Archive | June, 2013

A Diamond is Forever

28 Jun


I raced home from work today to finish the last little bit of J. Courtney Sullivan’s The Engagements. After listening to a nice review of it and hearing great things from my genius book-rep friend, I decided to give it a go. I really loved her last one – Maine – but this one seemed different. And initially the cover sort of put me off too. But guess what. I really liked it. She is good at creating family dramas, I think. There were so many parts I loved. What’s a little different about this one is that it runs in cycles of five. Five different story lines, people at five different stages of marriage. The first (and most historically accurate one) is about Fran (aka Frank or Francis) – the woman behind the De Beers diamond slogan ‘A Diamond is Forever.’ It follows, true to history I believe, her struggles in the male-dominated advertising industry (think Peggy from MadMen). She never married. Second, a woman and her husband who have been married forty years and are about to welcome their disgraced son into their home for the first time in a while. Third, a french woman who leaves her husband for a younger man. Fourth, a man with two small children and his high school sweetheart of a wife, struggling with debt and exhaustion. And lastly a young woman who is incredibly anti-marriage and anti-diamond who has been in a committed relationship with the father of her child and has been for years. I loved that you would see Fran in the first part sweating to come up with great advertising to make the diamond the IT thing for engagement rings. You see her develop the “4 C”s and the idea that men should spend 2 months salary on a ring. And then you get to SEE that at various points in time. How it has changed or become part of the mindset of our culture. It was a great, fast, easy read. Perfect for summer.

A Great Villain

24 Jun

Does anyone remember Bill Sykes from Dickens’s Oliver Twist? Remember how cruel he was to Nancy, to his dog, to Oliver? He always scared the bejeesus out of me (in the movie version) and immediately comes to mind when thinking of the best literary villains (along with Cathy from East of Eden). Now I have another to add to that list: Gula Nightjar.


Elizabeth Kelly’s The Last Summer of the Camperdowns begins unspectacularly – the young daughter of a retired-movie-star mother and a campaigning-for-senate father lives a charmed life in a big house in Cape Cod. Roaming the estate with her basset hounds and her thoroughbred horses, Riddle James Camperdown’s (named after her father’s hero, James Riddle Hoffa) biggest problems are her mother’s lacerating sarcasm and attending her father’s endless campaign parties.

The estate next to the Camperdown’s is owned by Gin, described as both her mother’s best friend and most loathed enemy. He’s basically a big pansy – Riddle described him as always looking as if he’s in need of fanning (sort of overly dramatic, likely to faint or cry). Riddle and her mother, Greer, spend a fair bit of time at Gin’s either in the stables or in the ring training his new horses (he always seems to have a new horse). Until a European immigrant comes to work in the stables, a man named Gula Nightjar. Her parents laugh at her when Riddle mentions that she finds him a bit creepy. But oh-my-gosh he is creepy.

Like Bill Sykes, he has a dog he treats poorly, dirt under his fingernails and that dangerously evil sort of charm. He is massive but sneaky – appearing outside Riddle’s window only visible between strikes of lightning, gaining her father’s trust so that he has reason to linger around the property, stroking her cheek with his finger. He really gave me the heebies.

Here’s what’s different about The Last Summer of the Camperdowns: you know from the fifth or sixth chapter that Gula is the bad guy, that he is creepy and dangerous. And Riddle knows it too, but she doesn’t tell anybody. So even though there is a mystery, it’s only a mystery to the other characters in the novel. We know darn well what happened and who did it – because Riddle saw it. And therefore we did too. The rest of the novel alternates between the tragic events that unfold after the crime that Riddle witnesses, and her terrible struggle with the secret she is keeping.  It was really very good.


When it Rains, it Pours

20 Jun

Look at this! Three posts in a month. After such a long dry spell.

