Friday, February 22, 2013

The Dinner by Herman Koch

It's a good thing I finished this book at home tonight with a freshly poured glass of wine at my side.  Why?  Cause this is the kind of book that makes you say "holy crap!" and take a fortifying sip of wine when you've read the last page.

This book has been reviewed by many--either people love it and are horrified by it at the same time, or they find it terribly "boring" and stupid.  

I am one of those who find it incredibly disturbing and well written.  The story starts out pretty simply:  a man and his wife are meeting his brother and his sister-in-law for dinner at a posh restaurant one night.  Why?  To discuss their teenage sons.  What for?  You find out.  And you're disturbed.  

But you're also disturbed by Paul, the narrator and one of the brothers.  He's carried a loathing for his brother Serge most of his life--and now Serge is in the running to be the next Prime Minister--if he wins the upcoming election.  And seeing Serge and his wife Babette through Paul's eyes; well yes, they are asses.  He's a brash, annoying man, and she's a wife who just goes along for the ride.  Claire, Paul's wife, is so much more than Babette.  

But then you start reading more of the book, and you start to get that feeling in the pit of your stomach.  That feeling that the narrator (Paul) isn't quite what he seems.  Neither is his wife.  Neither is his son, Michel.  

And then you read enough to figure out that it's much, much worse than you thought.

I can't tell you anymore.  It would give it all away.  Just know that this book will make you incredulous, angry, and appalled at the character's conversations during dinner.  I'm not a parent, so I can't say for sure what I would do in these circumstances.  But I'm pretty darn sure I wouldn't be nodding my head in agreement with Claire and Paul as they discuss  their son and nephew over dinner.  I found myself saying "WHAT? THE? HELL?!" out loud quite a bit during my reading.  Good thing I was home alone.  

I understand the buzz about this book.  None of the characters are likeable.  Not at all.  You'll see.  But read it.  You WILL need to discuss this with someone else.  Wow.

Rating:  8/10 for a compelling look at middle/upper class society, how we feel about less fortunate people, adoption, adopted children, crime, and taking a horrible situation and turning it into an acceptable one in your mind--not a good thing.

Available in hardcover and as an e-book.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The House Girl by Tara Conklin

A big thank you to Harper Collins for the ARC of this novel.  I have been looking forward to reading it for ages, and finally sat down yesterday to pick up where I'd left off a few weeks ago.  I was mentally ready to dive in--and found myself unable to put this one down until the end.  

And then I sat and pondered for a while.  That's the mark of a good book.  It left me a bit sad, happy, and amazed yet again at the talent of some writers.  

This is a dual history novel that takes place New York and on a small plantation  called Bell Creek in Virginia during the years of  1848-1852.  Josephine is a young slave girl who lives in the house and helps Mrs. Bell, who is suffering from a tumor and slowly dying.  She's been unable to have a child survive much past birth--17 children in all.  Mr. Bell is struggling to hang onto the plantation as his profits decrease and he has less slaves to help with the tobacco crops.  

Present day is Lina Sparrow, a young lawyer working her way up the corporate ladder.  Her father is a famous artist, and her mother died suddently when Lina was just a small child.  The loss of her mother has always plagued her, and her father's refusal to talk about her mother has left a huge hole in her life.  Her latest case at work is much different than what she usually has:  a large corporation is suing the US government and other large companies for all the pain, suffering, and lack of wages slaves endured for the 200 years slavery was legal in some States.  This has the potential to be huge--and Lina has to find someone who could be a direct descendant of slaves who can testify.  

Enter in the famous LuAnne Bell paintings.  LuAnne is the mistress that Josephine took care of, and most people have no idea that Josephine was the real artist--but there are rumblings in the art world that LuAnne's paintings are done by Josephine, and it is causing trouble.  And how to prove it?

You would think it would be hard to mesh these two worlds together into a coherent storyline, but Tara Conklin does it quite well.  It does start out a bit slow on Lina's end, but it quickly gathers steam and I was completely engaged and unable to stop reading.  Both stories do not necessarily have happy endings, but endings that make sense.  Some questions are answered, some are not.  Lina's search for a descendent of Josephine quickly becomes a major plot point, and a major change for Lina's outlook on her job and her life--and her quest to know what happened to her mother.  Her father's art world provides a smooth transition for Lina into art galleries and a talk with an art historian who firmly believes Josephine is the true artist of the Bell paintings.  

And Josephine.  Oh, Josephine.  You really feel for her.  Her story is told through letters, paintings, sketches, and her own words.  You will find her character stands out in your mind long after you've put this novel down.

I think this would make an excellent book club selection.  Anyone like me who loves to read about the Old South will certainly want to pick this up.  Fans of The Rebel Wife, The Kitchen House, and The Healer should not hesitate!

Rating:  8/10, great plot; characters that tell their story well, and a very clever idea for a story.  
Available this month in Hardcover and e-book.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan

Another book I stared at for a year before I succumbed and bought it on my Nook.  Now I've finally read it, and I'm a bit disappointed.

