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Picture Perfect Holiday Picks

Picture books can make us wish we were kids again.

This year my holiday gift-giving suggestions include picture books for children and teens. Yet the selections will amuse and captivate adults as well.

Traditional picture books are short and engaging while blending stories with art. Here is a sampling of my favorites.

Press Here, written and illustrated by Hervé Tullet, defies categorization. It is an interactive book without tabs, windows or flaps, yet it’s as engaging as an iPad app without a single electronic component. Press the dots, tilt the book or shake the pages to see what happens next. This book will bring a smile to most any kid – or adult. It’s recommended for ages 4-8 but fun for anyone.

In the next story, a box of crayons goes on strike. When Duncan gets ready to color, the crayons are missing. Instead, he finds hand-written notes explaining why each crayon has had enough! Every hilarious epistle matches one of Duncan’s drawings, illustrating how the young artist has misused the crayon. The Day the Crayons Quit, written by Drew Daywalt and illustrated by Oliver Jeffers, is a funny and fresh addition for children 3-7.

Most of us know Keith Richards as a member of the legendary rock band, The Rolling Stones. He shows a different side as the author of Gus & Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar. His daughter, Theodora, illustrates this tender story of the bond between Richards and his grandfather with charming pen-and-ink collages. A bonus CD features the author reading his story and playing a sample of “Malagueña,” the first song he learned from his grandfather. It’s suggested for preschool and early elementary ages.

Anyone who has struggled to write an essay or story has likely turned to Roget’s Thesaurus for inspiration. The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus, by Jen Bryant, is the story of how young Peter Mark Roget came to create his book of lists, which evolved into the essential reference work. Melissa Sweet’s elaborately designed illustrations layer watercolors over a patchwork of classic images and old-time fonts, drawing the reader back again to each page. It’s perfect for the upper elementary reader.

The final two recommendations are not typical of the genre. They are longer and targeted to preteens and teens. Nevertheless, they are essentially picture books with illustrations that enhance the story or add depth to the text.

A Caldecott Award winner, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, written and illustrated by Brian Selznick, is the basis for the 2011 magical film, Hugo, a tale of mystery. The novel, set in Paris in the 1930s, is just as enchanting. Selznick’s sections of silver-toned pencil drawings, interleaved with narrative, bring the feeling of a silent film to the page.

In The Story of Buildings: From the Pyramids to the Sydney Opera House and Beyond, Patrick Dillon celebrates what ingenious architects and builders designed and constructed. Stephen Biesty's meticulous illustrations integrate with the text to invite readers to start wherever they wish. Reminiscent of David Macaulay’s books, The Story of Buildings may be intended for junior readers, but it will engage grownups.

Make your gift of a picture book memorable by adding a promise to read it together. Milk and cookies optional!

As a holiday treat, four readers can win one of the featured books – Press Here, Gus & Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar, The Invention of Hugo Cabret or The Story of Buildings. To enter the drawings, e-mail editor@westchasewow.com by Dec. 10 with the subject, “Book Drawing,” and include the name of the book you want.

By Carol Collins

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Stories That Satisfy Like Novels

Short story collections are always a nice change of pace, especially when there is little time for leisurely reading.

The UnAmericans by Molly Antopol is a perfect choice during the start of the busy holiday season.

The title of Antopol's collection is a play on words. Several characters are dissidents, one even a target of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. But in most of the stories, to be "un-American" means to lack a sense of being anchored in America, to be suspended between cultures.

Antopol crafts deeply sympathetic characters. Each struggles to find his or her place when the past exerts a burden on the present. “The Unknown Soldier,” set during the McCarthy era, centers on a Russian-American apolitical communist. His effort to parlay his Russian persona into a film career backfires, sending him to prison for contempt of Congress. The title character in “My Grandmother Tells Me This Story” escapes a forced labor camp in a harrowing underground flight to join teen partisans in Belarus during World War II. And in "Retrospective” an Israeli man returns to Jerusalem to settle the estate of his American wife's grandmother. The secret that comes out leads him to reexamine the estranged relationship with his wife.

This collection of stories is unusually cohesive. Although the times and places are different, an underlying theme links the pieces. Each story is a complete work, while conceptually connecting with the other tales.

This work could be uncomfortably heavy. Antopol, however, is a master at using witty dialog to counterpoint the weightiness of the content. When one character describes the grilling he once endured in Czechoslovakia, he remarks, “Did they really believe sleep deprivation would crack a father with a newborn?” And a young woman explains to an older man how she knows he’s divorced: “You have that look about you. Like you just ran out of a burning building.”

Engaging story lines and depth of characters make the individual stories in this collection satisfying. The universal themes of family dynamics and hope in the face of unfulfilled expectations unfolding in fresh settings make The UnAmericans altogether memorable.

By Carol Collins

Carol Collins is a member of the Westchase Book Club and can be reached with book suggestions at carolcollins@tampabay.rr.com.

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Flavia in Fine Form

My favorite pre-teen sleuth is back.

Amateur detective extraordinaire Flavia de Luce returns in The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches, Alan Bradley’s sixth novel in the series. Flavia lives with her two condescending sisters on an aging estate in post-WWII England. Her free-spirited mother, Harriet, disappeared in a mysterious accident when Flavia was a baby. Her detached father leaves Flavia with little guidance except her own intelligence and curiosity.

In five earlier novels, 11-year-old Flavia ingeniously helped solve a half-dozen deaths. In this novel the mystery is personal. Her long-lost mother is coming home. When the story opens, the de Luces are convened at the train station awaiting Harriet’s remains. While Flavia focuses on the train’s arrival, a stranger surprises her with a cryptic message that “the Gamekeeper is in jeopardy.”

As Flavia deciphers the clue and investigates her mother’s life, she realizes her family is startlingly complex. She learns the youngest daughter has marked opportunities and obligations. This revelation explains her father’s seeming disinterest. He was leaving her to explore her own interests. Moreover, Flavia’s discovery suggests her mother was carrying out a vital mission when she died.

A strength of the book is Bradley’s deft development of even his secondary cast, including Flavia’s annoying cousin Undine, a “curious, nitpicking little creature.” But Flavia is the star. Her chatty observations create a keen and whimsical voice that made me laugh: “Feely had the knack of being able to screw one side of her face into a witchlike horror while keeping the other as sweet and demure as any maiden from Tennyson. It was perhaps, the one thing I envied her.”

This novel is a turning point, marking the end of Flavia’s childhood. The story line provides a satisfying conclusion to the first part of the saga and sets a course for future installments. The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches was to be the final book in the Flavia de Luce series. Bradley is now slated to write four more.

Flavia Number 7 will be released in 2015, affording plenty of time to read the rest of the mysteries. Spending the next few months lost in Flavia’s world is a delightful prospect.

By Carol Collins

Carol Collins is a member of the Westchase Book Club and can be reached with book suggestions at carolcollins@tampabay.rr.com.

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Truth That Surpasses Fiction

It’s magic when an author can write a nonfiction book that reads like a novel.

Katherine Boo brilliantly succeeds in Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity. But there is nothing magical about the lives she depicts in this story of Annawadi, a squatter slum at the edge of the Mumbai International Airport and nearby luxury hotels.

Boo, an investigative journalist, lived in Annawadi for more than three years. She observed, interviewed and videotaped the residents. She also analyzed thousands of official documents. The resulting book follows the fortunes of a group of these slum dwellers.

Few living in this squalid neighborhood ever leave. Getting out of poverty requires strategies such as finding an unfilled economic niche or a political patron.

Abdul is a refuse buyer whose entrepreneurship brings his family modest prosperity. Regretfully, “…fortunes derived not just from what people did, or how well they did it, but from the accidents and catastrophes they avoided.” When Abdul’s mother decides to install a shelf on the wall separating their living area from a contentious neighbor, she initiates events leading to a catastrophe. That evening, the police arrest Abdul, falsely charging him, his father and sister with murder.

Asha, an ambitious slum leader, assures the family that a donation can help them navigate the justice system. Asha has taken a different tack to improve her life. She is the village fixer who aligns with local politicians, mirroring their corruption. For a stack of rupees, she promises to make trouble go away, sometimes creating the problems she is being paid to fix.

The question Boo raises of class structure in Annawadi is thought provoking. She wonders why common interests and enemies do not bind together those affected by the graft-laden political, legal and social systems. Boo does not deliver an indictment or offer solutions, but lets the story speak for itself.

Boo’s choice to write her account of Annawadi as a story creates a connection to the residents that makes them come alive. Abdul, Asha and their fellow slum dwellers are deeply human beneath the superficial squalor. Their lives captivated me. I wanted to know what happened next.

I couldn’t put the book down.

By Carol Collins

Carol Collins is a member of the Westchase Book Club and can be reached with book suggestions at carolcollins@tampabay.rr.com.

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Put This Book in Your Beach Bag

Charming perfectly describes Gabrielle Zevin’s latest novel.

Her engaging plot, endearing characters and lively dialogue create a memorable book.

