07 January 2015

The Frozen Dead by Bernard Minier

Book Description: Saint-Martin-de-Comminges is a small town nestled in the French Pyrenees. The kind of place where winters are harsh and unforgiving and where nothing ever happens.
Until the winter morning when a group of workers discover the headless, flayed body of a horse, hanging suspended from the edge of a frozen cliff. On the same day the gruesome discovery takes place, Diane Berg, a young psychiatrist, starts her first job at a high-security asylum for the criminally insane, just a few miles away. She is baffled by the slightly unorthodox methods the asylum’s director uses, and then greatly alarmed when she realizes that drugs are disappearing from within the fortified institution while someone seems to be slipping out at night. Commandant Martin Servaz, a charismatic city cop from nearby Toulouse fond of quoting Latin, can’t believe he has been called out over the death of an animal. But there’s something disturbing about this crime that he can’t ignore. Then DNA from one of the most notorious inmates of the asylum, a highly intelligent former prosecutor, accused of killing and raping several women, is found on the horse carcass . . . and a few days later the first human murder takes place. A dark story of madness and revenge seems to be unfolding. Servaz and his colleague, the mysterious Irene Ziegler, must use all their skill to solve the terrifying mystery and best one of the most fiendish and clever opponents they could ever imagine.

If you're looking for a fast-paced thriller, 'The Frozen Dead' will not deliver.  The story is told slowly, deliberately, each character and plot twist introduced with clear intention.  Set in the Pyrenees mountains in the dead of winter, the action takes place in a dark and icy landscape so vividly described that I found myself reading while curled under a blanket, even though I wasn't cold.  Minier's writing is sparse yet precise, full of chilling attention to detail.  The reader is alternately transported to the grim halls of the Wargnier Psychiatric Institute, the sweeping mountain vistas of Southern France, and the bizarre luxury of a mega-millionaire's estate, with the dogged police commandant Martin Servaz serving as an unwilling tour guide.

Minier keeps the genre cliches to a minimum, so the story feels fresh and unlike any other 'murder mystery' I've read; I was legitimately surprised by certain turns in the plot.  Reading this book took a little more work than another book might - Minier demands active engagement on the part of the reader.  That said, I really enjoyed 'The Frozen Dead', and highly recommend it - 4 stars.

07 May 2013

The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls by Anton DiSclafani

Flap Copy from ARC: "It is 1930, the midst of the Great Depression.  After her mysterious role in a family tragedy, passionate, strong-willed Thea Atwell, age fifteen, has been cast out of her Florida home, exiled to an equestrienne boarding school for Southern debutantes.  High in the Blue Ridge Mountains, with its complex social strata ordered by money, beauty, and girls' friendships, the Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls is a far remove from the free-roaming, dreamlike childhood Thea shared with her twin brother on their family's citrus farm - a world now partially shattered.  As Thea grapples with her responsibility for the events of the past year that led her here, she finds herself enmeshed in a new order, one that will change her sense of what is possible for herself, her family, her country." 

DiSclafani's debut novel tells a story that is in parts a scandalous coming-of-age drama, a family tragedy, and a historically accurate period piece.  Thea narrates her own story, with the crispness of thought and language that come from being many years removed from the emotions of that time.  She alternates the setting between 'camp' (really a year-long school) now and her home in the previous year, slowly revealing the tragedy which led to her being sent away to school in the first place.

Thea was an interesting but unapproachable character, which suited me just fine.  Even though I didn't quite connect with her (as other girls at school could not, as her mother and even her twin could not) I was rooting for her success in every endeavor, from romance to horseback riding competitions. The book's fluid language and attention to detail painted lifelike people and scenery that transported me to Thea's world, and I had a hard time tearing myself away from it.

This novel is a vivid, engaging portrayal of love, sex and money set against the backdrop of the Great Depression.  DiSclafani captured the rising despair of the upper class as their money disappeared, and the slow trickle-down of knowledge as it reached the ears and lives of exiled daughters, with a distant compassion that seemed perfectly fitting for the subject matter.    I highly recommend this novel, I give it five stars - the writing is exquisite, the story is interesting, and the characters are worthy of a reader's time. I enjoyed this book more than any other I've read in a long time. 

