Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Secret of Raven Point, by Jennifer Vanderbes

Historical fiction at it's heart-rending best, Jennifer Vanderbes delivers a harrowing tale of  World War II as experienced in a Mobile Hospital Unit in Italy.

In 1943, Juliet Defresne's young life is altered suddenly when her family receives an official letter stating that her older brother Tucker is missing in action. She makes a decision to take an intense nursing program and enlist in the military as soon as she graduates high school.

The last letter she receives from Tuck contains a cryptic message about The Secret of Raven Point, which is a stand of trees near their childhood home.  Years earlier, she and Tuck had rescued an injured raven, nursed it back to health and returned it to the wild.  She has no idea what he is referring to.

Her unlikely quest to find her brother is a maddeningly slow process, but along the way she sees the horror and chaos of war, and learns much about her own inner strengths.  She sees nobility in some doctors and nurses, despair in many hapless Italians who are victims by virtue of living where the war is happening, and the agony and grief of the hospitalized soldiers.  Juliet is younger than most of the folks she works with but she is industrious and hard working.  She is given the responsibility of caring for a Private Barnaby, a young man who had served in the same unit as Tuck! But her "good fortune" is tempered by the fact that he apparently has attempted suicide, and is too traumatized to speak, even after supposedly successful surgery.

The author has done an incredible amount of research, enabling her to tell the tale as confidently as if she had interviewed the actual participants.  Her descriptions of winter in northern Italy, the hardship conditions in the hospital units, unexpected encounters with Germans, and even the terror of walking where mines have been buried are incredibly vivid.  The horrors of war can wreak havoc on the psyches of the soldiers, but the reader comes to care enormously about the people, both major and minor characters, who are part of this tale.

A great read, The Secret of Raven Point will be referred to as a classic before long, and likely will be a movie even before that! Get it; read it; let's talk about it.

The Mad Scientist's Daughter, by Cassandra Rose Clark

Cat Novak is the only child of a scientist and his wife.  Dr. Novak and his family live in a rural area in eastern North America in the aftermath of an unspecified  world-changing event. Science and technology have survived and prospered in the intervening years.  Novak is able to work from home, even on lunar projects, with a complex computer system.  There are still cities and towns, but the education systems and services are nothing like they used to be.

The Novaks made a decision to home school Cat, but in actuality, her education plan has been fairly relaxed, that is until her dad brings Finn home and introduces him into the household as Cat's new tutor.  When Cat meets him, she feels that he looks human but perhaps he died and is now a ghost.  He is actually an android whose expression at rest is not animated at all, but she comes to value the companionship and friendship he offers.

Her parents get uncomfortable with the relationship as Cat matures into a young teen.  The decision is made to enroll her in the public high school in the nearby town so that she will be exposed to kids her own age. Her teen years are anything but ideal, but Finn is unfailingly dependable, a guardian that never fails her, no matter how many bad decisions she makes.

Finn is certainly not the only robot in the world.  In fact the robot population has exploded after so many human lives were lost in the catastrophe of a generation or two ago, in order to rebuild destroyed communities.  The robots have become indispensable to many and perceived as a threat by many others.  There are even Rights Groups fighting to better the conditions and expand the privileges of robots. Many find it offensive that the robots are considered property instead of individuals.

As Cat grows up and leaves her parents' home, she still maintains a relationship with Finn, though he remains with her dad as a valuable research assistant.  What she feels is love, but Finn, in response to her question, says he does not believe that he is programmed to be able to love.

As unlikely as this love story is, it is compelling and almost impossible not to root for this unlikely couple. In fact, Finn is the most endearing and noble character in the book.  I liked it, and if you enjoy science fiction and cyborgs mixed with a little romance, this might be just right for you!




Sunday, November 16, 2014

Elizabeth and Her German Garden, by Elizabeth von Arnim

Originally published in 1898, Elizabeth and Her German Garden was quite popular and was reprinted several times in subsequent years.  Ms. von Armin went on to write many other books, but this one in particular has enjoyed a recent resurgence in popularity since it was featured in a Downton Abbey story line.several seasons ago.

