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Cellophane: A Novel by Marie Arana
 
Book Club Recommended
Fantastic, Fun, Interesting
Cellophane

There is a bit of magical realism here. When Don Victor Sobrevilla decides to make cellophane in his remote jungle paper factory he is unprepared for the result of success. The product’s transparency infects the Don and all those who live on the hacienda; there are plagues of truth and desire as a result.
I could not get either of my "mainstream" book clubs to read this, however. But my "Hispanic" book club is reading it this month and I look forward to the discussion.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer, Annie Barrows
 
Book Club Recommended
Informative, Fun, Interesting
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

We liked Guernsey LPPS, but thought it was a book best enjoyed for the emotional impact; dissecting it only pointed out its flaws and lessened our enjoyment. The epistolary format gave it an intimacy that would have been lost with a more traditional prose. We thought the love triangle with Mark and Dawsey and Juliet was a distraction, and would have preferred more information about Christian and Elizabeth. We talked about resiliency and the ability to find humor in a horrible situation. What held them together throughout their shared experience was that they all knew each other – warts and all – before the occupation. 3.5* on a 5* scale.

 
Book Club Recommended
Dramatic, Interesting, Dark
Definitely NOT ordinary!

SPOILER ALERT !!! I will give away a plot element in this review

The character Henry says it best, "Call it what you will, but this is definitely not ordinary!" Basically this is the story of Hamlet transported to 1972 north woods of Wisconsin, on a farm where they raise a unique breed of dog. Edgar, a mute since birth, must find a way to prove that his uncle killed his father in order to get the farm.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett
 
Book Club Recommended
Insightful, Inspiring, Interesting
THE HELP

In 1962 Jackson Mississippi there is a distinct line between the black maids and the white women who employ them. The line blurs with the white children the maids care for and love. But eventually the children grow up and become their mothers and fathers and the line is back again.

This is a story of one white woman’s efforts to challenge the division by enlisting the help of The Help to write an important book. It’s an unsettling time in the South. Jim Crow laws are still enforced, but challenged daily. Martin Luther King is marching on Washington and giving his “I Have a Dream” speech. Medgar Evers is killed in his front yard. There are sit-ins in Woolworths, and bus boycotts. But even the “good” white families maintain that line – if not in private, in public. No one wants to be the first to buck the tradition … the consequences of doing so are ostracizing for the whites, unemployment, beatings, even death for the blacks.

It’s a compelling read and gives us several different vignettes to consider. We have Skeeter, daughter of a cotton plantation owner (though they prefer to call it a farm) with a trust fund. Miss Hilly, the Junior League President and tyrant of the young Jackson society set. Miss Elizabeth, who can’t be bothered with her own children and doesn’t even recognize herself in the book that her maid helps Skeeter write. Aibileen is a central character. She tries desperately to instill in each child she raises a color-blind moral code, and leaves each family as the child succumbs to family and peer pressure to think differently. She is the first to trust Miss Skeeter with her thoughts on being a maid, and she begins to enlist the help of the other maids in town. Minny is the one who can never be deferential and so is constantly having to look for a new family. She’s sassy and loud, but loyal to a fault and genuinely kind. Ultimately she is instrumental in getting the other maids to trust Skeeter with their stories, and she is the one who gives them the story they need to ensure Hilly will not sabotage them.

The writing is far from perfect however, which is why I don’t give it 5 stars. The author uses first person for all but one chapter – THE BENEFIT – alternating narrators to tell the story. Some of the characters are barely evident – Elizabeth and Celia are one-dimensional, Lou Anne is just a ghost. And Hilly could have been better drawn as well; some complexity would have added much to the story. And there are plot points that go nowhere – Mrs Phelan’s illness, for example.

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
 
Book Club Recommended
Insightful, Interesting, Gloomy
OLIVE KITTERIDGE

This is really a collection of short stories about the people who live in a small coastal Maine town. Virtually all the stories mention Olive Kitteridge, and we learn a little tidbit about her in each one. Olive is a hard woman to know and even harder to like. She is quick to judge, slow to forgive. She is not really in touch with her emotions at all (but then, most everyone is town has the same flaw). You really have all the elements of life in this little town – weddings, babies, death, divorce, affairs, surly children, inattentive spouses, the vulnerable, the lonely. In some of the stories the characters wake up to their dysfunction and take action to change, but we never really learn the result.

 
Book Club Recommended
Insightful, Inspiring
Home to Holly Springs by Jan Karon

This is book 1 of the Father Tim series. Father Tim goes home again and finds many connections he didn’t even know he sought. He also makes peace with the memory of his father, and discovers the truth behind many boyhood mysteries. Audio book narrator Scott Sowers “young” voice isn’t quite right for Father Tim and others of his generation, but he does an okay job of other characters.

Home: A Novel by Marilynne Robinson
 
Book Club Recommended
Insightful, Brilliant, Interesting
Home by Marilynne Robinson

This is a follow-up to “Gilead “, Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, but “Home” is an entirely independent, deeply affecting novel. Glory Boughton, aged thirty-eight, has returned to Gilead to care for her dying father, Reverend Robert Boughton. Soon her brother, Jack—gone for twenty years—comes home too, looking for refuge and trying to make peace. A bad boy from childhood, Jack is an alcoholic who cannot hold a job. He is charming and brilliant, and clearly his father’s favorite, but he cannot find his way in town. He is at odds with his godfather (and namesake), John Ames, though he manages to forge a bond with his sister. This is a moving novel about families, family secrets, love, death and faith. Robinson’s writing is wonderful, but the novel didn’t stir me as much as her earlier work, “Housekeeping.”

The Horse Whisperer by Nicholas Evans
 
Book Club Recommended
Interesting, Dramatic
The Horse Whisperer by Nicholas Evans

13-year-old Grace suffers a terrible accident while out horseback riding one frosty morning. This tragedy sets Grace, her mother, Annie, and father, Robert on separate paths toward healing. Annie, used to being a high-powered business woman, takes charge; she will “fix” Grace’s battered horse, and mend Grace’s spirit in the process. This quest leads them to a Montana ranch where Tom Booker works his magic as the horse whisperer. The horse is terribly wounded, but no more so than mother and daughter, whose close-off emotions have formed scars as binding as the animal’s visible ones. Tom says he is not a miracle worker but he manages to bring those emotions out into the open and set them on a path towards healing, at least until …

It is a gripping story and hard to put down, which makes this long book a fast read. However, I'm not sure Annie was completely believable.

Midwives (Oprah's Book Club) by Chris Bohjalian
 
Book Club Recommended
Interesting, Informative, Dramatic
Midwives by Chris Bohjalian

Bohjalian does an excellent job taking us through the various decisions and viewpoints of one critical night, when a talented midwife saves a baby by performing an emergency Caesarean section after a mother dies in childbirth. BUT, was the mother dead? The story is told by the midwife’s daughter, and focuses on what happens afterwards. This was a great discussion book for our book club.

 
Book Club Recommended
Difficult, Pointless, Dark
White Oleander by Janet Fitch

Astrid narrates this tale of her journey through a series of foster homes in the six years following her mother’s imprisonment for murdering an ex-lover.
Ingrid Magnussen is the quintessential free spirit. Pale, with vivid blue eyes, and nearly white blond hair, she is wraithlike and beautiful; a single mother who is devoted to her only child, Astrid. Ingrid frequently spouts her philosophy that women should be strong and that they do not need the love of a man to flourish. Then Barry Kolker enters their lives, and Ingrid falls hard. When Barry stops calling, Ingrid cannot let go. Eventually her obsession with revenge leads her to concoct a poison of oleander blossoms, and Astrid is left to the foster care system when Ingrid is sent to prison.
Astrid’s experiences are at times horrific, but there are moments of warmth as well. She finds the strength to survive and even flourish for a while. The result is a young woman who is still far from the promise of her talent and intellect, but able finally to confront her mother.
It’s a powerful story, and well-written. The ending feels a little forced, however, wrapping up a bit too quickly.

The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway
 
Book Club Recommended
Insightful, Dramatic, Interesting
The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway

Four citizens of Sarajevo are connected by one of them - a cellist who vows to perform Albonini's Adagio once per day in honor of the 22 victims of a missile strike at a bakery. Powerful images of war and the effects on the civilian population as well as the soldiers.

Song Yet Sung by James McBride
 
Book Club Recommended
Informative, Insightful, Dramatic
Song Yet Sung by James McBride

4.5 stars
McBride is best known for his memoir "The Color of Water." Here he turns his talents to an historical novel based on the true story of Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad that brought so many slaves to freedom in the North.
Liz Spocott, a house slave and mistress to her master, is struck on the head and afterwards can see the future in her dreams. The book opens with Liz in captivity in the attic of a tavern, run by the notorious Patty Cannon and her band of slave stealers (they capture slaves they find alone, hold them until a broker comes to town, ship them south and sell them). She is chained to an elderly “woman without a name,” who recognizes Liz’s gift and tries to impart to Liz the secret code of slaves on the freedom train. The lesson is incredibly brief, and Liz is badly wounded (she’s been shot in the head, though the musket ball hasn’t penetrated her skull) and half delirious. But still she remembers just enough so that when the opportunity presents itself Liz manages to get free (and also free the 13 other slaves in the attic with her).
Of course this means that Patty and her gang will stop at nothing to find Liz. As if that weren’t enough, her master has also hired a well-known slave catcher, The Gimp, to bring Liz back to him. The other slaves are afraid of her because of her perceived powers. The rumor mill is alive with stories about The Dreamer and her magic. So Liz is all alone, ill, and barely knows a few key parts of the code.
The entire novel takes place in the swamps, marshes, inlets, and woods of Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay shore area (Dorchester County to be exact) in about 10 days time. It’s remote and unforgiving. But Liz finds help … first from The Woolman (a former slave who has been raised in the backwoods and swamps) and then from Amber (the slave of Missus Kathleen Sullivan, whose husband, along with Amber’s brother died oystering six months previously).
I thought it was a compelling read, and I learned much about the Underground Railroad and life in pre-Civil War Maryland. I was immediately drawn into the story and stayed up way too late trying to finish it. I think, however, it may not be for everyone, which is the only reason I do not give it 5*.

 
Book Club Recommended
Brilliant
We LOVED this book

Cesar Castillo, the Mambo King himself, is an old man, and is remembering his life (and loves) in Cuba and New York as he approaches death. In the middle of the book is a quote that perfectly describes Cesar’s life: “Me siento contento cuando sufro,” he sang one day, “I feel happy when I’m suffering.”

Cesar and his younger brother Nestor arrive in New York full of ambition and desire to be musicians. They are talented and willing to work hard, and with some luck, put together an orchestra (The Mambo Kings), riding the popularity of the mambo craze of the late 1940s. They even get a guest appearance on “I Love Lucy” after Desi Arnaz catches their nightclub act one evening. The appearance gives them a measure of celebrity and helps them to sell several records. But true fame is just beyond their reach.


**** POSSIBLE SPOILER IN NEXT TWO PARAGRAPHS ****


Nestor is an incredibly talented trumpet player and songwriter, but he suffers from unrequited love for the woman who left him when he still lived in Cuba. He marries Delores and starts a family, but still pines for the “Beautiful Maria of My Soul” of whom he sings. His deep melancholy ends only when the car he is driving skids off the road in a snowstorm, killing him.

Cesar has always been the driving force for the Mambo Kings – a handsome, suave, baritone who charms the audience and spreads his favors among the many women he “loves.” He’s generous to a fault, freely bestowing gifts and money on those he befriends, as well as supporting his family members still in Cuba. But after Nestor dies, he simply cannot continue to be the leader he once was. He descends into a depression that begins slowly to eat at him, fueled by drinking and excess.


