BOOK REVIEW: The Sisters by Nancy Jensen

The Sisters by Nancy JensenThe Sisters
By Nancy Jensen
Completed December 27, 2011

The Sisters is the debut novel by Nancy Jensen, and it explores the relationships of four generations of sisters during the 20th century. Each sister has her own story – often one of disfunction and abuse – which, when combined with the other tales, resulted in a novel of great sadness.

The stories begin with Mabel and Bertie, sisters who live in a small town in Kentucky. Mabel is the oldest and prettiest, but she’s sexually abused by her stepfather. Bertie is young and naive – but has a glimmer of hope in her future: a romantic relationship with a local boy, Wallace.  Then, a certain turn of events occurs – a misunderstanding of sorts – and the sisters are forever separated, doomed to live lives of bitterness and lost hope.

The remaining stories are of Mabel and Bertie’s daughters, granddaughters and great-granddaughters. Like a snowball effect, each story gets progressively more grim. The women endure abuse and promiscuity. They seem, in a word, hopeless. To say The Sisters was a bleak novel would be an understatement.

The shining star of The Sisters is the writer. Nancy Jensen is very talented, creating real-to-life characters and horrid circumstances that often turned my stomach. Yes, I wish there were more silver linings in this book, but even I realize that some women’s lives are not pictures of happiness. It’s tragic to see it generation after generation.

Unfortunately for me, I read The Sisters during Christmastime, so I was never in the correct mindset for such a depressing, but well-written book. If you decide to read this book, be prepared for a grim ride. I hope Jensen picks lighter fare for her next book. (  )

This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

The Paris Wife by Paula McLainThe Paris Wife
By Paula McLain
Completed December 18, 2011

So many books and movies focus on the lives of authors that we often forget the muses in their lives. That’s why I was eager to read The Paris Wife by Paula McLain – a story that features Hadley Richardson, the first wife of Ernest Hemingway, and their life together in 1920’s Paris.

We meet Hadley as a 29-year-old, unmarried woman who is visiting friends in Chicago after a long stint providing care to her now-deceased mother. While in Chicago, Hadley is swept off her feet by a young Ernest Hemingway (a man almost 10 years her junior). Ernest is a fledging writer, fresh out of World War I, and ready to move to Europe to begin his writing career. He eventually proposes to Hadley, and together, they move to Paris.

The Paris years are marked with highs and lows. Ernest’s career, while promising, takes a while to kick into high gear. The couple is poor but manage to stay afloat, thanks to Hadley’s inheritance. They are in love, though, and surrounded by friends who feed their appetites and souls. However, Ernest’s depression, wandering eye and eventual affair with another woman put an irreversible dent in their marriage, and Hadley decides to leave him and her life in Paris.

McLain does a commendable job capturing the artistic fever of 1920’s Paris. The Paris Wife is a veritable who’s who of the writing and art scene. What I can’t determine is McLain’s motive for her characters because, for me, not one of them was likeable. Hadley was spineless and too accommodating. Ernest was self-centered and chauvinistic. Even the minor characters were less than likeable. It made liking The Paris Wife a hard task.

If a lesson can be learned from the story it’s this: If you marry a man with a lot of baggage, you’ll end up packing yours in the end. I think Hadley would certainly agree. (  )

BOOK REVIEW: The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

The Reader by Bernhard SchlinkThe Reader
By Bernhard Schlink
Completed December 11, 2011

I picked up The Reader from a Borders closeout sale. It was cheap, and the cover with Kate Winslet on it reminded me that people liked the novel and movie. I had no idea what it was about,  but who could give up a bargain?

What I didn’t bargain for was to be completely moved by this story. How I wish I could have read The Reader with a lively book group or in a college class! The Reader has so many ethical layers that it left me thinking about the book long after I finished the last page. And, for me, that’s the hallmark of a provocative story.

