Sunday, January 25, 2009

and then what happens?

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O'Farrell
Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Review: The story of the woman who is institutionalized because she doesn't fit society's norms or because her family doesn't know what to do with her isn't unfamiliar. But we rarely hear her side of the story, or hear her perspective on the things she did that were so unorthodox. Even less often do we find out what happened to her after her commitment.

Maggie O'Farrell tells both of those stories here. In bits and pieces we learn of Esme's childhood in India and her life as a young woman when she and her family move back to Scotland. We learn what led up to her institutionalization, and we learn some of what happened to her while she was there. But more important we learn that she stayed in the institution for more than 60 years, that her sister never let on that she was there, so that when the institution was to close, her mere existence was a great shock to her only relative.

I had a bit of a hard time getting into this story, since the writing is a little stilted at first, but soon the story itself drew me in. What actually happened that got Esme committed? Will Iris take her in? What role did Esme's older sister Kitty have in her commitment? And what is the biggest secret of all (because you know there is one)? O'Farrell answers all these questions expertly.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

guileless and lovely

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: historical fiction, epistolary
Review: Epistolary novels can be such fun to read, and this one is certainly no exception. The technique of using the exchange of letters to tell the story allows the author to use each character's voice in an authentic way that traditional story-telling doesn't usually allow. In tone, I found this book similar to the delightful 84, Charing Cross Road. Juliet, the main character, or main letter-writer as the case may be, has a guileless voice that was a pleasure to read.

The one false note I found in this story was the ease with which the Guernsey Islanders allowed Juliet to adopt Kit (both literally and figuratively). That Kit herself should take to Juliet as well as she does I did not find surprising, as one can clearly tell from her letters that she is the kind of person children like (and, yes, that is high praise). But for a group as insular as the Islanders declare themselves to be, and as protective of and attached to Kit as the Literary Society was, to give Kit over to Juliet after only a few months acquaintance, did not ring as true as the rest of the story did.

Other than that, I loved this book. Each character has a distinct voice, and I wanted to be able to exchange letters with them all myself.

Friday, January 23, 2009

too much filler

The History of Now by Daniel Klein
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Review: As a story about life in a small town in western Massachusetts, this book isn't bad. Unfortunately, it tries to be a lot more than that. Many chapters begin with vaguely interesting historical vignettes about the ancestors of the family at the center Then we have the story of Hector as he moves from rural Colombia to Bogota to Miami to Connecticut and finally to Grandville. At first, I found his story the most compelling of all, even if it was all too predictable how he would eventually figure into the main story. Unfortunately, once Hector gets to Grandville, his voice disappears, making one wonder what the point was of giving us so much of his story to begin with. So I had to ask myself, why did Klein throw so much else into his story?

Sunday, January 18, 2009

alike but different

Just Listen by Sarah Dessen
Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction, YA
Review: This book reminded me a lot of Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, but I was impressed by how Dessen took a very similar plot and made a very different story out of it. There are a lot of elements in this story other than what happened to Annabel and how she deals with it, including her relationship with her sisters, but Annabel's struggle to come to terms with her experiences is obviously the base of the book. Dessen has a fine ear for the voice of a high schooler. Overall, this is a gripping, realistic story. Like I said, Annabel's a great character and Dessen's writing is so good that we care about even the secondary characters, like Annabel's sisters.

There were two things I didn't like much about this book. The first was Sophie, Annabel's putative friend. She's barely a character in the story, so I can't really say I was disappointed not to see some growth in her, but she's depicted as such a flat character, with few redeeming qualities, that I had a hard time believing in her, which is a problem since, even though she doesn't figure into the story itself, she provides the center for much of the story.

My other problem had to do with Annabel herself. Although a very well-drawn character, much of what happens to her comes as a result of her making the same mistake over and over again. Which is not to say that we don't all do that, but at some point one might hope that a character would become aware of it at least to the point of not being so surprised when someone pointed it out to them. I feel almost nitpicky saying this, but Annabel was otherwise such a well-written character that I hated to see her be given such a glaring flaw.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

wish come true

Weetzie Bat by Francesca Lia Block
Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Review: This is a stunning book. Part of me wanted there to be more of it because it was so good, but of course the sparseness of the prose is part of what makes this book so beautiful. There is no character like Weetzie anywhere else in literature, and you can't help but love her.

not smart

Smart Girls Like Me by Diane Vadino
Rating: 2 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Review: Despite the title of this book, Betsy is not a smart girl. She may have better grammar than the people she works with, she may even be more intelligent than most of them, but she gives little evidence of actually being smart. She spends the bulk of the book being snippy about her best friend's upcoming wedding (to the point that if she were my maid of honor, I would have fired her!) and obsessing about her juvenile relationship with her maybe-boyfriend. At the end of the book she has the predictable revelation about her life and her relationships and the true meaning of being happy, but she spent so much of the book acting like an idiot that I couldn't really bring myself to care.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

what was the point?

