Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Monthly Recap: January 2012

January was my first full month of book blogging uninterrupted by holidays.  I plan on keeping up the pace of two or three reviews per month, and it will be a mix of crime fiction with other good stories.  I tend to get into reading ruts, and right now I’m in a domestic fiction/ chick lit rut.  I need stories with more than a character’s psychological arc right now, so I’m settling in with more crime fiction.  This will also help me knock out some of the requirements for the  Criminal Plots II Challenge , which I have yet to read for yet.  I will still review some new releases, but I’m also going to focus on backlist titles in a quest to (a) clear some books from my shelves and (b) read/ catch up on author’s previous works.  What else?  A few classics, to take care of another challenge I’m doing.  A few literary fiction award winners or finalists, just to see what all the fuss is about.  I find it hard to find literary fiction I love, so from time to time I go on hiatus from reading it if I’ve read a bad or uninteresting run of them. 

DEFENDING JACOB by William Landay

Defending Jacob is the story of Jacob Barber, a fourteen year old from Newton, MA, accused of stabbing one of his classmates to death.  Andy Barber, Jacob’s father and an assistant district attorney narrates the tale, covering the roughly six month period between the murder, the trial, and its aftermath.  It’s a fast read if you’re in the mood for a courtroom saga with plenty of twists and turns.

Andy is pretty prickly and unlikable.  It was hard for me to empathize with him in the first 100 pages.  He seems so blinded to the possibility that his son may be guilty that he’s a bit hard to take.  He’s also a bit hard to take because he doesn’t seem to realize what’s going on with his wife Laurie or his son Jacob as they suffer through this ordeal.  Maybe the whole point is that he’s supposed to be so thoroughly unlikable and so thoroughly blind to the possibility that his son is a killer:  we the readers are in the same place his wife is in.

Another reason it’s hard to empathize with any of the characters in the book, most of all Andy, is that the book is driven by dialogue.  It feels very much like a screenplay:  lots of dialogue, lots of short scenes.  Of course any crime thriller involves a lot of conversations or interrogations with witnesses and suspects, but not every thriller contains mostly dialogue.  It’s harder to get a sense of the characters interior lives because there’s more dialogue than narration.

The main asset of this book is the plot, which is laden with twists.  I think the book definitely picks up once Jacob’s trial begins.  Landay doesn’t spend as much time delving into Laurie and Jacob’s minds, which I think is a disadvantage of the book.  Defending Jacob is more of a thriller than a psychological thriller.  For books that take on being the mother of an accused killer, I also recommend We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver and Before and After by Rosellen Brown.

DEFENDING JACOB by William Landay
Delacorte Press
Publication date:  January 31, 2012
Source:  Publisher via NetGalley

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

A GROWN-UP KIND OF PRETTY by Joshilyn Jackson

A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty by Joshilyn Jackson is a story of mothers and daughters.  Ginny, also known as Big, had her daughter Liza when she was a teenager.  Liza, in turn, became a teenage mother to Mosey.  This story takes place in Mosey’s fifteenth year, the year her mother suffers a stroke, and the year in which a handyman uncovers Liza’s box with baby bones in their backyard.  It’s no mystery to Big and Mosey that Liza’s biological daughter died, but the mystery is who Mosey is.
Like just about every book I’ve read recently, this book alternates narration from character to character:  the supremely motherly Ginny, the recovering-addict-and-recovering-stroke-victim Liza, and the angst-ridden Mosey, who embarks on a search for her real parents.  Jackson captures the voices incredibly well, from the Big, the struggling Liza, and the confused Mosey.  What I very much appreciated about the characters is that they weren’t quirky for the sake of being quirky, which I sometimes feel when I read contemporary Southern novels. 

