Friday, December 31, 2010

Top 5 Reads of 2010

While 2010 certainly has been an interesting year in reading for me, I have to confess it took me a long time to pull up a list of my five favorite reads of the year. I completely blame myself, as I haven't been all that great at actually reading the types of things I knew would generate a lot of excitement in me. I think my reading has been a little too prescribed at times and in order to avoid this in the upcoming year, I'm going to try to read more of the things that I am excited over and more of what you guys have been raving over. Too often I read multiple raving reviews of a book, add it to my wish list and purchase it, only to let it languish on my shelf for months on end. So this year, I'm going to be doing more reading that's directed by my fellow bloggers, and also reading more classics, in addition to reading some of the great shelf-lingerers that I've put off for too long! Okay, enough with the ranting about how this year was stinky and on to my top five reads of the year. These were all books I was enthralled with for various reasons, and all books that are going to be added to the keeper shelf. They are all very different types of books, but they had that ephemeral spark that kept me reading late into the night, avidly flipping the pages.

Total number of books read: 115
Total Number of pages read: 40,699
Male Authors: 36
Female Authors: 79

Book Cover Room by Emma Donoghue

This wickedly haunting story about five year old Jack and his mother, who are being held prisoner in a tiny shed, not only blew my socks off, it really got me to thinking about the ways in which children come to know and relate to the world around them. Aside from being a really good mother, I can't imagine the amount of patience that Jack's mother must have had to be constantly surrounded by a wiggly five year old. I know this book is probably on everyone else's best-of list as well, but if you haven't read it, do yourself a favor and curl up with this amazing tale in 2011. You won't be sorry you did!

Book Cover The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall

The story of an overwhelmed polygamist who has a handful of wives and a hoard of children, The Lonely Polygamist is a book that is so ridiculously funny that I had strangers looking at me like I was crazy when I was reading and laughing in public. It's also a very sad and cautionary tale that can really wring the tears out of you. I relished the time I got to spend with Golden and his family, and though this book was a doorstop, I would not have cut one single word. It's that good folks. One of the most humble and fantastic reads I've had in a long time.

Book Cover The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay

This epic saga of the inhabitants of Al-Rassan and the war that's destroying it was my first experience with Guy Gavriel Kay, and it won't be my last! Grand in scope, the characters and plot were so tightly developed and entwined that I couldn't for the life of me put it down. This was also the first time I'd ever read epic historical fantasy, and I found that not only did I love it, but that I appreciated all its nuances as well. A great book to take a chance on and get caught up in.

Book Cover The Tiger by John Valliant

The only non-fiction read to make it on my list, The Tiger is a pulse-pounding and terrifying read that not only dealt with an insanely vengeful tiger, but the people of the Russian hinterlands and the ways they survive despite the odds. While I was reading this book I had chills up and down my spine and not only did I have to put the book away at nighttime, but I had some pretty dire nightmares about this particular tiger as well. A chilling and sometimes gruesome read that you won't be able to put down.

Book Cover The Third Policeman by Flan O'Brien

This book (review to come soon) was probably the weirdest thing I've read in the past five years, and for that alone, it stood out above the pack. In a truly absurd world, a man goes on a quest for fortune only to discover that the world he lives in is not what it seems. It was surreal, comic and absurd, and it had the most strangely interesting subplot I've ever come across. Who would have known? Do yourself a favor and pick up this book. The story alone is worth its admission price.

So that's it! Though there were other books I considered for this list, these were the cream of the crop and each spoke to a different part of me. Though I wouldn't say that this was my best year of reading, there were surely some gems mixed in the bunch!

To all my blogging buddies, I wish you a very Happy New Year and hope that all your celebrations are crazy fun and safe. I look forward to going into the new year with you all and to reading all you have to share about the books you are reading. You all make all this worthwhile.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Snakewoman of Little Egypt by Robert Hellenga — 352 pgs

Book CoverJackson is an anthropologist living on the fringes of society while rehashing the exploits of his past. When his oldest friend and mentor, Warren, dies, his dying request is for Jackson to keep an eye on his niece Willa Fern, who is about to be released from a correctional facility after the attempted murder of her husband. Willa Fern's motive for shooting her husband is far from simple. As the leader of the Church of the Burning Bush with Signs Following, Willa Fern's husband is not only a charismatic preacher but a snakehandler. While drunk, he forces her at gunpoint to put her hand into a box full of rattlesnakes. Once Willa Fern escapes, she shoots him. Now Willa Fern is getting out of prison and is headed to enact the legacy that her uncle Warren had planned for her. Headed to college to study herpetology, Willa is now calling herself Sunny and is living with Jackson in his remote cabin. As she rebuilds her life, Sunny is rediscovering herself and learning to trust again. When Jackson begins to develop more than platonic feelings for Sunny, he's surprised to find she's open to him, but within Sunny lives a willful resistance and an unconscious desire to destroy what she has built for herself. When Jackson successfully petitions Sunny's husband for divorce, the two men become unlikely allies. Jackson is interested in the church for anthropological reasons, and despite Sunny's warnings, he agrees to participate in some of the church's strange rituals. But Jackson never realizes that Sunny's husband has a plan of his own, and after a cataclysmic accident, Sunny must defend both Jackson and herself from the crazed preacher, wiping all her accomplishments and accolades down the drain with one split-second decision. Filled with intrigue and mystery, Snakewoman of Little Egypt is at once a look into two very different kinds of relationships, one dangerous and one sublime.

This was a very different kind of read for me. When I read the premise and back cover summary, I thought I knew what I had in store for me, but as I began to read, I realized that Hellenga was doing a lot more than just telling a simple story here. What I ultimately ended up with were a few stories all wrapped tightly like a rose bud, that when unfurled displayed a complex picture of differing people from differing worlds, and in most aspects, I think he succeeded. There were a few area though, where I felt the story lacked cohesion and direction.

First off, I have to say I had very mixed feelings about Sunny née Willa Fern. While I found her to be an interesting character, I didn't feel she embodied a thirty-five year old woman, for she was a little too wild and lacked a certian maturity that you would expect to see in a woman of that age. It perplexed me that she wanted to go to college. Not because I didn't understand her desire to learn, but that she seemed to want to live the co-ed life and didn't seem to care how her age set her apart from the other people she met at the school. Another thing I both liked and disliked about Sunny was her directness. At first it was refreshing and quirky for her to be saying the things that everyone was thinking but no one would say, but after awhile she became abrasive and confrontational; that was something that made me dislike her and feel a lot less attachment to her. It's funny to say, but after awhile, I came to understand that Sunny shared a lot of the traits of the snakes she was learning about in the herpetology lab. She could be cold and calculating at times, and also an opportunist with little regard for those around her.

One of the things I found weird about this book was the way Hellenga would go off on anthropological or scientific non sequiturs in the middle of his narrative. These sections did hold interest to me but they felt sort of shoehorned in at inopportune times. The story would be pressing forward and gradually gathering steam and all of a sudden there would be long passages about snakes and their multi-penises. It was very odd and somewhat disconcerting because it felt like Hellenga wasn't able to meld these separate parts of the story together very well. Imagine having a conversation that veers off into unexpected territory just when things get rolling along nicely. That's what it felt like while reading this book. The tangents that Hellenga seemed to be fond of did fit the story's mood but they made the narrative feel a little forced and less cohesive than it should have. This strangeness happened throughout the story and really detracted from the subtle moodiness and inventiveness of the plot. It felt like certian sections were lifted right from a textbook and as such there was a starched and inflexible feel to the tale because of them.

One section that really got my attention was the look at charismatic religion and worship services. I'm a very spiritual person but even I had no idea what being part of one of these churches might be like. Along with the snakehandleing, the parishioners also drank strychnine and eschewed medical help when these stunts went wrong. It was a frightening thing to read about because I know a lot of this was based on fact. It seems crazy to expect God to voice his favor or displeasure with someone by forcing their hand into a cage with rattlesnakes in it and seeing if they attack you. This kind of thought process is almost primitive to me, and as such it was interesting to see how alien it is from most of today's religions. It bordered on lunacy, really, and though Jackson found it interesting enough to want to study it in depth, the people he came in contact with were more than a little unbalanced in my opinion. The services were described as hypnotic and filled with hysteria, which is not something I've ever experienced as a Christian. I think I will probably keep it that way.

