All I need to be entertained are cats within ear-scratching distance and a good book . . .OK, maybe that's not ALL I need, but it's a good start.

I love to read. And I love to get recommendations for books to read.

I started Cats and a Book to share the books I read with others. Some I love, some I don't, but you may love the ones I don't, so you're welcome to post your own comments and suggestions.

To make it easier to purchase books you may read about on the blog, I've linked to through The Cats and a Book Bookstore, which is located on the bottom of this page. Your purchases are fulfilled and handled through Amazon. To assure your privacy, Cats and a Book doesn't handle any of your payment or contact information.

Happy reading!

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Roots of the Olive Tree, by Courtney Miller Santo

The Roots of the Olive Tree, by Courtney Miller Santo, tells the story of 112-year-old Anna Davison Keller, taken from her birth mother in Australia, and moved to California by the Davison family.  Anna’s father dreamed of olive trees thriving in the Sacramento Valley and building a fortune on its fruits.  As he succeeded, generations of Keller women made their home at the Hill House, where Anna lived, including Anna’s daughter Bets, Bets’ daughter Callie, Callie’s daughter Deb, and Deb’s daughter Erin. 

Santo’s book is like a series of snapshots into the women’s lives.  We learn that Anna wants to be the oldest living person, and scours the newspapers to check on the health of anyone older.  Bets’ husband Frank suffers from dementia, and long held secrets they both have are revealed in time.  Callie wants to start a new life and sell her Olive Pit roadside store.  Deb, imprisoned for the murder of her husband, finally makes parole but has trouble adapting to life at Hill House.  Erin, Deb’s daughter, is an opera singer who returns from a European tour pregnant and troubled. 

Because of Anna’s advanced age, she is one of a group of supercentenarians studied by scientist Amrit Hashmi, who is seeking to prove his theory that old age is environmental and not genetic, at least for people like Anna.  He arrives to interview the family and take DNA for further study.  These results reveal family secrets long hidden.  And, his involvement sparks a romance with Callie. 

The story is not always pleasant to read.  Inexplicable angry exchanges and explosive reactions between generations belie a history that isn't described in the book.  Because there are so many characters, who seem to get equal attention as story protagonists, the depth of their development may not give the reader a full picture to better understand their motivations.  Perhaps this story rings more true to people like the author, who is proud of five living generations in her own family. 

The Roots of the Olive Tree was written in 2012 and published by William Morrow.  

Sunday, October 7, 2012

A Reliable Wife, by Robert Goolrick

A Reliable Wife, by Robert Goolrick, is a dark novel about a woman who responds to an ad for "a reliable wife."  Placed by a lonely widower.  the ad intrigues Catherine Land for several reasons.  She claims the ad appeals to her because of its simplicity and practicality, but it is the ad's sponsor who draws her attention. Ralph Truitt is a successful businessman in rural Wisconsin who believes punishment he receives, including an attempt on his life, is appropriate to his moral crimes.

Land arrives in Truitt's town with lies and deceptions in tow. Truitt's housekeeper, Mrs. Larsen, is suspicious from the start but can't pinpoint the cause of her worry.  Truitt bares his soul to Land, sharing the painful history leading to his lonely and hermetic life.  His one quest is to find his son Andy and restore his household in the Italian mansion built for them, deserted after Andy' departure and his first wife's death. After Truitt's detectives locate Andy, now known as Tony Moretti, readers learn that this reunites Land and Tony, who have been conspiring to take Truitt's fortune.

Land begins slowly poisoning Truitt with arsenic, and even though Truitt knows he is being poisoned, he can't find the source of the poison and seems resigned to his fate at her hands.  Upon her return from her pilgrimage to St. Louis, ostensibly to talk Tony into returning home to his father, Land finds her feelings for Truitt cause her to change the murder plan before it is too late for Truitt to recover.

The book is, as the author writes, "a story of people who don't choose life over death until it's too late to know the difference, people who goodness is forgotten, left behind like a child's toy in a dusty playroom, people who see many things and remember only a handful of them and learn from even fewer, people how hurt themselves, wreck their own lives and then go on to wreck the lives of those around them, who cannot be helped or assuaged by love or kindness or luck or charm, who forget kindness, the feeling and practice of it, and how it can save even the worst, most misshapen life from despair.  It was just a story about despair."

Readers may be surprised more than once by twists and turns in the story, perplexed by character's actions, and unable to understand the sense of resignation to a fate that could be avoided.  It is, as the author writes so eloquently, "a story about despair."

A Reliable Wife was published in 2009 by Algonquin Books.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky

The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky, is touted as a "coming of age" novel, aimed at young adult readers, but its audience is much more expansive.  In fact, The Perks of Being a Wallflower's themes are so adult, that it may not be suitable for some teens and younger readers.

