April 2014
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Review: The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach

the art of fieldingHenry Skrimshander is an outstanding shortstop and it’s that which draws Mike Schwartz to recruit him to Westish College in Wisconsin. Within a very short space of time, Henry has revitalized the Westish team and brought them victories that had been vastly beyond their reach. But with one missed throw, Henry’s entire life is thrown off balance. Who is he, if he can’t always throw perfectly? And what is the team without him? Surrounding Henry are all of the dramas of closed-in literary college life; affairs with professors, mature students, deadly dull jobs, and even a bit of studying every now and again.

It’s taken me a while to review this book, which I’m not sure is entirely positive; I loved it and I felt like I had a lot to say about it once I’d finished, but I left it a long while to actually sit down and write. The Art of Fielding is a book that, without question, has received an enormous amount of hype. Even before Kathy brought it across an ocean for me, she told me that it was going to be one of the big releases of 2011, and I’ve watched it receive review after review. I managed to keep myself away from spoilers of all kinds and experience the book for myself, though, when I was ready for it.

I made the right decision, because I loved this book. I felt as though it tapped right down into a deep sense of American nostalgia, a story about being the best you can be and what happens when you’re not sure you can achieve that any longer. Where do we go once we’ve hit our peak? Not only does Henry experience this, but each of the other characters are faced with periods of monumental change and the fact that their lives simply can’t be the same again. It reminded me of my own leaving college; I loved my time there and even now when I look at the pictures I’m blasted with a ton of nostalgia. But I’ve moved on, and these characters have to move on, too, regardless of whether their stardom is behind them or right in front of them.

At times, I did feel the book was a little bit long; there was one particular spot in the latter middle where I felt the story was dragging. But for the most part, I got completely swept up into this world. I’m not a fan of baseball, although I certainly know my way around a field mostly because I grew up amongst Yankee fans and went to a public high school. That may have helped, but I think the book is deeper than that and touches something universal – it might apply to baseball, but it might equally apply to a writer who isn’t sure he or she can ever write a novel as good as their first, or a musician who fears becoming a one-hit wonder. If that should happen, when do we let go? Or do we carry on trying?

I know this review is not really a review – it’s very obscure, instead. But I think The Art of Fielding is a book that is well worth your time. It was a surprisingly fast read, for its size, and it swept me up in its simultaneously grandiose and personal story. I recommend it.

All external book links are affiliate links. I received this book for free – thanks again Kathy!

Review: The Book of Lies, Mary Horlock

Cathy Rozier opens her narrative by informing us that she’s actually killed her best friend Nic. But before we find out how, we must go back and discover why; how two friends who spent so much time together could end up so opposed that their relationship ends in death. Intertwined with Cathy’s difficult story of angst-ridden teenagers is the story of Guernsey throughout World War II, when her father, uncle, and grandparents struggled through the German occupation, narrated through documents and letters in a variety of different voices. Put together, it’s the tale of an island then and now, the secrets held by so many people and the damage they can wreak on other lives.

At first, I found it difficult to get into this book. Cathy’s voice is acerbic, cynical, and self-deprecating; she’s a character I don’t think I could ever like. At the same time, her teenage attitude is incredibly appropriate for the kind of book this is, and it isn’t always necessary to like a character in order to gain appreciation for a book. And in the end I love the twisted storylines, particularly the historical letters and details from Charlie’s side of the story (surprise surprise).

There are quite a few bits and pieces in this novel about the occupation that are skipped out or found no place elsewhere, such as the burying of the prisoners’ bodies, that helped flesh out what I’d read before and add true atmosphere to this novel. Knowing precisely what happened in the past adds layers to Cathy’s story that simply wouldn’t exist in an ordinary contemporary novel with a mystery. Cathy has revelations to make about her family that can deeply impact her, but throughout she acts as a teenager would and I was completely convinced by her character.

Once engrossed, the novel is easy to race through, as we are keen to figure out just what happens next and how Cathy will handle everything that is happening around her. Perhaps not surprising given the subject matter, this is a dark book, with a setting that feels particularly grim. We can sense Cathy’s dissatisfaction with Guernsey and the little it offers to a modern day teenager even as the richness of its past has strong impacts on precisely the present that is so hum drum.

This is a book that, off-putting to start, turns out to be an addicting read. I had quite a time with it and feel I’ve been left with a lot to think about now that I’ve finished. I would definitely recommend The Book of Lies to those who are also interested in probing the past, about the difficulties of teenage years, or even just looking for a good story.

All book links to external sites are affiliate links. I received this book for free for review from Netgalley.

