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Speed Reviews

26 Jan

The Thorn BirdsThe Thornbirds by Colleen McCullough – 3.5/5

Genre:  Historical Fiction

This book is considered a reader’s classic.  It’s a saga-style novel that spans the early 1900s through the late 1960s and follows the Cleary family through their lives and the owners of a sheep farm in the back country of Australia.  I was completely enthralled with the story through the first half but then it lost some luster for me.  .  I knew the basics of this story from the bit of the 1980s miniseries I remember watching, and I was highly anticipating the love story aspect.  In the end, though, I didn’t ‘feel’ as deeply for the main characters and their love for each other as I expected to.  I really did think the author is extremely talented.  The description of the Australian landscape and the characters was superb.

Tell the Wolves I'm Home

Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt – 4/ 5

Genre:  General Fiction

This story is about a high-school girl who loses her favorite uncle, and friend, to AIDS.  She deals with this loss in her own way, and learns a lot about life and loss through her mourning.  I wish I had the talent to write-up a book’s description in a way that actually makes people want to read the book, but alas, I don’t possess that quality.  You’ll just have to trust me that it’s good because my descriptions are atrocious.  Anyway, the main character, June, was so weird in a good way and that made me really love her and reading this book.  The story is sad, but powerful, and ends on the brightest note possible.

The White Queen (Cousins' War Series #1)

The White Queen (Cousins War #1) by Philippa Gregory- 3/ 5

Genre:  Historical Fiction

I love historical fiction, and I love Philippa Gregory (The Other Boleyn Girl, among many others) but I did not love this book.  Coupled with the fact that I had a hard time keeping the characters straight – everyone’s names are Elizabeth, Edward, George, or Henry- it had waaayy to little romance and waaayyy too much war commentary.  It would be 3 or so pages describing the positions of the troops and the details of the battle, which was boring for me.  I also wasn’t as in love with the characters of this ‘War of the Roses’ time period as I was in times past.  Lastly, there was a mystical element to this story –  that Elizabeth Woodville (the White Queen)  was a descendant of a Greek water goddess and there were certain events that she controlled by directing the ‘water’.  It was kind of weird.   That said, England, before 1700, and I’m in anyways, so it was worth it for me to read.

Dark Places

Dark Places by Gillian Flynn – 5/5

Genre:  Mystery/Thriller

Ah, the coveted 5 out of 5 rating.  I. Loved. This. Book.  More so than this author’s more popular novel, “Gone Girl”.  I loved this so much for 3 main reasons:  1) The main character was super weird but likeable.  That’s my favorite kind!  I love multidimensional, flawed yet familiar main characters.  2) The mystery kept me guessing until the end.  I’ll admit I’m a good guesser and I’m always a touch disappointed when one of my guesses is right.  It wasn’t in this case!  3) the writing was excellent!  Told from multiple characters’ perspectives revealing the plot without confusing the reader.  Flynn is a near-genius in my opinion! Loved it, Loved it, Loved it!!

Sharp Objects

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn – 4.5/5

Genre:  Mystery/Thriller

See my opinion on this author above.  This book was similar to Dark Places, in that the character was super off the wall which I loved.  It followed the same format as Dark Places which I loved too.  The only realize I had to rate it a bit lower than Dark Places is because I guessed the mystery early on.

 

The Fault in Our Stars (B&N Exclusive Edition)

The Fault in our Stars by John Green – 4/5

Genre:  General Fiction

This book is about a teenage girl dying from lung cancer.  She meets and falls in love with a boy who’s lost a leg to cancer and while they are in remission, they know their time is limited.  They have this normal yet abnormal relationship.  She’s a great character – snarky and sassy.  Her outlook on ‘the time she has left’ is so realistic yet optimistic – it’s hard to explain. The book is not nearly as sad as I thought it would be.    I liked it!

Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple- 3/5

Genre:  General Fiction

All right, this book is all over the place.  Best seller lists, best 2012 book lists, my book club pick, my other book club’s favorite book of 2012, etc. etc.  This book is about a girl and her family living in Seattle.  They are not normal, all with their own weird off-putting quirks.  The story is told primarily through emails and letters between characters, with some first person accounting by the daughter, Bee.  In my opinion, that style made the story seem more comical than I think was intended.  It just seemed forced.  Like I don’t think people write 10 page long emails complete with re-capped conversations.  Not sure why this was done.  Also, I didn’t get a good sense of any of the characters.  I mean they described them plenty, but since it was all through emails from them or about them from others, it was a bit disjointed and hard for me to get in their heads.  Lastly, it seemed to be all over the place – Microsoft, Galer Street, the house stuff, Antarctica, the cruise, Straight Gate – it was just so much!  On the other hand, the storyline moved very quickly and it wasn’t hard to finish the book.  And it was somewhat entertaining in spite of some of its shortcomings.

