Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The First Bad Man

Cover image for The first bad man : a novelThe First Bad Man 
By Miranda July
First Scribner, 2015. 276 pages.

Miranda July is a celebrated author, filmmaker, actress, visual and performing artist--basically there isn't a creative field she doesn't excel in. So I was curious to read her first novel (her previous publications have been collections of short stories and several non-fiction books). The First Bad Man is the story of Cheryl, a high strung, eccentric woman in her mid-40's who lives alone, abiding by her own very particular quirks and habits. Suddenly here world is thrown into chaos when her bosses require that she take in their wayward daughter who they cannot control. 21-year-old Clee refuses to abide by any of Cheryl's rules and quickly takes to mocking, insulting and eventually physically bullying Cheryl in her own home. In an even more bizarre turn of events this unhealthy dynamic leads Cheryl to love and the role of mother that she has been chasing since she was nine years old.

This is a very modern book reminiscent in some ways of Dave Eggers, David Foster Wallace or George Saunders. The circumstances and characters feel like hyperbolic versions of reality, and the circumstance too bizarre to be real, and yet achieving in the end a core message that is very relate-able. The writing is filled with hilarious and heartbreaking prose, and July is a master at creating a vivid and detailed world. There is a fair amount of adult content in this novel, and it definitely not for every reader, but if you enjoy somewhat avant garde, literary fiction, this book is for you.


Saturday, March 28, 2015

Sidney Chambers and the Problem of Evil

Sidney Chambers and the Problem of Evil (Grantchester #3)
by James Runcie
Bloomsbury USA, 2014. 287 pages. Mystery.

It's the 1960s and Sidney Chambers has never been happier, with a new wife and new responsibilities in the community. But, even so, he still finds himself thrown in the way of mysterious happenings in the cathedral city of Grantchester. From the mysteriously nude French girl who appears just in time to distract gallery goers from an art theft in broad daylight to an odd drowning on a movie set, between a tragic baby stealing from the local hospital and a madman who seems to have it in for the clergy, Sidney manages to plumb the depths of the human mind to find answers.

I love where Runcie has taken this series and the depth of character that Canon Chambers has gained as his life has grown and evolved through the series. And I think that one thing, above all, that I like is the passage of time. Most mystery series take place over exceptionally short periods, often making one small town look like a hotbed of crime. Runcie, however, has spread these three books over the course of 10 years, which seems more in keeping with realistic crime statistics and doesn't make the reader wonder how Sidney can do so much investigating and still keep his day job. It also allows the author to show a greater range of evolution for his characters, as they grow through mundane experiences. Even though this book deals with a lot of tragic crime, it just made me happy to read it.


Wednesday, March 25, 2015


by Rachel DeWoskin
Viking, 2014. 394 pages. Young adult fiction.

After being blinded in a horrible firecracker accident, Emma Silver must relearn everything about her life, from how to make her way around to how to read and write using Braille. Going back to her school for the start of tenth grade, after spending the last six months at a school for the blind, Emma learns about how to adapt to her new world and the kind of strength it takes to be different.

I thought this book has a lot of good, thought-provoking information about the nature of disability and how a person can adapt to their environment. I thought the plot was muddied significantly, however, by the introduction of a girl who commits suicide at the school and the teens' efforts to process the information. Although it did give Emma opportunities to wonder why she didn't commit suicide at her lowest moments, it just made the plot more convoluted. I would have preferred to focus more exclusively on Emma's journey without the excursion into teen suicide.


Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Coming of Age in Somoa: A Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilization

Coming of Age in Samoa: A Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilization
By Margaret Mead
Morrow, 1961. 304 pages. Nonfiction

After reading Euphoria, the novel based somewhat on the famous Anthropologist Margaret Mead, I was curious to read some of Mead's work. Coming of Age in Samoa was her first published work and summarizes nine months of ethnographic study she conducted while living among the Samoan people when she was 23 years old. Mead's particular interest was studying the experience of adolescents in a more primitive, tribal society. She wondered how much of the difficulty experienced by Western youth is owed to culture, and how much is biological. She felt by studying adolescent behavior in a culture so different from American culture she would be able to more fully understand the roles culture and biology play. The result was a ground breaking, seminal work that made her name in the burgeoning field of Anthropology.

