Monday, December 21, 2009

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

The lives of Skeeter, Minny and Aibileen couldn't be more different in Jackson Mississippi - Skeeter is an aspiring writer, Minny is a maid with a major problem of sassing back at her employers, and Aibileen is a maid just trying to instill colorblindness into her young charges. But over the course of Stockett's debut novel, they all have many secrets to share and hide from themselves, their families and the town itself. When Skeeter attempts to write her first book, Minny and Aibileen will come to play pivotal roles in a dangerous situation.

I enjoyed this book greatly and I could genuinely see how it's remained so high on the NYT best sellers lists. The story moves along at a nice pace and the language makes it very approachable.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Under the Dome by Stephen King

I waited until after I finished reading Under the Dome (almost 1,100 pages in less than a week!) to read anything about it. This review from pretty much falls into line with my opinion:

By now with Stephen King, it's easy to think this is all kind of ridiculous. An invisible dome descending upon a small town in Maine? People trapped inside, trying to figure out what on Earth is going on and — as always in a Stephen King story — dying in droves?

Good Lord. Is the King of Really Heavy Books — the author who is a one-man argument for the hernia-preventing benefits of e-books — running out of viable plot devices?

This is, after all, the guy who wrote entire volumes about cell phones turning fellow citizens into ravenous zombies, about possessed and murderous 1958 Plymouths and about evil, immortal clowns who live in the sewers and prey upon children. Really, now. How much gimmickry can one writer expect us to stomach?

Those statements are all completely fair and true. Trouble is, when it comes to "Under the Dome," they're also all entirely inaccurate.

Because "Under the Dome" is one of those works of fiction that manages to be both pulp and high art, that successfully — and very improbably — captures the national zeitgeist at this particularly strange and breathless period in American history.

The town of Chester's Mill, Maine — just up the road from the equally fictional Castle Rock, home to so many of King's unsettling yarns — is minding its own business one dazzling October day when an unseen force field descends upon it, slicing in two pretty much anything that was crossing the edge of town at that moment.

What happens in ensuing days is even more unsettling. Except for Internet service and spotty cell-phone signals, the town is isolated and imprisoned in plain sight. And inside the dome, society slowly, inexorably, almost methodically begins to fall apart.

King is usually classified as a horror writer, but he is more of a chameleon than that. He's capable of shifting from genre to genre at will, particularly in his short stories. "Under the Dome," however, is such a hodgepodge of genres that it ends up transcending genre entirely, and in the best of ways. The most accurate way of characterizing it in a single line may be "Our Town" meets "Silent Spring" meets "Lord of the Flies."

For it begins becoming evident, in the usual serpentine King way, that the environment and the way we treat it have everything to do with why the dome is there and what it might mean. Coupled, of course, with some seriously non-rational things that are going on.
The chief protagonist, Dale Barbara, is a just-retired Army man who fought in Iraq and did some things he isn't entirely proud of. He has repaired to Chester's Mill as a fry cook, trying to lay low. But in the days before "Dome Day," he runs afoul of some of the local cretins and becomes persona non grata through no fault of his own. In fact, he is trying to leave town when the dome falls and narrowly escapes becoming one of its first victims.

Barbara becomes one of the focal points in the us-vs.-them panic that overtakes Chester's Mill like a slow-motion tidal wave, pushed along by the other focal point — "Big Jim" Rennie, the town boss, who is about as prosaically malevolent a character that King has ever devised and who has a no-good son to match.

What pushes "Under the Dome" forward is not so much its whodunit or whatdunit plot, though that is tighter and more well-structured than usual for a King novel, even at more than 1,000 pages. It's how the characters treat each other and react to each other as they are forced together in their Biosphere-from-hell scenario.

And why not? Chester's Mill in late 2009 is a microcosm of America at the same time, with all the angst and post-9/11 fear and suspicion of fellow citizens that pervades the entire republic. Add to that the notion of an entire society being watched and watching itself through a translucent bubble — a reality-TV metaphor if there ever was one — and you have novel as cultural document.

The end, and the resolution, are less important than the path taken to get there. As usual with King, it's all seen through a fun-house mirror. And though the requisite supernatural elements are there, the really troubling thing — as with so much in society today — is that the fun-house distortions of popular fiction are, to everyday America, more recognizable than ever.
The main reflection isn't that of Frankenstein or Dracula or the Joker or the Incredible Hulk. Instead, it looks a lot more like us. That's how Stephen King, at his best, has always been. What's really scary is that the world has caught up.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

You Better Not Cry by Augusten Burroughs

Though not as clever as his usual fare, Burroughs shares several amusing vignettes about his experiences with Christmas and the holiday season. Some are pretty funny - like how he confuses Jesus and Santa Claus as a child and some are rather bleak - like his crappy relationship with a boyfriend with AIDS who refuses to acknowledge their relationship to his family. My personal favorite was the last chapter, which is an actually quite touching piece about understanding the true spirit of Christmas and love. Overall, a speedy read, but if you're aiming for some seasonal laughs, stick to David Sedaris' Holidays on Ice instead.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck

When this classic novel starts, Wang Lung is a poor farmer in Pre-Revolutionary China trying to get by on his meager harvests. The one thing he knows and depends on time and time again is the importance of owning his own land. Gradually, Wang Lung's lot in life starts to improve - he takes a wife, the faithful O-Lan who gives him several sons, and slowly starts to acquire more land and status in his world. Obviously things can't go right 100% of the time and Wang Lung is frequently threatened by starvation, poor harvest weather, and potential robberies.

