"The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid." — Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Passage by Justin Cronin

Please note: Links pointing to Amazon contain my affiliate ID. Sales resulting from clicks on those links will earn me a percentage of the purchase price. So buy and read now!

Summary: An apocalyptic vision of the future after a government plan to manufacture vampires goes terribly wrong. 

The Passage was unlike any book I've ever read before, yet it reminded me of many books I've read before. And I almost didn't make it past page 30.

The book opens with a depressing story of a single mother who loses her home to poverty and turns to prostitution to feed herself and her daughter Amy, set in 2016. Mood-wise, the writing reminded me of Robert Goolrick's A Reliable Wife, since it was a casual stream of consciousness writing with tender terrible moments just tossed in. The sadness was so disturbing I almost didn't keep reading, especially when six-year-old Amy is abandoned at a convent without a goodbye from her mother.

Then a new section opens with one-sided e-mails from a scientist working in the jungles of Bolivia. This seem ripped from Michael Crichton's Congo. Lots of mystery, strange noises and disappearances and the natives won't go any further, but the crew, which now is taken over by the U.S. Army, continues on to the jungle despite all their instincts. I despise epistolary books, and I resented that the vague e-mail hints are supposed to keep us readers intrigued. I was determined to give this book my mandatory 50 pages.

And then before the 50 pages were up, we meet Special Agent Brad Wolgast. Since I do love law enforcement characters, I kept reading about the tired, resigned, lonely man who is searching for a cause to make his life meaningful again. Unfortunately, Agent Wolgast is assigned to ask death row inmates with no family to sign up for a secret government medical experiment.

Can you guess the experiment? Vampires!

Yes, somehow the government has been injecting death row inmates (who are murderers and rapists) with a serum that makes them age slowly, lose their minds and humanity, and crave human blood.  The scientist who wrote those earlier e-mails has figured out a way to inject people with the same blood that caused a massacre in the Bolivian jungle.

And Agent Wolgast has to bring six-year-old Amy (who also now has no family) to a hidden medical lab in the mountains of Colorado for a treatment that has affected grown men in disturbing ways. During a bloody shoot-out, Amy and Special Agent Wolgast escape and hide in the mountains of Montana as the now-free and enraged vampires savage the rest of the United States.  The sparseness will remind readers of Cormac McCarthy's The Road.

In yet another section, we have diary entries from a child who describes the isolation trains and the process of quarantining cities. She also notes that California has seceded from the United States.  This part of the book seemed very Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower.

And all of this plot takes up only a third of the book.

The rest of the book focuses on a community of settlers who live in isolation in California, fending off daily attacks by the now dominant vampires, nearly 100 years after the vampires first escape. They have only known the strict and insular life inside the fort. But the batteries that power the lights and their community are dying and they must journey to find either a rumored colony of other survivors or unused batteries. It's better to die in the attempt to prolong life than stay waiting. Their journey is more about the mental challenges than physical dangers though there are both. And you make it through a 766-page hard cover book only to have an enraging, frustrating ending.

I recognize that Justin Cronin is not a new author, however, this book felt like a creative writing class assignment. Okay, Class. The topic is vampires. Now write a book written from the perspective of these 4 random authors you pick from my bag. The plot had a few holes, and the writing needed a strong editor and a distinctive style. But this indeed was one of the most unique books I've read.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Blue Diablo: A Corine Solomon Novel by Ann Aguirre

Please note: Links pointing to Amazon contain my affiliate ID. Sales resulting from clicks on those links will earn me a percentage of the purchase price. So buy and read now!

Summary: A psychic tracks down her ex’s missing mother.

Corine Solomon has a gift. Or maybe it’s a curse. She can tell the history of an object by holding it in her palm. That’s the reason why her hands are so scarred and burnt and also why she’s been hiding in Mexico for the past two years.

But when her ex-boyfriend Chance tracks her down and begs her to save his mother, who was the primary mother figure in Corine’s short, rough life, Corine knows it will hurt her both physically and emotionally. She agrees to use her powers as long as Chance helps her hunt down the people who killed her mother. A spell cast at the moment of Corine’s mother’s death actually gave Corrine her powers. Corine grew up in isolation and loneliness until Chance and his mother became the closest thing Corine had to a family, after years of abuse in foster care.

