Posts Tagged ‘Book Review’

When the Emperor Was Divine – Book Review

June 11, 2008

When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Oksuta

This was my second time reading “When the Emperor Was Divine,” and I found it just as moving as my first time.

“When the Emperor Was Divine” is the haunting story of a Japanese-American family from Berkeley during World War II. The father is taken from their house shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor for a loyalty hearing. He is then kept in an internment camp in the desert. Not long after, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 and the rest of the family must pack up their house and let themselves be taken to another camp in the desert.

This story is told from five different points of view, although there are only four characters. The first three points of view are all third person limited omniscient, focusing first on the mother, then the daughter, and finally the son. This spans from the time the “Instructions to all persons of Japanese ancestry” are posted through the end of their time in the camps. Once the war is over, we see first person narration from the son, followed by almost first person stream of consciousness from the father.

The switch in narration is beautifully done to reflect the shock and dehumanization felt by the family. The book holds you at just the right distance to witness of the confusion and disbelief experienced by the people taken from their homes, called disloyal, and relocated to camps in the American desert. The father’s narration shocks and shames and contains more feeling than the rest of book put together.

I think this is an extremely well-done book on an important topic, and I highly recommend it.

Buy this book on Amazon

Springtime on Mars – Book Review and Blog Tour Stop

June 9, 2008

Springtime on Mars: Short Stories” by Susan Woodring

I received “Springtime on Mars” as part of a blog tour for Susan Woodring.  This book of short stories was released at the end of February by Press 53, a small, independent press whose goal is to showcase exemplary literary fiction, poetry, and nonfiction and whose website admonishes you to “Literate Yourself” (a motto I love, by the way).  “Springtime on Mars” is proof that small publishers like Press 53 can put out works which can compete in quality with offerings from the major publishing houses.

I was amazed with the variety of stories told in “Springtime.”  All of the stories are set approximately between the 1950s and the 1970s and deal with life in middle-income middle America.  Some stories are told in first person, others in third, some from the perspective of children, other from adult perspectives.  Yet somehow all of the stories seem to have their own, authentic personality, no two sounding alike.

The slight exception to that rule is the couple that is the focus of two stories.  We see them first a married couple with two children, then later are taken back to the early days of their marriage, which provides a greater depth and background for the original story.  The decision to tell Marianne and Joe’s story out of chronological order lends complexity to the characters that the reader is left to discover for his or herself, upon realizing that this couple’s future has already been revealed to her or him.

I am not generally a fan of short stories, I often cannot stay interested in a set of characters I know will only be around for 20 pages or so.  However, “Springtime on Mars” kept me wanting to see what characters Woodring was going to introduce next.  I was more invested in “Springtime on Mars” than I have been with any collection of short stories since “Interpreter of Maladies.”  The subjects, and even the writing styles, of the two books are very different, but the heart is the same.  I would recommend “Springtime on Mars” to fans of short stories as well as to those who would like to give short stories a try.

You can see a guest post by Susan about using short story collections for book clubs here, and an interview with her here.

Buy “Springtime on Mars” from Amazon

The Leper Compound – Book Review

June 5, 2008

The Leper Compound by Paula Nangle

“The Leper Compound” is the story of Colleen, the daughter of a white Rhodesian settler. Colleen is growing up in Rhodesia around the time of the Rhodesian civil war and the creation of the state of Zimbabwe. This is Paula Nangle’s first novel and it is fantastic for a first novel. Nangle is clearly very familiar with her subject matter – she lived as a child in southern Africa with her missionary parents. Touching on racial tensions in both Zimbabwe and South Africa, Nangle’s book should challenge so many Americans who consider Africa to be a mono-culture.

All this being said, this book really just wasn’t for me. It was the moving story a girl growing up and searching for connection, about racial tensions and the aftermath of colonialism. Sounds like a great book for me, right? However, Nangle’s storytelling style just isn’t my favorite. Although the writing was beautiful, the story felt as if it was being told from a distance, as if Colleen never managed to attain a connection even with herself. Perhaps this is what Nangle was attempting and she is just that genius, or perhaps that is simply her style. It is not by any means a bad style, I just prefer a more personal method of story telling, one that is more in the head of the main character.

