Friday, November 29, 2013

CODE NAME VERITY


Review of CODE NAME VERITY by ELIZABETH WEIN

This didn’t sound like my kind of book, but enough people raved about it to me that I finally took the chance. Yup, they’re raving for a reason. 

If you’re wondering about my hesitancy, I worried the book would be too dark for my tastes. That might sound funny to anyone who reads this blog regularly and can point out some very dark titles I list as favorites, but I find real life horrors far more depressing and scary than monsters. Most of said favorites are fantasy and while many do touch on real world issues and atrocities, whether directly or indirectly, it’s not the same as reading fiction based on a real war.

As much as I loved this book, I didn’t feel hooked until around the hundred page mark. In fact, I know others who gave up on the book before reaching that far, left wondering why everyone’s so enamored with this novel. Let’s back up a little bit, because explaining what the book is about also explains why it’s a difficult read, especially at first. The narrative isn’t that clear or reliable. The narrator is an Allied spy captured by the Gestapo. She’s delivering her story to her captors via writing on whatever scraps of paper they’ll bring her. You can’t trust everything she says, because she’s no doubt trying to confuse and mislead her enemies. As if that’s not enough, she’s being tortured. Short on sleep and food and full of pain, her story wanders and garbles. The New York Times called this a “mind game of a novel” and it’s easy to see why. I struggled following the narrative at first as well as investing our narrator (though her circumstances tugged my heart strings, I just didn’t know how much of her story to believe). After one hundred pages of straining to “get into” the story, I abruptly felt extremely “into it.” Mind you, I’m not saying something big and dramatic happens around that point, only that Wein’s some kind of author and even when I thought I wasn’t hooked she had been working her magic. Even when I thought I wasn’t investing, I had been. It was only around that hundred page mark that my full investment hit me.  My point is stick with it, because the only people I know who didn’t like this book gave up too early.

From there my opinion steadily improved until by the end I had fully climbed aboard the train full of people marveling at this tale. The story’s broken into two parts and the second part makes the reader reanalyze their understanding of everything in the first part. This is definitely one of those “trust the author” books when you might find yourself confused or uncertain near the beginning, but Wein will lead you to the right revelations at the right moments. Trust her.

My only grumble over this novel is that it’s very dense with aircraft terminology. It’s clear why: the friends who star in this story work with planes. On the one hand, the terminology adds to how realistic the voice feels, because I’m sure that’s how she would talk. However, for someone who doesn’t know a lot of those terms and isn’t that interested in the specific details about planes and flights, it’s a lot to wade through.

Since this is a World War II novel, I hardly think it’s a spoiler to say there are some heartbreaking moments. Wein’s restrained approach to tragic scenes allows readers to fill in the blanks with their own emotions. I have a feeling CODE NAME VERITY will linger in my mind for years to come.

Monday, November 25, 2013

KATHERINE LONGSHORE

 
Interview with KATHERINE LONGSHORE

I've always been a writer. I've been writing stories since I learned how to hold a pencil, asking my dad how to spell words while I worked under the bar stools at our kitchen counter. In the course of my life, I've worked as a dishwasher, lingerie seller, coffee barista, cake decorator, ship's steward, video rental clerk, freelance journalist, travel agent, waitress, contracts manager, bookseller, and Montessori preschool teacher.
But in writing for teens, I've finally found my calling. And through writing, I am able to encompass all my loves. Becoming a character made of words. Exploring new worlds. And living history.

What are you reading right now?

ALL THE TRUTH THAT’S IN ME by Julie Berry and THE OLD WAYS by Robert MacFarlane.

What first sparked your interest in writing?

Learning how to write! I can remember pestering my dad to spell words for me when I was in the first grade so I could write stories.

What do you love the most about writing? The least?

I love the surprises. The scenes where suddenly the character takes a right-hand turn when I was thinking I’d make her go left. The unexpected kisses and dialogue that seems to come from somewhere real and not from inside my head. And I absolutely love playing with words. What I like the least are the days my evil inner editor takes over and squelches all creativity. Those are the days I clean the bathroom. 

