Monday, February 18, 2013

The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout

Strout is a great writer and an interesting storyteller. I loved Olive Kitteridge for its slow accumulation of details that ultimately made for an touching, intimate portrait of the title character. But there's something missing in The Burgess Boys. A great novel, even just a very good novel, is somehow more than the sum of its parts. This isn't one of those books.
It follows the Burgess siblings (two boys and a girl, so, why, Book Club, why, is it called The Burgess Boys?) as they work through a scandal involving the sister's son, a pig's head, and the Somali community in the tiny Maine town where the Burgess' grew up. The brothers are New York lawyers, one a bumbler and the other a star. That almost sounds like a comedy, but it's not.
This would make a great book club selection both because it's full of issues (I almost wrote "issues") and because it somehow fails. I won't reveal too much here, but one of the characters has a very, very unrealistic ending to his/her story. Of course, that's the kind of statement that's perfect for book club.

p.s. This books comes out in the end of March.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Top Ten Reads of 2012

I may not have read as many books this year as I have in the past (something slowed me down a bit  starting in early August), but I still couldn't resist making a top ten list. I wish I could link these titles to my new bookstore-home, but I don't have one yet. For now I'll direct you to indiebound and they'll help you find the indie bookstore nearest you.

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker - Normally I do not  read coming of age stories, but this one intrigued me enough that I made an exception. It sounds like serious sci-fi, but it's actually a very simple story about growing up when the world is changing.

Trapeze by Simon Mawer - Sometimes I think I've read enough mysteries set in World War II to last my lifetime, but then I read another great one. It's a spy story and a young woman's story and war story and it's great. It's also just beautifully written which elevates it to a higher level.

Railsea by China MiĆ©ville - I think I'm a bigger fan of China MiĆ©ville than I even realize. This is a a strange, strange story about a world where there are no oceans anymore and instead there are train tracks criss-crossing the earth and giant moles are hunted just like the white whale in Moby Dick. I loved it both despite of its weirdness and because of its weirdness.
7 History of a Pleasure Seeker by Richard Mason - I quickly summed this book up calling it Downton Abbey with tons of sex (and that's not faint praise from me). I think that gives a decent idea of the feel of it, but there's so much more here. Also, good sex in a book is very hard to find.

8 Gods and Warriors by Michelle Paver - This is a book for roughly 9 to 12 year-olds and I don't normally put those on my top ten (even when they're good they aren't good enough to be top ten), but this one really charmed me. It's well written and interesting and different and just very good.

10 Kingdom of Strangers by Zoe Ferraris - The tenth spot on my list is actually a three-way tie between Kingdom of Strangers, Istanbul Passage, and Anatomy of Murder, but I chose Kingdom of Strangers because it's the most unique. It's the third in a series about a forensic investigator in Saudi Arabia. The mystery is good, the characters are great, and I very much recommend getting hooked on these books

P.S. I wrote this blog post using the voice to text feature on my new phone while holding a baby. Wow, it took a lot of editing to clean it up enough to post and I'm sure I missed things. If there's a serious typo, email me.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Anatomy of Murder by Imogen Robertson

Harriet Westerman and Gabriel Crowther are back again in 1780s England to solve another mystery. This time Harriet’s sea-captain husband is injured and his memory broken. He has information about a spy for the French, but it’s locked in his damaged mind. When a body turns up that might have connections to the spy ring, Harriet and Crowther step in to solve the mystery.
The quote on the back of the review copy I read calls this book, “C.S.I in the Georgian era,” and that isn't too far off the mark. The nuts and bolts of the detective work do follow a kind of C.S.I. pattern. Crowther examines the body while Harriet uses her insights into people to put the evidence together. Working together – the cold, scientific viewpoint paired with the more human details – they managed to get results without DNA or blood tests or even fingerprints.
The problem with that catchy quote is that it ignores how great the characters are and how well-evoked the time period is. Harriet’s struggle to deal with her ailing husband, her disapproving sister, and her love of her children all combine to make her a great leading lady. Crowther’s shell of self-protection is slowly cracking, but in a believable and gradual way. And, just like in the first book, there is a side story involving a tarot-reader and a street urchin that is woven in and out of the main mystery that is completely captivating as well.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Railsea by China Mieville

