Wednesday, December 26, 2012

THE DOGS OF BABEL by Carolyn Parkhurst



The only witness to the death of Paul Iverson's wife, Lexy, is their dog, Lorelei.  Did Lexy fall from the tall apple tree or did she jump?  Her death is ruled an accident, but, if she fell, why was she up there in the first place?  Plus, just before her death, Lexy reorganized the books in their library and fed Lorelei a steak; both acts were previously unheard of.  Paul wants answers and hopes that Lorelei can somehow provide them.  He investigates the possibility of canine speech and becomes the laughingstock of his colleagues at the university where he teaches.  Meanwhile, his flashbacks to his week-long first date with Lexy and her occasional outbursts of anger provide us with a portrait of an imaginative but troubled young woman. I kept asking myself why neither Paul nor Lexy ever mentioned psychotherapy, but I guess he was in denial, and she was too embarrassed.  Also, how could Lexy possibly earn a living making papier-maché masks?  Oh, well.  Let's not fret the details.  At least Paul's obsession with dog training abates a bit when he finds that Lexy consulted a TV fortune teller just before her death.  This discovery gives him a different mission:  to find out the details of that conversation.  Or perhaps he can unlock the mystery by reading Lexy's dream journal, or by figuring out what the new book arrangement means.  The various clues fuel Paul's quest, but I was never quite sure if grief drove his pursuit of the truth or if he just wanted closure.  I certainly wanted closure myself, and the author provided it in a very satisfying ending.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

SKIPPING CHRISTMAS by John Grisham

This has got to be the worst John Grisham book ever.  It wasn't funny or cute or entertaining in any way.  You know the drill:  Nora and Luther Krank (!) have decided not to celebrate Christmas because their delightful daughter Blair will be in Peru with the Peace Corps.  They're going to spend the money on a Caribbean cruise instead, departing Christmas Day.  Their biggest faux pas in this endeavor, at least as far as their neighbors are concerned, is electing not to install their 8-foot Frosty on the roof to match all the other houses on their street.  They even refuse to make seasonal charitable donations, and their promises to donate even more for other causes the following year are scorned by the solicitors.  This is supposed to be satirical, I think, as Grisham cites more and more ways in which Christmas has become an expensive and time-consuming chore for many of us.  He fails, however, to really get our attention, not really taking a stand as he also points out the upside of family and fellowship during the holidays.  Was this book written for Hollywood?

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

ZONE ONE by Colson Whitehead

Known throughout the novel as Mark Spitz, our protagonist has exemplified mediocrity throughout his life but has found that he's very good at staying alive amidst plague-induced zombies, known as skels (skeletons).  (The author takes his time explaining various vernacular terms, as well as the origin of Mark Spitz's assumed name.)  About 1% of those infected are not flesh eaters but instead are immobile stragglers—stopped in their tracks at their final living task or pleasure.  Mark Spitz and his fellow Omega team members are sweepers, shooting the heads off of stragglers and skels alike in Zone One—a cordoned off section of Manhattan.   The nation's capital has been relocated to Buffalo, but disheartening rumors filter down to the survivors, many of whom remain hopeful that some semblance of civilization will return, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Billed as a literary genre novel, this didn't work for me as literature or as a zombie thriller.  I found the plot, if there is one, difficult to follow, partly because Mark Spitz frequently reflects on past events that I could rarely distinguish from current events.  Possibly, too, my lack of familiarity with New York was a hindrance. If this is an homage to New York, it's a strange one, as the survival of humanity becomes increasingly in doubt as the novel progresses.  The book seemed a little cynical to me, depicting the hopeful as foolhardy, except in the case of Mark Spitz, who has found his calling in his struggle to beat the odds.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

ELEVATING OVERMAN by Bruce Ferber

Ira Overman is middle-aged and mediocre in every way, until he strikes a bargain with a Lasik surgeon.  The result is improved eyesight, plus an unexpected bonus:  he seems to have acquired the ability to manipulate traffic and attract beautiful women.  As he experiments with his newfound superpowers, he gains a whole new perspective on what he can accomplish, even with just his normal human faculties.  He reconnects with his children, and seeks out a woman whose gang rape he unwillingly participated in while in high school.  Then things start to get out of hand.  His friend Jake goes a little haywire and declares himself Ira's superhero sidekick.  Before you know it, Ira has attracted a couple of other groupies, who encourage him to attempt time travel and teleporting, using comic books as his guide.  Bruce Ferber is a Hollywood screenwriter, and his book is supposed to be funny.  However, I found it too outlandish and crass.  I like the metaphor of having one's eyes opened to life's possibilities, but the cartoonish supporting characters range from a porn queen who has a rather unusual talent, to a swami with a taste for exotic automobiles.  Plus, a horrific incident like a gang rape, amidst all of this nonsense, just doesn't feel right.  This book actually might have worked better as a comic book, with something less scarring as the basis for Ira's guilt.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

