Wednesday, April 30, 2014


I don’t usually like weepy novels, and this is one where I alternated between reading a few pages and shedding a few tears.  For some reason, though, I kept seeking out opportunities to pick up this book and embark on another crying jag.  The book is about Louisa, a young woman who has just lost her job at a café and taken on the daunting duties of a caregiver to Will, a handsome young quadriplegic.  Will is resentful and bitter and wants to end his own life, for a variety of reasons—helplessness, hopelessness, pain, fear of further complications and/or further helplessness.  Mostly, however, he just laments that his life is not the way it used to be, where he orchestrated corporate takeovers and participated in a variety of high-adventure activities.  His family is obscenely wealthy, but there’s not much they can do except perhaps grant Will his wish to die after a mutually-agreed-upon 6-month period.  Plucky Louisa seems to be just the antidote to Will’s depression, bringing a breath of fresh air to Will’s miserable existence.  She desperately races against time to try to convince Will that he has something to live for, devising all sorts of outings meant to demonstrate that he can still lead a full and enjoyable life.  Not all outings have the desired effect, and an undesirable adventure is worse than no adventure at all.  Is this trite, formulaic and predictable?  Quite.  Enjoyable?  Definitely.  Louisa is sort of a Bridget Jones without the madcap mayhem and assorted vices.  Like Bridget, she can hold her own in a conversation, tossing out barbs and witty comebacks when Will tries to bait her into giving up on him.  The growth of their relationship is enough of a reason to keep reading, but the question becomes, “Who is really helping whom?”  Theirs is a Pygmalion sort of mutual education, in which Louisa expands her horizons, thanks to Will’s worldliness, and Will finds some level of fulfillment as a catalyst to Louisa’s awakening.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

THE ORCHARDIST by Amanda Coplin

William Talmadge is the title character, who tends his fruit trees in the Pacific Northwest in the early 1900s.  He lives a solitary life until two pregnant girls, Jane and Della, come wandering out of the woods.  They’re virtually feral, and he leaves food out for them as he gradually builds their trust.  They’ve escaped from a prison-like brothel, owned by an evil man named Michaelson, who wants the girls back.  Jane’s baby, Angelene, is the only newborn who survives, but Jane herself, who struggles to bond with her infant daughter, dies shortly after the birth.  Della never becomes close to Angelene, leaving Talmadge to raise her, and leaving me to wonder if Della knows or suspects that Michaelson is Angelene’s father.  However, the author never addresses the subject of Angelene’s paternity, and perhaps both Jane’s and Della’s motherly instincts had not fully developed yet, since they were both so young.  Talmadge basically raises the rebellious Della as well, but she develops a talent for breaking horses and leaves the orchard, still a teenager, to pursue other adventures.  The story then becomes sort of a prodigal daughter parable.  Angelene becomes an orchardist in her own right, side-by-side with Talmadge, but he, still haunted by the sudden disappearance of his sister years ago, yearns for Della’s return.  He even includes Della in his will, and I kept expecting that decision to backfire in the end, but the author never mentions it again.  Eventually Talmadge locates Della, who is in jail voluntarily, and she becomes the focus of all of his energy, as he neglects both Angelene and the orchard.  Meanwhile, Angelene is sorting out her own emotions—anger, jealousy, frustration.  I felt that Talmadge was not the only one who ignored her; I don’t think that the author completely fleshed out Angelene’s character.  I get it that she is loyal and obedient, in contrast to Della, but that doesn’t mean that she has to be completely one-dimensional.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

