Friday, December 18, 2009

Recommendations from Julie

The Storm in the Barn (graphic novel) by Matt Phelan
1937 Kansas dust bowl. 11 year old Jack is not happy. His sister has dust pneumonia. His dad is angry and depressed because of his failing farm. And Jack is the target of local bullies. But Jack sees something strange in the old Talbot barn... The story is fantasy blended with realism, done with great empathy. Phelan has done a great job of presenting this desperate time and place.

Skim (graphic novel) by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki
This is a touching story of a teenage girl struggling with issues of death, suicide, sexual preferences, friends and lifestyles.

Friend of the Devil by Peter Robinson
Alan Banks and Annie Cabbot are working on separate cases in different towns: Banks, the murder of a young woman in an area called "The Maze" and Cabbot the murder of a paraplegic in a wheelchair. The story is highly suspenseful plus Robinson's detectives have a lot of depth; you feel like you get to know them.

Push by Sapphire
Reading a book like this reminds me of what a sheltered life I have lived. Poor Precious! Her father began molesting her when she was still in diapers. She was pregnant by him at age 12 and again at age 16. Her mother beat her. She couldn't read. And if that's not enough, when her father died of aids she discovered that she too was HIV positive. Fortunately for her though, one of her persistent teachers got her to enroll in a different school which was geared to meet the needs of people just like Precious. This is a very fast, easy read that leaves you troubled but hopeful.

Dust Devils by James Reasoner
James Reasoner missed his calling--he should be writing graphic novels. This story is short and fast with little narrative and lots of action. It would make a great graphic novel. As a non-graphic novel it's short and sweet; enjoyable but lacking in lasting effects. But it would be so great with pictures!

Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly by Anthony Bourdain
I saw Bourdain speak recently so had to read (I listened in this case) his book. It was a great listen (read by Bourdain). Lots of rough, rude and crude language, very up front about everything. I learned more than I ever knew, or wanted to know, about being a chef. This book definitely left me wanting more. I can't wait for him to pick up where this one left off so I can hear more about the TV show.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Recommendations from Julie

Bringing Home the Birkin by Michael Tonello
The subtitle of this book is “My life in hot pursuit of the world’s most coveted handbag.” Of course, I had no idea what a Birkin is. Thanks to Michael Tonello I now know a lot about them—the main thing being that I’ll never own one and probably never even see one in my lifetime. The writing was very light and breezy, easy and fun to read.

Thicker Than Water by P.J. Parrish
P.J. Parrish writes quick and easy mysteries. Louis Kincaid is an engaging detective and the stories hold your attention. In this novel, a man recently released from prison is accused of murdering his lawyer.
P.J. Parrish's website.

Self’s Murder by Bernhard Schlink
The three main points of interest in this book are the time and place: Germany after the fall of the wall; and the fact that the detective is an elderly man, a former public prosecutor. The case starts out as a search for a pre-WWII bank partner but ends up a case of multiple murder. The case is multi-layered because of the state of Germany during the war, after the war and the present time. Germany has had some major events in the 20th century and it is very interesting to see the effects of these events in fiction.

Bayou by Jeremy Love
Very interesting, fantastical and sad graphic novel. It takes place in 1933 Mississippi where a black body is swinging from every tree. Lee is a little girl whose friend, a white girl, is eaten by the monster of the bayou. Lee's daddy is accused of the crime and hauled off to jail. Lee sets out to find the monster and make him give back the girl so her daddy can go free. Lee is a little girl with a lot of grit and the creatures of the bayou and of the woods are so imaginative they transport you back to childhood where there are both good and bad monsters all around us. I can't wait for vol. 2.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Recommendations from Judie

It seems that I’ve been reading novels lately that start with a fatal car accident and then go off in interesting directions from there. Here are three very different but equally entertaining titles that I recently finished.

Bird in Hand by Christina Baker Kline
Alison is driving home from a friend’s book publishing party in New York City when she has an accident which leaves a boy dead. Although she didn’t cause the accident, she’s haunted by guilt and finds her husband Charlie strangely unsupportive and distant. As the novel evolves, the story of her marriage and her author friend’s marriage bounces back and forth in time, revealing a complicated past and present.

Life Without Summer by Lynne Reeves Griffin
Writer Tessa is consumed with grief when her daughter Abby, who was playing outside at her preschool, is killed by a hit and run driver. In an effort to cope with her pain, she starts meeting with a therapist whose journal entries intertwine with the ones written by Tessa and tell the parallel story of her family struggles. As the two stories evolve, the bond between the women grows and their lives become defined by the search for the guilty driver.

Blame by Michelle Huneven
History professor Patsy MacLemoore is convicted of hitting a mother and daughter in her driveway while driving drunk and is sent to jail. The book follows her struggle to come to terms with her terrible guilt and to rebuild her life after serving a 2-year sentence. The ordeal and the commitment to sobriety make Patsy a kinder and more thoughtful person who works hard to be good and create a more meaningful life.
Michelle Huneven's website.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Recommendations from Julie

The Song is You by Megan Abbott
Ken Bruen calls her books "a wrenching poetic noir vision of loss and regret" and I think that's a perfect description. You get caught up with the characters weaving their way through messes possibly of their own making. They may be characters that you normally wouldn't like, but the world in the novel is so corrupt that many of the characters feel like victims, and therefore worthy of sympathy. Megan Abbott is definitely the new queen of noir.

