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Homer's Odyssey: A Fearless Feline Tale, or How I Learned About Love and Life with a Blind Wonder Cat

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A friend and fellow cat lover gave me this book for Christmas last year, and I admit I put off reading it because I feared cuteness overload. But after two less than satisfying reads, I was in the mood for something very different. This fit the bill, and I was surprised how much I enjoyed it.Gwen Cooper was a young aspiring author when she adopted Homer, a kitten who lost both his eyes because of a severe infection. She was experienced with rescue cats, but not with a special needs cat like Homer. But Homer quickly demonstrated he didn't need sight to live a full life. He got along well with Gwen's two other cats, and easily found his way around her apartment, relying on hearing and smell to find things. He was playful and affectionate in a way uncommon to cats, and endeared himself to all who met him.What Gwen didn't realize, as she cared for Homer's basic needs, was how much he was supporting her journey into adulthood. As she struggled to find consistent employment, Homer was there for her. He defended her against danger (really! I'm still not sure how they made it through that situation safely). When Gwen decided to pull up stakes and move from Miami to New York City (no small feat with three cats in tow), Homer helped Gwen to see that sometimes you just have to take a leap of faith, and not let others limit your potential. The one area where he wasn't much help was in her relationships with men, most of whom seemed put off by a woman who had three (count 'em!) cats. But eventually, that all works out, too.As I said, this book could have suffered from cuteness, but it didn't. It also could have suffered from pretentiousness, but it didn't, mostly. Her writing is good, if a bit repetitive. There was one point where it seemed Gwen was going to pull out all the melodramatic stops and I thought, "oh, don't go there!" But this turned out to be one of the best-written sections of the book, where Gwen faced a stressful, life-changing situation beyond anything I can imagine. For a while there, I couldn't put it down.And the best part: it all ends well. The book ends in 2010, when Homer is twelve years old and still living a full life. And he's still alive today. So you can keep the tissues on the shelf and just enjoy reading about the life of a pretty remarkable cat.
In the Woods

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This was a thumping good mystery. Well, 3/4 of it anyway, until it fell apart. Here's the premise: 12-year-old Katy Devlin is found dead, the apparent victim of foul play. Detectives Rob Ryan and Cassie Maddox are assigned to the case. It just so happens that twenty years earlier, two of Rob's 12-year-old friends disappeared from the very same housing estate. Rob was found, bloody and alone. The others were never found; the case was so notorious Rob changed his name and went to boarding school. Rob remembers nothing from that horrible day, but can't help wondering if the two cases are linked in some way. He begins a parallel investigation, without revealing his personal interest to his superiors. And there's one more angle: a land use dispute over a new motorway, with a barely perceptible whiff of corruption.With three concurrent investigations, the reader meets a myriad of characters and joins Rob and Cassie in poring through forensic evidence. As with any good mystery, we begin making connections and we develop theories. And we come to like Rob and Cassie: they make a great team on the job, and have an unusually deep friendship.But there are a couple of things that go wrong in this book. I will describe them without spoilers, although it's difficult to convey their full impact. The first problem is Rob. My husband and I have a recurring and inconclusive conversation about whether authors can write authentically about a character of the opposite sex. I suspect this book is one where most men would say about Rob, "guys aren't like that." It's not that he had a highly developed feminine side, he just did and said things a typical guy wouldn't do, especially with Cassie (I'm sorry I can't be more specific). Second, there was a character whose true self was revealed when the case was solved, but their voice wasn't authentic, and they had improbable traits given some basic facts we already knew about them.Lots of people would probably disagree with me about this. The mystery was realistic, and the book was a page-turner from start to finish. I enjoyed reading it. So if you're intrigued, I say go ahead and read it. And then let's talk about it!
Loitering with Intent

