Monday, December 30, 2013

When Even the Smallest Moments in Time Make All the Difference

Perfect by Rachel Joyce


Byron Hemmings is a clever boy with an equally clever best friend James Lowe. When they hear about adding an extra two seconds, the idea astounds them both. But then Byron notices his watch moving backwards at the exact time the accident happened, and nothing will ever be the same. Together, these boys attempt to put things right during that spring and summer of 1972. 40 years later, the mental institution that Jim has been in and out of since he was 16 is closing its doors. Now Jim has to figure out how to live in the real world, and how to protect it from any harm he might cause. In this fascinating story, told in chapters that alternate between 1972 and 40 years later, Rachel Joyce (The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry) once again takes us on a uniquely personal journey in her second novel "Perfect".

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

My Top Five (or Six) Books of 2013

My Choice for the Most Worthy Reads of the Past Year

It seems that everyone is putting up their "best of 2013" lists right now. On the one hand I find this slightly premature. What if something amazingly noteworthy happens between now and midnight on the 31st of December? Won't we all feel a bit silly having missed including that in our yearly round-up? On the other hand, who am I to tilt at such long-standing windmills?

According to my Goodreads profile, I read 35 books during 2013. That may not seem like a whole lot to most of you. However, for someone who has a demanding full-time job (as well as a couple freelance editing gigs), is mildly dyslexic (and therefore reads slower than most people), and spends no small amount of time writing, publishing and promoting my book reviews, I think that's a pretty good number. What's more, there are two more books I'm half way through already, and will probably finish at least one of them (if not both) before they play the last chords of "Auld Lang Syne." All of these books were published over the past year, so I feel reasonably assured that I can be considered an amateur authority on the subject. Finally, since it isn't likely that I'm going to find the next Pulitzer Prize for Literature before the year ends, here goes my 2013 countdown …

5. Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield

Despite William Bellman's humble beginnings, his intelligence, hard work and business acumen made a success out of everything he touches. However, much like the rooks that dance in the skies, death was always swooping in and out of his life. This haunting tale is a truly compelling read and Setterfield is a very exciting talent. She has the ability to mold and shape a story together with her characters and settings that all blend in together to make one, complete vibrant picture.

4. Going Out in Style by Daniel Kelley

This is a delightful collection of stories, all of which focus on something ending, and each one looking at a different type of how things finish (including how sometimes, that can lead to a beginning). Kelley's talent makes each story fully rounded and complete, with believable, sympathetic characters we can identify with and plots that hold our interest. By using a common theme, there is also a cohesive feel to this collection, rather than just a bunch of stories thrown together.

3. The Universe Verses Alex Woods by Gavin Extence

When it comes to "coming of age" novels, the first one that comes to mind is always Catcher in the Rye. But that was written in the 1950s and one wonders if it isn't a bit out of touch with the times. Then along came Alex Woods, who could very well be the Holden Caulfield of the 21st Century. I would even be so bold as to say that perhaps this book should replace Catcher in the Rye in our schools as mandatory reading. It almost goes without saying that with this debut novel, Gavin Extence has shown himself to be an author we should all be on the lookout for.

2. Letters from Skye by Jessica Brockmole

It is March 1912 and David Graham is a University student in Urbana, Illinois. He's just read a book of poetry by Elspeth Dunn, who lives on Scotland's Isle of Skye. Impressed, he decides to write to her, and thereby begins a correspondence that will change both their lives. If you think epistolary novels are a hackneyed way to tell a story, you must have read the wrong ones. This is an unbelievably beautiful novel that spans two world wars, half a globe and thousands of letters. It was so engaging I literally couldn't put it down!

1. A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

We've all read books where the first thing we've wanted to do when we finished reading the last page was to start over again from the beginning. This is certainly one of those books; but it also isn't one of those books. While it is almost certain you will be enchanted by this novel, you might get the feeling that a second reading could change the way you were initially affected by the story. This is partially because you won't be the same person you were when you first started reading. It may also be because the story itself will be different - either for you, or that the story itself will change. This might not make a whole lot of sense - at least not until you've read this book, and read this book, you MUST! Oh, but don't just take my word for it; this book was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize for 2013.

Of course, no self-respecting "best of" list comes without at least one honorable mention, and mine is Becoming Josephine by Heather Webb. It is very appropriate that Webb chose to include the quote "one is not born a woman; one becomes one" (Simone de Beauvoir) before she embarks on this amazing tale. In fact, Webb has embodied this throughout her story by putting the development of the woman behind the history at its very core. What's more, she does this with an elegance of prose that fits perfectly with both the time and the personality of her main character. From the very first paragraphs we are both swept up into the era and welcomed into her very heart, mind and soul. It didn't make this list because I could only give it four and a half stars out of five, but it still deserves note.

