Friday, November 30, 2007

Circles of Confusion by April Henry - SuziQ's review

Published: 1999
Genre: Mystery
Pages: 333

This one was added to my list when I was looking for Portland authors and settings for the Hometown Challenge. Since it’s also a new author, I’m substituting it in for the Unread Authors Challenge too.

Claire Montrose is leading a predictable life in Portland, Oregon. Although her job is unusual (approving or rejecting vanity license place applications for the Dept. of Motor Vehicles) she's been there long enough to be bored with it. When Claire's Aunt Cady dies and leaves everything to Claire, things become less predictable.

Aunt Cady didn't have much more than a trailer filled with junk, but under the bed, Claire finds an old suitcase containing a bracelet, her aunt's diary, some pamphlets from Nazi Germany and a small painting that takes her breath away. Claire's boyfriend is sure the painting is junk, but her roommate (an elderly survivor of Dachau) and a local antiques dealer are not so sure.

When Claire decides to take the painting to New York to research it's history and how her aunt came to possess it, she soon finds herself in the middle of a mystery and apparently in some serious danger.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It's a light cozy style mystery, but one that kept me entertained and turning the pages. I will most definitely be looking for and reading more of April Henry's Claire Montrose series.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Good Earth, by Pearl Buck - Wendy's Review

Moving together in perfect rhythm, without a word, hour after hour, he fell into a union with her which took the pain from his labor. He had no articulate thought of anything; there was only this perfect sympathy of movement, of turning this earth of theirs over and over to the sun, this earth which formed their home and fed their bodies and made their gods. The earth lay rich and dark, and fell apart lightly under the points of their hoes. Sometimes they turned up a bit of brick, a splinter of wood. It was nothing. Some time, in some age, bodies of men and women had been buried there, houses had stood there, had fallen, and gone back into the earth. So would also their house, some time, return to earth, their bodies also. Each had his turn at this earth. They worked on, moving together - together - producing the fruit of this earth - speechless in their movement together. -From The Good Earth, page 31-

Pearl Buck's novel The Good Earth was published in 1931 and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1932. It has been surrounded by controversy (mostly in China where Buck's work was banned for many years because of the perceived vilification of the Chinese people and their leaders). Having arrived in China as the child of missionaries, Buck grew to love the country. In 1935 she returned to the United States with hope of one day returning to the Orient...but this was never to be. She was denounced by the Chinese government in 1960 as "a proponent of American cultural imperialism." Later, just nine months before her death, her visa to return to the country of her childhood was denied. In 1938 she became the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize for literature. More about Buck's life and work can be found in this excellent article published by Mike Meyer of the New York Times.

The Good Earth is the saga of Wang Lung, who is a poor farmer dependent on the land for his survival, and his extended family. The novel begins with this complex character as a young man when he marries a slave girl, and then follows him as he grows into a man with a family and wealth beyond his imaginings. Wang Lung is a man with a compassionate heart. I was touched by the love of his children, especially that of his developmentally delayed oldest daughter who he calls "the poor fool." In one scene, the family is faced with starvation and Wang Lung gives up his own food for his daughter...something that would have been highly unusual at that time in China.

Only a few of the beans did Wang Lung hide in his own hand and these he put into his own mouth and he chewed them into a soft pulp and then putting his lips to the lips of his daughter he pushed into her mouth the food, and watching her small lips move, he felt himself fed. -From The Good Earth, page 85-

Later, as he gains wealth, Wang Lung loses his path - and his inner goodness is challenged.

Wang Lung's pragmatic wife O-Lan represents the strength of the Chinese women during a time when women were considered to be a man's possession and slave. Throughout the novel, the idea of the cyclical nature of life is repeated, establishing a natural rhythm for the story.

Buck writes in simple prose which reads more like the oral tradition of story telling than a novel. Her understanding of character is evident throughout - and no character is all good or all evil.

I immediately was captivated by Buck's story; and even though at times the abuse and mistreatment of women was hard to read, I found I could not put the book down for long.

Buck wrote two sequels to The Good Earth: Sons (1931) and A House Divided (1935). I have put both on my wish list for future reading.

