Sunday, January 6, 2013

Five Quarters of the Orange by Joanne Harris/Copyright 2001/William Morrow

First of all, I love an intriguing title. This book delivers all that the title promises--more than you might expect possible. During the German occupation of France in WWII, a widow, with her own internal demons and drug addiction, struggles to feed and clothe her children. The children, perhaps in search of a father figure, become enamored of a young German soldier who learns secrets about their community from his conversations with them. At first the children are innocent in this deception, but they do come to realize that the gifts and treats the soldier provides must be in payment for something. In time, the soldier cares about the children and makes a great sacrifice for them. I cannot say more without giving too much away, but this book will keep you intrigued and will leave you satisfied.

The Awakening by KateChopin/Copyright 1988/Bantam Dell

There is seldom anything unique in a period novel where unrequited love creates disastrous results. However, this small book is so beautifully written, so spare, so touching, that I will read it again. The relationship between the protagonist and the man she loves builds slowly and runs off course from time to time, yet the tension keeps the reader immersed. As a writer myself, I was very sad to learn that Kate Chopin had a relatively successful writing career--unusual for a woman at that time--until she wrote this novel, recognized now as her best effort. On first publication it was pronounced scandalous, and she never wrote again. In a time when shades of gray has an entirely new meaning, this gem will return the reader to a sense of deep loving and intense longing. We step back to what the heart, and only the heart, truly needs.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Red Azalea by Anchee Min/Copyright 1994/Berkley

This an actual account of life in China under Mao. A young, intelligent and patriotic girl is pressed into service for the regime's purposes, forcing her to make choices that would seem horrific in our society. After proving her dedication to the government she is forced to work for years on a communal farm, barely existing on poor food and in barren conditions. Out of desperation and utter loneliness unlikely bonds are formed among the women. Softness is weakness, and loyalty is a person's only lifeline.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Preacher by Camilla Lackberg/Copyright 2004/Pocket Star Books

This book consists of 486 dense pages, but it will keep you reading. Excellent character development and an intriguing multiple-murder plot. I was very close to seeing the ending, and you may be better at that than I am. Lackberg writes in the style of Steig Larsson but with more humanity.  The protagonist's home life plays a minor part in the story, but it gives the reader enough of reality to cling to. As in Larsson's books, there is cruelty and madness beyond the pale, but the characters are fully drawn and believable. I recommend this for escapist reading, but not necessarily at bed time.

If you want to read Lackberg's books in sequence, since her main characters reappear, start with
the Ice Princess. I enjoyed The Preacher more, but Ice Princess is also a good read.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

In The Woods by Tana French/Copyright 2007/Penguin Books

In The Woods is a unique mystery/psychological suspense set in Ireland. Most of the characters are well drawn, the settings are described so as to transport the reader, and the story is unlike anything you have read before. The author kept me going for the full 498 pages, which proves her talent. However, I needed at least one more page to fill in a blank or two. It is just possible, of course, that, when you read this book you will feel the blanks have been filled in, or that you don't want it all wrapped up in a neat package. I'm aware that I can be touchy about endings. The author had one habit which bothered me all the way through, but I will not tell you what it is. If you don't notice it, you will enjoy the book that much more. And I'm willing to bet that 80% of readers will enjoy this book.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht/Copyright 2011/Random House

I could use this entire space repeating the rave reviews of both this book and the expansive praise for the author. Both have been exalted to the hills and beyond. My voice will not count amid the cacophany of jubilation (an oxymoron) over this book. However, it befuddled me. Hanging with bare knuckles on the edge of magical realism and never quite climbing the cliff left me dangling. Is this real or imagined? Was that flashback meant to be taken literally? Do people actually thrive on superstition?
Obreht is a stupendous writer, a  glorious writer: one can open the book at virtually any page and read two or three paragraphs that any writer wishes he or she had written. I am a beginning watercolorist, and when Obreht describes a scene I want to put the book down and haul out my brushes. If I had the talent, I could make color and shape into the masterpieces she makes out of words.
Still, it was a tough read for me. If that is more of a reflection of myself than of the story, so be it. I read prodigously and recommend many books to friends, but not this one. If that is more of a reflection of my friends than they deserve, I apologize.

Friday, March 2, 2012

A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz/Copyright 2008/Random House

We all know the best of intentions can create havoc. In this fascinating novel, when a civic-minded citizen erects a suggestion box, hoping to inspire his neighbors to improve his small town, it results in mayhem, murder and madness. Heavy subjects for entertaining reading. Yet Toltz handles any number of human foibles and crises with a deft hand and cutting wit. The Dean family--father Martin, son Jasper, brother Terry--along with their disparate loves and acquaintances, create a luscious stew with every possible spicy human ingredient, among them--anxiety, lust, jealousy, revenge, hopelessness and redemption. I loved all these characters, so unlike any I've met before. The book is big in more ways than one--530 large pages with smallish print, but, if you admire smart writing, enjoy humor, philosophize on mankind's purpose, and don't take we humans too seriously, you will finish it with relish.