Tell us a little about your writing process.

My process is different for every book.  My first book I just wrote, sitting down every day and asking myself, “What happens next?” For three books, I’ve tried to outline, getting a sketchy synopsis together and mapping some stuff out on my story board. And then I ignore all of that and sit down to write every day and asking myself, “What happens next?” - usually coming up with something vastly different than what I outlined.  For four out of the five books I’ve written, I’ve had to throw out the first fifty pages - it’s like I have to start with the backstory in order to start the story. And with MANOR OF SECRETS, I had a general outline and every day sketched the next scene on an index card so I could just get up and write it the next day. I tend to do a lot of plot work in revision - sometimes throwing out over half of the book in the process. It’s like I don’t know what the book is about until I’ve already written a draft. But I get there in the end.

What are your passions?

History, feminism, justice, love, honor, costumes, travel…

What inspires you?

The world around me.  Real people.  History.  Love, honor, justice…

Why young adult?

A librarian friend once told me that when people come in wanting to know about life, she sends them to the YA section. All of human life is here: good and evil, friendship and betrayal, love and joy and hopelessness and despair. It’s heady stuff. But what I love most is the thrill of all those firsts - first kiss, first love, first adventure, first grief. There’s something tangible about it. Visceral. And I love that most YA forever looks forward instead of back. There is always - even in the darkest moments - a little bit of hope. 

Why historical fiction?

When I decided to start writing fiction, my husband recited the old adage: write what you know. I know a lot about Henry VIII. My kids used to play a game with me where they would ask, “Who was Henry’s mother’s sister’s husband’s daughter?” To which I can answer, “Mary Howard.” (Not Henry’s niece, but Thomas Howard’s daughter from a second marriage and the narrator of BRAZEN, actually.)

But more than that, I write historical fiction because I feel that a good story is timeless. It wouldn’t matter if a story like Anne Boleyn’s rise and eventual fall was set in 16th Century England or modern China or a futuristic, post-Apocalyptic dystopia. It would still be an incredible journey of a girl who started with little and became queen (literally or figuratively) through the strength of her own personality. Great stuff.

How were GILT and TARNISH born?

GILT began with the question, “Why would a teenage girl marry a bitter, decrepit old man?” After some research, I added the big What if? As in: “What if Catherine Howard wasn’t the ignorant, promiscuous airhead the historians make her out to be?” 

TARNISH began with similar questions: “What kind of teenager would become the Anne Boleyn we all know and love?” and: “What if her flaws and actions were misinterpreted by her contemporaries - and historians?”

What about your upcoming book MANOR OF SECRETS?

I was asked if I could write a “YA Downton Abbey” and became immediately obsessed with the two characters - one who lived upstairs, comfortably and restrained, and the other working downstairs,

Did the books require a lot of research? How much did you alter history for the story or fill-in-the-blanks?

All of my books have required a lot of research. I enjoy it - reading recently-published histories and visiting locations and digging into old manuscripts to find just a hint of something that could give me a clue to character, setting or story. For my Tudor books, I have been determined to be as historically accurate as possible. Because history is so rich, however, and because not all historical details help move the story forward, I have had to trim here and there (like the character of Henry Mannox, who had an affair with Catherine Howard before the action begins in GILT) and downplay certain elements (such as politics and religion, which were very important to the Tudors, but aren’t what my stories are about). 

There are a lot of Tudor novels in historical fiction. Why did you decide to write some more? 

Because there are so few written from a teenager’s perspective. By the age of sixteen (and sometimes earlier), Tudors were considered adults and treated as such. But that doesn’t mean that they didn’t go through the same things teenagers do today - self-doubt and the desire to rebel and all the emotions stirred up by hormones. So many historical novels set in Tudor times are about how adults navigated the court. Imagine how much more difficult - and how much more fraught - it would be if you were a teenager? Like high school, only with the added threat of decapitation.

Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Keep writing and write what you love.  Stories don’t get told if you don’t sit down to tell them, and books that suck people in are written by people who pour themselves into the story.

