21 December 2010

The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown

Flap Copy from ARC: "The Andreas family is one of readers - books are their passion and their solace. The father is a bit eccentric. A renowned professor who communicates almost exclusively in Shakespearean verse, he named all three of his daughters for great Shakespearean women: Rosalind (Rose), Bianca (Bean), and Cordelia (Cordy.) As a result, they find that they have a lot to live up to.

Each of the sisters has found her life nothing like what she had thought it would be - and when they are suddenly faced with their parents' frailty and their own disappointments and setbacks, their usual quicl salve of a book can't solve what ails them. When they each return to their childhood home - ostensibly to take care of their ailing mother, but really to lick their wounds - they are dismayed to find the others there ... To their surprise, the three discover that they are more similar than they ever imagined, and their childhood town and their sisterly bond offer much more than they ever expected."

The Andreas family certainly has more quirks than most, but in many ways they are a normal family - three sisters with individual problems and insecurities, a scholarly father who can't separate his work from his life, and a loving but absentminded mother who has her own issues to handle. Rose is the eldest, with all the fears that come from losing the attention and honor of being the only child. Bean is the quintessential middle child, desperate for attention and seeking it in all the wrong places - with disastrous results. And Cordy, the baby of the group, has always been indulged and is finding out now, more than a little too late, that she needs to stand on her own two feet.

Brown's writing style is funny and lyrical; her understanding of Shakespeare and her clever insertions of his lines throughout the characters' dialogue turned this family story into a literate delight. The omniscient narrator (apparently the three sisters speaking as one voice) took a little getting used to, but Brown's skillful combination of flashbacks and the present day wove a complete and entertaining tale of family life in the face of widely varied obstacles. I definitely recommend this novel with 3.5 stars - I mean really, who can resist a little iambic pentameter?

04 December 2010

Night Road by Kristin Hannah

Product Description from Amazon.com: "Jude Farraday is a happily married, stay-at-home mom who puts everyone’s needs above her own. Her twins, Mia and Zach, are bright and happy teenagers. When Lexi Baill enters their lives, no one is more supportive than Jude. A former foster child with a dark past, Lexi quickly becomes Mia’s best friend. Then Zach falls in love with Lexi and the three become inseparable. But senior year of high school brings unexpected dangers. In an instant, Jude's idyllic life is shattered and her close-knit community is torn apart. People - and Jude - demand justice, and when the finger of blame is pointed, it lands solely on eighteen-year-old Lexi Baill. In a heartbeat, their love for each other will be shattered, the family broken. Lexi gives up everything that matters to her - the boy she loves, her place in the family, the best friend she ever had - while Jude loses even more.

When Lexi returns, older and wiser, she demands a reckoning. Long buried feelings will rise again, and Jude will finally have to face the woman she has become. She must decide whether to remain broken or try to forgive both Lexi … and herself."

I read this book in one evening, staying up late because I couldn't put it down. Hannah's descriptions are vivid and her characters are real - I felt as though their struggles were my own; their emotional upheaval affected me and kept me turning the pages. Lexi, Zach and Mia felt like people I had always known; Jude was just like so many moms I knew in high school.

There were moments in the story that were predictable, for sure (it's hard to write a rich kid/poor kid relationship without falling into at least a couple of standard literary traps) but I definitely found myself surprised more often than not. When tragedy struck, I could truly feel the fabric of these characters' lives ripping apart.

Hannah raises profound questions about motherhood, friendship, identity, loss and forgiveness. I know the product description hints to a chick-lit story aimed mostly at women - and yes, I do believe women are more likely to respond to the story and it's players, but I do not want to label this novel as chick-lit - Hannah deserves the credit for crafting a truly enjoyable, finely nuanced and complex work of literary fiction. I give this book 5 stars, and strongly recommend that readers scoop it up when it hits the shelves in March 2011.