Chance and Corine once made a great psychic team, but Corine left after feeling used by Chance’s greed. He would take lucrative cases using their talents, but Corine would be traumatized physically and emotionally. After one particularly tough case (where they didn’t find the missing girl’s body), Corine runs away. She’s made a pretty nice, if boring, life for herself in Mexico. Until Chance comes walking back in. When he offers her revenge, Corine can’t refuse.

The writing in this book was sometimes laugh out loud funny and sometimes just quirky and crude:
“What he would have said, I’ll never know because his cell rang. Looking apologetic, he answered (he’d once taken a call while receiving a particularly artful blow job). That too was vintage Chance and I scurried like a nervous gerbil back to the kitchen, where I occupied myself washing up the few dishes I dirtied."
“Nice face, I decided, if scruffy and unshaven. Frosting the hunk cake was a tousled mess of tawny sun streaked hair.”
I just like the sound of a frosted hunk cake.

During the investigation, Corine starts to meet people with extra talents and you’ll feel encouraged when you feel like she won’t be alone anymore. But when their friends’ bodies are taken over by some mind control trick and they are helped by a wheel-chair bound psychic in Britain, I just lost interest.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A Desirable Residence by Madeleine Wickham

Please note: Links pointing to Amazon contain my affiliate ID. Sales resulting from clicks on those links will earn me a percentage of the purchase price. So buy and read now!

Summary: Since they can't sell their house, they rent it out to a couple that seriously complicates their lives.

Note: I was given a copy of this book by the publisher. 

In direct contrast to the decadence of the Shopaholic series, author Madeleine Wickham (who also writes as Sophie Kinsella) has written a surprisingly deep and relevant book about finances, love and marriage, struggles and pride.

The pride aspect of this book is important, because I think pride (or image) must be even more important to the British than it is to Americans.

Pride keeps Liz from selling her house, even at a loss. Jonathan and Liz had one buyer interested, but delayed and lost their only sale in almost a year. Meanwhile, they are carrying TWO mortgages, that of their new business and their old house, while their teen daughter sneaks back into their old garage to have an occasional cigarette.

Marcus, their estate agent (realtor to us Yanks), wants to prove to his stuffy cousin and co-owner that he can still wheel and deal with the best of them. Marcus' wife, Anthea, is worse than a helicopter parent - she's like a hummingbird parent, constantly droning in her sons ears about how academically successful they might be. She even has her son apply for a scholarship, when they absolutely don't need the money.

But Liz and Jonathan do get a renter, and instead of it being the solution, it causes more problems.

I won't give away much more, but this book is a perfect example of Brit Lit (as opposed to Chick Lit). The dialogue, the thinking, character development and setting really fit the Brit Lit niche. It doesn't have the giggly silliness even though there are funny moments.

*** Please note: This book was originally published in 1996 - a whole 14 years ago - yet the strained finances are more topical than they would be even 5 years ago and the book has not been Americanized. Idioms and phrases are kept as authentic.

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Extraordinary Secrets of April, May, & June by Robin Benway

Please note: Links pointing to Amazon contain my affiliate ID. Sales resulting from clicks on those links will earn me a percentage of the purchase price. So buy and read now!

Summary: Three teenaged sisters discover they have magical powers. 

April, May and June are three sisters who suddenly discover they have magical powers one day.

The girls have enough normal stresses – their parents recently divorced and the girls had to leave their home, school and old friends. And their dad is moving to Houston and took their TV!
“”It’ll be like an adventure,” my mom had said when we moved in, and she smiled so hard that my sisters and I just smiled back, like we hadn’t already spent the past three months on an adventure, watching our family reshape itself.”
The tone of sadness adds a depth of seriousness to a light Young Adult novel. Each sister is narrated in first person by each chapter and while I like the writing style, often it was also difficult to tell the voices apart without the name header each time.

