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.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Land of Decoration by Grace McCleen

The Land of Decoration by Grace McCleenThe Land of Decoration
By Grace McCleen
Completed March 13, 2012

Judith McPherson is 10 years old, living with her father in a small town in England,  when she becomes the target of a school bully, Neil Lewis. Judith is different from her peers, mainly due to her religious upbringing, which centers on an impending Armageddon. To escape the loneliness, Judith constructs her own version of The Land of Decoration – a representation of what the world will look like after Armageddon.

As Judith deals with Neil, she becomes inspired by the words of a guest speaker at her church. He talks at length about having faith in God and the power of miracles.  That evening, as she dreads the next school day, she contemplates the Brother Michael’s words. Judith decides to wish for snow, and she sets out to make fake snow on her Land of Decoration, praying the whole time. As she prays, she begins to hear a voice, pushing her to pray more. When she wakes up the next morning, her town is covered in snow.

Judith, believing that she performed a miracle, now sets her sights on Neil. However, as bad things happen, Judith realizes that power can lead to destruction. Eventually her actions begin to affect her father, and as he begins to lose faith in God, Judith’s love for her father and God are put to the ultimate test.

The Land of Decoration is a fast-paced, moving novel that sucks you in from the first word. Judith is a believable and sympathetic character, and her father is equally compelling. Seeing the world through Judith’s eyes reminds you of how innocent and vulnerable children are.

I am not a believer in Armageddon, so I wasn’t sure if I would like this novel. I am so glad I read it, despite my reservations, because The Land of Decoration is so much more than a novel about Armageddon. It’s a story of faith, parental love and doing the right thing – themes that can resonate with any reader, despite your religious persuasion. ( )

This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

BOOK REVIEW: The Odditorium by Melissa Pritchard

The Odditorium by Melissa PritchardThe Odditorium: Stories
By Melissa Pritchard
Completed February 17, 2012

When I was younger, I didn’t like short story collections. I felt teased by only a small portion of a larger story and frustrated when my search for a connecting thread turned up fruitless. Thankfully now, I have case aside my hesitancy and am enjoying short story collections, including my latest read, The Odditorium by Melissa Pritchard.

The Odditorium touches on multiple genres: Westerns, historical fiction, murder mysteries, religious fiction and more. To shape each story, Pritchard plucks out obscure people, places and events from history and the modern world. While I enjoyed all of the stories, here are a few of my favorites:

1. “Watanya Ciclia” is the story about the friendship between Annie Oakley and Sitting Bull. Sitting Bull watches Annie at a show, and eventually agrees to join Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, despite the boos and jeers, to spend time with Annie.  The story is a touching tribute to two friends and sympathic view of the plight of Sitting Bull.

2. “Captain Brown and the Royal Victoria Military Hospital” is the longest story in the collection – and one many other readers didn’t like. This story resonated with me, however. Captain Brown is an American naval surgeon who must convert a Victorian-era British military hospital into a feat of modern medicine –  all before the Allied’s planned attack on D-Day. Brown was fallible and honest, and despite his career successes, was guilty about decisions he made in his life. This would have made a wonderful novel.

3. “Patricide” takes place at the hotel that houses a courtyard played in by Edgar Allan Poe. Two sisters meet there to discuss their dying father. The oldest sister, Avis, who was to inherit her father’s riches, was considered a disappointment by her father, and he cut Avis out of his will.  When Signe, the other sister, sees the pain Avis is in from an arthritic knee, Signe wonders if she could kill her father now so she can rush the money to her ailing sister. Throughout the story, we learn about Signe’s life, including a recent scandal from her job as a teacher. Mixed into the story are wonderful lines from Poe’s poetry.

All in all, I was immersed in great storytelling and fantastic writing. I highly recommend The Odditorium to readers who enjoyed high-quality short stories and lovers of literary fiction. (  )

This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

BOOK REVIEW: The Invisible Ones by Stef Penney

The Invisible Ones by Stef PenneyThe Invisible Ones
By Stef Penney
Completed January 30, 2012

Ray Lovell is an almost-divorced private investigator who has sworn off missing persons cases. However, when a Gypsy man approaches him to find his long-lost daughter, Ray feels the pull of his Romany past and agrees to help the man. This begins the page-turning, suspense-filled novel, The Invisible Ones, by Stef Penney.

Ray has his work cut out for him. Even though his dad was Gypsy, he’s an outsider to the Janko family, and he needs to build their trust to help him find the lost girl, Rose Janko. Rose had married Ivo Janko, and according to the family, she had disappeared shortly after the birth of their child, Christo. As Ray investigates, things don’t add up as neatly as the Janko family would have him believe.

