Sunday, December 19, 2010

Mudbound by Hillary Jordan

I purchased Mudbound for the library some time ago, and I actually started reading it, but then I put it down because some new book that I'd been waiting and waiting for came out, and I just couldn't help it and had to read that one. Now, I wish I would have continued with Mudbound because it turned out to be a wonderful book full of carefully crafted characters thrown together  to create a compelling story of prejudice, love, family, and sacrifice. 

The book is told in alternating chapters from the points of view of Laura McAllan, her husband Henry, her charming brother-in-law Jamie, and a neighboring share-cropper's son named Ronsel Jackson. Laura is a woman in danger of becoming an old maid until she meets Henry, an aging war veteran with a limp and the deep desire to become a farmer. He drags Laura away from her family and friends and plops her on a piece of ground she aptly names "Mudbound" because of its general lack of appeal. Henry's brother Jamie eventually returns from war also, becoming the light in the muddy world for Laura and her little girls. Jamie also befriends Ronsel, a war veteran himself who struggles with life after war and after love. But because Jamie is the son of a southern, white, farmer, and Ronsel is the son of a southern, black share cropper, the friendship becomes the center point for conflict both within and without the families. All these characters at some point have to deal with Jamie and Henry's volatile, ultra-prejudiced father, Pappy, who tries to rule the roost that Laura tends to, and who loves to stir up any trouble he can simply to have something to do.

This mix of characters along with the intermingling issues of prejudice, race, sibling rivalry, and farming as a lifestyle all make for a fabulous read. Reading Mudbound was a shocking look at how many Americans seem to love prejudice and feeling superior to others. Although I'd like to think much of this kind of deep ignorance has been wiped out by societal pressure, good leadership, and conscience, I know that, in reality, it still exists. People (and I include myself at times) hide their prejudices behind things like religion or law, saying that there are rules, and we simply have to follow them because someone wrote them down for us and interpreted them for us. To accept rules that are unjust or inhumane simply because they are written seems supremely ignorant to me. After all, segregation rules were law in this country at one time. Where would our country be if no one stood up against the injustice? There are still religions where women can have very limited roles or no role at all because they are inferior beings in the eyes of God. Now, I'm not saying we can be lawless or usurp the law anytime we want to, but when we see injustice, it needs to be challenged. People are people, equals in their rights to humanity and Mudbound does an excellent job of illustrating this in vivid writing and voice.

I encourage you to read Mudbound for a lesson in prejudice, freedom, equality, and good writing. Enjoy!

The Giver by Lois Lowry

The Giver is a book some say that everyone should read. It's a book that brings up ideas of what life could be like if mankind gave up on certain ideas that so far most people believe are essential. Ideas like personal freedom, creativity, and human rights are nonexistant in the world of The Giver. What would life be like without these most basic things? Well,  Lowry tries to tell us in her novel.

This is the story of Jonas, a 12-year-old boy who is chosen to be the receiver of all the memories of all the ages. The Giver is an old man who has held these memories for the people so that they do not have to experience things like war, illness, loneliness, greed, or many other unpleasant, painful emotions and physical weaknesses. But by taking away memory for all, this also means that the Giver is the only one who holds the good memories, too; memories of pleasure such as sledding down a hill on a wintry day, feelings of love and companionship, feelings of joy or success. All of these have been given up by the people for all time so that their society can be "happy" and "productive" without any conflict whatsoever. Jonas, then, is to be the new holder of all of this, good and bad. The question becomes this: once Jonas knows the fundamental truths of life, such as how the people of this community are "released" from society, can he handle it? Will he see utopia as just that, or will he wish to put back all the memories so that the people can once again feel all that there is, and be all that they can be?

Lowry's book is a fascinating study in society that made me eternally grateful for things like free will, democracy, religion, individual creativity, and the joy that can come from daily living. In Jonas' world, people can't even see in color, their job is chosen for them, they don't choose their own clothes, and they don't keep their own babies to raise. There really is nothing except for the community and its ongoing peacefulness. When someone loses his usefulness or is not seen as a good addition to the community, they are "released" by the others.

Some find the book too ambiguous because it does leave almost everything up for interpretation. This didn't bother me too much until the end. The ending, too, is ambiguous, and this always bothers me a lot. I like a novel to "end." I like to sit and wonder about characters and places, but I don't like to wonder about what the author thinks happens to them. The author should know, right, so why can't she tell us?

To me, the big question in the book is this: If we know nothing of pain or sorrow, can we really feel joy to its fullest? If there is no evil, can we clearly see the good in people? If the plan is a contant status quo, can there ever be improvement? My answer to all of these is "no." What would your answer be?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum

     A friend of mine told me years ago how she loved the Bourne books by Ludlum so much, that she kept them by her bedside and would read them over and over. She told me that if I loved the show "Alias" as much I did, I would love them. But I never went to pick them up. So, recently, I decided it was time, and I was not disappointed.
     You may think you know the story of Jason Bourne because you have seen the blockbuster movies with Matt Damon. Think again. Many people have told me that the books barely resemble the movies, and they were so right! While the general premise that Jason is hurt, found on a ship and nursed to health, only to find he has one heck of a case of amnesia, is all intact, that is where all similarities between the book and movie stop. In this complicated espionage thriller, the plot to destroy Bourne is not just undertaken by the government agency he worked for, it's perpetrated by many other criminal aspects as well, most especially by a notorious assassin named Carlos. All Jason remembers is that he is a killer and that he must kill Carlos, even though he has no idea who that really is or who, he himself, really is.
     The people and places in the plot swim smoothly together, creating a huge web of mystery, and you question your logic at every turn. The only thing I really disliked in the book was the woman love interest, Marie, who is so unlike the sexy, unfortunate woman that Bourne borrows the car from in the movie, that it was pretty distracting to me at times. The Marie in the book, while extremely intelligent and loyal, seemed too much like a '70's romance novel heroine to me. The romantic dialog between she and Bourne seemed very forced, and pretty unoriginal. "Oh, Jason,  my love, I can't bear to live without you," and that kind of thing. While the whole exciting plot kept me on the tips of my toes, holding my breath, I would then sigh when Marie would say this kind of inane drivel and think, "Geez, Jason, can you just dump her for someone with a little more savvy?" I so love the tattooed girl with the choppy hair and broken down car in the movie, that I just kept wishing it was her at Jason's side in the book.
   But that is a small flaw in a wonderful thriller full of detail and twists and turns. While I enjoyed The Millenium trilogy more, the Bourne books are classics in the thriller genre. So, don't be a late bloomer like me, and pick up a Bourne today!

