BOOK REVIEW: Liars and Saints by Maile Meloy

Liars and Saints by Maile MeloyLiars and Saints
By Maile Meloy
Completed July 3, 2012

In her debut novel, Liars and Saints, Maile Meloy explores family relationships, deceit, truth and religion through the Santerre family. Spanning over four generations, each chapter is told from a member of the Santerre family – some get more of a voice than others, but each person is enveloped in the conflicts that rock the family.

The story opens with Yvette and Teddy Santerre during World War II. We learn that the couple are deeply in love, but their young marriage isn’t without struggles, compounded by Teddy’s deployment to the Pacific theater. Teddy is insecure and jealous of his beautiful wife, and Yvette wrestles with her roles as wife and mother. The couple have two daughters, Margot and Clarissa, and the story moves quickly to when the girls become teenagers, and a particular night that would change the family forever.

At the surface, the issues facing the Santerre family are the stuff of daytime soap operas, but Meloy writes so eloquently, you hardly notice. The family members individually grapple with truth versus deceit. Is it better to spill the beans or keep things discreet? Sometimes, the choices the family made were ones they want to hide (even from each other), while others need to be aired out. True to life, you don’t know if it is a good idea to disclose a secret until after it’s done. Hindsight is always 20/20.

Liars and Saints is a solid debut, and I am not surprised to find it on the Orange Prize short list (2005). It’s not without flaws, but its pace and story development are spot on. I look forward to more stories by Maile Meloy. (  )

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BOOK REVIEW: The Land of Decoration by Grace McCleen

The Land of Decoration by Grace McCleenThe Land of Decoration
By Grace McCleen
Completed March 13, 2012

Judith McPherson is 10 years old, living with her father in a small town in England,  when she becomes the target of a school bully, Neil Lewis. Judith is different from her peers, mainly due to her religious upbringing, which centers on an impending Armageddon. To escape the loneliness, Judith constructs her own version of The Land of Decoration – a representation of what the world will look like after Armageddon.

As Judith deals with Neil, she becomes inspired by the words of a guest speaker at her church. He talks at length about having faith in God and the power of miracles.  That evening, as she dreads the next school day, she contemplates the Brother Michael’s words. Judith decides to wish for snow, and she sets out to make fake snow on her Land of Decoration, praying the whole time. As she prays, she begins to hear a voice, pushing her to pray more. When she wakes up the next morning, her town is covered in snow.

Judith, believing that she performed a miracle, now sets her sights on Neil. However, as bad things happen, Judith realizes that power can lead to destruction. Eventually her actions begin to affect her father, and as he begins to lose faith in God, Judith’s love for her father and God are put to the ultimate test.

The Land of Decoration is a fast-paced, moving novel that sucks you in from the first word. Judith is a believable and sympathetic character, and her father is equally compelling. Seeing the world through Judith’s eyes reminds you of how innocent and vulnerable children are.

I am not a believer in Armageddon, so I wasn’t sure if I would like this novel. I am so glad I read it, despite my reservations, because The Land of Decoration is so much more than a novel about Armageddon. It’s a story of faith, parental love and doing the right thing – themes that can resonate with any reader, despite your religious persuasion. ( )

This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

BOOK REVIEW: Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks

Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine BrooksCaleb’s Crossing
By Geraldine Brooks
Completed November 17, 2011

When Geraldine Brooks moved to her home in Martha’s Vineyard, she stumbled across a map of the island that showed the native Wampanoag people – and learned that one of them, Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, was the first Native American graduate of Harvard College in 1665. This little historical fact spawned her latest novel, Caleb’s Crossing.

Brooks opted to tell the story through the eyes of young Bethia, the granddaughter of the founders of Martha’s Vineyard and a devout Calvinist. Bethia, which means “servant,” was true to her name – she served her family, her faith and later her family’s legacy by taking care of Caleb and fellow Native American student Joel. When only 12, Bethia met Caleb in the forest, and they forged a friendship that lasted throughout Caleb’s life. She taught him English and Christianity; Caleb taught her about tolerance and his own faith. It was these early exchanges that set the foundation for Caleb’s academic success later in his life.

