Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Review: By Its Cover by Donna Leon

One of the items on my life's bucket list is to visit Venice and follow one of Commissario Guido Brunetti's journeys from the Donna Leon series. I'm a huge fan of these stories, and Guido Brunetti is one of my favorite fictional detectives. So it really bothers me to have to give one of these books less than my full enthusiastic endorsement.

This one's due out next month. I wish I could shout "Go get in line right now to order it", but I'm beginning to tire of Leon's increasing tendency to phone them in. This one concerns the theft and/or destruction of ancient, priceless books and manuscripts, a subject that should be close to my heart. Brunetti's apparent ignorance of the subject and his skillful questioning of those involved so he can make himself smart is handled well and gives the reader at least a smattering of knowledge. But there's nothing deep to this one. Leon presumes we all know all the background of the cast, gives us very little motivation for anything or anybody, offers some flip remarks about the in depth, inbred crime rampant in modern day Venice, offers enchanting descriptions of Venetian scenery, throws in a few mentions of food (the hallmark of previous volumes), and comes to such an absolutely abrupt halt that I had to go and double-check to make sure my download of the e-galley hadn't been corrupted. Sorta like she ran out of steam and said "ok,,, I'm done now....I'm off to the opera."

Really disappointing. I guess it could be a stand alone, but I'm not sure if I started here if I'd ever want to read any others. The subject matter should have made it much more interesting than it did, and I miss the sharp repartèe so common to her characters in earlier books. Much as I hate to see Brunetti go, I may be more reluctant to read any more of these if she doesn't find the old spark again.

Title: By Its Cover
Author: Donna Leon
Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press (2014), Hardcover, 288 pages
Genre: Mystery - police procedural
Subject: murder, book theft
Setting: Venice
Series: Commissario Brunetti mysteries
Source: E-galley from publisher via Edelweiss
Why did I read this book now? I love the series and was offered a copy to review.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

TLC Blog Tour: The Dark Road to Mercy by Wiley Cash

Finally......Tutu gets to chime in and pile on the love!
This one has been on a TLC Blog tour for several weeks and if you haven't seen any of the other reviews, the list is posted below.  I get to wind up the tour so it's a bit difficult to say too much new.

I have the distinct privilege of serving on the panel of selectors of nominees for the annual Maine Readers' Choice Award to present outstanding literary fiction to our readers here in Maine.  Last year, Wiley Cash's first novel A Land More Kind than Home, was not only a finalist but was chosen by the readers of the state as their choice for best book of the year.  With that in mind,  I was anxious but reluctant to read his next book.  You know how you feel when a book is so good that you worry if the author can possibly achieve that level of excellence again?  Well, Tutu is here to tell you that Wiley Cash is no one-book wonder!

This one is every bit as well-written as the first.  This Dark Road to Mercy brings a different story, but uses that same slightly scary setting of young people being raised in a dysfunctional setting. This time parents are absent (at least in the beginning), and rather than the fundamentalist church as the frame, Cash uses baseball and the summer of the Mark McGuire/Sammy Sosa homerun race to underpin the story.

I especially liked the portrayal of the love between the two sisters as they navigated the unfamiliar waters of adult malfeasance.  Once again the author gives us a story of confused youngsters, dark secrets from the family past, and compassionate outsiders, provided in three different voices - a technique that might get old if it continues in more of his books, but which, for the time being, works well in this one.  I also listened to this one in audio to see how well it works in that format, and HarperAudio has done a wonderful job choosing talented narrators to capture the subtle nuances of the three different points of view.

Cash gives us believable and heart-wrenching characters, a feel for the gritty southern setting, and a story line that has us rooting for all of the players at one time or another.  It's a deep, dark, but ultimately liberating story about the power of forgiveness and the endurance of the parent/child/sibling bond.

