Thursday, December 31, 2009

Top 10 Books of 2009

Another year gone, another stack of books read and shared.  The books listed below are a good cross-section of titles on my reading list.  A few of them were provided by Carole and Kathy, two of my most trusted book critics, and a few titles I stumbled upon on my own.  Here are some of my favorites, in no particular order.

Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society — A compelling story that also serves as a history lesson.  I knew people suffered, did without during World War II, but I never stopped to think of what exactly that meant.  This book tells that story with heart, wit and engagement — and a few interesting voices.

Drood — Long, but oh so good.  I loved every page of this tale of Charles Dickens' last years of life, told by his friend Wilkie Collins (himself an author of great repute: The Woman in White, anyone?).  I was absolutely smitten by the second chapter. 

Beginner's Greek — I re-told this lovely, charming and breathtaking tale of star-crossed love over and over this past summer to Judy, Leigh and anyone else who would listen as I hungrily consumed the tale of Peter and Holly.  I was sorry to finish this one.

The Geography of Bliss — I am thrilled to have discovered Eric Weiner on a top 100 list and will continue to read him as he continues to report and publish. His assessment of these locations is fair and lively, and I felt as though I was there with him through his rich descriptions and humorous observations.

The Graveyard Book — Neil Gaiman never fails to entertain and enlighten.  Apparently he thought up this story a couple of decades ago when his child would play in the graveyard next to his home.  How, exactly, does one raise a child in a graveyard — especially if one is a ghost?  You'd be amazed.  I know I was.

A Reliable Wife — Twists, turns and unexpected beauty in this sleeper novel of a mail order bride who isn't what she appears to be.  Nor is her new husband — or anyone else in the story.  Robert Goolrick illustrates turn-of-the-century poverty in America.

The Strain —David describes this as vampires meet CSI.  How easy would it be for vampires to infiltrate New York City? Written by movie director Guillermo del Torro and horror writer Chuck Hogan, the book is the first of a planned trilogy.  I'm anxious for the second installment in 2010.

Johannes Cabal the Necromancer — If all scary books and horror tales could be this clever and enjoyable, I'd read even more of them. The debut novelist Jonathan L. Howard offers a unique and interesting tale of Hell, redemption, traveling circuses and decomposition.  (Not in that order.)

The Twilight Saga — An old-fashioned love story between a lovely young girl and her vampire boyfriend takes a few unexpected turns as we find out whether love can conquer all.  After you finish these hefty tomes, you will understand, finally, the meaning behind "Team Jacob" and "Team Edward."  Twilight: it's not just for teenage girls anymore.

Astrid and Veronika — Two women's lives intertwine in this well-written modest novel.  The character-driven story is rich and full, and readers will appreciate friendships even more as they read this thin but robust novel.

Bonus favorite: A Christmas Carol.  After watching every film adaptation on earth of this classic ghost tale, I decided to take a page from Carole's book and read Dickens' tale.  When I say the book always is better than the movie, I usually mean it — but with this book, I am as emphatic as I can be.  If you have yet to read this book, do so.  Don't wait until Christmas: this book of redemption is good any day of the year.  

The book I enjoyed least this year was The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  It was too lurid for me, like the close-up shots of gooey corpses in the television crime shows.  I don't mind graphic descriptions, but I do mind gratuitous descriptions of awful experiences.  This book had both.

What are your favorites?  What terrible books have you read (and lived to tell the tale)?

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Can You Recall Your Favorite Books of the Year?

This has been a great year for books, and I'm sure it's easy for you to identify your favorite books.  Get those lists ready to compare with my "best of" list to be published at the end of the year, and see how our lists compare.

Can you guess my faves? Check out the books reviewed in 2009 not only on this blog, but also on Book Lovers, Get Your English On!, another blog on which I worked this calendar year.  See if you can guess my top 10.

If you have a blog, e-mail me your URL and I'll try to guess your favorites of 2009 in return. Maybe we read the same books.... you never know.

When I publish my "best of" list, be sure to chime in and share your ideas and opinions. I'm always looking for a new great book to read!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Review: The Lace Reader

I can sum up The Lace Reader in one word: disappointing.

