Saturday, April 30, 2011

Caleb's Crossing

Caleb's Crossing: A Novel

by Geraldine Brooks, Viking Adult, May 2011

Right down to the prose which is brilliantly created you feel as if you’ve read a genuine tale of early colonial historical fiction.

Geraldine Brooks has once again immersed us in a historical setting far removed from present day. The time is the last half of the 17th century; the place the Puritan Massachusetts Bay colony, the main characters Bethia Mayfield, daughter of a minister and Caleb Cheeshaahteaumauk, a Wampanoag Indian. Brooks has an easy talent, no doubt the result of copious research, in creating an authentic feel to this story. The inspiration for the story was Caleb, a real life character who was the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College in 1765. Brooks has created this story from the barebones facts known about Caleb.

Both Bethia and Caleb are born on Martha's Vineyard and the first chapters of the story are set there. Bethia is the narrator for the tale and an interesting character. She is intelligent, committed and often guilt ridden for events beyond her control. Brooks brilliantly recreates life for the settlers on the island. Hardships are abundant and loss of life commonplace. A childhood friendship between Bethia and Caleb sets the stage for the events to follow. Bethia’s father works at converting the Indians to Christianity. He tutors Caleb, another convert Joel and his own son Makepeace so that they may attend Harvard and become ministers. All three leave the island for Cambridge to continue their education. Bethia, desperate to learn but denied education because of her gender, accompanies them as a servant. Again we are treated to descriptions of life at Cambridge and later Harvard College that ring true.

Without giving away too much of the plot, let me say that I found the last third of the book oddly flat. In it, Bethia now an elderly dying woman, looks back and describes the events that transpired at Harvard and after.  The telling is almost rote and, in contrast to the passions expressed in the first part of story, is detached and unemotional.  I think in sticking to the known facts of Caleb’s life instead of fully creating a fictional story, the ending was stilted and unfulfilling.

Despite the finish, I did enjoy this book. Right down to the prose which is brilliantly created you feel as if you’ve read a genuine tale of early colonial historical fiction.

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

Monday, April 25, 2011

Cutting for Stone

Cutting for Stone
by Abraham Verghese, Vintage, January 2010

this is a sweeping saga...that you should dive into

Cutting for Stone (drawn from a phrase in the Hippocratic Oath) is a sweeping saga set in India, Ethiopia and New York City. The author, Abraham Verghese, has drawn from his own life as a surgeon and Indian immigrant to America as he tells a tale of conjoined twin boys born to an Indian nun and a talented British surgeon. The majority of the action is set in Addis Abba and the political events of the last half of the 20th century are the backdrop for this story of love - parental love, fraternal love, unrequited love and love of country and community. I really don’t want to give away too many plot details so you have the pleasure of gradually understanding and being drawn into this complex compelling story yourself.

A couple things stand out about the story. First, Verghese has a talent for creating characters that are fully developed and giving them both heart and soul. Each of the major players has a back-story told with sufficient detail to allow understanding of their actions in the story. Secondly there is a strong sense of place in this story, I’ve never been to Ethiopia but after reading this I feel like I have. The descriptions of Addis right down to the food really brought it to life for me. Can’t wait to try some injera! Lastly the author’s ability to integrate the medical aspects of this story into the narrative I thought was exceptional. I do have a medical background so I wasn’t at all put off with his descriptions of surgical procedures but some readers might be. I thought the author’s passion for medicine and surgery came through in his writing.

While I really enjoyed this story I do have two criticisms. The story was long and I think a good editor could have helped in tightening some of the writing without losing the epic sweep of the story. Secondly, the contrived actions that brought the novel to its conclusion seemed widely unrealistic after a story that was so grounded in the realism of life and medical practice in a third world country. Neither of these criticisms should keep you from diving into this story. I eagerly await this author’s next effort.

I read a copy of this book I borrowed from a friend.

Giveaway Winner!

Julie at knitting and sundries is the winner of a copy of  Save Me by Lisa Scottoline. She has been notified by email and has 48 hours to contact me with mailing information.  Thanks to all who entered!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Trinity Six

The Trinity SixThe Trinity Six 
by Charles Cumming, St. Martin's Press, March 2011, narrated by John Lee,  11.5 hrs

This is a pretty good spy thriller. The story draws on the most spectacular failure of the British intelligence- the five Cambridge spies who betrayed their country to the Soviets. For years there was speculation but no proof that there was a six man. Meet Sam Gaddis a divorced Russian scholar who is urged by a colleague to investigate and write a book about a potential sixth member of the Cambridge group. Because Gaddis is deeply in debt he considers this offer. Almost immediately his colleague dies an untimely death and Gaddis is left alone to follow the leads that his colleague had developed. The action moves from London to Moscow to Vienna and Budapest as Gaddis tracks down the story of Eddie Crane a Cambridge student in the 1930s who went on to a long career with the diplomatic services.

I enjoyed this story. The author does a good job of character development – I ended up liking Sam Gaddes a lot, he was just enough of a novice in spy craft to be endearing and he had a level of integrity missing in almost everyone else in the story. The plot has enough twists and turns to keep you guessing until the last pages. I listened to audio CDs where the very talented John Lee narrated the story. Lee was able to differentiate voices very well and gave the story a real European feel with his ability to portray authentic regional accents.

