Sunday, August 29, 2010

Father of the Rain

Father of the Rain by Lily King is a story of divorce, cruelty, alcoholism, self-preservation, and redemption.

Part I is the agonizing story of 11 year-old Daley during her parent’s divorce.  Her mother swears Daley to secrecy as she begins preparations to leave her wealthy WASP husband, Gardiner.  Daley is tormented by the guilt of leaving her father at the beginning of the summer and is overcome with fear and sadness by what she finds when she and her mother return to town at the end of the summer.  Daley becomes a stranger in Gardiner’s home and witness to his functional, but explosive alcoholism.  King is masterful as she creates Daley’s world of both privilege and complete chaos.  Gardiner is incredibly cruel and careless in the way only a wealthy alcoholic can be. Page after page he manipulations Daley’s heart and mind in ways that will leave readers shaking with rage and overwhelmed with sadness for a young girl who can’t understand what happened to her family over the course of one summer.

Part II chronicles Daley’s successful life, free from her father’s alcoholism and dysfunction.  At the pinnacle of young professional success, Gardiner manages to pull her back with the promise of reconciliation and the restoration of their pre-divorce bond.  I risk giving too much away by summarizing the plot in Part II closely. King creates such an atmosphere of oppression and hope that the reader is sure to literally yell at Daley through the pages as she makes herself vulnerable to a continually cruel and unstable Gardiner.  I can only imagine that the child of an alcoholic could understand how far down the path to hell they are willing to travel in order create a non-alcoholic, loving version of their parent.

Part III is essentially the aftermath of the situation Gardiner created which drew Daley back home.  King’s incredibly nuanced adult Daley is a revelation – stronger at the broken places, but still capable of responding to the needs of her father even if it could leave her broken again.  The question asked in Part III is whether she can stay safe and healthy while he is so sick.

Lily King has created an incredibly evocative novel in Father of the Rain.  It literally evoked a veritable avalanche of emotions from me as I read it – sadness, anger, frustration, happiness, profound relief, and contempt.  The novel is both a testament to how low people can sink as a result of alcohol abuse, the degree to which they are able to lie to themselves, and the innate goodness and strength that all humans possess, regardless of economic advantages. 

Father of the Rain would be an excellent choice for a book club.  The themes of familial obligation, fidelity, parental responsibility, alcoholism, and abuse run throughout the book.  Clearly, Oprah agrees with me, as the novel was included in her 2010 list of Summer Reads and a Reader's Guide was created.  

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Series Highlights

I’m in the middle of several books right now, so I don’t have a review to post. Rather than leave you in a lurch I’ve put together a list of some great series that I’ve recently read (and plan to keep reading!).  They aren’t necessarily literary, but they will keep you glued to the pages and checking Amazon to see when the next book is due out.  

Gail Carriger’s The Parasol Protectorate Series
A thoroughly enjoyable romp in an alternate steampunk Victorian England, one in which the Queen has both a werewolf and vampire advisor. Alexia Tarabotti is a sassy, intelligent, and hard-headed heroine from the upper crust of London society who also happens to be soulless. She is one of those terrific heroines who always manages to find herself in the middle of trouble and excitement.  I can’t wait to read Blameless on September 1st! 

Lisa Lutz’s The Spellman Files 
I am both bummed and extremely grateful I’m not a member of the dysfunctional, but highly entertaining Spellman family.  Yes, they’re a family running a private detective agency in San Francisco, which can be exciting.  But, they use some questionable sleuthing techniques on each other, which is not exactly conducive to healthy family boundaries.  This is especially true for main character, Izzy Spellman.  This P.I. is in her late twenties, has terrible taste in men, and a slight drinking problem.  She’s also a kick-ass detective and tough-as-nails heroine in her own right.  There’s never a dull moment with the Spellman family and Lutz creates compelling mysteries to pair with their antics. 

