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 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: 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: Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary MantelBring Up The Bodies
By Hilary Mantel
Completed May 30, 2012

The story surrounding the marriage of King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn has been the subject of many books, but Hilary Mantel focuses her angle from a different perspective – that of Thomas Cromwell – in her highly anticipated novel, Bring Up The Bodies. As a sequel to her award-winning Wolf Hall, Mantel continues illuminating one of Britain’s most mysterious historical figures, forming Thomas Cromwell into a beguiling character.

In Bring Up The Bodies, the marriage between Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn is three years old, and so far, the two have only produced one daughter. Compounding this situation, Henry’s eye is wandering (again) as he becomes smitten with Jane Seymour. Cromwell, seeing an opportunity to rid the court of all things Boleyn, begins masterminding a plot to get rid of Anne and replace her with Jane. As circumstances unfold, Anne is accused of adultery and eventually executed. While Cromwell didn’t hold the sword, her blood was on his hands.

In this fictional depiction of Cromwell, we see him as the great orchestrator. He does Henry’s dirty deeds, and accomplishes the tasks so beautifully, it is almost a work of art. Additionally, we learn that Cromwell only pursues tasks that benefit himself and his loved ones. Cromwell can persuade Henry like no other. By novel’s end, though, Mantel hints at Cromwell’s inevitable demise – a subject surely to captivate audiences as she completes the third book in this trilogy.

Compared to Wolf Hall, Bring Up The Bodies is more approachable and action-packed. It is also half the length. Mantel gets better with each page, and Cromwell’s character provides a muse for her storytelling. Honestly, I was not sure if I would like the sequel, but I do. It is everything a good novel should be. If you have an interest in historical fiction, be sure to get your hands on Bring Up The Bodies. (  )

This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

BOOK REVIEW: Painter of Silence by Georgina Harding

Painter of Silence by Georgina HardingPainter of Silence
By Georgina Harding
Completed May 19, 2012

Set against the backdrop of pre- and post-World War II Romania, Painter of Silence is the story of two childhood friends, Safta and Augustin. Safta is the daughter of wealthy Romanian landowners and becomes a nurse during World War II. Augustin is the son of cook who works at Safta’s manor; he is deaf and mute, but the two share a communication that transcend speech and hearing.

The story opens with Augustin arriving in Iasi, looking for Safta. He manages to find the hospital where she works and crumbles on its doorstep. Augustin is very ill, and he is rushed inside the hospital for care. Safta learns that a deaf and mute man has been admitted, and her suspicions are confirmed – it is her long lost friend.

The story then goes back and forth between Augustin’s recovery, and memories of Safta and Augustin’s childhood. Augustin communicates through drawing pictures, and Safta gives him paper and pencils so he can tell what happened to him after the war started. Slowly, Harding paints a picture, through Augustin, of how World War II and the arrival of communism affected Romania. In a span of a few years, Romania went through great upheaval, affecting the lives of every citizen – rich and poor.

Painter of Silence starts slowly, working steadily through small crescendos until the reader learns the full histories of Augustin and Safta. The last 100 pages are captivating, and the ending has a small twist that ties a few loose ends. It was a cerebral story, and comparisons to the writing style of Michael Ondaatje are spot on. There is strength in silence, and the quiet aspect of Painter of Silence makes it a novel not easily forgotten. I recommend Painter of Silence to fans of literary fiction and the Orange Prize. (  )

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. (  )

BOOK REVIEW: Murder on the Ballarat Train by Kerry Greenwood

Murder on the Ballarat Train by Kerry GreenwoodMurder on the Ballarat Train
By Kerry Greenwood
Completed April 29, 2012

Murder on the Ballarat Train is part of the Phryne Fisher series – a suave, intelligent flapper/private investigator who solves crimes in 1920’s Australia. Phryne is a no-nonsense, forward-thinking woman who isn’t afraid to use a gun or her prowess to get to the bottom of a mystery.

In this book, Phryne is traveling in a first-class train car with her maid, Dot, when she awakens to the smell of chloroform. Someone had used chloroform to sedate the entire passenger car so he/she could murder one of the passengers, a grumpy old woman named Mrs.Williams.  Eunice, the woman’s daughter and fellow train passenger, hires Phryne to solve the case.

Meanwhile, a young girl appears at the train station with amnesia, and Phryne takes the girl, Jane, under her wing.When it is discovered that Jane was molested, Phryne undertakes another investigation to determine who hurt the young girl.

Like all good murder mysteries, the plots eventually tie together, and 175 pages later, Phryne catches the bad guys, gets the cute man and adopts two orphans. Murder on the Ballarat Train is a bit of a departure from my usual fare, but I enjoyed the story nonetheless. I liked Phryne’s style – sort of a racier version of Nancy Drew. If you need a good poolside read, consider checking out this page-turning mystery series. (  )

BOOK REVIEW: Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

Half Blood Blues by Esi EdugyanHalf Blood Blues
By Esi Edugyan
Completed April 26, 2012

I always say in my book reviews: When a book can teach me something new about history, then I am a fan. In her highly acclaimed Half Blood Blues, Esi Edugyan taught me a different perspective of World War II – one that incorporates American and German jazz musicians who shared a common love of music.

The book is told from the viewpoint of Sid Griffiths, the bass player for an up-and-coming jazz band, The Hot-Time Swingers, who were playing in jazz clubs throughout Berlin. Jazz was hot in pre-World War II Germany, but when Hitler came to power, he considered the music to be “degenerate.” This left Sid and his band mates, namely his boyhood friend, Chip, and a black German horn player, Hiero, out of work. The 1939 sections of the story center around the band mates’ escape from Germany and their brief time together in Paris.

Fast forward more than 50 years, and the story focuses on elder Sid and Chip, who are returning to Germany for a jazz festival in Hiero’s honor.  Sid watched Hiero get arrested in Paris, and he assumed Hiero died, but Chip has information that will test Sid’s belief. Once they arrive in Berlin, they decide to travel to Poland to learn what happened to Hiero.

Many reviewers found Half Blood Blues to be slow-paced. However, I felt the complete opposite: I was completely riveted by the story, turning pages late into the night. This may be the result of my insatiable curiosity about World War II history, but I have to think that Edugyan’s superb writing style also played a part. Another common complaint was the jargon used throughout the dialogues: it was a blend of black vernacular mixed in with 1940’s slang. Germans were “boots,” women were “janes.” It did not bother me too much, but I understand where these critiques are coming from.

For me, Half Blood Blues was the complete package: gripping, humanistic, real. I am pleased that Edugyan has been short listed for the 2012 Orange Prize, and I hope lovers of literary and historical fiction will find their way to this book. ( )

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. (  )

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