The Giant’s House: a romance

  3W, 3H

McCracken, Elizabeth, (c. 1996).  The Giant’s House.  Dial Press. 259 pages , $19.95.

ISBN: 9780385314336

Reviews

Kirkus Reviews, NY Times

Annotation:

Unattached twenty-six year old Peggy Cort,  the town librarian, is inexplicably drawn to the 6’ 2” 11-year old boy who befriends her.

Summary:  

Peggy Cort is 26 years old and unattached, the librarian in a small Cape Cod town.  She is drawn to 11 year old, James who even at this young age is notably different from everyone else at 6′ 2″.  She finds herself thinking about this young boy who comes into her library every day and eventually becomes a part of his life by getting to know his family and spending time with them.  Peggy seems to be the only one who truly understands the physical difficulties that James faces and works with his family to create a living space that will accommodate his eventual 8 foot height.  Always loved and supported by his community, James is approached by the local shoe store to help market their products into a side effect of his size creates problems.  When he accepts the offer from the Circus, Peggy accompanies him to New York where he is given a boost of confidence that unfortunately comes too late.  The doctors had always told James that he would not live a long life but it isn’t until his final days that realizes what love really means.

Evaluation:

This is a different kind of love-story that seems so unrealistic at first glance but becomes plausible as the story unfolds and the characters take shape.  Peggy is herself an outsider who does not easily conform to the community in a “normal” way.   Her attraction to someone that physically stands out seems a natural fit since James, although a child is the more balanced of the two.  McCracken successfully creates an environment where something as shocking as a 26 year old woman and an 11 year old boy almost seems normal. She downplays the age by having Peggy openly ponder her intentions and then dismissing them for her concern for James’ well-being.  A unique and interesting take on a romantic journey that is surprisingly satisfying.

Author’s Website:

Elizabeth McCraken

Genre/Subgenre:

Romance

Awards:

New York Times Book Review Notable Book

Salon Book Award Finalist for the National Book Award

Readalikes:

Up Island by Ann Rivers Siddons.

Tapestry of Fortunes by Elizabeth Berg

Book Discussion Questions:

1. Why do think “a romance” is included in the title?  Is this a romance?

2. How did this book make you feel?  Is the relationship plausible?

3. How does McCracken justify Peggy’s choices?

4. Discuss the impact of James’ father throughout the story.

Reasons for selection:

I was stuck in a “mystery” mode and had stumbled across this title in search of a “different kind” or romance.  And yes, I was intrigued by the cover.  After picking it up, I couldn’t put it down so intrigued by the characters and the predicaments that were addressed.  Although far from being a traditional love story I found it very satisfying and thought provoking.

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Gone Girl

Book Jacket  4W, 4H

Flynn, Gillian, , (c. 2012). Gone Girl.  Crown. 416 pages , $25.99.

ISBN: 9780307588364

Reviews:

The NY Times, The Guardian

Annotation:

On their fifth anniversary, Nick returns home to find his wife missing.  Following the clues, he realizes the desperate game being played and that he’s the target.

Summary:  

On the Dunne’s fifth anniversary, wife Amy goes missing bringing on a firestorm of media, speculation and marital missteps.  Nick knows that he is innocent of foul play but everything clue points directly back to him and the role he has played in their “picture perfect” marriage.  Amy, whose parent’s entire career is based on their “Amazing Amy” books, leaves a diary behind that becomes more and more disturbing and layers are peeled away during the investigation.  Filled with plot twists, disturbing characters, and the most devious of all plots, Gone Girl will keep you guessing and simultaneously cringing as it exposes the side of humanity that is best left hidden.

Evaluation:

A brilliantly crafted thriller, this story is not for the light of heart.  Even if you are not a horror fan, you will be pulled into the twisted lives of this seemingly ordinary couple where power is everything and manipulation is the weapon of choice.  What makes this story so disturbing is that if deftly explores the institution of marriage making it an eerily plausible plot.  Flynn highlights the fact that we are at our best when we first meet, becoming people that we may not really be in order to impress our future mate.  Nick and Amy’s story takes that premise, adds some disturbing details and produces a set of circumstances that surprises and repulses simultaneously.

