Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Review: We Are Water by Wally Lamb

I was not familiar with Wally Lamb’s writing before I read this novel. It came to me as one of the books long-listed for the Maine Readers Choice Awards, and it blew me away. The subject matter is not pretty, and is bound to make some readers uncomfortable. The characters are so well-portrayed however, that the reader is able to understand all the complex motivations that drive the players in the story.

Orion Oh is a psychologist on the staff of the local college. Married to Annie Oh, for over 25 years, they are the parents of twins Arianne and Andrew and another daughter Annie is an eclectic artist whose work often demonstrates an internal anger. She has gradually moved out of the family house in Connecticut to live in New York As the story unfolds, we gradually become aware of Annie's fractured childhood background which definitely impacts her adult actions. In the meantime, the now adult children are coping with their own coming of age difficulties while processing their mother’s choice of lifestyle and what they perceive as their father’s being abandoned by her.

The new bride, a high visibility art gallery owner, is quite assertive and is determined to have her wedding be one of the social events of the year. They are marrying in CT since same-sex marriage has, at the time of this story, not been approved in NY where the couple reside.

As the story progresses, each chapter presents a different character’s perspective, both about the upcoming marriage and also a retrospective glance back to the earlier years of the marriage and their own childhood. The past life experiences (especially regarding Annie's behavior) that influence the characters sneak up on the reader, and unexpectedly explode in a devastating scene of powerful emotions.

Without much of a spoiler, it seems that the children were traumatized throughout their growing-up years by actions of their mother who in turn has unresolved issues from her mother and younger sister's death in a flood; the children never thought to tell their father, and the father-busy with his professional life-was blind to what was happening in his own home to his own family. He is horrified when he realizes what may have happened and how that impacted his now grown children.As the family members gather back in the Connecticut home town to attend the wedding, emotions boil over, memories are triggered, and disaster seems inevitable.

I’m normally not a fan of epilogues, finding them often a tack–on that detracts from the reader’s assimilation and interpretation of the details. In this instance however, the epilogue could just as easily have been titled as another chapter giving the reader a glimpse into the future of the main characters. I found it fulfilling to be able to see how these lives played out, even though the scenarios were different from what I might have imagined or hoped for.
This is a powerful book that delves into very timely issues with compassion, and non-judgmental understanding. It does not sugar-coat unpleasantness, but neither does it make choices for the reader about the correctness of individual actions. It’s a well-researched, well-constructed story of life today, and one that will certainly be a popular choice for book discussion groups in the future.

Title: We Are Water
Author: Wally Lamb
Publisher: Harper (2013), Hardcover, 576 pages
Genre: Literary fiction
Subject: Gay marriage, child abuse
Source: Review copy from publisher
Why did I read this book now? Long-listed for Maine Reader's Choice Award

Monday, January 27, 2014

Review: The House Girl by Tara Conklin

Tara Conklin intertwines the story of two women: Josephine Bell, a Virginia house slave who in 1853 is trying desperately to escape to freedom and Lina Sparrow, a New York attorney looking for a plaintiff to serve as "lead plaintiff" in a class action suit in 2004  to compel the payment of reparations for descendants of slaves. The story is hung together by the discovery of some artwork that is thought to have been painted by Josephine Bell although heretofore attributed to her white owner.

The slave story is by far the more compelling.  We read of harsh treatment, unsuccessful escapes, and finally her "trip" on the Underground Railroad.  The characters are well-drawn, believable, and the story hangs together beautifully.  The reader is emotionally drawn into the life of Josephine, given insight into the extreme conditions slaves endured both in captivity in the south, and throughout the ordeal of the escapees.

Lina's story on the other hand is a bit sparse.  I found it difficult to relate to this young woman who seems to have no backbone in her job, whose researching skills are lacking and who seems to be on the receiving end of several fortuitous happenings.  I couldn't quite figure out if the plaintiff she was pursuing was also meant to be a romantic interest, and I found the whole reparations story a wee stretch, as did the plaintiff.  The story of Josephine and her paintings carried the book.  The platform of the reparations case was quite unsteady, and the ending really left me hanging.

Overall, the book is still worth reading if for no other reason than for the clear picture of slave life and the hopelessness of their situation.  Reparations may be called for.  I just wish the author had made a better case for them, and found a more convincing plaintiff and built a more persuasive case.

Title: The House Girl
Author: Tara Conklin
Publisher: William Morrow (2013), Hardcover, 384 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Subject: Slavery, Underground Railroad
Setting: Virginia 1853, New York 2004
Source: Review copy from the publisher
Why did I read this book now? It was on the long list for the Maine Reader's Choice Award

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Review: Ten Things I've Learnt about Love by Sarah Butler

I'm a list maker, so I was drawn to this one.  Sarah Butler has woven together two stories that are seeminly unrelated. Alice is a vagabond young woman called home because her father is dying.  Daniel is a homeless gentleman who makes beautiful art objects from various trash and discarded objects he discovers on the street.