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

     Ugh! How can it be over? I hate it when I'm done with a wonderful series like this one and there just seems to be nothing to read afterwards. This third book in the Hunger Games trilogy, while slightly darker than the rest, was a satisfying end to the story, even though I'm always left wanting more.
    Beginning right where Catching Fire left off, Katniss recovers from the Quarter Quell competition, finding herself in a hospital deep inside District 13. This is the district that the Capitol obliterated once upon a time, but as it turns out, there were survivors who went underground, literally. While you may think they just want to live in peace in their new underground world, District 13 is also filled with rebels who want nothing more than to defeat the Capitol and free Panem for good. Their plan? To promote the survival of the "Mockingjay" and use her as a symbol to the people, urging them to rise up and fight in a revolution.
     But what of Peeta? What about the other tributes we have come to love and hate in equal measure, and Katniss's beloved Gale? Well, they are all here in Mockingjay, each playing a role in the rebel plan. But Peeta did not escape the Capitol like the others, being used as well as the Capitol's symbol of power, urging Katniss to give up the rebel cause. Is he for real? Is he really on President Snow's side, or does he continue to try to save Katniss from afar?
   While I found Mockingjay to be quite sad and dark throughout, it's that sadness and desperation that lend reality to the fantasy world of Panem. If, indeed, our own country were taken by the government and turned into a sort of Communist state, wouldn't mankind be disheartened? Would we fight with everything we have to be free again? Of course we would.
     The thing I found the most disheartening, though, was that the leaders of District 13, while having the right ideals and the right end game in their hearts, were just as ruthless and politically minded as those in the enemy camp, the Capitol. It's just one more realistic train of thought within the novel; we need to be careful of our leaders, no matter what type of institution they lead. There are corrupt people in all walks of life, in every group and geographic area, in every religion and political party. It is our job to question logically what is right and what is wrong, no matter what our leaders say. Like Katniss, we should understand our own personal weaknesses, acknowledge them, and let others with better knowledge and skill fill in the gaps. But when we know what is truly right, we have to follow our own moral compass and step into the arena and fight for what's right, which ultimately is our freedom.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins


     This second book in the Hunger Games trilogy read so quickly, I hardly knew what hit me. It continues the story of Katniss Everdeen and her friend Peeta as they return from the bloody Hunger Games, a reality show/punishment put on by the government of Panem.
     The world of Panem created by Collins is a kind of post-apocolyptic country of 13 Districts, one of which has been blown to bits by the Capitol as punishment for revolution there. This book takes place after the Hunger Games in which Katniss and Peeta have won an unprecedented dual victory because of a seemingly innocent stunt pulled off by the presumed in-love couple. Now they must begin a life together and yet apart, a life where they must pretend they are happy with their fate and not forever changed and disheartened by the cruelty of the Capitol.  But the nation of Panem now sees in Katniss a true inspiration for revolution: she is someone who could save them all. But the Capitol is not full of dummies, and they threaten Katniss and Peeta to help squelch the seeds of rebellion before they begin to grow in the Districts and pose a problem forever.
     Eventually, though, the only thing the Capitol feels it can do to punish the Districts once again for their disobedience to their power is to schedule a new kind of Hunger Games for the "Quarter Quell". The new scenario is that the tributes, or players, will come from the pool of former winners of the games. Because there are only 3 former winners from District 12 and one of them is an old, out-of-shape drunkard, Peeta and Katniss are once again sent into the arena to fight to the death others who have already won the games at some point in Panem's history.
     Again there can only be ONE winner. Will Peeta once again protect Katniss from certain death, sacrificing himself? Or will Katniss now protect Peeta, a charismatic speaker and all-around wonderful human being, so that he can lead Panem into revolution? What of the other equally interesting characters/tributes Collins has created for this special Games? Will one of them be the sole survivor? You'll just have to read to find out.

The Color of Water by James McBride

     Memoirs are really not my thing, or so I keep telling myself. But maybe I'm wrong because I really enjoyed this one by James McBride. It's a touching, gut-wrenching, beautifully told story of how one black man grew up in a huge family led by a Christian-reformed Jewish mother. Yeah, imagine the stories.
     McBride's mother grew up an Orthodox Jew with an abusive, rabbi father and a handicapped, ridiculed, silent mother. All she ever wanted was to be loved, and she finally finds this love in the American South among the blacks who were just as poor and persecuted as her own family. She eventually falls in love enough to marry one black man, McBride's father, and she willingly moves into a black neighborhood, a primarily black Christian church, and a life where she simply refused to see the colors or religions of others around her. McBride says that before he went to public school, he never even realized his mother was white or different from him. She was simply his mother. This was simply their life.
     This idea that 10 children of mixed heritage living in the heart of New York City could grow up colorblind and committed to God is so wonderfully refreshing and soul-warming that I just couldn't stop reading this memoir. Alternately told in the words of McBride and his mother, the book unfolds easily, almost like a good fairy tale because it is so unbelievable yet real, so lovely and yet so heart-breaking at times, but always full of the great truths that I am trying so desperately to teach my own children. That truth is that all people are equal in the eyes of God, and we are all capable of great things no matter what our backgrounds. If we all took that idea with us to church or to meditation or to silent introspection, we would be better people indeed.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

The premise of this book is absolutely terrifying to think about. As a lesson to society about the evils of bucking the system, the country of Panem's government has decided to sacrifice 11 of its children each year as atonement for  . . . I don't know or remember; I got so caught up in the action of the book, I really don't care about the why.

In this first book of an exciting YA series by Collins, each year there is a lottery from which one boy and one girl are drawn from each of the 12 districts of Panem. These 24 "tributes" are then put into a kind of "game show to the death" called The Hunger Games,  where 11 will die, and only one can survive. They are all ages from 12-18 with all different skill levels and economic backgrounds. The main characters, Katniss and Peeta, are from the poorest district, 12. All 24 are plunked down in a life-sized "arena" where they will have to hide, fight, hunt, and survive until there is only one left. And I thought "Survivor" was tough! I thought Jack and Kate had it hard fighting smoke monsters and polar bears on "Lost." Those people are all a bunch of pansies compared to the kids in The Hunger Games.

Collins has created a wild but believable world in Panem, where kids are tougher than their parents, government is scary, life is a struggle, and people are really into their reality shows. Huh . . . that sounds kind of familiar, doesn't it? The battle that goes on in the arena and the emotions that play out before, during, and after are intriguing to say the least and totally engaging. I can't wait to read the two sequels, Catching Fire and Mockinjay very soon. Let me know what you think!

