24 April 2009

The Girl She Used to Be by David Cristofano

Flap Copy from ARC:"When Melody Grace McCartney was six years old, she and her parents witnessed an act of violence so brutal that it changed their lives forever. The federal government lured them into the Witness Protection Program with the promise of safety, and they went gratefully. But the program took Melody's name, her home, her innocence and ultimately, her family. She's been May Adams, Karen Smith, Anne Johnson, and countless others - everyone but the one person she longs to be: herself.

So when the feds spirit her off to begin yet another new life in another new town, she's stunned when a man confronts her and calls her by her real name. Jonathan Bovaro, the Mafioso sent to hunt her down, knows her - the real her - and it's a dangerous thrill that Melody can't resist. He insists that she's just a pawn in the government's war against the Bovaro family. But can she trust her life and her identity to this vicious stranger whose acts of violence are legendary?"

This unusual glimpse into the Witness Protection Program was interesting and engagingly written, though I had some problems with its fundamental plot devices. The story grabbed me from the very beginning, with clever dialogue and quick surprises that kept me turning the pages. Melody was a well-written and quite loveable narrator -- Cristofano is to be highly commended for his ability truly to capture a woman's voice in such emotional and intelligent detail.

And yet, for all the highlights this novel held, I was ultimately disappointed. Other reviews seem to view the ending as realistic and honest - I, on the other hand, felt it was wildly unrealistic and also unsatisfying. Not that I expect a book to end with every character's problems solved and the story wrapped up - on the contrary, I much prefer novels whose characters suffer real problems with real, not-so-sexy solutions. But Melody and Jonathan were tortured yet false - I just didn't buy it, at the end of the day I guess I just didn't buy it. I was rooting for Melody, I thought Cristofano perfectly captured her uncertainty, the confused psyche that might allow her to have romantic feelings for her would-be assassin -- the romantic elements of the story was not my problem. But I finished reading and felt let-down, felt almost angry at the cop-out ending.

I give this book 3.5 stars -- it was thoroughly enjoyable and Cristofano is definitely an author to watch - I just wanted more from this particular book!

17 April 2009

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe

Flap Copy from ARC: "Connie Goodwin should be spending her summer doing research for her Ph.D. dissertation in American History. But when her mother asks her to handle the sale of Connie's grandmother's abandoned home near Salem, she's compelled to help. One day, while exploring the dusty bookshelves in the study, Connie discovers an ancient key, and within the key is a brittle slip of paper with two words written on it: Deliverance Dane.

Along with a handsome steeplejack named Sam, Connie begins to research Deliverance Dane. But even as the pieces fall into place, Connie is haunted by visions of long ago, and she fears that she is more tied to Salem's dark past than she could have ever imagined."

Howe's debut novel is truly wonderful, seamlessly blending the stories of a modern PhD student and the 17th century cunning woman she is researching. Rife with historical detail, romance, intrigue and ultimatley revelation, this novel was a quick and mesmerizing read. I've always been interested in stories (both fiction and non-) of the Salem witch trials, but this is the first in a long time to so thoroughly capture my attention.

Both well-written and meticulously crafted, this novel is a must-read. The women in this book are real - witches who might truly walk among us - and their stories, loves and fears reflect the actual struggles of women both past and present. I give Katherine Howe and her Deliverance Dane 5 stars and a huge thumbs up.

08 April 2009

The Believers by Zoe Heller

Flap Copy from ARC: "When New York radical lawyer Joel Litvinoff is felled by a stroke, his wife, Audrey, uncovers a secret that forces her to re-examine her ideas about him and their forty-year marriage. Joel's adult children will soon have to come to terms with this unsettling discovery themselves, but for the meantime, they are grappling with their own dilemmas ... "

Well-written though this book may have been, I found the characters and also the story to be annoying at best, extremely frustrating at worst. I give Heller credit for once again creating a rich, layered protagonist -- I loved her 'Notes on a Scandal' and was hoping that 'The Believers' would not disappoint. But it did - I just found the characters to be so unlikeable, their thoughts and actions so distasteful, that it was hard to enjoy the book. I was thoroughly engaged, I don't deny that Heller has written an intelligent, witty and brutally honest novel about contemporary society - I just didn't like it.

Audrey is a shrew - mean-spirited, self-righteous and completely void of any moral compass. When her husband of forty years falls into a coma and the stories and secrets of his life come to light, she grows increasingly nasty. Her children are another story. At first I felt sorry for them, raised by two leftist ideologues who probably never should have had children. But as their stories were illuminated I began to feel antagonistic towards them - Rosa, the priggish 'new Jew' whose exploration of her inherited faith is full of bitterness; Karla, the timid parental defender with no self-image and a fear of happiness; and Lenny, the adopted drug addict whose master manipulation of family and situation was the most accurate metaphor for the family's problems. I just didn't like them.

I'm not someone who needs to identify with a character in order to enjoy a book - I read for the sake of the writing more than for the story or its' characters. And I do believe that Heller has written a masterful novel about the nature of family, and more keenly the very nature of individual life. But at the end of the day I found 'The Believers' hard to enjoy, I wanted it to be over so I wouldn't have to know these people anymore, so I wouldn't have to think about them. So I suppose Heller succeeded in her ultimate task of capturing humanity at its worst ... but really, that's more than a little off-putting.

01 April 2009

Sima's Undergarments for Women

Flap Copy from ARC: "There are some life-long quests that all women have in common -- meaningful work, true love, and a bra that doesn't leave red marks on your skin ... writer Ilana Stanger-Ross has created a secret underground New York sisterhood where women of every shape and creed can come to share their milestones, laugher, loves and losses against a backdrop of discount lingerie.

In the comfort of her Brooklyn basement bra shop, Sima Goldner teaches other women to appreciate their bodies, but feels betrayed by her own. Shamed by her infertility and a secret from her youth, she has given up on happiness and surrendered to a bitter marriage. But then Timna, a young Israeli with enviable cleavage, becomes the shop seamstress. As the two serve the colorful customers of the orthodox Jewish neighborhood, Sima finds herself awakened to adventure and romance. Years after giving up on their marriage, Sima and her husband, Lev, must decide if what they have is worth saving."

I love love love this book, I couldn't put it down! It's beautifully written, alternating the humor and the tragedy of lives lived. Stanger-Ross has crafted rich, genuine characters - I felt Sima's silent emotional struggle as though it were my own, while Timna felt like so many young women I have known.

Sima is a local wonder in her tiny basement lingerie shop, where "in a glance she could see their size, the back and the cup combined. '36-D,' she'd say ... In vain the women protested, 'but I'm a 34. I've always been.' [But] when on her advice they slipped back on their shirts to evaluate the shape a new bra gave, they inevitably agreed." Her loyal customers rely on her to fit them, their sisters and their daughters with the perfect underwear while at the same time hearing their joys and sorrows and providing meaningul advice. This role has been Sima's for so long that she has completely forgotten how to think about her own problems, her own needs -- until Timna arrives, a breath of fresh air for the shop and the daughter that Sima and her sad husband Lev never had.

Watching Timna explore New York and her own freedom and youth, Sima is forced to examine her own life and the secrets and shames she has held since adolescence - and ultimately to accept her husband and begin the task of rebuilding their love. With graceful, unselfconscious prose Stanger-Ross brings to life the hidden stories all around us. I give this book a rousing 5 stars -- read it and you'll want to share it with all the women in your life.