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Monday, April 5, 2010

From the New Shelf

Cassandra has a gift. Born with the ability to see glimpses of the future, Cassie settled into life as a successful psychic advice columnist for one of Ireland's biggest papers. Although she has no problem seeing other people's futures, she has a blind spot when it comes to her own, particularly when it comes to men. But with the help of her hilarious and diverse pack of friends and their complicated love lives, Cassie finds herself with a new career as a television psychic and a new man in her life, who happens to be dating her best friend. If only she had seen that coming. Carroll brings her characters to life with biting wit and honest humor, and the story is as funny as it is relatable. Although the tale of a famous psychic may not sound realistic, Carroll's lively and captivating novel is delightful and authentic.
Booklist Review; September 2009.

To Heaven By Water
Justin Cartwright

Whitbread winner Cartwright offers his latest saga of flawed relationships and unfulfilled dreams. David Cross is a retired celebrity news anchor and a widower of 11 months. To his friends, he remains witty and erudite; to his older brother, he is merely 'the lackey of the international media'; and to his children, Ed and Lucy, he is now an enigma. They still mourn their mother but have the distinct feeling their dad is happier now than when she was alive. Ed and his wife are depressed at remaining childless, while Lucy feels abandoned, both by her deceased mother and her most recent boyfriend. But David, instead of standing firm as the stalwart father, exercises to excess and contemplates selling the family home, for which he has lost all affection. He then departs for a sojourn in the Kalahari Desert to try to bond with his dying brother--a brilliant vehicle for Cartwright's pondering of how we all wonder whether our lives could have been better, or at least different. A beautifully told story of the fragility of love, aging, and memories.
Booklist Review; July 2009.

Everything Matters!
Ron Currie

In Curie's curious second novel (after NYPL Young Lion Award-winning God Is Dead), a young man nearly succeeds in his attempt to inject meaning into a doomed world. A mysterious voice has accompanied Junior Thibodeax all his life, having chosen the moment after Junior's birth to tell him that a meteor will destroy Earth in 36 years. The voice also tells him secrets about his father, his girlfriend and his brother, as well as providing a cure for cancer and sage advice against bombing a federal building. From modest beginnings, Junior descends into violent insanity before finding himself lifted to a position of supreme importance. But even with his foreknowledge, the prophet cannot win every battle, and the ones he loses are more than sufficient to break his heart. Curie shows an appreciation for whimsical storytelling, leaning on unlikely chains of events and multiple perspectives to tell what could otherwise be a very dark tale, and though the omnisciently narrated portions come off as heavy-handed, the big decision he makes toward the end recasts the story in a strangely hopeful light and lends a pile of emotional currency to the book's title.
Publishers Weekly Review; April 2009.

Barbara Hambly

Two women, one a Northerner with a husband fighting for the Confederacy, and one a Southerner yearning to attend art school in Philadelphia, exchange letters and find in their unlikely friendship the strength to survive the Civil War, and though shades of Scarlett O'Hara occasionally pop up, Hambly manages a mostly original take on a much-covered era. Newly wed to Tennessean Emory Poole, Cora Poole retreats to Deer Isle, Maine, to remain true to her husband among friends and relatives who abhor his allegiance and suspect hers. In Greene County, Tenn., Emory's neighbor, Susanna Ashford, dabbles in the arts while facing an increasingly dire reality. The correspondents share feelings, views of current events and accounts of their respective tribulations: Susanna nurses the wounded, hunts and sews to pay for her sister's midwife. Cora raises her infant daughter, cares for her demented mother and also sews as the war exhausts resources. The leads are three-dimensional, occasionally surprising and always sympathetic as they find in their unlikely friendship the strength to accept the loss of their ways of life and to seek new ways where they both might thrive.
Booklist Review; September 2009.

Big Machine
Victor LaValle
LaValle has garnered critical acclaim for his previous works (a collection, Slapboxing with Jesus, and novel, The Ecstatic), and his second novel is sure to up his critical standing while furthering comparisons to Haruki Murakami, John Kennedy Toole and Edgar Allan Poe. Gritty, mostly honest-hearted ex-heroin addict protagonist Ricky Rice takes a chance on an anonymous note delivered to him at the cruddy upstate New York bus depot where he works as a porter. Quickly, Ricky finds himself among the 'Unlikely Scholars,' a secret society of ex- addicts and petty criminals, all black like him, living in remote Vermont and sifting through stacks of articles in a library devoted to investigating the supernatural; the existence of a god; and the legacy of Judah Washburn, an escaped slave who claimed to have had contact with a higher being that the Unlikely Scholars now call 'the Voice.' Ricky's intoxicating voice--robust, organic, wily--is perfect for narrating LaValle's high-stakes mashup of thrilling paranormal and Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, as the fateful porter--something of a modern Odysseus rallied by a team of 'spiritual X-men'--wanders through America's 'messianic hoo-hah.'
Publishers Weekly Review; June 2009.

Murder Takes the Stage
Amy Myers

More than 20 years ago, Rick Marsh disappeared while on a backpacking trip. Despite the best efforts of his father and sister, true-crime writers Peter and Georgia, no trace of him was ever found. Never giving up, Peter and Georgia are following a new lead when Georgia has one of her 'fingerprints in time' episodes--an eerie sense of evil done years earlier. Making no progress on Rick, Peter and Georgia decide to investigate the 'fingerprint.' They become involved in the case of Tom Watson, a circus performer accused and then acquitted of murdering his wife decades earlier. Despite Tom's acquittal, his friends and neighbors were sure he was guilty, so they weren't surprised when he disappeared. But there were plenty of people who had a motive for wanting Tom's wife dead and Tom out of the way permanently. Can they uncover the long hidden truth? As usual in this series (Murder and the Golden Goblet, 2007), Myers produces an entertaining, cleverly plotted mystery starring an engaging duo.
Booklist Review; October 2009.

Dolen Perkins-Valdez

In this memorable first novel by Memphis-born Perkins-Valdez (English, Mary Washington Coll.), four friends meet each summer at a resort in Ohio but can share only snatches of time. Lizzie, Reenie, Sweet, and Mawu are black slaves brought to the resort each year by their vacationing Southern masters as personal servants and sexual companions. Their presence discomfits the Northern whites and black servants in the free state of Ohio, but the real angst lies within each woman's struggles: Mawu is determined to escape her sadistic master; Lizzie admires Mawu's independent spirit but concentrates her efforts on wheedling her master into granting freedom to her own children. Readers of historical fiction centering on Southern women's stories like Lalita Tademy's Cane River or Lee Smith's On Agate Hill will be moved by the skillful portrayal of Lizzie's precarious situation and the tragic stories of her fellow slaves.
Library Journal Review; December 2009.