I am comfortable admitting that I haven't read Moby Dick (there are too many great books out there to be embarrassed over missing a few). And I'm glad I didn't know Railsea is something of a re-do of Moby Dick before I started because I probably wouldn't have picked it up. I would have missed a great book.
This story takes place far into the future when the oceans are gone and the seabeds are lined with railroad tracks. Hunters make their livelihoods by riding trains in search of giant moles that live below the surface of the soil. Yes, there is a mammoth white mole that eludes the captain of the train our hero, Sham ap Soorap, rides, but this is Sham's story, not the captain's. Sham embarks on adventure to solve some of the greatest mysteries of the railsea - where do the tracks end? who made them? what are the great machines (called angels) that tend to them? and what does the obsessive pursuit of one white mole do to a person's soul?
I love Mieville's writing and the strange (sometimes very, very strange) worlds that he creates. I highly recommend this book (appropriate for roughly 13 and up due to complicated language and some violence). At the end of reading this I had two requests to make of the media universe: please, China, write a sequel and please, please Miyazaki make this into a movie.

Trapeze by Simon Mawer

I’m a sucker for atmospheric suspense novels set during World War II. I’m also a sucker for girl spies and great writing. Trapeze has all three of these things so, of course, I loved it.
Marian Sutro is just out of school and doing her part for the War Effort. She is offered a new job with the vaguely named Special Operations Executive. She’s a native French speaker and capable student. Sooner than she expects it becomes clear that the distant idea that she might go to occupied France is actually a very near reality. She’ll test her new skills, her relationships, and her mental strength behind enemy lines.
This is more a novel about one woman than a novel about World War II or spies or even the French Resistance. It’s the strength of Marian as a fascinating young woman, combined with that great writing, which makes this one of my favorite books so far this year. If you loved Restless by William Boyd or any of the Alan Furst novels, then you really should consider Trapeze.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

A Greyhound of a Girl by Roddy Doyle

Sometimes I find a book that I love, but I know it’s going to be a little difficult to recommend. For these books I just have to cross my fingers and hope hope hope that they will be discovered by the right readers and appreciated. A Greyhound of a Girl is one of these great books. The problem (for lack of a better word) is that it’s sad. It’s also funny and touching and well-written and life-affirming.
Mary's beloved Granny is ill and probably won’t live much longer. One day, Mary meets a mysterious woman on the way home from school who seems to know a little too much about her. She discovers that Granny, the mysterious woman, her mother, and she are all connected in a way she never could have imagined. This sets them all on a road trip that teaches Mary about love and mothers and death and life. It’s aimed at roughly 9 to 12 year-olds, but I recommend it for everyone open to a book like this.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

I was utterly swept away by this story of a couple trying to eke out an existence in the beautifully described wilds of 1920s Alaska. Their homesteaders’ life is intricately drawn and touchingly real. Jack spends his days trying to clear stumps from their meager fields while Mabel bakes pies to sell and tries to keep house. They have passed the age of being able to have children, and that childlessness haunts Mabel. As a crushing winter descends, the reality of their life forces them even further apart. And then one evening they are caught by the beauty of a new snowfall. In a moment of whimsy, they make a snow girl and dress her in a scarf and gloves. The next morning the scarf and gloves are gone, but a child’s footprints are left in the snow. This begins the thread of an old Russian fairy tale that Mabel remembers from childhood. She knows the ending of the tale isn't happy, but she decides that maybe this time things will turn out differently. Jack knows that the child is real, not a fairy. As the seasons march on, the snow child, Faina, brings them closer to each other, their neighbors, and nature itself.
This is a lovely book that I couldn't put down. It perfectly dances between a real, grounded story of homesteaders and an ethereal, almost-fairy tale. It would make a great book club discussion book.