Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Jennifer Donnelly, REVOLUTION

Very, very good. As in NORTHERN LIGHT, there is a "twinned" structure. The protagonist teenage-girl-with-a-problem has documents from another young woman in a similar situation. Here, Andi is a musical genius who was not watching out for her brother on the morning he was killed by a madman in Brooklyn. In the case of an old violin in France, she finds a diary of a girl Alexandrine who sent up fireworks in Paris during the French Revolution, trying to comfort the Dauphin, imprisoned in his cell, until he is killed (arguably, also by a madman). The coincidence of Andi going to Paris and being handed a violin case with a compartment that only opens to the key that her brother found in a scrap heap back in Brooklyn ... well, ... but so what. Donnelly writes so well, I feel like I'd be a nitpicking kill-joy if I were going to stick at that. One review I read felt that the second plot (Alexandrine's journal) was made to serve the first, but I felt Donnelly kept them in balance. There's always a risk when writers lean too heavily on letters or journals, but I was drawn along and compelled by Andi's conflicts/plots--her mind-numbing guilt about her brother, her mother's mental illness, her estrangement from her father, her romance with the hot French musician Virgil (!)--and because Donnelly doesn't insert the journal sections in big chunks, I usually felt I was in Andi's head while I was reading them. Thoroughly enjoyable.

Nancy Werlin, IMPOSSIBLE

This is a curious book. It mixes a somewhat typical YA theme--teen pregnancy--with a "magic" theme of the Elfin Knight who, in "Scarborough Fair," demands three impossible tasks. The villain/Elfin Knight has been enchanting all the women on Lucy's family tree for centuries, and he takes the shape of the handsome Padraig Seeley--who is so charismatic that women (including Lucy's foster mother) can barely think in his presence. Lucy's mother went mad because of him, and after Lucy is raped by a boy who is possessed by Padraig's spirit, she decides she is going to keep the baby. The difference is that Lucy has foster parents and a handsome boy named Zach who are willing to help her perform the three impossible tasks to break the curse--their true love matters. I can see this appealing to some YA readers, the same way Twilight does. But the "magic" element didn't really work for me. Werlin writes very well, however, enough to make me curious about finding her National Book Award Finalist, The Rules of Survival, and her Edgar-winner, The Killer's Cousin.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


This book weaves together the stories of half a dozen North Koreans who eventually defected to South Korea, where Demick interviewed them. An early chapter features a photograph of both Koreas at night; Seoul is a big blob of light; the rest of South Korea has scattered lights throughout; North Korea is dark. And Demick shows, again and again, just how dark it is--both opaque to visitors (who are barely allowed, and kept to carefully manicured bits of the major city, Pyongyang) and having a very dark future. The stories of starvation are what stay with me--the parents feeding their children on ground-up bark and weeds; people eating dogs; people digging through nightsoil to find undigested pieces of rice, after aid from the former USSR vanishes.

One of the most curious stories was the thwarted love story between Mi-Ran and Jun-sang, who kept their forbidden relationship secret for nine years ... and then idealized it for half a dozen after Mi-Ran left. But Demick doesn't make the mistake of suggesting that as soon as these defectors moved to South Korea, everything came up roses. She explores quite frankly the difficulty of assimilation and how learned personality traits in North Korea did not translate so well south of the border.
There's black humor throughout. My favorite bits are some of the math questions in the North Korean textbooks (p. 120):
Eight boys and nine girls are singing anthems in praise of Kim Il-sung. How many children are singing in total?
A girl is acting as a messenger to our patriotic troops during the war against the Japanese occupation. She carries messages in a basket containing five apples, but is stopped by a Japanese soldier at a checkpoint. He steals two of her apples. How may are left?
Three soldiers from the Korean People's Army killed thirty American soldiers. How many American soldiers were killed by each of them if they all killed an equal number of soldiers?
And a favorite song:
"Our enemies are the American bastards
Who are trying to take over our beautiful fatherland.
with guns that I make with my own hands.
I will shot them. Bang, bang, bang."
My one gripe is that it feels to me as though at times Demick plays fast and loose with her translations--the sentences feel too close to contemporary American slang. I found myself wondering, Really? Did that sixty-year-old grandmother really say that? But the book is interesting, especially as I knew very little about North Korea.

Sapphire, PRECIOUS

The heartrending story of Precious Jones, age 16, who begins her story: "I was left back when I was twelve because I had a baby for my fahver [sic]."
At first glance, I wasn't sure if she was left, back when she was twelve--left by whom?--and then I realized she means "left back a grade." But this book is about every kind of being left--left back, left behind, left for hopeless, having AIDS left in her, left for dead. It could have gone melodramatic and cliched--this story is one we've heard before--but the nuances are all fresh. Even the way that Precious confronts the other Others. She declares that she hates gays--she's repeating what she's heard Farrakhan say--until she discovers her teacher "Ms Rain a butch." Again and again, Precious bravely allows her felt experience to overturn what she thinks she knows. But this book was a hard read and created some images in my head that I wish I didn't have.

