Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Review: Spooky Little Girl

After the worst week of her life Lucy Fisher wakes up dead. She's in ghost school, in a class on haunting for those who died suddenly. Lucy, it seems, has been run over by a bus, and is marked to be sent back to the world of the living to complete an unknown task before being allowed into heaven.

While this is a cute and charming story it is also entirely predictable. I knew exactly where Lucy's ghost would be sent. Notaro is a funny writer, but I think her talents are better used on non-fiction. This was quite an easy read, but too predictable to really be satisfying.

Laurie Notaro, Spooky Little Girl (Villard, 2010) ISBN: 0345510976

Review: Vintage Murder

Scotland Yard's Inspector Alleyn cannot take a holiday without falling into a murder investigation. While vacationing in New Zealand Alleyn finds himself investigating the death of a theater company magnate. During a birthday celebration for his leading-lady wife Alfred Meyer is killed by a hurtling magnum of champagne, falling from the eaves of the theater. Finding the killer seems impossible; many had motive, but no one seems to have had the opportunity. Alleyn steps in to help the local police investigate.

While I generally enjoy this sort of murder mystery, this one was rather ponderous. So much of the investigation relies on highly technical measurements: exactly how was the bottle rigged, where was the ladder placed, and so on. The book also features a large cast of characters, most of whom are entirely uninteresting. I had a hard time keeping track of all of the characters, and I didn't particularly care about most of them. There's also the issue of Marsh's somewhat racist treatment of native New Zealanders. I will likely try another Inspector Alleyn mystery, but I will look for one outside of a theatrical setting.

Ngaio Marsh, Vintage Murder (Amereon, 1983, orig. 1937) ISBN: 088411497X

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Review: Miss Pym Disposes

This is a rather odd sort of mystery, as for most of the book there is no mystery at all. Miss Pym, a pop psychologist, spends a week in residence at a girls' school. Much of her time is spent getting to know the students, and noticing how bucolic and normal everything seems to be. Then, one girl is terribly slighted by the headmistress, and it becomes clear to the reader that something terrible is about to happen.

That something terrible happens near the end of the book. What appears to be an accident might be something more sinister, at least it seems so to Miss Pym. This is really a backwards sort of book. Most of the book is spent studying the characters, before there is any hint of nefarious activity.

What I found most interesting about this book was that it provided a look into a competitive girls' boarding school. Without giving too much away, I was never able to figure out why the headmistress made the decision that she did. The slight on which the whole mystery turns was essentially inexplicable.

Josephine Tey, Miss Pym Disposes (Touchstone, 1998) ISBN: 0684847515

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Review: My Best Friend's Girl

Kamryn Matika spends her 33rd birthday learning that her best friend is dying and wants Kamryn to adopt her daughter. Kamryn has been an avowed singleton ever since her painful breakup with her fiance. Parenting hardly comes naturally to her, and the book follows what happens when she becomes Tegan Brannon's guardian. Along with the expected challenges of managing work and parenting and dealing with a grieving child, Kamryn must try and mend her broken love life. She develops a love-hate relationship with her new boss while trying to avoid her ex-fiance.

This is a book full of damaged people trying to find love. It is also a book full of people mistreating one another. I found some of the relationships difficult to believe. Kamryn and her boss, Luke, were particularly odd. This is a touching story, but it is not always entirely believable.

Dorothy Koomson, My Best Friend's Girl (Bantam, 2006) ISBN: 184632422X

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Review: Miss Timmins' School for Girls

This book is a murder mystery wrapped up in a book about a girls' boarding school in the mountains of India. Miss Timmins' School is heavy on colonialist ideology, and becomes the scene of fear and intrigue when a teacher is murdered. Told through the eyes of a teacher, Charu, and a student, Nandita, the reader follows their efforts to discover what really happened to teacher Moira Prince.

Charu is a new teacher, living away from home for the first time and experiencing her first love. At Miss Timmins she relishes the freedom of independence and makes friends with a group of local hippies. She is particularly tied to Moira Prince, well-known bad girl at the school, and Charu's first love. Their romantic relationship is always charged by Charu's fear that she will be found out.

The book is a bit slow in the first section, particularly in the development of Charu and Moira's love affair. Once the murder investigation began the book quickly gained speed. This is a beautifully-written book, a suspenseful mystery with the style and depth of literary fiction. The book is perhaps a bit longer than it needs to be, but it was a very engaging read.

Nayana Currimbhoy, Miss Timmins' School for Girls (Harper, 2011) ISBN: 0061997749

Monday, June 13, 2011

Review: Beautiful Malice

This psychological thriller follows a grieving teenager who falls under the spell of a charismatic friend. Alice seems to be just the friend Katherine Patterson needs, but it quickly becomes clear that Alice has a dark side. Filled with grief since her sister's murder, Katherine moves to a new school and avoids others, until the beautiful and popular Alice befriends her. The two become fast friends, but Alice quickly shows her dark and unpleasant tendencies. People are captivated by Alice's beauty and charm, but she treats others terribly as mood strikes her.

