WARNING: This book review contains spoilers. Stop reading now if you don’t want to know details about the plot and ending of the novel.

Phantom by Jo Nesbo is the 9th book in the Harry Hole detective series and my book club pick for June. You can pick it up and go without the background from the other stories, but fair warning: this book is good and you’ll probably want to start from the beginning. I know I wish I had.  Harry Hole is a former detective in the Oslo police force. He’s an alcoholic, a smoker – in fact, he is pretty much the cliche bad-on-the-surface-but-with-a-heart-of-gold cop. Not to say that it doesn’t work, because even with the cop cliches, Harry Hole is a compelling and interesting character. He’s been working and living in Hong Kong but returns to Oslo for our story, investigating a murder case involving his former stepson, Oleg.

Full disclosure: The first few chapters of this book are dense and hard to slog through. Part of the problem for me is probably a language issue. I just can’t wrap my head around the Norwegian proper nouns. Some of the names like Oleg, Gusto, and Rakel were easy to absorb but others had me flipping back a few pages to remember what they were. City names, places, or people? No hablo Norwegian. This book (much in the same way that the Dragon Tattoo series did) surprised me with the seedy drug and gang culture in a place like Norway that I’ve always imagined to be low-crime and full of happy blonde people wearing knit sweaters and cross-country skiing. My stereotypes of Norway are exclusively positive, having known and been close friends with several Norwegians when I lived in Scotland as a tweenager so it took some mental adjustments to “get into” the story.

So blonde sweater-wearing stereotypes aside, Phantom is a legit crime novel with serious bad guys (mostly Russian and eastern European) and corrupt cops and politicians. Layered on top of all that is the mystery surrounding the circumstances of Gusto’s murder. Harry’s stepson Oleg has already been arrested for the crime and he arrives to find the truth, unable to believe Oleg could really be a murderer. The story of the murder is woven into other elements of the tale – twisted cop Truls Berntsen, coke-head pilot and drug mule Tord Schultz, and a missing girl – Gusto’s foster sister and Oleg’s girlfriend Irene Hanssen.

Harry Hole reminds me of the Bruce Willis character in Die Hard – very tough, smart, and seemingly indestructible. There are several times when he should have died but manages to survive. In fact, the book ends with Harry Hole lying on the floor in a rat-trap heroin den, seemingly dead from a bullet wound.

The last couple of chapters of the book are so tightly constructed and well-written that I got caught up in the story and didn’t want to put it down. Jo Nesbo is not one of those novelists who leaves the reader feeling unsatisfied. You don’t feel cheated at the resolution of the various mysteries in Phantom as I so often find to be the case with authors of lesser talent (for another incredibly talented mystery writer, check out Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie series series. Her talent for non-linear storytelling is pretty impressive and she manages to create characters so real you can imagine them sitting down at your dinner table with just a minimum of details carefully and unobtrusively woven into the plot.)

This was my favorite pick so far this year.

Overall Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Dark and Twisty Meter: Medium High

Page Turner Rating: Low in the first few chapters, finishes High

WARNING: This book review contains spoilers. Stop reading now if you don’t want to know details about the plot and ending of the novel.

I’m seriously behind on my book club reviews! The American Heiress was my May pick and it was an entertaining little novel. Nothing deep or thought-provoking but it was tasty fluff so far as fluff goes. The titular American heiress is the young, beautiful, and obscenely rich Cora Cash. Her parents are nouveau riche  meaning they earned their money while the rest of Manhattan society inherited theirs. Cora’s mother is a scheming social climber who is determined to marry Cora off to an Englishman with a title since that’s the only real way to best the mamas of the Manhattan elite who look down their noses at the Cash family.