The basics of this novel are this:  The Empress Alexandra, a ship, suddenly sinks in the middle of the ocean, leaving most of the passengers dead with just a few in lifeboats.  Grace Winter is 22, newly married, and in a lifeboat with 37 other people.  A power struggle on the boat between Mr. Hardie--a crewman from the ship--and Mrs. Grant and Hannah, two of the women on the lifeboat, takes an ugly turn as days go by with no rescue appearing on the horizon.  Grace, Mrs. Grant, and Hannah begin this book on trial for their lives.  On trial for what, you may ask?  

You have to read the book to find out.  But it's not too hard to figure out what will happen.  There are 38 people in a lifeboat, very little food or water, and the lifeboat is taking on water.  This story is a prime example of those themes we learned about in literature class our freshmen year of high school:  man vs. nature, man vs. self, man vs. man.  They are all swirling about in this novel.  What would you do if you were in this situation?  Are you one of the weak, or one of the strong?  Are you a leader or a follower?  Are you strong enough to sacrifice yourself to save others, or is it cowardly to want to survive at all costs and let others die?   

Grace is an interesting character, and we see the whole story through her eyes.  She's someone you can examine from many different angles, but never get quite a grip on who she is:  a helpless victim, a strong survivor, or someone who goes with whatever happens.  She leaves many questions unanswered.  

I did enjoy the book, but not immensely.  I was not surprised by any of what happened.  Maybe I've read too many "stuck in a life and death situation" books to have been surprised or amazed by what these characters did or did not do to survive.  World War I had just started; this novel puts all those issues into a little lifeboat and stirs the pot.  It's safe to say that there will always be those who sacrifice, those who lead, and those who will sit by and do nothing.  

This is certainly a book that will invite much discussion at a book club or even a classroom.  I guess I was underwhelmed by it all, but I can certainly see others being compelled to discuss the plot and characters.  I'm glad I read it, if anything because it made me think about what I think I would do in this situation.  I really don't know--would I be a sheep, or a leader?  Would I jump over the side and put myself out of misery, or fight til the end?  

Rating:  6/10.  Grace is one of many characters that you will want to discuss with others; I found the plot to be predictable and wasn't surprised by the actions of the lifeboat people.

Available in hardcover, paperback, and as an e-book.

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Union Street Bakery by Mary Ellen Taylor

The title and the cover grabbed me on this one! But the story kept me turning the pages on Sunday, and coupled with a rainy day I quickly read this and thoroughly enjoyed it.

Daisy McCrae has lost her job as an investment banker, gone through all of her unemployment, and finds herself back in the family fold:  her parent's bakery in Alexandria, Virginia.  She's even living above the bakery in the attic and sleeping on a couch.  She's about as low as she can get.  But with no where to go, and no money, she's agreed to help out her sisters Rachel and Margaret run the bakery.  When she arrives, she quickly realizes the bakery is thisclose to shutting it's doors permanently. It seems Rachel is an amazing baker, but not so good with the books.  

Daisy is a bit different from her sisters--she's adopted.  Her mother left her sitting at the bakery when she was 3 years old, and the McCraes took her in and eventually adopted her.  She's not only physically different looking from her sisters, but has always felt abandoned and lost never knowing why her mother left her.  It has  colored her world; she left the bakery and moved away as quickly as possible.  Now that she's back, she has to face her demons and learn to forgive and forget.

That's one storyline.  The other storyline involves an elderly woman, Mabel.  She leaves a  150 year old journal to Daisy, and with the help of Margaret, they start to uncover the mysteries of Susie, a slave that lived in the area before the Civil War.  She's also the ghost that Daisy has seen upstairs from the bakery since she was a child.  What's the connection?  And who's the angry man spirit that keeps showing up in Daisy's attic apartment?  

I couldn't put this one down.  It was a perfect read for a rainy Sunday.  Daisy is a bit prickly, and her relationships with her sisters are a main focus of this novel.  She's looking for answers and feels that too much is happening all at once--it's a bit overwhelming.  Enter in her ex-boyfriend Gordon, and she's got a lot on her plate.  But--I loved the cooking/baking in this novel, the family ties, and the mysterious journal.  It all comes together in a neat bow and Daisy finds closure on a lot of her issues.

Available in paperback or in e-book format

Rating:  6/10  Loved the characters--even though Daisy was a bit prickly at times and I wanted to shake her!  The bakery was a lovely character in itself and helped to shine the light on the struggles of small businesses to flourish in today's world.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Vacation Reading List--I Am Overly Ambitious--This Is Obvious

I'm taking a week of vacation and so far I've spent a few hours reading.  This is my idea of a perfect day.  And it's raining outside most of today, so I have no choice but to start off by sipping coffee and diving into a new novel.  

