BOOK REVIEW: The Clothes on Their Backs by Linda Grant

The Clothes on Their BacksThe Clothes on Their Backs
By Linda Grant
Completed November 12, 2012

The Clothes on Their Backs is the Orange- and Booker-nominated book by Linda Grant – and it’s certainly worthy of its accolades. Set in London during the 1970’s, it’s an enthralling look at family relationships, war and growing up in the shadow of family secrets.

Vivien Kovacs is the daughter of her reclusive, refugee parents, who emigrated from Hungary to London during World War II. Vivien’s parents shielded her from life’s experiences, including a complete avoidance of Vivien’s uncle Sandor, who also lived in England after the war. Once Vivien graduated from college, she became more and more curious about her mysterious uncle, who had served time in prison for being a “slum lord.” She finally got an opportunity to meet him and forged a relationship with her uncle, despite her father’s wishes.

I can’t say Vivien was the most likable character, but she was very believable. She was flawed and human, like her uncle. I was most intrigued, though, by Vivien’s mother, Berta. She was a minor character in the book, but Grant left enough of a breadcrumb trail to make you wonder more about her. I think there was more there than met the eye.

The Clothes on Their Backs is a superb telling of the World War II refugee experience and the circumstances of family secrets. Most skeletons find their way out of the closet, and Vivien’s family was no exception. Grant had me at Word One, and I devoured this novel, eager to learn more about Vivien and her family. I was slightly dissatisfied with the ending, especially the death of Uncle Sandor, but this is a small quibble. All in all, The Clothes on Their Backs was a readable and fascinating story about family relationships. (  )

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I’m back and with three mini-reviews

Hi Magic Lasso friends: My apologies for being absent from my blog. Life sometimes gets in the way, despite my desire that it not. Please excuse this post jammed with three mini-reviews. Hopefully, I will get back on track with my book reviews.

Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian

The Sandcastle Girls

Sandcastle Girls is Chris Bohjalian’s latest book and probably his most passionate, emotional book to date. Inspired by his family’s history, Sandcastle Girls follows young Laura Petrosian in modern day and Elizabeth Endicott, a young woman who travels to Syria to assist Armenian refugees in the early twentieth century. Through these women’s stories, the reader learns a great deal about the Armenian genocide that occurred around World War I.

Sandcastle Girls was a good novel, but I wasn’t blown away by it. Perhaps the plot was a bit too close to home for Bohjalian this time. The back-and-forth plot between two time frames didn’t work for me, and I just wanted to learn more about Elizabeth’s plight (more so than Laura). All in all, I appreciate Bohjalian’s passion and his elucidation of a little-known historical event., but I wouldn’t recommend this book to a first-time reader to Bohjalian’s fiction. (  )

This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

The Mirrored World by Debra Dean

The Mirrored World

In her latest book, Debra Dean explores the world of St. Xenia, a Russian saint who was known for her gifts to the poor, through a fictional account told by Xenia’s cousin. Xenia was a selfless soul throughout her life. She met her husband and eventually had a daughter, but tragedy struck Xenia, leaving her grief-stricken. Seeking solace, she began to give away her money and items of wealth to the poor. Xenia also had a keen sense of the future, often predicting how people would die. Between her charity and soothsaying, Xenia became revered by the poor but a threat to the crown (specifically Catherine the Great).

It took me a long time to fall into the rhythm of this book. I almost abandoned it when I reached the halfway point, but I am glad I persevered. The Mirrored World is brilliant in leaving you with the question of whether Xenia was truly a godly creature or a woman driven mad by grief. Additionally, its exploration into the ascension of Catherine the Great left me wanting to learn more. If you like historical fiction, consider The Mirrored World for a quick read. (  )

I received an advanced reader’s edition of this book from the publisher for review on my blog.

Playing With Matches by Carolyn Wall

Playing With Matches by Carolyn WallPlaying With Matches is a story in two parts. The first part is about the childhood of Clea Shine, a precocious white girl living with a black “aunt” who takes care of her because Clea’s mother, a prostitute, refuses to do so. The second half of the book is about Clea as an adult – herself a mother  – running from her cheating husband and her past.

The shell of this story is interesting: a white girl being raised by a black woman in Mississippi. However, I found the story to be choppy and disjointed. I never bought into Clea as a character, which made her story even harder to digest. With that said, I liked the character development of Clea’s Aunt Jerusha. Perhaps reading the story from Jerusha’s viewpoint would have made the whole story more believable. All in all, this story needed another good edit and rewrite. It was almost there. (  )

This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

BOOK REVIEW: The Giant, O’Brien by Hilary Mantel

The Giant, O'Brien by Hilary MantelThe Giant, O’Brien
By Hilary Mantel
Completed July 21, 2012

Why does Hilary Mantel get nominated for so many literary awards? Quite simply, she can evoke a time and place like no one else. To say she can write is an understatement. As I finished my latest Mantel selection, The Giant, O’Brien, I literally put the book on my lap and sat in wonderment for a few minutes. She’s not just a writer; Hilary Mantel is an artist, and The Giant, O’Brien is proof of her talents.