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry is the tale of an independent bookstore on a Nantucket-like island and the grumpy, not-so-old owner. Not yet 40, Fikry has had his share of heartbreak. He’s lost his wife, Nic, in an auto accident and finds his other love, Island Books, sliding towards bankruptcy. Life hits a low when his valuable copy of Poe’s Tamerlane turns up missing. Never mind that he rarely locks his door, let alone the book’s glass case.

Fikry must reinvent his life when a stranger leaves a mysterious package in the children’s section of his unlocked store. The attached note says, “This is Maya…. I want her to grow up in a place with books and among people who care about those kinds of things.”

When the precocious toddler is about to head to foster care, Fikry decides to raise her himself. This commitment forces him out of his self-imposed isolation and leads him to reconnect with those he has pushed away. Amelia, the publisher’s rep, Lambaise, the well-meaning police chief, and Ismay, his meddling sister-in-law, each play a special part in the lives of Maya and her adoptive father as they solve the mystery of her parentage and the puzzle of the missing book.

In a bit of irony, a visitor to Island Books would not likely find The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry on its shelves. Fikry "rarely responds to [books with] gimmicks of any kind." What might keep this novel off Fikry’s buy list, however, adds to the charm of the story. Zevin cleverly uses Fikry’s comments on classic works of fiction to head each chapter. These snippets both illuminate Fikry’s personality and set the stage for the next part of the story.

This affectionate portrait of a man – one who faces loss by rekindling his passion for literature and finds redemption through unexpected love – is a big-hearted delight. It’s just the thing to curl up with on a rainy afternoon or toss in your bag for a day at the beach.

By Carol Collins

Carol Collins is a member of the Westchase Book Club and can be reached with book suggestions at carolcollins@tampabay.rr.com.

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Books Go to the Movies

In 2014 a bumper crop of films adapted from books is coming to the silver screen.

This collection of more than 40 movies includes classics like Far From the Madding Crowd, sequels such as Mockingjay, and favorite children’s books including Paddington Bear.

This exceptional number of books-to-films raises a question: should you first read the book or see the film? An unscientific survey of a local book club and other lit-lovers suggests that reading the book first is a better experience.

If you agree, here are four books you might want to read before the film versions arrive at your favorite theater:

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green is a witty, wildly popular novel whose themes of love, adversity and self-discovery vault it beyond its young-adult classification. A full review of the book appeared in the August 2013 WOW. This book comes to the movies on June 6.

The Hundred-Foot Journey by Richard C. Morais tells the charming story of an Indian teenager with natural culinary talent who finds that the hundred feet between an upstart Indian restaurant and an established French one is a nearly unbridgeable divide between cultures. Mouth-watering references to recipes ranging from traditional to molecular gastronomy create a must-read for foodies. The film comes out Aug. 8.

Gone Girl is one of two books by Gillian Flynn being made into a movie this year. The counterpoint narratives of a husband whose wife is suddenly gone and the missing wife herself create a tension that doesn’t let up. This thriller is a page-turner. The movie is being released on Oct. 3.

In Unbroken Laura Hillenbrand relates the true account of Louis Zamperini, a teenaged juvenile delinquent who transforms himself into an Olympic runner. He later becomes a World War II hero when his plane crashes into the Pacific and he survives more than two years as a Japanese POW. This extraordinary story is filled with ingenuity, courage and heart. The movie is set for release on Christmas Day.

These books are certainly worth reading. Will the films based on the books be worth viewing? That decision is yours, maybe with a little help from rottentomatoes.com.

By Carol Collins

Carol Collins is a member of the Westchase Book Club and can be reached with book suggestions at carolcollins@tampabay.rr.com.

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John Doe in North Korea

Adam Johnson’s Orphan Master’s Son uses the Hermit Kingdom’s casual cruelty and absurdity to craft a riveting political thriller.

Johnson’s novel tells the story of Pak Jun Do, an orphan who navigates the North Korean bureaucracy while searching for identity and love.

Jun Do is assigned the worst jobs – kidnapper, radio operator and spy – before being sent to Prison 33. The gulag’s deprivation and brutality force inmates to surrender their identities. In a twist that directs the trajectory of the story, Jun Do maintains his own identity by escaping in the clothing of a military hero, Commander Ga.

Once Jun Do assumes the identity of the commander, the party ostensibly welcomes him. He is initially less welcomed by Commander Ga’s wife, Sun Moon. By the end of the story, Jun Do sacrifices his personal identity for the woman who comes to love him.

Two contrasting narrators illustrate one of Johnson’s major themes: the primacy of the interests of the state over the individual. “Where we are from,” says one character, “…the story is more important than the person. If a man and his story are in conflict, it is the man who must change.”

The first narrator is the voice of the loudspeakers that continuously deliver propaganda. The official version of Jun Do’s biography, delivered in installments as the Best North Korean Story, is comical. The other narrator is an interrogator who justifies his auto-torture machine as a less cruel way to obtain the biography of each detainee. His attempt to extract the life story of the ersatz commander becomes an obsession.

Although some readers may find the switch between voices confusing, this non-linear mosaic creates a sense of what Jun Do experiences as he searches for his own identity. The juxtaposition of the horrific and the farcical creates a novel that is both intense and funny.

Johnson’s extensive research undergirds the novel. The story of Jun Do may not depict a replica of life in North Korea but it does portray the substance.

This Pulitzer Prize winning novel is not hard to read, but it is difficult to absorb. Nevertheless, it is worth the effort.

By Carol Collins

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More Than Fan Fiction

It is not surprising that Jo Baker wrote Longbourn to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice.

Longbourn, after all, is the central setting of that novel. But it is delightfully surprising that what could have been mediocre fan fiction is a compelling historical novel in its own right.

Longbourn focuses on what goes on below-stairs, giving voice to the servants whose never-ending work supports the lifestyle of the Bennet family above. The heroine is the young housemaid, Sarah. Her pre-dawn to late-night drudgery leaves little time for dreaming and yet she hopes to better herself. She longs for "somewhere you could just be, and not always be obliged to do.” Ptolemy, the charismatic footman of the neighboring Bingley family, seems to offer that possibility with a plan to open his own business in London. Ptolemy captivates Sarah but the unexpected arrival of a new footman, James Smith, complicates her emotions and creates a love triangle.

The enigmatic Smith, who arrives seemingly out of nowhere, disappears just as suddenly. Sarah uses her quick wits and perseverance to unravel his mysterious past and find the connection among James and the other occupants of Longbourn.

Jo Baker’s thorough research gives the novel an authentic voice. Her fascinating observations provide a clear contrast between the lives of the Longbourn servants and their employers. Including a back-story for James, including a gritty, jarring description of his time as a soldier during the Napoleonic wars, adds depth to both his character and the narrative.

The book is not without its flaws. Ptolemy Bingley is a fascinating, colorful character but seems to be introduced only as a foil to James. He disappears from the story too soon. In addition, the ending seems shallow and rushed. The main characters deserve more.

If you are a veteran Jane Austen reader, this story envisions Pride and Prejudice with a fresh twist but without gimmickry. Even if are unfamiliar with Austen’s famous novel, Longbourn is a deft, witty tale. In either case, this engrossing look into the practical side of the Regency era is an excellent addition to your “want-to-read” list.

By Carol Collins

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A Primal Balance Between Tragedy and Comedy

It is no accident that We are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler, was named Best of 2013 by The New York Times Book Review.

This witty, unsettling tale of family, memories and the meaning of “human being” is a fine-tuned balance between tragedy and comedy.

Rosemary, the book’s irresistible narrator, starts in the middle. She explains if we knew the beginning, we might get the wrong idea about her sister, Fern. So, the story opens in 1996 with Rosemary, a bright but withdrawn college student. Her unlikely friendship with an impulsive drama major becomes the catalyst for unearthing memories that have long been repressed.

The story then shifts back to 1979. Rosemary is 5 when she is sent to visit her grandparents. The visit becomes a line of demarcation – before, happy parents, talented brother, and ever-so-fun sister; after, mother despondent, father drinking, brother withdrawn and…sister gone. Her parents simply say that Fern went to live on a farm.

Rosemary finally lets us in on what she has coyly hinted. Fern is a chimpanzee. Rosemary’s psychologist father brought the infant chimp home as half of an experiment in co-fostering. Rosemary was the other half.

Although the family never discusses what happened, Rosemary senses there is more to know. She also suspects she may be partly to blame for Fern’s departure. For the next 17 years, Rosemary wrestles with who she is and what happened while her brother, Lowell, hunts for Fern and eventually is hunted by the FBI.

The novel ends in 2012 when we learn the fate of Fern and of Rosemary’s role in her expulsion. I hoped for an ending that would bring closure but it seemed a little trite, even though it tugged at my heart.

The tragedy in this story is evident. The comedy lies in both Rosemary’s voice – witty, sardonic and full of candor – and her occasionally madcap escapades.

Fowler’s superb novel neither forces an agenda nor assigns the role of hero or villain. It simply asks us to reconsider our human chauvinism. I was absorbed from beginning to end.

Suspend your preconceptions and you will be drawn in too.

By Carol Collins

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Public Events and Private Lives

Three history-making moments that take span two continents and more than 150 years frame Colum McCann’s artful novel, TransAtlantic.

