Sunday, March 31, 2013

Nowhere But Home by Liza Palmer

Unfortunately named sisters Queen Elizabeth and Merry Carole have spent their lives trying to live down their mama's bad reputation. While Merry Carole stayed in their hometown to build a successful beauty shop business and raise a fine, upstanding boy on her own, chef Queenie's trotted the globe, flitting from restaurant to bistro to cafe. When she's fired (again) for losing her temper, Queenie decides a trip back to Texas might give her time to decide what's next - and allow her to get to know her nephew.

But faster than she can blink an eye, Queenie finds herself with a strange new job, a handsome beau, and all the small-town drama she's been avoiding for more than a decade.

It's a cute, light book that balances heavy drama with light banter. The story's never better than when Queenie's in the kitchen - I wish there'd been more of that. My enthusiasm flagged a little with some of the more melodramatic scenes, but if you enjoy a bit of small-town cattiness and long-held grudges, this one's right up your alley.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell

Last week I had a nightmare based on this book: you are welcome to use that fact as a gauge to how deeply this series of short stories impacted me.

My dream can be attributed to the standout tale "Reeling for the Empire," which is not about vampires. Just because the book has vampire in the title doesn't mean it's wall-to-wall bloodsuckers - actually, only the first, titular story has anything to do with them (a mere 9% of the book, for those counting).

These are eight tales of classic, creepy horror; the kind of stories that make your shoulders creep closer to your ears as you read. As a tale begins you're never sure where it may take you - stories include persistent seagulls, an eerie scarecrow, a freak blizzard, and the absurd fans of a perpetually losing team. How will they end up? That's the fun of it.

You may remember I was underwhelmed by Swamplandia! last year. Suffice it to say I enjoyed this book much, much more. I'm a convert - this is probably my new favorite horror-genre book. Russell's unique, original tales never fall into the familiar and well-trod story grooves, and each is a jewel of suspense and creativity.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick

Since his release from a mental institution, Pat's on the road to recovery: he's focused on bettering himself through exercise, and he's practicing being nice instead of right. He's sure that the happy ending to his life-movie is imminent, and that Apart Time will end and his wife Nikki will return. But life's not a movie, and the ending's not always happy. Is it?

I'd heard this book was good, and the film version was an Oscar-darling this year. Since even a good movie can ruin a book in record time, I wanted to read the novel (quick!) before I saw the movie.

And I enjoyed the book immensely. We get the story through Pat's perspective, so we know how skewed some of his vision can be. He actually is crazy, but in many ways he's more sane than the people around him: Dad's an angry guy who can only communicate through Philadelphia Eagles football; Mom - really, actually everybody - is lying and hiding things from Pat (you know, for his own protection!) and he's kind of happy just to let them do it; and then there's this chick from down the street who keeps following Pat on his runs.

It's a simple story with a pretty straight-forward plot. Except that things keep getting twisted around, and nothing's quite what it seems. And what's Pat's deal with Kenny G, anyway?

The audiobook narrator, Ray Porter, was awesome and did a great job with all the characters.

Although if I never hear another "E-A-G-L-E-S!" chant it'll be OK with me.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Monstrous beauty

by Elizabeth Fama

Hester is a modern teenager who lives with the belief that for generations love and death have been bound together within her family.  Scientifically, there seems to be no proof, but she knows the safest choice is to avoid love.  Then she is drawn to Ezra who seems to have knowledge of her family's past.

Woven around Hester's story is one from another era.  This is the love story of a young man and the mermaid Syrenka.  Syrenka's kind are not understood by most humans.  The bond between the two appears destined for tragedy.

The reader begins the story quickly bonded to characters in both eras.  Fama does a wonderful job of giving the reader enough information to believe they have the story solved while holding a few important twists until the end.  

The audio version of this is a 2013 Odyssey Award Honor title, and for good reason.  Katherine Kellgren's narration is evocative.  She characterizes, and humanizes, multiple species and even the spirits of those long dead.  

Open this little book

by Jesse Klausmeier

One of the best parts of blogging is being able to look back on previously read books to determine which might best fit an upcoming presentation.  This is usually very important as our local schools approach their celebrations for Read Across America Day in March.  It is so nice that the public librarians are remembered to be invited as "celebrity" participants.  This year, I did not need to look back.