As for the plot itself, in case you haven't seen any of the previous tour posts, or don't have time to go looking right now, here's what the publisher says:

The critically acclaimed author of the New York Times bestseller A Land More Kind Than Home—hailed as “a powerfully moving debut that reads as if Cormac McCarthy decided to rewrite Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird” (Richmond Times Dispatch)—returns with a resonant novel of love and atonement, blood and vengeance, set in western North Carolina, involving two young sisters, a wayward father, and an enemy determined to see him pay for his sins.
After their mother’s unexpected death, twelve-year-old Easter and her six-year-old sister Ruby are adjusting to life in foster care when their errant father, Wade, suddenly appears. Since Wade signed away his legal rights, the only way he can get his daughters back is to steal them away in the night.
Brady Weller, the girls’ court-appointed guardian, begins looking for Wade, and he quickly turns up unsettling information linking Wade to a recent armored car heist, one with a whopping $14.5 million missing. But Brady Weller isn’t the only one hunting the desperate father. Robert Pruitt, a shady and mercurial man nursing a years-old vendetta, is also determined to find Wade and claim his due.
Narrated by a trio of alternating voices, This Dark Road to Mercy is a story about the indelible power of family and the primal desire to outrun a past that refuses to let go.

Read an excerpt from This Dark Road to Mercy here.

About Wiley Cash

Wiley CashWiley Cash is the award-winning New York Times bestselling author of A Land More Kind than Home. A native of western North Carolina, he has a Ph.D. in English from the University of Louisiana-Lafayette. He has held residency positions at Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony and teaches in the low-residency MFA program at Southern New Hampshire University. He and his wife live in West Virginia.
Find out more about Wiley on his website, connect with him on Facebook, and follow him on Twitter. 

Wiley is scheduled to do a book signing in Portland ME next week, and I'm hoping to be able to get there to meet him in person - so let's all cross our fingers that we don't get any more of this snow stuff that day!

Title: This Dark Road to Mercy
Author: Wiley Cash
Publisher (Print): William Morrow 2014; ARC 340 pages;
Publisher (audio): Harper Audio, 2014,7hrs 53min
Narrators(audio): Jenna Lamia, Erik Bergmann, Scott Sowers
Subject: family relationships, redemption,
Setting: North Carolina
Source: print review copy from the publisher; audio copy purchased from Audible.com
Why did I read this book now? I was invited to join the TLC Blog tour and loved the author's first book.  How could I refuse?
To see what others think of this one, check out the previous posts on Wiley’s Tour Stops
Tuesday, January 28th: Book-alicious Mama
Wednesday, January 29th: River City Reading
Thursday, January 30th: Knowing the Difference
Monday, February 3rd: cupcake’s book cupboard
Tuesday, February 4th: Sara’s Organized Chaos
Wednesday, February 5th: she treads softly
Thursday, February 6th: Turn the Page
Monday, February 10th: Girls Just Reading
Tuesday, February 11th: No More Grumpy Bookseller
Wednesday, February 12th: BookNAround
Thursday, February 13th: Kritters Ramblings
Monday, February 17th: BoundbyWords

Many thanks to William Morrow for making the print review copy available.  I purchased my own audio copy through Audible.com.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Review: The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope by Rhonda Riley

From the cover:

In the waning months of World War II, young Evelyn Roe's life is transformed when she finds what she takes to be a badly burned soldier, all but completely buried in the heavy red-clay soil on her family's farm in North Carolina. When Evelyn rescues the stranger, it quickly becomes clear he is not a simple man. As innocent as a newborn, he recovers at an unnatural speed, and then begins to change—first into Evelyn's mirror image, and then into her complement, a man she comes to know as Adam...Evelyn and Adam fall in love, sharing a connection that reaches to the essence of Evelyn's being. But the small town where they live is not ready to accept the likes of Adam, and his unusual origin becomes the secret at the center of their seemingly normal marriage...Intensely moving and unforgettable, The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope captures the beauty of the natural world, and explores the power of abiding love and otherness in all its guises. It illuminates the magic in ordinary life and makes us believe in the extraordinary.

Tutu's thoughts:
This is one of the short list books for the Maine Readers Choice Awards. It's not normally one I'd read - particularly if I had known of the subject matter ahead of time. It had not been on my radar at all, and I was a bit nervous after reading the cover blurb.  However, I had agreed to read all the books on the list, so I plunged in and was blown away. It's very very different, beautiful writing, gorgeous love story(ies) and has an exceptional out-of-the-box premise.  Once I started,  I was at first afraid to keep reading because I didn't want the magic to end, and I worried that Riley could not sustain the level of exquisiteness she started (but she did!). I was also afraid that whatever the ending was going to be, I wouldn't like it. (Surprise!)