****** SPOILER OVER *********


It is a melancholy story, but lyrically told and impassioned. Cesar’s reflections on his life give us a moving portrait of the man, his community and the times. Hijuelos writing is evocative and moving; the book leaves our hearts aching for Cesar and Nestor.

 
Book Club Recommended
Interesting, Adventurous, Brilliant
Literary Thriller

I am confused … in a good way.

Lucy has left her small Ohio town in the dead of night, along with her lover and former history teacher, on her way to adventure and riches; but can she really trust him? Miles has been searching for his missing, apparently schizophrenic, twin brother for years; a recent letter has given him a clue that dates back to their childhood and the fantasy games they played, and at last he is certain where to find him. Ryan has his own identity crisis when he learns that he was adopted; his biological father, Jay, is a ne’er-do-well who has never taken responsibility for anything, until he suddenly contacts Ryan, convinces him to come live with him, and learn his trade.

At its core this is a novel about identity, and it is mesmerizing and intentionally confusing. You have three separate story lines, told in alternating chapters, and without any apparent connection between them, unless you think about identity and reinventing oneself as a connecting theme. I know that Ryan Schuyler is a real person. Lucy Lattimore is definitely a real person. Miles Cheshire and Lydia Barrie are real people. But what about Jay Kozelek, Hayden Cheshire, George Orson?

The novel jumps around in time, making it even more difficult to keep track of all these characters. It starts about two-thirds of the way through the story line; or at least I think that’s where the opening falls in chronology. But don’t let that dissuade you; enjoy the roller coaster ride.

 
Book Club Recommended
Graphic, Dark, Dramatic
Only Reviewing NIGHT

I have only read NIGHT, so am only reviewing the first work in this trilogy.

This is Wiesel’s memoir of his (and his family’s) time spent in Auschwitz. For such a slim volume it packs an emotional wallop. The writing is raw and graphic in places, tender and poetic in others.

The central questions Wiesel leaves in the reader’s mind are: Where is God in such horrible eras of history? How far will one descend when faced with terror and deprivation on a daily basis? How can someone truly recover from such an experience?

The ending, when he looks himself in the mirror, will haunt me for a long time.

The audio book is ably narrated by Jeffrey Rosenblatt. I found his voice irritating at the beginning, but I came to identify his attempt at sounding “young,” after all, Wiesel was just 15 when he was interred, and it ceased to bother me. Rosenblatt does a particularly fine job of performing the last scenes in the book, especially those between Wiesel and his father.

 
Informative, Dramatic
Compelling storytelling

On December 1, 1958 a fire at Our Lady of the Angels Catholic grade school in Chicago killed 92 pupils and three nuns. This is their story. The authors write a page-turning account of the contributing causes of the blaze and of the deaths. Compelling storytelling. I could not put it down.

 
Book Club Recommended
Brilliant, Insightful, Inspiring
A Modern Classic

My all-time favorite book. I first read it when I was about 13 or 14 years old and have read it at least 20 times. I get something new out of it each time I read it. EVERYONE should read this book.
In 1998 I was the discussion leader for my book club and my notes are as follows: "Southern" women/ladies; maturation; tolerance; security; self-esteem. I still am struck with the impact of the story. With Atticus' strength of character and parenting skill.
In 2004 I read the hardcover special anniversary edition and wrote: a singularly powerful book. Lee captures a time and place in American culture. 40+ years old and still fresh!

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

August 14, 2010 UPDATE
I listened to the audio book for this, my (approx.) 20th reading of this classic of American literature. It is my favorite book of all time and each time I revisit it, I find something else that I’ve never noticed before.

The audio version I had featured Academy-Award-winning actress Sissy Spacek. She does an admirable job, though her accent is wrong. She is a Texan, and the Southern Alabama accent is softer than her twang. Still, by the 2nd disc I had stopped noticing this, and allowed myself to be carried into the story by her expert reading.

 
Book Club Recommended
Brilliant, Beautiful
Beautiful writing!

What glorious writing! I had read this before, but read it again for book club. If you've seen the movie (and who hasn't) you'll be somewhat surprised - Denys Finch Hatton is in only a small part of this book. No, Dinnesen's real love was Africa itself.

In November 2008 I read Shadows on the Grass - a group of 4 essays (about 85 pages) at the end of this edition that form an epilogue of sorts to Out of Africa. The writing is so poignant as to make you want to weep, and still fills yourheart with love.

Angela's Ashes: A Memoir by Frank McCourt
 
Book Club Recommended
Insightful, Interesting, Beautiful
Extraordinary

Pullitzer prize winner. Written through the eyes of a child, McCourt shows us a world of abject poverty - of near hopelessness - constant hunger, cold, damp - living daily with death, depression, despair. And yet ... there are momoents of humor and delight. The reader knows, of course, that Frankie will survive; but one finds oneself hoping desperately that he'll escape, that he'll grow and flourish, love and be loved. An extraordinary book.

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
 
Book Club Recommended
Graphic, Brilliant, Scary
Compelling

I first read this "novelized" true-crime book when it was first published. I think that is what made me interested in this genre of reading. I recently re-read the book and found it just as compelling as the first time.
Simply put, nobody does it better. And writing it nearly - or perhaps definitely - destroyed Capote because he got so caught up in the psychology of the killers (Percy Smith, in particular).
Capote's writing is just beautiful. So evocative of place. It is a brilliant work!

City of Thieves: A Novel by David Benioff
 
Book Club Recommended
Adventurous, Dramatic, Interesting
An Impossible Quest

During the Siege of Leningrad, two young men – strangers at the outset – are sent on a mission to procure the impossible. Lev is only 17, an orphan who is the proud leader of his neighborhood fire watch team. When they spot a German paratrooper slowly descending on their street, the group runs to check the body. In their excitement they don’t hear the state police vehicle until it’s almost too late. The penalty for looting and being out after curfew is execution, but Lev is put in a holding cell. Shortly another man is put there with him. Kolya is a Russian soldier, in his twenties; he is handsome (with the “perfect” Aryan features – blonde and blue-eyed) and charming. He’s been caught without any leave papers and is presumed to be a deserter. In the morning, instead of going to their death they are taken to the colonel’s office. He has a proposition for them. His daughter’s wedding is in five days and she wants a wedding cake, for which he needs a dozen eggs. There hasn’t been an egg in Leningrad for months. But if the two can return with the eggs by Thursday, he will spare their lives.

This is a novel about the horrors of war, definitely. But more, it is a novel about friendship and loyalty; about learning to trust when nothing and no one is trustworthy; about finding hope and joy in the most awful of circumstances; about finding depths of courage you never knew you had; and about facing death with dignity. None of WW II was pleasant, but the residents of Leningrad suffered more than most during the siege. The conditions depicted are nothing short of horrific, but the author manages to not dwell there for long. He uses Kolya to keep the partisans, the Germans, and the readers charmed and looking forward. I was completely drawn into the story and found myself rooting for these two unlikely companions on their impossible quest. I loved the ending, too.

Benioff is a screenwriter, and it shows; most scenes are very visual. I have no idea if a movie is planned, but if it is, I can guess who will write the screen play.

 
Book Club Recommended
Insightful, Inspiring, Interesting
Emotional journey

McBride and his eleven siblings knew their mother was a free-thinking, intensely private, strong-willed woman, who demanded excellence from her brood. She was disorganized and overwhelmed, but they knew she loved them. She believed firmly in Jesus Christ and insisted they all attend church each Sunday. She also insisted that they attend the best possible public schools … which meant the Jewish public schools where they were frequently the only Blacks in attendance. They lived for most of their youth in Brooklyn’s Red Hook projects. Certainly they knew their mother wasn’t like the other kids’s mothers; but when they asked, she would simply say, “I’m light-skinned.” When James asked if he was black or white his mother’s curt response was, “You’re a human being. Educate yourself or you’ll be a nobody!” When he asked what color God was, his mother answered, “He’s the color of water.”

But eventually, and after repeated pleas, James convinced his mother to tell the story that he and his siblings never knew – or even suspected. She was not only white, but Jewish – the daughter of an Orthodox rabbi.

The book is told in alternating chapters – Ruth’s story, and James’s story. McBride doesn’t hold back in this memoir of “A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother.” He clearly outlines the missteps and tragedies, as well as the joy and success of his extended family.

It is emotional and heartfelt, tender and raw, full of the personal issues of race, religion and identity, as well as the societal issues of race and religion.

 
Book Club Recommended
Interesting, Fun, Adventurous
Great Follow-Up to Doyle

When we first meet Mary Russell, she is a 15-year-old orphan, walking the Sussex Downs near her farm in England. She nearly trips over an “old man,” and soon deduces that he is the retired detective Sherlock Holmes. Mary quickly impresses Holmes with her powers of deduction and a friendship begins. It isn’t long before there is a “minor” case of burglary in the area, which Mary is able to solve, and this cements their relationship and increases Holmes’s interest in taking her on formally as his apprentice.

This is a clever and interesting take-off on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s works featuring Holmes and Dr Watson. Unlike Watson, Mary is close to Holmes’s equal in deductive reasoning and powers of observation. She is quick witted, intelligent, assertive, a good actress, and physically strong and agile. I like that King has this work span several years, allowing for some needed maturation of Mary before she is fully tested. I think she behaves in a manner consistent with her age, social standing, experience, and emotional growth. If I had any complaint with Doyle’s Sherlock it was his superior attitude, but seen through Mary’s eyes, I can more easily tolerate his “all-knowing” persona. It helps that in his “old age” Holmes misses a clue or two which Mary catches and points out to him. Way to go, Mary!

The action was a bit slow in places, but I think King needed time to set up her characters and their relationship, so I’m okay with that. It was relatively faithful to Doyle’s style, and, as it is written in first person (as Mary’s recollections), I would expect that kind of pacing and sentence structure. My only regret is that I waited so long to get to this book. I look forward to more of this series

 
Book Club Recommended
Dramatic, Dark, Insightful
Great premise sure to inspire much discussion

Dorris braids a single story told in reverse chronological order, from three unique perspectives. Rayona, a 15-year-old “half-breed,” begins the story, relaying her efforts to raise her own irresponsible mother. We then move to Ray’s mother, Christine, who recounts her struggles growing up and rebelling against her unaffectionate mother, Aunt Ida. Finally we hear from Aunt Ida, the matriarch of the family, whose secrets have shaped her daughter and granddaughter in ways she never intended.

It’s a great premise for a literary work. However, I don’t think Dorris succeeds in his execution. I really grew to care about Rayona, but then her story ends abruptly and Dorris transfers the tale to Christine. Because they are both portrayed as so unfeeling and irresponsible, I had a hard time caring about Christine or Aunt Ida, though I did begin to empathize with Ida when she finally tells her story in part three. HERE is a story I really want to know more about. But Dorris ends the book abruptly … almost mid-sentence.

I’m left feeling very dissatisfied, and almost as if I wasted my time reading this. However, after attending our book club meeting, I see much more in the book. We had a great discussion about a number of issues. I still give it only 2 stars, because I didn't like it, although I do appreciate it a bit more after our discussion.

Gods in Alabama by Joshilyn Jackson
 
Dramatic, Fun, Dark
Some tough decisions

Audio book performed by Catherine Taber -- 3.5***

I have to admit I was engaged and fascinated by the thought processes of the teen-age (and “adult”) Arlene. Assumptions are flung around by everyone, leading even the principle players astray. I was sure I had it figured out, only to be surprised – not once, but twice.

This is a fun, quick Southern gothic read. Jackson doesn’t dwell for long on the dark side – thank God, because it IS pretty dark. Instead she gives the reader plenty of diversions as Arlene and her cousin (practically sister) Clarice Lukey wend their way through high school and young adulthood.

