Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Girl Who Chased the Moon by Sarah Addison Allen

In her latest enchanting novel, New York Times bestselling author Sarah Addison Allen invites you to a quirky little Southern town with more magic than a full Carolina moon. Here two very different women discover how to find their place in the world—no matter how out of place they feel.

Emily Benedict came to Mullaby, North Carolina, hoping to solve at least some of the riddles surrounding her mother’s life. Such as, why did Dulcie Shelby leave her hometown so suddenly? And why did she vow never to return? But the moment Emily enters the house where her mother grew up and meets the grandfather she never knew—a reclusive, real-life gentle giant—she realizes that mysteries aren’t solved in Mullaby, they’re a way of life: Here are rooms where the wallpaper changes to suit your mood. Unexplained lights skip across the yard at midnight. And a neighbor bakes hope in the form of cakes.

Everyone in Mullaby adores Julia Winterson’s cakes—which is a good thing, because Julia can’t seem to stop baking them. She offers them to satisfy the town’s sweet tooth but also in the hope of rekindling the love she fears might be lost forever. Flour, eggs, milk, and sugar . . . Baking is the only language the proud but vulnerable Julia has to communicate what is truly in her heart. But is it enough to call back to her those she’s hurt in the past? 

Can a hummingbird cake really bring back a lost love? Is there really a ghost dancing in Emily’s backyard? The answers are never what you expect. But in this town of lovable misfits, the unexpected fits right in.
Ms. Allen tells fairy stories for adults.  Her novels have just enough mystical and magical about them to make then thoroughly enjoyable but not so much that one can’t swallow the story.

(4 Stars – Rated PG-13 for sex)

Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton

“Cry, the beloved country, for the unborn child that is the inheritor of our fear. Let him not love the earth too deeply. Let him not laugh too gladly when the water runs through his fingers, nor stand too silent when the setting sun makes red the veld with fire. Let him not be too moved when the birds of his land are singing, nor give too much of his heart to a mountain or valley. For fear will rob him of all if he gives too much."
The most famous and important novel in South Africa's history, and an immediate worldwide bestseller when it was published in 1948, Alan Paton's impassioned novel about a black man's country under white man's law is a work of searing beauty. The eminent literary critic Lewis Gannett wrote, "We have had many novels from statesmen and reformers, almost all bad; many novels from poets, almost all thin. In Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country the statesman, the poet and the novelist meet in a unique harmony."

Cry, the Beloved Country is the deeply moving story of the Zulu pastor Stephen Kumalo and his son, Absalom, set against the background of a land and a people riven by racial injustice. Remarkable for its lyricism, unforgettable for character and incident, Cry, the Beloved Country is a classic work of love and hope, courage and endurance, born of the dignity of man.

It’s a beautiful, lyrical book!  A must read.  This was the second time reading it for me and it was even better the second time around.

5 Stars (Rated PG for adult themes)

Once Upon a Time, There was You by Elizabeth Berg

This is a novel about a man and woman, long divorced, who rediscover the power of love and family in the midst of an unthinkable crisis. 

Even on their wedding day, John and Irene sensed that they were about to make a mistake. Years later, divorced, dating other people, and living in different parts of the country, they seem to have nothing in common—nothing except the most important person in each of their lives: Sadie, their spirited eighteen-year-old daughter. Feeling smothered by Irene and distanced from John, Sadie is growing more and more attached to her new boyfriend, Ron.
When tragedy strikes, Irene and John come together to support the daughter they love so dearly. What takes longer is to remember how they really feel about each other.

I’m not “crazy” about Elizabeth Berg, I like her novels, but I’ve never read one that I would rave about.  This is the same, a nice read—enjoyable—but at the end, I don’t find that I’ve invested much of myself in the book.

3 Stars (Rated PG- adult themes)

Savvy by Ingrid Law

For generations, the Beaumont family has harbored a magical secret. They each possess a "savvy" -a special supernatural power that strikes when they turn thirteen. Grandpa Bomba moves mountains, her older brothers create hurricanes and spark electricity . . . and now it's the eve of Mibs's big day.

As if waiting weren't hard enough, the family gets scary news two days before Mibs's birthday: Poppa has been in a terrible accident. Mibs develops the singular mission to get to the hospital and prove that her new power can save her dad. So she sneaks onto a salesman's bus . . . only to find the bus heading in the opposite direction. Suddenly Mibs finds herself on an unforgettable odyssey that will force her to make sense of growing up -and of other people, who might also have a few secrets hidden just beneath the skin.

This is a Newberry Honor Book.  It’s a delightful story and wonderful message.  It would be a great book to read to your children.