I have an overly ambitious idea that I will read a gazillion books this week.  There are so many, I don't know where to start, but I did start with one plucked out of the stacks:  The Union Street Bakery by Mary Ellen Taylor.  I'm about 80 pages in, and I feel the need to eat a freshly made bagel and a sweet roll all at once.  

Here's my wish list of books I hope to read this week; some I've already started and put down, others are brand spankin' new and waiting in a pile:

I know.  It's overly ambitious, but I don't think my hair appointment on Monday will interfere too much with my reading plans.  And it's February.  I have no reason to spend any time outside.  Reviews to come!  And maybe I'll even hit my Read Off The Shelves 2013 list and grab a book off of that, too.  

I'm going off to read now.  

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Serpent's Shadow by Mercedes Lackey

I have read 2 novels by Mercedes Lackey, both in the Elementals Series.  There's a bit of confusion about which is the first novel in this series--if you look in the books, this is the first novel, but if you look online it's listed as the second in the series, after The Fire Rose.  Either way, the important thing is that you can read either one first.  They are completely separate stories--the only link is the Elemental magic part.  

My sis-in-law has adored Mercedes Lackey for years and years--when I lived with her and my brother during my college years in PA (ahem 20 years ago) she had every book Mercedes Lackey ever wrote and I'm pretty sure she still does.  

Here's what I like about this series, based on two books:  they are fun, they are historical and magical fantasy, and they are based on magic that works with fire, earth, air, and water.  They can get a bit preachy at times--the first two take place in the early 1900's when women were fighting for the right to vote.  I just take that with a grain of salt and move on.  It's not a big deal to me and doesn't interfere with the gist of the novel. In this novel, Maya is a "half-breed"--half English, half Indian.  Her parents are dead, and she flees India to London in order to put some distance between whatever killed her parents and herself.  Her father was a doctor, and she is, too.  Female doctors aren't very common in England, and she has to fight to get her certificate to work in the local charity hospital.  On the side, she has a clinic set up in her home to help people who live on the streets.  Maya has to fight against people who judge her by her skin, the fact that she's a female doctor, unmarried, and a foreigner.  

She's also an Earth elemental, but doesn't really know it.  For reasons you find out in the story, her mother (a super magical woman herself) would not teach her anything, so she's cobbled together some small spells she can use to keep her home, herself, and her loyal servants safe from whatever is out to get her.  

But, she needs to learn, and quickly.  For whatever was looking to kill her in India has come to London, and it's looking for her.  

This is a retelling of Snow White; all of the Elemental books are based on a fairy tale.  The Fire Rose is Beauty and the Beast in San Francisco just before the great earthquake.  

So if you're looking for a fun fantasy series, try this one.  I've been happy enough with the first two books that I've managed to buy the next 3 or so and they're waiting on my shelves.  I think there are seven or eight in the series so far, and I don't see an end anytime soon.  They are a welcome break from some of the contemporary fiction I've been reading.  

Rating:  7/10 for sheer enjoyment factor.  I have found another author I can enjoy!

This series is available in mass market paperback and as e-books.  You could also probably get used hardcover editions either in used bookstores or online.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James

Aw phooey.  I was so hoping I would love this mystery, but I am shocked to say I didn't care much for it at all and struggled to finish it.

What went wrong?  I loved seeing Darcy and Elizabeth after their marriage, happy and with two small boys.  Wickham was still a sorry! total dick (that's how I've always thought of him) and Jane is still a totally loving and supportive sister.   Lydia is still a selfish  and hyperactive nitwit.

The mystery is about the murder of Captain Denny in the woods surrounding Pemberley.  Wickham is found kneeling next to his friend, bloody hands and face, saying it's his fault his friend is dead.  He's promptly arrested and faces trial in the murder of his friend.  Darcy is called to testify as a witness, and he struggles with his emotions--he still intensely dislikes Wickham for all the mayhem he caused with his sister Georgiana, and with the Bennett family. But he knows Wickham was not capable of killing anyone, including his only friend.  So what happened?  There's not much evidence to prove Wickham did it, but nothing to indicate another person may have killed  Captain Denny.

You do find out towards the end what exactly happened, and who killed Captain Denny.  I found myself having a hard time being patient reading this mystery.  There wasn't much mystery to it.  I only realized that mostly what I felt at the end was that yes, Wickham is a total jerk and will never change.  What happens in this mystery only firmly establishes that fact.  And it is probably a good thing to have read Pride and Prejudice before you read this, otherwise you won't understand why there is such animosity between Darcy and Wickham--to the extent that Wickham is never welcome at Pemberley.

This mystery had so much buzz when it was out in hardcover--I personally handed copies of it over to so many customers requesting it that I lost count!  So when it came out in paperback I decided to read it, based on how popular it was and some good reviews.  Sadly, I was not terribly impressed.  It wasn't terrible, just not compelling at all.

Rating:  4/10  

Available in paperback, E-book, and Audio.