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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