Friday, July 31, 2015

Review: At the Water's Edge by Sara Gruen

The Publisher says:
Madeline Hyde, a young socialite from Philadelphia, reluctantly follows her husband and their best friend to the tiny village of Drumnadrochit in search of the Loch Ness monster—at the same time that a very real monster, Hitler, wages war against the Allied Forces. Despite German warplanes flying overhead and scarce food rations (and even scarcer stockings), what Maddie discovers—about the larger world and about herself—through the unlikely friendships she develops with the villagers, opens her eyes not only to the dark forces that exist around her but to the beauty and surprising possibilities as well.
Tutu comments:  I wasn't sure that I liked this one as it started.  I found the three main characters stereotyped and obnoxious.  However, as the story unfolded and Maddie is forced to face life's realities without the money or social backing she was used to in the US, I found myself rooting for her and hoping that she would survive the wartime experience, and the apprarent and devastating betrayals of husband and friend.

It's a beautiful story, with romantic characters, heart-stopping episodes of violence and loyalty, and the opportunity to absorb some history as well.  I only wish the characters hadn't been typecast as rich, spoiled brat Americans.  That character drawing made it just a bit too hard to accept. It's still a good solid read, but certainly not Pulitzer material.

Title: At the Water's Edge
Author: Sara Gruen
Publisher: Spiegel & Grau (2015), 368 pages
Genre: Literary Fiction
Subject: Loch Ness monster
Setting: Scotland during World War II
Source: Public library
Why did I read this book now?  It was being considered for the Maine Reader's Choice Longlist.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Review: The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler

The Publisher Says:

"Dear Mr. Watson, I came across this book at auction as part of a larger lot I purchased on speculation. The damage renders it useless to me, but a name inside it—Verona Bonn—led me to believe it might be of interest to you or your family...."

Simon Watson, a young librarian on the verge of losing his job, lives alone on the Long Island Sound in his family home—a house, perched on the edge of a bluff, that is slowly crumbling toward the sea. His parents are long dead, his mother having drowned in the water his house overlooks. His younger sister, Enola, works for a traveling carnival reading tarot cards, and seldom calls.

On a day in late June, Simon receives a mysterious package from an antiquarian bookseller.... Why does his grandmother's name, Verona Bonn, appear in this book? Why do so many women in his family drown on July 24? Could there possibly be some kind of curse on his family—and could Enola, who has suddenly turned up at home for the first time in six years, risk the same fate in just a few weeks? In order to save her—and perhaps himself—Simon must try urgently to decode his family history while moving on from the past. 
The Book of Speculation is Erika Swyler's gorgeous and moving debut, a wondrous novel about the power of books and family and magic.

Tutu comments:  First of all - it's about a book.  It's about a librarian, and it's all about the reference and research functions of a library.  What's not to like?  A delightful give and take flight of fancy and fantasy.  Often I dislike books that try to wrap an ancient family history into a present day reality. However, this time Erika Swyler held my interest from the start.  The fascination of the old book, the traveling circus, the tarot readings (a subject I knew little of), together with the present day romance, the looming disaster of the crumbling house, and the just below the waterline mystery of the identity of the antiquarian bookdealer all combined to keep me up late for two nights while I finished this one.

The subject matter: the antique book, the storm damage, the loss of job, fortune telling, ancient circus tales combines with eloquently drawn characters: an out-of-work librarian, a tattoo'd circus strong man, neighbors who may be more than just neighbors, a mute wild man, a human 'mermaid' who can hold her breath underwater for more than 10 minutes.   All of these disparate elements are woven into a colorful, soulful tale of life before and life to come, of unrequited love, lost love, and love recovered.  An engaging first novel.  I will definitely be on the look out for more by this author. 

Title: The Book of Speculation
Author: Erika Swyler
Publisher: St. Martin's Press (2015),e-book, 352 pages
Genre: Literary fiction, fantasy
Subject: Circus performers, mermaids
Setting: Long Island Shoreline
Source: electronic galley from the publisher via Net Galley

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Review: The Precipice by Paul Doiron

In this action packed suspense mystery, the publisher whets our appetite with a blurb that almost spoils the story.  Here's the opening:
In this riveting new novel from Edgar finalist Paul Doiron, Bowditch joins a desperate search for two missing hikers as Maine wildlife officials deal with a frightening rash of coyote attacks.
When two female hikers disappear in the Hundred Mile Wilderness-the most remote stretch along the entire Appalachian Trail-Maine game warden Mike Bowditch joins the desperate search to find them.
Hope turns to despair after two unidentified corpses are discovered-their bones picked clean by coyotes. Do the bodies belong to the missing hikers? And were they killed by the increasingly aggressive wild dogs?
Paul Doiron continues to improve his story-telling skills in this latest of the Mike Bowditch series set in the northern woods of Maine.  The story contains mystery, romance, animals (both human and wild), and a tale of egos, gorgeous scenery, and high adventures in the Maine Wilderness.

