Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith

This first novel in Alexander McCall Smith’s widely acclaimed The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series tells the story of the delightfully cunning and enormously engaging Precious Ramotswe, who is drawn to her profession to “help people with problems in their lives.” Immediately upon setting up shop in a small storefront in Gaborone, she is hired to track down a missing husband, uncover a con man, and follow a wayward daughter. But the case that tugs at her heart, and lands her in danger, is a missing eleven-year-old boy, who may have been snatched by witchdoctors.

My take: 3 looks
What a cute mystery!! I liked so many things about this book. First and foremost, the main character, Precious Ramotswe, is very likable. She is smart, shrewd, witty, and seems to have a photographic memory...a great trait for a private detective.

Secondly, she loves her country. I could see, hear and taste the surroundings and feel her affection for Africa as a whole, and Botswana in particular. She described the various peoples of the surrounding villages perfectly, and aside from eating worms, it all worked for me.

I appreciated the background on her father. I look forward to reading other books to see if his memory plays a part in the story. It seems that it must, as the author took the time to introduce him to the reader so fully.

Lastly, I loved that there was one mystery to solve, along with other, smaller mysteries solved within its confines. Too many times, there is only one large story arc, with the action and adventure supporting only that one. This one was very different in that I experienced the days and weeks of Mma Ramotswe's life. Very nicely done.

I recommend this book, and look forward to reading the entire series.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom

Orphaned while onboard ship from Ireland, seven-year-old Lavinia arrives on the steps of a tobacco plantation where she is to live and work with the slaves of the kitchen house. Under the care of Belle, the master’s illegitimate daughter, Lavinia becomes deeply bonded to her adopted family, though she is set apart from them by her white skin. Eventually, Lavinia is accepted into the world of the big house, where the master is absent and the mistress battles opium addiction. Lavinia finds herself perilously straddling two very different worlds. When she is forced to make a choice, loyalties are brought into question, dangerous truths are laid bare, and lives are put at risk.

My take: 3 looks


Nice historical fiction book. Spanning about 15 years, this tells the story from two perspectives: Lavinia, a white orphan from Ireland and Belle, a black slave who is also the white master's illegitimate daughter.

Even though it's told from two perspectives, it is Lavinia who dominates the dialogue. I found this very interesting. Lavinia would get 8 pages to Belle's 2 pages. Toward the end, it seemed to even out more, but only perhaps Belle's story was increasing a bit.

I would have like to hear from another perspective, one from the "big house". Perhaps Marshall, the abused and damaged son of the plantation owner. His perspective would have been intriguing and would have shed much-needed light on the reasons for his actions. Otherwise, the reader has to assume that he is simply a deranged and mean person.

Lavinia, as a white girl in the servant's quarters, was a bit predictable in her actions and attitudes. She didn't understand why she was able to sit in the front of the church, as opposed to standing in the back like her "family" did. She didn't understand that, when she returns as the mistress, she is treated differently by her "family".

I think the most complex characters would be Mama Mae and Marshall. However, I think Martha also had a story to tell. I would have liked to hear from them, as opposed to those chosen. It was an easy read, though, and I recommend it.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Good in Bed by Jennifer Weiner

For twenty-eight years, things have been tripping along nicely for Cannie Shapiro. Sure, her mother has come charging out of the closet, and her father has long since dropped out of her world. But she loves her friends, her rat terrier, Nifkin, and her job as pop culture reporter for The Philadelphia Examiner. She's even made a tenuous peace with her plus-size body. But the day she opens up a national women's magazine and sees the words "Loving a Larger Woman" above her ex-boyfriend's byline, Cannie is plunged into misery...and the most amazing year of her life. From Philadelphia to Hollywood and back home again, she charts a new course for herself: mourning her losses, facing her past, and figuring out who she is and who she can become.

My take: 3 looks
Love Cannie Shapiro! She is smart, witty, sassy, talented, and (ahem) PLUS SIZED! Jennifer Weiner hits a high note for women everywhere who love dessert, hate mirrors and loathe bathing suit shopping.

