Saturday, December 29, 2012

A House Near Luccoli by D. M. Denton

A House Near LuccoliA House Near Luccoli by D.M. Denton

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Classical musicians were the rock stars of the seventeenth century, especially in places like Genoa, Italy. A House Near Luccoli takes an interesting approach to one of those stars, Alessandro Stradella, a composer who was famous during his life but whose fame has faded compared to contemporaries such as Vivaldi and Handel. The book's narrator is Donatella, a young woman who has the good fortune to live with her aunt and ailing grandmother in a house owned by Signor Garibaldi, the prince of Genoa. The prince offers an area of the house to Stradella as a place to stay and work while he's in Genoa. The novel is told from Donatella's point of view. If the plot was set in the twentieth century, A House Near Luccoli would have been Patty Boyd's story rather than George Harrison's or Eric Clapton's.

In keeping with its period, A House Near Luccoli reads more like a symphony than a rock song. It is separated into parts that are like movements of the larger work. The language is not simple, making it the type of book I like to read slowly. There is so much in every phrase and I found I was often flipping back to let the meaning of Denton's words sink in.

Donatella loves to paint. Her sense of style and perfect hand make her the ideal copyist for Stradella's work. This is pointed out by Nonna, Donatella's grandmother, in an interesting scene where Nonna appears to be offering her granddaughter to Stradella for multiple purposes. “'Come here,' Nonna pleaded as Donatella could never refuse. 'Look, signore, at the beauty in her.'”

In addition to his composing Stradella's duties include performing. He calls on Donatella to sing while he plays and he tutors her for that task in one of the most sensual sections of the novel. “'Keep your arms up.' His hands pushed against her diaphragm. 'Make it a sliding note, higher, higher,' he dropped them from the inflation of her breasts, 'with body and voice until you can't feel any difference,' to her waist. 'Reach from your toes!'”

A House Near Luccoli mixes fictional with historical characters. It was fun to use Wikipedia to learn more about Stradella as I read the novel and Youtube to hear performances of his music. I recommend this book for readers who enjoy historical fiction with beautiful language.

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Saturday, December 22, 2012

Bebe & Friends by Jean Rodenbough

Bebe & FriendsBebe & Friends by Jean Rodenbough

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Bebe & Friends is a book for animal lovers. It is a collection of writings from people who have rescued animals. Most of the stories are about dogs, but there are also plenty of pages dedicated to cats and even one story about guinea pigs. Jean Rodenbough found the contributors, collected their stories, then put the work together along with descriptions of her own animals, a number of her poems and fascinating histories of animal rescue organizations. It is a very powerful approach that works in a unique fashion. The only other book I've read that uses this approach is Rachel's Children also by Rodenbough and also a wonderful read.

One of the contributors, Patsy Beeker, writes about a cat that was “found on the side of the highway on a ninety-five degree day by a Department of Transportation worker who was picking up the body of the kitten's dead mother. The tiny kitten was injured, but alive.” Beeker writes that the cat had to have an eye removed, along with the treatment of other injuries, but Beeker is convinced there is a spirit looking down on that small animal. She writes: “If you read the Bible, you know the verse about 'His eye is on the sparrow'. Surely, someone had an eye out for a plain little black kitten who needs that extra eye, any way he can get it.”

Marina Julia Neary is another contributor who writes about her guinea pigs. I loved her description of the idea behind one of the names she chose. “Having published novels on the Irish Rebellion, a period of history that fascinates me, I named the new guinea pig Hugh, after Hugh O'Neil, Ulster's legendary chieftain, the Earl of Tyrone, who defied Queen Elizabeth.” At the end of her piece Neary writes about another beloved guinea pig saying, “She died peacefully of old age on Easter in 2006. There is only one place she can be, and that's on the lap of St. Francis in heaven.”

My wife and I have had a few rescue dogs ourselves and my daughter volunteers at one of the shelters described in the book, Animal Rescue and Foster Program, so I thought I knew most of what goes on behind the scenes. But I learned a great deal from this book. The book is about animals, of course, but it is also about the special people who love and care for them. There are dark moments, as would be expected with this subject, but the pages are also filled with uplifting and beautiful stories.

Steve Lindahl author of Motherless Soul

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Saturday, December 15, 2012

The House I Loved by Tatiana de Rosnay

The House I LovedThe House I Loved by Tatiana de Rosnay

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Like many of the other reviewers, I read The House I Loved because Sarah's Key was so powerful. This book is different. There can be no comparison between the story of the French government sending Jewish citizens to German death camps during World War II and the story of the hardship caused by eminent domain laws that were used as part of a massive renovation of Paris during the reign of Emperor Napoleon III. But every book does not have to be about genocide. The House I Loved is about memories and about the redemption brought about by recalling the bad as well as the good. In its own way it is a powerful story.

The plot is revealed through a series of letters being read and written by Rose Bazelet, a woman living in mid nineteenth century Paris who is determined to resist the razing of her home to make way for a wide boulevard. Most of the plot comes from Rose's writing to her deceased husband, Armand. In these she reflects on the early stages of their relationship and on both the wonderful and the tragic times they shared in their home. She has also kept a number of letters that have been written to her over the years. These give a different perspective on her life.

The house seems symbolic of Rose's life. There are reasons why she doesn't want to give up on her home, but there are also reasons why it would make sense for her to say “good riddance” to it. The same is true of the relationships she's had in her life. There isn't always logic behind the way things played out for her. Why does she love some people more than others, when in many cases it would make sense that she would feel the other way? I'm not sure what the answer to that question is and for that reason The House I Loved felt very real.

I felt Ms. De Rosnay gave a full picture of ordinary life in Paris in the nineteenth century, the shops, the relationships, the politics, the role of women, and much more. I listened to the audio version. It was read by Kate Reading, who brought the words to life in a marvelous way.

Steve Lindahl - Author of Motherless Soul

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Saturday, December 8, 2012

Fall of Giants by Ken Follett

Fall of Giants (The Century Trilogy #1)Fall of Giants by Ken Follett

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Fall of Giants is the type of novel I love to read. It takes the reader on a long, winding trip through a period of time that presents the characters with unusual and dramatic obstacles. It is set in England, Russia, Germany, France, and America during World War I and the years prior to and following that war. It follows the lives of a handful of characters who fight, fall in love, and react in different ways to the situations around them.

The plot depends on an incredible amount of coincidences, in particular characters encountering each other repeatedly in remote sections of the world. Readers who can't get beyond that type of manipulation should skip the book, but for me the strengths of the story outweighed that problem. I even found myself anticipating the encounters in a way I enjoyed.

I loved the history that was woven into the plot. I learned a great deal about the Battle of the Somme and the incompetence of the British officers during that conflict. I was also fascinated with the novel's portrayal of the rise of the Bolsheviks in Russia and the battles between the red and white forces. I went straight to Wikipedia after reading those sections to confirm their accuracy. Ken Follett has a reputation for researching his historical novels well. He deserves that reputation.

The novel has multiple love stories in it, all unique. There is the story of an English woman from a wealthy, titled family who falls in love with a German, equally well connected in his homeland. They are both loyal to their two countries, but also loyal to each other. There are two Russian brothers who grew up in poverty to become men who treat women in very different ways, one using women in any way he can while the other attempts to treat the woman he loves with honor and respect. My favorite of the romantic relationships involves the interests of a welsh woman, Ethel Williams, who is the daughter of a union leader in a coal mining region. She has to decide many times whether to follow her heart or her head.

I recommend this book to anyone who likes long stories with strong characters and interesting historical settings. It is the first part of a trilogy, but Fall of Giants stands on its own well.

