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Lookaway, Lookaway by Wilton Barnhardt

Lookaway, Lookaway by Wilton Barnhardt

(St. Martin’s Press; 368 pages; $25.99)

lookaway         The Johnstons of North Carolina really do put the “fun” in dysfunctional.  Your family will look tame and even normal by comparison.  Scandal seems to follow members of the Johnston family, proud descendants of Confederate Civil War General Joseph E. Johnston. Tradition, pride, and appearance matter a great deal to them, yet one thing is certain:  the Johnstons will not be sending out Christmas letters along with their Christmas cards anytime soon.  You know the ones I mean, and you probably have relatives who’ve sent you these, too, bragging about what their kids have accomplished this year.

Although Lookaway, Lookaway is not written in the same unique style in which Maria Semple wrote Where’d You Go, Bernadette, this singularly Southern story will appeal to Semple’s fans.  While Semple caricatured Seattle culture, Barnhardt satirizes the South.

Barnhardt offers up wit and cleverness, a combination guaranteed to elicit a loud guffaw or two.  Case in point:  “You’ll do something, I would hope, with your future Carolina degree,” Jerene Jarvis Johnston tells her daughter, Jerilyn, when she leaves for college.  “Enjoy your independence.  Work for a few years before you see which of the young men at Carolina seems destined for something besides his parents’ basement.  Or, given the atmosphere at Carolina, rehab.”  Wickedly hilarious, this piercing story will soon be all everyone is talking about.   Lookaway, Lookaway is the perfect social satire—Southern style.

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The Cairo Codex by Linda Lambert

Book Review: The Cairo Codex by Linda Lambert (West Hills Press; 324 pages; $15.95).

cairo codexWhen an earthquake nearly buries anthropologist Justine Jenner in an ancient crypt, she finds what appears to be an ancient codex which, if real, could radically threaten the world’s great religions.

The Cairo Codex is a riveting novel of two women, two millennia apart, set in the exotic cultures of ancient and present-day Egypt. Dr. Justine Jenner has come to Cairo to forge her own path from the legacies of her parents, an Egyptian beauty and an American archaeologist. After an earthquake nearly buries her alive in an underground crypt, she discovers an ancient codex, written by a woman whose secrets threaten the foundations of both Christian and Muslim beliefs. As political instability rocks the region and the Muslim Brotherhood threatens to steal the Egyptian Revolution, Justine is thrust into a world where even those she trusts may betray her in order to control the codex’s revelations.

In The Cairo Codex, Linda Lambert, former state department envoy to Egypt and author of several books on leadership, plunges the reader into pre-revolutionary Egypt and allows us to witness a nation on the brink of a social uprising.  This is a subject Lambert knows well, and her expertise makes The Cairo Codex utterly gripping.  She could have easily set her tale in Iraq or Israel, but the effect would not be as great.  Writers are frequently told to write what they know best.  Lambert does just that, and it works beautifully.

Lambert combines history, mystery, and archaeology with romance, politics, and religion.  Almost a decade ago, novels like these were abundant.  Biblical thrillers were once all the rage most likely due to the success of Dan Brown’s bestseller The Da Vinci Code.  Within the past few years, however, they have largely disappeared from shelves.  Why, I have no clue.  Perhaps the public grew tired of them, and their popularity waned.  For me, at least, Lambert’s story was welcome.  I always enjoyed reading these historical mysteries.

It always helps to have a strong protagonist, especially if it’s an independent and clever woman.  Lambert’s main character, Justinelinda lambert Jenner, can be both tough and tender.  She has her flaws just like we all do, leading us to cheer her on her successes and lament her failures.

Lambert also introduces a minor character of great interest, Omar Mostafa, as Director of the Supreme Ministry of Egyptian Antiquities.  Mostafa will surely remind readers of Zahi Hawass, former Egyptian Minister of State for Antiquities Affairs under former President Hosni Mubarak.

The codex that Justine discovers could shake the foundations of all the world’s religions.  I know what you’re thinking–so many thrillers that have anything to do with Christianity make similar claims and fall short.  Not The Cairo Codex. Interesting and exciting, Lambert’s novel delivers.

The Cairo Codex is the first novel in The Justine Trilogy, and I eagerly await the sequel.  

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Book Review: The Perfume Collector by Kathleen Tessaro

perfume collectorThe Perfume Collector by Kathleen Tessaro (Harper; 464 pages; $24.99).

