Chatterbox tries again in '12!
Bara medlemmar i LibraryThing kan skriva.
Denna diskussion är för närvarande "vilande"—det sista inlägget är mer än 90 dagar gammalt. Du kan återstarta det genom att svara på inlägget.
In my "real life", I've been a financial journalist, although the book I hope to spend part of 2012 writing will, for the first time, have nothing to do with that world. So in tribute to this portion of my past life (all quarter century I have spent on it...) I'm picking books that fall into categories headed by financial terminology!!
As in prior years, I'll be shooting for 12 books plus a bonus book in each category -- if one of the books is utterly unreadable, the bonus book kicks in!
I. Initial Public Offerings (aka, "I Saw it First!"): Books that I'm reading in e-galley format, or as ARCs, received pre-publication.
II. Bluechips: Old favorites, re-read for the fun of it.
III. Insider Trading: It's a crime! And so the theme of this category is mysteries...
IV. Our Analysts Say it's a "Buy": Books that friends urge me to read.
V. A Random Walk (in a Bookstore): Spontaneous purchases or library snaffles -- nothing that I had planned or expected to read, just books that grab my fancy.
VI. From the Medici to the Rothschilds: the evolution of the financial markets occurred between 1400 and 1815, so these are books about or set in that time period; fiction or non-fiction.
VII. BRICs and Frontier Markets: All the buzz in global investing these days; a book set in or about a country that falls into these categories (Brazil, India, China, Russia; other, smaller emerging markets.)
VIII. Asset Allocation: An evenly-balanced mix of newly-published fiction and non-fiction
IX: Junk Bonds & Sin Stocks: Guilty pleasure reading... Of no nutritional value whatsoever.
X: Shelf Offering: Books that have been hanging around since before Jan 1, 2011
XI: Mega-Cap, Dividend-Paying Stocks: Chunksters, of 500 pages or more.
XII: Glass Ceiling: Books by women featuring professional women as characters, or a woman behaving in a non-traditional or unexpected way.
My total books read in 2012, for this challenge and elsewhere (my threads over on the 75-challenge are a one-stop shopping commentary on all my reading):
My ticker for this challenge:
1. The Expats by Chris Pavone -- direct from publisher -- ***1/2, STARTED 1/28/12, FINISHED 1/29/12
2. Shatter by Michael Robotham - LT ER - ****, STARTED 4/10/12, FINISHED 4/11/12
3. The House I Loved by Tatiana de Rosnay -- Amazon Vine -- *** STARTED 2/14/12, FINISHED 2/16/12
4. In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner -- Amazon Vine -- ****1/2, STARTED 6/28/12, FINISHED 6/29/12
5. The Shadow Patrol by Alex Berenson -- LT ER -- ***1/2 - STARTED 1/4/12, FINISHED 1/6/12
6. Semper Fidelis by Ruth Downie -- NetGalley - ***1/2, STARTED 10/13/12, FINISHED 10/16/12
7. Waiting for Sunrise by William Boyd -- Amazon Vine -- ****1/2, STARTED 3/15/12, FINISHED 4/15/12
8. The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian *** 1/2 STARTED 6/23/12, FINISHED 6/27/12
9. Gold by Chris Cleave -- Amazon Vine -- ***1/2 STARTED 4/26/12, FINISHED 4/28/12
10. Mr. Churchill's Secretary by Susan Elia MacNeal - LT ER - 1/2 star -- STARTED 2/5/12, FINISHED 2/12/12
11. The Headmaster's Wager by Vincent Lam - Publisher giveaway BEA -- STARTED 8/11/12, FINISHED 8/18/12
12. The Uninvited Guests by Sadie Jones - Amazon Vine **** STARTED 3/9/12, FINISHED 3/10/12
Bonus book: The Twelve by Justin Cronin -- Publisher giveaway BEA ****-- STARTED 10/6/12, FINISHED 10/10/12
1. A Bloody Field by Shrewsbury by Edith Pargeter, **** STARTED 2/8/12, FINISHED 2/11/12
2. Fall From Grace by Larry Collins, ***1/2, STARTED 10/1/12, FINISHED 10/4/12
3. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest by Stieg Larsson, ****, STARTED 1/13/12, FINISHED 1/23/12
4. Hand in Glove by Robert Goddard **** 1/2, STARTED 11/1/12, FINISHED 11/4/12
5. Landscape of Lies by Peter Watson ****, STARTED 6/18/12, FINISHED 6/23/12
6. The Winds of Heaven by Monica Dickens ****1/2 READ 3/1/12
7. Fly Away Home (J) by Marge Piercy **** STARTED 3/28/12, FINISHED 3/31/12
8. Coromandel Sea Change by Rumer Godden ***1/2, STARTED 3/5/12, FINISHED 3/6/12
9. The Gabriel Hounds by Mary Stewart *** 1/2 STARTED 6/10/12, FINISHED 6/12/12
10. Just for the Summer by Laura van Wormer, **, STARTED 10/15/12, FINISHED 10/23/12
11. Silesian Station by David Downing, ****1/2, STARTED 10/12/12, FINISHED 10/30/12
12. Devil Water by Anya Seton ****1/2, STARTED 4/20/12, FINISHED 4/22/12
Bonus book: The Etruscan Net by Michael Gilbert, **** STARTED 10/11/12, FINISHED 10/12/12
1. Believing the Lie by Elizabeth George **** STARTED 2/20/12, FINISHED 3/7/12
2. The Jackal Man by Kate Ellis STARTED **** STARTED 3/3/12, FINISHED 3/5/12
3. A Room Full of Bones by Elly Griffiths ***1/2, STARTED 1/19/12, FINISHED 1/20/12
4. The Hidden Child by Camilla Lackberg, ***1/2, STARTED 3/6/12, FINISHED 3/15/12
5. The Darkening Field by William Ryan **** STARTED 5/12/12, FINISHED 5/14/12
6. The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny, ****, STARTED 7/24/12, FINISHED 7/31/12
7. Lehrter Station by David Downing, ****, STARTED 5/8/12, FINISHED 5/10/12
8. Gallows View by Peter Robinson, *** 1/2, STARTED 1/15/12, FINISHED 1/17/12
9. 1222 by Anne Holt **** STARTED 3/30/12, FINISHED 3/31/12
10. Murder on Fifth Avenue by Victoria Thompson, ***1/2, STARTED 6/20/12, FINISHED 6/21/12
11. Slash and Burn by Colin Cotterill, ****1/2, STARTED 2/12/12, FINISHED 2/13/12
12. The Ionia Sanction by Gary Corby, ****, STARTED 2/27/12, FINISHED 2/29/12
Bonus book: Kingdom of Strangers by Zoe Ferraris *** 1/2 STARTED 7/6/12, FINISHED 7/8/12
1. Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh **** 1/2 STARTED 1/25/12, FINISHED 1/31/12
2. The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa, STARTED 12/9/12, FINISHED 12/24/12
3. The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers STARTED **** 12/18/12, FINISHED 12/22/12
4. The Camomile Lawn by Mary Wesley **** STARTED 10/18/12, FINISHED 10/20/12
5. The Colors of Infamy by Albert Cossery **** 1/2 STARTED 2/24/12, FINISHED 2/25/12
6. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy (J) by John le Carre ***1/2, STARTED 11/10/12, FINISHED 11/15/12
7. The House of the Mosque (J) by Kader Abdolah
8. The Secret River by Kate Grenville, ****1/2 STARTED 2/13/12, FINISHED 2/15/12
9. The Corner that Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner **** STARTED 3/8/12, FINISHED 3/19/12
10. A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam, ****, READ 10/24/12
11. Pure by Andrew Miller **** 1/2 STARTED 6/20/12, FINISHED 6/23/12
12. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, ****1/2 STARTED 7/6/12, FINISHED 7/7/12
Bonus book: The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey **** STARTED 11/20/12, FINISHED 11/22/12
1. Above All Things by Tanis Rideout STARTED ***** 10/26/12, FINISHED 10/31/12
2. Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead **** STARTED 7/2/12, FINISHED 7/4/12
3. Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan ****, STARTED 10/15/12, FINISHED 10/17/12
4. The Broken Lands by Robert Edric, **** STARTED 1/25/12, FINISHED 1/28/12
5. A Walk Across the Sun by Corbin Addison, *** READ 2/9/12
6. Jana Bibi's Excellent Fortunes by Betsy Woodman, ***, STARTED 10/5/12, FINISHED 10/7/12
7. Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter , ***, STARTED 11/23/12, FINISHED 11/25/12
8. The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller - **** 1/2 STARTED 4/1/12, FINISHED 4/2/12
9. The Boy Who by Simon Lelic, *** STARTED 4/6/12, FINISHED 4/7/12
10. The Innocents by Francesca Segal **** STARTED 7/12/12, FINISHED 7/16/12
11. Trapeze by Simon Mawer **** 1/2 STARTED 4/27/12 FINISHED 4/29/12
12. The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright, ****1/2, STARTED 5/5/12, FINISHED 5/10/12
Bonus Book: The Watch by Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya ****1/2, STARTED 7/16/12, FINISHED 7/18/12
1. The Noble Assassin by Christie Dickason (mid 17th century) ****, STARTED 5/1/12, FINISHED 5/3/12
2. The Shadow Prince by Terence Morgan (late 15th century) ****, STARTED 1/13/12, FINISHED 1/15/12
3. The Queen's Vow by C. W. Gortner (late 15th century) ****, STARTED 5/14/12, FINISHED 5/16/12
4. Mozart's Last Aria by Matt Rees (late 18th century) **** READ 4/14/12
5. Taj by Timeri Murari (mid 17th century)
6. A Dangerous Inheritance by Alison Weir (mid 16th century) **** 1/2, STARTED 7/11/12, COMPLETED 7/14/12
7. Traitor by Rory Clements, **** STARTED 12/27/12, FINISHED 12/29/12
8. The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak (mid 18th century) **** 1/2, STARTED 1/17/12, FINISHED 1/18/12
9. The Mirrored World by Debra Dean (mid 18th century) *** STARTED 7/9/12, FINISHED 7/11/12
10. Accidents of Providence by Stacia Brown (mid 17th century), ***1/2, STARTED 9/12/12, FINISHED 10/1/12
11. The Stockholm Octavo by Jean-Vincent Blanchard (late 17th century) STARTED 12/28/12
12. The Second Empress by Michelle Moran (late 18th/early 19th century) *** 1/2 STARTED 6/26/12, FINISHED 6/29/12
Bonus Book: The Queen's Lover by Francine du Plessix Gray, **, STARTED 5/2/12, FINISHED 5/7/12
1. Dream of Ding Village by Yan Lianke (China) STARTED **** 11/22/12, FINISHED 11/23/12
2. Narcopolis by Jeet Thayli (India) **** STARTED 9/14/12, FINISHED 9/26/12
3. Oil on Water by Helon Habila (Nigeria) **** STARTED 12/9/12, FINISHED 12/10/12