It is not entirely clear what is wrong with Alice, but by the time Katherine recognizes this it may be too late to escape Alice's clutches. The story is told in the past, present, and future, as the reader learns what happened to Katherine's sister, they also see her grown up, with a daughter.

James does a decent job of building suspense throughout the book. That said, there were certain nagging issues that bothered me. I couldn't tell exactly where the book was set. James is an Australian author, though this was billed as her US debut. It was never entirely clear to me if the book was set in the US or Australia. I also found the amount of freedom afforded these teenagers completely unbelievable. Katherine's parents are supposedly overprotective, though they let her live in a distant city with no supervision. Both Alice and Katherine live on their own and seem to have plenty of money and ample tie to do whatever they want. This simply didn't seem plausible, and I found these things distracting.

The final analysis- this is a good enough story, though nothing spectacular.

Rebecca James, Beautiful Malice (Bantam, 2010) ISBN: 0553808052

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Review: Rachel's Holiday

Marian Keyes is a very funny writer, and like so many of her books, this one manages to deal with a serious subject and still be tremendously entertaining. The serious subject here is drug and alcohol addiction. In New York Irish ex-pat Rachel Walsh's life devolves as she develops cocaine and alcohol addictions. After losing her job, her boyfriend, and her best friend, Rachel finds herself back in Ireland in treatment. Refusing to believe that she is an addict, Rachel agrees to treatment only because she thinks she might see celebrities. What follows are Rachel's comic misadventures as an addict in denial while in treatment, interspersed with the story of how she became an addict.

Keyes has an amazing ability to bring humor to horrible situations, and this is a book to read when you need a pick-me-up. The ending is a bit unbelievable, but the book is by and large light and fun reading.

Marian Keyes, Rachel's Holiday (Avon, 2002) ISBN: 0060090383

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Review: Life in Miniature

Navigating the landscape of junior high is difficult enough for loner Adie, but her mother's psychiatric issues only magnify her sense of alienation and unhappiness. With her mother's history of psychiatric hospitalization Adie battles the stigma of having a "crazy" mother. Adie's mother suffers from paranoia, particularly with regard to illicit drugs. As the 1980s War on Drugs infiltrates the media, this brings Adie's mother to the brink of crisis. She moves the family frequently to avoid the dangers of drugs, and scrutinizes her daughters' behavior, presuming that every little scratch is a track mark. The situations escalates to the point where Adie's sister, Miriam, leaves home, and her mother, Mindy, goes on the run with Adie, trying to outrace the violent drug dealers who she is convinced are following them.

In Adie Schlossberg has crafted an intriguing character. Adie is desperate for her mother's attention, which is occupied by obsessions. I loved Adie's habit of observing the peculiarities of adult speech; that transported me back to my own childhood. I found the book's ending difficult to believe, but it did provide a compassionate portrayal of the effects of a parent's mental illness on a child.

Linda Schlossberg, Life in Miniature (Kensington, 2010) ISBN: 9780758238436

Friday, June 10, 2011

Review: Saving Max

I didn't realize when I selected this book that it was more of a legal thriller than straight literary fiction. As such, it was much more violent than I was anticipating. That said, this book offers a compelling story, one I stayed up half the night reading because I had to find out what would happen at the end.

Max Parkman finds himself accused of murdering a fellow patient at the psychiatric hospital where he is being treated. Max is autistic, and appears to have violent tendencies. His mother, Danielle, is convinced that her son is innocent, and wages a full-scale effort to prove his innocence. Danielle's legal battle is a desperate one, and she is committed to saving her son at all costs. The costs will be high. Unable to keep up with work at her Manhattan law firm, Danielle falls off the track to partner. More seriously, her unorthodox efforts to prove Max's innocence land Danielle in jail and out on bail.

This is a fast-paced and suspenseful book. Over the course of the book I warmed to Max's character, but I was never able to warm to Danielle. I found Danielle to be quite disturbing. As an officer of the court, Danielle is more than willing to flout the law and the conditions of her bail. Even more troubling to me was the fact that she was willing to pin the crime on any sacrificial lamb in her path. Danielle quite candidly admits that she is willing to place the blame on a known innocent if it will lead to her son's exoneration.

Several weeks after having finished this book I'm still left with an unsettled feeling. I'll likely be thinking about this one for quite some time.

Antoinette van Heugten, Saving Max (Mira, 2010) ISBN: 9780778329633

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Review: This Life is in Your Hands

This is Coleman's memoir of growing up on a homesteading farm in rural Maine in the 1970s. Coleman's parents moved to the backwoods of Maine to experiment with organic farming and self-sufficient living. The early years were idyllic, but things deteriorated.

Coleman's parents had been warned that homesteading with children was nearly impossible. The stress of managing Coleman and her two sisters, combined with postpartum depression, threw her mother into a tailspin of despair. The vitamin deficiencies in the family's self-produced diet affected moods and energy.

