Wednesday, January 18, 2017

HOMEGOING by Yaa Gyasi ✮✮✮✮✮

This has to be one of the finest debut novels I have ever read! It optimized the use of a unique format, flowed smoothly, successfully sifted through a huge cast of varied characters, and spanned both generations and multiple locales with ease.

At its heart, this is a novel about family couched in the history of slavery and prejudice. As the novel opens, the reader is introduced to two young African village girls who are then followed into their marriages. Each section of the novel as it progresses tells about a pivotal time in a new character's life and gives enough backstory for the reader to understand how that character is related either directly to one of the initial two young women or her descendants. The novel progresses in a clean chronological line from the time of slavers on Africa's western coast into the present.
I listened to the audio for this one (marvelous, if rather slow-paced, narration by Dominic Hoffman) and at times it was a struggle to follow along through the generations. To the novel's credit, I never did have to resort to looking for a character list or family tree online--something that frequently happens when listening to these types of multi-generational works. Mr. Hoffman's talent for the many required accents also helped me to keep everyone straight.

I have read several critiques that said that just as soon as the reader began to get attached to one character, the novel would spring forward to someone else. I actually loved that about the book. It kept the book from ever lagging since only the most relevant times in each character's life were laid out for the reader. In being introduced to so many subsequent generations, I felt like I was able to see just how each character's life impacted those of their descendants. You also found out some "epilogue" type information about earlier characters through the later chapters about their progeny.

One of the themes that I felt strengthened the novel was that of setting and how regardless of time or place, there were certain elements that were found in the experiences of every character. This element really came into play when the novel was brought to a perfect full circle at its conclusion.

I cannot recommend this one highly enough! Reading about the "black experience" is not a topic that I, as a white woman with no family connection to the subject, naturally gravitate towards, but this novel is rich in so many ways--history, family, finding one's self, to name a few--that it is likely to appeal to a very broad base of readers. 

Saturday, January 14, 2017

THE READERS OF BROKEN WHEEL RECOMMEND by Katarina Bivald ✮ ✮ ✮ ✮

If asked to sum up this novel, words like "idyllic" and "heartwarming" would come to mind. There is nothing complex or extraordinary about either the story line or the characters. It is a simple story about the simple people of a small town in Iowa and one unremarkable Swedish woman who manages to shake up their status quo.
Since I tend to like characters who are a bit more opaque and plots full of twists and layers, it is surprising that I enjoyed this novel as much as I did. In many ways it reminded me of The Supremes at Earl's All-You-Can-Eat by Edward Kelsey Moore but lacked that novel's fantastical elements. Both novels share a small town setting, some stereotypical characters that would be found in that setting, and the usual plot elements that one might find in a small town where everyone is in everyone else's business.

The unusual plot element in Readers of Broken Wheel is the legality of the main female character's residency status in the United States and how the whole town bands together to fix things so that she can stay. Along the way, several unlikely couples find each other and work their way, by novel's end, to happily ever after.

There is nothing terribly unique to be found here; it is simply a feel-good story. What pulled the novel from three to four stars for me was the narration talents of Fiona Hardingham. The audio absolutely blew me away. From the waitress at the local diner to the immigration officer and his police sidekick, every single character had their own distinctive voice and persona--a feat made all the more admirable when you realize that within a given section Ms. Hardingham would flow seamlessly from a woman with a Swedish accent, to a southern black shopkeeper, to a local do-gooder, to name just a few. Fiona Hardingham's narration was so outstanding that in the future I will listen to her books, not because I have any interest in the books themselves but because I know her interpretation will make the novels well worth my listening time.

If you are looking for a read that isn't at all demanding and could be classified as gentle entertainment, I think you would find this worth your time. Better yet, cue up the audio and check a few things off your chore list while you listen.