I don't mind an unreliable narrator, especially if it's one who identifies herself right off the bat as a liar.  I don't even mind a delusional, psychotic one. 

I don't mind when the narrator shifts from first person to third person — and from one character to another — in the middle of a section, then shifts back.  All with no explanation or preamble.  Toss in yet a third narrative with no preamble or explanation: a journal written in the first person by someone who is writing fiction — or not.  (Despite Brunona Barry's best attempts to derail me, I usually could figure out who was telling the story.  Usually.)

What I do mind is surprises that come out of nowhere.  When a book changes course, a story has a shift, it has to make sense or be explained to where it makes sense in that universe.  In this case, the shifts were incongruous with the storyline.  We are tooling along, the story is ambling in a certain direction, then BAM! Suddenly, the story we've followed with the guidance of our narrators, what we've been presented as fact from either a police officer gathering evidence or a psychotic woman undergoing shock treatment and literally losing her mind, is no longer reliable.

The sad thing is: I saw much of it coming.

In the debut novel (which began as a self-published book), Towner is a woman in her early 30s who returns to her childhood home of Salem, Mass. when her elderly great aunt is reported missing.  Once that mystery is solved, Towner remains in town to take care of loose ends, many of which remained unraveled after she escaped from the town as a teen when her sister committed suicide and she had a complete mental breakdown.  Many of these loose ends involve her family, which is tied closely to the town, and their secrets that bubble to the surface.

I think the biggest problem is that I mistrusted Towner and her — well, everything, from the beginning.  Yes, she admitted at the beginning to be a liar.  However, it was worse than that: conflicting images and stories, psychotic breaks with reality and complete portions of her life lost through treatment and re-imagined by the memory-challenged woman with no reliable frame of reference all fed into the confusion.  The few jarring clues readers were fed about Lindley (her tombstone, Jack's response to Lindley's suicide) were obtuse and murky.  Worse than that, they were forced.

What I did like is the characters.  Well, most of the characters.   I liked Rafferty, a relocated divorced New York cop who inexplicably became entangled with Towner.  (I would have liked a little insight into that connection, where it came from and why.  I know the heart wants what the heart wants, but it wasn't clear and I just didn't understand it.)  I liked Ann, the town witch who was a true friend to Towner, Rafferty and Eva.  She didn't get in the way, but she offered assistance and took care of those who needed it.  Much of her talent was in her ability to observe.  I liked Eva, who loved her family and took care of them as best she could.  I also am ashamed to admit that I liked Cal, in his smooth-suited self.

Alas, I did not like Towner because she was untrustworthy in a slippery way and not in the least bit sympathetic.  I wanted to like May, but she was two-dimensional as perceived by Towner, and I didn't get a handle on her.  Maybe that's how psychotic children see their parents.  I wanted to like the Ipswich lace, which is historically accurate in this story, and the reading of it; I am intrigued by divination.  Alas, the one in the story who could read it reliably was Towner, and she was unreliable.

The author noted that she thought reality vs. perception was at the heart of the novel.  Instead, I perceived a lot of unwoven lace, tangled threads that made no sense to me.  I can't recommend this book.

Did you read it?  What did you think?

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Reading a Classic for the Villain

When asked why someone reads a classic story, the answer often is that the characters are memorable.  Often, characters are redemptive, loving, loveable, attractive.

But what if they're not?

Listverse intrigued me with a recent list of the 10 Vilest Villains in Literature.  I now am revising my classics reading list to include one or two of the more interesting villains.

I am already familiar with more than half of the villains on the Listverse list.  (I'm not sure if I should be pleased or concerned.)  I have met the Wicked Witch of the West courtesy of two different authors.  I'm also intimately familiar with Sauron, thanks to my recent obsession with The Lord of the Rings (thank you, Peter Jackson and J.R.R. Tolkien!).  I know I read Beowulf in college, but I claim no ability to retain anything I was scheduled to discuss in excruciating detail at 8 a.m. on a Monday.  I also know Satan, though not on a first-name basis.

However, I have yet to meet the Transylvanian count, and I look forward to our introduction in Dracula.  I've seen him at a glance, but we never had a chance to get acquainted.