THE FLIGHT OF GEMMA HARDY by Margot Livesey

Gemma Hardy, a hardy Scottish lass, makes a habit of fleeing.  First, she escapes a Cinderella-like existence (the wicked stepmother = Gemma's widowed aunt), but there's no fairy godmother here.  She lands a scholarship of sorts to Claypoole, where the "working girls" are little more than slaves.  This gig ends when the school falls on hard financial times, and Gemma responds to an ad for an au pair in the Orkneys.  Despite the remoteness of her new post, she bonds with her ill-tempered charge, Nell, and with her employer, Hugh Sinclair, who puts in rare appearances.  This latter bond develops into something more, but Hugh is 41, and Gemma is 18.  More importantly, Hugh has some unsavory secrets that may be more of a hindrance to their romance than the age difference.  Gemma builds quite a history of regrettable deeds herself, with at least a couple more "flights" still to come.  This is one of those books that I looked forward to opening every night, so that I could share Gemma's next adventure.  I've read that this book is a retelling of Jane Eyre, but I saw Pippi Longstocking, one of Gemma's favorite characters, as her alter-ego—a little too audacious for her own good.  Part of what motivates Gemma is that she suspects that she has relatives in Iceland (Pippi is Swedish), and she yearns for some sort of family connection.  Another motivator is the need to right a wrong that she inadvertently caused.  Although she has suffered more than most in her short lifetime, Gemma is not the savvy wayfarer that the reader might expect.  Her naivete is at times her demise and at times her salvation.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

THE COVE by Ron Rash

The title suggests isolation, and the main characters are indeed outsiders.  The setting is a small town in North Carolina near the conclusion of World War I.  Laurel lives in the dank and dreary cove with her brother Hank, who lost an arm in combat.  The townspeople shun her because of a birthmark that they believe marks her as a witch.  She has almost no contact with anyone except Hank and their helpful neighbor Slidell.  Then she happens upon a stranger (Walter) who, unbeknownst to her is an escapee from a German internment camp.  He doesn't speak but plays a flute beautifully, bringing some much needed joy into Laurel's life.  She hopes to persuade him to stay on the farm and help out, rather than leave for New York to fulfill his musical ambitions.  His imminent departure and Hank's upcoming marriage will leave Lauren more alone than ever.  There's another lonely character to consider, however.  That's Chauncey, the pampered son of a banker, who heads up the local recruitment office.  Many of the injured veterans look disdainfully upon him for having secured such a cushy assignment, and some of the locals even blame him for their wartime casualties.  On the surface he seems pretty harmless, but he's looking for an opportunity to prove himself worthy of his neighbors' respect and he's a powder keg waiting to explode.  I have a couple of beefs with this novel.  For one thing, nothing much happens until the end, and then everything screeches to a rather abrupt halt.  Secondly, the three main characters—Laurel, Walter, and Chauncey—are too one-dimensional.  Laurel and Walter have no any glaring flaws, and Chauncey has no redeeming qualities.  Hank is a little more multi-faceted, adapting to his disability, fighting the battles that his sister cannot, but at the same time looking out for his own well-being.  I think his story would have made a better center.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

THE PARIS WIFE by Paula McLain

The wife in question is Hadley Richardson, Hemingway's first wife.  Neither Hadley nor Ernest is the least bit loveable in this engrossing piece of historical fiction.  She's spineless and careless, and he's self-centered and insulting--discarding his mentors, one by one.  His relationship with Hadley is another casualty, as he flaunts his affair with her very good friend, Pauline, destined to be ex-wife #2.  All of this strife and torment makes for a pretty good story, even with no one to root for.  I kept hoping that the clingy Hadley would rise up and see the light, and obviously she does eventually step aside so that Hemingway can marry Pauline, although we can see from the outset how doomed that union will be.  Hadley narrates the majority of the chapters, but a few give Hemingway's side of the story, especially regarding a pivotal event that spells the beginning of the end.  I enjoyed all the anecdotes about other famous writers in Paris at the time, particularly Scott Fitzgerald, who is completely enchanted by his weird wife Zelda.  The downfall of Hadley and Ernest's marriage is somewhat precipitated by the flagrant disregard for marriage vows that so many of their other friends exhibit.  The accolades for In Our Time and The Sun Also Rises feed Hemingway's ego, so that he feels entitled to a mistress himself and exhibits an appalling callousness to the pain he inflicts on his tortured wife.  In many ways, though, she's not exactly a shrinking violet, sharing Hemingway's admiration of the violent bullfights and matching him almost drink for drink.  I felt that their marriage might have lasted if she could have shed the chip on her shoulder that she felt for not being an artist herself.  On the other hand, she was probably better off without him in the long run.  Did regret play a role in his suicide, or was he just another tormented genius?  I can't help believing that at some point he realized the error of his ways.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER by Seth Grahame-Smith

Somehow I expected this to be more campy or cheeky or funny or something, but the book seemed far too serious for its subject matter, and by that I mean the subject of vampires.  I think the author walked a fine line here, trying not to trivialize slavery or the Civil War or Lincoln's assassination, while at the same time introducing a potentially comic supernatural element into Lincoln's life. For me, the blend of the historical setting with vampire slaying just doesn't work, especially since the author attributes just about every death—Lincoln's mother, girlfriend, son, and countless others—to vampires.  Of course, the real baddies, like John Wilkes Booth and a fairly large contingent of slave owners, are, in fact, vampires.  Lincoln's cohort in his quest to stamp out the vampire population in the U.S. is "good" vampire Henry Sturgis (like Edward in the Twilight series?), who tells Lincoln where to find various "bad" vampires for Lincoln to destroy with his trusty axe.  Seward, Lincoln's adversary for the presidential nomination and then later his Secretary of State, has also killed a few vampires.  He and Lincoln then have the daunting task of convincing the rest of the cabinet that vampires will take over the country if slavery continues.  There are some interesting historical nuggets here, such as the fact that Lincoln's bodyguard had abandoned his post on that fateful night at Ford's Theatre.  However, aside from the vampires and the points of history that are common knowledge, I couldn't always separate fact from fiction.  Perhaps it was the author's intention to blur the line just enough to make the journals and correspondence contained in the novel seem legit, in a weird, alternate-universe kind of way.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