Justin Cronin, THE PASSAGE

A good, horrifying read. This novel is post-apocalyptic in the style of the HUNGER GAMES trilogy (although more adult than YA), except that this time the weapon is a virus that turns people into vampires. Warning: this is not a TWILIGHT redo (thank God) ... nothing sweet or sexy about these blood-suckers. Cronin uses a third-person narrative with shifting focalization among four or five complex major characters, which works. My only gripe is the ending. It's almost as if Cronin decided he was tired of writing and stopped. Not a lot of closure ... and while that can be done productively, this just felt like the novel just petered out. But for about 700 pages, this novel tears along with plenty of suspense and good prose.

Hiatus destination: HOGWARTS

Ok, I'd read the first two Harry Potter books years ago. But now that I have a daughter who is reading them, I jumped back in. Read all seven in about 18 days. Was walking about in a mild trance muttering spells. Wingardium Leviosa. Am I pronouncing it right? Wrong? Why doesn't that spell work on my children's wet towels? It worked for Hermione and her feather. Wondering what I really think of Snape. And why doesn't the ministry believe Harry in the face of all that proof--how can they be so stupid? And what's up with Rupert Grint--he was quite cute as a youngster but later?
But I am back, now.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


Very good, deftly written literary mystery about two boys, one white and one black, in rural Mississippi. Similar to Tana French's IN THE WOODS, although not quite as suspenseful because it's not focalized through only one character, which means we readers know more than either Simon or Larry (the two protagonists). But like French's first, there is an old murder (which was never solved) matched with a new murder. Good read.


I actually liked this book as much as EAT, PRAY, LOVE. Very typical Gilbert writing, anecdotal, clever, playful, but it also historicizes marriage, situates it as a cultural construct within different frameworks ... it has, as she points out, changed greatly since, say, the tenth century. The initiating event is her fiance Felipe being stopped at customs and sent to jail because it has become clear that he's coming to the states, staying the allowed 90 days, leaving, and coming right back. It's not illegal ... but the officials don't like it. Gilbert talks frankly about pre-nups, being broke and being broken-hearted, the mistaken ideas she had about love when she was in her twenties, feminism, and psychological baggage. Intermixed are stories of people she met while she traveled around, asking people from all different cultures about marriage, what it means, what it provides, the sacrifices it demands (particularly of women who become mothers). Good read.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Julia Durango, SEA OF THE DEAD

Small powerhouse of a YA historical novel. It's fierce, compelling, and well-written. The protagonist Kehl is a prince of the (fictional) Teshic Empire. One night he is kidnapped and taken to a ship owned by a tribe called the Fallen. Although he at first is arrogant and despises the leader of the Fallen, he begins to learn that everything he has been taught as a Teshic prince--everything that the Empire said was true--is suspect, including the story of his own mother's death. This is the classic case of an adolescent who must remake his world view. Good read.


I'm sorry to say I would not recommend. The premise is fun: the novelist Charlotte Bronte's secret life as an adventuress/secret agent, saving the royal family of England, dashing around the countryside in hot air balloons. While Rowland is very good at period detail--she includes a great deal of interesting information on Victorian England, from Whitechapel to broughams--the plot and narration is clumsy, and the psychology fails for me. For example, on a visit to Bedlam with her publisher, to gain information for her next novel, Charlotte just happens to see a man being brutally tortured with electric probes by a vicious looking Russian--and that man being tortured is John Slade, with whom she has been desperately in love with for three years, though she has had no word and has been terribly worried about him. !!! Goodness, shouldn't she do something? And she does. She and her publisher immediately go off to view the Great Exhibition (of 1851) at the Crystal Palace. Her comment: "I was so impressed by the Crystal Palace that I almost forgot about Slade." My heart is hammering with worry about the poor man, and she's going to the Exhibition? And then, because the most interesting part of the story belongs to John Slade (who dashes between England and Russia, playing double agent, with three different names) she is forced to resort to this sort of maneuver: "Here I must describe other events that occurred outside my view. The details, based on facts I later learned, are as accurate as I can make them. Reader, you will see ... I was in grave danger." For those of us who know and love JANE EYRE, the phrase "Reader, I married him" is etched in our brains, and the apostrophe was used to wonderful effect. Rowland uses it when she wants to remind us that this is Charlotte Bronte's voice. It didn't quite work for me.