Murder on Astor Place
Victoria Thompson

Sprinkled with fascinating details of turn-of-the-century New York City, Thompson's old-fashioned mystery takes the reader from the mansions of Fifth Avenue to the flophouses of the Lower East Side. Sarah Brandt is a midwife who has been estranged from her wealthy family for years. When Alicia VanDamm, a young woman from a prominent family, is murdered, Sarah must return to the upper-class society she has scorned to find the killer. Haunted by her past and disgusted by police department corruption, Sarah takes it upon herself to avenge the girl's death. Annoyed at first by her interference, Detective Sergeant Frank Malloy asks for Sarah's help only when he has been taken off the case at the request of the victim's scandal-fearing family. The feisty midwife and the ambitious policeman grudgingly become allies in their search for justice. Sarah and Frank are appealing characters, and the author develops their rapport subtly and believably. In this first installment in a new series of historical mysteries, Thompson vividly re-creates the gas-lit world of old New York, concluding her mystery with revelations that will shock even 20th-century readers.
Publishers Weekly Review; April 1999.

Monday, March 29, 2010

From the New Shelf

Sheramy Bundrick

In a knockout debut novel, art historian Bundrick (Music and Image in Classical Athens) brings Vincent Van Gogh's paintings and personal story to vibrant life. While Bundrick takes many liberties (recorded in an author's note) in her fictionalized account of Van Gogh's affair with her narrator, fille de maison Rachel Courteau, she gives Rachel such a believable voice that the proceedings seem genuine. At 35, Van Gogh meets lovable spitfire Rachel while surreptitiously sketching her in a garden. Having taken refuge in an Aries brothel after the death of her parents, Rachel greets Van Gogh as a customer not long after, and soon feelings blossom between them. Visiting friend Paul Gauguin and the cloud of Van Gogh's madness undercut the couple's bliss, as do financial troubles and Rachel's life at the maison, where she's kept a virtual prisoner. While infusing well-known historical moments (like Van Gogh's infamous self-mutilation) with vivid details, humanizing Van Gogh and putting his famous works in context, Bundrick generates an impressive volume of suspense, delight and heartbreak. Publishers Weekly Review; August 2009.

The Wildwater Walking Club
Claire Cook

The rest of your life starts with one step. Noreen Kelly learns this the hard way when she takes a buyout offer at her small shoe company and wakes up the day after--jobless, dumped by her slick co-worker, and wondering who she is and what she wants. She becomes tentative friends with Tess and Rosie, and together the women form a walking club, each step bringing them closer together and closer to the life solutions they all seek. Cook creates likable female characters with realistic flaws. The plots are marked with Gilmore Girls-type dialogue and settings, utterly charming from beginning to end. There's plenty of laughs, anger, sorrow, and rage to keep the story moving along at a breezy pace; and all the subplots involving the multigenerational characters and their kooky suburban antics are tied up nicely. There's a little more edge here than in a typical "gentle" novel, but more softness than in an edgy "hen-lit" novel. Miss Julia would be proud to be friends with these women.
Booklist Review; April 2009.

The Last Bridge
Teri Coyne
Coyne's compelling debut shines an unnerving light on the fallout from a childhood rooted in abuse. Alexandra "Cat" Rucker, an alcoholic strip club cocktail waitress, returns to her childhood home after her mother kills herself. She's been gone 10 years and is now uncomfortable around her brother, Jared, and sister, Wendy; while confronting her past, she also tries to discern the meaning of her mother's suicide note: "He isn't who you think he is." Alternating between the complicated present and the horrific past, Coyne portrays the myriad ways family members cope with abuse. Cat's mother lived in a world of her own; Cat, the oldest, bore the brunt of her father's attacks; Jared buried himself in school sports, occasionally coming to his sister's defense when it was safe to do so; and Wendy focused on being the perfect daughter. Then there's Addison Watkins, the son of a family friend who at once offered a haven and a challenge to teenage Cat. Though the occasional one-liners distract rather than enhance, Coyne's prose effortlessly carries the reader through a thorny history and into possible redemption.
Publishers Weekly Review; March 2009.

Once on a Moonless Night
Dai Sijie

The spell cast by Dai Sijie's novels, beginning with his bestselling Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (2001), is attributable, in part, to his work as a filmmaker (his fiction is strikingly visual) and his bicultural and bilingual experiences. Sijie left China for France at age 30 in 1984. The unnamed narrator in his third bewitching novel, a French college student, makes the reverse trip. Inspired by Paul D'Ampere, a gifted French linguist who retraced the steps of Marco Polo and then disappeared, she goes to Peking to study Chinese in 1978, learns about a long-missing ancient Buddhist scroll, and falls in love with Tumchooq, who is named after "the language in which Buddha preached." Tumchooq's connection to D'Ampere and the lost Buddhist sutra is slowly revealed within a finely embroidered sequence of flashbacks and testimonies. As impressionistically historical as it is imaginative, Dai's dreamlike tale of epic quests and love put to the test is exquisitely structured to illuminate "Hell, the earthly world, and Paradise" within the Forbidden City, a Chinese prison camp, Paris, Mali, and Burma. Sijie's dazzling and magical saga intimates that language is transcendent; books are precious; translation is a noble art; stories are the key to freedom; and truth prevails.
Booklist Review; September 2009.

Named by the Library of Michigan as a Michigan Notable Book for 2010, SEASON OF WATER AND ICE is the unforgettable story of two young people confronting life during a tumultuous few months of 1957. In quiet but searing prose it explores the enduring issues of love and family, the destructive forces to which these ideals are exposed, and the healing powers which can restore them. Danny DeWitt, aged fourteen, lives with his father in a rural area of northern Michigan following the family's abrupt move from the city and the unexplained departure of his mother. Bookish and friendless--and wanting to "stand at the side of things for a while"--Danny becomes acquainted with Amber Dwyer, a pregnant teenager abandoned by her boyfriend and rejected by her family and community. Both outsiders--one by choice, the other because of social stigma--Danny and Amber form an unusual, openhearted alliance which helps each to deal with their separate challenge. Amber must build a life for herself in the face of intolerance, and Danny must come to terms with his mother's rejection and his father's growing isolation. The friendship is tested when Amber's abusive boyfriend returns and Danny's mother draws further away, leading to a crisis which threatens Amber and her unborn child, as well as Danny's conception of love and manhood. Reflecting the political and social climate of the 1950s, Season of Water and Ice is underscored by themes of independence and obligation, love and sexuality, courage and surrender. This realistic work will appeal to both adult and young adult readers.
Book Description

Little Bird of Heaven
Joyce Carol Oates

Oates once again takes us to deteriorating upstate New York, this time the city of Sparta, where, as in We Were the Mulvanys, a tragic incident has devastating effects on two families. When Zoe Kruller is found brutally murdered, suspicion falls on husband Delray and on lover Eddy Diehl. Neither man is arrested, but each is forced to live under a veil of continued suspicion. In this story, it's the children who suffer the most, and they also narrate: first Eddy's daughter Krista and then Delray's son Aaron. Eddy separates from his wife and family and leaves Sparta, but Krista believes in her father's innocence, recounting life before and after the crime and offering her recollections of Zoe. Aaron recounts finding his mother's body and the bitterness of living with such notoriety. In typical Oates irony, Krista develops a crush on Aaron, climaxing in a deeply emotional scene; 15 years later they find out who killed Zoe. Readers will find the psychological suspense combined with tragedy and redemption a good read.
Library Journal Review; September 2009.

