Thursday, May 6, 2010

Spotlight on: Every Last One

Dear blog, you've been neglected. The bookishness around here has been kind of lacking lately due to lack of time, food poisoning, and dull books. Just as I was a few months back, I've been setting books aside right and left. I'll read half the book and think 'Whatever. I'm so done with this.' and never go back. It's freeing, but leaves me little to say here.

This all leads me to a book that I plowed through last week, Every Last One: A Novelby Anna Quindlen. I even cried during the last 20 pages. I have to be honest here, I was already feeling weepy having just watched the film My Sister's Keeper (why oh why did they change the ending??) but still, I rarely cry at books. I go way back with Anna Quindlen, back to another film, One True Thing and the book it was based on by Quindlen. I cried then too. Over the years I'm pretty sure I've read all of Quindlen's novels, her essays in Newsweek and her excellent non-fiction book about her love of reading. Until now, none of her novels have resonated with me in the way One True Thing did.

Every Last One is the story of Mary Beth and her family, husband Glen, daughter Ruby, and twin sons Max and Alex. Mary Beth lives the good-kind-of-ordinary life. It's stable and centered on her family, a little bit dull and ordinary though this family has had their problems and they are serious ones. Thus the first half of the novel passes, as we get to know this family, yet all the time we wait because we know that Something is going to happen. Something does happen and it's utterly horrifying and life-changing. The rest of the novel deals with the aftermath and how Mary Beth finds a way to go on. Brilliant writing aside, Quindlen is able to evoke human emotions in a very true and honest way. Every Last One is a devastating but excellent read.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Spotlight on: Hearts and Minds

Ohhh, it's a busy week here at Chez Books and Cooks. Did you know my daughter is a performance artist? It's true. She's performing 5 times this week complete with hair, makeup, and costume in front of hundreds of people. That makes me chauffeur extraordinaire leaving me with little free time.

Back to the books. Once Amanda Craig's Hearts and Minds was longlisted for the Orange Prize I started seeing it around. And around. I'd read a couple of Craig's books in the past and remembered them as likable but not especially memorable. I thought this might be her Big Book, so I ordered it and began reading it approximately 3 minutes after it arrived. It's really something.

Hearts and Minds is a book about immigration in present day London. Craig focuses on 5 characters whose lives intertwine in various ways. British Born Polly is a human rights lawyer. Job is a taxi driver from Zimbabwe. Anna has arrived from the Ukraine to work as a chambermaid. Katie is an American, living on the cheap and working for a magazine. Ian is a teacher from South Africa, trying to figure out if this life is better than the one he left. Some of these people are legal, others are not. Some are being exploited and live in fear. They are all trying to make a better life for themselves yet the life they are living is not what any of them expected.

Hearts and Minds is not a happy book, in fact it's quite a heartbreaker, but it tells a very real story. While this book is set in London and feels very British, this story is taking place all over the world. These same characters could be in New York, Los Angeles, or even the Twin Cities. Craig tells her story boldly, sympathetically. She includes a body and a murder, thought this is not a murder mystery. She cleverly ends each chapter with a zinger, turning what could have been an ordinary book into a page turner. I thought it was excellent. Sadly, it didn't make the Orange shortlist and who knows if it will ever be published on this side of the pond. Either way, I encourage you to seek it out.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Worth the Wait

My husband didn't believe me last night when I told him to "Be quiet! I want to finish this book! It's a mystery! And I've been waiting for it for nearly a year!"

But it is true. I finished the fourth book in Susan Hill's Simon Serrailler crime series last May and have been waiting expectantly for book five, The Shadows in the Street ever since. I'd had it pre-ordered since October for crying out loud, and it finally arrived in the past couple of weeks. I actually tried to hold off reading it, but it didn't work.

I've written about his series before, here, here, here and here. This is not your typical mystery series. A lot of the story focuses on the people we've come to know over time and about the town they live in. Simon sometimes seems to be a secondary character in his own story! What stands out to me about these books is that the reader usually gets to know the victim before they become a victim. They are never just a nameless, faceless, victim, but a person, sometimes struggling, with a family and job and home and suddenly everything changes.

In this, the fifth installment in the series, someone is murdering prostitutes, but then the pattern changes and other women begin to disappear as well. There are a lot of other things going on, Simon's sister and father have had big changes in their lives, and a new clergyman has arrived at the cathedral who wants to make big changes not appreciated by all.

I cannot put my finger on why I enjoy this series so much. While I enjoy mysteries, it's never just about the mystery for me. I'm much more interested in the people and the setting. Being an anglophile this setting appeals to me particularly. Sadly, I have another wait ahead of me - who knows when or if another book will be forthcoming? I'll be there, ready to read it.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Big Books

You know the sort. Not just big in size, but big in breadth and depth and meaning. The sort of books referred to in this way:

This (insert name of book) is so-and-so's (insert author's name) Big Book.

I've read a couple of books like this lately. Here is what I thought of them.

