Friday, November 9, 2012

The Night Strangers by Chris Bohjalian

Book description:
In a dusty corner of a basement in a rambling Victorian house in northern New Hampshire, a door has long been sealed shut with 39 six-inch-long carriage bolts.  The home's new owners are Chip and Emily Linton and their twin ten-year-old daughters. Together they hope to rebuild their lives there after Chip, an airline pilot, has to ditch his 70-seat regional jet in Lake Champlain due to double engine failure. The body count? Thirty-nine.   

This offering by the talented Chris Bohjalian was a sore disappointment of a novel. Though others have lauded the opening chapters, I confess I was struggling to read on after the first few pages. As interested as I was in the story of the Linton family, the entire herbalist/witch element was off-putting from the very start. I wish the book had focused on the family and their personal demons without pulling in any outside evil to jazz things up. Too long and too complicatedly specific about minutia, this book was a disappointing read that I cannot in good conscience recommend.

Friday, November 2, 2012

The Truth-Teller's Lie by Sophie Hannah

Book description:

Naomi Jenkins knows all about secrets: three years ago something so terrible happened to her that she's never told anyone about it. Now, Naomi has another secret: her relationship with the unhappily married Robert Haworth. 

When Robert vanishes without explanation, Naomi knows he must have come to harm. But the police are less convinced, particularly when Robert's wife insists he is not missing. In desperation, Naomi decides that if she can't persuade the detectives that Robert is in danger, she'll convince them that he is a danger to others. Naomi knows how to describe the actions of a psychopath; all she needs to do is dig up her own traumatic past.

This novel was a disturbing read, not one to read when you are alone in the house.  Though I initially found Naomi quite irritating, as the story unfolded, some of the more bizarre quirks in her personality were explained.  It is difficult to review this thriller without revealing too much of the plot, so I'll just say that I was truly caught off guard by the big twist in the plot, and was riveted once I sank into the story.  Hannah has a true gift for the unexpected and this books did not disappoint.  A great read if rather disturbing in its depiction of violence again women.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

I Am Forbidden by Anouk Markovits

Book description:

Opening in 1939 Transylvania, five-year-old Josef witnesses the murder of his family by the Romanian Iron Guard and is rescued by a Christian maid to be raised as her own son. Five years later, Josef rescues a young girl, Mila, after her parents are killed while running to meet the Rebbe they hoped would save them. Josef helps Mila reach Zalman Stern, a leader in the Satmar community, in whose home Mila is raised as a sister to Zalman's daughter, Atara. With the rise of communism in central Europe, the family moves to Paris, to the Marais, where Zalman tries to raise his children apart from the city in which they live. Mila's faith intensifies, while her beloved sister Atara discovers a world of books and learning that she cannot ignore.

This book a very powerful read and pulled me in from the very beginning.  This intimate look at the tragedy of the Holocaust from the perspective of two families was moving and engrossing.  I eagerly followed the story of Josef, Mila and Atara as they grew to adulthood, hoping that all would be well for these people who so desperately deserved some happiness.

It is hard to explain my concerns with the novel without giving away too much of the plot, but essentially halfway through the book, one of the main characters disappeared from the narrative not to re-emerge for decades.  Because Atara dropped away form the story, I was left feeling that the story was incomplete.  Josef and Mila's tale is tragic and compelling but I wanted also to learn about how Atara dealt with the choices she made.  I was also dissatisfied with the end of the book which was just too bleak for me.

Well-written and compelling, this story was nonetheless incomplete for me.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Saving Ruth by Zoe Fishman

Book description:

When Ruth returns home to the South for the summer after her freshman year at college, a near tragedy pushes her to uncover family truths and take a good look at the woman she wants to become. 

Growing up in Alabama, all Ruth Wasserman wanted was to be a blond Baptist cheerleader. But as a curly-haired Jew with a rampant sweet tooth and a smart mouth, this was an impossible dream. Not helping the situation was her older brother, David—a soccer star whose good looks, smarts, and popularity reigned at school and at home. College provided an escape route and Ruth took it. 

Now home for the summer, she's back life-guarding and coaching alongside David, and although the job is the same, nothing else is. She's a prisoner of her low self-esteem and unhealthy relationship with food, David is closed off and distant in a way he's never been before, and their parents are struggling with the reality of an empty nest. When a near drowning happens on their watch, a storm of repercussions forces Ruth and David to confront long-ignored truths about their town, their family, and themselves.

This coming of age story is a wonderful read, one that will resonate with anyone who survived the tumultuous transition from teenager to adult.  Both Ruth and her brother struggle with parental expectations and the desire for control over their lives.  They, and their parents, are shaken out of their complacency by a near-tragedy that could have had much worse implications than it did.  Ruth is a well-developed and vulnerable character, one battling with an eating disorder and trying desperately to reconnect with the brother who has always eclipsed her.

