June 28, 2006

Bastard Out of Carolina

Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison
Contemporary Fiction
Quit on 6/26/06
Rating: DNF (Did Not Finish)

I decided to put this down after a little over 50 pages. Too depressing. If it wasn't an Oprah pick, I'm truly surprised.

June 18, 2006

Small Island

Small Island by Andrea Levy
Contemporary Fiction
Finished on 6/12/06
Rating: A- (8/10 Very good)

Winner of three major literary prizes in the UK - the Orange Prize for Fiction, the Whitbread Book of the Year and the Commonwealth Writer’s prize. In addition, it has been awarded the Orange ‘Best of the Best’ prize.

Long before on-line books groups and my huge TBR (to-be-read) stacks, I was determined to finish every book I started, suffering through painfully dull or poorly written novels, classics and works of nonfiction. The older I get and the more I read, the easier it’s become to quit books that fail to entertain or hold my interest.

Sometimes, however, perseverance pays off and a gem is discovered, leading me to wonder how many others I may have missed simply because I was too impatient or quick to call it quits.

Ian McEwan’s Atonement took well over 80 pages before I came to realize it was well worth every minute I’d invested leading up to that turning point, ultimately becoming my number one read for that particular year. The Life of Pi (Yann Martel) and A Thread of Grace (Mary Doria Russell) are two other examples of wonderful novels that I would have missed had I given up when they failed (initially) to entertain me.

It took me a whopping 200+ pages before I even started to get interested in Small Island and the only reason I stuck it out that long is because it was my personal nomination for an on-line book group read for June. I considered setting it down several times, but kept plugging away out of sheer guilt. How would it look to the rest of the group if I, the member who put it up for nomination, didn’t even bother to finish?

Yet, in spite of the long, slow start, I was finally drawn into the narrative, captivated in particular by two of the four narrators, and anxious to return to my reading when called away by the mundane chores of life. As the final chapters drew near, I came to realize how much I’d enjoyed the story and slowed down, savoring the final pages.

Set in postwar London, Small Island is a thought-provoking narrative, centered around four strangers whose lives intersect and overlap. Levy addresses issues of race, prejudice and loyalty with a keen sense of emotion mixed with subtle humor and tenderness.

I was quite impressed with this author and not only plan to read her other novels, but hope to make time to re-read Small Island in the not too distant future. I have a feeling I’ll find the first 200 pages much more enjoyable the second time around. I also have a strong feeling that this particular novel will wind up in my Top Ten for 2006. It was definitely worth my time and effort.

June 16, 2006

A Thousand Days In Venice

A Thousand Days in Venice: An Unexpected Romance* by Marlena de Blasi
Nonfiction - Memoir/Travel Essay
Quit on 6/16/06
Rating: DNF (Did Not Finish)

*A Hundred Pages of Boredom (nice cover, though)

Yep, another one bites the dust. I decided after over a hundred pages that this darling little book just wasn't doing a thing for me and rather than suffer through the weekend, trying to finish reading it, I'd rather start something more appealing like another Lucas Davenport mystery. I need SOMETHING to pull me out of this reading slump!

June 14, 2006

Jim the Boy

Jim the Boy by Tony Earley
Contemporary Fiction
Quit on 6/14/06
Rating: DNF (Did Not Finish)

No interest after over 50 pages.

In A Summer Season

In a Summer Season by Elizabeth Taylor
Quit on 6/14/06
Rating: DNF (Did Not Finish)

Gave up after 60+ pages. Didn't care for any of the characters or their stories.

June 11, 2006

Digging To America

Digging To America by Anne Tyler
Contemporary Fiction
Finished on 6/2/06
Rating: A- (8/10 Very good)

I’ve been reading Anne Tyler’s novels on and off for several years, but I hesitate to say I’m a big fan. I enjoyed Ladder of Years, A Patchwork Planet, Back When We Were Grownups, and The Amateur Marriage, but I’d be hard pressed to say that any wowed me enough to think, “I have to buy her next new release!!” I even have to confess that I had to go to Amazon to look up the earlier titles and familiarize myself with the various plots and characters. I’m sure she’d hate to hear this, but I’m forever confusing her with Alice Hoffman.