Reminiscent of the movie “War of the Roses”, it is hard to recommend a book where each character is more loathsome than the next.  This is definitely not a gory read, but a psychological journey into some very dark minds.  Although I did not enjoy the reading experience, I would suggest it to anyone who enjoys the genre, great writing and does not have a need to like the characters.

Author’s Website:

Gillian Flynn

Genre/Subgenre:

Thriller/Psychological

Readalikes:

Precious Things by Collette McBeth.

The Perfect Ghost by Linda Barnes

Awards/Lists:

  • Goodreads Choice Awards: 2012
  • Library Journal Best Books: 2012
  • Romantic Times Reviewers’ Choice Award – Best Mystery & Suspense: 2012
  • The Reading List (RUSA): 2013

Book Discussion Questions:

1. Do you like Nick or Amy?  Do you find yourself rooting for either one of them?

2. Why was Amy’s diary so effective both as a strategy for the author and as a manipulation used by the character?

3.  Amy described herself as “the cool girl” and her friend’s husbands as “dancing monkeys”.  How does this reflect back on Amy’s character and how she views the world.

4. Amy’s parents – there may not be enough time to discuss their overarching role, but give it a shot.  Why are they so important to the story?

5.  If you were to rewrite the ending, how would you do it?

Reasons for selection:

I first found this book on the Stop Your Killing Me Newsletter which I receive each month.  After reading it, I thought I had finally found the book that I would never pick up again.  I am admittedly a “sensitive” reader in that what I read definitely impacts my outlook.  I found this book depressing because the characters were so loathsome.

But then, it was chosen as a book discussion selection for this class.  I was encouraged to participate because I had such strong negative feelings about it.  So, I re-read the book and even though it still made me feel “icky”, I thoroughly enjoyed the conversation and took great pleasure in siting all the ways I detested Amy.  It proved to be a cleansing experience and now I will feel good about recommending it to those who enjoy the genre.

Eleven Days

Book Jacket   4W, 3H

Carpenter, Lee, (c. 2013). Eleven Days.  Alfred A. Knopf. 288 pages , $24.95.

ISBN:  9780307960702

Reviews:

The NY Times, Kirkus Review

Annotation:

Learning that her Navy Seal son has gone missing, Sara tries to obtain information through former contacts while reliving the choices they made leading up to this situation.

Summary:  

After losing her husband on an overseas mission, single-mother Sara is devastated when she hears that her only son has gone missing from his Navy Seals’ unit while involved in a covert mission.  The story takes place over the eleven days of waiting that Sara endures.  Her story and that of her son, Jason, unfolds in a sparse, clear text told through Sara’s memories and Jason’s letters home.  The letters show his rise into leadership and the decisions made allowing him to join such an elite military unit.  With great emotion and succinct prose, Carpenter successfully takes the reader through an intricate narrative that depicts yet another side-effect of war.

Evaluation:

Eleven Days is an intense debut novel that realistically shows the stress of having a son at war, not knowing what he is doing, where he is or if he is even still alive.  Told from both Sara’s and Jason’s perspectives, the story deals with far more than grief; it shows the development of a warrior, the ramifications of an absent parent and the overwhelming influence of a war-torn world.  In its sparse and intense prose, Carpenter pulls the reader further into the story by not only fully developing the key players but also having support characters that are rich and interesting and successfully play into the emotion.  This novel is not full of defiance or anti-war rhetoric but it does not need to be for the realism of the full impact of war to be clearly seen.

Genre/Subgenre:

Mainstream Fiction/Psychological

Readalikes:

The Last Samurai by Helen Dewitt.

The Antelope Wife by Louise Erdrich

Awards/Lists:

NPR Great Read of 2013

Book Discussion Questions:

1. A mother’s grief when her son goes to war is a common theme.  What makes this debut novel different?

2. “A myth is a fiction that matters.” (p. 241)  How do myth’s play into the story?

