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Thursday, March 31, 2011

Among the Mad

Among the Mad by Jacqueline Winspear
Published by Henry Holt & Co.- ISBN 978-0-8050-8216-6
Hardcover version $25
Reading for bookclubgirl's Mad For Maisie Readalong

The sixth Maise Dobbs book, Among the Mad, is one of the strongest entries in the series. Instead of a case coming to private investigator/psychologist Maisie Dobbs, she is a witness to a crime. A man blows himself up in the middle of a crowded London street,  mere feet from Maisie.

Something about the man, who looked like an injured war veteran, stood out to Maisie, but she could not stop him. Detective Chief Superintendent Robert McFarlane recruits Maisie to assist Scotland Yard's Special Branch with this case. Maisie is not fond of MacFarlane, but she knows she has a duty to assist the police in apprehending the person responsible for the bombing.

A letter was sent to to the Home Secretary stating that more serious bombings would occur, and many more people would lose their lives if their demands are not met. The writer is decrying the poor treatment of returning war vets. They cannot get jobs, decent health care or monetary benefits they are owed.

I liked how relevant this story is to today's readers. Although the story takes place in 1931/1932 London, it echoes the experience of soldiers who have served and been wounded in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The weapons of mass destruction, via a chemical bomb scare, is relatable to many of us who live in large cities.

This novel has a few differences from most Maisie novels. There is more action, a sense of urgency as Maisie races to find the culprit before anyone else is hurt. Maisie also puts herself in harm's way as she directly confronts a dangerous man.

Although the reader doesn't know the exact identity of the bomber, we are privy to his writings, and know his motive and thoughts. That is an interesting twist to this novel, as we are usually in the dark until the very end as to who did it or why.

I always learn an interesting fact from these novels, and in this one, I learned that dogs were used as message carriers, went on patrol, and were used to increase morale among the soldiers.

Billy's wife Doreen continues her downward emotional decline following the loss of their young daughter. She has to go to a mental hospital, and the conditions there are frightening. Billy's anguish over his wife's illness and Maisie's attempts to help their family touched me.

Among the Mad is a real page turner, with a lot of action; it has emotion and the political messages resonated for me as well. This is a superior mystery.

Rating 4.5 of 5

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver
Published by Harper Collins ISBN# 978-0-06-085257-3
Hardcover, $26.99

One of my all-time favorite books is Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible, about a family of American missionaries in the Belgian Congo in 1959, about the time of the end of colonialism in Africa. Kingsolver draws the reader into an unfamiliar world, with interesting, yet flawed, characters.

Her latest novel, The Lacuna, tells the story of Harrison Shepherd, a young boy born to an American father and Mexican mother. His mother leaves his father to chase after a wealthy landowner in Mexico, with Harrison in tow. Harrison sees a unique woman in a market, and ends up befriending Frida Kahlo before she becomes a famous artist. Harrison shows a talent for mixing plaster, and Frida's lover, Diego Rivera, hires Harrison to work for him.

Harrison becomes immersed in their artistic and political world. Artists are notoriously difficult, and Frida and Diego fit that stereotype. Through them, he meets Leo Trotsky, the exiled Russian Communist leader. Trotsky trusts few people, and Harrison becomes one of them, so he works for Trotsky.

When Trotsky is murdered in front of him, Harrison heads back to the United States to live. He is an enigma to his neighbors, and even more so after he writes a novel that becomes a best seller. His Communist party ties come back to haunt him as the US government is beginning to ferret out the dangerous Communists in their midst.

I read this book for Books in the City Immigrant Stories Challenge and it fits the bill doubly. Shepherd is an immigrant in both of the countries he lived in, and at home in neither. Although born in the US, he spent much of his youth and young adulthood in Mexico, where he was considered a gringo. When he came back to the US, he was unfamiliar with American customs and way of life. He was a man without a country.

I enjoyed how Kingsolver used real historical characters and events to tell Harrison's story. I was fairly unfamiliar with Kahlo and Rivera's life and work, and although I knew a little more about Trotsky's life, I learned so much about that period of time, much like I did when I read The Poisonwood Bible. 

The story is told through the diaries that Shepherd kept, along with some commentary from his secretary, Mrs. Brown, who is a wonderful character. She wanted Shepherd's story to be told, and was unwavering in her loyalty to her boss.

My favorite part of the story was Shepherd's fight to clear his name. The parallels between the poisoned, fearful political atmosphere in the 1950's, and the political atmosphere of today are intriguing. Either you are with us or you are against us, and if you are against us, you are not a patriot. All of the name calling on the cable news shows- calling anyone who wants universal health care a socialist, for example- while reading this book, you know the more things change, the more they sadly stay the same.

The Lacuna is one of the best books I have read this year. There is so much to ponder and ruminate over, and the historical setting and characters make this novel a dream for history buffs and lovers of great literature.

