Monday, March 31, 2014

'Til the Wells Runs Dry by Lauren Francis-Sharma

Review based on ARC.

Oh man, how even to review this one.  I signed up to get this one because it had something to do with Trinidad.  That was really all that motivated me.  Otherwise, it sounded kind of trite... ya know, "multigenerational" "multicultural" "blah blah blah."  But my mom is from Trinidad and, unlike the author of this book, I have NOT heard much from her about her home-country.  I was hoping the book might give me even the slightest of inside looks... And boy did it.

I would not describe this book as "multigenerational" or "multi-cultural," even though those are both accurate descriptions.  The issue I have with those phrases is that they tend to accompany stories that don't offer much else beyond the obvious "that generation doesn't get it" dynamic or "look how different and yet the same these cultures are!"  And those can be fantastic books, but I find that relying on the cheap tricks often make the story seem... well, a little cheap.

That was NOT the case here.  Lauren Francis-Sharma created a compelling, interesting, fast-paced, deep, involved story with an undercurrent of.. like, gut-truth.  I didn't feel as if I were reading some fantasy creation of someone with no idea of what real life was actually like.  I felt like... I felt like I was maybe sitting at a kitchen table somewhere with someone's grandmother who was telling the story of her life.

And what a story.  Ever so briefly:  Marcia Garcia ("Mah-see-ah Gah-see-ah") lives in "the Bush" in Trinidad (i.e., the wrong side of the tracks...) with the boys she cares for.  Her mind is nowhere near romance or the other frivolities of life when Farouk spots her and determines he must have her.  Farouk is, of course, from the right side of the tracks, but he's young and impulsive and makes no mind of the potential cultural impact of his choice.  And so begins Marcia's life.

I mean. It covers so much ground. Years, peoples, families, children, parents, siblings, crime, countries, slavery, passion, anger, etc. etc. etc.  And Francis-Sharma manages to give each element her full attention.

As with all truly excellent books, describing it too much would do it injustice.  This truly excellent book is being sent to my mom... maybe we can have a little Trini discussion once she's read it...

Highly recommend!  For all of the reasons indicated above and because it's just a good book.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Swiss Affair by Emylia Hall

Review based on ARC.

I was intrigued by this book because of the description:  "For Hadley Dunn, life has been predictable and uneventful. But that is before she spends her second year of college abroad in Lausanne, a glamorous Swiss city on the shores of Lake Geneva. Lausanne is imbued with the boundless sense of freedom Hadley has been seeking, and it is here she meets Kristina, a beautiful but mysterious Danish girl. The two bond quickly, but as the first snows of winter arrive, tragedy strikes." (from

So, Switzerland, new perspective and adventure, friendship, and then a mystery.  Sounds great!

And, you know? It was.  Hall did a really impressive job of bringing her characters to life - every one of them.  From sweet and innocent Hadley to brash and fun Kristina to deep and brooding Joel to all the peripheral characters.  SO much brought to life, in fact, that when the tragedy did strike, I was actually affected by it.  My husband asked why I was so sad... I had to explain about the book. ;)

Hadley is a simple girl, living with her parents still, in a smallish town in England.  She decides to apply for a study abroad program and goes to Lausanne, Switzerland to spend her 2nd year of college (University).  There, she meets the exotic and full-of-life Kristina, who quickly becomes Hadley's best friend.  She also meets Joel, her American Literature professor, a charismatic and dark personality that she is drawn to.  And she meets Hugo, an elderly man who frequents a fancy hotel cafe and who imparts love, hope, and wisdom onto Hadley.

And then, yes, tragedy strikes (and heck no, I won't ruin it by stating what the tragedy is).  And Hadley sets out to discover the truth about what happened, how, and about herself.  It's a sort of growing-up novel, a sort of love affair novel, and a sort of mystery novel, all neatly wrapped into one.