MAKEDA by Randall Robinson

I almost stopped reading this book for two reasons.  For one, the writing is not to my liking at all.  The third page has a sentence that begins, "The girls were all but surpassingly proud."  What the heck does that mean?  Secondly, the book drags for at least 100 pages, as we get to know Gray, an African-American growing up in Richmond in the 50s, just as the Civil Rights movement is starting to gain some momentum.  Gray has a giant chip on his shoulder, and too much of the book dwells on the causes of his poor self-esteem.  He is a second-class citizen due to segregation and racial prejudice, but also has been made to feel inferior to his older brother Gordon.  His parents, particularly his father, have pinned their hopes on Gordon, who reeks of intellectual and physical prowess, but Gray's blind grandmother nurtures a spiritual kinship with Gray.  While in graduate school, Gray falls in love with Jeanne, and the two of them make plans to travel to Africa to research and validate his grandmother's dreams, which are really memories of a previous life hundreds of years ago.  I've always enjoyed tales of reincarnation, but this book ultimately offers a lot more than that.  The author succeeds, I believe, in his attempt to correct some misconceptions about history.  He points out that African civilizations during the Middle Ages were perhaps more advanced than those in Europe, especially with regard to science, government, architecture, and human relations.  I found this aspect of the novel very enlightening, and the author contrives a short-term rift between Jeanne and Gray that forces Gray to do some growing up.  He harbors a huge burden of guilt over the fate of his brother, and we readers are left in the dark as well, until the end of the novel.  I was disappointed when I did finally find out what happened to Gordon, not only because the incident was so completely predictable but also because it seemed out of line with the main themes of the novel.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

THE ORPHAN MASTER'S SON by Adam Johnson

Generally, I think that people control their own fates, but in a country as repressive as North Korea, maybe not.  Jun Do (John Doe?) grows up in an orphanage and then finds himself buffeted from one bad situation to another.  Along the way, however, he manages to spend a year in a school where he learns English and joins a delegation of diplomatic imposters who travel to Texas.  His exposure to American culture serves him well, especially in the second half of the book.  In a nation where a single comment can cause someone to disappear, and women routinely find themselves with replacement husbands chosen by the state, Jun Do takes the place of Commander Ga, who is married to the beautiful actress Sun Moon.  North Korea's Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il, is the scriptwriter for all of Sun Moon's films, and he obviously scripts and directs the lives of all his citizens, who live in constant fear and whose knowledge of the outside world is only as accurate as the propaganda that blares from the loudspeakers in their homes.  One of the main characters in the second half is a prison interrogator who lives with his parents.  His parents must be constantly vigilant, aware that their son could turn them in for the slightest infraction; they behave like robots in his presence, never divulging any personal opinions that might be construed as seditious.  The best that the North Korean people can hope for is survival, but for what?  Physical torture, famine, loss of loved ones?  The regime recognizes that there is a strong sense of comradeship among the people that can be used as a deterrent to defection.  If someone defects, his friends and family will suffer the consequences.  Therefore, a defection has to be camouflaged as death or kidnapping or whatever.  It's hard to conceive of such a society, but the author uses vivid imagery to draw us into the horror.  One section describes some of the things the protagonist eats to keep from starving, and I found that section even harder to stomach than the physical brutality.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

THE UNCOUPLING by Meg Wolitzer

Lysistrata is an ancient Greek play in which the female lead organizes a sex strike against the Peloponnesian War.  The new drama teacher in Stella Plains, NJ, has chosen this for the high school's annual theatrical production.  Subsequently, a chilly breeze sweeps through the lives of various women in town, causing them to have an aversion to sex.  I can handle a bit of the supernatural in a book, but I can't remember the last time I read a novel that had an enchantment like this, and it seemed a little fairy-tale-ish.  Dory and Robby Lang are married English teachers, and Dory's sudden lack of interest in sex threatens to unravel their marriage.  Dory's single friend Leanne abruptly ends her three romantic liaisons, including one with the married school principal, after his wife suddenly bounces back from chronic fatigue syndrome.  This schism seems to be a good thing, but most are not.  Most poignant is the break-up of Dory and Robby Lang's daughter, Willa, with the drama teacher's son, Eli.  The drama teacher herself is somewhat immune to the mystical spell that has swept the community, since her husband lives in Michigan, so that sex is a rarity anyway.  Since most couples don't discuss their sex lives, the denizens of this community don't realize that they are part of a wave of abstinence.  Several reviewers have mentioned the humor in this novel, but mostly I didn't get it.  One woman's husband comments to his wife, as she is looking in the mirror, that she has let herself go.  Is this supposed to be funny?  I did enjoy one inside joke of sorts, in which Robby makes a sarcastic comment about a grammatical mistake his daughter makes.  I like that the author doesn't point out what the mistake is, nor does she have Robby correct it, so that the grammatically challenged will just say "Huh?" and read on.  The rest of us can smirk along with the author.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