Steve Lindahl - Author of Motherless Soul

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Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Second Virgin Birth by Tommy Taylor

The Second Virgin BirthThe Second Virgin Birth by Tommy Taylor

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Second Virgin Birth is an interesting book, yet it is different from most of the novels I have read. My impression is that Tommy Taylor did not write this book because he loves writing fiction, but rather because he loves God. I had some issues with his style. There are too many cliches, a lack of attention to detail, and character reactions that are not believable. But the big ideas expressed in the book kept me turning the pages.

When I first read the concept of The Second Virgin Birth I was hooked. We live in a time when events that once would have been considered miracles are now achievable through technology. Advances in reproductive medicine have made it possible for a woman who is technically a virgin to give birth. Cloning processes have reached a point where it is possible to create a person who is more or less an identical twin of another person—if the DNA is available. So the cloning of Jesus Christ sounds plausible.

Before I started reading it, I thought the book was going to be about the realization of God's plan through the work of brilliant people. But instead of taking that path, Taylor has given us a story filled with traditional miracles. These include, among others, the ability of the new Mary to speak with God, the sudden deaths of two hospital orderlies who are about to harm Mary, and a truck driving angel who appears to help her. The way divine intervention was included in a story about science was interesting.

The focus of The Second Virgin Birth is on Mary rather than Jesus. Unlike the first mother of God, this Mary is far from a humble young lady who is told by the angel Gabriel that she has been chosen by God to give birth to His child. Instead this Mary communes with God. She has read all the holy books of the world by age eight and understands them. She enters a trance, not speaking for four years. When she finally talks she tells the people around her what God has told her and she is immediately believed.

The villains of the novel are motivated by greed. The Pope is the worst offender among the people who seek riches and power. This fictional Pope, John Paul III, does everything in his power to prevent the birth of the cloned Son of God, including sending out assassins to kill Mary. He is worried that the birth of her child will cause believers to leave the Roman Catholic church to follow the new messiah. This part of the novel parallels Herod's role in the Christmas story.

I believe this book will appeal to open minded Christians who enjoy reading different interpretations of their faith.

Steve Lindahl - author of Motherless Soul

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Sunday, November 4, 2012

In A World Of Small Truths by Ray Morrison

In A World Of Small Truths is a collection of short stories by Ray Morrison, an award winning writer from North Carolina. Morrison's use of language is concise, sharp, and beautiful. His attention to detail is phenomenal.

The stories are touching portraits of people caught up in problems readers can identify with, such as dealing with guilt or trying to understand the actions of others who have disappointed them. Sometimes the problems are set in common situations and at other times, in stories such as S, the characters are in situations we hope we will never see. Yet Morrison always takes us along paths that are justified by the strengths and failures of his characters.

One of my favorites in the collection is Calvin Bodenheimer and the Dalrymple Bull which at first appears to be a tragedy in the classical sense. Calvin, the hero, has a character flaw, shyness, that keeps him from developing a relationship with a pretty farmer's daughter named Dreama. But the story takes a number of unexpected twists and turns and ends up being more about Calvin's relationship with himself than about Dreama. Another story, June Bug is a powerful piece about a woman reflecting back on the way her mother's prejudices affected her life. And another, Lenny and Earl Go Shooting Off Their Mouths is filled with dark humor and has one of the best titles I've ever read.

Although In A World Of Small Truths contains stories set mostly in and around Winston-Salem, NC, the characters could exist anywhere. The Small Truths are emotional struggles we can all identify with and learn from. This one is a great read!

Steve Lindahl = author of Motherless Soul

Saturday, October 27, 2012

A Game of Thrones by George R R Martin

A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire, #1)A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I had heard of A Game of Thrones through the reputation of the HBO series. I don't have an HBO subscription, so I don't plan to watch it. But I thought it might be fun to read the book. The novel isn't quite as focused on sex as the series is supposed to be. It has its share of both sex and violence, but all of the titillating aspects of the plot are justified in the written version. This is not a medieval Shades of Gray.

The plot is a massive story with more characters than I could keep track of. There is a listing of names in an appendix at the back. If I had known it was there, I would have taken advantage of it and that might have helped. But the main characters were well defined and whatever confusion I had with the minor ones didn't affect my appreciation of the work.

The story takes place during medieval times, in a world populated with lords, ladies, knights, and peasants. The fictional environment created by George R. R. Martin is realistically portrayed, but it branches off into mystical moments that are critical to the story. The shift from realism to mysticism is handled smoothly and fits well in the context of the story.

The majority of the plot concerns the relationship of Eddard (Ned) Stark with King Robert Baratheon and the conflict between Ned's family, the house of Stark and the family of the King's wife Cersei, the house of Lannister. There is intrigue, deception, jousting, battles, and everything else expected from a story about a struggle for power in that period. I loved the excitement as the various plots progressed.

The one thing I did not like about A Game of Thrones is that it doesn't stand on its own. Multiple subplots were left hanging when the book ended. I understand that it is part of a series, but it should still conclude the majority of the story lines. I want to know what happens to Arya and how Jon will fit in. Leaving something up in the air makes sense to me, but this book leaves too much unresolved. I plan to read the other books in the series, but I don't know how soon I'll get to them.

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Saturday, October 13, 2012

Shakespeare and Company - Paris, France

I don't have a book to review this week because I spent the last couple of weeks in France. It was my first trip to Europe, so my wife and I were too caught up in exploring to spend much time reading.  Instead this entry is about one afternoon when Toni and I decided to look for Shakespeare and Company, a fairly famous bookstore for anglophiles in Paris – all the books are in English.

It was a cloudy day, cool enough to wear jackets, which was good for walking and also meant I had pockets. I had a compact umbrella in one of those pockets and Toni had one in her purse.

We had just toured Notre Dame and had crossed the Seine on a bridge (Pont de l'Archeveche) that was east of the famous cathedral. That was a mistake because walking along that road brought us to the south of the street we were looking for. We turned left instead of right and moved further away from the bookstore.

That's when the rain came (our only rain during our vacation). It poured. The umbrellas helped, but we still had to find shelter. We ducked into a parking lot and waited until the rain lightened up. During that break we went over the map we had and determined that we were going the wrong way. When we got out to the street we asked for directions. Toni speaks enough French to get by and we found that the French people were always happy to help us when they could. Unfortunately, a bookstore that carries only English books was a landmark that the French speaking people we stopped didn't know. We finally found Rue de la Bucherie, the street where Shakespeare and Company was supposed to be. We walked it end to end and couldn't find the store. We were about to head back to the metro, but I decided to try one more time. Toni told me how to say “Where is?” and I already knew how to say “Please” and “Thank you,” so I stepped into a restaurant and asked again. A waiter there knew the store and explained to Toni that a park (Square Rene Viviani) broke the street in two. When we went to the other part of Rue de la Bucherie the bookstore was there.

Shakespeare and Company is a two story, narrow store jammed with books. The aisles and the staircase are tiny. There's a reading room upstairs and some seats out front. It has great atmosphere and a very interesting collection of customers. It was worth searching for. We didn't take any pictures, but here are a couple I found on the web.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Bridget Jones's Diary by Helen Fielding

Bridget Jones's Diary (Bridget Jones, #1)Bridget Jones's Diary by Helen Fielding

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed both the Bridget Jones movies and now that there's a third one on the way, I decided it is about time to read the original “diary.” I liked the other chick lit books I've read (Sophie Kinsella's Remember Me, Can You Keep a Secret?, and Shopaholic & Baby) with their pseudo airhead main characters who are actually quite intelligent and competent. Since I hadn't read Helen Fielding's work prior to this, I was expecting something similar. The tone of Bridget Jones's Diary is light and the humor is fabulous. Bridget Jones, however, is not a brilliant woman trying to escape from an airhead facade. There isn't a competent bone in her body. When she succeeds she does so through luck and the good will of those around her. But somehow her self absorbed, scatterbrained personality works. I liked her.

