Saturday, December 21, 2013

This Charming Man by Marian Keyes

This Charming ManThis Charming Man by Marian Keyes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was telling my daughter-in-law recently how I give all the books I review either three, four, or five stars, because I don't finish the ones I would rate as one or two. This Charming Man nearly fell in that latter category. A great deal of time was spent developing the stories of Lola, Grace, and Marnie. Grace wasn't in bad shape, but the other two women were hard to take. Lola and Marnie were both struggling in their work because they were in such bad psychological states they couldn't do basic tasks. There were also other reasons why I wasn't enjoying the book. Paddy de Courcy, who was the title character, wasn't in it very much and all the other male characters seemed horrible. I thought Marian Keyes must hate men.

Then the book took a few turns and I found it well worth reading. One of the men whom I had seen as abusive turned out not to be violent but instead was supportive to his wife until he was forced to make a hard choice. I sympathized with him rather than hating him. Other male characters began to appear who were decent people. Circumstances allowed Lola to change her life long enough to get to a better place emotionally. Meanwhile Marnie's situation was explained further, so although her life continued to spiral down, I could appreciate why.

This novel has one of the best descriptions of alcoholism I've ever read. It shows the disease in detail from the point of view of the alcoholic and also from the points of view of the people who love her. It also covers the victims of domestic abuse in a way that helped me understand why some of the women stay in their situations. After reading the way Keyes covered these two issues, I was able to understand the weaknesses of the victims and appreciate their strengths.

Lola's chapters were written in a strange, journal voice I found annoying. Most of the pronouns were dropped, along with words such as the and a. After I got used to it, I could ignore the style. But I still believe it was a bad choice, one that detracted from the novel.

This Charming Man isn't an easy read, but in the end it's well worth reading.

View all my reviews

Monday, December 9, 2013

A Storm of Swords by George R R Martin

A Storm of Swords (A Song of Ice and Fire, #3)A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

George R. R. Martin has created a world of adventure, love, sex, and violence, then filled that world with so many interesting, unique, and complex characters it's hard to keep track. Nobody is safe in these books. They're filled with unexpected surprises that come when we're least expecting them. Up to this point, A Storm of Swords is the most surprising and most addicting novel in the series.

Two complaints I have with the first three volumes of A Song of Fire and Ice are as follows: The first is that nothing seems to resolve. The characters seem to be in a downward spiral that keeps getting worse. Many readers like this style, but I would rather see something resolve at the end of each volume, something to allow me to breathe. The second issue is the amount of time the characters spend traveling from one place to another. With A Storm of Swords, the first issue is still there. So is the second, but about halfway through the story takes off and there are few words wasted on marching.

Prior to this novel my favorite character was Arya. I still looked forward to her chapters, but in this book her story seemed to take a back seat to characters such as Tyrion and Jamie Lannister and even, surprisingly, to her sister, Sansa. Although Sansa doesn't seem to take control of her destiny as much as her sister does, her fate kept me turning pages.

I haven't seen the third season of the HBO series, which should follow A Storm of Swords, but I'll be ordering the DVD set soon. It will be fun to see this plot brought to life on television. As for the next book, I plan to read it but only after a break. Like I said before, I need time to breathe.

View all my reviews

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I'm a fan of the television show Bones. I'm also a fan of period novels, so Ariana Franklin's novel, Mistress of the Art of Death seems as if it was written for me. This is the story of a doctor from Sicily who specializes in analyzing corpses, just like Dr. Temperance Brennan on the TV show. Also like the show this doctor is a woman. Apparently, Sicily is progressive, for the twelfth century.

Dr. Adelia Aguilar comes to England at the request of the King of Sicily. It seems his friend, Henry II, the king of England has a problem. Someone has been killing children in the Cambridge region. The people of that area are blaming the Jews and Henry has been forced to put them in protective custody in one of his castles. Dr. Aguilar along with Simon, a Jew and Mansur, a Moor, eunuch, are tasked with finding the true killer so the Jews can go back to living their lives – or, more accurately, so Henry can go back to taxing the Jews.

The story takes place during a time in England when the church and the monarchy were in a power struggle. Here is an excerpt that reflects that struggle:

The king's voice rose in a wail that filled the gallery like a despairing trumpet. “Sweet God, forgive this unhappy and remorseful king. Thou knowest how Thomas a Becket did oppose me in all things so that in my rage I called for his death. Peccavi, peccavi, for certain knights did mistake my anger and ride to kill him, thinking to please me, for which abomination You in Your righteousness have turned Your face from me. I am a worm, mea culpa, mea culpa, mea culpa. I crawl beneath Your anger while Archbishop Thomas is received into Your Glory and sitteth on the right hand of Your Gracious Son, Jesus Christ.”

Faces turned. Quills were poised in mid-account, abaci stilled.

Henry stopped beating his breast. He said conversationally, “And if I am not mistaken, the Lord will find him as big a pain in the arse as I did.”...

Franklin's characters are well developed and get involved in relationships that are messy and for that reason fascinating. I was hooked.

Mistress of the Art of Death, published in 2007, is the first book in a series and I plan to read more.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom

The Kitchen HouseThe Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I glanced through a few of the reviews of The Kitchen House before writing my own. It seems the people who liked the book felt it was a well researched picture of the lives of slaves on a Virginia plantation in the late 18th century. The people who didn't like the book felt too many horrible things happened to the characters, making it a difficult read. It seems to me to achieve the former the latter has to be true. I put the book down a number of times when the story got too depressing, but in the end I was glad I read it.

The story is about an Irish immigrant who lost her parents and ended up as a indentured servant raised by slaves in the kitchen house of a plantation. It is also about the lives of those slaves. Although Lavinia is the principal character, the story often switches to the point of view of Belle, the illegitimate daughter of the Captain (the plantation owner).  Belle's mother was a slave the Captain found beautiful enough to purchase and “use.” Later on Belle was “used” by Marshall, the son of the Captain and Belle's own half brother.

Lavinia was one of the weakest main characters I've ever encountered. I know life was also difficult for the white women of that time, especially those who made poor choices with their men. But there are so many ways Lavinia could have acted to prevent some of the tragedies from occurring. When she did try she gave up too soon. Some of the other characters in the book referred to her as naïve, but her weakness went way beyond that. Most of her choices were painful to read.

What I liked best about the book was the Upstairs Downstairs picture of life on the plantation. I knew the slaves in the big house had it better than the slaves in the fields, but I'd never thought about the middle tier, in the kitchen house. And what was also interesting was the hardships endured by slaves who had fair owners. They had family and friends on other plantations, they were treated horribly by other whites in the community, and they were still property, even if their owners were good people.

View all my reviews

Saturday, November 2, 2013

The Light Between Oceans by M L Stedman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
There's a bit of Adam, Eve, and the apple tree in The Light Between Oceans. Early in the novel Isabel entices Tom to make a decision that affects the rest of their lives.

Throughout the book the decisions the female characters make seem to be responses to emotions while the male characters are more deliberate and thoughtful. I started thinking about this aspect of the novel when late in the story one of the minor male characters committed a betrayal and the blame was placed on his mother. The major characters are the same, specifically Isabel, whose reaction to the arrival of the baby as well as her anger as the book goes on are gut level responses. Yet all the characters in the book are complex and fully developed, so I don't think this hurts the novel. In fact, I think it makes it more interesting. I wonder if part of this is do to the time and place. The Light Between Oceans is set in western Australia shortly after World War 1. The difference between fighting in a war and the two tasks of waiting for loved ones then dealing with the emotional and physical damage done to them, would likely create a situation where the distinction between the ways men and women think would be exaggerated. This would be compounded by living in a rural area where gender roles are forced to be more distinct.

