Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Alison Bruce/CAMBRIDGE BLUE


At 25, overachiever Gary Goodhew is the youngest guy to have made Detective in the history of the Cambridge (UK) police force, so it's not surprising that some of the other cops have trouble working with him. He has the chance to prove himself when the body of a woman nobody liked is discovered in a trash heap. It's not very long before the first body is linked to another, and soon the situation becomes unusually convoluted with liars, grudges, and secrets. Will Gary be able to get to the bottom of it?

I really enjoyed the chattiness of the narrative. Gary Goodhew isn't a hard-drinking, bitter, scarred detective, fossilized by long exposure to the criminal underworld. He's a young guy who likes to talk to people--constantly sympathizing with them and trying to give them a hand based on gut intuition instead of evidence. I also appreciated Bruce's pacing--without hampering the narrative, she builds in an appealing sense of the British "village" into the story and how everyone interacts. I found this thriller much more readable because it wasn't simply plotplotplot, and because the detective wasn't emotionally distant. And although the ending was a little convoluted--I'm not entirely sure I know who killed whom or why, yet somehow that all seems secondary--I would certainly read another book in this series if one were published.

Friday, March 26, 2010

WENCH - Dolen Perkins-Valdez


My father-in-law has a saying; when asked how he is doing, he replies, "I'm white, I'm male, I was born in the United States at the ideal time, and I am educated."

The women of Wench would answer a bit differently. As the mistresses of southern slave owners, they are brought to an Ohio resort during the mid 1850s that caters to men who can "love" them more openly. Under the ruse of a personal slave who washes, cooks, cleans, sweeps, and cares for the man, each woman has a different personal relationship with her master. While some, like Sweet, have borne several children and feel love for her man, others, like Mawu, despises her master and begins the talk that changes their lives.

Ohio was free territory, but until Mawu began talking of being a "free black," like the hotel's servants, none of the others considered other options for their lives or their children's lives. Their choices would eventually reunite them or divide them forever from their families.

The most powerful part of the novel was the characterization in its short 300 pages. Four women with different beliefs and relationships psychologically stand together with the strength of Stonehenge. A shift of the hip or a glance tells much more than an entire page.

Like The Help, this is a peek at a world I would never know or understand. How are you doing today, Kristin? I am white, I'm a strong woman, I was born in the United States at the ideal time, and I am educated. I am a lucky, lucky woman.

4.25 out of 5.0 Code Limons.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Henry Chang/CHINATOWN BEAT


Manhattan, 1994. Detective Jack Yu has gotten reassigned to the Fifth Precinct, the Chinatown he grew up in and of which he has some pretty tainted associations. On the Chinatown beat, the NYPD doesn't quite know which end is up: there are victims who don't speak any English, gang and ethnic rivalries that are impossible for outsiders to untangle, underground casinos, drug rings, and sex trafficking English-only speakers will never crack. Giving it up as a lost cause, most of the Fifth Precinct put in their 9 to 5 and call it a day. Meanwhile, no one is protecting the civilians from this underworld. Well, Jack Yu is. He can't stop himself from getting involved.

Chinatown Beat isn't a cozy mystery--there's no open and shut case. Rather the story tracks Jack and various seedy and/or down-on-their-luck characters through a month of bilingual crime. The story, which is studded with Cantonese for an added sense of cultural legitimacy, touches upon such issues as the desperation of immigrants and their reliance on such failing enterprises as the Golden Venture (the boat of illegal immigrants that crashed off the coast of New York in 1993 and killed hundreds of people), and on both the bad and the good sides of the reliance of different layers of the Chinese-in-America community on "benevolent associations."

I was surprised to find the book taking unexpected paths; the narrative is very concerned with the psychologies of both Jack Yu and various criminal elements he encounters along the way. While some of Henry Chang's characters are wholly despicable, many of them are not--there's Uncle Four, who may be a bully and a mafioso, but who uses his position of power to help dying old ladies and men who've been robbed. There's a desperate young sex slave who's not afraid to resort to violence. There's a curmudgeonly restaurant owner who struggles against unfair persecution by the health and sanitation department. And there are many other victims and beneficiaries of the ethnic enclave.