The novel is dated, of course. For example, when Bridget thinks about a fairy tale wedding she talks about Princess Diana rather than the Duchess of Cambridge. But the core of the book is the immersion into the mind of a woman who is desperate to impress others by losing weight, drinking less, and gaining a boyfriend. There are still plenty of people like that. And what's even more significant is the fact that we all have a little of Bridget's personality in us. That's why the book is so funny.

There are books that need to be read slowly, so the reader can dwell on the concepts behind the story. Then there are books that are a fun read and need to be read quickly. Bridget Jones's Diary is one of the latter.

Steve Lindahl - author of Motherless Soul

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Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Round House by Louise Erdrich

The Round HouseThe Round House by Louise Erdrich

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Round House took me to another world (life on a Native American reservation) and showed me that world through someone dealing with a horrible situation that could have occurred where anyone lived. The novel was intense yet also educational.

The story is told through the point of view of Joe, a young boy who is the second Antone Bazil Coutts, but prefers to be called Joe. When Geraldine, Joe's mother, is brutally raped, their family is thrown into emotional hell. She refuses to talk about what happened to her for a couple of reasons. Although she survived, she has been hurt physically and is an emotional wreck. She is also very protective of her family and doesn't want either her husband or her son to be placed in danger while seeking justice. Joe's father is a judge, dealing with crimes that occur on the reservation.

Punishment of the crime is complicated by confusion about legal jurisdiction. The rape was committed at the Round House, a spiritual center that is built partially on Native American land and partially on land granted to the reservation. Before legal action can start, it is critical to know the exact place in the Round House where Geraldine was raped and she refuses to tell.

I appreciated what I learned about the complications of the Native American legal process. I also appreciated what I learned about growing up on the reservation. Joe seems to know every family living near his and is related to most of them. His friends are often cousins. He sometimes rides his bike to their homes and stays there, especially as his mother recovers. It is almost as if he is being raised communally. One interesting fact I learned was about an item called a “thunderbird egg.” This is a stone taken from the foot of a tree that has been hit by lightening. It is supposed to have good luck, although that belief comes into doubt later in the book.

There is a racial aspect to the rape and to the crime that led to it, but greed is more the motivation than hate. Again, I liked how Native American topics were intrinsic to the book, yet were not the only aspects.

I had a couple of issues. I thought the way Geraldine managed to survive the attack was a stretch and there were some coincidences that diminished the story's believability. But those issues were small compared to the good points of the novel.

Overall, I loved this book for its plot more than for what it taught me about life on a reservation. The story grabbed me and held on until I turned the last page. Erdrich's writing style is beautiful.

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Saturday, September 15, 2012

Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks

Caleb's CrossingCaleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Geraldine Brooks has written another wonderful historical novel: Caleb's Crossing, the story of an early seventeenth century colony in Massachusetts on the island that is now Martha's Vineyard. The book's focus is on the relationship between the colonists and the Native Americans who were living on the island when the European settlers arrived. Both groups have strong religious beliefs which dictate how they feel about each other in complex ways that differ from person to person.

Caleb's Crossing is told through Bethia Mayfield, the granddaughter of the colony's founder and the daughter of the minister who is doing the most to convert the native population while treating them with respect. Caleb, the title character, is brought into the story when Bethia is twelve years old. She encounters a young boy who is a member of the Wampanoag people while she is gathering clams. She has a limited knowledge of the Wampanoag language, so they are able to communicate. They become close friends, teaching each other the customs of their people and how to speak their languages well. They decide to give each other names; Bethia becomes Storm Eyes and Cheeshahteaumauk becomes Caleb.

Brooks treats the spiritual beliefs of both the English settlers and the Native Americans with respect. Caleb and some of the other Native Americans see power in the god of the English because of their ability to heal and their resistance to the diseases spreading through the area. Caleb also recognizes the need to understand the Europeans because of their great numbers. At one point he throws a handful of sand into the air and says the following: “You are like these. Each a trifling speck. A hundred, many hundreds-what matter? Cast them into the air. You cannot even find them when they land upon the ground. But there are more grains than you can count. There is no end to them. You will pour across this land, and we will be smothered.” Caleb sees that the native people must “cross over” or perish.

Another aspect of this book I thought was handled well was her portrayal of the racial and gender prejudices of the time. Some of the colonists were rigid in their structured views of the roles people are born to, but others could understand that both Native Americans and women can have the desire and the ability to learn. Caleb was based on a real man who was an early graduate of the college that would become Harvard.

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Saturday, September 8, 2012

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Wolf Hall (Wolf Hall, #1)Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I think a good test for historical fiction is to imagine the book you're reading with the names changed, so you come at it for the story rather than its perspective on the lives of real people. If I put Wolf Hall to that test, it fails. The story is about the events during the time when Henry VIII was forcing a break between the church of England and the Catholic church of Rome. It is long and told mostly through dialogue and specific scenes that give the opinions of characters. Henry wanted to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn for reasons that had to do with both his passion for Anne and his desire for an heir. The novel is written in first person from the point of view of Thomas Cromwell, which gives it an intensity that I felt was too much for so long a book. I also had difficulty with Mantel's use of pronouns. “He” was Thomas Cromwell by default but not always, so it often took me awhile to determine who was speaking. However, the writing is wonderful when reading short passages. Mantel obviously took a great deal of time with each word choice.

When glancing through some of the other reviews I noticed that the people who thought the most of Wolf Hall already had knowledge of that period of English history. I think that says a great deal for the accuracy and perspective on the events. I had a familiarity with the names of the people who surrounded Henry VIII, but knew very little about the specifics of the English reformation. I now know much more. My previous impression of Anne Boleyn was that she was an unfortunate woman caught up in a situation over which she had no control. I feel less sorry for her after reading this book. She treated people, including her sister, Mary, in a brutal and horrible way. I have a similar feeling about Thomas Moore who also suffered a fate that seems appropriate for such a ruthless man. Since the book was written from Thomas Cromwell's perspective, I'm left feeling that he was a strong family man who loved his children and, especially, his wife, Elizabeth Wyckes.

I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in sixteenth century English history.

Steve Lindahl - Author of Motherless Soul

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Saturday, September 1, 2012

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

A Visit from the Goon SquadA Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A Visit from the Goon Squad breaks the old rules then makes up its own. Considering the novel is about people involved with the punk rock movement this make sense, even if it is a bit disconcerting at times.

The elements that seemed confusing to me include such things as:
1. A section written in first person where I didn't know who the narrator was for a good length of time.
2. Plot elements that were built up then dropped, such as the section set on an African safari when Rolph (Bennie Salazar's son) comes back to find his sister, Charlie, crying. There have been hints of something going on between Charlie and one of the African warrior guides. So is this crying from something sexual that's occurred? We're not sure because we've been told regarding the warrior - “But he's sung for enough American tourists to recognize that in her world, Charlie is a child.” Perhaps Charlie is disappointed that nothing happened? Or she might just be upset that her father went for a walk with Rolph and didn't invite her. The point is - we never know.
3. Characters are introduced early in the book, then brought back much later. I read a Kindle version which helped a great deal. When I couldn't remember the person I was reading about I could search the book to find the places where I'd first read about him or her.

The elements that were new and in many ways amazing include such things as:
1. Egan's writing style seemed to reflect the mind sets of the characters I was reading about. During the time when all the characters appeared to be functioning while drugged, the writing jumped about in an intense manner that reflected the way these people were. For example: this is a section right after Sasha has stolen a woman's wallet, just for the thrill of stealing.

