Saturday, August 27, 2011

Catching Santa (The Kringle Chronicles, Book 1) by Marc Franco

Just to be up front, I got this as an advance reader copy to review from LibraryThing.Com.

This is the first in the Kringle series by Marc Franco and is a young adult novel.  In it, Jakob is an 11 year boy that is easily distracted, doesn't pay attention and can often be found doodling in class instead of listening to his teachers. On the last day before Christmas vacation, Jakob is teased mercilessly when his classmates steal some of his doodles (featuring Santa!) and pass them around to each other. Jakob, later that day, receives two mysterious emails from S.R. that essentially tell him that the best way to make people who don't believe in Santa actually believe in him is to catch Santa. Later on in the novel, we learn that the main antagonist from the day before break - Rick- is missing and actually makes a panicked call to Jakob, prompting Jakob to being his search for Rick and eventually, Santa himself.

The story itself was was a tremendous story. I enjoyed it and I think that it would appeal to younger children as well - there is a lot for them to relate to and to imagine.  However, there were some drawbacks that would make me hesitate to recommend this for a child say under the age of 7.  Mr. Franco uses some words that may not be understandable to younger readers. Some words used by Jakob aren't words that I would think that an 11 year old would understand, let alone use in their everyday speech. For instance, the word portly is used - what 11 year old actually knows what that word means let alone uses it?  Other words, such as hyperactive, appear when Jakob is talking, which is also unreasonable for most 11 year olds. The editing also needed some work - there were a lot of run on sentences that could have been split into multiple sentences. It was a good first book, with good ideas and showed a lot of creativity and potential.  Hope to see more from this author.

Simple Justice by John Morgan Wilson

So, I had never heard of the Benjamin Justice mystery series and I'm not quite sure what led me to request this particular book from the library.  I was immediately drawn into this novel by John Morgan Wilson.

In the first of the series, a young man is murdered outside of a gay bar in Los Angeles.  A young Latino man is found kneeling over him and is arrested and charged with his murder. Perhaps most damning, he has has confessed to killing the young man that he has been found with.  The young man turns out to be related to a wealthy family and is also discovered to be a coke head. Benjamin Justice is a disgraced journalist - he had written a series for the LA Times that had won him prestigious awards and was soon discovered to have been completely made up - and also struggling with alcoholism and the loss of his partner.  He is asked by his former boss to look into the murder of the young man, so he does.

I wasn't sure if I was going to like this book when I first started it but I thoroughly enjoyed it.  Mr. Wilson's writing style is simple and the novel is a quick read.  But appearances can be deceiving - this book is hardly shallow or simple.  Benjamin Justice is a character that is deep and has extensive mental and physical wounds and an intriguing back story and current struggle that quickly hooked me and made me want to know him more.  He was the sort of character that, if he were a real, live person, would be someone that I would take out to lunch or dinner in the hopes of learning more about him and his life experiences.  The cast of characters that flesh out the book are also memorable, although I found that some of them could be stereotypes - for instance, the brother of the young man charged with homicide is a colorful, homophobe complete with violence and guns.  He was so predictable and so stereotyped and that turned me off a little bit.  I did enjoy the issues that Mr. Wilson tried to take on in this book - the AIDS epidemic in the gay male community in LA, some homophobia (yes, the out and out violent type, but also the more subtle type - a woman who is obviously attracted to Ben Justice and is constantly making both physical and emotional passes at him in the hopes of changing him), the struggles of being in the closet.

Generally a pretty good read.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Daughters of the Revolution by Carolyn Cooke

I was mesmerized by the review that I read of this book in the Times.   I tend to enjoy reading books about colleges and prep schools and the strife that often occurs between students and/or within the students that are the center of the novel. So that's why I was drawn to this novel.

The novel focuses, mainly, on a New England all-male prep school in the 60's.  The school, which is nearly all white and is all male, is struggling with issues of race and socioeconomic status and the headmaster is trying to decide if the school should go coed when the first female is accidentally admitted (her name is Carole, a name that the secretary mistakenly thinks is male).  Not only is Carole female, but she is black and from the lower middle class, so she makes everyone uncomfortable.

This book was a bit disconcerting to read, although it ended up being moderately enjoyable. It was disconcerting because it often jumped around from first person to third person and often dealt with many different characters - sometimes you were learning about EV (the daughter of one of the prep school boys), the headmaster, Carole or EV's mother and it often took me a few pages to get used to the change in voice and figure out who I was dealing with exactly.  The characters themselves were what made the book enjoyable. They were engaging, multi-faceted, entertaining and three dimensional. I wanted to see more of them, learn about the challenges that they faced and were facing and I wanted to see them through until the end.  They made the novel worthy of the limited amount of time that I have to spend on books.

Moderately enjoyable enough to get out of the library but probably not enough to buy.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Whore's Child and Other Stories by Richard Russo

I have loved Richard Russo ever since I read Empire Falls way back when.  So when I saw this book in the library I picked it up and brought it home.

