Monday, December 31, 2012

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin

In the late 1970s, Larry Ott and Silas "32" Jones were boyhood pals. Their worlds were as different as night and day: Larry, the child of lower-middle-class white parents, and Silas, the son of a poor, single black mother. Yet for a few months the boys stepped outside of their circumstances and shared a special bond.

But then tragedy struck: Larry took a girl on a date to a drive-in movie, and she was never heard from again. She was never found and Larry never confessed, but all eyes rested on him as the culprit. The incident shook the count and perhaps Silas most of all. His friendship with Larry was broken, and then Silas left town.

More than twenty years have passed. Larry, a mechanic, lives a solitary existence, never able to rise above the whispers of suspicion. Silas has returned as a constable. He and Larry have no reason to cross paths until another girl disappears and Larry is blamed again. And now the two men who once called each other friend are forced to confront the past they've buried and ignored for decades.

My take: 2.5 looks
I am not sure what I expected from this. For some reason, I thought this was going to be an oddity, like John Dies at the End by David Wong or anything by Jasper Fforde. Instead, it was a straight-up mystery with a pretty heavy dose of character study. I had put off reading this because of my expectations, but was completely wrong.

Larry has really gotten the shaft in life. He has suffered for years for being different, and more years for being a silent victim. Son of an ass of a father and a ghost of a mother, he was destined to fail.

Silas has taken advantage of every opportunity and has succeeded in life, at least on the outside. Son of a single black woman, he was the typical success story in rural Mississippi (the reason for the name of the book).

Franklin, as an Alabama native, writes perfectly of the underbelly of the South's redneck white trash population. He has it down to a "t". It would have been nice to see this balanced with the more genteel side of Southern living, but that may have been too prosaic for the author. Instead, it felt like a story awash in Southern stereotypes, that I (as an Alabama resident) don't see in my particular corner of the world (thank goodness).

If Larry has been in law enforcement, I would have been reading In the Heat of the Night. And probably liked it better.

Not recommended.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Spellman Files by Lisa Lutz

Meet Isabel "Izzy" Spellman, private investigator. This twenty-eight-year-old may have a checkered past littered with romantic mistakes, excessive drinking, and creative vandalism; she may be addicted to Get Smart reruns and prefer entering homes through windows rather than doors -- but the upshot is she's good at her job as a licensed private investigator with her family's firm, Spellman Investigations. Invading people's privacy comes naturally to Izzy. In fact, it comes naturally to all the Spellmans. If only they could leave their work at the office.

To be a Spellman is to snoop on a Spellman; tail a Spellman; dig up dirt on, blackmail, and wiretap a Spellman. Part Nancy Drew, part Dirty Harry, Izzy walks an indistinguishable line between Spellman family member and Spellman employee. Duties include: completing assignments from the bosses, aka Mom and Dad (preferably without scrutiny); appeasing her chronically perfect lawyer brother (often under duress); setting an example for her fourteen-year-old sister, Rae (who's become addicted to "recreational surveillance"); and tracking down her uncle (who randomly disappears on benders dubbed "Lost Weekends").

But when Izzy's parents hire Rae to follow her (for the purpose of ascertaining the identity of Izzy's new boyfriend), Izzy snaps and decides that the only way she will ever be normal is if she gets out of the family business. But there's a hitch: she must take one last job before they'll let her go -- a fifteen-year-old, ice-cold missing person case. She accepts, only to experience a disappearance far closer to home, which becomes the most important case of her life.

My take: 4 looks
This was a very fun book. It was a mystery, suspense, story of a dysfunctional family and romantic relationships, and hilarious. That is a feat for an author!

Isabel is a woman-child with great connections, few friendships and a riotous family. I was hooked at the very beginning and could not put it down. I made several comparisons with Evanovitch's Stephanie Plum character, but this one was more real to me. A character in the book describes her as a combination of Dirty Harry and Nancy Drew, and I thought that was perfect.

I am glad I have the rest of this series and will dive into book two as soon as I can.

Highly recommended.

