Estelle: The Cardturner by Louis Sachar

The Cardturner by Louis Sachar
Publication Date: May 11, 2010
Publisher: Delacorte Books
Pages: 336
Target audience: Young Adult
Keywords: bridge, male narrator, family secrets

Summary: It’s sad but true when driving his blind uncle to bridge games becomes the highlight of Alton’s summer. His girlfriend left him for his best friend, and his parents this Alton’s “free time” as a way to guarantee their spot in their uncle’s will some point down the line. But who would have thought he would actually start to understand bridge… and like it? And then there’s this girl and secrets about his family… things are starting to get more interesting than anyone could have thought.

I’m going to go out on a limb and assume many of you reading this aren’t accomplished bridge players or know a whole lot about bridge to begin with. If you are like me, my familiarity with bridge is limited to the hands they put in the newspaper. (Have you seen those?) I’m not even sure where I got the idea where bridge was a game that “old people played” but hey the stereotype is there and it’s not an unpopular one because well, it’s all over this book.

When I first saw The Cardturner in the bookstore, I was just interested in reading about what Louis Sachar was up to. As a kid, I was a huge fan of his Wayside School series, There’s a Boy in the Girl’s Bathroom, and in college again, when I read Holes. (Don’t miss that one!) Like all of those stories, The Cardturner has real heart. Even when it feels a little long and slips into long explanations about bridge. (Sachar is genius though – he begins his diatribes about bridge with a whale icon. If you aren’t all that interested in the teeny tiny details, just skip ahead to the box where there is a small summary of what Sachar is trying to get at.) It is not a book that is obsessing over the hierarchy of high school or sex or a love triangle. This feels like an old school YA book with a unique background story.

The major highlight is the narrator – Alton, a high school kid who is roped into helping his blind uncle play bridge. I don’t read many books with male narrators so this was refreshing. Alton is funny. He talks to the audience, makes it known that HE is the one writing his story down. He’s also sort of a pushover, and not exactly the big man on campus. But I liked that about him. He had feelings. Even if he wasn’t so good at expressing them. It can’t be easy for your best friend to be dating your ex-girlfriend and see he is also kind of interested in your new crush.

He also seems to be searching for some kind of acceptance from his uncle. Alton is able to pick up on bridge pretty quickly, and his uncle makes him feel like a total idiot sometimes and underestimates him completely. These are some of the funniest moments in the book when he is expressing his frustration over knowing what was going on, and pretending like he doesn’t really care.

Bridge is what brings change into Alton’s life, for sure. Throughout the book, we see him steadily learn the ins and outs of this game, establish a connection with this uncle he never really knew, and make friends with a lot of other people. I also loved the dynamic between him and his younger sister, Leslie. She was probably one of the sanest people in this book since Alton’s parents were so obnoxiously annoying and only cared about one thing – money.

This isn’t the most fast paced book. In fact, it took me a lot longer to read it than I thought it would. I wasn’t addicted to it like I normally get with others. I was reeled in more at the halfway point when I got to know the characters more and things got a little bit exciting and somewhat, suspenseful. (Yes! For real.) I even shed a tear at one point. So The Cardturner is certainly worth sticking with if you can be patient. You may even find bridge to be interesting. (Honestly, it’s still hard for me to grasp the game without actually seeing people playing it but I’m curious enough to watch some videos on YouTube.)

But Louis Sachar has a way of taking a realistic story and making it feel like a fairy tale. Not necessarily with the ending you envisioned. But there are wacky characters, a blind uncle who can impressively memorize his own cards and the hands of the other players, and a “scandalous” family history mystery. It has a little bit for everyone.

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Estelle: The Scent of Rain and Lightning by Nancy Pickard

The Scent of Rain and Lightning by Nancy Pickard
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Release Date: May 4, 2010
Pages: 336
Target Audience: Adult/Crime/Thriller
How I found out about it: Saw it at Target & added it to my to-read list.
Format: Hardcover borrowed from the library.