The Master Butcher's Singing Club by Louise Erdrich
Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: historical fiction
Review: The master butcher's singing club of the title doesn't really figure into this book at all. Fidelis, the master butcher in question, does start a singing group in his new home of Argus, North Dakota, that's meant to reflect the master butcher's singing club he was a part of back in Germany, as a place where outside grievances can be set aside.

But this story is really about Delphine, a native of, though an outsider in, Argus. It's about her relationship with men, sort of, but really about what she discovers when she meets Eva, Fidelis's wife. In Eva, Delphine discovers the mother she never had, as well as a best friend. That Delphine comes to love Eva's family as her own is fortunate when Eva is struck with a massive tumor. Delphine nurses her until her death and then cares for Fidelis and their sons.

All of this makes for a story that is lovingly told. What threw me for a loop, though, was at the very end of the book when the truth about Delphine's mother is revealed to the reader, but not to Delphine herself. Although I was vaguely interested to have this mystery cleared up, I don't really think it was necessary to the story at all. By including it at the end, it seemed as though we were supposed to think that this revelation was the whole point of the story, rather than an incidental part of the character Delphine became. The answer provided excellent closure to the story as a whole, but part of me wishes Erdrich had finished the book without it.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

beat them at their own game

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart
Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction, YA
Review: Frankie knows that she is just as smart, and probably way more clever than any of the boys in her boarding school's all-male secret society. But when her own boyfriend won't even acknowledge the possibility that she could even know the society exists, she decides to prove her worth in her own very special way. In the end, Frankie is on both the receiving and giving end of the comeuppance she was aiming for. This conclusion is both satisfying and realistic. The parts of the book that relate what she did are highly entertaining. Unfortunately, the rest of the book is a bit stilted (I think that was done on purpose, but it didn't help to know that) and repetitive.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

secrets and lies

The Girl Who Stopped Swimming by Joshilyn Jackson
Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Review: On the surface, this book is about how one of her daughter's friends came to be drowned in Laurel's pool in the middle of the night. The answer turns out to be both surprisingly mundane and unexpected. But the real story has to do with Laurel's relationship with her sister whose presence in Laurel's life has always been both comforting and disturbing. In the course of trying to figure what happened to the drowned girl, Laurel is forced to accept truths about her sister and her mother and their shared past as a family. Laurel and her sister must both accept the choices that the other has made.

Jackson has written an intriguing story, and one that is well-told. The tension builds throughout the book, and is not released until close to the very end. And even though the book would have been sufficient without it, Jackson has given us a very satisfying epilogue that in some ways has stuck with me more than the entire rest of the book.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

needs work

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Genre: historical fiction
Review: I love a story told from a surprising point of view. This one deals with Japanese families who were "evacuated" after in 1942 from the West Coast. Except the story is told by 12-year-old Henry, the son of Chinese immigrants. An American himself, Henry's father is an ardent Chinese nationalist who hates the Japanese not for the bombing of Pearl Harbor, but for their invasion of mainland China. Even a whiff of anything Japanese is forbidden in the house, so Henry has more than one big problem when he befriends and eventually falls in love with Keiko, whose family is inevitably evacuated to a camp in Idaho.

Unfortunately, this story needed a more polished teller. Ford flips his story back and forth from 1942, when Henry is 12, to 1986, when Henry is 56. Ordinarily, this is a great way to tell a story about what happened "back then" and how it has effected the present. But Henry's voice is just the same from the time he's 12 to the time he's 56, making his thoughts and feelings as a child more than a little unbelievable. Keiko also seems to have far too much perspective on what's happening to her family and in the world.

Added to that are the incredible anachronisms scattered throughout the book. Henry's son belongs to an online support group in 1986? The nursing home has a rear-projection TV? An editor should have picked up on these things. Admittedly, I got the book as an advance copy, so perhaps by the time the book is actually published some of these mistakes will have been fixed. At least I hope so, because they are so jarring as to make it difficult to get any actual enjoyment from this book.