Thursday, January 29, 2009

Echoes by Erin Grady

This book was a delightful surprise; Erin Grady aka Erin Quinn has written a fascinating, multi-layered, mystical romance. Time shifting through earlier lives, the two stories blend to a final destination. Each character has a counterpart in both levels, and the shift to past history holds the key to the main story.

Tess Carson, a successful businesswoman in New York City, receives a call from the tiny rural community of Mountain Bend, California from the principal of the elementary school. Feeling very confused it takes time for her to realize that this must be the school her niece Caitlin attends. The caller informs her that Caitlin’s mother, Tess’ sister Tori France, did not pick her daughter up from school that day and seems to have “disappeared”, and as the emergency contact, Tess finds herself winging her way to a remote location in California “...a couple of hours east of Sacramento or several hours west of Salt Lake”. Tess knows that her sister is not particularly reliable, but when it comes to Caitlin she would never desert her.

Stories abound in this small town, much as they do in all small towns, but Tori appears to be in the middle of everything. However, it is not many hours before Tess becomes a reluctant witness to something very strange, is it hallucination or reality? That becomes her mantra as time shifts again and again, but always to the same period. Though sometimes spending days in the past, she always arrives back moments after she “leaves”.

The town is full of secrets, and yet they apparently are all related to one family, the Westons, the very family Tori was working for. Is it coincidence? Did she discover something hidden? Did she kill someone? Only the story will tell but the answer will be found buried in the past. A great read, passionate, mysterious, steadily building; a story of love, deceit, and jealousy through the ages. The characters are strong and full-fledged within both levels. I really enjoyed this book and look forward to more.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Rupture by A. Scott Pearson

Reviewed for Front Street Reviews

A. Scott Pearson has written a rapid-fire, engrossing, and timely medical thriller, an amazing accomplishment for his debut novel. As a surgeon and researcher himself, he brings the world of surgery to life in a way others could not accomplish. His writing is reminiscent of early Frank G. Slaughter, and of Robin Cook. It grips you with the first page and doesn’t let go to the very last word. I believe the author has a brilliant career ahead of him in writing. The entire story takes place within one week.

Eli Branch is a newly hired surgeon-scientist at Gates Memorial Hospital, top in his field academically and the son of a well-respected anatomy professor at the medical school. His first call for surgery assistance brings him to the hospital at 12:03 a.m., although he is not actually on call. He arrives to find an extreme situation of an aortic rupture. Blown out above and below a previously inserted device placed precisely to protect the aorta from this possibility, the aorta appears to be compromised. Something familiar about the device catches Eli’s attention in the x-rays. When the patient dies, he decides to sit in on the autopsy, and between himself and Meg Daily, the forensic pathologist, they feel that something just simply isn’t right. Eli doesn’t know it yet, but he is about to be thrown into the dark side of medicine and illegal experimentation, and he is about to be thrown to the wolves.

There are many well-fleshed out characters, some dispensable, others not, and it is his self-appointed goal to save those who are victims, no matter what barriers are set up in his way. His own mentally disabled brother is suspected to be one of the victims. After being fired and banned from entering the hospital, with the help of Meg and other concerned personnel he must fight hard and utilize every sense and every clue in order to get to the bottom of the why. Why are so many people dying as a result of these devices? With friends in unexpected places he infiltrates the company responsible, stumbling onto the focus of what’s going on quite by accident. A brazen appearance at a press conference gives him the opportunity he needs. The book is a combination of medical technology issues, non-stop action and a likable hero. I wholeheartedly recommend this book, it’s a great thriller, current, scary and believable, and it’s an exciting ride at roller-coaster speed.

Note: not yet released as of Jan. 25/09

Buried Lies by Peter Rennebohm

Originally reviewed for Front Page Reviews

A good old-fashioned treasure hunt complete with coded messages, an intriguing mystery. Peter Rennebohm has written a book that takes us from WWII, to the Navajo rez, to the final destination. The book is particularly interesting for the bits and pieces of history and Navajo lore and beliefs interspersed throughout. Full of well-defined characters, are they really who they seem to be? That is the question.

The story begins simply enough, the main character, Augustus (Gus) Ivy, has gone to his barber for a haircut. Not usually an exciting moment in one’s life. But, Frank, the barber, is somewhat distracted while wielding the scissors. It appears he had been talking about the war and in particular his unit when he drifted off into memory. Gus was curious to hear his story however, and so Frank continues his tale, which includes a book sent to each surviving member of his unit by the parents of one of the soldiers who was killed in action. He also shows Gus a letter that came with the book, the last paragraph appearing to be an invitation to locate something buried within its pages and cover. Gus, a collector of books by the author, who also happens to be the mother of the downed soldier, decides to buy a box of books from Frank, including the book he was sent. Frank agrees, and with this seemingly innocuous purchase, the story takes off.