I listened to the audio version of this book and want to echo a comment made by other reviewers. The reader was hard to understand. I'm American, so part of this was my ear and his Australian accent, but more than that it was his decision to speak with a soft, introspective voice.

The book is emotional, sometimes even sappy, when drawing a picture of the relationship between young Lucy and Tom and Isabel. I was also bothered by a few coincidences. But overall I thought it was a great read. There were times when I couldn't stop listening, especially toward the end.

What is best about this novel is the beautiful, careful description of the isolated lighthouse island and how that setting is woven into the experiences of the characters. Here's the opening to the book:

On the day of the miracle, Isabel was kneeling at the cliff's edge, tending the small, newly made driftwood cross. A single fat cloud snailed across the late-April sky, which stretched above the island in a mirror of the ocean below. Isabel sprinkled more water and patted down the soil around the rosemary bush she had just planted.

“...and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil,” she whispered.

For just a moment, her mind tricked her into hearing an infant's cry. She dismissed the illusion, her eye drawn instead by a pod of whales weaving their way up the coast to calve in the warmer waters, emerging now and again with a fluke of their tails like needles through tapestry. She heard the cry again, louder this time on the early-morning breeze. Impossible.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Tell the Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

Tell the Wolves I'm HomeTell the Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Tell the Wolves I'm Home  is a perfect book for a book club. It's written entirely from the point of view of a fourteen year old girl who has strained and strange relationships with members of her family. It's a coming of age story, but also a book about compassion and about dealing with the worst problems life can send.

Although Tell the Wolves I'm Home was published in 2012, it's set in 1987. It has multiple themes, but the principle story is about the affect of the aids epidemic on the friends and families of the victims. A diagnosis of HIV before the approval of AZT was a death sentence. It also meant dealing with a lack of knowledge in the general public. Most people without the disease were ignorant and scared, which meant the people who were HIV positive had to spend the last few months of their lives dealing with problems as unfair as the disease itself. The reactions of the characters in this novel are unique to their circumstances, but are also typical of what went on in the eighties.

The plot is about June Elbus, a fourteen year old girl who is very close to her dying uncle, a world renowned artist. She, along with her mother and her sister Greta, visit this uncle on Sundays while he works on a portrait of the two girls. The painting is to be his final gift to them, although the concept of “final” is carefully avoided. Later in the book June discovers secrets about her uncle's life that were kept from her due to her mother's wishes. The way June comes to understand her mother's failings is one of my favorite parts of the story.

June and her sister, Greta, were once as close as sisters can be, especially during tax seasons when their parents, both accountants, had always left them on their own. But lately Greta has been mean and June doesn't understand why. Greta has always been the talented one. Her school work has come easily to her and she's currently starring in their high school production of South Pacific. June, however, struggles to keep up in class and isn't as popular as her sister. The story of their relationship is interwoven with the story of June's relationship with her Uncle Finn.

I mentioned in the beginning of this review that Tell the Wolves I'm Home is a great novel for book clubs. I was interested to see how readers can buy a study guide for the book and also a book called 100 Provocative Statements about Tell the Wolves I'm Home which is a collection of “hand picked” reviews. It's fairly clear how much material for discussion this book contains.

View all my reviews

Saturday, October 5, 2013

The Tale of Halcyon Crane by Wendy Webb

The Tale of Halcyon CraneThe Tale of Halcyon Crane by Wendy Webb
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm writing this in October when the cooler weather and longer nights have turned my mind to thoughts of good ghost stories. Most readers in the same state would find The Tale of Halcyon Crane by Wendy Webb to be an excellent choice. The book is the story of Hallie James, a recently divorced woman in her early thirties, who receives a letter from a lawyer representing her long lost mother’s estate, along with a note from the mother she hasn’t seen since she was five years old. Hallie learns her name is actually Halcyon Crane. Her father faked her death and took her away from her mother for unknown reasons. Her father has Alzheimer’s and is able to confirm the contents of the letter, but unable to explain further before dying. Hallie has lost both the mother she didn’t know and the father who raised her within a short period of time. She has also inherited a substantial estate and is able to quit her job to go to the island in the Great Lakes where she spent the first five years of her life.

There were a few too many coincidences in the novel and choices by Webb that were too easy. For example there is a character mentioned who provided a means for Hallie’s father to establish a new identity. No one ever knew why, but the man disappeared so he couldn’t be questioned. But the plot is intricate and interesting. I loved the setting. Webb put the story on a fictional island that is similar to Mackinac Island. The phones are all land lines because there is no cell coverage. And since most motor vehicles are banned, people get around in horse drawn carriages. Much of the story is about Hallie’s ancestors, so placing it on an island that hasn’t changed over the years is perfect.

One minor aspect of the story I liked was Webb’s choice to have Hallie’s first marriage break up because her ex is gay. I have a friend who was in a similar situation many years ago. He’s long since gotten over the trauma, but at the time he took it very hard. It was as if he felt he wasn’t good enough sexually or he couldn’t love his wife enough to keep her straight. Our understanding of gay issues has grown over the years, so now a character like Hallie James can have an ex who is her good friend and wants to hear about her relationships. Hallie’s divorce wasn’t anyone’s fault. I like that.

The Tale of Halcyon Crane isn’t as scary as some ghost stories, but it is fun, intricate, and at times quite beautiful.

View all my reviews

Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Cove by Ron Rash

The CoveThe Cove by Ron Rash
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Cove is the second Ron Rash novel I've read and, like One Foot in Eden, it is excellent.

What makes Rash one of the best writers I've ever read is his careful use of language. Here's a paragraph from the first chapter:

She pressed the wicker basket against her belly and made her way down the trail. The air grew dank and dark and even darker as she passed through a stand of hemlocks. Toad stools and witch hazel sprouted on the trail edge, farther down, nightshade and then baneberry whose poisonous fruit looked like a doll's eyes. Two days' rain had made the woods poxy with mushrooms. The gray ones with the slimy feel of slugs were harmless, Laurel knew, but the larger pale mushrooms could kill you, as could the brown-hooded kind that clumped on rotting wood. Chestnut wood, because that was what filled the understory more and more with each passing season. As Laurel approached her parents' graves, she thought of what she'd asked Slidell to do, what he said he'd do, though adding that at his age such a vow was like snow promising to outlast spring.

A writing class could be based on this paragraph alone. The rhythm is perfect. The setting is thoroughly described with careful use of detail he's either researched or lived. The characters of Laurel and Slidell are introduced with both physical details and glimpses of how they think. The paragraph ends with a wonderful simile and the choice of the word “poxy” to describe how the mushrooms fit in the scene changes a simple description to a metaphor with dozens of implications.

Ron Rash's book is about loneliness, hate, and insecurity.  Laurel has large, purple birthmarks on her shoulders and back, which the early twentieth century residents of Mars Hill, NC believe mark her as a witch, causing them to avoid her as much as possible. While shopping for fabric she speaks out when she knows she shouldn't, showing us her resentment, but also letting us know she doesn't want to be bitter. Chauncey Feith, a military recruiter based in Mars Hill is always trying to prove himself by demeaning others. World War 1 is going on in Europe, but Chauncey's role in it is an easy one. He tries to prove he's as good a soldier as anyone else, but we can feel his self doubt.

The plot is the one area where I thought The Cove fell a bit short, especially when compared to  One Foot in Eden. There are critical elements I had trouble believing. Laurel and her brother, Hank, take in a mute man who helps with work on their farm. They are too accepting of his story given Hank's war experience. Also the ending was too neat and depended on a coincidental event.

