Saturday, August 28, 2010

Review: Blood Harvest

Blood Harvest is not a book I should have read.  In fact, I should eschew all books described as "crime drama" and "thriller" for the reasons I will put forth in this review.  However, I was in a book funk and Nancy Pearl made it sound rather intriguing, so I gave it a shot.

I am glad I did, but, also, I am sorry.

The premise of Blood Harvest is simple: boys living near a cemetery are being haunted. They see fleeting images of a young girl and hear voices that sounded suspiciously like their own, or those of their family and friends.

The church in town had been closed for a decade, after a  tragedy occurred on the flagstone of the nave.  Since then, tragedies befell the families of young girls of an age in this small, close-knit agrarian town steeped in tradition.  (The title of the book comes from one of those traditions, one not relished by a vegetarian.)

In walk the Fletchers, with an English father and American mother, already outsiders.  On their heels is Harry, the vicar sent to re-vitalize this community now ready to open their hearts and souls to their church.  Then there's Evi, a psychologist treating a woman whose family was torn apart by their tragedy.

Tom, the 10-year-old who compels the story, knows only one thing: something is tracking them, and that something is very interested in Millie.

The pace of the story was quick: once the action started, it didn't let up.  I was intrigued, and I could not put down the book.

However, I was sorely disappointed with the story's resolution.  First of all, I stopped watching television crime dramas like CSI and Medium because the victims were all the same: young women who were raped and murdered.  The popularity of Steig Larsson's books have proved the attraction of that brutality.  This book does not stray from that popular device: the brutality of innocents.

True, the entire book is set around crimes against children, so I shouldn't have been surprised.

Admittedly, the "big reveal" in the book was creepy and totally unexpected.  I do believe I emitted an audible gasp or two during that portion of the novel — but it was as much surprise and shock as horror.  The resolution tumbled out nicely packaged but with too few clues, so it made little sense in the fabric of the story.  Those who don't mind a curve ball out of left field won't find this as annoying as I did.

While the trip to the end was successful, it also was a crushing disappointment.  Many relationships are woven in this book, but one in particular was of great interest to me, and I felt betrayed on the final page of the novel as the tapestry was finished.  I didn't quite understand it, though I re-read the scene quite a few times, and it made no sense to me with the limited amount of information I was offered.

The book was suspenseful, interesting and rather creepy — all exactly as promised by the librarian who recommended it.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Review: The Help

Mississippi of the early 1960s is beautifully, carefully and exquisitely wrought in The Help, the debut novel by Kathryn Stockett.  The book examines both sides of the issues facing blacks and whites in the American South on the cusp of the civil rights era.

The book is told in the voice of three different women: Skeeter, a twenty-something graduate of Ole Miss whose friends represent the Old South; Abileen, a maid in her 40s who raises the children of white women; and Minny, a spunky maid who is a fantastic cook, even if she doesn't know her "place."

Through Skeeter, we see what happens when a person of conscience wakes up to the reality of life in Jackson, Miss. for people with both black skin and white.  She isn't married or engaged, and she had the misfortune to graduate, rather than leave school for marriage.  She wants to be a writer, but the only job she can find is as a housecleaning "expert" in her local newspaper.  She knows things aren't right in her town, but she also realizes she is alone among her friends and family with these ideas.

Abileen may be a "maid," but she sees her goal as raising the children of the white families for whom she works.  She doesn't stay with a family for most of her career, as many maids do, because at a certain age, "her" children stop seeing her as a human being and see her as "other."  Her current charge, Mae Mobley, is in serious need of love and affection — and protection against a mother who is negligent at best and cruel at worst.

Minnie doesn't take guff from anyone.  She is sharp and sassy, speaks her mind and does what she knows to be right.  Her excellent cooking is her saving grace — though, perhaps with one job, it is her downfall.  Her latest employer, however, has her fit to be tied with strange requests, bizarre behavior and a sad, scathing secret.

While living in separate worlds only miles apart, these women find their worlds intersect in unexpected ways.  While working with Abileen on her weekly columns, Skeeter proposes to write a book about the maids of Jackson.  What maid would be crazy enough to reveal family secrets about the people who sign their paychecks, as measly as they may be?  The risk is greater than a paycheck for one person: family, friends, anyone close to the "offender" are at the mercy of the white women for whom they work.  They have seen it in action, and the risk is too great.  Or is it?

Stockett's narrators are true, honest and plausible characters.  She deftly weaves an intricate, compelling story.  I was constantly (and pleasantly) surprised by the unexpected twists and turns in the story and grew to really love (or hate) the characters I met through Stockett's pen.  I laughed, I cried, I cheered and wrung my hands.  I bought into the story and couldn't put down the novel I originally had eschewed because of my false high-minded skepticism.  The story stayed with me long after the final page was turned.

By the way, don't skip the "afterward" written by the author, which helps put the story into perspective.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Reading Blahs

The lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer are supposed to be book-filled and hot — the perfect combination to get you to lounge and work on reducing that pile of books on the nightstand.

I've had a combination of things come along and reduce the nightstand pile without a word being read: putting a house on the market and the reading blahs.

The house on the market was my own fault: if one wants to sell a house, one must make it seem spacious and inviting — not insufficient for one's book collection.  With mere days to make a home a showpiece, my husband David and I grabbed belongings off shelves, counters and from inside closets, jammed them into boxes and put them in someone else's space.

I was told to reduce my library by 50 percent.

(Yes, I gasped, too.)

I think I managed 35 percent before I had to surrender.  Actually, David did most of the "heavy lifting" of books, and they went into boxes with no rhyme or reason.  Poetry mixed with biography mixed with fiction and travel.  That was the jumble in the overstuffed library, anyway, so it wasn't a stretch to mangle the packing order of my tomes.