Monday, September 27, 2010


Excellent read. Recalls Witch of Blackbird Pond, some of Ann Rinaldi's historical YA novels. Fourteen-year-old Mary Newbury travels from England to Salem with a woman who befriends Mary after her grandmother dies. She believes she's a witch, though she comes off as merely an intuitive, intelligent girl who has a knack for finding herbs and learns healing from Martha. Mary writes in a journal, which she then stitches inside a quilt; the frame narrative is that a woman named Allison Ellman of Boston, MA finds the journal and compiles the papers. (Not sure why the frame is necessary.) I'll look for the sequel.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Kathleen Duey, SKIN HUNGER

This National Book Award finalist is the first in the "Resurrection of Magic" series. Moving back and forth between two POVs and two time periods--linked by the character Franklin, who is young in one and old in the other--the novel describes a fierce and frightening "academy" where apprentices are starved until they figure out how to work true magic, which has been debauched and degraded by charlatans. Some of the language is quite beautiful: "It was silver-gray this morning, the flat color of a parlor mirror before the lamps are lit." But most of the fine metaphors are in the early chapters; the plot takes over the second half of the book and the writing becomes more ordinary. But it's a page-turner, and while not quite as dark or suspenseful as HUNGER GAMES, it's a good read.

Tracy Chevalier, BURNING BRIGHT

I found this book on the Bargain table, which surprised me because I remember loving GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING. But while TC is still the master of historical detail ... and she's got the 18th century down ... Astley's, Vauxhall, pubs, carpenter's tools, how to make buttons, the kinds of wood used in chairs ... this book felt somewhat plotless and lacking in suspense. The entire plot consists of a family moving from Dorsetshire to London and then back again; the time period is 1792-93 (surely an exciting time in England); and the next door neighbor is William Blake (hence the title ... from his poem "Tyger, Tyger"). But paradoxically, although not particularly well-plotted, the book felt formulaic: lots of historical detail + famous, eccentric artistic personality + everyday characters. For me, it wasn't enough. Add to that the contrivances ... young Jem believes that two sides of the road aren't opposites because they're both sides of the same road ... he espouses this belief to young Maggie, just as Mr. Blake is wandering by and is struck by how the young man's philosophy matches own! This might work if the three of them gathered together at the Blakes' house, but this scene happens on a bridge, in London, after Jem has left a circus where there are thousands of people milling around. Similarly, at Astley's Amphitheater, with hundreds of people jammed around him, Jem looks up from the pit by the stage to find "Maggie's face up in the gallery, poking out between two soldiers." Really? Amidst all those people, he can find her face?? Hate to be so critical ... but after GIRL, I was hoping for better ...

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Andrew Clements, THINGS NOT SEEN

Very good YA book, about a boy named Bobby who wakes up one morning invisible, but meets a blind girl to whom it doesn't matter. Larger themes include the feelings that young adults have when their parents and others overlook them, or ignore their wishes, echoed by the Threat of the State that single-mindedly interferes with parents who are trying to do the right thing in a crazy situation. Well-written with a solidly truthful boy's voice.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010


THIS is my oldest guilty pleasure, and I've reread the three of these in the past few days.
These books were written in the 1950s. They are DATED. The heroines all fall in love with their counterparts, sometimes after some fuss, but in a matter of pages. Why do I love these books? Not sure ... I think when I was about 14, I read all of them, and the way you read books when you're 14 ... they stay with you. So it's familiar ground. "The Moon Spinners" was made into a Disney movie with Hayley Mills about twenty years before I saw her in DIAL M FOR MURDER in London, which is about twenty *more* years ago now. I think the movie was in black and white. (!)
So why do I read these when I'm in the mood for mental M & Ms? They're literary. They use the old device of a quotation from classic literature at the top of chapters. The descriptions and language verge on poetic. They're murder mysteries--what we'd now call "cozies"--with the suspense drawn out on a long, long cord, in Greece. Or France. Or Italy. I dragged my husband to Greece back in 1992 because I was dying to see Mary Stewart's Greece ... in the way that plenty of people go to Prince Edward Island to see Anne of Green Gables's PEI. And she shows an unflinching willingness to lay bare weaknesses (compassionately) in well-drawn characters. I won't recommend them ... they're so unfashionable, though they were all months on the best-seller list in their day.
But here, I'll give you some of the opening to NINE COACHES WAITING (the title is taken from Tourneur's Revenger's Tragedy). The heroine has just arrived in Paris:
"Some of the baggage was out on the tarmac. I could see my own shabby case wedged between a brand-new Revrobe and something huge and extravagant in cream-colored hide. Mine had been a good case once, good solid leather stamped deeply with Daddy's initials, now half hidden under the new label smeared by London's rain. Miss L. Martin, Paris. Symbolic, I thought, with an amusement that twisted a bit awry somewhere inside me. Miss L. Martin, Paris, trudging along between a stout man in impeccable city clothes and a beautiful American girl with a blond mink coat slung carelessly over a suit that announced discreetly that she had been to Paris before, and recently. I myself must have just that drab, seen-better-days shabbiness that Daddy's old case had, perched up there among the sleek cabin-class luggage. But I was here, home after ten years."

