Wednesday, April 29, 2009

When you’re in love, the whole world is Italian

When you’ve got a novel subtitled, “A Fable of Love, Lust & Forbidden Fruit,” what’s not to like? Well, a few things, actually, but overall this debut novel is a charmer. It is being marketed as a comic romance between Jewish tomato farmer Davido and Catholic olive farmer Mari. And it is—but the star-crossed lovers don’t even lay eyes upon each other for nearly 100 pages. Their story is one of many taking place in an unnamed 16th century Tuscan village.

There we meet Davido’s Nonno (grandfather), who was introduced to the exotic tomato during his travels with Christopher Columbus in the new world. We meet Mari’s disabled mother and villainous stepfather, Giuseppe and Giuseppe’s conflicted henchman, Benito. Much of village life revolves around the church, and the Good Padre of this church is truly unique—from his all-embracing heart right down to his purple skin! We meet many other residents of the town: an outspoken housewife, a tolerant cheese maker, an intolerant butcher, a one-testicled tavern owner, and a very wise fool. To this cast of characters add Cosimo di Pucci de Meducci, III, grand Duke of Tuscany, and his chef, Luigi, who find their way to this back water town separately, and who each discover that this little village meets needs in themselves they never knew existed.

Beyond being a mere comedy or romance, this is a story of ignorance and anti-Semitism and of the struggle of good people for tolerance. And it is the story of the comfort and peace found in the Catholic Church. It is a story of village life, and a love song to the joys of Mediterranean food. I defy you to get through this novel without, at the very least, ordering in a pizza.

I found myself smiling throughout this quirky comic novel, but I will acknowledge that Tomato Rhapsody is not without its flaws, and will not be appreciated by all readers. It is Adam Schell’s debut, and he is still learning to use the tools of his craft: exposition, character development, plotting, etc. He’s experimenting a bit wildly with other tools: foreshadowing, flashbacks, direct address, symbolism, archetypes, footnotes, etc. I didn’t agree with all of his choices, but most of the faults were forgivable.

The bigger problems are that this novel is told in archaic-sounding language. Large sections of the dialogue are spoken in rhyme. (A sort of medieval rap, if you will.) And parts of this comic novel are crude or downright lewd. Many readers will find one or more of these elements extremely off-putting. Simply put, this novel is NOT for everyone.

I would suggest as a litmus test that you ask yourself how likely you would be to sit down and read a Shakespearian comedy? That, of course, refers only to style, and isn’t meant to suggest in any way that Schell’s work is in the same ballpark. No, it’s strange, and quirky, and flawed. But I liked it. And I smiled while I read it. I’m being a little generous with my four-star review, but I think there will be critics aplenty. I just wanted to applaud an author going out on a limb. I may never look at a tomato the same way again.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Where have you been all my life, Warren Fahy?

Fragment: A Novel
by Warren Fahy

It is hard to find the words to express how much I enjoyed this novel. Arguably it has flaws. I don’t care; I LOVED it! Here’s hoping this inventive debut is the first of many, many best-sellers from Mr. Fahy!

After a couple of prologues, Fragment opens with an American research ship coming to remote, unexplored Henders Island. The Trident, actually the setting for a semi-educational reality television show, had planned to bypass tiny Henders when an emergency beacon coming from the island turned it around. Botanist Nell Duckworth gets separated from the rest of the landing party when she spies some highly unusual plant life on the beach. The others move on, inland to the jungle. Nothing is like anything these scientists and crew members have ever seen before, and they’re broadcasting live as they go. Within steps, all hell breaks lose. There are screams. Cameras drop. There is confusion everywhere. The network breaks the feed. Back stateside and around the world the debate begins: Did you see Sealife? Was that a hoax?

