Monday, June 15, 2015

The Alter Girl by Orest Stelmach

Image result for the altar girl by orest stelmach

This novel is a prequel to The Boy from Reactor Four and the Boy Who Stole from the Dead.  It tells the story of Nadia Tesla as an adult, before she becomes involved with Adam.  She has lost her job due to the economic downturn, and she becomes obsessed with finding out the truth about her godfather's death.  Was it a simple accident or did someone push him down the stairs?  Her search for answers brings her into contact with her estranged mother and brother along with some dangerous and shady characters.

Interspersed with this tale is the story of Nadia's childhood attempt to survive for three days alone in the woods in order to achieve an award in the Ukrainian scout group to which she belongs.  These memories help explain something of Nadia's past and the relationship she and her brother had with their father.

Both story lines are riveting.  Will Nadia find the truth about her godfather's death without dying herself?  Although we know she survives her scouting challenge, we worry about what will happen to her in the woods alone.

Through her investigation, she begins to forge new relationships with her mother and brother.  As she learns, so do we.  We learn about the plight of the Ukrainian people after World War II.  We learn about their modern culture, and the culture of the past.

It is a fascinating and riveting book which I highly recommend.

As Night Falls by Jenny Milchman

This novel did not appeal to me.  I found the plot to be too drawn out, the characters to be two-dimensional, and the writing to be rather flat.  The majority of the story focuses on a home invasion by two escaped convicts.  The story of the criminals and the family that becomes their target is interspersed with the backstory of the criminal who has targeted this house.  Although the events which occur are tense, the fact that they go on and on leaves the reader not really caring about the fate of the family.  A surprise is revealed late in the novel to explain why this particular family has been targeted, but, again, it did not feel like enough of a reward for reading that far.

I am not saying that this novel is bad.  I am simply saying that it was not one that I enjoyed.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Stranger by Harlan Coben

THE STRANGER by Harlan Coben

Harlan Coben never fails to keep you turning the pages as fast as you can to see what will happen next.  This novel is no different.  The lives of a normal suburban couple are turned upside down when a stranger appears and tells the husband something about his wife that he did not know.  Without spoiling the story, it is difficult to go into too much detail.  Suffice it to say that the wife disappears, and the husband spend the rest of the novel frantically trying to find her.

In some ways, this novel is more ominous that Coben's usual fare. The stranger is able to turn lives upside down with a little persistent digging on the Internet.  It is a cautionary tale for the modern era.  The edning was, t me, a bit disappointing, but that is a small thing compared to how riveting the book is.
The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

Set in France during the second world war, The Nightingale tells the story of two sisters who are very different but both heroic in her own way.  Vianne, married with a young daughter, experiences the war as a villager whose husband has gone to fight the Germans.  Her sister, Isabelle, becomes involved in the French resistance.  The story begins with a modern day event of an elderly woman moving out of her home and into assisted living.  her son is helping her move and is surprised when she insists on taking an old trunk from the attic.  This trunk is full of momentos from the era, things (and events) which her son knows nothing about. The reader does not find out until the end of the book which sister is still alive to tell the tale.

Narration switches from Vianne to Isabell. Their perceptions of each other are often vastly distorted.  Vianne thinks Isabelle is simply headstrong and rash, never thinking before she acts.  Isabelle believes Vianne is simply a coward.  The trials they must survive during Nazi occupation are often horrific for both sisters.

This book, like All the Light We Cannot See, provides an important viewpoint of the war that is not often discussed: how it affected simple people who had to endure occupation and fighting.  I highly recommend this book.
The Dream Lover by Elizabeth Berg

The Dream Lover

The Dream Lover is a fictionalized account of the life of George Sand.  The novel skips back and forth between Sand's past and her present, which can, at times, be jarring; however, these multiple storylines help the reader understand why George Sand might have acted as she did.  She is a passionate woman who is eternally looking for real love, from her family, from men, and from a woman.