The book reads much like a college text (and in fact is a staple of all Anthropology 101 courses) and is divided into chapters where each examines a different part of the adolescent experience. Being female herself, she focused her study on the girls of the tribe since taboos prevented her from having full access to the experiences of adolescent males. Mead has a meticulous and approachable style, and in many ways created a voice that is still used today in ethnography. Throughout the years Coming of Age in Samoa has endured fierce criticism and has been denounced by some other scholars; but by in large these criticisms are largely unfounded and the predominant view is of the value of Mead's contributions to the field of Anthropology. This is an interesting read for those who enjoy scholoarly nonfiction. ZB

Lady Emma's Campaign

Lady Emma's Campaign
by Jennifer Moore
Covenant Communications, 2014. 212 pages. Romance.

In a sequel to Becoming Lady Lockwood, William and Amelia Drake are horrified to learn that their good friend, Sidney Fletcher, has been killed in action in Spain. Their horror becomes even deeper when members of his crew come to tell them that Captain Fletcher was not killed, as reported, but is being hidden in a Spanish fortress by the French, unbeknownst to the authorities. William immediately sets sail for Spain. Little does he know his younger sister, Emma, has stowed away, desperate to save the man she loves from a terrible fate. Will Emma be able to find Sidney and bring him to safety at last?

This was another entertaining read from Moore, with plenty of action to keep the pace going. While some of the plot was a little unrealistic, the author does paint a very realistic portrait of the horrors of war and the desperate situation the Spanish were in at the hands of the French. With this as a backdrop, she was able to reach emotional depths she was unable to probe in her first novel. This was a fun and satisfying read.


Veronica Mars: Mr. Kiss and Tell

Veronica Mars: Mr. Kiss and Tell (Veronica Mars #2)
by Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham
Vintage Books, 2015. 330 pages. Mystery.

Veronica Mars is back on the case as she investigates the case of a young woman who is attacked and left for dead at the Neptune Grand Hotel. Meanwhile, her father, Keith Mars, continues his investigation into the rampant corruption that has taken over the Balboa County Sheriff's Office. Will Veronica and Keith be able to find answers in time?

Fans of the Veronica Mars franchise will enjoy Rob Thomas' latest venture into the world of Neptune, CA. The story is gripping and moves at a quick pace, although some of what happens in the course of the investigation can be a little disturbing. You will want to have seen the TV show, the Veronica Mars movie, and read the first book before attempting this one - the new narrative references a lot of plot points from all three sources. I found that the writing wasn't quite as good in this book as it was in the first, but, overall, it was great to see what all the fine citizens of Neptune were up to one more time.



by Kristi Cook
Simon Pulse, 2014. 306 pages. Young adult fiction.

Jemma and Ryder have known each other all their lives. Their great-granddaddies saved each other during the Civil War. Their mothers have been best friends since college (at least). Their houses are seven minutes apart and Sunday dinners are always a joint affair. But Jemma and Ryder have never been able to get along, in spite of their mothers' life-long dream to unite the two houses through their marriage. Will it take a hurricane traveling up the Mississippi coast to bring these two together?

This was an interesting reversal of a Romeo and Juliet theme and the Mississippi scenery was beautiful. Cook's description of the realities of living through a hurricane and the resulting aftermath was really intense and thoughtfully done. However, at times, the characters' rigid determination to never do something their mothers would approve of (like fall in love with each other...even though they are) just became more grating as the book went on. It was a cute read, but very forgettable.


Saturday, March 21, 2015

Can't Look Away

Can't Look Away
by Donna Cooner
Point, 2014. 264 pages. Young adult fiction.

Torrey Grey is a fifteen-year-old Internet sensation, with her fashion and beauty video blog reaching hundreds of thousands of viewers. But Torrey quickly learns that fame is fleeting when her younger sister is hit by a drunk driver after a terrible fight, which is caught on camera and uploaded for the world to see. Suddenly Torrey's fans become her worst critics, leaving streams of vitriolic condemnation for her actions. Torrey hopes that moving to a new state and a new school will mean a new beginning for her entire family. But how will Torrey know who to trust in this new environment?