So although this book wasn’t for me, it might be for you. I am amazed that this is a first novel, and will definitely be looking to give Nangle’s next book a try.

Buy this book on Amazon

“Have I Got a Guy for You” – Book Review

May 31, 2008

 Have I Got a Guy for You” edited by Alix Strauss

Have you ever wished that “Sex and the City” was a book (okay, other than the actual book called “Sex and the City“)?  If so, perhaps you would enjoy “Have I Got a Guy for You.”

“Have I Got a Guy for You,” is a collection of 26 stories about girls whose moms set them up on blind dates.  Each individual story is clever, well written, and humorous.  Read all at once, however, they get a bit repetitive.  I would estimate that about 75% of the stories are set in New York and at least half of them involve Jewish mothers. 

This book would be great to pick up from time to time, reading one or, at most, two stories in a sitting.  These stories would be great to read after a bad date, when you wish you were having even a bad date, when you want to remind yourself why you’re glad you are no longer dating, or even in a long line at the grocery store. 

Buy this book on Amazon

Middlesex – Book Review

May 31, 2008

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

Jeffrey Eugenides’ “Middlesex” is another beautifully written book.  ‘Cal’ Stephanides, the narrator, is the intersex grandchild of Greek immigrants.  This was our book for book club this month, and all of us expected that the entire book would basically be about Calliope/Cal dealing with the switch from female to male.  Instead, the book was essentially an epic family novel. 

Although not what we expected, this book was a fantastic read.  Eugenides chose a very interesting style of storytelling.  The primary story thread was chronological.  However, Cal was nearly an omnicient narrator looking back on his family’s story from a view in the ‘present’ and occasionally describing his present life as well. 

More than anything, this novel was a story of the immigrant experience and the experience of 2nd and 3rd generation immigrants.  2nd and 3rd generation immigrants who just happen to be dealing with a recessive gene causing hermaphroditism and the discovery of a young person raised as a girl who discovers at puberty that he is actually male. 

This book is absolutely fantasic and I truly recommend it.

Buy Middlesex on Amazon

The Gargoyle – Book Review

May 30, 2008

The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson

Release date: August 5, 2008

Everyone has had the experience. You’re sitting in traffic forever, seemingly for no reason. Suddenly, up ahead, you can see cars start to move again. As you get up to that point, you realize that there has been an horrific car accident on the side of the road and traffic is backed up because everyone slowed or stopped to watch, their curiosity mixed with distaste.

Normally those people drive me crazy but, with Andrew Davidson’s “The Gargoyle,” I was one of those people. Through the first few chapters especially I read in horror and awe, wanting but unable to look away. Within that period of time the narrator actually described both his (literal) ghastly car accident that leaves him horribly burned and disfigured and his (metaphorical) train wreck of a life to that point. In all honesty, during part of those chapters, I felt physically ill.

It is a testament to the author’s skill that I continued to read. Normally books that elicit such a visceral reaction really aren’t my cup of tea. However, Davidson’s writing was as beautiful as the details were disgusting. I was literally unable to tear myself away from the pages, other than to look at the back of the book in disbelief to confirm that, yes, this really IS his first novel.

I truly had no idea where this story was going to go and was surprised to find a very moving love story. Actually a number of very moving love stories. While hospitalized for his burns, the narrator meets a woman named Marianne, a sculptor of gargoyles who is convinced that she and the narrator were married 700 years ago when he was in a different life.

The story is funny, sweet, touching, and unpredictable. I absolutely recommend it, although I do want to warn readers of graphic imagery and language.