Once I started reading, I didn't put this book down until I was finished.  Well-written and well-imagined, this story and the voice rang true from start to finish.  I was genuinely engaged with Ruth as she attempted to navigate the treacherous waters of her first summer home from college- balancing friends, family, and food in desperate attempt to keep it all together.  There are no big revelations here, no life changing message- just a well-crafted coming of age tale that I would recommend to any reader.

5 stars.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Crossing Places by Elly Griffiths

Book description:
When she’s not digging up bones or other ancient objects, quirky, tart-tongued archaeologist Ruth Galloway lives happily alone in a remote area called Saltmarsh near Norfolk, land that was sacred to its Iron Age inhabitants - not quite earth, not quite sea. 

When a child’s bones are found on a desolate beach nearby, Detective Chief Inspector Harry Nelson calls Galloway for help. Nelson thinks he has found the remains of Lucy Downey, a little girl who went missing ten years ago. Since her disappearance he has been receiving bizarre letters about her, letters with references to ritual and sacrifice. 

The bones actually turn out to be two thousand years old, but Ruth is soon drawn into the Lucy Downey case and into the mind of the letter writer, who seems to have both archaeological knowledge and eerie psychic powers. Then another child goes missing and the hunt is on to find her. As the letter writer moves closer and the windswept Norfolk landscape exerts its power, Ruth finds herself in completely new territory – and in serious danger.

This excellent mystery is the beginning of a new series featuring Ruth Galloway, an incredibly complicated yet ultimately engaging character.  Though elements of the story, especially Ruth's actions in the final scenes on the saltmarsh, are frustratingly absurd, overall this thriller kept me on the edge of my seat.  The writing is strong and the characters appropriately flawed- I always enjoy protagonists who display human foibles.

Like the Shetland Island series by Ann Cleeves, this book features a strong stark setting that acts as a character in its own right.  The saltmarsh here is central to the story, as is its dark history.  Griffiths does an exceptional job setting her scene which helps anchor this story.  The pacing is strong and the plot complicated but not absurdly so- in all, this was an excellent read.  I'm anxiously awaiting the next installment...

Saturday, September 1, 2012

White Nights by Ann Cleeves

Book Description:
In this second thriller of the Shetland Island series featuring Inspector Jimmy Perez, the launch of an exhibition at The Herring House art gallery is disturbed by a stranger who bursts into tears, then claims not to remember who he is or where he comes from. The next day he’s found dead. Set in midsummer, the book captures the unsettling nature of a landscape where the sun never quite sets and where people are not as they first seem.

I read Raven Black last year though I don't think I ever reviewed it.  I love mysteries, especially ones set in the UK, and so I was delighted to find this series.  The mystery here was intriguing and I admit I was guessing until the end- a sure sign of a successful thriller in my opinion.  It is hard to share too many details of the story without spoiling it, but the writing and characters are excellent and truly make the novel.

What I like best about Cleeves' work is that the Shetland Islands play such a crucial role as a character, and also help to create the feeling of a locked room mystery because the list of characters and settings is so short and outsiders are so unlikely to wander into the story.  Jimmy Perez is a truly interesting character, one with the kind of backstory that pulls the reader into his viewpoint.  His relationship with the islands and their residents, as well as with the crime scene experts who come in from outside, is deftly drawn and highlights the insular nature of the entire community.

I highly recommend this series; I'm about to read the third and hope there are more to come!

Friday, August 31, 2012

Gold: A Novel by Chris Cleave

Book Description:
What would you sacrifice for the people you love? 
KATE AND ZOE met at nineteen when they both made the cut for the national training program in track cycling—a sport that demands intense focus, blinding exertion, and unwavering commitment. They are built to exploit the barest physical and psychological edge over equally skilled rivals, all of whom are fighting for the last one tenth of a second that separates triumph from despair. Now at thirty-two, the women are facing their last and biggest race: the 2012 Olympics. Each wants desperately to win gold, and each has more than a medal to lose. 

Kate is the more naturally gifted, but the demands of her life have a tendency to slow her down. Her eight-year-old daughter Sophie dreams of the Death Star and of battling alongside the Rebels as evil white blood cells ravage her personal galaxy—she is fighting a recurrence of the leukemia that nearly killed her three years ago. Sophie doesn’t want to stand in the way of her mum’s Olympic dreams, but each day the dark forces of the universe seem to be massing against her. Devoted and self-sacrificing Kate knows her daughter is fragile, but at the height of her last frenzied months of training, might she be blind to the most terrible prognosis? 