On reading the book, Gus feels it is definitely not one of her best, it seems choppy and not particularly full-fledged and the dust-jacket is different from others. It is at this time that Gus learns that Frank has been brutally killed and suspicions begin to arise. The book appears to have taken on a life of its own, and seemingly is of great importance to some very nasty people. It doesn’t appear to be a particularly valuable book in and of itself, so why is it becoming so important? Gus sets off with his dog following what might possibly be a clue and the action truly begins.

The mystery builds throughout the book and where it appears some things should be a bit obvious, they probably are not. The action heats up as others join in the hunt with and against Gus. There is a side story that takes place on the Navajo rez that is a nice break from the action, although serious in nature. Some characters are expendable and some are not, but the determination is not always as simple as it appears. A good mystery, the excitement of the race to solve the mystery and perhaps discover treasure is catching. In a way it is an enjoyable read regardless of bodies dropping throughout. Peter Rennebohm has authored two previous novels, “French Creek” and “Blue Springs” and I will be seeking them to read. I am happy to recommend this focused, yet layered book.

Artie Lange - Too Fat to Fish by Artie Lange with Anthony Bozza

I was a little unsure when I received this book to review, but I was actually pleasantly surprised. Artie Lange, stand-up comic, actor, and a part of the Howard Stern show, did not sound like a book I would be able to get through. Yes, it was raw. Yes, it was crude, but certainly not to the extent I anticipated. In fact, this is a very personal, honest story of a man with many problems to overcome. Swinging back and forth between depression and paranoia, he is a perfect candidate for addiction of any type. Having lost his best friend - his father - at a relatively young age, has left him bereft and it would seem that his main issues begin around this basic time period.

Artie has told his story no-holds-barred. A comedian and an overachiever, with little self-confidence, he has taken his life, both good and bad, and laid it bare for all to see. He has had a profitable career, and he has spent a profitable career. His constant battles with depression and drugs is incredible, and he has been very fortunate with the support he has had. He obviously has a whole choir of guardian angels! There are laughs, particularly where the phrase “Too Fat to Fish” came from, and tears. Sometimes I wanted to comfort him and sometimes I wanted to shake him. Sometimes I just wanted to yell, “Don’t do it, Artie!”

I was most taken by the compassion that peeps through every once in a while in the book, and I was very happy that in the end he was able to feel he had accomplished a personal goal by entertaining troops in Iraq. Overall, this was a good story, probably not the last from Artie. For anyone who is a fan of Artie or Howard Stern or stand-up comedy, this is a no-brainer, you will enjoy it and learn a lot from it. For readers like myself, I admit I didn’t want to put the book down, it was a real attention grabber, so regardless of the crudity, I would recommend this book. It may even save someone’s life someday.

Easy Innocence by Libby Fischer Hellman

A timely and perilous trip into the darkness of suburbia, this book grabbed me from the first page and kept me going straight through to the end. I only stopped reading long enough for a few hours of sleep! Libby Hellman has created a plot touching on two very real aspects of living in today’s world, teen prostitution and unscrupulous land development, and turned it into an absorbing read. Full of twist and turns, relationships good, bad and ugly, the main character Georgia Davis, ex-cop and now P.I., is up to the challenge.

Upon the murder of a young teen, a mentally disabled young man is found at the scene of the crime holding the weapon and covered in her blood. The lawyer for his defense is sure that he did not do it and hires Georgia to try to find evidence to prove it. Through her search she finds herself trying to put together clues that seem to be buried in the very upscale and political North Shore. This book has secrets galore and as each unravels more secrets appear. Full of powerful interconnections, blocking her at every turn, Georgia has a difficult time breaking through the codes of the elite. Leads keep turning around, who can she trust? Who can she safely question? Who will the killer strike next? This book will definitely hold your attention. I thoroughly enjoyed it, the characters were well-formed, and grew as the story went along. I highly recommend this murder mystery and will definitely read other books by this author, I loved this book.

The Riverbones: Stumbling After Eden in the Jungles of Suriname by Andrew Westoll

This book is difficult to describe. On the one hand, it is historic and delves into the politics and ecological problems in clear prose, but on the other hand, the author seems to show himself as self-satisfying, drunken though compassionate, irresponsible in his personal relationship, and not the type of person who would be writing this book. I found it difficult to reconcile the two.

