Donna Chavez, the SheKnows literary columnist, had a wonderful 2007. Haven't had time to catch up on your favorite page turners, Donna breaks down the best last year had to offer.
Arthur and George by Julian Barnes, historic fiction, audio, 5/5: Arthur (Sherlock Holmes' creator, Arthur Conan Doyle) and George (meek British lawyer, George Edalji) meet after George is framed and wrongly convicted for animal mutilation and harassing police. At a point in his life when he's exploring spirituality and looking for a cause Arthur reads a newspaper account of George's plight, seeks out the young man and decides to work on George's behalf. Arthur appeals the conviction, seeking reparation for wrongful imprisonment. Doyle hopes to convince the courts that George was a victim of racial bigotry. Though born in England to a vicar, George is half Indian/Parsee. This terrific novel is based on fact but through skillful writing Barnes plunges us into Britain at the turn of the 20th Century. The story is told alternately by both men, revealing details of their lives and the events leading up to, and including, George's experience with the law that he blindly – and naively – trusts. We see how crime scene deductions by the prejudiced police are not only grossly misinterpreted but also how their language changes ("damp" changes to "wet" to describe the coat George supposedly wore while committing the crime; "reserved" evolves to "obstinate" when referring to George's demeanor, etc.) as the case progresses through the court system. I liked this one so much I will likely read it again.
The Dead Fathers' Club by Mark Haig, fiction, audio, 5/5: After a car crash kills his father (are you picking up a running theme in this month's books?) 11 year-old Philip Noble and his mum are beside themselves with grief. Luckily they've got Uncle Alan to console them and help run the family's pub. Trouble is, dad's ghost appears to Philip at the wake and informs the boy that it wasn't an accident that killed him. It was Philip's conniving Uncle Alan who messed with the car's brakes. Alan, Dad says, is out to get his hands on the pub and on Philip's saintly mum. He explains that because he's been murdered he can't move on into the afterlife until Philip avenges the crime. The vendetta must be resolved before dad's next birthday or else he'll be condemned to the Dead Father's Club, forever tormented by The Terrors. If this is beginning to sound familiar, well, think Hamlet. There you go. But please don't let that scare you. Haig's version is ever-so-much better than Shakespeare's (I'm not kidding). Told by Philip, the prose is as bright and perceptive as any eleven-year-old-going-on-forty can write. Even though I knew how the story might end, I was gripped by the humor and plot twists and, shucks, shear curiosity to see how it all comes out. Read it – better yet, listen to it. The narrator, Andrew Dennis, is outstanding!
Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill, horror fiction, audio, 5/5: An aging Alice Cooper-type rocker named Judas Coyne, who collects macabre memorabilia, buys a "ghost" off an internet auction site and all heck breaks loose. It turns out the ghost is not only real but holds a deep-seated hatred for Coyne, whom he holds responsible for the suicide of his stepdaughter, a onetime Coyne groupie/belt-notch. The old man is scary as anyone I've read about in a long time but Coyne is no pushover for the ectoplasmic bounty hunter. The ensuing struggle between good and evil (the primary question) kept me awake so I wouldn't miss a thing and find out who triumphs. I will read this one again because Hill's debut novel is better than most of his dad's (Stephen King) and the narrator of the audio version (Stephen Lang) is outstanding.
The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson, nonfiction, audio, 4.5/5: Bryson applies his inimitable wit to a loving memoir of his childhood in Des Moines, IA in the 1950s. This is blatantly aimed at baby boomers. So what? If anyone can pull it off without making you feel like he's pandering to misty memories of times gone by, Bryson can. His self-deprecating humor is spot on. Has a high laugh-per-chapter ratio.