Cutting for Stone (Vintage)by Abraham Verghese

It seemed like everyone in blogland was reading this in 2009 and everyone was loving it. It appeared on 'best of' lists left and right, so of course I thought I'd read it too. I couldn't possibly give you a decent summary of this book except to say: a saga of conjoined twins, born in Ethiopia and separated at birth, they are orphans and raised by physicians thus they become involved in the medical field themselves.

Cutting for Stone ticks all the boxes. Well written. Check. Political upheaval. Check. Coming of age. Check. Love triangle. Check. Detailed medical scenes. Check.

This is a book that I thought was very, very, good but it never hit that sweet spot for me. That perfect reading experience/can't put it down/totally blissed out experience that I crave and only comes along a few times a year and I was sort of expecting with this. I never felt completely emotionally invested until the very end and it wasn't enough. 4.5 stars out of 5 if you know what I mean.

Small Island: A Novelby Andrea Levy

This book won some big prizes and was recommended to me by a few people so I finally gave it a whirl. This is the story of 4 people, 2 married couples, whose lives become intertwined. The time is post-war London in 1948. Hortense and Gilbert are Jamaican immigrants. They are confounded by the fact that everyone seems to think that Jamaica is in Africa. They have come from a country where they look like everyone else to one where they can't help but stand out. Queenie is their landlord and is married to Bernard. He still hasn't come home from the war and while Queenie wonders where he is, she doesn't seem all that concerned about it. We go back in time to get to know these four souls to discover how they came to be where they are now.

Small Island grew on me. I was feeling iffy about it at the beginning, there was a fair amount of dialect/slang/improper English (sorry cannot come up with the right word here!) that I am really not a fan of reading. I worried that it would carry through the entire book but it wound up being an amount that wasn't too distracting. As I got to know the characters I liked this book more and more. I was most moved by Gilbert's story of joining the British war effort as an airman. The surprise and dismay he felt at the discrimination he experienced made my heart ache.

I thought the story flowed really well until we got to Bernard's back story. His experience of war was so jarring compared to the other stories and he was a harder character to feel warmly towards. The end of the book came together so well. It was surprising and heartbreaking, tender at times and even a bit karmically mysterious. It was a good solid read. Like Cutting for Stone, it wasn't perfect for me but still highly recommended.

In other bookish news, have you seen this?? Frightening times indeed.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

A Moment

Last week I was having one of those good reading weeks. You know, when you have a few books going, and you don't even know which to pick up because they are all good and appealing and satisfying. Unlike this week, when everything I start is just so-so. Here's what I was reading last week.

Learning to Swimby Clare Chambers

Danielle has written about Clare Chambers several times and about this book in particular once or twice. My sense from Danielle was that Clare Chambers was one of those rare authors, who combines comfort reading with real intelligence and poignancy. Knowing that my tastes are often so in line with Danielle's, I knew I had to try this author.

Learning to Swim is a coming of age story in retrospect. Cellist Abigail runs into Rad, a man she used to know years ago when she was a teenager. It's obvious they have some sort of past together and thus we go back to Abigail's girlhood. She was a lonely child and her only real friend growing up was Rad's sister Frances. Abigail loved the eccentricity and seemingly romantic life Frances' family led, so different from her own middle class existence. As we read, we get to know everyone better and then there is a turning point, Something happens, relationships are shattered, everyone moves on, eventually coming to present day and this acquaintance of Abigail and Rad.

Learning to Swim was everything I expected. Easy yet smart. Satisfying and thoughtful. I'm looking forward to reading more Clare Chambers and have already procured two more of her books.

Bleeding Heart Squareby Andrew Taylor

I won this book in Librarything's Early Reviwer's program in February of 2009. It arrived in January of 2010! Sheesh. But in this case I say, better late than never! Bleeding Heart Square is just the sort of book I like. Set in London in the 30s, it is packed with eccentric characters that are difficult to read. No one is exactly what they seem.

Lydia Langstone has left her abusive well-to-do husband to live with her down-and-out father in Bleeding Heart Square. It is definitely a step down for a lady such as herself. We also hear from another gentlewoman, Miss Philippa May Penhow, though it seems she is no longer among the living. How she and Lydia and the various characters living at Bleeding Heart Square all tie together is the heart of this tale. It's a mystery but not of the usual sort. It's much more about the characters, the setting, the relationships and how everything is connected than it is about who-done-it, though we think we know, but are we correct?? It's the sort of mystery which mystery lovers probably get annoyed with, the sort of mystery that might actually be better placed in the Literature section of the store, the sort of mystery that I actually like quite a lot.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Dutch Baby Pancake

5:30 Thursday - "I don't want to share a GIANT pancake! I just want regular pancakes! UGH!!"

6:15 Thursday - "This is gooooood! I don't like it - I love it! There isn't any more? UGH!!"

Thursday, April 8, 2010


Congratulations to JoAnn, Winner of The Season of Second Chances!

I hope you enjoy the book!