Monday, June 16, 2008

The Sugar Queen by Sarah Addison Allen

Another delight from Allen - absolutely delicious fun with a dash of danger. Josey Cirrini was evidently a very disagreeable child, as her mother frequently reminds her. She, consequently, OWES the imperious Margaret Cirrini big time, as Josey is also frequently reminded, and must cater to the woman's every demand. Her only act of mini-rebellion is to keep a secret cache of comforting junk food stashed in her bedroom closet, while the only love in her life is a secret crush on the mailman. Josey's life is pretty dull and predictable until she discovers Della Lee, the sassy, bleached blond waitress from the Eat and Run, sitting on her closet floor, looking wet and smelling of cigarette smoke and river water. Della Lee makes it clear that she's not leaving and tells Josey that she should wear makeup. With Della Lee residing in the closet, Josey's life begins to change. It's almost as if Della Lee is a fairy godmother of sorts - well, this IS a Sara Addison Allen book.
Della Lee urges Josey to seek out Chloe Finley. Chloe, who possesses a unique relationship with books ( they appear from nowhere on just the topic she needs and follow her until she pays attention to them), has serious relationship problems. Her longtime boyfriend just confessed to a one night stand with a woman whose name he won't reveal. Another dangerous, but extremely attractive, man adds tension to the plot. Josey and Chloe become friends and, with a little supernatural help, Josey finally gets the nerve to wear red. Loved it!

Monday, May 26, 2008

Popcorn trio

Natural Born Charmer - Susan Elizabeth Phillips - A Greek-god handsome NFL superstar, a feisty girl in a Beaver costume, an aging rock star and a former groupie - all find love and trust in a small Tennessee town. Throw in an eleven year-old who just lost her mother and you've got a warm and fuzzy story that will leave you warm and happy at its end. A real charmer. Whenever you're feeling down and out, Phillips picks you right up.

Heart Sick - Chelsea Cain - A killer is stalking teenage girls in Portland Oregon. To solve the case and stop the killing, detective Archie Sheridan consults Gretchen Lowell, one of the nastiest psychopaths ever to appear in print. For ten years Archie had tracked a mass murderer, only to become her victim, tortured for days and almost losing his life. He finds he is still her captive in a sick dance of psychological bondage. Heart Sick is not only about Archie's current case, but also about his own scars, both internal and external. Gripping, but not for the squeamish.

What the Dead Know - Laura Lippman- A woman involved in a hit-and-run accident claims to be one of the two Bethany sisters who disappeared from a shopping mall decades earlier . The more police probe her story, the more questions arise. The woman is not completely forthcoming, erratically doling out hints and small details. Is she who she claims to be and if she is, what happened to her sister? Taut with expectation and suspense, delivering a real ending twist.

Mudbound by Hillary Jordan

Powerful. Mudbound is a book with staying power, creating images and emotions that resonate long after the last page is read. Laura, a proper city girl, was resigned to spinsterhood until she meets and marries Henry McAllan. Henry had gone to college and was a successful engineer in Memphis, but his real dream was to farm his own land. He buys some property and takes Laura away from Memphis and her family to an isolated Mississippi Delta farmhouse without indoor plumbing, a place Laura names "Mudbound." "When it rained, as it often did, the yard turned into a thick gumbo, with the house floating in it like a soggy cracker." Not only is her life now a never ending cycle of "pumping, churning, scouring,scraping. And cooking," Laura must also share her small farm house with Henry's racist, redneck father. The old man embodies bigotry and ignorance.

World War II has just ended, and two young veterans return to the Delta: Jamie, Henry's charming younger brother, and Ronsel, the son of black tenant farmers. Even though black soldiers had fought in the war, serving with honor, they were isolated in segregated companies and encountered unchanged attitudes of racial prejudice and hatred when they came home. The tensions created by these hatreds curl sharp talons of danger and brutality around life in the small community.
The book begins with the two brothers burying their father's body in the mud. The story unfolds through six different voices, six different viewpoints. Jordan makes each voice distinct and identifiable. She masterfully uses language to define her characters. Mudbound is a story of love, betrayal, and evil. A rarity - a thought-provoking historical page-tuner with three-dimensional, unforgettable characters. One the best - right up there with To Kill a Mockingbird.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Girls in Trucks by Katie Crouch