The book opens with the first non-stop flight across the Atlantic. In 1919 British aviators John Alcock and Arthur Brown win the Daily Mail prize by piloting their modified bomber from Newfoundland to Ireland. The novel skips back in time to the travels of Frederick Douglass to Ireland in 1845 to promote his autobiography in support of abolition. George Mitchell is the third historical figure to cross the Atlantic. His is a tale of a reluctant diplomat who helps broker the momentous 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

Each of these stories could stand alone. In particular, the account of Alcock and Brown’s flight is gripping. From the moment they take off from Newfoundland until they land in Ireland, I had my fingers crossed. With no modern technology and the wireless not functioning, Brown uses instinct and wizardry to navigate across the Atlantic.

There are many great storytellers. McCann’s real genius, however, lies in the connection he creates among his historical stories – the unique way he unites them into one grand narrative.

The lives of four generations of invented women are the strands he uses to braid historical and fictional truth together. Lily Duggan crosses paths with Frederick Douglass in Dublin while in service to Douglass’ host. Her daughter Emily Erlich and granddaughter Lottie Tuttle witness the flight preparations of Brown and Alcock. Lottie meets Mitchell at a tennis tournament during a respite in his negotiations. The novel culminates with Lottie’s daughter, Hannah Carson. Her story portrays how each intersection of the famous and the anonymous resonates across time and space.

McCann’s sharply etched writing is poetic. He describes the Newfoundland landscape viewed from the open [vulgarity] of Alcock and Brown’s plane as “the wind combing tufts of grass into silvery waves, rivers vaulting the ditches, the long scarves of tar-macadam falling off into dirt roads.”

One flaw I might cite? What initially captivates, however, can occasionally seem belabored when he piles image upon image.

Yet McCann’s missteps are minor compared to the power of his sustained story telling. Ultimately TransAtlantic is a novel to savor.

By Carol Collins

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For the Book Lovers on Your Holiday Gift List

Part of the fun of the holiday season is selecting the perfect gift. This month I offer some suggestions for the book lovers on your list.

Mysteries and thrillers are always favorites. You might consider a number of new additions by well-established authors including The Hit by David Baldacci, Inferno by Dan Brown, Sycamore Row by John Grisham, and W is for Wasted by Sue Grafton. For something a little unusual, consider these series: The Flavia de Luce series by Alan Bradley features a bright, spunky pre-teen detective who pushes her way into the investigations of strangely macabre murders near her family’s estate in 1950s England. Bradley’s dry wit and Flavia’s endearing brashness make these books a fun read. Mistress of the Art of Death, by Ariana Franklin, begins a three-book series of historical whodunits set in the 12th century. Franklin’s protagonist, Adelia Aguilar, is a medieval Kay Scarpetta who reads bones at the behest of King Henry II.

Collections of short stories make wonderful gifts for anyone who only has time to read in small bites. In her story collection, Dear Life, Alice Munro, recipient of this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature, brilliantly clarifies how ordinary life can become extraordinary with an unexpected turn of fate. Another suggestion is Vampires in the Lemon Grove. This collection of wildly inventive stories by Florida native Karen Russell defies categorization with elements of fantasy, horror and even humor.

Many choices abound for the fiction fan. Westchase Book Club members recommend Canada by Richard Ford, And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini, and Someone by Alice McDermott. Canada is the haunting story of a young man coming of age in the midst of the chaos created by the adults in his life. Hosseini’s third novel beautifully tells interlocking stories of love, loss, loyalty and redemption across three continents and 60 years. Someone tells the deceptively simple story of one woman’s life. McDermott’s sense of place makes this novel immediately engaging.

If your gift recipient prefers non-fiction, options range from health to humor. Yogalosophy, by fitness expert Mindy Ingber, provides a daily plan to help readers become healthier and happier in 28 days. The program includes both recipes and workouts to help transform mind and body. In One Summer: America 1927, Bill Bryson creates an immensely readable history of an ordinary year that becomes funny and fascinating with his signature storytelling.

Book series make wonderful gifts for teens. The historical fiction of Michaela McColl is based on the childhood experiences of people “before they were famous.” Promise the Night is the especially fascinating story of Beryl Clutterback Markham, a girl who grew up to become the first pilot to fly solo from England to North America. Any teen who liked The Hunger Games trilogy should love the eight-part Wool series by Hugh Howey. This story of the dangerous dreamers in a post-apocalyptic world is filled with enough unexpected twists to keep you up reading all night.

Pre-teen readers also enjoy adventure series. Who could resist scaredy-mouse and newspaper publisher, Geronimo Stilton, the hero of the series named after him? These books are full of adventure while stressing values like friendship, honesty and loyalty. The Magic Tree House series by Mary Pope Osborne follows the quests of siblings, Jack and Annie, through time and place as they solve mysteries and complete challenges. The settings of the stories provide a fun way to learn history.

The Wild Christmas Reindeer by Jan Brett is a perfect holiday gift for preschoolers. In this lovely Christmas fantasy, Teeka discovers that patient teaching works much better than being bossy to train Santa’s reindeer to be ready to fly. Brett’s colorful, detailed illustrations simply glow. Another favorite selection for preschool children is The Napping House by Don and Audrey Wood. This cumulative story is a great read-aloud and the repeated phrases make it ideal for beginning readers.

Last, picture and coffee table books are special gifts because they can be enjoyed again and again. Animalia by Graeme Base is a non-traditional alphabet book for all ages. Intricate layers of meticulous drawings represent each letter and draw the reader back to the book to discover more details. If you know someone who enjoyed the recent film, Rush, consider Art of the Formula 1 Race Car by Stuart Codling, James Mann, Peter Windsor and Gordon Murray. The gorgeous photographs and expert commentary illustrate both the engineering genius and intrinsic beauty of these ultimate racecars.

I thank members of the Westchase Book Club, Leslie Spence and the Pellegrini family for their book suggestions.

Happy holidays!

By Carol Collins

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Missing in Seattle

Maria Semple’s novel is at times laugh-out-loud hilarious and at other times rather poignant.    

Where’d You Go, Bernadette weaves documents such as e-mails, magazine articles, blogs and even an FBI report together to tell the story of Bernadette Fox, her teenage daughter and her high-ranking husband, Elgin Branch, a star at Microsoft. Bernadette’s world resembles that of other Seattle moms, but she negotiates her days differently – at times with a lapse of sanity. Beneath the surface lies an intriguing story of a woman who has left her brilliance behind and retreated from the world.

Bernadette’s daughter, Bee, attends a private middle school in Seattle. Her parents have promised her anything she wants for graduation if she excels in all of her school subjects. The grading system is designed to encourage students, the lowest grade being “Working Towards Excellence.” Bee earns the highest grade possible in each of her courses, which at her school means that she gets an “S” for “Surpasses Excellence.” For her reward she chooses a trip to Antarctica. This adds new challenges for Bernadette, as she must do something she does poorly (function well in the real world) in order to plan the expedition.

Bernadette hires a virtual assistant to help her plan the trip, and this leads to more hilarity and a lot of unforeseen problems. As Bernadette’s past is unraveled and Bernadette also appears to be unraveling, she disappears completely. Bernadette has little good to say about other private school parents (“gnats,” as she calls them), the city of Seattle, and the entirety of Canada and its citizens, all of which help to reveal an unhappy woman.

The reality, however, is Bernadette is a likeable character who grows on you in a quirky sort of way – until you find yourself hoping that she is all right and will be found.

By Kathleen Pope

Kathleen Pope is a member of the Westchase Book Club and can be reached at kathleenopope@gmail.com.

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A Deft Turn at Playing Detective

J. K. Rowling is back in form.

While her initial novel for adult readers, The Casual Vacancy, received mixed reviews, her first murder mystery, published in April under the pseudonym, Robert Galbraith, is definitely worth the read.

The Cuckoo’s Calling has all the elements of a good detective story. There’s a scruffy investigator, a sidekick longing to solve mysteries, credible suspects, twists, clues, red herrings and a solution that you may not see coming but makes perfect sense in retrospect.

Rowling’s private eye hero, Cormoran Strike, is not doing well. He’s living in the grungy back room of his office after his girlfriend kicked him out. His creditors are becoming more demanding. Discomfort from his prosthetic leg is a constant reminder of his better days as a decorated Afghan vet.

Two events halt his downward spiral. First, Robin Ellacott, a new assistant, shows up. Then, John Bristow arrives, insisting that the police were wrong when they concluded that his biracial, adopted sister, supermodel Lula Landry, jumped to her death. He wants Strike to prove it was murder.

There are plenty of suspects – a rejected boyfriend and a racist uncle, among others. As Strike meticulously investigates Bristow’s copious notes and new evidence, he navigates a world of wealth, fashion, celebrities and hangers-on. With unexpected help from Robin, Strike uncovers discrepancies that lead him to finger the murderer.

Rowling vividly brings her characters to life. Envision Freddy Bestigui, Landry’s misogynistic neighbor: “His hair was gray and brush-cut; his face a crumpled mass of folds, bags and moles, out of which his fleshy nose protruded like a tumor.”

Rowling is particularly deft at developing the main characters, alternately adding and peeling away layers to reveal who they are.

