Monday, December 29, 2008

The Deep End of the Ocean

It's not that I haven't been reading over the holidays--I haven't been posting reviews! I've read several books this month, and am eager to share them with you.

The first one I have to recommend is general market fiction, The Deep End of the Ocean, by Jacquelyn Mitchard.
The Deep End of the Ocean, published in 1996, was not only Jacquelyn Mitchard’s debut novel, it was the debut novel in Oprah’s Book Club. I can’t think why it took me so long to get around to reading this gripping, suspenseful book, but having read it, I can’t get it out of my mind.
The Deep End of the Ocean hooked me from the first page. I picked it up one evening recently and 110 pages later finally gave in to my burning eyes and turned off the light. The story begins in a crowded hotel lobby, where Beth Cappadora is registering for a room. She leaves her seven and three-year-old sons together while she talks to the desk clerk, and when she turns around, three-year-old Ben is gone. How could he have disappeared in a hotel lobby filled with people, none of whom remember seeing him?
The novel explores the impact of his disappearance on Ben’s parents, siblings, and extended family. There are twists and turns throughout the plot. Suffice to say, Mitchard’s novel takes the reader in unexpected directions. The book is skillfully written, using the alternating points of view of Ben’s mother and older brother. Mitchard nails both viewpoints perfectly.
I think one reason I hesitated to read The Deep End of the Ocean for such a long time was that I feared it would be depressing. It isn’t. I completely recommend this book for adult readers. To use a film rating, I’d give it an “R” for adult themes and language, and an A+ for being one of the best books I’ve read in a long time.
A note to my readers who are also writers: In the Author’s Interview at the back of the book, Jacquelyn Mitchard is asked what advice she would give to aspiring writers. Here’s her reply: “Two pieces of advice, and they’re in order of importance. One, read a lot more than you think you have time for. And two, never let anyone talk you out of your dreams.” I agree completely.
If you’ve already read The Deep End of the Ocean, I’d love to hear what you thought of it. Please leave a comment.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Ruby Among Us by Tina Ann Forkner

Tina Ann Forkner's debut novel, Ruby Among Us, is the story of Lucy DiCamillo’s haunted memories of her mother, who died when Lucy was a child.
The opening chapter, titled "How to Measure Grief," is a stunning beginning to a mesmerizing story. The reader will be immediately drawn into world of questions without answers.
Many of us hunger to learn more about our mothers. In Lucy's case, this quest is thwarted at every turn by her well-meaning but fiercely protective grandmother, Kitty. Is Kitty hiding truths about her daughter, Ruby, or is she protecting her own past?
Forkner’s writing is skilled and spot-on, never more so than when she is in Lucy's point of view. One sentence I particularly loved, and underlined, reads as follows: “Tears didn’t make me an idiot or some breakable thing.” What woman among us hasn't felt the frustration of being treated like we were brainless because we cried?
Lucy's search for belonging takes her from Sacramento and San Francisco to the lush Sonoma Valley. Forker's descriptions bring each locale to vibrant life. I grew up in the area Forkner writes about, and could picture every scene. But a reader who has never set foot in California would be equally at home due to the author’s astute attention to detail.
Ruby Among Us had me racing through the chapters, as much caught up in the hunger to know Lucy’s heritage as Lucy herself. The satisfying climax of the story will resonate with readers long after they’ve finished this book.
This book is a solid addition to my bookshelf. I recommend it as a heart-stirring story of mother-daughter love.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Love Starts With Elle

In Love Starts With Elle, Rachel Hauck has come up with another winner. Set in the Low Country of South Carolina, Love Starts With Elle is one of those stories where the setting is almost a character. Reading about Elle's life makes me want to book a flight back to the warmth of Beaufort, especially right now when it's cold and rainy outside.

In Hauck's preceding book, Sweet Caroline, Elle was on a quest to date every eligible man in Beaufort in order to find a husband. Over thirty, she felt time was running out. Love Starts With Elle opens with Elle succeeding in her quest. Or does she? Jeremiah, the magnetic new youth pastor at Elle's church, asks her to marry him. But the proposal comes with strings attached, and Elle has to make some hard decisions.

How she works through the many crises that Jeremiah's proposal bring into her life kept me turning pages to read "just one more" chapter. Love Starts With Elle is a charming story--touching and funny at the same time. I highly recommend it. If you haven't already read Sweet Caroline, buy that one too, and read them both.
Please let me know if you've read this one, and what you thought.

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski

Here's another novel by a debut author. I read this book several months ago, before The Story of Edgar Sawtelle was chosen as a pick by Oprah's Book Club. It is a remarkable debut--how anyone could write a story this complex his first time out leaves me in awe. Quite simply, I loved this book.