4. The Line by Olga Grushin (Russia), *****, STARTED 12/11/12, FINISHED 12/12/12
5. Sightseeing by Rattawut Lapcharoensap (Thailand) ****1/2 STARTED JULY 2012, COMPLETED 11/29/12
6. The Neruda Case by Roberto Ampuero (Chile) STARTED 11/25/12
7. Death in the Andes by Mario Vargas Llosa (Peru) STARTED 12/29/12
8. Midaq Alley by Naguib Mahfouz (Egypt) **** STARTED 12/27/12, FINISHED 12/29/12
9. S: A Novel about the Balkans by Slavenka Drakulic (Croatia) ****1/2, STARTED 12/29/12, FINISHED 12/30/12
10. A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammed Hanif (Pakistan) **** STARTED 6/25/12, FINISHED 6/30/12
11. Leaving Tangier by Tahar Ben Jalloun (Morocco)
12. Honour by Elif Safak (Turkey)
Bonus Book: The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar (India) ****, STARTED 2/22/12, FINISHED 2/23/12
1. The Green Shore by Natalie Bakopoulos **** 1/2 STARTED 8/15/12, FINISHED 8/27/12
2. The Heat of the Sun by David Rain, **** STARTED 12/13/12, FINISHED 12/14/12
3. How it All Began by Penelope Lively **** STARTED 2/1/12, FINISHED 2/2/12
4. The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng ***** STARTED 8/18/12, FINISHED 8/26/12
5. Da Vinci's Ghost by Toby Lester **** STARTED 9/15/12, FINISHED 9/16/12
6. River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh STARTED 12/9/12
7. Losing Nelson by Barry Unsworth **** STARTED 3/16/12, FINISHED 4/6/12
8. Perla by Carolina de Robertis, STARTED 3/11/12, FINISHED 3/12/12
9. People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks **** 1/2 STARTED 12/16/12, FINISHED 12/23/12
10. The Dinner by Herman Koch ****, STARTED 12/4/12, FINISHED 12/5/12
11. Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel *****, STARTED 4/23/12, FINISHED 4/26/12
12. Poor Things by Alasdair Gray STARTED 11/24/12, FINISHED 11/26/12
Bonus Book: The Opium War by Julia Lovell
1. I've Got Your Number by Sophie Kinsella, **** STARTED 4/14/12, FINISHED 4/15/12
2. Rumours by Freya North, ***1/2, STARTED 10/2/12, FINISHED 10/3/12
3. Spookygirl by Jill Baguchinsky ***1/2, STARTED 11/19/12, FINISHED 11/21/12
4. Recipe for Love by Katie Fforde ***1/2, READ 10/30/12
5. The Decision by Penny Vincenzi ****, STARTED 8/22/12, FINISHED 8/25/12
6. Under a Sapphire Sky by Susannah Bates, STARTED 11/27/12, FINISHED 11/30/12
7. Private Lives by Tasmina Perry ***1/2, STARTED 10/13/12, FINISHED 10/15/12
8. Men at Arms by Terry Pratchett ****, STARTED 2/6/12, FINISHED 2/8/12
9. A Rural Affair by Catherine Alliott, ***1/2, STARTED 2/5/12, FINISHED 2/6/12
10. School of Fortune by Amanda Brown, **, STARTED 9/14/12, FINISHED 9/15/12
11. The Garden Intrigue by Lauren Willig, **** STARTED 3/1/12, FINISHED 3/3/12
12. A Little Folly by Jude Morgan *** STARTED 3/10/12, FINISHED 3/13/12
Bonus Book: The Soldier's Wife by Joanna Trollope, ****, STARTED 3/15/12, FINISHED 3/17/12
1. The Napoleon of Crime by Ben Macintyre ***1/2, STARTED 12/29/11, FINISHED 1/30/12
2. Troubles (J) by J.G. Farrell
3. A Question of Loyalties by Allan Massie, ****, STARTED 9/19/12, FINISHED 9/24/12
4. The Needle in the Blood by Sarah Bower ****1/2 STARTED 11/26/12, FINISHED 12/2/12
5. A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka **** STARTED 1/28/12, FINISHED 1/30/12
6. The Winter Queen by Boris Akunin *** STARTED 9/15/12, FINISHED 9/25/12
7. Crowded with Genius by James Buchan ***1/2, STARTED 12/30/11, FINISHED 1/25/12
8. Shadow and Light by Jonathan Rabb STARTED 10/9/12, ***1/2, STARTED 10/9/12, FINISHED 10/14/12
9. The Broken Teaglass by Emily Arsenault **, STARTED 9/15/12, FINISHED 9/17/12
10. The Spies of Warsaw by Alan Furst **** STARTED 2/8/12, FINISHED 2/12/12
11. Restless by William Boyd STARTED ****1/2 10/20/12, FINISHED 10/29/12
12. The Scarlet Contessa by Jeanne Kalogridis ***1/2, STARTED 12/7/12, FINISHED 12/9/12
Bonus Book: The Redbreast by Jo Nesbo, **** STARTED MONTHS AGO, FINISHED 10/19/12
1. The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann STARTED 11/14/12
2. Bleak House by Charles Dickens - **** STARTED 10/18/12, FINISHED 11/7/12
3. Half of a Yellow Sun Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie STARTED JULY
4. Two Brothers by Ben Elton, **** STARTED 12/21/12, FINISHED 12/31/12
5. The Potter's Hand by A.N. Wilson
6. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel *****, STARTED 4/20/12, FINISHED 6/9/12
7. 11/22/63 by Stephen King **** 1/2 STARTED 11/28/12, FINISHED 12/31/12
8. An Instance at the Fingerpost by Iain Pears ****1/2, STARTED 12/7/12, FINISHED 12/11/12
9. The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling ***, STARTED 9/27/12, FINISHED 10/24/12
10. Dominion by C.J. Sansom **** STARTED 12/20/12, FINISHED 12/26/12
11. Vanished Kingdoms by Norman Davies
12. Catherine the Great by Robert Massie **** 1/2 STARTED 2/1/12, FINISHED 2/5/12
Bonus book: Inkheart by Cornelia Funke **** STARTED 12/14/12, FINISHED 12/18/12
1. Bond Girl by Erin Duffy (a woman on Wall Street) ***1/2 STARTED 1/30/12, FINISHED 1/31/12
2. Granddad, There's a Body on the Beach by Colin Cotterill (Thai woman as crime reporter) ***1/2, STARTED 6/24/12, FINISHED 6/27/12
3. Equal of the Sun by Anita Amirrezvani (16th century Iranian/Safavid princess is a powerful political player in her own right) **** STARTED 8/18/12, FINISHED 8/21/12
4. Lady of the English by Elizabeth Chadwick (woman who insists on becoming a queen regnant) ***1/2 STARTED 2/24/12, FINISHED 2/25/12
5. The Time in Between by Maria Duenas (1930s/40s -- woman couturier becomes a secret agent) ****, STARTED 2/21/12, FINISHED 2/22/12
6. Sand Queen by Helen Benedict (woman in the army)
7. The Purple Shroud by Stella Duffy (bio novel of Theodora, powerful Byzantine Empress, ****, STARTED 11/5/12, FINISHED 11/30/12
8. Tolstoy Lied by Rachel Kadish, (woman in academia) *** 1/2, STARTED 2/8/12, FINISHED 2/12/12
9. Wanted Women by Deborah Scroggins (an anti-Islamic crusader and an Islamic fundamentalist terrorist) ****1/2, STARTED 7/2/12, FINISHED 7/4/12
10. Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen by Mary Sharratt (historical novel featuring noted abbess/musician/mystic of the 12th century) ****1/2, STARTED 9/9/12, FINISHED 9/10/12
11. Dangerous Ambition by Susan Hertog (joint bio of Dorothy Thompson & Rebecca West, pioneering writers)
12. The Taliban Cricket Club by Timeri Murari (young woman challenges the Taliban) ****, STARTED 5/19/12, FINISHED 5/20/12
Bonus book: Jasmine Nights by Julia Gregson (woman entertainer/spy in WW2 Cairo) ** STARTED 10/8/12, FINISHED 10/27/12
(Bruce's evil twin :-))
ETA, Denise, is there anything you'd recommend? I read a lot of business/finance books about China and basic non-fiction narratives ahead of a December 2006 month-long reporting trip there, but aside from Yiyun Li's The Vagrants, I'm not sure what else might be interesting. I do have a book about the construction of the train from China into Tibet on my TBR mountain.
For fiction, I enjoyed Family by Pa Chin. It is about a family in upheaval during a time soon after China had gotten rid of the last emperor and was trying to become more democratic. To me the family changes mimicked the countries changes. I also enjoy Lisa See's books, especially Snowflower and the Secret Fan and Shanghai Girls, although the latter takes place mostly in the United States.
I see several books on your list that I intend to read in 2012 as well. Troubles, 1Q84, Bleak House and Sea of Poppies come to mind. Maybe we can share reads via TIOLI or something. Have you starred. Maybe I'll manage to keep up with you more easily here than with the 75ers? One can always hope...
Look forward to comparing notes on "our" books, Ms. Infectious Optimist! (and wouldn't this been a lovely world if optimism and benevolence were infectious???)
Happy holidays to all!
this isn't James Bond on steriods, but an intelligent novel.
I usually steer clear of the spy thriller genre but you have intrigued me with that statement.
The Shadow Prince by Terence Morgan is the sequel to the author's debut, The Master of Bruges, which I liked far more as a novel about a far less well known part of history (Burgundy & Bruges in the mid-15th century) and because its main character wasn't (thank god) a kind or queen or prince or princess, but a painter, Hans Memling. This time around, Morgan is dealing with the fate of the younger of the princes in the tower, Richard of York, who -- in Morgan's "what if?" view of history, escaped Henry VII's murderers and had a series of adventures under a false identity before escaping to claim his crown. Just as Morgan takes the improbable (but still possible) view that Richard lived to adulthood and was the pretender Perkin Warbeck, so he devises an ending for his novel that is a bit out of line with history. It's a spoiler, so I won't say more here, except that I wouldn't read this unless you've read The Master of Bruges and like me can't wait to read the sequel. This isn't a bad book, by any stretch, and the liberties that Morgan takes are squarely within what is reasonable (i.e. -- there are things that we can never know, and he's conceiving options that are possible, if not always probable) rather than bizarre hypotheses made up out of whole cloth. Still, it suffers by comparison with its predecessor, and I've just read too much about the wars of the roses, the princes in the tower, etc., in recent years to enjoy this quite as much. 3.9 stars; the predecessor would be 4.5 stars.