Friday, December 28, 2012

The Handmaid and the Carpenter by Elizabeth Berg

In this wonderful novel about love and trust, hope and belief, Elizabeth Berg transports us to Nazareth in biblical times to reimagine the events of the classic Christmas story. We see Mary–young, strong, and inquisitive–as she first meets Joseph, a serious-minded young carpenter who is steadfastly devoted to the religious traditions of their people. The two become betrothed, but are soon faced with an unexpected pregnancy. Aided by a great and abiding love, they endure challenges to their relationship as well as threats to their lives as they come to terms with the mysterious circumstances surrounding the birth of their child, Jesus. For Mary, the pregnancy is a divine miracle and a privilege. For Joseph, it is an ongoing test not only of his courage but of his faith–in his wife as well as in his God.

My take: 3 looks
This was a good book. At first, I was a little iffy on the doctrine. After all, if you are going to write about Christ, the least you can do is study and stay true to the Bible. However, it turned out to be a nice telling of the Christmas story and made Mary and Joseph seem very real.

Unlike the other book I read on the birth of Christ, Two From Galilee, this one portrayed Joseph much more like I thought he would be at the news of Mary's pregnancy. He didn't simply take it in stride, letting it fall by the wayside because of his love for her. No, he got angry and sought to divorce her privately, as it details in the Bible.

The other touching moment of the story was a forward in time to Joseph's death. The last moments of Mary and Joseph were very touching, as she prepared her heart to raise Jesus, as well as her other children, as a newly single mother, with His fate in mind.


Thursday, December 27, 2012

Two from Galilee by Margorie Holmes

This is the  story of two real people whose lives were touched by  God: two people chosen by God to provide an earthly  home for His Son. Here are Mary and Joseph - a  teenage girl and a young carpenter - alone, frightened, in love, faced with family conflict, a hostile world and an awesome responsibility. It is a story  for young and old alike; for everyone who finds the  Christmas tale a source of timeless beauty and  wonder, a compassionate, emotional novel of divine love.

My take: 4 looks
Very good storytelling makes this a winner to read. Solid Christian doctrine makes it believable. With a combination like that, it's hard to go wrong.

I have just a few issues, though, with some of the characterizations. The first, and greatest, is with Mary's mother, Hannah. She is portrayed as a harsh, selfish, harpy of a woman who takes to her bed with headaches whenever she doesn't get her way. It was annoying at best and caused me to bristle every time she was involved in the story. When she finally broke at the end, believing that her daughter was actually carrying the Messiah, I felt no sympathy for her in the least. I was glad that she had finally received her mental comeuppance.

The other issue I had, albeit very minor, was Joseph's reaction to Mary's pregnancy. He was not angry in the least, but only confused. The text also doesn't indicate that he wanted to divorce her quietly, but that it was the urging of her father for him to do so. This story tells of a firm and steadfast Joseph who never waivers in his love and devotion to Mary. I don't think that's the way it could have happened, especially when the culture at the time called for the stoning death of the woman.

With that said, the writing was beautiful. I highlighted many passages in the course of my reading to be able to go back later and fully digest them, or to have the simple pleasure of reading them again. Mary's arrival at Elizabeth's and her reaction was a joy. Joseph's delivery of the Christ child was touching. It was a delight to read and I look forward to the other two in this series.

Highly recommended.

The Christmas Train by David Baldacci

Disillusioned journalist Tom Langdon must get from Washington to L.A. in time for Christmas. Forced to take the train across the country because of a slight "misunderstanding" at airport security, he begins a journey of self-discovery and rude awakenings, mysterious goings-on and thrilling adventures, screwball escapades and holiday magic. He has no idea that the locomotives pulling him across America will actually take him into the rugged terrain of his own heart, as he rediscovers people's essential goodness and someone very special he believed he had lost.

Equal parts hilarious, poignant, suspenseful, and thrilling, David Baldacci's THE CHRISTMAS TRAIN is filled with memorable characters who have packed their bags with as much wisdom as mischief and shows how we do get second chances to fulfill our deepest hopes and dreams, especially during this season of miracles.

