Monday, September 29, 2014

A Sudden Light

A Sudden Light
by Garth Stein

I've read three books by Garth Stein now and The Art of Racing in the Rain remains my favorite.  He is a northwest author who lives in Seattle.  Being a Seattlite transplanted to the Bluegrass Commonwealth of Kentucky, I really enjoy the snippets I come across in his books that take me right back to my old neighborhoods.  

In the very beginning of the book he drives us past Las Margaritas... oh, what yummy Mexican food we used to get there... on our way to the Riddell House, the dilapidated mansion from Seattle's glory days of logging, where the story takes place.  

Riddell House sits on 200 acres of undeveloped land overlooking Puget Sound.  How hard my brain worked to locate the probable but fictitious site.  Was it Carkeek Park?  I decided the park's location is too southern, but it's size of 220 acres is about right.  Since the Seattle Golf club abruptly stops the flow of 3rd Ave NW where 145th comes into it, I've made that my final guess.  This is, of course,based on the location of Las Margaritas at 145th & Aurora.  This location is also much closer to the "Old Sears Store" mentioned later in the book. Was it ever known as the "New Sears Store"?  Not in my lifetime, but I did chuckle at the reference. As well as references to Ernst Hardware and Pay N Pack (both long defunct), Aurora Rents and the #5 bus into Seattle along Phinney Ridge.  Please forgive my transgressions - I do miss my 'hometown.' 

This story centers around the Riddell family in the 1990's and their ancestors who built the mansion several generations back.  A promise had been made to return the land to it's natural state, but to date the property had only been passed down. The second generation's hands were tied by a trust and the third generation just not willing to move on.  This would be the elderly Samuel Riddell, suffering from dementia and unwilling to leave the estate where his beloved wife died, yet still dances for him during his sleepless nights.

Samuel's son and daughter reunite after more than 20 years to declare the old man incompetent and move him off the estate so they can cash in on it.  With them is his teenage grandson whom he'd never met. 

Samuel's daughter Serena, is an odd character.  She speaks oddly and I had a difficult time trying to figure her out.  This is, of course, by design.  She has lived with and cared for her father since her mother's passing, 23 years earlier. Her older brother, Jones, was sent away to school immediately after their mother's death and had never returned.  He's a sad, somewhat pathetic figure, dealing with his own bankruptcy and failing marriage. His son, Trevor comes to Seattle with him hoping somehow he can fix his parents' broken marriage by fixing his dad.  The answer to everyone's problems seems to be in selling the estate and cashing in. 

The history of Riddell House and it's many mysteries is told through journals, letters, some memories and of course the ghosts who live there, wanting the land returned to nature.  But what of the ghosts?  Are they real or not?  

A sudden light is a ghost story and sometimes I felt it was a bit of a cliche as far as ghost stories go.  One realizes from the beginning that the story is being told in present day by Samuel's grandson, Trevor, but at times I wondered if he was now the ghost that haunts the mansion.  The answer to that question remains within the book.  No spoilers from me.  

This book is released to the public tomorrow, September 30, 2014.  I was delighted to read it before publication. I give it four of five shots. 

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Leaving Time

Leaving Time
by Jodi Picoult

When your mother "disappears" and leaves you behind at age three, your entire life is a mystery.  The obvious one is, "where did she go?" followed by, "why didn't she take me with her?" and, "didn't she love me?"

These are the questions that haunt Jenna, the child left behind after a terrible "accident" at the elephant sanctuary her parents ran.  Her father fell from reality and was institutionalized at that same time. Jenna pretty much faces her future alone, living with her grandmother who is somewhat emotionally detached. By the age of 13 she has acquired the skills and ability to attempt searching for her mother on her own.

In the Jodi Picoult fashion this story is told by several voices.  First, the voice of Jenna which drives the search for her mother. Only three when her mother left, she relies on dim memories and her mother's journals to connect with her.  She desparately needs to find the truth of her disappearance. 

Next is the voice of Serenity, a has-been "psychic" that Jenna finds and enlists her help.  Serenity had once been very good at what she does, working with police departments to find missing individuals or elusive leads on stalled cases, putting her in the public eye and garnering her some fame.  Unfortunately, she hit hard times when her spirit guides leave her and she fails without their help. She is careful not to reveal that she is now a hack. 

Another voice is that of Virgil, the once police detective, now private investigator, that worked on the original case. What he believed to be murder was eventually ruled an accidental death and no attention was given to the missing person, Jenna's mother.  He blames himself for the poor investigation and is haunted by the disappearance of Jenna's mother.  When Jenna comes to him, his demons convince him to help her, although reluctantly.  