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Arcadia Falls by Carol Goodman

Being a lover of books and all things literary, I was immediately sucked in to the story of Arcadia Falls.  It is told from the point of view of the main character, Ms. Rosenthal, a teacher who has recently lost her husband. While she and her daughter Sally reel from the tragedy of his death, they discover themselves poor and in need of a change from their lives filled with memories and grief. So, Rosenthal acquires a position with an artsy prep school called Arcadia where she will teach classes on myths and fairy tales and finish her thesis on the artist/author of a children's book called The Changeling Girl, which was written by the school's founder, Lily Eberhart.

As Chris Bohjilian does in The Double Bind with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Goodman intertwines the fairy tale of The Changeling Girl and its mysterious and tragic history with the more modern main story of Rosenthal and her daughter at the Arcadia school. What results is a mystery, a romance, a family history drama, and a ghost story all rolled into one very engrossing novel.

One other nice touch in the book is that the theme of the fairy tale of The Changeling Girl becomes like a metaphor for the life of the main character, and we as readers are drawn to the question of how we see ourselves and how others see us. Like the ending of the book, we discover that sometimes the answer to these questions is surprising and mysterious.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Rembrandt Affair by Daniel Silva

This latest intelligence thriller featuring Israeli spy, Gabriel Allon, took me from a stolen painting, to the camps of the Holocaust, to the world of high finance, through the realm of high tech gadgets, and to a satisfying, if somewhat predictable retirement of Mr. Allon. It's like my all-time favorite TV show "Alias" with lots of action, politics, spying, computer-ese, and kick-butt characters to love.

The plot is fairly complicated, but I'll try to sum up. A little known Rembrandt is stolen from one of Allon's friends, Isherman, who own a gallery. He will face ruin if it's not found, and Allon, being a world-renowned art restorer in addition to a dangerous spy, could not turn down the challenge to find it for his friend. What he uncovers in looking into the history of owners of the painting is that it was also "stolen" by a Nazi criminal from a Jewish family so that one of its two daughters would not be sent to the camps. Hearing the surviving woman's war story is too much for Allon, and he makes it his mission to find the painting. In so doing, he uncovers a list of old Jewish bank accounts that were also stolen by the Nazi and used to start up a multi-national financial conglomerate run by Martin Landesman. Landesman hides his unscrupulous tendencies by giving vast amounts of money to charities, and so is seen as a "saint." Allon eventually finds a connection from this Saint Martin to enriched uranium plants throughout the Middle East, and it becomes imperative for the security of others like America and Britain to somehow find proof and eradicate the nuclear threat. Impossible, you say? Well, you don't know Gabriel Allon.

Gabriel Allon. What a wonderfull name to trip off your tongue. Gabriel. An angel indeed. Thank you Daniel Silva for creating such an exciting and divine character. And while the storylines in the Allon books are getting a bit repetitive, I really just don't care.  Check it out yourself,  and let me know if you think Gabriel is an angel.

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

So, having now ridden the bandwagon and finally read this hugely popular memoir, was I impressed? Do I get it? Am I now ready to chuck my mundane life and head for parts unknown to "find myself" and all I am? Well, the answers are yes, yes, and probably not.

I am impressed with the book as a whole and with Gilbert's writing style. While I didn't read the book but listened to it on audio, it was read by the author, and she truly seemed to be reading it just to me - kind of like we were having this really long conversation about life and our vacations. It was a very enjoyable, if one-sided, conversation. I am impressed by the fact that Gilbert realized what a mess she was. I am impressed that she found a way to finance such a trip and then turn it into such a huge success for her career. I am impressed by how much work it had to be, albeit fun also, to learn so much about her life and lives of people as a whole.

Yes, I get it. As I said when I first started listening to it, I resisted this book for a long time. I hate people who say the word "guru" in a serious tone, and I hate the term "out of body experience." When I hear these phrases, I immediately think words like "crazy," "kooky," "out there," or "whoo-hoo" while twirling my index finger in a circle near my head. But now? Well, now I am beginning to see that all religions and their practices are valid in all our lives and that they really are not that contradictory in their philosophies, but only in their everyday practices and in those who try to interpret them. I totally get Gilbert's need to indulge and try to relax in Italy. I get the learning Italian thing, and I think how much I'd love to learn French. I get the spiritual awakening thing, and so much of what she said about meditation and how it changes people has me searching for cheap ways to learn how to meditate (I haven't found any yet, as classes on true transendental meditation are very expensive to take.) The only thing I didn't get was the need for a man in the end. Although, when I was listening to Gilbert talk about Phillipe, I was kind of comforted with visions of Edward Cullen rising out of her descriptions. Some of those same qualities I've talked about here in terms of the "perfect man" that Edward so embodies sure seemed to be in Phillipe. Hmmm. . .

Lastly, while I doubt whether I will ever be able to afford or find time for a journey such as Gilbert's, I can live vicariously through her. I can use her words to help me become the most self-actualized person I can be. I'm ready to read books about Hinduism and Buddhism. I might be ready to learn to meditate. I know I'm ready to find the perfect cappucino, gellato, and spaghetti around. So, maybe a guru is in order? Did I just say "guru?" Or was it you?

Friday, September 10, 2010

One Thousand White Women: The Journals of May Dodd by Jim Fergus

Our book club is full of all women I'm sorry to say (our token man just left for Nigeria), so I think this book will make an interesting discussion. The story is based on one, small, little-known fact: that during the Native American conflicts of the 1800's, a Cheyenne chief suggested to the president that to alleviate white-Indian tensions, the whites should hand over 1,000 of their women in exchange for 1,000 horses. This way, they could become Cheyenne wives and bear children, and these children would then help to intermix the two "nations" thereby making them one. Cool idea, or just plain insanity?

In real life, the idea, of course, was rejected out of hand by the president and all the whites as ludicrous in the extreme. In this novel by Jim Fergus, the president rejects it at first, and then secretly puts the idea into motion. When he can't find enough willing, "able-bodied" women folk, the president begins to recruit those in insane asylums and prisons. Some of these women go for it, seeing the program as a way to gain their freedom. May Dodd, the main character,  is a woman unjustly sentenced to an asylum for her "promiscuous" ways who gains entry into the Cheyenne program as way out of that dismal world and into the land of the living. She must leave behind her illegitimate children whom she loves dearly, but she hopes that after she does her time with the Cheyennes that she will be able to return to them a new woman with new freedoms.

The journals that May writes are full of hardships on the prairie, friendships with the other white women and the Cheyennes, and descriptions of her new life. Her open-mindedness is a great strength, as is her perseverence and determination to make the best of her time in the tribe. She becomes a leader of the white women and respected by the Cheyennes. In short, she is a portrait of strong women throughout all history who have had to go about the business of living while trying to change the evils in the world that men have created. Although a fictional character, her journals read like the real thing: full of drama, emotion, and true grit.