Connie Willis’ Blackout 
I read the first book in the series, Blackout, and it’s a rollicking story set in 2060 about historian time travelers on individual assignments in World War II-era Great Britain.  Their stories are interwoven as one-by-one, the historian’s access back to the future fails.  They each set out on a journey to find each other in the hopes of using alternate “drop points” home, unaware that all the drop points have failed.  As a reader, it was incredible to land in the middle of Great Britain during World War II.  It’s clear Willis has done an amazing job of researching everything - from the types of stockings women would be wearing, what the people of London did during those long hours in bomb shelters, and, literally, where the bombs landed.  This is a great series for science fiction lovers, as well as historical fiction fans.  I have a feeling this series is going to get better and better with each book. 

Charlaine Harris' Southern Vampire Mysteries 
You might know this series by a different name - the Sookie Stackhouse books or the True Blood series.  Before True Blood was a hit on HBO it  was a tremendously popular series of books about a mind reading waitress in small-town Louisiana, Sookie Stackhouse.  While you may be a fan of the show, let me assure you that the books are a bit different in terms of characters and the direction of the plot.  Let me also promise you that they just as fun, completely over-the-top, and just plain sexy as True Blood.  I devoured the entire series in a few weeks this summer (seriously) because I really needed a mental break from some more literary books I had been reading and, well, it’s summer and summer reading should be a little frivolous.  Don’t let your vampire fatigue keep you away from this series.  You won’t regret picking them up.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Lean On Pete

15 year-old Charley Thompson is a heartbreaker of a protagonist.  He and his Dad move to Portland, Oregon, where he is left to fend for himself while his Dad works, parties, and sleeps around.  Shoplifting food and scrambling for money is second-nature to Charley at this point, although he is a fundamentally good, kindhearted teen who loves to run and longs to return to Spokane so he can play on the football team again.  Neglect and disregard turn to danger when his Dad sleeps with the wrong married woman.  Her husband decides to even the score with drastic consequences for his Dad and Charley. 

Charley is a survivor and manages to find work at the local racetrack, helping the casually cruel, repulsive alcoholic Del with his horses. Sometimes Del pays him, sometimes he pays him less than he promised, and sometimes he doesn’t pay him at all.  A desperate Charley rarely asks for what he earned, what he literally needs to survive.  He’s grateful to be remembered, to stay afloat and off the radar of Child and Family Services.  Charley is almost animal-like in his ability to survive being literally and figuratively kicked, coming back to give his Dad, Del, or others who mistreat him a second chance to be as good as he is.  But he doesn’t have to worry or flinch when he is with Del’s horses and he develops a special bond with Lean on Pete, an aging racehorse who is kicked and abused himself.  As Charley’s desperation grows, he ends up living in Lean on Pete’s stall at the horse track.  Throughout horror after horror, Charley remembers good times he had with his Dad and reflects continually on his beloved librarian Aunt Margy, who took loved him and took an interest in him before she had a falling out with his Dad and they lost contact a few years before.

Del’s plan to sell Lean on Pete is the impetus that induces Charley to steal his beloved horse and set out on an arduous journey to save the horse and find his aunt in Wyoming.  With nothing left to lose Charley and Lean on Pete drive, ride, and walk, all in hopes of finding the one person who was ever steady and good.  Charley experiences small acts of kindness along that way and his gratitude is heartbreaking.  He also continues to encounter those same type of people who have always preyed on his vulnerability and general kindness.  

Lean on Pete is such an unusual, melancholy story of a boy and a horse.  Charley’s unrelenting, gentle spirit, even in the face of chaos and violence is inspiring and a testament to nature versus nurture. He refuses to stop looking for love, even if it comes in the form of a broken down horse named Lean on Pete.  Readers will appreciate the devotion Charley feels for the increasingly lame Lean on Pete. They will also be moved by the people and situations Charley has to endure and admire his gentle, indomitable spirit.  Life is emphatically not fair for Charley and even the most jaded readers will be angry and outraged on his behalf and cheer him on as he and Lean on Pete try to make their way toward Aunt Margy and the possibility of a better life.

Be sure to take a look at author Willy Vlautin's music playlist via Largehearted Boy.