 Still..it took me a while to get my mind around the whole concept.  The premise of this otherworldly person who develops into Adam was a difficult one for me, so I chose to read the book as an allegory of the original Adam and Eve in the garden story.  About half-way into the story however, I just fell in love with the characters, the settings, and the story of love in all its forms.  Magical realism isn't a genre in my comfort zone, but Riley's writing is so special it won me over.  It is as lush and verdant as the Garden of Eden, and at the same time as straight-forward and unadorned as the North Carolina farm where the story begins.

This one is a worthy entry for the short list and will definitely be one that I look at when I have to choose the finalists.  It would be a very interesting book discussion group choice.

Note:  I also downloaded this one to listen to in audio.  Because the story involves characters who communicate in strange unworldly ways with music and sounds, the producers could have tried to duplicate that experience in the audio format.  I want to heap great praise on them for choosing not to try to replicate that and letting the reader use his/her imagination to "hear" those sounds.  It would have changed this from a beautiful reading experience (either eyes or ears) to a dumb-down music/hollywood video soundtrack.  Choosing to let the words speak the story without musical enhancement was a great tribute to the power of written words and the talent of the author.

Title: The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope
Author: Rhonda Riley
Publisher (print): Ecco (2013), Paperback, 432 pages
Publisher (audio):  HarperCollins Audio (2013) 16 hrs, 23 min
Narrator: Stina Nielson
Genre: literary fiction; fantasy
Subject: family relations,
Setting: rural North Carolina; Florida
Source: Review copy from the publisher
Why did I read this book now?  It's on the short list for the  Maine Readers Choice Award

Sincere thanks to Harper Publishers (ECCO) for providing the review copy.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Review: Drowning Barbie by Frederick Ramsay

I've been a fan of Frederick Ramsay's Ike Schwartz series since its beginning, although I confess I haven't read them all or in order. Ike and his "main squeeze" Ruth Harris, are both old enough to know what they're doing.  He's a sorta-retired CIA agent now serving as a small town sheriff in rural Virginia, and she's the President of a small private woman's college in the same town.  This combo provides many opportunities for the townies and the academics to tittle and gossip. Drowning Barbie begins as the couple ends a rather raucous mini-vacation in Las Vegas, waking to realize that in their drunken stupor, they've actually visited the local wedding palace and done the deed. Now, how to tell the folks back home, many of whom have been scandalized by their not too secret relationship.
The Publisher tempts us with:
 Ethyl Smut, everyone agreed, deserved to die. Drugs, child abuse, a life wasted, but murder is murder and killers must be brought to justice.So, when a second body is unearthed in her shallow grave, and the town's worst nightmare in the person of George LeBrun also find their way onto Ike's desk so to speak, things get messy fast. Then there is Ethyl's missing daughter, Darla, who could testify against some important people if she were found. And as if Ike hadn't enough on his plate, Karl Hedrick and Sam arrive to investigate the source of the second body and it's like old home week in Picketsville. Finally, there is the ""Never-ending Story"" of Ike and Ruth's engagement that friend and foe alike insist be settled one way or another.
So yes...it's a crime novel, and there appears the obligatory roster of murder victims (both known and unidentified), a runaway teenager, some drug dealers, bad cops, incompetent law enforcement, meddling busybodies, etc, etc, etc. Nothing horribly complicated, but definitely engaging enough to keep the pages turning.  Not only do Ruth and Ike provide us with wonderful dialogue, but the supporting cast keeps the reader entertained as well.  At the end of this one, Ramsay leaves us looking forward to a new and very different lifestyle for this eclectic and fun couple.There's certainly at least one more book for these two.

Thanks to Poisoned Pen Press for making the review copy available through Net Galley.

