Sunday, May 31, 2009

The China Garden by Liz Berry

Wow. What a month. I think I'm through being a vagrant for at least the next few minutes. My car is littered with old MapQuest directions, my odometer is cruising toward the 200,000 mile mark with unprecedented speed, and I am a happy camper. A happy camper with a growing pile of books to review, but a happy camper nonetheless. I knew this month was going to be crazy, and it has been. Perhaps even crazier than I had anticipated. The end of the month has been littered with a slew of weddings and holiday barbecues and other such social occasions that have had me driving all over the state. Ever crazier is that June, which was supposed to be a slower month has already filled up, too. I might not have to be away from home as much, but that doesn't mean that I haven't booked up every free minute. Anywho, I'm having good times, have extremely few regrets (except for maybe going slightly overboard on wedding gift purchasing...perhaps buying *both* exorbitantly priced throw pillows was a bit over the top), so I'm going to try to avoid making apologies for my persistent absence from here lately. Next month, people are moving (and I'll help!), used books are being sold from a variety of libraries (and I'll buy!), fathers are having their day (must find pretty fishing lure!), and I'm trying to cobble together a getaway to Baltimore's Inner Harbor (but will those vacation days be approved?), so next month isn't looking all too promising for my increased presence here.

But, in good news, I have been reading books at about the same slow rate as I always do, even despite my packed schedule, which means, of course, when I do manage to drop by here, I will have books to tell you about.

So on today's episode of "Books I Read a Long Time Ago" I'll be featuring Liz Berry's The China Garden.

Clare has just finished with her exams and is finally preparing to go to college when her mother drops the bombshell that she's planning to leave her London nursing job to be a private nurse for the Earl of Ravensmere, an English country estate veiled in even more layers of mystery than Clare could hope to imagine. Though she could spend the summer in London with friends, Clare feels an irresistable pull to accompany her mother to Ravensmere, where, it turns out, things are more than a little strange. For one thing, everyone in the neighboring village seems to know her and all seem unusually happy to have her "back" at Ravensmere. Then the hallucinations of the would-be future start, and did I mention that irresistably handsome guy in motorcycle leathers that keeps turning up when Clare least expects him?

It doesn't take long for Clare to realize that she is already more wrapped up in Ravensemere's story than she can imagine and so, it happens, is that guy, Mark. As the summer unfolds, Clare learns that her mother has some deep, dark secrets in her past, and that the mystical powers of Ravensmere may well have claim on her own future.

And that's all I'll say in the way of plot summary, lest I give away one of The China Garden's many mysteries.

I found The China Garden to be an enjoyable, if not particularly memorable, read. Berry easily paces her novel with just the right amount of suspense to keep readers hungry for the answer to the next question. She also captures the darkly mysterious nature of what, on the surface, seems to be a beautiful but otherwise unremarkable estate. The back story and the current story are skillfully woven together, but older readers will probably catch on to much of the mystery before it's been revealed, which, I suppose is half the fun anyway. The only complaint I have has to do with the relationship between Clare and Mark, which, to me, always seemed a bit hollow and shallow for all the forces pushing them together and their own mutual attraction. Their relationship is an important premise for the story, and that it never seemed to go much deeper than lust had a bit of a negative effect on the story. But, then, this book's intended audience might not read into it is much as I'm doing which would make this all a moot point. All in all, a good read and one I would recommend to somebody looking for a good pageturner for the summer months.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

This Was Supposed To Be a Book Review...

...and maybe it will be once I get to the end of the post. Wait for it...wait for it...

You know, I'm beginning to find my blog ironic. You see, I feel like I'm posting less and less. I review fewer and fewer books and yet more people are following me and subscribing to my feed on Google Reader than ever before - not vastly more, but more nonetheless. I'm pretty sure this is not how it's supposed to work, unless, you people, like me, enjoy the merits of an infrequently updated blog. Some days, I tell you, I do. For one, then my Google Reader doesn't explode with like 50 zillion posts I don't have time to it kind of is exploding now. But then the book blogosphere would be a mighty boring, lame place if everybody blogged like me. What I mean to say is, of course, hello new people and old people, it's a pleasure to have you here reading and commenting and generally being awesome despite my distinct lack of awesomeness.

Today I am contemplating the difficulty, yet again, of reviewing a book that I feel kind of ambivalent about. I pretty much need to review every book I read here because I read like a turtle (and turtles can't even read!) and therefore don't get many books read and therefore don't have many to review. Ah, but it's so hard to be really enthusiastic about reviewing those books that don't naturally create a great feeling of enthusiasm, which is not to say that they're bad, just that they're not super awesometastic enough to jolt me from my general book reviewing laziness.

Also, it's helpful when reviewing books to, um, actually have understood them. This brings me to an informal discussion (but if you're running a challenge that I'm taking part in, we're calling it a book review!) of a book that I barely remember! (This is the part where I attempt to create enthusiasm on both your and my parts with the use of exclamation points!!! Is it working?!?!?)

Anyhow, The Glister by John Burnside. I read it in March, somewhat hungrily devouring its mildly overblown prose thinking that once I reached the end I would understand what it was all about. Like pretty much everyone else whose reviews I have read, I didn't really get it. I thought for a time that maybe I was getting it, but I was fooling myself. I then came upon a sort of problem because I find it hard to frame a review for a book that I didn't understand. Upon reaching the end and trying to formulate some sort of review in my mind, I realized that without at least a basic understanding of what exactly the book was getting at, I don't really have a way to organize or give any sort of theme to my review (imagine that!). Then I realized how important it is to me to have my reviews be cohesive and revolve around some sort of main point, and I don't even know if people or if I even realize I do that. So, this book that would count for two challenges has languished (and languished and languished) on the to be reviewed pile because I'm just...stumped. Ah, but wait, I think I may have something after all...

