Monday, May 27, 2013

Ordinary Grace

by William Kent Krueger, Atria Books, March 2013

...a coming of age story that is engrossing and memorable

The story is set in a small town in Minnesota in the summer of 1961. Folks are going to the soda fountain and drinking ice cold root beers and the Twins are a brand new team in Minnesota.   Our narrator is Frank Drum, the 13 year old son of the local minister.  His father Nathan is a vet haunted by memories of his WWII experiences, his mother Ruth struggles in her role as a minister’s wife.  Frank has a younger brother Jake, wise beyond his years who stutters in public and an older sister Ariel who is an accomplished musician headed for Julliard at the end of this fateful summer.

Frank narrates the story from a perspective 40 years later.  It is a technique that works well.  The first death in the book, a train accident that kills a mentally challenged young boy, sets the stage for the events that will follow.  Frank and Jake are an adventurous duo, walking the edge between serious trouble and normal boyhood adventures.  They spend a lot of time eavesdropping on adults and learning information that alters their take on events.  The author does a nice job in writing about the relationships among the three siblings, it is a family dynamic that rings true.

Frank grows into an adult maturity as he considers and responds to the action in the story.  I particularly enjoyed the writing when he describes his thought process on events.  It seemed so realistic.  The events of the summer are life changing for all involved.  The town will witness multiple deaths at least one of which is a murder.  While this story is described as a murder mystery,  it is not a page turner  and the murderer is apparent well  before it is revealed.  It is more of a coming of age story that examines the role of faith in response to horrific events.  

I liked this book and will search out more by this author.   I think he tells an engrossing  story of how good people struggle with loss, deal with guilt, participate in a community, support each other, weigh whether forgiveness is possible and find comfort in a religious faith.

I read a copy of this novel that I bought.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Reconstructing Amelia: A Novel

by Kimberly McCreight, narrated by Khristine Hvam, Harper Audio, 12 hrs, 15 min., April 2013

...chilling depiction of life in a rich kids' prep school

This book has been touted as the next Gone Girl.  It really isn't that type of a taut thriller with unexpected twists it is more of a Mean Girl  prep school story.  Kate, a successful attorney, is a single mother. her daughter Amelia is suspended from school for plagiarism and commits suicide the same day (not really a spoiler as it happens in the first chapter.)  Amelia had been a bright, confident student at an exclusive prep school.  Kate begins to doubt that Amelia’s death was a suicide and plunges into an examination of Amelia’s life.

The author uses  both Kate and Amelia’s voices in the narrative.  She employs text messages, blog posts and facebook statuses to tell the story  Amelia has been selected to join a secret club and begins a hazing process.  The dialogue with the teenagers is very good and gives you the feeling of just how menacing a group of teenage girls bent on harassment can be.  I don’t want to give away any of the plot here but I did think the author had a number of people acting out of character, specifically would a hard nosed NYPD detective let a dead girl’s mother practically run the murder investigation? I don’t think so.  Would a teacher at a prep school really undertake the activity that she is finally exposed for?  I don’t think so.  Would a successful attorney do what this guy did?  I don’t think so.  Get ready to suspend disbelief as this one wraps up.

The character development is quite good.  Both Amelia and Kate are vividly brought to life in the story.  There is a sense of sadness to the narrative due to the finality of Amelia’s death in the first chapter that I found hard to overcome.

Read it for the chilling depiction of life in a rich kids’ prep school, not as a thriller.

I listened to an excellent performance on the part of Khristine Hvam as she read this novel.  Her talented presentation enhanced the story.

I listened to a copy of this novel provided by Harper Audio

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Maya's Notebook

by Isabel Allende, Harper, Tra edition, April 2013

... a very good emotional coming of age story

This is a coming of age story beautifully told.  A nineteen year old girl from Berkeley, CA  through a series of events comes to a remote Chilean island to hideout for a period of time until things calm down back in the States.  Maya Vidal has been raised by her Chilean grandmother mother Nidia and African American stepfather Popo in California.  

Maya  is bright, likable and  headstrong.  Her life comes unglued when there is a loss in the family.  The story is told from Maya’s diary and the author doesn’t stint in dealing with difficult issues such as homelessness, prostitution and drug abuse.  An undercurrent in this story is modern day Chilean history including the events around the Pinochet regime and the “disappeared”, those people who were killed by that rightist government.  

On the island in Chile, Maya lives with a friend of her grandmothers Manuel Arias.  He and other residents of this remote island slowly nurture Maya back to emotional health.  While she is there she uncovers secrets about her own family and their involvement in the politics of the time.

This is another wonderful story from Isabel Allende.  She is great at creating characters that come to life in stories that are rich with history, culture  and everyday detail.  Maya has a superb voice in this story so like a nineteen year old.  A very good emotional coming of age novel!

I read a copy of this novel provided by the publisher.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Palisades Park

by Alan Brennert, St. Martins Press, April 2012

...a bit of a disappointment

The author has written a homage to Palisades Amusement Park.  We meet the central character Eddie Stopka at Palisades at the age of eleven in 1922.  The story is primarily built around Eddie and his family.  They are a goofy bunch.  His wife Adele is a frustrated stage actress, his daughter Toni is a fledgling high diver and his son Jack is a dreamer.  Eddie and Adele run a french fry stand at the park.  The narrative introduces all kinds of carnival performers - fat ladies, magicians, acrobats and high divers.  There is a wealth of detail about carnivals and their entertainers.

The action (and there is not much of it) includes scenes from the Great Depression, World War II, Korea and  the civil rights movement.  All of this with the amusement park as the continuing backdrop.  The story concludes with the park’s closing in 1971.

While I enjoyed this story it was far from riveting.  I found the characters oddly one dimensional.  No matter what was happening to them, they seemed to have no emotion that was discernible and the dialogue was at times painful.   I am sure those who grew up going to this amusement park will love this book, the detail sure to trigger many memories.  

Following the author’s last book Molokai, which was excellent, this was a bit of a disappointment for me.

I read a copy of this book provided by the publisher.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Me Before You

Jojo Moyes, Pamela Dorman Books, December 2012

...not your typical romance novel

Set in modern day England, this story centers around Louisa Clark and the Will Traymor, a quadriplegic for whom she becomes a care giver.  Lou is unemployed when she reluctantly signs up for this position.  Coming from a decidedly lower middle class family she is somewhat awed to find herself working at the Castle taking care of Will the scion of an upper class family.  

Lou is not particularly well suited for this job and soon finds herself challenged to work with Will.  She tries to learn more about quads by joining some online support groups and works mightily to engage Will in life outside his apartment of rooms.  Will is embittered by the accident that left him paralyzed.  There are a number of supporting characters in this story that really add to the enjoyment.  Lou has a family of eccentric but likeable members including her long time boyfriend Patrick..  The male nurse who helps Will and his parents are also well drawn characters.  The central story though is the relationship between Will and Lou.  I loved their dialogue, witty and engaging, it reminded of the best between Tracy and Hepburn.  Both Will and Lou have secrets that are revealed and there is no chance I’ll tell them here.

This is a love story for sure, but really it is so much more than that.  It examines class differences (and renders them inconsequential), the humor is real and funny.  It speaks to the life altering power of true love and finally this story addresses a thought provoking ethical dilemma.  I can't really list all of the emotions you will feel while reading this.

I took a break from reviewing books (not reading books)  for about six weeks.  I wanted to review and recommend this one because I just enjoyed it so much.  Don’t be fooled by the cover this is not your typical romance novel, it would be great for a book club choice.  It will stay with you long after you read the last page.  

I read a copy of this book borrowed from The Free Library of Philadelphia