Though the book had a lot of interesting aspects, I think it was less successful than it could have been for me. All of its individual parts were good but the melding of these parts felt shoddily executed and less refined than I would have liked. Aside from the problems I had with the protagonist, the informational segments really chafed me in a way that I didn't expect. For these reasons, the book was a rather unsatisfying read for me. I think the one part that stood out was the exploration of a very unusual sect of Christianity and I would have liked to see more focus on that aspect of the plot. A very unusual read for sure, but certainly not what I had been expecting.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Amandine by Marlena de Blasi — 336 pgs

Book CoverIn order to prevent scandal among her royal Polish family, young Amandine is given to a convent in Montpelier as a toddler, with a young woman named Solange contracted to care for and raise her. Though Solange and Amandine are not bound by the strict rules of the convent, their lives take the same shapes and behaviors as those of the nuns that come to love them. But among the residents of the convent is mater Paul, the bitter and cruel abbess who uses her position to punish both the girl and her ward. Amandine, though beloved by most all of the residents of the convent, never stops dreaming of reuniting with her real mother and grows to be a sad and serious child who feels each hurt tremendously. As Solange and Amandine grow together, they come to understand the importance of staying away from sister Paul. When disease breaks out among the residents of the convent, the two decide to flee, hoping to reunite with Solange's family in the French countryside. But France is at war with Germany and the country has been dreadfully changed: travel for the two is far from secured. Soon the two are running from the German soldiers and being spirited away to hiding places by the French resistance. When the unthinkable happens one night, Amandine is left to decide if she will stay with a group of resistance fighters or continue along her terrifying journey. Rich in atmosphere and drama, the story of Amandine is one of both the hope of new life and the tragedy of war.

I am discovering that I have a real liking for literature that takes place in convents. It's not that I would say that I go searching for it, but lately books about convent life have been coming into my path with more and more frequency. I think there's just something so fascinating about getting the chance to look into a world that is a microcosm of the greater world outside, and have come to relish the particular stringency and dedication of women and men of the cloth. I think it would be great if my readings led me to more literature about monasteries as well, but for the time being, I am happy with learning all there is to know about abbeys and the people that populate them.

When I initially started this book, I was a little afraid that it was going to be too melodramatic to get real enjoyment out of, but I needn't have feared because the author takes great pains to avoid becoming tirelessly dramatic. The plot, characters and setting were almost pitch perfect, and though the situations in the book bordered on the dramatic, the way that the characters behaved and contemplated their situations and surroundings was done in a very realistic and almost subdued way. Nowhere was the writing hysterical and florid, and because of that, I fell into the rhythm of the story very quickly. It was a story that was steeped in sadness, loss and needless cruelty, but it didn't go overboard in portraying these things. Instead the tragedy was wrought with a fine and delicate hand, really allowing me to feel for the characters, and letting me lose myself in their story.

It was interesting, as I was reading, to discover the layers and layers of character development that the author created. Mater Paul, for example, at first appears to be nothing more than a vengeful woman who has severe control issues, but as the story unfolded, I came to see her for what she was: a very damaged woman who couldn't come to terms with her brokenness. Solange, too, was a double-sided creature. So blindly devoted to the young child entrusted to her but callous and unforgiving of the mother who she ran away from. This complexity of character was seen almost everywhere in the book and it made for a very rich reading experience. Things were never just black and white; there were many shades of grey to consider as well.

Amandine herself was a character that I felt a great affinity for. She was not overly precocious (which drives me mad) and looked at the world with the perspective of one much older and wiser. I felt that she carried a great dignity within herself and even at the hands of Paul and her abuse, Amandine never let herself become maudlin, only more serious and resolute. She also never let her tormentors outwit her, which was wonderful. Amandine's relationship with Solange was another interesting aspect of the book. Solange was the only mother that Amandine ever knew, but at times, the roles between them were reversed, with Solange taking comfort and refuge in Amandine in much the same way a child would in her mother. Though Amandine had an atypical childhood, it never registered in her behavior and one almost takes away the impression that she would have been a serious and grave child no matter what her circumstances. Her hunger for her birth mother at times consumed her and made her unable to accept the affection and love that others tried to give her. At times, she was like a closed flower, eschewing the rain. In brief moments of clarity, I think that Amandine knew that she would never meet her mother but her constant desire for the opposite to be true colored her perceptions almost constantly.

The first half of this book dealt mostly with Amandine and Solange's time in the abbey, and for me, that was where the meat of the story was. The setting provided the intrigue, drama and pathos which gave the story its depth. When the girls decide to leave the convent and venture out to the countryside, things began to fall a little flat for me. I think this is because I am just really burnt out on literature about WWII and the occupation. I read these sections with a little less interest and compulsion and felt that the author was really treading ground that I had been over before. There are so many things that could have happened to the two of them out on the road, but instead they became part of the war experience, complete with tortures, executions and starvation. It just felt like such a dramatic shift from life at the convent, and one that I didn't much appreciate. I thought this section of the book moved a lot slower and was a lot less involving and captivating to me. Shifting to WWII took the focus off the characters and shifted it into the setting, turning the book into something new and unexpected for me. Whereas I had grown to love the close little world of the convent and its characters, I was now in the midst of a new set of circumstances and people who I felt were a lot less well defined. I felt a little bogged down in my reading of these sections and because of this, my whole impression of the book suffered.

I would have to say that this book was both a success and a failure with me. Had the action stayed in the convent, I am sure this would have been completely wonderful read for me, but the fact that the book morphed into a war story during its final section had me not only frustrated but a little confused as well. Though overall I thought the characterizations and drama were expertly done during the first half, I also felt that the second half managed to be a little over encumbered and overambitious with these same elements. I am not sure what conclusions I should make about this book because it was so good at times but also so bad at others. I think I will probably just end up recommending this to those who aren't yet burnt out on WWII literature and who also like literature about convents. I so wish that I could have loved this book unreservedly, but alas, it was not meant to be.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Wishin' and Hopin' by Wally Lamb — 288 pages

Book CoverFelix Funicello is ten years old and attending the St. Aloysius Gonzaga Parochial School. Far from from being a worldly young man, Felix is confused about the birds and the bees to an extreme degree, unlike most of his classmates. This is a huge holiday season for Felix, as his mother is off to Chicago to participate in the Pillsbury Bake-Off, and Felix himself will be one of the guests of honor on The Ranger Andy television show. Things are also heating up at school with the new substitute who has taken over during Sister Dymphna's mental health break. Felix may or may not have had something to do with this, but he's not telling. When a new Russian student joins Felix's already unruly fifth grade class, things begin to spiral towards a madness previously unseen at St. Aloysius'. When the substitute, Madame Frechette, decides to host a special tableau vivant instead of the old tried-and-true Christmas pageant, Felix and his classmates jostle for position as the lead in each scene. This means that brown-nosing his arch-nemesis, Rosalie Twerski, is in high form, and there's going to be a reckoning. Did I mention that Felix is Annette Funicello's second cousin? Because he is, and Felix won't let anybody forget it. As the days count down to the festivities, Felix and the gang at St. Aloysius begin to spiral towards one of the most unforgettable holiday experiences anyone has ever seen, and who knows, Felix may get closer to actually meeting his cousin than he ever has before.

Every year I tell myself I'm going to get some holiday-specific reading done, and ever year I neglect to do it. This year, I partially succeeded with a Halloween read, but since it's Christmas, I wanted to do it up right and read a book with a lot of Christmas atmosphere and presence. I chose this one because I've read most of Wally Lambs other books and have always had such a good time with them. A lot of other bloggers have also read this book for the holidays and I felt that after reading all the rave reviews, I couldn't go wrong with old Felix. I'm happy to say I was not at all disappointed!

Reading things from Felix's viewpoint was a complete immersion into the mind of a ten-year-old. Lamb gets Felix's thoughts and ideas down perfectly, and not only is Felix a one-of-a-kind narrator, he's really fresh and funny as well. Felix is more than a little immature in a lot of ways but he's very endearing and looks at the world with a sense of wonder that older children may have already shed. He knows nothing about the lascivious jokes that are shared in the schoolyard, and when he questions his father about them, all he gets is some garbled information about drinking fountain etiquette. This leads Felix to more and more bizarre thoughts about the birds and the bees, and when he finally learns what French kissing is all about, look out world! Felix is in fierce competition with Rosalie Twerski for the top spot in class, and reading about this took me back. We've all met a Rosalie "Terdski" or two, as Felix calls her. Someone who is a constant kiss-up to all those who are above her and who makes all the other kids mad when she coyly mentions homework just as the dismissal bell rings.

The book deals with the time period from just before Halloween right through Christmas, and as such, we get to see Felix and his buddy tick-or-treating in the rain and all the events leading up to that fateful Christmas tableau. The section about Felix's mother's television debut at the bake-off was particularly funny, but in a way that had you almost covering your eyes. When Felix attend The Ranger Andy show, his ignorance of the basics of sex becomes a real show-stopper, literally. Add to the mix a new Russian classmate who prefers to play with the boys rather than the girls like herself and the slightly wild-eyed substitute teacher, and Felix's whole holiday gets a lot more interesting. Lamb seems to have accomplished catching the early 60s in a sort of narrative bubble and really shows that it was a time of innocence and hope for everyone involved. Yes, some things haven't changed, but there's a sort of timeless and refreshing naivety about this period that Lamb is able to draw out and capture perfectly. By making Felix Funicello the star of this particular show, Lamb only increases and magnifies this feature.

