Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Telex From Cuba: A Novel by Rachel Kushner

Telex From Cuba by Rachel Kushner is an interesting and compelling novel about an American community in Cuba before Castro’s revolution. Set in the 1950s, part of the story follows K.C. Stites and Everly Lederer, children of the American workers. K.C. Stites’ father runs the United Fruit Company cane fields while Everly’s father works at the nickel company run by Mackey. It’s through them that we learn of their parents’ lives in Cuba. In the other part of the story, a Frenchman, in Havana now, is strangely drawn to a dancer and the two of them became tangled up in the complicated political environment in which Castro and others reside.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. It’s the first one I’ve read set in Cuba and written by a Cuban author. It’s well written and contains some outstanding, believable characters. I knew very little about Cuba and was hoping to learn more about it. I was not disappointed. It was extremely fascinating to see the trials and tribulations of a changing Cuba.

My favourite characters were K.C and Everly. I loved hearing the story through their innocent eyes. I didn’t quite get a handle on Christian de La Mazière, but I was fascinated with his story and the real life political characters he met. Speaking of “real life characters”, this story would be missing something had it not at least mentioned some of the some famous Cubans and visitors of the time period. Kushner includes the Castro brothers, Fidel and Raúl, Batista, Carlos Prío Socorras, Desi and Lucy Arnaz, as well as Hemmingway and Papa Doc Duvalier. I was quite surprised at the characterization of Raúl. I’ll have to pay more attention to the news now that he’s in charge of Cuba.

The one thing I had trouble with in the story was the “jumping around in time”. There are little jumps/tangents about other things in other time periods (forwards and back) and it was a little hard to follow. At first I had no trouble, but soon I got tired of it and my concentration wavered enough that I got lost. It was helpful that a couple of the chapters/sections are preceded by dates. However, I would have preferred that the author did this more often. The shifts in time made a lot of sense once I read the ending, which was really good by the way.


I’d definitely read another book by this author.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Belong to Me by Marisa de los Santos

In Belong to Me, Cornelia moves from the city to the suburbs with her handsome husband, Teo. She desperately wants to find her place and make friends in this new environment. She meets her new neighbours: Piper, the neighbourhood know-it-all who’s best friend, Elizabeth is gravely ill and Lake who is also new to the area. She’s moved here so that her son Dev, a genius, can attend a special school. In this suburb, the secrets are plentiful and the relationships complex. At first, these characters barely know each other and have only brief encounters. However, soon their lives become connected in ways we couldn’t imagine.

Marisa de los Santos presents a beautifully written, thought-provoking and heartbreaking novel in which lives are torn apart, secrets are revealed, friendships are made and tested, and love is defined. I wasn’t surprised the find out that she was a poet. Her writing is lovely, engaging and captured my attention from the very first word. At first it’s hard to imagine how these lives become (or are) connected, but slowly and surely de los Santos reveals the story to us.

I love stories written in the first person. Therefore, I was particularly drawn to the chapters about Cornelia. Rather than having the whole book in the first person, the author presents the other chapters, the ones where Cornelia isn’t the “prime” character, in the third person. A unique and interesting idea. I think this is the first book I’ve read that is written this way. It was a delight to read.

de los Santos’ characters are believable and easy to love. My favourite was Cornelia. She was tough, smart and has a wonderful sense of humour. In addition, I liked Dev’s inquisitive and brilliant side, but not his teenage side so much. Piper was tough to like, but in the end I think I really enjoyed reading about her. Both her and Cornelia grew a lot through the course of the story.

I’ll be looking for more works by this exceptional author.

Even though Belong to Me is the second book featuring some of these characters, you don’t have to read the first one to enjoy this one. It can really stand on it’s own merits. At the time I was reading this story, I didn’t even know the other one, Love Walked In existed. Now that I know it’s out there, I’d love to read it.