Only one cameraman makes it back to the beach, chased by enormous, eight-legged, red-furred monsters. To Nell, they look like spiders crossed with tigers—spigers. She and Zero, the cameraman, barely escape with their lives. Cut to a few days later… The United States Navy has warships ringing the island. There is a complete media blackout. Agencies ranging from NASA to the U.S. Army have been brought in to get a team of scientists safely onto Henders to study this island ecosystem which diverged from our own evolutionary path more than 250 million years ago.

Does that sound far-fetched to you? If Fahy has a strength, it’s taking real science and using it to make the most implausible of plots utterly believable. That’s not fair, actually. Mr. Fahy has many strengths, the first of which is a wildly inventive imagination. On Henders he’s created an entire world, right here in the midst of our own. Another of his strengths is pacing. I read this novel in a day. From the opening chapter he had me hooked, but as I rapidly approached the dénouement, I literally could not turn the pages fast enough. Fragment started out fast-paced, and just got faster and tenser without ever flagging. As for plotting, yes, some elements of this novel are derivative. Already comparisons to Jurassic Park are flying around, and surely Mr. Fahy owes a huge debt to Michael Crichton, mostly, I’m guessing, for inspiration. He is not retreading the same old territory here. I could guess where some of the plot elements were going, but I could never guess what would happen when we got there. He blew me away every single time.

What are his weaknesses? Well, one is the sheer amount of science he’s relaying to his readers. I LIVE for that stuff, but that can’t be said of the average lay reader. I think he does as well as anyone, but it’s still a lot of science to exposit. The greater weakness is character development. Some of the characters were straight out of central casting, and time and time again, Fahy passed up opportunities to, for instance, make a bad guy more complex and less of a caricature. Most characters were not terribly fleshed out, and some may have acted inconsistently. And do you know what? I don’t care. Sure, that one element could have been stronger, but in no way did it take away from my enjoyment of this novel.

If this is fledgling author Fahy’s first effort, I can’t wait to see his follow-up! Fragment is a wild ride, but more than anything else it is just so much fun!

Thursday, April 23, 2009


OMG, freebies are so much fun! Today is my Amazon Vine leftover newsletter day, and for the first time ever they let us choose four items instead of two! It's so hard to pick just two out of about 200 items. Here are the four I chose:

Fragment: A Novel by Warren Fahy

Okay, since the moment I heard about it, I have been dying to read this novel. One reviewer described it as "the love child of James Rollins, Michael Crichton, and Al Gore." Seriously, what's not to love? It got a starred review in PW, and so far it seems to be getting raves. This sort of trashy science thriller is so up my alley it's not even funny. Oh, and debut novelist Fahy has some really cool stuff over on his website: Don't forget to check out more fragments... for more cool artwork and creature animations.

Last week I selected a novel called Tomato Rhapsody: A Fable of Love, Lust & Forbidden Fruit basically because it sounded "happy." As it happened, when it arrived on Monday it looked so appealing, I couldn't resist tossing aside the weighty (literally and figuratively) Sunnyside and diving in immediately. And you know what? It's charming, and it does make me happy while I'm reading it. So, Hothouse Flower is chosen for the same reason. It sounds like a light, fun happy book, with a little adventure and romance on the side. Plus, it got a starred review in PW, and is one of Amazon's picks for summer.

The Devlin Diary by Christi Phillips

This one also got a starred review in PW. I don't always agree with or understand why certain books receive the honor, but it's still something that carries a lot of weight with me. This is one of those thrillers that jumps back and forth between the past (London circa 1672) and the present (Cambridge in 2008) and it's a style I tend to enjoy.

Running from the Devil: A Novel by Jamie Freveletti
Okay, this is yet another thriller. There's a reason. I now owe reviews on about 14 novels. It's getting ridiculous! If there's a hope for me to ever catch up, I need to put down the 600-page literary tomes, and read and crank out reviews on some fun, light weight, fast-paced fiction. There's a method to my madness. Anyway, this one didn't get a starred review in PW, but it's been getting raves from my fellow Viners. It's Freveletti's debut, and I love giving those a chance. So, we shall see...