Review: Amaryllis in Blueberry, Christina Meldrum

amaryllis in blueberryThe Slepy family story begins with Christina ‘Seena’ Slepy on trial for her husband’s murder in Africa. The portion of the story leading up to the day is slowly revealed through flashbacks interposed with Seena’s thoughts on just how she and her family got to this point. Dick’s obsession with Catholicism, Seena’s affair, Amaryllis – so dark and different from her sisters – questions her parentage, and Mary Grace, Mary Tessa, and Mary Catherine all grapple with their own problems related to growing up and becoming women. Arrival in Africa merely exacerbates the tensions between the family members, each a world unto themselves, until the novel’s explosive conclusion.

I struggled with Amaryllis in Blueberry for a number of reasons, primary among them the fact that it reads like a shallower imitation of The Poisonwood Bible. I loved that book when I read it in high school and I have even managed to read it again since, a rarity for books I read in those days. It has stuck with me over the years in a big way, enough that the parallels between these books, with the divided family of daughters, one vain, one religious, the super-religious father, all heading to Africa on said father’s initiative, struck me at once. In that book, I was swept away by how the characters grew and developed, how Africa changed them in ways both good and bad.

Christina Meldrum appears to be trying for the same effect here, and while I enjoyed the book as I was reading it, just a day away from it has made me question it. It certainly did not have a similar effect on me, and I’m sure that’s in part because I didn’t care for the characters. They all seemed very self-absorbed, not unrealistic, but people I couldn’t relate to. Even Amaryllis, the title character, is a vague and shadowy girl.

One thing I did very much appreciate, though, was the characters’ efforts to break free of boxes, particularly Grace. She knows that because she is beautiful and blonde that she doesn’t have to be smart and that people in fact expect her to be dumb and make mistakes. So, even though she was clever as a child, she begins to rely on her beauty and becomes the stereotype that others expect. Some of the events in Africa help her to realize that she doesn’t have to be that way, that she shouldn’t put others in the boxes she hates herself, and that she can be both smart and beautiful.

I also think part of the problem is that the book is too short for what it’s trying to do. The narrative skips around between a huge number of characters, a real problem when their chapters are only a couple of pages long, and it’s difficult to get to know any of them particularly well. Some of the storylines seemed unnecessary, like Clara’s, and at times I felt irritated that the book led me to think in one direction just to provide an ‘a-ha!’ moment at the end. It felt cheap to me because the book wasn’t powerful enough to deliver an ‘a-ha!’ moment on its own. The writing was lovely, but in the end I just didn’t connect with it.

A few other reviews to give you a different perspective …

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Review: Pictures of You, Caroline Leavitt

Isabelle is leaving her husband. She’s found out that he’s been cheating on her and she can’t wait to get away. Three hours from home in Cape Cod, she sees a car stopped in the middle of the road, facing the wrong direction. It’s so foggy that she doesn’t see the car until it’s too late, and she’s struck it, killing the woman inside. Her young son survived, too far out from the wreck, but his and his father Charlie’s lives are irrevocably changed. Isabelle can’t help running into them when they both return to their lives in Cape Cod, and she finds herself drawn to this widower and his adorable, asthmatic son Sam, despite the role she’s played in their grief.

I am so glad my Skype book club chose this for our February read because I would never have read it otherwise – and I truly enjoyed it, finding that it surpassed my expectations by far. Before I even got into the story, I found that the writing instantly swept me away, evoking perfectly Isabelle’s feelings as she fled her husband and then encountered April’s car in the midst of the fog. I was drawn instantly in and looked forward to returning to it whenever I had to go do something else.

One of the most interesting parts of the novel was actually April’s backstory. Though she dies in the first few pages of the novel, she is one of the most compelling characters. Clearly mentally ill in some way, she is the classic overprotective mother in some respects but incredibly negligent in others. She needs someone else to need her and this seems to motivate almost all of her choices in life. Meanwhile, her husband Charlie has always been desperately in love with her. Discovering that she may have been leaving him – with their son in tow – is devastating for him, and he is obsessed with finding out why.

Sam’s relationship with Isabelle is another really well-done aspect of the novel. Having caught just a glimpse of her at the accident scene, Sam believes that Isabelle is an angel, and when he seeks something to hold onto in the absence of his mother, she turns into it. Isabelle herself is looking to refresh her life, away from her ex-husband and his girlfriend’s baby, but no longer has a place in the community where she’s ostracised as the woman who killed a young mother. Her desire to recover lead to some very difficult choices, but I felt she always handles them in an appropriate way.

