April 30, 2006

Oh My Stars

Oh My Stars by Lorna Landvik
Contemporary Fiction
Finished on 4/29/06
Rating: A+ (Superb!)

It seems like it's been a long time since I've given a novel a perfect A+ rating, but Lorna Landvik's Oh My Stars is certainly well-deserving of the honor. I thoroughly enjoyed the entire book and can't think of a single negative thing to say about it.

Oh My Stars is a charming story (set in the Great Depression) of a young girl named Violet who is befriended by two young musicians in North Dakota, who wind up saving her life and ultimately show her that hopes and dreams really can come true. Landvik's endearing characters come to life as they search for love and happiness, and even with a foreboding sense of tragedy, this character-driven novel is heartwarming and unpredictable. I rarely ever listen to audio books, but I have a feeling this might be one to try, especially if the music of the Pearltones can somehow be included.

I was fortunate to meet Ms. Landvik at a small book conference in Cleveland in 1998. Not only is she a talented writer, but she's extremely funny and the sort of person I'd love for a neighbor. I've read all her novels, with the exception of Tall Pine Polka, (which I own, but haven't felt inspired to read). I rarely read books by the same author so close together, but Oh My Stars was a great book and I can't stop thinking about it, already missing the characters as I would after a visit from an old family friend. Alright, I've just convinced myself to put Tall Pine Polka at the top of my TBR (To Be Read) stack. Stay tuned!

NOTE: As I wrote this review, I came to the realization that I always hesitate to disclose too much about a book. While I enjoy sharing my thoughts and opinions, I don't ever wish to give anything away or even simply spoil the pleasure of discovering an evocative scene or passage. There are all sorts of editorial reviews and book jacket blurbs at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.com, if you want more information about a particular book. I'm just here to share my feelings about what I've read.

Mind Prey

Mind Prey by John Sandford
Finished on 4/25/06
Rating: A- (8/10 Very Good)

I enjoyed this so much more than the last Lucas Davenport mystery (Night Prey). Sandford delves a bit more into Davenport’s personal life and the supporting characters (Sloan, Lester, Greave and Roux) were more actively involved in the narrative than in the past few “Prey” books. In this particular mystery, psychiatrist Andi Manette and her two young daughters, Grace and Genevieve, are abducted in broad daylight, just outside of the girls’ school. Sandford’s pacing keeps the pages flying and I found myself holding my breath as Lucas finally solved the mystery, just in the knick of time.

Summer in Tuscany

Summer in Tuscany by Elizabeth Adler
Contemporary Fiction
Finished on 4/20/06
Rating: A- (8/10 Very Good)

What if we went to Italy
A suitcase of books and one bag a piece for the summer
I don't speak a word of Italian
Except for Campari and soda for two, how much is a Lire
Yes, a villa will do and a breeze, in Tuscany please
What if we spent all of our days,
improving our minds, learning new ways to be lazy
It wouldn't be too much of a strain
Relax after breakfast till lunch comes around
Can't wait for dinner, oh, I need to lie down
And refuel, out by the pool
What if the ancients were lazy like us
Too blissed out to paint, to sketch or to sculpt
Just as relaxed as the tower of Pisa
Not ever missing that old Mona Lisa
What if we never got back on the plane
As summer turned colder and then warmer again
Losing all track of the passing of years
Till it no longer mattered how long we'd been here
What if we went to Italy
Maybe next year, just you and me for the summer
I still can't speak any Italian
But words are replaced under Siennese skies
By nothing so much as a nod, and a sigh,
and a wish to be always like this

What If We Went To Italy is one of my all-time favorite songs by Mary Chapin Carpenter. I would love nothing more than to pack a bag of books and spend a month in villa in Italy. Until then, books like Elizabeth Adler’s Summer in Tuscany will just have to suffice. I thoroughly enjoyed this light & breezy read that made my mouth water for delicious Italian cooking and my heart long for the beautiful countryside and art found in the museums and piazzas. I immediately fell into the narrative, quickly engrossed in Gemma Jericho’s crazy life (as an ER doctor) with her 14-year-old daughter, Livvie, and elderly mother as they left the hustle and bustle of New York City for the calm, relaxing hills of Tuscany, returning to Nonna’s childhood home to sort out a mysterious inheritance.

This isn’t a great work of literature (the daughter’s voice, full of “like” and “y’know” seemed a tad bit overdone), yet I hesitate to say it’s simply a romance, either. It’s more like a bit of brain candy or fluff that borders on the romance side (a la Danielle Steele), but with a little more substance. But just barely. It’s fairly predictable, but not so much that I was annoyed. Gemma reminded me a bit of Janet Evanovich’s klutzy bounty hunter, Stephanie Plum, providing several laugh-out-loud passages that kept the story from becoming too sappy and sentimental.

I love discovering a new author and am anxious to take another armchair vacation with one of Adler’s heroines. I have Invitation to Provence in my stacks and can’t wait to read it this summer. Meanwhile, I plan to hang on to Summer in Tuscany for future reference. The author has spent a lot of time in Italy and although the village she writes about doesn’t exist, many of the restaurants, shops, hotels and tourist attractions are real.

