Book Reviews

In Dying to Know You, Aidan Chambers paints a brilliant picture of human emotion.

Karl is in love with Fiorella, who demands written love letters describing his feelings for her.  Not the best writer, Karl finds and begs the assistance of Fiorella’s favorite author, who agrees to write the letters as Karl.  What follows is a beautifully written tale of loss, first love, grief, and learning.

This book doesn’t follow the traditional style of writing.  Punctuation is few and far between, each line is a new paragraph; time jumps.  But instead of being difficult to follow, this technique brings us immediately and fully into the mind of each character.  The paragraphs are real, nothing fluffy or fake – every word is something I’d say, or you’d think.  Chambers does a marvelous job of portraying each character, every one unique and developed so much that I saw them in my mind.  I felt their pain, I saw their discomfort, I knew their feelings.

Though marketed as a Young Adult novel, there is nothing childish about this book.  Pick up Dying to Know You today, and you’ll be a better-read person by tomorrow.  You won’t regret it.

 

In The Age of Miracles, Karen Thompson Walker weaves a fantastic tale that hits just close enough to home that it makes you slightly uncomfortable.

It’s present day, a normal Saturday morning.  Except this morning, everything changes.  This is the morning that the world slowed.  Literally.  While citizens slept, the day gained fifty-six minutes.  What follows reads as a first-hand account of the events following that first day, Walker providing a viewpoint into the human mind and showing us just how different, and similar, we can be in the face of uncertainty.

The story centers on Julia and her parents, and we see this new society blossom through her eyes.  As a reader, I felt the fear, the uncertainty, and, oddly enough, the hope.  As I read about the days getting longer and longer, I wondered to myself what I would do, or feel, or think, if this situation were to ever happen.

Walker provides insight to the human condition, reminding us that we are basic creatures.  Even in the midst of confusion and uncertainty, people still go to school.  They still go to work.  They still love and hate, have affairs and celebrate birthdays.

The book ends with a look into the future – Julia is in college now, and admits that no one really knows what the world will be like when she graduates.  But she still dreams.  She still remembers.  She doesn’t give up.

It’s something we can all learn from, whether the world is ending or not.

 

A Walk Across the Sun is, quite honestly, one of those books that you cannot put down.  From the first page, the reader is drawn into the lovely and traditional world of India; as the story unfolds, we are taken from India to Washington, DC, from Paris to New York City and Atlanta.  Corban Addison finely describes the sad world of underage sex trafficking while simultaneously taking us along with the people who fight to end it.

The story centers on two sisters, Ahalya and Sita, who are suddenly orphaned by the tsunami of 2004.  Both are sold to a brothel owner and imprisoned in the world of sex trafficking.  Meanwhile, D.C. lawyer Thomas Clarke decides to take a sabbatical in India, spending a year working with C.A.S.E, the Coalition Against Sexual Exploitation.  The stories of these three characters weave intricately in and out; you are drawn into the story and feel as though you’re in Bombay, too.

As said above, A Walk Across the Sun is an excellent book.  The characters are well-developed, the story flows at a realistic pace, and the plot is top-notch.  To me, international sex trade isn’t a subject that has been explored much.  It is a problem worth taking a second look at, and perhaps a spectacular work of fiction is just the thing to get the ball rolling.  Find A Walk Across the Sun today, and spend your weekend curled up with a solid piece of work.

 

From the moment you pick up The House at Tyneford and open to the first page, you realize this book is not like other books.

Set in the English countryside during the opening of World War II, The House at Tyneford depicts a struggle I’m sure occurred in many households.  Elise, a Jewish woman from Austria, applies as a maid to a country home in England.  The plan is to work there until her parents, headed to America, can send for her.  What follows is a soon-to-be-classic story of love, loss, yearning, laughter and family, all set against the backdrop of World War II.

Natasha Solomons sets the scene perfectly.  I’ve been to Vienna, and she captures the magic, the beauty, and the feeling like nothing else I’ve ever read.  When we move to the shores of England, Solomons made me feel as though I was there, smelling the salty air, feeling the wind on my face.  And the characters were as well-rounded as the scenery; solemn Mr. Rivers, playful Kit, strict Mrs. Ellsworth, determined Mr. Wrexham, beautiful Anna and uncertain Elise – they were alive in my head, and I didn’t want the book to end because that meant I would have to say goodbye to them all.

In short, when you pick up The House at Tyneford be prepared to keep it open all day.  Perfect for a rainy afternoon, you can brew yourself a cup of tea, curl up next to the fire, and immerse yourself in 1940’s England.  You will enjoy yourself.

 

As the Sycamore Grows is one of those stories that make you feel.  Anger, sadness, cynicism, incredulity – these are only some of the emotions that will greet you throughout this book.

