Wednesday, December 31, 2014


A.J. is a thirty-something small town bookstore owner whose wife has recently died in a car accident.  A.J. has always been a bit persnickety, but now he is downright rude, especially to a publisher’s rep named Amelia, aka Amy, who has replaced the now deceased long-time rep with whom A.J. had somewhat of a rapport.  The disappearance of a rare book valued at around half a million dollars depresses A.J. even further.  Then an abandoned toddler named Maya comes along, and A.J. decides to adopt the child rather than give her up to foster care.  I suppose this decision proves that A.J. is not completely heartless, but I found it to be way out of character.  The mystery of the missing book was certainly not spellbinding, but the novel does have its highlights, sprinkled among all the warm and fuzzy moments.  Everyone except A.J. and Amy’s mother is just too perfect.  Even A.J.’s best friend, a cop, becomes an avid reader and organizes his own book club.  Really?  A.J. provides the only saltiness to a book that is overly sweet, like a cupcake that’s heavy on the icing.  A.J. is definitely a book snob, with a preference for short stories, and I will say that I enjoyed all of A.J.’s opinions on books and authors and especially his commentary on a different short story at the beginning of each chapter.  The writing style, is not particularly elegant, with no particularly profound passages or seismic revelations, but the unpretentious style fits the comfy storyline.  One reviewer likened this novel to THE UNLIKELY PILGRIMAGE OF HAROLD FRY, and I had pretty much the same opinion of that book.  I need to stay away from novels that promise too much quaintness and not enough grit.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

THE POSSIBILITIES by Kaui Hart Hemmings

Everyone grieves differently, and Sarah St. John is still reeling from the death of her 22-year-old son Cully in an avalanche.  Sarah, a single mother, raised her son in her home town, which happens to be the ski resort town of Breckenridge, Colorado.  She tries to resume her job as a newscaster for segments targeting tourists in hotel rooms, but she clearly isn’t ready to face the public in quite so public a manner.  Sarah never considered marrying Cully’s father Billy, whom she viewed as nothing more than a fling, but he and her widowed father Lyle are providing all the emotional support they can, given their own grief.  Plus, Sarah’s best friend Suzanne is emotionally distraught over her husband’s having walked out on their marriage, so that Suzanne is too preoccupied with her own troubles to be much help to Sarah.  Everyone is leaning on everyone else, and then an enigmatic young woman named Kit drifts into their lives with some pretty shocking news.  The world is full of surprises for Sarah, who discovers little by little that Cully had a tighter bond with his father and grandfather than Sarah had thought, not to mention some secret extracurricular activities.  While the rest of the town is tiptoeing around Sarah, Lyle and Billy are honest but compassionate and aren’t afraid to use a little levity now and then to lighten everyone’s mood.  Sarah responds not so much with sadness as with anger, and the result is dialog that I couldn’t get enough of.  (Don’t miss Lyle’s hilarious comments about Sarah’s cross-eyed ex-boyfriend.)  This may be Sarah’s story, but the other characters, especially Billy and Lyle, were more appealing to me, with their wit and ability to roll with the punches.  Kit and Sarah are both at a crossroads, in which Kit provokes Sarah into drawing on her own experience in order to redirect her own life and consequently help Kit to do the same.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014


Author P.D. James passed away recently, and, since I’d never read one of her novels, I picked up THE CHILDREN OF MEN. I saw the movie years ago, and, although I don’t remember it very well, I think that the movie and the book share a basic premise, and that’s about all.  That premise is that humans are no longer able to procreate, and the last generation is now in their 20s.  I think the whole scenario is intriguing, and James’s imagining of its hopelessness and the unfortunate consequences is on target.  If anything, with the end of the human race on the horizon, I might expect people to behave even more badly than they do in this novel.  Theo Faron lost his only child in an accident in which Theo was at fault, and he has basically cut himself off from everyone emotionally.  Society is deteriorating, and Theo’s cousin Xan is in charge. Then one of Theo’s former students, a young woman named Julian, introduces him to a handful of people who want Theo to intercede with Xan to effect some reforms.  Xan is uncooperative, but Theo still believes than Xan is trying to do the best he can.  Months later the band of revolutionaries seek Theo out again, proclaiming that they are harboring a pregnant woman.  Her safety is their number one priority, and they don’t feel that they can trust Xan.  The movie was released during the Christmas season, and I remember thinking that the Christian overtones were obvious—a baby born in less than ideal surroundings who can potentially save the world.  These parallels are not so apparent here, although one member of the group dies so that the others can live, and James makes the Jesus reference crystal clear in this case.  A savior dies and a savior is born, maybe?  I don’t know if religious symbolism is a hallmark of her other books or not, but there are several conversations in this one, questioning the existence of God.  Bottom line:  the book was rather slow moving, and perhaps I should have chosen one of James’s mysteries as my first foray into her body of work.  On the plus side, there are reams of wise and thought-provoking passages in this book.  “The world is changed not by the self-regarding, but by men and women prepared to make fools of themselves.”

