Saturday, August 10, 2013

The Age of Desire by Jennie Fields

First of all, I need to say that I am an Edith Wharton fan.  She is probably my favorite author ever.  So, stating that, I really, really loved this book, which is historical fiction about her life...and somewhat about her work. 
The novel is told from the point of view of both Wharton herself and Wharton's assistant/secretary/confidant Anna, who was more like a mother to Edith than Edith's own mother ever was.  Aside from being a friend and constant companion, Anna helped Edith with her typing her pages but also by offering her tips on story structure and character development. 
Though Anna is technically a servant, Edith and Anna are quite close...but when Edith begins to stray away from her marriage into the arms of another man (who Anna believes is a cad and a gold-digger), Edith begins to question Anna's loyalty. 
Author Jennie Fields does a good job of immersing the reader in Wharton's real-life world...of luxury, decadence and affluence--summers in the Berkshires (at her home in Lenox, MA), winters in Paris, other times in-between in New York. I have been to The Mount, Wharton's Berkshires home, and the descriptions of life on that estate are filled with all of the true natural beauty of that setting. Fields really captures the vivid realty of what Wharton's life could have been like at the beginning of her successful writing career.  The character development between Edith and Anna is realistic and the progression of their relationship is believable.  The ending could have been a little stronger, but for the most part, this is an excellent story about the lavish and spoiled lifestyles of this era, much like Wharton used to do in her own novels.  

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

I love reading books set in faraway lands.  The second best thing to traveling is armchair traveling…and it’s sure cheaper!  So, if you, like me, are not finding yourself traveling to Italy this summer, travel along with Jess Walter and his fantastic book set in Italy, Los Angeles and Seattle.  Told in several different time periods, the Italy-portion of the book starts off in the early 1960s.  Pasquale, a lonely Italian innkeeper, has his world turned upside-down when a beautiful American actress comes to stay in his fledgling hotel.  The actress, as it turns out, is on a break from the Cleopatra (the 1963 film) set, which is filming in Rome.  The actress’ stay in the small hotel changes the lives of everyone involved…including some members of the Cleopatra crew, which is how some of the story ends up in present day Los Angeles. 

The Italian storyline in particular is filled with a plethora of imagery of coastal Italy.  Walter, in vivid detail, describes the dilapidated hotel and the even smaller, more pathetic village it sits in.  As I was reading, I felt transported to this village, just south of the Cinque Terre (very popular coastal resort towns in Italy) but not close enough to be part of that very prestigious tourist mecca.  Because everyone flocks to the towns of Cinque Terre, Pasquale’s village and his hotel are practically business-free and most definitely tourist-free.  With that imagery, I was able to perfectly picture the town, the hotel and the breathtaking views that the hotel overlooks. 

For a good summer, beach read, you would not go wrong with Beautiful Ruins; all of the wonders and vistas of Italy without leaving home or spending a Euro!  

Saturday, May 4, 2013

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson

The idea of this book is great: a man who is about to have his 100th birthday party escapes from his retirement home and embarks on a series of hilarious and dangerous adventures.  And, for the most part, it is funny.  But, it is also told in two time periods…the present day (where the man is 100) and the past (where the man in younger but still having adventures).  I LOVED the present day parts.  They are well-written and VERY funny…sardonic, sarcastic, and very, very dark in its humor.  But, the flashbacks to the past are…part funny, part endearing, and part history lesson.  After a while, all of the histrionics of the flashbacks begins to take its toll.  I wanted more (all) of the present day story.

The flashbacks play out more like Being There (the film and originally the Jerzy Kosinski book) and Forrest Gump…where the man, Allan and his life and works alter segments of history, such as Los Alamos, actual events in China, North Korea, etc., where he seemed to have no trouble affecting international politics just by being himself.  Aside from being in the “thick” of things politically (President Truman was a good friend), Allan was also high adventurous and enterprising as a young man (he walked back to his homeland of Sweden over the Himalayas after his involvement in the Far East was over.  So, the flashbacks part was a overly unbelievable and less funny than the antics of the 100-year-old Allan and his group of misfits.  These misfits include a thief who befriends Allan shortly after his “escape” from the retirement home, a hot dog cart owner (who also has a car that comes in handy), a home owner who just happens to own the house Allan and his crew stumble upon (the home owner is also the owner of a stolen/found elephant), and eventually a crime lord.  If you want a funny, lively and truly entertaining read, try this one.  Skim the flashbacks (they are funny in parts…just too long) but savor the present-day adventures of a 100-year-old man. 