We know from the very first pages of the novel that Cora gets her duke, so the set up to their meeting is slightly tedious. We go through dozens of pages describing a summer ball, a flirtation with rich boy/wannabe artist Teddy, Cora’s mom catching on fire…Yes, you read that right. Cora’s mom rigs her ball gown up with lights for the fancy summer ball and she ends up on fire. She is badly scarred by the accident and wears a veil to conceal her face throughout the novel. We finally make it to England only to be treated to more details of dinners, dresses, horse rides, and manners. Daisy Goodwin is definitely no Edith Wharton when it comes to painting a picture of Gilded Age excess. Goodwin does a nice job describing outrageous appetizers like lark tongues in aspic and Cora’s toilette routine but she doesn’t quite succeed in pulling us into the era. Of course, Edith Wharton had the major advantage of actually living during the Gilded Age….so I guess I can forgive that flaw.

One thing I can’t forgive is the dissatisfying resolution of the novel. We’re given hints from the first that all is not right with Cora’s Duke (Ivo is his name) and I’d hoped for a bigger climax or scandal, but the drama sort of dies quietly. The plot just fell flat for me. It’s definitely not a bad book and is probably better than most, but I’d rather have a good mystery or a cleverly crafted plot. I’ve been reading a lot of Kate Atkinson lately and that woman is a master of creating mood and jumping skillfully from point to point. Her writing makes The American Heiress look like the Velveeta of literature.

The really bright point in this novel is the subplot of Cora’s maid Bertha. I was fascinated by the lifestyle of servants and especially the differences between British and American servants. I did wish at several points that Bertha would give Cora a much-needed slap, but sadly it was not meant to be. Cora continued to play the cliche romantic heroine (bad girl blinded by her love to mystery man) much to my frustration.

Pick up The American Heiress for a plane ride or to read by the pool because it’s the perfect kind of fluff to go along with those activities. It’s not going to challenge your brain but it will entertain and it’s better than watching Big Brother or some other crap that’s on TV in the summer.

Overall Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Dark and Twisty Meter: Low on Dark, Low  to Medium on Twisty

Page Turner Rating: Low

WARNING: This book review contains spoilers. Stop reading now if you don’t want to know details about the plot and ending of the novel.

You will need a BOX of tissues and many free hours for my April pick: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. It’s the love story of two cancer-stricken teenagers; Hazel and Augustus. It sounds depressing, but it’s not. Yes, you will cry, but you will also laugh. A lot. Hazel and Augustus meet in a cancer support group and they’re an instant match with similar quirky humor and their perspective on sickness and death. Hazel is very sick but could survive indefinitely with a trial drug. and Augusts us in remission and attending the support group to support a friend. Their conversations and interactions are charming, heartfelt, and often heartbreaking.

As they are getting to know each other, Hazel shares her favorite book, An Imperial Affliction, with Augustus and admits that the thing she wants most in the world is to know what happens to the characters. The book is about a teenage girl with cancer and it ends literally in mid-sentence. It’s the only book every written by the eccentric Peter Van Houten and Hazel has been writing to him for years with no response. Augustus is determined to help Hazel find out what happens and he is able to contact the author’s assistant in Amsterdam and gain permission for them to visit. Augustus uses his one wish with a Make A Wish-type foundation to make the trip happen.

The novel and the trip to Amsterdam helped move the plot forward but it was an unrealistic part of the book. I found it to be very contrived and unnatural. Augustus and Hazel fall in love on the trip (and consummate their relationship) but they fail to find out the ending to the novel because the author is a complete jerk/drunk. At the end of the trip, Augustus reveals to Hazel that his cancer is back and all over his body. They travel back to the states and grow closer even as he is dying. He asks Hazel and best friend Isaac to write eulogies that they read to him before he is too sick. That scene is incredibly depressing and funny and endearing.  Augustus eventually succumbs to his cancer and his death is terrible and sad and my book would be tear-soaked from that part except Kindles are pretty tear-proof. Mean, nasty Peter Van Houten appears at his funeral. It turns out that he is a bitter shell of a man because he lost his only child to cancer when she was very young (he wrote An Imperial Affliction about her).

The last pages of the book are a eulogy that Augustus wrote for Hazel and sent to Peter Van Houten to review. The ending is similar to An Imperial Affliction in that there is no real “ending.” But Hazel was kind enough to let us know beforehand that  her parents will be okay; her mother was training to become a grief counselor for other teens with cancer. The ending is appropriate and doesn’t feel like a harsh let-down. So many books suck you in with such engaging characters and plot lines only to cut you off like a heroin addict in rehab at the ending…but this ending felt like a gentle letting go.