I don't want to spoil the story.  It's a fast-paced, page turning look at the multi-facted life of Maine Game Wardens as they go about protecting land, people, resources, and wildlife.  Mike Bowditch is maturing as a character, Paul Doiron is maturing as a writer, and that all adds up to a treat for the reader.

Title: The Precipice
Author: Paul Doiron
Publisher: Minotaur Books (2015), e-galley 336 pages
Genre: Mystery
Subject: Missing persons
Setting: Northern Maine woods
Series: Mike Bowditch (6)
Source: review copy from publisher via Net Galley
Why did I read this book now?  I'd read the earlier books in the series and had a chance to get a review copy.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Three Worth Mentioning - Non Fiction

Although the majority of my reading is fiction, I periodically like to step out of the world of make-believe and read something that is true to life.  Over the past few months, I've been enriched by several volumes on different subjects.

Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell

I lived in Hawaii for over 2 years back in the 70's and was fascinated about the history and cultural background that accompanied the beautiful and magical landscape. Sarah Vowell's well researched and organized story of the Hawaiian Islands presents the geography, history, the various ethnic groups, the food, the music, the poetry, the myths, the treachery and the language in a low-key but mesmerizing prose.

I'm a definite fan of audio books, so chose to listen to this one.  Sarah Vowell's quirky, fun delivery of her writing added a lot for me.  She definitely helped us to understand where her humor was responsible for tongue-in-cheek asides, where the straight history was being presented, and where she was drawing inferences based on various bits of info, especially where one might not have normally drawn such conclusions.

We are introduced to the various ethnic groups who populated the islands, the mythical and magical stories that form so much of the Hawaiian charm, and the unquenchably greedy grasping of big money big politicians in Washington whose quest for territory is one of our country's less than stellar moments in history.  Altogether an enchanting read, and one which will appeal for a variety of reasons.
Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End  by Atul Gawande

I agree with the many reviewers who urge that everyone should read this book.  Since that is of course not going to happen, perhaps the better goal would be that everybody should have the chance to be exposed to the ideas and ideals delineated so clearly by Dr. Gawande.  In clearly written prose, Gawande explains why it is that doctors are not giving patients the information they should have to navigate the many options available as a person nears the end of life.

The story is compelling, non-frightening, and utterly believable as he tells of how his own father, a renowned physician, dealt with his impending death.  We are introduced to concepts that are all too often brushed aside, glossed over, or even ignored, as doctors (who are trained to cure and keep people alive) bumble along without the proper training in how to help people make intelligent and life-enhancing choices.  The phrase I liked best was his insistence on getting terminal patients to think about "How do you want to live the rest of your life?  What would you like to do with the time you have left?"  By offering patients the opportunity to decline painful, expensive and often extraordinary medical procedures to gain only days or weeks of agony so they can live out their remaining time alert and without added physical distress, he shows us a new and more humane model for coping for life's natural end.  Highly recommended.

NPR American Chronicles: First Ladies

A delightful introduction to a collection of first lady vignettes. Cokie Roberts introduces this series of NPR podcasts, which present us with some well-known, some little known tidbits of information, gossip, facts and inferences about many of our favorite first ladies.

Not exactly a book, I received this short CD assortment as part of the ER program.  The individual segments are the perfect length for travel listening.  Well written, well researched, and absolutely fascinating.  It has certainly enhanced my quest to read biographies of all the presidents.  I definitely plan to add some fuller bios of the interesting ladies.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

The Truth According to Us by Annie Barrows

 I was really disappointed in this big, slow, lumbering story.  Based on the author's previous work, I expected to enjoy the novel.  Instead, I found myself struggling for over a month to get anywhere close to finishing it.  Perhaps  Barrows was trying to give the reader the experience of life in slower times, but she only succeeded in giving the reader a glimpse into a life of total tedium.