I won’t give too much away because I think discovering the plot twists are part of the book’s appeal. In short, at the age of 15, Michael Berg falls in love with a woman more than twice his age. Hanna was mysterious and sensual – a adolescent’s dream. When she took off one day without notice, Michael was heartbroken and never fully recovered from the loss of Hanna from his life. Their paths cross again, though, and Michael learns about Hanna’s secrets – many of which are deplorable. How can this be the same Hanna he fell in love with as a teenager?

From a historical fiction perspective, The Reader exposes the moral dilemmas of the German generation whose parents were involved in the Third Reich, which is a viewpoint I had never considered before. Mix this with compelling characters and ethical questions, and you have The Reader. If you love historical fiction and thought-provoking stories, The Reader will leave you very satisfied. (  )

BOOK REVIEW: Homestead by Rosina Lippi

Homestead by Rosina LippiHomestead
By Rosina Lippi
Completed December 9, 2011

Have you ever selected a book with a good feeling you’re going to love it? The story premise sounds interesting, other readers write glowing reviews – even the book cover grabs your interest. Then when you finish the book, you’re so excited that you actually loved the book, just like you thought you would? That’s exactly how it went for me with my latest book, Homestead by Rosina Lippi.

Homestead is a collection of tales told from the perspective of different women who live in a remote Austrian village from 1909-1977.  To help tie their stories together, Lippi provides clan family trees at the beginning of the book. As you’re introduced to each woman’s chapter, you see her name and clan affiliation, which helps you understand her connection with the other characters in the story. While a woman may be featured in her chapter, she’ll appear in other chapters as well. It was a great way to build up different perspectives on the same people.

The women’s stories individually are moving, but when taken as a whole, create a fabulous book. Themes of love, loss, deception, greed, farming and raising family all permeate the narratives. The themes are universal, but it’s the way Lippi fuses in the Austrian dialect and customs that make Homestead a unique historical read.

Shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 2001, Homestead is exactly why I advocate this award. Without its Orange Prize distinction, I may not have found Homestead, which would have been my loss. I hope other readers who enjoy provocative fiction will consider reading this exquisite book.  I can’t recommend it enough. (  )

BOOK REVIEW: Lottery by Patricia Wood

Lottery by Patricia WoodLottery
By Patricia Wood
Completed December 7, 2011

Perry L. Crandall is not retarded. He’ll tell you this several times as he narrates Lottery. But he is several things: wise beyond his years, kind, compassionate and darn right likeable. And he makes Patricia Wood’s debut novel a joy to read.

Perry lives with his Gram, works at the local marina and studies words every day. Sadly, when his grandmother dies, he’s left to deal with his family – a pack of vultures that pick apart Perry’s meager inheritance and send him on his way. Thankfully, Perry also has good friends at work, who take him under their wings and give him a place to stay. Perry is good with money and likes to play the lottery. And then the unthinkable happens – he wins millions from the state lottery. And here come the vultures (aka brothers and sisters-in-law) again.

As you learn about Perry’s plight with his family, you just want to call a lawyer for him. But as you read the story, you realize that Perry can handle this. And he does – beautifully. While he deals with his crazy family, he forms a truer bond with his friends. He’s generous when he needs to be and lucrative in other places. Perry calls himself an “auditor” – a person who listens to the world around him. And because he listens a lot, he understands what people want and need.

Lottery is a true blue, heart-warming novel. It’s not a complex read, and the messages of friendship and love make  this book a wonderful story. I highly recommend Lottery to anyone who needs to find hope in humanity. (  )

BOOK REVIEW: The Last Nude by Ellis Avery

The Last Nude by Ellis AveryThe Last Nude
By Ellis Avery
Completed December 3, 2011

Ellis Avery was inspired to write her latest book, The Last Nude, when she learned about Tamara de Lempicka and how Lempicka met the model for her famous nude paintings. Though little is know about Lempicka’s real model, Avery used her imagination, crafting a tale that showcases the whirlwind lifestyle of 1920’s Paris and the dreams of an American girl.

Rafaela, en route from the U.S. to Italy to meet her bethrothed, wanted a better life for herself, and escaped the ship on the arm of a French man. She became a prostitute in return for freedom and a Parisian life. One day, while on a walk, Rafaela met Tamara, who asked Rafaela to model for her. She agreed, and as the two began to work together, they started a torrid affair.