Highly recommended.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

How To Be Bad by E. Lockhart, Sarah Mlynowski, Lauren Myracle

In How to Be Bad, Jesse, Vicks and Mel go on a road trip to Miami to see Vicks boyfriend, Brady who’s gone off to college. The teenagers work at the Waffle House together and while Jesse and Vicks are friends, Mel is only invited along because she has money and can finance the trip. Each of them has a secret. When they embark on their journey, these secrets are intact, but maybe not for long. Along the way, they meet Marco, a handsome young stranger, who temporarily distracts them from their “mission”. Before the trip (and story) comes to an end, they will learn a whole lot more about each other and we will learn about how “bad” these girls are.

This young adult novel about adventure, friendship, love and secrets is a collaborative novel written by three authors. Each author has written one of the three main characters. The characters take turns laying out the story of their adventure. I think their effort was successful. The novel is fun to read and very entertaining. It couldn’t have been easy sharing the writing duties and making this novel complete. However, because the authors’ styles are similar, the story came together in one cohesive unit. The different characters “voices” became muddled a few times, but most of the time it was very easy to tell who was telling the story.

The three main characters were very different from each other: Jesse is the good-two-shoes Christian girl; Vicks grew up with many brothers and is definitely not a softy; Mel is a sheltered rich girl, who’s new to the area (from Montreal). This mix of characters made the story appealing as the characters faced many decisions and dilemmas along the way.

I’d definitely recommend this book to young adults (and maybe even a few adults). I probably wouldn’t seek out separate works from these authors, but it was sure fun to read this collaborative effort. Well done.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Palace Council by Stephen L. Carter

In Palace Council, Eddie Wesley, a member of the “dark nation” and up-and-coming young author, stumbles upon the body Phil Castle, a member of a highly secretive group trying to control the highest ranks of United States politics. It was rumored that Castle left behind a document of great importance. When Eddie’s sister then disappears, he’s determined to find her and untangle the mysteries surrounding Castle’s death and his sister’s disappearance. Before he knows it, Eddie and his long time love interest Aurelia are drawn into a mystery that spans many years.

Carter presents a complicated interwoven political thriller that is compelling, riveting and well written. The chapter endings offer a little piece to the mystery to make the reader want to read more. The story takes place during the 50s and 60s, which was a very turbulent period in American history. Carter often veers off the mystery and focuses on the political climate and social climate of the time. It’s all fascinating stuff. The story was also educational for me. Since history isn’t really my thing and because I was born in the mid 60s, I knew very little about the politics and social atmosphere. This book really gave me a taste of what that period was like.

Of course you couldn’t have a book about racism and politics in the 50s or 60s without cameo appearances from the American’s political players of the era: Richard Nixon, J. Edgar Hoover, as well as others. There are also a host of other well-known figures of the time making appearances or at least being mentioned. These “characters” are essential to the story and add to it rather than detract from it. Carter’s fictional characters were important, believable and outstanding.

I loved reading a political thriller especially at this time. In the past months, I’ve spent many hours glued to the TV following the U.S. primaries: the candidates, pundits, issues, scandals and rhetoric. This book gave me a better understanding of the whole process.

I’d definitely read another book by Carter.


Sunday, July 6, 2008

Promise of the Wolves by Dorothy Hearst

In Promise of the Wolves, Kaala, a newborn wolf in the Swift River pack, was sired by an outsider. This is forbidden and she along with her littermates are to be killed. Kaala, is lucky, though and she is saved. She lives on to tell us the story of her pack, it’s members, the ravens who taunt and help them, the wolves of other packs and most importantly the humans they must avoid.

Written in the first person (or is that first wolf) from Kaala’s point of view, this is a superb first novel. Hearst’s writing isn’t overly complicated so the book quick and easy to read. Her storytelling is exceptional and while it reminds me a little of some First Nation’s/Native American tales I’ve heard, this story is unique, interesting and educational. I often forgot that most of the characters in this book were wolves. The first two chapters were so heartbreaking I barely made it through them. I didn’t think I was going to be able to finish the book. I put down it several times because it was just too sad. Once I got past that point though, I didn’t want to put it down at all. I loved hearing about Kaala’s adventures and it gave me a new respect for wolves and ravens.