The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak, an ARC I've had sitting around for a few months, ended up being far more compelling reading than I had feared it might based on sampling the first few pages. The narrator, Barbara (or Varvara to the Russians), is the (fictional) Polish-born daughter of a book-binder who is brought to court and becomes an excellent "tongue", or spy, for the Empress Elizabeth and her chancellor. The novel documents the arrival of the German princess who would become Catherine the Great at the Russian court, and the double-dealing and Machiavellian intrigues of that court -- and in particular the alliance of Barbara and Catherine. Even though I'm fairly familiar with Catherine's early life (and I'm looking forward to reading Robert Massie's bio of her), I found this a novel take on these years, given that the story is narrated by an outsider -- a member of the court, who can see more of the ugly underside than most of the nobility through whose eyes such historical novels are usually narrated. Barbara becomes so good at her role, however, that she forgets the downside risks associated with knowing too many secrets... One of the better historical novels I have read of late; definitely recommended to anyone who is a historical fiction afficionado and interested in the period. 4.3 stars
A Room Full of Bones by Elly Griffiths, is the fourth in a series featuring forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway. This time around, the plot revolves around Aboriginal Australian skulls in a museum, the coffin of an ancient bishop, and a couple of mysterious deaths, and a drug smuggling ring. Griffiths ties them together well enough, but she doesn't have enough time to make the story develop organically and let the reader get interested in the situations and personalities. Some seem to be introduced only because she needs them to serve a purpose -- not great when that happens and it's visible to the reader. I loved the first book, enjoyed the last two, but was relatively disappointed by this one. Don't read it unless you've read the predecessors, which are worth your time, but this one... Well, I'm underwhelmed. I'll def. give Griffiths another chance because the first three were so good but she never really delivered on the promise of the plot elements. 3.5 stars.
I will get around to reading Larsson's trilogy.....
***stares at TBR bookshelf and pile of library books***
.... one of these days.
Two more for this challenge!!
A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka was a wry and satirical look at emigrants in Britain -- the first novel of hers that I read, Strawberry Fields, dealt with a similar subject. Although she made her name with this novel, I'm not sure it's better; in fact, in essence, the two are very similar, both dealing with dimensions of the immigration debate in the UK through very vividly-imagined characters. I confess that the reason I wanted to read this one now is that my father has become involved (in his 70s) with a Lithuanian woman who is younger than I am (in her 40s), who needs a permanent visa... Happily, my sis-in-law says she's v. nice, and my father, after three marriages ending in divorce, shows no interest in embarking on #4. Vera and Nadia, whose father falls for a Ukrainian woman with bleached hair, fake boobs and too-short miniskirts, aren't quite so lucky, nor is dad himself. As he tries to craft his magnum opus (its title is the title of the book), his life becomes more and more chaotic, and Nadia, the narrator, finds her comfortable assumptions about the world and even her family history shaken. This was tremendously entertaining; it's not a brilliant or revelatory novel, but I really relished it and didn't want to put it down and go to sleep last night. 4 stars.
The Napoleon of Crime by Ben Macintyre was less compelling, to my surprise. It's an interesting enough story, I suppose, but I found it relatively hard sledding compared to some of Macintyre's other books and to other narrative non-fiction works I've been reading. Macintyre doesn't have the most vivid writing style imaginable and while I wasn't familiar with the life and capers of Adam Worth, had someone asked me to imagine the kind of things that might pop up in a story of the life of a North American and European gilded age uber-thief, most of those would have featured here. The glimpses of an underworld society that paralleled high society were amusing, as was Worth's fascination with a particular art work whose theft was his piece de resistance, but I suppose I just found the story lacking that element of "wow, who knew??" that I really wanted to fine. Not that Worth's antics weren't extraordinary, but as I said, they were within the realm of what I might have imagined. So it turned into a bit of a ponderous read for me, as I read 20 or 30 pages a day without ever really becoming caught up in the story. 3.6 stars.
Picked up Bond Girl by Erin Duffy on a whim late yesterday evening, and ended up whipping through it in only a few hours. It's a fun, lively read, although her character's experiences working on a bond desk at the fictional (but identifiable enough) investment banking firm is enough to reinforce all the anti-Wall Street prejudices out there. (Traders with too much time on their hands round up $28k to bet that one of their colleagues can't eat one of every item sold in a vending machine during the course of a trading day; he does it.) Duffy focuses on the chick lit elements in this novel -- you won't get much insight into the nature of a bond trader's job here (although there is a bit) but you will into the wacky nature of Wall Street. Amusing brain candy. 3.7 stars, but will probably be lower for folks who've had no interactions with Wall Street.
Sea of Poppies grabbed my attention and held it right to the last page. Amitav Ghosh does a fabulous job of weaving together the very disparate stories of the wife of a poor poppy-grower, the mulatto American seaman, a rajah, the orphaned daughter of an eccentric French botanist, a corrupt opium mogul and a clerk/Krishna devotee who suspects the seaman isn't quite what he appears to be. As the Krishna devotee says, "is it forbidden for a human being to manifest themselves in many different aspects?" Their fortunes are all tied, in disparate ways, to the Ibis, the boat that arrives in Calcutta and will leave for Mauritius with a load of indentured laborers in its hold. It's a compelling story in its own right, and the themes -- of the ways in which one's place in society is pre-determined and the constraints it imposes, and what happens to loosen those constraints, as well as the corruption of those seeking to maintain an artificial order -- are fascinating. The Ibis, as one character reflects, "was a vehicle of transformation, travelling through the mists of illusion towards the elusive, ever-receding landfall that was Truth." I confess that while I enjoyed some of the wordplay and eventually got accustomed to the incessant use of pidgen nautical terms, there were entire pages that I followed with difficulty. I'm docking 0.3 stars for that. (Puhleez: "By noon, the schooner's anchors were a-trip and the trikat-wale were ready to haul on her hanjes" -- and I've read the textbook for the basic keelboat course!!). 4.7 stars, def. one of the best books I'll read this year.
I looked at The Terror, but the fact that he seems to rely heavily on a kind of monster (and that the novel seems to become a more modern horror story) kinda put me off reading it; to me, the horror was the nature of the man vs. Arctic wilderness, and that was quite sufficient! If you read that, try the Erdic novel later -- I think the two prob. have different views of Francis Crozier.
Catherine the Great by Robert Massie was an immensely readable and vivid biography of a remarkable Russian empress; for the most part it is comprehensive and throughout it is well-written, vivid and compelling. That said, and while I'm rating it 4.4 stars for what it does do, there is a lot that it doesn't accomplish. There are already some standard biographies of Catherine out there, and what Massie is really doing is crafting a popular biography based on their work. That's fine, but anyone reading this with some knowledge of Catherine and her times will find this more a lively version of what they already know. Frankly, I couldn't put it down, although at the same time, my list of niggly quibbles grew. In the early stages of the book, the focus is solidly on her and palace intrigues -- fine, but I really felt that the broader picture was missing. At what point did she resolve to become sole monarch, rather than consort or regent? Massie seems indecisive, sending mixed signals. When Catherine reaches the throne, halfway through, Massie jumps back and forth in time, so, for instance, the reader gets a complete overview of her favorites, and then goes waaay back in time to early in her reign, when Gregory Orlov was still her lover and favorite, as Massie begins discussing the plans for the marriage of Catherine's son. Later, the same is true of her relationships with foreign powers -- one minute, she is referring to the death of the Austrian Emperor; in the next chapter, she is sailing down the Dnieper with him. It didn't spoil the narrative, but did mean I had to constantly refer to where I was in Catherine's chronology (there wasn't one in my ARC edition of this book, alas.) There's an offhand mention of the fate of Catherine's son, which should have been elaborated on in an afterword of some kind. And so on, and so on. But, as I noted, these are mainly quibbles. Massie doesn't speak or read Russian and relied perhaps a bit too heavily on Catherine's own memoirs and other secondary accounts and key biographies, but the readers of this aren't going to be aware of it, and he's dealt with the vast mass of material in an almost effortless way. Recommended, 4.4 stars
Mamzel -- it's tremendously readable, and not that hard to follow, especially if Massie included a timeline of some kind in the real book. (I only got the ARC, so it's hard to criticize the extra features that could have been there...) If you're interested in Catherine, it's almost certainly the most readable and comprehensive book out there; my quibbles are more minor than major, and the only major one would probably only be relevant to someone who knows a lot about the period and is looking for fresh revelations.
OK -- next book. I had to read Erskine Caldwell's God's Little Acre for my real life book circle, so to offset that, turned to A Rural Affair by Catherine Alliott. This recovery book, utterly frivolous, is kinda vintage chick lit, or a slight cross between chick and hen lit. Poppy is suddenly widowed by freak accident, and isn't altogether unhappy by the loss of the control freak she had married on the rebound. Then she makes a discovery about her late husband's double life... Oh yes, ultimately very predictable, like all books in the genre, but I desperately needed something mindless. Anyway -- the Alliott book was of its genre, so 3.5 stars for that. Not memorable, but who cares?
I'm going to be adding some books to the lists here that I plan to read in memory of JanetinLondon. As many of you know, Janet died in early January; she and I had lively discussions about many books and I'll miss her here tremendously. I'll mark those books with a (J) after the title; all are chosen from her books and my TBR list, or my wishlist.
The Spies of Warsaw by Alan Furst does his usual excellent job of conjuring up the atmosphere of the late 1930s in Europe -- this time in Warsaw, where a French military officer, Jean-Francois Mercier, finds himself enmeshed in a web of spies and spying -- German ones, Polish ones and Soviet ones. Eventually, the focus emerges -- at the heart of all this spying is the need to find an answer to how the Germans will decide to attack France in the battle that everyone by now knows all too well is becoming unavoidable. (This is set in 1937/38.) Don't look for tremendous pulse-pounding drama here, although there are a few moments where agents are in peril where I think I literally held my breath for a page or two. But action isn't the strength of this or any of Furst's novels. Despite the fact that it rambles a bit, it's a good read, and extremely atmospheric. At one point, I could almost feel myself on a train to Belgrade, as the steam huffs, someone bangs a case on the outer door my compartment and the train slowly glides out of the station... 4.1 stars (This is a book that I started to read several times after it landed on my Kindle a few years ago...)
On the other hand, here's one that I want to stick a giant AVOID AT ALL COSTS sticker on.
