The Manuscript

 The Manuscript by Nathan Hystad

Seattle detective, Jeremiah Trent, lives a solitary life until it's interrupted by an invitation from someone out of his past. Jay, now an incredibly successful author, asks Jeremiah and two other old friends to join him for a week at his mansion in Aspen, flights already booked and paid for. Jeremiah hesitates to reply because these four people have a long-held secret and getting together after all these years could bring a story best kept hidden to light again. 

They all decide to go, if only to see what it's all about, finding upon arrival that Jay has written a new novel he wants them to read and give feedback on. He allows them only one chapter at a time and while they read he sits in his locked office writing their reactions as things unfold. They soon realize that what they are reading is their own chilling story, just set in a different location and with the names changed. Each chapter makes them more uneasy and as the tension grows, questions and accusations arise. Then a buried body is discovered by local police and questions and accusations turn to fear. 

The first couple of pages reminded me of 1960's television detective-speak. Matter-of-fact, just-the-facts-Ma'am stuff. I could almost hear Jack Webb's expressionless voice reading the first line: "The dead eyes stared at me from across the room." I hoped the whole book wouldn't read like that, and thankfully it didn't; another few pages in and I was hooked. The tension builds as one surprising truth after another comes out, then suddenly it all hits the fan and you can't turn the pages fast enough. I had it figured out before the end but still there were surprises. The writing is average and the plot has a hole or two, but the suspense is definitely there and that makes it a pretty good read. 

Phantom of the Opera and The Henna Artist

 Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux

I've never seen the stage musical but I watch the gorgeous movie musical starring Emmy Rossum and Gerard Butler at least once a year. That feast for the eyes and ears being my only experience of the Phantom, I had high hopes for the book, but to be honest I wasn't as thrilled as I'd hoped to be. I feel guilty even saying that; one should love the classic novels, right?

I'm not sure why it didn't appeal to me. With much more story than the movie tells, a creepier tone and plenty of suspense, I should have loved it. And I might have if I'd read the book before seeing the movie, but as it was I just found it long and tedious at times. Maybe the glorious music and lush settings of the movie spoiled me for the book, I don't know, but I'm pretty sure the problem is with me and not the book.   

The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi

Lakshmi Shastri, 30, flees from an arranged marriage and abusive husband to the city of Jaipur, where with the help of an influential acquaintance, Samir Singh, she begins a thriving business as a henna artist and herbalist. Just as she reaches the height of her popularity with Jaipur's elite ladies and begins to enjoy the benefits of years of hard work, a young sister she didn't know existed enters her life, setting off a chain of events that could tear down everything Lakshmi has built. 

This first book in what will be a series was an interesting story with credible characters and realistic dialogue, yet I never came to care enough about the characters to want to read the next book. They didn't step off the page and come to life for me. I did get a lot out of the cultural experience, seeing life in India from a woman's point of view and learning a bit about henna painting and other aspects of Indian life, but even after reading the lengthy excerpt included from the next book I'm still not inclined to keep going.

One aspect of the book that got annoying was the frequent use of untranslated Indian terms. The author does include a glossary of terms at the back to help understand them, but with the e-book it's not easy to flip back and forth. Some of them I could get pop-up definitions for and others could be understood from context, but quite a few I ended up skipping over. There were a lot of them. Even with a print book I don't think I'd have wanted to be looking up words in the glossary every time I turned a page. A list of characters is also included but I'd recommend reading from a paper copy rather than audio or e-book to make better use of the lists.

The topic is interesting and the plot well paced, the writing flows well and it held my attention right through to the end. But I didn't find the characters relatable, or maybe approachable is a better word, and that made it less than great for me.

To The Lighthouse

 To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

Told from the point of view of various character's thoughts, it covers two separate days, ten years apart, in the life of the Ramsay family. 

Mrs. Ramsay, her husband, and their eight children are staying at their somewhat rundown summer house on the Isle of Sky, along with several guests invited to join them for a few days. Mrs. Ramsay wants to take James, their youngest, to the lighthouse across the water the next day, but her husband insists that it will rain and they won't be able to go. To her thinking, he gets too much enjoyment out of repeating his prediction and seeing their disappointment. 

In the first section of the book, we are privy to Mrs. Ramsay's thoughts about her role as a woman, wife and mother; her conjectures about their guests; Mr. Ramsay's musings about his family and his own self-doubt; and the reflections of some of the visitors. 

To be honest, at this point I found myself getting bored, but then, suddenly, it took a new direction. After several deaths in the family, the Ramsays stop coming to the summer house for a period of ten years. An aging housekeeper is left to look after the place but it is too big a job for one person and things begin to run down. The description of the deterioration is so well done, so hauntingly beautiful that I found it the most interesting, and most moving, part of the book.

Ten years after the family's last visit, the housekeeper receives a letter telling her to get the house ready - no small job - for the family to return. This part is told through the housekeeper's thoughts about putting the house in order and her speculations about the family. Once they arrive, along with some of the same guests oddly enough, Mr. Ramsay and three of his children set out to finally make the trip to the lighthouse. 