The actual plot or actual mystery is not the main draw of this book:  this book is not about suspense about Mosey’s actual parents or about Liza and her deceased daughter.  This book is about the characters, how they care for each other, and how they help each other through the incredibly rough patches they are going through.  Jackson is very good at capturing the voices of her three main characters, especially Big and Mosey.  The main villain is not so fleshed-out, but that’s not a hindrance to the story.  Another thing I loved about this story is that the side characters like Mosey’s friends were well-rounded characters, not just wisecracking sidekicks.  That’s not to say that this story or its characters are humorless:  there’s plenty of humor throughout the book that keeps it from being relentlessly bleak.

I’d recommend this book most to people who like smart, teen-angst-tinged stories, be they books, movies or TV shows. 

A GROWN-UP KIND OF PRETTY by Joshilyn Jackson
Grand Central Publishing
Publication date:  January 25, 2012
Source:  Publisher via NetGalley

Tuesday, January 24, 2012


The Baker’s Daughter by Sarah McCoy is both historical fiction and contemporary fiction.  It’s the story of Elsie, the eponymous baker’s daughter, who emigrated to Texas after World War II, as well as the story of Reba, a contemporary journalist who meets Elsie while she’s on assignment for a magazine story about Christmas traditions from around the world.  Elsie’s story is the story of her family’s struggles to survive in Nazi Germany during World War II.  The book also takes on illegal immigration in the border town of El Paso through Reba’s boyfriend’s Riki’s story as well as Reba’s struggles to deal with the grief over her father’s death.  It’s not light subject matter at all, but it is an involving read.

First, I’d like to comment on the structure of the book.  Elsie and Reba become friends during the course of this book, but Elsie doesn’t tell Reba the story of her youth during World War II.  This feels right to me:  it was a pretty horrific time for her and her family, and she’d like to move on.  I think that Elsie and Reba connect because they are both non-native Texans who had rough childhoods, and in that sense, their stories echo each other. 

My favorite sections of the book are the Elsie sections:  she’s a feisty heroine, despite all the conflicts she faces.  She might strike some readers as too perfect, as in wise beyond her years.  I don’t want to give away the details of her story because I think it’s best to enter the novel with a blank slate.  The plot wasn’t necessarily the strongest point in this book because the woes that befall Elsie during and immediately after the war are quite extreme, but somehow, not necessarily unbelievable. 

The other aspect of the book that I enjoyed were the various relationships among the women:  Reba and Elsie’s daughter Jane, Reba and her sister DeeDee, Elsie and her mother, and Elsie and her sister.  Those sections felt spot-on psychologically.  This is a book about relationships among family members, friends, and with beloveds.  Also, the last section of the book made me very weepy.  If you’re looking for a book with good relationships, a gripping story about World War II told from the perspective of a German teenage girl, and a good, sad, ending, check out this book.

Crown Publishing
Publication date:  January 24, 2012
Source:  Publisher via NetGalley

Thursday, January 19, 2012


Salvage the Bones is the story of the Batiste family, who lead difficult lives in a small town near the Mississippi coast.  This novel is the story of the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina and its immediate aftermath as told by Esch, the only girl in a family of boys, whose mother died after giving birth to her youngest son. 

Esch’s voice is amazing:  she’s a smart, tough teenager.  She’s a bit in love with Manny, the father of her unborn child.  She fiercely loves her siblings and even her depressed, alcoholic father.  She especially loves her brother Skeetah, who in turn loves his pit bull China, who gives birth in the opening chapter of the book.  Skeetah’s relationship with China is Esch’s model for parental love.  Her dysfunctional model for romantic love comes from her assigned summer reading of Edith Hamilton’s Mythology:  the love story of Medea and Jason, which ends in betrayal.