The other day at the library, I had a meeting with the Fiction Selector. Doesn’t that sound impressive? She basically is in charge of the entire fiction side of the JCL’s collection. Which initially sounds like my dream job (turns out there is more math/statistics involved than I imagined). We were meeting about something else, but I kept asking her questions about how she decides what to order when and from whom. She kept using one title as an example to illustrate her answers. It was a title I had never heard of – and that rarely happens. So of course I had to find out.

shining girls

The Shining Girls is creepy. Really creepy. Think of Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife where the time traveler is a spooky serial killer instead of a romantic. Harper is his name and boy is he disturbing. At the beginning of the novel, he is being hunted down by an angry mob – it 1931 – for his “accidental” killing of a man. He finds himself drawn to this seemingly dilapidated house on a quiet street. A series of coincidences find the key to this House (yes, capital letter) in his coat pocket and inside he finds a shrine of “shining” talismans – items his soul recognizes as belonging to the girls he will kill. When he opens the front door of the house again, it opens to a different year, and he is drawn to these “shining girls” that he pretty much stalks through time and then brutally, brutally murders. Kirby M-something is one such girl, encountering Harper a time or two before she finds herself his victim. But Kirby accidentally survives his attack – and is dead set on tracking down her would-be killer. She teams ups with a semi-disgraced journalist and starts her own investigation. Although at times I found the time travel a bit confusing – or nonsensical – I HAD to know what happened. This is one of those stay up late and leave the light on reads.

While I was looking into this book at the bookstore the other night, I also found a slew of things I thought sounded great that went on my library queue. I’m hoping something is there tonight when I work because I’m on a reading roll lately. Here are the ones that went on my list:

Library books

Jeannette Walls’ foray into fiction

18 Jun

I’ve always liked Jeannette Walls. I’ve seen her give a book talk before, and she is one fast talking son of a gun. Listening to her talk about her crazy childhood and even crazier mother makes for an entertaining night. So I was thrilled to see that she’s coming back to Kansas City – and even more thrilled that a copy of her new novel Silver Star is included in the ticket price.

silver starThe fact that this is touted as purely fiction – her first novel – her FIRST completely made up work didn’t even cause me pause. Even though her others are true or based in fact, they read like the most unbelievable novels. In fact, they are so crazy you’d be hard pressed to make up something more entertaining. And that is sort of how I felt about this Silver Star. Yes, the two sisters are lovable and fun to read about. Yes, their mother is a bit of a roamer and really pretty neglectful. Yes, there are some crazy small town issues that arise when they move from California to Virginia. But no, they are not so crazy as other things Jeannette Walls has put out there. The basic plot is this: when Claudia seemingly abandons her two daughters (Liz & Bean) to pursue a musical career, the two girls decide to take a bus from LA to Byler, Virginia (hometown of their mother) to “visit” their estranged uncle. As they acclimate themselves to life in a small town, secrets about their family begin to emerge AND the school they attend on their prolonged “visit” gets integrated AND they begin working for one of the more powerful men in the town to earn money for clothes and school things (without telling their uncle). Each of these threads encounters some knots; there are some twists; two emus prove pivotal (what? so random) and in the end, a dramatic, traumatic event brings Claudia back to the town of her youth and forces the family back together. This is a great, easy read – the characters are great, the plot is fast-moving. Her other books have a little more substance – this one feels like less (of a story, of a drama, of a powerhouse).


Quick, Semi-Satisfying Read

9 Jun

I took advantage of a lonely Saturday night last night to read Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline. Here’s what I thought:


I spent a fair share of grade school years intrigued/fascinated by the idea of orphan trains. It probably all started when my school librarian gave me a copy of A Family Apart by Joan Lowery Nixon, a series I loved and read over and over again. So, when I saw Orphan Train, my curiosity was naturally piqued.

