Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

Orphan Train is a gripping story of friendship and second chances from Christina Baker Kline, author of Bird in Hand and The Way Life Should Be.

Penobscot Indian Molly Ayer is close to “aging out” out of the foster care system. A community service position helping an elderly woman clean out her home is the only thing keeping Molly out of juvie and worse...

As she helps Vivian sort through her possessions and memories, Molly learns that she and Vivian aren’t as different as they seem to be. A young Irish immigrant orphaned in New York City, Vivian was put on a train to the Midwest with hundreds of other children whose destinies would be determined by luck and chance.
Molly discovers that she has the power to help Vivian find answers to mysteries that have haunted her for her entire life – answers that will ultimately free them both.

My take: 3 looks
This was a very nice story, but I felt a little was lacking. For example, as Molly and Vivian were going through items in the attic, it would have been a nice touch for an item to bring back a memory, and tie the story together that way. Also, the ending twist (I won't spoil it for you), was a bit abrupt and lacking substance. I wanted to know more about the situation, emotions, people involved and see the results a little more clearly.

Overall, this was a nice read, but left me wanting more.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Whiskey Sour by J. A. Konrath

Lieutenant Jacqueline 'Jack' Daniels is having a bad week. Her live-in boyfriend has left her for his personal trainer, chronic insomnia has caused her to max out her credit cards with late-night home shopping purchases, and a frightening killer who calls himself 'The Gingerbread Man' is dumping mutilated bodies in her district. Between avoiding the FBI and its moronic profiling computer, joining a dating service, mixing it up with street thugs, and parrying the advances of an uncouth PI, Jack and her binge-eating partner, Herb, must catch the maniac before he kills again....and Jack is next on his murder list.

My take: 3 looks
What a fun book! Who wouldn't love a book with this title, starring a protagonist named Jack Daniels?! The mystery good, the characters are likable and the action is fast. This was a very fast and entertaining read. Recommended.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Virgin of Small Plains by Nancy Pickard

The Virgin of Small PlainsSummary:
Small Plains, Kansas, January 23, 1987: In the midst of a deadly blizzard, eighteen-year-old Rex Shellenberger scours his father’s pasture, looking for helpless newborn calves. Then he makes a shocking discovery: the naked, frozen body of a teenage girl, her skin as white as the snow around her. Even dead, she is the most beautiful girl he’s ever seen. It is a moment that will forever change his life and the lives of everyone around him.

The mysterious dead girl–the “Virgin of Small Plains”–inspires local reverence. In the two decades following her death, strange miracles visit those who faithfully tend to her grave; some even believe that her spirit can cure deadly illnesses. Slowly, word of the legend spreads. But what really happened in that snow-covered field? Why did young Mitch Newquist disappear the day after the Virgin’s body was found, leaving behind his distraught girlfriend, Abby Reynolds? Why do the town’s three most powerful men–Dr. Quentin Reynolds, former sheriff Nathan Shellenberger, and Judge, Tom Newquist–all seem to be hiding the details of that night?

Seventeen years later, when Mitch suddenly returns to Small Plains, simmering tensions come to a head, ghosts that had long slumbered whisper anew, and the secrets that some wish would stay buried rise again from the grave of the Virgin. Abby–never having resolved her feelings for Mitch–is now determined to uncover exactly what happened so many years ago to tear their lives apart.

My take: 2.5 looks (rounded up to 3)
Love the title and the premise: A girl is found dead and no one knows who she is or how she died. Or do they?...

Even though this novel read a bit like a debut writing, I was caught up in the story and enjoyed the book. However, there were a lot of loose threads that I don't feel were ever really explained to my satisfaction. Motives and reasons were not clear and were not explored deeply enough. Because of that, I found myself a little skeptical about the events and the reactions of the main characters. There was a great story here, but it was not tightly drawn and could have used a lot more detail (and maybe more editing for those part that were superfluous).