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Fleur Talbot is a “modern” young woman, living and working in London in the middle of the twentieth century. An aspiring novelist, she lands a secretarial position with the “Autobiographical Society,” an organization that helps clients write their biographies as life unfolds. The society promises to store these works for seventy years, publishing only after everyone in the book has died.If that sounds a bit strange, hang on, because the story gets more bizarre with every page. The society’s clients are a band of misfits and unknowns, and it’s hard to imagine anyone would be interested in their life stories. But Sir Quentin Oliver, head of the society, coddles them and coaches them through each chapter, focusing on their childhood, their early romantic and sexual experiences, and so forth. As secretary, Fleur has access to their manuscripts and uses her creative talents to spice things up a bit. In the office, which is actually Sir Quentin’s flat, she engages in a power struggle with Quentin's housekeeper Mrs Beryl Tims, and befriends his elderly and incontinent mother, Edwina.But all of this is secondary to Fleur; her life is focused on finishing her novel and getting it published. She’s also distracted by an affair that’s gone sour, and an unlikely friendship with the man’s wife, Dottie. For some reason she convinces Dottie to join the Autobiographical Society and write her memoirs, and gradually discovers Dottie may not be the friend she thought (really? I could have told her that). She also begins to see another side of Sir Quentin that is obvious to the reader, but would stun the society members who idolize him. When Fleur’s manuscript goes missing, and scenes from her novel are played out in real life, the story gets very strange indeed.Spark’s characters are very funny. Edwina pees on the floor nearly every time she stands up; Beryl Tims is very proper and judgmental. There’s an unfrocked priest with a story that’s far less controversial than he thinks, a disabled mystic, and many more. The madcap storyline moves along at a brisk pace. This is a light read, darkly funny, and while I enjoyed it on one level, it was also all a bit over the top. I found it a nice diversion from some of the heavier stuff I’m reading. For my tastes, Spark is best taken in small doses like this one.
The Misses Mallett (The Bridge Dividing)

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'The Malletts don't marry, Henrietta. Look at us, as happy as the day is long, with all the fun and none of the trouble. We've been terrible flirts, Sophia and I. Rose is different, but at least she hasn't married. The three Miss Malletts of Nelson Lodge! Now there are four of us, and you must keep up our reputation.' (p. 79)And that's the book, in a nutshell. Caroline, Sophia, and their stepsister Rose are all unmarried women of a certain age, although Rose is several years younger and still considered attractive. When their niece Henrietta comes to live with them, she upsets the gentle rhythm of spinsterhood. These women have become very, very comfortable just being themselves:Sitting up in bed looking grotesquely terrible, they discussed the event. Caroline, like Medusa, but with hair curlers instead of snakes sprouting from her head, and Sophia with her heavy plait hanging over her shoulder and defying with its luxuriance the yellowness of her skin, they sat side by side, propped up with pillows, inured to the sight of each other in undress. (p. 32)Hmm ... perhaps they're a little too comfortable!Henrietta is young and has a mind of her own. While she loves and admires her aunts, she has no intention of following in their footsteps. And so she sets her sights on local heart-throb Francis Sales who, incidentally, has had a secret "thing" with Rose for some time. And who, incidentally, is also married to an invalid confined to her bed. Meanwhile Henrietta is being pursued by the dull but caring Charles Batty, a man who loves music, but can't stand to attend concerts because other patrons whisper and crinkle their programs. Rose attempts to resolve the conflict with Henrietta in many ways, all indirect because heaven forbid the situation be brought out into the open. I found this infuriating, and lost patience with them more than once.While Young's social satire is amusing, autobiographical details add much interest to this story. E. H. Young's husband died at Ypres, and later she went to live with Ralph Henderson, a school headmaster, and his wife, who was a wife in name only. They were inseparable, and while those in their social circle understood the situation, their relationship was not publicly acknowledged. Young wrote The Misses Mallett when her living arrangement was still fairly new, and I can see how she used the experience to work through issues she must have wrestled with at the time. Oh, how I wish she could have written more openly about that situation!
The Stone Angel

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Above the town, on the hill brow, the stone angel used to stand. I wonder if she stands there yet, in memory of her who relinquished her feeble ghost as I gained my stubborn one, my mother's angel that my father bought in pride to mark her bones and proclaim his dynasty, as he fancied, forever and a day. (p. 1)Hagar Shipley has been through a lot, as you'd expect from anyone who has lived 90 years. Born in a small Manitoba town, she grew up the daughter of a shopkeeper. Her mother died in childbirth, and one of her two brothers also died young. Hagar grew up a strong, independent woman. She did not distinguish herself in any way that was unusual for her time, but her fierce independence and ability to stand up for her rights set her apart from most early 20th-century women. Now nearing the end of her life, Hagar lives with her son Marvin and daughter-in-law Doris, and is rapidly losing the independence she values so highly.Hagar has lived with Marvin and Doris for several years, but recently her needs have become more acute. She needs professional care, but actively resists any proposed change in living arrangements. She spends a lot of time inside her head, reflecting on life's highs and lows: the man she married, the sons she raised, the son she lost, and the townspeople who came and went over the years. A portrait emerges that provides tremendous insight to Hagar's character. The flashbacks are interspersed with present-day events: a visit from the minister, arguments with Marvin and Doris, and various evidence of Hagar's decline, which she often fails to recognize or acknowledge. Eventually Marvin and Doris convince Hagar to go on an outing, and they visit a care facility. It appears Hagar might actually accept the possibility of living there, and then a startling event dramatically alters the course of the story, and Hagar's life.I found this novel very realistic and moving. Despite Hagar's intense stubbornness and insensitivity, I liked her very much, and I felt very sorry for her as she lost the ability to do things on her own. Marvin and Doris' characters were less well developed, and they sometimes seemed a bit callous, but I also sympathized with them as they took on responsibility they probably never anticipated. The last chapters were difficult to read, because you knew where the story had to lead, and I was sorry to say good-bye to such a memorable character as Hagar Shipley.
Dirt Music: A Novel

