Monday, June 27, 2011

The Believers by Zoe Heller

Joel and Audrey Livinoff have been lions in the radical and socialist circles of New York, always at the forefront of every political demonstration, determined to champion the rights of the downtrodden. Now Joel has been stricken; the victim of a stroke suffered in court. He survives, but is left in a vegetative state for months.

Zoe Heller’s The Believers follows the Livinoff family during this time of turmoil. Audrey has been married to Joel for forty years. She is still fiercely committed to the principles they have spent their lives defending, passionate about ideas but much less so about her family. Like many caught up in the fight for mankind, she doesn’t actually like individuals very much at all, finding everyone deficient and not committed enough. She castigates those around her for failing to live up to her ideals.

The three Livinoff children are working through their own struggles as adults. Rosa, the child most like her parents, has returned from four years in Cuba where she lived in a dirt hut, strangely disoriented and unsure what she believes in. Surprisingly, this daughter of fiercely atheistic parents is drawn to discover what Judaism is about, to find out if it’s tenets are what she can believe and commit to.

Karla is a social worker, married to Mike and constantly sure that she doesn’t measure up as a woman, a child to her parents, a sufficient wife to her husband. Unable to have children, she and Mike are trying to adopt. Along with this struggle, Karla struggles to make peace between the fiercely fighting members of her own family.

Lenny, the Livinoff’s adopted son, is a recuperating drug addict, who has never made his way in the adult world, and who seems always on the verge of another relapse. Strangely, the independent Audrey is most closely attached to Lenny, and refuses to hear anything negative about him or about her enabling of his dependence.

Then there is the scandal that emerges during Joel’s long hospitalization. The secret makes each of the Livinoff question what their family stood for, and what the truth of their relationships are. Audrey is unsure if her marriage has been nothing but a farce, while the children wonder if their parents are responsible for their adult difficulties.

Zoe Heller has written an incisive book that examines the morass of family relationships and how tangled they are and what effect they have on the participants’ life choices. Readers will examine their own lives in the shadow of the truths that are become evident as the Livinoff family and its conflicts are laid bare. This book is recommended for readers interested in family dramas and how these first relationships have lasting effects on adult lives.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Take Good Care Of The Garden And The Dogs by Heather Lende

Heather Lende writes a weekly newspaper column for the small town of Haines, Alaska.  She also writes the obituaries for the townspeople.  Take Good Care of the Garden and The Dogs is a series of essays illuminating her life in Alaska as well as the lives of her neighbors and friends.  The reader is transported to this different way of life, and emerges understanding what draws people to this remote location.

The essays talk about various items, often touching on tragedy.  There is a chapter about Lende's bicycle accident.  She was run over by a truck and her pelvis was crushed, nearly killing her.  Since Haines has no hospital, seriously ill or injured people have to be airlifted to the States.  She spent three weeks away from home and then months recuperating at home.  She writes honestly about her feelings, how she felt towards the man who drove the truck that injured her (being a small town, she already knew him) and her gratitude for her recovery as well as the guilt of seeing others who did not survive illness and accidents.

Essays talk about local tribal customs of the native people who make up much of the town, of such disparate items such as bear hunting, peace marches, making raspberry jam, cooking, religious ceremonies, sailing, choirs, and exercise.  Throughout every essay runs the thread of the pioneering, study spirit that characterizes the population of Haines, Alaska and the surrounding land.

Readers will be instantly charmed by these narratives.  In addition, there is much food for thought and how the reader would process various items.  A common reaction to the book is mine; as soon as I turned the last page, I went out and bought the author's other work as I couldn't stand to have my time with this town ended.  This book is recommended for all readers.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Revelations by Laurel Dewey

Jane Perry is yanked from her work world as a Detective in Denver by her boss.  He tells her that she will be accompanying him to the small town of Midas.  A fifteen-year-old boy, Jake,  has been kidnapped and the police chief has requested their assistance.  The chief is an old buddy of her boss, and he has promised their help.

When they arrive, Jane quickly finds that all is not as you would expect.  The chief is openly hostile to her, and argues with each discovery she makes.  The parents don't seem to be as upset as one would expect, and even seem to be working against the police by refusing to allow Jake's picture to be put in the paper and by pulling the reward money.  They are close-mouthed and fight against any information being released about their family and it's secrets.

They are in the right place to guard secrets.  Midas is full of those with secrets and everyone is fine with that.  Those whose secrets are known are scorned.  The top suspect in the kidnapping case is Jordan Copeland.  Copeland spent more than thirty years in prison for killing a young boy, and his land abuts the bridge that was the last known location Jake visited, so he immediately falls under suspicion.  When Jane meets him, he stuns her by forming a connection with her and telling her that the case will never be solved until all the secrets are out.  Can Jane discover the truth before it is too late?