The book is written as a series of letters to an anonymous friend by Charlie, who is later identified as "the wallflower."  Charlie begins writing after his friend Michael commits suicide because of "problems at home."  He is befriended by Patrick, himself something of an artsy outcast, and his sister Sam.  Charlie is very attracted to Sam, although she is older and inaccessible, but he sees her as his "ideal" for much of the book.  He becomes involved in their world and circle of friends, which includes regular attendance at Rocky Horror Picture Show reenactments. The challenge to "participate" in life drives Charlie to act but not necessarily out of his own desire to do so, which puts him in situations that he might not have chosen, such as parties and near sexual encounters with a girl he's not particularly attracted to.  Charlie also writes about his siblings, an older sister and brother, whose interactions with him are less kind, but accurately portray sibling relationships.  All the while, Charlie aches to be part of the "infinite."  As the book unfolds, some secrets are revealed, including the homosexual relationship between Patrick and the quarterback of the football team, and the damaging relationship between Charlie and his Aunt Helen.

Just as the last book Charlie has read is his favorite, he artfully describes how his favorite music affects him and how he imagines it might feel to the song's creator:  "And I thought about how many people have loved those songs.  And how many people got through a lot of bad times because of those songs.  And how many people enjoyed good times with those songs.  And how much those songs really mean.  I think it would be great to have written one of those songs.  I bet if I wrote one of them, I would be very proud.  I hope the people who wrote those songs are happy.  I hope that they feel it's enough."  Charlie struggles throughout the book to feel anything is "enough" although the book's conclusion gives readers hope that Charlie might find it.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower was first published in 1999 by Simon and Schuster.

Monday, September 3, 2012

The Pigeon Pie Mystery, by Julia Stuart

Julia Stuart’s third novel, The Pigeon Pie Mystery, won’t disappoint Stuart’s fans who are accustomed to her quirky characters and underlying themes of love and loyalty.  Princess Alexandrina, also known as Mink, who is the heroine of the book, and Pooki, her Indian maid, are displaced from their London home when Mink’s father, the Maharaja of Prindur, dies under scandalous circumstances.  As her father’s only child and surviving family member, Mink learns that her father had been spending well beyond his means, and she is forced to make drastic changes to her lifestyle.  This included letting servants go, except for Pooki, who had been with her since childhood. When she can no longer avoid her creditors, Mink reluctantly accepts a “grace and favour” home on palace grounds, offered to her out of deference to her father.   “Grace and favour” residents lived rent-free, but the palace accommodations were not without their inconveniences, such as the ghosts of former residents. 

As Mink and Pooki settle into their new life and meet the other “grace and favour” inhabitants, they discover a complicated web of connections and deceptions that figure prominently in the dramatic event that is the book’s central focus:  the suspicious death of Major-General George Bagshot, a cad who was roundly disliked by almost everyone. Mink commits to unraveling the mystery when her maid Pooki, who made the last dish the Major-General consumed—a pigeon pie—is suspected of poisoning him.  She discovers, through flattery and wiles, that nearly everyone had a reason to murder their unpopular neighbor, and it was up to her to clear Pooki’s name. 

Stuart’s stories are whimsical and fun.  And although characters have their quirks, they reflect the quirkiness we all have—a certain vanity, a soothing habit, or a harmless obsession.  Yet underlying it all is a love story—not a romantic one in this case—but the love of people who have grown up together and the loyalty they feel to each other.  That isn’t to say there aren’t potential love interests for Pooki and Mink, whose potential suitors are revealed as the mystery unwinds. 

The Pigeon Pie Mystery was published in 2012 by Doubleday, a division of Random House.  Stuart is also the author of The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise and The Matchmaker ofPerigord.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Five Book Series for Summer Reading

There’s something about summer that seems to give avid readers permission to indulge.  It’s the time of year guilty pleasures are tucked into beach bags and backpacks, with no thought of the kind of deep classics associated with the school year.  It’s also the time of year to dust off old favorites, particularly those series of books that read like popcorn. 

Here are five book series that come to mind that make good entertainment during those lazy summer months:

The Cat Who Ate Danish Modern

1.  “The Cat Who” mysteries, by Lilian Jackson Braun.  Ms. Braun died last year, leaving behind 29 “Cat Who” mysteries, which ranged in publishing dates from 1966 to 2007.  During her prolific writing career, Jim Qwilleran, the hero of the story, manages to solve murder mysteries with the help of two Siamese cats, Koko and Yum Yum.  Favorites include her earliest books, which are richer in character development.  However, for fun reading that doesn’t take much mental energy, “The Cat Who” books are terrific summer reads. 

