, but ultimately failed to pull this reader into the narrative. Overall, I found this to be a very unsatisfying novel, lacking as it did any real emotional connection to any of the characters.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Greyhound by Steffan Piper

Book description:
12-year-old Sebastien Ranes is taking a trip. He doesn't exactly understand why, but he accepts it. His mother often seems too emotionally detached to care for him. Her latest boyfriend Dick takes cruel pleasure in mimicking the boy’s stuttering, and wants to live his life without "somebody else's kid" getting in the way. So it's no surprise when they pack his bags to send him away. It is a surprise when they send him alone. Ushered from his Stockton, California home, Sebastien must fend for himself and travel two thousand miles across the country to live with his grandmother and sister in Pennsylvania. Along the way, he learns that sometimes caring, guidance and understanding can come from some unlikely people.

Marcus is a man who has been neglected more by society than his family. As a young black ex-con, he is not the epitome of the person most would pick as a chaperone for their child's cross country trip. Yet rather than be held apart by their differences, Marcus and Sebastien are drawn together by the things that make us all alike. As both guide and protector, Marcus imparts his own style of wisdom while showing Sebastien that, despite the darker side of the human condition, people can and do care for one another.

From the moment I started reading Greyhound, I was hooked by the main character, a 12 year old boy about to board a bus across America alone so that his mother's new husband wouldn't have to raise a child that wasn't his own. Sebastian is a wonderful character- naive and sensitive and astonishingly open-minded given his situation. It is so telling that is he surprised every time an adult reacts take-aback by his mother's decision to pack him off to PA on a bus; he apparently expects nothing better.

The characters Sebastian meets along the way are extremely colorful, but not outside the realm of possibility, especially on such a long bus ride. I know some reviewers have taken issue with the series of dramatic events on the journey, but I've known Greyhound bus trips involving a police reception, shootout and subsequent arrest, followed by bus breakdown due to engine fire (and that was just on a 5 hour ride!) In fact, for anyone who has ever ridden Greyhound for anything other than a DC-NY-Boston run, this story will bring a smile and a shudder for its accuracy.

There were some places where the prose was awkward, and some grammar errors that grated (not sure how the editor missed them) but these were niggling irritations that did not detract from the strength of the story. Sebastian is a wonderful character- flawed and vulnerable and oh-so-appealing. This book was an impressive debut effort; I hope we see more from this author.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Perfect Reader by Maggie Pouncey

Book description:
Flora Dempsey is the headstrong and quick-witted only child of Lewis Dempsey, a beloved former college president and famous literary critic in the league of Harold Bloom. At the news of her father’s death, Flora quits her big-city magazine job and returns to Darwin, the quaint New England town where she grew up, to retreat into the house he has left her, filled as it is with reminders of him. Even weightier is her appointment as her father’s literary executor. It seems he was secretly writing poems at the end of his life—love poems to a girlfriend Flora didn’t know he had.

Flora soon discovers that this woman has her own claims on Lewis’s poetry and his memory, and in the righteousness of her loss and bafflement at her father’s secrets—his life so richly separate from her own in ways she never guessed—Flora is highly suspicious of her. Meanwhile, Flora is besieged by well-wishers and literary bloggers alike as she tries to figure out how to navigate it all: the fate of the poems, the girlfriend who wants a place in her life, her memories of her parents’ divorce, and her own uncertain future.

I really wanted to like this book more than I ultimately did. The writing was intelligent and nuanced, and the storyline, centered as it was around books and reading, was a strong draw. Unfortunately, I found a lot of promise that was never really fulfilled, making for a frustrating read in the end. I never felt emotionally invested in the characters or their lives; for a book with so few personalities, none of them were particularly well-developed except for Flora, and I found her hard to like. The glimpses of Flora's childhood were the most emotionally compelling portion of the narrative, and came too infrequently for my taste.

In the end, I found myself unable to make a connection to these characters. Though the writing was strong, the sense of detachment made it possible to walk away from the book without a qualm to do chores or run errands. When I came to the end, I was neither glad to be done nor sad to be finished- I didn't have a viceral enough reaction to the book to care one way or the other.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

How Clarissa Burden Learned to Fly by Connie May Fowler

Flap copy from hardcover:
Set amidst the lush pine forests and rich savannahs of Florida's Northern Panhandle, this is the story of one woman whose existence until now has seemed fairly normal: she is thirtysomething, married, and goes about her daily routine as a writer. But we soon learn that ghosts, an indifferent husband, and a seemingly terminal case of writer's block are burdening Clarissa's life. She awakes on the summer solstice and, prodded by her own discontent and one ghost's righteous need for truth, commences upon a twenty-four-hour journey of self-discovery. Her harrowing, funny, and startling adventures lead Clarissa to a momentous decision: she must find a way to do the unthinkable. Her life and the well-being of a remarkable family of blithe spirits hang in the balance.