I also have added Bill Sykes (of Oliver Twist) to my list.  I remember the revulsion I felt when seeing him on stage in the musical Oliver!; even as a 10-year-old, I knew evil when it crossed my path.  I also suspect Charles Dickens can scare the, forgive me, dickens out of me with a good bad guy.  Right now David and I are becoming acquainted with the soon-to-be-redeemed Ebenezer Scrooge, and I am mesmerized by Dickens' prose in A Christmas Carol.  I believe I have learned the trick to novelist: read him out loud, and you literally can't put down his tale.

Can you recommend some villains you have met?  What repelled you?  More importantly, what attracted you?  (I promise I won't tell.)

Sunday, December 6, 2009

End of the Year Listmania Examined

December starts the rush for year-end "best of" book lists.  Every reader, reviewer and publisher with a publication (e or print) has an opinion about every category of every book.

I am no different.  I identified my Top 10 books in 2007 and 2008.  I most likely will do the same this year — if only to help me re-live the good books and banish the bad (and, alas, there are always, always bad books).  I make my list at the end of December, so I can include all books for the calendar year.

I understand that newspapers and magazines don't have the same flexibility as I do, but every year I feel bad for the December books.  Those of us born in that dark, cold, busy month know it's easy to be overlooked, trampled in the holiday rush and crushed by the approaching end of the year listmania.

I read book sections and reviews all year long, so rarely does the list completely surprise me.  It does, however, distill for me what ultimately rises above mediocrity.  As a frequent bookstore browser, I see the covers, read the titles and wonder aloud how that book is better than the other.

I also see trends that swell to bursting on the shelves: the "eat this, not that" recommendations, the political perspective of audacity and going rogue, the deflating-the-fiction books (The DaVinci Code Debunked, anyone?), the rush of Indian-themed fiction and covers, the rise in Dickens-related suspense novels, the crush of World War Z and Twilight wannabees.

To be honest, many of the books in the newspaper and magazine best-of lists are not books I find face-out on the shelves at My Borders.  I wonder if some reviewers really like the more popular but veer to the less-so to maintain their reputation and a veneer of intellectualism.  I mean that with great affection as I find myself in their ranks.  I freely admit to Book Snobbery, whose guiding light is, "If the masses are enjoying it, it must be pablum and drivel."  I am re-training myself, especially after reading the Harry Potter series, Water for Elephants and Olive Kitteridge.  However, such change takes time.

I freely admit that at least one book in this year's faves was discovered on a Top 100 list.  Because of this, I can't dis the list too harshly.  I continue to consider the year-end list a good resource and, while certainly not inclusive nor extensive, still a satisfactory and helpful distillation of a year's bowing bookshelf.

Check back as December wanes to see if I have caught listmania. You never know what will make the "top reads," so stay tuned.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Review: The Genesis Secret

People get so excited about novels that venture into the world of religion.  The uproar over The DaVinci Code was immense (though one could gauge its success by the number of books published as a "response" or "rebuttal").  People forget that "fiction" can be translated to mean "making it all up, no matter how many real elements one injects into the story, like in Fargo, the Coen brothers movie."

So, should anyone get excited about The Genesis Secret?

If so, it's entirely unnecessary.  The fact that it's a novel rather than a news story never escapes the reader at any time.  At the beginning of the book, debut novelist Tom Knox states two true elements of the story: the existence of an archeological site and a religious group.  The foundation of the story is realistic  — tension, politics, religious issues, public safety responses — but the character-based story never enters the realm of realism for me.  And that makes me glad.

Two storylines of two main characters weave through this novel, creating a strong cord to tie it all together.  Journalist Robert Luttrell is recovering from a terrible experience in Iraq and his boss sends him on a plum assignment extended as a sort of vacation: go to Kurdistan to report on a famous archeological dig, the Gobekli Tepe.  Scotland Yard's Mark Forrester finds himself investigating bizarre murders and murder attempts in the U.K. that appear to be sacrifices — but to whom, and why?