The Glister is more the story of a town than it is of any one person. Innertown has been decimated by its chemical plant. With the demise of the once successful chemical plant, the town seems to deteriorate and fall in on itself. The plant leaves behind a town populated with ineffectual adults unable to recover from chemical induced ailments or trapped with the grief of losing loved ones and a generation of disaffected children who haunt the abandoned and disintegrating chemical plant property in search of meaning or maybe just a way out of their dismal futures. While the adults seem to be caught up in their own lowgrade misfortune, young boys are disappearing. Instead of seeing this for the problem that it is, all choose to believe that the young teenage boys have simply found a way to escape their fates in Innertown.

I can't tell you much more, except that there's quite a bit of violence, a few teenagers that are actually even h-rnier than you would expect of teenagers, and a good deal of bad language. And this wouldn't have bothered me if it had all added up to something in the end. Instead the book just seems to trail off in yet one more mystery that doesn't seem to make any sense. As it so happens, so much of this book would be promising if only it had all come to something.

If there is indeed a main character for this book, it is Leonard, a teenage boy whose father is dying and whose mother has walked out on them. Leonard's narration crackles and pops with teenage cynicism and wit. He's a good character with a unique and consistent voice. And the atmosphere. The atmosphere in the book is stunning. Burnside manages to create an impression in the reader that Innertown is a place where the sun never shines, where the town's misfortunes cover it like blanket. Even though there are scenes where the sun is actually shining, one can't shake the feeling that this is a place where it is perpetually overcast, and no light shines in. All these things kept me reading in hopes of a fascinating resolution despite my intense dislike of Leonard's freakishly h-rny girlfriend and the various and sundry gratuitous things you would find in an R-rated movie. As you may have guessed, I was ultimately disappointed. The end just doesn't quite come together satisfactorily. It's a little like being led into a maze by someone who knows where they're going and being left halfway through to find your own way out. While I can handle an ambiguous ending, The Glister ultimately leaves too many questions unanswered without so much as a clue to lead its readers to any real resolution.

Hey, wait - I think it is a book review after all! Yay! That was hard. I have to wander off and look at shiny things now. K, bye.

Okay, wait. I've got an ARC of this book that I'd love to unload on the unsuspecting public in hopes that, perhaps, said member of the unsuspecting public could read it and explain it to me. Well, you don't really have to do that if you don't want to, but I'm still giving away the copy. So if you want to have a try at it (now that I've gone to all this trouble convincing you to read it....hardee har har), leave me a comment with your e-mail address. International is okay. I'll draw the name next Saturday, May 16th, so uh, enter before then.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption by Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton

I've been excited to talk about this book since I finished it, so excited in fact, that I've actually been talking to people about it instead of writing a review. So, I'm going to cut the yammering and try and get straight to the book review today, especially since we've seen so few of such things here lately!

In July 1984, Jennifer Thompson was raped at knifepoint by a black man in her own apartment. With courage and words, she survived and was able to use her memories of the night to bring her rapist to trial. In January 1985, her supposed rapist, Ronald Cotton, was sentenced to life in prison plus fifty years. Eleven long years later he was set free based on DNA evidence that proved that he was innocent of the crime. Now Ronald and Jennifer are what no one would expect - friends.

Picking Cotton is first a brilliant indictment of the flaws in our justice system, flaws based on the inability of humans to ever be completely impartial, completely unprejudiced, and completely able to rely on their memories to perform dependably. It shows that despite our best efforts and intentions, the justice system can and does fail, and when it does, innocent people can surprisingly easily be put in prison for crimes they haven't committed. At the same time, though, Picking Cotton is about a victim, a victim each and every one us can sympathize with. A victim who just desperately wants to see her rapist go to jail so that she can stop existing in a constant terror and start living her life again. A victim who will do anything she can to make that happen, even if it means relying on a faulty memory.

Above all, however, Picking Cotton is a transcendent story of forgiveness. Just as we hear from the victim and easily sympathize with her feelings, we also get the story from the man that she picked, the man that she helped to send to jail for her rape, the wrong man. In his own words, we follow Ronald Cotton through his eleven years of wrongful imprisonment, eleven years in which he managed to stay alive, to stay out of trouble despite being imprisoned with the man who he's certain actually committed the crime that has robbed him of his life, and to never give up hope that the truth would come to light and he would be exonerated. And yet, even after being robbed of eleven years of his life, when Jennifer requests a meeting with him, her heartfelt apology is met with his heartfelt forgiveness making Picking Cotton the story of the the unlikeliest pair of friends that can be imagined.

In her blurb on the front cover, Janet Reno comments on the "human face" this book puts on the many issues facing the justice system, and I couldn't agree more. There are innumerable scholarly books on just such issues, but this book highlights those and does so much more by taking us inside a real story of two people both horribly wronged by the justice system. The writing really flows, the story is raw with the power to completely engage both readers' minds and emotions, and I heartily recommend it to...well...everyone.

Thanks to Anna at Authors on the Web for providing me with a review copy.