I know this is classic, but the major problem I had with this book was the absolutely awful depictions of women. Coming from a female writer, I was surprised that not one female character was portrayed in a positive light - then again, I bet the men of that era were probably not as open minded.

Monday, October 5, 2009

The Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger

Andrea (Andy) is a freshly minted graduate of Brown University and dying to break into the world of journalism. The only problem is the sheer amount of competition in New York City. So when she gets hired to act as a personal assistant to the EIC of Runway magazine, a staple in the fashion world, she thinks it will be a perfect springboard into her dream career. The problem is is that her boss, Miranda Priestly, is the titular devil and proceeds to make Andy's life hell on earth. The woman really is demanding - calling her at all hours of the day, issuing half assed instructions and expects mountains to move for her. As a result, Andy's relationships with her friends, family and boyfriend start to fail. Can she pull it together?

I think this was one of those very rare times where the film adaptation was better than the original book. I'm a sucker for anything with Meryl Streep and I much preferred Anne Hathaway's goody-two shoes portrayal of Andy instead of the sarcastic, cussing smoker version in the novel. And anything to do with fashion is so much better when you can actually see it instead of just read about it.

The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

This book serves as a companion piece to Atwood's 2003 novel Oryx and Crake, in which the world has changed irrevocably due to political and biotechnological uprisings. In this book, a horrific pandemic plague has killed off virtually everyone, leaving Toby and Ren alone in their hideouts (a luxury spa and a sex club respectively). Atwood spends a lot of time describing the womens' pasts- they were both members of an agrarian compound group/cult called God's Gardeners, and there is a fair amount of sociological, Biblical and cultural commentary. This is Atwood's third novel that deals with dystopic societies - as usual, she delivers a critical and thoughtful book.

The Dead and the Gone by Susan Beth Pfeffer

Sequel to the fabulous Life as We Knew It, Pfeffer explores the same scenario (an asteroid hits the moon and changes its orbit, resulting in catastophic climactic changes on Earth) through the eyes of young Alex Morales, a teen living in New York City with his parents and two younger sisters. When the moon gets hit, both of Alex's parents are away from home, thus leaving the children to act as orphans (you never find out what happens to them) to fend for themselves. Alex is extremely mature and intelligent - making sure they ration their meals long before there is a dire need to, and he is forced to do any and everything he can to make sure his family survives. This unfortunately includes scavenging through dead people's things for items to sell on the black market.

As can be expected, the book is very somber and bleak. The Morales family is extremely religious, so there is a lot of talk about God and divine help, a concept which was absent from the first book. You may also argue that this book paints a helluva more realistic picture than the first one with the sheer amount of devastation and death. Though the book is marketed for teens, I still found it to be riveting - I think I finished it within a day.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Second in the Hunger Games trilogy, Catching Fire picks up right where Hunger Games left off. By cleverly tricking the organizers, Katniss and Peeta have just managed to survive the deadly games created by the Capitol that forces teens to murder one another for the entertainment of the masses. Instead of celebrating their joint victory, Katniss is targeted by the President for cheating the system. I don't want to spoil the second 1/2 of the book, but lets just say that Katniss and Peeta's nightmares are far from over...

I thought this was a tense follow up to the 1st book and I can't wait for the final part.

Official Book Club Selection: A Memoir According to Kathy Griffin by Kathy Griffin

Kathy Griffin is one of those polarizing figures - either you love her extremely scathing commentary on celebrities and pop icons or you can't stand her. I happen to be in the former category - I love her stand up act and her Bravo show My Life on the D List makes me laugh out loud so I had to pick up her memoir. There's the usual "overcoming adversity to make it in show business" stuff, although you really get the sense that Griffin had to claw her way to any shred of publicity and fame because of her schtick. Overall, a funny and quick read.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

Off of Amazon's website:

This debut thriller--the first in a trilogy from the late Stieg Larsson. Mikael Blomkvist, a once-respected financial journalist, watches his professional life rapidly crumble around him. Prospects appear bleak until an unexpected (and unsettling) offer to resurrect his name is extended by an old-school titan of Swedish industry. The catch--and there's always a catch--is that Blomkvist must first spend a year researching a mysterious disappearance that has remained unsolved for nearly four decades. With few other options, he accepts and enlists the help of investigator Lisbeth Salander, a misunderstood genius with a cache of authority issues.

Ordinarily, I'm not a fan of thrillers or many mysteries, but I've got to be honest - this was a riveting read. Though the pacing is a little slow to start with, once Larsson gets the ball rolling, the momentum is nearly breakneck fast. All of the characters are clearly multi-dimensional and incredibly smart, which sometimes isn't the case with this genre. Larsson even throws in a few red herrings and some creepy family drama as well. The story wraps up in a satisfying, but ultimately heartbreaking, conclusion. I can't wait to read The Girl Who Played with Fire next!

Life as We Knew it by Susan Beth Pfeffer

Off of Amazon's website:

It's almost the end of Miranda's sophomore year in high school, and her journal reflects the busy life of a typical teenager: conversations with friends, fights with mom, and fervent hopes for a driver's license. When Miranda first begins hearing the reports of a meteor on a collision course with the moon, it hardly seems worth a mention in her diary. But after the meteor hits, pushing the moon off its axis and causing worldwide earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanoes, all the things Miranda used to take for granted begin to disappear. Food and gas shortages, along with extreme weather changes, come to her small Pennsylvania town; and Miranda's voice is by turns petulant, angry, and finally resigned, as her family is forced to make tough choices while they consider their increasingly limited options. Yet even as suspicious neighbors stockpile food in anticipation of a looming winter without heat or electricity, Miranda knows that that her future is still hers to decide even if life as she knew it is over.

Despite being incredibly bleak, this book offers a ton of "food for thought" - you'll immediately ask yourself how you would behave in particular situations and compare your strategies for living with the rest of the characters in the book. Even though Miranda is a teenager, her actions and motivations are simply admirable and mature. I managed to read this book in a day and I really couldn't put it down.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Benny and Shrimp by Katarina Mazetti

A strange title for a bittersweet love story. Benny and Shrimp (real name Desiree) are both middle aged and lonely. Benny is a dairy farmer who never went to college while Shrimp is a librarian and an avid reader/philosophizer. They meet in a cemetery and fall in love, only to realize that perhaps the passion they feel towards each other may not necessarily carry their relationship into the future. The best relationships are founded on compromise, but are the two willing to sacrifice parts of their lives for each other?

A quick read, but a thoughtful one at that.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Zeithoun by Dave Eggers

(Taken from When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a prosperous Syrian-American and father of four, chose to stay through the storm to protect his house and contracting business. In the days after the storm, he traveled the flooded streets in a secondhand canoe, passing on supplies and helping those he could. A week later, on September 6, 2005, Zeitoun abruptly disappeared.

As founder of the irreverent McSweeney's, Dave Eggers has created a niche for himself in as a literary do-gooder - first by setting up urban writing centers for teens across the country, then by covering the atrocities of war in Sudan with What is the What, the proceeds of which went directly back into aid to the country and its people, and now with shedding light on Katrina's aftermath. Though Egger's work is non-fiction, his narrative is definitely compelling reading (and so bleak and tragic that you WISH it was fiction). Much like how 9/11 is slowly being incorporated into comtemporary fiction, you can bet that with time, Katrina will be another similar source for fiction as well.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Commencement by J. Courtney Sullivan

In their first semester of college at Smith, four girls who live on the same floor manage to forge a strong connection with each other, despite their completely different backgrounds. Bree is a Southern belle, April is the moody uber feminist, Sally has just lost her mother and Celia is the wannabe writer. The novel spans their wild times at college and what happens afterwards when the girls meet up for Sally's wedding. As can be expected during college, the girls experiment with their sexuality, drugs, alchohol, and social issues. As can be expected post-college, the girls have problems with relationships, jobs and finding their niche in the world. April is truly the only one that carries on with the feminism after graduation.

I think the problem with this book is that it tried too hard to be like a more socially conscious version of Curtis Sittenfeld's Prep but with college students instead of high schoolers. Instead, readers end up with something that's more chick-lit than Sullivan probably wanted (I'd chalk it up to the sometimes cheesy dialogue and heavy emphasis on sex). Despite all this, I'd still peg the book as a good beach read, though the "dangerous ending" that the book jacket details (and all that foreshadowing throughout the novel) is a little uneven.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Man who ate everything by Jeffrey Steingarten

This is a book about man who eats food. A lot of food. As food critic for Vogue magazine, Steingarten talks about food the way some people talk about sports or shopping or family gossip. This book is merely his ode to gastronomy. He isn't just content to munch on bread in a restaurant, he tries for months to make his own perfect loaf. Same thing goes with ketchup. Hey, different strokes for different folks.

While some may wonder how in the world someone could spend 500+ pages talking just about food, Steingarten deftly weaves in his travel experiences around the world and this makes for some very compelling passages. His thoughts on how our food prejudices were also interesting to read. Steingarten argues that babies are not really repulsed by any kind of food. It's only as they get older and see how their parents interact with food that determines what they will and won't eat.

Overall, a pretty tasty read.