The Blade Itself by Marcus Sakey
A former felon who has gone legit is hounded by his former partner-in-crime to do another job. Sakey grabbed me with the last paragraph of the 1st chapter and he didn't let go until I had finished the book. Very suspenseful!

Bad Chili by Joe R. Lansdale
Mark Twain meets Elmore Leonard in this folksy, funny, East Texas mystery revolving around King Arthur, king of the chili cook-offs and gay-biker infighting. The town is a little safer with Hap, his buddy Leonard and with a little help from out-of-town p.i. Jim Bob around to deal with the unsavories. A fun read!

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Recommendations from Julie

Helping Me Help Myself by Beth Lisick
Beth Lisick took a year in her life to investigate different inspirational self-help gurus. She learned a little something from each one of them but what makes the book enjoyable is the character of Beth Lisick. It is a joy to watch her on her self-improvement journey attempting to incorporate all of the advice into her very interesting life.

The Film Club by David Gilmour
A father allows his 16-yr. old son to drop out of school on the condition that they spend their time together, watching movies. This is a film lover's dream: to spend one's days watching films, but what really grabs you about this book is the father's love and devotion for his son.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Recommendations from Julie

A Good Death by Elizabeth Ironside
1944 France. When the owner of a country estate returns home from the war he finds his home and family in tatters and a dead SS officer at his front gate. The mystery is in unraveling the events of the German occupation of the estate and the effects on the family. Very interesting.

The Photographer by Guibert/Lefèvre/Lemercier
French photographer Didier Lefèvre accompanied the Doctors Without Borders group into Afghanistan during the war with Russia. This is his photo-diary of the trip. This is an amazing graphic novel!

South by South Bronx by Abraham Rodriguez
Rodriguez has an experimental, inventive and lyrical writing style which is not the easiest to keep track of but the story does give you a general feel for and picture of the South Bronx.

Bury Me Deep by Megan Abbott
Megan Abbott is great at noir crime fiction! She ably and sympathetically describes a young woman's fall from grace: her introduction to the world of sex, drugs and alcohol followed by her enforced toughening when she has to deal with the mess in which she finds herself. This book is very well-written--you can't put it down!
Megan Abbott's website.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

War Stories . . . recommended by Suzanne

Wrongful Death by Robert Dugoni
Although Dugoni writes legal thrillers, this is more of an action thriller than a courtroom drama. Attorney David Sloan is hired by the widow of a National Guard soldier killed in Iraq. She wants to sue the military for his death, but the law doesn't allow suits if a soldier died in the line of duty. When the surviving members of the guardsman's unit start to die, Sloan suspects his death was not a straightforward combat death. I don't think I'm giving too much away, because Dugoni introduces this possibility early on. Although Iraqi insurgents were the soldiers' enemy, the villains in this book are evil American corporations. The book could have been more tightly plotted. There's a backstory about Sloan's childhood that was totally irrelevant. The theme of parent-child relationships (Sloan was abandoned as a child and grew up in foster homes) is rather ham-handed - some of the "tug-at-your-heartstrings" scenes (for instance the dead soldier saying goodbye to his daughter before he leaves for Iraq) made the story sag. (Robert Dugoni's website.)
Verdict: This is an intelligent and suspenseful conspiracy thriller.

The Increment by David Ignatius
Harry Pappas, working in the Iranian division of the CIA, is in charge of communicating with an Iranian scientist who contacts the agency with a cryptic message about his country's nuclear weapons program. Harry's director and the U.S. president are pig-headedly insistent that "action must be taken" immediately. In other words, they want to go to war with Iran. Charlie knows they don't have enough evidence - is the scientist trying to tell them the program is making progress, or that it is a failure? Charlie, tormented by his Marine son's (needless, as he sees it) death in Iraq, doesn't want his country to start another war in the Middle East. When his advice is ignored, Charlie feels he must look for help outside the agency. Things get very complicated when he contacts his friend in the British spy service. The book takes its title from a shadowy team of British Special Forces agents who do black ops. I'm not sure why Ignatius titled the book after them. The book is really Harry's story.
Verdict: This is a terrific spy thriller. Harry is a memorable character.

Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45 by Max Hastings
The last year of the WWII in Asia is vividly told in this long but never tedious account. Hastings keeps the story personal by alternating accounts of battles, strategy and statistics with first-hand accounts by leaders, soldiers and civilians. This is not an overview - the accounts of the horrors of Okinawa, Burma, Iwo Jima, the Japanese occupation of China are extensively and graphically described. Hastings is opinionated - he begins the book by saying that although the war in Europe has gotten more attention, the war in the Far East caused at least as much if not more suffering among combatants and civilians. American losses were 31/2 times what they were in the European theater. He writes about the mistrust between the British and the American commanders. Few of the generals and politicians, Allied or Japanese, gets a high score from Hastings. His judgments are balanced, however. While he gives MacArthur a scathing review as a military leader, he says he was an intelligent administrator of postwar occupied Japan. He disagrees with historians who conclude that the Japanese were on the verge of surrendering before the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Recommendations from Julie

Sanctuary by Ken Bruen
Jack Taylor is back, climbing on and falling off the wagon. Now he has to rescue a child and save himself from a murderous ex-nun. This book offers new developments in his life—I will definitely be reading the next Jack Taylor novel.
Ken Bruen's website.

Cracker Bling by Stephen Solomita
The main character is a kid who's just gotten out of prison & immediately falls in with some bad people. On the other side is an alcoholic cop who is physically falling apart. The two become accidental partners in the case & form a rather interesting team leading to a surprising ending. I enjoyed this one.

Firewall by Henning Mankell
Henning Mankell is a great writer! I love that he combines a great mystery, police procedural & social commentary all in one book. This one has to do with an international terrorist plot involving banks. The deaths are gruesome but Wallander & the secondary characters all evolve making for a great series. Mankells' series is the best to come out of Sweden since the great Martin Beck series by Per Wahloo & Maj Sjowall.
Henning Mankell's website.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Recommendation from Macaire

Financially Ever After:
The Couples’ Guide to Managing Money

by Jeff D. Opdyke

Whether tying the knot or deciding to cohabitate, hammering out financial issues is a major part of setting up housekeeping. Opdyke, the Wall Street Journal’s Love & Money columnist, covers a broad range of topics in a plain, no nonsense fashion that is accessible even to those who have never cracked the spine of a personal finance book.

Beginning with Section One “Money Matters Before Marriage,” Opdyke outlines the ten questions every couple must ask, and why. These cover everything from discussing each partner’s financial history and aspirations to who needs a prenup and who buys the engagement ring. Section Two covers "Money Matters After Marriage," including budgets, debts and savings. Opdyke gives a lot of space to the topic of money and emotions, the big sticking point in many relationships.

Overall, this is a good primer and starting point for conversations that are important to have whether you are merging households for the first time or the fifth.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Great Books for Summer . . . reviewed by Suzanne

Here are two excellent and satisfyingly chunky books. They are available in paperback editions you can take with you whether you read at the beach, in Paris, or in your backyard.

PART TWO: Nonfiction

Gandhi and Churchill
by Arthur Herman

This fascinating history made me painfully aware of my almost total ignorance about India’s history. Herman has written an excellent revisionist account of the lives of these two mythic individuals. Reading this, they became considerably less mythic. Gandhi was a racist (while in South Africa he tried to convince the British to give Indians the same status as whites, but he considered black Africans not their equals), and Churchill had a giant ego and refused to acknowledge his mistakes (including the disastrous Gallipolli campaign of WWI). Don’t let the length of the book dismay you. It’s well worth the investment in time it takes to read.
Read the Commentary Magazine review.

The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals by Jane Mayer
Unless you are a fan of Dick Cheney, this book will raise your hackles. If you are a Cheney devotee, you might want to skip it, since he does not come off very well in this account of the methods used to pursue the “war on terror”. I learned that there was much more to the horrors and abuses of "enhanced interrogation" at Guantanamo and the "black sites" overseas than the news accounts covered. This is a tragic book; it made me very sad to learn the extent to which individuals in the government, military and CIA lied and covered up to subvert the constitution. There's so much evil in the story; however it was heartening to learn about the heroic efforts of some lawyers, military people, and FBI agents who protested the use of torture and tried to get it stopped. This is a superb choice for anyone interested in politics.
Read the New York Times review.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Recommendations from Macaire

The Smoke and
Spectres in the Smoke by Tony Broadbent
Having survived the war, Jethro the cat burglar is hard at work trying to survive the peace by relieving the wealthy of their remaining treasures when he attracts some unwanted attention. His Majesty’s Secret Service gives him the option of pulling a few jobs for MI5 or going to jail.

In The Smoke, Jethro is asked to break into the Soviet Embassy. Simple enough on the surface, but nothing is as it seems when you are playing spy games. With London’s crime bosses and MI5’s special operatives looking on, the talented Cockney creeper has his work cut out for him.

In Spectres in the Smoke, Jethro is once again called upon to help defuse political threats, this time by retrieving letters and photographs that could prove embarrassing to certain members of the Royal Family and other VIPs. When the caper requires that he impersonate a wealthy, upper crust businessman at a country estate, Jethro receives a little coaching from none other than Ian Fleming and David Niven. Putting real people in fiction is always tricky, but the cameo appearances are well done and add a nice dimension to the story.

