Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton

During a party at the family farm in the English countryside, sixteen-year-old Laurel Nicolson has escaped to her childhood tree house and is dreaming of the future. She spies a stranger coming up the road and sees her mother speak to him. Before the afternoon is over, Laurel will witness a shocking crime that challenges everything she knows about her family and especially her mother, Dorothy. Now, fifty years later, Laurel is a successful and well-regarded actress, living in London. She returns to the family farm for Dorothy’s ninetieth birthday and finds herself overwhelmed by questions she has not thought about for decades. From pre-WWII England through the Blitz, to the fifties and beyond, discover the secret history of three strangers from vastly different worlds—Dorothy, Vivien, and Jimmy—who meet by chance in wartime London and whose lives are forever entwined.

My take: 4 looks
This one started off a little slowly for me. So slowly, in fact that I didn't know if I would enjoy it.

However, once the characters were established, and I got into the rhythm of the story moving back and forth in time, I was able to enjoy it very much.

Dolly and Vivien were very interesting characters, and the supporting players were just as lively (thinking of Lady Caldicott). I was at first confused by Jimmy's draw to Dolly, as she seemed to be very high maintenance, but then I came to understand as the story moved along.

In present day, the siblings gathering to honor and then say goodbye to their mother was just as compelling. I very much enjoyed Laurel's story and would like to read a book based more on her life, and not just the effects of this particular story at this particular time. She seemed nicely drawn and complex, as opposed to the others.

But what will get you is the incredible tablecloth-removal-trick as the story draws to a close. I had to go back and reread a few pages to make sure I had understood what I thought had happened. It was a clincher at its best, and one I never saw coming. The last several chapters make the entire book worthwhile.

Highly recommended.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Irresistable Henry House by Lisa Grunwald

It is the middle of the twentieth century, and in a home economics program at a prominent university, real babies are being used to teach mothering skills to young women. For a young man raised in these unlikely circumstances, finding real love and learning to trust will prove to be the work of a lifetime.

In this captivating novel, bestselling author Lisa Grunwald gives us the sweeping tale of an irresistible hero and the many women who love him. From his earliest days as a “practice baby” through his adult adventures in 1960s New York City, Disney’s Burbank studios, and the delirious world of the Beatles’ London, Henry remains handsome, charming, universally adored—and never entirely accessible to the many women he conquers but can never entirely trust.

Filled with unforgettable characters, settings, and action, The Irresistible Henry House portrays the cultural tumult of the mid-twentieth century even as it explores the inner tumult of a young man trying to transcend a damaged childhood. For it is not until Henry House comes face-to-face with the real truths of his past that he finds a chance for real love.

My take: 3 looks
I find the summary to be a bit heavy-handed. Phrases like "portrays the cultural tumult", "explores the inner tumult", and "trying to transcend a damaged childhood" are a bit over-the-top and melodramatic for this book, in my opinion. Is cultural change presented? Yes. How could it not be when the book moves the story and its characters through more than 20 years. Inner tumult? Yes. However, who among us had not experienced inner tumult at times? Damaged childhood? Maybe, but not altogether sure on that.

In my opinion, this is a marvelous premise for a delightfully written book. A home-ec program in the 1950s that uses real babies! Henry is one of the "house babies" and has a different childhood, for sure. Henry is an interesting character, as is all of the "mothers", the instructor, and the various women whom Henry encounters as an adult. However, the damage done to Henry is not quite plausible to me. After all, what is the real difference in today's daycare and this home-ec class? You still have a number of women taking care of a baby throughout the day, with one consistent "mother" throughout it all.

The fact that Henry learns at a young age how to manipulate these women, therefore the relationships, was also a bit far-reaching, but probably more viable than his lack of emotional attachment to any one of them. Meeting Peace and seeing that she, too, suffered the same lack of emotional attachment, along with the underlying suggestion that all of these "house" babies were likewise marred, was (again) a stretch.

What made the book delightful? I loved the very complex characters of Henry's mother, Martha, and the contrast of one of the house mothers, Betty.  Martha was perfectly drawn and so compelling. I could taste her longing to be a mother, her love for Henry, her ache and pain at his response to her. I loved how she grew emotionally as the book progressed, from a starched matron to a place of quiet wisdom.

Betty was a surprisingly complex character, as well. Her wishy-washy youth, lost young adulthood and final descent into the world she ultimately chooses. Both of these women made the book very satisfying for me. I liked everyone else, too, but these two were the pillars on which the (Henry) House was built.

Highly recommended.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman

A captivating, beautiful, and stunningly accomplished debut novel—the story of a lighthouse keeper and his wife who make one devastating choice that forever changes two worlds.

In 1918, after four harrowing years on the Western Front, Tom Sherbourne returns to Australia to take a job as the lighthouse keeper on remote Janus Rock. To this isolated island, where the supply boat comes only four times a year and shore leaves are granted every other year at best, Tom brings a young, bold, and loving wife, Isabel. Three years later, after two miscarriages and one stillbirth, the grieving Isabel is tending the grave of her newly lost infant when she hears a baby’s cries on the wind. A boat has washed up on shore carrying a dead man and a living baby. Tom, whose records as a lighthouse keeper are meticulous and whose moral principles have withstood a horrific war, wants to report the dead man and the infant immediately. But Isabel has taken the tiny baby to her breast. Against Tom’s judgment, they claim the child as their own and name her Lucy, but a rift begins to grow between them. When Lucy is two, Tom and Isabel return to the mainland and are reminded that there are other people in the world…and one of them is desperate to find her lost baby.

My take: 4 looks
The summary pretty much tells the whole book. I hate that in a summary. If you simply read those few paragraphs, you may never read the book, which is such a great character study. The characters in the book are so real and excellently portrayed that each one brings both sympathy and anger. I completely understood the decisions made by each one. I didn't agree, but I also couldn't argue that I would have acted any differently. It is heart-wrenching and hopeful and devastating and satisfying. What more could you want in a book?

Highly recommended.

Monday, May 13, 2013

The Secret Sharer by Joseph Conrad

"While I lingered yet, my hand resting lightly on my ship's rail as if on the shoulder of a trusted friend. But, with all that multitude of celestial bodies staring down at one, the comfort of quiet communion with her was gone for good."

The Secret Sharer is a popular early 20th century novel written by author Joseph Conrad. The story taking place at sea, is told from the perspective of a young sea captain. Not knowing his crew ahead of time except for the previous night, he struggles to see if he can life up to the authority role that is a must among captains. The Secret Sharer is a an excellent book for those who are interested in novels dealing with the sea and also those who are fans of the writings of Joseph Conrad.

My take: 3 looks
Not a novel at all, at 62 pages, or even a novella. I would classify this as a short story. A weird little short story. Basically, there is another sailor rescued by the captain in the middle of the night. This man committed murder aboard his ship, and swam (naked, may I add) for his life afterward. The captain of our ship finds him and decides to keep him a secret.

The interesting question in this story is whether or not there is actually another person. The captain speaks repeatedly of their resemblance, stating several times that looking at this man is like looking in the mirror. The captain's actions and communications also seem to be odd and noticable by both the first and second mates, raising additional questions about his mental stability. He turns out to be a very unreliable narrator, and the reader is left with more than a few questions once the stowaway disembarks.


Sunday, May 5, 2013

29 by Adena Halpern

What if you closed your eyes, blew out the candles, and your wish came true? Ellie Jerome is a young-at-heart seventy-five-year-old who feels she has more in common with her twenty-nine-year-old granddaughter, Lucy, than her fifty-five-year-old daughter, Barbara. Ellie’s done everything she can to stay young, and the last thing she wants is to celebrate another birthday. So when she finds herself confronted with a cake full of candles, Ellie wishes more than anything that she could be twenty-nine again, just for one day. But who expects a wish like that to come true?   29 is the story of three generations of women and how one magical day shakes up everything they know about each other. While Ellie finds that the life of a twenty-something is not as carefree as she expected, the sheer joy of being young again prompts her to consider living her life all over. Does she dare stay young for more than this day, even if it means leaving everyone she loves behind? Fresh, funny, and delightful, 29 is an enchanting adventure about families, love, and the real lessons of youth.

My take: 3 looks
As far as straight-up chick-lit goes, this was entertaining. Having an entire book center around one person for one day was just a bit of a stretch, but overall, it was a very easy and enjoyable book.

Ellie is in a unique position to shed 46 years for one day, which is almost ruined by her daughter and best friend. I loved that it was not just her "little secret", but won't say more to spoil it. She lived it to the fullest, and seemed to have the option of whether or not to return to her advanced age, or stay where she was. That was my only question: COULD she really have stayed if she had truly wanted to? Wouldn't she have been terrified every single day of her (new) life that she would awaken one morning wrinkled, saggy and stiff?

