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!

Child Made of Sand: Poems by Thomas Lux

I was not familiar with the poetry of Thomas Lux before I received this book - I will say that after reading 'Child Made of Sand', I will definitely be looking for more of his works. This collection is all about memories, about looking back with a wiser eye on some of the most trivial yet key moments in a life. His language is quiet as he describes the unfettered emotions and mundane observations of childhood; at the same time, his line breaks are so carefully timed and his images so vividly written that even the mundane is beautiful. Lux's narrative is accessible and humorous, and surprising. He is clearly influenced by some of the great poets of the past, and pays tribute to them in his works.

My one clear criticism is that he seems to take himself a bit too seriously, and I thought some of the poems in the collection seemed less a part of the cohesive whole. I give this book 3 stars - I definitely want to read more from Lux, but I doubt this will be my favorite of his collections.

28 September 2012

The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

Flap Copy from ARC: "The Victorian language of flowers was used to convey romantic expressions: honeysuckle for devotion, asters for patience, and red roses for love. But for Victoria Jones, it’s been more useful in communicating mistrust and solitude. After a childhood spent in the foster-care system, she is unable to get close to anybody, and her only connection to the world is through flowers and their meanings. Now eighteen and emancipated from the system with nowhere to go, Victoria realizes she has a gift for helping others through the flowers she chooses for them. But an unexpected encounter with a mysterious stranger has her questioning what’s been missing in her life. And when she’s forced to confront a painful secret from her past, she must decide whether it’s worth risking everything for a second chance at happiness."

This book is truly wonderful. The writing is compelling, the characters are real and their lives move the reader - at different points my reaction varied from extreme frustration with and sadness for Victoria and her life situations, to joy in the beautiful and descriptive prose, to curiosity about the truth behind this language of flowers.

The novel is told in alternating chapters - some from the present day, some from the year Victoria was ten years old. That period in her life was her last childhood chance at having a family, before she became a permanent ward of the foster care system. Diffenbaugh paints a heartbreaking and vivid picture, not only of Victoria's past but also of her present. Even as Victoria made me want to scream at her in frustration, I was riveted to the book in the desperate hope that a new page would bring her closer to the love and happiness she seeks. Victoria's voice is at times hard, at times fearful, but always strong, as she relays the harsh realities of her time in foster care and reveals some scars that might never heal. At the same time, I never felt preached-to by the author, nor did she ever try too hard to draw sympathy from the reader - rather, Victoria's complete lack of desire for empathy was the strongest draw for my emotions. I wanted to care more because she couldn't seem to care at all.

I thought this book might be too 'chick-lit-y', I worried it might not be engaging. I was so wrong, I loved this book, I have recommended it to so many friends. The idea of a language of flowers is interesting to me, I've since read more about it, and that language weaves a thread through the novel that I think anyone would enjoy. I give this one a rousing 5 stars!

31 August 2012

Nine Months: A Novel by Paula Bomer

Flap Copy from ARC: "A young Brooklyn mother, shaken at her unexpected (third) pregnancy, abandons her husband and kids and takes off on a cross-country odyssey. Sonia does everything pregnant woman shouldn't do, engaging in casual sex and smoking weed while on a road trip to retrace her own past and reclaim her sidelined career as an artist."

This novel presents itself as a 'middle finger salute' to the current culture of mommy blogs and political correctness, to the idea of the glowing pregnant woman and the blissful harmony of pregnancy, family life and womanhood. Bomer sets out to share the story of a woman, a mother and wife, who is not so excited to be pregnant again - her experience of pregnancy, not only the physical aspects but also the mental and emotional sides, is fairly miserable. She hates her body, she comes to hate her husband and her friends, and she resents her children even as she loves them.

