The Inn at Lake Devine by Elinor Lipman

The Inn at Lake Devine

The Inn at Lake Devine   

Elinor Lipman (Adult Fiction)

“It was not complicated, and, as my mother pointed out, not even personal:  They had a hotel; they didn’t want Jews; we were Jews.”

In the summer of 1962, Natalie Marx’s mother mailed about a dozen inquiries to various cottages and inns along Vermont’s Lake Devine.  All came back with the standard rate card and cordial note.  All, that is, but one.  “Our guests who feel most comfortable here, and return year after year, are Gentiles” was neatly written on textured white stationery.  This act of blatant and brutal honesty ignites young Natalie’s quest to seek justice and acquire vindication and understanding.

This book was an engaging read, but seems to fall victim to its own misleading marketing.  On the cover, it’s touted as a “witty romantic comedy”.  While there are spots of flirtatious frolicking, describing it as a Romcom might be a bit of a stretch.  Also, in the synopsis, we’re led to believe that Natalie encounters “a small bastion of genteel anti-Semitism” at this particular lakeside inn.  In reality, it is only one individual who openly exhibits this prejudice.  Ironically, we find out that Natalie’s own family is not immune to their fair share of prejudice, which proves to be far more damaging to Natalie than what she experienced at Lake Devine.

Lipman gives us a charming book with enough plot twists and interesting characters to keep the reader’s interest.  However, don’t expect “a tale of delicious revenge” as one reviewer stated on the back cover.  Rather, The Inn at Lake Devine is a light read, which can be made even more enjoyable if sitting in an Adirondack chair overlooking a lake.

Rating: 3/5

* Book cover image attributed to http://www.goodreads.com

 

Looking for Marco Polo by Alan Armstrong (J)

Looking for Marco Polo

Looking for Marco Polo   

Alan Armstrong (Juvenile Fiction)

Mark Hearn’s father is a teacher of anthropology and about to embark on a trip to the Gobi Desert.  Like Marco Polo, he wishes to meet and live with the desert people.  Before leaving, he gives Mark a worn copy of The Travels of Marco Polo and says that he will be following the same route as the famous explorer.  Mark receives frequent letters from his father, but when correspondence suddenly stops, he boards a plane to Venice with his mother in search of answers.  Mark’s old paperback suddenly becomes a map, holding clues to his father’s possible whereabouts.

After Mark and his mother arrive in Venice, you can divide this book into two sections.  The first we can call “Sightseeing in Venice” as the reader is provided several famous Venetian landmarks, as well as a few notable Polo sites (his former residence and the church he visited on feast days).  The second half focuses on Polo’s time in China and could be called “My Many Conversations with Kublai Khan”.  Here, the story drags a bit as Polo describes to Khan his multi-year journey.  It also chronicles Polo’s travels throughout the Mongol Empire.

Armstrong describes his book as a work of fiction stating, “The spine of travel is somewhat as Marco described it, as are the ribs of the larger adventures.  The rest is imagined, but possible…”.  Although many parts of the book are indeed overly dramatized and romanticized, the main points are factual:  Polo did travel through much of Asia with his father and uncle where they met Kublai Khan; Polo was imprisoned and dictated his story to a cellmate named Rustichello de Pisa; and Polo’s book did serve as inspiration to many later explorers, including Christopher Columbus.

If you mention Marco Polo to your child and the first thing that comes to mind is a pool game, then Armstrong’s book would be a good introduction to the man.  Perhaps it might even inspire your young reader to find out more about this famous merchant, trader, and explorer.  In the meantime…Marco!  Polo!

Rating: 3/5

* Book cover image attributed to http://www.amazon.com

 

The Beggar King and the Secret of Happiness (Biography) by Joel ben Izzy

The Beggar King and the Secret of Happiness

The Beggar King and the Secret of Happiness  

Joel ben Izzy (Adult Biography)

“There are some stories that make you feel warm and good inside, leaving you with the sense that all is right with the world.  There are others that simply make you laugh.  And then there are those you just don’t know what to do with, the kind that pass through your psyche like a mouse moving through a snake.”  This is a story about a man who lost so much only to gain even more.

Joel ben Izzy is a storyteller and a very successful one at that.  He has traveled the world delighting audiences with his folktales and stories.  He has a wife, two beautiful children, and is happy…until a routine operation robs him of his voice.  Just when our storyteller believes he has lost everything, his old teacher resurfaces to remind him that what is really important isn’t lost, but has yet to be found.

