Saturday, May 14, 2011

Review: Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier

Cold MountainTitle: Cold Mountain

Author: Charles Frazier

Pages: 449

Source: Personal library

Rating: 8/10

Summary (From back of book):

Sorely wounded and fatally disillusioned in the fighting at Petersburg, Inman, a Confederate soldier, decides to walk back to his home in the Blue Ridge Mountains and to Ada, the woman he loved there years before. His trek across the disintegrating South brings him into intimate and sometimes lethal converse with slaves and marauders, bounty hunters and witches, both helpful and malign. At the same time, Ada is trying to revive her father's derelict farm and learn to survive in a world where the old certainties have been swept away.

My Two Cents:

I really like fiction set during the Civil War. In school, studying the 1860s always was one of my favorite things in history classes, so it would make sense that I enjoy fiction set during that era, even though I haven't read a lot of fiction set during this period.

One of my favorite things about this book was how the narration flips between the experiences of Inman as he attempts to return home from the war and Ada, who is trying to care for her father's failing farm. The dual narrative gave both perspectives of the war (Even though we hardly had any actual battle narration), so it wasn't all war and it wasn't all the struggle to survive. I liked that we got to see both sides of the experience.

I really liked all the main characters, too. It's not often that I like even the unsavory characters, like Stobrod, but even he had his fiddling obsession that kind of endeared him to me. At first, I wasn't sure I was going to like Ada. She seemed like nothing more than a damsel in distress who just kind of said, "Well, I don't know how to do any of this stuff around the farm, and I'm not really going to try." But, when Ruby comes along, Ada changes drastically and I really grew to like her.

My favorite parts of this book were Inman's interactions with various types of people in his travels. No matter what was doled out to him, he didn't become overly vicious or greedy; he simply treated people the way they treated him and he went out of his way to help those who needed the extra assistance. I also thought seeing the imagined experiences of people on the fringes of society added to the richness of the ambiance set out in this book.

I realize I'm probably about the last person on the planet to have read this book (And I haven't seen the movie, either!), but if there's someone out there who likes historical fiction and really interesting narratives who hasn't read this novel yet, give it a try.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Review: 13, rue Therese by Elena Mauli Shapiro

13, rue Thérèse: A NovelTitle: 13, rue Therese

Author: Elena Mauli Shapiro

Pages: 268 (I have an ARC, so page numbers in finished copies may differ)

Source: Publisher for review

Rating: 7/10

Summary (From back of book):

American academic Trevor Stratton discovers a box full of artifacts as he settles into his new office in Paris. The pictures, letters, and objects in the box relate to the life of Louise Brunet, a Frenchwoman who lived through both world wars.

Trevor begins to piece together the story of Louise's life: her love for a cousin who died in the war, her marriage to a man who works for her father, and her attraction to a neighbor in her building at 13, rue Therese. As Trevor becomes enamored of the charming, feisty Louise of his imagination, he notices another alluring Frenchwoman: his clerk, Josianne, who planted the mysterious box in his office and with whom he finds he is falling in love.

My Two Cents:

The story of how this book came to be and the concept around which Shapiro builds her novel is really interesting. The author acquired a box of artifacts -- letters, pressed flowers, gloves -- that belonged to an upstairs neighbor when she lived in Paris. It is around these real-life things that she builds this book and from which she imagines the life of the real Louise Brunet. She then takes those artifacts and frames them within the story of Trevor, an American who finds the box in his new office in Paris. I think the framework and the real-life story behind all the things we see scanned into the book is what I liked best about this book.

Due to the framework of the novel, I found it difficult to actually get to know Trevor as a character. This was kind of disappointing to me, as I would have liked to know him more since he basically is the one telling the story.

We do, however, get to know Louise very well. I honestly wasn't sure what to think of Louise. There were times when I liked her and times when I did not like her one bit. She was very much a Scarlett O'Hara to me, without the extended periods of complete and total loathing. Overall, though, I think she was a really interesting main character and I enjoyed the fact that, even though she likely was nothing like the real Louise Brunet, she was based somewhat on a real person.

This is an enjoyable, easy read that I would recommend to anyone looking for a fun little mystery to figure out along with their reading.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Review: House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III

House of Sand and FogTitle: House of Sand and Fog

Author: Andre Dubus III

Pages: 365

Source: Personal library

Rating: 5/10

Summary (From back of book):

In this riveting novel of almost unbearable suspense, three fragile yet determined people become dangerously entangled in a relentlessly escalating crisis. Colonel Behrani, once a wealthy man in Iran, is now a struggling immigrant willing to bet everything he has to restore his family's dignity. Kathy Nicolo is a troubled young woman whose house is all she has left, and who refuses to let her hard-won stability slip away from her. Sheriff Lester Burdon, a married man who finds himself falling in love with Kathy, becomes obsessed with helping her fight for justice.

