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: 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: The Little Friend by Donna Tartt

The Little Friend by Donna TarttThe Little Friend
By Donna Tartt
Completed January 21, 2012

I am a sucker for books set in the American South. Stories with sweet tea and back porches feel like home. That’s why I was eager to read The Little Friend by Donna Tartt. Set in Mississippi, The Little Friend seemed to be the perfect book with all the right ingredients; however, by the midway point of this novel, I knew I was knee deep in a clunker.

The edition of The Little Friend that I read was more than 600 pages, and in my opinion, it could have been half that length. The beginning of the book starts out promising. Tartt introduces us to Harriet, a precocious girl who has a strong spirit.  We meet her mother, sister and a gaggle of great aunts – all of whom were interesting characters. We also meet Hely (pronounced Healy), who is Harriet’s best friend and partner in crime. Quickly, we see that Harriet wants to learn more about the strange and sudden death of her older brother, and she sets her sights on a local man as a possible murder suspect.

Three hundred pages later, we’re no further along in the plot then we were in the first chapter. Tartt’s tangents were pleasant at first, but by the middle of the book, I wanted to get on with the story.

Finally, Tartt delivers us the inevitable “stand-off,” and perhaps I was exhausted or bored or impatient – but the whole ending seemed too far-fetched. After a 600-page investment, I wanted something in return. Sadly, I was disappointed.

On the plus side, though, I commend Tartt for her vivid writing style. Her sentences were beautiful, and she eloquently depicted her characters and setting. It’s a shame that the beauty of her writing got lost in a tangled yarn.

Shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 2003, The Little Friend has received many accolades, so please be sure to consult other reviews. This just wasn’t the book for me. (  )

BOOK REVIEW: Father and Son by Larry Brown

Father and Son by Larry BrownFather and Son
By Larry Brown
Completed September 15, 2011

Dirty, raw, gritty – and that just barely scrapes the surface of Larry Brown’s book, Father and Son. I don’t mind the dirt and the grit, but I must confess, this book was more than I can handle.

Glen Davis spent three years in jail for killing a young boy while he was driving drunk. He got early parole, and as Glen returns to his small hometown in 1968 Mississippi, you can tell trouble’s brewing. Glen’s one of those types who thinks the world is always against him – and that anything bad that happens to Glen (real or perceived) must be met with swift and cruel retribution.

So, within a short time of his return, Glen commits double homicide, seeking revenge on a man who offered to buy his girlfriend a drink (three years ago). Then he rapes a woman who flirted with him (she deserved it, you see). Finally, upon learning that his girlfriend broke up with him so she could date the sheriff, Glen kidnaps the sheriff’s mom, ties her up and rapes her too.

Mix in a lot of beer, whiskey, cigarettes and animal cruelty – and you get a less than favorable view of Southern life. I fear it fits the stereotype a little too much. Sure, there were some upstanding characters, but Glen’s crimes overshadow it all.

As Brown writes about the characters and their pasts, he starts to paint a picture of Glen’s youth – the child of a drunken, cheating father and a mother who complained to her son about his father’s misdeeds. We also learn about the death of Glen’s brother in a gun accident. Indeed, Glen’s young life was not an easy one, and Brown keeps pressing on his relationship with his mother as an important influence in his life – as if she had, in some way, caused him to be such an evildoer. I object to this position. Glen was a sociopath. While his mom may be guilty of bad mothering, no amount of good parenting could have cured him. He was evil to the soul.

Larry Brown writes with sparse prose and is fearless about his stories. If you like the styles of Cormac McCarthy, Jon Clinch or Robert Olmstead, then give Larry Brown a try. Be forewarned, though, the Father and Son is like a punch in the gut. (  )

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