Monday, April 22, 2013

Yellow Birds by Kenvin Powers vs. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

These two books have several things in common:
·         Narrators are unreliable.
·         The main characters are psychopaths or behave like psychopaths under their circumstances.
·         The main characters do not possess a moral compass.
·         There is no resolution of the conflict faced by the protagonists.
·         These two books were very difficult for me to read. I wanted each of them to be finished sooner, but unfortunately both needed to be as long as they were.
·         Both books are award nominees. The Yellow Birds was a National Book Award Finalist and Gone Girl is nominated for an Edgar Award.

The Yellow Birds is conflicted in its voice – our narrator sounds like a soldier when he speaks with other soldiers, but sounds like a poet in all his description and contemplation. These two don’t fit together for me. That being said the book is a good read if you want to hear the painful garbled confession of a combat soldier. I have known several soldiers who have told me their very difficult stories of what occurred while they were deployed. Their stories, like Bartle’s in Yellow Birds, brought me to tears.  Like Bartle, they too found life after combat a very difficult adjustment.

Gone Girl is a real page turner and reads like marriage gone badly under the hands of Alfred Hitchcock. I felt totally manipulated and occasionally strangely delighted with the author’s dark wit. Her description of character behavior in so many situations is startlingly accurate and perfectly described.  Most of the characters are quite despicable. While I hate the story, I find the book to be very well written and I choose it over Yellow Birds for that reason.   Ruth Schuster

Thursday, April 18, 2013

2013 Pulitzer Prize Winner for Fiction

For distinguished fiction by an American author: 

Awarded to The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson, an exquisitely crafted novel that carries the reader on an adventuresome journey into the depths of totalitarian North Korea and into the most intimate spaces of the human heart.



Also nominated as finalists in this category were: "What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank," by Nathan Englander (Alfred A. Knopf), a diverse yet consistently masterful collection of stories that explore Jewish identity and questions of modern life in ways that can both delight and unsettle the reader; and "The Snow Child," by Eowyn Ivey (Reagan Arthur/Little, Brown), and enchanting novel about an older homesteading couple who long for a child amid the harsh wilderness of Alaska and a feral girl who emerges from the woods to bring them hope.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Chaperone vs The Flight of Gemma Hardy

By Dodie

THE CHAPERONE by Laura Moriarty:  This work of historical fiction is set in Wichita, Kansas in 1922. The reader is pulled right into this era with all of the period details - orphan trains, Prohibition, Flappers, and the onset of the Depression.  Cora Carlisle, aged 36 and a rather ordinary Wichita housewife, agrees to be the unlikely chaperone for 15 year-old Louise Brooks who is headed to New York to attend a summer session with the prestigious Denishaw School of Dancing.  (Readers might recognize the name of Louise Brooks who goes on to be a silent star in the early years of the movie industry.) This journey changes the lives of both women - in totally unanticipated ways. Two very different women - one a middle-aged empty nester and the other an adolescent on the brink of coming into her own life - find the answers they're looking for in New York City. This book looks at the myriad assortment of family relationships and their impact on the two characters' lives.  

Cora is a character I fell in love with. It was fascinating to see how her life played out. She was an admirable woman who managed to live a full life despite her many hardships. This book IS about "The Chaperone".  

THE FLIGHT OF GEMMA HARDY by Margot Livesey: This book is also historical fiction - set in the 1950's and 60's in Iceland and Scotland. Several reviews of this book call it a "re-inventive imagining of the classic, JANE EYRE."  It was a beautifully written book that I could not put down - for most of the book. However, as a reader, I simply could not go along with all of the many twists and turns that the author built into the plot. I could barely make myself finish the book because of this. 