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Laurie Halse Anderson, CHAINS

Deeper and richer than LHA's SPEAK and FEVER. For those who enjoyed Jennifer Donnelly's NORTHERN LIGHT, this is an historical YA with a similar feel, and a female protagonist who must negotiate space in the world for herself. Set during the beginning days of the American Revolution, with a slave girl protagonist, the novel raises the question of freedom--freedom for the colonies from British rule and freedom for slaves. The binaries split and reform in this book: black/white, slave/free, Loyalist/Patriot, prisoner/free. 13-year-old Isabel and her younger, epileptic sister Ruth are supposed to be freed when their mistress dies; but her cruel nephew arrives, claims them, and takes them to Newport to be sold. The two girls end up in the household of the Locktons, Loyalists masquerading when need be as Patriots. Madam Lockhart is this book's version of Simon Legree, vicious and prone to hurling cutlery. But portraits of other characters--the boy Curzon, a slave who believes in the Patriot cause; Mr. Lockhart's mother--are complex and well-drawn. Isabel frees Curzon from prison in the final chapter and the book ends with the promise that their adventures will be taken up in her next book: Forge.

Sunday, September 5, 2010


This historical narrative debunks the version of history that puts Benjamin Franklin at the center of obtaining French support for the American Revolution. At times the story becomes tedious and detail-oriented, and Paul could paint with a quicker brush. But at other times it reads like something out of a crazy historical farce--a cross-dressing, double-crossing woman spy; a playwright who couldn't keep his head down, his trap shut, and his identity secret when he saw his play being produced badly; and Silas Deane, a Connecticut merchant who marries two widows, ends up with about a dozen children who aren't his own, and cannot get anyone to answer his frantic letters from France. Truly, as I read this book and saw ALL the things that went wrong in trying to obtain French support ... the corruption, the bribes, the affairs, the lost letters ... I'm amazed that it happened at all.

Beth Kephart, UNDERCOVER

A beautifully written YA about a girl who plays Cyrano to her friend Theo's Christian, in his courting of Lila, the nasty girl's Roxane. Teenage Elisa has no friends at school (somewhat peculiar, as she's personable), a beautiful sister and mother, and a father who travels most of the time. She takes refuge in nature, in language (we have the usual passionate English teacher Dr. Charmin), and ice skating on the pond.

First line: Once I saw a vixen and a dog fox dancing.

Other beautiful lines: In the woods that night the old snow had turned to slush and the muck of animal tracks, and there were sapphire shadows between the trees.

My one gripe with the book ... I must confess I get tired of reading about girls who want to be writers, or are "discovered" by their English teachers. But that aside, this book is a lovely narrative about a girl who first hides behind words and then discovers that they are only one medium--music and ice skating become the others--through which she accesses her own experience.


Numbers two and three in the trilogy that began with THE HUNGER GAMES. In CATCHING FIRE, Katniss has returned to Victory Village in District 12 to enjoy her triumph. But soon President Snow demands that she return to the arena, she and Peeta, on the 75th anniversary of the games, along with any other tributes who are still alive to face poisonous fogs and forcefields. Still torn between Gale and Peeta, Katniss becomes the symbol for a revolution, the mockingjay--a bird that can mimic any sound, including a human voice in pain. Peeta is captured by the Capitol, for torturing, and to bring Katniss into line. In MOCKINGJAY, Katniss must try to get him out safely. District 12 has been burned, although Gale managed to get Katniss's mother and sister Prim out in time, to District 13, where the revolution is growing. She is at times a pawn of the revolution, but in the end, she must help Peeta distinguish between Real and Not real (what the Capitol has tricked him into thinking). And she breaks the cycle of revolution, preventing one violent and authoritarian party from merely replacing another. It concludes with an ending that is surprisingly tender, and haunting, and carries a message that reminds me of that old Matthew Broderick movie, WAR GAMES. The only way to win is to stop the cycle. And she concludes ...

"on bad mornings, it feels impossible to take pleasure in anything because I'm afraid it could b taken away. That's when I make a list in my head of every act of goodness I've seen someone do. It's like a game. Repetitive. Even a little tedious after more than twenty years. But there are much worse games to play."