Joel ben Izzy combines his remarkable journey with tales about a lost horse, a jumping cricket, a border guard, Silence, Truth, and Death.  Through witty, poignant, and heartbreakingly honest writing, ben Izzy demonstrates why he is so remarkable and successful at what he does.  Very seldom does a book leave me absolutely charmed, entranced, and hopelessly smitten.  Such was my gift from this truly skilled storyteller.

ben Izzy’s former teacher once told him that his story was in the hands of a masterful storyteller.  There are those of us who believe this about our own story—that it is already written and we are merely being guided, chapter by chapter, to our final page.  Throughout our life, we hope that this storyteller is kind, merciful, generous, has a sense of humor, and perhaps suffers from bouts of amnesia.  But through it all, we pray for the courage to keep turning the next page—ever anxious to discover what the storyteller has in store for us next.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to http://www.amazon.com

 

 

 

The Underneath by Kathi Appelt (J)

The Underneath

The Underneath  

Kathi Appelt (Juvenile Fiction)

This is a tale of two love stories separated by one thousand years.  The first is of a possessive, jealous, and cruel love.  It is about an enchantress, a king, and a family of three.  The second tale tells of a selfless, devoted, and pure love.  It is about a brave mother, a set of twins, and a gifted but abused blues singer.  But like so many tales, these two worlds eventually collide and when they do, which love will prove to be the strongest?

Appelt offers up a modern-day fairytale that gives readers heroes, villains, magic, mystery, and danger.  Like most fairytales, we can count on the villain getting his comeuppance, the misguided antagonist having a change of heart, and the power of true love winning in the end.  The book has very short chapters and makes for an easy read for younger readers (or an ideal bedtime book to be shared and read aloud).  The story has some instances of animal cruelty, so parents of sensitive readers should be warned.  Also, although Appelt gives us a truly suspenseful tale, it does stall near the middle and needlessly prolongs the action.  At just over 300 pages, this may frustrate some readers, but perseverance has its rewards and a satisfying ending awaits the patient reader.

Time and time again our little protagonists are told to “Stay in the Underneath.  You’ll be safe in the Underneath.”  And true enough, safely tucked underneath this dust jacket is a wonderful tale of devotion, friendship, family, and the importance of a promise kept.

Rating: 4/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com

 

A Virtuous Woman by Kaye Gibbons

A Virtuous Woman

A Virtuous Woman  

Kaye Gibbons (Adult Fiction)

Blinking Jack Ernest Stokes is forty when he marries Ruby Pitt Woodrow.  Jack is twice Ruby’s age, skinny, and homely, but despite his drawbacks, he loves Ruby unconditionally and promises to take care of her.  After suffering a tormented marriage to a brutal drifter, Ruby longs for stability and security and accepts Jack’s proposal of marriage.  Such is the story of two very different people who transcend both economic worth and social status in order to make a marriage work.

Gibbons gives us a simple story about a man and a woman whose devotion for one another is uncomplicated, unwavering, and unbounded.  Jack and Ruby’s love is quiet and kind and both derive a satisfying and greatly needed comfort from their marriage.  A Virtuous Woman is a pleasant read and flows along at a relaxed pace—alternating narration between Jack and Ruby.  Sadly, this book barely breaks the surface and fails to give the reader an opportunity to emotionally bond with either the story or to its characters.  Gibbons succeeds in providing a big-picture view of a bittersweet relationship between two broken people, but the story could have been far richer had Gibbons further fleshed out the complicated feelings and effects associated with infertility, terminal illness, and bereavement.

Jack and Ruby’s unlikely relationship reminds us that love need not be complicated or blind.  Sometimes, just having someone there offering you acceptance, kindness, and peace is enough.

Rating: 3/5

* Book cover image attributed to http://www.amazon.com

 

 

Lost Horizon by James Hilton

It’s Throwback Thursday where we pick a random Thursday to review a Classic from literature.  We hope you enjoy this very dusty jacket.