A new title arrived this winter that was a really fun fit.  Klausmeier has created a story within a story, again and again.  The fun part of this book is the concentrically smaller books that each new character is reading.  The text is simple enough for even beginning readers. Second graders thought it was pretty cool that the book got littler.  I think this story is fantastic for families, but with a whole class, that last "little book" was pretty small.  Luckily, this librarian has great expressions and can still make the story come alive.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick

When Catherine - the "simple, honest wife" wealthy Ralph advertised for - steps off the train we already know she's not what she appears. Ralph realizes also in that instant, but he's not about to cause an embarrassing scandal right there on the depot's platform in front of all these townspeople who work for him. So the couple hurtles off into the blizzard with a promise they'll sort this out in the privacy of Ralph's house. What happens next changes the whole trajectory of their plans.

It's not a typical murder-mystery, but rather a novel of literary suspense. The story is told in alternating perspectives, so the reader knows there's much more going on inside these characters' heads than their actions suggest - it's a very 1900's Wisconsin thing: stoic on the outside and a-boil in the heart or the head (around here, many had grandparents like this).

Our book club selected this title, but I've already missed that discussion ... and it certainly could have been a real barn-burner. (Apparently, they talked about the writing?!?) I joke because fairly often during this book, I thought, "Wow, with all the sex - that could have been a heck of a discussion!" But I may have noticed it more because I was listening to the audiobook in the car - it's always hilarious when somebody else gets in the car and you get caught in the middle of a florid sex scene!

I enjoyed the book, but I did think it sometimes moved glacially. Apparently some of the book club readers thought the writing was clunky - but I perceived that as indicative of repressed or stilted characters rather than ungainly writing. And that may be thanks to the audiobook narration by Mark Feuerstein.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Song of the Quarkbeast by Jasper Fforde

In this second "Last Dragonslayer" book, our teen hero Jennifer Strange is still doing her best to run a talent agency for sorcery in the absence of her boss, the Great Zambini.

They're awarded a nice, high-profile contract to rebuild a famous bridge, but things go sideways when it's turned into a magic contest, and then sabotaged by the competition.

There's a nice mix of adventure and suspense in this one, along with plenty of Fforde's famous snark and comedy. It's got better pacing than the first book in the series, and the plot takes several unexpected twists.

Stuck in the Middle With You: A Memoir of Parenting in Three Genders by Jennifer Finney Boylan

In her third iteration of memoir, Boylan offers up her unusual perspective on the wonders and heartbreak of parenthood: after her two children were born, James transitioned into Jenny. Daddy was reimagined as Maddy.

Boylan's been over some of this ground in previous books, but here for the first time she's not using pseudonyms for people and places in her life; her sons requested that this time she use their real names, and she follows suit with many others that she'd altered previously.

The title is a bit misleading: while the bulk of the text is Boylan's experiences, there are also interviews interspersed between chapters (many famous friends, some regular citizens) that offer additional perspectives on parenthood. Some interviewees talk about their children, others are childless and talk about their parents. Some discuss both parenthood and being parented. They touch on absentee parents, death, disability, aging, adoption, and much more.

It's really that variety of experiences that makes this book all the richer. What are the commonalities of being a parent? For all the worry many have about ruining their children, others who had terrible childhoods discuss their survival and success.

I've long been a fan of Boylan, and this book is one I'll recommend heartily. It's both heartbreaking and hilarious, and it offers opinions and food for thought without seeming preachy or purporting to have all the answers.

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Dinner by Herman Koch

WOW. This book blew me away, and a big part of that is that I neither suspected nor anticipated the true story in this novel. Suffice it to say I will not be telling you much in this review, either, so as not to ruin it for you.

Two couples meet for dinner. The men are brothers, and one of them is a high-ranking politician. The other brother (whose perspective we share) is dreading this dinner - he'd rather grab a bite at the local cafe than go to this pretentious, trendy restaurant, he doesn't really like his brother much, the conversation will be intolerable. And while I thought the book was about that bad date or about class difference and culture trends, in reality it's much, much bigger. 

I got completely wrapped up - the novel is very well-written - and read the book in just a couple sittings. As the story spins out from dinner and them back again, I was confused and captivated by the characters: I'd find myself thinking, "Wait, what?" So then I'd have to read on. 

This would be stellar for a book discussion. I finished the book and just sat for a minute, absorbing. You'll want to talk about it!

The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie by Wendy McClure

Remember how much you loved the Little House books when you were a kid? (You TV-show fans can shove off about now. It's not the same.) How you wanted to have Laura as a friend and lived the pioneer life vicariously through her adventures? I do, and McClure does too.

While indulging her Laura-obsession in ways such as purchasing a coffee grinder to make "The Long Winter" bread and travelling the Midwest visiting museum sites, McClure also does both personal soul searching and critical, academic analysis to figure out why the Little House meant so much to her (and many, many of us). Her insights on American Girl is enlightening, and her philosophy of "Laura World" made so, so much sense to me.

