1222 by Anne Holt…

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When Scribner asked me to review this book,
I jumped at the chance 1222to read Anne Holt‘s latest crime story 1222.

The basic story line is that a train crashes in Northern Norway during a horrific snow storm and the survivors are taken to a nearby hotel until the blizzard subsides. (The title comes from the fact that they are 1,222 feet above sea level.) All seems well until a priest is found murdered just outside the hotel door on the morning after the crash.

Hanne Wilhelmsen, a wheel-chair bound retired detective, is one of the survivors. She carefully observes the other passengers and pieces together what happened. The interesting wrinkle in this book is the other characters’ willingness to talk near Hanne as if she wasn’t there – likely because they see her as lesser because of her wheelchair – but it ends up being how the mystery is unraveled. The other irony is that Hanne enjoys watching people but not so much inteacting with them – quite a challenge when trying to interview witnesses and suspects.

Hanne is a little grumpy and I kept forgetting that she was a woman. That’s not good or bad – just my experience.

Amping up the drama and mystery is the fact that the passengers from the private car on the wrecked train have been isolated on a separate level of the hotel.

To be honest – because that is what I promised to be here – I had a hard time buying into the idea that this hotel would have been totally stocked full of supplies to support a train load of people for several days when it was practically empty of people, except for staff members. Beyond that, the story is engaging and the unfolding connections between people are interesting.

This is the eighth book in a series but the first one translated into English. So English readers are likely missing out on some historical information/backstory on Hanne Wilhelmsen – but I think that’s okay. If you like a mystery – especially an isolation mystery where the people are bound together by circumstances/location and cannot escape each other – you will likely enjoy this story.

 

Defending Jacob by William Landay……..

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(There is always the chance that a any book discussion might reveal too much about an unread story – if you haven’t read the book and want to, you might want to wait to read what is written here – just in case.)

I read Defending Jacob by William Landay for my book club. If you want a book rich with discussion possibilities, this one is it.

Jacob is a high schooler who lives in a small town. In that town, one of his fellow students is murdered. Jacob’s dad is the Defense Attorney on the case – until Jacob is accused of the murder. It turns out that Ben (the murdered boy) was bullying Jacob, giving him quite a motive.

This book opens a lot of avenues of discussion….

  • Nature v. Nuture
  • The Impact of Working Parents
  • Genetic Predisposition
  • Bullying
  • Community Reaction to Crime
  • Murder and Suicide
  • What Defines Normal Behavior in Children
  • What Parents Are Willing/Unwilling to Believe About Their Children

You better serve wine. 8-)

The story was well-paced and I really liked the first half of the book. I felt like Jacob’s story could go either way and I struggled to decide whether Jacob was innocent or guilty. But then the book turns and a lot of surprising things happen. Which is generally good in a book. But this story just had too many twists. It felt contrived and too easy at the same time.

It really would make a good book for any discussion group and maybe even a good book for parents/teenagers to read together. I just wasn’t thrilled with plot development toward the end.

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness…….

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(There is always the chance that a any book discussion might reveal too much about an unread story – if you haven’t read the book and want to, you might want to wait to read what is written here – just in case.)

A Discovery of Witches is a tale of “witch meets vampire” and then, “witch falls in love with vampire” – while almost everyone in the entire other-world (non-human world) tries to stop them from being together.

There are vampires and witches and daemons, oh my.

Diana (the witch) is a historian (specializing in alchemy) who is conducting research in Oxford’s Bodleian Library. She stumbles upon an ancient manuscript that is thought to hold many secrets about the beginnings and histories of all of the non-human characters in the book. She herself has avoided magic her entire life. So, while she knows that something mystical happens when she is able to unlock the book and read its pages, she is not fully aware of the significance of the text that sits open before her and simply returns the book to the library shelves when she is finished with it.