Jethro’s adventures in espionage in post-War London are suspenseful and entertaining. The author creates a likeable character and wonderful atmosphere, effectively evoking the time period with details of everyday life. The city of London, or “the Smoke” in Cockney slang, is a brooding, seething backdrop to a society going through tremendous change, and traveling through it with Jethro as he dodges both good guys and bad guys in turn is tremendous fun.
Tony Broadbent's website.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Great Books for Summer . . . reviewed by Suzanne

For reading on lengthy and lazy summer days, I look for a book I can linger over. Here are two long novels. What held my interest--and I would have gone on reading if they had been twice as long--were the richly drawn characters and the detailed way the characters’ lives are described.

PART ONE: Fiction

Cutting for Stone
by Abraham Verghese
Verghese is a physician. I read his excellent nonfiction book My Own Country years ago. This, his first novel, is human in scale, humane in message, and a wonderfully told story.

Two brothers, born conjoined in a clinic in Ethiopia to a young pious nun from India. Their father, or so everyone thinks, is an American physician working at the clinic. I can’t tell you more plot details without giving too much away.

After their birth, the boys are separated in a difficult operation. They grow up in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where they are raised by the loving clinic staff. One of the brothers leaves Africa to do his medical training in America. That’s not the only reason he leaves, but again, I won’t give the story away.

The characters are unforgettable, especially Dr. Ghosh, who will long remain one of my favorites. Love, politics, betrayal, revolution, family, illness and healing are all ingredients that Verghese weaves together into a beautiful, tender story. There’s nothing stylistically or thematically innovative about this novel; it’s plain good storytelling.
Abraham Verghese’s website.

The Help
by Kathryn Stockett
Abileen, one of three narrators, describes her daily and weekly tasks--polishing the silver, ironing the dress with dozens of pleats, cooking for the weekly bridge club--in detail. The two other narrators are Minny, Abileen’s irrepressible friend, who has trouble staying employed because she is “sassy”, and Miss Skeeter, a 22-year-old white woman who aspires to be a writer but still lives at home where she is bossed around by her mother. How and why the three women become friends is the core of the story.

“Help” is, of course, a euphemism for domestics, or as my mother called them “maids.” I grew up in Virginia around the time period in which Stockett’s novel is set. We had a “maid”, and, like the white characters in the book, she arrived on the bus, wore a uniform, worked all day at the duties my mother set out for her, and then returned home. That my mother had a “maid” is a huge irony. Raised on a tobacco farm in North Carolina, where she and her 10 siblings worked from and early age at chores around the house and on the farm, my mother did not belong to the Junior League, the women’s group at the church (she was an agnostic) or own a silver service that required polishing. I wonder in retrospect if she had a woman come in to do housework because it was the thing to do. And, since our house had only one bathroom, the “maid” used it as well as the family. One of the themes in the novel is the insistence by some of the white women that their houses have separate “facilities” for the “help.”

I cringed at the meanness of the hoity-toity, backbiting white socialites and thought their characters were stereotyped and exaggerated, but who am I to say? I’m sure there were white women like that in the South (and elsewhere) in the sixties.

I do know about the reality of Jim Crow laws. Like the white characters in the book who know nothing about the personal lives, joys and sorrows of their domestics, I doubt if my mother knew much about her “maid’s” life. She was one of the black women and men who traveled to the white neighborhoods to work, but who could not live there. There were no African-Americans in the public schools I attended.

Although Stockett describes the characters listening to news accounts of sit-ins at lunch counters and James Meredith integrating the university, this is not political commentary. It’s a book about loyalty, generosity and about smart, proud and determined women with grit. The women are the strength of the book, and I loved them.

I would characterize this as fiction that would be of interest almost exclusively to women. I can’t imagine many male readers picking this up. Read the New York Times review.
Kathryn Stockett’s website.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Recommendations from Julie

The Little Sleep by Paul Tremblay
This was a fascinating detective story! The detective has narcolepsy which makes getting a case and solving it very hard. I can’t wait to read Tremblay’s next book!

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale
It was very interesting to look at the beginnings of detective fiction by looking at a true crime that took place in Victorian times. It's rather amazing that one case could have the impact on a society to create in the imaginations of writers an entire genre of fiction.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Fashion Victim . . . reviewed by Suzanne

Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution by Caroline Weber
Before Michelle Obama and Carla Bruni Sarkhozy, before Princess Di, there was Marie Antoinette. The Austrian princess was married at age 14 to the heir to the French throne in order to improve relations between their two countries. Initially unpopular with the French people because of her foreignness, her situation remained tenuous for years because she remained childless (not her fault!).

The blond-haired, porcelain-skinned, blue-eyed beauty learned to exercise power over people through her appearance and her clothes. As the author says, Marie Antoinette used fashion as a “high stakes political game.” In a court where the king’s wife traditionally remained subservient and in the background, she became famous - and sometimes infamous - for the outrageous styles she flaunted. She wore pants and rode astride instead of sidesaddle, she refused to put on the restrictive corset royal women were expected to wear and she adopted the "pouf", a construction of fake and real hair, horsehair, scaffolding and decorations that could tower as high as 3 feet above the wearer's head. Her outfits, accessories and hairstyles were copied by women of the nobility and bourgeoisie, sometimes driving their husbands into bankruptcy.