Is there anything else you would like to tell us about yourself?

I read everything I can get my hands on. Contemporary, historical, paranormal, science fiction, fantasy. Anything that inspires someone to tell me, “This book is really good. You’ll like it.” I don’t want my own writing to be limited by the label of the historical fiction genre, so I try to break out of it with my reading as much as I can. As I said before, a good story surpasses genre, and good writing transcends it.

That said, I’m always looking for recommendations!

Friday, November 22, 2013

THE FAIREST OF THEM ALL


Review of THE FAIREST OF THEM ALL by CAROLYN TURGEON
(review based on an advance reading copy)

What a spectacular retelling! In my post about retold tales, I talk about how I dislike versions that aren’t retold enough. Something needs to feel fresh; I don’t want a long-winded account of a story I already know. Whether it’s setting, characters, writing, or plot twists a retelling should explore new ground, a different perspective. Turgeon meets these expectations with both multifaceted characters and compelling twists.

THE FAIREST OF THEM ALL obviously sounds like a twist on “Snow White,” but it’s actually a complex, layered retelling of both “Snow White” and “Rapunzel.” The prologue caught my attention right away with an implication that sure enough turns out to be the case. With one stone, Turgeon manages to give both Rapunzel more failings and Snow White’s evil stepmother more humanity.

In this version, we follow Rapunzel, a gorgeous but sheltered young woman living with her adopted mother, the witch Mathena. For reasons she keeps private, Mathena has kept Rapunzel cut off from men all her life. So when a dashing young prince comes to their home one day, Rapunzel can’t help but fall into infatuation on sight. (New meaning to the concept of “if he were the only man in the world.” In her world, he is.) The attraction’s mutual and the prince invites Rapunzel to a ball. Mathena forbids her attendance. Though time will tell whether or not she has more sinister motives, Mathena comes off as an overprotective mother more than a villain, a mother with understandable qualms about her naïve daughter becoming nothing more than the plaything of a spoiled prince. So far this may sound familiar if a little tweaked, but it’s around this point that the story starts spiraling into its own tale of doomed happily-ever-afters and understandable bitterness.

The novel does start out a little slow. Everything held my interest, but it’s how the story progresses and develops that earned all this praise. The slower material at the beginning builds the mood and background necessary to fully understand everything that comes later.

For the most part, characters feel wonderfully well-developed, but my only objection to this book is a few occasions when something or someone wasn’t fleshed out as I wanted. It didn’t happen much, but I had a few questions about someone’s motivation or true feelings or how something worked that Turgeon never answers. I repeat the word “few,” though, and emphasize that mostly the book impressed me with how vividly it brought these figures to life.

Turgeon has been on my to-read list for a while and now I intend to read everything else by her as soon as I can find time!

Monday, November 18, 2013

BELLADONNA


Review of BELLADONNA by FIONA PAUL
(second in THE SECRETS OF THE ETERNAL ROSE trilogy, review based on an advance reading copy)

This series may not be great literature, but it’s absolutely top-notch fluff reading. I loved the first book and this second one sucked me in right away. I felt hooked all the way to the end and felt so invested in the story I found it hard keeping my “reviewer brain” on (In other words, making mental notes of pros and cons). When I read Paul’s books I forget about reviews and about time and simply enjoy myself.

As I mentioned in my review of VENOM, Paul mashes up genres for this series. I could categorize it as young adult, mystery, romance, suspense, etc. No doubt Paul’s willingness to break away from one genre’s traditional formulas contributes to my favorable impression of her books.

I always say there are two kinds of great writing: that which turns invisible and that which attracts admiration. Paul’s is the former. Her writing feels effortless, because I entirely forget I’m reading words and fall into her story.

In BELLADONNA, the book barely opens before Cass’s (parent selected) fiancé is falsely accused of heresy and condemned to execution. After her fling with the painter Falco in the last book Cass isn’t even sure she wants to marry Luca, but she at least cares about him and she most certainly doesn’t want him to die. She resolves to clear his name in the few weeks before his execution, a task that proves even more dangerous that she anticipated.

