Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Guernsey Literary Potato Peel Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

This was the November selection for the Flower Library Book Club. I had had it on my "to read" bookshelf for a while and was so glad that I could now move it to the top of the list. I took it to London in October and was able to read it on the train to Cardiff and then on the one to Oxford. It was the perfect background setting for another English read.

The year is 1946 and Juliet Ashton has survived the war in London despite having lost everything when her apartment was bombed. She receives a letter from Dawsey Adams from Guernsey, a Channel Island. He found her name in a book by Charles Lamb and wanted a recommendation of any other books by him. It was then she learned of the GLPPS, founded as a ruse to cover up a pig roast during the German occupation of the island. (Pigs were counted and could not be consumed by the inhabitants of the island.) The epistolary novel takes shape as the residents of Guernsey correspond with Juliet and she with them, her publisher, and best friend.

The character development and point of view is what makes this novel work. We are treated to the thoughts and daily activities of those who formed the literary society except for the founder herself - Elizabeth, who was arrested and taken to France. As the residents of the island join in on the correspondence the reader is treated to the nuances of a new group of friends. There is Dawsey, Isola who posses a stack of her grandmother's letters, Eben Ramsey, reader of Shakespeare, Will Thisbee, creator of the pie, and Remy who travels from France to join the group. Interspersed with these letters are Juliet's letters to Sydney, her publisher, and Sophie, Sydney's sister and Juliet's sounding board. Also present is the spirit of Jane Austen whose books are brought to mind even as one reads GLPPS. As Juliet's affinity toward her Guernsey correspondents develops, so does a romantic encounter with the rich and suave Mark. We peek into this relationship as the letters, often 3 or 4 on the same day, are exchanged between the couple. We know what's best for her and we hope that she will eventually discover that for herself.

A nagging question: Why does Sophie not write back to Juliet?

Can I just say that this is one of the most refreshing and engaging books that I have read recently. One laughs, cries, empathizes, and is inspired by the life that these islands residents have lead. I wanted to read more and not have the book end. I wish I had stumbled on this map before reading the book. Would that I could journey to Guernsey and immerse myself in the history of this island. A grand read!

Imagined London by Anna Quindlen

One of THE best books to read on a plane to London. I have always loved Anna Quindlen's articles for Newsweek magazine and was disappointed when she gave up her Last Page column. Imagined London was written in 2004 and as Quindlen states in the second chapter, "this is the story of a woman and the city she loved before she had ever been there." It was only in 1995 that Quindlen visited London for the first time on a book tour. However, she had known her London from the literature that she devoured so voraciously.

Throughout the relatively short book we get insight into her favorite literature and the places she had previously visited only vicariously. We walk alongside Shakespeare, Austen, P.D. James, and Martin Amis. There is the statue of Sherlock Holmes outside the Baker Tube and of course Thackeray and Trollope. Many pages are given over to Dickens and his Little Dorritt and Galsworthy's
Forsyte Saga. In addition are woven historical references as she travels the city that has been so beloved by her.

Imagined London is a tribute to a city that has one of the richest literary and historical pasts. It is not as detailed as Peter Ackroyd's London: a Biography that Quindlen references in the book. But that is not the purpose. It is a love story and written with all the passion a person who is drawn to London feel for the city. It will be read again when one feels that tugging need to bond with the city on the Thames.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Turtle Moon by Alice Hoffman

It has been a few weeks since I have posted my books. I have been reading, but also traveling and need to catch up with the reviews. I think I am finally home for a while now. Turtle Moon was the October selection for the Flower Memorial Book Club. I enjoy the book club because it does force one to read outside one's comfort zone. I have only read one Alice Hoffman book and that was the YA novel, Green Angel. Turtle Moon embraced many of the same ideas and themes - the struggle to overcome a horrible lot in life and the presence of a supernatural being that helps in that struggle.

Coming to Verity, FL, home to more NY divorcees than any other place on Earth, Lucy
Rosen and her soon Keith have escaped from Long Island, NY. It is the month of May when the heat and humidity are nearly unbearable and when strange occurrences are the norm. One never questions what happens in May when the turtles begin their ritual migration. During this month babies wail and rattlesnakes have been known to roost on top of a phone booth and refuse to come down. It is May that is the reason for the murder of Karen Wright, a neighbor in Lucy's apartment. At the same time Karen's baby and Keith have disappeared. Hoffman then spins a tangled web of pursuit, intrigue, and introspection as she unveils what has happened in the small town. The story goes from Florida to Long Island and back as she solves the two crimes. The characters are well-developed, but it is the lyrical descriptions that really impressed me about the book. Hoffman's use of metaphor, simile, and personification in her prose beg to be read aloud at times.