This is not a sentimental story.  The Batistes are in tough circumstances:  Dad is an alcoholic who can’t keep a job and is very depressed since his wife died.  The family has little money, which hurts Randall, who aspires to play college basketball.  Esch starts having sex at age 12, and she’s a teenager who’s pregnant.  Skeetah raises China, the pit bull, and fiercely tends to her puppies because they are his future source of income.  The details of the story make it seem like it will be a tough go, but the strong voice of Esch makes it work.  She’s strong, a bit moony over Manny, and a dedicated mother already.  The other thing that makes the story work is that I don’t feel manipulated by the story or by the characters.  It’s not a tragic story with a feel-good hook of a sad and wise-beyond-his-years child.  I’m thinking of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer.  These kids feel smart but real. 

Finally, what makes this work is the tone of the tragic story.  We all know that Hurricane Katrina is coming, and we all know what horrendous damage it left in its wake.  Every episode in this story, from the pit bull fighting to the kids fighting to the hurricane march onward, inevitably to the storm. 

I was surprised by how much I liked this book.  I thought the dog fighting and grim story would be too much, but they weren’t.  The writing is very good—and very deserving of the National Book Award—and the characters felt very real.  I hope Jesmyn Ward returns to University of Michigan, where she received her MFA, for a reading soon.

Bloomsbury USA
Publication date: August 31, 2011
Source: library

Sunday, January 15, 2012

THE BOY IN THE SUITCASE by Lena Kaaberbol & Agnete Friis

I’ve been on a Scandinavian crime kick for the last six months, and this is the best book of the lot I’ve read.  It’s also one of the best books, period, that I’ve read in a very long time.  Almost always I find something that annoys me about a book:  a section, a storyline, a character that feels out of place or just not real.  I loved the characters, the pacing, and the tone in this book.  Seriously, I have no complaints. 

Nina Borg, a self-described burnt-out social worker and a Red Cross nurse discovers the boy in the suitcase, three-year-old Lithuanian Mikas, in a parking garage near the Copenhagen train station.  It’s a gripping beginning.  The story cuts from character to character involved in this kidnapping tale:  Nina, wealthy business executive Jan Marquart, Mikas’s mother Sigita, and, finally, the villain Jucas.

The characters are real, complex people, and there is no idealized superhero among them.  All the characters have interesting histories that do not let them off the hook for the not-so-great things they’ve done.  Nina, for example, is a nurse who devotes her all to the refugee children in her care but can’t devote herself to her own children.  Also, the main antagonist Jucas is not just a steroid-fueled monster, which is saying quite a lot for a villain in a thriller.  Even the characters that we see just in passing are interesting, like Jan’s wife Anne.

The pacing of the story is great too, probably because the chapters are fairly short and alternate from character to character.  Since this is not a typical police procedural or private investigator novel, there aren’t slow sections of witness interviews either.

Finally, I don’t feel manipulated emotionally by this book.  It’s dark subject matter:  kidnapped foreign children living in Denmark.  And making the missing boy so young could be seen as a ploy for sympathy, but somehow I don’t feel yanked around by melodrama.  The story doesn’t feel sensationalized.

THE BOY IN THE SUITCASE by Lena Kaaberbol & Agnete Friis
Translated by Lena Kaaberbol
Soho Crime
Publication date:  November 8, 2011
Source:  library

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

THE NIGHT SWIMMER by Matt Bondurant

The Night Swimmer is the story of Elly and Fred, a young couple from Vermont who win a pub in southwest Ireland in a contest.  This book is, in part, a story of the end of their marriage.  The rest of the story is the tale of being outsiders in a small Irish coastal town.  The pub itself is on the mainland, but Elly ends up spending most of her time on a nearby island in order to indulge her love of swimming in open water.

The opening of the book, which covers Elly and Fred’s early years (they meet as literature graduate students), sucked me in.  I was expecting the book to be the story of the train wreck of their marriage like Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, which Bondurant references early in the book.  The fireworks are minimal, though.  By the time the couple moves to Ireland, they essentially live apart:  Fred on land in the pub, trying to write a novel, and Elly staying on a nearby island and swimming. 