The minute I read the first review, I knew I HAD to get my hands on this book. Reading the dust jacket - "Meet Sarah Walters, a Charleston debutante with questionable manners and an inherited weakness for bad ideas" - I felt a tremendous shock of recognition. Granted I was from Atlanta, but take it from me, this book rings so true I was transported back to another time and place. Charleston society was Atlanta times 3 - or 4. In the South, Charleston is the top of the heap, the grand dame of southern gentility and manners. Southerners care about and know who your great-great-great grandfather was and adhere to a convoluted set of social rules. The society Crouch depicts really existed and still lives. Her setting is drawn with detail that truly conveys the place - not only the town with its hot, sticky summers and old homes, but also the stifling "old family" milieu.
Sarah is a Camellia. She is the daughter of an old family, so she is a Camellia by birth, and as she says, "once a Camellia, always a Camellia," whether you really want it or not. So true, so true. With charm and wit, Crouch unfolds the story of a small group of girls as they grow up, leave, but never entirely get away from their Camellia roots. Crouch gives us romance with a dark edge and endings that, while not necessarily happy, are very satisfying. Sarah and her friends (by birth but not by choice) leave Charleston with relief, liberated, going "North" to college and escaping the strictures of a culture built on rules for proper behavior. (Southerners really do say "yes, ma'am.") They build new lives around the inheritance of their past, like setting furniture around a large elephant in the living room. Most of the book relates what happens to these Charleston flowers after they leave home. The plot is not sugar-coated and what happens to the Camellias easily flows from the background and story structure.
Highly recommended for the Southern Reading Challenge. A great summer book. I could almost taste the sweet tea.
Reviewed by Vidalia - Cotillon member and graduate of the Margaret Bryan school of ballroom dance, where you would have found me (step ball step), maybe, on row four, a little confused about why I was there. (one, two, cha, cha, cha)

Sunday, May 4, 2008

The Girl Who Stopped Swimming by Joshilyn Jackson

I had read, and enjoyed, Jackson's Between, Georgia; so, upon hearing that she had written a new book, I immediately placed a hold request at the library. While I wasn't disappointed and found the plot compelling, the tone of The Girl Who Stopped Swimming is much darker than that of its predecessor.
Laurel Hawthorne thought she had eluded the ghosts that haunted her, but after 13 specter-free years, she abruptly awakens in the middle of the night to find the spirit of a drowned girl in her bedroom and the body of her daughter's best friend floating in the swimming pool. Laurel is convinced she sees a shadowy figure run from the yard. Concluding that a neighbor with suspicious habits was the shadow and that he was somehow involved in Molly's death, Laurel sets out to prove her hypothesis with the aid of her free-spirited, but acidly honest, sister, Thalia. She also suspects that her daughter Shelby knows more that she is telling. Intertwined with Molly's drowning are memories of Laurel's uncle Marty, shot by her father on a hunting trip.
As in Between, Georgia, Jackson highlights the chasm separating southern social classes. The impoverished "white trash" are both to be pitied and feared. Her portrayal of Laurel's mother's hometown, DeLop, shows rotten roots that the family has tried to ignore. Ignorance and want. Secret upon secret, fortified with steady denial, has created a fragile illusion of family stability.
The Girl Who Stopped Swimming is a mystery, a domestic drama, and a social portrayal.
Jackson considers the question of nature versus nurture in both books. With the character of Bet Clemmens, a young cousin visiting for the summer, we see the damage caused by environment.
Yes, this book is a page-turner, but after the mysteries were solved, the characters and the questions remained.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Blasphemy by Douglas Preston