Bethia’s character is not based on a historical figure, but Brooks, through her detailed research, illustrated what life would be like for a young woman in 1600’s Massachusetts. Bethia was smart, but her religion permitted her from being formally educated. As a woman, she was concerned a commodity, used by her family to help get her less-than-brilliant brother into an academy. It was hard to read Bethia’s suppression as both a woman and scholar, but Brooks could do no else with her. It was an unfortunate sign of the times.

I love Brooks’ writing style and eye for historical detail – both of which are evident in Caleb’s Crossing. Admittedly, though, I was not as enraptured by this story as I was with Brooks’ earlier books. The plot didn’t move quickly enough, and I wanted to know more about Caleb and less about Bethia. I skimmed through some pages in search of some kind of “action” to propel the plot. I found it in bits and pieces, but overall, Caleb’s Crossing was a slow-moving story.

If you haven’t read Geraldine Brooks, start with her other books and delight in her writing. Save Caleb’s Crossing for a lazy day by the fire.

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. (  )

BOOK REVIEW: Abide With Me by Elizabeth Strout

Abide With Me by Elizabeth StroutAbide With Me
By Elizabeth Strout
Completed October 1, 2011

“I suspect the most we can hope for, and it’s no small hope, is that we never give up, that we never stop giving ourselves permission to try to love and receive love.”

Tyler Caskey is a young minister in a small town in Maine. When his wife does shortly after the birth of their second child, Tyler’s world starts to disintegrate – slowly and steadily – until his congregation and town reach a crisis. How will Tyler respond? This question marks the remarkable Abide With Me by Elizabeth Strout.

Strout is a masterful storyteller. Like Olive Kitteridge and Amy and Isabelle, she slowly reveals information about her characters with each chapter. At first, for example, Tyler appears to be hanging on – if by a thread – but as the story continues, the reader realizes that Tyler is in desperate need of an ear to listen to him and a shoulder to weep on. With the touch of her words, Strout can broaden your view of a character and story – casting a new light and forcing you to reform your opinion. Characters who begin unlikable turn into vulnerable humans that you empathize with. People who appear calm and content are really raging inside. Abide With Me has all of this – and more.

Admittedly, the book started out a little slow for me, but once it settled, especially during the last 50 pages, Abide With Me became spiritual and uplifting in its telling, offering the reader an introspective look at not only the lives of the characters – but his or her own life too. If you’re a fan of Elizabeth Strout, Abide With Me is not a book to miss. (  )

BOOK REVIEW: The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta

The Leftovers by Tom PerrottaThe Leftovers
By Tom Perrotta
Completed August 4, 2011

Imagine you’re hanging out with a friend or eating dinner with your family – and POOF! They were gone. In Tom Perrotta’s latest book, The Leftovers, he examines this sudden departure of people around the world, who literally disappeared into thin air, and the effects of their disappearance on the loved ones left behind.

The story centers on residents of a small town called Mapleton – a suburban area where kids walked to school and moms baked cookies in aprons. The town was brought to its knees on that fateful October 14. The disappearance of seemingly random people made everyone wonder “why”? Those who believed in Rapture could not understand why they were not taken, while others wondered why God would take people who were not even Christian. And for those left behind, their hearts had voids that no amount of time could fill.

While many characters floated in and out of The Leftovers, the “main” family belonged to Kevin, mayor of Mapleton after the Sudden Departure. Kevin’s family were not affected directly by the disappearances, but one by one, their lives fell apart. Kevin’s wife, Laurie, fled to a cult called “Guilty Remnant” who wore white clothes, smoked cigarettes, stalked potential recruits and took a vow of silence. Kevin’s son, Tom, became involved in another cult, led by a man who believed he could take people’s pain away. And finally, Kevin’s daughter, Jill, just got lost, befriending a bad influence and flunking her classes. It was painful to watch the disintegration of this family as they became lost in their grief.