Matthew Clairmont (the vampire) has been drawn to the Oxford library because he has heard the fantastic tale of a witch who uses no magic in her daily life yet has the power to summon the lost book called Ashmole 782. Matthew has lived among and studied with the best – Darwin, Guggenheim, and the likes who have defined history. He has turned his focus to studying DNA, particularly in wolves, and in the lineage of all creatures. Matthew fears that vampires might be dying out and hopes to find answers in the crackling pages of Ashmole 782.

Together Matthew and Diana literally take on the world in search of missing pages and answers.

The book kept my attention for all of its nearly 600 pages. But it was clearly written as the first of a series, leaving many, many questions unanswered. I much prefer it when a book stands more on its own and additional tales supplement (rather than rely on) the initial story.

The story held some pieces that just did not make sense to me. The title for example – A Discovery of Witches – the story is not simply about the discovery of witches – but vampires and daemons as well. Hmpf. Additionally, these creatures exist among humans who are suspicious of them but aren’t really supposed to know they exist. Yet, there a few scenes in which humans are clearly aware that these vampires, witches, and daemons are not human. But that’s it. We just know that they know and move on to the next scene. Maybe those (and other) gaps will tighten later in the triology.

The writing was solid but it was riddled with cliches and repeated words/descriptions (especially of smells and clothing). That was distracting to me. I do think it would be hard to write about magic. As an author, you would have to create realistic, believable reasons why magic could not just instantly solve any problem. I thought that obstacles in this book were too easily overcome even without the aid of magic. At one point, Diana is captured and Matthew comes to her rescue. He is able to scoop her away without so much as a challenge.

Toward the end of the story, Diana and Matthew go to visit Diana’s aunts in their enchanted house. The house is a lot of fun and the creativity the author summoned to create and describe the house is really good. It is a clever house and would be so fun to live in.

Overall I liked A Discovery of Witches well enough but probably won’t continue on with the series.

Little Bee by Chris Cleave………..

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(There is always the chance that a any book discussion might reveal too much about an unread story. This is particularly true with Little Bee. The publishers of this book have decided not to put any kind of summary on the book’s jacket. So, if you haven’t read the book Little Bee and want to be surprised by even what it is about, you might want to wait to read what is written here until you are done.)

If you are a lover of words, this book is for you! Chris Cleave must use a magic wand as a pencil. Periods serve not just as a end to a sentence, but as a chance for the reader to stop, take a breath, and reread the words before it.

One of my favorites passages is when Little Bee says:

” On the girl’s brown legs there were many white scars. I was thinking, Do those scars cover the whole of you, like the stars and the moons on your dress? I thought that would be pretty too, and I ask you right here please to agree with me that a scar is never ugly. That is what the scar makers want us to think. But you and I, we must make an agreement to defy them. We must see all scars as beauty. Okay? This will be our secret. Because take it from me, a scar does not form on the dying. A scar means, I have survived.”

This is so wonderful on many levels. First of all, nearly everyone in the book has a secret, a scar. And with this, Little Bee brings the reader into the secrecy as well. With this, we are a part of it. Come in, dear reader, let me whisper in your ear too. This paragraph also tells you, without question, that Little Bee is a survivor. “A scar does not form on the dying.” She is proud to have survived.

My other favorite aspect of Little Bee’s character is that she is forever trying to figure out how she would kill herself if the need arose. Often with humor, she will assess a situation and how best to get out of it. The themes in the book are heavy and the author did a wonderful job of letting us laugh a little in between the intensity.

Little Bee is a fabulous story about a young girl who ends up, through no fault of her own, in a detention center for illegal immigrants in England. She spends two years there and the story begins with her release, then returns to outline how/why she was sent there. It is a story about escaping only to be captured and about how being captured might not be the worst case scenario.

It is a story of secrets and about the decisions we make in the moment. And then how we must live with those decisions. It is a test of character that some fail, some pass, and some are just too practical to take.