Let me say first of all that this was a good read, full of the details that make Southern gothic novels so enjoyable. I was delighted by Fowler's strong narrative voice, and lush descriptions of the Florida landscape. I even enjoyed the ghosts that populated the story- in many ways, their stories seemed much more compelling than Clarissa's ever could.

For me, the difficulty with this novel lay in Clarissa herself, and her enthroned status as a complete doormat. This woman is a successful novelist who tolerates a husband who belittles her and conducts affairs right under her nose even as he lives off of her earnings. He hasn't touched her in years, she is dying by inches inside, and yet she worries about making his lunch or angering him? I just couldn't accept that as realistic- she should have kicked his ass to the curb long ago! I always like to find some aspect of a character that I can relate to my own life and story, but with Clarissa, this was just impossible.

That said, I did enjoy the book. I would have liked more followup on the cemetary, and certainly more focus on the story of the house and its ghosts, but at least in the end Clarissa was able to break free (at least in her mind) on the magical longest day of the year. Four stars because I just didn't like Clarissa as much as I liked the writing itself.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Half Life by Roopa Farooki

Book description:
On the morning that changes everything, Aruna Ahmed Jones walks out of her ground-floor Victorian apartment in London wearing only jeans and a t-shirt, carrying nothing more substantial than a handbag, and keeps on walking. Leaving behind the handsome Dr. Patrick Jones, her husband of less than a year, Aruna heads to Heathrow, where she boards a plane bound for Singapore and her old life. Educated and beautiful, Aruna has a desperate need to risk it all. But why? Waiting for her is a messy past and a perfect past lover she had once abandoned without even saying goodbye – a story left unfinished – until now.

Aruna is not running away from home, she is running back to the home she always had, before it became impossible for her to stay. Before her father, the only family she’d ever known, passed away. Before she tried, and failed, to create a life and a family with her best friend and lover, Jazz. Before her doctor delivered a complicated psychological diagnosis she’d rather forget. After years of fleeing the ghosts that continue to haunt her, Aruna is about to discover that running away is really the easy part; it is coming home—making peace with her past, with Jazz and those they have loved—that is hard.

I sat down with this book yesterday, intending to read just a few pages, and found myself unable to put it down. Though at first I was uncertain about Roooney and Jazz, as the novel progressed I grew to understand them and their unique and troubling situation. I thought the author's handling of the sensitive subject matter was masterful, and appreciated that she let the truth build slowly, revealing itself only gradually (both to the reader and to the main characters).

The prose flowed freely, and did an excellent job of capturing the essence of the shifting locales. Both Rooney and Jazz grew emotionally throughout the novel, and I found the ending quite satisfying and realistic. This book was not what I expected, but quickly became more than I could have hoped. Highly recommended!

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Search for God and Guinness by Stephen Mansfield

Book description:
It began in Ireland in the late 1700s. The water in Ireland, indeed throughout Europe, was famously undrinkable, and the gin and whiskey that took its place was devastating civil society. It was a disease ridden, starvation plagued, alcoholic age, and Christians like Arthur Guinness-as well as monks and even evangelical churches-brewed beer that provided a healthier alternative to the poisonous waters and liquors of the times. This is where the Guinness tale began. Now, 246 years and 150 countries later, Guinness is a global brand, one of the most consumed beverages in the world. The tale that unfolds during those two and a half centuries has power to thrill audiences today: the generational drama, business adventure, industrial and social reforms, deep-felt faith, and the beer itself.

This book is a little bit history, a little bit morality play, and a little bit personal reflection. It is more focused than I expected on the religious legacy of the Guinness family, but was nonetheless an enjoyable read. There were a few places where I thought the religious rhetoric got a bit strong, but then the author always dialed it back a bit. Though I'm not sure I agree about beer being the savior of the working class, it was interesting to read about the social changes in Dublin that can be traced to the Guinness family. All in all, a great choice for anyone who loves stout.