The chapters alternate between their two stories, and each begins with a list that gives the reader a glimpse into the psyche of each of them.  The stories tell of loss and hope, of love and emptiness, and the parallels of the two draw closer as the book proceeds.  It is a beautiful, thought-provoking, and poignant story and I don't want to say too much to spoil its special ending.  The reader sees the corresponding story lines, sees the characters as their lives continue side by side but not connected, and wants an ending so badly that the book cannot be put down.

The ending is beautiful, tearful and very special.  I'm so glad I read it, and wish I could say more, but it would be absolutely sinful to spoil it for you.  Go get a copy.

Title: Ten Things I Learnt about Love
Author: Sarah Butler
Publisher: Penguin Press (2013), Hardcover, 320 pages
Genre: Literary fiction
Subject: Loneliness, hope
Setting: London
Source: Review copy from the publisher
Why did I read this book now? Long list for Maine Readers' Choice Award

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Review: Necessary Lies by Diane Chamberlain

I had no idea what this was really about when I received the review copy from the publisher. Then I found it on my "hafta read" pile for the Maine Reader's Choice Award panel. I hesitate to call it a delightful surprise since the subject matter, Eugenics, is one that is deeply controversial and ugly.

Evidently, in the US, several states had Eugenics programs in place allowing them to sterilize certain institutionalized citizens deemed unsuitable for procreating for a number of reasons, e.g., epilepsy, mental retardation, etc.  In North Carolina, the setting of this story, social workers were allowed to recommend this procedure on clients who were members of the general population without their residing in an institution.  Often they were simply poor, undereducated, and malnourished.

In the story, we follow Jane Forrester and Ivy Hart.  Jane is an upper middle class college graduate, recently married to a pediatrician who does not want his wife to work.  Jane has different ideas, wanting to have some sort of career before settling down to staying home to raise children.  She is hired as a social worker in North Carolina in the early 1960's.  Ivy Hart is one of her clients, a 15 year old girl who is trying hard to be a caregiver to a diabetic grandmother, a mother to her slightly retarded older sister and the sister's child "baby William" all the while trying to stay in high school and be the first in the family to graduate.

The poverty of the Hart family is thoroughly depressing and would crush the spirit of just about any normal person.  Ivy, with encouragement from Jane, is determined NOT to allow herself to become pregnant, and at the same time is doing everything she can to be sure that her sister, who is known to be quite promiscuous, does not have another child.  The social services department for whom Jane works, is determined to sterilize both girls.

Jane finds herself in the middle of a moral dilemma trying to help Ivy, obey her boss, and placate her husband while keeping him unaware of the specifics of her job.  As the timeline becomes more critical, Jane is forced to make decisions that will have a definite impact not only on her clients, but also on her own future.

This is a true page turner.  The characters are real, believable, and the story is horrifying in its implications.  The author has done significant research to present us with an in-depth look at the unbelievable options that actually occurred in this country just 50 short years ago.  It is a must read.

Title: Necessary Lies
Author: Diane Chamberlain
Publisher: St. Martin's Press (2013), Hardcover, 352 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Subject: Eugenics, social services
Setting: Rural North Carolina, 1960
Source: Review copy from the publisher.
Why did I read this book now? It was on the long list for the Maine Reader's Choice Award

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

A new series for Tutu: Joe Ceepak mysteries

Back in December I got hooked on a new detective series.  I needed a break from all the serious literary fiction I was reading for the Maine Reader's Choice Awards. I had several Audible credits to spend, and several of my LibraryThing friends recommended these. I'm hooked. The Joe Ceepak mysteries are fun fun fun---great characters, good plots, terrific setting - The Jersey shore. So far I've read the first 4 - waiting for the next batch to go on sale!

Joe is a straight arrow police officer with an unshakable code of honor that broaches no lying, cheating, or allowing anyone else to lie or cheat.  He's recently returned from Iraq/Afghanistan service as an MP. Like most vets, he brings some baggage (like not wanting to drive the squad car because of an IED incident).   He is paired with a smark-aleck college grad "summer cop" Danny Boyle who has much to learn about policing, resents not being allowed to carry a gun, but who deeply admires Joe Ceepak and his code of honor. Ceepak in turns develops an abiding admiration for Danny's abilities and a team is formed.