The writing is delicious, creating the time and the feel of the settings and making characters come to life.  The problem I had with this novel, however, is that I grew tired of the main character.  Aurore Dudevant takes the pen name George Sand, partially to make her novels sell better and partially because she envies men and the power their sex gives them.  She takes to wearing men's clothing at least some of the time.  The irony of this situation is that, in spite of all of her talk of equality, she is willing to sacrifice herself and her children for a man.  There is such a string of men in her life that one becomes tired of the endless parade and of what she gives up for these men who, on the whole, are not deserving of her love.

She is involved with the major literary and artistic characters of her day, some as lovers and others as friends. The love of her life is an actress, Marie Dorval.  They share one passionate night together, but George is never able to recover from her love of Marie.  She does become involved with a number of other men after this relationship, but it is the memory of Marie that sustains her.

Perhaps the novel stretches too far, trying to include all of the events of her life.  For me, it was simply too much.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan

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I love Amy Tan, but this was not one of my favorite books of hers.  The story centers around Violet, being raised by an American mother in a courtesan house in Shanghai.  Violet yearns to know more about her father, but when she finally does it is devastating to her.  The story follows Violet through tragedies, hardships, betrayals, and loss - from her childhood to being a grown woman with an adult child of her own.  This never-ending parade of horrible events got wearying as I read and read.  "Surely," I would think, "things will look up for Violet."  Although they did, briefly during the story, I began to feel a bit shell shocked by her experiences.

The reader will learn all about courtesan houses and life in the cities and the rural areas of China. (Here's a hint - always opt to be a city girl.)  Many interesting characters appear throughout the novel, but their motivations and backstories are so unclear, that they make little impression.  Amy Tan's novels are always sweeping, but I felt this one swept a bit too much.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult

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I loved this novel!  Jodi Picoult always creates characters that spring to life from the pages of her books. She always tells about emotional journeys.  This novel, however, has a surprise ending that I never saw coming.

Thirteen year old Jenna Metcalf has been searching for her mother, Alice as long as she can remember.  Alice disappeared in the wake of a tragic accident at the elephant sanctuary where they lived.  Alice, a renowned researcher on grief in elephants, survived the accident, but disappeared from the hospital and has not been seen or heard from since.

Jenna spends hours searching the internet and posting on missing person message boards.  She hounds the police to keep investigating.  Finally, she enlists the help of a psychic, Serenity Jones who was once a famous TV personality famous for finding missing persons, but has since become not much more than a pal reader in a walkup apartment.  She also hires a private investigator,   Virgil Stanhope, who was a police officer originally involved in investigating her mother's disappearance. Serenity, who has lost faith in her psychic abilities, and Virgil, who has lost faith in mankind, are drawn to Jenna, and end up helping her despite their reservations.

This motley trio checks out every possible lead.  The characters they encounter along the way are also an interesting crew.  As they gather more and more information, they still cannot determine what really happened on that fateful night.

This is a riveting mystery, but it also teaches the reader a great deal about elephants.  I will never be able to enjoy seeing an elephant in a zoo again.  I would highly recommend this novel.
The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

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Rachel is a drunk.  She has allowed depression to drive her to drinking, and drinking has destroyed her life. She is divorce from her husband, Tom, who remarried and now has a child.  She has lost her job, but rather than tell her friend, with whom she lives, she get up every morning and takes the commuter train into London. This train passes the home where she lived with Tom, and each time she rides by she looks at the house where he and his new family live.  She suffers blackouts and can't remember what she has done, and her actions often involve calling her ex-husband in the middle of the night.

She notices a young couple a few house down from Tom.  They are idyllic - she beautiful and he tall and handsome.  She creates a fantasy world for these two strangers, imagining their happy life together.  One day, however, she sees the wife kissing a man who is not her husband.  Then, one morning Rachel awakens and can't remember what happened the night before.  She has several wounds and no idea how she got them.  She vaguely remembers being in the neighborhood of her old house.  When she learns that Megan, the real name of the wife from the idyllic couple has disappeared, she becomes obsessed with finding her.  She contacts the police to tell them about the "other" man, and gets further and further embroiled in the investigation.  As is often the case, the husband is the key suspect, and Rachel becomes involved with him, claiming to have been a close friend of Megan's.