So, while the premise of this book is a bit wild, and perhaps unrealistic, I think that's what novels are for: to put forth wild ideas and take our minds away from the harsh realities that we have to live every day. So, I would recommend One Thousand White Women for its strong characters, its historical setting, and its interesting cultural examinations. Give it a try, and let me know what you think.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Fragile by Lisa Unger

Fragile is a mystery about some high school friends who have grown up, but their pasts seem to have followed them straight into the lives of their children. Maggie and Jones and their son, Rick, seem to have (if not a perfect) a pretty normal married life. Marriage isn't easy, raising a teenage boy isn't easy, being a psychologist and a cop isn't easy. But they survive in their sleepy little town just fine - until Rick's girlfriend, someone they feel has a questionable reputation and an unstable homelife, disappears.

The story then becomes the nightmare of how high school mistakes can haunt you and hunt you down. It becomes about how two different parents can react very differently given their separate histories. It becomes about the meaning of loyalty, friendship, and values. All this becomes intertwined into a very readable, psychological who-done-it that almost anyone could relate to and enjoy.

Fragile did not seem to me to be the powerhouse of a book that book clubs everywhere would latch on to (I've seen it on many lists and Internet sites), but it was a good read. The character of Jones was a bit nauseating to me, but he is probably supposed to be that way. I like that the book would probably appeal to wide range of audiences, as there are important characters in every age group: the elderly mother, the middle-aged parents, and the teens who struggle to NOT be like them. Give it a try and let me know what you think!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Little Bee by Chris Cleave

Little Bee is sort of a little book in length, but it's a very "big" book in terms of characters and impact. It's the story of a Nigerian refugee (she takes the name "Little Bee") who tries to escape the terror and fear of her village which has been taken by oil mercenaries.  As she is running with her sister, they come across a British couple on holiday, so they desperately run to them for help. What happens next changes all their lives forever.

One of the things that happens is that Little Bee is sent to a detention center in England, where she is forced to stay for two years. When she is released, she has no papers to legitimize her new life; all she has is the British man's driver's license. With this information, she goes to the British couple's home and finds the people there almost as traumatized by the Nigerian experience as she is. The story then focuses on the British woman, Sarah, and Little Bee as they try to put their lives together before immigration officials find Little Bee and send her back to Nigeria, where she fears she will be killed for what she knows.

Litte Bee was a good read with a surprising ending. It shocked me that it was set in present day, as it didn't seem possible that someone could remain in a detention center for two years. It's also always surprising to me how life in a village like Little Bee's can be so simple in terms of lifestyle, and then be so complicated in terms of politics.

Please post a comment and let me know what you think of Little Bee.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Girl who Kicked the Hornet's Nest by Stieg Larsson

Sometimes it's difficult to keep the tension going in a series such as Stieg Larsson's trilogy which started with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (see below). I rarely read three books in a row by the same author, let alone a series. But these books were so involved and mesmerizing to me, that I had to do it, and this third and last installment was as exciting and gripping as the others, and maybe moreso.

In this one Lisbeth Salander is hopitalized with serious injuries from her last escapade, and she fears she may be locked up in asylum again at some point. So, Blomkvist makes it his personal and professional mission to prove her innocence and free her, but this is a difficult mission given the conspiracy that continues to unfold around them and a large number of writers, editors, and friends. Salander continues to be the strong, feminist heroine that I absolutely love, and Blomkvist, while romantically challenged and fairly clueless in some things, continues to be a smart, faithful-as-a-dog male character.

Let me know what you think of Lisbeth and her crew of courageous hackers and journalists. Post a comment!

Friday, July 30, 2010

The Girl who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson

Remember when I said I hoped that the beginning of this book moved a bit faster than the first one? Well, this second book in the Stieg Larsson trilogy started off at breakneck pace and never stopped. There are few books for me that are "can't put them down" quality, but this one was it.

Now that journalist Blomkvist is happily basking in the afterglow of taking down financial gangster Wennerstrom, and Salander has successfully gotten her feminist revenge by stealing all Wennerstrom's money by hacking his accounts, life can go on blissfully, right? But Salander feels let down when she sees Blomkvist with long-time, part-time lover Erika Berger and flees the country with her millions in order to forget him and find a new life. Then Mother Nature intervenes, and Salander is blown home to Sweden from her island hide-away by a hurricane. When she returns, she fnds Blomkvist and his Millenium cronies knee-deep in a sex ring scandal that she has a mysterious connection to. When the two reporters who have uncovered the scandal are murdered along with Salander's greasy "guardian," Salander is the accused and has to use her hacking and hiding skills to keep from being arrested. The police have a bunch of physical evidence against her, and her shaky record portrays her as a psycho with questionable morals. Did she do it? Will her true friends Armansky and Blomkvist fight for her or turn her in? You'll have to read to find out.

When you start this one, make sure you have some large blocks of time on your hands, because you won't be able to quit. So, pull up a lawn chair in the shade, grab a cool drink and your sunglasses, and enjoy this great thriller of the summer!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

This is the first book in a trilogy by Swedish author Larsson, who died in 2004, before the books were even published. They've created a huge sensation in the media, so I thought I'd see what all the fuss is about. You can read about the author at

When I started the book, things were very hectic around here, and I really didn't have much time to get into it.  I got a little bogged down in the financial espionage details in the beginning, but once I got to the midway mark, I was totally engrossed.

The main character is Mikael Blomkvist, a publisher and journalist who has recently been found guilty of libel after exposing a huge financial "gangster." While Blomkvist knows his story is true and documented, he doesn't fight the court's decision and wishes to step down from the magazine he publishes called Millenium. As he licks his wounds and prepares mentally for his jail time, he is presented with an interesting offer from Henrik Vanger, an elderly CEO of a huge company who also knows all about the gangster Blomkvist tried to bring down. He offers Blomkvist a deal: he'll get him some more evidence against the financier, if Blomkvist will write his biography and solve the "murder" of his niece who disappeared without a trace many years before. With some trepidation, Blomkvist agrees to the deal and begins digging up dirt on all the Vangers.  During his investigation, it becomes apparent that he needs help, which comes in the form of an odd, social outcast Lisbeth Salander, the girl with the dragon tattoo. Salander is a computer hacker extraordinaire, and her "skills" become invaluable to Blomkvist. Besides all this detailed mystery solving, the author lets us into the fascinating personal lives of the Vangers, Blomkvist, and most interestingly, Salander. The characters are always what drive a story for me as a reader, and Larsson's are fascinating indeed. How did Vanger's niece simply disappear one day without a trace? What are the Vanger's hiding and why? Why is Salander so strange and untouchable, and will Blomkvist be able to crack the case and Salander's facade at the same time?