The book starts off really strong and I could hardly put it down. The “why” of the story takes a while to unfold – almost a little too long. But the momentum carries you through and holds your attention. After you find out why, the story slows down. At first, I thought it lost some steam. But when I thought about it a little more, I realized that the story simple settled as the characters settled and the ending just faded into reality. The realization sinks in that the characters cannot control every twist in their lives, they must just live through them.

I highly recommend this book!

Still Alice by Lisa Genova…………

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(There is always the chance that a any book discussion might reveal too much about a story not yet explored – if you haven’t read the book and want to, you might want to wait to read what is written here – just in case.)

I truly enjoyed this book, even though it dealt with a difficult topic. Lisa Genova shares the fictional tale of Alice – a Harvard professor/researcher and wife/mother of three adult children – who is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s just after turning 50.

The author put soft edges around her story so that we could learn about the disease and its impact without resistance and from a safe distance. And although there were times when I was sad and there were characters who impressed me less than others, I also chuckled throughout the story. Alice’s story starts off with unremarkable little events that could happen to any of us of the aging persuasion. Her story turns when she can no longer embrace those silly little annoyances as normal.

The book is about Alzheimer’s for sure and Lisa Genova is well versed in that field. But the book is about relationships as well – parents and children – husbands and wives – and friends with deep connections. The story teaches us that just because someone loves us dearly doesn’t mean that they can suffer by our side graciously at every turn. And that disagreements don’t mean that love isn’t profound and forgiving and genuine. And that new friends with a common thread can become a lifeline.

Luckily, there is very often time to find a new connection with someone that we have forced away with too much emotional tangling. We sometimes let conflicts rule our relationship because of differences that we focus too hard on. However, it is possible to find a  new way to celebrate a friendship or a family member – or to embrace a new person in our lives. But that time can be fleeting and it is always precious – whether Alzheimer’s overshadows the clock or not.

Alzheimer’s is certainly challenging for the patient but the family experiences every memory loss, every misstep just as deeply as they have been cut by the disease themselves. The author did a nice job of showing the challenges that come with Alzheimer’s from a number of vantage points. And how difficult it is when life changes so dramatically for one person in a family but flows into the future less interrupted for the rest of its members.

The message of the book is that people suffering from Alzheimer’s are not completely lost – they simply cannot find their map – or at least they don’t know how to use it – but they might very well understand that there is a map and they may know exactly where they want to be on it and with whom. Lisa Genova did an excellent job of sharing how it might have been for a real life Alice to sit in the room and not recognize faces or stories for large portions of conversations – even when those exact conversations centered around her and what would/could happen to her. How pronouns move too frequently and quickly in conversation and it can quickly become impossible to keep track of who is doing what. How her most beloveds would discuss her as if she was invisible. And how that slow realization could creep in that all the fuss was, in reality, about her – but she often realized that nugget too late for her to participate in the dialogue and ultimate decision-making.

We see that loved ones can take advantage of illnesses too. Alice’s husband makes a very tough decision at the end of the story and claims that she simply doesn’t remember participating in the discussions leading up to the final outcome. But Alice was still savvy enough to understand how convenient it was that he claimed that they had talked about everything – then he told her she simply didn’t remember. What would all allow ourselves to do if we knew that ultimately our actions would not be remembered? How closely would we align ourselves with someone who would soon appear to not know us – even if we had spent a lifetime building life together? What responsibilities would we neglect even if we know others are paying attention and can remember the nuances?

All in all, it was a safe look into a world that is largely not understood. The characters dance together in a lovely way and weave a story that you’ll be glad you shared with them.

Every Last One by Anna Quindlen……

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(There is always the chance that a any book discussion might reveal too much about an unread story – if you haven’t read the book and want to, you might want to wait to read what is written here – just in case.)

I was quite excited to find a copy of this book on the library’s “new release” shelf. You can only check it out for 14 days – no renewals. There was something energizing about having it in my hands. Yeah me.