Junior April is the eldest and her talent is telling the future. She is the typical big sister – devoted to her sisters, burdened by the weight of the responsibility and mature than she appears. April is also witty and can recognize her own faults with humor.
 “Teasing May will never not be fun.”
Sophomore May is the middle child and can turn invisible. There is something apt about the cliché of the middle child disappearing. May can sometimes control her invisibility and sometimes she can’t. There seems to be no reason why May can or can’t control it. May’s tough exterior covers up a dream of life in Paris and a very tender heart. May was by far my favorite character, because of her smart ass-ery.
“Maaaaaaay,” Mr. Corday said in his best I-may-be-in-a-position-of-not-entirely-deserved-authority-but-let’s-be-friends-anyway voice. “Let’s talk. I heard you might need some extra help in one of your classes.
“Do you have a reliable source?” I asked him. “Signed affidavits? Eyewitness accounts?”
“Your initial test score.” He raised his big bushy eyebrows. It’s gross how old dudes’ eyebrows get all gray and long.
“Oh.” I said. "The test score. Maybe I’m being framed.”
Freshman June serves as comic relief but she’s also obsessed with appearances and being part of the in crowd. When she gets her sisiters to acknowledge that they all have powers, June suggests:
"Maybe we should make, like, a secret facebook group or something.”

One day, April sees a vision of a car crash, red lights, her sister June standing in headlights and the face of Julian, the boy next to April’s locker. April knows the vision will occur and keeps trying to change the course of events so that the accident won’t happen.

In typical YA novel fashion, the parents aren’t really involved in their kids' lives so the girl are having morally dubious decisions all by themselves. Their arguments for the “right way” to use their powers would make a neat discussion for a book club. But it also mean that three teenagers are having screaming door-slamming fights.
“If you needed a serving of repressed crazy, you could definitely swing by our house and pick up a slice, is what I’m saying.”

A fun novel with a surprising ending and enjoyable characters I'd love to read about again.

Friday, October 8, 2010

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Please note: Links pointing to Amazon contain my affiliate ID. Sales resulting from clicks on those links will earn me a percentage of the purchase price. So buy and read now!

Summary: A white woman in 1960s Mississippi secretly documents the lives of the black maids in her town.

I avoided this book because I thought nothing really fresh or new could be added to the civil rights struggle. It seems as if I've read all the good books and the only stories left would offer nothing very interesting. Boy, was I wrong! And I'm so glad I read this book.

Skeeter, a white college graduate, returns to her home town of Jackson, Mississippi, and all of her journalistic ambitions are funneled into writing for the Junior League's Newsletter. On an impulse, she sends her articles to a New York publisher, who encourages her to write about something that is fresh and new, and hasn't been covered before. The publisher advises her:
"Get going. Before this civil rights thing blows over." 
Skeeter decides to interview and write about the black maids in Jackson, and their relationships with their white employers. To Skeeter it is worth the risk, and it just may be her ticket out of Jackson and off to New York City if she succeeds.

Meanwhile, Skeeter's mother is busy helping Skeeter find a rich husband from a good Southern family. Skeeter has a tender, tentative relationship with a man who seems to appreciate her for who she is, or maybe he just enjoys her thumbing her nose at the small-town traditions.

Skeeter gets lots of heat from her friends in the Junior League, especially the queen bee, Hilly.
“’I am about to be a politician’s wife, unless you have anything to do with it. How is William ever going to get elected in Washington, D.C. one day if we have integrational friends in our closet?’ ”
The racism is prevalent but Skeeter is in awe of the maids' bravery in telling the truth about their lives and the love they have for their careless employers. What's surprising is how much the white employees seem to rely on their servants, despite the way they treat them. Skeeter's mother says:
“They say it’s like true love, good help. You only get one in a lifetime.”

During a family tragedy in the house where fat and sassy Minny works, the husband says:
“You’ll always have a job here with us, Minny. For the rest of your life if you want.”
“Thank you sir,” I say and I mean it. Those are the best words I could hear today.
I reach for the door but Miss Celia says, real soft, “Stay in here awhile. Will you, Minny?”
So I lean my hand on the sideboard because the baby’s getting heavy on me. And I wonder how it is that I have so much when she doesn’t have any. He’s crying. She’s crying. We are three fools in the dining room crying.”
A tender touching story. The only reason why I gave it four stars instead of five is because I thought a few scenes were cliched and predictable, but others were deliciously dark and appealing.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Forget You by Jennifer Echols

Please note: Links pointing to Amazon contain my affiliate ID. Sales resulting from clicks on those links will earn me a percentage of the purchase price. So buy and read now!

