BOOK REVIEW: A Crime In The Neighborhood by Suzanne Berne

A Crime In The NeighborhoodA Crime In The Neighborhood
By Suzanne Berne
Completed July 5, 2012

Do you remember when an event happened during your youth that burst your idyllic bubble? For young Marsha, the main character in Suzanne Berne’s A Crime In The Neighborhood, two back-to-back events rocked her world: the departure of her father and the murder of a neighborhood boy. Though unrelated, these two events became Marsha’s focus during the summer of 1972, changing her life forever.

Berne deftly intermingles these two storylines throughout A Crime In The Neighborhood. We learn first that Marsha’s father, Larry, was having an affair with his wife’s youngest sister. Marsha’s mom, Lois, finds out, and eventually Larry moves away with his mistress – all within a span of a few weeks. Marsha was daddy’s little girl, not wanting to take sides, but desperately needing his father’s presence in her life.

Then, a neighborhood boy is found molested and dead in nearby woods, sending shock waves over Marsha’s quiet community. The neighborhood is on high alert, including Marsha, who begins observing her new neighbor, Mr. Green. She’s convinced that Mr. Green is the murderer, and her young imagination begins to convince her more and more as the days progress.

Marsha is precocious, smart and observant – skills that would later serve her as an attorney. She also makes a delightful narrator. In fact, Berne did a commendable job creating all the characters, from Marsha’s stoic mother to the panic-stricken neighbors. But I love Marsha’s innocence and imagination the best.

A Crime In The Neighborhood can’t just be characterized as a murder mystery – it has so many other layers: the state of marriage in the 1970’s, political unrest with Watergate and Richard Nixon; and a coming of age tale for a young girl. Winner of the 1999 Orange Prize for Fiction, A Crime In The Neighborhood would be enjoyed by lovers of the Orange Prize and murder mystery fans alike. It truly has something for everyone. (  )

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BOOK REVIEW: All The Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy

All The Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthyAll The Pretty Horses
By Cormac McCarthy
Completed June 8, 2012

When I start a Cormac McCarthy novel, I need to be in the right mindset. His stories are dark and foreboding – but always rich and compelling. It’s a journey through the Southern Gothic, and when I’m ready for the ride, I’m always pleased. That’s certainly the case with my latest McCarthy book, All The Pretty Horses.

Told from the perspective of young John Grady Cole, All The Pretty Horses is a coming of age tale for John Grady and his best friend, Lacey Rawlins, who decide to leave their homes in San Angelo, Texas, and travel south to Mexico.  As they prepare to cross into Mexico, they meet another boy who calls himself Jimmy Blevins, and immediately, Rawlins is suspicious of him. John Grady, though aloof about Blevins too, feels a sort of responsibility toward him, and it’s this attachment that will haunt John Grady months down the road.

After Blevins parts ways from John Grady and Rawlins, the friends end up on a ranch, where John Grady shows his talents breaking in horses. He also captures the eye of the ranch owner’s daughter, and they fall in love, though it is a forbidden one. As Rawlins predicted, Blevins is trouble, and as he’s arrested for theft and murder, the Mexican officials come after John Grady and Rawlins. They are arrested and thrown in jail.

I won’t give away the ending, but it’s full of heartbreak, violence and redemption. Overall, I was less pleased with the ending than the rest of the story. I forget, sometimes, that McCarthy’s book are considered “westerns” by some standards, and a barn shoot-out shouldn’t surprise me. But it always does.

McCarthy’s writing in All The Pretty Horses is pitch perfect. He paints a landscape like no other. His Faulknerian prose, lack of punctuation and gritty descriptions are truly works of art. I don’t know he pulls it off, but McCarthy does, and I am always a better reader as a result.

I look forward to reading the Border Triology’s second book, The Crossing, later this year. Until then, the story of All The Pretty Horses will weigh on my mind for a long time. (  )

BOOK REVIEW: Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel

Beatrice and Virgil by Yann MartelBeatrice and Virgil
By Yann Martel
Completed May 7, 2012

When Beatrice and Virgil was released in 2010, it received scathing reviews from critics. I had received an advanced reader’s edition of Yann Martel’s book, but after seeing such bad reviews, my copy of Beatrice and Virgil got relegated to the back of my shelf. When looking for a short book to read, I found it and decided to give it a whirl, half expecting to stop after a few pages. Well, I finished the book in two sittings.