The book is written as a diary of an aristocratic young married woman living in a country home in Germany. The Elizabeth of the title is witty, self confident and independent, but she lives within the confines of the society of her time.  Her peers would have her live in the city and participate in the social life readily available there, but Elizabeth is much happier in her own company and is bent on creating a spectacular garden at their country home. As the book begins, she has left her husband and children in the city and is staying in the country home, theoretically to oversee it's renovation. But she admits in the diary that she stays out in the garden, reentering the house only when the workers are gone for the day.  She also confesses that she knows nothing about gardening beyond how she wants it to look.  The gardener she has hired does not always pick up on her vision, to say the least.

Her descriptions of her friends, her family and even her employees reveal much about the kind of woman Elizabeth is.  Her husband is The Man of Wrath, though when she records their interactions, they seem to have genuine affection for one another. Her children are not named, but she calls them by the months of their birth.  Her attitudes about women seem very modern, though the Man of Wrath, when pressed,  expresses a much more conventional and demeaning attitude, comparing women to children and idiots.

I enjoyed Elizabeth and the picture of aristocratic life which she describes.  Elizabeth von Armin is a good writer and I look forward to reading more of her work.  This book is a recent book club choice, and I would probably never have read it otherwise...thanks, Leslie for introducing us to the book!

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, a novel by Robin Sloan is the adult selection for Farmers Branch Library's Community Reads Program.  It is an ideal book for our times in that it explores the conundrum readers experience as our love for "real" books is tested by our perceived need for instant answers and entertainment courtesy of the increasingly ubiquitous internet. But this book does it using mystery, adventure, daring and even a quest reminiscent of great fantasy literature.

Clay Jannon is a bright young man who has a degree in web design and gets a job right after graduation in a start up company in San Francisco.  But when the start up fails, he finds it very difficult to get another job.  Finally he spots a Help Wanted sign in a bookstore window.  He gets hired as the night clerk by Mr. Penumbra himself, but it is immediately apparent that things are not what they seem...but what they ACTUALLY ARE is not at all obvious to Clay.  The bookstore has very few customers, and actually very few books to purchase.  The greatest amount of shelf space is devoted to mysterious old volumes which can only be borrowed, and only the staff is trusted to retrieve the books when specifically requested.

It is not long before Clay is deep into the mystery and has enlisted a crew of his exceedingly bright and talented friends to help solve the mystery of just what this bookstore actually is and eventually to resolve the mystery that the bookstore is set up to solve...or is it set up to preserve and protect an ancient mystery from prying eyes.  When Mr. Penumbra is in trouble Clay and his friends step in, using the creative tools at their disposal, including Google and a world wide computer system.

This book is charming, fast paced, intelligent and entertaining even as it analyzes the dilemma we face as technology changes and pervades every aspect of our lives.  Watch for more from Robin Sloan...may he live long and prosper.

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library, by Chirs Grabenstein

Selected as one of our Community Reads selections at the Farmers Branch Library, Escape From Mr. Lemoncello's Library, is a great selection for reluctant and eager readers alike. The premise of the book is that an eccentric and very rich game creator decides to fund the building of a new library for his home town.  All aspects of the interior of the library remain top secret, and it's first customers are the winners of an essay contest entitled, "Why I am Excited About the New Public Library."  The prize for twelve lucky winners is an overnighter in the library itself.  

Kyle Keeley isn't interested in the new library, being more of a gamer thank a reader, that is, until he finds out that the benefactor is the creator of all his favorite games, Luigi Lemoncello.  Surprisingly, Kyle is one of the twelve twelve year olds who is selected, and the twelve are in for a most unusual night!

After the twelve have entered and seen just a few of many amazing facets of this new library, they are left with a challenge to escape from the library without going out the way they came in.   They must follow clues which lead them all over the library and there is a hologram librarian to answer their questions.  The one who finds the way out first will win money, fame, and the chance to represent Mr. Lemoncello in ad campaigns!  This leads to some pretty serious searches, secrets, double crosses, and finally some collaboration before the party is over. The twelve are fairly diverse...think Willie Wonka's Chocolate Factory...and not all are the little angels that they want the teachers to think they are!

