Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Domestic Violets by Matthew Norman

Domestic VioletsDomestic Violets by Matthew Norman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What a wonderful debut novel for Matthew Norman. The inner monologue of the main character, Tom Violet, makes this story wonderful. Tom has several common problems. His marriage is in a slump, he has a crush on a young female co-worker he shouldn't have, he lives in the shadow of his father's accomplishments (a famous novelist who just won the Pulitzer prize), and he hates his day-job and has dreams of being something better.

Each character, especially Tom Violet, is so well developed that you start hearing their voices and seeing their faces immediately. I spent several years of my life in the Washington, D.C. setting of the novel. Like many cities, Washington D.C. has its own personality. The dynamic of the city and it's unique inhabitants were well portrayed.

Tom Violet reminded me of my favorite friends who always have a funny quip and aren't afraid to laugh at themselves. He knows he has problems and hasn't quite figured out how to deal with them. The reader spends the novel watching him analyze what he should do and the good and bad results of those decisions along the way.

All the characters are flawed in different ways and the flaws feel genuine and necessary to the story. Often the quirks of characters don't serve a purpose, but here each one is necessary to understand Tom's perspective of the world around him. As a reader I found myself feeling bad for each mistake made because everyone in the novel seemed like good, but sometimes misguided, people. Aren't we all.

This was a terrific read and I can't wait for the next novel from Matthew Norman.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Abstinence Teacher

The Abstinence TeacherThe Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perrotta
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed Perrotta's recent novel - The Leftovers - so much that I started reading some of his previous novels. This was also masterfully done and I will probably keep going through his backlist. A liberally minded sex education teacher, Ruth, makes a comment about some people enjoying oral sex in response to a comment from a student. This comment gets her in very hot water with parents and a local church (the Tabernacle) resulting in a new abstinence curriculum being instituted. Ruth must teach what she doesn't believe to keep her job.

The other main character is the soccer coach, Tim, who leads a team that includes Ruth's daughter. After one game he, on impulse, leads the team in prayer. He is a member of the infamous Tabernacle after recovering from drug addiction. The prayer makes Ruth furious and starts a series of events questioning what is too much when professing and practicing your beliefs in the face of people who don't believe.

Religious belief is always a sticky subject and many relationships and friendships are destroyed during the discussion. I was very impressed with Perrotta's ability to show the reader that each character has a legitimate reason for believing and acting the way that they do. Just like life, having a good reason doesn't avoid the backlash, hurt feelings, and other negative results of your actions. Ruth had a good reason for her comment and Tim had a good reason for his prayer. Both of them are paying for the decisions they made.

Perrotta also does a good job of portraying the difficulty of someone who believes certain parts of a religion and the difficulty in trying to accept the parts they don't believe yet. Faith is a struggle and I appreciated this honest portrayal of Tim experiencing that struggle.

As with The Leftovers, the characters and situations portrayed in a traditional suburban neighborhood are spot-on. I, like many people, live in a suburban neighborhood and the genuineness of these suburban characters makes them feel real and helps me sympathize and empathize with them as the story unfolds. Great read - now on to the next Perrotta novel.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta

The LeftoversThe Leftovers by Tom Perrotta
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Remember all those jokes about the Rapture? Well what if it actually happened? That is the premise of Tom Perrotta's novel The Leftovers. The "Sudden Departure," as the characters refer to it, takes people at random. Good people, bad people, people from all religions - but not all of them - just vanish. Nobody knows why it happened, how anyone was chosen, or where they went. The people left behind are left with varying degrees of emotional baggage that they need to work through.

Perrotta is truly a master of capturing suburban life in America even in this most unusual of circumstances. One woman lost her entire family and is now left alone to wonder why and go on living. One family didn't lose anyone but the experience has left them all questioning their own existence and where they fit in the world. The son joins one cult, the mother joins another cult, and the daughter shaves her head and starts doing everything a parent fears their kids will get into. The father, the mayor of the town, is just trying to hold onto whatever part of a normal life and his family that he can. There is a preacher who is angry about what he feels is a rejection from God and uses his time airing the dirty laundry of everyone who was taken. He wants to world to know that they weren't worthy.