The Good Earth is a book I can highly recommend for its insight into Chinese culture during the early part of the 20th century, and for its high readability. Rated 4.5/5.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Coldheart Canyon -Clive Barker

Listened to my first, and likely my last, Clive Barker book. Coldheart Canyon was an uneven humdinger. I was introduced to some interesting characters who were alternately crapweasels or heroes. I became exhausted at some of the sexual acrobatics of some (and I am not a prude by any stretch of the imagination) and felt the need to fastforward through sections at times. I was tempted to stop listening and return it unfinished to RecordedBooks, but I persevered. I had Thanksgiving week to rest from it and that likely helped. I am glad I stayed with the book until the end, the last tape was probably the best.

Favorite characters Katya: (EVIL) and Tammy (strong) and Maxine (tough broad)

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Doctor Zhivago - Wendy's Book Review

It snowed hard throughout the month
Of February, and almost constantly
A candle burned on the table;
A candle burned
-From the poems of Yurii Zhivago-

First published in Italy in 1957, Boris Pasternak's sweeping epic Doctor Zhivago stirred controversy in his native Russia. Set in Moscow and the Ural Mountains, the novel tells the story of a poet-physician whose life is defined by the Bolshevik Revolution and its aftermath. The novel's underlying criticism of the Bolshevik party led to it being banned until 1988 in Russia. When Pasternak was chosen for the esteemed Nobel Prize for Literature, his native Russians protested so much that the author declined the honor. Felt to be largely autobiographical, Doctor Zhivago reveals much about its author's philosophical ideology and personal life.

The novel opens with the suicide of Zhivago's father just before the Russian Revolution when Zhivago is still a young boy. Pasternak reveals early on that the novel will be about truth and sacrifice; about one man's beliefs and how he lives with his choices.

I think that if the beast who sleeps in man could be held down by threats - any kind of threat, whether of jail or of retribution after death - then the highest emblem of humanity would be the lion tamer in the circus with his whip, not the prophet who sacrificed himself. But don't you see, this is just the point - what has for centuries raised man above the beast is not the cudgel but an inward music: the irresistible power of unarmed truth, the powerful attraction of its example. -From Doctor Zhivago, page 42-

As the story develops, the reader is pulled into the life of Zhivago, who matures into a young man, loses his wealth, marries his childhood sweetheart, becomes embroiled in the fast accelerating revolution and finds Lara, his true love. The overriding theme of the novel is the importance of the individual vs. the rules of the state and the terror inflicted on the masses in the name of a political ideal.

Everything in Yura's mind was still helter-skelter, but his views, his habits, and his inclinations were all distinctly his own. He was unusually impressionable, and the originality of his vision were remarkable. -From Doctor Zhivago, page 64-

Pasternak writes prose like the poet he was - painting the chaos of the times on wide brush strokes of beautiful description.

Everything was fermenting, growing, rising with the magic yeast of life. The joy of living, like a gentle wind, swept in a broad surge indiscriminately through fields and towns, through walls and fences, through wood and flesh. Not to be overwhelmed by this tidal wave, Yurii Andreievich went out in the square to listen to the speeches. -From Doctor Zhivago, page 141-

Throughout the novel, the idea of fate - of being swept along with the tide of the times - is often repeated. Characters re-emerge in unusual ways, seemingly by coincidence - and yet we are left with the idea that some things cannot be chance and nothing is coincidental. The characters seem to be victims of the Soviet ideology.

"Let's try to think. Though what is there that we can do? Is it in our power to avert this blow? Isn't it a matter of fate?" -From Doctor Zhivago, page 409-

Most people think of Doctor Zhivago as a love story. The love between Lara and Yurii spins throughout the novel, and reminds the reader again about the power of the individual even during tumult and upheaval. But, calling Doctor Zhivago merely a love story would be undervaluing its bigger messages. The novel is full of wonderful passages and beautiful prose; and defines a generation of Russians during a cataclysmic time in history.

Certainly a classic and one which will stand the test of time - Doctor Zhivago is a must read for anyone who strives to better understand the Russian Revolution and who has a love of great literature.

Highly Recommended; rated 4.5/5.

