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 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: 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: 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: The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver

The Bean Trees by Barbara KingsolverThe Bean Trees
By Barbara Kingsolver
Completed March 17, 2012

My reading history of Barbara Kingsolver’s works is backwards. Most people start with her award-winning fiction, such as The Poisonwood Bible or The Lacuna, while others have been following her career since the beginning with The Bean Trees or The Prodigal Summer. Nope, not me. I first discovered Kingsolver through her non-fiction essay collections, High Tide in Tucson and Small Wonder, and fell not only in love with her writing – but also her philosophy on the world and nature. Reading her non-fictional essays first gave me a unique perspective as I began to read her novels. While her essays provided data and hard facts on issues such as colonialism, environmental concerns, war and immigration, her fiction told the stories of how these devastating factors affect people. And that’s no different with Kingsolver’s first book, The Bean Trees.

In The Bean Trees, we meet a precocious young girl named Taylor, who decides to leave her hillbilly Kentucky town and head west in a beat-up VW bug. As she travels through Oklahoma, she stops at a local hole in the wall, where a Native American woman approaches her with a small child. The woman insists that Taylor take the girl, despite Taylor’s protest, and before realizing it, Taylor is entrusted with a young girl who seems catatonic. Not knowing what to do, Taylor continues her journey west, literally driving until the wheels fall off her car, ending up in Tucson, Arizona.

There, Taylor and the girl, who she nicknames Turtle, begin a life together. Along the way, we meet colorful, real-to-life characters who help Taylor and her quest to lay down some roots. Namely, we meet Esteban and Esperanza, illegal immigrants from Guatamala, who tell their story of horror and heartbreak. Through these characters, Kingsolver shows the human side of immigration – the “why” people take a chance on coming to America and risk deportation.

Kingsolver published The Bean Trees in 1988, and even at the start of her career, she was a magnificent storyteller. Certainly, like all writers, her craft has evolved, but she’s never lost sight of her values and desire to make a change. I liked the punchy, humorous style of this book, and I look forward to reading Pigs In Heaven, the next book about Turtle’s life, very soon. (  )

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 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 Dancers Dancing by Eilis Ni Dhuibhne

The Dancers DancingThe Dancers Dancing
By Eilis Ni Dhuibhne
Completed January 26, 2012

It’s the summer of 1972, and a group of teenagers from Dublin are traveling to west Ireland for “Irish College” – a time when they are immersed in Irish language, food and culture. The Dancers Dancing is a coming of age tale for most of the characters, but it’s young Orla who grows the most during this summertime adventure.

Orla and her friend, Aisling, are staying together with two older girls in a country cottage where they walk to the school house for lessons. The idea is to wholly submerge the students into Irish culture. They are not allowed to speak English, and by staying with families along the countryside, they are immersed in the pastoral lives of their fellow Irishmen and women. However, Orla is already on familiar ground. Her family is from the same village, which she tries to hide from her classmates, and Orla spends most of the summer trying to avoid her crickety aunt.

The Dancers Dancing is not a fast-paced, complex novel. It moves steadily with little dips and curves, like a river twisting through the countryside. My frustration with reading The Dancers Dancing has nothing to do with the writing or story; it’s my lack of knowledge about the plights of Ireland. I didn’t follow the significance of why the teens were being immersed in Irish culture, or fully understand the struggles between the Catholics and Protestants. Dhuibhne assumes her readers have an understanding of these intricacies, but sadly, I do not. Additionally, there was a lot of Irish language in the novel, with not enough context to interpret what was going on. A glossary would have been helpful for this reader.

None of this is the book’s fault. I just wish I had more historical and cultural information to more fully appreciate this novel. Despite my frustration, The Dancers Dancing was an enjoyable read. Dhuibhne writes beautifully, especially about the landscape surrounding the students. Shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 2000, The Dancers Dancing is a light treat for fans of literary fiction. (  )

BOOK REVIEW: The Little Friend by Donna Tartt

The Little Friend by Donna TarttThe Little Friend
By Donna Tartt
Completed January 21, 2012

I am a sucker for books set in the American South. Stories with sweet tea and back porches feel like home. That’s why I was eager to read The Little Friend by Donna Tartt. Set in Mississippi, The Little Friend seemed to be the perfect book with all the right ingredients; however, by the midway point of this novel, I knew I was knee deep in a clunker.

The edition of The Little Friend that I read was more than 600 pages, and in my opinion, it could have been half that length. The beginning of the book starts out promising. Tartt introduces us to Harriet, a precocious girl who has a strong spirit.  We meet her mother, sister and a gaggle of great aunts – all of whom were interesting characters. We also meet Hely (pronounced Healy), who is Harriet’s best friend and partner in crime. Quickly, we see that Harriet wants to learn more about the strange and sudden death of her older brother, and she sets her sights on a local man as a possible murder suspect.

Three hundred pages later, we’re no further along in the plot then we were in the first chapter. Tartt’s tangents were pleasant at first, but by the middle of the book, I wanted to get on with the story.

Finally, Tartt delivers us the inevitable “stand-off,” and perhaps I was exhausted or bored or impatient – but the whole ending seemed too far-fetched. After a 600-page investment, I wanted something in return. Sadly, I was disappointed.

On the plus side, though, I commend Tartt for her vivid writing style. Her sentences were beautiful, and she eloquently depicted her characters and setting. It’s a shame that the beauty of her writing got lost in a tangled yarn.

Shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 2003, The Little Friend has received many accolades, so please be sure to consult other reviews. This just wasn’t the book for me. (  )

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