Sometimes I wanted Cass to be more resourceful and self-reliant. Other times she surprised and impressed me. In the end, I decided she’s real and believable. Sometimes she’s rescued and sometimes she does the rescuing. Sometimes she asks for help and sometimes she saves the day herself.

I rarely feel invested in love triangles, but I can mark this series down as an exception. In full honesty, I’ve been a Luca supporter the whole time. I do like Falco and understand why he appeals to Cass and see some ways in which he’s good for her, but ultimately think she would be happy with Luca and hope she comes to that realization herself. I strongly believe that a flame that burns steadily without ever dying beats one that flares up suddenly and snuffs out just as fast any day. Cass sees Luca as dull and predictable, but I view him as shy and respectful. Falco wants Cass for himself; Luca wants Cass to be happy. Where Falco throws jealous tantrums, Luca encourages her to find someone “of [her] own choosing” after he’s executed.

My only minor criticism is that I had to suspend disbelief near the end. Cass’s plan feels so obvious and simple that it begs the question, “Why doesn’t everyone just do this?”

That one quibble aside, I found BELLADONNA an addictive read and can’t wait to read book three: STARLING.

Friday, November 15, 2013

THE BITTER KINGDOM


Review of THE BITTER KINGDOM by RAE CARSON
(third in the FIRE AND THORNS trilogy, review based on an advance reading copy)
I enjoyed the first two books in this trilogy and THE BITTER KINGDOM only improved my overall impression of the series. This third and final installment sucked me in on the first page and proved a fast, easy, and satisfying read.
Elisa's a wonderful protagonist. She's admirable without being inhumanly perfect. She feels real. In her perspective, we know all her doubts, but can also see how confident and capable she comes across to everyone else - and no wonder. She considers every obstacle carefully, weighing logic and gut feelings. "Queen" isn’t treated like a fantasy role of riches and power in this series, but rather an insurmountable burden of responsibility that few can handle. Elisa being one of those who can.
I also admire that Carson really delves into the nuts and bolts of her world and story. Part of what makes some fictional rulers feel only lucky and privileged is how many authors gloss over all the challenges. Carson shows all the planning and strategizing and sacrifices of war and other literal and metaphorical battles. Elisa may have one primary problem leading the story, but many others pop up along the way and she handles each one with impressive composure and consideration.
My only quibble (and this paragraph contains spoilers for earlier books) is that Carson slips into Hector's viewpoint in this book. Since the last book ended with his capture Carson no doubt wants to show readers what he's experiencing, but it feels like cheating. This is only my personal, somewhat strict, opinion, but I feel when an author chooses a viewpoint they're accepting the challenge of sticking with that viewpoint even when the main character isn't around other interesting happenings. I would have had no problem with multiple viewpoint characters, but in my mind it's cheating to suddenly dip into Hector's perspective only in the third book only when it's convenient.

Overall, though, I'm full of admiration for Carson over this series. These books can satisfy both readers looking for an engaging, gripping story primarily for entertainment purposes and those craving thought-provoking novels with a layered plot and complex characters. I can't wait to see what Carson writes next!

Monday, November 11, 2013

NO KIDDING


Review of NO KIDDING edited by HENRIETTE MANTEL

NO KIDDING describes itself as a collection of essays from “women writers on bypassing parenthood.” I snatched it up because I don’t want children, and the judgments, assumptions, and invasive questions that decision attracts is an issue close to my heart.

There are many reasons why someone would decide against kids. Some of those reasons can be easily expressed and some feel very complex and/or very personal. It’s a natural reaction when a woman says she doesn’t want children to ask, “Why?” because many people assume procreation an ingrained instinct, especially in females. Natural reaction or not, “Why?” is an intrusive question. Answers can include: inability (infertility), dislike of kids (most often assumed but rarely the case, from my experience), disinterest, lack of time or money or emotional support, a negative worldview, different priorities, genetic medical problems…and so many more. Not to mention that most of the time the answer isn’t something simple you can easily recite in response to the question “Why?” Often it’s a combination of numerous elements, some or many of them private. I attended a reading once where the author shared a story of a female friend who doesn’t want kids. Irritated by how often near strangers ask for an explanation, her friend had taken to responding to “Why don’t you want you kids?” with “How much money do you make?” - her point being that it’s private and she finds the question rude and prying.

