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: 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: The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton

The Rehearsal by Eleanor CattonThe Rehearsal
By Eleanor Catton
Completed July 15, 2012

I was interested in reading The Rehearsal because it’s set primarily at an all-girls’ high school. As a graduate of an all-women’s college, I think the social dynamic of a single-sex educational institution could make a stellar background for a story. And for The Rehearsal, it does provide an interesting foundation, but The Rehearsal didn’t focus strictly on the relationship among young women. It was more artsy and cerebral.

The book revolves around a sex scandal between a student and her jazz teacher. The scandal rocks the small campus, disrupting the trust between parents and teachers; students and fellow students; and students and their instructors. Interestingly, the betrayal felt by the students was most startling. The student, Victoria, kept the affair from her friends, and when Victoria returns to school, her friends told her that to be forgiven, she must divulge the details about her affair. Is that a natural reaction? I am not sure.

Meanwhile, Catton throws in two other storylines – that of Stanley, a first-year student at a prestigious drama school, and the saxophone teacher, who is connected to many of the students affected by the sex scandal. (Side note: The conversations between the saxophone teacher and her students’ parents were entertaining as heck). All three storylines combine at the end – albeit abruptly – to wrap this story up like a bow.

Here’s my main complaint about The Rehearsal: the artful, intelligent aspects of this novel felt contrived – like when you’re speaking to someone who talks about classical music just to give you the impression he’s intelligent. The story was there; the characters were multi-dimensional and the writing style was provocative. The Rehearsal is Catton’s first novel, and I suspect she’ll get better and better with time.

In the meantime, I will continue to look for books set at all-women’s schools and colleges, searching for an intelligent, realistic representation of this unique social situation. If have any suggestions, please let me know. (  )

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: 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: 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 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: 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. (  )

Previous Older Entries

Watch me lose weight!

Created by MyFitnessPal - Nutrition Facts For Foods