So, when the assault of the books ended, I looked around and found a hodgepodge of reading material.  Alas, much of what is on the shelves was what has been read already. The juicy new purchases are in sturdy boxes under the Christmas decorations and camping gear, stacked behind the wheelchair and pink scale.

That brings me to the reading blahs.  I planned to read a whole stack of books to see the incredible authors at Fall for the Book this autumn.  Unfortunately, so many people find these authors irresistible as well, and the rest are double-booked against other authors in my must-see list.  Further sorting of my stack leaves me depressed and listless.  What else will I choose, only to have it snatched from my hands?

The only thing that will pull me out of the reading funk may be a last resort, a book I wanted to save for the cooler days of autumn.  However, Ariana Franklin may have to be called up earlier than anticipated.  Throw in a few thrillers and re-read The Strain for the upcoming sequel, and we might be able to ride out this slump.

Now, all of this has to be carefully orchestrated: new books in the culled library are the wrong move (though finding a pristine copy of The Graveyard Book at Yesterday's Rose was irresistible).  However, I'm willing to start putting books in my neighbor's houses, giving them the ones they would enjoy.  (These good friends already are housing my electronics, jewelry and off-season clothing.)

How do you get out of your reading slump?  Is there hope?  Share your stories (and tips) and let's get through this together!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Mila is My Kind of Girl

Valerie has introduced me to a new, very adorable blog: Mila's Daydreams.

In case you don't have an opportunity to go straight to the website, please allow me to show you here why you must frequent this site in the near future.
'Nuff said.

That website again: Mila's Daydreams.

And you're welcome.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Favorite First Lines

After reading Entertainment Weekly list of classic first lines of novels, I winced.  There were some old favorites, to be sure, and I was thrilled to see Neil Gaiman on the list.  Alas, there also were just as many tired titles crowding the shelf.

It's like Rachel in the television series "Friends," who tells everyone her favorite movie is "The English Patient" but it's really "Weekend at Bernie's."  What if we all stood up and said, "Call me Ishmael is tired. Can we please retire it and replace it with another?"

Okay, maybe not in the quiet of our local library.  But you get the picture.

So, let me be the first to stand up and choose new first lines of novels to celebrate (and links to my reviews of those books).

My father had a face that could stop a clock.The Eyre Affair

There once was a boy named Milo who didn't know what to do with himself — not just sometimes, but always. The Phantom Tollbooth

The first memory of my father is of a slim young man with a straight nose and a beautiful mouth, black hair and grey-green eyes, dressed in strange greenish trousers and a shirt which had some golden stars and birds on it. I Dreamed of Africa

.... It's not a story for people with thin skins and weak nerves, whom I would advise to replace this book on a pile at once and slink off to the children's section. The City of Dreaming Books (third line)

My name is Wilkie Collins, and my guess, since I plan to delay the publication of this document until at least a quarter century beyond the date of my demise, is that you do not recognise my name. Drood

Walpurgisnacht, the Hexennacht. The last night of April.  The night of witches, when evil walks abroad. Johannes Cabal the Necromancer (first three lines)

Monday, August 2, 2010

Response: The Elegance of the Hedgehog

I nearly pitched a book last night.

There I was, finishing up the lovely story of The Elegance of the Hedgehog.  I had invested my time and energy into a handful of fascinating people who, for nearly 300 pages, had captivated me.  Okay, it was slow going at first, but once I figured out the rhythm in this book, I liked it.  It was originally written in French, but as the characters are French and live in a swank apartment building in Paris, one would expect to feel translation — and a rich, enjoyable one.  Plus, knowing author Muriel Barbery is a French professor of philosophy who now lives in Japan helps to understand why and how the novel was written.

Two narrators share the storytelling responsibility: RenĂ©e Michel, a 53-year-old concierge at a Paris apartment building filled with rich Parisians who see her as a fixture, and Paloma Josse, the 12-year-old girl who lives there and plans to commit suicide and burn down her parents' apartment when she turns 13 in a few months.  The two don't take turns as much as fill in the story as time passes.

Tim passed more slowly than it should in a novel.  The setup was a maddeningly long fuse.  Once the bomb went off, however, the story rocked.  The characters were fully realized, readers cared about them and all secrets seemed to be revealed — some in lovely, juicy scenes that made me wish to weep.

And then, Barbery stumbled over some of the debris of the explosive story.  I don't mean the story or writing stumbled because it didn't.  The quality remained stellar to the end.  The characters remained true.  The author thought she was throwing us a great curve.

That's not how I see it.

Here's how I see it: Barbery was mean.  She had the ability to give us a story that ended in a way that those who love the characters would appreciate.  Instead, she — well, all I can say is that I feel betrayed for investing in these characters and their fictional lives only to have the story do what it did.

Does that mean the story was successful?  Does that mean the book was that good?  I may answer those questions once I stop fuming, but I can't make promises.  I still haven't forgiven Jodi Picoult for her cheesy and terribly unsatisfying ending for My Sister's Keeper (which I never will recommend to fellow readers), but even that is different: Jodi copped out and didn't let the characters continue their story to the end.  Barbery did not take the easy road and remain safe — and to be fair, I might have been disappointed had she taken the safe route, and I never want my authors to take the safe route.

Barbery, I suppose, wrote the story as it should have evolved.  It was beautiful and fulfilling and heartening and lovely and tragic and exquisite.  I am sorry my new friends (and I) experienced what we did in this story, but perhaps we got what we deserved: a very captivating read.