Strike’s analytical approach creates a cerebral murder mystery rather than a page-turner. Lavish imagery sometimes slows the narrative but also creates a believable atmosphere.

Despite a few flaws, this is a satisfying detective novel. It also establishes Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott as an engaging pair of sleuths. I’m looking forward to tagging along with them in the next book, expected out in mid-2014.

By Carol Collins

Carol Collins is a member of the Westchase Book Club and can be reached with book suggestions at carolcollins@tampabay.rr.com.

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Road Trip

Before this summer ends, many of us will take a vacation. For some, reading is a part of this tradition.

On a recent trip, I read John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars (Penguin, 2012). If you haven’t read this book already, your adolescent children likely have. It’s a moving novel about two teens, Hazel and Augustus, who have cancer. Were I still a teenager, I would likely relate more to the protagonists, their angst, and their romance. Long ago, however, I forgot almost everything my 16-year-old self promised never to forget. The appeal of Green’s novel, however, is its ability to capture both the young adult reader and anyone who has ever loved a child. The Fault in our Stars devastated me as a mother, identifying with the parents in the novel, feeling their helplessness and imagining the unfathomable.

I read this novel briskly. I didn’t realize how emotionally invested I had become until I was suddenly wiping away tears, hoping my kids in the back seat wouldn’t notice. I was reminded of a long ago car trip from Indiana to Cape Cod with my family. I closed Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms after the last page, unable to suppress the sobs and hoping my parents in the front seat wouldn’t notice.

In such ways, reading can be a solitary pursuit or connect us to others. In The Fault in our Stars Hazel and Gus bond over literature, reading each other’s favorite books as a way to get to know one another. Later, as Gus reads aloud, Hazel thinks, “As he read, I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once.”

There is profound pleasure in reading aloud. Many have been scared out of reading aloud at some point in school. Yet I read aloud when I’m alone, and, in one of my favorite traditions, with my husband on road trips. It keeps him awake while driving while I enjoy making up characters’ accents and voices. Already, when my son reads to me, I hear him put inflection in the right places and use different voices. He is listening. He is not just learning to read, but also to read aloud.  If you’ve never tried it (and don’t have a tendency toward carsickness), I highly recommend it for your next road trip.

Kathleen Pope is a member of the Westchase Book Club and can be reached with book suggestions at kathleenopope@gmail.com.

By Kathleen Pope

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An Unforgettable Novel about a Makeshift Family

For most, the events that shape our lives happen in our first few decades.

Graduations, career decisions, weddings, births usually take place in our teens, twenties or thirties. But, for William Talmadge, the title character in The Orchardist, life-altering events arrive when he is nearly 50.

By the turn of the 20th century, Talmadge has lovingly tended his fruit orchards in the isolated uplands of Western Washington for more than 40 years. An orphan before his mid-teens, he loses the rest of his family when his younger sister mysteriously disappears.

Life for Talmadge continues in solitude until the day two very pregnant and feral-like girls appear at the edge of his orchard. He treats them as he would un-tamed kittens. He leaves food and other necessities on the porch but otherwise ignores them so they can skitter to retrieve what they need when he leaves each morning to tend his trees.

The girls slowly come to trust Talmadge, while he comes to feel protective and responsible for them. He learns that these sisters, Della and Jane, escaped from unspeakable abuse by the owner of a frontier brothel. The arrival of their former tormenter leaves Talmadge as the guardian of Della and of Jane’s daughter, the girls’ surviving infant.

In her debut novel, Amanda Coplin, weaves a mesmerizing and haunting story of these events and the unforeseen consequences that forever change the life of this gentle man. The novel explores what comprises a family. Is it just blood or can it be assembled? The renewed possibility of family motivates Talmadge to attempt to rectify his losses and atone for his perceived failures by choosing actions that prove disastrous.

Coplin carefully frames characters and circumstances that are both beautifully fleshed out and authentic. I became so immersed in the story that I found myself entreating Talmadge and Jane when they were about to make ruinous decisions – as if they were actually in the room with me.

Although this book is melancholy, it is not depressing. Coplin’s exquisite prose and poetic writing create a poignant story that will take hold of and remain with the reader.

By Carol Collins

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Friendship, Family and Resilience in Post-Ponzi New York

Add Elinor Lipman’s newest, The View from Penthouse B, to your summer reading list.

If you are already a Lipman fan, I won’t have to say much to convince you. If you haven’t read any of Lipman’s novels, it’s time to get started!

The View from Penthouse B (2013, Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt) is narrated by Gwen-Laura Schmidt, who at the novel’s start has been widowed for two years after her beloved husband’s sudden death. Still deeply mourning, Gwen-Laura finds those around her anxious to help her regain happiness, namely through dating. She cannot, however, fathom any aspect of intimacy with a man other than her late husband and attempts are met with humorous disappointment.

Gwen-Laura is not the only character struggling for secure footing. Her elder sister, Margot, is recently divorced from her adulterous obstetrician husband. Margot had no sooner launched an independent life by buying a Greenwich Village penthouse apartment, than she lost the remainder of her savings to the notorious Bernie Madoff. She now spends her days angrily blogging about the Ponzi scheme. Their younger sister, Betsy, suggests Gwen-Laura should move into Margot’s penthouse to help pay the mortgage. Shortly thereafter, Margot elects to take on a third roommate, Anthony, a young, handsome, gay man she meets after spontaneously joining a picket line in front of his former Wall Street employer. Anthony injects youthful enthusiasm into the apartment, and soon the roommates are a supportive trio.

I enjoyed this novel though it is not perfect. Some plotlines and characters are barely developed. I appreciate, however, that it can exist as both good fiction and a therapeutic exercise for its author, grieving the loss of her spouse. Gwen-Laura, her character, contemplates writing a novel in which she is the heroine widow who emerges recovered at the other end. She muses that to write herself as this person would make her happy. Of course, it is not this simple, and Lipman never tries to paint it so. She describes not only widowhood’s emotional turmoil but also divorce’s gray emotions, even when the betrayal is black and white. To write about such topics and still produce a novel that is sweet, hopeful and funny is quite an accomplishment.

By Kathleen Pope

Kathleen Pope is a member of the Westchase Book Club and can be reached with book suggestions at kathleenopope@gmail.com.

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Family: It Makes You and Breaks You

Warning – this one is a heartbreaker.

Now that you’ve been warned, you must acquire and read Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi. Selasi’s first novel immediately joins the ranks of gorgeously written novels about immigrant families in America, such as Lahiri’s The Namesake and Verghese’s Cutting for Stone.

Ghana Must Go introduces the Sai family through flashbacks and memories, detailing their happy beginnings in Baltimore and Boston, where Kweku, the brilliant Ghanaian surgeon-patriarch works tirelessly to provide the “perfect” American home for his beautiful Nigerian wife, Fola, and their growing family. Fola has given up her own academic ambitions to marry the magnetic Kweku and raise their four children: Olu, the earnest and overachieving eldest; the twins, Taiyo and Kehinde; and the baby, Sadie. The story’s construction is reminiscent of a Jonathan Franzen novel: imagine if The Corrections was conjured by a cosmopolitan, internationally-educated woman of Ghanaian and Nigerian descent at a yoga retreat in Sweden (where Selasi has said she first had a vision of her characters).

From the opening pages, you know the Sai family does not remain intact; however, as Selasi evokes this home full of intellect, ambition, laughter and warmth, you wish you did not know what is to come. Despite what she has already told her readers, Selasi convinces us to feel connected to each member of the Sai family. The hope and love the parents have for their children is palpable. As Kweku and Fola Sai’s American dream cracks and crumbles, we mourn what could have been along with them. Salesi brilliantly describes the power one’s family has to create remarkable individuals while simultaneously inflicting irreparable harm.

After writing such an overachieving first novel, some authors have no other story left to tell. It remains to be seen for Selasi, but I hope she has more to say. There is a unique, intricate (but only seldom overwrought) loveliness to her writing and attention to detail.

I highly recommend, and will not soon forget, Ghana Must Go.

By Kathleen Pope

Kathleen Pope is a member of the Westchase Book Club and can be reached with book suggestions at kathleenopope@gmail.com.

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Family and Secrets

“Your absence is greater than your presence.”
     
Michael Hainey’s observation is a prominent theme in his memoir, After Visiting Friends: A Son’s Story (Scribner, 2013). The author, deputy editor at GQ Magazine, was just 6-years-old when his father died suddenly at the age of 36. His father’s absence was a constant presence, haunting every stage of his life. Hainey’s memoir effectively braids those childhood memories with an investigation into his father’s death, forging a sensitive, heartfelt and intriguing book.

Hainey’s father, Bob Hainey, was assistant chief copy editor at the Chicago Sun Times in the 1960s. Michael grew up with the story his mother was given: On April 24, 1970, his father collapsed on the street near the newspaper’s offices and was dead from a heart attack or stroke by the time the police arrived. Michael, however, has suspicions. During his high school senior year, he reads his father’s obituaries at the library and finds inconsistencies. Two local obituaries report he died while visiting friends in a location far from the Chicago Sun Times building. He wonders why his uncle, also a well-respected newspaperman, arrived that morning in 1970 to tell his mother what had happened, rather than the police. The journalist in Michael was able to smell half-truths and cover-ups. Pursuing small leads and clues about his father death soon becomes an obsession.
The reader’s anticipation about Michael’s quest is central to the memoir’s enjoyment; further details would simply spoil the suspense. Nevertheless, while the dead ends he encounters would frustrate the most dedicated investigator, Michael does learn the truth. Just as important, however, is the self-examination it sparks in him.