Readers of Laurel Dewey's other Jane Perry books, Protector and Redemption will be glad to read this newest episode of her work.  Jane's personality and secrets are further revealed in this book, and the secrets that make up the framework of the book are steadily uncovered without straining credulity.  This book is recommended for mystery lovers.

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Last Letter by Kathleen Shoop

The Last Letter opens as Katherine Arthur opens her home reluctantly to her dying mother and her sister, Yale.  Katherine has been estranged from her mother for years, bitter about how their family fell apart after attempting to homestead on the plains in the late 1800's.  But, with her mother dying, Katherine discovers letters between her mother and father, and between each of them and their neighbors that opens a door of understanding for her.  She looks back at that time with the eyes of an adult rather than those of a child.

The Arthur family comes to the plains in disgrace.  Wealthy businessmen, the Arthurs were successful bankers until it became evident that they had used the money to finance their lifestyle.  Bitter at the scandal her father caused and the loss of all their money, Jeanie Arthur moves from a mansion to a dugout on the plains; she, her husband Frank, and their four children crammed into a hole in the prairie.

Jeanie attempts to make the best of things, but the plains are harsh and unforgiving.  There are bugs and snakes, burning heat, sudden weather changes such as tornadoes and blizzards, and what seem like Biblical plagues of grasshoppers.  Life is brutal and a daily struggle to survive.  The Arthurs would not survive without their neighbors, and the friendship of the other women is all that holds up Jeanie in this difficult challenge.  But tragedy strikes, and the family leaves the plains and splits up.  Can Jeanie and Katherine be reconciled?

Kathleen Shoop makes the lives of the pioneer women come alive.  The dirt and disease and hard work that is a part of daily life are outlined in a way that is uncommon, transporting the reader to that time and place.  She also recreates the interdependency between neighboring families and how strong those friendships were.  This book is recommended for historical fiction readers, as well as readers interested in family dynamics.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Woodcutter by Reginald Hill

Sir Wilfred Hadda, known as Wolf to his friends, leads a charmed life.  He has risen from a poor childhood where his father was a woodcutter on a lord's estate, to wealth and power.  He has married his childhood sweetheart, daughter of the lord who ran the estate where his parents lived and worked.  He is a baron of industry.

All that changes one morning when he awakes to find the police at his door.  They believe that he is guilty of child pornography.  Desperate to clear his name, he runs from the police, straight into traffic, where he is hit.  He awakes from a coma months later, minus an eye, most of one hand, and crippled.  His trial for child pornography and financial fraud is quick and he is convicted.  His wife divorces him and marries his lawyer.  All his friends now despise and revile him.

Hadda is committed to a psychiatric hospital where hard cases like his and various serial killers are kept.  He is a model prisoner, totally disconnected from his surroundings.  That changes when he is assigned to the new doctor at the hospital, Alva Ozigbo.  She helps him delve into his past, and when she is satisfied that he has faced his crimes, she helps get him released on parole.

Hadda goes back home to his parent's small house, which is one of the few things that he still owns.  He goes about his life, walking the woods and talking with no one.  But those involved in getting him imprisoned start to have incidents occur to them.  Is Wolf taking his revenge for his conviction?  Was it a fair conviction or was he railroaded?

Reginald Hill cannot write a bad mystery.   Most readers know him from his wildly successful Pascoe and Dalziel series.   His books are full of believable characters and the plot moves along rapidly.  Readers will be compelled to like Wolf against their will and end the book by cheering for him.  This book is recommended for mystery readers.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Stormchasers by Jenna Blum

Karena Jorge is a successful reporter; most people would love to have her life.  But she is thirty-eight and has no outside life; no husband, no lover, no children.  Her father is in a nursing home and she doesn't have a relationship with her stepmother, dubbed The Widow.  Strangest of all, she hasn't seen her brother in twenty years.  Her brother, the person she was closest to her entire childhood and teenage years, her twin.

Then a phone call changes her life.  A hospital calls to inform her that her brother was admitted.  Charles has been living under the radar since his family had him admitted to a mental hospital when he was eighteen after a suicide attempt.  He is bipolar; his obsession tornadoes.  He lives as a stormchaser, moving from town to town to witness their fury.  Off-seasons he works a series of cash jobs to finance his obsession.

Karena is determined to find him this time and have him back in her life.  She joins a stormchaser tour group as a reporter and follows them on a journey to find storms.  These aren't Karena's first storms; being Charles's sister meant that she had experienced others.  But she was terrified then and the experience hasn't changed for her with one exception.  She is drawn to one of the tour leaders, Kevin. 