The only good thing to say for Mr. Churchill's Secretary is that, unlike most ER books, it arrived promptly. But it's is simply a poor excuse for a novel that sometimes felt like a book intended for 13 year olds (it wasn't; there's some very soft sex scenes of unmarried couples lying naked in a bed), that just strained my credulity to the breaking point. True, the author addressed the loooong list of questions I had accumulated by page 30, eventually, but the answers were bizarre. I've reviewed it, because it's an ER book, so if you want to know more, read that. I can't repeat myself, the experience of the last 50 pages was simply too painful. Avoid at all costs; it's being marketed as akin to Maisie Dobbs, but only if you're delusional. 1/2 star. I'm hoping it's the worst book I read this year. This woman needs an editor. I kept whipping out my pencil and trying to form a coherent and compelling narrative structure for this, only to put it away again and remind myself that isn't my job. Surreal that she has a 2-book deal -- that should give hope to all struggling novelists.
I now have to go and read something that I KNOW will be a compelling and exciting read, after spending the best part of a week slowly plodding through the above. I kept having to put it down and go read something better, so a book that had it been good I could have read in a day, took me nearly a week. And I only finished it because of the ER obligation, and the fact that two of my recent ER books require me to finish the author's prior book before reading the latest one.
OK, off to wash the bad taste out of my mouth. I'm not a literary snob, but...
I remember thinking I'd have to get a hold of this one when I saw it on the ER list, so I want to thank you for saving me from disappointment.
Tolstoy Lied and Mr. Churchill's Secretary back to back -- I hope your next book is much, much better!
Christina, I kept wanting to like it or to find redeeming qualities, and then I'd turn the page and something would spring up that made me scream and hurl the book from me instead. With a book like that, usually I give up after 30 or 40 pages, but with an ER book....
The Time in Between by Maria Duenas was the chunkster that I chose to entertain me on my flight back to NYC yesterday, and finished up sometime today. It's not every novel that earns a blurb from Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa ("a wonderful novel with intrigue, love and mystery") and I'm not sure that Llosa is really that enamored of what is not much more than a straightforward saga of a woman making her way in the world in the 1930s and 1940s. It's a typical woman's novel, with the really fascinating element being its setting: Duenas has chosen to place her story of Sira Quiroga, a young woman from Madrid who runs afoul of a man and is left peniless in Spanish Morocco on the outbreak of the Spanish civil war, against a backdrop of fascinating events and characters that will be almost unknown to most of her readers and that I for one found very compelling indeed. The story -- Sira becomes a couturier and a spy, just as the book's cover jacket promises -- is fairly predictable, but the glimpses into the Moroccan city of Tetouan and Madrid as the country's neutrality came precariously close to shattering during WW2 were anything but. Lots of the plot twists are predictable, some are not terribly well-handled, but the pacing is brisk, the writing (and translation) quite good and the level of suspense generated by the author often very good indeed. Hence my ability to whip through the whole 609 pages in less than two days -- I really didn't want to put it down, and I now want to read more about some of the players and characters. Spain and Portugal were fascinating places in WW2, as spies duelled in the shadows, and the author does manage to capture that atmosphere. Definitely worth checking out, if that kind of book strikes your fancy. I'd describe it as a version of A Small Death in Lisbon by Robert Wilson, but less gritty, more saga than suspense, and told through a woman's eyes. A thumping good read, if not a top book of the year; 4 stars.
The World We Found by Thrity Umrigar is a particularly good example of the kind of book that has become a genre -- a group of friends (usually female), went through a particularly important time in their lives together, drifted apart, now come back together and resolve issues. This is almost the template for Umrigar's very well-written novel, which comes close to rising above all the tropes partly because the women in question are Indian women, who came of age in the late 1970s, and who have watched their country undergo dramatic and often disturbing change. (One plot twist here involves the rise of sectarianism). I found this was a very fast read, because I always wanted to read what happened next -- each of the four women -- one dying of a brain tumor in the United States, the others in India, planning their final reunion with her -- have distinctive personalities, and none felt two-dimensional to me. Of course, had some of the issues been explored in depth, this could have been downright fascinating, but Umrigar is more interested in writing about relationships than issues, and that's fine, because she does it well. Very readable, recommended if that's your kind of thing, but not really new or fresh. Still, I liked it and whipped through it. 4.1 stars.
Lady of the English by Elizabeth Chadwick is a good book for all those who've been delighting in Tudor historical fiction -- the saga of Matilda's attempts to win the English crown in the 12th century was one of the reasons for Henry VIII's marital misadventures -- he didn't trust either of his daughters to rule. This is a fast-paced and entertaining read, and in some ways better than Sharon Penman's loooong saga focusing on the civil war between Matilda and Stephen during which, chroniclers wrote, "Christ and his Saints Slept." It's romanticized and a bit fluffy, but exceptionally well-researched. 3.7 stars, for historical fiction fans.
Barbara Havers and Taymullah Azhar. I have been missing Barbara Havers in the last few books, but I am a couple behind you. She (Barbara) is my favorite character in this series.
I've noticed, now that I'm listening to quite a few audio books just how many authors read their own books. Did you narrate your audio version of Chasing Goldman Sachs?If not, we you able to choose who would read it?
Lynda, nope, I had no voice -- literally or rhetorically -- in recording the audio version of CGS! Probably wise, as I do have a slight, albeit often unplaceable accent that sometimes drives people I'm talking to slightly batty until they ask me about it. I didn't have any say in who did it -- indeed, the first I knew about this was coming home one morning -- yes, yes, we New Yorkers live rackety lives -- to find a voice mail from the woman doing the recording, wondering how on earth to pronounce the lilongwe (a currency) and several other things! (Some I had to check out myself...)
Finally finished The Hidden Child by Camilla Lackberg on the train to Boston. It was -- oddly -- a slog. I think the author can't decide whether she's writing mysteries or novels; certainly this wasn't suspenseful enough to stop me putting it down (repeatedly), nor was it compelling enough character-wise to work as a plain novel. That said, it was interesting -- in this fifth installment of her Swedish mystery series, Patrick is on paternity leave while Erica is trying to solve a mystery about her dead mother, in whose belongings she has found a bloodstained infant's garment and a Nazi medal. Some of the twists were obvious, others weren't, but the biggest flaw was all the extraneous material. This is not a series that is getting better, but it's still interesting, thankfully. I do think that a particular Swedish sweet manufacturer should be paying Lackberg, given the number of times its product was mentioned in the pages. Kinda underwhelming. 3.6 stars, won't toss the book but the odds I'll re-read it are low and I'm in no hurry to move on to the sixth book, which came out in the UK today. Sigh, too bad, as I loved the first book in the series.
Fly Away Home was the first novel I read by Marge Piercy, shortly after it was published. Found it in the library of the Tokyo American Club, which was one of my few sources of non-purchased books for a few years; a rather limited selection, but I quite liked this one and later got my own copy, which has now officially fallen apart. It's a feminist work, in that essentially it's the story of a woman, cookbook author Daria Walker, who has placed her husband at the center of her world only to discover that he doesn't deserve to be there, and that she must reconstruct that world. It's an intriguing plot tied to the gentrification of Boston in the 80s, social/class issues and gender relationships, but it's also very entertaining and ultimately suspenseful. Daria's husband Ross is sometimes too cliched to be real, in my older eyes, but I still enjoyed this re-read of a book that I haven't looked at for a decade or perhaps even 15 years. Mildly recommended, 3.9 stars.
The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller is utterly mesmerizing; I read it whenever I found a spare moment, wandering up and down stairs with my Kindle in front of me, letting someone go ahead of me in the bank lineup so that I could finish the chapter, holding it in front of me while I walked home through the subway station. If you're familiar with The Iliad, the plotline of Achilles and his close companion, Patroclus, will be known to you, at least in outline. But Miller has succeeded in bringing the story alive in a way I never thought I would see, creating a world that is familiar -- she focuses on the characters and emotions familiar to us today, downplaying the ways in which their lives were so different -- and yet also strange to us, in which the gods are vivid, living presences, including Achilles' own mother, Thetis. Annoying Apollo, for instance, is a fatal error, and all the Greeks know this and will take dramatic action to avoid it. The presence of the gods is as taken for granted as the quest for military glory. Nonetheless, Miller's Achilles is a conflicted warrior: he knows his instinctive talent demands this be his role, but his mortal side clings to his love for Patroclus and the idea of sharing his life with him. Skilfully, the older kings tempt and threaten the two, urging them on to what the Fates have decreed will be their destruction. Even knowing the end of the tale didn't spoil the pleasures of this novel for me. Excellent; it will appeal more to those with an interest in history, the Greek myths, etc., but there's plenty here for all to relish. Intriguing to think that this novel of homosexual love was written by a woman and told through the eyes of a man -- which just adds to her accomplishment, IMO! 4.7 stars, definitely recommended
#113 -- yes, I get VERY impatient with the attitude toward "feminism". You'd think it was a conspiracy or summat.
Losing Nelson by Barry Unsworth is a slow-paced book, and the narrator, Charles Cleasby, occasionally vanished too frequently and extensively into his past, in which he identifies with and sometimes feels unable to separate himself from one of Britain's greatest heroes, Lord Nelson. Those bits where Cleasby worries away at little details eventually became wearing, and it's far more fascinating to witness his encounters with the "real" world, as the latter challenges his ideals and obsessions. Will he snap -- and if so, how? He is intent on finding evidence that will exculpate Nelson from the only stain on his character, but what will happen if he can't? The final 100 pages are filled with tension. Recommended, but for the patient reader. 4 stars
I've Got Your Number is Sophie Kinsella at her best -- OK, I admit, it's the epitome of brainless chick lit, but this one is in many ways a funny commentary on our hyper-reliance on electronic communications. Heroine, in dire plight, finds a mobile phone in the garbage of the hotel where she's been having a festive tea with friends, and where (a) her engagement ring vanished and (b) her phone was stolen. Soon enough, her life is entangled with that of the man whose PA tossed it away on her way out the door... Yes, it's predictable, but amusing and a thumping good read. 3.8 stars. No nutritional content, but who cares?
Waiting for Sunrise by William Boyd makes me forgive the author for his nasty prank on the reading public of last year, when he published Nat Tate. (The idea was to skewer the pretentious people who don't know what they're talking about, but it wasn't good or funny enough to excuse the high price the skimpy and not that interesting book commanded...) At any event -- this is Boyd in high form, telling the tale of Lysander Reif, opening with the actor's sojurn in Vienna as he seeks psychotherapy in 1913, on the eve of war. He's framed for a crime and must escape the Austro-Hungarian empire -- only to find, when war breaks out, that the people he encountered in Vienna re-enter his life in new and disturbing ways as he is enlisted to uncover a network of spies. Compelling reading; definitely recommended, onto my top books of the year list. 4.4 stars. This reminds me that I still need to read Boyd's Restless.