This is a collection of short stories about mundane, ordinary lives.  But I was still enthralled and absolutely enamored nonetheless. Russo has a way of depicting such lives in a way that you absolutely can't rip your eyes away from, no matter how "boring" you would think that they would have been normally. Somehow, Russon manages to draw you into these lives and make them interesting.

Perhaps the best story in the book is the title story.  It is about a nun who was born out of wedlock to a woman that worked as a prostitute and who had, essentially, had her pimp drop her off at the school run by the nuns of the order when she was a young child.

All of the stories are a pleasure to read. As I say, Russo has a way with words and draws you into the lives of the characters so much so that you just can't rip your eyes away. A must read.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Halfway House by Kathleen Noel

I was at the library one day picking up one of the multitude of books that I had requested (you know, because I had seen it on NPR or something) and I was walking by a book display and saw this novel in it.  I think the display was about summer reading or something like that - and I was intrigued, so I picked up the book and read the inside flap and decided that I would get the book.

Angie Voorster is 17 at the start of this novel and she is everything, seemingly, that you would want your daughter to be, at least on the outside. She is a star athlete - a swimmer that has broken, is breaking and continues to break records - and she has a future in swimming at a division one school. She is also a straight A student, making her a candidate for the Ivy League. She lives with her mom (Jordana), her dad (Pieter) and her younger brother, Luke, who is also a swimmer.  Things seem to be going well until, in the middle of the boys' race, she dives headlong into the pool and to the bottom, convinced that she can breath underwater.  Thus begins Angie's struggles with seemingly depthless mental illness (I think bipolar disorder because she is alternately manic and then depressed). The book focuses on Angie's battle with her mental illness and her family's struggles to deal with their loved one's illnesses.

What was absolutely wonderful about this novel is that Ms. Noel is somehow able to channel the thoughts of a mentally ill person so authentically. Her novel's chapters alternate between all four family members, and are told in each of their voices. Angie's chapters reflect her current mental state - whether medicated or not - and it was wonderful.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Before I Go To Sleep by SJ Watson

I picked this up because it looked intriguing to me and boy, was it fantastic.  In this novel, Christine is a middle-aged woman who has a bizarre form of amnesia.  She cannot remember anything from day to day and whenever she goes to sleep, her memory is wiped clean. Each morning, she wakes up and has no clue who she is, where she is, how old she is or any other bits of knowledge that we take for granted. Imagine having to re-create your entire life history each day that you wake up - that's what she has to go through. She lives with a man named Ben - her husband - and her only way to remember is by reading the journal that she keeps daily.

This is SJ Watson's first novel and I hope that he will continue to write more for us because it was fantastic - a good premise, wonderful writing and great characters. It was a page turner - I found myself constantly thinking about the novel, the characters and what would happen at inopportune moments. I also wondered when the next time that I could sit down to read the novel would be. The book is particularly jarring in the first few pages, but continue on with it - it becomes jarring because you have no idea what is going on and that is what makes the start of the novel and the entire novel itself brilliant - you experience what Christine is actually experiencing on a daily basis. And it is wonderful.  Totally worth it.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

This Beautiful Life by Helen Schulman

Jake Bergamot is your typical, upper middle class New York City student - he is 15, goes to a prestigious school and likes to party with his friends. At a party, he rebuffs the advances of a pretty drunk eighth grader. But, in the early morning hours, he gets an email with a salacious video attached to it - one that the eighth grader made specifically for Jake and for Jake only. On some level, Jake was honored but on another level, he was absolutely horrified and shocked by the lewd and lascivious video that ended up in his email in box, so he forwarded it to his friend, in part an attempt to get rid of the hot potato. And you can see where this goes. Within a few hours, the video that was private initially has been posted everywhere on the internet and has thousands of hits. As a result of this video gone viral, Jake's and his family's lives are turned upside down.

Schulman's book raises a lot of good themes: privacy in the internet age, shame, gender roles, internet protocol, and how they all intersect with each other and with the law.  I particularly liked how Schulman focused on the domestic impact that this had on Jake and his family - I felt like it wasn't forced and was, somehow, more authentic.  It would have been too stereotypical if Schulman had focused exclusively on the girl that made the video. I also thought that it was really noble for Schulman to attempt to take on such extensive themes and topics as the ones that she has taken on. However, it was a tad predictable in its outcome.  I thoroughly enjoyed the writing style itself - it was quick and not complicated and easy to break into small segments (essential for a mom!).

Get from library but don't add to your own personal collection.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks

This was hands down one of the best books that I have read this year.   Geraldine Brooks has absolutely outdone herself with this novel.

Caleb's Crossing mostly takes place in 17th Century Martha's Vineyard and 17th century Cambridge (most notably, Harvard Yard).  Bethia Mayfield is a teenage Puritan whose family is quite wealthy by colonial standards - her grandfather is the founder of the island itself and had emigrated there in order to establish a haven that was outside the purview of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Bethia is an intelligent young woman, who learns Hebrew, Greek and Latin seemingly by osmosis - she listens in on the lessons given to her older brother and learns not only the ancient languages but the language of the native American tribe also inhabiting the island. Bethia also has an aptitude for wandering and, during her wanderings of the island, meets a young Native American man who is eventually adopted by her family and renamed Caleb. Caleb is tutored extensively by Bethia's father and eventually "crosses" into Anglo-American culture, thereby earning the title of the novel. We follow Caleb, Bethia and her brother, Makepeace, as they travel from the island, to prep school in Cambridge and, eventually, to Harvard University.