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Fishing is central to the western Australian village of White Point, driving the economy and shaping social order. Jim Buckridge is the best fisherman around, which affords him "big man on campus" status. His partner, Georgie Jutland, ended up in White Point after chucking a nursing career and a failed relationship. Their relationship is fragile: Jim mourns his first wife Debbie, who died of cancer, but he refuses to talk about it. His young sons see Georgie as the evil stepmother. Georgie stays up into the wee hours, drowning her sorrows in vodka. It's not surprising, then, when she discovers Luther Fox poaching fish in the dark of night and ends up in bed with him.Well, OK, that was kind of surprising. The chemistry between Georgie and Lu wasn't well-developed, and her relationship with Jim still had life in it (that is, until she slept with Lu). But Luther was an interesting character, a man forever scarred by the sudden tragic loss of his entire family. I felt sorry for him, and wanted him to find love and happiness with Georgie. Thus Tim Winton sets up the central conflict, "what will Georgie do?" and takes the reader along on her quest. Along the way, he reveals tiny details that flesh out each man's past. What exactly happened to Luther's family? Why is Jim such a badass? Why won't he talk about Debbie, and what does he really want from Georgie? Winton also brings the Western Australian landscape to life. As someone completely unfamiliar with the geography and the flora and fauna, I kept a map close at hand and found images of animals, trees, and birds to visualize the scenery.While Winton was successful in drawing me into the story and it held my interest, it fell short of its potential. Georgie's character could have been developed more fully. She was somewhat of a paradox: hard-edged and abrasive, but known for her caring and nursing skills. Not the least bit concerned about fashion or makeup, and yet considered sexy. It just didn't add up. Then, as the central conflict reached its climax, Winton placed his characters in a situation that struck me as far-fetched, and the resolution was just too neat to be believable. Ah, well.
The Dinner

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Two Dutch couples meet for dinner in an expensive restaurant: Paul and Claire, Paul's brother Serge and his wife Babette. Their meeting at first seems purely social, and something they do together from time to time. But from minute details strategically placed in the narrative, the reader begins developing a different picture. Just before leaving the house, Paul discovers disturbing content on his son Michel's phone, but chooses not to mention it to Claire. Paul detects signs of distress when Serge and Babette arrive at the restaurant. We learn their son Rick was involved in a crime, as was Michel. But what do the parents actually know? What will they do about it? And how did two boys from "good families" get into this situation?Paul narrates the events of that evening, filling in family history along the way. The result is a kind of cross between We Need to Talk About Kevin (troubled teens committing horrific acts) and The Reluctant Fundamentalist (disturbing scenes unfolding over a meal). Neither family is what they seem at the outset. Paul is an unreliable narrator, failing to see the damage resulting from his behavior over the years.None of the characters are likeable; in fact, they are all pretty horrible. And the story is unpleasant, too. Normally that would be enough to make me hate a book. Why didn't that happen this time? Because I was really intrigued by Koch's writing. I liked the way he meted out relevant details, first in tiny fragments and then in increasingly obvious chunks. He deftly showed us not only the nature of the boys' crime, but events that directly and indirectly made it possible, and made me question who really was the guilty party in this case. The book was hard to put down and I finished it in just a couple of days; however, its dark, disturbing nature means it's one I cannot recommend unequivocally.
Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter: A Novel