2.  “The No. 1 Ladies’Detective Agency” novels, by Alexander McCall Smith.  These charming adventures of Precious Ramotswe and Grace Makutsi, the detectives featured in this series, aren’t as dark as “The  Cat Who” books.  Rarely is there a suspected murder, but more often there are errant spouses, orphaned children, and shady business dealings.  Mma Ramotswe’s homegrown advice is interspersed throughout the books, and much of it is valuable to the reader, as well as to the character in the story.   There are thirteen books, so far, of the detective agency’s capers. 

3.  For something darker and more dramatic, try The Hunger Games series, by Suzanne Collins.  This trilogy is aimed at young adult readers, but readers of all ages (tweens and up) may find them entertaining.   The story of 16-year-old Katniss Eveerdeen and her co-combatant Peeta Mallark is gripping, violent, and inspiring as they take on the evil Capitol and outwit the Hunger Games. 

4.  If focus and time aren’t issues during the summer months, the classic trilogy The Lord of the Rings is a worthy collection of writing to enjoy again.  Start with J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, read the trilogy, and for extra credit, read The Silmarillion (the creation story of Middle Earth).   

5.  And then there’s the Harry Potter collection, another set of seven somewhat dark reads designed for younger readers which are engaging and entertaining.  Starting with Harry Potter and the Socerer’s Stone, originally published in 1997,  J. K. Rowling’s novels still delight readers with their humor, mystery, and adventure.  All ages can enjoy this series of soon-to-be classic books. 

There are many possibilities from prolific writers for summer reading.  Leave a comment with your favorite series of books, so we can add them to our reading list for next summer!

Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection, by Alexander McCall Smith

The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection, by Alexander McCall Smith, is the latest in the charming series of books featuring Precious Ramotswe, the principal detective and owner of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency in Botswana.  In this edition, Ramotswe’s good friend and manager of the local orphanage is dismissed after disagreeing with the governing board over a building plan.  The board’s decision maker is a local businessman with questionable influence, and it is up to Ramotswe and the visiting author of her private detection bible, Clovis Andersen, to determine his motive for the building plan and the orphanage manager’s dismissal. 

The book opens with Andersen, the author of The Principles of Private Detection, making a surprise visit to Ramotswe.  Ramotswe has used his book as a reference from the beginning of her career.  To his chagrin, she and her assistant quote his advice and refer to situations he described in his book.  The reader begins to suspect that Andersen has a secret of his own. 

The book is full of quirkiness, multi-layered stories, and commonsense, even heart-warming advice.  In addition to the surprising dismissal of Ramotswe’s friend, the arrest of one of her husband’s employees, and a mysterious situation with her associate’s new home also present challenges for the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency to resolve. 

Grace Makutsi is Ramotswe’s associate detective, and brings quirkiness to the story.  Grace believes that her shoes talk to her.  In fairness to Makutsi, she didn’t own shoes in her impoverished childhood, so they feature large in her life.  As Smith explains Makutsi’s mindset, “One must be prepared . . .  for at least some criticism from one’s footwear, the occasional sharp comment, the odd note of jealousy sounded by working shoes of party shoes—that sort of thing.”   

Ramotswe interjects advice from time to time, both to Makutsi and to her clients, which reflects her understanding of human behavior.  When Makutsi is outraged that a building contractor won’t talk to her but only to her husband, Ramotswe offers, “A rude person wants you to be rude back to him.  He really likes that.  But if you just smile and are very polite, then he will realize that his rudeness has not hurt you.  He has achieved nothing.”

The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection will whet the reader’s appetite for the previous books and look forward to the next one.  The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection was published by Pantheon books in 2012.  

Friday, June 8, 2012

The Lifeboat, by Charlotte Rogan

The Lifeboat, by Charlotte Rogan, is a dark and complicated mystery that leaves much for the reader to deduce.  The book’s main character is Grace Winter, and the closing lines of the Prologue describe the book’s central conflict succinctly:  “ . . . I was to stand trial for my life.  I was twenty-two years old.  I had been married for ten weeks and a widow for over six.” 

Grace and her new husband Henry had wed in Europe and were returning to the United States to meet his parents, who had hoped for a different match for Henry.  Aboard the Empress Alexandra, Henry engages in mysterious business conversations which may or may not have had anything to do with a particular valuable cargo onboard.  When the Empress Alexandra flounders and is in distress, Henry hands Grace into a full lifeboat.  It is the last time Grace will see her new husband. 

The book details the declining circumstances of the survivors on the crowded lifeboat—the lack of food, the dwindling supplies of fresh water, the illness and desperation of the passengers.  Mr. Hardie, the ship’s one crewman aboard, assumes command of the lifeboat early in their travails, but disagreements among the passengers lead to the denouement which results in Grace’s trial for murder. 