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Book Review: Room by Emma Donoghue

4 May

Rating:  4.5 out of 5 stars

About the Book*

Told entirely in the language of the energetic, pragmatic five-year-old Jack, “Room” is a celebration of resilience and the limitless bond between parent and child, a brilliantly executed novel about what it means to journey from one world to another.To five-year-old Jack, Room is the entire world. It is where he was born and grew up; it’s where he lives with his Ma as they learn and read and eat and sleep and play. At night, his Ma shuts him safely in the wardrobe, where he is meant to be asleep when Old Nick visits.

Room is home to Jack, but to Ma, it is the prison where Old Nick has held her captive for seven years. Through determination, ingenuity, and fierce motherly love, Ma has created a life for Jack. But she knows it’s not enough…not for her or for him. She devises a bold escape plan, one that relies on her young son’s bravery and a lot of luck. What she does not realize is just how unprepared she is for the plan to actually work.

Told entirely in the language of the energetic, pragmatic five-year-old Jack, ROOM is a celebration of resilience and the limitless bond between parent and child, a brilliantly executed novel about what it means to journey from one world to another.

* Taken from borders.com

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My Review

This book is another one that’s been on the circuit for a while.  I’ve had it on my TBR list for about 6 months.  It was published in September 2010, and still sits on the New York Times Bestseller list (#30 this week).  It’s also my book club’s selection this month.

I found this book hard to put down, very emotional, well paced and extremely well written.  Yet I didn’t find it particularly fun or entertaining – in fact, I’d put it in the category of downright depressing.  The subject matter is heavy and remains so throughout the whole book.

Here’s what I did like:  the pacing.  It was just right.  When I picked up the book I was thinking to myself, “How could a story about a kid and his mom in a 7×7 room be 336 pages?  Grrr Boring!”  But it wasn’t at all.  I nearly read the whole thing in one sitting! 

The author captured the perspective of a 5-year old boy so completely.  I have an almost 5-year-old boy, and I could see traces of his thought process in Jack’s and vice-versa, which is what I would expect.  I loved Jack so much – perhaps it is because of my son that it made him so loveable to me.  I though Ma was written very well too.

I asked myself several times throughout this book if I would have the strength to be like Ma, or would I just give up instead?  I’d like to believe I’d find the strength from somewhere, but it seems like what she did for Jack in that room almost unbelievable. 

This book doesn’t have a ‘happy’ ending.  I found that extremely refreshing and very realistic.  Most situations we deal with end with something a bit more complex than ‘happy’ or ‘sad’. 

I’m glad I read this book, I admire it and the author, and I would recommend it.  But probably not to every reader  – you have to be prepared to appreciate the story for what it is, and expect the strong emotions that will go along with it.  It will make a great discussion book!

Book Review: Cutting For Stone by Abraham Verghese

17 Jan

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese: Book CoverRating:  4.5 out of 5 stars

About the Book

An epic novel that spans continents and generations, Cutting for Stone is an unforgettable story of love and betrayal, compassion and redemption, exile and home that unfolds across five decades in India, Ethiopia, and America.

Narrated by Marion Stone, the story begins even before Marion and his twin brother, Shiva, are born in Addis Ababa’s Missing Hospital (a mispronunciation of “Mission Hospital”), with the illicit, years-in-the-making romance between their parents, Sister Mary Joseph Praise, a beautiful Indian nun, and Thomas Stone, a brash, brilliant British surgeon. Mary and Thomas meet on a boat out of Madras in 1947; she follows him to Ethiopia and to Missing, where they work side by side for seven years as nurse and doctor. After Mary dies while giving birth to the twins — a harrowing, traumatic scene on the operating table — Thomas vanishes, and Marion and Shiva grow up with only a dim sense of who he was, and with a deep hostility toward him for what they see as an act of betrayal and cowardice.

 The twins are raised by Hema and Ghosh, two Indian doctors who also work at Missing, and who shower Marion and Shiva with love and nurture their interest in medicine — part of the deep, almost preternatural connection the brothers share. They are so close that Marion, as a boy, thinks of them as a single entity: ShivaMarion.

 Marion and Shiva come of age as Ethiopia hovers on the brink of revolution, and their lives become intertwined with the nation’s politics. Addis Ababa is a colorful, cosmopolitan city: the Italians have left behind cappuccino machines, Campari umbrellas, and a vibrant expat community. But they’ve also left a nation crippled by poverty, hunger, and authoritarian rule: Ethiopia in the 1960s and 1970s is both bolstered and trapped by its notorious emperor, Haile Selassie, and rocked by violence and civil war.