Intense, aloof Zoe has always hovered on the periphery of real human companionship, and her compulsive need to win at any cost has more than once threatened her friendship with Kate—and her own sanity. Will she allow her obsession, and the advantage she has over a harried, anguished mother, to sever the bond they have shared for more than a decade?

I read this book back in July, with the 2012 Summer Olympics about to start. This book offers an incredible glance into the world of competitive cycling. Kate and Zoe, both coached by Tom and both tied to fellow cyclist Jack, have been battling it out since age 19 when they were picked to be the future of British cycling. Through three Olympics, countless championships, and years of riding against each other they have somehow maintained a relationship both on and off the track. In the run-up to the London games, Kate and Zoe are battling for a spot on the podium while Kate and Jack are battling for the life of their daughter Sophie, fighting through her second bout of leukemia.

I don't want to spoil the plot (though as a reader, the big twist was no real surprise at all) but I have to say it was too complicated and unbelieveable. Tom seemed to serve no real function other than to generate sympathy for Zoe, a strangely unsympathetic character. Reading this, it is difficult to see how anyone could maintain a relationship with someone so mentally troubled.

That said, the writing was so good that I was swept along despite the mediocre plot and implausible relationships. Once I started reading, I wasn't able to put this book down even though part of me was rolling my eyes when reading. I was genuinely interested in the lives of these characters though the only one I felt an emotional connection to was poor Jedi Sophie, trying to battle her cancer with the Force.

A good read, but not a great one- 5 star writing undermined by a 3 star plot.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The New Republic by Lionel Shriver

Book description:
Ostracized as a kid, Edgar Kellogg has always yearned to be popular. A disgruntled New York corporate lawyer, he's more than ready to leave his lucrative career for the excitement and uncertainty of journalism. When he's offered the post of foreign correspondent in a Portuguese backwater that has sprouted a homegrown terrorist movement, Edgar recognizes the disappeared larger-than-life reporter he's been sent to replace, Barrington Saddler, as exactly the outsize character he longs to emulate. Infuriatingly, all his fellow journalists cannot stop talking about their beloved "Bear," who is no longer lighting up their work lives.

Yet all is not as it appears. Os Soldados Ousados de Barba—"The Daring Soldiers of Barba"—have been blowing up the rest of the world for years in order to win independence for a province so dismal, backward, and windblown that you couldn't give the rat hole away. So why, with Barrington vanished, do terrorist incidents claimed by the "SOB" suddenly dry up?

I wanted to love this newly published offering by the gifted Lionel Shriver but the painfully slow start to this novel made reading it a chore.  Edgar Kellogg is a completely unsympathetic and often annoying character; he tries so hard to be arch adn superior that he often made me cringe.  The entire situation in Barba, a Portuguese province now the home of a breakaway rebel movement, is absurd- too absurd unfortunately to make for an enjoyable read.  Though the book does raise some interesting questions about journalism and sensationalism, the story itself never pulled me in as a reader.  The big twist was something I saw coming once Edgar arrived in Barba and I found his inability to follow the breadcrumbs irritating and unbelieveable.

The last third of the book was certainly an improvement both in terms of pacing and dialogue, but it was to little too late to save this book.  2.5 stars.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Rather Outspoken by Dan Rather

Book description:
This memoir by Dan Rather -- one of the most pre-eminent journalists of our time -- is told in a straightforward and conversational manner so that you hear his distinctive voice on every page. Rather, -- who has won every prestigious journalism award in his distinguished career -- discusses all the big stories from his decades of reporting. This very personal accounting includes (but is certainly not limited to) his dismissal from CBS, the Abu Ghraib story, the George W. Bush Air National Guard controversy, his coverage of the JFK assassination, the origin of "Hurricane Dan" as well as inside stories about all the top personalities Rather has either interviewed or worked with over his remarkable career. 

The book also includes Rather's thoughts and reflections on the state of journalism today and what he sees for its future, as well as never-before-revealed personal observations and commentary.

This book by one of the elder statesmen of American journalism is part memoir, part reflection, part ringing condemnation, and all Rather.  Opening with the events that led to his ouster from CBS News, Rather then reverts back to his childhood and his early interest in reporting the news, following that love of journalism from elementary school into college and beyond.  As Rather recounts the work of his early years at CBS (the civil rights movement, the Kennedy assassination, his time in Washington with LBJ and Nixon), it is clear this book is more a highlights reel than an in-depth professional memoir.  Regardless, the tidbits he shares are fascinating and simply whet the reader's appetite for more.  Eventually Rather returns to the topic of his departure from CBS, outlining his eventual decision to file suit against CBS to try to clear his reputation, and his subsequent work on HDNet.