The essays are all short, so the book packs 37 into its slim page count. My favorite essay has to be the very first, by the editor of the anthology Henriette Mantel. In “The Morning Dance,” she writes about when she dated a man with a daughter. I won’t write much more about it because I’m too tempted to summarize the entire essay, but it’s moving and confronts one of the most common assumptions about women who don’t want children. I like how Bonnie Datt addresses the common-held belief that women who say they don’t want children are deluding themselves and will of course change their mind in her essay “What to Expect When You’re Never Expecting.” In Laurie Graff’s piece “First Comes Love” she talks about her bafflement as a girl (and then as a woman) at being grilled by friends about her hypothetical wedding and family, an experience I’ve had numerous times with a similarly perplexed reaction. I love how Andrea Carla Michaels starts “Mother to No One,” with a conversation between her and her eight-year-old niece that had me laughing aloud. Jeanne Dorsey’s concept of an “ambivalence scale” in “Motherhood Adoption Ambivalence” makes a lot of sense. (My go-to answer when someone asks me, “Why don’t you want kids?” is “Because I don’t want kids.” It sounds like I’m being a smart aleck, but Dorsey proves other women know exactly what I mean.) I’m frustrated that I can’t locate the exact essay, but I also admired the woman in here who switched shrinks when she said something along the lines of, “Next time I want to talk about my never having kids,” and the shrink responded, “Yes, that’s a big loss.”

I did have some things I didn’t like about this anthology, three things to be exact. The first, and hands down the biggest, is that the book describes itself as “women writers on bypassing parenthood” on the front and “about opting out of motherhood” on the back. As a woman who decided not to have children, that’s why I picked up this book. In truth, a majority of the 37 essays are actually about women who don’t have children, not women who choose not to have children. HUGE difference. I had hoped for a collection of inspiring and empowering essays on a greatly misunderstood choice, but many essays tell more depressing tales of women who wanted children or weren’t sure and either way it never worked out. Don’t get me wrong; there’s still lots of great material in here. But I’m eagerly in wait for an anthology more along what I had expected. Second, all these women are comedians. Nothing against that, but I would prefer a wide range of varied backgrounds. Some of the essays feel repetitive and I’m sure that effect would be lessened with a more diverse list of contributors. Also, as comedians, a lot of them feel the need to make their essays funny. Some efforts work and others feel forced and deflecting. While I don’t mind jokes, I expect sincerity, honesty, and vulnerability in creative nonfiction. (I know that’s asking a lot, but if you don’t want to publish about your own life you don’t have to. If you’re going to, well, that’s what I expect.) Third, a handful of essays amount, in summary, to “Huh, well, I don’t know why I don’t want/never had kids.” If someone has trouble articulating why they don’t want children, that’s absolutely fine, but I don’t see a point in publishing an essay on your reasoning if you’re not going to make an effort to think through the why and find the right words. 

It made me a little sad, too, reading some of the essays in which the writers have clearly internalized everything society says about women who don’t want children. In exploring the why behind their no kids decision, a few women in this book say they must be selfish or broken. All the more evidence that there’s still a need for a collection of essays by women who consciously decided not to have kids and don’t feel ashamed of that decision. NO KIDDING is worth reading for anyone interested in this topic (if a little skewed from the advertising), but I hope it’s only the beginning of a new trend in memoir.

Friday, November 8, 2013

BABAYAGA


Review of BABAYAGA by TOBY BARLOW
(review based on an advance reading copy)

This book is a little tricky for me to review. While I had a rather lukewarm reaction, I strongly felt that’s due to taste and not a reflection of the book’s quality.