The reader is left to decide many of the other elements of the story, which may have been factors in the central mystery of Grace’s murder charge:  Did the explosion onboard the Empress Alexander occur before the ship sank or after?  Could it have been sabotage?  What was the root of the disagreement between Mr. Hardie and the other seaman he refused to help?  What transpired between Mr. Hardie and Henry Winter that caused them to raise the full lifeboat and put her aboard?  And where did the coins come from that appeared after the wreck?  Could someone still be alive who was presumed dead? 

Terrific fodder for a book club discussion, the unanswered questions provide a mystery beyond the one Rogan narrates in The LifeboatThe Lifeboat was published by Little, Brown and Company in 2012. 

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs, is an imaginative and suspenseful story written for young teens that uses actual old photographs as illustrations.  The story’s hero is Jacob Portman, a 16-year-old who works part-time at his family’s drug store chain.  He regularly visits his aging grandfather, who appears to be suffering from increasing dementia, fearing monsters have found him and begging for the key to his gun cabinet.  When Jacob finds Grandpa Portman fatally wounded, the elderly Portman tells Jacob, “Find the bird.  In the loop.  On the other side of the old man’s grave.  September third, 1940.”  Grandpa Portman’s mysterious last words spur Jacob to solve his murder, and prove that he himself wasn’t imagining the thing he thought he saw at the scene of his grandfather’s attack. 

The elder Portman revealed little about his early childhood, including that he was secreted away from encroaching Nazis in Eastern Europe in an orphanage on the secluded island of Cairnholm, Wales.  As a young child, Grandpa Portman would show Jacob pictures of the children he claimed where in the orphanage with him, children with bizarre talents and attributes like super-human strength, the ability to create fire in their hands, and a mouth in the back of their heads.  Jacob gradually stopped believing his Grandpa’s stories, and the elder Portman put away his box of photographs.  Feeling that Cairnholm might shed light on his grandfather’s last words, Jacob convinces his father, along with the help of his Jacob’s psychiatrist, to travel to the island.  What Jacob discovers is far more sinister than children with super-human abilities.  He discovers his grandfather’s murderer and realizes how close the danger is to him, as well. 

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is an entertaining story for young teens and up.  The photographs included in the book are copies of actual photos collectors offered to the author and fed the story’s plot and character development.  Because of the number of photographs, the book takes longer to load and is a larger electronic file if you’re reading an electronic version.  Also, there are letters reproduced as images which can’t be enlarged on some eReaders, so that an actual paper copy might be a better choice for this book. 

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children was published in 2011 by Quirk Books.  

Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Boy Who Stole the Leopard's Spots, by Tamar Myers

The Boy Who Stole the Leopard’s Spots, by Tamar Myers, is the story of twin sons of a native chief whose lives take divergent paths but are eventually reunited in the Belgian Congo.  The children’s births are documented, along with their participation in a cannibalism ritual and their separation when one of them is abducted, in short chapters from events in 1935.  These shorter chapters are interspersed with longer chapters from 1958, which is the year in which the main story of the book is told. 

In the Belgian Congo in 1958, lives of the native tribes, the Belgian citizens, and other white immigrants are separate although dependent on each other.  Conflict arises between tribes and between religions—Protestants and Catholics—and between natives and their government, the white Belgians or other immigrants.  Mayers, who spent the first 16 years of her life in the Belgian Congo, draws on her experiences there to weave into the story expressions, language, beliefs, and perceptions which gives The Boy authenticity. 

Myers’ characters are memorable although often damaged, impacted by their position in society.  Amanda is a Protestant missionary who serves as the host for the missionary house there.  A drunk driving incident drew her to service and a reformed life, although she struggles under the influence of Madame Cabochon, who is herself impacted by drunkenness—that of her often errant husband.  In addition to the Chief’s twins, Lazarus Chigger Mite and Joseph Pimple, Cripple is a native Baluba and is also a key character in the book.  Named "Cripple" because of her shape and stature, she is respected as a wise woman by all, and her counsel helps maintain the tenuous balance between populations. 

The Boy Who Stole the Leopard’s Spots is a multilayered novel about oppression and acceptance.  The oppression comes from many directions—whether it is government, religion, or place in society.  In some cases, the oppression is a painful memory which cannot be erased.  The successful ones are those who are able to accept, adapt, and learn.  The Boy Who Stole the Leopard’s Spots was published by William Morrow in 2012.  

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Sacre Bleu, by Christopher Moore

Sacre Bleu:  A Comedy D'Art is a bawdy romp through Impressionist art history that begins with the murder of Vincent Van Gogh.  In case you’re wondering, history will tell you that Van Gogh committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest, and in the afterword Moore titled “So, Now You’ve Ruined Art," the author asks, “What kind of painter does that?  Who tries to kill himself by shooting himself in the chest, then walks a mile to seek medical treatment?”  The author concludes with, “What kind of muse inspires that?” and the novel Sacre Bleu is born. 