Not to mention that Anna Quindlen is the author of five best selling novels – five. And she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for her New York Times column. She is what we call accomplished.

And the writing in this book is good. The conversational pace makes it easy to read and the storyline makes it hard to put down. However, the entire tone of the book is sad and heavy. There are times when it is hard to breathe through the words. Even as the main character – Mary Beth – unfolds the story of her life, the tone is melancholy. Even as she tells about her family and their successes, the air is thick. Mary Beth’s family also faces some serious struggles – eating disorders, depression, and controlling boyfriends.

It seemed that her family’s successes and struggles carried the same weight and, really, were equally burdensome. Mary Beth could not seem to bask in good fortune or happiness. Every observance seemed to earn (or better, to be denied) the same level of  attention – a barely-just-scratched-the-surface level of attention. Mary Beth’s daughter stops eating for a while and loses a significant amount of weight. Mary Beth never really discloses how they discovered, dealt with, and recovered from that.

Mary Beth watches her children a lot from a distance and even says at one point that all the parents know their kids are drinking and having sex but they mostly  choose to look the other way. That was fascinating to hear and consider from her vantage point – especially because I have a teenager and two preteens. It really made me wonder what, as a parent, I will allow myself to ignore and what the consequences from that embraced ignorance will be. We learn toward the end of the story that Mary Beth carries with her quite a bit of guilt which allowed her to be inactive in many ways. In ways that cost her dearly.

The climax of this story is horrific and, I thought, unexpected. I am not sure that I would recommend reading this book because of just how awful the events in the story become. I was unbelievably sad from the climax until the end of the book with many of my own tears soiling the pages in between.

However, the storyline does make you think about the choices that you make and don’t make. About how decisions (and non-decisions) can guide us to a different future. Conversely, the story also gives us the opportunity to consider whether mental illness simply takes its own hold regardless of the circumstances. It allows us to believe that sometimes we just have no control over misfortune. Even so, toward the end of the story, Mary Beth allows herself to examine whether or not her decisions caused some of the events in the story to take place. But that is an extremely painful process and, once again, she barely scratches the surface of self evaluation.

This book also made me think about how I view my own life and family. Am I always adequately grateful for the blessings in my life? Probably not as much as I should be. And in that vein, it was worth every word and tear.

Up Next – The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

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This is a book of fiction told from the perspective of a driver in India. It should present interesting contrasts and similarities to The Help. I would say this book is popular in India but that is not quite correct. It is well known for sure, but not everyone who reads it is amused by the tale and the possibilities it presents.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett………..

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(There is always the chance that a any book discussion might reveal too much about an unread story – if you haven’t read the book and want to, you might want to wait to read what is written here – just in case.)

I come to write this blog post just after reading the riot act to my own house staff. Right now, my family of five lives in India and we have the good fortune of having a driver, a cook, a house cleaner, a guard, and a laundress. But all of that “help” comes with some (major) unhelpfulness too. You find yourself trying to decide what is acceptable within your own house and what exactly you are responsible for in the lives of those who work for you. You have be very careful to be sure you are the one establishing the rules while maintaining compassion and understanding.

So, I would say that I read The Help from a different angle than most Americans would. I also grew up in the South (at least for the most part). So I totally “got” this book. It is set in Mississippi in the early 1960s. The main character is a recent graduate from Ole Miss and she returns home to find that life is pretty much as she left it. Her name is Skeeter.

One of the early conflicts in the story is that one of Skeeter’s friends has decided to make it her personal campaign that no maids should be allowed to use the bathroom facilities within the houses where they work. As a result of her friend’s campaign, another friend named Mrs. Leefolt decides to press her husband to build a maid’s bathroom in the garage – even though they cannot really afford it. She does not want her daughter using the same bathroom as her maid for “sanitary” reasons. Ironically, it is the maid’s bathroom that her daughter prefers and it is where her daughter learns to properly use the toilet.