01 December 2010

Trespass by Rose Tremain

Flap Copy from ARC: "In a silent valley in Southern France stands an isolated stone farmhouse, the Mas Lunel. Aramon, the owner, is so haunted by his violent past that he's become incapable of all meaningful action, letting his hunting dogs starve and his land go to ruin. Meanwhile, his sister Audrun, alone in her modern bungalow within sight of the Mas Lunel, dreams of exacting retribution for the unspoken betrayals that have blighted her life. Into this closed world comes Anthony Verey, a wealthy but disillusioned antiques dealer from London. When he sets his sights on the Mas, a frightening an unstoppable series of consequences is set in motion."

This book tells a dark tale of the trespasses we visit upon one another, as well as those we commit against the land we walk and the world in which we live. On the one hand are Aramon and Audrun, on the other Anthony Verey and his sister Veronica. The lives of these four intersect when Anthony travels to France to visit Veronica, and then sets his sights on buying the Mas Lunel. All of these characters are over sixty years old, and all are living as much in a more vibrant past as in their dismal present day.

Tremain's prose is haunting, her language lyrical and descriptive and at the same time somehow sparse. The darkness in her characters' hearts is palpable to the reader, as is their growing despair. I found the novel to be at times unrelentingly grim, however, and though I was engaged in the story, I was more than ready to finish and shelve the book. I give it 3 stars - for the quality of the writing and for the power of the haunting feelings I was left with long after I was finished reading.

13 May 2010

She's So Dead to Us by Kieran Scott

Flap Copy from ARC: "Ally Ryan would rather be in Maryland. She would rather be anywhere, in fact, than Orchard Hill, site of her downfall. Well, not hers exactly, but when your father's hedge fund goes south and all your friends lose their trust funds, things don't look so sunny for you. So her mother moved them away to flee the shame. But now they're moving back. Back to the country club, new car every year, family came over on the Mayflower lifestyle that Ally has outgrown. But there are bright sides. Like gorgeous Jake Graydon. Ally and Jake instantly like each other, but it won't be easy for them to be together - not if his friends (her former friends) have anything to say about it. Is Ally ready to get thrown back into the drama of the life she left behind?"

This novel may be geared at teenagers but I thoroughly enjoyed it too, and I'm quite a few years out of high school! Scott alternates narration from both Ally's and Jake's point of view, keeping the voices real, believable and very endearing. I could feel Ally's embarassment, and her anger, and just the unfairness of it all, as though it were happening to me. Jake's emotions were very real too - the pressure of following his friends' lead, the desire to be the cool kid but also nice at the same - his teenage-boy-angst was palpable, and cringe-worthy. Scott did an excellent job with characterization and dialogue, while keeping the story light and highly entertaining. I would absolutely recommend this book, 4 stars!

12 May 2010

City Boy by Edmund White

Flap Copy: "When Edmund White left the Midwest after college he had an opportunity to pursue a Ph.D. at Harvard. Instead, he followed a lover to New York City. 'City Boy' chronicles the remarkable life he made for himself in the 1960s and '70s, in a city economically devastated but incandescent with art and ideas ...

Recalling life in a more sordid Manahattan, in an era of transformation, White records his ambitions and desires, remembers lovers and literary heroes, and displays the wit, candor and generosity that have defined his unique voice over the decades."

I received this book in November and tried to read it then but couldn't get through it. I picked it up twice more before finally finishing it, and after all that effort to read the book I'm a little disappointed.

White spins an engaging story, mixing comic anecdotes with serious reflection on himself and his peers at a time of great change in their lives - but I just wasn't interested. An excessive amount of name dropping turned me off from the very beginning, and the rest of the book did little to change my impressions. I think White has a lot of interesting things to say, and overall is an insightful and talented writer - clearly, since he overcame the early writers' block he describes in the book to publish 23 books - but his prose here was clumsy, often repetitive and even gossipy in tone. I thought I would like that casual, 'have I got a story for you' feel - instead it made the book a difficult one for me to finish.