I have indeed read Ordinary Thunderstorms, and quite liked it, although not as much as this one. Restless is one I'm going to read this year; indeed, I think I'll add it to my "off the shelf" category...
I'm a bit ambivalent about Kinsella. Some of her novels I love; others I can't stand. I'm so fed up with "Shopaholic" I could scream -- to have a character remain that ditzy for that long is deeply annoying. Twenties Girl was underwhelming. This one was just right, however. My fave chick lit author is Trisha Ashley, especially some of her earlier books.
I just succumbed to another guilty pleasure and picked up the new stand-alone suspense novel by Nora Roberts. I find her romances faaar too saccharine, but the thrillers are fun, even though you know that her heroine is gonna end up with a hunky hero. May read it this weekend...
Devil Water is a re-read of one of the best books by by Anya Seton (author of the iconic Katherine). I think it has probably been close to 30 years since I read this, and it reminded me of what very good historical novels can be. It's the story of the Radcliffe brothers, James, Earl of Derwentwater and his younger brother Charles, and Charles's daughter Jenny, fruit of a mesalliance with a Northumbrian girl. The backdrop is the Jacobite cause from 1710 up until the failure of '45 rebellion, and it follows Charles's youth, including an escape from Newgate after the 1715 revolt, and then Jenny, and her adventures as she joins her father in exile in France and then sails to Virginia -- only to face a final conflict of loyalties when her father, in the Tower of London, begs her to return to England to see him. It's not perfect, but in an era where so much historical fiction feels perfunctory in both setting and nature (dial up the romance/sex; dial down the context, the sense of being there) this was a delight to read. Seton does her research, but wears it lightly -- I got a vivid sense of early 18th century London, from sedan chairs to taverns but only as part of a compelling story. 4.3 stars, perhaps 0.3 being for sentiment's sake. Recommended (along with Katherine and The Winthrop Woman) to any historical fiction afficcionado.
I hope the migraine subsides soon and thanks for the interesting visual your statement created for me! You just may entice me to pick up a Mantel......
The Queen's Lover by Francine du Plessix Gray was a horrible disappointment. The author can write good novels; she knows the period. And yet she wrote something that isn't even really a novel, or only fitfully. She's telling the story of Axel Fersen, Marie Antoinette's lover. Off he goes to the US with the French, to fight for the colonists against the Brits. Great opportunity for some interesting writing, as this representative of the ancien regime finds himself fighting alongside homespun farmers, right? Nope. She chooses to tell this segment (a) by quoting 18 pages' worth of Fersen's letters, rather than by instilling some drama by letting us see it through his eyes (this IS billed as a novel) and (b) having the comments that breakup the letters made by Fersen's sister! Then when the author does shift from telling to showing (very very rare), it's often anachronistic ("Is he going to pull a Queen Christina?" doesn't strike me as 18th century parlance) or just weird, like misplaced sex scenes (I learned some interesting Swedish anatomical words.) Usually I give thumbs down to historical novels because they are badly written, they ignore historical reality or are just thinly disguised romances. In this case, the book is really a mediocre biography disguised as a novel, and had it not been an Amazon Vine galley I would have tossed it in the garbage. But I had to finish and review it, and I grudge every minute of the time I spent reading it. Someone who doesn't know the story of Marie Antoinette may find it interesting -- but it's not a novel. It's a readable history, disguised as a 21st century version of a late 18th century memoir. And if that sounds weird, well, yeah, it is. Avoid this one. 1.8 stars.
The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright is, IMO, an excellent novel. Yes, it's kind of diffuse, and yes, it's told through the eyes of a narrator who is married and having an affair with a married man. It's clear early on that by the time she is writing this, she is looking back to the day she first met him, standing at the bottom of her sister's garden. At the time, she thinks later, he "is just a little rip in the fabric of my life. I can stitch it all up again, if he does not turn around." This novel captured for me, better than any other I have yet read, the irrationality and occasional downright inconvenience of unexpected love. Gina Moynihan knows not only that this is a person who is married and thus technically out of bounds, even if she weren't already with the man who will become her husband; she is also clear-eyed, at least in retrospect, about the many ways in which she finds him odd or even how he should not appeal to her. And yet... We see this through the wry and sometimes cynical eyes of Gina, evaluating her own behavior and finding it as irrational as others might; describing and not really falling into the trap of rationalizing or excusing. But this is also a story about getting what you want and realizing that life is still "real life"; that even getting a dream job or the man you love doesn't change day to day reality, as Gina recognizes. "I thought it would be a different life, bu sometimes it is like the same life in a dream: a different man coming in the door, a different man hanging his coat on the hook... I don't know what I expected. That receipts would not have to be filed, or there would be no such thing as bad kitchen cabinets .... Sean exists. He arrives, he leaves. He forgets to ring me when he is late and so the dinner is mistimed... sometimes the intractability of him, perhaps of all men, drives me up the wall." I don't understand the criticisms of the novel's style -- yes, it rambles a bit, but it's really an interior monologue, a woman looking back at one aspect of her life and following it through to the point where she finds herself today. True, she is self involved -- but in interior monologues, aren't we all? Enright will undoubtedly find lots of critics amongst those who believe her character should have drunk poison or thrown herself under a train in remorse for her adultery and allowed her tale to be told by others, but that's what I liked about this novel. It's what happens most often. How many people actually behave that way in real life? Anne doesn't ask us to approve of Gina's choices; what she spells out is the muddle-headed way that most people lead their lives, and the way that one decision leads to another and the next, until you are someplace you never expected to be and, like Gina, looking back on the journey with a degree of bemusement. The writing was gorgeous and I loved this novel; 4.7 stars from me. Avoid it if you are prone to want to approve of the life decisions of characters, however, or if you're particularly sensitive to the topic of adultery.
Lehrter Station by David Downing -- My full review is now live over at Amazon, and I'll cross-post here shortly. The bottom line: in this fifth book in the series, it's November 1945 and John Russell and what is left of his family are in London, trying to rebuild their lives, when the Soviet spies arrive to collect the bill for the events laid out in Potsdam Station. This is a more difficult book to evaluate, as we no longer have one big bad guy in the shape of the Nazis; Russell has to play the Soviet and American spies off against each other and navigate some nasty black marketeers, but the level of tension wasn't sustained as well in this book as the previous ones in the series. Also, it sometimes felt like Russell was playing "whack a mole" -- as soon as he figured out a way to deal with one problem, another popped its head up, not necessarily connected to the first. It also made me slightly irritable that the author seems to have decided to find a way to bring back -- in kind of cameo performances -- characters that Effi and/or Russell encountered in prior books. This is mildly interesting, but often felt too much like a deliberate effort to tie up loose ends. As someone remarks late in the book, "this has been our month for renewing acquaintances"; I groaned, yes I had noticed. At times it felt like I was being introduced to a special guest star per chapter, and not all of them fit naturally into the plot. These are minor quibbles, but add up to my recommendation: if you loved the last four books, you'll like this one, but don't try to start the series here because it doesn't have the same "oomph" to it, at least on first reading. 4 stars.
I keep meaning to mention that the books posted here are just the tip of the iceberg for me -- I've now read 175 books so far this year, and most of them are listed over on the 76-thread challenge, where I tend to be a lot more chatty!
Re-read Wolf Hall. Still think it's brilliant and insightful, giving us a window into one of the most feared men of his age and contrasting others' views of him with his own view of himself. Also tremendously vivid writing. 5 stars, a no-brainer.
Another re-read: The Gabriel Hounds by Mary Stewart, which shows its age (it was written in the 1960s, I think) but still is fun albeit not up to date. Christy and her cousin Charles head off to visit their great-aunt, who is imitating Lady Hester Stanhope as an eccentric recluse in pre-civil war Lebanon, and stumble into a den of thieves, kinda. The romance isn't always convincing to me as a jaded middle-aged personage, but it's refreshing to read a book of romantic suspense that isn't a bodice ripper and is well-written. Light fare, perfect for the train today. 3.6 stars,
Murder on Fifth Avenue by Victoria Thompson: I have become so accustomed to this series being deeply underwhelming that I almost didn't pick up this book from the library. Which would have been too bad, as it's easily the best the author has written in several outings, even though some of the plot "twists" were VERY self evident, to the point where I felt like shouting at Sarah Brandt, the midwife whose parents are part of New York high society of more than a century ago and who investigates crimes alongside the often-reluctant policeman, Frank Malloy, "Don't you GET it??" Still, a tight narrative and intriguing plot. Not the best mystery I have read of late, but perfectly serviceable: 3.6 stars.
The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian is an ARC of a book that comes out soonish -- the author is writing a narrative built around the horrors of the Armenian genocide by Turkey circa 1915 and onward. Having had Armenian friends since childhood, I knew the basic facts, and abt 18 months ago read Erevan by Gilbert Sinoue, a fabulous novel in French that does a better job than this of telling the story. I don't think Bohjalian's device of splitting the narrative up so much -- one big strand is contemporary as the granddaughter of a survivor and his American wife undertakes an investigation into their experiences in Aleppo in 1915, and the other is a narration of what happened at that time. The events described are chilling, but none of the characters were vividly realized enough to draw me into the narrative and make this as unforgettable as it should have been, given the subject matter. His characters are too obviously there to tell a story through. Read it if the topic interests you, or if you're looking for a not-too-demanding read about faraway places and events that are too distant or unknown. But beware, there are graphic and chilling details of those events. 3.7 stars.
Just reflecting that my June books have been rather underwhelming, as reflected in these and some of the above...
A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammed Hanif is the story of one or possibly many conspiracy theories surrounding the death of Pakistani dictator Zia ul-Haq. As a Pakistani friend had said, it ends up with an odd combination of farce and cynical commentary that often is an odd juxtaposition; I kept wishing Hanif had opted for a single tone. The wit was a bit too pointed and obvious for me, too. That said, an intriguing and very well-written novel but ultimately not one that will earn 4.1 stars from me. I'll be reading Our Lady of Alice Bhatti this month, which may help me make up my mind about the author.
Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead is billed as an ironic tour de force, but it isn't. It's beautifully written, but the characters and basic plotline -- family wedding at WASPy Nantucket-like retreat reveals all kinds of tensions and fault lines -- are all too familiar, and at times I wanted to groan under the weight of all the irony and symbolism. It's too substantive to be chick lit, but neither is it smart or insightful. I was curious what Amazon reviewers had to say, as my own reaction was so ambivalent, and found someone there comparing to The Marriage Plot -- interesting, as my response is in kind of a similar vein. I'm intrigued but not engaged, although the writing in both cases is excellent. That said, the uber-clever similes started coming at me so fast that I couldn't duck -- that very smart writing works best when it's understated, and here there's a passage that has been slaved over and made pristine on virtually every page. Eg, in a hospital, one character watches someone else in the waiting room suffering from nausea dart toward a bathroom; "the man watcher her go with wistful resignation, as though she were a wayward balloon." Sometimes, the author attempts humor, but it's too self-conscious for my taste, as when one character says to another, "eye contact with you is like eye contact with a taxidermied moose head." Or, in the case of the parents of the groom - "the Duffs went together like two shades of beige, bound by a common essence of optimism, narrow-mindedness and self-satisfaction." In short stories, that can work; in a 300 page novel, I felt crushed by all this ultra-clever phrase-making -- and not engaged enough by the essence of the novel. 3.9 stars, mostly for the writing. There's a surplus of ironic novels about WASPs, and I happen to think anyone thinking of adding to the pile should ask themselves what they really hope to achieve or say.
And here's another fab book, of a completely different nature.
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn has more twists and turns than the most risky oceanfront highway you've ever driven along -- and Flynn is firmly in the driver's seat, negotiating each sharp shift at speeds well above the speed limit. Amazingly, this all pays off in the shape of what is likely to be the best thriller that I read this year, although it is one that is going to take days to recover from reading, so twisted is the psychological element of the suspense. Will I ever be able to trust anyone in a relationship ever again?? It starts out as another conventional thriller: Nick's wife vanishes on their fifth anniversary and all too soon there's plenty of circumstantial evidence making him look like another one of those charming sociopaths who murder their wives. Nick's first person account alternates with that of Amy, his wife, the epitome of the photogenic, blond, charming 30-something woman. But what is Nick's story -- and what is Amy's? Really, when everything is stripped away? Flynn handles the dropping of each tiny piece of game-changing information into the mix like a pro -- I'd hate to try to outwit her at even a game of Scrabble, I confess. The plot twists are some of the best I've read in this genre, and the final denouement(s) is/are even better. In some ways, any other conclusion wouldn't have been up to the standard of what has gone before; would have been a cop-out. If you liked the unreliable narrator element of Gillespie and I, here's another novel that will give you plenty to ponder, albeit in a completely different kind of package. If you liked this thriller, go and read Gillespie and I. Straight onto my "best reads of the year" list and without question a thumping good read. 4.7 stars. Not literature, but solid writing and unbeatable pacing, plotting and characterizations -- so who cares?? :-) READ IT!
I posted a list of overlooked and great historical novels on my blog last year, and will repost the link below. I'm not sure why I left Wolf Hall off the list, although it and the new Weir novel definitely belong on it.
Here's the link for anyone who is interested:
I'm also going to defer to my blog for a review of the next book, as I don't feel like taking up loads of space, or working on shortening the review, so....
The Innocents is an homage by Francesca Segal to The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton, and it's moderately successful. I'm giving it 3.9 stars, and you can read my full review here:
The Watch by Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya is the second novel I've read by this author, and the second winner. Set in Afghanistan, it deals with the crisis provoked by the sudden appearance of a woman in a burkha outside an American firebase; she is there to claim the body of her brother, killed in an attack days earlier. The woman is a catalyst of sorts, and we read about life on the base and the individual stories of the participants in the drama -- the medic, the lieutenant, the interpreter, the captain -- and come to understand what life might be like for these individuals, caught up in mutual incomprehension. I'll be blogging about this later and will post a link here. 4.3 stars
The Headmaster's Wager by Vincent Lam is an intriguing and very well written debut novel (the author has published short stories previously) that is getting a lot of buzz -- and deserves 90% of that buzz. It's set in wartime Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s, and deals with themes of fathers and sons, home and betrayal. Sure, the author telegraphed some of the major issues too clearly for the reader not to discern them (is Percival Chen really as naive or oblivious as he seems to the reader??) But overall, this story of Percival, the headmaster who runs an English language academy in Saigon, and his dealings with his closest friend, Mak, his son, Dai Lai, and the beautiful Eurasian woman, Jacqueline, with whom he falls in love even though she isn't Chinese, transcended most of my plot-based niggles and suceeded because of the author's uncanny ability to capture in words the sights/sounds/textures of southeast Asia and his keen sense of human foibles. It will be billed as Literary Fiction; I'm not sure it quite rises to that level, but it's an intriguing and worthwhile book. 4.25 stars; recommended.
The Decision by Penny Vincenzi is characteristic of this author's "Aga saga" novels. Essentially brain candy or chick lit, although Vincenzi started writing before the real advent of chick lit (which I date back to "Bridget Jones") but I find that with all their flaws I can immerse myself in her novels and relish the complexity that she creates and the world she imagines. Her novels tended to be full of imperfect people with good intentions, leading affluent and privileged lives and dealing with predictable problems, but I end up not caring about the flaws. Anyway, this very long novel deals with Eliza and Matt, from opposite sides of the class divide in early 1960s Britain. Interesting; not her best, still 3.8 stars.
The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng. DO NOT MISS THIS BOOK. I will blog about it later, probably this week. But seriously -- it's brilliant. Layers upon layers, revolving around the theme/idea of memory and memorials, set in the rough present (probably the early 1990s?) and the 1950s, when the Emergency was still raging in what was then Malaya and became Malaysia, with forays into the further past, as the narrator, Teoh Yun Ling, looks back at her experiences growing up in Penang as a member of the privileged Straits Chinese community, and then in a Japanese internment camp during World War II. Definitely this will be among the top 5 novels I will read this year. I'd be torn to say whether this or Bring Up the Bodies is the better book, but this is less familiar ground for readers, so I'd love to see it win and get a bigger audience. Will be out in the US in early September -- order it now!! 5 stars.
Da Vinci's Ghost by Toby Lester is excellent, although it pales by comparison to the author's much larger and more sweeping The Fourth Part of the World, which was one of my top books of 2010. Still, Lester's style is so engaging and his curiosity and interest in tracing the roots of Leonardo's famous drawing of "Vitruvian Man" so compelling that it helped gloss over one of the major flaws of the book -- the big question of "why does this matter/why should we care"? That's a question that I began pondering once I finished the relatively short survey of the history of the way people viewed the link between the human body and the workings of the universe from the Roman empire under Augustus (when Vitruvius first made explicit a link between the architecture of the ideal human body and that of a temple) to Christianity and on toward humanism. Unlike the maps at the heart of Lester's first book, which continue to shape the way we think of the world we inhabit, it's hard to see the contemporary relevance of Vitruvian Man, other than its ubiquity as a pop cultural reference (fridge magnets, college dorm posters, etc.) In the absence of that, I have to keep my rating to 4.2 stars... Still worth a read, if you're interested in this era and the development of this kind of intellectual thought and/or Leonardo da Vinci himself.
Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard of Bingen by Mary Sharratt is a historical novel that I've been eager to read since learning it was due out. I'm mostly familiar with the novel's subject through her music, which went through a big phase of renewed popularity during the early/mid 1990s, when Sequentia began recording it for an early music label; it was then that I learned of Hildegard as one of those rare women of the 12th century who really defied the odds (like Heloise, her rough contemporary) and found a role of leadership for themselves in the Church of the time. Sharratt takes a Gaia-like approach to Hildegard's visions, which I find perfectly legit -- everyone from conservatives like the current pope to new age types have borrowed her ideas -- but which might irk some who prefer to see her as a conservative theologian (eg she opposed catharism, but also opposed burning them...) What is impressive is the extent to which Sharratt can capture what it must have been like to have been "given" to the church as a young child -- and even worse, "given" to accompany a future anchorite, to be walled up alive to pray. She recreates the claustrophobia that Hildegard the child experiences and yet somehow makes convincing both her decision to find a way to build a life around this -- and later to break free of those walls. If you're not interested in the time period or the early church, this won't be a book for you, however. 4.3 stars.
The Broken Teaglass by Emily Arsenault was so slow as to be nearly unreadable, and the plot wasn't engaging enough for it to help me that much. A couple of (to me) uninteresting lexicographers discover mysterious/cryptic citations in their files, which triggers an investigation. Even 150 pages into it, nothing had happened to make me care one whit about either Billy or Mona. Wouldn't have finished this had it not been for the TIOLI challenge in the 75 books group, and the fact that someone else had already read it and was counting on me to finish. It was a chore. 2.2 stars. Adequate, no more. Yes, it improves toward the end, but it took so long to do so that by then I was alienated.
I read this as Massie is in the midst of publishing a trio of mysteries set in Bordeaux during the Vichy years that I want to read.
The Winter Queen by Boris Akunin has been on my TBR list forever and now I know why. I think it's the combination of the writing style, which I found a bit stilted, and the characters, who left me kinda cold. Nothing actively annoying and the backdrop -- tsarist Russia -- is interesting, but I found Erast Fandorin's first adventure in this series all to easy to put down and forget about. I'd try the next in this series, but probably not for a while. Others may like this more than I did, however. 3 stars.
Here is one that was chilling and unnerving, but reasonably good:
Accidents of Providence by Stacia Brown is a disturbing novel -- the next time I fantasize about time travel, someone needs to remind me that I don't want to land as an independent woman in the 17th century. This novel has at its heart the story of Rachel Lockyer, unmarried, who is accused of having a child "covertly" and then burying it. Is she guilty? What happened? We discover only gradually, as her trial -- which could end with her being hanged -- progresses. It's chilling and more so for being based on accurate narratives. Especially unsettling is the way she and her plight were used by others to advance their causes. The author stumbled across these stories of women being charged with murder simply for concealing the birth of possibly stillborn illegitimate babies while doing doctoral research -- it's well-written but dark & disturbing. 3.8 stars.
I'll have to read something mindless to cheer myself up after this one!!
Fall From Grace by Larry Collins was a more dramatic story when I first read it back in the mid-1980s, shortly after its release, probably because the story of strife between wartime intelligence agencies was newer and more dramatic, and because details of the various deception operations ahead of D-Day were still vivid. Nonetheless, this suspense/thriller holds up pretty well, although it's squarely genre fiction. It was interesting to re-read this now for my 12 in 12 challenge after reading Simon Mawer's Trapeze earlier this year. The latter is a better novel; this one has a more comprehensive theme. Both feature a woman agent for the SOE n France. 3.7 stars.