The format of Orphan Train is a commonly used one in the world of historical fiction; chapters alternate between present day and some long ago time. As far as originality and believability of plot line, Orphan Train is pretty average. I enjoyed it – flew through it – finished it in a night, but nothing about it was tremendous. Seventeen-year-old Molly Ayer is about to age out of the foster care system. She has survived her many homes and difficult situations by taking on an exterior that naturally keeps people at bay – her hair is striped with bleach, ears studded with piercings, face made pale with too-light shades of make-up.  When she gets caught trying to steal a tattered copy of Jane Eyre from the library, she is faced with a decision: fifty hours of community service or time in juvenile detention.  With the help of her charming and sensitive boyfriend, Molly ends up spending her fifty hours with an old woman named Vivian, cleaning out an attic packed full of memories. Alternating chapters reveal Vivian’s back story – a young girl orphaned by a fire and sent off on a train to a fate unknown.

The best parts of the story were Vivian’s – her experience, and the experiences of others on the train with her, are so tragic and such a forgotten piece of history. The ending was lackluster, but mostly because I wanted a little bit more! I felt like it ended right in the middle of the climactic scene, with little to no resolution. If you like this format of novel, the best ones I’ve read in the past year are The Baker’s Daughter by Sarah McCoy (modern-day border patrol guard’s girlfriend befriends woman with a mysterious upbringing in Hitler’s Germany) and The Shape of Mercy by Susan Meissner (young girl takes a job transcribing the never-before-seen diary of a young girl accused of witchcraft in Salem, MA). Both were really enjoyable!

Things to look forward to

7 Jun

I almost feel guilty writing about these great books that come out far into the summer. Telling you how great they are and then how long you’ll have to wait to read them. So, I’ll start with one that is available now and so phenomenal.


I have been on the library waiting list for Wonder by R.J. Palacio for, oh, three months? So the other day I was in Rainy Day Books getting my tickets to see Jeannette Walls, and I made the snap decision to just buy it. Probably not the best bang for my buck – because it was finished that same day. Oh my gosh it was so good. I cried about three times. August (Auggie) Pullman feels like an ordinary ten-year-old kid. He loves his X-box, is obsessed with Star Wars, thinks of his dog as his best friend. But he is not ordinary. Due to a bizarre and extremely rare birth defect, Auggie has a severely deformed face. In fact, he has had so many surgeries that he has been unable to attend a normal school. Until now. The first section is told from Auggie’s point of view (and then proceeds to switch around between his sister and some of his classmates) and he says something like “I’m not going to tell you what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s worse.” So the rest of the novel is about this smart, funny, really ugly kid trying to navigate a new school. There are heroes and bullies and so many worthwhile lessons without being preachy. Really this is something that everyone should read.


The Rathbones by Janice Clark comes out August 6, 2013. It just got a starred review in PW and my best book rep friend says nothing but great things about it. All three comparisons I’ve seen are so dead on that I have to relay them: Moby Dick meets The Odyssey meets The Night Circus. Mercy Rathbone, the lone remaining child of what was once the largest whaling family in all of New England, has been waiting for her father to return from sea. He’s been missing for seven years. Every night, her mother paces the Widow’s Walk on their house, every day she painstakingly carves whalebone. When a series of events causes Mercy to flee her home, she and her older, stranger cousin Mordecai set sail. Together they travel to places they’ve never imagined, unearthing family secrets aplenty along the way. There are so many striking images in this novel, so many scenes that are so vivid, so many stories that seem like the most remarkable myths ever imagined. Definitely worth looking into when it (finally) arrives.


After The Rathbones comes out, Jhumpa Lahiri’s wonderful new novel The Lowland will be here. Well, shortly thereafter (September 24, 2013). I always love her so much. She is maybe one of the best story tellers there is. This is the story of two brothers. I can just say that? When I read the back blurb, I knew right away things I wish I hadn’t known. So let’s see what else I can say. Two brothers growing up in Calcutta are as thick as thieves. The older one, Subhash, is as dutiful a son as any parent could wish for. The younger, Udayan, is always up to something. But such a charmer that no matter what mischief he gets in, he is adored by all who know him. As they grow up, their paths diverge. Subhash travels to America to study, Udayan gets involved in the growing political unrest that threatens to divide their homeland. That’s all I want to say, but there is SO MUCH more to this story. Really. It’s good.

Lastly, I noticed today that Tell the Wolves I’m Home is out in paperback. One of my recent all time favs.