Posts Tagged ‘fiction’

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

Alive in Necropolis – Book Review

June 4, 2008

Alive in Necropolis” by Doug Dorst

Available July 17th, 2008

Let me just begin with an exceprt of the publisher’s description of the book, as I don’t think I can describe the premise of “Alive in Necropolis” nearly as well as they do:

Colma, California, is the only incorporated city in America where the dead outnumber the living. The longtime cemetery for San Francisco, it is the resting place of the likes of joe DiMaggio, Wyatt Earp, and aviation pioneer Lincoln Beachey. It is also the home of Michael Mercer, a rookie cop trying to go by the book as he struggles to navigate a new realm of grown-up relationships…

But instead of settling comfortably into adult life, Mercer becomes obsessed with the mysterious fate of his predecessor in the police unit, Sergeant featherstone, who seems to have become confused about whether he was policing the living or the dead…

This is not a typical description of the books I read. It sounds like an odd cross of mystery and fantasy. I read almost nothing in the mystery genre and not much in the fantasy genre, and there mainly in young adult fantasy. However, I figured that this was a review copy and I might as well give it a chance, branch out a bit.

I am extremely glad that I decided to be openminded about this book! Surprisingly, the whole ‘policing the dead’ aspect turned out to be less prevalent than expected. “Alive in Necropolis” was more about relationships, about being ‘alive’ in this city most notable for graveyards. I was quite impressed with Dorst’s skill, particularly as this is his first novel. I figured that the book would feature some ridiculously inventive plot that would excuse a lack of substantial writing. This wasn’t remotely true. Yes, there was a fantastic aspect to the plot, but this book was primarily made by the writing. Dorst gave his main character(s) in particular a good deal of depth and was able to show the reader this depth through the actions and reactions of the characters.

I would recommend this book for those who love good, solid, well-written fiction, fantasy fans or not.

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!

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

The Handmaid’s Tale – Book Review

May 19, 2008

Handmaid's Tale cover

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

In the Republic of Gilead, women are free. They are no longer “free ‘to'” (free to do as they wished) as they were in the old United States, but now they are “free ‘from'” (free from fear of rape, degredation, etc). A new government has taken over, one that ‘values’ women, particularly their roles as givers of life in a time when the birth rate as plummeted. Men of rank whose wives are childless are given ‘Handmaids’ to bear children for them. This rule had been established by the biblical precedent of Rachel, Jacob’s wife. Women are closely guarded, precious resources. None are allowed to read, Handmaids must not smoke or drink alcohol, Marthas seem not to ever leave the house, daughters are given in arranged marriages at 14. Women cannot hold jobs or own property, they are subject to the rule of men and of the government.

It is in this world that the Handmaid Offred lives. Unlike the protagonists of “1984” or “A Brave New World,” Offred did not grow up in this society. It was not until she was married, with a child that the President and Congress were massacred by ‘Islamicists’ and a new, theocratic government took over. Offred is not even her real name, it is only her temporary name, effective as long as she is at her current posting and is ‘of’ (belongs to) the commander Fred. Offred can remember her job, her husband, her child, her name. Be that as it may, she is not part of a resistance but is simply, however unwillingly, following the dictates of her new society.

Although this book was written in 1985, it seems as if it could have been written yesterday as a dire prediction of future possibilities. The use of “Islamicists” as an excuse to overthrow the government and institute new, draconian laws has been compared many times to the precepts of the Patriot Act, in both cases also the populace failed to react significantly. There is also an ever-present war in the background, censorship, and political witchhunts.

This book was eerie and disturbing in a manner that other dystopian novels such as “1984” and “Brave New World” have not quite achieved, probably because of the narrator’s memories of life as it was before the eastern United States became the theocratic Republic of Gilead. I was never emotionally attached while reading this book, although I was often disgusted. Although I could simply not stop reading, it was always in a detached way. I think this was completely intended by Margaret Atwood based on the end of the book (read it if you want to know!) and the feeling of detachment that Offred seemed to have towards her current situation.

