September 24, 2003
Eat Cake by Jeanne Ray

Eat Cake by Jeanne Ray: a wonderful feel-good type of book that probably most people could easily relate to.

Ruth, a housewife in Minneapolis, loves to bake cakes. Baking a cake is her form of both relaxation and therapy, something that she’s going to need a lot of in her near future.

Ruth lives with her husband Sam, her difficult teenage daughter Camille, and her mother Hollis who moved in after her house was robbed. To complicate things even further, Sam loses his job and Ruth’s father Guy, whom she hardly even sees and her mother hates, has a serious accident and has to move in. Needless to say, tension in the household increases and Ruth begins baking even more cakes.

In reality, this book was pretty easy to predict what was going to happen next, but I loved reading every word of it. Ray’s voice is soothing and funny and very easy to get sucked into. I enjoyed her characters, especially Ruth, Hollis, and Guy, and the interaction among the family was a joy to experience.

Like a piece of cake, Eat Cake was both light and enjoyable - perfect summer reading or to just take a break from every day life.

September 23, 2003
An Ocean in Iowa by Peter Hedges

An Ocean in Iowa by Peter Hedges: a quirky novel by the author of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape that turned out to be a quick, but wonderful, reading experience.

At the beginning of An Ocean in Iowa Scotty Ocean announces to his mother, Joan, that “Seven is going to be my year.” Turning seven does bring about many changes for Scotty, including his alcoholic mother’s decision to leave her family and try to live on her own.

The novel is set in the late sixties when the war in Vietnam raged and when man had yet to walk on the moon. Scotty experiences most of these things on the periphery since his main focus in life is his mother and how to get her to come back home.

While I enjoyed the book very much, after finishing it, I thought about how really it was quite a melancholy novel - most of the book is just life and picking up the pieces after major changes. However, Scotty’s character was so engaging (it was interesting to see a book take place through the eyes of a young child) and I wanted things to work out for him that I was compelled to read it in just a day or so.

All in all, not a very cheery book, but one that I would still suggest reading.

September 20, 2003
The Hour Before Dark by Douglas Clegg

The Hour Before Dark by Douglas Clegg: a suspenseful, genuinely creepy horror novel that has to be one of the best in the genre that I’ve read in years.

At the very beginning of the novel, Gordie Raglan is brutally murdered in the smokehouse that sits on Hawthorne, the property he owns on Burnley Island, just off the coast of Massachusetts. The murder is so savage and strange that no one - police, forensics experts, or even the media - can begin to figure out what has happened.

Nemo, the oldest of Gordie’s kids, is called home by Brooke, his sister who was at Hawthone at the time, and Bruno, his brother. Brooke, understandably, is acting odd, but Bruno and Nemo begin to wonder if maybe she has become completely unhinged by their father’s slaughter.

Complicating everything, is memories that Nemo has of playing The Dark Game with his brother and sister in the same smokehouse where their father was murdered. One must never play The Dark Game after night has fallen, but the three of them did just that once. Nemo has to try and put the pieces that is slowly surfacing of his and his sibling’s lives to determine who really is the murder and what secrets have been buried long enough.

The book had me wondering about the outcome for almost its entire length. I figured out one important plot twist (as I think most people will), but it still didn’t lessen the impact of the Raglan family truth or of the novel itself.

Very well written, highly enjoyable, and even reminiscent of Stephen King’s earlier works. Recommended for those that love their scares with more psychological nuances than straight out gore.

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September 19, 2003
Talking to the Dead by Helen Dunmore

Talking to the Dead by Helen Dunmore: the first United States publication of Dunmore, winner of the Orange Prize (for debuting women novelists), that deals with the hidden secrets that can tear a family apart.

Nina has come to spend time with her sister Isabel after the birth of Isabels first child, Anthony, is much more difficult than expected. In the isolated cottage where Isabel lives is Edward (one of Isabels friends), Susan (the nanny), and Ricard, Isabels husband whos usually away on business trips.

Its almost difficult to describe what this book is really about without giving away the major plot details. Suffice to say, the heart of the novel is the relationship between Isabel and Nina and what is true and what is simply manipulated in the events that entwine them.

I wish now that I had gone back and read both the beginning and the ending before sending it to the person who was to read it after me. I would like to take them both in again and see if my conclusions and thoughts were the same.