My take: 3 looks
This had the potential to be a really fun book, but it read at times like a propaganda piece for Amtrak, lobbying heavily for American rail.

It was a typical Christmas book in that there are numerous characters fulfilling different roles, a bit of a problem to solve, and a happy ending. It was very easy to read and had a bit of a twist at the end. I would recommend this.

A kick in the pants!

I posted over on Bibliophile's "What are you reading for December" page:

Ugh. Okay, remember that post of mine above? Well, not one thing has changed. I still have to finish The Handmaiden and the Carpenter by Elizabeth Berg and Two from Galilee by Margorie Holmes.

Then I need to read The Spellman Files for the discussion.

AND I just started a book my dad gave me for Christmas: The Christmas Train by David Baldacci.

Is it too late to say, "Bah! Humbug!"?

This was Vonnie's reply:
My read-a-thon has begun today over at my blog. Maybe this can help you push yourself with your reads?

So, I am going to take Vonnie up on her "nudge" and do it! This is what I need to finish for the year:

The Handmaiden and the Carpenter by Elizabeth Berg
Two from Galilee by Margorie Holmes
The Christmas Train by David Baldacci
Lastly, I want to start and finish The Spellman Files by Lisa Lutz

Can I do it? Sure!!

Friday, December 14, 2012

Recommended? No, thank you.

I have just finished listening to over seven minutes of book recommendations "to help you recover from a tense 2012". On the list:
  • Stewart O'Nan's novella The Odds focuses on an unemployed couple who are just about out of options. Marion and Art Fowler are set to divorce on the eve of their 30th wedding anniversary, in order to protect what little assets they have left.
  • Money woes and magical thinking are the dominant notes in Canada, a dazzling epic of family dissolution by Richard Ford. Set in 1960 in Montana and Saskatchewan, the story is narrated by 15-year-old Dell Parsons, whose parents hatch the bright idea of robbing a bank to pay the bills. Of course, they're quickly arrested and imprisoned, leaving Dell and his twin sister to fend for themselves.
  • Junot Diaz's exuberant short-story collection This Is How You Lose Her charts the lives of Dominican immigrants for whom the promise of America comes down to a minimum-wage paycheck, an occasional walk to a movie in a mall, and the momentary escape of a grappling in bed.
  • Katherine Boo's much-lauded book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, crowns this "best of the year" list in nonfiction. Based on three years of "embedded reporting" in the slum settlement of Annawadi adjacent to the Mumbai airport and its nearby luxury hotels, Boo's book takes readers deep into the subsistence-level lives of residents like teenager Abdul, a peddler of recycled plastic; and Manju, a dreamy young woman bent on becoming the settlement's first college graduate.

Now, I don't know about you, but I read to escape. Occasionally, I will read a non-fiction work that has sparked my attention (The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and Under the Banner of Heaven were two recent reads), but I am primarily a fiction reader. And my tastes vary widely, from fantasy to thriller to cozy mystery to straight up chick-lit.

However, I can say that I try to steer clear of books that make me wish they came with a razor so I can slit my wrists at the end. There are two books which come quickly to mind that made me feel like this: Zoya by Danielle Steele and White Oleander by Janet Fitch. I would be a better person today if I had never read these two books. I am sure there are more, like the mental damage that short story Guts by Chuck Palahniuk inflicted upon me, but these are the two that are on the top of my list.

So, with that said, here are my favorite books of 2012, recommended with great aplomb:

Patron Saint of Liars by Ann Patchett - This book was at my grandmother's house and I had been interested in some time to read a book by Patchett. This is a heartwarming story of a difficult time in a girl's life.

Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz - The name of the protagonist alone is reason enough to read it, but you will want to read all in the series by the time you are finished simply because of the superb writing.

And Then There Were Two by Agatha Christie - Arguably the best and most well known of her works. Kept me guessing until the end!

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston - Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. Should be required reading in schools.

