Wednesday, October 22, 2014

the emotional wringer

Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult
Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Review: I was actually breathless when I finished this book, because I read so fast to find out how it ended.  Also because my heart was in my throat from all the emotion that is packed into the end.

This book presents as a fairly straightforward missing-person-type mystery.  Jenna is 13.  Ten years ago, one of the caretakers died at the elephant sanctuary her parents ran.  The same night, Jenna's mother disappeared and her father had a mental break that has had him in a psychiatric facility ever since.  Now, Jenna wants to find her mother.  She enlists the help of a lapsed psychic, and one of the detectives who was on the case 10 years ago, who is now a private investigator.  So far, so normal.  It's a good read, filled with sympathetic characters, and interesting facts about elephants.

Then, Picoult turns the story on its side, and we have to re-evaluate everything we thought we knew about what happened that tragic night at the elephant sanctuary.  Then, she turns it completely upside-down, and you realize that you didn't know anything about anything.  Throughout these twists and turns the emotion is being ratcheted up, until you can't possibly put the book down until you get to the very last page.  Fortunately, while I wouldn't describe it as a happy ending, it's a satisfying ending, and one that is well worth being put through the emotional wringer.

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

Friday, September 26, 2014

just read it

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fantasy, science fiction
Review: There's no good way to summarize this book at all, let alone do it without giving away the whole thing.  So without mentioning the plot, what I can say is this: if you liked Cloud Atlas, definitely read this book.  If you didn't like Cloud Atlas, read this book anyway, because although it too is a genre-bending book, it's really very different.  Ditto for The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (both are among my favorite books, by the way).  What it boils down to is the David Mitchell is one of the most talented writers around and anyone who wants to read a book that will be a lot of fun, but also be challenging, should read his books.

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

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

just doesn't measure up

The Wednesday Daughters by Meg Waite Clayton
Rating: 2 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Review: I loved The Wednesday Sisters, and was excited to read this sequel.  Unfortunately, I was disappointed.  The three main characters were neither well-drawn nor likable, and the story wasn't very compelling.  Or perhaps it was that the issues these women are facing were not nearly as compelling as the issues their mothers faced.  Gone are the struggles to break away from the strictures and prejudices of the past.  The daughters are confronting deaths of loved ones, infidelity, and other relationship crises, any one of which is ordinarily enough to make a story.  So why don't we care as much about them as we did about their mothers?  Maybe because Clayton seems to want this book to be as weighty as the first was, but it's just not.  I don't know.  Whatever the reason, this is one case where the the elders really are the betters.

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

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

the story not told

The Road from Gap Creek by Robert Morgan
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Genre: historical fiction
Review: When we left Hank and Julie at the end of Gap Creek (published in 2000), they were leaving Gap Creek and heading back up the mountain to begin anew.  Having survived a very rough first year of marriage, they were full of hope and love and the future seemed bright.  And, indeed, the future does seem to have been good to them.  In this sequel, narrated by Annie, one of their daughters, some 25 years after the events in Gap Creek, Hank and Julie have created a family, are financially stable, and overall seem to have been doing well in the years since we last saw them.  How did they get there?  Don't ask me.

Here is what we learn about those years: after leaving Gap Creek, Hank and Julie at some point moved back there, and then left again, when Annie was about 5 years old; Hank was able to find steady work in the '20s by building summer cottages for rich people; with steady work, he gained confidence; and they have 4 children.  Why did they return to Gap Creek?  Why did they leave again?  Dunno.  I suppose the stories must not be very interesting, since the only family lore Annie seems to know are things that happened when her parents were newlyweds - in other words, stories we already know if we read Gap Creek.  A sequel doesn't have to describe every detail that we've missed in the lives of the characters, but it's almost as though Morgan's imagination just totally failed him and he just doesn't know what happened to his characters in those 25 years.  In which case, quite frankly, this book needed a different title, because the road from Gap Creek is not at all the story it tells.

That being said, the writing is, of course, beautiful and evocative of Appalachia in the late 1930s and into WWII.  As a stand-alone book, this would have been a lovely read.  As a sequel, it just doesn't hold up.

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

Saturday, July 26, 2014

who decides? who cares?

Lone Wolf by Jodi Picoult
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Review: I have long admired Picoult's ability to deal with a controversial issue in a way that leaves me with sympathy for both sides, even if I don't agree with one.  She's done this successfully with issues as diverse as gay adoption, suicide pacts, accusations of child abuse, school shootings, and various aspects of medical ethics, including, in this case, euthanasia.

Unfortunately, in this book, neither of the main characters are particularly likable or sympathetic.  As the result of a car accident, Luke Warren is in a coma with a traumatic brain injury from which the doctors say there is no hope of recovery.  The question is raised about whether to continue life support.  Who will make the decision?  He's divorced, and his only remaining blood relatives are his children: Edward, who left the family 6 years ago at age 18 and hasn't had contact with his father since; and Cara, who is very close to her father, but is only 17.  Edward immediately returns home and, taking in the situation, and based on a conversation he had with his father when he was 15, begins the process of having the life support withdrawn and authorizing his father's organs to be donated.  Cara believes that her father would seize any chance at life.  The hospital insists that Cara and Edward agree on the plan, and the plot thickens.

