Mailbox Monday is the gathering place for readers to share the books that that arrived during the previous week. Created by Marcia @ The Printed Page, for the month of March, the host is: Laura of I'm Booking It.
My mailbox was embarrassingly stuffed this week. I hope you had a fun week too!
Here's what arrived:
- When Tito Loved Clara; Jon Michaud (Algonquin) - Michaud, the head librarian at the New Yorker, writes well at the sentence level, but unconvincing characters and soap-operatic plot twists mar his debut about a resilient Dominican-American woman. Clara Lugo lives with her husband, Thomas, and their son, Guillermo, in the New Jersey suburbs and desperately wants another child, but can't conceive. Thomas, meanwhile, laid off from his job six months earlier, has lost his confidence. Clara's 16-year-old niece, Deysie, who has recently moved in with the Lugos, turns out to be pregnant by Clara's sister's ex-con boyfriend. Then Clara's old high school boyfriend, Tito Moreno, reappears. When Clara and Tito, who has failed to move on after their brief tryst 15 years earlier, try to resolve some unfinished personal business, hurtful revelations promise to change the course of both their lives. Despite Clara's complicated family drama, Tito's unhealthy obsession with Clara, and a subplot with the seedy ex-con, the story fails to garner any emotional weight.
- What You See in the Dark; Manuel Munoz (Algonquin) - In 1959, the Director (i.e., Alfred Hitchcock) arrives in Bakersfield, Calif., to film Psycho, along with the Actress (i.e., Janet Leigh), who's struggling to get a handle on the character she will portray. Providing counterpoint to the events surrounding the making of the iconic Hollywood film, including the search for a motel to serve as the exterior of the Bates Motel, is the story of locals Dan Watson and Teresa Garza, whose doomed love affair ends in murder. The author brilliantly presents the Actress's inner thoughts, while he handles the violence with a subtlety worthy of Hitchcock himself. The lyrical prose and sensitive portrayal of the crime's ripple effect in the small community elevate this far beyond the typical noir. 10-city author tour.
- Attachments; Rainbow Rowell - (Dutton) - In sweet, silly, and incredibly long digital missives, best newsroom pals Beth and Jennifer trade gossip over their romances—Beth with her marriage-phobic boyfriend, Chris, and Jennifer with her baby-mania-stricken husband, Mitch. What they don't know is that the newly hired computer guy, Lincoln, an Internet security officer charged with weeding out all things unnecessary or pornographic, is reading their messages. But lonely Lincoln lets the gals slide on their inappropriate office mail and gets hooked on their soapy dalliances, falling head over heels for the unlucky-in-love Beth. Debut novelist and real-life newspaper columnist Rowell has the smarts for this You've Got Mail–like tale of missed connections, but what doesn't work so well is the firewall between the traditional narrative reserved for Lincoln's emergence from shy guy to Beth's guy, and heroines who are confined to the e-epistolary format. Despite the structural problems, there's enough heart and humor to save these likable characters from the recycle bin.
- The Source of All Things; Tracy Ross (Free Press) -
Journalist and contributing Backpacker magazine editor Ross uses the outdoors to guide her powerful memoir detailing the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of her stepfather. The germ of her story—which Ross first published in her magazine in 2009—recounts not only the abuse itself but also Ross's unusual resolution to forgive her stepfather, after confronting him (on tape) about the details of the molestation. It began during a family camping trip when Ross's stepfather, Donnie Lee, tucked her in and touched her for the first time when she was eight. Until she was 14 and reported the abuse to a friend who called the police, Lee would often come into Ross's room at night in their Twin Falls, Idaho, house, even though her mother was right down the hall. Though the abuse is a defining moment in her life, it is not the sole focus of her book. She details her love for the natural world—a passion first cultivated by Lee—with stints in New Mexico, Alaska, and Colorado. But it's the return to Redfish Lake with Lee, 30 years after the abuse began there, that is the soul of this compelling story.
- A Hard Death; Jonathan Hayes - (Harper Collins) - Disgraced forensic pathologist Dr. Edward Jenner hoped that a move to Florida would be a distraction from the serial killer horrors in Precious Blood, but in Hayes's solid sequel, the medical examiner finds himself embroiled in another life and death investigation. Barely eking out a living as Port Fontaine's temporary pathologist, Jenner is shocked when one of his first cases in the sleepy coastal town is the murder of his former mentor and Port Fontaine's regular medical examiner, Dr. Martin Roburn, whose body shows signs of torture. When Jenner is alerted to the decomposing bodies of four migrant workers deep in a swamp, he suspects their deaths are tied to Roburn. Jenner, along with a local detective, starts putting the pieces together to connect Port Fontaine's richest men, the booming migrant population, and the lucrative drug trade. Though Hayes flirts with a few genre clichés, Jenner emerges as a sufficiently flawed yet empathetic hero.
