Monthly Archives: January 2012

A Grownup Kind of Pretty, by Joshilyn Jackson

Anytime Joshilyn Jackson releases a new novel, it’s a big day for me. A big day that comes at the end of months of impatient waiting, as I’ve read her accounts of writing the book on her wonderful blog, Faster than Kudzu, then counted down along with her and her many fans to the release date. Each of her four previous novels — gods in Alabama; Between, Georgia; The Girl Who Stopped Swimming; and Backseat Saints have been among my favourites, and I knew A Grownup Kind of Pretty was not going to be a letdown. I wish I could lock Joshilyn Jackson in a room and somehow force her to churn out books at a rate of about one a month, because I could definitely devour them on that kind of schedule. But I recognize that Art Takes Time, and every month spent waiting for one of her new releases is time well spent.

Ginny Slocumb is 45. Her daughter Liza is 30. Liza’s daughter Mosey is 15. Having babies at 15 seems to be a pattern for the Slocumb women, so it’s no wonder that Ginny and Liza (who call each other “Big” and “Little”) are worried about Mosey this year. Mosey seems to be a remarkably sensible teenager, but they can’t help worrying. And that’s far from the only thing they have to worry about, what with the stroke Liza’s struggling to recover from, and the box that got dug up in their backyard when Ginny tried to put in a pool — a box that contains tiny human bones.

Along with the bones, secrets from the past are unearthed, and it’s gripping and inspiring to see how these three strong Southern women — so different, yet so deeply connected to each other — grapple with the revelations. Each of the three Slocumb women has a voice in narrating the story, and each voice is strong and absolutely unique. Joshilyn Jackson has such a strong sense of voice as a writer that her characters’ words echo in your head long after the book is closed. This was another can’t-put-down book, and another one that I can almost predict now will be on my Top Ten list at the end of the year.

 

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Heft, by Liz Moore

When I first read a review of this novel, my immediate reaction was mild despair. That’s just because one of the main characters is a 500+ pound man, and that’s not a familiar character in fiction, and I really thought I had written the groundbreaking novel about a 500 lb man. Since my book What You Want is still unpublished, I figured I’d missed my chance to snag publishers and readers with a really original concept. That said, of course I couldn’t not read Heft. Having spent so much time trying to get inside the head of a morbidly obese recluse, I wasn’t about to pass up the opportunity to see what another writer had done with a similar subject.

Once I read the first page of Heft, I completely forgot about making any comparisons to my own work, and became completely absorbed in the voice of Arthur Opp, the main character, who hasn’t left his house in Brooklyn in 10 years. Actually, he’s just one of two main characters whose voices alternate in telling the story — the other is high school athlete Kel Keller, son of the one woman Arthur Opp ever loved, who is trying to find his way towards his own future from a very unpromising start in life. Both characters’ voices come completely alive on the page. I felt so drawn in to both their stories, and the ways in which they intersect, that I could barely put the book down long enough to go to sleep on the night I bought it (and when I say “the book,” understand I mean “my Playbook,” because I bought it as an e-book shortly before it was actually released in hardcover).

Partway through, the way the story unfolded bent my expectations. As with any two-character story where the two characters don’t know each other, I think most readers will assume this is going to be the story of what happens after Kel and Arthur meet each other. It’s not, but I wasn’t disappointed. If anything, it’s the story of what happens in both their lives to make that meeting possible. When the book ends, many things are left unresolved, many questions unanswered. But I don’t think you’ll mind. I didn’t. I only regretted that I wasn’t going to get to spend more time with two characters who completely won my heart.

I know it’s only January so it’s cheap to say this is one of my favourite books of the year, but I bet I’ll be saying the same thing when the year ends … Heft is a thoroughly satisfying novel.

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Death Comes to Pemberley, by P.D. James

I’m not one of those rabid Jane Austen fans who’s read every one of her books multiple times — I think I’ve read every one of the once, and enjoyed them, and am generally culturally aware enough to enjoy a good Austen parody like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. The prospect of a mystery set at Pemberley, several years after Elizabeth Bennett’s marriage to Mr. Darcy, was intriguing enough to make me pick up this novel.

The story is heavy on atmosphere and on character updates that will interest the aforementioned Austen fans who might like to imagine what the Darcys’ married lives, and the lives of their families and friends, might be like after Austen’s book closes. The mystery is one step removed from the main characters — a body is found on the Darcys’ Pemberley estate, but neither Darcy nor Elizabeth is directly involved either in the murder or, in any significant way, in its solution. So for serious mystery fans, this might be a bit of a letdown. I never figure out “whodunit” before the book reveals that, but the solution of this mystery hinged on a bit of misdirection early in the story that I saw right through, so I was at least halfway to getting the solution. I think more people will pick this  up for the “Pride and Prejudice sequel” aspect than for the mystery, but for those who like visiting that world it will be an enjoyable short vacation.