Drawn by their competing desires to the same small house in the California hills and doomed by their tragic inability to understand one another, the three converge in an explosive collision course.

My Two Cents:

Even though I felt compelled to read this book, even staying up late to read a good chunk of it, I can't say I enjoyed it. I think I really just wanted to know what happened at the end, to see how everything played out.

A lot of my issue with the book was that two of the characters, Kathy and Lester, just made me so mad. I could not find any single shred of sympathy for either of them. I thought they both were terrible, reckless people and reading their sections of the book found me rolling my eyes on nearly every page. I don't know why I hated them so much, but I did. Ugh.

I think another part of my problem with the book was that I only felt any sympathy for Behrani. He not only was truly the one who did no wrong in the whole situation (Yes, you can argue he could have given the house back, but why should he have to pay for someone else's mistake?), but the whole action of the book just comes crashing in on his family. I spent the last 100 or so pages just so mad and sick that, had my desire to find out not won, I would have put the book down. It just angered me something fierce.

Now, I'm no prude, but I also took a lot of issue with the amount and description of the sex in this book. Do I know it happens? Yes. Do I know it's not always as chaste and pure as the driven snow? Uh, yeah. But I don't need to read about it every 30 or so pages. In detail. There are just so many other things that could have been done in those spaces, in my opinion.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Review: The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

The Red Tent: A NovelTitle: The Red Tent

Author: Anita Diamant

Pages: 321

Source: Personal library

Rating: 9/10

Summary (From back of book):

Her name is Dinah. In the Bible, her life is only hinted at in a brief and violent detour within the more familiar chapters about her father, Jacob, and his dozen sons in the Book of Genesis.

Told in Dinah's voice, this novel reveals the traditions and turmoil of ancient womanhood -- the world of the red tent. It begins with the story of her mothers -- Leah, Rachel, Zilpah, and Bilhah -- the four wives of Jacob. They love Dinah and give her gifts that are to sustain her through a hard-working youth, a calling to midwifery, and a new home in a a foreign land. Dinah's story reaches out from a remarkable period of early history and creates and intimate, immediate connection.

My Two Cents:

I really, really enjoyed this book. I was familiar with the very short story of Dinah from the Bible, and didn't really give it a second thought until reading Diamant's take on the whole ordeal.

Dinah is a fabulous character. Even though she comes from a time so far removed from my own, I could easily visualize her and found Diamant's portrayal completely believable. As the only daughter among 12 sons, it is a given that she would be doted on by the women and pretty much forgotten by the men. There are very few interesting, well-rounded females in the early portions of the Bible, so it was really nice to see one pulled out and given her own story. I really liked that she felt compelled to take care of other women as a midwife, so we got to see her interactions with people of all classes as well as those within her family. From what I know of the time in which Dinah would have lived, every detail of Diamant's narrative makes sense.

There is just so much in this book I hardly can begin to deal with all of it here. I'm usually not one for obviously feminist literature, but this book worked for me. My favorite scenes were those within the red tent, when Dinah and her four mothers spend three days each month talking and enjoying one another's company. It actually made me wish that there still was a tradition such as this in today's world.

For anyone who likes historical fiction, wants to know more about Dinah or who just is interested in a really rich narrative, I would suggest this book.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Review: Salvation City by Sigrid Nunez

Salvation CityTitle: Salvation City

Author: Sigrid Nunez

Pages: 280 (I have an ARC, so page numbers in finished copies may differ)

Source: Publisher for review

Rating: 6/10

Summary (From back of book):

After a flu pandemic has killed large numbers of people worldwide, the United States has grown increasingly anarchic. Orphaned Cole Vining is lucky to have found refuge with an evangelical pastor and his family in sheltered Salvation City, which has been spared much of the devastation.

But it's a starkly different community from the one Cole has known, and he struggles what his changed world means for him. As those around him become increasingly fixated on their vision of utopia -- so different from his own parents' drams -- Cole imagines building a new and different future for himself.

My Two Cents:

I really liked the concept of this book. A ravaged United States, and world, after a pandemic should create a really rich opportunity to explore a lot of deep issues, right? We should be dealing with food shortages and cleanup and broken families and a crumbling government. But, there's really not much of that here in this book. This book, mostly, is about Cole's suddenly different life, going from an atheistic home of free-thinkers to the home of an almost frighteningly evangelical pastor and his tiny little community of believers.

I think the story line that Nunez created would have worked independent of the flu pandemic. But I didn't feel as if it worked as well as it could have the way it was written. I kept waiting for something to really depend upon the pandemic, but besides Cole being tossed in an orphanage, there didn't seem to be any reason for the pandemic to be used as a device here. Nunez's point easily could have been accomplished had Cole's parents died in, say, a car accident. I guess I was just left disappointed by this.