CLOSE YOUR EYES by Amanda Eyre Ward

Alex and Lauren are siblings whose father is in prison for killing their mother when they were children.  Alex has steadfastly believed in his father's innocence, while Lauren is resigned to the fact that their father is a murderer.  Lauren's boyfriend Gerry is ready to marry, but Lauren has commitment issues because of her family history.  Now Alex is on his way to Iraq for Doctors Without Borders, and Lauren has become unglued.   When Alex goes missing after an explosion, she becomes even more unstable but makes a feeble effort to take up where Alex left off in his quest to exonerate their father.  Lauren discovers that a jade earring, traced to a woman name Pauline Hall, was found at the scene, but there were no signs of forced entry, and no one else was there.  Then the narrative changes to that of Sylvia Hall, Pauline's daughter, fathered by Alex and Lauren's father.  Sylvia knows about her two half siblings, but Alex and Lauren are totally unaware of Sylvia's existence.  The book is mainly about the two women's struggles to come to terms with their pasts.  Lauren, a real estate agent in Austin, certainly has a shot at overcoming her anxieties, especially with support from Gerry.  Meanwhile, Sylvia is unwed and pregnant and hoping to reconnect with her childhood pal, Victoria, whose life is now a total shambles.  Lauren and Sylvia, though, have more in common than just the same biological father.  Both grew up without him, and both lose their mothers at a young age as well.  It doesn't take a Sherlock Holmes to figure this one out, but how the author goes about unveiling the truth is the real draw here.  As they say, the truth can set you free, and it certainly frees the struggling characters in this book.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

FALLING TOGETHER by Marisa de los Santos

Pen (short for Penelope), Cat, and Will were inseparable in college.  Now it's time for their college reunion (10 years?), and the three have not seen one another in six years.  Pen has a 5-year-old daughter, Augusta, by her on-again off-again married boyfriend and has no intention of going to the reunion, until she receives an email from Cat, imploring her to attend.  Will has received the exact same email, but Jason, Cat's husband and the real author of the emails, approaches Will and Pen at the reunion with the news that Cat has disappeared.  Now we have a different threesome, with Will, Pen, and Jason becoming a team as they head to the Philippines, the home of Cat's deceased father, in pursuit of Cat, who may not want to be found.  Jason is a big, annoying lunk, who's not sharing everything he knows, but he does really love Cat, although the extent to which she returns this love is in serious doubt, given that she's left him, without any explanation.  Will apparently has been carrying a torch for Pen since college, and the anticipation of seeing this relationship finally blossom was what kept me interested.  What happened to Cat is the big mystery, I guess, but, since she's absent through most of the book, I didn't feel that vested in her story.  Marrying Jason in the first place seemed particularly unwise, but more importantly, Cat is an epileptic who takes her meds sporadically, at best.  Her seizures mark two pivotal events in the plot, and I guess we wouldn't have much of a novel otherwise.  All the characters have good intentions, with malice toward none, but the author makes a somewhat lame attempt at injecting some conflict, in the form of a spat at the end between Will and Pen, which amounted to nothing more than a serious case of over-reaction on Pen's part.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

ROBOPOCALPYSE by Daniel H. Wilson


A war against robots is as ludicrous to me as time travel.  The Terminator had both, and for some reason that appealed to me, but there's no Schwarzenegger equivalent here.  The juggernaut-robot in this novel is buried in Alaska and has no personality.  The humans seem pretty vanilla also, and I had some difficulty keeping them straight.  Each chapter is a video transcript, diary entry, or other document from the war, and I wasn't wild about this format, either, which reminds me of the Star Trek captain's log voiceover. Three characters, however, did stand out.  One is Cormac Wallace, who has assembled all these snippets and ultimately has an argument with his brother that bears consideration:  How much like the machines do we have to become in order to survive?  In other words, do we have to sacrifice our humanity?  Another key character is Mathilda, a child whose eyes the machines have replaced so that she can see into the machines themselves.  This experiment seems ill-advised on the part of the machines, since she uses her power against them.  My favorite, though, is a Japanese man whose "wife" is a robot.  When she turns on him during the robot uprising, he has to take her offline and then misses her terribly.  I get that.  I also like the fact that the humans are not warring with each other and are united in their efforts against a common foe.  Why are the machines waging war?  Here's my favorite line in the book:  "It is not enough to live together in peace with one race on its knees."  Doesn't that succinctly describe the cause of most of history's rebellions?