 Yet it is not politics but love that tears the brothers apart: Shiva sleeps with Genet — the daughter of their housekeeper and the girl Marion has always loved. This second betrayal, now by the two people this sensitive young man loves most, sends Marion into a deep depression. And when Genet joins a radical political group fighting for the independence of Eritrea, Marion’s connection to her forces him into exile: he sneaks out of Ethiopia and makes his way to America.

 Marion interns at a hospital in the Bronx, an underfunded, chaotic place where the patients are nearly as poor and desperate as those he had seen at Missing. It is here that Marion comes to maturity as a doctor and as a man. It is here, too, that he meets his father and takes his first steps toward reconciling with him. But when the past catches up to Marion — nearly destroying him — he must entrust his life to the two men he thought he trusted least in the world: the father who abandoned him and the brother who betrayed him. The surprising, stunning denouement both arises from and reenacts the major themes of Cutting for Stone: love and betrayal, forgiveness and self-sacrifice, and the inextricable union of life and death.

My Review

This book has been on the New York Times Paperback Fiction Bestseller list for 50 weeks. If you’ve read my take on this list and why I use it for book recommendations, you’ll understand why I was so looking forward to diving into this book.

I really liked the characters of this book – I saw them as flawed and deep and ‘true’ in many ways.  I liked the themes of compassion – for those we know, for those we don’t,  as doctors, parents, children.  I really enjoyed the different place and time – Africa in the 1970s – it is such a departure from what I know and understand.

The first word that comes to mind to describe this novel is ‘meandering’.  At first I was using that term negatively, because I really struggled with how slow it was in the beginning.  It wasn’t getting to anything!  I actually stopped reading it and polled my online reader friends – my exact question was, ” Cutting for Stone – Is this book going somewhere?  I’m on page 179 – should I stick with it?”  The response was “Yes, it’s worth it” and so I kept going.  And the book continued to meander, but what I realized by the end of this novel is that I knew the main character in a way I couldn’t have without truly walking with him through his life’s journey.  And that’s the point of the pacing I think – life is about roaming through the years and circumstances and experiences.  The saying “Life is about the journey, not the destination” completely applies to this novel.  It’s long (594 pages) and truly an epic, covering the main character’s 50 year life to date as well as portions of the lives of his closest friends and relatives.  I fell in love with the characters making the story more and more meaningful as it unfolded.  By the end, I was completely emotionally attached! 

I also got a great geography lesson out of this novel.  If you know me, you will know this is an extremely valuable side-benefit!  I now know most of Africa way better than ever.  Much of the novel takes place in Ethiopia, but there are portions that happen in various other countries in that region:  Eritrea, Sudan, Yemen. There is a portion in the United States as well.  I looked up the cities and countries being referenced and doing so enhanced my overall reading experience.  Also,  this explanation of the policital climate of Ethiopia during the time period of much of this novel helped me understand the tone of the country at the time. 

One word of caution – this book does have detailed descriptions of medical procedures – it’s a bit graphic at times. Medicine is a primary theme of this novel, as is the title itself.   “I will not cut for stone,” says an early version of the Hippocratic oath, “even for patients in whom the disease is manifest; I will leave this operation to be performed by practitioners, specialists in this art.”  At the time this version was used, cutting a patient to get out a gallbladder stone was a very precarious operation and could only be performed by a skilled surgeon. 

Bottom Line:  When you’re ready to transport yourself and have the time and patience to depart, this novel will not disappoint on any front.  Don’t look for the explosions, or dramatic plot twists – make friends with the characters and share their life’s experiences – the setting and time period will seem fascinating and unknown, yet the human reaction will be familiar.

Book Review: The Hunger Games (The Hunger Games #1) by Suzanne Collins

28 Jul

Rating:  4.5 out of 5 Stars

Who will like it best: Women and Men 13+

Words to describe it: Satisfying, Exhilarating, Action

Will I add it to my personal library? Yes

Will I read it again someday? Yes!

The Hunger Games has been on my ‘To Be Read’ list for a very long time.  This science-fiction book came out in September 2008 and has been a NY Times bestseller since, for the past 97 weeks.  It is the first book in a three-part trilogy, the second book of which is called Catching Fire and has also been on the best seller list for a whopping 46 weeks.  The third book, Mockingjay, will be released on August 24.  Never heard of these books?  It might be because they are on the Children’s Chapter Book best seller list which is for readers 12 years and up.   I’ll admit that was one reason I was hesitant to read this book – I was afraid it would be totally dumb and boring. I learned my lesson about tween books the hard way with Twilight (grrr…believe me, I wanted to like them!).  That combined with the fact that it’s science fiction made reading this novel pretty unappealing to me all the way around.  But because of the hype, I felt I had to at least try and see what it was all about.  And guess what…it was a really good book!