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

POMPEII by Robert Harris

Attilius is the new engineer in charge of the aqueduct for the towns at the base of Vesuvius in 79 A.D.  When the water suddenly stops flowing, he sets out to make the repairs, north of Pompeii.  There’s a simple but handy map at the beginning of the book, and I flipped back to it repeatedly to get the lay of the land.  Also, the author prefaces each chapter with an appropriate quote from an authoritative text about the behavior of an erupting volcano.  Anyway, an aqueduct engineer seems to be an unlikely hero for an adventure/disaster/love story, but he has intellect and integrity, and he’s right in the thick of things.  He makes some unsettling discoveries about his predecessor, who mysteriously vanished, and knowledge can be a dangerous thing.  The author paints such a vivid picture of Pompeii at the time, with all its decadence and barbarism, in what passed for civilization at the time.  If a natural disaster of this magnitude happened in this country today, I would expect there to be just as much panic and poor decision-making.  I don’t know if any political corruption would creep to the surface here, but this is fiction after all.  I’m sure scientists can draw some reasonably accurate conclusions about what happened in Pompeii as far as the physical destruction of the city, but I don’t think we can really know how the residents responded.  This book made up for what it lacked in character development by providing a captivating plot in a historical setting.  I can see why it was chosen for a recent study of fiction readers, proving once again how we can submerse ourselves in a story and come out with a greater understanding of ourselves and our fellow human beings.  Here’s a link to an article about that study: 

A movie entitled Pompeii came out last year, and I just watched that, but it is not based on this novel, unfortunately.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

SHANTARAM by Gregory David Roberts

A book has to be special to keep me interested for over 900 pages.  The Goldfinch was special, but this book is not.  In fact, it is to India what The Power of One is to South Africa—too long, too tedious, and too self-aggrandizing.  Lin is an Australian ex-heroin-addict in the 1980s who escaped from an Australian prison where he was serving time for armed robbery.  He amasses enough forged documents to transport himself to Bombay, where he encounters a colorful group of expats and makes a living connecting foreigners to drug dealers.  A mugging leaves him broke, and he moves into an illegal slum near his beloved Indian friend Prabaker.  Lin changes gears and starts dispensing first aid to his fellow slum dwellers but also strikes up a relationship with a local Afghani crime boss, who has his own agenda in his homeland.  An unknown betrayer sends Lin back to prison but this time in India, where conditions are beyond deplorable and wildly dangerous.  Lin survives all of this and lots, lots more.  I accept that there’s a lot of ground to cover here, but I don’t think the book would suffer if it were cut in half, although I still would not have loved it.  The characters are impossible to keep track of, partly because there are so many of them and partly because some of the names are so similar—Khaled and Khader, for example.  Judging from the author’s blurb, this novel is somewhat autobiographical, but I have to say that he paints himself as being almost superhuman in his ability to survive.  There are only 3 women characters of note, all three of whom may be prostitutes, and none of whom come across as real, three-dimensional women.  One plot device that I particularly did not like was that the author/narrator would frequently express his regret about how he reacted to a situation by warning us that his oversights would come back to haunt him later.  Lin, though, is quite three-dimensional himself, sharing with us his remorse, guilt, lust, pride, pain, vengefulness, and gratitude, through a series of perilous adventures.  I will say that the author has a very good ear for dialog, especially that of the English-speaking Indians, and I had to go to YouTube to see a demonstration of that Indian head waggle.