I found the book a bit uneven as a reader.  The details of Rather's personal life were extremely interesting and I wish there had been more of them, especially about his family life once he was married and a father of two; it seemed from the book that his career always took precedence over his family but that may just be the result of trying to keep his private life private.  Either way, it is clear that his wife Jean was the solid base that made his career possible- it would have been wonderful to hear more of her voice and story carry through the narrative.  Rather's voice does ring through loud and clear, which is both a strength and the weakness in my opinion as that voice is sometimes strident and veers a bit toward self-congratulatory.  Rather is uncompromising in his belief that CBS sold out the Evening News, and he is happy to name names and apportion blame which may be understandable but also reeks a bit of bitterness- a bitterness that rather undermines his legitimate grievances with the organization.

Throughout this book one thing that is always front and center is Rather's deep and abiding passion for journalism and his clear belief that the press has a duty to ask the tough questions and to reveal the hidden truths.  His disdain for the corporate conglomerates that control the news today in the U.S. is well-founded as are his fears that we are in danger of losing the free press that our Founding Fathers viewed as so essential to safeguard our democracy.  After his many decades reporting the news, and his brief stint as the story itself, Rather is perfectly placed to assess the state of modern journalism; it is to his credit that he faces so unflinchingly the shortcomings of his own profession.

All in all, an engaging read by one of the most recognizable faces (and voices) of the era.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Chasing Fire by Nora Roberts

Book description:
Little else in life is as dangerous as fire jumping. But there’s also little else as thrilling—at least to Rowan Tripp. Being a Missoula smoke jumper is in Rowan’s blood: her father is a legend in the field. At this point, returning to the wilds of Montana for the season feels like coming home—even with reminders of the partner she lost last season still lingering in the air. One of the best of this year’s rookie crop, Gulliver Curry is a walking contradiction, a hotshot firefighter with a big vocabulary and a winter job at a kids’ arcade. And though Rowan, as a rule, doesn’t hook up with other smoke jumpers, Gull is convinced he can change her mind… But everything is thrown off balance, when a dark presence lashes out against Rowan, looking to blame someone for last year’s tragedy. Rowan knows she can’t complicate things with Gull—any distractions in the air or on the ground could be lethal. But if she doesn’t find someone she can lean on when the heat gets intense, her life may go down in flames.

I love Nora Roberts and am always thrilled to see a new paperback appear for sale. That said, this book (much like The Search) just doesn't reach the level of her earlier books. Despite being longer than many previous offerings, the story here seems to take a backseat to the technical details of firefighting- interesting in small doses, it became a bit overwhelming as presented. I love Roberts for her characters and the relationships she crafts for them, not for their careers or how well researched her books undoubtedly are, so this book for me was a bit of a bust. Truthfully, even a bad Nora Roberts is better than the best some romance writers have to offer but I hold Roberts to a higher standard based on the quality of the body of work. If you do have an interest in firefighting, I suspect this book will be a 4 or even 5 star read, but if you are looking for a deeply satisfying relationship story, then this book sadly isn't it.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Sugarhouse: Turning the Neighborhood Crack House into Our Home Sweet Home by Matthew Batt

Book description:
When a season of ludicrous loss tests the mettle of their marriage, Matthew Batt and his wife decide not to call it quits. They set their sights instead on the purchase of a dilapidated house in the Sugarhouse section of Salt Lake City. With no homesteading experience and a full-blown quarter-life crisis on their hands, these perpetual grad students/waiters/nonprofiteers decide to seek salvation through renovation, and do all they can to turn a former crack house into a home. Dizzy with despair, doubt, and the side effects of using the rough equivalent of napalm to detoxify their house, they enter into full-fledged adulthood with power tools in hand.

I picked up this book because of the promise of a story about rehabbing a house and a relationship one project at a time. Unfortunately, the book just isn't really that focused on house projects which was disappointing for me. There is a lot of backstory, and a lot of details about Matt's dysfunctional family, which though interesting, didn't seem to relate at all to the story I thought I would be reading. Most of the house projects are glossed right over (apart from Matt's attempts to self-justify at Home Depot) which I found disappointing. The book is funny but the narrative uneven, and ultimately this isn't a story about a house which is why I wanted to read it. It also isn't a story about a relationship because there is a lot more here about Matt's grandfather than his wife. The book was a quick read but ultimately unsatisfying read.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Beach Colors by Shelley Noble