If you’re looking for an entertaining “feel good” book to help escape the rainy days of spring, I recommend Summer in Tuscany. And perhaps to set the mood, a nice glass of wine and Mary Chapin Carpenter playing in the background. Ciao!

April 28, 2006

We Are All Welcome Here

We Are All Welcome Here by Elizabeth Berg
Contemporary Fiction
Finished on 4/15/06
Rating: B (6/10 So-so)

I’ve been reading Elizabeth Berg’s novels for over a decade. I always get excited when I hear she has a new book coming out, anxious to meet her characters, who almost always feel like people I know (or want to know). I’ve read every novel she’s written and will continue to do so, but unfortunately, Berg’s new novel failed to deliver and was a big disappointment. I suppose 1 in 15 isn’t too bad, but I certainly wasn’t prepared for the letdown.

Usually with a book of Berg’s, I’m torn between not wanting to put it down and not wanting it to end. However, they’re so enjoyable I tend to gulp them down, easily in a day or two. Many times I’ve saved a new purchase for a few weeks or so, just so I could have it to read on a long flight. They’re easy to get involved in and the time passes quickly. We Are All Welcome Here was a quick read, but it’s probably safe to say that it’s my least favorite of all of her books. The characters failed to come to life and I never felt an emotional attachment to any of them (very rare for me with her books). The plot didn’t interest me nearly as much as some of her others (Talk Before Sleep; Ordinary Life; The Year of Pleasures), yet in spite of the unbelievable ending, I did come to care about the characters toward the end of the book and actually wound up enjoying the last few chapters. But overall it just wasn’t very good. I never felt that “Berg” connection I’ve come to know when I read one of her books. I can almost always say that it feels like she’s stepped into my world and knows exactly how I feel about an issue. Not this time. And such a pretty cover! Sigh.

Note: I didn’t give much thought to the preface, but having read the book, I believe Ms. Berg should’ve trusted her instincts and not taken a reader’s suggestion for a story idea. It’s the only time she’s ever done just that and I think maybe that’s why this particular novel failed to impress me (and several other Berg fans).

Or maybe she just had an off year. I’m sure it happens to even the best of writers. I certainly won’t let this one mediocre novel put me off. Berg has another book due out in November and, as always, I’m planning to buy it as soon as it’s released. Hmmm, I wonder if I can convince my wonderful husband that I need to book a trip to Italy for the holidays! Or at least somewhere far away so I can take The Handmaid and the Carpenter along for the plane ride.

April 15, 2006

Night Prey

Night Prey by John Sandford
Finished on 4/12/06
Rating: C (3/10 Ho-hum)

Number six in the Prey series and quite disappointing. Sandford’s plots have become stale and even Lucas Davenport failed to entertain me this time around. I had a tough time staying interested and almost gave up a couple of times. If I weren’t so curious about Davenport’s personal life, I’d quit and move on to another mystery series. Unfortunately, I read the last in this particular series first and can’t quit now. I have to see how Davenport wound up where he is today.

Plain Truth

Plain Truth by Jodi Picoult
Contemporary Fiction
Finished on 4/9/06
Rating: A- (8/10 Very Good)

I’ve read over half a dozen books by Jodi Picoult and with the exception of one (Vanishing Acts), each has been a spellbinding page-turner that has entertained me up to the very last paragraph. I enjoy the suspense of her courtroom dramas and find Picoult’s scenes well-written and believable. In Plain Truth, an 18-year-old Amish girl is accused of killing her newborn baby, whom she denies even giving birth to. As the truth is slowly revealed, her attorney comes to learn, firsthand, what it’s like to live “plain” on an Amish dairy farm in Paradise, Pennsylvania.

There are six more books by Picoult that I have yet to read. What a treat to look forward to!

April 10, 2006

Lost in the Forest

Lost in the Forest by Sue Miller
Contemporary Fiction
Finished on 4/4/06
Rating: B+ (7/10 Good)

I had no idea what this book was about when I picked it up last month. I rarely read book reviews (too many spoilers) and oftentimes don’t even read the book blurb on the back cover or inside flap. I heard about the book when it first came out and knew that it was something I’d like to read (I’ve read and enjoyed several other books by Miller), but by the time I got a copy, I’d long forgotten the reason for my interest. I must say I was a bit surprised to see that, once again, I’d wound up with a book dealing with grief.

Miller reminds me a bit of Elizabeth Berg. She articulates her thoughts on marriage, family and love in such a way that I find myself nodding my head in agreement, finding comfort in the validation of my own feelings, especially those still-fresh feelings of grief. I found myself slowing down, re-reading passages, trying to savor each and every sentence. I was immediately drawn into the drama, as Eva (and her children) learned to cope with the unexpected loss of her husband.