I'd say HUNGER GAMES is my favorite of the three; as often happens in trilogies, the middle book doesn't seem to carry as much weight as the other two. But for all that, it's a good story arc, and while the plot drives the books, the symbolism and layers raise it well above a mere suspense/thriller.

I stand by my earlier comparison with Stieg Larsson's trilogy.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010


Read this debut novel last year and recently re-read; it stands up to a second read. This is one of my favorite historical murder mysteries. Set in 1867 in the Northern Territory, a trapper named Laurent Jammett is murdered. 17-year-old Francis Ross disappears and becomes a suspect; his mother goes on a trek through the cruel snowy landscape to find him and discover the truth. Told in chapters that shift in point-of-view among Mrs. Ross, Francis, Andrew Knox, Elizabeth Bird, the story of the Jammett murder is only the first layer; behind it are other murders and kidnappings that put people where they are when the book begins. First line: "The last time I saw Laurent Jammett, he was in Scott's store with a dead wolf over his shoulder." A-.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Suzanne Collins, THE HUNGER GAMES

Intense YA/crossover-to-adult book about Katniss Everdeen, a girl in a post-apocalyptic nation called Panem. When her sister is chosen to be the "girl" half of one of twelve boy-girl teams to fight the Hunger Games on national TV, 16-year-old Katniss volunteers to take her place. Together with Peeta, and chaperoned and guided by two adults, they must compete to survive. Chilling, suspenseful, dark, well-written ... I would say this is not a book for the 9-12 set, no matter how good a reader. This book strikes me as the YA version of Stieg Larsson's trilogy--Katniss, resourceful, angry, and tough is not far off Lisbeth Salander. Excellent read.

Sunday, August 29, 2010


Very good debut novel, historical fiction. In 1918, at the end of WWI, a small lumber town in Washington state decides to quarantine itself from the Spanish Influenza, but a soldier comes, breaks the quarantine and is killed; then another solider apears. This is about how panic infects the town and why a quarantine fails. It's a dark book, about selfishness and cruelty and inhumanity under duress. Reminds me of Geraldine Brooks' YEAR OF WONDERS (plague, quarantine, 1666 England) in some ways.


Good medieval mystery set in 1171, England, with a woman medical examiner. Suspenseful, set in Cambridge, good period detail. I'd give it a B+.


Engrossing historical novel of WWII from an East German perspective, which is refreshing, because most WWII literature is either Holocaust literature or describes the war from the Western perspective. This book is told through four different perspectives, done well, with the changes in voice indicated by cues instead of labels. But it's heavy-handed in some of its criticism of the Nazis (via the voice of a Scottish POW), and puts up a bad straw-woman in the clueless East German mother who asks, wide-eyed, "They're Jews? Really? Those girls?" and "Why do people hate us?" It's based on a diary, so there is a good primary source. Engrossing and at times heart-rending.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

John Banville (writing as Benjamin Black), CHRISTINE FALLS

Good crime fiction! It's 1950s Dublin, and a girl's corpse in the morgue leads Quirke (a pathologist) to discover a baby-donating/trading scandal in the Catholic Church. Aside from his propensity to use names that fit almost too neatly (Quirke is quirky and the bad brother in law is Malachy -- called Mal through most of the book and sporting a "smooth seal's head of oiled black hair, scrupulously combed and parted"--EW!), the writing is clean, the plot fast-paced, the secondary characters well-drawn. This is the first of a series, and I'm going to find the next.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Mary Downing Hahn, HEAR THE WIND BLOW: A Novel of the Civil War

Middle-grade historical fiction, with some edge due to a near-rape (off-stage), murder, light cursing, all the ugliness attached to the end of the Civil War. Oddly, although there are plenty of events--a wounded soldier comes to their house in Virginia; he's found and killed and the Magruder family is burned out as punishment; the mother dies; the two kids ride off on a horse in search of their brother--I found the plot arc lacking. Likable enough characters, a brother and sister (securing both sides of middle-grade readership), but despite all the tragedy, and having many of the right "elements," I was not emotionally drawn to this story.


What can one say about this trilogy? My husband made the mistake of buying me the third installment (THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNET'S NEST) for our "get away" 20th anniversary weekend. The first night, I ignored him and hung out with Lisbeth for 8 straight hours, from about 7 pm till 3 am so I could finish the book. My husband and I still had 3 days, but he will never make that mistake again. And unless Stieg's girlfriend releases the 4th book from her computer, to the Larsson kids who no doubt are scratching for it, I may never again read so obsessively.
I found it interesting that when I googled Stieg Larsson, his name came up (of course) followed by "Stieg Larsson death." The books are certainly full of death, and violence, and gross unfairness ... plenty of twists and turns through corruption and unlawful acts ... followed by justice and redemption. I think the international psyche has responded to these books so strongly in part because this is a story of how the little guy (or--intriguingly--in this case, the little girl: Lisbeth Salander is only about five feet tall) gets tromped upon and survives, gets cut to pieces and survives, gets locked away by the Big Bad State, and manages to triumph ... and she does it largely by hacking computers instead of hacking bodies (although she does that, too, on occasion, to those who really deserve it.)
Great reads, all three.