The Leftovers was a fast-paced novel with a couple unexpected turns. The characters were believable, and my heart ached for their loss. The ending of the novel, though, was a disappointment for me. Without giving it away, let’s just say I didn’t find any of it plausible. I could wrap my brain around people’s disappearances, cults and fake Messiahs, but what Perrotta presented at the end was too much of a stretch for me. I will be curious to know what other readers think.

Despite the ending, The Leftovers would make a fascinating book for discussion. If you’re a fan of Perrotta’s work, then I don’t think you’ll be disappointed in his latest, thought-provoking story. (  )

FTC Disclosure: This book was sent to me by the publisher for review on my blog.

BOOK REVIEW: Great House by Nicole Krauss

Great House by Nicole KraussGreat House
By Nicole Krauss
Completed July 7, 2011

“…Every Jewish soul is built around a house that burned in that fire, so vast that we can, each one of us, only recall the tiniest fragment: a pattern on the wall, a knot in the wood of a door, a memory of how light fell across the floor. But if every Jewish memory were put together, every last holy fragment joined up again as one, the House would be built again…” (page 279)

Great House isn’t about a house per se. Rather, it’s the story of  people with a deep and tormented history – who individually represent a sliver of their collective past, but together, form a congruous whole. In this story, a desk is the connecting theme – an assuming piece of furniture that began in the office of a Jewish man in Budapest and made its way around the world, touching and affecting the lives of many people.

In this story, we meet a writer who lives in New York, an antiques dealer and his family from Jerusalem, a retired prosecutor and his son from Israel and a British couple. With one exception, the desk spends time with each person – often carrying good luck but painful memories too. As the story progressed, you follow the journey of the desk and the people who sat at it. In time, you see the other connections between each one.

Nicole Krauss is a gifted storyteller who is not afraid to take her readers on a journey that can be complicated and arduous. Indeed, Great House is not the easiest book to read with its swirling storylines and flowery language. It requires concentration as you learn about these characters whose lives are separate but connected. Each story could stand alone, but when placed together, they evoke a deeper meaning.

Great House will probably be revered by fans of literary fiction. It would make a compelling book for discussion, especially if led by the right moderator. In the end, I am glad I took the time to read this book – and sure that I will be thinking about this story for a long time. (  )

BOOK REVIEW: Adam and Eve by Sena Jeter Naslund

Adam and Eve
By Sena Jeter Naslund
Completed September 27, 2010

I intentionally waited a few days between finishing Adam and Eve and writing this review so that I could be as objective as possible. Indeed, I hoped that waiting a few days would help me appreciate this novel as I had with other books by Sena Jeter Naslund. Despite the distance in time, I am still left with a general feeling of disappointment in Naslund’s newest effort.

Adam and Eve kept my interest, much like watching the aftermath of an accident. I shouldn’t look (or read, in this case), but I kept doing it. Why? I chalk it up to two reasons: (1) A hope that the story would get better; and (2) Wondering if the story could get any weirder. At least the latter came true.

Lucy was the widow of a man who found scientific evidence about alien life forms. She accepts an offer to smuggle ancient and controversial texts out of Egypt to France. Little did she realize that a group called Ingenuity was after her and the texts. Her plane crashes in an Eden-like place already inhabited by a deranged American soldier who conveniently was named Adam. He takes care of Lucy and eventually helps her finish her mission.

Blech. I can’t even make the summary sound tantalizing.

Perhaps Naslund was flexing her creative muscles with this story, but I think she strayed from her talent as a historic storyteller. Leave the religious texts, alien theories and love stories to Dan Brown, Mary Doria Russell and Nicholas Sparks, and go back to what you excel at – writing beautiful historic novels. ( )

This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

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