Lost Horizon.jpg

Lost Horizon   

James Hilton (Adult Fiction)

It’s 1931 and the situation is dire in Baskul.  The country is in the midst of a revolution and all of the white residents are being evacuated to Peshawar.  Four passengers are loaded onto a plane lent by the Maharajah of Chandapore:  a British consul (Hugh Conway), his vice-consul (Captain Charles Mallinson), a missionary (Miss Roberta Brinklow), and an American (Henry Barnard).  After some time, all on board quickly realize that they have been kidnapped and being taken to an unknown destination.  Their plane soon crash lands in the harsh and unforgiving Tibetan mountains and, before he dies, their pilot instructs them to go to a place called Shangri-La.  With only the clothes on their backs, the small party begins their journey to a place thought only to exist in legend.

Hilton gives us a place that stands in stark contrast to the world Conway has experienced.  He has seen the ravages of war and its effects are still with him—even after a decade has passed.  During World War I, Conway has seen death, disease, and destruction.  At Shangri-La, he sees only tranquility, serenity, and beauty.  Because of his haunted past, he—more so than his fellow passengers—seems willing and anxious to embrace the charms and mystery of this newly discovered paradise.

Lost Horizon gives readers a wonderful and beautiful utopian lamasery where every care is met and every need satisfied.  It is truly paradise found and for those who stumble upon it, their lives will never be the same.  But this story also serves as a reminder that one man’s paradise may be another man’s prison and the only thing that may differentiate the two is freedom.  If you had to stay, would it really be paradise?  Conversely, if you could leave, would it really be prison?

I truly enjoyed this tale of a modern Garden of Eden and couldn’t help but ask myself this question as I turned the last page: “If I had ALL the time in the world, what would I do?”  What would you do?

Rating: 4/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

 

 

The Decoding of Lana Morris by Laura & Tom McNeal (YA)

It’s Tween and Teen Tuesday where we review either a juvenile (J) or young adult (YA) book.

The Decoding of Lana Morris.jpg

The Decoding of Lana Morris  

Laura & Tom McNeal (Young Adult Fiction)

If you had one wish…just one…what would it be?

Sixteen-year old Lana Morris lives in a two-storied foster home that she shares with four special needs kids (Snicks for short) and her foster parents, Whit and Veronica.  Lana wishes for a different foster mother; she wishes to fit in with the cool kids; she wishes she didn’t have to live in Snick House; and she wishes she understood her feelings for Whit better.  Lana wishes for a lot of things and soon, after she visits Miss Hekkity’s Oddments & Antiques, she’ll have not just one wish, but 13.

First, I want to focus on the positive aspects of this book, which is the attention the McNeals devote to young people with special needs.  They give us insight into their daily lives and allow us to understand their challenges and individuality.  Too often society judges these amazing people by their outward appearance or behavior alone.  It is also heartwarming to see Lana’s role evolve from disparager to defender as she connects with her housemates and appreciates their uniqueness.

Unfortunately, the negative aspects of this book vastly outweigh the positives.  The McNeals make Veronica excessively cruel and evil for no apparent reason.  Her treatment of Lana is childish, snippy, and incredibly mean-spirited.  The authors provide no insight as to why this kind of person possesses such disdain and disregard for the children in her care.  We find out late in the book that she is unable to have children of her own.  So, are we then to assume that these children are somehow meant to fill a personal void or is she putting her own feelings aside and doing it out of selfless love for Whit?  Surely, she can’t be putting herself and these children through such torment for just a monthly stipend.

Additionally, and more disturbingly, is how the authors portray Whit.  Before Lana gains access to her “wishes”, Whit is a beloved, meek, and kind foster father.  The children adore him and Lana views him as a father (although her affections often overlap between familial and hormonal).  After her visit to Miss Hekkity’s, Whit inexplicably becomes increasingly salacious and lecherous toward Lana.  As a lonely teenage girl in want of a father figure, Lana is naturally drawn to Whit, but Whit’s reciprocation, and even encouragement, of her interest cross a very distinct line which is both disturbing and unsettling.  If the authors merely did this to shock their teen readers with provocative and edgy content, they handedly hit their mark.  What is supposedly a book about a teenage girl desperately trying to find love and acceptance dives abruptly into a world filled with infidelity, child exploitation, abuse, and neglect.

If I had one wish…just one…it would be that the McNeals had stayed a little truer to their book’s proposed purpose.  Unfortunately, the strong and encouraging themes of love, acceptance, and friendship are overshadowed by hate, jealousy, and lust and no amount of wishes can overcome that.

Rating: 2/5

* Book cover image attributed to http://www.goodreads.com