Monday, June 20, 2011

Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool

Moon Over Manifest is a lovely novel. It's 1936, the height of the Great Depression. Abilene Tucker is sent by her father to live with an old friend in Manifest, Kansas. He claims it's because he'll be working a railroad job in another state, but that's never caused him to send Abilene away before. She can sense that something has changed in her father.

Once in Manifest, Abilene begins to reveal secrets about the town and its residents, herself and her father. The story flips back and forth between 1918 and 1936. The story plays out beautifully - not quickly or with a ton of action, but in an engaging and intriguing way. There are many characters, but they develop distinct personalities that help the reader keep them straight.

Moon Over Manifest is a sweet novel that moves deliberately toward revealing its secrets, most of which can be guessed in advance by both Abilene and the reader. The pieces pull together in a moving and altogether satisfactory manner. This book is certainly deserving of the Newbery Medal.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

To a Mountain in Tibet

This is one of the best--and shortest--travel books I have ever read. Author Colin Thubron's writing is exceptionally fine, which made the book a real pleasure to read. Thubron details his arduous journey by Land Cruiser, packhorse, and on foot to the bottom of Mount Kailas, one of Tibetan Buddhism's holiest mountains. Pilgrims make the journey up and up to this spot in order to circle the mountain as many times as they can, thus earning credit for themselves and making expiation for their sins. Mount Kailas itself has never been climbed. No Tibetan would dream of such sacrilege. The journey to the mere foot of the mountain is so difficult that people regularly die on it, especially those from other countries and lower altitudes. What makes the book especially fascinating is Thubron's obvious knowledge of Tibetan Buddhism, and his descriptive and personal coverage of the holy sites he passes and the people he meets along the way. I came away knowing a lot more about both Tibet and its religion than when I started the book.

Bliss, Remembered by Frank Deford

Bliss, Remembered by Frank Deford is the story of a mother with her own story to tell, and the son who patiently gives her time to tell it. Despite the fact that the author is also a sportswriter, this is not a book filled with sports action. The tale takes its time in the telling, allowing the reader to savor the language and the memories.

Sydney Stringfellow Branch, dying of cancer in 2004, invites her son to come watch the Athens Olympics with her. When he arrives, she reveals that she wants to tell him about her own trip to the Olympics, as a swimmer, in 1936. Throughout his 60 years, she has never talked to her son about this life-changing experience. The story of how she ended up in Berlin, Germany as a member of the United States Olympic team is revealed very slowly over the course of the novel.

The story flips back and forth between the 1930s and 2004. We hear the voice of Sydney and the voice of her son, Teddy. Real life figures such as Eleanor Holm (who won the 100-meter backstroke at the 1932 Olympics), Leni Riefenstahl (who documented the Olympics for Hitler) and Adolf Hitler make appearances throughout the tale. However, this story is not what one might expect from a novel written by a sportswriter about the 1936 Olympics. The focus is not on Hitler or World War II, and Jesse Owens is only briefly mentioned. The story is not depressing or horrific like so many books about the time period.

Before starting her story, Sydney intrigues her son and the reader by warning us to prepare ourselves: “There’s some sex…. Some violence, too.” But it’s a long way into the story before we hear the full details. Teddy also learns more about the deceased father who, like his mother, had a subject he refused to discuss with his son – the battle of Guadalcanal in 1942.

Bliss, Remembered is a well-researched book. The details about the eastern shore of Maryland and New York in the early 1930s and the Berlin Olympics in 1936 ring true, as does the language used in the present and the past. Deford works in references to real people, places, and events in a believable way.

Bliss, Remembered contains some plot twists that knock at the door of incredulity but don’t quite open it because the author successfully pulls us in. The story is so beautifully told that you just follow along.

Frank Deford is a fine, nuanced writer. If you like a book with secrets to reveal in its own sweet time, I recommend Bliss, Remembered.