My only complaint about the memoir is that Hainey leaves some emotional corners partially unexplored − such as his somewhat distant relationship with his brother and his full reaction to the truth. Yet he adeptly shares his insights into the life of his remarkable mother. This ultimately is the heart of the memoir: Michael’s memories of growing up without a father and his mother’s experience as a young widow raising two young sons alone. Hainey sums it up best himself by observing, “Here I am − a son who went looking for his father, and found his mother.”

By Kathleen Pope

Kathleen Pope is a member of the Westchase Book Club and can be reached with book suggestions at kathleenopope@gmail.com.

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A Modern Quest to Solve an Ancient Mystery

Nearly two years ago Amazon announced that they had starting selling more e-books than print books.

Are print books doomed? Is there a necessary dichotomy between old technology and new technology? In Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, Robin Sloan considers these questions through a modern-day adventure story.

Recently fired as a Web designer, Clay Jannon wanders the streets of San Francisco keeping an eye open for Help Wanted signs. One such sign draws him into a most unlikely bookstore. After a brief interview, Clay takes the night position.

What a strange store! Hardly anyone enters except for some odd customers who regularly come to borrow books from high up in the dim back section of the store. When Clay ignores instructions never to look inside these books, he discovers beautifully printed volumes written in some kind of code.

Convinced that the store must be a front for something sinister, he challenges three geeky, resourceful friends to join him on a quest to solve this mystery. Their adventure takes them cross-country to the headquarters of a secret society that has been trying to crack the code for hundreds of years using traditional research methods. After a close call in which he is nearly discovered, Clay and his quirky friends return to the Bay area and Google-land to attempt to break the code themselves using modern technology. The question of who wins and what the decoded message says kept me reading to the end.

The quest in this book may not be as heart-stopping as those in some recent action-adventure mystery stories, such as the Dan Brown series. Sloan’s clever, charming narrative and very hip, passionately engaged characters, however, more than make up for a lack of spine-tingling moments.

One distraction is the book’s epilogue. It is almost as if Sloan ran out of book before he ran out of story so felt obligated to spell out his moral rather than providing the opportunity for the reader to extract the meaning himself.

Despite these couple of minor drawbacks, this first novel is warm, witty and full of serious fun.

If mysteries captivate you, you find quirky characters appealing, and you like a rollicking story, then Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Book Store is a place you will want to visit − even with a Kindle in your hand.

By Carol Collins

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Love Don’t Come Easy

Midway through this month lands Valentine's Day, the country’s most despised holiday.

We’ve all experienced heartbreaks, big or small. This month I set out to find a love story palatable for those who fall outside the sparkly bubble of hopeless romantics – those with heads stubbornly upon shoulders and heels solidly on ground. After a few false starts, I found The Art of Hearing Heartbeats, by Jan-Philipp Sendker (Verlags, Random House, 2002; translated from German 2006). Along the way, I also discovered a remarkable true story about love, told in verse: Stag's Leap: Poems, by Sharon Olds (Knopf, 2012).

The Art of Hearing Heartbeats is narrated by a young attorney, Julia, who travels to Burma to solve the mystery of her father's disappearance. Shortly after her arrival in her father's hometown, she encounters a mysterious man named U Ba, who can tell her the story. Little else can be explained without spoiling the quiet suspense that builds as the reader learns what brought Julia's father to New York City from his remote village and the secret of his disappearance. For some, the book will unreasonably stretch the limits of believability. At its end one might even have unanswered questions and feel somewhat unsatisfied, but the story is meant to have a magical, fairy-tale quality. Sendker creates a fable like those Julia's father used to tell her, ones "that seldom had happy endings," which her mother found "cruel and brutal." The complexity of loves portrayed, however, will satisfy both romantics and realists.

Stag's Leap is a book of Sharon Olds’ poems chronicling her husband’s departure for another woman after 30 years of marriage. While at times Olds’ pain and personal details proved uncomfortable, I was spellbound by her vivid images of sadness, betrayal, disappointment and insecurity. Yet instead of being a dark and depressing collection, her verse is quite hopeful, occasionally quirky and funny – perhaps a balm for a broken heart.

After initially feeling she could not write about this time in her life, Olds ultimately published the collection 15 years after her husband left. The reader is left with a full spectrum of emotion, from initial shock to eventual acceptance; the empowerment she gained; and even the love that, though vastly changed, remained.

Kathleen Pope is a member of the Westchase Book Club and can be reached with book suggestions at kathleenopope@gmail.com.

By Kathleen Pope

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A Burden of Historical Guilt

M. L. Stedman’s debut novel, The Light Between Oceans: A Novel (Scribner, 2012), was recently received the 2012 Goodreads Choice Awards for Best Historical Fiction.

As another reviewer has suggested, however, a better category for this book might be Historical Guilt. This beautifully written page-turner has at its heart a complex moral dilemma whose resolution is complicated by such a heavy burden.
Tom Sherbourne, craving quiet and routine after the horrors of World War I, accepts a position as lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, an island a half-day’s journey from the western coast of Australia. Then, on one of his infrequent visits to Partaguese, the nearest mainland town, Tom is captivated by Isabel, whose zest for life energizes him. They marry and settle into life on the island.

Isabel loves Janus Rock as much as Tom, and only wishes for a baby to make their family complete. After several miscarriages, Isabel is filled with loss while Tom tries to find some way to “make it right.” When a boat washes ashore with a dead man and a crying baby, Isabel convinces herself that the baby is a gift from God. With great effort, she convinces Tom that the mother must have drowned and that he shouldn’t report the boat.

For two years Tom finds great joy in raising little Lucy with Isabel. Yet even with no one to judge, Tom struggles with his decision. He can no longer ignore its effects when the family returns to the mainland for a vacation and he discovers others who have been devastated by their choice. Tom wrestles again with “how to make things right.” In the end he takes drastic action.

The Light Between Oceans is truly engaging. The author has crafted memorable, complex characters who subtly mature during the story. While flawed, they drew me into their lives and their struggles. I rooted for each of them – even when their wishes and choices were at odds.

The story could have been sensationalized and the ending formulaic, but Stedman avoids a tidy conclusion. Sometimes I put a book down for a while because I don’t want it to end. With this book, I was afraid of how it would end.

So tantalizing a read it is, you may find yourself staying up late into the night to finish it. I certainly did.

By Carol Collins

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Books for Gifting

December is a month when I think about books I like to give others

My favorites this year are a mixture of old stand-bys with a few new finds.

For the fiction or mystery fan consider Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (2012). I haven’t read a better book in a long time. It is a meticulously written and should surprise even the most jaded fan of suspense.

For Nonfiction or history fans purchase The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt (2011). A 2012 Pulitzer Prize and the 2011 National Book Award winner for Nonfiction, it’s a fascinating story about the rediscovery of classical literature and thought at the beginning of the Renaissance. Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin (2011), tells the story of the American ambassador to Germany and his daughter in the early 1930s. Larson is a consistently excellent writer of nonfiction in a narrative style.

For sports fans pick up Next Man Up by John Feinstein (2005). As he has done before, Feinstein spent a year embedded with the owners, coaches, and players – this time on the Baltimore Ravens in 2004. The result depicts the travails of individuals interwoven with detailed insight into an NFL team.

For a chick-lit alternative consider poet Mary Karr’s three memoirs, The Liars Club (1995), Cherry (2000) and Lit (2009). They’re brutally honest and frequently hysterical and you’ll often wish parts weren’t true.

For younger children my current favorite is Peter Brown’s The Curious Garden (2009), both for its gorgeous, colorful illustrations, as well as its empowering message.

Among my favorite books to introduce to voracious young readers who have “read it all” are the Madeleine L’Engle science fiction/fantasy quintet: A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, Many Waters and An Acceptable Time; and Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain.

We have many local authors in our midst! Dominic Pavlinic has written a children’s book with a message about empathy called Nicky and the Starfish, based upon a story his father told him growing up. The text and illustrations are simple and adorable, and it has become one of my 3-year-old daughter’s favorites. My kindergarten age son and I first read A Mouse’s First Christmas: A Holiday Tail by C.G. Barrett last December. It is one of the first chapter books we read together before bedtime and we both enjoyed this truly charming book. We plan to read it again, one chapter per night, during this year’s holiday season. For adults, the Westchase Book Club read Todd Paul’s first novel, Steel Dragon: An Alex Steel Mystery, for one of our meetings earlier this year.

For young readers The Penguin Classics’ colorful and ornately decorated clothbound hardcover editions and the related Puffin Classics clothbound editions are lovely, reasonably priced gifts. The available titles expand every year.

By Kathleen Pope

Kathleen Pope is a member of the Westchase Book Club and can be reached with book suggestions at kathleenopope@gmail.com.

