Friday, September 23, 2011

These Things Hidden by Heather Gudenkauf

Book description:
When teenager Allison Glenn is sent to prison for a heinous crime, she leaves behind her reputation as Linden Falls' golden girl forever. Her parents deny the existence of their once-perfect child. Her former friends exult her downfall. Her sister, Brynn, faces whispered rumors every day in the hallways of their small Iowa high school. It's Brynn—shy, quiet Brynn—who carries the burden of what really happened that night. All she wants is to forget Allison and the past that haunts her.

But then Allison is released to a halfway house, and is more determined than ever to speak with her estranged sister.

Now their legacy of secrets is focused on one little boy. And if the truth is revealed, the consequences will be unimaginable for the adoptive mother who loves him, the girl who tried to protect him and the two sisters who hold the key to all that is hidden.

This wonderful novel that traces the life of young Allison after she is released from prison for an unspeakable crime. As she tried to rebuild a life, she is desperate to reconnect with her parents (who have no desire to let her back into their lives) and her younger sister (who steadfastly refuses to speak to her). As this former golden girl gets a job and starts to find her footing, she unexpectedly finds herself on a collision course with the past, one that will have shocking consequences. The characters are well-drawn and the raw emotions had a ring of truth. A wonderful story which unfolds layer by layer, this book builds to an impressively powerful ending. Highly recommended.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The End of Everything by Megan E. Abbott

Book description:
Thirteen-year old Lizzie Hood and her next door neighbor Evie Verver are inseparable. They are best friends who swap bathing suits and field-hockey sticks, and share everything that's happened to them. Together they live in the shadow of Evie's glamorous older sister Dusty, who provides a window on the exotic, intoxicating possibilities of their own teenage horizons. To Lizzie, the Verver household, presided over by Evie's big-hearted father, is the world's most perfect place.

And then, one afternoon, Evie disappears. The only clue: a maroon sedan Lizzie spotted driving past the two girls earlier in the day. As a rabid, giddy panic spreads through the Midwestern suburban community, everyone looks to Lizzie for answers. Was Evie unhappy, troubled, upset? Had she mentioned being followed? Would she have gotten into the car of a stranger?

Lizzie takes up her own furtive pursuit of the truth, prowling nights through backyards, peering through windows, pushing herself to the dark center of Evie's world. Haunted by dreams of her lost friend and titillated by her own new power at the center of the disappearance, Lizzie uncovers secrets and lies that make her wonder if she knew her best friend at all.

This novel is a well-written look at the girls transitioning into young women, trying for the first time to understand what it means to be growing up. Lizzie and Evie are best friend who share everything until one day they don't, one day when Evie goes missing and Lizzie is the last person to see her. As Lizzie tries to understand what she knows, she delves deeper and deeper into Evie's family and Evie's disappearance, and slowly comes to realize that everything is not as it seems even in Evie's perfect family. An excellent look at a time of transition, a time when innocence is lost (one way or another), a time when childhood is finally left behind. This book captures those delicately posed moments and every one of the characters rings true.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Other People's Money by Justin Cartwright

Book description:
In a world still uneasy after the financial turmoil of 2008, Justin Cartwright puts a human face on the dishonesties and misdeeds of the bankers who imperiled us. Tubal and Co. is a small, privately owned bank in England. As the company's longtime leader, Sir Harry Tubal, slips into senility, his son Julian takes over the reins-and not all is well. The company's hedge fund now owns innumerable toxic assets, and Julian fears what will happen when their real value is discovered.

Artair Macleod, an actor manager whose ex-wife, Fleur, was all but stolen by Sir Harry, discovers that his company's monthly grant has not been paid by Tubal. Getting no answers from Julian, he goes to the local press, and an eager young reporter begins asking questions. Bit by bit, the reporter discovers that the grant money is in fact a payoff from Fleur, written off by the bank as a charitable donation, and a scandal breaks. Julian's temperament and judgment prove a bad fit for the economic forces of the era, and the family business plunges into chaos as he tries to hide the losses and massage the balance sheet.

