Monday, April 8, 2013

The Secret Life of CeeCee Wilkes by Diane Chamberlain

The premise behind this novel is mesmerizing: A woman commits a crime and then goes into hiding for virtually the rest of her life, with only a handful of people knowing the truth. Can she keep the secret forever? Can a criminal redeem  his or her life and be happy and "normal" ever again? Are secrets sometimes necessary or will they always be barriers to true happiness?

CeeCee Wilkes, a 16-year-old impressionable girl who has lost her mother at a very young age, finds herself in love with someone who wants her to help him commit a kidnapping. He has his reasons, which seem noble, and she truly just wants someone to love. When the crime goes wrong and all the perpetrators go into hiding, CeeCee has to create a life that she has no clue how to start, and she must keep secrets about her lover while being separated from him forever.

As I said, there are a lot of great questions explored in this light, easy read in a style I would compare to Danielle Steel, Nora Roberts or the like. While this is not my favorite kind of writing style, there are many things I liked about this book. It was fast-paced, had interesting characters, and as I said above, a dynamite plot premise. Its weaknesses lie in the, what I will call, unbelievable stupidity of the characters and their crime. I do realize that there are stupid crimes committed every day, but sometimes in this novel both the dialog and the characters' motivation seemed a bit contrived and very stilted. The characters often used very overused expressions in their speaking, and the descriptions seemed quite cliched, and I would kind of go, "Ugh, really?" But then the plot would move ahead and keep me engaged. I wanted to find out what happened to these idiots. I wanted to know if the remaining victims of the kidnapping were for real, or if they had some evil elements themselves.

So, if you like some light, general women's fiction with a little mystery thrown in, then this is your ticket. Give it a try and come to our book club to discuss it on May 2nd!

The Zookeeper's Wife by Diane Ackerman

Reading two nonfiction titles in a row in our book club maybe wasn't the wisest choice. And in total ignorance, I actually believed this to be a novel when we picked it for our list. Let's just say it would have made a fabulous historical novel. But it is not a novel.

What it is is the true account of a devoted couple in Warsaw, Poland who own a very successful zoo. They are not only devoted to each other but to their son Rys and to each and every animal held within. There are wonderful stories of pigs, badgers, and birds kept as pets in the villa beside the zoo. There are stories of the owners' love of nature and creatures within the painstakingly created habitats. But then World War II takes all of that away. But it also gives the couple, Jan and Antonina Zabinski, a new and dangerous focus: switching from saving the animals to saving Jews trying to flee Poland or simply trying to stay alive during the war. The Zablinskis put themselves in constant danger, using the zoo they loved as a hiding place, a portal, and a refuge.

This is a unique story with intense detail of the natural world, both things that Ackerman is famous for. For a naturalist, a veterinarian, or a very avid gardener perhaps, this would be a great read. For me, someone who has read many, many World War II stories focusing on the holocaust, the book took a wonderful story and bogged it down in needless detail, leaving it bereft of action and the intense emotion that a reader should feel when reading a book about the holocaust.

But my opinion is just one. There were some in our book club who couldn't get through the book, and there were some who absolutely loved it. So, if you really like good nonfiction, please read The Zoo Keeper's Wife and tell me what you think and why you liked it. We'd love to hear your comments!

Legend and Prodigy by Marie Lu

I may be the only YA enthusiast in America to have missed these two novels, but I'm glad I've finally seen the light. Filled with great characters and an involving dystopian plot, I'm really glad I picked them up right  as Prodigy hit book stores everywhere.

The main characters, June and Day, are seemingly as opposite as can be. June is a born prodigy: smart, cunning, and completely loyal to the Republic created in the wake of a war that separated the United States into regions which constantly fight each other. Day is a rebel with street-smart skills and daring, living almost alone on the streets, trying to steal enough to save his mother and brother who suffer now from one of the "plagues" that are killing hundreds in the Republic. When June is assigned to find Day and stop his covert hijinks, she is surprised by what she finds. And Day, only focused on his family and using his Robin Hood type skills for good and not evil, is shocked to find himself in the company of a Republic prodigy.

So, can the two work together for the common good? What is that good? Will there be love? Will there be war? While all these questions may seem like you've seen them all before in other books and movies of late, Lu has created her own world and this world poses unique, interesting questions about the role of government and the polarization of our beliefs. While not quite as engaging, in my opinion, as Divergent and Insurgent by Veronica Roth(see my earlier posts on these), they are action-packed, YA fantasy of the highest quality.Give them a try if you haven't already, and tell me your opinions!

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

Everyone who reads this true-life account of a courageous World War II prisoner of war brings it to me at the library and says, "Have you read this? You should read this! It's incredible!" But, when our Valley book club picked it, I was wary. After all, this was the author of Seabiscuit, a book lauded by critics and readers everywhere, and one that is cemented in my top ten most boring books ever written. I know, I know. I need a little nonfiction in my life, right? Or do I really? Was this one going to be a huge snooze like most of the nonfiction I'd read in the past few years?

The answer is: Mostly no. It is the harrowing story of Lieutenant Louis Zamperini, a former world-class runner, and an airman whose bomber crashes into the Pacific in 1943. But that is just the beginning of this tale of survival. And one would think that being stranded in the middle of the ocean, miles from anything but circling sharks, would be the worst thing that could happen in one man's story. But it's certainly not. In fact, this part of Zamperini's journey seems almost like luxury when compared to the rest of his horrifying experience in the Japanese war camps. 

Zamperini's life is truly a testament to the strength of the human spirit and of the human body. It was well worth the read and I did find it inspiring despite the almost unbelievable details that at times were, like Seabiscuit, quite repetitive. But if you can skim or sift through the repetition and focus on the story and the wonderful characterization of Zamperini himself, it's a fast, rewarding read. But I have to say, after the harsh realities of this nonfiction, I'm ready for a little fantasy. Let me know what you think!