THE YEAR OF FOG by Michelle Richmond

The comparison to Jodi Picoult in the review snippet on the front cover of this novel turned me off.  However, I read the book anyway, because my mother was reading it, and I was very pleasantly surprised. The storyline itself, though, is not exactly pleasant.  Abby is walking on a San Francisco beach on a foggy day with her fiancé's daughter, Emma, and after about a minute of inattention, Emma vanishes—drowned or abducted.  From the title we know that a year of searching will ensue, and the timetable is not the only thing that's predictable about this book.  Abby shoulders the blame for Emma's disappearance and spends her days and nights scouring the city, handing out fliers, and putting out feelers.  As each clue surfaces, she doggedly follows it, even as her fiancé, Jake, is losing hope.  Emma's mother, who abandoned her husband and daughter years before, ominously resurfaces, gamely playing the victimized parent to the media.  Abby tries various memory-jogging techniques, including hypnosis, in an effort to recall minutiae from that fateful and terrible day.  She is a photographer, and I kept thinking that one of her photographs might do the remembering for her, but there's no magic bullet or replay button.  I'm not really certain how the author managed to keep my attention through all the days of fruitless searching, guilt, and bottomless grief, but she did.  Abby does encounter one potential new love interest—a wealthy client named Nick—and he jazzes things up a bit.  He's supportive and helpful without being too pushy, and Abby certainly needs a distraction.  The character whose inclusion I didn't get was her former lover Ramon.  Near the end of the novel we discover how they met, and Abby comes across as sort of a 16-year-old Lolita, to Ramon's sleazy older man.  He conveniently dies shortly after Abby goes to college, and I thought he was just superfluous to the plot, especially since Abby doesn't seem to have particularly mourned his death.  Maybe he was a late addition or even a character whose role diminished as the author fleshed out the story.  Even with my few quibbles, I enjoyed the book much more than my mother did.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014


Nora Eldridge has been treading water as a third-grade teacher, since nursing her mother through a 4-year terminal illness.  Her inertia comes to an abrupt end, however, when the Shahid family moves to town.  First, their son, Reza, a beautiful blending of his Lebanese father and Italian mother, joins her class.  Then Reza's mother, Sirena, asks Nora to share a rented art studio, and Nora springs to life, recommitting herself to her artistic endeavors, which are tiny dollhouse replicas of the rooms inhabited by some of her favorite female role models.  Finally, she swoons over Sirena's husband Skandar, so that now she is infatuated with all three.  This charismatic family is a mixed blessing for Nora.  On the one hand, they inspire Nora to embrace life, but, on the other hand, that life centers around the Shahids, who are destined to leave the country within a year.  As a reader, we can detect that perhaps something nefarious is going on, but Nora is oblivious to all the warning signs.  Only 8-year-old Reza seems to value Nora with sincerity, while his parents supply her with the flattery that she craves.  When the Shahids return to Paris, Nora finds herself in holding pattern again, hanging on their every communication, no matter how slight.  Their appalling betrayal, however, is much more monumental than the simple abandonment of a loyal friend.  After Nora discovers what they're really up to, she becomes livid, and she describes that anger at the beginning of the novel.  After finishing the book, with the benefit of knowing why Nora is justifiably angry, I had to reread the opening pages.  She also describes there how carnival Fun Houses are more scary than fun, with their warped mirrors and slanted perspectives, but the Shahids are not so much scary as just plain weird.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

MOTHERLAND by Maria Hummel

Like City of Women, this novel takes a look at the lives of Germans during the turmoil of WWII.  Inspired by the experiences of her grandparents, the author turns the tables to paint the Americans swarming into Germany as the bad guys.  This viewpoint is a risky proposition and more than a little unsettling.  Liesl is a young wife with three stepsons, while her husband, a doctor, administers to wounded soldiers at the front.  Liesl has her hands full, as Hans, the oldest son, becomes more and more restless and rebellious, and middle son Ani's declining health could land him in an institution that exterminates unfit children.  As if these two boys don't present enough problems, Liesl has to direct most of her attention to Jurgen, an infant.  Hans takes advantage of Liesl's reluctance to discipline her stepchildren, and Ani's mysterious illness may be self-inflicted.  Liesl becomes frazzled to the breaking point, particularly with the Allies' bombs bursting all around them.  Liesl's husband Frank is the rock of the family, but unfortunately he is absent.  Liesl's heart, rather than her head, drives many of her decisions, and her heart steers her well in some, but not all, situations.  These characters are all so flawed that I became a little annoyed, not to mention highly conflicted about their patriotism.  Ultimately disillusioned with the Third Reich, Liesl cannot even rely on her neighbors and fellow Germans, who sometimes seem bent on thwarting her efforts to keep her family safe.