She sat down and cocked her head at Alex. She smiled her yes/no smile. “Hello,” she said.
The yes/no smile was amazingly effective.
“You're happy,” Alex said.

2. There's also a section late in the book that's written entirely in Powerpoint presentation. At first it seemed like a gimmick, but it reflects a filtered view of life that is important for the reader to understand.

There were also traditional aspects to this book that I liked. The subject matter was interesting. I grew up in the sixties, so aging rockers isn't something new to me. But it was different to see it from the punk perspective. I wouldn't recommend this novel to someone who wants to get lost in a book, but for someone looking for a unique read it's great.

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Saturday, August 25, 2012

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

Beautiful RuinsBeautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Beautiful Ruins is the story of the relationship between a hotel proprietor in a tiny remote village on the coast of Italy and an American actress working on the set of the film Cleopatra in the sixties. It is also about the lives of the people who surround the Italian and the American. It's about love, but more than that it's about the way circumstances can redirect our lives in unexpected ways.

This is the type of book I love. It has a number of complex and interesting plots that go their separate ways, but affect each other as they unravel. The book is like a waterfall. Its story runs downhill until it is almost finished then everything comes together at once. The pace is amazing.

Beautiful Ruins is filled with interesting characters, some of whom are fictional portrayals of celebrities the readers will know. All of the characters are intricate. We can feel what they feel, recognize their weaknesses, and understand their decisions—even when we disagree with them. The title applies to the settings, the stories, and the personalities.

There is true affection between Dee Moray and Pasquale, but what they learn from each other and how that affects the rest of their lives is as important as their emotions. The book is written in a non-linear style, but there is still tremendous suspense. It is a great read.

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Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets Nest by Stieg Larsson

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets Nest (Millennium, #3)The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets Nest by Stieg Larsson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets Nest is the third book in Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy. If you liked the other two and can keep reading through a slow beginning, I think you'll enjoy this one as well.

In the first half of the novel Larsson rehashes information from his other two books and spends too much time describing the Swedish legal system. Also, Larsson's most interesting character, Lisbeth Salander, is mostly ignored while she recovers from being shot in the head and buried alive in the last book. (A certain amount of suspension of disbelief is important for readers of any of the Millennium books.) The book only becomes interesting when the story includes Salander.

There are a couple of secondary plots that do not contribute much to the story. The first one has to do with a stalker and the second with an unethical business man. Those two story lines eventually help Erika Berger make an important decision, but that appears to be the only reason Larsson included them. He could have come up with a shorter and more relevant way to do that.

The short blurbs Larsson included on Amazon warriors seem superfluous and condescending to his strong female characters.

The book keeps going past the point when it should have ended. Larsson had a character from the second novel that he hadn't dealt with, so I suppose that's why he kept on writing. But once again he could have come up with a shorter way to resolve that issue.

But when the story reached the courtroom scene, I couldn't put the book down. I can't help but appreciate any novel that can keep me turning the pages as well as this one did.

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Saturday, August 11, 2012

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Crime and Punishment Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky is a classic Russian novel I decided to cross off my “should have read in high school” list. It is, by today’s standards, wordy, but I expect wordiness in nineteenth century literature and I enjoy getting into characters with detail and depth.

Crime and Punishment is primarily the story of a young student named Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, who kills an old pawnbroker and her sister for a variety of reasons. He is quite poor and becomes desperate when he learns that his sister, Avdotya Romanovna, is engaged to marry a wealthy man. Raskolnikov believes his sister is marrying someone unworthy of her for money and plans to help her family, including him, through their difficult financial situation. He thinks of the murder as an act that will rid the world of an unethical individual, but I saw this more as a rationalization than a reason for the crime. All this happens early in the story. The book is, for the most part, the story of his psychological reaction to his crime.

Although the book centers on the murder of the pawnbroker, it is not the only moral issue covered. The novel includes the story of a drunk, Semyon Zakharovich Marmeladov, who dies, leaving his family in a desperate situation — Semyon’s daughter, Sofia Semyonovna Marmeladova , who turns to prostitution to help support her family — and Pyotr Petrovich Luzhin, Avdotya’s former fiancé who attempts to frame Sofia Marmeladova for a theft she hadn’t committed. All these stories show events that present moral conflicts, even if the actions were not technically illegal in nineteenth century Russia. And there is also, Arkady Ivanovich Svidrigaïlov, a wealthy, former employer of Avdotya who apparently murdered his wife, Marfa Petrovna Svidrigaïlova. So the plot covers more than one crime and more than one punishment.

I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys classics and likes to read psychological studies of human behavior. As with Tolstoy’s work, the names can be a little confusing. There are a number of internet sites including Wikipedia that can help keep the characters straight.

Steve Lindahl - Author of Motherless Soul

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Saturday, August 4, 2012

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

Mockingjay (The Hunger Games, #3)Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Mockingjay is the only book in the Hunger Games trilogy that doesn't center on the heroine’s (Katniss’) struggles in the games. By this time she is fighting her real enemy, the government that created the games. It follows that this book loses some of what makes the other two unique, but Mockingjay is still an exciting read and an interesting commentary on the various ways governments control their populations.

The first two books told the story of a society with an economic system structured to funnel money away from the workers, making them dependent on the central government. The games were designed to intimidate the population by reminding them of the power that government held over them. This book presents another government (in district thirteen) that controls its people through laws designed to emphasis the society over the individual. The comparison of capitalism vs. communism is clear and powerful. These books are allegories.

The books are also adventure stories and in Mockingjay there are some changes in the way the adventure is handled. Katniss’ archery skill is so great, one could argue that she is a superhero in the first two novels. In the third, that skill is deemphasized. Katniss contributes to the fight against the Capitol by becoming a symbol of the resistance. Her most important skill is her ability to encourage others to fight rather than her own combat abilities. Or course, the leaders of the resistance cannot keep Katniss away from the frontline because she hates what the Capitol has done to the people she loves. There are plenty of action scenes.

The love triangle relationship Katniss has with Gale and Peeta continues in this book with Gale playing a bigger role and Peeta, who is being held by the enemy, kept in the background. The relationships seem to be propelled more by circumstances and less by emotions in this book. I saw that other reviewers complained about that fact, but in the end I was satisfied with the way things worked out.

On its own, Mockingjay would not work as well as the other two books, but along with them it creates an excellent story that is fun, poignant, and has a powerful message.

Steve Lindahl - Author of Motherless Soul

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Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt

The Sisters BrothersThe Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The description of The Sisters Brothers in Goodreads is “...a darkly comic novel about the picaresque misadventures of two hired guns.” What I liked most about Patrick DeWitt's novel is the way he treated his two main characters, Eli and Charlie Sisters, as if they are going through life with a normal goal that has nothing to do with killing someone. DeWitt seems to be commenting about the value of human life in that period (The California Gold Rush – 1848-1855) and in some ways about the value of human life in all times. Comic is not a word I would choose to describe this work, although other readers seem to appreciate the humor more than I did.

The novel is written from the point of view of Eli Sisters, the younger of the two brothers. Eli is sensitive and spends most of the book evaluating the choices he's made in life. He's looking for a relationship, specifically with a woman, that will give him a mental and spiritual connection. Charlie, however, is more interested in having sex and getting drunk, not necessarily in that order. Because we see their world through Eli's eyes, we appreciate the goals of the younger Sisters brother, even if the objects of his affection are unworthy.

Eli loves his horse. Tub was chosen for him by Charlie, who bought two horses and kept the best one for himself. Eli is disappointed with the animal he's received, but Tub is the first horse he's had with a name and after awhile Eli is impressed. Eli sticks with Tub even after the animal suffers the loss of one of his eyes. Just like the relationship Eli is seeking with a woman, the relationship with his horse is based on a connection of mind and spirit rather than a simple evaluation of what he can get from the animal.