Monday, August 16, 2010


Good realistic YA. Virginia Shreves (named for V Woolf), has an older brother whom everyone holds up as a paragon of virtue ... until he date rapes someone at Columbia University. The mother in this book is perhaps too sharply drawn as the psychiatrist mother who has no idea what's going on with her own kids; but Virginia's struggles to put dieting aside as a substitute for living and her fears about dating and losing friends who move away are drawn with a deft hand. Good for the 13+ crowd.


A great middle-grade/YA series; I've read the first seven (THE RUINS OF GORLAN, THE BURNING BRIDGE, THE ICEBOUND LAND, THE BATTLE FOR SKANDIA, THE SORCERER OF THE NORTH, THE SIEGE OF MACINDAW, ERAK'S RANSOM). There's a male protagonist but my 10-year-old daughter and I are reading them together and she loves them. The boy Will (an orphan, of course, with two friends, a la Potter: a girl and a boy) is chosen to be a Ranger's apprentice--the rangers being the spies for a quasi-fantastical kingdom that sounds a lot like England. (For example, one of the tribes in the outlying areas is the "Scottis," whose leader is Mac-something or other.) Like the Harry Potter series, the first book is more middle-grade; later ones have darker themes and a bit more swearing and love-interest. But well-written, good vocabulary, fast pacing. For those who liked Harry Potter and Riordan's Percy Jackson series, this is a good fit.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010


Great read. A suspenseful detective/murder mystery set in sloppy, sordid, early 20th-century London. It's partly about Sherlock Holmes (for fans of Conan Doyle)--but this tale is told from the perspective of his gutsy, brilliant wife Mary Russell whose plot runs independently of his. Plenty of twists, well-drawn characters, engaging, lively writing. This is the first of King's novels that I've read--she's written quite a few, ten of which are these Mary Russell mysteries--but I will hunt down others.
First lines:
A child is a burden, after a mile.
After two miles in the cold sea air, stumbling through the night up the side of a hill and down again ... having already put on eight miles that night--half of it carrying a man on a stretcher--even a small, drowsy three-and-a-half-year-old becomes a strain.

Thursday, July 29, 2010


French's 3rd book is probably as fabulous as the first two (though I loved INTO THE WOODS the best). The protagonist Detective returns home to Faithful Place (on the ugly side of Ireland, wherever it is) to find out that the girl whom he loved as a young man, and who vanished one night, was actually murdered, her body hidden in the basement of vacant house nearby. What unravels is typical Tana French ... a dysfunctional family, multiple motives, and the recognition that often the only difference between the good man and the bad man is that the good person doesn't do the things that they both imagining doing.


An old favorite that I read years ago, when I was (!) 24. The autobiography of a woman who grew up in colonial Kenya; as a child, she ran with kids in the bush and was nearly killed by a wild boar; at age 16 she was training world-class race horses; ten years later she was flying medical equipment and running safaris all over Africa. Born in 1902, she was the first woman to fly west across the Atlantic, against the headwinds, before crash-landing in Nova Scotia. She was Denys Finch-Hatton's mistress (you'll remember him as Robert Redford in OUT OF AFRICA) and was actually supposed to be on the plane that he died on. There's some debate about whether she actually wrote the book--Errol Trzebinski swears that one of her several husbands ghost-wrote it for her. But no matter. It's a fabulous read.


I went to see Zoe Sharp speak at Poison Pen in Scottsdale. She's very engaging, self-deprecating, with that dry "British" sense of humor. Book was fun, a slowish start, faster ending. I'd probably read another by her if it came my way.
My only gripe is the way that Charlie Fox (the protagonist/heroine/ex-military/bodyguard with a PAST) so quickly loves her little charge, Ella, age five or so, who actually seems sort of dull and spoiled, coy and giggly. But I must confess ... I don't always like other people's children in real life either. (Grin)

Wednesday, June 30, 2010


YA about a girl Nyle whose community experiences nuclear disaster at The Plant not far away. Usual gritty Hesse, with a strong girl protagonist and an evacuee boy/friend who takes up residence in the "back room" (where everyone in Nyle's family dies); he too dies at end, from radiation poisoning. Good Gran, evil Ripley, and a girlfriend named Muncie. Not bad, but feels somewhat standard YA.