I listened to audio CDs provided to me through the Amazon Vine program

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Save Me - Review and Giveaway

Save Me
Save Me

by Lisa Scottline, St. Martin's Press, April 2011

Scottoline fans will enjoy this one; it is a good, suspenseful read.

Save Me, Lisa Scottline’s new thriller is a disturbing book! The story centers on one decision made in a  few short minutes by a young mother during a fire at her daughter’s school. Rose McKenna, a volunteer lunch monitor, interrupts a bullying incident and addresses it with the girls involved. At that moment a fire and explosion engulf the room. McKenna has choices to make, save the girls she is with or go and rescue her own daughter. She is able to work a compromise that seems successful. Without giving away too much of the story McKenna is vilified for her decisions. Throughout most of the story McKenna is unfairly judged, hounded, and denigrated by the community. Scottoline presented this scenario so realistically right down to the use of Facebook as a public humiliation forum that it made me cringe.

The plot is vintage Scottoline – fast moving, emotional and just slightly over the top. McKenna meekly responds to the community actions until she develops a spine and become the “action hero” mom. She is finally motivated to remove the suspicion and implied guilt from her family. She investigates the fire at the school and finds that it was not accidental. A strong thread though the story is the love of a mother for a child and how it drives her actions. The character descriptions, as always, are right on the money. With a well chosen phrase Scottoline is able to bring to life her characters.

The author has left behind downtown Philadelphia as her setting and moved to the suburbs for this story (as I think she has done in real life). I personally miss the Philadelphia scene; those descriptions were always right on the money. Scottoline fans will enjoy this one; it is a good, suspenseful read.

I have one copy of this book to give away.  If you'd like it take a look at the rules in the column just to the right of this post and leave you email address in the comments section.  The giveaway closes at midnight on April 24th.

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

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Informationist

The Informationist: A Thriller
by Taylor Stevens, Crown Publishing, March 2011

If you are unhappy that the Stieg Larsson trilogy has no sequels you might try this story. The flawed heroine, Vanessa Michael Monroe certainly brings to mind Lisabeth Salander. Monroe is the daughter of missionaries and grew up in West Africa. She has a dark back-story that I won’t reveal here but she is a self-sufficient, intense character. After leaving her past behind, she has moved to Houston and with the help of her mentor Kate Breeden developed a career for herself. Monroe’s specialty is gaining information in third world countries that individuals, corporations or governments can use.

Monroe has been lured from her regular work by a big dollar contract to locate the missing daughter of an American industrialist. The girl has not been heard from since she disappeared during a college vacation in South Africa four years previous. The action moves between Houston, Germany, Cameroon, and Equatorial Guinea and off shore islands. Monroe confronts people from her African teenage years as she attempts to locate and return the daughter. She is assisted by a gunrunner, Francois Beyard. The industrialist that has hired her has also sent along a security pro, Miles Bradford to keep him in the information loop as the investigation proceeds. Both of these characters have hidden agendas that are slowly revealed. The information that Monroe uncovers about the circumstances of the daughter’s disappearance lead her to conclude that all is not as it seems!

This story moves at a good clip. The mystery develops and while the ending had a trick or two in it, it was somewhat predictable. I loved the setting, not many books I read are set in Africa so there were new ethnic and cultural ideas to learn. The author did bring these cultures alive in her story. I was so lost with the movements of the main characters though I had to resort to Google maps to see where they were going when they moved from place to place which probably says more about my lack of knowledge of African geography than anything else.

Monroe is a worthy character. The author is able to spin out her intricacies and motivations very well. I ended up rooting for her to work out her demons and get her life on the right course. Didn’t happen in this story but I bet we get another chance in the sequel. This story meets my requirements for a good thriller - tight plotting, good character development and an acceptable ending.

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

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Dressmaker of Khair Khana

The Dressmaker of Khair Khana: Five Sisters, One Remarkable Family, and the Woman Who Risked Everything to Keep Them Safe
by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, March 2011  (Unabridged) read by Sarah Zimmerman, 6 hrs, 16 min

The story reads like a novel. There are tense moments and tearful heartwarming triumphs.

In 1996 the Taliban take over Kabul after a grueling civil war and life changes dramatically for the Sadiqi family. The Sadiqi’s, a devout Muslim family of five sisters and two brothers at home are committed to education for their children both boys and girls. Kamila has just completed a university degree in education. Now the Taliban decree that women cannot work outside of the home and in fact cannot leave their homes without a male family member as a chaperone. Her father and older brother are forced to flee the city and Kamila is left to oversee this family. Armed only with her wits and a strong entrepreneurial spirit she proceeds to set up a dressmaking business in her home which in the end not only brings money but also hope and dignity to her family.