The Stranger You Seek by Amanda Kyle Williams

Keye Street is a plucky, streetwise detective based out of Atlanta. A former FBI profiler, Street spends her days tracking down weird and wacky criminals until the Atlanta Police Department comes calling. A serial murderer is terrorizing the streets of Atlanta, and the police need Keye's help to identify the killer.
The Stranger You Seek is a compulsively readable book, with many twists and turns to keep readers on their toes. The violence present is explicit and definitely cringe worthy. Aside from the gore and a few forays into eye rolling comedy--I mean, really, who still uses Bill Clinton as the punch line to a joke?--Stranger is a solid debut. Williams has created a likable character in Keye Street, and I for one look forward to reading the remainder of this newcomer's series. This series is certain to appeal to fans of James Patterson's "Woman's Murder Club."

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

I really wanted to like A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness. I love well-written fantasy novels, and it has gotten stellar reviews and much positive press.

I loved the first part, all about the Bodleian Library, and Duke Humfrey's, and lovely things about Oxford. But as it went on, the book seemed to be trying to be too many things (including Twilight and the Da Vinci Code), and once it moved to France I found the plot really dragged. Also, I found the chapters alternating between first person and third annoying. The author often has a nice writing style, but the book rambles on and to my horror, despite the front saying "a novel" it is a 579-page part 1 of a series. I'm not sure I can bring myself to read the next, whenever it comes out.

Bellfield Hall by Anna Dean

Bellfield Hall or, the Observations of Miss Dido Kent is an Austen-alike, but unlike so many of them, it contains original characters set in the same time. It is unlike the works of Jane Austen in that it is a mystery, but otherwise the description of manners and the times is very similar. Of course it does not have the depth and genius of Austen, but I found it a very pleasurable read. I am often put off by authors inspired by Austen who insist on messing with her original characters and plots, so I found this book refreshing. I am grabbing the sequel as soon as I can get my hands on it.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Mice by Gordon Reece

Librarian Nancy Pearl has a general rule about how much time to give to a book you're not sure you want to finish. According to Pearl, you should subtract your age from 100 and use that number as a guide for how many pages to read; if the book hasn't grabbed you by that point, that's your clue to put it down and move on to the next title in your stack.

I almost followed Pearl's rule with Gordon Reece's "psychological thriller" (as it's touted by the publisher)
Mice, which will be released in the U.S. on August 11th. As it turns out, I labored through my allotted 66 pages and a handful more, before a passage in which the book's teenaged narrator describes yearning for new experiences "as the butterfly in the chrysalis yearns to spread its fragile wings and fly" finally made me throw in the towel. In short: it was not for me.

Mice tells the story of Shelley, a high school student who, upon being tortured by a group of bullies, withdraws from school and moves with her mother to a private cottage in the countryside. Shortly after the move, Shelley's quiet retreat is abruptly shattered by a drunken burglar who breaks into their home. While the story sounded interesting to me (and timely, as far as the bullying issue goes), I couldn't get past how much I did not enjoy the author's style. Very much a "teller" rather than a "shower," Reece spends full pages detailing, for example, the types of movies that Shelley and her mother do and do not favor, or the musical pieces they perform to pass the time of day. Reece seems particularly interested in the ways that Shelley and her mother resemble the titular "mice," listing again and again all of the personality traits that render them mouselike: "Mice are never rude. Mice are never assertive." And so on, and so on.

Since I didn't finish the book, I obviously can't speak to the publisher's promise that the book's bullying narrative ultimately transforms to "an edge of your seat story of fear, violence, and family loyalty," but I can say that after about 100 pages, I remained definitively ungripped. Because of that, I would not recommend this novel.

Friday, June 3, 2011

The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh will be released on August 23. The Galesburg Public Library received an advance copy to read and review.

I loved the first half of this book. It deserves five stars. It was original, creative, and narrated by an interesting main character. The narrator has spent her life in foster care. The book opens with her 18th birthday, her last day in a group home. The story flips back and forth between how she copes after she leaves the home and the time as a child years before when she was almost adopted. The woman who almost adopted Victoria taught her the Victorian language of flowers, in which each flower and plant carries a secret meeting, and this language becomes a very important part of Victoria's life.

It was hard for me to put the book down - I really wanted to know what had happened in the past and what was going to happen in the future. Unfortunately, midway through the book takes a downward slide toward what is in my opinion a tidy and predictable conclusion. While I was disappointed, I still recommend it. It would be an absorbing read on the beach or on a flight, and I'm sure many readers will love it. I look forward to the author's next novel.