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

THE LANGUAGE OF FLOWERS by Vanessa Diffenbaugh


After bouncing around among assorted unpleasant foster homes since infancy, Victoria Jones is now being thrust out into the world ("emancipated") on her 18th birthday.    Victoria is an angry young woman who flinches at being touched and who believes that she is unable to sustain any sort of bond with another person.  We learn about Victoria's past through alternating chapters that reflect mainly on the year she spent with Elizabeth, a vintner who taught Victoria the language of flowers.  Elizabeth was saintly in her forgiveness of 10-year-old Victoria's many transgressions, which were not slip-ups but intentional acts of meanness.  Victoria outdid herself in the malice that caused her to leave Elizabeth's care, and now, 8 years later, she strikes up a friendship of sorts with Elizabeth's nephew, Grant, who grows flowers to sell to florists like Renata.  Elizabeth's knowledge of flowers and the emotions they are supposed to evoke (jealousy, love, regret, etc.) have landed her some occasional work for Renata.  As she struggles to limit her emotional attachments, Victoria encounters a slew of encouraging and caring people, including Renata, who help guide her through a transition to a woman who can thrive in the real world.  This smattering of friends and mentors seemed a little unlikely, and the storyline is a little too typical for my tastes.  I found Elizabeth's unconditional love of Victoria a bit unbelievable, too, but the author has more experience with foster children than I do, and I'm sure she has the ability to tolerate misbehavior more patiently than I ever could.  Despite these minor drawbacks, the novel is charming.  The most obvious consequence of having read it is that now I'll want to consult a flower dictionary before sending anyone a floral arrangement.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

THE LEFTOVERS by Tom Perrotta

A number of persons, not necessarily all virtuous, have been scooped up into heaven by The Rapture.  At least, that's what everyone assumes when family and friends suddenly just evaporate into thin air on Oct. 14.  The town of Mapleton has its own list of unlikely vanishers, including Nora's husband Doug, who was having an affair with a much younger woman.  In fact, Nora's kids vaporized also, and she has suffered probably the biggest loss of loved ones in Mapleton.  However, Nora's not the only one having trouble coping.  Laurie, whose family has remained intact, becomes so unmoored by the event that she abandons her life to join the Guilty Remnant, a bizarre cult that requires all members to smoke, stalk their former neighbors, relinquish all tokens of their previous lives, and make martyrs of themselves or their fellow members.  In fact, most everyone has lost their rudder, not knowing when/if they, "the leftovers," will disappear as well.  Rather than relish and enjoy each day as a gift, many of Mapleton's residents have basically given up or joined some fanatical group in order to find some sort of safe harbor.  Laurie's son, Tom, has become a follower of Holy Wayne, who has a string of teenage wives, while Laurie's teenage daughter, Jill, has veered off course, under the not-so-watchful eye of her father, Kevin, mayor of Mapleton.  Kevin and the barely functioning Nora strike up a tentative relationship, but really everyone is avoiding committed relationships, given that one or both parties could suddenly go poof.  Life is uncertain anyway, though, and maybe that's Perrotta's point.  Enjoy what you've got while you've got it; attitudes of gloom and doom just make matters worse.  I loved the ending, which provides a glimmer of hope that not everyone will go off the deep end.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

TAFT by Ann Patchett

John Nickel manages a bar on Beale Street in Memphis and has a thing for his new waitress, Fay Taft.  There are two big problems:  1) She's a teenager, and  2) She's white and he's black.  The race difference wouldn't seem to be that big a deal these days, even in Memphis (my hometown).  However, Fay, her troubled brother Carl, and Fay's mother are living with old-money relatives, and John knows that they would take a dim view of an older black boyfriend who runs a bar.  These various issues seem only to intensify the attraction between the two, but in some ways John is also father figure to both Fay and Carl, whose father has recently died, leaving the family destitute and forced to move from the hills of East Tennessee to live with the aforementioned relatives.  I couldn't quite grasp what it is about Fay and Carl that motivates John to protect them in ways that are not healthy for any of the parties involved.  One possible clue is the fact that John himself is father to 9-year-old Franklin, who now lives in Miami with his mother, Marion, whom John never married.  This is a sticking point with both parties, as she was ready to marry when he wasn't and vice versa.  Now he has developed a friendly relationship with her parents, still in Memphis, and a possibly more-than-friendly relationship with her sister Ruth.  Add to these Wallace, Cyndi, and Rose, who all work in the bar, and you have a nice ensemble of characters to keep the pot boiling.  The author, from Nashville herself, nails the dichotomy, or trichotomy, really, that is the state of Tennessee, with the mountain people at one end and the delta people at the other, and the less extreme valley people in the middle.  I've read that the author thinks that the title of this novel hurts its market potential, and I think she's right about that.  It's a shame this novel hasn't come to the attention of more readers.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

LINCOLN by Gore Vidal

Gore Vidal just passed away, and I realized that I had never read one of his books.  I had a copy of Lincoln and decided that now was the time to tackle it.  Historical fiction has the advantage (or disadvantage, in some cases) of a known outcome.  We know who's going to win the Civil War, but getting there seems almost impossible, given the Union's paucity of capable generals, the infighting among political leaders competing for Lincoln's job, the leakage of military plans to the Confederacy, and the bogus intelligence about the size of the Southern forces from obviously unreliable sources.  The book is overly long, but then there's a lot going on, including the plot by local Confederate sympathizers to kidnap or assassinate Lincoln.  The White House residents were aware that they might have to evacuate at any moment, given their proximity to the seceded state of Virginia.  Lincoln's wife's extravagance and migraines add to Lincoln's woes that include attempts to depose him for incompetence.  Eventually his foes in Congress and in his own Cabinet realize that Lincoln is the consummate politician who is wily enough to outsmart them and powerful enough to push them out of his way.  Some of his plans never came to fruition, due to his untimely death.  His ideas of reimbursing the slaveowners and relocating the slaves to Central America were not popular with his colleagues, but I couldn't help but wonder if the Reconstruction era could have been even more chaotic if he had lived.  One thing that I found disconcerting was that the author switched subjects or perspectives rather abruptly, and I had quite a bit of difficulty keeping the long list of characters straight.  No matter.  This book reads like a novel and reminds us that issues such as the size of the national debt and the separation of church and state are not new.  Imagine our current problems compounded by war on our own soil.  This book gives a glimpse of what was truly a turbulent time.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