After many hitches, the Christmas tableau is finally unveiled, and lets just say that things don't go exactly as planned. There is hysteria and nervousness and at least one instance of flagrant nose picking, and Felix is right in the middle of it all. The tableau also brought back a lot of old Christmas memories of when I was in grade school and we would have to sing and shake our little jingle bells for those assembled. It was fun to be able to reminisce for a little while, and Lamb does a great job of making his story wacky but heartwarming as well.

This was the prefect light and funny Christmas read for me, and I'm glad I took a chance with Lamb and Felix this year. Despite its short length, it manages to capture a lot of the optimism and simplicity of the early 60s and is a great read to snack on during this time of year. If you haven't read anything by Lamb and are looking for a Christmas read that will keep you laughingly turning the pages, then this is the book for you!

Merry Christmas to all of my blogging buddies out there! You guys are such an amazing bunch and every year I grow more and more thankful that you are all a part of my life. I hope Santa is kind to you and that you all enjoy the best possible holiday season with your family and friends!

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival by John Vaillant — 352 pgs

Book CoverOn December 5th 1997 in the remote village of the Russian Primorye territory, a vicious and startling tiger attack took place. The tiger, mad with blood-lust and rage, attacked and almost totally consumed a hunter and trapper named Vladimir Markov. But this tale isn't as simple as it first seems. When Yuri Trush and his team of investigators arrive at the scene of the attack, they find not only the startlingly gruesome remnants of Markov, but also discover that this particular tiger seems to have been inflamed with a desire for vengeance against Markov due to injustices committed by the hunter. Now injured and haunting the countryside for more human meat, the tiger is not only dangerous to humans and animals alike, but cunning enough to lure other unsuspecting humans right into its traps. The group of rangers responsible for catching this tiger have never dealt with a situation quite like this one before. Going by the name Inspection Tiger, these men are usually working on illegal poaching cases, and most of the time it's their job to protect the tigers from the men who want to kill them. This time, it's their responsibility to protect the men from the tiger, and it seems that this tiger isn't willing to play by the rules. Melded into this tense and absorbing storyline is the story behind Russia's total economic and political collapse in the years after perestroika and the total reorganization of the lives of Russia's people. Living on the fringes of society and exploiting the the wilderness for sustenance, this group of disenfranchised people are not only frightened by the wild tiger in their midst, but are also mistrustful of Inspection Tiger, making this a complex melange of danger that drastically affects the local population. Both gruesome and shocking, The Tiger tells a frightening story based on one of humankind's most primal fears and expounds on the miraculous killing machine that is the Amur Tiger.

A few months ago I was perusing the blogs and checking everything out and I came across The Boston Bibliophile's mention of this book. Though I had seen it mentioned before, I wasn't all that interested in it and had decided to pass it up. But something overtook me when I was reading Marie's thoughts on it. Her enthusiasm was so great that I immediately went over to the publisher's site to check it out. From that point on, I was hooked and knew that I had to read it. I can't put my finger on what it was about this book that so intrigued me, but whatever it was, it was hard to ignore. When my copy arrived and I settled down to read it, the people in my house were constantly being bombarded with tiger lore and myth until finally they politely told me to go away and be quiet. This book was such an interesting piece of non-fiction that I had trouble tearing myself away from it, and as such it was one of my best reads of the year.

Everyone is familiar with tigers. But do you really know just what makes a tiger such a lethal killing machine? Is it the claws that are described as having a double edge as sharp as a surgical scalpel, or the fact that its claw is needle sharp at the tip and closely resemble the talons of a velociraptor? Or is it the fact that its fangs are the size of a human index finger and are backed up by rows of slicing teeth? Perhaps it's the fact that when a tiger attacks it uses its tail as a stabilizing device, making its aim truer and its balance steady. Now imagine all this wrapped around five hundred pounds of muscle and turned against a human with a measly hunting rifle filled with buckshot. Factor in that this particular tiger was not merely angry but infuriated with Vladimir Markov. Even in the in the most optimistic outcome, Markov never had a chance. As Trush and his men begin to canvas the area, they discover that Markov may have engaged in some serious breaches of etiquette toward this tiger and that his infractions may have been the last straw that finally pushed the tiger into the realm of insanity. Furthermore, the tiger was not willing to stop at the death and consumption of Markov and decided to go around systematically destroying not only his property but menacing any others whom he had contact with. This was a serious tiger with a serious grudge.

As Vaillant relates his tale, he also fills in the gaps regarding the area and its inhabitants, showing his readers just why the people of the Primorye can't stay out of the forests despite the danger. Though communism is over and perestroika reigns, most Russians are finding it more difficult to survive amidst these changes than ever before. Money is almost valueless and some workers aren't being paid at all. The people of the Primorye are surviving by living in tight-knit communities where hunting and gathering are the only real ways to survive. Because of this economic climate, poaching is a highly lucrative occupation, with tigers being number one on the poachers' lists. It seems that there are not only lingering political tensions between Russia and China, but that China has an insatiable appetite for Russia's resources. This creates a situation in which Russia is exporting all its valuable resources to China in return for sub-par imports. The Chinese value tigers above all else, for their myths and lore tell them that the tiger is a spiritually powerful animal, and that by ingesting its body, they too will become more virile, strong, and dangerous. When the price for a whole tiger is upwards of $50,000, you can begin to see why your average hunter would risk the animal's fury.

Within these stories are housed the legends, lore and myths of tiger-kind. Vaillant explains how one can be "tiger-tainted" and how certain tribes believe that tigers share a generational memory of enemies. Some believe that if you respect the tiger and never interfere in its life, it will leave you to your own devices and never attack. Still others believe that tigers have been known to share its kills with humans but to take this meat will leave you forever indebted to this frightening creature. Some Chinese myths claim that even devils and demons are afraid of the tiger. Men's attitudes towards this remarkable creature vary greatly, from those who abandon a village if a tiger is seen wandering in it to those who have been confronted with a tiger only to punch it in the nose, but it's clear that the tiger is a supreme force to be reckoned with and not an animal to be taken lightly.

The blending of the animal and sociopolitical information in this book was really a wonder to behold. Just when one section seemed to be ramping up, Vaillant would switch over to the other, creating a constantly heady balance of human structure and tiger structure that I found delectable. In no way do I think that my review of this book does it justice. It's consuming and scary, deft and involving, and it's also meticulously researched. Not only are there eyewitness accounts of all the events, but there are some stunning photographs that will put the fear of God into you regarding the tiger and its attack. All of these elements are wound seamlessly around each other and they're not only relevant but somehow mystifying and hypnotizing. Vailllant succeeds brilliantly in weaving together all the aspects of this story and creates a tale that is not only carefully crafted but terrifyingly suspenseful and riveting.

I'm sure you can tell by now that I loved this book, but I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that if you have to read only one non-fiction book this year, this is the one to read. Not only was it a beautiful piece of non-fiction, it had the added bonus of being incredibly creepy and unpredictable. What Vaillant does in this multi-layered and suspenseful tale will not only regale the most critical reader, it will also make you think about the tiger in a completely different way. Not only can these animals be cunning and unpredictable, Vaillant shows us that they can be incredibly smart and gentle when optimal conditions arise. A wonderful book full to the brim with excitement and information. Highly recommended and not to be missed.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Life O'Reilly by Brian Cohen — 276 pgs

Book CoverNick O'Rielly has it all. As a partner in a hugely successful law firm, Nick spends most of his time generating revenue for his firm and living the high life. Though the firm is successful, lately there's been some negative publicity stemming from the fact that they do virtually no pro bono work for the community. When this begins to bother the owner of the firm, he chooses Nick to represent a client who is going through an ugly domestic abuse and divorce case, Dawn Nelson and her young son Jordan. Though Nick tries to maintain a professional air with Dawn, he can't help but feel a spark of attraction to her, and in this case it's reciprocated. When the news leaks that Dawn and Nick may be more involved than propriety dictates, Nick's superiors put pressure on him to leave the firm. Though it comes as a shock to him, Nick realizes that the best parts of his life have been wasted at the firm and all his hard work has amounted to nothing. Taking the high road, Nick agrees to resign and to begins focusing on life with Dawn and Jordan, but fate has other things in mind for the new family. Though Nick and Dawn should have a life destined for happiness, a new complication from an old injury arises for Nick and soon the new family is in the pit of crisis again. Both uplifting and heartbreakingly sad, The Life O'Reilly is the story of one man's journey on the road of life, complete with all the joys and cruelties that befall him along the way.