Rating 5 of 5 stars

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

An Incomplete Revenge

An Incomplete Revenge by Jacqueline Winspear
Published by Picador ISBN# 978-0-312-42818-1
Trade paperback $14
 An Incomplete Revenge is the fifth book in the Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear. I read it for bookclubgirl's Mad About Maisie Readalong, which I have been thoroughly enjoying.

After what I found to be my least favorite of the series, Messenger of Truth, An Incomplete Revenge seems to have Maisie back on track. We learn a few interesting things about Maisie, including the fact that her grandmother is a gypsy. This may explain Maisie's proficiency at 'reading' people and situations as well as she does. In addition to her training with Dr. Blanche, she also has a natural intuition.

I thought that perhaps after Maisie's introspection at the end of the last novel, we'd see more of her personal life, more of her opening up to new things. Other than her weaving class that she attends at the beginning of the story, and her dancing alone in her apartment at the end, we really don't see her 'let loose'.

A part of Maisie's life does come to a conclusion as Simon, her first and only love who was severely injured in an explosion during WWI, finally succumbs to death. Maisie has her best friend Priscilla at her side, thankfully, and she finally gets closer to Simon's mother.

Maisie also comes to a reconciliation with her mentor Dr. Blanche, and her relationship with her father seems to be back on track.

The mystery involves a town with a wealthy bully and a long-held secret about the tragic deaths of Dutch family during WWI, which Winspear gives enough of a hint that a careful reader can figure out, and a surprise twist about a hidden identity. Fans of mysteries should be very satisfied with this story.

An interesting new character is introduced in the form of Beattie Drummond, a female reporter who is looking to make a name for herself and ends up helping Maisie. Her line about the vicar's duties- 'hatch (baptism), match (marriage) and dispatch (funerals) had me laughing out loud. She and Maisie are both in male-centered professions, and I think that if Billy and his family ever move to Canada, Beattie would make a good assistant for Maisie. I see a lot of potential in this relationship.

I enjoyed reading about the gypsy family, and learning about their culture. One of the best things about the Maisie book is learning about the historical context of this era. It's interesting to compare the strong feeling of fear and hatred that people who are different from the majority back then (gypsies and the Dutch family) and today (Muslims), and what those feelings can cause a mob mentality to do.

A strong entry in the Maisie series; on to Among the Mad next.  

Friday, March 11, 2011

Half Broke Horses

My review of Jeannette Walls' Half Broke Horses- I really loved it, and if you liked The Glass Castle, you'll like this too.


Thursday, March 10, 2011

I Think I Love You by Allison Pearson

I Think I Love You by Allison Pearson
Published by Alfred A. Knopf  ISBN978-1-4000-4235-7
Hardcover, $24.95

When you hear the title of Allison Pearson's new novel, I Think I Love You, you know right away that David Cassidy plays a role in the story.

Petra and her best friend Sharon are thirteen years old in 1974, and David Cassidy mania is in full bloom. They live in Wales, and when they find out that he will be playing a concert near them, they buy tickets for the show. Of course, Petra will have to lie to her very strict mother about where she is going.

Pearson does a terrific job taking the reader right back to her teen years, wanting desperately to belong in the popular girls' crowd, being insecure about her looks, whether she has the right clothes, will a boy ever want to date her? All those feelings come rushing right back.

Petra has to deal with Queen Bee Gillian, whom every girl will recognize right away, with her manipulative ways and hurtful, cutting comments. Gillian does her best to cause problems between Petra and the sunny Sharon. And when a boy whom Gillian likes likes Petra, the claws really come out.

While that story is familiar, it is the David Cassidy angle that makes this story unique. Petra and Sharon know EVERYTHING about David, and when a David Cassidy fan magazine offers a trip to California to meet him on The Partridge Family TV show set, they team up to win the trivia contest.

The novel also follows Bill, who wants to be a rock magazine journalist, but ends up writing for the David Cassidy fan magazine, in the voice of David himself. A pivotal section of the story occurs at the concert, which Bill has to cover. The crowds push forward, and several girls are injured; one girl is killed. (That incident really occurred at the concert- I remember reading about it when it happened.)

Fast forward twenty-fours years later: Petra has to deal with her mother's death, and her husband leaving her for a younger woman. Her husband even has the nerve to bring Petra his dirty sheets to wash- he doesn't have a washing machine on his houseboat- and she does them! Oh, Petra.

Going through her mother's things, she finds out that she and Sharon won the David Cassidy fan contest 24 years ago; her mother hid the letter from her. Petra calls the magazine office, and all the stars align, because the magazine's boss thinks it would make a terrific human interest story to take them to Las Vegas to meet David Cassidy.

