October 2008


Author : Joe Hill

Copyright : 2007

“Jude had a private collection.”

So begins Joe Hill’s first novel of an aging but successful rock star, Judas Coyne, who possesses a black hobby of collecting the bizarre, the eerie, or the perverse.  Naturally, when an obscure internet auction offers a ghost for sale,  Coyne snaps him up for a thousand dollars.  Little does he know that he would be paying more __much, much more.

The original idea of a poltergeist for sale piqued my interest in this book.  The author set a good pace; his modern  writing style made this an easy read.  He wrote with scenes that abruptly changes moods in mid-stride so you’re jolted from time to time — a pretty good technique in a horror novel.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t really feel the fear of the protagonist; so, I couldn’t feel the terror as well.  That is the failure of this book, I think.  I could just perceive anger and fierce determination in the character but not the all important feeling of terror which should be THE element in a horror novel.

I didn’t have the spine-tingling chills. I didn’t close the book in mid-paragraph because I couldn’t bear to be more scared.  And I didn’t cringe nor take to nail-biting.  For a book that wants to scare,  there were just pinpricks of chilling scenes that gave me little goosebumps, but no more…scenes like Judas Coyne finding the ghost next to him in the front seat, with yellow teeth and mad black scribbles for eyes.  Aside from these very few, nothing much gave me the thrill I was looking for from a horror novel.

But because of a well paced plot and smooth writing style, I still enjoyed the book.  I cannot say, though, that Joe Hill wrote a good horror novel.  A Heart-Shaped Box just lacked that bite of fear for it to be so.  Rather, I shall say that Hill penned a good dark fantasy instead.

My Mark : Good

Author : Deborah Rodriguez

Release Date : Dec. 17, 2007

This novel is a true-to-life adventure of a certified hairdresser from Michigan, Deborah Rodriguez who “in 2002,  helped form the Kabul Beauty School, the first modern beauty school and training salon in Afghanistan” (About the Author page __The Kabul Beauty School).  In a country that has mixed feelings on the moralities of beauty salons (unbelievable but true), Deborah’s achievement is all about overcoming cultural barriers and giving hope.

With a germ of an idea and a “can-do” attitude, she raises sponsorships from U.S. cosmetic companies, sometimes personally funding her classes, and practically doing everything she could think of to get the school up and running___even marrying an Afghan so she could stay protected in a country so hostile to women.

Deborah is one person I would like to meet.  Through her book, she strikes me as a bohemian character, energetic, gutsy, quirky, self confident, uninhibited and above all, a woman with a big heart.  I think I will like her if only for the fact that like me, she enjoys a good book with a margarita or two. 

The Kabul Beauty School is an easy, enjoyable read with a down-to-earth writing style and lots of humor to balance genuine, heart-breaking accounts of the women the author has gotten to know.  Surprisingly, there isn’t a whiff of condescension; just sadness at the fact that women in Afghanistan are going through unbelievable oppression.  But the author’s natural optimism still sees hope through the indomitable spirit of Afghan women.  Amidst the pain of cultural subjugation , these women could still find something to laugh about and to hope for , enough to fight for their own personal betterment. In the author’s unique way, she saw their salvation in perms, hair color, and make-up!

I started reading this book in a cafe where I spent two hours sipping my glasses of soda and giggling my way through the pages.  One of the many hilarious paragraphs that gave me the giggles:

“Then I pointed my scissors at Daud.  He had a haircut that was pretty typical of the Afghan men I had seen so far–a sort of pompadour trimmed short in the back with a wad of hair puffed up on top.  It was like the hairdo Elvis had sported in his most hideous days, when he was wearing those tight leather pants and awful capes made by the Ice Capades people.  I hated it. …..”

“…We begin with the parts of Roshanna that no one will see tonight except her husband.  Traditional Afghans consider body hair to be both ugly and unclean, so she must be stripped of all of it except for the long, silky brown hair on her head and her eyebrows.  There can be no hair left on her arms, underarms, face or privates…We lead Roshanna down the corridor to the waxing room–the only one in Afghanistan, I might add…Many brides are either too modest or too fearful to have their pubic hair removed by others, so they do it at home–they either pull it out by hand or rip it out with chewing gum.  Either way, the process is brutally painful.  Besides, it’s hard to achieve the full Brazilian–every pubic hair plucked, front and back–when you do it on your own, even if you’re one of the few women in this country to own a large mirror, as Roshanna does.”

You will find this book, funny, sad, outrageous, and candid all at the same time.  It may pique your curiosity to learn more about Afghan culture after this book.  It most certainly did for me.  I thoroughly enjoyed every minute reading it.