Ultimately, its a very quick read and Dunmores voice is both strong and mesmerizing. I enjoyed the novel and would like to read other things by her in the future.

September 16, 2003
The Secret History by Donna Tartt

The Secret History by Donna Tartt: exquisitely written first novel that crosses so many genres that it is almost impossible to categorize.

Most novels do not start out with telling you both who has been murdered (Bunny Corcoran) and who has murdered him (Richard, Henry, Francis, Charles, and Camilla) since usually the point of a novel containing a murder is to figure out who did it. However, in the case of this novel, it only made me want to know even more why Bunny was turned on by his friends - what could motivate such a betrayal?

The novel is set is a small, very exclusive Vermont college. Richard, a freshman from California who studied ancient Greek, is enamored with the five elite Greek students taught by a professor, Julian, who refuses to take more than a handful of pupils into his class. Most of the novel focuses on Richard’s increasing interaction and the inevitable murder that it leads to.

While I wouldn’t call this novel slow, it definitely is not a quick read, but I think I liked it more for its slower, more stately pace. It’s a fairly large book (just over 500 pages), but I never did feel that it was too long or needed to speed up even throughout the first two hundred pages or so it’s impossible for one to imagine how things are ever going to end up with a murder.

I enjoyed the book greatly and while I’m not sure it’s for everyone, I would recommend reading it and seeing why Bunny’s death was an eventuality that was almost impossible for the group to avoid.

September 10, 2003
Jenna Starborn by Sharon Shinn

Jenna Starborn by Sharon Shinn: a retelling of Charlotte Bronte’s classic story Jane Eyre in a very different time and setting - far in the far in outer space.

Jenna Starborn is a woman who was created in the gen-tanks of planet Baldus for a woman who could not conceive. A few months after Jenna was “born,” a scientific break-through was achieved and Jenna’s “aunt” could now carry her own baby. Thus, Jenna became an unwanted half-citizen loved nor cared for by anyone.

Since the story is a basic retelling of Jane Eyre, it was never hard to tell exactly what was going to happen next since I’d read the book years ago. However, Shinn has created a very believable future and characters that I could sympathize with. I really liked Jenna and wanted to see good things happen to her, though I knew some very painful experiences awaited her future.

All in all, it was a very satisfying read and I enjoyed my time in Jenna’s world. Incidentally, this novel is classified as science fiction, but that’s mostly due to it taking place in the future in outer space.

September 08, 2003
Baudolino by Umberto Eco

Baudolino by Umberto Eco: I feel like such a failure. For the first time that I can remember, I have failed to complete a book that I have started.

I tried really hard with Baudolino. I read almost 200 pages (the whole book is only about 500 pages). Those 200 pages, though, took me almost a week - a span of time that I can usually finish two or three books in. Also, it was a bookring that I received through BookCrossing so I felt guilty for holding on to it when I couldn’t get into it. In the meantime, I had several other books that I was on bookrings for show up, so I hated to hold them up as well while I tried to work my way through it.

In the end, it was easier for me to send Baudolino on its way than to keep reading it and holding up all the other books that I need to get started on. Perhaps it just wasn’t my cup of tea or maybe I’ve read too many other books that don’t require as much to get through. Either way, I wish I could have finished it, but even more so, I wish I could have enjoyed reading it.

September 01, 2003
The Virgin's Knot by Holly Payne

The Virgin’s Knot by Holly Payne: an amazing first novel set in 1950s Turkey.

Twenty-two year old Nurdane is the center of this book - indeed, she is the virgin who ties the titular knots. Crippled with polio when she was six, her father taught her to weave so that she could travel places without her legs. Normally, this would be a skill taught by women, but sadly Nurdane’s mother died in childbirth. Since she is considered less of a woman by men, Nurdane’s virgin status allows her to create prayer rugs and matrimonial dowry rugs that are believed to heal the sick and bring good fortune for any lucky enough to possess them. Most of the novel is about Nurdane’s life, but we are also introduced to John Hennessey, a physical anthropologist, and Adam, Nurdane’s doctor along with people from her village.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel until the last fifty pages or so. I found the ending to be very out of character for what I thought would have happened. After thinking about it, I can see why it was that way, but I felt that the book would have been stronger with a different ending. It altered the intricately woven narrative with a dream-like quality into almost a totally different novel. Still, the book alone is worth reading simply to experience Nurdane’s life.