Andrew had been to Suriname before, as part of a team of researchers working in the Central Suriname Nature Reserve studying monkeys. He left Suriname after a few months to return to Canada, but Suriname never left him. Several years later, he abruptly leaves once again, this time leaving a fiancé behind, and heads off on his obsessive need to return to Suriname. With no real goal in mind except to explore the heart of the country, he immerses himself completely. When he hears of the extremely rare and most protected tiny blue frog, okopipi. This one tiny shining frog becomes even more of an obsession and he will not leave Suriname before he finds it. His stay in Suriname extends far beyond his original timeset. This sets the background of the story.

Suriname as described is most certainly an Eden, but as with all versions of Eden, there are snakes. Snakes in human form, political form, internal warring, deception, conglomerates who poison the ground and the water, and also poisonous snakes, in fact some of the most poisonous in the world exist in this country.

One of the largest man-made lakes in the world buried the jungle canopy and misplaced 43 Maroon villages, scores of dead bodies of villagers, animals, and the once buried. As the waters rose, a group of SPCA volunteers under Operation Gwamba made the largest animal rescue in history by rescuing with little more than “normally used to capture raccoons in the subburban alleyways of Boston.” Young (23 yr old) Walsh and his team “saved 2,104 three-toed sloths, 1,051 nine-banded armadillos, 479 red howler monkeys, 161 pygmy anteaters, 36 tapirs and 3 jaguars, just to name some of the larger animals.” This was done over a period of 18 months. It is hard to imagine wrestling frantic deer, boars, giant armadillos into dugouts! The rescue itself took a terrible toll on the workers with everything from infected bites to dengue fever. The grim reminder of the drowned jungle are the tops of the trees, the canopy, now dead and standing like ghostly sentinels all through the lake.

Suriname is dying. There is barely a spot in the jungle or plain or lake that is not full of poison; workers do not have any protection against the poison they work with, their drinking water is poisoned, everything they do poisons them more, from the clothing they wear and wash in the poisoned water, to the food they cook, being washed and stewed in poisoned water. Shamans have cures for a lot, but they must remain hidden and their secrets which could save many in the world will die with them. Children are often born deformed or blind, and there seems no end to what is happening. There appears to be no answers. The young people of the “cities” drink their type of beer, dance to reggae, and seem to have forgotten what oral history they may have heard. I can understand the author’s feelings and would not be surprised to find he returns to Suriname once again. Over all an excellent book, but with so much history I would rather not have him dwell so much on being hungover when has initiated trips into the wilds. I found that a bit of an annoying aside. It made me feel as though he was afraid of being thought a hero. His interaction with the Surinamese is remarkable otherwise. Difficult to put down, I would prefer to give it 4 1/2 stars for the sheer amount of legend, myth, history, zoology, botany, and political information researched and well-told.

Withering Heights: An Ellie Haskell Mystery by Dorothy Cannell

I haven’t read any of Dorothy Cannell’s books before but I must say I found it a lighthearted and sometimes laugh out loud change of pace. I completely enjoyed the book, however implausible it may be, that is part of the fun. Ellie obviously has a rich imagination and a problem with drifting off into her own scenarios in her mind with the slightest trigger, into a world of gothic romance fiction with herself as the main character. Her partner in crime solving is the irrepressible and ever helpful Mrs. Malloy, her housekeeper. This time out, Ellie’s husband Ben’s twice-married cousin has won the lottery. His daughter Ariel from his first marriage shows up at the house in a anxious state and begs Ellie to come to Yorkshire to Cragstone House where the family has quietly moved since winning. There are many strange events happening. Of course the mansion is spooky on entering to add to the mystique. Disappearances, sudden “accidental” deaths, a bit of “gaslight” all add up to a delightful light romp solving the mystery. Very entertaining and funny, I loved Dorothy Cannell’s writing, wit, and old-fashioned plot with modern twists. I will definitely read more of her books, especially between “heavy” reads, what a relief she will be.

The Lace Reader by Brunonia Barry

Brunonia Barry has given us a provocative, unique and very compelling debut novel. The story takes place in Salem, Massachusetts, the perfect setting for this full-blown, mystic, and tormented tale. Towner, the main character, is from a family of psychic lace readers, although they do have visions and premonitions without reading lace as well. Towner, who changed her name from Sophya, can also read lace. She is a tormented soul with visions of her twin sister, Lyndley, who had died. She has been in and out of hospitals, often with mis-diagnoses and has even taken shock treatment, not realizing how important her visions are. Towner considers herself crazy, genetically crazy in fact.