Cannie has a few unique issues, though. Her father abandoned her family when she was old enough to remember how it felt to be loved by him. Her mother is an out-of-the-closet lesbian living with her first partner, and her ex-boyfriend is writing about her in Weiner's version of Cosmo.

On the plus side (pun fully intended), she has a wonderful job at a top publication, a stalwart best friend, a new friend who happens to be Hollywood's biggest A-list star, and a so-ugly-it's-cute dog with a less-than-flattering slang name.

While some of this felt a bit contrived (I totally didn't buy the mom being a lesbian), most of it was quite wonderful. Her shock at the "big news" (no spoiler here!), her longing and second-guessing about breaking up with Bruce, her so-real comments at the weight loss meetings, and her all-encompassing rage at the end...all felt very palatable. Cannie was a real person to me, bringing tears to my eyes toward the end. That is the sign of a true reader buy-in, and I thank Jennifer Weiner for a great few hours on a Saturday afternoon!

This is the epitome of a by-the-beach-or-pool-chick-lit-ice-cream-sundae-read and I recommend.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Roman à clef

My friend Stephanie asked yesterday if I had ever read "Valley of the Dolls" by Jacqueline Susann. I had not, but had heard of it and know that it is mentioned quite a lot in various cultural references. I decided to do some research and found that it is the first example of roman à clef by a female author to reach this kind of sales number.

What is this roman a clef? Quite interesting! The term is French for novel with a key, is a novel about real life, overlaid with a façade of fiction. The fictitious names in the novel represent real people, and the "key" is the relationship between the nonfiction and the fiction.

So, some literary examples would be:

Postcards from the Edge (1987) by Carrie Fisher describes her substance abuse and often-strained relationship with her mother, Debbie Reynolds.

Primary Colors (1996) about Bill Clinton's presidential campaign, was published anonymously and later confirmed to have been written by Joe Klein.

The Devil Wears Prada (2003) about a woman constantly bullied by her boss while working as an assistant at a fashion magazine. Although author Lauren Weisberger worked as an assistant at Vogue magazine, she denies that the book's antagonist, Miranda Priestly, is modeled after the magazine's editor-in-chief Anna Wintour.


Thursday, July 10, 2014

Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

Bernadette Fox is notorious. To her Microsoft-guru husband, she's a fearlessly opinionated partner; to fellow private-school mothers in Seattle, she's a disgrace; to design mavens, she's a revolutionary architect, and to 15-year-old Bee, she is a best friend and, simply, Mom. Then Bernadette disappears. It began when Bee aced her report card and claimed her promised reward: a family trip to Antarctica. But Bernadette's intensifying allergy to Seattle--and people in general--has made her so agoraphobic that a virtual assistant in India now runs her most basic errands. A trip to the end of the earth is problematic. To find her mother, Bee compiles email messages, official documents, secret correspondence--creating a compulsively readable and touching novel about misplaced genius and a mother and daughter's role in an absurd world.

My take: 3.5 looks
I LOVED the beginning of this book! It was so very cleverly written and so hilariously witty that I couldn't stop reading, then texting my friend about the funnier statements. For example, I am going to start saying "Mea Culpa", calling people gnats, and telling my kids they are "rotters" when they vex me.

Then, it took a turn for the serious. Which was fine, and well done. The background had to be explained and the characters needed to be fleshed out.

Then, it got bogged down. When the team went to Antarctica, my mind and attention wandered. At the end, I was ready for the last page.

I recommend this book because of the first half, the hilarious characters and the changes that each went through to make them very real. It's a very quick read, and you may like the ending more than I did.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

When Harold Fry nips out one morning to post a letter, leaving his wife hovering upstairs, he has no idea that he is about to walk from one end of the country to the other. He has no hiking boots or map, let alone a compass, waterproof or mobile phone. All he knows is that he must keep walking to save someone else's life.

My take: 5 looks
LOVED this book. There are so many levels to love here: the ordinary doing the extraordinary, relationships with family as well as strangers, mourning, and the simple act of observation.