In my opinion, the biggest downside to the novel (and it's not such a big downside :)) is that the romantic tension and lovey-dovey portion were a little run-of-the-mill in the midst of the rest of the excitement.  Hall did such an impressive job bringing Lausanne to live, bringing her characters to life, bringing Hadley's obsession to life... and yet the romance was flat and uninteresting (to me).  It served a purpose to moving certain aspects of the plot forward, but mostly I was just eager to get back to the real story.  As I said, it's not such a big downside -- I appreciated Hall's tact in her presentation of the love affair (not "affair" in that sense -- I just mean "a happening"), that she didn't resort to cheap tricks in the bedroom, and the scenes were soft and romantic... just wasn't my favorite part of the book.

Overall, I definitely recommend to readers -- those who want to visit Lausanne, if only in their minds, those who have romantic notions about life and love, those who want to venture with Hadley as she discovers "the truth."

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Light Shining in the Forest by Paul Torday

Review based on ARC.

This was my first Torday, and (1) I will definitely read more! and (2) I'm sad he's (apparently recently) deceased, so what's out there is what's out there!

So, as my first Torday, and having read a handful of other reviews on this book, I understand that this one is not "standard Torday" -- most of his novels are funny, I think.

This one is not remotely funny.  I don't mean to say there are no moments of humor -- those definitely exist, particularly dark humor in his analysis of civil servants in Britain, but it's not a funny book.  The book is not a satire.

Torday manages to work mystery, thriller, drama, a touch of romance, lite-horror, psychological thriller, and spiritual all into about 340 pages.  And well.  It is almost an everyman type of story, an analysis of faith and how most people these days respond to the potential for spiritual involvement in our lives.  Torday has been criticized by some of his fans for delving into the spiritual, but he did SUCH a good job of evaluating the various perspectives his everyman characters can have to the potential of divine involvement that, really, it makes those reviews just sound defensive in nature.  Torday definitely does not shove religion down everyone's throat and, in fact, his characters are such that there is an acknowledgement that most people ridicule those with strong faith.  This is a truth that was well explored in Torday's novel.

And yeah, now that I'm writing all this out, it sounds kind of boring. It is NOT boring.  It's a well-paced psychological thriller, mystery, evaluation of society and spirituality without being preachy... Just very well done.

So what's it about?  Remembering that this is an everyman take, there's (and these are my descriptions -- he just named the characters :)): The Civil Servant (Norman), The Young Semi-Ambitious Lazy Investigative Journalist with Big Ideas (Willie), The Smart Cute Assistant Who's More than Meets the Eye (Pippa), and then there are a handful of equally important characters who I won't define because this book is *definitely* one of those books that is better to discover while being read.

Norman has spent a life in civil servantry, working his way into more and more powerful positions, and has finally been promoted to Children's Czar in a small'ish town.  However, once he's appointed, the job comes to a standstill and Norman is left with a lot of time on his hands.  Lo and behold, a few months into his stalled Czarship, young aggressive and annoying Willie, trying to make a journalistic career for himself so he can get out of said small'ish town, confronts Norman with the existence of two missing children, and just WHAT, Willie wants to know, is the Czar going to do about the missing children?  The Czar position is not meant to be a hands-on type of job, and Norman is initially reluctant.  However, events proceed, family members are met and conversations are had, and his pushy smart little assistant Pippa gets involved... HOW are we going to save the children?  When a third child goes missing, there's no stopping the newly created team as they rush time to try to find the Children before they suffer any longer.

It's an interestingly paced novel... It starts off quite slow -- descriptive and scenic.  It never becomes a rush from one adrenaline-packed scene to the next, but Torday writes a story and establishes characters that invest the reader in the story... And once you are invested in the story, well it's just hard to put it back down.  It moves and you, the reader starts to rush... You must read more quickly... you must save the children!  The physical undercurrent is palpable.  There are so many elements involved (discussed above), and the characters, serving their everyman purpose, are engaging and well crafted.

It's hard to review this book because it was so good, so worth an involved review, but SO the kind of book that shouldn't be ruined by reviews.  Definitely recommended to open-minded thinkers, to people looking for a smarter mystery, for those who consider the possibility of "Maybes".