This book is loaded with allusions to other children's literature, not to mention games and puzzles that the reader gets a chance to solve as well.  It is cleverly written, full of humor and some very likeable characters.  If it is not yet considered a classic, it definitely will be!

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Vanessa And Her Sister, by Priya Parmar

Vanessa And Her Sister is historical fiction that reads like an embellished autobiography. Author Priya Parmar uses the device of diary entries of Vanessa Stephen Bell interspersed with telegrams from others in her circle of friends which help further the story.  I didn't realize until the author tells us after the novel is complete that the diary is a complete work of fiction based on the historical record of events that she uses as her basis to tell the story.

And what a story it is! It is turn of the century in London, 1905 to be exact.  The four young adult Stephen siblings move from their deceased parents' home into the Bloomsbury neighborhood in London.  Their friends and acquaintances are creative and intellectual and all too ready to loosen the restrictions of the Victorian era.  At a time when the pressure for a young woman to marry is enormous, Vanessa and her sister, who would eventually become Virginia Woolf, are resistant to marriage proposals, enjoying the company of the group of young friends, mostly male, who are frequent visitors in their home. 

The household and their cast of friends eventually became known as the Bloomsbury Group. They were definitely game changers in the literary and art worlds of pre-WW I Europe, but at this time they had yet to make their imprints on history. The friends include Clive Bell, an art critic, Rupert Brooke, a poet, E.M. Forster, a novelist, John Maynard Keynes, an economist and a myriad of other authors, artist and soon to be prominent government leaders.

Vanessa is an artist who has yet to sell a painting, her brother Thoby is a recent graduate of Cambridge, currently studying law. He is  a charismatic young man whose friends are the ones who make themselves at home in the Stephen siblings' rambling shabby chic house. Virginia is a writer with a vivid imagination and an incredible need to be the center of attention.  The youngest brother, Adrian is a Cambridge undergrad.

The dynamic that moves the story forward though is the relationship of the two sisters. Parmar does a masterful job of portraying the incredibly gifted but emotionally needy Virginia, whose dependence on her sister's attention causes her to go after anyone who shows too much attention to Vanessa, with the goal of destroying any relationship that might cause Vanessa to move on with a life separate from Virginia. Vanessa is emotionally strong, creative and intelligent and is mostly able to maneuver around Virginia's manipulative ploys.

This is quite a compelling introduction to some historical figures who come alive in this work, befriend and support one another, and in many ways, they will change the world. Priya Parmar is an excellent writer and I look forward to reading more of her work

I received an e-galley of the book from Random House via NetGalley. It is tentatively scheduled for publication in January, 2015.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Dangerous Passage, by Lisa Harris

Dangerous Passage is a Romance Suspense novel with a refreshingly Christian world view. Avery North is a young single mother who also is a detective in the Atlanta police department. Her marriage to a fellow police officer ended abruptly when he was killed on the job several years earlier.  She is torn between getting back into the dating world and the strong feeling that she has way too much on her plate already without dealing with that distraction.  However, the "distraction" is Jackson Bryant, the medical examiner, and it appears that they will be working a case together. 

A second young Asian girl's body has been discovered in a back alley in an aging neighborhood in Atlanta.  There is no ID on the girl, but she shares a mysterious tattoo with a previous victim.  Could there be another connection? Could a serial killer be targeting these girls? But why would Avery and her family be threatened as well? The investigation must be onto something big, but what exactly is it?

Before long, a number of clues develop and some seem contradictory.  An autopsy reveals a strong clue that the second girl may not be who she has been assumed to be, and the likely suspect is looking more unlikely every day.  This may be more than murder, perhaps it is evidence that human trafficking is much closer to home than Avery would have ever suspected.

Lisa Harris has written multiple books, winning the Best Inspirational Suspense Novel Award for 2011 from Romantic Times.  She and her family have served as missionaries in Africa where she has seen how much difference one can make in the lives of others by stepping out of one's comfort zone and getting involved with those who aren't able to help themselves.  This is the first in her Southern Crimes series. the second is Fatal Exchange.

I received an e-book version of Dangerous Passage from BookShout in exchange for a review.