These questions are for you (and me as I continue with the series)to read and find out. Summer is a great time for thrillers, so pick one up and let me know what you think!!!

Eclipse by Stephenie Meyer

I rarely reread a book. I find it a royal waste of time because I always think, if a book is good, I'll remember it anyway, and there's no need. There are so many other good books to read. Right? Well, I know for a fact that I'm not alone in rereading the Twilight saga. I've talked to people, teens and adults alike, who have read them all three, maybe four or five times. And while I don't think I'll do that, I completely enjoyed Eclipse for the second time right before we saw the movie on opening day, as I could look at all those beautiful details to see if they did them "right" in the movie.

For those of you who are Twilight newbies, this story begins by reestablishing the unusual and enduring love between Edward, a vampire, and Bella, a more than ordinary high school girl. Graduation approaches for them both (of course Edward "matriculates a lot" as he puts it). Bella fights with Edward about becoming a vampire, something she wants so that she can be with Edward forever and not age. What interrupts their innocent plans is a strange killing spree in nearby Seattle, which we come to find is being caused by an army of "newborn" or newly changed vampires. After much speculation by Edward's vampire family,the Cullens, it becomes evident that Bella is their target. Her protection and affection for werewolf friend, Jacob Black, becomes a prominent part of the story now, as Bella must struggle, as all teens do, with her needs, wants, and feelings for both of these guys. They both love her in their own way, as she also loves them. Will the army get close to Bella? Which "monster" will she choose to spend her life with? You'll have to read to find out.

There is so much beautiful detail and raw emotion in Eclipse that it truly is hard to put down. I also love all the social groups that can be analyzed and compared to the real world. The animal eating, compassionate, and loyal Cullens are mesmerizing, and you end up feeling like a part of them, knowing all of their back stories and powers by the end. The werewolves and their "pack society" are also fascinating because of their leadership principles and the fact that they read each others thoughts. But the one thing that pulls me the most about these books, is that as wild, crazy, magical, and fictional as all these characters are, all of their lives, their powers, and everything about them and their world seems explainable and therefore "real" when you are reading it. You'll be wondering about some little detail about them as you read, and then before long, Meyer explains it all to you as if it's just a part of history, some perfectly logical detail that we just didn't know before that part of the plot when it was necessary for us to know. Amazing.

So, if you have been living in the bat cave and haven't read these books yet, start with Twilight and get going. You won't regret it. As for the movie, I loved it too. The "tent" scene was good, although perhaps too short, and the "compromise scene" was sexy without being too overt for the younger audience members. I'm sure you can still go see it in theaters now (with all the fans who are now going for the 5th and 6th times!)

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Pray for Silence by Linda Castillo

After I finally read Castillo's first Amish thriller, Sworn to Silence, just a little while ago, I have been waiting for this sequel. Officer Kate Burkholder and her fellow policemen have a new, more heinous case to investigate this time around - the mass murder of an entire Amish family. Being a former Amish girl herself, Kate feels particularly close to this one, as does her love interest, Tomasetti. Together they use all the gruesome clues to try to put together a profile of the killer, and just when you think the case is closed and the killer is taken care of permanently, new clues surface to pull us back in.

Pray for Silence is a very entertaining crime thriller. The wonderful pace and details in addition to strong characters like Kate and Tomasetti make this a wonderful choice for mystery, forensic, and thriller readers alike. Some of the details may be a bit graphic and gruesome for some, but those who don't mind a little blood and love shows like CSI and SVU will love this book, which moves along at a fast, TV-show like pace. Give Castillo a try, and you might be praying for the next sequel!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner by Stephenie Meyer

Yes, I am one of those geeky, middle-aged moms who love Twilight. I admit it. There you go. So, I couldn't wait for this new novella by Meyer.

This little bite of a book takes the character of Bree Tanner, who has a brief part in the end of Eclipse, the 3rd book in the Twilight saga. In expanding this character, we get an intersting look into the creation and vampire "life" of a newborn, or newly created, vampire. Bree is created by Victoria, Edward Cullen's female nemesis, as part of an army specifically formed for the Cullens' destruction. Victoria wishes to kill Edward as revenge for Edward's killing of her mate, James, in the first Twilight book. We get to witness the uncontrollable thirst that Bree and her cohorts experience, but we also see another of Meyer's society portraits, and this is where she really shines as a writer. This small society of newborn vampires is again, an interesting parallel of the real world and its history. Victoria is kind of a Hitler figure, creating soldiers through prejudice and fear, paralyzing the newborns so much that they feel they have no choice but to do her bidding, even though they don't even remember her. The "soldiers" really don't care about the people or other vampires that they must kill, they only care about saving themselves and quenching their thirst. Bree, of course, is a bit different, as Carlisle Cullen senses in the end. He offers to show her the value of a "vegetarian" lifestyle and to take her under the family's wing in order to save her and the others she might harm. Will the Volturi, or vampire police squad, go for this little humanitarian plan? You'll just have to read Eclipse or Bree Tanner to find out! And don't forget to catch the new Eclipse movie, in theaters next Wednesday, June 30th. I'll be there!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

False Mermaid by Erin Hart

From the time I read the review of this new mystery(with such a catchy title) by Erin Hart, I've wanted to read it, and it did not disappoint. It begins with the main character,Nora Gavin, who recently moved back to Minnesota from Ireland, where she "escaped" for three year after the brutal murder of her sister. She worked on solving her sister's bizarre case endlessly, with the help of a local detective, Frank Cordoba, but they were unable to find enough evidence to convict the sister's husband who they are sure did the crime.

Returning to Minnesota, Nora and Frank are able to uncover some interesting evidence in the form of blood-stained clothing and some seeds from a rare plant called "false mermaid". But they struggle with time as the killer plans to leave the country. The other really interesting facet of the book is the incorporation of the Irish "selkie" legends. These stories involve a seal who comes to land and removes her skin in order to be human for a bit.The catch is that if the seal skin is stolen by a man, the seal-being then must do whatever the human says, which usually means becoming his wife. Only if the seal skin is returned can she return to the sea, which she will do at any cost. You may think this is just a bizarre story and what does it have to do with murder, but it's so interesting because the author interweaves this supernatural element into the characters and it becomes sort of an eerie parallel between the murderer and the victim. I love it when a supernatural element can be interwoven  so faltlessly that it becomes believable; it makes the story just that much more magical and entertaining to me.

So if you enjoy legends and a bit of the mystical mixed in with a good old-fashioned mystery filled with angst and a love story, you'll love Erin Hart's new novel. After you check it out, don't forget to tell me what you think!