This book had a lot of really good messages to it. It is very clear about the dangers and pitfalls of having an online persona, teaching teens the importance of filtering the information they allow about themselves online. It also talks about real grief and regret and how to continue living when tragedy strikes. It talks about the most important kinds of friendships and choosing to surround yourself with people who build and uplift. The only real drawback to this book, in fact, was Torrey herself, who made herself so difficult to like through all but the final 10 pages of the book that it was sometimes a chore to read on. I know she was supposed to be grieving and grasping for something solid in her life, etc., but she often just came off as the selfish girl everyone was saying she was and Cooner tied up her sudden transformation at the very end really quickly. My advice to readers who are struggling with Torrey's personality like I was is to keep pressing on. There are some touching moments at the end that make it worthwhile.


Sidney Chambers and the Perils of the Night

Sidney Chambers and the Perils of the Night (Grantchester #2)
by James Runcie
Bloomsbury USA, 2013. 356 pages. Mystery.

In his second installment of 6 stories following the life and criminal investigations of Canon Sidney Chambers, vicar of Grantchester, Runcie delves more deeply into the political, social, and academic world of Cambridge of the late 1950s. Beyond solving crimes, Sidney also has to investigate his own heart and feelings about two very different women: his good friend, the socialite Amanda Kendall and Hildegard Staunton, an intriguing German widow. Through it all, Canon Chambers' charismatic relationship with his parishioners, his sympathetic manner, and his faith all serve to open doors to him that are not available to the police.

I got on to this series through Masterpiece Theater's Grantchester series that premiered this January. While the BBC made several changes that are not in the books, I assume to add more drama, I have found the books to be very dramatic on their own merits and have a good combination of excitement and introspection. These are very peaceful stories, in spite of the sometimes terrible things that are happening to people. This book was particularly interesting in its description of Cold War Germany, especially in the final story where Sidney travels into Russian-controlled East Germany on a visit to Hildegard. The writing is open and honest, which makes it a joy to read.



Cover image for Euphoria : a novelEuphoria
By Lily King
Atlantic Monthly, 2014. 256 pages. Fiction.

Set in New Guinea during the early 1930's Euphoria tells the story of anthropologist Andrew Bankson who has gone half mad with loneliness stationed in a remote tribal village in New Guinea; until a chance meeting with fellow anthropologists Nell and Fen pull him from the brink of suicide. Nell and Fen have just abandoned their research, and fled for their lives from the blood thirsty Mumbanyo  tribe, and Andrew finds them a tribe near his that seems like a perfect fit for their continued research. As their research with the artistic, female dominated Tam takes off, the three researchers find themselves in a complicated triangle of intellectual and romantic passion that quickly threatens to spiral out of control.

Based largely on real life of revolutionary anthropologist Margaret Meade, Euphoria tackles complicated issues and questions surrounding fundamental assumptions of the Western interpretations of relationships, and our innate human desire to posses another person, idea, or culture. King asserts masterful story telling through an intricate structure, that shifts from field notes, and the first person observations of Bankson, which weaves the past experiences and upbringing of the characters together to help understand their various reactions to the new cultures in which they are immersed. This is a plot and character driven read, and one that will appeal to readers who enjoy historical and philosophical reads. ZB

Friday, March 20, 2015

Always Emily

Always Emily: a novel of intrigue and romance
by Michaela MacColl
Chronicle Books, 2014. 282 pages. Young adult fiction.

If you're a fan of the Bronte sisters, this is the book for you. Meticulously researched, the novel follows teenaged Charlotte and Emily Bronte as they try to figure out the mysterious happenings at a nearby estate. Charlotte is approached by a frantic lady who begs for help before she is forcibly removed by an angry relative who tells Charlotte the lady's mind is unbalanced. Emily sees strange lights on the moor and an encampment where someone is obviously hiding out. And Branwell, the girls' brother, is being even more secretive than usual. Will the two be able to get to the bottom of all the mysteries in their normally quiet household?