I loved this novel.  I loved Bethia quite frankly.  On some level, I connected to her internal struggle. She was continuously struggling to answer the question of how to exist within the narrow confines of what society dictated that she be, even though she was so much smarter and empathetic than society would allow her to be. For instance, she was so much smarter than her brother, Makepeace, especially with regards to the classics. However, while her brother got the opportunity to at tend prep school and, potentially Harvard,  Bethia was indentured to the dean of the prep school in order to enable her brother to become educated.  Bethia also was particularly empathetic and friendly towards Caleb and the other "salvages," often considering them her friends and often viewing them sympathetically and as friends and family; however, the majority of the society around her viewed them with repugnance. What I also particularly loved about Brooks' narrative is how authentic it seemed - Brooks wrote the novel in colloquial speech, never once breaking from the speech patterns and written patterns that a woman in Bethia's socioeconomic status would have engaged in.  This level of authenticity went a long way in contributing to the richness and powerfulness of the novel itself. In this way, I felt like I was really inside of Bethia's head - hearing and experiencing her thoughts as she herself was thinking them.

This book is beautifully and engagingly written and a must read for all.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

My Korean Deli by Ben Ryder Howe

This is a memoir by Ben Ryder Howe that follows his life as he works as an editor at The Paris Review while also buying and operating a deli with his wife and her mother. Howe and his wife, Gab, buy the deli as a last, Hail Mary, attempt to make enough money to move out of her parents' basement and into their own place. Howe hopes that the deli will make them enough money that they can either buy or rent their own space and begin their own family. Gab puts additional value on the deli - it's her way of giving something back to her mother, a Korean emigre who raised Gab and her siblings seemingly on her own in a foreign country.

The memoir follows the intense ups and downs and the trials and tribulations of owning a deli in New York City. The trials include a mugging, busts for selling cigarettes to underage customers, fines and massive tax bills in addition to being taken advantage of by vendors and the weather alike. During the same period, Howe works at his day job - as a senior editor on The Paris Review during the last few years that George Plimpton ran it. Howe struggles at that job too, sometimes failing massively in a professional sense and also dealing with tragedy that would lead to most of the staff leaving for other jobs.

Howe may not be a successful businessman or a successful editor at an amateur magazine but he is an engaging and evocative storyteller.  This was a funny, down to earth and tremendously readable account of owning a small business in one of the biggest cities of the world. I often enjoyed learning about the day to day minutiae that he had to endure in order to work and own these jobs and his tangents often got a chuckle out of me.  Howe was able to talk about the places and people he dealt with in such color that you almost felt like you were there with them while all the action was occurring.

Go out and get this one right away.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Voyager by Diana Gabaldon - contains spoilers

This book is the third book in the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon.  I read Outlander, the first book in the series, years ago and then Dragonfly in Amber in October right around the time that Gabby was born and the series will occasionally call to me. And call to me it did now, so I picked up the third book.

This book picks up where Dragonfly in Amber left off - Claire has returned to her own time.  Twenty years has passed by and it is 1967.  Clair is living in the United States with her daughter, Brianna and they are visiting in Scotland attempting to determine whether Jaime has survived the battle of Culloden.  Assisting them is Roger Wakefield, who maintains a consistent interest in Brianna romantically. Claire, Roger and Brianna must discover whether Jaime Fraser has survived and, if he has, whether any of them should go back in time to meet him. If she goes back, she must attempt to rekindle a romantic relationship with a man that she hasn't seen in 20 years and who could have changed, and who has a period of his life that she knows nothing about.

I adored this book - I liked it somewhat better than Outlander actually but not as much as Dragonfly in Amber. I thought that Dragonfly was really well done, historically and the research that went into it in order to get the time period was phenomenal. However, this book was phenomenal in the sense that the research was there and Gabaldon did a masterful job in balancing the historical fiction aspect and the romance aspect.  I generally get pretty turned off by books that are so over the top "romance" that everything else is sacrificed.  That wasn't present here.  Gabaldon did really well in balancing the romance aspect with what was going on historically at the time.  It was also apparent that Gabaldon educated herself extensively on the historical atmosphere of the time as well as certain aspects of the natural environment that the characters encountered - not an easy task - and is able to make us feel like we are there, in the middle of the scene and the action without overwhelming us.

This is not a book that should be read piecemeal - it is a long book and many of the things that happen in the beginning of the novel come back into play at the end, as do many of the characters, so it is best to devote a few days to this book in chunks at a time. This shouldn't be too hard because the book itself is very difficult to put down.

Loved it...

Monday, August 1, 2011

Favorite novel?

So I recently wrote an essay here about why I have two favorite novels and what they are. Please head on over there to read the article!

My Education by Susan Choi

I admit it: I have a thing about academic novels.  And by that, I  mean novels that occur on campuses and are about characters that are ent...