It would be natural for the reader to dislike Keith for his actions at school and home. However, he, for me, was a very sympathetic character. I liked him for what he was down deep inside and for his really knowing right from wrong when it counted. He, like so many teens today, have had a very difficult road to travel in a short life and one can empathize with him and the other teens we have encountered.

A very satisfying read and an author to read again.

Monday, September 28, 2009

The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown

Probably one of the most awaited books of the year, The Lost Symbolth. I have enjoyed his previous books, most especially Deception Force and Angels and Demons. I admit that this is not the greatest literature in the world, but it is enjoyable and allows the reader to escape into a world where one is privy to a secret or secrets that you have never known to exist. Brown's works are pretty formulaic, but with that said, they are always page-turners. I enjoyed The Lost Symbol, but not as much as Angels and Demons. The plots center around Robert Langdon, a well-respect symbolist, being summoned to a locale in which he will need to decipher massive amounts of clues/symbols to solve a mystery. Along that journey he will meet an intelligent woman, a grotesque figure, and law enforcement agents. He will become involved in hair-raising experiences from which mere mortals would have a difficult time escaping. Along the way Langdon keeps the reader engaged by parceling out clues to the mystery until the end when he summarizes his findings for all involved.

Robert Langdon is summoned by his good friend and mentor, Peter Solomon, to Washington, D.C. at the last minute to fill in as a lecturer for a meeting at the U.S. Capitol. He carries with him a small parcel, securely wrapped, that had been entrusted to him for safe-keeping. The secrets and mysteries of The Lost Symbol center around the initiation and rites of the Freemasons and the influence that they have had on the leaders of the U.S. from George Washington. In the span of a mere twelve hours we are led on a chase through the city, its buildings, the secret laboratory Peter's sister Katherine, and landmarks galore. In order to save Peter's life, Langdon must uncover the truth behind the Ancient Mysteries and reveal them to Mal'akh, the androgynous villain of the novel. At times the book and I got bogged down in all the scientific and philosophical research that Brown includes. I almost felt that he had to include every fact that he gleaned from countless hours of research.

With all that said, the book was enjoyable, exciting, and engaging. As usual with Brown's books, I had to consult art history books and look at paintings and architecture in a way that I had not before. A knowledge of Latin enables a reader to stay a step ahead of the narrator. Review of the book have been mixed with reviewers trying to find holes in Brown's research. The reality is that this a work of fiction and not an exposé of the world of the Freemasons. There have been enough of those. If the reader suspends belief, it will be a roller coaster ride through Washington with Robert Langdon.
arrived on September 15

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Ladies of Liberty by Cokie Roberts

Cokie Roberts, author of Founding Mothers, published her second book, Ladies of Liberty, on the influential women of the early days in 2008. The research that went into both of these volumes is well documented and presented. Roberts has a style of writing that makes history comes alive, although, I must admit, that some sections were much more alive than others.

Roberts begins Ladies of Liberty with the election of John Adams to the presidency and continues to the presidency of James Monroe. Throughout this time frame we are introduced to the women behind the men. The stories of these incredible women are retold mainly through their letters to the Founding Fathers and other women of their inner circle. These women were really movers and shakers and influential as they were the eyes and ears of their husbands who were often the only connection the men had to the home front as they were carrying out the business of the new country. Roberts' history is really storytelling at its epitomé. We are treated to scene after scene in the lives of women like Abigail Adams, Louisa Johnson Adams, Dolley Madison, Betsy Monroe, Theodosia Burr, Rosalie Calvert, Martha Jefferson, Martha Washington, and even Sacajawea.

I was especially intrigued by the strength that these women showed. The story of how Sacajawea was so confident in her guidance of Lewis and Clark as they trail blazed the Louisiana Purchase kept me turning pages, eager for her next adventure and discovery. The fortitude of Louisa Adams, wife of John Quincy Adams, is for us And then there was Dolley Madison. She set the expectations for what the home of the President and the first lady should be. Abigail Adams is a woman about whom I can never learn enough. No matter what book I read I always pick up a new tidbit or insight into her life. She was a woman to be reckoned with in her time. Who else would write to a President and ask that he bring her son home from Russia because it was too cold and the salary was not enough to sustain life there?