Her styles evolved during her years at court. When her husband completed the small palace, the Petit Trianon, for her as a retreat from the formal court life at Versailles, she adopted simple clothing - white gauzy dresses and straw hats decorated with ribbons and flowers.

By 1774 France was in a perilous economic state - huge deficits amassed to pay for costly wars meant crushing taxes on the middle and lower classes. Bread riots, unrest and criticism of the monarchy became increasingly frequent and violent. The queen's enormous clothing and jewelry bills (she consistently overspent her allowance) added to the economic woes and added fuel to the people's rage (the press mockingly labeled her “Madame Déficit”).

During the ferment of the revolution, she continued to express herself through her clothing. She initially, though reluctantly, wore red, white and blue, the colors that indicated solidarity with the political and social changes that were taking place. Later, she gave them up and defiantly took to wearing white, black and green - royalist colors.

Her last fashion statement, made in preparation for her final public appearance to meet Madame Guillotine, was carefully calculated to create a dramatic last impression.
And so, shedding the ragged black dress in which she had faced her accusers, Marie Antoinette slipped into her plum-black shoes, a fresh white underskirt, and her pristine white chemise. To complete the ensemble, she put on the white déshabilé dress Madame Élisabeth had sent her from the Temple and wrapped the prettiest of her muslin fichus around her neck. She even removed the dangling black ribbons from her makeshift widow’s coif: the result was a pared-down, ruffled linen bonnet as colorless as her hair. Paler than ever…, the Queen became a figure of pure, radiant white.

Queen of Fashion combines two topics I love the most: clothes and French history. The author, an academic historian, managed to make the book both informative and immensely entertaining.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Dogs and Fast Cars . . . reviewed by Judie

The Art of Racing in the Rain
by Garth Stein
I greatly enjoyed this book narrated by Enzo, the dog and best friend of Denny Swift. Denny is an avid race car driver who brings Enzo home as a puppy and gradually expands their family to include a wife and daughter, a house and a sports car. As their lives take some difficult turns, Denny’s strength is tested. Enzo listens and encourages him wordlessly as he observes the many human complications and despairs about his inability to speak and his lack of opposable thumbs, which he longs for and looks forward to having in his next incarnation as a man. Recommended for all of us who love dogs and fast cars!
Garth Stein's website.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Suspenseful Books . . . reviewed by Suzanne

Tsar by Ted Bell
Alex Hawke is an updated James Bond. Wine, women and danger are his metiers. Although he’s a British special forces veteran, he does special jobs for the CIA and the U.S. president. Hawke is wonderfully colorful. His father was a British lord, and his mother American. One of his ancestors was a pirate. The “Hawke” books are long and rather rambling, with several plots going on at once. You have to be patient and let yourself enjoy the stories and the quirky characters. As Tsar opens, Hawke is in Bermuda recovering from his last assignment. He meets a beautiful Russian artist with whom he has an affair, but has to leave her when he gets called back into action to foil a plot by a mad Russian who threatens to destroy the world. Not with Hawke and his team around! Ted Bell's website.

Now You See Him by Eli Gottlieb
The unraveling of the lives of two men who grew up in a small upstate New York town is the subject of this suspenseful novel. It’s told in 1st person by Nick, who learns of the murder-suicide of his best friend Rob and his girlfriend in New York City. Nick struggles to understand what could have happened to the handsome, talented Rob to make him end his life this way. In the meantime, Nick’s marriage is falling apart. It’s a story of secrets and lies. Eli Gottlieb's website.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Ties That Bind:
Family and the Shaping of a Woman’s Identity
. . . reviewed by Gail

“The role of daughter, sister, and/or mother dramatically shapes who and what a woman will become and how she will live her life.”

“A woman’s experiences with the female relationships within her nuclear family determine who she will be today and tomorrow. “

“The close personal relationships (both positive and negative) and female bonding within the intimacies of family prepare women for the rigors of life and the complex relationships that will ensue.”

As a daughter raised primarily by a single mother, a sister to two older female siblings, and a mother of two daughters (who are sisters to one another), I can affirm with absolute certainty that these relationships have indeed made me the woman I am today and will continue to shape my identity.

What We Keep by Elizabeth Berg, I See You Everywhere by Julia Glass, and Things I Want My Daughters to Know by Elizabeth Noble capture the essence of the beauty, fragility, competitiveness, heartache, and solidarity of the bonds between mothers and daughters and sisters.