I loved the story-line. Gemma Hardy becomes an orphan at 3 when her Icelandic fisherman father drowns at sea. Her kind Scottish uncle becomes her guardian and welcomes her into his family. Gemma enjoys an ordinary life with her adopted family until her uncle passes away. Overnight, circumstances change for the worse for Gemma and she is suddenly hated, resented, and ostracized by her Aunt and cousins. At barely 10 years old. she is sent off as a "working girl" to a private boarding school. When that school goes bankrupt, she is forced to take on a job as an au pair on Orkney Island for the forlorn 8-year-old niece of Hugh Sinclair - a London businessman and owner of the remote Blackbird House.  Gemma's life takes off and circumstances at the Blackbird House cause her to deal with relationships and ensuing "flights" that are rather challenging for an orphan with such a hardscrabble life. 

The beautiful prose and the magic realism of this book - set against the backdrop of Scotland and Iceland - made this a wonderful read. All was spoiled for me as the book neared its end. I simply could not accept the way the author developed the character of Gemma Hardy.  


This marks the end of the first round of the Niles Tournamant of Books. Of the twelve books that entered the contest, six remain:

The Yellow Birds
Beginner's Goodbye
Round House
Gone Girl
The Chaperone

In the first contest of round two, Donna considers Arcadia against The Yellow Birds.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

A Killing in the Hills vs The Round House

By Cyndi:

A Killing in the Hills is Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Julia Keller's first novel, uhmmm. For a would-be thriller, the extensive character development and backstory was a distracting drag. I started skimming pages because of the implausible yet predictable plot. Prosecutor Bell Elkins, a single mom and her teen daughter take on an illegal drug ring thats already pulled off a Capone-style massacre of three senior citizens in the hills of West Virginia. It was a chore to get through.

By contrast, Louise Erdrich's The Round House, pulled me in from page one. Being swept up by a good story is a great reading experience. Take the book as it comes- no preconceptions, anticipations or expectations. So here's my review without revealing the plot, which is only a google away, if you like to know beforehand. This, her fourteenth novel is uncharacteristically suspenseful made more so by my ignorance of the legal quagmire around tribal lands. There were twists and turns, dead ends and red herrings along the way.  It was hard to put down.

Therefore, The Round House wins round one.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Friends Like Us vs Gone GIrl

Today Darlene considers Friends Like Us, an example of chick lit with depth, against Gone Girl, a black-comedic mystery.

While these books don’t seemingly have much in common, they both have characters that are awful, horrible people.  All of them are just so unlikeable which made the reading a real chore.

I don’t want to give too much away about Gone Girl.  Amy Dunne disappears on her fifth wedding anniversary.  Police suspect foul play and all fingers point to her husband, Nick.  There are many twists and turns, but even so I found the book to be too predictable.  The book would have made a decent plot for an episode of Law and Order: Criminal Intent.  Amy Dunne also had too many things in common with Brenda Chenowith from Six Feet Under to be an original character.  And I don’t want to give anything away for the people who haven’t read the book, but what was that ending?  All that said, I though the writing was well paced and the book was a page turner. 

Gone Girl: Predictable.  Decent writing.  Fell apart at the end.

Friends Like Us is one pun after another.  I believe the author was trying to be quirky and fun but I found it more annoying than anything.  Willa reconnects with her high school best friend Ben (who was madly in love with her, by the way) at their 8th year class reunion (yes there is a story behind that, but who cares?).  Ben falls in love with her best friend and they become engaged after six months.  The threesome are BFF’s who do things like go mattress shopping together until Willa decides to sabotage Jane and Ben’s relationship.  I honestly think this may have been one of the worst book I have ever read.

Friends Like Us:  Horrible characters and horrible writing filled with puns.

I would rather have Amy Dunne as my BFF than Willa or Jane or Ben. They are all terrible, at least she has half a personality.
Winner: Gone Girl

In tomorrow's match Cyndi pits A Killer in the Hills against The Round House.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Anatomist’s Apprentice by Tessa Harris

Lord Crick has died. While convulsing. And turning yellow. And providing his family with a gruesome corpse. Although young Lord Crick had some health issues (i.e. the pox) and a rather nasty disposition, it really was a ghastly and horrific death. His sister Lady Lydia decides that there must be a further investigation. The gossip against her husband Captain Flynn, who is her brother’s heir, is becoming scandalous. On the advice of her cousin Francis, she travels to London to meet with Dr. Thomas Silkstone, an American physician who is working, studying and teaching with British anatomist Dr. Carruthers. Silkstone, who is quite taken with Lady Lydia, agrees reluctantly to exhume and examine the corpse and answer questions at the inquest.