This isn't the type of book I normally read. For some reason, I have a harder time enjoying books of this nature and often find myself shying away from them. I would have to say although this book tended to be a little dramatic, once I pushed my prejudices aside I actually found that I was able to connect with the characters, and especially towards the end, this book had me very involved.

Nick is a decent guy in a cutthroat world. Though he's put in all the time and effort to become a great lawyer, he knows there's something missing in his life. It seemed like he felt his life's work was fulfilling in some ways, but that he lacked some nebulous human connection and emotional tie with others in general, and more specifically, with a partner. While I was reading, I felt very sorry for Nick because I could see he wasn't happy and that all the work he was putting in was only wearing him down. When things finally get rolling with his representing Dawn, it wasn't hard to see what would happen; but despite the fact that it was a bit predictable, I felt a genuine happiness for him and wanted the boundaries between the two to be broken, regardless of the consequences. Dawn was representative of a lot of the things Nick had been missing in his life: love, spontaneity and the ability for him to create a legacy out of something other than his work.

Though there was a lot of tension in the middle of the plot line, certain things felt a little more loose and sometimes felt too predictable. Some of the foreshadowing was done with a heavier hand than what I'm used to, but the main thing I took away was its message, and in that respect, I think the book clearly delivered and was successful in its aim. What the book said to me was that life can be unpredictable in the extreme, and as humans, we need to realize our dreams can't wait forever to be gratified. Careers and goals can only give us so much, and in order for life to be fully lived, it's sometimes necessary to venture outside the boundaries we've created for ourselves. Sometimes the things you think are important in your life are not the things that truly matter, and when the chance comes to break away and change our lives in ways that do matter, it's imperative that we do so. All of this was evident in the path that Nick took, and all of it brought home the messages and concepts of fulfillment and desired outcomes. The book made me ask questions about my life and what it all boils down to, and although it was sometimes simplistic in the way it conveyed these messages, it ultimately had the desired impact on my psyche and made me think about my life in a different way.

The conclusion was stunningly sad, and although I knew what was coming, it didn't stop me from having a viscerally powerful reaction to the story itself. Life is what we make of it, yes, but in the case of Nick O'Reilly, I felt there was something haunting about the way his life played out. Just when he had grasped hold of a wispy happiness and was turning his dreams into reality, shocking news comes his way that changes everything about his life. During these sections of the book, I actually gained more respect for and felt more cohesiveness with the characters, and it was alternately painful and gratifying to see their lives start to revolve around the hand fate had dealt them. In a way, Nick's life had come full circle, yet in another more obvious way, his life had ceased to exist as he knew it the moment the news was delivered. It was a poignant bit of storytelling that Cohen managed with these characters, and at no time did they step out of character or become unrecognizable in their grief. In fact, they seemed to grow in their ability to love and in their regard and zest for life, which is something I found not only to be amazing, but uplifting as well. Yes, the pain they went through shaped and changed them, but it didn't change the story they were trying to write for themselves.

While I don't think I fully connected with all this story had to offer, I'm sure this has more to do with my tastes and preferences as a reader rather than anything the author did or failed to do. At its heart, this is a story about redemption and an emotional legacy, and reading it was important to me for a lot of reasons. The messages it delivered were very deftly managed, as were the character portrayals, and although I did have some slight misgivings about it, I can honestly say this read is definitely worth your time. It's impossible not be moved by the story Cohen tells, and I would bet that all who read this book will find a space in their heart for the ineffably courageous Nick O'Reilly.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Blogger Holiday Swap Happiness!

Last week was a busy one for me and it was a struggle to get into the holiday spirit. There's been a lot to do and not enough time to do it, but when I opened my mailbox and saw that my Secret Santa had gifted me a special package, all the stress just melted away in the joy of books! I received a gift from Kathy over at Book Diary 2010, and boy was it a good one!

Kathy bought me one of the books I've most been wanting in the past year and I was so excited I tore open the package and got started right away! The book is called The Third Policeman by Flan O'Brien and it was probably the most bizarre and fun book I've read all year! I've started my review so I can share it all with you, but I'm still a little stumped in even trying to describe it. It was a brilliant book written by a brilliant Irish author and I hope to be able to talk about it with you all very soon. Her package also included a bonus in the form of First Thrills, a compendium of suspense stories by some of the best writers in the genre. I'm also excited about that one and look forward to reading it.

I loved my Secret Santa gift and think Kathy did an excellent job shopping for me. I'm so grateful and excited about the books she chose. Thanks ever so much Kathy, and Happy Holidays to all of you out there. I hope you all have a wonderful and blessed holiday season with friends and family!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The King's Daughter by Christie Dickason — 480 pgs

Elizabeth Stuart is a precocious young woman who must live by the whims of her father, King James I of England. Early in her adolescence, when a stranger attempts to kidnap her and force her to take the throne and overthrow the king, Elizabeth is more than shaken and fears that her knowledge of this plot will constitute treason in her father's severe opinion. Though she has a close relationship with her brother Henry, the heir to the throne, Elizabeth is kept mostly secluded with only her ladies in waiting to entertain and inform her. Though she's still very young, her father is constantly reminding her of her duties to the throne and repeatedly dangles her hand to foreign powers to solidify relations between England and other countries. Though Elizabeth frets and chafes under her enforced ignorance, little by little she learns the ways of the English court and gleans information about her ersatz suitors. But King James, having taken the throne by the murder of his own mother, fears his children and worries they will one day usurp his position. This is why both must stay locked away, powerless, and live a life suspiciously regarded by the king. When Elizabeth finally meets a suitor who pleases her, she must fight with all her might to get her father to agree to the match and enlist the help of a very dangerous man in the court to press her suit. Filled with the intrigue of King James' court, The King's Daughter follows the life of Elizabeth Stuart, from her early days as a willful child of the king to her final triumph in the throes of royal romance.

I've read a lot of historical fiction in the past few years, and one thing I love most about this genre is the books that are devoted to royal intrigue. There's something exciting about reading about the furtive movements of those in court and the grandiosity of kings and queens. I love to read the tales of those noble and not so noble, living in a time so far removed from me, and often find myself helplessly caught up within these kinds of books. This was a particularly good example of the genre, and though it did have some of the hallmarks of Philippa Gregory, there was far less bodice ripping going on within it, which is something I was really thankful for.

From the outset, it was easy to see that Elizabeth was nothing but a pawn of her father. Though she was growing into womanhood and had desires and wishes of her own, her father looked at her in one of two lights: as a dangerous possible usurper to the throne, or as a brooding mare to trade off to another country. Elizabeth had every right to be upset with her fate, but what bothered her most is that she was kept in the dark about almost everything for a good part of her life. It wasn't until she began to send spies out, who learned about everything from her father's alleged trysts with young male courtiers to the arrangements of her marriage, that Elizabeth began to have some power and control in her own life. She was very willful like her father, but much softer and kinder, in a way that impressed and endeared her to me.

The portrayal of King James in this novel was not at all flattering. Coming as he did from Scotland, he spoke with a thick Scottish brogue, and was largely a very crude and corpulent man. He drank to excess and was nearly always in a vile and threatening temper. He maintained a suspicious air around not only his children, but his wife and his advisers as well. As I mentioned before, he spent most of his time wooing the male courtiers and was jealously attached to a few, who used this favor to procure titles and lands. I didn't like James. He was crude, improper and scarcely able to run even the smallest of households with grace.

The relationship between Elizabeth and her brother Henry was a touching reminder that all things in the king's realm were not perverse and diabolical. The two were often separated, but until the final act that drove them apart in the novel's closing, they remained each other's confidantes and playmates, earnestly giving each other the love and support they could not get anywhere else. I liked this relationship most of all and felt they both deserved to rest in each other's company. One of the things Henry did for his sister was to try to arrange a marriage for her that she would find suitable, and to this end, he succeeded, helping Elizabeth to fall in love with and marry a man who was more than a chess-piece for her father. I was disheartened by how marginalized women were in this society and felt that, but for her power as a bargaining chip, Elizabeth was virtually useless to everyone in the realm. So sad that this was the reality of the day, and also sad that these women were aware of their non-status as well.

I really liked this book and had no trouble flying through its pages with Elizabeth. I think Dickason did a great job of making this young woman sympathetic and believable, and her story was one that not only attracted me, but kept me invested in seeing how the princess would finally escape the prison her father put her into. If you are a lover of royal intrigue or are interested in well written and enticing historical fiction, this is definitely the book for you!

Author Photo About the Author

Christie Dickason, Harvard-educated, is a former theater director and choreographer with the Royal Shakespeare Company. She is the author of The Firemaster’s Mistress and lives in London with her family.

Find out more about Christie and her other books at her website.