BELONG TO ME by Marisa de los Santos

Bad things happen to good people, and in this book all the characters are likeable.  Cancer can happen to anyone, and it's devastating.  However, Elizabeth's disease helps bring together two women—Cornelia, the petite newcomer, and Piper, Elizabeth's judgmental best friend.  There's also a surprising blast from the past that is sort of a mixed bag.  Any way you slice it, though, the cast of characters is delightful.  Cornelia is married to handsome oncologist Teo, and Cornelia's new friend Lake has a smart and congenial teenage son Dev, who has a new love interest in Clare, who visits Cornelia and Teo from time to time.  Cornelia and Teo would like to have a child of their own, now that they're permanently situated in suburbia.  Besides the cancer and a few spats due to misunderstandings, the worst thing that happens is that Dev's teacher in his previous school stifled his academic aspirations with a nasty putdown.  Lake, though, responds in the best way possible by moving Dev to a new locale, near Philadelphia, where our story takes place.  Dev suspects that the move has something to do with his father, whom he has never met.  Clare stirs the pot by encouraging Dev to try to identify and locate his father.  The result is that the kids get more than they bargained for.  Too bland a read?  Not at all.  The writing is lovely, and the lives of these nice people have enough bumps in the road to make us want to find out how they cope.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

THE DESCENDANTS by Kaui Hart Hemmings

I haven't seen the movie, but I can see why this book was made into one.  Matt King is a mostly inattentive father whose wife is now in the hospital from a boat racing accident.  We learn a lot about Joanie from Matt's and his daughters' reminiscences, and I expect readers either love her or hate her.  I fall into the latter category.  She's a department store model, obsessed with her looks, who competes with her daughters, drinks late into the night in bars, and engages in high risk activities.  One of them is an affair, reported by the older daughter, Alex, to her clueless father, who now starts to wonder what he should have done differently to keep his wife from straying.  His 10-year-old daughter, Scottie, is sending hurtful texts to a classmate, and Alex, found drunk and out past curfew at her boarding school are clearly out of control as well.  It's hard to ascertain whether Joanie is a good mom and the girls are just acting up due to her absence and uncertain prognosis, or if this behavior is the norm.  We suspect the latter, given that Alex's substance abuse is the reason she's in boarding school in the first place.  Matt definitely has his hands full and doesn't know where to start.  Plus, he's hurt and angry about his wife's affair.  In walks Sid, a friend of Alex's, who obviously has issues of his own, but he serves as sort of an impartial moderator—a role for which he is probably ill-equipped, given that he has been banished from his mother's house.  He's a trip, though, and unknowingly spreads comic relief all over the pages.  A series of darkly hilarious events unfold, as Matt grapples with how to approach his wife's lover with the news that Joanie is being taken off life support.  The scene in which he finally does have that uncomfortable conversation, making the man squirm, is just splendid and seems to be the pivotal moment in which Matt takes control and shows us what he's made of.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

THE REVISIONISTS by Thomas Mullen


How about a futuristic novel that takes place in the present?  Our narrator, Zed, has time-traveled from the future to present-day New York, where his mission is to make sure that the historical agitators ("hags") do not alter the course of history.  The hags have tried to prevent the Holocaust, the 9/11 tragedy, and now the Great Conflagration—presumably a nuclear event.  Zed's employers want to ensure that the peace and prosperity that follow the Great Conflagration remain intact.  Now Zed's gadget for identifying hags has gone on the fritz, and he meets a fellow employee with instructions that conflict with his own.  Zed belatedly starts to suspect that his employers are not the good guys.  Caught in this web of intrigue are Leo (a former CIA operative), Tasha (a corporate attorney who secretly leaks a corporate greed scandal), and Sari (an Indonesian woman in the employ of a Korean diplomat and his cruel wife).  The author weaves a pretty good plot here, but the characters are stilted, and the various tragedies each has endured somehow fail to arouse sympathy.  I found the final outcome puzzling, and I can't even blame the time-travel aspect for my confusion.  Leo's anonymous client is a shady company called Enhanced Awareness, who also employed Troy Jones, whose identity Zed is using in the present.  I never quite got what that company's evil mission was or what its relationship to Zed's employer was.  One reviewer assumed that Zed was from another planet.  What??  I didn't think that at all.  Apparently I'm not the only reader whose awareness could use a little enhancement.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