View all my reviews

Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Witch's Hand by Wendy Joseph

The Witch's HandThe Witch's Hand by Wendy Joseph
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Witch's Hand takes place in southern France during the thirteenth century. The book mixes sorcery with a realistic portrayal of the period in a manner that reminded me of the best aspects of A Game of Thrones. The novel has a strong plot about a young peasant girl, Liana, who has been picked by Malaxia, a powerful witch, to be her heiress. Liana meets Jattaret, a disillusioned warrior who has returned from the crusades to restart a privileged life with an arranged marriage. Jattaret's full name is Michel Antoine Jettaret, Vicomte de Solignac. His family is wealthy and powerful while Liana is the daughter of a game watcher for the Bishop. But Jattaret still has the ideals that pushed him to join the crusades. Those ideals, along with his admiration of Liana's innocence, lead him in a fight to save her from Malaxia's power.

In some ways The Witch's Hand is a “good vs. evil” story, but it isn't told in black and white. The flaws of the church are shown and the bigotry of the local farmers who fight against witchcraft are also shown. Here is what Jattaret says about that subject:

All this witchcraft is a way, I am afraid, of people saying they don't like what you think, what you believe, what you look like, what you do,”

The attention to detail in Wendy Joseph's writing pulled me into her story. Here is a sample from when Jattaret goes to a local village to purchase a horse for Liana:

He stepped closer, stroked the mare's head – eyes alert, deep and bright, no sign of cloudiness in them – and waved his hand behind each eye to check her rear and peripheral vision. She blinked. Good. To test her hearing he snapped his fingers by each ear, and she flicked them but was not head shy. Good. He pulled her mouth open and rolled her lips back for a look at her teeth, and judged her to be about seven; little wear on the back teeth yet.

The same attention to detail gives a beautiful authenticity to the period and the setting:

The trail descended into thick woods at the bottom of the ridge and they rode through them, not following any path that Liana could see. At Sext they halted briefly for a midday meal of sorts – bread, wine, and dried sausage that chewed like wood bark. As they continued the trees thinned out, broken more and more by meadows in soft bloom, and Liana's thoughts of Malaxia vanished. When the sunrays were slanting low from the west, and Jettaret judged they were well out of the way of any searchers from Peranville or chance wanderers, they stopped by a spring to make camp.

My wife and I spent two weeks in France last year, my first trip to Europe, so I have a particular interest in novels set in that country. This novel is an excellent read for anyone with an interest in European history, with the added pleasure of mysticism for excitement.

View all my reviews

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm

Where Late the Sweet Birds SangWhere Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is a book to read for its ideas rather than its characters. It is the story of a world that is suffering from radiation and other forms of pollution. The ability to reproduce has been damaged. Human and other animal species are disappearing. Plant life has also been affected, so there's less food and the remaining people are fighting for what's left. A family of scientists is working on a solution to this problem. They plan to use cloning to create livestock and people who, hopefully, will be fertile.

The novel starts out with two cousins, David and Celia, who are in love. Wilhelm uses their love to point out differences between naturally born humans and the first generation of clones.

Three Celias came into view, swinging easily with the weight of the baskets, a stair-step succession of Celias. He shouldn't do that, he reminded himself harshly. They weren't Celias, none of them had that name. They were Mary and Ann and something else. He couldn't remember for a moment the third one's name, and he knew it didn't matter. They were each and every one Celia. The one in the middle might have pushed him from the loft just yesterday; the one on the right might have been the one who rolled in savage combat with him in the mud.

These new clones have a unique sense of empathy. They are extremely close to their “sisters,” but don't reach out well to others. Sex is something the clones are obligated to have and something they enjoy, especially in large groups, but it is never a drive that pushes them into one on one, romantic relationships. Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang was first published in 1977 and I wonder if this aspect might have been a reaction to the Sex, drugs, and rock and roll philosophy of the sixties and early seventies.

There are a number of problems inherent in the idea behind this plot. First of all, there are life forms that are not affected by the pollution. Trees seem to grow fine and so does grass. But beyond this and other technicalities are the problems of a plot about people who have trouble caring for each other. Wilhelm works her way through this by having some characters who still can care.

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang would make a good book club selection because the ideas have the potential to stimulate a great discussion. I found the reviews on Goodreads to be fascinating while the novel itself never captured me completely.

View all my reviews

Saturday, September 7, 2013

New York by Edward Rutherfurd

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I grew up in northern New Jersey, so the history of New York is fascinating to me. Edward Rutherfurd tells the story of people living in the city, starting in the 17th century when the settlement was called New Amsterdam and was governed by Peter Styverson and ending in the 21st century when Rudy Giuliani was mayor. The novel focuses on the Master family, but also looks at other families whose lives were intertwined with the Masters. I thought Rutherfurd did an excellent job of mixing history with fiction.

When I lived in the New York area, I went to the city often. I loved the museums, the theater scene from the small groups in store front theaters to the Broadway shows, and I went to countless concerts in Central Park and at the Fillmore East. I spent hours in the libraries, especially the main branch on Fifth Ave and the Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. But despite loving the city I didn't know much about its history. I had no idea about the early connection to the slave trade, Spanish Harlem was just a song to me, and I knew next to nothing about the financial district, especially during the years leading up to the depression. New York covered those aspects of the city in a way that held my attention. I loved the book for that.

I saw in some of the other reviews complaints that Rutherfurd did not spend time with the African American families living in the twentieth century. He did cover their experience, especially during the pre civil war years, but those families were only mentioned briefly during modern times. I don't agree with that criticism. Rutherfurd chose to write a story about the Master family and if he left their story for too long the plot would have lost its continuity. He covered the Italians and the Irish during the years when those nationalities were the bulk of the immigrants. The African Americans were in the city from early on, just as the English were. Another novel about their experience in New York would be equally fascinating, but this novel was primarily about the English experience. Perhaps he could have spent more time with the Puerto Ricans families, given their importance to modern New York, but he did touch on that experience and I learned a good deal. He discussed the Lenape Native Americans, but as with many of the other groups that section was from the point of view of the European (Dutch) settlers.

My chief complaint comes down to a single word. Here's the line from late in the book:

He'd been fortunate to get a low number in the lottery and avoided the draft.

The word I object to is low. Rutherfurd was talking about the 1970s here and anyone who lived through that period knows that a low number meant you were going to war, not the other way around. The problem with this mistake is it stops the reader who knows its wrong and casts doubt on the accuracy of the rest of the book. But I'm still giving this book a five star rating. Overall, I loved it.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

I've Got Your Number by Sophie Kinsella

I've Got Your NumberI've Got Your Number by Sophie Kinsella
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It's been more than two decades since I saw the movie Amadeus, but I still remember a scene where Salieri looks at a score Mozart has written and is both amazed and jealous of the lack of scratch outs and eraser marks. The feeling I get from Sophie Kinsella's books reminds me of that. When I write, I rewrite over and over again. And most of the books I read feel as if they've been rewritten numerous times. But sometimes I want a book that feels as if it's being told by someone sitting next to me instead of one that feels as if the writer spent hours polishing it. Kinsella's books are light, funny stories generally centered around a flaky young woman who is much brighter and more capable than she realizes. I've Got Your Number is a funny book, with an easy style and a plot that caught me and kept me reading.

The story is about Poppy Wyatt, a young woman engaged to the handsome son of a couple of academics who are famous enough to have their own television show. The parents intimidate her and the fiance doesn't treat her with respect. Her life is changed when someone steals her cell phone and she finds another in a waste basket. She ends up sharing a phone with the head of White Globe Consulting, a highly successful firm with government connections. Sharing a phone is extremely personal. Here's what Poppy says about it:

I mean, Magnus has seen every inch of my body, including the dodgy bits, but I would never, ever let him near my phone.

Early on in I've Got Your Number Kinsella appears to be taking a swipe at the type of high brows who would most likely not be among her readers when Poppy reveals that she once published a letter in a magazine that was intended to be funny.

Of course, humor is a form of expression which one should factor into one's cultural narrative,” says Wanda doubtfully. “I think Jacob C. Goodson has done some interesting work in 'Why Humans Joke.'”