There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby
Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

A novel and a book of stories in Petrushevskaya's exceptionally bleak realist mode have been published in the U.S., but she remains obscure here, whereas, her translators say, she is the best-known living writer in Russia. Her fantasies play out in the same totalitarian atmosphere of scarcity, suspicion, hopeless ness, and fear as does her realist fiction. The purely descriptive subtitle calls them all fairy tales, but according to the titles of the four sections into which they're sorted, they're "Songs of the Eastern Stars," "Allegories," "Requiems," and finally, "Fairy Tales" and if it's true that those in the final group contain the most supernatural events, there are plenty of inexplicable things in the others (quite often, the dead return bodily to their loved ones). All are told as if by a plain tale-teller, whether in first or third person: that is, directly, specifically, and concretely, without explicit interpretation. Sometimes, the density of action and the fact that characters are called only by first names, sobriquets, or functions (the father, the doctor, etc.) obscure the personae and encourage thinking of them as Everymen, Everywomen, and Everychildren, not singular personalities. If most of the stories end sadly, some at least suggest that better things may come. The auras of Samuel Beckett and the baleful Albanian magic realist Ismail Kadare blend in Petrushevskaya's work.
Booklist Review; October 2009.

The Tourist
Olen Steinhauer

Superbly accomplished at both plotting and characterization, Steinhauer, in a change of pace from his series of Eastern European thrillers (e.g., The Bridge of Sights; Victory Square), offers an emotionally damaged protagonist who is an experienced spy or "tourist" but now a family man and desk-bound agent of the post-9/11, scandal-ridden CIA. When Milo Weaver is called back to fieldwork and assigned to capture an international assassin, it sets off an investigation into one of Milo's colleagues. The story is long and complicated but compelling and hard to put down. As is true of the better spy novels, the theme here is betrayal. Forays into blind alleys, puzzling clues, lapses of judgment, narrow escapes, and ingenious attainment of objectives establish Milo as a skilled operative performing difficult tasks while being systematically deceived by compatriots and adversaries. Accepting the contemporary story as potentially realistic, readers are led into hoping that their country's intelligence-gathering leadership is actually in better hands--and performing for less venal reasons--than the novel suggests. Appropriately, this story includes a full measure of cynicism, very little humor, and a tender conclusion.
Library Journal Review; November 2008.

Monday, March 22, 2010

From the New Shelf

Paganini’s Ghost
Paul Adam

A day after a heavily promoted violin recital in Cremona, Italy, at which prize-winning Russian prodigy Yevgeny Ivanov plays the priceless violin once owned by Paganini, a visiting French art dealer is found murdered in his hotel room. When a scrap of paper torn from a Paganini piece played by Ivanov seems key to opening an ornate gold box found in the victim's possession, violin maker Gianni Castiglione (introduced in The Rainaldi Quartet, 2006) is called into the case by his friend, police detective Antonio Guastafeste. Castiglione cracks the code to find that the now-empty box once housed a small violin, setting him-- with Guastafeste--on a cross-continental search, during which other murders are committed, and Castiglione must call on his knowledge of history, genealogy, and provenance to find long-missing treasures and solve the crimes. In this stylish mystery, widower Castiglione is further humanized by his developing romance with Margherita Severini and his relationship with young Ivanov. An intriguing puzzle combines with an enthralling mix of Italian ambience, history, and--most of all-- music.
Booklist Review; January 2010.

Sandra Brown

Bestseller Brown (Smash Cut) brings Depression-era Texas to vivid life in this poignant short novel. At the recommendation of Dr. Murdy Kincaid, Ella Barron, a hardworking woman whose husband deserted her, accepts David Rainwater, a relative of the doctor's, as a lodger at the boarding house she runs in the small town of Gilead, Tex. As the local community contends with a government program to shoot livestock and the opposition of racist Conrad Ellis, a greedy meatpacker, to poor families butchering the meat, Ella grows closer to David. Meanwhile, David becomes a special guardian angel to Solly, Ella's nine-year-old autistic son. Dr. Kincaid has gently suggested Ella put Solly in an institution, but she refuses to do so. Brown skillfully charts the progress of Ella and David's quiet romance, while a contemporary frame adds a neat twist to this heartwarming but never cloying historical.
Publishers Weekly Review; October 2009.

The Frightened Man
Kenneth Cameron

Cameron, who also writes military thrillers with his son under the name Gordon Kent, launches an impressive historical-mystery series. It's 1900, and London is a bustling, crowded metropolis--the perfect place for an American named Denton to lose himself. Seeking to escape his tragic past, Denton has moved to London after writing a series of dark, atmospheric novels that have been best-sellers in America. One evening, he receives a mysterious visitor. The man is stuttering with terror, swearing he's just seen the Ripper. Denton discounts the man's hysterical claims, but when he learns that a teenage prostitute has been brutally murdered not far away, he wonders if there's a connection. When Denton talks to the police, they give him short shrift and seem to want to wrap up the murder with minimum fuss. This only makes Denton more determined to seek the truth. Along the way, he encounters London's seedy underbelly and meets the brusque but oddly charismatic Janet Striker. Together, the pair begins to unravel a shocking and horrifying story. A gripping page-turner, Cameron's novel combines a devilishly clever plot, enigmatic characters, a foreboding atmosphere, and a shocking finale. A top pick for all crime collections.
Booklist Review; May 2009.

Erhart (Bully Creek) steers clear of the earnest obsessions that weighed heavily on her early books in her fifth outing, a quaint novel of the American West enlivened by a quirky mystery. En route from St. Louis to visit her in-laws in Flagstaff, Ariz., young Jane Merkle meets two women botanists on the train. Their paths cross again after Jane, having lost her luggage and traded her fancy dresses for dungarees and a butterfly net, becomes enthralled with her new surroundings and ranger Euell Wigglesworth. As it turns out, Elzada, one of the botanists, is in town to help investigate a 13-year-old murder, and as the mystery unfolds and dark secrets come to light, the canyon works its magic on Jane. Erhart, a river and hiking guide, teases her readers about the sweet silliness of human affairs in the face of the magnitude of nature, and the cleverly plotted mystery becomes a lark of a vehicle for Erhart's thoughtful prose. This novel is light and agreeable, touched with just the right amount of awe at the splendors of nature.
Publishers Weekly Review; September 2009.