As a plot, this is all very well.  Unfortunately, Edward is a self-righteous hothead and Cara, despite arguing that, at 17-3/4, is perfectly mature enough to make the decision, persists in acting in the most immature ways possible.  Naturally, court proceedings are instituted, and so we have a story.  Unfortunately, I spent so much of the book just wishing that both Cara and Edward would go away that I didn't find myself caring much what happened to poor Luke one way or the other.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

the stories we tell ourselves

The Rise & Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman
Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Review: What do you do when your unreliable narrator is yourself?  When everything you thought you knew about your past is not just a lie, but a cruel lie?  Although Rachman takes some time working up to it, this is the issue that his main character, Tooly Zylberberg, has to face.  Tooly tells her story in three rotating sections: the first, as a young girl living in Bangkok, the latest in a series of foreign cities she's lived; the second, as she turns 21 in New York; and the last as an adult, when she's separated from the characters of her earlier life, but must return to them.  Although she is initially reluctant, Tooly eventually seeks out these people to get answers about why her childhood was shaped the way it was.

There's quite a bit of intentional misdirection in the lead-up.  For one thing, Tooly refers to everyone by their first name, so it takes a while for her relationship to them to become clear.  And then, of course, there's the problem that some of the characters aren't at all who or what they purport to be.  As the story begins to come clear, though, it's quite compelling.  And Tooly is a well-drawn character.  Unfortunately, the unrelenting and unapologetic selfishness of other characters detract so much from the story itself, that even when Tooly found her answers, such as they were, I felt as though I didn't get mine.

In literature, not all characters are, or should be, likable.  The good guys don't always get rewarded, and the bad guys don't always get punished.  Even so, one wants to feel as though a character's actions have repercussions for them.  In this book, both the selfish and the unselfish, the cruel and the benevolent, just keep on keeping on in a way that left me with a sour taste in my mouth.

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

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

random connections

Lucky Us by Amy Bloom
Genre: historical fiction
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Review: Reading this book felt a little like watching a silent movie: some jerky, indistinct action, interspersed with text that's supposed to illuminate the dialogue you can't hear, but doesn't necessarily help bring the story into focus.

The story begins as Eva's mother takes her to her father's house for the first time, where she meets her half-sister Iris, and is in for some nasty surprises about her father.  Eva and Iris escape to Hollywood, where Iris has some initial success in becoming a starlet, before she is black-balled by the industry.  Beginning to widen the cast of characters, Eva and Iris move to New York where the bulk of the action takes place.  But why do people choose to go with them?  Why do others join the little group in New York?  Explanation of motivation is sorely lacking in the narrative.  Instead, we are asked to accept, for example, that someone with a long and successful career as a make-up artist in Hollywood would just give that up to join two girls he hardly knows on a cross-country trip.  Ok, yes, he felt about what happened to Iris, but I'm sorry, I just don't buy it.

I also felt like the narrative followed the wrong character.  Eva just isn't very interesting.  I'm not sure that I would have found Iris to be all that more compelling, as she comes across as shallow and self-involved, but at least she has agency in her own life.  Eva just sort of drifts along, and seems to almost willfully not understand what's going on around her.

And yet, by the end of the book, I understood where the title came from, and what Bloom was trying to do.  It was a satisfying ending, if not a satisfying beginning or middle.

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

Saturday, February 15, 2014

teach passionately

American Teacher: Heroes in the Classroom by Katrina Fried
Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: non-fiction
Review: Anyone who's been lucky enough to have a really good teacher knows how inspiring they can be and what a gift it is to be in their classroom.  So I expected a book that collects the stories of 50 "extraordinary" teachers to be similarly inspiring.  Unfortunately, this book didn't exactly inspire me.  Each teacher gets 3 or 4 pages in which to tell their story, and they are all informative in their own way, but it's clear that simple words on a page aren't the best medium for most of these teachers.  This should come as no surprise, as it's their dynamic natures and imaginative thinking that have earned them their "extraordinary" label.  Most of the teachers couldn't be clearer in their belief that you must teach to the student, and not to the test, and meeting the needs of each student in their classroom requires more energy and enthusiasm than can be demonstrated between the pages of a book.  But there is one thing that they all communicated clearly: the best teachers are the ones who have a passion for the profession, and every person included in this book has that passion in spades.

FCC Disclosure: I received this book free from the publisher in exchange for this review.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

make it real

Life After Life by Jill McCorkle
Rating: 3 stars (out of five)
Genre: fiction
Review: It must be very difficult to write a book from multiple perspectives.  The characters must come together in some meaningful way so one cohesive story is told, rather than several intersecting stories.  Having said that, it should come as no surprise that I think the lack of a cohesive story is one of this book's major flaws.  The characters all live in close proximity in a small town, and all either live in, or have some connection to, the local retirement center.  But, for the most part, their stories don't really impact each other.

Another major flaw is that the narrative is interrupted by journal entries by one of the characters.  If these journal entries had given us any insight into this character that would have been one thing, but they are her write-ups of the dying moments of her clients.  Some of them are of characters we have already met at the retirement center, but many of them are people she met in her life prior to returning to the small town where the book is set.  If they had been about people we had met, giving some closure to a life we had read about, or even if they had helped us see her character learn and grow, that would have been one thing.  But, by and large, they are neither related to the story nor relevant to it.

In a "Conversation with the Author" published in the back of the ARC I received, McCorkle states that she knew all along how one character's story would end, and she chooses to end the book there as well.  This is all well and good, except that I felt like she hadn't given me enough about the character throughout the book to earn this ending.  Contrast this with other characters, who get more page-time, if not much more development, whose stories are left unresolved.

For all that, there are many good things about this book.  Each character's story has something to offer, and I wish McCorkle had chosen to write a book of related short stories rather than try to put it all together as one novel.

FCC Disclosure: I received this book free from the publisher in exchange for this review.