Archive for April, 2011

Review: Killer

KillerKiller by Stephen Carpenter
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Weird and trippy and clever and an unsettling surprise, this was a gritty and dark book that for some reason I could NOT put down.

Jack Rhodes goes on a terrible bender after his fiancee’s suicide and does not get sober until fifteen months later, when he wakes up in the hospital as a suspect in a murder. He cannot remember anything that’s happened to him during his months as a besotted drunk, and is fortunately cleared of the murder before he gets out of the hospital.

After getting his life back to some semblance of normal again, he deals with the pain of his loss and shame by writing. Constantly writing, and the book he later publishes (called “Killer”) just pours out of him. It is a murder mystery, and quickly turns into a series of three books, dealing with a mysterious and elusive serial killer who targets young women, and the main character in the books is a police detective whose character is eerily reminiscent of Jack’s dead fiancee.

Life gets easier for Jack after his books become wildly popular bestsellers. He is recognized on airplanes, made rich through the sales of the novels, and is even working on a fourth and final installment where, his publisher promises, he’ll reveal Killer’s true identity once and for all.

But one day, he’s summoned back to California from his new home in Vermont. The police there have uncovered a body in a shallow grave. Her name is Beverly Grace – eerily similar to the name of the victim in Jack’s first novel: Grace Beverly. Other details mirror his book. But it’s not a copycat murder: this one happened BEFORE Jack’s first book was published.

In a frantic journey across the country, Jack visits the scenes of his other two books and finds that each holds another murder nearly identical to those in his books, but which were committed before the books were published. He even knows things the police never released to the public. Soon there is a manhunt for Jack, who fears he is losing his mind, knowing he’s innocent but not knowing how that could even be possible.

I thought this was a terrific plot, twisted and dark, wholly surprising and remarkably well developed. Although the last couple of chapters seemed a bit predictable, the rest of the book was a compelling and disturbing read. I got this one on Amazon.com at a ridiculously low price; probably the best bang for my reading buck this year.

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Review: The Shoeless Kid

The Shoeless KidThe Shoeless Kid by Marcelle Dube
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Well-written, workmanlike police procedural with a strong female lead character. Not terribly deep, not overly involved, but a well-paced and tidy novel. Honestly, that’s about all I can come up with – it was a decent book, just…unremarkable?

The novel is set in Manitoba, in a city called Mendenhall. The new female chief of police (whose name I’ve already forgotten!) is having a rough time gaining a foothold in her new job, after transferring there from Toronto. She has lived with the shame of not apprehending a child’s kidnapper on a routine traffic stop many years before, and when that child later turned up dead, she blamed herself for years. Although the case died down, everything came back up when she applied for a promotion in Toronto.

Rather than live with the resurrected scandal, she applies for and is given the position in Manitoba. When a child is apparently abducted in her new city, she struggles to deal with the case, giving it more attention than others think is healthy, in an attempt to assuage her guilt over the case deep in her past.

(Promotional Galley courtesy of NetGalley; expected publication in June 2011)

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Review: Rules of Civility: A Novel

Rules of Civility: A NovelRules of Civility: A Novel by Amor Towles
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“Rules of Civility” starts out on New Year’s Eve in New York, 1937. Two friends, Eve and Kate, are out on the town and meet a well-heeled and bespoke gentleman in a jazz club and they strike up an unlikely friendship. He’s obviously from money, and the two twenty-something women are working in secretarial pools, living in a boarding house and trying to get by as cheaply in life as possible.

Over the course of a year, they deepen their friendship with Tinker Grey and their lives become inextricably enmeshed through tragedy and recovery, regret and disillusionment.

“Rules of Civility” shows how surface impressions can mean so little, and gives a wonderful insight into the way people are able to invent and reinvent themselves. The vignettes of New York City and society in the late 1930s are fascinating and the characters in this book are some of the most deeply affecting I’ve read in a long time.

I received this as an advance review copy from the publisher – it comes out in July 2011 and I’d advise you to pre-order it. It’s that good.

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Review: Miss Timmins’ School for Girls

Miss Timmins' School for GirlsMiss Timmins’ School for Girls by Nayana Currimbhoy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I expected this book to be a whodunnit set in India in 1974; the description seemed to indicate a boarding-school book set in a time of social upheaval.

What I didn’t expect was such an intense and complicated set of characters, the clash of Indian caste culture with British boarding-school rules.

Charu Apte is a Brahmin girl who graduates from college and wants to be a teacher. Her parents reluctantly agree because they know the prospects for her to marry are slim to none, due to a disfiguring mark on her face. She gives up her dream of teaching in Bombay, due to her parents’ insistence that she instead go somewhere safe. She ends up at an anachronistic boarding school in a district of mountains in India where she is part of a group of misfit teachers and locals who don’t exactly fit in with the proper British teachers of the institution.

Charu befriends a local eccentric and a strange teacher with terrible secrets. When one of her friends is found dead at the base of a cliff, Charu finds herself suspected, along with multiple others. Suspicions and gossip and scandal break loose throughout the village and follow the principal players for far too long.

This is not a tidily summed up book, and along the way with the mystery, we follow Charu’s breaking away from social mores of her family, the modernization of her culture, her experimentation with sex, drugs and rock and roll, and how she tries to forget her disfigurement.