Arcadia Falls
Carol Goodman

Goodman (The Night Villa) delivers the goods her fans expect in this atmospheric and fast-moving gothic story: buried secrets, supernatural elements, and a creepy setting. Following the death of her husband, Meg Rosenthal accepts a job teaching at an upstate New York boarding school and moves there with her teenage daughter, Sally. The school, Arcadia Falls, also happens to be central to her thesis, which focuses on the two female coauthors of fairy tales: Vera Beecher, who founded the school, and her friend Lily Eberhardt, who died mysteriously in 1947. While the campus is bucolic, school life proves anything but--Meg thinks she sees ghosts and Arcadia's brightest and most ambitious student, Isabel Cheney, is found dead in a ravine. Feeling Sally drifting further from her each day, Meg finds refuge in Lily's preserved diary and begins to unravel the secrets behind Isabel's death. Goodman doesn't do anything new, but her storytelling is as solid as ever, and the book is reliably entertaining.
Publishers Weekly Review; November 2009.

Darkness Visible
J M Gregson

Gregson's Lambert and Hook series keeps getting better. The trademark meticulous descriptions of police investigative techniques are still there, but Gregson is fleshing out his characters more, making them feel absolutely real and adding warmth and humanity to his stories. Lambert and Hook's latest case concerns the death of one Darren Chivers, a despicable character if ever there was one. Chivers wasn't content with pushing drugs; he'd also launched a lucrative sideline in blackmailing. So when he is found shot dead in a remote country lane, it's up to Lambert and Hook to figure out whether it was drug related or whether one of Chivers' blackmail victims murdered him. As the two go about checking motives and alibis, they find themselves wrestling with too many leads: all of their suspects have a motive, none of them has an airtight alibi, and all of them have plenty to gain and little to lose from Chivers' death. But nearly two weeks after the murder, despite their long years of experience and their finely honed coppers' intuition, Lambert and Hook still haven't solved the case. A cracking good read for fans of British police procedurals.
Booklist Review; September 2009.

Kazuo Ishiguro

A once-famous crooner believes he must destroy the very core of his life to achieve a comeback. A young songwriter excels at selfishness rather than creativity. A gifted yet unheralded saxophone player is persuaded to undergo plastic surgery to enhance his visual appeal in a world that values image over talent. As a recipient of the Booker Prize and the Order of the British Empire, Ishiguro is no stranger to the vagaries of fame, nor, as a Japanese British writer, is he unfamiliar with the misapprehensions one's appearance can arouse. Questions of identity, artistic integrity, and success shape each of the five meshed stories in this droll and enrapturing collection. Each tale of musicians, muses, and users is funny and incisive; each is a fable about the dream of mastery and the nightmare of pragmatism; and each dramatic story line delivers arresting psychological transformations. Encompassing a palatial hotel in the insomniac dead of night and sun-kissed hills, an immigrant journeyman guitar player weathering prejudice in Venice and a young cellist enthralled by an unlikely mentor, dissonant marriages and shattering recognitions, Ishiguro's stories are at once exquisite and ravaging. Much like the haunting music of down-and-out jazz great Chet Baker, whom Ishiguro names to strike just the right crepuscular note.
Booklist Review; August 2009.

The Vintage Caper
Peter Mayle

Mayle uncorks a winning wine caper in the tradition of To Catch a Thief. When a hot-shot Hollywood lawyer's most treasured and expensive wines are stolen, his insurance company calls in Sam Levitt, a gourmand and lawyer-of-all-trades with a varied background, to investigate. The investigation takes Sam to Paris and Bordeaux, where he hooks up with the elegant insurance agent Sophie Costes, a fellow wine and food snob. The trail finally leads them to a man named Francis Reboul in Marseille, and soon, with the help of Sophie's journalist cousin, Phillipe, they get an in with Reboul and close in on closing the caper. While the plot may be predictable, the pleasures of this very French adventure--and there are many--aren't in the resolution, of course, but in the pleasant stroll through the provinces and in the glasses of wine downed and decadent meals consumed.
Publishers Weekly Review; June 2009.

Monday, March 15, 2010

From the New Shelf

The Book of Fires
Jane Borodale

Borodale deftly conjures up mid-eighteenth-century London in her spectacular debut. The premise is a familiar one--pregnant and unwed, an impoverished young county girl sets out for the big city desperately seeking to hide her disgrace--but the story that unfolds is also a fresh and fascinating investigation into the art and the science of pyrotechnics. When fortune lands desperate Agnes Trussel on the doorstep of an embittered fireworks maker, she becomes Mr. J. Blacklock's apprentice. Teaching her the tricks of his trade, he also works feverishly on an innovative formula to infuse color into fireworks. As her condition becomes increasingly difficult to hide, a world rife with new possibilities seems to dangle just beyond her reach. In addition to her pregnancy, Agnes also harbors another shameful secret that threatens her precarious security and gnaws away at her soul. Readers who loved Jane Eyre will appreciate the atmosphere of tension and foreboding that permeates the narrative.
Booklist Review; December 2009.

The Red Velvet Turnshoe
Cassandra Clark

Set in 1383, Clark's compelling second historical (after Hangman Blind) takes Sister Hildegard, healer and sleuth, to Italy on a secret mission 'to bring back the legendary cross of Constantine,' a powerful relic coveted by the archbishop of York. In the guise of a pilgrim, Hildegard joins an armed baggage train that includes a shipment of wool. When the stinking corpse of a clerk with his throat slashed turns up in a crate of wool on the travelers' arrival in Flanders, Hildegard has to wonder who would want to murder a lowly clerk. With England in the middle of the Hundred Years' War and Europe divided between rival popes, everyone's allegiances and loyalties are uncertain. The author paints an authentic picture of late medieval life as Hildegard journeys from the Yorkshire moors to thriving Flemish towns and on to alpine passes leading to the wealth of early Renaissance Italy. Enough questions remain at the end to leave readers eagerly anticipating the next installment.
Publishers Weekly Review; October 2009.

The Ingenious Edgar Jones
Elizabeth Garner

Misunderstood, misfit hero Edgar Jones, a boy who revels in invention, who literally wants to fly, whose very body marks him as strange, will grab your heart. Edgar's personality rivals that of John Irving's Owen Meany--a brilliant, odd little boy with a naive trust in human nature and a childish thirst for adventure that sets him apart from the staid Victorian world. Edgar's inquisitiveness lands him in trouble with his masters: first the blacksmith; then the ironworkers; then his beloved professor, an inventor; and finally his own father. Like any inventor, Edgar must first learn to take things apart, and that's what he does; but it's what he creates and why he does it that make him so compelling. Garner uses Edgar's character as a way of exploring the ideological revolution in Oxford during the early 1800s, as science battles religion for supremacy. Edgar's parents find themselves trapped in this changing world, first encouraging their son's ingenuity and boldness, then shocked by the outcome. The lovely cadence of Garner's language and her careful attention to the physical world as a story mirror create an atmosphere of excitement and wonder.
Booklist Review; April 2009.

