Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

The Marriage Game

Saturday, September 26th, 2015

51zm5lXV7fL._SL75_By Alison Weir

The Short Take:

This novel about the loves of Queen Elizabeth I, written by a respected historian, didn’t fit my image of that formidable leader. Weir certainly knows her subject, but I preferred this woman as described in Weir’s biography, The Life of Elizabeth I.

Why?

Well, as the name implies, this is sort of a romance. That’s not a genre I particularly care for, so maybe that’s my problem. I’ve read a couple of Weir’s other novels — one about the young Elizabeth (The Lady Elizabeth) and another about Lady Jane Grey (Innocent Traitor) — and enjoyed them very much, especially the latter.

Focusing on Elizabeth’s long romance with Lord Robert Dudley, alongside marriage negotiations with various European princes, was just too narrow a picture to suit me. Her rule was complicated, successful, and long. It probably wouldn’t have been any of those if she had married.

I read this book concurrent with Weir’s Mary Queen of Scots and the Murder of Lord Darnley, and was gobsmacked by the unique difficulties these female rulers faced. Everyone wanted them to get married (to produce heirs and because “a mere woman needed the advice of a man”). However, any choice would lead to disaster. Whether Catholic or Protestant, foreign or home-grown, as soon as a likely mate was identified the opposing factions went into overtime trying to stop the proposed marriage.

Elizabeth I used this situation to her advantage, stringing along multiple royal suitors in order to keep her country safe and prosperous. Mary Queen of Scotts didn’t fare so well.

Weir’s novel certainly showcases Elizabeth’s fears regarding any marital alliance, but I missed not having the rest of her story.

A Little Plot:

Elizabeth I and Lord Robert Dudley knew each other since their youth. Their mutual passion is strong, but marriage to Dudley could be a disaster for her for a number of reasons, starting with the number of traitors found in his family tree.

For more about Alison Weir, her novels, and her non-fiction writing, cluck here.

The Insect Farm

Sunday, August 23rd, 2015

51VJ-j56PDL._SL75_By Stuart Prebble

The Short Take:

Ultimately, this psychological drama disappointed. It started strong but caring about either of the main characters was difficult, and became even harder as the plot progressed.

Why?

This wasn’t a bad book. In fact, I believe it would make an excellent movie. It just didn’t live up to the expectations it created in the early chapters.

The narrator and his mentally challenged brother are both obsessives: the former laser-focused on the woman he loves, the latter devoted to his managerie of insects. These characters are decidedly creepy, however I’m not sure Prebble intends for you to feel that way about them — at least not from the very beginning.

The novel’s prologue is actually an epilogue of sufficient freakiness to get you immediately involved. The writing is appropriately atmospheric. The plot twists and turns, and certainly keeps you wondering what’s going to happen next; or rather, what exactly was going on in that so-called prologue. You wanted to learn all the answers. That’s what drives you to the last page. Then you go, “Hmm…”

A Little Plot:

(Skipping the prologue completely.) Jonathan is devoted to his older brother, Roger, who has mental issues. Roger, in turn is fiercely protective of Jonathan.

Jonathan falls madly in love with Harriet, who reciprocates his affections. However, Jonathan’s jealousy is boundless despite her reassurances. When the two of them head off to college together, Roger finds his own obsession — a growing collection of insect colonies.

Then tragedy strikes.

For more about Stuart Prebble, and an entirely different take on this novel, click here.

The Life and Death of Sophie Stark

Friday, August 7th, 2015

51nmSDX+fBL._SL75_By Anna North

The Short Take:

A mesmerizing portrait of a troubled young filmmaker, as seen by people who loved her. This novel captures the pain a creative genius can experience trying to achieve her vision as well as the pain she inflicts on those who surround her.

Why?

It’s been a long time since I found a book this compelling. Part of the attraction was because I always felt right on the edge of understanding the title character, but continually fell short. North has created a demanding, confusing, driven, conflicted, talented heroine that never gets a chance to speak for herself. Instead her story is told by her devoted brother, her girlfriend, and several others who found their lives changed by spending time with her.

There is no real difference in their views — Sophie Stark is consistently frustrating and largely unknowable even to those who love her. However, the glimpses you do get of the heart and soul of this challenging artist make you want to protect her from the inevitable.

There was a time-jump in the first half of the book — a tiresome practice that seems to be everywhere these days. It allowed the author to start off with a riveting and shocking story. Maybe that’s what is needed to get the reader involved these days. However, I found Sophie Stark’s enigmatic character and mysterious behavior to be engrossing, even from her childhood days.

A Little Plot:

Sophie Stark hears a woman tell  a “scary camping story” as part of a bar series. She wants to make a movie based on the story. This leads to a meteoric rise and damaged relationships.

The author doesn’t seem to have a public website, but for more about this book, click here.