That's my list, and I hope that this inspires you to take a closer look and read at least one of my choices.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

A Girl who is Part Mystery, Part Fantasy

The Girl on the Landing by Paul Torday


Reading Paul Torday's novel "The Girl on the Landing" makes one want to paraphrase Joseph Heller's quote from "Catch 22" to read: "Just because you're [being treated for] paranoid [schizophrenia], doesn't mean they aren't really after you”.  The story here is about Michael and his wife, Elizabeth. They've been married for ten years and have a relationship that is best described as "they get along well together." That is, until a strange incident in Ireland when Michael sees a girl on the landing of the house they're staying at. Soon after that, Michael seems to change – he’s suddenly become more affectionate and loving. This makes Elizabeth ignore his slightly erratic behavior. But just when it seems that Elizabeth is finally finding the man she always hoped for, their whole lives begin to fall apart.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Making of a French Empress

Becoming Josephine by Heather Webb

It took 30 years for Marie Jos├Ęphe Rose Tascher de La Pagerie to go from being a young Creole girl from Martinique, to being Rose de Beauharnais and finally becoming Josephine Bonaparte and the first Empress of the French Empire, before she was divorced from Napoleon. Her life and experiences were well documented by historians. In her debut historical novel, "Becoming Josephine," Heather Webb looks beyond the facts to find what made this girl into such a legendary woman.


Saturday, December 14, 2013

Teaching Men Manners is No Laughing Matter?



Cassandra French's Finishing School for Boys by Eric Garcia


Cassandra French is a character that any woman would envy. She's beautiful, has a lovely home and what seems to be a great job - she's a lawyer for a Hollywood studio. Mind you, she doesn't get the really big cases, being in the Business Affairs department, but what does that matter when you meet stars every day? Besides, Cassandra has a vocation. Cassandra knows exactly how all women really want to be treated. But that may not be an advantage, if she and her friends can't find men who will treat them right. So she's figured out what men need to learn. And she's began her one-woman crusade to teach at least some of those boorish men (but just the ones with some potential) how to treat women properly. That's when she "opened" her Finishing School for Boys.

Friday, December 13, 2013

One Family, One Holiday, Many Generations of Women

Thanksgiving by Ellen Cooney


Patience was a newlywed, pregnant with her first child on that cold November morning of 1662. When she went outside in search of her husband, she saw a turkey fly into the oak tree in her yard. The fateful killing of that bird ended up being something to be truly thankful for. It also was where the legend of the Morley family of Massachusetts began. This novel follows the Morley women over 350 years, using their ancestral home and the food they prepared for this holiday as the focal points.


Thursday, December 12, 2013

Not Seeing the Trees for the Forest


All Russians Love Birch Trees by Olga Grjasnowa


Maria (aka Masha), was born to turmoil as a Jew in Baku, Azerbaijan, who fled with her family to Germany in the 1990s. From birth she was always been an outsider. And no amount of her learning so many languages - including Russian, Arabic, German and French - ever made her feel like she fit in. The other outcasts she knows - Beirut born Sami who has problems with his visa to the US, and Cem the German born Turk who she cannot love - don't make things better. But with her German boyfriend Elias - or as she calls him, Elisha - she has found some refuge. So when he breaks his femur playing soccer, and the subsequent complications kill him, she's thrown into turmoil that she can't cope with, together with the guilt she can't escape.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Death Among the Dreidel Set

Chanukah Guilt by Ilene Schneider


According to the book cover synopsis, "Rabbi Aviva Cohen is a 50-something, twice-divorced rabbi living a rather uneventful life in South Jersey. True, she has a family that is rather unconventional. And her first ex-husband is moving to her town. But her life takes a truly interesting - and sinister - turn when she agrees to officiate at the funeral of an unpopular land developer. She doesn't expect to be told by two different people that he had been murdered. Nor does she expect that the first funeral will result in a suicide. ..." I couldn't have put it any better and Rabbi Ilene Schneider's first book (and yes, there will be more) is a very nicely done first outing.


Friday, December 6, 2013

Ten Warmly Flowing Stories of Louisiana

"Down at the End of the River" by Angus Woodward


I have never been to Louisiana. In fact, the first things I think of when I hear the name of that state is humidity, hurricanes and heat. Other words like Creole and Cajuns also spring to mind, as do crocodiles (or are they alligators? I never can tell the difference). Alliteration and stereotypes aside, reading a collection of stories set somewhere that's new to me, is always a draw - a virtual vacation, if you will. Angus Woodward draws his audience into his home with these ten fascinating stories. They are entitled: