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Book Review: Little Bee by Chris Cleave

30 Jun

Little BeeMy Rating:  3 out of 5 stars

A quick, semi-cleverly written book that sheds light on the plight of young girls in Africa.

I’m not sure why it’s been so hard for me to quench my literary thirst lately.  As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I wonder if I constantly expect too much from the novels I read, leading me to feel constantly disappointed.   Am I becoming a book snob?  Perhaps. Just wait for my scathing 50 Shades of Gray post.

I was only slightly disappointed in reading Little Bee, and I think that’s mainly because I had heard so many good things about this book over the last several years.  It was a NYT bestseller for a long time and big on the book club circuit.   Additionally, look at the book jacket summary:

WE DON’T WANT TO TELL YOU TOO MUCH ABOUT THIS BOOK.  It is a truly special story and we don’t want to spoil it.  Nevertheless, you need to know something, so we will just say this: It is extremely funny, but the African beach scene is horrific.   The story starts there, but the book doesn’t.  And it’s what happens afterward that is most important.  Once you have read it, you’ll want to tell everyone about it. When you do, please don’t tell them what happens either. The magic is in how it unfolds.

See?  Can you blame me for setting my expectations so high?  That description is making a pretty serious commitment about what I will experience when I read this book.  It sounds life altering, right?

I won’t talk too much about the plot just to be fair to the elusiveness the author and publisher are obviously going for.

While my life wasn’t altered from reading this book, it did teach me about a topic I knew very little about which I thought was the best thing about the book, really.  I had trouble identifying with any of the characters – I found myself constantly asking questions of them “Why do you feel this way?” or “Why are you doing that? That’s so stupid!” or “What do you see in him?”.  Obviously I wasn’t on the same wavelength.
If I don’t identify or believe the characters in the book I’m reading,  I won’t like the book much.  I find myself unable to move past that and enjoy anything else happening.  Maybe everyone’s like that and I’m just the last to make that obvious connection.  I don’t know.  What I do know is that while the plot was original, the writing decent, and the pacing on par, the novel for me was relatively forgettable.  I give it 3 stars because it is sound from a technical perspective, so it wasn’t grueling to read (again, just wait until my 50 Shades of Gray post).

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Book Review: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

30 Jun

Middlesex

My rating:  5 out of 5 stars

My favorite book of all-time. I just finished reading it for the third, but certainly not last, time.   It is a true gem.

This novel won the Pulitzer prize in 2003 and the author, Jeffrey Eugenides also wrote The Virgin Suicides, which I haven’t read and The Marriage Plot, which I have read (but didn’t like).

Here’s why I think this book rocks:

  1.  The story is completely different. It is, at its core, about a girl named Calliope and how she is ‘different’ than other girls.  And by ‘different’ I mean ‘is a hermaphrodite’.  The book is first person and actually covers her birth and young adult life, the lives of  her grandparents and parents AND her own life as an adult.  The way in which these stories are told separately but  are interwoven and made relevant to Calliope’s own story is really brilliant.  There is ‘bouncing’ between time periods, but in a completely clear and non-irksome way.   I have never read or read about a plot quite like this.   To me the originality is a reflection of the author’s genius.
  2. Much of it is set in a location and a time period I identify with – Detroit, Michigan and its suburbs in the 1970s.  Okay, so I don’t live in Detroit or even Michigan, but I have lived just outside a city in the Rust belt all my life and it is almost identical to Detroit.  I also born until the late 1970s, but close enough to Calliope’s 1960 birth to feel of the same generation.  Think Pony t-shirts and Kangaroo shoes (with a quarter in the zippered pocket).
  3. Calliope has immigrant grandparents, with which I also identify.  I have grandparents who emigrated from Italy, hers from Asia Minor.  While the ethnicity differs, the way the ‘old world’ traditions infiltrate into the subsequent generations is exactly the same as my experience. From the foods to the words and phrases and the traditions around births and deaths and the overall ultra-religious insanity, all of which seeming so odd to an outsider rang so true with me.
  4. Calliope’s point of view is witty and sarcastic, which is my favorite form of humor.  My mom might argue that sarcasm is not funny at all (mine isn’t anyways) but that’s another story.  Wit has intelligence at its core making this story is extremely intelligent too.  Every sentence is rich with irony, call backs (referencing something already covered earlier in the book) and satire.  I’ve read this book 3 times and found something new each time!
  5. Calliope’s weird and so am I.  Note:  we are not weird in the SAME way.  Obviously.  I mean that we are both a little quirky in the way we look at the world.  Some combination of self-consciousness,confidence, and over analysis.