26 April 2013

Big Brother by Lionel Shriver

Flap Copy from ARC: "For Pandora, cooking is a form of love.  Alas, her husband, Fletcher, a self-employed cabinetmaker who crafts high-end, one-of-a-kind furniture, now spurns the "toxic" dishes that he'd savored through their courtship, and loses hours a day to manic cycling.  But the couple's comfortable, if sometimes strained, routine is about to implode.  When Pandora picks up her older brother Edison at her local Iowa airport, she literally doesn't recognize him.  In the four years since the grown siblings last saw one another, the once slim, hip New York jazz pianist has gained hundreds of pounds.  What happened?
And it's not just the weight; Edison interjects himself into Pandora's world: breaking Fletcher's handiwork, making massive breakfasts for the family, enticing her stepson not only to forgo college but to drop out of high school.  
After the brother-in-law has more than overstayed his welcome, Fletcher delivers his wife an ultimatum: it's him or me.  Putting her marriage and her adopted family on the line, Pandora chooses her brother - who, without her support in losing weight, will surely eat himself into an early grave."
Fans of Lionel Shriver will not be disappointed with this new novel, which I am absolutely placing at the top of my 2013 list (at least for now, who knows what gems are still to come?) As always, Shriver has crafted a detailed and complex narrative about family dynamics, love, loyalty, and the question of how to gauge what one person might 'owe' another, especially a blood relation. This is a story about fat as a social issue, a personal battle, and a family tragedy.
A quick plot summary would do this book and its readers an injustice - suffice it to say that 'Big Brother' has something for every kind of reader: sibling rivalry, fame, television, parental dysfunction, spousal competition, and food, glorious food. Shriver's characters are not always likable, or lovable, but they are strikingly real and sometimes painfully human. She writes witty dialogue and vocabulary-heavy descriptions that immerse the reader in the lives and minds of the characters; even the lesser characters are given brief moments to shine.
To anyone who has ever felt out of control in the face of someone else's struggle, or struggled themselves to reach out to someone else while maintaining a fragile hold on his or her own life, this book is a must-read. I highly recommend 'Big Brother', it's deserving of more than five stars!

08 April 2013

Imperfect Bliss: A Novel by Susan Fales-Hill

Product Description: "Meet the Harcourts of Chevy Chase, Maryland. A respectable middle-class, middle-age, mixed-race couple, Harold and Forsythia have four eminently marriageable daughters—or so their mother believes. Forsythia named her girls after Windsor royals in the hopes that one day each would find her true prince. But princes are far from the mind of their second-born daughter, Elizabeth (AKA Bliss), who, in the aftermath of a messy divorce, has moved back home and thrown herself into earning her PhD. All that changes when a Bachelorette-style reality television show called The Virgin takes Bliss’s younger sister Diana as its star. Though she fights it at first, Bliss can’t help but be drawn into the romantic drama that ensues, forcing her to reconsider everything she thought she knew about love, her family, and herself. Fresh and engaging, Imperfect Bliss is a wickedly funny take on the ways that courtship and love have changed—even as they’ve stayed the same."

Obviously, after reading the product description, I was expecting a fun, light read - despite the Jane Austen references in the description, I knew I was not about to find a serious novel. I did, however, expect to be entertained. In fact the opposite was true. From the moment I began reading, I was desperately hoping for the end to come quickly. Sad clich├ęs and sexist stereotypes abound in this hideous story about a bi-racial family, hovering in the middle-class while desperately seeking ascension to some sort of 'nobility' while the ridiculous matriarch attempts to marry off her three questionably-eligible daughters. The characters are at best unconvincing, and at worst demeaning and offensive caricatures of already unappealing people. Don't waste your time on this one - even the editor clearly didn't want to bother, as the book is full of major typographical and consistency errors. Read some actual Jane Austen instead! If zero stars were possible, I would have used that rating - instead, a sad one star.

07 March 2013

Pretty Girl-13 by Liz Coley

Thirteen-year old Angie disappeared from a Girl Scout camping trip; this book opens three years later when she walks back into her house, having no idea that three years have passed. She doesn't know where she has been, who she was with, or what happened to her - she can't believe the sixteen-year-old looking back at her from the mirror. As she attempts to reenter her life, she begins having blackouts; after a few therapy sessions, it becomes clear that Angie is suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). In the face of the extreme trauma Angie has suffered, her mind has fractured, creating alternate personalities who protect her and face her abuser.

