Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Ladies Room by Carolyn Brown

Secrets told in the church ladies' room are supposed to stay in the ladies' room. But that doesn't mean that what Trudy overhears there during her great-aunt Gertrude's funeral won't change the rest of her life. Trudy has a daughter in the middle of a major rebellion; a two-timing husband who has been cheating for their entire married life; and a mother with Alzheimer's residing in the local nursing home. She doesn't really need a crumbling old house about to fall into nothing but a pile of memories and broken knickknacks. Billy Lee Tucker, resident oddball in Tishomingo, Oklahoma, lived next door to Gert, and in her will she leaves him the funds to help Trudy remodel the old house. That's fine with Billy Lee, because he's been in love with Trudy since before they started school. And just spending time with her is something he'd never ever allowed himself to dream about. A beautiful home rises up from the old house on Broadway, and right along with it rises up a relationship. But is Trudy too scarred from what she heard in the ladies' room to see a lovely future with Billy Lee?

My take: 3 looks

Cute, if predictable, chick-lit from Carolyn Brown. An unabashed romance author, Brown has other titles such as "Love Drunk Cowboy", "Getting Lucky", and "My Give a Damn's Busted". Fun titles, for sure, but not normally my favorite genre.

Another reason to love a book club: I would not have ventured into Brown's repertoire had it not been chosen by a member.

Definitely a fun read, I read this one in one sitting. The story of Trudy is honest and straight-forward, and will resonate with many women heading toward middle age. I found the relationships to be a bit unbelievable, though, and resolved a little tidy for my taste. For example, Trudy's cousins went from serpents in Satan's den to begging for forgiveness and turning over a completely new and  loving leaf. While it reads well, it's not for me.

This is the perfect beach read, when you don't want to think too much, pay too much attention to plot, or have your vocabulary stretched. Take it for what it is: the saltwater taffy of novels.

Friday, February 20, 2015

How to be a Good Wife by Emma J. Chapman

Marta and Hector have been married for a long time. Through the good and bad; through raising a son and sending him off to life after college. So long, in fact, that Marta finds it difficult to remember her life before Hector. He has always taken care of her, and she has always done everything she can to be a good wife—as advised by a dog-eared manual given to her by Hector’s aloof mother on their wedding day. But now, something is changing. Small things seem off. A flash of movement in the corner of her eye, elapsed moments that she can’t recall. Visions of a blonde girl in the darkness that only Marta can see. Perhaps she is starting to remember—or perhaps her mind is playing tricks on her. As Marta’s visions persist and her reality grows more disjointed, it’s unclear if the danger lies in the world around her, or in Marta herself. The girl is growing more real every day, and she wants something.

My take: 4 looks
What a wonderful example of an unreliable narrator! Marta is the only voice we hear in this one, and her internal monologue is so intriguing and compelling that I read this one in almost one sitting. To be inside the mind of a mentally ill woman who is battling hallucinations, paranoia and other mental attacks is the basis for this story. It is written so deftly that I actually felt disoriented at times while reading.

The twist as the story moves forward is not something I was expecting; and the pace, progression, and finale left me almost breathless. I hope this author has many, many more titles that I can devour.

Highly recommended.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Keeper of Lost Causes by Jussi Adler-Olsen

Original title: Woman in a Cage

Carl Mørck used to be one of Copenhagen's best homicide detectives. Then a hail of bullets destroyed the lives of two fellow cops, and Carl--who didn't draw his weapon--blames himself. So a promotion is the last thing he expects. But Department Q is a department of one, and Carl's got only a stack of Copenhagen's coldest cases for company. His colleagues snicker, but Carl may have the last laugh, because one file keeps nagging at him: a liberal politician vanished five years earlier and is presumed dead. But she isn't dead . . . yet.

Jussi Adler-Olsen is Denmark's premier crime writer. His books routinely top the bestseller lists in northern Europe, and he's won just about every Nordic crime-writing award, including the prestigious Glass Key Award-also won by Henning Mankell, Stieg Larsson, and Jo Nesbo.

Original title: Kvinden i buret

Published in the UK as "Mercy" and in United States as "The Keeper of Lost Causes".

My take: 4 looks
I am giving this one 4 looks based on the fact that I could not put it down. It is fast paced and the characters are intriguing. I had a little trouble with Carl's overactive, if unrequited, libido, but that was minor.

In comparing this to Stieg Larsson's "Dragon Tattoo" trilogy, I appreciated that there was just as much drama, mystery, and reader-stress without the violent and sadistic sexual component that Larsson's books contained.

The characters were excellent. Carl is intriguing as a seasoned cop with plenty of baggage. I can't wait to find out more about Assad, Carl's assistant, and his dark Syrian past. Will Hardy be present in subsequent books? Will he ever walk again? Did Jepson pass his math finals?