The only negative I can say about this book is that the beginning part, the part when Desdemona and her husband come to America, is a teensy, tiny bit slow.  I beg you to push through it. It is totally worth it. The pace picks up after that part.  Don’t give up on Calliope!

Book Review: Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

29 Jun

Rules of CivilityMy rating:  3 out of 5 stars

Gin and jazz – NYC in 1938…a vivid setting with slightly tedious characters and plot. 

This book is about a young, single woman, her best friend living in New York city in 1938 and their adventures after meeting a young, wealthy New York socialite on New Year’s Eve.  The backdrop is rich with all of the goodies you’d expect of Greenwich Village in the 1930’s – jazz clubs and martinis, flapper dresses and spats, and cigarettes and summer homes. 

Anyone who gets into that sort of thing won’t be disappointed.  Towles of makes these scenes come to life in the most compelling way. 

Speaking of characters, the best I can say is that didn’t dislike any of them.  That said,  I didn’t love them either.  Katey seemed realistic, but Tinker and Eve didn’t.  I also didn’t quite understand some aspects of the back-story, like why Eve was so terrible to her parents and why she acted so wacky all of the time.

Quotations from classic novels, especially Agatha Christie, are prevalent throughout, given that Katey (last name: Kontent.  Yes, for real) is a reader and aspires to a career in publishing.

Honestly, I don’t have strong feelings about this book either way, really.  I love the setting and that kept me going, regardless of plot.  My only real gripe is that what starts as quirky advice or words of wisdom from Katey turns into repetitive overly sagacious commentary that really wore on me after a while.

 I read on the author’s Facebook page that he has published a short story that follows Eve to Hollywood. Not winter in Manhattan?  Not interested.  I didn’t even like Eve that much!

 

Book Review: Peony in Love by Lisa See

18 Apr

Peony in LoveMy Rating:  2 out of 5 stars.

This book was wayyyyy too much for me.  Most of it is told from the perspective of a dead girl in 17th Century China.  Very transcendental.  I hope I’m even using that word right.

I have read several Lisa See novels, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and Shanghai Girls, both of which I really enjoyed.  Unfortunately I did not feel the same about this book at all. 

It actually starts out okay.  It’s about a girl named Peony who lives in China in the 17th century, falls in love with a stranger and does not think she can handle having to marry someone else (pre-arranged) and let her one true love slip through her fingers. 

I don’t want to spoil the ending, so I will leave it at that, but I will tell you that it gets OUT of control with the afterlife nonsense. I will tell you that most of the book is told from the perspective of a dead person.  Another thing I found weird was that there is a famous Chinese opera entitled Peony in Love (which really exists) and there are parallels between the character of this opera and Peony in this book.  But it’s not the retelling of the opera.  I hope your head hasn’t exploded yet. 

I still adore Lisa See, especially because I do like Asian historical fiction and she’s great at it.  I would recommend Snow Flower and the Secret Fan any day.  But this one not so much.

Book Review: Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

17 Apr

Bel CantoMy Rating:  4.5 out of 5 stars

While they never say exactly where this story takes place, I read on the author’s website that it is loosely based on the 1996 hostage situation in Lima, Peru where several politicians, entertainers, and diplomats were held hostage by a terrorist group during an event hosted at the Japanese ambassador’s house. 

This novel begins with the hostages coming into the private residence of the Vice-President (of some country in South or Latin America) who is hosting a birthday party for a Japanese businessman.  Hostages come in, chaos ensues.  For a while.  After several weeks, the hostages remain, but the chaos subsides and a tentative relationship begins to form between the guests themselves and with their captors.

This book makes a GREAT book club book.  There’s many facets and characters to discuss.  I found the fixation on Roxane Cross a bit unrealistic, although I liked that angle.  It was just a bit too much.  The situation is unbelievable yet realistic at the same time.  And while the plot lulls in a few spots the ending is worth it. 

The concept of the translator interwoven in this story was also such a wise commentary on globalization.  So many different languages that posed a barrier some of the time yet was irrelevant sometimes. 