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Elizabeth I, by Margaret George

I have all the same words of praise for Margaret George that I do for my other favourite historical fiction writer, Sharon Kay Penman — her work is brilliantly detailed, exhaustively researched, always well-written and informative. I also have the same complaint: in the case of both writers, I find that their more recent works lack the emotional depth and resonance of their earlier books, and I don’t know why that is. I’m sure I wouldn’t have found a fault with this first-person account of the later years of Elizabeth I’s reign (from the defeat of the Armada to her death, with particular emphasis on her relationship with Essex), if I hadn’t been comparing it to the first Margaret George novel I read, her masterful novel about Elizabeth’s father, The Autobiography of Henry VIII. Both books are equally thorough and well-research glimpses into the lives of the great  Tudor monarchs, but there’s an emotional intensity and depth to the earlier book that I found lacking in this latest one.

That’ s not to say it’s not well worth reading, because it is, and if I could lay aside the temptation to compare it to earlier works I’d probably be completely content. I did find that the story drew me in more and more, and Elizabeth became more real to me, as I got further into the book, though I never felt I really got inside her head as much as I’d have liked to. Her point of view is occasionally interrupted with chapters from the viewpoint of her cousin and frequent rival, Lettice Knollys, and I found the two points of view interesting. Even with a certain emotional thinness, this is still a book well worth picking up if you love historical fiction, and it may well be the best historical fiction you read this year until Hilary Mantel’s new book comes out in April. But more than anything it made me want to reread The Autobiography of Henry VIII and see if that book was still as amazing as I remembered it being.

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Reading Jesus: A Writer’s Encounter with the Gospels, by Mary Gordon

I stumbled across this book quite by accident, but the idea of a novelist approaching the Gospels and reading them from a writer’s point of view intrigued me, and I like what I’ve read of Mary Gordon’s writing, so this was a natural fit. Gordon comes to the gospels from a very different perspective than I do: she is a believer, but one who is quite comfortalbe seeing the Scriptures as a human product rather than the inspired word of God. She loves the stories of Jesus that she has carried with her from childhood, but admits that a Catholic upbringing in the era she grew up in did not provide her with an exhaustive or detailed knowledge of Scripture, so in some cases she is looking at the stories with fresh eyes.

Although there were no earth-shattering discoveries here for me, I did like the way Gordon approaches the Biblical text, often without the preconceptions and baggage that I find myself bringing to it. She’s not afraid to grapple head-on with some of the more difficult parts, either. I came to this book in the middle of a year-long read-the-entire-Bible project which has often left me feeling overwhelmed and confused, feeling like the Gospels are the one refuge where I can find a picture of God that I can cope with. So it was challenging for me to be reminded that the gospels, too, have parts in them that many readers find difficult to cope with (her chapter on Jesus cursing the fig tree reminded me fondly of my internet friend Cathy who used to wrangle over that one on a discussion board where we met long ago — it had never occurred to me that someone could be so bothered by the fate of a fig tree!).

The other challenging thing, for readers with an evangelical background like myself, is that in picking up and dusting off these difficult texts, examining them from all angles, Mary Gordon does not feel the obligation to provide tidy answers that many of us are used to. Sometimes she just says, in essence: “This statement by Jesus is difficult and unpalatable,” and leaves it there. And of course, she’s not setting herself up as a spiritual teacher, just an explorer, so she’s under no obligation to explain away or reconcile what doesn’t seem to fit. For someone like me who often struggles with what I find in Scripture, sometimes it’s enlightening just to read someone else’s struggles, without expecting to find answers.

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My Top Ten List, with Contest Winners

Thanks to everyone who played along with my Top  Ten Books contest! Here’s the real list of my favourite books of 2011:

10. Caleb’s Crossing, by Geraldine Brooks.

9. Far to Go, by Alison Pick.

8. Rin Tin Tin, by Susan Orlean.

7. When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead.

6. Maus, by Art Spiegelman.

5. Between Mothers and Sons, edited by Patricia Stevens.

4. The Ghost Brush, by Katherine Govier

3. Bossypants, by Tina Fey.

2. Planting Dandelions, by Kyran Pittman

1. 11/22/63, by Stephen King.