The most important relationship Eli has in this book is his relationship with his brother. He's very protective of Charlie, even when Charlie takes the best for himself and leaves Eli with what is left. In the end the brothers are family and that is important, even to killers.

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Friday, July 20, 2012

Birthright by Nora Roberts

BirthrightBirthright by Nora Roberts

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I like stories that include romance, but I don't read very many books that specifically fit into the category of romance novels. I have, however, read a few Nora Roberts novels and enjoyed them. So when I was browsing through the NC digital library a couple of weeks ago, I picked Birthright by Nora Roberts as my next choice. I wasn't disappointed.

Birthright is the story of a woman (Callie Dunbrook) who discovers she was adopted and had been kidnapped from her birth parents when she was an infant. Although her adopted parents led her to believe she was their natural child, they were unaware of the crime and were victims along with Callie’s birth parents and Callie herself. Even though the plot is about finding the truth and seeking justice, the story is more about adjusting to a difficult situation than the crime itself.

There are multiple plots going on in Birthright including the story of an archaeological dig near Antietam Virginia that isn't appreciated by some people in the community and, of course, two budding relationships. One of these is between Callie and her ex husband. The other is between Callie's lawyer, Lana, and Callie's newly discovered brother, Doug. The first is about overcoming past mistakes and a history of mistrust. The other is about discovering someone new. All the plot lines interweave wonderfully while adding to and commenting about each other.

Although in some ways this book could be considered a mystery or, especially toward the end, a thriller, it is primarily a romance novel and there are many sex scenes. What I found interesting is that the sex in Birthright has nothing to do with power or manipulation or dominance. It is all about mutual attraction and love. Contrast this with the scenes in books such as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo or Fifty Shades of Grey or Once Upon a Secret (Mimi Alford’s JFK memoir) and it is a nice change.

I had some issues with some of the choices the characters made in the story. For example, there were college students working the dig who continued to work and even camped out on the site after a murder occurred there. I didn’t think that was realistic, even if there was an emphasis on the importance of the project. But the book is well written and a good read, especially for anyone who enjoys the genre.

Steve Lindahl – author of Motherless Soul

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Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Pact by Jodi Picoult

The PactThe Pact by Jodi Picoult

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The first Jodi Picoult book I read was Harvesting the Heart. I liked it, but wasn’t impressed enough to try another. Yet a friend in my bookclub kept raving about her, so I decided to read The Pact. It is an amazing, intense book that I couldn’t put down.

Good writers have to accomplish many things: interesting plots, intriguing ideas, tension that keeps the reader involved, careful use of language that stimulates emotions without distracting from the overall work, but the most important goal of a fiction writer should be full, believable characters. The reader has to know and understand how the characters think.

The Pact is about teen suicide, so Picoult had to get into the minds and emotions of two unique teenagers to explain why their decisions made sense to them at the time they made them. She achieved that goal remarkably well. There is no single reason for “the pact.” Instead, both teenagers are complicated and confused. Of the two, Emily is the one who is likely to be similar to someone a reader knows. She is impacted by her own perfectionism, an incident of sexual abuse, and the confusion of her relationship with Chris as they change from children to adults.

The Pact’s other characters were not forgotten by Picoult. Her novel is also about the impact of the tragedy on the parents of the two teenagers involved. Each one of the four carries the weight in a different fashion, yet each one’s response makes sense for that person. Picoult’s world is as real as the one we live in day to day.

This book is a great choice for anyone interested in reading an intense novel that is a page turner. But more importantly it is an outstanding choice for anyone who wants to understand the way teenagers think. I intend to read more of Picoult’s work.

Steve Lindahl – author of Motherless Soul

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Saturday, July 7, 2012

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

To Kill a MockingbirdTo Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

For the few people out there who haven’t read To Kill a Mockingbird, I have to say that there are ***SPOILERS*** in this review. I also have to confess that I did not read this novel back in high school, the way most people did, and only recently have remedied that situation. It lives up to its reputation. It’s great!

I was surprised that the novel wasn’t about race relations, or at least racial prejudice wasn’t the primary focus. It is a story about a man, Atticus Finch, who tries to live his life with integrity and does his best to provide an example for his children of someone who is “the same in his house as he is on the public streets.”

The story centers around the case of a black man who is wrongly accused of rape, but the emphasis is on Atticus’ decision to risk his life, his reputation, and his family’s safety by accepting this case and working hard to provide a good defense for the man. I wasn’t surprised that the man, Tom Robinson, was falsely accused by Bob Ewell, someone who lived his life with very low standards. But I was surprised that the defense Atticus provided involved revealing that Tom had a crippled arm. Didn’t the people know that? The woman he was accused of raping had seen him repeatedly. At least she should have noticed his arm. It was as if the people of that town couldn’t see Tom, as if he was invisible. Hatred, discrimination, and abuse are aspects of prejudice we all know about. But ignoring someone’s existence is a form that in some ways is worse than the others.

To Kill a Mockingbird is written from the point of view of Scout, Atticus’ ten year old daughter. She’s a tomboy who loves to get in fights and go on adventures with her brother Jem and her friend Dill. The book covers a great many aspects of growing up in a small Alabama town in the 1950’s that have nothing to do with race, but that theme is always hanging over the story. Scout and Jem have lost their mother and have been raised by Calpurnia, their African-American cook. When Atticus’ sister, Alexandra, comes to live with them, she suggests getting rid of Calpurnia. But Atticus tells Alexandra that Calpurnia is, “a faithful member of this family and you’ll simply have to accept things they way they are.”

I recommend that anyone who didn’t read this book in high school should read it now and anyone who did, should reread it.

Steve Lindahl , author of Motherless Soul

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Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Beginner's Goodbye by Anne Tyler

The Beginner's GoodbyeThe Beginner's Goodbye by Anne Tyler

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Beginner's Goodbye is a short but wonderful look at loss, coping and moving on. The novel is structured as a series of flashbacks about the marriage of Aaron and Dorothy Wolcott intermingled with scenes of Aaron trying to cope with Dorothy's sudden death. The book is about loss and that is the way it is described for potential readers, but like all of Anne Tyler's books the characters are complicated and there are more things going on beneath the surface.

What I found most interesting about The Beginner's Goodbye was the way Tyler shows how those of us who have partners become different people because of the individuals with whom we've chosen to share our lives. Aaron loved Dorothy and was devastated when an accident took her away from him. She visits him after death and we readers are never quite certain if the ghost of Dorothy is real or not. But what we do know is that his love (or guilt) is strong enough to bring her back. We also know that Aaron was quick tempered and irritable while he was with her. It was one of their small fights that had sent Dorothy to the sunroom where she was when the tree fell on their house.

Tyler gave Aaron a handicap. It is one that he can deal with (He even plays Raquette Ball), but it is one he was teased about while he was growing up and one that has always left him with a sense of inferiority. Some readers think this handicap is the reason for Aaron's irritating nature. I agree with that, but indirectly. I think his handicap is the reason he needed someone like Dorothy, but I think it was his marriage that caused him to become so testy. I think he outgrew his need for Dorothy and that's why the marriage stopped working.

The Beginner's Goodbye is a short book, but a powerful one. I listened to the audio version and felt it was read very well.

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Steve Lindahl - author of Motherless Soul

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Catching Fire (The Hunger Games, #2)Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Catching Fire is the second novel in Suzanne Collins' trilogy. I've noticed that the middle books in other trilogies have a tendency to advance the plot only sightly and to have no ending. True to form this book left me hanging, but I'm pleased to say my other expectation was proven wrong. Catching Fire has Katniss and most everyone around her expanding their views on what is important in life. She unexpectedly returns to the arena, but this time there is less of a sense of each tribute fighting for his or herself. The Capitol was always the clear villain, but this time it seems that most of the participants understand that fact. And Katniss, instead of begrudgingly accepting the fact that she will have to be the last one standing, is prepared to sacrifice her own life. The sentiment behind her “poison berry” tact in book one has taken hold.