What We Keep by Elizabeth Berg
Two sisters growing up in the 1950s share a multifaceted love/hate relationship. One night, Ginny and Sharla overhear their distraught mother screaming at their father about her unhappiness and telling him that she is miserable and never wanted children. Their mother leaves, only to return a few months later to explain that she is never coming back. Although both girls tacitly agree not to forgive their mother, Sharla, the older of the two girls, is more stalwart in her position, while Ginny harbors romantic delusions of who her mother was. Sharla is furious with her mother, yet Ginny is heartbroken and always seems to make excuses for their mother’s erratic behavior. Over the years, the two sisters maintain a loving, yet distant relationship. Thirty-five years after their mother’s abandonment, Sharla calls Ginny to explain that she is awaiting the results of a cancer test and perhaps it is time to reconcile with their mother, with whom they have had no contact. In flashbacks, the author revisits the sisters’ childhood and examines the impact their mother’s leaving has had on them. Domestic details, the duality (strength and fragility) of the bond between sisters, and the inescapable tie that exists between a mother and her children are accurately and vividly portrayed. Berg pointedly examines the roles and relationships of mother and daughters and sisters and shows how forgiveness and reconciliation are possible. Elizabeth Berg's website.

I See You Everywhere
by Julia Glass
Louisa and Clem Jardine are as opposite as two sisters can possibly be. Louisa, the older sister and conscientious student eventually seeks marriage, children, and classic domestic sensibility, while Clem is lured by wild pursuits in both her career path and her love life. Told through alternating voices, the sisters recount very different versions of their lives from 1980 to 2005. The Jardine sisters share a complex bond always trying to outdo the other while simultaneously seeking approval from the sister they supposedly abhor. Glass’s well-drawn female characters embody the true meaning of sisterhood and the two-sided nature of the sister’s relationship makes for a compelling read. This is an engaging, intelligent, funny, and thoughtful novel with a surprising conclusion. Despite the Jardine sister’s differences, the ties that bind the two cannot be severed and, in the end, the love they share for one another can never be denied.

Things I Want My Daughters to Know by Elizabeth Noble
Four sisters, ranging in age from fifteen to thirty-eight, struggle to construct meaning from their mother’s demise as they comb through the letters and journal their mother left after her death from terminal cancer. Noble’s tearjerker novel will resonate with all mothers, daughters, and sisters, who recognize the importance of these female relationships within the intimacies of the nuclear family. Through their bereavement and soul-searching, the four sisters come to understand how their individual relationships with their mother and each of the sisters have shaped the women they have become. Without each other, they would not be the women they are. This novel provides a nice harmony among sadness, humor, regret, forgiveness, reconciliation, and hope. Things I Want My Daughters to Know is a fast-pace satisfying read. Elizabeth Noble's website.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Historical Fiction – War Stories . . . reviewed by Suzanne

The Piano Teacher
by Janice Y.K. Lee
This is a stylistically conventional story, but very well told, about British and Chinese people in Hong Kong during WWII and about how they survive (or not) during the Japanese occupation. The story flips back and forth from the wartime setting to 1952 and ‘53 and the survivors of the war. Stories begin to be told about who did what during the war and accusations of collaboration rear their ugly heads. Several characters bridge both stories; the main one is Will Truelove (hmmm!), who after the war works as a chauffeur for Victor and Melody Chen. Before the war he was in love with Trudy Liang, a Eurasian woman who refused to evacuate before the Japanese arrived, and who has a tough time of it during the war. There's also a subplot about art treasures claimed by the Chinese and the British that were hidden during the war and that the Japanese command wanted to get their hands on. The novel reminds me of those '50s movies about doomed lovers in wartime that my mother used to love to watch and cry over. Janice Y.K. Lee's website.

Tallgrass by Sandra Dallas
Rennie Stroud is 14 and living in Ellis, Colorado, when the Japanese arrive. They're actually Japanese-Americans, but because they're deemed a "security risk" they are forced to live at the camp built for them in nearby Tallgrass. The Strouds are a close-knit, loving family and refuse to participate in the racism and hatred of their neighbors. Mr. Stroud hires some of the young men from the camp to harvest beets, a move that angers many of the townspeople. This is a heartwarming book about decent folks who do the right thing.

Life Class by Pat Barker
Pat Barker is the author of the Regeneration trilogy, which has become a modern classic about WWI. She returns to the Great War in this heartbreaking story (is there any story about WWI that is not heartbreaking?) about a group of young art students in London. Their hopeful lives are ripped apart by the war. Read the New York Times review.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Recommendation from Julie

The Small Boat of Great Sorrows by Dan Fesperman
When an exiled policeman from Sarajevo is called in to work with the International War Crimes Tribunal to find an ex-Nazi collaborator he finds himself drawn into a world of espionage, intrigue and family secrets in postwar Bosnia and post-cold war Europe. Exciting! Dan Fesperman's Website

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Mysteries: Noir, Historical and Detective
. . . reviewed by Julie

South of Hell by P.J. Parrish
This is my second Louis Kincaid novel and I enjoyed this one as much as the first. I love the way the author has parallel plots going on with different characters at the same time. This was a quick, easy and fun read.
P.J. Parrish's Website

The Color of Blood by Declan Hughes
This took me awhile to get into it but once I did I was hooked. The plot was exciting and that is what kept you going. Ed Loy is an interesting detective but I didn't really learn much about him. The Irish Catholic elements I found very interesting.

