Wednesday, December 8, 2010

technically good

What My Best Friend Did by Lucy Dawson
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Review: If there is a textbook for "How to Write a Suspenseful Novel," then Lucy Dawson has surely read it. Her book opens on a suspenseful scene of Alice calling an ambulance for Gretchen, who has apparently tried to commit suicide by drinking and taking pills. But the reader is clearly not getting all the information. After a couple of chapters that build the suspense of what really happened and whether the truth will out, the action jumps back to when the main characters met. Chapters describing how the relationship among the various characters developed are intercut with continuing scenes from the hospital where Alice watches tensely to see whether Gretchen will wake up and tell everyone the truth. In the flashbacks, hints of the ultimate reveal are placed at exactly the right moments to ratchet up the tension, and the reveal itself is pitch-perfect.

So if technically good pacing appeals to you, you'll like this book. But there's one other problem: I think Dawson didn't quite make it to the end of her text. Although the secret itself is surprising while also being believable, and all the characters react realistically and consistently with how they've been described, the resolution is terribly disappointing. It's as though Dawson followed all the steps laid out in the textbook, but couldn't quite muster the imagination to bring it all together.

FTC Disclaimer: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for this review.

Friday, November 19, 2010

who does that?!

Stay With Me by Sandra Rodriguez Barron
Rating: 2 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Review: I have never seen an advance copy of a book so rife with typos. I understand that it's an "uncorrected proof" but this book looked like it had never even been in the same room as an editor. I tried not to let that get in the way of the story however, as I assume that the typos, at the very least, will be corrected before the book is actually published. If not, perhaps Harper would like to hire me as a proofreader.

Even trying to overlook the glaring mistakes in the text, I had a hard time with this book. I did find myself pulled into the story at some points, but overall I found this book to be trite (especially some of the dialogue) and poorly thought-out. The characters are flat and behave inconsistently and unrealistically. Add to that an ending that was far too neat, and this book was very disappointing.

FTC disclaimer: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for this review.

Friday, October 15, 2010

tell one story well

The Thin Place by Kathryn Davis
Rating: 2 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Review: Multiple perspectives can do wonderful things for a narrative. When it's done well, it can help flesh out the story and give the reader more insights than can be garnered from a single character. When it's done poorly, or haphazardly, multiple perspectives only serve to impede the flow of the story, and can confuse the reader. Such is the case here, where Davis gives us the perspective of many characters, including several of the pets in the small town in which her story is set. Here, the multiple perspectives have the effect of muddying the waters so that the reader can never gets a clear picture of any of the characters and can never know what's important to the story.

It's too bad that Davis never lets any one character's story come through fully, because she gives us several interesting threads. One character can bring people and animals back to life, but only under certain circumstances. What circumstances? How does she feel about her ability? Occasionally we feel as though we may be getting close to delving deeper into one perspective, but than Davis tears the story away to another character, or perhaps gives us a horoscope or something from the local police blotter. The effect is a very jerky, frustrating read.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

major melodrama

A Call from Jersey by P.F. Kluge
Rating: 2 stars (out of 5)
Genre: historical fiction
Review: The entire time I was reading this book, I felt like I was missing something, like it was the sequel to a book I hadn't read. Relationships were written as though there was a lot of tension between characters, but nothing was developed enough (either in the backstory or the present story) for me to really care about where the tension came from, or whether it got resolved. Most of the characters seemed to just drift through the story, occasionally colliding with each other in encounters that were evidently supposed to be very weighty, but really just seemed like random plot devices. I think Kluge was aiming for high drama, but only managed to give us melodrama.

FTC disclaimer: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for this review.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

don't mess with a good thing

Adam & Eve by Sena Jeter Naslund
Rating: 2 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Review: I had high hopes for this book, because I've enjoyed Naslund's previous books, especially Ahab's Wife and Abundance. Unfortunately, this book was a grave disappointment. It seems like Naslund was trying to do something a little different with Adam & Eve. The result is dialogue filled with non-sequiturs, plot points that are left dangling, and characters who say and do things with no apparent motivation or that are directly at odds with what they have said and done previously (with no accounting for the switch). Although Naslund is to be praised for trying something new, I hope that in her next book she will return to the style that has previously served her (and her readers) so well.

FTC disclaimer: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for this review.

Friday, August 27, 2010

heavy-handed

The Good Daughters by Joyce Maynard
Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: historical fiction
Review: Maynard's premise in this book is an interesting one. Unfortunately, her efforts to be coy about that premise result only in heavy-handed foreshadowing that really leaves very little to the reader's imagination. Given how much she gives away, it seems that what was really important was not what the big secret was, but how the characters would react once they found out. That being the case, I wonder why Maynard chose to frustrate the reader by giving away almost the whole thing through less-than-subtle hints rather than just telling the reader what happened in the beginning and letting the story focus on the characters and how learning the truth changes (or doesn't change) their lives. There are a few details that are left unanswered until the big reveal near the end, but it wasn't enough to maintain any sort of narrative tension.

Once I got beyond the fact that there was no mystery where it seemed like there was supposed to be one, I was able to enjoy this book. Maynard's descriptions of her settings are beautiful, and I did find myself caring about the characters and how they would deal with finding out the truth. Unfortunately, the lovely prose does not make up for the narrative shortcomings.