Your initial reaction to this is probably very similar to mine – “that is absolutely ridiculous”. But then it didn’t take me long to put two and two together and remember the fact that my staff does not use the bathroom in our house either. Hmmmmm. Oh uh. Now the ugly is staring me right in the face.

I had to do a little self evaluation there – slightly painful – but necessary. (And that is what a great story should do – make you think a little.) So, ouch. But, it is a little different for me (did I just write that out loud ;-) ). Four of the five people who work for us are men and I have two younger daughters. We do have two proper bathrooms in the back of the house (in the staff quarters) that they are welcome to use any time. But dang it, as liberal minded as I like to think I am – my staff does not use the bathroom in our house and that is not likely to change anytime soon. It’s true – when you point your finger at someone – you get three staring right back attacha. Dang it.

But this isn’t about my life in India (I actually have a blog for that already A Reason To Write) – it is a book review so I should add here that I loved the story. It was surprising to learn that this is Kathryn Stockett’s first book. I felt completely connected to the characters. I wanted to know what would happen in their lives. I understood why they made the decisions that they made – even when I did not agree with them. I laughed and sympathized and stomped my foot. The book totally grabbed me and held me close. My friend Nancy summed it up nicely when she said, “I am going to miss those girls” after putting the book down for the last time.

A lot of discussions that I have had about this book focus on who is the best character. Honestly, they all bring something to the table. There is Skeeter whose mother desperately wants her to get married and to have straight hair. Skeeter desperately wants to live her own life and to just be accepted by her mother for who she is. Skeeter shakes things up quite a bit in the book and, with the help of Aibileen, brings a big dose of justice to the entire story. There is also Mrs. Hilly who is just a text book Southern belle snot. And Minny who takes no prisoners but really does have a soft spot in her heart.

Another major player is Constantine. She was Skeeter’s family maid who disappeared right before Skeeter returned home from college. Nobody was giving up any details, especially Skeeter’s mom, about where she went and why she left. Part of Skeeter’s growth through the novel comes from the slow revelation of where Constantine really went and why. The reality of what happened in many ways shaped Skeeter’s relationship with her own mother more than Skeeter’s own relationship with her mother did.

Mae Mobley is Mrs. Leefolt’s daughter. She is the apple of her maid’s eye. The relationship between Mae Mobley and Aibileen is fascinating and I would love to see a sequel to this book on Mae Mobley as an adult. She receives much more love and compassion from her maid than from her own mother. How that would manifest itself in Mae Mobley’s adult life would surely make for more good reading.

But my favorite of all is Celia. She married up and no one can understand how she managed to do it. She is so desperate to be perfect that she fails miserably at it – partly because she simply doesn’t even know what to do and partly because absolutely no one will give her a chance. She finally gets to attend the “party of all parties” as she sees it and ends up wearing a horrid dress and drinking so much she throws up. I think I enjoyed her character the most because she is the one who shows a real connection between the help and the family. Her maid is Minny – who is a mess in her own right. She just couldn’t manage to keep her sassy mouth shut. That sass of hers got her fired and kept her from getting another job – except with Celia – who didn’t rank high enough to get the full details on Celia.

Anyway, Celia is an outcast and her lifeline becomes Minny on several levels. She ends up saving her in a number of ways but then literally saves her life. They balance each other out so nicely. And they actually care about each other. Celia is caught between desperately wanting to fit in but feeling more comfortable with her staff. The relationships are sad and fascinating and mostly sincere.

This book is also about the roles women play in general as wives, mothers, friends, bosses, etc. They are universal roles no matter the generation or the date or the setting.  The role of the mother is the same no matter what your upbringing and a mother who loses a child feels that loss deeply no matter how big her wallet is. The characters in this book are full of life, love, trust, mistrust, and they are all looking for a purpose.

It is fantastic read and Nancy is right – you will miss these girls when you are done. Enjoy!