Beatrice and Virgil is a cerebral, philosophical novel that, at its core, is a Holocaust story. Henry is the narrator, and he is a highly successful author who wants to write a story about the Holocaust that is creative but raw. He comes up with a “flip book” that is part essay, part fiction. Certain that he created something brilliant, Henry was devastated to learn that his book would not be accepted by his publisher. Restless, Henry moves, takes up a job at a chocolate store and spends time answering fan letters. One day, he received a cryptic letter from someone locally, asking for help. Henry seeks out his fan, and he strikes up an odd friendship with the man, also named Henry, who was a taxidermist.

I won’t reveal too much more about the plot, but suffice it to say that the last few pages had an unexpected turn. At least this reader didn’t see it coming.

Critics blasted Martel for writing a Holocaust story as an animal allegory, trivializing these events through the torture of a donkey and a Howler monkey. I think the critics missed the point. Just like his main character, Martel devised a creative but raw story about the Holocaust that is provocative and gripping. There are parts of Beatrice and Virgil that will grab you by the throat (and be warned: a heart-wrenching scene of animal cruelty). By the end of the book, I felt quite convinced that Martel pulled it off.

So, decide for yourself if you think Beatrice and Virgil is a work of creativity or trivialization. For me, it was a work of pure creativity. (  )

 

FTC: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review on my blog.

BOOK REVIEW: Murder on the Ballarat Train by Kerry Greenwood

Murder on the Ballarat Train by Kerry GreenwoodMurder on the Ballarat Train
By Kerry Greenwood
Completed April 29, 2012

Murder on the Ballarat Train is part of the Phryne Fisher series – a suave, intelligent flapper/private investigator who solves crimes in 1920’s Australia. Phryne is a no-nonsense, forward-thinking woman who isn’t afraid to use a gun or her prowess to get to the bottom of a mystery.

In this book, Phryne is traveling in a first-class train car with her maid, Dot, when she awakens to the smell of chloroform. Someone had used chloroform to sedate the entire passenger car so he/she could murder one of the passengers, a grumpy old woman named Mrs.Williams.  Eunice, the woman’s daughter and fellow train passenger, hires Phryne to solve the case.

Meanwhile, a young girl appears at the train station with amnesia, and Phryne takes the girl, Jane, under her wing.When it is discovered that Jane was molested, Phryne undertakes another investigation to determine who hurt the young girl.

Like all good murder mysteries, the plots eventually tie together, and 175 pages later, Phryne catches the bad guys, gets the cute man and adopts two orphans. Murder on the Ballarat Train is a bit of a departure from my usual fare, but I enjoyed the story nonetheless. I liked Phryne’s style – sort of a racier version of Nancy Drew. If you need a good poolside read, consider checking out this page-turning mystery series. (  )

BOOK REVIEW: Gillespie and I by Jane Harris

Gillespie and I by Jane HarrisGillespie and I
By Jane Harris
Completed March 24, 2012

Oh Jane Harris – you masterful storyteller. You captivated me with your debut novel, The Observations, to the point that I could barely wait to read your sophomore effort, Gillespie and I. I worried that you couldn’t “do it again” – but as I delved into your new book, my worries quickly vanished. Oh yes, you did it again. And marvelously so.

I don’t want to give away too much of the plot because I don’t want to spoil one thing for future readers. In a quick summary, the story is about Harriet Baxter, a middle-aged, unmarried English woman who takes up residence in Scotland during the 1888 International Exhibition. There, she befriends the artist, Ned Gillespie, and his family: his wife, Annie; Ned’s mother, Elpsbeth; and Ned and Annie’s children, Sibyl and Rose. As the story progresses, a terrible tragedy strikes the Gillespie family, and Harriet is thrust into the brink of it.

As we learn about Harriet’s life in 1888, Harris mixes in Harriet’s narrative as an older woman, living in 1933 London. Harriet is writing her memoir but vexed by her live-in companion, Sarah. Why is Sarah so quiet? Why does she not talk about her past? Why does she dress head to toe in Victorian clothing when the styles are much more liberal?

Gillespie and I is a book much like a roller coaster. The first half is full of foreshadowing, with small twists and turns that seem insignificant as you read them. Then, at the end of the first half, the story seems to stall a bit, but I liken it to the “scenic part” of the roller coaster ride – when you’re up high and can enjoy the view before being plunged down at break-neck speeds. And the second half of the book is the downward plunge, and you’re left holding on, turning each page, almost not believing what you’re reading. When the book is over, just like a good roller coaster, you get off and contemplate going for another ride. You want to relive the whole experience and discover things you missed on the first ride.

I’ve said enough – go get your copy of Gillespie and I and prepare for a literary ride that will leave you breathless, contemplative and thoroughly pleased. (  )

BOOK REVIEW: The Little Friend by Donna Tartt

The Little Friend by Donna TarttThe Little Friend
By Donna Tartt
Completed January 21, 2012

I am a sucker for books set in the American South. Stories with sweet tea and back porches feel like home. That’s why I was eager to read The Little Friend by Donna Tartt. Set in Mississippi, The Little Friend seemed to be the perfect book with all the right ingredients; however, by the midway point of this novel, I knew I was knee deep in a clunker.

The edition of The Little Friend that I read was more than 600 pages, and in my opinion, it could have been half that length. The beginning of the book starts out promising. Tartt introduces us to Harriet, a precocious girl who has a strong spirit.  We meet her mother, sister and a gaggle of great aunts – all of whom were interesting characters. We also meet Hely (pronounced Healy), who is Harriet’s best friend and partner in crime. Quickly, we see that Harriet wants to learn more about the strange and sudden death of her older brother, and she sets her sights on a local man as a possible murder suspect.

Three hundred pages later, we’re no further along in the plot then we were in the first chapter. Tartt’s tangents were pleasant at first, but by the middle of the book, I wanted to get on with the story.

Finally, Tartt delivers us the inevitable “stand-off,” and perhaps I was exhausted or bored or impatient – but the whole ending seemed too far-fetched. After a 600-page investment, I wanted something in return. Sadly, I was disappointed.

On the plus side, though, I commend Tartt for her vivid writing style. Her sentences were beautiful, and she eloquently depicted her characters and setting. It’s a shame that the beauty of her writing got lost in a tangled yarn.

Shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 2003, The Little Friend has received many accolades, so please be sure to consult other reviews. This just wasn’t the book for me. (  )

BOOK REVIEW: Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel

Beyond Black by Hilary MantelBeyond Black
By Hilary Mantel
Completed January 1, 2012

I have to admit: I had a hard time writing this review. How can a book be intriguing and boring at the same time? That’s the state I find myself in as I put together my thoughts on Beyond Black.

In summary, Beyond Black is the tale of Alison, a psychic, and her business partner/personal assistant, Colette. Their relationship reminded me of “The Odd Couple” – you couldn’t get two more different people together. Alison was a big presence – vibrant, full-figured, sweet-smelling and congenial. Colette was a drab sidekick – beige, skinny and condescending. How they ended up together is still a mystery to me, even as I finished the book.

Alison is forever tormented by spirits. Her spirit guide, Morris, is a dirty pig, often found fondling himself (thank goodness only Alison could see him). As the story progresses, Mantel reveals that Alison knew Morris before his death, which opens up the intriguing parts of the book: Alison’s tortuous childhood. Bit by bit, Mantel feeds the reader information about Alison’s past – what was done to her and what she did. These bite-size nuggets help propel the story; however, it was not enough. Beyond Black is mixed with so much “non-action” that it overshadowed the compelling stuff.

Parts of Beyond Black were darn funny (my favorite scene was Princess Diana talking to Alison), but the most of it was too dark for my taste. The pace of Beyond Black was uneven, and I think it could have been tightened by a good 100 pages. But we all know that Mantel can write – and I look forward to reading my next Mantel selection, The Giant, O’Brien, very soon. (  )

BOOK REVIEW: The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

The Reader by Bernhard SchlinkThe Reader
By Bernhard Schlink
Completed December 11, 2011

I picked up The Reader from a Borders closeout sale. It was cheap, and the cover with Kate Winslet on it reminded me that people liked the novel and movie. I had no idea what it was about,  but who could give up a bargain?

What I didn’t bargain for was to be completely moved by this story. How I wish I could have read The Reader with a lively book group or in a college class! The Reader has so many ethical layers that it left me thinking about the book long after I finished the last page. And, for me, that’s the hallmark of a provocative story.

I won’t give too much away because I think discovering the plot twists are part of the book’s appeal. In short, at the age of 15, Michael Berg falls in love with a woman more than twice his age. Hanna was mysterious and sensual – a adolescent’s dream. When she took off one day without notice, Michael was heartbroken and never fully recovered from the loss of Hanna from his life. Their paths cross again, though, and Michael learns about Hanna’s secrets – many of which are deplorable. How can this be the same Hanna he fell in love with as a teenager?

From a historical fiction perspective, The Reader exposes the moral dilemmas of the German generation whose parents were involved in the Third Reich, which is a viewpoint I had never considered before. Mix this with compelling characters and ethical questions, and you have The Reader. If you love historical fiction and thought-provoking stories, The Reader will leave you very satisfied. (  )

BOOK REVIEW: Case Histories by Kate Atkinson

Case Histories by Kate AtkinsonCase Histories
By Kate Atkinson
Completed October 19, 2011

I have heard so much about Jackson Brodie from my fellow readers that I felt like I knew him. Thankfully, after reading Case Histories, I was still pleasantly surprised by Jackson and the mysteries he planned on solving.

The story wove around three “cold cases” – the disappearance of a little girl from her backyard, the murder of an 18-year-old girl and the whereabouts of a young girl who ran away from home. Ten years later, these cases land in Jackson’s lap, and as he uncovers clues about each one, the reader learns clues about what makes Jackson tick.

While the story line was good, I think the allure of this book rests with its characters. Jackson is very likeable. His awesome sense of humor adds brevity to the sadness of each case, including his own tragedies. I also liked the many women who were part of Case Histories: Deborah the crusty secretary, Marlee who was Jackson’s precocious daughter and the Land sisters, who huffed and flirted their way into Jackson’s heart.

Will I be reading the rest of the books in this series? You bet! I can’t wait to see what Jackson is up to next. If you love mysteries and character-driven novels, make sure to add Case Histories to the top of your reading list.

BOOK REVIEW: Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin

Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana FranklinMistress of the Art of Death
By Ariana Franklin
Completed October 8, 2011

The first in a series, Mistress of the Art of Death introduces us to Adelia Aguilar – a medieval version of Kate Scarpetta – who travels to England to determine who was killing young children around Canterbury.  Adelia hails from Salerno, where women were allowed to study medicine, and she was an expert in examining bodies post-mortem to determine their cause of death.

The residents of Canterbury had blamed its Jewish residents for the children’s deaths, based on circumstantial evidence. When Adelia and her entourage arrive, they begin investigating the murders with the blessings of the Church and King. The children died violently, and as Adelia began to uncover clues, her investigation becomes of interest to the King’s tax collector, Sir Rowley Picot. Together, they begin to compare notes – and a little romantic chemistry starts to bubble up.

I have no idea how historically accurate this book is. Would a person from the 12th century have enough forensic skills to learn anything from skeletons? Would the King of England really authorize a woman to investigate murders? I will leave these questions to experts of this time frame. What I can tell you is that Mistress of the Art of Death was a good, suspenseful novel. It had a slow beginning, but once Adelia began her investigation, the book enjoyed a nice pace. I liked the characters as well.

I wouldn’t classify Mistress of the Art of Death as literary fiction, but more of a historical novel with a murder mystery twist. If this genre appeals to you – or you like books set in medieval England – then give Mistress of the Art of Death a go. (  )

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