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Friday, January 26, 2007

What I did on my winter vacation

Books I read on vacation
(Reviews of all books from

The Song Reader by Lisa Tucker
Quiltgranny's Rating: C
A nice easy read, but not too deep.

Two sisters, Leeann and Mary Beth, have the debut novel The Song Reader firmly in their grip. Author Lisa Tucker seems almost entranced by her main characters, a teenager and her older sister whose mother is dead and father has disappeared. They've put together a cheery and eccentric life in their small midwestern hometown. Mary Beth--beautiful, empathetic and smart--practices an art she calls song reading. Clients come to her and tell her the songs that are stuck in their head, and she decodes the song to help them with their problems. Says her little sister Leeann, the novel's narrator: "She could take a customer who had all kinds of problems--poverty and family quarrels and lost love and even illness--and point her finger at the one thing that, if they found it and dealt with it, would give them the strength to handle all the rest." Leeann sees Mary Beth's song reading--and everything else about her sister--as admirable and glorious. But Mary Beth's gift leads her to a secret truth about a prominent neighbor, and the fragile structure of the girls' orphaned life comes tumbling down. Each secret seems to domino another until the sisters' whole complex emotional history is laid bare. The Song Reader can be a little willfully twee with its wacky characters and unlikely scenarios, but Tucker has so thoroughly imagined her protagonists' psychological workings that the book exerts an undeniable pull.

The Memory Keepers Daughter by Kim Edwards
Quiltgranny's Rating: B-
Nice wordcrafting and interesting plot, but a little hokey, and I hated the rushed ending.

Edwards's assured but schematic debut novel (after her collection, The Secrets of a Fire King) hinges on the birth of fraternal twins, a healthy boy and a girl with Down syndrome, resulting in the father's disavowal of his newborn daughter. A snowstorm immobilizes Lexington, Ky., in 1964, and when young Norah Henry goes into labor, her husband, orthopedic surgeon Dr. David Henry, must deliver their babies himself, aided only by a nurse. Seeing his daughter's handicap, he instructs the nurse, Caroline Gill, to take her to a home and later tells Norah, who was drugged during labor, that their son Paul's twin died at birth. Instead of institutionalizing Phoebe, Caroline absconds with her to Pittsburgh. David's deception becomes the defining moment of the main characters' lives, and Phoebe's absence corrodes her birth family's core over the course of the next 25 years. David's undetected lie warps his marriage; he grapples with guilt; Norah mourns her lost child; and Paul not only deals with his parents' icy relationship but with his own yearnings for his sister as well. Though the impact of Phoebe's loss makes sense, Edwards's redundant handling of the trope robs it of credibility. This neatly structured story is a little too moist with compassion.

Empress Orchid by Anchee Min
Quiltgranny's Rating: A+
A wonderfully written historical novel. Kept me reading through the night.

Talk about story arc: poor girl from rural China auditions for a job as royal concubine, winds up as emperor's wife number four, gives birth to the "last Emperor," rules China as regent for 46 years. The fascinating, implausible life of Tsu Hsi, or "Orchid," was reviled by the revolutionary Chinese, but here it receives a sympathetic treatment from Min (Red Azalea; Becoming Madame Mao), who once again brilliantly lifts the public mask of a celebrated woman to reveal a contradictory character. Sexually assertive, intellectually ambitious, socially striving, Min's Orchid is also "isolated, tense, and in some vague but very real way, dissatisfied." Even after giving birth to the emperor's only son, Orchid feels trapped by the stultifying imperial rituals and persecuted by the other residents of the Forbidden City: six other royal wives, 3,000 invisible concubines and 2,000 scheming eunuchs. In addition to these powerful distractions, she has to discipline her overindulged son, outmaneuver the ruthless politician Su Shun (who wants her buried alive when the emperor dies) and advise the ailing emperor how to fend off both the Boxers and the Western "barbarians." Min, herself a survivor of China's Cultural Revolution, has done a prodigious amount of on-site research to capture the glorious, hopeless last days of the Ching dynasty. At times her writing is textbook-flat, and she sometimes loses track of her teeming cast of characters (for example, Orchid's dangerous mother-in-law and mentally ill sister). But readers will be enthralled by the gorgeously woven cultural tapestry and the psychologically astute portrait of the empress-a talented girl from the provinces who married (way) up.

