Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Virgin of Small Plains by Nancy Pickard

While rounding up newborn calves during a 1987 blizzard, Nathan Shellenberger, sheriff of Small Plains, and his teenage sons, Rex and Patrick, discover the naked frozen body of a beautiful teenage girl. Later, Nathan and Dr. Quentin "Doc" Reynolds bash the girl's face to an unrecognizable pulp, since they know who she is and fear that either Patrick or Rex's best friend, 17-year-old Mitch Newquist, is her killer. Witnessing this terrible scene is Mitch, hidden in Doc's home office supply closet where he's gone for a condom to use with Abby, Doc's 16-year-old daughter. Mitch's father, a judge, forces Mitch to leave town after the boy admits what he saw. In 2004, Abby and Rex—now the sheriff—find another blizzard victim, Mitch's mother, dead near the marker commemorating the still-unidentified "virgin."

What started off as a bang quickly fizzled. This was more of a teen romance/mystery book with only mediocre writing.

Rating: 1 Do NOT Recommend

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Five People You Meet In Heaven by Mitch Albom

This weaves together three stories, all told about the same man: 83-year-old Eddie, the head maintenance person at Ruby Point Amusement Park. As the novel opens, readers are told that Eddie, unsuspecting, is only minutes away from death as he goes about his typical business at the park. Albom then traces Eddie's world through his tragic final moments, his funeral, and the ensuing days as friends clean out his apartment and adjust to life without him. In alternating sections, Albom flashes back to Eddie's birthdays, telling his life story as a kind of progress report over candles and cake each year. And in the third and last thread of the novel, Albom follows Eddie into heaven where the maintenance man sequentially encounters five pivotal figures from his life (a la A Christmas Carol). Each person has been waiting for him in heaven, and, as Albom reveals, each life (and death) was woven into Eddie's own in ways he never suspected. Each soul has a story to tell, a secret to reveal, and a lesson to share. Through them Eddie understands the meaning of his own life even as his arrival brings closure to theirs.

It is enjoyable but, feels very patronizing and condescending.  It is the age old theme of realizing that we are all connected to another so that an action undertaken by one person is destined to have an unanticipated and drastic influence upon someone else. Along these same lines, the book reminds us of how easy it is to fail to express appreciation or gratitude to those we love until it is too late to do so.  True themes that have been covered before.

Rating: 3.2 OK

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

The author has wonderful writing abilities and this is only one example: "I was spellbound.  There is something about words.  In expert hands, manipulated deftly, they take you prisoner.  Wind themselves around your limbs like spider silk, and when you are so enthralled you cannot move, they pierce your skin, enter your blood, numb your thoughts.  Inside you they work their magic."  I was optimistic that this was that kind of book.....unfortunately, the plot did not match the writer's ability to craft a beautiful line.
This story revolves around two characters: Vida Winter, a famous author, whose life story is coming to an end, and Margaret Lea, a young, unworldly, bookish girl who is a bookseller in her father's shop. Vida has been confounding her biographers and fans for years by giving everybody a different version of her life, each time swearing it's the truth. Because of a biography that Margaret has written about brothers, Vida chooses Margaret to tell her story, all of it...the truth, for the first time. 

The flashbacks when Vida is revealing her life were too reminiscent of Steinbeck's East of Eden (which I hated) but, the current day and the writing style were so enjoyable that I stay longer than I should have.  I am sorry to say that I read 1/2 of this book before tossing it aside and reclaiming my life.

Rating: 1 Do NOT Recommend

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

How to Talk to a Widower by Jonathon Tropper

Doug Parker, whose life is frozen into place at 29 when Hailey, his wife of two years, is killed in a plane crash. Unable to leave the suburban house they once shared, he spends his days reliving their brief marriage from the moment he found her sobbing in his office over troubles with her first husband. At the same time, Doug's magazine column about grieving for his wife has made him irresistible to the media (book deals, television spots and the like are proffered) and to a wide array of women who find him "slim, sad and beautiful." Though stepson Russ is getting in trouble at school and Doug's pregnant twin sister, Claire, who has a hilarious potty mouth, moves in and no amount of crying to strippers can keep Doug from the temptations of his best friend's wife or Russ's guidance counselor. Alternately flippant and sad, Tropper's book is a smart comedy of inappropriate behavior at an inopportune time.

This book is laugh out loud funny and is the perfect antidote to a stressful day. 

Rating: 4.7 Definite Recommend

Monday, May 10, 2010

Summit Avenue by Mary Sharratt

I loved Daughter's of the Witching Hill so much that I had to read another book by Mary Sharratt.  Kathrin Albrecht's childhood in Germany at the turn of the century was so relentlessly grim that she endures the hardships of her new life in America--sewing flour bags for pennies, sharing a bed at a boarding house--without complaint. Eventually, she takes night classes in English. She begins to haunt second-hand book shops, and here catches the eye of a professor's widow, Violet Waverly, who turns out to be both the fairy godmother and the prince of this complex and subtle Cinderella tale. Mary Sharratt's debut has almost none of the typical faults of first novels. Her language is lush but controlled, her narrative carefully paced. Nothing is rushed or condensed. Recognizing the young woman's intelligence, and intrigued by her thirst for knowledge, Violet hires Kathrin for a few months' work translating and typing the German fairy tales that her dead husband had collected. She also offers her a room in her mansion on Summit Avenue. Kathrin enters the magical world of the fairy tales and of her beautiful new surroundings with the same breathless sense of surrender. As she works, the tales become part of her:   Well, even though this book started off promising, it lost me.  I found I was forcing myself to go back to this book rather than wanting to pick it up.  A sure sign for me of when it is time to move on to a book that captures me.