I think Bomer's idea is a good one. Women do feel an immense pressure to put on a happy face in pregnancy and in motherhood, to be perfect in their womanhood. It's not supposed to be hard, a woman is supposed to flourish in these roles. And Sonia is failing miserably. She's afraid that she's a bad mother and a bad wife, yet all she wants is to escape her life and return to the freedom of her youth. So she does just that, setting out on an unsanctioned road trip for the last three months of her third pregnancy, leaving her husband and children behind in order to reconnect with herself.

I wanted to like this book. I wanted to sympathize with Sonia, with her husband Dick, with the kids. But I couldn't, the characters were detestable and frankly I think deserved each other's mistreatment. Bomer did a fabulous job making Sonia come alive - she is as real a character as I have read in quite some time. Her physical discomfort is alive on the page, as is her terror at the pending birth and her desperate fear that she has lost herself somewhere in the mix and might never recover. Bomer's writing is strong, though at times the thread of the story was lost a bit in the disjointed and rambling nature of the characters' interactions.

Bomer took quite a chance with this novel, tackling the rather taboo topic of an unhappy mother and the choices she must face in attempting to balance her life, her art and her family. The idea was strong, as was most of the writing, but the characters were so unlikable and the dialogue at times so far-fetched that I can't give the book more than three stars - it was readable, but frustrating.

29 July 2012

Carry the One by Carol Anshaw

Flap Copy from ARC: "'Carry the One' begins in the hours following Carmen's wedding reception, when a car filled with stoned, drunk and sleepy guests accidentally hits and kills a girl on a dark country road. For the next twenty-five years, those involved, including Carmen and her brother and sister, connect and disconnect and reconnect with one another and their victim. As one character says, "When you add us up, you always have to carry the one." Through friendship and love affairs; marriage and divorce; parenthood, holidays and the modest tragedies and joys of ordinary days, 'Carry the One' shows how one life affects another and how those who thrive and those who self-destruct are closer to one another than we'd expect."

I was expecting this novel to move me in some way. I was expecting to read about a family coming to grips with a tragedy of their own making, seeking a way to move on with their lives in the wake of their poor choices that ultimately took an innocent life. Instead, I read a rather ho-hum tale of 3 siblings (Carmen, Nick and Alice) and their rather unexciting paths to adulthood. While the author attempted to weave Casey (the young girl killed by the group's drunk driving accident) into the story and make it seem as though the three adults were struggling with her memory every day, her inclusion felt more like an afterthought.

The novel is structured rather bizarrely, with frenetic jumps among people, places and times. I didn't find the characters to be particularly moving, nor their lives or struggles to be realistic or thought-provoking. All in all, this book was a bit of a disappointment, despite Anshaw's occasionally exquisite use of language.

28 July 2012

Gold by Chris Cleave

Flap Insert from ARC: "'Gold' is the story of three friends, Zoe, Jack and Kate, each world-class cyclists training for their last chance at an Olympic medal; Jack and Kate's eight-year-old daughter, Sophie, who is battling a recurrence of childhood leukemia; and the women's coach, Tom, who has known them all since they were kids themselves. Echoing the adrenaline rush of a race around the Velodrome track and weaving seamlessly amid risk, danger, defeat, surrender and triumph like the slimmest tires on the bicycles powered by the most elite athletes in the world, 'Gold' is a profound and exhilarating examination of family, friendship, parenthood, sacrifice and glory."

I loved Chris Cleave's "Little Bee" and was very excited to receive this book. In many ways Cleave did not disappoint - his writing is often extraordinary, and he builds plot tension like a master storyteller. His characters are vivid (even Kate, who is written intentionally to be so bland) and their emotions, triumphs and griefs are real and heart-wrenching. And yet ... this book left much to be desired.

I knew nothing about the sport of cycling when I began reading, but I do love to watch the Olympics! Cleave really brings home the intensity of the competition, making the reader intimately aware of the power of a fraction of a second. Kate, Zoe and Jack are friends, lovers, and fierce competitors. They've lived and worked alongside one another since they were 19, and have seen injury, triumph, childbirth and heartbreak affect them on and off the track. Throw into the mix the girls' curmudgeonly coach Tom, and Jack and Kate's daughter Sophia (who is battling a relapse of leukemia) and you get one tense, sleep-deprived and crazed seeming group.