In terms of thriller writing, Chinatown Beat is vivid and transporting. There is rather a lot of sex in it, and sometimes Jack Yu cows to the conventions of the detective genre (alcoholism, loss of a childhood friend to street violence, regrets over never having had the chance to say goodbye to his father). But overall this is a good and layered read. Be forewarned: you will end up wanting noodles and tofu.

Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade by Diana Gabaldon


I have written about Diana Gabaldon before on this blog, and let me say straight away that I enjoyed Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade a lot more than Echo in the Bone.

Lord John, who emerged from the Outlander series as a separate series of novels, has a few problems on his plate. For one thing, he's in love with his new stepbrother. For another, the bitter feelings surrounding his father's death are still very much alive after a period of several years, and his brother Hal won't bear his father's title. Then there's the matter of the pages from his father's missing journal that keep turning up. . . On top of which, as a professional soldier Lord John generally has a battle to fight somewhere, and the next one may cost him his life.

As always, I'm impressed with Gabaldon's command of dialog and attention to historical detail. As always, her plot is intricate and involves a large number of characters. I have decided I need to get a better handle on the Outlander world if I'm going to keep reading these books (and I will, I'm a sucker for a lively historical novel) so I've downloaded the audiobook of Outlander and intend to work my way through the series in the order they were written. Perhaps my poor lame brain can get its head round all these people if someone is doing the voices.

What I like most about the Lord John books is, I think, the fact that each one is based on a puzzle/mystery that gets worked out by the last chapter (whereas the Outlander series is very episodic). I also enjoy seeing how Lord John negotiates a world in which homosexuality is a crime and a guaranteed route to social ruin if found out. And I like this character; I always enjoy characters who have a smooth, polished facade that hides deep emotions. Dorothy L. Sayers fans like myself may recognize Lord John as a gay Lord Peter Wimsey (who, according to Sayers, is an 18th-century gentleman at heart).

Verdict? Good. If you like intricate plots in a historical setting, you'll enjoy.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Unfolding Destinies by Olive Liefeld


My reading seems to be taking on a very miscellaneous character of late. Or perhaps it's always been that way. Anyway, I bought this one at church because the author spoke there one Sunday. Several books have been written on the martyrdom of five Christian missionaries in the jungles of Ecuador in 1956, the most recognizable probably being The End of the Spear, which gave its name to a 2006 movie.

At 23, Olive Liefeld hadn't been married to missionary Pete Fleming for long when he died. He'd delayed asking her to marry him while he debated the problem of whether he should marry when he was likely to be killed. All five men accepted the possibility of death as they sought out the Aucas (the name means "naked savage"), a lost tribe living a stone-age existence in a society founded on killing. As an example, a normal method of obtaining a wife was to kill her family and drag her off. Not surprisingly, tribal numbers were on a downward slope.

Unfolding Destinies is told from Olive's viewpoint, and spends a lot of time on the years she and Pete spent together--and apart--as students gradually building a relationship. It's rather heavy on the Christianese, and I for one felt like a spiritual pygmy in contrast to their earnestness. But of such stuff are missionaries made. Presumably you don't head off for the jungles without some serious spiritual backbone. Knowing (as the reader does, otherwise I doubt s/he'd have picked up the book) that the story ends in widowhood kept me reading, ghoul that I am.

The book gives a very brief account of what happened after the massacre, but it's worth telling and you can find it in some of the related books if you want. Two of the widows stayed on, and were eventually approached by some Auca women interested in knowing about the "People-Maker" the men had talked about. Apparently, the Aucas had been impressed by the way the missionaries had offered no violence to their attackers as their society simply didn't work that way. Over time many of the Aucas converted to Christianity, and the men who did the actual killing all became church leaders or pastors. Today the tribe is a peaceful people known as the Huaorani, and several of them work as evangelists among the other tribes of the region.