The pacing of the writing is excellent once again. The fight scenes give the reader a sense that we're watching super heroes, but not to the extent that the book loses its sense of reality. However, the problems in the arena have shifted for the most part to struggles against disasters the Capitol has prepared rather than struggles against other tributes.

The politics of the book have shifted somewhat as well. In The Hunger Games the people of the districts are kept in place by an elaborate economic system that funnels most of the money to the Capitol. The tesserae is the clearest example of this. Here the poor people trade chances that their children will be chosen to fight in the arena for food to feed their families. But in Catching Fire that system is starting to fail and more emphasis has been placed on the “peace keepers,” who are brutal, sadistic soldiers. The government officials are less like wall street brokers and more like ruthless dictators (although I believe the concept that the two are similar is at the heart of both plots).

Suzanne Collins seamlessly switches back and forth between the problems of an unfair world and the problems of a young girl trying to understand her own emotions, creating a book that is appropriate for all ages. Once again her writing grabs the reader and doesn't let go. I'm looking forward to the third book.

Steve Lindahl - author of Motherless Soul

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Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Third Angel by Alice Hoffman

The Third AngelThe Third Angel by Alice Hoffman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Alice Hoffman was recommended by a friend. I read The River King and enjoyed it, so I decided to try another of her novels. I chose The Third Angel because it had the highest rating among the Hoffman novels that were available through the NC digital library. I didn't like it as much as The River King but still feel it is an excellent book. Perhaps my fondness for The River King is due to the fact that it was the first of Hoffman's books I read.

Hoffman writes about love, but not in a way that carries me into a standard, predictable story. She makes me think and she weaves supernatural aspects into her plots in a way that makes them as realistic as the rest of her plot lines. In The Third Angel she speaks about the angel of life, the angel of death, and a third angel: “The one who walked among us, who sometimes lay sick in bed, begging for human compassion.” This third angel comes to us readers in a few forms throughout the story including a blue heron, who is a character in a children's novel written by Allie, one of the characters in the first part of the book, and a ghost that haunts “The Lion Park Hotel,” an English inn that is the setting for much of the book.

The Third Angel is written in three parts. The first part is the story of two sisters, Maddy and Allie, who have a complicated relationship based on love and jealousy. The next two parts go back in time to cover the stories of Frieda, Allie's mother-in-law and of Lucy, Allie and Maddy's mother. All the stories are about relationships these women experienced that didn't work out the way they'd hoped. I liked the choice Hoffman made to have each part of the novel step back a little further in time.

There were times when the characters in this story made choices that I cringed over, especially Maddy in the first part who betrays her sister in a way that was particularly cruel. Hoffman clearly wanted me to forgive Maddy, but I had more trouble doing that than Allie did. I imagine other readers felt the same. In the second part Frieda gives something of her talent to a man who doesn't deserve her sacrifice and in the third part Lucy, who is a young girl at the time of her story, attempts to help a couple get together and has to deal with the consequences.

The Third Angel is a story about the complications of life. I recommend it for people who want a book that makes them think.

Steve Lindahl, author of Motherless Soul

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Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry

The Secret ScriptureThe Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Secret Scripture was a book club selection for the Constant Reader group on Goodreads. It was the first time I've followed their lead in choosing a novel and I will certainly look to their list for more. Sebastian Barry's use of language is beautiful.

The story tells about the protestant/catholic conflict in Ireland during the early 20th century, a setting I don't know much about. The destructive effect of the conflict on the life of Roseanne McNulty is powerful, but she handles her situation with grace and strength. Roseanne's character is the aspect of this book that impressed me the most. Although the story centers around the catholic church, the human failings of bigotry and arrogance are universal enough to leave the reader with a sense that these are still problems in our world. Religion provides an excuse for destructive action, but the source of the problems are in our nature.

There were some plot devices and coincidences that were unbelievable toward the end, but they weren't enough to diminish the overall quality of the book. The story is told by Roseanne, a 100 year old patient who has spent most of her life in an asylum. Her words are written in a hidden testimony that is discovered by a doctor who is evaluating all the patients to determine if they should be moved to a new facility that will replace their current building. The doctor's own story is told through his reflections and has its own tragedy, not as powerful as Roseanne's but still interesting.

I listened to the audio version of this book with Wanda McCaddon reading and thought she did a wonderful job. It took me a little time to get used to her Irish accent, but after that I thought her reading was as beautiful as any I've heard.

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Saturday, May 26, 2012

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Life of PiLife of Pi by Yann Martel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I wasn't a fan of the film Cast Away. I like stories where the characters interact and Tom Hanks spent too much time alone in that film. So Life of Pie is a novel I might not have picked on my own. It's about a young Indian man who is the sole survivor of a shipwreck and ends up sharing a lifeboat with Richard Parker, a Bengal Tiger. It was a choice for my book club and I'm thankful for that. It is a fascinating read.

Of course, there is time spent on the basics of survival. Pi (the young man's full name is Piscine Molitor Patel) spends 277 days in the small boat, so he needs to set up rain catchers and floating stills to capture fresh water and he has to discover a way to catch fish and turtles for a food source. He has to provide for his own needs as well as those of his formidable companion. But he also spends time reflecting on his past life with his family- zoo keepers in India. The entire story is set up with Pi as an old man looking back on his life, so technically these reflections are within a larger reminiscence. What was important to me was that much of the book is about Pi's concept of the relationships of people with animals and with God. Yann Martel does not directly compare our role to God to the role of zoo animals to zoo keepers, but enough time is spent on those subjects to draw our own conclusions.

The book contains graphic violence at times because it draws an honest picture of nature's food chain, but one of its greatest strengths is the relationship between Pi and Richard Parker. Pi has to assert his dominance or he will be eaten. It is fascinating to follow the way he chooses to do that.

I loved two things about this book: its originality and Martel's simple, yet profound, concept of God. I won't reveal any of my conclusions in this review because to do so would spoil aspects of the book. But I will say it made me think.

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Sunday, May 20, 2012

Water for ElephantsWater for Elephants by Sara Gruen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Water For Elephants is a love story set in a depression era circus run by a brutal man (Uncle Al) and his equally brutal managerie boss (August). It is full of action, intrigue, lies, and deception. This portion of the book starts fast and keeps on going.

The circus story is written as a reflection on the life of the main character who is 90 (or 93) and living in an assisted living facility. The plot keeps moving back and forth between young Jacob in the twentieth century and old Jacob in the twenty-first century. The scenes in the home are as sensitive as the rest of the novel is intense. The format reminded me of The Notebook. Jacob is as much in love with the woman he once knew as Noah was in Spark's book, but in this case Marlena has died instead of suffering from Alzheimer’s and Jacob is alone.

I loved the friendships that developed in this story, both the ones between people and the ones between animals and people. Jacob was self-centered when it came to the woman he loved, a fact that ultimately cost him his two best friends. But that's how love works and it's what gives the novel authenticity. He wasn't as brave as he should have been when it came to his relationship with Rosie, the elephant, but ultimately he took care of her.

Sometimes Uncle Al wouldn't pay his workers, but they stayed with him because the depression had left them penniless. I was left with a good picture of life in a traveling circus and with life during the depression. But it was the love story that kept me turning the pages and that's timeless.

August, Marlena's husband, died during an act of violence that seemed justified. He was a character I had come to hate during my reading. I'm sure most of the other readers did as well, at least the animal lovers.