THE FIFTH WITNESS by Michael Connelly

Mickey Haller is back, in this sequel to The Lincoln Lawyer.  He's now representing people who are in the process of losing their homes to foreclosure, although I'm not sure how they can afford an attorney if they can't pay their mortgage.  Oh, well.  One of his former clients has now been charged with brutally murdering a bank executive, causing Haller to dive back into criminal law.  In this instance, movie rights are expected to cover Haller's fee when the case incites a media circus.  The bulk of the novel follows Lisa Trammel's trial, with lots of bumps and surprises along the way, all of which Haller twists to his and his client's advantage.  With conclusive DNA evidence on the murder weapon and the defendant's shoes, and an eyewitness who places Lisa near the scene of the crime, Haller pursues another angle—the victim's personal financial difficulties and a shady foreclosure processing company—in order to prove that his client was framed.  Most puzzling of all is how a 5'3" woman could bludgeon a standing 6'2" man on the top of the head—an anomaly that the prosecution fails to address.  The plot lacks the nail-biting timing of The Lincoln Lawyer, and the outcome and aftermath of the trial are a little predictable.  Even so, I still really enjoyed the ride, and the book's finale is very satisfying, with things playing out perfectly for Lisa Trammel and for Haller's career.  After all, what's Haller's overriding personal objective?  To get his ex-wife and daughter back.  I hope there's more to come.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

SILVER SPARROW by Tayari Jones


James Witherspoon has two wives in Atlanta, with a daughter by each.  Wife #1, Laverne, and daughter Chaurisse are oblivious to the existence of wife #2, Gwen, and daughter Dana.  Gwen and Dana, however, are fully aware of their secondary status, despite their beauty and intelligence, and frequently sneak clandestine peeks at their rivals.  Meanwhile, James, with the help of his ever-present business partner, Raleigh, is barely maintaining a precarious equilibrium, keeping both households happy and, by all means, separate.  This balancing act teeters toward destruction when Dana and clueless Chaurisse become acquainted, due to Dana's morbid curiosity, coupled with Chaurisse's envy of Dana's looks and attitude.  Both Gwen and Dana realize the dangers inherent to revealing themselves to Laverne and Chaurisse, since James has made it clear that having both families in the same place at the same time is strictly taboo.  For example, James cannot allow Dana to take a summer job at Six Flags, since Chaurisse is planning to work there.  Dana's frustration leaps off the page and drives her to test the boundaries of what she can get away with, where her relationship with Chaurisse is concerned.  In some ways, she is taunting both Chaurisse and James, dropping obvious hints on Chaurisse that should raise suspicion with James when the fallout reaches him.  When circumstances make it virtually impossible to keep their friendship a secret, Dana realizes that she has stepped over the line and does her best to keep the resulting upheaval at bay.  If James's elaborate ruse crumbles, someone will have to pay, and this knowledge, on the part of everyone except the unsuspecting Laverne and Chaurisse, infuses the plot with tension.  Plus, the mention of many Atlanta landmarks brought a nostalgic and knowing smile to my face.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

THE HYPNOTIST by Lars Kepler

Here's another violent Swedish thriller, but I didn’t find it to be of the same caliber as the Stieg Larsson trilogy.  The first half was very promising, with two possibly related crimes.  One is a spree in which an entire family is murdered, except a teenage son, Josef, who survives the rampage, and an older daughter who had moved away.  Detective Joona Linna enlists the assistance of Dr. Eric Maria Bark in gleaning information from Josef by hypnosis, despite Bark's decade-old vow never to hypnotize a patient again.  Then someone kidnaps Bark's teenage son Benjamin, while Bark is in a drug-induced sleep.  So far so good.  Could Benjamin's abduction have been plotted by a gang whose members name themselves after Pokemon characters?  Or by Josef, who is angry at Bark for having hypnotized him?  Or by one of Bark's deranged ex-patients?  The plot temporarily derails during a rather long section in which Bark recounts the incidents that led up to his vow to stop hypnotizing.  He had been performing group therapy on several patients who relived traumatic events via hypnosis, in order to confront and thus thwart their inner demons.  This section drags on, and then we finally get back to the present-day crime-solving efforts, prompting Bark's wife Simone to remark, "Everything takes such a bloody long time."  My sentiments exactly.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

PLEASE LOOK AFTER MOM by Kyung-Sook Shin


I've read novels about missing children, who may or may not still be alive, and about dead parents, where the children express their many regrets about their relationships with the deceased.  This book has elements of both types, as it is about a missing parent/wife with dementia.  We glean a portrait of "Mom" from the viewpoints of her oldest son and daughter and from her husband, who bears the guilt for having lost track of his wife at busy Seoul Station.  The daughter's sections are in second person, which I found unnecessarily confusing.  I kept thinking that "you" was Mom, rather than the narrator, since the book is a collection of memories of Mom, peppered with apologies for not having valued her and with vows to show more affection and appreciation, if she ever turns up.  The only first-person section is where Mom gives us a glimpse of her life, sharing a few secrets that she's managed to keep hidden from her family.  It's not that her life has been one of pain and suffering, but with all these ingrates around, I found it uplifting to discover that she had a source of personal joy outside the family, as well as a younger daughter who treated her with the kindness she deserved.  Having no idea how expensive certain luxuries were, she had asked the younger daughter, a struggling mother herself, to buy her a mink coat.  (Asking her husband for one would have been an exercise in futility.)  The nearly destitute daughter bought the coat, and then Mom was mortified to learn how much it cost.  Mom is also illiterate and encouraged her children's education so that they could rise above her status in life, and they did.  However, they are not likely to match her generous spirit and the bountiful gifts that she has selflessly bestowed on them.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