Monday, July 13, 2009

The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith

This is the 3rd selection in the Adult Summer Book Club and is the first book in the Precious Ramotswe series. Mma Precious Ramotswe has taken the inheritance money from her father and opened "The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency" in Botswana. Her cases are relatively small and involve people from her local village of Garabone. Precious has no actual detective training, but uses her strong sense of intuition and a lot of common sense to solve her cases.
The books in this series are what you would call "cozy mysteries," in that there is limited blood, violence, obscenity and sex. I found that this book was quite pleasant with vivid descriptions of the African landscape and a charming protagonist. It should make for a fun discussion.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Sworn To Silence By Linda Castillo

This is the first book I have read by Linda Castillo. When I was covering the book, and yes when processing books we do look at the flaps sometimes (or am I the only one who does it?). I saw that it had my favorite subject (to read about, not do) murder.
The lead character is ex-Amish chief of police named Kate Burkholder. Years before she had survived a brutal attack and now hides a secret past.
In this book young women are being murdered in horrible ways in the small town of Painters Mill, Ohio.
It's up to Kate and Special Agent John Tomasetti to catch the killer.
I liked the book, but I thought Castillo could have added more depth to Tomasetti and to the relationship between the two. I'm curious to see what the author does with the Kate Burkholder character in the next book.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

As the first selection for the Adult Summer Weekly Book Club, I was obligated to re-read this novel for the upcoming discussion (my job is so hard sometimes). Bel Canto has always been one of my favorite works of literary fiction because of Patchett's beautiful prose and its heartbreaking conclusion. Set in an undisclosed South American country, a group of foreign ambassadors, politicians and one magnificent opera singer are celebrating a guest's birthday when the palace is overrun by terrorists. What starts off as an extremely tense situation slowly grows into a prime example of Stockholm Syndrome where the hostages and the terrorists create their own little shared world together.
This novel has everything - there are two sweet love stories, lots of cases of unrequited love, death, violence, suspense, the evolution of unusual friendships and more. In writing this review, I really can't do this work justice. It's that good. Seriously, you should read this novel. You won't regret it.

Shanghai Girls by Lisa See

As an only child, I think reading about the dynamics of sisters is incredibly interesting (it's that whole "grass is greener" idea). In Lisa See's newest novel, sisters Pearl and May are "beautiful girls" (read: models) living a luxurious life in pre-WWII China. After their father loses all of his money due to gambling/Chinese mafia, he is forced to marry off his daughters to Americans, much to the girls' dismay. About 2 days after the weddings, Japan begins to invade/bomb parts of their beloved city, forcing the sisters to flee to their husbands in San Francisco. The rest of the novel depicts their turbulent relationship as well as their trying times in America as they adjust to a completely new family, culture and way of life.

Overall, I did enjoy this book, although the ending was a little rushed.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Still Alice by Lisa Genova

I think I've posted this before, but in general, it takes a lot for a book to make me cry (or really scared for that matter). That being said, I was quite teary at several points while reading Still Alice, which is Genova's debut novel. Alice Howland is a distinguished professor of psychology at Harvard with a loving husband and three grown children. Everything is just peachy, until the day when she starts forgetting things, even going so far as getting lost in her neighborhood during an average run. After consequent trips to the doctor, Alice is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's Disease. The rest of the novel is spent on how she and her poor family deal with this awful illness. As her condition deteriorates, her sense of language and cognition starts to fail, thus leaving her frustrated and scared. The scenes between Alice and her husband were very heartwrenching - it must be impossibly difficult to care for a spouse with the disease.

Genova is a neuroscientist, and therein lies my only criticism I have of this book - her writing style and usage of language and dialogue isn't nearly as fluid as she thinks it is. There was one line in the book about how Alice could tell "by looking at [her daughter] Anna's B-cup that she wasn't pregnant yet." Um, what? Other than that, it was still very much a moving book.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Push: A Novel by Sapphire

After seeing a trailer of the film adaptation a few weeks ago (which looks to be wonderful), I decided to give this novel a try. At 16, Claireece Precious Jones has had an unimaginable amount of awful things thrown at her in her short life. At age 12, she became pregnant by her father, giving birth to a daughter with Down's Syndrome. At 16, she is not only impregnated but also given HIV by her father. Precious is poor and illiterate and lives in Harlem with her insane and highly abusive mother. Despite all of these odds, Precious manages to find her way to an alternative school where a kind teacher named Blue Rain takes it upon herself to steer Precious into a better direction.

