Tuesday, April 29, 2014

As a reader and historical-fiction fan, I have heard nothing but praise for Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief. So, when it came across the library counter last week, I could hardly think of a reason to put off reading it.  Having read scores of books featuring the holocaust, both fiction and non-fiction, I was prepared for a heart-wrenching read.  What surprised me, however, was the sheer lyrical beauty of the writing. With disarming originality, Liesel’s (the novel’s protagonist and namesake) experiences in Nazi Germany are narrated for the reader by the semi-omniscient Death, whose voice is alternately acerbic and achingly poignant.  Death takes up the thread  of Liesel’s  tale when, at age 10 in 1938, on a journey with her mother and brother to foster placement in Molching, she witnesses the sudden death of her six year-old brother.  Death, on hand to ferry his soul from his body, becomes distracted by Liesel and her sudden, inexplicable theft of a grave digger’s handbook.  The banalities and absurdities of Nazi-era Germany are cleverly catalogued through the observations of the storyteller and his young muse.  Death gives us a backstage pass to the war years as experienced by townspeople (a few in particular) in a city on the outskirts of the Dachau concentration camp. Absolution is neither implied nor expected as the novel examines the duality of its characters, each of whom must wrestle with their own capacity for destruction and redemption.  As the narrator so aptly puts it, “The human heart is a line, whereas my own is a circle, and I have the endless ability to be in the right place at the right time. The consequence of this is that I’m always finding humans at their best and worst. I see their ugly and their beauty, and I wonder how the same thing can be both.”

Monday, April 21, 2014

Keep Quiet

by Lisa Scottoline.

When Jack Buckman allows his son Ryan to drive home from a local movie theater one evening, tragedy strikes when Ryan hits a jogger. Exiting the car and discovering the woman's body, an executive decision is by Ryan's father: Drive away.

So begins the guilt and tension as we discover that the identity of the jogger is a classmate of Ryan's. Pam, Ryan's mother becomes suspicious (Jack and Ryan have decided upon not telling Pam of the incident), and a blackmailer slinks into the picture claiming to have photos documenting that father and son were at the crime scene.

Slow reading at times but if you're a fan of Scottoline, you'll muddle through for the ending alone.

Monday, April 14, 2014


Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer is the first of his Southern Reach trilogy.  It tells of the story of Area X which has been cut off from the world for many years. The reason is unclear. Either no one know why or most likely the government is not saying. Not many people know it is there. Several expeditions have been sent to the area, but have never returned or those who do return are former shells of themselves.  The twelfth expedition consists of four women only known by their occupations.  The biologist, the psychologist, the anthropologist and the surveyor.  The linguist was scheduled to go, but for unknown reasons dropped out.  The psychologist is in charge, but the story is told by the biologist who volunteered to go and we don't know why until about the middle of the book.  They do not know each others names. They are supposed to map part of the area and then return.  Knowing that other expeditions have failed, racks up the tension immediately.
Jeff writes in a very descriptive and atmospheric style.  You feel as though you are there hearing the nighttime moaning and seeing the eerie signs of previous human habitation.  Instruments are useless. The crew distrust each other immediately and it is discovered that the psychologist is able to hypnotize them in order to change their thinking.  What other secrets are they keeping from each other?  Does anyone survive?
The tower which is the first building they explore was not on any maps they brought with them or maps which were found when they first entered the site.  The tower has its own secrets. What they find in the tower will change the life of the biologist forever. And who or what is the Crawler?  What is the purpose of the spores released by the Tower?  As the biologist says "I am aware that all this speculation is incomplete, inexact, inaccurate and useless.  If I don't have real answers, it is because we still don't know what questions to ask."  I am glad this book was divided into three parts.  Even though it is a page turner, there is a lot to digest.  The second and third part of the trilogy is coming out this summer.

The Spinning Heart

Donal Ryan's slim little book packs a powerful punch. Winner of Ireland's Newcomer of the Year and Book of the Year, and the Guardian's First Book Prize, this debut novel shows us an Ireland that is suffering in the late 2000s economic climate in which jobs and hope for the future are hard to find. Each chapter is narrated by a different character from the same small Irish town. Through all these separate eyes, a complete story comes to light--a bleak story of poverty, alcoholism, desperation, and sometimes love. You may think you don't want to read about such a sad state of affairs, but The Spinning Heart is so beautifully written and poetic. Reading about the struggles of these Irish families makes you feel compassion for their plight. Actions that from the outside might seem senseless and irrational become understandable--not condoned, but understandable. This is a bird's-eye study of human nature and how people struggle to make their place in the world. We could all learn from it.

Friday, April 04, 2014

Starting Over by Elizabeth Spencer

Author Elizabeth Spencer is starting again if not starting over with her book of short stories.  She has written several novels and short stories beginning in 1948, but Starting Over is her first work in over ten years.  Lee Smith comments on Spencer's short stories as "...light as air; they hover in the mind like hummingbirds."
In "Boy in the Tree", Wallace is torn between his mother and his wife. Mother is determined to remain independent in spite of living away from town, her aging issues, and her supposedly seeing things that are not there.  Wallace's wife believes Mother "has gone around the bend" and should be in a retirement community.
Wallace remembers fondly his mother's strengths and love while apparently experiencing her weakness of seeing things that can't be there.
In "Everlasting Light" a father is somewhat embarrassed to adore his daughter just the way she is.
In "Christmas Longings" Sonia remembers the magic of a family Christmas time of forty years before.  Her husband tries to convince her that her memories are exaggerated.
Spencer's Starting Over gives a glimpse into family life with its trials and its fits and starts.