The Giant, O’Brien is loosely based on two historical figures: Charles Byrne, an Irish Giant whose bones are on display at the Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons, and John Hunter, a Scottish anatomist. In this book, Charles Byrne is represented by the fictional Charles O’Brien. O’Brien travels to London to make money so he can restore Mulroney’s, a pub in Ireland that was a favorite spot among storytellers. O’Brien was illiterate, but he had an amazing knack for storytelling, drawing from ancient stories of Ireland. O’Brien was surrounded by a motley crew of men, who leached off O’Brien and looked for every opportunity to exploit the giant for profit.

Enter John Hunter, a curious surgeon, whose thirst for knowledge resulted in grave robbing, inflicting paupers with diseases and even using his own body to study syphilis. Hunter sees O’Brien as a unique specimen and becomes determined to acquire O’Brien’s corpse for study. Lucky for him, O’Brien’s entourage is ready to help.

Set in late 18th century London, The Giant, O’Brien shows the reader the horrors of poverty during this time. Prostitution, thievery, drunkedness and fist fights were common events in poverty-stricken London, and we see it all through O’Brien’s gentle eyes. Juxtaposed with the poverty is the quest for medical knowledge through John Hunter’s character. Everyone in this book was after the same thing – a better life – whether that meant new explorations of the human body, or a place to unwind and tell stories.

It took some time for me to settle into Mantel’s writing style, but once I did, I embarked on an unforgettable tale about greed, poverty and the human spirit. I highly recommend The Giant, O’Brien to people who enjoy reading high-quality literary fiction. This book definitely showcases the artistic talents of Hilary Mantel. (  )

BOOK REVIEW: The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton

The Rehearsal by Eleanor CattonThe Rehearsal
By Eleanor Catton
Completed July 15, 2012

I was interested in reading The Rehearsal because it’s set primarily at an all-girls’ high school. As a graduate of an all-women’s college, I think the social dynamic of a single-sex educational institution could make a stellar background for a story. And for The Rehearsal, it does provide an interesting foundation, but The Rehearsal didn’t focus strictly on the relationship among young women. It was more artsy and cerebral.

The book revolves around a sex scandal between a student and her jazz teacher. The scandal rocks the small campus, disrupting the trust between parents and teachers; students and fellow students; and students and their instructors. Interestingly, the betrayal felt by the students was most startling. The student, Victoria, kept the affair from her friends, and when Victoria returns to school, her friends told her that to be forgiven, she must divulge the details about her affair. Is that a natural reaction? I am not sure.

Meanwhile, Catton throws in two other storylines – that of Stanley, a first-year student at a prestigious drama school, and the saxophone teacher, who is connected to many of the students affected by the sex scandal. (Side note: The conversations between the saxophone teacher and her students’ parents were entertaining as heck). All three storylines combine at the end – albeit abruptly – to wrap this story up like a bow.

Here’s my main complaint about The Rehearsal: the artful, intelligent aspects of this novel felt contrived – like when you’re speaking to someone who talks about classical music just to give you the impression he’s intelligent. The story was there; the characters were multi-dimensional and the writing style was provocative. The Rehearsal is Catton’s first novel, and I suspect she’ll get better and better with time.

In the meantime, I will continue to look for books set at all-women’s schools and colleges, searching for an intelligent, realistic representation of this unique social situation. If have any suggestions, please let me know. (  )

BOOK REVIEW: Grace Williams Says It Loud by Emma Henderson

Grace Williams Says It LoudGrace Williams Says It Loud
By Emma Henderson
Completed July 10, 2012

Grace Williams was born with mental and physical deformities, which were compounded when she was stricken with polio at the age of six. By the time she’s 11, her doctors convinced her parents to turn Grace over to a mental institution, and it’s there that Grace meets the love of her life, Daniel, who sees through her disabilities. Their story is at the center of Emma Henderson’s Grace Williams Says It Loud.

Grace proves to be a delightful narrator – cunning, observant and witty. Through her words, we learn how institutions treated their patients during the 1950’s. In fact, the scenes that depict the name-calling, condescension and physical abuse were hard to read, even with talented Grace at the helm. These horrific scenes were juxtaposed with Grace and Daniel’s friendship and love – a beacon of light in the storm. You could tell the two found solace through each other.