The Invisible Ones has two narrators: Ray, who leads the reader though the investigation, and JJ, the nephew of the missing Rose. JJ is only 14 and on a journey of his own: to help his cousin, Christo, who is ill with a strange disease, and to find more about his own estranged father. Both narrators are complex, emotional and very human – adding a sense of reality to a story that could almost be written off as implausible.

Penney executes The Invisible Ones like a writer with 20 years experience under her belt. After her successful debut novel, The Tenderness of Wolves, one might wonder if Penney would suffer from a sophomore slump. To that, I would say “definitely not.” The Invisible Ones is a gripping story about grief and loss – one that had me up late at night to learn more about this complex family saga.

Fans of Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie character will find a welcome home in this novel (Jackson and Ray remind me of each other) – but even if you don’t like mysteries or suspense dramas, I would encourage you to give The Invisible Ones a try. At its surface, it’s a murder mystery, but when you peel away the layers, the book emerges as a fine piece of writing craft. (  )

This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

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 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: Nightwoods by Charles Frazier

Nightwoods by Charles FrazierNightwoods
By Charles Frazier
Completed September 26, 2011

Charles Frazier is a dynamic writer. His sentences are beautifully crafted, conjuring up images that put the reader right into the story.  His first book, Cold Mountain, was nothing short of phenomenal. When his second book, Thirteen Moons, was released several years ago, I began reading it with eagerness – only to stop midway, disappointed with the plot and characters. So, when Nightwoods became available, I wanted to give Frazier another try. People have sophomore slumps, and I was hoping that was the case for this talented writer.

Nightwoods is the story of Luce, a young woman whose personal life was marked by tragedy and bad family relationships. She agrees to become the caretaker of an old, abandoned lodge in the North Carolina mountains – a place where she can be alone and away from people who inevitably hurt her. Tragically, Luce’s sister was murdered, and the state wants to place her sister’s twins into Luce’s care. When the twins arrive, Luce knows she has her work cut out for her. The twins, Dolores and Frank, won’t say a word and have a liking to starting fires. Luce, once alone and carefree, must now accept her fate as a guardian of very troubled children.

Luce’s situation is compounded when her sister’s husband (and murderer) arrives in town, looking for money that he believes Luce is in possession of. Bud is a no-good, violent man, and Luce knows he’ll stop at nothing to get what he wants.

Frazier’s superb writing style is in full force throughout Nightwoods. The reader gets a look at North Carolina mountain life – the good, bad and ugly. Unfortunately, I felt Frazier went to some extremes with his characters, especially the twins and their adventure during the last chapters of the book. As a fan of character-driven stories, this was a disappointment for me. But I am happy that Frazier seems to be on his game again, as Nightwoods is certainly a better story than Thirteen Moons.

So if you loved Cold Mountain like me, go ahead and get a copy of Nightwoods. Know it’s not perfect – but sit back and lavish in the wonderful writing of Charles Frazier. (  )

This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

BOOK REVIEW: If Jack’s In Love by Stephen Wetta

If Jack's in Love by Stephen WettaIf Jack’s In Love
By Stephen Wetta
Completed September 21, 2011

Jack Witcher’s family is the black sheep of the neighborhood – poor, living in a tattered house with a lazy father, overwhelmed mother and hellraising brother. In If Jack’s In Love, Jack narrates this coming of age tale where we learn about his evolution from a Witcher boy to a young man with a mind of his own.

Jack is in love with Myra Joiner – a girl from the other side of the track (the right side, per se), whose brother, Gaylord, disappears one August night. The Joiner family smells foul play, and immediately Jack’s older brother, Stan, is a suspect. Stan and Gaylord have a history of not getting along, and with Stan’s quick temper, Jack’s not sure if his brother didn’t kill Gaylord. What he does know is that he loves Myra, despite the tragedies that have affected both families.

If Jack’s in Love is the debut effort by Stephen Wetta, and unfortunately, I think Wetta’s rookiness as a writer showed through. The pacing of the novel was a bit off, and I think the story would have been strengthened by dual narrators – Jack and his mother. Jack’s mom was an interesting character – a woman who married the wrong guy and whose life didn’t end up like she hoped. She would have added the right blend to this tale of family loyalty.