Buy this book on Amazon

May Reading Wrap-Up

May 30, 2008

I read 14 books in May. I likely would have read more, had it not been for the reading ennui I experienced near the beginning of the month and the resulting theme read of some long books. If I hadn’t had two four-hour plane rides and a fair amount of time in airports and on public transit, I probably wouldn’t have attained 14. It didn’t hurt that both “Monique and the Mango Rains” and “Someday My Prince Will Come” were so engaging that I read them each in basically one sitting.

Of these books, two were read for ReaderViews, three (well, 2.5) for a theme read on Dracula/vampires, one was provided by Literary Ventures Fund, one was read for book club, one for LibraryThing Early Reviewers, one for a LibraryThing group read, two ‘just because,’ and three were sent to me for review.

Note: The titles of the books link to my reviews.

My Reading Wrap-Up for May

Fiction (Novels)

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova – Buy on Amazon

Dracula by Bram Stoker – Buy on Amazon

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood – Buy on Amazon

The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson (review to follow later today) – Preorder on Amazon

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (review to follow after book club) – Buy on Amazon

Fiction (Short Stories)

Politics Noir edited by Gary Phillips – Buy on Amazon

Historical Fiction

The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff – Preorder on Amazon

The Aviary Gate by Katie Hickman – Buy on Amazon

Memoir

Someday My Prince Will Come by Jerramy Fine – Buy on Amazon

Monique and the Mango Rains by Kris Holloway – Buy on Amazon

Have I Got A Guy for You! edited by Alix Strauss (review coming) – Buy on Amazon

Storm Over Morocco by Frank Romano – Buy on Amazon

Nonfiction

Kings and Queens of England: A Tourist Guide by Jane Murray

Vlad the Impaler by M.J. Trow – Buy on Amazon

Top Pick for the Month

Monique and the Mango Rains cover

“Monique and the Mango Rains,” by Kris Holloway, is the story of Kris’ time in the Peace Corps in Mali, particularly her interaction with Monique Dembele, Kris’ host and the village midwife. Monique was an amazing woman and this is a well written, amazing story. David Ebershoff’s “The 19th Wife,” Andrew Davidson’s “The Gargoyle,” and Jerramy Fine’s “Someday My Prince Will Come” were in a close three-way tie for second place with “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “Middlesex” not far behind (man, I read some fantastic books this month!), but there was such power in Holloway’s story, that I was compelled to choose it for the top honor. The only thing that could have made this book better was if it was three times as long.

Reminder: There is still time to get in on the contest! All of these books (and any others I have reviewed) are up for grabs!

Storm Over Morocco – Book Review

May 28, 2008

Storm Over Morocco
Frank Romano
ISBN 9781934209431, $17.99, Publication Date February 3, 2007
Reviewed by Jen Cardwell for Reader Views 05/08

Travel Dysfunction
3 Stars

Frank Romano tells the story of his youth and his attempts to find himself in “Storm Over Morocco.” For quite a while I wondered why exactly he chose to write this book and tell this story, what precisely he was trying to say or accomplish. I have finally decided that telling this story is his attempt to cleanse his soul and lift his burdens, along the lines of Jeannette Walls or Julie Gregory writing memoirs of their childhood and their messed up parents.

Although this book is the story of Romano’s disastrous trip to Morocco, I felt he could have quite easily have been written about his messed up childhood, since, and I don’t mean to get into too much pop psychology, he clearly had one. Romano’s entire trip seemed to be characterized by dramatic swings between desperately needing love and affection and being completely distrustful and paranoid about everyone he encountered. I became repeatedly distracted from the story he was actually telling to wonder about the story he wasn’t telling about how he came to be both so needy and so distrustful.

Romano writes well, and definitely infuses his words with his feelings. The first five chapters or so, even before he left on his journey, were written with such intensity that I was only able to read a chapter or two at a time. It took me a while to truly get into this book, but by the end I was caught up in the story.

