Tompkins County Public Library

Friday, December 31, 2010

29. The Irresistible Henry House by Lisa Grunwald

In 1946, Henry House is an orphan who has just been selected as Wilton College’s newest practice baby.  All across America, colleges have set up practice houses for home economic students to learn about keeping a proper house for their husband, including taking care of a new baby.  Program director Martha Gaines has had many practice babies over the years, but Henry is different and she soon finds herself unable to give him up at the end of the year and take care of a new baby.  Breaking college rules, she adopts Henry, and raises him in the practice house as her own child.  Their lives run smoothly until Henry learns who his birth mother is, and decides he wants to explore the world on his own.  From being an animator for Walt Disney, to working on the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine, and to finally learning to deal with women and his unusual childhood, this fictional account of a most unusual life is an irresistible read.

Grunwald got her idea for the novel by looking at a Cornell web site that studied the history of practice babies.  In fact, Cornell received their first “practice” baby in 1919, and over the next fifty years, hundreds of students helped raise numerous infants at the Cornell practice house.  The Irresistible Henry House is a charming, well-written account about a little known practice in America, as well as a wonderful, historically accurate account of a man struggling to find love and meaning in his life.

28. Blacklands by Belinda Bauer

Unhappiness is all 12-year-old Steven Lamb knows.  He lives with his mother, grandmother, and younger brother in Somerset, England, in a house with tremendous grief.  His family has never gotten over the fact that Steven’s uncle was abducted and probably killed by a notorious child killer, Arnold Avery, who now is in jail and won’t admit to taking the boy years ago.  In order to make his grandmother happy, Steven spends all of his free time out on the moors, or the blacklands, digging, trying to find his uncle’s body so that the family can finally have closure.  When he gets frustrated by his lack of progress, he decides to tempt fate and write to Arnold Avery in jail, which changes everything in Steven Lamb’s life.

This is the type of psychological mystery that slowly sneaks up on a reader and takes their breath away.  Bauer creates a riveting and realistic story that slowly builds in a very believable tension until the horrifying end.  The cat and mouse manipulation between the older, and sinister Avery, and the young and na├»ve Lamb adds to the growing, sickening tension that readers know is coming.  While the end might be a little over the top, readers can’t help but cheer for Steven Lamb.  With a strong debut, Bauer is definitely a writer to watch.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

27. The News Where You Are by Catherine O'Flynn

Life for Frank Allcroft is changing.  He has a loving wife and eight-year-old daughter, Mo, and a successful career as a local news anchor, but around him things are causing him to question his life.  His mother is in a nursing home, living with past memories, and all around his hometown of Birmingham, England, buildings his late architect father build are being demolished.  His on-screen partner and father figure, Phil, who transitioned successfully into primetime television, was killed while out jogging.  Frank needs to know what happened to Phil that fateful day, and along the way discovers his own life is better than he thought.

This sophomore effort by O’Flynn is another winner.  At times funny, and at times sad, it is also an observation on family, friendship, aging, and loss on many levels.  O’Flynn’s stripped down, stark writing works well to show Frank’s struggle to find happiness again.  For a review of O’Flynn’s excellent first book, What Was Lost, please read http://tcplpicks.blogspot.com/2008/11/what-was-lost-by-catherine-oflynn.html

26. Shadow Woman by Ake Edwardson

August in Gothbenburg, Sweden means the hedonistic Gothenburg Party.  While people are partying during the weeklong celebration, there is also growing ethnic tension in the area.  When a woman’s body is found in a local park, with a strange symbol drawn on a draw near her, Chief Inspector Erik Winter has little clues to go by.  He knows that the woman has had a child, but when a neighbor reports a woman and her small daughter missing, the investigation takes a sudden twist.  Where is the dead woman’s daughter?  And how does her death tie into a bank robbery in Denmark that happened years ago?

While the popularity of the Stieg Larsson books have more and more people reading Scandinavian mysteries, Ake Edwardson has been writing and winning awards in Sweden for a number of years.  He is one of my favorite Swedish authors because of his complex stories and beautiful settings.  The Shadow Woman is the fifth book in his Erik Winter series to be translated into English, but the second book in the series (an unfortunate occurrence that happens frequently to translated books).  This psychological mystery is enhanced by the stark Swedish setting, and slowly builds tension throughout the book.  For a review of an earlier Erik Winter mystery, check out my review at http://tcpl.org/sarah/2007/03/13-never-end-by-ake-edwardson.html.  For readers of Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson.

25. Still Missing by Chevy Stevens

Annie O’Sullivan seems to have it all.  She is 32, has a terrific and caring boyfriend, great friends, and is working hard to succeed as a realtor.  During a slow open house, she agrees to show the house to a man who pulls up in a van at the very end.  Suddenly the man who introduces himself as David, kidnaps her and holds her captive for a year in a remote cabin.  Subjected to daily rapes and psychological torture, she ultimately escapes and tells her horrifying story in flashbacks to an unnamed therapist.  Her kidnapper may be dead, but Annie feels a part of her life is still missing, especially since she can’t understand why she was kidnapped.  When the truth slowly comes out, it is a shocking and brutal surprise.

Readers may be surprised to learn that this is Steven’s first book.  While dealing with a difficult subject matter that involves pain and fear, the book is written in a very realistic way, until the ending.  I enjoyed the book until the end, when I was shocked to see how the story turned.  Still, the book is an engrossing, powerful tale of what people do to survive.  For those who like Jodi Picoult, and who have read Room by Emma Donoghue. 

24. Portobello by Ruth Rendell

Portobello Road in London is famous for its outdoor market and numerous shops.  It is also the setting for Rendell’s latest creepy psychological novel and brings a mixture of Londoners violently together.  While walking to the shops one day, Eugene Wren finds an envelope full of cash on the street. Instead of calling the police, he decides to post a “Found” sign in the Portobello neighborhood and question callers to see if they were the ones who dropped it.  A series of coincidences leads to a number of Londoners caught up in violence, and even death, because of these motions.

Rendell is the master of psychological novels that draw people in because of detailed characters and building suspense.  She writes with ease about street people, criminals, and the English upper class, lending credibility to her stories.  While I usually enjoy all of her books, this was a struggle because of repetitive details about main characters and a disjointed story that doesn’t truly come together until the end.  This may have worked better as a short story, something Rendell is also famous for.

23. I Curse the River of Time by Per Petterson

The world is changing in 1989.  Communism is crumbling, and Arvid Jansen’s life is crumbling around him also.  His marriage is ending and he has just learned that his emotionally distant mother is dying of cancer.  When she decides to travel back to Denmark, where she grew up on the coast, Arvid leaves Oslo to follow her there.  Over the next few days, mother and son reminisce about their lives, weaving past with the present.  Arvid especially recalls his decision to leave college, join the Communist party, and spend his life in Communist factories, a decision his mother bitterly opposed.  His struggle to fully commit to communism, and to find purpose in his life while never truly understanding his mother, comes full circle during the Denmark trip.
This is a gorgeously written examination of two lives that are evolving while struggling with what has happened in their past.  Full of melancholy and failures, but also of love and hope, Petterson once again proves he is a writer that draws readers in and then holds them transfixed.  The stark Scandinavian scenery is described in a poetic way that adds to the starkness of the story.  There is a reason that the Los Angeles Times calls him a “master at writing the spaces between people.”  One of the best books I have read this year.