I think this is a book that will most appeal to readers who have read any works by the Bronte sisters, especially Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. MacColl is constantly creating situations that foreshadow scenes in these two pivotal works of English literature. Her characters are well drawn and the book doesn't have the campy feel that many books where classic novelists solve mysteries are prone to have. Along with the author notes at the back detailing her research and the real lives of Charlotte and Emily, the book helped me understand both women better as authors. The one thing I didn't understand was why MacColl didn't include Anne, the third Bronte sister, beyond more than a casual mention. But, overall, this was an interesting book for lovers of classic British lit in general and the Brontes in particular.


Like No Other

Like No Other
by Una LaMarche
Razorbill, 2014. 347 pages. Young adult fiction.

Devorah is a strict Hasidic Jew. Jaxon is the son of first-generation Caribbean immigrants. Their paths would never have crossed if they hadn't found themselves trapped together in a hospital elevator on the day the power goes out in New York City as the result of hurricane-force winds. The friendship they develop has them breaking all the rules, sneaking out an arranging secret meetings just so they can be together. Will it only be a matter of time before they get caught? Can their relationship last in a world that only sees how they are different?

This book was a very realistic modern Romeo & Juliet story, with "star-crossed lovers" taking chances to be with the one they love. But what I like most about it is that LaMarche is very aware, the whole time, of the realities her characters face. This allows her to bring the book into not just a discussion of love and lust, but an understanding of freedom, and the difference between acting out of belief or faith, especially in religion, and acting out of blind obedience. I thought the ending was perfectly played out. There was some strong language, but for the most part it was a pretty clean read. This was a book that left me thinking, even after I turned the last page.


Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Famous in Love

Famous in Love (Famous #1)
by Rebecca Serle
Little, Brown and Company, 2014. 320 pages. Young adult fiction.

Paige Townsend's whole life turns around when she is chosen as the female lead in a major Hollywood motion picture, the film version of a wildly popular teen series. Soon she's left Portland to spend the next two months shooting in Hawaii...with teen heartthrob Rainer Devon. But tensions rise when the third lead is chosen - Jordan Wilder, who used to be Rainer's good friend until girl trouble breaks them apart. How will Paige deal with the mounting tensions on set and her complicated feelings for both her co-stars?

Serle has done a great job of taking what could be a very overdone plot and making it engaging and original. I certainly did not see the cliff hanger at the end and wondered up until the last pages how she was going to turn this into a series. I really enjoyed Paige and am interested to see how she deals with fame as the series goes forward.


Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Always a Catch

Always a Catch
by Peter Richmond
Philomel Books, 2014. 280 pages. Young adult fiction.

When Jack's father decides to send him to Oakhurst, a prestigious boarding school, for his senior year, Jack is just going along for the ride. But he decides that maybe Oakhurst is his chance to try new things. Which is why, instead of going out for the soccer team or the track team, places where he's already excelled, he decides to try out for football - a sport he's never played. His pianist hands stand him in good stead and get him a third-string spot on the varsity team. But at varsity the stakes are high and the pressure to take steroids - especially as the smallest on the team - are huge.

Overall, I thought there were some things about this book that were very successful. First, it takes a hard look at the doping culture that surrounds athletes and shows that players can make decisions that are based on reason and fact, rather than peer pressure. Jack also thinks seriously about the drug culture that is a part of most schools - especially boarding schools - and makes a decision that, no matter what happens elsewhere, drugs and alcohol should not drive the things that are the most important to him, like his music. And the book stays pretty firmly in the middle of the adult-teenager power balance - the adults are not always making good decisions, but the teens don't always know better than the adults, either. My biggest struggle was getting invested in the culture itself, but that might have as much to with the fact that I have never been a teenage boy as with the writing. The book did include a lot of strong language. Overall, this was an interesting book that said a lot about the power teens have to make good choices on their own if they are taught how to think about what they are doing, rather than just react to arbitrary rules.


Bertie's Guide to Life and Mothers

Bertie's Guide to Life and Mothers (44 Scotland Street #9)
by Alexander McCall Smith
Anchor Books, 2015. 295 pages. Fiction.