Hissy Fit - Mary Kay Andrews

An inadvertant choice for Unread Authors, but it fits. I have never read Mary Kay Andrews and I will definitely be looking for and adding more of her work.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

The Wrong Man by John Katzenbach

What would you do if you find your daughter met an obsessive stalker who wouldn't let her out of his life? And how far would you go to save her before everything is too late and someone will be hurt? You will probably ask these questions if you read The Wrong Man.

Scott Freeman thinks her daughter has a secret admirer when he first picked up an unsigned note that read: No one could ever love you like I do. No one ever will. We were meant for each other and nothing will prevent that. Nothing. We will be together forever. One way or another. Being a college professor, he always tell himself to be rational, but the contents of the notes made him uneasy, so he decided to seek the truth with the help of his ex-wife, Sally and her partner, Hope.

Before this, Ashley supposed to have a wonderful life. She is a beautiful and bright history art student, but she made a mistake of having a fling with an attractive blue-collar bad boy one night and from then onwards, her life becomes a nightmare.

Michael O'Connell thinks he is in love with Ashley after the day he has met her. He wouldn't leave her alone and claims to make her his despite she has told him many times that their relationship wasn't anything but a one-night stand which didn't mean to be happened. He would make anyone's life miserable if one gets too close to her. Desperate, Ashley has no choice but to seek help from her father, whom in turn asked Sally and Hope for advice and opinions.

But they had underestimated Michael, for he is a clever and cunning young lad and has a vast knowledge of computer skills and others such as picking locks and so forth. Soon, they find themselves getting into serious trouble as Michael finds several ways in messing up their work life.

And when everything fails and they couldn't find enough evidence pointing towards Michael, that is the time that they decide to take things into their own hands and they will do anything to drive Michael out of their life, even though if it means someone has to die.

I felt I was riding on a roller coaster when reading The Wrong Man because I wouldn't know what to expect next. Although I find the story chilling, yet I was drawn to the intrigue and the excitement and can't wait to find out what would happen in the end. And the best part is, nothing beats the ending because it ends with a twist, and I didn't see it coming.

John Katzenbach has left me a deep impression with this book. I will definitely keep a look out for his other books in future.

(My original review can be found here.)

Monday, November 19, 2007

An Acquaintance With Darkness - Ann Rinaldi

It's YA and a great premise, but I was getting fed up with the spoiled brat main character. Glad to be done with it and moving on to something else.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Laura's Review - Wide Sargasso Sea

Wide Sargasso Sea
Jean Rhys
266 pages

First sentence: They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did.

Reflections: Wide Sargasso Sea is well-known as the "prequel" to Jane Eyre. Rhys tells the life story of Antoinette Mason, a Creole who becomes the mad woman in Jane Eyre. The story itself is quite short (113 pages). My copy, a Norton Critical Edition, contained considerable supplementary material. Relevant excerpts from Jane Eyre helped refresh my memory and made the necessary connections between the two books. An essay by Rachel Carson described the natural phenomenon of the Sargasso Sea. There were also several essays of literary criticism analyzing this work, and numerous letters written by Jean Rhys.

As the supplementary material indicates, this book has received considerable acclaim, and been the subject of widespread analysis. Although I found Wide Sargasso Sea to be a mildly interesting read, and enhanced certain aspects of Jane Eyre, it fell short of my expectations. It was interesting to consider how Mr. Rochester and Antoinette came together, but their relationship was poorly developed. The reasons for Antoinette's descent into madness were unclear, and I found it difficult to identify or sympathize with the characters. ( )

My original review can be found here.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

A Trouble of Fools by Linda Barnes

Published: 1987
Genre: Fiction
Pages: 203
Unread Authors Challenge #3

Carlotta Carlyle is a 6’ 1” tall redheaded former Boston cabdriver and ex-cop turned private investigator. Business has been slow, so when the elderly Margaret Devens shows up wanting someone to find her missing brother, Carlotta decides to take the case. When two thugs beat up Margaret and Carlotta finds out there’s a hidden pile of cash involved, it’s clear that this isn’t a run of the mill missing persons case.