Despite some entertaining action and competition, the plot was just a little too contrived, the 'twists' a little too easy to see coming. I still enjoyed reading "Gold", it was engaging and difficult to put down. But it doesn't live up to Cleave's other works, and it definitely doesn't strike gold.

27 July 2012

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker

Flap Copy from ARC: "A family in suburban California wakes up one Saturday morning to discover that something has happened to the rotation of the earth: it has begun to slow. The days are getting longer and longer, and there are other disturbing consequences. In the midst of this escalating global catastrophe, Julia, a young woman whose family is at the heart of The Age of Miracles, is coping with the normal catastrophes of ordinary life - changes in her parents and her friends and herself, first love, the struggle to find her way in an utterly altered world."

This coming-of-age novel carries an unusual twist - in addition to all of the normal difficulties that face a young girl entering puberty, Julia's world carries one more: the Earth's rotation is slowing down. As the days get longer and longer, clocks lose their meaning, as do the routines of normal life. Julia, her family and the world must find a way to navigate this new, ever-changing landscape - and Julia's still trying to figure out how to be 'cool', how to be in love, how to be 'normal'.

I thought the premise of the book was unique and interesting, but I didn't find the resolutions I was hoping for in the pages of the story. Walker's attention to detail is commendable - she brought the reader into each and every thought and scene. I found the ending to be a bit hurried, though - I wanted more.

Walker had a clear vision and a great idea, and I definitely recommend The Age of Miracles as a thought provoking read. Not only did I find myself wondering 'what if?', I also remembered that awkward time of pre-teen-hood, and tried to imagine what it would be like to be so uncertain in such an uncertain world. I give this book 4 stars - it's not for the die-hard sci fi fan, but it's certainly a book to make you question your reality.

The Underside of Joy by Sere Prince Halverson

Description: "To Ella Beene, happiness means living in the northern California river town of Elbow with her husband, Joe, and his two young children. Yet one summer day Joe breaks his own rule-never turn your back on the ocean-and a sleeper wave strikes him down, drowning not only the man but his many secrets.

For three years, Ella has been the only mother the kids have known and has believed that their biological mother, Paige, abandoned them. But when Paige shows up at the funeral, intent on reclaiming the children, Ella soon realizes there may be more to Paige and Joe's story. "Ella's the best thing that's happened to this family," say her close-knit Italian-American in-laws, for generations the proprietors of a local market. But their devotion quickly falters when the custody fight between mother and stepmother urgently and powerfully collides with Ella's quest for truth."

Set in the richly described small town of Elbow, California, this novel tracks a family through grief and joy, exploring the complex bonds of family and the true meaning of motherhood. Halverson's prose is descriptive and emotionally charged, but never overly dramatic or forced. Her characters are real people with real faults and feelings, and she writes them in such a way that you feel each moment, good and bad, alongside them.

I strongly felt the author's desire to show empathy both for Paige and for Ella, though the story is told from Ella's perspective. As the two women navigate the very rocky and always dirty minefield of child custody following the loss of Ella's husband Joe, the reader feels for both women - there is nothing easy or obvious in that minefield.

The lush natural setting of vineyards and river imbue this novel with a warm and homey atmosphere, the ideal setting for a family story. I highly recommend this novel, it will make you question your ideas on family, on love and on grief - once I started reading I couldn't put it down, though I was dreading what might happen next. I give The Underside of Joy five stars.