The Buried Giant

Tuesday, June 30th, 2015

51tXDWW3TAL._SL75_By Kazuo Ishiguro

The Short Take:

This intriguing, challenging, unexpected novel from the rightly-renowned Ishiguro contains knights, ogres, and a dragon. However don’t let those fantasy elements mislead you. This book is all about ourselves, our history, and our memories.

Why?

Ishiguro writes in a straight-forward manner, in this case using the rather formal dialogue you might anticipate in Medieval England, that his underlying message hits you all the harder.

Under the guise of describing the journey of an elderly couple to join the son they barely remember, this novel confronts both individual and society’s willingness to forget the past in order to face the future. It ponders how war begets war as people fight to avenge earlier violent deaths. Powerful stuff.

Yet, because the story wraps around this couple and their deep devotion to each other, these messages are swathed in a gentleness — not unlike the mysterious mist that is clouding everyone’s memory in this mythical England.

The Hidden Giant is not the buried monster our couple are careful not to trod on, it is the past.

A Little Plot:

Britons Axl and Beatrice believe they may have a son who lives in a nearby village and resolve to go see him. Their memories are uncertain however, the same as everyone else in their village — and their country.

Along the way they encounter a mighty Saxon warrior who claims a peaceful mission, a boy bitten by a beast, and Sir Gawain of King Arthur’s now-gone court. Each has a mission, but what they may be continues to evolve.

I didn’t immediately find a website for Ishiguro, but there’s plenty out the about him and this book.

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry

Monday, May 25th, 2015

51EvfaFpHOL._SL75_By Gabrielle Zevin

The Short Take:

A perfectly charming little story about a lonely book store owner and how a bundle left in his store changes his life.

Why?

This is an ideal for book clubs: moderate length, engaging plot, quirky characters, light, yet with a message. It’s not grand literature but it certainly is a joy to read.

In turn humorous, touching, and even mysterious, this rich reading experience builds around a romance yet never goes all gooey and sentimental. Plus, the front-of-chapter comments by the main character on a number of short stories are a hoot.

A Little Plot:

A grieving widower, Fikry owns a struggling bookshop on a New England resort island. On top of that, he’s a complete curmudgeon — a terror to book sales reps — which adds to his loneliness.

Then two extraordinary things happen. First, a rare and highly valuable Edgar Allen Poe book is stolen from his apartment. Second, a precocious toddler is abandoned in his shop.

Allbeit reluctantly, his life is changed in ways he never expected.

For more about Zevin, this book, and her other novels for adults as well as young adults, click here.

Orhan’s Inheritance

Sunday, May 3rd, 2015

51sbpUlVszL._SL75_By Aline Ohanesian

The Short Take:

This truly exceptional first novel explores the Armenian genocide during World War I, as experienced by a fifteen-year-old girl and her family. Horrendous cruelty, family secrets, ancient prejudices, and a budding romance weave together in her well-crafted story. It’s most excellent.

Why?

I remember my mother using the phrase “starving Armenians,” but had no understanding of the source. The ethnic cleansing of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire during WWI was well before both our times. Ohanesian focuses on one family to convey the tragedies that destroyed well over a million lives.

Moving between the era of these relocations and massacres and 1990, the veils of secrecy and illusion are gradually parted to reveal a stunning story — as engaging as any thriller yet founded in genuine human pain and endurance.

Ohanesian leavens the pain with philosophical observations and old sayings invoked by various characters; just like the rationales and justifications we all use to get through dark times. And, she does a masterful job of it.

A Little Plot:

A successful rug merchant dies, leaving a will that bequeaths the family home to a woman no one knows. His grandson, Orhan, seeks the woman out.

Reluctantly, she tells him of her family’s ordeal during the Armenian genocide. What he learns changes his perspective of everything.

For more about Ohanesian and her novel, click here.

 

 

The Girl on the Train

Wednesday, March 18th, 2015

51PRs83MdNL._SL75_By Paula Hawkins

The Short Take:

This mystery thriller builds slowly but is worth sticking with.  Told from the viewpoint of three different women, you need to pay attention to who is talking and the timeline. But, again, it’s worth it.

Why?

I’ll admit the characters in this book are not highly likable. The main protagonist is an alcoholic still fixated on the husband who left her two years earlier. The secondary protagonist is… well, we won’t go into that now.

In fact, all three of these women made me a little squirmy. But life is messy and so are people. Especially those with secrets, problems, and feelings of worthlessness.  Hawkins has taken that messiness and created a taut, tense mystery that will keep you turning pages. And, isn’t that what you want?

A Little Plot:

Rachel’s train commute to work has a stop near her old home, where her ex now lives with his new wife and child. Just a few doors down are a couple she calls “Jess” and “Jason.” Watching their interactions in their back yard, she sees everything she lacks — love, commitment, a life.