Monday, August 9, 2010

One Bloody Thing After Another

Three speeding trains are about to crash into each other.  Speeding train #1 is Jackie.  Jackie is a teen lesbian in love with her best friend, Ann.  She’s volatile, angry, and can disappear by invoking her dead mother.  Speeding train #2 is Ann.  She’s grown distant from Jackie lately not because, as Jackie fears, she’s sick of her or their relationship.  Rather, Ann’s Mom is turning into a monster of some sort and Ann is preoccupied with finding things to feed her - bloody steaks will no longer satisfy her cravings.  The third train may not be speeding as much as rolling along.  Elderly Charlie and his ancient dog, Mitchie, go for their daily walks and enjoy each other’s company.  What Charlie doesn’t enjoy is the headless ghost who exhorts him to knock on his neighbor, Mrs. Richard’s, door everyday.  Is Mrs. Richards hiding a secret or is Charlie losing his mind? Jackie, Ann, and Charlie pass through each other’s lives, wreaking havoc (knowingly and unknowingly) as they deal with both literal and figurative demons.

One Bloody Thing After Another by Joey Comeau is a strange and satisfying book. Comeau plays with dialogue, time, and place skillfully. Even when the story doesn’t progress in a linear fashion, the narrative trains speeding towards each other make sense and the reader finds themselves hoping the pedal will be put to the metal.

Both Jackie and Ann are well-conceived teen characters. Jackie alternates between mooning over Ann and dangerous willful destruction of property and self.  Only a teenager has that intensity of lust and rage.  Ann’s sense of being overwhelmed in caring for her Mom and keeping up the facade of normalcy eventually breaks down in a shocking, outrageous way.  In addition, the relationship between Charlie and dog Mitchie is twisted and hilarious.  Charlie spends their walks bemoaning Mitchie’s dawdling and desire to stop and be petted by random strangers. But it’s clear Mitchie just might be Charlie’s last tie to sanity.

One Bloody Thing After Another is a weird, gruesome, out-of-control book and I enjoyed it a lot.  I think readers who aren’t afraid to try something different will be delighted with the blood and lust and intrigued by the unusual narrative style. 

As a total aside, this book has one of my very favorite covers of all time.  It truly captures the creepy, discombobulated nature of the book itself.  

Monday, August 2, 2010


Amandine by Marlena de Blasi is an epic tale of an orphaned baby secretly sent to live in a French convent by her grandmother, the Countess.  The baby is the bastard daughter of teenage Andzelika and the brother of her father’s mistress (A sordid start, to be sure). Yet the child, Amandine, is raised surrounded by love and protection by a lay guardian, Solange, and the convent’s religious occupants.  However Mater Paul, who oversees the convent, cannot overcome her own jealousy over the unconditional love she witnesses, the polar opposite of her own traumatic childhood. She grows to hate Amandine and spends years neglecting and, finally, damaging her. As a result, Amandine and Solange are thrust from the convent just as the French surrender to the Nazis. They are in great peril, but also find unexpected reserves of strength and cunning as they become involved in the French Resistance.  Amandine’s mother and grandmother are intertwined throughout the story, as they go on with their lives, the existence of Amandine erased from the official record, but not their minds. 

De Blasi writes beautifully and deftly weaves first-person chapters from Solange, Mater Paul, The Countess and Andzelika, creating the net that supports Amandine’s tale. There is an element of Jane Eyre at work, as Amandine is treated cruelly by Mater Paul and her fellow convent school students. But De Blasi doesn’t take the easy way out with this orphan tale. Amandine is reared with love by Solange and all of the nuns and priests that surround her everyday.  She is also raised to love and appreciate the natural world. De Blasi’s description of the French landscape, as well as the food, is sumptuous. The book is infused with a large dose of sadness, especially in relation to mother-daughter relationships.  Amandine’s evolving feelings about her mother and the mother figures that surround her are extraordinary in their maturity and, many times, incredibly sad.

Despite the title, Amandine is really not just her story.  The subplots involving the Countess, Andzelika, and Solange are fascinating and are solidly tales of women - their choices and relationships - and how their choices helped create Amandine.  I enjoyed this book a lot and will have no trouble hand selling it to adult women or to my library book club.