20 July 2012

And Laughter Fell from the Sky by Jyotsna Sreenivasan

Flap Copy from ARC: "Rasika has always tried to play the role of dutiful daughter. Even though she has a career that allows her to be financially independent, she still lives at home and knows she will someday marry an appropriate suitor. With her twenty-sixth birthday fast approaching, she agrees to an arranged marriage, all while trying to hide from her family her occasional dalliances with other men. Abhay is everything an Indian-American shouldn't be. Smart, curious and ridden with angst, he spent his post-college year in a commune, only to leave and hop among various dead-end jobs, brooding about his inability to find what he wants to do with his life. Old family friends, Rasika and Abhay seem to have nothing in common, and yet when the two reconnect by chance, sparks immediately fly. Abhay loves Rasika, but he knows her family would never approve. Rasika knows she has feelings for Abhay, but can she turn her back on the family rules she has always tried so hard to live by? The search to find answers takes Abhay and Rasika out of their native Ohio to Oregon and India, where they find that what they have together might just be something worth fighting for."

My feelings are a bit mixed on this book - I enjoyed elements of the story and the tone of the writing, but I didn't really like any of the characters. I think the author really captured the dilemma faced by so many children of immigrants - the desire to follow tradition and please parents while at the same time navigating the pressures of a new and different culture and a desire to fit in. I just wish I had been better able to relate to any of her characters.

Rasika has always been the perfect daughter - at least, she appears that way. Her parents have no idea that while she pays lip service to their beliefs and customs, and pretends to have agreed to the arranged marriage they have planned, she's actually dating various other men and finding small ways to sabotage each potential 'approved' suitor. She is obsessed with her appearance, with being viewed as stylish and successful. Her emotions are wooden and her motives suspect.

Abhay, on the other hand, has never fulfilled his parents' expectations. He excelled at school but has no ambition - he's aimlessly drifting from job to job and place to place, trying to find his true calling. He loves Rasika (the sister of his friend) but she cannot see him as a possible mate because he doesn't live up to her exacting standards of style and success.

The plot moves along fairly smoothly, though the end was too neatly wrapped up and tied in a bow for my taste - I think the author let the readers down by letting Rasika off the hook at the end for so many of her bad actions throughout the story. That being said, it was an enjoyable read, and an interesting (if slightly fluffy) glimpse into the Indian-American culture.

The After-Wife: A Novel by Gigi Levangie Grazer

Flap Copy from ARC: "L.A. is no place for widows. This is what forty-four-year-old Hannah Bernal discovers after the tragic death of her handsome and loving husband. And yet life stumbles on: Her three-year-old daughter still needs to be dropped off at her overpriced preschool, while Hannah must get back to work in order to pay the bills on "Casa Sugar", the charming bungalow they call home.

However, when a series of mishaps finds Hannah in a posh Santa Monica jail cell, her friends start to fear for her sanity. And after Hannah is dramatically fired from her job, she finds herself in danger of losing her house, her daughter, and her mind.

One night, standing in her backyard under an avocado tree, in the throes of grief, Hannah breaks down and asks "Why?" The answer that comes back - "Why not?" - begins an astounding journey of discovery and transformation that leads Hannah to her own truly extraordinary life after death."

The premise of this novel sounded quirky and potentially very entertaining. I was hoping that Grazer would have tackled a potentially difficult topic with humor - instead I found a boring, ridiculous story with unreasonable and unbelievable characters, dialogue and situations. And I don't mean the presence of a 'ghost', which I knew was coming and obviously was willing to suspend my disbelief in order to be pulled into the story. But the main characters are weak, so weak that it was hard to care about them enough to keep reading. The plot never develops, and no real conflict or tension are ever realized. I only kept reading in anticipation of finally being done with the book - I wouldn't recommend this novel, I think there are many better beach-reads out there.

12 April 2012

Wife 22 by Melanie Gideon

Flap Copy from ARC: "Maybe it was my droopy eyelids. Maybe it was because I was about to turn the same age my mother was when I lost her. Maybe it was because after almost twenty years of marriage my husband and I seemed to be running out of things to say to each other. But when the anonymous online study called "Marriage in the 21st Century" showed up in my inbox, I had no idea how profoundly it would change my life. It wasn't long before I was assigned both a pseudonym (Wife 22) and a caseworker (Researcher 101). And, just like that, I found myself answering questions ....