I will definitely read more in this series, and highly recommend it.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Oliver Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

At times stern, at other times patient, at times perceptive, at other times in sad denial, Olive Kitteridge, a retired schoolteacher, deplores the changes in her little town of Crosby, Maine, and in the world at large, but she doesn’t always recognize the changes in those around her: a lounge musician haunted by a past romance; a former student who has lost the will to live; Olive’s own adult child, who feels tyrannized by her irrational sensitivities; and her husband, Henry, who finds his loyalty to his marriage both a blessing and a curse. As the townspeople grapple with their problems, mild and dire, Olive is brought to a deeper understanding of herself and her life–sometimes painfully, but always with ruthless honesty. Olive Kitteridge offers profound insights into the human condition–its conflicts, its tragedies and joys, and the endurance it requires.

My take: 5 looks
Loved, loved, loved this one. Presented in the form of thirteen short stories, all present a different perspective of the main character, Olive Kitteridge. Written in fluid detail, Olive infuriated, mesmerized, shocked, disappointed, impressed, and touched me. What a beautifully drawn character! To be so multidimensional from the written page puts Elizabeth Strout on my list of favorite authors.

Highly recommended.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

The Marriage Bureau for Rich People by Farahad Zama

Alexander McCall Smith meets Jane Austen in this delightfully charming Indian novel about finding love. What does an Indian man with a wealth of common sense do when his retirement becomes too monotonous for him to stand? Open a marriage bureau of course! With a steady stream of clients to keep him busy, Mr. Ali sees his new business flourish as the indomitable Mrs. Ali and his careful assistant, Aruna, look on with vigilant eyes. There’s the man who wants a tall son-in-law because his daughter is short; the divorced woman who ends up back with her ex-husband; a salesman who can’t seem to sell himself; and a wealthy, young doctor for whom no match is ever perfect. But although his clients go away happy, little does Mr. Ali know that his esteemed Aruna hides a tragedy in her past—a misfortune that the bureau, as luck would have it, serendipitously undoes. Bursting with the color and allure of India, and with a cast of endearing characters,

My take: 4 looks
Another joy to read! The notion that this is a combination of Alexander McCall Smith and Jane Austen is the perfect summation of this delightful first book in a series. Mr. and Mrs Ali are wonderful protagonists and encounter a variety of people as he runs the bureau out of his home. Being completely ignorant of this way of life, I found the processes very understandable, beautiful, and sometimes comical. The colors, textures, smells and idea of life in this Indian town permeate the text and add a richness to the story that makes it very satisfying.

I will read the rest in this series, and recommend it.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Dashing Through the Snow by Mary Higgins Clark and Carol Higgins Clark

In the picturesque village of Branscombe, New Hampshire, the townsfolk are all pitching in to prepare for the first (and many hope annual) Festival of Joy. The night before the festival begins, a group of employees at the local market learn that they have won $160 million in the lottery. One of their co-workers, Duncan, decided at the last minute, on the advice of a pair of crooks masquerading as financial advisers, not to play. Then he goes missing. A second winning lottery ticket was purchased in the next town, but the winner hasn't come forward. Could Duncan have secretly bought it? The Clarks' endearing heroes -- Alvirah Meehan, the amateur sleuth, and private investigator Regan Reilly -- have arrived in Branscombe for the festival. They are just the people to find out what is amiss. As they dig beneath the surface, they find that life in Branscombe is not as tranquil as it appears. So much for an old-fashioned weekend in the country.

My take: 4 looks
I bought this book during the holidays a few years ago at the local Friends of the Library store. I don't think I have ever read a Higgins Clark book, so I had no idea what to expect. What a fun cozy mystery this was! It was fast-paced, had likable characters and stood alone nicely, even though it's the fifth in a series.

There is just enough intensity to cause a little "reader stress" and a lot of levity to balance it. This was a delightful book, and recommended.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

New Release from Harper Lee

The internet is abuzz with the news that Nelle Harper Lee is putting out a new book.

Entitled "Go Set a Watchman", this book was written before the iconic "To Kill a Mockingbird", and is the story of Scout Finch as an adult. Evidently, the publisher read Watchman and wanted a book that detailed Scout's childhood instead. Lee obliged and the rest is Pulitzer history.

About the title: The title may be derived from Isaiah 21:6, which reads: "For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth." Interesting, no?

Why after all this time? Indeed, others are asking this question. In the online blog Jezebel, an article by Madeleine Davies points out:

"Harper Lee's sister Alice Lee, who ferociously protected Harper Lee's estate (and person) from unwanted outside attention as a lawyer and advocate for decades, passed away late last year, leaving the intensely private author (who herself is reportedly in ill health) vulnerable to people who may not have her best interests at heart," she said.