It was with quite a bit of reluctance that I picked up The Perfume Collector.  I read the description and sighed deeply.  Yet another dual narrative?

If it had been closer to Halloween, I would have dressed up like the Statue of Liberty, torch and all, shouting my own version of the Emma Lazarus poem:

“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your dull dual narrators yearning to break free…”

I wanted something different.  I wanted to read a story in which the narrator was the setting of the story.  I wanted a coming-of-age tale in which the protagonist was unreliable.  I wanted suspense.  I wanted thrills and chills.  I wanted the first person plural.  I wanted flash fiction, meta fiction, flashback, flash forward.  Anything, anything other than a dual narrative.  It just seems as if we are inundated with those these days.

However, there was one aspect of The Perfume Collector that I found unable to resist: perfume.  Ever since I was quite young, I have collected perfume bottles and scents.  I will admit that it was the perfume aspect of the novel that persuaded me to read the book.   And when I did, the experience was so intoxicating and unforgettable.

An inheritance from a mysterious stranger . . .
An abandoned perfume shop on the Left Bank of Paris . . .
And three exquisite perfumes that hold a memory . . . and a secret

London, 1955: Grace Monroe is a fortunate young woman. Despite her sheltered upbringing in Oxford, her recent marriage has thrust her into the heart of London’s most refined and ambitious social circles. However, playing the role of the sophisticated socialite her husband would like her to be doesn’t come easily to her—and perhaps never will.

Then one evening a letter arrives from France that will change everything. Grace has received an inheritance. There’s only one problem: she has never heard of her benefactor, the mysterious Eva d’Orsey.

So begins a journey that takes Grace to Paris in search of Eva. There, in a long-abandoned perfume shop on the Left Bank, she discovers the seductive world of perfumers and their muses, and a surprising, complex love story. Told by invoking the three distinctive perfumes she inspired, Eva d’Orsey’s story weaves through the decades, from 1920s New York to Monte Carlo, Paris, and London.

But these three perfumes hold secrets. And as Eva’s past and Grace’s future intersect, Grace realizes she must choose between the life she thinks she should live and the person she is truly meant to be.

Illuminating the lives and challenging times of two fascinating women,The Perfume Collector weaves a haunting, imaginative, and beautifully written tale filled with passion and possibility, heartbreak and hope.

Tessaro, the author of Elegance, creates two strong yet very distinctive women who transported me to places I had never been, to an era in which I was not a part.    She has an innate ability to immerse her readers completely in the time period in which she writes. And aren’t those the best novels?

It wasn’t long before my heart skipped a beat and my senses heightened.  My whole body became alert.  Was the dual narrative what I needed?  Even when I had turned my back on this technique? 

I sped through the story, utterly riveted to Tessaro’s pages, heady with feeling, intoxicated by the author’s prose, setting, characterization, and plot.

The Perfume Collector restored my faith in the dual narrative, and I have the author to thank for that.  Kathleen-Tessaro-236x300

So I pose these questions to you:

Which technique and style do you prefer?

What do you think there is just too much of?

What would you like to see more of?

To read more reviews of this book, connect with other readers,  enter giveaways, and participate in discussion–visit She Reads.

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A Marker To Measure Drift by Alexander Maksik

Book Review: A Marker To Measure Drift by Alexander Maksik

A Marker To Measure Drift by Alexander Maksik (Alfred A. Knopf; 240 pages; $24.95).

marker.jpg  Jacqueline, a Liberian refugee, ekes out the barest of existences on an island in the Aegean Sea in Alexander Maksik’s stunningly visceral second novel, A Marker to Measure Drift.  “Only go down the path.  Only find water.  Find food.  Find shelter,” Maksik writes.  These basic necessities occupy Jacqueline’s time and lead us to wonder why a young woman as cultured, gentle, and intelligent as Jacqueline (who was named after Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis) ends up sleeping in a cave.

Maksik’s protagonist is a person who is completely stripped down.  She cares only about surviving her new environment, a place in which she knows not a soul.  Dependent upon the kindness of strangers and the voices of her parents, she lives day to day, sometimes even hour by hour.   “Forward,” her mother urges.  “Forward.”

Her father, a former finance minister for the Liberian government, admonishes his daughter to look at the facts: “You are alone.  You have the clothes you’re wearing.  You have the contents of your pack.  Including twenty euros.  It will soon be night.  It will soon be colder.  You are thirsty.  You will soon be hungry again.”