It’s not that I’m scared. I can take care of myself. I grew up in Detroit and compared to the kids of the Motor City, most of the punks around here don’t know what tough means. I’m not scared of the streets. Maybe I’m afraid of the great I-Told-You-So. You know how it goes: “Gee, Carlotta, none of this would have happened if you’d had the sense to stay indoors.”
Carlotta is a fun character and I look forward to reading more of this series. This first book introduces us to characters from both of Carlotta’s former jobs – the cab company and the Boston police. There’s also a bit of a side story involving a young girl that Carlotta mentors through the “Big Brothers/Big Sisters” organization. It’s a quick and fun read.

Halfway - by SuziQ

I just joined the blog so here's a status report. I've read 3 of my 6 books for this challenge:

This was my original challenge post - I've linked my reviews for the first two books and will post a copy of my third here:

So – here I am with the Southern Reading Challenge recently completed and nearing completion of the Summer Mystery Challenge – that means there’s room for new challenges on the TBR list.

The Unread Authors Challenge is being sponsored at Sycorax Pine. It runs from September 1, 2007 through February 28, 2008. Participants need to read six books by authors they have never read before. I’m choosing to read six new-to-me authors (one a month for the duration of the challenge).

I’ve got a few unread authors already scheduled for other challenges, so rounding out the list with a few more from my ever-growing TBR list wasn’t difficult at all. One thing I can count on from my fellow bookbloggers is a never ending supply of new authors I want to read.

Books I’m planning for this one:
· Tess Gerritsen - The Surgeon
· Erica Spindler – Forbidden Fruit
· Linda Barnes – A Trouble of Fools
· Chris Bohjalian – Buffalo Soldier
· Cory McFayden – Shadow Man
· Robert Crais – The Monkey’s Raincoat

Song of the Sparrow

Sandell, Lisa Ann. 2007. Song of the Sparrow.

Song of the Sparrow is a wonderful verse novel that retells the story of Elaine the Lady of Shalott. While the literary tradition has her as beautiful but essentially weak and desperate, Sandell's Elaine is strong, brave, and while she, for a time, is lovesick on Lancelot, she is not too desperate or clingy. (Not, I'll die without his love desperate.) Meet Arthur, Elaine, Gwynivere, Lancelot, Tristan, and Gawain in this new telling of love and war. The poetry is powerful and quite effective in communicating the behind the scenes emotions as well as capturing the senses--especially the sights and sounds of battle camps and war.

Here is a snippet from the tenth chapter:

I wish I could go back to that time,
when my mother would smile
the gentle smile that told me,
all is right and well.
Back to that time when I was
and loved
and safe.
When we were all safe.

That things change,
that people change,
and die,
that we grow older,
that life brings the unexpected,
the unwanted,
some days it feels me with
a measure of lightness, for
I will be a woman soon.
But other days,
the very thought
of growing older,
of not being that small girl
who danced over river rocks,
whose brothers held her hands,
whose mother lived,
the very thought of it
crushes me,
till it is stopped,
by the world
my memories.

Total Constant Order

Chappell, Crissa-Jean. 2007. Total Constant Order.

Frances Isabelle Nash (Fin) is a teen under pressure. Within the past year, she's moved from Vermont to Florida, her parents have divorced, and she's feeling overwhelmed with urges to count and draw. These 'strange' compulsions to flick light switches, to draw objects with a certain number of points, or draw things a certain number of times, have been increasing over the past few months. Fin is also finding it more and more difficult to sleep.

Under much duress, Fin starts seeing a therapist who prescribes Paxil. But Fin discovers that prescription medications can sometimes have side effects that just aren't worth it. Around the time that she's trying to come to terms with having obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), she meets a boy who changes how she views everything: Thayer.

To read the rest of the review where I discuss how much Thayer impacts her life....visit The Edge of the Forest October/November edition. If you're reading this posting later...after the fact...then look for it in the Edge of the Forest archives.

A Crooked Kind of Perfect

Urban, Linda. 2007. A Crooked Kind of Perfect.

