Monday, November 15, 2010

"A repository for human sadness"

Great House
by Nicole Krauss

I read The History of Love back in 2006. That was the beginning of my crush on Nicole Krauss. After that, I back-tracked and read her almost-as-delightful debut novel, Man Walks into a Room. Suffice it to say, I’ve been looking forward to Great House for a long time. Truthfully, this latest novel is my least favorite of the three. You’ll note that I still awarded it five stars. I don’t think Nicole Krauss is capable of publishing a novel worth less than five stars. Her writing is gorgeous. And her insight into complex emotional lives is dazzling. It’s not that Great House isn’t, well, great, but it is challenging.

If you flip through the pages of the book, you’ll notice something right away. The text is dense. There is virtually no white space on the pages, just long, almost unbroken paragraphs that make up a series of monologues. Or perhaps “confessions” is the more accurate word. The novel is structured in two parts. Each of those parts is comprised of four lengthy monologues—with the exception of the novel’s powerful final pages.

The book opens with 50-something Nadia, a solitary novelist living in New York. She is explaining her life to someone she addresses as “Your Honor.” Next we are with Aaron, an elderly Israeli reflecting upon the death of his beloved wife and his strained relationship with his son, Dov. Next is Arthur Bender—British and proper, the insecure husband of Holocaust survivor Lotte Berg, a woman with secrets. And finally we hear from Izzy, the youngest and sexiest of the narrators. Izzy is recounting a very slightly surreal love affair. In the second portion of the book, we spend some time with each of them again.

There is much talk amongst readers about a desk being the object that connects these diverse characters through distance and time. That’s not actually true. There are connections of varying subtlety, and the desk is one part of what connects some, but not all, of these characters. As Lance Armstrong might say, “It’s not about the desk.” It’s not even about the connections, really. Or, at least, I don’t believe that’s the point.

I got to know these characters reading Great House. I learned what propelled them, who they loved, what made them hurt. Especially what made them hurt, because there’s a lot of pain and sorrow and regret in these pages. These narrators are not cute, not joyful, and often not even very likeable. Nadia describes herself as “a person who was always falling through the ice, who had the opposite effect on others, immediately making them raise their hackles, as if they sensed their shins might be kicked.” And just as I began to warm to Aaron, it became clear that he was something of a monster. These are confessions. They are at times difficult to read. You won’t always understand the actions of the characters, but you will believe them. And you will feel their pain and the power of their stories and the beauty of Nicole Krauss’s words.

BOOK GIVEAWAY: Little Princes: One Man's Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal

After a couple weeks of fiction, I thought I'd mix things up this week with a non-fiction title, Little Princes: One Man's Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal. I'm giving away a galley of this book that goes on sale on January 25, 2011. William Morrow is giving this book a big roll out, hoping that it will find the same success as Greg Mortenson's Three cups of Tea. However, at this time, I don't have a whole lot of info on the title. Blogger Deb Hoffman posted this elsewhere on the web:

In search of adventure, twenty-nine-year-old Conor Grennan left his secure home and job for a trip around the world. His first stop was as a volunteer at the Little Princes Children’s Home orphanage in war-torn Nepal. When Conor got there he was overrun with small children’s smiles and joys of welcome. Soon he found out that underneath, these children had endured being wrenched from their families and sold by human traffickers to become slaves. Conor vowed to keep the children safe and to ultimately reunite them with their families and villages. Often fraught with the inequalities of our world this book shows the determination of a handful of people to right the terrible wrongs that have been heaped on these children. Little Princes is a heartwarming story that highlights the tragedies of war that families have experienced and the changes that occurred within one man.
I'll be honest, this book isn't my cup of tea (three or otherwise). As readers of this blog know, I don't read much non-fiction, so I won't be reviewing this title here. But early reviews have been positive. I hope this book lands in the hands of a reader who will really enjoy it. Please post a comment below for a chance to win the book. A winner will be announced Friday afternoon. At that time, the winner has a week to send me a U.S. mailing address, or another name will be selected by random number generator.

Good luck!

UPDATED TO ADD: This book just got a rave, starred review in today's Publisher's Weekly:

Grennan, who once worked at the East West Institute in Prague, embarked on a round-the-world trip in 2006, starting with a stint volunteering for an orphanage six miles south of Kathmandu. The orphanage, called the Little Princes Children's Home, housed 18 children from the remote province of Humla, rescued from a notorious child trafficker who had bought the children from poor villagers terrified of the Maoist insurgents eager for new recruits; the parents hoped to keep their children safe, but the children often ended up as slaves. Grennan was stunned by the trauma endured by these children, who he grew to love over two months, and after completing his world tour, returned to the orphanage and vowed not only to locate seven Humla orphans who had vanished from a foster home, but also to find the parents of the children in the orphanage. This required starting up a nonprofit organization in America, Next Generation Nepal, raising funds, buying a house in Kathmandu for the children's home, and trekking into the mountains of Humla to locate the parents. Grennan's work is by turns self-pokingly humorous, exciting, and inspiring.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

It was a dark and stormy night…

The Distant Hours
by Kate Morton

Okay, that infamous line is never used, but it might as well have been. There were plenty of dark and stormy nights in this deliciously atmospheric novel of suspense. Like Ms. Morton’s previous novels, this is a tale told in two times. The “contemporary” story is set in 1992, and events are set in motion by the delivery of a letter 51 years late. Protagonist Edie Burchill is visiting her parents when the letter arrives, and she witnesses her mother’s unexpected and unexplained emotional response to the missive.