This novel tells the tale of a family, a banking family, caught in the web of a pending financial collapse. At heart this is a family drama rather than a deep look at the ills that helped cause the recent financial crisis. An incapacitated father, a son trying to stave off the collapse, a stepmother trying to rediscover her lost youth, a young journalist trying to make her mark, an aging editor desperate for one last story- all make this character-driven story a delight to read. The writing is magnificent, the characters finely drawn, and the situation realistic; this novel is a tuly excellent read. Highly recommended work of literary fiction.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

A Thousand Lives by Julia Scheeres

Book Description:
In 1954, a pastor named Jim Jones opened a church in Indianapolis called Peoples Temple Full Gospel Church. He was a charismatic preacher with idealistic beliefs, and he quickly filled his pews with an audience eager to hear his sermons on social justice. After Jones moved his church to Northern California in 1965, he became a major player in Northern California politics; he provided vital support in electing friendly political candidates to office, and they in turn offered him a protective shield that kept stories of abuse and fraud out of the papers. Even as Jones’s behavior became erratic and his message more ominous, his followers found it increasingly difficult to pull away from the church. By the time Jones relocated the Peoples Temple a final time to a remote jungle in Guyana and the U.S. Government decided to investigate allegations of abuse and false imprisonment in Jonestown, it was too late.

A Thousand Lives follows the experiences of five Peoples Temple members who went to Jonestown: a middle-class English teacher from Colorado, an elderly African American woman raised in Jim Crow Alabama, a troubled young black man from Oakland, and a working-class father and his teenage son. These people joined Jones’s church for vastly different reasons. Some, such as eighteen-year-old Stanley Clayton, appreciated Jones’s message of racial equality and empowering the dispossessed. Others, like Hyacinth Thrash and her sister Zipporah, were dazzled by his claims of being a faith healer—Hyacinth believed Jones had healed a cancerous tumor in her breast. Edith Roller, a well-educated white progressive, joined Peoples Temple because she wanted to help the less fortunate. Tommy Bogue, a teen, hated Jones’s church, but was forced to attend services—and move to Jonestown—because his parents were members.

Working from recently released documents and tapes seized in Guyana after the mass murder/suicide in Jonestown, Scheeres has created a moving account of the People's Temple by focusing on several individuals who followed Jim Jones (some to their deaths). Scheeres treats this tragedy with acute sensitivity and a remarkable lack of judgmental rhetoric. She clearly spells out how Jim Jones initially drew people to his church and how his message shifted over the years from one of openness and integration to one of megalomania and paranoia. Scheeres also reveals a disturbing lack of action on the part of both the US and Guyanese governments whose dismissive attitude towards Jones' public threats of "revolutionary suicide" helped set the scene for his final solution.

As the narrative wound toward its tragic conclusion, Scheeres did a wonderful job of showing how Jones worked his followers, using drugs, violence, and starvation to keep them compliant and apathetic to his discussions of mass suicide. Scheeres' research makes it clear that Jones had a long range plan to kill all his followers and that he used drugs, threats, and both physical and psychological torture (beatings, sensory deprivation boxes, sleep deprivation, and a constant barrage of Jones' rantings broadcast day and night) to desensitize his followers to that danger. Ultimately, Scheeres did a wonderful job of placing the blame on Jones and on the upper levels of the People's Temple leadership, those who saw Jones unraveling and yet either did nothing or actively abetted his insanity. Using their own words (from interviews with survivors and from journals recovered from Guyana), Scheeres portrays the hundreds who dies in Jonestown as victims, horribly betrayed by a man who, through deception on every level, had gradually taken over every aspect of their lives.

Highly recommended!

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Girl Who Fell from the Sky by Heidi Durrow

Book Description:
Rachel, the daughter of a danish mother and a black G.I., becomes the sole survivor of a family tragedy after a fateful morning on their Chicago rooftop.

Forced to move to a new city, with her strict African American grandmother as her guardian, Rachel is thrust for the first time into a mostly black community, where her light brown skin, blue eyes, and beauty bring a constant stream of attention her way. It’s there, as she grows up and tries to swallow her grief, that she comes to understand how the mystery and tragedy of her mother might be connected to her own uncertain identity.

This well-written novel tells the story of Rachel, the daughter of a black US serviceman and a white Danish mother. Growing up in Europe, Rachel and her family had a very different experience with race than they encountered on their return to the US. As the story of how Rachel came to live with her grandmother and aunt unfolds, the terrible central tragedy of Rachel's life is revealed. As Rachel grows up trying to reconcile what she knows about herself and her family with the life her grandmother wants her to lead, she is torn by conflicting demands and the pressures of developing her own self identity. A powerful and moving narrative.