Monday, June 30, 2008

California dreaming

I learned after I finished The Ruins of California that it actually started out as a memoir, and then Martha Sherrill discovered some secret she could neither print nor leave out. I'm not sure whether I would have read it differently if I had known there was some autobiography to the novel -- I suspected as much anyway, when I read that both the author and her protagonist were raised in Los Angeles. Inez, the narrator and main character, tells us about her life split between her mother, a former flamenco dancer, and her bachelor father, with his revolving door of girlfriends and man-on-the-town lifestyle. I found it a little slow going at the very beginning but soon became completely absorbed in Inez's coming of age. For most of the book's 10-year span, she straddles a fascinating border of exposure to the free-living California of the '70s and her own innocence, which I suppose is common to any teenager in any time or place. Sherrill's novel is fast-paced enough to hold the reader's interest while being entirely character driven; the story really is simply Inez's development from child to young adult, though the culture of California at the time is captured here as well.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Strange perspectives

Two of-an-evening books, thanks to stormy evenings that kept us inside. The Heroines, by Eileen Favorite, has a fantastic premise: a young mother and her daughter run a bed and breakfast that is visited by heroines from classic literature -- Ophelia, Catherine Earnshaw, Hester Prynne, and more. That aspect of the book was very fun, but the plot itself drifted too much from that premise, with the daughter ending up in a mental ward for a large chunk of the book, a section I did not enjoy at all. That section felt forced, as if the author wanted too much reality infused into a novel that was so well grounded in fantasy. The rest of the book, while it had its moments, wasn't quite enough to make up for that.

Vendela Vida's first novel, And Now You Can Go, also has an intriguing premise. A man holds a young woman at gunpoint in New York's Riverside Park, only to disappear and leave her to deal with the shock. I really enjoy Vida's writing style, with short, quick-changing scenes that somehow flow seamlessly together. The story, however, lost me a bit -- I just wasn't quite sure what it was supposed to mean, or if it simply was what it was. Her second novel, Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name, was a much better story and used her writing style to better effect.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The quick and the mysterious

It's a mystery in which sheep are the detectives. It's got to be good. Indeed, Three Bags Full lives up to its whimsical promise, without every being silly. Leonie Swann's novel is plenty amusing (I even laughed out loud twice), but she's also quite serious and respectful toward her sheepy characters. And characters they are -- each with a distinct personalities that I can actually imagine sheep having. I highly recommend this one, especially if you've ever enjoyed an Agatha Christie mystery.

Alison Larkin's The English American is quite a bit sillier, but without any sheep. It's a very quick read and probably fits the chick lit category. This is an enjoyable book, but it doesn't have a lot of depth to it -- quite predictable, with rather stereotypical characters. Certainly not an unpleasant way to pass an afternoon, but nothing exceptional.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Of dreams and things

The Invention of Everything Else is one of those books that I ought to have enjoyed more than I did. Samantha Hunt's dreamlike writing is beautiful, her characters well drawn, and her plot intriguing, but it just lost me somewhere toward the end. I loved Louisa and her part of the story, but Tesla's memories were touched just a bit too much with that essential fogginess of memory. The way Hunt captured memory and its flaws is one of the things most enjoyable and most frustrating about the book -- I wanted more understanding, yet clearly it was meant to be vague. Really, I would certainly recommend this book, even though it didn't work for me. Maybe more of a wintertime read?

Monday, June 16, 2008

Floating among generations

I picked this slim paperback up entirely because of the poetic title and exceptionally lovely cover. Apparently, A Yellow Raft in Blue Water is considered a classic, to the point that it has its own SparkNotes. But I went into Michael Dorris' novel with no knowledge or expectation, and I was most pleasantly surprised. The story is told in turn by three generations of women, beginning with the youngest, who also has the largest part of the story. The book braids their experiences as Native Americans and more simply as people trying to find a place in the world when so much is working against them. I loved how the stories came together, revealing different pieces as each character told her part. An entirely memorable book -- thank goodness for judging by cover!

Thursday, June 12, 2008

High society

It's a rare book that makes me want to sit still and keep reading and at the same time not want to finish. The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets so thoroughly engulfed me in its world that I hated to let it go. To me, Eva Rice's novel feels like what would have happened if Jane Austen had been writing about 1950s England -- it's replete with society parties, courtship, beautiful country homes, and young ladies negotiating the realms of propriety. Jane Austen, of course, never imagined American socialites or the likes of Elvis Presley, but this is what might have happened if she had. The Lost Art was such a fun book, without ever feeling silly or brain-candy-esque -- Penelope and her cohorts are much to smart for that.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

In short

I've finished two books I really enjoyed, and yet I have very little to say about either. I think it's the heat -- I'd rather sit still and read than sit at the computer and type. But here goes...

The Girl With No Shadow was published originally as The Lollipop Shoes, and I don't actually think either title works all that well. But Joanne Harris' continuation of the story from Chocolat does work very well. In this novel, she gives voices to three characters who alternate telling the story. It's a classic battle of good and evil, but with magical and fairy tale elements added in -- and, of course, plenty of chocolate.

In The Lady Elizabeth, Alison Weir takes her impressive historical knowledge and research to breathe life into Elizabeth I's coming of age. The story takes Elizabeth from the death of her mother to her becoming queen. It relies on the facts, as Weir did in Innocent Traitor, but it also adds plenty of fictional elements and intrigue. Weir's historical fiction feels so much more intelligent than many of the others out there, thanks to her background as a historian.

Monday, June 2, 2008

There in the midst of it so alive and alone / words support like bone

It's obvious that Mercy is one of Jodi Picoult's earlier novels. It doesn't have her characteristic twist, and the characters aren't quite as developed as they are in her later works. But Mercy does fit her formula well: timely, complicated issues; alternating perspectives; a trial at the end to wind things up. As I've said before, Picoult is the comfort food of books -- just what you need every once in a while.

I don't normally comment on books I didn't finish, but since I made it through a good 300 pages of Michael Gruber's The Book of Air and Shadows, I thought it would be fair to say why I gave it up. First, it felt to me like Gruber was working way too hard to write something physically heavy: Too many digressions, most of which were relevant but also could have been pared down considerably, and much too much of the "primary source" material, which was unbearable to read. For an authentic primary source, I'll fight my way through the strange spellings and whatnot, but for fiction? And especially for a fictional primary source that, as part of the plot, already had to be transcribed once from an early style of writing, just transfer it to modern English already. The story itself was interesting but a little too much in line with The DaVinci Code and the millions of others like it -- it's been done.