Book description:
While renowned designer Margaux Sullivan was presenting her highly praised collection during New York City's Fashion Week, her husband was cleaning out their bank account. A week after he disappeared, the bank foreclosed on Margaux's apartment and business. Suddenly broke, betrayed, and humiliated, Margaux has nowhere else to turn to but home: the small coastal town of Crescent Cove, Connecticut, where she once knew love, joy, and family before she put them behind her on the climb to fame. When she's stopped for speeding by local interim police chief Nick Prescott, Margaux barely remembers the "townie" boy who worshipped her from afar every summer. But Nick is all grown up now, a college professor who gave up his career to care for his orphaned nephew, Connor. Though still vulnerable, Margaux is soon rediscovering the beauty of the shore through young Connor's eyes . . . and, thanks to Nick, finding a forgotten place in her heart that wants to love again. But as she continues to work on a bold new line that will get her back into the game, Margaux realizes that soon she will have to make the most important, most difficult decision of her life...

This story of a woman struggling to rebuild a life after her husband runs out on her with all of their money made for an enjoyable read for the most part.  Margaux and Nick were both interesting characters for most of the book, though at the end I didn't find either of them particularly sympathetic.  The book is well-written and the setting delightful.  The minor players- Margaux's mom, Nick's landlady- are engaging though I felt more of their story could have been told throughout the narrative.  I won't spoil the ending, but I did find the last few chapters frustrating and it altered my view of the book, costing 1/2 a star in the rating.    A fairly enjoyable summer read, this book ultimately failed to live up to its early promise.

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Philipp Sendker

Book description:
When a successful New York lawyer suddenly disappears without a trace, neither his wife nor his daughter Julia has any idea where he might be…until they find a love letter he wrote many years ago, to a Burmese woman they have never heard of. Intent on solving the mystery and coming to terms with her father’s past, Julia decides to travel to the village where the woman lived. There she uncovers a tale of unimaginable hardship, resilience, and passion.

This book, about one daughter's quest to find her father, is a truly engrossing read. During the first few pages, I felt Julia's confusion and feelings of dislocation; after that, I (like Julia) was too caught up in the story to question it from a logical perspective. The writing is fluid and the feeling of Burma, especially Burma in the 1950s, shines through. This is an odd book in some ways, a tale of the past that has only a nominal connection to the present, but surprisingly it works. As the true story of Tin Win and Mi Mi unfolds, the reasons for Julia's father's abrupt departure from his life in NY become clear and even understandable. Though the book does not answer how he could have so easily abandoned his daughter, Julia is really ony a peripheral character so her pain and her story are never as compelling as that of Tin Win and Mi Mi. Well written and engaging, this book was impossible to put down once I started reading.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Professionals by Owen Laukkanen

Book description:
Four friends, recent college graduates, caught in a terrible job market, joke about turning to kidnapping to survive. And then, suddenly, it's no joke. For two years, the strategy they devise-quick, efficient, low risk-works like a charm. Until they kidnap the wrong man.

Now two groups they've very much wanted to avoid are after them-the law, in the form of veteran state investigator Kirk Stevens and hotshot young FBI agent Carla Windermere, and an organized-crime outfit looking for payback. As they all crisscross the country in deadly pursuit and a series of increasingly explosive confrontations, each of them is ultimately forced to recognize the truth: The true professionals, cop or criminal, are those who are willing to sacrifice . . . everything.

The premise of this book was creative and compelling- four college buddies turn to intelligent kidnapping when their liberal arts degrees prove useless in today's job market. Unfortunately, that interesting hook is quickly lost in the shuffle of idiotic decisions, inexplicable violence, and the complete collapse of the structure of their long-term plans. I couldn't root for the criminals because their actions seemed wildly out of character for the way they were initially presented. The police and FBI also failed to capture my support because their odd sexual tension seemed unnecessary and undermined their appeal. By the last third of the book, I felt like I was just slogging through to make it to the end; turning the page was a chore not a thrill. Ultimately, I found this book a disappointing read with shallow characters that I have no desire to meet again.

Friday, April 6, 2012

The Cottage at Glass Beach by Heather Barbieri

Book description:
Married to the youngest attorney general in Massachusetts state history, Nora Cunningham is a picture-perfect political wife and a doting mother. But her carefully constructed life falls to pieces when she, along with the rest of the world, learns of the infidelity of her husband, Malcolm.

Humiliated and hounded by the press, Nora packs up her daughters—Annie, seven; and Ella, twelve—and takes refuge on Burke's Island, a craggy spit of land off the coast of Maine. Settled by Irish immigrants, the island is a place where superstition and magic are carried on the ocean winds, and wishes and dreams wash ashore with the changing tides.