These should keep me busy for a few weeks. Thank goodness I've got four weeks until the next newsletter comes out. I can't wait to dive into these books!

Monday, April 20, 2009

Oh, the disappointment!

Ever since I read Carter Beats the Devil eight years ago, I have considered Glen David Gold to be one of my favorite authors based solely on that debut. Carter is one of my favorite novels. Therefore, it's unsurprising that I've been awaiting with anticipation Gold's sophomore effort.

I run into Glen at some literary event or other every now and again, and without fail I'd ask him for info about his second novel. Sometimes his answer would be vague and small-talky. At other times he was almost hostile when the subject would come up. Certainly it made me wonder what difficulty he was experiencing in his attempt to follow his celebrated debut. (With the added pressure of his wife's phenomenal success with The Lovely Bones the year after Carter was published.) Anyway, finally a publication date was announced for Sunnyside. It was last August, if I recall correctly. I watched the date come and go without a book. Finally, a new on sale date: May 5, 2009.

I was so excited to be able to get a galley of the novel through the Amazon Vine program. It's a bit of a doorstop at nearly 600 pages, but I couldn't wait to read it. Well, I've been reading it for about a week now, and I'm only about 150 pages in. No one wanted to love a novel more than I did, but I'm struggling here. That it's beautifully written goes without saying... But, it's hard to get into. After a promising opening the story dragged. I'm not sure how involved I feel with the characters. In short, I'm disappointed.

This is the trouble with great expectations. It's so much nicer to launch into a novel knowing nothing of the author or reviews and to leave pleasantly surprised. I do believe Sunnyside is picking up steam now, and I look forward to finishing and writing a full review. But I'm a little less excited by those 600 pages looming.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

It's newsletter day!

So, have I ever mentioned I'm a member of the Amazon Vine program?

What's Vine? Basically, if either a human or a computer (we're not sure which) over at likes the reviews you write, you may be invited to join this program. Members are sent two newsletters a month (and on occasion a third), and from each newsletter they get to pick two items that Amazon will send them for free. To remain a "Viner" in good standing, you have to review at least 75% of what they send you. It is a very, very cool thing to be a Viner, especially when you are as poor as I am!

Oh, I didn't mention that the first newsletter you receive (on the 3rd Thursday of each month) is "targeted" to you by Amazon, and the second newsletter is the so-called "leftover" newsletter (on the 4th Thursday of the month). It contains all the items that weren't selected by the people they were targeted for. The targeting is supposedly based on your reviewing and purchasing history. I've never spent much money with Amazon, but when I did, it was usually DVDs or food. As everyone knows, I feel strongly about supporting my local independent booksellers. Nonetheless, generally speaking, I review books, so invariably that is what my targeted newsletter is full of with few exceptions.

I'm not complaining; I love books. But other Viners get newsletters full of camcorders and printers and Rosetta Stone software. Others get household items like sheets, hair dryers, or electric tooth brushes. Once there was a $700 leather armchair! Anyway, I almost always pick a book, but occasionally I break things up with a DVD or food item if it's offered.

I always send an email to my mom and my friend Jon on newsletter day, so they can see what was offered and what I picked. (Mom likes to tell me what I should have picked instead of yet another book.) Today it occurred to me that I should share with you, Anonymous Reader, my Vine picks each month, if for no other reason than it will give you an idea of some of the books you'll eventually see reviewed.

Possibly I am hungry, because today I chose two novels with a culinary theme. The first was Monica Ali's In the Kitchen: A Novel which has several things going for it. One, it's written by one of Britain's most celebrated young authors. Two, it's set in a world I know well, having cooked professionally. Three, it seems to be a bit more plot-driven than some literary fiction.

