Orphan Train

Orphan TrainOrphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Another winner. Perhaps a bit too good to be true, happy-ever-after, but who cares? We all need a good Hallmark movie of a book now and then. My great-grandmother was sent to Canada at age 6 as one of the “Home Children” so this is a topic that interests me.

Book Description: Penobscot Indian Molly Ayer is close to “aging out” out of the foster care system. A community service position helping an elderly woman clean out her home is the only thing keeping Molly out of juvie and worse. As she helps Vivian sort through her possessions and memories, Molly learns that she and Vivian aren’t as different as they seem to be. A young Irish immigrant orphaned in New York City, Vivian was put on a train to the Midwest with hundreds of other children whose destinies would be determined by luck and chance. Molly discovers that she has the power to help Vivian find answers to mysteries that have haunted her for her entire life—answers that will ultimately free them both. Rich in detail and epic in scope, Orphan Train is a powerful novel of upheaval and resilience, of unexpected friendship, and of the secrets we carry that keep us from finding out who we are.

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Go Set a Watchman

Go Set a WatchmanGo Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

3.5 stars really, but I’m rounding up. After reading all the controversy around this book’s publication, I was quite pleasantly surprised. I loved the stream of consciousness style back and forth between past and present. The humor of To Kill a Mockingbird is fully present here. And I thought the social commentary quite illuminating of that time and place in our history. While the ending was a bit weak (this story was not a finished novel), it made me think. About shedding childhood illusions and recognizing that the people we love aren’t perfect. About racism and bigotry, which are still big issues today. This book probably cannot stand on its own – if you haven’t read To Kill A Mockingbird, I would read that first. You don’t have to, but I think having that context makes it more meaningful. I wish Harper Lee had gone on to write more. One could probably write a whole commentary on how her editors suppressed a voice for contemporary conscience in favor of the childhood fantasy. Not that To Kill a Mockingbird wasn’t a gem, and a wake-up call for social justice – just that we all have to grow up and she had so much more to say.

Book Description: Maycomb, Alabama. Twenty-six-year-old Jean Louise Finch—”Scout”—returns home from New York City to visit her aging father, Atticus. Set against the backdrop of the civil rights tensions and political turmoil that were transforming the South, Jean Louise’s homecoming turns bittersweet when she learns disturbing truths about her close-knit family, the town, and the people dearest to her. Memories from her childhood flood back, and her values and assumptions are thrown into doubt. Featuring many of the iconic characters from To Kill a Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman perfectly captures a young woman, and a world, in painful yet necessary transition out of the illusions of the past—a journey that can only be guided by one’s own conscience.

The Goldfinch

The GoldfinchThe Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is not really a very “likeable” book, but it is a very powerful one. Basic plot: boy loses mother, is cast adrift, descends into drug use and alcoholism, makes choices that spiral out of control, and eventually grows up and tries to put things right. One of those choices was stealing a valuable painting from the MOMA during a terrorist bombing that kills his mother. He clings to this painting as a sort of anchor in his life, and it is his undoing, but in the end, it is also his salvation. Tedious in some sections, especially life with his until then absent father in Las Vegas, and his descent into drug abuse with his friend Boris — and Theo is not really a very likeable character himself — nevertheless, it was also mesmerizing. The painting is a character in its own right – perhaps the only character that I actually cared about. The power of this book is in the broader themes that transcend plot and characters: how much do we control our fate? what is the power of art? the nature of authenticity? what happens when we try to follow our heart, but our heart cannot be trusted? Dickensian in scope, there is more than a nod here to Great Expectations and Oliver Twist. Will all be well in the end? Maybe, and maybe not.

