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: 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 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: Eveless Eden by Marianne Wiggins

Eveless Eden
By Marianne Wiggins
Completed January 23, 2012

Confession: I read the first 150 pages of this book in earnest. I skimmed the rest of the book. If I missed something in the last two-thirds of this novel, I apologize in advance.

Noah John is a reporter who travels to all ends of the earth to get the story. On location in Cameroon, he meets the love of his life, a fiesty photographer named Lilith. Once united, they become a powerful journalistic duo, covering some of the biggest stories in the late 1980’s.  However, Lilith starts to fall for someone else – a Romanian dignitary with a troublesome past. Noah is broken hearted and flees to New York, where he later learns that the Romanian man was killed – but there’s no word on Lilith’s whereabouts. Noah begins another adventure – looking for Lilith and hoping she didn’t meet the same fate as her Romanian lover.

Doesn’t it sound like an action-adventure flick starring Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt?

I really don’t have anything against globe-trotting journalists who are always near the action – and I certainly don’t have anything against Eveless Eden. Despite being shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 1996, it just wasn’t the book for me. (  )

BOOK REVIEW: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

The Night Circus by Erin MorgensternThe Night Circus
By Erin Morgenstern
Completed February 8, 2012

Step right up, ladies and gentlemen! Come closer to learn more about a true visual spectacle – a mind twister of a book – The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. No bearded ladies or five-legged goats – just a book that bends your imagination and senses.

Yes, it’s a circus book, and certainly we’ve had our share of circus stories lately. While most books focus on the oddities, The Night Circus offers up something more. It’s a veritable feast for your senses. Your mind’s eye will almost tire from the stimulation. Your nose will go into overtime imagining the aromas. And your skin will tingle from conjuring the sensations of the circus. (Has anyone bought the movie rights yet? Tim Burton, this has your name written all over it!)

It’s what The Night Circus does to the corners of your imagination, though, that makes this book a pleasure to read. Erin Morgenstern’s debut is not without flaws. Overall, though, she accomplishes a tremendous feat: to drop the reader into the story, fully immersed like a live witness to the story’s events.

I was less impressed with the love story angle of The Night Circus – it almost felt contrived, not as natural as the rest of the moving parts of the story. I was never convinced that the main characters, Marco and Celia, had a relationship that could sustain beyond the competition.  Star-crossed beautiful lovers from competing sides is the oldest trick in the book – and overplayed. Many will disagree with me, and that’s okay. Perhaps I’ve become old and unromantic.

Circus fiction can read like a three-ring circus, but that’s not the case with this book. Just like the circus, The Night Circus is full of magic and would make for a great book club discussion – and an even better movie. I recommend it to any reader who likes to journey to the unbelievable – even just once in a while. (  )

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. (  )

BOOK REVIEW: The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

The Paris Wife by Paula McLainThe Paris Wife
By Paula McLain
Completed December 18, 2011

So many books and movies focus on the lives of authors that we often forget the muses in their lives. That’s why I was eager to read The Paris Wife by Paula McLain – a story that features Hadley Richardson, the first wife of Ernest Hemingway, and their life together in 1920’s Paris.

We meet Hadley as a 29-year-old, unmarried woman who is visiting friends in Chicago after a long stint providing care to her now-deceased mother. While in Chicago, Hadley is swept off her feet by a young Ernest Hemingway (a man almost 10 years her junior). Ernest is a fledging writer, fresh out of World War I, and ready to move to Europe to begin his writing career. He eventually proposes to Hadley, and together, they move to Paris.

The Paris years are marked with highs and lows. Ernest’s career, while promising, takes a while to kick into high gear. The couple is poor but manage to stay afloat, thanks to Hadley’s inheritance. They are in love, though, and surrounded by friends who feed their appetites and souls. However, Ernest’s depression, wandering eye and eventual affair with another woman put an irreversible dent in their marriage, and Hadley decides to leave him and her life in Paris.

McLain does a commendable job capturing the artistic fever of 1920’s Paris. The Paris Wife is a veritable who’s who of the writing and art scene. What I can’t determine is McLain’s motive for her characters because, for me, not one of them was likeable. Hadley was spineless and too accommodating. Ernest was self-centered and chauvinistic. Even the minor characters were less than likeable. It made liking The Paris Wife a hard task.

If a lesson can be learned from the story it’s this: If you marry a man with a lot of baggage, you’ll end up packing yours in the end. I think Hadley would certainly agree. (  )

BOOK REVIEW: Homestead by Rosina Lippi

Homestead by Rosina LippiHomestead
By Rosina Lippi
Completed December 9, 2011

Have you ever selected a book with a good feeling you’re going to love it? The story premise sounds interesting, other readers write glowing reviews – even the book cover grabs your interest. Then when you finish the book, you’re so excited that you actually loved the book, just like you thought you would? That’s exactly how it went for me with my latest book, Homestead by Rosina Lippi.