The Barbarous Coast by Ross MacDonald
I love Ross MacDonald—he's a classic noir writer in the style of Raymond Chandler. He is great at providing a sense of moral decay in L.A. and always has a misguided, troubled daughter to rescue.

A Paragon of Virtue by Christian Von Ditfurth
As members of a wealthy real estate family in Hamburg, Germany are murdered, the police are led to believe that the motive can be found in the past—during the Nazi regime. Stachelmann, a history professor who specializes in Nazi Germany becomes involved and through both research and footwork solves the crime. This is the first of a series and was absolutely fascinating.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Expand Your World, Read International Literature . . . from Suzanne


A friend came into the library recently and asked me for book recommendations. She’s a former language teacher, has traveled widely, and particularly likes books with foreign settings. The first books that came to mind were some of my stand-by favorites. These included:
  • The Seven Sisters by Margaret Drabble, set in England, plus in the course of the novel the narrator takes some friends on a trip to Greece, I believe.
  • Heat Wave by Penelope Lively, set in the English countryside.
  • Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson, set in Norway.
  • The Sixteen Pleasures by Robert Hellenga, set in Florence, Italy.
Since then I’ve been making a list of other books to recommend to her and other readers who like to travel through books, and specifically about books translated from other languages. Two of them are:
  • Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon (Spain, Barcelona specifically)
  • Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier

Thoughts on International Literature

The most dramatic change in fiction publishing over the past 5 years, in my opinion, is the proliferation of contemporary fiction titles from abroad that are translated into English. I’ve read in various journals, including Publisher’s Weekly, about the challenges faced by foreign publishers because of the expense of translations, with no assurance that books that have been best sellers in Europe are going to make it big in the U.S. market. In fact, two books whose U.S. publication I anticipated for a long time, both blockbusters in Europe, have not had huge sales here. These are:
  • Cathedral of the Sea by Ildefonso Falcones de Sierra (Spain). This book is an 811-page saga of a Catalan family whose story is told in the context of the building of the Church of Santa Maria in Barcelona over an 80-year period. It’s long and rambling, and not as melodramatic as Ken Follett’s medieval soap operas, but better, if you have the patience.
  • The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. I read this book last month, and it immediately became one of my favorite novels of the year. Rather than write a review, I’ll put you on to Michael Dirda’s Review, which sums up the loveliness of this book.
For all of you who, like me, love to “expand your borders” through books I have some recommendations and some websites. You’ll notice that a lot of these are by French authors, and that’s because I’m an ardent Francophile.
  • Nada by Carmen Laforet (Spain)
  • The Theory of Clouds by Stephane Audeguy (France)
  • The Yacoubian Building by Alaa al Aswany (Egypt)
  • The Mystery Guest by Gregoire Bouillier (France)
  • Hotel Crystal by Olivier Rolin (France)
  • The Waitress was New by Dominique Fabre (France)
  • The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante (Italy)

Websites with Book News and Reviews

Two excellent websites for information about literature in translation, literary prizes, essays and stories are:

Words Without Borders

Man Asian Prize

I found a great list of translated books nominated for the “Best Translated Book 2008” award from Three Percent, a resource for international literature at the University of Rochester.

Three Percent

Friday, January 16, 2009

Thrillers Again . . . reviewed by Suzanne

The Black Tower by Louis Bayard
The only son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, the guillotined king and queen of France, was locked in the Temple Prison where he languished for years, an innocent victim of the revolutionaries' hatred of the French monarchy. History tells us he died there . . . or did he? In this historical thriller, Dr. Hector Carpentier is contacted by the great Vidocq, former convict, police spy and "scourge of criminals". Carpentier's name and address were found on the body ("Never let your name be found in a dead man's trousers.") of a murder victim. The story is told by Hector and through the entries in his late father, Dr. Hector Carpentier's, journal. The older physician recounts how he treated a young patient in the Temple Prison when Hector Jr. was just a child. The tone is witty, and there is just the right amount of pathos in the appropriate places. The characters travel around 19th century Paris, which is dirty, dangerous and rat-infested, not the City of Light it is today. Great fun and a book with heart!
Louis Bayard's Web Site

The Legal Limit by Martin Clark
Mason and Gates Hunt are brothers. While Mason went to law school, married and went on to a successful law career, Gates drank too much, did drugs and was eventually arrested and convicted for selling them. Instead of taking a plea, Gates insisted on going to trial, where he lied on the stand. Even after years in prison, he continues to cast blame, not on himself, but on his brother, who he insists could "pull strings" and shorten his sentence if he tried. Flash back to their youth, while Mason was in law school and long before Gates's conviction, when an event occurred that Mason thinks is long behind them. One night, during a confrontation with a rival over a woman, a drunken Gates killed a man. It was senseless and indefensible act of brutality. Mason helped his brother cover up the crime, and neither of them has mentioned it since that night. Now it comes back to threaten Mason. This is a top-notch legal thriller. I recommend it for fans of James Lee Burke.
Martin Clark's Web Site