And, despite the fact that this was an unusual-for-Torday novel, I look forward to reading more of his writing.

FOUR AND A HALF of five stars.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Chase by Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldberg

Review based on ARC (NetGalley) - originally via publisher contest.

I'm a pretty big fan of the One for the Money series by Evanovich, so I was excited to hear she'd begun a new series involving a tough heroine who is a highly trained FBI agent.

I'm a pretty big fan, I say, but I don't think that Evanovich's writing is "high literature."  So I'm not coming into this with heightened expectations as far as the writing is concerned.  I like the One for the Money series because we can't take Stephanie Plum too seriously, because Stephanie Plum doesn't take herself too seriously, and because she finds herself in all kinds of awkward, entertaining, humiliating, and interesting situations.  They're fun and quick reads.

I know nothing of Lee Goldberg... far as I was concerned, I was reading an Evanovich.  And I also didn't know that this was the Second in a series until rather near the end of the book.  This was just the first I'd heard of this new series, and yes please! I'd love a free copy to review!

So all of that is to essentially say that I don't really know what went wrong here.  It's not terrible at all.  Really.  But it's not particularly good.  There isn't that spark that Evanovich has in her Plum series.  It's just kind of blase meandering from one high-action, high-stakes heist in one country, to another high-action, high-stakes heist in another (or, sure on a plane in mid-air...).  Right?! It sounds interesting!  It sounds like you're going to read this fun and engaging book, a step or two up from Plum, about a badass FBI chick and her quarry, flying to fun and dangerous places, doing fun and dangerous things.  And technically that is this book.

But, I don't know, it just kind of fell flat.  The humor that works so well with Plum didn't work for Kate O'Hare, the tension that works so well with Joe Morelli just didnt' work for Nicholas Fox.

But it wasn't bad either.  There was a lot of activity, a lot of punching, some interesting new plot-twists, some interesting new characters (I like the peripherals a bit), and it went pretty quick.  And I commend the authors for writing a 2nd in a series that was not so dependent on the 1st that I constantly felt like I was left out of the inside jokes or plot... As I say, I didn't even realize this was a 2nd in a series until near the end.

So, overall, I'd recommend to fans as Evanovich-Lite.  This'll get you through to the next Plum release, but it's not going to be your new favorite... you're definitely going to want to go back to Plum.

THREE of five stars.

Monday, March 10, 2014

The Frangipani Hotel: Stories by Violet Kupersmith

Review based on ARC.

This was a fun, surprisingly quick and easy read.  A collection of "ghost" stories involving, originating from, or relating to Vietnam and its people.  Some of the stories were fantastic, others felt a little flat, and many were in the "that was pretty good!" category.  The first story (Boat Story) felt juvenile to me (like something I wrote in high school), so wasn't the best intro to her work and I definitely would recommend giving the rest of the book a chance if that first story turned you off!  And some of the stories felt a little contrived, but in reading many of the stories in this collection, I was able to lose myself in the story - a mark of good writing!

The story that  I enjoyed the most and, I think, showed Kupersmith's atmospheric talent the best, was One-Finger.  There is depth, range, and skill in that story that I think showed Kupersmith's true potential and made me definitely interested in reading her next...

The stories in Frangipani are not scary and the reader is not left afraid of the dark, but they are interesting, well told on the whole, and have a nice level of creep just below the surface to keep the reader engaged and turning pages.

Violet Kupersmith shows a lot of promise as a writer, and I hope to see something longer, more complex, and definitely in the gothic genre in the future.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Playing Catch-up

I'm going to do somewhat-mini reviews on the following, and then try to get back to normal!

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

I loved this book.  I started hiking a few years ago with my sister.  We've only done what regular hikers consider "easy" or "moderately easy" trails.  I would consider myself more prepared than Cheryl was on her big hike.  Now, to be fair, I do happen to know (in-laws) someone who hiked a large portion of the Appalachian Trail (and was VERY well prepared), so I may know a little more than the average amateur dabbling hiker.  But still.  Strayed was so severely unprepared it was... well, it was funny.