Catherine Taber does a great job performing the audio book. Her southern accent is spot on perfect. Her pacing is brisk enough to maintain suspense and interest, but slow enough to allow the reader to absorb it all. My only quibble with the audio is the totally unnecessary use of background music to set the scene. I really do not need “spooky” music as a background to the darker scenes in order to understand the setting and importance of what is happening. Lost ½ star there.

Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier
 
Book Club Recommended
Interesting, Informative, Inspiring
Remarkable creatures, indeed!

This is a work of historical fiction focusing on two remarkable women who advanced the understanding of natural history with their discoveries. Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot had little in common, being separated by age, education level and social class, but they found friendship in their common interest in fossils. The setting is early 1800’s England – specifically the seaside village of Lyme Regis.

The reader easily sees that Mary’s life is limited by her social class and lack of education. Elizabeth’s prospects are also limited – maybe even more than Mary’s. She’s educated, but has no money or particular social standing, and she cannot rely on her plain looks to help her attract a suitable husband (which, after all, is the goal for women in this time period). I am interested in natural history, so naturally find the history of their scientific accomplishments fascinating. But I am also intrigued by the exploration of the role of women in this time.

I like the way Chevalier develops the unlikely friendship between these two women. Elizabeth does sometimes show a somewhat patronizing attitude toward Mary, and the jealousy caused when a fossil collector pays more attention to the young, uneducated Mary than to Elizabeth strains their relationship. Yet, ultimately their interest in the science and in receiving credit for their contributions is what binds them together. I have to admit that I was sometimes irritated with Elizabeth’s superior attitude, but I applauded her for championing Mary’s cause. As for Mary … I just loved her. She showed such intelligence and drive.

I listened to the book on CD, narrated by Charlotte Perry and Susan Lyons. The two performers of the audio book do an excellent job of voicing these two very different women – Remarkable Creatures, indeed!

 
Dramatic, Dark, Interesting
Misses the mark

3.5 stars

This is a great premise for a novel, and I was completely hooked into the story from the beginning. But I felt Hellenga kept a bit too much distance between the reader and his characters. I wanted to know more about the WHY of what they did, and I didn’t get any answer to that. I was confused about some of their actions … again, WHY did they make certain choices or react certain ways. Instead I got a lot of information and miscellaneous facts – about serpents, or indigenous peoples in Africa, or field dressing a deer. Still the story kept me riveted, and there were twists in the plot line that I really didn’t expect. I would definitely read another book by Hellenga.

LACUNA by BARBARA KINGSOLVER
 
Book Club Recommended
Interesting, Informative, Dramatic
The space between truth and what we think is truth.

I had a difficult time with this novel. I did not like Kingsolver’s voice as narrator at the outset, which made my mind wander as I “listened.” That really has little to do with the novel, except that it is part of the reason I don’t give it that final 5th star, because, ultimately, I loved this book.

Kingsolver tells the story of William Harrison Shepherd, a young man caught in the gaps (the lacunae) between two countries, two parents, two cultures, two lives (public and private). The novel unfolds as a series of diary entries, letters, and newspaper clippings, spanning the period from 1929 to 1954. Never quite at ease with his place in the world, Shepherd is an astute observer, who carefully considers what he witnesses and forms his own opinions. But he is not a man of action; he goes along for the ride, letting history unfold around him and never quite understanding how it has derailed his meager hopes. When he fails to play the media’s game, he finds himself the object of increasingly outlandish stories; and, eventually, accusations taken as truths will destroy him. The lacuna that is most important here is the space between truth and a falsehood perceived as truth.

I love how Kingsolver’s luscious writing paints the landscape and time period. I could just about taste the sugary pan dulce or savory chalupas; was nearly deafened by the howler monkeys, the din of the marketplace or the shouts of demonstrators and riot police; I relished in the colors of the tropics and felt subdued by the grey of a mountain winter.

I listened to the audio book, narrated by Kingsolver. I did eventually grow to appreciate the author’s narration, though I really had a difficult time with her performance at the outset. I thought she was too “careful” with her words; it lacked emotion and “life.” But she really shone, in my opinion, when she voiced Frida Kahlo and, especially later in the novel, Violet Brown. I think I am going to have to read this one again – this time in a text format.

The Lacuna: A Novel (P.S.) by Barbara Kingsolver
 
Book Club Recommended
Slow, Interesting, Informative
The space between truth and what we THINK is true

I had a difficult time with this novel. I did not like Kingsolver’s voice as narrator at the outset, which made my mind wander as I “listened.” That really has little to do with the novel, except that it is part of the reason I don’t give it that final 5th star, because, ultimately, I loved this book.

Kingsolver tells the story of William Harrison Shepherd, a young man caught in the gaps (the lacunae) between two countries, two parents, two cultures, two lives (public and private). The novel unfolds as a series of diary entries, letters, and newspaper clippings, spanning the period from 1929 to 1954. Never quite at ease with his place in the world, Shepherd is an astute observer, who carefully considers what he witnesses and forms his own opinions. But he is not a man of action; he goes along for the ride, letting history unfold around him and never quite understanding how it has derailed his meager hopes. When he fails to play the media’s game, he finds himself the object of increasingly outlandish stories; and, eventually, accusations taken as truths will destroy him. The lacuna that is most important here is the space between truth and a falsehood perceived as truth.

I love how Kingsolver’s luscious writing paints the landscape and time period. I could just about taste the sugary pan dulce or savory chalupas; was nearly deafened by the howler monkeys, the din of the marketplace or the shouts of demonstrators and riot police; I relished in the colors of the tropics and felt subdued by the grey of a mountain winter.

I listened to the audio book, narrated by Kingsolver. I did eventually grow to appreciate the author’s narration, though I really had a difficult time with her performance at the outset. I thought she was too “careful” with her words; it lacked emotion and “life.” But she really shone, in my opinion, when she voiced Frida Kahlo and, especially later in the novel, Violet Brown. I think I am going to have to read this one again – this time in a text format.

The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown
 
Book Club Recommended
Interesting, Fun, Insightful
Repeating our chidhood

I really enjoyed this novel. I loved the exploration of family dynamic, was engaged in the story, liked that there was no “magic fix” to their self-created problems.

The Andreas sisters have always felt that they had a lot to live up to – their parents’ expectations, of course, but also the burden of the great women characters for whom they were named, and their feeling that everyone expects “great things” from each of them. Now they are adults, all back in town to help their mother as she deals with breast cancer. Life has buffeted the sisters and things haven’t turned out quite as they expected, but they seem to cling to the roles they’ve always played and that they feel define them, and this sets up the central tension of the novel.

Brown explores issues of communication, of sibling rivalry, of the dichotomy of seeking independence and yet shouldering responsibility. The sisters have some hard lessons to learn before they can move beyond their disappointments and setbacks, and face the future as true adults.

Book on CD performed by Kirsten Potter. Potter’s performance is just about perfect; giving clear voice to the many characters (I particularly like how she voiced the father and Cordy). I would definitely read another book by Brown, and listen to another audio performed by Potter.

When She Woke by Hillary Jordan
 
Book Club Recommended
Dramatic, Insightful, Interesting
Reimagined Scarlet Letter

This is a vivid reimagining of "The Scarlet Letter." Jordan has created a world that is all too recognizable and believable, though the reader hopes it will never come to that. There is a great deal of discussion on sin, suffering, faith, punishment and redemption; the Right to Life vs Right to Choose battle is central to the plot as well. Hannah struggles with what she has always assumed was the true path, opening her mind to consider alternate views and finding an inner strength. I was completely caught up in the story and could not put this down. However, I was somewhat dismayed at how long Hannah clung to the idea of the “perfect” love she had with the father of her child; I wanted to yell “Wake up!” for much of the second half of the book.

Atonement by Ian McEwan
 
Book Club Recommended
Slow, Dramatic, Difficult
How can you atone for a mistake that drastically alters another's life?

How can you atone for a mistake which so drastically alters someone’s life? This is a complex novel that explores issues of class, guilt, love, war and forgiveness. On a summer day in 1935, at 13-year-old Briony's family estate, she witnesses a part of scene between her older sister, Cecilia, and Robbie Turner, the son of a servant, and her imagination takes off. Additional happenings in the house that same day, including her own snooping, result in a leap of logic and she accuses Robbie of a terrible crime. Her “confident” testimony is what convicts him despite the absence of evidence. This is her crime, whose repercussions the book follows through World War II and beyond, and for which Briony will spend her life trying to atone.

The reader knows this is an injustice and can only hope for an eventual resolution. I was horrified that no one took a good look at the situation and saw the obvious flaws in this young girl’s testimony. But then, she was an upper class young lady of a fine family, and he was the strong laborer trying to “get above his station.” Cecilia, in my opinion, is equally to blame for locking herself in her room at the outset and not coming forward until it is too late to save Robbie. She also atones; she completely cuts herself off from her family and continuously works to try to reverse the damage. Robbie is left to try to piece together some semblance of a life; his service during WW 2 is in part an effort to expunge his record.

Jill Tanner’s performance of this audio book is wonderful. She’s able to express the boredom and outrage of the young teen Briony, the passion and excitement of Cecilia, the anxiety and confusion of Pierrot and Jackson, the petulance and superiority of Lola, and the hope and determination of Robbie.

* * * * S P O I L E R A L E R T * * * *
The issue of class is further evident because while Cecilia firmly believes that Robbie had nothing to do with the attack on Lola, she automatically focuses her attentions on Danny Hardman, a lad from the village. She never suspects Paul Marshall … though it was HE who had scratches on his face from an earlier attempt on Lola. Even though Lola had to seek treatment for cuts and bruises earlier in the day (she blamed her younger twin brothers), no one seemed to put two and two together. Paul, after all, was the scion of a wealthy family, a college man, and a good friend of Leon Tallis. And later in life when Briony wants to tell the “real” story, she is advised against doing so because surely the Marshalls would sue her for libel. Yes, Lola marries her rapist and is now the wealthy wife who, along with her husband, supports many worthy charities. Their “class” insulates them from scrutiny.

Say Her Name: A Novel by Francisco Goldman
 
Book Club Recommended
Boring, Dramatic, Slow
Love Story and Portrait of Grief

2.5** for audio book narrated by Robert Fass.
Goldman found the love of his life in the brilliant, witty, exuberant Aura, and they were looking forward to starting a family when she was tragically killed during a beach holiday. This unexpected tragedy affected everyone in ways no one expected. Francisco was completely bereft and lost in his grief. Eventually he wrote this “novel” – a barely fictionalized story of Aura and of their love.

I had such high hopes for this book. Everything I had heard about it led me to believe this would be a wonderful testament to an enduring love. So what went wrong? At first I thought it was the fault of the narrator; in my opinion, Fass does not have the right voice for this book. Still, I really do not think I can blame the audio version for my lackluster reaction. I have the text as well, and looking through it, reading sections on my own … I just don’t find the “heart” I was expecting.

I will say that the section where Goldman relates that final day at the beach is absolutely riveting. My heart breaks for Aura and Francisco, all their friends and family, and even for those who witnessed the events. I wish the immediacy and emotion of these chapters had been present throughout the book.

Although I didn't really like the book, I still think it makes for a good group discussion, and that's why I recommend it.

Ape House: A Novel by Sara Gruen
 
Interesting, Informative, Unconvincing
I wish she had focused on the bonobos

2.5** for the audio book read by Paul Boehmer.

Isabel Duncan head a university research facility studying language in great apes, specifically bonobos. The day after journalist John Thigpen visits, the center is bombed. Barely recovering from her injuries, Isabel is horrified to discover that the apes are now starring in a reality TV show called The Ape House.

I wondered at times if Gruen was trying to emulate Carl Hiaasen for colorful characters and unusual plot turns. The final confrontation is a little too neatly tied up for my taste, and several subplots seem to go nowhere. I was invested in the bonobo family from the beginning and wanted to know what would happen to them. It was the humans in the book that I never really got to know. The most interesting characters are the minor ones; Isabel and John are somewhat flat, and irritated me more frequently than not.