The Call by Yannick Murphy - Loved the format of the book, which made reading a pleasure. I would consider this one a sleeper. By the time the book was finished, I loved the characters.

Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer - The only non-fiction of the group, I recommend this one to lift the veil of ignorance many of us are under regarding Mormonism.

The Rook by Daniel O'Malley - This is a huge roller coaster of a book. Very well done and impossible to put down. This is the only book on the list that I stayed up in the wee hours reading because I had to know what happened next.

Monster by Walter Dean Myers - Winner of the Michael L. Printz and Coretta Scott King Book Awards, I recommend this one because of the way it is written. The story is not a happy one, but the format is intriguing and the ending is satisfying.

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford - The only book on the list that made me cry. It is so beautiful and completely satisfying that I was fully invested by the end. I had to take a breather after this one, just to do it the honor of living in my soul a bit longer.

See? Not a single one here that will make you want to commit Hari Kari. There you have it! My recommendations to bring you out of your 2012 doldrums.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

11/22/63 by Stephen King

 If you had the chance to change the course of history, would you? Would the consequences be worth it?

Jake Epping is a thirty-five-year-old high school English teacher in Lisbon Falls, Maine, who teaches adults for extra money. One student submits a gruesome, harrowing first-person essay about the night 50 years ago when Harry Dunning’s father came home and killed his mother, his sister, and his brother with a hammer. Harry escaped with a smashed leg, as evidenced by his crooked walk.

Not much later, Jake’s friend Al, who runs the local diner, divulges a secret: his storeroom is a portal to 1958. He enlists Jake on an insane — and insanely possible — mission to try to prevent the 11/22/1963 J.F. Kennedy assassination. So begins Jake’s new life as George Amberson and his new world of Elvis and JFK, of big American cars and sock hops, of a troubled loner named Lee Harvey Oswald and a beautiful high school librarian named Sadie Dunhill, who becomes the love of Jake’s life—a life that transgresses all the normal rules of time.

My take: 2 looks

I didn't hate this one, but almost. If I had not had to read it for my Bibliophile challenge, I would have put it aside a couple of hundred pages in. It's not that the story was a bad one; as a matter of fact, the premise is extraordinary. But the execution was extremely long, drawn out, verbose, etc. A veritable tome of minutiae that didn't make the story fuller, more robust or more enjoyable. There is a difference in providing rich detail and background, but King beats a dead horse in this one. I get the idea that his editors revere him as an author too much to cut the extraneous verbiage.

I am sorry, but I can't recommend this one.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Christmas Box by Richard Paul Evans

"Whatever the reason, I find that with each passing Christmas the story of the Christmas box is told less and needed more. So I record it now for all future generations to accept or dismiss, as seems them good. As for me, I believe. And it is, after all, my story." So begins "The Christmas Box", the touching story of a widow and the young family who moves in with her. Together they discover the first gift of Christmas and learn what Christmas is really all about. "The Christmas Box" is a Christmas story unlike any other.

My take: 2.5 stars
At around 100 pages, this one didn't take much time at all to read, but I found the story to be flat, uninspirational and very over-the-top. Rick, the narrator, lack depth and dimension, and caused me to feel no sympathy for him in the least. The book was too short to provide enough background to make me invested in him as a husband, father, or businessman. The rest of the characters were, again, too hastily written to seem real. The music playing in the attic, the dreams, and the pointed questions from the widow were odd speedbumps on what should have been a lovely journey through hills, dales, valleys and mountains. Instead, it was a jerky start-and-stop.

Not recommended, especially since there are so many other wonderful and inspirational Christmas books out there.

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Christmas Pearl by Dorothea Benton Frank

Theodora is the matriarch of a family that has grown into a bunch of truculent knuckleheads. While she's finally gotten them all together in South Carolina to celebrate, this Christmas looks nothing like the extravagant, homey holidays of her childhood. What happened to the days when Christmas meant tables groaning with home-cooked goodies, over-the-top decorations, and long chats in front of the fire with Pearl, her grandmother's beloved housekeeper and closest confidante? Luckily for Theodora, a special someone who heard her plea for help arrives, with pockets full of enough Gullah magic and common sense to make Theodora's Christmas the love-filled miracle it's meant to be.