The Listener
Shira Nayman

Word for word, sentence for sentence, paragraph for paragraph, Nayman creates a gripping narrative with style and depth. Set in a post-World War II asylum, the cast of characters interact within their defined roles of clinicians, nurses, and patients. However, when Dr. Harrison encounters a mysterious patient with a dark secret in his counseling sessions, the well-defined boundaries that separate the characters slowly erode as their lives intertwine. In the process, the arbitrary lines between sanity and insanity are exposed. Nayman paces the narrative well, with thick, sensuous writing throughout, developing each character with a compelling reality. Much like her collection of short stories, Awake in the Dark, this novel continues to explore the ways in which individuals negotiate and construct their sense of identity. Featuring a plot as rich as the characters, this is a thought-provoking and psychological exploration of love, war, and human identity. Readers who enjoyed Ian McEwan's Atonement will enjoy the introspective tone of Nayman's work.
Library Journal Review; October 2009.

The Bride’s Farewell
Meg Rosoff

Pell Ridley is the adventurous heroine in this serviceably told tale, the fourth novel for London-based Rosoff, who has written successfully for the YA market. On her wedding day, Pell leaves town on her faithful horse, Jack, grudgingly bringing along her mute younger brother, Bean. Pell shirks expectations and jilts her childhood beau, Birdie, with an oddly modern defiance of 1850s England convention. No matter that Birdie seems a nice enough man, unlike her abusive father-- Pell is stubborn in her desire to flee the domestic life in Nomansland that mires her mother in a sea of children and overwork. Pell arrives at the Salisbury horse fair and her adventures begin. She is separated from Bean and her horse but meets a poacher she dubs Dogman (he travels with a pack of dogs) and together they wander the countryside living on bread crusts and flickering hope. Pell's love and knowledge of horses factors largely in her fight for survival, but it's human love-- romantic and familial--that drives plucky Pell and leads us to this simple but satisfying story's happy if unsurprising conclusion.
Publishers Weekly Review; June 2009.

Lady Vernon and Her Daughter
Jane Rubino

Inspired by Jane Austen's novella Lady Susan, this biting social comedy from mother-daughter duo Rubino (the veteran author) and Rubino-Bradway (the first-timer) is a delightful, worthy homage to Austen. In 19th- century England, Lady Susan Vernon is left nearly penniless after her honorable, wealthy husband dies and his unscrupulous little brother, Charles, bilks Susan and her daughter, Frederica, of their share of his fortune. Forced to rely upon the kindness of friends, the two spend several months bouncing from home to home. Subjected to the two-faced machinations of her social circle (particularly from Charles's wife, Catherine), Susan cleverly (and believably) turns several of her enemies against each other, using their own words. As in Austen's novels, securing a generous dowry and a 'good' marriage (that is, one with money and status) is the all-important goal of every woman, but Susan is a dynamic character more than capable of delivering a shocking surprise.
Publishers Weekly Review; August 2009.

Tomato Rhapsody
Adam Schell

It takes a lot of confidence to encroach on Shakespearean territory, but Schell displays sufficient moxie in this delectable debut. The lush Tuscan countryside is the predictable yet appropriate setting of his sixteenth-century romp through a multitude of humorous scenarios involving both forbidden love and the introduction of the tomato into the heart, soul, and stomach of the Italian populace. At the core of the novel is a deceptively simple boy-meets-girl plot featuring a lovelorn Jewish tomato farmer and the beautiful Catholic daughter of a devious olive magnate. Of course, anyone who knows their Shakespeare knows that the course of true love never runs smoothly, and Schell displays the finesse of a master chef as he spices up the story with a delicious array of humorous subplots--ranging from the bawdy to the sweet--guaranteed to appeal to discerning literary palates.
Booklist Review; May 2009.

The Penny Pinchers Club
Sarah Strohmeyer

Kat's incurable shopping habit and her husband Griff's enabling have driven them into serious debt. When she discovers Griff's secret bank account and condom wrappers in his pocket, her friends are certain he is planning to divorce her, suspicions further fueled by Griff's whispered conversations with his attractive assistant. To survive a divorce, Kat needs to shape up her finances. She joins the Penny Pinchers Club, a quirky support group, and soon she gives up Starbucks and buying in bulk. As she adopts more drastic measures, a wealthy former boyfriend hires her to decorate his historic home. When Griff confronts her about their spartan lifestyle and the time she is spending away from home, she has no choice but to reveal her fears. Strohmeyer, author of The Cinderella Pact (2006), creates a relatable protagonist with a timely problem. The twists are predictable, but the ending is satisfying.
Booklist Review; June 2009.

Monday, March 8, 2010

From the New Shelf

The Anthologist
Nicholson Baker

Baker has a gift for writing novels about the unlikeliest of subjects. In his first novel, The Mezzanine, he wrote about buying new shoelaces, while Vox concerned an intimate phone conversation. His newest work of fiction is about poetry. The narrator, Paul Chowder, is a poet who is struggling to write the introduction to an anthology of rhyming poems he's collected. He's also trying to win back Roz, the woman who has just left him. These dilemmas make for some enlightening, absorbing reflections on poetry, the creative process, and life itself. While Chowder admits that he despises teaching, the narrative offers a wonderful explanation of what poetry is and the relationship between form and meaning. In the process, Chowder comes to understand himself better and pulls out of a slump. The novel's subtle sense of humor comes through as Chowder deals with injured fingers, a misbehaving dog, and the perils of reading his poetry in public.
Library Journal Review; August 2009.

The Day the Falls Stood Still
Cathy Marie Buchanan

Buchanan's first novel illuminates the beginnings of hydroelectric power in Canada during World War I. Fortunes are made and lost on electricity supplied by Niagara Falls, and Bess's family suffers particularly--her father loses his job at the local electric powerhouse, and her sister Isabel loses both her rich fiance and her life, drowning in the river. Bess and her mother turn to tailoring to make ends meet, and Bess continues with her work when her naturalist husband, Tom, goes off to fight. Returning from the war, Tom goes to work for the electric company to support the family, although he deplores the effect of the generators on the Niagara River. In the end, this conflict between the natural world and progress leads to tragedy. Historical fiction readers will appreciate the excellent period detail, especially the depiction of the era's social mores, and the romance between Bess and Tom is also a high point.
Library Journal Review; September 2009.