If you like coming of age tales, If Jack’s in Love is one to add to your wish list. Jack’s narrative was enough to carry the book through, despite some writing flaws. The ending wrapped everything up, and I was glad Jack’s story resolved because he’s a kid most readers can root for. I know I did. (  )

FTC Disclosure: This book was sent to me by the publisher for review on my blog.

BOOK REVIEW: The Soldier’s Wife by Margaret Leroy

The Soldier's Wife by Margaret LeroyThe Soldier’s Wife
By Margaret Leroy
Completed September 4, 2011

War has come to tiny Guernsey, an island in the English Channel that during World War II was a strategic landing site for the German armed forces.  In Margaret Leroy’s novel, The Soldier’s Wife, Vivienne de la Mare faces indecision: to evacuate the island with her two daughters, or stay there and endure the German occupation. She chose the latter – a fateful decision for her.

As the Germans settle on Guernsey, they live in houses left empty by evacuees, including the house closest to Vivienne’s property. It’s there that she meets Gunther, and as the war progresses, Gunther and Vivienne fall in love and begin a secret affair. For Vivienne, Gunther offers everything her soldiering husband does not – companionship, excitement and intimacy. However, when Vivienne’s daughter starts to help a Belorussian war prisoner, Vivienne sees war’s atrocities, and she begins to question her involvement with Gunther.

The first three-quarters of The Soldier’s Wife moves effortlessly. Margaret Leroy pulls the reader in with tales of love and survival. I was enthralled with how islanders managed some level of co-existence with the Germans, focusing on growing crops and darning socks. I was less interested in Vivienne and Gunther’s love story, which may be why I was unenthused with the story’s ending.

My main quibble with the story, though, is the title. I wonder why it was chosen for this book. In my opinion, Vivienne was not really a soldier’s wife. Certainly, her husband was away at war, but she didn’t identify herself with him. Vivienne was more a soldier’s lover, if anything, though I would have preferred a title that identified Vivienne as her own – a resourceful, caring woman who endured World War II with grace and charity. It’s this woman who is at the center of my recommendation for The Soldier’s Wife – an interesting selection for book clubs and fans of historical fiction. (  )

FTC Disclosure: This book was sent to me by the publisher for review on my blog.

BOOK REVIEW: The Ballad of Tom Dooley by Sharyn McCrumb

The Ballad of Tom Dooley by Sharyn McCrumbThe Ballad of Tom Dooley
By Sharyn McCrumb
Completed August 12, 2011

The Ballad of Tom Dooley, the latest installment in Sharyn McCrumb’s Ballad Novels, was inspired by the Appalachian folk tune about a young man who killed a woman and was set to die for his crimes. McCrumb did an amazing amount of research in Wilkes County, North Carolina, to uncover what could have happened to Tom Dooley (who was really “Tom Dula”). The end result was a fast-paced, climatic story that presents a plausible explanation to the case.

The story was told by two observers: Pauline Foster, a poor, country woman who had a raging case of syphilis and sociopathic tendencies; and Zebulon Vance, the former governor of North Carolina who was assigned to defend Tom Dula and Ann Melton pro bono. Through Pauline’s narratives, we learned about Tom Dula and his lover, Ann – a narcissistic belle who got men to do whatever she wanted. Pauline was Ann’s cousin, and was jealous of Ann’s beauty and sense of entitlement. Pauline wanted to knock Ann down a peg or two. When Tom began to sleep with another cousin, Laura Foster, Pauline saw her opportunity. She invented stories about Tom and Laura’s affair, planting seeds of jealousy in Ann’s quick-tempered head.

In between Pauline’s scheming, we have the narrative of Zebulon Vance, an out-of-office Confederate politician who needed to work as a lawyer to earn money. Zebulon was a mountain man too, though much more refined than his defendants. Through his eyes, we saw Tom as a down-on-your-luck, star-crossed lover boy who would do anything for Ann. I liked Zebulon’s narrative, but at times he repeated himself. I wasn’t sure if that was intentional or an error in editing,  but it added some charm to his side of the story.

Through The Ballad of Tom Dooley, McCrumb painted a picture of a restless, post-Civil War youth. Young people were scarred from the war – both men who fought in battles and women who struggled to survive on the home front. Times were hard – and when you weren’t plowing a field or making biscuits, you reached for easy entertainment: homemade whiskey and gratuitous sex. As this story showed, sometimes your vices could lead to your death.

Fans of Southern fiction are sure to like Sharyn McCrumb’s easy writing style and eye for history. I know I did, and I look forward to checking out more of her books from the Ballad Series. (  )

This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

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