Monday, July 22, 2013

Promises to Keep by Ann Tatlock

Eleven-year-old Roz (Rosalind) Anthony and her family have just moved to Mills River, Illinois, to escape an abusive situation. Only days after settling into their new home, they are surprised to find the previous owner, Tillie Monroe, on their front porch reading the newspaper. Though her sons have sold the house and sent her to a facility for the aged, she is determined to die in the place she lived her life, and somehow manages to find her way "home" day after day. Feeling sympathy for the elderly woman, Roz's mother allows Tillie to move back in.

Mara Nightingale becomes Roz's first friend in Mills River. In spite of their many differences, the girls discover they have something in common that binds them together--both are hiding secrets. So they make a promise--"cross my heart and hope to die"--never to tell anyone else. When danger stalks the Anthonys, Tillie exhibits unimaginable courage and selfless love in her determination to protect the family she has adopted as her own.

My take: 2.5 looks - SPOILER ALERT!!

A wonderful premise for a book, and loved the addition of Tillie as a "squatter" turned grandmother, this book fell flat in many ways for me. First of all, it was extremely predictable. You know that Tillie is not going to leave. You know that Tom is not going to stay. You know that neither Roz nor Mara's situation with their fathers is going to end well.

While the story was an easy one to read, several of the dynamics were bothersome to me. First of all, Tillie's insistence to everyone that this was still her house, even though she knew that she was living with the Anthony's, initially uninvited. The "steamroller" attitude of hers was irritating, especially since she never acknowledged the kindness extended to her, even in private.

Another dynamic that bothered me was the climax with Alan Anthony. I suspected (and expected) the confrontation to escalate to violence, but I didn't think it would start there. It was a bit over the top to me, feeling contrived.

And the climax was a huge letdown. The entire book leads to Alan coming back home, and when he finally does, it is over with very little fanfare and description. Like a huge firework that turns out to be a dud. The best part of this book is the epilogue, where most of the threads are tied and you can move on.

Recommended if you need a short, easy read to cleanse your "reading palate".

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Oprah's Book Club

What is with Oprah's book club selections? I have practically gone to a "if it was on Oprah's list, avoid it" mentality with these books. They are all gloom, doom, abusive, unloving and melancholy tales. There may be a few pick-me-ups here and there, but those would be exceptions. Examples:

The Deep End of the Ocean by Jacquelyn Mitchard was the very first book in Oprah's book club, started in 1996. Summary: The Deep End of the Ocean imagines every mother's worst nightmare--the disappearance of a child--as it explores a family's struggle to endure, even against extraordinary odds.

Stones from the River by Ursula Hegi: The protagonist is Trudi Montag, a Zwerg -- the German word for dwarf woman. As a dwarf she is set apart, the outsider whose physical "otherness" has a corollary in her refusal to be a part of the fictional town of Burgdorf's silent complicity during and after World War II. Trudi establishes her status and power, not through beauty, marriage, or motherhood, but rather as the town's librarian and relentless collector of stories. Through Trudi's unblinking eyes, we witness the growing impact of Nazism on the ordinary townsfolk of Burgdorf as they are thrust on to a larger moral stage and forced to make choices that will forever mark their lives.

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis: Ayana Mathis tells the story of the children of the Great Migration through the trials of one unforgettable family. In 1923, fifteen-year-old Hattie Shepherd flees Georgia and settles in Philadelphia, hoping for a chance at a better life. Instead, she marries a man who will bring her nothing but disappointment and watches helplessly as her firstborn twins succumb to an illness a few pennies could have prevented. Hattie gives birth to nine more children whom she raises with grit and mettle and not an ounce of the tenderness they crave. She vows to prepare them for the calamitous difficulty they are sure to face in their later lives, to meet a world that will not love them, a world that will not be kind. Captured here in twelve luminous narrative threads, their lives tell the story of a mother’s monumental courage and the journey of a nation.

Toni Morrison is a favorite of Oprah, as is Wally Lamb. Again, both write very difficult novels to read.

That is really not what I want in a book. I know that readers read for different reasons, but this is my blog, and you get the benefit of my reasons alone. I want to be transported. I wanted to learn. I want to see through another's eyes what I think I already see clearly. I want to invest, engage, care and connect. I don't want to cringe, grimace, skim, or dread. I don't want to be damaged at the end of the book. I don't have to read about horror to know that it exists.