The Guinea Pig Diaries
A J Jacobs

Jacobs, the author of The Know-It-All (2004) and The Year of Living Biblically (2007), could be the funniest nonfiction writer this side of Bill Bryson. His latest book comprises a collection of experiments: living according to George Washington's 110 rules of civility; following the tenets of Radical Honesty; outsourcing pretty much his entire life to Bangalore, India; unitasking (doing only one thing at a time); and so on. The experiments themselves are fascinating and lead to genuinely surprising conclusions--you can't really predict, for example, what will happen when you decide to tell the unvarnished truth all the time--and Jacobs' storytelling is lighthearted and frequently laugh-out-loud funny. With the publication of his first two books, he carved for himself a niche as a journalist who undertakes mammoth projects (reading the Encyclopedia Britannica cover to cover; living according to the tenets of the Bible); here he demonstrates that he's an eager and willing subject for pretty much any sort of journalistic experiment, even one as potentially humiliating as having his photograph taken, in the nude, for Esquire. There aren't a lot of nonfiction books you want to read over and over, but this is certainly one of them.
Booklist Review; July 2009.

David Malouf

Revisiting scenes from The Iliad and delving into the hearts of two ancient heroes, Malouf (Remembering Babylon) evokes the final days of the Trojan War with cinematic vividness. After Achilles withdraws his forces from combat, a move that cripples the Greek army, his best friend, Patroclus, persuades Achilles to let him take the Myrmidons back into combat and to wear Achilles' armor. After Trojan king Priam's beloved son, Hector, kills Patroclus, guilt, rage and grief drives Achilles on a frenzied quest for revenge that sees him slay Hector and then tie Hector's corpse to his chariot and drag it around the besieged city. Priam, desperate to stop the desecration, decides to visit the enemy camp and offer money in exchange for Hector's body. He hires a humble cart driver and, aided by Hermes, they set out on a journey that takes Priam into the unknown and toward a meeting with Achilles. Though Malouf's sparingly deployed details, vigorous language and sly wit humanizes these tragic heroes, the story is unmistakably epic and certainly the stuff of legend.
Publishers Weekly Review; October 2009.

The Affinity Bridge
George Mann

In this intriguingly bizarre version of 1901 London, Sir Maurice Newbury, ostensibly an academic, is a trusted agent of the Crown. The ailing Victoria charges him and his assistant, Veronica Hobbes, with discovering the cause of an airship crash, which may be linked to innovative automata now acting as servants all over London. Meanwhile, Scotland Yard is dealing with numerous strangulations perpetrated by a glowing policeman and an outbreak of a 'revenant plague' that turns people into mindless, murderous zombies. Readers should not be put off by the introduction of several apparently unrelated investigative threads; Mann brings them together and ratchets up the action as the story progresses. Although the imagery is occasionally repetitive and some loose ends are tied up rather abruptly, overall, this series launch by the editor of The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction is a strong addition to the 'steampunk' subgenre and one that creates a lively alternative world.
Library Journal Review; June 2009.

The Invisible Mountain
Carolina De Robertis

The history of Uruguay through the 20th century sparks personal tragedies amid political intrigues and cultural upheavals in this enchanting, funny and heartbreaking debut novel. Three generations of women populate this sweeping saga: Pajarita, the miracle child who at the dawn of the new century disappears and then reappears in a tree, born twice, as the residents of her small town say; Eva, Pajarita's daughter, who suffers a cruel childhood and learns to spin her painful experiences into a new life of art and adventure as a poet; and Salome, seduced by communism and nearly losing everything fighting for the cause she believes will save her country. This novel is beautifully written yet deliberate in its storytelling. It gains momentum as the women's lives spin increasingly out of control while Uruguay sinks into war, economic instability and revolution. An extraordinary first effort whose epic scope and deft handling reverberate with the deep pull of ancestry, the powerful influence of one's country and the sacrifices of reinvention.
Publishers Weekly Review; June 2009.

The Corner Booth Chronicles
Mimi Thebo

Eudora, a quintessentially Middle-American small town, teems with the sort of characters who value both convention and predictability. Polite, patriotic, and plainspoken, they take pains to preserve a patina of peace among the populace. But change nevertheless arrives in Eudora. Recent immigration has given the town a Latino mayor, and old verities and customary social order can no longer be taken for granted. When the first copies of a novel by one of Eudora's native daughters arrive, inbred aversion to public scrutiny competes with equally irresistible curiosity and lust for celebrity as townspeople try to identify themselves among the fictional characters. Thebo sketches her characters as if an artist in a portrait gallery, showing not only their external appearance but also the conflicted emotions and impulses that seethe just below the skin and cannot be indefinitely suppressed.
Booklist Review; June 2009.

The Kids are All Right
Dan Welch

'We all wanted to go home, but none of us could because we had no home to go to.' Like Dave Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000), this frank, wry, aching memoir follows children of privilege in the 1980s who lose everything after the sudden deaths of both parents. In alternating narratives, four siblings describe life after their father is killed in a car crash and, months later, their mother dies from cancer. After being shuttled off to different East Coast homes and colleges, they try to maintain their connection, particularly with the youngest child, Diana. As the authors build on each other's memories, they find contradictions: 'Actually . . . the grapefruit-size tumor came later,' says Amanda as she tracks their mother's illness. 'I don't remember any of that,' says Liz, after Amanda finds her grieving and barefoot, surrounded by shards of a broken bathroom mirror. Starting with the title's pun, this unusual account will leave readers musing over memory's slippery nature; the imperfect, enduring bonds of family; and the human heart's remarkable resilience.
Booklist Review; September 2009.

Monday, March 1, 2010

From the New Shelf

The Broken Teaglass
Emily Arsenault

Fresh out of college, Billy Webb becomes an editor for a dictionary publisher in a small town, where he struggles with learning to live as a 'real adult' and enduring his stultifying job. When coworker Mona shares an oddity she finds in the reference citations, the two follow clues to a mystery secreted in the dictionary's archive. Verdict Debut author Arsenault is being compared with Jasper Fforde and Marisha Pessl; while she is less playful than Fforde, she shares his love of wordplay and metafiction. Like Pessl, Arsenault focuses on smart characters who don't realize they are in a mystery until it is almost too late. A good read for anyone who loves puzzles wrapped around a solid story and appealing protagonist.
Library Journal Review; September 2009.

DeLeeuw's debut novel is a riveting exploration of the dark side of self. Six-year-old Luke is playing in a park when he discovers a new friend, whom he names Daniel. Although no one else can see Daniel, he is not imaginary. He lives with Luke and his unstable mother, Claire, in a luxury apartment in New York. Daniel's existence waxes and wanes, depending on whether Luke needs a companion or is the recipient of his mother's sporadic attention. But after Claire attempts suicide when Luke is a teenager, he allows Daniel to be a stronger presence in his life. Through the end of high school and on into college, Daniel pushes Luke to experiment with drugs and alcohol, to have sex before he's ready, to frighten people, and to cheat and steal. Luke struggles to retain control over his own life while also trying to keep Claire from succumbing to her own doppelganger.
Library Journal Review; June 2009.