But in an interview with the The Associated Press, HarperCollins publisher Jonathan Burnham said he was "completely confident" Lee was fully involved in the decision to release the book.

Well, sure. What else is he going to say? Duh.

The book is going to be unedited, too. This adds to the speculation that Lee was not altogether on board.

Either way, the book will be released July 14th, so get ready for the stampede.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Etched in Sand by Regina Calcaterra

Regina Calcaterra's memoir, ETCHED IN SAND, is an inspiring and triumphant coming-of-age story of tenacity and hope.  
Regina Calcaterra is a successful lawyer, New York State official, and activist. But her early life was quite different. She and her four siblings survived a painful, abusive childhood only to face the challenges of the foster-care system and occasional homelessness in the shadows of Manhattan and the Hamptons.
A true-life rags-to-riches story, ETCHED IN SAND chronicles Regina's struggle to rise above her past while fighting to keep her brother and 3 sisters together through it all.

Beautifully written with heartbreaking honesty, ETCHED IN SAND is an unforgettable reminder that regardless of social status, the American Dream is still within reach for those who have the desire and determination to succeed.

My take: 4 looks

What a heartbreaking story. And the fact that it's true makes it all the more so. Regina and her siblings defied all odds to become stable, loving family members in their own right. Regina took her healing a step farther and became an attorney who joined the government with the idea of enacting change for children in foster care.

While this is an unflinching look at life of abuse and neglect, it doesn't wallow in self pity. It also doesn't make excuses. While the mother of these children was probably mentally ill, she was in control enough of her faculties to make cruel and selfish choices, and was smart enough to manipulate the system.

The look at the foster care system is not a pretty one. Turned away more times than helped, the caseworkers portrayed here were squarely on the side of the mother, and very rarely took the author's complaints and warnings seriously. This was an example of a broken system that did not look out for the welfare of the children.

I normally would not have read this book, but it was a choice in my F2F bookclub; and, I am a better person because of it.


Sunday, February 1, 2015

Geek Love by Katherine Dunn

Geek Love is the story of the Binewskis, a carny family whose mater- and paterfamilias set out–with the help of amphetamine, arsenic, and radioisotopes–to breed their own exhibit of human oddities. There’s Arturo the Aquaboy, who has flippers for limbs and a megalomaniac ambition worthy of Genghis Khan . . . Iphy and Elly, the lissome Siamese twins . . . albino hunchback Oly, and the outwardly normal Chick, whose mysterious gifts make him the family’s most precious–and dangerous–asset. As the Binewskis take their act across the backwaters of the U.S., inspiring fanatical devotion and murderous revulsion; as its members conduct their own Machiavellian version of sibling rivalry, Geek Love throws its sulfurous light on our notions of the freakish and the normal, the beautiful and the ugly, the holy and the obscene. Family values will never be the same.

My take: 4 looks
What a CRAZY book! I happened upon this book on a "If you liked...then try..."site. It told me that if I had liked American Horror Story: Freak Show, then I should read this book by Dunn.

Al and Lil actually try to procreate freaks, called "geeks" in the book. Lil takes all kinds of substances while pregnant to ensure their children are not "norms". Aside from the ones who don't make it, kept for posterity in jars in "the chute", they are pretty successful.

As a fan of the 1932 movie "Freaks" by Tod Browning, I was not surprised or horrified by anything I read here. Freaks are so on the outside, but are human beings on the inside. The juxtaposition of "norms" who manipulate and kill (like Dr. P in the book) with the "freaks" who only want to be accepted (like our narrator) is a common theme in tales like this one.

However, Arty the Aqua Boy was a freak of a freak. The perfect antagonist, he reeked of jealousy, narcissism and yes, a little bit of an incestuous bent. His fierce competition with his Siamese twin sisters for the box office could have been comical if it were not so intense. His loathing for those who came to see him drove him to push them father than I am sure anyone thought they would go.

The one item I had trouble buying was the rise of Arty's control. You will, of course, have to read the book; but he gains control at an age and rate that is unbelievable, even for a story of freaks. Al was a "man's man", and had firm control of the business. However, when Arty started to take over, there was no wrangling at all. That would have made for an interesting dynamic in the relationship of father/son that was missing.

The other characters were interesting and well-drawn. I particularly liked Mary Lick and would have liked to have read more of her.

All-in-all, it was a very enjoyable and fast read. However, I don't see the hubbub of other reviewers in citing this book as trailblazing or groundbreaking. It was a nice, fun read which was well-written and could have used about 100 more pages.