Saturday, December 31, 2011

Multiple Reviews

Well, it's happened again. Months have gone by and I've been terrible at updating my book blog. I'm home sick in bed, so what better to do than take some time to make things current. Even though we're well into 2012, I'm dating this December 31, 2011, because these are all books I finished last year. My next post will catch things up from January through April 2012.

I wasn't super excited about this pick for my last book club meeting. I've read only one Christopher Moore book before (Fluke), and while it had started out strong, it quickly deteriorated into a ridiculous and annoying mess. I also didn't appreciate having to put down the incredible book about WWI that I was reading so that I could finish Lamb in time for our next meeting. But I sucked it up, and, in the end, it wasn't so bad. It was written in the same zany style Moore seems to use for all of his books, and was certainly an interesting interpretation of Jesus's life and early years (as told from the perspective of his best friend Biff). But there were definitely some laugh-out-loud moments, and I appreciated the knowledge and understanding of the Bible that Moore clearly needed to have in order to write such a book. That said, I don't think I'll be recommending it over other books I've read, unless someone is looking for something Biblical that will also make you laugh. MY RATING: 5/10

So, it's official: I have become a WWI buff. I'm not quite sure how it happened, and I'm by no means a true historical devotee, but now that I've finished off a 500 page work of non-fiction, in addition to the several other novels (see 1, 2, 3, and 4) I've read on the subject, I'm putting myself into the 'buff' category. This was an incredible piece of work. Hochschild manages to give us a history of the Great War from a unique perspective while keeping the reader riveted and disgusted at the same time. The war is framed in the context of conflict between a huge anti-war contingency and fight for women's suffrage that was occurring in England at the time the war broke out, and throughout its duration. Activists who had worked together for years to get women the right to vote were divided, and this division had significant implications for the twists and turns throughout the war, particularly as it related to the top British generals' strategic (or not so strategic decisions). The ineptitude of those in charge, and the devastating results and completely unnecessary loss of lives, was maddening to read about (one general judged the success of battles based on the number of fatalities - anything under 10,000 was a battle lost). Hochschild packed an incredible amount of information into a relatively short work of non-fiction, and I always wanted to turn the page. MY RATING: 9/10

A colleague at work recommended this book, and it was a perfect autumn read. The plot centers around a murder mystery - a Hudson Bay Company man is murdered in his cabin in a frontier town in northern Ontario. His neighbour, a shy teenage boy is also missing, and is therefore a prime suspect. It is 1867, and the small town is shaken to its core by the turn of events, especially because it is reminded of the unsolved disappearance of two teenage sisters several years before. As both mysteries are unraveled, the reader is taken on an adventure through the wintery boreal forest to Scandinavian utopian communities, derelict Company outposts, and remote hunting cabins. The complexity of First Nations exploitation by the Hudson Bay Company, resulting poverty and, and loss of culture and identity is explored, all without being in-your-face or taking over the plot. Stef Penney had an uncanny ability of bringing the reader into the surroundings completely, to the point where I often needed a blanket around my shoulders when I was reading. My only criticism is that certain plot points fell into place a bit conveniently at the end, so everything seemed too neat and tidy. But it is a forgivable flaw given the caliber of the storytelling and imagery. MY RATING: 7/10.

Another fun read by Tahir Shah. The Caliph's House is actually the book Shah wrote prior to In Arabian Nights, and I wish I had read it first because it provides a lot of context and back-story that would have been useful to know before picking up the next one. Oh well, not to worry. Both do well as stand-alone books, and his unassuming style and ability to talk about his life, family, and the trials and tribulations of buying an renovating a crumbling mansion are endearing. If you're entertaining any romantic notions about buying a house in a third world country steeped in tradition, I recommend reading this book first. MY RATING: 7/10.

I'm updating this blog post a couple weeks after I first posted it because I completely forgot that I read this book last year. This is not because it was a terrible book - it wasn't. But it wasn't an amazing book, and it was quite upsetting. Mira Bartok and her sister grew up with a mother who was truly psychotic (multiple voices, multiple personalities, dangerous, violent, you name it), and suffered throughout her life because of it. Reading about all of the terrible things she lived through and had to cope with as a child was truly heartbreaking, but I found myself constantly wanting to put down the book, not continue reading to find out how she emerged. MY RATING: 6/10.