Most of the story is told from Rafaela’s perspective. We see the parties, drugs, sex and art that marked Paris during the Roaring 20’s. We also see Rafaela’s innocence as a 17-year-old girl who finally takes control of her body and choices. Rafaela was fallible and sympathetic, caught in a web between love and greed. Overall, I liked The Last Nude because I liked Rafaela’s character. When Avery moved the last section of the story to Tamara’s perspective, I was not as enthralled, and the speculation about what happened to Rafaela was unsatisfying.

Other reviewers have remarked (and often criticized) Avery’s historical licenses with the story, specifically about the art and literature scene in 1920’s Paris with Picasso, Hemingway and Stein at everyone’s elbow. Admittedly, I do not know much about this era of history, so I was not bothered by any mistruths or exaggerations. If you’re familiar with this time period, you may want to read other reviews to make sure this is the book for you. Otherwise, if you like art and literature, then give The Last Nude a try. (  )

FTC Disclosure: The publisher sent me a copy of this book for review on my blog.

BOOK REVIEW: A Mercy by Toni Morrison

A mercy by Toni MorrisonA Mercy
By Toni Morrison
Completed November 27, 2011

“It was not a miracle. Bestowed by God. It was a mercy. Offered by a human.” – page 195

A Mercy has a quietness about it – as if each character is whispering a secret in my ear. But the message was strong, powerful and riveting. I haven’t read a book quite like it before.

The story centers on the trade of Florens, a literate slave girl who comes to the home of Jacob Vaark. Florens’ mother insisted the girl be traded away from her, and as Florens settles into her new home, she ponders why her mother would be so willing to give her up. While at Jacob’s home, Florens falls under the care of Lina, a Native American woman who tends to the farm and household. Also at the home are Sorrow, a supposedly dim-witted slave, and Rebekka, Jacob’s wife.

When Jacob dies unexpectedly, the entire structure of the home unravels, thread by thread. Rebekka is stricken with illness, Florens is dispatched to find help from her lover, Sorrow gives birth to a baby, and Lina can’t function out of worry about Florens. Chapters are divided among the characters, adding new perspectives to the tragedy. The most telling chapter was the last, when Florens’ mother told her side of the story.

The plot doesn’t move really, but as the story weaves in and out among the characters, you get a hard look at the effects of slavery in 1680’s America. The moral of the story, though whispered, was still loud and clear: Slavery, in all forms, destroys lives. (  )

BOOK REVIEW: A Partial History of Lost Causes by Jennifer DuBois

A Partial History of Lost Causes by Jennifer DuBoisA Partial History of Lost Causes
By Jennifer DuBois
Completed November 22, 2011

I am always searching for new female writing talent, and after doing a little research, I decided to request A Partial History of Lost Causes by Jennifer DuBois from LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer Program. Initial reviews were favorable, and I was intrigued by the story of Irina, who went on a quest to answer her late father’s question, “How do you proceed when you know you’re losing?” The question was posed to a former Soviet chess prodigy, who never answered her father’s question, so Irina set out to Russia to find the answer.

A Partial History of Lost Causes switches between Irina’s narrative and that of Aleksandr, the chess prodigy. Through Aleksandr’s eyes, we see what life was like in the Soviet Union in the 1980’s. Aleksandr, despite his impressive talent, was not well received by Soviet officials, thanks in part to his involvement in an underground anti-Soviet movement. Irina’s sections dealt with her father’s death and her recent diagnosis with Huntington’s disease. Irina only had a few years left before the disease would immobilize her, and her narratives contemplate how she should spend her last good years. The trip to the former Soviet Union to meet Aleksandr seemed to be a perfect, therapeutic way for Irina to deal with her disease and mortality.

I love the premise of the story, but the book did not grab me. I am not a fan of politics, especially in my reading, and the inclusion of Russian politics in this book bogged the story down for me. Additionally, I didn’t feel attached to the main characters. Irina was selfish and cruel while Aleksandr was supercilious and self-absorbed. It was hard to like either one of them.