Widow of the South by Robert Hicks
Quiltgranny's Rating: A++

Absolutely the best historical fiction I have read in a long time. Actual photos of the Widow and pictures of the Civil War cemetery on her property.

Hicks's big historical first novel, based on true events in his hometown, follows the saga of Carrie McGavock, a lonely Confederate wife who finds purpose transforming her Tennessee plantation into a hospital and cemetery during the Civil War. Carrie is mourning the death of several of her children, and, in the absence of her husband, has left the care of her house to her capable Creole slave Mariah. Before the 1864 battle of Franklin, Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest commandeers her house as a field hospital. In alternating points of view, the battle is recounted by different witnesses, including Union Lt. Nathan Stiles, who watches waves of rebels shot dead, and Confederate Sgt. Zachariah Cashwell, who loses a leg. By the end of the battle, 9,000 soldiers have perished, and thousands of Confederates are buried in a field near the McGavock plantation. Zachariah ends up in Carrie's care at the makeshift hospital, and their rather chaste love forms the emotional pulse of the novel, while Carrie fights to relocate the buried soldiers when her wealthy neighbor threatens to plow up the field after the war. Valiantly, Hicks returns to small, human stories in the midst of an epic catastrophe. Though occasionally overwrought, this impressively researched novel will fascinate aficionados.

The Poet by Michael Connelly
Quiltgranny's Rating: A
I just can't get enough of Connelly. One of the best crime fiction writers since Wambaugh!

Jack McEvoy is a Denver crime reporter with the stickiest assignment of his career. His twin brother, homicide detective Sean McEvoy, was found dead in his car from a self-inflicted bullet wound to the head--an Edgar Allen Poe quote smeared on the windshield. Jack is going to write the story. The problem is that Jack doesn't believe that his brother killed himself, and the more information he uncovers, the more it looks like Sean's death was the work of a serial killer. Jack's research turns up similar cases in cities across the country, and within days, he's sucked into an intense FBI investigation of an Internet pedophile who may also be a cop killer nicknamed the Poet. It's only a matter of time before the Poet kills again, and as Jack and the FBI team struggle to stay ahead of him, the killer moves in, dangerously close.

The Painted House by John Grisham
Quiltgranny's Rating: A
A surprisingly tender story that made me smile and cry at the same time.

Ever since he published The Firm in 1991, John Grisham has remained the undisputed champ of the legal thriller. With A Painted House, however, he strikes out in a new direction. As the author is quick to note, this novel includes "not a single lawyer, dead or alive," and readers will search in vain for the kind of lowlife machinations that have been his stock-in-trade. Instead, Grisham has delivered a quieter, more contemplative story, set in rural Arkansas in 1952. It's harvest time on the Chandler farm, and the family has hired a crew of migrant Mexicans and "hill people" to pick 80 acres of cotton. A certain camaraderie pervades this bucolic dream team. But it's backbreaking work, particularly for the 7-year-old narrator, Luke: "I would pick cotton, tearing the fluffy bolls from the stalks at a steady pace, stuffing them into the heavy sack, afraid to look down the row and be reminded of how endless it was, afraid to slow down because someone would notice."
What's more, tensions begin to simmer between the Mexicans and the hill people, one of whom has a penchant for bare-knuckles brawling. This leads to a brutal murder, which young Luke has the bad luck to witness. At this point--with secrets, lies, and at least one knife fight in the offing--the plot begins to take on that familiar, Grisham-style momentum. Still, such matters ultimately take a back seat in A Painted House to the author's evocation of time and place. This is, after all, the scene of his boyhood, and Grisham waxes nostalgic without ever succumbing to deep-fried sentimentality. Meanwhile, his account of Luke's Baptist upbringing occasions some sly (and telling) humor:

I'd been taught in Sunday school from the day I could walk that lying would send you straight to hell. No detours. No second chances. Straight into the fiery pit, where Satan was waiting with the likes of Hitler and Judas Iscariot and General Grant. Thou shalt not bear false witness, which, of course, didn't sound exactly like a strict prohibition against lying, but that was the way the Baptists interpreted it.
Whether Grisham will continue along these lines, or revert to the judicial shark tank for his next book, is anybody's guess. But A Painted House suggests that he's perfectly capable of telling an involving story with nary a subpoena in sight.