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One evening Larry Ott returns home from work to find a masked intruder, who shoots him and leaves him for dead. Fortunately local constable Silas Jones had asked a colleague to stop by Larry's place, and they got to him just in time. Larry's life hung in the balance for several days. During that time we follow the hunt for his assailant, but more importantly we learn a lot more about Larry, Silas, and their lives in rural Chabot, Mississippi.Larry has been a recluse all his adult life. As a teenager he was accused of raping and murdering a girl he took on a date. She never returned home, her body was never found, and Larry refused to talk about it. While he was never charged with the crime, he was ostracized by the community. He took over his father's auto repair shop, but his only customers were people from out-of-town, just passing through.Silas spent his boyhood in Chabot with his mother. They lived in a one-room hut on the Ott's property. Quite by happenstance, Larry and Silas became friends. Secret friends, because Larry was white and Silas, black, and public friendships just weren't possible. Larry's father put a stop to it in a humiliating and abusive way. Eventually Silas and his mother moved so he could become the star baseball player at a different high school, and the boys lost touch. Even after Silas returned to Chabot as Constable, their paths didn't cross. Until one day when Silas received a voice mail from Larry, just asking him to call. It was this message that prompted Silas' visit a few days later, just after Larry was shot.At the time of the shooting, Silas was also investigating another young girl's disappearance, some 20 years after the incident that changed Larry's life forever. Everyone in town thinks Larry committed a crime again. That is, everyone but Silas. Slowly, we learn the basis for Silas' opinion, as we also uncover clues to Larry's assailant and the girl's disappearance.I was completely caught up in this book, and at first it was because of the crime to be solved. But Tom Franklin revealed those details very slowly, while painting vivid portraits of Larry and Silas and filling in their back story. Eventually the shooting and the girl's disappearance became just secondary mysteries; in fact, both were actually pretty easy to solve. This book was much more about the mystery of these two men's lives, and the profound influence of past events. Again, Franklin revealed details slowly, and I often found myself rereading passages to make sure I was putting the pieces together correctly. The result was a moving account of friendship, betrayal, and hope.
Gardens of Water: A Novel

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Sinan and his family are left homeless after a massive earthquake hits Turkey. His young son Ismail is initially thought to have died, but is found alive in the rubble. Their neighbors, an American family, were not so lucky, losing Sarah, wife to Marcus and mother of Dylan. Then Marcus and Dylan join an American relief corp running a camp and convince Sinan and family to live in the camp. Dylan and Sinan's daughter Irem become close; their illicit love is a source of family conflict and exacerbates an existing conflict between Sinan and Marcus.Perhaps my tastes have evolved since a friend passed this book on to me. It had some promising elements but on the whole just didn't work. Dylan in particular: having lived all of his 17 years in Turkey, he was still very American (jeans, personal music player, tattoos & piercings) and prone to cultural gaffes. It also struck me as odd that Marcus and Dylan, bereaved and newly homeless themselves, would become relief workers. Wouldn't they need support as much as any Turkish family? Or does their nationality afford them some special status, uniquely able to rise above personal tragedy and help those "less fortunate"?The novel was also very dry, and didn't generate the emotion it should have given a number of tragic plot elements.
The Fault in Our Stars

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Three days after finishing this book, I still can't find words that will do it justice in a review. All I know is this: I don't think I've ever read a book that gave me a lump in my throat from start to finish. Or one that, three days later, still conjures up a sad, pressurized feeling in my chest when I think about it. I've certainly never loved a book that had those effects on me.Hazel is sixteen and living with terminal cancer. Medication has extended her life, but has not changed her prognosis. She attends a support group for kids with cancer, and there she meets Augustus, who has been cancer free since surgery to remove a leg. He's very good-looking, and the two are instantly attracted to each other. But Hazel initially resists becoming romantically involved, knowing it can't last:I wanted to know that he would be okay if I died. I wanted to not be a grenade, to not be a malevolent force in the lives of people I loved.Augustus is persistent, and he eventually wins her over. Their love blossoms through their shared experiences at support group. She shares her favorite book with him (the story of a girl who dies of cancer), and they obsess about the author. They play Augustus' favorite video game, which is a kind of metaphor for their cancer battles. They deal with the ups and downs of teenage life, which are remarkably normal and even funny, considering everything else they have to deal with. And of course, there is a shared adventure which cements their bond:What else? She is so beautiful. You don’t get tired of looking at her. You never worry if she is smarter than you: You know she is. She is funny without ever being mean. I love her. I am so lucky to love her, Van Houten. You don’t get to choose if you get hurt in this world, old man, but you do have some say in who hurts you. I like my choices. I hope she likes hers.I loved Hazel's confidence and attitude, and Augustus' courage and caring. Even though their story has an inevitable conclusion, the ending is unexpected and very, very moving. I can't recommend this book highly enough.
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