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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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: 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: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel JoyceThe Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
By Rachel Joyce
Completed May 14, 2012

The front cover of my advanced reader’s edition of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry had the word “marvelous” in big, bold letters across it. Shrugging it off as marketing mumbo jumbo, I started reading this book, expecting an average read by a new author. Well, 24 hours later, I finished the last sentence and could only think of one word, “marvelous.” The front cover didn’t lie.

Harold Fry is newly retired and trying to stay out of the way of his wife, Maureen. He receives a letter from a former colleague and friend, Queenie, who writes to tell him that she is dying from cancer. Hearing from Queenie was a shock, and Harold is a bit flummoxed on how to respond. He jots down a few lines and decides to drop the letter in the mailbox down the street. En route, he keeps walking further and further, until he makes a decision: he is going to walk all the way to Queenie’s hospice (some 500+ miles). As long as he keeps walking, Queenie will live. Harold Fry begins his journey.

The story then falls into pace with Harold’s walk. The reader takes every step with him – through small English towns and among meadows and steams. As Harold meets people along his way, he learns the value of listening and not judging. At times, the journey seems too much, and with each blister and sore muscle, the reader keeps nudging Harold on.

As Harold spends time alone, he contemplates the history of his marriage and his son, David. Joyce not only gives us Harold’s perspective but Maureen’s too. The couple has been through a lot, and as I reached the end of the book, I was rooting for them both.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is a gem of a book – giving the reader so much to mull over. I couldn’t put the book down until I learned the fate of Harold and if he reached Queenie. I would not rest until I knew what happened to Maureen and Harold. From the first page to the last, this story had me engaged and enthralled. I recommend it to anyone who likes to take a journey through reading. You won’t be disappointed by Rachel Joyce’s superb writing and Harold’s tale. (  )

This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

BOOK REVIEW: The Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue

The Sealed Letter by Emma DonoghueThe Sealed Letter
By Emma Donoghue
Completed April 3, 2012

Based on the real-life divorce scandal that rocked Victorian England, The Sealed Letter is an action-packed look into the plight of women’s rights and the scandals of terminating a marriage. If you ever wondered how difficult it was to obtain a divorce during the Victorian era, The Sealed Letter will answer your questions.

The story opens with a chance meeting between two old friends – Emily “Fido” Faithfull, a women’s rights activist, and Helen Codrington, a naval wife. As the two become reacquainted, Fido realizes Helen is miserable in her marriage and has wandering eyes. Helen tells Fido about how neglectful her husband, Harry, is to her, and as the story progresses, the inevitable happens: Helen and Harry separate, and Harry wants a divorce.

Most Victorian couples who wanted to part ways didn’t typically pursue divorces. Instead, they made civil and financial arrangements that kept them in separate households. While this is the avenue Helen would have preferred, Harry was out for revenge and willing to risk his reputation for a courtroom drama that would keep London hanging on to its every movement. For me, the courtroom scenes of The Sealed Letter were brilliantly done – a true page-turning saga that epitomized the imbalance of justice between husband and wife. Because Helen was accused of adultery, the lawyers got their chance to talk about sex in discreet terms. It was like listening to 7th graders banter in the boys’ locker room. Parts of it were immature; other parts, were hilarious.

What wasn’t funny, though, was the misery inflicted upon many characters, including Harry and Fido, as this personal matter became a very public affair. Divorce was nasty business then – and for many couples, it remains tumultuous to this day. Thankfully, women’s rights as wives have improved since then, but the fact remains that dissolving a marriage is hard on everyone involved. The Sealed Letter hits the head on this nail – repeatedly and effectively.

I liked The Sealed Letter for its historical look on women’s rights, marriage and divorce during Victorian England. Truth be told, I wasn’t thrilled with the characters, especially Helen, who was manipulative and cruel. I don’t have to like the characters, though, to appreciate a good story, and that’s certainly the case with The Sealed Letter. Emma Donoghue is an excellent storyteller, and I think most fans of  literary fiction will find value in this moving story. (  )

BOOK REVIEW: Tides of War by Stella Tillyard

Tides of War by Stella TillyardTides of War
By Stella Tillyard
Completed March 29, 2012

Tides of War is the first fictional book by historian Stella Tillyard. Told from a multitude of viewpoints, this book focuses on the battlefront and home front of the Peninsular War during the early 1800’s.