But Kinsella is also saying that what we hear relates as much to our own self images as it does to the words that are spoken. Poppy needs to understand herself before she can understand Wanda and her husband, Antony.

View all my reviews

Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Sojourn by Andrew Krivak

The SojournThe Sojourn by Andrew Krivak
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The rhythm of Andrew Krivak's writing forces his readers to slow down. The Sojourn pulled me in and kept me turning the pages because its subject matter and setting are fascinating. But I had to work to read it. Here's an example of a typical sentence pulled from about halfway through the novel:

But among the Austrian and German troops we fell in with that autumn in Kobarid, we felt the camaraderie of skill and demeanor, and so began to believe again in the possibility of victory in that war, after having lost so many battles, a victory we would soon find out, that was being mapped out in the mountains above the plateau the generals had conceded to their enemy in order to save themselves and their imperial army.

I might enjoy sentences such as this if they were used in moderation, but Krivak rarely breaks his rhythm with shorter phrases.

The novel follows the life of Jozef Vinich, who was born in Colorado but raised in Austria-Hungry. He and his adopted brother, learn to shoot with great skill because they are hunters from an early age. When World War 1 begins, their skills as sharpshooters are highly valued. The scenes from the battles and from long marches in harsh environments bring a very clear picture of a struggle to survive, but Krivak also shows the guilt surviving can bring.

I said that I had ceased to think of life or death because it seemed that I was destined to serve out the sentence of one for having delivered so well the sentence of the other, and that I saw the dead every night before I went to sleep as though they were still alive and standing before me.

The Sojourn is not a book to curl up with on a rainy day. But for readers who enjoy history and who like to work at what they read, it's a good one.

View all my reviews

Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian

The Sandcastle GirlsThe Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Chris Bohjalian refers to the Armenian Genocide as “the slaughter you know next to nothing about.” This horrific event involved the mass murder of Armenians living in what is now Turkey. In my case Bohjalian's statement was true until I read his wonderful novel, The Sandcastle Girls. Here is a quote from Wikipedia about the Armenian Genocide:

It took place during and after World War 1 and was implemented in two phases: the wholesale killing of the able-bodied male population through massacre and forced labor, and the deportation of women, children, the elderly and infirm on death marches to the Syrian Desert. The total number of people killed as a result has been estimated at between 1 and 1.5 million.

The Sandcastle Girls bounces back and forth between the period when World War 1 was  in its early stages and the present time. It is about Laura Petrosian, a novelist, who is shown an old photograph of a woman who suffered through the Genocide and who shared Laura's last name. This picture starts Laura's effort to learn more about the history of her ancestors. The portions of the book that take place during the early twentieth century tell us about Laura's grandmother, Elizabeth Endicott, as she arrives in Syria with her father. They are on a humanitarian mission to help the victims. The first day Elizabeth is in Syria she sees surviving women from one of the marches.

These women are completely naked, bare from their feet to the long drapes of matted black hair. And it is the hair, long and straight though filthy and impossibly tangled, that causes her to understand that these woman are white – at least they were once – and they are, in fact, not old at all, Many might be her age or even a little younger. All are beyond modesty, beyond caring. Their skin has been seared black by the sun or stained by the soil in which they have slept or, in some cases, by great yawning scabs and wounds that are open and festering and, even at this distance, malodorous.

The novel views the genocide from a short distance. We hear about the massacres of the Armenian men, but we don't see them. And Elizabeth is in Syria, so the women she sees are the survivors. Along the way many of the women were raped and some were slaughtered for fun, but we find out about those crimes through second hand stories or the recollections of characters such as Nevart, an Armenian woman who has taken on the care of Hatoun, a young, silent, orphan girl.

Bohjalian's book is not only about genocide. The story also covers other, smaller aspects of the characters' lives. Elizabeth falls in love with an Armenian she meets and he also falls for her, but he never loses the love he feels for his wife and his child although they have been taken from him. In the present time we feel Laura's need to find out more about her family and to use that knowledge to better understand her own life.

The Sandcastle Girls is a novel about the importance of remembering our history, especially the bad parts. But it is also a book about hope and love and surviving.

View all my reviews

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Company of Liars by Karen Maitland

Company Of LiarsCompany Of Liars by Karen Maitland
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Company of Liars has the subtitle a novel of the plague.  It makes me wonder if the person who designed the cover ever read the book. It takes place in 1348 as the plague has started to overwhelm England, but the plague is only one of a number of reasons why nine outcasts have taken to the road. The disease has changed the landscape through which these travelers wander, but it is not the cause of their suffering. Fourteenth century England had plenty of other reasons why it was a hard time and place to live.

The story is told by an old character who is known to the readers as Camelot, a profession rather than a name.

I am, after all, a camelot, a peddler, a hawker of hopes and crossed fingers, of piecrust promises and gilded stories. And believe me, there are plenty who will buy such things. I sell faith in a bottle: the water of the Jordan drawn from the very spot where the Dove descended, the bones of the innocents slaughtered in Bethlehem, and the shards of the lamps carried by the wise virgins.

Camelot, who is clearly a seller of lies, is joined by eight others. These include Zophiel, a magician who owns the cart and horse they are using and who has a number of boxes with unknown contents, Osmond and Adela, a young couple who are expecting a child, Rodrigo and Jofre, an Italian musician and his apprentice, Pleasance, a midwife, and Cygnus, a storyteller who has a swan's wing in place of one of his arms.  All of these people have secrets they do not want to reveal. But they also have brought another traveler with them: Narigorm, a young, pale skinned, white haired girl who is a mystic and who has very little use for liars.

This novel has strong characters and an excellent feel for life during the fourteenth century, which is the aspect I found most interesting. But there was more to it than that. Karen Maitland handled the subjects of human sexuality, gender identification, and bigotry in interesting and sometimes surprising ways. She also mixed mysticism and reality in ways that made me think.

View all my reviews

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Heresy by S. J. Parris

Heresy (Giordano Bruno, #1)Heresy by S.J. Parris
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Heresy is a historical novel that follows a period in the life of Giordano Bruno, an ex-monk who has developed a reputation as a philosopher and gained status through his relationship with King Henri III of France. This book covers a time he spent at Oxford in England. He's been brought to the university to debate with the head of the school, Rector Underhill. But while Bruno is at Oxford a number of brutal murders occur and he is recruited by Underhill to look into the crimes.

The book is interesting because it covers the period in English history after the Church of England separated from the Roman Catholic Church, but does not look at that time through the point of view of the monarchy. Instead it focuses on how the conflict between the two churches affects the students and faculty at Oxford. There's violence, deception, and quite a few compromised values.

The problem with putting historical characters in a fictional environment is that the author has to develop personalities for the characters while remaining true to the real people. In this case, the characters suffer because they lack strong emotions. Everyone in the book, with the exception of Bruno and his well-connected friend, Philip Sydney, seems to be one dimensional and self-serving. This was a time when people believed that choosing the wrong side would be the same as denying God. Yet there was little passion shown in their choices. The rector has a beautiful daughter named Sophia whom everyone wants to protect, but the only romantic relationship is talked about rather than shown and also lacks passion.

The decisions the characters make often seem abrupt and without rationalization. There's a gate keeper who helps Bruno without any explanation as to why he's decided to trust a stranger over the people he knows and works for. And Rector Underhill's decision to ask Bruno to investigate the crimes also seems out of the blue.

Yet, despite the issues I mentioned, I enjoyed the novel. The subject matter is fascinating and the mystery works well. It's a good read for people who enjoy historical fiction.

View all my reviews

Sunday, July 21, 2013

A Clash of Kings by George R. R. Martin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
A Clash of Kings is the second book in the A Song of Ice and Fire series that began with A Game of Thrones. The book has a number of interrelated plots that follow various characters. It takes awhile to get going, but once it does there's plenty of excitement.