I pray Deborah will be able to return to Kabul in the years to come, without fear of reprisals for her book or for simply empowering some women to learn a trade.   Her commitment to open opportunities to Afghan women for making a decent living should be an inspiration to all those who wish to make a difference in this world.

My Mark : Excellent

Author : Teresa Medeiros

Release Date : Sept. 26, 2006

After quite a bit of serious novels, I figured I needed a quick, easy read.  I found this book on my shelf and happily, delved into it.

The cheesy title should have forewarned me; but, hey, I wanted a no-brainer.  Well, this was exactly what I got plus a whole lot of wasted time.

What can I say?  The whole book just screamed TACKY!

I laugh at myself because I’m embarassed to admit I read the whole insipid thing!   I’m just not one to leave a book unfinished.  I always hope it’s got a saving grace somewhere.  In this case, I just couldn’t find it.

At times, I found myself cringing at some tacky writing spattered across portions of the book :

“Portia trembled beneath his touch. In that moment she was his kitten, purring and writhing beneath the masterful stroke of his hand…”

“The nimble flick of his tongue transported her to some dark and dangerous Eden where the two of them could feast on forbidden fruit without being banished from the garden.  He was both serpent and angel, temptation and salvation, and she knew he wouldn’t be satisfied until she’d surrendered herself to him, body and soul. “

< SHIVER >

There may be others, though, who find this cloyingly descriptive style, alluring.  Perhaps, lots, given the large amount of positive reviews for this book. Teresa Medeiros seems to be a well-loved author.   But I honestly cannot see how this novel could be worth anyone’s while.

That being said, I won’t start delving into the merits of plot and characters.  It’s enough to know that they were jejune and boring.

This, being my first book by Teresa Medeiros, and the fact that she seems to have a huge fan base, merit a second look.  I think I shall attempt one or two more books by her before I can truly say, she’s just not my type.  Suggestions, anyone? I may just have picked up a lemon.

My Mark : UGH!

Author : Alice Sebold

Release Date : Sept. 20, 2004

When we see a news story of a murder on T.V., we see the grief stricken family, the outraged community, the promises of a good investigation, etc. What we don’t see is how the family does, day in and day out through the years, after the funeral, the condolences, and way after the media’s spotlight has dimmed. We don’t see how the family struggles to survive emotionally. We forget the incident after a time, but to each member, the tragedy goes on and on until they can come to terms with it, as individuals and as a family unit.

Alice Sebold writes an unusual book around this truth, the story being told by a fourteen year old girl in heaven, after being raped and murdered by a serial killer. From her place in heaven, she follows the lives of her family which collapses on itself through the years, while trying to come to terms with her sudden death. She watches how her dad, mom, sister and brother cope, in their individual way, with their grief, their tragic loss, and the injustice of it all. She also narrates how her death affects her friends and the neighborhood community as a whole.

This book is not about a crime story. The Lovely Bones is a book that deals with human nature. The grief, the anger and the efforts to fight these in different ways are so palpable and touching, and true perhaps for some families who have experienced a tragedy like this one.

Yet the novel is not a complete lament as one sees how the family knits itself back together, perhaps emerging different, as a unit that has grown stronger and healed through forgiveness and acceptance. So Sebold gives this message of hope.

I have to say that despite the theme of death and grief, the book’s atmosphere isn’t so gloomy or bleak. The story is told with a light hand and an elegance that shows how talented the author is. I’m impressed by how she manages to make this novel not end up like a chunk of sadness and hurt.

I thank Alice Sebold for successfully directing our attention and thereby our sensitivities to people who have had to face sudden tragedy. The Lovely Bones certainly deserves its bestseller status.

My Mark : Outstanding

Author : Lee Child

Release Date : April 26, 2005

According to a guy I met at the bookstore, I’d be doing myself a favor by picking up this book.  Well, why not, I said to myself, it’s on sale and it’s got all these glowing reviews by Newsweek, New York Times, USA Today, Chicago Sun-Times,…

I was sadly disappointed.  The book did not live up to the hype.  Maybe I was just too ill (had a fever at the time I was reading it) to appreciate it or I was expecting too much from it.

I liked the beginning pages, though.  It was the middle part—where the hero, Reacher and his lieutenant, Summer, investigates the crimes — that left me flat and bored.

I had to read on though, because the good part might just be toward the end.  I was, in part, right. The end was a surprise as the hero, Reacher, does something I never expected a hero to do.  So, that was OK.

But overall, the characters were all too remote —so stingy with emotions.  It’s as if they actually reveled in their stoicism.  Maybe the author has this “macho thing”.   For instance, Reacher and Summer have sexual relations in the story but as the case closes, Reacher never sees nor hears from her again? Huh? What ever happened to cellphones and e-mails?  It’s not as if the story was set in the 50’s.