Friday, January 13, 2017

BOOKS FOR LIVING by Will Schwalbe ✮ ✮ ✮ ✮

In response to requests for another book similar in vein to his bestselling The End of Your Life Book Club, Will Schwalbe has written another collection of essays, this time about books which, for him, have given guidance along the road of life. Through the lens of a certain book, each essay addresses a certain life skill or emotional challenge.
One very important thing to keep in mind as you read this collection is that these essays are very personal to Will but in all likelihood you as his reader will not relate to many, many things he addresses. While there are some topics that are universal--such as the idea that napping is something from which we can all benefit--many of the issues that he, as a gay man, faces are simply not identifiable for me as a straight woman. He also speaks of personal issues, such as not liking to be hugged, which might or might not touch a nerve with his readers.

The fact that his essays are very deeply personal did not, for me, affect my enjoyment of this collection. I was so thoroughly absorbed in his ability to share so completely of himself that I ceased to see all the things that made us different and began to see only this emotional avenue that he so readily opened up to bring his readers into his perspective. Through his eyes I understood what it felt like to be a gay man in the 1980s, in the early days of AIDS. Suddenly, I didn't need to be a gay man to identify with those things of which he wrote. His wide-open soul, expressed through his beautifully chosen prose, made it all so perfectly clear. 

I think that how a reader feels about this book is going to depend largely upon what you are expecting or looking for as you begin to read. If you seek a collection of essays, every one of which will be universally identifiable to every reader, you will be disappointed. If you are interested in viewing how one man chose the books which meant the most to him and why, perhaps with the intent to use this collection as a model for a similar set of essays that pertain specifically to you, you will likely enjoy the book.

Although I was very drawn in to most of the essays, there were, as is almost always the case with books of this nature, some that didn't seem to fit quite as well. In several cases, I felt that the book the essay was supposed to be centered upon did not really seem to have a strong correlation with the point Will was trying to make. This was a bit disappointing, as it weakened the structure of the collection.

As long as the reader knows what to expect and is looking forward to reading the essays under those terms, I definitely recommend reading this book. I cannot imagine a single reader who wouldn't gain emotionally from the experience.

THE DARKEST SECRET by Alex Marwood ✮ ✮ ✮ ✮

This novel was an unusual one for me in that I pulled it off the new arrivals shelf at the library completely on a whim--something I absolutely never do. There are so many books for which I have read reviews and heard author interviews and whose release I have anticipated for months. Quite simply, I can't finish all those books and so don't even bother pulling random works that might end up being awful. Rather quickly after setting my library haul on my nightstand, I was pulling this one out to put in my library return pile. Then something made me pause. I reread the jacket copy. It just sounded so intriguing with its missing child and litany of family drama; I compromised. I looked to see if it was available on audio--a format in which I read many lighter, less thought-out reads. I'm so happy that it was, because not only was the book great entertainment, the audio was very well done as well.
This type of novel, a tale of subterfuge and slowly unfolding truths, reads particularly well in audio. It took a bit to get into the book, which begins with two young protagonists crashing their father's birthday party--a party which will end in the tragic mystery that sets up the rest of the novel--but once it got going, it held me right up until the very twisted ending. I love it when I am completely blindsided and yet have no trouble believing where the author just led me. This novel definitely will take you there. The plot was just that well-crafted.

While suspense novels usually do plot very well, often I find that characters are a bit stereotypical or one-dimensional. Not so here. This was my first novel by Alex Marwood, but as someone who loves character development, I will definitely be exploring some of her earlier work. Her characters are impacted by the events that happen to them, and she writes into them all such humanity that as they are pulled by the tide of events, you find yourself rooting for the ones you've become emotionally invested in and hoping the ones you love to hate will get their deserved ends.

If you enjoy a story where the layers slowly unfold, progressively easing closer and closer to the heart of the matter, and one where the characters are diverse and realistically sketched, then definitely give this novel a read or a listen. Bear with the slow start; it absolutely picks up steam. It would be perfect for a road trip or to keep you entertained during a lengthy project.