Author Jennie Helderman takes us into the world of Ginger and Mike, a real-life married couple living in the forests of the Deep South.  Their marriage eventually deteriorates into domestic violence, but what makes this book different from other abuse accounts are the interviews.

Helderman sits down with both Ginger and Mike and records their individual accounts of what happened.  What follows is a breathtaking, first-hand account of the kind of abusive relationship you only read about in the newspaper.  You hear Ginger’s reasons as to why she stayed, what made her think she deserved what she got, what events in her past contributed to the terrible situation.  And then you read about Mike, an unusual account from the abuser.  You get inside his head, hear his reasons and excuses, and you really get a sense of the way his brain works.

Helderman has constructed a fascinated book, one that could easily be taken from book club to college psychology class.  I was enthralled until the very end; this book was lovely, and necessary, and an excellent resource and piece of literature.  Pick it up today.

 

In a culture ripe with the love of all things vampire, fairy, witch, or otherwise supernatural, Juliet Dark has created a plausible world in which these, and other, creatures come alive.  Not being a fan of other popular vampire books, I found myself drawn into this story probably because of the more mature themes.  Demon Lover is not a silly fantasy book for teenagers.  This novel has real literary merit, and it kept me enthralled until the very last page.

Callie McFay is the newest professor at Fairwick College, in upstate New York, and from her first arrival she knows something is different in the small college town.  In the pages that follow you are introduced to several creatures that Callie, until now, thought were mystical, but in fact are living amongst the humans.  Callie is led on several adventures and mysteries, and by the end of the book you’re presented with a surprise so sudden that you’re left on the edge of your seat.

I liked this book; it had an unusual premise that kept me interested and made me feel as though I wanted to be a character in the book, too.  I wanted to walk the snowy campus, live in the adorable old Victorian house, visit the bed and breakfast across the main street.  To me, that is the mark of a good book.  The Demon Lover is the first in a series, and I look forward to more books chronicling the life of Callie and the rest of Fairwick College.

 

The Witch’s Daughter, by Paula Brackston, reminded me of the kind of novel one would read in a college-level modern literature class.  Ripe with imagery, intrigue, mystery, and love, The Witch’s Daughter was a lovely way to spend my afternoon.

Elizabeth, the protagonist, is a self-proclaimed witch, but her story is full of holes.  Those missing pieces are filled in through three separate stories, each told in a different time period.  Brackston brilliantly transports us from the 1600’s to London at the turn of the century to World War I, all while peppering the story with modern interludes.  The story moves at a brisk pace, pulling you in from the very first page.  You need to know what happens to Bess, how Elise will manage the front lines of a bitter war, if Tegan will realize the true identity of her new boyfriend.

Brackston has penned a fascinating book; I look forward to other pieces of literature she is sure to publish in the future.

 

In her latest novel, A Life of Bright Ideas, Sandra Kring brilliantly paints a picture of small-town life in the 70’s.  The story is told from the point of view of “Button”, an 18-year-old girl fresh from high school and searching for her place in the world.  The premise, clichéd, yes, but Kring spins a tale full of friendship, family, love, and the Vietnam War, all culminating in a true life of bright ideas.

We were first introduced to this cast of characters in The Book of Bright Ideas; we find ourselves back in Dauber, Wisconsin nine years later.  There is, of course, Button, local seamstress and still reeling from the death of her mother.  Surrounding her is her little brother, her aunt and uncle, both hilarious characters unto themselves, and the local farm hand, Tommy.  We are later introduced to Winalee, Button’s best friend since childhood and newly-formed hippie.

What follows is no fairy tale, fantasy story, or farfetched account.  The way Kring writes is simple, real, and for all we know, a first-hand account of life in Wisconsin.  That’s what makes Life so magical.  It’s real, no-holds-barred, in your face life.  And it’s amazing.  Kring pares solid writing with a story so involved that you will not want to put this book down.

A Life of Bright Ideas is well-written and lovely, and when I turned the last page, I wanted more.  You will too.  Pick it up today.

 

Imagine, if you will, that you have been transported into the head of an angry person.  You know their thoughts, you feel their emotion, you are angry and you lash out irrationally.

Such is the premise of Tuesday Night Miracles.  Kris Radish creates a story of four women, each angry in different ways, but put together in the same anger management class with a soon-to-be-retired therapist.  Each chapter is from the point of view of one of these women, and Radish brilliantly constructs each character; each feels different, is different, and the depth of development that Radish achieves is nothing short of astounding.  We meet Kit, youngest girl in a family of brothers; Jane, a real estate mogul whose business the economy has torn apart; Grace, an overworked single mother in the medical field; Leah, a victim of abuse, only recently arriving at a safe house with her children.