I was a bit surprised to have narrative by Alice, the mother who has gone missing.  An elephant researcher, much of her narrative involves elephant behavior, particularly grieving.  The research for this part of the book is very good and fascinating.  

Having just finished The Storyteller by Picoult before picking up this book, I was primed to look for the twist.  Jodi did not disappoint, and she caught me totally off guard.  This mystery doesn't slowly unfold as we investigate it.  There are some moments when I thought, "Oh.My.God - how did that happen?!?"  but the real mystery is solved very near the end of the book.  Despite where I was looking, it snuck up on me and slapped me across the back of the head.  

So satisfying!  

I wholeheartedly give this book a five shot rating! It called me back each time I had to put it down. Around 50 pages from the end I could not put it down.  And, very unexpectedly, tears rolled down my face.  The only disappointment was one tiny little section near the end, maybe a page or two in length.  I just didn't quite buy it.  But I will not tell you more than that, no spoilers from me today. 

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Storyteller

The Storyteller
by Jodi Picoult

I didn't really know what I was getting into when I started this book.  I just knew that it was time for me to start a book that I couldn't put down.  I don't know if it was karma or what, but this was that book. 

Jodi tells a holocaust story through several different voices.  The first is the voice of Sage, an emotionally damaged and scarred baker.  She's a young woman alive in the present day and full of insecurities and doubts about who she really is.  She comes by baking naturally, but takes the career as a way to work solo at night and seclude herself from the perceived stares of strangers.  She's aware that her grandmother is a holocaust survivor.  Because her grandmother never talked about it, that knowledge has never really impacted her. 

Another voice of the story is a man named Josef who befriends Sage.  He is in his 90's and ultimately wants Sage to help him die.  He is a Nazi war criminal who's past has never been discovered.  He feels he is cursed to live forever with his unfathomable past.  He needs Sage to assist in his death.  He tells her what he's done, but somewhat "gently" until she forces him to admit that his atrocities are greater and demanding specifics.  

Sage's grandmother adds the voice of a holocaust survivor to the story.  Not wanting to go back to that time, she is eventually persuaded to tell her story to Sage and the Nazi hunter that Sage has contacted.  The Storyteller is the grandmother.  Once an aspiring author in her pre-war youth, she used her stories as distraction in the concentration camp. 

Through these voices, and the voice of the Nazi hunter, the holocaust is brought to life for the reader, from the perspectives of holocaust victim and Nazi.   The subject of forgiveness is discussed as a Jew, who believe that only the person harmed can offer forgiveness, therefore, Sage cannot forgive Josef because she was never one of his victims.  His victims are dead so he cannot be forgiven. Forgiveness is discussed from a Christian perspective; forgiveness is given not to wipe away or deny the act, but to allow the forgiver to move on by leaving the negative feelings that destroy you behind. 

Closing the back cover of this book didn't take me away from the story.  It continues to swirl around in my mind, demanding that I revisit the issues and consider the outcome.  There is a twist to the tale (ha- I figured it out before I got there, will you?) that makes Sage's final decision perhaps a bit regretful. 

Five of five shots.  Long live Picoult!

Friday, September 5, 2014

A Dog's Journey

A Dog's Journey
by W. Bruce Cameron

A Dog's Journey is apparently book #2 of A Dog's Purpose series.  I did not read book one, but found this could stand alone. 

I've read some animal books (cat or dog) that I have considered very good but I didn't feel this story measured up. 

The story involves the reincarnation of the main dog character over the lifetime of the human he/she is meant to be for.  It's an interesting concept but it didn't quite work for me.  While Molly/Max/Toby is returning to find or be found by his/her human, the other puppies in the litter don't seem to have the same mission or goal. This leaves me to wonder if this dog is unique rather than the norm. 

The story is told by the dog and therefore does not get very deep into the human issues that make up the book. This leaves me a little wanting for a "meatier" story.  

The main human character of the story is a woman named CJ, picking up when she is a teen living with her narcissistic single mother. The dog at this point is Molly.  CJ's mother is not a dog person and makes life miserable for Molly and CJ in her attempts to remove Molly from their lives. 

Molly next comes back as Max and finds CJ as a twenty-something adult living in New York City. CJ's life is still less than enviable.  Although I am not entirely sure how Max's presence influences CJ's life, CJ does begin to recognize what is good in her life and things begin to turn around. 

Another gap in time and Max returns as Toby.  CJ is approaching the twilight of her life and we find more about how CJ's life has turned out. 

Although the story wasn't as flushed out as I would have liked it did make me emotional in the appropriate places and laugh when the story or dialog called for it.  All in all I give A Dog's Journey 3 of 5 shots.