I said I would pick four winners, but due to some behind-the-scenes factors as I analyzed the responses (basically that I got five people with the correct list who replied within a very short time of each other), I decided to go with five winners instead. And they are …

Inkslinger, who gets a copy of my Biblical Fiction Prize Pack (Esther; Deborah &  Barak; Lydia; James)

Ruth and Cindy, who each get a copy of my Historical Fiction Prize Pack (The Violent Friendship of Esther Johnson; By the Rivers of Brooklyn; That Forgetful Shore)

Lesley, who gets a copy of The Chronicles of Uncle Mose by Ted Russell (not on the Top Ten list, but one of the books I reviewed this year)

Kristin, who wins a copy of Far to Go by Alison  Pick.

Thanks for playing, and happy reading in 2012! I’ll be back with some more reviews in a week or so.

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2011: The Reading Year in Review (and Yes, There’s a Contest)

On the first day of the new year, it’s time as always to take a look back at books I read in 2011. I don’t feel 2011 was a particularly great reading year for me, unlike 2010 where I read so many absolutely wonderful books that I had a really hard time narrowing it down to a Top 10 list. In 2011, for one thing, I only read 68 new books – significantly fewer than the 80-100 I normally read in a year. There were a couple of contributing factors: a period during the winter when I was deep in researching and writing That Forgetful Shore, and reading only books that were relevant to that research; the entire month of June sacrificed to the Game of Thrones series, which I did like a lot, but not enough to take my breath away; also the fact that my e-reader died in May and I was getting by until November with borrowing either Jason’s or Emma’s Kobos, reading on my phone, and checking out the odd paper book from the library. It was a patchwork solution that didn’t work as well as I’d hoped, especially during our three-week vacation, and I didn’t feel I was really back on track, book-wise, till I got my Blackberry Playbook in November.

Despite that, there were some very good books in this year’s list. I read 45 fiction and 23 non-fiction books; 26 books were written by men and 42 by women. In both those cases the proportions are about what they usually are.

So, what are my ten favourite books of the year? I narrowed it down fairly quickly to eleven, and then debated all day over which one to knock off to make it an even ten. It’s always pretty arbitrary.

As per usual for the last few years, I’m not going to just give you the list. No, I’m going to give you clues to the list, and you can search here through my archived reviews for the year, or anywhere else on the web (or dip into your own vast well of book-knowledge) to figure out which ten books made the list. If you think you have the list figured out, email me at trudyj65@hotmail.com (I’ve disabled comments on this post so you can’t accidentally post the list here and spoil it for other people).

This year I will pick four winners (probably the first four correct lists, unless I get a vast amount of entries in which case I might just draw four at random) and I will be giving four prizes.  Two of the winners will get to pick their own favourite book from my Top Ten list (you have to actually pick one; just saying “Pick one you think I’ll like!” has not always given good results in the past). The other two lucky winners will get prize packs of my books (you can visit my writing page if you want to know more about them). The Historical Fiction Prize Pack consists of three books by me: That Forgetful Shore, By the Rivers of Brooklyn, and The Violent Friendship of Esther Johnson. The Biblical Fiction Prize Pack includes four books: Esther: A Story of Courage; Deborah & Barak; Lydia: A Story of Philippi, and James: the Brother of Jesus.

When you send in your entry, be sure to let me know which prize you’d like if you win!

Without further ado, here are the clues to my top ten books of the year:

10. Educational opportunities for Native Americans in colonial New England? I didn’t think I was interested, but … the right writer can draw me right in.

9. Just another Holocaust novel — but its intense personal focus makes it so much more.

8. Here’s another, “Didn’t think I was interested, but ….” This time, it was a non-fiction writer who made me fall in love with a long-dead German shepherd.

7. Supposed to be a young-adult novel, but this time-travel story fascinated me more than it did my eleven-year-old daughter.

6. I’m not normally hooked by graphic novels, but this one — yes. And it’s also “just another Holocaust story” … but so much more.

5. A collection of essays? Not my usual reading choice, but these witty, thoughtful women writers caused me to race through the book in a day.

4. Beautiful historical fiction, again about a subject I didn’t think I was fascinated by. Japanese painting? Oh yes!

3. I love her on TV so what’s not to love about her book?

2. Breezy, funny, wonderful memoir by an ex-patriate Newfoundlander.

1. I like this author’s writing, but I usually dislike his subject matter. This time I loved it all, making this weighty tome my favourite book of the year.

Remember, if you think you’ve figured out all the books, email me your list along with a note about which prize you’d like to receive, and if you’re one of the lucky four I’ll be sending you a book or maybe even a whole package of books! Contest closes 12:00 midnight, Newfoundland Standard Time, Friday January 6, 2012.

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