While the characters were complex and interesting, I was not as enamored with Grace Williams Says It Loud as many other readers. However, I can’t pinpoint why. Somewhere in the middle of this story, it lost steam for me, and I skimmed some of the remaining pages. Not enough action? Tired of the institutionalized treatments? I am not sure. In any case, I still recommend Grace Williams Says It Loud and encourage you to read other reviews to get a feel for the book. Grace deserves a large audience, indeed. (  )

BOOK REVIEW: A Crime In The Neighborhood by Suzanne Berne

A Crime In The NeighborhoodA Crime In The Neighborhood
By Suzanne Berne
Completed July 5, 2012

Do you remember when an event happened during your youth that burst your idyllic bubble? For young Marsha, the main character in Suzanne Berne’s A Crime In The Neighborhood, two back-to-back events rocked her world: the departure of her father and the murder of a neighborhood boy. Though unrelated, these two events became Marsha’s focus during the summer of 1972, changing her life forever.

Berne deftly intermingles these two storylines throughout A Crime In The Neighborhood. We learn first that Marsha’s father, Larry, was having an affair with his wife’s youngest sister. Marsha’s mom, Lois, finds out, and eventually Larry moves away with his mistress – all within a span of a few weeks. Marsha was daddy’s little girl, not wanting to take sides, but desperately needing his father’s presence in her life.

Then, a neighborhood boy is found molested and dead in nearby woods, sending shock waves over Marsha’s quiet community. The neighborhood is on high alert, including Marsha, who begins observing her new neighbor, Mr. Green. She’s convinced that Mr. Green is the murderer, and her young imagination begins to convince her more and more as the days progress.

Marsha is precocious, smart and observant – skills that would later serve her as an attorney. She also makes a delightful narrator. In fact, Berne did a commendable job creating all the characters, from Marsha’s stoic mother to the panic-stricken neighbors. But I love Marsha’s innocence and imagination the best.

A Crime In The Neighborhood can’t just be characterized as a murder mystery – it has so many other layers: the state of marriage in the 1970’s, political unrest with Watergate and Richard Nixon; and a coming of age tale for a young girl. Winner of the 1999 Orange Prize for Fiction, A Crime In The Neighborhood would be enjoyed by lovers of the Orange Prize and murder mystery fans alike. It truly has something for everyone. (  )

BOOK REVIEW: Liars and Saints by Maile Meloy

Liars and Saints by Maile MeloyLiars and Saints
By Maile Meloy
Completed July 3, 2012

In her debut novel, Liars and Saints, Maile Meloy explores family relationships, deceit, truth and religion through the Santerre family. Spanning over four generations, each chapter is told from a member of the Santerre family – some get more of a voice than others, but each person is enveloped in the conflicts that rock the family.

The story opens with Yvette and Teddy Santerre during World War II. We learn that the couple are deeply in love, but their young marriage isn’t without struggles, compounded by Teddy’s deployment to the Pacific theater. Teddy is insecure and jealous of his beautiful wife, and Yvette wrestles with her roles as wife and mother. The couple have two daughters, Margot and Clarissa, and the story moves quickly to when the girls become teenagers, and a particular night that would change the family forever.

At the surface, the issues facing the Santerre family are the stuff of daytime soap operas, but Meloy writes so eloquently, you hardly notice. The family members individually grapple with truth versus deceit. Is it better to spill the beans or keep things discreet? Sometimes, the choices the family made were ones they want to hide (even from each other), while others need to be aired out. True to life, you don’t know if it is a good idea to disclose a secret until after it’s done. Hindsight is always 20/20.

Liars and Saints is a solid debut, and I am not surprised to find it on the Orange Prize short list (2005). It’s not without flaws, but its pace and story development are spot on. I look forward to more stories by Maile Meloy. (  )

BOOK REVIEW: Salvage The Bones by Jesmyn Ward

Salvage The Bones by Jesmyn WardSalvage The Bones
By Jesmyn Ward
Completed June 12, 2012

I can’t say I wasn’t warned. Many reviews about Salvage The Bones advised animal lovers not to read this book because of its dog fighting theme. Yes, I was warned, but I wanted to read it anyway. Set in the American South at the brink of Hurricane Katrina, the story was right in my wheelhouse. I figured I could skip the dog fighting scenes – and I did, but it wasn’t enough.

Why? Simply put – it wasn’t just about the dog fighting scenes or the breeding of pit bull puppies to be fighters (though both incidents are frightful enough). My issue is this:  I never got the sense that Jesmyn Ward was condemning dog fighting. I couldn’t find an underlying message that spoke against this cruelty.

