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. (  )

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: Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick

Foreign Bodies by Cynthia OzickForeign Bodies
By Cynthia Ozick
Completed May 25, 2012

Foreign Bodies is on the 2012 Orange Prize short list, and thank goodness it was nominated or else I would have missed this book. Prior to her nomination, I had not heard of Cynthia Ozick (I know, shame on me!), but now that I am acquainted with her writing, I can’t wait to explore her other novels. Foreign Bodies was a great way to become familiar with this talented American writer.

Cynthia Ozick based her book on Henry James’ novel, The Ambassadors. If you’re not familiar with James’ work, don’t let that dissuade you from reading Foreign Bodies. Like me, you can read a quick synopsis of The Ambassadors online, and you’ll be on your way. (Side note: Being more familiar with Shakespeare, especially Macbeth, may be more instrumental in appreciating Foreign Bodies.)

Bea Nightingale, a middle-aged English teacher, was contacted out of the blue by her estranged brother, Marvin. Marvin’s son, Julian, had escaped to Paris and would not return home, and Marvin wanted Bea to contact him while she was on her European vacation. Bea attempted to find Julian but could not, leaving Marvin furious and demanding that Bea try again – this time, though, being tutored in “all things Julian” by his sister, Iris. This begins a family struggle of epic proportions – father vs. child, aunt vs. nephew and husband vs. wife.

Bea was her own woman with her own ideas. She may succumb to some of her brother’s wishes, but she twists each wish into her own objective. She is constantly the messenger between Marvin, and his children or wife. And with that comes a certain power – the ability to withhold information, change it or divulge the whole thing. And Bea did all those things. I am not sure Bea realized the power she had until she was in the thick of things.

The men of Foreign Bodies were despicable. Marvin was downright cruel and patronizing. Julian was a spoiled child, and when we meet Bea’s ex-husband, Leo, he was nothing less than condescending. More subtle though were the despicable traits of the female characters. Iris appeared demure but could be as manipulative as her father. Marvin’s wife, Margaret, knew had to throw verbal punches as well. And Bea? She had her faults too, and there were times in this story I questioned her reliability.

Foreign Bodies is pure literary fiction. It is a complex and sophisticated novel, not meant to be enjoyed by the masses. At times, the story moves slowly, but by the last 75 pages, it was quite gripping. I would not be surprised if this book received the Orange Prize for 2012. It certainly would deserve it. ( )

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 Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright

The Forgotten Waltz by Anne EnrightThe Forgotten Waltz
By Anne Enright
Completed May 11, 2012

Had The Forgotten Waltz not been nominated for the 2012 Orange Prize, I probably wouldn’t have read it. When I read The Gathering by Anne Enright, I found it to be such a bleak novel; I was not in a hurry to read something by Enright again. Thankfully, The Forgotten Waltz was a better reading experience.

At the core of this novel is an examination of modern marriage. Gina is newly married when she meets one of her sister’s neighbors, Sean. Over time, Gina and Sean begin to have an affair. When Gina’s mom died suddenly, Sean and Gina become  little less careful about their secret, and eventually, they must make decisions about their marriages and their own relationship.

Sean has a daughter, Evie, who experienced unexplained seizures as a child, leaving Sean’s wife, Aileen, overprotective and nervous. Enright does a commendable job showing the strains an unhealthy child can have on a marriage. Furthermore, Enright taps into the difficulties of becoming involved with a person who has a child. As the story progresses, Gina realizes that she will always be second to Evie’s needs. She must decide if she can live with that.

Gina is an interesting character. If I knew her in real life, I would have to plan an intervention. She is fallible and borderline delusional about her relationships – not only with Sean, but with her husband, sister and deceased parents. She reaches for cigarettes and alcohol a lot, but what she really needs is a good therapist.

All in all, The Forgotten Waltz was a solid read that explored relationships, love and marriage. It just goes to show you: sometimes you can’t judge an author by just one book. (  )

BOOK REVIEW: Great Short Stories by American Women, edited by Candace Ward

Great Short Stories by American WomenGreat Short Stories by American Women
Edited by Candace Ward
Completed April 20, 2012

I received Great Short Stories by American Women as a Christmas gift several years ago, and it’s been languishing on my shelves for a long time. After completing this slim anthology, I wonder why I waited so long.

This anthology contains stories by many renowned female American writers:

Each story was steeped in realism and exposed many civil themes of the late 18th or early 19th century. Themes of racism, sexism, marriage and class differences permeated most of these stories. Each writer was gifted in how she could draw her readers in from the first sentence – and not let go until the last. I believe writing short stories can be harder than writing novels because you only have so many pages to tell your story. These women make it look effortless.

I could never pick a favorite from any of these stories, but one story, “A Jury of her Peers,” still lingers in my mind. Two women –  a sheriff’s wife and a farmer’s wife – are summoned to a neighbor’s home. Their neighbor, Minnie Wright, was accused of killing her husband. As the women collect thing Minnie will need while incarcerated, they piece together what happened to Minnie and her marriage – just by finding small details in the house: a broken bird cage, a badly sewn quilt block, a well worn black shirt. Minnie never appeared in the story, but by the last paragraph, you know so much about her life. It was a gripping story and a realistic look at marriage, domesticity and women’s lives.

The best part about reading this anthology is how it whetted my appetite for more works by these gifted writers. It was my first foray into many of these writers’ works, and I look forward to reading more by these talented, influential female American writers. (  )

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. (  )

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