These characters are drastically different, yet with real human issues and roadblocks.  I saw myself a little in each of them, which to me signals a well-researched and written novel.

You’ll find yourself cheering for these women, celebrating their victories, crying at their failures, laughing with their sheer exasperation.  And you’ll also find yourself rooting for them, needing them to fix themselves and grow as a human being, into the person you know they can be.  I didn’t want this book to end; well done, Radish.  I sincerely look forward to more exciting novels from you.

 

Jennifer Close hits a literary home run with Girls in White Dresses; there is no better way to debut your writing.  Witty, sharp, and realistic, Girls in White Dresses follows three close friends as they navigate through college and try to find a life after.  Marriage, dating, sex, babies, family – no topic is safe from wry observation and comment.

Girls in White Dresses covers issues we, as women, have all felt at one time or another.  Your friends are all getting married or engaged, while you haven’t been on a date in six months.  You’re not ok with the suddenly domestic and suburban turn your life has taken.  You lose your job instead of getting the raise you were expecting.  You date a series of ugly, rude, or otherwise unsuitable men.  We’ve been there.  And if you haven’t, you will, and Girls leads the way, lights blazing.

You will laugh (out loud!), cry, sympathize and anger; you’ll find solace in this delightful blend of women, who will remind you so much of yourself.

 

What Alice Forgot, by Liane Moriarty, is a charming tale of what might happen if we left all the anger, bitterness, and unhappiness of the past behind.

Alice, 29, finds herself lying on the floor at the gym (the gym?  She never goes to the gym), apparently having fallen off of a stationary bike.  More importantly, the last ten years of her life have already happened, unbeknownst to Alice, and she can’t remember any of it.  The child she was newly pregnant with is ten years old and has been joined by two more; her beloved husband is nowhere to be found; she is surrounded by a life that she has no recollection of building.

Liane Moriarty has skillfully set 29-year-old Alice next to 39-year-old Alice.  She has successfully and realistically shown the effects of ten years on a life, marriage, and person.

You’ll find yourself hanging onto every word, until you get to the very last page, where you’ll find yourself wanting more.  Will Alice regain her memory?  Will she retain the relationships she’s made that she still doesn’t remember?  The story is humorous and smart, peppered with adorable anecdotes and heartfelt scenes.  You’ll find yourself feeling as confused and baffled as Alice, and you’ll laugh at all the craziness along with her.  Moriarty has done an excellent job with her characters, each as realistic and developed as a live person.

An easy and fun read, yet with depth and substance.  A can’t miss book.

 

As I’ve said before, I have a soft spot for historical fiction – especially history that has happened in the past hundred years or so.  It’s still new – it hasn’t been picked apart by history books, told over and over to school children, or eulogized in movies.  There’s still an air of mystery, still time to stake your claim in the land of fiction and inform people about an event they may not know of.

Jamie Ford, author of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, has successfully done so.  He has created a magical, heart-wrenching story full of skilled storytelling and smart writing, set during the little-known time of 1940’s Seattle.

The POV switches throughout the book from young Henry Lee to old Henry Lee.  Young Henry Lee is a young Chinese American boy who falls in love with a Japanese American girl during Seattle’s Japanese round-up, World War II.  Old Henry Lee still lives in Seattle, still walks by the same neighborhood in which he grew up, still looks back on what might have been.  A little older, a little wiser, more realistic, but still the same dreamy Henry Lee.

At times humorous, at times despairing, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is a well constructed story that you won’t want to put down.  Each character is masterfully developed, with personalities and quirks all their own.  In all, a very realistic piece of fiction.  Not to mention the title – I would have personally bought the book just for that.

Pick up this book, reader.  Historical fiction with a twist – you won’t be disappointed.

 

It’s a story as old as time – big shot investor illegally invests millions, cons dozens of his loyal customers, and ends up in a jail cell, the media clamoring for anything they can get.  What no one really hears about, however, is the Ponzi-scheme wife.  Silver Girl, by Elin Hilderbrand, tells the unknown story.

Meredith Martin Delinn, wife of newly incarcerated swindler Freddy Delinn, swears she had no idea that her husband was shuffling millions illegally.  As expected, no one believes her.  The opening chapter finds Meredith in a car, on the way to Nantucket, with her former best friend Connie.  She’s on the run from the press, desperate for a quiet corner while the authorities decide whether or not to charge her for assisting her husband.

What follows is a tale of friendship, love, and second chances.  Meredith and Connie re-discover their friendship and hurdle over old stumbling blocks with surprising grace.  Hilderbrand gave a definite voice to each character, and constructed a realistic and entertaining story.  I found myself picking up the book, even when I only had a few moments to read.  I stayed up late, desperate to reach the end of the book, to find out Meredith’s fate.  You’ll find yourself cheering for her by the last chapters, rooting her onward.