Quite the opposite, Scott Stossel, an editor at The Atlantic, wrote:
"There is something so relentlessly therapeutic, so consciously self-improving about the book club that it seems antithetical to discussions of serious literature. Literature should disturb the mind and derange the senses; it can be palliative, but it is not meant to be the easy, soothing one that Oprah would make it."
I, of course, wholeheartedly disagree.

I don't encourage you to avoid Oprah's book club. Not in the least. After all, you can see from the influence that this book club has, making millionaires out of authors, it is clear that no one comes close to Oprah's clout: Publishers estimate that her power to sell a book is anywhere from 20 to 100 times that of any other media personality.

In 2009, Winfrey's book club had even spread to Brazil with picks like A New Earth dominating Brazil's best-seller list. The club generated so much success for some books that they went on to be adapted into films, including The Deep End of the Ocean and The Reader.

So, it does what it is supposed to do: gets people reading. With that in mind, it can't be all bad. Just the choices in books, in my opinion.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Driving with Dead People by Monica Holloway

Small wonder that, at nine years old, Monica Holloway develops a fascination with the local funeral home. With a father who drives his Ford pickup with a Kodak movie camera sitting shotgun just in case he sees an accident, and whose home movies feature more footage of disasters than of his children, Monica is primed to become a morbid child. Yet in spite of her father's bouts of violence and abuse, her mother's selfishness and prim denial, and her siblings' personal battles and betrayals, Monica never succumbs to despair. Instead, she forges her own way, thriving at school and becoming fast friends with Julie Kilner, whose father is the town mortician. She and Julie prefer the casket showroom, where they take turns lying in their favorite coffins, to the parks and grassy backyards in her hometown of Elk Grove, Ohio.

In time, Monica and Julie get a job driving the company hearse to pick up bodies at the airport, yet even Monica's growing independence can't protect her from her parents' irresponsibility, and from the feeling that she simply does not deserve to be safe. Little does she know, as she finally strikes out on her own, that her parents' biggest betrayal has yet to be revealed. Throughout this remarkable memoir of her dysfunctional, eccentric, and wholly unforgettable family, Monica Holloway's prose shines with humor, clear-eyed grace, and an uncommon sense of resilience. Driving with Dead People is an extraordinary real-life tale with a wonderfully observant and resourceful heroine.

My take: 3 looks
Very nicely written, but a bit too long for my taste. I think the same story could have been told as poignantly in fewer pages.

This book is, at its heart, about the horrors of childhood with an abusive father and emotionally absent mother. The tales of growing up are difficult to read and the fact that this is a memoir make the words, actions and denial even more bone-crushing. The aftermath of living in this environment proves to be a difficult one to rise above, only two siblings facing the issues head-on to try to move past the hurt and betrayal.

This is a raw, painful and real story that will make you want to protect the children and beat the hell out of the adults.


Saturday, July 13, 2013

Go the F**K to Sleep by Adam Mansbach

Go the F**k To Sleep is a bedtime book for parents who live in the real world, where a few snoozing kitties and cutesy rhymes don't always send a toddler sailing off to dreamland. Honest, profane, and affectionate, Adam Mansbach's verses and Ricardo Cort├ęs' illustrations perfectly capture the familiar—and unspoken—tribulations of putting your little angel down for the night, and open up a conversation about parenting in the process.

My take: 5 looks

Okay, I have to say that this book is hilarious! Yes, it is crude and crass and has the F-bomb on each and every page. But, having three kids in one year, I can assure you that this is how I felt almost every night from their birth to around age 2. You have to read this with a sense of humor to truly enjoy it the way it was intended, tongue-in-cheek and funny as can be.

The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult

Some stories live forever . . .

Sage Singer is a baker. She works through the night, preparing the day’s breads and pastries, trying to escape a reality of loneliness, bad memories, and the shadow of her mother’s death. When Josef Weber, an elderly man in Sage’s grief support group, begins stopping by the bakery, they strike up an unlikely friendship. Despite their differences, they see in each other the hidden scars that others can’t, and they become companions.