My friends at book club picked this book during a meeting I couldn't attend. Who knows if I would have gone for it at the time, but it was not the kind of book I wanted to end the year on. I hate to say it, because one wants to be congratulatory and charitable of someone who overcame the atrocities of war-torn Liberia, spousal abuse, and rapid procreation (4 kids in almost as many years) to rise to a position of influence within the post-war government. And I am impressed by Gbowee's strength and determination. But the book sucked. I wonder seriously who the editor was, or if there even was an editor, because it was practically unreadable. I could only read the first third, and then I put it down, so perhaps it improved (although my book club friends told me it did not), so I won't give a rating. If you're looking for an inspirational story about overcoming the hardships of war, there are better ones out there.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Review of Caleb's Crossing

I received Caleb's Crossing as part of my gift package for being a bridesmaid in my friend's wedding this past July. It was perfect timing because I was about to head to Cape Cod a few weeks later, and was looking for a good summer read. What is more, Caleb's Crossing is set on Martha's Vineyard in the late 1600's, a 40 minute drive + ferry from where I would be staying.

Caleb's Crossing tells the story of Bethia Mayfield, one of the first European inhabitants of Martha's Vineyard. Bethia is the daughter of the island's minister, who is working to convert the island's native people to Christianity. Although Bethia's character is a product of fiction, the Wopanaak boy she befriends, Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, is not. Caleb was one of the first Native Americans to matriculate from Harvard University in 1665. Caleb and Bethia meet by accident when they are teenagers. She is rebelling from the constraints of being a girl in Pilgrim New England, and he is walking on his lands as they are quickly being encroached upon by settlers. They form a close friendship and teach each other their respective languages and beliefs. As a result of several tragedies both find themselves in Cambridge, Caleb to study at Harvard and Bethia to work off an indentured servitude. In the end, they both make it back to Martha's Vineyard, but only one survives to live out their life.

I was captivated by the story and struck by Brooks' ability to write in the 'old' English style in a way that wasn't overly affected. The story was compelling enough, but not riveting. I enjoyed the book as a mediocre work of fiction that was perfect for reading in the evenings once Tessa was asleep and I had a moment to relax and appreciate the warm summer Cape Cod breeze. But Caleb's Crossing was nothing particularly special.

MY RATING: 5/10.

Review of In Arabian Nights

This book was a gift, and I am so lucky to have received it; It is the kind of book that I never would have chosen to read, and it affected me profoundly. Tahir Shah is the son of Idries Shah, a highly esteemed writer, philosopher, and scholar of eastern writings and traditions. As a child, Tahir spent months in Morocco traveling with his family, and when he had a family of his own he decided to move them to a crumbling estate on the outskirts of a slum in Casablanca. The trials and tribulations of buying and restoring that house are described in The Caliph's House, a book published prior to In Arabian Nights and one which I plan to read soon.

In Arabian Nights is the story of Shah's quest to find the story in his heart. Supposedly, everyone has a story in their heart, and it can take a minute or a lifetime to find it, but once you do, it stays with you forever. In his quest to find his story, Shah travels throughout Morocco and meets all sorts of characters with wonderful stories of their own. This is not a book of short stories, but instead a description of a journey that is woven with wonderful tales and folk stories. Shah is a gifted writer, and transports us not only to his life and experience living and traveling throughout Morocco, but one step further into all of the stories that he tells throughout the book. And there are some GREAT stories.

I plan to read this book again and mark all of the pages where he tells wonderful tales so that I can learn them and tell them to Tessa when she's a bit older. One of my fondest memories as a child is sitting with my own grandfather on a window seat overlooking Madison Avenue. As we looked out of the window of my grandparents' apartment he would tell me story after story, some completely made up, others about his childhood, and still others that had been told to him. I was always entranced, and realize that nothing can replace moments like those. In Arabian Nights is about the value of those moments.


Review of The Hunger Games Trilogy

I'm cheating a little with this book review because I'm combining three separate books into one review. But it is a trilogy, so I'm going to try and get away with it.

My friend Tara recommended The Hunger Games to me when I said I was looking for a fun, easy read. The first book was perfect for a mindless summer read (helps that it falls in the YA (Young Adult) category)). It was also addictive in the same odd way that Twilight was. And just like the Twilight series, the next books in the series got progressively worse, but I still read them in the span of about 10 days.

The Hunger Games is about a girl named Katniss who lives in one of 13 districts throughout Panem (previously North America) sometime in the future after a huge battle when the districts tried to gain independence from the Capitol. They lost. And now every year one boy and one girl from each district are forced to compete to the death in a televised competition known as the Hunger Games.

Interestingly, the plot is structured in a somewhat similar manner to Twilight where a love triangle is quickly established between Katniss, her 'best friend' Gale, and Peeta, her co-competitor from her district in the Hunger Games.