I was surprised that the ravens played such a big role in this story. I’m left wondering if it’s because ravens and wolves have a special relationship in the wild or if it’s just the author’s imagination at work. I’ll have to do a little investigation to find out more.

Even though this isn’t my usual genre, I enjoyed this book immensely. I’m definitely looking forward to the next book in the series. The author left a few loose ends in this story that will hopefully be addressed in the next instalment. I can’t wait.


Candy Everybody Wants by Josh Kilmer-Purcell

In Candy Everybody Wants, Jayson wants to be a star. He is convinced that his low-budget, self-directed video, Dallasty (a combination of primetime soaps/TV series Dallas and Dynasty popular in the 80s) will be embraced by Hollywood and he will be on his way. Well, not quite. With his wacky neighbours and even stranger family members to contend with, Jayson travels the country in search of fame and fortune.

I LOVED this book. Kilmer-Purcell presents a host of unique and quirky characters with a fascinating, hilarious, almost surreal story line with locales that span the country and morals that run the gamut. The story is set in the 1980s and is filled with references to TV series of that decade. I was thrilled when he mentioned one I was familiar with. He often compares Jayson’s life to a TV series and uses lots of TV lingo. I laughed out loud many times while reading the book; I didn’t want to put it down. It’s not just funny; it’s smart, interesting, entertaining and thought provoking.

While my life is nothing like Jayson’s, I did at times I feel a connection to him in that I, too, feel like I’m surrounded by “crazies”. Some days I wish I could get a “cast change” in my life. One of favourite quotes from the book regarding this:
Jayson had always thought that he was the normal one in the circus that surrounded him. He’d always, in the back of his mind, felt that Toni, and Willie, and Garth, and Franck, and Gavin and everyone else who’d ever found themselves part of the Blocher menagerie were the mutants, and that it was he who put the thin veneer of normalcy out in front of the world. But it was so clear to him now. He belonged in his queer family. He was one of them. One of the freak show.

The P.S. section at the end of the book was equally entertaining. If you read one only P.S. section in any of the HarperCollins books, make it this one. You won’t be sorry.

I definitely want to read Kilmer-Purcell’s memoir I Am Not Myself These Days.

Highly recommended.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Chasing Harry Winston by Lauren Weisberger

In Chasing Harry Winston, Emmy, Leigh and Adriana are good friends, but are very different from each other. Emmy, is the marrying type, but has recently been dumped by her long time boyfriend. Leigh has a great job and wants to find the man of her dreams. Is her current beau the right one? Adriana is the rich, shallow girl living off her parents’ money. She’s not looking for Mr. Right…she’s looking for Mr. Rightnow. Emmy and Adriana challenge each other to make major changes in their lives and give each other a year to do so. Meanwhile, Leigh looks on not expecting much to happen for her. The women are in store for some changes, but it’s not what they expect.

This is a wonderful and fun summer read. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Once I picked it up I really didn’t want to put it down. I couldn’t wait to see how it would end. Even though some of the situations the women faced were distressing or upsetting, the story was presented in an upbeat and light manner. At some point in the story, I felt a connection with each of the women, but I think I identified most with Leigh. She was somewhat emotionally aloof, but cared for her friends and family. Her actions, thoughts and words didn’t match up with each other in that she was thinking one thing, but doing another. She was confused about her life but didn’t show that side of herself to the Emmy and Adriana who were busy making changes in their own lives. I loved her “No Human Contact” Monday nights. [I wonder if my family would go for that? Hmmm…]

The ending was good, but a little disappointing. I won’t give anything away, but it felt a little flat. I would have liked more fanfare. Other than that, the book was great way to spend a summer day.

I haven’t read anything else by Weisberger, but I’ve been meaning to read The Devil Wears Proda. In fact, I already a copy. I guess it’s time to dig it out of the to-be-read pile.

Recommended as a nice fluffy summer read.