Roberts pays special homage to women who were social reformers, those who sought to care for orphans and the education of women. As a graduate of Wellesley College she remembers and honors those whose mission was to serve and not to be served. Likewise, we should not forget the likes of Emma Willard and Rebecca Gratz.

As I was reading this book a number of recurring themes stuck in my mind. I kept wondering what it would have been like and how our history might have been different if communication had been better. We would have known that treaties had been signed before battles fought. I am amazed at the mortality rate of children and how mothers and fathers dealt with these tragedies. Along the same vein, the mortality of women in childbirth was as scary. And yet women still endured pregnancy one after another. What if our Founding Mothers had access to birth control? Finally, we should take note and be thankful for all that our ancestors endured and the pride that they had for their families and their country. They serve as an example for us all.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Deadline by Chris Crutcher

I must confess that it is hard for me to be unbiased in discussing a Chris Crutcher book because he is just the most incredible writer for young adults (and adults, too). He speaks to teens as if he were one. On a visit to our school in 2005 he spoke extemporaneously to the students who laughed, cried, and were completely enthralled. He is a writer who has the power to change lives and I know that he has done that. Deadline is an extraordinary book to say the least. It has all the hallmarks of a Crutcher novel: frank language, intense life and death situations, exciting sports scenes, dysfunctional families, moral dilemmas, secrets, and a message of hope.

Ben Wolf has his routine sports physical before starting his senior year. But this physical was anything but routine when the doctor asked that Ben and his parents come in for a consultation. Ben arrives by himself and after pressuring the doctor to speak to him alone learns that he has a terminal blood disease. The doctor discusses treatment options, but Ben refuses to be a part of that or to tell his parents. He is, after all, eighteen years old and an adult in the eyes of the medical world. Ben decides that he will live the next year as normally as possible. I can't imagine harboring this secret as an adult, let alone a teenager. Ben will make the most of his year. He tries out for the football team despite being a very short and small person and with his brother, Cody, ends up a true her. To wait for his spring season sport of cross country would be just pushing his luck too far. He is determined not to die without making love and set his eye on Dallas Suzuki who has a secret as startling as Ben's.

There ancillary story lines, which piece together contribute to Ben's self -discovery and introspection. Father figures abound. There is Rudy, fan of Malcom X, battling demons of drugs and alcohol and a sordid past who is Ben's sounding board. Coach Banks understands Ben's home life and shows up with all the fixings for Christmas dinner. Ben's father is on the road but tries his best to be there for his son. And then there is Mr. Lambeer, Ben's government teacher who goes through the motions of teaching and is content to only teach what is in the biased textbooks. Ben's choice of Senior project puts Lambeer on the defensive and he obstinately fights Ben to the end as he tries to complete the research and implementation of the project. Armed with a copy of Lies My Teacher Told Me and Bill Bryson's
A Short History of Nearly Everything, Ben is determined to get the most out of his classes and he will not let Lambeer or any other teacher stand in his way. Guiding Ben along his fateful journey is his spiritual mentor and heart, Jesus, really pronounced Hay-soos. ( I couldn't help think of Crutcher's story of when his brother broke his prized "Jesus Saves" statue and he ended up with "esus Saves.")

Chris Crutcher's wit shines through Deadline. There are some scenes that are down right hysterical, not what you would expect from a book in which the underlying theme is death. I dare any reader not to be fully engaged with the characters and story of this book. It is emotional, touching, and dramatic. Thank you Chris Crutcher for another fantastic book!

Monday, August 24, 2009

Heart and Soul by Maeve Binchy

Reading a Maeve Binchy book is like sitting down with a cup of tea and some old friends in a quaint little sidewalk cafe. It is watching the world go by and knowing that everyone you see has a story. Heart and Soul is quintessential Binchy. The novel opens as Clara Casey takes the job as director of St. Brigid's new heart clinic. As she staffs the clinic we get to meet all the main characters of the book, many of whom have appeared in Binchy's previous books. There is Fiona, a nurse whom we met in Nights of Rain and Stars, Brenda from Quentins and the Feathers from Scarlet Feather. Dr. Declan Carroll signs on as the cardiologist for the clinic and Ania, a Polish immigrant trying to start anew after her life is turned upside down, is hired to provide support where needed. We also get glimpses into the lives of Clara's daughters, Linda and Adi.