3. How are Sara and Jason affected by David’s absence?  Separately and together?

4. In the Kill House, Jason makes the decision to go back for the baby.  What are the literal and symbolic consequences of that decision?

Reasons for selection:

This is another selection from Nancy Pearl’s “Books That Make Great Gifts” list presented in December 2013.  I have yet to be disappointed with any selection.  Plus, I always like picking up a recommended debut novel in hopes that I will enjoy it and it will be the first of many.  I also chose it because I am a fan of stories about the elite military forces.  I am intrigued by the discipline needed to be part of one of these teams.  I was first introduced to the Navy Seals in Suzanne Brockman’s romance series about Team 16.  Eleven Days is not the same kind of read as Brockman but I was prepared for that and was captivated by the story.

Star Island

Book Jacket  4W, 3H

Hiaasen, Carl, (c. 2010). Star Island.  Alfred A. Knopf. 337 pages , $26.95.

ISBN: This key is a recommended rating system for books read in LIB 220 with Dr. Bodart.  The titles were changed to follow the theme of this blog.

Reviews:

L.A. Times, NY Times

Annotation:

Cherry Pye, the lip-synching, drug-addicted pop star, has a body double whose been kidnapped by a crazed paparazzo.  Can Cherry’s entourage save the double before anyone find outs she exists?

Summary:  

In Star Island, the main character, Ann DeLusia, is a double for a very messed up pop star, Cherry Pye.  Ann stands in for the pop star whenever Cherry is too wasted to show up in public or has to be whisked away to yet another detox center.  Add to this scenario an obsessed paparazzo, a crazed ex-governor with a soft spot for the mangrove swamps, unscrupulous music producers, a weed-whacking body guard and you have a vintage Hiaasen novel.

Ann, mistaken for Cherry, is kidnapped by the infatuated paparazzo, Bang Abbott.   She contacts Skink, the ex-governor, for help knowing that her welfare is not at the top the list for anyone riding the Cherry Pye money train,  namely Cherry’s parents, publicists and producer.  Filled with hi-jinks, capers, plots and thieving land-developers, Hiaasen doles out the justice as the characters race towards the final scene.

Evaluation:

When you pick up a Hiaasen you know that you are in for a wacky and wonderful ride.  In Star Island, he brings back two popular characters, Skink, the ex-governor of Florida (he was in office for about 5 minutes) and Chemo, the eight foot tall one-armed man who lost his arm to a barracuda.   To these intrepid individuals, he adds a list of characters that will keep you laughing and cringing throughout the escapades.  And although a straight up humorous tale, there is, unfortunately, more truth than fiction is his depiction of Cherry Pye’s stardom and the lengths to which people will go to make it shine.  This is another winner.

Genre/Subgenre:

Mystery/Humorous

Awards:

  • Booklist Editors’ Choice – Adult Fiction for Young Adults: 2010

Readalikes:

The Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Susan McBride.

Turnpike Flameout by Eric Dezenhall

Book Discussion Questions:

1. There are two recurring characters in this book, Skink and Chemo.  What do they represent to Hiaasen and what is their appeal?

2. Hiaasen’s characters dole out all kinds of punishment for various reasons.  Which character receives the worst of it and why did Hiaasen set it up this way?

3.  Is there anything likable about Cherry Pye?

4. Based on Anne’s choices in the epilogue, how do we know that she still has her head on straight?

Reasons for selection:

After reading a Hiaasen selection for another class, I was eager to pick one of his adult books for this class.  I was not disappointed.  I enjoy satirical, quirky, straightforward characters and Hiaasen’s take on pop-culture was wonderfully validating.  I would recommend a Carl Hiaasen, Christoper Moore and Elmore Leonard all in the same breath.

Snapper

  4W, 3H

Kimberling, Brian, (c. 2013). Snapper.  Pantheon Books. 210 pages , $24.95.

ISBN:  978-0-307-90805-6

Reviews
NPR, The Boston Globe

Annotation:

Nathan stumbles in and out of his memories as he studies the songbirds of southern Indiana telling the tale of his journey from adolescence to adulthood.