She is shocked one day to see “Jess” kiss someone else. The next day, “Jess” is reported missing. Rachel tells her story to the police, but because she is an alcoholic, she is the epitome of an unreliable witness.

However, Rachel simply can not leave this case alone.

For more about Paula Hawkins and this book, click here.

The Book of Strange New Things

Friday, February 13th, 2015

41QBMlpffKL._SL75_By Michel Faber

The Short Take:

I guess you must call a book science fiction if it takes place almost entirely on another planet populated by strange, sentient beings. Unfortunately, that will alienate (tee hee) a lot of people. Too bad. This is a highly thoughtful and worthwhile novel.

Why?

A dedicated missionary travels to a distant planet, where everything is run by a colossal company, to tend to the spiritual needs of the planet’s indigenous population. If you think you know where this is headed from that statement, you’re probably wrong. In fact, you will most likely find yourself surprised again and again.

However, it’s not because Faber is leading you down false paths. He lets readers do that for themselves. His focus is on the inadequacies of communication: A marriage stressed by unfathomable distances with only typed messages to convey the unbelievable. A mysterious alien species that gladly embraces the teachings of the Gospels even though they barely understand English. An isolated work force where relationships oddly remain strictly professional.

It’s a rich, rewarding novel — highly spiritual without being cloying religious; frightening without overt terror. It will haunt you no matter what you believe. It will make you think. And, it will do all this while keeping you well entertained. A rare book, indeed.

A Little Plot:

Peter is bound for a far planet as a missionary to its indigenous people. His wife — the well-spring of his faith — must remain behind but supports his journey.

Once he arrives, he is surprised by both his fellow employees (everyone works for USIC, though no one knows quite what USIC is) and the aliens. The workers tend to keep their own counsel, preferring to talk about their work. Many of the aliens are already “Jesus lovers,” and had actually demanded a preacher from USIC.

While Peter works to better understand his flock and increase their understanding of The Book of Strange New Things, life on earth is changing in frightening ways that impact his wife. Nothing is as Peter — or his wife — expected.

I did not find a website for the author, but there’s plenty of information about him out there.

The Children Act

Friday, December 19th, 2014

By Ian McEwan

The Short Take:

McEwan is such a gifted writer you know you are in for a spellbinding tale any time you pick up one of his novels. This one is no exception. A respected judge of England’s family court realizes her passion for her job has repercussions she didn’t anticipate.

Why?

McEwan’s Fiona Maye is a middle-age woman, highly respected by her peers in the judicial system and satisfied with her life until her husband makes a shocking request. At the same time, a life-or-death court case affecting a near-adult draws her personal involvement. These two events lead her to question a lifetime of choices about family and career.

With delicacy and insight, McEwan traces Fiona’s emotional journey through uncharted territory. He also explores the ethical and legal quandaries that arise when religious beliefs run counter to life-saving medical intervention. The arguments for both sides of the issue were beautifully addressed in the discussions between Fiona and the ill 17-year-old whose faith was so strong.

It’s a fabulous read.

A Little Plot:

Fiona’s husband asks for permission to have an affair — to enjoy one last blast of passion before they slip into old age together. Fiona is floored. And furious. And unsure.

At the same time she must rule whether the courts can force an almost-adult to undergo a life saving blood transfusion despite his and his parent’s beliefs as Jehovah’s Witnesses. Fiona feels confident in her decision, but is decidedly put off balance by what happens next.

For more about Ian McEwan and his writing, click here.

Nora Webster

Sunday, December 14th, 2014

By Colm Tóibín

The Short Take:

This novel moves along quietly yet really packs a wallop. It revolves around Nora, a new widow mired in grief, who struggles to reconnect to her life and her family. It’s a wonderful character study, perfectly couched in time and place.

Why?

I was reminded of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. Yet while the pain, journey, and quality writing were similar, that’s where the comparison ends. Didion’s memoir examines the sorrow of a woman of means and with many connections in the modern day. Fictional Nora is trapped in a painfully small Irish town in 1960/70s Ireland, struggling to make ends meet for her family.

These differences make it much easier to relate to Nora’s uncertainty, missteps, and concerns — she’s closer to most of us.

There’s no big crisis, no shocking reveal; just a series of small steps forward and back as Nora tries to establish a new balance for herself and her children. Sometimes you’ll find yourself impatient with her lack of perception, other times you’ll applaud her bold moves. She’s human. She’s real. She’s worthy of your attention.

The Short Take:

Nora has lost her beloved husband, who gave her a life a freedom as well as being her soul mate. Now, with two daughters leaving the nest and two sons still at home, she must find a way to pay the bills and rebuild her life.

At first resenting the kindness of relatives and friends wishing to help, she begins to find her footing in work and — especially — music. One tentative step at a time.

Colm Tóibín is a highly acclaimed writer. You can learn more about him and his books by clicking here.

 

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