Paul Boehmer does a good job of performing the work. He’s especially effective voicing John Thigpen. The audio book held my attention, and for that I give 2.5* but I don't think there's enough meat here for a meaningful discussion.

 
Book Club Recommended
Informative, Insightful, Interesting
Immersion into Chinese Culture

3*** for the Audio book narrated by Janet Song.
In 17th century China, Peony has grown up as the only child of the wealthy Chen family. Her father is a scholar and he has encouraged his daughter’s love of books, opera and poetry. She especially loves the opera – The Peony Pavilion, which is controversial because many young maidens have been lured to their deaths by the strong emotions engendered by the love story.

This is a very Chinese story. Steeped in the long-held traditions of ancestor worship, belief in spirits and strict societal roles, See manages to present a story that celebrates feminism and the women writers who are all but forgotten today. But Peony is young and inexperienced, and she (and other young women characters) irritated me no end.

Song’s narration didn’t help this. She has a slow, almost ponderous delivery, which just did not breathe any life into the work.

I think book clubs may enjoy the exploration of feminism in a very foreign culture.

Small Island: A Novel by Andrea Levy
 
Book Club Recommended
Dramatic, Beautiful, Epic
Inevitable, yet unexpected, ending

Set against the backdrop of World War 2 and its immediate aftermath, this is a story with universal appeal. Two couples – the Jamaicans Hortense and Gilbert Joseph and the British Queenie and Bernard Bligh – find their way in circumstances neither ever considered.

Levy has written a gem of a novel that explores every human emotion, but ends with a feeling of hope. I felt for these wounded people and celebrated their triumphs, however small. The four central characters take turns narrating as the action alternates between Jamaica and England. The dialogue is wonderful, including just enough colloquial expression to really bring the characters to life. The novel also goes back and forth in time, building suspense and leading to an ending that is as inevitable as it is unexpected.

On the Beach by Nevil Shute
 
Book Club Recommended
Dramatic, Interesting, Insightful
Intense and moving

This post-apocalyptic novel was published in 1957 and set in 1963. It takes place primarily in and around Melbourne Australia. World war has decimated the northern hemisphere and nuclear debris is slowly spreading on the winds to the southern hemisphere. The residents know that in about nine months they will all get radiation sickness and die. But for now … life goes on.

I cannot remember the last time I was so affected by a book. On a basic level, it touched and awakened all those fears and insecurities I experienced as a child, living in a military town during the Cuban Missile Crisis. I’ve had dreams about the situation these characters find themselves in. What would I do if I knew I was going to die? Would I plant daffodil bulbs I’d never see flower? Would I abandon my obligations to indulge in hobbies? Would I give up and seek the numbing effects of alcohol? Would I embrace the chance at a new love? Would I end it quickly or die a slow agonizing death?

It’s not a “teary” book, but I was in tears at the end. I’m really glad I finally read this book that has been on my to-be-read list, literally, for decades.

Wingshooters by Nina Revoyr
 
Book Club Recommended
Dramatic, Insightful, Scary
Coming of Age amid Hatred and Discrimination

I have heard this book compared to To Kill a Mockingbird; I think that comparison holds up pretty well.

Michelle LeBeau has a white father and a Japanese mother, but lives with her grandparents in Deerhorn, Wisconsin, where she is the only “colored” person in town. Her grandfather, Charlie LeBeau, is one of the town’s most respected men. A bigot who strongly disapproves of his son’s interracial marriage, he nevertheless dotes on his only grandchild. Everything changes in the summer of 1974 when the local clinic expands, resulting in the arrival of Mr and Mrs Garrett – a young black couple from Chicago. Charlie and his friends are incensed and voice their prejudice at every opportunity. Mikey is uniquely able to understand the isolation the Garretts feel, and is drawn to them.

The beauty of this novel is that while it deals with tragedy, Revoyr also is writing about a young child who feels loved and protected by her grandparents, a child who enjoys the outdoors and the freedom to explore the sights, sounds and smells of the country. Michelle has a front-row seat to the happenings in town, and observes the people she knows and loves as their darkest faults come to light. She also begins to recognize what true courage looks like, and the reader can only hope that she will chose carefully which traits to emulate.

Revoyr mines her own childhood for this exploration of family values as much as it is of racism in America. Clearly the isolation her character feels is what Revoyr herself felt in the few years she spent in central Wisconsin as a child (See this story – http://scottkennethnoble.blogspot.com/2011/07/foreigner-in-marshfieldwingshooters-by.html)

 
Book Club Recommended
Dramatic, Inspiring
Glimpse into every day life

I am a fan of NPR’s StoryCorps Project. Simply put, “StoryCorps began with the idea that everyone has an important story to tell.”

In this book, editor Dave Isay compiles some of the more memorable stories recorded in the early years of the project. They are moving, horrific, tender, funny, beautifully simple, incredibly complex, inspiring and loving. The stories are divided into five major sections: Home & Family, Work & Dedication, Journeys, History & Struggle, and Fire & Water. In relating their memories, hopes, fears, joys, disappointments and dreams those who have recorded their stories are leaving a legacy for generations to come.

Frequently this type of collection is best read a little at a time. Certainly that was my intention when I opened it up. I was half-way through another book and thought I’d read a story or two of this one each day until I finished. But I was so mesmerized by these vivid yet simply told stories that I had to tear myself away. I finished it in two sessions. I want more.

 
Book Club Recommended
Insightful, Dramatic, Gloomy
Philosophical short novel

3.5*** This is a moral fable in which Wilder tries to answer the question, “Is there a direction and meaning in lives beyond the individual’s own will?” He explores the characters’ motivations in life, their triumphs and disappointments. Its universal appeal is that Wilder is writing about human nature – conflicted, noble, contradictory, loving, and exasperating. He holds a mirror up to the reader’s own soul, asking the reader to examine his or her own actions and reactions.

All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy
 
Book Club Recommended
Graphic, Dramatic, Adventurous
A violent coming-of-age saga

McCarthy writes a compelling coming-of-age adventure, and paints a vivid landscape. The reader just about tastes the gritty dust of the trail, and feels the muscle ache of a day in the saddle under the hot sun. McCarthy uses little punctuation, no quotation marks, and a fair amount of Spanish. I have both read the text and listened to the audio version. As for the audio book – Alexander Adams does a good job with the many characters, however, he mispronounces place names, and mangles the Spanish spoken by the Mexicans. This irritated me so much I nearly dropped my rating further.

The Forest Lover by Susan Vreeland
 
Book Club Recommended
Interesting, Inspiring, Informative
Paints a vivid portrait

Emily Carr was a pioneering painter, choosing as her subject the lush landscape and pre-European history of British Columbia. She focused her efforts first on recording the incredible art of the First Nations clans, capturing the spirit of the place - the serenity, power and life’s blood of the centuries-old forests that surrounded her. The path she chose was not an easy one. She refused to conform to the expectations of the white Vancouver society into which she was born. She fought her sisters for the money she needed to paint as she felt she must. She suffered negative reviews and scorn of her countrymen for her focus on native peoples. She pushed her way into art studios in France to learn the techniques she would need to capture the spirit of her beloved forests. She refused to compromise her vision, and finally achieved the recognition she deserved.

Vreeland paints a vivid portrait of Emily. I was captured from the first paragraph. There are passages in the novel that are breathtaking, powerful, urgent, serene and/or heartbreaking. I felt Emily’s frustration, elation, confusion, compassion and joy.

I’ve visited Canada many times, going to art museums in Vancouver, Victoria, Toronto and Montreal. Reading the book I can only think that I never saw Carr’s work in all those visits. How could I forget something so evocative and powerful? This novel makes me want to visit “the forest primeval” again, and to see Emily Carr’s paintings.

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
 
Book Club Recommended
Brilliant, Dramatic, Insightful
One Woman's Struggle for Independence

One woman's struggle for independence. The author was part of the Harlem Renaissance of writers. This book tells the story of Janie who is first married to Logan Kennik, and older "safe" farmer; then to Joe Starks, a smoth-talking "respectable" man; but finally finds love with Tea Cake, a gambler and migrant worker. She slowly comes to realize her own desires and to stand up for herself. The timeframe of the book is roughly 1899-1930). Hurston uses the dialect of the poor southern negro, and she was criticized for that choice. At times it is hard to figure out what is happenening, but the writing is SO vivid!

Book club # 1 liked it very much. Book club # 2 was less enthralled - mostly because the dialect made it difficult to read for some members. Both groups had a great discussion, however.

UPDATE: 19May2012
For this third experience of Hurston's masterpiece, I chose to listen to the audio book, performed by the incomparable Ruby Dee. Wow! She gives such life to these characters, such immediacy and drama to the story line. Dee lets the listener live in the story – we enjoy the camaraderie of good friends and neighbors, feel the bone-weary ache of a long day spent picking beans, share the warmth of love, race with terror to outrun danger, and collapse under the strain of the inevitable. Dee’s performance deserves a 6th star!

The Elephant's Journey by Jose Saramago
 
Book Club Recommended
Difficult, Interesting, Adventurous
Worth the effort

This delightful novella reads like a fable or morality tale, but is based on a true incident in European history. In 1550 King Joao III of Portugal decided that the perfect wedding gift for Archduke Maximilian of Austria would be an elephant. The elephant, Solomon, along with his mahout, Subhro, accompanied by a caravan of soldiers, laborers, and numerous wagons and ox carts full of provisions, set out to walk across Central Europe. Along the way they encounter various officials, peasants, priests, and wildlife, each providing an excuse for Saramago to engage in philosophical asides and/or to skewer sacred institutions and beliefs. He treats us to his thoughts on power, dignity, friendship, religion, and human weaknesses. Saramago’s writing is not for the faint of heart. He uses minimal punctuation, and the only capitalization is at the beginning of each sentence. A sentence can be as long as a paragraph. A paragraph can last three or four pages. If the reader can surrender to this style, s/he will be rewarded with a wonderful story told by a master storyteller. I’ve read two other books by Saramago - Blindness and The Double. This book is certainly the most approachable of the three, and would make a good introduction to this author.

The Language of Flowers: A Novel by Vanessa Diffenbaugh
 
Book Club Recommended
Insightful, Beautiful, Interesting
An enjoyable read

Diffenbaugh has used her experiences as a foster mother to explore the emotional wounds and difficulties of a young woman truly left on her own for most of her life. She mentions some of the faults of the system, but mostly she focuses on the impact of ONE good placement on a child’s life. Victoria’s emotional growth is at times painful to read about, but there is much in her life (and in this book) to celebrate. I found the use of the flowers to send messages unique and interesting. I thought the ending was a little too neatly wrapped up, but it didn’t hamper my overall enjoyment.

Never Change by Elizabeth Berg
 
Book Club Recommended
Insightful, Dramatic, Beautiful
The Wonder of Normal, Everyday Things

Myra Lipinski has spent her life looking out at everyone else living their lives. Working as a visiting nurse, she cares with tender efficiency for patients who need the kind of nursing care she can provide. She also feels genuine affection for them, bolsters their spirits and helps them outside of her official duties. But she has to remain professionally detached. But things change when her old high school crush, Chip Reardon, returns to town. He is dying and he needs a nurse.

What I love about Berg’s novels is that she gives us something to think about, but also lets the reader feel with the characters. I felt Myra’s loneliness, exhilaration, peace, fear, anger, and pride. I found myself thinking about what constitutes quality of life, why certain people are attracted to one another, or how a chance encounter can really change the course of one’s life. I like that Berg’s characters are – for the most part – fully fleshed out. Even minor characters show both strengths and weaknesses. Pay attention to the prologue, and after you finish the epilogue go back and re-read the prologue. I love how Berg bookends Myra’s story with these two sections, calling attention to the wonder of normal everyday things.