The primary characters are a crooked little man called The Colorman, the muse Sacre Bleu (or simply Bleu), and a baker’s son and would-be artist, Lucien Lessard.  Lessard’s father was fascinated by the community of artists and often supported them with his bread.  Their frequent visits to the bakery  fueled Lucien’s passion for becoming a painter.  Moore is a name-dropper, including artists from the art community like Camille Pissarro, Paul Gauguin, Edouard Manet, Georges Seurat, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, and Claude Monet among others, making them characters in his story.  Famous works of art are also reproduced throughout the book. 

But Sacre Bleu is not an intellectual study of art history but a dark comedy.  Bleu and The Colorman are coarse and merciless, using their ultramarine blue paint with its odd magical properties as a way to seduce painters and steal their paintings.  Bleu inspires masterpieces as she inhabits the bodies of models.  More than one of the painters in the book die, some from syphilis, although not all deaths are as successful as others.  Bleu and The Colorman appear to have eternal qualities, not to mention Bleu’s ability to produce the ultramarine blue color that is like no other. 

Sacre Bleu is a unique story.  Moore gives the muse embodiment and motive.  After all, would a “good” muse inspire Van Gogh’s suicide?  At the very least, Sacre Bleu will encourage readers to bone up on their art history and enjoy the works of art reproduced in the book.  

Sacre Bleu was published in 2012 by William Morrow.  

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Drop Dead Healthy, by A. J. Jacobs

Drop Dead Healthy:  One Man's Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection, by A. J. Jacobs, is his most recent foray into his favorite stunt non-fiction genre. In past books, Jacobs has read the encyclopedia and lived the Bible, writing with intelligence and honesty about his experiences.  This time, Jacobs undertakes "to become as healthy as humanly possible" by focusing on different body parts and exploring the claims, fads, and the industry that has grown up to support human beings' efforts at achieving ultimate healthiness.  Or as he says, " . . . to turn my current self--a mushy, easily winded, moderately sickly blob--into the embodiment of health and fitness."  He starts with a list 53 pages long of advice he had been collecting, including the obvious like "eat leafy green vegetables" to the not-so-obvious "hum (prevents sinus infections)" to the unlikely "win an Academy Award" (because Oscar winners tended to live three years longer on average than non-winners).

Readers should be warned that this is not an advice book.  Jacobs does synthesize his own learnings from the experience at the end of the book, but he doesn't proclaim any particular path to healthiness.  What's more, some of the methods he explored may be counter to the reader's quest for ultimate good health--running barefoot and the "caveman" workout come to mind.  Not to say that these approaches may work for some people under some circumstances but just as Jacobs' writes, they're not for everyone.

What makes Jacobs' books endearing is his transparency.  Whether it is his low testosterone level (which he does manage to improve) or his relationships with his eccentric Aunt Marti (who battles cancer despite her almost obsessively healthy lifestyle) and his aging grandfather, Jacobs is honest.  His self-effacing humor and candor make his struggle for healthiness seem attainable for anyone, albeit using the methods that work best for them.  Not everyone may find working at their computer while walking on a treadmill to be practical.  But, Jacobs reported that this and other lifestyle changes made him " . . . like climbing a flight of stairs without my heart thumping like a cartoon animal in love."

Drop Dead Healthy is entertaining, and if it inspires a reader to make healthier lifestyle choices, then the book accomplishes more than it sets out to do.  Jacobs isn't a health guru and he doesn't seek to change his readers, but it would be difficult not to absorb some nugget of health wisdom.  And if that helps any reader's heart not thump "like a cartoon animal in love" then the book is a success on multiple levels.

Drop Dead Healthy was published in 2012 by Simon and Schuster.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

A Land More Kind Than Home, by Wiley Cash

A Land More Kind Than Home, by Wiley Cash, is a powerful and gripping novel about culture, religion, and family.  Set in rural Madison County in western North Carolina, the story centers around a local preacher at the River Road Church of Christ in Signs Following. 

The story is told from three perspectives.  Adelaide Lyle narrates part of the story.  She is eighty-one years old and has spent many of her years in Madison County.  After witnessing the death of one of the church members from a snake bite, she takes the children of the church outdoors for Sunday School, while their parents are behind the building’s newspaper-covered windows.  Jess Hall is nine, and lives with his mute brother “Stump” and his parents.  His mother is an ardent church member who falls under the spell of its charismatic leader.   Finally, Clem Barefield is the local sheriff, who has a history with Jess’s ne’er-do-well grandfather.  Sheriff Barefield  unravels a secret about the church’s pastor that puts him in danger of his life.  When a tragedy occurs during a church service, conflicts turn violent and Jess Hall’s world changes forever. 