Harold is a very likable, if unassuming, character. Life just happens to him as he ambles through his days. His wife seems to despise him. His son seems to avoid him. His neighbor stays at a distance.

Then comes the letter from Queenie. At first, I was confused as to why Harold felt such emotion at her news, and his compulsion to go to her. However, as the story progresses and the characters unfold, things become clearer and clearer.

And then there are the extraneous characters. For the most part, they are a positive influence on Harold and his journey. But even that takes a turn for the dark.

This is a book worth reading. On the surface, it is a sweet story of friendship, love and keeping our commitments. Underneath, it is a coming-of-age story occurring later in life. On another level, it is a novel of self-awareness. So many characters develop and change in this novel.

Very enjoyable and highly recommended.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

The Giant, O'Brien by Hilary Mantel

The year is 1782; the place, London: the center of science and commerce, home to the newly rich and magnet to the desperately poor. Among the latter is the Giant, O'Brien, a freak of nature, a man of song and story who trusts in the old myths, in Irish kings and fairies. He has come to exhibit his size for money. He has, he soon finds, come to die. His opposite is a man of science, a society surgeon, the famed anatomist John Hunter, employer to a legion of grave robbers. He lusts after the Giant's corpse. Coin is offered. The Giant refuses. He will be buried, he will assume his throne in heaven. But money changes hands as friends are bribed. The Giant sickens, dies. Today, his bones may be seen by any curious stranger who visits the Huntarian Museum in London, part of the Royal College of Surgeons.

My take: 2 looks
I hate to give this one two out of five, but this is the longest 200 page book I have ever read. It was bogged down with so much verbal detritus that I felt suffocated.

The good: I enjoyed the parallel stories of O'Brien and Hunter, weaving around one another, and finally merging. I enjoyed the giant's stories. I appreciated the giant's love of lore while contrasted with Hunter love of science.

The bad: The traveling companions of O'Brien were extremely distasteful. In their language they were crass, in their expectations they were sophomoric, and in their treatment of others they were little more than animals. Is this really how it was in 1700 London? Yes, probably. However, the gentleness of the giant contrasted with these gutter snipes led me to question why he kept their company at all. And were all of the sordid sex descriptions necessary? I had no idea that necrophilia was so prevalent.

The whole of it: There was much potential here, as this is based on two true characters in history. Instead of the grueling conversations and daily living conditions of the giant and his companions, I would have liked to read more about Hunter. I would have liked the story to follow a parallel of the two characters more deliberately, leaving the troupe to the sidelines as filler rather than presenting them as main characters. The juxtaposition of the belief (giant) and the proven (Hunter) would have been more stimulating and interesting.

In all, I am left unimpressed and cannot recommend this book.

Friday, July 4, 2014

A Visit from the Fizzle Squad

You will, I'm sure, remember that I didn't care for Jennifer Egan's Pulitzer-prize winning novel, "A Visit from the Good Squad". To refresh your memory:

My review: 1 look
This book won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction?! This is what the Pulitzer Prize Board said: "inventive investigation of growing up and growing old in the digital age, displaying a big-hearted curiosity about cultural change at warp speed." Allow me to translate this for you: rockers getting old, hating it and fighting it every step of the way.

HBO is making a series out of it?! Well, they made a movie out of one of my most-hated books, White Oleander, so I can't say this surprises me. This book could read like a bunch of related short stories, so a series is probably not a bad idea. Especially when you consider the garbage on television now.

My take on this book is that it's sophomoric, pandering and whiney. Think "Housewives of New Jersey" with record contracts. You may want to read this one because of the hype, but I wouldn't recommend it unless every other book at the library is gone.

You can see that I didn't really mince words here.

So, you can imagine my astonishment, amazement, wonder, incredulity, bewilderment, stupefaction, and disbelief when I read this from Alexandra Alter in The Wall Street Journal: As of February 2013, the project had reportedly "fizzled" meaning it was no longer in development.

I told you so, anyone?

The Execution of Noa P. Singleton by Elizabeth L. Silver

Noa P. Singleton never spoke a word in her own defense throughout a brief trial that ended with a jury finding her guilty of first-degree murder. Ten years later, having accepted her fate, she sits on death row in a maximum-security penitentiary, just six months away from her execution date.    