5 Stars (Rated G)

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

Bennie is an aging former punk rocker and record executive. Sasha is the passionate, troubled young woman he employs. Here Jennifer Egan brilliantly reveals their pasts, along with the inner lives of a host of other characters whose paths intersect with theirs.

The story of this book moves sideways, diagonally and backwards, but never simply forward.  It is a mind-bending, novel novel.  There is even a chapter told in Powerpoint slides.  While it was entertaining I’m still not what the message of the book was.  Ironically, after slogging my way through so many Pulitzer Prize winners last year, I picked this as my first book to be read this year.  I was about ¼ of the way through it before it was a winner of the Pulitzer Prize! Argh!

2 Stars (Rated R – language, sex)

I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak

Meet Ed Kennedy—underage cabdriver, pathetic card player, and useless at romance. He lives in a shack with his coffee-addicted dog, the Doorman, and he’s hopelessly in love with his best friend, Audrey. His life is one of peaceful routine and incompetence, until he inadvertently stops a bank robbery. That’s when the first Ace arrives. That’s when Ed becomes the messenger. . . .

Chosen to care, he makes his way through town helping and hurting (when necessary), until only one question remains: Who’s behind Ed’s mission?

Brilliant, brilliant book!  While the language is a bit rough the message and story it has to tell more than makes up for it.  It is a story of caring and compassion unlike any I have read before. Zusak is from Australia so there is a bit of ‘down under’ lingo which can be confusing.

5 Stars (Rated PG for language and violence)

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Whiter Than Snow by Sandra Dallas

Whiter Than Snow opens in 1920, on a spring afternoon in Swandyke, a small town near Colorado’s Tenmile Range. Just moments after four o’clock, a large split of snow separates from Jubilee Mountain high above the tiny hamlet and hurtles down the rocky slope, enveloping everything in its path including nine young children who are walking home from school. But only four children survive. Whiter Than Snow takes you into the lives of each of these families: There’s Lucy and Dolly Patch—two sisters, long estranged by a shocking betrayal. Joe Cobb, Swandyke’s only black resident, whose love for his daughter Jane forces him to flee Alabama. There’s Grace Foote, who hides secrets and scandal that belies her genteel fa├žade. And Minder Evans, a civil war veteran who considers his cowardice his greatest sin. Finally, there’s Essie Snowball, born Esther Schnable to conservative Jewish parents, but who now works as a prostitute and hides her child’s parentage from all the world.

The book is quite a study in characterization.  After initially telling the reader about the avalanche and that nine children are buried and only four survive, the book takes a giant step back and goes into lengthy but engrossing chapters detailing the lives of each of the parents/caregivers of the children.  When we get back to the avalanche we can more keenly feel the anguish of the adults in the town.  How the tragedy brings them together is the essence of the story.  It is a reminder to us to not wait for a tragedy to give our best self to others.

4 Stars (PG – for adult situations)

Monday, January 16, 2012

Moloka'i by Alan Brennert

This richly imagined novel, set in Hawai'i more than a century ago, is an extraordinary epic of a little-known time and place---and a deeply moving testament to the resiliency of the human spirit.
Rachel Kalama, a spirited seven-year-old Hawaiian girl, dreams of visiting far-off lands like her father, a merchant seaman. Then one day a rose-colored mark appears on her skin, and those dreams are stolen from her. Taken from her home and family, Rachel is sent to Kalaupapa, the quarantined leprosy settlement on the island of Moloka'i. Here her life is supposed to end---but instead she discovers it is only just beginning.

The book covers Rachel’s entire life and the history of Hawaii and the leper colony is incredibly interesting.  The story of Rachel’s life is heartbreaking and yet her resilience is amazing.  If you enjoy historical fiction you will love this book.

My favorite quote from the book…the first time Rachel and others at Moloka’i see an airplane, Sister Catherine (a nun who plays a major part in the story) says to Rachel,

“Who can doubt the presence of God in the sight of men whom He has given wings.”  Many years later Catherine recalls that to Rachel and tells her that her statement was in error.  She then says, “God didn’t give man wings; He gave him the brain and the spirit to give himself wings.  Just as He gave us the capacity to laugh when we hurt, or to struggle on when we feel like giving up.  I’ve come to believe that how we choose to live with pain, or injustice, or death…is the true measure of the Divine within us.”  She goes on to say, “I used to wonder, why did God give children leprosy? Now I believe: God doesn’t give anyone leprosy.  He gives us, if we choose to use it, the spirit to live with leprosy, and with the imminence of death.  Because it is in our own mortality that we are most Divine.”