I enjoyed this book immensely. It was fresh and different and funny and sad. It was a gentle reminder to just enjoy life. Read it!

 Overall Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Dark and Twisty Meter: Low on Dark, Medium on Twisty

Page Turner Rating: High

May’s book is The American Heiress.

WARNING: This book review contains spoilers. Stop reading now if you don’t want to know details about the plot and ending of the novel.

My March book club pick was so good that I read it early in the month and completely forgot to post about it! I chose a nonfiction book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks of Rebecca Skloot. It’s the story of a woman named Henrietta Lacks who donated her cervical cancer cells (via a biopsy) to science in the 1940s just months before her painful and miserable death. Her understanding of the “donation” of the cells is unclear. Henrietta’s cells were used to create the first human line of immortal cells (which basically means they reproduce endlessly in a petri dish instead of dying off like most cells). This was monumental at the time because it allowed research to study human cells in a way that had never been done before. Henrietta’s cells are known as HeLa in the scientific community and they are widely used in labs around the world even today. Testing on her cells led to numerous vaccines (polio and HPV among them) and advances in cancer treatment and a whole host of other benefits to humanity.

The author of the book faces a lot of adversity in trying to tell Henrietta’s story, much of it from Henrietta’s immediate family, In a way, their distrust of the scientific community and refusal to cooperate with interviews is understandable given their view that Johns Hopkins stole Henrietta’s cells and made millions off them. (In actuality, the hospital made no money from the cell line, nor did the scientist who originally developed it, but many labs did and do make money growing and selling the cells.) As we get to know the Lacks family through the author’s relationship with them, we learn that their understanding of HeLa cells use in science is extremely limited in a large part due to their lack of education. That’s a harsh thing to write, but it’s true. The science behind the HeLa cells is not simple stuff, and the Lacks family certainly can’t be faulted for not understanding it. Add that to a general distrust of the medical community and you have a tenuous relationship between the author and the family. It was sometimes uncomfortable to read actually. Henrietta’s daughter Deborah has the closest relationship with the author and she is a hard woman to understand, She’s manic and suspicious and sometimes physically aggressive. She passed away before the book was published and I wonder what she would think of it.

Henrietta’s life was a true slice of American history, and I was very interested in reading about it. She married young (to her first cousin, not unusual in her family) and had four children by the age of 30. She moved from an extremely isolated rural community to Baltimore where she lived in the last years  before her death. Her eldest daughter Elsie was mentally disabled, described as “deaf and dumb’ in her lifetime. Elsie was left to die a likely horrible death in a mental institution after her mother became ill because no one in the family could or would care for her.  (Elsie’s story was truly depressing to me. The treatment of the mentally ill, physically disabled, and even limited intelligence people throughout history is a black mark on humanity’s soul.) Henrietta’s story is brief, like her life, but it was interesting to know about the woman behind the cells.

I really enjoyed this book. The science was not overly complicated or dull (but I was a chemical engineering major for my freshman and sophomore years of college so…grain of salt). The author managed to write about technical content in an accessible way. The general topic of medical research on human cells is an important one for everyone to know about. What happened to Henrietta and her cells is sort of a gray area to me – she freely gave them and no one, not even the scientist who took them, could have foreseen how valuable they would become. All of those consent forms and notifications of privacy laws that we sign at regular doctor’s visit didn’t exist in the 1940s. But this stuff is not going away. Companies can and do patent human cells (it even extends into agriculture, where companies like Monsanto patent seeds. I’ve even heard of patented fish.). So while this story was fascinating to me, it’s also important for people to be aware of how the medical and scientific community is using human genetic material.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Dark and Twisty Meter: Non-existent

Page Turner Rating: Medium-Low

April’s book is The Fault in Our Stars. You will need tissues and lots of free time because it’s a tear-jerking, page-turner.

WARNING: This book review contains spoilers. Stop reading now if you don’t want to know details about the plot and ending of the novel.