Whatever your views on religion and missionaries, I hope you pick up, as I did, on the respect that these Americans had for the cultures they were "invading" and their willingness to do everything they could to understand them. I would have liked to have read more about the other "invaders" - the Western commercial interests that were encroaching on the tribal territories with far less respect. In these days of large-scale disaster aid, it's a topic to be explored.


Happy Accidents by Tiffany Murray


Nearly-eleven-year-old Kate Happy lives in a creepy, smelly old farmhouse in the part of England--on the Welsh border--that's probably best known for constant rain. She's living with her Jewish-American grandma and bonkers grandad, because her Mum's off in some hippy commune and her Dad, having been run over by her Mum in her red sports car, is dead and kept in a mayonnaise jar. She avoids school whenever she can, barely gets to eat because her grandmother doesn't believe in getting fat, and is prone to peeing her pants in moments of stress.

Her Mum's return is just the first of many incidents that ramble through this debut novel. Happy Accidents is stuffed with quirky characters and loose ends, and given a refreshing tang by the author's distinctive voice. I liked it, even though it wouldn't normally be the kind of book I'd pick up (the chick-lit cover does it no favors). Kate's reactions to her world are very believable (the book is semi-autobiographical, where are the social services when you need them?) and watching her figure out her own rules in an environment where the adults just seem to make up the rules as they go along is quite thought-provoking.

This is a nice one to tuck in your pocket when you're heading off in the plane or on the beach. Not heavy reading, but intelligently written and entertaining.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Marilynne Robinson/HOUSEKEEPING


In a tiny town in the Midwest, where winter is harsh and springtime means destructive flooding, two sisters are shuffled from the care of their mother to their grandmother to their great-aunts to their aunt, as layer after layer of the family renders itself incapable of caring for them.

Housekeeping was first published in 1980 and was Robinson's first nomination for the Pulitzer Prize (she later won for Gilead). I came across the book as I was coming up with my Fill-in-the-Gaps list; it had made many a "Best Of" roster. It's a literary novel in the classic sense, very concerned with language and feeling. Replete with glorious visuals, the prose is very wintery and atmospheric. It is brief--only 220 pages--and so the reading of it comprises an afternoon of dripping simile. I enjoyed it, and am glad I read it. I can't say I was profoundly affected; for me, with this kind of book, I always wish there was a little more. But it was certainly a good read, and Robinson succeeded in bringing to life very vividly a small and failing town on the edges of the wilderness.

Anyone else read any Robinson? Any recommendations?

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Tamora Pierce/FIRST TEST

Ten-year-old Kel is the first female in the history of the kingdom of Tortall to be allowed to enter training for knighthood. But Lord Wyldon, the training master, is adamantly against allowing girls into the ranks of pages, and Kel is put under probation for her first year. No matter how hard she tries, Kel can't seem to win the good opinion of Lord Wyldon. Will she be able to master the physical and mental tasks required of a page?

First Test is the first book in the Protector of the Small YA series (of four books total).

I read First Test on the advice of a friend, and look forward to reading the next three in the series. As a fantasy school cum adventure story, it is very engaging. It occurred to me that Kel's story is an interesting counterpart to Harry Potters, since many elements of the premises chime (underdog student suffers great injustice but perseveres to master an art in a magical world). Yet somehow First Test is a little more sophisticated--Kel doesn't have to pick up the slack for incompetent adults and save the day, like Harry does. Instead, she faces what struck me as real-world challenges (her own biology, against which she has to work hard to compensate for her female build; the open prejudice of authority figures who resent her). I did feel Pierce's writing was a little emotionally distant, but this didn't distract me enough to make me feel like I was disengaged from Kel's story. The book is clean and wholesome, something any parent or teacher would be comfortable sharing with a child--at the same time, I was quite entertained.

Monday, March 15, 2010

E.L. Doctorow/RAGTIME

At the turn of the 20th century, several New York families intersect: a well-off WASP family in New Rochelle, a mysterious young black woman who moves in with them with her baby, a Lower East Side impoverished Jewish immigrant and his motherless daughter, and a slew of real historical characters (Emma Goldman, Harry Houdini, JP Morgan, and tons of others).