FTC disclaimer: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for this review.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

nothing new

Still Missing by Chevy Stevens
Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Review: There is very little that's original in this book, which is a shame because it's quite well-written. But overall, it's a fairly standard abduction story, told from the point of view of an adult abductee. There are a couple of plot twists thrown in along the way, both during the time she was abducted, and once she returns, but overall her reactions and thoughts are a little too predictable. Combine the vivid and compelling writing with just a little more of something to distinguish this story from other abduction stories, and it could have been a really good book.

FTC disclaimer: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for this review.

Friday, May 21, 2010

interior vs. exterior

Small Island by Andrea Levy
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Genre: historical fiction
Review: When an author chooses to write a novel in the first person, they make a choice about the voice of the novel as a whole. The interior dialogue of a narrator must match their exterior dialogue. If the two don't match up, it detracts from the credibility of the character and the overall readability of the novel. The disparity between inner and outer voice is especially striking when the character speaks in dialect, as is the case here. The narrative switches among 4 characters, two native Englishpeople, and two who have moved from Jamaica to England. One of the Jamaicans speaks in a strong dialect, while the other is quite proud of her "King's English" even though she often finds that English shopkeepers don't understand a word she says. And yet the interior voice of both of these characters is largely the same as each other, and the same as the other two narrators. I found this disparity distracted a lot from the story.

FTC disclaimer: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for this review.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

set pieces

After This by Alice McDermott
Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: historical fiction
Review: All in all, I really liked this book. The slow, languid pace somehow fits the story perfectly. My one complaint is that the story treats time almost like a stone skipping over water. At the end of one chapter, two people meet each other, and at the beginning of the next, they are married with three children and a fourth on the way. Then, suddenly, we are another 5 years or so in the future (references to WWII and the Vietnam War anchor the story generationally, but there's very little to give solid reference points as to how much time has passed from one point in the story to another). I understand that all the day-to-day details of family life are not the point of this book, but I did find it more satisfying when McDermott allowed us deeper into the lives of the Keane family rather than just skimming the surface.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

unpredictable

Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok
Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Review: For some reason, I was surprised that I enjoyed this book so much. Perhaps my surprise came from the fact that I thought it would be very predictable, but it wasn't. Each time I thought I knew the directions in which Kwok was going to send her characters, I was wrong. Add to that the excellent writing, which pulls you into the story immediately, and I was really impressed by this book.

FTC disclaimer: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for this review.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

how to relate to your teenage daughter

Letter to My Daughter by George Bishop
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction, historical fiction
Review: It's not often that one wishes a book were longer than it is, but I almost wish there was just a little bit more to this one. After her teenage daughter storms out of the house, Laura sets about writing her a letter in which she hopes to explain that she really does understand what it's like to be a teenager. Bishop manages to pack a lot of emotional depth into this story, while keeping the prose very direct and free of frills.

But I do wish the story had been extended just a bit. It's evident that Laura manages to salvage some kind of relationship with her parents; how did that come about? What happened after Laura graduated high school? How did she meet the man we know only as "your father," who is clearly not the boyfriend of Laura's teenage years, but with whom she seems to have a good marriage? It is one thing to let your daughter in on the secret that you were once a teenager too and can understand what she’s going through, but this story might have benefited if Laura were also able to let her daughter see the light at the end of the teenager-tunnel.

FTC disclaimer: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for this review.

Monday, March 15, 2010

making it personal

The Season of Second Chances by Diane Meier
Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Review: This is a sweet book, though it's not without some drama and darkness. At just the right time in her life, Joy Harkness gets an unexpected job offer that takes her from a prestigious but unsatisfying job at Columbia University to an equally prestigious job in the small college town of Amherst, Massachusetts. Leaving behind a life devoid of personal connections, she suddenly finds herself thrust into the social framework of her new home.

Joy’s lack of personal past seems at many points in the narrative to be little more than a plot device to set up the “second chance” that she suddenly has in her new home. After all, if we didn’t know that she was a social outsider at Columbia, it wouldn’t make sense for her to behave in such a socially awkward way at Amherst. Except it still doesn’t make sense, because although she initially rebuffs many social efforts from her colleagues, she seems to have no problem forming a relationship with the handyman who fixes up her new house. That inconsistency undercuts much of the tension that might otherwise be present as she is forced to reconsider her life in social terms.

Fortunately, for both Joy and the reader, her new colleagues are fairly insistent that she not hold herself apart any longer, and the story that unfolds is quite touching. If many of the secondary characters seem flat, it is because their purpose is really to shine a spotlight on Joy and the changes she is experiencing. Meier generally succeeds in giving us a readable and enjoyable story and avoids the saccharine by achieving an ending that is not happy in the usual sense, but is certainly satisfying and hopeful.

FTC disclaimer: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for this review.

Monday, February 22, 2010

it's just too easy

Another Life Altogether by Elaine Beale
Rating:3 stars (out of 5)
Genre: historical fiction
Review: I give this book 3 stars because the language itself is quite lovely. The story, on the other hand, leaves something to be desired. Jesse is a fairly standard teenage-girl-who-finally-learns-to-stand-up-for-herself-and-for-what's-right. She's a sympathetic character, but not a very interesting one. She seems like a dynamic character only because all the others are flat as pancakes (her parents don't so much grow as characters as just randomly start acting differently toward the end). Ultimately, though, it's hard to feel too much for Jesse, because she doesn't respond to her predicament in a believable way.

The story is set in a small town in northern England in the mid-70s (complete with some great descriptions of the clothes) and for that time and place, and what we know of her upbringing, Jesse takes her "predicament" far too easily in stride. We see very little internal struggle with her situation; the only real conflict in the story is how long she'll let things drag on. This does not make for very captivating reading.

FTC disclaimer: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for this review.