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is about a boy, Edgar, who is born without the ability to speak. He learns to sign as soon as he’s old enough to communicate. Aside from being mute, Edgar is precocious in every way, and has a special bond with the dogs his family raises.

Sawtelle dogs have been bred to emphasize their ability to think and make intelligent choices. As a dog lover, I really enjoyed all the dog scenes in this book. Edgar and his parents live on a quiet farm and raise and sell their special breed of dog. In general, life is good. One day, his paternal uncle arrives at the farm and things gradually start to change. Made me think of the snake appearing in Eden, whispering his lies.

When Edgar makes a disastrous decision, things erupt into chaos for him. After an idyllic beginning, the story takes on edge-of-the-seat suspense as Edgar Sawtelle lives out the consequences of his choices.
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle has moments of almost supernatural happenings, pages of heartwarming charm, and scenes of wrenching sadness. If you’re like me, you’ll be cheering for Edgar and his dogs throughout the 562 pages of this doorstop of a novel.
In spite of the time that's elapsed since I read The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, Wroblewski's characters are still real in my mind. To me, that’s the sign of a satisfying read.
I love communicating with others who have read The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, so if you’ve read it please post a comment. (And tell me what you thought of the ending!)

Even if you haven't read it, post a comment anyway. Does this sound like a book you'd enjoy?

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Longings of the Heart

Bonnie Leon's latest book, Longings of the Heart, is a story about the consequences that arise when Hannah Bradshaw decides to withhold a truth about her past from her husband, John. Her decision to lie to him by omission creates ripples that affect many lives. A friendship is sundered, a marriage threatened, and a man violates his principles--all as a result of Hannah's decision.

I'm reminded of a quotation from one of Sir Walter Scott's poems: "Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive." Hannah's web of deception is tangled indeed.

Bonnie Leon has written a compelling story that draws the reader deeper and deeper as the consequences continue to unfold. Using the fascinating backdrop of early-day Australia, Leon brings her all-too-human characters to vibrant life on the page. I particularly enjoyed her portrayal of the boy, Thomas.

When Longings of the Heart soars to its heart-tugging conclusion, readers will reluctantly close the book, wishing the story didn't have to end. Fortunately, we will read more about John and Hannah Bradshaw in the final volume of the series, to be released next year.

Bonnie Leon is a long ways past being a debut author, but her writing is fresh with every volume. I recommend this book.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Three Cups of Tea

Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin
One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace . . . One School at a Time

On the eve of a critical presidential election, and at a trying time in our country's history, I feel Greg Mortenson's Three Cups of Tea is a must-read. Let me tell you why:

Greg Mortenson has been referred to as a modern-day Indiana Jones. This book is the fascinating story of his personal mission to build schools in remote villages in Pakistan. Mortenson is a mountaineer who found his way into a poor village in the Karakoram mountains after a failed (and nearly fatal) attempt to climb K-2. The inhabitants of the village welcomed and cared for him, and in response to their kindness he promised to return and build a school.

Three Cups of Tea is the story of how he fulfilled his promise. How someone who knew nothing about fund raising and even less about moving goods through the many levels of government in Pakistan succeeds becomes a compelling story. Over a decade, he built not only the school he promised, but fifty-five other schools in forbidding mountain terrain bordering Afghanistan. The narrative reads almost like a novel, thanks to the skills of journalist David Oliver Relin. The story is factual and heroic. A number of photographs accompany the text, showing schools, students and villagers. Here in the United States, for me at least, Pakistan is far away and vaguely threatening. Three Cups of Tea made the people of this country come alive. Their struggles are personal now, rather than news stories I’ve skipped over to read the latest celebrity gossip.

The book should be required reading for whichever presidential candidate next occupies the White House. In some ways, the issues raised by Three Cups of Tea remind me of the ending of the film “Charlie Wilson’s War.” Once the military objective was gained, nothing further happened to help the people. Three Cups of Tea offers insight into the needs of the ordinary citizens of Pakistan, and by extension, citizens of any country overrun by war and corruption. I suggest you visit for more information.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Longings of the Heart

Since this is a book blog, I'll start by saying I'm halfway through the latest release by Bonnie Leon, "Longings of the Heart", as I write this. My husband and I arrived home on the 19th of October after six days spent touring several eastern states, and Niagara Falls, Canada.

Optomistically, I believed I'd have lots of time to read on our vacation and couldn't wait to dive into "Longings of the Heart." Things didn't work out that way.

The morning after our arrival in Maryland we left to drive through Pennsylvania for a tour of the Gettysburg National Military Park. Even after 145 years following that dreadful 3-day battle, the souls of the fallen seem to cry out from the ground. After spending the better part of a day at the Military Park I left with a better understanding of the battle tactics and heartfelt awe at the bravery of the men who fought and died there.

