Sunday, February 27, 2011

ROOM by Emma Donoghue (✰✰✰✰✰)

Of all the books that I have ever reviewed, I think that this one is the toughest to do without any spoilers. I was very tempted to plaster a warning on my write-up and go for it, quotes and all, but have decided in the end for a quick, unrevealing version. 

Due to its celebrity, this was a novel which I approached with some caution. When a book is over-hyped, I tend to walk away disappointed because it didn't live up to my expectations. This was certainly not the best novel I ever read, but it stands out in several respects by virtue of sheer originality. 

Room is, in brief, the story of a nineteen year old woman who is abducted and held captive in an eleven by eleven foot square modified shed, where she spends seven years in captivity and bears a son, Jack. 

We see their minuscule world through the eyes of Jack, at the age of five. Jack as narrator was an amazing device for author Emma Donoghue to use and one she pulls off with astonishing aplomb. As I read her stream of conscience type prose, I could hear the voice of a young child in my head. Some reviewers have had difficulty adjusting to the style, but to me it was flawless and perfect for setting the tone of the book, especially in the second half. 

The second thing that really stood out for me was Ms. Donoghue's amazing attention to the smallest details. She thought of things that never would have even occurred to me, and as a result, the narrative was completely believable throughout.

These two factors, the choice and deft handling of the narrator, and her incredible consideration of every possible element of setting and characterization, earn this novel five stars from me.

Monday, February 21, 2011

FREEDOM by Jonathan Franzen

I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of books which I have put down unfinished.  Really, I have only myself to blame for this one.  Since contemporary fiction dealing with modern angst and dysfunctional families never seems to appeal to me, I knew that this book was not for me.  However, a couple of fellow Shelfarians had a discussion about this book-how they loved it and felt that it was getting some unfairly low ratings.  So, wanting to see what all the fuss was about, I got the highly recommended audio from the library.  

One thing that I must admit-the book is well written.  My dislike of the novel stems purely my personal inability to identify with any of the characters or situations in the book.  Not only could I not identify with them, I did not like a single one of the characters.  I also had issues with the, to me, offensive language, and the fact that every female in the book is rendered as weak, indecisive, and willing to be led by the man in her life.  Admittedly, I did not finish the book (I made it almost half way), and perhaps these insipid women  rally in the second half.  Personally, I had had enough and didn't care to stick around to find out.  

Sunday, February 20, 2011

THE HERETIC'S DAUGHTER by Kathleen Kent (✰✰✰✰)

Although written first, this is actually the sequel to Kathleen Kent's The Wolves of Andover.  Overall, I felt the plot and research were better for this one than for Wolves, and the author managed a smoother narration in this book.  The plot still seemed, in a couple of places, as if something had been edited out; I had the feeling that there was a bit of a hiccup in the narrative.  My biggest complaint was with the characterization, especially with the Toothaker family, who seem to do an about face from perfect family to highly dysfunctional.  If you are interested in the Salem Witch Hunt or Puritan America, you would probably enjoy this novel, as the descriptions, especially of the Salem jail, are wonderful.  As historical fiction, there is little to fault here, but if you weigh mechanics in too heavily, you might decide this is a three star book instead of the four I awarded it.

Friday, February 18, 2011

JULIET by Anne Fortier (✰✰✰✰✰)

This book had it all for me: romance, humor, history, and adventure-all packaged within a fast-paced, tight plot driven by well developed, intriguing characters. Initially, I didn't plan to read this one. The plot, which skips back and forth between Siena, Italy in the 1340s and current time, follows the main character as she researches her ancestral link to the woman believed to have been the central figure in the earliest known, and biographical, story of Romeo and Juliet. Oh, yeah, and did I mention there is a treasure involved? My first thought was, "This will either be very sappy, make a travesty of the Bard, or in the worst case, both". I decided to pass. Then I heard that, once again, the author was going to be joining our book group for our discussion. The library did not have the book, but the audio was available; I was thrilled to see that Giulietta's part was read by Cassandra Campbell, the same excellent narrator who read Skeeter in Kathryn Stockett's The Help. Admittedly, I am not a great fan of romance novels, but there was a great deal more to this one. I also appreciated the fact that there were no trashy scenes in this book; you could let your twelve year old read it with an easy conscience. Both of the parallel stories kept me engaged, and author Anne Fortier deftly pulls off the difficult task of keeping her characters not only in character within themselves, but also appropriate for their given time frame. Giulietta in 1340 is believable as a women for her times, and Giulietta in the present day is a definite modern girl. I was so swept away by the tale itself and thoroughly impressed by the mechanics of this debut novel. It would also make an excellent film, and as Anne Fortier works in the business, I can't help but wonder...

Monday, February 14, 2011

THE FOREVER QUEEN by Helen Hollick (✰✰✰✰✰ ♥)

Right. I have a huge stack of library books, due back soon. The Forever Queen, as my Nookbook, is supposed to be my after lights out reading. There was absolutely no way that I was going to read this fantastic novel in short spurts before sleep! In telling the tale of the Anglo Saxon Queen Emma of Normandy with stunning vividity, emotion, and tempo, Helen Hollick has left me wondering one thing: How is it that this woman is buried in the sands of history? Emma was wife of two kings and mother of two more. She was not content to be window dressing or a political pawn, but took an active role as Queen of England, embraced the people as her own, and put their interests before hers. Author Hollick feels that the only reason that we know so little about her, as opposed to say, Eleanor of Aquitaine, is because she lived in an age for which there is not a lot of written history, and what there is didn't feel it important to mention women. Queen Eleanor, on the other hand, came much later and during a time of better record keeping. Now my question is: How long will Helen Hollick take before she publishes the next volume in this epic? In the interim, I will certainly be reading other works from this prodigious talent!