This particular novel revolves around Jin Ho and Susan, Korean babies adopted by two families, who until “Arrival Day” at the Baltimore airport, were complete strangers. Jin Ho’s new parents are All-American Brad & Bitsy Donaldson and Susan’s are Sami & Ziba Yazdan, a young Iranian couple. Other key characters include Bitsy’s parents (Connie & Dave) and Sami’s widowed mother, Maryam. In spite of exchanging just a few polite words of congratulations, this shared life-altering experience turns what could have been a casual meeting into a close, and long-lasting, friendship as they watch their little babies grow up and become childhood friends.

In alternating chapters, the insecurities and challenges of parenting are gradually revealed through each of the major characters’ points-of-view. It wasn’t until I read Dave’s (Jin Ho’s grandfather) chapter that I began to feel an affinity for any of the characters and their roles as husbands, wives, mothers and fathers. Tyler hits her mark when it comes to understanding (and thus, expressing) the minutiae of the day-to-day process of grieving for a loved one.

Digging To America is a wonderful read and I’m glad my online book group chose it for this summer’s lineup. I zipped through it in just a few short days, in spite of a lackluster beginning. Tyler’s narrative is one of humor and tenderness, particularly in the closing chapters. Her characters have stayed with me, weeks later, in spite of moving on and finishing a couple of new books.

June 4, 2006

The Fractal Murders

The Fractal Murders by Mark Cohen

Finished on 6/2/06
Rating: B+ (7/10 Good)

I’d never heard of this book or author and just happened to stumble upon it at the library one day. Brought it home for Rod and wound up reading it once he’d finished.

Set in Nederland, Colorado (near Boulder), private investigator Pepper Keane is hired to uncover the possible serial murders of three math experts – specifically, experts in fractals. The FBI has decided that the murders were unrelated and, as a result, closed all three cases.

Pepper lives alone with his two dogs (Buck & Wheat) and like most contemporary mysteries I’ve recently read, the potential for a love interest with the math professor who hires him is pretty obvious. Pepper is a bit reminiscent of Harlan Coben’s witty Myron Bolitar and I was easily drawn into his personal story, as well as the mystery. The details of fractal geometry don’t get too complex (and I’m almost brave enough to say that I actually learned something about them!), although I did find myself skimming a page or two that dealt with the stock market and how fractals can be useful in predicting the trends of a given market.

I enjoyed the references to Lincoln (Cohen practiced law for eight years in Omaha and spent a year at UNL pursuing a Master’s in philosophy) and had no trouble picturing Pepper and his sidekick, Scott (reminiscent of Harlan Coben’s Win, although not quite as psychotic) hanging out in the Haymarket, enjoying their pizza and Empyrean Ale at Lazlo’s. Hmmm, perhaps this is why I stumbled on the book on the new release shelf, in spite of its 2004 publication date. Product placement of a “local” author?

In any event, The Fractal Murders is a decent summer read, although it does have a few shortcomings. My biggest complaint is with Cohen’s writing style. He has a tendency to describe every character’s clothing ensemble EVERY time the person is mentioned. On a single page, halfway into the book, three characters are in a discussion with one another and Cohen describes exactly what each is wearing. This clothing fetish has absolutely no bearing on the narrative and it comes across as very amateurish and formulaic. In addition to the clothing issue, Cohen’s writing seems a bit simplistic: He often states the obvious and makes a point to comment on the weather, as if he were thinking, “hmmm, I mentioned what they were wearing and how to open a bottle of beer… now maybe I should tell the reader that it looks like rain.” Sandford, Lehane, Coben and Parker he’s not, but I still enjoyed the book and plan to read more by this new-to-me author. Bluetick Revenge looks promising with the return of Pepper Keane and his assorted buddies (canine and human, alike). Maybe his second novel is a little more polished and not in need of quite so much editing.

A favorite passage:

“The math building, a three-story fortress, was right where the student had said it would be. Not far from where I’d parked. I had expected it to be named the Chester Q. Hollingsworth Hall of Mathematics or some such thing, but the sign above the entrance read simply, MATHEMATICS BUILDING.

I entered unafraid. I was forty-four years old and nobody was going to ask me to bisect an angle or test my ability to solve a quadratic equation. That’s one of the advantages of growing up. There aren’t many, so I savored it.”