Meanwhile, Marlene Dixon, a high-powered Philadelphia attorney who is also the mother of the woman Noa was imprisoned for killing. She claims to have changed her mind about the death penalty and will do everything in her considerable power to convince the governor to commute Noa's sentence to life in prison, in return for the one thing Noa can trade: her story. Marlene desperately wants to understand the events that led to her daughter’s death — events that only Noa knows of and has never shared. Inextricably linked by murder but with very different goals, Noa and Marlene wrestle with the sentences life itself can impose while they confront the best and worst of what makes us human.

My take: 4 looks
Book received by and review written for

Exquisitely written and beautifully told, this book was a delightful surprise. Noa is no common criminal; that much is clear from the beginning. As her story unfolds, her life turns out to be both tragic and inspiring. Not often would I feel compassion and sympathy for a self-confessed killer, but it is impossible not to like Noa and root for her clemency.

The strong and vividly penned characters in this novel are excruciatingly real. Marlene loves her daughter with a smothering love that many only children will recognize and understand. Caleb feels the regret of a wasted life, resulting in him manufacturing the one he wants...until it seems that he will get it; then he panics. Oliver is wide-eyed with youthful hope and the pure taste of justice. Even Patsmith is fully drawn in my mind, as she walks her own green mile.

Far from predictable, the suspense in what actually happened to Persephone, Caleb, and Sarah is gripping until the end. Silver presents her non-linear story so deftly and seamlessly that is both easy to follow and allows the story to be constructed from inside-out, and numerous angles. The use of letters from Marlene to Sarah is brilliant in presenting a very complex, flawed yet sympathetic character.

Another word about the writing. Silver acknowledges the intelligence, humor and conflicted nature of her reader. The writing is thoughtful and sensitive, as well as non-confrontational about the very sensitive subject of capital punishment. It is also witty and wry, adding a bit of levity at just the right times.

Impossible to put down and indelible in its mark, this is a must-read for the summer! I hope Silver has many, many more novels in her future. My personal library will boast them all.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Still Life with Bread Crumbs by Anna Quindlen

Still Life with Bread Crumbs begins with an imagined gunshot and ends with a new tin roof. Between the two is a wry and knowing portrait of Rebecca Winter, a photographer whose work made her an unlikely heroine for many women. Her career is now descendent, her bank balance shaky, and she has fled the city for the middle of nowhere. There she discovers, in a tree stand with a roofer named Jim Bates, that what she sees through a camera lens is not all there is to life.   

My take: 4 looks
Finally, a "woman of a certain age" as the heroine. Rebecca is 60 years old, very flawed, and coming to the end of life as she has known it. While she does pick herself up by the bootstraps, she doesn't do so in a manufactured-confident way. She questions her decisions at every turn, moving forward as a real woman would, one step at a time.

Throughout the story, we see Rebecca grow into herself. She finds a strength in body and mind that she didn't know she had, and taps into that to finally morph into what her persona always exuded.

The story itself is a nice romantic comedy, but that takes a back seat to the characters in this one. From a star-struck café owner to a blue collar worker-cum-suitor to a clown who uses Rebecca as inspiration to reach for his own dreams, this book is full of real characters with whom you want to spend time.

And the photographs. The descriptions of the photographs are so lush and graphic that I felt as if I could actually see them. Simple in their presentation, but expertly drawn, the black and white offspring of Rebecca's talented eye were full and robust to me.

The only drawback to this book, and the reason for not receiving a full "5", is a bit of jaggedness in the writing. It does not follow a linear format, which is fine, but the edges between the two are so sudden that it hindered the flow and caused some confusion. Stream-of-consciousness is a fine method, but there needs to be a visual break in the text for the reader to be able to make the transition. In this book, I had to stop several times, reread and figure out where the breaks were. While it didn't impact the story, it did impact the reading experience.

However, that was very minor compared to the exquisite story and characters in this book. Highly recommended.