Title: Drowning Barbie
Author: Frederick Ramsay
Publisher: Poisoned Pen Press (2014), Paperback, 250 pages
Genre: mystery: Police procedural
Subject: child abuse, murder, drugs
Setting: Picketsville Virginia
Series: Ike Schwartz mysteries #8
Source: Net Galley review copy from Poisoned Pen Press
Whydid I read this book now?  I love the series.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Another Short List - The Maine Readers Choice Awards

Well, we all hashed out our selections, and the committee of readers for the Maine Readers Choice Award  has chosen the 10 tomes for this year's  "short list". We now have to read these and we'll decide by May which three will be presented to the readers of Maine for them to read and vote for their choice as the best Literary Fiction published in 2013.

So here's the list: (I've **'d the ones I've already finished.  Links are to my reviews published earlier).

**Benediction by Kent Haruf
The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope by Rhonda Riley (review coming next week)
 The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
**The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna
**Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger
The Silver Star by Jeannette Walls
The Tenth of December by George Saunders
TransAtlantic by Colum McCann
Visitation Street by Ivy Pochoda

I plan to read two of these each month, and maybe re-read the ones I've finished so I have them fresh in my mind before I have to vote. We had such a bounty of great fiction to choose from that it was really difficult to narrow them down.  

How about you?  Have you read any of these?  Do you have a favorite?  Drop a line and share your impressions.  

Monday, February 10, 2014

Review: The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon by Alexander McCall Smith

I received the audio version of this latest in the No.1 Ladies Detective Agency series from the Early Reviewer program on LibraryThing.com. When I began the series years ago, I had a difficult time with the unusual language patterns and unfamiliar names. Then I discovered the audio books narrated by Lisette Lecat. Her amazing ability to provide different voices and accents gave me an appreciation for the lyrical rhythm of the language, and caused me to fall in love with the whole series, the colorful the country of Botswana, and several of the colorful characters McCall Smith has so carefully crafted.

In this episode (the 14th), Mma Precious Ramatswe is working two different cases: one involving a questionable inheritance and heir, the other a case of trying to find out who is maligning the newly opened business "The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon."   While she quietly and ploddingly works on these two cases, she is also helping Mma Makutse, her ertswhile side-kick and "associate detective" who is having a baby, and having to deal with the overbearing aunt of her husband Mr. Phuti Radiphuti.  In the meantime, Mma Ramatswe's husband, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, enrolls himself in the "How to be a modern husband" night course at the local university.  The results are not what he expects.  The whole story is very focused on the personal lives of Mma Makutse, Mma Ramatswe, their husbands, and their friends.  We see quite a bit more of the husbands and their musings about marriage.

While classified as detective stories, these books are so much more.  The mysteries are generally the skeleton on which McCall Smith hangs gentle, beautiful and affirming stories of Botswana and its way of life.  Precious Ramatswe is a woman wise beyond her years, but with a wisdom that recognizes there are always lessons to be learned from others, from life, and from the unfortunate happenings that befall all of us.  No matter what happens, she manages to dispense gems of beauty that keep us reading and wanting more.

If you've tried others in print and decided they weren't for you, please give them a try in audio.  The difference is incredible.  These are fun, relaxing, inspiring and vastly educational all at once.  They just keep getting better with each new installment.

Title:The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon
Author: Alexander McCall Smith
Publisher: Recorded Books, LLC (November 5, 2013), 9 hr, 45 min.
Genre: Cozy Mystery
Subject: Botswana customs, male-female relationships
Setting: Gabarone, Botswana
Series: No.1 Ladies Detective Agency
Source: Publisher via the EarlyReviewers program of LibraryThing.com
Why did I read this book now?  I received the book in exchange for an honest review and I love the series.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Review: Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin

I saw a discussion about this book on a thread in my LibraryThing group.  As with just about any book written about important religious figures, there are many diverse opinions about this one.  I had to go see for myself, and was able to pick up the audio version, narrated by Meryl Streep.

On the 2013 Booker Prize Shortlist, this short (104 pages in print, just over 3 hrs in audio) powerful narrative gives us a completely different voice for Mary, mother of Jesus.  This is not a plaster saint, nor is she wearing anything close to a halo.  This is the reflection of an elderly woman, looking back on her life, wondering what happened to turn her precious baby boy into a radical rebel who was ultimately subjected to a brutal and violent death.