Franz Breitner heads the Gobekli Tepe dig, which is unearthing a huge temple-like area that was deliberately and laboriously buried (and carbon-dated at) thousands of years before the "first civilizations" in the Fertile Crescent.  If tools and agriculture at Gobekli Tepe pre-date known history, what does that mean for the timeline of human development?  Even more pressing, what prompted a people to laboriously bury this indicator of advanced civilization?

The site and its workers appear to be threatened, or is it simply paranoia of Europeans traveling in the Middle East?  Then an accident at the dig site prompts Rob to work with Christine, an osteoarchaeologist who has no bones to study at the site, to determine if someone is behind this — and if so, who and why.

There's enough evidence to suggest there are secrets being guarded in one part of the world, while someone else on the other side of the globe is trying to unearth the very same information.  Who will win, and who will lose more than just a little information?

Other interesting characters flesh out the story: Boijer the Finnish Scotland Yard officer, Isobel with an incredible Turkish home, Franz and his cryptic notes, Hugo and his intelligence and lungs, Karwan and his helpfulness, Steven and his Cockney accent, Kiribali's menacing presence.

There were some characters I could have done without, and a couple of details that were unessential to the story.  Rob and Forrester's mutual connection was completely unnecessary and added nothing to the story or characters; in fact, Forrester's situation was gratuitous.

Finally, Knox reveals too much too soon, leaving readers to wonder exactly why they need to keep reading.  We think we see the Genesis Secret halfway through the book, though I can tell you there's more, thank heavens.  Frankly, the direction the story took after the Big Reveal was narrowly focused on a single character (maybe two),which was too restrictive for this expansive of a story.  I nearly stopped with nearly a quarter of the novel left because it seemed the most important part of the story had been told.

However, the second-to-last chapter saved the entire book, and I'm grateful for journalists who know how to tie together the elements of a story.  Alas, Rob made leaps with facts that weren't revealed to readers, and I hate having characters hiding information until the author writes their "big epiphany."

Finally, readers who don't like blood and gore should absolutely pass on this book.  There are scenes that describe cruelty beyond measure, and though it's essential to this story, it is very very difficult to read.

Having said that, it's suspenseful, original and interesting, and I can recommend it.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Review: Olive Kitteridge

I started Olive Kitteridge with great skepticism: a series of short stories as a novel did not sound like a smooth, cohesive story.  However, within a dozen pages I was glad it was nearly midnight because I would have called Carole to ask her why she hadn't forced me to start the book sooner.

Elizabeth Strout creates an incredible level of intimacy necessary for this kind of tale, where readers meet the title character through rumor, reputation, association and in person.  She is not all that likable, especially at first; in fact, throughout "Pharmacy," I actively wondered why the gentle and loving Henry was married to her in the first place. However, to be fair, she was seen through the filter of his perception, and there was a very stark contrast between his life at the pharmacy and his life at home.

Not until the second story, "Incoming Tide," did I actually find any redemptive, or even likable, qualities to Olive.  It was then, when a reader could see her in her own terms, did she start to make sense.  She was no longer distorted by the prism of her home life; we could see the bigger picture.

It was in this second story that I decided I really, really liked Olive.  As the stories progressed, readers witnessed the ebb and flow of her ideas, her emotions, her generosity, her fears, her defenses — sometimes through the spectrum of the others around her, sometimes through her own perspective.

Olive is not central to every story.  While sometimes she is a major character, other times she is in the distance, someone another resident of Crosby, Maine, sees walking across the street, or remembers from a previous encounter. 

The others we meet in Crosby are interesting, delightful, compelling, vexing, heartbreaking, heartbroken, misunderstood, self-absorbed, confused, struggling.  Denise is a waif of a girl who faces a life she never expected or would have chosen.  Kevin never really left Crosby.  Harmon's entry into middle age hasn't brought with it the riches he expected.  Nina hated Muffin Luke, but for all of the wrong reasons.  Christopher — well, Christopher is much like his mother, complex and initially unlikeable.  I remain ambivalent about this character, more so than others who surprised and discomfited me, like Ann Kitteridge or Louise Larkin.

