Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

From an advanced reader copy.

This novel was so lovely and poetic, a post apocalyptic story reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy's The Road, but a very different story at the same time. Hig, the narrator, is a man who has survived a flu pandemic, that has changed life in the United States as we know it completely, wiping out most of the population. Those who have survived seem to be subject to some kind of contagious auto-immune disorder of the blood as well, that has continued to decimate the population, and a certain amount of climate change has become noticeable as well.

Hig is a very sad man, having lost his wife, but he appreciates the quietness of this new world. he is a gardener and a hunter, and has a strong relationship with the natural world around him, as well as his dog, Jasper, his little airplane (The Beast) and Bangley, his neighbor in their isolated outpost. Bangley loves guns, and does a great job of protecting them from the occasional marauders looking for, well, anything they can get their hands on (food, weapons, etc.), and willing to kill (and die) to get it.

Hig is tortured by a call over an airport he heard a few years back, while out in his plane one day. Should he risk it all to try and find other survivors, when just seeing another human being now almost requires 'a shoot first and ask questions later' attitude? Hig does not embrace that attitude, although Bangley, an older man, insists it is the only way to survive. Hig needs more from this life. He sets out to find more after a revelatory week alone in the forest.

This was a heartrendingly beautiful story. The writing is wonderful, Heller's descriptions of nature and of the human condition are gorgeous and moving. Hig's existential ramblings and thoughts while by himself also reminded me of Antoine de Saint Exupery's The Little Prince and Night Flight. This book is the definition of breathtaking. My only complaint is that there are not another 300 pages...too short. I hope Heller writes more fiction. I adored this book.

Highly recommend for fans of books like The Road by Cormac McCarthy, The Age Of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker and Earth Abides by George R. Stewart.

5 stars

Friday, June 22, 2012

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

One of the unexpected delights in the life of a reader is coming across a book like this one, Beautiful Ruins. I didn't know what to expect, but I am often attracted to books with Italy as a setting, and the blurb sounded intriguing. I am so glad I took a chance with an author that I normally would not read.

I'm not going to even attempt to recap the whole book, or even all the characters, and their individual story lines and plots, but Pasquale is the beautiful thread that strings the whole book together. He is wonderful, and I adore him! 'And because he felt like he might burst open and because he lacked the dexterity in English to say all that he was thinking--how in his estimation the more you lived the more regret and longing you suffered, that life was a glorious catastrophe--Pasquale Tursi, only said, "Yes."' Beautiful! Oh, how I loved this book, and all the author had to share. Jess Walters touches upon so many different themes about the human condition.

Very emotional, but in a good way! Human. Reading it was a joy.

5 stars

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Summer 2012 Reading List

I have many books I'd really love to read this summer. I probably won't get to all of them, but I'm going to try. I thought I'd put together a tentative list of possible reads. Some are on my wishlist, and some I already own.

Currently Reading:
Fate of the Species: Why the Human Race May Cause Its Own Extinction and How We Can Stop It by Fred Guterl
Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter
Mary Boleyn: The Mistress of Kings by Alison Weir

Upcoming Reads:
Lots of Candle, Plenty of Cake by Anna Quindlen
22 Britannia Road by Amanda Hodgkinson
Gold by Chris Cleave
American Sphinx by Joseph J. Ellis
Gilt by Katherine Longshore
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
Insurgent by Veronica Roth
Waiting for Sunrise by William Boyd
Kindred by Octavia E. Butler
The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley
Rules of Civility by Amor Towles
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, And Hope in a Mombai Undercity by Katherine Boo
A Rare Titanic Family by Julie Hedgepeth Williams
Wild by Cheryl Strayed
Quiet by Susan Cain
The Sisters by Poppy Adams
Curiosity by Joan Adams
The Orphanmaster by Jean Zimmerman
The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey

This list is by no means complete, as I am sure I will come across plenty of books that I have to read immediately that I don't know about yet, and is completely subject to change and whims! I'm a little sad now that I'm realizing that I don't have any classics on this list, but that certainly doesn't mean I won't pick one up and read one, just because I feel like it. I usually try to read an Austen every summer, and have been considering re-reading Sense and Sensibility, since it has been along time. I've also had my eye on Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh, so, that's a definite possibility too.

