Tag Archives: fiction

Thrity Umrigar — The Story Hour

This author drills into the minds and hearts of her characters. She crafted a story that kept me reading until three o’clock this morning.

The book is built around two characters from diverse cultures and backgrounds. One woman is a professional (psychologist) in a comfortable almost idyllic marriage. The other is an immigrant wife, unappreciated by her husband, who works her hard and gives her nothing (emotionally or materially). The two women’s lives come together and they become friends.

Ms. Umrigar looks into the best and the worst of both women—their desire to help others, their hopes and dreams, passions, and ambitions. She also shows us their mistakes or “sins” as one of the women classifies them, despair, guilt, loneliness…

Whew! I make it sound dark and depressing, but it’s not. It’s a delightful story with all the three H’s I talk about other places in my blog—head, heart, and humor—and a new “H” for hope.

It’s also in the women’s fiction (or literary) genre I claim to not like. Yet I keep finding good books in that category. Another thing this novel has in common with others I like and have reviewed is the switching back and forth between two main characters.

All I can say is this book is a good read. Remember it kept me reading until 3 a.m.

Lydia Netzer — How to Tell Toledo From the Night Sky

nightsky

Ms. Netzer is an author with a unique twist to her storytelling. I don’t know how to classify this book. The genre could be science fiction, fantasy, romance, humor…take your pick. Whatever you call it, the book is enchanting.

The story revolves around two people who have much in common (both astronomers, born at the same time in the same place) but whose personalities are polar opposites. Irene is all about facts and science, doesn’t believe in love, and is creating black holes. George is a dreamer, mixing astronomy and astrology, trying to prove the gods exist. They are drawn together like magnets, but neither realizes that their mothers were best friends who plotted and planned their children’s lives.

The fabric of the story is woven with family and friendship, sex and love, science and fantasy, romance and loneliness, humor and heart.

The author’s previous novel Shine, Shine, Shine was also a delightful tale combining science fiction, fantasy, romance, and humor.

Marie-Helene Bertino — 2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas

A delightful novel filled with a neighborhood of characters — from old reprobate musicians to a rule-minded Catholic school principal, shopkeepers, beauticians, policeman, teacher, dog, and more —all touching the life a motherless nine-year-old girl (almost ten) who only wants to sing. Most of these characters end up at The Cat’s Pajamas, a run-down jazz club in Philadelphia, at 2 A.M. on Christmas Eve.

The story takes place in one day and night, “Christmas Eve Eve,” swinging between disappointments and hope, realities and fantasies. Bertino brings the people to life and makes you feel you are wandering the streets of Philly, popping in and out of shops and homes. The book is filled with laughter and sadness, setbacks and triumph, love, music, and dreams.

(I believe the genre is literary again. I know…I said I don’t like literary. But it seems I’m running into more of them that are excellent writing. I guess it’s like any other genre — they come with a large variety of good, bad, and in between.)

Martin Cruz Smith — Tatiana

I hadn’t read one of Smith’s novels for a while. I’m not sure why since he’s one of my favorite authors. Tatiana is one of his Arkady Renko novels. Most of the story takes place in a little piece of Russia called Kaliningrad (which I’d never heard of) on the Baltic Sea between Lithuania and Poland.

I can’t decide what I like best about the author’s writing. He paints fantastic scenes (with words), sometimes beautiful, sometimes ugly. You can feel the cold wind from the Baltic, moving the sand, blowing it into your hair and eyes. You can hear the sounds of the city; see the people and the buildings old and new. He gives you a picture of Russia and its culture that feels like reality. He makes you believe he is Russian, not an American looking in. Of course, I don’t know if a Russian citizen would feel the same.

His characters are quirky and sometimes outrageous, yet believable. Renko is a police detective who doesn’t follow the rules or politics and is always in some sort of trouble with the authorities. He carries a bullet in his brain which could kill him if it moves in the wrong direction. He loves mysteries and seeks the truth. In this book, he is chasing Tatiana’s reported suicide, which he believes is murder.

Tatiana is also an interesting character. She is a reporter who chased corruption. There is also a poet, Renko’s teenage chess playing ward, and several Russian mafia characters — all intriguing. One object (almost a character) central to the story is the notebook of a dead interpreter, which no one is able to interpret.

His plot twists and turns — not a typical plot. It’s a mystery — a puzzle with Renko seeking all the pieces. Underneath you find dark humor, politics, romance, and more.

He has all of my three H’s: head, heart, and humor.

I find his books don’t grow old. Some of our best known authors, especially those who write a series with the same protagonist, lose some of their sharpness with time. I don’t feel that way about Martin Cruz Smith. As I said in the beginning, one of my favorite authors — one of the best.