- My New American Life; Francine Prose - (Harper Collins) - The story of a good-hearted immigrant doubles as a snapshot of America during Bush II's second term in Prose's uneven latest. Lula is a 26-year-old Albanian working an undemanding au pair gig in New Jersey. Her employer, Stanley, is a forlorn Wall Street exec recently abandoned by his mentally disturbed wife. He asks only that Lula see to the simple needs of his son, Zeke, a disaffected high school senior. Soon, Stanley and one of his friends, a high-profile immigration lawyer, are taken with the tale-telling, mildly exotic Lula (who speaks English flawlessly) and get to work on securing her citizenship. Lula's gig is cushy if dull, a condition relieved when three Albanian criminals, led by the charming Alvo, arrive at Stanley's house with a quiet demand that Lula harbor a (Chekhovian) gun for them. Prose seeks to show America through the fresh eyes of an outsider with a deeply ingrained, comic pessimism born of life under dictatorship, yet also capable of exuberant optimism, and the results, like Lula, are agreeable enough but not terribly profound.
- The King's Grace; Anne Easter Smith (Simon and Schuster) - a complex exploration of a turbulent period of English history, taking on one of its biggest mysteries: the fate of princes Edward and Richard, locked up in the Tower by Richard III. Protagonist Grace Plantagenet is the illegitimate daughter of Edward IV and had been confidant to his family—including her imprisoned half-brothers Edward and Richard. After Richard III is killed and the princes disappear, a man named Perkin Warbeck appears to challenge Henry VII, claiming to be the presumed dead Prince Richard. Determined to discover the truth of Warbeck's claim, Grace throws herself into the politics of the court, knowing that if Warbeck is Prince Richard, it could be drastic for Grace's family—especially for her half-sister Elizabeth of York, now Henry's queen. Examined through the eyes of a minor historical figure, Smith introduces readers to 15th-century political intrigue with thought, courage and honesty. Though her major historical figures (especially Henry VII) get the broad-brush treatment, Smith is careful to make Grace and her world detailed and engaging.
- Mothers and Daughters; Rae Meadows (Henry Holt) - Meadows (Calling Out) lightly explores the interplay between mothers and daughters in this thin intergenerational drama. Sam, a 30-something new mom, tries to meet the needs of her daughter and maintain her own identity while dealing with the recent death of her mother, Iris. We meet Iris just before her death as she invites Sam home to help her prepare for her demise. Then there's Violet, Iris's mother, who at the age of 11 roamed the streets of New York, until her poverty-stricken mother put her on an orphan train to the Midwest. Violet's story is the best told, with details of her New York life and her experiences on the orphan train easily stealing the show from the more staid and familiar contemporary plot. Generational differences in opportunities, attitudes, and expectations are patly played out, but there's little attention paid to anything deeper than the surface ways the women affect each others' lives. Meadows writes decent prose, but the story doesn't dig deep enough.
- Iron House; John Hart (Shelf Awareness/Thomas Dunne Books)
- Miss Julia Rocks the Cradle; Ann Ross (Viking) - At the start of Ross's slow-moving 12th Miss Julia mystery set in Abbotsville, N.C. (after 2010's Miss Julia Renews Her Vows), Miss Julia's stepson, Lloyd, a student in Miss Petty's social studies class, breathlessly tells Julia, "They found a body in Miss Petty's outhouse" (actually, the teacher's toolshed). Embezzler and ex-con Richard Stroud appears to have died of natural causes while spying on his former business partner, Thurlow Jones. Miss Julia never recovered the money Richard once stole from her, and Richard had again been forging checks on her account. In one exciting development in an otherwise placid plot, Hazel Marie Pickens gives birth to twins during a blizzard attended by, among others, Miss Julia, home health care professional Etta Mae Wiggins, and Lloyd, whose dad was Miss Julia's late two-timing husband, Wesley Lloyd Springer. The sweet down-home humor only partly redeems a thin and far-fetched mystery. 5-city author tour.
- The Anti-Romantic Child; Priscilla Gilman - (Harper Collins) - The daughter of literary agent Lynn Nesbit and the late theater drama critic Richard Gilman crafts a beautifully sinuous and intensely literary celebration of the exceptional, unconventional child. Her son, Benjamin, was born when she and her academic husband, Richard, were in graduate school at Yale, where she was still working on her dissertation on the Romantic English poet William Wordsworth. As "Benj" grew older and failed to hit the usual milestones of children his age, exhibiting brilliant but "odd" behavior such as an obsession with numbers, aversion to physical affection, fastidiousness, inability to feed himself, and echolalia, Gilman realized these were "uncontrollable manifestations of a disorder," namely hyperlexia. Falsely reassured by their well-intentioned pediatrician, the couple finally sought professional therapists, and after they relocated to Poughkeepsie, N.Y., where both got teaching jobs at Vassar, Benj made marvelous progress in school. Throughout her narrative, Gilman extracts from many of Wordsworth's poems, which comment on innocence and loss and gave Gilman tremendous succor during Benjamin's early development, making for both charming and studious reading. Her thoughtful memoir involves the breakup of her marriage, rejection of an academic career, and move to New York City to work in her mother's literary agency as much as it delves lyrically into the rare, complex mind of the unusual child.
- Touchstone Summer 2011 Reading Group Sourcebook