I don't want to ruin the plot in case anyone decides to give these a read, so I'll just stick to a quick review from here:

The first book was great. Strong plot, interesting characters, and great action once the Hunger Games begin. Catching Fire was so-so. It was a bit repetitive because we're taken through a second Hunger Games, and the love triangle gets a bit too much play. By the time I read Mockingjay it was really because I just wanted to see how everything ends, and I had very little patience for Katniss and her bitchy attitude and consistent petulance. Everything was wrapped up pretty quickly and conveniently too. But if I were a teenager, I don't think I'd mind too much.

MY REVIEW (of the series): 5/10
If it were just the Hunger Games alone: 7/10

Friday, July 22, 2011

Multiple Reviews

I have failed miserably at staying on top of my book reviews this year. I guess when you only get 2-3 hours of time to yourself a day that has to be shared with showering, cooking, staying in touch with family and friends (i.e. emailing and talking on the phone), and generally having some down-time, book blogging hasn't been high on the list. But I HAVE been reading. So, even though this is totally lame, here's my speed-review:

Full disclosure: I only read 150 pages of this book. It was for my book club and it was not easy to get into, even though I had such high hopes. This is considered a classic in Brazil -- it's required reading in high school -- but it was sloooooooooow. Perhaps there's a translator to blame somewhere? But because I didn't finish it I don't think it's fair to rate it, so alas, this just falls in the category of "not so impressed after 150 pages."

This was another pick for book club, and it proved to be a great book for a group discussion. It follows the lives of four women who have chosen (for various reasons) not to return to work after having children. I found most of the characters extremely unlikable but also quite 'real' in their dysfunction (which was probably why I didn't like them). MY RATING: 6/10.

This book was a lot of fun. It was easy and captivating and a good old fashioned spy novel (of which I have read very few). As I read I felt like I was almost watching a movie (and it turns out one is in the works with George Clooney). Nothing amazing about the book, but entertaining. MY RATING: 8/10.

Bow Grip was a pick for book club so that we could read some queer literature AND some Canadian fiction. It follows a small-down man a year after he has been left by his wife for a woman, and how he is dealing (or not dealing) given his repressed and shy nature. It was a nice story - well written and easy to follow - but the ending was way too tidy and convenient. I felt let-down. MY RATING: 5/10.

Now this book was amazing. Ever heard of netsuke? I hadn't, learning about them was one of many new things I learned from this book. It was heartbreaking to read about how the magnificent collections of so many Jewish families were dismantled and stolen during and after WWII, and De Waal did an amazing job of consolidating years of research and minute detail into a readable and compelling book. MY RATING: 10/10.

If any of you reading this are still eating Chilean sea bass...shame. Shame on you. Please don't buy the "but this is eco-certified and from the non-endangered stock" line that fish mongers will tell you at Whole Foods and other 'reputable' markets. Hooked is a fascinating history of the rise and fall of Chilean sea bass interwoven with the story of a recent high-seas pursuit of pirates trying to catch and sell the fish illegally. MY RATING: 8/10.

Oy vey. This was a recent book club pick, and I hated it. And I mean really disliked it, which is opposite to almost everyone I know who has read this book. I found it cliched and overwritten. The villains were caricatures, and the heroine was a bit too naive and good-to-be-true. was easy to get into and the kind of book you can't put down, so it wasn't a complete failure. MY RATING: 4/10.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Review of Three Day Road

Coming off of a disappointing read, I decided to go for Three Day Road, a book that I'd only heard good things about. And it was great. I tried to get my book club to read it, but they were not into "any war books that are depressing." So that definitely ruled this one out. The thing is, I actually expected it to be more dark and depressing than it was. Yes, when your subject matter is World War I and oppressed First Nations people during the first half of the last century, it's not going to be a lighthearted read. But the strength and spirit of the characters really overpowered the dark stuff in a good way so that the book felt really balanced in its depiction of events.

Once again, Boyden uses male and female voices as his narrators throughout the book in alternating chapters. Niska is one of the last Cree Indians in northern Ontario who has not given up the traditional way of living off the land in a nomadic lifestyle. She raises her nephew, Xavier, after rescuing him from residential school when he was five years old (her sister, Xavier's mother, was lost to alcoholism). Niska teaches Xavier the traditional ways of hunting and surviving in the bush, along with her gifts for reading bones and interpreting dreams. Xavier's best friend from residential school is Elijah. Elijah is outgoing and gregarious, with a gift for the English language and an ability to mimic accents. Elijah spends his summers with Niska and Xavier, and they teach him how to hunt and shoot and live in the bush as well. It is Elijah who decides that he and Xavier need to enlist and fight in the war, and they journey and fight in Belgium together for three torturous years.