The main lace reader is her great aunt Eva, although the whole family is able to read the lace, except perhaps her brother Beezer. The disappearance of Eva, who has been Towner’s anchor and mothering influence, brings her back from California. Having just had surgery, the return has been especially hard on her. Her mother, May, is a complicated woman and Towner does not get along well with her. When she enters Eva’s home, she feels her presence and knows she has come back. She “sees” her and talks to her and so sets the mood of the story. There are so many secrets, references to the old Salem witch trials, tourism featuring witches, mysteries, religious fanatics and many other interests in the story that it keeps the attention and wonder going all through. The ending took me completely by surprise, as it should. In fact, there are surprises throughout. I thoroughly loved the book, and want to read it again soon, I’m sure there are many things I missed the first time. I was so taken with the Ipswich lace and lace reading, I even looked it up and am adding a couple of quotes and a website at the end of this review. I highly recommend this book to anyone who dreams. I would say it suits several genres, mystery, fantasy, history, medical, psyche, abuse, reality and more.

Author’s note: “...loosely set in 1996, but I have combined Salem details I found interesting from other years in the same decade...”

Quote from The Laces Of Ipswich : The Art And Economics Of An Early American Industry, 1750-1840 by Marta Cotterell Raffel: “In its lace making heyday in the late eighteenth century, Ipswich, Massachusetts boasted 600 lace makers in a town of only 601 households.”

An article of interest from the Salem Gazette:

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

A fascinating look at an island few know much about. Beginning in 1946, just after the war, this story is told mostly through letters, so well-written it is difficult to realize it is a novel. It soon encompasses the reader to such a point that the characters become friends. Mary Ann Shaffer has obviously done a great deal of research to capture the essence so completely. By a fortunate bit of serendipity a farmer in Guernsey, Dawsey Adams, has written a letter to Juliet Ashton in London asking where he might obtain writings of Charles Lamb. He has contacted Juliet because he had an old book that had her name written inside. Juliet in the meantime has become an author in her in her own right. From this point on, communications are sent back and forth between Juliet and several people in Guernsey.

Guernsey was occupied by the Germans during WWII and through the letters we learn how the Occupation affected the people of the island. The underlying thread is that the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society came into existence on the spur of the moment, when a group of friends who had gathered for an illicit dinner, were caught out after curfew. Quick-thinking Elizabeth tells them they were at a meeting of the Guernsey Literary Society discussing “Elizabeth and Her German Garden” and enjoying it so much they lost track of time. This apparently appeased the patrol officer, and the Society was henceforth born, but now truthfully to read and discuss books. You will laugh over the roast pig incident and learn that a few Occupiers were even compassionate.

Guernsey was totally cut off from the rest of the world during the Occupation, which lasted 5 years, and knew nothing of what was happening in England. They were able to see some of the attacks on France from the island. Now, in 1946, they are trying to return to normal living. The correspondence with Juliet brought them to a point where the members of the Society indicated they would love to have her visit, so visit she did. The island and the people won her over and Juliet is no longer sure she wants to return to London. This is a warm, friendly, funny and compassionate story, a war story, and a love story. I found myself feeling as though I knew these people and their island personally. In fact immediately after finishing the book I went to the computer and looked up Guernsey to see this island that captured her so. Although the final work on the book was taken over by the author’s niece due to the author’s health, whatever was done by Annie Barrows fits smoothly into the whole. I loved the book beginning to end. It is very sad to realize that there can be no more stories by Mary Ann Shaffer, as this shining light has been snuffed far too soon by her death earlier this year.

The Shining World by Kathleen McDonnell

Originally posted Jan 25, 2009

The second book of The Notherland Journeys trilogy
, Kathleen McDonnell has done it again. This time out, little Mi, one of the Nordlings, has learned how to move from one world to another, but now she is missing. Peggy, whose imagination has created Notherland, is once again called back by Molly, who was her doll when she was a little girl, but in Notherland is alive. The search for Mi takes the main characters of the series, Pay-Gee (Peggy), Jackpine, Molly and Gavi, to many different worlds or perhaps one world in different times. The reader meets such luminaries as Sir John Franklin, Arctic explorer; Grania O’Malley, the Pirate Queen of the 16th century; and William Blake, poet and artist of the 18th century.