Rumours by Freya North was therapy after reading/while reading all the bleak novels and non-fiction. (I have just started Just Send Me Word, about Stalin and the gulag...) It's feel-good chick lit; no literary merit whatsoever, but who cares? Not much to say about the plot, either. The only "bad guys" are off stage, so there isn't even anyone here to dislike. But it's hard to dislike a novel that is cheery and smiley and cotton candy. 3.5 stars, don't go near unless you like chick lit.
Rather than retyping all my comments on The Twelve by Justin Cronin, I'll just link to my blog review, here:
The bottom line? A solid 4 stars.
Oh, and there's a giveaway...
Semper Fidelis by Ruth Downie is a NetGalley; the latest in this series of mysteries featuring Ruso, the "medicus" of Roman-occupied Britain, will be out early in 2013. After a ho-hum last outing, this was back on form, as Ruso and Tilla have to contend with mysterious deaths among British legionary recruits, a visit by the emperor Hadrian (and the discontented Empress Sabina) and a potential mutiny. Predictable but lively and engaging reading; good if you have liked other books in the series, and you might even be able to read it as a stand-alone. 3.7 stars.
I FINALLY finished The Redbreast by Jo Nesbo and am beginning to understand what folks see in the author, although it took me about 30/40% of the book to finally get engaged in the plot -- and that's a long time. I have tried to read this and put it aside on at least four occasions! Too much jumping back and forth; too many unfamiliar characters in those crucial early chapters. What does an event protecting a visiting US president have to do with Norwegian soldiers in the SS outside Leningrad in WW2, or an old man visiting a hotel and his doctor? Nesbo is saying "trust me" and I didn't and I'm still a bit grumpy about that first third of the book. The second third captured my interest; the final third grabbed me and didn't let me go. So I will read the next in the series and stick to it even if the opening bits are slow and confuddling, and I'm glad I finally got to this! 4.1 stars.
A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam, on the other hand, was a very good novel. I read The Good Muslim first, so I was somewhat familiar with Maya and Sohail, the two young people coping with the aftermath of Bangladesh's war for independence. This novel is set squarely in this period of the war itself, and focuses on Rehana, their mother -- Urdu, not Bengali is her native language, her sisters are married to men who live in Lahore, not Dhaka, and yet her children are caught up in the fight for Bangladesh's independence from West Pakistan. The horrors of factionalism, but at heart this is a story about family and specifically mothers and their children. Not as accomplished as the sequel, but a compelling read that I read straight through yesterday. 4.1 stars.
Sigh. And here is something still worse, IMO. Jasmine Nights by Julia Gregson is the latest by a novelist whom some of my historical fiction friends have been urging me to read. It was irritating and I only finished because I had resolved to read each book for my TIOLI challenge (in the 75 books group) in honor of my late cat, Jasper (a rolling challenge featuring books beginning with each letter of his name -- yes I know that makes me sentimental!). Gregson is an indifferent writer and a lazy, lazy plotter of stories. Firstly, we're expected to believe that a 23 year old woman in England in 1942 is doing no war work whatsoever, just drifting around singing occasionally. ??? Then we're asked to believe in a series of implausible coincidences that get her to Cairo where she is recruited by the English secret service. Bollocks. I won't even get into the "love" relationship, which feels extremely artificial even by the standards of the genre. Then we get big historical bloopers, like a reference to a troupe of ENSA performers in France, all of whom have been struck by illness; the context is a comment by someone indicating that this has just happened. In 1942. When France was occupied by the Germans. I really don't think they were inviting English entertainers to tour at that point, oddly. Just unconvincing, featuring plasterboard characters. You don't even get a sense of threat or peril throughout most of the novel. To be avoided, and I'll discard the paperback that someone had sent me of one of Gregson's other novels. 2 stars.
Thankfully, two better books here:
Restless by William Boyd is a brilliant and entertaining novel that is calculated to appeal to those who love literary spy stories. Fabulously complex characters and a narrative that is split between the hot summer of 1976 in Europe (which I remember all-too vividly...) when Ruth Gilmartin, single mother, English teacher and struggling to complete her PhD, discovers that her mother has been lying to her all her life -- and the years of World War II when Eva Delectorskaya finds herself trapped in a world of double and triple-dealing as a British spy. Eva, now Sally Gilmartin, obviously made it out of whatever trap she found herself in during those years -- but how did Eva become Sally, and is her current paranoia justified? Discovering the story is like peeling an onion, and this story features some hints of great themes (the complex politics of the 1970s, from the anti-Shah movement to the Red Army Faction in Germany, set against the backdrop of the great anti-fascist crusade that justified all kinds of underhand activities and subterfuge). If you haven't read this -- do so. 4.6 stars.
Recipe for Love by Katie Fforde is perfect hurricane reading, offering plenty of mindless entertainment and requiring no disciplined thought. Amusing fluff, by one of the more competent chick lit authors who doesn't get bogged down in dropping names of designer labels and seems to keep her characters at least somewhat realistic. This one was fun to read as it's set against the backdrop of a kind of reality TV cooking competition. 3.5 stars.
Silesian Station by David Downing is a good re-read of one of the better books in this series (IMO!) I'd opted to re-read them after Lehrter Station brings back some of the characters from the earlier books. 4.3 stars.
Above All Things by Tanis Rideout is a great discovery. So far available only in Canada, but will be published in the US in the spring, it's the story of the doomed Everest expedition led by George Mallory, as seen through his eyes, those of his young fellow climber, Sandy Irvine, and Ruth Mallory, waiting for news at home in England. The action on Everest takes place over the course of weeks; that featuring Ruth, over the course of a single day, and yet it somehow covers an incredible swathe of time and emotions. It reminds me of The Hours by Michael Cunningham, and yet it isn't anchored by a literary homage, which makes it all the stronger. A must-read, when you can lay hands on it. 4.7 stars.
Spookygirl by Jill Baguchinsky is a book that I first read a snippet of as one of the early-stage reviewers for the Amazon Breakthrough novel award. It was easily the best of the 50 segments I read & reviewed and was so lively and entertaining I was pretty much convinced this was already published. So I was delighted when it won the competition last year. And this enthusiasm in spite of the fact that (a) it's a YA novel, which I rarely read and (b) there's a big paranormal plot, which I usually avoid like the plague. It's all a nice neatly-wrapped up little package, which may be lacking in edge for some readers, but I found this narrative of a teenager who sees ghosts and keeps a pet poltergeist, but who still doesn't know what happened to cause her mother's death during a paranormal investigation years earlier, to be worth a read. It doesn't live up to the original segment, but now I'm comparing it to stronger material, so hardly surprising. 3.75 stars.
The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey is what you would get if you combined Jane Eyre (on which this clearly is modeled) with women's fiction by, say, Joanna Trollope. I enjoyed the result more than you might think based on that description, and probably partly in spite of the fact that Bronte's Jane annoys me -- she is so passive, yet so principled, an odd combination. In this homage to Bronte, the madwoman in the attic plot twist is unbelievable -- both in and of itself, and in its impact on Gemma -- but ultimately what really kept me reading was the setting of Scotland in the early 1960s. I'm glad a friend urged me to read it. 4.1 stars.
Dream of Ding Village by Yan Lianke is one of those library books that has made a very long stay chez moi. (The Brooklyn system lets you renew 99 times, for three weeks each time, as long as no one else has requested the book...) I finally got around to reading it this week and found it fascinating, and am not surprised it was banned in China. It can be read on a lot of levels -- Ding Village is clearly a microcosm of China itself, doomed by top-down planning, but Yan also is blasting some specific policies (blood selling) and regional corruption that is the bane of the country's top leaders. A village is temporarily made prosperous when villagers are encouraged to sell their blood, until AIDS sweeps through the community. The narrator is a dead boy, the son of the man who made a fortune extracting blood from his fellow townspeople but who didn't take sensible precautions and reused needles, etc. The young boy is murdered, an anonymous act of revenge, and from his own grave recounts the path that others take as they approach their own different kinds of doom, primarily from the viewpoint of his grandfather, the school caretaker. Communal life breaks down but tradition looms large, as villagers battle to get coffins and arrange posthumous marriages for their children. At times it's almost hallucinatory, but never topples over too much. Yes, it's bleak, but this is an author worth watching. 4.2 stars.
Yes, the long renewals are VERY scary. I had had Dream of Ding Village sitting here for nearly 18 months...
Check out the Brooklyn Public Library's websites -- the details are all there! Oh, and the limit for the # of books you can have out at a time? 99....
Poor Things by Alasdair Gray is a book that I might have continued to ogle on bookshelves for another 20 years had it not been chosen as our latest book circle offering. It's a riff on Frankenstein, set in late 19th century Glasgow, and the author runs amok with his narrative, tossing in sly allusions, puns, and references to all and sundry with abandon. (For instance, the creator of the new human being is named Godwin Bysshe Baxter -- the original Frankenstein was written by Mary Shelley, daughter of William GODWIN and early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, and married to Percy BYSSHE Shelley; Baxter's creation becomes a feminist physician.) The first 3/4 of the tale is told through the eyes of a public health official in Glasgow, McCandless, who is a kind of friend/ally of Baxter's and who marries the young woman Baxter has "created". And who could be more reliable than that? Except that the final 25% of the narrative belongs to Dr. Victoria McCandless... I just love a witty novel featuring an unreliable narrator, and so while this sometimes felt a bit over the top and def. was very stylized, it was fun & intriguing. I won't rush out to read more Alasdair Gray but at some point will seek out Lanark, 1982. 4.2 stars
Sightseeing by Rattawut Lapcharoensap is a collection of short stories that I nabbed from the library earlier this year and have been dipping into since the summer. Finally finished the last, a novella entitled "Cockfighter", and have to say that while the quality ebbs and flows here, this is certainly worth reading, in part because of the author's knowledge of the "real" Thailand. His characters aren't those seen through a foreigner's eyes (although one story, "Don't Let Me Die Here" is told from the POV of an elderly man now living with his son & his Thai wife and their children in Bangkok, and the inability to communicate) but are authentic. Particularly moving was "Draft Day", a scene at a Buddhist temple where the annual military draft drives an unmovable wedge between two longtime friends. Recommended, 4.3 stars
The Purple Shroud by Stella Duffy is the sequel to Duffy's tour de force first novel about the Empress Theodora, covering the period between the accession of Justinian to the role of emperor to the end of their mutual story (trying to avoid spoilers...) It's not quite as compelling in some ways, as Theodora has accomplished her climb to the highest position in the land and so the element of struggle against adversity isn't there -- or at least, the nature of the adversity is different, as Theodora fights palace intrigues and the constraints that her new position brings with it. Definitely worthwhile, but read the first book first. 4.2 stars,
The problem with Borgia-esque historical fiction IMHO was that there were so many outlandish stories running around about them (and their contemporaries) at the time that authors get carried away with it. The novels I've seen I couldn't even pick up because I knew enough historical fact to see they'd gone into fantasy land, just by reading the back blurb copy.