I found the story line around Arya (A ten year old tomboy who uses the innocence of her age to her advantage.), Theon (The son of a lord who was kept and raised by another lord and now is trying to prove his loyalty.), and Tyrion (A dwarf who realizes he needs to out-think others for his victories, but also demonstrates great bravery) to be the most interesting. The chapters covering Davos (A former smuggler who now fights for one of the brothers of the dead king.) and Daenerys (The last in the line of the family that once ruled the seven kingdoms, who dreams of winning back that throne for her heirs) also had some great moments. But I was disappointed in the plots covering Jon (A soldier who has sworn to spend his life protecting the seven kingdoms from the evil creatures in the north.), Sansa (The more traditional sister of Arya, who counted on the men in her life and has been disappointed.), and Catelyn (The mother of, among others, the current Lord of the North, Arya, and Sansa and who travels around the kingdoms trying to work for peace while protecting her family.).

These complex stories refer to each other and will probably come together eventually, but they didn't in this book. This is my principle complaint, A Clash of Kings doesn't resolve any plot lines. Instead it adds more. For some readers this is unimportant. But, although some lingering plot lines can draw the readers back, each book in a series should have its own beginning, middle and end. A Clash of Kings doesn't stand well on its own.

The world George R. R. Martin has created is a mixture of dark magical creatures with flawed humans in a setting that could pass for England during the time of King Arthur. His attention to detail is unsurpassed and all his characters have unique, fully developed personalities. I could feel what every character felt and understand all their actions, whether selfish, kind, or a mixture of both.

I've started the HBO series Game of Thrones, but I'm only halfway through the first season. I want to read before I watch, although I do think the series is exciting and faithful to the book.

Although I had some issues with this book and don't believe it is as good as the first book in the series, I'm still rating it with five stars. Because what is great about it far exceeds the few problems.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Ethan Frome is a book I should have read years ago. Since I didn't, I had an opportunity to look at a classic with fresh eyes and I enjoyed it. The Age of Innocence is the only other Edith Wharton book I've read. Both are extremely well written. Ethan Frome was published in 1911.

Ethan Frome is structured as a tale told by a man who has been sent into Starkfield, Massachusetts to supervise work on a “power-house,” but he has been stuck in town longer than he expected due to a carpenters' strike. There's a powerful winter storm in the area and Ethan Frome is recommended as someone who has a horse drawn sleigh and can take the narrator to the home where he's been staying for a small price. When the storm becomes too much for travel, Ethan invites the man to stay overnight at his farm. This is where the narrator learns enough about him to tell his story.

Years earlier, Ethan lived with two women, his wife, Zeena and her younger cousin, Mattie. Mattie had fallen on hard times. Her father had died leaving almost no money for his family. Mattie's mother was not capable of supporting herself and her daughter. She died from the stress, leaving Mattie alone. Zeena took her cousin in because Mattie had nowhere else to go and because Mattie was cheap labor. She cooked and cleaned for room and board. She also took an interest in Ethan.

The novel concentrates on the relationship between Ethan and Mattie, but his relationship with his wife is more important. He's attracted to Mattie because she's young, pretty, and vivacious, but also because Zeena is the opposite. Zeena seems to feel she's been let down by her husband's inability to make more than a substance living and responds to her situation by constantly complaining about her health. While she seems to be reaching for attention from Ethan, her hypochondria and controlling personality push Ethan toward Mattie.

Good novels get into the heads of the characters. Edith Wharton is excellent at letting her readers feel by concentrating on the little things.

He had always been more sensitive than the people about him to the appeal of natural beauty. His unfinished studies had given form to this sensibility and even in his unhappiest moments field and sky spoke to him with a deep and powerful persuasion. But hitherto the emotion had remained in him as a silent ache, veiling with sadness the beauty that evoked it. He did not even know whether any one else in the world felt as he did, or whether he was the sole victim of this mournful privilege. Then he learned that one other spirit had trembled with the same touch of wonder: that at his side, living under his roof and eating his bread, was a creature to whom he could say: “That's Orion down yonder the big fellow to the right is Aldebaran, and the bunch of little ones – like bees swarming – they're the Pleiades...”

Anyone who hasn't read this novel, should give it a try. It's a beautifully written experience.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

The Snowman by Jo Nesbø

The Snowman (Harry Hole, #7)The Snowman by Jo Nesbø
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Snowman is intense and gripping. Although parts of the story are unbelievable, Jo Nesbø's writing keeps the suspense alive. At times it is a difficult book to put down, which is the best compliment I can give to a crime novel. However, just as in action films such as Die Hard or The Eraser, plausibility takes a backseat to tension.

The Snowman is the first Harry Hole mystery I've read. It's neither the first in the series nor the last, but it stands on its own. It tells enough background to allow a new reader to understand the character relationships without slowing the book down. Harry holds back on his emotions. He's drawn to Rakel, his ex, but understands how his need to solve crimes will always get in the way of his relationship with her. He's more open with her son, Oleg, who responds well to him. But that isn't enough. Another person in his life is Katrine Bratt, a young police woman who also works on the snowman case. I expected the relationship between those two to be different from how it turned out.

The plot seemed to come to an end a couple of times during the book, but there were still many pages to go through and so the story turned out different than what was expected. That's good, although a little overdone. Yet the psychological reasons that point to each of the suspects are rationalized well, so the reader doesn't feel cheated at the end.

Another aspect of Nesbø's writing I like is his attention to small details that don't appear to advance the plot, but establish what life is like in Norway. For example there's a shop owner in the story who sells African art. The shop exists because government grants are available for this type of store, so the fact that there are few customers doesn't make any difference. The setting is also interesting. The cold of Norway suits the cold relationships between the characters.

View all my reviews

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Pandemonium by Lauren Oliver

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Pandemonium is a YA book, the second release in the popular Delirium series. Its target audience seems to be teenage girls and judging by the other reviews I'd say it impressed that group of readers. This series, by Lauren Oliver, is the story of a young woman, Lena, who lives sometime in the future after a ruthless, dictatorial government has taken over the United States and has banned love. At age eighteen anyone living in one of the government controlled areas must undergo a cure, which is a brain operation that limits their emotions. There are, however, areas outside the major population centers called the Wilds. In these places the people still have their emotions and their freedom, but they have to struggle to find food and shelter and they have to put up with constant attacks from the cities.

I liked both of the books I've read in this series because Lauren Oliver has done an excellent job of getting into the mind of Lena. In Pandemonium Lena has matured somewhat. When this book begins she needs help to recover from what she experienced in the first book, but once she works her way through that she becomes a much stronger person. She has a relationship with a young man, Julian, who needs her help to deal with both emotional and practical problems. I liked that because in Delirium she was the one who needed to get her strength from someone else.

The book bounces back and forth between sections entitled Then which are set in the time when Lena was first in the Wilds and sections entitled Now which are set after she has regained her strength and is part of the resistance. Yet Pandemonium is consistently written in the present tense, keeping an intensity throughout the novel.

The rat-man stops. He doesn't look at us, but I see his shoulders rise and fall: an inaudible sigh. “They'd already taken her from me once,” he says quietly. “I didn't want to lose her again.”

I have the urge to lay my hand on his shoulder and say, I understand. But the words seem stupid. We can never understand. We can only try, fumbling our way through the tunneled places, reaching for light.