The book is both hilarious and thoughtful, and in the end you have to give major props to McClure's boyfriend Chris (to whom the book is dedicated) for his patience, sense of humor, and even enthusiasm about the whole project.

I cannot recommend this book too highly - especially if you were ever a child pioneer, living in a sod house through the illustrations of Garth Williams.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Freddie & Me: A Coming-of-Age (Bohemian) Rhapsody by Mike Dawson

Do you have music that instantly transports you to another time and place in your life? Pop music can do that because it touches a part of memory that's deeply emotional and close to the heart.

For Mike Dawson, the soundtrack of his life was written and performed by Queen. He's introduced to the legendary rockers' music when he's about nine, and he becomes a little obsessed: He tracks down lyrics, memorizes songs, collects albums, and drives everybody around him a little bonkers with the constant conversation about all things Queen. And remember - this is pre-internet, so it was a lot more work to be this kind of fan, back in the day! OMG does that make me feel old.

This graphic novel tells the story of Mike's growing up and becoming a man, accompanied by his obsession and fantasies about Queen and Freddie Mercury. It's a funny book, and a very relatable story - even if you weren't (aren't) a Queen fan, chances are that you've had these same feelings about some other band or artist.

You'll cringe at Mike's pre-adolescent talent contest performance of Bohemian Rhapsody. You'll recognize the PLEADING to get your parents to take you to a concert. And you may even recognize the reflection and rediscovery that an adult perspective shines upon childhood interests.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Round House by Louise Erdrich

Everything changed the summer Joe's mom was attacked. He's 13 years old, and in that awkward place between boy and man: hanging out with his friends, always hungry and horny, and making small-time trouble on the North Dakota reservation where they live just to pass the time.

When Joe's mother is beaten bloody and barely escapes a kidnapper, she folds into herself and withdraws from the world. His dad, a tribal judge, struggles to find justice and balance in the aftermath, but to Joe it just seems like nothing's happening. So he and his friends decide to investigate and piece together the clues for themselves.

The book's not a traditional mystery - more a literary thriller. And while there's a crime at the center, it's really a coming-of-age tale about Joe's threshold into adulthood. Since Joe as narrator lets you know from the start that he's telling this tale from a comfortable distance in the future, we know all along some pieces of the puzzle and a bit of foresight. But in the end, that won't prepare you for Joe's summer of big changes.

This was an amazing book, and was one of the "alternates" our book club pondered but did not choose for the regular discussion schedule. Too bad, too - because there's lot to discuss here!

Monday, March 4, 2013

Revenge by Yoko Ogawa

This slim volume contains 11 short stories, each independent yet also intertwined. They're not horror, exactly - at least not gory-horror. They're smarter and macabre; more like "Twilight Zone"-style tales that are both strange and dark, and always with a twist at the end.

Each story is complete in itself. Yet, the farther you read ... Mama from one story is also the woman carrying a bundle in a later tale. The respiratory doctor featured in one tale pops up at least twice (three time?) more. Some are plausible: strangely shaped vegetables, a crazy uncle. Others are fantastical from the get-go: making a purse for an exposed, external heart. 

I could NOT put this book down, and read it all at once. Granted it's only 162 pages long, but I was enthralled with the writing and the stories Ogawa weaves. And more amazingly, the book is translated from Ogawa's native Japanese. The stories themselves are universal - they could be American, or European; none give you anything that demands, "this story takes place in XXX." 

Growing Up Laughing: My Story and the Story of Funny by Marlo Thomas

Rather than talk over-much about her own fabulous life (famous father, famous husband, popular groundbreaking TV career, philanthropy, etc.), Marlo Thomas hijacked her own memoir and turned it into a larger discussion on the art of comedy.

Chapters alternate between tidbits from Marlo's life and interviews with famous comedians across two (maybe three) generations of performers. Her dad's friends like George Burns and Sid Caesar are included, but also Jerry Seinfeld, Billy Crystal, and Whoopi Goldberg - even current standouts like Kathy Griffin and Tina Fey.

She asks each of these comedians when they first discovered they were funny, and about their families. Were their parents funny? Were they the class clown? The answers and stories included give an interesting backdrop on what makes a performer tick.

The chapters on her own life mostly involve her father and his friends: family dinners full of pros all trying to get a leg up on the others, and nights out with her dad at the club.

Our book discussion group has chosen this for later in the year - I'm reading ahead! I was glad Marlo chose this route in her memoir (I'm not sure I would have enjoyed 300 pages just about her). It's light reading, and there are lots of laughs.