The Last Patriot by Brad Thor
"At the end of the day, Harvath always did the right thing." In spite of his bravery and dedication, Scott Harvath, the hero of Thor's series, lacks the humor of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher and the sex appeal of Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon. The attempt to create a love life for Harvath is not convincing. He's just too serious to have fun! I’m convinced Scott would rather sleep with his gun. The books are competently written, and this one has an interesting story that hinges on a discovery about the Koran made by Thomas Jefferson. The good guys (Harvath & Co.) are trying to find an unknown document that will shed a new light on Islam, and the bad guys (Islamic extremists) are trying to find it and destroy it. I liked that this book had less graphic violence than some of the other books in the series. And it has a satisfying twist at the end. Recommended for thriller fans.
Brad Thor's Web Site

Le Crime by Peter Steiner
I picked up a copy of this book in my local independent bookstore because it's a thriller and it's set in France. The protagonist is a former CIA operative who left the agency in disgrace years previously. He also left his wife and children. When the book opens, he's living in a small town in France. One morning, sitting on his patio eating his croissant, he sees a body in his front yard. He interprets this as a warning that he is targeted for assassination. I liked that the narrator describes himself as an "old man" and contemplates his aging and sagging body in unflattering terms. There's a flashback to a pilgrimage he took through France, which is how he found the village he lives in. The plotline is thin, the reason he's being pursued by bad guys is - if I understood it correctly - ridiculous, and there are some details about other murders that were not cleared up, unless I missed something. Still and all, I was drawn to the narrator and his French comrades-in-arms, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, and I'll pick up the sequel, "L'Assassin" when I get a chance.

Reviewed by Suzanne

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Favorites of the Library’s
Nonfiction Book Group

The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan
John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath told of the Okies who fled the Dust Bowl. Timothy Egan recounts the stories of those who stuck out the hard times, refusing to leave their land. He begins with the history of the settlement of an area one explorer called “a desolate waste of uninhabited solitude.” Real estate speculators enticed settlers to fictitious towns. Settlers came to this area called No Man’s Land for lack of a better place to live, because they had hope and because they believed the soil could never be used up. A combination of natural and man-made disasters - hailstorms, plagues of locusts, severe cold and heat, and worst of all the “moving earth”, the dust storms that blackened the sky—made their lives a day-to-day struggle.

Supercapitalism by Robert Reich
“Of all the nations of the world, America is assumed to best exemplify the idea that capitalism and democracy go hand in hand,” Reich says in the introduction. He also believes that rampant free-market capitalism has become bloated and has weakened our democratic system. Why do consumers expect corporations to be socially responsible, Reich asks, when they purchase the cheapest goods, regardless of where or under what conditions they were produced? Corporations do not exist to be socially responsible; they are in business to increase stockholder profits. Reich’s suggestions for strengthening democracy include the elimination of the corporate income tax and removing corporate cash from politics.
Robert Reich's Blog

Nixon and Mao: The Week that Changed the World by Margaret Macmillan
In 1972, traveling to China was “like going to the moon.” President Nixon’s decision to go to China posed several risks. Conservative Republicans opposed any diplomatic overtures by Americans to that steadfastly Communist country. Furthermore, Nixon would be humiliated if Mao refused to meet with him. Kissinger was dispatched on a secret advance trip, which even the State Department did not know about, to appraise the receptiveness of the Chinese. This is a fascinating look behind the scenes at the banquets, the competing egos of the Chinese and American officials, and the wrangling over the wording of the final joint communiqué.

Reviewed by Suzanne

Friday, January 2, 2009

Good Books for Nonfiction Book Discussion Groups —Suzanne

Playing the Enemy by John Carlin
I've admired Nelson Mandela for a long time. Without his leadership, South Africa's transition to majority rule would probably have been a lot more violent than it was. This book cemented my admiration for the man—and taught me a bit about rugby, which is like American football but without the protective equipment. I watched a YouTube video of the 1995 World Cup match and one of the Springbok players singing the South African national anthem. This is a truly inspiring book. It’s also timely, since Barack Obama has said he wants to be president of the entire US and bring people together. If you think this is an unrealistic hope, read Carlin’s account of what Mandela did for his country. Obama would do well to take some lessons from Mandela, who consistently made the effort to learn about his political opponents, to get inside their heads and hearts, and to appeal to the best in them.

The Springboks, South Africa’s rugby team, were banned from international competition as a result of worldwide condemnation of the country’s apartheid regime. Because the team members were predominantly white Afrikaners, the team was a recognizable and hated symbol of apartheid to blacks. Nelson Mandela, president of the African National Congress, whose efforts were instrumental in ending apartheid, represented everything white South Africans feared. After majority rule was instituted and Mandela became the country’s first black president they worried that their rights would be curtailed. Carlin tells the surprising and moving story of how Mandela and the Springboks players united to bring all South Africans together through sports.

I plan to use this book in my nonfiction book group. Carlin provides enough background about South African history and about Mandela’s life to make the story comprehensible. The book should launch a good discussion about political and moral leadership.

Reviewed by Suzanne