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles draws you in from the start with hints about love gone wrong and society misfits.  I was intrigued by the setting (1930s New York City), and found myself easily sucked into the plot. Katey is the narrator, Evey is her wild BFF, and Tinker is the man they both love (or do they?). Evey and Katey are working as typists at various NYC firms, and they share a room at a women’s boardinghouse. Katey is an orphan of Ukrainian descent, and Evey is a blonde, all-American beauty from a well-to-do Midwestern family. A lot of bluster is made about Evey wanting to make it on her own and rejected her father’s money.

Katey and Evey are celebrating New Year’s Eve in a seedy jazz club where they meet Tinker Gray. There is a spark between Tinker and Katey that is quickly overshadowed by Evey’s large personality (and ample bosom, I would guess). She quickly calls dibs on him.  Their New Year’s Eve is silly, but probably a bit wild for the era – lots of champagne, a snowball fight, fraternity boys, and a man in a diaper.

The threesome gets together again at another seedy jazz club (this time Russian) with further hints at unspoken attraction between Katey and Tinker. But on the group’s third outing there is  a life-changing car accident. Tinker is driving (drunk) and Evey is seriously injured. Her legs are broken and her face is badly scarred. Tinker is filled with guilt and won’t leave her side at the hospital, and he even brings her to his apartment after her discharge, becoming her caregiver (and eventually her lover). All the while, Katey appears to be moving on with her life – a new job, a new apartment, even a boyfriend – but she is obviously in love with Tinker.

The relationship with Evey and Tinker is odd and definitely not based on love. She’s using him for his money and status. They travel to Europe and Miami…eventually he proposes and she turns him down. Evey disappears to California, and we’re left to finally see what will happen with Tinker and Katey.

There were hints from the beginning that all was not as it seemed with Tinker. He and Katey get together, and she’s sure that she loves him until she discovers his terrible secret. He’s a gigolo in a long-term relationship with a woman who Katey admired and even sought advice from. Needless to say, Katey’s world is shattered. She tries to go back to the life she’d created, but she breaks down and seeks out Tinker. She finds him living in squalor in a barely inhabitable apartment. After a night of passion (hardly believable, given the circumstances and surroundings), he disappears and she’s pretty much like “well. whatever.”  Her meh attitude sorta made me wonder what all the point was. She gave up a relationship with a man who adored her to get together with the spineless Tinker only to have almost zero feelings about him completely disappearing on her. This is where I started to not like Katey. I’d been on her side through the whole novel, but I couldn’t understand any of her choices. She was a smart character but so passive about her own life.

I thought her BFF Evey was a terrible friend – selfish, distant, and unreliable. I don’t understand Katey”s constantly forgiving attitude towards her and her acceptance of behavior that is completely unacceptable. Evey just seems to skate by on her looks and icy demeanor.

As for Tinker…ugh, not a man I’d chase all over Manhattan. He’s weak, simpering, and not likeable – even before we discover that everything we know about him is a charade.

This book sucked me in, and I read it very quickly, but it left me dissatisfied. Katey’s choices frustrated me and the other main characters were completely unrelatable and unlikeable.

Overall Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Dark and Twisty Meter: Non-existent

Page Turner Rating: Medium-High

March’s book is The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks., It’s non-fiction, which will be a nice break.

WARNING: This book review contains spoilers. Stop reading now if you don’t want to know details about the plot and ending of the novel.

Welcome to my first book review for 2013 Book Club! I’m a little late writing this post because I wasn’t really sure how I felt about the book. I pondered it for days, and now I’m ready to discuss. If you haven’t been following along, my pick for January was Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt. In a nutshell, it’s the story of fourteen-year-old June Elbus who loses her uncle Finn to AIDS. We find this out from the very first sentence of the novel. Finn is a well-known and successful painter, and one of his dying wishes is to paint a portrait of June and her older sister Greta. The story is set in 1986 so there were some nice 80s flashback details that I enjoyed (music, fashion references, etc.) but it also reminded me of how differently AIDS was perceived in the 80s. Today, Finn and his partner Toby could have lived relatively long lives with AIDS.  Knowing that makes Finn’s death even sadder. I’m surprised by how much I cared about his death since he is only a shadow of a character in the book. We meet him only in June’s memories, but we learn enough about him to know that he was a good and special person. His death is a huge loss to everyone in his small circle, particularly June and his boyfriend Toby, which is why he takes steps to have them meet after his death.