When he is at the estate, he finds not just a house in mourning, but a household full of secrets. Silkstone uses his primitive forensic and toxicology skills to study the remains, but he finds more questions than answers, and his list of suspects in the household grows.  The tension swells, and the plot twists,  but will Silkstone (with some help from Carruthers,) find the answers with his scientific methods before there is another body found on the estate? Harris writes a layered tale of forensic mystery using engaging characters who struggle with the conventions of their time. Silkstone is wonderful as the outsider looking into their society. Can't wait to read the next one in the series!

The Anatomist’s Apprentice by Tessa Harris 

Monday, March 25, 2013

Beginner's Goodbye vs Lightning Rods

Yesterday's post was by Barb P. Today Cecilia tackles Anne Tyler's Beginner's Goodbye vs Helen DeWitt's Lightning Rods.

First of all, I am already an Anne Tyler fan.  So, I knew I would be biased in her direction.  But, after reading both, there is no comparison in which one I prefer, Tyler bias or not.  

With The Beginner's Goodbye, Anne Tyler once again captures the heart and soul of someone going through a trying time. This time, it's Aaron...who lives an unremarkable life with an unremarkable woman...Dorothy.  But, after Dorothy's sudden death, Aaron's period of adjustment offers more than just grief and depression.  He simply cannot let Dorothy go. This is a touching, sweet book that is filled with heart and emotion.  I found myself laughing at Aaron more than once...whether this was intentional humor on Tyler's part... just the sad-sack, vulnerable ways of Aaron manifesting themselves as comic moments I do not know.  I would like to think that Tyler wanted us to laugh at him a he and her reader's would try and take life a little less seriously.  Tyler, who is known for her engaging and emotive character studies, really captures the soul of this wayward man.  I would be hard pressed to say it is Tyler's best work but it is one of her most engaging.

On the flip side, you have Helen Dewitt's Lightning Rods. Comparing the Dewitt book with the Tyler book is like comparing avocados and apples.  NOT MUCH SIMILARITY.  Dewitt's book is a statement book about state of sexual harassment and general sexual tensions in the workplace.  I would call it a satire, but it not told in usual "satire" form...with a wink and a nudge.  This story is told with seriousness and devoid of any humor, which makes it all the more tough to read and even stomach.  Now, I do not consider myself any type of a prude and I do understand what the author is trying to say here (I guess) but this commentary on the state of workplaces, sex and male-female relationships just did not sit right with me.  In trying to be witty and edgy, Dewitt just becomes crude and inane. 

The clear winner here is THE BEGINNER'S GOODBYE by ANNE TYLER.  

So far, the books that are moving forward are Arcadia, The Yellow Birds, and The Beginner's Goodbye. Tomorrow Darlene takes up Friends Like Us vs Gone Girl.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Casual Vacancy vs Yellow Birds

The Casual Vacancy    VERSUS   The Yellow Birds 
Personally, I did not care for either book.  J. K. Rowling should stick to writing children’s books. Kevin Power’s book has been favorably compared to The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien.  For me, it doesn't even come close. If you want to read a classic about war and the human condition, read the book by Tim O’Brien.  I think it is excellent. However, I will discuss the two books I was assigned by using a Pro/Con list.
CASUAL VACANCY:  A story that takes place in a small town in England with a story line that drags in the ugliest of human behaviors as the town council strives to find a replacement for a vacant council seat. This is Rowling’s first novel for adults.  
PROS:  ummmmmm, oh yeah, it was full of dry Brit-Com humor. Rowling’s a good writer. She is a sharp observer of social behaviors.
CONS:  The book is 512 pages!!.  There were 15 or more different characters.  It was difficult to remember them all, and I personally did not care about what happened to any of them. The ending was predictable and somewhat heavy-handed.  I skipped through a chunk of it.