Strayed did well what I believe very few memoir-ists are able to accomplish:  She told her story in a compelling, humorous, deferential, emotional, sincere manner that made her both endearing and likeable.  She told her story in a way that begged to be read.  She made it interesting.

Wild made me want to hike, be a trail-angel, buy hotel rooms for hikers, bring food to hikers... and it made me appreciate my life, my family, and my friends.  It is a wonderful tale and I highly recommend it.  This was a book club selection (for April), and I eagerly await the other members' reactions!

Night Film by Marisha Pessl

Oh man.  Night Film is one of my new favorite books.  I think I might be lucky that I was able to read it on a very laid back vacation... because I read the nearly 600 pages over the course of only 3 days.  As a result, the ambiance and the story and the nuances weren't lost on me.  This is another book club selection (March), and I am very curious if my ability to read it in such a condensed timeframe made the book better...

Regardless... yes, this book is about (none of this is spoiler -- this is intro/first chapters type information): a spoiled brat rich kid, the daughter of a famous highly eccentric very dark film maker.  The kid kills herself, spurning the journalist (who, in an attempt to discredit her father, was himself discredited in his career) to pursue this huge story.  Because of this journalist's raw talent and prior history with the subject matter, he seems to be a step ahead of the other people who may be attempting to "get this story."  SUCH an over-simplification of the story, but that's the bones of it.

This is my first Pessl.  I am so impressed.  She created the perfectly creepy (but never quite scary) atmosphere, a tangle of questions that seem to have partial and flawed answers, and just a darn good story.  She populated her story with interesting, three-dimensional characters who you had feelings about (not all positive, which adds depth).  This book is full of darkness, humans who act in the worst of ways, blood, maybe murder, psycho- and socio-pathic tendencies... and hope.

This was one of those books where I slowed down my reading to savor the treat of it.  I was SO pleased to be reading this book.  And for me... I was SO satisfied when it was all done.  Highly recommend.

Miss Buncle's Book by D.E. Stevenson

Well, to be fair to Buncle, I had just come off of Wild and Night Film, so Buncle had some telling to live up to!  Miss Buncle's Book is cute and fun and ok.  It wasn't terrific, it certainly wasn't terrible.

Miss Buncle lives in a small countryside-ish type town in England.  She has money troubles so she writes a book in an attempt to solve them.  However, Miss Buncle cannot (as she says) write about something about which she has no knowledge.  So she writes about her town and the people within it.  The publisher loves the novel, thinks it's either the work of a simpleton or a genius, and seeks to publish it in short order, under a pen name for Buncle, to protect the not-so-innocent.  The name of the town and the name of the characters have, of course, all been changed, but it is clear to the townsfolk that they are the subject of the book.  As might be anticipated, chaos ensues.  The townspeople are in an uproar about the book and react in humorous, over-the-top, caricature-like fashion.

The book is a sweet little thing, a quick read, a pleasant romp through this 1940s (I think -- around that time) small town in England.  The personalities are strong, the story is fun, and it was an entertaining way to pass the afternoon.

Not spectacular, but recommended for readers to whom the above-paragraph appeals.

The City & the City by China Mieville

Phew!  I've been meaning to read Mieville for years.  This was my first Mieville, and what an introduction!  I understand from having read other reviews that this is not the most typical of Mieville... But I think I get the picture.

So, I was about 30-40 pages in, and I had to stop reading to do some research on what the F was happening.  The story is about two cities that share the same space on a map, but which do not engage with one another at ALL, without express permission from the appropriate governmental authorities.  If citizens of one city interacts with the other city at ALL without such permission, a "breach" is deemed to have occurred.  A murder happens in one city, and the detective assigned to the case believes that breach is involved.  In such a case, an entity that oversees even the governments of the two cities--itself called Breach--takes over.  The detective proceeds thusly, but there are, of course, complications of the factual-type, the political-type, the potentially-supernatural-type, etc.