I’ve read that Lionsgate has purchased the rights to make this trilogy into a movie and the author, Suzanne Collins, will write the screenplay.  The most I can find on that now is at IMDB (www.imdb.com) has this movie listed as ‘in development’.  If it does make it to the big screen I’m anxious to see how this is done – I think this book would make a great movie.  What I hope doesn’t happen is that it comes out looking like a made-for-tv-movie on the SciFi network, which will completely undermine the work of art the book is.

Synopsis

This story takes place in a post-war North America called Panem.  The land has been reorganized into 12 districts and a Capitol.  The members of the Capitol rule over the districts and to remind them of this, every year they force each district to send 1 girl and 1 boy to compete to the death against each other in what is called the ‘Hunger Games.’  These games are televised and are required to be watched by everyone across Panem.  Katness Everdeen is the girl sent to represent District 12.  She is 16, but is tough and self-sufficient and has been taking care of her mother and little sister since her father died. The book follows her through her experience competing in the Games.  I won’t tell you how it ends explicitly, but you can probably guess since it is the first of three books.  Don’t worry – knowing that doesn’t ruin the reading experience at all.

Here’s an excerpt – I like how much this short paragraph tells you about the world of Panem.

The train finally begins to slow and suddenly bright light floods the compartment. We can’t help it.  Both Peeta and I run to the window to see what we’ve only see on television, the Capitol, the ruling city of Panem.   The cameras haven’t lied about its grandeur.  If anything, they have not quite captured the magnificence of the glistening buildings in a rainbow of hues that tower into the air, the shiny cars that roll down the wide paved streets, the oddly dressed people with bizarre hair and painted faces who have never missed a meal.  All the colors seem artificial, the pinks too deep, the greens too bright, the yellows painful to the eyes, like the flat round disks of hard candy we can never afford to by at the tiny sweet shop in District 12.

My Review

As I mentioned, I was concerned with the teen-ness of this novel but in the end I actually liked that it was more ‘PG’ than not.  The relationships lacked any adult point of view as I expected, but that was okay because the relationships weren’t the only focus.  And it was definitely a less complex overall but I was fine with that too because it made it easy for me to adjust to the science-fiction aspect.  And honestly, the sci-fi wasn’t overwhelming at all.  You do have to adjust to a society beyond what we know, but it’s pretty simplistic actually and not distracting when following the story. This book has a (much less detailed and headache-causing) George Orwell1984-vibe with the big brother and government control themes.  I also really liked Katness.  I believed in her and her abilities.  This made me excited to watch her compete and see what ultimately happened to her.  Lastly, this book is extremely well paced.  It moves quickly which enables the reader to easily keep up interest through to the end.

The one question that kept coming back to me as I was reading this book was, “How did North America get like this?”  There is no year given, but it says that Panem “rose out of the ashes” and this is the 74th year of the Hunger Games, so I can only imagine how far into the future this book is set.  What was at work and for how long to leave the entire continent reconfigured?  Perhaps some of that will be revealed in the next 2 books.

I had a couple of minor issues with the way this novel ended.  First, I cannot believe this situation is coming up for the first time in seventy-four years of the Hunger Games.  It seems like 2 other contestants could have worked out what Katness did at some point before.  Secondly, I don’t understand why the Capitol is so angry about it.

I would recommend this book for sure and for many categories of readers:  Male and female readers both young and old.  I don’t recommend it to those who are heavily into adult science-fiction – I suspect that they would find it a little too ‘light’ compared to what they are used to.  The story is unique, the characters distinctive and likeable.  It’s well paced, not too heavy on the science-fiction but enough so to transport you to a somewhat unfathomable but believable society.

The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (Millennium Trilogy #3) by Steig Larsson

20 Jul

Rating:  4.5 out of 5 stars

I thought this entire trilogy was well worth reading.  It was a very unique plot that unfolded nicely across the 3 books – I loved that our view of the characters, particularly Lisbeth, changed so much from the first book to the last.  The middle book was just okay in my opinion, serving it’s purpose by providing a bridge between the first and last but not being as strong as either plot-wise.   I find this is really common with ‘middles’ of a series.  I liked the setting (Sweden) and the raw translation from Swedish to English.   The writing style was also unique, focusing on details that subtly framed the characters but seemed to have no place in the description (lots of making sandwiches, making coffee, taking showers, etc.).  Actually, The New Yorker wrote an article commenting on this exact thing earlier this month!  It was sort of annoying but those mundane details somehow worked for me in these books.

I had a lot of trouble with the names they are all very similar and difficult to keep track of.  Fortunately, the characters are so dissimilar that the context usually allowed you to keep up.  I also have to say that I completely forgot about Neidermann at the end and didn’t see that coming a mile away!

Lastly, the author died before any of these books were published.  What a shame – I’d like to think he would be so proud to have his work become so popular and respected.