Summary:  

Nathan Lochmuller discovers that he has a gift for tracking songbirds and spends his post-graduate years in southern Indiana as a research assistant doing just that.  The pay is poor but he loves the “office”.  Told in a series of short stories, Nathan exposes his unrequited love for the evasive, yet alluring Lola and shares experiences from his youth that have helped to shape him into the man he is learning to become.  A lyrical and absorbing tale, the past and present fit neatly together as Nathan introduces the characters that have become his world.

Evaluation:

This is the story of a young man’s coming of age, told from the perspective of an older man reminiscing about his days as a birdwatcher in the woods of southern Indiana.  The summary does not do justice to the pull of this novel that takes you from the misadventures of bored teenagers to the random letter writing at the truck stop outside the town of Santa Claus.  Kimberling’s debut novel is beautifully written with engaging characters.   This is one that definitely lingers after reading it knowing that it’s not about getting what you want but about wanting what you get.

Genre/Subgenre:

Mainstream Fiction

Awards:

Booklist Editor’s Choice – Best Fiction Books-2013

Readalikes:

An Invisible Sign of My Own by Aimee Bender.

Lightning by Jean Echenoz

Book Discussion Questions:

1.  Animals play an important part in this story, especially birds.  How do you think the animals help define the different characters and situations?  How does Kimberling use them to make the characters more three dimensional?

2.  “I got my job by accident” is the opening line for the novel.  How does this set the tone for the entire book and help initially define the main character, Nathan?

3.  Nathan’s relationships come and go over time.  How would you characterize them?  How do his relationships evolve as the story unfolds?

4.  Would you consider Snapper a series of short stories or a novel?  How do you define a story?  Can you write , as Ernest Hemingway did, a story in just six words?

5.  Why did he call the novel, “Snapper”?

Reasons for selection:

This book is part of Nancy Pearl’s 2013 “Books that make great gifts” list.  Admittedly I was far more intrigued by the cover than I was by the summary and picked it up from the shelf because I had recognized it.  Like many on this list, I’m glad I did.  I enjoyed Kimberling’s take on life in Indiana and his lyrical writing depicting the beauty of the country.

Amy Falls Down

Book Jacket  3W, 3H

Willett, Jincy, (c. 2013).  Amy Falls Down. Thomas Dunne Books. 324 pages , $24.99.

ISBN:  9781250028273

Reviews:

The NY Times, Publisher’s Weekly

Annotation:

Amy Gallup is satisfied with her life far away from the best-seller list.  But after a hitting her head on a birdbath, she’s got a lot to say.

Summary:  

Amy Gallup has not written anything in 30 years.  She teaches online writing workshops to make ends meet and keeps company with her basset hound, Alphonse.  She scorns the publishing industry and what it has turned into but does so quietly since she enjoys being a bit of a recluse.  After all, things are easier that way.

But then she trips and bangs her head on the side of the birdbath and seems to forget exactly how it happened.  No problem.  She’s up and everything is fine; until she forgets to cancel the interview that afternoon with a reporter from the San Diego Tribune.  But she’s feeling good and quite confident until she forgets why the reporter is even coming and only realizes that she’s waving goodbye to the reporter without any recollection of what transpired between them.  As the interview goes viral with reviewers calling her a “genius”, Amy’s career is taking off again and she reluctantly tries to keep up with it.   Full of satire and wit, Amy learns to deal with her own demons.  But that becomes more difficult as the numbness wears off and she is confronted with the fact that she has become a celebrity.

Evaluation:

I was looking forward to a light read and figured that this was going to be a funny book about an aging writer.  I was happily surprised to find that it had much more depth than I originally anticipated.  Amy Gallup is a character that has all the sarcasm needed to keep most people at bay while still drawing them in with her insights and doggedness.  I immediately took to the character because she is not only self-aware but simultaneously suspicious and intrigued by her increasing celebrity status.