Finn, A Novel by Jon Clinch, fiction, unabridged audio, narrated by Ed Sala, 5/5: In Finn Clinch has created a fictional biography for a character we all first encountered when we read Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn where Huck and Jim find a dead man in a that's house floating down the river. The dead man is Huck's father and he's been shot in the back. What Twain failed to give us in his book (knowledge of Huck's family history) Clinch delivers in what I have to say is the best book I've read this year. The character Finn – we never learn his first name – is both despicable and fascinating at the same time. His father (Huck's grandfather) is a judge, also a nasty guy, who seems to have bred all his vileness into Finn, bypassing Finn's brother who is a decent person. But where the Judge is an upstanding member of the community; Finn teeters on the rim between human and animal, living by his (dim) wits and blundering through life in a drunken haze. And yet…and yet he has deeply tender feelings for the woman who becomes his common law wife, Huck's mother. Even more, we feel his love for Huck. This book may not be to everyone's taste for many reasons, not the least of which is getting used to the open racism of the period. But if you're enjoy terrific writing, complex characterizations and want a book that will have you grabbing people off the street to discuss it with you can't go wrong with Finn. By the way, Ed Sala does a fantastic job narrating the audio book.
Overtreated: Why Too Much Medicine Is Making Us Sicker and Poorer by Shannon Brownlee, nonfiction, 5/5: Recently I went to the doctor for a regular checkup and told her that my left thumb had been bothering me – sore joints in the morning and a kind of dull ache all day. I came out of her office with an order for a pricey MRI, a prescription order for physical therapy and a list of orthopedic specialists I could contact for an appointment. If this kind of thing has happened to you then you already know what this author is talking about when she says that Americans spend between one-fifth and one-third of our healthcare dollars on unnecessary treatments. I mean, we're talking about an aching thumb here, folks. If she'd been an old-style family doc she most likely would have checked out my thumb (she never touched it – didn't even look up from her prescription pad when I told her about it) and told me it was most likely arthritis and suggested heat or rubber ball exercises to keep it limber. Instead, says Brownlee, the new breed of family doctors do little more than perform triage, directing patients to the hundreds of tests, diagnostic machines, pharmaceutical drugs, therapies and specialists available today. Things that she says are not only expensive but too often unnecessary and sometimes even downright life-threatening – 30,000 people die from unnecessary treatments every year. This book is a real eye opener revealing the sink hole that's sucking our healthcare dollars and leaving us worse off than we've ever been.
The Book of David by David Steinberg, autobiography, 5/5: When they're looking for material most comedians take on groups of people such as politicians, entertainers or rednecks. Not Steinberg. He takes on God, who gave the young Canadian his first break in comedy, went on to get him and TV show hosts The Smothers Brothers kicked off the air then proceeded in inspire Steinberg's entire career. In return Steinberg has penned this book written in a biblical style so that, if we like, we can slide it right into the back of that leather bound Good Book resting on the coffee table. That's where I'm putting it. If only to insert the humor God intended but which somehow didn't translate from God-inese when He was dictating to humans. I wanted to include some of my favorite lines from the book in this review but there are so many and I laughed out loud so often that it was too hard to pick. Basically this is an account of how he developed a relationship with God and then wandered for forty years in what had previously been a comedy desert before David set foot in it.
Hallelujah! The Welcome Table: A Lifetime of Memories with Recipes by Maya Angelou, nonfiction/memoir/cookbook, 4.5/5: Whether it's Angelou's recollection of her grandmother's lemon meringue pie or her own description of the "suffocated chicken" she makes for her pal Oprah this woman can tell a story like nobody else. Oh yeah, the food sounds delicious – recipes are included in case you want to duplicate these memorable meals – but it's the story, the people the situations and the way she writes about them that make you have to stop now and then and just marvel at how the woman can turn a phrase. I listened to this on audio, narrated by the author, and it's even better because she reads everything as if she's reading her poetry – which is simply wonderful. Note: the audio version includes only a small selection of the recipes for download to print out. If you want to cook like Maya I suggest you buy the print book.
My rating system for books is:
5 = An extraordinary book! I will keep it to read again and again!
4.5 = This book is either very clever, highly creative or brings new information to the table. I'm recommending it to my friends.
4 = This book accomplishes all the author seems to have intended. (I "get" it.)
3.5 = This book held my interest regardless of topic/genre.
3 = I enjoyed reading and/or I learned something from this book
2.5 = I could have easily put this book down and forgotten about it.
2 = This book is either poorly written or seems underdeveloped, like an out-of-focus photo. (I don't "get" it.)
1= Don't bother.