The story was told by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, a former ABC news producer turned Harvard business student. She traveled to Afghanistan looking for examples of women in business and met Kamila Sadiqi. She developed a close relationship with Kamila that allowed this story to be told rich with detail. I was struck with the similarities of Kamila’s story to entrepreneurs world wide – she had a plan, she developed prototypes, she sold it to tradesmen, she overcame obstacles, she hired workers, and she improved and expanded as she went along. Kamila did all of this under the threat of reprisals from the Taliban and electricity that is available to power sewing machines only sometimes. Like businessmen worldwide she attempts to work around the politics of the current administration, the Taliban. The fact that I loved the best was that Kamila really could not sew very well. 

The story reads like a novel. There are tense moments and tearful heartwarming triumphs. The bravery that these Afghani women show is inspiring. This is a great little book (think Three Cups of Tea) that would be a good read for almost anyone but might be perfect for a teenage girl.

I listened to an audiocopy of this story provided by the publisher

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

West of Here

West of Here
by Jonathan Evison, Algonquin Books (February 15, 2011)

Read it for the environmental theme, brilliant prose and strength of character development not the plot

West of Here is a big book! It encompasses actions and characters in two eras – the present day and the 1890s. It is set in the fictional town of Port Bonita on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. The theme centers on the hope and promise of the pioneering spirit and the present day reality of those efforts. Not the cheeriest of outcomes! The pioneers dam the river to bring electricity to the town; their descendents decide to remove the dam in hopes of replenishing the depleted fish populations of the river. In moving between the two eras and showing the actions of the pioneers the author draws a compelling cause and effect on the environment. (Spoilers ahead)

There are a myriad of characters in this story, almost too many for me to keep up with. The pioneers are introduced in vignettes that deal with significant issues like emerging feminism, the white man’s relations with the native populations, the exploration of the Olympic peninsula, and the entrepreneurial spirit of the old west; the current day characters are much more internally focused. These characters – a factory worker trying to relive his high school ball playing glory days, a single mother struggling with a mentally ill son, a lesbian dealing with an unexpected pregnancy and an ex-con and his lonely parole officer wandering through the wilderness – struggle in the same place to be positive in the face of a landscape that is used up. The contrast between the settlement of the town and the current day could hardly be starker. The pioneers were able to form a community and act for the perceived good of it; the current day characters are much more adrift in their purpose and longing for that connection.

This is not a plot driven novel; it is more a character based story with a strong sense of place. Despite being character based I didn’t end up liking most of these characters, which probably speaks to how well the author portrayed these everyday people. Their actions just left me a little cold. One example, the dam- building entrepreneur and his sometime partner the feminist have a child who drowns in the river. This drowning scene is almost devoid of emotion, the mother and to a less extent the father reacts in a stilted manner to this loss. I am sure this scene was typical of how cheap life was on the frontier, just not something I want to dwell on.

The setting in on the Olympic peninsula is well captured in the novel. One of the story backdrops is the presence of a Bigfoot like character that strikes fear into the hearts of all who come near him. The theme of the environmental changes wrought on the land is also skillfully weaved throughout the story.

In the end I am somewhat conflicted about this book. It is not standard historical fiction in the style of Michener or Rutherford; readers looking for that should take a pass. It is a novel that delivers a message encrypted in a beautifully written series of vignettes (think a Nashville type movie). Read it for the environmental theme, brilliant prose and strength of character development not the plot.

This is the fourth novel I’ve read recently that shifts between present day and an earlier time (Thirteenth Tale, 13 rue Theresa, Goon Squad). I am officially swearing off this format for at least a while; it isn’t one of my favorites. I’d much rather be engrossed in a single set of characters and actions!

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

Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Fifth Witness

The Fifth Witness
by Michael Connelly, April 2011, Little Brown and Co.

If you read Michael Connelly you’ll love the Fifth Witness, if you don’t give it a try, it is highly enjoyable.

If you read this blog (and I hope there are some readers out there) you know I like Michael Connelly mysteries. I have read more of his books in the last year than any other author and I look forward to each new one. He has created a vibrant legal/political/police community in San Francisco. Each book in the series not only provides an engrossing, tightly plotted mystery but also expands and develops the characters in this locale. Mickey Haller is front and center in The Fifth Witness. Connelly introduced Mickey in Lincoln Lawyer (soon to be a major motion picture with Matthew McConaughey). Mickey is a defense attorney trying to rebuild his life and his legal business. Mickey is a twice divorced and a recovering alcoholic. He has a young daughter and two ex-wives with whom he is on good terms. In the Fifth Witness Mickey continues to conduct his legal business in the back seat of his Lincoln Town Car, but today his business is primarily representing homeowners in the midst of home foreclosures. One of Mickey’s clients, Lisa Trammel is accused of the murder of the banker who is overseeing her foreclosure. We are treated to what feels like a real life look at a legal defense – a client who is not likeable, wrangling between the defense and the prosecution, an annoying media presence, and cynicism all around. Haller and most of his team are convinced that Trammel is guilty but they continue to provide a first rate defense.

Several story lines emerge that get Haller and his team investigating the foreclosure apparatus and the nefarious characters who work in it. Evidence that is uncovered supports Trammel’s innocence. .. Let me say no more and ruin the suspense. If you read Michael Connelly you’ll love the Fifth Witness, if you don’t give it a try, it is highly enjoyable.
I read an advance reader copy of this story provided by the publisher