The only unrealistic aspect of the novel, in my view, was the way Isabelle was treated after the accident. How could she be ostracised so completely for an accident which really wasn’t her fault? I don’t think any woman would experience this kind of backlash when she ran into another car, facing the wrong direction, lights off, in a thick fog. The rest of the novel drew me in so much that I managed to ignore this but it did strike the single odd note.

My book club really enjoyed this book and found tons to discuss in it, only some of which I have touched on here. This would be a great selection for other book clubs too – there is a lot to pull out of this one and talk about!

Pictures of You was a sparkling read, chock full of interesting, multi faceted characters, strong relationship development, and beautiful prose. The mystery within it. about just why April ran, made a strong book that much more appealing. Highly recommended.

I am an Amazon Associate. I bought this book.

Review: Fall for Anything, Courtney Summers

fall for anythingWhen Eddie’s father killed himself, her life fell apart. She can’t figure out how he could have left her, left her mother, when they all seemed so happy. Now her mother can’t get out of her bathrobe, her mother’s best friend Beth is constantly in the house and invading Eddie’s life, and there are ever-growing boundaries between her and her own best friend Milo. When Eddie meets her father’s last student, Culler Evans, she begins to hope that he can finally answer the question “why?”, even at the expense of everyone and everything she thinks she knows.

I don’t think I can do this book justice in a review. It was such an all-consuming experience, a complete cascade of grief, hope, and love, that I genuinely don’t think I can express the effect this book had on me. Needless to say, I was totally wrapped up in Eddie’s experiences. At times, I wished she could have been more forthcoming – that all of the people in the novel could say what they really wanted to – but conversations in real life are difficult, too, and I didn’t think the author could have done a better job portraying real people suffering.

When Culler comes into the picture, I could completely understand Eddie’s desire to know, to understand. A death, especially a suicide, makes us question what happened, and in our grief, it can be so easy to get lost in that question. I was worried for her, dealing with an older boy who could hurt her so easily, and at that moment I realized just how wrapped up I was in this book. I didn’t want to put it down for anything, I just wanted to see what happened and whether Eddie managed to find the meaning she so craved.

Amidst all of this are the usual teenage dramas – because at the heart of it these characters are distinctly teenage even when their lives are turned upside down. Eddie still wants to be with her friend, Milo, even though he won’t tell her essential facts about the night her father died. His ex-girlfriend still manages to get in the way of their friendship. And she still sometimes goes out to parties, where occasionally she feels a spark of normality. She’s changed but she’s still recognizably a teenage girl, which gives us hope that she will find answers and return to enjoying her life eventually.

Fall for Anything was simply an incredible book. Beautifully written, with realistic characters and an absolutely gut-wrenching storyline, don’t miss this if you enjoy contemporary YA. And let me tell you, I have Some Girls Are on my shelf and I cannot wait to get to it now.

I am an Amazon Associate. Many thanks to the author and publisher for sending me this review copy!

Review: Foreign Tongue, Vanina Marsot

When her boyfriend not only dumps her but becomes famous, shoving his betrayal in her face at every turn, Anna realizes that she has to get away from her American life.  So she takes a cue from her French side and goes to live in her aunt’s Paris apartment for free.  She stumbles upon a job translating an erotic novel from French to English, and as she writes more and gets involved in a French romance, she starts to wonder if the characters in the book are real.

I’m sad to say I didn’t particularly like this book.  For one thing, there was just too much emphasis on sex.  I didn’t realize she was translating an erotic novel!  I don’t read the backs of books and sometimes that does lead to nasty surprises like this one.  The novel wasn’t particularly nice either – I will admit that after the first one, I skimmed all the rest of the excerpts of the erotic novel.

Still, I persevered in reading the rest of the book, hoping Anna would learn something from her French life to apply back to her American life.  I was disappointed in that too.  It seemed to me that she just constantly moped in her apartment, lamenting the unfortunate state of her life, except when she went to hang out with her trendy French friends who all had their own issues and subsequently complained about them.  The mystery of the erotic novel didn’t pan out either as I wasn’t interested in the book enough to actually remember the characters’ names.  Bad, I know – but by the end, I was genuinely skimming the entire book and skimmed huge sections just to get to the end.

Just about the only thing I did like about the book was the wordplay and the rumination on the nature of language.  Because Anna is a translator, she ends up thinking a lot about how concepts work in different languages and how some phrases just don’t work outside of their native tongue.  I have studied four languages, five if you count Middle English, and although I don’t know any of them particularly well, this is a concept I’ve run into quite a bit.  I definitely wanted to learn French.