7. Sometimes I tell him he's snoring when he's not snoring so he'll sleep in the guest room and I can have the bed all to myself.

61. He was cutting peppers for the salad. I looked at those hands and thought, I am going to have this man's children.

32. That if we weren't careful, it was possible to forget one another.

Before the study, my life was an endless blur of school lunches and doctor's appointments, family dinners and budgets. I was Alice Buckle: spouse of William and mother to Zoe and Peter, drama teacher and Facebook chatter, downloader of memories and Googler of solutions. But these days, I'm also Wife 22. And somehow, my anonymous correspondence with Researcher 101 has taken an unexpected turn. Soon, I'll have to make a decision - one that will affect my family, my marriage, my whole life. But at the moment, I'm too busy answering questions. As it turns out, confession can be a very powerful aphrodisiac."

I really enjoyed this take on a modern marriage in the throes of middle-aged angst. Alice Buckle is a loving wife, mom and elementary school drama teacher whose insecurities and minor internet obsessions make her a very believable character. Her role in the novel is bolstered by a great supporting cast, including her maybe-gay adolescent son Peter, whose assistance and judgement Alice seeks for all fashion-related decisions; Zoe, her teenage daughter/mini-me who may or may not suffer from an eating disorder; and Nedra, Alice's gay lawyer best friend whose happy and sex-filled relationship torments Alice in this time of midlife crisis.

When Alice is approached to participate in an anonymous online survey about love and marriage, she jumps at the chance. She is soon connected to 'Researcher 101' and, in her role as 'Wife 22', shares intimate details, fears and stories with ease. Her responses to the seemingly random array of questions paint a vivid picture of Alice's early love and romance, and subsequently what she feels is lacking in her current relationship with her husband of 20 years. Alice soon comes to rely heavily on her internet relationship with Researcher 101, craving his communication to the point that she begins to feel the relationship has taken an illicit turn, and even considers relinquishing her anonymity to meet him in person.

How do we keep love and romance alive over time? How do we reconnect with loved ones from whom we've grown distant? How do we balance our kids, our jobs and our sex lives? These are Alice's personal dilemmas, ones with which I imagine many readers can relate. Melanie Gideon's prose is witty, her sense of humor self-deprecating but never cruel - I highly recommend this book as a fun and engaging summer read. I give it 4 1/2 stars, and look forward to reading more from this author.

10 April 2012

Kiss, Crush, Collide by Christina Meredith

Flap Copy from ARC: "The golden girl who as it all. The irresistible boy from the wrong side of the tracks. She wants out. Kiss. He wants her. Crush. They collide."

I enjoy reading YA fiction and expect it to be as smart and interesting in its way as adult fiction. Unfortunately this book was neither smart nor interesting. The characters are 1-dimensional and a little inconceivable - I understand that Leah wants more from her life than what she's been handed on a silver platter, and more from her family and friends than they're capable of giving her, but she is as passive and as boring as a robot. The only thing she manages to accomplish in this last summer of high school is to cheat on her boyfriend, and even that she doesn't handle very well. I just wanted to scream at her, 'do something! say something! grow up!'

I was looking forward to a little romance, a few steamy moments, and some sort of satisfying resolution to the tried-and-true "girl meets boy from the wrong side of the tracks" plot. It could have been cliched, I was expecting that. What I was not expecting was such a flat and boring non-story. I give this book only 1 star, I recommend other readers go looking for teen romance somewhere else.

09 April 2012

The New Republic by Lionel Shriver

Flap Copy from ARC: "Fat and ostracized as a kid, Edgar Kellogg has always yearned to be popular. When he's offered the post of foreign correspondent in a Portugese 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 the beloved 'Bear', who is no longer lighting up their work lives.