I've been doing books and taxes for the family, in addition to my job, so I've fallen way behind in my blogging. All work and no fun; so, now I'm playing catch-up. Whine, whine. Some books I call "popcorn reading" because they are fun and quick to consume, while providing a minimum of nutritional value - which isn't to say that popcorn reading lacks worth, just that it's really not brain food, and there's nothing really wrong with that. Reading should be enjoyable. One of my favourite types of "popcorn" is chick lit. And some popcorn actually provides food for thought, like Mitch Albom's books, but absorption doesn't require much effort and the thoughts come easily. The thriller category also has a preponderance of popcorn. And with Blasphemy, you get the jumbo sized popcorn with a candy bar. Think movie. This was an ultimate popcorn experience. At Red Mesa, Arizona, tunnelled deep inside the mountains, mad(?) genius Gregory North Hazelius heads up the government-funded Isabella Project. Isabella, the most super supercomputer ever built, is at the heart of a mammoth, enormously powerful particle accelerator built to smash together subatomic particles, unleashing energies last created during the Big Bang. We dive immediately into intimations of danger - what if Isabella creates a black hole? The first run - Isabella is not responding as anticipated - Hazelius insists on continuing - and then, as Isabella and the particles scream in the tunnels - contact with another being. What is this being - the work of a hacker or maybe God? Add to the plot: Wyman Ford, ex-CIA, sent by the US government to find out what is really going on; Navajos protesting the mega project in their backyard; Reverend Don T. Spates, a slimy fundamentalist preacher experiencing sagging revenues; and Pastor Russ Eddy, one of the scariest religious fanatics I've ever met in print. There's blasphemy of all kinds in this book as well as fanatics of all persuasions who converge at Red Mesa. Can science be perverting our humanity or are the scientists showing the way to God? It all comes to a, well, roaring conclusion. Most enjoyable, easily consumed, and yes, thought-provoking.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Crazy School by Cornelia Read

Santangelo Academy is unique - a crazy school for crazy teens and their equally crazy teachers. The students all have "behavioral problems" (like beating people) and are on medication. The teachers too have past "issues." Madeline Dare, the newest teacher, has a secret or two herself. The headmaster, guru, chief therapist, David Santangelo incorporates some rather unconventional techniques into his educational philosophy. His methods are dubious, to say the least. Two students die in an apparent joint suicide after a party (I use the term, "party," loosely, because Santangelo Academy is not a partying place) - or, as Madeline suspects, was it murder? She, too, drank the punch and became extremely ill - was it poisoned and by whom? I really like Madeline Dare. She's strong, resilient and quick with an acerbic comeback. I thoroughly enjoyed Read's snappy dialogue and her feel for the setting and context of her characters. And, for once, I didn't guess everything before the end. A fresh, new find for me. I had fun - and that's a good thing! Think I'll try her other Dare book - Field of Darkness.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Gentlemen & Players by Joanne Harris

It's a new school year at St Oswald's Grammar School for Boys, bringing with it the annual batch of new teachers, one of whom is a relentless psychopath intent on destroying this bastion of upperclass education. Roy Straitley - eccentric, intelligent, beloved Classics instructor - has been a fixture at St Oswald's for almost thirty years. Devoted to the school and to his boys, Straitley eventually is the only obstacle preventing the ultimate ruin of the school, staff and students. The story unfolds through three voices:
  • Straitley
  • the malicious, vengeful and cunning new arrival
  • Snyde, the child that the once was our villain
Gentlemen & Players underscores the class differences inherent in the British social system - differences that the young Snyde felt acutely and that produced the monster plotting the utter annihilation of St Oswald's and those who love it. Snyde's story is particularly riveting, and the mystery as to the identity of the grown-up evil-doer is maintained until the very end. Straitley's voice is truly a treat to read - he's a witty, stubborn old luddite with a soft heart. Harris' writing really brings him to life. I could hear his accent and inflections as I read the words on the page. Gentlemen is beautifully composed. Characterization is excellent, the plot is compelling and if you're not really, really attentive to detail, the end is quite surprising.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Devil's Labyrinth by John Saul

Let's see - a creepy Catholic school; a dark, winding labyrinth under said school; a secret, seriously creepy, chapel; rites of exorcism; possessed, de-possessed and re-possessed teens, both male and female; a troubled 15-year old boy; some yicky scenes with garbage, rats, and a decomposing body; a fanatical priest; an heirloom artifact; the Pope; a terrorist plot. Really over-the-top. A messy stew. My first book by John Saul - will not repeat the experience. I found it really easy to figure out who the bad guy or guys were while wading through blood and gore which made it all not just yucky, but boring - yuckily boring. Oh for Pete's sake, blow up them all up and get it over with! Horrific, but, for me, not horror at its best.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