Don’t take my word for it, though, as you might feel differently; Jennifer at Literate Housewife loved this book and named it one of her top 10 of 2009.  I wish I’d felt the same way as she did!  Foreign Tongue was definitely not the book for me.

I am an Amazon Associate. To be honest, I’m not sure why I have this book or where it came from, but I know it was sent to me for free.

Review: The Bird Room, Chris Killen

Since he is such a socially awkward person, Will is astonished when Alice spontaneously makes her interest in him clear.  She’s Will’s first girlfriend, as well as beautiful and smart.  He can’t stop obsessing over her and worrying what’s going to go wrong.  As always happens in such situations, his obsession begins to drive Alice away, and it’s only then that Will’s passion displays its most damaging consequences.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book and I was surprised, in a pleasant way, by what I found.  This book reads partly like an example of how not to conduct a relationship.  The situations are occasionally as sad as they are hilarious, but it’s impossible not to laugh.  The author has taken obsessive love to an extreme which is difficult to believe in, but which provides uneasy entertainment nonetheless.  We know there is something sad and wrong with these people, but at the same time they are mocking themselves.

The book alternates narration, using first person only when Will has the viewpoint perspective and third person for the other character.  This gives the reader an insight into his uncomfortable and obsessive mind, since otherwise we’d have no reason as to why he behaves the way he does, but at the same time contrasts his inner thoughts with his outer appearance and behavior.

The Bird Room doesn’t flinch in describing any aspect of these relationships.  A lot of the novel is obsessed with sex, as young people in new relationships generally are.  One of the characters is an actress using her body to get by and to erase her previous school persona, so there really is a fair amount of graphic content.  The book feels edgy, using the characters’ sexuality to portray the other happenings in their lives.  Helen, always lacking confidence, feels beautiful when a man wants her enough to sleep with her.  Will needs Viagra to encourage him along when his obsession with Alice takes control of his life.

A darkly comic tale about the extremes of obsession, The Bird Room manages to finish with hope and provides some very provoking thoughts to consider.  This little book is worth a read for those who enjoy character studies.

I am an Amazon Associate. I received this book for free from the publisher for review.

Review: South of Broad, Pat Conroy

Leopard Bloom King is an awkward, ugly 18-year-old with few friends.  His life has been a mess ever since his brother, Stephen, killed himself at only ten years old.  After spending years in mental institutions and later caught with cocaine in his pocket, Leo’s life has been anything but normal.  In the summer before his senior year of high school, he meets the people who will influence the rest of his life, forming friendships and bonds that will prove stronger than anything Leo has known previously.  Years later, their friendship will remain of primary importance to Leo as he and they must endure extraordinary hardships brought on by nature, the human mind, and a terrible disease.

My only previous experience with Pat Conroy was The Water Is Wide, a memoir that I just adored in high school, and I’ve meant to read more by him ever since.  So when I opened this book, it was with a great deal of anticipation.  And I enjoyed this story; the beginning feels slow and meandering, accustoming readers to the feel and the flow of South Carolina and the beginning of teenage friendships that are meant to last.  The second section is more exciting and begins to encompass the troubles that these friendships have wrought even as they have brought blessings.  The third section gives us another peek into the origin of the group, and the final section includes their pivotal struggle against a madman and a hurricane.

The story is indeed big and sprawling as the back cover promises, but I still wanted more.  Largely, I wanted more of the origins of these friendships.  I still found it hard to understand why they all coped with Chad, a member of the arrogant Southern aristocracy determined to put everyone down, or some of the other members of the group.  I saw how they came together, but I suppose I didn’t understand how it lasted for all of the members of this group.  Their conversations were entertaining, but rang somewhat untrue for me, and I just couldn’t believe anyone like Sheba Poe actually existed.  Who stage manages their entry into a house party of close friends?  The later sections were powerful, but without that essential basis, at times I couldn’t believe in the story.

And that’s a shame, because the story is quite a wild ride through almost every issue you can name.  The friends go in search of a missing member of the group and have to deal with death, rape, adultery, and murder among their ranks.  They even have a natural disaster pitted against them.  The book resonates with the strength and feel of Charleston, a place I’ve never been to but would quite like to visit now.  Conroy is an excellent writer and can make the words on the page simply come alive, even as he packs the story full with almost too much trauma.

South of Broad is a good book that, I think, has unfortunately missed being great.  Still, I am encouraged to read more of Conroy’s works, as I think he is an excellent writer and is still worth my time.

I am an Amazon Associate. I received this book for free from the publisher for review here.

