Monday, May 30, 2011

Caribou Island by David Vann

Caribou Island: A Novel
On a small island in a glacier-fed lake on Alaska's Kenai Peninsula, a marriage is unraveling. Gary, driven by thirty years of diverted plans, and Irene, haunted by a tragedy in her past, are trying to rebuild their life together. Following the outline of Gary's old dream, they're hauling logs to Caribou Island in good weather and in terrible storms, in sickness and in health, to build the kind of cabin that drew them to Alaska in the first place.

But this island is not right for Irene. They are building without plans or advice, and when winter comes early, the overwhelming isolation of the prehistoric wilderness threatens their bond to the core. Caught in the emotional maelstrom is their adult daughter, Rhoda, who is wrestling with the hopes and disappointments of her own life. Devoted to her parents, she watches helplessly as they drift further apart.

This is a raw, honest and uncomfortable novel.  There is so much dysfunction in every relationship and no likeable characters.  The author captures the cold ruggedness of Alaska very well but, the story line leaves much to be desired.

Rating:2 Do NOT Recommend

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Alice I Have Been by Melanie Benjamin

Alice I Have Been: A Novel
Alice Liddell Hargreaves is an lonely old woman now, but once she was full of passion, fire, and true love. As a child, she was the muse of Mr. Dodgson, a professor at Oxford who used the pen name Lewis Carroll, and inspired the classic Alice's Adventure in Wonderland. What Alice doesn't realize, though, is that her life will be both illuminated and shrouded by just one day in her life, a day when, at eleven years old, her life changes forever when she is the 'real' Alice in Wonderland.

This work of literary fiction, which sticks very closely to Alice's true life, and captured my interest.  The author not only does wonderful character development (I love the spunk of Alice as a little girl) but captures the 1800's so beautifully.

Rating: 4.3  Recommend

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obert

The Tiger's Wife: A Novel
Obreht portrays two besieged doctors. Natalia is on an ill-advised good will medical mission at an orphanage on what is suddenly the other side, now that war has broken out, when she learns that her grandfather, a distinguished doctor forced out of his practice by ethnic divides, has died far from home. She is beset by memories, particularly of her grandfather taking her to the zoo to see the tigers. We learn the source of his fascination in mesmerizing flashbacks, meeting the village butcher, the deaf-mute Muslim woman he married, and a tiger who escaped the city zoo after it was bombed by the Germans. Of equal mythic mystery is the story of the deathless man.

This story just lost me.  It started off as a fascinating blend of myth, superstition and folklore but the many segues ended up feeling like the author herself wasn't sure where she was taking us and, indeed, it ended up that it led nowhere.

Rating: 2.5 Do NOT Recommend

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Highest Tide by Jim Lynch

This is a wonderful coming of age story.  Jim Lynch's extraordinary first novel centers around a runty thirteen year old boy who knows more than the local marine biologist about the teeming life in the mud flats of Puget Sound and its coves. Narrator Miles O'Malley is an insomniac who takes his battered kayak into the sound at night while his parents and the rest of the town sleep. He collects unusual specimens for aquariums and collectors, and digs for clams with his friend Phelps to sell to local restaurants. In the middle of the night, Miles hears the final exhalation of a dying giant squid. His discovery of the enormous creature never before found on the shores of North America prompts a rush of media attention.

At first, no one questions how Miles managed to find the squid in the middle of the night despite his poorly fabricated lie, but when he discovers other non-native sea life and anomalies in the sea and tidal pools, he becomes an object of local fascination. Miles just wants to remain invisible. He is neglected by his parents, who have their own problems, and he struggles with his awkward crush on Angie, an eighteen-year-old, body-pierced girl who plays bass in a grunge band.

Much of Myle's world is consumed by nature and the ocean.  Lynch's confident style guides the reader through an odd yet believable world where sea stars can be of any color and thirteen-year-old boys can befriend judges, psychics, and cult leaders. Readers will finish this novel with a sigh not unlike that of the giant squid marooned on the beach.

Rating: 4.6 Very Good

Sunday, May 8, 2011

What Now by Ann Patchett

What Now?
This is a very short easy read (100 pages with lots of pictures) from Ann Patchett's commencement address at Sarah Lawrence College.  This stirring essay offers hope and inspiration for anyone at a crossroads, whether graduating, changing careers, or transitioning from one life stage to another. With wit and candor, Patchett tells her own story of attending college, graduating, and struggling with the inevitable question, What now?

I especially enjoyed this after recently reading her book "Truth & Beauty" which also covered a lot of the time period she referenced - her time at Sarah Lawrence, moving back home with her mother, working as a dishwasher and struggling to find her way as a writer.

Patchett has a way of writing that strikes a chord in all of us.  She shares moments and emotions that we all go through.

Writing a novel and living a life are very much the same thing.  The secret is finding the balance between going out to get what you want and being open to the thing that actually winds up coming your way.

Rating: 3.2 Good

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire HunterWhen this book was picked for my book club, despite being told "don't let the title put you off, it is really good", I have to admit that the title put me off and I wasn't interested in it.  I figured I would just get a sample on my Kindle and see what it was like.  Well, I just bought it and was glad I read it, although it is not one I would recommend.

Grahame-Smith inserts a grandiose and gratuitous struggle with vampires into Abraham Lincoln's life. Lincoln learns at an early age that his mother was killed by a supernatural predator. This provokes his bloody but curiously undocumented lifelong vendetta against vampires and their slave-owning allies. The author's decision to reduce slavery to a mere contrivance of the vampires is unfortunate bordering on repellent, but at least it does distract the reader from the central question of why the president never saw fit to inform the public of the supernatural menace.

Rating: 3.0  Good