I understand that White's life and writing have been vastly impacted by the time and place in which his adult life began - there were times, however, many times throughout the book, where entire paragraphs read like a roster of the literary and cultural icons of his time. Good for him, for meeting and observing all of those people. But was that all he had to write about?

01 April 2010

Gemma by Meg Tilly

Description from Amazon.com: "After Hazen Wood kidnaps 12 year-old Gemma Sullivan, the two embark upon a cross-country journey that tests the limits of Gemma's endurance. In graphic scenes of physical and sexual violence, Hazen tries to destroy the young girl's will. It is only Gemma's childlike resilience and fertile imagination that protect her from the worst of the abuse she suffers. And in the end, the healing power of unconditional love gives Gemma the courage to speak out against her abuser at last--reclaiming her dignity as a human being."

It has been hard for me to write a review of this novel - I read it several months ago, and my visceral reaction to it remains strong, but I've had trouble putting that feeling into words. Gemma is a smart, tough, creative 12-year-old who we quickly learn has been regularly raped since age 8 by her mother's low-life boyfriend. At the beginning of the book he sells her for $100 to another child molester, Hazen Wood, who becomes obsessed and kidnaps Gemma, taking her on a cross-country abuse and torture spree.

The story is told from alternating points-of-view, first Gemma then Hazen, which adds an element of raw truth to Tilly's well-written prose. Gemma's voice is quiet, shy - she survives solely on the basis of her vivid imagination; Hazen, meanwhile, is violent and obsessed, and sick too - he alternates between hurting Gemma and wanting to comfort her. The descriptions of Gemma's abuse are graphic and horrifying; the awful glimpses into the mind of her abuser are terrifying too.

This book was hard to read, and impossible to put down. I give Tilly 5 stars, but caution the sensitive reader - the images depicted herein will not quickly fade.

27 January 2010

The Only True Genius in the Family by Jennie Nash

Flap Copy: "Claire's father always said that in their family, genius skipped a generation. Maybe he was right. The daughter of a legendary landscape photographer and the mother of a painter whose career is about to take off, Claire has carved out a practical living as a commercial photographer. It may not earn her glory, but it's paid for a good life in a beautiful house on the beach.

When her father suddenly dies, Claire loses faith in the work she has devoted her life to - and worse, begins to feel jealous of her daughter's success. But as she helps prepare a retrosopective of her famous father's photographs, Claire uncovers revelations about him that change everything she believes about herself as a mother, a daughter, and an artist ..."

This book was a quick read, and I found myself grateful for that. I think Nash took on two very real problems - grieving for the death of a parent while still trying to parent one's own children, and struggling as an adult to find a place in the world and in one's own life - but she let the characters slip too deeply into cliched speech and behavior. It's very interesting to consider the ways in which parents injure their children, often without realizing, and the ways that childhood events linger in memory and influence adult behavior. But in my opinion Nash's characters were more annoying than compelling, their dialogue stilted and their emotions overdrawn.

Nash's exploration of the nature of creativity was definitely the most interesting aspect of this book for me - she questions whether we are all born with a seed within us that some people are just better equipped (or enabled) to express, or whether some people have genius and some just don't. Claire is a successful commercial photographer, but compared to her father's iconic work her successes seem insubstantial. She is haunted by his greatness, as well as by her daughter's seeming genius - did she get left out of the creative gene pool?

This book had potential, and definitely tackled some interesting questions; I just don't think Nash executed her ideas to the best of her intentions. The novel wasn't bad, but it wasn't great either - I give it 2.5 stars, I think I could find much better chick lit or family drama without too much effort.

26 January 2010

Alice I Have Been by Melanie Benjamin

Flap Copy from ARC: "Who was Alice Pleasance Liddell? Eighty-year-old Alice mines her way to the heart of this question - speaking of the implacable mother who raised her, of the prince who loved her, of the sons she sent off to war, of the love affair that shattered her life. She reflects upon her halcyon days in Oxford: days of great privilege and greater tragedy, of being courted by royalty, and of finding life beyond the rabbit hole in a tumultuous but astonishing journey. In a novel that blends fact and fiction, a feather in the winds of literary history is ensnared as a woman reminisces about a lifetime spend trying to escape Wonderland - and of at last learning to embrace it."