Shout Her Lovely Name by Natalie Serber

This review was based on an electronic advanced reader copy from NetGalley.

This book is written in a very different style than most structurally, but the content is such that I was immediately pulled in to reading the book in less than 24 hours. Each chapter stands on its own as kind of a short story about some mother and daughter, and their relationship. Now, the mother or the daughter may not even be one of the main players in that chapter, but the author has crafted these stories in such a way, that there is no mistaking what the stories are about. 

The first chapter opens with nameless characters, en media res. There is crisis in the family, concerning the daughter. The mother is feeling it most keenly, a whole array of emotions regarding her daughter are constantly assaulting here. I was captured by this first chapter, and I kept on reading. Despite a smattering of families that we don't know the names of, there are two recurring women that we get to know: Ruby and her child, Nora. By the end of this collection, you will know them, I assure you. They will be your mother, your sister, your cousin, your friends. Resist the urge to judge. Embrace them, and love them, because they are us.

Beautiful, creative writing. This isn't a novel, but you will want to push forward reading these interconnected stories.

4 stars

The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty

This review is based on an Advanced Reader Copy

This book was really hard to put down. With exceptionally good writing and a wonderfully imaginative and believable story line, Laura Moriarty has crafted a wonderful story that will stick with the reader.

Cora Carlisle seems to have a perfect life, with her handsome and successful husband, her handsome and smart twin boys, getting ready to go off to college and her lovely Kansas home. So why is she up for the job of taking the rebellious and beautiful Louise Brooks to New York City for her summer dance classes? Sure Louise Brooks is an intriguing character, the gorgeous flapper star of the 1920's silent film era. But the real mystery here is Cora, who is quiet, unassuming and well mannered. She feels a real need to visit NYC. And that is where the interesting story of this chaperone really begins.

Ms. Moriarty does a masterful job of telling this story. This is a great summer read, but more solid and well told than chick lit. I'll admit to never having an interest in this author's work before in the past, as they did look like chick lit to me...not quite serious enough to really interest me, but I took a chance on this one, and it was well worth it. This is great historical fiction also, a wonderful portrait of New York City in the 1920's as well as rural America (Kansas) at a time when Americans were experiencing extreme upheaval (the Great Depression after the Stock Market Crash of 1929).  I still don't know if I'd be interested in Ms. Moriarty's other books, but I'll be on the lookout for her next one, for certain.

4 stars

Friday, June 8, 2012

John Saturnall's Feast by Lawrence Norfolk (publication date September, 2012)

This was an electronic advanced reader copy from NetGalley.

I have never read anything by this author before, but asked for the ARC based on the book's description on NetGalley and I received it. It wasn't until I was more than half way through the book that I decided to look up Lawrence Norfolk and learn a little bit more about this writer, and was  impressed with his credentials, although I can hardly claim to have a strong interest in reading his other works, as they sound way above what I would be capable of reading and understanding! I was happy I was reading this on my Kindle, since I did use the built in dictionary quite a lot. Norfolk uses a lot of vocabulary you do not generally hear in today's world, most of it referring to more ancient times. This book is set in the 1600's in England, beginning right before the English Civil War. But another added feature of this novel is the ancient language used before each section to describe the "receipts" used for John Saturnall's Feast, essentially, a cookbook.

John Sandall is a lonely little boy who lives with his mother, Shunned by the villages children as a "witch's son," his mother is an herbalist/healer/midwife who is regarded as a w itch by the Puritanical order that has grown up in England after the Reformation and is trying to take over the worship in small villages.  The Puritans in the village are fanatical and frightening, and the preacher, Marpot, is a hateful and controlling man who incites the village to violence against John and his mother, even after they have finally been accepted there. John and his mother are forced to flee, while their home is destroyed. They escape the wilderness nearby, surviving on their wits, and his mother continues to educate John to her ways with a special cookbook of sorts that she has managed to save.

A very basic knowledge of the history of England is helpful when reading this book, and I often found myself looking up names and events to learn more about the period, people and places, but Norfolk purposely leaves much of the information provided in the story very vague, almost as if it really doesn't matter, and truthfully, the main characters are the most important ones to try and understand. John ends up at nearby Buckland Manor, as an orphan, but because of his uncanny culinary skills, he is allowed to stay on as a Kitchen Boy, instead of being sent to the poorhouse. There he meets Lady Lucretia, the motherless child of the manor, who often fasts in a passive rebellion against her father. He also meets a whole host of other interesting and important folks that contribute to life at the manor.