If you’re contemplating reading A Partial History of Lost Causes, I encourage you to check other critics’ and book bloggers’ views before deciding. This wasn’t the right book for me, but I wish DuBois the best of luck in her career. (  )

This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

BOOK REVIEW: Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks

Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine BrooksCaleb’s Crossing
By Geraldine Brooks
Completed November 17, 2011

When Geraldine Brooks moved to her home in Martha’s Vineyard, she stumbled across a map of the island that showed the native Wampanoag people – and learned that one of them, Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, was the first Native American graduate of Harvard College in 1665. This little historical fact spawned her latest novel, Caleb’s Crossing.

Brooks opted to tell the story through the eyes of young Bethia, the granddaughter of the founders of Martha’s Vineyard and a devout Calvinist. Bethia, which means “servant,” was true to her name – she served her family, her faith and later her family’s legacy by taking care of Caleb and fellow Native American student Joel. When only 12, Bethia met Caleb in the forest, and they forged a friendship that lasted throughout Caleb’s life. She taught him English and Christianity; Caleb taught her about tolerance and his own faith. It was these early exchanges that set the foundation for Caleb’s academic success later in his life.

Bethia’s character is not based on a historical figure, but Brooks, through her detailed research, illustrated what life would be like for a young woman in 1600’s Massachusetts. Bethia was smart, but her religion permitted her from being formally educated. As a woman, she was concerned a commodity, used by her family to help get her less-than-brilliant brother into an academy. It was hard to read Bethia’s suppression as both a woman and scholar, but Brooks could do no else with her. It was an unfortunate sign of the times.

I love Brooks’ writing style and eye for historical detail – both of which are evident in Caleb’s Crossing. Admittedly, though, I was not as enraptured by this story as I was with Brooks’ earlier books. The plot didn’t move quickly enough, and I wanted to know more about Caleb and less about Bethia. I skimmed through some pages in search of some kind of “action” to propel the plot. I found it in bits and pieces, but overall, Caleb’s Crossing was a slow-moving story.

If you haven’t read Geraldine Brooks, start with her other books and delight in her writing. Save Caleb’s Crossing for a lazy day by the fire.

BOOK REVIEW: The Distant Hours by Kate Morton

The Distant Hours by Kate MortonThe Distant Hours
By Kate Morton
Completed November 8, 2011

Kate Morton has carved a niche for herself as writer of Gothic fiction. Her first two books, The House at Riverton and The Forgotten Garden, were mesmerizing and captivating. Her third book, The Distant Hours, employed the Gothic tradition; however, Morton’s third effort lacked the charm and power of its predecessors.

The Distant Hours is about three sisters who live in Milderhurst Castle in Kent. They are the daughters of a famous British author whose book, The True History of the Mud Man, was a beloved classic. During World War II, the sisters accepted a young London refugee, Meredith, who blossomed under the sisters’ care. Fast forward to 1992, and we meet Meredith and her daughter, Edie, who is curious about her mother’s past. Edie finds her way to Milderhurst Castle, meets the sisters and gets tangled up in their past lives.

Like Possession, a faux piece of literature is at the center of the story, and like many Gothic books, The Distant Hours has a cast of mysterious characters, including an old house that’s a character of its own. The story sways back and forth from World War II to 1992. Admittedly, I found the older installments  more interesting than the modern ones. Truthfully, I was bored by most of Edie’s narratives. Thankfully, the action picked up when Morton took us to the past, steadily revealing secrets and answers.

The Distant Hours has the right ingredients for a great Gothic read, but I think the story was overdone. Sections of the book plodded on – almost endlessly – and I nearly abandoned the book twice. The ending was gratifying, though, and I am glad I stuck with it. The sisters, especially Percy, were fascinating. Perhaps I would have liked the book better if the story only focused on them.

If you haven’t read anything by Kate Morton, I would advise starting with her first two books. The Distant Hours is an above average read and not the best work Morton has to offer. Nonetheless, I look forward to her future works. She’s an amazing writer.

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