Readers will no doubt relate to Petra, with all of her insecurities. And reading this novel made me want to dig out my old Partridge Family albums (yes, I had them all) and The Partridge Family Season One DVD (yes, I bought it). Pearson has a transcript of the fascinating interview she did with Cassidy for The Daily Telegraph in 2004 in the back of the book, which inspired the novel. Now all I have to do is find Cassidy's 2007 memoir, Could It Be Forever? My Story. Cause that has got to be one juicy read.

This book will appeal to all the women who loved David Cassidy as a young girl, or any woman who fondly remembers her tween celebrity crush. And just try to get that song out your head.

Rating 3.5 of 5 stars

30 Rock taping at 30 Rock

So I was walking from the M1 bus stop on 5th Ave. and cut through Rockefeller Plaza on my way to Times Square to see the Sirius XM Live on Broadway radio show taping, and who do I see but Alec Baldwin and Tina Fey filming a scene from one of the funniest shows on TV, 30 Rock. They were out in front of the entrance of the NBC Experience store. I couldn't get a good shot of Tina, her back was to us.

Jodi Picoult Live at the Andaz

Jodi Picoult, Bethanne Patrick, Ellen Wilber (with guitar)

On March 7, Atria Books held a Literary Salon-Series at the Andaz Hotel in NYC with Shelf Awareness' editor of their new consumer publication Bethanne Patrick (@thebookmaven for Twitter followers) interviewing author Jodi Picoult about her new book, Sing You Home. (My review here)

Publisher Judith Curr introduced Jodi by saying "she has the best hair I've ever seen", and that is so true. If you've seen a photo of her, you know what she's talking about. And it is the best hair I've ever seen too.

Sing You Home is a very personal book for Picoult, and hearing her speak about it reinforces that. The book is about a a same-sex couple, Zoe and Vanessa, who wish to use Zoe's frozen embryos from her IVF treatments with her ex-husband Max to allow Vanessa to become pregnant with Zoe's child. Max is now involved with a fundamentalist Christian Church, and takes Zoe to court to take possession of the embryos to give to his brother and sister-in-law so that they can have children.

Picoult revealed that her son came out to her and her husband when he was 17 years old, although she says she knew he was gay since he was a young child. He is now attending Yale, getting straight A's, involved in many on campus activities, and is a great ballroom dancer. She says "the least interesting thing about him is that he is gay".

She says that this book is a mission for her as a mom; she wants her son to be able to fall in love, get married and raise children, just like everyone else.  Isn't that what all parents want for their children?

Picoult does lots of research for all of her books, and this was no exception. Her most difficult interview ever was with a woman from a group called Focus on the Family. They believe that there is "freedom from homosexuality through Jesus". Picoult respected that this woman wished to have her organization's views portrayed accurately, and she spent six hours with her.

Many scientific studies that are referenced in the court case in the novel were discussed by the women, and when Picoult asked the woman if she worried that Focus on the Family's message was not being used correctly, the woman cried and said, "thank God that's never happened". Picoult brought up the Matthew Shepherd murder, but the woman didn't get it. Picoult was still visibly upset by that interaction as she recounted it.

She also interviewed several lesbian couples, and came to the conclusion that their relationships are just like straight couples, except "they talk all the time", which drew laughs from the audience.  They also don't have gender specific roles, like only one of them killing bugs, taking out the trash; the chores of everyday living are just done by both.

Picoult is selling signed copies of her book to benefit The Trevor Project, a support system and hotline for LGBTQ teens. She is working closely with The Trevor Project, and says the best thing people can do for gay teens is to work on anti-bullying projects in schools. She also says giving gay teens support- just telling them "I love you and think you are great"- can make a huge difference to them.

Patrick asked Picoult about the Twitter dust-up called 'Franzenfreude' that occured when Jonathan Franzen's book Freedom was released. Picoult mentioned on Twitter that it was odd that Franzen got two separate lengthy reviews and a feature story in the New York Times the week his book was released, but several female authors who had books published that week didn't even get a mention. And by the way, most book buyers are women.

Author Jennifer Weiner picked up on the comment and tweeted about the dearth of female authors being reviewed in major publications, and then a person pretending to be Franzen started tweeting back to them, and it turned into a humorous few weeks, with a valid message behind the fun.

Patrick also asked my favorite question- which authors do you read? Picoult says that Alice Hoffman "made me a fan as a reader", and three books that she read recently she loved are Room by Emma Donoghue (so agree!), The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender, and Pictures of You by Caroline Leavitt, who was sitting next to me in the audience. I was so excited to meet her; I found her book a few weeks ago at Costco and squealed so loudly with joy when I saw it that I think I frightened a woman who was looking at other books. She quickly pushed her cart away following my outburst.

