Wednesday, February 23, 2011

SWAMPLANDIA! by Karen Russell

I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher.

It is never a good thing to judge a book by its cover but I was utterly charmed when this book landed in my mailbox. In many ways, the cover DOES reflect what goes on inside this book.  SWAMPLANDIA! tells the story of 12-year-old Ava Bigtree and her family of alligator wrestlers.  The Bigtree family operates a "roadside attraction" in the Florida wilderness where the biggest attraction (besides the alligator wrestling) is Ava's charismatic mother, Hilola Bigtree.  When the family faces two tragedies back-to-back, the death of Hilola and the arrival of the flashy theme park competitor WORLD OF DARKNESS, the Bigtree family and their business begin to disintegrate.  Ava's brother Kiwi runs off to the mainland to earn money to save the family business.  Her older sister, Osceola, takes up with a ghost.  Her father takes off to the mainland "on business" leaving the girls to fend for themselves.  Ava must figure out how to save her family and their dream of SWAMPLANDIA!

There are many books out there that deal with families going through loss and adversity. I can't think of any  others, however, that are set in a tourist trap in the Everglades.  The setting is marvelous.  More than anything, this is a coming of age story told from the points of view of Ava and her brother Kiwi. Kiwi must confront truths about the family business and his father while Ava must do the same while facing situations that no 12-year-old should ever have to deal with.  All of this occurs in the midst of the very real grief this family is experiencing at the loss of wife and mother. It is a very moving book that ends so abruptly it leaves you frustrated and wanting more.  I wasn't ready to leave the Bigtree family behind. 

While there are comic moments in this book, this book is ultimately a tragic tale of how one family falls apart and tries to put itself together again. Their descent isn't pretty and Ava especially faces some pretty awful things. However, the story is very well done and the characters are excellent.  I was reminded of the many roadside attractions I visited as a child and I was left to wonder what happened to them and the people who operated them.

BOTTOM LINE: Recommended.  A wonderful coming of age story and family drama wrapped into one unique tale.  It left me wanting more.  Much more.

Friday, February 11, 2011

13, RUE THERESE by Elena Mauli Shapiro

I am very picky about the books that I buy. I rarely buy books on impulse anymore. However, I bought this one sight unseen. The premise sounded so intriguing and I decided I had to give it a shot.  Back in the early nineties, I was a huge GRIFFIN AND SABINE fan. I loved the stories and the books were beautiful. But the best part was the feeling of getting to read someone else's correspondance. There is something so special about letters. Something that e-mail will never be able to capture.  When I read the description of 13, RUE THERESE, it made me think of those GRIFFIN AND SABINE books.
A young American scholar in Paris named Trevor Stratton finds a box filled with objects and letters dating back to WWII that belonged to a woman named Louise Brunet.  As Trevor combs through the postcards, love letters and other vintage items in the box, he becomes obsessed with Louise Stratton's life and tries to reconstruct what happened to her.  The items are all realistically reproduced within the book making the reader feel as if she is looking through the items with Trevor.
I loved the idea of this book much more than the execution. I really liked how Trevor attempted to reconstruct Louise's life through the things she left behind and, in doing so, allowed us to imagine Louise's life as well. However, there is a bizarre romantic angle with a secretary that didn't really make sense. There were also a few "magical" moments that also seemed strange.  It wasn't clear whether Trevor was actually time-traveling or simply imagining things. It just didn't work. Although Louise's story was compelling and the objects were wonderful, the whole book felt like a big confused mess.
BOTTOM LINE: Not recommended.  A great idea and a great-looking book but the whole thing is ultimately a big confusing mess.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

BOOK OF TOMORROW by Cecilia Ahern

I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher.

16-year-old Tamara Goodwin is a spoiled selfish brat.  She has everything and appreciates nothing. When her life is turned upside down but the suicide of her father, Tamara has to start growing up. After the suicide, Tamara and her mother lose their home as a result of her father's death. They must leave Dublin go to live with relatives in a small gatehouse on the grounds of a crumbling castle.  As Tamara comes to terms with her new life, she starts to discover small mysteries around her new home.  Her mother never comes out of her room as she is crippled with depression so Tamara is left to figure things out on her own. During Tamara's explorations of her new home, she discovers the local traveling library. She grabs a book that catches her eye and only notices later that the book is locked.  When the book is unlocked, it turns out to be a blank journal. Before Tamara has the chance to use it, however, the book starts to fill itself in---with Tamara's handwriting and an account of the NEXT day.  This magical preview of the day to come allows Tamara to start asking questions and exploring and learning more about her and her mother's past.  Each day, Tamara gets another sneek preview of tomorrow and each day she unravels a bit more about the mystery surrounding the castle and her own past.

