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. (  )

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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: 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 Odditorium by Melissa Pritchard

The Odditorium by Melissa PritchardThe Odditorium: Stories
By Melissa Pritchard
Completed February 17, 2012

When I was younger, I didn’t like short story collections. I felt teased by only a small portion of a larger story and frustrated when my search for a connecting thread turned up fruitless. Thankfully now, I have case aside my hesitancy and am enjoying short story collections, including my latest read, The Odditorium by Melissa Pritchard.

The Odditorium touches on multiple genres: Westerns, historical fiction, murder mysteries, religious fiction and more. To shape each story, Pritchard plucks out obscure people, places and events from history and the modern world. While I enjoyed all of the stories, here are a few of my favorites:

1. “Watanya Ciclia” is the story about the friendship between Annie Oakley and Sitting Bull. Sitting Bull watches Annie at a show, and eventually agrees to join Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, despite the boos and jeers, to spend time with Annie.  The story is a touching tribute to two friends and sympathic view of the plight of Sitting Bull.

2. “Captain Brown and the Royal Victoria Military Hospital” is the longest story in the collection – and one many other readers didn’t like. This story resonated with me, however. Captain Brown is an American naval surgeon who must convert a Victorian-era British military hospital into a feat of modern medicine –  all before the Allied’s planned attack on D-Day. Brown was fallible and honest, and despite his career successes, was guilty about decisions he made in his life. This would have made a wonderful novel.

3. “Patricide” takes place at the hotel that houses a courtyard played in by Edgar Allan Poe. Two sisters meet there to discuss their dying father. The oldest sister, Avis, who was to inherit her father’s riches, was considered a disappointment by her father, and he cut Avis out of his will.  When Signe, the other sister, sees the pain Avis is in from an arthritic knee, Signe wonders if she could kill her father now so she can rush the money to her ailing sister. Throughout the story, we learn about Signe’s life, including a recent scandal from her job as a teacher. Mixed into the story are wonderful lines from Poe’s poetry.

All in all, I was immersed in great storytelling and fantastic writing. I highly recommend The Odditorium to readers who enjoyed high-quality short stories and lovers of literary fiction. (  )

This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

BOOK REVIEW: No One Is Here Except All Of Us by Ramona Ausubel

No One Is Here Except All Of Us by Ramona AusubelNo One Is Here Except All Of Us
By Ramona Ausubel
Completed February 3, 2012

In a small village in Romania, a group of Jewish residents lived in relative harmony. Their village was on a small peninsula where a tiny strip of land connected it to the mainland. One evening, as they gathered for prayer, they witnessed a plane bomb the other side of the mountain. War had finally arrived in their corner of Romania. Bewildered, they weren’t sure what to do. They had read newspapers and heard radio reports about Jews being rounded up and sent to camps. Fearing the same fate, the village listened to the voice of a 11-year-old girl, Lena, who suggested they just start over – to wake up the next day to a new world. And for more than three years, this tactic successfully protected them from the atrocities of World War II.

It takes a tremendous suspension of belief to read No One Is Here Except All Of Us. You, as the reader, must commit to the characters’ idea that the village was reborn into a new world. Families were switched around, time was of no consequence and the village managed to stay self-sufficient and untouched until almost the end of the war. Thankfully, Ausubel is a gifted writer with a knack for creating realistic characters, especially the story’s main character, Lena. Most of the story is told from Lena’s perspective – a young woman who endures more than one should.

Admittedly, I had an easier time reading the novel once the village had to break out of its safe cocoon, though I was saddened that their experiment couldn’t protect them any longer. When the villagers realized the war had arrived at their doorstep, my heart broke for each person.

No One Is Here Except For All Of Us will not be for every reader. It has a poetic feel with simple storytelling that may annoy readers. True realists should stay away from this book completely. But for some of you – the dreamers, the imagineers – this book will works its magic. To you, I recommend No One Is Here Except For All Of Us unreservedly.  (  )

This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

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: The Last Nude by Ellis Avery

The Last Nude by Ellis AveryThe Last Nude
By Ellis Avery
Completed December 3, 2011

Ellis Avery was inspired to write her latest book, The Last Nude, when she learned about Tamara de Lempicka and how Lempicka met the model for her famous nude paintings. Though little is know about Lempicka’s real model, Avery used her imagination, crafting a tale that showcases the whirlwind lifestyle of 1920’s Paris and the dreams of an American girl.