THE WOODCUTTER by Reginald Hill


Wolf Hanna's perfect life—thriving business, beautiful wife—is shattered when, out of the blue, someone plants child pornography on his computer.  Not one to go quietly, his rage gets him into further trouble, not to mention this other little matter of fraud where his company's finances are concerned.  His prison psychologist, Alva, happens to be a beautiful young woman who is attracted to Wolf, despite the fact that she is certain of his guilt.  When Wolf realizes that nothing he can do will convince her of his innocence, he dupes her into thinking that he realizes the error of his ways so that she will lobby for his release.  After regaining his freedom, Wolf starts to unravel the events that landed him in prison, including discovering why his wife divorced him to marry his attorney.  There is a rather odd twist at the end, but it's not enough to salvage this effort that's not thrilling enough to be called a thriller.  In fact, if this is the best that Reginald Hill has to offer, I won't be reading any of his other books.  This is the second novel I've read this year about someone being framed as a sexual predator, but DanielPalmer's Helpless is definitely the better book, with a more appealing protagonist.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

RULES OF CIVILITY by Amor Towles

We know from the beginning that Katey and Tinker will not end up together, because she is with her husband Val when they come across some photos of Tinker in an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.  In the 1938 photo, Tinker is well-dressed and dapper, but in the 1939 photo, although his demeanor shows contentment, his clothes are shabby.  Most of the novel is Katey's reflection on the year 1938 and how Tinker went from riches to rags.  The author makes a good case for quitting your job the day after you're promoted.  Of course, being lead secretary in the secretarial pool at a Manhattan law firm is exactly where Katey does not want to languish.  She has a nimble mind and is well-read, despite her working class upbringing.  Her roots don't hold her back, though, as she rolls the dice and lands a job with Gotham, a new magazine being launched by the publishers of Condé Nast.  In the meantime, she and her brazen friend Eve meet Tinker, whom both women have a thing for.  Then an automobile accident reduces the threesome to an unstable couple, as Tinker applies the "you break it; you buy it" slogan to his newfound devotion to Eve, who is seriously injured in the accident.  Katey is now the odd woman out, but she's better company than Eve and creates other, more fruitful liaisons.  When Eve tires of being Tinker's albatross, Katey and Tinker reconnect and embark on a tentative course to togetherdom, until a sudden revelation shatters Katey's respect for Tinker.  All the clues should have made Tinker's flaws more apparent, but love has a way of allowing us to see only what we want to see.  I so enjoyed going back in time to spend a few delicious hours with these New York denizens and seeing the city from their perspective.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

DREAMS OF JOY by Lisa See

At the end of Shanghai Girls, Joy has left her home in Los Angeles, with her idealistic socialist beliefs in tow, to seek out her biological father in Communist China.  It's the 1950s, and her family fears for her safety.  Family, though, is partly what she is running away from.  Pearl, the woman who raised her but is really her aunt, follows Joy, knowing that neither she nor Joy may ever be allowed to leave China.  Before Pearl arrives in Shanghai, Joy takes off with her father, Z.G., to a collective farm.  At first, Joy finds confirmation for her ideology, as the commune is thriving and contented.  Then Mao's ambitious plan to increase output backfires, and the country is thrust into extreme famine.  Contrast the starvation with the sumptuous banquets for foreign dignitaries, and you have anything but an egalitarian society. The author paints a vivid and horrifying portrait of this period in Chinese history, but Joy's rescue and disillusionment with the Chinese government, not to mention her marriage to a peasant, are way too predictable.  I don't have a problem with neatly wrapped-up endings, but I would like for there to be a surprise somewhere along the way.  I had the feeling that this book was intended as a crowd pleaser for the author's loyal fans and thus found it a little disappointing.  In fact, I probably could have summarized the plot without reading a page.  One surprise at the end wasn't even that surprising.  Even so, there were enough harrowing near-misses to keep me pressing forward to find out how Pearl and Joy would find their way out.

Monday, July 2, 2012

SHANGHAI GIRLS by Lisa See

Pearl and May are "beautiful girls" in Shanghai; they are an artist's calendar models.  Pearl is older and more studious, but May is beautiful and charming and appears to be the family favorite.  While these two are out until all hours and spending money frivolously, their father is sealing their fates with arranged marriages to pay off his gambling debts.  And all this happens just as the Japanese are invading China.  Tragedy ensues, but the girls are resourceful enough to make their way to the U.S. and their unwanted husbands, who are living with their parents and trying to make a living in a touristy Chinese section of Los Angeles.  May is pregnant, and since her marriage was never consummated, the sisters make a pact to pass her daughter off as Pearl's.  The daughter, Joy, causes a tug-of-war between the two sisters, but generally the ruse works.  Pearl narrates this story of building a family with strangers, while her bond with her sister boomerangs from one extreme to the other—the ultimate love-hate relationship.  Pearl finally has to evaluate her performance as a mother and a wife and put her competition with May aside.  May, certainly not  blameless herself, commits an act of treachery that Pearl may not ever be able to forgive, regardless of May's motivation, and Joy naively puts their immigration status in jeopardy.  My only beef with this book is that you have to read the sequel, Dreams of Joy, to find out how everything pans out.