Once her belly is full, her thirst quenched, and temporary shelter has been found, Jacqueline has nothing but her memory, and that seems “like madness.”  For a while, “the act of eating displaced memory.  It was like a solid thing in a pool of water and the second you removed it, the water returned.”  Jacqueline comes to realize that “to live, one must be able to live with memory because memory was the constant,” even in such “precarious,” uncertain, and dangerous times as she faces.  Maksik breaks it down succinctly but eloquently: “We are our bodies, and we are memory.  That’s it.  That’s spirit.  That’s God.”

A Marker To Measure Drift unfolds in tantalizing parts, requiring patience from the reader.  Maksik offers up Jacqueline’s memories in tiny morsels, much the same way in which Jacqueline finds and consumes her food.  He employs this seemingly coy tactic because the whole horrible truth is too harsh to swallow in one gulp.

From Greece to Liberia, A Marker To Measure Drift follows an extraordinary young woman who has witnessed unspeakable atrocities.  At times, one cannot help but wonder if Jacqueline, “between madness and memory,” alone and bereft, has gone insane.  One thing is certain: Jacqueline struggles against erasure; through self-negation, she has erased herself from her violent past.  There comes a time when she can no longer expunge herself from her own history, when she must stop running from it.

Her father, ever pragmatic, scolds her, “You must always tell yourself the truth.” In the end, Jacqueline tells her new friend, Alexander Maksik by Beowulf SheehanKatarina, a waitress, the reason she fled her home country.  “Is telling” the truth “an act of violence, she wonders.  Will the truth “destroy the girl”?  In this instance, words are a balm for Jacqueline as she re-inserts herself into her own narrative.

In spare and lyrical prose, Maksik presents a tale as unrelenting as the sweltering sun on the hottest day of the year.  Jacqueline undergoes a sweeping physical and spiritual journey, one which leaves an indelible mark on her and on anyone who reads A Marker To Measure Drift.

Maksik draws effective parallels between the ruins of a Greek island destroyed by volcanic ash thousands of years ago and the country of Liberia, irrevocably changed by the torture and genocide that characterized the brutal dictatorship of President Charles Taylor (1997-2003). Fans of Chris Cleave’s 2009 stunner Little Bee will surely appreciate Maksik’s equally striking and impressive narrative.  When I finished A Marker To Measure Drift, I hurled the book across the room to get it as far from me as possible.  And then I wept.  I predict all who read this will have a similar reaction—such is the power of Maksik’s story.  

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Sea Creatures by Susanna Daniel

Sea Creatures by Susanna Daniel (Harper Collins; 320 pages; $25.99).

Description:

sea creaturesWhen Georgia returns to her hometown of Miami, her toddler son and husband in tow, she is hoping for a fresh start. They have left Illinois trailing scandal and disappointment in their wake: Graham’s sleep disorder has cost him his tenure at Northwestern; Georgia’s college advising business has gone belly up; and three-year old Frankie is no longer speaking. Miami feels emptier without Georgia’s mother, who died five years earlier, but her father and stepmother offer a warm welcome-as well as a slip for the dilapidated houseboat Georgia and Graham have chosen to call home. And a position studying extreme weather patterns at a prestigious marine research facility offers Graham a professional second chance.

When Georgia takes a job as an errand runner for an artist who lives alone in the middle of Biscayne Bay, she’s surprised to find her life changes dramatically. Time spent with the intense hermit at his isolated home might help Frankie gain the courage to speak, it seems. And it might help Georgia reconcile the woman she was with the woman she has become.

But when Graham leaves to work on a ship in Hurricane Alley and the truth behind Frankie’s mutism is uncovered, the family’s challenges return, more complicated than before. Late that summer, as a hurricane bears down on South Florida, Georgia must face the fact that her choices have put her only child in grave danger.

My Thoughts

Graham, Georgia, and their son Frankie moved to South Florida to escape their many troubles in Susanna Daniel’s new novel Sea Creatures, but their problems had a way of tagging along.  Georgia, Daniel’s main character and sole narrator, was a protagonist I not only liked but with whom I sympathized and empathized.  I put myself in her place and understood the great weight she carried on her thin shoulders.  I absolutely hated Graham, Georgia’s husband, who suffered from parasomnia, a condition in which he experienced erratic sleep patterns.  He sometimes sleepwalked.  “Sleep was the yardstick by which all other fears were measured, and everything else dwarfed.  It’s the stuff of horror films, sleep terror, but the sleep goblins of film are imaginary.  Graham’s problems were real, and all the more alarming for their unpredictability.”