First published in 1975, Ragtime was an instant bestseller and the recipient of much critical acclaim. Since, it has consistently appeared on "Best Of" lists, including Modern Library's 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century (If this list means anything--Modern Library is a division of Random House, and it's interesting to note that Ragtime is not the only RH publication on it... Nevertheless, it's a list that's frequently bandied about.) I put it on my Fill-in-the-Gaps list because I saw it appearing on so many lists. It also came with tons of personal recommendations from friends.

I enjoyed this book, although I wish there had been more to it. In the end, I felt there were a lot of loose ends that I wish had been a little more deeply explored. I don't want to leave any spoilers, but there was a point where (for me, at least) one of the narratives overwhelmed all the others, and the end of the book didn't recover them. Maybe they just didn't matter. However, I really liked Doctorow's narrative style, which is plainspoken, unadorned. He packs in tons of history in a wonderfully readable way.

I find (strangely) I don't have a lot to say about it... Has anyone else read it? I'm supposed to be chatting about it on my blog on April 1, so if you have read it, please feel cordially invited to stop by then. Or you know, just tell me here.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Fearless- Max Lucado

I'll preface this review with a couple of caveats. First, I received this book for free from publisher Thomas Nelson. Second, I'm a bit new to religion in general. I wasn't raised anything and have only recently come to church. I'll not divulge my faith or personal beliefs here, but from what I've heard Lucado is more conservative and evangelical than I tend to be. I've tried to not let any of these factors temper my review.

Being fearless is something that I've always equated with the young kids I used to teach skiing to when I was in high school. Watching tiny three and four-year-olds barrel down a ski hill without regard to cracked heads, torn ACLs or aching muscles is the definition of fearless. Seeing as how they only have two or three feet maximum to fall, this lack of fear isn't too hard to imagine. However, most of us grow past three feet and even if we didn't the knowledge that we gain in life often comes at a price. Sometimes the adage that ignorance is bliss is all too true. It's hard to be fearless when you're farther than three feet from the ground and have a much better idea of what life's consequences. Lucado breaks the book up into chapters that all focus on various fears that people have in modern society. Fears of overwhelming challenges, violence, not mattering, and not protecting the kids, are some of the difficulties that Lucado expounds on.

In each chapter, Lucado illustrates the fear through personal anecdotes and stories of this type of fear manifesting in regular people's lives. He then pulls quotations, parables and psalms from the Bible to illustrate why people needn't be afraid of any of these calamities because God and Jesus are on their side.

Overall, I liked this book, but I have some reservations about it. I love the message: don't worry; just live your life and do what you can about your own actions. I think this is something that everyone, can or should be able to practice. We can't change everything in the world. We can't change other people actions or thoughts or practices, but we can take charge of our own thoughts and actions and practices, and create change in the world that way. What I don't like about this book is how heavy handed it is with God and the Bible. Now, I understand that is is a Christian book from a Christian publisher and for that audience, I think it's great. For me, it worked. For the rest of the population, I think they would be turned off by it, which is unfortunate because I really love the message. Granted, if you weren't a Christian, or someone who believed in God, you'd be unlikely to pick up this book to begin with, but I still wish the message were more accessible to everyone, faithful, agnostic and atheist.

I would say, if you're Christian of any persuasion, read this book. If you're religious of any other persuasion or not religious at all, read the book, but listen to the words, and don't worry about the tradition from which they have come. These are good ideas for every human, not just Christians.

THE RED TREE/Caitlin Kiernan

I had heard of the book long before picking it up at my local Border's on a lazy Friday afternoon, but I didn't know the premise: A lonely, middle-aged, midlist writer moves to Rhode Island in an attempt to finish (start, actually) her long-awaited novel. There, in the house she rents, she comes into contact with a malevolent tree. Soon she finds the previous (dead) tenant's manuscript in the basement, and it is all about the tree. Despite her attempts to either give the manuscript away or forget about it, she finds herself drawn to its content. It isn't long before she is risking her health and sanity just by staying in the house, for the tree seems to have powers beyond her mental grasp—some of this due to her reluctance to even believe in the supernatural.