It is a riveting who done it.  Although I suspected who the murderer might be, it was revealed with skill that made for a satisfying resolution.  This work has been compared in many reviews to Gone Girl.  I found it to be very similar in a way that other reviewers hadn't mentioned.  There are no sympathetic characters in this book. I tried to like Rachel, but just like her friends and acquaintances in the novel, I became fed up with her endless acts of self destruction.

For readers who don't need to feel a kinship with any of the characters, this is a tense mystery.  However, for me, it was something of a disappointment.

Belzhar by Me Wolitzer

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A great teacher, a mystical journal, and friends are what it takes to heal Jam Gallahue.  Since the loss of her boyfriend, Reeve Maxfield, Jam has not been able to cope.  She has sunken into a depression that even her psychiatrist can not penetrate.  Finally, her parents send her to a boarding school of "emotionally fragile" teens in rural Vermont, the Wooden Barn.

Jam gradually begins to make friends at the school, become involved in activities, and recover, but she cannot let go of Reeve.  She is assigned to a special English class with the legendary Mrs. Quenell.  This is to be Mrs. Q's last class before retirement, and she has hand selected the five students who will participate in a semester-long study of Sylvia Plath.  She gives each student an ancient red leather journal and tells them they must turn the journals in on the last day of class.

The first time Jam writes in her journal, something miraculous happens. She is transported to the playing fields near her old school, and Reeve is waiting for her.  They are able to spend time together, and Jam believes that this has saved her life.  She soon finds that everyone in her class is being transported to the place in their past just before the traumatic event occurred which landed them in the Wooden Barn.  This secret bonds them together.

Jam eventually finds herself attracted to a boy from Special Topics, Griffin. She must decide whether to hang on to Reeve in the mysterious world the group has named Belzhar or fall in love with Griffin who is alive and very interested in her. What will happen when they run out of pages in their journals?  Each member of the group has to make decisions about what they will do with their lives.

The resolution is a little less than satisfying.  Each character in the class shared the traumatic and tragic events that led them to the school, but Jam withholds her own story.  When we finally learn it, it seems a bit of a letdown; however, it demonstrates the emotional fragility of adolescents.

I would recommend this book to young adult readers.  I think girls would like it more than boys due to the female narrator and the focus on romance.

Friday, January 23, 2015

When the Night Comes by Favel Parrett

When the Night Comes: A Novel by Favel…

This is a charming book told from the perspectives of a young girl, Isla, and a Danish sailor, Bo.  Isla lives a lonely life with her mother and younger brother in the small town of Hobart in Tasmania.  When her mother brings home Bo, he opens up an entire world that she never knew existed.  He describes the voyages on his ship, the Nella Gay, to Antartica.  His descriptions allow Isla and the reader to see, feel, hear, and sometimes taste the experiences of travelling to one of the most forbidding and beautiful places on earth.

Their friendship ends when the Nella Gay is wrecked and scrapped, meaning Bo will not be returning to the port of Hobart, but their time together has allowed Isla to envision a future for herself far from the tiny world she knows.  It is a novel about friendship, dreams, and possibility.

I would recommend this novel for secondary students or adults.  Younger students would, I believe, be confused and put off by the less than clear transition between narrators, times, and places.
Lies that Bind (Maeve Conlon Novels) by Maggie Barbieri

Lies That Bind (Maeve Conlon Novels) by…

Maeve is dealing with the death of her father and mysterious, unsettling occurrences at her bakery, when she gets shattering news - she may have a sister.  She enlists the help of an old friend of her father's, a hunky detective she has recently met, her best friend, and even her ex-husband as she tries to discover the truth.  She gets into a number of dangerous situations, and battles to remain in control of her business and family while obsessed with the mystery of a missing sister.
Overall, the story line was engaging and the characters believable.  I did get tired of Maeve hauling her unregistered gun around and fantasizing about using it.  This mystery has the makings of a cozy, but is trying too hard to be hard-boiled.  I also got tired of references to a mysterious murder in Maeve's past and to the abuse she suffered as a child.  One of two mentions would have definitely sufficed.