Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Review: The Clover House by Henriette Lazaridis Power

Summary (courtesy of Goodreads):  For fans of Victoria Hislop's The Island and Tatiana de Rosnay's Sarah's Key, a powerful debut novel about a woman shuttling between America and Greece to solve the mystery surrounding her family's past and claim an identity of her own.

A phone call from her cousin sends Calliope Notaris Brown from Boston to the Greek city of Patras to sort through an inheritance from her uncle. She arrives during the wild abandon of Carnival, when the world is turned upside down and things are not as they seem. Digging through the keepsakes her uncle has left, Callie stumbles upon clues to the wartime disappearance of the family's fortune and to the mystery of her estranged mother's chronic unhappiness. As she pieces together family secrets that stretch back to the Italian occupation of Greece during World War II, Callie's relationship with her fiancé, her mother, and her mother's two sisters will change irrevocably

And here's what I thought:   I really enjoyed this book, and found that it was a real pleasure to sit and read and become completely immersed in the story.   I suppose part of the appeal of the book, beyond the family stories (in the present, and in the past), which I always like to read, was that the main character's family is Greek, and she goes to Greece.   When I was in middle school, I had a good friend who was Greek, and every summer, she would go to visit family there --- and I was completely fascinated by this.  So, reading Callie's story made me think about my friend, and the stories she'd tell me about her family.

As you can see from the summary, Callie's family seems to have some secrets, and when she goes to Greece to handle her uncle's estate, she's determined to learn more about her family's past.   What's interesting is that  there are a lot of dynamics at work here: Callie's relationship with her mother, Callie's relationship with her boyfriend (which is actually very much affected by her relationship with her mother), Callie's relationship with her cousin and aunts, and even Callie's mother's relationship to her own sisters.  There's a lot that takes place in the present time, but there are also some flashbacks where you get the story from Callie's mother's perspective.    None of the characters are perfect, and I think that's what makes reading about them interesting ---- decisions get made that you read and think, "Maybe you shouldn't do that," or "I wonder what's going to happen now,";  it's like I had an internal dialogue going at points in the story.

The author does a nice job of really getting into the characters, and seamlessly going back and forth with them.  Her writing is descriptive enough that it's easy to imagine not only the people in the story, but also the places.   While I've never been to Greece (it's on my wish list), I felt like I could completely imagine the places in the story.   The author is a first-generation Greek American, and there's a real feel in this story of how Callie is searching to find someplace where she feels she fits in, something that I don't think is an uncommon experience for first-generation Americans.  It's not always easy to straddle the two worlds of the present American experience and the family's immigrant/non-American experience.   I did sometimes get a little frustrated with the characters, and actually felt like the story was just skimming the surface with some of them --- but I still enjoyed the book, and found it to be a page-turner.

I'm including a link to the author's site, in case you're interested and would like to read more about her, and the book.  

First lines:  On those rare occasions when she couldn't control the world around her, my mother placed the blame squarely on America, the country she had reluctantly immigrated to from Greece in 1959.  My father would retort that there were flaws in Greece too, but she ignored him because he was American.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Wordless Wednesday --- dog in Lucca

Lucca door with dog.jpg
Lucca, Italy.    Find MORE Wordless here!

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Review -- Paper Valentine by Brenna Yovanoff

Summary (courtesy of Goodreads):  The city of Ludlow is gripped by the hottest July on record. The asphalt is melting, the birds are dying, petty crime is on the rise, and someone in Hannah Wagnor’s peaceful suburban community is killing girls.

For Hannah, the summer is a complicated one. Her best friend Lillian died six months ago, and Hannah just wants her life to go back to normal. But how can things be normal when Lillian’s ghost is haunting her bedroom, pushing her to investigate the mysterious string of murders? Hannah’s just trying to understand why her friend self-destructed, and where she fits now that Lillian isn’t there to save her a place among the social elite. And she must stop thinking about Finny Boone, the big, enigmatic delinquent whose main hobbies seem to include petty larceny and surprising acts of kindness.