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A Town Without Magic

The author of Harry Potter has delivered her first book written for adults.

You could say that expectations are high for The Casual Vacancy (Little, Brown and Company, 2012). Like the Harry Potter novels, the book is going to have people talking. Whether it will be kind is quite another matter.

Rowling’s setting is a small English town named Pagford. She takes great pains to juxtapose its beauty with the ugliness, inside and out, of its inhabitants and the political struggles within its parish council. The story begins with the sudden, tragic death of parish council member Barry Fairbrother, who, as his name suggests, is a good, thoughtful man. His death creates a “casual vacancy” on the council. Its filling is of profound importance within the town’s local politics, particularly regarding decisions about a low-income housing project. The novel relates the events that unfold in the town following Fairbrother’s untimely death.

Rowling’s new novel has it merits. It certainly affirms her gift for writing. She has an amazing talent for creating perfectly worded descriptions of people, places and situations. Those who have read the Potter books may have a slight advantage knowing who will be despicable (one character bore a strong resemblance to Dolores Umbridge, for example). She writes well-paced chapters that flow to the next.

Despite these merits, one might still find it hard to keep reading. A question for Potter fans: did you ever wish you could hear Ron’s uncensored, pubescent fantasies about Hermione? Me neither. That is the problem, perhaps unfair, Rowling faces. She likely hopes this novel will be considered independently of her past works. Yet The Casual Vacancy is frequently and intentionally disturbing, in graphic detail. Though the Potter books have also been criticized for being dark, here Rowling unapologetically uncorks real-world horrors for her adult audience. This book is certainly not for children, and it might not be for some adults either.

I, however, admire and enjoy Rowling’s writing. I hope she has many more novels in her – including one about the adult world inhabited by grown-up Harry, Ron, and Hermione. In the meantime, I’m willing to follow her to Pagford, while still hoping she might one day take me back to Hogwarts.

By Kathleen Pope

Kathleen Pope is a member of the Westchase Book Club and can be reached with book suggestions at kathleenopope@gmail.com.

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Mothers, Mentors, and Mentalists

In the era of e-books, are we less likely to judge a book by its cover?

While the curb appeal of a book is far less important for me than word of mouth or a review, I was drawn to Heidi Julavits’ The Vanishers (Doubleday, 2012) because of its cover: a carpet of brilliant flowers into or from which the title and author’s name are sinking or rising. After finishing it, I find it encapsulates my impression of the book – a collection of appealing concepts nestled in lovely execution, whose meaning I don’t entirely understand.

I hesitate to recommend The Vanishers without reservation. It will not be for everyone. Julavits tells the story of Julia Severn, who, at the start, is a student at an idyllic yet eerie enclave of psychic “academics” in New Hampshire. At the outset, when we still have an expectation of clarity, Julia tells us: “…this is not just a story about how you can become sick by knowing other people. This is a story about how other people can become sick by knowing you.”

I clung to this thought like an anchor, as I tried to follow the twisting, dream-like plot. It’s told via Julia’s first-person account, and the line between what is happening within Julia’s mind versus “reality” seems constantly blurred. The presence of “psychic regressions” and “astral projections” further casts doubt upon whether characters are alive or dead, visions or actual, present or past.

As Julia’s story progresses, it becomes increasingly surreal and bizarre, often frustratingly so. Julavits’ writing, however, is filled with subtle humor. The paranormal aspects of the plot also add uniqueness and excitement to the author’s meditation upon loss and despair, female relationships and rivalries, and others’ effects, often subconscious, upon our psyches.

The Vanishers is a more challenging read than its pretty cover would suggest. It’s also sure to elicit a spectrum of responses – from the polarized “loved it” or “hated it” to my own gray fascination tinged with ambivalence.

I recommend it, reassured that in this day of e-readers, few of you are likely to track me down and throw the book at me in anger.

Your iPad is too expensive for that.

By Kathleen Pope

Kathleen Pope is a member of the Westchase Book Club and can be reached with book suggestions at kathleenopope@gmail.com.

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Back to School

If the new school year has made you nostalgic for your school days, I recommend The Red Book by Deborah Copaken Kogan (Hyperion, 2012).

The Red Book is a novel about Harvard graduates returning for their 20-year reunion. The title describes a bound volume published for each class in which alumni write brief essays about their lives. Through the class of 1989’s Twentieth Anniversary Report, we first meet the protagonists, four former freshman suitemates: Clove, a commune-raised, now fabulously wealthy (but recently laid off) Wall Street executive; Mia, a failed actress turned stay-at-home mom/wife of famous movie director; Jane, prize-winning journalist and Vietnamese orphan with a tragic life; and Addison, privileged, prep-schooled, floundering for direction and living off dwindling family trust funds.

The novel’s structure is ingenious – each character is introduced via his or her essay in the Report. The essays provide concise character development, delivering detailed information which would take many more pages to reveal via dialogue. After finishing a chapter, it’s hard not to keep reading to see whom we might meet next and how they interact. Kogan certainly keeps a reader turning the pages.

This novel’s greatest pleasures are its fully-formed, always flawed characters. Kogan reveals much about her ambitions for the novel when Addison recalls advice she gave her husband, a struggling and emotionally distant writer: “….he’d have to give his readers the subtextual nuance – pain, joy, fear, love, feelings for heaven’s sake – underlying his characters’ physical traits, actions, and words…..a quick glimpse, now and then, inside the multilayered morass of his characters’ hearts.”

Each individual in The Red Book has layers to be revealed, some tragic, some endearing, and some downright unlikable; but Kogan is careful to write complexity into even the more peripheral characters.

Probably too much happens in The Red Book, and it would not suffer from having fewer characters or surprises. Kogan, however, succeeds in accurately portraying friendships, marriage, family, careers, success and aging; all in the context of today’s changed economic reality. It’s all there, most eloquently expressed in Kogan’s own words: “…the disappointments, the broken vows, the friends and family laid to rest; the loves lost, the pounds gained, the compromises and the sad surprises and the football-size lemons swallowed whole.”

By Kathleen Pope

Kathleen Pope is a member of the Westchase Book Club and can be reached with book suggestions at kathleenopope@gmail.com.

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Pre-Teenage Pre-Wasteland

“No one was wounded. No one was dead. It was, at the beginning, a quite invisible catastrophe. I think this explains why what I felt first was not fear but a thrill.”

Thus recalls Julia, the narrator of Karen Thompson Walker’s first novel, The Age of Miracles (Random House, 2012), reflecting upon the announcement that the Earth’s rotation was slowing down.

Walker’s story is told by a future Julia, reflecting back upon the first year of the slowing, the year she was in sixth grade. Julia’s 11-year-old thoughts and insecurities are pitch-perfect. The author does not just create a passable sixth grader’s voice; she reminds the reader what it felt like to be a pre-teen – forging both a coming-of-age tale and brilliant science fiction.

Walker makes meticulously real the consequences of the slowing, from the first extra hours of day and night to the eventual prolonged periods of darkness and sunlight. Walker’s ability to keep the tale simple and true makes it all the more jarring and affecting. It is stunning partly because it feels like it could happen at any moment.

The novel’s title, on one level, refers to the year of the slowing, when everything changes both dramatically and gradually for all Earth life. The title, however, also refers to Julia’s first year of adolescence. In fact, Walker’s only explicit reference to the title regards this tumultuous time of life rather than the miraculous external events: “This was middle school, the age of miracles, the time when kids shot up three inches over the summer, when breasts bloomed from nothing, when voices dipped and dove.”

Julia experiences the cruelty, rejection, loneliness, and heartbreak almost universal among girls. Yet in her case it’s compounded by calamitous environmental changes, profoundly affecting children and adults alike – and signaling a future filled with uncertainty.

After finishing The Age of Miracles, as I often do when haunted by a particularly good book, I paged back through it. In the “About the Author” section, I happened upon what might be the biggest miracle of all: Walker, a former editor at Simon & Schuster, wrote this novel in the mornings before going to work. Quite simply, this impressive debut novel is bleak, but lovely.

It should be read.

By Kathleen Pope

Kathleen Pope is a member of the Westchase Book Club and can be reached with book suggestions at kathleenopope@gmail.com.

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Poor Little Rich Girl

In honor of the summer solstice, I recommend Bond Girl for your beach bag.

Erin Duffy’s first novel (William Morrow (HarperCollins), 2012) is the story of Alex, the privileged daughter of an investment banker who achieves her dream of working for a top Wall Street brokerage firm. Though fiction, the story is infused with underlying, dirty truth in the vein of The Nanny Diaries or The Devil Wears Prada. It reads like a peek into a world we aren’t supposed to see.

Most amusing are Alex’s colleagues, whose firm is a Neverland of badly behaved characters with bottomless wallets. Their bubble of excess, illustrating the saying “New York is a playground for the rich,” also contains relentless hazing, pranks, sexism and harassment. Duffy’s writing is strongest when recounting these high jinks and humiliations. When on her first day Alex is handed a metal folding chair to place behind people and watch them work, anyone can relate to the awkwardness. When, after several months, her colleagues scrawl her nickname, “Girlie,” on the chair with correction fluid, you understand it’s actually a mark of acceptance.