Cara Hoffman — Be Safe I Love You

Cara Hoffman tells a fascinating story of a soldier returning home from Iraq. The protagonist, Lauren Clay, has been caring for her young brother since she was 10 years old when their mother left and their father became deeply depressed and quit functioning. She joined the army after high school to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table.

Lauren is a disturbed young woman dealing with guilt and more, from incidents in Iraq. She has difficulty understanding why people don’t listen to what she says. As a sergeant in the army she is accustomed to people following her orders. Although she has an exceptional voice and the promise of a career in music, she no longer feels worthy of singing.

Telling her father she and her brother Danny are going on a vacation to see their mother, instead she takes him to a frozen wilderness in Canada. She believes she is teaching him survival skills in case she is no longer able to care for him.

This is a character driven book. Lauren’s interaction with her friends and family, her feeling of displacement, her driving need to take care of her brother, paint a disquieting portrait of a returning warrior. The author also captures reactions from her friends and family to her strange behavior. Some ignore the signs or don’t see them, while others recognize that she has problems but do little to help her adjust.

The book is well written, captivating, delving into the mind of a troubled young woman. It has a good plot and there is mystery, but mainly it is about character. Excellent writing.

Laline Paull — The Bees

A delightful story. So much imagination. The author obviously did extensive research about bees, but the story is humanized. There are many underlying themes—worship of royalty, class division, environmental issues, and more. Flora is an unusual bee, working her way up the hierarchy of hive society.

Who would have thought that a novel about bees would have a good plot, action and suspense, complex characters, family connections, love…and a very realistic setting. Thumbs up for an excellent first novel from Laline Paull.

Carol Cassella — Oxygen

I picked up this book because I loved her book, Gemini. I was disappointed for two reasons. I kept second-guessing the author about what would happen next (and I was right most of the time) and there was way too much medical and legal stuff to plow through. Not enough story. Maybe that’s because I kept skipping over parts of the book.

I know that this was a highly acclaimed book, but she is writing better stories now.

Andrew Gross – Everything to Lose

What lines would your cross to save your family’s home? What laws would you break to help your child? Would you steal to pay your mortgage or to keep your child in a school that was helping him? Borrow illegal money to protect family? Try to destroy a man you know is a monster? Kill to protect a loved one? What would you do if you had everything to lose?

The book has an interesting plot and covers many moral ambiguities. Various characters become caught up in the immoral or illegal to protect what they have or whom they love.

I enjoyed the book but was unhappy with the ending. Questions were left unanswered. That’s not always a bad thing, to leave the reader thinking about the answers. But too many good people died. Maybe the author was trying to teach a lesson about crossing the lines.

Carol Cassella – Gemini

I am impressed. Cassella is an amazing writer! Gemini is a captivating story switching between two main characters with very different stories and lives.

A doctor becomes involved, against her better judgment, with discovering the identity of a “Jane Doe” in her care. “Jane” lies in a coma in the hospital after she is found alongside the road almost dead from a hit-and-run.

The author also follows a young artist growing up with her grandfather in a backwoods small town. We see her first love, marriage, motherhood, her frustrations, struggles to survive, her spirit, her connection to grandfather, son, husband, to the land.

The genre is medical mystery, but I think it could also be classified as women’s fiction or literary. There is so much to grab you and keep you reading—hopes and fears, love and loss, heartbreak and joy, family, communication, morality, medicine, genetics…

I’m going to find Cassella’s two earlier novels, Oxygen and Healer, and spend more sleepless nights reading her work.

Peter Heller — The Painter

What a great writer! I loved this book. First person, in-his-head, emotional — sad, happy, angry, love, sorrow, hate, frustration,  rage, confusion, delight, disappearing into the moment. It’s all there.

The story is written from the point of view of an artist-slash-fisherman. The setting is Colorado and New Mexico. Heller captures the setting, atmosphere, weather, wildlife, surroundings, whatever, like no one I’ve read. I saw it and felt it, even smelled it, while reading. I grew up in Colorado and it was easy for me to put myself there. But I believe you would be able to picture it even if you’d never visited the region. The painter protagonist was in tune with the environment around him, loving it and getting lost into it as he fished and painted.

But I make it sound like a gentle story and it wasn’t. It was full of roiling emotions, passion, stalking, and murder. I almost didn’t read it because of the way it began. A two-page prolog had the painter drinking in a bar and shooting the man on the stool next to him for making a comment about his daughter. (I guess it was a prolog. It wasn’t labeled that way.) I continued reading because I read Heller’s The Dog Stars and liked it. So I gave the book a chance. It only took a few more pages to capture me.

I’m not going to give away any more of the plot. Try it. You’ll like it.