With the entire city in a panic, Hannah soon finds herself drawn into a world of ghost girls and horrifying secrets. She realizes that only by confronting the Valentine Killer will she be able move on with her life—and it’s up to her to put together the pieces before he strikes again.

And here's what I thought:   I've read other things by this author, so I was looking forward to grabbing this book from the library --- and I wasn't disappointed.   I liked how the author had the main character haunted by her best friend, especially since Lillian didn't really seem like she was that good of a friend to her; it's an interesting twist.   There are things that are hinted at in the story about the friendship between Hannah and Lillian, and also, about how Lillian died.   As, as mentioned, Lillian didn't seem like that nice of a girl or a good friend, really --- so her presence in the story is sometimes a bit disturbing.

I also liked how the author gave the story an interesting side character in Finny.  Admittedly, he sounds like the kind of boy I would have liked when I was a teen, so maybe that's why I liked him in the story.   I thought the author did a good job of developing the friendship between Hannah and Finny, and that it had its own twists and turns.

The fact that Lillian is dead, as well as the fact that there are murders being committed in Hannah's town lend a somber tone to this story.  Hannah's one of those girls who seems to live inside her head a lot of time, and I found her to be a sympathetic character.  While I found some parts of the book a bit predictable, overall, I liked that there were some twists and turns to the story.   I don't feel that I enjoyed this book as much as The Replacement, I like the author's writing style, and the fact that her stories often have darker elements to them.    I'm giving this a 3 as an overall feel --- I liked the story, but it just didn't stick with me very long after I finished reading it.

First lines:  My sister, Ariel, is sprawled upside down on the couch, pointing with the TV remote.  "News 4 anchorman Ron Coleman is totally doing it with special correspondent Cora Butcher," she says.  "I bet they make out like hyenas as soon as Jim Dean starts doing the weather report."

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Monday, March 11, 2013

Review: Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell

Summary (courtesy of Goodreads): From the author of the New York Times best seller Swamplandia!—a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize—a magical new collection of stories that showcases Karen Russell’s gifts at their inimitable best.

A dejected teenager discovers that the universe is communicating with him through talismanic objects left behind in a seagull’s nest.  A community of girls held captive in a silk factory slowly transmute into human silkworms, spinning delicate threads from their own bellies, and escape by seizing the means of production for their own revolutionary ends. A massage therapist discovers she has the power to heal by manipulating the tattoos on a war veteran’s lower torso. When a group of boys stumble upon a mutilated scarecrow bearing an uncanny resemblance to the missing classmate they used to torment, an ordinary tale of high school bullying becomes a sinister fantasy of guilt and atonement. In a family’s disastrous quest for land in the American West, the monster is the human hunger for acquisition, and the victim is all we hold dear. And in the collection’s marvelous title story—an unforgettable parable of addiction and appetite, mortal terror and mortal love—two vampires in a sun-drenched lemon grove try helplessly to slake their thirst for blood.

And here's what I thought:  One of the things I love most about collections of short stories is that if I find one that I don't like so much, there's always at least a few others that I really do like -- and that's what happened with this book, as well.

I haven't read anything else by Karen Russell, although I was familiar with Swamplandia.  However, I had read reviews of this book, so when our library's copy came in and I saw it on the shelf, I grabbed it.   While I didn't love all of the stories, there were a few that I really enjoyed reading, and which have stuck in my mind after finishing the book.   The story Vampires in the Lemon Grove was a really interesting take on the usual vampire story, and it was kind of melancholy, which I liked.  It's less about being a vampire than it is about appetite in general, and about love.   That's not to say that the story is without humor, though ---- admittedly, I have a somewhat dark sense of humor, but I found some things that gave me a wry smile.

The two other stories that have stayed in my mind are Reeling for the Empire, where women have morphed into a kind of silkworm, and The New Veterans, where a massage therapist is trying to help a war veteran.  Also, the story The Barn at the End of Our Term ---- where some of the ex-presidents have apparently been reincarnated into horses.     Russell has a talent for taking things in disturbing directions, while at the same time making them so interesting that you keep turning the pages.  As mentioned with the first story, there is some wry/dark humor that runs through her writing, and that's something I enjoy, as well.   Are they light stories?  No.   Are they thought-provoking?  Definitely.