This is a woman who does not see her boy as the son of God, who doesn't understand the disciples (those bullies her boy got involved with), who is afraid, who is searching for meaning, and who, as she nears the end of her life, is trying to make sense of everything that happened to her son during his short time on earth.

As one might expect, Meryl Streep's reading is superb.  I actually think this is one book that is much more powerful in audio than just being read in print.  Mary is brought to us in low, at times almost catatonic, monotones.  Her dreamlike remembrances give us an insight unlike any Christians are used to in their Bible readings.  In particular, her version of the resurrection of Lazarus gives us an almost zombie-like figure barely stumbling around supported by his sisters.  Mary cannot believe her son would participate in such a quack like show of magic.  She doesn't understand, and yet doesn't question him.

At Cana, we get a very different picture from the Synoptic gospels.  In Toibin's work, Mary is not the instigator; in fact she is trying to get him to keep from making a show of himself.  At the crucifixion, which Toibin paints in excruciating detail, we feel for this woman, who in spite of her love for her son (or because of it?) does not stay to witness the end, but rather runs into hiding in fear of her life.  It is only in her later dreams that we are given the Pièta vision of Michaelangelo's statue.

This is a powerful read with many opportunities for challenging what we think and believe.  In the end, I don't think it will change any religious beliefs, but it will flesh out a marble statue.

Title: Testament of Mary
Author: Colm Toibin
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio (2013), Edition: Unabridged, Audio CD
Genre: Fictional memoir
Subject: Mary's recollection of Christ's last years
Setting: Jerusalem and Ephesus
Source: public library
Why did I read this book now?  People I respect recommended it.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Supreme Macaroni Company by Adriana Trigiani

This is not intended to be a full review. Several readers at my library expressed disappointment in this book. Like me, they had read and enjoyed the first two in the series. I decided I'd better take a look so I could be more prepared to discuss with future readers. I too was disappointed, not at the story line, which seemed to be one of the major problems with several people, but with the trite, hackneyed writing. This book seems to be one stereotype and cliché after another. The whole story could have been told in about 2/3 of the words and not lost anything but a lot of melodrama.

Essentially, it is the continuation of the romance of Valentine Roncalli and Giancarlo Vechiarelli. As the wedding day approaches, Valentine struggles with worries about her factory in Argentina closing down and the conflicting expections between Valentine and Giancarlo concerning a permanent home. It's a beautiful romance, spoiled by Valentine's rather, IMHO selfish desire to have it all. Her unwillingness to bend caused me a lot of angst. At times, it was like listening to a four-year-old stamping her foot and demanding her way. It's hard to review this one without a major spoiler, and for those of you who are fans of the series, I don't want to spoil the story. If you're a fan, it's still a good story; if you haven't read the first two, I'd recommend you start at the beginning.

A final note: I did listen to parts of this on audio.  The narrator,  Cassandra Campbell did an excellent job giving Valentine's angst a true interpretation.  In fact, she was so good, I had to go back to reading it because I wanted to grab Valentine and give her a good talking to.

Title: The Supreme Macaroni Company
Author: Adriana Trigiani
Publisher:Harper (2013), First Edition, Hardcover, 352 pages
Genre: Fiction- Romance
Subject: Shoes and marriage
Setting: New York
Series: Very Valentine #3
Source: Public library
Why did I read this book now? Next one in a series I've enjoyed 

Monday, February 3, 2014

Review: In the Company of the Courtesan by Sarah Dunant

Last fall I read and reviewed Sarah Dunant's latest book "The Blood and the Beauty", a book I thoroughly enjoyed. I have always been a fan of Dunant finding her historical fiction easy to read, enjoyable and always well researched. So I sought this one out for no reason other than I wanted to read more of her work and had somehow missed this one published back in 2007.

Essentially this one is the story of a famous beauty Fiametta Bianchini and her sidekick business manager, companion, and friend Bucino Teodoldi the dwarf. Bucino narrates the story, and his point of view is what makes this one so much fun.  Together with Tiziano Vecellio (a thinly veiled Titian) they provide us with the male point of view on this distinctly female occupation.