This book has quite a complicated plot, and the reader really needs to pay attention to names of places, to the many characters and to the thoughts of the John and Lucy. The writing is extraordinary and the story is quite moving. I loved the way the author manages to keep things happening without becoming stagnant, or stuck in the many plot details, the book has a very natural flow and feeling, and without that, it would be very easy to become mired down by this novel. The last book I read with a plot this complicated was David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, which I really enjoyed, and the style of writing is similar: many clues and hints are given to the reader from the very start of the novel, and it is usually with hindsight that the reader suddenly recognizes them. 

A delightful book, challenging yet fun reading, especially for those who enjoy history and esoteric stories with amazing people, both real and fictional.

4 stars

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Phillip Sendker (2012)

**Possible Spoiler Alert**

This was a book group read.

I really wanted to love this novel. But I couldn't. It started out well enough, with a most intriguing premise: Julia's father, Tin Win, has disappeared, leaving his family in NYC behind with no clue as to where he may have gone to. So Julia travels to Burma, where her father is from, to search for him.

But here the story verges from a path I could kind of relate to, to one I didn't enjoy for very long. Julia meets Ba in her father's home village who seems to know exactly why she is there, and what she needs to be told about her father.

A long story is told to her about her father's life and past love, of which Julia knows nothing. The sentiment that one can see with the heart and eyes are not needed (as Julia's father is become blind quite suddenly as a child) is just used over and over again, to the point where it lost all its special meaning for me (of course, Sendker is not the first person to ever use this cliche, but he uses it to infinity in this novel. I always think of Antoine de Saint-Exupery's The Little Prince:  "But eyes are blind. You have to look with the heart.”)

I wanted to enjoy and appreciate this book, but I ended up not really liking Tin Win and Mi Mi very much. The were just too good to be true.  I kind of wish the author had stuck with more development of Julia's character, and less of the personal story of Tin Win's previous life that was unknown to her. Plus, so many things happened that were too pat and perfect for the story (the sudden onset of Tin Win's blindness, the discovery of Ba and Julia's relationship at the end of the novel, Julia's mother easy dismissal of Tin Win from their lives, etc.)


The Uninvited Guests by Sadie Jones, 2012

Sadie Jones' novel The Uninvited Guests is a wonderful combination of the charm and wry social commentary of EM Forster, the lively fun characters and setting of Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle and a dash of spookiness and sadness from a Henry James short story.

The Torrington family live in an old manor home named Sterne, but it is not their ancestral home. Horace Torrington passed away, leaving his wife Charlotte (now Mrs. Swift, as she has remarried), and children Clovis, Emerald and Imogen (or Smudge as she is called!) to fend for themselves. Their stepfather, Edward Swift is not well regarded by the children, and has decided to try and save the family home. However, it is Emerald's birthday and a party is planned regardless of his absence (which is fine with the children who do hold him in high regard anyhow). Guests have been invited, and some, well, some just show up.

Great prose, with lot of sparkle, wit and humor really move this story along. I loved the writing. "The children, too, feeling that they were at the end of a line,as children always do (for indeed, they are). loved Sterne as exhausted travellers with lifetimes of migration behind them might love their first and last home. Sterne was the mythology of their parents' marriage, their father's legacy, and it had given them the very best of childhoods. Beyond that, it was beautiful, and the effect of it on their souls was inestimable; once found, they all of them loath to give it up." I was entranced. There are many wonderful descriptions like this one.

The characters are great, believable in their foibles and imperfections: Charlotte Torrington Swift as the narcissistic and ethereal mother; Emerald as the idealistic, beautiful and smart young woman; Clovis, the man of the house in the absence of his one armed step father, arrogant and haughty, yet he so obviously adores the women in his life; Smudge, with her own plans and ideas of what's important in life (her pony!). Besides the family, there is an array of wonderful, if stereotyped characters who reside at Sterne, live near it, or arrive for the party, or in spite of it.

This book is a surprise, just like an uninvited guest at a birthday party. A very fun, summer read. I really loved being in its pages, feeling like I was at a party myself the whole time. Great fun.

5 stars