Jess and Stump stay with Miss Lyle until one fateful Sunday morning. Stump is selected to attend the grown- up services, and Jess spies on the proceedings.  When he sees what's happening, he calls out "Mama!" which the churchgoers assume is Stump, and word of Stump's healing is called a miracle.  Jess later says it was a mirage, "It was like Mama was lost in the desert and had gotten so thirsty that she was willing to see anything that might make her feel better about being lost.  I knew that she needed to think she heard Stump holler out for her, even if I knew he didn't, and I wondered if it was a sin to think any less of a miracle just because you know it ain't real."  

Cash’s first novel has it all:  gripping scenes of suspense, emotional reactions that threaten to overcome reason, love and family loyalty, and evil and control disguised as religion.  This is a book you’ll find hard to put down, and waiting not-so-patiently for Cash’s next novel. 

A Land More Kind Than Home was published by William Morrow in 2012.  

Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Beginner's Goodbye, by Anne Tyler

The Beginner’s Goodbye, by Anne Tyler, doesn’t disappoint Tyler’s fans who have waited patiently for her nineteenth novel.   When Dr. Dorothy Rosales is killed by a falling tree, her husband Aaron is convinced that she visits him from beyond the grave.  He believes that Dorothy “faced the fact that we simply missed each other too much.  She had given in and returned.”  Her irregular visits give him comfort at times.  At other times, he feels confused, as if she is giving him a message he doesn’t quite understand, or causes him to relive moments of their lives together.   These brief “conversations” prove invaluable to Aaron’s grieving process.   

Tyler has a gift for describing the ordinary and the everyday while telling a believable story.  Not that seeing an apparition is ordinary, but the characters she creates and the situations she places them in build a common bond between the reader and the characters. Many people have lost loved ones; Aaron finds it irritating to be reminded by expressions of sympathy and the avoidance others suddenly have for using the word “wife.”  His refrigerator is full of casseroles to the point that he “bypasses” his plate by simply sampling a dish and dumping the rest in the trash. And, he is weary of people attempting to arrange dates with the newly widowed as if a deceased spouse is a “shared pastime.” 

The book isn’t maudlin or depressing.  While Aaron works through feelings about his late wife and marriage, he provides a wry editorial on life as a new widower.  His occupation also gives moments of  comic relief.  Aaron edits “The Beginner’s Series” at Woolcott Publishing (which inspires the title of this novel with titles like, “The Beginner’s Book of Birdwatching” or “Beginner’s Jet Lag”) and since it is a vanity press, whose customers pay for the privilege of seeing their writing in print form, submitted content is sometimes the subject of office conversation, too. 

The Beginner’s Goodbye is the latest in a string of memorable books by Tyler, including Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, the Pulitzer Prize winning Breathing Lessons, and most recently Noah’s CompassThe Beginner’s Goodbye was published in 2012 by Alfred A. Knopf. 

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Death Comes to Pemberley, by P. D. James

Death Comes to Pemberley, by P. D. James, is a sequel to Jane Austen's classic, Pride and Prejudice.  Although it is a risky endeavor for the very successful mystery writer, James succeeds in capturing the tone of its predecessor and the nature of Austen's characters.  James builds a natural extension of the story that is as engaging and timeless as the original.

Set on the eve of the Darcy's annual ball, the mystery unfolds when Elizabeth's youngest sister Lydia arrives at Pemberley alone and hysterical.  Lydia reveals that she had just left a pub with her husband, Wickham and his friend Denny, when the two left their carriage in a state of disagreement and ran into the woods as they were en route to Pemberley.  She is convinced one or the other is hurt or that harm would come to them.  What Darcy and his compatriots find after searching for the pair is Wickham with bloodied hands, weeping over the dead body of Denny, and uttering what seems to be a confession.

The novel unfolds as the investigation takes place, Wickham is arrested, and further evidence is given. The story, of course, is not so simple.  More mysteries are unraveled that relate to the deadly event, and since readers of Pride and Prejudice already know a bit about Wickham and Lydia, they will agree that James does a remarkable job recreating these characters for Death Comes to Pemberley.

This sequel will not disappoint, and is a perfect poolside read.  Death Comes to Pemberley was published in 2011 by Alfred A. Knopf.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Starlite Drive-in, by Marjorie Reynolds

The Starlite Drive-in, by Marjorie Reynolds, is a murder-mystery love story, set in the heyday of drive-in movie theaters.  When a decomposed body is found during the excavation of the old movie theater, Reynolds allows the story to unfold through the eyes of 12-year-old Callie Anne Benton, the daughter of the drive-in theater manager.  The plot centers around a drifter named Charlie Memphis, who is hired to help with the theater's maintenance. Callie's agoraphobic mother falls in love with Memphis, and the tension between Callie's parents and the handsome stranger draws Callie into the drama.