An Unfinished Life by Mark Spragg
 
Book Club Recommended
Insightful, Dramatic, Beautiful
A gem of a novel

Jane Gilkyson has finally decided to leave her abusive boyfriend. With her 10-year-old daughter, Griff, she takes off in her ancient car, headed for the Pacific Ocean. But when the car dies and she’s left stranded, she has nowhere to turn but to her father-in-law, a man who blames her for the death of his son, and who is living his life in bitterness and misery on a small ranch in Ishawooa, Wyoming. Einar Gilkyson would probably be dead by now, too, except his oldest friend needs him, and that’s about all that keeps him going. It will be up to Griff to help them all see the need to let go of recrimination and regret, and to embrace love and forgiveness.

This is the first book by Mark Spragg that I’ve read, and it won’t be the last. He has mastered the art of “show, don’t tell,” giving us insight into these characters and their complex relationships without spelling anything out. His writing is rather spare, yet he conveys a strong sense of place. The dialogue is spot on; Griff asks intelligent questions but nothing a 10-year-old wouldn’t wonder, especially one who has grown to be a keen observer of others and learned to hold her questions until “the right time.” Einar and Mitch spar like the close friends they are – almost like an old married couple, they can anticipate each other’s thoughts and reactions. There is no pretty bow tying up the ending, either. There is hope for these people, but they still have a ways to go. I like a little ambiguity in my endings.

Spragg alternates different characters’ points of view. This lets the reader know what each character is thinking, but also serves to build suspense in that we aren’t privy to all the information at once. The audio book is masterfully performed by Tony Amendola and Judith Marx.

 
Book Club Recommended
Interesting, Dramatic, Informative
Two story lines in one book

3.5*** Two storylines are juxtaposed here – a contemporary murder mystery in a polygamist sect, and an historical novel that explores the beginnings of the Church of Christ of Latter Day Saints, and the issues that led to the Church’s denouncing of polygamy. Ebershoff does a good job of moving back and forth between the two, but I was much more interested in the historical aspect of the novel. Ann Eliza’s story was fascinating to me, and it was that portion that really kept me reading. Using four different performers for the audio version really helped to clearly identify the story lines and differentiate the many characters.

 
Book Club Recommended
Brilliant, Insightful
Classic tale of money vs love

Catherine Sloper is plain, not terribly intelligent, not accomplished in social graces. She does have a significant income and an overprotective father. Set in mid-19th-century New York City, the focus of this entire novel is money – how it is used and what it means. James also explores social class, family structure, filial obedience, parental responsibility, and strength of character. Honestly, I don’t know why I waited so long to read a Henry James novel. This is a very approachable story. I was engaged and interested from the beginning.

 
Book Club Recommended
Informative, Inspiring, Dramatic
Thank you, Daddy

Audio book read by Stephen Hoye

A lucky photograph captured the imagination of the American people and helped raise the spirits of a nation (and LOTS of money in war bonds). This is the background story of the famous shot of the flag being raised on Iwo Jima.

Author James Bradley’s father was one of those six young men whose lives were changed by a photographer taking one more shot. In trying to explain his father’s long years of silence about his experiences during World War 2, Bradley discovered not only John “Doc” Bradley’s story, but that of the other men who fought to take Iwo Jima.

Though he spends a good part of the book giving us background on the six young men whose destinies would converge on Mount Suribachi during one of the bloodiest battles of the war in the Pacific, Bradley manages to keep the story moving forward. He walks a fine line between personal anecdote and the tension of a battlefield report.

Stephen Hoye is best when reading the battle scenes. When he slows down to give importance to a phrase or section his voice takes on an irritating quality that detracts from the message. Trust the listener, Mr Hoye. We will figure out what is important without your “acting” it for us. Despite this irritation, I still give the book 5 stars because Bradley’s work is gripping, emotional, dramatic, touching and inspirational.


P.S. My father spent 33 months in the Pacific Theatre during WW2 and was with one of the first units to go to Hiroshima after we dropped the bomb, to assist with clean-up.

 
Book Club Recommended
Interesting, Beautiful, Dramatic
Worth the effort

An unsolved murder and a miscarriage of justice in 1911 continue to affect the lives of the descendants of those involved. Erdrich has sections of the book narrated by different characters. She also has the story jump back and forth in time between 1911 and 1970s. Her many characters are sometimes known by more than one name. But please, do not let these elements deter you. Erdrich’s prose is lyrical and flowing. I was intrigued and interested from the beginning. The novel deals with issues of identity and self-worth, of love and passion, of forgiveness and revenge. The audio book is well performed by the duo of Kathleen McInernery and Peter Francis James. They are able to differentiate the many characters.

 
Book Club Recommended
Romantic, Beautiful
A surprising love story

In November 1993 the author arrived in Venice with two friends in tow. She didn’t know that a chance encounter in a restaurant would change her life. This is a delicious memoir of a love that surprised two middle-aged people – a Venetian banker and an American journalist (and chef). I am smiling thinking about it. I kept reading passages aloud to anyone who would listen. De Blasi is not only in love with Fernando, she is in love with Venice. No, she is in love with life, and she imbues her writing with that love. Read this. And enjoy life!

 
Book Club Recommended
Dramatic, Interesting, Beautiful
Family struggle

3.5*** Matthew King, a descendant of Hawaiian royalty, owns of one of the largest pieces of undeveloped real estate in the islands. But that is not his focus these days. His wife, Joanie, lies in a coma after a boating accident. This is a contemplative novel, and Jonathan Davis does a fine job of narrating the audio version. His deliberate, slow reading is the perfect pace for voicing Matt as he observes and absorbs what his family really is vs what he thought it was, and considers what to do – with the land, with his daughters, with this new knowledge he has about his wife and his marriage. It’s a fine debut novel. I would read another work by Hemmings.

 
Book Club Recommended
Adventurous, Slow, Graphic
A roller-coaster of emotion

Jim Nightshade and Will Halloway are neighbors, best friends, and born just minutes apart. The 13-year-old boys live in the small town of Green Town, Illinois and are looking forward to Halloween. But this year, Halloween will come early, because on Oct 24, just after midnight, Cooger & Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show will come to town with its carnival rides, mirror maze, sideshow freaks, and a carousel that can change your life.

Bradbury was a master of suspense and sci-fi. Here he turns his imagination loose on every child’s dream – and nightmare. Clowns and fortune tellers are both fascinating and frightening. A trip inside the funhouse mirror maze elicits feelings of adventure and claustrophobia. And who doesn’t love to be scared on a carnival ride – whipped around on the Tilt-a-Whirl, feeling your heart drop as you round the top of the Ferris wheel, made dizzy as the carousel spins round and round? Parents are old and useless, except when they are inventive and heroic.

Kevin Foley’s performance on the audio was magnificent. His youthful enthusiasm for Jim and Will made me willing to go along on this adventure that I would NEVER attempt in real life. Just remembering his oily voice for Mr Dark gives me the shivers.

This book scared the beejesus out of me – and I was listening ONLY in broad daylight, during my daily commute. Like the best roller coaster, Bradbury S-L-O-W-L-Y drew me up the incline of suspense, dropped me into terror, and then evened out to let me catch my breath, only to realize there was another, steeper, incline ahead. When finally the ride was over I was giddy with relief … and wanted to “go again!”

One Good Dog by Susan Wilson
 
Book Club Recommended
Optimistic, Inspiring, Insightful
Not your typical dog story

Adam March is a self-made man, a high-powered executive who has lost everything after an uncharacteristic total loss of control. Chance is a 3-year-old pit bull, set to be euthanized after being captured on the streets. Happenstance brings them together, giving each a second chance for a new life. I really enjoyed this novel. Adam is in turn arrogant, angry, frustrated, and despondent, but he has the capacity to be humble and understanding. How they both learn to be (vs just act) “nice,” is the central plot. Fred Berman and Rick Adamson do a fantastic job on the audio. I really got the sense of how tightly wound and ready-to-explode Adam was.

The Spanish Bow by Andromeda Romano-Lax
 
Book Club Recommended
Slow, Informative, Dramatic
Music Hath Charms

The novel follows the fictitious cellist Feliu Delargo from his birth in a Catalan village in 1892 to the concert halls of Europe in the early 20th century and finally to the train depot in a small French port city in October 1940. The novel explores the conflict between art and conscience; should those in the public eye use their art and celebrity to advance a particular cause, to warn the populace, or to numb the masses? This is a large topic to tackle and the book covers a significant time frame where wars, disease and economic depressions taxed even the strongest and wealthiest. Romano-Lax manages this very well. The story pulled me in and kept me turning pages. When I got to the end, I found myself wishing the book were longer.

The Girl Who Stopped Swimming by Joshilyn Jackson
 
Interesting, Dark, Dramatic
Southern Gothic

Audio book narrated by the author. This is a modern-day Southern Gothic novel, full of wonderfully eccentric characters, as well as family secrets, dark undercurrents of poverty, alcohol abuse, and illicit sex. As is usual in Jackson’s books, there are competing motives at work. Characters behave in an apparently bad way for good reasons, or in an apparently good way for bad reasons. This keeps the reader guessing as to what is really going on. I was surprised by the way things turned out; though I did think it was a little too convenient an ending.

I enjoyed it, but would not recommend it for a book club discussion.

The Dry Grass of August by Anna Jean Mayhew
 
Book Club Recommended
Dramatic, Insightful, Interesting
Decent Debut

Mayhew’s debut novel is a story of racism in the 1950’s South, a coming-of-age novel, and a look at a family falling apart. There are some emotionally gut-wrenching scenes in the book, but I think Mayhew was trying to include too much and the plot got away from her. The family drama would have been plenty to handle in a novel. The growing racial tensions in this time period would also have fueled a full novel. In trying to incorporate both these significant plots, Mayhew failed to do justice to either one. There are moments of very good writing and I was interested and engaged in the novel. Karen White does a very good job on the audio book.

 
Beautiful, Inspiring, Romantic
Great YA novel

This is a kid-with-cancer novel. No surprise, we’re told this on the first page. But it is not the typical K-W-C novel. There is much to like– characters that behave as one would expect real teenagers facing a terminal illness to behave, dialogue that sounds real and a plot that takes us where we’d expect but in a fresh, new way. On the other hand, I thought the plot was predictable. Also, I really did not like the whole Dutch writer subplot and thought it detracted from the book. Kate Rudd does a superb job performing the audio book. I think I would have rated it only 3*** had I read it in text version. Her facility with the various voices and accents really brought the characters to life.

While I liked the book, I would not recommend it to any of my book clubs. Although I did buy it for my 17-year-old niece, who, I'm sure, will love it.

 
Book Club Recommended
Informative, Adventurous, Insightful
A Woman defined by her character, not her size

Lavinia Warren was only 32 inches high, but had ambitions that were not limited by her diminutive size. She was a real person, more popularly known as Mrs General Tom Thumb – the wife of P T Barnum’s famous “oddity.” In the midst of Civil War, their wedding was front-page news. They were received by Queen Victoria, Abraham Lincoln, and heads of state around the world. All of this is true, but this book is a work of fiction.


Benjamin does a wonderful job of bringing Vinnie to life. The novel depicts a woman of great intelligence and drive. She is shown to be cunning, witty, talented and strong-willed; also vulnerable, frightened, angry, and cold. Her partnership with Barnum is wonderfully imagined and beautifully told. Benjamin gives us a woman who is defined by her character, not her height. All this is presented against a backdrop of historical events – Civil War, the opening of the West, and life in the Gilded Age. I really liked this book. I was completely mesmerized by Vinnie’s story, and that of the other members of her troupe.