Fan's of McCall Smith's series will love getting back on Scotland Street to see what is happening now with some of their favorite characters. At the center of it all, Bertie is finally turning seven - one year closer to turning 18 and being old enough to escape his mother's machinations by running to that bastion of freedom: Glasgow. At the same time, Angus and Domenica welcome (albeit half-heartedly) Antonia to their flat for a 3-week vacation with Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna, a nun from the convent where Antonia went to recover from her bout with Stendahl Syndrome. Pat finds true love in a coffee bar. Bruce meets an over-eager waxologist. Matthew and Elspeth decide to hire an au pair to assist their au pair in caring for their young triplets. And Big Lou discovers that love can be found in a wide variety of places.

Readers of Alexander McCall Smith know that his books are all about the journey - and this is a journey that does not disappoint. He manages to find beauty and humor in the mundane, which is what makes his characters so easy to relate to. This is sometimes a slow and thoughtful read, but a joy to dip into every time.


The Mistletoe Promise

The Mistletoe Promise
by Richard Paul Evans
Simon & Schuster, 2014. 251 pages. Fiction.

Elise Dutton is not looking forward to another holiday season alone, but a proposition from a lawyer working in her building promises to change everything. Lawyer Nicholas Derr needs someone to be his plus one at all the various holiday parties he needs to attend. And thus is born the Mistletoe Promise - a contract for a feigned relationship, set to end at midnight on Christmas Eve. But as Elise gets to know Nick and appreciate being cherished again, will her long-hidden secret come back to destroy it all?

I checked this book out on the recommendation of a friend and picked it up one night, planning to read just a chapter or two. I ended up reading the whole thing. The whole premise is straight out of a romance novel, but what sets the book apart is the depth of the feeling Evans explores with his characters, and the themes of loss, repentance, and forgiveness. This is a story that will not only have you cheering for Elise and Nick as a couple, but that will also have you hoping that Elise can find peace in her heart, despite the tragedy in her past, and learn to love herself and allow herself to be loved again. This was a beautifully touching story of redemption.


The Brickmaker's Bride

The Brickmaker's Bride (Refined by Love #1)
by Judith Miller
Bethany House Publishers, 2014. 346 pages. Romance.

After her father is killed in the Civil War, Laura Woodfield and her mother are forced to sell their profitable brick making business to a pair of Irish immigrants seeking their fortunes in the New World. Ewan McKay came over to be the manager of his uncle's new purchase, with a view to becoming a partner in the business as soon as things start to look up. But will Ewan's rascally uncle keep his promises?

Miller has created an interesting premise that is full of unexpected turns and faith-promoting experiences for her characters. There is also a lot of detail on how bricks were made in the Civil War era, which was interesting. Most importantly, her characters were well drawn and empathetic. Ewan's aunt and uncle may have been a touch over the top, but they were good foils for the goodness of everyone around them. Overall, this was a great read for a Sunday afternoon.


Friday, March 13, 2015

The Moment of Everything

The Moment of Everything
by Shelly King
Grand Central Publishing, 2014. 274 pages. Fiction.

Maggie, who was recently fired from the Silicon Valley startup she helped create, has been spending her days at the Dragonfly, devouring every romance novel she can get her hands on and putting off finding another high-powered tech job. Until her friend Dizzy decides to get involved, telling her to come to a corporate book club with a copy of Lady Chatterley's Lover and her best schmoozing skills. Little does she know that the copy of the book she picks up from the Dragonfly is full of love notes between an anonymous Henry and Catherine, weaving a love story in the margins of the Lawrence classic. As Maggie starts to hunt for Henry and Catherine, will she find at the same time the things that are most important to her?

I am conflicted even now writing a review of this book. I thought the premise was interesting and it has a lot of good reviews. For some reason, though, I had a really hard time getting into this one. Maybe it was the prose - it seemed a little too overdone at times. Or maybe it was Maggie - I had a hard time relating to her. Or maybe it was just me. But the thing about this book is that it did make me think. And I've seen reviews from regular book lovers online who found this to be the best book they've read all year. It seems to have a polarizing effect on readers - either you love it or you don't, but there's no middle ground. So my advice might be to take my recommendation with a grain of salt and give it a try, if the premise sounds interesting to you. You might just discover a gem.


Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Catch a Falling Star

Catch a Falling Star
by Kim Culbertson
Point, 2014. 300 pages. Young adult fiction.