Summary: It’s been over 20 years since Jody’s father was murdered and her mother went missing, presumed to be dead as well. She’s gone practically her whole life without knowing her parents, only able to learn about them through her father’s siblings and his parents. On what seems to be an ordinary day, Jody learns from her uncles that the man convicted of breaking up her family is getting out of jail.

The Scent of Rain and Lightning is my first venture into the world of adult fiction for 2012. And it was… okay. Honestly, I probably haven’t read a “crime book” since I was in middle school reading Mary Higgins Clark novels at Yankees baseball games. (True story.) I’m actually not even sure if Nancy Pickard and Mary Higgins Clark fall into the same crime writing category but none of the less, I sort of grew out of them after a few years.

The bottom line is this: The Scent of Rain and Lightning was an intriguing story. The main character, Jody, and I are the same age. She lived her entire life in the same small farm town where her parents were killed. In fact, she went to school with the murderer’s son, Collin. Later, she even moves into the same house where the act was committed. It was all so unbelievable to me especially because there is so much uncertainty when it comes to the day of the murder.

The author basically gives us a small peek into present day Jody’s life and for a good remainder of the novel, we are sucked back in time to when her father and mother were still living and the events leading up to and following their demises. The structure was uneven for me. I would have preferred to learn more about Jody as a grown-up because even once we shift back to now, I never get a sense of who she is. Sure, she’s scared, affected, and curious – but she never becomes a fully developed character to me.

As far as the extra mystery goes (even if I think the back story was a bit dragged out), I can honestly tell you that the resolution was like nothing I could have imagined. I had my suspicions along the way but never came to this particular conclusion. That did feel nice for a change, playing my own private game of “what exactly went down here”. Something I don’t normally do while reading my regular stash of books.

I know a lot of people may not comprehend why I love YA novels, but, especially in recent years, they have come to represent realism in books for me. The good ones at least. (And there are so many of those.) The feelings they elicit, the psyche of these characters, the situations they are placed in. I wasn’t feeling that in The Scent. In fact, I feel like Jody could have definitely been a more engaging character in so many ways. Even her acts toward the end of the book were so typical and cookie cutter. I was a bit bored with them. (This is in reference to the “connection” teased about in many of the descriptions of this book.)

While The Scent of Rain and Lightning didn’t blow me away, it may still provide a good read for someone who likes this particular genre or is even hoping to read their first adult crime book. I don’t want to totally dissuade you. But I am coming to realize that for me as a reader in particular, structure and character development are everything.

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Estelle: The Murderer’s Daughters by Randy Susan Meyers

The Murderer’s Daughters by Randy Susan Meyers
Pages: 320
Published: January 19, 2010
Target: Adult Fiction
Format: Hardcover borrowed from the library.
How I heard about it: Saw it in Target and saved the title in my phone

Summary: While Lulu and Merry’s childhood was never the bright and cheery kind, nothing prepared them for the day their father would murder their mother, stab Merry, and attempt to kill himself. Practically orphans, their remaining family members do not want to take responsibility of them which lands them in a horrific orphanage. In a novel that spans over 30 years, Lulu and Merry are forced to deal with their past every step of the way — Merry with her need to stay in contact with their father and Lulu’s diligence to pretend that part of her life never existed.

Right of the bat you know that The Murderer’s Daughters is not going to be a laugh a minute.  In fact, I think I cracked a smile maybe twice throughout the whole book. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Meyers does a great job of building depth in these two characters. Lulu and Merry can’t be any more different but their bond is inexplicable. Sure, a majority of that bond has to do with what they went through in their apartment that day and their dedication to concealing their past from everyone around them. It’s a tough thing to do especially when one can’t control when certain memories or thoughts pop up. It’s like the black cloud that never disappears.

Most interesting to me were the paths these women took in their life. Every decision, every choice was almost a reaction to their father’s crime. As a reader, I sometimes felt frustrated and annoyed with their actions but it was only because I cared about them and wanted each girl to catch a break. I can’t even imagine having to deal with a tragedy like this in my life but I can only say that Meyers’ depiction of the events feels pretty on the mark for me.

It’s well-written, engrossing, and psychologically intriguing.

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