Music plays a big role in the book, as Zoe is a music therapist. Patrick asked Picoult who she listens to, and the response was electic- Wilco, Aimee Mann, the cast CD of the Broadway show Ragtime, and Hannah Montana (which got a laugh of recognition from other moms in the audience). She's also a Gleek- Glee is her guilty pleasure.

She and her friend, musician Ellen Wilber, wrote songs for each chapter of the book, and we were treated to a performance by Wilber of Sammy's Song. A CD comes with the book, with Wilber singing the songs. She has such a lovely, crystalline pure voice. It was a delightful way to end the evening!

Thanks to Atria Books for inviting me to this fabulous event. You can watch the event here on my website.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Katie Thompson Rocks!

I saw Katie Thompson sing at the Sirius XM Radio Live on Broadway show today, and she had the entire room spellbound. Normally, it is very loud in the room, but you could have heard a pin drop while she was singing. Her version of this song was on So You Think You Can Dance, and her new CD, which will be out on March 15th, has Heaven Is  A Place on Earth on it. She is fabulous- buy her CD!

Monday, March 7, 2011

Jodi Picoult's Sing You Home

Sing You Home by Jodi Picoult
Published by Atria Books ISBN 978-1-4391-0272-5
Hardcover, $28

Jodi Picoult writes books that pair characters you care about with controversial plots. She takes on issues that can be polarizing, and makes the reader see the point of view of all sides. In this world of angry political rhetoric and screaming talking heads on cable news shows, she is refreshing and empathetic.

Her new book, Sing You Home, tackles two issues- gay rights and embryonic custody rights. Max and Zoe are married and have been trying to have a baby for nine years. When Zoe finally gets pregnant, only to miscarry, Max decides he can't go through it anymore and leaves.

Zoe is devastated. She cannot seem to function, until she becomes friends with Vanessa, a high school school guidance counselor. Vanessa is described as 
"the person who buys the broken piece of furniture, sure I can repair it. I used to have a rescued greyhound. I am a pathological fixer, which accounts for my career as a school counselor, since God knows it's not about the  money or job satisfaction. So it's not really a surprise to me that my immediate instinct, with Zoe Baxter, is to put her back together again."
Vanessa and Zoe become best friends, but both of them are surprised when it becomes more. Vanessa is gay, and she and Zoe fall in love. Vanessa has always known she was gay, and the description of her life, living in fear of others finding out and the torment she faced as a teen, is hard to read. 

Zoe, however, was married to Max, and so even Zoe's quirky, New-Agey mom Dara is a little shocked by their relationship. I loved Dara; she is the mom everyone would want, but Picoult does not make her perfect, which I liked. Zoe decides that love is love, you can't help with whom you fall in love.

When Zoe and Max divorced, they still had three fertilized eggs left from their IVF treatments. Zoe and Vanessa want to use the eggs so that Vanessa can become impregnated and give birth. The clinic tells Zoe that Max must give his permission, and Zoe has no qualms about asking Max to sign the paperwork; after all, he left because he decided he didn't want to have a baby.

But Max has been living with his brother and sister-in-law who took him in after the divorce. They too have been having fertility issues. When Max talks to the pastor at their fundamentalist Christian church, he tells Max that gay people should not raise children. He convinces Max to fight for custody of the embryos, and to give them to his brother and sister-in-law.

The court battle takes up much of the novel, and it moves at a breakneck pace. This book, as most of Picoult's novels are, is a real page-turner. Set aside enough time to read it in one sitting, you won't want to put it down. Picoult tells the story in alternating first-person narrative by Zoe, Vanessa and Max, so you get to see all sides of this heartbreaking story. 

There are also so many twists and turns in the novel, you could get whiplash. There is so much packed into this book, and although the pastor at first glance seems like a kind, compassionate man committed to his beliefs, by the book's end, his true colors show. It's unfortunate that was the case, it may have made for a more interesting choice if he were a truly moral man. With the recent Supreme Court decision on the right of Westboro Church to protest at soldier's funerals, this storyline is even more timely.

Zoe is a music therapist, and Picoult includes a a CD performed by Ellen Wilber, who co-wrote the songs with Picoult. The songs correspond with the chapters, and it makes for a unique way for this book to stand out. Picoult continues her winning ways, and her fans will not be disappointed.

Rating 4 of 5 stars

Jodi Picoult will be speaking at the Atria Books Literary Salon-Series Monday, March 7th at 7pm. You can watch a  LiveStream right here on my website:

Watch live streaming video from atria at livestream.com
Watch live streaming video from atria at livestream.com

Jodi Picoult Live

I'm so excited to be invited to Atria Books Literary Salon-Series with Jodi Picoult, whose latest book, Sing You Home, was published last week. It will be held on Monday, March 7th at 7pm at the Andaz Hotel on 5th Ave., near the New York Public Library.

You can follow along with the event here:
Watch live streaming video from atria at livestream.com