Callie Anne's narrative is funny but also touching.  Her life revolves around her changing feelings about boys, popular music, and confusion about her parents' relationship.  When she discovers that Memphis likes her mother, she is crushed and embarrassed since she imagined that Memphis might be a perfect match for her.  Callie's abusive father is burdened by his ambition to build a theater business of his own and his wife's mental illness, while his wife is paralyzed by panic attacks and is unable to leave their small home.

Reynolds is a master storyteller.  Her characters are realistic. There's no lack of clarity about who is the hero and who isn't, although Reynolds gives the readers an opportunity to make their own judgments in the gray areas, and draws out the mystery until the end.  A quick and engaging read, The Starlite Drive-in has all the makings of an excellent summer read.

The Starlite Drive-in was published in paperback by Harper Collins in 2011.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Book Club Discussion Questions for The Snow Child

Go to the Cats and a Book Book Club Guide site for guidance, discussion questions, and recipes!

The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey

The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey, is the mysterious tale of a childless middle-aged couple homesteading in Alaska.  Mabel and Jack lost their baby years previously and were unable to have another child.  Moving to the Alaskan wilderness to farm gave them the solitude to grieve.  Ivey poetically described Mabel’s feeling about the wilderness as beauty that “ripped you open and scoured you clean so that you were left helpless and exposed, if you lived at all.” 

Life in the Alaskan wilderness is harder than Jack and Mabel expect.  When Mabel’s homemade pies are no longer needed for sale at the nearest town’s store in Alpine, Jack seriously considers working in the mines, at least temporarily, to Mabel’s distress.  Neighbors foist their company and assistance on Jack and Mabel, sharing their supplies and hospitality.  Although Mabel is resistant at first, she begins to rely on their neighborliness. 

But readers question Mabel and Jack’s grounding in reality when the couple begins to see a figure flitting through the woods that seems to be a little girl.  When she appears to them in person after they build a “snow girl” from the first snowfall, the similarities between her appearance and a childhood fairy tale make Jack and Mabel question their own sanity and each other’s.  Over time, the parallels between the fairy tale and the girl’s existence weave in and out of Ivey’s story, so that the book’s conclusion leaves readers wondering about the mysterious girl and what was and wasn’t real. 

The Snow Child is an entertaining story to read.  Although it is often a sad tale, the fairy tale quality of the story makes it a bit more palatable.  Mabel and Jack’s life together is enriched by the book’s other characters, and readers are left with the sense that although there is sadness, there is also joy. 

The Snow Child was published by Little, Brown and Company in 2012.  

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick

The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick, is a winner of the Caldecott Medal and the book on which the recent movie Hugo is based.  The book is a piece of art as much as it is a novel, with elaborate illustrations by the author that often cover full pages or two-page spreads which move the story forward and vividly feed the reader's imagination. For that reason, the paper book might be a more rewarding to own than a digital copy.

The book's central character is Hugo Cabret, a twice-orphaned boy who is rebuilding an automaton, a robotic human he found in the clock tower where he lives.  Hugo's father, a clock maker, is lost in a tragic fire, and his uncle, who becomes his guardian on his father's death, disappears and  is presumed dead.  Hugo takes over the clock maker's duties in order to hide his uncle's disappearance from the stationmaster and keep from being sent to a orphans' home.

Hugo's project leads him to pilfer small pieces from a mechanical toy maker's shop in order to rebuild the automaton.  When the toy maker catches Hugo and confiscates his precious notebook with its automaton designs and drawings, Hugo makes a deal that leads him to solve the mystery of the automaton and its creator.

A beautiful book with an engaging protagonist in Hugo, The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a book for all ages.  It was published in 2007 by Scholastic Press.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Odds, by Stewart O'Nan

The Odds, by Stewart O’Nan, is the charming story of Art and Marion Fowler, on the verge of a divorce, who wager everything on a second honeymoon to Niagara Falls.  With their life savings in cash in a gym bag, they take a bus to the iconic honeymoon destination with a winner-take-all determination.  Facing bankruptcy after the loss of both of their jobs and divorce after both have affairs, the marriage’s financial and emotional balance is near zero. 

O’Nan’s gift is for making the fairly ordinary seem ordinary.  There are no hyperbolic declarations of love or hysteria over the loss of their jobs and slow decline into financial ruin.  His characters demonstrate how people react to those things in the real world, which makes them much more endearing and understandable.  Art and Marion have phrases and words they use like all married couples, in their own language that would mean nothing to others.  For example, when Art says, “They should,” she replies, “Should be like a wood bee.”  The vacation plods along with negotiations over what they should see and do (he wants to see Ripley’s Museum, she prefers to check Facebook), culminating in a trip to the casino that could either ruin them or give them another chance. 

