Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Ghosts and monsters

In Lauren Groff's The Monsters of Templeton, the main character, Willie Upton, sets herself on a quest through her family's history, which is also her small town's history. The book mingles Willie's story of coming home to her small town with different pieces of (fictionalized) historical evidence -- letters, first-person narratives, old books. At the same time, the town is dealing with the surprising sense of loss after its lake's monster dies.

Sounds complicated? It all works amazingly well, thanks to Groff's writing. I loved Willie Upton, despite finding her entirely unsympathetic at points, and I'm a sucker for quirky small town folks (Gilmore Girls or Haven Kimmel, anyone?). But Groff's story is never predictable or expected -- the characters and their histories are much too real and developed for that. For various reasons, it took me a while to read this book, but I found myself thinking of the characters often when I wasn't reading it. I almost wish there was a sequel -- I'd love to see where their lives go next.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Matters of the heart

Change of Heart is typical Jodi Picoult -- the book equivalent of comfort food. She uses her usual shifts between characters, tackles timely moral issues, and throws in a courtroom and a twist toward the end. The plot itself is complicated enough -- a death-row inmate wants to donate his heart to the girl whose father and sister he killed. But then Picoult brings in an even more complicated religious element that, in my opinion, was a little too much. Shay didn't need to be a Jesus figure for me to consider his rights -- his humanity was enough, especially the way the case was presented. It just seemed like overkill, which made the book not as strong as some of Picoult's others. I also wanted more from the mother, June -- her character was rarely present and seemed not as well drawn as others. At some points in the book, her absence worked well, but at others I needed to hear more from her. And the title is just a little too punny, but that's typical Picoult too, so I'll let it slide. Let's call Change of Heart meatloaf that's a tiny bit too dry -- still comforting, still awfully tasty, but not quite perfect.

Monday, March 10, 2008

What's love got to do with it?

In The Senator's Wife, Sue Miller intertwines the story of recently married and newly pregnant Meri with that of her next-door neighbor (and the title character) Delia. The novel moves between the two women, with a heavier focus on Delia, whose complicated relationship with her womanizing husband fascinates both Meri and the reader. In fact, despite disbelief from so many of the characters, Delia's love and forgiveness of Tom was much more believable and understandable than Meri and Nathan's relationship. They seemed quite mismatched, and I found myself disliking Meri in many places, especially in contrast to Delia -- the younger woman was just a little too selfish and too whiny, though I understand that worked beautifully against Delia's elegant generosity and contained emotions. The book was compelling and well-paced, but not anything to rave about.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The girl who kept reading

Both of Joshilyn Jackson's books that I've read have had the same effect on me: I thoroughly enjoy them while I'm reading them, but they don't stick with me at all once I'm done. (As proof, I always have trouble remembering the first of her books I read, even when I have the titles in front of me. It was Gods in Alabama.) The Girl Who Stopped Swimming is a fast-paced, engrossing novel, and I think it does have more depth than some plot-oriented books. There's a mystery element to it that really digs at the idea of who we all are on the inside, and the unraveling of that mystery was unexpected and thought-provoking. While I didn't particularly like the characters, I found them generally believable and entirely human -- flawed, interesting, occasionally really strange. My only real complaints are Thalia's name (too obvious -- the parents just happened to choose that name for the daughter who happened to be drawn to the theater?) and the bit of jacket copy that refers to a "literal" family skeleton. Let's look up words before tossing them around, shall we?

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Revisiting Heaven

Pigs in Heaven is Barbara Kingsolver's sequel to The Bean Trees, which is my favorite of her books and possibly my favorite book ever. In The Bean Trees, we meet the fabulous characters of Taylor and Turtle Greer, along with a host of other quirky yet wholly real people. Pigs in Heaven continues the stories of many of those people and adds in a few more, this time giving more attention to Taylor's mother, Alice. Kingsolver's writing always works to promote social justice and environmental awareness, and some readers perceive this as preachy. While I wouldn't call it preachy, Pigs in Heaven does get a bit too dragged down into teaching us what is right, and at the same time it wraps things up just a little too neatly -- that said, the ending still made me cry. When I read it the first time, I loved this book, and thought it's not as strong as some of her other fiction, it remains enjoyable and satisfying.