The Tender Bar: A memoir by JR Moehringer
Quiltgranny's Rating: C
I still can't figure out why I didn't put this book down and walk away. I thought it was an ode to drinking and alcoholism, and people I don't care to meet or know. I must have been having a couple of bad days when I read this, because I felt it was further from the review than any book I've ever bought after reading it! Don't forget - this review is from!

This is one of those books that paralyzes the reviewer in its beauty. What can I say to convince you to read this book? Ideally, I'd just highlight every single line and make you read it.

It is nearly impossible to pin down one theme Moehringer's memoir is about: Fatherless boys? Working class moms trying to make ends meet? The search for a father figure in a crowd of bartenders? The genesis of a journalist, of a writer? The life of a blue-collar Yalie? Determining one's purpose in life? An intense character study of men in a bar? The rebellion of a son against his mom's intense love and support? Society's love affair with alcohol? In the end, this memoir is all of this and so much more, told in marvelous prose.

The author biography in the back jacket flap reveals that Moehringer is a Pulitzer Prize winner and national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. These facts will help buoy the reader when our author is failing out of Yale, failing at life, or struggling to get promoted beyond his hard-won copyboy position at the New York Times. Moehringer searches for purpose, reason, motivations, and positive reinforcement (other than from his mother). He especially struggles with his unpublished novel, which he worked on for close to a decade (and which I suspect became the basis for his memoir, since the novel was reportedly largely autobiographical).

This is one of those books one needs to own, for the underlining of critical passages and literary references to review again later. Be prepared to get intimate with the tough, ruddy-faced bartenders and barkeeps of Publicans (especially Uncle Charlie, who I have known in another body in my own life), and to put Steve's bar on the list of places to visit before you die.

The Glass Castle: A memoir by Jeanette Walls
Quiltgranny's Rating: A
I still find it amazing what people can do to themselves and their children. This is one that I wouldn't believe as true, except that Jeanette Walls is one of my favorite MSNBC reporters!

Jeannette Walls's father always called her "Mountain Goat" and there's perhaps no more apt nickname for a girl who navigated a sheer and towering cliff of childhood both daily and stoically. In The Glass Castle, Walls chronicles her upbringing at the hands of eccentric, nomadic parents--Rose Mary, her frustrated-artist mother, and Rex, her brilliant, alcoholic father. To call the elder Walls's childrearing style laissez faire would be putting it mildly. As Rose Mary and Rex, motivated by whims and paranoia, uprooted their kids time and again, the youngsters (Walls, her brother and two sisters) were left largely to their own devices. But while Rex and Rose Mary firmly believed children learned best from their own mistakes, they themselves never seemed to do so, repeating the same disastrous patterns that eventually landed them on the streets. Walls describes in fascinating detail what it was to be a child in this family, from the embarrassing (wearing shoes held together with safety pins; using markers to color her skin in an effort to camouflage holes in her pants) to the horrific (being told, after a creepy uncle pleasured himself in close proximity, that sexual assault is a crime of perception; and being pimped by her father at a bar). Though Walls has well earned the right to complain, at no point does she play the victim. In fact, Walls' removed, nonjudgmental stance is initially startling, since many of the circumstances she describes could be categorized as abusive (and unquestioningly neglectful). But on the contrary, Walls respects her parents' knack for making hardships feel like adventures, and her love for them--despite their overwhelming self-absorption--resonates from cover to cover.

Old Filth by Jane Gardham
Quiltgranny's Rating: A-
I thought I would try a recommendation from the Wall Street Journal about a well-known English writer who is just now being published in the US for something different. I wasn't disappointed! I'd like to find some of her other books after reading this one! Fascinating story about people in time and places I never thought about before.

British novelist Gardam has twice won the Whitbread and was shortlisted for the Man Booker. This, her 15th novel, was shortlisted in Britain for the Orange Prize; it outlines 20th-century British history through the life of Sir Edward Feathers, a barrister whose acronymic nickname provides the title: "Failed in London, Try Hong Kong." At nearly 80, Feathers, retired in Dorset after many years as a respected Hong Kong judge, is a hollow man with few real friends and a cold, sexless marriage that has just ended with the death of his wife, Betty. For the first time, "Filth" (as even Betty called him) delves into the past that produced him: a "Raj orphan" raised by a series of surrogates while his father worked in Singapore, Filth served briefly in WWII (guarding the Queen) and had a lackluster stint as a London barrister before emigrating. The flashbacks contrast British privilege and the chaos that ensues when the empire (especially Filth's childhood Malaya), starts to crumble. As Filth undertakes chaotic visits to his Welsh foster home and other sites, Gardam's sharp, acerbic style counterpoints Feathers's dryness. Well-rounded secondary figures further highlight his emptiness and that of empire.