Who doesn't have a childhood memory of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland - the book or the Disney movie or both - few works of literature are so widely beloved. Benjamin's tale, told from the viewpoint of an elderly Alice looking back on a life lived in the shadow of her childhood self, was a poignant and engrossing look at the life of Alice Liddell, the 'real' Alice in Wonderland. I never knew more than that the book was inspired by a real girl - reading this novel made me want to learn more about the history of the original work.

I think Benjamin truly captured the essence of Alice's voice throughout the book, as an adult looking back at herself, her family and friends and trying to remember the people and events she has spent most of her life trying to forget. I felt for Alice, trapped in a house with an austere, uncaring mother, a distant father and a manipulative older sister; she was always the odd one out, struggling to find her place. She knew she didn't fit in; she knew that she was different, that she viewed the world differently than her peers -- it was this difference, which she longed to celebrate, that drew the attention of Charles Dobson and set in motion a chain of events that would change Alice's life forever.

This novel was a great read, a story about a story that I've always wished to further understand. Though the complete truth about the relationship between Dodson and Liddell will never be known, this well-imagined tale captured my interest and also my heart. One of the best books I've read this year - I highly recommend it.

25 January 2010

Someday My Prince Will Come by Jerramy Fine

Flap Copy: "Jerramy Fine wants to be a princess. At age six, she announces that she is going to meet and marry the Queen of England's grandson and as she gets older, not once does she change her mind. But growing up with hippie parents in the middle of a rodeo-loving farm town makes finding her prince a bigger challenge than Jerramy ever bargained for. How can she prepare to lead a royal life when she's surrounded by nothing but tofu and tractors?

Jerramy spends her childhood writing love letters to Buckingham Palace, and years later, when her sense of destiny finally brings her to London, she dives headfirst into a whirlwind of champagne-fueled society parties in search of her royal soul mate. She drinks way too many martinis and kisses far too many Hugh Grant look-alikes, but life in England is not the fairy tale she hoped it would be. Her flatmates are lunatics, London is expensive, and British boys (despite their cute accents) are infuriating. Sure, she's rubbing shoulders with Princess Anne, Earl Spencer and the Duchess of York - but will she ever meet her prince

This entertaining memoir had me at times laughing out loud, cringing with empathy and dreaming of my own royal future. Though I'm not sure I fully support her 20-year quest to marry a prince, I can't fault that level of dedication and tenacity - Fine is a girl and then a woman on a mission, never letting widely varied setbacks deter her from her dream. Fine's wry humor and honest voice carry the book, which often seems more like fiction than memoir - I'm so glad it wasn't! Fine's spot-on descriptions of life in London - from her prison of a dorm to her crazy flatmates and her bizarre social life - were even funnier because I knew they were true ... they also eerily mimicked some of my own experiences as a grad student at LSE!

I highly recommend this book to anyone looking for a little romance, a lot of laughter and big dreams. Though I wish that Fine could have turned such intense devotion to a cause more worthy in my mind than finding the perfect man, I love her for the effort and for the resulting hilarious read.

21 January 2010

Saving Cicadas by Nicole Seitz

Book description: "When single mother Priscilla Lynn Macy learns she's having another child unexpectedly, she packs the family into the car to escape. Eight-year-old Janie and Rainey Dae, her seventeen-year-old sister with special needs, embark on the last family vacation they'll ever take with Poppy and Grandma Mona in the back seat.

The trip seems aimless until Janie realizes they are searching for the father who left them years ago. When they can't find him, they make their way to Forest Pines, SC. Priscilla hasn't been to her family home in many years and finds it a mixed blessing of hope, buried secrets, and family ghosts.