I had a few problems with the book that had to do with too many coincidences and situations that required suspension of disbelief, but the character of Lena is strong enough to keep the pages turning. I'm looking forward to reading the next book in the series.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

The Woman Next Door by Barbara Delinsky

The Woman Next DoorThe Woman Next Door by Barbara Delinsky
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Woman Next Door is a woman's book. I glanced through pages of reviews on Goodreads and found only one other man who had reviewed it. The book covers a number of problems in suburbia that surround a threesome of friends, Amanda, Karen, and Georgia, who try to help each other but also spend a great deal of time gossiping. The group of friends include the women's husbands and used to include another couple, Ben and June.  June died, Ben remarried a younger woman, Gretchen, and then also died. So this suburban circle has been left to deal with a young, attractive widow who doesn't make an obvious effort to reach out to them, but does call on their husbands for help around her house. The situation is complicated when the widow becomes pregnant and the women realize too much time has passed for the baby to be Ben's.

The plot of this book revolves around family issues from problems conceiving to problems dealing with teenage angst, with trust and jealousy issues along the way. Amanda is a school counselor and also the woman who is trying to have a baby. Her husband, Graham, comes from a close knit family and that family isn't very supportive of Amanda. So there are problems there as well.

The major characters are well developed, especially the women. They have their flaws, but also qualities such as strength and loyalty. I think more men should read books such as this. The issues belong to both genders, but the perspective is different. I think it's important to understand that. I plan to read other books by Barbara Delinsky.

View all my reviews

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

Memoirs of a GeishaMemoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Memoirs of a Geisha is the story of Chiyo Sakamoto, a young girl in Japan who is both blessed and cursed with beautiful blue-gray eyes. When her mother dies, her father, who is very old, sells her and her older sister, Satsu, to an okiya (a house where geisha live). Satsu isn't as pretty as Chiyo, so she is resold to a house of prostitution, while Chiyo stays on in the okiya. Chiyo's natural beauty makes her the focus for the jealousy of Hatsumomo, the one successful geisha living in the okiya. As the plot moves along Chiyo, who is renamed Sayuri, deals with jealousy and betrayal, but also finds friendship and kindness. The research that went into writing this novel has produced a fascinating and educational portrayal of the lives of geisha during the mid twentieth century, but Arthur Golden has also produced a work with strong characters who captivate his readers.

At one point in the book, prostitutes and geisha are called something to the effect of “distant cousins.” I suppose that description is accurate, because they both make money by entertaining men. But the geisha portrayed in Memoirs of a Geisha are careful about their reputations and instead of offering sexual favors to a number of men, look for wealthy patrons to become their “dannas.” In this way they are more like mistresses than prostitutes. Yet they seem to be so much more. They study their art in special schools where they learn dance, singing, storytelling and how to play a musical instrument called the shamisen. They are artists and celebrities.

One of the aspects of this novel I found fascinating was the fact that it was set in Japan before and after World War II. The impact of the war on the life of the geisha was primarily economic. There was very little discussion about the war other than how it affected other geisha. And after the war was over the geisha began to entertain the Americans. They seemed amazingly apolitical.

Memoirs of a Geisha does what good novels do best, it takes its readers to a different place and time and lets us into the lives of the people living there. I would recommend it to most anyone who enjoys good fiction and if you read it years ago, it would be worth picking up again.

View all my reviews

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

Snow Flower and the Secret FanSnow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've read a few books recently that show the problems faced by women who lived in different times and locations. The Blood of Flowers takes place in 17th century Persia and Memoirs of a Geisha takes place in mid 20th century Japan. In both those books women were placed in difficult situations just because they were women. But I believe the wealthy women of 19th century China as portrayed in Lisa See's novel Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, had the hardest lives. The poor Chinese women of that period also had hard lives, but their troubles were based more on their economic situations than on their gender. They spent most of their lives working their small farms. The wealthy women were taught from birth that their only value would come from giving birth to sons, hopefully the sons of a rich man.

To have a chance at a good marriage to a man in a wealthy family, women had to be attractive. They achieved this level of beauty by having their feet bound at a young age, generally six or seven. This process killed one in ten girls and left the survivors crippled to various degrees. The women who had the most successful binding experience still could not run or even walk fast. The less fortunate women were sometimes unable to walk without using canes.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan spends a great deal of time on the subject of foot binding, but that isn't the only problem those women suffered. When they were young girls they were allowed to play outside, but after they reached the foot binding age they spent most of their lives in an “upstairs women's rooms” with the other women in their family. They spent their days weaving, sewing, and telling stories to each other. They were constantly reminded by their mothers that they were worthless. And, of course, the mothers were the ones who bound their feet, complicating that important relationship in ways that are unimaginable.

The women of that period were not allowed to learn men's writing, so they developed their own written language called nu shu. Men knew about this language but considered it too insignificant to acknowledge. The two main characters of this book, Snow Flower and Lilly used nu shu to write to each other on the folds of a fan.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan felt like two books to me. The first part was interesting because of what it taught me about Chinese society, but I didn't get into the characters until the second part. After that the relationship between Snow Flower and Lilly was fascinating. Their friendship had problems that could apply to people in any place and time. There was lying, jealousy, competing and misunderstanding, but there was also hope, loyalty and love. It seems that the relationships between women in that society was made stronger by the difficulties and isolation they had to bear. Although the women went to their husbands for “bed business,” they slept with other women and sometimes their relationships were sexual.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a great book for people interested in learning about living in different places and times.

View all my reviews

Saturday, May 4, 2013

The Red Garden by Alice Hoffman

The Red GardenThe Red Garden by Alice Hoffman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Red Garden is a collection of loosely connected short stories. The connections come primarily through the setting, Blackwell, which is a small town in rural Massachusetts once known as Bearsville. A few characters show up in multiple stories, but for the most part each story moves years forward so the characters from one are now either dead, missing, or old enough to be living through their memories. I love Alice Hoffman's writing style. This book, like the others I've read (The Third Angel and The River King) is best described as magic realism. That's a term that has been used in many ways, but in Hoffman's case I intend it to mean a set of circumstances that begin with a realistic feel but sometimes branch off in interesting ways. The Red Garden has a garden where everything planted in it turns red. It also has a number of bears who have unusual relationships with some of the humans. It has a young, female spirit known as the Apparition. And of course it has characters who know things others don't. These are just some of the examples where Hoffman steps away from the world's definition of reality and into her own.

I prefer Hoffman's books, such as The River King, where characters remain in the story longer. With this collect I felt as if I was starting over again with each new tale. I didn't realize that would be the case when I began reading the book. I enjoyed the latter stories more than the earlier ones because by that time I understood where Hoffman was going.

The Monster of Blackwell was one of my favorites in the collection. It's Hoffman's version of the Beauty and the Beast story. In this case an ugly, misfit young man comes to the woods outside Blackwell. Children in the town catch glimpses of this man and label him a monster. But when Kate Partridge, a teenaged camp counselor, has a group of children in the woods this monster saves one of them from a bear. (Bears are constantly appearing in all the stories.) Kate falls in love with this man despite their different backgrounds.

The stories are a mix of heartbreak and happiness. This is my third Alice Hoffman book and I intend to read more.

View all my reviews

Sunday, April 28, 2013

The Lake Shore Limited by Sue Miller

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is the first Sue Miller novel I've read. It took me awhile to get used to her style, but in the end it was worth it. This book was a reaction to the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Billy, the main character, lost her lover, Gus, who was killed when the plane he was on was flown into one of the twin towers. But this wasn't a simple story about losing someone you love in a senseless act of terror. There were problems with Billy and Gus' relationship and those problems left Billy feeling confused and guilty. Since she was a playwright, she wrote a play about those feelings. The name of that play was The Lake Shore Limited, hence the name of the novel.

There were a couple of things that I found very unusual about Miller's style. First of all she included a great amount of detail that at first seemed superfluous, yet that detail seemed to push me into the characters' minds by emphasizing everything they might notice in their surroundings. Secondly, Miller generally told her readers what her characters were thinking instead of letting us see reactions that would show us their thoughts. Here's an excerpt from the novel that shows both those techniques:

“Yeah,” Pierce answered. They were all standing now. They moved into the aisle among the others inching back to the lobby. Pierce kept his hand on her elbow—a kind of sympathetic connection, she felt. She was grateful to him, but she was far away. She felt confused. Around her, she could hear others talking, speculating, commenting on the actors, on the arguments.