Tillyard mixes a cast of fictional and real-life characters to tell her story.  The novel opens shortly before the British Army sends their forces to Spain to battle Napoleon’s invading armies. Captain James Raven is newly married to Harriet, and this campaign will be a test to their young marriage. Meanwhile, General Wellington sees this as the opportunity of a lifetime – a chance to emerge as one of the best British generals of all time. His wife, Kitty, is no weeping Army wife. In fact, she is glad to be rid of her husband and his philandering ways.

As you would expect from a historian, the story was very much a lesson in history.  Tillyard examines all aspects and effects of the war, from military battles to the financial nuisances of supporting a war chest. The Peninsular War, though taught to me years ago, were unfamiliar reading ground, and I enjoyed learning through Tillyard’s research.

Can historians write good fiction? I think so, but it takes some practice. And practice is what I think Tillyard needs to be a great writer of historical fiction. Tides of War had too many side stories and themes. Here are just a few:

  • The military aspects of the Peninsular War
  • The social effects of war on the home front
  • The strife between democratic government and monarchies
  • Women’s rights during early 19th century England
  • Marriage and adultery
  • Industrial effects on the worker
  • The rise of credit in international finance
  • The invention of gas-powered street lamps
  • The investigation of the medical use of blood transfusions
  • The art of Francisco Goya

Too much! To achieve all these themes, Tillyard invented a cast of dozens and devised t00 many subplots. I hope in her next book she can simplify her storytelling.

Tides of War, overall, was an interesting read if you love historical fiction.  Long listed for this year’s Orange Prize, I tip my hat to Stella Tillyard, the historian, and hope she continues to refine her craft as a fictional writer. (  )

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: There But For The by Ali Smith

There But For The by Ali SmithThere But For The
By Ali Smith
Completed March 4, 2012

Hold on to your thinking caps – you will need them for Ali Smith’s latest novel, There But For The.  Told from four different perspectives, this novel centers around the self-imprisonment of Miles Garth. A guest at a dinner party, Miles excuses himself from the table and ventures upstairs. While his hosts assume he used the restroom and then left without saying good-bye, they are surprised to learn that Miles has locked himself into their guest bedroom.  And Miles doesn’t plan on leaving anytime soon.

As each narrator’s story begins, their connection to Miles becomes apparent.  Each person represents a different age group: Anna in her forties, Mark in his sixties, May in her eighties and Brooke, who is 10. Interestingly, none of these narrators know Miles very well – their lives only crossing each other through small encounters.  Indeed, you learn more about the narrators than you learn about Miles.

May’s story was the most interesting and easiest to read.  However, the entire book is not for the literary faint of heart.  There is enough stream of consciousness to make James Joyce proud. Some sections of the story went over my head, specifically the dinner conversation during Mark’s section, and the ramblings of 10-year-old Brooke tried my patience (she was a tad too precocious to be realistic).

With that said, there is no denying Ali Smith and her literary gusto. There But For The may be a difficult book to read and absorb, but it definitely was a provocative story.  It left many questions unanswered and would make an excellent discussion for book clubs and upper-level English lit classes. If you aren’t intimidated by literary fiction, then check out There But For The. It has some magic that will appeal to the right reader. (  )

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: A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for LoversA Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers
By Xiaolu Guo
Completed January 13, 2012

Zhuang Xiao Qiao is a young Chinese woman whose parents send her to London for a year to perfect her English. Born to peasants who rise to wealth, Zhuang is sheltered but curious, and she journals her new words throughout her year in England. Early during her stay, she meets a man 20 years older than her, who becomes her lover, and her ‘dictionary” transforms into an ode to their relationship.

The romance between Zhuang and her lover is hot and romantic at first, and she quickly learns more about English words and customs. She learns more about her lover too, and she realizes that he’s a torn individual – a homosexual man who is lost in the city. Zhuang struggles to learn how she fits into his life. It would have been interesting to read chapters told from the lover’s standpoint, but as it is, we get an eye- and earful from Zhuang. Zhuang’s never been in love before, and it becomes apparent that her Chinese ideals are on a crash course with her Western lover.

I like how A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers was structured. Each chapter begins with an English word, and Zhuang chronicles how she learns about the word’s meaning in the context of her new life. Zhuang is very observant and sometimes funny. I grew tiresome, though, of Zuang’s relationship and her suffocating ways with her lover. It wasn’t a healthy relationship, and as the book ended, I hoped that both characters would move along in their lives.

All in all, I liked A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers. It offered a interesting glimpse at the Western world through a Chinese person’s eyes and shed  light on Chinese culture that I wasn’t aware of. If you have patience for the love affair and sexual explorations, then this book would be an enlightening read for most fans of literary fiction. (  )

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