This book immediately reminded me of Kate Morton's THE DISTANT HOURS.  It follows many of the same themes but in a more "young adult" format.  Tamara is a very unpleasant and spoiled individual who is completely unlikeable. However, when she first cracks open the journal about 100 pages in, the story really gets going and Tamara starts to become more interesting.  While this book skews much more towards a young adult book than adult fiction, it can be a pleasurable read for both.  I found Tamara's story and the mysteries uncovered by the journal very compelling and I couldn't wait to see what would happen.   It is a great story about families and the secrets we can keep.

*PARENTAL ADVISORY*  There are instances of underage drinking, drug use and sex in this book.  While nothing is especially explicit, it is worthwhile to note that these things are in the book.  However, I don't feel there is anything really inappropriate for older teenagers. Tamara deals with many of the same issues that most teens her age do. I also appreciate the fact that she seems to learn from her mistakes.

BOTTOM LINE: Recommended. A surprisingly enjoyable read that works for both young adults and adults.  While it starts out a bit rocky, the book really manages to find its voice about 100 pages in and provides the reader with a great mystery about one girl's family.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

THE WEIRD SISTERS by Eleanor Brown

                                     I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher.

As a young girl, I became passionate about Shakespeare. I even took a summer enrichment course on Shakespeare. Just for fun. In high school, I relished the opportunity to act in our Shakespeare productions and dreamed of a day when I might be able to play Beatrice to the cute boy's Benedick.  So, it isn't surprising that I was drawn to this book by its title alone. The title, of course, refers the witches in Shakespeare's MACBETH. It also refers to the three grown sisters in Eleanor Brown's book.

Rose (Rosalind), Bean (Bianca) and Cordy (Cordelia) are the daugthers of Midwestern college professor who specializes in Shakespeare. The girls are raised to revere books and quote Shakespeare to one another in a way that proves they have a couplet for any occasion. Rose is the homebody whose idea of a perfect life is to settle in her hometown of Barnwell and teach math as a professor at her father's college.  Bean desires more and goes to New York City to achieve a glamorous life but must return home in shame when she is caught stealing from the law firm where she works.  Cordy is the wanderer who embodies a modern-day hippie. She can never seem to stay in one place.  When Cordy simultaneously discovers that she is pregnant and that her mother is very ill with cancer, Cordy returns home as well.  All three sisters are brought together for the first time in years and they must confront their past as they help to care for the ailing mother while trying to put together a future.

At first, I wasn't sure I was going to like this book. None of the sisters seemed particularly likeable to me. Each woman seemed self-absorbed in her own way. Even Rose's dutiful daugther act hides a martyr complex.  However, I was immediately charmed by the way the family quoted Shakespeare at one another and how they had such a profound love of books. Each sister is flawed but each sister also has her own positive attributes as well. I really liked how the mother's cancer served to bring them all together and force them to choose the path their lives would then take. It is interesting to see how the sisters evolve both together and independently of one another.  So much of the book is about the sisters trying to make sense of their identities both as individuals and in terms of how everyone else sees them.  It is a very likeable book with a heavy dose of Shakespeare mixed in.

BOTTOM LINE: Recommended. It took a little while for me to engage with the sisters but, when I did, I really enjoyed their personal journeys. I also rejoiced in getting to try and identify all of the Shakespearean quotations peppered throughout the book. Brown made me want to take down my COLLECTED WORKS OF SHAKESPEARE and rediscover the Bard all over again.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011


I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher.

16-year-old Nora Lindell disappears one Halloween night and is never heard from again. Her disappearance has a profound effect on her male classmates who spend decades wondering what happened to her.  The young men come up with various scenarios about what might have happened to Nora over the years and they can't seem to get past their obsession with her.  While the various possibilities of what happened to Nora are interesting, the true story surrounds the young men and how Nora's disappearance frames their lives and the men they become.

I really appreciated Pittard's original plot structure. She found a truly creative way to frame a coming-of-age story of a group of boys. While Nora's disappearance provides the background and structure for the story, it is really the boys' reaction to the disappearance and how they are affected by it that provides the true theme. In fact, I often found the meanderings into the "what if.." storylines behind Nora's disppearance distracting. Pittard is at her best when she focuses on the struggles the boys face as they grow up.  The different theories behind Nora's disappearance aren't nearly as compelling.  Each young man is affected by Nora's loss in a different way and this one event seems to shape them in unexpected ways.

In spite of the clever plot structure and story idea, I often found myself frustrated by this book.  The story isn't particularly linear so I often found it confusing. I wasn't sure what point in time Pittard was referring to in each chapter so I had to constantly reorient myself as a reader. The digressions into Nora theories were also a bit jarring and distracting.  However, I think Pittard does an excellent job in describing the business of growing up and how singular events, both big and small, can have profound effects on the people we become.

BOTTOM LINE: Recommended.  This is a very original novel. If you can get past the digressions and the sometimes confusing plot structure, you will find a truly unique coming-of-age book.