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Darkest Fear by Harlan Coban

I first got hooked on Coban's feisty main character, Myron Bolitar, when a patron at the library checked in one of his audio books and said, "Have you ever listened to one of these? They are hilarious! I almost drive off the road from laughing so hard!" At that time, I had only listened to one or two audiobooks before, and I still would have chosen to read instead of listen. But this amazing recommendation had me intrigued, so I listened to one of these Myron Bolitars in my car, and I was hooked.

Myron Bolitar is a retired/past injured pro basketball player who since has started a sports agency, representing clients from many different sports. He employs quite a menagerie of misfits, from Esperanza the former pro wrestler and her beefy friend Big Cindy, to his security and financial advisor, Win, who is not only shallow, smooth, and filthy rich, but deadly lethal with both weapons and his bare hands. These characters all come together to work for and support Myron, who is really just a fast-joking, smart, big kid who is trying to make the best of his life and relationships while always running himself into trouble. Yes, trouble always finds Myron, and he just has to investigate.

Darkest Fear, while not my favorite Bolitar novel, was probably the funniest. I couldn't read a page without cracking up at Myron and Win's constant bantering. The mystery in this one was quite complicated, and I thought the end was a bit rushed, trying to tie up too many clues at once. But overall, it was an extremely entertaining read.

Try some Myron Bolitar novels and see what you think! Then post, post, post!

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Sworn to Silence by Linda Castillo

Sworn to Silence is just the kind of book I love in the summer: it's fast and furious, has interesting characters, and the details and plot are so intense, you just can't put it down. This wonderful thriller by Castillo has been requested endlessly at the library, so I thought I'd give it a try, and it did not disappoint. It's about a former  Amish girl who was a victim of a crime during a scary murder spree by a serial killer who was never caught. The really interesting facet is that the girl later leaves the Amish community to become a cop and returns to defend her hometown, deep in Amish country. So, the author incorporates some great Amish flavor with a great mystery, mixed with some gory details and a little love, creating a great novel perfect for when you just want to sit and read and not put it down. Give it a try and tell me what you think!

Monday, May 24, 2010

Blackbird Hill by Alice Hoffman

As I've said before, Alice Hoffman is one of my favorite authors for many reasons. Her style and language are so deftly crafted, smooth, and lyrical that the reader simply gets lost in the story and characters. Her characters are so vivid, and you are able to love and care about them from the very first meeting. The Cape Cod setting is also close to my heart, as my husband and I started our life together on the east coast and spent a couple days on the Cape before moving back to the Midwest. It's a beautiful place full of history.

Blackbird Hill is both the title and the significant place in the novel which ties all the individual chapters together. The book first started a short story published by The Boston Globe. Hoffman then took that story and created more stories that all happen along a timeline from the early 1800's to the present, all with different characters who live in the house on Blackbird Hill. The house and the landscape tie the people's histories together flawlessly, and while each chapter could possibly stand alone as a wonderful short story, together they make a beautiful tapestry of a novel that will stick with you. From the original owners of the house on the Cape whose lives end in tragedy, to the present day girl who survives her personal obstacles and settles into herself and her life, they all have something to share about love and the ability of the human spirit to overcome and change our lives to fit us.

I picked this one up at our annual Friends of the Elgin Library book sale, but I'm going to put it into the collection. So, come check it out this summer and get lost at the Cape as I did.

Island Beneath the Sea by Isabel Allende

Island Beneath the Sea is the story of Zarite, a slave girl on the island that is now Haiti. The book traces her life from girlhood when she is sold to a plantation owner named Toulouse Valmorain. Because her master wishes her to be more refined in order to care for his delicate wife, Zarite, or Tete, as she is called, goes to "train" with a famous concubine named Violette, and although they don't realize it until much later, their lives are irrevocably changed and intertwined because of their meeting.

This beautifully written saga takes us through Zarite's life as a slave in Valmorain's house over years of island unrest and revolution both abroad in France and on the island itself.  Zarite again and again must put aside her own humanity and dignity in order to survive and realize her dream of becoming a free woman. It's th powerful story of women who are abused by a system they have absolutely no power over, but who nonetheless persevere and work that system as well as they can to get what they want.

I loved this books for its writing, it's wonderful sense of place and history, and for the wonderful characters who struggle for the things we still struggle for today - peace, equality, freedom of body and spirit, and an end to discrimination of all kinds. Check it out today, and you'll be glad you did.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

White Horses by Alice Hoffman

Alice Hoffman is one of my favorite writers for her beautiful use of language and haunting storylines of tragedy, love, and spirit. While the subject matter is not for the faint of heart and is quite disturbing in parts, White Horses is a wonderful novel that reveals the terrible fight for love that abused children go through their entire lives. It is the story of Teresa, a young girl who hates her do-nothing father, is mystified by her angry mother, and who, most of all, worships her handsome, hoodlum brother. It is this last relationship that is her undoing. Her brother Silver is like a hero to Teresa and her mother, much like the "Arias" who ride on white horses, have a supernatural mystique, and who are in all of Teresa's bedtime stories and in her dreams. She knows that Silver will never leave her, as her father does, and that he will defend her, as her mother has not. But her undying love of Silver, and his twisted sense of manhood and selfishness lead them both into a desperate love/hate chase that leaves them both isolated from the world and ultimately from each other.

The language of this tragic book carries you along like an ocean breeze, and I couldn't stop reading, hoping Teresa would finally find herself and tear away from all the self-destructive behavior she clings to. And while the ending was satisfying, it still left me wanting to hear more; wanting Teresa to finally be empowered after being put down for so long. I won't give away the ending for you, though. Read it, and let me know your opinion.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan

I grabbed this little gem off the young adult shelf before I could even get to my blog, but I wanted to tell you about it now that I'm done. It's about a time when the world has pretty much ended because of the influx of creatures called "The Unconsecrated" which are essentially zombies. Yes, I said it. Zombies. But it's not as crazy or stupid as that sounds. Just as Stephenie Meyer has made vampires totally believable to the masses, Ryan has done a great job with these gross and hateful zombies. She describes them more as creatures that are created sort of like vampires but who instead of being immortal and totally invincible, their power simply lies in their numbers and the fact that they are "damned" or already dead. They hunger for humans, and to keep them out, the few humans left on the planet have put up an elaborate system of fences and paths. The village where Mary, the main character, lives relies on a strict social system and many rules to keep everyone safe. But when a "breach" happens and the unconsecrated get inside the fence, it's everyone for themselves. Mary manages to escape with the two men who love her, her brother, and her best friend, but is unhappy because she "knows" that there is something else out there - the ocean and more humans. It is her driving quest to find them and this dream drives a wedge between her and the others.

