Monday, March 29, 2010

Review: I Thought You Were Dead by Pete Nelson

Odd title, yes? But I Thought You Were Dead by Pete Nelson isn't a horror story. It refers to what Stella the dog thinks whenever her owner leaves for the day. Until Paul returns, she thinks he's dead.

She does more than think this, though. Stella talks. Yes, a talking dog. You'd think this would make for a stupid book, but somehow, it works.

Paul is a writer for the Morons books - a fictional version of "for Dummies" or "Complete Idiot's" guide series. He's painted himself into a corner: he doesn't make much money, doesn't seem thrilled with his job. He's divorced, and his favorite bar is a dive where the locals hang out to get drunk together. He's dating a woman who splits her time between him and another boyfriend. Then his dad has a stroke. He's a sad sack, and his one constant respite is Stella the talking dog.

It's not like Stella talks to other people. She only talks to Paul. This isn't such a huge stretch. I talk to my dog, Emily, all the time. She doesn't talk back, of course, but I sometimes ask her questions that are too big to keep lodged in my head, and, yes, I wonder what she would say if she could talk. No person is in my presence as much as my dog. I'm sure she'd have some observations if she had Stella-like abilities.
I Thought You Were Dead is a sweet, sad story. I read most of it yesterday while recovering from a race. Since I had to work in the area the next day (today), I stayed at a hotel and my mom watched the dog. But I found myself reaching out to pet Emily while reading the book. I wonder what she'd say about that.

I'm feeling a bit like a sad sack myself, so this book came along at the right time. I'm reading a lot more fiction lately, too. Maybe it's because I'm on bad news overload and worry about the economy, the environment, whether or not I can keep things going in this writing career. I've had the same must-read non-fiction book on my to-read list for a month, but I can't bring myself to it. Fiction as a respite? Maybe. I'll ask Emily what she thinks.

P.S. A note about the marketing: The press release tucked inside the book made a big deal about how much indie booksellers loved the book. It's why I tucked it into my suitcase this weekend. Whoever came it with that strategy - IT WORKED.

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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Review: The Island by Elin Hilderbrand

Summer's coming - must be time for a new Elin Hilderbrand novel.

Full disclosure: a few years back, I wrote an article about Hilderbrand. She's lovely, writes the first drafts of her novels in long hand, loves Bruce Springsteen and Philadelphia. Part of that interview is blurbed on one of her book jackets. Small thrill since I like and her books so much.

But I didn't jump to read The Island: A Novel when I got a preview copy in the mail (or three - yes, they sent me three). Why? I'm a little tired of reading about Nantucket, which is where Hilderbrand bases her novels. I had a "can you hear my eyes rolling from all the way over here" moment. It sounds like a great place, but really? Another one?

Turns out I was wrong. Sort of. The book doesn't take place on Nantucket proper but on Tuckernut, a small island off the coast of Nantucket that is all privately owned. No shops or restaurants. No electricity, either, other than what you can get from your generator. No hot water, no phone, no cell phone reception. If you want supplies, you have to hire someone from the island to come to your house via boat.

The Island is about four women who go to the family's ancestral house on Tuckernut for the summer. They're two sets of sisters: India and Birdie, then Birdie's two daughters, Chess and Tate. Each woman has suffered a romantic loss, except for Tate. She comes to Tuckernut looking not only help her sister recover from a tragedy but maybe to finally catch the attention of Barrett, whose father was the guy who brought them supplies on the boat when Tate was a teenager.

The book's great - my second favorite written by Hilderbrand. Her best, I think, is still The Love Season. If you've never read it, please do. It's fantastic.

One reader said she's excited to read reviews of all these summer books but that I'm KILLING her by talking about great books that aren't out yet. Sorry, Sarah. Summer will be here soon enough - this one comes out in July 6.