The other book is Adam Schell's debut novel Tomato Rhapsody: A Fable of Love, Lust & Forbidden Fruit. I chose this one first and foremost because it sounded like a happy story. Also, I love debut novels. You never know who you'll discover. Plus, I read a few paragraphs of the excerpt, and the writing was strong. It sounds like a fun and inventive novel. I will let you know. :-)

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

It’s good to have friends in high and low places

Trust No One
by Gregg Hurwitz

I love a thriller you can read in a day. It’s not about how many pages or how many hours spent reading; it’s about a book holding your attention for as long as it takes to finish it. It’s about a day you’d rather spend reading than doing anything else. That was my day on Sunday, when I read Gregg Hurwitz’s Trust No One.

As the novel opens, protagonist Nick Horrigan is awakened by sirens in the night. Stepping onto his balcony to investigate, he’s slammed in the chest by the feet of a black-clad man rappelling down from the roof. Moments later, Nick realizes that half the law enforcement in LA is there for him. He is utterly astounded as they put him into custody and start tearing apart his condo. He soon learns that a terrorist has taken control of part of a nuclear power plant and is threatening to irradiate half of Southern California unless he can talk to Nick face-to-face. Mystified, Nick tells the authorities he’s never seen or heard of the guy. Nonetheless, moments later he’s on a chopper to the power plant, and then inside with the fugitive.

Going into the book, I thought the scenario above would comprise the bulk of this novel, but on the contrary it’s merely the opening of a political thriller in which an average Joe gets embroiled in election year presidential politics. Nick’s a good guy, but he’s got a troubled past. And events he thought were behind him are intimately tied to the mess he finds himself in. Tired of running, Nick calls on all his resources and allies to finally get the answers behind a crime that has haunted him for seventeen years.

As you may have gathered, Trust No One is a page-turner. Along the way we meet several intriguing and well-drawn characters. The convoluted plot is intricately drawn, and while I was always guessing, I never came close to figuring out what was really going on. At the same time, I never felt like the author was cheating with coincidences or contrivances. The ending of the novel is complete, with no threads left hanging to indicate a sequel. Even so, I’m wondering if we’ll see Nick Horrigan again. His tale is told, but I feel like there’s so much more story left in his relationships with the other characters. I, for one, would definitely come back for more.
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Monday, April 13, 2009

If Rollins and Clemens had a child...

Jake Ransom and the Skull King's Shadow
by James Rollins

I’ve gotten a little clever with the title of my review. It refers to the fact that thriller writer James Rollins also writes fantasy novels under the name James Clemens. I think Jake Ransom and the Skull King’s Shadow really is like the perfect offspring of the Rollins and Clemens styles—some science, thrills and adventure, mixed with a generous amount of fantasy. And this IS his first novel for young adults.

Now, the book is written for kids aged ten and up. I’m a 40-year-old woman, so I’d be, you know, up. There isn’t a doubt in my mind that this book will find an audience with its intended readership, but that it will also be read by many of Rollins adult fans who are, like me, young at heart. The great thing is that there’s something for everyone. It’s a terrific book for parents and kids to read together.

The novel is told from the point of view of 13-year-old Jake Ransom. He and his older sister Kady come from a long line of archeologists and adventurers. Their parents were lost under mysterious circumstances on an expedition three years earlier, but despite this tragedy, Jake is ready to follow in their footsteps. He’s fascinated by history and science, and spends all his time engaged in some form of learning. Kady’s a little different. She’s… popular. (And great job writing some strong female characters, Mr. Rollins!)

Near the beginning of the novel, Jake and Kady receive a surprise invitation to a museum exhibit opening in London. The exhibit features Mayan artifacts recovered from the senior Ransoms’ last fateful expedition. Jake and Kady attend the opening amidst much fanfare. It’s an eventful day; the opening is timed to match exactly a full eclipse of the sun, plus there’s an electrical storm raging. Alone with an artifact, during some extraordinary atmospheric conditions, all the puzzle pieces come together and Jake and Kady are transported—inexplicably—to another world. And they’re about to be eaten by a t-rex!