Harvest of the Heart by Jodi Picoult
Quiltgranny's Rating: C
I usually like everything that Picoult writes. This is an early book that I missed (I think from 1995?). It wasn't really great. A lot of whining about the same thing over and over again. I just wanted to tell the two people to get over it and move on!

In her second novel, the author of Songs of the Humpback Whale ( LJ 5/15/92) recounts with power and grace a young woman's efforts to achieve "grandeur... and the ability to be comfortable in the world." Paige O'Toole Prescott, a gifted portraitist, sets aside her art to support her husband, Nicholas, during his medical training. His wealthy parents reject Paige, who already suffers from self-doubt after being abandoned by her mother. Despite Nicholas's success as a surgeon and the young couple's love for each other, the birth of their son catapults them into emotional crisis. Paige's resulting quest for courage and self-confidence forces Nicholas, her parents, and her in-laws to reevaluate their attitudes, standards, and behavior. Picoult considers various forces that can unite or fracture families and examines the complexities of the human heart both literally and figuratively.

Started but haven't finished:
Ines of My Soul by Isabel Allende
Quiltgranny's Rating: A (so far)
I love ANYHING by Allende. This one is a bit more difficult because of my unfamiliarity with the names, the time frame and geographical areas. It's wordcrafted so beautifully though, I am taking my time with it.

Only months after the inauguration of Chile's first female president, Allende recounts in her usual sweeping style the grand tale of Doña Inés Suárez (1507– 1580), arguably the country's founding mother. Writing in the year of her death, Inés tells of her modest girlhood in Spain and traveling to the New World as a young wife to find her missing husband, Juan. Upon learning of Juan's humiliating death in battle, Inés determines to stay in the fledgling colony of Peru, where she falls fervently in love with Don Pedro de Valdivia, loyal field marshal of Francisco Pizarro. The two lovers aim to found a new society based on Christian and egalitarian principles that Valdivia later finds hard to reconcile with his personal desire for glory. Inés proves herself not only a capable helpmate and a worthy cofounder of a nation, but also a ferocious fighter who both captivates and frightens her fellow settlers. Inés narrates with a clear eye and a sensitivity to native peoples that rarely lapses into anachronistic political correctness. Basing the tale on documented events of her heroine's life, Allende crafts a swift, thrilling epic, packed with fierce battles and passionate romance.


QuiltingFitzy said...


Lol, I'm trying to move, re-paint, re-decorate to sell, etc...these all sound SO wonderful.

Let's not forget quilting and working on my socks-in-progress.

Now, if I put a book in a recipe holder...maybe I could read and knit?

I'm hopeless. I read like you do tho, I get on a roll and look out. Last Brazilian trip I read 6 in just 10 days!

Thanks for your pics and Amazon reviews...maybe one at a time?

Can't wait to see this cat project in progress!

Ms. Jan said...

Thanks for the great reviews. I agree about Connelly and Allende. You just can't go wrong with them and I'll put some of your other recommends on the "to read" list. Thanks!

Carol E. said...

Thanks for the fun reading list. I go in spurts. I love to read, but I usually go through dry periods. I'm getting back to reading again and have put some of yours on my list.

Dawn said...

ooo a few of those sound really good. I'll have to try them. I just finished "Plain Truth" by Jodi Picoult and loved it! This was the first book of hers I ever read.

Judy said...

Sounds wonderful! Just wanted to let you know that I went to Gwen Marstons site to chekc her list for next Sept. class retreats thinking m,aybe the list would be up soon and they are up and ALL FULL!!! So I guess I will not be seeing you there this year. We are shooting for 2008 now I guess!

Diana said...

Thanks for the book reviews. I agree with you about Memory Keepers Daughter and The Glass Castle. The others I'm going to have to put on my "to read" list.

tracey said...

thanks for the recommendations, sharon. i've been needing a 'good read' but didn't feel like leafing through the mass to find something. now i don't have to! :o)