As I read, I began to think that this book would wind up in my Top Ten for the year. It had all the ingredients of a great book – engaging from the first page, passages worthy of jotting down (or dog-earing the page), likeable characters, and a beautifully described setting (Napa Valley). But about halfway in, the plot took a dramatic turn and my enthusiasm (if not my interest) began to wane. This certainly wasn’t the great book I thought it’d be, but it wasn’t a bad read, either. I guess I just wish it had more to do with Eva and her new life and working in her bookstore and less of Daisy and the drama that unfolded in her life. I also feel that some of the main characters (Emily and Mark) became less important to the narrative in the second half, whereas they were front and center (with Eva, Daisy and Theo) in the beginning.

Over all, this is a book I’d like to keep for a possible re-read. As I mentioned, there were a few passages that resonated with me personally and perhaps now that I know how the story ends, I won’t be quite as disappointed when I give it a second reading.

Favorite Passages:

“Eva was reading. She had only recently begun to be able to read again, whole books – this had been impossible for almost a year. Now she looked forward to it. The book, waiting in the living room after she got Theo down. Waiting at her bedside. The circle of light falling over the white bedsheets, the subtle smell of the paper. Wanting just another chapter, and then, perhaps, another. Wanting something she could so easily have. When it had been gone, she hadn’t been able to miss it – she was too taken up with grief. But now that it had returned to her, she was grateful to this old love – books, the words – for coming back, for reminding her of the possibility of pleasure, of anticipation. Of being transported out of her own life into others.” (p. 143 hardcover)


“But relief came in this case, wanted or not. As the process went on, as Eva took the first steps toward recovering from her sense of having lost everything, as she was more able to spend sometimes a whole day without being swept by sorrow, then she began to grieve for her very grief, her letting go of John. She didn’t want to let go of him! She didn’t want to speak lovingly and in the past tense of him. She didn’t want to not be furious at his death, at how he had died…

A normal day, a day in which she didn’t weep, in which she wasn’t felled by rage or sorrow, was like a betrayal of what had happened to him.

But they came, the normal days, more and more of them, and by degrees they stole her grief from her – her last connection to John, she felt then.” (p. 22-23)

April 1, 2006

Thale's Folly

Thale's Folly by Dorothy Gilman
Finished on 3/31/06
Rating: B+ (7/10 Good)

I can’t remember the first time I heard about Dorothy Gilman and her Mrs. Polifax series, but somewhere recently I stumbled upon Thale’s Folly (not part of the Polifax series) and thought I’d give it a go. This is a perfect rainy-day “cozy” (read: gentle mystery) that was delightfully entertaining. No blood and guts. No child-porn rings. No serial murderers. Just a simple mystery with charming characters (with enchanting names no less - Gussie, Miss L’Hommedieu, Leo and Tarragon) and wonderful descriptions, both of setting and characters. A bit predictable, yet not so much as to spoil the story. Now I’m anxious to get in to the Mrs. Polifax series. When did I become such a mystery lover?? They're so much fun!

Domestic Pleasures

Domestic Pleasures by Beth Gutcheon
Contemporary Fiction
Finished on 3/30/06
Rating: B+ (7/10 Good)

After my previous read (Winter Prey by John Sandford), I decided to switch gears and pick something light and fluffy. I think I need more of a middle ground. I went from serial killers and child-porn rings to a bona fide soap opera. It took several chapters and lots of flipping back and forth before I finally got a handle on the confusing cast of characters. Gutcheon weaves a tangled web of intersecting lives with various family members and friends of friends crossing paths in New York City. The story was entertaining enough, but at times a bit predictable and far-fetched (I’ve never known or heard of anyone with a sixteen-year-old son or daughter as perfect as Jack!). All in all it was a satisfying read, particularly since I wasn’t expecting great literature. Easily read in a weekend, fans of Patricia Gaffney (The Saving Graces), Luanne Rice (Cloud Nine), and Kristin Hannah (Between Sisters) will most likely enjoy this “beach read.”

Winter Prey

Winter Prey by John Sandford

Finished on 3/27/06
Rating: B+ (7/10 Good)

After reading the reviews at Amazon, I’ve decided I’m in the minority. Of the five books read, this has been my least favorite in John Sandford’s “Prey” series. I had a tough time keeping all the new characters straight and found the first half a bit slow. The pace picked up considerably toward the last third of the book and I was anxious to see if I had nailed the killer’s identity. In his previous mysteries, Sandford gives the reader this information early on, allowing one to watch the action of both the killer and Detective Lucas Davenport. However, this time the identity was withheld and I had fun working through the details and logic and actually figured out who the killer was!

I can’t say that I’ve enjoyed any of the particulars of the murders in these mysteries, but the premise for this particular book was even more disturbing than usual (it involved a child-porn ring) and left me with an overwhelming desire to take a long hot shower. Unfortunately, if you’re like me and have to read each and every book in a series (and in the proper order, of course), you probably shouldn’t skip Winter Prey as a very important new friend of Davenport’s is introduced.

It’s always a bonus when I pick up a bit of trivia or learn something from my current read and I have to say I’ve come to the realization that I never want to live where it gets down to negative 30 on a regular basis! Yet another reason I kept longing for that long, hot shower.