Homestead is a collection of tales told from the perspective of different women who live in a remote Austrian village from 1909-1977.  To help tie their stories together, Lippi provides clan family trees at the beginning of the book. As you’re introduced to each woman’s chapter, you see her name and clan affiliation, which helps you understand her connection with the other characters in the story. While a woman may be featured in her chapter, she’ll appear in other chapters as well. It was a great way to build up different perspectives on the same people.

The women’s stories individually are moving, but when taken as a whole, create a fabulous book. Themes of love, loss, deception, greed, farming and raising family all permeate the narratives. The themes are universal, but it’s the way Lippi fuses in the Austrian dialect and customs that make Homestead a unique historical read.

Shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 2001, Homestead is exactly why I advocate this award. Without its Orange Prize distinction, I may not have found Homestead, which would have been my loss. I hope other readers who enjoy provocative fiction will consider reading this exquisite book.  I can’t recommend it enough. (  )

BOOK REVIEW: A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick

A Reliable Wife by Robert GoolrickA Reliable Wife
By Robert Goolrick
Completed October 28, 2011

I wasn’t expecting to like A Reliable Wife, based on some reviews that were less than favorable. It goes to show you, though, that you should stick with your gut when picking books – because I was rivoted by this character-driven story.

Ralph Truitt is a wealthy, lonely man living in northern Wisconsin. He places a newspaper ad, looking for “a reliable wife” to share his home. He receives plenty of inquiries, but something about Catherine Land’s response and picture seemed to be the best fit. After several letters, Catherine agreed to come to Wisconsin. When Catherine came off the train, though, Ralph realizes he has been duped. Catherine was not the same woman in the photo. She was far more beautiful. And so begins a complex story of secrets, hidden pasts and redemption.

As A Reliable Wife unfolds, you learn about the troubled past of each character. Neither Ralph nor Catherine were angels, and their fumbles through life made for interesting and realistic reading. In addition to the provocative characters, Goolrick was a master at inserting unexpected twists into the story – leaving the reader blind-sided but ready for more.

Sex is an integral theme to A Reliable Wife, and for many, the sex and sensuality may be a turn-off. I thought Goolrick handled it well – exploring the boundaries between sex to solve loneliness and lovemaking to express one’s affection. However, if reading about sex bothers you, then skip A Reliable Wife. It’s a dominant theme in almost every chapter.

I really have no complaint or criticism about this book. I was satisfied with the conclusion of the story and wished each character love and happiness – something we all deserve in our lives. (  )

BOOK REVIEW: The Soldier’s Wife by Margaret Leroy

The Soldier's Wife by Margaret LeroyThe Soldier’s Wife
By Margaret Leroy
Completed September 4, 2011

War has come to tiny Guernsey, an island in the English Channel that during World War II was a strategic landing site for the German armed forces.  In Margaret Leroy’s novel, The Soldier’s Wife, Vivienne de la Mare faces indecision: to evacuate the island with her two daughters, or stay there and endure the German occupation. She chose the latter – a fateful decision for her.

As the Germans settle on Guernsey, they live in houses left empty by evacuees, including the house closest to Vivienne’s property. It’s there that she meets Gunther, and as the war progresses, Gunther and Vivienne fall in love and begin a secret affair. For Vivienne, Gunther offers everything her soldiering husband does not – companionship, excitement and intimacy. However, when Vivienne’s daughter starts to help a Belorussian war prisoner, Vivienne sees war’s atrocities, and she begins to question her involvement with Gunther.

The first three-quarters of The Soldier’s Wife moves effortlessly. Margaret Leroy pulls the reader in with tales of love and survival. I was enthralled with how islanders managed some level of co-existence with the Germans, focusing on growing crops and darning socks. I was less interested in Vivienne and Gunther’s love story, which may be why I was unenthused with the story’s ending.

My main quibble with the story, though, is the title. I wonder why it was chosen for this book. In my opinion, Vivienne was not really a soldier’s wife. Certainly, her husband was away at war, but she didn’t identify herself with him. Vivienne was more a soldier’s lover, if anything, though I would have preferred a title that identified Vivienne as her own – a resourceful, caring woman who endured World War II with grace and charity. It’s this woman who is at the center of my recommendation for The Soldier’s Wife – an interesting selection for book clubs and fans of historical fiction. (  )

FTC Disclosure: This book was sent to me by the publisher for review on my blog.

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