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.