TLC Book Tours A warm thanks to TLC Book Tours for providing this book for me to read and review. Please continue to follow the tour by visiting these other blogs:

Monday, December 6th:Scandalous Women
Wednesday, December 8th:excess baggage
Thursday, December 9th:Rundpinne
Monday, December
Tuesday, December 14th:Devourer of Books
Wednesday, December 15th:The Lost Entwife
Thursday, December 16th:Raging Bibliomania
Monday, December 20th:Peeking Between the Pages
Tuesday, December 21st:Shhh I’m Reading
Wednesday, December 22nd:Thoughts From an Evil Overlord
Monday, December 27th:Bookworm’s Dinner
Tuesday, December 28th:Life In Review
Wednesday, December 29th:Book Reviews by Molly
Thursday, December 30th:Calico Critic

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Not Quite Paradise: An American Sojourn in Sri Lanka by Adele Barker - 320 pgs

Book CoverProfessor Adele Barker has just arrived in Sri Lanka on a Fulbright scholarship to begin teaching at the University of Peradeniya with her teenage son, Noah. As Adele begins to steep herself in the culture of the island, she does battle with the native insect and monkey population, learns the ways of the natives and discovers the intricacies of the civil war that has raged out of control on the island for the past twenty-five years. Adele and Noah tentatively begin to carve out a life for themselves in the island paradise that they are inhabiting, but soon discover that even for foreigners, Sri Lanka can be a dangerous place, full of old prejudices and bloody conflicts. Adele begins researching the problems and unrest of the area, speaking to participants on both sides of the conflict as she tries to comprehend just what the fighting is all about. She makes close friends on the island and comes to regret the day she must return to Arizona, never knowing that upcoming events in Sri Lanka will force her to return. When she sees the news report documenting the terrible tsunami of December 26th, 2004, she understands that she can't stay away, and this time travels to the island without her son. What greets her upon her return is devastation of the highest order and a population that is torn, battered, and bruised. Adele formulates a plan to traverse the perimeter of the island to witness the destruction firsthand but discovers that her plan is almost impossible due to the political conflicts and unrest on certain parts of the island. Making her laborious way across the landscape, she discovers the painful truth surrounding the humanitarian aid that never reached it's intended targets and meets the families of people whose very existence has been wiped away "the day the sea came to the land." Shockingly stark in its implications and intimations, Not Quite Paradise unveils the hidden and painful history of the beautiful island of Sri Lanka and its inhabitants.

Despite my efforts to truly keep up with world events and geography, I find that in some ways I am always falling short. When I requested this book from Library Thing's Early Reviewers Program, I had been hoping to brush up on a bit of history and geography regarding a place that had never fallen into my radar. I have to say, I had never really given Sri Lanka any thought before, and to make matters worse, I don't even think I could locate it on a map. I feel that I got much more than I ever bargained for when I read this book, finding out not only where Sri Lanka was, but also a myriad of information about the conflict that has been tearing apart its natives for more than two decades.

Adele Barker first begins her memoir speaking about the very things that would strike a lay person upon traveling to Sri Lanka. Her reactions to the heat and the crowding fill the first pages of this book, and it only when I was well into the story that I could see that the things that Adele had been discussing early on were only surface impressions of a place that is steeped in religious and cultural upheaval. Adele and Noah make the difficult progression to the house they will be renting, discovering that the house has been overrun by nature, mostly the pestilent kind. It was pretty humorous to hear about her battles with the indigenous ant population and the problems that she had keeping a television antenna from being stolen by monkeys. She spoke profusely of the people that she shared quarters with and her daily trips to the market for fresh food. The first three or four chapters were basically given over to her reaction to life on the island and the people she came to befriend, and while reading, I got the mistaken impression that this was going to be a light arm-chair traveling kind of book. Boy, was I wrong!

As Adele begins to get into the groove of the island and begins to teach her English literature classes, she receives warnings from both colleagues and students about the violence lurking just around the corner that coincides with the general elections. It seems that student protests and riots in the area are common when election time rolls around and Adele begins to become curious about what the gist of the problem is and how it affects the population. She begins to talk to the native people and discovers that there is a whole undercurrent of war and conflict that not only has been going on for years, but also that it is not likely to end soon. The civil war stems from the discordance between the two main cultures represented in Sri Lanka, the Sinhalese and the Tamils, who are both fighting for an independent nation-state for themselves, and what it boils down to is student insurrection, government corruption, and the guerrilla-style warfare perpetrated by the Tamil Tigers. The war in Sri Lanka touches all classes and castes and over its twenty-five year span has resulted in tens of thousands of deaths, a fact that stuns and saddens Adele. She makes it a point to canvas many areas of the island and speak to all classes of people to discover the toll the civil war has taken on Sri Lanka's people, economy and religion.

As Adele and her son leave the island to return to their more peaceful life in Arizona, she is heartbroken to discover the news of the tsunami that has wreaked vengeance on the island. She becomes increasingly panicked over the fates of her friends and returns to witness the terrible scene for herself. Upon returning, she is shocked to discover a country and culture that is almost totally destroyed. Adele makes her way around once familiar places and finds that the the conflicts of the war have not abated since the disaster. Foreign aid is being commandeered by rebel forces and those whose homes and livelihoods have been swept away by the wave are in dire straits. They not only have no access to food or shelter but they are being held in specific areas by the cruel players in the conflict and are having to make do in the most crude of ways. Though most of Adele's friends are fine, she cannot help but be devastated by the situations she sees all over the island, especially in the more remote areas.

I can't really pinpoint my reactions to this book. Reading it was very enlightening and engrossing but I couldn't help but be a little disappointed by the gravity and focus of the story. It almost seemed that entire chapters and sections had been devoted to giving the war a complete run down and at times I felt that the book was written more in the vein of war reporting than anything else. This is not to say that I found the book to be dry or boring, only that I felt that the author invested most of her story in the various conflicts going on all over the island instead of her reactions to the conflict and the place. I feel that in some ways the book misrepresented itself, and the first few chapters were more to my liking. I think that the book could have told the same story and had the same heft and importance had it not been so bogged down by the political information in it. Overall, I think that the abundance of the book would be very confusing to most readers due to the intricate details of the war that the author attempted to impart. While I enjoyed reading it, it was certainly not the book I had been expecting, and I couldn't help but be a little disappointed.

This book deals with very serious topics and is not a light or easy read. I think that those readers who enjoy delving deeply into the politics and cultures of foreign locales might enjoy this foray into Sri Lanka, but those who only wish to travel vicariously through the area might not appreciate it as much. Adele Barker certainly has an eye for detail, so in some ways this story was successful, but in others, I felt that it was a bit too rough around the edges and lacked cohesiveness. I wish I had known a little bit more about this book before jumping in, maybe then I could have adjusted my expectations a bit better.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Healer by Carol Cassela — 304 pgs

Healer: A NovelClaire Boehning is dealing with a lot these days. After a disastrous complication with her husband Addison's new drug research, Claire and her small family are left financially destitute. This is a severe change, as in the days leading up to the disaster, Claire, Addison and their teenage daughter Jory lived a very expensive lifestyle. Now the family has sold their beautiful and spacious home in Seattle and moved to a small farmhouse in rural Washington. Addison is not deterred by these complications and continues to seek funding for his new drug, flying to cities all over the country to meet with entrepreneurs who might be interested in backing him. This leaves Claire to struggle alone at the farmhouse with Jory during a blisteringly cold winter, a winter in which she cannot afford to purchase propane to heat the house. As Claire struggles to make ends meet, she hatches a plan to seek employment as a doctor in the nearby small town. But having given up her schooling after Jory's birth, Claire has not actually been certified as a doctor, and as such can only find work caring for the sick in an underfunded clinic that mainly treats migrant farm workers. Meanwhile, the relationship between Claire and Addison is deteriorating rapidly due to the anger and resentment Claire feels about Addison's financial mismanagement. In addition, issues begin to crop up with Jory, who is not only lonely in her new surroundings, but acting out as she sees her parents' marriage crumbling. In this timely and realistic tale, Cassella shows us the life of one family struggling under the financial burdens that so many today are facing.

Lately I've been avoiding the news and similar outlets where the financial crisis plays itself out day after day for public consumption. It's a hard time for everyone and I don't think I know one person who hasn't felt the crunch in one way or the other. I certainly know that our family has taken some major hits in the last two years, and like many, we haven't fully recovered. You would think that having this mindset, I wouldn't enjoy reading a story about a couple who has to watch it all slip away. In fact, I think Cassella does some very interesting things with this story that keep it not only right on target, but make it very easy to relate to, and sometimes just slides shyly away from making this story too uncomfortable for her readers.