The novel tracks the course of Angie's first months back home, and her struggle to integrate these 'alters' back into herself so that she can have one whole persona, while at the same time facing their memories about the abuse she suffered. For the most part, this was a riveting book - the emotions crackled off the page, the characters were alive and vividly painted, and the plot turns were decently developed. Some of the 'science' behind the treatment of DID seemed a little fanciful to me, but I'm no expert so who knows. Angie did seem to recover remarkably quickly, but then, it's almost believable, because she's such a strong character to begin with, and has withstood so much already in her young life, that it seems entirely realistic that she would take charge of her situation and work as quickly as possible to remedy it. I wish her parents had been better drawn characters - they were a bit one-dimensional, and in my opinion their responses to Angie, to her return and to her abuse, didn't ring true.

I found this novel to be an engaging and insightful look at the workings of a child's mind in the fact of horrible trauma, and the amazing ability of the human mind and psyche to heal itself. It might not have been a perfectly scientific telling, but as a work of YA fiction, this book is a win for me, I highly recommend it.

The Elementals by Francesca Lia Block

Flap Copy from ARC: "The Elementals" is the story of a young woman named Ariel, who is facing the challenges of being away at college for the first time while her mother battles cancer at home. Ariel is also deeply haunted by the disappearance of her best friend, Jeni, and to uncover the truth of what happened to her friend, she is going to find herself lured into a group of strange and mysterious characters. As the answers begin to unravel, Ariel will be forced to make the most chilling decision of her life."

Faeries ... potions ... mysterious rituals ... forbidden sex ... need I say more? 'The Elementals' by Francesca Lia Block is a novel with some mature adult themes but enough juvenile allusions to anchor it strongly in the YA category. The author has a beautiful, lyric quality to her writing that draws the reader into the strange world of her creation; I found myself sucked in and unable to put down the book, even as the antics of the main characters frustrated and annoyed me. I wanted this book to be great, because the quality of writing is top notch, but the plot itself was mediocre and predictable.

Ariel (cue the first Shakespeare reference) has just arrived at college but is haunted by the disappearance of her best friend and by her mother's illness. She is socially awkward, deeply introverted, and a lover of poetry (yes, she quite neatly fits a certain stereotype). As she half-heartedly searches for her friend and at the same time begins her own downward spiral into depression and confusion, Ariel meets a strange trio of older students, who live off campus in a huge and mysterious house where alluring parties and bizarre practices abound.

I found the twists and turns of the plot to be predictable and a bit boring, and I kept waiting for Ariel to mature into some sort of better character, a person with whom I could relate, or at least sympathize. But those hopes never materialized. I give this book two stars - the writing is wonderful, but the story is unworthy of its beauty.

26 October 2012

The Midwife of Hope River by Patricia Harman

Flap Copy from ARC: "As a midwife working in the hard-scrabble conditions of West Virginia during the Depression, Patience Murphy's only solace is her gift: escorting mothers through the challenges of childbirth. Just beginning in her profession, she takes on the jobs no one else wants, caring for those most in need - and least likely to pay. Patience is willing to do what it takes to fulfill her mentor's wishes, but starting a midwifery practice means gaining trust, and Patience's own secrets are too fragile for her to let anyone in - especially her neighbor, rugged veterinarian Daniel Hester."

Patience Murphy is honest from the get-go, saying "to be a midwife was never my goal." No stranger to loss (she was orphaned young, then widowed young, and lost a baby along with way), Patience suddenly finds herself a guardian of life when her friend and mentor dies and leaves her alone to deliver babies in rural West Virginia. Set in the depths of the Great Depression, this book describes with poignant realism the crippling poverty and despair governing the lives of Patience's patients; at the same time, with each baby she delivers, Patience sees renewed joy and hope for the women she meets.

Harman's writing is vivid and her characters are warm and richly developed. Patience's story is woven throughout the novel, her secretive present interspersed with a very different and wilder past; along the way we meet the wildly different people who have influenced her. Nothing about this novel felt overdone - I thought Patience's emotions and experiences leapt off the page with their unapologetic reality, both good and bad. The scene was always alive but never over-imagined. Harman masterfully captured one woman's (and really, her entire community's) experience in a particular time and place - there were moments in the book that made me forget I was reading a work of fiction.

I give this novel 5 stars, I highly recommend it!