YELLOW BIRDS:  Told in the words of a young private in the army who is serving a tour of duty in Iraq. The story focuses on his friendship with another young private and their daily struggle to stay alive amidst the horrors of war.
PROS:  The author had spent time in the military in Iraq, so the story felt real and somewhat like his memoir.  One cares about what happens to the characters, although one does not really get to know them that intimately.  Well written.  A brisk, brief writing style which I personally enjoy.  It was only 240 pages, so a quick read. 
CONS:  Hey, it’s about war, so it was seriously depressing.  The story at times reads as somewhat disjointed and rambling. “Lost my way” a couple times during my read.

To reiterate, I did not care for nor would I recommend either book.  However, since I am required to choose one, 

The Winner is

Yellow Birds

Tomorrow's contest is between Beginner's Goodbye and Lightning Rods by judge Cecilia.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Tournament of Books: First Contest

Arcadia vs The Orchardist

Arcadia and The Orchardist have certain things in common. Both are stories of American history. Each focuses on a dramatic historical movement. The Orchardist is about pioneers settling the west, in this case the far western United States. Arcadia represents the twilight of the Utopian movement that started in the nineteenth century, and besides a few exceptions like the Amish, ended in the hippie communes of the 1960s and 70s where Arcadia is set. 

 Both novels are organized around one main protagonist. Arcadia is tightly bound to Bit Stone, the first child born in Arcadia. Arcadia is seen only through Bit's point of view. The Orchardist centers its narrative around  the orchard keeper William Talmadge but moves among other viewpoints, most notably that of Della Michaelson, a teen-aged foundling who settles on Talmadge's property, and her niece Angelene, Talmadge's foster daughter.

The Orchardist follows Talmadge from childhood, when his restless mother drags him and his sister to a patch of land in Washington state and begins to cultivate the land. Talmadge grows up to become the orchardist, never leaving his land which he has made into a productive fruit farm. His life and his love is the orchard until two pregnant teen-aged sisters, runaways from an abusive brothel-keeper, find shelter with him.

The characters in The Orchardist are larger than life. Talmadge seems almost a force of nature, especially as described in the novel's opening: "His face was as pitted as the moon...(h)is ears were elephantine...the flesh granular like the rind of some fruit." (Is this passage overwritten? Yes, especially in the clipped, portentous tone.) The other main characters are similarly huge. Talmadge's Nez Pearce friend, Clee and his neighbor Caroline, who helps him with the sisters, are all wisdom and kindness; Della is monumentally damaged by her abusive childhood, and her abuser, Michaelson, is monumentally evil. Other characters, like Jane, Della's sister, figure importantly into the story, but are barely sketched in.

Yet despite this imbalance and stiffness there remains something compelling in the story of the American west, a romance that never wears thin. So in the intensity and bigness of this book, first-time novelist Amanda Copin has contributed something to our communal story.

At first glance Lauren Groff's Arcadia seems overwritten too. But you come to see that the tone reflects the overheated and naive world view of the Arcadians themselves. "May they rot in their bourgeois capitalist hell" says Bit's mother, Hannah. Bit imagines the world outside of Arcadia: "Humans out there are grotesque: Scrooges and Jellybys and filthy orphans... a blight called television like tiny Plato's caves in every room."  Groff turns out to be a skillful writer, letting us see the overview of Arcadia's life span as a community at the same time as she brings all of the characters and details to life. The pleasure of reading Arcadia is in Bit's close observations of himself and his world, given words lacking to the child  by the Bit-omniscient narrator. The narrator's interpretation of Bit's consciousness is convincing.

The plot of Arcadia follows the birth and death of the commune. At first everyone, including Bit's parents Hannah and Abe, embrace the communal ideal under Handy, the charismatic leader of Arcadia. Gradually, over the course of Bit's growing up, things unravel, drugs suck up a lot of energy, and rebellious newbies make a mess. We leave Bit at the commune in his teens and, in the last sections of the novel we pick up and follow him as an adult as he adjusts to life outside and reconciles with the remnant of the commune that he carries with him. The very last section takes place in the near future when a flu-like epidemic has taken over the United States. Perhaps this goes on too long, and the meaning of the epidemic and how it fits into the novel remain unclear to me.

Despite this last puzzle, and for greater mastery of language, detail, and character the winner of round one is


Arcadia will make it into the second round of judging. The next contest in the first round is Casual Vacancy vs Yellow Birds, judged by Barb P. Look for that tomorrow.