This was an intense, fascinating book that I could NOT put down. I literally read the entire book in one day, curled up in a chair as it rained outside, almost imagining I was in the middle of the monsoons. This is a transporting, captivating and unsettling book. I was fortunate to read an advance copy; the book will be released June 21st. Another one I suggest you pre-order!

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Review: Tom Thumb: The Remarkable True Story of a Man in Miniature

Tom Thumb: The Remarkable True Story of a Man in MiniatureTom Thumb: The Remarkable True Story of a Man in Miniature by George Sullivan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Meh…it was okay. I received an advance galley from the publisher and the formatting was nutty so it was difficult to look past that.

Having gotten that out of the way, I found the story interesting. I had no prior knowledge of this character from history, how P.T. Barnum made him famous and how he traveled the world.

The book read like a school report, with little insight into the characters, little attempt by the author to inject any humanity into any of the subjects. It appears this author has cranked out many books this way, and that’s fine. I just recall reading Darin Strauss’s excellent “Chang and Eng: A Novel” based on the lives of Chang and Eng Bunker, the original Siamese Twins. The book conveyed all the life events of these men but made it compelling and vivid, in a way that let the reader stand right next to the characters during the story.

This book seemed to be not much more than a dry recitation of facts in chronological order, accompanied by photos. And hey, that’s fine. But with such wildly amazing subject matter, there was a lot more room for creativity here.

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Review: Home to Woefield: A Novel

Home to Woefield: A NovelHome to Woefield: A Novel by Susan Juby
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I don’t even know how to begin describing how much I adored this book.

Prudence Burns, a failed writer living in Brooklyn (her young adult novel was poorly received because it was filled with earnest young people talking about global warming) inherits a ramshackle farm in Canada from an uncle she’s never met. Arriving there, she meets Earl, the hired man; Seth, a 21-year-old unemployed heavy metal blogger living across the road; and Sara, an 11-year-old poultry aficionado. Each character in turn narrates the story of Prudence’s attempts to revive Woefield farm.

First off, the story is hilarious, and each character’s take on things is unique and brilliantly narrated. Other authors have attempted alternating narrators, but Susan Juby strikes the perfect tone with each character, their “voices” distinct and vivid. Prudence is an energetic, uber-positive idealist who gives every single person the benefit of the doubt. Earl thinks everyone in the world is crazy. Seth has been locked in his mother’s house in his bedroom with Black Sabbath flags for curtains, writing a blog and drinking steadily since a terrible public humiliation incident involving his high school drama teacher, a production of Jesus Christ Superstar and someone’s cellphone camera. Sara escapes her family’s fighting by visiting her flock of chickens, who are being boarded at Prudence’s farm. The four characters, complete misfits from society, form a weird but strong bond over time.

Prudence finds out that it is possible to inherit a negative asset, and has to find a way to bring the farm’s accounts current with the bank. Seth jokes that she could turn it into an addictions treatment center, and the rumor takes wing before Prudence can stop it. Someone else decides she will offer writing workshops, which horrifies her because of the poor reviews she received for her one novel. There is a half-shorn sheep on the farm (Uncle Harold, before he died, believed a sheep needed to be shorn in stages, to get accustomed to its haircut) who is suffering from depression, a farmer’s market looming wherein Prudence hopes to showcase her many varieties of radishes, and it becomes obvious to everyone but Prudence that she is in over her head.

“Home to Woefield” is a fish-out-of-water story that defies nearly every cliche of the genre: it is truly funny without making the main character look like a complete fool (just a little bit of one), and it is a multiple narrator book that actually goes to the trouble of making each voice unique (as opposed to a Jodi Picoult novel I read where the only way you could tell there was a different narrator was that they changed the FONT. I kid you not. DIFFERENT FONTS).

Memorable Quotes:
Seth: “You know how I said my aunt is a bigger lady? Well, my mom’s always been the opposite. There’s nothing to her. She’s basically an angry bit of gristle covered in leathery smoker’s skin.”

Prudence (speaking about Seth): “When he made it into the house I asked if he wanted some of the salad I’d made for dinner. ‘It’s been a pretty tough day,’ he said. ‘No sense making it worse with salad.'”

Earl: “I didn’t know whether to sh*t or brush my hair.”

There were many times I had to put this book down because I was laughing so hard I cried. Love, love, love this book!

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Review: Skinny: A Novel

Skinny: A Novel (P.S.)Skinny: A Novel by Diana Spechler
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Gray Lachmann is spending the summer at a “fat camp” run by a spectacularly unqualified charlatan who hires other unqualified people to help him get obese youth to “surrender to my program!” Gray is there to get to know one of the campers, who isn’t aware that she and Gray have a link in the past that ties them together.

The story, narrated from 27-year-old Gray’s point of view, is emotional, hilarious, and raw. In minute and perfect detail, she describes emotional eating, body perception, and the feelings of loss after the death of a loved one. The characters in the book are vividly drawn, from Sheena, the popular and manipulative camp counselor to Harriet, the withdrawn avoider of personal hygiene.

The story goes from Gray’s life in New York with her comedian boyfriend through her summer at the camp, and its far-reaching complications for everyone she meets. I really enjoyed this book.

 

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