Getting through this novel was difficult, not because of the language, but because of the endless amount of pity I felt towards this poor girl. Seriously, Precious goes through the ringer in this book and it only makes you want to root for her to succeed by the end.
For more information about the upcoming film, which won a lot of praise at Sundance, click here

Monday, June 1, 2009

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

Every once in awhile, I like to read a classic just to see how it has stood up over time. Despite the poverty and constant fear of starvation, I really enjoyed reading about the life and times of Francie Nolan and the Nolan family in Brooklyn circa 1912. The major complaint that some may have about this book is that it's virtually devoid of plot - instead, there are long vignettes that go in chronological order, but I honestly thought it was better than having a 900 page book about Francie's whole childhood and development and yadda yadda yadda. In this way, you just get the "good stuff" about her life and experiences.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Atlas of Unknowns by Tania James

Although they tell you never to judge a book by its cover, in this particular instance, the cover of Atlas of Unknowns is one of the best examples of symbolism and theme that I've ever seen. The cover shows a picture of a butterfly with a map superimposed onto each wing - one of under-developed/rural India and one of Queens, NY. Anju and Linno are sisters living in Kerala, India with their poor father and grandmother. When Anju wins a scholarship to a prep school in America (by betraying her sister), Linno is the one who has to keep the remaining family together. There's a lot of other important secondary characters, but ultimately, the purpose of this book shows the rocky relationship between the sisters. Though they are completely different individuals and at different places in the world, they are still family.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Testimony by Anita Shreve

Avery Academy, set in the woods of Vermont, seems like the last place for a scandal to happen. Unfortunately, all bets are off when it comes to teens and alcohol. When a sex tape is found involving 3 boys and a 14 year old girl, countless lives are shattered and not many are spared - whether it's the headmaster, the boys themselves, or their poor parents who are left wondering "how could this have happened?"

I really liked the use of multiple points of view for this novel, because when something scandalous happens, it helps to hear all sides of the story. This could have easily been written from a headmaster's perspective (or even from the character of Silas) and it would have been great, but having so much insight from so many people really made this book seem more 3 dimensional to me. Jodi Picoult follows the same strategy for her novels, even going so far as to change the font depending on the character (which seems a little much, but whatever), and it's a fabulous way to wrap so many narratives together.

My only (small) complaint was that Shreve uses TOO many narratives that at times, it got a little confusing. I understand why she wanted to show how the scandal affected lots of individuals, but in all honesty, hearing the lunch lady's perspective really did nothing for the story. Other than that, it was a great read!

Perfect Fifths by Megan McCafferty

Acting as the final novel in the Jessica Darling series, Perfect Fifths wraps up the 6 year relationship between sarcastic cynic Darling and mysterious bohemian Marcus Flutie and all their dysfunctional glory. The time is 2010 and Jessica is racing to catch a plane to a friend's wedding. By a major coincidence, Marcus happens to be at that same airport at that exact moment. Though the two haven't spoken to each other in years, you know how this book is going to end right from the get-go.
At first I really enjoyed the Jessica Darling series, but this one felt like a stretch to me. There are virtually no other appearances by former major characters - in essence, this book is just one long conversation between Marcus and Jessica, which is nice, but gets old. McCafferty pulls some weird stuff as well - an entire part of the novel occurs in haiku form and another in pure dialogue. Sometimes it works, like how readers can actually get Marcus' perspective FOR ONCE, but most of the time, it's just irritating. However, I'm a person who enjoys closure and that's definitely what I got from this book.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

If I Stay by Gayle Forman

In the wake of Twilight's massive commercial success, some YA works have been generating a lot of buzz. If I Stay is one of those books (there's already discussion of a movie deal), though there are virtually no reasonable comparisions between the two in terms of plot, character development or theme. In spite of this confusion, If I Stay remains a short and sad tale about 17 year old Mia who is hovering between life and death in a coma at the hospital. While on a winter drive, an oncoming car smashes into her car, killing her parents and younger brother. Mia must decide if she wants to "leave," that is, die and be with her family, or if she will "stay," and live a life of an orphan.
I won't ruin the ending, but I will say that this book did make me tear up a few times, especially considering that all of the characters in the book are just so nice. Flawed, but genuinely nice. I'd be curious to see how the film stacks up to the novel.

Admission by Jean Hanff Korelitz

Portia Nathan is in an unenviable position - as an Admissions Officer at Princeton University, she has the job of deciding to either fulfill or destroy people's dreams on a daily basis. The problem is is that Portia doesn't really have much of a life outside of the admissions process; she's so immersed in studying the lives of the people applying to Princeton that she has virtually cut herself off from a life outside of that institution. Obviously, there are some major reasons for why Portia is the way she is. The rest of the novel delves into that.

I enjoyed this book, though the prose was a bit wordy, though I guess when you're married to a well known and award winning poet (Paul Muldoon), you learn a thing or two about semantics. My one complaint is that I totally called the one "twist" near the end. I'm usually really bad at anticipating plot, so I'm not sure what that says about Korelitz's narrative. But overall, a solid read.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Columbine by Dave Cullen

April 20, 2009 will mark the 10 year anniversary of the awful massacre/shooting at Columbine High School. While a lot of the information related to the shooting has become public knowledge in the past decade, Cullen's extremely detailed work sheds much light on the many myths and wrong details that still pervade popular culture.