Silver Girl is a well-written piece of literature, a book perfect for the beach or a quiet Saturday night.  Hilderbrand constructed a realistic and heart-felt world, and we should all spend some time in it.  Pick up this book today.

 

I admit, I happened upon Water for Elephants later than I should have.  But sometimes things slip through the cracks, especially since there are so many books out there to read.

Author Sara Gruen weaves a magical tale of love, set in a Depression-era traveling circus.  Jacob, a student one test shy of graduating with a veterinary degree decides to fly the coop, and accidentally-on-purpose joins up with The Benzini Brothers Circus.  They happen to need a vet; he happens to need something to take his mind off the recent death of his parents.

What follows are all mostly true stories from the bygone circus era – elephants who sneak lemonade when their trainers aren’t looking, a toothless lion, a dead hippo carried around in a vat of formaldehyde, and a great animal escape that blurs the lines between fiction and reality.

Intermingled with all this excitement is a classic love story – boy sees girl, boy falls in love, boy realizes girl is married to a psychotic man, boy plots to steal girl away – with a new twist I swear you won’t see coming.

The story skips from a 23-year-old Jacob to a “ninety or ninety-three” year old Jacob – the former, experiencing new things every day, flying by the seat of his pants; the latter, mourning the loss of his wife, his life, and his freedom, both physical and mental.  Gruen masterfully captures each voice, young innocence shining one moment, the next a bitter but still slightly hopeful cynicism.

Gruen has created a realistic world on these pages.  My senses were assaulted by both the beautiful and the terrible, and I found myself rooting for the characters early on.

Water for Elephants is an instant classic, a soon-to-be guest on everyone’s must read list.  Go find it immediately.

 

Upon first examination of The Language of the Sea, by James MacManus, I thought the book to be just another piece of literature about boats, the sea, fishermen, and the northern United States – all subjects that, I thought, had been exhausted.  Then I read the prologue.

The Language of the Sea not only describes a world most of us will never witness – seals in the north Atlantic – but also delves deeply into the thoughts, feelings, and personalities of each character.  From the burgeoning alcoholic Margot Kemp, who is silently blaming her husband for the three-year-old death of their son, to Leo Kemp, outspoken professor who goes missing after a boating accident and chooses to stay such, MacManus skillfully creates a separate world for each character, major or minor, and with each chapter draws the reader further into said worlds.

For instance, Leo Kemp’s intense love of the ocean and the seals who inhabit it would seem, to an outsider and the general public, to be a little crazy.  What you never seem to get, however, is an understanding of what makes that kind of person tick.  The reader, however, comes to not only understand Kemp’s view but also embraces his way of thinking.

I found myself drawn back to this book, despite my other commitments.  I found it intelligent and well-written, MacManus clearly knowledgeable about the aspects of the sea as well as having a clear understanding of people and their quirks.  His writing style is sharp, his tone clear and polished.  The Language of the Sea stands among the best, and I look forward to reading more of MacManus.

 

“The circus arrives without warning.”

So begins The Night Circus, a gripping tale with a window into a magical circus, set in the early 20th century. The reader is thrown straightaway into a story unlike any on the market today. A world-renowned magician and an old associate decide to bring up a competition long dead, where they each choose a student, train him or her, and set them against each other. The loser is the one first driven mad by the building pressure to win; the winner is the survivor.

The venue for this competition is this night circus, called Le Cirque des Reves, or the Circus of Dreams. From the outside, this dream circus reveals nothing out of the ordinary; on the contrary, it much resembles any normal circus. On the inside, however, all bets are off. The food is the best and freshest; the pathways and tents seemingly go on forever; the tents themselves hold truly magical exhibits, from a wishing tree lit with real wishes, an illusionist who can turn handkerchiefs into doves, a tent whose hundreds of bottles hold hundreds of memories, and a cloud tent, where one can climb, float, and fall, all without fear of injury.

What no one counted on, however, were the two competitors falling in love. If the entire first half of the book was about the circus itself, introducing characters, situations, scenes, the second half brings these now familiar aspects together into a delightful cacophony of what happens when love interrupts our plans.

I wholeheartedly recommend this book; not only is it brilliantly written, each character personalized and described so they came alive in my head, but it also made me feel – I wanted to visit this circus of dreams, to walk the pathways, see myself reflected in the hall of mirrors and let go of my past regrets and sadness at the Pool of Tears. Erin Morgenstern masterfully concocted a world both realistic and magical, half fairy tale, half reality. The Night Circus is Morgenstern’s first book; if this is what we can expect from her, I look forward to the many other pieces of literary art that are certain to come.

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