My take: 3 looks
This was another feel-good Christmas book. Family squabbles, infidelities, insolent children, and a holiday run by commercialism sets the scene. Enter a Christmas "angel" in the form of a resurrected Gullah housekeeper to set things straight and you have a recipe for good reading. This is a very short one, high on Christmas magic with a dab of why Christ is the root of Christmas. You will smile as you read it.

Recommended Holiday Reading.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Aunt Dimity's Christmas by Nancy Atherton

Lori Shepherd and her family spend Christmas in the cottage willed to her by her late Aunt Dimity, but when she discovers a stranger barely alive in the snow, she teams up with a priest and together they unveil the tragic secret that led the stranger to her door.

My take: 2.5 looks
This was very easy to read and was fairly entertaining. However, the main character (Lori) got all over my last nerve. Her obsession with Kit was not a healthy one, and I felt that the author conveyed it with such a heavy hand that the story suffered. Also, her attraction to Julian was completely unnecessary.

It all ended well, but this recalls my dislike for her character in the first book. I enjoyed the second in this series so much more because the main characters were Derek and Emma Harris, and not Lori.

I recommend this as a nice, light and quick read, but be ready to get your hackles up, if you are like me.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Blue Christmas by Mary Kay Andrews

The popular Mary Kay Andrews delivers a tasty holiday treat as she brings back the winning characters from Savannah Blues and Savannah Breeze for a little Southern cheer. It's the week before Christmas, and antiques dealer Weezie Foley is in a frenzy to do up her shop for the Savannah historical district window decorating contest––which she intends to win. She throws herself into putting up a Graceland/Blue Christmas motif, with lots of tinsel, an aluminum tree, and all kinds of tacky retro stuff. The project takes up so much time that Weezie is ready to shoot herself with her glue gun by the time she's done, but the results are stunning. She's sure she's one–upped the owners of the trendy shop around the corner.

But suddenly, things go missing from Weezie's display, and there seems to be a mysterious midnight visitor to her shop. Still, Weezie has high hopes for the holiday––maybe in the form of an engagement ring from her chef boyfriend. But Daniel, always moody at the holidays, seems more distant than usual. Throw in Weezie's decidedly odd family, a 1950s Christmas tree pin, and even a little help from the King himself, and maybe there will be a pocketful of miracles for Weezie this Christmas eve.

My take: 3 looks
I didn't think I was going to like this one. Too much controversy at the beginning. Mean, gay neighbors who seemed to be pilfering Eloise's store display, a beloved dog who is missing and a boyfriend that I suspected was married.

However, it was a quick read and turned out to be quite enjoyable. The gay men weren't really mean at all (although there was that loose thread on who left the back gate open for their boutique dog), the boyfriend really was busy at work, and the beloved dog was found quickly and was fine.

What set this one back for me was the implausibility of the family dinner (one or two crazies per family, please; not a half dozen!) and the tidy relationship subplot of Daniel's. Although I really should have seen that coming, since Andrews dropped so many hints.

All-in-all, this was a pleasant book that set me back only one day. I will probably read more by this author, and now that I realized that this is a series, I will start at book one.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Christmas List by Richard Paul Evans

The New York Times bestselling author of The Christmas Box returns with a holiday novel of hope, love, and redemption.

My take: 4 looks
How is that for a short summary? ha! Here is my summary: James Kier is a ruthless businessman, a terrible father and a selfish (almost ex-) husband. However, he reads his obituary in the paper one day and his life changes.

I found this book to be a very fast read and perfect for the hectic holidays. It was a bit far-fetched and hard to believe in that a man who has become this ruthless and bitter would not be changed by a simple misprint in the paper. But I always want to believe in the best in people, their ability to improve themselves and the miracle of Christ at Christmas. All of those components are here and make for a heartwarming tale.

It was a nice story and is recommended.