The mysteries all take place in a Jersey Shore town full of amusement parks, boardwalk attractions, and restaurants of dubious culinary merit. They are some of the best fun I've had reading in a long time. Good cop stuff but not so grimy and heavy that I come away depressed. These are definitely "try 'em, you'll like 'em" kinda stuff. The characters are well drawn in the first volume, but Grabenstein progresses in each new story with a deeper sketch of each, and with new character to enhance the group.  There are nine of these so I'm sure to be reading more.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

2013 Reading Recap - FINALLY!!!

I had a fabulous reading year in 2013. Much of my reading was devoted to Literary Fiction as part of my membership on the Maine Readers' Choice Award Committee. There are 20 people on the committee and we were divided into teams of four- each team was then assigned 25-27 books to read. From those we had to select two to move forward to the next round.  We had 3 top ones, but were able to decide fairly easily about #2.  There were several books though that I could easily have advanced to the next level. 

You'll note in my stats that the numbers don't always add up. Often I read a book in more than one format - hard copy and audio being the usual, although I've been known to ebook and audio a couple.

My total for 2013 was quite a bit lower than previous years, but care-giving does not leave one much energy for reading or even listening.

Titles completed 115
Print 42
Audio 58
Ebook 18

Fiction 103
Nonfiction 12

Mysteries 51 (my favorite genre)
ARC 25
MRCA 22 (some of these were finalists from last year)
Abandoned 18 (several of these were MRCA books!!!)

From the library 54

It's impossible for me to pick any one book of the year as THE BEST, but since I LOVE mysteries, I will start by declaring

The Best Mystery of the Year: How the Light Gets in by Louise Penny. 

Best Fiction Reads (in no particular order) and not necessarily published in 2013 - just when I read them.  

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
Benediction by Kent Haruf
Sparta by Roxana Robinson
The Signature of all Things by Elizabeth Gilbert
A Land More Kind than Home by Wiley Cash (winner of last year's MRCA)
The Dinner by Herman Koch
We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo
The House Girl by Tara Conklin
Necessary Lies by Diane Chamberlain
The 100 Year old Man who climbed out the window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson

Best Non-fiction Reads

Sound of A Wild Snail Eating by Elizabeth Tova Bailey
Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain
American Nations by Colin Woodard (a re-read for my book discussion group - even better the 2nd time)

I'd be hard pressed if I had to choose one of these as my best choice...they are all worth your time.  Enjoy your reading year, and please stop by often.  I'll try to stay more caught up now that I'm back in snowy, stay at home for the winter land.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Just a tad behind....

Well since the month of January is over 1/2 gone, I guess it's time to try to catch up. As many of you may know, we've had some challenges with my 89 year old Mom who lives 620 miles away in Baltimore, so I haven't had as much reading time as I'd like. Mom fell and broke her pelvis just before Thanksgiving and was doing really well getting back to reasonable mobility when she fell again just after New Year's and broke her wrist - this time requiring surgery.  It's a bit difficult using a walker with your arm in a cast. 

Thankfully she has four daughters who have all pitched in to take turns helping out.  I spent about 10 days with Mom starting New Year's Eve, and finally got back to Maine just last week.  The surgery seems to have gone well (she's scheduled to have the stitches and cast removed today) and with lots of helpers and therapy, she hopes to be able to resume her independent life in another 6-10 weeks.

I have about 10 books waiting for reviews, and I'll be working on those for the rest of this week.   I also have several ARCs waiting and a blog tour for February for one of my favorite new authors -Wiley Cash, whose book The Dark Road to Mercy is scheduled for publication next month..

I'm still deciding whether to stay on the Maine Reader's Choice Awards panel to judge books published in 2014. We're finishing up the long list for 2013 books and will announce the short list in early February. We actually won't be finished the 2013 selections until this summer.  My team has finished reading and selecting from its batch of 27 and some of those will be among those reviews to be posted here in the next few weeks.

I'm resigning my librarian job at the end of my term, so as of April 1st, I'll only be involved in the monthly book discussion group, and the Friday Mah Jongg gang. 15-20 hrs/week as a volunteer is getting to be a bit much for this chronologically advantaged lady.  Too much going on to do justice to the job.

I'm not setting any 2014 reading goals. I plan to read whatever falls into my hand, or shows up on the shelf at the library. I have over 302 books in my current TBR collection, and there are over 4000 books residing in this house, (and several 100 others on the Nook and/or Kindle) so I'm sure I'll be able to find something to read. This may even be the year I get some of it organized.

This year Bob and I hope to do some traveling. He's not running for re-election for town selectman so he can concentrate more time on writing the next book about Jason Stewart the sea Captain from his book Strike from the Deep. Whether it will get published (if and when he finishes it) is a question of luck and  money.   I'm still planning to do a giveaway to get 2014 sales off to a good start, so stay tuned.  We really want to get to Quebec this summer to do the Gamache mystery tour, and visit some old friends in the New England area.

I even hope to get my Great Blue Heron needlework done!

So darlings welcome back to Tutu's unmitigated mess - just remember that dull women have immaculate homes/desks/lives/threads and I have never been accused of being dull.