Rating: 1 Do not recommend

Saturday, May 8, 2010

The Disappeared by Kim Echlin

At first, I found the lack of quotations around the speech was offputting.  I kept reading and it wasn't long until I was lost in the sparse an beautiful prose.  This is an easy page turning read that makes you remember that wonderful mix of deep pure love and being young and not needing money to have so much enjoyment.

Canadian novelist Echlin (Elephant Winter) derives a powerful, transcendent love story from the Cambodian genocide. Anne Greves, a motherless 16-year-old student, meets a Cambodian refugee, Serey, working as a math instructor amid the heady music scene of late-1970s Montreal, and they fall irredeemably in love. Serey's family got him out of Pol Pot's Cambodia, although he is waiting to be able to return and find them; Anne's father, a successful engineer of prosthetics, does not approve of Anne's exotic, older boyfriend, and when, as her father predicted, Serey leaves her, disappearing for 11 years, Anne journeys to Phnom Penh to find him. There she comes face to face with the terrible fallout of the collapsed Khmer Rouge dictatorship. The beautifully spare narrative is daringly imaginative in the details, drawing the reader deep inside the wounded capital city. Anne's single-mindedness drives the action, although her insistence on Western values of accountability knocks hollowly against the machinery of a ruthless military state. This is a book with such beautiful prose that I frequently found myself rereading sentences.

Rating: 4.9 Highly Recommend

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Daughters of the Witching Hill by Mary Sharratt

The 1612 Lancashire, England, witch trials that resulted in nine executions inspired Sharratt's gorgeously imagined novel that wonders if some of the accusations of witchcraft might be true. This book focuses on the Southerns family of Pendle Forest. Widowed mother Bess Southerns tries to save her family from bleakest poverty by healing the sick, telling fortunes, and blessing those facing misfortune, conjuring charmes that combine forbidden Catholic ritual, medicinal herbs, and guidance provided by her spirit-friend, Tibb.

Though Bess compassionately uses her powers, her granddaughter, Alizon, unwittingly endangers her family while under the interrogation of a conniving local magistrate. Sharratt crafts her complex yet credible account by seamlessly blending historical fact, modern psychology, and vivid evocations of the daily life of the poor whose only hope of empowerment lay in the black arts. Set in forests and towers, farms and villages, deep in a dungeon and on the gallows, this novel grows darker as it approaches its inevitable conclusion, but proves uplifting in its portrayal of women who persevere, and mothers and daughters who forgive.

This is not the type of book I ever would have picked up were it not for Andrea picking it for our book club.  Gotta love book clubs and their exposing you to new genres/authors.

Rating: 4.7 Recommend

The Coffee Trader by David Liss

This novel takes place in 17th-century Amsterdam in 1659 during the Golden Age. The book's main character is a Portuguese Jew named Miguel Lienzo, who has recently lost a bundle after the sugar market crash and is now trying to resurrect himself by searching for investors who would consider a new product called "coffee".

As one Amazon reviewer put it: "If Starbucks Coffee was smart, they'd start selling David Liss's new novel THE COFFEE TRADER right alongside all their other caffeinated laced beverages. After winning the 2000 Edgar Award for Best First Novel for A CONSPIRACY OF PAPER, Liss has created another masterpiece relating to the historical fiction genre."

I am not a huge coffee fan but, this book made me want to go grab a cup while I read about the bustle of 1659 Amsterdam filled with traders, schemers and many other characters attracted by the robust commodities exchange.  It lost my interest though and I soon found it abandoned as I moved on to other books.

Rating: 1 Do not recommend

Monday, May 3, 2010

Toss of a Lemon by Padma Viswanathan

This first novel is based on the author's grandmother's life and goes deep into the world of southern India village life. Starting in 1896, the story follows Sivakami, a Tamil Brahmin girl, from her marriage at the age of 10 through her long widowhood, while Indian political and social life lumbers through immense changes. Before he dies, Sivakami's astrologer husband, Hanumarathnam, foresees his death in the malignant interactions between his stars and his son Vairum's. Though he trains a trustworthy servant to assist Sivakami until their son comes of age, the world that Hanumarathnam leaves behind is rapidly changing, and the family is not entirely fit to survive it; Vairum, especially, suffers the pain of a father's disaffection and, later, a widowed mother forbidden to touch any human being during daylight hours. Irreconcilable conflicts between tradition—especially the strict caste rules of Brahmin life—and the modernizing world lead predictably to alienation and tragedy, but on an epic scale. Viswanathan is especially adept at unobtrusively explaining foreign customs and worldviews to Westerners while wholly respecting the power and significance they hold for practitioners.

For me, this book just did not compare with Rohinton Mistry or Thrity Umrigar's wonderful books on India.  The writing style and the character development left so much to be desired that I just couldn't finish it.

Rating: 1 Do not recommend