Jake and Kady have come to Calypsos, and while they explore this village and its unique inhabitants, they are searching for a way home. Unfortunately, they get embroiled with a VVV—a vaguely Voldemortian villain—and are intimately caught up in an epic battle of good and evil. The book actually reminded me more of Lloyd Alexander’s beloved Chronicles of Prydain with its own epic battle than anything else (but others with a better vocabulary of YA fiction may have more apt comparisons).

Here’s the thing… This novel is the first of a promised series. It does a great job of setting up the principles, the situations, the conflicts, and so forth. And this arc of the story is complete. The one thing you should know is that none of the bigger picture questions are answered. As you finish this novel, it will leave you wanting much, much more.

I read a galley of this novel, but I can’t wait to see all the illustrations in a finished copy. It’s coming out right in time for my nephew’s birthday, and I’m very much looking forward to reading this and future Jake Ransom adventures with him.
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Friday, April 10, 2009

An embarrassingly funny debut

Downtown Owl: A Novel
by Chuck Klosterman
Edition: Audio CD

Downtown Owl is the debut novel of non-fiction writer and essayist Chuck Klosterman. As I read primarily fiction, I was unfamiliar with Klosterman’s prior work—which may have been a blessing. I came to this novel with no preconceived notions. And you know what? It’s the most delightful debut I’ve read all year. I loved it!

Downtown Owl is a character study, but rather than a close look at a single person, it’s a study of a small town. Specifically, a study of Owl, North Dakota from August 1983 to February 1984. It’s a close look at several citizens of Owl, such as Mitch, a high school student; Julia, a young teacher new to town; and Horace, an elderly widower and life-long resident. These characters and many others give slices of life that make up the whole of this insular community.

And, oh my God is it funny! I listened to this novel as an unabridged audiobook. As a rule, I am not a huge fan of audiobooks, but I give ‘em a whirl every now and again. This has to be the best produced audiobook I’ve ever listened to. It was narrated by six different readers—one of them the author himself—and their wonderful performances added immeasurably to my enjoyment of the book. The line readings were priceless. A line as simple as “I love to drink” is flat on the page, but in actress Lily Rabe’s hands had me in hysterics. On the bus. It was embarrassing. I could not keep from eruptions of laughter as I listened to this novel. Don’t think just because it takes place in a small town that this story is cute or quaint. No, it’s just very, very human.

As others have noted, this is not a plot-driven novel, but that doesn’t mean nothing happens. Small town life happens. The novel opens and closes with the same event, and yet I was still completely unprepared for the poignant ending. Klosterman has told this story with so much warmth and affection, I hope, I hope that he returns to Owl someday.
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Reading Honolulu in Honolulu!

by Alan Brennert

I recently took my first trip to Hawaii. In the weeks leading up to my vacation, (as always) I began looking for the perfect reading material for my trip. I knew I wanted to read something set on Oahu, where I was going. How convenient, then, that Alan Brennert published Honolulu right before my trip! To be perfectly honest, the description of the story about a Korean “picture bride” didn’t sound too interesting. If I hadn’t been heading to Honolulu, I would have passed it up. And I would have lost out on reading a lovely novel.

Honolulu is the story of Regret. That’s Regret with a capitol “r,” because that is what her birth name means. She is born in the Korean countryside in 1897, and her folks aren’t too thrilled to have a daughter, even though they have four sons. It’s a cultural thing. Regret’s childhood in Korea is interesting. She grows up in a fairly rigid Confucian household, and I was fascinated by this glimpse of a time, place, and rich culture I was completely unfamiliar with. I thought Brennert did an exceptionally good job of exploring the differences in the Korean world view.

Throughout her childhood, the one thing Regret wants more than anything else is an education—a very unrealistic goal. In Korea, she is doomed to a very restricted life spent primarily in the inner rooms of her father’s, and eventually her husband’s, home. For these reasons, Regret takes a leap of faith and signs up to be the picture bride of a handsome and wealthy Korean gentleman in Hawaii, where the streets are “paved with gold.” That last should give you an idea that all in Hawaii is not as advertised, but Regret (or Jin as she rechristens herself) has opened the door to a much larger life than she ever could have imagined.