Questioning her mother, Meredith, Edie learns for the first time that her mother was evacuated from London during WWII. For over a year, she lived in the country with the sisters Blythe and their elderly father at gothic Castle Middlehurst. Meredith is inexplicably reticent to discuss her past. This is merely one more example of the distance that Edie has always felt with her mother. Edie finds the incident odd, but it fades quickly into the past—until months later, lost on a road trip, she stumbles upon Castle Middlehurst and her curiosity is fiercely awakened. On a whim, Edie arranges a tour of the castle and discovers, among other things, that all three sisters are alive and in residence. After several introductory chapters setting up the story, the book moves back and forth between Edie’s answer-seeking in 1992, and chapters set during the actual events that occurred between 1939 and 1941, seen from the POV of several of the story’s participants.

There is so much more to the story told in this epic novel. The Blythes are a literary family, and patriarch Raymond is the author of the children’s classic The True History of the Mud Man that inspired Edie’s love of literature and eventual career in publishing. Ms. Morton is a brilliant story-teller and knows exactly how to torture her readers with questions. What was in the letter Meredith received half a century late? What was the true inspiration of the Mud Man? Why is the parlor door kept locked? What was in Raymond’s will? What really happened that night in 1941?

So many questions. And Morton teases us along for hundreds of pages, stringing along answers like breadcrumbs for readers to follow. Kate Morton is very, very good at what she does. Though, after three novels, the similarities in the types of stories she tells and the themes therein have become quite evident. She’s going to need to shake things up before she starts to recycle too much. But for now, The Distant Hours is hard to beat for good old-fashioned entertainment value. It literally brought chills and goose bumps to my skin time and time again. Savor it on a dark and stormy night!

P.S.: Post a comment within the next 30 hours to the giveaway post (below this post, not in the comments section right here) for a chance to win this book!

Monday, November 8, 2010

BOOK GIVEAWAY: The Distant Hours by Kate Morton

A quick note: The winner of last week's giveaway has been posted in the Moonlight Mile thread.
This week's giveaway is by a terrific gothic author from down under. I've been reading and loving Kate Morton since she debuted in the US with The House at Riverton. I thought that The Forgotten Garden was even better. Now I'm deep into this 672-page galley, and Ms. Morton has not disappointed. I'll be posting a review as soon as I can find time to finish the book. For now, here's what Publisher's Weekly had to say in a starred review:

A letter posted in 1941 finally reaches its destination in 1992 with powerful repercussions for Edie Burchill, a London book editor, in this enthralling romantic thriller from Australian author Morton (The Forgotten Garden). At crumbling Milderhurst Castle live elderly twins Persephone and Seraphina and their younger half-sister, Juniper, the three eccentric spinster daughters of the late Raymond Blythe, author of The True History of the Mud Man, a children's classic Edie adores. Juniper addressed the letter to Meredith, Edie's mother, then a young teen evacuated to Milderhurst during the Blitz. Edie, who's later invited to write an introduction to a reprint of Raymond's masterpiece, visits the seedily alluring castle in search of answers. Why was her mother so shattered by the contents of a letter sent 51 years earlier? And what happened to soldier Thomas Cavill, Juniper's long-missing fiancé and Meredith's former teacher? Despite the many competing narratives, the answers will stun readers.
Reading that again, it makes me even more anxious to finish this book. And I'm delighted to share a galley with you. Anyone with an American mailing address is elegible. Please post a comment below for a chance to win. The winner will be choosen by a random number generator and posted Friday afternoon. The winner has a week to contact me at with a mailing address, or a second name will be chosen. Good luck!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Forget the candy—this was my Halloween treat!

The Zombies of Lake Woebegotten
by Harrison Geillor

I don’t remember when I’ve laughed as loud and as long as I did over the cover copy of The Zombies of Lake Woebegotten by Harrison Geillor. The concept is genius, and the fake blurbs are hysterical. At this point, I should probably admit that I’m not a fan of Prairie Home Companion, zombies, or literary mash-ups, making this book an unlikely choice for me. What can I say? I judged this book by its cover.

And that turned out to be a not-entirely-accurate way to judge the interior contents. As I mentioned, the cover copy was laugh-out-loud funny and just a bit stupid. Based on that first impression, I have to say that the book was all-around better-written, better-plotted, and a lot less stupid than I expected. Also, the humor was different. It was funny and satirical, but less “in your face” than I expected.