Saturday, February 12, 2011

THE WOLVES OF ANDOVER by Kathleen Kent (✰✰✰)

This was a bit of a weird book for me. I liked the general story line and enjoyed the fact that the female protagonist was a wee bit unlikeable, but I had some major complaints with the author's style of delivery. Kathleen Kent's prose did not strike a dissonant chord with me; but, unfortunately, she failed to employ that narrative gift in a way which led the reader along through the story. Instead, through the device of letters and journal entries, she did far too much outright telling. It is apparent that Kent knows a great deal about the history of her characters, time frame, and Puritan America setting. Sadly, rather than that information melding with and shaping the tale, it is tossed at the reader like Wikipedia entries. This book, though written after the bestselling The Heretic's Daughter, is a prequel to that book. I have Heretic's Daughter on my MP3 player, and do intend to listen to it, because the author took part in the online discussion of one of my book groups, and it will be a rare opportunity for insight into her writing process.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

THE MAN WHO LOVED BOOKS TOO MUCH by Allison Hoover Bartlett (✰✰✰✰)

I am a bibliophile, pure and simple. Books are a huge part of my life; through the knowledge they impart and the fact that they are my main form of entertainment they enrich my life in countless ways. This book provided a fascinating glimpse into the world, both past and present, of rare book collecting-beyond simple bibliophilia into the realm of bibliomania, an obsessive state of being where the afflicted will do anything, legal or not, to possess the books they desire. An eclectic mix of collector's and dealer's stories, rare book lore, valuations of various books, and some auto-biographical information, author Allison Bartlett does an excellent job of merging her various elements into a riveting narrative that smoothly carries the reader from tidbit to tidbit. The glue that ties the book together is made up of two main characters: rare book dealer Ken Sanders and thief John Gilkey. Sanders became involved in tracking down book thieves while holding a volunteer security chairmanship in a professional organization. John Gilkey was his biggest nemesis. Bartlett spent over ten years interviewing Gilkey, Sanders, and many others involved in the rare book trade. One added sideline grows out of her narrative-that of journalistic involvement and legality/ethics. In several instances the author was placed in situations with John Gilkey that made her uneasy and left her wondering if she had a legal, and if not legal, then ethical, responsibility to report him to the authorities. Towards the end of her interviews, she fervently hoped that Gilkey would reveal, due to the rapport they had built, where he had stashed his stolen books. She became increasingly conflicted as to which would be of greater value: reporting things he told her or holding out in hopes of his entrusting her with this greater secret, knowing that reporting him to the authorities would destroy any chance of recovering the fruits of his pilfering and returning them to their rightful owners. Definitely a book which has left me wanting to learn more about rare books and the lore that has built up around them!

Thursday, February 3, 2011

PERSUASION by Jane Austen (✰✰✰✰)

I did not enjoy this Austen as much, but it could simply be that I read it on the heals of Sense and Sensibility, and the plot contains many similar elements: dashing con man, financial woes, dissimilar sisters. This one did have an interesting twist in that the main couple had been involved many years before, and one is left wondering if their love can be revived. Austen also explores the theme of persuasion from outside influences having detrimental influence upon the hearts and lives of young people in love. As this is an element in many of her novels, given that it was common for the youth to bow to the wishes of their elders, it was very interesting that she explores the topic through the characters in this tale, thus giving insight into her personal view.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

I IS FOR INFIDEL by Kathy Gannon (✰✰✰)

One of the books on my list for this year is Steven Coll's Ghost Wars, about the history of the CIA in Afghanistan from the 1979 invasion by the Soviets through September 11th. I read this book by Kathy Gannon a number of years ago and remembered it as a history of Afghanistan, covering roughly the same time frame, and so decided to give it a reread before picking up Coll's book. Gannon is an American, married to a Pakistani, who lived in, and reported on, Afghanistan during those turbulent years. Culled from interviews with numerous of people-Taliban, warlords, taxi drivers, government officials of several countries, etc., in addition to her own experiences, this book is a feat of reportage. Her view is definitely biased by her love and sympathy for the Afghan people, but Infidel is nonetheless an interesting portrait. She is highly critical of the U.S. allied Northern Alliance and of the U.S. treatment of everyday Afghanis in the wake of the 2001 invasion. In her opinion, the western allies would have been complied with and welcomed as liberators from the hated Taliban had they not employed such a heavy hand. While her point was well presented, using terms such as "heavy-handed brutality" when referring to things such as leaving naked prisoners in rooms with the lights on, tends to lessen the impact of her arguments. Really, does this woman understand what they do to their prisoners? Her own countrymen? I think viewing a couple of video clips on Al Jazeera might cause her to reevaluate her definition of heavy-handed brutality. As my husband had just returned from Afghanistan, I ran her arguments, which were still valid, by him. His feeling was that the Afghans, sadly, are a people of such a harsh culture, that the only thing they respect, and would respond to, is a heavy hand. From the Afghan history I have studied, I can see his point, yet there is still a part of me which, like Kathy Gannon, believes there is an element of humanity within them that longs to break free of their subjugated, bloody past. Not the best book I have ever read on Afghanistan, but worth reading for the interesting "outsider on the inside" viewpoint.