I read this book initially for Dewey's 24 Hour Read-a-thon. Now, less than a week later, I have reread this little gem of a book. It's a book that I would describe as practically perfect in every way. (I don't know if Linda Urban would want me to stress the near-perfect part since the message of the book seems to be that nobody can be perfect, that life isn't perfect. But even the message seems perfect to me.) Our heroine, Zoe Elias, is ten-going-on eleven. She has one dream--a very big dream. She wants to play the piano. In what could be one of the best openings of all times we read about "How It Was Supposed To Be" versus "How It Is."

I was supposed to play the piano.
The piano is a beautiful instrument.
People wear ball gowns and tuxedos to hear the piano.
With the piano, you could play Carnegie Hall. You could wear a tiara. you could come out on stage wearing gloves up to your elbows. You could pull them off, one finger at a time.
Everybody is quiet when you are about to play the piano. They don't even breathe. They wait for the first notes.
They wait.
They wait.
And then you lift your hands high above your head and slam them down on the keys and the first notes come crashing out and your fingers fly up and down and your foot--in its tiny slipper with rubies at the toe--your foot peeks out from under your gown to press lightly on the pedals.
A piano is glamorous. Sophisticated. Worldly.
It is a wonderful thing to play the piano.

The next chapter...Zoe's reality...

I play the organ.
A wood-grained, vinyl-seated, wheeze-bag organ.
The Perfectone D-60

That's it. The entire second chapter. What a statement! But I better watch my exclamation points in this review, just in case Zoe (or her creator) is reading. Zoe really doesn't like the excessive and unnecessary use of exclamation points.

Zoe's life isn't perfect. She wants to play piano, but she's stuck with the Perfectone D-60. She wants to be playing real music. She's stuck with beginning level songbooks like Television Themesongs and Hits from the Seventies. And her social life? Well, she's been recently dumped by her best friend because her friend's interests are changing--lip gloss, tv, music, clothes, and boys. That leaves Zoe with no one to sit with at lunch, doesn't it?

Enter Wheeler.

Usually, Wheeler Diggs is a mess.
Except his hair.
On anybody else, his curly hair might look goofy, but on Wheeler Diggs it looks just the right kind of wild. And it's dark, which makes his blue eyes look even brighter. And his smile, which is kind of lopsided, looks like he's trying not to smile, but he can't help it.
Which is why, sometimes, every once in a while, somebody will smile back. And sometimes, most of the time, those people will get punched in the stomach. Which is why even the kids who sit with him at lunch are a little bit scared of him and why, really, Wheeler Diggs doesn't have a best friend, either.

Wheeler and Zoe are the unlikeliest of friends. But when he follows her home from school one day--to get his hands on some more of her dad's cookies--it's the beginning of an odd but satisfying friendship. Though Zoe doesn't admit this for the longest time. In this book, the reader sees if practice really does make perfect. . .and if wishes really can come true.

The characters, the relationships are about as perfect as can be. I've never seen family dynamics so well captured, so well displayed. Linda Urban has created memorable, authentic characters. The book has it all--moments of happiness, frustration, disappointment, loneliness, and joy. And plenty of humor!

It kind of goes without saying, but for the record...this is one that I love, love, loved!

Linda Urban's website is great too! (I better watch those exclamations.) You can find the recipe for Bada-Bings cookies. You can read her thoughts on writing 'the perfect' book. (She writes in part that: "There is no perfect book. But there is a novel to be written that is perfectly you.")
And of course, you can find out more about Linda Urban on her bio page. She also has a livejournal page where you can read her latest thoughts.

Before, After, and Somebody In Between

Garsee, Jeannine. 2007. Before, After, and Somebody In Between.

This book is a good book. But it is essentially the story about a young teen girl with an identity crisis. Her name is Martha. Martha Kowalski. Never has a teen girl hated her life more. Her drunk and neglectful mother. Her mother's abusive mother. Her equally impoverished neighbors living in the tenements. Her school. Her classmates. Nothing at all is going right in her life. She has one or two friends. But their lives are equally messed up. One has a mother dying of AIDS, one has been abandoned my a mother addicted to drugs. The last one also lives in an abusive environment where they beat a toddler. So who would want to be that girl if given another option. Certainly not Martha. When Martha is given--through dire circumstances--the opportunity to transform into Gina Brinkman, she jumps at the chance. Gina lives in a nice neighborhood. A rich neighborhood. Gina goes to an elite school. Gina has nice clothes and a bathroom all her own. (If I recall correctly.) Gina is a material girl. She can have a thousand luxuries that are new to her. And most of all, she feels like she's escaped the harsh realities of her life. But life is never that easy. Never that black and white. Never that clear cut. Who is she really deep down inside? What kind of girl is she?