Book Description: Theo Decker, a 13-year-old New Yorker, miraculously survives an accident that kills his mother. Abandoned by his father, Theo is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. Bewildered by his strange new home on Park Avenue, disturbed by schoolmates who don’t know how to talk to him, and tormented above all by his longing for his mother, he clings to the one thing that reminds him of her: a small, mysteriously captivating painting that ultimately draws Theo into the underworld of art. As an adult, Theo moves silkily between the drawing rooms of the rich and the dusty labyrinth of an antiques store where he works. He is alienated and in love–and his talisman, the painting, places him at the center of a narrowing, ever more dangerous circle.

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

The Story of Edgar SawtelleThe Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I don’t quite know what to make of this book. It has some nice literary prose. The author can certainly paint pictures with words. But plotwise I thought it was tedious in the extreme. For a book that is supposed to be a retelling of Hamlet, it had nothing of Shakespeare’s eloquent examination of what it means to be human. Too much was said in the way of endless details about dog training, and sign language, and what Edgar stole when he was surviving in the woods, and how he chose names for the dogs, but too little was said about what drove the characters to do what they did. And after paralleling Shakespeare for the first two thirds of the book, it kind of fell apart at the end. Retellings of classics should, in my mind, provide insights into the original story. This just wrapped it up in so much murkiness I really could not discern the point behind the story.

Book description: Born mute, speaking only in sign, Edgar Sawtelle leads an idyllic life with his parents on their farm in remote northern Wisconsin. For generations, the Sawtelles have raised and trained a fictional breed of dog whose thoughtful companionship is epitomized by Almondine, Edgar’s lifelong friend and ally. But with the unexpected return of Claude, Edgar’s paternal uncle, turmoil consumes the Sawtelles’ once peaceful home. When Edgar’s father dies suddenly, Claude insinuates himself into the life of the farm–and into Edgar’s mother’s affections.

Grief-stricken and bewildered, Edgar tries to prove Claude played a role in his father’s death, but his plan backfires–spectacularly. Forced to flee into the vast wilderness lying beyond the farm, Edgar comes of age in the wild, fighting for his survival and that of the three yearling dogs who follow him. But his need to face his father’s murderer and his devotion to the Sawtelle dogs turn Edgar ever homeward.

The Secret of Lost Things

The Secret of Lost ThingsThe Secret of Lost Things by Sheridan Hay

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I really wanted to like this book much more than I did. The premise sounded so promising – a coming of age story, a lost manuscript, a large used bookstore, a Melville tie-in. I love literary stories, and there is some beautiful language here, but it wasn’t enough to make it 3 stars for me. In fact, if this hadn’t been an audiobook, it might have been a DNF. The characters were outrageously quirky – not a normal person in the bunch – and had such promise, but they were not developed enough to make me care about them. The plot ultimately went nowhere, with lots of loose ends. It didn’t really work for me as a coming of age story – did the main character grow and change during the year the book takes place? Did the lost girl find herself? Nor did it work as a literary mystery. Some of the characters were creepy, but there wasn’t much in the way of suspense.

The book might work as an exploration of lostness. I’m just not sure anything was found by the end of it. Rosemary is lost and alone when she arrives in New York City. She strikes up a friendship with Lillian, an Argentinian woman whose son was “disappeared.” At the book store, she finds another friend, Pearl, a black wanna-be opera singer transexual. And then there is Walter Geist, an albino losing his eyesight, and probably his mind. A second theme explored is obsession and its consequences. That’s where Melville and the manuscript come in. Geist seems to represent both Moby Dick and Ahab, with his obsession for both the manuscript and Rosemary. Rosemary develops a crush on Oscar, a handsome but emotionally unavailable coworker who is also obsessed with finding the manuscript. Lillian, of course, is obsessed with the need to find her son, or at least find out what happened to him. Sex and sexuality might be a third theme – the naive Rosemary, the lonely and repressed Walter Geist, the asexual Oscar, and the delightful transexual Pearl, who might be my favorite character. In her own way, she comes across as the only one who isn’t lost. She’s real and honest.

This isn’t a bad debut novel. I would read a second book about Rosemary, hoping for the further development of some of the characters, and answers to some of the loose threads. Sheridan Hay definitely has potential.