I can't say I loved the story but I do admire the mind that conceived and wrote it. Revealing the character's attitudes and desires and the nature of their relationships through their thoughts rather than plot and dialogue gives the reader deeper insight into them than we would gain from only their actions and words, but it's a bold thing for an author to do. It was unusual, and refreshing in a way, to be taken into her character's minds and to hear the entire story from there. I've read only three other books written in the stream-of-consciousness style: Ulysses by James Joyce, which I gave up on half-way through and with which I was not nearly as impressed as the scholarly reviewers (who admittedly know far more than I) said I should be, and William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying, both of which were absolutely mesmerizing. It's a style that's beginning to grow on me. 

I can see why this is a classic and still being studied after all this time. Like all good books it helps us to understand the human race, including ourselves, just a little bit better.  

Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore

 Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore by Matthew Sullivan

I'm not an avid reader of mysteries but "Bookstore" in the title is hard to resist, so when Kobo offered it for 2.99, I was in. 

When Lydia, who works at the Bright Ideas bookstore, finds Joey, a young customer she was fond of, hanging from the rafters by his own hand, she is devastated. When she learns that he has inexplicably left everything in his apartment to her, she starts looking for answers. What was his life like? What led to his tragic end? And why her? 

In his apartment she finds a book with small rectangles cut out of the pages. The words themselves she can guess from context, but they make no sense when put together. When she realizes the sticker on the back of the book is actually for a different book, she locates that title and discovers that the holes in one book, held over a page in the other, reveal a message. And it isn't just that one book, she finds several more with further messages.

As she unravels the puzzle Joey created for her she is shocked to find a connection between Joey and a traumatic childhood incident in her own past. Her life will be changed forever by what comes to light. 

It's been a while since I've read anything I'd call a page-turner but this one had me hurrying through whatever I was doing so I could get back to the story. It was nice to feel that again. 

The writing is good, the dialogue realistic, the characters plausible and relatable, and there are enough reasonable twists to keep it interesting, even surprising. It's a solid, entertaining mystery and a good read.  

My Name is Asher Lev

My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok

I read this for the second time when it was chosen for our Book Club and and though I still can't say I liked it, I did get more out of it this time.

Asher Lev is a young Jewish boy with a passion for art. He is enormously talented, but his family and religious leaders consider his gift a hindrance to him both morally and spiritually. Growing up he's in constant conflict, trying to be true to his faith and to his art, causing considerable turmoil in his family. He is eventually introduced to a famous artist who will become his mentor and help him develop his skills, an arrangement to which Asher's father strongly objects. Over time the boy becomes successful, his paintings are shown in a distinguished gallery and subsequently purchased at high prices, but these same paintings cause much suffering in his personal life, damaging the relationships that are most important to him.

Though I didn't particularly enjoy the story I am glad I gave it a second shot. I was fascinated with Potok's writing and spent some time looking at how he kept the tone so consistently dark and ominous feeling. The words he chose, the short, abrupt sentences, and the state of tension he kept us in (always expecting some tragedy or another) created an unsettling mood from the beginning to what was for me, an unsatisfying ending. I understand there is a sequel now, so some questions might get answered there, but I don't know at this point if I want to read it.

In the second half of the book there's a lot of discussion about art and artists. There were so many names I didn't recognize that I decided a little art history education was called for, so I looked up over two dozen of them to have a look at their work. In the process I became a bit more familiar with various styles - is the correct term eras, schools, genres? - of art: Baroque, Impressionism, Post-impressionism, Cubism, Abstract Impressionism and others. I still may not know a lot about art, but I'm more sure of what I like and what I don't like now and why, so I guess I'll be satisfied with that.

This is a book that seems to generate intense opinions for and against but I don't feel strongly about it either way. I'm iffy about the story but I did get a lot out of it the second time through. If you've read it I'd love to know your thoughts, pro or con, so please do post your comments.  

My Kitchen Year

 My Kitchen Year by Ruth Reichl

I thoroughly enjoyed this, finding it much more interesting than her novel, Delicious!, that I read recently. This one is her own personal story about the year after Gourmet Magazine, of which she'd been editor for ten years, shut down, and how she coped with that abrupt loss in her life. The novel tells a similar story about a fictional character but I found the writing better in the telling of her real life experience and the story far more engaging. Each chapter shares a bit of her life that first year after losing her job - a year of finding solace in cooking - followed by a recipe or two, all appealing and lots of them useful even to a plain cook like me. I must have written down more than a dozen of them. I'm eager to try... Apricot Pie, Easy Bolognese for Pasta, Roasted Winter Strawberries with Ice Cream, Lemon Panna Cotta, Turkey Hash with Fried Egg, and especially Mrs. Lincoln's (Mrs. Abraham Lincoln!) Genuine Sponge Cake. The author's luscious descriptions of fruits, vegetables and other foods -  and it's not just how she sees them but how she feels about them that mesmerizes you - and the infectious joy she finds in preparing them, make this book an absolute delight. Excellent reading.