This was a quick read, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I truly cared about the characters, and the ending was very excitig. The various social aspects of the village and the symbolism of the unconsecrated would also be lively topics of debate, just as the Twilight characters are.

So, if you want a good story, a quick read, and a little romance thrown in with the zombies, this is the book for you. Enjoy!

Heresy by Parrish

This historical thriller is set in 1583 Oxford, England. It's the story of a fallen monk called Bruno who wants others to try to embrace new scientific knowledge without it necessarily damaging their faith in God. He goes to Oxford to debate the fact that the earth revolves around the sun, but he ends up walking into a murder ring made to look like the ancient Christian martyrdoms. The rector at the college asks him to step in and investigate, which puts him up for ridicule from the higher-ups as well as putting him in danger from the stealthy killer. The blame is passed around from likely person to likely person, until Bruno is led to the truth, and almost to his untimely death.

This book was beautifully written and full of intrigue, but it did drag a bit for me in the middle. It picked up again at the suspenseful end, and I found it well worth the read. Let me know what you think!

Friday, April 2, 2010

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession by Allison Hoover Bartlett

As I've said before, I typically don't read much nonfiction. But a fellow book-lover handed this to me (and granted I picked it out for the library but didn't really know if I'd read it), and she said "You should read this. You love books as much as I do, and well, this guy is really interesting!"

She was so right! I couldn't put this book down! Allison Bartlett was able to talk to John Gilkey, a book thief who told her his story of "acquiring" rare books. How did he do this on a part-time Saks sales clerk salary? He stole them, of course! How did he get caught? With the help of a wily rare book dealer named Ken Sanders and a complicated network of book store owners and dealers. Why did Gilkey steal them? Well, that is where the real interest in this story lies. Gilkey says he deserves them. Why should the ability to acquire books, knowledge, status, and education be left only to those who can afford them, he says? Why can't an average Joe like him have some of them? Why not?

While you and I might say something logical like, "Because these books cost thousands of dollars and others really love them just as much, and I can't pay for them," Gilkey just rejects this kind of thinking as unfair and not very creative. He wants these books, and therefore, he should have them. And that's it.

So, check out this slim volume of intrigue, character analysis, and some wonderful facts about the rare book world. It's a hoot!

Escape by Carolyn Jessop

The Brady Bunch It's Not
Here's the story
of a lovely lady,
who was living with her 8 kids on her own.
There were 4 wives living all together,
yet they were all lone.
Then one day when this lady's finally fed up,
she decides that her God is surely dead.
So she leaves the man
who only wanted,
More women in his bed.

And that about sums up this tragic, heartrending, horrifying, stupifying, thought-provoking, faith- questioning story of a girl born into paligamy in Utah and pretty much forced into a marriage with someone 20 years her senior. She tries to live her life the way everyone says is God's way, only to find a life filled with hypocracy, abuse (both physical and mental), and the loss of her soul. Carolyn Jessop finally escapes with her children from what she calls the "cult" of the FLDS church (Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints). This group started out as a peaceful, God-fearing bunch of Mormons, who happened to believe in "God's plan" to reward faithful Saints who live the paligamist life and have as many children as they possibly can pop out. With the coming of Warren Jeffs as their prophet and leader, the FLDS took on a new, more terrifyingly fundamentalist mentality and practice that is now getting them into trouble with the government and other more local law officials.

Yes, to answer the one question I always asked before I read so much about the FLDS, paligamy is illegal in this country. And yes, Utah, is indeed a part of our country, the United States. Why then aren't all these men in jail and all these children being cared for by Social Services? Well, is it illegal for a man to live with someone he is not married to and have children with her? Nope. The FLDS men only legally marry one wife, and the rest of them are simply married within the church, which are not legally recognized. Then, is there a limit on how many kids can live in one house? Apparently not in Utah.

There is so much to talk about in this book, that I can't go into it all here. The reason I liked the book and am so interested in these extremist Mormons is because they make me so angry. These Mormon men are using God to create a place that they can be respected for having a home filled with sexual slaves. Because that's what these women are, and they truly believe that they will not have an afterlife in heaven or anywhere else if they don't do as they are told and have as many children as their bodies can produce. How they come to believe this is not a result of some kind of rare mental retardation; it results from their birth into a world that is totally dominated by abusive men. By reading and listening to Carolyn Jessop's story, we can all learn something about the role women play in society, even if our worlds are not as extreme as Jessop's former world. It's a cautionary tale about how many, many women in their daily lives must fight against abuse and powerlessness and find a better way for themselves and their children, and that it is possible to do so.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan

The Worst Hard Time is the well-researched and much acclaimed account of the devastating Dust Bowl of the 1930's. It's an unbelievable true story that many Americans really don't know much about; I know I didn't. This arid part of the US from the south edge of Nebraska and down through the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles was settled by pioneers who went there because the land was almost free for the taking, thanks to the government's seizure of Native American lands. When the settlers got there, it was covered in lush grasses. But when WWII hit and more food was needed, everyone became a farmer, tearing up millions of acres to plant in wheat and various other cash crops. People started getting rich quickly with this boom in land and crops - initially. And it drove them to plow up more and more land, shredding up topsoil quicker than you can say "erosion." Then the drought hit. No rain for literally years, and the top soil blew away in a seemingly never-ending chain of dust storms.

So, in this book, the reader is taken through a number of family stories of those who lived and stayed in the Dust Bowl despite its tragedy. And the tragedy of it seems like sci-fi. The pictures look like Mars, not US farmland. Unbelievable stuff.

As a reader, I felt that the facts of the story were extremely interesting, and the book as whole presents a scary, but important cautionary tale about soil conservation. But growing up on an Iowa small farm with a father who understands the true vital importance of such conservation gave me a good background in understanding. There are still farmers stripping the land of its vitality with each crop, just like there are farmers caring nothing about the chemicals they pump into the nation's food supply as long as we are able and "obligated" to "feed the world." The book brings home just how very, very careful we must all be when it comes to Mother Earth.

As a piece of literature, I often find nonfiction extremely dry, and The Worst Hard Time was no exception for me. It was pretty hard to get into and really didn't pick up any excitement until the end when you find out what happened to the families Egan used as examples of the story. But a page-turner it wasn't. I felt the family stories, which were the most interesting, were very unorganized, and therefore the author had to be very repetitive in order to follow them through. I believe it could have been better edited and organized more effectively  to be more readable, especially for a fiction reader; and let's face it, that's what most Americans are. So, it certainly wasn't the dullest nonfiction I've read, but I didn't see it as the masterpiece which it was hailed as by so many. You may disagree. Give it a read and let me know!