Rafaela, en route from the U.S. to Italy to meet her bethrothed, wanted a better life for herself, and escaped the ship on the arm of a French man. She became a prostitute in return for freedom and a Parisian life. One day, while on a walk, Rafaela met Tamara, who asked Rafaela to model for her. She agreed, and as the two began to work together, they started a torrid affair.

Most of the story is told from Rafaela’s perspective. We see the parties, drugs, sex and art that marked Paris during the Roaring 20’s. We also see Rafaela’s innocence as a 17-year-old girl who finally takes control of her body and choices. Rafaela was fallible and sympathetic, caught in a web between love and greed. Overall, I liked The Last Nude because I liked Rafaela’s character. When Avery moved the last section of the story to Tamara’s perspective, I was not as enthralled, and the speculation about what happened to Rafaela was unsatisfying.

Other reviewers have remarked (and often criticized) Avery’s historical licenses with the story, specifically about the art and literature scene in 1920’s Paris with Picasso, Hemingway and Stein at everyone’s elbow. Admittedly, I do not know much about this era of history, so I was not bothered by any mistruths or exaggerations. If you’re familiar with this time period, you may want to read other reviews to make sure this is the book for you. Otherwise, if you like art and literature, then give The Last Nude a try. (  )

FTC Disclosure: The publisher sent me a copy of this book for review on my blog.

BOOK REVIEW: The Distant Hours by Kate Morton

The Distant Hours by Kate MortonThe Distant Hours
By Kate Morton
Completed November 8, 2011

Kate Morton has carved a niche for herself as writer of Gothic fiction. Her first two books, The House at Riverton and The Forgotten Garden, were mesmerizing and captivating. Her third book, The Distant Hours, employed the Gothic tradition; however, Morton’s third effort lacked the charm and power of its predecessors.

The Distant Hours is about three sisters who live in Milderhurst Castle in Kent. They are the daughters of a famous British author whose book, The True History of the Mud Man, was a beloved classic. During World War II, the sisters accepted a young London refugee, Meredith, who blossomed under the sisters’ care. Fast forward to 1992, and we meet Meredith and her daughter, Edie, who is curious about her mother’s past. Edie finds her way to Milderhurst Castle, meets the sisters and gets tangled up in their past lives.

Like Possession, a faux piece of literature is at the center of the story, and like many Gothic books, The Distant Hours has a cast of mysterious characters, including an old house that’s a character of its own. The story sways back and forth from World War II to 1992. Admittedly, I found the older installments  more interesting than the modern ones. Truthfully, I was bored by most of Edie’s narratives. Thankfully, the action picked up when Morton took us to the past, steadily revealing secrets and answers.

The Distant Hours has the right ingredients for a great Gothic read, but I think the story was overdone. Sections of the book plodded on – almost endlessly – and I nearly abandoned the book twice. The ending was gratifying, though, and I am glad I stuck with it. The sisters, especially Percy, were fascinating. Perhaps I would have liked the book better if the story only focused on them.

If you haven’t read anything by Kate Morton, I would advise starting with her first two books. The Distant Hours is an above average read and not the best work Morton has to offer. Nonetheless, I look forward to her future works. She’s an amazing writer.

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.

BOOK REVIEW: Gilgamesh by Joan London

Gilgamesh by Joan LondonGilgamesh
By Joan London
Completed August 28, 2011

Joan London’s debut novel is the story of Edith, a young Australian girl who lives in the bush with her mom and sister. Edith knows the realities of hard country living – her parents’ farm never taking off after years of effort. When her cousin, Leopold, and his friend, Aram, arrive for a visit, it’s a breath of fresh air. Edith and her family are charmed by the young men’s stories and antics, and slowly, Edith falls in love with Aram.

After the men leave, Edith begins to plot her own departure, a worldwide journey to Aram’s homeland of Armenia. However, Edith didn’t realize that Europe was about to burst with World War II, and as she draws closer to her destination, Edith becomes an unwilling pawn in a political chess match.

The fable Gilgamesh is central to this story, and it fits well with the travels of many characters. London does a wonderful job weaving in texts from the poem to help the reader connect the dots between the fable and the story. In fact, my favorite parts of the book are when Edith is traveling – first on a ship around Africa, then to London, Armenia and finally northern Africa. Each stop on Edith’s journey gave the reader a snapshot of life during that time.

Gilgamesh is a quick read – very enthralling with fully developed characters and great plot twists. London’s writing is subtle but powerful. Fans of the Orange Prize or literary fiction are sure to enjoy this fast-paced novel. (  )

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