When Europeans discovered the New World, they triggered "fuku americanus" (or just "fuku"), a demon curse and doom brought down upon North America and particularly potent in the Dominican Republic. Diaz' book is a truly North American tale, weaving together both Spanish and English, in the story of one Dominican family pursued by implacable fuku.
Obese, nerdy, and ultimately winsome, Oscar wants passionate, true love, but he can't even get a girl to kiss him. In a culture priding itself on the romantic prowess of its menfolk, Oscar is a failure. He's a computer-game geek with no sex appeal. But, this is not just Oscar's life story, it is also that of his sister, his mother and his grandfather, and of the Dominican Republic under the bloody shadow of Trujillo. Oscar, a first-generation citizen of the USA, lives in New Jersey, but his fuku, his roots, are deeply in the DR.
Until I went to Puerto Plata as a tourist, I couldn't even find the DR on a map, had no idea that Santo Domingo is the oldest city of the New World, and outside of a couple of baseball players, did not even know that the USA was home to a large Dominican community. In language liberally flavored with urban swagger and Spanish slang, on pages peppered with explanatory footnotes, Diaz gives us the fusion and separation of two Americas.
Reading this book was an experience - it was totally different from anything I had ever read before. I'm going to be a really poor reviewer here because I think Walter Mosley expressed it so eloquently in his statement on the book's back jacket cover - I'm just going to quote him: ". . . a masterpiece about our New World, its myths, curses and bewitching women . . . it is a rousing hymn about the struggle to defy bone-cracking history with ordinary, and extraordinary, love." So well-put and I couldn't agree more.

Falling Man by Don DeLillo

Literary equivalent of watching a movie filmed with a hand-held camera. Choppy scenes - immediate feel of being there as the trauma of the past bleeds into the present. Keith Neudecker stumbles out of the dust and carnage of the World Trade Center and back into his estranged wife's life. Sooty, bloody, clutching a stranger's briefcase, he arrives on Lianne's doorstep. DeLillo shows the impact of 9-11 on North American society through Keith, his family and acquaintances. In the last chapter, after exploring how the trauma has affected the national psyche (Lianne develops a hatred-tinged paranoia focusing on her Muslim neighbor, her mother ends a long-standing relationship because of her lover's political views, Keith has an affair and becomes a professional gambler), DeLillo shows us what happened to Keith when the plane hit his tower. Along the way, he has also intertwined the story of Hamad, one of the hijackers, relating 9-11 from his viewpoint. DeLillo manages to make it all work to create a picture of things changed forever in a moment. It's a strangely detached tale, told through isolated conversations and snippets of events. I felt as though the book was remote and somewhat cold and the characters like paper dolls. A shadow play. Not really my favorite style, but I can appreciate DeLillo's mastery and do see why he had garnered accolades. But, I just couldn't get involved with the characters and was glad when I reached the last chapter.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Thin Place by Kathryn Davis

It is almost impossible to give a plot synopsis of The Thin Place. A lot happens, but it's mysterious and mystical, and not easily grasped or categorized. This is a really original book - the tone is lyrical and mesmerizing. People and animals have voices and exert equal impact in Davis' universe - three young girls, beloved dogs, an old woman, a couple, a tenacious beaver - all have stories here. There are deaths and near deaths as she paints the mundane with a magic brush. The Thin Place, found at no identifiable location, existing at the periphery of our limited vision, is where past and present mingle, while life and death are an infinite mesh of time and place. Davis gives us metaphysical snapshots of humans and animals sliding in and around time and space.