Jenna Blum has written a compelling story of what it means to be a sibling; what we owe to our family and how much we should be willing to sacrifice for them.  The reader learns much about the people who are stormchasers and what draws them to focus on such a dangerous activity.  Readers also explore the meaning of being bipolar and what effect it has on those around one with the disorder.  This book is recommended for all readers.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Ferral's Deathmarch Army

In Prince Kristian's Honor, Tod Langley gave readers the opening book of an exciting new fantasy series, the Erinia Saga.  Ferral's Deathmarch Army is the second book in the series and lives up to the promise of the first book.

As the book opens, Kristian's army has been defeated and he and only two comrades have survived the battle.  His fiance, Allisia has been captured by the evil sorcerer-king, Ferrell, who swears to make her his own, but only after torturing her to force her to comply.  Kristian flees to regroup, but what is left to do?  Who can supply the men and arms to help him?

Ferrell has raised an army the like of which has never been seen.  His evil powers have allowed him to reanimate the dead and his army is composed of dead men, women, and children.  The dead feel no pain.  They need no supplies.  They never stop fighting; if hit, they rise again.  There is no sophistication in their fighting; it is all brute force, but brute force wins when it is overwhelming in numbers and determination to never stop. 

As Kristin and Mikhal flee to regroup, they are joined by several individuals representing two warring tribes.  Although the tribes are sworn enemies, having fought ruthlessly for a thousand years, there are those in each tribe that recognize that Ferral is their common enemy and if he is not defeated, no one will exist in any land. Kristin is also joined by Cairn, a mysterious swordsman who travels the land, taking revenge for the deaths of his family and love.  Can this ragtag group hope to defeat the powerful Ferral before he destroys anything?

Fantasy readers will be well-advised to read this second book in the Erinia Saga.  Kristin has matured since the first book, and there are interesting back stories and threads that Langley skillfully weaves together to move his story forward.  The pacing is excellent, and the reader finds themselves quickly reimmersed in the saga.  This book is recommended for fantasy readers.

Prince Kristian's Honor by Tod Langley

Prince Kristian, soon to be ruler of Erand, has been sent on a mission.  Rumors have been circulating that Erand's ancient enemy, Belarn, is preparing to go to war and try to conquer the kingdom.  Kristian has been sent to Duellr, where he is to propose to the princess Allisia, and cement a relationship between the two countries so that they can oppose Belarn.

Kristian is a young, spoiled man, unloved by his country due to his superior attitude and determination to have to his own way regardless of the merit of his plans.  He is furious at having to propose to please his father, the King,  and be used as a pawn in the country's future plans.  When he actually meets Allisia, though, he is instantly charmed and pleased at her beauty.  He proposes and is disconcerted to realise that she is no happier about the marriage than he is.  But as they talk, they begin to form a relationship, and Kristian starts to realise that he has a long way to go in terms of likeability and interactions with others.

Then tragedy strikes.  In Belarn, the mad prince, Ferral, has used his unholy knowledge of the dark arts to kill his father and take the throne.  He undergoes a ceremony that brings a demon-woman to life, and sends her to Duellr.  The demon appears in court, kills the Duellrian king in front of Allisia and Kristian and then kidnaps Allisia, taking her back to Belarn where she is under Ferral's control.

Pandemonium erupts in Duellr.  Kristian realises that it is time for him to grow up and take leadership, whether he is ready or not.  He rallies his guard and the Duellrian army, and they start to Belarn to defeat Ferral and rescue Allisia, leaving word for his country to raise an army and come to their support. 

Still headstrong and unpracticed in military matters and leadership, the war does not go well.  Kristian makes decisions against the advice of his military staff, and along with the evil magic of Ferral, these decisions lead to a massacre of the troops.  Reeling from the disaster, Kristian and two of his military staff flee, the only survivors.  Can Kiristian grow up and take control as he is destined to do?  Will he be able to rescue Allisia from Ferrel's control before she is killed?

A new voice in fantasy, Tod Langley has created an exciting new world.  Krisitian is not the typical hero.  He is vain and stubborn, detested by the men he needs to lead.  The other characters are skillfully drawn, and the plot is engrossing.  Prince Kristian's Honor is labled Book One of The Erinia Saga.  Readers will be well advised to wait for the rest of the series to see if Kristian can become the ruler and man that he needs to be.  This book is recommended for fantasy lovers.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch

Jaffy Brown meets Mr. Jamrach as a young street urchin in London.  Mr. Jamrach is a wild-animal importer, supplying zoos and private collectors.  A tiger escapes and Jaffy, entranced, walks up to him and strokes his nose, no fear evident.  Mr. Jamrach recognizes that Jaffy has an affinity for caring for animals and hires him to help in his establishment.  Jaffy loves his new job and soon has a best friend, Tim.  Tim is another boy in the yard and alternately the best friend and a cruel enemy to Jaffy.  Tim has a twin sister, Ishbel, and Jaffy is friends with her also, and feels the start of adult feelings towards her.