Normally, the idea of a character struggling with belief in the supernatural is something I find annoying, mostly because it's so obvious it's the writer's disbelief shining through in the form of a character's thoughts. And yet, despite the autobiographical feel to the book (many real-life details, such as Kiernan's move from Atlanta to Rhode Island, are in the novel), Sarah Crowe's (the MC) reluctance felt perfectly natural. I think this was due to Sarah's desperation to hold onto reality no matter what happened throughout the story. It felt almost as though she felt her atheism was the only piece of sanity she had.

But it wasn't just the premise that grabbed me - it was the writing. How often do we find a book, get excited about its premise, order it online, wait impatiently for it to come in the mail, only to discover when it does that it wasn't worth all the trouble? I didn't find that to be the case at all with The Red Tree (not that I went through any of these things, but it would have been worth it if I had). I read it in just a couple of days. It's written in journal form, and if you don't like that style, well, it's your loss. I thought it was great. Looking forward to reading more of Kiernan's stuff.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Read an e-Book Week

March 7th to 13th is the second annual "Read an e-Book Week". Many publishers and authors (including yours truly) have made books available for free or at a discount during this week.

Visit the "Read an e-Book Week" web site to get great information on electronic reading, including a list of the authors participating.

While I can't imagine paper books will be gone any time soon, electronic reading is becoming steadily more popular, and this week is a great time to give it a try if you haven't already.

If you're a fan of commercial women's fiction, both of my ebooks are available for free this week through my author page at SmashWords.com. If not, there are tons of other books available.

Or there would be, if electronic books weighed anything. :)

Thursday, March 4, 2010

In Her Shoes

Guilt. Jealousy. Self-discovery. Family ties. And un-ties.

IN HER SHOES follows Rose and Maggie, sisters who "have nothing in common but a childhood tragedy, DNA, and a shoe size." Big sister, Rose has the brains. She's a Princeton graduate with a successful law career and a somber size 14 wardrobe. Maggie has the beauty. With her boyfriend-installed D-cups and 106-pound perfect body, she struggles against a learning disability to make it in life.

After a twist of fate causes Maggie to move in with Rose, things come to a head. Their priorities put them constantly at odds. Rose can't get Maggie to act responsibly, and Maggie can't force Rose to spice up her wardrobe. Still, they each admire the other for the things they themselves can not acheive.

One night, Maggie narrowly avoids being assaulted by a pair of drunk good Samaritans. This snowballs into a fight that causes Maggie to move out of Rose's apartment and her life. In the months that follow, they each come to discover the side of themselves they had neglected, and flourish in their own right.

Now a major motion picture starring Cameron Diaz and Toni Collette, IN HER SHOES examines female relationships within the family. The characters instantly resonate with the insecurities women share. Readers plunge with their defeats and soar with their triumphs.

If you're looking for a heartwarmign family saga, then this is the novel for you.

-Claire Dawn

Monday, March 1, 2010

THE BOOK OF LOST THINGS - John Connolly


David's mother is dying, but he counts the numbers of steps and ritualizes his mornings in an attempt to keep her alive. After her death, and his father's subsequent remarriage, he finds new rituals: books. Especially, listening to the books who talk to him.

This fantasy-filled novel, set in World War II Britain, promises to prompt memories of Grimm fairy tales and ideas of "truth" versus "story." I found that I liked this book much more after I finished it and could begin the rehashing of its meaning.

David finds a hole in the garden, and he hears his mother's voice calling for help. One night, he sees a German plane falling from the sky, and to escape from a fiery death, he crawls through the hole into a fairytale woods. From there, the story follows familiar and strange tales, the stories that we do not tell children, but we probably should. Death comes to those who make idiotic choices, for example, or are not honorable in their actions.