If I could go back to any year and live it for just a day, I may go back to high school and give the girls who tormented me a piece of my grown-up mind. Or I may return to my early 20s and enjoy a day in the life of a free spirit. Or I may go back to a fateful day in 1993 when I should have said, "I don't think so," instead of "I do". However, I am who I am because of what I did, when I did it. Would I really want to change that? I kind of like who I am, and am perfectly content to tweak a little here and there.

If I knew that one wish I made on my birthday would come true, I would probably wish for health and happiness for my children, close my eyes and blow.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon

The lives of three strangers interconnect in unforeseen ways–and with unexpected consequences–in acclaimed author Dan Chaon’s gripping, brilliantly written new novel.

Longing to get on with his life, Miles Cheshire nevertheless can’t stop searching for his troubled twin brother, Hayden, who has been missing for ten years. Hayden has covered his tracks skillfully, moving stealthily from place to place, managing along the way to hold down various jobs and seem, to the people he meets, entirely normal. But some version of the truth is always concealed.

A few days after graduating from high school, Lucy Lattimore sneaks away from the small town of Pompey, Ohio, with her charismatic former history teacher. They arrive in Nebraska, in the middle of nowhere, at a long-deserted motel next to a dried-up reservoir, to figure out the next move on their path to a new life. But soon Lucy begins to feel quietly uneasy.

My whole life is a lie, thinks Ryan Schuyler, who has recently learned some shocking news. In response, he walks off the Northwestern University campus, hops on a bus, and breaks loose from his existence, which suddenly seems abstract and tenuous. Presumed dead, Ryan decides to remake himself–through unconventional and precarious means.

My take: 3 looks

This book was given to me with the comment "This book was disturbingly weird". No other recommendation would entice me to drop everything the read it! haha

Very nicely written. There are crossroads, turns, twists, and intersections in the story that are well done and not confusing in the least. As I read the stories of these three people, I tucked little items away in my mind until they started to swirl and come together, untangling in the most intriguing way.

The stories go back and forth between characters, and back and forth in time. The reader doesn't really see the path of the three until the end of the book, when the last piece is in place, you put the book down, step back and see the big picture. It was very different from anything else I have read lately, and I will definitely read more by this author.


Thursday, May 2, 2013

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

From the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of March , the journey of a rare illuminated manuscript through centuries of exile and war In 1996, Hanna Heath, an Australian rare-book expert, is offered the job of a lifetime: analysis and conservation of the famed Sarajevo Haggadah, which has been rescued from Serb shelling during the Bosnian war. Priceless and beautiful, the book is one of the earliest Jewish volumes ever to be illuminated with images. When Hanna, a caustic loner with a passion for her work, discovers a series of tiny artifacts in its ancient binding—an insect wing fragment, wine stains, salt crystals, a white hair—she begins to unlock the book’s mysteries.

The reader is ushered into an exquisitely detailed and atmospheric past, tracing the book’s journey from its salvation back to its creation. In Bosnia during World War II, a Muslim risks his life to protect it from the Nazis. In the hedonistic salons of fin-de-si├Ęcle Vienna, the book becomes a pawn in the struggle against the city’s rising anti-Semitism. In inquisition-era Venice, a Catholic priest saves it from burning. In Barcelona in 1492, the scribe who wrote the text sees his family destroyed by the agonies of enforced exile. And in Seville in 1480, the reason for the Haggadah’s extraordinary illuminations is finally disclosed. Hanna’s investigation unexpectedly plunges her into the intrigues of fine art forgers and ultra-nationalist fanatics. Her experiences will test her belief in herself and the man she has come to love.

Inspired by a true story, People of the Book is at once a novel of sweeping historical grandeur and intimate emotional intensity, an ambitious, electrifying work by an acclaimed and beloved author.

My take: 4 looks
I was immediately drawn into this story. There was no acclimation for me at all, I was immediately involved in the conservation of this rare and treasured sacred text. I immediately liked Hanna, immediately mistrusted Ozren and I flowed from present to past as Brooks carried me on the gentle flow of a well-written story.

The back stories are set so that the most recent is recounted, bouncing back to the modern age, and back again to an earlier time. I couldn't wait to see how far back the story would take me, how the characters dissolved into one another, and how the continuous thread of the Haggadah affected the people whom it touched.

Confused by references and comparisons to Dan Brown's The DaVinci Code, I didn't see the two as closely related at all. This book was full of rich and timeless stories, developed to explain possibilities. Historical fiction at its best. I see Brown's book as more of a conspiracy novel, full of mystery and suspense. Not inferior, just very different.

This book is beautifully written and is highly recommended.