Thursday, May 27, 2010

Picoult's newest was a forced march

Normally, when I have a new Jodi Picoult novel on my bookshelf, I am torn between whisking it into my hands and devouring it in a day or two, and leaving it there for maybe a week or more, letting the anticipation build until I can't stand it anymore and absolutely have to read it NOW. That's how it was with her newest, HOUSE RULES. I should have let it sit a while longer.

As usual, Picoult's newest story brings into focus a current topic of discussion, centering the conflict around that topic and a family in distress. There is, of course, the requisite courtroom battle meant to divide the reader's loyalty among the characters in play. The topic in HOUSE RULES is autism, Asperger's Syndrome specifically. The family is a single mom who has been raising her older son (the one with AS) and her younger son (who is "neurotypical" - in other words "normal") on her own for about fifteen years. Jacob, the older boy with Asperger's, is accused of murdering his counselor and the only hope his attorney has for acquittal is claiming insanity due to the AS.

The premise sounds interesting, doesn't it? I thought so too. As I mentioned above, I'm a loyal, diehard Picoult fan, and I looked forward to reading this book. So what was wrong with it, you ask? It's difficult to put my finger on the problem, but I'm going to try.

The first element of the book that really threw me off was the constant descriptions of what Asperger's Syndrome is, how it manifests itself, how it affects Jacob's functioning in the world, and how it affects the people closest to him. Those descriptions really never stop. Sometimes they're necessary and add to the narrative, but often they're repetitive and dry - often even clinical. Many times the book read as though Picoult simply quoted her notes from interviews she conducted with various doctors, counselors, and Asperger's patients. There were pages in the last third of the book that I practically skipped - barely skimmed - because it was the doctor's testimony about what AS is and believe me - by that point in the book, you've been there done that.

I think another issue I had was that this time - and this just never happens with her books - the characters were not very well developed. Or maybe that's not quite right. Let me say it this way: Jacob's character is very well developed. I've had students with Asperger's Syndrome, and I wish that I'd had this book to read before I had them in the classroom because I feel like I understand them so much better than I ever did before. Jacob was real and complete for me. The other characters - his mom, his brother, and his attorney specifically - seem to be developed only as far as necessary to allow them to interact with Jacob. This could have been done intentionally because living with Jacob doesn't allow anyone to have much else in his or her life. Maybe those characters felt incomplete to me because they were truly incomplete people. I'm not sure. All I know is that it didn't work for me.

The plot itself is compelling, although I knew very, very early in the story what the surprise was going to be at the end. Jacob is interesting, and it's sad to think about people having to live their lives with AS and around it. It's one of those stories that makes me grateful to God that my daughter is healthy.

This book will in no way turn me away from Jodi Picoult. She's a master storyteller, period. I am hoping that this was just a slight bump in the road that I've traveled happily - and smoothly - for years with her in her books. I was ready to put HOUSE RULES down and be done with it, but I'm just as eager to read her next one, whatever it may be.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

THE KITCHEN HOUSE delivers the real meaning of "family"

I love to read, so I'm always open to suggestions for new books and authors, which is the main reason I still subscribe to both The Mystery Guild and The Literary Guild. A couple months ago, The Literary Guild sent me an email recommending THE KITCHEN HOUSE. I saved the email, but I didn't pay much attention to it at first. Then, a few weeks later, they sent me an email about an upcoming sale. I remembered the recommendation, went ahead and ordered THE KITCHEN HOUSE, and devoured it in a few days.

In 1791, a seven-year-old Irish orphan winds up on a Virginia tobacco plantation after her parents (who were indentured to the plantation owner) die on the ocean voyage and are buried at sea. After her traumatic trip - and her subsequent separation from her brother - Lavinia retreats into herself, refusing to eat or speak.

It is the love and support that she receives from a family of black slaves on the plantation that brings Lavinia around. Mama Mae reaches out first, coaxing the bird-like orphan's appetite and trust, but it is Belle - the kitchen house worker - whom Lavinia ties herself most tightly to.

The book's prologue opens in 1810 with Lavinia racing through the woods towards a fire, trailed by her own young daughter. Emerging from the woods, Lavinia is horrified by the sight of a black woman hanging from an old oak tree. Having come to love the slaves on the plantation as much as Lavinia does, I am plagued throughout the book by the knowledge that one of them will be murdered in the end.

THE KITCHEN HOUSE, a debut novel by Kathleen Grissom, is my favorite kind of story, and anyone who has read my other reviews could probably recite the criteria themselves: characters that are so well drawn you feel as if you've known them forever and miss them when they're gone, as well as a plot that continuely compels me to keep turning the pages, leaving a hole inside me when there are no more to turn.

I am so grateful The Literary Guild recommended this book. I hope you'll read it and feel the same way.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Lescroart's newest delivers on suspense

I've been a fan of suspense writer John Lescroart for years. His Dismas Hardy/Abe Glitsky series contains all the ingredients of a great story: well-developed, likable characters who share multi-faceted relationships; interesting crimes twisted up in unpredictable ways; and dry, sarcastic humor.

Dismas Hardy is a defense attorney in San Francisco. He has an interesting past that I won't reveal because I heartily encourage the reading of the early volumes in this series. He has a knack, though, for defending clients that you want to believe (most of the time) are innocent, but who you can also believe are guilty of the crimes they're charged with. Working your way through the legal puzzles is always fun with Lescroart.

Abe Glitsky is (now) a lieutenant in the San Francisco police force and is best friends with Hardy. See the potential conflicts there already? How much do they tell each other about the case they share - albeit on opposite sides? Glitsky is a man of few words, but you always want to listen when he talks.

In Lescroart's newest novel in this series, A PLAGUE OF SECRETS, Hardy takes a case representing a socialite accused of murder. She owns a successful coffee shop on the corner of Haight and Ashbury but becomes the target of a police investigation when the shop's manager is discovered shot to death in the alley behind the business. To make matters worse, it comes to light that the manager had been selling pot - lots of it - out of the shop and had been blackmailing the owner. She had opportunity and motive - even Hardy comes to believe his client is guilty.

The criminal puzzle in PLAGUE is exactly what I've come to expect - and love - about Lescroart's books. It's original and kept me guessing throughout the whole story ... suspense at its best. (I was amazed, too, at the rights the federal government has - at how easily it can lay claim to our possessions, our lives.)

The only small disappointment for me was I wanted a little more time with Hardy and Glitzky. I keep coming back to Lescroart's books because I love those characters, and I miss them in between novels. Glitzky's family goes through a major trauma in PLAGUE, but even with that, we don't spend as much time with them as I'd like. There's not as much interaction between the two men as I've grown accustomed to, and it left me wanting.

Other than that, the novel was great. If you're already a fan of Lescroart's, you definitely want to pick this one up. The criminal story is excellent and you'll want to read about what happens with Abe. If you're new to Lescroart, go grab DEAD IRISH - the first in the series - and get busy reading!