First off, I think that there was something about Claire that made her very easy to understand emotionally for me. Though she wants to be kind and supportive of her husband and daughter, she's burning the candle at both ends and finds herself emotionally raw and frustrated much of the time. I could really relate to that, and though it's sad to say that money can cause this kind of devastation in a marriage, it is ultimately believable, especially the way Cassella portrays it. Part of the problem is that Addison hasn't been transparent when it comes to what has happened to his family's money. He's used their nest egg to bail out his fledgling company and didn't tell Claire what he was doing. This understandably upsets and frightens Claire, and although she loves her husband, there's a deep wound between them that continues to fester throughout the story. I can completely understand where she's coming from. To be blindsided and lose everything without a clue must have been maddening for her, and just what is she supposed to do about her teenage daughter? I felt a lot of anger toward Addison in this story. Although he's a likable enough fellow, I felt he betrayed his family to a startling degree, and couldn't imagine having to be in Claire's position. To forgive him would have been murderously hard for me.

Another main aspect of this story has to do with Claire's work at the clinic. Though she is qualified for the work, it's been many years since she's seen a patient and the language barrier is not the only problem she has when treating them. Many of them are almost destitute and live seasonally at farms across America, harvesting the fruits and vegetables that we see in the grocery store everyday. They're not only underprivileged but have to constantly worry about the border patrol that comes hunting for them. There's no safe place for them and they often go a startlingly long time without medical care. Claire's clinic is always overpopulated and understaffed, and finding a way to treat these people who seem to have no home base or ties to the community is almost impossible. Cassella does a great job of highlighting the problems that immigrants face in America today. It's not a black and white issue, but one with a lot of gradations and hues, and it's an issue that seems to be on the minds of many Americans right now. Cassella is sensitive to the immigrant population as a whole and paints a picture that most people don't think about when they seek to speak on immigration.

I think the part of the book that resonated most deeply with me was the financial struggle Claire and her family was going through, and what it ultimately did to the family relationships. Where Claire was almost irate and scared for the future, plowing ahead determinedly, Addison had his head buried in the sand and refused to see the consequences of his actions. Jory, on the other hand, begins to steal and lie to her parents. These are all very different reactions to the same stimuli but all very believable coping mechanisms. Each is trying to get by in a world that's been changed under them and each can't understand the reaction of the others. This creates confusion among them and the lack of communication between them only heightens this effect. Though I wanted to castigate some of them for the things they were doing, I ultimately realized that they were coping with a trauma, and like a trauma victim, there was no prescribed set of actions and reactions that I could pin them down to. Yes, there was passive-aggressiveness, there was open hostility, and there was secretiveness, but there was also a lot of compassion and understanding when things began to boil down to their basic elements. It was amazing to see the heartache and reconciliation between these three, but for me, the most startling thing to realize was that these people could be any of us. They didn't seem like creations to me but rather like fictional versions of people I might know.

I loved this book for its stark honesty with character creation and for the fact that it highlighted so beautifully one facet of today's economic disaster. In its quest to be relevant, it was also touching and believable in a way that not many other books on this subject have been to me. The book has a lot to say about many different issues and utilizes a great plausibility of character and situation in which to frame this often-told and familiar story. I think this book would appeal to many for various reasons and have to say I'm glad I got to spend the time with these very human characters. Recommended.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Sunset Park by Paul Auster — 320 pgs

Book CoverTwenty-something Miles Heller is in a relationship with a much younger woman. In fact, the woman in question is underage. After a brief scuffle in Florida with her family over their relationship, Miles moves back to New York for a few months while he awaits his lover's eighteenth birthday, sharing a house with a few friends and acquaintances. Though this seems to be a normal arrangement, the four people sharing the house are actually illegal squatters who have taken over the run-down farmhouse in the far reaches of Brooklyn. Meanwhile, Miles is considering visiting the family from whom he's been estranged for seven years and is mulling over his complicity in the death of his step-brother, Bobby. Miles' father and mother are deeply delighted that he's decided to make contact after all these years, and unbeknownst to Miles, have been keeping tabs on his whereabouts through a friend. As the narrative thread winds its way along, the reader gets glimpses of the situation as seen through the eyes of Miles, his parents and the three other squatters. Both sparse and evocative, Auster relates a story of a very unusual yet somehow ordinary set of people trying to find peace and permanence in the harsh realities of today's society.

Lately I've been reading a lot about Paul Auster and his writing. Most of what I've heard has been encouraging, but I have to admit I was a bit intimidated. After reading Steph's review of The New York Trilogy, I knew that this was an author I wanted to tackle and quickly bought my own copy, which I promptly let linger quietly on my shelf. When the opportunity arose for me to read Sunset Park came, I was excited and thrilled and found myself inordinately consumed with questions about the book. Would I understand it, or would it all go over my head? Would it be too complex for me to really get a good handle on what Auster was trying to do with the story? What I found was that although Auster's writing can be deeply complex, I had no trouble understanding or relating to his story or the characters in it.

Sunset Park deals with a handful of very different characters sharing a lot of the same emotions and feelings. Though they are at different stages in life and in differing places, all are dealing with loneliness, apathy and identity issues. These themes were forefront in the novel and very fluid from character to character. Each of the main players spends time dealing with regret and missed opportunity, and share common feelings of dissatisfaction for their lives and in the relationships that they have. They are all beset by individual quandaries but are all facing the same issues from different perspectives. I thought it was interesting that Auster does such a wonderful job of making each of these characters so similar, yet there is no chance that you will mistake one for another, and equally no chance that their plights will become repetitive and overdone. There's an underlying pathos to all the tales here, and although there's no overt drama, there is some slightly stinging sadness that permeates the narrative and which made the characters and their stories very sympathetic to me.

The plot in this novel is not really fast flowing nor expansive, and it can be argued whether or not there's really a plot here at all. The book is more of a handful of character studies, and as such, spends a lot of time delving into the past and present situations of the people Auster chooses to write about. These character sketches are generous and one of the things I like about Auster's writing is that he's kind to his characters. This is not only true in the literal sense but also in the figurative sense, as each character is given time to explain themselves and their actions, and each facet of their personalities is fully detailed. Not one of the characters gets short shrift, and even those on the periphery seem to get a chance to validate themselves and tell their side of the story. There were a couple of characters who rather put me off, but even so, they were still very three-dimensional and interesting, and I felt something akin to closeness to all of them. I think this had to do with the strength of Auster's creation of them, and the fact that they were all so lifelike.

Auster's writing style was very quiet and spare. Things were not overly described or plodding; rather it seemed that he chose to relate things in a simple and straightforward manner. Certain themes and symbols were scattered throughout the novel and tied together nicely through differing segments, making this story a little more literary and portentous than others I've read recently. I especially liked the varying statements made on modern day America, and specifically, the economic downturn that so many are facing today. There was a boldness and an inevitability in the description of theses scenes that made them feel at once refreshing yet also strangely hopeless. A great deal of page space was given over to the internal thoughts of the characters and to the motivations behind their actions, which is something I enjoyed a lot. I like knowing why someone feels as they do and why they're doing the things they are doing, which is something Auster does just right. At its close, the story suddenly shifts and all that the reader knows becomes invalid and malleable. This is something I felt was very well done, and I enjoyed the fact that the end of the book wasn't tied up in a neat little bow and didn't feel contrived.

If you haven't read anything by Auster, I would definitely recommend this book. It's not nearly as intimidating as I thought it would be, and it has the added benefit of being remarkably agreeable in style and execution. Those readers who like character studies will eat this book up, and despite the fact that it's written with in a quiet and undemanding hand, I enjoyed it very much. I'm looking forward to reading The New York Trilogy and possibly other books by Auster. Recommended.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Lost and Forgotten Languages of Shanghai by Ruiyan Xu — 352 pgs

Book CoverLi Jing is a successful Chinese businessman with a loving wife named Meling and a wonderful son. But one sunny afternoon, his life is changed forever. While dining with his father at an upscale restaurant, a gas explosion rips through the building, leaving him with a massive brain injury that robs him of his ability to speak his native language. The only way that Li Jing can communicate is through the English that he learned as a child growing up in Virginia. Despite their wealth, Li Jing and Meiling are unable to obtain the rehabilitation services he needs, leaving him socially isolated, as no one understands the rudimentary English he speaks. After hearing about her remarkable achievements in the areas of speech and cognition, they eventually hire Dr. Rosalyn Neal to work with Li Jing in China. Rosalyn, fleeing from a painful divorce and at a standstill in her research, comes to China with great hopes for both Li Jing and her career but finds herself lost in the busting world of Shanghai. Meanwhile, Li Jing's inability to communicate with his wife drives the couple further and further apart, leading to many awkward moments and explosive arguments. Under the guise of therapy, Rosalyn and Li Jing begin to form a tenuous relationship that further threatens to rip the family apart and which leaves Meiling bristling and resolute. In this lyrically moving and emotional new novel, Ruiyan Xu defines the inexplicable power of the words we say and the strength and enormity of the things we leave unsaid.