Bryant & May on the Loose
Christopher Fowler

Fowler's unique blend of the comic and the grotesque is on full display in his excellent seventh Peculiar Crimes Unit mystery (after 2008's The Victoria Vanishes). With the special police unit shut down, Arthur Bryant is feeling withdrawn and depressed while his partner, John May, is considering PI work. When a former team member stumbles on a beheaded corpse in the heart of London's King's Cross neighborhood, May artfully uses the discovery to gain the PCU another lease on life. He persuades the higher-ups that unsolved gang crimes in the area could threaten the economic benefit anticipated from the 2012 Olympics. Given one week to solve the case, without any official sanction or access to police resources, May pulls Bryant out of his doldrums and reassembles the unit. To May's dismay, his colleague is more interested in reports that a man wearing a stag's head has been seen in the area. The pacing, prose, planting of clues and characterizations are all top-notch.
Publishers Weekly Review; August 2009.

Emily’s Ghost
Denise Giardina

William Weightman's arrival in Haworth to serve as curate in Patrick Bronte's parish thrusts him into the life of the Bronte family as well as the broader community. Charlotte considers Weightman a potential husband whose clerical advancement could take them away from the district's poverty. However, his determination to work with the poor springs from both spiritual and political commitment. Slowly, he draws close to another sister, Emily, who shuns drawing-room flirtations in favor of tramping the moors and caring for animals. Yet she can't deny her growing attraction to Weightman. Giardina masterfully weaves biographical facts into the plot, including brother Bramwell's addictions and dissipation, Anne's work as a governess, and Charlotte's flirtations with a married professor. In the end, what engages readers are not these details but the imagined conversations and encounters, the developing romance, and the hope that somehow history might change.
Library Journal Review; June 2009.

It’s Beginning to Hurt
James Lasdun

This accomplished poet, novelist, and story writer's collection packs a devastating punch. Lasdun peels back the facades of middle-aged, middle-class types through their run-ins with cancer, infidelity and loss that lead them to deal with unexpectedly large and often ugly recognitions. The title story is less than three full pages, but generates near-boundless futility and regret as a businessman, having just attended the funeral of a long forgotten former lover, can't help falling back into the old habit of lying to his wife about how he's spent the day. 'The Incalculable Life Gesture' builds to a climax of relief as an elementary school principal, feuding with his sister, follows through a series of tests that indicate he has lymphoma--until a specialist reveals the truth of his ailment. In 'Peter Kahn's Third Wife,' a sales assistant in a jewelry boutique models necklaces for a wealthy wine importer who brings in a series of successive wives-to-be over the years. Jewels of resignation and transformative personal disaster, these stories are written so simply and cleanly that the formidable craft looks effortless.
Publishers Weekly Review; June 2006.

The Calligrapher’s Daughter
Eugenia Kim

This debut novel, inspired by the life of the author's Korean mother, is a beautiful, deliberate and satisfying story spanning 30 years of Korean history. The tradition-bound aristocratic calligrapher Han refuses to name his daughter because she is born just as the Japanese occupy Korea early in the 20th century. When Han finds a husband for Najin (nicknamed after her mother's birthplace) at 14, her mother objects and instead sends her to the court of the doomed royal Yi family to learn refinement. Najin goes to college and becomes a teacher, proving herself not only as a scholar but as a patriot and humanitarian. She returns home to marry, but her new husband goes without her to study in America when she is denied a visa. As the Japanese systematically obliterate ancient Korean culture and the political climate worsens, so do Najin's fortunes. Her family is reduced to poverty, their home is seized and Najin is imprisoned as a spy while WWII escalates. The author writes at a languorous pace, choosing not to sully her elegant pages with raw brutality, but the key to the story is Korea's monumental suffering at the hands of the Japanese.
Publishers Weekly Review; June 2009.

A Long Long Time Ago & Essentially True
Brigid Pasulka

Pasulka's delightful debut braids together two tales of old and new Poland. The old is the fairy tale love story of the Pigeon, a young man so entranced by village beauty Anielica that he builds her family a house to prove his devotion. When war comes to Poland, the Pigeon works for the resistance, guarding the town and his Jewish sister-in-law with creativity and bravery. After the war, he and Anielica get engaged and the Pigeon brings his family to Krakow, but the fabled promises of the golden city and the glories of communism prove hollow. The new tale is about Anielica and the Pigeon's granddaughter, Beata, whose plainness has earned her the nickname Baba Yaga. Now living in a much-changed Krakow, Beata is a bar girl with no hopes of love or plans for the future. When tragedy strikes and Beata uncovers family secrets, she brings together the old and new to create her own bright future. Pasulka creates a world that's magical despite the absence of magical happenings, and where Poland's history is bound up in one family's story.
Publishers Weekly Review; April 2009.

The Girl with Glass Feet
Ali Shaw

Combining magic realism, the conventions of a romance novel, and a British sense of practicality, this charming first novel creates a new fable. After visiting a family friend on a remote island, Ida Maclaird finds herself strangely and literally turning to glass. When she returns to try and find the mysterious scientist who may have an answer, she stumbles on old love triangles and Midas, a lonely young man trying to find a way to heal his own mysterious pains. As Ida and Midas try to unravel mysteries from the past generations, they also try to unravel the mystery of Ida's affliction and slowly find a connection to each other.
Booklist Review; October 2009

Monday, February 22, 2010

From the New Shelf

The White Garden
Stephanie Barron

Barron, known for her mysteries featuring Jane Austen, now focuses on another literary figure, Virginia Woolf. American gardener Jo Bellamy is commissioned to research Sissinghurst Castle's White Garden, created by Woolf's lover Vita Sackville-West, where she also hopes to discover why her grandfather committed suicide (decades earlier, he had tended the garden). Uncovering what appears to be Woolf's final diary with the first entry dated the day after the author apparently drowned herself, Jo enlists the assistance of manuscript expert Peter Llewellyn to verify its authenticity--but the diary is stolen. Jo and Peter follow literary clues to libraries and historical homes and attempt to recover the diary and solve mysteries past and present. Verdict Fans of historical mysteries and literary suspense novels will enjoy this entertaining read. Jo and Peter are engaging characters, and readers will be drawn into their adventure.
Library Journal Review; September 2009.