Some weren't. Some had shed the play quickly, were on to their own lives. She heard a voice say, “I wish I'd known it was going to rain today. I didn't bring an umbrella to work.”

All of Miller's characters seemed to analyze their own emotions and situations as if their lives were one gigantic therapy session. At the reception following a memorial service for Gus, Billy met a number of Gus' friends and colleagues who had heard about her through Gus. She kept thinking how she should be honest and explain everything, including why she wasn't part of the service. But she didn't because she felt explaining herself would be self-aggrandizing. This was his memorial service, not hers. The strange way Billy's mind worked, combined with her lack of emotion was intriguing.

I loved the way the play within a book worked. The characters in the play were aspects of Billy and all part of her need to be honest about her feelings. Also, I've been involved in school theater and community theater for years, so I can identify with the backstage activity

Oddly, I finished reading this novel the week of the Boston Marathon bombings.

I plan to read more of Sue Miller's work.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Blood of Flowers by Anita Amirrezvani

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The Blood of Flowers is a historical novel set in 17th century Iran during the reign of Shah Abbas the Great. It's the story of a young woman who spends her first years in a small village, then, after the death of her father, moves to Isfahan, a large center of commerce. The culture and economy is male dominated, so when the narrator loses her father, she and her mother have to depend on the good will of an uncle, who is a carpet maker for the Shah. (The uncle's wife isn't thrilled with the extra expenses that come with these two relatives.)

The narrator is also an excellent carpet maker. Perhaps the talent runs in the family, but it still feels like a coincidence that this young woman ends up in a place where she can develop her skills. The book's one weakness is the author's use of coincidences. This is one. There's another later in the book that is critical to the plot.

The culture also has a tradition that seems to benefit the men in this male dominated society. Men, who can have many wives, can also marry some of them for short periods of time. A marriage like this is called a sigheh and can range from months to an hour in length. A sigheh is legal, but doesn't have the status of a full marriage. The roles of the women in these marriages seem to fall somewhere between the position of a permanent wife and a prostitute. The shorter the length of time for a singheh the less status there is. However, there are financial benefits to a sigheh marriage and the children of those marriages are generally acknowledged.

I loved the way this book transported me to a culture that is so different from our modern one. There were so many instances where characters were forced to act or dress (picheh and chador) in ways that seemed unfair, but this was all they knew so the rules didn't bother them. Yet in some ways the narrator overcame gender traditions, specifically when it came to her carpets.

The other part of the book that I found fascinating was the relationship between the narrator and her mother. They always loved each other, but sometimes disappointed each other as well. And often, because of the cultural differences, the one I saw as the guilty party and the one they saw as the guilty party were not the same.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult

The StorytellerThe Storyteller by Jodi Picoult
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Storyteller is a wonderful book, one of the most powerful novels I've read in a long time. It is a story within a story within a story. The way the three plots affect each other, while remaining strong enough to stand on their own, is amazing.

The first plot is about Sage Singer, a woman in her twenties, who has lost her mother in an auto accident. Sage was driving the car and has to deal with the guilt that comes with surviving. (Something that becomes more important as the rest of the story unfurls.) Sage was left with a facial scar that she dwells on because it symbolizes what she's been through. She feels as if everyone thinks she is ugly, but the people around her don't act as if they do. She also feels that the people who loved her mother, her grandmother and her sisters in particular, hate her for what has happened. But they also don't act as if they do.

Sage Singer meets an elderly man, a German, at her grief group. He asks her for two favors, powerful favors, that propel Sage forward in a way she never imagined would be her fate in life. His requests lead her to a conversation with her grandmother. Sage's grandmother, whom she calls Nana, is a survivor of Auschwitz. Nana has spent her life in America trying to forget her life in Poland. There is a parallel to Sage's survivor's guilt that isn't emphasized but is an important part of the book.

In a unique and beautiful way, Jodi Picoult has tied all three stories together with the work of baking bread. The acts of breaking bread together or of preparing a special baked treat for someone you love are used over and over throughout the story. Sage is not the first baker in her family. Her grandmother's father also made his living as a baker. Sage's sisters are named Pepper and Saffron, indicating how important spice was to her mother.

Late in the book Sage is sitting in a temple, taken there by Leo, a man she is working with. Sage is an atheist, but with a Jewish heritage. Although she hasn't spent much time in synagogs, she is affected by the place and the people there. Here are some of her thoughts:

I don't believe in God, but sitting there, in a room full of those who feel otherwise, I realize that I do believe in people, in their strength to help each other and to thrive in spite of the odds....I believe that having something to hope for, even if it is just a better tomorrow, is the most powerful drug on this planet.

View all my reviews

Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K Le Guin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The Lathe of Heaven was published more than forty years ago, but the ideas do not seem dated. That's good for the book, but not so good for the world in general. I found it interesting that the book covers environmental concerns, such as overpopulation and global warming, that are still being debated today.

The basic idea of the plot is simple. When George Orr dreams, he wakes up in a new world where aspects of his dreams have become real. When Dr. Haber discovers Orr's power, he manipulates it to make a better universe. The forced changes all have side effects or come about due to problems that are worse than the original ones. At first glance the theme is that we shouldn't play God. But the world Orr started with was brought back from the edge of destruction by his dreams. Le Guin seems to be saying that our influence on the world is better left to our subconscious minds and to our desire for self preservation than it is to our conscious efforts. I don't agree with that idea, but I do find it interesting.

George Orr's relationship with Heather LeLache is intriguing. She starts the book as a lawyer he contacts to help him break away from the influence of Dr. Haber. She's hard and bitter. As the story continues Heather becomes different and the most important person in Orr's life. In most books I would have attributed the changes to the way their relationship develops. In The Lathe of Heaven she seems to be manipulated by Orr's dreams. That's fascinating and creepy.

The fact that Le Guin could carry off this idea is amazing, yet she does it extremely well. With an idea that forces everything about the book to change at various points along the way, how can their be any consistency? But it works and I found it to be a hard book to put down.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I expect the books I read to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. The Knife of Never Letting Go has the first two, but not the third. I understand that a series can benefit from a cliffhanger, but each book should be able to stand on its own. Think of The Hunger Games. It pulls its readers into its fictional world and leaves us wanting more, yet it is a complete story. The Knife of Never Letting Go comes close to doing that. If it had ended a little sooner it would have at least appeared to have a resolution, but it didn't.

That said, I loved most of the other aspects of this book.

The most fascinating idea in the novel is the introduction of something in this new world that gives women a great advantage over men in the battle of the sexes. How people react to this new gender difference ranges from the extreme reaction in Prentisstown to the no secrets relationship between Hildy and Tam in Farbranch. Every response seemed believable.

The relationship between Todd and Viola grew beautifully. They started out uncertain of each other. Viola wouldn't even speak with Todd when they first met. And Todd believed the fact that he was near Viola could possibly kill her. He felt guilty, but didn't act as if he would miss her. Their attachment grew stronger as they got to know each other and to depend on each other.

I also loved Todd's relationship with his dog, Manchee. In the world of this novel, animals can speak. They don't speak with the subtleties of a human mind, because they still think like animals. They're concern is focused primarily on the moment at hand, on eating and avoiding being eaten. But in his own beautiful, dog way Manchee speaks of love and loyalty. Manchee was my favorite character in the story.

I had trouble with the character of Aaron, who was so resilient he reminded me of Freddy Krueger in A Nightmare on Elm Street. After awhile he became silly, but I felt the two Mr. Prentisses, both jr. and sr., made very interesting villains. I enjoyed the convoluted rational they had for their need to go after Todd.