The great news is that if you are in DC you can meet Kathryn here:

Tuesday, September 21 – 8:00 PM
DC Area Fall for the Book Festival
Reston Center Stage Theater
2310 Colts Neck Road
Reston, VA 20191
http://fallforthebook.org/

the Bible Salesman by Clyde Edgerton

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(There is always the chance that a any book discussion might reveal too much about an unread story – if you haven’t read the book and want to, you might want to wait to read what is written here – just in case.)

Hmmmmmm. I didn’t think this book was fantastic. It felt very disconnected.

I will say that it is an easy and quick read. But unfortunately, you don’t really get to know the characters well enough to believe them completely. And the flashbacks just don’t retrace themselves back to the main story line. It’s too much of a little bit here and a little bit there without enough of a purpose to the side stories. I actually think it would have made more sense if the book had been written in chronological order.

Henry Dampier is a young Bible Salesman. He orders free Bibles from charitable groups all over and cuts out the “free copy” page so that he can sell them door-to-door. My favorite part of the book happens in the very beginning of the story when Henry calls on a house to sell Bibles. He finds the woman of the house very upset because her cat has died very unexpectedly. She knows he is under the steps and is not moving – but she cannot bear the thought of looking at him. She is just hoping he died peacefully. He did not. Henry finds and then buries the cat for her – and tries very diligently to hide the true cause of the cat’s death from its owner to protect her from becoming too upset – and then he ends up giving her a free Bible.

This sheds a lot of light into Henry’s character. He truly wants to protect the woman simply to protect her – not for any gain on his part.  Unfortunately though, Henry never seems to evaluate his own character and his own potential flaws. We learn more about Henry through this interaction with a dead cat than we learn about him from any of his dealings with the humans in the story. Henry really feels more like a bystander in the story rather than a participant – he is watching what is happening to him rather than directing what is happening. And sure, we all know people like that, but I personally think a protagonist should be a little more active in his own life.

Throughout the novel, Henry has grappled with the many contradictions in the Bible. He was conflicted about how all of it could be true – but he seemed to believe it must be true because it is simply the word of God. There was the real opportunity to draw parallels between the contradiction in Henry’s own life and the conflicting truths of the Bible. But the author just didn’t take it far enough to link the two ideas.

In the beginning of the story, Henry thinks a lot about the Bible – then he loses sight of his interest in understanding it all. Or he brushes off any decisions he makes that might not be right by simply believing the Bible has conflict – so his life has conflicts. He does not try to resolve any of it. It might be that he is distracted by his new adventure as an “FBI agent”  and his new girlfriend but the book really just feels like some paragraphs are missing.

Along his journey, Henry meets Preston Clearwater who is involved in a car theft ring – Preston, however, tells Henry that he is working with the FBI on top secret cases and needs Henry’s help. Henry jumps right in to help his country out but is hesitant to give up his Bible Salesman job. Selling Bibles allows him to meet and continue to see Marleen – the very sudden love of his life – but it does not jive with his new gig as an FBI agent supposedly working undercover. This leaves a big hole in the story. It doesn’t fit that a man sneaking in and out of towns with less than honorable intentions would allow his new fledgling partner to be seen out and about, especially when murder was involved.

Henry comes from a very small town and was brought up simply. So it is not entirely unrealistic that he would be gullible to a fast talking man who appears to know about the world. He was used to just believing what other people told him was true. But still – at some point things don’t add up. Henry misses the big warning signs on a lot of what happened throughout his life and some of it just wasn’t that believable from a reader’s stand point.

This book is also hailed as having masterful comic timing. I missed that part too.

This book just seems to be a puzzle made out of square pieces – I think it could have been much more interesting and much more connected if the pieces of the story linked together rather than simply lying next to each other.

But what do I know? The book was/is a Bestseller and the author teaches creative writing at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. He has published eight other novels. So there.

Have you read it? What do you think?