O’Nan cleverly titles each chapter with the odds of various related topics such as, “Odds of a U.S. tourist visiting Niagara Falls:  1 in 195,” and “Odds of a married couple reaching their 25th anniversary:  1 in 6” and “Odds of getting sick on vacation:  1 in 9.”  This is a nifty way to provide the reader with clues to each chapter.  In the chapter “Odds of surviving going over the Falls without a barrel:  1 in 1,500,000,” Marion ruminates about the young boy who went over the falls and survived, “She thought she knew the dread and panic of being swept inexorably toward the edge, except that sometime in the past few months, whether to preserve her strength or her sanity, she’d stopped fighting.  Now she was just floating, waiting to go over.” 

O’Nan is a gifted storyteller, and this quick and delightful read is satisfying and uplifting.  The Odds was published in 2012 by Viking.  

If you enjoy O’Nan’s novels, please see the Cats and a Book Review of Emily, Alone.  A book club guide, along with recipes and menus for your meeting, can be found at the Cats and a Book Book Club Guide. 

Saturday, January 14, 2012

A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, by Robert Olen Butler

A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, by Robert Olen Butler, is a powerful collection of short stories of Vietnamese immigrants, living post-War lives. Butler focuses on those who relocated in Louisiana, with its temperatures akin to the climate in their home country. Fifteen stories, including the story for which the book is named, stand alone but share the common thread of building a new life in a new world.

Themes that pervade the stories include a sense of not belonging—either to the old world or the new—or struggling to transition between them. In “Fairy Tale,” a Vietnamese prostitute comes to America with a dream to be a housewife. In “Crickets” a Vietnamese father wants to share the simple games he played in Vietnam with his Americanized son. In “Relic,” a Vietnamese man seeks to regain his fortune in America and buys a shoe he was told once belonged to John Lennon. The stories weave beliefs like honoring elders, and practices like arranged marriages, with beautiful imagery. In one passage about family, an elderly character says, “A Vietnamese family is extended as far as the bloodline strings us together, like so many paper lanterns around a village square.”

The war figures heavily in some stories, its nightmares and ghosts living on in “Open Arms,” “Love,” and “A Ghost Story.” “The American Couple” features participants in television game shows who win trips to a resort in Mexico. The Vietnamese-born man, Vinh, and an American-born man, Frank, act out war games during their short time together on the set of the iconic movie, “The Night of the Iguana.” The emotional scars from the War, the transplantation of these Vietnamese immigrants, and their adaptation to a new culture, make Butler’s stories intense, convoluted, and moving.

A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize. The hardcover edition of the book was first published in 1992 by Henry Holt.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Write It Down, Make It Happen, by Henriette Anne Klauser, Ph.D.

Write It Down, Make It Happen, by Henriette Anne Klauser is a treasure of a book.  While it falls into that ubiquitous "self-help" book genre, it is more of a science or psychology book.  It is about discovering how the way we think affects what we do.  Klauser dips her pen from time to time into the spiritual realm, but not in a heavy-handed way, suggesting that the way we think also affects what happens to us in terms of things we'd normally think of as outside of our control. 

Klauser describes writing (she is also the author of acclaimed books on writing, including Writing on Both Sides of the Brain) as a means to both "program" your thinking and discover what you really want.  She urges readers to dream big dreams, and quotes Nelson Mandela to inspire her readers to pursue their grand plans, "Your playing small does not serve the world," Mandela said.  "Who are you not to be great?" 

The author gives several examples of people who have long-standing dreams and use writing to help bring clarity to their desires.  Simply writing daily, clearly describing the desire, subconsciously helps them take action to meet their objectives, as well as helping them see when opportunities arise to further their dreams.  Not all of the people in Klauser's book find success, as some discover that they don't actually want what they think they want.  Writing gives them that clarity, and helps them focus on another goal.

Faith plays a significant role in Klauser's theories.  She writes, "Once you walk forward in faith with a conscious effort, all manner of support and tangible backing will be available to you."  Part of training the mind through writing includes increased awareness of those coincidences that support your desires.  Descriptive writing helps clarify the goal, tests your commitment to it, changes the way you think, and changes the way you see the world. And, according to Klauser, may help align other factors to support you. 

Write It Down, Make It Happen was originally published in 2000 by Scribner. Readers should consider Write It Down, Make It Happen as an experiment in achieving goals.  It's a quick book to read and poses a fascinating theory.  It may be the perfect way to set and meet New Year's resolutions.