The book begins with Xavier's return to Ontario after the war, missing a leg and trapped by a morphine addiction. Niska is there to greet him, and both of their stories unfold on the three day canoe paddle back home. We learn of Niska's youth and alienation from other Cree once her father was jailed and killed by Canadians. We learn of her fits of epilepsy and resulting visions that lead her to her nephew so that she can take him away from the residential school. We learn of Xavier's friendship with Elijah, their feats on the battlefield as expert snipers, and why Xavier returns from war and Elijah does not.

Boyden once again did a masterful job of bringing the reader into small-town northern Ontario. The best way to describe his writing is that it is graceful. He is able to bring voices and people to the surface without being cliched or forced, and create incredibly clear images of completely different geographies. The reader is transported from the remote wilderness of northern Ontario in the dead of winter to the depraved and pock-marked mud fields of no-man's-land in the Somme.

Someone told me that Three Day Road was the first book in a trilogy. I hope that they were right, because it means I have one more wonderful story to look forward to.


Review of Secret Daughter

Secret Daughter was not a good start to 2011. I knew within the first couple of chapters that I was not going to like this book, but because I have such a hard time putting books down, I didn't.

Secret Daughter is about two families, one in India and the other in San Francisco. Kavita is from an impoverished town in the countryside of India and has given her daughter Usha up for adoption to prevent her from being killed at birth because of her gender (this is her second baby, her first, also a girl, was taken away by her brother-in-law, never to be seen again). She makes the trip to Mumbai the day after Usha's birth to save her by putting her up for adoption. She is adopted by Somer and Krishnan, a couple in California who cannot have children, and rename her Asha. (BTW, what the hell kind of name is Somer? That was also extremely irritating for me). But I digress... The plot is pretty predictable from here. Kavita goes on to have a son, who grows up to be a degenerate drug dealer, and she always wonders what happened to Usha. Asha grows up to resent her parents, fantasizing about her birth parents, and goes to India when she is in college to try and find them.

What bothered me about Secret Daughter was not the storyline (although I did not find it to be all that original), but Shilpi Somaya Gowda's writing - it was not very good. I found myself extremely annoyed by her writing style to the point that I had to stop and ask myself why it was bothering me so much. And what I realized is that Gowda writes how I write, which is fine. But it's not great. Or what I consider good enough to publish a novel, let alone the #1 bestseller in Canada. If I hadn't just read Through Black Spruce, I would have gone on some rant about how Canada's standards for good writing are not as high as they should be, blah blah blah. But Boyden did a masterful job, and Canadians recognized as much. So what's the deal? Why has Secret Daughter been such a success? My guess is that it appeals to the Oprah-watching 30 to 60 year-old demographic who just want an easy read with a plot that is simple to follow and somewhat compelling. And that's what this book was.


Tuesday, February 1, 2011

2011 Books

I'm six reviews behind for my 2010 books, but I'm going to try and catch up and stay current in 2011. 'Try' is the key word.

1. Secret Daughter - Shilpi Somaya Gowda
2. Three Day Road - Joseph Boyden
3. Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon - Jorge Amado
4. The Ten-Year Nap - Meg Wolitzer
5. The Tourist - Olen Steinhauer
6. Bow Grip - Ivan Coyote
7. The Hare With Amber Eyes - Edmund De Waal
8. Hooked: Pirates, Poaching and the Perfect Fish - G. Bruce Knecht
9. The Help - Kathryn Stockett

10. The Hunger Games - Suzanne Collins
11. Catching Fire - Suzanne Collins
12. Mockingjay - Suzanne Collins

13. In Arabian Nights - Tahir Shah
14. Caleb's Crossing - Geraldine Brooks
15. Lamb - Christopher Moore
16. To End All Wars - Adam Hochschild
17. The Tenderness of Wolves - Stef Penney
18. The Caliph's House - Tahir Shah
19. The Memory Palace - Mira Bartok
20. Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War

2010 Write Off (I mean Wrap Up)

Well folks, I'm writing this in February of 2011, so that should say it all! 2010 was a big year for me in terms of pregnancy and baby, and therefore not so much in terms of books and blogging. However, I did manage to review all 15 books that I read (I'm not counting the dozen or so pregnancy and baby books that were thrown into my mix). And looking back, it was a pretty good year for me in terms of quality and enjoyment. I manage to have read at least one book a month since Tessa arrived, which I am proud of. I've never been into the whole 50 books thing, but I do hope that I can start to read a bit more now that she's sleeping better (for now), and napping more consistently (for now).