Through eyes of innocence, Janie learns the hard realities of life and the difficult choices grownups make. And she must face disturbing truths about the people she loves in order to carry them in the moments that matter most."

There are reasons that I avoid reading Christian fiction - this book encompasses all of those reasons, and then some. I was extremely disappointed with this novel, which did not bill itself as Christian-themed, but rather as a Southern family drama. Seitz did write some interesting characters, people whose lives I could have been interested in learning more about; her overly simplistic handling of Priscilla's unplanned pregnancy, however, and her preachy, anti-abortion message that read like bad propoganda completely turned me off even the most compelling moments in the novel - not that there were many to begin with. Add to these elements a lot of off-putting talk about God and angels and 'surprise' plot twists that were wholly predictable and you get a dull novel that I couldn't wait to finish. The book description and marketing plan should absolutely indicate the heavy-handed Christian content so that readers can make a more informed purchasing decision.

12 January 2010

Shadow Baby by Alison McGhee

Flap Copy: "Eleven-year-old Clara winter (she prefers the lowercase and she has her reasons) is struggling to find the truth about her imssing father and twin sister, but her mother refuses to reveal any information. When Clara begins interviewing her elderly neighbor Georg Kominsky for a school assignment, she finds that he is equally reticent about his own concealed history. Precocious and imaginative, Clara invents Mr. Kominsky's history just as she invents lives for the people missing from her own shadowy past. In this remarkable story of family and friendship, the unlikely pair of Clara and Mr. Kominsky embarks on a journey that leads them to discover what matters most in life and to find the scattered pieces of themselves."

I really, really wanted to like this book. I was a shy, quirky kid and lived a lot of the time in my own head. I had an elderly neighbor who was not only my mentor but for most of my childhood absolutely my best friend and confidante, a lady who, like Georg Kominsky did for Clara, helped me find myself. But I could not get through Shadow Baby with any ease - I found reading more than a few pages to be like pulling teeth. And it wasn't the story's fault, I certainly related to it and was interested by the overall lack of plot and the overwhelming focus on internal monologue and inventive storytelling. McGhee's writing was engaging, if at times a bit repetitive. But there was something missing, something crucial that made me struggle with every page. It was like the story had all the right components, but no life. Clara wasn't cutely precocious, she was annoyingly so. Her mother's complete lack of empathy was such a stereotypical view of the struggling single mom, it didn't do her or her own tragic experiences any justice. The only character I found redeeming was Georg, and we barely saw or knew him, we only knew Clara's overly precious ideas about him. I give this book 2.5 stars, I think McGhee could have done a lot better.

11 January 2010

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

Flap Copy: "In 1996, a rare book expert is offered the job of a lifetime: analysis and conservation of a mysterious, beautifully illuminated Hebrew manuscript created in fifteenth-century Spain and recently saved from destruction during the shelling of Sarajevo's libraries. When Hanna Heath, a caustic Aussie loner with a passion for her work, discovers a series of tiny artifacts in the book's ancient binding - an insect-wing fragment, wine stains, salt crystals, a white hair - she begins to unlock the mysteries of the book's eventful past and to uncover the dramatic stories of those who created it and those who risked everything to protect it."

This wonderful book captivated me from start to finish. A work of fiction, it tracks the journey of the Sarajevo Haggadah through time and around the globe. Brooks presents the book's possible past as a series of narratives, each told from a different perspective and a different place in time; she personalizes this truly remarkable work of art and history and gives life to the remarkable resilience of the book's creators and its protectors. As Hanna Heath dissects various artifacts found in the manuscript and wonders at their provenance she also discovers her own family history, making a personal journey that Brooks managed to keep realistic as well as compelling. She also captured the heart and spirit of the city of Sarajevo and its people in brief real-time glimpses throughout the narrative - if I hadn't already lived there and seen the Haggadah muself, this book would have made me consider that unlikely vacation. I highly recommend this book, 5 gold stars!