In order to return to the "real world," David must find the king and his "Book of Lost Things." However, is his awakening due to finding a way home, or had this been his imagination all along?

The author threw in enough irony and twists on typical children's fare to keep my attention. More thrilling is the discussions post-reading. Does this other-world exist? As the author states, he has received a unique answer from everyone he has met. A book to make one think - I'll put down my drink for this.

4.0 out of 5.0 Red Witches.

Jack Weatherford/GENGHIS KHAN AND THE MAKING OF THE MODERN WORLD

A friend of mine is a high school teacher who has been obsessed with the Mongols for a couple months (she has to teach the Mongol Empire as part of her Regents Test prep). I thought she was being a little silly, but grudgingly agreed to read this book. Now, comprehension dawns. The Mongol Empire was really frickin' cool.

The thing I hadn't realized was that just about every feature of the modern world is somehow connected to Genghis Khan, who lived from 1160 to 1222. One example I'd heard before I read the book was weaponry: the Chinese empire used explosives (what we'd call gunpowder) for firecrackers; the Muslim empires in Persia and Baghdad had long used flame-throwers and other kinds of hurling artillery in warfare; the Christian empires had churches with bells in them. But it was only Genghis who connected the three different kinds of technology to yield a cannon, and later a gun.

But that was hardly the only or the most important way the Mongol Empire changed the world. They created a well-staffed and safely regulated chain of post offices over their entire empire to facilitate trade. They transplanted native vegetables from China to Hungary to India and everywhere in between, changing the global diet. They synthesized the most advanced mathematics from India and Persia to use across the entire empire for taxes and mercantile accounting. They hyper-evolved Chinese printing technology to create paper currency to be used across country borders, not to mention for printing reading materials, which became much more common. They created tax-free public schools, so literacy was no longer so much of a luxury. And then, accidentally, their excellent systems of trade facilitated the spread of the bubonic plague, which would destroy the short-lived glory of the Mongol Empire and kill off between a third and a half of its constituent nations between China and the Mediterranean.

Jack Weatherford's Genghis Khan is divided into three sections: the first tells the story of the great conqueror's childhood; the second, the expansion of his empire; the third, the growth and evolution of the Mongol Empire after Genghis's death. The conqueror's life story is a crazy one: he started out as a bastard orphan in the wooded areas of Mongolia, part of a marauding tribe with no holdings of its own. He was captured in a raid as a child, and may have spent as many as ten years in slavery. But then he began to wrest control of his fate for himself, first of his own family (by killing his own half-brother, who was oppressing him), then a neighboring tribe (who kidnapped and "ravished" his wife), then all the other neighboring tribes, then all of Mongolia, then Mongolia's neighbors, then their neighbors. What's perhaps even more incredible is this illiterate, uneducated warrior's switch to progressive administrator, his undying commitment to his own ethical principles, and his unlimited trust in underlings who proved their loyalty. (Also, his grandson Khubilai's similar accomplishments are darn cool, too.)

Weatherford is a groundbreaker in that he uses as the core of his biography a book called the Secret History, a Mongolian language history of the Great Khan that was suppressed, first by the Mongols because of death taboos, then by circumstance, then by the Soviets, who actively opposed any reference to Genghis lest he inspire nationalist fervor. Weatherford and his team of academics and Mongols spent years in the steppe connecting the history to the places it happened, translating and interpreting the text for the first time for the world. In some ways, the account is a little rosy-cheeked. Yes, Weatherford acknowledges Genghis's kill-all invasion policy, but he argues that Genghis was more enlightened than other contemporaries because he was firmly against terror (true? Perhaps; a sanguine take regardless). Never in the book is the word "rape" used, either, although I think it would have been useful of him to at least address the rumor that X very high percent (the rumors vary) of modern Central and East Asians are descended from Genghis and his immediate family. But there is plenty of the negative to be read elsewhere, and Weatherford's account is quite satisfying in many other ways.

I could talk about this for days, so I'll stop myself here. But let's just say I think this book has sparked a new obsession.