The book invokes Cheever in a number of ways.  Elly, the narrator, wrote her thesis on The Journals of John Cheever, excerpts of which begin every chapter of the book.  Instead of swimming in suburban swimming pools like the main character in “The Swimmer,” Elly swims in the sometime-treacherous open waters.  This also feels like Cheever in that the story is of an unhappy couple.  Elly and Fred fit the bill, and Fred may even be slightly mentally ill with his obsession with building his own gun, as the time-traveller in his novel will do. 

Finally, the last pleasure of the book is the evocative setting.  Elly describes the weather, the water, the land, and the people of the small town and small island beautifully.  There is a bit of a gothic aura to the story of the islanders too.

I finished the book slightly disappointed because I wanted a bit more of a plot or a more vicious showdown between Elly and Fred, but that’s not what this book is about.  It’s a mood piece of a faltering marriage and of the couple being shunned by the locals and of the wonders of swimming off the south Ireland coast

THE NIGHT SWIMMER by Matt Bondurant
Publication Date:  January 10, 2012
Source:  Publisher via NetGalley

Wednesday, January 4, 2012


I haven’t read much by Alan Bennett.  I read The Uncommon Reader, which was sort of a comedy piece about the Queen of England becoming an avid reader, and I watched the film version of The History Boys.  This collection of paired stories, Smut, fits with what I know of Bennett:  the stories are funny, smart, and humane toward its main characters.  And, of course, given the title, these stories contain plenty of sex.

The first story, “The Greening of Mrs. Donaldson,” involves the sexual awakening of a fifty-five-year old widow who supports herself as an actor in medical student demonstrations and as a landlady.  The second story, “The Shielding of Mrs. Forbes,” involves two couples:  Graham and his wife Betty, and Graham’s parents.  This is the story that made me see the humane side of Bennett in the final pages.

Both stories deal with small town propriety:  basically every character has a bit of a tawdry sex life that they are intent on keeping from their neighbors.  These are, after all, stories of seemliness.  Bennett does poke fun at suburban mores, but these pieces are not straight satires.  He cares for his characters, even the snobby elder Mrs. Forbes.  I don’t want to give away much more about the details about these delightful stories.   They are witty stories about hidden sex lives.

Smut:  Two Unseemly Stories by Alan Bennett
Publication Date:  January 3, 2012
Source:  Publisher via NetGalley

Tuesday, January 3, 2012


The Retribution by Val McDermid is the latest installment in the criminal profiler Dr. Tony Hill and Detective Chief Inspector Carol Jordan series.  It is the story of the search for two serial killers:  Jacko Vance, an escaped prisoner that Hill and Jordan captured in an earlier book, The Wire in the Blood; and a serial killer in Bradfield, home of Carol’s soon-to-disband Major Incident Team.

While I’ve read a lot of McDermid’s books outside this series, this is only the second Tony Hill/ Carol Jordan book I’ve read.  Why?  The Mermaids Singing was a little too gruesome for me.  The Retribution, however, is disturbing without being too disturbing.  How does McDermid manage that?  The plot keeps moving, with plenty of twists to keep you guessing.  Also, she clearly loves her characters, and not just the primary ones.  There is enough going on with the members of Carol’s Major Incident Team to keep you distracted from the horrors of the two serial killers on their respective killing sprees in this book.

As for the major characters of Tony and Carol, they are interesting not just for the bits of backstory McDermid doles out in this installment:  they are so interesting because they are both flawed, damaged people who manage to thrive in their respective professions.  Tony is socially awkward to the extreme, and Carol is coping with the stresses her job has created during her career.  I won’t divulge more in order to preserve the surprises for new readers.

One other note:  even though I read this book out of order, it did not create any problems.  Since there are seven books in the series, there are enough that I won’t remember all the twists that The Retribution mentioned as backstory.  Even if this is the first Tony Hill and Carol Jordan book you read, you won’t be lost.

The Retribution by Val McDermid
Atlantic Monthly Press
Publication Date:  January 3, 2012
Source:  Publisher via NetGalley