Yet all is not as it appears. '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 suddenly dry up?"

When I read "We Need to Talk About Kevin' several years ago, I couldn't put it down and I couldn't stop talking about it. I passed it along to friends and family, I recommended it to a book club, I wanted everyone to read and experience Shriver's unbelievably moving prose. Her characters and their emotions were truly alive, and I was engaged. When the opportunity for an advance copy of this 'old but new' book, 'The New Republic', I jumped, I couldn't wait to read another riveting Shriver tale. How sad to be so disappointed.

The premise behind the book is an interesting and relevant one: the real nature of journalism, and the power of the media to manipulate a story for its own purposes. Add to the mix a fictional, miserable corner of Portugal and the local terrorist group seeking independence for the people of Barba, and you have the potential for a humorous tale. Edgar Kellogg is our main character, a lawyer-turned-journalist and former fat kid whose inability to connect with other humans has left him floundering in his mid-thirties, still yearning for popularity and the approval of his peers. With a stroke of luck, Edgar lands a job as a stringer for a national paper and is sent to Barba to cover the terrorist activity and the disappearance of a revered journalist - once there, Edgar begins to see that all is not as it appears.

I just couldn't enjoy this book, I don't need to relate to characters, it's ok with me if they're not likable, but these weren't even interesting. I thought the first half of the book could have been cut in half again, which might have helped move along the fairly light plot, and perhaps made the mild twists a little more shocking. As it was, I felt bogged down in the characters' pretentious speak, and unable to engage with the story.

Shriver is a gifted and clever writer, and I look forward to reading something else from her - this just was not the book for me.

14 March 2012

The Possibility of You by Pamela Redmond

Flap Copy from ARC: "1916: It was the one thing Irish nanny Bridget was never supposed to let happen. And then it did. 1976: Nineteen-year-old Billie discovers the family - and a closely guarded secret - she never knew existed. Present Day: After running from herself for years, journalist Cait searches for the mother who gave her away. Three women. Three unexpected pregnancies. Three journeys in search of families both real and imaginary, perfect and flawed."

This novel, told from the points of view of three women in very different times in recent American history, tackles the idea of personal choice and the impact those choices may have not only on one's own life but on the lives of generations to come. Cait is a modern day journalist with itchy feet and a newfound desire to locate her birth mother after she finds herself with an unplanned pregnancy. In 1972, Billie (newly orphaned after the sudden death of her father) travels to New York to meet her heretofore unknown grandmother for the first time, and struggles to piece together her past while facing an unexpected and unwelcome pregnancy. And in 1916 Bridget, a young Irish immigrant finds herself a widowed young mother. Redmond moves easily from one storyline to the one that precedes it, weaving the three women's lives into a unified and related narrative.

'The Possibility of You' was an easy read - once I sorted out in my head each of the three main character's timeframe and storyline, I had no trouble following the changing scenes and stories. There are no complicated plot twists, and honestly the characters themselves aren't wildly complex, although their dilemmas are certainly thought provoking. I sped through this novel, and am eager to read more from the author, whose work I haven't encountered before. I think Redmond tackles a very personal issue with grace, respecting the many possible choices her female characters might make and passing no judgement, only presenting their stories and consequences in a straightforward manner. I give this book 3.5 stars, I think it would make a great vacation read or book club selection.

06 March 2012

Solomon's Oak by Jo-Ann Mapson

Flap Copy: "Thirty-eight-year-old Glory Solomon is struggling to come to terms with life on her California farm after the sudden death of her husband. When two lost souls walk into her life, Glory is completely unprepared for the changes they will bring. Juniper McGuire is a troubled, angry teenager from a broken family, in need of a home and the kind of emotional guidance Glory herself is looking for. Help comes in the form of Joseph Vigil, a wounded ex-police officer, who also bears scars from his past that he is trying to heal. Together these three survivors find in each other an unexpected solace, the bond of friendship, and a second chance to see the miracles of everyday life."