For starters, Eric Harris was the ringleader of the duo (I had always thought Dylan Klebold was the main instigator) and a complete psychopath. The two were not really involved in the infamous Trench Coat Mafia, nor were they isolated loners subject to bullies. In reality, they were popular within their social circle, extremely intelligent and faked normalcy for over a year, deceiving friends, their families and other members of the community. Furthermore (and I found this to be the most shocking), Jefferson County Police had had knowledge that Harris was up to something bad. They had been alerted many times by the Brown family (Harris had threatened Brooks Brown on his website), but in the wake of the shooting, those documents mysteriously "vanished."

While the book is exceptionally well written and as I mentioned before, extremely detailed, I found myself very glad that I finished it due to its graphic descriptions and overall disturbing subject matter. As an aside, I felt the exact same way while watching Gus Van Sant's film Elephant, which is an obvious commentary/replication of Columbine. As a rule, I can handle films like Saw, Hostel, Devil's Rejects and other torture/bloody movies with no problem, but Elephant gave me nightmares for days. Same thing with this book.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin

Set in Pakistan, this series of short stories revolves around the servants, family members and employees of wealthy landowner/farm manager K.K. Harouni. Readers only meet Harouni in one story, the rest of the time, he is a mere catalyst, representative of great power and opportunity, or else a figure to be manipulated.
The nice thing about this book is that characters appear several times throughout the different stories at different points in time. For example, Haruoni's nephew Sohail appears in "Lady in Paris," at a turning point in his relationship. He appears again in later stories in a much different type of setting.
The not so nice thing about this book is the abject poverty and sense of hopelessness can be brutal at times. While some of the characters enjoy their meager living situations (see "A Spoiled Man," which had a heartbreaking ending), the majority of the female characters in all of the stories are ruthless in their attempts to break out of their lower lot in life. I'm not ruining anything by saying that none of these stories end on a particularly uplifting note.
Despite the depressing subject matter, I thought the stories were written beautifully and the characters were properly fleshed out and sympathetic. I have a weird natural tendency to read a lot of Indian fiction, so it was a nice change of pace to read about Pakistani life.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher

Jay Asher's debut novel has an interesting premise - Clay, a high schooler receives a mysterious package of audiotapes in the mail. They are from Hannah Baker, who committed suicide a few weeks earlier. On the tapes, Hannah narrates the 13 reasons that led her to kill herself (i.e. the people that caused her such anguish). Clay was "lucky" enough to be on Hannah's list and must pass off the tapes when he is finished listening to them.
The story is obviously told in flashbacks that detail several indviduals who were just awful to Hannah. Pretty much any kind of bad high school experience is on Hannah's tape-drinking, sex, bullying. Though this is a YA book, the amount of teen angst is a little too much at times. Hannah herself doesn't really come off as a fabulous (or even likeable) character considering that suicide is an inherently very selfish act and she spends 250+ pages blaming everyone else for her death. The only character that you feel kind of bad for is poor Clay, who worshipped Hannah and never got up the nerve to tell her his true feelings, only to be rewarded with these depressing tapes.
For some reason, reading this book made me feel very tense, as if I was reading some kind of spy thriller. I have no decent explanation why. I guess I kept thinking there'd be a really nice twist at the end - like she was murdered or something. I guess Hannah (and Asher by default) was trying to say that all those participants on the tapes were the true killers. I don't buy it. Her 13 reasons were kind of weak, if you ask me. High school sucks, but not enough to kill yourself over it.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Handle with Care by Jodi Picoult

I'm not going to lie - I think Jodi Picoult kind of phoned in this novel, mainly because she blatantly recycled parts of My Sister's Keeper and Change of Heart. I don't know, when I read Picoult, it's always the same - the lawyer with a turbulent past, the family in crisis, a depressing ending - and while sometimes, I like the familiarity, sometimes, it just gets on my nerves.

In Handle with Care, Charlotte and Sean O'Keffe have a daughter, Willow, who is born with osteogensis imperfecta, or brittle bones disease. Their financial status is spiraling downward due to high medical costs, so Charlotte decides to sue her OB for wrongful birth - meaning that her gyno should have told her about Willow's condition in utero so Charlotte would have had the option of abortion. Of course, this being a Jodi Picoult novel, Charlotte's OB is her best friend.

Despite the intriguing plot potential (the O'Keffe's have another daughter who has A LOT of issues that should have been explored more), again, it's all just the same nonsense - there's a tense lawsuit, a lot of family drama, and a really really unnecessary and contrived ending.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay

In this heartbreaking novel, de Rosnay fictionalizes a true event that most of us have unfortunately never heard about - the 1942 roundup and deportation of Parisian Jews to Auschwitz. This roundup was executed by French police and included thousands of young children basically sentenced to death. Sarah's Key shifts back and forth between narratives - that awful day as seen in the eyes of a young girl and the present day, where journalist Julia Jarmond is covering the anniversary of the event for a local magazine. The two narratives seem oddly disjointed at first, but as the story progresses, readers will see how the two become intertwined within each other.