It is rare that a novel really digs into human nature in the way this book does.  It’s really a reflection on relationships and human interactions in a way you rarely see in novels.

If we were revising the reading list for high schoolers, I would recommend this one be on it.

 

 

Book Review: A Great Deliverance (Inspector Lynley Mystery #1) by Elizabeth George

24 Mar

A Great Deliverance (Inspector Lynley Series #1)My Rating:  3.5 out of 5 stars

I was looking for another formulaic mystery to read, preferably one of a series that I could return to when my appetite for these types of stories arises in the future.

This story is set in England and the main characters are Scotland Yard detectives.  Inspector Lynley has the appearance of being a ‘playboy’ who is only on the force because of his family name and Inspector Havers is an awkward, somewhat uptight woman who has a serious distaste for Lynley.

They are sent to investigate a man’s murder in a small Yorkshire town.  They meet interesting characters, work their way through unraveling the truth, get it almost right, get it wrong, get it right, yada yada, there’s your mystery.  Nothing really special there, although I thought the mystery part was adequate enough for me. 

What I liked more was the relationship between Lynley and Havers and the fact that the reader heard both of their inner thoughts about each other – is this called “third person omniscient”?  Where is my fairy godmother when I have a grammar question (I really do have a godmother who is an English professor)!  Regardless of its official name, it’s cool when you get the thoughts characters have about other characters and vice-versa.  Especially in this case since they aren’t hitting the mark with their assumptions about the other, which probably happens all the time in real life. 

Inspectory Lynley books were made into a television series for the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) in the 2001 and this book was used for the pilot episode.  Here is the cover:

The Inspector Lynley Mysteries: A Great Deliverance starring Nathaniel Parker: DVD Cover

I find this cover hilarious because while I see a good match with Havers (the bookish woman), the male here does not scream playboy to me.  He looks a little, um, ‘uncomfortable’.  This TV series ran until 2007 but not all of the episodes were based on Elizabeth George’s books.  Another interesting note: While this is everything British, Elizabeth George herself is American. 

On a semi-related note, I used this book for a little experiment.  I looked up the definition of every word I didn’t know as I was reading.  This might sound weird, but after one page alone I found 12 words I didn’t actually know the definition of and I realized I might be over-using the ‘using context to understand a word” concept.  In some cases I was dead wrong about what I thought the word meant and in some cases I was missing a critical description of something because I just took an adjective I didn’t know to basically mean the same thing as an adjective next to it.    Which, obviously makes no sense when you think about it – why would someone write that the sky is blue and blue?   Lesson learned:  I need to slow down my reading to ensure I’m capturing what the author is putting out there.  That’s really the only way to really get the whole story.

But back to the book.  I liked it, will read more in the series, and would recommend it to anyone who likes ‘cozy mysteries’.  What’s a cozy?  Read my post about it!  It does exactly fit the definition, but I think it would be enjoyed by someone who likes cozies too.

Cozy Mysteries

27 Feb

Get Cozy

This came up briefly in my book club a couple of months ago, so I thought I would write a bit about the little known genre called “Cozy Mysteries” or “Cozies”.

Let me say that my education on cozy mysteries came from http://www.cozy-mystery.com.  I found it when I googled ‘cozy books’, a phrase I thought I’d made up myself  to mean good to read hen you want to curl up under a blanket and be cozy.  Get it?  Well someone beat me to it! 

A cozy mystery is:

A “fun” mystery where the crime-solver is an educated, but amateur sleuth.  They take place in a small town where someone important in that town and in working to solve the crime is usually the crime-solver’s friend (medical examiner, sheriff, lead detective).   They are typically not very graphic or stomach-turning and adult situations are handled ‘off stage’.

The mystery has twists and turns keeping the reader guessing until the end but even more so the plot focuses on characters definition and their relationships.  The amateur sleuth is likeable, and usually a recurring character (like in a series). 

Two characters/books that fit this definition jump immediately to mind:  Miss Marple and Jessica Fletcher.  If you were a TV watcher in the 1990s, you’ll know Jessica Fletcher was the main character from Murder, She Wrote.  Both Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple mysteries and Murder, She Wrote (named from an Agatha Christie book) are great definitions of cozies. 

Other good cozy authors and books can be found here:  http://www.cozy-mystery.com

Thanks to Danna, the blogmaster of the Cozy Mystery site.  She has a new devotee!