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Host by Stephenie Meyer

I put off reading this adult novel by the author of the Twilight saga because it seemed so strictly sci-fi, and I don't really read much of that any more. But I was thirsting for Meyer's special blend of human/superhuman love, wonderful, readable dialog, and totally involving plots. I was not disappointed in The Host.

In the world of The Host, tiny, alien "souls" have been colonizing many of the planets in the universe, with Earth being one of their recent acquisitions.  The worm-like, silvery, beautiful souls are implanted into the brains of human hosts and take over the actions and thoughts of that host. That is, unless the host is especially strong and feisty like Melanie - the new host of a "soul" named Wanderer. Wanderer is chosen to be implanted into Melanie because of her vast immortal experience in the universe; she has had many hosts on all the colonized planets. But Melanie's desire to still occupy her own body and find her younger brother and boyfriend are stronger than the soul, and they begin a lengthy struggle within the human body they share. The also embark on a secret journey into the underworld of humans who refuse to give in to the aliens and their plan.

As in the Twilight vampire books, the most fascinating thing about this story is the social interaction and moral dilemmas faced by the characters. The souls believe they are helping Earth by taking over, because they are incapable of violence, greed, sloth, or any of the deadly sins they feel have overtaken human Earth. The humans, of course, feel violated and want to retake their planet by force, but there simply aren't enough of them left to fight. In the "underworld" that the humans have created for themselves, they must decide to live in the very way that could have saved the Earth in the first place: they have to work together, seek harmony with the environment and each other, live morally, and work hard in order to be able to live together, meet their body's needs, and most importantly, hide from the world that  is now corrupted by the souls. The souls have no ideas about personal freedoms or creativity, and Wanderer finds that the deep emotions of love, lust, fear, and joy are too wonderful to give up, and indeed, are worth fighting for.  The ultimate selflessness of Melanie, Wanderer, and their love interests is also profound and haunting, much like the irrisistible love between Edward and Bella. However, the story is in no way like Meyer's other books except in its wonderful ability to make the reader get lost in fiction, immersed in other worlds and haunted by the meaning embedded in seemingly "silly" reading fodder.

So, if you don't think you do sci-fi, you might want to try The Host just to make sure.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Sweeping Up Glass by Carolyn Wall

I picked this one up because of the rave reviews, and I definitely think it should be a next year's book club pick as well. Sweeping up Glass guides us through the present and past of Olivia Harker, a child left behind with her father by her crazy mother. She doesn't remember the abandonment, however, and enjoys her life with her grocery owning, hooch running, veterinarian dad who teaches her conservation, tolerance, and love. But when Ida, her mother, returns from the asylum, and then she and her father get in a car accident, the world changes for Olivia and she becomes a broken girl, inside and out.

The reader not only gets a look at how Olivia lives her life and ages, but we find out just how far prejudice in a small town can go and how blind we can be to it, if we don't subscribe to it. Olivia learns that some love doesn't die, and even those we love can lie to us sometimes.

This is a poignant book full of rich story, setting, history, and rebirth. A lot to talk about. Let me know what you think!

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Beautiful Creatures

Click here to view the book trailer from YouTube.

This young adult novel by team Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl first caught my eye because of, of course, its "Twilight" -like elements: the romance between a supernatural being and a human. It got rave reviews, and so I thought I'd try it. I was pleasantly surprised. The main character and narrator in this saga is a boy, Ethan, who falls for the new girl at his stuck-up Southern school. Even before they meet, Ethan has dreamed of this girl, who turns out to be Lena, almost 16-year-old niece of the infamous town recluse.  It also turns out that Lena, too, has been having the exact same dream, which involves a doomed couple who lived during the Civil War. After this discovery, the young couple then dives into the meaty and mysterious task of figuring out what the dream means to each of them, and how this relates to Lena's supernatural family of "casters" or witches.  While Ethan is still painfully human, he does have some power over Lena, which is intriguing.  The historical content is also a nice touch and keeps the reader moving.  The book also has a lovely librarian character, aptly named Marian, who has supreme power over both the mortal library and the "caster" one. Will Lena turn to the dark side on her 16th birthday, or will Ethan's love be able to save her from her own family secrets? You'll have to read it to find out! I think many age groups, from upper grade schoolers through adults will find this one enjoyable. So, if you're having a hard time finding a satisfying read after the perfection that is the Twilight saga, give this one a try!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson

This book will be discussed by Elgin's Valley Book Club on Thurs., Feb. 4th. It was recommended for our list by a couple of our members. I was tugged into the book immediately by its wonderful sense of time and setting. Being Norwegian myself, I was intrigued by the translation and style.  The story is told from the point of view of a young boy, and then alternately by the same boy when he is grown and elderly.  The switching back and forth was a little troublesome at first, as there are no visual clues to guide the reader in the switch, but I gradually got into it, and it didn't bother me at all.

The story evolves around the boy and his father who go to stay for the summer at a remote cabin shortly after WWII. It explores their relationship with each other and with the small community where the cabin is and how they are ultimately connected to the father's secret war effort. The beginning holds a disturbing scene of accidental violence that was difficult for me for a while, and while it is the pivotal event in the story, I felt that it was not developed completely. This is also true of some of the other plot lines involving the father, and some of the neighbors. One club member pointed out to me how very Norwegian this is: that nothing sensitive is really, actually talked about by the characters, and we are left to figure things out. This is, indeed, my experience with my Norwegian relatives and friends; i.e. we don't really talk about unpleasant things and hope they will just work themselves out in the end. Conflict needs to be kept to a minimum and denying one's feelings is essential to survival. Hmmm. Something to think about. Overall, I liked the book, and although it's a bit slow in some parts, it kept my attention, and I'm glad that I read it.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

Well, I'm finally done with this novel about the plague, and I have to say that it was wonderfully written and had strong characters, but moved a little slowly for me. It is the story of a woman who loses her whole family to the plague and her subsequent life in a village that becomes shut off from the rest of the world. The minister believes that if they leave the village, they will spread the disease which is already so prevalent among them. He persuades the population that staying there is the sacrifice they must make, and that they may therefore be spared because they can care for each other. The history of the plague was very interesting, and the reader can't help but feel the villagers' turmoil, pain, and confusion because of the lack of general medical knowledge during that time. Childbirth was also so unnecessarily risky, and it's so hard in our times to understand how surgeons could think bleeding someone would heal them. It was also interesting that it was the women who were trying more natural remedies such as roots and plants to help the sick and to build up those who weren't sick to try to fight off the disease. This had to be a new concept then, and I loved that two women, one educated and one not, really were the only ones who actually did any good to help save the rest of them. Although the entire book, naturally, was quite sad and dark, the satisfying ending (although a bit bizarre)was worth the wait. I'll let you know what the book club says this week about this book, but please post your own comments!