Carter Moon is planning on having a normal summer working in her dad's sandwich shop in sleepy Little, CA. That is, until a movie crew comes into town with a troubled teen lead as the star attraction. Carter's normal is turned upside down by a job offer from Adam Jakes' manager - to be his small-town tabloid girlfriend during the shoot to improve his image. But as Carter takes Adam around town in full view of the paparazzi, is she in danger of losing her heart to a heartthrob?

This was a fun, light summer read. I really liked Culbertson's characters and enjoyed the whole romance of the situation. And she put in some elements - such as Carter's troubled brother's gambling addiction - that keep from being a completely unbelievable piece of romantic fluff. The book is as much about Carter learning about herself and what she wants in life as it is about whether she and Adam have a future together. This is a fun book that will also get you thinking about what your dreams and ambitions are and how you can achieve them.


All Fall Down

All Fall Down (Embassy Row #1)
by Ally Carter
Scholastic, 2015. 310 pages. Young adult fiction.

Grace hasn't been back to her grandfather's embassy in Adria since she saw her mother killed three years previously. Haunted by memories of her mother and the Scarred Man who killed her, Grace is on a mission to find out what really happened that night and make the criminal pay for his actions. With the help of her new friends on Embassy Row, Grace finally has a chance of succeeding. But will she be able to handle the information she finds?

Unlike most Ally Carter series, which start out light and get more intense as the series goes on, this one throws you right in the deep end. Grace is very emotionally disturbed by her experiences and the book leaves you guessing right until the end whether she really saw the Scarred Man kill her mother or whether this is all the product of a disturbed mind. The book was gripping and intriguing and I am fascinated to see where she goes with the sequel (and would really like to be able to start reading it tomorrow!).


Saturday, March 7, 2015

The Magician's Lie

The Magician's Lie
by Greer Maccallister
Sourcebooks Landmark, 2015. 312 pages. Fiction.

Before an audience's eyes, a man is magically hewn in half and then restored to life. Hours later, the magician's husband is found beaten and murdered. When Officer Virgil Holt miraculously finds Arden, the famous illusionist herself, running from the scene of the crime he takes her into his small country jail to find out the truth. In an attempt to save her life, Arden tells the story of her rise to fame. But is Arden telling the truth, or covering up her crime?

This is a fascinating historical conundrum that reads a lot like The Night Circus and Water for Elephants, detailing the magic industry at the turn of the century. Arden weaves an interesting narrative, judiciously interrupted by Officer Holt in the present, his thoughts reflecting the readers' questions about whether they can believe Arden or not. Although there were times when the narrative style strained at credulity at times (it seemed improbable that Arden would share some of the details she did), Maccallister's tale is both fast-paced and intricate, leaving readers to wonder what is truth and what is illusion until the very end.


Friday, March 6, 2015

Two Girls Staring at the Ceiling

Two Girls Staring at the Ceiling
by Lucy Frank
Schwartz & Wade Books, 2014. 259 pages. Young adult fiction.

Shannon and Chess are two very different girls brought together in a hospital room fighting Crohn's disease. For Chess it is a book of firsts: first time in the hospital, first major diagnosis. Shannon, on the other hand, has been in and out of hospitals since she was ten. This book shows the unlikely bond that forms between the girls as they spend seven days in the same room, staring at the ceiling.

Told entirely in verse, the book is really unique. The author uses a line to show the curtain separating the two girls' beds and the reader reads across the line to get the feel of two girls talking through a curtain. It was amazing to see how involved I became with the girls even with so little actual text to read. While the book has some moments of real beauty and poignancy in the verse and the formatting, there were also times when the writing seemed a bit overwrought or where the stylistic conventions didn't work for me. So, while not a perfect piece of writing, it was still interesting and moving. A great example of a book that works outside of the norm.


Hung Up

Hung Up
by Kristen Tracy
Simon Pulse, 2014. 282 pages. Young adult fiction.

Have you ever called a wrong number and just started a conversation? That is exactly what happens to Lucy and James, who from a series of wrong number phone calls start to form a friendship. James keeps wanting to meet in person, but Lucy has a secret that makes her hesitate. Can she trust James enough to share the things she keeps from everyone?