THE GIRLS by Emma Cline ✮✮✮

In general, I was not as big a fan of this debut novel as some. While it still rated a strong three stars from me, there were some issues, most of them common to debut novels, that kept me from rating it higher.
Emma Cline chose a riveting plot line, pulled from actual events, around which to set her fictional characters. She used the basic outline of the story of Charles Manson and how he influenced impressionable young women to commit terrible acts. The novel does not proclaim itself historical fiction in that none of the characters share names with those people whom they are meant to depict, but the genesis of the plot arc is unmistakably the Sharon Tate murder.

The novel's use of a charismatic leader's manipulation of young women's insecurities and reenactment of a tragic murder were elements which I thought were quite well done. Fictional characters were quite skillfully merged into the personae of the actual people, lending the novel the same power as the factual events.

Despite feeling that the characters mimicked actual people quite effectively, I did not feel that characters developed successfully. For example, I never understood what motivated the main female, a completely fictional character, to pursue many of the things she did within the plot. 

Another issue that I had was the feeling that I was hovering somewhere between believable and over-the-top. Yes, I understand that part of what made the Manson cult so horrific was how out there they were. But that didn't come across in the novel. Most of the activities described in the book were no more extreme than what one would have found in many similar communes during the late 1960s. Then, next thing you knew, they were on a murder spree. There just wasn't enough build up, enough watching this group spiral into the depths that the Manson cult reached.

In the end, I felt the novel had two issues, both of which are common in debut works: character development/motivation and plot development. Overall, I did enjoy the novel and watching it unfold from a technical standpoint. I will definitely be keeping an eye on this young author as I feel that the issues I had with the novel are ones that will resolve themselves as Emma Cline progresses through subsequent works.

CONCLAVE by Robert Harris ✮✮✮✮

I wasn't expecting to enjoy this novel as much as I did! It has been a while since a book literally had me staying up half the night to finish it, but this one was worth it.
As the title suggests, the Catholic pope has just passed away, and the cardinals are gathering for Conclave in order to decide who should be their new leader. Although the setting is just about as static as one can possibly be, the plot was anything but. Robert Harris kept me guessing through each consecutive vote and all the behind the scenes machinations. In the end, I was more than satisfied with where he took his plot.

As an added bonus, I learned a great deal about the Catholic church's process and rules for conclave. As a non-catholic, I found all the backstory equally as interesting as I did the plot line itself. Also, frequently with thrillers I find that there is very little character depth and development; that was not the case here. Characters were well defined and grew along with the plot.

If you are looking for a fast-paced read to curl up with on a snowy night, this is a good one to grab off your shelf.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

THE ASSOCIATION OF SMALL BOMBS by Karan Mahajan ✮✮✮

The Association of Small Bombs, a Penguin/Random House 2016 release and finalist for 2016's National Book Award, was a bit of a disappointment for me. It began very strongly, and I settled in to be wowed. I loved the plot arc of the book, which begins with several pre-teen boys who are caught in a marketplace bombing in Delhi, India. The bulk of the book explores the lives of the survivors and their families and how their future is impacted by this bombing.
Where the book began to lose its power for me was in the character development of all the characters. There was so much potential to create deep, rich characters, but it was squandered in characters who were predictable and showed very little in the way of the profound impact that the bombing should have had on their lives.

Three stars is, for me, not a terrible rating. I enjoyed the book for its plot and for embracing the difficult subject of Muslim/Hindi relations in modern day India, showcasing two particular families, one from each side of the divide, as they struggle to maintain a friendship in the midst of all the religious turmoil. Unfortunately, I am very much a person who reads for character development above all other aspects, so this one fell a bit short for me.

I would still recommend the book, especially if this is a subject which fascinates you or one about which you would like to learn a little more. It is a short, fast-paced read and worth the time spent. If you prefer an audio, the narration by Neil Shah was quite good. He gave the predominant characters distinctive voices, had great pacing (I do listen to most of my audios at 1.5), and carried the dramatic moments without going over-the-top.