June and Toby’s friendship is the driving force in the novel. It’s a secret and forbidden relationship that brings them both heartache and happiness in equal measure. I was glad that June and Toby became friends but I also think it was wrong of him to seek out the friendship. He knew her mother didn’t want them to meet, and he had no right to overstep those boundaries. It made me terribly sad to think of him dying alone, though. Given his past and his AIDS diagnosis, he was not exactly welcome anywhere with open arms. It was fitting for him to die on the Elbus family sofa because he should have been treated as part of the family.

Characters affect how much I can get into the book, and I found that I just didn’t like or understand several of the characters in Tell the Wolves I’m Home. Greta the sister is a whiny, annoying girl with a lot of angst and very few problems. June is frustratingly dense for her age, and some passages of her rambling thoughts become tedious to read. She has a good heart, though, and that redeems her. Her mother, however, has few redeeming qualities, and much of the sadness in the book is the result of her pigheadedness.

Overall Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Dark and Twisty Meter: Low

Page Turner Rating: Medium

February’s book is Rules of Civility.,

I’ve gotten lots of good response to the book club! I’m glad that so many of you will be reading along with me. I also promised you a list of the books I loved in 2012 so I’m making good on that today.

Most of my choices were dark and twisty, starting with Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. It is a delicious and dark read with characters you will love…and hate. It sucked me in right from the beginning, and I couldn’t put it down. I was underwhelmed by the ending, but it was still a solid story.   I liked it enough to check out Gillian Flynn’s other novels – Dark Places and Sharp Objects. Dark Places was also good, better than Gone Girl, I think. It has a strangely likeable oddball heroine with a very bad past. I  DO NOT recommend Flynn’s other novel, Sharp Objects. The characters are flat and the story is unbelievable, but even worse than that, it’s uninteresting.

My favorite find of 2012 was the Jackson Brodie detective novels by Kate Atkinson. There are four books (Case Histories, One Good Turn, When Will There Be Good News?, and Started Early, Took My Dog ) in the series (write another one already!!!) and I’d definitely recommend reading them in order. The books stand on their own, but the back story of Jackson Brodie gets developed with each book. The novels are so well-written and so delightfully British. I read each of the books like an addict. I could hardly put them down. And I discovered recently that there is a BBC series about Jackson Brodie! Yes, please.

I’m a huge book nerd, always have been and always will be. One of my favorite memories of elementary school is filling out the Scholastic book order. I had shelves and shelves of books, all organized by series: Anne of Green Gables, Sweet Valley High, Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden, Ramona Quimby, Babysitters’ Club…Many of those books are still in my old room at my parents’ house.

My book love continued through college where I majored in Literature. Reading a book (or more) a week was nothing to me. I used to belong to a book club. But then I started quilting…I went from reading a book a week to listening to an audiobook while sewing to reading nothing but US Weekly on my iPhone (lame but true).

So I bought a Kindle on a whim a few months ago, never imagining how much I’d like it. I just happened to read an email from Amazon advertising the latest one (the Kindle Paperwhite), and I said “yes, I think I will!” I read 12 books in the first two months I owned it. FOR. REAL. I love reading on that thing. It’s lightweight, it “opens” to the exact page you were reading and it tells you how many hours you have left in the book. Which I see as a challenge. Like Watch me crush that six hours and 43 minutes, Kindle! Bam! I read it in 5 hrs and 59 minutes. (Not that I really know I’m crushing it because I’d have to be tracking on some other device like an iPhone and I’m not that competitive with an e-reader. I have nothing to prove to you Mr. Kindle. Or you, Mr Bezos.)

So the point of all of this is….TA DA! Vintage Modern Quilts Book Club! I’ve read some great books and I NEED to discuss them. Here are my picks for 2013.

1   2 3 4 5

6 8 9 10
11 12

For the books I loved in 2012, stop by on Monday.