It has been more than a year since I saw the film, but I believe it was consistent with the book in most places. The differences seemed small to me. For example, Marlena was supposed to be dark haired in the print version, but I kept picturing her as the blonde Reese Witherspoon.

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Saturday, May 12, 2012

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

People of the BookPeople of the Book by Geraldine Brooks
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks is a fascinating novel centered around The Sarajevo Haggadah. The Haggadah is a jewish text that, according to Wikipedia, “sets forth the order of the Passover Seder.” During Passover it is common to read from the Haggadah as “a fulfillment of the Scriptural commandment to each Jew to 'tell your son' of the Jewish liberation from slavery in Egypt as described in the Book of Exodus in the Torah.” The Sarajevo Haggadah is an ancient copy of this sacred text that has been insured for a value of 700 million dollars. It is currently owned by the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Sarajevo Haggadah is beautifully illustrated and that fact has caused historians to rethink their belief that, in Brooks's words, “...the commandment in Exodus 'Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image or likeness of any thing' had suppressed figurative art by medieval Jews.”

Geraldine Brooks has created fictional stories that parallel the real history of this tremendous book. Her characters live their lives around the book in Spain during the Inquisition, among a small group of freedom fighters resisting the Nazis during World War II, in Muslim homes, and in the Bosnian War.

One of the aspects of People of the Book that impressed me the most was way the people of different faiths interacted throughout the book. There was bigotry, murder, and rape, but also, at other times, trust and compassion. The scenes at various points in our world's history were always rendered in an intricate and believable fashion.

Hannah, an expert in the conservation of medieval manuscripts, is the novel's main character. Her work is fascinating, but so is her relationship with Dr. Ozren Karaman, the chief librarian of the National Museum and with her own mother, whose distance while raising her has crippled Hannah's emotions. The novel is as much about the “People” as it is about the “Book.”

Anyone interested in history, especially religious history, should read this book.

Steve Lindahl Author of Motherless Soul.

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Saturday, May 5, 2012

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games (The Hunger Games, #1)The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Hunger Games is the type of novel that pulls a reader in and keeps the pages turning. It also has some depth and thought behind it concerning the fairness of economic systems that funnel all the wealth to select groups at the expense of the majority. At times the writing can be melodramatic and somewhat predictable, but there was enough justification behind those scenes to get through them without losing the emotion. I was always eager to find out what was going to happen to Katniss and pulling for her along the way.

The story is about Panem, a country that exists in the future where the US was once located. Panem consists of 12 districts that surround a wealthy capitol. There was once a rebellion that pitted the capitol against the districts. After the rebellion was put down, the leaders devised the Hunger Games as a means of intimidation designed to maintain the status quo. Each of the districts must select 2 children to go into the arena and fight until there is only a single survivor. This is designed to show the people of the districts that they cannot defend their own children. The economic system protects the children in the capitol and in the districts the poorest families have the greatest chance of having their children selected. I wonder if the plot was inspired by the chocolate industry.

Katniss develops a relationship with Peeta, the boy from her district who was also chosen as a “tribute” and with Rue, a young girl from district 11 who reminds Katniss of her sister, Prim. The story is written from Katniss's point of view, so it is her emotions that we experience. They are as complicated and confused as the feelings of most seventeen year old girls. This is compounded by the fact that Katniss must play to the audience of the Hunger Games. Any sponsors she wins can help her along the way.

This book is unique, exciting, and relevant. Now that I've read it I intend to see the film. I also intend to read the rest of the trilogy.

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Saturday, April 28, 2012

Sarah's KeySarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I saw the film based on Sarah's Key and was impressed enough to read the book. The film was well done with mostly minor changes to the plot, but the book was better. I enjoyed the extra detail in the print version.

The novel takes place in France. It bounces back and forth between a reporters story in 2002 (about the Vel' d'Hiv roundup) and the story of a twelve year old girl in 1942, who was arrested during the roundup, when French police forced Jewish families out of their homes, held them in horrible conditions in a sports arena, then shipped them east, to the death camps in Poland. Julia Jarmond, the reporter in 2002, is connected to Sarah Starzynski, the young girl in 1942, because the family of Julia's husband has lived in the apartment that was home for the young girl's family prior to the roundup and is about to leave it to Julia, her husband, and their daughter.

I love the way Tatiana de Rosnay mixed everyday problems such as family and work issues with the horrors of life as a Jew in France during the rule of the Vichy (the French government that collaborated with the German Nazis). I mention this specifically because I've seen other reviews that objected to mixing any story with something as serious as this issue. This book tells us about the French collaboration while keeping us involved with an interesting, character based story. Both Julia and Sarah's stories kept me turning the pages.

The picture de Rosnay paints of the French people is probably an accurate one. Some of the non-Jews were cruel while others were willing to risk their lives to help, but most were indifferent. If they found a good deal on a recently abandoned apartment, then tried not to think about the former residents. If they saw families being herded onto buses, they shook their heads and kept on walking.

Events in our history such as the Vel' d'Hiv roundup need to be remembered. We need to understand the capacity people have to act in selfish and hate filled ways, so that we can try to avoid repeating such horrible actions. In a little over a week there is going to be an election here in North Carolina. We're going to vote on an amendment to our state's constitution that, if passed, will prevent people living in non-traditional families from having the same rights as people in traditional families. It will affect real world issues such as inheritance and visiting rights when a love one is sick. Books like Sarah's Key can remind us how we're all human and we need to treat each other with respect.

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Saturday, April 21, 2012

Revelation by C.J. Sansom

RevelationRevelation by C. J. Sansom
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Revelation by C.J. Sansom is one of a series of novels centered around the character Matthew Shardlake, a lawyer during the reign of Henry VIII. It is a time of religious fanaticism with England divided into two camps: the reformers and the advocates of the old traditions “...a sort of Catholicism without the Pope...” A number of gruesome murders occur, one of which affects Shardlake's circle of friends causing him to be personally involved in the need to find the killer.

I haven't read any of the other books in this series, but this one stood on its own quite well. The sixteenth century setting is what makes this novel a great read. Much of the story takes place in Westminster Abbey. It was fascinating to step back into that scene. But the other areas were interesting as well. Learning about the inn in which the lawyers lived and worked was intriguing as was getting a picture of the home and office of Guy Malton, a doctor and good friend of Shardlake's. In addition to the setting, learning about the politics of the time was fascinating. The king was all powerful, so getting him to lean one way or the other in the battle between the religious sects was important to all the characters.

The other aspect of this novel that I appreciated was the way Sansom wove biblical thought and prophecy into his story. Rather than touching the issue of the truth or falsity of prophecy, he looked on extreme religious belief as motivation and rationalization behind the actions of most everyone in the story. Religion affects everyone's lives from the government officials, to the ex monks, to a young boy who is confined to Bedlam because he will not stop praying.

This book is a good choice for readers interested in mysteries and period pieces.

Steve Lindahl, author of Motherless Soul

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Saturday, April 7, 2012

Travels With Charley by John Steinbeck

Travels with Charley: In Search of AmericaTravels with Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I wasn't sure if I should comment on Travels with Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck because I read less than half of it. I opted to write about it anyway, but with full disclosure.

I'm not a fan of travelogues. I started reading this book because my book club chose it, but when I learned I wasn't going to be able to attend that month's meeting I switched to another book. My impression of the book is that it is well written, but not very profound. One of the reviews I read said that Steinbeck stayed in hotels while traveling and not in his camper/van as he claimed. I don't know if this is true, but speaking as a fan of fiction I don't suppose it matters. He wrote of his impressions of America in 1962. The book is dated, of course, but that makes it interesting. There are differences between people who lived fifty years ago and people who live today, but those seem to be specific differences rather than core differences. We still generalize and jump to conclusions. Today we're more accepting of African-Americans, but less of Mexicans. The type of bureaucracy that kept Steinbeck from crossing the Canadian border without the proper paperwork for his dog was similar to the story of a friend of mine who was recently forced to toss a tube of sunblock before entering a federal building in Washington DC.