They also visit the late 18th century, a time of exploitation of children in workhouses and other forced child labour. While the author handles this darker time with a lighter touch as far as details are concerned, I would not recommend this book to pre-teens. This book contains a lot of factual history and the research that went into the it is amazing.

That aside, the book with its journeys is another magical work. Again, there are lessons in the book subtly given. This trilogy has been a joy, and grows along with its heroine, Peggy. Inside the journeys characters experience new things, in particular self-discovery. At different times they separate into different worlds for specific reasons, but the discovery of Mi brings them all together once again to help her return to herself and heal her soul. I highly recommend this series for perhaps 12 up to and including adults who need a little light in their lives.

The Nordlings by Kathleen McDonnell

Originally posted January 26, 2009

The first book of a trilogy, a Canadian Childrens Book Centre Choice, The Nordlings are the inhabitants of the Notherland world. Peggy, or Pay-Gee as the Nordlings refer to her, imagined this wonderful world into being when she was a young girl. Now a disillusioned and angry 15 year old, she is brought back to Notherland.

Notherland is in trouble and in danger of disappearing altogether. During Peggy’s four year absence, her imaginary world has undergone some changes and taken on a life of its own, not all of it good. She has been called back by her Notherland friends who consider her the Creator of their world and therefore the only one who can save it. The Nordlings are disappearing and only one is left. Peggy must somehow gather the courage, imagination and belief to defeat the feared and sinister Nobodaddy who dwells in the cold and dark “Hole at the Pole”.

Kathleen McDonnell has crafted a wonderful story of adventure while also imparting some important lessons for life. Colour and music, two of the strongest senses of peace and joy, are a major influence in the feel of Notherland. Her books keep me enveloped in a cozy cocoon of memories of childhood imagination. She takes me out of my adult worries and transports me very effectively. I, a grandmother, delight in reading the adventures in Notherland and am looking forward to handing these books over to my young grandchildren when they get older.

The Christmas Train by David Baldacci

A lighthearted read evoking a simpler time, the story centers around a disillusioned journalist and his chance to complete what his father had never been able to accomplish. Tom Langdon had known for years that there was a familial connection to Samuel Clemens aka Mark Twain but he was not aware that his father had a last wish for Tom to complete a story that Twain had never finished. A story of taking a train across the country at Christmastime. Twain supposedly took many notes on the trip, but had never made a story from them.

As it turns out, Tom is planning to travel across the country to be in California by Christmas to be with his girl-friend, and will be traveling by train because he is not allowed to travel by air due to a volcanic temper tantrum in the airport after a long, tiring flight and a probing search at the security gate. Thus he decides to follow through on his father’s deathbed wish. He decides he will take his own notes and compile them into a story. Traveling by rail he hears the stories of many people who have made the trip many times before. He also meets a young couple wanting to get married on the train, an eccentric old woman who seems to know everyone very well, a film director, and a person from his own past. At one point on the trip there also appears to be a bit of a thief, and this story runs along in the background.

David Baldacci has created a little rolling world peopled with interesting and varied characters. Then everything comes to a screeching halt as they become trapped in this little world with apparently no way out. I really enjoyed this book, and particularly the subtexts and direction changes, red herrings and subterfuge with a dash or humour. This was a good Christmas story and the ending took me completely by surprise; I’m sure to be reading it again next Christmas. Surprisingly, this is the first Baldacci book I have read and I know this is not his usual fare, but of course I will be reading some of his other books in 2009! I definitely recommend it.

To Every Thing There Is a Season by Alistair MacLeod

A beautiful little book that I could relate to so well. This is a Christmas memory of the author, Alistair MacLeod, at the age of eleven on the threshold of leaving childhood behind. The story takes place on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia in 1940, on a small family farm. Snow season begins as early as October in Cape Breton. In the author's words, "My family had been there for a long, long time and so it seemed had I. And much of that time seems like the proverbial yesterday. Yet when I speak on this Christmas 1977, I am not sure how much I speak with the voice of that time or how much in the voice of what I have since become....For Christmas is a time of both past and present and often the two are imperfectly blended."

To every thing there is a season, and to every page there is a gorgeous illustration. Illustrated by Peter Rankin, the time and place are beautifully captured. This is a warm, comforting "olden days" portrait of Christmas; although it is written for 1940, it conjures Christmases of an earlier time as well. An excellent short story to read for Christmas, it is only 47 pages long including history, author note and illustrations. It would make a nice traditional family Christmas story to read every year.