In taking notes on my impressions as I read, I nearly wrote that the story moves slowly. Then I read that observation again and thought, “What am I saying?” Some kind of witch murders her lover, a different witch turns the police officer investigating the crime into a flea, and there’s Cold War espionage weaving through the fantasy plot threads…and that’s all in the beginning. No, this book isn’t slow in the least. So what made all those unusual twists and turns feel slow for me? I suspect the characters. It took me well over halfway into the novel to really start investing in the cast. Readers have different priorities in what they want in a book, but characters I care about rates highest for me. I can read an unoriginal sounding story if the main character feels vibrantly real. In BABAYAGA, the little girl who enters the story much later felt the most real for me. Zoya and Will grew on me as the story progressed and I invested here and there with the flea inspector, but everyone else never really caught my interest and I’m one of those readers who doesn’t care if the most interesting thing in the universe is happening unless it’s happening to someone I find interesting.

The writing’s strong, but another element that fell a little off center from my usual tastes. I recently reviewed A QUESTION OF MAGIC by E.D. Baker that also deals with Baba Yaga lore, but these two books couldn’t be more different. While the middle reader fantasy A QUESTION OF MAGIC spins a sweet, moralistic tale Toby Barlow’s BABAYAGA is gritty and gruesome. My violence tolerance can be difficult to measure as sometimes I can handle large quantities of gore in specific contexts (THE COLDEST GIRL IN COLDTOWN by Holly Black and Anne Bishop’s entire BLACK JEWELS series, for example), but then balk at milder violence in another novel. I found BABAYAGA too blood spattered and frankly icky for my tastes but can see those same factors will appeal to other readers, especially those who resent sugar-coating their fairy tales.

Monday, November 4, 2013

THE SECRETS OF JIN-SHEI


Review of THE SECRETS OF JIN-SHEI by ALMA ALEXANDER

I reread this one specifically to review on my blog. I loved it the first time around and worried it might not live up to my memory, but on the second reading it exceeded my expectations. I cared about the characters every bit as much as I remember, I admired the writing style even more this time around, and tragic twists I had completely forgotten brought tears to my eyes.

I adored this book so much it’s hard for me to understand why others might not like it, but after gathering feedback from people who didn’t enjoy this novel I’ve come up with a theory. THE SECRETS OF JIN-SHEI is fantasy, but it’s very light on the fantasy. From my experience, fiction readers feel annoyed to discover the magical elements while fantasy readers grow frustrated at how small a role magic plays. Underneath any genre labels, though, lies an amazing story and incredible characters.

In fact, I consider this book very character-rooted. The premise centers around the bond of “jin-shei,” mentioned in the title. Jin-shei is a bond of sisterhood. Any girl or woman can propose a jin-shei bond to another and they may accept or refuse the offer. By showcasing numerous jin-shei bonds, Alexander demonstrates how the union can be respected and cherished as sacred or manipulated for an individual’s gain. Anything asked in the name of jin-shei cannot be refused. Some honor that responsibility more than others.

In my review of STORMDANCER by JAY KRISTOFF, I discussed how his book is Japanese influenced without being strictly Japanese, set in a world called Shima that highly resembles - but isn’t - Japan. THE SECRETS OF JIN-SHEI does the same thing, but with Chinese culture. In the back, Alexander even discusses the line between truth and invention in this novel, including how some of her inventions stemmed from truths.

I don’t like rereading books, because there are so many I still haven’t read once. I do it, though, with some of my favorite books read pre-blogging days so they don’t miss out on the gushing review I think they deserve. I have mixed results, though, with many books reminding me why I don’t like to reread: because I simply don’t enjoy the story as much the second time around. Then there are others - like THE SECRETS OF JIN-SHEI - that, if anything, impress me even more the second time around. In particular, on my first reading the plot of this novel held my attention so firmly that I barely noticed the writing, so I was surprised when rereading to realize how wonderfully written it is. Alexander crafts phrases so apt and unique that I pause my reading to let them sink in, and she evokes beautiful imagery and powerful setting description that built up this fictional world around me.