Caleb's Crossing: A Novel by Geraldine Brooks
 
Book Club Recommended
Informative, Interesting, Slow
Bethia's Crossing

Based on a real individual – the first Native American to graduate from Harvard – Brooks has crafted a fine work of historical fiction that explores the dangers and exhilaration of crossing boundaries – geographic, religious, and cultural.
It took me a few chapters to fall into the rhythm of Brooks’ 17th-century syntax, but once I did I was fully engrossed. Bethia is a good narrator. However, as the book progressed, I grew frustrated that I wasn’t hearing more about Caleb and his inner thoughts and feelings. Of course, I had expected this because of the title - Caleb’s Crossing. It’s still a very good book, but it could have been better if Brooks had found a way to give us more of Caleb’s story.

 
Book Club Recommended
Interesting, Informative
Lack of Communication

2.5**

Ji Ling is a prominent businessman. Born in America while his father was a student, he has lived in Shanghai since he was 10 years old and no longer speaks English. When he suffers a brain injury as a result of an explosion in the hotel where he has met his father for dinner, the result is loss of language … except for a few English phrases. Frustrated and frightened, his family brings in an American doctor, a neurologist specializing in bilingual aphasia (loss of speech), to help him recover his speech. Months later the physical wreckage of the explosion has been cleared away, leaving no evidence of the rubble through which Ji Ling crawled to safety. But there is plenty of evidence of the wreckage in the emotional scars Ji Ling and his family bear.

In her debut novel, Xu explores the most intimate of human interactions – communication. The loneliness and isolation of not being able to communicate our wants, desires, feelings, and hopes are evident in all the characters. Of course there is the obvious injury to Ji Ling, but the American doctor – Rosalyn Neal – is no more able to communicate than her patient (and not only because she does not speak Chinese). Meiling, Ji’s wife, is locked in a pattern of not communicating. His father, Professor Ji, is silenced by the conventions of society and his fear of interfering in his son’s marriage. Alan, the interpreter, manages to convey words without any feeling or meaning.

It’s the kind of story and the kind of novel that I should have loved. I like character-based novels that explore the intricacies of human interaction. But somehow Xu’s writing went too far in giving us the sense of isolation that comes from the inability to communicate. This reader could not connect with any of the characters. I felt their frustration, because I felt frustrated. But rather than empathizing and caring about their predicament, I felt so removed from them as to not care at all what would happen to them.

The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer
 
Book Club Recommended
Informative, Insightful, Epic
A Beautiful Testament to the Past

In 1937 Andras Levi, a Hungarian Jew, arrived in Paris with a single suitcase and a scholarship to study architecture. He left behind his parents and two brothers – Tibor, who was saving to attend medical school in Italy, and Matyas, who would leave school to pursue a career as an entertainer. What he found in Paris, however, was the love of his life. The times conspired against the couple – war was on the horizon and past mistakes haunted them. Families were scattered, fortunes spent or confiscated, food was scarce, and yet the familial bonds endured.

Through her writing, Orringer invites the reader into the everyday lives of people who were caught up in historical events of epic proportions. We’ve all read books (fiction and nonfiction) about the atrocities of war, in particular those committed against the Jews during WW2. Seldom have I read a work that so drew me into the lives of the characters as they go about their business, unaware of the storm brewing. I was reminded of Herman Wouk’s Winds of War. I kept checking the time frame wondering when the hammer would fall, because I knew it had to fall. This is an epic romance … an historical novel … a gloriously written testament to the love the author’s grandparents had – for each other, for their families, for their friends. It celebrates the courage of individuals, and shames those who took advantage of the weak. And it shines a light on a corner of Europe that has not been written about frequently.

Arthur Morey does a superb job on the audio book. His facility with the many languages – English, French, Hungarian, German, and Italian – lends authenticity and brings the work to life.

Juliet by Anne Fortier
 
Romantic, Adventurous, Dramatic
Lost focus

Audio book performed by Cassandra Campbell.

Moving back and forth between the 1340 “true” story of Giulietta Tolomei and Romeo Marescotti, and the modern day Julie Jacobs’s efforts to find her mother’s legacy, this is a novel that tries to be a romantic epic and a suspense thriller. The result is that it doesn’t quite succeed on either count.

I was pretty caught up in the 1340 story. Although some of the “coincidences” strained credulity, I was willing to go along because it’s a story handed down through generations. But the modern story just irritated me. There were far too many double-crosses, and triple-crosses. People show up very conveniently and without good explanation. My biggest complaint is that Julie behaves so stupidly – repeatedly. On the plus side, Fortier did a very good job of putting the action in the city of Siena and the surrounding Tuscan countryside. The location is practically a character; it is so vividly drawn and so central to the story. She also does a decent job of keeping the plot moving and building suspense. Cassandra Campbell’s narration on the audio book was very good.

I do not recommend it for book clubs because I don't think there is enough to discuss.

Life as We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer
 
Interesting, Gloomy, Dark
Good YA fiction

3.5***

Miranda is a typical teen – worried about whether she’ll be asked to prom, fighting with her Mom, eagerly awaiting her big brother’s coming home from college (he’s promised to teach her to drive), and looking forward to being godmother to her father and stepmother’s new baby. Lately all the news is about some asteroid that is going to collide with the moon. The night of the big event, there’s a sort of party atmosphere on their rural suburban road – with families sitting outside to witness it. But once the meteor hits, people quickly realize that things are NOT the same. In fact, the moon has been knocked out of kilter and closer to earth by the collision. No one is quite sure what this means, but it’s clear that things will never be the same.

Generally, I am not a fan of post-apocalyptic fiction, but I really enjoyed this book. It’s YA fiction and the writing is somewhat simple, but the efforts of this family to pull together and survive the aftermath of this world-wide disaster make for a very interesting and compelling read. Miranda tells the story through her diary / journal entries and we clearly see her mature over the course of the work. There were some factual errors that irritated me (you can’t pump well water if you have no electricity), but I got caught up in the family relationships and the ways in which they worked together to survive.

On Chesil Beach by Ian Mcewan
 
Book Club Recommended
Insightful, Brilliant
Wonderful literary fiction

Opening line: They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible.

Florence and Edward are desperately and completely in love, but relative strangers. In an era when open discussion about intimate relations is simply not done, they are left to fumble their way in the dark, both literally and figuratively. Anticipation makes them anxious, eager and fearful all at once. They have no idea that their greatest impediment to happiness is their total inability to communicate their hopes, desires, fears, anxieties, wants, dreams and true, genuine love for one another.

In an interview McEwan said he set the novel in 1962 on purpose; he needed a time frame before sex was openly discussed. One technique he uses that is very effective, is that there is very little dialogue between these two until they finally face each other on the beach. I feel so badly for them at the end of this book; I so wish they had someone to help them find a way to repair the damage they mistakenly believe to be irreparable.

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
 
Book Club Recommended
Dark, Interesting, Dramatic
Slippery Slope

The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
5*****

First published in 1986, Atwood’s novel describes an America much different but easily imaginable from today’s democracy. Offred tells her story of life as a Handmaid, in the Republic of Gilead, a monotheocracy, run by the Sons of Jacob. Once a month, Offred lies on her back for the Ceremony – hoping the Commander will get her pregnant so she can prove her worth.

What I find particularly fascinating – and frightening – about this novel is how very plausible it seems. A little change here, a slightly bigger change there, and before you know it all the freedoms we take for granted are gone.

I was also intrigued by the possessive names of the Handmaids – Offred, Ofglen, “Of” the man who is supposed to get her pregnant. But when I first read her name, I didn’t see it as Of-Fred, but as Off-red, and this, too, is symbolic. The handmaids wear red gowns that symbolize their place in society – fertile, givers of life. But our narrator’s color is decidedly Off-red, because she remembers “before,” – when she wore shorts on a hot summer day, when she attended university, when she had a husband and a job and her own money – and these memories fuel her hopes for a chance to leave this existence.

The book’s final chapter is titled Historical Notes and is written as a transcript of a talk given at a conference in 2195. It provides more detail on the society Offred is both part of and removed from – details she could not have known because of the secrecy and censorship of news. It provides a little humor to lessen the impact of Offred’s story, and hope for a better future.

I’ll be thinking about this book for a very long time.

 
Book Club Recommended
Dramatic, Dark, Insightful
I should have liked it

There is much here that should make a gripping work of literary fiction. I generally love books like this, but this one left me feeling decidedly “meh.” And I’m having trouble defining why.

Perhaps their situation is just so different my own that I couldn’t relate to them, but I’ve read many a book with characters whose lives are very different and I had no problem understanding and relating. Perhaps it was the very slow (almost nonexistent) plot, but I’ve enjoyed plenty of character-driven books with slow-moving storylines. Perhaps it was the violence of dog-fighting, but I’ve read some books with graphic violence (including animal cruelty) and I was not put off by it. The casual sex, the rough language, the use of dialect – aspects that have been criticized by other reviewers – are all elements I’ve appreciated in other books. One area that I definitely felt detracted was her use of Greek mythology; I just did not think these references served the story well, though I appreciated the poetry of these passages.

I think it must be the combination of all these factors that left me feeling dissatisfied. I appreciate Ward’s writing, but I didn’t love it.

 
Pointless, Boring, Persuasive
Not Berg's best

Book on CD narrated by Sandra Burr.

Starting over is much easier said than done and Betta Nolan is still grieving. Making new friends in a new town, and reaching out to old friends she hasn’t seen in decades help her to adjust to life after her husband's death.

I like Berg’s writing. She has a way of exploring the drama in everyday lives that rings true. However, I didn’t connect to Betta and the other characters this time out. I’m thinking it’s because so many of her relationships in her new town were with much younger characters – 20-somethings Matthew and Jovani, and the 10-year-old Benny who lives next door. Benny, in particular, seemed to be written far too young and naïve. This may have been partly due to the audio performance by Sandra Burr; she read Benny with an exaggeratedly young voice so that he sounded more like a six-year-old. Her old college friends also weren’t very well developed, appearing as if by magic when Betta needed some advice and/or shoring up, but not really contributing much to the story line beyond that.

Barr does an acceptable job though, as mentioned above, her voice for Benny is far too young. And she gives the Brazilian Jovani a bad Italian accent. All told, it was an enjoyable, quick read, but not a great one.

We the Animals: A novel by Justin Torres
 
Book Club Recommended
Confusing, Interesting, Insightful
A Challenging Read

Torres's debut novel, We The Animals, is a challenging read. Written in a unique style of prose poetry, it tells the story of three brothers growing up in upstate New York. Our book group was engaged and interested until ... About 100 pages into this 124 page book it takes a VERY dark turn and the author lost us.

The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell
 
Book Club Recommended
Interesting, Dramatic
Oh, What a Tangled Web We Weave ...

Rose Baker is a quiet and efficient typist in a police precinct in 1923 New York City. Having been raised in an orphanage she understands how to blend into the woodwork, proving her worth by her skills and hard work, and never taking liberties when she transcribes criminals’ confessions. An applicant for a vacancy is clearly very different from the mousy Rose. Odalie is chic and confident, and quickly draws the precinct sergeant, detective and beat cops under her spell. Rose is in turns astonished, disdainful, jealous and fascinated by the glamorous newcomer. Before she knows what has happened, Rose is rooming with Odalie, and dreaming of a future teeming with chic clothes, nice jewelry, handsome escorts and money to spare.

Rindell’s debut is a chilling psychological study. The reader is drawn into the plot, just as Rose is drawn to Odalie. In many respects the novel reminds me of an Alfred Hitchcock movie. I was captivated by the story, and seduced by dynamics of Rose and Odalie’s relationship. But little by little I noticed cracks in the façade, and began to question how reliable a narrator Rose is. Having come to admire her for working her way into a responsible position and how she handled herself in a rough environment, I began to dread the inevitable downfall, and, at the end, found myself wondering what REALLY happened?