The lives of all these characters intersect and merge as Binchy weaves her tale of life in Dublin. It is a story of love, hurt, joys and of course, sorrow and tragedy. We witness self-proclaimed aristocrats treat Ania as nothing more than a servant as she and their son Carl grow closer together. Our hearts ache for Father Bryan Flynn as he tries to defend his reputation from hurtful accusations. Through her writing Binchy makes us care about these people. They are her friends and we come to think of them as ours.

The read is a fast one, but one that is also to be savored. Upon completion, you are filled with a sense of literary satisfaction much as that cup of tea satisfies that need for comfort in a hectic world.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Columbine by Dave Cullen

On 20 April 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold carried out a plan of murder and suicide as they terrorized the students of Columbine High School in Jefferson County, Colorado. The story of the two disturbed young men and their 13 victims occupied headlines and was told and retold in newspapers and periodicals for the better part of the year following the shootings. Even today saying "Columbine" has become a reference to a school shooting rather than the name of the high school. It is an indelible mark that the two young men made on the minds, hearts and souls not just of the citizens of Colorado, but of all the United States.

Dave Cullen in
Columbine revisits the tragedy in a very erudite but accessible narrative. He has culled the reports of psychologists, FBI agents, Jeffco officials and interviews with students, parents and teachers. He reveals some of the myths and cover-ups that surrounded the reporting of this event and ensuing investigations as reported in main stream media. Cullen has relied extensively on the reports and investigations of FBI Supervisory Special Agent, Dwayne Fuselier and quotes him through the process of the investigation through the ensuing lawsuits. Cullen has an extensive section of notes at the end of the book that enlighten the reader as to where he had access to pieces of information. That section, the timeline of events, beginning in January 1997, the index, and acknowledgements give substantial credibility to this book.

In an interesting style, Cullen interweaves events before the tragedy with the actual events of April 20th and the months and years after that horrendous day. He takes a theme or an emotion and fully describes it in relation to the different time periods. In this way he allows the reader to understand more fully the cause, event, and effect.

With every incident of school shooting in the United State, the public has grappled with what motivates a shooter. Certainly, there must be a profile. Cullen concludes with studies from the FBI and Secret Service (p. 322) that there is NO profile. The only common trait to the time of the study was that the shooters were 100 % male. They were not loners, nor did they "snap."

In April, at the school from which I retired, we embraced the ideals of Rachel's Challenge, named for the first victim of the Columbine shootings. As a school community we committed ourselves to work together to keep such a tragedy from occurring here. It is imperative that we listen to each other and not be afraid to voice concern when students may be troubled. Dylan and Eric were masterful at saying and doing the "right thing" when in counseling or dealing with their parents and friends. Teachers, counselors, and friends need to be vigilant to be able to read through this façade.

This is a powerful book and recommended to adults and students alike. May we never have to bear witness to another such tragedy.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Just Take My Heart by Mary Higgins Clark

Definitely needed something on the lighter side after Wintergirls. Mary Higgins Clark's Just Take My Heart filled the bill. Clark is one of the most prolific mystery writers, publishing a new novel each April. This is classic MHC with the parade of characters that enter and exit through the novel. In Just Take My Heart there are really two story lines, one involving the murder of Natalie Raines and the subsequent trial with prosecutor Emily Wilson and the second, the psychotic stalking of Emily by her next door neighbor, Zach, whom we learn is a serial killer.

Natalie has been dead a little over 2 years when evidence surfaces that Gregg
Alldrich, her estranged husband and always a person of interest in the case, is actually the murderer. The evidence is purely circumstantial, but deemed credible. Emily is assigned to try the case by DA Ted Wesley who is in line to become a high-ranking official in the Federal government. As she prepares her case and throughout the trial, the reader learns more about the private life of her. She has been left a widow when her husband Mark was killed in the Iraq War and she has had a heart transplant. As she prosecutes the case we see that the most and only compelling evidence comes from a career criminal/burglar, Jimmy Easton, who testifies that Gregg hired him to kill Natalie.

At the same time Zach has been finding ways to get into Emily's house. He has set up a microphone to hear her in the kitchen and has offered to watch out for Bess, Emily's dog, while she is preoccupied with the trial. We know what he is planning and can only hope that she figures it out quickly.