While I don't know if this collection would be for everyone, I'd be tempted to recommend it to people who like the writing of Caitlin R. Kiernan, or Jonathan Carroll.

First lines from one of the stories:  From Vampires in the Lemon Grove: In October, the men and women of Sorrento harvest the primofiore, or "first flowering fruit," the most succulent lemons; in March, the yellow bianchetti ripen, followed in June by the green vendelli.  In every season you can find me sitting at my bench, watching them fall.  Only one or two lemons tumble from the branches each hour, but I've been sitting here so long their falls seem contagious, close as raindrops.  My wife has no patience for this sort of meditation.  "Jesus Christ, Clyde," she says.  "You need a hobby."

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Review: Reamde by Neal Stephenson

Summary (courtesy of Goodreads):  Four decades ago, Richard Forthrast, the black sheep of an Iowa family, fled to a wild and lonely mountainous corner of British Columbia to avoid the draft. Smuggling backpack loads of high-grade marijuana across the border into Northern Idaho, he quickly amassed an enormous and illegal fortune. With plenty of time and money to burn, he became addicted to an online fantasy game in which opposing factions battle for power and treasure in a vast cyber realm. Like many serious gamers, he began routinely purchasing virtual gold pieces and other desirables from Chinese gold farmers—young professional players in Asia who accumulated virtual weapons and armor to sell to busy American and European buyers.

For Richard, the game was the perfect opportunity to launder his aging hundred dollar bills and begin his own high-tech start up—a venture that has morphed into a Fortune 500 computer gaming group, Corporation 9592, with its own super successful online role-playing game, T’Rain. But the line between fantasy and reality becomes dangerously blurred when a young gold farmer accidently triggers a virtual war for dominance—and Richard is caught at the center.

And here's what I thought:  I haven't read anything by this author, other than Snow Crash (and that was years ago), so I wasn't sure what to expect when one of my book groups chose this book.   While Neal Stephenson is known more for writing science fiction, this book is a pure thriller, complete with loads of interesting characters, an intricate plot, and loads of action.

While I don't usually read a lot of thrillers, I found this book to be pretty enjoyable.  I liked that Stephenson worked in some gaming details, even though the game didn't turn out to be as much a part of the story as I had expected.   I liked that there were good female characters, and in fact, two who were particularly smart and independent.  I liked how the pace of this book built at the beginning and remained steady through the whole story, which I can appreciate as something that's tricky to accomplish (especially in a book this big).

However, I sometimes found it a little hard to keep track of all of the characters --- Stephenson introduces characters throughout the book, and while he does a great job of developing them, I found I sometimes had to remind myself who was who.   I'm sure this is mainly because I kept putting the book down, and picking it up a few days later ..... if I had devoted some serious chunks of time to just spend on this book, I'm sure I would have had a different reaction.

I did feel like perhaps the book could be a bit shorter.  While I liked the author's descriptive writing style, at times, I thought parts of the story could have been shortened just a bit, and tightened up.  However, I think this is a book I'll return to for a future re-read, just because it was a lot of fun.

By the way --- there's an excellent review of this book in the New York Times, so if you think this book sounds interesting, check it out, as well.

First lines:  Richard kept his head down.  Not all those cow pies were frozen, and the ones that were could turn an ankle.

Chunkster Challenge info:  This book fulfills part of my challenge, as it is 1042 pages.  In fact, after getting through this, I almost feel like it should count as 2 books.

And what's my level?  Do These Books Make my Butt Look Big? - this option is for the reader who can't resist bigger and bigger books and wants to commit to SIX Chunksters from the following categories: 2 books which are between 450 - 550 pages in length2 books which are 551 - 750 pages in length2 books which are GREATER than 750 pages in length.
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