Though many of the supporting characters are endearing, Alex isn’t likable. Duffy occasionally explains a financial concept by having Alex ask for its clarification, leading the reader to wonder how she could possibly hold the job while asking such questions. The chick-lit romance threaded into the book also makes one question her judgment. Though she loses much of her naiveté, she remains fairly clueless.

Duffy’s intention may have been to point out that most Wall Streeters didn’t understand the recent meltdown. Yet during the years that fictional Alex was getting Christmas bonuses, eating fancy dinners and getting a car-service home after working late, I worked in New York City seven days a week for a small fraction of her salary. I simply can’t relate to her dismay when 2008 hits and she has to work weekends and forego trips to the Hamptons.

This is Duffy’s first novel, obvious in its unrealistic dialogue and simplistic characters. Yet her editors successfully transformed her 700-page draft into a fast-paced book that was fun and deliciously readable despite its faults.

By Kathleen Pope

Kathleen Pope is a member of the Westchase Book Club and can be reached with book suggestions at kathleenopope@gmail.com.

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Scandal in the Slippery World of Olive Oil

Everywhere we turn, news stories and books reveal the dark secrets of the food industry.

From pink slime to the questionable quality of school lunches, most of us want to know what we are putting in our mouths. We don’t like to be misled about something as basic as our food.
In his book, Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil (W.W. Norton & Co, 2012), author Tom Mueller combines his personal experiences with interviews of olive oil industry experts. He regales the reader with the history of olive oil’s production and distribution and stories of fraud from ancient times to the present. It proves a fascinating amalgam of food memoir, consumer education, investigative reporting and history.

“When a product sells for a hundred dollars a gallon or more,” one source says, “the temptation to fraud must be nearly irresistible.”

Exposing a minor weakness of the book, Mueller repeats to the point of excess that “the deck is stacked against” those who attempt to increase or enforce regulation in the olive oil industry. Because of widespread fraud, many of us have only been exposed to olive oil cut with less expensive oils. Unable to recognize unadulterated extra virgin oil by taste, smell or sight, we continue being ideal victims. Aside from paying exorbitant prices for oil that is not what it claims to be, one might ask why we should care about the purity of extra virgin olive oil. Mueller compellingly argues why it matters. Most important, olive oil’s much touted antioxidant health benefits are not present in low-quality oils falsely labeled as extra-virgin olive oil.

The book’s strength lies in its simple revelations – such as the fact that olive oil is actually a fruit juice best used shortly after bottling. It is thorough, interesting and readable, though there are occasional disjointed geographic and temporal jumps. Mueller’s book, however, will ultimately inspire most readers to seek out true extra-virgin olive oil – or at least spend a long time standing in the oil aisle at the grocery store examining labels.

By Kathleen Pope

Kathleen Pope is a member of the Westchase Book Club and can be reached with book suggestions at kathleenopope@gmail.com.

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The Power of Memory, Regret and Remorse

What captured me was Julian Barnes’ elegant description of adolescence.

“In those days, we imagined ourselves as being kept in some kind of holding pen, waiting to be released into our lives. And when that moment came, our lives – and time itself – would speed up. How were we to know that our lives had in any case begun, that some advantage had already been gained, some damage already inflicted?”

In these three sentences, author Julian Barnes inks an essential truth about people on the precipice of adulthood, wielding their words and bodies without concern for consequences. Their artistry perfectly captures his novel The Sense of an Ending, winner of the 2011 Man Booker Prize for Fiction.

Two of the most admirable achievements in writing are to tell a story without an excess of words and to keep a reader guessing until the last page. Here Barnes accomplishes both. The novel’s two chapters and 176 pages are little more than pamphlet size. Yet he’s packaged more insight and truth into them than are reflected in most authors’ oeuvres.

In the first chapter, we meet our narrator, Tony Webster, just after his childhood pals and he befriend a bright, new student named Adrian Finn in 1960’s England. Here Tony recounts his memories through his college years, after the friends have gone their separate ways. Tony warns the reader of the mutability of memory and the questionable accuracy of his narration. The enjoyable effect of this unreliable narrator device prompts one to read critically – and cherish the clarity and revelation to come.

The first-person narration reveals Tony’s personality and effectively evokes the setting, recalling other U.K. coming-of-age novels, particularly Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited and Ian McEwan’s Atonement.

In the second, final chapter, we learn the story is being told by an aged, retired Tony Webster, who ruminates on his youth from the vantage point of a man decades distant from his boyhood. His need to understand the past becomes more urgent and troubling after he receives an unexpected piece of mail. As Tony tries to piece together his memories, the reader eagerly waits for the final pieces of the puzzle to fall into place.

By Kathleen Pope

Kathleen Pope is a member of the Westchase Book Club and can be reached with book suggestions at kathleenopope@gmail.com.

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A Zombie and Vampire-Free Tale of Survival

There is a special place in my heart for Young Adult (YA) literature.

Anne of Green Gables and Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time still rank among my favorites. Reading the Harry Potter series aloud on road trips kept my husband and I spellbound in our 30’s. Later this month, the movie adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games hits theaters, which is sure to renew interest in her excellent trilogy.

The Hunger Games and Harry Potter are remarkable for their appeal across both generations and sexes. Yet young males are often a neglected group of readers. With the birth of my son, I recently decided to read outside my comfort zone to identify novels he might someday want to read. With this mission in mind, I recently chose Mike Mullin’s Ashfall (Tanglewood Press, 2011), named by National Public Radio as one of 2011’s top five YA novels.

Ashfall is the story of Alex, a 15-year-old boy from Iowa whose parents go out of town for the weekend. Unfortunately, that same weekend the Yellowstone supervolcano explodes. Without a cell phone, television or even radio, Alex tries to survive. While a common YA theme is apocalypse and young people fending for themselves, Ashfall is far more realistic than most. It does not shy away from violence as society rapidly breaks down; thus, it’s meant for an older YA audience. There is theft, murder and rape. Children, cute bunnies and golden retrievers meet sad ends. Alex is eventually joined by the resourceful Darla and romance ensues. As is the case in most YA novels, not even doomsday can impede teenage hormones.

Alex’s first-person narration reveals only what he can perceive and interpret from his surroundings. This perspective captures isolation, confusion and fear quite effectively. However, Mullin’s teenage voice can be flat and stilted. Sometimes meticulous details dampen the suspense while at other times dangers seem oversimplified. Though I’m not sure Ashfall’s appeal extends beyond its intended YA audience, it is a thoughtful tale of teens learning self-reliance. As a parent hoping to nurture a son’s love of reading, I appreciate authors – like Mullin – who are writing novels that can one day compete with video games.

By Kathleen Pope

Kathleen Pope is a member of the Westchase Book Club and can be reached with book suggestions at kathleenopope@gmail.com.

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Enchantment and Romance for the Sophisticated

Bookstores aren’t lacking in novels about magic. Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, however, is an imaginative, welcome gem among the knock-offs.

We first meet Prospero the Enchanter (Hector Bowen) and his young daughter, Celia, when Hector takes custody of Celia after her mother’s death. He recognizes her innate magical ability and soon binds her into a contest with a pupil to be chosen by Alexander, a rival magician. Thus, two children are raised by magicians and prepared for a mysterious competition. Their guardians have different methods of teaching, each abusive in their own way. Hector cuts Celia’s fingertips repeatedly and breaks her wrist so she may learn to heal them. Alexander immerses his ward, Marco, in books and study without an ounce of affection. The plot is gradually revealed with some jumps back and forth in chronology. The venue created for Celia and Marco’s competition is a circus, Le Cirque des Rêves.

Though the author draws a parallel to Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the tale is also reminiscent of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell mixed with Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes – as well as a dash of several other novels, television programs and films. Morgenstern, however, sculpts gorgeous images with words, giving her novel a unique identity. Her descriptions of the circus engage multiple senses: “The circus looks abandoned and empty. But you think perhaps you can smell caramel wafting through the evening breeze, beneath the crisp scent of the autumn leaves. A subtle sweetness at the edges of the cold.”

Morgenstern’s strength is her setting. Though there are many well-described characters, most are kept at arm’s length from the reader. I particularly wanted more insight into Celia and Marco, whose psychological scars from their cruel upbringing did not influence the plot as expected.

The novel’s intricate details lend itself toward a film adaptation, so it was no surprise to read the rights have been purchased. Though I would watch a big-screen translation, I can’t imagine enjoying it more than the book. Most of us are still susceptible to being drawn into a novel, and, as Morgenstern suggests, there is magic in storytelling that can transform and transfix a reader.

I was thus enchanted by The Night Circus (Doubleday, 2011).

By Kathleen Pope

Kathleen Pope is a member of the Westchase Book Club and can be reached with book suggestions at kathleenopope@gmail.com.

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Ring in the New Year with Laughter

For me the time between Halloween and New Year’s Day is a blur of costumes, cooking, shopping, dragging dusty boxes out of the garage, finding babysitters and navigating family schedules.

So I generally choose to read something lighthearted with short chapters. This holiday season, I enjoyed reading two collections of autobiographical, humorous essays: Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling (Random House, Inc. 2011); and Bossypants by Tina Fey (Little, Brown and Company, 2011).

