Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan

Image result for valley of amazement

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

Image result for leaving time

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

Image result for girl on the train

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

Image result for belzhar

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.