Nora spent her first five years on the island but has not been back to the remote community for decades—not since that long ago summer when her mother disappeared at sea. One night while sitting alone on Glass Beach below the cottage where she spent her childhood, Nora succumbs to grief, her tears flowing into the ocean. Days later she finds an enigmatic fisherman named Owen Kavanagh shipwrecked on the rocks nearby. Is he, as her aunt's friend Polly suggests, a selkie—a mythical being of island legend—summoned by her heartbreak, or simply someone who, like Nora, is trying to find his way in the wake of his own personal struggles?

Just as she begins to regain her balance, her daughters embark on a reckless odyssey of their own—a journey that will force Nora to find the courage to chart her own course and finally face the truth about her marriage, her mother, and her long-buried past.

When Nora needed a place to escape the spotlight shining on her husband's infidelity, she retreated with her daughters to the island where she was born, the island she and her father left when she was just five years old after her mother disappeared. There Nora finds an aunt who loves her, a cottage that was once a home, and the still unanswered questions about her mother's disappearance. Woven through the story is Irish mythology and a deep and abiding love of the sea.

This was a book that once I started, I couldn't put down. The writing style is wonderful, as is the way the author weaves in old fairy stories with ease. Maire and Nora are great characters, and the Annie and Ella are precocious and intelligent children trying to deal with a crumbling family and a new-found love of the sea. I would have given it five stars if more of the questions about Maeve's disappearance has been answered- at the end I still had too many questions about that to be fully satisfied with the narrative. That said, this was a truly enjoyable read; I will certainly pick up other books by the author.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Elegy for Eddie by Jacqueline Winspear

Book description:
Early April 1933. To the costermongers of Covent Garden—sellers of fruit and vegetables on the streets of London—Eddie Pettit was a gentle soul with a near-magical gift for working with horses. When Eddie is killed in a violent accident, the grieving costers are deeply skeptical about the cause of his death. Who would want to kill Eddie—and why?

Maisie Dobbs' father, Frankie, had been a costermonger, so she had known the men since childhood. She remembers Eddie fondly and is determined to offer her help. But it soon becomes clear that powerful political and financial forces are equally determined to prevent her from learning the truth behind Eddie's death. Plunging into the investigation, Maisie begins her search for answers on the working-class streets of Lambeth where Eddie had lived and where she had grown up. The inquiry quickly leads her to a callous press baron; a has-been politician named Winston Churchill, lingering in the hinterlands of power; and, most surprisingly, to Douglas Partridge, the husband of her dearest friend, Priscilla. As Maisie uncovers lies and manipulation on a national scale, she must decide whether to risk it all to see justice done.

In this latest installment in the series, Maisie is hired by the costermongers of her childhood to investigate the death of one of their own. What seems like a simple task eventually reveals a conspiracy involving the highest levels of society. While the mystery itself is not that complicated, the appeal of this books lies in Maisie's efforts to reconcile the girl she was with the woman she has become. She wrestles with questions of morality and independence, juggling the expectations of others with her dreams for herself. I enjoy watching her struggle to deal with her new-found affluence, attempting to help those in her life that are less fortunate without creating resentment or hostility.

This series is a masterful look at England in the post-WWI years, and has given me a much better perspective on the war-weariness that made so many willing to turn a blind eye to the dangers of the rise of the Nazi party in Germany. Following as they do the struggles of women in this period, these books highlight the sad realities of a generation of women faced with a shortage of men to marry and forced to make their own way in a world not yet ready to accept that necessity.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Up From the Blue by Susan Henderson

Book description:
Tillie Harris's life is in disarray—her husband is away on business, the boxes in her new home aren't unpacked, and the telephone isn't even connected yet. Though she's not due for another month, sudden labor pains force Tillie to reach out to her estranged father for help, a choice that means facing the painful memories she's been running from since she was a little girl.

Though this book opens with Tillie in labor in 1991, the vast majority of the story takes place in 1975, the year Tillie turned eight and the year her mother was consumed by depression. Tillie doesn't understand the trouble her mother is having though the reader will easily recognize the signs; Tillie just wants her family to be happy. With a dad in the military focused on the development of smart bombs, and a mom who doesn't get out of bed for days on end, Tillie and her brother Phil are left to fend for themselves often enough for the neighbors on base to have concerns.

When the family moves to DC so Tillie's father can work at the Pentagon, Tillie stays behind for two weeks before rejoining a family that no longer includes her mother. As Tillie wrestles with making friends and a new school, her father refuses to discuss her mother and remakes their home into a sterile military barracks with chores and schedules designed to remove chaos from their lives. The story has some surprising twists but ultimately the ending seems inevitable.