Friday, January 18, 2008

The Devil of Nanking by Mo Hayder

I have used the word "charming" in my last two reviews. Perhaps it was weak writing on my part to rely on the same word in back to back reviews, but I felt totally justified given the fact that my last two selections are, well, completely charming. I can assure you that I won't be using that word to describe The Devil of Nanking. Gripping, riveting, fascinating - yes - a compelling, grab-you-by-the-throat-page-turner - oh, yes. Charming, delightful, soothing, lovely? Not even remotely. Devil is a magnificent thriller, but it's not for those who favor light reading.
The plot involves interlaced mysteries all with roots in one of the most horrific events of the 20th century - the 1937 "Rape of Nanking" by the invading Japanese army. Grey, a really, really disturbed young woman (believe me, she's really unbalanced), is obsessed with finding proof of something she read in an orange book that disappeared. She tracks down Shi Chongming, a university professor and survivor of the Nanking atrocities, because she thinks he possesses an old film that will prove the truth of what she read in her childhood and show that she was not insane, that whatever it was really happened. Shi Chongming, while not admitting that he has the film, sends Grey on a mission to discover what substance a vicious gangster, Fuyuki, consumes to stay alive. Hayder juggles mysteries, linking them as the plot unfolds one creepy, ghastly, step at a time.
  • What did Grey read?
  • Why was she committed to an asylum?
  • What happened to Shi Chongming and his wife during the 1937 horror?
  • What does the film show?
  • What is the medicine given to Fuyuki by his Nurse? (And who is the Nurse?)
  • Who is the Devil of Nanking?
The story alternates between Grey's trance-like account of her search and Shi Chongming's 1937 diary. Hayder takes you to the edge in each chapter, switching back and forth between voices, making it impossible to put down the book. Submerging the reader in a surreal atmosphere of evil, malevolence permeates the setting. While the ending came as no surprise, the powerful ride to the ultimate revelation of truth was great storytelling.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Blue Shoes and Happiness by Alexander McCall Smith

Charming. The perfect book to put your harried life into perspective. A bit of shelter from the frenzy of the modern treadmill. If you're feeling frazzled, a cup of tea and some time spent with Mma Precious Ramotswe will sooth your senses.

Mma Ramotswe, founder of the No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, solves mysteries - not murders, kidnappings or armed robberies, but little mysteries of everyday life. Her cases here focus on food stolen from a school, a doctor who apparently doesn't know how to take blood pressure, and the sudden uneasy atmosphere at a game preserve.
The joy in reading this series lies not just in finding out "whodunit," but in savouring the setting and visiting with Mma Ramotswe, Mma Makutsi (star graduate of the Botswana Secretarial School), and Mr J L B Matekoni (Precious' husband and master mechanic). As usual, there are many personal problems to contemplate at Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors. Mma Makutsi is engaged to Mr Radiphuti, but could her feminist views jeopardize their relationship? Can Mr Polopetsi and his rich uncle be reconciled? And, then there's Aunty Emang, the Dear Abby of The Daily News , whose answers seem overly curt. It's a trip to a simpler, quieter place where there's time to watch the small things, cogitate a bit and converse leisurely with others. A sweet balm for tense souls. It's also very nice to know that such places exist, as McCall Smith creates this world in loving, believable detail. Pick any book from the series - highly recommended.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Swim to Me by Betsy Carter

When I opened the NY Times yesterday morning and saw the big article about Weeki Wachee, I knew it was time to shake off my post-holiday lethargy and finally write a review for this charming book. Did you know some Weeki Wachee mermaids can hold their breath for 4 minutes, dive to over 100 feet below the surface and sometimes share their watery stage with alligators (real ones with teeth)? My family always spent some time each year in Florida. Usually, it was in the summer (Yankees went to Florida in the winter). In Atlanta folks either vacationed in the mountains or at the beach in the summer. We were beach people. In the early days we stayed at Robertson's Cottages in Panama City, FL, before there were any hotels, motels or tourist traps. Just a beach and ocean. Later our destination was Ponte Vedra, then Destin and eventually Sea Island, GA. I went to Weeki Wachee sometime in the 50's. It was pure magic for a little girl - and my dad seemed to enjoy the show very much, too. If you don't know about Weeki Wachee, go to - it's been an attraction since 1947.
PLOT: Delores Walker, just 17, boards a Greyhound bus in New York and heads for Weeki Wachee Springs with the dream of becoming a mermaid. Her parents have separated (a marriage "written in food stains" on the walls of their dingy Bronx apartment). Her father gone, her mother struggling with bills and a new baby, Delores' world is gray and hopeless. But Delores dares to chase her dream and, well, take the plunge into a new world alone. Soon, she's Delores Taurus, mermaid extraordinaire. While parts of the plot are the stuff of fantasy (I don't know if elephants ever participated in the underwater show at Weeki Wachee), the story is realistic enough to give hope that with a little luck and fair amount of courage, anyone can follow their bliss. Delores is a spunky heroine to cheer for - totally innocent, but focused on her goal and driven by her aspirations. Nothing can sink the girl! Swim to Me delivers dreams come true and the bright possibilities of life. Recommended for bringing sunshine to dark, dreary winter days.