The story opens in Rome in 1537 as the Catholic city is being overrun by Protestant hordes from outside the country.  Fiametta and Bucino escape to Venice where Fiametta grew up.  They have only her collection of jewels (which they managed to swallow !!!!) to support them.  In Rome, she had been a well-known, well-regarded and very wealthy courtesan, entertaining royalty, businessmen and not a few Cardinals of the church.

In Venice, she must begin again. Bucino goes about finding them living quarters, working space, and all the accoutrements needed to maintain the lifestyle she must project to be successful in her calling. She was well trained by her mother for this life, and knows her worth.

Up to about the middle of the book, the pace moves along, we are able to empathize with the characters, and look forward to a reasonable conclusion.  At some point though, the story begins to unravel.  It becomes less linear, and the reader is left to stumble along trying to keep track of several different story lines and characters. For instance, I never could get a clear handle on the character of Elena "La Draga" Crusichi.  Was she simply a servant, a healer, a sorceress, WHAT?  Her side story seems to come out of nowhere, and I'm not quite sure how it fits.

In spite of the crazy plot pattern, it's still a good read.  It gives a good picture of Venice and a well-researched story of the art of the courtesan, but it presented a fuzzy finale that left me frustrated.  In short,  I found the ending particularly disappointing and that colored my overall perception of the work.

Title: In The Company of the Courtesan
Author: Sarah Dunant
Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks (2007), 385 pages  
Genre: Historical Fiction
Subject: Prostitution
Setting: Venice, 1500-1600
Source: Public library
Why did I read this book now?  I like the author and it was available on the library shelf.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Review: The Butterfly Sister by Amy Gail Henson

A mixed review for this one. There were times when I really sank into the story and thought the author gave a well drawn word picture. There were other times I wondered where she was going. I think Meg Cabot in her cover blurb hit the nail on the head when she said it was " the perfect beach read." It's certainly more than chick-lit, but it lacks the heft of a good mystery.

In short, Ruby Rousseau, 20 year old college drop-out who now writes obituaries for a living, finds herself pulled into looking for a missing girl who was at all-girls Tartle College with her. Ruby has not returned to Tartle since her ill-fated romance with a married professor ended in disaster and a failed suicide attempt. So far, lots of tantalizing tid-bits......How coincidental that Tartle is having alumnae weekend and Ruby's roommate Heidi is on staff now and in charge of the festivities!  Desparate to break out of the obit gig, Ruby accepts a challenge from her boss to do a piece about the missing girl, and returns to Tartle.

At this point, the story and Ruby's life begin to unravel (or get scrambled up). Strange coincidences are unearthed, there's another girl lying in the hospital having just tried to kill herself, Ruby is befriended by a professor who seems too convenient for belief, and bam, bam, bam, all kinds of little puzzle pieces start falling out of the sky, and into the frame to fit perfectly. Or do they?  I also found the literary allusions to Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath and other writers named Sexton and Perkins very disruptive.  I don't have a strong background in English lit, and resented having to go find information about these women to find how their writing and ghostly presences fit into and influenced the story.

I will hand it to Amy Gail Hansen. She has written a book that seems determined to fall apart in the middle after a very tightly woven beginning. It is the ending however, that saves the book. Several times, I almost put the story aside, believing I knew how it ended, only to find that I was totally wrong and the bad guy was never on my radar screen.  The plot saves the book. The settings were entertaining:  it's always fun to re-visit New Orleans and drink some java at Cafe DuMonde whilst blowing powdered sugar off my beignet, and I'm a graduate of an all-girls college so Tartle was familiar too; but I found the female characters too girly oozy for my liking, even though they worked well in the story.

Altogether an slightly above average read that won't disappoint anyone looking for a fun and light piece of fiction.  Just don't expect the Great American Novel.

Title: The Butterfly Sister
Author:  Amy  Gail Hansen
Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks (2013), 320 pages
Genre: Literary fiction
Subject: suicide, betrayal, inappropriate relationships
Setting: College campus
Source: Review copy from publisher
Why did I read this book now? Long-listed for Maine Readers Choice Award