I am assuming Ward included dog fighting in Salvage The Bones because it’s a popular past time in certain pockets of the American South. But the animal lover in me wonders what’s the point. Did it strengthen the story? Make the family’s plight more deplorable? I don’t think it did. And with the absence of a strong message that condemns dog fighting, I wonder why you need it.

Now don’t get me wrong. I am sure Jesmyn Ward isn’t for dog fighting. I just wish she made dog fighting an allegorical theme.

The rest of the book was good. The characters were complex and believable. Their lives of poverty were startling. The effects of Katrina were devastating. Yes, everything else about Salvage The Bones was spot on. But the dog fighting was too much for me.

So, heed my warning. Don’t read this book if you hate dog fighting, if you are against breeding dogs to fight and are tired of pit bulls being used in this manner. Salvage The Bones will not be the book for you – just like it wasn’t the book for me.

BOOK REVIEW: All The Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy

All The Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthyAll The Pretty Horses
By Cormac McCarthy
Completed June 8, 2012

When I start a Cormac McCarthy novel, I need to be in the right mindset. His stories are dark and foreboding – but always rich and compelling. It’s a journey through the Southern Gothic, and when I’m ready for the ride, I’m always pleased. That’s certainly the case with my latest McCarthy book, All The Pretty Horses.

Told from the perspective of young John Grady Cole, All The Pretty Horses is a coming of age tale for John Grady and his best friend, Lacey Rawlins, who decide to leave their homes in San Angelo, Texas, and travel south to Mexico.  As they prepare to cross into Mexico, they meet another boy who calls himself Jimmy Blevins, and immediately, Rawlins is suspicious of him. John Grady, though aloof about Blevins too, feels a sort of responsibility toward him, and it’s this attachment that will haunt John Grady months down the road.

After Blevins parts ways from John Grady and Rawlins, the friends end up on a ranch, where John Grady shows his talents breaking in horses. He also captures the eye of the ranch owner’s daughter, and they fall in love, though it is a forbidden one. As Rawlins predicted, Blevins is trouble, and as he’s arrested for theft and murder, the Mexican officials come after John Grady and Rawlins. They are arrested and thrown in jail.

I won’t give away the ending, but it’s full of heartbreak, violence and redemption. Overall, I was less pleased with the ending than the rest of the story. I forget, sometimes, that McCarthy’s book are considered “westerns” by some standards, and a barn shoot-out shouldn’t surprise me. But it always does.

McCarthy’s writing in All The Pretty Horses is pitch perfect. He paints a landscape like no other. His Faulknerian prose, lack of punctuation and gritty descriptions are truly works of art. I don’t know he pulls it off, but McCarthy does, and I am always a better reader as a result.

I look forward to reading the Border Triology’s second book, The Crossing, later this year. Until then, the story of All The Pretty Horses will weigh on my mind for a long time. (  )

BOOK REVIEW: Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary MantelBring Up The Bodies
By Hilary Mantel
Completed May 30, 2012

The story surrounding the marriage of King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn has been the subject of many books, but Hilary Mantel focuses her angle from a different perspective – that of Thomas Cromwell – in her highly anticipated novel, Bring Up The Bodies. As a sequel to her award-winning Wolf Hall, Mantel continues illuminating one of Britain’s most mysterious historical figures, forming Thomas Cromwell into a beguiling character.

In Bring Up The Bodies, the marriage between Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn is three years old, and so far, the two have only produced one daughter. Compounding this situation, Henry’s eye is wandering (again) as he becomes smitten with Jane Seymour. Cromwell, seeing an opportunity to rid the court of all things Boleyn, begins masterminding a plot to get rid of Anne and replace her with Jane. As circumstances unfold, Anne is accused of adultery and eventually executed. While Cromwell didn’t hold the sword, her blood was on his hands.

In this fictional depiction of Cromwell, we see him as the great orchestrator. He does Henry’s dirty deeds, and accomplishes the tasks so beautifully, it is almost a work of art. Additionally, we learn that Cromwell only pursues tasks that benefit himself and his loved ones. Cromwell can persuade Henry like no other. By novel’s end, though, Mantel hints at Cromwell’s inevitable demise – a subject surely to captivate audiences as she completes the third book in this trilogy.

Compared to Wolf Hall, Bring Up The Bodies is more approachable and action-packed. It is also half the length. Mantel gets better with each page, and Cromwell’s character provides a muse for her storytelling. Honestly, I was not sure if I would like the sequel, but I do. It is everything a good novel should be. If you have an interest in historical fiction, be sure to get your hands on Bring Up The Bodies. (  )

This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

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