Tracy takes an interesting premise in this book and creates some fun characters. I enjoyed seeing James and Lucy interact (and wished I were half as witty in person). Told entirely in the form of phone calls and voicemail messages, the book reads quickly. The only real quibble I had with it was that the read was so fast I often had a hard time believing the depth of their friendship because it was hard to track the passing of time. Other than that, it was a fun read.


Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Nora Webster

Nora Webster
by Colm Toibin
Scribner, 2014.  373 pgs.  Fiction

Nora Webster is the character-driven story of an Irish woman recently widowed who must figure out how to live on without her husband. With two grown girls away, and two young boys at home, Nora must for the first time since her marriage deal with finances, finding a place for her singular self in the world, care for her family, and her own grief and that of her children. She must take a job again, under the supervision of a woman she bullied as a girl, sell their summer cottage by the sea, find a way to advise her older girls without pushing them away, care for her little ones. Nora is not always a sympathetic character - she is often blind to the grief of others, and unsympathetic to bothersome or foolish people. But her growth through the course of the novel, as she makes a new life for herself by embracing what she once loved, and seeing and helping her children in new ways, makes Nora Webster a subtle but powerful narrative. Designated one of the New York Times' notable books of 2014.


Tenth of December: Stories

Cover image for Tenth of December : storiesTenth of December: Stories
by George Saunders
Random House, 2013. 251 pages. Fiction.

Tenth of December is a glittering collection of borderline absurdest stories that feel almost like a new breed of post modern fairy tales. The stories deal with modern themes of consumerism, capitalism, environmentalism, and others, through primarily domestic situations set slightly in the future. Saunders' style of writing is at first somewhat disorienting using truncated grammar (one story is completely void of definite articles like "the"), and starting most stories in the middle of an unfamiliar situation that the reader slowly comes to understand as they struggle through. But the payoff is worth is. The stories are biting, funny, heartbreaking, and pose interesting and difficult moral, philosophical questions about modern life. His style won't be for everyone, but if you enjoy modern, literary reads, this might be up your alley. ZB

The Lowland

Cover image for The lowland : a novelThe Lowland
by Jhumpa Lahiri
Alfred A. Knopf, 2013. 339 pages. Fiction

The lowland is a swampy area between two small lakes that flood during the monsoon season in a quite neighborhood in Calcutta where two brothers, two years apart, grow up as best friends. However, as the boys enter adulthood, their distinct personalities lead them on different paths; Udayan becomes deeply involved in a violent Maoist political movement, and secretly marries a girl of his own choosing. Meanwhile the older brother Subhash pursues a PhD in the United States. The brothers maintain a tenuous relationship via letters, but remain constantly in one another's thoughts. One day Subhash receives the news that Udayan has been killed by the police, and comes home to find his parents numb and grief stricken, and Udayan's widow pregnant and living as a servant in his childhood home. He rashly decides to marry his brother's widow to provide her a new life, and become a father to his niece.

Lahiri is a talented story teller, and weaves a heart wrenching story of a family that slowly unravels through a series of tragic events, and then with future generations begins to find some healing and redemption. The characters are complex and compelling--sometimes so relate-able and sometimes utterly baffling. As she slowly shifts between each perspective you build a deeper understanding of each person's choices, and find a degree of empathy for them. This is a character driven story that moves at a stoic pace over several decades. ZB

Everything I Never Told You

Cover image for Everything I never told you : a novelEverything I Never Told You
by Celeste Ng
Penguin Press, 2014. 297 pages. Fiction.

The sudden and unexpected death of 16 year old Lydia Lee sends her bi-racial family into an emotional tailspin as they each try to figure out how their seemingly close knit family could have missed the emotional turmoil Lydia felt, that lead to her untimely end. Ng slowly leads the reader from the nearly picture perfect surface of this complex family, through deeper and deeper levels of understanding of the false perceptions, projections, and miss-communication that lurked beneath the surface. The novel deals with themes of race, belonging, expectations, failed dreams, and the difficult dynamics that result as these issues span relationships and generations.