The novel is enhanced by two television shows
Courtside TV and Fugitive Hunt. They both have a role in the climax and conclusion to the novel. As I was reading this book and knew very early on how it was going to end, I became frustrated with "too easy to solve" mysteries. I have always enjoyed MHC books, but it seems that they have become more easily solved lately. I don't know if this is because I am so familiar with her writing or she has become a bit more formulaic. I have concluded that maybe I should not look at the books from the viewpoint of trying to solve the mystery, but instead trying to figure out how the protagonist will solve it. That adds a bit more to the reading of the book. I enjoy her stories and will continue to read them, but definitely with a different perspective now. Just Take My Heart is a good read when you want a light summer book.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson

Laurie Halse Anderson is without equal when she writes about teenagers and the angst that so often overtakes their lives. Speak and Twisted are two of her previous books that leave the reader emotionally drained. Wintergirls is a remarkable addition to this genre. As a professional educator who has worked with teenagers for the last 35 year of my life and as a mother, this book is frightening and leaves you with a knot in your stomach as if you had been punched. Anderson is in the minds of her protagonists and she opens those minds to her readers.

Wintergirls opens as Lia has been informed about Cassandra (Cassie) Parrish's death alone in a motel room. The two girls were best friend from grade school to just a few months before the onset of the novel. They are "wintergirls", stuck between two worlds- life and death. Lia declares that she and Cassie were no longer best friends and then is haunted by the fact that on the night of her death Cassie tried calling her 33 times. What ensues is the struggle that Lia faces every minute of every day, every time she tries to eat. Her mind can only see the calories that each morsel contains. The reader sees her falling so fast into a chasm from which she will be hard to rescue. She has had two in-patient treatment hospitalizations for her disease. She learned not how to cope and overcome her disease, but only how to play the game to appease those who are trying to help her. (She has sewn quarters into the pocket of her robe so that it will appear she has not lost weight for her Tuesday weigh-ins that her stepmother does according to her discharge instructions.) But, she is determined to win the challenge even if it threatens her life also. There are always five more pounds to lose and another person to deceive, including herself. Her coping mechanism of cutting adds to her desperate state and the pain we feel for her.

The relationships in the book are complex. Lia lives with her father, divorced from her mother who is a very successful
surgeon, her stepmother, and her stepsister, Emma. Each impacts her life in positive and negative ways, but it is Emma who is always on Lia's mind. Elijah, the young man who finds Cassie and who works at the motel where she died, provides an outlet for Lia. With him she can be herself, but that platonic relationship just is too good to be true. We as readers keep hoping that someone will be able to relate to Lia and finally help her.

Halse Anderson allows readers into the mind of Lia with the way the type is set in the book. We are privy to Lia's real thought as they appear with a line scratched through them. And we are reminded constantly of the 33 times Cassie tried to call Lia. Then there is the incredible chapter 04:00 the consists entirely of Must.Not.Eat. repeated over and over, but the last words on each line are always Must.Eat.

This is a disturbing book, but it is a book that cannot and should not be put down. There has been a concern that for those who are battling disordered eating diseases, the book may be a trigger and should be withheld - censored - from them. But it is one of the few books that can really speak to someone who suffers from anorexia or bulimia. If it can help one person realize that help is available and there are people who truly care about them, then the risk is worth it. And even when you do finish the last page, close the cover, and put the book back on the shelf, I guarantee that it will never leave your heart.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Defector by Daniel Silva

The Defector is the latest offering in the Gabriel Allon series by Daniel Silva and it is clearly a sequel to Moscow Rules. Silva is one of my current favorite authors and I eagerly anticipated the release of this novel all winter long. It is one of those books that you just can't put down, definitely a page-turner.

To quote Machiavelli, "
If an injury has to be done to a man it should be so severe that his vengeance need not be feared. " and so begins The Defector with its theme of revenge. Six months have past and Gabriel is back at the Umbrian villa with his bride Chiara. He is trying to finish the restoration of a painting for the Vatican when he is informed that Grigori Bulganov, the Russian who saved his life, has disappeared from his sanctuary in London. Russian officials insist that he has redefected to Russia, but Allon and those from King Saul Boulevard contend that he was really kidnapped. And so the stage is set for Gabriel to assemble his team to find out what really happened.

The novel is full of plot twists and the usual globe-trotting... from Umbria to London to Paris to Saranac Lake and the Adirondacks to Langley, to Russia, Zurich, Lake Como, and ultimately Saint Tropez. Of course at the center is the Russian arms dealer, Ivan Kharkov, whose wife was smuggled out of the country by Allon in
Moscow Rules. There is no length to which he will achieve his revenge and it will be Gabriel who will pay. As Ari Shamron, the Israeli spymaster, cautions, the key to success for any operation is silence, speed, and timing. All three elements must be in place as the novel reaches it climax in the snowy, cold birch forests of northern Russia. Here we hold our breath as helpless bystanders watching the action that tests men and women's courage and fortitude unfold.