While this book initially left me feeling a bit lukewarm, I found that the further into it I got, the more resonant and heartbreaking the story became. The majority of the first section was a bit mired in description and scene setting, and while I found it interesting, I did feel like it was a slow buildup. I got the feeling that Xu had to warm up to her story a bit, and that as an author, the world she created took some time for her to fully inhabit. When the layers started peeling away and the carefully crafted scenes took center stage, I was blown away by the potency and hidden undercurrents in this book.

One thing that made a huge impression on me was the way Xu really got invested in her character creations. They could be cold, obnoxious and oh so flawed, and their resemblance to real people was something that I appreciated, but that at times made me squirm. This was particularly the case with the female characters. Rosalyn and Meiling were such different kinds of people and I found that different parts of my psyche reacted in a wildly divergent way while I was reading about them. In Rosalyn there was a high-spiritedness that sometimes bordered on hysteria and a lack of self-consciousness that, while making her friendly and approachable, seemed to also make her oblivious to social niceties and propriety. Meling, on the other hand, could be cold as ice at times. Very driven and proper, she could also be unforgiving and malicious. There were no outward signs of the hostility and discomfort that she was harboring within her heart, and this made her seem very unaffected and imposing to the other characters as well as myself. When Meiling and Rosalyn interacted, the fireworks shot right off the page, and frankly, their reactions to each other made me a little uncomfortable. Rosalyn seemed to be less intuitive when it came to Meling's emotional state, which made things much more tense and widened the gulf between them.

The story of what happens to Li Jing was strange but also very realistic. What does one do when the old ways of communicating are no longer valid and the only person that can understand you is alien and strange to you? Xu does a great job examining this, and in her creation of Li Jing she manages to fashion a character that is confused and alienated, yet still desperately wants to make himself and his wishes understood. This is a particularly moving situation, especially in the way it impacts his relationship with his young son. As Li Jing's life falls away piece by piece, it's only the husk of his former self that remains and he finds himself taking extraordinary risks both emotionally and physically to be understood and validated. It was hard to watch Li Jing become so impotent and powerless, so much of an afterthought to the characters surrounding him. One could also argue that Meiling does much to emasculate her husband, both in his professional life and at home, and this was also a terrible thing to witness. The situation Li Jing faces never really rectifies itself, becoming anguishing to experience as the story turns the final corner.

One way Xu really stands above the crowd in terms of her writing is her ability to construct tightly focused scenes that are somewhat emotionally restrained, yet devastating. Longing and desire juxtaposed with rage and pitilessness; capriciousness interposed with desolation: these are the emotions that come screaming out at the reader, despite the fact that the language used to interpret them is fairly restrained and subdued. There are scenes that brought me to my knees in unexpected sympathy and at times my stomach dropped with desolation at the humbling rendering of this now devastated family. Xu is a powerful writer, but she kind of creeps up on you, and in the end, it makes the impact of her story all the more striking. The inner thoughts and actions of her characters can be hard to stomach, and at times it's even hard to understand how they arrive at such complex crossroads within themselves.

In terms of emotional complexity, this book excels. It's deep and nuanced and it really surprised me. Although it does start out a bit slow, the buildup is intense, and by the time I finished it, I was left feeling some very powerful and contradicting feelings about its characters and the situations they were forced to live in. If you are the type of reader who gets easily engrossed in well-constructed dramatic stories, I would highly recommend this book to you. If you leave yourself open to it, it might just take you to some unexpected places.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Salting Roses by Lorelle Marinello — 336 pgs

Book CoverGracie Lynne Calloway has lived in Southern Alabama since the day, as a newborn infant, she was deposited on her uncle's front step in a coal bucket. Though her mother never came back for her, Gracie found all the love and support she needed from her uncles Ben and Artie and her aunt Alice. Gracie has grown into a tomboy with a strong work ethic and little time for the softer emotions, and is constantly thwarting her aunt's efforts to entice her to settle down and raise a family. On Gracie's 25th birthday, a stranger named Sam arrives in town and delivers some shocking news. It turns out that Gracie isn't Gracie at all, but the kidnapped daughter of a millionaire, and since her father has recently passed away, Gracie is set to inherit $650 million. Although the money seems like a blessing, Gracie wants nothing to do with it and Sam has his work cut out for him. When Gracie's forgotten family gets news that she's alive and set to inherit her father's empire, things go from bad to worse. Now Sam has to figure out a way to make Gracie accept her new position and fortune despite her reluctance, and also find a way to ease his troubled heart that beats stronger every time Gracie is in the room. In this rags-to-riches Cinderella story, Marinello shares the story of one very stubborn protagonist who wishes to stay buried in obscurity when the unexpected knocks on her door.

I'm not sure this story worked for me. While I do love a good rags-to-riches tale with a southern feel, there were a few things that just rubbed me the wrong way. I did enjoy parts of the book and it would be misleading to say I didn't enjoy the story as a whole, but some things I discovered as I read were not all that pleasing nor rewarding for me.

While the story had a rich and evocative feel, I just couldn't get over Gracie's stubbornness. I frequently felt she was being contrary just for the sake of being contrary. Maybe the problem is I can't imagine a person wanting to turn down that kind of money. To me, it didn't feel realistic. On one hand, I understood that Gracie wanted to keep her past life intact and didn't want the complications that all this money would bring; but on the other, her family had need of the money and her hard-headed attempts to reject it didn't strike me as a particularly strong character decision. I also felt that Gracie was generally a very antagonistic person. She was always bucking the system and came off as very hard-boiled. She did adopt a softer attitude toward the latter sections of the book, but overall, I just didn't like her very much. She was a spitfire for sure, but I think I would have been more satisfied if she had been a little more emotionally available and gentle.

One thing I particularly liked was the strong family bonds and attachments that the characters had towards one another. There was a sort of cohesiveness to Gracie's second family that I felt was very genuine and touching. Though at times they hid the harsher facts of their lives from her, they seemed to do this for her peace of mind and to protect her from some of the unpleasantness of life. Though theirs was a strange arrangement, it worked for Gracie and it was easy to see why she had such strong ties to them. I liked that they were careful in the way they handled her and I felt their actions bespoke a great love for this orphaned child that they came to care for.

The relationship that began between Sam and Gracie was not hard to spot coming out of the gate, but I actually liked that aspect of the book. Sam was the impetus for change in Gracie and he taught her to be more genteel and soft, putting her rough exterior behind her. Though theirs was a relationship that began with a lot of lust, Marinello toned it down nicely in the middle of the book and it was easy to see why they were drawn to each other and fit together so nicely. Sam tempered something in Gracie, and though she tried to buck away from him, he was tenacious and persistent, ultimately forcing her to reveal a side of herself that was previously unseen.

I guess the main thing that bothered me was the implausibility of it all. Who in their right mind would turn down a fortune that was left to them? Why was everyone so bent on treating a twenty-five year old woman like a child, and why was Gracie such an unbelievable sourpuss all the time? While I was reading, I asked myself if these were realistic situations or was all this fabricated to make for a rollicking story, and I had to conclude that there was something over the top about all of it. It was interesting to see what would happen with it all but somehow the unrealistic aspects of the story made me hold the characters and their plights at arm's length.

Though there was a lot I enjoyed about this book, there were also things I felt were a bit overdone. Where I think Marinello succeeds is on her strong family creation and her ability to fashion a love story using some very headstrong characters. I would recommend this book to those looking for a fairy tale like story, and must conclude that there are readers out there who are a lot less picky than I am who would enjoy it. An interesting, if uneven tale.

About The Author

Lorelle Marinello has won numerous awards for her writing, including the Romance Writers of America's Golden Heart for Best Single Title Romance in 2005.

Lorelle received her BA in Fine Arts from San Diego State University. She lives in Southern California with her husband and three children. In her free time she enjoys landscape gardening and researching her family's Southern genealogy. Her first novel, Waltzing with Alligators, inspired by her Southern roots, debuted in 2008.

Find out more about Lorelle at her website.

TLC Book Tours A warm thanks to TLC Book Tours for providing this book for me to read and review. Please continue to follow the tour by visiting these other blogs:

Tuesday, November 30th:Rundpinne
Wednesday, December 1st:Thoughts From an Evil Overlord
Thursday, December 2nd:Raging Bibliomania
Tuesday, December 7th:Life in the Thumb
Wednesday, December 8th:Calico Critic
Thursday, December 9th:The Lost Entwife
Monday, December 13th:Café of Dreams
Thursday, December 16th:Book Club Classics!
Monday, December 20th:In the Next Room
Tuesday, December 21st:Tales of a Capricious Reader
Wednesday, December 22nd:Books Like Breathing
Tuesday, December 28th:BookNAround
Wednesday, December 29th:Peetswea

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

CSN Stores Giveaway Winner!