I haven't read the other books in the series, but if they are like this one, they are worth reading. I would recommend this book to someone looking to read another YA series.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Delirium by Lauren Oliver

Delirium (Delirium, #1)Delirium by Lauren Oliver
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've heard a number of writers say that the primary responsibility an author has is to keep readers turning pages. Lauren Oliver has certainly done that with her YA novel, Delirium. Oliver gets into the head of her main character, Lena, thoroughly and writes in a way that allows her readers to feel the world around this young woman. That world is a scary portrait of an out of control government.

The story is set in Portland, Maine, in a future time when the government forces people to have an operation at age eighteen, leaving them passive and compliant. The first sentence of Delirium reads:

It has been sixty-four years since the president and the Consortium identified love as a disease, and forty-three since the scientists perfected a cure.

There are subversives, known as invalids, hidden among the population and more of them existing beyond the borders of the US in an area called The Wilds. When the novel begins Lena doesn't know much about the invalids, but she does know that her mother had some issues twelve years earlier. Those issues caused her mother to kill herself and left Lena to be raised by her Aunt Carol, a woman whose life revolves primarily around cooking and washing dishes.

There are scenes in the story that kept me on the edge of my seat with fear for what was happening to Lena. However, I had an issue with the believability of some of those scenes, because Lena seemed to bounce up from situations that should have hurt her seriously. I also had an issue with an escape that occurred later on in the work, when someone writes so hard on a cell wall that her marks go through the stone, without, of course, any of the guards noticing. Yet I could suspend disbelief enough in those scenes to stay involved with the story.

Lena changes and grows through the course of the novel and I loved sharing that experience with her. This is the first book of a trilogy, so even at the end she's still a bit whiny and very self centered. But there are hints she's growing out of those flaws and at one moment in the story she puts herself at risk in an attempt to help her friend Hana. She did it without a second thought. That was a wonderful scene.

View all my reviews

Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Man of Property by John Galsworthy

The Man of Property: The Forsyte Saga (Wordsworth Classics)The Man of Property: The Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Man of Property is the first book in The Forsyte Saga, a trilogy by John Galsworthy. Galsworthy won the Nobel prize in literature for his body of work with this trilogy sited as the best example of his “distinguished art of narration.” His author page states that in addition to his work as an author, Galsworthy was also a “social activist. He was an outspoken advocate for the women's suffrage movement, prison reform and animal rights.”

There is an agenda in Galsworthy's writing, which I admire, but which often felt as if I was being hit over the head with nineteenth century political correctness. He is constantly defining what a Forsyte is rather than allowing his readers to make up their own minds. For example:

Old Jolyon was too much of a Forsyte to praise anything freely; especially anything for which he had a genuine admiration.

The blurb for The Man of Property starts out as follows:

The most prized item in Soames Forsyte's collection of beautiful things is his wife, the enigmatic Irene. But when she falls in love with Bosinney, a penniless architect who utterly rejects the Forsyte values, their affair touches off a series of events which can only end in disgrace and disaster.

In most of the discussions I read about this novel, there is a concentration on Soames' love of possessions. But I found the second sentence in this blurb to be more interesting. Irene, Soames' wife was bored. I can't say I blame her. A life spent accumulating possessions is about as boring a life as anyone can choose. It is her boredom that leads to the affair.

Irene falls in love with Bosinney, apparently because his values are so different from Soames' values. But it is hard to sympathize with her choice. Bosinney is designing a house for Irene and Soames and during that process he is constantly shaking his head at Soames and acting as if the man has no sense of style whatsoever. There's a difference between confidence and arrogance and Bosinney has more of the latter. And then there's June. June's another member of the Forsyte family. She's engaged to Bosinney and she's Irene's best friend. She's treated horribly, betrayed on two sides and without even the courtesy of talking to her about the situation. And this is after June has worked hard to help Bosinney succeed in his chosen profession. It seems as if Galsworthy sees June's desire for Bosinney to achieve success as a act of self interest somehow.

The Man of Property isn't my favorite of the nineteenth century literature I've read, but it is worth reading. It's complex enough to be interesting and it's fun to read what others thing of the work.

View all my reviews

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Doc by Mary Doria Russell

DocDoc by Mary Doria Russell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Mary Doria Russell's novel Doc takes its readers back to Dodge City, Kansas in the mid nineteenth century. It's a period I've heard about, of course, but mostly through poorly researched films and old television shows. This book has a hard feel to it that makes it different. It feels as if this is closer to the way life really was in that time and place.

John Henry “Doc” Holliday is the main character. He was raised in a wealthy Georgian family prior to the civil war (or antebellum as he likes to say.) His mother died from tuberculosis and he has the same disease. After he finishes his studies to become a dentist, Doc leaves Georgia for Texas where he's been told the climate will be easier on his lungs.

In Texas, Doc starts a long relationship with a prostitute named Mary Katherine. Kate, as she is most often called, has a similar background to Holliday's. When she was young she seemed destined to have an aristocratic life, but circumstances changed and now she takes pride in simply making her own way through life. Doc and Kate like to talk about music and poetry and especially love to speak to each other in Latin. It seems to remind them of their heritage.

The book also covers the lives of the Earp brothers, Morgan, James, Virgil, and Wyatt, with the most concentration on Wyatt. The brothers become close friends with Doc Holliday and consider him to be family.

A great deal of the story is about the prostitutes (generally referred to as whores) living in Dodge City. It seems that most of the women there were either working girls or former working girls. Dodge City was a place that cattle drovers came to for fun, so it was filled with brothels and saloons where the men could gamble away their earnings. In one section Wyatt, who is living with a former prostitute, contemplates Doc's defense of the women. (note: I transposed this selection from the audio version, so the punctuation may be wrong.)

Personally Wyatt didn't think it took all that much nerve to lie back and let a man do what he wanted for a minute or two. The whores at his brother's place seemed to him hard and mercenary. Or loose and indifferent. Or silly and stupid. But he had to admit he didn't know much about any of them.

Doc Holliday was an educated and thoughtful man, so Wyatt made an effort to match up what he'd seen with what Doc said.

There might be something to it, he guessed. Later on he asked Mattie Blaylock about her life before and what her story was. At first she just looked at him like she couldn't decide if he was dumb or trying to trick her. “Honest,” he said. “I wanna know.”

“Well – they was doing it to me anyway,” she told him, “might as well get paid.”

It wasn't much to go on, but he did his best to treat her like she was a lady. The way Doc treated Kate.

And another section describes the way Kate teases General Eli Grier, a man with whom Doc has a personal issue that dates back to his life in Georgia. Kate is setting Grier up. This is from Grier's point of view.

Maybe, so for she wasn't that pretty, and she sure as hell didn't flatter a man. Whatever the reason, Eli Grier wanted her, but the bitch just toyed with him. Once, back in July, when he thought the deal was made, she fixed him with that flat-eyed stare of hers. Breasts half-exposed by negligent lace, she leaned toward him with a feral grin, letting him breathe in her perfume and her musk, daring him to touch her. He reached out and his fingers grazed that creamy flesh, he felt the barrel of a derringer .36 press against the ribs above his heart.

Her voice was husky, foreign, amused. “Let's see your cash,” she whispered. “For you? I cost a grand.”

Then, laughing, she swirled away, silk rustling, making him watch, infuriated, as she picked another man. “For you?” she cried breezily. “Five bucks!” And off she went, not even glancing over her soft, white shoulder as she led the dazzled Texan up quiet, carpeted stairs.

Along with the prostitution, Russell's novel is filled with gambling, fighting (with both guns and fists), and dealing with a disease as serious as tuberculosis was at that time. But there is a sense of optimism throughout the book. This is the story of people who live hard lives, but who make the most of what they have and care about each other along the way.

View all my reviews