SeaCreatures_3DBookshot

Despite having parasomnia, Graham scoffed at his son Frankie’s selective mutism.  This, I must confess, was the ultimate of his transgressions for me.  Graham seemed to want Frankie to be “normal,” when Graham himself had medical problems.

Daniel expertly underscored how parenthood can change a marriage.  Georgia just could not understand her husband’s mindset, “Sometimes I thought that in becoming a parent, I’d morphed into an entirely different person, while he’d remained exactly the same person he’d always been.”  As Daniel’s tale progressed, husband and wife only withdrew farther and farther away from each other.

Georgia and Frankie, though, grew even closer.  Frankie stole my heart time and again in this novel.  “Just as he’d started to speak words, he’d stopped…[The doctors] quizzed me about my marriage and about Graham and his parasomnia, which led me to understand that children in difficult homes sometimes go mute….”  Frankie finally found his voice thanks to Charlie the hermit.

I loved the transformation in which Charlie’s character underwent.  Like Frankie, he discovered a part of himself that had been closed off for years.  Sea Creatures came to dazzling and vivid life whenever Georgia and Frankie visited Charlie in Stiltsville.  Those passages just hummed with energy.

683af41910938771f187ff55921f44d6I could not help but hope that Georgia and Charlie would develop a lasting romance.  Of course, I also hoped she would give Graham the boot.   Everything comes to a shuddering climax as Hurricane Andrew approaches South Florida, lending a threatening, uncertain atmosphere to the story: “The course of a life will shift—really shift—many times over the years.  But rarely will there be a shift that you can feel gathering in the distance like a storm, rarely will you notice the pressure drop before the skies open.”  Indeed, the hurricane heralded a new chapter for Daniel’s characters.  For them, everything changed.  Just as residents of South Florida cleaned up after the storm, the people in Daniel’s novel must pick up the pieces of their tattered and torn lives.

Thus, Daniel adeptly weaved together various conflicts throughout her narrative, cleverly moving from man against man to man against himself to man against nature.  The plot of Sea Creatures expertly revolved around these struggles.

All in all, Daniel’s second book was an absorbing, lyrical journey.  Sea Creatures left me spellbound, sleepless, speechless, and completely oblivious to the rest of the world.

He said, “Some people go to sea, and they drown.”

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We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

Book Review: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler (Putnam; 320 pages; $26.95).

We are allKaren Joy Fowler begins her eighth work of fiction smack-dab in the middle of the story.  “In 1996,” she writes, “ten years had passed since I’d last seen my brother, seventeen since my sister disappeared.” How odd it is for one woman to have two siblings missing, I thought.  Just like that, Fowler had my undivided attention.  Immediately, Fowler immerses you in her story; instinctively, you know We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves will be unique and different.  You will not be disappointed.  For Rose, Fowler’s narrator, this tale is cathartic and necessary.  For us, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is emotional, riveting, and very unexpected.

We travel from the middle back to the beginning.  A mother keeps two baby books for her two baby daughters to record their first milestones.  Rose learns to walk at ten months of age, while Fern can “make it all the way downstairs by herself, swinging on the railings.”  Fern’s rapid development pushes Rose to progress faster.  When she is ten months of age, Rose weighs fourteen pounds and seven ounces and already has “four teeth, two on the top, two on the bottom.”  Fern meanwhile weighs ten pounds and two ounces.  The first word Rose utters is “bye-bye,” which she signs at eleven months of age and says at thirteen months.  At ten months, Fern signs “cup” for the very first time.

No, these babies are not twins.  Rose is a human child.  Fern is a chimpanzee.  I bet that got your attention.  Fowler leaves breadcrumbs throughout the narrative to clue in careful readers to Fern’s true nature.

Rose’s parents are scientists, and her mother and father involve both Rose and Fern in a scientific experiment, the ramifications of which will affect Rose and their son, Lowell, for decades.  I was appalled at the actions of both parents and never connected with either character.  How horrible to put your own family through a scientific study.