After about 30-40 pages,  I still could not figure out if the two cities were interposed on one another in some kind of magical way (as I had assumed upon first reading the description of the book), or if it was a political/governmental separation, involving no magic.  I read one review that said that at about 70 pages, it becomes more clear and sorts itself out.  So I kept reading.  At about 70 pages, I still felt like my question was answered.  Frankly, I think it is HELPFUL and makes for a better read of the book if you understand which is happening, so I will tell you.  But I will couch it in SPOILER protections in case you don't want to know ;)

The Spoiler (highlight with your cursor/mouse to see):  They are in the same location on a map and are in the same place physically and there's nothing magical about it.  THAT is, frankly, one of the things that I think is so brilliant about this book.  I've lived in a very big city, and when you live in that big city, you stop noticing people as individual persons and start just treating them as physical objects you pass.  Take that and mix with it a sort of Dr.-Seuss-Stars-on-Chest mentality, then make it serious and brilliant, and you have The City & the City. Something happened years ago, we never know what and the characters in the story are not clear, the the two cities were either merged or split, thus creating the current situation.  There are two cities, governmentally, mentally, and in every single other way, except physically.  Certain portions of the geography are exclusively in 1 city OR the other, and various portions are in both, or what they call "cross-hatched."  In a cross-hatched portion of the city, one building in 1 city could be immediately next to a building in the other city, or one floor in a building could be above a floor in another building. In these cross-hatched portions, the cars drive on the same road, but they have to act as if the other does not exist.  You can imagine what happens in ambulance-type situations!  But Mieville pulls this off and makes it believable.

And then, overseeing the two cities is Breach.  And involved in this whole murder mystery is the question of whether Breach is good or bad, real or perhaps imaginary, supernatural or political, in a war with another potentially existent supernatural-or-not "city"in the cracks..... It's so complicated and SO well done and SO recommended.

The Case of the Constant Suicides by John Dickson Carr

This is a fun classic murder mystery.  What I really liked about this one is that it was FUN!  It was funny, light, and moved quickly.  There weren't long and involved explanations of the scenery or drawn-out descriptions of the personalities... it was just a story that quickly moved from one scene to the next, creating, complicating, and then resolving the mystery.

In the book, several people have been called to a castle in Scotland for a "family meeting" to discuss the death and after-affect of a certain family member.  There is a dispute about whether the man committed suicide or was murdered and the various characters are quickly drawn into the activity, the mystery, and the frivolity.

Recommended for people looking for a quick and fun classic murder mystery.

Just Checking: Scenes from the Life of an Obsessive-Compulsive by Emily Colas

And finally, Just Checking.  I bought this book SO many years ago because I have some interesting tendencies toward OCD and because a quick peruse of the book made me laugh (i.e., she is funny, not that I was laughing at her).

I finally re-picked up this book and read it from front to back.  It did not quite live up to its expectations.  Emily Colas is writing mini David Sedaris'esque essays on her life.  It is somewhat chronological, though often flips between her past and her present, in an effort to make a single point.

Some of the essays are funny.  Some are sad.  Some are enraging or depressing.  Emily Colas indulged in her ocd and those around her did the same.  She managed a marriage and motherhood despite her rather severe (at least at times) inclinations.  Although she appeared toward the end (and in the afterward interview) to have finally made some progress and address the issue (e.g., seeing a doctor; taking medication), it took her a LONG time and a LOT of heartache to get there.

I think that this book is probably a good read for people who know people with OCD, to help understand the disease a little better.  Colas seems to be pretty (at times, embarrassingly) honest and definitely self-depricating (i.e., not making things sound better than they actually were) and I think provides a good understanding of those people with the disease who have NOT sought to address the problem.  There are certainly amusing moments, and there were definitely stories to which I could relate.

Overall, the book just fell a little flat because she was just not particularly likeable and the reader was left frustrated with her lack of willingness to do anything for herself.  So, a kind of hit and miss, overall.  Not terrible, somewhat useful, somewhat entertaining, and somewhat recommended.