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.