Monday, June 14, 2010


Good tween/YA book. Her first novel, and well-written. Great first lines: "Mama pulled a chicken egg from behind the azalea bushy in our front yard and narrowed her eyes. 'Ludelphia Bennet! You go back in there and get your eye patch!'"
An eye patch? Hm!
Turns out Lu wears the eye patch because of a wood chip that flew from her father's hatchet; there's no doctor in Gee's Bend, AL, so when Mama takes sick, Lu has to cross the river and go to Camden to find a doctor. Hence, leaving Gee's Bend. But on the way to the doctor she meets the Angry Crazy White Boss Lady Mrs. Cobb who has never been able to have children (when Mama had too many that came early and died, and nearly killed her in the process). Lu's central activity is stitching quilts, and she hangs onto the needle and bits of cloth she collects as talismans against evil. Didn't quite do it for me as an "organizing" force to her psyche, but that may be because I don't quilt. But at least she didn't turn out to be yet another girl-who-longs-to-be-a-writer.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010


YA Historical fiction.
Not Rinaldi's best but all her trademarks present: trouble, a bad historical moment, well-drawn and flawed characters with good intentions. Good for the 13-15 girl crowd.


This is a first novel, and it's pretty well written. Like a lot of novels I'm seeing lately, it's told bouncing between points of view, which I happen to like. In this case it's past/present. But this is a Novel With A Purpose. Not saying it's not a valid purpose. The premise is that Trudy, whose mother was the German mistress of a Nazi officer and an assistant in a bakery in Weimar, is a college professor interested in hearing and videotaping stories from average Germans during the war. Naturally she encounters some horrid Germans who still hate Jews; some decent Germans who helped hide Jews; and one man who is Jewish and reads a blistering prepared document for Trudy's camera.
The tough part, narratively speaking, is that the last interview is with a man who just Happens to be from Weimer and just Happened to see Trudy's mother delivering bread one day and just Happened to have met a man named Max in the Buchenwald camp, and just Happened to know that Max was in love with Trudy's mother and had a child with her out of wedlock. OH MY GOODNESS! Trudy thinks. You mean, I'm not the daughter of a horrible Nazi officer? I'm the daughter of a Jewish doctor? And the book ends. The good thing is that Anna, Trudy's mother, refuses to acknowledge the truth of what this man says. That feels psychologically real to me, and saves the book from being a melodrama. Worth a read. I give it a B.

Monday, June 7, 2010


A fun book--from the author who wrote "The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie." But although the 11-year-old protagonist has a fairly original, feisty voice, and has a nice array of bizarre interests (including poisons), the point of view (and narrative power) is somewhat limited by her age and some typical tween brattiness. But a fun read, worth two hours of time.

Friday, June 4, 2010


A fun new series featuring a detective heroine who is more than just a few eccentric traits cobbled together to make a personality. The book is plot-driven, good on setting and dialog, and contains some creepy characters. I wish there were more twists and that the criminal had more motivation than just madness for his acts of cruelty ... which I always feel is a bit of a cheap way out for a writer. But this was a good, quick read. I would read the next.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Chris Cleave, LITTLE BEE

Astonishing. Probably one of the best books I've read all year. I'm certainly not the first to say so, and I don't have much to add to all the praise that's out there for this book with its bright orange and black cover.

First line: "Most days I wish I was a British pound coin instead of an African girl. Everyone would be pleased to see me coming. Maybe I would visit with you for the weekend ..."

This book delicately suggests its entire self (plot and metaphors) in these first lines. By the end of the book, Little Bee has only managed to visit with Sarah and her son Charlie for a bit more than a weekend. She cannot transform herself into a British anything, despite learning proper English language and trying to learn the idioms. (She knows just how important language is; but when she calls the taxi driver a "cock," thinking--based upon her experiences and close attention to language--that she is giving him a compliment--well, this episode suggests from the beginning that she will not ever be able to transform herself successfully.) Charlie choosing to play hide-and-seek at the wrong moment brings down the police; and although Sarah and Charlie try to help Little Bee by gathering her story as one of hundreds, adding weight (pounds?) to hers, in the end their whiteness (Britishness) betrays her on yet another African beach.

One of the things that's interesting is that this is the third book I've read this month which alternates among/between points of view. Here, it is Little Bee and Sarah; POSTMISTRESS has several; 19th WIFE bounces between two stories, present-day and 1870s. It seems to be the new strategy for adding complexity to stories. (Weirdly, I find myself on this wave without knowing there was a wave; my YA Victorian trainwreck manuscript bounces between Elizabeth and Mr. Wilcox.) Is anyone else finding any other books that use two voices or two points-of-view?

Friday, March 26, 2010

Bookclub last night.

The reviewers on the back cover use words such as: merciless, trenchant, witty, zingers, impassioned. Yes, it's a good book for discussion groups.