Willett has developed a just-short of cynical character (is it a depiction of herself) who is fed up with the publishing industry while wanting to be a part of it again.  The bump on the head and subsequent interview are just the type of strange occurrence that can propel any career in this strange connected world.

Excerpt from the author’s webpage (I’m not sure that website would be the appropriate term):

“Jincy Willett

…has a life, as, I’m sure, do you. And yet here you are.”

Genre/Sub genre:

Mainstream Fiction/Humorous

Readalikes:

The Last Original Wife  by Dorothea Benton Frank.

The Undomestic Goddess by Sophie Kinsella

Book Discussion Questions:

1. In a radio interview, Amy Gallup comments that, “There may still be more readers than writers, but surely we’re approaching some kind of catastrophic tipping point.”  How does this exemplify Amy’s feeling about the world of publishing today compared to the past?

2. What seems to be stopping Amy from moving on with her life?

3. After reading this conversation with Jincy and  editor Thomas Dunne, how could this story be seen as autobiographical?

4. How does the role of “accident” play in all of our lives?

Reasons for selection:

This is another selection from Nancy Pearl’s “Books That Make Great Gifts” list presented in December 2013.  I liked that I could read it without having to read the prequel published in 2008 and I was drawn to the unique layout of the book cover.  I can’t help it; I do judge a book by it’s cover…initially.  In my quest to try new authors, Willett seemed to be a great fit.  She successfully combines writing, sarcasm and Southern California.  I was not disappointed.  And after viewing her webpage, I am an immediate fan!

The Art of Racing in the Rain

4W, 4H

Stein, Garth, (c. 2008). The Art of Racing in the Rain.  Harper Audio. 6 CD’s (7 hours) , $34.95.  Read by Christopher Evan Welch.

ISBN:  978-0-06-156540-3

Reviews
Powell’s Books, Book Reporter

Annotation:

Narrated by the family dog, Enzo looks back on his life with Denny, the aspiring race car driver and the lengths to which Enzo goes to protect their family.

Summary:  

Enzo has the soul of a human but is stuck with the paws of a dog.  He would much rather have the ever-so-useful opposable thumbs so that he could be more helpful to his family.  On the eve of his death, Enzo reflects back on the life that he has led with Denny; from the day Denny chose him from the large litter and brought him back to the apartment in Seattle to the the past few days leading up to this moment.  It has been an exciting life with Denny’s race car driving career, his beautiful wife and their wonderful child.  But when tragedy hits, Enzo knows that it is up to him to keep the family together and ultimately protect Denny from those that want to do him wrong.

Evaluation:

Stein skillfully brings to life each character with insights that only a dog could have.  It is a beautifully written story about family, devotion and the willpower needed to do the right thing.  And although the subject can be difficult and frustrating, Welch’s voice is perfect for personifying Enzo who is restricted by doing more because of his inability to speak and grab things.  Humorous, insightful, tragic and restorative, this book is a wonderful read/listen showing  the magical relationship between a man and his dog while life races along as ever-increasing speeds.

Genre/Subgenre:

Mainstream Fiction

Awards:

Booklist Editor’s Choice – Adult Fiction for Young Adults – 2008

Readalikes:

 Merle’s Door by Ted Kerasote

A Dog’s Purpose by W. Bruce Cameron

Book Discussion Questions:

What is “the art of racing in the rain”?

Using a dog as the narrator puts a unique spin on the story?  What would have been some of the major changes if the narrator had been a human?  And which human would have had the most unique perspective?

“No race has ever been won on the first corner; many races have been lost there.”  How does this observation carry through the story?

Did you learn more about race car driving from this book?  Do you agree with the parallels set forth between racing and living?

Do you look at your dog (or other dogs) differently after reading the book?

What exactly does the Zebra represent?

Reasons for selection:

At Sacramento Public Library, most librarians have “What I’m reading now” as part of their email signature.  This book came up on a message from one of the Branch Supervisors and as a dog lover, I was immediately intrigued.  She explained that they had just read it for their monthly Book Club and all members unanimously loved it.  With that, I picked it up.