The thing that bothered me was that I just could not believe that Anna and her son would care so little about music.
I've got very eclectic tastes - almost impossible to describe. You could find me listening to classical music or Irish punk - and as for the Irish punk, at 50 you certainly wouldn't have been the youngest or the oldest in the audience. I'd like others to be exposed to a broad range of music too.
Curiously, my next book for this challenge also relates to music, albeit in a different way.
The Heat of The Sun by David Rain was a book that I was eager to read; its starting point is the assumption that Puccini didn't write "Madame Butterfly", but instead on a different story, a novel by Daudet -- and that the events in Madame Butterfly were, rather, a real story. And now we are in the midst of the aftermath, as Pinkerton's son -- grown up, and unaware of his real history -- meets Sharpless's orphaned son at an American boarding school. The two form a bond, and as the novel unfolds over the next 30 years ago, encounter each other again and again -- in New York, in Japan, in Los Alamos. The themes may be a bit heavy handed, as with the symbolism -- the clash between young Trouble's personal loyalties is reflected on a wider scale, with his father being one of the fiercest opponents to Japan within Congress, for instance, and there are constant references to what is meant by honor, to sun and heat, etcetera. On the other hand, the writing is very good indeed, and knowing the Puccini opera made me relish the wry asides to it scattered throughout the book. (When Sharpless revisits Japan on a journalistic assignment, he stays in the consul's house where he had lived as a toddler, and finds on the shelf a copy of Pierre Loti's novel, Madame Chrysantheme, one of the inspirations for "Butterfly".) But if you don't know the opera, this will feel too scattershot, and the characters are pencil sketches rather than fully developed and convincing personalities in their own right. Clever, but it doesn't quite deliver on its promise, alas. I'd certainly take a look at anything else by this author, given the writing and smarts on display here, and I'm glad I satisfied my curiosity, but I'm also glad this was a library book and not a purchase. 3.7 stars.
A side note: during the novel's epilogue, the narrator is present at the 40th anniversary of the atomic bombing in Hiroshima, in the city of Hiroshima itself. Very, very eerie, as I was there that day myself, sitting in the audience. I'd been at grad school in Japan and was working at the Japan Times that summer, and had gone with some Japanese classmates, traveling down to Hiroshima and then further down Honshu to Shimonoseki, before traveling back to Kyoto by myself. So it was intriguing to read this by someone who I think would have been too young to attend that particular ceremony.
Judy -- thanks for the holiday wishes and right back at you! Hopefully at least one of the following will be a book bullet...
The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers is a tough book for me to try talk about. The basic plot -- the bones of the novel -- is compelling, and even brilliant. The execution felt wildly uneven. It's a short novel, the tale of the collapse of the lives of two young men, fellow soldiers in Iraq, under the pressures of combat. Occasionally, there were moments of tremendous power and emotion that blew me away. But they were interspersed with segments that almost collapsed under the hyper-eloquent and overly complex phrases and pages that not only didn't ring true (after all, the narrator is a 21-year-old recruit) but ones that I had to read over and over again to tease out what Powers was saying and what he meant. (The jumps in time and space also weren't always handled as well as they could have been.) I can handle one of those things, but not both. I think Powers is an immensely talented author, but this novel underwhelmed me. I'm more interested than ever now in reading Matterhorn, as both novels seem to deal with the trauma of war, and particularly of a war that seems meaningless to its participants (or that has lost any meaning, beyond the brotherhood among those participants.) 3.8 stars.
People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks reinforced my interest in Geraldine's fiction (as a former colleague, I've been a big fan of her non-fiction for eons). This grew out of her war reporting in Bosnia during the mid-1990s, and is based on the preservation of an ancient Haggadah in Sarajevo -- she builds a story that revolves around periods of "covivencia" that then relapsed into ethnic and religious tension, using as a device for exploring this theme the oddities found in the pages of the Haggadah by a young Australian expert brought in to restore it in 1996. Hanna Heath locates a butterfly, a white hair, stains of wine and other materials -- and Geraldine takes each of those discoveries and builds a story around it. The final discovery is particularly compelling. Not all of the little vignettes from the past is equally compelling (the weakest, IMO, is the penultimate one, dealing with the expulsion of the Jews, which appears to be a struggle to pull the narrative threads together). While we don't really see Hanna develop a relationship with the little book beyond that shaped by her professional passions, she does make other personal and professional discoveries. Very, very readable, and fascinating. 4.5 stars; excellent character portrayals and vivid descriptions, that anyone who is interested in the history of objects will find unputdownable.
The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa was a very mixed bag. There were some fabulous and evocative moments -- vivid descriptive passages, mostly. And the final scene involving an action by Conchetta, daughter of the prince through whose eyes we see most of this, will resonate for a while. But there also was a lot that was very heavy handed in terms of the imagery. (En route to a ball among the remnants of the aristocracy, Prince Fabrizio crosses the path of a priest taking extreme unction to a dying parishoner -- yes, we get that this is symbolic of the dying elite and a foreshadowing of Fabrizio's own death, to the extent that it's a 2x4 to the forehead...) The author overdoes the use of foreshadowing, leaping forward and comparing a journey in the 1860s during which the bulk of the narrative is set, to one undertaken by plane today and interrupts the narrative to tell us what will become of the characters he's writing about, etc. etc. Then there's the casual misogyny -- I mentioned the "beautiful bitch" comment, then there is Fabrizio's view of the women at the ball as a bunch of baboons, whom he imagines climbing the curtains and showing off their pink rear ends, etc. But not all these offhand comments are those of Fabrizio (in which case you could say, well, it's the character), nor is he equally harsh, in the same way, to the men, even those who don't come off well -- they are just foolish. So, this was a beautifully-written novel that rubbed me the wrong way from beginning to end, and it makes it hard for me to evaluate. Ultimately, it's a series of vignettes around a common theme, rather than a novel, and aside from the incredible descriptive passages, I'm not sure how it ended up where it did in the 'canon'. 3.5 stars, and I'm being generous bec. of the writing.
Dominion by C.J. Sansom was a better read, but not as good as I had hoped for from the author of the "Shardlake" mysteries. Reading the historical note at the end kind of clarified my problems with it: Sansom has an agenda here, making us aware of the dangers of resurgent nationalism in today's Europe. That's valid enough, but even before I got to that note, I was a bit tired of his idealistic characters making speeches, and of them very consciously filling us in on the alternative history involved. Because this is set in a possible 1952 in England, one that could have existed had Winston Churchill failed to become PM in 1940 and had Britain reached some kind of accommodation with the Nazi regime. Sansom paints a detailed portrait of an imaginary Britain -- one that is just as bleak as austerity-era "real" England of the time, when years after the war ended, rationing was still in force. But in this version, a government led by Lord Beaverbrook collaborates with the Nazi regime, and there was never really a WW2. The plot revolves around two university friends: Frank, a mentally troubled scientist who becomes privy to a weapons secret, and David, who is keeping secrets of his own, including the fact that he has become involved in the Churchill-led resistance movement. I found this took a while to grab me, and at times I found it a bit difficult to believe in the core premise (can't disclose as it would be a spoiler) that didn't jibe with the impression of a ruthless resistance movement. It's still a good book, and intriguing as alternative history, but I much prefer Collaborator by Murray Davies, which is a fabulous fast-paced book of the same kind. (In it, England was conquered in 1940 and now is occupied; the same kind of moral compromises, resistance activities, etc. are part of the mix, but Davies isn't on a mission of his own as an author and the result is a breakneck thriller.) This just isn't as good as the Shardlake mysteries, but then perhaps my expectations were too high, as well. 4.1 stars.
Traitor by Rory Clements is the fourth in a series of historical mysteries/thrillers featuring a fictional John Shakespeare, brother of the more famous William, who in Clements's imaginings, became an intelligencer for Walsingham and later Robert Cecil, ferreting out conspiracies against Queen Elizabeth late in her reign. By now, Mary, Queen of Scots is dead; Elizabeth is fading; the Earl of Essex is in the ascendancy. It's a quite fast-paced thriller, but in terms of characters and complexity really doesn't stand up well against Sansom's Shardlake series. Worth trying, but start with the first book. 3.8 stars
Midaq Alley by Naguib Mahfouz is an elegantly crafted series of vignettes, character sketches and episodes in the lives of the residents of the alley of the title in Cairo in the final years of World War II that gradually come together to form a novel. Compelling, but not in the same league as his Cairo trilogy. 4.2 stars
S: A Novel About the Balkans by Slavenka Drakulic is incredibly powerful, and even more depressing, as it focuses on the inexplicable issue of man's inhumanity to man -- and woman. When this novel opens, S. is in a Stockholm hospital, having just given birth to a baby boy. But she's a Bosnian refugee who has survived the "woman's room" (aka soldier's brothel) and repeated rapes at a camp in the Bosnian hills, and she couldn't begin to guess which of the many men she was forced to service fathered this child, even as his birth brings memories flooding back. Very powerful; it's incredible the extent to which Drakulic managed to climb into the skin of a woman in this position. But I wouldn't recommend it to any sensitive readers, as it makes for very tough reading in places. S. has survived, along with the tumor in her belly -- but now what? There is a resolution of sorts in the final pages, but it's hard to imagine that anything is that simple. 4.5 stars.
11/22/63 by Stephen King grabbed my attention and held it throughout all 853 pages -- I was so caught up in the saga of Jake Epping's trip back in time from 2011 to 1958 and his quixotic attempt to avert the assassination of Kennedy in hopes of creating a better world. The reluctance of history to be changed is one problem, and so are all the unexpected twists and turns that follow. The epitome of a thumping good read. I don't like horror novels at all, so this may be the only King novel I read; he is a tremendous storyteller. 4.7 stars.
Two Brothers by Ben Elton starts off well, with an intriguing premise. It's Berlin, 1920: A young Jewish woman is pregnant with twins; one dies at birth and she is asked by overworked doctors to raise the child of another mother who died while giving birth. When Paulus and Otto are teenagers, the fact that one of them was born to Christian parents suddenly matters... It turns into an interesting enough tale of identity, but with characters jumping on stage to symbolize a certain "type" or moment (like the folks whom the twins' father, Wolfgang, meets in a 1920s jazz club) only to vanish rapidly, it's hard to feel the backdrop is real. Maybe it's Elton's background as a playwright and TV scriptwriter? I've read others of his books that worked better for me; this didn't live up to the premise of the story, although it wasn't bad. 4 stars.