Sunday, April 22, 2012

Ninepins, by Rosy Thornton

There are very few authors I've read that can write a compelling, reality-based account of life as well as Rosy Thornton. I'm happy to say that Ninepins, her newest effort, not only met my expectations produced by her previous works, but far, far exceeded them.

Ninepins is the name of Laura Blackwood's former toll-house home in the fens surrounding Cambridge. While named after a place which is beautifully described by Ms. Thornton, the book's emphasis is on the human element tied to the house and its surroundings. Laura is a university researcher, divorced from Simon, and mother to 12 year old Beth. Beth also suffers from periodic bouts of asthma. Near to Ninepins is a pumphouse that has been re-done over the years, and Laura has sublet it out (for extra income) to students in the past. When a man and a young girl come to look at the pumphouse, Laura assumes they are father and daughter. The truth is different however, and Willow, a seventeen year old just coming out of foster care, becomes Laura's new tenant.

There are so many threads and themes running through what seems at first to be a simple, mother-daughter story. There is the tension in Laura's relationship with her daughter, who is pulling against her traces and trying to stretch her independence to sometimes untenable positions. There is Laura's unwillingness to let her daughter spread her wings just a little, and in so doing, adds to Beth's tendency to revolt. There's the burgeoning relationship between Beth and Willow, as well as Beth's relationship to her friends at her new school (what we would call middle school here in the States).  There's the dichotomy between Laura and Beth's relationship and that of Willow's to Marianne, her own mother, which sometimes leads Willow to look at Beth as a spoiled princess of a child who doesn't quite know how lucky she is. There is Laura's relationship with Willow, one that is forced upon both of them when Willow must move into the main house. On top of all this, we have Vince, Willow's social worker. What do we think of him? Was he fair to Laura in bringing Willow into her home, knowing her history? How does Laura reconcile this at the end after everything that has happened? And ultimately, what really is the definition of "family?"

Ms. Thornton has written a gem of a story. On its surface,  Ninepins is as calm as the water surrounding the actual house, but like the fens and the water running in the lode, it doesn't take much to stir up the bottom and turn the story into a floodwater of emotion, passion and substance. Ninepins is a must-read for any contemporary fiction fan. It is every day life but better; richer somehow owing to the author's wonderfully descriptive writing skills. These are life sized characters with life sized stories that somehow become larger than life. They will stay with you long past the turning of the last page. Rosy Thornton makes them entirely believable and truly unforgettable.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen

Even though I've never seen the movie, I had a hard time not picturing Robert Pattinson as Jacob Jankowski, Water for Elephants' male protagonist. Despite this, or because of it, I'm not quite sure which, I loved Sara Gruen's best-seller. Finally, months after the film was released, I got around to picking it up. And it was worth the wait.

The story opens in three different time periods almost simultaneously. The added benefit to this plot device is that I didn't have to sneak a peak at the last page to figure out how the book ends, a nasty little habit of mine. The author tells you right  up front and while some may find this ruins the book for them, it really does not detracts from the overall impact of the novel. So when you get to this point, keep reading!

The story follows Jacob, a 23 year old Cornell veterinary student through two consecutive tragedies that force a decision to leave Cornell before he can finish his final exams, and then to leave home altogether. Jacob finds himself attached to a "train" circus, and  he meets the performers, managers and workmen of this particular circus. He becomes interested in Marlena, the wife of August, the Equestrian and Menagerie Manager, a mecurial man who is, in fact, a paranoid schizophrenic. In Jacob's case, the paranoia is definitely warranted, as he and Marlena draw closer over their love for the circus animals (especially Rosie, the Polish-understanding elephant). Their mutual hatred of August and Uncle Al, the circus owner, who makes a habit of throwing workers off the circus train at night (a practice known as redlighting) draws them inevitably closer together.  When a major stampede occurs, things come to a head, literally, as Rosie takes action, and Marlena and Jacob have a decision to make.

The story takes place in 1931 with flash forwards to the present day, as Jacob retells the story of his life from his nursing home bed. These chapters tended to depress me just a bit, as the author really brings home the fact that we all grow older and sometimes change beyond our own recognition. The ending of the book redeemed itself in this regard, but I was still left looking in the mirror at my own tell-tale wrinkles and age spots.

Water for Elephants is, ultimately, an uplifting book where good (and circus animals) do triumph over evil. I'm still not sure I'd like to see the movie. Some things may be better left to the imagination.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Rainshadow Road, by Lisa Kleypas

I was hoping to break my review writing hiatus with something wonderful. And while Lisa Kleypas' newest foray into contemporary romance held a lot of promise, it fell just a tad short, not for what it didn't have, but for what it did.

The Friday Harbor series starts with the story of Mark Nolan, his niece Holly and his love interest Maggie, in the short story, Christmas at Friday Harbor. What I consider the second novel in the series, Rainshadow Road, is the story of Mark's younger brother, vineyard owner Sam, and Lucy Marinn, a local stained glass  artist. Lucy grows up with a sister who, having survived meningitis, is handed everything on a silver platter. Lucy is left with resentment and an inferiority complex. There are also hints of a special magical talent she has for turning glass into living objects. For me, the "jump the shark" moment comes early in this novel, and I tried very hard to get past it. There are more examples of these magical powers later on, and each time it happens, it just strikes a discordant tone in my head. But back to the story. When Kevin, Lucy's boyfriend of two years,  finds a new love in Lucy's aforementioned sister, Lucy swears off commitment to protect herself from hurt. 

Sam Nolan grows up as a child of alcoholic parents, and finds it easier to protect himself from hurt by running away from commitment. He too, seems to have some powers; plants turn green and flourish when he's around. His special talent, in my mind, also detracts from the story at times, but not as much as Lucy's. He meets Lucy after her break-up and we sense that something is possible between these two, but wonder if past experience with bad relationships and poor examples of parenthood are enough to keep them apart. Lucy decides to take the relationship at face value and to just have fun. But as we all know in a romance novel, that approach never quite works out as planned. 

I think Ms. Kleypas should have left well enough alone, to be honest. This could be a terrific love story, filled with wonderful characters and enough interesting familial situations that  should  carry the novel. No need, in my opinion, to throw "magic" into the mix. I believe this is worth a read, because after all, Lisa is the author of the Wallflower Series, some of my favorite books in the romance genre. As those prove (and without all the hocus pocus mind you) falling in love is magic enough.