This was my first novel by Margaret Atwood and if it is any indication of her body of work (which it seems to be, based on the raves about her on LibraryThing), she is an author I will continue to read.

Buy this book on Amazon: The Handmaid’s Tale: A Novel

The Historian – Book Review

May 15, 2008

Let me just begin by pointing out the creepy face on the cover of this book. Creepy, creepy, creepy. This is at least the third time I’ve read this book, and the first time I’ve ever noticed the face on the cover. Evidently I’m not always the most observant…

The Historian,” by Elizabeth Kostova, is the story of a group of people who discover that Vlad the Impaler, Vlad Dracula, still walks the earth as a vampire. The story takes place in the ‘present’ of the 1970s, as well as through stories and letters of the 1950s and the 1930s. The main narrator is a teenage girl who lives with her American diplomat father in Amsterdam. Her father narrates the portions set in the 1950s, and his mentor Bartolomew Rossi’s letters describe the events of the ’30s.

The narrator’s father, Paul, is forced to relive his discovery of Dracula’s extant nature and the memories of his search for his mentor, who vanishes under bizarre circumstances, when his daughter discovers an old book in his library. The book is completely blank, save for a woodprint in the center and the word Drakula. Through Paul’s stories, we are taken both through Paul’s journey and through Rossi’s original discovery of the existence of Dracula.

I have read this book multiple times and each time I cannot put it down. The way Kostova weaves together fact and fiction is incredible. Additionally, it is one of those books that is written with an introduction by the main character that introduces the book as if it was a memoir. Those books are somehow the easiest for which to suspend disbelief, even about a supernatural subject like this one. Reading this book alongside Bram Stoker’s “Dracula“, as well M.J. Trow’s “Vlad the Impaler” gave me an even greater appreciation for this book. It became obvious that Ms. Kostova had not only done her research, but she had essentially created a modern day version of “Dracula.” She manages to recreate many of the same elements as Stoker, without simply ‘updating’ his story.

Buy these books on Amazon:
The Historian
Dracula (Barnes & Noble Classics)
Vlad the Impaler: In Search of the Real Dracula

My First Theme Read

May 10, 2008

I’m a member of the “Reading Globally” group on LibraryThing, which does theme or country-based theme reads every month and I am planning to participate both in the “Balkans” read this month and the “voluntary immigration” (so as to distinguish from displacement or abduction) theme read in June.

Getting ready for those has got me thinking about the potential power of doing mini-theme reads on my own – reading historical fiction, fiction, and/or nonfiction all together around a certain subject in order to get a fuller understanding of the subject. I have a couple that are sort of forming in my head:

  • I bought an historical book about Alexander the Great and have solicited historical fiction recommendations about the same from kegsoccer.
  • I read one of Lauren Willig’s books, Deception of the Emerald Ring, without knowing it was part of a series, or that it was based on the aftermath of the events in The Scarlet Pimpernel. I have now acquired all but her newest book and plan to read first The Scarlet Pimplernel, then all of her books in order as a slightly different sort of theme read. Probably I will be taking all of these on my honeymoon in July, as her books seem good beach books to me.

However, my first theme read sprang from my TBR pile completely unplanned, as Athena from the forehead of Zeus. As I wrote earlier this week, I experienced some reading ennui after reading and reviewing “Someday My Prince Will Come.” That book was just so charming and fun that nothing seemed right afterwards. I finally decided that this situation called for a not-too-heavy reread. I went to my bookshelves to grab “The Other Boleyn Girl,” but accidentally pulled out “The Historian” instead. “That’s okay,” I thought, “I like ‘The Historian’.” This was the fateful thought that brought about this theme read.

I began reading “The Historian” and thought, “hey, as long as I’m reading this, I should read ‘Vlad the Impaler‘ at the same time, since I already have it and haven’t read it!” I got a little ways into both books and decided I should see what all the fuss was originally about, and sent Brian to Half Price Books to pick up “Dracula” for me. He actually got me a very nice, annotated copy. So now, out of nowhere, I am doing some sort of Dracula/vampire theme read…and it is AWESOME! “Dracula” is actually really, really good so far.