This is not a happy book, as one may ascertain by the themes, but it is a well crafted and captivating read. While at certain points I found some of the relationships slightly one dimensional or over wrought (the mother completely misunderstands Lydia because she is so focused on Lydia becoming the doctor she never was), overall the ideas and complex family dynamics Ng is able to explore are thought provoking and speak experiences that we all struggle with to some extent in our family and personal lives. ZB

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Dandelion Field

The Dandelion Field
by Kathryn Springer
Zondervan, 2014. 341 pages. Romance.

Ginevieve Lightly has never stayed in one place too long. Abandoned by her husband and left to bring up her daughter Raine on her own, Gin has never felt safer than when she is on the road, with no hope of making connections with someone who could hurt her again. She only stays in Bannister Falls when Raine begs her to allow her to finish her senior year at the same high school. But when Raine suddenly becomes pregnant, Gin's life falls apart. Will she be able to let down her walls and let people - including a handsome firefighter - into her life again?

This was a sweet book that looks at some really tough issues. How does a faith-based community handle a situation that is outside of their faith? How do repentance and forgiveness play an active role in our lives? How do people who have been hurt learn to trust again? Springer has created some believable characters who make you want to find the answers to these questions (as well as finding out if Gin will allow herself fall in love with the handsome firefighter). This is a story that is both entertaining and thought-provoking.


I Was Here

I Was Here
by Gayle Forman
Viking, 2015. 270 pages. Young adult fiction.

Meg Garcia had been Cody Reynolds' best friend for as long as she could remember. So it came as a complete shock to receive an email from Meg only months after she left for college, announcing that she had killed herself. In shock and grief, Cody sets out to discover what happened to Meg in the last few months of her life in an attempt to understand how the unthinkable could have happened.

Since I read this book so close to Jennifer Levin's All the Bright Places, which deals with a similar subject matter, it is natural in my mind to compare the two books. While Levin talked explored the state of mind of teens who were contemplating suicide, Forman looks more at how suicide effects those who are left behind. She also explores a growing and disturbing trend for those who are contemplating suicide to look for online support groups - groups that support the victim's decision to end their own lives, instead of encouraging them to live. But, in the end, the focus of the book is less on Meg and what causes her to commit suicide and more on Cody and her emotional journey to learn that Meg's death was not her fault. This is a heartbreaking and emotional book that explores some very important topics: suicide, grief, depression, guilt, and forgiveness. The book does have some strong language and sexual themes.


Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death

Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death
by James Runcie
Bloomsbury, 2012. 392 pages. Mystery.

Grantchester, 1954. Sidney Chambers, a rural vicar, canon at the cathedral, and a part-time lecturer at Cambridge, can't seem to keep from getting involved in criminal investigations, much to the disgust of his housekeeper. From theft and kidnapping to murder, Canon Chambers discovers that he has a unique gift to delve into a problem and find solutions to some of the most baffling mysteries sleepy Grantchester has seen.

Runcie's stories have just been brought to life by the BBC in their new PBS series Grantchester and, having seen the show and read the book, I think they've done a creditable job. What makes Sidney Chambers so likeable (and unique, when it comes to sleuthing clergymen) is his complete humanity. He never comes across as sanctimonious, but he deeply believes in a Christian life and struggles between his calling to trust his fellow man and the nature of the crimes he sees. His inner battle to be normal (he loves jazz and hates dry sherry) while participating fully in his professional duties is almost of as much interest as the mysteries themselves. Whether the BBC continues the series or not, I think these will be books worth keeping your eye on.


Queen of Hearts

Queen of Hearts (Royal Spyness #8)
by Rhys Bowen
Berkley Hardcover, 2014. 295 pages. Mystery.

When Lady Georgiana's mother decides to run across the pond to Reno, NV for a "quickie" divorce, Georgie is happy to go with to keep her company. Things start to look even better when she meets up with her boyfriend, Darcy, on the boat as he keeps a look out for a particularly elusive jewel thief. But when Georgie's mother is lured off to Hollywood by a slick-talking movie producer, will Georgie find herself investigating murder on the big screen?

Bowen has created some delightful characters in her Royal Spyness series and this latest volume is a good deal of fun. It is especially interesting to see her take on America and Hollywood in the 1930s.