Be warned: this book is really depressing, not because of the sad story behind the young girl in 1942, but because most books concerned with the Holocaust are really really depressing as a rule. It's absolutely shocking that such atrocities took place during the war in countries far beyond Poland and Germany.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

Though this novel exceeds 500+ pages, its story remains relatively simple - Marion and Shiva Praise Stone are twins born to a nun (a nurse) in an Ethiopian hospital. Their mother, Sister Mary Joseph Praise, dies while giving birth. The presumed father, Thomas Stone, is the head surgeon who vanishes after he is unable to save her in the OR. While this may seem to be a rather bleak situation, the book becomes an almost light story about family, love, and medicine. The twins are raised by the hospital's other surgeon and gynecologist, who treat the boys as if they were their own. Everything is hunky-dory until the day when Shiva commits the ultimate betrayal and creates a divide against the two.

As the boys age, the political landscape of the country changes drastically, forcing Marion (the narrator) to flee to the United States. It is in this last segment of the novel where Shiva and Thomas Stone are able to experience some kind of redemption for the pain that they caused Marion.

Overall, an excellent novel - I was disappointed when I finished. The medical jargon can be a little much at times, but if you're into ER and the like, will be fine.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Scattered Graves By Beverly Connor

This book #6 in the Diane Fallen series. If you have never read Beverly Connors books before please do. Start with #1" One Grave Too Many". Shattered Graves follows the main character forensic anthropologist Diane Fallon as she and her team at the crime lab in RiverTrail Museum of Natural History try to find out who killed the mayor and police chief, who were harassing her and were hiding secrets of their own. I love the character of Fallon. And if you enjoy this series you will also love Ms. Connors other series that has the main character Lindsay Chamberlain an archeologist.

Bone By Bone By Carol O'Connell

When I started this book it was with high hopes, I've always enjoyed Ms. O'Connell's books. But it has taken me over 2 weeks to read it, this is unheard of in my world. Now, I thought maybe it was because there was laundry to do, work, family...etc. No it's because this book was hard for me to get into. It sounded good on the book flap, brothers go into the woods only one comes out, years later bones start appearing on the family's porch.........................but what it doesn't say is the minutia of information on every person that lives in this town. It wasn't a bad book just a drawn out one. The odd thing was, the ending of this book was the best part of the story.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

I don't know what this says about me, but sometimes I love a really well written depressing novel. The kind that envelops you and makes you just feel lousy for awhile because you can't get the story out of your head because it's all just too much and hits too close to home.
At any rate, Revolutionary Road was a really good depressing novel. Set in the 1950s, Frank and April Wheeler are unhappy Connecticut suburbanites that secretly yearn for anything else - by some end or another, they just ended up in the "white picket fence" lifestyle and they absolutely hate it. Frank feels stuck in a boring job in Manhattan and April can't escape being a plain old housewife and mother. This feeling of perpetual ennui is slowly strangling their marriage until April comes up with a "plan" to relocate to Europe. The sad fact is this plan merely exacerbates their crumbling relationship. I guess nothing good can ever occur when you pin all your hopes and happiness on something that's implausible. The final portion of the novel is absolutely heartbreaking. Even though it's completely fictitious, I felt such pity for these characters and their sad sack of a marriage. I still don't know what that says about me. Oh well.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Little Giant of Aberdeen County by Tiffany Baker

For some reason, I felt like it took me forever to finish this one, which is strange because it was a rather cute little story. Truly is a heroine of enormous proportions - she was born big (which ultimately kills her mother and turns her father into an alcoholic) and continues to just grow and grow throughout her life in upstate New York. All of this is compounded by the fact that her older sister, Serena Jane, is beloved by the rest of the town for being little, dainty, beautiful and perfect. Despite all of these hardships, Truly remains a kind figure, if something of an outcast. However, after her sister's untimely demise, Truly must move in to take care of Serena's nefarious husband and child. And this is where things start to get a little...crazy.

There's lots more to this story than I'm describing - betrayal, murder, mysticism and true love. The pacing is quick and Baker does a nice job of characterization. Overall, a good read.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

A short but very moving tale about a man who uncovers the awful truth about a former lover. Michael is 15 when he first meets Hanna, who is 36. Despite the creepy age difference, the two become lovers, though Michael is far more captivated by the mysterious and distant Hanna than she is to him. Their affair is all too brief and one day, Hanna just disappears. Years later, Michael unintentionally sees Hanna as the defendant when he is observing a court case for law school. As Michael slowly learns about Hanna's horrible past, he must struggle to accept the question - if he loves (or loved) a monster, what does that make him? There is redemption in the end, but it's very bittersweet.

And of course, they made a movie out of this one. If the weather is decent, perhaps I'll go see it this weekend - Kate Winslet is supposed to be fabulous.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Towelhead by Alicia Erian

Despite the incendiary title, this novel was more like a modern day version of Lolita than anything else. Thirteen year old Jasira moves in with her extremely strict Lebanese father after her mother feels threatened by her daughter's sensual effect on older men. Things go from bad to worse for Jasira as she struggles to accept her father's isolating attitude, racist remarks from classmates because of her mixed heritage and her black boyfriend, an inappropriate relationship with her next door neighbor and just plain old adolescent angst.