Based on the publisher's blurb, I thought we'd get more of the flavor of the effects of the Great Depression on a small town in West Virginia.  The publisher says that the main character Layla Beck imagined that she "was destined, in her own opinion, to go mad with boredom".   I'm not sure if she really did, because before I could find out if Layla did,  I certainly came close to that state myself.

Too many insipid, unbelievable characters with too many agenda, and nothing spinning anyplace but around in circles.  Probably it would have been a good story if an editor had helped tighten it up, but I gave up about 3/4 of the way through.  Even a good ending isn't going to save this one.

Title: The Truth According to Us
Author: Annie Barrows
Publisher: The Dial Press (2015), Hardcover, 512 pages
Genre: Claims to be historical fiction - long on fiction, very short on history
Subject: wish I could have figured it out
Setting: fictional West Virginia town during the Great Depression
Source: review copy from the publisher
Why did I read this book now? I received it as a participant in's Early Reviewer program and was committed to review it.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Review: The Secret Wisdom of the Earth

In his stunning debut novel, Christopher Scotton has given us a powerful story of life, death, greed, family relations, friendship and growing up.  Set in rural Appalachian Kentucky, we meet people who are trying to honor their roots, raise and feed their families, preserve a way of life, and teach the next generation the value of the land and its resources.

I was blown away by this one.  The camping, hiking, hunting, tramping scenes are not subjects I'm normally fond of, but Scotton's descriptions and his ability to spin not only believable but spectacular dialogue made this one a true page turner for me.

There are heart-wrenching and poignant scenes of incredible sadness.  There are heart-warming and rewarding scenes of astonishing acts of friendship.  There are scenes of such devotion, love and bravery that I was often on the verge of tears.

And the prose.....Ah....the prose.  It is sparse, clipped, poetic, insightful, artistic and often breathtaking.  I saw every picture the writer painted as he described mountains, buildings, caves, vegetation, and most especially love, respect, hatred, cunning, greed and bigotry.

After his younger brother dies in a horrifying accident, fourteen year old Kevin and his mother come to Medgar Kentucky to spend the summer with his grandfather, hoping to help each of them mend.  Here they encounter a town caught in a battle over strip-mining, leveling the surrounding mountains, and polluting the waterways.  The opposition is led by a recently outed homosexual in this small-town, Bible-belted setting.  Here Kevin meets Buzzy Fink, outdoorsman extraordinaire. Buzzy witnesses a horrific crime and struggles with what to do with the knowledge.  On a harrowing camping trip with Grandpa, both boys learn their true strength, both moral and physical.

An adult Kevin narrates the story, giving us the benefit of his hindsight, but never lets us loose the pit-of-the-stomach moments the teenagers experience.

Definitely one of the best books of the year for me.  I was so enamored, I also borrowed the audio from  the public library.  The narrator, Robert Petkoff, gives us the pitch perfect accents of the areas, varies the voices so the listener is never in doubt about who is speaking, and cements this debut novel in the top ranks of literary fiction for 2015.  Don't miss it.

Title: The Secret Wisdom of the Earth
Author: Christopher Scotton
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing (2015),  480 pages;
Audio:  Hachette Audio and Blackstone Audio; Unabridged edition (January 6, 2015)
Narrator: Robert Petkoff
Genre: literary fiction
Subject: coming of age; bigotry, greed, strip-mining
Setting: rural Kentucky
Source: Public library

Sunday, July 12, 2015

She's back.....sort of

As you can see, there's been a huge gap in posting here in Tutuland for the past two months. I have been reading but real life has definitely been using up any extra time I used to have for reviewing books I've been reading.   In fact, real life has even gotten in the way of reading. Most of my interaction with books has been late at night in the form of re-listening to mystery series with characters who are like old friends.  I've been especially devoted to Precious Ramotswe in the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, and Inspector Thomas Lynley.

I'm not sure whether I'll have a regular schedule of reviews up anytime soon.  We've had two deaths, several serious illnesses, and other changes in life situations in our extended families and those are taking 6-10 hours a week of telephone time, in addition to emails, unexpected cross-country flights, etc.   Both Mr. and Mrs. Tutu are fine and in good health, but we're both trying to be good siblings, cousins, aunts/uncles, parents and grandparents. I hope you understand.

 I have finished one review which I'll post later this week, and hope to post at least tempting tid-bits when I come across one I feel needs a shout-out. Also, I'm planning some time in the UK next month to visit my daughter, so I'll try to line up a few posts to run while I'm gone.  In the meantime, pour the ice tea, call a loved one  and enjoy this beautiful summer.

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