'Solomon's Oak' is a quietly memorable, moving novel featuring very ordinary people struggling to deal with love and loss in the midst of daily life. Glory is a young widow trying to cope with the demands of farm living after the sudden death of her husband; Juniper is a teen foster child grieving not only for a missing sister but for the subsequent loss of her own childhood; and Joseph is a wounded ex-cop, trying to find a new place for himself in the world after losing his careers, his wife and his partner all in a short span of time. With these sad characters, the book certainly might have taken a maudlin and depressing turn - instead, Mapson manages to capture the small joys and the laugh-out-loud moments that make a life, handling tragedy and hope with the same matter-of-fact approach. Though the story starts a little slowly, I suddenly found myself engrossed and finished the book in record time - I think Mapson's tale is delicately crafted and insightful, and highly recommend it as a story about real people and the real ways in which they move through their lives.

01 February 2012

Come in and Cover Me by Gin Phillips

Flap Copy from ARC: When Ren was only twelve years old, she lost her older brother, Scott, to a car accident. But Scott has never left her. Since then, he has been a presence in her life, appearing with a snatch of a 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 in her career 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 back into those who occupied this world long before us. As she stands on the brink of the most important discovery of her career, 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?"

This novel is part love story, part history, part ghost story, and part archaeological tale - and it sort of fails to be very good at any of them. The main character Ren is closed off and definitely more comfortable with ghosts and the past than with her life at present. Her brother Scott, who died when she was 12, visits her as a ghost and so now she sees other ghosts too, ghosts who help her in her archaeological digs. After a stunning find years before, Ren is now on the hunt for one artist of ceramic Mimbres bowls.

It seems like the book is decently well researched, but the characters themselves are flat, their story is incomplete and their dialogue is often so stilted, so cliched, that I often found it difficult to continue reading. The author tries too hard to create 'mood' or to imply emotions through her words, but does too much telling vs showing. As a reader, I felt like there was no chance to draw my own conclusions from the narrative; rather than telling me the air is charged with sexual tension, create chemistry between characters and make me feel the tension.

Quite frankly, the whole romance subplot just felt contrived. I was never convinced that Ren was capable of true feelings about anything- she seems to have abandoned ship when her brother died (even though they were never close) and she's estranged from her mother, so her closest relationships are with the dead people who stalk her at dig sites.

All in all, I was disappointed with this book, which had the elements of a good story but never really came together into an enjoyable read.

25 January 2012

Girlchild: A Novel by Tupelo Hassman

Flap Copy from ARC: "Rory Hendrix is the least likely of Girl Scounts. She hasn't got a troop or even a badge to call her own. But she's checked the Handbook out from the elementary-school library so many times that her name fills all the lines on the card, and she pores over its surreal advice for tips to get off the Calle: that is, the Calle de los Flores, the Reno trailer park where she lives with her mother, Jo, the sweet-faced, hard-luck bartender at the Truck Stop.

Rory's been told she is "third generation in a line of apparent imbeciles, feeble-minded bastards surely on the road to whoredom." But she's determined to prove the county and her own family wrong."

Creatively written, the story is at times funny, very real and normal and yet still horrifying in its tragic parts. The story is told in short chapters in a wide variety of styles, tied together loosely by Rory, the girl, reading from the Girl Scout Handbook and trying to model her life through the outdated and often irrelevant advice she reads there. There are also letters, parts of files from the state, pages that are mostly blacked out words and more - enough style that at times it overwhelms the plot, though for the most part I think the style was what carried the story. The reader gets a real sense of Rory and her life, from childhood through adolescence. There is a plot but the book is almost more about human resilience, the character of a family and a town and the nature of intelligence than it is about the story itself. I found the book sad and I didn't find the end uplifting in the same way as many other reviewers, but I did think the author managed to wrap up the tragic story with a little bit of hope.