As Jaffy grows, he and Tim want more adventure.  They find it when word reaches one of Mr. Jamrach's collectors that a real dragon has been spotted.  He funds an expedition on a whaling ship to hunt the dragon and capture it to become the centerpiece of the collector's private zoo.  Full of excitement, Jaffy jumps at the chance.

Life as a sailor and on a whaling boat is new to Jaffy, but he soon settles in.  The work is hard, but he has known nothing more.  Birch gives great insight into what a whale hunt was like in those days, the breaching of the whale, men taking to the sea in small boats to defeat these gigantic creatures who could kill them with a swish of their tails, the brutal killing and work of extracting the oil. 

After weeks of whale hunting, the boat approaches the remote island where the dragon has been spotted.  The Jamrach expedition sallies forth and manages to capture the mystical beast.  Loading it back on the ship, they cast off to make their fortune back in London.  But the beast brings bad luck and the boat sinks, leaving a few survivors to try to make their way back to their former lives.

Carol Birch's book has been longlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction for 2011, and it is evident why it was selected.  Her forte is description, and she effortlessly transports the reader to another time and place.  The reader feels what it must have been like to grow up poor in London, to fight the large beasts of the ocean, and to be shipwrecked.  She explores the nature of friendship, and what men will do to survive. The reader cannot put the book down, drawn to find out what happens to Jaffy and his comrades.  This book is recommended for all readers.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Big In China by Alan Paul

When Alan Paul's wife Rebecca lands the position of bureau chief in China for The Wall Street Journal, Paul did not hesitate to move to support his wife's career.  The family packed up their three young children and headed off for a three-year adventure.  They landed into the life the expatriate community; gated compounds, private schools and scads of servants to help with the cooking, cleaning, child care and other day to day chores.

Paul saw two reactions to the ex-pat life.  One group devoted their energies to recreating their former Western lives in every detail, training their Chinese cooks to produce Beef Wellington and shrimp and grits.  Paul chose the other route.  He and Becky wanted to experience their time abroad enmeshing themselves in the foreign culture they were surrounded with.  They chose to eat native food, take excursions far from the tourist spots and learn the language.

Paul also discovered an added bonus.  With so many traditional mooring cut loose, he and others found an amazing freedom.  People were free to try careers and follow hobbies they had not had the time to pursue before.  For Paul, that meant music.

Paul had come from a musical family; his father a doctor who played in a jazz band all his life.  Paul himself had worked as a columnist for years for Guitar World and interviewed many of the top names in music over the years.  But he had not pursued a musical career himself, figuring he could never be as talented or successful as those who surrounded him.  In China, he found himself meeting some Chinese musicians and along with another ex-pat friend, formed a band.  Originally started for fun, the band, Woodie Alan, became successful beyond his wildest dreams and blending Eastern and Western music.

Big In China is a fascinating travel book.  The reader learns about Chinese culture through several individuals who are profiled in depth.  Alan's love of adventure and his family and friends, as well as his ability to seize opportunities and live life fully are evident.  This book is recommended for readers interested in travel writing or music.

The Card by Jim Devitt

Van Stone is a lucky high-school student.  He has just landed his dream job as a batboy for his beloved Oakland A's baseball team.  As he gets ready for his first day at work, his dad, who is a research scientist and often away, makes amends by giving him a baseball card.  It is not the card of one of baseball's superstars but of a player who had a pedestrian career.  Van doesn't care, he loves his dad and treasures his gift.

Everything changes for Van overnight.  His dad is killed in a car accident.  Now Van is the man of the family and responsible for taking care of his mom.  Strange things begin happening.  Van starts to notice men in dark suits following him and his friends.

The suspense ramps up when Van gets a demand.  To keep his mom and friends safe, he must give up the card his dad gave him.  Why would anyone want that card?  The pace accelerates as Van attempts to evade his pursuers and keep those he loves safe.  Is there anyone he can trust to help?

Jim Devitt has written an interesting mystery.  The readers learns about the inner workings of a baseball clubhouse and also something of the biotechnology industry along with the mystery.  This book is recommended for mystery lovers but will also appeal to sports fans.