Sunday, July 31, 2011

Hillary Jordan, MUDBOUND

Wow, what a knockout of a novel. (I'm not the first to say so ... my friend Barbara thrust it at me, insisting it was one of the best things she'd read in a while ... oh, and it won the Bellwether Prize for Fiction.) Set in the Mississippi Delta during WWII, it tells the story of a white man's farm where sharecropping still takes place. Told from five different perspectives ... yes, they all sound different, hooray, the white soldier doesn't sound like the black midwife ... it's a story about money, rage, racism, what war does to people, how war and race intersect, what fathers do to sons, how our private fears and longings can have profound public consequences. The only part that jarred--and this is because the book feels so very fresh and original in other ways--was the part where the black soldier Ronsel liberates Dachau. I've already read accounts, including how Americans gave out chocolate and unintentionally killed people. But that's the one little bit that felt recycled (and I'm not saying it didn't belong) in an otherwise original, suspenseful, brilliant book.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011


An unusual novel, about a girl named Rose who, beginning on her 9th birthday, can taste people's emotions in her food. So she can taste when her mother is depressed, angry, cannot choose which of her many talents to pursue, begins to have an affair. Her brilliant brother Joe also has an unusual talent--he turns into furniture and disappears. Near the end of the book, the father of this curious duo--whose own father wore a "strap" around his nose because he could smell things about people--admits to Rose the reason he cannot step into hospitals: because he senses that he might discover his special talent. She longs to drag him to a hospital, but he refuses. The book is thick with physical details (tastes, smells, sounds); the effect is strange, both real and allegorical, and I felt a lingering sadness after reading.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Patricia Reilly Giff, WILD GIRL

Tween novel about a girl named Lidie, a talented horse rider, who dreams of racing horses. Her father and brother left Brazil years before to start a life, planning to send for her. The novel begins the day she leaves Brazil to join them in New York. There, she discovers the difficulties of navigating other people's expectations. She must assimilate to a new environment (her English is not fluent, and her teacher doesn't understand that she is advanced in math) and find a way to reintegrate herself with her father and brother, who still think she likes pink and Minnie Mouse and doesn't know how to sit a horse. Told partly by "Wild Girl," a filly her father has bought and partly in first-person by Lidie.

Carolyn Marsden, MOON RUNNER

A brief, delicately drawn book about a girl who learns that she likes to run and then must choose between beating her best friend in a race (and possibly losing the friendship) or losing on purpose. Her coach lets her join the relay and she and her friend can race and win together.

Sherri L Smith, FLYGIRL

An engaging historical YA about a black girl from 1940s Louisiana, Ida Mae Jones, who's light-skinned enough to pass for white and who learned how to fly a crop-duster from her father. After Pearl Harbor, when the Americans join the war, she wants to apply for the WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots), ferrying and testing aircraft. But she has to pass not only her qualifying pilot tests in the very Jim Crow town of Sweetwater, Texas but also the "white" test and the "woman" test (in a wholly male Army). Some clumsy bits early on, with scenes that feel a bit inserted to "show" the conflict between her old life and new, vis-a-vis a black boy she knew in school and her best friend Jolene, who is too black to pass. But once Ida Mae reaches Sweetwater, Texas, the story rolls out wonderfully, with Ida Mae courageously trying to found her identity on what she does (fly) rather than her skin color.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011


An historical novel about a 19-year-old female "horse whisperer" named Martha Lessen during WWI, who creates a circuit for herself of twelve horses that need to be "broke" among a group of farms in Oregon--but she does it the good way. It's a coming-of-age story, about a young woman finding her somewhat unconventional place in the world, and a romance (with both horses and a man named Henry), but I loved best how some of the minor characters are so well sketched, how Gloss captures voices. She has a wonderful, sometimes wry, turn of phrase, sometimes for the narrator (it's told in 3rd person) and sometimes to give us an immediate feel for her characters. "There was turnip and carrot in the soup, and a chicken may have run through the pot on its way to somewhere else, or more likely this was one of the meatless days that had become patriotic in the last few months." And Louise (whose husband first gives Martha a job): "Well my goodness, I have a sister and a cousin both named Martha, so that's a name will come easy to my lips." An enjoyable read, especially for those who love horses, and clean enough for tweens and up, I think. Gloss's earlier book THE JUMP-OFF CREEK was a finalist for PEN/Faulkner, and I liked this one enough that I'll go find it.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Chris Bohjalian, SECRETS OF EDEN

A literary murder mystery, set in a Vermont small town, in which George strangles and Alice and then kills himself with a gun (or so it seems). The story is told from the points of view of the Baptist pastor of the town (Stephen Drew), the investigator (Catherine), Stephen's new girlfriend who writes about angels (Heather) and whose parents enacted a similar murder/suicide drama, and Katie, the daughter of Alice and George who tells the truth at last. It's well-written and suspenseful; each of the four voices sounds different. (So often multiple points of view sound too much alike.) My only gripe is that Catherine felt like a "stereotypical" woman investigator, tough-talking, sensitive underneath, and willfully wrong about what really happened. But a good read.