Silva has mastered Shamron's mantra in his own writing. His command of words is timed perfectly, eloquently silent when the mood commands it, and proceeds with speed when he needs it all to come together. Although the plot can be misconstrued as formulaic, the complexity of interweaving all the elements is incredibly sophisticated. The only downside of having read this book as soon as it was published is that we now will have to wait an interminably long time for the next Daniel Silva tome.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Admission by Jean Hanff Korelitz

As someone who has always been interested in college marketing, helping students find the right place for them to continue their education, and understanding the selection process, I was excited to learn of this new book and immediately put it on my "Wish List." I was even more excited when my daughter purchased it for me for Mother's Day. Admission is a multi-faceted novel based on some experiences of Korelitz who was an applications reader at Princeton University, the setting of the novel.

On one level it is a fascinating look at how the admissions departments at exclusive
institutions of higher education build their classes each year. For many of us who have spent our lives in the educational sphere, understanding how bright kids get passed over for admissions, has been a major concern. Portia Nathan is nearly forty, has worked for numerous colleges, and is sharing her life and her house with Mark, an English professor. It is a routine admissions trip to high schools in the northeast that proves to be the catalyst for all the action in the book. Portia travels to the Quest School, an experimental school in New Hampshire where she meets two people who will turn her life upside down. John, a teacher at the school, was in the class behind Portia at Dartmouth College and Jeremiah, a student who definitely marches to the sound of a different drummer, impact her life and the novel's progression.

On another level, the novel is an admission of what Portia's life has been and will be. The reader meets her mother, Susannah, best friend Rachel, significant other, Mark, and Helen, a dinner guest who was anything but gracious. Portia needs to balance all these relationships with the demanding job of reading and recommending for admissions a record number of applications. the insights into both are heart-wrenching and worth the lengthy read.

I was fascinated with the book. I never really thought about the role of a college recruiter as a double edged sword. On one hand s/he entices students to apply to a college, but then knows that not all qualified students can be accepted. It drives home the point that guidance counselors need to be proactive with admissions counselors, students need to show what they can bring to a college class, and parents don't help a son or daughter's chances by multiple contacts with admissions offices. Portia's journey takes the reader on a roller coaster ride of emotions. It's a scary ride at times, full of ups, downs and curves that are unexpected.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Death at Blenheim Palace by Robin Paige

A colleague gave me a copy of Death at Blenheim Palace for a quick and easy read. It is #11 in the Charles and Kate Sheridan detective series by Robin Paige, the pseudonym of the husband and wife team of Susan Wittig and Bill Albert. The novel takes place at the home of Winston Churchill early in the 20th century during the rule of Edward. It was an entertaining novel that also included many references back to Woodstock, Rosamund's Well and the time of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine.

Kate and Charles are visiting Blenheim Palace - he to investigate the theft of jewels and she to research a book. Upon their arrival they realize that all is not really well in the lives of the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough. The duchess, formerly Consuelo Vanderbilt, and the Duke are in the midst of marital woes. She has produced the heir and the spare and so the Duke has turned his attention to Gladys Deacon who would eventually become his wife.

Events become more complicated when one of the housemaids is murdered and Charles enlists the aid of a young man, Ned Lawrence, who is consumed with making brass rubbings in neighborhood churches. Lawrence was later known by the name Larwrence of Arabia. If he were not scared of breaking into churches, he surely could be a "mole" downstairs in the Blenheim household. He does manage to get some information as the mysteries.

The resolution to the mysteries was fairly obvious, but the read was enjoyable and about England. How bad can that be?

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

The Graveyard Book will be added to the list of books that has an incredible and enticing first line: "There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife." The man Jack has killed a family of three. It was supposed to be four, but the baby has gone wandering and ends up in the nearby graveyard. So begins the story of "Bod" (Nobody) Owens. The 2009 Newbery Award winner is a macabre tale that is sure to become a classic read.

The story follows the adventures of Bod from his adoption by the Owens' through his childhood until he reaches the age of his emancipation. It is a story adopted from Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book and provides adventure, fantasy, and the ability to touch every human emotion. In addition to the Owens, Bod is protected by his guardian, Silas with the lupine Miss Lupescu,
Mother Slaughter, Josiah Worthington and the poet Nehemiah Trot, and my favorite, the Roman Caius Pompeius. Although still hunted by the murderer, Bod enjoys protection when he is within the confines of the graveyard. Such a setting provides the background for all sorts of macrabre adventures and ghostly encounters.