Description: Eighteen years old and completely alone, Rosemary arrives in New York from Tasmania with little other than her love of books and an eagerness to explore the city. Taking a job at a vast, chaotic emporium of used and rare books called the Arcade, she knows she has found a home. But when Rosemary reads a letter from someone seeking to “place” a lost manuscript by Herman Melville, the bookstore erupts with simmering ambitions and rivalries. Including actual correspondence by Melville, The Secret of Lost Things is at once a literary adventure and evocative portrait of a young woman making a life for herself in the city.

Saving CeeCee Hunneycutt

Saving CeeCee HoneycuttSaving CeeCee Honeycutt by Beth Hoffman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A quick read and a heart-warming story with some brilliantly laugh-out-loud moments. While the book touches on some dark topics – mental illness, child neglect, prejudice, racial injustice – you know that everything is going to be just fine. Reading this book is like watching a Shirley Temple movie. I especially enjoyed the photographic adventures of the traveling brassiere. Everyone should have friends and surrogate mothers like these women.

Description: Twelve-year-old CeeCee Honeycutt is in trouble. For years, she has been the caretaker of her psychotic mother, Camille-the tiara-toting, lipstick-smeared laughingstock of an entire town-a woman trapped in her long-ago moment of glory as the 1951 Vidalia Onion Queen. But when Camille is hit by a truck and killed, CeeCee is left to fend for herself. To the rescue comes her previously unknown great-aunt, Tootie Caldwell.

In her vintage Packard convertible, Tootie whisks CeeCee away to Savannah’s perfumed world of prosperity and Southern eccentricity, a world that seems to be run entirely by women. From the exotic Miz Thelma Rae Goodpepper, who bathes in her backyard bathtub and uses garden slugs as her secret weapons, to Tootie’s all-knowing housekeeper, Oletta Jones, to Violene Hobbs, who entertains a local police officer in her canary-yellow peignoir, the women of Gaston Street keep CeeCee entertained and enthralled for an entire summer.

Laugh-out-loud funny and deeply touching, Beth Hoffman’s sparkling debut is, as Kristin Hannah says, “packed full of Southern charm, strong women, wacky humor, and good old-fashioned heart.” It is a novel that explores the indomitable strengths of female friendship and gives us the story of a young girl who loses one mother and finds many others.

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The Age of Miracles

The Age of MiraclesThe Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book had a lot of hype, but I don’t think it lives up to the promise. I like the idea of “what if?” stories, and the premise of this one was thought provoking. It was a short, easy read and enjoyable as far as it went, but the problem in the end is that it never went anywhere. I don’t know why this is marketed as an adult book. The protagonist is 11 years old, but she comes across as more like 14 or 15. It’s a coming of age story that never wrestles with any adult concepts. I would categorize this as sci fi except that the science of what is causing the problem is never explored. Nor does anyone ever make any effort to try and find a solution. Everyone is just resigned to the changes and attempts to cope with them in their own way. I did enjoy the speculation of how the world might be affected by the slowing down, although one major omission – one I would have expected with an 11-12 year old girl narrator – what affect did it have on menstrual cycles?? One good thing I can say – I did feel as if I were “there” while reading it. I half expected to come out of the break room at work to find we were open in the middle of the night.

Description:
On a seemingly ordinary Saturday in a California suburb, Julia and her family awake to discover, along with the rest of the world, that the rotation of the earth has suddenly begun to slow. The days and nights grow longer and longer, gravity is affected, the environment is thrown into disarray. Yet as she struggles to navigate an ever-shifting landscape, Julia is also coping with the normal disasters of everyday life—the fissures in her parents’ marriage, the loss of old friends, the hopeful anguish of first love, the bizarre behavior of her grandfather who, convinced of a government conspiracy, spends his days obsessively cataloging his possessions. As Julia adjusts to the new normal, the slowing inexorably continues.