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. (  )

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BOOK REVIEW: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

The Song of Achilles by Madeline MillerThe Song of Achilles
By Madeline Miller
Completed May 6, 2012

Good news! You don’t have to be an Ancient Greek expert to read The Song of Achilles! For those of you who wondered, rest assured: Madeline Miller maneuvers her readers through  Ancient Greek lore like a skilled driver. Having advanced degrees in the Classics certainly does help, but her writing style is easy and digestible. I could even keep track of the names (a small miracle for me).

Now for the “meh” news: I wasn’t enamored with The Song of Achilles like I thought I would be. I was hoping for a five-star, knock-my-socks off read. (Note to self: Stop reading so many reviews before selecting a book). Why? Because many book-loving friends raved about The Song of Achilles. As a result, I set my expectations too high.

The Song of Achilles focuses on the relationship between Achilles and his lover/soul mate/best friend, Patroclus. Patroclus was exiled from his kingdom as a young boy and sent to live with King Peleus, who was Achilles’ father. Eventually, Achilles and Patroclus struck up a friendship, which, over time, turned into a deep romance. The entire story is told through Patroclus’ eyes, and through his perspective, we learn about Achilles the boy, the soldier and the man.

I applaud Miller for this ambitious endeavor: to tell the story of Achilles and the Trojan War through a fresh perspective. In my opinion, she accomplished it very well, especially for being a young writer. She made each character come alive – to the point where you love or hate them.

Where I think The Song of Achilles lacked for me was the pace. It dragged in parts. A lot of pages were spent on Achilles growing up, and some of it wasn’t that interesting. When we finally arrived at the Trojan War, I just wanted to press the fast-forward button. I realize Miller needed to build up some tension, but I think she lost me along the way. When the prophecy was fulfilled and the inevitable fates occurred, the story still continued! Stick a fork in me: I was done.

In the end, The Song of Achilles was a good book. I would recommend it to readers who love historical fiction, especially ancient history. If you’re against same-sex relationships, this is definitely a book to skip. Madeline Miller is a young writing talent, and I hope she continues to hone her craft. I expect we’ll see even more brilliant stories coming from this gifted writer. (  )

Doc: A Novel by Mary Doria Russell

Doc: a novel by Mary Doria RussellDoc: A Novel
By Mary Doria Russell
Completed May 7, 2011

In 1993, I was entranced by Val Kilmer’s intepretation of Doc Holliday in the popular movie, Tombstone. While the movie was okay, Val stole the show with his slow Southern (sometimes slurred) drawl, intelligent one-liners and his character’s battle with tuberculosis.  In fact, his characterization of Doc is one of my top 10 movie characters of all time.

So, I was delighted that Doc Holliday was the subject of Mary Doria Russell’s latest novel. And just like the movie, the character of Doc stole the show. He was complicated, pathetic, humorous and generous. The book focuses on Doc’s move to Dodge City, Kansas, where he meets the Earp brothers. Through this setting, we learn about Doc’s friendships with each Earp, his desire to be a dentist, his alcoholism, his love affair with Kate and his constant struggle with tuberculosis. We also learn about the “wild west” – where cards, booze and money ruled the day.

Russell is a masterful storyteller – not only because she draws you in with her characters – but because she can paint a picture in the mind’s eye. The dust of the roads, the stench of men, the blood from a sickly cough – each chapter was a delight to the senses. And, if you’ve had the benefit of seeing Val Kilmer’s performance, you have the perfect person for your mental portrayal of Russell’s lead character.

My only complaint about Doc was the middle of the novel dragged just a little, and I lost interest in the side stories of the minor characters. Believe me, it’s a small complaint. With Doc at the story’s helm, the story that bears his name was intriguing and fast-paced.

All in all, Doc is must-read for any fan of Mary Doria Russell and sure to be enjoyed by lovers of American folklore and historical fiction. Don’t miss this dusty tale! (  )

This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

REVIEW: The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht

The Tiger’s Wife
By Tea Obreht
Completed April 3, 2011

It takes a talented writer to infuse stories of folklore and reality into a book that’s both captivating and realistic. It’s not an easy recipe for storytelling, but sometimes the best stories are the hardest ones to tell. I think that’s the case in Tea Obreht’s debut novel, The Tiger’s Wife.

Set in unnamed Balkan nations, The Tiger’s Wife tells the story of Natalia, a young physician who is traveling to an orphanage to inoculate wartime orphans. En route, she learns of her grandfather’s death. Natalia knew her grandfather was ill with cancer, so his death came as no surprise, but she was stunned to learn where her grandfather died – in a little village near the orphanage where she was headed. Why was he there instead of at home with Natalia’s grandmother and mother?

As Natalia contemplates her grandfather’s death, she reminisces about his life – specifically stories from his childhood and youth. There’s the Tiger’s Wife – a young deaf-mute woman from his village – and the Deathless Man – who captures souls before people die. Even further, you learn about the village butcher, apothecary and local bear killer. Here’s where Obreht shines: the retelling of folkloric stories, the conjuring of superstition and the devastations of war. In these tales, which are woven through Natalia’s narrative, the reader must employ patience and suspend some level of disbelief. In doing so, you will be rewarded with stories that will enrich and delight you.

The rhythm of The Tiger’s Wife takes some getting used to. Stylistically, it’s a complicated novel with interweaving story lines and time frames. Even writers with more experience could lose themselves in this storytelling. The fact that Obreht didn’t is a testament to her writing talent. I would recommend The Tiger’s Wife to readers who enjoy folklore with contemporary fiction. I look forward to future stories by this talented young writer. (  )

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