Everything changes on the day that Josef confesses a long-buried and shameful secret—one that nobody else in town would ever suspect—and asks Sage for an extraordinary favor. If she says yes, she faces not only moral repercussions, but potentially legal ones as well. With her own identity suddenly challenged, and the integrity of the closest friend she’s ever had clouded, Sage begins to question the assumptions and expectations she’s made about her life and her family. When does a moral choice become a moral imperative? And where does one draw the line between punishment and justice, forgiveness and mercy?

In this searingly honest novel, Jodi Picoult gracefully explores the lengths we will go in order to protect our families and to keep the past from dictating the future.

My take: 4 looks
This is my second Jodi Picoult novel, and my favorite so far. My book club read this one, and I don't know what I expected, but I drawn into the story completely and found the writing to be very nice.

Sage Singer, at first, was a bit over-the-top for me, but as her story unfolded throughout the novel, so did my understanding of and compassion for her. This is a young lady with serious issues on several fronts, and Picoult handled the complexity of the story beautifully. Monster or Human? Forgive or not? Questions that all of us face at one time or another, in varying degrees, that enables the reader to complete submerge into the story.

I loved the common thread of baking bread throughout the novel. The descriptions were so lovingly painted that I could see, smell and taste the dough. Bread is vital in so many ways to the story and I completely fell in love with the art of breadmaking.

Excellent writing, excellent story and highly recommended.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Revenge of the Spellmans by Lisa Lutz

Private investigator Isabel Spellman is back on the case and back on the couch -- in court-ordered therapy after getting a little too close to her previous subject. As the book opens, Izzy is on hiatus from Spellman Inc. But when her boss, Milo, simultaneously cuts her bartending hours and introduces her to a "friend" looking for a private eye, Izzy reluctantly finds herself with a new client. She assures herself that the case -- a suspicious husband who wants his wife tailed -- will be short and sweet, and will involve nothing more than the most boring of PI rituals: surveillance. But with each passing hour, Izzy finds herself with more questions than hard evidence.

Meanwhile, Spellmania continues. Izzy's brother, David, the family's most upright member, has adopted an uncharacteristically unkempt appearance and attitude toward work, life, and Izzy. And their wayward youngest sister, Rae, a historic academic underachiever, aces the PSATs and subsequently offends her study partner and object of obsession, Detective Henry Stone, to the point of excommunication. The only unsurprising behavior comes from her parents, whose visits to Milo's bar amount to thinly veiled surveillance and artful attempts (read: blackmail) at getting Izzy to return to the Spellman Inc. fold. As the case of the wayward wife continues to vex her, Izzy's personal life -- and mental health -- seem to be disintegrating. Facing a housing crisis, she can't sleep, she can't remember where she parked her car, and, despite her shrinks' persistence, she can't seem to break through in her appointments. She certainly can't explain why she forgets dates with her lawyer's grandson, or fails to interpret the come-ons issued in an Irish brogue by Milo's new bartender. Nor can she explain exactly how she feels about Detective Henry Stone and his plans to move in with his new Assistant DA girlfriend... Filled with the signature side-splitting Spellman antics, Revenge of the Spellmans is an ingenious, hilarious, and disarmingly tender installment in the Spellman series.

My take: 4 looks
The third book in The Spellman Files, this did not disappoint. Book two fell flat for me, as Izzy's antics were less humorous and more obsessive and irritating. Revenge of the Spellmans gets back on track, with hilarious quips and comebacks, matched with unusual (but plausible) situations. The introduction of Maggie is a nice one and the back-seat of Petra is welcome (I didn't haven't forgiven her for book two). Izzy and Henry's tensions break through the ice a bit, in a way that serves to move the dynamics of their relationship forward. Rae is growing up nicely, and the tension of Olivia as she nears empty-next is evident. All-in-all, these are real characters and I am enjoying them immensely.

Highly recommended.