As the Colemans' efforts gained notoriety a series of apprentices shifted through the homestead, and Coleman's parents' marriage deteriorated. The final straw was the accidental death of Coleman's sister Heidi. Much of the book tells the story of the slow deterioration of the Coleman family.

This books offers a fascinating look inside the homesteading movement, and inside a family. The Colemans lived at the center of the Maine homesteading community. Their farm was adjacent to that of Helen and Scott Nearing, and the Nearings play a significant role in the book. Melissa's childhood was tragic in many ways- a little girl, desperate for friends and parental attention, her needs were generally secondary to a larger ideology. The farm was an all-consuming project, and its residual side-effects left little affective or attentive surplus for Melissa. My one complaint about the book is that it could be shorter; there were times I found it repetitive. This does serve to suggest the constant demands of the homestead, but I still think it could have been trimmed. This is a memoir well-worth reading.

Melissa Coleman, This Life is in Your Hands (Harper, 2011) ISBN: 0061958328

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Review: Ask Me Why I Hurt

Christiansen's memoir of creating a mobile healthcare service for homeless teenagers is both inspiring and heartbreaking. Dr. Christiansen gave up his hospital appointment to transform an old RV into a mobile clinic. He discovers that there is tremendous demand for his services, and that America's homeless teenagers face multiple and complicated problems.

What is particularly striking is just how tragic the stories of Christiansen's patients are. The majority are homeless because they have run away from abuse. Most have weathered horrible situations. One of his patients lives in a hole in the desert. These children don't just need medical care, they also need attention, compassion, and a competent adult to pay attention to them.

This book highlights the difficulties of providing care to this population. It is nearly impossible to get these children enrolled to receive benefits, as such things require identification and parental help. Likewise, it is prohibitively expensive for Christiansen to stock drugs, but it is generally impossible for homeless teenagers to fill prescriptions, especially regular prescriptions for chronic conditions. The problems that are regularly recognized in the American medical system are magnified for Christiansen.

This book is also something of a personal memoir, as Christiansen is trying to start a family at the same time that he is beginning his work with the mobile clinic. I found the personal memoir to be much less engaging than the professional. Ultimately I left this book inspired by what Christiansen has managed to do, and terribly depressed by the extent of the problems.

Randy Christiansen, M.D., Ask Me Why I Hurt (Broadway, 2011) ISBN: 0307718999

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Review: Salting Roses

Consummate small-town southern girl Gracie Calloway celebrates her 25th birthday by discovering that she is the heir to a New England fortune. Her abrupt and controlling grandmother is adamant that Gracie must take her place as the family heiress. Despite the advantages of her New England family's wealth, Gracie is loathe to acquiesce. All Gracie wants is to continue her life as she had known it, but New England grandma is unwilling to allow that. The situation becomes a contest of wills between two powerful women, Gracie and her grandmother. That contest convinces Gracie that perhaps she has more connection with her New England family than she had previously thought.

This was generally an engaging read, though I sometimes found it difficult to get my head around Gracie's southern family.

Lorelle Marinello, Salting Roses (William Morrow, 2010) ISBN: 0061443743

Monday, June 6, 2011

Review: Spider's Web

This is a novelization of one of Christie's plays. Clarissa Halisham-Brown, a diplomat's wife, finds a body in her parlor while waiting for her husband to return home with an important diplomatic guest. Her efforts to hide the murder and save her husband's career become increasingly more complicated. The body is the focal point of Clarissa's efforts, and her attempts to hide it are increasingly more difficult to execute. As the story progresses, Clarissa traps herself in a web of lies.

It is fully evident that this story was originally a play. All of the action takes place in one room, requiring only one set. There is no change of scenery, and only limited characters. It is less satisfying than Christie's novels. Those new to Christie's work should start with her novels. This is for the Christie fan.

Agatha Christie, Spider's Web (St. Martin's Minotaur, 2001) ISBN:

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Review: The Frugalista Files

In 2008 journalist Natalie McNeal decided to try and get control of her debt and her financial life. McNeal set up a blog to chronicle her journey. This book is the product of that blog. The book is essentially a compendium of blog posts. In terms of content, the book is fairly similar to other books in this genre. The content likely will not surprise most readers; McNeal learns to make do with the clothes in her closet and cook meals at home. Potential lay-offs at the paper where McNeal works provides a somewhat interesting twist, and she must decide whether to take a buy-out, or keep her current job. As a newspaper journalist the threat of cuts is always looming.

McNeal is a good writer, and she has an accessible, conversational style. I'm not convinced, though, that blogs translate well to books. There's not much in the book that goes above and beyond the blog. I also found that this was a book best read a few pages each day; it's not the sort that can be read in several-hour stretches. I'd prefer to see McNeal write an independent book apart from a blog, as she is a technically good writer. She seems like the sort of woman I'd like to meet for a drink. That's great for a blog, but with the book it seems that McNeal has sold herself short.

Natalie McNeal, The Frugalista Files (Harlequin, 2010) ISBN: 0373892292