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Sunday, March 14, 2010

Review: Simply from Scratch by Alicia Bessette

I don't even know where to start on this one. I have been stunned by Alicia Bessette's debut novel, Simply from Scratch, for a few reasons, and that's as good a place to start as any:

1. I know Alicia. I wrote about her husband, Matthew Quick, when HIS debut novel came out. They live in my town, both ran in the Collingswood Library Book Run that I also did, and I sometimes see Alicia out walking the couple's grayhound. She says she's seen me running around town, too. We had a lengthy discussion about my bright red arm sleeves, which are like long sleeves for running but without being attached to a shirt.

Where she ever found the ability to write about a recently widowed woman, I do not know. I've never been widowed or lost someone close to me who was not a grandparent, but she manages to write from such a deep well of grief for the main character, Rose-Ellen, whose husband is killed suddenly (I won't say how because that would ruin some of the plot techniques Bassette uses of sharing parcels of Nick's death along the way without saying exactly what happened until the end). The book picks up over a year after Rose-Ellen was widowed and is still in the depths of depression. I can't even tell you how many times I cried during this book, and still I have this feeling of a big black hole in my heart, a "what if" something like what happened to Rose-Ellen happened to me.

2. I didn't like the book when I started reading it. I got a copy of the book because I'm writing a piece about beach books written by New Jersey authors, so of course I wanted to consider Bassette's. I had no idea what it was about when I asked.

The first few chapters of the book is clunky, littered with adverbs and overwrought descriptions. But I stuck with the book, and it soon evened out. I read it while doing laundry. I read it before dinner. I put on a DVD after dinner but turned it off and stayed on my couch until I finished the book. Yes, it is THAT GOOD.

My only regret in telling you this is that the book doesn't come out until August. Her publicist rushed me an unfinished proof to read because of my deadline.

It could be that the intro that was a stumbling block to me will be smoother if you decided to give Simply From Scratch a go. And I suggest you do.

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Saturday, March 13, 2010

Book Notes: The Animal Review

This is a stupid book. But I mean that in the best way. It's stupid like Wren & Stimpy are stupid. It's stupid like Beevis & Butthead are stupid. But the authors, Jacob Lentz and Steve Nash, are real people.

In The Animal Review, they look at animals and grade them. A king cobra, for example, gets an A+. An alpaca, which I admit is a funny creature that I love in part because it looks odd, gets an F.

They use some science, and exaggerate a lot. I read a few entries and it made me laugh. I won't read it straight through. Instead, it'll go into my second "office." And you know what I mean.

You can read more on their book blog. One note: the cover you see here, which I pulled from bn.com, gives the alpaca a D- while the book I have on my desk gives it an F. Maybe the alpacas protested?

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Thursday, March 11, 2010

Review: Mr. Rosenblum Dreams in English

Oh my, what a beautiful book. Lovely would work too. It sounds more English.

Mr. Rosenblum Dreams in English: A Novelby Natasha Solomons is a novel about Jack and Sadie Rosenblum, two Jewish Germans who immigrated to England before World War II. Because they left, they were both spared - but Sadie's family was not. Her sadness is a character in the book, it is that strong, and she fights to remember that family and her way of life before she was forced to leave.

Jack, though, doesn't try to remember. When the couple immigrated to England, he was given a pamphlet on how to be English. Not only does he follow every suggestion to the letter, but he adds onto the list as he sets up a business and becomes successful. One thing that he can't cross off the list? Being a member of a golf club. He's rejected from every one because he's Jewish.

What's Jack to do? Build his own course, of course. The book starts in London, but centers on Jack and Sadie moving to Dorset as he chases his golf course dreams - even though he's never played a round - and Sadie spars with her sadness and alienation.

It's a slow book and meant to be savored, which is why I took so long to finish. The descriptions of the country - oh, they left me yearning for spring and flung me back to my first bus ride through England from Heathrow Airport to Oxford, where I studied for a semester. The countryside stunned me out of my jet lag it was so beautiful. This book captures that perfectly, and I have to admit that I was a little stunned the author's only 29 years old. It seems like a book written by someone older and made wise by age (though the jacket copy says that the book is based on her grandparents).

The book comes out on June 21. Put it on your list. It's wonderful.

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