From Pennsylvania we traveled north through Buffalo, New York, and into Canada for two days at Niagara Falls. No time to read there, either. We walked, rode the "Maid of the Mist" to the base of the Falls, and went down a tunnel to stand at the foot of Horseshoe Falls. The word "awesome" is greatly overused, but it's the best way I can describe the power of those mighty waters. To think that power is only a small fraction of what our Lord possesses turned my mind to worship.

After leaving Niagara, we traveled south through NY and PA, touring the Allegany State Park at the NY border. On all sides we were surrounded by a mosaic of reds, yellows, golds and greens covering every hillside. I've always heard of the abundance of color on the eastern hills in the autumn, and we certainly weren't disappointed. It was breathtaking. Another reminder of God's goodness--He could have made everything in this world black, white and gray. Colors are one of his grace notes.

All of this to day that after 1300 ground miles in six days, Bonnie Leon's "Longings of the Heart" is still tugging at me to sit still long enough to finish it. I'm loving the story--hopefully by next week I'll be reviewing Leon's latest achievement rather than posting excuses.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Rhapsody in Red

Donn Taylor’s Rhapsody in Red doesn’t exactly fit my “debut novel” theme, but it’s close, in that it is author Taylor’s first novel for a prominent publisher. Rhapsody in Red is a mystery filled with suspense and laced with humor. The protagonist, Preston Barclay, is a history professor at a small college that has morphed from a Christian institution to a secular one in order to draw more students. “Press” Barclay’s wry comments on college faculty infighting will bring a smile to the reader’s lips even as they’re racing through the story.

Rhapsody in Red has all the outer accouterments to cause browsers to select this novel from among others on the shelf. The cover is bright red, with a black stiletto (the shoe, not the dagger) above the title. Back cover copy reads, “That Wednesday, two weeks before Thanksgiving, was a bad day to find a corpse on campus.” But what really drew me in was the introduction of the secondary character, Mara Thorn, as the Wiccan head of the department of religious studies. That addition gives the story an additional twist. Press and Mara have the misfortune to discover the murdered body of a dead colleague, and the further misfortune of being the primary suspects of the crime.

The story takes off at a run from that point, and doesn’t slow down until the surprising conclusion. Every time I told myself I’d read to the end of a chapter, then put the book down, I found myself saying, “Well, one more chapter, then I’ll stop.” Donn Taylor added several dimensions to this novel, which in my opinion, raise it above the average mystery. His protagonist, Press Barclay, suffers from musical hallucinations, so many scenes are enlivened by Barclay’s description of the melodies that are haunting his mind. Taylor cleverly sets the mood for much of the action in Rhapsody in Red by describing the instruments playing in Press’s head. Further, Taylor’s droll sense of humor, especially when directed at the faculty of the university where his protagonist is employed, will cause the reader to snicker even while his heart pounds with the suspense that Taylor so adroitly weaves into each chapter.

Rhapsody in Red rates high on my recommended list. I hope Taylor is hard at work on a sequel!

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

My Love of Books...

One thing most writers have in common is a love for books and reading. I am no exception. By first grade, I could read at third grade level. All the way through secondary school I made sure I had a novel to tuck behind my textbooks to read when classes got too boring. Now days I wouldn’t dream of leaving the house without tucking a book in my purse, just in case I’m delayed by a train or have to wait in line someplace for more than a few minutes.

Among my favorite books as a child were the Oz books, by L. Frank Baum, and the Little House on the Prairie stories by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I cried while reading Beautiful Joe, a poignant dog story, and cried again last year when reading Marley and Me.

It’s nothing short of a miracle how individual letters formed into words can create a separate world on the page. Think of it. Stories are a place to go when you’re tired, lonely, or need someplace to hide. I read next to my late husband’s bedside while he slept in the hospital. For some reason, I can remember that Tom Clancy’s Hunt for Red October accompanied me through the first days of the cancer diagnosis.

Of course, reading isn’t just for escape. Let me hasten to say that scripture has been my comfort and refuge in every situation I’ve faced. John 14, with the promise that Jesus will prepare a place for me then come for me is one of the foundational stones on which I build my Christian faith. There are many others, which I’ll share from time to time.

For now, this is an introduction to what I want to share with you—my love of books. When I finish one I particularly like, I’ll tell you about it. Not to give away the ending, of course, but to share my impression of the writing and why I loved the story. As a debut novelist, I’m particularly interested in first novels. Some I’ll mention will be from writers who have since become successful. Tracking how they have matured in their craft fascinates me. Others will be debut authors who are presumably working away on Book Two.

I hope you’ll join me as we discover authors and titles together. If you’ve read a particular book, I’d love to hear what your opinion was—and please let me know of books you think I’d like.