Everything is tragically humorous and you can sympathize and empathize with the characters as they struggle. I am always so grateful for the creative minds that keep asking themselves "what if ___________ happened?" and spinning it into an incredibly entertaining story. Thank you Tom Perrotta for asking this question and writing about these wonderful characters.

Thankfully, HBO has decided to let these characters live on in a series Perrotta is writing based on the book.  This seems like a wonderful opportunity for talented actors to bring some wonderful characters to life.  It may just convince me to get cable.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

First Campaigner Challenge

I posted a little while ago about a blog platform building campaign I was joining.  The first challenge was made on Labor Day.  Here is the challenge:

Write a short story/flash fiction story in 200 words or less, excluding the title. It can be in any format, including a poem. Begin the story with the words, “The door swung open” These four words will be included in the word count.

If you want to give yourself an added challenge (optional), use the same beginning words and end with the words: "the door swung shut." (also included in the word count)

For those who want an even greater challenge, make your story 200 words EXACTLY!

I opted to do the full challenge with a 200 word entry (word count determined by Microsoft Word - which counts ellipsis) with the beginning and ending phrase.  This is a little darker than my usual stuff, but I like how it turned out.  Enjoy.


            The door swung open and I smelled Clorox. The television blared the words murder, killer on the loose, suspect escaped, mental hospital as I entered. Susan’s mental illness manifested itself in obsessive cleaning and trying to kill me for unknown reasons. 

Suddenly there were footsteps on the stairs behind me.  I should run, I thought, but didn’t move.  As soon as I gained the courage to turn around, I heard her voice. 

            “Do you remember our wedding vows?” 

            “Susan…Please.” I pleaded. 

            “I asked you a question…I think you owe me an answer.”

            “Yes. I remember our vows.”

            “Will you love, honor…Blah. Blah. Blah. in sickness and in health….be true in good times and in bad” Susan growled. “Do you remember your answer?”

            “I do.” 

            Susan screamed “RIGHT! BUT YOU DIDN’T!” and ran directly at me.    

            I braced myself for impact but only felt a painful pinch, and then heat emanating outward from the injury. Susan backed away and I saw a syringe protruding from my thigh. The effects were immediate and I fell to the floor.  Before I lost consciousness I felt her warm breath on my ear.  

            “Until death do us part. Remember?  Goodbye.” Then the door swung shut.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

A Red Herring Without Mustard

A Red Herring Without Mustard (Flavia de Luce, #3)A Red Herring Without Mustard by Alan Bradley
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I found this book as one of the audio eBook downloads at my local library. Normally, I would not start with the third book in the series. The main character is Flavia, and eleven-year-old girl who loves chemistry and the mystery of her town. Her childhood curiosity gets her immediately involved in the investigation of an attack on a gypsy woman and subsequent murders.

I never really got into this book. I found my mind wandering while I listened, even though the only other thing competing for attention was the morning and evening commute. As I reflected on the book I felt that the characters, especially Flavia, were well developed and had unique voices. The story was well written and the descriptions through the eyes of a young child were priceless.

So why didn't it hold my attention? I've decided that the main problem was the stakes. Other than curiosity, there are no real stakes for Flavia in solving the mystery. The people who are attacked or die are people she doesn't really know or care about. The "oh my, that's interesting" gambit just doesn't play well for an entire novel. At least not for me.

The other problem, less major than the stakes, was that the plot was prone to tangents making it difficult to know what was truly important. There were characters introduced that only played minor parts in the story but had names and backgrounds I needed to hear about. There was a lot of discussion of things Flavia found interesting that I never really understood why I should find them interesting. It was distracting and took away from the overall plot and intrigue of the story.

After the book ended I still felt like it was an enjoyable read. Flavia was a wonderful character. However, I'm not impressed enough to go back and read the other two books.