Salvation City is very well-written. It's an easy read with some great, albeit a little startling at times, detail. Nunez also creates some interesting characters, including Cole and Pastor Wyatt. These factors did keep me going through the book despite my disappointment at the plot itself.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Review: Cat's Eye by Margaret Atwood

Cat's EyeTitle: Cat's Eye

Author: Margaret Atwood

Pages: 446

Source: Personal library

Rating: 8/10

Summary (From book flap):

Painter Elaine Risley, pushing fifty, returns from Vancouver to Toronto for a retrospective of her work, which has been much celebrated by the women's movement and much attacked from other quarters.

Toronto is the city she fled many years earlier, hoping to leave behind the tyrannical and obsessive memories of her early life there -- from her post-World War II school days and fifties adolescence, through the avant-garde art scene of the sixties, to the advent of feminism in the early seventies.

Now, as she wanders the streets of the city, which are no longer puritanical and dowdy but resplendent with eighties glitz, Elaine confronts the submerged layers of her past -- her unconventional family, her eccentric and brilliant brother, the self-righteous and dangerous Mrs. Smeath, and the two men Elaine later came to love in diverse and sometimes disastrous ways. But it is the enigmatic Cordelia, once her tormentor, then her best friend, whose elusive yet powerful presence in her life Elaine finally comes to understand.

My Two Cents:

At first, I wasn't sure how I was going to like this novel. It didn't capture me right away like the other two Atwood works I've read, but as I continued reading, it had me hooked.

I really liked Elaine as a main character, although I liked her better in her younger form than as the mature, adult narrator. She had an unconventional childhood, especially for the first eight years of her life. She really, to me, seemed like someone I would have liked to have as a friend as a child. With a lot of her interactions with Cordelia, especially, she spoke to me as having a very typical young girl experience with groups of mean girls. Elaine was just a character who was easy to relate to and to see in myself and a lot of people I know.

While much of this book happens in the past and there really isn't a whole lot of action as far as everything in the book is leading up to this huge climax, I was incredibly interested in where Atwood was going to go. I liked that we saw Elaine as an adult, so we know how she turned out, but we were able to see her evolution and how she became the adult she is.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone who likes Margaret Atwood or who just wants an interesting story that will keep you reading much longer than you had planned.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Review: City of Dreams by William Martin

City of DreamsTitle: City of Dreams

Author: William Martin

Pages: 447

Source: Publisher for review

Rating: 7/10

Summary (From book flap):

"Can I interest you in saving America?"

That's the text message Peter Fallon receives from a Wall Street bigwig. It's not a challenge he can turn down, especially since the country is in the midst of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. The stock market is wobbling. The Chinese have stopped buying our T-bills. If we don't get control of our deficit, our economic future looks grim.

But all may not be lost. Hidden somewhere in New York City is a box of 1780s bonds with a face value of ten thousand dollars, part of a series of bonds called New Emission Money. The Supreme Court is about to decide if these bonds still have value. If the decision is yes, those ten thousand dollars, at 5 percent interest, will be worth a very pretty penny. A lot of very pretty pennies.

Peter Fallon and his girlfriend, Evangeline Carrington, must find the box -- and fast. Suddenly, their race against time becomes a race through time as Peter and Evangeline track the stories of New Yorkers whose lives have been changed by the bonds. They'll confront frightened booksellers, heartless businessmen, former flames, renegade treasury agents, and the Russian mafia ... and all while they'll unravel the thrilling and inspiring origins of the City of Dreams.

My Two Cents:

I was pleasantly surprised by this book. I'm not normally one to enjoy the whole suspense/thriller genre, but I do like a book that has a good historical story. So, I gave it a try.

The best thing about this book, in my mind, was how Martin traces the bonds in question through time and how he is able to bring each time in history -- 1770s, 1890s, 1920s, 1980s and present day -- to life. It was also interesting to see that, since these bonds were basically lost in the New York City, each time period's action was centered in New York. As a result, the reader really got to see how the city changed from its earliest roots to what it is today. The whole historical background was most interesting to me.

I did find some of the action and events, especially those in present day, a little hard to believe. I have a hard time believing, for example, that a building could be blown up and a man shot in the middle of the street nearly unnoticed by police. But, although the somewhat outlandish events contributed to the suspense feel of the book, it did not take anything away from my enjoyment of the book or my desire to find out what happened next.

I also found that I really could not connect to any of the characters. They all seemed very one-dimensional. And while that did bother me some, again, it did not cause me to dislike the book or to make me want to put it down.

If you like historical novels or history in general, give this book a try.
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