What impressed me the most, though, is how much I felt this book, especially given that I’ve read it once before. Saying that a book made you cry always seems misleading to me, because you first need to know how easily that person cries. I’ve had many experiences where someone tells me a book made them cry and after I read it I’m scratching my head and thinking, “Really?” I’m very hard to move to tears. Even when I’m fully invested in a story and the character(s), I’m far more likely to empathize with my stomach (I mean aching not actually throwing up!). THE SECRETS OF JIN-SHEI choked me up not once but numerous times. Alexander makes me care about these characters as if they are all my own friends, or even jin-shei sisters, and then it’s painful when she starts putting them all to their various tests.

If you prefer easily categorized fiction or dislike works that mix real life with invention, THE SECRETS OF JIN-SHEI probably won’t resonate with you as it did me. Those disclaimers aside, I highly recommend this book to anyone who loves well-crafted characters, skilled writing, a complex and unpredictable plot, and/or poignant relationships.

Friday, November 1, 2013

PLAIN TRUTH


Review of PLAIN TRUTH by JODI PICOULT

I love Picoult and consider her an extremely skilled writer, but I pace her books because I find them so emotionally intense! As much as I enjoy her work, I make an effort not to read more than one book by her in a year because I connect with her characters so strongly that their arduous situations strain me emotionally merely empathizing with these fictional people! PLAIN TRUTH is no exception, intense right from the start: opening with the murder of a newborn baby.

I admire how Picoult often makes circumstance the villain more than any one person. She presents consistently complex characters with different strengths and weaknesses and, most importantly, different perspectives. Most of her stories put people in situations where the reader can understand everyone’s viewpoint. These aren’t “pick-a-side” stories.

I wouldn’t know the accuracy of the Amish research, but I found all that information interesting and enlightening. The Amish theme emphasizes what Picoult does best, because neither the Amish nor the outside world emerge as either heroes or villains; instead the reader receives intimate insight into the individual minds of people from both walks of life. By presenting the reader with characters who posses such drastically different worldviews, Picoult demonstrates how prejudices and stereotypes surface and can multiply from dividing thoughts to hateful actions.

Suspense kept me reading more than anything else (again true of other books I’ve read by Picoult).  I consider withholding information from the reader a fine art (click here to read my post on this topic) and usually Picoult’s utilization of suspense steers clear of the methods I find irritating - the only occasional exception being whenever characters think about something in vague terms: we’re in their viewpoint, we know their thoughts, but we don’t get to know this thought, not yet. (For anyone wanting an example, it’s the difference between an author writing “What she saw terrified her.” versus actually telling you what the character saw. If I’m in a character’s viewpoint, I like to see what they see and know what they know rather than be excluded.)

I didn’t like the book’s supernatural element. I’m an avid fantasy reader, so I love magic in my stories, but I also believe the fantasy element should add to the story. In other words, the magic should feel needed and not like an unnecessary accessory. I couldn’t see what PLAIN TRUTH’s supernatural element added, except perhaps an emphasis on the ongoing theme of lack of closure and never knowing the answer to a question. Of course, we ultimately do learn the answers to the book’s most prominent questions, so an unresolved ghost subplot might serve better with a more vague, mysterious ending.

As for said ending, I called the big twist…er, well, not really. I had numerous predictions without placing bets on any single one and the truth lurked on my lengthy list of guesses. However, while I called the who (and the culprit did rank high on my predications), I didn’t call the why. The motives both surprised and intrigued me. I anticipate other readers will also guess bits and pieces of the final picture while still discovering unexpected details near the end.

After the final dramatic revelation, though, the story cuts off without addressing the ramifications of what we just learned. Since I consider Picoult’s novels very character-focused, this technique left me somewhat discontented. Of course, the ending also implies there may not be any more ramifications than what has already taken place, so I do understand why the story ends there.

While PLAIN TRUTH can’t compete with MY SISTER’S KEEPER and 19 MINUTES in the battle for my favorite Picoult novel, it’s nevertheless a wonderful example of her brilliant writing and multifaceted characters and relationships.