Bod's life passes in front of us and we grow to really love this boy who has his share of troubles. One very poignant scene is how he is bullied by his schoolmates when he attempt to attend a school outside the graveyard. He has thirsted for knowledge, but has to give up his dream when classmates make his life there totally miserable. As a little boy he develops a real friendship with a Scarlett, a girl who visits the graveyard with her mother. As the chapters ensue, she disappears for a while, but then reappears as the book reaches its climax. As one might expect Bod meets up again with a man Jack and the all the supernatural entities that Gaiman can muster.

As a reflect on the book, I realize that it was an incredibly written and complex story, full of ghostly haunts and "personages", but also that there was something missing in the first third of the book. It took me a while to really get into it, but by the end I was emotionally hooked and even a bit teary-eyed as the last pages were turned. It is a book that should satisfy all those who are looking for story that is scary and haunting.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

13 Little Blue Envelopes by Maureen Johnson

It has been some while since I posted to the blog, although I did read this title a few months ago. Time has been taken up with classes, my Latin class, a flower sale and of course the Burgen und Berge trip to Europe. Suffice it to say in a month reading will once again become a priority in my life.

Ginny is a normal seventeen year old living in New Jersey whose life changes when she receives a letter from her Aunt Peg, a free spirited woman who would often disappear for months at a time only to show up with incredible tales of adventures. In the letter is a an ATM card and instructions for Ginny to get a passport, book a ticket to London and follow all subsequent instructions in the 12 Little Blue Envelopes. She cannot take a mobile phone, laptop, have any electronic contact with her friends, and must fit everything that she does take into a backpack. The book's adventure begins as she journeys to London and is directed to a flat that her aunt once shared with Richard.

As she finished the tasks in one envelope, Ginny is directed to the next. As she does this she travels all over Europe from Scotland to Rome to Amsterdam. Johnson's description of the places she visits is accurate and enticing. As one who loves to travel and experience different cultures and venues, this book proved to be quite intriguing. There are twists, turns, and a mystery all wrapped up in the pages.

Along the way she meets many people. She is adopted by an American family, the Knapps, in Amsterdam. Being awakened in the morning by a cheery "mother" with a schedule of the day's events hit a nerve as I saw a bit of me in her. It began with a visit to the museum at 9 am and ended with bedtime at 10 pm. Everything in the middle of the itinerary was scheduled to the minute.

This was a delightful book and one that would appeal to all who have a penchant for adventure and travel. The ending took me a bit by surprise, but I won't spoil it by sharing here. You'll have to read it and find out for yourself.

Monday, February 16, 2009

What I Saw and How I Lied by Judy Blundell

It is 1947 and Evie Spooner is living a relatively dull life in Queens, NY. Her mother, Beverly has been holding down the home front while her step-dad Joe was fighting in WWII. Beverly is a beautiful blond who tends to be overprotective of Evie and who wants her daughter to stay a child. Joe owns a couple of businesses and seems to be on the road to prosperity when he begins to receive anonymous phone calls that bring on a very angry side to him. On the spur of the moment, after one of these calls, he announces that the family is going on vacation to Palm Beach, FL. Evie is distressed that she will be missing her friends and eventually her school.

When the family arrives in Florida, the place seems like a ghost town. Most of the hotels are boarded up and they are lucky to find accommodation at the Le Mirage. Here they meet and are befriended by the Graysons, a wealthy couple from NYC. It is also here that Peter Coleridge makes his presence known. To Evie, he is an incredibly good looking man who shows romantic interest in Evie. To Joe, he is an acquaintance from the war who has secrets that increase Joe's anxiety. Evie is smitten and finds ways to be with Peter even if she knows the consequences will cause her to grow up very quickly.

Joe and the Graysons develop a business scheme that will make all wealthy. But Peter may have some knowledge to foil the plans. As the plot develops the reader feels that he or she may not be aware of all that is going on in the lives of the Spooners or their acquaintances. Where does Beverly go for such long spells, what does the bell-boy Wally know about Peter and Evie, and why do the Graysons suddenly leave the hotel? In the end after a violent hurricane strikes the area and a horrible tragedy ensues, Evie must come to a realization as to what she really wants in life.