The winner of the $60.00 mini shopping spree giveaway for CSN Stores is:


Congratulations Ashley, and thanks to everyone who took the time to enter the giveaway. If you were not a winner this time around, stay tuned, as I'll be hosting more giveaways in the near future.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Coffee and Fate by R.J. Erbacher — 134 pgs

Book CoverIn this slim novella we meet Val, a young woman who can telepathically move objects without touching them. When Val witnesses a crime at a coffee shop, she longs to intervene but a strange older man named Bud stops her. He knows the secret she's hidden her whole life and tells her that intervening in this crime would ruin her life. Shaken and confused, Val agrees to meet Bud again, discovering that the old man has a secret power of his own. It seems that Bud can see particular instances of the future and can mysteriously change the fate he is privy to. The friendship between Val and Bud grows and they find themselves sharing more and more about their powers and their lives. But this friendship is tested when Bud realigns Val's fate after seeing one of his frightening visions. More importantly, Bud begins to tap into Val's powers and instruct her on how to use her abilities to the fullest. Though Val is unsure of why Bud is doing these things, she feels an inexplicable trust in him, and it's not until Bud's final vision that Val discovers that she and Bud must make the ultimate sacrifice in order for the fate of the world to be secure. Both strange and alluring, Coffee and Fate takes its readers on a mind bending journey through freewill and fate and shows them how even the slightest action or inaction can change the course of a life.

I've been reading reviews of this book all over the place, and after reading Sandy and Natalie's reaction to it, I knew this was a book I couldn't ignore. I was all set to make my purchase when an unexpected email arrived from Natalie. Did I want her to send me a copy of this book? You bet your darn bippy I did! When it arrived, I put aside what I was currently reading and sat and read it straight through. I have to say it was a wild ride that really challenged a lot of preconceived notions I had about fiction. The line this book drew between reality and fantasy was interesting to ponder over, and the story it tells was both frightening and exquisite.

Erbacher does a great job of making these two pivotal protagonists seem like normal everyday people, but these people just happen to have the fate of the universe in their hands. Of course, early on in the story, these powers seem like mere flukes of nature and it isn't clear why Bud and Val have been gifted with such awesome abilities. As their friendship grows, so do the powers they have, and despite their reluctance to use these powers, they find themselves doing things that not only change each other's lives but the lives of those around them. There is a lot of second guessing in the story, and both Bud and Val have moments when their conscience is troubled by their rare abilities.

The relationship between Bud and Val was a strange one. Though he's a septuagenarian and she's barely into her twenties, the two dote on each other almost like lovers, and at times, lines of propriety are crossed. I actually think the relationship between them made me a little uncomfortable, though Erbacher does a lot to keep things from feeling too creepy. There's a great amount of affability and affection between these two, which is one reason it was so hard for me to see Bud interfering with Val's fate. It seemed like he was creepily taking advantage somehow and using her naïveté against her. Something about this duo made me feel uneasy and it's arguable whether or not this relationship had sinister hallmarks. Maybe I'm just letting my personal feelings get in the way.

As Bud relates the story of his power to Val, I became sad and frightened for him. In retrospect, there are things Bud should have done that were impossible to do, and he is living a life shadowed by guilt and regret. I think Bud was hoping to change things for Val in order to compensate for the actions of his past, but as time marches on and his complicity with Val grows, Bud begins to see the big picture and forces Val into making a terrible choice. When I finally realized what was happening, I was aghast and felt sick in the pit of my stomach. Though Val has willingly followed Bud along this path, she's not free to make her own choices until it's too late. Bud has once again orchestrated Val's fate, and this time, it will be impossible to shake off these changes.

As I read, I was subconsciously asking myself a lot of questions about fate and freewill. How terrible would it be to be visited by visions of the future, knowing there was something I needed to do to change things, and afterward, wondering if I had done enough or if the changes I made would ultimately prove more catastrophic? How much love does it take for you to sacrifice yourself for another? And does loving someone give you the right to alter their fate if given the chance? These are all sticky questions, and aside from making me think about what I would do in these situations, the book showed me that not everything about life and fate are clear-cut. There are numerous shades of gray involved, and like Bud, sometimes people have trouble interpreting those shades.

Though there were some aspects that were just plain creepy, overall I would have to applaud the story that Erbacher created, not only for its originality but for its ability to provoke strong and strange reactions in its readers. It is, at times, a discomfiting book that presents a lot of sticky ethical questions, but there's no doubt in my mind that it will keep you flipping the pages, entranced by the not-so-normal people that it seeks to capture. A very interesting but dark read.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Damage by Josephine Hart — 208 pgs

In this intense and shocking novel, an unnamed narrator details the treacherous and frightening spiral from his life of ease and comfort into one of depravity and obsession. The narrator, a well-to-do politician and doctor with a beautiful wife and two children, has always felt that things have come to him too easily and nothing he's attained has truly been a challenge for him. He walks through life with a deep sense of ennui, content to live his life in the shadow of a deep seated discomfort and numbness, when one day his son, Martyn, brings home the latest in a series of women. But Anna, Martyn's new girlfriend, is different, and the narrator immediately takes notice of her in some disturbing ways, feeling instantly as though he has finally met one of his own kind. The relationship between this man and Anna is instantaneously deviant and sexually fearsome, and soon the narrator is being slowly driven mad with the compulsion to possess Anna in every way. This is a serious problem, for Martyn has marriage in mind, and though he allows Anna the freedom that she needs to be who she is, he doesn't realize that she is abusing his trust. As the narrator becomes more and more obsessed with this odd woman, whom his wife also feels strangely about, his life begins to crumple and distort in a series of events that will shatter not only him his family, but anyone connected to Anna as well. Deeply physiologically disturbing, this close and spare novel immediately grabs you in its teeth and shakes you, until finally you are left spent and breathless, marveling at the cruelty and deception within it.

From the moment I began this book, there was a dark and portentous feeling surrounding me as I read. I think part of this comes from the fact that Hart knows her material and is able to be lush and spare at the same time, creating a sense of confinement and dread within the narrator's confession. For that is truly what this book really is, a confession of the dark misdeeds that the narrator succumbs to in his pursuit of Anna. The narrator himself is an odd fellow. He is supremely indifferent to all aspects of his life. From his loving wife to his perfect children, he feels almost nothing and strives to understand why he feels so dead inside. When he meets Anna, he becomes alive in a frightening instant and becomes obsessed with her in a way that is truly out of character for him, and truly worrisome to the reader.

Anna is a damaged person. She says this herself and explains to the narrator how dangerous people like her can be. She exists as a sort of repository for the narrator's growing obsession and doesn't really have any defining characteristics other than her ability to egg him on to further and further acts of madness. She is cold and calculating and seems to grow in her capacity for destruction as the narrator begins to sink into her. As he diminishes, she increases, and though he believes he's in control of everything that happens between them, in reality it is she who is in control. Something I noticed about Anna was how she passively pushes people to their extremes and then lets them believe their actions are their own idea, when in reality, she is the impetus for the destruction that takes place around her. She submits, but only when it's advantageous for her to do so, and she creates a sense of well being tempered with an acute anxiety for the narrator as she slowly strips his life away.

One could argue that all this destruction comes from the narrator himself, that he is, in fact, the hinge upon which all this madness rests. In my opinion, that would be to simple an assessment, for there's something about Anna that inspires rational people to do irrational things. In her quiet acquiescence she gives power and freedom to all sorts of malevolent ideas that seem to overtake people. Though she is rational and seems benign, she quietly unlocks all the secret desires of the people around her and sends them spinning out of control. The scariest thing about this is that Anna knows who and what she is and what she can do, and though she warns the narrator, she also strangely clings to him in an effort to live out her secret desire for domination. She is powerful, but also quiet and seemingly demure, her cacophony of malignancy resting just below a placid surface.

I felt a lot of discomfort reading this book, due to the curious sense of detachment exhibited by its characters, and when this all-consuming obsession and desperation took over the story, it was almost to unbearable to read about. The mental changes the narrator goes through are rather chilling and alarming, and by the time I turned the final page, I was unsettled and disturbed in way that bothered me but also made me wonder at Hart's awesome capacity for creating her story. Though our narrator has had his life, family and livelihood ripped away by his savage obsession with Anna, he still doesn't regret what he's done and still hungers for her both physically and mentally.

I loved this book, not only for its masterful style but for Hart's ability to get under my skin like a splinter and stay there. A lot of the book is written in a very direct and quiet way, but the story is chaotic and formidable, and it left me feeling vulnerable and unsettled in some vaguely strange ways. I think those readers who are looking for something that will riddle them with complex feelings and those who enjoy books that are deft yet sparse would love this one. I know I'm looking forward to reading more from Hart because I think she has an incredible narrative gift and the ability to create characters whose coldness is wondering and impeccable.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.
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