The novel is populated with a host of colorful characters – handsome Lieutenant Detective, gruff but fair Sergeant, sniveling Helen, whining landlady Dotty, earnest Teddy, and various shady types who are drawn to and also draw Rose and Odalie. Rindell gives them all both talents and flaws. The writing is wonderfully atmospheric – you can feel the silk on your skin, taste the juniper of bathtub gin, smell the cigars, and hear the cacophony of a crowded speakeasy. Some scenes had the feel of a Jay Gatsby party.

I’ll definitely look forward to her next book.

 
Book Club Recommended
Dramatic, Interesting, Unconvincing
Elegantly Written Exploration of Loneliness

From chapter 21: Mattia had learned that, among prime numbers, there are some that are even more special. Mathematicians call them twin primes: pairs of prime numbers that are close to each other, almost neighbors, but between them there is always an even number that prevents them from truly touching.”

Alice Della Rocca and Mattia Balossino are the solitary primes of this beautifully written novel. The story begins in 1983 with Alice, forced to take ski lessons by her attorney father. The narrative skips to 1984 and twins Mattia and Michaela; Mattia is always charged with “look after your sister,” because Michaela is clearly not able to look after herself. These two chapters provide key incidents that lead to Alice and Mattia’s increasing solitude. But they will meet in high school and like rare twin primes they will cling to one another, though never quite touching.

Giordano writes with such elegance about the landscape of loneliness, the need for love and acceptance. This is an intimate study of the psychology of two damaged characters. Both Mattia and Alice lack the strength to truly connect to someone else, yet have the strength to live alone and isolated. Their steps toward one another are halting and even excruciatingly difficult, making the reader almost as anxious as the characters. Like real life, the ending is ambiguous, but oh, how I want to know what happens to these two people.

Luke Daniels does a wonderful job narrating the audio version. His nuanced performance is both gentle and harsh, quiet and panicked, tender and mean.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
 
Book Club Recommended
Insightful, Brilliant, Epic
Great American Novel

When we first meet Tom Joad he has been walking for miles in his new shoes and clothes that don’t quite fit. Tom has been released on parole and is headed to his family’s home – they sharecrop 40 acres. But the family is no longer there and their home has been pushed off its foundation by a tractor. He finally finds them at his Uncle John’s place … about to pack-up and head for California. This is the Oklahoma Dust Bowl during the Great Depression and there is no living to be made if they stay put. The Joads – Granma, Grampa, Uncle John, Ma, Pa, Noah, Tom, Al, Rose of Sharon, Ruthie and Winfield - along with Rose’s husband, Connie, and their former preacher Jim Casy all set out together towards the promised land.

Steinbeck tells the story of the Great Depression by alternating chapters that focus on the Joad’s journey across America with chapters that are best described as essays chronicling the changing face of the country and the forces that contributed to those changes. In these essays the very landscape becomes a character, as does the economy. The fear, worry, weariness, despair, and outrage are palpable.

I had expected – and got – most of the story to come from Tom’s actions and interactions. However, as the novel drew to a close I came to realize that the central figure here is really Ma. Regardless of what happens, always there is Ma, standing firm in her convictions, leading her family. I should not have been surprised; this is how Steinbeck introduces Ma:
Her hazel eyes seemed to have experienced all possible tragedy and to have mounted pain and suffering like steps into a high calm and a superhuman understanding. She seemed to know, to accept, to welcome her position, the citadel of the family, the strong place that could not be taken. … She seemed to know that if she swayed the family shook, and if she ever really deeply wavered or despaired the family would fall, the family will to function would be gone.” (pg 74, Steinbeck Centennial Edition, Penguin Books)

This work affected me deeply. I could not help but think about my family’s history during this time frame. From their little Texas town on the Rio Grande, my grandfather took my uncles and my father, along with a few other men up to Montana each year to sheer sheep. Other uncles, aunts and cousins traveled to the orchards of the upper Midwest – Wisconsin and Michigan – picking cherries or apples. Still others made their way to California where they worked the fields in the Salinas valley. How I wish my father was still alive so I could talk to him about this book and how his experiences paralleled the story. But I have a feeling he would shrug and say something like, “You do what you have to do.” Then he would probably tell me a funny or endearing story of some family episode and we would be smiling at the warm memories.

Dylan Baker does a very good job of narrating the audio version. He has a wide repertoire of voices to use for the large cast of characters, though he was definitely channeling the young Henry Fonda for Tom Joad’s voice.

Jane Austen in Boca: A Novel by Paula Marantz Cohen
 
Book Club Recommended
Delightful Retelling

3.5***

This is a delightful retelling of Pride and Prejudice set in a Jewish retirement community in Boca Raton Florida. The story focuses on three widows: May Newman, Flo Kliman and Lila Katz. When May’s daughter-in-law, Carol, learns that the widowed father of her husband’s school friend is now living in a retirement community just down the road from May, she is determined to get the two of them together. (Think Mrs Bennet anxious to put her girls in the path of Mr Bingley.) From her New Jersey suburb Carol arranges a brunch reception at her mother-in-law’s condo and invites Norman Grafstein, who brings along his friend Stan Jacobs. You can imagine the plot turns from there.

I really enjoyed this light read. It’s clever and witty, albeit predictable. I couldn’t help but remind myself, “Just like Wickham!” or “She must be Charlotte” as I read. Of course some of the scenarios draw from other Austen novels, but that’s no problem, it’s all in good fun and still entertaining. I even love the cover, which just makes me smile to look at it.

 
Interesting, Informative, Inspiring
Flawed memoir

Audio book read by Bernadette Dunne
2.5**

Rodriguez impulsively went to Afghanistan while escaping a bad marriage and looking for meaning to her life. Willing and eager to work, she came up with the idea of teaching the oppressed women of Afghanistan skills they could use to support themselves and their families. So, she started a beauty school with a combination of product donations, grants and private funding.

The atrocities to which Afghani women are subject are infuriating to most Westerners, but this isn’t new information any longer. I’m sympathetic to the cause and applaud anyone’s efforts to make a difference. Debbie’s continued inability to understand the cultural differences, however, really irritated me. It’s no surprise that the “authorities” eventually shut her down, though it is definitely a great pity. I certainly hope that the women she encountered have been able to continue use the skills she taught them, for their own sense of self-worth and to engage with other women.

Bernadette Dunne does a pretty good job of the audio. It’s not her fault that the material she has to work with isn’t stellar.

 
Book Club Recommended
Compelling personal story

Audio book narrated by Julie Fain Lawrence.


Consumed by grief at the loss of her husband and daughter, Haregewoin Teferra, a middle-class Ethiopian woman, finds solace in attending daily church services – regardless of denomination – and becomes known to other regular church-goers as a very devout woman. One day the director of the Catholic Church charity surprises her when he asks if she might do a favor for the priest. A 15-year-old orphan is living on the streets; perhaps Haregewoin might be willing to take the girl into her home? A few weeks later they ask her to take in another teen; and then a pair of six-year-old girls. And in this way Haregewoin begins to foster the AIDS orphans of Ethiopia.


Greene is a journalist and has clearly done extensive research. She writes Haregewoin’s story in a compassionate and balanced way, backed up with considerable information on the history of Ethiopia, its culture and religions, as well as the history of HIV/AIDS. For my own tastes, I wish she had concentrated on Haregewoin’s story, which I found compelling. I was far less interested in a research piece on epidemiology.


Still, the book is well-written and held my interest. Julie Fain Lawrence does a very good job narrating the audio version. I’m glad I had a text version as well, however, or I would have missed all the photographs.

Calling Me Home: A Novel by Julie Kibler
 
Book Club Recommended
Insightful, Beautiful, Inspiring
Good debut

3.5***


Isabelle McAllister, an 89-year-old white woman, asks her hairdresser, Dorrie Curtis, a black, single mother, for a favor –Isabelle wants Dorrie to drive her from their Texas home to Cincinnati for a funeral. Over the years, they’ve formed a tenuous relationship, and Dorrie agrees. During the drive Isabelle slowly reveals the secret she’s kept for decades, unlocking her pain and grief and helping Dorrie to understand her own issues with trust and unconditional love.


The novels chapters alternate between Dorrie and Miss Isabelle as narrators, and between present day and 1939-1940. This is a tricky style to pull off, but Kibler does a good job of it, weaving the book’s themes across the differences in time and narrator. I felt I got to know these two women, their strengths and flaws, just as they were getting to know one another. I was somewhat frustrated by the subplot of Dorrie’s current relationship with Teague. I also thought that most of the other characters in the book were two-dimensional (or even one-dimensional, like Isabelle’s mother).
I was caught up in Isabelle’s story right away, and eventually in Dorrie’s as well. Kibler kept me turning to pages, though I had guessed the big secret long before it was revealed. The ending was poignant if a little too predictable. All told this is a good debut work and I look forward to her next book.

 
Insightful, Dramatic, Interesting
Probably good YA book, but not great for book clubs

Audio book performed by Michael Maloney.


When 9-year-old Bruno arrives home from school one day he finds the family maid, Maria, going through his things. He is incensed until his mother explains that Maria is helping to pack because the family is moving from their large (5-story) Berlin home to a new city for his father’s job. The reader quickly becomes aware that Bruno’s father is a highly placed Nazi Commandant and has been assigned to oversee the concentration camp at Auschwitz. Bruno, however, is a child – and can be excused for being somewhat innocent and more concerned with the impact on himself (he’ll have to leave his “three best friends for life!”)


There is an interesting premise here – to tell the story of two boys separated by a fence, but united in their “boyness.” I also get that Boyne was trying to show that complacency was the great perpetrator of the Holocaust (and of many genocides since). However, the voice he chose for this story really irritated me.


Perhaps part of that was the fault of audio performer Michael Maloney, who gives Bruno a very young voice, with a nearly breathless delivery. He really sounded as if he were under age six. He was more than innocent – he was oblivious and immature to an extent that was just unbelievable to me … unable to understand why the children in the striped pajamas could have “playmates” while he could not, and unable to pronounce German words when he’s a native German speaker (“the Fury” vs der Fuhrer or “Off-With” vs Auschwitz).


The ending is a stunner. And Boyne somewhat redeems the work by giving us a sense that Bruno’s father finally understands the impact of what he has done.

 
Unconvincing, Interesting
Too much going on

There is a decent plot (or three) hiding in all this mess. How Tamara and her mother recover from the suicide of their father/husband would make a good story in itself. The secrets of the Kilsaney family and the burned castle provide enough intrigue for a mystery. Tamara’s change from a spoiled, tempestuous teen to a young woman who finds happiness in a small Irish village could also have been developed into a decent book. But all these plot lines and magical elements seem to have been thrown together without thought. Instead of a hearty stew that melds different ingredients into a delicious and substantial dish, we get a slop jar of leftovers.

I give it two stars because 1) there were parts of the story that I found interesting and 2) Ali Coffey did a good job of the audio version. I don’t think I’d recommend the book to anyone, and I’m not interested in reading anything else by Ahern.

The Shoemaker's Wife: A Novel by Adriana Trigiani
 
Book Club Recommended
Romantic, Beautiful, Inspiring
An epic love story

Audio book narrated by Annabella Sciorra and Adriana Trigiani

This is an epic love story taking the reader from the Italian Alps to the Iron Range of Minnesota and covering four decades, beginning in 1904. Ciro meets Enza when they are only 15, and the attraction is immediate. Over the next ten years they will meet and separate several times before finally giving their love a chance.

Trigiani spent 20 years working on this novel, which is based on her grandparents’ lives. The build-up to getting these two star-crossed lovers together was full of detail. But once they settled in Minnesota years would pass from one chapter to the next. Trigiani’s characters are strong-willed, determined, humble, gentle, intelligent and generous. They embrace life and love, and deal with adversity with grace and dignity. If Trigiani is a little too fond of simile and metaphor I forgive her because I found the story just so compelling.