Mormon Mention:  There is a branch of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on the island and it is mention several times.  They like to go to their dances and one of the characters enjoys going to Church there because of their singing of hymns.  They also mention the ‘Mormon Cemetery’ several times.  One of my favorite mentions was the following that happened one Sunday morning in December as Rachel was walking her dog, Hoku:

“At 8:30am half of Kalaupapa was still asleep as the other half readied for church.  As Rachel skirted the stony garland of cemeteries north of town she heard from somewhere up ahead—the Church of Latter-day Saints was the closest structure—the tinny music of a radio broadcast, a chorus of angelic voices raised in song.
                   Gird up you loins; fresh courage take;
                   Our God will never us forsake,
                   And soon we’ll have this tale to tell,
                   All is well! All is well!”
“The voices, she would later learn were those of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, recorded in Salt Lake City and now being broadcast on KGMB in Honolulu.  But even as she passed the church—its parishioners gathering in anticipation of the 9:00 service—the chorus was suddenly choked off, silenced by a burst of static, followed by the urgent voice of an announcer.
“This is Webly Edwards in Honolulu.  A sporadic air attack has been made on O’ahu.  Enemy planes have been shot down, and the Rising Sun sighted on the wingtips!”

4 Stars (Rated PG-13 for brief sex and gruesome descriptions)

Monday, January 9, 2012

The Buffalo Soldier by Chris Bohjalian

In northern Vermont, a raging river overflows and sweeps the nine-year-old twin daughters of Terry and Laura Sheldon to their deaths.  In the aftermath of the tragedy, the highway patrolman and his wife, unable to have more children, take in a foster child; a ten-year-old African-American boy who has been shuttled for years between foster families and group homes.  Young Alfred cautiously enters the family circle, barely wiling to hope that he might find a permanent home among these kind people still distracted by grief.

Across the street from the Sheldons live an older couple who take Alfred under their wing, and it is they who introduce him to the history of the buffalo soldiers—African-American cavalry troopers whose reputation for integrity, honor, and personal responsibility inspires the child.

Before life has a chance to settle down, however, Terry, who has never been unfaithful to Laura, finds himself attracted to the solace of another woman.  Their encounter, brief as it is, leaves her pregnant with his baby—a child Terry suddenly realizes he urgently wants.

Chris Bohjalian is a genius!  The characters are well-developed and completely believable.  The multiple-voiced story moves along at a pace that keeps you on the edge of your seat, not wanting to put it down.  The ending is sudden (the only way you know the ending is coming is because there are only a few pages left) yet it leaves you satisfied.  Oh….and the ‘chapter blurbs’!  Each chapter starts with an excerpt from the book about the Buffalo Soldiers.  We know that Alfred gathers inspiration from the story of the Buffalo Soldiers, but it is a seemingly almost-insignificant part of the book, until at the end Bohjalian masterfully brings the stories together in a way that brings tears to your eyes.  The story could have been told without the Buffalo Soldiers, but it adds a layer of richness and symbolism to an incredible novel.

5 stars (PG-13 – just a little language and adult topics.)

The Pursuit of Alice Thrift by Elinor Lipman

Meet poor Alice Thrift, surgical intern in a Boston hospital, high of I.Q. but low in social graces. She doesn’t mean to be acerbic, clinical, or painfully precise, but where was she the day they taught Bedside Manner 101? Into Alice’s workaholic and romantically challenged life comes Ray Russo, a purveyor of fairground fudge, in need of rhinoplasty and well-heeled companionship, not necessarily in that order. Is he a con man or a sincere suitor? Good guy or bad? His well-engineered cruise into carnal waters introduces Alice to a new and baffling concept, chemistry—and not of the organic kind. Is it possible for a woman of science to cure her own loneliness in the unsuitable arms of a parental nightmare? Luckily, Leo Frawley, R.N., who has a high threshold for Alice’s left-footed people skills, and Sylvie Schwartz, M.D., fellow resident and woman of the world, take on the task of guiding Alice through the narrow straits of her own no-rapport zone.

Elinor Lipman does great characterizations, from socially inept Alice to ‘flower power’ midwife Meredith, to ‘swarmy’ salesman Ray, all are delightful in their own way.  There was a bit of sex and whereas the last book I read, those scenes detracted from the story, in this book I found myself giggling behind my fingers.  Very, very funny. 
You can see what might happen in the book, but continue to wish for a happy ending.  I won’t tell you which one you get!

3 stars (I would have given it 4 if it hadn’t been for the sex.  Rated R)