The kicker is that Rose cannot remember what happened to Fern.  One day, Rose woke up and her sister was gone; no one wanted to talk about her disappearance.  Rose’s memory is like a “tule fog,” unlike other fogs because it is “fixed and substantial.”  Rose is short for Rosemary, but the name is not for remembrance in this case.  Fowler effectively illustrates the unreliability of memory, especially in early childhood development.

However, Rose never really rids herself of Fern.  Her lost sister is like an amputated limb one senses but is gone forever.  Rose still

Photo by Beth Gwinn

Photo by Beth Gwinn

retains some of Fern’s animalistic nature: “I often felt wild back then….”  She also admires those traits in others, as Fowler hilariously portrays when Rose meets Harlow while attending college.  In the school cafeteria one day, Harlow’s boyfriend tells her he wants space.  Harlow responds by throwing things and violently carrying on, reminding a delighted Rose of Fern. Fowler uses animalism as a recurring motif in her novel to great effect.

Well-researched from experiments on chimps and apes to the early space program to pop culture references to fascinating information on memory, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves focuses on ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.  Fowler morphs one woman’s childhood into the stuff of science and makes for compelling reading.

What ultimately happens to Fern is beyond words.  When I reached the end, I cried, and I cried, and I cried, and I was completely and utterly beside myself.  Fowler’s emotional, pitch-perfect tale is perfect for fans of Sara Gruen’s Ape House and Lucy by Laurence Gonzales, but We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is even better.  A well-orchestrated plot, an immersive setting, and unforgettable characters propel Fowler’s novel into a class all its own, making it one of the year’s best fictional works.

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The Violet Hour by Katherine Hill

Book Review: The Violet Hour by Katherine Hill

The Violet Hour by Katherine Hill (Scribner; 368 pages; $26).

the-violet-hour.jpgKatherine Hill begins her intimate and utterly beguiling first novel, The Violet Hour, on a boat.  This leisure cruise ultimately charts the course of Hill’s novel.  What we assume will be a  fun excursion on the San Francisco Bay for Abe and Cassandra Green and their daughter, Elizabeth, leads to the end of a marriage.  Hill then progresses the narrative forward from 1997 to 2005, an eight-year progression into the future that seems strange at first but then becomes clear.  It is just the distance Hill’s distinctive and multi-faceted narrators need to illuminate both the union and the fracturing of a family.

Cassandra has not laid eyes on Abe in almost eight years when she, Elizabeth, and her siblings gather for the birthday of Cassandra’s father.  When a tragic accident befalls Cassandra’s father and takes his life, his loved ones are left reeling.

Hill has a rationale for killing a character on his birthday when he is surrounded by his family.  Cassandra’s father had run a funeral parlor in the basement of their home.  For this family perhaps more so than for others, death is truly a part of life.  Especially in late August of 2005.

Hill’s superbly crafted characters are especially attuned to the suffering that a storm called Katrina has inflicted upon the Gulf Coast.  Hurricane Katrina left an indelible mark on both the region it hit and on our nation as a whole.  As a person who went through Katrina’s destruction and aftermath, I do not see how a writer could set any kind of tale in late August and early September 2005 and not feature Katrina.  It would be irresponsible otherwise.  Hill draws a compelling and convincing parallel between Hurricane Katrina and the death of Cassandra’s father, nicely juxtaposing the two calamities.  As a family is changed forever, a country is irrevocably altered.  Thus, Hill effectually intertwines a family and a country both in the midst of loss.

Katrina’s flood waters provide Hill with the opportunity to bring her story full circle.  Abe had relished the time he spent on hillthe San Francisco Bay in his boat.  Sure, the water might have been choppy at times, but the experience renewed him.  Water nourishes us; we need it to survive.  The essential liquid cleanses, soothes, and provides respite, but it also has a dark side. In Katrina, the water thunders, roils, gathers momentum and wreaks havoc on a city.  Tiny vessels ferry residents to safety.  As in the beginning of the story, Hill returns to boats.  This time the boats are rescuing hurricane survivors and charting the course of others’ lives.

Deftly plotted, richly characterized, and brilliantly placed, The Violet Hour is a perfect novel for fans of Ghana Must Go.   Hill knocked me over with her very personal portrayal of a family’s past and present.  She knows how to keep readers turning pages.  I am particularly  pleased she highlights Katrina so prominently in the book.  Without the historic and devastating storm, this story would definitely lose some of its impact

 

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