I felt so horrible for poor Jasira throughout this entire book - I mean, the kid has no awareness about her growing sexuality, her awful father is emotionally vacant and physically abusive, she confuses rape with a warped perception of love and on top of all that, she gets picked on because of her ethnicity. Though the book *does* have a happy ending, it comes at a really depressing cost. The only shining light in this kind of bleak novel is Jasira's positive and loving relationship with a female neighbor, who's like the only person that actually cares about the kid.

Overall, a good read, but mildly depressing. The film version of it came out in 2008 and I'd be curious to see how they could pull it off (Aaron Eckhart from Thank You For Smoking plays the creepy neighbor)

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Just After Sunset by Stephen King

The literary horror machine that is Stephen King is back again. This time, King has cranked out about a dozen short stories guaranteed to make you feel anxious and slightly at ease. What's always so great about King is that some of his creepiest works don't necessarily have to involve the supernatural - human nature alone can be just as terrifying, shocking or just plain disturbing. Whether it's the threat of paranormal activities like in "The Things They Left Behind," where a man who was lucky enough to be spared on 9/11 must confront all the "ghosts" of his former coworkers or in "A Very Tight Place," whereKing takes something as common as a port-a-potty and turns it into a potential death chamber, in the end, you'll feel just a little out of sorts.

Though some may argue that Sunset really isn't anything new, considering that the bulk of the stories have appeared in various magazines, it's still definitely worth a read.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Scarpetta by Patricia Cornwell

Ok, here it is,,I did not like this book. (cries) I wanted to because I love Patricia Cornwell. First off the book was 512 pages(oy my eyes). The story took half a book for me to get interested in it. Scarpetta is brought into a case where a woman is murdered and the cops are looking at her boyfriend as being the killer. She is brought in to examine the bf (um,,ok). I miss the days when Scarpetta worked in the lab and actually worked as a forensic medical examiner . I can't bring myself to write much about the story because there wasn't much of a story. And at the end of the book I still don't know who killed who. When the book is this big you have trouble keeping track of all the characters in it. Read and decide for yourself.

Blood Sins by Kay Hooper

After reading some crappy books lately, written by bestselling authors, I went into reading this book not expecting much. I should have known better. Kay Hooper has not disappointed me lately. This book is the second installment in the Blood trilogy. This book picks up with Noah Bishop and his FBI Special Crimes Unit , which consists of psychics and mediums and its partner group Haven, a civilian investigative organization. They are in North Carolina trying to gather proof that the Rev. Adam Deacon Samuel is killing members of his flock. They find this hard to do since he is doing it by using psychic energy. I know this sounds a little funky, but trust me, it will make sense when your reading it. For me this book is perfect because I get murder and supernatural happenings all in one. Read all of Hooper's books, but especially the Bishop trilogies starting with Stealing Shadows. Finally, a GOOD book!!!!

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Hope and other Dangerous Pursuits by Laila Lalami

Sometimes you don't really need to write a lot to write a really good book. Case in point - Lalami's debut novel Hope and other Dangerous Pursuits. The fact that Lalami manages to evoke such sadness and hope in such a petite book speaks volumes for her talent. The novel focuses on 4 individuals who are trying to illegally cross the international waters from Morocco to Spain. What's different about this novel is that there are essentially only 8 chapters, a "before" and "after" for each character. All of the characters are trying to reach Spain in an effort to create a better life - whether they actually achieve that goal remains to be seen. Whether it's Halima, a mother trying desparately to escape her abusive husband, or Murad, who doesn't want to be the disappointment in the family, in the end, they all must accept the consequences of that fateful voyage to Spain.

A quick read, but in this case, quality trumps quantity.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Twilight Series by Stephenie Meyer

Here are the reasons why I shouldn't have liked Twilight (or any of the works in the series):

1. I'm not 13. (The series is for Young Adults)

2. I received by BA in English and can recognize "good" writing and character development from "bad"

3. I usually avoid the romance and/or fantasy genres.

And still...despite all of these drawbacks, I have to admit I became addicted to this series. Set in Forks, Washington, the series centers on Bella Swan, a plucky and clumsy girl who relocates to the rainy city to live with her dad. Everything is going fine until the day she meets the mysterious and gorgeous Edward Cullen. Edward and his family have a disturbing secret that noone but Bella knows about. The series tracks the epic love between the two along with some action between the Cullen family and their immortal enemies. There's also a nicely created love triangle. I am firmly on Team Jacob.

The downsides to the series are that it's poorly written, features almost an unbearable amount of teen angst ("I'll love you forever" "No, I'll love YOU forever"), and damn near steamrolls the reader with abstinence and anti-abortion messages. However, agenda or not, in the end, Meyer has created a very powerful story and a memorable cast of characters. This whole series was my guilty pleasure during Christmas and New Years. And yes, I even went to see the movie afterwards. I was the oldest one in the theater.