The discussions Steinbeck had with people along the way were the part of this book that I liked the most. The people he encountered were jealous of his decision to travel. They were caught up in their day to day lives and wanted something different. I went to high school in New Jersey, in a school that was next to the Garden State Parkway. I used to look out the classroom windows and be jealous of the people driving by. I imagine some of those people in the cars looked up at our school and were jealous of us students. People always want to break out of routine. It doesn't matter if the routine is staying in one place or if it is traveling.

I was surprised by how much Steinbeck drank. I suppose the prevalence of alcohol may be a difference in the current culture from the culture of the sixties. People still drink today, of course, but back then everyone seemed to have a wet bar in their house and a cocktail hour before dinner. Steinbeck would offer the people he met a drink in his trailer, so I suppose the alcohol was a way to experience more rather than a blurring of what he saw. Also, it seemed that “hard-drinking” was a description he would have used with pride when describing about himself.

This is a good read for anyone interested in twentieth century America or in travelogues in general.

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Saturday, March 31, 2012

Haunt Me Still by Jennifer Lee Carrell

Haunt Me StillHaunt Me Still by Jennifer Lee Carrell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Jennifer Lee Carrell has mixed history, conjecture, and mysticism together in Haunt Me Still, a novel about the curse behind Shakespeare's Macbeth. This is a subject that has interested me since 1972 when I was in the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival with a director who would only refer to the work as The Scottish Play. There's a long tradition in the theater that says Shakespeare included real spells in his work and that is why there have been so many problems with countless productions.

The main character in Haunt Me Still is Kate Stanley, a Shakespearean scholar who has left the academic world for the theater. She is called to Scotland by Lady Nairn, a former actress who is now the widow of Sir Angus, a wealthy Scottish lord who spent much of his life collecting rare artifacts associated with Shakespeare. Lady Nairn wants Kate to help her find a lost Macbeth manuscript that is supposed to include sections that were cut before the play was ever produced. After that manuscript is found, Lady Nairn wants Kate to direct a production of the original version.

The novel includes pagans who practice witchcraft, some in good ways, but others in a much darker fashion. There are underlying themes of revenge, love, and insatiable quests for knowledge throughout the book, but it is the history, both real and imagined, that fascinates me the most. Carrell has interspersed a number of scenes from sixteenth and seventeenth century England in the book, so the reader can have a full picture of the background. Those back stories are at least as interesting as the modern tale.

Some of the modern action scenes seemed a little overdone and some of the ways Kate determined where to look for the manuscript seemed contrived. But overall the book is a good read and the history is fascinating.

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Saturday, March 24, 2012

Before I Go To Sleep by S. J. Watson

Before I Go to SleepBefore I Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

S. J Watson took on an extremely difficult concept when he wrote Before I Go To Sleep. The novel is a thriller written entirely from the point of view of Christine Lucas, a woman who suffers from a type of amnesia that causes her to forget most of her life each time she falls into a deep sleep. It begins when she wakes up in bed with an older man she doesn't know. A glance in the bathroom mirror and a quick study of some photographs that have been taped on the glass, show Christine that she is no longer the twenty something young woman she thought she was. She is middle aged. The man she was sleeping with tells her they are married and explains her memory issues. This appears to be her life, to wake up and have to start over again each day.

Watson's writing grabs the reader immediately. The intensity drops off somewhat as the book continues, but given the structure Watson chose it is amazing how well he kept my attention.

Christine receives a call from a young psychiatrist, Dr. Nash, who has been seeing her despite the resistance of her husband, Ben, to her having any professional help. Nash tells her she's been keeping a journal and explains where she's hidden it. The journal is the means Watson uses to provide some continuity to the story.

There were a few times when Christine remembered things that seemed unlikely for anyone to remember, especially someone with her condition. For example she recognizing a woman doctor from a picture that had been flashed to her days earlier when she was undergoing a scan. It couldn't have been a memory from her journal. There were also a number of times when she would say she felt tired and wanted to rest. She didn't seem to be afraid to fall asleep, which struck me as odd. But for the most part there were very few contradictions in the book.

I loved the way the author created characters that all had their flaws, including Christine. Throughout the book I was sure there were people around her who could not be trusted, but I didn't know which ones she should have been concerned about. I created a number of theories while I read the book and only one of those turned out to be right.

This is a book club choice and a good example of an enjoyable read that I wouldn't have picked on my own.

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Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich

The Plague of DovesThe Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Louise Erdrich’s novel The Plague of Doves is the story of the residents of the town of Pluto, North Dakota and the Native American reservation nearby, over a span of more than a hundred years. Some of the people are Ojibwe, others are of European descent or mixed blood.

The book has a continuous plot revolving around the slaughter of a family in the late nineteenth century and a lynching that was a response to that murder. The white farmers in that area assumed a group of Indians were guilty when someone from that group reported the crime.

Although the book has a unifying thread, it reads like a series of short stories. At the back of the book there is a list of magazines where portions of this book have appeared. These include The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Best American Mystery Stories 2007, and The O. Henry Awards, among others. I can understand how sections of this book can stand alone, but due to this format the novel doesn't pull the reader forward. Each section seems to have its own conclusion.

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the way Erdrich combined stories that are uniquely Native American with stories that are indicative of anyone’s life in rural America in the 1800s. My favorite ones centered around the life of Seraph Milk, who tells his stories to his grandchildren: Evalina and Joseph. I was also interested in the story of Marn Wolde, who married Billy Peace and stuck with him as he started a religious cult. Marn was a snake handler who “milked” her snakes and used the venom. Erdrich's writing style became more frantic in this section.

The readers who would be most interested in The Plague of Doves are people interested in different lifestyles throughout history. The characters are unique and intriguing.

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Friday, March 2, 2012

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

The CorrectionsThe Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen is a superbly written book about an extremely dysfunctional family. Franzen manages to use language and metaphors that are consistently unique and always perfect choices. He focuses on his characters flaws and picks out details that explain exactly who they are. Here is an example, when Chip (Alfred and Enid's middle child) is waiting for them at an airport.

Chip had crossed his arms defensively and raised one hand to pull on the wrought-iron rivet in his ear. He worried that he might tear the rivet right out of his earlobe—that the maximum pain his ear's nerves could generate was less pain than he needed not to steady himself. From his station by the metal detectors he watched an azure-haired girl overtake his parents, an azure-haired girl of college age, a very wantable stranger with pierced lips and eyebrows. It struck him that if he could have sex with this girl for one second he could face his parents confidently, and that if he could keep on having sex with this girl once every minute for as long as his parents were in town he could survive their entire visit.

After that section the reader knows exactly what Chip is like and what he thinks of his parents.

The Lambert family consists of Alfred, Enid, and their three adult children: Gary, Chip, and Denise. Alfred has dementia. Enid is jealous of her neighbors and consistently comparing members of her family to others. Gary compensates for his insecurity by constantly issuing edicts. Chip is a frustrated writer who goes from one failed relationship to the next. And Denise is attracted to married men (and women).

In other reviews of The Corrections I noticed that some readers didn't enjoy spending time with characters that have so many problems. I had issues with that also, in the beginning of the book. But ultimately every member of this sorry family allowed some affection for each other to come through. I loved seeing those emotions come through.

If you enjoy quirky characters, that's a bonus with this book. But in the end it is the great writing that makes Jonathan Franzen's work wonderful.

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