Tina Fey, 41, is the creator and star of TV’s 30 Rock and former head writer for Saturday Night Live. Mindy Kaling, 32, has written for The Office since age 24, and also plays the role of Kelly Kapoor. As might be expected from two comedians, they throw around bad language like a sailor who’s dropped an anchor on his foot. There are stories and jokes that may not be for everyone.

The two books have much in common. They interweave witty observations and personal stories about growing up and navigating the entertainment industry. The children of hardworking, academic-oriented parents, both women were interested in pursuing a career in theater and comedy, but first graduated from prestigious colleges. Both found work in show business quickly, yet they share an endearing lack of pretension and a flair for self-deprecating humor.

Kaling’s voice is not unlike her character’s on The Office. Her tone is casual and reminiscent of a group of girlfriends gossiping about what they just read in People magazine, while completing a physics problem in Stanford’s science quad. Some may find Kaling’s style annoying, while for others it is clever and approachable.

Tina Fey’s style is more detailed and subtle, and her references are sometimes more esoteric. There is a heart and openness to her musings on motherhood and career that set her book apart. Her style befits the extra decade of career success and life experience she has had. Where Kaling discusses dating and romance, Fey talks about marriage, motherhood and running her own television show.

Both books are light and fun, but it’s also clear that true intellects lurk behind their humor. These are women who, without compromising too much, achieved success in comedy by believing in themselves – and embracing their “awkward” years.

By Kathleen Pope

Kathleen Pope is a member of the Westchase Book Club and can be reached with book suggestions at kathleenopope@gmail.com.

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Jungle Thriller Leaves You Scratching for More

Too often readers must choose between a sloppily written novel with a compelling plot and a beautifully rendered novel with a meandering story.

Ann Patchett’s latest novel, State of Wonder, (HarperCollins, 2011) didn’t make me choose. It is a novel of intelligent prose and, by the end, heart-pounding suspense.

Marina Singh, the novel’s protagonist, works for a pharmaceutical company and learns her colleague, Anders Eckman, has died. Dr. Eckman was sent to Brazil to track down the renowned Dr. Annick Swenson, an obstetrician who is developing a drug among a remote tribe and who has not been heard from in two years. Marina is Swenson’s former student, but a traumatic experience drove her from obstetrics residency to a more sedate, predictable career in the laboratory. Marina sets off for Brazil to complete Eckman’s unfinished task and learn the details of his demise.

Though the novel is ultimately a page-turner, this is not apparent early. Marina’s grief over her colleague and the trauma of delivering this unimaginable news to his wife is powerfully and painstakingly detailed; I even wondered when the book would finally head to Brazil. The deliberate pacing parallels Marina’s journey and, despite her foreboding, she finally departs. From this point, the plot accelerates through Marina’s memories, nightmares and fever dreams, until finally we plunge toward astounding revelations.

The novel is a scientific thriller, but Patchett does not drown the reader in extraneous detail. Instead her scientific knowledge is cleanly woven into the plot, touching upon bioethics, human research and the relationship between female physicians of different generations. An important theme is the blinding awe, romanticism and devotion within the student-mentor dynamic.

Patchett’s State of Wonder succeeds most as an adventure story. The heroine faces peril and confronts her greatest fears. A couple people have told me they disliked the ending. There were surprising aspects that I too found unsatisfactory and unsettling, but I still enjoyed the book. Controversial decisions by authors are the lifeblood of a good book club discussion. However one reacts to the last few pages, the journey there makes this book worth reading.

By Kathleen Pope

Kathleen Pope is a member of the Westchase Book Club and can be reached with book suggestions at kathleenopope@gmail.com.

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A Tale Timely and Thought-Provoking

Tackling religion, politics, prejudice and 9/11 in a first novel is an ambitious risk.

In The Submission (2011; Farrar, Straus, and Giroux), Amy Waldman handles it adeptly.

Her novel begins with an art jury reviewing designs for a memorial to the victims of a terrorist attack. By not specifying the event as 9/11, Waldmen establishes a setting readily recognizable yet fictional.

First introduced is wealthy widow, Claire, representing the victims’ families, and Paul, the committee chair, a reluctant figurehead for his wife’s social ambitions. When the name of the winning designer, Mohammed Khan, is revealed, the news reverberates through New York’s boroughs and the nation.

It is not just in passing that in the novel’s first pages Ms. Waldman mentions Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities.  Like Wolfe’s book, Waldman seeks to evoke the many facets New York City set amid today’s inflammatory media and divided political and social environments.

Through her characters’ interconnected perspectives, Waldman unfurls the story.  In addition to Claire and Paul, there is the contest winner, known to his friends as Mo, a young, ambitious architect born and raised in Virginia by secular Muslim immigrants.  His aloof nature is interpreted by many as secretive or sinister.  Other perspectives are provided by unemployed, insecure Sean, who lost his brother;  Asma, a young Bangladeshi immigrant whose undocumented husband perished in the attack;  and ruthless tabloid journalist Alyssa,  who dreams of being like Carrie Bradshaw (a Sex and the City reference, one of several overused nods to pop-culture), but has been disappointed in her career.

The novel is an admirable depiction of modern-day New York, juxtaposing its historical immigrant communities deeply affected by the attacks with the city’s more recent immigrants, embodied by Mo, Asma and others. The tale explores grief and its uncomfortable, challenging relationship with intolerance, irrationality and vengefulness.  In The Submission, however, every time you think the right or better outcome is simple and evident, a twist invites you, like Waldman’s characters, to question the immutability of your beliefs.

In the end, Waldman shows us that although time may provide clarity, it can also obscure history’s complexity.

By Kathleen Pope

Kathleen Pope is a member of the Westchase Book Club and can be reached with book suggestions at kathleenopope@gmail.com.

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Haunting Reads for October

Not all novels have to be horror-filled slashers to give you a tiny taste of the macabre this month.

There’s always Stephen King or Dean Koontz for a good scare, but there are many selections that can be just as haunting without the gore.

When I recently polled fellow readers about books that haunted them long after the last page, their answers were varied and interesting. Classics like the Stephen King’s The Shining and Thomas Harris’ Silence of Lambs (not the movie) were among the most common. Others, however, seemed to leave a lasting but less gruesome mark.

Cormac McCarthy’s The Road by will certainly live on in your psyche. This Pulitzer-winning, post-apocalyptic novel is dark and indelible while rising far above the stacks of pulp fiction.

If Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold kept you awake, The Way the Crow Flies by Ann-Marie MacDonald may also interest you. With complex characters and many twists and plot turns, this disturbing tale of murder is a psychological thriller that is sure to keep you guessing until the very end.

Speaking of fictitious murder, any comprehensive list of modern crime novels must include the Stieg Larsson trilogy, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. These are must-reads for those with a penchant for dark thrillers.

If these are already on your shelves, get your hands on a copy of The Alienist by Caleb Carr. This one will have you leaving the lights on at night; you’ll be unable to put down this grisly, historically fascinating tome.

If you still seek a walk on the dark side, pose that same haunting question to your friends and fellow readers. With any luck, you’ll find more page-turners than stomach-turners.

By Tracey Henry

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A Complex Tale of Slave and Master

Despite its breezy title, Island Beneath the Sea, a novel by Isabel Allende, is not a light, breezy read.

The story of Zarité, a Haitian slave in the 1700’s when Hispañola was a French colony called Saint-Domingue, is an epic tale of the intertwined lives of master and slave. Allende’s story spans over 40 years and thousands of miles. It tackles grand historical events as well as extremely personal ones.

Despite having never known freedom, Zarité craves it from an early age. By 9, she is purchased to be a personal slave for the wife of Toulouse Valmorain, a wealthy sugar plantation owner who believes slavery is a necessity. Although he considers himself fair, he commits countless acts of cruelty against his slaves, and Zarité is often the victim of his abuse. The tumultuous years that follow are littered with civil war, sicknesses, children, deaths and immigration to New Orleans before the Louisiana Purchase. Zarité’s life marked by tragedies and small triumphs at large prices.

Allende, a prolific and reknowned international author, does not disappoint in this New York Times bestseller. The book is filled with her signature, elegant writing tinged with romantic mysticism. Her characters are varied and the cast she creates will linger in the mind long after the cover closes. Vivid character descriptions abound, like when she introduces a Bonapartist spy late in the story: “Isidor Morisset was a man with an impenetrable gaze, a broken nose, and a wrestler’s shoulders that burst the stitching of his jacket; he was red as a brick from the merciless sun on the crossing and equipped with a monosyllabic vocabulary that made him disagreeable from the minute he opened his mouth. His sentences – always too brief – sounded like sneezes.”

Allende is heavy-handed with history and politics. At times her story drags with the weight of all its complexities, yet they inarguably add to the rich landscape she paints. The novel’s only other distractions are the occasional seams left unsewn between scenes and characters – the result of describing 40 years in 400 pages.

While not for readers in search of ebullience, fans of both Allende and noble novels of exotic historical importance will find Island Beneath the Sea worth their investment.

By Tracey Henry

Henry is a published author whose work can be found at http://www.suburbandiva.com<./p>

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