Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Winter Gardedn by Kristin Hannah

The cover image of Kristin Hannah's Winter Garden mirrors the chill inside the book. It is a chill that permeates the weather, but also relationships. But, yet, there is a butterfly that foretells the coming of a time of warmth.

Anya is the aloof mother of Nina and Meredith, daughters who have taken different paths in life. Nina is the adventurer, the National Geographic photojournalist who has traveled the world and chronicled wars and famines. Although involved with Danny, she has not and does not want to put down roots. Meredith, on the other hand, married young, has two daughters, and has stayed close to home helping to run the family orchard business. They converge at the bedside of their beloved father when he has had a severe stroke and is near death. He is the glue that has held the family together and his last wish is for his daughters to get to know and love their mother, something that has not been possible for the girls despite their trying.  "Make her tell you the story of the peasant girl and the prince," their beloved father had said. "All of it this time."

As they were growing up the girls were treated to fairy tales told by their mother. They took place in Russia, her home before coming to the U.S. Beyond that they knew very little of their mother's life. In fact, it is only at the end of the book that they actually find out when Anya's birthday is. Struggling to hold their lives together after their father's death, Meredith and Nina must make sense of their mother's dementia (or is it just grief), their personal lives, and the emptiness that surrounds them.  It is through the fairy tale of the peasant girl and he prince that the reader and the girls learn the reason that Anya has lived in the cold shell of the Winter Garden. 

This book was slow to engage me. At the beginning I was very impatient with the direction the story was taking as well as the prolonged narration of the story within the story. As it became more clear as to the purpose of Anya's tale, I was taken in. The siege of Leningrad and the plight of the Russian people is heartbreaking. Man's inhumanity has played out in so many venues and time periods, but the conditions in Russia during this time were more than appalling. (Very reminiscent although from a different perspective of Bohjalian's Skeletons at the Feast.) As the sisters begin to understand their mother they know what they must do to crack the ice that stands in the way of unconditional love and acceptance. A trip to Alaska, a visit to a professor who has written a treatise on the Siege, and a chance meeting in a coffee shop, and a powerful resolution give explanation for Anya's actions.

I cannot understand ( I don't have that perspective) of how a woman can be so affected that she is not able to love her children with all her heart and soul, even with the horrific experience that is her life. That part of the novel just doesn't ring true to me. The strength of the novel is in Kristin Hannah's description. The settings as diverse as an orchard in Washington, a homestead filled with memories, a Russian city under siege, the beauty of Alaska are masterfully penned. Again, this is a book I would probably not have read if it had not been a book discussion selection.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson

I have been a fan of Maureen Johnson's books for a while. She is a great writer for the YA (and adult) reader. Her characters are quirky, but have heart. Her books are humorous, but have depth and substance. And, of course, everyone knows that I am an Anglophile. Imagine my incredible glee when I learned that Johnson's newest book was one that was set in London and had at its center the Jack the Ripper murders. The Name of the Star is the first in the Shades.

Rory Deveaux is an American teen from New Orleans who is spending her senior year at a London boarding school, Wexford, because her lawyer parents have taken jobs at Bristol University. As she arrives, she hears on the radio the startling report that a Jack the Ripper copycat has surfaced and is committing murders. Wexford is located in the Whitechapel section of London, the scene of the Ripper murders. Although the school is acutely aware of the situation and does all that it can do to protect the students, Rory and her roommate, Jazza, circumvent the rules and find themselves on the school green after a murder. Rory proves to be the only witness to The Ripper despite the fact that her roommate was by her side. Something is definitely strange about the encounter as Rory learns from The Shades of London, a secret ghost police. She becomes a credible witness and meets those whom she hopes will help her. Will she be also pursued by the copycat now that she has seen his face. To whom can she turn for help?

The story is incredibly suspenseful and downright creepy. In spite of the gore of the story,  Johnson does not lose her gift of embracing the humorous side of a situation. We read of Rory's often wacky extended family, her commentary on adjusting to life in London, and her take on boarding school. What do you mean flip-flops are not an option? The reader is treated to a tour of Whitechapel, Spitalfields, the Ten Bells, Trafalgar Square, the National Gallery, and the ghostly underground Tube stations. And of course there is teen romance, too. Add Jerome to the mix and you have all the makings of what should be a popular book and series.  I couldn't believe the last line of the book was really the last. There had to be more, but there wasn't. The wait is on.

The Scent of Rain and Lightning by Nancy Pickard

Nancy Pickard is a well-respected and competent writer of mysteries. The Scent of Rain and Lightning is an entertaining and suspenseful tome that is engaging and exciting. The novel opens as Jody Linder, a high school English teacher,  sees her three uncles, Chase, Billy, and Meryl Tapper drive in to her house. She knows that something is amiss, but was not prepared for the news they were about to deliver. Billy Crosby, the convicted killer of her father and perhaps her mother, was being released from prison as a result of a judge commuting his sentence because of new evidence produced by his lawyer son, Collin.

The story then flashes back to the events that happened 23 years before and Pickard reconstructs the lives and times of the Linder family. Jody's grandparents, Annabelle and Hugh, are one of Rose, Kansas' largest landowners and wealthiest families. Their sons, Chase, Bobby, and Hugh-Jay, were to contribute to the ranch's operations.  In the flashback, the reader also discovers that the Linders often gave opportunities to less fortunate and even delinquent boys in Rose to right their lives and become productive members of society. Billy Crosby was one of those boys. However, he just could not seem to throw away those habits that kept him and his family in a state of debt, namely his alcoholism and lack of anger management. 

Pickard skillfully weaves the story around these characters to the extent that each does have his or her own voice. The description of Rose, Kansas is painted so that the reader knows exactly how the bar, the grocery store, the ranch and Jody's house look. The reader sees what influence wealth and prestige have even in the justice system. Would Billy really have been convicted if the victims were not Linders? And although some red herrings are tossed to the reader, the ending is surprising as we are witness to the actual crime that left Jody without her parents. 

I love a mystery that I can't solve before the end of the book. I certainly was caught off guard by the resolution in The Scent of Rain and Lightning. However, I feel that the package was wrapped up almost too conveniently with some questions as to how could that really have happened. All in all, tho, the characters were believable, dynamic, and elicited the reader's empathy or hatred. It was a good read and at the end a real page-turner.