I found this book a powerful read- I picked it up just to read a few pages over lunch and found myself unable to put it down. Tillie's story is heartbreaking and you can feel her pain as she fumbles through a life where everything she knows seems somehow wrong. 1975 marked the end of innocence for Tillie and Phil, and scarred their entire lives. I also came to feel back for Tillie's father, a man clearly out of his depth who tried (and failed) to keep his family intact in the face of mental illness. Well-written and emotionally gripping, this book is a must read.

Monday, February 13, 2012

And She Was by Allison Gaylin

Book description:
On a summer afternoon in 1998, six-year-old Iris Neff walked away from a barbecue in her small suburban town . . . and vanished.

Missing persons investigator Brenna Spector has a rare neurological disorder that enables her to recall every detail of every day of her life. A blessing and a curse, it began in childhood, when her older sister stepped into a strange car never to be seen again, and it’s proven invaluable in her work. But it hasn’t helped her solve the mystery that haunts her above all others—and it didn’t lead her to little Iris. When a local woman, Carol Wentz, disappears eleven years later, Brenna uncovers bizarre connections between the missing woman, the long-gone little girl . . . and herself.

With a main character who has a bizarre medical condition that is both a blessing and a curse- Brenna can remember any situation, any moment in time, but she can be thrown into those memories involuntarily by a smell or a snippet of conversation that acts as a trigger. She has been this way ever since her older sister got into a car one day and disappeared. Now Brenna searches for other lost people, hoping all the time to somehow unlock the key to finding her sister.

The story here revolves around another missing child and a recent murder that seems linked to that long ago disappearance. The plot is tight, the writing wonderful, and the end a complete surprise. Brenna's family story and her interactions with others make her an incredibly engaging character. In combination with the strength of the underlying plot, this book is certainly a must-read for any fan of mysteries and thrillers.

Highly recommended.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Good American by Alex George

Book description:
It is 1904. When Frederick and Jette must flee her disapproving mother, where better to go than America, the land of the new? Originally set to board a boat to New York, at the last minute, they take one destined for New Orleans instead ("What's the difference? They're both new"), and later find themselves, more by chance than by design, in the small town of Beatrice, Missouri. Not speaking a word of English, they embark on their new life together.

Beatrice is populated with unforgettable characters: a jazz trumpeter from the Big Easy who cooks a mean gumbo, a teenage boy trapped in the body of a giant, a pretty schoolteacher who helps the young men in town learn about a lot more than just music, a minister who believes he has witnessed the Second Coming of Christ, and a malevolent, bicycle-riding dwarf.

A Good American is narrated by Frederick and Jette's grandson, James, who, in telling his ancestors' story, comes to realize he doesn't know his own story at all. From bare-knuckle prizefighting and Prohibition to sweet barbershop harmonies, the Kennedy assassination, and beyond, James's family is caught up in the sweep of history. Each new generation discovers afresh what it means to be an American. And, in the process, Frederick and Jette's progeny sometimes discover more about themselves than they had bargained for.

This multi-generational immigrant story tells the complicated and enduring tale of one family's life and loves. After Frederick and Jette flee Hanover to start a new life, they end up in the small town of Beatrice, Missouri not because of any plan but rather because of a series of small choices that end up having a lasting impact. The story of their love, the family they create, and the subsequent generations is tied together by music; from opera to jazz to barbershop quartets, music is the constant thread that binds this family (and this story) together. The characters are real and leap off the page, and the writing has a quiet beauty that pulls you into this novel. There are times when I laughed, and times when I cried, but never a time when I wanted to put this book down.

Friday, February 10, 2012

I Think I Love You by Allison Pearson

Book description: Wales, 1974. Petra and Sharon, two thirteen-year-old girls, are obsessed with David Cassidy. His fan magazine is their Bible, and some days his letters are the only things that keep them going as they struggle through the humiliating daily rituals of adolescence—confronting their bewildering new bodies, fighting with mothers who don’t understand them at all. Together they tackle the Ultimate David Cassidy Quiz, a contest whose winners will be flown to America to meet Cassidy in person.

London, 1998. Petra is pushing forty, on the brink of divorce, and fighting with her own thirteen-year-old daughter when she discovers a dusty letter in her mother’s closet declaring her the winner of the contest she and Sharon had labored over with such hope and determination. More than twenty years later, twenty pounds heavier, bruised by grief and the disappointments of middle age, Petra reunites with Sharon for an all-expenses-paid trip to Las Vegas to meet their teen idol at last, and finds her life utterly transformed.

I actually expected this novel to be lighter and fluffier than it was given the subject matter- the story of a teenage crush on David Cassidy doesn't sound like it's going to be particularly deep. Once I began reading though, it became clear that Petra had unexplored depths, and that her obsession with David Cassidy filled a deep void in her life. Petra's awkward attempts to maintain her place in her friend group while dealing with a disapproving yet beautiful foreign mother who told her she didn't look so bad is poignant and authentic. The revelations about where exactly all those facts about David Cassidy that Petra and her friends (and millions of other girls) collected like pearls was amusing and yet also sad; I was delighted that Bill worked his was back into the modern-day section of the story in the end.