Friday, July 15, 2011


Think "Journey to the Center of the Earth" times two. The split account (although the first, Bill Stone's adventure, gets many more pages than the second) of two men (and their crews, some of whom are women) exploring supercaves. The American Bill Stone explores Cheve Cave in southern Mexico; and the Ukrainian Alexander Klimchouk goes into the freezing supercave Krubera in the Republic of Georgia. Both are trying to find the deepest cave on earth. For those who liked "Into Thin Air" or books of that ilk, this is a good one. The accounts of near drowning (and drowning) in silt-filled water thousands of feet below the surface gave me nightmares.

Thursday, July 14, 2011


This enjoyable debut novel gives us two stories in one: the first is a story about a woman named Marina who worked at the Hermitage to wrap and ship paintings out of the Leningrad museum as the Nazis approached the city. From the title (a reference to the many Madonna paintings in the museum), I expected this to be the main storyline. But I came away feeling (in a good way) that it is not; this novel is about memory and how the pieces of past and present fit together, in much the same way the vehicle and tenor (though those categories can be problematic) fit together in a metaphor. The second story is about Marina, now in her eighties and living in the US, experiencing Alzheimer's. Dean has written the narrative in temporally disjointed "fragments"--bouncing from the events of 1941 to present day and back to the short lectures about artists and paintings that Marina would give as a docent. In 1941, another Hermitage worker, Anya, explains to Marina a memory trick: when she had to memorize the entire Law of God, all the Roman emperors and their reigns, etc. she created a memory palace, where the rug, or door, reminded her of x or y, so she could remember it. Marina begins to create her own memory palace, to remember the palace (Hermitage) and which paintings were in which rooms. (This is why I feel the book plays with notions of memory, metaphor, and literal meanings.) In the end, when Marina goes missing (like a painting), her family searches for her, and we readers (privy to her memories the way her children and her husband are not) understand the logic of what she's done.

Sunday, July 10, 2011


Another very good, beautifully written YA novel from the writer of WHAT I SAW AND HOW I LIED, with the same sort of high stakes and rich emotion. 17-year-old Kit Corrigan from Providence goes to New York to pursue her dream of becoming a dancer and actress. Providence and New York are linked through her--because she connects Billy Benedict, the angry boy she loves, with his father Nate, who is a mob lawyer and longs to make amends by giving Kit an apartment in New York when she desperately needs it (though there are "strings attached"), with her father who once was Nate's bootlegging partner, and with her aunt Delia who was once Nate's mistress in that very apartment. Her past is full of lies and bribes, deaths and sudden disappearances that she doesn't know about or understand, and this book slowly unwinds that past until she does.

Saturday, July 9, 2011


There's been so much praise for this book that I don't feel I need to add any. It's a triple narrative: the story of a black woman with cervical cancer whose cells were taken without her knowledge by a (white) researcher at Johns Hopkins in the mid-1900s; the story of the field of cellular research, including its uneven development; and the story of a persistent journalist trying to write Lacks's story with erratic, emotional help from her (impoverished, dysfunctional) family. Told with compassion and in a straightforward voice, it's a page-turner. (Who knew the story of some cervical cells could be such a compelling read?) Plenty of complexity and many gray areas.


A great upper-middle-grade novel. Otherworldly, set in Baja California. The protagonist is a boy named Ramon Salazar whose father runs a fleet of boats that hunt for pearls. Ramon goes off on his own to find a huge black pearl that seems to have evil powers--an ability to encourage people's ambition, desire, and greed. Great reading for the tween set.


This novel is brilliant and sharp-edged and so clever I felt like my neurons were firing faster when I was reading it. It's sort of like a double serving of Starbucks latte, particularly chapter 9 by Jules Jones who is brilliant and manic. (Each chapter is focalized through a different character, with a distinct voice, either in third or first person.) Even her most incidental descriptions are cuttingly original. It's never ideal to take an author's words out of context because they never sound as clever but here are a few, of many: Sasha had commandeered two seats at a low table, a setup that made [her uncle] Tom feel like an ape, knees jammed under his chin. * [I wondered] how my ex-wife had managed to populate New York with thousands of women who looked nothing like her but still brought her to mind.
However, I found myself having a hard time caring about these characters--the pathological shoplifter, the schizophrenic who throws a fish onto his old friend's desk, the uncle who takes money from Sasha's mother to find her in Italy but instead spends all his time looking at art, the famous music exec who cheats on his wife with young girls hoping to make it big in the music industry. Maybe this is supposed to be a Fateful Warning to those of us who might live to see the world in the last chapter, where everyone texts instead of talks and global warming has turned New York City hot in January. Maybe it's because I'm coming off of Julia Glass, but I feel like there is very little softness, or compassion, or forgiveness in this book. Maybe that's the point.