Obviously, Hitchens is incredibly well-traveled, and his knowledge is encyclopedic. He discusses everything from The Passion of the Christ by Mel Gibson ("an Australian fascist and ham actor") to Japanese Buddhism. The thrust of the book is that everything has been poisoned by religion, with its patched-together texts, apocryphal stories, and spurious claims based upon immature pseudo-science (before the discovery of the existence of other planets and bacteria). Religion is a lying narrative; and it is poison.

The difficulties I have with this book are three-fold.

First, CH makes the claim that religion poisons everything. But in some cases, when a country or group seeks to sustain economic or political power, it uses religion as a cloak, a justification for atrocity. The religion, in this case, is not the original sin, as it were. The desire for power is. This may seem a small point, but I would have been more willing to jump on CH's hard-driving train had he acknowledged this from the start.

Second, I think this would have been a far more interesting book had it more frequently engaged the question, why? For example, CH makes the point that the founding tales for different religions have many elements or tropes in common--an exodus, a scene of denunciation, etc. However, while CH uses these similarities as proof that the religions borrow and steal, that their origins are not true originals, and (hence) that the religion itself is a lie, I find myself wondering why, at particular historical moments, are these types of narratives created? What particular cultural stresses do they address or attempt to sublimate? What does this tell us about narratives, and beginnings, and anxiety?

Third, CH's biggest gripe seems to be that while he is willing to allow others to have their beliefs, he wants them to "leave me alone. But this, religion is ultimately incapable of doing." But in taking this desire to coopt others, to draw them to our way of thinking, as part of religion, he is completely eliding that this desire--based on anxiety and rigid, power-based, binary thinking--operates much more broadly--and, I would argue--needs to be taken even more seriously than CH does.

Here's a minor example. I decided to pull my daughter out of a small charter school here in AZ, where she'd been for several years, to place her in a larger, public elementary school with some special programs. The parents of the children at the charter school were angry. One of them even said, "Well, I guess you think you're too good for us." I couldn't even answer I was so stunned (I was surprised anyone even noticed!). The bottom line was that this parent felt threatened--that she believed that my decision undermined the validity of her own. But--and this is the important part--her feeling of being threatened is predicated upon the belief that there is only one good school, and that all children (who, in temperament and character and needs, are, of course all exactly alike) should go there. If they do not, you, the parent, are bad and have made a bad choice.

Obviously, this is crazy thinking.

But I am profoundly uncomfortably with this rigid and false belief that imprisons us in either/or thinking. It lacks capacity for many things--understanding, empathy, consideration, time, and change.

Saturday, March 20, 2010


So a few weeks ago, I was paging through the NY Times Book Review and I find a half-page color ad for Sarah Blake's The Postmistress. Sarah Blake, I muse, Sarah Blake. Why do I know her name? Suddenly I remember ... we crossed paths very briefly at NYU. She was finishing her Ph.D. in English literature when I was just beginning. So I went online and googled her name. After scrolling through dozens of listings about Sarah Blake, the porn star (who, apparently, has quite a following), I found Sarah Blake, author. I went out, bought her book (in hardcover, as that is what is currently available and I have discovered from another writer friend that they "count" toward an author's sales) and read it in two days.

The book is not, strictly speaking, about the postmistress--a woman named Iris James. I'd say Blake's novel concerns three women: a radio girl named Frankie Bard, who goes to France in search of "the story" of the war; Iris James, the postal worker who listens to Frankie's broadcasts in Franklin Massachusetts; and Emma Fitch, also in Franklin, who listens to the broadcasts as well, knows that her husband is in London as it's being bombed, and may never return. The similarity of all these names and words--Frankie, France, Franklin, Fitch, Frankness (and the shadow of Anne Frank, who was one of the most compelling voices to come out of WWII)--hints at Blake's underlying concern about connections.

Blake's novel poses some serious questions. This isn't to say that the book isn't enjoyable. The characters are well-drawn and the plot compelling. But I think, as with many strong novels, at bottom is a philosophical concern: the ways the world is connected, through voices on the radio, and through letters, and how an undelivered letter--that is, what's left out of a narrative--is just as important as what's included. In either case, the choices about what is included and what isn't should be made consciously and after much reflection.

First Post

Confessions first: I am a paper girl. I have a filofax instead of a blackberry and although I've used the kindle, I still like the feel and smell of books better.

I'm also a wife, a mom of two, and an aspiring writer.

And I'm sort of a bookclub slut, having belonged to several and still on lists for two.

Last confession: I did not like TWILIGHT.

I'm always looking for the next great read, so this blog will be a series of book reviews of what I've read recently. Please agree, disagree, and above all, recommend more books! : )