In the telling of Jin’s life story, Brennert does an excellent job of bringing Oahu to life, and exploring the island’s culture and history in a fully engaging way. It was so exciting to read about locations in the book, having just visited them in real life! I literally could not have picked a better companion volume for my trip.

But aside from the cool location stuff, I was very caught up in Jin’s story. As I began reading, the book that repeatedly came to mind was Memoir of a Geisha. Similarities between the two books are somewhat superficial, but like Geisha, Honolulu was a completely captivating read.
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Why Julia Glass rocks!

So, you may have noticed a lengthy gap of time between posts. This whole blog thing is new to me, and I'll have to get used to contributing to it regularly. I just wanted a place to keep all my book reviews, and maybe muse on bookish things occasionally.

I finished uploading all my past reviews on March 16th, and I've basically been sick since then. Don't ask. But an email I got on March 18th made me feel pretty darn good. Here's an excerpt from an email I received out of the blue from National Book Award-winning novelist Julia Glass:

Hi, Susan:

I don't have time to look at book blogs--though it's recently become clear to me that many of them, like yours, are much more intelligent and impartial than print reviews in magazines and newspapers. So I saw your review of my book I See You Everywhere only because a friend forwarded the link to your site. It made my day, not just because you liked and were moved by the book but because you read it and assessed it in the way that all authors need to be reminded their books are read and judged by smart readers everywhere--that is, honestly and personally, without the hidden motives harbored by critics.

So thank you. I am grateful for readers like you. When I find the time, I plan to look at your other "reviews." The taglines alone look intriguing.

Very best,

Julie Glass

OMG! The whole email was actually even longer than that, and was unbelievable kind and gracious. I still can't believe she took the time to write me! We had a brief, pleasant correspondence, and I get to call her "Julie" now. :-)

It just goes to show you--you never know who will see what you throw out there on the net. I have zero subscribers at this time, but someone, somewhere saw what I wrote.

Julie Glass, you totally rock!

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Has Jeffrey Archer lost his voice?

Paths of Glory (Audio CD)
by Jeffrey Archer

I am a big fan of Jeffrey Archer’s work. I’ve been reading him since my childhood in the 70’s. More than anything else, I’ve always thought of him as one hell of a story-teller. Some of his novels are stronger than others, but for decades now, I’ve always come back for more. Therefore, even though I have no particular interest in mountain climbing, I looked forward with anticipation to reading Archer’s latest, Paths of Glory.

Paths of Glory is the story of real-life mountain climber George Lee Mallory and his epic quest to scale Everest. The novel opens with the discovery a decade ago of Mallory’s frozen body near the summit of Everest, where it had remained since 1937—never quite answering the mystery of whether he made it to the top. From that beginning, we go back to Mallory’s early childhood and are treated to a fictional biography of the major events of his life. Family, school, marriage, and the drive to explore are all covered. Additionally, Archer gives the reader one version of what might have happened that day in 1937, and even an epilogue regarding the fates of the other major and minor players.

It wasn’t bad. I didn’t actively dislike it. But I find myself hard-pressed to recommend the novel. It was a reasonably likable, easy read, but there seemed to be so little of substance ultimately. Really, it felt like one cute story after another, all strung along to illustrate why Mallory was such a generically worthy, likable guy. I can’t help thinking that there must have been so much more to the man. Nor did Archer do a particularly vivid job of painting the times in which Mr. Mallory lived. If Mallory really was the hero he was painted to be, I think he probably deserved better.

I should also mention that I listened to this novel as an unabridged audiobook. The narrator Roger Allam, did a passable job, but wasn’t particularly strong on accents. In the end, Allam failed where Archer failed… They took a true story but never managed to bring it to life.
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