What I Saw and How I Lied was the winner of the National Book Award in the Young Adult category. It was truly deserving. The novel is a period piece of the late 1940s and also a most intriguing mystery. It is a page turner with the characters being alive and energized by ulterior motives. It is dark and foreboding, but in the end Blundell resolves those mysteries that change her characters.

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

Revolutionary Road is another book upon which an acclaimed movie has been based this year. It is beautifully written, tho honest and disturbing. It chronicles the suburban life of Frank and April Wheeler in the 1950s. They are supposedly living the American dream, but they perceive their life is seriously lacking meaning. Frank is an account sales manager, April, a housewife and mother. His job is to bring home the bacon and wear the pants in the family and hers is to run the household. But neither is satisfied and so they decide to leave their Connecticut home and take up residence in France. She will work while he reflects on his life and tries to decide what he wants to be. This all seems well and good until circumstances arise that cause them to take pause and rethink the decision.

Throughout the book the tension is taut and emotional. Frank and April engage in frequent and violent arguments. Their battle stems from who is in control and how much control can be exerted. It is a brutally honest snapshot of life in the 50s. Yates' mastery of dialogue brings this book to life. His portrayal of Frank and April is a well-developed character study. The minor characters - Milly and Shep Campbell, John, Howard, and Mrs. Givings - add to the insight into Frank and April and provide a more intimate revelation of the interrelationships.

The ending, shocking as it were, had to happen. And life goes on, witnessed by the willingness of the Campbells to put their friendship out their minds and Howard turning his hearing aid off. A definite contemporary masterpiece.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

Christmas vacation, some airport and flying time was enough to finish The Reader. I am driven to try to read a novel before seeing a movie and knowing that Kate Winslet would probably be nominated for her work in the adaptation of Schlink's work, this novel was next on my "to read" list. It was a fast read, but one that posed many ethical and moral issues.

Set in a post-Holocaust Germany, Michael Berg, a 15 year-old, gets ill on his way home from school. Hanna Schmitz, a middle-aged streetcar attendant, helps him. Determined to thank her, Michael returns to her home and is seduced by her. The next months see both Hanna and Michael consumed with the trysts that ensue. Michael reads classic literature to her, they take a long bicycle trip, and are passionate about each other. Then one day Hanna vanishes without notice to anyone. Michael grieves for her and blames himself for her disappearance.

Part 2 opens with Hanna being tried as a war criminal. Michael is attending law school and happens to be observing the trial. He faces a moral and ethical dilemma as to whether to help her and possibly free her while at the same time revealing information about her past that she surely would not want made public.

In the last part of the book, Michael and Hanna meet again. She is in jail and he sends her books on tape. He has kept her secret and their secret. To say anymore would give much too much away about the book's end. Suffice it to say that The Reader will engage the reader as it portrays Germany in the 1950's and the way that it must reconcile the horrendous atrocities of the Holocaust with the role its citizens played during and after the Nazi regime.

The Private Patient by P.D. James

It has been a while since the blog has been updated. Unfortunately, the demands of preparing for the trip, Latin class, learning the Promethean board, and the general busy life, have usurped reading time. I was very conflicted about the new James book. Do I spend an undue amount and order it from the U.K or do I behave in a fiscally responsible way and wait for the U.S. release. I did manage to wait and promised myself that it would be my Thanksgiving read. And it was. P.D. James is the ultimate English mystery writer, IMHO. The Private Patient was worth the wait.

Set in the English countryside, the book details the last days of
Rhoda Gradwyn, an investigative reporter, who goes to Cheverell Manor, a private clinic, to undergo plastic surgery. Commander Adam Dalgliesh is called to investigate with his team. The suspects are assembled in one place and include the manor staff, the surgeon and medical team, a close acquaintance of Rhoda's and another patient. Each has something to hide and we are left to figure out the real motive. Woven into the story is a subplot of a lynching that took place 350 years ago and the mysterious haunted stones that stand behind the manor house. With the help of assistant Kate Miskin, Dalgliesh deconstructs the alibis and motives to reach the solution.

James writes with such a command of the English language that one is tempted to read the novel out loud just to hear the sheer beauty of the way the words are woven together. Her plots are craftily woven and always have the requisite number of twists and turns to keep the reader on the edge of the seat. The Private Patient didn't disappoint and although a number of series story lines are seemingly wrapped up in the book, I remain hopeful that James will have another offering in the future. There are not many who can put together language, plot, and characters like she can.