I was intrigued by the relationships, especially the marriages.  Olive's relationship with Henry intrigued me. I've always been fascinated by what makes a marriage, and having that insight into Olive and Henry's relationship was fascinating. As the story evolved, I didn't always understand what made them work together, but they did. In contrast, "Winter Concert" showed a "perfect" marriage that was so different, and yet perhaps not as successful as Olive and Henry's; the Kitteridges survived "A Different Road," and I wonder if Bob and Jane could have done the same. There were other marriages, successful and/or not: Harmon and Bonnie, Chris and Suzanne, Chris and Ann, and a few we experience at or after the "end."  (As we learn in Crosby, death does not always bring a marriage to a close.)

All 13 stories are told in chronological order, which I liked.  Some stories were longer than others, but the shorter ones were no less important; some connections require no more than a skip and no preamble.  It's not a traditional novel, so not all of the stories smoothly flow into each other, but each has its place and makes sense in the quilt Strout stitched together.

I enjoyed this book and can heartily recommend it.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Review: Rebecca

The problem with classics is that everyone expects the mystery to have expired.  Right before I watched Citizen Kane for the first time, a classmate asked, "You know Rosebud is [SPOILER], right?"  I responded, "Well, I do now."

So I approached Rebecca like reading it was a state secret (except to Carole, who was her fabulous no-giveaway self, as I knew she would be).  No bonehead was going to tell me about Daphne du Maurier's "Rosebud," so  I started the novel with no information other than the brief and completely innocuous summary on the back of the 1970s-era paperback I picked up at the thrift store.

Thank heavens.  There were so many great elements I would have been quite vexed to have had any of them spoiled.

The summary is simple: a young woman is rescued from a life as a "traveling companion" (a.k.a. maid) to the American bore Mrs. Van Hopper by Maxim de Winter, who owns the legendary English estate  Manderley.  There in the halls of Manderley the young bride faces a more complex and frightening future than Mrs. Van Hopper: that of being the second Mrs. de Winter.  The first, you see, was Rebecca, a tall, beautiful, popular, graceful woman — all qualities the second Mrs. de Winter honestly felt she lacked.

The story is told by this young woman, whose new husband is more than twice her age and who hasn't as much professed love as asked her to join him in his life.  After a quick marriage and honeymoon abroad, she comes "home" to an estate of which she has heard, but it's grander than her wildest dreams.

Maxim is not the most attentive of men and the second Mrs. de Winter is an inexperienced young lady left her to her own devices — and to those of Mrs. Danvers, who served as Rebecca's personal maid who also ran the household under Rebecca's exacting eye.  Frith, the butler, addresses the young bride as "Madam" and directs her by stating what "Mrs. de Winter" would have done.

Maxim is not only inattentive, he refuses to run Manderley as it had been in the past, rejecting the idea of lavish parties and other entertainment that was to have gone on with Rebecca.  The second Mrs. de Winter is left to decide what this means for her as a wife and mistress.

The story is told by the second Mrs. de Winter, which provides a clear eye to established society and history.  It is new to her, so it's new to us.  Each piece of information — how Maxim acts, how Mrs. Danvers lurks, how Frith directs the ingenue — offers clues to the drama with subtle, caressing tension that entraps readers.  We know we're toeing close to the edge of disaster with the second Mrs. de Winter, and yet we can't look away because we really don't want to leave her alone at Manderley, not like this.  What is Mrs. Danvers doing in the west wing? Why is Jack's visit so disturbing?  Why would Maxim refuse to follow the dog down the path to the beach?  What is the draw of Rebecca, what is her secret?

The story is told at first as a mix of the past and present, with clues that suggest the de Winters are not presently at Manderley, that mention of this beloved home is painful.  Once the second Mrs. de Winter arrives at Manderley, the story and the reader remain there with her.

And remain we must, until the final pages with an end that I found spectacular and completely fitting to the story.

Please read this, especially if you plan to watch the movie.  Read the book first — let du Maurier tell you her story, then allow Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier (or, later, Emilia Fox and Charles Dance) to perform it for you.

And if anyone opens their mouth to discuss the book, ask them to wait.  You will want to talk about this story, if only to remind yourself that it is, after all, only fiction.