The plot is easy to summarize. In fact, one character does just that, “The situation is this. The dead have come back to life, and they’re dangerous. Just like in some kind of horror movie or video game. When the corpses rise, there’s nothing human left in them, as far as I can tell, just a terrible hunger.” Lake Woebegotten does not exist in a pop-culture vacuum. Another character has taken a course in “The Zombie as Metaphor.” He kept up a running dialog throughout along the lines of, “It seems to me we’re dealing with the classic George Romero Night of the Living Dead sort of zombies, just straight-up reanimated corpses hungry for human flesh, probably brought to life by some form of cosmic radiation. You heard about the meteor shower last night, right? Who knows what came flying down from space?”

Oddly enough, this book reminded me a lot of Stephen King’s recent doorstop, Under the Dome. Both stories are basically a look at an entire small town full of people coping with a dangerous and otherworldly stressor. The town is made up of individuals with secrets, hidden agendas, and various strengths and weaknesses. It’s a perfect setting for drama and (as even Mr. King knows) comedy. As in, “Julie’s eyes had a strange light to them, and Otto wondered about her past, who she was, really, where she’d gone when she left town, why she’d come back….” Or, “Eileen hadn’t exactly developed a taste for blood, like some kind of tiger that eats one little Javanese boy and can’t abide the taste of anything by sweet, sweet manflesh after that, but she’d discovered she could kill both deliberately and in the heat of the moment if the job needed doing.”

The novel is structured in three parts, and here’s a great example of the pseudonymous author taking a more sophisticated and interesting approach to telling the story. The middle section is entitled, “Twenty-some Odd Scenes from the Winter, in No Particular Order, Certainly Not Chronological.” And that, of course, is exactly what it is. But by presenting these short chapters jumbled and out of order, he does a great job of creating narrative tension. It was this section that bumped the book up to 5 stars for me.

The one area that may disappoint is if you’re looking for some real scares. I’m widely-acknowledged to be huge scaredy-cat, but not even I had a moment’s fright over these zombies. And that’s the way I like it. But I laughed a lot, and got a fast, fun story with a perfect ending. My determination to stay far, far away from Minnesota is firmly reinforced.

Monday, November 1, 2010

BOOK GIVEAWAY: Moonlight Mile by Dennis Lehane

Yes, as at least one of you guessed, this week's giveaway is Moonlight Mile by Dennis Lehane. Unbelievably, this was my introduction to Mr. Lehane's work. I read it from cover to cover this weekend and absolutely loved it! (My full review is below.) It gives me great pleasure to share a galley of this excellent novel with you.

Please post a comment to this thread for your chance to win this book. The winner will be picked by a random number generator on Friday, and will be posted here. Winners have one week to contact me at with a U.S. mailing address, or I will draw a new name. And that's about it. Good luck!

How did I live this long without reading Dennis Lehane?

Moonlight Mile
by Dennis Lehane

Not only have I not read the books, I haven't even seen the movies--except one. I saw Gone Baby Gone, which is good because Moonlight Mile is the sequel to that book. So, I knew this book was a sequel when I picked it up, but I didn't actually realize it was the 6th book in a series. I don't generally like to start a series in the middle. Well, it's good I didn't know, or I might have missed out on a fabulous novel and delayed my introduction to Mr. Lehane further. If it's not already explicitly clear, I didn't find coming to this series late a problem. Exposition was used beautifully, not only to tell the back-story, but also to explicate character. That said, I'm pretty sure I spoiled several past novels for myself, but Lehane's writing is so strong and his characters so appealing, that it wouldn't stop me from reading the preceding books in the series.

The central characters in the series are private investigators Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro. Angie's been out of the business for years, acting as stay-at-home mom for 4-year-old Gabby by day, and going to grad school by night. Patrick's trying to make ends meet working as a subcontractor for a high-end Boston investigative firm and hoping to get hired on permanently. Patrick and Angie have a life together. They're happy. And they don't discuss the McCready kidnapping from 12 years ago. If their marriage has a third rail, the outcome of that case is it. And all is well until Bea McCready contacts Patrick: Amanda is missing again.

Amanda is no longer a 4-year-old cutie. By all accounts, she's a remarkably self-sufficient 16-year-old young woman. Despite the privations of her upbringing, she's a brilliant and successful student. However, Amanda may be a little too smart for her own good, and may have learned some life-skills that no teenager should know. As Patrick and Angie are drawn back into a world they hoped they'd left, the twists and turns kept me flipping pages like mad. There was one revelation that was obvious to me, but two pages later there was a jaw-dropping shocker. Time and time again Lehane managed to surprise me. This was an undeniably excellent mystery.

And despite the thrilling plot, even as a new-comer to this well established series, this novel was all about character for me. Whenever I can hear characters' voices in my head (instead of my own reading voice), I know that an author has brought them completely and totally to life for me. It doesn't happen that often. But, Patrick, Angie, and the many supporting characters were beautifully drawn. Wow, my first taste of the celebrated Mr. Lehane and I am hooked!