Oh well, the book was not a total waste of time.  The author peppers it with interesting bits of trivia on weapons, tanks, etc.   These made up for the book’s rather dull characters.

Entertainment Weekly commented, “[Child] emerges as a worthy successor to Tom Clancy. ”  I’ve read Tom Clancy and enjoyed him immensely.  I don’t think Lee Child’s style comes very close to Tom Clancy’s power to thrill.  But then, this is the first novel I’ve read by this author.  So perhaps his other lauded work, The Persuader, might just get me to change my mind.

My Mark : Mediocre

Author : Audrey Niffenegger

The Time Traveler’s Wife is an extraordinary romantic fantasy written from two viewpoints: Henry who is a forced time traveler and his wife Clare, a normal person who has to adjust her life around Henry’s strange one.

Henry is diagnosed with a rare gene disorder that yanks him uncontrollably backward or forward into various times in his life.  At one point, he meets his eight-year old self and has a conversation with him over a mug of Ovaltine.  He meets Clare when she is six, and he, thirty six.

My hat off to Audrey Niffeneger for fearlessly setting up this complicated time traveling stage to tell a poignant but highly original love story.  It is quite difficult to build a cohesive and seamless narrative that needs to take place in different times of each character’s life.  But Ms. Niffeneger does the job brilliantly, with good sequencing and references to date, time, and ages  so that the reader is not forced to wallow through what would otherwise have been a confusing mess in less skillful hands.

The Time Traveler’s Wife is not for everyone, though.  One either loves it or hates it.  Those who dislike it can find it annoyingly unrealistic, ridiculous, and maybe even boring.   I happen to fall under the I LOVE IT category.

Despite the book’s surrealism, this is by far one of the most romantic books I’ve ever read.  Observer’s review says, ” At its core, The Time Traveler’s Wife is an old fashioned love story….”  Indeed it is.  Central to the entire book is Henry and Clare’s enduring love.  This, and the unusual way the author chose to tell a love story is what, for me,  makes this book a keeper.

My favorite part : Henry’s letter to Clare.  An excerpt:

“….Clare, I want to tell you, again, I love you.  Our love has been the thread through the labyrinth, the net under the high-wire walker, the only real thing in this strange life of mine that I could never trust.  Tonight I feel that my love for you has more density in this world than I do, myself : as though it could linger on after me and surround you, keep you, hold you….”

It’s a wonderful letter.  There’s more in it, of course, but I wouldn’t want to give it all away.

If you’re in the mood for reading something different, pick up this book.  I can’t guarantee you’ll like it, but you’ll certainly not be getting a run-of-the-mill kind of story.

My Mark : Excellent

Author : Alice Hoffman

An 8-year old girl, in a fit of bratty fury, wishes never to see her mother again.  As ugly coincidence would have it, her mother dies in a car accident that very night, and changes this little girl forever.

The entire book speaks of the girl in the first person; so, no name is referenced to her.  For that, I shall assume her name to be also that of the author’s : Alice.

After the tragedy, Alice, being the self-centered person that she is, begins an emotionally self-destructive life based on guilt over what she wished.   She retreats inward, builds a wall against herself, and becomes the Ice Queen — emotionally frigid,  out of touch with her feelings —  quite a depressing character actually.

Indeed the book is dark and gives me a sense of constantly being right smack in a gloomy winter.   But the book is beautiful and the writing, superb. Despite the sense of being enveloped in a cloudy gray, I needed to read and read ’til the end.  I needed to know how Alice gets her redemption and if she ever does get it.

Back to the story…. Alice is struck by lightning and loses her ability to see the color red.  This inability starts to give her a peek of how much she has lost out on life by taking a lot of things for granted.

Like a clam in its shell, she slowly opens herself to relationships with other people.  She accepts her brother’s attempts to reach out to her, makes a new friend, hooks up with a fellow lightning survivor , Lazarus Jones, whose touch can scorch and whose breath can burn (literally).  (Alice Hoffman has a tendency toward the surreal or the fantastical.  But this is what makes her stories so interesting. )

She slowly thaws her own emotional prison and is redeemed by the final realization that life is precious, life is worth living, and people give meaning to life.  Her guilt is overcome with the new sense of knowledge that her mother’s death was never her fault.

In the end, the book’s central message is summed up when Alice says, ” This is what I know, the one and only thing.  The best way to die is while you’re living…”

Alice Hoffman has written a gem of a book.  If you’ve never read her work, this would be a good first start.

My Mark : Excellent

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