Although I did eventually get caught up in the story, it was hard for me to truly enjoy it. As I stated earlier, what I would really have liked to have read is the story of Romano’s childhood in order to figure out how he ended up as he did. In addition, I was too busy yelling at the book, “No! Don’t do THAT! That’s a terrible idea! Listen to your friends!” etc. I don’t do well with people who do really dumb things, which Romano did in spades in his trip. However, I did like the book for its semi-insider’s view of Moroccan culture in the 1970s. If you’re the kind of person who can watch people do stupid things in books or in movies without yelling at them, then this book could be very interesting.

Buy this book on Amazon

The Aviary Gate – Book Review

May 26, 2008

 The Aviary Gate by Katie Hickman

 “The Aviary Gate” is a dual time period work of historical fiction.  The majority of the plot takes place in Istanbul, both in the present day and in the year 1599.  The present-day protaganist is a graduate student, Elizabeth Staveley, working on her thesis studying captivity narratives from the Ottoman Empire.  One day, while working in the library, Elizabeth discovers an old fragment of a manuscript describing the captivity of a British woman, Celia Lamprey, in the harem of the Sultan.  This is an unprecedented find for Elizabeth, who becomes very emotionally involved with Celia’s story. 

Woven into Elizabeth’s search is the story of Celia’s life in the harem in Istanbul in 1599.  Life for Celia suddenly becomes much more intriguing and dangerous when the Chief Eunuch is the victim of an attempted murder and the war between the Sultan’s mother and his favorite concubine heats up.  It is among these events that Celia learns that Paul Pindar, her fiance who believes her to be dead, is in Istanbul with the English ambassador.

Hickman has a great deal of talent as a writer.  The book is beautifully written, and the tale of Istanbul in the late 16th century is very intriguing.  The present day storyline, however, is somewhat under-developed.  Although Elizabeth is dealing with heartbreak and love, her story was never particularly compelling, and her emotional connection to Celia’s story is never fully explained.  I definitely enjoyed this book, but I think I would have prefered had it only been the story of Celia, Paul, and the Sultan’s harem. 

“The Aviary Gate” goes on sale Tuesday, May 27th.  Buy it on Amazon.

The 19th Wife – Book Review

May 23, 2008

19th Wife cover LT BirdThe 19th Wife by David Ebershoff

Release date: August 5, 2008

David Ebershoff’s “The 19th Wife” appears at first to be a daunting novel, weighing in at close to 600 pages, including the author’s note in the beginning.  I admit to cringing when I saw the size, sure that it would be awhile before I would get to any of my other books.

How happy I was to find out I was mistaken!  This book was so enjoyable that I read it in little more than 48 hours, sneaking a page here or there whenever possible.

“The 19th Wife” is a multi-time period story dealing with the legacy of polygamy in Mormonism and Morman fundamentalism.  The main characters are Jordan Scott – a young man kicked out at 14 years old of a polygamous community in Utah calling itself “First Latter Day Saints” for holding his stepsister’s hand – and Eliza Ann Young, the 19th wife of Brigham Young turned moral crusader against polygamy.  Like Eliza Ann, Jordan’s mother is also a 19th wife.  Jordan is drawn back to Utah and back in contact with “The Firsts” when his mother is accused of murdering his father.

I have never read a book quite like this, historical fiction mixed with a present-day murder mystery.  I imagine that in a lot of cases, such an attempt would fail miserably.  With “The 19th Wife,” however, pulls it off brilliantly.  Mixed in with the two stories, Ebershoff included “documents” such as Wikipedia articles and requests for permission to research in LDS Church archives, as well as letters or memoirs of other historical figures and a thesis paper.  Instead of breaking up the action, this seems a clever way to impart to the reader information that neither first person narrator should have.

Although I was slightly disappointed at the way the murder mystery wrapped up in the present-day story thread, I thoroughly enjoyed this book.  I loved the concept, I was ecstatic that the author saw fit to include a “what’s true, what’s not true” note at the end of his book – why don’t more authors of historical fiction do this, by the way? – and I enjoyed both the story and the writing.  I will be on the lookout for this Ebershoff’s previous and future works.

Buy this book on Amazon