Generation A
Douglas Coupland

It's been 18 years since Coupland (JPod) identified and deflated Generation X in his 1991 debut. Now he blends the end with a new beginning, taking on Generation A. Set in a deteriorating near future, it's the story of five young people: an Iowan who farms nude; a New Zealander whose parents have abdicated belief; a sullen Parisian addicted to World of Warcraft; a Tourette's-afflicted Canadian dental hygienist; and a Sri Lankan telemarketer whose family was erased by a tsunami. Digitally plugged-in but otherwise isolated, they rise from obscurity when stung by bees, creatures that everyone thought extinct. Brought together on a remote island, they are asked by a shadowy scientist to, of all things, tell stories. With deft twists, seemingly random details are melded with grace. With strands of humor, sf, and social commentary, Coupland melds Chuck Palahniuk's wild imagination with Nick Hornby's character ensembles. This clever send-up of modern culture will send readers racing to the beginning to see what they missed on first pass. Lightning strikes twice! Coupland defines another generation and crafts a satisfying ode to the power of story.
Library Journal Review; October 2009.

India Edghill

Most people have at least a passing acquaintance with the biblical story of Samson and Delilah--the warrior bent on slaying as many Philistines as possible and the temptress willing to betray her lover for money. Edghill (Queenmaker) takes this ancient tale from the book of Judges and turns it on its end. Her Samson is a generous man of goodwill and kindness who longs for nothing more than to live in peace with his neighbors, Hebrews and Canaanites alike. Delilah is a young and devout temple priestess whose beautiful dancing attracts Samson's attention. The lovers are caught between the machinations of the rulers of the Five Cities and the Israelites who fight to claim Canaan, the land promised to them by God. Edghill has crafted a powerful, lyrical novel and created two unforgettable characters.
Library Journal Review; October 2009.

The Kingdom of Ohio
Matthew Flaming

Flaming's debut mixes time travel, historical grit and an alternate history of the American frontier in a romance with a fantastic bent. A contemporary antiques dealer, after coming across an old photo, unspools the story of Peter Force, newly arrived in 1900 New York from Idaho, as he joins a crew of laborers toiling in grim conditions to build the subway system. A chance encounter throws Peter into the path of Cheri- Anne Toledo, a troubled woman who claims to have traveled seven years into the future from the Lost Kingdom of Ohio, a small frontier kingdom over which her father reigned. Cheri-Anne's plight, and his feelings for her, drags them into the orbits of a crusty J.P Morgan and of dueling inventors Thomas Edison and Nicola Tesla. As Peter and Cheri-Anne evade the powerful forces invested in Cheri-Anne, the moment when their lives and the contemporary narrator's intersects looms closer and closer, creating palpable suspense. The journey through the seedier side of New York's Gilded Age, with reprisal killings for labor agitators and nights spent in drunken dance halls, is an arresting contrast to classic time- travel themes. This is a real crowd-pleaser.
Publishers Weekly Review; September 2009.

When Autumn Leaves
Amy Foster

In the tiny town of Avening in the Pacific Northwest, life hums with a peculiar sort of energy. Some call the town enchanted; others call it quirky. But all would agree that it is a special sort of hamlet, populated by some rather intriguing people. Perhaps the most intriguing is the town witch and wise woman. An individual of extraordinary, even magical talents, Autumn Avening is ready to retire--and must find a replacement from among the local denizens. With one year to choose, Autumn begins keeping an ever closer watch on her friends and neighbors, looking for just the right candidate. Through her eyes, we get intimate glimpses of the locals of Avening--strong men and women whose stories are both heartwarming and heartbreaking. Loose ends in Foster's strong debut indicate sequel potential for those who enjoy following characters from book to book. Fans of Alice Hoffman (Practical Magic) and Joanne Harris (Chocolat) will love getting to know the residents of this cozy, charming little town. Highly recommended.
Library Journal Review; September 2007.

Unfinished Desires
Gail Godwin

Bestselling author Godwin (Evensong; The Finishing School) brings readers back in time to the early 1950s in this endearing story of Catholic school girls and the nuns who oversee them. As Mother Suzanne Ravenel begins a memoir of her 60-plus years at Mount St. Gabriel's School in Mountain City, N.C., she's forced to re-examine the 'toxic year' of 1951-1952, one of her worst at the school--beginning with the arrival of ninth-grade student Chloe Starnes, who's recently lost her mother, and Mother Malloy, a beautiful young nun assigned to the freshman class. Starnes and Malloy's arrivals presage a shift in the ranks of freshman Tildy Stratton's cruel clique, with significant consequences for all involved. Change, when it finally comes, stems from the girls' attempt to revive a play written years before by Ravenel. Godwin captures brilliantly the subtleties of friendships between teenage girls, their ambivalence toward religion and their momentous struggle to define people--especially themselves. Poignant and transporting, this faux memoir makes a convincing, satisfying novel.
Publishers Weekly Review; September 2006.

A Good Fall
Ha Jin

In The Bridegroom (2000), his last collection of short stories, Ha Jin, a National Book Award winner, captures the paradoxes of life under China's Communist regime. In his new stories, sharply etched works remarkable for the contrast between their directness of expression and complexity of feelings, he creates a mirror-image set of tales about a Chinese immigrant community in Flushing, New York. Ha Jin's ear and eye for Chinese American life are acute, as is his sense of how one life can encompass a full spectrum of irony, desperation, and magic. The advent of e-mail enables a sister in China to blackmail her sister in America. A struggling composer develops a remarkable rapport with his absent lover's parakeet. Marriages come under duress, one due to the almost surreal insensitivity of a visiting mother, the other to the husband's suspicions about his wife and the strange truth they reveal. A classic story about grandparents from the old country appalled by their Americanized grandchildren is balanced by the startling title story, in which a young kung fu master and monk achieves an unforeseen form of enlightenment. The quest for freedom yields surprising and resonant complications in Ha Jin's sorrowful, funny, and bittersweet stories.
Booklist Review; November 2009.

True Confections
Katharine Weber

In her fifth novel, after Triangle (2006), Weber unleashes a wacky comic sensibility. Ostracized by her high-school clique and denied admission to college after accidentally setting fire to a classmate's home, Alice Tatnall applies for a job at Zip's Candies on a whim and finds her life's calling. Immediately taken under the wing of candy magnate Sam Ziplinsky, Alice learns the ins and outs of the candy-making business, from mixing the proper proportions of the ingredients to repairing the ancient production line that churns out the company's reliable moneymakers, Little Sammies, Tigermelts, and Mumbo Jumbos. She further cements her place within the company and the family by marrying Sam's son and heir Howard 'Howdy' Ziplinsky and bearing him two children. Billed as an affidavit, Alice's slyly funny, frequently self-serving, and perhaps unreliable narration leads to some unexpected surprises when Alice's old nickname, Arson Girl, comes back to haunt her in a big way. Filled with candy lore, impassioned critiques of chocolate, and Alice's one-of-a-kind takes on marriage and family, this is sweet reading for fans of the offbeat.
Booklist Review; December 2009