This book has many ugly sides to it--the alcohol, the drugs, the physical and verbal abuse, sex, violence, etc. Martha is a character that doesn't really embrace the truth if she can get away with a lie. She lies. She lies a lot. Sometimes to other people. Sometimes only to herself. This is another book that shows that actions have consequences. Big consequences. And that life is full of hard choices. Choices you'll have to live with the rest of your life.

Overall, I liked it. It was well-written. This is a very human, very frail, sometimes cruel, sometimes naive narrator.

Friday, November 9, 2007

The Blackwater Lightship - Wendy's Review

The Blackwater Lightship. I thought it would always be there. -From The Blackwater Lightship, page 192-

Colm Toibin's novel The Blackwater Lightship was shortlisted for the Book Prize in 1999. Set on the coast in Ireland near Dublin, the novel centers around Declan, a young homosexual man dying of AIDS whose sister, mother and grandmother come together to care for him. Declan's sister Helen narrates this tale of heartache, loss, redemption and healing.

Toibin's simple, luminous prose captures the discomfort and estrangement between the family members. Helen's voice is at once sad, angry and contemplative as current events bring up memories she has worked hard to forget. After years of estrangement, her brother's impending death brings them back together and forces them to deal with the past.

She did not know how her grandmother would respond to their arrival. She realised that for the first time in years - ten years, maybe - she was back as a member of this family she had so determinedly tried to leave. For the first time in years they would all be under the same roof, as though nothing had happened. She realised, too, that the unspoken emotions between them in the car, and the sense that they were once more a unit, seemed utterly natural now that there was a crisis, a catalyst. She was back home, where she had hoped she would never be again, and she felt, despite herself, almost relieved. -From The Blackwater Lightship, page 106-

Toibin's slowly evolving novel looks at the fragility of family relationships and the desire to return "home" when we are most vulnerable. Lighthouses are commonly symbolic as beacons of safety or, in dreams, as beacons of truth - and so it is no surprise that The Blackwater Lightship is about both finding a safe haven and uncovering the truth.

This novel is melancholy and moody, but in the end I felt a sense of satisfaction and hope; the feeling that even in the face of death, healing and redemption are possible.

Recommended; rated 4/5; read my original review on my blog.

The Historian (Mo's review)

I have just finished reading Elizabeth Kostova’s debut novel and a 2006 Book Sense Award winner, “The Historian”, which was my fourth selection in for the Book Award Reading challenge, and because it has taken me an unanticipated three weeks to complete this tome, I am also going to include it as my third selection for sycoraxpine’s Unread Author challenge as well.

(you can read my complete review here)

Eragon - Christopher Paolini

Title: Eragon
Author: Christopher Paolini
Country: America
Year: 2003
Rating: C
Pages: 509

First sentence: Wind howled through the night, carrying a scent that would change the world.

Challenge book? I read this for the Unread Authors Challenge.

Short summary: Farm boy finds strange stone under strange circumstances. Stone is actually a dragon's egg, it hatches, and a dragon is born. Boy and dragon set out on an adventure to help save their world from evil.

What did I think: This one was just okay. Not bad, not great. This may sound weird, but I felt as if Eragon read like a King's Quest video game; all the plot points felt too pre-determined, as if he was going on a series of tasks to get to the next level and eventually "win". The plot was incredibly predictable, which is disappointing in any genre, but especially fantasy. The characters felt somewhat flat, especially Eragon. The writing, well, it was obvious that it was written by a teenager who may lack some life experiences, and the book screamed for better editing. I can see why how Eragon could be popular with kids, but as an adult, I will not be picking up the second book in the trilogy, as I had originally planned.