Well-written, both funny and heartbreaking in places- this novel is a wonderful way to spend a weekend afternoon. Trust me- if you ever nurtured a deep and lasting love for any pop star, you will see at least a little bit of yourself in Petra and her friends.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Come In and Cover Me by Gin Phillips

Book Description:
When Ren was only twelve years old, she lost her older brother, Scott, to a car crash. Since then, Scott has been a presence in her life, appearing as a snatch of song or a reflection in the moonlight. Now, twenty-five years later, her talent for connecting with the ghosts around her has made her especially sensitive as an archaeologist. More than just understanding the bare outline of how our ancestors lived, Ren is dedicated to re-creating lives and stories, to breathing life into those who occupied this world long before us. Now she is on the cusp of the most important discovery of her career, and it is ghosts who are guiding her way. But what do two long-dead Mimbres women have to tell Ren about herself? And what message do they have about her developing relationship with a fellow archaeologist, the first man to really know her since her brother's death?

I don't know how accurate the elements of the story that touch on the Mimbres pottery and archaeology are, but they certainly read as well-researched and quite interesting. Unfortunately, to me those were the most engaging parts of the book. I found Ren a diffcult character to relate to and never fell that engaged or involved with her as a person. Scott seemed two dimensional at best and there was certainly no reason I could see for the two of them to fall in love, if indeed what they had was love. The flashbacks to the lives of the Mimbres artists who haunt Ren and her dig sites were again more engaging than the lives of the supposed main characters which made this book something of a slog to get through.

Monday, January 16, 2012

What Happened to Hannah by Mary Kay McComas

Book Description:
As a teenager, Hannah Benson ran away from home in order to save herself. Now, twenty years later, the past comes calling and delivers life-changing news: her mother and sister have passed away, leaving Hannah the guardian of her fifteen-year-old niece.

Returning home to bitter memories and devastating secrets, Hannah must overcome her painful past to pave a future with her niece, the last best chance at a family for both of them. She begins to create a new, happier life with her niece and rekindles a relationship with Grady Steadman, one of the few people she’s ever called a friend.

But she can’t forget what she cannot forgive, or lay to rest those ghosts that will not die. Will love and trust—and the truth—give her the strength to stand her ground and fight for what she deserves?

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this book which managed to stay realistic and engaging while dealing with a complicated and potentially far-fetched plot. Out of the blue Hannah gets a call from Grady (her high-school sweetheart turned town sherriff) calling her back to the town she ran away from when she was seventeen years old. Her mother and sister are dead, and she has a teenage niece who needs a guardian now that the rest of her family is gone. The book tells the story of Hannah's return to her hometown and the house she grew up in, and also slowly reveals the story of her childhood and the eventful night when she finally escaped.

The book was excellent- in fact I would have given it 5 stars if not for the way the relationship between Grady and Hannah develops (no spoilers but I didn't like the power play he made or her response to it). Hannah herself is a well-drawn character who carries the novel, though her niece Anna is a quiet rock who helps anchor the story. It is impossible not to feel for these two girls forced to adapt to the realities of a life no one would choose; watching their relationship develop is the best part of the book.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Find Me by Carol O'Connell

Book Description:
On Route 66, as word travels that children's grave sites are being discovered along the road, the parents of missing children form a silent caravan. They are being shepherded by NYPD Detective Kathleen Mallory, who seeks a killer like none she has ever known-and a child unlike the others: herself.

I've been working my way through the entire Kathy Mallory series after a recommendation here on LT, and have to admit that I enjoy them because the characters are so interesting; the mysteries to me are secondary. That said, I am getting a little tired of stories that open somewhere in the middle with characters gradually dropping details throughout the book to flesh out the essential background- it is very frustrating feeling like everyone else knows something you don't (and I don't mean in terms of the clues to solve the mystery, I mean like why Mallory is on Route 66 in a new car being tracked by her partner in the opening paragraphs). Perhaps if I wasn't reading them all so close together, this annoying characteristic of these novels wouldn't be so obvious, but I am so it is.

Still, this is a complex and layered mystery that reveals a lot of interesting details about Mallory's past that help inform her current behaviors, and hold out a hope that there might be shifts coming in her psyche as some old wounds are healed. In the end, I was satisfied with the story and the character development, but all through the read, I was battling irritation at the piecemeal revelation of crucial facts. 3.5 stars.