The audio book jacket states that this work is narrated by Annabella Sciorra, who does a marvelous job. But half-way through the book, Sciorra bows out and Trigiani takes over. The author has a depth of feeling for the story that comes across in her performance, but I still preferred Sciorra’s narration.

 
Book Club Recommended
Informative, Beautiful, Adventurous
A Sensory Feast

Maggie McElroy, a widowed American food writer, is stunned by a call informing her of a paternity claim against her late husband – in Beijing. Immersing herself in work has helped her deal with her grief, so she is distressed when she tells her editor she will need to be gone for several weeks. But her editor assigns Maggie to write an article about Sam Liang, a Chinese-American, who has returned to Beijing to open a new restaurant, paying homage to the grand tradition of famous chefs of the imperial era.
Maggie is a woman consumed by grief, surviving in a bubble of memories that has just been shattered. Did she really know her husband? How could he have fathered this child, AND kept it a secret from her? Dealing with such a claim would be difficult and trying enough in America, but now she is in a city where she does not understand the language or customs, and must rely on strangers to help her. Her planned article on Sam Liang is the only area where she can feel somewhat normal as a journalist. They are both surprised to find in one another an ally and friend.

Mones deftly combines Sam’s story with Maggie’s, and with the tradition and history of Chinese cuisine, and philosophy. The descriptions of the menus and dishes are a sensory feast of tastes, sounds, smells, textures, and visual images. Just as much attention is paid to developing these characters; Mones reveals them a little at a time allowing the reader to get to know them as they deal with various disappointments and unexpected joys. Take your time reading it – savor every page

The Memory of Running by Ron McLarty
 
Book Club Recommended
Adventurous, Dramatic, Beautiful
Fascinating "coming of age" for a middle-aged man

Recorded book, read by the author
3.5***

Smithson Ide (Smithy) is 43, a self-described loser working at a toy factory, a chain-smoker, a drunk and obese, when a family tragedy pushes him to DO something. Coming across his old bicycle, Smithy starts pedaling … and then keeps pedaling on a journey across America and towards a new life.

The novel is told in alternating chapters – one giving the background on the Ide family, especially Smithy’s older sister Bethany who suffers from mental illness; the next chronicling the present-day happenings as Smithy bikes from Rhode Island to California. This style (dual time frames) is not easy to pull off, but McLarty does a pretty good job of it. The change in perspective can be abrupt, but not jarring and I found it easy to follow these parallel stories.

I was a little confused about Norma – the girl next door. She wasn’t as fully developed as I would have liked, and I didn’t really understand the attraction between her and Smithy at first. Of course, I didn’t really understand Smithy, either. He’s a complicated character and difficult to get to know, but I think that’s the point. I grew to like him, and was cheering him on.

Along his journey Smithy comes across a variety of characters that help him. These cameo appearances are brief but well-drawn, and I wish McLarty would write a few more novels about some of them.

McLarty does a fine job of narrating the audio version. His pacing is good, and his style of reading aloud works well for this first-person narrative.

The Feast of the Goat by Mario Vargas Llosa
 
Book Club Recommended
Informative, Dramatic, Brilliant
Compelling Historical Fiction

Rafael Trujillo, known as El Jefe (“The chief”), was dictator of the Dominican Republic for 30 years; his reign of terror ended in his assassination in 1961. This novel explores the ending days of the Trujillo regime using multiple plot lines / narrators. The novel opens with the fictional Urania Cabral, age 49, returning to the Dominican Republic for the first time in 35 years, to see her dying father. The second chapter introduces Trujillo himself as a narrator, and the third chapter focuses on the band of conspirators who are plotting to assassinate Trujillo.

The novel deals with political and personal corruption, moving back and forth between narrators and time frame. In less skilled hands, this could easily have been the undoing of the novel, but Vargas Llosa is a master craftsman and his writing shines. His use of interlaced dialogue helps to present the various viewpoints of the same set of events, giving the reader a fairly accurate portrayal of the history, while making the story intensely personal.

Machismo” is also a central theme; Urania is the only female voice. Her point of view, relating her memories as a 14-year-old child, is a significant contrast to the mostly middle-aged-plus men who narrate the significant realities of the Trujillo regime. The greatest impact in the story comes from betrayal – Trujillo betrayed the people of the Dominican Republic. Conspirators were betrayed by fellow conspirators. Husbands betrayed their wives; wives, their husbands. Children betrayed their parents; parents, their children.

I thought the novel started slowly, but after about 80 pages the story really took off and I found myself totally immersed and engaged.

 
Book Club Recommended
Informative, Insightful, Interesting
Spare but luminously written

In this spare but luminously written novel, Otsuka tells the story of young women who came to America from Japan as “picture brides” in the early 1900s. Through the course of the novel she traces the lives of these immigrants from their journey by boat, to their arrival in San Francisco, their first nights as new wives, their hardships working in unaccustomed ways, their experiences raising children, their relief and pride in building a new life in a new land, and finally to the arrival of war and the loss of what they had built as they were sent with their families to internment camps.

Otsuka won the Pen Faulkner Award for Fiction for this book. She writes mostly in a first person plural voice, using short simple sentences: On the boat we were mostly virgins. We had long black hair and flat wide feet and we were not very tall.
They gave us new names. They called us Helen or Lily.
We gave birth to babies that were so beautiful we could not believe they were ours. We gave birth to babies with colic.
In this way the story is about everyone, or anyone, or no one. Yet it is strongly evocative of time and place, and has an aura of immediacy about it. The reader feels the hopes, sorrows, disappointments, joys, fears, anguish, love, puzzlement, and pride along with these nameless women.

I’ve read other novels that dealt with the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Tallgrass by Sandra Dallas and Jamie Ford’s Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet are two examples. But this novel and Otsuka’s previous work, When the Emperor Was Divine, are special in the way she conveys the thoughts and feelings of the Japanese themselves.

Highly recommended.

Hemingway's Girl by Erika Robuck
 
Book Club Recommended
Insightful, Romantic, Informative
Good historical fiction

3.5***

In 1961, Mariella, a widow living on Key West with her 25-year-old son, is devastated by the news that Ernest Hemingway has died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Her memories of Papa take the reader back to the summer of 1935, when she was just 19 years old and went to work in the Hemingway household as a housekeeper. Soon she is witness to the drama of Hemingway’s marriage to second wife Pauline, and trying to sort out her own attraction to Papa in contrast to Gavin, the handsome WWI veteran who is working on a government project to build a road to the keys.

Robuck does a good job of setting the scene of Depression-era Key West. Mariella, her family and neighbors struggle to feed and clothe themselves, dependent on rich tourists who frequently display racist attitudes towards “the natives.” The story also exposes the very real problems of returning veterans who witnessed horrific bloodshed at the Argonne, received little or no help for their “shell shock” (i.e. PTSD) and frequently turned to alcohol to numb their feelings of guilt and betrayal. The major crisis and turning point in the story is the Labor Day hurricane that devastated the keys and killed hundreds of veterans (and their families). They had been sent by the U.S. government to work on the road to connect the keys to the mainland, living in shanty towns or camps on low-lying islands. Robuck includes an actual essay by Hemingway, titled “Who Murdered the Vets?” which outlines the aftermath of the storm.

I liked that Robuck chose to tell the story chiefly from Mariella’s viewpoint, which gives the reader a little relief from Hemingway’s bigger-than-life persona. But Papa is still vibrant and alive on these pages.
It reminds me a little of the recent movie “My Week With Marilyn” – it is young Colin’s story, but all eyes are on Marilyn Monroe.

All told, this is enjoyable historical fiction, and I would read another novel by Robuck.

The Piano Teacher: A Novel by Janice Y. K. Lee
 
Book Club Recommended
Informative, Pointless, Confusing
Not sure it's good for discussion

3.5*** - I’ll admit that I was expecting a lighter chick-lit type of historical romance, but I was pleasantly surprised by the added depth to this story. Once again I found myself reading a book with dual time lines, and alternating stories; the book begins with Claire’s arrival in Hong Kong in 1952, then transitions to January 1941 where we are introduced to Trudy. For several chapters the timeline alternates, then we spend a considerable amount of time in WW2 as the Japanese take control of Hong Kong, evacuating non-Chinese residents to “safe havens” which are really POW camps. Part three returns us to Claire’s story as she begins to piece together what really happened and how the people she has met were connected.

I seem to be reading quite a few novels lately that have dual timelines, which is a difficult writing device to handle well. Lee does a pretty good job, especially for a debut novel. Leading each chapter with a date certainly helps the reader keep the timelines straight. It does take several chapters before we make the first connection between the two stories, but I was quickly caught up in these interwoven tales of love, loss, secrecy and betrayal. Claire reminds me of The Painted Veil’s Kitty Fane, though she isn’t drawn quite so fully as Maugham’s character. Will Truesdale is almost as puzzling to me as he is to Claire, but I rather like that Lee left the reader to discover him rather than spell everything out. I certainly didn’t see the revelation towards the end coming. The writing is evocative of time and place; I’ve visited Hong Kong several times (while it was still a British Colony), and can easily picture the settings, the oppressive heat and humidity, and the “aliveness” of the markets. This is Lee’s debut, and I would certainly read another novel by her.

Orlagh Cassidy does a fine job of narrating the audio version. Her pacing is good, and I had no trouble keeping the characters or the timelines straight.

 
Book Club Recommended
Insightful, Inspiring, Optimistic
Harold will capture your heart

When recently retired Harold Fry learns that a former work colleague is dying of cancer, he makes a snap decision to walk the length of England to be by her side. So, without his phone or proper shoes, with nothing more than the clothes on his back, he sets out on foot. As unlikely as this pilgrimage is, the insights Harold gains from hours alone with his thoughts are life-changing. There is something about Harold that will appeal to a wide range of readers. I grew to love him and my heart broke for him as I learned how he had lost his way. Jim Broadbent does a marvelous job of narrating the audio version. He had good pacing and his inflections brought out the wry humor in certain passages.

Jim Broadbent does a marvelous job of narrating the audio version. He had good pacing and his inflections brought out the wry humor in certain passages.

Shotgun Lovesongs: A Novel by Nickolas Butler
 
Book Club Recommended
Insightful, Fun, Optimistic
Male Friendship

This is a novel of friendship, and of men growing to adulthood. Butler writes prose that is poetic and atmospheric. Each of the five main characters has a chance to narrate, so the reader gets some insight into each of their inner thoughts and feelings, and their observations on the others in the quintet. Highly recommended for readers who enjoy character-driven novels. The audio book features five performers, each voicing a different character in alternating chapters.

The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton
 
Book Club Recommended
Slow, Dramatic, Insightful
Classic Coming of Age Novel

An extraordinary coming-of-age novel first published in 1967, when it touched a nerve in a generation eager for “relevant” literature. The narrator is 14-year-old Ponyboy, a member of a gang of greasers who frequently get into fights with the Socs (society kids from affluent homes). He wants desperately to be recognized for the individual that he is, not for the label attached to him. In the end the reader sees that adults are not always the enemy, “nice boys” can be cruel and hoodlums can become heroes. The audio book was capably performed by Jim Fyfe. He really brought Ponyboy, Johnny and the rest of the gang to life for me.

 
Book Club Recommended
Informative, Insightful, Beautiful
Modern Social Satire

Tobar has written a social satire that examines the division and lack of understanding between two interdependent groups – the affluent suburbanites living in their gated communities versus the nearly invisible cadre of workers, mostly immigrants, many undocumented, who work to maintain the façade of perfection. The three main characters are all flawed, but each has his/her virtues as well. Tobar did get a bit preachy in the last third of the book, as he railed against the media, the injustices of the American legal system, and knee-jerk reactions of the politicians and populace. I liked that the story didn’t have a tidy resolution; the ending is realistic while being hopeful.

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