Summary: After a car accident, teen Zoey struggles to control a life that is spinning radically our of control after her parents' divorce and her mother's suicide attempt. 

It’s been a hell of a week.

Zoey finds her mom in the middle of her suicide attempt. The cop who picks up her mom in time to save her life just happened to be the older brother of Doug Fox, a member of her swim team and the smoldering, brooding (and gorgeous) teen who also spent time in juvie. Zoey is terrified that Doug will tell people, her classmates, her Coach, since Doug also seems to hate her.

That same night, her father insists that she move in with him and Ashley, the 24-year-old pregnant HR employee he knocked up.
“Whether you got any or not, Slide with Clyde sold sex.” 
And everybody hooked up this past summer, including her father Clyde. Since the divorce, Zoey and her mom have been living by themselves and Zoey is helpless in the face of her dad’s anger. He’s angry that he now has his privacy impeded and that something might happen to prevent his honeymoon trip to marry his pregnant employee.

Zoey can’t go back to her house and she’s going crazy in her father’s house. She tells him that if he wants her to act normal, she has to go to this party at the beach. Far more concerned about what other people think, he encourages her to attend. That night, Zoey needs to escape her life, her stress, the expectation. She drags her friend Brandon, who has been sharing his romantic sexual exploits with her all summer and asking for her advice on juggling women, to his car. Zoey grabs a condom and asks Brandon to have sex with her. She expects something good, since Brandon has been having sex with girls all summer. In fact, Zoey needs to escape and hope that Brandon will give her an transcendental experience. Just before they have sex, Zoey is convinced of the rightness of her decision, but in the middle of sex and afterwards, it feels wrong, strange, not like she expected.

Perfectionist, anal Zoey is convinced she can make everything right by just willing it so, killing herself at school and trying to be the perfect girlfriend. That whole next week, everyone is shocked that Brandon and Zoey are a couple but Zoey is too worried about everybody finding out about her mom that she is micromanaging all she can.
'Since my mom tried to kill herself, routine reassured me that my life was still perfectly normal.'
A week later, Doug is shaking her awake. Zoey’s trapped behind the wheel of her Bug and Doug drags her free with his broken leg. Zoey must have fallen asleep waiting for the ambulance because she wakes up cuddled next to Doug and his smell – the ocean and warmth. Zoey falls back asleep because, for the first time in weeks, she can relax. I love this book because I found the writing extremely sexy.

But Zoey wakes up the next morning and can’t remember the crash, even though she looks and feels like she was in a bad car accident. Who was driving which direction? How did it happen? What was going on? Why does Doug act like they’re a couple now?
"No wonder Doug thought we were together now and I would break up with Brandon for him. What had I done? Had I freaking humped Doug Fox in the ER?"
And why is Brandon avoiding her? I loved that the mystery of what happened the night of the crash is unknown to us, the reader, and also unknown to Zoey.

As Zoey struggles to regain her memory and physically recover from the crash, Brandon is unavailable and Doug is always there. And Brandon doesn’t even want to have sex.
"It crossed my mind that he was lying about something. I knew he lied. He’d lied to every single girl he’d had sex with over the summer. But I was the one he told about the lies. I wasn’t the one he lied to."
Doug’s story unfolds too and you can’t help falling for this responsible, charming, teasing hunk. I couldn’t resist him but Zoey fights her feelings and Doug every step of the way. Instead of me being angry about Zoey being so clueless about the wrong and right guy for her, I enjoyed this Young Adult mystery romance. And did I mention the writing is HOT?
“His mouth took the back of my neck, kissed it like it was my mouth or my ear or my breast. I wasn’t sure where these ideas came from. A boy had never put his mouth on my breast before. The thought frightened me and I loved it.”
Zoey’s transformation from spoiled brat and queen bee to someone I want to be friends with unfolds delightfully in this novel. I am off to read Jennifer Echols' latest.