Review: The Road Home, Rose Tremain

After losing his job and his wife, Lev leaves his little daughter with his mother and sets off for London to find work and support his family.  By a lucky chance, he meets a woman on the bus who helps him find a job after a brief period of homelessness.  Working in the kitchen of an elite restaurant, Lev learns that he loves to cook and carefully observes the chef and other workers to glean their skills.  Through a relationship with his co-worker and a path to success in his new career, Lev begins to understand the wider world while growing to appreciate and love his home even more.

I felt a little uncertain about this book while I was reading it and I still do now.  I’m not quite sure how to review it because it’s one of those books that I liked but didn’t really like that much.  The best part, clearly, was Lev’s sense of accomplishment and his ambition once he realized what he really wanted out of his life.  I love to read about ambitious, goal-oriented, determined people.  Obviously life gets in the way sometimes, but I can identify with them the best.  Unfortunately, however, Lev also seems to have a somewhat ignorant or cruel streak towards women.  He does not want a relationship after his wife, so he rebuffs one woman, but then he finds another, decides he’s in love with her, and ends up treating her quite badly when things don’t end the way he expects.  The girl is partly at fault for leading him on, but all of his relationships with women bothered me.

I did like the entire theme of home running through this novel.  Even when Lev makes a groove for himself in London, he still misses the people and the place that is his home.  Eventually he realizes that it’s the people and not the place itself, but that doesn’t stop him from trying to do his best for his home country and making a difference for his family.  The title is really well chosen; even though Lev starts out leaving home, the entire novel is at the core about his journey returning and how he’s going to get there as a more successful man than when he left.

I’m still a little on the fence about whether to recommend this book or not.  It is one of those difficult reads that falls in the middle, that I know I’m supposed to love but I didn’t manage it.  I think if this review intrigues you, the book is probably still worth investigating.

IndieBound | Powell’s | Amazon | Amazon UK

Review: Dragon House, John Shors

When Iris’s father dies, she finds that she wants to continue his legacy by establishing his children’s center in Vietnam.    The center was not completed and Iris decides to abandon her career as newspaper book reviewer and fly to Vietnam to help.  She takes her neighbor Noah with her, a man impaired both physically and mentally from his experience in the Iraq War, in the hopes that a purpose will give his life meaning and direction.  In Saigon, Iris and Noah are amazed by the kindness and warmth of the Vietnamese and the clever street children, who quickly realize the goals of the center and wish to be enrolled.  In this cutthroat world, however, it isn’t all as easy as it should be, and Iris and Noah find themselves fighting to save the children they come to love.

It seems to me that this is a book about hope.  Iris hopes to build a center beyond all the others, to truly educate girls and make them into productive and happy citizens.  Noah eventually learns to hope again through Thien, who is at peace with the universe.  The children all hope to be let into the center, so they have a chance for a brighter future.  Everyone is making something better, whether it’s themselves or society, and the entire book has a bright, cheerful message in the end.

While Iris and Noah are admirable people, it is really the street children who make this book the wonderful read it is.  There are three children who are really focused on, Minh, Mai, and Tam.  Minh and Mai are brother and sister; Minh doesn’t talk, has only one hand, and plays connect four with tourists to earn money, while Mai acts as his voice and sells fans.  They are bright, innovative children and it’s impossible not to completely fall in love with them and hope that they can seize a brighter future through Iris and Noah.  Unfortunately, they have a more powerful man who has them under his thumb and who insists on making things difficult.  Tam is a very sick girl who is mostly cared for by her grandmother, and it’s here that the tragic aspect of the book makes its mark.  Tam is suffering from childhood leukemia and 90% of children survive it if they get care early enough.  Unfortunately, Tam did not, given that they live on the street, and while her personality is almost completely obscured by her illness, the love between her and her grandmother is so touching, as is the attitude of all the other characters towards them.

Saigon itself (as it is called in the book) almost acts as a character; since Minh and Mai are poor they move around quite a lot and allow descriptions of most of the city, as well as the hovels in which they and Tam live.  I really enjoyed the descriptions in the book and felt that the author did an admirable job contrasting wealth and poverty and getting across the feel of both the city and the Vietnamese people.  The plot is not particularly tight, especially in the beginning, but it doesn’t seem to matter because I was too busy enjoying the characters and descriptions and hoping for something better to come their way.

Dragon House is completely different from John Shors’s other work, but I really enjoyed my time spent with it.  It is both a charming story and inspires us to do something better in the world by exposing the evils he’s seen.  I definitely recommend it.